THE BACKSTORY: ROMANTIC
This is a very personal collection, numbering in all 424 works, and assembled by what must be one of the most constructive partnerships in collecting: the longtime art dealer Eugene Victor Thaw (b. 1927) and his onetime assistant and late wife, Clare Eddy Thaw (1924-2017).
Thaw, a native of Washington Heights, grew up with watercolors by Diego Rivera in his house, and, like Clement Greenberg before him, studied at the Art Students League when still in high school. Then he went on to get a BA from St. John’s College in Annapolis, renowned for its “great books” curriculum.
He studied graduate art history at Columbia with Meyer Schapiro & Millard Meiss (among others) before setting up his first gallery (with a partner) in 1950—and was initially attracted to the second-generation abstract expressionism of the day.
Besides giving early shows to the likes of Joan Mitchell & Conrad Marca-Relli, he met just about everybody else from Willem de Kooning to Adolph Gottlieb when he began renting a summer home in East Hampton after his marriage in 1954.
In particular, he became close to Lee Krasner, who made him agent for her late husband’s work. This would eventually lead to the distinction for which he is best known in my little world, the 4-volume “Jackson Pollock: A Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Drawings and Other Works,” a magisterial opus created in conjunction with Francis Valentine O’Connor and published by Yale in 1978.
As such, Thaw remains one of the very, very few living people who can tell a genuine Pollock from a fake without having recourse to chemical analysis, and – by no coincidence, in my opinion --- he has developed maybe the finest eye for any work of art in the art world at present.
Though I have seen his name as donor (with his wife) on many, many labels in Manhattan museums, I have yet to see anything less than top quality in the work of art to which the label is attached.
Over the years, he has evolved away from the contemporary and gradually (by way of German Expressionism) into a fondness for older art. Along the way, he first set up an independent dealership, then became a private dealer seeking out individual works for individual clients, and eventually graduated from art as a business into art as the basis for foundations and museums.
And he has served as an official or trustee in so many of these institutions that I can’t keep track of them all. Obviously, the Morgan is a favorite museum of his, since he and his late wife have given not only this extraordinary collection of drawings to it, but also endowed it in many other ways. This is attested to by the name of the charming little “jewel-box” just off the main entrance hall of the museum: it is called the “Clare Eddy Thaw Gallery.”
A MAGNIFICENT SIDESHOW: “MEDIEVAL TREASURE BINDINGS”
At the moment, this bijou (20’ x 20’ x 20’) gallery is housing another exquisite exhibition, “Magnificent Gems: Medieval Treasure Bindings” (also through January 7).
Here are displayed primarily religious books from the Middle Ages bound with gold and precious stones, together with illuminated books and manuscripts relating to or illustrated with similar jewels.
All these works were collected by J. Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913), the robber baron and banking monopolist whose enormous collections, not only of books and manuscripts but also other artworks and artifacts, became the nucleus of the museum opened to the public by his son “Jack” Morgan in 1924.
“Magnificent Gems”’ is quite a show, if you don’t have to think about all the illiterate peasants whose labors ultimately paid for such finery in an era when the wealth of the community was concentrated in only a few hands. No wonder J. P. related to such work so strongly, but hundreds of ordinary museum-goers will turn out to see any artwork made of precious materials, too.
This belief that if an object is made of precious materials, it is automatically great art goes hand-in-hand with the slavish admiration with which so much of our contemporary electorate regards our wealthiest members of society, regardless of what they may or may not have done to deserve such adulation.
This adulation is understandable enough with those segments of the electorate who are at least comfortably well-fixed.
However, when it trickles down to the less affluent members of society, it leads to what Karl Marx might have called the Lumpenproletariat – by which he meant that layer of the working class that is unlikely ever to achieve class consciousness and is therefore lost to socially useful production and of no use to the revolutionary struggle. But I digress.
More importantly, this exhibition of treasure bindings contains a number of very carefully & beautifully made objects, the most famous of which is undoubtedly the Lindau Gospels (binding made in France, ca. 875).
It appears in full-page color reproductions of some introductory survey texts (or anyway, used to appear when I was in grad school). But although we have (almost) all seen (at least) the image of the front of the Lindau Gospels, this is one of those rare occasions where you can also see the back.
