A playfully busy, Where’s Waldo-ish set of five paintings by Jan Brueghel the Younger celebrating the five senses. Evocations of Venice by Canaletto, Turner, Manet, and Thomas Moran. A shimmer of Klimt in a birch forest. Vesuvius blowing its top. A smashing, little-known Sargent. An intellectual joke by Yves Tanguy, a sly insurrection by Magritte, a painterly love letter from Maxfield Parrish, a brooding gray-and-black masterwork by Ed Ruscha. All that, plus the Grand Canyon.
Sometimes, a blockbuster delivers the goods.
The 39 paintings in Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Collection, opening Saturday at the Portland Art Museum, make for a ravishing stroll through art history at a high level. The selection is smart and concise, following the concept of nature through several centuries and styles and setting it provocatively on its head.
Allen, the Microsoft pioneer and billionaire, is known best in Portland as owner of the Portland Trail Blazers, but his interests in art and science, from mapping the human brain to exploring space to his support of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which he began to visit as a child, are long and deep. And he is the financial force behind the Seattle Art Fair, the contemporary-art show that debuted in July of this year and is designed to draw money, international attention, and a higher artistic profile to his hometown. Seeing Nature reveals that he has an extremely sharp eye. The paintings seem less trophies than passions – a sign of a true collector – and however the selections for this show were made, they’re cohesive: some seemingly quirky juxtapositions make perfect thematic sense.
A few recognizably “natural” paintings – scenes of nature untouched by human hand – make the cut, perhaps most breathtakingly Moran’s 1909 Grand Canyon of Arizona at Sunset. At 30 by 40 inches, it’s much smaller than the sometimes giant panoramas of the West that Moran, a leading latter-day figure of the Hudson River School, parlayed into profitable sensations when he revealed them theatrically to audiences back East: his Shoshone Falls on the Snake River, for instance, which was exhibited in a one-painting show at PAM in 2010, is 12 feet wide. Yet like its subject, Grand Canyon is majestic, a romantic wonder of light and shadow and the interplay of color among the crags. (The Grand Canyon seems to hold a special allure for Allen: after Venice, it’s this group of painters’ favorite spot. David Hockney’s almost garishly brilliant version from 1998 is laid out like tiles on a 14-foot-wide grid, expanding the vista by chopping it down to size and then multiplying it.)
But most of the paintings in Seeing Nature have a different idea of what “nature” means. In most, nature is an occupied territory, a place shaped and modified by human hands, whether it’s the casual view out the window in Brueghel’s cluttered interiors, or the manicured vistas of Venice, or Monet’s meadow with a church tower in the distance or seaside cliff with a fisherman’s cottage, or Panini’s mid-18th century View of the Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine, a landscape with tourists that conveniently if inaccurately places the two ruins within hand-shaking proximity for dramatic effect. There are several ways of seeing this sense of nature as an actively manipulated thing: as human improvement, a taming of the wild; as human incursion, a defiling of the wild; or perhaps most presciently and completely, as humans being part of nature, taking their place in its ebb and flow, altering it as it alters them.
In my aspiring-billionaire mode, I wouldn’t mind a bit picking up a complete set of Breughel’s five senses paintings. Created about 1625 (and the oldest works in the exhibition by more than a century), they’re witty and gorgeously rendered and filled with a thousand little stories: you could gaze at them for hours and always find something new. They have, of course, little morals, but the paintwork overcomes the didactics: the almost tossed-off floral arrangements in Smell are masterworks in themselves. The paintings are by turns bravura and jocular, with a good deal of secret-code-ring signifying going on. At the dramatic off-center of Taste, a leeringly impish satyr is pouring wine for a zaftig woman, dress slipping off of her shoulders, sitting at an overladen table and looking gorged to the point of sickness, but she can’t stop. The stage is cluttered with carcasses: a boar’s head, a hanging deer, a few fish and fowl, a stuffed swan. It’s the picture, literally, of gluttony. Off in the distance, a meadow and trees and grand country house speak to a little more caution and natural balance. And hanging above the table, for contrast, is a sketched-in painting of Jesus and followers sitting at a vastly more restrained feast: moderation in all things.
