Critical art reviews of Detroit galleries and museums weekly

Author: Sean Bieri

Revolutionary Times @ FIA

The Flint Institute of Arts Presents Revolutionary Times by Detroit Artist Mario Moore

There’s a black-and-white video clip on YouTube of an early TV quiz show where a panel of celebrities tries to guess the identity of a mystery guest. In the clip, the guest is a frail-looking old man who turns out to be the last living witness to the shooting of Abraham Lincoln. The show aired in 1956. My father was born in 1947; he just turned 77, and his life overlaps that of someone who saw the Lincoln assassination. I remember being struck by that thought when I first saw the video, by the idea that the days of chattel slavery and civil war, which can seem like the stuff of textbooks, ancient history (and which some would like us to conveniently regard as such), were actually as close as the span of just two lifetimes. I thought of that video again as I looked at Mario Moore’s current exhibition at the Flint Institute of Arts, Revolutionary Times (running now through April 14), in which the painter repeatedly collapses the distance between the past and the present.

Mario Moore, Installation images, 2022, oil on linen

It’s been quite a year so far for Mario Moore. In addition to the Flint show, the Cranbrook Art Museum is currently featuring a show Moore co-curated called Skilled Labor: Black Realism in Detroit, in which Moore joins several other local painters who work in a range of realist approaches (on view through March 3). Moore’s art is both highly skilled and labor intensive. He works at a level of realism that must be a bit like playing trumpet or violin, where the promise of perfection makes every flub the more obvious. Moore, however, rarely misses a note. While his backgrounds are more loosely painted to suggest depth, his subjects are meticulously rendered, and yet they aren’t fossilized by overly-fussy technique. They breathe, and radiate warmth even when their demeanors are cool, which is often. When they meet the viewers gaze, theres life in their eyes.

Mario Moore, The Drum Rolls On, 2021, oil on linen

Revolutionary Times comprises three bodies of work: one relates to the Civil War, particularly the Black troops who were armed to fight for the Union; another references the Underground Railroad and Detroit’s unique part in its history; and the third, a room of mostly portraits, comments on the fur trade in Detroit while honoring members of Moore’s family and circle of friends. Throughout the show, Moore juxtaposes images of “then and now,” sometimes placing 19th century figures in modern landscapes, or casting friends in the roles of historical personages, or inserting himself into portraits of family members. Each work dissolves the barriers between the historical and the contemporary. At the start of the exhibition the viewer is greeted by The Drum Rolls On, an image of a barefoot Black child, eyes forward and resolute, the sticks in his hands poised to strike up a march on the snare drum slung around his neck. Around him the landscape is in flames, yet he is unharmed and unperturbed. He’s an allegorical figure, though not a timeless one; the shiny calculator watch on his wrist tells us that the time is now.

The next image the visitor encounters is a lithograph featuring the first of a number of artists Moore name-checks throughout the exhibit, David Bowser, the designer of several regimental flags carried by Black troops during the Civil War (a Moore recreation of one of Bowser’s flags hangs elsewhere in the gallery). Across the room is another artist, Moore’s contemporary Mark Thomas Gibson. He’s depicted lounging in front of a Moore-ified version of his large drawing of the battle of Antietam, a fight in which Black troops played a crucial role and which precipitated Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. In the battle scene, a Union soldier lies dead in one corner, his head blown off with such force that his hat still hovers above the stump of his neck. Gibson’s casual pose, sitting back in a chair with his feet up, mimics that of the collapsed soldier, suggesting that the soldier’s sacrifice then made Gibson’s freedom today possible. On another wall are several portraits based on Civil War-era photographs, now in full color and with the original subjects replaced by friends of Moore’s, all brandishing period swords and firearms. A spoken word recording about the arming of Black troops, Free State, plays in the first gallery as well, though without a chair or headphones, it’s hard to give the 25-minute recording the attention it deserves.

