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Art From the Summit : A New Cultural Exchange Brings a Soviet Collection of 41 Impressionist and Early Modern Paintings to Los Angeles

June 22, 1986|WILLIAM WILSON | William Wilson is The Times' art critic

Tender blossoms of a new U.Soviet cultural exchange agreement will unfold Thursday at the County Museum of Art in a much-heralded exhibition of 41 classic French Impressionist and early modern paintings. Whatever else may befall, the combination of international prestige, beloved painting styles and a rare look at pictures from the fabled Pushkin and Hermitage museums is bound to make the exhibition the most popular--and crowded--art event of the L.A. summer.

The agreement came out of November's Geneva summit between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. The exchange was arranged by the indefatigable Armand Hammer, who sent 127 old-master paintings from his private collection to the Soviet Union, and the National Gallery, which sent 40 Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works there, including such venerated landmarks as Edouard Manet's "The Dead Toreador."

Obviously the Soviets already have more of our pictures than we have of their pictures. You have to watch those guys every second. On the other hand, we just sent them Horowitz and they sent the whole Kirov Ballet. Maybe that makes it even.

The collection the Soviets have sent here includes at least half a dozen miraculous paintings, including Henri Matisse's 1908 "Red Room." It was, blissfully, added to the L.A. visit at the last minute. Such art sends you home thinking that the superpowers must resolve their differences because the world is a terrific place and humankind is, after all, as capable of sublime good as of exquisite evil.

Among eight Paul Cezannes are a woman in blue and a view of Mont Sainte-Victoire that prove the artist's triumph in welding the yawning volumes of Western art to the delicate surfaces of the Orient. Cezanne powered them together with unbelievable tenderness, like a man who uproots a tree without disturbing the butterflies.

The exhibition quickly shows that more would have been better. Vincent van Gogh has just three pictures. His "Portrait of Doctor Felix Rey" is a visual and psychological classic about a man almost too sensual and visionary to be an ordinary physician. "The Prison Courtyard" is an offbeat chiller that captures the paranoia of prison environments from Sing Sing to the gulag . But without other pictures in support they flap about uneasily, as do equally small hints of Pierre Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet. (This exhibition, which tends to stick in people's minds as Impressionist-dominated, is numerically and qualitatively Post-Impressionist and Modernist in character. Only the six paintings by Monet and Renoir are bona-fide Impressionist pictures. The rest are divided among Post-Impressionists Cezanne, Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin and Modernist innovators Matisse and Pablo Picasso.)

Gauguin's eight South Seas pictures confirm the virtue of numerical harmonics. His single truly great canvas is "Are You Jealous?" a languidly charged view of two nudes snapped to attention with a pink-sand background and water rippling with art nouveau arabesques. Its effects eddy out to other images' decorative cloisonne colors and caressing curves, illuminating their structural brilliance in ways that would not be clear in singular seeing.

Even at that, it may finally be the towering rivals Picasso and Matisse who are most impressively represented. That speaks well for the real taste of the Soviets, as opposed to an official taste that still opposes such "radical" art.

Matisse is the very soul of bourgeois decadence, thank goodness. His superb "Conversation" is solemnly witty with its disarming casualness and hints of middle-class pleasures that ease over to "Goldfish" and "Nasturtiums With 'La Danse.' " Who but a rotten capitalist would have the leisure for such a purely aesthetic view of life?

Picasso is the very soul of revisionist individualism--and again, thank goodness. He sees the young-poet charm of Bohemian life in a 1901 harlequin picture, and, instead of mellowing with age, he gets more ferocious in the savage rhythms of "Three Women" and the mordant classicism of his riveting Cubist portrait of art dealer Ambroise Vollard.

Maybe the Soviets can't resist provoking us. Pictures outside the classics category seem to challenge the viewer to think hard about why they were sent or about our preconceived notion of the particular artist. In a couple of cases--for instance, Matisse's "Bouquet on the Veranda"--it looks as though they were testing to see if they could slip in a clinker.

But it adds up to a good solid chew. Still, one wonders why the Americans and the Soviets are so fond of making friends by using French art as the medium. Through Aug. 12.

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