Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Art Reviews: The Met’s Steins Collect; the Frick’s Renoir, Antico; the Jewish Museum’s Vuillard

Antico: Golden Age of Renaissance Bronzes 
Through July 29, 2012
The Frick Collection
1 East 70th Street
New York, NY

The Steins Collect: Picasso, Matisse, and the Parisian Avant-Garde 
Through June 3, 2012
Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY

Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940 
Through September 23, 2012
The Jewish Museum
1109 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY

Fifth Avenue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan comprises several of the greatest collections of art anywhere in the world, including a trio of museums currently hosting excellent exhibitions.

Just off Fifth Avenue on East 70th Street is the Frick Collection. Housed in Henry Clay Frick’s former home, the imposing mansion houses the city’s best small art museum—if by “small,” you mean three Vermeers, several Goyas and Rembrandts, and works by Titian, Bellini, El Greco, and so on. The building itself is worth entering just to see how the .01 percent once lived, and in addition to its own collection, the Frick also features pointed exhibitions, like the just-closed Renoir, Impressionism, and Full-Length Painting, which brought together nine of the French Impressionist’s largest canvases, like the Frick’s own La Promenade,  Chicago’s Acrobats at the Cirque Fernando and Washington D.C.’s The Dancer. Seeing these oversized Renoirs in a single gallery was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Currently at the Frick (through July 29) is a splendid exhibit of works by early Renaissance master sculptor Pier Jacopo Alari Bonacolsi, known as L’Antico; his intimately-scaled pieces contain so much detail that they invite the exceptionally close viewing the Frick allows. Among the gems of Antico: Golden Age of Renaissance Bronzes are his statuettes of Hercules and Venus and his busts of Bacchus and Cleopatra.

A dozen blocks north on Fifth Avenue is the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where visitors flock to annually by the millions. The Met’s recently re-opened American Wing—with its comprehensive collection of American paintings and sculpture in the renovated galleries—is on anyone’s list of must-visit galleries. Pride of place remains Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emmanuel Leutze , whose monumental patriotic canvas—which takes up an entire wall in Gallery 760, flanked by the two paintings hung near it at an 1864 exhibition, Frederic Edwin Church’s Heart of the Andes and Albert Bierstadt’s The Rocky Mountains—has been cleaned so it looks sparklingly beautiful, and sits within the glittering gilded frame reconstructed from vintage photographs of the painting.

One of the best Met exhibitions in recent memory, The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde (through June 3) recounts how writer Gertrude, brothers Leo and Michael and Michael’s wife Sarah created one of the most impressive collections of then-modern art in the first half of the 20th century. When they first came to Paris in the early 1900s, they were able to purchase dozens of Picassos, Matisses, Bonnards, and other cheap-to-buy painters before their name recognition and value skyrocketed. Picasso’s famous portrait of Gertrude, already a cornerstone of the Met’s collection, is complemented by his portraits of Leo and his son Allan. Many of the exhibit’s paintings are familiar, but seeing them in a new context simply awes us by the family’s discerning taste. Letters, photographs and other ephemera help to form a portrait of an American family in Paris that collected art as they rubbed shoulders with the artists who created the works they bought.

Another 10 blocks north, on the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 92nd Street, is the Jewish Museum which, through September 23, is the home for an enlightening exhibition of French painter Edouard Vuillard, an underrated artist whose work deserves more platforms in New York than it receives: this is the first large exhibition of his work here in 20 years.

Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940 shows how the painter followed his own path even as his work reflected those people—often women, including Lucy Hessel, wife of one of his patrons who soon became the long-time central figure of Vuillard’s art and life—who were most important to him at the time. The works on display—the Jewish Museum’s own are complemented by many from other collections, often from private hands and unseen in public museums—present a painter’s palette that’s assured, discerning and wholly original.

The exhibit, comprising a half-century of Vuillard’s art, makes for an intriguing overview, especially when considering his late portraits, often large-scale and less well known—undeservedly so: in the final two galleries hang some extraordinary paintings, including Madame Jean Bloch and Her Children, a stunningly precise work of intimacy and uncommon subtlety.

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