Thursday, December 6, 2012

Brand Name Art

The Clown, Georges Rouault

I’ve become rather dispirited by the trend of blockbusterism in museum exhibits.  Desperate to draw the public away from their iDevices, museums hype up shows like the latest summer movie.  They focus in on certain artists who could be described as the A-Listers of art history.  Museums stock the gift shop with mugs and trinkets and wait for the throngs to come.  And, well, they do.  These are the shows that are impossibly crowded.  Even on a rainy Wednesday, you don’t stand a chance of looking at anything that is on the audio tour.  Isolated behind headphones the sheep stop where they are told and then stand and gape.  I encounter this at the major museums in San Francisco, but it is not an isolated problem, it’s a global curse of big city museums — all the more reason to stop by museums in places like Reno.

I had to keep an open mind as I approached the de Young for the latest big show.  The William S. Paley Collection: A Taste of Modernism.   I braced myself for crowds and hype, but I couldn’t let an opportunity go by to see some Gaugins and Cezannes when they come to San Francisco.  Along with you Gaugins and Cezannes, you have your Matisses and Picassos. All the names sure to bring in the once-or-twice-a-year crowd who need to see some art.  Art they “know” is good. 

Every work by a great master is not necessarily a masterpiece.  Okay, there is not a bad painting in the exhibit.  But let’s be honest, they are not all great either.  Truthfully, much of Mr. Paley’s collection is full of second-tier work by big name artists.  This is the type of collection that is amassed by the wealthy when they are more-focused on names rather than art.  When that happens, no matter how rich the collector, they are usually a generation or two behind.  They rarely can acquire the best work from a famous artist.  But there is treasure to see in the show.  Much of what I call “second tier” is quite strong, smaller paintings that would have been overlooked by earlier collectors.  In particular there is a nice wall of little Édouard Vuillards.  The strongest work in the show might be the work by the expressionist Georges Rouault (including the work shown above).  Ironically, it’s the collections first tier work by a second tier artist like Rouault that really shines. 

I have to mention the last work in the exhibit.  Seemingly out of place, just before the gift shop, was an Edward Hopper watercolor of Charleston, South Carolina (a place not particularly associated with Hopper).  It’s another work that makes the show, hype aside, worth seeing before it closes at the end of this month.

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