There has been a long-standing confusion between the terms modern and contemporary art. This exhibition provides a textbook explanation of Modernism and modern art and its place in the history of art. All art at the time it is being done is contemporary for its time, thus when modern art was being produced it was contemporary art; however, the art of today is not modern art. It may be Postmodern or something else, but it is not modern or modernist. Confused? In classical art history terms, modern means from the end of the 18th Century (Jacques Louis David) to around 1965 or so. To most art critics, we mean from about 1863, the first Salon des Refusés, to about 1965, the end of Abstract Expressionism. The art in the Paley collection fits quite nicely into these later dates.

Most, but not all, of the works in this exhibition from the Paley Collection are French and they are virtual alphabet of the gold standard of French Modernist artists of the late 19th Century to the mid 20th Century: Bonnard, Bourdelle, Braque, Cézanne, Dégas, Dérain, Gauguin, Giacometti, Gris, Lachaise, Moillol, Manet, Matisse, Picasso, Redon, Renoir, Rouault, Rousseau, Toulouse-Lautrec and Vuillard. Add to that these mostly small scale works are first-rate examples by these artists and this gives a very good reason for my Québec and Ontario readers to plan a trip the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec to see the exhibition at its only Canadian venue. Even if you were to visit the Museum of Modern Art in New York, once this exhibition has completed its tour, you would not see so much of the Paley Collection at one time as they only show parts of the collection on a rotating basis.

Several of these artists are presented in depth in the exhibition, like Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso and Roualt. It is difficult to pick individual works from so many masterpieces, but I might start with Picasso’s iconic, Rose Period work, Boy Leading a Horse, from 1905-1906. One of the largest paintings in the exhibition at over two metres in height, it is an image that is familiar in the history of art and an early work by the Spanish born artist. The Rose Period, 1905-1906, was a transition for the artist from Symbolist motifs drawn from other artists like Puvis de Chavannes to the art of his own invention such as Cubism that was to follow in less than ten years. I have seen this painting a number of times and it always stops me in my tracks as I am dumbfounded by Picasso’s youthful genius. He had no right to be so good so early and go on to so many, even better, things over a long life. 

On the subject of Cubism, one of Picasso’s great works, The Architect’s Table (1912), from this period is included in the exhibition. It is hard to understand that this painting is from the same artist who painted Boy Leading a Horse and that is the magic of the artist; every time he reaches a high point in his career he changes direction and it’s sometimes one hundred and eighty degrees. While other artists will find a niche and stay there profitably their whole life, Picasso was like a bull, and a bull is an apt metaphor for the artist, in a china shop breaking things, mainly the history of modern art, and coming up with new forms of art to confuse the public. Cubism was certainly something that not only confused the public, but angered them as well. Cubism is now over a hundred years old and many people still are befuddled and, hence, unhappy with paintings like The Architect’s Table.

Cézanne’s small still life, 53 cm x 61 cm, from 1979-80, Milk Can and Apples, stands out and is an excellent example of why this artist was so important in the development of Modernism. What shows through in this small work is the sheer act of painting rather than an attempt at traditional realism. The struggle to create a new form of artistic expression is self-evident and it easy to see why so many artists at the beginning of the 20th. Century looked to Cézanne for inspiration. There are just so many paintings in the Paley Collection that are outstanding that it would take a book to do the exhibition justice and, indeed, there is one, a catalogue of the collection from the Museum of Modern Art written in 1992, which is still in print, and on sale at the exhibition that is worth reading. 

I like Modernism because it is what I think art, mainly painting and sculpture, should look like and perform in society and by that, I mean provide a backdrop of a civilized culture. I assume William S. Paley shared my view, but he had the money to pursue his passion. All the works in this exhibition were from his personal collection and ended up as a gift to the Museum of Modern Art in New York where he served as a longtime board chairman (1937-1990). What a gift, what a collection. I doubt that it could be repeated very easily today as it was not just money he spent, it reflected his taste and a half of a century of collecting.

Portland Museum of Art Portland, Maine
May 2—September 8, 2013

Musée national des beaux-arts du Quebec
October 10, 2013—February 16,2014

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art Bentonville, Arkansas
February—April 2014