Jed Perl

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Jed Perl

Some of the dark­est, most beau­ti­fully sat­ur­nine di­men­sions of the mod­ern imag­i­na­tion are ex­plored in an ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­hi­bi­tion mounted in Paris this sum­mer. “Derain, Balthus, Gi­a­cometti: Une ami­tié artis­tique,” at the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art of the City of Paris, plunges vis­i­tors into the melan­choly of modernism, but a melan­choly so vig­or­ous, provoca­tive, and heart­felt that it has its own kind of ex­hil­a­ra­tion. On the most ba­sic level, this is an ex­hi­bi­tion about the pro­found artis­tic sym­pa­thy that de­vel­oped in mid-twentieth-cen­tury France be­tween An­dré Derain, an avant-garde hero of the first two decades of the cen­tury who many be­lieved had be­come an arch con­ser­va­tive, and two much younger artists, Balthus and Al­berto Gi­a­cometti, whose work first at­tracted at­ten­tion in Sur­re­al­ist cir­cles in the 1930s. Th­ese three were de­ter­mined to re­visit the re­la­tion­ship be­tween art and re­al­ity fol­low­ing the rev­o­lu­tions of early-twentieth-cen­tury artists, who had so of­ten re­jected the nat­u­ral­ism that dom­i­nated Western paint­ing and sculp­ture for five hun­dred years. They were gath­er­ing to­gether the bro­ken pieces of what some dis­par­aged as the sunny old re­al­ity. They wanted to dis­cover a new, moon­lit truth.

This is a show packed with rav­ish­ments and rev­e­la­tions. Gi­a­cometti, the one among the three artists who has earned some­thing like univer­sal ac­cep­tance, is beau­ti­fully pre­sented as a pain­ter, sculp­tor, and drafts­man. You feel all the Mozartean grace, del­i­cacy, and fi­nesse that he brought to a bleak, brusque, Ex­is­ten­tial­ist vi­sion. Balthus, too of­ten mis­un­der­stood as a chic pornog­ra­pher, comes through as one of the most pow­er­ful minds and imag­i­na­tions of twentieth-cen­tury art. His po­etic ex­ac­ti­tude, as deeply pon­dered as Nabokov’s, turns land­scapes, still lifes, por­traits, nudes, and in­te­ri­ors into haunted dream­scapes, by turns stren­u­ous, serene, and ec­static.

As for Derain, by fo­cus­ing on his toolit­tle-known and too-lit­tle-un­der­stood work of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, Jac­que­line Munck, the cu­ra­tor of the ex­hi­bi­tion, has at long last done jus­tice to an artist who may well be among the supreme trage­di­ans of twentieth-cen­tury art. Paint­ings such as Nu au chat (1936– 1938), Geneviève à la pomme (1937– 1938), Le Pein­tre et sa famille (1939), and Au­to­por­trait à la pipe (1953)—gen­er­ally dis­missed as the work of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary turned re­ac­tionary—have a con­cen­trated power. Derain’s in­tri­cate com­po­si­tional rhythms and sub­tle color har­monies pre­cip­i­tate un­ex­pected vis­ual crescen­dos. The bur­nished chiaroscuro of his late nudes, por­traits, still lifes, and fig­ure groups is un­like any­thing else in twentieth-cen­tury art.

Derain, Balthus, Gi­a­cometti: Une ami­tié artis­tique

[Derain, Balthus, Gi­a­cometti: An Artis­tic Friend­ship] an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art of the City of Paris, June 2–Oc­to­ber 29, 2017.

Cat­a­log of the ex­hi­bi­tion by Jac­que­line Munck.

Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art of the

City of Paris, 295 pp., €49.90

Picasso and Matisse, those supreme ma­gi­cians of modernism, are the eas­i­est twentieth-cen­tury artists to love. Their dra­matic shifts in style and sen­si­bil­ity are play­ful even when they’re somber; we ad­mire their change­able­ness. Derain, Gi­a­cometti, and Balthus take a very dif­fer­ent ap­proach. They are the me­ta­physi­cians of modernism. They bur­row into the enig­mas of style; they in­ves­ti­gate the re­la­tion­ship be­tween style and truth.

