Guggenheim Hermitage, Las Vegas

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If names of artists like Gaugin and Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso, Kandinsky and Leger trigger happy memories of previous encounters you might have had with their art, then an exhibition of 45 masterpieces of Impressionist and Early Modern paintings, which just opened in Las Vegas at the Venetian Hotel/Casino, is your ticket to heaven. Selected from collections of the St. Petersburg Hermitage museum in Russia and the Guggenheim in NY, this exhibition could be described as an embarrassment of riches. For example, the Hermitage sent 4 amazing early Matisses that no other museum in the world would dare to take off the walls. But for the Hermitage, with its incomparable and vast collection of 19th and early 20th century art, this is not a big deal. No other museum, not even MOMA in NY, would think of sending out a treasure such as Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" for fear that it would throw the rest of the museum collection off balance. But the Hermitage can afford to loan a magnificent canvas by Picasso almost as big as "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" and painted a year later. It depicts three naked women whose bodies appear to be roughly cut out of stone, African masks serve as their faces. The painting has an overwhelming iconic presence, familiar to those who have experienced the unsettling, immobilizing power of "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon."

At the exhibition's beginning, devoted to Impressionism, the quality and quantity of the Hermitage masterpieces dominate the galleries, but toward the end, devoted to the early 20th century, the friendly battle between the two museums is won by the Guggenheim, with its stellar works by Modigliani, Leger, Chagall, and especially and, ironically, Kandinsky.

The subdued elegance of the specially constructed building, containing these treasures, justifies its nickname, the Jewel Box. Its official name is the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum. Of two museums that have opened at the Venetian Hotel/Casino last week, this is the smaller one and the architect, Rem Koolhaas, appropriately handled this assignment with less bravado than at his larger building for the Guggenheim Las Vegas Museum with its "Art of the Motorcycle" show. Imagine a shoebox built of Cor-Ten steel which is forced inside of the super ornate Venetian Hotel. From the street, one can see a long side wall of this box with huge letters spelling the museum's name onto a rusty metal wall of a rich brown color. Inside, the museum space consists of four medium-sized, exquisitely proportioned galleries. Rusted metal walls and an undulating ceiling of blond wood create an unusual but surprisingly complimentary atmosphere for viewing art.

At the press conference during the museum opening, attended by dignitaries, Russian minister of culture Mikhail Shwydkoi, speaking in fluent English, quoted Greek philosophers and conveyed the endorsement of President Vladimir Putin. To add to the already slightly surreal feeling of the event, held in a ballroom in the hotel basement, in the middle of the Nevada desert, I couldn't stop thinking of another unexpected and dramatic collaboration between America and Russia, in another desert - halfway across the globe - in Afghanistan. But that is another matter.