'Humble and Human' - Impressionist greats at the DIA

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News
Pierre-Auguste Renoir painted "Woman in an Armchair" in 1874,  one of the DIA works in the museum's "Humble and Human."

"Humble and Human," a survey of Impressionist works from Buffalo's Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the Detroit Institute of Arts, is bound to be a crowd-pleaser. Who doesn't like the Impressionists?

This show, is properly titled "Humble and Human: Impressionist Era Treasures from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the Detroit Institute of Arts, an Exhibition in Honor of Ralph C. Wilson, Jr." -- the philanthropist who owned the Buffalo Bills, and called both Detroit and Buffalo home. 

Wilson was a collector of Impressionist art, which helped spark the idea for this small but immensely satisfying exhibition involving fan favorites and a number of overlooked treasures. 

Chief among the latter is Paul Gauguin's startling "The Yellow Christ" from 1886, in which the crucifixion is attended by peasant women in traditional dress from Brittany, an area that transfixed the artist. 

Paul Gauguin's 1889 "The Yellow Christ,"  in the new DIA show "Humble and Human," running through Oct. 13.

The skin color and simplified figure of Christ are both a little shocking, as are the anachronistic figures in their full blue skirts and aprons, and their severe white headgear. Framed by autumnal red trees, you can just spot a lone figure in the process of escape, climbing over a stone wall in the background. 

"I didn't even know that little figure was there until I put the canvas on the wall," said Jill Shaw, the museum's Rebecca A. Boylan and Thomas W. Sidlik Curator of European Art, 1850-1970. She doesn't know precisely what he's doing, but added, "Gauguin was incredibly symbolic, so I have no doubt every single stroke had layers of meaning."

A longstanding theory has it that Christ's face is actually a Gauguin self-portrait, but there's no evidence to back that up that Shaw's aware of. The overall depiction is based on a 17th-century painted wooden crucifix that was in a local chapel near Pont-Aven in Brittany. 

Anyone who's taken history of art in college will likely recognize "Spirit of the Dead Watching (Manaò tupapú)," Gauguin's portrait of a naked Polynesian girl lying on her bed, at the foot of which sits a rigid spirit dressed in black. It's not an entirely comforting image -- small wonder the young woman looks alarmed. 

One of the distinct surprises of this compact exhibition for those who haven't visited the Albright-Knox, which started its collection in 1862 -- well-over half a century before the DIA was founded in 1918 -- is the number of recognizable masterpieces it's lent for this show. 

"They really do have an incredible collection," Shaw said. When DIA Director Salvador Salort-Pons began talking with the Albright-Knox about a possible show, she added, the timeline for mounting it was going to be very short. All the same, Shaw added, "It was a no-brainer," and a splendid opportunity for meshing the two collections. 

Frequent visitors to the DIA will recognize any number of old friends, now back home after their February-May sojourn while the exhibition was on display in Buffalo. 

Among them are Vincent van Gogh's "Portrait of Postman Roulin" (he of the astonishing two-pointed beard), Édouard Manet's "On the Beach," Paul Cézanne's slightly clinical "The Three Skulls," and Edgar Degas' "Jockeys on Horseback before Distant Hills."

On display as well is "Clearing in the Woods," a simple landscape by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, which may come as a surprise to those who immediately think dappled, voluptuous nudes whenever the artist's name comes up. 

(Indeed, this association led Washington Post Art Critic Sebastian Smee to speculate Tuesday on what he calls a growing disdain for Renoir, "More and more people loathe Renoir: Is it time for a revival?")

To some extent, Impressionism as a whole suffers from its easy-on-the-eyes qualities -- the picturesque beauty we've come to associate with the genre could be held against it, were it not for the commonplace subjects artists exalted, which helps cut the sense that things are just a little too sweet. 

Indeed, as curator Shaw pointed out, the move away from classical or romantic subjects began even before the Impressionists. 

"We also have Gustave Courbet, another precursor whom the Impressionists certainly looked to," she said. "He's not really an Impressionist, but one of the earliest painters to start breaking from classicism by incorporating subjects from everyday life."

"Morning in Provence," about 1900-1906, by Paul Cézanne in "Humble and Human."

If the show opens with some pre-Impressionists, it closes with the move from Impressionism to abstraction. In this regard, Cézanne's landscape, "Morning in Provence," stands as an excellent example of this shift late in the artist's life.

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'Humble and Human: Impressionist Era Treasures from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the Detroit Institute of Arts, an Exhibition in Honor of Ralph C. Wilson, Jr.'

Through Oct. 13

Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward, Detroit

9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tues.-Thurs; 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun.

$14-adults, $9-seniors, $8-college students with ID, $6-kids 6-17; admission waived for residents of Wayne, Oakland & Macomb counties 

(313) 833-7900