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Scott M. Black's work
"The Romance of Modernism," a display of Scott M. Black's collection, includes Fernand Leger's "The Wounded Man," (left) and "The Pont Saint Michel" by Henri Matisse. (The Museum of Fine Arts)

Mixed blessing

The highs, lows, and limits of Modernism -- and private collections

Who is Scott M. Black and why is a dreary exhibition of works from his art collection on view at the Museum of Fine Arts? Black is a wealthy financier who runs Delphi Management , a Boston-based investment advisory company, and he is, as a wall text introducing "The Romance of Modernism: Paintings and Sculpture From the Scott M. Black Collection" announces, "a true friend of the museum."

Black has loaned works from his collection to the MFA, has funded an annual lecture series, and is an honorary MFA overseer. He is, in other words, someone with whom the MFA wants to stay on friendly terms .

So, rather than tell him that many of the paintings and sculptures in his collection would be prime candidates for deaccessioning if ever they were bequeathed to the MFA, the museum is giving him a nice, ego-boosting kiss of gratitude in the form of this depressingly uneven, mixed bag of an exhibition.

Fortunately, there are a fair number of keepers in the show, including a soberly realistic 1869 portrait of a woman in a lacy black dress by Renoir, a thinly painted view of reflective water and rural scenery by Monet that shows how intensely responsive to visual reality the great Impressionist could be at his best, and a verdant landscape painted in 1874 by Cezanne when he was spending a lot of time in the company of Camille Pissarro.

Edgar Degas's murky double portrait "Pagans and Degas's Father" has an enigmatic psychological tension, and the picture's unstable composition of tipped-forward furniture and off-center figures facing in opposite directions looks forward to the dynamic flux of Cubism.

One of the gems of the show is a small, bird's-eye view of a bridge over the Seine made in 1900 by Henri Matisse. Its intense colors, stark contrasts of light and dark, and thick, sensuous strokes of paint anticipate the artist's history-changing breakthrough into Fauvism.

Also historically momentous is a small picture of geometrically simplified trees and houses painted in greens and browns by Georges Braque . Made under the influence of Cezanne and Picasso in 1908, it belongs to that heady moment when Cubism was being born, and though it is small and drably colored, it still vibrates with the feeling of revolutionary discovery.

In a small Cubist composition of tubular forms by Fernand Lé ger from 1917, you can also feel the excitement of an artist alive to new possibilities.

If the exhibition consisted only of these and a few other works, it could have been a fine small show, a conservative but still eye- and mind-engaging Modernist sampler. But there are many exceedingly undistinguished things diluting the general impact.

There are vapid pastel portraits by Renoir; other, mediocre Monets; a group of small, posthumously cast bronze nudes by Rodin that resemble gift-shop reproductions; and garish Pointillist paintings by Thé odore van Rysselberghe, Maximilien Luce, and Henri Edmond Cross that almost look as if they were made by paint-by-numbers kits.

There is an especially gaudy painting by Georges Seurat's most accomplished associate, Paul Signac , created in 1916, decades after Pointillism had been superseded by other Modernist movements. Made of little patches of paint, the image of sailboats on a peaceful sea with explosive pink clouds in a turquoise sky might recall a decorative mosaic for a Mediterranean restaurant, were it not for the German gunboats skulking in from the right.

Other works that bring down the overall quality of the show include paintings by Lé ger from the late '20s that could have been made by assistants; bland, table-top size bronzes modeled by Henry Moore in his trademark semiabstract figurative style; efforts by the Surrealists Magritte, Miro, and Yves Tanguy that look like imitations by other, less talented artists; and a watercolor from the 1960s by Marc Chagall depicting a clown and a pink, nude woman arm-in-arm called "Tenderness" that epitomizes the treacly sentimentality to which he was prone in his later years. The deterioration of Modernism into kitsch is well illustrated by this exhibition.

In an interview in the show's catalog with MFA curator George Shackelford , Black acknowledges that his acquisitions are often determined by economics. He can't afford to buy great works by top-tier artists, so he looks for lesser and cheaper works by famous artists and good works by lesser artists. Instead of a prime piece from the teens by the Italian metaphysical painter Giorgio de Chirico , he gets one of the artist's late rehashes -- this one from 1954 -- of his early, more celebrated works. Instead of Seurat, he gets Signac.

This approach can work if you have excellent or interestingly personal taste, and there are a few notable curiosities in the show, like a small, sketchy portrait by Pierre Bonnard of a young woman named René e Monchaty, a disappointed lover of his who committed suicide in 1924.

A 1923 painting by Edouard Vuillard of two women in a room, one nude and the other helping her to dress, is another intriguing oddity. And a 1934 stripe-patterned portrait by Picasso of his lover Marie-Therese Walter is arresting for its boldly colored abstraction, even if it is not among his best works of the period.

One of the exhibition's weirdest items is a large, dreamlike painting by the Surrealist Paul Delvaux, in which a man tips his bowler hat to a half - nude woman in a Renaissance-style plaza. Delvaux was not a great artist, but his painting's slightly twisted eroticism is exciting to see in this otherwise blandly decorous exhibition.

For the most part Black's taste looks generic and tame -- the product more of an amateurish reverence for standardized art history than of any distinctively personal imagination. He's not a connoisseur, he's a bargain hunter who sometimes gets lucky.

Ken Johnson can be reached at

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