The Everson brings Turner and Cezanne to Syracuse

European Modernism migrates to Central New York in Turner to Cezanne: Masterpieces from the Davies Collection, National Museum Wales.

Pick up a book on the history of 19th century European art and you’ll be more than adequately prepared to enjoy and perhaps curate the artistic coup that is the Everson Museum of Art’s Turner to Cezanne: Masterpieces from the Davies Collection, National Museum Wales.

Banking on the power of name recognition, the Everson is presenting a tutorial in Modernism through this traveling exhibit tour de force. Syracuse is one of five U.S. cities hosting the exhibition – a 53-work collection amassed by avid art collectors and spinster sisters, Margaret and Gwendoline Davies.

The show double-bills a condensed history of art with a biography of the Davies sisters. The recipients of their father’s early industrial fortune, these benefactresses embody the mold of bourgeois, conservative art collectors. Milestones in the patrons’ lives are interspersed with major art/historical events.

Predictably, the show flows as follows: Chapter One – Realism as expressed by Turner, Millet, and Daumier; Chapter Two – Impressionism, beginning with Manet and ending with Monet; Chapter Three – the Post-Impressionist marvels of Cezanne and that earlobe-less artist who needs no introduction.

In relating the progression of art in Europe through the 1800s, this exhibit does a superb job. Its linear layout makes clear that as Romanticism and Realism fell out of vogue, a push towards abstraction took hold in Europe, and arguably never let go.

The introductory room is dedicated to Impressionism’s precursors. Here the viewer is shown what was popular before sun-drenched landscapes and studies in color swept the art world.

Jean-Francois Millet’s The Gust of Wind is a dreary painting of a windblown natural scene that is dominated by shades of brown, tan and forest green. It is indicative of the Realists’ overall emphasis on everyday scenes. Turner is aptly represented the most in this section. Finished paintings as well as studies suggest his artistic process and obvious dedication to nature.

The following room presents the crux of the exhibit, Impressionism. A theme that is threaded throughout the show

 is the struggle between art’s evolving aesthetic and the opposition of an unwilling public. This point of contention is driven home by the packaging of the Impressionists-as-bad boys (yes, boys, save for Berthe Morisot). The Impressionists had to fight against the expectations of the French Royal Academy, where history (famous people doing famous things) and genre (everyday people doing everyday things) paintings reigned supreme.

This radical presentation is fair for the likes of Manet, but certainly is not applicable to Realist or Romantic painters. Unfortunately the scope for the painter-as-rejected-figure is too broadly set for this show, as many of the works were/are anything but controversial.

Among the truly worthy paintings in the collection is quite literally the poster child for the show, Renoir’s La Parisienne.

 Despite its overexposure, this is a stunning portrait that highlights the artist’s ability to manipulate of color, brushstroke and the character of his subjects.

There is, of course, a painting from Monet’s water lilies series. Light bounces from this canvas, as short wisps of lavender, kelly green, cream and sky blue meld together. This painting perfectly encompasses the greater project of the Impressionists: appreciating the transformative nature of light and attempting to capture it.

In the capstone Post-Impressionist room, artists like Senguin, Vlaminck and Cezanne represent a generation whose techniques derived from Impressionism but are more individual stylistically.

Cezanne’s Provencal Landscape is dreamlike with its hurried brushstrokes and fantastic colors. The tops of the trees blendinto one another in a green frenzy as a terra cotta-hued earth sits below.

This exhibition is decidedly the most significant art happening Syracuse has had in years, and the Everson won’t let you forget it. To prepare for the exhibit, it revamped its second floor, brandishing leveled white walls and art sensitive humidification/temperature control.

Its guerilla warfare ad campaign has plastered images of La Parisenne all over Central New York and proliferated nearly every area arts venues. But the exhibit doesn’t quite stand up to the all hype. 

Presumably, the staid recipe for a museum’s success is the promise of art’s heaviest hitters: Van Gogh, Cezanne, Monet, Renoir. Regrettably, the collection itself is tired and what one might expect from a pair of aging single sisters. The names are there, but the quality of work largely is not.

 A traveling exhibit also does not allowing for much curatorial creativity, and so there is little to speak of here. For an art novice, the museum provides ample instruction, for those with a bit more know-how, around no corner will there be a surprise.

Go see it:

Turner to Cezanne runs at the Evenson Museum of Art from October 9th to January 3rd, 2010. For more information, go to their website.

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