A month before it opens its new, Renzo Piano-designed extension, the Kimbell Museum has opened a major new exhibition, The Age of Picasso and Matisse: Modern Masters from the Art Institute of Chicago. In his review, KERA’s Jerome Weeks says those two artists are just the links holding together an entire panorama of modern art.
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Put simply, The Age of Picasso and Matisse is glorious — equal to its pre-arrival anticipation. To be crudely monetary, it probably has more masterworks per square inch than any other recent art exhibition. So consider it a good value for the adult ticket price of $18.
For all its aura of serious culture, the Kimbell does like to give the public what it wants. This is the sixth show in 14 years with some connection to Picasso. But of all those touring shows — From Renoir to Picasso, Picasso and Braque, Portraiture in the Age of Picasso — this is the one most likely to make your eyes widen. Over here, there’s the sharp, eager precision of early Cubism — paintings like diamond drills. Set against them are Matisse’s evocations of sunny, languid Mediterranean life. Turn a corner, and there’s Vasily Kandinsky and his delirious colors. Or Salvador Dali’s burning giraffe. Or Constantin Brancusi’s elegant spear of bronze, The Golden Bird. And on it goes.
Four years ago, the Art Institute of Chicago loaned the Kimbell its Impressionists for a blockbuster show. Now it’s the 20th century’s turn. But if you saw these pieces in Chicago, they had dozens of other artworks clustered around. And you may be familiar with them from books and documentaries, where they’re part of the ongoing high art parade. But here, they’re extracted, concentrated. Rarely has the rippling explosion of early modern art — all that inventive genius in France from 1900 to 1950 — rarely has it been packed so vividly into 98 paintings and sculptures. We get leading Expressionists, then Cubists, Futurists, Dadaists, Surrealists.
And so on. Much like that earlier Impressionist show, the works are loosely presented by chronology but also grouped by kinship. The show makes the case that Picasso and Matisse were always there, pushing and experimenting, while making the two masters links in a chain, pulling us along through the various styles and schools. One could actually subtract their works and the Kimbell’s show would still be a phone directory of avant-garde masters: Modigliani, Miro, Max Ernst, Mondrian, Duchamp.
One could even display just the sculptures and have a small, but wildly impressive show with works by Matisse, Picasso, Lipschitz, Brancusi and Ernst (an interesting light cast on the choices made here: six of the works are more or less duplicated in the Nasher’s collection).
But no exhibition this rich is just a checklist of greats. There are unexpected grace notes here. A big, bold, Max Beckmann self-portrait. A portrait of a young woman by Emil Nolde, her face a mask of radioactive colors (above). A very rare Kazimir Malevich, the Russian genius who uncovered the spare beauties of pure geometry before anyone else. There are only two Malevich paintings in all of North America. This one, even with its radical simplicity, has a lyrical, playful rhythm. It’s like a still from an animated cartoon, one of those abstract, Chuck Jones backgrounds.
The first half of the 20th century was the age of Picasso and Matisse. A century later, we’re still reeling from what these artists ignited. And what these Chicago collectors achieved. This exhibition testifies to what a city’s smart, daring arts patrons can do. Inspired by the famous Armory Show of 1913, which toured to Chicago, these collectors caught some of that revolution and helped bring it to America.
At the Kimbell, a hundred years later, that fire still blazes.