Mario Moore, Blackburn, Lucie, and Thornton Blackburn’s Arrival in Midnight, 2022, oil on linen

Entering the second part of the exhibition, the visitor meets two bathing suit-clad figures, a man and woman reclining on the shore of the Detroit River. They represent Lucia and Thornton Blackburn, an enslaved couple who fled Kentucky for Canada along the storied Underground Railroad. They eventually escaped to Windsor, depicted here by the apartment blocks and casinos of the city’s modern skyline, just as the Blackburns are portrayed by two friends of Moore’s, closing the gap between the two time periods. The Underground codename for Windsor was “Canaan”; Detroit was called “Midnight.” Between them runs the river, a fluid frontier that appears in the backgrounds of a number of the pictures in this gallery, most dramatically in Troubled Waters: Henry Bibb And/Or Mary Ann Shadd. In the painting, the titular abolitionists bob in precariously small boats on the rough waters of the strait, reaching out to one another yet separated by their differing views on tactics (Bibb welcomed white allies, Shadd felt Black people could free themselves without them). In the foreground between the two boats, her back turned to the viewer to reveal her elaborately embroidered robe, a Black woman looks on as if contemplating the dispute, inviting us to do the same. Moore’s handling of water is excellent, especially the range of color he brings to the river, from industrial grays to translucent greens to deep blues. Also in this gallery are three large-scale portraits of anti-slavery figures with Michigan connections: William Lambert, George deBaptiste, and Sojourner Truth. Each is drawn in silverpoint, evoking daguerreotype photographs, and each is embellished by gold threads — provided by Moore’s mother, the artist and educator Sabrina Nelson — that chart routes along the Underground Railroad, adding a thoughtful graphic element to the portraits.

Mario Moore, Troubled Waters: Henry Bibb and/or Mary Ann Shadd, 2022, oil on canvas

Detroit was founded 320-plus years ago as an outpost for the French fur trade, an industry that relied on the labor of enslaved Black people in order to thrive. The third gallery in the Flint exhibition depicts Moore’s friends and family dressed in fur, flipping the historical dynamic as well as celebrating a fashion statement that Moore has noticed is particular to Detroiters. His painting Expansion is a full-length portrait of local entrepreneur Cyndia Robinson, who stands framed in a doorway wearing black lingerie, as well as a fur jacket that once belonged to her mother. On either side of Robinson are historical paintings, like those still found in some libraries or schools, depicting the fur trade: white men with muskets receive furs delivered by Native American trappers, while an enslaved Black man shoulders a bundle of hides. On the opposite wall is the closest thing to an abstract image in the show, Moore’s striking bird’s-eye view portrait of Sheefy McFly, in which the rapper/artist/DJ, clad in an all-pink outfit and a brown fur coat, reclines in a small wooden boat. The vessel’s arrowhead shape, like a “you are here” pointer on a map, is sharpened by the field of dark cobalt water on which it floats. (If this painting hasn’t been used as an album cover yet, it’s something to consider!)

Mario Moore, Troubled Waters: Henry Bibb and/or Mary Ann Shadd, 2022, oil on canvas

Bookending the exhibition is a stunning group portrait of five women: Moore’s wife Danielle Eliska, his sister, mother, and his two grandmothers, arranged in a pyramid-shaped composition with Eliska’s profile at its peak. The women exude supreme strength and confidence. Arrayed around a table in a snowy forest environment, they look anything but cold; in fact they glow with a warm, golden light in defiance of their icy surroundings. Moore’s love and admiration for these women he calls Pillars of the Frontier in the paintings title is palpable. His mother Sabrina Nelson holds a pencil poised over her open sketchbook, recalling the poised drumsticks held by the child at the show’s beginning. She locks eyes with the viewer — really with her son, the painter painting her, as if to create his portrait in return, keeping the dialogue between generations alive.

Mario Moore, Pillars International Detroit Playa: Sheefy, 2022, oil on linen Mario Moore, Pillars of the Frontier, 2024, oil on linen

The Flint Institute of Arts Presents Revolutionary Times by Detroit Artist Mario Moore on view until March 3, 2024.

Lillian Schwartz: Whirlwind of Creativity @ Henry Ford Museum

When Diego Rivera came to the Detroit Institute of Arts to create the Detroit Industry murals, the communist painter formed an unlikely bond with arch-capitalist Henry Ford over their shared fascination with technology. Ford had zero interest in art, but he was an avid collector of obsolete machinery, relics of the only sort of history he respected. When Rivera heard of Ford’s collection, he had himself driven to Dearborn early one morning and stayed until well after dark, poring over the metal menagerie that would eventually become the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.

The intersection of art and technology is on display throughout the Henry Ford Museum: in Charles and Ray Eames’ playful “Mathematica” exhibit; in the quirky product designs of Michael Graves and the Apple graphical user interface created by Susan Kare; and in the array of works displayed in the Modern Glass Gallery. It’s a connection that’s further explored in Lillian Schwartz: Whirlwind of Creativity (open through March), the inaugural exhibit of Ford’s new Collections Gallery, a space that will feature some of the museum’s more ephemeral objects that seldom go on display.

