Thursday, June 16, 2011

Hot Shows for a Hot Summer: Toulouse-Lautrec and Munch, Gericault and the Romantics

Toulouse-Lautrec, "Seated Clowness," 1896
What we need — beyond world peace, prosperity, and lying museums that raise their admission prices first, then figure out they need to “cry poor” second — are free summer shows.  A couple of galleries with the resources to put on world-class exhibits have come to the rescue — Tunick and Feigen.  They’re ages old, and specialize in art of the last five centuries or so.

For drawings and prints, get yourself over to Tunick, where its current exhibition, “La Femme,” presents the woman in various roles — as aware of her own sexuality in Klimt, as almost defeated by life in Toulouse-Lautrec, as a domestic worker in Delacroix and Millet.

But really it’s an opportunity to see outstanding art by outstanding artists, better appreciated by looking at each piece individually rather than as part of a theme.

Picasso is represented by one of his most famous etchings, “Frugal Meal” (left) — the couple against the world from his Blue Period — in addition to “Satyr Unveiling a Nude Woman” from the 1936 Vollard Suite.  The latter is a recurrent and always moving theme in Picasso’s work, woman as an unattainable object of desire.

Munch — that master of misery, sickness, and death — has two works as well.  “Sick Child” (below) he considered his greatest print.  It’s a lithograph of his 15-year-old sister on her deathbed, a tender profile resting on a pillow amid a tangle of black angry lines.  “Moonlight” is a woodcut, cool, dark, abstractly beautiful.

Munch reworked each of these prints many times — “Sick Child” was something of an obsession, and he painted several versions the theme as well — changing color, lines, texture, or detail.

The Toulouse-Lautrec lithograph, “Seated Clowness” (top) is a beauty.  It has everything that makes this artist appealing — bold pattern, bright colors, the underbelly of amusement in everyday life.

There are also four large Klimt drawings, a couple of which haven’t been seen for almost 100 years, an extremely rare Maurice Prendergast monotype, a couple of Whistlers, and a red chalk drawing by Watteau.

If you the appetite for a taste of Rembrandt — and who doesn’t — check out the five Rembrandt etchings in the Tunick library, the great “Three Crosses” among them.  They’re not part of the special exhibit, and they’re a hearty meal in themselves.

“The Romantic Revolution” at Feigen, just three blocks away, is fun and quirky.  It presents at once both the challenges of  art in the decades before Impressionism — sometimes-difficult subject matter, a plethora of styles that seem to go nowhere — and the delights of discovery.

Works by Courbet and Constable are here, and three small studies by Gericault that are magnificent examples of how colorful, and emotionally intense, he could make the many shades of brown.

Shown below is  his “Abandoned Cart," a bleak industrial landscape in condensed form — it’s only about 6 by 10 inches — that is thought to be a study for a painting in the Louvre.

Much of the art is by painters who are less well known, though they definitely have a place in art history.  Chief among these is Henry Fuseli, a Swiss artist forced into exile for political reasons, who was an early explorer of the dark side of Romanticism.

His “Fairy Mab”(below) is one of 47 paintings based on John Milton’s life and works.  Fuseli exhibited them in London in 1799 as a “Milton Gallery.”

Back then, the show was a commercial failure, but it’s been an obvious artistic success.  The Met, in fact, has another work in this series — which it previously bought from Feigen.

“Mab,” from one of Milton’s poems, is the queen of the fairies who roamed pantries at night looking for a sweet pudding called junket — the predecessor of bankers who rummage around looking for tax dollars to swipe.

The crooked financiers are better at it than Mab was, presented here digging in, an almost demented child with a sugar high.

The Romantic landscape is represented at the show by a ho-hum Constable, a somewhat better Samuel Palmer, and several truly beautiful paintings by Richard Wilson ("Hounslow Heath" is below), who is considered the father of English landscape painting and an acknowledged influence on Constable and Turner.

There is much to see — a rare sculpture by Courbet, a woman’s head titled “Liberty” that was shipped in a box addressed to the wonderfully named Baron de Bastard, also on display; a couple of works by Ary Scheffer, a journeyman artist who on occasion painted with something approaching inspiration, and drawings by Girodet, including at least one that was lent to the Met’s retrospective a few years ago.

Well-researched and well-written handouts are available for each piece — wait, this is a Feigen show, not a Gagosian garage production that makes you guess what you’re looking at.

Your correspondent intended to review another show, at a gallery that shall be nameless.  But the big-name works, which were new to me, couldn’t be found in online images, and the gallery boss forbade my own photography and refused to provide me any of his.  The reason, he said, was that the sellers were “paranoid” about the art being seen on the internet.

The first thing that went through my mind was that the show could include forgeries or stolen art.  Never mind.  Instead of writing a review,  I notified a stolen-art registry.  Hot art for a hot summer?  We’re barely in June.

“La Femme,” David Tunick, 11 East 66th St., through July 1; “The Romantic Revolution,” Richard L. Feigen, 34 East 69th St., through August 1

Photos:  Courtesy David Tunick, Inc., and Richard L. Feigen & Co.

Copyright 2011 Laura Gilbert