WHITTIER — Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen entered the big leagues of art collecting in 1992 when he purchased his first Monet, “The Water-Lily Pond,” a 1919 scene painted in the French artist’s gardens at Giverny.
There are five Monets among the 39 paintings from Allen’s collection that recently made the trip to Minneapolis for “Seeing Nature.” It’s the first-ever traveling exhibition drawn from the billionaire businessman-investor-philanthropist-sports mogul’s personal art holdings, and if the phrase “five Monets” didn’t give it away, let’s be clear: the concentration of great works here is stunning.
From views of Venice by Joseph Mallord William Turner and Edouard Manet to a psychedelic vision of the Grand Canyon painted by David Hockney to a ravishing birch-forest scene by Gustav Klimt, “Seeing Nature” is one astonishing moment followed by another. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts is the third of five stops on a tour bookended by installations in Portland and Seattle in Allen’s native Northwest.
“Seeing Nature” is somewhat eccentrically framed as an exhibition of landscape paintings. The definition of landscape here is elastic enough to include an Ed Ruscha gas station, a Georgia O’Keeffe flower and a nearly 400-year-old series of allegorical paintings based on the five senses by Jan Brueghel the Younger.
Then again, Ruscha’s untitled 1989 painting of a Standard Oil station does evoke the built environment of America’s interstate highway system, and O’Keeffe’s strong association with the American Southwest means it’s possible to see something of the aseptic, wind-carved desert landscape in the flower’s satin-smooth frills (or at least the curators will make that case).
With the exception of “Smell,” which is set in a garden, Jan the Younger’s five senses paintings are interior scenes stuffed with symbolic objects (fine art, a telescope and an astrolabe for “Sight”; clocks, stringed instruments and tropical birds for “Hearing”) demonstrating a Renaissance-era zeal for categorizing and ordering the natural world. The distant, park-like landscapes are only glimpsed through portals and archways.
“In the 15th and 16th centuries, you often find great landscape paintings in the background of paintings,” said Rachel McGarry, Mia’s associate curator of prints and drawings, who noted landscape was not always a respected genre. By the 19th century, it would be on par with portraiture and history painting.
McGarry said Turner played a major role in “elevating” the reputation of landscape painting, and an 1841 scene of gondolas parading down a Venetian canal demonstrates the pyrotechnics Turner, “the painter of light,” is known for: The waters shimmer, the city is covered a gauze of mist and the sun turns everything to gold.
The Turner hangs not far from a sun-drenched Venetian scene by Manet, and it’s instructive to really get up close with both, to see how loosely both Turner, a pre-Impressionist, and Manet, a contemporary of Monet and Renoir, are working. Manet’s painting is a fantastic illusion: a seemingly solid and crystal-clear view of the floating city dissolves at close range into something that resembles a hastily rendered sketch.
Hockney, the great British artist and influential art theorist, adopts an entirely different approach to landscape in his 1998 painting, “The Grand Canyon.” And it’s not just the blazingly unnatural purple, yellow and red canyon walls that give his interpretation of the chasm its bracingly off-kilter feel.
Hockney’s wide-angle view of the landscape is divided into a three-by-seven grid of individual canvases, and the viewpoint shifts, subtly, in each panel. An admirer of traditional Chinese landscape painting, he adopts its more fluid approach to perspective.
Nature is an empty, alienating space in two landscapes by the German painter Gerhard Richter. Based on photographs, they replicate a distancing, soft-focus camera effect.
Painting in 1940, as the horrors of World War II are just beginning to unfold, another German, Max Ernst, conjures a craggy, utterly inhospitable landscape. Adapting a Surrealist technique called “decalcomania” to smear the paint, Ernst creates strange textures that enhance the painting’s nightmarish qualities.
But more often the landscape is treated as a source of inspiring beauty and awe. The dense forests surrounding Austria’s Lake Attersee certainly inspired Klimt, who would retreat there from Vienna for long summer vacations.
In “Birch Forest,” from 1903, the painter’s dazzling, meticulous technique contrasts with the serenity of the deep-woods scene. The forest floor is carpeted in a riot orange and red leaves while white- and grey-papered birch trunks slice vertically through the scene.
The painting was purchased at auction in 2006 for $40 million, a sale price more than 30 percent over the high-end estimate set by the auction house Christie’s. Nature inspires one kind of awe and Allen, one of our 21st-century techno-princes, another.
“Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection”
When: Through Sept. 18
Where: Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2400 3rd Ave. S>
Info: 870-3000, artsmia.org