Double Take

There are echoes of the Old Masters in this great Impressionism show.

There's another big blockbuster show coming that's guaranteed to bring throngs of the great unwashed masses to the Denver Art Museum. They'll be drawn to the place by the one-two punch of Old Masters and Impressionists, whose paintings and drawings are being showcased in Inspiring Impressionism, opening this weekend.

Oh, I know, yawn, right? Wrong.

"Still Life With Statuette," by Cézanne, oil on canvas.
"Still Life With Statuette," by Cézanne, oil on canvas.

Details

Through May 25, Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 720-865-5000, www.denverart-museum.org. For a slide show sample of what's on view in this exhibit, go to slideshow.westword.com.

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Inspiring Impressionism is not your run-of-the-mill effort in which a cavalcade of big-name European artists are represented by minor works. Instead, it's an intellectually stimulating exhibit crowded with iconic pieces by some of the most significant artists who ever took brush to canvas.

What makes Impressionism so popular with the general public are all those pretty pictures, and the tragic biographies of the artists behind the dreamy creations. What keeps scholars interested is Impressionism's place as a watershed moment in the history of art. Impressionism represents the culmination of the historic period styles of traditional art whose lineage can be traced directly back to the early Renaissance; at the same time, it's the first of the modern styles, leading invariably toward abstraction and beyond. This connection to modern art has been seen as Impressionism's most important quality. Lately, though, scholars and curators have become more interested in the relationship between Impressionism and the earlier styles, and that's the side of the coin on which Inspiring Impressionism comes down.

This traveling show was curated by the DAM's own Timothy Standring, the Gates Foundation curator of painting and sculpture, together with Ann Dumas, an independent curator based in London. There are any number of signature Standring devices here, notably the thematic organization of pieces — landscapes with landscapes, nudes with nudes, etc. — and the juxtapositions of different and often non-congruous styles seen cheek by jowl. Standring has used this same strategy on the sixth floor of the North Building, where I've long had problems with it. But his gimmicks work for Inspiring Impressionism, because the concept of Old Masters influencing Impressionists is not only open to his peculiar approach, it positively invites it.

There's no specific route through the unwieldy, multi-room Anschutz Gallery on level two of the Hamilton Building, but I tend to first go to the space at the left end, just off the entry, and then work my way through the rest of the spaces. (This is how I took in Radar and Artisans & Kings, the two previous shows in the Anschutz; it just seems to make sense to do it this way.) The intelligent installation of Inspiring Impressionism has been handled in such a way that viewers are forced to recognize the relationships that Standring and Dumas have laid out among several sets of separate pieces of widely different dates and from various points of origin. These comparisons inevitably lead viewers to make sensitive and insightful observations, because their conclusions have been built into the exhibit itself — not through wall-text didactics, but through the paintings or drawings.

In some cases, it's no more than a simple pairing — as with "Banquet Still Life," by Abraham van Beyeren, hanging next to Cézanne's "Still Life With Apples and Oranges." The relationship between the two paintings is broad and non-specific, with artists simply taking on similar subjects — in both pieces, fruit and serving vessels have been casually scattered across a table covered in wrinkled cloth — and doing monumental renditions of them. Though Cézanne clearly wasn't looking at the van Beyeren when he did his painting, it's also clear that van Beyeren's vantage point and even his context in the still-life tradition has been inherited by Cézanne.

The same kind of general comparison is demonstrated by a specific, and spectacular, quartet of landscape paintings hanging in the central space. On the left are two by Claude Lorrain, "The Rest on the Flight Into Egypt" and "Landscape With Cowherd Piping," both dating to the seventeenth century, and on the right, "Mont Sainte-Victoire," by Cézanne, and "Morning, Sunlight Effect, Eragny," by Camille Pissarro, from the nineteenth. In all four, the traditional conception of the landscape composition is employed, with the trees forming an ad hoc proscenium and the foreground standing in for a stage. The Cézanne, in particular, is so powerful that I was drawn directly to it by just a glimpse through a doorway, a couple of rooms away. The artist painted depictions of Mont Sainte-Victoire over and over again, and this particular version, from 1886-87, is an important one, older than most of the series. In it, Cézanne is moving away from a naturalistic perspective and toward a Cubist conception of the volumes in his picture. This approach is the first step toward abstraction, and Cézanne took it thirty years before Picasso did.

Most of the comparisons between the Old Masters and the Impressionists are done in a generalized way, with Standring and Dumas painting with a broad brush, so to speak. The newer paintings by the Impressionists are not copies or continuations of the paintings of the Old Masters, but are their aesthetic heirs. The exhibit does include some pieces that are intimately connected to each other, however, and that brings up the issue of copying.

Opposite the van Beyeren/Cézanne pairing, three paintings and a print have been hung together as a coherent group. The relationship between these four pieces begins with a School of Velázquez painting, "Meeting of Thirteen People," done in the seventeenth century by an unknown artist. In it, men with swords are arranged in an informal line across the horizontally oriented panel. Manet, as it happens, was not only a big fan of Velázquez, but, as was the custom of the time, also liked to paint copies of his paintings — or those thought to be by Velázquez. So hanging below "Meeting of Thirteen People" is Manet's copy of it, "The Little Cavaliers." Manet used this painting as the basis for a print with the same title, and that is also nearby. Now comes the pièce de résistance: Renoir's "Still Life With Bouquet," in the background of which is a depiction of Manet's print, partly obscured by the bouquet. This quartet makes a convincing case that the Impressionists did indeed look to the Old Masters, and bringing in that Renoir incorporating the Manet copy is the cherry on top.

In another example in Inspiring Impressionism, Degas paints a line-for-line reproduction of a Mantegna, a common practice of the period. These paintings were not meant to be exhibited as finished works, but rather as practice exercises for the artists, so it's interesting to see them included along with their mature pieces.

Related to this method of copying art from the past was the use of plaster casts of classical and renaissance sculpture, which stood in for people as models for paintings and sculpture. Cézanne's interest in a plaster cast he owned is highlighted in four works, all dating to the 1890s, displayed together along the back wall of the Anschutz. To the left is a showcase in which "Putto," a plaster cast of a cherub done in the seventeenth century by François Du Quesnoy, is on view; Cézanne's cast of this cherub is in his preserved studio in Aix-en-Provence, but since plaster casts, by their very nature, are done in multiples, this example from the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm is identical to it. On the wall to the right are pencil drawings of "Putto" and, next to them, "Still Life With Statuette," wherein "Putto" is set in an oil-on-canvas still life with pears, peaches and some blue drapery. In the drawings, and especially in the painting, Cézanne translates the neo-classicism of Du Quesnoy's "Putto" into his own brand of post-Impressionist abstraction. And unlike the Manet and Degas copies, these Cézannes are not rehearsal pieces. In fact, they're exemplars of his widely influential style.

It's impossible to point out all the amazing things in Inspiring Impressionism — there are over one hundred works — but I have to note the real depth here for some of the Impressionists, including Monet and Renoir as well as Cézanne. If you have any interest in understanding why so many of these artists are the standard-bearers of art history, or even if you simply like looking at great pictures, you owe it to yourself to buy a ticket for Inspiring Impressionism. I know I plan to see it again.

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