TO RETURN TO THE MAIN SUBJECT OF THIS REVIEW
The drawings of “Drawn to Greatness” are more demotic in nature than the show of “Magnificent Gems,” despite the fancy prices quite a number of them have commanded in the centuries since they were made.
Many of them, after all, were originally intended as sketches or preliminary drawings made by artists in the course of creating larger paintings or even sculpture: working exercises, not works in themselves.
And, even when these “drawings” represent attempts to create works for sale in their own right, we are still talking minor masterpieces, not major ones.
However brilliant as so many of them are, and however lavishly colored they may be, one is always aware that these are drawings, not paintings. For that reason, the artists who excel at them are not necessarily the stars of the firmament when it comes to painting—and, by the same token many brilliant painters are represented lightly, if at all.
How otherwise, for example, is one to explain the presence of four works by Honoré Daumier & five by Odilon Redon, while Manet seems to be absent altogether and I noticed only one minor Monet and one (considerably more charming) Renoir?
But I am caviling here, as there is so much to enjoy without making odorous comparisons….
Put it down to my old-age idiosyncrasy, but while I saw an enormous amount of excellent work, only some of it really got to me.
The show is well-installed, with a lot of little alcoves separated by partitions that keep the proceedings delightfully intimate. As organized by Jennifer Tonkovich, the museum’s curator of prints and drawings, it is also very cogently divided into nine sections, each introduced with its very own educational wall text.
For me, the sketchiest were the first section, on “The Renaissance and the Rise of Drawing,” and the last, “Modern Forms.”
But even in the first section, I related strongly to the page from the studio of Pisanello with a touching series of heads of young boys (ca. 1440-50), and also to a wonderfully smooth and supple drapery study (ca. 1480) from the German school.
Also outstanding were the contributions of Albrecht Altdorfer, showing two lovers by a fountain (ca.1509-10), and a view of the Tiber in Rome (ca. 1594) by Jan Bruegel the Elder.
Alas, what can I say about “Modern Forms”?
I wouldn’t be so opinionated about it if it weren’t my own period, but when I rounded the partition leading from the last of the 19th century work into this large rectangular space, I was assaulted first with the row of portraits (mostly heads) opposite this entryway.
If I can read my notes correctly, there were three heads by Picasso, three by Matisse, and one by Juan Gris.
I suppose the idea here was to protest that even in the 20th century, with all its abstraction, the human equation still determined a lot of art. But (as some of my readers know) I don’t see “the human equation” as opposed to abstraction.
To me, they are one and the same, so the only head in this lineup that that really spoke to me was the large, bold and very simplified Matisse portrait of his longtime (but latter-day) muse and assistant, Lydia Delectorskaya.
Although this particular picture wasn’t made until 1952, the row of heads in general is clearly meant to introduce the major figures from the earliest part of the 20th century.
Coming to the left end of this lineup, and rounding the corner, we have next two untitled drawings by Jackson Pollock. Both are from the mid-1940s, before the artist entered his purely abstract or “classical” period.
One of the two has a lot of scribbly little images and must be especially dear to Mr. Thaw, as it is inscribed to Peggy Guggenheim, Pollock’s dealer, and his own career was as a dealer before he became a collector, trustee, etc.
I however preferred the other Pollock, a smashing “abstract ram,” full of the foaming, aggressive energy that would in just a few short years spill over into his paintings and make them as great as they are.
There are no other abstract expressionists represented in this show, and the selection from the period between the two world wars is nearly as spotty.
True, we have two fine small pictures by Klee, both from the 1920s. One is a crisp, brightly-colored little abstraction, the other an excruciatingly witty family portrait entitled “Big Ones and Little Ones (Grosse und Kleine).”
There is a collage by Kurt Schwitters, a Magritte and a de Chirico, but no Miró in sight (nor for that matter any Dalí--and, praises be, no Duchamp).
True, there is an attractive Mondrian, but it dates from before the artist went to Paris and developed into an abstractionist—being a beachscape made while he was young, summering at a Dutch artists’ colony in Zeeland, and working in a style vaguely similar to Art Nouveau.
