July 9, 2008
No doubt about it, there is some pretty high cotton growing in some rather rarefied air down at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts on the campus of the University of Utah.
A traveling exhibit entitled "Monet to Picasso" featuring many of the rock stars of the various European modernist schools of nineteenth and twentieth century painting is currently in residence and ours for the taking.
You want Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism? Well, get on down and bend your mind a bit. Striking examples of each currently hang on friendly walls well within reach. Figuratively, that is! Please don’t touch.
It actually matters little whether you "speak" modern art or not. This exhibit has been fashioned in such a way that not only Monet and Picasso, but also Renoir, Degas, Modigliani, van Gogh, Gauguin, Dalí, and Matisse, and the rest, by presentation alone, have learned to speak your language. One heretical idea builds upon the last. Nothing exclusive here. The welcome mat is out.
Everywhere you look, a masterwork. They flow out of the woodwork, as it were — Manet, Courbet, Pissarro, Cézanne, Bonnard, Magritte, Braque, and Ernst. The list goes on. Even sculpture by Rodin and Henry Moore add to the sense of those heady times when modernist Europe came of age.
By the way, a caveat here: Do not drool on the Cézanne! A very pleasant uniformed security guard was forced to remove himself from his chair in order to remind me of that particular rule. If I’m not mistaken, another such individual performed a similar function when another touring exhibit stopped in San Diego back in the day.
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Admittedly, I do have this thing about Cézanne, but Renoir and Manet and Gauguin have also been known to bring about heavy breathing on my part. It must relate to color and light. To actually spend time in the company of such vigorous brushstrokes as, say, those involved in van Gogh’s "Poplars at Saint-Rémy," can bring on a swoon.
They ought to make you wear a heart monitor. If you have a twinkle in your eye that lasts longer than four hours, please consult your physician.
Even the fractured and reassembled cubism of Picasso and Braque have a quite unintended to be sure sensual quality. This is no doubt due to the passage of time. Everything, including abstract expressionism, nowadays rests comfortably upon most every artistic sensibility.
As a way of protecting you from yourself, possibly, there are two-hour windows for which you must reserve access in order to partake of the exhibit. They begin with the 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. slot and, although my earlier lusting for the heart of modernism forced me to rush through the final exhibit rooms, it’s easy to spend quality time with those works that reach out and grab you by the scruff of your perception.
For example, there was this "nice little Renoir," as Pierce Brosnan put it in the remake of "The Thomas Crown Affair." Other than to say it pulled me in, and not too subtly at that, I’m unable to articulate the overpowering attraction it instantly held.
There were these swirling, quite vivid colors that were both inviting and confrontational at the same time. It hinted at what airbrush would do 100 years later. All of a sudden, there was detail within the implied. Once again, surprise is the vehicle modernists used to describe their world, and they used it well.
What a blessing to have the chance to roam among works produced by the giants of modernism as they built upon each succeeding artistic heresy. If you wish, telephone-like audio guides are available to lead you from one to the other, but that doesn’t mean you can’t shut them off and allow the art to speak to you in its own fashion.
This stuff is oftentimes shocking and most always sticks to your ribs. Gauguin’s use of over-the-top orange to color the hair of a mysterious nude entering the ocean completely dominates "In the Waves," for example. Is she going for a leisurely swim or are darker games afoot?
Or the bright day and multi-colored floral arrangements of Matisse’s "Festival of Flowers, Nice." That would be the city on the French Riviera. The work is quite nice, also, however.
Then there was the Salvador Dali surrealistic masterpiece that snagged and reeled me in from two rooms away. Again, even after logging away hundreds of prints in the museum of the mind, nothing prepares you for the stark dreamscapes his brushes bring forth.
My father had little trouble interpreting this guy’s work, however. After perusing my coffee-table book of Dali prints, he produced the following review. "This guy’s sick!"
Much that is significant within the cultural history of the past century has found a place of honor upon the walls of the Utah Museum of Fine Art this summer. It will be important for me to return for yet additional raptures but that isn’t to say a single visit isn’t life changing.
This is truly, as local media have been proclaiming loud and long, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Take both hemispheres of your brain on down to the valley and stuff them full of wonder. Dust off your ability to marvel and take it out for a spin.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.