THE GENUINE ARTICLE: Head of a Woman,
by Pablo Picasso, 1934.
To have a good idea of where you are it is useful to know where you’ve been. Anyone with a serious interest in contemporary art needs some grounding in what happened to art in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Europe, especially in France. The nature of art requires that you see the real works. Reproductions will not do.
The Scott M. Black collection currently on view at the Portland Museum of Art presents Portland with an opportunity to see the real thing — works by people who were living at a time of massive cultural and technological change and were grappling with the problem of how, artistically, to respond. The show consists of about 40 works, mostly paintings, that represent a continuum of thought over two long generations, from the latter part of the 19th century to the mid-20th. The foundations of modern art were being laid by these artists, and most of what we see now grows directly from these artists and that time.
From the vantage point of a century or so later those ideas seem almost commonplace. They have been part of the intellectual landscape for so long that it’s easy to forget the extraordinary struggles and leaps of inspiration that were taking place. The works in this collection give us a chance to directly experience the course of the transformations wrought by Monet, Pissarro, Cassatt, and their colleagues, especially Cézanne. Works by a later generation, Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Miró, de Chirico, Magritte, and others show how these earlier ideas engendered the birth of what we now call modernity.
There was one simple question those artists faced that was a metaphor for the social changes at work in their world: If photography was going to take over representation, what would be the value of painting? They saw the academic representational painting of the time as sterile and without much value. We can see Monet working toward a compelling principle in La Manneporte Seen From Below from about 1884. It is one of several paintings Monet made of a rock formation in the sea, and it is a truly Impressionist work. Monet is still making a representation, but he is showing paint as the “impression” of light itself, rather than rendering an illusion of light. Close readers of Proust will recall his descriptions of this effect in the work of his fictional painter character, modeled in part on Monet.
The Monet hangs beside a Cézanne in a historically felicitous pairing, the Impressionist Monet next to the Post-Impressionist Cézanne. They were about the same age, but Monet lived longer. The Cézanne, Trees in the Jas De Bouffan, was painted earlier than the Monet, but it still exhibits the struggle that lead Cézanne to the very edge of abstraction. His work showed that the ultimate purpose of a painting was the painting itself, not its subject. What really matters is not the tree, but the painting of the tree. This was a liberating idea, and the reason that Picasso and Matisse referred to Cézanne as “the father of us all.”