A Modernist Return to Reality

Derain, Balthus, Giacometti: Une amitié artistique [Derain, Balthus, Giacometti: An Artistic Friendship]

an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris, June 2–October 29, 2017
Catalog of the exhibition by Jacqueline Munck. Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris, 295 pp., €49.90
Museum of Modern Art, Troyes/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris
André Derain, Deux Femmes nues et nature morte, 1935

Some of the darkest, most beautifully saturnine dimensions of the modern imagination are explored in an extraordinary exhibition mounted in Paris this summer. “Derain, Balthus, Giacometti: Une amitié artistique,” at the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris, plunges visitors into the melancholy of modernism, but a melancholy so vigorous, provocative, and heartfelt that it has its own kind of exhilaration. On the most basic level, this is an exhibition about the profound artistic sympathy that developed in mid-twentieth-century France between André Derain, an avant-garde hero of the first two decades of the century who many believed had become an arch conservative, and two much younger artists, Balthus and Alberto Giacometti, whose work first attracted attention in Surrealist circles in the 1930s. These three were determined to revisit the relationship between art and reality following the revolutions of early-twentieth-century artists, who had so often rejected the naturalism that dominated Western painting and sculpture for five hundred years. They were gathering together the broken pieces of what some disparaged as the sunny old reality. They wanted to discover a new, moonlit truth.

This is a show packed with ravishments and revelations. Giacometti, the one among the three artists who has earned something like universal acceptance, is beautifully presented as a painter, sculptor, and draftsman. You feel all the Mozartean grace, delicacy, and finesse that he brought to a bleak, brusque, Existentialist vision. Balthus, too often misunderstood as a chic pornographer, comes through as one of the most powerful minds and imaginations of twentieth-century art. His poetic exactitude, as deeply pondered as Nabokov’s, turns landscapes, still lifes, portraits, nudes, and interiors into haunted dreamscapes, by turns strenuous, serene, and ecstatic.

As for Derain, by focusing on his too-little-known and too-little-understood work of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, Jacqueline Munck, the curator of the exhibition, has at long last done justice to an artist who may well be among the supreme tragedians of twentieth-century art. Paintings such as Nu au chat (1936–1938), Geneviève à la pomme (1937–1938), Le Peintre et sa famille (1939), and Autoportrait à la pipe (1953)—generally dismissed as the work of a revolutionary turned reactionary—have a concentrated power. Derain’s intricate compositional rhythms and subtle color harmonies precipitate unexpected visual crescendos. The burnished chiaroscuro of his late nudes, portraits, still lifes, and figure groups is unlike anything else in twentieth-century art.

Picasso and Matisse, those supreme magicians of modernism, are the easiest twentieth-century artists to love. Their dramatic shifts in style and sensibility are playful even when they’re somber; we admire their changeableness. Derain, Giacometti, and Balthus take a very different approach. They are the metaphysicians of modernism. They burrow into the enigmas of style; they investigate the relationship between style and truth.

All these artists, Derain…

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