500 Years of Earth: A Survey of Landscapes at the Portland Art Museum
Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection at the Portland Art Museum
October 10, 2015 to January 10, 2016
1219 SW Park Avenue (at SW Madison Street)
Portland, OR, 503 226 2811
“Cézanne’s was not a canvas, it was a landscape.”
I recently went to the Portland Art Museum to look at “Seeing Nature,” a survey of “landscape masterworks” from the Paul Allen Family Collection. Passing through the Paradise: Fallen Fruit imbroglio at Portland Art Museum’s entrance makes this exhibition an even more pleasurable destination. The former’s tormented, though enjoyable, curatorial bent is a commentary on modern culture and our inheritance of its public spaces, through various paintings and sculptures of PAM’s permanent collection spanning several eras, abutted sans-info or contextual sequencing. Less the mélange than a remix, though extremely understated, sculptures are clustered on a plinth at center gallery, while paintings hang in crushes along the walls. A good thing about this concept is that it takes canonized works and forces the viewer to answer for themselves the question, “Why is this major?” It’s a contemporary idea not short on tradition. That it’s jumbled up isn’t a reproach, it’s the point of the piece — to raise questions by making a work of art out of past works. But “Seeing Nature”’s M.O. is something much simpler though still nuanced, and visiting both exhibitions makes for two different museum experiences. One way of presenting a collection isn’t more valuable than the other, but what happened during my visit made certain institutional implements seem worthy of their subsisting charms.
The Paul Allen Family collection, some of whose 39 works are seen here in public for the first time, is composed of quite a few French Impressionist works and an impressive, wide array of other works from the last 500 years. The exhibition’s supreme appeal seems to be its intention to give the sensory experience of landscape. However old-hat this may seem to be, it works. The show’s sequencing is uncomplicated, with ample wall space between works, allowing space for longer looking. Three large galleries hold the paintings with central seating in each for tired feet, long visits, Instagramming, etc., and the the walls are affixed with artworks in unexpected and titillating curations.
The first room features the glorified French works including five by Monet, as well as Paul Signac’s Morning Calm, Concarneau, Opus 219 (Larghetto) (1891) with a musical connection in Pointillist fragmentation, like musical notes coming together to form a number. Signac’s fragments, like other of the experimentally adventuresome paintings in this show, fully allow the viewer to put the optical illusion of sailboats off the coast of Brittany together retinally and with their imagination. Seeing Gustav Klimt’s experimental 1903 oil painting of a birch forest at Attersee, Birch Forest, I can’t help but laugh, picturing Klimt painting among the birches, holding up his opera glasses to distort and augment the sights. The close-up view of birches juxtaposed with spacial illusion of the rest of the forest is dizzying and totally pleasurable.
Still, the same question can be asked: Why are these paintings famous and why should I care? My favorite of the show, Henri Le Sidaner’s Serenade at Venice (1907), immediately sent me into a state of reverie and welled my eyes, which also happened when I saw Degas’ Café Singer (1879) in Chicago. What causes such a reaction? Light (paint) forming the impression of life (the singer’s red lips, the sun, or in Le Sidaner’s case, low nocturnal flameglow). Le Sidaner, “delicious rhapsodist of night,” replicates the feeling of gloaming at night by way of painted paper lanterns, the luxury of sightseeing, and music made possible by subtle chiaroscuro (without Baroque melodrama) in his 1905 painting of gondoliers on a Venetian lagoon.
One of the other two rooms is full of Modernist favorites like O’Keefe, Ruscha, Richter, Hockney, Magritte, and Ernst, many of which are stretches when it comes to landscape, raising the question: what is a landscape? Take for instance Ed Ruscha’s Premium Oil (1965), a painting that brings the landscape to its viewer in its absence. What Ruscha presents here is a large silhouetted building, with the landscape a mere suggestion left to the viewer’s imagination. One would be remiss to not mention David Hockney’s massive panoramic stunner in oil, The Grand Canyon (1998), a veritable contemporary Fauve take on the natural monument. It’s by turns flat, illusionistic, cartoony, and naturalistic.
The third room features the older of the paintings, with artworks that document a return to classical themes, myths, and architecture. Jan Brueghel the Younger’s 1625 series, “The Five Senses,” involves the landscape combined with portraiture and still life, while Venice occupies the canvases of Turner, Canaletto, Manet, and Moran.
Returning to the first room to leave, I happened on Joan Kirsch, an art historian and docent giving a public tour. Knowing her wide frame of reference and clear, entertaining eloquence, I couldn’t miss the chance to listen in. Joan’s one of a kind who’s been around a while. She once told me that she used to rollerskate to the Met and then roll around the galleries looking at all the art. She and her group were at Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire (1888-90). I learned things that contextualized an already thrilling painting in ways that maybe wouldn’t happen without the mediated viewing of the guided tour. In Cézanne, this kind of viewing is absolutely helpful.
Knowing that Cézanne has probably influenced every painter since his death doesn’t lessen his works’ challenging aspects. In this and the hundreds of Mont Sainte-Victoire paintings Cézanne made, the natural landscape looks unnatural, larger than life, not at all like it does in situ. Cézanne’s structured, strange brush strokes (owing their slant to his left-handedness) reflect the painter’s emotional baggage, to paraphrase Joan. He painted his interpretation — what he wanted you to see, not what’s necessarily there. All this led to a conversation about why so much of the work in this exhibition was satisfying, and why we call this kind of work “great.” Cézanne (one of the first experimental painters of the Modern era), like so many of the artists in this exhibition, only wanted to give you part of the picture and so he left the rest for the viewer to discern or keep wondering about. “When you’re in a forest,” Joan explained, “you don’t even need to see the whole tiger. If you see his tail, you run.”
“Seeing Nature” will also travel to The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the New Orleans Museum of Art, and will conclude at the Seattle Art Museum in 2017.