World’s Fair, 1970, Kinetic sculpture and,  Proxima Centauri, 1968   Kinetic sculpture

Schwartz is a pioneer in the field of electronic art. Beginning in the late 1960s, at a time when computer-generated art was still something of an anomaly, Schwartz collaborated with numerous engineers, programmers, and fellow artists to use the emerging technologies of the day in off-label ways to create her work. The Henry Ford recently received Schwartz’s archives and is still in the process of sorting through it all, but the current exhibit of 100-plus items is an exciting distillation of her life story. It features paintings, prints and drawings, sculptures, short films, plenty of ephemera from Schwartz’s long career, and, true to form for this museum, some of the gadgets she worked with, such as film editing equipment and projectors. It’s especially fortunate that this celebration of Schwartz’s work should be mounted while she’s still with us — born in 1927, the artist is now 96 years old.

Art supplies were hard to come by when Schwartz was a child, so she made use of whatever she could get ahold of — scraps of wallpaper, salvaged bits of sidewalk chalk, even leftover bread dough for sculpting. Some of her earlier artworks, from the 1950s, are on display here. Bright and colorful, they are decidedly analog, but hint at the improvisatory ethic of her childhood, and at the boundary-jumping approach Schwartz would apply to her art throughout her life: some feature collaged elements, others are painted onto overlapping layers of repurposed thin, translucent fabric rather than canvas.

On display nearby are some of her sculptures from the 1960s. They look wonderfully retro-futuristic, like they’d be at home on the set of a classic science fiction movie. In fact, one object called Proxima Centauri, a translucent globe that rises from inside a dark pedestal and flickers with colorful light when the viewer steps on a pressure pad, was used as a prop on the original Star Trek TV series (as well as appearing in the 1968 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, The Machine As Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age). Another work, World’s Fair, a glowing box full of spiraling glass tubes that siphon up multicolored fluids, could be the circulatory system for some cybernetic organism. The tubes were trash-picked from a glass factory, and the red and green liquids coursing through them were originally cough syrup and creme de menthe!

Grandma and Grandpa, Etching,  1975

In 1968, Schwartz was invited to come to Bell Labs, the storied incubator of tech innovation, as part of an initiative to humanize computers in the eyes of the public. Technological pointillism!” she declared upon seeing an image at Bell of a reclining nude woman comprising a grid of hundreds of computer code glyphs. The nude had been printed out by a couple of Bell programmers as a joke, but Schwartz saw the real art-making potential in the technology. Hopping back and forth between the analog and digital worlds, she first drew faces onto graph paper, fed them into computers to be encoded, then made silkscreen prints of the resulting pixelated portraits.

Later, using Bell’s circuit etching equipment, Schwartz rearranged the mazes and starbursts of circuit boards to create two figures she named Grandma and Grandpa; appearing both high-tech and primordial, they suggest totems erected to ancestors yet to be born. She used the same technique to create a streamlined variation on a Marcel Duchamp masterwork; hers is called Nude Ascending a Staircase. It doesn’t function as a circuit board anymore, it’s “merely” art, an homage that the Dadaist disruptor and creator of Fountain would no doubt have appreciated.

Still from Olympiad, 1971, Film transferred to video.

In the center of the exhibit is a small black-box theater showing a number of short animated movies Schwartz made in collaboration with technicians and fellow electronic art and music innovators. Again, she melds the physical with the nascent digital technologies; one film includes abstracted images of a brain scan, while another juxtaposes matrices of growing crystals with distorted laser beams that waft around onscreen like deep sea creatures. In Olympiad, Schwartz animates digitized photos of a running man borrowed from Eadweard Muybridge’s groundbreaking motion photo series of the late 1800s (another technological advance that effected the art that came after). She later created a life-sized analog image of this pixelated athlete using a grid of black and white thumbtacks, once more swerving across the boundaries of different media.

In an era of sophisticated CGI, when video games are nearly as realistic as blockbuster movies and the “uncanny valley” gets narrower every day, it may be too easy to regard Schwartz’s films, with their chunky graphics, vivid color and bleeping soundtracks as quaint baby steps toward modern computer animation. But they deserve to be appreciated on their own merits. They are by turns whimsical, hypnotic, and disorienting, sometimes like racing at warp speed through a Color Field painting exhibit, other times like drifting into a psychedelic dreamscape in which the acid-colored eyes of swirling galaxies seem to stare back at you.

