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Small Wonders

An exhibition at NCMA of only five modernist paintings gives viewers time to absorb each work


Your art museum, as the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) styles itself, has been knocking us out with big exhibitions for the last few years. This is all well and good, since most of the shows have been excellent--other than the part about having to exit the galleries through a gift shop. But, as important and worthwhile as they can be, big exhibitions are exhausting. Sometimes you just want to look at a few good artworks--to have a quiet, blissful aesthetic interlude.

Now's the time for that at the NCMA. On display through Sept. 16 is a small, powerful group of paintings that fills you up without wearing you out. Picasso, Braque and Leger: Paintings from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Julian H. Robertson comprises only five pictures, but those five are highly rewarding. And not being faced with dozens of works, it's possible to give each picture the time it deserves.

The three Picasso paintings here demonstrate that artist's forceful approach to transforming what he saw into imagery, and remind us why Picasso's name became the 20th century byword for virile creative genius. Like so much of his work, these paintings are portraits of some of his mistress-muses. In them, the women's personalities are expressed as much through color as through the line quality, which varies drastically from picture to picture. The earliest work is "Woman with Hairnet," a 1938 oil on canvas portrait of Marie-Thérse Walter. It is sprightly, jaunty, maybe even loving, with colors of periwinkle, mauve, vermillion, gentian, and the yellow-green of early spring. Golden lines radiate joyously from the head. All the marks are bold, confident and energetic--but still gentle. The arrangement of the features is typical of Picasso's metamorphic Cubist rearrangements of reality, but the woman does not appear distorted, even though we see both sides of her face at once.

In contrast, the 1943 "Head of a Woman" (Dora Maar) does appear distorted--horribly so. It feels bullying--as if the artist had purposefully emphasized the sitter's weaknesses and peculiarities. Painted in gouache, which gives a flat, unreflective surface, it is all grays, blacks and white over a cardboard-colored panel. The lines of the drawing are thin and twisty; the features rearranged so brutally that the figure looks more like a mutant animal in a hat than a woman. It's possible that the dreariness and anger in this picture come from Picasso's response to conditions in occupied Paris, and not to the woman, but the painting gives off a whiff of cruelty.

"Seated Woman, Red and Yellow Background" is an entirely different matter. This 1952 enamel on panel portrait of Franoise Gilot emanates respect. Much larger than the other two pieces here, this is a robust, forceful composition. We see a nude from the belly upwards, seated rigidly upright, with a massive repose like that of a sphinx or an oracle. Behind her on the left is a large area of smoky red; on the right a smoldering yellow. She is very white, outlined in black, her huge hands resting on the chair arms. Her mineral green hair is pulled dramatically away from her face, which is structured like that of the early portrait of Marie-Thérse. We see a side view and a frontal view simultaneously. But here the whole effect is one of power and mystery, rather than compliance and delight.

Despite its dynamic, glowing blue areas, it's tough to get too worked up over Fernand Leger's 1918 "Pistons," although it was good to see it in relation to the contemporaneous Stanton Macdonald-Wright paintings downstairs. However, the last of this exhibition's five paintings is more than satisfying. George Braque didn't remake the world as thoroughly as Picasso, but while he may not have been as inventive, he was often more sweetly playful. In "The Pedestal Table (Gray Vase and Artist's Palette)" from 1938, he uses gridded areas on the sides to supply some sense of order for the oddly tilted array of strange objects in the painting's center. Braque often combines Cubist abstraction and flattening with some very subtle painterly passages: Take the time to enjoy that delicacy here.

And take the time afterward to see some of the museum's permanent collection, which often gets ignored by visitors to the special exhibitions. Rarely do you have the opportunity to look at Picassos and then stroll over and examine some of the types of African masks that so profoundly influenced his style. The NCMA's African collection contains a number of very fine objects, some of which rotate in and out of the displays--and recently the large cases have been re-installed so that the objects are easier to see.

Like every other state agency and nonprofit arts organization, the NCMA is feeling the effects of budget cuts. One of this fall's major exhibitions has had to be eliminated altogether--the calendar for the next year will look a little thin. Fortunately, the permanent collection is deep enough to offer many pleasures for a quiet hour, and loss of funding for major exhibitions may (almost) be a blessing in disguise, if it draws our attention to the wonderful artworks we've been racing by on our way to the gift shop. EndBlock

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