Been there, seen it (or so I thought)

I write this post with full awareness of my snobbery and privilege, though I know that doesn’t necessarily make it okay. Nonetheless, I can only write from my own point of view.

There is much excitement over the Portland Museum of Art’s exhibition The William S. Paley Collection: A Taste for Modernism. And if you are a long-time Mainer, which I am not, there is good reason. This is a collection of works of art from MoMA, including works by Picasso, Matisse, Miro, Gauguin, Cezanne, and more—the much-touted highlight being Picasso’s Boy with a Horse. Works by these artists are scarce in Maine collections and exhibitions, including at my own institution, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, which boasts the most encyclopedic collection in Maine (though I believe Portland has us beat in the area of European modernism).

I was less enthused, because I assumed (somewhat incorrectly) that as a New York native and MoMA frequenter from a young age, I’d seen most of these works or comparable examples before. In point of fact, I’d only seen Boy with a Horse, perhaps one other Picasso, and a few Francis Bacon pieces before. And there’s a reason I hadn’t seen most of them on view at MoMA previously; compared to that institution’s riches, these are relatively minor examples. But in fact, it was the more “minor” pieces I enjoyed the most – specifically, the smaller works. A beautiful little Miro painting, small cubist sketches by Picasso, Braque and Juan Gris, small scale sculptures by Rodin (models for the Burghers of Calais—the Met has the full-scale version), Aristide Maillol,  and even Gaston Lachaise, who I normally abhor. There was an Édouard Vuillard of the type that I like (I wrote previously about my attraction to his small, intimate scenes dominated by patterned effects, but that I was less impressed by the rest of his oeuvre, on view in a retrospective of his work at the Jewish Museum).

I sometimes go to museums with people who know less about art than I do, and I get to enjoy playing tour-guide and teacher. In this case, I was with a coworker and it was a different kind of experience to talk about the works in front of us while sharing the same knowledge base. In either type of encounter, looking at a work through someone else’s eyes can be an enlightening experience – it might not change your opinion, but it can cause you to look closer. I profess far less interest in Cezanne than most art historians and artists have–which is practically apostasy–but my colleague’s love for him caused me to look closer, to try to understand, through observation, what everyone sees as so important and game-changing in his work. Ditto Boy with the Horse; we’d both seen it before, and I was ready to pretty much walk right by it, but because of her desire to look at it with fresh eyes, I did the same, and we had an interesting conversation about its composition.

The Portland Museum’s main temporary exhibition space–to the right as you walk in the door–is very oddly arranged, and neither of us would want the challenge of curating in it. Because of its quirks – narrow passages here, narrow tall wall there, nook here, nook there – options are limited, leaving little room for creativity. Small works must go here, large works there. There’s not enough room for temporary walls that would significantly alter the space, and after all what they need is more open space, not less. I believe the PMA curators do a great job with what they’re given, but it’s certainly too bad they don’t have more options. This hanging was relatively straightforward, no bells and whistles. Ditto with their publicity around this show – not only are they trying to let the artwork speak for itself, but they seem to be letting it be its own draw. If you care about art and are in the Maine area, you are already planning to see this show. They don’t need to sell it it to you.

We were specifically informed by the ticket taker (the exhibition cost extra) that we could take photographs, as long as we didn’t use flash. I normally don’t like taking pictures in museums–photographing the work can be an easy excuse to forget to look at it while its in front of you–but nonetheless I took advantage, and will share pictures of the works in the show that most caught my eye.

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One thought on “Been there, seen it (or so I thought)

  1. We had the Paley collection through a few years back and my impressions pretty much echo yours. The smaller, more esoteric works were more appealing than the big deal stuff, because the big deal stuff seemed to be chiefly minor works or studies. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but what it pointed up to me was that the stuff the AKG has, or the stuff I’ve seen in other museums. In a way it reminded me of the Smith collection.

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