The Minneapolis Institute of Art’s summer show, Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection, is an exhibit of 39 works collected by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who—besides football, basketball, neuroscience, space exploration, and guitar-playing—counts collecting art among his many passions. If you’re wondering what sort of person pays millions of dollars at Sotheby’s to snap up the world’s supply of Monets, Manets, Hoppers and Hockneys, it’s someone like Paul Allen, who commands a personal bankroll of $18 billion, give or take a billion.
The show is organized around a theme of landscapes and nature, which are of particular interest to Allen. I’ll leave it to viewers to appreciate the ironies of an exhibit dedicated to the beauty of the natural world taken from the collection of a man who made his fortune tethering the human race to rectangular LCD screens. That’s not the sort of thing one wants to think about when gazing at Canaletto’s delicate brushwork or the subtle dabs of light in a Gustav Klimt. But the rabble wouldn’t be allowed to see these paintings if Allen didn’t want them to. It’s just our good fortune that Allen likes to share. Many collectors do not, and humanity is all the poorer for it.
Co-organized by the Portland Art Museum, Seattle Art Museum, and the Paul G. Allen Family Collection, Seeing Nature begins on an discordant note, in a gallery filled with paintings that have little or nothing to do with landscapes as they are normally understood. The first eye-popper is a series of five large paintings known as the “5 Senses,” by Jan Bruegher the Younger and Paul Rubens, which celebrates each of the five senses in its own way. The paintings establish a sub-theme of sensory awareness that asserts itself in other parts of the exhibit, most notably in the customized “soundscapes” accompanying many of the paintings, which are accessible through your phone (just remember to bring earbuds).
The first gallery also includes half-a-dozen paintings of Venice, Italy, all by different artists.
From the extraordinary realism of Canaletto to the ethereal wispiness of Thomas Moran (for whom Allen seems to have a particular affinity), to the colorful brushwork of Manet, these paintings aren’t about nature per se, they are about how the city of Venice has inspired artists over the years—some of whom, like Moran, are known for landscapes. It’s a strange choice, because Venice may be the most unnatural city in the world, but the vastly different treatments of light and shadow and color crop up in other paintings, so the Venice works serve as as a kind of primer on the variety of approaches different artists can have to the same subject.
Thomas Moran, Grand Canyon of Arizona at Sunset, 1909 | Oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches
That idea is carried over into the next gallery, where several wildly different paintings of the Grand Canyon are on display. Thomas Moran is of course featured here, because he built a career out of painting Grand Canyon landscapes that blended extraordinary depth of field and exaggerated shadows with a soft, almost comforting palette of browns and pastels. On the wall opposite the Moran is a gigantic, twenty-four panel rendering the Grand Canyon by David Hockney. The two paintings couldn’t be more different. All bold, child-like colors and jagged angles, the Hockney messes with depth and perspective in ways that Moran would probably find disgusting—but it’s impossible not to admire. On the wall in between these two works is a gorgeous Grand Canyon vignette by American artist Arthur Wesley Dow, whose pulsing purples and oranges look vaguely Japanese, and serve as a kind of stylistic bridge between the Moran and the Hockney.
David Hockney, The Grand Canyon, 1998 | Oil on canvas, 48 1/2 x 169 inches
The people-pleasing part of the show (the money shot, so to speak) is a collection of five impressionist landscapes by Monet, all grouped together, including the impressive, six-foot-wide water-lilies used to advertise the show just about everywhere. Monet is not my favorite, personally, and impressionism doesn’t swoon me the way it does some people. But for those who think art begins with a capital “I,” there is more than enough of it here to satisfy. Just to be sure, also grouped with the Monets are a couple of neo-impressionist works and a painting of Mont Sainte-Victoire in Provence by Paul Cezanne.
Claude Monet, The Water Lily Pond, 1919 | Oil on canvas, 39 3/8 x 78 7/8 inches
The third and final gallery is the oddest, most disjointed one in the show. At first glance, it seems to feature all the pieces that didn’t fit neatly into any of the themes in the previous two galleries. There’s a Twilight-Zone-ish landscape by French surrealist Yves Tanguy, an apocalyptic moonscape by Max Ernst, a strange treehouse by Belgian artist Rene Magritte, some mushroom-like dancing trees by American artist Milton Avery, and a ghostly, black-and-white rendering of a Standard oil gas station by American Ed Ruscha. But there’s also a suggestive “lily” by Georgia O’Keefe and a pensive forest by Gustav Klimt, as well as works by Edward Hopper, John Singer Sargent, and Thomas Hart Benton.
There’s not much rhyme or reason for putting these paintings together, except to impress upon us what an eclectic and interesting collector of art Paul Allen really is. The paintings in this show represent only a small portion of the hundreds of works Allen has amassed over the years—so, like the paintings in the first gallery, these seem shoehorned into the “nature” theme, even though Ruscha’s gas station, like Ernst’s nightmarish post-WWII dreamscape, suggests the incendiary end of nature itself.
Max Ernst, Landscape with Lake and Chimeras, c. 1940 | Oil on canvas, 20 x 26 inches
To be fair, the darker paintings may actually reflect Allen’s interests more than the beautiful ones. In the past few years, Allen has spearheaded a number of environmental initiatives to back scientific research on animal habitats and reduce the global market for products made from endangered species. In an interview in the show catalogue, Allen says he likes to “figure out where the future is going.” So last year, he started something called the Smart Catch program, which encourages chefs in Seattle to serve sustainable seafood.
Could it be that Paul Allen is, like the rest of us, nervous about where his next meal is coming from? I’d like to think so, if only to help humanize a man whose software has arguably done more to de-humanize day-to-day life on this planet than any other product in history.