On a freezing Monday, with less than forty-five minutes to spare, I limited myself to only one room of the Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, and Their Times show at the Frist Art Museum, and in that roughly half hour, I found an excess of satisfying art. One of the joys of membership is that I feel I can come and go as I please, so when another free hour arises, I’ll go and take in another room. I have until the fifth of May.
Details draw me in, perhaps, more than full compositions, like the textural lines on the cheek of a tiny bronze horse-head by Degas, or the brushstrokes in the beard and cheeks of a portrait by Cezanne. There’s the short column of green in the background of a Toulouse-Lautrec bar scene–almost concealed by the bartender–which I imagine is some kind of dispenser of absinthe. Or the vertical lines in a mirror’s reflection of a woman trying on hats, whose face (in the mirror) is a literal, ghostly blank, also by Degas. I’m drawn by the juxtaposition of complementary colors, and by the texture and brilliance of oils.
When I walk into a room and spy a Cezanne, it’s like realizing an old friend has been invited to the same party; a feeling of reunion arises. The piece is an Alan magnet. Even if I don’t go directly to it, I’m aware of its presence; I feel it calling out to me, like ideology. In the portrait of Victor Chocquet, the master’s touch is unmistakable: a face built with blocky, diagonal strokes. I echo art critics ad nauseam when I say that Cezanne’s surfaces are built rather than painted; they have scaffolding.
I left that solitary room of the Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, and Their Times exhibition in full awareness that the majority of the show still lay behind me, unseen. But I didn’t feel as if I’d cheated myself out of anything. My art-loving cup was full. Indeed, one room at a time, for an hour here and there, might be the best way to experience a show of this magnitude. As long as you don’t have to pay admission every time.