Maurice Utrillo: current exhibit clarifies, defines

It is difficult to approach the art of Maurice Utrillo objectively. So much has been written about his tragic life, about his dependency upon Suzanne Valadon, his beautiful and talented mother, about his early and continuing battle against alcoholism, his time spent in mental institutions, that our compassion for the man can easily outweigh our objective critical analysis of what he produced in the way of art.

That at least is how I've always felt, with the result that my opinion of Utrillo's art has remained in a kind of limbo. I have liked certain of his works, have found others uninteresting, and have disliked a few, but always on an individual basis, and without an overall and consistent opinion about his true worth as an artist.

And so I welcomed Wildenstein Gallery's current exhibition of Utrillo's paintings here. Viewing it, I thought, would be the perfect way to determine for myself, once and for all, just how good a painter he was. I would surround myself with his work and concentrate exclusively on it.

I went to the show, studied everything carefully, and came back with a clearer notion of Utrillo's quality as a painter and his probable ultimate place in 20th-century art.

My conclusion was that he ranked high neither in quality nor in art-historical importance. Although he was capable of flashes of true brilliance, and produced a few minor masterpieces, his overall production was spotty, inconsistent, and all too frequently mechanical and forced. Even his famous off-whites, the results of his attempts to reproduce the singular quality of white that appears on certain old walls and buildings in Paris, often look more artificial than true if viewed in the light of good painting rather than in the light of sentiment or of nostalgia for a Paris that is, for all intents and purposes, gone forever.

And yet I couldn't get his work out of my mind. There was something about those paintings, even the ones that looked particularly clumsy, or as though they had been copied directly from picture post cards (something he did quite often), that haunted me. I kept forgetting his painterly inadequacies and inconsistencies and remembered instead the bittersweet, aching loneliness of his painted streets, churches, alleyways, and storefronts. In particular, I was moved by their sense of having survived almost everything, of having been battered and bruised by the elements -- and by time.

I decided to go back to the exhibition to try to sort out my feelings and thoughts. It was clear within seconds that my earlier reaction to Utrillo's work still held: He wasm spotty, inconsistent, and often forced. Much of what he painted didm look mannered and artificial. In the strict sense he wasn't much of a painter, was, as a matter of fact, an embarrassingly bad one at times. And yet his art spoke with such humanity, such a profound insight into the tragic aspects of life, that his weaknesses and gaucheries seemed of little ultimate importance next to what he was able to communicate.

I must admit I'm pleased by this development. It's like discovering that a longtime casual acquaintance has suddenly become a friend.

As to the paintings themselves, the best tend to be the early ones, those painted between 1905 and 1920 or so. And among the best of these are the Pissarro-inspired "Paris, Vue du Square Saint-Pierre" of 1908; the marvelously pigmented and hulking "La Cathedrale de Reims," 1908-09; the 1910 "L'Eglise Saint-Gervais a Paris" (one of his masterpieces); and "Le Cafe de la Tourelle a Montmartre" and "Le Moulin de la Galette," painted in 1911 and 1913, respectively.

These paintings, and others like them, represent Utrillo at his best, and were the kind of pictures that helped establish his reputation. Unfortunately, however, they are not typical of the works for which he is known by the general public. For one thing, they are quite rare, and are tucked away in museums and private collections. For another, the later, more haphazardly painted works are "sweeter" and more pleasant in tone, more palatable and appealing -- and thus more apt to be found in commercial galleries and auction houses.

A good, typical example of these is his 1917 "Rue Chevalier de la Barre, Montmartre." This predominantly off-white painting of the round-domed church and the dramatically foreshortened street with the little cluster of walking people has almost become the trademark of Utrillo's art. We see it -- or images like it -- in canvas after canvas from 1920 on. (Variations of it even appear in a four-part screen on view in this exhibition.) Not that all are badly painted, nor that all are necessarily hack productions. It's just that they represent the tragedy of a painter of true gifts surrendering to trivial and commercial considerations.

That is probably the saddest part of Utrillo's generally far from happy life. I wish it were otherwise, but there it is. All we can do is to try to sort out the good and true work from what else he produced, and concentrate our attention on them. If my experience with this exhibition is any indication, I'd say that doing so would be more than worth the effort and trouble it would take.

This interesting and valuable exhibition at Wildenstein Gallery will remain on view through March 13.

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