Olympiad, c. 1970,  Mixed media collage.

There’s much more to explore in this exhibit: how her bout with polio while living in post-war Japan effected Schwartz’s art, and how scar tissue in one of her eyes caused her to see “Picasso-like” visions; her pioneering TV spot for MoMA, the first computer animated advertisement to win an Emmy; her attempt to use computers to prove that Leonardo’s Mona Lisa was partially a self-portrait (a dubious theory, but an interesting use of the software). There are also her run-ins with sexism, and her sometimes awkward relationship with the suits at Bell Labs. In the mid-1980s, after many years of involvement with Bell, Schwartz was finally given a job title of sorts — resident visitor,” an appropriately sci-fi-sounding designation. She was also called a morphodynamicist,” in order to make her seem sufficiently scientific to visiting Bell shareholders. Schwartz once half-jokingly referred to herself as a pixellist.” But whatever her name badge reads, and whatever high- or low-tech media she takes up, Schwartz is an artist through and through. In the midst of current debates over how artificial intelligence will disrupt the art world, Lillian Schwartz: Whirlwind of Creativity is proof that it’s the human being  wielding the tools that will always make the difference.

Lillian Schwartz: Whirlwind of Creativity at the Henry Ford Museum on display through March 2024.

Laura Magnusson, “Blue” @ Flint Institute of Arts

Laura Magnusson, Blue, 2019

Water is a paradoxical thing, both sustaining and dangerous; it’s our origin, our literal lifeblood, yet it has a hundred ways of eroding our foundations and pulling us under. Canadian interdisciplinary artist, University of Michigan grad, and trained scuba diver Laura Magnusson considers water her collaborator: supportive, receptive, restrictive, indifferent.” Her eleven-minute silent video Blue (2019), on view at the Flint Institute of Arts through December 30, is set entirely underwater — 70 feet below the surface of the Caribbean, in fact, off the shore of the Mexican island of Cozumel. Down there, the horizon disappears into an azure haze that hangs over the cyan-tinted sand of the nearly featureless sea floor. It’s an abstract environment, an open stage for a performance that Magnusson describes as a voyage through the afterlife of sexual violence” and “the impact statement (she) was never permitted to give before a court of law.”

The video opens on Magnusson crouched on the seabed, wearing a winter parka with a fur-trimmed hood and matching snow boots that seem less incongruous than one might imagine in this alien environment. Magnusson begins to trudge through the course sand, leaning into the water’s resistance, carrying in one hand the large tank that’s providing her with air, and in the other a model of a corrugated metal building complete with pine trees and a porch. In the doorway stands a figure in black underwear, a miniature version of the artist.

Laura Magnusson, Blue, 2019

First, Magnusson tries to bury the model building (which looks to be broken, a corner or fragment rather than a complete structure), scooping sand up over it. She makes a few attempts to leap upward toward the surface, but sinks back down each time, descending to the sea floor in slow motion. She wrestles to remove the parka before appearing half-buried in the sand, still wearing it. Eventually we see the coat fluttering free through the water like a diaphanous sea creature. Magnusson crouches again, nude now but for underpants and a diver’s weight belt, encircled by the arc of her air tube.

Magnusson alternates between standing, crouching, and self-burial until the cycle is interrupted by a shot of the artist wearing a pained expression above the scuba regulator stuck in her mouth. The hood of the parka is pulled up over her head, and she’s framed by a black void as silverfish dart around her. Crouching again, she screams silently into the sea, bubbles streaming from her mouth. In a close-up, we see her fingers attempting to pry the miniature figure of herself from out of the doorway of the model structure. It feels like a breakthrough, but it’s followed by a literal reversal: the film starts moving backward. Air retreats into Magnusson’s mouth and she retraces her steps as if pushed back by the current. In the end, the broken building remains planted in the sand, and the black void returns, minus Magnusson, with only the silvery-blue fish remaining. The video loops and begins again.

Laura Magnusson, Blue, 2019


Speaking in a YouTube video on Blue, Magnusson reveals some of the thinking behind the piece. The model is based on the inn in Manitoba where Magnusson was assaulted; its small scale allows her to better grapple with the place, though she fails to completely bury it or wrest her miniature self from its doorway. The multi-layered construction of the handmade parka, which the artist describes as clamshell-like,” was inspired by the shell of Hafrún,” a living clam discovered in Iceland in 2006 that was 507 years old — when it was killed by scientists who pried it open to determine its age. If the coat is protective, why shed it, unless it’s a hindrance as well? Why does Magnusson bury herself? Some sea creatures cloak themselves in sand as camouflage; does the artist want to protect herself, anchor herself, or disappear? Magnusson explains that her actions in Blue were not scripted, but developed during the performance and organized in the editing process. This is not a tidy, linear narrative of someone whos conquered adversity, with a satisfying resolution and a prescription for a clear path forward; its a metaphorical document of a continuing journey toward healing, one Magnusson calls circuitous,” “wandering” and, appropriately, fluid.