Two things popped out at me as I walked through the exhibition, both having to do with the face-to-face encounter with great art as opposed to viewing it through reproductions. And both, I imagine, had a lot to do with Allen’s decision to buy. The first is the extraordinary use of light in so many of the paintings; the way that light becomes an unspoken subject no matter what the narrative is. The second is the equally extraordinary ways that the artists applied paint to canvas, and the intoxicating variety of surface texture, making for an utterly different “feel” from one work to another.
In his painting The Rialto Bridge, From the South with the Embarkation of the Prince of Saxony During His Visit to Venice in 1740, Canaletto mastered a pristine flat laying-down of the paint, which is softly burnished and yet pops with color – not in a braggardly way, but exquisitely, as if an afternoon sun were glancing off the surface. Flash forward to John Singer Sargent’s odd and delicious 1907 painting The Chess Game, with its Orientalist vision of two members of a harem lying at ease in the grass, relaxed and free, Monet ripples in the pool behind: it’s made from slabs of paint, fat and luxuriant, rough yet sure, and bursting with the quality of light. The gilt frame complements and intensifies the painting’s yellows, which sparkle and shine. The great, underappreciated pointillist painter Paul Signac, in his lovely 1891 Morning Calm, Concarneau, Opus 219 (Largetto), takes a more serene and, well, pointed approach to depicting color and light.
Pierre-Jaques Volaire’s Eruption of Mount Vesuvius with the Ponte Della Maddalena in the Distance, from about 1770, seems to balance between two concepts of nature: the mighty, untamable force; and the natural occurrence tamed for human convenience. The painting erupts in flames of red and yellow just as its subject does (and did, frequently, to artists’ delight: you could assemble a good-sized exhibition of paintings by dozens of artists of Vesuvius blowing its top). But what gives the thing life is its casual depiction of crowds lining the shore and the bridge, bobbing in boats and ships on the lake, streaming by foot or horse or carriage along the twisting road, all jostling for a better angle to view the fireworks. As long as you were far enough away to be out of danger, Vesuvius was a tourist attraction.
There are ghost-paintings in Seeing Nature, images that seem like spectres or illusions: J.M.W. Turner’s misty Depositing of John Bellini’s Three Pictures in La Chiesa Redontore, Venice, in 1841 already anticipating Impressionism and abstraction with its foggily sketched crowd of people standing canal side; Henri Le Sidaner’s 1907 The Serenade, Venice, with its silent nighttime boaters gliding through shadows; Monet’s moody, nervous 1904 Waterloo Bridge, Overcast Weather; Klimt’s tapestry-like and invisibly inhabited oil Birch Forest, in which background and foreground carry equal weight, and the trees themselves seem both solid and immaterial, so that in places you can almost see through them, into a sacred grove.
Seeing Nature is the sort of exhibition in which you might spend a minute or two with a Cézanne or Avery or Hopper or O’Keeffe and move quickly on, because they aren’t their artists’ finest work (Avery’s two small foxy portraits of Annette and Louis Kaufman in the Portland museum’s American collection are far more appealing than the semi-abstract of three trees here) and other paintings seem more engaging.
Allen’s taste in post-Post-Impressionist 20th century painting is a beguiling mix of big names and quirky but affecting choices. Tanguy’s surreal 1927 A Large Picture That Represents a Landscape is a wry mind-game, a free-form rendering of a purely intellectual landscape: just the sort of thing a pioneer in the world of pixels and virtual realities might like to grapple with. Magritte’s 1948 The Voice of Blood seems in a strange way to presage robotics, the animation and physical assimilation of the invented: It’s a twilight portrait of a bushy tree on a cliffside, its trunk opening in a trio of crisply cut doors to reveal what appear to be high-tech manufactured and even electronic innards. A gorgeously smallish Max Ernst, Landscape with Lake and Chimeras, bristles with a more purely physical yet almost unearthly energy, its brute tangle of rock outcroppings taking on an eerie sentient life.
