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Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2011

Milwaukee Art Museum's Innovative Impressionists

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It was 1876 and novelist-critic Louis Edmond Duranty detected early artistic flashes of the modern experience. He called it “the joining of a torch with a pencil.” Young artists dubbed “impressionists” strove to capture moments where “hands thrust into pockets would constitute eloquence.”

The Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM) now reveals what Duranty saw—and how drawing cut through to the new at least as much as painting. “Impressionism: Masterworks on Paper,” running through Jan. 8, 2012, was gathered from museums worldwide in MAM's latest major collaboration with the Albertina in Vienna. This seductive exhibit shows how Impressionism opened modernity's windows partly by shredding the musty presumption that drawings were mere preparation for the “higher” form of painting.

These works persuade as accumulated whorls in pastel and charcoal—of wheat fields, clouds or sensual fabric—capture the humanity, the landscape and the very air these artists thrived in, and died in. Yes, more than pure formal innovation, this work attains human truth, like the proud yet diseased musician in Edgar Degas' Portrait of a Seated Woman: The Brown Dress or Conversation at the Racetrack, an intimate view of female body language. Or the oceanic depth of skin tone and convention-defying beauty in Paul Gauguin's Tahitian Women and the four noirish conté crayon scenes by Georges Seurat, two legends whose art has never before graced the museum's walls.

These artists embraced the freedom of the quick sketch for its power to cut close to the artistic verity and vibrancy of the quotidian moment. “Drawing is not form; it is the sensation one has of it,” Degas said. They seized the optical truth that pastels, by definition, contain light. Two Claude Monet pastels, ostensibly studies for the Waterloo Bridge oil, stand as complete works of ethereal mystery.

A few works seem fleeting, but this consistently gorgeous stuff culminates with the great post-Impressionists: Paul Cézanne's austere watercolors, Vincent Van Gogh's animated view of his studio window and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's fearless character studies. Also displayed are works by Mary Cassatt, Odilon Redon, Alfred Sisley and others, including Pierre-Auguste Renoir's oil Bathers with Crab.