When curator John Boyer describes the Bechtler Museum's new "School of Paris" exhibit, he calls it "an exceptionally pretty show." Some pieces, he says, are "lyrical."
Those are words we usually don't say in the same sentence with Modern abstracts. Yet one look at Alfred Manessier's jewel-toned "Dans la flame qui consumme" ("In the flame which consumes"), a nearly 7-foot-tall painting worth the price of admission, proves the point.
The museum's first new exhibit since opening in January shows there's more to see of the Bechtler family treasures, and some of them are dazzling.
The show also answers two questions hovering over the museum since taxpayers and Arts & Science Council donors gave $32 million to create it: Now that we've seen the collection highlights, what will we see next? And how can the museum move ahead after the sudden death in April of 56-year-old curator Michael Godfrey? His two-decade friendship with museum benefactor Andreas Bechtler gave him irreplaceable knowledge of the holdings.
The answers: Museum CEO Boyer has stepped in as curator, and, drawing from the Bechtler's holdings of more than 1,400 items, he has created a show centering on eight non-Parisian artists working in the French capital during the 20th century and who, along with others, were given the name School of Paris. "School" has nothing to do with classrooms and diplomas, but indicates that all the artists were working and talking together during that time. Many were friends of the late Hans and Bessie Bechtler, who lived in Switzerland and collected their work.
The works on view were made from the 1940s to 1960s and may be considered the European equivalent of American Abstract Expressionism (such as Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell). The more than 60 pieces range from abstraction for its own sake, with no backstory or representation, to works inspired by and suggestive of religion, historical events, cathedrals or poetry.
Boyer says he and Godfrey had discussed in March which works to show. The show features 11 paintings (a few of which have been on view since opening day), 9 drawings, 2 artist books and 54 prints by the French artists Alfred Manessier, Pierre Soulages, Roger Bissiere and Edouard Pignon, as well as works by the Italian Alberto Magnelli, Belgian Gustave Singier, Russian Nicolas de Stael and Maria Elena Vieira da Silva of Portugal.
But the jewel-toned, lyrical works by Manessier dominate. Beautifully saturated blues, greens, magentas and purples are fractured by rich black lines, which are a broad clue to viewers that Manessier was working in stained glass at the same time. They also speak to his interest in a passionate spirituality.
One of the highlights of the show is the oil painting "In the flame which consumes," which is displayed next to 12 related prints - all in stunning colors. Nearby is a book of poetry about Saint John of the Cross, illustrated by these same images. Viewers may also delight in imagining the large canvas where it hung for many years - at the top of the second-floor landing of the Bechtler family home in Zurich, doused in natural light.
Glints of gold
Also broadly represented in this show is Gustave Singier, whose studio was next door to Manessier's and whose work is also richly colored.
Singier drew his inspiration from nature. When viewing the lithograph "Blue Violet," with its horizontal purple and blue-green segments and its electric orange orb, it's hard not to think of the sun's radiance across land and sea, though his works aren't that literal.
Another Singier lithograph, in more muted tones with glints of gold, is "Prison pour Danae," based on the myth of Danae, who was locked in a bronze tower by her father, the King of Argos, to keep her from bearing a child. Zeus' visit in a "shower of gold" took care of that.
The viewer who prefers representational art will find his only solace in "Le Pommier," ("Apple Tree") by Edouard Pignon, and even these green foliage shapes and red tree trunk have abstracted qualities.
Two other lithographs created more than a decade later are more abstract. But Pignon's work had meaning. A former factory worker and lifelong Communist who abandoned the party during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Pignon was driven by his reaction to the Nazis and his sympathies for the worker.
During the German occupation of France, Pignon was among a group of artists who had to work underground because Nazis called their work "degenerate" (Hitler's underlings stole some anyway). Pignon, along with Singier and Manessier and their peers, formed the Salon de Mai (The May Salon), a group who met in a café and worked underground. "Le Pommier" was painted during this secretive time, and the artists were unable to show their work until Europe was liberated in 1945.
The power of Soulages
Strikingly different are the seven works by Frenchman Pierre Soulages, the only living artist in the show. Pretty no longer applies. But power does.
Soulages is interested in the color black, how light transforms it, and in creating textured images for their own sake, not as representations. He wants the viewer to think only about the artist's moment of creation. You may never have heard of Soulages, but The Pompidou Center in Paris recently held a solo retrospective of his work.
Likewise, in 1966, Maria Elena Vieira da Silva was the first woman to receive France's Grand Prix National des Arts. Nicolas de Stael's "Landscape" was thought by curator Godfrey to be the most valuable work in the entire Bechtler collection, which includes such well-known names as Warhol, Picasso and Giacometti.
One of the Bechtler Museum's points of pride is that most of the works have never been exhibited before in the United States. Knowing that he is introducing many Americans to these artists, Boyer says, has been one of the greatest pleasures of curating the School of Paris show.