It’s the kind of blockbuster exhibit that even the most casual museum-goer can embrace and enjoy – a celebration of the shimmering landscapes of Monet, the bold brush strokes of van Gogh, the arresting portraits of Cézanne and Renoir. The Impressionist masterpieces – and their post-Impressionist progeny – collected under the banner of the “Humble and Human” exhibit offer a visitor a visual feast of color, light and representational form that pre-dates the explosion of abstraction that was to come in the decades following the triumph of Impressionism. In that regard, the exhibit is comforting in its familiarity and endearingly nostalgic in its depiction of 19th century styles of dress and bucolic landscapes unscathed by 20th century modernization.
Assembled under the auspices of Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the Detroit Institute of the Arts, the exhibition honors the memory of Ralph C. Wilson, Jr., the late owner of the Buffalo Bills and a lifelong resident of the Detroit area. Wilson loved and collected Impressionist paintings and his foundation has lent its support to the creation of the exhibit and a gorgeous coffee table catalogue. It’s all done with an eye toward drawing a visitor into a better understanding of the aesthetic, cultural and economic conditions that gave birth to Impressionism. What’s particularly interesting is the show’s contention that the artists who came to be called “Impressionists” were savvy entrepreneurs who were essentially launching a start-up and creating what we now call a brand. They also happened to be brilliant artists who created work that’s now considered a cornerstone of modern art.
The show poses the overarching question, “who were the Impressionists?” In answering that query, the show’s curators take a willing visitor well beyond the brilliant colors, innovative technique and captivating 19th century scenery. It’s an inspiring trip that’s well worth taking.
“Humble and Human, Treasures from the Albright-Knox and the Detroit Institute of the Arts” is on view through May 26th at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.