Recently, my studio art class, “Figure Composition”, took a trip to New York. After an early wake-up (and a mild panic when I realized that the power outage on campus had caused my alarm to reset itself), a long bus ride, and a delicious lunch at the Tick Tock diner (which I am told is a tourist trap), we found ourselves in arguably the greatest art museum in the nation: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. While Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, Philadelphia’s eponymous Museum of Art and Los Angeles County Museum of Art have their strengths and charms (and I have not yet had the pleasure of visiting Chicago’s Art Institute), the Metropolitan Museum of Art remains my favorite museum in the United States. “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” remains one of my favorite books and an inspiration to this day (sadly, I have not yet followed Claudia’s example and run away to live at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but give it time). As a class, we only had about two hours to spend in the museum, but I could easily spend weeks traversing the grand galleries and never get bored.
Our goals were to see the Henri Matisse and George Bellows exhibits. Professor Exon also wanted to show us some works in the museum’s permanent collection that he thought would prove inspirational in their use of composition and design as well as the treatment of the human figure. This account will briefly touch upon the Matisse and Bellows exhibits, then tackle Professor Randall Exon’s exhibit, located in the Hirschl and Adler Modern gallery in the Crown Building on 5th Avenue.
The Matisse show, “In Search of True Painting” (which runs until March 17th), was especially interesting to me as an artist because it demonstrated how Matisse addressed different subjects multiple times during his painting career. He strove to grow as an artist by creating later versions of earlier paintings. The exhibit presents examples of Matisse’s approach and treatment of the similar compositions and subjects in his journey as an artist, often holding them up side by side. The differences in techniques in his treatment of the same exact composition are striking. Whereas in an earlier approach to a bowl of fruit on a table, “Still Life with Purro I”, Matisse would use broad strokes of flat color, a later version of the same arrangement, “Still Life with Purro II”, is characterized by “confetti”-like dashes of paint. What remains constant in all the works of the exhibit are Matisse’s idiosyncratic, unnatural use of color and the dynamism and deftness of his compositions and brushstrokes.
A true intellectual and artistic highlight of this show is the way the exhibit presents the evolution of several works on display. The exhibit displays a finished painting, and then juxtaposes it with photographs taken of the painting’s journey to completion. The audience gets an opportunity to see the whole process of the artist, from the graphite sketch to the final painted product. Pressed for time as we were, having to keep moving quickly diminished the effectiveness of the exhibit. I would have liked to compare and contrast works more in order to understand what he was striving for in each interpretation of the same subject.
Our next destination was the simply titled “George Bellows”, which runs through February 18th. According to the museum, this exhibit is the “first comprehensive survey of an artist’s career in nearly half a century” (metmuseum.org). Bellows is an artist whom I know and can recognize, but don’t know much else about, so this exhibit was an excellent learning opportunity for me.
George Bellows largely painted ordinary people at the turn of the 20th century; he is most famous for his loose, meaty depictions of boxing matches and his gritty paintings of the New York tenement life of the working poor. The show takes the audience through his career chronologically, allowing me to appreciate his evolving style. In addition to his paintings of fights Bellows also painted very distinctive portraits, all with visible brushstrokes and a lively sense of movement and vitality in each figure. Of particular note early on in the exhibit is the saggy, realistic flesh of the woman in the work titled “Nude Girl, Miss Leslie Hall”.
As I traveled throughout the exhibit, I realized that Bellows’ famous boxing pictures must have shocked in their time, but are now ubiquitous and thus rather difficult to appreciate on their own merits.
The exhibit devotes nearly equal space to Bellows’ landscape and place-oriented works. “Summer Night, Riverside Drive,” a highlight, has an incredible sense of atmosphere. The work depicts a couple walking along a path at night and truly impresses with its deep shadows and its tenderness, created by the small lamp post light source. On a purely technical note, Bellows also simulates the texture of snow quite well.
Additionally, this truly extensive show juxtaposes drawings and finished works, revealing his sketchy, keen draftsmanship. The exhibit also displays some small lithographs created by the artist, which demonstrate a key understanding of the handling of light and shadow. Approaching the tail end of the exhibit, portraits of women that include several of his beloved wife are of note. These works are intimate and lovely; Bellows uses his loose, dynamic technique to great effect. Painters of the human form can learn quite a bit from Bellows’ treatment of flesh and of character.
In contrast to the dynamism and wild energy of the previous exhibits, Professor Exon’s small showing, simply titled “New Paintings,” is a study in serenity and harmony. This collection of works is focused on depictions of water and beaches, with the occasional work featuring a beach house or human subjects. The paintings all have a similar palette of khakis, pale blues and whites, with the occasional dash of silver on a gleaming canoe or a fish in a young man’s arms. Exon’s work is meticulously composed and atmospheric. His admiration of painters such as Eakins and Hopper is especially evident in his treatment of the human figures in his works. The works all have a Vermeer-like stillness that creates a sense of absolute peace in the viewer, which was a nice contrast to the earlier works we had seen at the Met.
Overall, the day was exciting and enriching, and I encourage my readers to try to catch all of these exhibits and shows. Unfortunately, the Bellows and Exon shows have since closed, but the Matisse is still on display until March 17th.