The Brooklyn Museum's holdings of European Old Master and modern paintings have grown in equal measure over the past century, with a parallel commitment to the presentation of both collections since the institution's opening exhibition in 1987. The ambitious and prescient collecting practices of the Museum's earliest and most influential trustees and benefactors—A. Augustus Healy and Frank L. Babbott—significantly contributed to the development of these two core collections in the first quarter of the twentieth century. While Babbott concentrated his interests on Italian masters of the early Renaissance, Healy marked both collections with gifts and bequests by artists as varied and important as Sano di Pietro and Claude Monet. With the landmark 1921 exhibition Modern French Masters including the Post-Impressionists and Their Predecessors, the Museum embarked on a decade-long campaign to present and collect avant-garde European art long before many of its counterpart institutions.
Although the collection of European paintings has often been presented in a chronological arrangement by school or style, this installation exploits the architecture of the soaring Beaux-Arts Court by devoting each wall to an exploration of the meaningful connections that the works display when arranged according to theme. The section called "Painting Land and Sea" surveys the formal methods that painters have used to render their physical surroundings across the centuries. "Art and Devotion" considers the ways in which the artists of the early Renaissance expressed the central tenets of the Catholic faith. “Russian Modern” explores the rich artistic exchange between Russia and Western Europe in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Finally, "Tracing the Figure" charts the enduring artistic interest in the human figure, from portraits that place an individual in a clearly defined place and time to timeless abstractions of the human form.
Painting Land and Sea
For centuries, landscape painters took to the countryside with their sketchbooks, coming back with a catalogue of natural and architectural motifs that they would later integrate into highly idealized scenes conceived and executed in the studio. In the late eighteenth century, artists traded their quills and inks for paint boxes and brushes, adding the critical element of color to their on-site studies of transient natural effects. Theorists of the open-air sketch urged their fellow artists to record the essentials of the subject in a matter of minutes—at most, an hour or two—resulting in an improvisational shorthand that conveys form, color, and texture as they appeared at a specific moment in time. Once back in the studio, these shorthand images aided the artist’s memory in making large-scale studio works. Such sketches received little art-historical attention and entered museum collections only in the late twentieth century. The landscape sketches on view on this wall that were painted directly from nature reveal the immediacy and freshness that have become the hallmarks of the open-air study.
From the 1830s to the 1870s, the artists of the Barbizon School took the improvisational touch of open-air painting and turned it into something monumental, in finished exhibition pictures of the pastoral landscape in and around the Fontainebleau Forest, just outside Paris. Their heirs—Impressionists such as Claude Monet—likewise applied the aesthetic of the instantaneous, and a daring new palette, to highly calculated images of the landscape.
Houses of Parliament, Sunlight Effect, by Claude Monet, stands as the very model of this blend of the impromptu and the deliberate. After selecting his subject, Monet positioned himself before it over a series of days, if not months, substituting one canvas for another as dictated by changing lighting and atmospheric effects, ultimately producing a series of works devoted to the same motif under different conditions. Unlike the open-air painters of previous generations, who used their oil studies to create new studio works, Monet reworked the sketch itself to create the final painting.
Narratives Large and Small
For centuries, European artists painted narrative subjects to instruct viewers with powerful lessons about sacrifice, patriotism, honor, and heroism. Prime subject matter for these moralizing images included the Passion of Christ, the noble acts and treacheries of historical figures, and the trials and triumphs of literary protagonists. Trying to endow their static medium with the dramatic intensity of the tale, painters faced the challenge of distilling a complicated narrative into a single telling moment or a very limited series of incidents.
Artists used various strategies to meet this challenge. A painter’s compositional decisions about the size and location of figures provide valuable clues to the relative importance of players in the scene, while gestures, poses, and facial expressions encapsulate the emotional interplay within the story. Careful attention to costumes and furnishings enhances the veracity of the painted narrative and draws the viewer into events as they unfold.
