Something Wild

A series of shows at the University of Arizona Museum of Art explores work from their vaults

Lucie Cousturier is the Wild Beast you've never heard of.

She was a painter in Paris during the era of the Fauves—the Wild Beasts—so called for their extreme colors and savage brushstrokes. Matisse and Derain were the biggies among the Fauves; in art history books and sites, the movement is invariably illustrated by a famous Matisse portrait of his wife, nicknamed "The Green Stripe" because of the vertical green slash down the center of her face.

In 1906, the same year Matisse reduced his wife's face to a near-geometry of color blocks, Cousturier turned a tranquil landscape in the French countryside into something wild. In her painting "Chenet du Charmois," a writhing tree gyrates across a sky streaked with pinks and purples, and casts its shadow on a light-orange earth.

That brightly colored oil on canvas is on view at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, hauled out of storage for a show of 20 French paintings: Luminous Moments: Selections from the George Gregson Gift.

The show is one of a series of 13 exhibitions drawn from the museum's permanent collections. The overlapping shows, each lasting a few months, began last fall and will continue through next winter. The curator-less UAMA is conducting an expedition into its vaults, pulling out works famous and obscure, and hanging them pell-mell on the walls in exhibitions organized by donor. No shows of new work are planned.

This chaos is what comes of the museum firing its curator, yet again. Last summer, curator Lauren Rabb's contract was "not renewed," in university parlance, by director Dennis Jones. This is the same fate that befell the museum's two previous two curators, Lisa Fischman and Peter Briggs, under the previous director, Charles Guerin.

It's an embarrassment that the university cannot manage to right this troubled museum, which recently opened a search for a new director to replace the retiring Jones. But there are a few benefits to the confusing welter of exhibitions. We can see some good work that the museum acquired back in the 20th century, the last time it was well run. (The estimable Peter Bermingham, its director for almost 21 years, died on the job in 1999.)

Then there are the serendipitous discoveries like Cousturier, right in time for Women's History Month. Born Lucie Brû in Paris in the 1870s (the exact date is disputed), Cousturier had a respectable career. She had a one-woman show in her home city in 1906 and she exhibited with the radical painters of Paris's Salon des Artistes Indépendants every year from 1901 until 1920.

Besides Fauvism, Cousturier emulated the proto-cubism of Cezanne and the pointillism of Seurat. The exhibition has only one Cousturier painting, but in a self-portrait I found online, she rendered herself entirely in Seurat dots; tiny dabs of brown, beige and gold coalesce into her figure, and lavender, pink and yellow dots vibrate in the background. Fun fact: Cousturier once owned Seurat's famous painting "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," now the pride of the Art Institute of Chicago. A year before her death in 1925, she sold it for $20,000, through a dealer, to a pair of wealthy Chicagoans who gave it the next year to the Art Institute.

The forgotten career of Cousturier, also a writer on art and race, is a reminder of how often women artists are lost to history. To be fair, with the notable exceptions of Renoir and Vuillard, most of the other artists in Gregson's French collection, all of them men, nowadays are also unknown. Curatorial intern Rachel DeLozier did a nice job of assembling and researching their works.

A French Fauvist named Louis Valtat is represented by the delightful "Petit Plage (Children's Beach)," circa 1916. The sand has completely conquered the small square of his canvas: There's no hint of sky or sea, nothing but brilliant yellow ochre from top to bottom. The boldly rendered children playing on the beach—the girls in quickly rendered white dresses and yellow straw hats, the boy in a blue sailor suit—are rimmed by a glimmering vermillion that conjures the glare of the sun.

The Belgian painter Théo Van Ryselberghe has a charming pointillist landscape, "Paysage de Saint Clair," from about 1905. A row of trees—colored Fauvist purple and orange—stand at attention along a turquoise waterway. A tangle of pink flowers and green grass tumble across the foreground.

Abel Bertram is an able painter of Cousturier's generation who stayed strictly with impressionism in his "Les Peupliers (Poplars)" from 1915. Instead of embracing the shocking shades of the Wild Beasts or the dots of the pointillists, he stuck with the small and expressive brushstrokes of the older impressionists, using lovely colors to capture nature's changing lights. His striking vertical landscape pictures a man poling a boat on a canal, beneath a lavender sky and white clouds. Trees along the banks trail away into the distance.

Interestingly, collector Gregson got his start buying up French paintings with a work by the most conservative impressionist of all: Renoir. There are four small Renoirs in the show; three of them pretty paintings of pink roses. The fourth is a portrait of a roselike young girl, with the red hair that Renoir favored , a rose-pink blush to her cheek and a glow of golden pink in the background.

In a quote dug up by DeLozier, Gregson explained that it was this painting of a young girl that set him on his collecting path.

"This painting was my first important art acquisition," Gregson wrote. "It just about sealed my fate. I've been broke ever since."

The Renoir was a conventional choice—a painting by a man directing what art historians and feminist critics call the "male gaze" on an attractive young girl. But let us also congratulate Gregson on buying a work by Lucie Cousturier, a woman who turned her own artistic gaze on whatever she pleased.

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