All th­ese artists, Derain as much as Picasso, em­braced the fun­da­men­tal mod­ern dis­cov­ery that the essence of the vis­ual arts wasn’t nat­u­ral­is­tic truth but pic­to­rial truth. A work of art was first and fore­most an ar­range­ment of forms, which had both emo­tional and sym­bolic im­pli­ca­tions. With Picasso and Matisse, the con­stant re­arrange­ment of forms be­came a way of gen­er­at­ing emo­tions and sym­bols that re­flected the artist’s kalei­do­scopic per­son­al­ity. Derain, Gi­a­cometti, and Balthus were trou­bled by what they saw as the sub­jec­tiv­ity of such con­stantly mu­tat­ing forms. While they were too thor­oughly mod­ern to re­vert to the old idea that a paint­ing was a mir­ror of the vis­i­ble world, they wanted their imag­i­nary worlds to have a logic and in­evitabil­ity that tran­scended their own emo­tional ap­petites.

There was a para­dox here, of which th­ese three artists were per­fectly well aware. The only way to ar­rive at an im­per­sonal vi­sion was through an in­tensely per­sonal strug­gle. The lu­mi­nous re­al­iza­tion of the fig­ure in Derain’s Nu au chat, the lap­idary ar­tic­u­la­tion of fa­cial fea­tures in Gi­a­cometti’s Isaku Yanai­hara (1956), and the crisp ge­om­e­try of ta­bles and chairs in Balthus’s Les Joueurs de cartes (1968–1973) may re­in­state cer­tain tra­di­tional ideas about how an imag­i­nary world is con­structed on the can­vas. But they re­in­state those ideas with so much thought­ful­ness and pas­sion that the re­sult is a paint­ing with an en­tirely new, en­tirely mod­ern power. The artist’s vi­sion, how­ever im­per­sonal, is suf­fused with a par­tic­u­lar per­son’s avidi­ties and per­plex­i­ties. That’s why the work isn’t aca­demic. Is it any won­der that Balthus’s ad­mir­ers in­cluded An­tonin Ar­taud and Al­bert Ca­mus?

The big, open gal­leries of the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art of the City of Paris are the per­fect set­ting for this meet­ing of three al­to­gether un­con­ven­tional minds. The clean, crisp in­stal­la­tion wipes away the cob­webs that have set­tled around even Gi­a­cometti’s rep­u­ta­tion. For mu­se­um­go­ers who hadn’t been aware of the younger Gi­a­cometti’s and Balthus’s in­vig­o­rat­ing friend­ships with the older Derain—there are some won­der­ful pho­to­graphs of the three en­joy­ing a meal to­gether—the jux­ta­po­si­tions can have a rev­e­la­tory power. Munck has set their work in a many-lay­ered di­a­logue. She gath­ers to­gether paint­ings, sculp­tures, and works on paper to con­sid­er­able ef­fect, in the­matic group­ings that fo­cus on por­traits, nudes, dreams, and dark­ness. She makes good use of the artists’ linked in­ter­ests in the­atri­cal de­sign. In the last, mag­nif­i­cent room, Balthus’s Le Pein­tre et son mod­èle (1980– 1981), in which the artist is seen from the back ad­just­ing the cur­tain on a win­dow, is thrillingly set near Gi­a­cometti’s six-foot-high bronze Homme qui marche II (1960), another fig­ure for­ever with­draw­ing from view. And Derain’s dar­ingly lush Deux femmes nues et na­ture morte (1935)—in which the tra­di­tion of Ti­tian, Delacroix, and Renoir is reimag­ined as mod­ern brinks­man­ship—makes an eye­open­ing pair­ing with the aus­ter­ity of Gi­a­cometti’s La Forêt (1950) and its gath­er­ing of spec­tral fig­ures. Each artist, in his very dif­fer­ent way, is turn­ing im­pos­si­bil­i­ties into pos­si­bil­i­ties. And then, lo and be­hold, those pos­si­bil­i­ties be­come plau­si­bil­i­ties.

