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Exploring the 'isms'

An exhibition at Sarasota's Ringling Museum provides a head-spinning trip down the divergent paths of modern art.

Published October 31, 2004

[Images from the Ringling Museum]
Pablo Picasso, The Painter, 1934, oil on canvas.
Henri Matisse, The Ostrich Feather Hat, 1918, oil on canvas.
Rene Magritte, The Tempest, 1931, oil on canvas.

Aaron De Groft, the erudite curator of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, opined on its new exhibition to a colleague recently with unscholarly directness.

"It's slammin'," he said.

"Surrealism and Modernism From the Collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art" indeed slams.

For those who visit the Ringling to see its fabulous permanent collection of Baroque art, this exhibition may sound a startling note. Modernism is, decades after it officially came to an end as a movement, still a moving target. And surrealism can be as inscrutable as tea leaves. But no one can deny the star power of the names attached to these 60 works, mostly paintings, or their individual fineness as exemplars of the artists' talents.

Arranged chronologically, the exhibition contextualizes the cultural foment from which so many "isms" arose, such as cubism, precisionism and expressionism.

It begins with The Ostrich Feather Hat, a 1918 portrait of his daughter by Henri Matisse, one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. Representational it is, though the reality that most interested Matisse was the surface of the canvas and the process of material representation - blotches of paint swabbed on to simulate the chair's fabric, scratches etched into the black surface to make the plaid on Marguerite's dress. The orientation of the figure and chair is off, too. Matisse plays with depth perception. On a flat plane, the woman's upper torso is upright, but she and the chair seem to slide toward the bottom of the painting. Not one of his greatest works, it still carries the hallmarks that made Matisse an innovator.

Landscapes by Maurice de Vlaminck and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner illustrate the different routes artists navigated toward modernism. Kirchner, more dramatically than Matisse, distorts the perspective of Suburb of Berlin and chooses a palette of earthy tones for the buildings mixed with startling blues and greens for the intersecting streets, empty but for two figures. Surrounded by trees painted with strident brush strokes, walking on surfaces that look like a flowing river about to overrun its banks, the figures seem lost and rootless, about to be overwhelmed rather than enjoying a bucolic stroll. Vlaminck, in River Scene With Bridge, builds up thick layers of bright paint, a throwback to impressionists, but the scene is one of turmoil, of industry and commerce: a steamboat belching fumes as a railway bridge cuts across the middle ground.

Ten years later, Georgia O'Keeffe literally stands perspective on its head with The Lawrence Tree, limbs and leaves spiraling like interplanetary gasses up toward a star-pocked sky, the trunk thrusting up with a sexual charge.

Henri Rousseau's Landscape at Pontoise, by comparison, could be viewed as a gentle idyll, a naive painting of a village, with a broad road in the foreground leading the eye past stone walls into the distant forest. But what's with the enormous street lamp dwarfing the tiny figures and the slightly sinister look of the farmhouse?

Cut to Giorgio de Chirico and you see where all this is going, distortion as a product of the irrational and the unconscious. Yep, surrealism, which was on a parallel run with modernism.

De Chirico's visions are scary. In The General's Illness, a wall propped up by a thin brace is at odds with a sturdy but menacing building facade, and in the equally cryptic Endless Voyage, a classical statue is defaced, the head of the Apollo Belvedere lying in the foreground, eyes staring blankly up, and Renaissance towers are framed in what could be a mirror, a painting within a painting or a window view.

What you understand with all this swerving between artistic impulses is that none of them was incubated in a vacuum. Pablo Picasso and Piet Mondrian may have been "isms" apart from Max Ernst and Salvador Dali, but all were well aware of the others. And all were mightily affected by the social and political unrest that swirled around them, channeling their anxiety and angst in new forms of creative expression.

The exhibition counts among its show stoppers five Picassos scattered through the galleries according to their dates like tropes marking the milestones of 20th century art.

The Bather, often reproduced, is unexpectedly small, a mere 7 inches by 5 inches, more or less. Its size belies the monumentality of the figure, sturdy except for the proportionately tiny head, obviously a woman but painted with hirsute brush strokes. The postioning of her white wrap, suggestively phallic, echoes the pose of the more conventional woman of Maurice Prendergast's Red-Headed Nude painted 10 years earlier, but Picasso's nude looks more ahead, to his fulsome embrace of old and new references that we see in the magnificent The Painter, an orgiastic celebration of woman as creative force and inspiration.

