When I first walked into The High Museum of Art’s newest exhibit, I expected Picasso, Monet, Manet and Van Gogh. I was surprised to find that the exhibit had so much more to offer.
The High is recently home to “European Masterworks,” a small portion of the massive Phillips Collection normally found in Washington D.C. The collection boasts paintings from Van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Degas and more and is a tour de force.
We began with the French painters Jean Siméon Chardin and Paul Cézanne. A Daumier, a Degas and a Manet also hung in the room. Still French, yes, but quite different. It was a diverse collection of still-lifes and portraits, landscape and scenes.
Continuing on, I realized it was futile to try to understand the placement of these works. Viewers may be disoriented by sudden shifts in the visuals, but that is a valuable part of the experience. When you first adjust to the soft swirls of Vincent Van Gogh’s “Entrance to the Public Gardens at Arles” or the demure dots of Claude Monet’s “Road to Vetheuil,” you immediately turn to see a wall of Paul Klee’s sharp, confusing lines. When you are able to see how these different artists and their styles work together allows you to see things about each painting that might have gone unnoticed if there wasn’t an opposite style directly next to it.
Just as you think you’re settling into a style, the collection pulls you to another place and another time. After viewing Edgar Degas’s “Dancers at the Barre” set against a hunter green wall (which helps the orange pop), you are hit with the blurred blues of Oskar Kokoschka’s magnificent landscapes (his “Courmayeur et les Dents des Géants” is a personal favorite of mine) or Stephan Bonnar’s more impressionistic style. Just as you have acclimated yourself to the dark geometry of early 20th-century Spain, you are pulled into the whimsical brood of an enormous Matisse — this is what makes the collection genius.
The final room houses the Picassos. Pablo Picasso is one of the only artists in the collection to have his pieces displayed all together. The first piece, “Bullfight,” is epitomic of his convoluted figures. The matadors and the bulls twist together into a geometric mess of color, and a kind of painful ease. “Still Life with Glass and Fruit” and “Reaching Figure” follow, just as colorful and mind-bending. “Woman with Green Hat” concludes Picasso’s array and rounds out the collection, ending on a famous and beautiful note.
All the works of the more renowned artists are sprinkled evenly throughout the exhibit, which means you can’t miss any of the less-known painters in your quest to visit Van Gogh or Monet.
If you tend not to read the information about each individual piece, however, you will remain hopelessly disoriented with only an occasional Matisse or Degas to guide you. While there is something to be said for enjoying art for art’s sake and not worrying about the who and the when, there is more to take away if you pay attention to the history of each piece.
This exhibit is the perfect reminder of the importance and enduring relevance of older art, as well as how enjoyable taking a day to go to a museum can be.