Laura Magnusson, “Blue” on display at the  Flint Institute of Arts through December, 30, 2023.

After Cubism: Modern Art in Paris @ DIA

After Cubism: Modern Art in Paris,  1918 – 1948, at the Detroit Institute of Arts

Cubism wasn’t born of a manifesto (Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque tended to leave the blah-blah to others), but Cubism’s outsized influence inspired the spilling of much ink as artists and critics sought to explain it, support it, modify it, or, inevitably and however prematurely, proclaim its demise. In the week of the armistice that ended World War One, artists Amédée Ozenfant and Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (aka, Le Corbusier) penned Aprés le Cubisme, announcing the supplanting of the old style with what they dubbed Purism, an attempt at bringing order to the fractured post-war world, and to the jumble of the art world in particular — a world whose undisputed capital was Paris.

Café, Paris, 1929, Archibald John Motley, Jr., American, 1891 – 1981, Oil on canvas. Museum Purchase, Ernest & Rosemarie Kanzler Foundation Fund. © Estate of Archibald John Motley Jr. All reserved rights 2023/Bridgeman Images.

After Cubism: Modern Art in Paris 1918-1948, the Detroit Institute of Art’s current exhibit of graphic works from its collection borrows its name from the Purist manifesto but sets its scene with the sole painting in the show, a recent-ish acquisition by Archibald Motley from 1929, Café, Paris, which depicts an archetypical scene of a Montmartre watering hole populated by various bohemian types. A Black American painter, Motley was one ingredient in the multicultural stew of artists that populated the City of Light between the wars. He’s joined in this exhibit by, among others, Mexico’s Diego Rivera, seen here breaking away from his own version of Cubism with still lifes that suggest the more naturalistic style he’d eventually bring to the DIA’s Detroit Industry murals; Lithuanian-born Jacques Lipchitz, one of a few artists here who kept some version of Cubism alive despite reports of its passing; and the Jewish Russian Marc Chagall, whose etching L’Apparition, a scene of a winged muse descending upon a self-portrait of the painter at his easel, is a secular Annunciation. Also here is Tsugouharu Foujita, whose delicate line drawing Head of a Girl is both modern and reflective of the graphic traditions of his native Japan. The drawing pairs nicely with the small watercolor portrait of A Young Girl by Marie Laurencin, the only painter among the women artists in the show; the others are all photographers: Berenice Abbott, Gertrude Fehr, Dora Maar, and the German-American Ilsa Bing, “queen of the Leica,” who contributes several intriguing compositions. The genderfluid Claude Cahun is represented by a riveting self-portrait as well.

Self Portrait with Leica, 1931, printed 1992, Ilse Bing, American, 1899 – 1998. Gelatin silver print. Gift of the Estate of Ilse Bing Wolff. © Estate of Isle Bing


Self-Portrait, ca. 1927  Claude Cahun, French, 1894-1954. Gelatin silver print. Founders Society Purchase, Albert and Peggy de Salle Charitable Trust and the DeRoy Photographic Acquisition Endowment Fund.

Dominating one wall of the exhibition’s first room is a color mock-up for a mural by Raoul Dufy, a project called The Spirit of Electricity, created for display at the 1937 World’s Fair (and now in the Museum of the City of Paris). Gifted to the DIA in 1999, the large color sketch has some resonance with the Rivera Industry murals; turbines, trains, and other modern marvels are depicted, though Dufy is apparently less interested in the technology of electricity, which he associates with the power of Zeus and other mythological figures, and more fascinated by the “Great Men” of science and history, who throng the bottom of the image. The panels are brightly colored and loosely painted. Compare this with the more muscular, more populist, and tech-savvy vision of Rivera — which may be just to say that artists’ approaches to modernity in these years were various and often contrasting.

