"Post-Impressionism," a giant show stars Van Gogh, Cezanne, Seurat, Gauguin and other major masters of early modern painting, has been chosen to replace the canceled Hermitage exhibit at the National Gallery of Art.
J. Carter Brown, the Gallery's director, will fly to London tomorrow for negotiations at the Royal Academy of Arts. If all goes well, the Academy's exhibit will open in the Gallery's East Building on May 25. It will remain on view all summer.
"Post-Impressionism," now a hit in London, is the largest display of its kind ever organized in Britain. In addition to its nine Cezannes, 13 Van Goghs, 14 Gauguins and 12 Seurats, it includes works both large and small by 165 other painters.
The exhibition focuses on the quarter-century between 1880 and 1905. At its core are the great paintings that critic Robert Hughes has called "those hinges upon which art swung from the 19th century into the 20th." Museums throughout Western Europe have contributed paintings to the 428-item show.
The term "post-impressionism" was coined by the English critic Roger Fry as a title for a loan show which he opened at London's Grafton Galleries 70 years ago. Though the passionate and brightly colored pictures he selected, by Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse and others, scandalized the British then, those artists are today among the most revered in the recent history of European painting. "Oh, let's just call them post-impressionists," said Fry. "At any rate, they came after the impressionists."
His label, amorphous as it is, has since been used to categorize a vast variety of artists from Ensor to Picasso, from Vuillard to Matisse. The one thing that they shared is this: they were all aware of the innovations of impressionism, and they struggled in their painting to carry art beyond it.
The works of the impressionists, with their flickerings of color and their straightforward themes, shared a motive purely retinal. Some of the post-impressionists -- Cezanne, for example -- were interested in qualities more abstract and formalist, concerns that in the next few years would lead to cubism's explosions. Other post-impressionists, such as Gauguin and Van Gogh, brought a fervor to their pictures, a spiritual intensity that would liberate the Fauves.
Despite a primitive installation and a two-pound ($4.50) admission fee, the London exhibition has attracted huge crowds since it opened in November. Because it includes many stars, it should do as well when it opens here. But from a scholarly point of view, its greatest contribution may be the attention that it draws to less-familiar painters neglected in the past. Among them are Toorop, Modersohn, Sickert, Dill, Gwen John and scores of others who worked outside France.
Because the London exhibition puts their art in context -- it shows, for example, how closely works by Willy Finch, Van Rysselberghe and Pellizza resemble those of Seurat -- it has been received as a revelation as well as a hit.
"Art from the Hermitage Museum in Lenningrad," the loan show it may replace, was canceled by government officials to show American displeasure with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. "Post-Impressionism', which draws many paintings from Scotland, Italy, Scandinavia and the Low Countries, besides France, calls attention not to Russia but to Western Europe's ties.
Scores of museums -- in Portugal and Belgium, Switzerland and Canada as well as a dozen in America and 30 in France -- have lent works to the show. The Gallery has yet to ask these institutions if they would be willing to extend their loans.
Such requests are now being drafted here. "We don't want to count our chickens before they're hatched," said Brown, but he added that installation specialists from his staff will fly to London in March, and the exhibition's prospects, at this point, appear good.
"The scholars who organized the show have expressed enthusiasm at its traveling to Washington. Royal Academy officials have been extremely helpful," Brown said. The National Gallery's board of trustees approved the show last week, and Brown said he has spoken with Lord Weidenfeld, whose British firm has published the exhibition's illustrated 300-page catalog. A new edition of that book, revised if necessary, can be printed in time for a May opening here, said Brown.
Because the show is so enormous, because the net it casts is wide, the display to be seen here need not duplicate exactly the one seen in London. Should lenders choose to pull back this Cezanne or that Guguin, other pictures of comparable quality by those masters no doubt could be borrowed from American collections.
"The essays have been written; the scholarship is done," said Brown. "The catalog is ready. We'll revise it if we must."
"Post-Impressionism," which opened Nov. 17, will remain on view at Burlington House, the Academy's head quarters, until March 16. Its London showing was funded in large part by a grant from IBM United Kingdom Ltd. The Hermitage exhibit was organized by the control Data Corp., a Minneapolis computer firm which lost $1 million when the show was canceled. The Gallery is now seeking corporate sponsors for the post-impressionist display.
"We've asked Control Data if they would be interested in supporting the post-impressionist exhibit," said Brown. "They haven't replied yet."