MAM's Impressionist exhibition provides much to linger over

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Degas’ “Two Dancers,” 1905, is part of MAM's “Impressionism: Master-works on Paper,” on view through Jan. 8, 2012.

It’s immediate, spontaneous, studied, exploratory. Highly finished or a powerful scrap of an idea. Simple lines in graphite or fully realized scenes in luminous color.

The works in the newly opened exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum called “Impressionism: Masterworks on Paper” cover this range of appearances and more. 

There is no doubt that this is a major show. About 125 works are on view. The vast majority are drawings. But interspersed are a handful of paintings, including Renoir’s frolicsome “Bathers with Crab,” on loan from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art in fulfillment of a Super Bowl bet and subsequent Packers’ win last season. 

Walking through the expansive galleries, the museum’s director of exhibitions and driving force behind the show, Laurie Winters, described how ideas for this show blossomed with conversations about Impressionist drawings during the 2007 Pissarro exhibition. Working in partnership with the Albertina in Vienna (an institution also key to the 2005 Rembrandt and 2006 Biedermeier exhibitions), the museum  secured loans from internationally renowned museums and collections. 

Impressionist art is often characterized as blockbuster material because of the decorative and approachable nature of its subjects – pretty colors and people enjoying themselves. But this exhibition is more than just eye candy. There are some significant points that Winters and guest co-curator Christopher Lloyd are interested in exploring. 

The advent of Impressionism is traditionally ascribed to Claude Monet and August Renoir. The two worked closely together in the late 1860s and 1870s, painting similar scenes of modern life outdoors (“en plein air”) with flickering, loose brushwork and brilliant color.

This exhibition reasserts Eugene Boudin, a French artist who was a mentor to young Monet, as a precursor to Impressionist practice. His vivacious drawings describe the pleasures of modern leisure in social settings, capturing the fancy details of fashion on the spot, in the moment. 

The exhibition challenges the notion that Impressionist artists were largely devoted to working immediately, sans preparation. The Milwaukee Art Museum’s “Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect” by Monet was actually a studio piece, created after visits to England. In this exhibition, the painting is shown alongside brilliantly colored sketches that Monet made while in London at the Savoy Hotel. The sketches are precursors to finished paintings, but they capture light and atmosphere with exciting immediacy as Monet stared out on the smoky Thames. 

When it comes to drawing ability, for Impressionist artists or otherwise, Edgar Degas is a superstar. His lines are poetic – confident with contours, or supple touches creating the textures of flesh or ethereal ballet skirts.

Degas’ draftsmanship is duly celebrated, but Winters explained that his extraordinary sense of color is somewhat overlooked. Notice the details in the color combinations and the peculiar shade of green that often shows up, which was specially mixed for Degas. The counterpoints of complementary green and red appear like supporting characters – electric jade shadows in the background and the light russet of a woman’s hair. This pairing is most vibrant in the stunning “Two Dancers,” in which turquoise tutus barely detach from the same-colored background. 

The most exciting aspect of this exhibition is the feeling of having a peek at the private, working life of artists – the feeling of experimentation and exploration, trying new ideas on for size. Even at his loosest and most unfinished, Post-Impressionist Paul Cezanne has the energy of a powerful idea behind his recapitulations of Mont St. Victoire. His purposeful flatness and vagaries of space would be profoundly influential to 20th century Cubists like Picasso. 

Van Gogh, too, would become posthumously monumental. Drawings are included from early and late in his decade-long career.

The late work from St. Remy, where he admitted himself to an asylum, connects to his ongoing affection for the rural, working countryside and penchant for capturing his surroundings in his unique style. A view of his studio window is energized by lines following the contours of the room. The window where black-outlined bottles sit is definite, yet ghostly. It was a bleak time for van Gogh mentally, but brilliant in terms of his artistic powers. 

This exhibition is a delight in the quality and variety of works on view. There are many marquee names, but exciting introductions are made to less well-known figures. Eva Gonzales, Federico Zandomeneghi and Jean-Louis Forain are just a few pleasant acquaintances viewers will come to know. 

“Impressionism: Master-works on Paper” will be on view through Jan. 8, 2012, after which it heads off to Vienna and the Albertina.