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There are certain artist's names that jolt the collective nervous system of the larger art-going public into high alert. At the top of any list must be Monet, followed closely by the wildly popular Van Gogh. The name Picasso seems to get hearts racing and, at a slightly less frantic pace, so does Matisse. Renoir, the myth-laden Gauguin, perhaps Cezanne and certainly Degas trigger similar responses.

Exposed to these magnetic monikers in advertisements for big art shows, susceptible individuals -- especially those still basking in the memories of the last blockbuster -- seem to have no choice. They will travel great distances, stand in long lines, cash in grandpa's annuity if necessary, just to see the exhibition in question. They are as adamant, persistent and determined as any Phish fan.

But what if a big show awash in big names has no big names out front on its banner? What if its title is quiet, unassuming and straightforwardly descriptive? Will the triggers be released? Will the crowds come?

That's when I begin to worry. Please, kind art viewer, do not be lulled. Do not be diverted by the honest, plain, even anti-hype title. "Masterworks from the Phillips Collection" is bound to offer an extraordinary and singular art experience when it opens in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery on Tuesday.

I give you five reasons why: Renoir, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Braque and Gauguin. And, going back in time a bit, five more: Ingres, Delacroix, El Greco, Goya and (moving forward again) the indomitable satirist Honore Daumier.

In all, there are 53 reasons -- works from as recently as 1960 (Giacomett's "Monumental Head") and a painting done sometime around 1605 (El Greco's surging, electric image of "The Repentant St. Peter").

But really, any card-carrying lover of impressionism need consider only one reason -- the presence of Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party" (1880-81). This painting rarely leaves its Washington, D.C., home. The Albright-Knox exhibition is the one place in the Northeast to see it during the show's tour (which moves to the Denver Art Museum after it closes here Sept. 1 and then makes its final stop at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tenn.).

"Luncheon of the Boating Party" is not only a ravishing beauty but is also one of the most ambitious and complicated multifigure paintings in all of impressionism. As an outdoor group portrait, it depicts no fewer than 14 distinct personalities and incorporates within its convivial view of middle-class social life a fantastic still life and a glittering landscape beyond.

According to the accompanying catalog, when the young collector Duncan Phillips, then just shy of 37, went to Paris with his wife, Marjorie, in the summer of 1923 and bought the painting, he proclaimed it to be "one of the greatest paintings in the world." He predicted it would cause a sensation wherever it was shown. He's yet to be proven wrong.

A key piece by Picasso -- his melancholy "The Blue Room" of 1901 -- two Kandinskys done when the artist was in the first flush of abstraction, and four of Paul Klee's most delightful creations stretch the boundaries of the show well beyond impressionism. To those we can add superb single works by Franz Marc, Oskar Kokoschka (a portrait in which the subject's head and body seem to radiate various colored auras) and an unparalleled masterpiece by Matisse, the striking, black and red "Interior with Egyptian Curtain."

If those fabulous paintings don't get the electricity leaping across the synapses, maybe the couple of Courbet landscapes will do it. One, "Rocks at Mouthier," has an awesome monumentality that belies its roughly four-foot reach. Or look to two small marvelous landscapes by Corot, or to another modest-sized work, Vuillard's wonderful "Interior," with its delicious patchy patterns of red, green, blue and sienna.

The Van Goghs date from those amazingly prolific last two years, when the artist moved to Arles and hoped to form an artists' colony of sorts under the leadership of Gauguin. In the winter of 1888, Van Gogh had a mental breakdown (the infamous sliced-ear incident) that abruptly ended any dream of a community of artists and resulted in the Dutch artist's confinement in a mental hospital at Saint-Remy. One of the three gorgeous Van Goghs in the show, "House at Auvers," was painted six weeks before his suicide in 1890.

The collection perfectly reflects Phillips' refined tastes -- and those of Marjorie Phillips, who was an artist herself and had perhaps a greater understanding of sculpture than her husband. (The show's sculpture, though meager, is excellent: in addition to the Giacometti, a Rodin, a Renoir and Picasso's 1905 "Jester.") Phillips, the catalog tells us, initially had a hard time with modern art -- he wrote a scathing review of the 1913 Armory Show -- but ultimately saw it as a sublime continuation of the art of the old masters.

In his writings and in the way he would, at times, install his El Greco and Goya (amazingly, also depicting "The Repentant St Peter") amid the moderns, Phillips pointed up the deep connections that he saw between past and present.

The exhibition should hum with such old/new comparisons. Chardin's "A Bowl of Plums" can be seen as a lovely antecedent to Cezanne's great "Ginger Pot with Pomegranate and Pears." Though Ingres' "The Small Bather" (derived from the artist's large "Bather of Valpincon," the source of the central figure) has its erotic elements, one can clearly see Ingres' drive toward perfection of form and compositional order. These are the same qualities that surface in modern times in Juan Gris' coolly balanced cubist "Still Life with Newspaper" or in any of the three majestic Braque still lifes in the show.

The two paintings by Delacroix, on the other hand, with their painterly gestures and -- in the marvelous "Horses Coming Out of the Sea" -- heightened color form a natural link to such artists as Courbet, Van Gogh, Renoir and Monet.

Ah, Monet -- that magic name that attracts legions. There are two Monets in the show, one, "Val-Saint-Nicolas, near Dieppe (Morning)" of 1897, is a great one. The second is a long perspective view called "The Road to Vetheuil," done in 1879 during a bleak period when Monet struggled with poverty and his wife was near death (she was to die that year). Sweet and solidly joyful, the painting is a document to Monet's unflagging spirit.

And then, for those who don't know the Phillips, there's a surprise painting. In 1889 one now very famous post-impressionist did a vivid rendition of a slab of meat -- a cooked ham, to be exact. Phillips liked the painting so much that he sold one of the artist's paintings featuring his most famous subject matter before buying the unusual still life.

So it happened that one of Gauguin's Tahitian scenes was replaced by a picture of a piece of meat. It is a measure of Phillips' independent thinking that he would give up a depiction of one of Gauguin's exotic island fantasies in favor of a glorious picture of an inglorious ham.


"Masterworks from the Phillips Collection," paintings by Renoir, Goya, El Greco, Cezanne, Matisse, Monet, Degas and others.
Blockbuster exhibition opens Tuesday in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and closes Sept. 1. Exhibition times: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Ticket prices: $16 for adults, $14 for college students and seniors, $5 for youths between 6 and 17, free for children under 5. Admission is by ticket only.
Information: 882-8700
Lecture and film programs will be held. See Gusto for details.


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