As for the period since abstract expressionism, I suppose we should again be grateful for small mercies: there is no Rauschenberg, Johns, Warhol or Lichtenstein.
On the other hand, we also do not have any Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Noland or Olitski.
The three artists chosen to epitomize art in the last 40 years of the twentieth century are Agnes Martin, Richard Diebenkorn & Ellsworth Kelly – and, while their works are admittedly abstract, I don’t hold with abstraction for its own sake, nor do I find a whole lot to admire in these three.
Can it really be that Mr. Thaw believes that they are the only artists whose work will endure? Or is this another example of how artists who excel in draftsmanship aren’t necessarily the best artists, taken all in all?
Or (third possibility) were these three the choice of Ms. Tonkovich, out of the various possibilities in the total Thaw collection (bearing in mind that its total number of works is over 400 and there are only 150 works or so in this show).
God knows I have been underwhelmed by all the other displays of recent art that (to my knowledge) the Morgan has brought us.
THE THREE BEST CENTURIES IN THIS SHOW
—STARTING WITH THE 17TH
But goodness me, here I have been rambling on about the minor portions of this show and only now getting to its highlights – which are the three often gloriously represented centuries from the 17th to the 19th.
These start with “Section II: Looking at the World in the Seventeenth Century,” and this section draws upon artists from all over Europe. From Flanders, we have Rubens, and a galaxy from Holland.
Among them, Rembrandt is the best known. He is represented here with zest in a compositional drawing for a “Finding of Moses” (ca. 1655).
Still, fresher to me was “Interior of the Nieuwe Kerk of Haarlem” (1650), by Pieter Jansz. Saenredam, one of the depictions of church interiors for which this artist is known.
Though I saw a whole show of his work at the Getty in Los Angeles, years ago, I am still startled by the crystalline quality of his imagery every time I see a picture by him.
Seventeenth-century Dutch art had many distinguished land- and seascape painters, but only one of the three landscapes to which I related strongly in this portion of the show was by a Dutch artist.
It was by the little-known Philips Koninck, a long narrow panorama with scattered farm buildings and a windmill (1671). Longer and proportionately narrower is “A View of Tangier from the Southeast” (ca. 1669), by the Bohemian Wenceslaus Hollar.
I was overjoyed to find a nature study by the French Claude of Lorraine, one of my favorite artists since I saw a retrospective of his at the Hayward Gallery in London, around 1970.
When I went on to grad school, I was to learn how his “ideal” landscapes, always with framing trees on either side of the canvas, became the model for dozens of later English and American painters, but the “Heroic Landscape” (ca. 1650) in this show seems to have come out of a sketching expedition into the country outside Rome.
The building in the background was likely a real structure, and instead of framing trees, we have a group of them nearly in the middle of the picture!
I had never heard of Koninck nor Hollar, and one of the many pleasures in this show was finding excellent pictures by artists who like them were to me previously unknown.
Not least among these was a provocative portrait of the bishop Philibert-Emmanuel de Beaumont de Lavardin, made around 1660 in preparation for a portrait print by Robert Nanteuil, an engraver at the court of Frances’s Louis XIV.
Though clerically clad, the bishop has a wickedly wise smile on his face, so it comes as no surprise to read in the label that he spent most of the 1660s trying to ward off criticism that he was atheist.
(On the other hand, I should also add that in my opinion, few of the works here are going to force anybody to rewrite the history books. Good as the works by some of the lesser-knowns may be, on the whole they fail to measure up to the best works of those artists we already knew were great.)
THE 18TH CENTURY IN ITALY & FRANCE;
AND THE EARLY 19TH IN BRITAIN & GERMANY
The next three “sections” in this show are devoted first, to “Contemporary Life and Fantasy in Eighteenth Century Italy,” “Artists Drawing Everywhere: Rococo and Enlightenment in France,” and “Visionaries: British and German Romantic Drawings.”
From Italy (and more specifically, Venice), we have a both firm and delicate imaginary “Capriccio: Pavilion by the Lagoon” (ca. 1760), by my favorite vedutista, Canaletto.
We also have more “factual” works by Guardi, who is supposed to be a better vedutista than Canaletto (but not in my books).
