Yesterday morning was super special. I was able to experience dozens of amazing fine art masterpieces firsthand!
My friend Catherine Jones, a docent at the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park, very graciously provided me and a friend with a special tour. We were given an in-depth look at the landmark Gauguin to Warhol exhibit, being shown for a limited time in San Diego.
Follow me into the world-class San Diego Museum of Art, and we’ll check out a few of these stunning paintings together!
Gauguin to Warhol: 20th Century Icons from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery is an exhibit containing dozens of true masterpieces from many of the world’s most famous modern painters. Artists with important pieces on display include Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Georgia O’Keeffe, Salvador Dalí, Frida Kahlo, Jackson Pollock and Roy Lichtenstein . The exhibit is a whirlwind journey through time, progressing from Impressionism in the late 18th Century to Post-impressionism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and finally Pop Art in the 1960s. One can follow the emergence and evolution of major art movements over eight decades–and observe how visual abstraction, experimentation and provocative simplicity took a greater and greater hold on the imaginations of many great artists.
These fantastic paintings all come from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York. San Diego is the exclusive West Coast stop for this traveling exhibition.
(The following descriptions and reactions were formed in my own muddled human brain, and notes were taken only sporadically. I’m not even close to being an art expert, so take everything I say with a very large grain of salt!)
A few steps after we admire a fine example of classic Impressionism, the 1890 Peasants in the Fields by Camille Pissarro, we are stopped in our tracks by a stunning masterpiece by Paul Gauguin. It’s the instantly recognizable Spirit of the Dead Watching, painted in 1892.
Spirit of the Dead Watching was created during Gauguin’s residence in Tahiti. It depicts his young wife Tehura, awakened by a frightening dream. A nightmarish figure with a mask-like face sits at the foot of her bed, seemingly a dark omen.
The bright, gauzy, fine daubs of paint of the earlier Impressionist movement seem to have given way to broad, unabashed swaths of rich color. The elements in this Post-Impressionist image appear two-dimensional; objects depicted seem to have become bold, emotionally colored symbols, rather than more-realistic objects given depth using traditional perspective.
The Spirit of the Dead Watching is both uniquely beautiful and disturbing, not unlike a few of the canvases to come on our tour.
Another few steps and we are looking at Pablo Picasso’s La Toilette, painted in 1906 just before his well-known innovations with Cubism.
The two women depicted are different views by Picasso of the same model. The painting seems to be mostly about lustrous, subtle color and soft, slightly angular shapes. It struck me that fusing the two figures, with their simple faces and forms, would result in a sort of Cubist composite creation. Perhaps we see the gears slowly turning in Picasso’s creative mind.
The masterpiece that I enjoyed most–because it’s just so indescribably magical–is Van Gogh’s The Old Mill, from 1888, another fine example of Post-Impressionism. Thick smears of paint and bold brush strokes of light give the painting strange depth and glowing solidity, in spite of its greatly simplified, almost crude representation of a country scene. I felt like I had entered a magical landscape, located somewhere between a gleaming dream and a warm, everyday experience. To me, it’s a piece of art that would never grow old.
Here we see the emergence of Surrealism. And this masterpiece is by the ever popular Salvador Dalí!
The Transparent Simulacrum of the Feigned Image, 1938, is one of Dalí’s most iconic works. It’s mysterious, strange and stimulates thought. What do the various elements in the design represent? Is that a bowl of mashed potatoes with gravy on a table with a napkin, or is that a lake nestled between mountains? The onlooker isn’t quite sure if the painting is primarily fun or symbolic, or a depiction of the unconscious, or sublime reality. Abstraction has surely taken hold of the artist’s vision, as the scene is a complete departure from ordinary experience.
Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s impressive Self-Portrait With Monkey, painted in 1938, is said to be Surrealist. To me it appears more like a beautifully colorful Post-Impressionist Gauguin. According to Wikipedia: “Frida rejected the “surrealist” label; she believed that her work reflected more of her reality than her dream.”
Gazing at this one portrait, I understand her assertion. Apart from one canvas in the exhibit, a depiction of fleshy, bloody butchered meat, this painting seems more solidly lifelike and ripe with organic truth than any other work that I recall seeing.
I also love this one! La Musique, by Henri Matisse in 1939, is the sort of joyful, broadening, invigorating style of art that I personally like. Catherine pointed out that the lady on the left is very prim and composed, but the wild lady on the right is the type you’d want to date! Exactly right! The hands and feet are wonderfully twisted and elongated as if they’re swimming within splashes of swirling color and music!
Jackson Pollock today is recognized as a master of Abstract Expressionism. His unique drip paintings are unmistakeable. And his Convergence from 1952 nearly covers an entire museum wall!
Okay, perhaps I’m an ignoramus and a dullard. To me this style of painting seems a bit random, cynical, and a thumb in the eye of earlier, more skillful artistic styles. Several of the canvases in this portion of gallery struck me in a similar way. The absurdly huge creations of these famous Abstract Expressionists seem more than experimental–they seem despondent, angry, nihilistic and disillusioned–perhaps a reaction to the massive chaos and inhumanity of two world wars in the early 20th Century. But I do appreciate Pollock’s artful balance, his dynamic strands of color, and the peculiar, imposing beauty that has resulted!
Here’s one painting that is absolutely disturbing. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect to see in a short horror story by Poe, or above the mantle in a cobwebby haunted house! As if penetrating the dark recesses of the human subconscious, Francis Bacon’s unsettling Man With Dog, 1954, seems to portray the bottom of a shadowy figure being resisted by a featureless, spectral hound attracted to a sewer grate. This painting definitely succeeds in bringing out a strong feeling of unfocused loathing. If the aim of art is to stir the emotions, this piece is triumphant!
A manic jumble of impulsive, uncertain emotions in two dimensions seems to compose Willem de Kooning’s Abstract Expressionist Gotham News, completed in 1955. Flesh tones and slightly organic shapes are intermixed with the angled, heavy lines of a large city’s architecture, looking to my eye like stained glass put into a blender. Energy and spasmodic randomness seem to convey no clear artistic notion, nor rouse any one particular emotion. It’s just a big mixture of complex energy! Perhaps that was the artist’s intent!
An Andy Warhol response to modernism, his iconic 100 Cans was painted in 1962. Since then, the Pop Art image of multiple Campbell’s Soup cans has spread and mutated throughout the popular culture.
Is this painting a celebration of unrepentant commercialism, or a resigned condemnation? Is he asking the fundamental question: What is art? Or is it just his affirmation that an increasingly technological and global culture has changed life forever, and that art has become something of a commodity? I’ve heard arguments on every side.
The original painting is hanging on a wall at the San Diego Museum of Art! See it for yourself and decide!
This truly special, eye-opening exhibit, Gauguin to Warhol, can be enjoyed at the San Diego Museum of Art through January 27, 2015.
It might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to really appreciate these many great masterpieces. If you can, go see it!