Christmas in July

Monet's Boulevard Saint-Denis Argenteuil in Winter (1875).Photo: courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum of Art

Museums often relax in the summer, assembling “this and that” roundups or presenting shows that have a whimsical or eccentric angle. This year, for example, the Brooklyn Museum of Art is exhibiting Impressionists in Winter: Effets de Neige, a particularly handsome crowd pleaser – the great scholar Kevin Kline is the narrator of the Audio Guide – that has an unexpected theme. Organized by the Phillips Collection in Washington, the show includes 63 snow scenes by Monet, Sisley, Pissarro, Renoir, Caillebotte, and Gauguin. Its wit comes from playing against popular expectations about a very familiar style. Impressionism is supposed to be summery; and so, during the Egyptian heat of a New York July, why not turn away from those humid water lilies – and dream of snow falling on the Seine?

The wit is educational, too. The reduced palette of winter – when a painter must work with a smaller range of color than during other seasons of the year – lends instructive emphasis to the Impressionist desire to express the subtlest effects of light. Only the wiliest mix of whites, grays, and a touch of pink, for example, will capture the furtive gleam of light upon snow during an overcast December sunset. The frosty circumstances also provide a brilliant foil for the warmth of Impressionist paint-play; inspired daubing of the brush frequently enlivens a cool scene. The Impressionists themselves, who made it a point to work outside, obviously relished the challenge of winter painting. With the pleasure of an artist upsetting conventional thinking, Pissarro asserted that “there is nothing more cold than the sun at its height in the summer, contrary to what the colorists believe. Nature is colored in winter and cold in the summer.”

Not surprisingly, Monet – who lived for light – was the most determined winter painter. A contemporary of the Impressionists once went for a walk in the country on a day “cold enough to split rocks. We glimpsed a little heater, then an easel, then a gentleman swathed in three overcoats, with gloved hands, his face half-frozen. It was Monsieur Monet studying an aspect of the snow.” “Effets de Neige” includes 21 paintings by Monet, among them several pictures of grain stacks under different light conditions and a series of ravishingly beautiful vistas of the wintry Seine. In looking at these pictures of the Seine – where the mist curls around the slow-moving ice floes – you can feel in your bones the way a river thaws and freezes. Although viewers typically want to be seduced by Impressionism, this show also contains some paintings that are admirably unpicturesque. For example, Caillebotte’s Rooftops in the Snow, which was painted on cardboard, is a powerfully bleak image of blackened smokestacks on snowy roofs. An exacting evocation of a cold, overcast day in the city.

New York Collects Drawings and Watercolors, 1900-1950 at the Morgan Library is a plummy exhibition of more than 140 works by 82 artists. Organized by William Griswold, this is the first show at the Morgan devoted entirely to twentieth-century drawings. It embodies the determination of a museum already celebrated for its collection of old-master and nineteenth-century drawings to move decisively into the modern era. Seventy-three collectors have lent drawings or works on paper to “New York Collects,” many of which will probably be given to the Morgan in the future. The quality of the work is remarkably high, and the great draftsmen of the century – among them Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, Mondrian, and de Kooning – are well represented. In several cases, you can see a wide range of work by a particular artist. For example, five important drawings by Klee are on view.

In addition to the pleasure offered by individual works, this particular survey opens a revealing window onto modernism as a whole. Drawing as a genre is well suited to the exploratory spirit of twentieth-century art. It brings to life – often better than painting can – the fragmentary, the evanescent, and the quixotic. In his essay for the catalogue, Jack Flam quotes Ingres’s famous observation that “drawing is the probity of art,” suggesting that for the nineteenth century, this view of drawing “entailed objectively recognizable notions of skill and craftsmanship.” For the twentieth century, however, probity “came to have very different implications … probity meant truth to one’s own temperament and personal vision of the world.”

At the uptown Guggenheim, Surrealism: Two Private Eyes, The Nesuhi Ertegun and Daniel Filipacchi Collections is now filling most of the museum. Old friends who began collecting Surrealist art in the fifties, Ertegun and Filipacchi amassed enormous holdings; this particular pairing contains more than 700 works. All the leading figures of the movement – together with many secondary figures – are represented in the show, including Ernst, Magritte, Dalí, De Chirico, Bellmer, and Tanguy. Many artists influenced by Surrealism also make an appearance. Certain artists receive what amounts to a show within the show. About 40 works by Joseph Cornell and 50 by Magritte are on view. In an exhibit this large, there is room for many byways and curiosities. For example, the arts of bookbinding particularly shine, as befits a movement whose roots are literary.

The Guggenheim had good reason to organize “Two Private Eyes.” More than any other museum, it has strong historical ties to Surrealism; Peggy Guggenheim even married the leading Surrealist Max Ernst. Some of the work in the show has not, however, worn well. There is much Dalí-derived dreck on display (such as the painting by Tanguy). The official Surrealists created a strangely airless academy of the strange. They seemed to enjoy their own jokes a little too much. Looking at dreamscape after dreamscape – one very much like the next and many lacking any formal visual power – can become as tiresome as listening to a long account of someone else’s dreams. Yet every serious artist since the twenties has had to confront the implications of the style. Surrealism elevated chance into one of the great principles of the century’s art. By mixing the good, the bad, and the indifferent into one big, baggy show, “Private Eyes” creates a vivid sense of the Surrealist milieu – of a period when almost all artists, of whatever talent or fundamental outlook, became conscious of the unconscious.

Christmas in July