Los Angeles

Cézanne, Seurat, Signac, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Moreau, Redon, Ensor, Picasso, Serusier, Jarry, Bonnard, Vuillard, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Kandinsky, Klee, Jawlensky and Kokoschka

UCLA Art Galleries

The fin de siecle period and the years preceding World War I have become a myth-ridden time of heresiarchs for us now. The quickened sense of experimentation and the various conjugations of stylistic originality in those decades remind one a bit of our own age, though catastrophic world events and the development of a nouveau-riche, art-adoring public have succeeded in antiquing the early heroic vision of the role of art and the artist’s life that accompanied the pre-Great War movements. In retrospect, “la belle époque,” for all its romantic and anarchic posturings, its Pateresque self-awarenesses, and its assumed sophistications, seems an innocent enough beginning, startling primarily in the complete way it previewed the major innovations in attitude, doctrine, and form now embodied in the term “modern art.”

The esthetic complexities of these “Years of Ferment” (1886-1914) are currently organized and documented in a handsomely installed and educationally-oriented exhibit assembled by Henri Dorra and the UCLA Art Council; the exhibit concerns itself essentially with four major movements: Pont-Aven and the Nabis, the Fauves, Cubism, and Expressionism. A smaller introductory section presents the “predecessors” Cézanne, Seurat (in reproduction), Signac, Gauguin and Van Gogh; some instances of Art Nouveau; and “Romantic Symbolism” in works by Moreau, Redon, and Ensor. The emphasis is scholarly and historical (a mood enhanced by a thorough catalog containing a survey of the period and a handy bibliography), rather than exploratory or doctrinaire. Certain omissions suggest the solid conventionality of approach. Monet, for example, in recent years exhumed from Cézanne-inspired deprecation and considered by some as a crucial influence for 20th century color and picture surface organization, is not here included. Futurism, Suprematism, and Constructivism, all born before 1914 and all relating meaningfully to subsequent abstract developments, are also absent, though examples might have underscored the formal innovations of the pre-war years and presented an even more radical picture of the period than appears in this selection. But in spite of these lacks and in spite of the need (why?) to make do with a limited number of major works and quite a few reproductions in order to fulfill its expository purpose, the show nevertheless manages to convey the nature of the transition to 20th century modes; by using a cluster arrangement for drama and easy comparisons (though occasionally this presents problems for viewers under six feet tall) and an anthology of posted quotations for theoretical or anecdotal background (the comments are often interestingly revelatory about the people who made them rather than strictly enlightening about the works), the organizers of the exhibit evoke the feeling of the artistic excitements of the time and make available a number of interesting, not often seen works.

Two axiomatic modernist notions the exhibit can be interpreted to document are the new autonomy of the picture plane, a “reality” unto itself responsible only to laws of pictorial necessity, and the coexistent but not always compatible idea of the painting as arena for subjective exploration and symbolic expression. Even in the scientism of Seurat and the plein-air researches of Cézanne, sensuously (optically) perceived data are already growing irrelevant, though optical effects and the nature of the forms found in objective phenomena are not. The Post-Impressionist-Fauve-African Mask-Analytic Cubist-Synthetic Cubist-Orphist line is traceable from two small but luminous later Cézanne paintings, one of Mont Sainte-Victoire and the other a “Bathers” c. 1900, through a Delaunay, “Les Fenetres,” and contains a number of examples from historically critical moments in modern painting: e.g., Matisse at Collioure in 1905, a pale Braque landscape just edging on an abstract vision from the summer of 1909, two suitable Picassos vintage 1911 and 1912 Cubist, and a 1916 Synthetic Cubist Gris (a little out of the period). The Symbolist to Expressionist line, or the monumental shift from an objective to a subjective focus, is, however, more passionately displayed here and less conventionally exemplified. There are, for instance, a refreshing number of small, lesser known, but individually distinguished and well-chosen works in this group; one might mention an intricate Moreau watercolor, the entire Nabis group (containing, among other works, the historically important Serusier “Landscape at the Bois d’Amour,” the anecdotally valuable Jarry lithographs, the document-ally significant Bonnard poster, and the stylistically surprising Vuillard “Two Women at a Closet”), and various instances of Expressionism. Though the “Transition” or proto-Expressionist section is thin, it does contain a handsome painting by the often omitted Paula Modersohn-Becker; among the Expressionists there are a spectrum of Kandinsky styles represented, some exquisite Klees, a sprightly Jawlensky girl, and, finally, a brilliant 1911 Kokoschka portrait of Egon Wellesz.

Nancy Marmer