Setting Off Alarms With the Stroke of a Brush 

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Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “Onions” (1881) is part of the Collecting the Impressionists exhibit currently on view at SAMA.
Collecting the Impressionists
10am-8pm Tue, 10am-5pm Wed-Sat, noon-6pm Sun
$8 general; $7 senior;
$5 student; $3 age 4-11
Free 4-8pm Tue
Through Jan 7
San Antonio Museum of Art
200 W. Jones
978-8100
Samuseum.org
The sirens are blaring, the lights are flashing, and the thick armored door to the entrance of the San Antonio Museum of Art’s William L. Cowden gallery whisks shut. The 20 people who showed up for the opening of the current exhibition, Collecting the Impressionists, are trapped inside. They eye each other warily, half-expecting to see an art heist in progress.

But there are no plastic explosives, no guards taken hostage, nobody hoisted skyward with a purloined masterpiece. Someone has simply invaded the personal space of Renoir’s still-life “Onions,” setting off the museum’s hyper-sensitive security system.

The works from Renoir, Monet, Degas, Manet, Morisot, and Pissaro are on loan, and SAMA marks its floors with black tape in hopes that visitors will stand back and admire the paintings at arm’s length. But can you blame people for wanting to get closer?

Renoir and his fellow Impressionists are all about the brushstroke — those quick, deft flicks of the brush that perfectly capture the papery, translucent skin of an onion, the soft blush of a woman’s cheek, or the glistening wetness of her steady gaze.

Despite their skill at quickly wielding a brush, the Impressionists had been setting off alarms even before they exhibited as a group in Paris from 1874 to 1886.

The most notorious — Edouard Manet — scandalized the art world a decade earlier with his “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe” (Luncheon on the Grass, 1863), which sandwiches a naked Parisian woman with two fully clothed men.

“Le déjeuner sur l’herbe” isn’t part of Massachusetts’ Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute or its traveling exhibition. But Manet’s fondness for flouting the rules of depth perspective can be seen in his “Moss Roses in a Vase” (1882). The heavily outlined vase almost looks as if it’s pasted upon the surface of the canvas.

Exquisite brushwork and a visual push-pull on the surface of the canvas also figure prominently in the Renoirs at the show, including “Onions” (1881), “At the Concert” (1880), and “A Girl with a Fan” (1880).

In “A Girl with a Fan,” the eye gets drawn to the flowers, the young woman’s soft hair, her porcelain skin, and glistening eyes. But there’s less visual depth to the Japanese fan, and the green and white striped wall has almost no depth at all. It’s as flat as, well, wallpaper.

Renoir’s “At the Concert” also beckons and repels the eye. You see another young woman’s soft hair, smooth skin, glistening eyes, and then — bam — more wallpaper, gold and red this time.

“At the Concert” also pulses in and out of focus. Some elements, like the flower near the woman’s cleavage, are sharply detailed. Other elements, like the lace ruffle around her neckline and some of the notes on the paper she’s holding, are in a blur.

Claude Monet’s “The Duck Pond” (1874) and “Spring in Giverny” (1890) stray even farther from straightforward visual representation. Stand in front of these canvases, and you can see the fervor of Modern Art in its infancy (born, not without coincidence, at the dawn of photography).

In “The Duck Pond,” the ripples on the surface of the pond blend with the shadows on the dirt path to the house, and the foliage meshes with its reflection on the pond surface. There’s a fusion of earth, water, trees, and sky.

“Spring in Giverny,” painted outdoors on the same parcel of land where Monet painted his water lilies, also invites, and then blocks, visual access to what appears to be a train station in the distance, with grasses and leaves painted in a
sun-dappled frenzy.

Sharp diagonal brushstrokes also animate Renoir’s “Onions,” and Berthe Morisot asserts her painterly role in capturing the snapshot of a young woman arranging her hair in “The Bath” (1886) with a quick, slashing brushstroke style.

Edgar Degas’s “The Dancing Lesson” (1880) is the most surreal painting in this collection. Degas starts with a wide-screen view of a dance rehearsal. But the dancers are under-lit with a strange greenish glow, like when you hold a flashlight to your chin to look creepy, and heads and feet are cropped from the frame.

As with “The Bath” by Morisot, “The Dancing Lesson” captures a fleeting moment in time. These models are not posing for a formal portrait. Degas also plays skillfully with accents of light, highlighting the central dancer’s tri-color fan and bright yellow sash.

Camille Pissaro’s “The River Oise near Pontoise” (1873) sets a rambunctious foreground of wildflowers against the stately geometry of a riverside factory. But his “Piette’s House at Montfoucault” (1874, acquired in 1941) seems out of place in this exhibition, with its leaden sky, heavy snow, and absence of color and reflected light.

SAMA effectively presents these paintings to visitors with sufficient space and light, and places the canvases in a logical progression. The story of how Sterling and Francine Clark acquired these pieces also gives context to the paintings in the exhibition.

There are a few lapses, however. Visitors reading the notes on the wall learn that the Clark’s first Renoir was “Onions.” The museum’s brochure correctly notes that Clark purchased Renoir’s “Girl Crocheting” six years earlier, in 1916.

The exhibition also can do without Sterling Clark’s own banal commentary about the art on display. Regarding Renoir’s “A Girl with a Fan,” we learn that he liked it because the model was “such a pretty charming girl.” Manet’s “Moss Roses in a Vase,” meanwhile, is simply “a wonderfully fine Manet.”

Even so, this compact exhibition is worth a visit, and shouldn’t require more than an hour out of your day — unless you trigger the alarm by standing too close, and you’re obliged to stay a few minutes more.


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