Two 20th century American painters revered by the public if not often allowed into the inner sanctum, Thomas Hart Benton and Maxfield Parrish, make strong cases for themselves in this show, and perhaps (this is, of course, pure conjecture) echo Allen’s own sense of being a highly successful and misunderstood outsider. Benton was a populist realist, a celebrator of work and land, who had the misfortune of perfecting his bold and highly precise realist style just before the abstract expressionists swept his approach into the dustbin of critical currents. Parrish is often dismissed as an illustrator and purveyor of popular sentimental images. Benton’s Spring Plowing, from about 1940, ripples with his familiar sense of a landscape come alive, a sort of pantheism of the people. He painted urban workplaces, too, but part of his and the New York establishment’s mutual disdain surely rose from the fading of rural America and the rise of the city as the nation’s heart and pulse. Parrish’s 1938 Riverbank, Autumn is gorgeously, almost achingly pantheistic, an invented scape of a mighty gnarled tree, its bark a fantastical map of curves and ruts and scars and incisions, towering in front of a serene and light-filled vista of mirror-smooth water, deciduous groves, and fading, purpling hills. The scene was painted, Patricia Junker writes in the exhibition catalog, for Nancy Roelker, a 23-year-old woman with whom Parrish, at 68, was deeply infatuated, and it suggests an intense but unattainable beauty: something just out of reach.
Just beyond the Benton is an Edward Hopper, Clamdigger, of a man and dog sitting isolated on a low Cape Cod porch. It’s flat, reaching for that cool, almost magical American loneliness that distinguishes Hopper’s best work, but not quite making it. A far better evocation of the nation’s spiritual regret comes from a large untitled 1989 painting by Ed Ruscha, working from his landmark 1962 photography book Twentysix Gasoline Stations, that depicts an abandoned Standard gas station in the gloom of evening. It’s a painting of sharp angles fuzzed and fading from blacks to grays; a looming failure, a landscape cheapened, a gamble lost, quietly desperate in the night.
Allen’s interest in the rough-and-tumble physicality of painting, rather than multiples or conceptual art (although there are concepts aplenty in these “traditional” paintings) suggests a hopeful view of the virtual universe he helped usher in: that computers and the things they can do aren’t substitutes for the physical world, but ways to enhance it, support it, and give it fresh meanings. Like his basketball and football teams, his guitar-shaped Gehry rock’n’roll museum, and his high-stakes real estate development around Seattle’s South Lake Union and beyond, his art collection suggests that Allen remains intensely curious about the physical world around him. It just looks different to him, with deeper possibilities, than to many of us.
Seeing Nature is a collaboration among the Seattle Art Museum, Portland Art Museum, and the Paul G. Allen Family Collection. It opens in Portland, where it’ll stay through January 10, then moves on to the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.; the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; the New Orleans Museum of Art; and finally to the Seattle Art Museum, where it’ll run February 16-May 21, 2017.
In Portland, the exhibition has taken over the entire sweep of the European galleries, with their classical dimensions and suffused natural light, and hung against handsome gray walls with plenty of space, so nothing feels cluttered (except those Brueghel interiors) and each painting has plenty of room for contemplation. Highlights from the permanent European collections, meanwhile, have moved a few rooms away to the usual special-exhibitions spaces, where they do feel cluttered and dark, but only temporarily so. Several fine examples from the museum’s underestimated collection of European portraits remain on view, along with selected works up to pre-Impressionist times, including Francesco Fidenza’s 1790s Vesuvius Erupting at Night, a sweet little postscript to Volaire’s bigger and flashier version of the mountain blowing a gasket. A few steps away, in the American galleries, Albert Bierstadt’s iconic 1869 Mt. Hood hangs in wait, as if eager to leap into Seeing Nature’s theme. It’s the illusion of the pristine, of nature without humanity – except for the painter himself, who rearranges for effect, as humans always do. We have met nature, it seems, and it is us.
Seeing Nature continues through January 10, 2016, at the Portland Art Museum, 1219 Southwest Park Avenue. Details here.