The show be­gins with a state­ment by Gi­a­cometti about Derain that has long been well known among ad­mir­ers of th­ese artists. Writ­ing in 1957 in the art mag­a­zine Der­rière le miroir, Gi­a­cometti re­called see­ing in 1936 a small still life Derain had painted that year, of a whole and a cut pear, a cou­ple of wine­glasses, and a spoon, all set against a dark back­ground; it’s in­cluded in the cur­rent ex­hi­bi­tion. Gi­a­cometti de­scribed the gal­vanic im­pres­sion that paint­ing made on him. “Derain ex­cites me more,” he wrote, “has given me more and taught me more, than any pain­ter since Cézanne; to me he is the most au­da­cious of them all.”

By the late 1950s Gi­a­cometti was be­com­ing an in­ter­na­tional celebrity while Derain, who had died in 1954, was

widely re­garded as a pi­o­neer­ing Fau­vist who had pretty much lost his way be­tween the late 1920s and the early 1930s. Gi­a­cometti was sug­gest­ing that Derain was al­ways a rad­i­cal—a vi­sion­ary. There was also an eth­i­cal ques­tion that clouded Derain’s rep­u­ta­tion, which Gi­a­cometti sought to dis­pel with­out con­fronting it di­rectly. In 1941, dur­ing the Oc­cu­pa­tion, Derain had gone with a num­ber of other artists on an of­fi­cial trip to Nazi Ger­many; there was some hope, which proved il­lu­sory, of per­suad­ing the Nazis to re­con­sider the fate of a num­ber of artists whose lives were al­ready im­per­iled. Al­though af­ter the war Derain was cleared of charges of col­lab­o­ra­tion, the ac­cu­sa­tions, which Picasso helped to pro­mote, never re­ally went away.

By cel­e­brat­ing Derain’s later paint­ings, Gi­a­cometti aimed to shake up what had by the 1950s be­come the stan­dard model of mod­ern art as a drive to­ward ever-greater pu­rity, sim­plic­ity, and ab­strac­tion. The ex­hi­bi­tion in Paris, grounded as it is in the tes­ti­mony of Gi­a­cometti, bids us re­ex­am­ine the ad­ven­ture­some na­ture of the mod­ern avid­ity for tra­di­tion that was shared by Derain, Gi­a­cometti, and Balthus. What in­ter­ested th­ese artists wasn’t the be­guil­ing sur­faces of ear­lier art but the imag­i­na­tive order that ear­lier artists had im­posed on the world.

Near the be­gin­ning of the ex­hi­bi­tion, vis­i­tors are con­fronted by the tough­minded, soberly geo­met­ric stud­ies of an­cient Egyp­tian sculp­ture and works by Michelangelo and Donatello that Gi­a­cometti pro­duced in the 1930s. There is a series of vig­or­ous oil stud­ies by Balthus af­ter fres­coes by Piero della Francesca. And later there is a breath­tak­ingly in­tri­cate copy of Bruegel’s Mas­sacre of the In­no­cents that Derain painted to­ward the end of his life. Th­ese works—in which the mod­ern imag­i­na­tion re­cov­ers, through the ma­nip­u­la­tion of pen­cil, pen, and brush, the move­ments of older imag­i­na­tions— re­veal the vig­or­ous, ac­tivist spirit that an­i­mates this ex­hi­bi­tion. Here the search for the past isn’t a re­treat but an ad­vance—a new kind of avant-garde in­ter­ven­tion.

