THE loan exhibition of 51 French paintings from two Russian museums here - Leningrad's Hermitage and Moscow's Pushkin State Museum - inspires contradictory responses: One is grateful to see incredible masterworks by such artists as Poussin, Boucher, Ingres, C'ezanne, Bonnard, and Matisse. But one leaves the show at the Metropolitan Museum feeling it falls short. The problem lies in a lack of focus and an inclusion of what can only be described as second-rate works by first-rate masters (David's ridiculous ``Sappho, Phaon and Cupid'' and Manet's insignificant ``The Bar'' among them).
No matter how superb other paintings may be, the presence of the lesser canvases makes for an overall sense of dullness that even Poussin's two battle scenes and the equally magnificent works by C'ezanne and Matisse can't quite overcome.
Of course, to be fair, one has to consider the genesis of the show, which is titled ``From Poussin to Matisse'': It's the second in a series of exchange exhibitions that grew out of the 1985 Geneva cultural agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1988, the Metropolitan Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago sent 51 French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings to the Hermitage and Pushkin museums. That same year, the Hermitage sent an exhibition of Dutch and Flemish masterpieces to the two American institutions. It's understandable, with so many paintings crisscrossing the Atlantic, that the four museums would hesitate to part with more than a handful of their finest possessions at one time.
The biggest, most pleasant surprise is Bonnard's large and vividly decorative ``Summer, the Dance.'' Painted around 1912, it reinforces my opinion that Bonnard was an even finer painter than he's credited as being. This canvas is one of a series begun in 1911 depicting figures in close harmony with nature. In this one, a friend of Bonnard, dressed in white tropical suit and hat, assumes the role of shepherd playing reed pipes. He is accompanied by a dog and several goats. Nearby, a woman plays with a small child; cats stroll by; and three very young girls are seen dancing.
In another gallery, the sight of six great C'ezannes hanging together is almost enough to make me forget the exhibition's shortcomings. There are ``Still Life with Peaches and Pears'' and another superb still life, two versions of ``The Smoker,'' and two stunning studies of ``Mont Sainte-Victoire,'' one from mid-career, the other from the final year of C'ezanne's life.
Seeing these monumental works just after the show's four Poussins, one is reminded of the profound connection between these painters. C'ezanne, for all his anti-academic fervor and awesome originality, claimed Poussin as his master - just as Picasso and Braque would later insist that C'ezanne had been their great teacher.
It's also interesting to note in the Pushkin Museum's ``The Smoker'' just how close to Cubism C'ezanne came in 1890. The table and tablecloth in the lower left corner might have been painted by Braque or Picasso two decades later, during Cubism's early years.
That the great French formal tradition also affected Matisse profoundly becomes clear in the exhibition's final gallery, given over to nine of this artist's most important early paintings. Dating from 1908 to 1913 and including modern masterpieces such as ``Conversation'' and ``Nasturtiums and `Dance,''' these remarkable canvases prove the value of tradition and indicate how it can be modified to suit later needs.
Nothing could be more original than ``Madame Matisse'' (1913), and yet one cannot help wondering if Matisse could have painted it without first absorbing what C'ezanne had to teach him. The same can be said about the profoundly original ``Still Life with a Blue Tablecloth.''
On the other hand, nothing in the history of art can prepare one for the coloristic brilliance and compositional audacity of ``Nasturtiums and `Dance.''' There's never been anything quite like it. It's so astonishing, it gives credence to the claim that Matisse - not Picasso - was this century's greatest painter. (In fact, four of the nine Matisse canvases here seem to me to support that claim.)
Also outstanding are Ingres's ``Count Nikolai Guryev''; Bonnard's ``Summer in Burgundy''; and Rousseau's ``Jaguar Attacking a White Horse.''
``From Poussin to Matisse'' continues at the Metropolitan until July 29. It then travels to the Art Institute of Chicago, where it will be on view from Sept. 8 through Nov. 25.