We went to the Milwaukee Art Museum Saturday, August 6th to see the current shows.
In particular, we went to see “From Rembrandt to Parmigiano: Old Masters from Private Collections.” As it is described, the paintings and drawings in this exhibition are on loan from private owners, and not normally on public display. The exhibit consists of fifty-one paintings and drawings lent by a number of collectors in the Upper Midwest, lead by local philanthropist Alfred Bader, who has just donated two additional significant pieces of 17th Century art to the Museum.
Of particular interest were the first two rooms, which concerned “history painting,” a major genre of the 16-1700’s, which includes the depiction of Biblical and mythological scenes as well as purely historical. These included works by one of Rembrandt’s teachers, Pieter Lastman; van Rijn himself; and van Rijn’s studio-mate and colleague, Jan Lievens. There were also some interesting examples of paintings “attributed to” Rembrandt, or assigned to the “circle of Rembrandt,” which means probably painted by one of Rembrandt’s assistants/students.
The exhibit very interestingly shows the evolution of new painting styles that evolved during this period, including the still-life, landscape painting, and portraiture. Interestingly, the Protestant Reformation may have had a very significant effect on the world of art. Since Dutch Protestant painters no longer had the Catholic Church to rely on as patron, they had to find subjects that would appeal to new potential customers, mainly the moneyed burghers of the Netherlands.
The later period rooms, which include more Italian artists, also show evolution of styles, such as the deliberate distortion of figure proportion used by Parmigiano in some of his paintings, and other departures from naturalistic depiction, such as the very marked chiaroscuro used in the Mannerist style.
This was a fascinating exhibit, and we were very glad to have seen it.
The other exhibition we particularly went to see was “Corot, Daubigny, Millet: Visions of France,” which consisted of a collection of forty-one prints from the museum’s collection. These were done in an early sort of photo-etching technique called cliché-verre, or “glass negative.” In this technique, a glass plate was coated with ink, and then the ink removed to create an image. The plate was then placed on photographic paper and exposed to make a contact print. This was a very quick and simple printing process, and some artists used it as a sketching medium or to preserve quick drawings.
This exhibit is taken from a collected set of prints by the artists Jean-Baptist Camille Corot, Charles-Francois Daubigny, and Jean-Francois Millet, all members of the “Barbizon School”, which preferred naturalism over romanticized subjects. The set, collected by art dealer Maurice Le Garrec in 1921, consists of rural scenes of France. The very simplicity of the medium brings the personal approaches of the artists into sharp contrast. Although all were famed landscape artists capable of very finely finished works, Corot’s prints are extremely sketchy, as though making memoranda for later. On the other hand, Daubigny’s prints are much more finished works, good enough looking to be displayed like woodcuts or etchings.
The big exhibit going on at the Museum currently is “American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood.” Benton was a 20th Century American painter and muralist associated with the Regionalist movement. The exhibit focuses on his visit to Hollywood in 1938, in which he was commissioned to create a series of paintings about the movie industry. Given broad access, he drew many sketches, some of which were eventually amplified into full-sized paintings. Many of the sketches and intermediate treatments are on display, as well as paintings from the series. The exhibit also includes a number of paintings from a series dealing with the early American Indian Wars, and other subjects.
Benton’s paintings are big, bold, and dynamic, with sharp contrasts of dark and light (rather like a modern version of the Mannerist paintings we had seen upstairs). The figures all tend to have heroic proportions, in a fashion I associate with WPA murals or Communist Propaganda, but without the typical sharp-edged drafting. Benton’s figures tend to be very blobby, for lack of a better term. His tempera painting is two-dimensional with large areas of flat color, which gives the impression that the figures were molded out of clay and then squashed onto the canvas with a rolling pin.
Historically, Benton did some very significant pieces, among them The Year of Peril, begun in 1941, which warned of the dangers of Fascism and Nazism with nightmarish images which both harked back to the propaganda posters of World War I, and pointed the way for those that would come in World War II. However, Georgie and I both agreed that Mr. Benton’s artwork was not to our taste, however significant.
After looking at the exhibits, we had lunch at the Café Calatrava, the small restaurant in the Museum. Informal, it is located on the lower level of the Calatrava Wing, and has an unrestricted view of the lake. The menu is not large, but offered a good range of choices. I had the Roasted Hanger Steak, accompanied by a salad of Romanesco, arugula, and parmigiano, with an aged balsamic dressing, that was very good. Georgie had whitefish, which was also very nice. Service was fast and friendly. We would definitely eat there again.
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