Of course no­body needed Munck’s ex­hi­bi­tion to tell them that the pull of tra­di­tion has been strong in twen­ti­eth­cen­tury art, pro­foundly af­fect­ing the work of Picasso, Braque, Matisse, and countless oth­ers who were em­bold­ened by their stud­ies of a va­ri­ety of tra­di­tions: Asian, Byzan­tine, Early Chris­tian, African, South Seas. For many artists a re­newed in­ter­est in the Greco-Ro­man her­itage—Jean Cocteau dubbed it “the re­turn to order”—was a per­fectly log­i­cal out­growth of what An­dré Mal­raux, who knew many of them, would later re­fer to as “the mu­seum with­out walls.” It was not only vis­ual artists who were swept up in an in­ter­est in clas­si­cism be­gin­ning around the time of World War I; it af­fected the work of Satie, Stravin­sky, Di­aghilev, Gide, Eliot, and any num­ber of other cre­ative spir­its. Among the ex­hi­bi­tions in Paris this sum­mer is one at the Musée Picasso that fo­cuses on Picasso’s first wife, the bal­le­rina Olga Khokhlova, and high­lights the clas­si­cism that ob­sessed Picasso for some­thing like a decade. Al­though much of the work on dis­play is fa­mil­iar, the es­pe­cially rich show­ing of works on paper fur­ther un­der­scores the sur­gi­cal wit with which Picasso anat­o­mized a French clas­si­cal tra­di­tion that ranged from Poussin in the seven­teenth cen­tury to In­gres, Corot, and Pu­vis de Cha­vannes in the nine­teenth cen­tury.

What has re­mained a mat­ter of con­tention, cer­tainly among art his­to­ri­ans, is how to in­ter­pret the turn­ing away from the Cu­bist frac­tur­ing of the im­age that Picasso and Braque had in­au­gu­rated and that for­ever changed the na­ture of art. Ex­hi­bi­tions deal­ing with this sub­ject—in­clud­ing “On Clas­sic Ground,” mounted at Lon­don’s Tate Gallery in 1990, and “Chaos and Clas­si­cism,” at the Guggen­heim in New York in 2010—have tended to one de­gree or another to see a re­treat from modernism. Many of those shows— and the work of re­spected schol­ars, in­clud­ing Christo­pher Green in Eng­land and Ken­neth Sil­ver in the United States—have sug­gested the in­flu­ence of po­lit­i­cal and so­cial forces in a re­turn to forms that were more closely aligned with nat­u­ral­is­tic ap­pear­ances. An in­ter­est among artists in­clud­ing Picasso, Matisse, Derain, Braque, and Léger in the work of French artists such as Poussin, Louis Le Nain, David, In­gres, Corot, and Pu­vis de Cha­vannes has some­times been as­so­ci­ated with rightwing na­tion­al­ist ten­den­cies in France in the 1920s and 1930s.

A long line of Marx­ist thought about Picasso, of which John Berger’s work is only the best known, has re­lated his turn to clas­si­cism dur­ing and af­ter World War I to the in­creas­ingly bour­geois ex­is­tence that he was lead­ing with Olga; Berger writes that Picasso, “hav­ing ‘shocked’ the dis­tin­guished and the wealthy” with his Cu­bist works, now “joined them,” pro­duc­ing works that Berger de­scribes as “im­per­son­ations or car­i­ca­tures.” “Chaos and Clas­si­cism,” or­ga­nized by Sil­ver, a pro­fes­sor at New York Univer­sity, cre­ated a his­tor­i­cal con­tin­uum that with­out dot­ting ev­ery i and cross­ing ev­ery t at the very least sug­gested a link be­tween Picasso’s clas­si­cism of the World War I years and a Nazi or Fas­cist in­ter­est in clas­si­cism some years later.

A fun­da­men­tal as­sump­tion un­der­pins all th­ese var­i­ous ar­gu­ments, in­ter­pre­ta­tions, and as­ser­tions: that spe­cific artis­tic styles and sen­si­bil­i­ties have some sym­bi­otic or at least some close re­la­tion­ship with spe­cific so­cial and po­lit­i­cal ten­den­cies. By this logic, many art his­to­ri­ans are in­clined to be­lieve that clas­si­cism tends to be re­ac­tionary and that newer artis­tic styles, forms, or me­dia (Dadaism, col­lage, video, and so forth) tend to be po­lit­i­cally or ide­o­log­i­cally pro­gres­sive. That such as­sump­tions aren’t sup­ported by the facts doesn’t seem to mat­ter.

