Part Two: The Chester Dale Collection

October 28, 2010 § 2 Comments

~please read the preceding entry because it details the first half of this exhibition~

National Gallery of Art ~ Washington, DC
closes July 31, 2011

The Human Figure

The fourth room in the exhibition is devoted to the human figure. It is not limited to simple studies of the human form, instead it includes portraits of men and women, depictions of allegories, and images of the Exotic Other. The largest painting in the room was a shock to me, not so much in subject matter or presentation, but because the painter was not whom I was expecting.

This large Classical image was created at the hand of Renoir. I am not entirely sure why this came as such a shock to me since, historically, artists almost always experiment with traditional styles of painting before discovering their own unique expressive mode. The large oil is well executed and beautiful, but it is not what I would have expected from this collection, given the number of works that represent certain artists’ most well-known styles (at least well-known by the 21st century audience). Not to spoil the surprise, but there are more “stereotypical” Renoirs in the remaining two rooms of the exhibition, which will be discussed later.

I hate to pick on Renoir, but another of his paintings distracted me in this room: his Odalisque.

I almost prefer his Goddess-Huntress to this sickly, gaudy representation of the Exotic Other. Even his saccharine children seem preferable, if only so I can look at anything but this ultimately vulnerable and submissive woman. The phrase “poor thing” comes to mind… When considering the aesthetics of the work alone, the paint is handled marvelously and the level of detail is mesmerizing. The color, especially, is outstanding. I am a particularly critical judge of hands since they are so frustratingly hard to paint well, and Renoir has passed my test. The right hand in particular is so delicate, so light as it rests on her thigh. Unfortunately, her beautiful hands cannot negate my distaste for her pasty, flabby neck and double chin, the latter of which seems only to be apparent because of the awkward lolling of her head as she lifts drugged eyelids to peek meekly at her next “visitor”. Shall we move on to Matisse?

(for a better view, which I strongly recommend, please click here.)

Now, as some of you might recognize, the painting on the far left is Matisse’s interpretation of the Odalisque. Let’s compare this painting to Renoir’s. Is the woman active? Yes. She’s actively seductive and would be downright irresistible if it weren’t for the American taboo against hairy armpits. Does she look dead? No. I apologize profusely for the poor photo quality (the lighting in galleries is so dark these days due to an overwhelming tirade from conservators about the harm light does to painting). She is the most wonderful color of pink. The pink is so wonderful that Crayola probably came up with a name for it, perhaps ”Lover’s Blush” or Baby Cheeks”. She is fully conscious, intentionally inviting, and a positive delight to look upon.

While I could dwell on Matisse’s Odalisque for days, I would instead like to point out the careful curating of these three pieces. They are hung on the wall in the order that I have shown you, although I admit they were well over a foot apart (blogs have their limitations). The works share a dialog about Matisse’s handling of paint. From the left, the Odalisque exhibits his use of smooth painting, the middle exemplifies his use of rough painting, and the far right shows a sketchier application of paint. In the portrait of his wife (the far right), he uses oil paint in almost an amateur way, applying paint in thin washes with jittery strokes and smudges. His use of color is very sectionalized, as if he designated specific colors for specific shapes. The only place the colors blend is over the woman’s shoulder, but even there one can see states of color instead of a unified whole. The sketchiness and smudginess of the surface creates a wonderful movement that plays with the movement of the contour lines of the woman. I especially want to draw your attention to her shoulders. The [viewer’s] left shoulder is crumpled with ripples of yellow fabric forming the shape of her sleeve. The right shoulder is totally smooth, just a gentle slope connecting her neck with the corner of the canvas. I especially appreciate the uneveness of her eyes. Their imbalance is unsettling yet captivating.

The center piece is most certainly the centerpiece of the Matisse section. I hardly even notice the yellow vase with its red flowers or the reed mat on the floor to the right because I am so captivated by the woman before me. The figure itself is unremarkable. The hands, in particular, are abbreviated to the point that in any other painting I would be unable to look away from them out of sheer shock that a painter could be so careless. From the wrists down, however, this is the most perfect painting of a human being. The fact that the space between her right elbow and the wall is a different color from the outer dark space does not even bother me because I am too wrapped up in the perfection of milky skin tones, splashes of highlights, and flickering shadows. The play between warm and cool tones is what makes this painting ultimately successful, even more so because he uses cool tones when one would think he would use warm tones and vice versa. The texture of the paint—its heavy application and the broad strokes of the brush—contrasts nicely with the delicacy of the subject. This woman will not blow away with the wind or shatter at your touch. The dramatic lighting completes the boldness of the piece.

