Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection

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This year’s “must see” exhibit is “Seeing Nature,” Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection organized by the Portland Art Museum and the Seattle Art Museum. If you missed it in Portland, Washington DC, or Minneapolis, you’ve got an opportunity now to see it at the New Orleans Museum of Art, where it will remain until January 15, 2017, when it moves to the Seattle Art Museum. While a relatively small collection of paintings (39 total), it is certainly a block-buster in terms of vision, breadth, and depth. Works span five centuries from the first four by Jan Brueghel the Younger (1601-1625) to the concluding work by contemporary April Gornik (b.1953). Together, they comprise a breath-taking representation of what ‘landscape’ has meant to the assembled group of European and American artists. Each work, in its own way, shows how place matters; dig deeper, and we see how each painting reflects the artist’s unique perspective and capacity to document time and place, creating a compelling narrative about each.

Gustav Klimt, Birch Forest, 1903 Paul G. Allen Family Collection

Gustav Klimt, Birch Forest, 1903
Paul G. Allen Family Collection

My initial visit was with a group in New Orleans for the annual meeting of the American Society of Landscape Architects, and there could not have been a more appropriate – or appreciative – audience. Following a visit to NOMA’s Sydney and Walda Bestoff Sculpture Garden that also included a picnic lunch, our group had a private tour and gallery talk of the exhibit led by Lisa Rotondo-McCord, Deputy Director of Curatorial Affairs. Having an experienced curator point out her observations made our visit even more meaningful and lively discussion ensued. We all saw something different in each work and those observations led us all to new insights about color, technique, place and time that will likely inform our future work designing landscapes.

For some, the painting that captured the most attention was Gustav Klimt’s spectacular Birch Forest (1903), not only for the painting itself – who knew Klimt did landscapes? – but also for its backstory. It was one of five Klimts owned by Austrian industrialist Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer (1864-1945), a friend of the artist. Bloch-Baer’s property was seized during WW II, but in 2006, an Austrian arbitration court returned the paintings to his heirs. After a group exhibition in Los Angeles, the five Klimts went to auction; among them was the the portrait of Ferdinand’s wife Adele (Lady in Gold), now in the Neue Galerie. Birch Forest, then called Birkenwald/Buchenwald, attracted far less attention than Lady in Gold but nevertheless realized a significant return ($40+m). Subsequently, it was acquired by the present owner.

For others, the show-stopper is David Hockney’s mind-boggling The Grand Canyon, 1998, one of three he painted of that landscape (the other two are in museums in Australia and Denmark). Almost covering a wall – it’s just over 14 feet long and 4 feet tall – with spectacular colors and shapes, the painting is a remarkable composition of 21 individual canvases that recall the artist’s exploitation of the Polariod image format, collaged together to form a spectacular and cinematic panorama. Seeing this work, together with the exhibit’s two other paintings of the Grand Canyon (Thomas Moran’s Grand Canyon of Arizona at Sunset, 1909, and Arthur Wesley Dow’s Cosmic Cities, Grand Canyon of Arizona, 1912), one can easily see how a landscape can inspire artists in different and dramatic ways, with each version becoming a unique and powerful narrative. In fact, this conceit – same place, different artist, different time – continues with eight paintings set in Venice, from the two by Canaletto (ca 1738-40) to Monet’s Le Palais da Mula (1908).

David Hockney, The Grand Canyon, 1998 Paul G. Allen Family Collection

David Hockney, The Grand Canyon, 1998
Paul G. Allen Family Collection

In a show that also includes such favorites as Manet, Cezanne, Monet (five!), Turner, Sergeant, Magritte, Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Hopper, Thomas Hart Benton, Ed Ruscha and Gerhard Richter, among others, how can one choose a favorite? Impossible! Without a doubt, this is a show to see and then see again; in fact, your correspondent is going back today for another look, and it likely won’t be the last time either. By January when the show closes, I probably will have gone at least 39 times, each visit spending time with just one painting.

Lake Douglas

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One Response to “Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection”

  1. thanks lake. i’m looking forward to seeing show.

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