"La Source de la Loue," an imposing 1864 oil by Gustave Courbet, depicts nothing more remarkable than the dark grotto from which the Loue River emerges to begin its serpentine course through eastern France. There are no lounging figures, no showy displays of Renaissance techniques, no gauzy afternoon light and very little context: Just the opening of a foreboding cave whose contents are shrouded in darkness, prompting viewer after viewer to peer into the painting as if it were a three-dimensional space masquerading as a flat surface.
What sort of magic and mystery emerged from Courbet's cave? Nothing short of the modernist impulse itself, which receives a thorough and engaging treatment in this collection-focused show conceived by Albright-Knox Director Janne Sirén and organized by curator Holly E. Hughes.
The first room may be hard for art history fans to leave, so rife it is with fine examples of proto-Impressionist experimentation and curiosity, each Corot and Millet another hairline fissure in the long tradition of French academic painting. Those cracks would soon fracture enough to allow Impressionism to pour through, and the million movements of modernism after it.
Among the greats here are a pair of knockouts by Honoré Daumier, "The Waiting Room" and "Laundress on the Quai D'Anjou," which like much of the work of the Realists and their contemporaries, dared to engage quotidian subjects with deep empathy and to use those subjects for their increasingly free-handed approaches to painting.
Armed with this smart and poetic introduction, we flow like the waters of the Loue into the main exhibition, where we're immediately confronted with an anguished sculpture of Eve by Rodin and a calmer one by Degas, surrounded on all sides by framed fusillades in the first great revolution of modernism.
In Pissarro's early "Farm at Monfoucault," we see traces of Sisley and perhaps Millet, whose frothing "Les Falaises de Gréville" from 1871-72 is a universe unto itself. In Caillebotte's muddy study for his larger painting "Le Pont de l'Europe" in the Musée de Petit Palais in Geneva, we see Daumier's concern for the daily lives of citizens whose lives the academy considered unremarkable.
Sirén and Hughes take us through several Impressionistic experiments with light and color, some better known such as Pissarro's lovely pointillist digression of peasants in a field of spectacularly hued dirt from 1890 and some minor pieces, such as a beautifully restored Paris street scene by Raffaëlli. The gallery's sumptuous, aqua-hued Renoir portrait joins Degas' otherworldly "Mlle. Fiocre Dans Le Ballet 'La Source'" and other strokes of creativity that together capture the fever of the Impressionist moment.
It's also worth noting that while the work of female artists was too often dismissed or not taken seriously by Impressionists and just about everyone else well into the following century, the Albright-Knox collection includes excellent pieces by Berthe Morisot (the breathing "Femme Cousant") and the Realist Rosa Bonehur ("Le Marché aux Chevaux"), who disguised herself as a man to gain access to the stables where she observed the horses and other animals that came to be her trademark.
All of this prepares us well for what will rank as the main event for many visitors: A room entirely given over to Monet's love affair with light across many decades. This begins with his early-career scene from 1868 of his then-wife on the shore of the Seine and ends with a 1908 scene of light-dappled water lilies, both from the Art Institute of Chicago, stopping off in the intervening decades on his gorgeous haystacks, his favorite seaside spots and his lush gardens, where he endeavored to set down the ephemeral, dynamic quality of light in the static medium of oil paint.
Satisfied with our brief history of Monet's stunning career, we're off and running, full-throttle, into the countless "isms" of modernism. From Van Gogh's off-the-deep-end experiments with color and his sculptural scrawls with a palette knife ("The Old Mill") to Paul Gauguin's masterworks "Yellow Christ" and "Spirit of the Dead Watching," as mysterious and fraught with potential in its own time as Courbet's "La Source," it is clear that the genie is not going back in the bottle.
Matisse's obliteration of detail in 1902's "Notre-Dame, une fin D'Apres-Midi," Andre Derain's reduction of color and form to shape and line in "The Trees" from 1906, Kandinsky's vibrating symphony-on-canvas "Fragment 2 for Composition VIII" - all of this leads inevitably and inexorably toward the Abstract Expressionists whose work is often thought of as gallery's strongest suit.
The exhibition ends as it begins, with some smart poetry: It lets visitors out into a gallery where they are surrounded by the eventual inheritors of the Impressionist legacy of unfettered experimentation: Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Jasper Johns, Willem de Kooning, Morris Louis, Robert Motherwell and Philip Guston.
Without seeming didactic or preachy, this exhibition gives a clear view not only into how those abstract masterpieces came to be, but how they came to be possible. That this was done largely using the Albright-Knox's own collection makes it all the more extraordinary.