Here are a few of the facts. Fu­tur­ism and Sur­re­al­ism, move­ments with im­pec­ca­ble avant-garde (i.e., pro­gres­sive) cre­den­tials, def­i­nitely had affini­ties for re­gres­sive pol­i­tics. Some Fu­tur­ists were proto-Fas­cists who turned out to be out­right Fas­cists. An­dré Bre­ton, the ring­leader of the Sur­re­al­ists, was by most mea­sures a re­ac­tionary when it came to women and their place in so­ci­ety. As for the clas­si­cism that Picasso and Léger em­braced at var­i­ous points in their lives, there is no rea­son to be­lieve that it was in­spired by con­ser­va­tive or re­ac­tionary in­cli­na­tions. Picasso’s clas­si­cism in the World War I and post–World War I pe­riod, with its ref­er­ences to Greek and Ro­man sculp­ture and paint­ing, was grounded in more per­sonal and even au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal im­pulses. You might say that he was mythol­o­giz­ing his own life as he re­vis­ited the Mediter­ranean world of his youth and rhap­sodized his first wife and young son by reimag­in­ing them as clas­si­cal archetypes. As for Léger, soon af­ter World War II he turned for in­spi­ra­tion to the French clas­si­cal tra­di­tion of Poussin and David. He was work­ing on a series of can­vases cel­e­brat­ing the lives of or­di­nary cit­i­zens at work and at play that were meant to re­flect the views and val­ues of the French Com­mu­nist Party. If any­thing, Léger’s clas­si­cism was left-wing in spirit.

What­ever one ul­ti­mately makes of the col­lab­o­ra­tionist ac­cu­sa­tions that have clouded Derain’s rep­u­ta­tion, view­ers will find them­selves leav­ing “Derain, Balthus, Gi­a­cometti: Une ami­tié artis­tique” with a clear sense that artis­tic styles and sen­si­bil­i­ties have their own lives and evo­lu­tions. What this ex­hi­bi­tion demon­strates is that artis­tic vi­sions, be­fore they are po­lit­i­cal or so­cial vi­sions, are pro­foundly per­sonal ex­pres­sions—at least they are when great artists like Derain, Gi­a­cometti, and Balthus are in­volved. When we con­sider that Gi­a­cometti, a hero among Left Bank in­tel­lec­tu­als who claimed Jean-Paul Sartre among his key sup­port­ers, was prais­ing Derain, by some ar­gu­ments a col­lab­o­ra­tor and a re­ac­tionary, we can see that there are artis­tic affini­ties that cut across—or quite sim­ply have noth­ing to do with—ide­o­log­i­cal lines.

And more is at stake here. The Paris ex­hi­bi­tion makes clear that not only the con­ven­tional artis­tic and po­lit­i­cal align­ments but also the con­ven­tional ideas about what con­sti­tutes an avant­garde can be down­right mis­lead­ing. Who is to say that Derain’s later work doesn’t con­sti­tute a series of ad­ven­tures ev­ery bit as dar­ing as his ear­lier ad­ven­tures as a Fau­vist, when he was closely aligned with Matisse? Let us not for­get that Derain was one of the first Parisian artists to take an in­ter­est in the sculp­ture of Africa and the South Seas. Who is to say that his in­ter­est in Greek vase paint­ing, Pom­pei­ian land­scape paint­ing, and Baroque still life paint­ing wasn’t a prod­uct of the same quest­ing, ques­tion­ing spirit? In the 1930s the Ger­man art critic Carl Ein­stein, a good friend of Braque’s, be­came in­ter­ested in the idea of no­madism, and there is a sense in which ev­ery mod­ern artist had by then be­come a no­mad, mov­ing among a range of styles. Picasso and Matisse saw this plu­ral­ism as a source of un­lim­ited freedom. But Derain, Balthus, and Gi­a­cometti, even as they em­braced a va­ri­ety of stylis­tic pos­si­bil­i­ties, rec­og­nized that such freedom came with a great price and a ter­ri­fy­ing sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity. They felt obliged to con­stantly reaf­firm the au­then­tic­ity of style—to demon­strate that it had a raison d’être that tran­scended the artist’s im­me­di­ate imag­i­na­tive ap­petites. Is it any won­der there is such a grav­i­tas in the work of th­ese three artists?

