Fantastic Figures

The Tucson Museum of Art is featuring a can't miss exhibit featuring some of the biggest names in art history

Sunday a week ago, New York's Museum of Modern Art in New York opened a sumptuous exhibition of Matisse's late-life cut-outs.

Five days later, not to be outdone, the Tucson Museum of Art unveiled "The Figure Examined," which showcases not only work by Matisse, but paintings, sculptures and prints by some 70 other boldface artists who rarely make appearances in the Old Pueblo.

Take just the first gallery in the monumental 120-work show. It's a treasure trove of famed 19th and 20th century French artists. There's Matisse, represented by the delicate drawing "La Dormeuse/Sleeping Woman," c. 1929, and his unexpectedly Rodin-esque bronze "La Danse" from 1911. And André Derain, one of the Fauves—wild beasts—famed for bold colors, turns up with a lovely restrained drawing of a reclining female nude.

Nearby is Mary Cassatt's tender posthumous portrait of her mother as a young girl, painting in impressionistic pale grays and yellows. Cassatt, a Pennsylvania-born artist whose career unfolded in Paris, painted the oil when she herself was entering into old age.

Elsewhere is the always beguiling Toulouse-Lautrec, who haunted Paris's bistros and theaters, making acerbic sketches of dancing girls and grandes dames alike. He does not disappoint with "La Loge au mascaron doré" (Loge with a gilded mascaron), a litho in red, black and gold from 1893. Its wealthy opera-goers peer peevishly out from their balcony.

And Rodin's cast bronzes are everywhere, from the evocative bust of the French novelist Balzac sitting on a pedestal in the first room, to the monumental, 6-foot "Adam" that presides in the bottom-floor well of the museum.

Rodin, in fact, helped inspire the original personal collection of Elisabeth and Alexander Kasser. (The collection, 1,500 pieces strong, eventually became the Kasser Mochary Art Foundation, from which the show is drawn.) Alex, the catalog tells us, was captivated as early as the 1920s by Rodin's "L'Eternelle idole," a sensuous nude bronze of a couple in an amorous embrace. Though he did not manage to buy a cast of the work until 1971, it inspired him to begin collecting.

The Kassers were Hungarians whose lives were upended by World War II; they worked with Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg to save hundreds of Jews from the Nazis, according to a biographical note in the catalog. With their two children, Michael (now of Tucson) and Mary, they went to Mexico and ultimately New Jersey, where Alex, a chemical engineer, ran a successful paper consulting firm. The family maintained homes in Paris and Vienna as well, and the exhibition has a distinct subset of German, Austrian and Hungarian works.

Elegantly installed by TMA's David Longwell, the artwork moves from the 19th into the 20th century, concentrating on the human body. Four works sum up Picasso's long career: a dark tavern interior painted in his teens, c. 1897; a bronze head from 1906; a 1930 Blue Period print of a mother and child; and a "Bacchanale" c. 1955, worked in his late-life classical motifs.

Much of the work runs counter to expectations. Henry Moore, known for large abstracted nudes, here shows a tiny bronze head. And the one Jackson Pollock, an untitled work on paper c. 1943, is pre-drip Pollock. An engaging watercolor and gouache, it's crowded with "primitive" heads, barely discernible landscapes and a field of inky black that could be the night sky. And Pollock also added cut paper, following in the scissor steps of the great Matisse.

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