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I've recently written about the falsity of the commonly held notion that the DIA has a great deal of valuable art in storage--recently characterized in an NPR news story as "all that stuff lying about in the basement." While it is true that there is much art not on view at the DIA, the great bulk of it is of little or no worth financially or intrinsically. What is of value is largely light-sensitive materials, mainly prints and drawings but also textiles, that can only be on view for a few months at a time before being returned to storage to prevent fading or other decay.

There is a great opportunity to see some of the best of this kind of material in the exhibition Ordinary People, Extraordinary Artists in the Schwartz Galleries of Prints and Drawings. The show presents work by artists generally associated with Impressionism: Manet, Degas, Renoir, and Cézanne, among others, and contains a number of masterpieces. Degas is represented by twelve pieces, and it is easy to discern his life-long commitment to drawing and printmaking, from an early, precisely drawn, etching of his friend Manet to glorious late pastels of ballet dancers and women bathing. Among the most remarkable of works is a monotype. Neither beast nor fowl, monotypes are created by painting a picture on copper or glass, pressing a piece of paper over it, and then touching up (or not) the transferred image. The DIA's monotype is a rich red- and rust-colored landscape and like nothing else in the room.

Manet (also twelve works) was also a committed printmaker and made print versions of his paintings, most notably, one depicting the execution of the Maximillian Hapsburg, briefly the Emperor of Mexico and the ultimate victim of Napoleon III's disastrous foreign adventurism. Manet's use of lithography, with its freedom of mark marking, enabled him to translate successfully to print, the broad strokes he employed in his paintings that so baffled the public and kept him out of the Academy's annual exhibition.

Renoir (thirteen pieces) turned to prints only long after his years as an impressionist and, with them, entered the private world of his family or a secluded one peopled with young nude females. Again, lithography was the artist's preferred medium for translating the dense, short brushstrokes of his later paintings. For Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (twelve works), lithography was at the center of his creative activity, producing not only fine art prints but bold posters for commercial use. He depicted the shadowy world of the Parisian café concert, where class distinctions blurred in a welter of alcohol, sex, and song. As with Manet's depictions of violence, Toulouse-Lautrec's work is a reminder that ninteenth-century France was not all crinolines and picnics on river banks.

Other artists represented in the exhibition include Edouard Vuillard, Paul Gauguin, and Mary Cassatt--a stellar array of talent and great works of art. What are they worth? I don't have the expertise to discuss their monetary value but, considered as a whole, these works on paper take us into a complex world of pain and pleasure, artistic genius, and insight to the human condition. Altogether, I doubt that the dollar value of these works are equal to some of the estimates that have been bandied about in the press for a single painting by Van Gogh. Either way, any proposal to sell such extraordinary material as "stuff in the basement" is about as wrongheaded as could be.

Graham Beal signiture

Graham W. J. Beal