Derain is al­most painfully sin­cere. Whether he is paint­ing the dark sil­hou­ette of a hum­ble jug, the shim­mer­ing flesh of a beau­ti­ful woman, or a daz­zling high­light on a wine glass, he aims for essences. For mod­ern sen­si­bil­i­ties, at­tuned to the sub­jec­tiv­ity of ex­pe­ri­ence, that sin­cer­ity can seem a sort of ar­ro­gance. A sim­i­lar mis­un­der­stand­ing has dogged Balthus’s ca­reer. I have of­ten sus­pected that what dis­turbs

many peo­ple about Balthus’s paint­ings of young women isn’t so much the eroti­cism as the artist’s re­fusal to leaven his vi­sions with an ironic wink. If the eroti­cism were re­ally the is­sue, then how are we to ex­plain all the erotic con­tent in other mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary art— from Egon Schiele and Picasso to Eric Fis­chl, John Cur­rin, and Jeff Koons— that the crit­ics and the pub­lic seem to ac­cept more or less with­out ques­tion? There is a total ab­sence of irony in this ex­hi­bi­tion. And in our ob­ses­sively ironic age that can leave vis­i­tors feeling un­moored. The trick­ster, the ma­gi­cian, and the con­nois­seur of para­dox—those heroes of a time when any­thing goes— have no place in “Derain, Balthus, Gi­a­cometti.” As Fabrice Her­gott, the di­rec­tor of the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art of the City of Paris, com­ments at the be­gin­ning of the cat­a­log, even in Paris Derain’s later work re­mains rel­a­tively lit­tle known. There hasn’t been a ret­ro­spec­tive of Balthus’s work in Paris in more than thirty years. Many of Derain’s most im­por­tant later can­vases are in the col­lec­tion of the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art in Troyes, but when I went to see them there, ad­mit­tedly many years ago, they were poorly pre­sented. The col­lec­tion of the Pompidou Cen­ter in Paris con­tains some of Balthus’s largest and great­est works—in­clud­ing La Cham­bre Turque (1965–1966), Le Pein­tre et son mod­èle (1980–1981), and Grande com­po­si­tion au cor­beau (1983–1986)—but they are by no means al­ways on dis­play.

The cur­rent ex­hi­bi­tion and its ex­cel­lent cat­a­log—one wishes an English edi­tion would ap­pear—build on what has been a steady but slow drumbeat of in­ter­est in this al­ter­na­tive modernism. Ga­lerie Pa­trice Trig­ano, on the rue des Beaux-Arts on the Left Bank, has mounted as a sort of ac­com­pa­ni­ment to “Derain, Balthus, Gi­a­cometti” a sub­stan­tial show of works by Derain that con­tains some beau­ti­ful late, in­ti­mate land­scapes of a va­ri­ety not rep­re­sented in the larger ex­hi­bi­tion.1

What is per­haps not made clear enough in the cat­a­log, at least for Amer­i­can au­di­ences, is the ex­tent to which the US has contributed to the ap­pre­ci­a­tion of th­ese artists. Pierre Matisse, the son of the pain­ter and a leg­endary New York dealer, rep­re­sented Gi­a­cometti for many years and was Balthus’s dealer for some fifty years. The Pierre Matisse Gallery was where Gi­a­cometti’s new fig­u­ra­tive sculp­tures were orig­i­nally seen af­ter World War II; they were a bolt from the blue. A Gi­a­cometti Portrait, the Amer­i­can writer James Lord’s 1965 ac­count of the days he spent with the artist while he was paint­ing his portrait, was among the ear­li­est pieces of writ­ing to re­ally plumb the artist’s imag­i­na­tion; it has de­servedly been reprinted a num­ber of times.

