Images courtesy of the StatePushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

Summer museum blockbusters are a genre unto themselves. In contrast to the sparsely populated conditions under which most non-performative art is experienced, these big tickets — with their broad audiences, atmosphere of hustle-bustle self-importance, and physical crowding — bring some of the sweaty mob thrill of a rock concert or football game to the contemporary experience of art. Of course, this is a quality that once defined fine art, which in pre-industrial times was usually experienced as part of a jostling, multimedia religious environment. So while these big shows may seem to be devised solely to compete with lucrative public mass entertainments, they also hearken to their own history. And from the shuffling-through-the-stations-of-the-cross choreography of the audio-tour zombies to the constant mutter of rationalizations and half-believed truisms — not to mention the strong whiff of resentment from bored children and spouses — the religious model holds true.

Pierre Bonnard, Summer in Normandy (1912)

Anyone with any sense would be making the pilgrimage to cooler northern climes to genuflect through the Philip Guston retrospective at SFMOMA, but the most I could manage in this heat was to haul the un-air-conditioned ’85 Country Squire to LACMA to check out “Old Masters, Impressionists and Moderns: French Masterworks From the State Pushkin Museum, Moscow.” While its title and faux stately installation align the Pushkin exhibit with the aura of timeless authority that museums cultivate, its own history suggests just how arbitrary a construction “the Museum” is. From the origins of the home institution as an academic repository for plaster casts of Roman statues, to the Bolshevik liberation and repression of the great modernist collections of Morozov and Shchukin (divvied up between the Pushkin and Hermitage and the focus of a lawsuit that tried to block this show), to the recent partnership with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (and the improbable conflation of the Soviet Union’s cultural legacy with the dual capitalist monsters of Texas energy dollars and major provider Philip Morris), the circumstances that resulted in this show are a virtual primer in making art history up as you go along. Which is a good thing; it gives dimension to the show. A communist-state cultural showpiece winds up a strange hybrid of industrial consumerist entertainment and collective religious ritual funded by nicotine addiction and electrical-maintenance deregulation!

Jules Bastien-Lepage, The Village lovers (1882)

That would be the litany running through my head as I pace the 76 stations in “Pushkin,” if there was much of anything running through my head at all. It’s partly the effect of drinking an iced cappuccino and plunging into LACMA’s A/C chill — freezes up the cognition. But mostly it’s the art that is arresting. While it’s quite a stretch to call some of these works “masterpieces” (“Preliminary Sketches for Masterpieces” would be a more accurate title), there are plenty of good, even great paintings, copious curiosities and, yes, even the occasional masterpiece capable of stopping you in your tracks, mentally and physically: Pierre Bonnard’s ravishing Summer in Normandy, for example, or Matisse’s perfect Goldfish.

Some of the best works are obscure — Corot’s small, radiant Morning in Venice, Jules Bastien-Lepage’s subtly hallucinatory The Village Lovers, which veers from the hyperreal to the crustily abstract every couple of inches. Other obscurities worth searching out include Millet’s exquisitely composed Women Gathering Kindling; Hubert Robert’s twin architectural view paintings depicting tiny, awkwardly rendered tourists scuttling in romantic ruins; and Albert Marquet’s pair of small, blurry, mundane but formally virtuosic fauvist landscapes. Any of these are enough to shut up the inner critic and induce a trancelike state, as are many of the more highly touted pictures — the van Goghs and Monets, in particular.


As one who expresses his opinions only for professional reasons, I’m constantly surprised by the amount of audible judgment, ranking, interpretation and explanation that goes on in the public reception of art. “Move up close,” says a woman to her daughter in front of a Monet. “See the dots? Now stand back. It’s a person! That’s what they did that was so important.” “Oh yeah, I see it,” claims the kid. Unconvinced, Mom repositions her before the next Impressionist painting: “Look close . . .” Further along, a man explains to his partner, “You see, in Impressionist painting there is no focal point.” A dutiful daughter wheels a seemingly catatonic 90-something past a Cézanne landscape, intoning, “Just look at the brushwork!” A gaggle of seniors briskly follow their evident ringleader who manages a dazzling précis within seconds of seeing each piece: “Not enough going on in this one,” she says before Diaz de la Peña’s Autumn in Fontainebleau. Next! “Those clouds are too white,” she observes while inspecting Corot’s The Castle of Pierrefonds. “They must be a mistake.” The woman has a future in graduate education!

It’s not that I’m particularly bothered by all this chatter. One unique feature of the close quarters of blockbuster shows is the inescapability of this peripheral narrative stream — a burble that ebbs and flows, punctuated by silent clusters of five or 10 or 20 audio-tourists frozen in front of a numbered masterpiece for the duration of the sound clip. It has a peculiar rhythmical quality, like a collectively orchestrated experimental theater piece. (And in fact the technology used by LACMA was pioneered by San Francisco’s Antenna Theater.) Certainly many of these conversational gambits have been appropriated verbatim from Sister Wendy or Robert Hughes, or Masterpieces of Impressionism wall-calendar captions. But, as with any opinion, after a while it all blends together, and you begin to realize that opinions only function to keep our anxious, voracious left hemispheres occupied while we soak up the deeper pleasures and meanings available to our nonverbal senses. And then once in a while you run into someone who strikes a balance between the two, such as the stocky engineering type standing with his lady friend in front of Manet’s sketch-for-a-masterpiece The Bar, waving his arms wildly, exclaiming, “It’s so great! It’s great! So confident! It’s so . . . so great!”

My sentiments exactly.

OLD MASTERS, IMPRESSIONISTS AND MODERNS: French Masterworks From the State Pushkin Museum, Moscow | LOS ANGELES COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART, 5905 Wilshire Blvd.,
(323) 857-6000 | Through October 13

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