For the show Painters in Paris: 1895-1950, which recently opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the curators have cherry-picked many of the best works in the museum's collection of Parisian painting. A large number of the more than 100 pictures by 38 artists -- among them Picasso, Matisse, Bonnard, Modigliani, and Vuillard -- have come into the collection in the past two decades. And so the exhibit is a measure of just how strong the Met has become in this area. Of course, the show is also an elegant form of bragging, which does not require much focus, and it provides the museum with the opportunity to mount a crowd-pleaser on the cheap.
But no excuse is necessary for showing great works of art. And seeing pictures in this way is actually very useful. Museumgoers now identify art much too closely with the forward march of permanent collections, the apotheosis of individual artists in retrospectives, and the scholarly aura of thematic exhibitions. Here, the curators have done a roughly chronological layout -- but only roughly -- and the works by any particular artist are not all grouped together. There is no strong inclination to instruct. As a result, the art seems unusually free. Picasso appears as a great artist, but also just an artist among others. Some figures who never quite get their due, among them Derain, stand out. There are first-rate works on display by such masters as Matisse and Bonnard -- but also some weaker pictures, ordinarily not on view, that put the masterpieces in perspective. The curators have a chance to make lovely or unexpected juxtapositions. At a certain moment, a similar mask-shaped head appears in Picasso, Matisse, and Derain. In the thirties, both Picasso and Balthus dream of young women -- and not always in a dissimilar way. And when you hang De Chirico's Ariadne next to Henri Rousseau's Repast of a Lion, it almost looks as if the gray, sleeping statue were dreaming of the red-toothed jungle.