The Art Capades

Robert Indiana:
The Mother of Us All

10am-4pm Tues, Wed, Fri;
10am-9pm Thu; 10am-5pm Sat; Noon-5pm Sun
McNay Art Museum
6000 N. New Braunfels

Masterpieces of French Painting
10am-5pm Tue, Wed;
10am-9pm Thu; 10am-7pm Fri-Sat; 12:15-7pm Sun
$15-18 Adult; $6.50-8 Thu
Museum of Fine Arts Houston
1001 Bissonnet, Houston
(713) 639-7300
Welcome to the Art Capades: Museum Edition. Next episode we’ll return to some of the outstanding shows currently gracing local galleries, but this time around we’re pausing to admire the work of the well-funded, starting with one of the wellest-funded of all, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, which recently opened the painting equivalent of what a previous generation of swells called the Grand Tour: The Masterpieces of French Painting from the Metropolitan Museum of Art 1800-1920. As the frank title suggests, the show consists of 135 works by French artists charting the triumph of “New Painting” over the stuffy Salon style through the most influential -isms of the 19th and early 20th century, from Neoclassicism to Romanticism to Impressionism to Fauvism.

Frequent readers might recall that Art Capades promised not to let a MFAH press luncheon in Austin go to her head when standing before the Gauguins, Degas, Manets, Monets, van Goghs, etc. featured in this exhibit `see this column, January 17-23`. Since then, the PR onslaught has only intensified, and Capades must confess to participating in a press junket designed to showcase a special visitors’ package offered by the sleek Hotel Derek and its Frenchy bistro moderne `for details on this and other enticements, visit or`.

But this show can sell itself nicely without the push, and you, too, will likely have at least one transcendent experience (as MFAH Director Peter Marzio promised at that luncheon), whether or not someone picks up your hotel room and steak dinner.

For me it happened first in front of Jules Bastien-Lepage’s 1879 “Joan of Arc,” a breakthrough work for a painter associated more with old-school than New. The French heroine stands somewhat stiffly in her garden while the halo-bedecked trio of saints levitates like disembodied church statuary in the background. She appears at once lifelike and frozen, and it seems you could reach out and grab her hand. Her preternatural, almost photo-, realism is heightened by the stone house and unruly garden, which are painted in a more rustic Impressionist style. The mish-mash of influences could just as easily have failed, but it’s stunning while (unintentionally) foreshadowing the multimedia collage of the next century.

I was swept up, too, by the sensory overload of Camille Pissarro’s chilly gray “Boulevard Montmarte on a Winter Morning,” and the refreshing verdant-green depths of Monet’s “Bridge Over a Pond of Water Lilies,” painted in 1899 in the artist’s Giverny garden. But I was also enchanted by the demure white gillyflowers and ripe pears in Henri Fantin-Latour’s “Still Life with Flowers and Fruit.” It was painted in 1866 in the Realist style, but a butter knife that hangs over the edge of the table invites the viewer to take a bite of this sometimes stand-offish genre.

The visual rustling of van Gogh’s 1889 “Cypresses” also invites the viewer  to jump into the frame. In person, the curving ridges of green and yellow and blue and pink paint of this familiar image are so thick that the painting changes substantially as you step from one side to the next — the light in the sky glows more or less rosy, the evergreens shift in a light breeze — and this artist’s enduring appeal in our self-expression-obsessed culture suddenly makes perfect sense.

Masterpieces of French Painting, made possible by the Met’s current expansion of its painting galleries, is truly a blockbuster show, and you won’t be disappointed unless you’re a Renoir fan who’s already visited the Barnes Foundation Gallery — but even then you should be more than consoled by the glorious Manets, Mattisses, and Modiglianis on display. Buy your tickets before you go.

The McNay continues to unspool the unassuming treasures of its Tobin Theatre Collection this spring with a display of Pop artist Robert Indiana’s costume and set designs for the Santa Fe Opera’s bicentennial revival of The Mother of Us All, a 1947 tribute to the life of suffragette Susan B. Anthony written by Gertrude Stein and scored by Virgil Thomson.

Indiana presented his visions for generically 19th-century getups in boldly colored cut paper that mirrored his bluntly graphic visual art. The finished costumes and set pieces, which were constructed almost enirely from felt, were faithful 3-D renderings of the illustrations, says Jody Blake, curator of the Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts. “The way Indiana used `the felt` — particularly to give the matte, flat color and the crisp edges — that was definitely something calculated for his particular style.”

Art Capades ordered a recording of the 1976 opera to listen to while gazing at the designs and reports that the experience was a little like Schoolhouse Rock for adults: educational historical pastiche starring a pantheon of American Who’s Whos from Susan B. to Daniel Webster to Anthony Comstock to Lillian Russell, with a little extra prosthelytizing thrown in courtesy of America’s First Lady of Revolutionary Letters.

Santa Fe’s Mother was catalyzed more than a decade earlier in New York, where Indiana staged a performance of Thomson’s work, including excerpts from the opera, to accompany a 1964 art opening. “Every single one of my paintings dealt with a theme that was related to Virgil Thomson’s music” Indiana later told The New York Times, a visceral connection that led Indiana to convince Minnesota’s Tyrone Guthrie Theatre to produce a modest version of Mother in 1967.

The Minnesota designs provoked at least one critical drubbing (including the suggestion that Jasper Johns ought to claim copyright infringement — ouch) but the ’76 version opened with fireworks and a bicentennial parade of Indiana-designed floats and was a hit. “`The` boldly colored red, white and blue pop-art sets and picturesque costumes provided a perfect visual realization of the opera,” wrote the Times’ Peter Davis.

Of course, no one raved more than one of the production’s major sponsors, Robert L.B. Tobin. “Perhaps all of us want to be remembered for something,” he wrote to Indiana in August 1976, “and this may be part of what I would like to be remembered for: making Mother live, and make `sic` people rejoice as those of us who have had the unique privilege of seeing the work in progress and the work on the stage.”


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