Abstraction was growing in dominance, too, and who better to represent it than Mondrian? Please resist the urge to make some comment, when viewing Composition in Blue and White, about a 5-year-old being able to paint like that. True, its rigorous geometry could be considered simple rather than elegant and intellectual. Take a close look and appreciate the precision of its composition, narrow black bands intersecting slightly broader horizontals dividing the space into unequal boxes and the jolt of blue that shifts the balance. One can see how its refusal to consider any other certainty than the truth of geometric composition would infuriate a painter like Dali (who famously overused the quip "Piet, nyet").

Dali is the most famous surrealist and is represented by three works, all completed in the 1930s. Two, La Solitude and Paranoic-astral Image, are the small, jewellike paintings of that period that are considered by many to be among his finest. A more complex and famous one is Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish, a triumph of optical illusions and loaded with iconography.

But other notable surrealists hold their own. Yves Tanguy's brooding landscapes yield to Ernst's Europe After the Rain, its panoramic devastation made more fantastical by his technique of applying paint with glass, and to Roberto Matta's disturbing Prescience, which, for all its bright colors, looks more nightmare than dream.

Mondrian was retreating from the horrors of World War II with his cerebral abstractions; the surrealists were internalizing them, casting them as scenarios filtered, even warped, by their imaginations.

Enter abstract expressionism, something of a hybrid. A 1942 self-portrait by Willem de Kooning is utterly different from his later action paintings but prefigures those muscular figurations. Jackson Pollock's beautiful Number 9, 1949 is a dense labyrinth of drips, alive with rich texture and color contrasts. Mark Rothko's Untitled is its counterpoint, its paint soaked into the canvas with nuance.

Peter Blume and Stanley Spencer were postwar realists who rejected abstract expressionism and its attempt to universalize emotional response. Instead, they were interested in small moments of personal observation. But what moments. Spencer's interior of a Christian Science reading room, presumably a place of contemplation, is frenetic in its minutiae. A vase of flowers erupts from a table and patterns are sliced and diced in the floor, chair cushions and fabric of the wearer's clothes.

By the time you reach the show's conclusion with The Artist, a 1963 painting by Picasso, your head might be spinning. Like the earlier Painter, it depicts the artist at his easel, but the woman is gone and so is the voyeuristic role of the artist. This time around, we don't see the subject of his work, only the haunted, intense stare of the man trying to get it right on canvas. It is, like most other works here, a self-conscious take on the nature of art, a pose that defined much of the century. What happens here stays here, the painting says to us, in the way the artificial canvas is carefully angled to prevent us from peeking at the artist's subject. All we're seeing is pigment on canvas, it suggests. Beyond that, everything, including interpretation, is up for grabs.

For a really big look at modern art, you should visit New York's Museum of Modern Art when it reopens in November. But this exhibition is an ambitious primer. Its gallery walls have been painted in muted, indeterminate tones of gray, brown and mustard that play like background music to a lively conversation. The arrangements of the disparate styles further that sense of dialogue. The exhibition also contains a complement of sculpture, bronzes by Henry Moore, Aristide Maillol and Marino Marini, and a small Alexander Calder work.

The Ringling does its usual excellent job in leading us down these divergent paths with thorough wall texts and videos in each gallery providing short summaries of world events concurrent with the art. (If you think we live in anxiety-inducing times now, try living through two world wars, economic depressions and the atomic bomb.) A catalog from the Wadsworth is available, with a highly readable essay by Paul Paret, an art history professor at the University of Utah.

A small but important display is set up honoring A. Everett "Chick" Austin Jr., the brilliant director of the Wadsworth in the 1920s through the mid 1940s, who is credited with bringing modern art to the United States. Austin was the first to exhibit the surrealists and other 20th century artists considered avant-garde, and held the most comprehensive retrospective of Picasso of its time. He was aggressive in purchasing modern works for the Wadsworth, in Hartford, Conn. When he was recruited to be the Ringling's director in 1946 by Millard Caldwell, governor of Florida, he borrowed a number of the modern works for a 1948 exhibition in Sarasota. His taste was as controversial in Florida as it had been in Connecticut, where one critic had dubbed a modern art exhibition "framed mess." A headline in the Tampa Morning Tribune stated, "This Is The Kind Of Thing That Gives Art A Bad Name."

All I can add is thank goodness for bad boys like Austin.

- Lennie Bennett can be reached at 727 893-8293 or


"Surrealism and Modernism From the Collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art" is at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, 5401 Bayshore Road, Sarasota, through Jan. 9. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. Adults, $15; seniors, $12; free to children 12 and younger and Florida students and teachers with ID. Admission includes Ca d'Zan, the Ringlings' historic mansion, the grounds and the circus museum. (941) 351-1660.

[Last modified October 28, 2004, 14:56:12]

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