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French connection 

Lesser known works stand out in Pushkin show

Every road leads to the Impressionists and their ilk in the High Museum's Old Masters, Impressionists and Modernists show featuring French works from the State Pushkin Museum in Moscow.

Atlantans are led back again to familiar grazing pastures, set loose with their bovine gaits paced by headsets, to marvel with programmed zeal over the splendorous Matisses, the very, very Picassos and the mad-about-Monets. Groups of gawkers form tight, obedient clusters around the big ticket items -- Picasso's "Harlequin and His Companion" and Renoir's "In the Garden" -- making the enthusiastic marketing of a certain notion of "masterwork" evident in even the ebb and flow of the crowd.

Despite the presence of many beautiful, inspiring pieces, Pushkin produces the sensation that this institution is in the business of reaffirming and solidifying a pretty conservative form of good taste rather than challenging boundaries and comfort levels or encouraging alternative views of classical works. The further the High gets from its Norman Rockwell show, the more radical and brilliant that retrospective seems for taking work that was not already sanctified and suggesting even a humble illustrator was worthy of inclusion in a museum show.

It's possible to look at a show like Pushkin as a bounty of riches or a buffet piled so high it's bound to result in a stomachache. With 76 works on display representing 300 years of French painting from the 17th to the 20th centuries -- from Baroque to the Barbizon School to Impressionism to Cubism -- the scope of the exhibition is head-swimmingly enormous.

It is often the smaller, less famous works that capture the imagination and allow a fresh perspective because the weight of received wisdom in looking at Matisse's "Goldfish" or a Braque or Rousseau is less oppressive. Jules Bastien-Lepage's "The Village Lovers" (1882), which concisely captures the shy flirtations of its young couple, is just such a work, whose humble charm is more appealing when placed across the room from the more evident mastery of Ingres' "Virgin With a Chalice."

The pieces in Pushkin are a composite of French painting's history as collected by the inspired and merely acquisitive aristocrats of Russian history from Catherine the Great to the brother merchants Morozov. The trip through the gallery can make one as woozy and disoriented as that long tracking shot through the Hermitage Museum in Soviet filmmaker Aleksandr Sokurov's Russian Ark. The show is a fascinating glimpse at imperial Russia's obsession with the self-affirming possibilities of a distant high culture, which has a lot of relevance for Atlanta.

There are some wonderful juxtapositions in Pushkin. On one hand are works of such confectionary yumminess they tip the sensory scales with their creamy abundance. In images like Francois Boucher's "Jupiter and Callisto," milky maidens blushing pink at nipple, lips and cheek and marshmallow cherubs with the daintiest of genitalia revel in fleshy splendor. Works by Jean-Francois de Troy, Jean-Baptiste Regnault and Poussin survey a world of myth, spirituality and legend, where biblical lore and Greek myth hold sway. From images of cherubs stringing garlands of flowers like cake frosting in 17th- and 18th-century works, the mood shifts shockingly to a face-down drunkard, soused not on Bacchus' nectar but on poverty and cheap booze in Edouard Manet's 1882-83 "The Bar." Idyllic scenes give way to a social realism most dramatically illustrated in a startling 1890 Van Gogh, "The Prison Courtyard."

So immediate and disturbing in its depiction of human misery it nearly takes your breath away, the work inspired audible gasps and excitement in viewers. A collection of wan, dejected asylum patients form a listless circle in a walled-in courtyard, going through the paces of life. Van Gogh creates a world of consuming claustrophobia and despair reinforced by steady grays and browns and a scenario as shocking as the modern depravities of Sue Coe. It is works like this that promise welcome surprises despite a sensation in Pushkin of being led down a familiar path.

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