A show at the Ringling Museum traces how changes in art can change our notions of reality.
SARASOTA - Let's get the coatrack out of the way first. Which is what Marcel Duchamp wanted to do when it came off his wall and he nailed it to his studio floor after tripping over it repeatedly in 1917. Now it's on the floor of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art (not the original rack, actually, but another one he made in 1964). There will be those who come upon it at the end of the Ringling's terrific new exhibition, after seeing the more traditional art, and stare at it in bewilderment or dismissal.
You find it after walking through galleries of beautiful 19th-century figurative art, after the Edward Hopper landscape, the Edouard Vuillard pastel interior, the George Grosz sketches and watercolors, and you would be right to ask, "Is it art?"
You're allowed not to like it.
But you'll appreciate it as inhabiting the same aesthetic universe as Rosa Bonheur's magnificent Ploughing in Nivernais, which starts out the exhibition, if you understand it.
The coatrack - official name Trebuchet (trap) - is one of several examples on view of Duchamp's "readymades," found objects simply displayed or put together with other objects, officially part of the Dada movement and among the first of what we now call conceptual or idea-driven art.
It fits into the organizing principle of "Rosa Bonheur to Marcel Duchamp: Highlights From the Ringling's Collection of 19th and Early 20th Century Art," a study of art and reality that leads the viewer through the shift from art that imitates reality to art that changes reality. Or in the case of Duchamp and his readymades, thumbs his nose at it. The concept goes that when you take the coatrack off the wall and put it on the floor, you change it in a fundamental way. You also change your perception of it. That in turn changes the way you look at the world.
If that is too annoyingly metaphysical, retreat to the gallery just before it and look at the paintings Duchamp made before he decided conventional art was irrelevant. You'll see that the guy could paint first-rate conventional art with the best of his peers but chose not to, as many great artists have done.
To get to Duchamp, you have to go back to the beginning of the exhibition, to Bonheur, another unconventional, wildly talented character.
Her success working in an almost exclusively male club of academic painters in 19th century France is enough to set her apart, but her subject matter was equally unexpected. Rather than portraits and genre paintings of elegant interiors, she chose to paint animals.
The monumentality of Ploughing hits you in the stomach. It is hung very low in the opening gallery on a wall by itself. A line of cattle plows up dirt so richly detailed you can almost smell its loaminess. Bonheur divides her canvas in half horizontally, angles of dark fields and hills below and cumulus clouds banking up into the blue sky above. A white cow, dead center, turns and looks at us as its handsome master, dwarfed by the animal, raises his staff at yet another angle. It has the same complex composition and movement as Winslow Homer's Crack the Whip. A historical note: This is not the first Ploughing. That one, painted in 1849, was a government commission that hangs in the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. The one John Ringling bought was a copy she made a year later for an English lord, an accepted practice in Bonheur's time.
On an adjoining wall hangs her A Family of Deer, a lovely but lesser work. It's instructive in its own way, though, because it's in the middle of a conservation effort and viewers can see how the process works, with half the canvas already worked over, the other half still yellowing and grimy with sections of damaged canvas.
One of the points made throughout the galleries is that John Ringling did not collect just baroque and Old Master art as is commonly assumed. His bequests are the backbone of the exhibition and show his interest in more current artists, especially Americans.
Two paintings by Alfred Stevens dominate the next gallery, one a huge group portrait of notable 19th-century Parisians and the other, a small masterpiece, Eva Gonzales at the Piano. They almost, but don't quite, overshadow Julia Margaret Cameron's haunting photograph of Thomas Carlyle and the quietly brilliant painting, Two Algerian Girls Selling Melons, by Paul Delamain, whose fascination with Orientalism mirrored Delacroix's.
The next gallery is a transitional one, leading the viewer from 19th-century realism to the stirrings of Impressionism. It's probably the least focused part of the show, a small but pretty good survey of important names. Impressionism is given short shrift by the Ringling probably because, by the time he began collecting, Ringling found that body of work too expensive. Too, its lack of drama and monumentality probably didn't appeal to him the way the Old Masters did. So we only get intimations of its importance in Childe Hassam's watercolor, Rainy Day on Fifth Avenue, with its exquisite slashes of brushwork, and the loosely worked sky and the way light falls upon bare trees in Jean Baptiste Edouard Detaille's French Artillery.
The large back gallery is reserved for the emergence of American artists as an independent force in the art world, unashamed of their New World sensibilities. Front and center is Reginald Marsh's Wonderland Circus, Sideshow, Coney Island, painted in 1930, a raucous scene of humanity that for all its brightness has the disturbing seediness of a Nathaniel West novel.
You're supposed to swing around and notice that Albert Bierstadt is represented by two small paintings that in scale have the same narrative grandeur of his better known, huge canvases of the American West. And there are a pair of Frederic Remington paintings of frontiersmen, in monochromatic blacks and grays, with the kind of dimension that indicates he thought as a sculptor even when he took up a brush.
The German Expressionists take up a small wall, not American but placed so that you may compare them to their American contemporaries such as Thomas Hart Benton, who shared stylistic elements such as form and color but were vastly different in intent. Benton waxed nostalgic over the glories of American tradition and enterprise; the Germans, such as Max Beckmann, were biting and satirical.
You'll probably first be drawn to the back corner where the later, larger and electrifying Salome by Robert Henri hangs, gloriously dark and evocative, invoking both Goya and Sargent, swept by bold, obvious brush strokes and proud of it.
Hung in a row are pivotal mid 20th century artists - Benton, Hopper and George Luks. They aren't the best of their best, but the Hopper watercolor of a farmhouse embodies all the loneliness, isolation and detachment of his more famous paintings.
At this point, you still have a lot more to see. Just for starters, the Vuillard mentioned earlier. A Maurice Utrillo cityscape, flattened and washed out probably the way the alcoholic painter felt much of the time. One of Kathe Kollwitz's etchings, After the Battle, a wrenching and grief-soaked homage to her son, killed in World War I.
And so much more. Bronze sculptures act as punctuation marks throughout the galleries - Jean Baptiste Carpeaux's Negress; Study for Africa reiterating Delamain's fascination with the exotic, and Gaston Lachaise's larger-than-life Elevation (Standing Woman), a massive affirmation of modernism, for example.
With so many ideas ricocheting against each other, this is an exhibition that takes time to be seen. The low lighting takes some adjustment, but it's necessary to protect fragile works on paper that won't be pulled out of storage again for at least five years. The dimness is an opportunity to lean in close and study the different painterly effects which, as assistant curator Joanna Weber points out, is the only way to tell a good painting from a great one.
And then you get back to the Duchamps. The accomplished paintings, the difficult conceptual work. You may be too saturated by that time to think much more than: Whatever. What you've been led to, if you'll allow yourself the conclusion, is: What else but?
- Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
"Rosa Bonheur to Marcel Duchamp: Highlights From the Ringling's Collection of 19th and Early 20th Century Art" is at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota, through Oct. 5. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission is $15 and includes the Circus Museum, Ca d'Zan, the Ringlings' historic mansion, and the grounds. (941) 359-5700.