High on the Hilltop

Nicolas Poussin's "Achilles Amongst the Daughters of Lycomedes"

The two summer shows at the Meadows Museum, The Triumph of French Painting and 20th Century Texas and Spanish Prints, provide the perfect excuse to visit the question: What gives on the Hilltop?

When last we visited the Meadows' edifice on Bishop Avenue, things were looking kind of grim. For two years following its 2001 debut, the Meadows seemed to function less as a legitimate museum than as an annex to the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau. In show after show--James Surls, Santiago Calatrava, Silver Sculptures From Mexico--the Meadows' offerings were mere promotional jobs posing, for politeness' sake, behind the flimsiest fig leaf of scholarly justification.

Recently, however, the school where the libraries were always in tatters and the ballplayers in Mercedes has been signaling that it wants to be a real university--and the Meadows has been one of the most visible signs. For, oh, the last year, the Meadows has been acting like an honest-to-God museum, putting on legitimate shows that are more about scholarship and education than about creating a PR event. Since last fall alone, the museum hosted an extraordinary show of Greek vase painting, a collection of rarely exhibited Spanish Masters drawings, even a show of photographs about death, accompanied by selections from Goya's Disasters of War series.

The timing is not coincidental. Last summer, the Meadows went out and hired itself a genuine director--Ted Pillsbury, former director of Fort Worth's Kimbell Art Museum and former partner with Gerald Peters at Pillsbury and Peters Fine Art, a man who was once short-listed to head the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Pillsbury's education and credentials are impressive; after "41," Pillsbury may be the man with the second-longest résumé in the Western world. But Pillsbury's most impressive qualification isn't listed on his résumé. Pillsbury is that rarest of museum professionals: one with an opinion. Hand the man a drink and he'll tell you what he thinks--and it ain't always conventional, much less diplomatic. Pillsbury understands that the role of a museum, and of a museum director, is to be provocative, and he fundamentally believes that art is, at bottom, an invitation to the free exchange of ideas.

As if to demonstrate his commitment to shaking up the Meadows, Pillsbury's first move was to hire Dr. Richard Brettell as imp at large--excuse me, "senior adjunct curator." Brettell, the controversial former DMA director, is a man who seems to be in perpetual motion, who generates ideas like an amateur inventor. Not to say that all of his ideas are winners. Brettell can come off as decidedly half-baked and his judgment, at times, as questionable, like the DMA's embarrassing, ethically questionable display of the Quedlinburg treasures. Still, the man does generate excitement, and his collaboration with Pillsbury should be interesting to watch.

Indeed, Brettell was primarily responsible for The Triumph of French Painting. Among his many posts, Brettell serves as a director of the French Regional and Museum Exchange ("FRAME"), an alliance of 18 small regional museums to develop exhibitions and exchange resources, including works from the members' permanent collections. The result is an interesting, if somewhat academic, display of works from 17th-century France--the so-called grand siecle, France's golden age.

The accompanying catalog does a fine job of putting it all in context, and, despite the pedantry of the opening essay, is relatively reader-friendly. As the catalog explains, at the dawn of the 17th century, France was a cultural backwater, riven by feuds between Catholics and Protestants, between the Papacy and various Catholic factions, between the monarchy and the aristocracy. Henry IV, France's first Bourbon king, established the policy of royal art patronage that would evolve into France's famous system of state support for artists. Like most patrons of the day, however, Henry looked to Italian artists, not French ones, to decorate his palaces and state buildings.

This was not unusual. At the time, French artists were considered little more than craftsmen, enjoying no more prestige or intellectual pretensions than the corner baker. Any young man who wished to be a proper painter went off to study amid the rubble of ancient Rome. There they consorted with educated Englishmen doing the grand tour and aspiring artists from various nations, all eager to hang out with Italian masters of the day amid the decaying glory of classical antiquity.

One result was an almost bewildering diversity of styles and subjects among French painters of the 17th century, abundantly evidenced by the 40-odd canvases displayed at the Meadows. Both show and accompanying catalog do a fine job documenting the influence of Caravaggio and other schools of painting upon these French expatriates, as well as the demands and tastes of various categories of patrons. This exposure and sophistication was, of course, a source of frustration to artists returning home, and one impetus behind the founding of France's Royal Academy of Painting in 1648.

The real impetus, however, was political. The catalog is effective in relating artistic developments to political events in France, especially during the reign of Louis XIII and Louis XIV. Louis XIII was a weak monarch who delegated affairs of state to his minister, Cardinal Richelieu. Fortunately for French artists, Richelieu was a clever autocrat who understood the value of art as propaganda, enlisting not only painters and sculptors but also cartoonists, pamphleteers and publishers in the service of the monarchy. But it was the Sun King, Louis XIV, who really raised the political use and patronage of painters and sculptors to, well, an art. To promote France as the successor to the glory of ancient Rome, and himself as, depending upon his mood, either the reincarnation of Alexander the Great or Apollo (hence the "Sun King" moniker), Louis XIV undertook a program of state-sponsored building and art projects that dazzles the world still today. Overseen by Charles Le Brun, peintre du roi (painter to the king), these state commissions resulted in an official state style of history and myth-painting dedicated to the glory of Louis, and therefore of France. (As Louis XIV liked to remind those around him, "L'état c'est moi"--"I am the state.")

The catalog gives a cursory but all-in-all sufficient explanation of the French academy's carrot-and-stick system for controlling the look and content of French art. The exhibition, in turn, is mercifully weak in its selection of the fussy classicism and fantastic pastoral landscapes usually associated with 17th-century Frogs like Poussin and Lorrain. Its cross-section of history painting and classical mythology is stronger, albeit definitely an acquired taste. The real jewels of the show are the "lesser" genres not normally associated with 17th-century French painting, especially portraiture and still life and what the curators call "everyday life," haunting depictions of peasants.

There are a few flaws. The wall text is composed primarily of micro-history about artists interesting mostly to specialists; unfortunately, it does little to place the paintings themselves into political and historical context for those unwilling to wade through the catalog. The result is an exhibition that is at best catholic and somewhat dry, and, at worst downright confusing for anyone who simply walks through the show. Moreover, visitors are unable to make the invited comparisons to Spanish masters in the Meadows collection, which is being rehung and thus unavailable for viewing.

But these are quibbles. For this is exactly the kind of show that the Meadows should be putting on, educational and smart and yet manageable for a wide audience of nonspecialists, interesting even for those who normally run from the putti and pastoral confections of 17th-century France.

Hanging across the hallway from the Frogs, in the Meadows' temporary exhibition space, 20th Century Texas and Spanish Prints seems at first like an afterthought, an attempt to air out things hanging about the storeroom. After inspection, however, it seems like the Meadows may want to check the storeroom a little closer.

The highlight of this hodgepodge of prints is a complete set of 52 prints by the "Dallas Nine." Published in limited edition in 1952, these Texas-themed works contain some powerful images of rural Texas recognizable to this day to anyone who ventures an hour and a half from Texas' major population centers.

The style perfected by these artists--part WPA and part folk art, with a dash of Mexican muralists and a pinch of Edward Hopper--is echoed today in the work of Texas artists like David Bates (whose mid-'80s print from the artist's State Fair series hangs around the corner for handy comparison). This suite still looks amazingly fresh and contemporary 50 years later, and is one of the best arguments for the merits of mid-20th-century Texas art. The Meadows would do well to consider recycling selections from this group in future shows, instead of trotting out the Goya prints at the slightest provocation, as they are wont to do.

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