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From Van Gogh to Kandinsky

Let’s talk about an amazing, groundbreaking exhibition that opened a few weeks ago at LACMA: Expressionism in Germany and France: From Van Gogh to Kandinsky. Traditionally, Expressionism has been considered a predominantly German movement of the early 20th century, but this sprawling exhibition makes a convincing argument that Expressionism was “born from a shared advance toward modernism among French and German artists.”

Dramatically installed in galleries painted in blacks and deep blues, the works by Van Gogh, Cezanne, and Gauguin almost leap off the walls. Even now, more than a century later, these great works retain their power to surprise, to energize, and to challenge our eye. Just imagine the effect of such Post-Impressionist paintings on German art in the early 1900’s, achieved through a cosmopolitan “network of collectors, critics, and art lovers.”

It’s intriguing that the first serious collectors of late 19th and early 20th century French art were Germans and Russians. Looking at the early Kandinsky painting from 1913, you see him transforming the traditional landscape into an abstract composition of saturated colors and exploding shapes. At this point in his career, Kandinsky already had numerous experiences seeing works by both French and German artists.

This traveling exhibition, which started in Zürich and, after its Los Angeles run, will go to Montreal, is comprised of over 90 paintings and 45 works on paper. Most of them are on loan from major American and European museums.

My absolute favorite is the portrait of a female singer in a Paris cabaret painted by Kees van Dongen. The dangerous beauty in his painting is dressed to kill and, considering the over-saturated colors and her dramatic posture – mouth open wide and hand pressed to breast – one can almost hear a high note, close to a scream, soaring over her audience. There is no surprise that this powerful image was chosen for the cover of the exhibition catalogue.

I am very much in debt to this Dutch-born artist, whose artistic life was mostly shaped by his experience living in France. There are a couple of his early 20th century paintings in the collection at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. I remember going to the Hermitage on my own since I was about 15 or 16 years old. My favorites were galleries devoted to Greek and Roman art, and galleries full of Italian, Dutch, and Flemish paintings.

One day, going through the labyrinth of hundreds of museum galleries, I found myself in the far corner of the Winter Palace, amidst a collection of late 19th and early 20th century French paintings. To this day, I remember how shocked I was, staring at what felt like a scandalous image of a Can-can dancer with her skirt lifted up in a risqué flurry of red and orange ruffles. The brushstrokes were as rough and wild as the image itself. It was the first time in my life that I was so overwhelmed by the power of a painting. You’ve probably already guessed at this point that the name of the artist was Kees van Dongen. I owe him a great deal for initiating me into the rebellious, radical art of the 20th century.

For more than 20 years, Edward Goldman has been art critic and host of “Art Talk,” a weekly program which airs prime-time Tuesday evenings during All Things Considered on LA’s largest NPR affiliate, KCRW 89.9 FM. Edward also contributes weekly art reports to the Huffington Post. Both fearless and fun, Edward is a favorite on-air presence, offering a unique “accent” on art. Born and educated in Russia and formerly employed by the famed Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, he offers impassioned views on what he sees in galleries and museums and at cultural events throughout the world, and he is not afraid to “speak truth to power.”

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