A famous Van Gogh hangs on the opposite wall of the gallery from the Matisse paintings. There is much that can be said about this painting, but as I am the self-dubbed Hand Nazi, I cannot resist discussing Van Gogh’s hand-ling of the appendages.

(please see the entire painting here.)

Seriously, what the hell happened? Gangrene? Zombie apocalypse? A righteous acid trip? I do not know what happened here, but I can honestly tell you that I am loving it. For such a relatively “normal” (dare I say almost sweet) portrait, I am equally horrified and mesmerized by this green and brown hand. The colors help accentuate the normalcy of the other hand, which is quite lovely in execution. The golden yellow highlight on top of the hand and the hatching of the shadows are beautiful, especially in comparison with the alien appendage. The shape of the alien appendage, if one can see it beyond the coloring, is elegantly rendered and the blue he chose for the wedding band is a brilliant shade, somehow overcoming the greens and browns in their demands for attention. The painting overall is not that far-fetched in color scheme, as far as Van Gogh’s oeuvre is concerned. But that hand… it is fascinating.

Although I will not dwell on her, I must mention an absolutely fabulous Modigliani, a distant neighbor of Van Gogh’s green-handed girl. Allow yourself to revel in her warmth for a minute:

You may recall that I mentioned a Russian painter in the previous post. A Russian painter, I admit, I have never heard of. Chaim Soutrine is best known (to apparently everyone else in the art world but me) for his paintings of cow carcasses, which I probably would have recognized despite not knowing the artist’s name. In this particular exhibition, however, Soutrine is represented by a single painting of a boy.

The luminosity of the red vest is easily noticeable, even from across the room. This painting is quite simple in composition (a big X across the canvas) and in color (red, black, and a bit of blue) but the painting merits a closer look. The viewer is drawn in by the luminosity of the vest, and held captive by the subtleties of the work. The delightful crinkle of the white shirt, for example, as it peeks over the edge of the vest merits at least a few minutes of viewing time. The criss-cross of the necktie repeats the criss-crossing composition and offers a surprising, yet subtle, addition of purple and green. The boy’s face is roughly sketched in, yet the colors suggest a luminosity similar to the vest, as if side of his face was lit by a fire.

The works of Gauguin have thus far disinterested me, yet this self-portrait redeems him.

There is something about it that is captivating. Is it a snake in his hand? Does the combination of the snake with the apples in the background relate to the Biblical tale of Adam and Eve? Clearly, Gauguin wears a halo. But what does it all mean, Basil? The National Gallery’s website offers a bit more (read more here) but is anything but definitive. This painting is worlds more interesting than his paintings of exotic women, even without the religious symbolism. Aesthetically alone, the sculptural quality of the face contrasts wonderfully with the flat, oversimplified forms of the flowers. Curves control the composition: arching up, slicing down, and curling around. To some, Gauguin’s association with himself as a godly figure (what with the halo) maybe offensive, but let’s end this entry with something a little more blatantly offensive.

I absolutely love Toulouse-Loutrec. But that does not change the fact that if you sit in the National Gallery and watch people avoid this painting like Van Gogh’s gangrene, you can see how this image might be a bit blatant. I think what may turn people off the most about it is how incredibly awkward it is to see someone with a top on, but no bottoms. Without being vulgar, I would like to draw the comparison to seeing someone sitting on a toilet—their legs are covered, their top is covered, but there’s a significant private section made visible. I think that “offense” is why people tend to blush at or intentionally avoid this painting. Nothing about it is particularly “graphic,” it is simply an intimate and potentially awkward intrusion upon these two women. The rendering of the figures is superb though, and exemplifies Loutrec’s skill at representing the human form. The pink drapery falls in delicate crinkles around the blonde woman. His use of lines help accentuate shadows an add depth, without being too “cartoony” or flattening the image. I know I have spoken before about his wonderful attention to facial features, but I must draw your attention to the carefully rendered faces once again. He was so specific he even included the blonde’s extra rolls on her rump. His use of color is, as always, fantastic, especially in the shadows where unexpected colors bloom. Look closely at the blonde’s forward leg for these colors. Always applauded for suggesting movement, Loutrec creates a linear movement through repetition of form. The women are not identical, but they mimic each other in form enough to create the feeling of repetition that moves the painting along. I especially love the whispy shawl the red-headed woman wears and how Loutrec implied her form beneath it through color manipulation and a careful use of linear elements. The most offensive thing I find about this painting is that so many people pass it by.

Stay tuned for the final part of this exhibition review! Coming soon!

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