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MFA Brings Together 20th Century Gems

...Degas to Picasso... Exhibit Features a Wide Range of Fascinating Pieces

By Jacqueline O’Connor

Degas to Picasso: Modern Masters

Boston Museum of Fine Arts

465 Huntington Avenue, Boston

Torf Gallery, Trustman Galleries, Lower Rotunda

On view until July 23, 2006

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts has brought together another stunning collection, this time featuring over 280 works in three galleries of timeless twentieth century art. Ranging from paintings to photographs to sculptures, the items in the exhibit show the true uniqueness and breadth of art from the last century. The Museum describes the exhibit: “While Bostonians were known for their bold and progressive taste in the last decades of the nineteenth century, the city was slow to embrace the new art of the twentieth century. That hesitation resulted in serious gaps in the Museum’s collections — gaps that curators and collectors have sought to fill in recent decades.”

The diversity of the art in this exhibit makes it one of the finest the MFA has shown in recent years. It boasts legendary artists such as Degas, Picasso, Braque, and Dali, while showing work from a variety of smaller, yet still important artists of the period such as photographer Man Ray, and painters Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, Andre Dorain, Alexander Calder, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Unlike the art in other exhibits, which tend to focus on one style, each of these 280 pieces is drastically different from the ones around it, creating a refreshing and fun experience for the viewer. Three works in particular show the breadth of this exhibit. While there are many more, these stood out as particularly interesting pieces that deserved highlighting.

The first is Pablo Picasso’s “The Bull – Lithograph in Six States,” housed at the entrance to the exhibit in the Lower Rotunda. This work, done between 1945 and 1946, shows the creation of a drawing and the progression of the artist’s conception of the animal subject. Six lithographs in simple metal frames hang on the wall, three above three.

The observer’s attention is immediately pulled to the drawing on the bottom right, which depicts the bull in the simplest manner. Purely geometric, the bull has a small circle for a head with two large curves for horns. Although drawn in twelve lines at most, the figure perfectly depicts the animal. The second in the series starts to show the hallmark signs of its creator. The figure is now composed of smaller geometric shapes as finer features such as eyes and a mouth appear. The third image shows a significant jump from the first two. Picasso introduces different levels of shading, and though the legs and body outline remain geometrical, the horns take a more fluid and realistic turn. Next comes the image on the top right. Two of the formerly line-drawn legs have become more realistic and though more shading is present, the form of the animal stays the same. Finally, image five has a new depiction of the animal’s form, as if Picasso changed his opinion of the shape of a bull. Though the geometrical lines are still visible through the shading, the entire bull has more mass and presence. The final image is the fully three-dimensional drawing of a rather large bull. The geometrical elements that went into the creation of this piece are barely visible, and the bull appears tired and worn. This series was truly fascinating and provided an interesting baseline with which to observe the rest of the exhibit.

Beyond the Lower Rotunda, the Torf Gallery hosts an example of classic impressionism. “Lighthouse Walk at Biarritz” by Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida is a 1906 painting that shows the perfect grace and fluidity artists of the time period mastered. In this magnificent seascape, a girl wearing a bright-red jacket is accompanied by four elegant women in white dresses. The small party walks along a grassy bluff above a lighted blue and purple ocean. Despite the beauty of the scenery, only the young girl gazes out over the ocean, while the four ladies engage in discussion or stare out of the painting. The sun is low as the shadows stretch out of the painting, and the tide seems to flow back out to sea. The stark contrast between the almost Cubist works in the opening of the show and this classical impressionist painting keeps the viewer on his toes.

The exhibit ranges from the fascinating, to the gorgeous, to the just plain weird. Alexander Calder’s pair of drawings “The Lion Cage” (1930-1939) and “Woman on Flying Trapeze” (1931) looks like part of a third grade art project. Using pen and yellow and pink crayons, Calder invokes the fun and oddity of the circus. “The Lion Cage” depicts four lions basking in the boredom of their cage (Calder goes as far as to picture one of the lions in the ‘play dead’ position), and only one lion sits alert, looking out of the picture at the viewer. The tamer stands to the left as a boy and his father watch the now docile creatures. The other drawing shows a man holding a rope and observing a nude woman hanging by her knees from a trapeze, her arms and hair flying wildly as she swings. The artist does not respect the sanctity of opaqueness in either of these images; the edge of the circus ring is clearly visible through the body of the man in the circus ring.

This exhibit has something for everyone: attendees ranged from five to 95 years old and all seemed capable of finding something interesting. Experiencing these many styles of art, not just the famous Cubist and Impressionist movements, is well worth the trip to the MFA.