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At LACMA: Masterpieces Come, Masterpieces Go

Now that the Getty scandal has jumped onto the front page of the New York Times and even appeared in the TV news, it's very tempting to continue to stay the course and cover the story. But I'll leave it, for the time being, to the investigative reporters and concentrate instead on the masterpieces of European art that are currently being shown and sold at LACMA.

Now at LACMA, we have a unique opportunity to study several dozen paintings by Camille Pissarro and Paul Cezanne. This new exhibition focuses on the twenty-year friendship and collaboration between the much-older Pissarro and his young prot-g-, C-zanne. From 1865 to 1885, the two often worked side by side on landscapes and still lifes, with often identical compositions. The resulting paintings, however, more often than not, look like distant cousins. Pissarro, comfortably set in his ways, makes irresistibly charming paintings, capturing leisurely afternoons in the countryside. His short, tiny brushstrokes flutter like the wings of a hummingbird, forming a pleasing, colorful mosaic that's simply impossible to resist. With Cezanne, it's quite a different matter. In his landscapes, the buildings, trees and roads come across as if carved with a chisel, rather than painted with a brush. Instead of the peaceful murmur of Pissarro's landscapes, Cezanne, in his compositions, creates discernable tension between the strongly defined shapes and forms. Yet I have to admit that on a few occasions, while looking from a distance at the two masters' paintings shown side by side, I was unable to identify who painted what without looking at the label. But as the years of their collaboration continued, one can sense that the amount of energy radiating from Cezanne's canvases makes Pissarro's paintings, in comparison, look rather tame. Seen side by side, they make me think about the difference in energy in the same room when the fire in the fireplace is on or when it's not. This exhibition is not a blockbuster chock full of famous masterpieces, but a good old-fashioned study of the similarities and differences in the art of a wonderful mentor and that of his younger friend, apprentice and colleague. Pissarro's art is forever pleasing while Cezanne's art demands full attention and earns your grudging respect with his ways of seeing, deconstructing and rebuilding the world around him. Ultimately, Cezanne is the Master who introduced his contemporaries to 20th Century art before the 20th Century happened.

By the way, the Pissarro painting of a peasant woman sitting in a chair was one of the 42 works from the collection of LACMA, sold last week at Sotheby's auction in New York, yielding the museum $13 million. The best of the lot---a Modigliani portrait---went for $4.9 million. LACMA officials are saying that they'll use these funds to buy new, spectacular artworks but cannot yet reveal the details. And, indeed, it had better be something remarkable to justify the selling of so many good artworks belonging to the museum for so long. For example, the Modigliani portrait came to LACMA in 1951 from William Wyler, famous Hollywood director of Ben Hur, Roman Holiday and Funny Girl, to name just a few. LACMA loaned this portrait on numerous occasions to museum exhibitions in Boston and New York, Paris and Tokyo, Washington and Ottawa. But somehow it was not good enough to keep it here in L.A. I can't wait to learn what LACMA's new purchase is going to be, and to see if the sacrifices justify the end.

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