As part of the big fall unveiling of the new Renzo Piano Pavilion, the Kimbell Art Museum borrowed a floor’s worth of modern European art from the Art Institute of Chicago.
The paintings and sculptures usually reside on the top floor of Piano’s modern wing at the Art Institute. So while there are tweaks and tightenings going on inside the Chicago building, the art is coming to Fort Worth.
Having “The Age of Picasso and Matisse: Modern Masters From the Art Institute of Chicago” is one of those great opportunities to see some of the best Chicago has to offer without having to go there. Not that there is anything painful about going to Chicago. It’s just that now you can check one floor of the Art Institute off your bucket list and sub in the boat tour of Chicago architecture or the Frank Lloyd Wright walking tour of Oak Park.
In the early part of the 20th century, Chicago had an adventurous group of collectors who bequeathed their holdings to the institute. Easily more than half of this group of nearly 100 pieces at the Kimbell came from those collections, says George T. M. Shackelford, the Kimbell’s deputy director.
The fact that they were chosen by individuals, not curators at the institute, is worth noting, as the collection of early-20th-century art is considered one of the world’s best.
The Art Institute owes thanks to Frederic and Helen Bartlett, who bought Pablo Picasso’s The Old Guitarist (1903), from his blue period. After Helen’s death in 1925, Frederic donated their collection in her memory, making it the first Picasso to enter an American museum collection.
A Chicago developer, Joseph R. Shapiro, and his wife, Jory, were avid collectors of surrealist works. Their gifts to the museum included Salvador Dali’s A Chemist Lifting With Extreme Precaution the Cuticle of a Grand Piano (1936), and Visions of Eternity (1936-37). Other collectors added Yves Tanguy’s The Rapidity of Sleep (1945) and Man Ray’s Chess Set (1927), giving the Art Institute an enviable trove of surrealist works.
It is donations such as these that provided the foundation of the collection, and further cash donations by benefactors allowed the institute to buy pieces such as Matisse’s Bathers by a River. This enormous painting anchors the exhibition at the Kimbell, on its far south wall. It is the first thing the visitor sees upon entering the galleries.
There are groupings of Picasso’s and Matisse’s early paintings to the left, Picasso and Matisse at the halfway point, and Picasso and Matisse at the end. There is never any doubt who the engines of 20th-century art were. From fauvism through cubism to abstraction, it was the powerhouse figures of Picasso and Matisse.
There are 10 pieces by each artist in the exhibition.
There have been many sightings of Picasso and Matisse works in recent years, so it is the supporting cast of Marc Chagall, Joan Miró, Vasily Kandinsky, Giorgio de Chirico, Paul Klee, Fernand Léger and Constantin Brâncusi, who steal this show.
The riot of lines and brilliant colors of Miro, Kandinsky and Klee, set against the more somber spiritual works of de Chirico and Chagall, are a richly moving voyage of joy and introspection. The pacing is artfully negotiated by Shackelford, who positions artworks so they fairly glow.
The brilliant colors of the fauves are dazzling, and it will be a shame to have to return these pieces, in particular.
As with any exhibition of well-publicized art works, their size is often shocking. They are recognized from postcards, books and art history slide screens, but it is always a surprise to see how small Salvador Dali worked and how large Matisse paintings can be.
Just as many of the cubist works seems drab in reproduction, their surfaces are always much more interesting when seen firsthand.
Early-20th-century European art is a rarity in North Texas. Currently we are awash in it, as the Nasher Sculpture Center is exhibiting many terra-cotta works by Miró and Picasso in the exhibit “Return to Earth.”
While they are here, it is definitely one of those advantageous moments to see art that rarely travels, so you don’t have to.