In Arts & Entertainment

Fernand Leger's "Mother and Child," gouache, painted circa 1949, is part of the new Milwaukee Art Museum show, "Degas to Picasso," that opens this weekend.

MAM's "Degas to Picasso" show captures the wild spirit of French modernism

How on earth in 2017 can an art museum make a show about 19th and early 20th century French painters interesting?

Well, Milwaukee Art Museum does it in "Degas to Picasso: Creating Modernism in France" – a show that expands on one by the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford – by walking the viewer through the evolution of painting during that much-chronicled era when almost no artist seemed content with respecting the staid rules of the game.

The exhibit, which opens Saturday, Nov. 4, also embraces the diversity of styles that wove in and around each other during this rich and complicated era in the history of art.

"'Degas to Picasso' will give museum visitors the opportunity to experience modernism in the way that artists themselves did: not as a single style or organized movement, but as a process of exploration that began in Paris and connected generations, from Delacroix to Degas and Cezanne to Picasso," said MAM Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings, Britany Salsbury (pictured below).

Both first-time and experiences museum visitors will be impressed by the energy of the works and the artists' creative negotiation of the limits of what art could be."

"Degas to Picasso" also shows us some things we might not expect to see.

There are some works that offer a new look at familiar works, such as Van Gogh's etching of Dr. Gachet, whose portrait by the same artist sold for a record sum in 1990, some works that were a revelation and some fine works by artists I'd never even heard of, despite my decades as an international art museum visitor.

For example, Andre Lhote's "Overlooking the Luxembourg Gardens" (above), an oil on paper work from 1911, is a revelation with its arching perspective, linear suggestion of movement and earthy palette.

Maybe you're familiar with Lhote's work, but I wasn't until I saw this show.

I was also excited to see a handful of fine Daumiers among the prints in the first galleries. Even if they weren't those most alluring and mysterious chiaroscuro examples you can see at Scotland's Burrell Collection, they are classic examples of the groundbreaking artist's political and social satire and caricature.

Deeper into the exhibition, there are some Cezanne works – including preparatory drawings for "The Bathers" – that offer insight into the artist's unique style that helped usher in new approaches by the artists who followed him.

The show, which opens this weekend and runs through Jan. 28, 2018, manages to cram 150 works – by the likes of Pierre Bonnard, Georges Braque, Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, Eugene Delacroix, Paul Gauguin, Fernand Leger, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet and others – into a slightly compacted Baker-Rowland Galleries space in a way that seems like the exact opposite of cramming – the works are liberally spaced, creating a relaxing flow.

A mellow paint color scheme on the walls puts the focus on the art, though there are some nice little touches like the red paint on the wall where a racier work hangs in a Picasso-focused room.

But don't let the low-key look fool you, the show is full of the kind of expansive exploration, boundary smashing and sometimes almost even mathematical art (think early cubism) that these pioneers undertook over a relatively short span of history.

A number of related events are slated to accompany the exhibition, including Gallery Talks at 1:30 p.m. on Tuesdays, Nov. 14, Dec. 12 and Jan. 23; half-hour Express Talks at noon on Thursdays, Dec. 7 and Jan. 4, a lecture titled, "Traditional Painting Violated: Picasso and the Art of Emulation," at 6:15 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 16; and a special viewing of prints related to the show called, "Out of the Vault: Works on Paper from Degas to Picasso," Thursday, Dec. 14 at 1:30 p.m.

For details on admission, transportation and more information on the exhibition itself, visit mam.org.

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