By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Oct 14, 2011 at 1:02 PM

Many of the artists that we think of as the greatest in history – Cezanne, Degas, Renoir, Van Gogh, Manet, Monet, Gauguin – emerged as part of the Impressionist movement in France in the waning decades of the 19th century.

But amid the ubiquitous postcards and the prints in grandma's sitting room, it's easy to forget how revolutionary these artists were in their day. Part of what made them so different was their approach to drawing.

"Impressionism: Masterworks on Paper" – organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum in partnership with the Albertina in Vienna – opens Friday, Oct. 14 and runs through Jan. 8 in the Baker/Rowland Galleries of the Milwaukee Art Museum's Quadracci Pavilion. The more than 100 works in the show tell the story of one of the major ways in which the Impressionists shook up Western art.

The show focuses on works on paper – drawings, watercolors and pastels, that is – pointing to one of the legacies of the Impressionists, says MAM's director of exhibitions Laurie Winters, who co-curated the show with guest curator Christopher Lloyd.

"The Impressionists are well-known to be radical revolutionists," says Winters. "But most people think that they only took their canvas outside and painted in oils on canvas outside. Most people don't realize that more than 40 percent of the works they put on view at the Impressionist exhibitions were works on paper.

"In my view those tend to be the most radical and revolutionary because they could work quickly."

Because works on paper are so fragile, they sometimes don't survive and when they do, institutions and collectors aren't eager to lend them. So, after describing the show as the first exhibition ever in North America to look at how the Impressionists worked on paper, Winters calls it, "a true miracle exhibition."

It is, Winters says, also the first time any works by Paul Gauguin and Georges Seurat have ever been on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum. It is also the first time multiple works by Vincent Van Gogh have been seen here.

The exhibition will include a number of paintings, too, including Pierre-Auguste Renoir's "Bathers with Crab," on loan from the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh as payment on a Super Bowl bet made by the museums just before the Packers defeated the Steelers last winter.

The paintings are included to show how the Impressionists created works on paper that often rivaled their more famous oil paintings. In their day, these drawings were taken seriously and viewed as every bit as valid as paintings. That was new. Previously, works on paper tended to be drawings made as studies for larger works in oil.

"Most of the works in the exhibition fall into the category of finished, which means they were sold as is," says Winters, "they weren't preparatory for something else."

"It all comes to the same conclusion," adds Lloyd, "that drawing is as significant as painting."

Winters says the works also trace a lineage from the dawn of Impressionism to Post-Impressionism and beyond.

"The various styles and techniques the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists ... (shed) light on how these artists made inroads for the Abstract Expressionists, among others."

That "genealogy" part, if you will, begins immediately, in the first room of the exhibition, with a number of works by Eugene Boudin, who was among the first of the French painters to work outdoors. He was also a bridge to this new generation of painters that became the Impressionists.

"He's one of the artists that might be not so familiar to people but plays a key position and tells the story in his own right," says Lloyd. "He was included in the first Impressionist exhibition. But the most important thing is that he was the mentor of Claude Monet and inspired Monet enormously. And so, he is the starting point, the springboard."

Those Boudin drawings segue into works by Monet, including a trio of scenes of London, with the museum's own Monet painting in the center, flanked by a pair of equally astonishing and accomplished works on paper created during the same trip to England.

And, via these works by Boudin and his protege Monet, this first room gets straight to the point of the exhibition.

"These are not studies," says Winters. "These are finished works in their own right."

"There you have it," quips Lloyd, "you've seen the whole show."

But you haven't even come close. You might get the point early on but the remainder of "Impressionism: Masterworks on Paper" dazzles.

There is that quartet of works spanning the career of Van Gogh that will keep you rapt. Nearby are a couple brilliant drawings made by his friend Gauguin in Tahiti. There are works by lesser-known painters like Eva Gonzales and Federico Zandomeneghi. And there are memorable works by Edgar Degas and Camille Pisarro, among others.

At the exhibition's climax, Paul Cezanne's almost reductive, unpopulated landscapes – which recall Japanese paintings – are counter-balanced by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's drawings of circus performers and prostitutes that capture the artist's ability to transfer humanity onto paper.

They remind you that he – like his fellow Impressionists – didn't need canvas or oil to exercise their genius. Paper and pencil or pastel or watercolor would do just fine, too.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.