ART REVIEW : Dazzling, Disputed Bounty : Russia's 'Hidden Treasures Revealed,' 74 French Paintings Seized From Nazi Germany, Are So Grand the Controversy Can Wait

TIMES ART CRITIC

Edgar Degas' 1875 painting "Place de la Concorde" is a strange and exciting picture, a work that sends your eye careening across the Parisian vista portrayed on its radically composed surface. Pressed up close to the foreground is a strolling aristocrat, his two rambunctious daughters heading in the opposite direction, their crisply alert Borzoi dog and a stranger passing by; in the background, a horse-drawn carriage just enters into view, about to march by in clipped procession in front of the distant Tuileries gardens.

Between these close and distant vignettes is the main square in the heart of the ancient but newly rebuilt city--a vast maw of middle ground that is startling in its emptiness.

In an odd palette of silvery grays, dun-colored browns shot through with ocher, chunks of black and occasional flashes of crimson, the painting puts you on notice that modern urban experience is both full and fleeting. Your vision goes on a spirited chase, asked to witness all the bustling sights that it can see before the assembled players in the ordinary street-scene vanish from view, leaving an empty plaza as the expectant stage for the next act in the ongoing drama of modern life.

"Place de la Concorde" is clearly among the most important monuments of French Impressionist painting. It might even be the greatest canvas painted by Degas, an artist better known for scenes of the ballet.

These are grand and sweeping assessments, perhaps, but significant ones that simply could not have been dared before now. For today, the celebrated State Hermitage Museum, on the banks of the icy Neva River that flows through this former imperial capital, opens its controversial and much-awaited exhibition "Hidden Treasures Revealed."

The seven-month display (it closes Oct. 29) presents 74 French paintings, mostly by Impressionist and Postimpressionist artists, that were seized from Germany by the Red Army at the chaotic close of World War II. Degas' dazzling urban landscape, long since thought destroyed and known only from an old black-and-white photograph, is the devastating centerpiece of a show of pictures that have been locked in storage and hidden from view for half a century.

And the art is, at least for the moment, the principle focus of attention. When the show was announced last October, confirming reports and rumors of stolen paintings by Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Edouard Manet, Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso and 16 other notable artists of the 19th and early-20th centuries secreted in the vast museum, questions of their rightful ownership, of their destiny in a country whose political stability is not assured, and even of their authenticity rushed to the forefront.

At a packed press conference Wednesday in the ornate Hermitage Theater, several hundred journalists, museum and government officials and representatives of the heirs of the German private collections in which all but one of the show's paintings formerly resided, watched as Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky firmly diverted attention away from politics and toward paintings.

"We would prefer to talk more about the art today than about politics," Piotrovsky said, as a tangle of some 20 television cameras recorded his every movement. Cord Meier-Klodt of the German Consulate in St. Petersburg concurred, momentarily setting aside the sometimes harsh exchanges between official representatives of Germany and Russia that have marked other such occasions.

Some questioners at the press conference tried to pursue the story's complex legal and political angle, but to no avail. There would be no news stories today, other than the stories being told by art.

Piotrovsky introduced Albert Kostenevich, the Hermitage curator responsible for the first-rate catalogue published for the exhibition, who showed slides and discussed several of the paintings.

Finally, the doors to the imposing Nikolaevsky Hall were opened.

Beneath immense crystal chandeliers, flanked by massive Corinthian pilasters and atop intricately pieced and newly polished parquet floors, temporary, free-standing display walls crowned by an old-fashioned but effective system of lighting hold the 74 paintings. Unfortunately displayed behind glass, apparently for reasons of security, they appear to be in generally excellent condition.

By no means are all of these works great--or, in a few cases, even as good as second-rate. But some are as exceptional as painting of the period gets.

Most all the 15 Renoirs are of only cursory interest, for example, while a couple could be hidden for another 50 years. But, in addition to the "Man on a Stair" and "Woman on a Stair," a sizable, swoony and never-before-exhibited Renoir picture of a bourgeois Adam and Eve, titled "In the Garden," does show this most overrated of French Impressionists working near the end of his most compelling period.

Seated at a garden table and surrounded by a splendid bower of cultivated plant life, an earnest young man seduces a demure and wide-eyed miss. A golden crucifix, like some precarious talisman meant to ward off an impending fall from grace, dangles prominently from the young lady's necklace.

Picture for picture, the seven Cezannes are easily the most consistently gorgeous works in the exhibition. They include a self-portrait that possesses all the gravity of an antique Roman bust, two light and charming still lifes and a great, airy view of his favorite motif, Mont Sainte-Victoire. And Cezanne's powerful, easel-size painting "Bathers" is among the most accomplished pictures in the show.

Evoking the classical theme of the Golden Age, a lost and irrecoverable world of peace and harmony, Cezanne places five male figures in five different poses at a revivifying forest stream or pool. The figures create a complex spatial composition--a cylinder of space inside the cubic field of the picture--while their individual poses together describe an almost cinematic sequence.

Two of the four Gauguins are very fine, especially the double portrait of two little Tahitian girls, "Piti Teina." They seem to float in a blazing cloud of celestial color, with gold sliding into orange and, miraculously, vivid shades of green.

Van Gogh's lively portrait of Madame Trabuc and two late landscapes--one of them painted just weeks before the artist's death--are frankly wonderful. "Landscape With House and Ploughman" is the smaller and slightly earlier of the two, but it packs a wallop that eludes most paintings regardless of their size.

The farmland so politely acknowledged in Van Gogh's painting modeled after his influential predecessor Millet is here bodied as a contradictory mix of comfort, danger, beauty and ecstasy. A hillside farm aflame with color heaves with life in this little, but nonetheless spectacular canvas.

Also first-rate is the collection's only Picasso, the pastel "Absinthe (Girl in a Cafe)," drawn when he was 20. The impossibly serpentine line of her three-quarter profile and the hand on which she rests her face resounds like an echo, in sketchy dancing couples that glide dreamily through the background. Art nouveau style has rarely had such woozy, despondently ethereal grace as this.

The show's most invigorating surprise is Camille Pissarro's "Still Life With a Coffeepot." Not only is its date--1900--poised on the brink of a new century, but the picture itself is an unusual hybrid: The landscape of crumpled tablecloth and serving objects before a forest of floral wallpaper enlivened with birds is balanced between the extraordinary precedent of Cezanne and the imminent triumph of Matisse.

And Matisse is himself represented by a fine painting of a dancer posed against spatially expansive blocks of color (imagine a figure seated before a Rothko). Painted in 1927, it's the most recent work on view.

The remainder of the exhibition is a parade of pleasant pictures. Most are minor paintings by major names, while others are minor examples by minor names, such as Albert Marquet.

Still, there are some three-dozen significant pictures--about half the show--and crowned by such incomparable achievements as Degas' amazing "Place de la Concorde," this exhibition of rediscovered paintings deserves its advance billing as a major international event. For now the Russian director of the Hermitage and the German consul are right to agree: Politics can wait; just look at these magnificent paintings.

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