These names automatically invoke images of the greatest art institutions and auction houses in the United States and Europe, but the common denominator is that works by each of these blockbusters are actually in the collection of the FLLAC. Just a few feet from where you are now, literally, you have an all-access pass to some of the greatest artistic minds in the history of Western Art. We’ve all been to the Lehman Loeb at some point, whether for a class, Late Nights, or to impress our visiting parents. But I think that we forget just how extraordinary the collection really is.
My re-awakening came just last week, as I gave a guided tour of the campus to a visiting lecturer from Paris, France. Let me tell you, those Frenchies really know their art- they grow up with the stuff from day one, surrounded by not only museums and galleries galore but the actual homes and inspirations of these great men and women. Thus it was when I was showing this visitor around, and she was gasping with shock and delight around every bend of the FLLAC, that I remembered what all is in our not-so-humble collection.
Let’s start with the walk into the Loeb. Before you even reach the lockers, where you are still allowed to sip wine and nibble cheese each Thursday night, there is currently on display a statue of a Degas dancer. Her figure is fully extended, gracefully arcing backwards in a pose of balanced elegance, welcoming you to the FLLAC. Here I must emphasize that before even entering the galleries, you are faced with nothing less than a Degas. Not impressive enough? Don’t worry, just around the corner to your right, you can greet your good friend Alexander Calder’s Mobile of 1934. This piece, like the Degas, poses questions of balance and equilibrium. The individual components are unified not only by their juxtaposition to one another, but also the invisible elements of light and air that create shadows and movement of a whole.
But Degas, Calder – these guys are basically country bumpkins, right? I mean, we need some real heavy-hitters. Continuing straight into the 20th century gallery, what do we see on the left, but a Pablo Picasso? “Tête de femme” 1953-54, is an intriguing portrait that plays with the tension between order and chaos. The repetitious stripes and contrasting planes in black and white emphasize elements of control and order, but purple, blue and green emerge, infiltrating the rigid array. Suddenly one notices the irregularities of the lines, the bouncing sprigs of hair, and the chaotic texture of the thickly applied paint that so delightfully enlivens the painting.
Unbelievably, this is just one of three Picasso paintings on display in this gallery. Across from the portrait, I particularly enjoy the still life descriptively entitled, “Glass, Guitar, and Sheet Music”, 1922-23. It is especially fun to compare Picasso with his friend and rival, Matisse, in the neighboring still life, “Christmas Roses and Saxifrage”, 1944. Two prime examples of defining artistic movements of the 20th century, cubism and fauvism, are hung side by side, automatically soliciting a comparison of the minimalist, distinct perspectives and dynamic use of color. What you might not realize is that behind the scenes, in the Prints and Drawings
collection, are a variety of Picasso and Matisse works on paper. With its permanent collection alone, Vassar could literally host a Picasso and/or Matisse exhibit. Previously in this column I addressed the remarkable American Art collection at the Loeb, so this one time only we can shamefully skip those on our virtual tour. Furthermore, I will restrain myself to merely mentioning the large Juan Miró on the left as you enter the next gallery. Leaving this room and quickly veering to the right, you will enter the gallery dedicated to the 19th century. Immediately, a breath-taking canvas by Gustave Doré comes into view.
Like the Picasso portrait, “The Defense of Paris”, 1871 is a composition of predominantly black and white. Commemorating the Seige of Paris, 1870-71, the allegory of Liberty staunchly holds the Tricolour, the only bit of color in the scene. Surrounded by absolute horror as bodies of men, women and children despair and fade into the dirty snow, only Liberty and her flag offer a sense of hope. The scene immediately calls to mind what many consider the greatest French painting of all time, Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People,” which of course takes prominent place at the Louvre. But back in the FLLAC, to the right of Doré’s inspiring canvas is Edvard
Munch’s “The Seine at St. Cloud” 1890. Painted just twenty years later, the blue tonal view of Paris offers a tranquil contrast to the previous tragic scene. In this relatively early piece, Munch appears to be experimenting with flattening of planes that imitates Japanese prints, a movement known as Japonisme that was popular in Europe and the United States. To the left is a small Cezanne landscape from 1865, where he also flattens the planes of mountains, fields and rocks by experimenting with angles and perspective. Behind you is a Gérôme, “Camels at the Watering Place”, 1890, which is a perfect example of Orientalism – the European and American fascination with all things Middle Eastern. Within this one room, there is a wide representation of major 19th century movements, styles, genres, and nationalities. It’s a novel opportunity to perceive in sweep the dynamic developments of this vibrant epoch.
For the moment, this is where I’ll stop. I must admit that it is not in the best taste that I drop names and commend the art of only those we recognize as superstars. I have also used a purely subjective method to pick which pieces are most admirable, and have left out a number of extraordinary works by names both well known and well deserving. But I think you understand what I want to convey – that the FLLAC demands to be re-examined and her majesties re-appreciated.
Taking a break to breathe this all in, I’ll resume our tour another time, reveling in the treasures of Renaissances, the Middle Ages and Antiquity. The bounty of the Lehman Loeb has only just been tasted, and there is much more to rediscover.