We have the occasional fantasy by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. He is best known for his rococo murals and religious paintings, but here he is seen more as a forerunner to his son, Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo.
This is because in his somewhat grotesque drawings of Punchinello, the clown of the commedia dell’arte, he anticipated not only more grotesque Punchinello drawings by Giovanni Domenico but also Giovanni Domenico’s many even more grotesque caricatures of daily life in Venice.
Quite a number of these Punchinellos & caricatures by Giovanni Domenico are here, and if you are one of those art-lovers who goes to art shows in order to find out how people lived in the past, this is a golden opportunity for you…
“The Rococo and Enlightenment in France” was more to my taste, I must admit– although top billing in this selection goes to the rococo as opposed to the Enlightenment, with grand work by Fragonard, Boucher, and that king of kings, Watteau.
It always amazes me how robust and forceful Watteau’s drawings are -- especially when compared with the ethereal grace of his paintings of the commedia dell’arte and the floating world of his signature fêtes galantes.
The three drawings by him in this show are all splendid: “A Young Woman Wearing a Chemise” (c. 1718), “A Member of the Persian Embassy” (1715), and a sheet that combines a study of a young man seen from the back with a study of right arm (ca. 1717).
Offering a bizarre aspect of the neoclassic Enlightenment is a spectacularly cavernous “Interior of a Library” (ca. 1780-85). This is by the visionary French architect, Étienne-Louis Boullée.
The last section in this first part of the show focuses on English Romantic artists, including Turner, Constable, Girtin, Blake & Fuseli, with a special emphasis on Samuel Palmer and a few German Romantics thrown in for good measure: Caspar David Friedrich & Philipp Otto Runge.
The Brits, by and large, made a beautiful addition to the show, but as I have recently written about very similar work in my review of the Ashmolean show in Princeton this past August, I won’t dilate on them further.
As for the Germans, when I was in grad school, they were being touted by postmodernist scholars like Robert Rosenblum in an attempt to discredit the increasingly abstract modernist mainstream as it descended down through Paris, but I never worked up that much enthusiasm for them myself.
What intrigued me in this section at the Morgan was a landscape by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the author. A supposed view of the Bay of Naples (created between1810 and 1818, decades after he’d visited the site), it features a tree right up the middle of the picture, with a solitary figure (à la Friedrich) sitting at its base and admiring the view. Not bad for an amateur..
THE HOMESTRETCH – AND THE PEAK
With the exception of the section on the 20th century, all of the work I’ve so far discussed is hung in the Morgan Stanley East Gallery, to the left of the hallway leading from the museum’s Renzo Piano entry courtyard.
And I don’t know why, but upon first leaving that hallway, I was drawn by some totally incomprehensible force to the initial alcove in the Morgan Stanley West Gallery, to the right of the hallway.
Here I practically expired with joy, it was all just so unbelievably beautiful!
Most of the Morgan Stanley West Gallery is given over to the balance of the 19th century, with three principal divisions, to wit: “Revolutionary Artists,” “From the Quotidian to the Sublime: Drawing in France after the Revolution,” and “Charting New Territory: Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Drawings.”
And it was the “Revolutionary Artists” who caused me to laugh with delight – not because their work was necessarily funny, just because it was so incredibly, extraordinarily well done.
Leading off the parade was a panorama of seven vignettes from the private albums of Francisco Goya, with some of them on display facing the entry, and more hidden around the partition in the little alcove behind.
In general, these vignettes are gray wash, though occasionally with a little drawing to emphasize lines or a little brown ink to set off the gray. But it is all so gentle, much more gentle and loving than the crisp but scratchier and more sarcastic Goya etchings that are also giving a lot of people pleasure in Robert Longo’s “Proof” exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum.
Some of the titles here (or would it be more appropriate to call them, “captions”?) are hilarious, for example the one showing an old hag, a lovely young woman and an evidently puzzled gentleman. This one is titled, “Just Because She Is Asked if Her Mother is Well She Acts like a Tigress” (1796-1797).
But more of them are just warm presentations of ordinary people, for example a couple of seated peasants singing: the man is playing a guitar, and the title is, “They Go Well Together” (1816-20).
I also loved the old woman with her pet at her feet, and the title, “She Talks with Her Cat” (1819-23).
