Saturday, July 23, 2016

Seeing Nature Inside Outside

As the temperature approaches 100°, an afternoon bike trip out into the country starts to sound less like a good idea. We heading in the opposite direction, downtown, to the spacious, air-conditioned Minneapolis Institute of Arts, where the outdoors has been brought inside in an exhibit called "Seeing Nature." The show includes a heterogeneous mix of paintings spanning three centuries from the collection of Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen.

Although the emphasis is ostensibly on landscape, many of the painting are, in fact, cityscapes. There are six paintings of Venice alone. Claude Monet is represented by five landscapes (only one of Venice) and these are among the highlights of the show. Other impressionists and post-impressionists include Gauguin, Cezanne, Sisley, Manet, and Signac.

Be forewarned: the exhibit opens with an entire wall of dreadful paintings by Jan Breughel the Younger in which we hardly see nature at all. Each painting is dedicated to a sense—sight, touch, taste—but the paintings themselves (which are large) consist in each case of a naked woman sitting in a cavernous room cluttered with flower-petals, musical instruments, dead animals and pieces of fruit, or whatever the type of object appropriate to the sense in question might be.

Though it's easy to admire a Monet or a Canaletto, the paintings I found most interesting were by artists I was not all that familiar with. Henri Le Sidaner's "The Serenade, Venice" (1907) had a scintillating atmosphere; Gerhard Richter's "Apple Trees" (1987) looked like a blurry and inexplicably sinister photograph; Milton Averys "Dancing Trees" (1960) had a goofy mien and a very nice shade of green.

The range of styles on view is impressive overall, yet  I was a little disappointed not to find a Corot or Constable in the mix—nothing that really captures the poignancy of gray lonely days out in the fields. David Hockney's multi-panel rendering of the Grand Canyon was delightfully garish, but it didn't evoke the character of the canyon in the slightest. I wasn't seeing nature, I was seeing Hockney. The other two renderings of the canyon captured something of the subtle blues and purples that cloak the escarpments in low light ... but they lacked the requisite size.

At a certain point I began to wonder whether the thick and very ornate gilded frames within which many of the canvases were mounted were really appropriate for paintings that were supposed to help us to see beyond the art—to see nature. I spend a lot of time outdoors, and I "see" nature all the time. In comparison with the banks of black-eyed susans we'd skirted in the museum courtyard on our way to the exhibit through the afternoon heat, few of the canvases on display had much sparkle.

But perhaps I was the one without much sparkle? Maybe the heat had taken it out of me before I even arrived. I did enjoy walking through the cool, well-lit, uncrowded halls of the museum, where youth and age were in perfect balance and everyone looked bright and purposeful. Small groups were chatting in the lobby and sitting around the first-floor coffee shop; individuals were reading magazines on a few of the couches that are scattered around the gallery spaces.

On our way out of the museum we passed several rugged works by Marsden Hartley and a painting by John Sargent Singer of some donkeys in a courtyard that I'd never seen before.

Outside, it was still hot, and the black-eyed susans still looked good.

Was the show worthwhile? I would recommend it, especially on a free day. But it was not about "seeing nature." What we were seeing was civilization.

In fact, I'm thinking now that the Sisley painting of a bridge across a sunlit river was the most subtle in the entire show, and I want to see it again. Evidently I'm the only one who feels this way. It took me forever to find a digital image, and it has very little of the original's chalky glint.

1 comment:

Randee said...

This reminded me of one painting I saw hung in the bedroom of an artist and friend Ari Munzner. The forms were unclear but I knew immediately I was looking at something very familiar, water. Ari said, yes, that he was trying to capture looking into the water along the shore in the shade of trees with of course, leaves laying just below the surface. As he spoke recognized this piece of nature immediately.