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ART REVIEWS : 'Letters': Demystifying the Men Behind the Works : Museum exhibit offers a fascinating peek at the private lives of a group ranging from Rubens to Picasso as well as the times that they lived in.

December 25, 1990|KRISTINE McKENNA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The art of letter-writing has been murdered by the telephone. Who goes to the trouble of taking pen in hand, rustling up a stamp and and an envelope and tracking down a mailbox when Ma Bell is never more than a few feet away? Fortunately that hasn't always been the case, as the letters of several great figures of history have shed invaluable light on their work as well as their times.

"Letters by Artists: From Rubens to Picasso," a selection of letters by artists on view indefinitely at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, offers a fascinating peek at the daily lives of several important artists. The show would be a voyeur's dream but for the frustrating fact that all but a few of the letters are in foreign languages (mostly French), and the curators have inexplicably neglected to post translations. Instead, they supply brief biographical sketches of the artists, along with highlights of the exhibited letter--better than nothing, but not as much as one wants.

With what is gleaned from posted information, one discovers that most of these letters tend to demystify the men who wrote them (the letters are all by men, by the way). Included are letters by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Camille Corot, Gustave Courbet, George Cruikshank, Edgar Degas, Paul Klee and Peter Paul Rubens, along with several others.

Among the highlights: Paul Gauguin drops a note to his pal Camille Pissarro telling him "No money and no means of earning any for 5 or 6 months. I dare not think about the future." (Money woes turn up in letters by several artists.) In another letter, Gauguin protests the treatment of the Tahitian people by the French police, while Edouard Manet invites a friend to stop by and see the lovely flowers in his garden.

Matisse writes a model to tell her he will be painting fruits and flowers so she should feel free to go to the beach, Picasso sends a complimentary note to Serge Diaghilev, and in a letter written to a collector of Surrealism, Man Ray rattles on about business with the informed enthusiasm of an unabashed careerist. Writing to two friends, Pissarro requests medicine for his chronic stomach ailment from one and comments on the dangers of the new Paris subway to the other, while Pierre Auguste Renoir announces to his friend Paul Berard; "I have left Paris like a bum to escape because I am ill." So much for the glamour of bohemia, one concludes after perusing this deliciously intimate little exhibition.

Bravo's View: On view in a faraway gallery (the Norton Simon is an extremely vast treasure house) is a selection of 26 photographs by Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo. Bravo, who was born in 1902, began taking pictures in 1924 and worked steadily as a photographer throughout his life. He remained largely unknown outside his native country, however, until 1971 when his first North American retrospective brought him wide acclaim.

Bravo is generally acknowledged to have captured the essence of Mexican life in his pictures. A sophisticated man with many influential friends, he never lost his connection with the poverty, the magic, and the intense relationship with God and nature at the heart of Mexican culture, and these vivid themes are at the heart of his work.

Bravo was friends with Diego Rivera, whose populist sympathies are reflected in these photographs (folk art motifs abound in work by both artists), and during the '30s he was smitten with the Surrealist movement blossoming in Europe. As with Surrealism, Bravo's images shimmer with a dreamy, hallucinatory quality, and seem to suggest that everyday occurences are ever on the verge of exploding into the supernatural. Mostly, however, Bravo's work is evocative of the great Spanish filmmaker and anarchist Luis Bunuel. Like Bunuel, Bravo views the cruelty of nature and the ephemeral quality of life with stoical black humor.

Death is everywhere for Bravo, whose childhood memories include grisly scenes of Mexico's revolution of 1910, and symbols from the Day of the Dead turn up in several of his pictures. Other images depict a handsome young worker slain for going on strike, a freshly filled grave, a mummified infant, and the bones of an animal in the dust. Death is treated as no big deal in Bravo's world, a part of daily existence no more significant than any other fact of life; he is blase about death, yes, but this point of view doesn't make for particularly light-hearted images, and the subjects in Bravo's pictures rarely smile.

Rather, we see a somber people who seem gravely aware of both the fragility and the resilience of existence. In a particularly concise image from 1933 we see a lovely young girl--she's like a beautiful flower just beginning to open--who holds a skull made of spun sugar and stares into the camera with an inscrutable gaze. She seems at once oblivious to and painfully aware of her own mortality.

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