Since the days of Duncan Phillips, Washington has been entranced with 19th-century Paris. With the Impressionist exhibit at the National Gallery of Art still fresh in happy memory, and the Russian exhibition there crowded morn till night, that long and ardent love affair shows no signs of abating. Now comes "French Nineteenth Century Bronze Sculpture," a most instructive little show at the Wallace Wentworth Gallery, 2006 R St. NW. Its timing is just right.
Its heads and busts and statuettes, though void of glorious color, comment most succinctly on the paintings of the time. The contrasts that we noted between Degas' flawless line and the looser, still amazing brushwork of Ce'zanne are reiterated here in the differences between the sharply focused statuettes of Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse (1824-1887) and the figures modeled out of pressed clay pellets by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875).
Frenchmen since Napoleon's day, and Delacroix's, had been hopelessly attracted to the exotic Orient. Matisse's "Moroccan in Green" in the Russian exhibition wears a turban and a curly beard. So does Cordier's bronze "Arabian" in the Wallace Wentworth show. The Matisse is revolutionary, the Cordier academic, but their subject is the same.
By the early 1870s, the French, who'd once depicted a sweet, imagined past, were exploring themes from modern life, not goddesses but trains, not arcadia but bars. That shift is here apparent, too. The "Michelangelo" and "Raphael" of Carrier-Belleuse (both 1855) look like demigods of art. But Constantin Meunier's strong "Stevedore" of 1885 is another sort of hero. He's just stepped out of real life. His thick fingers could crush trees.
There are three Rodins on view -- a small bronze of "The Kiss," a small "St. John the Baptist" and sensuous "Head of Lust" from his "Gates of Hell." But Honore' Daumier, an artist better known for his lithographs and oils, is the hero of this show. It includes four Daumiers -- a statuette of "Ratapoil," a small head of a "Parliamentarian," a remarkable self-portait bust and a bas-relief of refugees whose monumental bodies prophesy the bathers of Ce'zanne.
Daumier's pug-nosed likeness appears twice in the exhibit, once in his self-portrait, and in a monumental head by Eugene Antoine Bourdelle.
The 18 bronzes on display come from numerous collections in this country and abroad. Meunier's standing "Stevedore" costs $8,000. The large Daumier self-portrait, perhaps the most impressive work on view, is priced at $85,000. Compared with the vast sums fetched by paintings of the time, these seem modest prices. The show runs through May 20.
By happy coincidence, the Hom Gallery, 2103 O St. NW, is also honoring Daumier. Jem Hom has managed to acquire a prime, prepublication set of the biting, freely drawn lithographs that Daumier created in the 1840s for the periodical "Le Charivari." Those published in the magazine are secondary objects, frequently diminished by the way the letterpress on the verso peeps through the thin paper. But there is no text on the back of the sheets now on display. They were printed first, "sur blanc," on sheets of white wove paper. A few even include the signature of the printer and his notation of approval. Some illustrate, sardonically, the "Emotions of the Parisians." Others depict maxims: "A man without a home is like a bird without a nest." Their prices range from $450 to $750. They'll be on view through June 15.
Four of Washington's most accomplished draughtsmen are represented in "Aberrant Abstraction," the exemplary group show now at Jones Troyer, 1614 20th St. NW. Tom Green, Robin Rose, Robert Singletary and Jeff Spaulding are all in mid-career. None of them waffle. They know exactly what they're doing. Their styles are their own.
Despite the title of the show, Green's crisp and loaded drawings are something other than abstractions. They tend to feel like texts written in a strange pictorial code whose keys we have mislaid. Trying to intepret them is like trying to decipher the hieroglyphs of Egypt. Their ideograms are often clear -- here's a spire or a bony spine, a rough-barked tree, a jellyfish, a woodpecker, a worm. But as we study them intently, these small familiar shapes mutate into others whose meanings we can't know.
Green likes one way of marking -- the cleanly drawn black outline. Singletary's pictures offer up a dozen. He uses ruled lines and rough scribbles, the dry brush and the wash. Sometimes he cartoons -- the round, black ears of Mickey Mouse appear a bit surprisingly in his "Desperately Seeking Mickey" (1985). Sometimes he portrays -- that large, staring eye appears drawn from life. In his "Ocean Waves With Bubbles," the waves are wild things driven by stiff winds, but the bubbles are as round as pitted steel ball bearings. He sings in various voices, but his voices mesh.
Rose's touch is light. His drawings are the most delicate on view. Three of the most impressive pay homage to three Washington painters he admires, Sam Gilliam, Gene Davis and Leon Berkowitz. They are little palm-sized pictures whose markings -- done in copper-point, silver-point and gold-point -- darkly glow like some pirate's treasure seen in moonlight dimmed by clouds.
Spaulding's bigger pictures are done with charcoal and eraser. Once he filled his drawings with toothy, frond-like forms, but now those forms feel whipped by wind. These are drawings filled with movement. "Aberrant Abstraction" closes May 24.