Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
The McNay Art Museum is ready to open its glass doors and welcome visitors into its newest exhibition, Monet to Matisse: A Century of French Moderns, which will be on display in the reconfigured Tobin Exhibition Galleries from March 1-June 4.
The exhibition showcases works from the Brooklyn Museum's European art collection as well as pieces from the McNay to highlight the museum's growing modern art collection, which include many of the same artists featured in Monet to Matisse. Works from artists such as Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Auguste Rodin grace the museum's walls and celebrate France as a major artistic center of international modernism from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries.
The exhibition includes around 60 paintings and sculptures selected by McNay Director Richard Aste and Brooklyn Museum Curator of European Painting and Sculpture Lisa Small. The collaboration between the museums was natural – Aste was an art curator and historian at the Brooklyn Museum before coming to the McNay last September, replacing longtime Director William J. Chiego.
“Bringing Brooklyn’s French collection to the McNay is a reunion decades in the making,” Aste said. “Our founder, Marion Koogler McNay, was a visionary collector. Putting her keen collecting eye back on a par with those of her mostly male peers at the Brooklyn Museum, one of the nation’s pioneering art institutions, is powerful, appropriate, and long overdue."
As guests walk through the exhibit, they will come across paintings, sculptures, and prints that fall within the genres of portraiture, landscape, and still life, which were redefined in radical ways. They exemplify avant-garde movements that defined a hundred years, Aste explained, showcasing early attempts to faithfully capture everyday life and introspective reflections of a disrupted landscape.
Another detail to note on some of the exhibition's pieces are the different frames that accentuate each work. Several of them are reproductions of frames by Degas, who was known as the biggest champion of modern frames, highlighting the architectonic view impressionists had when it came to framing.
The collection includes a powerfully expressive bust by Jean Baptiste Carpeaux, Woman of African Descent, which is based on the sculptor's observation of a live model. Ropes bind the torso and an inscription reads, "Why born a slave?" Emperor Napoleon III purchased a larger version of the same bust and exhibited it at the Salon of 1869.
For those interested in an opportunity to get into the head of the artist as he or she works on a masterpiece, Cézanne's unfinished painting, "The Village of Gardanne," provides a window into the different layers of color, wax, and tridimensionality that go into the composition of his work. Viewers can still see the sketchy traces of Cézanne's graphite underdrawing on the canvas.
Fans of Matisse will find a vivid still life of wildflowers, "Flowers," completed in 1906. It is one of two Matisses in the Brooklyn's collection that were the first works to enter private American collections. The painting was included in the 1913 Armory Show in New York City, Aste told the Rivard Report, which was the first major exhibition of modern European art in the U.S. and proved to be both popular and controversial.
The McNay's Tobin Exhibition Galleries are within the Jane & Arthur Stieren Center for Exhibitions, designed by French architect Jean-Paul Viguier. Before, several walls in place would guide visitors in a zigzag-like way throughout the special exhibits, but now the gallery has been has transformed into an open, sweeping plan to highlight Viguier's design. In addition to the artworks along the outer walls, interactive educational areas and touchscreens will provide an opportunity for visitors to learn about the communities that were sometimes overlooked during this 100-year period.
A particular piece of art in the exhibit that highlights this inclusivity is "At Breakfast," a painting by Loïs Mailou Jones. She was one of several prominent African American artists drawn to France to study modernist painting and work without the constraints of racial and gender discrimination encountered in the United States.
"My favorite part about this period is how global this moment was and how it was a destination not just for French artists but also artists from Russia, Hungary, Asia, the United States, and Latin America," Aste said. "That's fascinating – that the crossroads of the world really came together through the arts in Paris in this moment. I'm particularly excited about the presence of an African American artist in this, which is often overlooked, so that's really powerful."
Even before Aste was tapped as the new McNay Director, his predecessor was working closely with the Brooklyn Museum for the past couple of years to make the Monet to Matisse exhibition a reality. In an August interview with the Rivard Report, Aste said he was looking forward to establishing collaborative partnerships to showcase the McNay’s place in the broader continuum of art, culture, and history.
"Halfway through the process of making my transition to the McNay, I realized, 'Oh, I think I'm going to know a little bit about the first show I'm going to open,'" Aste told the Rivard Report during a media preview Tuesday. "I was focusing on the show as curator at the time, and I spent my time really on the research of the paintings and thinking about the proper presentation."
Typically, special exhibits are conceived two to three years in advance, Aste said, in order for museums to raise funds, produce a book for the exhibit, and plan out the calendar year.
"Bill Chiego and the McNay's Chief Curator-Curator of Contemporary Art René Paul Barilleaux were very aware of the power that this could have here, and you see that dialogue very naturally throughout the exhibition: Mrs. McNay, Brooklyn Museum," Aste said. "It's the same artists, same moment, and same passion for avante garde and progressive painting and sculpture."
In a new feature for the McNay at an exhibition of this type, the introductory text and descriptive labels for the works are in both English and Spanish. The McNay previously has included bilingual marketing materials and texts for smaller exhibitions that included work from Latin America before, such as the museum's 2007 Mexico and Modern Printmaking: A Revolution in the Graphic Arts 1920 - 1950 exhibit. But the inclusion of Spanish in Monet to Matisse marks Aste's commitment to include bilingual content in future exhibitions regardless of cultural theme.
Before joining the Brooklyn Museum in 2010, Aste lived in Puerto Rico, where he served as associate curator of European art at the Museo de Arte de Ponce. A native of Lima, Peru, who was raised in Miami, Aste is fluent in Spanish. He is known for his global approach to European and Latin American art in his curatorial practice.
"He's our first Hispanic director," McNay Communications and Marketing Director Daniela Oliver told the Rivard Report. "On our first official managers meeting he said, 'All right, so Spanish ... I want us to go towards being fully bilingual. Let's take the steps that we need to take in order to make that happen.'"
In addition to the bilingual text and labels included in the exhibit, Oliver said, the McNay's website now has a tab on the top right of the homepage to redirect visitors to a micro-site in Spanish.
"It's a show about France but we don't want to assume that our Hispanic visitors, myself included, only want to look at Hispanic art and only want to see cultures from our own worlds," Aste said. "Opportunities at museums for discovery are what we're all about, so if we can bring someone from the Hispanic community who's never been to a museum or never been to France and have as a point of entry the conversation in their language, then that becomes a very welcoming and powerful moment."
Education, Aste said, is a pivotal part of the experience at the McNay.
"We are as committed to education as we are the arts, because art educators are our ambassadors, our connectors between the art and the community and that's why we're here," Aste said. "We don't want to tell our stories to each other, we don't want to tell our stories to fellow art historians, we want to reach those who need help with the information."
Toward the end of the exhibit, museum-goers will come across a familiar work: the McNay's own "Water Lilies" by Monet, one of 250 from the painter's water lily collection, perhaps the most recognizable group of Impressionist works.
When Monet embarked on the series in 1914, he had just lost his son with his first wife Camille, had just lost his second wife Alice, and he was losing his eyesight due to cataracts, Aste said. He sought refuge and solace in his home and property in Giverny during the years of World War I, embracing what was already in his backyard.
“We’re entering this moment of modernism,” Aste said, as he spoke about the painting. “It’s the culmination of our story here, because what we’re looking at is he’s going abstract and he’s paving the way for today’s artists – even in 1914 … Are we looking at the water lilies in the pond or a reflection of them? That’s all very intentional by the artist and a celebration of what painting can do.”
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