Other devices also further the interests of storytelling. The use of allegory in a painting can add layers of abstract concepts onto a seemingly straightforward tale, or explain the workings of the natural world by means of personification, making individual characters or objects in a story stand for broader concepts or categories. In addition, pendants—pairs of related images—allow painters to address complementary events. In a single-figure composition, the drama and complexity of a larger event may be conveyed through the expressive medium of the human body. By paying meticulous attention to period detail, painters could conjure the historical memory of their regions or countries and galvanize national spirit in the present.
During the nineteenth century modern painters began to flout the traditional instructive intentions of narrative painting in order to explore and monumentalize the workaday events of daily life.
Art and Devotion
On this wall, we present a small group of panel paintings, most from the fifteenth century, or quattrocento, a term that refers broadly to the early Renaissance in Italy. With their religious subjects, these paintings exhibit an elegant sense of tension between the earthly and the eternal. The use of perspective to depict the three-dimensional world of the here and now can be seen as the first glimmering of the Renaissance, while the gold backgrounds are vestiges of the medieval evocation of an eternal otherworldly realm.
The majority of the pictures here were painted in either Florence or Siena, the two great centers of early Italian Renaissance painting. Florence was known for the monumental style pioneered by the fourteenth-century master Giotto (1276–1337), while Siena’s artists distinguished themselves with the delicacy of their lyrical and sinuous lines. Two small pictures of the Madonna and Child are Flemish and represent the Northern approach to this theme, with their attention to crisp detail.
The way we look at these pictures in our time and in the context of the museum—as objects of delectation and study—differs dramatically from the experience of Renaissance viewers who gazed on them in a church or private chapel and understood them to be imbued with spiritual power. Not only the Christian symbolism of the works, but also the frontal orientation of the holy subjects—toward the viewer—were intended to prompt spiritual meditation. The saints’ gestures of reverence, Mary’s compassion for her son, and the bravery of martyrs offered powerful visual models of piety for the faithful to follow. In addition, the careful rendering of the figures heightened the sense of veneration, as did the use of precious materials.
In 1906 at the Paris Salon d'Automne the great impresario Sergei Diaghilev introduced the whole of Russian Art—from icon painting to Symbolism—to the West. In the following decade, many artists represented in Diaghilev's survey were displaced from their homeland by political upheaval; some settled in New York and helped make the city the center of modern art. "Russian Modern" presents a selection of official and avant-garde Russian painting from the Museum's permanent collection as a tribute to Russia's important role in defining modern art across Europe and America. The works on view here range from small cabinet pictures of Russian peasant life to large-scale pacifist paintings of the Russo-Turkish War, from fractured landscapes of Crimea and the Ukraine to classicizing figure painting from the years between the two World Wars.
The Brooklyn Museum acquired its first modern Russian paintings—Vasily Vereshchagin's two war canvases, on view here for the first time in more than eighty years—in 1906 and continued promoting Russian art through the 1920s with solo exhibitions on Boris Anisfeld (1918) and Aleksandr Yakovlev (1923), a major survey of contemporary Russian art (1923), and the groundbreaking International Exhibition of Modern Art (1926), organized by, among others, Wassily Kandinsky.
Tracing the Figure
The portraits on this wall offer a range of encounters—intimidating, puzzling, or enchanting—with military heroes, fashionable sophisticates, cabaret performers, and alluring peasant girls, as well as anonymous figures who are virtually abstractions.
In addition to recording the sitter’s physical appearance, portraits reveal the pictorial means with which artists and their patrons jointly forged visual identities through decisions about facial expression, bodily gesture, costume, accessories, and setting. Those visual clues can be easily manipulated with imagination and a skilled hand. For example, full-length, “grand manner” portraits, with their sweeping gestures and stiff formality, announce the presence of an important figure, while more intimately conceived images may provide insight into the sitter’s private persona. Significantly, too, the fashions and postures of a particular moment in society can quite literally “shape” the silhouette of a sitter’s body.
