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Monet to Matisse

“Monet to Matisse: French Moderns from the Brooklyn Museum, 1850–1950” is on display at the Wichita Art Museum through May 20th and showcases 59 masterworks from 19th century Paris, a time of artistic revolution that fundamentally transformed the Western art world. In their time, these were works of scandalous genius. Major movements like impressionism, cubism, and fauvism were born here with pioneering artists like Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, and Henri Matisse. The spirit of fearless experimentation, of failure and breakthrough, shines in this eclectic and surprising collection.

Right off the bat, you’re greeted by works from Camille Pissarro and Alfred Sisley that perfectly describe the trials, errors, and innovations of early modernism. Sisley’s plein-air Flood at Moret feels both gainfully naïve and consciously experimental. On its surface you can see mistakes, successes, dips and peaks in consciousness; struggle and clarity played out in equal measure. In Pissarro’s The Climb, a budding cubist perspective can be observed in the work’s multiple vantage points and flattened sense of compositional space. Works like these are invaluable, a delight to behold, and in a title like The Climb, seemingly prescient.

When in the company of legends, works expectedly dazzle with aplomb and grace. Renoir, Corot, and Degas all make standout appearances. Renoir’s The Vineyards at Cagnes is thrillingly alive, lush, and sublime. In Ville-d’Avray, Corot’s light is dynamic and real, as objective as stone yet as soft as a cloud; poetic axiom to his mastery. An enormous Degas understudy, Nude Woman Drying Herself, makes a strong case for impressionist dogma and the (sometimes unintentional/serendipitous) merits of simplicity.

Monet’s Rising Tide at Pourville has been used in much of the exhibit’s advertising for a reason: it is stunning in person. A true gem, Monet’s seascape shimmers in breathtaking iridescent hues and all at once you see where abalone shells get their color. While beggars can’t be choosers, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that this is the only Monet in an exhibition with “Monet” in its title. Matisse, on the other hand, is well-represented in a handful of works (landscape, portrait, and still life) none brighter than Flowers, a gorgeous fauvist work that rounds out the last stretch of the exhibit nicely.

The variety and quality will surprise and delight you. There are wonderful works from Gustave Courbet, Édouard Vuillard, Auguste Rodin, Fernand Léger, Georges Rouault, André Derain, Chaïm Soutine, and much, much more. My personal favorite is a large symbolist work from Odilon Redon, the enchanting, bewildering Jacob Wrestling with the Angel.

The only real complaint I have about the show is the lighting. Comfortably dimmed for an overall atmosphere of quiet intimacy, individual works are illumined from above. A great idea, in theory, this creates severe shadows in practice and a puzzling blind spot in the viewing experience, especially on some of the more ornately framed work (sorry Renoir!). While it is forgivable, in the case of two very small Gabriele Münter studies, the shadows obscure the image in such a way that they might as well have not been included in the exhibit.

However, any criticism I have is met with endless gratitude and support for the hardworking people who make shows like this possible to enjoy. While the show does bear an understandable cost, signing up for WAM membership includes the full ticket price plus gives you unlimited year-round access to all the museum has to offer. In each step through its halls, I feel honored, humbled, and proud. The Wichita Art Museum has been on a roll lately with one knockout exhibit after another reaching a mainstream and critical milestone in “Monet to Matisse.” Don’t miss it!

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