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Comparing Curators: Balthus at the Met,  Leger at PMA

11/7/13

Balthus and Leger, two great modern art masters, are each presented in shows of earlier periods of their mature careers: Balthus at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Leger at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Both of these painters have unique and forceful positions as modernists. Balthus brings a Renaissance master’s sensibility to dream world, narrative paintings. Leger approaches his cubist celebrations of modern life and the city with a French classicist’s sensibility. Both shows include many great masterpieces and have a large number of quality supporting works: Leger’ “The City”, “Steamboat”, Balthus’s “The Living Room” and “The Dream”, to name a few of the masterworks.

One important difference between these big museum shows is the attitude the curator in each show takes towards the work and how they present it to the public. In the Balthus show, the curator, Sabine Rewald lets the artist do the work. In Balthus’s pictures of adolescent day dreamers and feline voyeurs, fully developed masterpieces are interspersed with smaller portraits and studies in an emotional buildup of themes. The power of the pictures intensifies as the viewer moves through the space with a wonderful surprise and change of pace in the middle of the show. Rewald presents a series of drawings that Balthus created at age eleven to mourn the loss of his cat. These are drawings unprecedented in all of art. They represent a cohesive, pictorially sophisticated and heartfelt expressive act by a child. Then the show returns to the dreamy, sexually charged mature compositions for which Balthus is known. This a solid piece of curating with everything in its place, nothing extraneous. All the curatorial energy is focused on heightening the intensity of this great artist at his peak.

The Leger show has a very different feel. Anna Vallye, the curator, includes many great works of art and attempts to reconstruct the experimental context of early twentieth century modern art. Several films including “Ballet Mecanique” take a prominent position in the show as do works by artists of the period: Mondrian , Delaunay, AM Cassandre. However, the curator shows little discrimination in her selection. She includes many second rate works whose presence does support the curators idea of celebrating urban modernity, but does not hold up well next to Leger’s high level of achievement. In addition, the emotional build up is not there. Vallye takes a coldly conceptual approach to these artists. Several paintings hang high up on the wall, presumably to make us feel the dizzying sense of the vertical metropolis. This distances the art from the viewer, a notion that Leger, the socialist, and his friends would not have liked. Vallye also includes elaborate architectural staging that does create some interesting perspectives. But in the end, the architecture feels like a stage set design rather than a stage for the drama enacted within works of art. In the Leger show few works feel locked into place and there were far too many extraneous works to tell the succinct, powerful story that his art deserves.

The contrast between these two shows points to the heart of what curators do and why it matters. With the Balthus show the viewer feels directly connected to the artist. The curator is a hidden force whose role is to organize and heighten that connection through sequencing and juxtaposition of works for an emotional buildup. In the Leger show, we are meant to feel the power, cleverness and knowledge of the curator. Leger and friends’ work is arranged to support her vision. Despite the high quality of many works chosen, the sounds from the films, architectural views, multimedia installations add up to a disjointed, distracted experience. “The City” by Leger celebrates the disjointed jumble of modern urban life through the highly organized and jazzy composition. The mimicking of the artist’s theme in the curatorial approach might be an effective idea if accomplished with subtlety but in this case comes off as arrogant and, ultimately, does Leger, his artist companions and his fans a disservice.

 

 

 

Balthus, “The Living Room” 1942, oil on canvas, 44”x 58”     Leger “The City” 1919, oil on canvas, 7’7”x 9’9”

 

 

 

Ian Tornay ‘s September 2013 show

 

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