Picks and Pans Main: Etc.

updated 06/09/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/09/1986 01:00AM

IMPRESSIONIST TO EARLY MODERN PAINTINGS FROM THE U.S.S.R.

If you are in the Washington, D.C. vicinity within the next few days, make haste to the National Gallery of Art to see this dazzling show of 41 Impressionist and early modern paintings on loan from the Soviet Union's Pushkin and Hermitage museums. The exhibition of these priceless works, rarely seen in the West, is the result of the joint cultural agreement signed by the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. at the 1985 Geneva Summit; the National Gallery sent 40 of its French Impressionist works to Moscow and Leningrad.

Most of the paintings in the National Gallery show have never been seen in the U.S. Seven artists—Cezanne, Monet, Renoir, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse and Picasso-are represented. One of the most visually sumptuous works, on view at the National Gallery only, is the looming interior scene of Harmony in Red, which Matisse painted in 1908. A huge decorative panel, six feet by seven feet, in hues of crimson and cinnabar, it was originally commissioned by a Moscow businessman. Another Matisse masterpiece, The Conversation, is a tone poem of breathtaking beauty. Color here is everything. The painting depicts the bearded artist, dressed in blue-and-white striped pajamas and straight as a Greek column, facing his wife, who is seated in a chair near the window. Madame Matisse's skin is pasty-colored and she wears a black morning frock, the bodice edged in green, the identical color of the grass visible outdoors. The two figures drift in a background of blue so deep that you can sense the stillness that hangs between them. (In a brilliant omission that adds to the work's dreamlike mood, Matisse chose not to paint in his feet or those of his wife.)

Other highlights of the exhibit are a self-portrait by Gauguin and Renoir's enchanting full-length oil of the actress Jeanne Samary. Of Samary Renoir once said, "What a charming girl. What skin! It looks as if it were illuminated from inside." Another epochal work is Picasso's 1908 Three Women, which he painted before committing himself to Cubism. His bathers' nudity is architectural, nonsexual. Eyes closed, they scrub themselves like huge fantasy women, not yet Cubist figures but not quite earthly females either.

Probably the most provocative composition in the exhibit is Gauguin's 1892 oil Are You Jealous? painted during his first visit to Tahiti. A languorous yet somehow rancorous heat radiates from the canvas. "Two sisters are lying after bathing in the graceful poses of resting animals," as Gauguin once described the scene. The women linger on a beach of pink sand, one in a half-classic sitting pose, the other on her back, her trunk vanishing into the red pool of her pareu, the distinctive Tahitian skirt.

Impressionist to Early Modern Paintings from the U.S.S.R. remains at the National Gallery until June 15. The exhibit will be on view at the Los Angeles County Museum from June 26 to Aug. 12 and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from Aug. 22 to Oct. 5.

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