“Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection” is an interesting mix, including the outlier Klimt landscape “Birch Forest” and the Cezanne post-Impressionist masterpiece “Mont Sainte-Victoire.”
If money was no object, what art would you buy? Four hundred years ago, European royalty went in for Italian Old Masters; altarpiece-averse 19th-century English and American moguls, by contrast, were eager to collect British portrait painting and trophies from the Dutch Golden Age.
Nowadays, the ultrawealthy are more individual in their tastes, with contemporary art commanding the highest prices and the most buzz at recent auctions. But in the case of Paul Allen, far and away the leading art collector in the Northwest, it’s a bit challenging to characterize his taste as the extent and nature of his full collection remains a state secret, impervious so far even to strategic leaks.
Several recent shows have given us a peek into Allen’s art trove. Based on what we’ve seen so far, one can say it’s eclectic, historically broad and heavily weighted to Name Brands. And fortunately, at least in the case of the just-opened exhibit of landscape paintings now on view at the Seattle Art Museum, there is a generous helping of top-flight work by those A-list artists.
‘Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection’
10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays, until 9 p.m. Thursdays through May 23, Seattle Art Museum; $14.95-$24.95 (206 625-8900 or seattleartmuseum.org).
There is little besides ownership tying together the 39-odd works in “Seeing Nature,” which range from cluttered rooms with expansive views (Bruegel, 17th century), to heavily stylized close-ups of an iris (O’Keeffe), to nearly abstract groves of trees (Avery). Most interesting are the fortuitous links between individual works, such as the eight paintings of Venice by seven different artists, or the two dramatically different views of the Grand Canyon, one an eye-popping, 14-foot Technicolor panorama by the extravagantly ambitious David Hockney (“The Grand Canyon” 1998).
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My favorite group of paintings are the five radiant canvases by Claude Monet, spanning nearly 40 years of his prolific career; Allen needs only a canvas or two from the artist’s bridge-and-sailboat Argenteuil period to complete the set. Monet is a classic example of an artist who must be seen in person, as his many layers, vivid brushwork and chromatic subtleties defy even the most high-resolution photographs; his moody and shimmering study of Venetian palace facades (“The Palazzo da Mula” 1908) is a singular tone poem dedicated to a city too often seen in touristic clichés.
Equally idiosyncratic is a jewellike view into a forest interior by Gustav Klimt (“Birch Forest” 1903), who is famous not for his landscapes, but for his figures and portraits. If you look up Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer” or “The Kiss” (done a few years later), you’ll discover fascinating similarities. The portraits and the landscape are both dominated by encrusted, highly decorative surfaces, inspired by non-Western traditions like Byzantine mosaics. These textured and glittery expanses are contrasted with highly detailed, extremely realistic areas (faces, tree trunks), which somehow do not seem incongruous. Klimt was a true original, inventing his own style with no real predecessors, or followers.
Speaking of followers, by far the most significant work in the show is the modest-sized Cezanne “Mont Sainte-Victoire” (1890), the art-history hand grenade in the room. Cezanne’s late landscapes, unlike the outlier one by Klimt, inspired some of the key innovations of modern art. Take the time to admire the endlessly odd and inventive ways Cezanne struggled to reconcile abstract structure and painterly description; he never settled on a formula, and his epic and ongoing search is all the more appealing for its tumultuous irresolution.