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"Voyage into Myth: French Paintings from Gauguin to Matisse from the Hermitage Museum."

Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas St. W. Toronto, Ont. Through Jan. 5.

Admission: $10 to $16 general; $35 family

Tickets: Call (416) 977-2246, (800) 461-3333 or go online at

The exhibition is a collaboration of the AGO, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, in association with the Hermitage Foundation of Canada. A catalog accompanies the show.

The imaginary Arcadia -- as opposed to the real Arcadia of ancient Greece and its gauzily happy citizens -- is a dreamland in which humanity lives in perpetual bliss free of civilization and all its discontents and malcontents.

This mythological place, so important to Western literature and art, is the metaphorical center of a breathtaking exhibition currently on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Called "Voyage into Myth: French Paintings from Gauguin to Matisse from the Hermitage Museum," the exhibition tracks the post-impressionists and early modern artists from 1890 to 1910 as they pursue various idyllic themes in an effort to escape -- in the imagination at least -- the increasing burdens of urban life.

It is a surprising, if not startling, show on a number of accounts. First off, you don't necessarily think of the French avant-garde of the period as dreamers going after the supposed lost innocence of humankind. There was, of course, Henri Matisse and his "Joy of Life" (not in the show) with its depiction of earthly paradise; and before him Paul Gauguin who, famously, left Paris for Tahiti in the hopes of finding an actual earthy paradise. And it is well known that Paul Cezanne, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Paul Signac and many others sought to make images that would convey a natural human kinship existing outside ordinary social boundaries.

But the show holds an unexpected concentration of top-notch artists in pursuit of this new arcadia, most represented by works of staggeringly high quality. The exhibition is a monumental event that delivers on its promise to offer a fresh take on a period that one would think had been thoroughly raked over.

The 74 works are from Russia's Hermitage, a museum that holds the largest collections of modern French art in the world. Included are many familiar masterpieces by Gauguin ("Nave Nave Moe," "Women by the Sea," "Te Avae No Maria," and others), Matisse, Andre Derain, Cezanne (including "Mont Sainte-Vicoire," 1896-98), Henri Rousseau and three sculptures by Auguste Rodin, including the well-known marble "Eternal Springtime."

The imposing display continues with paintings by such luminaries as Pierre Bonnard, Signac and Maurice Denis, who has to count as a star, along with Gauguin and Matisse and the others, for the sheer number of works (22) and his outsized murals. Titled "The Story of Psyche," Denis' mammoth painting cycle is shown in a phenomenal reconstruction of Russian collector Ivan Morozov's music room in his Moscow mansion, the place of the original installation.

Completing the exhibit are works by such artists as Kees Von Dongen, Othon Friesz, sculptor Aristide Maillol, Henri Marquet, Odilon Redon and the little-known Kerr-Xavier Roussel, who weighs in with a killer "The Triumph of Bacchus" in which brilliant see-sawing blues and oranges threaten to pop out onto the gallery floor.

Most of the works in the exhibition were purchased by Morozov and Sergei Shchukin, wealthy Russian merchants whose collections were nationalized in 1917 during the Russian Revolution. In the face of these gorgeous works, we can only be thankful that that full-time monster and part-time modern art hater, Stalin, didn't take it into his head to destroy what has become the cornerstone of the Hermitage's modern collection.

I have to say that the presence of the deliciously artificial Denis murals is the shock of the show. Denis' classicized drawing may approach illustration, but his wildly synthetic color - electric pinks, stinging orange-reds, limpid mauves and lime greens - was to me an entirely unknown achievement of this period.

Fascinating as they are, the Denis murals are no match for Bonnard's glorious, light-churned triptych "Mediterranean." It is remarkable for the way such gigantic canvases maintain a sense of intimacy, even with the landscape spreading upward over giant vertical panels. The delightful figures - playing babies, lounging mothers with children and cats in the form of frolicking shapes - seem embraced by the delicate shadows and caressed by the gentle touch of the light. It's a civilized arcadia right within the borders of France.