While some artists exploited physiognomy, setting, and dress in ways that helped to particularize specific individuals and perpetuate their memories, others deployed these elements in ways that instead reinforced broad, fixed generalizations about ethnic, regional, national, or professional “types.”
In the twentieth century, avant-garde artists often experimented with abstractions of the human figure. Even as they removed specific clues to the subject’s identity and place, they nonetheless retained some essential characteristics of the body, distilling a timeless human identity.
The Brooklyn Museum’s holdings of European Old Master and modern paintings have grown in equal measure over the past century, with a parallel commitment to the presentation of both collections since the institution’s opening exhibition in 1897. The ambitious and prescient collecting practices of the Museum’s earliest and most influential trustees and benefactors—A. Augustus Healy and Frank L. Babbott—significantly contributed to the development of these two core collections in the first quarter of the twentieth century. While Babbott concentrated his interests on Italian masters of the early Renaissance, Healy marked both collections with gifts and bequests by artists as varied and important as Sano di Pietro and Claude Monet. With the landmark 1921 exhibition Modern French Masters including the Post-Impressionists and Their Predecessors, the Museum embarked on a decade-long campaign to present and collect avant-garde European art long before many of its counterpart institutions.
Although the collection of European paintings has often been presented in a chronological arrangement by school or style, this installation exploits the architecture of the soaring Beaux-Arts Court by devoting each wall to an exploration of the meaningful connections that the works display when arranged according to theme. The section called “Painting Land and Sea” surveys the formal methods that painters have used to render their physical surroundings across the centuries. “Art and Devotion” considers the ways in which the artists of the early Renaissance expressed the central tenets of the Catholic faith. “Narratives Large and Small” shows how artists distill the elements of a story into a single telling moment. Finally, “Tracing the Figure” charts the enduring artistic interest in the human figure, from portraits that place an individual in a clearly defined place and time to timeless abstractions of the human form.
August 1, 2011:
An installation of thirteen rarely seen paintings from the collection of the Brooklyn Museum and the collection of Jurii Maniichuk and Rose Brady will go on long-term view in the European painting galleries on September 28, 2011. Russian Modern, which explores the impact and influence of Russian and former Soviet artists on modern European painting, will feature wall labels in English and Cyrillic. It is the first presentation of the Museum’s world-renowned collection of Russian and Eastern European painting since the 1923 landmark Brooklyn show Exhibition of Russian Painting and Sculpture, curated by Christian Brinton.
Ranging widely in subject matter and style, these paintings by artists from both imperial Russia and the revolutionary avant-garde offer insights into the spread of modernism across over a century of Russian art history. Russian Modern will feature masterworks by such pioneering artists as Ilya Bolotowsky, Boris Anisfeld, Boris Grigoriev, Wassily Kandinsky, Chaim Soutine, Vasily Vereshchagin, Max Weber, and Aleksandr Yakovlev.
Included will be Vereshchagin’s large-scale anti-war painting The Road of the War Prisoners (1878–79), a snowy landscape strewn with the corpses of Turkish prisoners of war; Boris Israelevich Anisfeld’s Clouds over the Black Sea—Crimea (1906), a rendering in near abstraction of white clouds over bright blue water; and The Visit, possibly a courtship scene, (1919) by Max Weber, best known for his Cubist paintings.
Many of the artists represented in the exhibition were émigrés of diverse ethnic and regional backgrounds, displaced from Europe by political upheaval. Several, like Bolotowsky and Weber, relocated to New York, where they helped make it the epicenter of modern art in the early twentieth century. Bolotowsky’s mural for the Williamsburg Housing Project in Brooklyn was one of the first abstract murals done under the Federal Arts Project and is one of a group of these murals on loan to the Brooklyn Museum, where it has been on view for more than twenty years.
The works in the exhibition explore various themes ranging from Vereshchagin’s realistic, critical depictions of the horrors of the Russo-Turkish War to Kandinsky’s psychological meditations on balance and color.
Works in a wide range of artistic styles are represented, among them Critical Realism, Cubism, Art Nouveau, abstraction, and Socialist Realism.