In 1999, Buffalo fell hard for Claude Monet.
How could we resist? With his unabashedly romantic outlook, his sensuous brush strokes and shimmering scenes of light and landscape, the Frenchman charmed and disarmed us.
When 22 of his late-career paintings went on view in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery stop of the touring exhibition “Monet at Giverny: Masterpiece from the Musée Marmottan,” visitors poured into the gallery at unprecedented rates. The exhibition shattered attendance records, drawing 167,000 people through the gallery’s doors in a 14-week period, according to a tourism report from that year. (By contrast, the gallery drew just 106,000 visitors during the 2014-15 fiscal year.)
But there was one downside: The monumental popularity of the show had a monumental price to match, which left the gallery in difficult financial straits and played into the de facto moratorium it would later institute on “blockbuster” touring shows.
But the gallery realizes that Buffalo’s love affair with Monet still burns bright.
Hence the homegrown and somewhat more humble exhibition “Monet and the Impressionist Revolution,” opening Sunday. It’s a compact dose of impressionist and post-impressionist highlights from the gallery’s collection augmented by seven career-spanning Monet paintings borrowed from other American museums and one borrowed piece by Édouard Manet.
The idea came to Albright-Knox Director Janne Sirén, he said, as a way to help celebrate the return of the gallery’s modern art masterpieces from an extensive four-venue tour that wrapped up in September.
The show will take visitors on a largely chronological tour of the impressionist movement, beginning with important works by precursors like Gustave Courbet and Honoré Daumier, moving into wild-for-the-time impressionist experiments by Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas and others and finally to key post-impressionist paintings and sculptures by the likes of Paul Cezanne, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Gauguin, Constantin Brancusi and Pablo Picasso.
In the middle of it all sits a miniature survey of Monet’s career featuring seven borrowed works and one belonging to the Albright-Knox. These range from a shimmering scene of ice floes from the Shelburne Museum in Vermont to a 1908 example of Monet’s famous water lilies from the Dallas Museum of Art.
The show, said Sirén, is designed to set the scene for the return of the gallery’s master works and to provide “a platform for intelligent conversations on a certain important moment in the history of art.” Asked how it might compare to the earlier Monet smash hit, he made a point of distancing the gallery from the blockbuster mentality.
“These large-scale, very complex, very expensive migratory exhibitions that really have the objective of just making the door swing as much as possible, that’s really not in the current DNA of the Albright-Knox,” Sirén said. The goal was to “very selectively, and in a scholarly fashion, identify works that would tell this story not as the mega-retrospective narrative but as an illustration that will enable visitors to get the flavor of certain trends that were taking place. And all of this in the context of our collection.”
The exhibition is set up so that visitors will exit into a room filled with abstract expressionist masterpieces by Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and others. The connection is deliberate.
“You can see how the impressionist revolution opened the floodgates to a variety of possibilities that visual art had not had before,” Sirén said. “After seeing this five-decade run, now visitors are launched back into what is the DNA of the Albright-Knox.”
"Monet and the Impressionist Revolution" opens Nov. 15 and runs through March 20. Tickets are $15 for adults, $11 for seniors and $8 for children age 6-12, with free admission for children under 6 and gallery members. Call 882-8700 or visit albrightknox.org.