I can’t describe all of them, but all were almost equally marvelous.
Jammed into this little alcove, together with the second helping of the Goya, are so many smashing pictures that it’s hard to recall them all.
First you see several drawings by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, including a sexy odalisque but headlined (to my way of thinking”) by two smaller pendants done in light but definitive graphite and depicting a husband and wife, M. Adolphe–Marcellin Dufresne (1825) and Mme.Sophie Dufresne (1826).
Well, but you say to yourself, one would expect to see Ingres, latter-day leader of neoclassicism, headlined in a drawings show. Did he not insist on the primacy of draftsmanship, even in his paintings, insisting that “drawing is the probity of art”?
And did he not shudder and mutter “I smell sulphur,” when Eugène Delacroix, leader of the Romantics and the great apostle of color, walked into the room…?
But – surprise, surprise, the rest of the alcove is given over to perfectly wonderful drawings by French Romantics. Whoever said an allegiance to color means that an artist can’t also draw?
We have two first-rate pieces by Théodore Géricault, including the powerful “Head of a Black Man”(1818-19).
From Antoine-Louis Barye, the celebrated animalier, we have a sultry “Tigress on Her Back” (ca. 1850-60).
Best of all, there are five ineffably well-done drawings by Delacroix. They include two “exotic” scenes (one of some Moroccans, done in 1834, and one of a Persian horseman, done around 1820-27); also a lifelike study of a recently-deceased royal tiger, done around 1830 (Delacroix & Barye used to visit the Jardin des Plantes together in order to sketch the wild animals).
Delacroix loved flora as well as fauna, though, so we also have his “Forest View with an Oak Tree” (1853).
But best of all is his “Mephistopheles Appears before Faust” (ca. 1824-28). This scene from Goethe’s play was presumably a study from which one of the illustrations for the 1828 French edition was made.
I’d already seen and admired the printed book, but it’s all black-and-white, while the colors here are jewel-like in their richness – and Mephistopheles looks even more slender, sleek and sinister in color.
ANTICLIMAX: DRAWING IN FRANCE AFTER THE REVOLUTION
As far as I’m concerned, the climax of this admittedly exhaustive show is reached among those “Revolutionary” artists just described.
The section that follows, as I may already have indicated, is somewhat anticlimactic, for me anyway – though for museum-goers who go to art shows to find out how people lived, we have Honoré Daumier (1808-1879) and Jean-François Millet (1814-1875).
The latter gives us a couple of peasant scenes, and former three lawyers (all of whom look shifty), an innocuous elderly couple (reading), and a schoolmaster (letting one of his pupils drown).
I used to love Daumier when I was in my 20s, and (if you can believe it) a lot more socially-conscious than I am now. I still consider him a minor master, and have long been in the habit of telling people that to me, Andy Warhol is like a 20th century Daumier, a minor master with a social conscience (though admittedly Andy had a more modest social conscience than Daumier).
But in terms of what wowed me in this section, I would limit myself to the remarkable “Fantastic Castle at Twilight” (1857), created by another author, Victor Hugo, by splashing ink on his page and spreading it around while living in exile on the Channel Island of Guernsey.
AND THE IMPRESSIONISTS & POSTIMPRESSIONISTS:
FOR ME, ONE BRILLIANT STAR
I also wasn’t that impressed by the selection of impressionists and postimpressionists in this exhibition, with only two exceptions. That, I suppose, is because I’ve never really warmed up to Degas, Van Gogh or Gauguin – all of whom are represented at length here in one way or another (unlike Manet, Monet and Renoir, who are virtually ignored).
I am impressed by the Conté-crayon drawings of Seurat, and was moved by his sensual Conté-crayon rendition of a horse grazing (1882).
But above all, there is one artist from this period (and maybe any period) on whose greatness the Thaws and I evidently agree. That is the one, the only Paul Cézanne – represented in this show by no fewer than six (count ‘em, 6) of his so often heartbreakingly lovely drawings.
Moreover, all were done relatively late in the artist’s career, with only one from the 1890s and the remaining five created sometime between 1900 and 1906. These were the last six years of his life (he was to die in 1906 at the age of 67).