The Spirit of Electricity, 1936/1937  Raoul Dufy, French, 1877-1953, Watercolor, gouache on paper mounted on canvas. Gift of Sara Lee Corporation. © 2023 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

Inevitably, perhaps, Picasso becomes at least one of the exhibit’s through lines, his position as the guy to beat implied by the title, his status as a successful giant of the art scene suggested in a photo by Man Ray in which he regards the viewer coolly from behind a respectable suit and cardigan. His decidedly non-cubist pencil drawing from 1920 of a nude bather sitting on a beach, the horizon balanced on her head, is one of the first works in the show; his late-1945 print Head of a Young Boy is one of the show’s final images. Picasso was one of the first to explore what lay beyond Cubism, and he’s shown here returning to classical sources for inspiration, as in his suite of illustrations for Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu— The Unknown Masterpiece, a short story by Balzac about an obsessed artist whose ten-year attempt to paint a portrait of his beloved results only in an undecipherable mess. Picasso’s most direct illustration of the story, showing the placid model knitting on the left, the artist absorbed in his work on the right, and the canvas in between choked by a tangle of arcs and lines, could pass for a wry New Yorker cartoon on the state of modern art. (Picasso related so strongly to the story that he moved his studio to the same Paris neighborhood in which Balzac’s fictional painter worked.) Picasso’s line work throughout the illustrations is in fact, clear and simple, evoking classical sculpture, except when he strategically applies intense hatching to emphasize a particular section of the image.

The complete set of Balzac illustrations is displayed in one of the gallery’s two octagonal side rooms. The other contains another set of illustrations, these by Louis Marcoussis, one of Cubism’s hold-outs, for a text by Gérard de Nerval, the Romantic writer whose dreamy work presaged the concerns of Surrealism. The Surrealists of course took the opposite tack from the return-to-order crowd, deciding after WW1 that irrationality and madness were more relevant to the current age than reason. The movement is represented here by the experimental photographs of Man Ray and others, as well as copies of the lavishly produced journals Minotaure and Verve; the final edition of the latter, the “war issue,” features a defiant Gallic rooster by Joan Miró, the last image to appear in the journal before it closed due to the encroachment of the Nazis.

Elsewhere in the exhibit is Picasso’s The Dream and Lie of Franco, a savage lampooning of the Spanish dictator whom Picasso depicts as some kind of anthropomorphic tumor, running roughshod through a series of grotesque misadventures. It’s one of his best known graphic works, but when you’re mounting a concise survey of thirty of the most storied years in art history, it’s not a bad idea to “play the hits” here and there. Matisse, for example, is well represented by his popular pochoir portfolio called Jazz, derived from the colorful paper cut-outs he created late in his life. Bedridden by illness while his country was being overrun by fascists, Matisse summoned happier memories of the circus and a trip to Tahiti to use as subject matter, but it was his publisher that gave the collection its musical title, to suggest the spirit of improvisation behind the work. The images are likely familiar to many art fans thanks to decades of posters and other inexpensive reproductions, but they definitely merit seeing in their original vibrant colors, and their lyrical compositions deserve a closer look.

Le Cirque, 1943  Henri Matisse, French, 1869-1954  Tériade, Greek, 1897 – 1983  Edmond Vairel, French Pochoir printed in color ink on wove paper. Gift of John S. Newberry. © 2023 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Other “greatest hits” on display here that will delight devotees of the between-the-wars art scene include Cartier-Bresson’s clever photo Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, of a man leaping gingerly over a reflective layer of water on the pavement and Brassaï’s portrait of Bijou, a fading, bejeweled Belle Epoch matron ensconced in some bar in Montmartre who seems to be incapable of finding a path into the future.

“Bijou” of Montmartre, ca. 1932  Brassaï, French, 1899-1984  Gelatin silver print. Founders Society Purchase, Charles L. Freer Fund, Elliott T. Slocum Fund and Hal H. Smith Fund. © ESTATE BRASSAÏ – RMN-Grand Palais.

The path forward for many of the artists in this exhibit included nerve-wracking waits for exit visas, cross-Atlantic escapes, struggles alongside Resistance forces, and interment in concentration camps (or, as with Le Corbusier, collaboration with fascists). While it’s not quite the final image in the exhibit (that’s Bing’s photo of the Eiffel Tower, still standing through everything), maybe Picasso’s doe-eyed child in Head of a Boy, printed only a few months after the end of the war, is a good note to go out on — a fresh-faced hope for a new start after the horrors of the Second World War, from an artist whose post-war work would be so preoccupied by the image of the dove.

After Cubism: Modern Art in Paris,  1918 – 1948, at the Detroit Institute of Arts, 2023

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