No doubt with some en­cour­age­ment from Pierre Matisse, the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art in New York be­came, in 1956, the first mu­seum to mount a ret­ro­spec­tive of Balthus’s work. It was Pierre Matisse who in the 1980s first pre­sented to the pub­lic Balthus’s rein­ter­pre­ta­tions of Ja­panese paint­ing, in an ex­hi­bi­tion that re­mains bright in the mem­o­ries of many of us who were lucky enough to see it. It is also worth not­ing that an im­por­tant Derain portrait in the Paris show, Le Boa noir (1935), was a gift from Pierre Matisse and his wife to the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum of Art. Al­though the bib­li­og­ra­phy of the cat­a­log in­cludes a trans­la­tion of some of Derain’s writ­ings that the poet Rosanna Warren pub­lished in The Ge­or­gia Re­view in 1978, Amer­ica’s part in a con­tin­u­ing ef­fort to shed light on Derain’s later achieve­ment is in­ad­e­quately rep­re­sented. One of the finest of all es­says about Derain, per­haps sec­ond in im­por­tance only to Gi­a­cometti’s heart­felt trib­ute, was writ­ten by the Amer­i­can pain­ter Le­land Bell; his “The Case for Derain as an Im­mor­tal,” a cover story in Art News in 1960, has a near-mythic sta­tus in cer­tain New York cir­cles. The poet John Ash­bery, when he was the art critic at Newsweek, wrote with some en­thu­si­asm about what he re­ferred to as Derain’s turn “to­ward what is time­less,” the oc­ca­sion be­ing an ex­hi­bi­tion, “An­dré Derain in North Amer­i­can Col­lec­tions,” which toured the coun­try in the early 1980s.2 Both in Europe and in Amer­ica, there have al­ways been artists, crit­ics, and mu­se­um­go­ers who see Derain, Gi­a­cometti, and Balthus as rep­re­sent­ing not a re­jec­tion of modernism but a dif­fer­ent kind of modernism. Any­body who wants to fully grasp the na­ture of the artis­tic friend­ships so beau­ti­fully ex­plored in this ex­hi­bi­tion would do well to be­gin by con­fronting the con­sid­er­able re­sis­tance to th­ese artists and th­ese works that re­mains.

Al­though the fig­ure sculp­tures that Gi­a­cometti was do­ing af­ter World War II have reached ex­tra­or­di­nary prices in the auc­tion houses, there are still more than a few highly so­phis­ti­cated art his­to­ri­ans who have never for­given him for turn­ing from the ex­quis­ite Sur­re­al­ist vi­sions of his early years to the por­traits of the 1950s and 1960s, in which he some­times re­calls Rem­brandt’s soul­stir­ring verisimil­i­tude. The ex­quis­ite po­etry of Balthus’s later nudes—which

I be­lieve ri­val some of Ti­tian’s supreme achieve­ments—has been dis­missed as se­nile sen­ti­men­tal­ity by many thought­ful ob­servers. And what Le­land Bell so acutely char­ac­ter­ized as Derain’s “vir­tu­os­ity with­out self-in­ter­est”— those glistening sur­faces and lus­trously il­lu­sion­is­tic vol­umes—has been reg­u­larly mis­un­der­stood as maudlin show­man­ship.

To all of this skep­ti­cism the mag­nif­i­cent ex­hi­bi­tion cur­rently at the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art of the City of Paris re­sponds with a clear­head­ed­ness and an in­trepid con­fi­dence rare in the mu­seum world. What we have here is noth­ing less than another side of the great mod­ern ad­ven­ture. That Derain, Balthus, and Gi­a­cometti are so ab­so­lutely in­sis­tent on re­ject­ing irony in fa­vor of sin­cer­ity and magic in fa­vor of meta­physics gives this ex­hi­bi­tion a par­tic­u­lar ur­gency in our own dark times.

An­dré Derain, Deux Femmes nues et na­ture morte, 1935

Balthus: Le Pein­tre et son mod­èle, 1980–1981

Al­berto Gi­a­cometti: Isaku Yanai­hara, 1956

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