An Impressionist Legacy

An Impressionist Legacy. Monet to Moore:

The millenium gift of Sara Lee Corporation

National Gallery of Australia
Canberra, ACT, Australia

Review by Grafico Topico's SUE SMITH

This review was first published in The Courier Mail, Brisbane, Australia - August 1999

THE great exhibition in Australia this winter, giving viewers another reason to visit Canberra's National Gallery, which is also hosting the exquisite 'Ballet Russe' show, is 'An Impressionist Legacy: the millenium gift of Sara Lee Corporation' at Canberra's National Gallery.

The works in this show -- more than 50 major Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings and sculptures by Monet, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Pissarro, Sisley, Chagall, Picasso and Moore, among others -- represent the swansong public appearance of the collection of European modernist art built by Sara Lee Corporation founder, Nathan Cummings, and subsequently acquired by Sara Lee over the past 20 years.

Last year Sara Lee decided to disperse the top tier of the collection -- the artworks had become too valuable to hang as mere decoration in corporate offices -- and made the generous decision to donate the works to American and international museums. The National Gallery of Australia is the only Australian institution to be included in the gift: the Gallery will receive a small but sprightly Impressionist painting by Alfred Sisley, 'Un sentier aux Sablons (A path at Les Sablons)'.

It is an interesting and sometimes surprising exhibition, though it doesn't tell the "story" of the development of European modernism as earlier museum-arbitered blockbusters shown in Australia over the past 30 years have done.

Instead, the show represents the taste of one man, Nathan Cummings, a dynamic businessman who often described himself as "Mister Sara Lee" and was pardonably proud of his achievements as "a country boy who didn't even graduate from grammar school".

Cummings, recalled curator Richard Brettell, was unabashed by his lack of formal art education and trusted his own instincts; when he began to buy art, he "sought the advice of many and then did what he wanted."

Like many self-made collectors, what Cummings wanted, at least when he first began to buy pictures, was art that was direct in its appeal and easy to live with.

Thus, his first major art purchase was an attractive landscape, Pissarro's 'Bountiful harvest', bought on impulse after he saw it in a Parisian shop window in 1945 (at that point he had never heard of Pissarro). A fresh and light-filled scene of workers raking hay, it set the tone for further Pissarro acquisitions and pleasant confections by Bonnard, Chagall and Laurencin, in which the season seems to be eternally summer, lovers float above vases of flowers, and children and girls gather apples in orchards, play guitar or dangle their legs in bubbling brooks.

The best of these idyllic canvasses is Monet's portrait of his young son on his fifth birthday, 'Jean Monet on his mechanical horse', of which Cummings enthused: "It's simple, it's beautiful, it's easy to interpret."

It is all of that, though there was more: the picture, modelled on Velazquez's equestrian portrait of a young prince, is also an image proudly confirming the artist's success, and a sharply characterised portrait of an infant's passage to boyhood (in France, male infants on their fifth birthday graduated to long pants; this was Jean's last day in a dress).

But still, this group of summery pictures may seem to imply that Cummings was just another billionaire collector plucking pretty pictures like sweets.

He wasn't; as the remainder of the show makes clear, over time Cummings's taste broadened and he began to look for visual and intellectual challenges as a collector.

For one thing, he looked with a fresh eye at unfashionable artists and at uncharacteristic works by the well-known. One of these out-of-left-field buys was a masterpiece by an artist usually ranked as a "follower" of Manet: Berthe Morisot. 'The Garden', her largest painting, is an image of dreamy leisure painted with the utmost energy.

For another, Cummings began to see that other qualities in art might also be admired as much as youth and beauty -- among these: strength (Leger's machine-like nude and Matisse's massive bronze heads); and endurance in the face of uncertainty and even death (Giacometti's nervously attenuated sculptures, and Moore's falling, dying, bronze warrior).

As an untutored collector, Cummings was a great success and, unintentionally, an exemplar for scholarly museum directors who would begin to think about collecting beyond the accepted canon of great art and artists.

'An Impressionist Legacy. Monet to Moore: the millenium gift of Sara Lee Corporation', National Gallery of Australia, Canberra until August 22 1999. Charges apply.

Copyright © 1999 Sue Smith. Not to be used without the permission of the author