Beyond the singular joy found in such pieces as these and many others, the most surprising thing for me is the sheer weight of the visual argument that the entire display presents.

When I got to the end of the exhibition I felt as though I had been introduced to a new, gentler band of avant-gardists. These were painters who were quite willing to retrace the pathways of the classical past for even a slim promise that they might uncover a clue as to how to live humanely in the burgeoning industrial age.

This was something of a revelation, and gave me the additional pleasure of reevaluating some of my ingrained views of these artists. When I was first exposed to modern art (through bad reproductions at about age 11), I got the distinct feeling that these strange paintings were purposely designed to be unpleasant. One thing was clear, they had absolutely nothing in common with American middle-class life - with Mix Masters, Pontiacs, paneled dens and Saturday Evening Post covers. Norman Rockwells they weren't.

It took me another five or six years to unravel some of modern art's secrets. Cubist dislocations began to make sense and the pained psychological drama of the German and French expressionists began to ring true. Only later would I be able to fathom the subtleties of masters like Cezanne and the ever-elusive Matisse, whose decorative ease threw me off for decades.

But I came away with a prejudice. I saw the great moderns as fierce and righteous raiders of middle-class existence. To this day, I have occasional lingering feelings that art, to be good, must be pitted against some dominating social complacency.

This exhibition compellingly demonstrates that many of these artists could strive for a unified world view without setting up real or imaginary adversaries. It shows that they sometimes reveled in unabashedly nostalgic feelings, that they cherished the past as a legitimate path to the future.

In short, this gathering of some of the best modern paintings indicates that the message these painters were sending out was profoundly more mixed and varied than previously thought.

Matisse's phenomenal intellectual rigor in paintings like "Game of Bowls" is highlighted when compared with Friesz' rustic "Autumn Work" or Louis Valtat's literal arcadia, "Little Girls Playing with a Lion Cub." Matisse's bowlers live in a world where games are played - a sure sign of civilization. But this world is so stripped down that these figures seem to be acting out some essential maneuver in a first trial run of what it is to be human.

In the light of the show, Gauguin's Tahitian scenes may appear to have shed some of their vaunted directness of emotion. These complex images - which almost casually insert Christianity into island daily life and religion, as though there was nothing at all odd about it - seem in this context of myth and near-myth to be made up of a multitude of beautiful calculations.

Gauguin had one of the most sophisticated minds of his age, and that mind rings forth in all its glory in this exhibition. But the exhibition makes it clear that, for all his pursuit of the "primitive," he was as culture-bound as any of his fellow artists who stayed in France.

Gauguin's example makes me think of how great art can be made on the shakiest of premises. Visions of arcadia, paintings aimed at recapturing Hellenic serenity, idyllic images wrested from the villages of southern France - all these notions are based on false ideas of human culture. Culture cannot be fully envisioned by a representative group of terminally blissful folk. Nor can culture be seen as timeless, without progress, as forever suspended in perfection.

Culture is lived by individuals - some of them the aforementioned malcontents - who succeed and fail and make civilization an unsteady work in progress that never quite gets finished.

In short, living is an anxious business. And, as it will, that anxiousness slips through in many of the works on display here. Denis' "Psyche" figures are cast in such an unearthly stillness that they seem about to crack like so many fragile glass vases. Signac's "Port of Marseilles" is so over-infused with pink light that the painting seems absolutely swollen in its own sweetness.

And what is the only reason anyone can give to justify the inclusion of these particular Picassos in the show? It is that the Cezanne-inspired still lifes (among them, the great "Carafe and Three Bowls," 1908) and a 1908 cubified nude are built on a geometric classicism that rumbles quietly with the angst that Picasso perceived in the other great influence of these works - African tribal sculpture.

All this is to the good. Going after arcadias is always accompanied by disquiet. The living don't actually land in paradise; they just keep it in mind as a beautiful potential.

"Voyage into Myth" is a magnificent manifestation of this beautiful potential.


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