Forget the Cutting Edge, See Painters in Paris

While no single art exhibition could be expected to bring us the pleasures of Paris in the spring, a new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, called Painters in Paris: 1895-1950 , might just be the next best thing. Particularly this spring, with the Sensation -type novelties of the Whitney Biennial about to open with the usual noise and its new rival in the fatuous “cutting-edge” sweepstakes–the Greater New York exhibition at P.S. 1, the Museum of Modern Art’s recently acquired outreach facility in Long Island City–already upon us. These tiresome institutional attempts to recapture the spirit of our great granddaddies’ avant-garde audacities will, perforce, be reviewed in the coming weeks. For the moment, however, I commend to your attention Painters in Paris as a salutary alternative to current clamors.

For one thing, Painters in Paris is an exhibition of, and about, the art of painting. Remember painting? It used to occupy a

central place on the contemporary art scene. It was the primary medium of modern art, the medium from which virtually all modernist innovations–collage, constructed sculpture, much modern design and even certain styles of modern architecture–derived their esthetic imperatives. It was indeed the great medium of modern experience, a medium with an illustrious tradition that triumphantly met the challenge of accommodating itself to the complexities and contradictions of modernity itself. Which is why it remains, for many of us, the central medium of our art experience.

For another thing, Painters in Paris is an exhibition of, and about, the School of Paris. It was in Paris, after all, that modern painting was born and where it achieved its greatest glories. It was from the School of Paris that virtually every other “school” of modern painting derived its governing ideas, including the idea of rebelling against the authority of the School of Paris. No chapter in the history of modernist art, from Russia in the period of the 1917 Revolution to New York in the 1940′s and 50′s, is wholly intelligible without reference to the School of Paris. If, at the outset of the 21st century, we now look back on modernism as a tradition, it was by certain painters in Paris that this tradition was created in the last years of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th. It remains to be seen whether or not New York will turn out to have been the place where that tradition met its inglorious demise–a consummation that so many of our museum curators are now so eager to hasten on its merry way.

To be reminded of the place which the School of Paris occupies in our thinking about painting is, of course, to be reminded of what we used to take for granted as commonplace knowledge of modern art history. But in today’s amnesiac culture, nothing about the past–even the recent past–can any longer be taken for granted as common knowledge. So it is worth recalling on the occasion of this Painters in Paris exhibition just how important the School of Paris has been in setting the standards for the art of the modern era. Forget, if you can, the preposterous price tags that have lately been attached to paintings like these. Forget, too, the mythologies that have been circulated about the leading personalities of the show. All that belongs more to the history of publicity than to the history of the art. Remember instead that these pictures represent one of the great intellectual adventures in the history of our civilization.

As a guide to that adventure, Painters in Paris: 1895-1950 is anything but systematic, but with more than 100 paintings surveying a broad range of major and minor talents it gives us a rich and copious sampling of what the School of Paris consisted of in its heyday. The key figures–Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Bonnard, Vuillard, Léger, Gris, Soutine, Lipchitz, Giacometti–are all present, some more strongly represented than others, to be sure, and there are plenty of surprises, too, pictures that few of us have seen before. The School of Paris was never exclusively French, and its international character is also given a strong emphasis. We sometimes forget, for example, that Diego Rivera, the Mexican muralist, had once been a Cubist painter in Paris, and here he is with a wonderful still life, Table on a Cafe Terrace (1915), from the Met’s Alfred Stieglitz Collection. From that collection, too, is another unfamiliar work of the same period: Gino Severini’s Dancer-Airplane Propeller-Sea (also 1915). These are not the artists we usually associate with Stieglitz, the principal patron of the first generation of American modernists. But their presence in the Painters in Paris exhibition also raises a question: Why are there no American painters in this show?

You know you are in for a tour of high esthetic pleasure in this exhibition when upon entering the first room of the show you encounter an entire wall of paintings by Bonnard, and then across the room you are confronted with what must be the largest landscape painting Vuillard ever produced: the grand Place Vintimille, Paris (1916). More intimate paintings by Vuillard are also included, and in the end you may prefer them to the big landscape, but even so, the juxtaposition of scale leaves one with a greatly enhanced understanding of Vuillard’s pictorial powers.

Léger is not as strongly represented, but his Woman With a Cat (1921) is nonetheless a masterpiece that almost makes up for the absence of a really big representation of the artist. Not surprisingly, Picasso gets the lion’s share of attention–but that’s an old story.

The only living artist in this exhibition is, inevitably, Balthus (born 1908). Opinions differ, of course, about whether the enormous painting called The Mountain (1937) really lives up to the scale of its ambition, but while that argument remains unresolved and unresolvable, there are two of the artist’s undoubted masterpieces from the same period: Thérèse and Thérèse Dreaming (both 1938). And speaking of big pictures, the exhibition concludes with a painting by Jean Hélion of another ambitious urban subject: Grand Luxembourg Gardens, Indian Summer (1960-61), a picture that seems to have a certain kinship with the Place Vintimille, Paris by Vuillard, which we see in the first room. Hélion may well have been the last of the important School of Paris painters, and this Luxembourg Gardens painting is surely one of his masterpieces.

Just up the street from the Met there is a smaller exhibition of the School of Paris, called Paris in New York: French Jewish Artists in Private Collections , at the Jewish Museum. A number of works in this exhibition–Max Weber’s painting of The Apollo in the Matisse Academy (1908) and the sculptures by Elie Nadelman–are a reminder of some of the American artists who are missing in the Painters in Paris show. An odd omission, don’t you think? Still another candidate missing from Painters in Paris is the American painter Arthur B. Carles (1882-1952), whose work is currently the subject of a large exhibition at the Hollis Taggart Galleries. Carles produced his very best paintings in France in the halcyon years of the School of Paris, and he had an especially keen understanding of Fauvist color.

Still, whatever its incidental omissions may be, Painters in Paris , organized by William S. Lieberman, is an exhibition not to be missed. It remains on view at the Met through Dec. 31. Paris in New York , organized by Susan Chevlowe, remains on view at the Jewish Museum through June 25; and the Arthur B. Carnes exhibition remains on view at the Hollis Taggart Galleries, 48 East 73rd Street, through March 22.