And these late Cézannes are the most magical of all. Unlike so many artists, whose work becomes grosser and more inflated in their old age, Cézanne’s touch (in both drawing & painting) becomes not only steelier but at the same time also more fluid – very fine, intricate, extraordinarily precise and yet at the same time appallingly muscular.
I have only to look at the best of these late works and I begin quivering inside.
The six graphite drawings in this show cover the full range of this artist’s oeuvre in miniature, and five out of the six are tinted with watercolor into the bargain.
There is one chess-player, one monumental still life, one sweet little drawing of the plaster Cupid, one large and one small landscape, and one of the artist’s inimitable groups of bathers.
The small landscape, entitled “Trees,” is an old friend. I reproduced it about a dozen years ago when I began my series of color reproductions for the Deluxe Print Edition of FMD, and discussed how aptly the image illustrated what Malevich had written about Cézanne.
Malevich had said that Cézanne’s tree leaves didn’t belong to any specific kind of tree, but were generalized renditions of several kinds of tree (and to me, this was the origins of multireferential imagery).
I had seen “Trees” at the Morgan at that time, but the watercolor of the bathers awakened reminiscences of an even earlier period in my life -- and my original discovery of Cézanne.
Back in 1976, when I was in grad school, I took a seminar on Cézanne. It was taught by Theodore Reff, a distinguished scholar who was writing an essay for the catalog of the MoMA exhibition on “Cézanne: The Late Work,” which would be held in 1977-78.
Reff didn’t ask us to write papers for this seminar. He only wanted an oral presentation, with each of us taking one of Cézanne’s most frequent subjects (such as still lifes, card players or Mont Sainte-Victoire) and looking at all the examples of it that we could locate.
Then we were to construct a chronology for them, and show each in sequence, arguing our dates for them.
With luck, we might be able to improve upon the dating employed in the last catalogue raisonné of Cézanne’s paintings, which had been published by Lionello Venturi in 1936.
A new catalogue raisonné was in preparation by John Rewald, and my fantasy was that if any of our findings impressed Reff, he would use them in his essay for “Cézanne: The Late Work” or pass them along to Rewald.
Anyway, my assignment was to work with Cézanne’s bathers, which he had always depicted outdoors, nude or mostly nude and in a verdant landscape setting.
Most people are familiar with only a few examples of this genre, including the single male bather at MoMA, and the three biggest ones of groups, all showing women bathers, that are owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Barnes Foundation, and the National Gallery in London.
These large groups in particular have been very influential, setting precedents for great art and artists from “Les Demoiselles d ’Avignon” to “La Danse” and on.
But this was also a subject to which Cézanne himself actually returned many other times, painting single figures, pairs and groups of bathers from 1870 on through to his death in 1906, mostly in smaller canvases.
Some of these groups are all male, some of them are all female, and a few (in the early years, especially) are co-ed.
The current catalogue raisonné is online and based upon the one originally created by Rewald but only published in hard copy in 1996, two years after his death. It lists and reproduces 82 examples of bathers, but only oils on canvas.
The website says that the scholars currently in charge of this project are now trying to integrate into it Cézanne’s watercolors (and, I like to think, also other works on paper). Presumably the “Bathers” in the Thaw collection at the Morgan will eventually take its place among them.
I found my grad school study of the bathers altogether fascinating, though to the best of my recollection I limited myself to the groups and didn’t undertake to discuss single bathers or couples.
Even so, I made it down to the Barnes Foundation, which in addition to the large painting of female bathers also had a handful of smaller ones, including at least one group of males.
Cézanne is said to have been awfully prudish, and especially in later years eschewed the use of live models. He is believed to have based the poses of the figures in these paintings almost entirely upon his art-school drawings or sketches he’d made of older art in the Louvre.
But the groups of men had at least one root in the real world: as a boy, Cézanne had been fond of swimming with other boys, including one named Émile Zola. Zola would grow up to become a famous author---and one of his novels would portray a painter named Claude Lantier, whom Cézanne seems to have felt was an unflattering portrait of him.
One of the small paintings of bathers that I looked at and photographed for my presentation was in the Park Avenue apartment of a private dealer whose name I can’t remember. Could this private dealer possibly have been Mr. Thaw?