Dessins Contemporains Surréalistes de Rotterdam & Un Univers Intime

February 7, 2010By Heidi EllisonArchive

Old Masters Upstairs,
Surrealism Downstairs

Paris Update Un Univers Intime-Guardi

”San Giorgio Maggiore Seen from the Giudecca” by Francesco Guardi. © Fondation Custodia, Frits Lugt Collection, Paris

At first glance, there would seem to be no relation at all between the two excellent new exhibitions at the Institut Néerlandais: in the basement, “Dessins Contemporains Surréalistes de Rotterdam: Collection du Musée Boijmans Van Beuningen,” and on the second floor, “Un Univers Intime: Tableaux de la Collection Frits Lugt.” In other words, contemporary Surrealist drawings downstairs and Old Master paintings upstairs. Yet the two shows share a concern for close observation of the world around us and what we might call “content” – they really give your eye something to look at, study, ponder, digest or wonder at. You keep looking, then look again and make new discoveries each time.

Some wonderful artists are represented in the show of contemporary drawings from the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam, known for its collection of works on paper. Although the exhibition’s title dubs them “Surrealist” – and I suppose they are in their quirky, dreamlike visions – they have little in common. I especially liked the extremely skillful and evocative large-scale drawings of Charles Avery, whose pathos-filled scenes tell inexplicable stories. In one, a broken-down man sits on the sidewalk with an array of “stone mice” (stones vaguely shaped like mice; the title of the work) spread out on a piece of cardboard in front of him, ignored by the people in the street, all familiar types, among them a hunched vagrant with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, his posture perfectly captured. In the eerie “Avatars” (2005), a traumatized couple looks on dolefully while a sort of veterinarian works on a creature lying on an examining table. On the shelves on

Paris Update Institut Neerlandais CHARLES AVERY

“Avatars” (2005). © Charles Avery

one side of the rooms are animal skeletons and on the other side creeping, crawling and leaping creatures, including what look like miniature dinosaurs. “What’s going on here?” you may well ask.

A close look is required to figure out what is going on in most of these works. When you study Chris Hipkiss’s drawings, you’ll see that lots of not immediately obvious things are happening in the shadows of what at first look like bleak landscapes. The drawings by Oscar Camilo de las Flores look like textured gray abstracts from afar, but on closer examination prove to be made up of dozens of grotesque Goyaesque creatures. Paul Noble has covered a gigantic egg-shaped object with tiny, intricate drawings featuring animals; in one of them, two dogs dressed in buns seem to be trying to sneak out of a “hot” room (a sign says it’s 95°F), but it takes a moment of study before you get the joke.

Ronald Cornelissen’s handsome images are simpler and more graphic, but he conveniently

Paris Update Institut Neerlandais black oak

“Black Oak” (2006). © Ronald Cornelissen

provides us with a link to the Old Master paintings show upstairs by inserting a reproduction of Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s engraving “Lechery” (1558) in his “Black Oak” (2006).

The upstairs show, with 115 paintings, has too many pleasures to enumerate. Plan to spend plenty of time drinking in this collection of portraits, landscapes, still lifes, domestic scenes, religious and mythological subjects, etc., by some of the greatest names in Dutch (the majority of the works, dating from the 17th century), Flemish, Italian and French painting. From the collection of Frits Lugt (1884-1970), they have been recently restored and reframed. I will mention just a few of the many treasures here. Among the portraits, a lovely self-portrait by Sofonisba Anguissola (c.1532-1625) aroused my curiosity. She was an artist from a noble family in Cremona, Italy, whose work was praised by Michelangelo and Vasari.

There are several works by Jan van Kessel the Elder, known for his studies of natural forms, including one of seashells that almost seems like a high-quality color photograph (but better), so perfect is the rendering of the colors, forms and surface of the shells.

It was a pleasure to see again one of my favorite paintings from the wonderful recent exhibition “Vermeer’s Women: Secrets and Silence” at the Fitzwilliam Museum in

Paris Update Un Univers Intime-Vrel

“Woman at a Window, Waving at a Girl” by Jacob Vrel. © Fondation Custodia, Frits Lugt Collection, Paris

Cambridge: Jacob Vrel’s mysterious “Woman at a Window, Waving at a Girl (c. 1650), in which the seated women in a plain room leans forward eagerly, almost falling off her chair, to wave to a ghostly child standing in the darkness outside the window.

One of the Italian masterpieces in the show is a view of Venice by Francesco Guardi, ”San Giorgio Maggiore Seen from the Giudecca” (c. 1775-80), with wonderful blues and lighting effects even Turner would have envied.

The show takes us right up to the 19th century, with many beautiful landscapes and the striking, almost-abstract “Nude with Black Stockings on a Bed” (c. 1900) by George Hendrick Breitner.

If you love painting and drawing, don’t miss either of these shows. And thanks to the Institut Néerlandais for providing a booklet for each show with information on each work and the artists.

In case you can’t make it to “Un Univers Intime,” click here to see all the paintings online.

Heidi Ellison

Institut Néerlandais: 121, rue de Lille, 75007 Paris. Métro: Through October 2. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 1pm-7pm. Closed Monday. Admission: €6 (for both shows); €4 (for either show).

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