It would be madness to review the Bloch Galleries in a traditional way.
The new spaces, which open to the public March 11, serve as the home for 29 impressionist and post-impressionist masterworks that are joining the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s own collections.
The works include the likes of Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh and Édouard Manet. The donation by Henry Bloch and his late wife, Marion, coupled with their foundation’s $12 million gift to finance the museum’s renovation of the galleries, represents a breathtaking act of generosity.
Nestled on the main floor of the Nelson’s original 1933 building, nearly 10,000 square feet were transformed, stripped to the bare bones and rebuilt using state-of-the-art technology for security, fire suppression and display.
Doodads abound, to be sure. The padded benches have iPads offering information about the paintings. Speakers hidden in the walls allow docents to be heard via wireless microphones. Visitors can download a GPS-enabled app, Detour, to guide them through the exhibit.
Maybe most significantly, the museum has heavily invested in a state-of-the-art LED lighting system, to spectacular effect.
Visitors should not, however, expect to be entering Monet-land. The galleries do not feel like a special exhibit. That’s the whole point. The goal was to seamlessly integrate the new works with the Nelson’s existing collections and fit them into the building’s overall aesthetic, an objective that was admirably achieved.
The curation, too, is unobtrusively innovative. Visitors are not merely presented with a roomful of paintings. These works are arranged chronologically and thematically, telling the story of impressionism, how it radically departed from all that came before it and offered new ways to see the world.
But let’s be frank. Discussing the merits of these paintings feels a little silly.
It’s absurd, somehow, to describe these works with the conventional lingo of art critique. It shouldn’t really be a surprise, after all, that Monet’s depictions of Paris are dazzling for their evocative delicacy. It’s not a shock that Manet’s “The Croquet Party” makes a striking use of color or that van Gogh’s “Restaurant Rispal at Asnières” bears witness to the man’s astonishing gift for shading.
We can certainly celebrate the sneaky genius on display. Superficially at least, Monet’s “Mill at Limetz” looks like something you might see in the lobby of a frumpy hotel. To the contemporary viewer, accustomed to the ferocity of cubism and abstract expressionism, the simple landscape can seem tame by comparison.
It’s a question of context, like those videos where a world-class violinist plays in a subway station. The commuters who pass by ignore him, missing the show of their lives.
Look quickly at “Mill at Limetz” and you could suffer a similar fate. You might see only a blurry branch and a small stone bridge. Open yourself to the work, though, and it will reveal itself to you utterly, a window on a new world.
And isn’t that the point? These paintings demand something beyond the mere intellectual appreciation of technique and the understanding of their historical context. Something far deeper is happening in those rooms, an energy that words cannot convey. Everything touched by genius partakes of that genius, and these paintings, masterworks all, virtually pulsate with the brilliance of their creators.
That is why, when visiting these galleries, it is crucial to forget about the technology around you — the speakers and lights and the smartphone app. The wisest course, when confronted by works of great brilliance, is to submit yourself. Turn off the critical mind and meet these paintings where they live, in a realm beyond analysis.
The important thing, the best thing, is simply to look deeply, entering these new worlds, seeing how the artists saw and letting the radiance of their visions absorb you.
That, in the end, is the greatest victory of these new galleries. The cutting-edge construction and new technology ultimately exist only so they can be forgotten. The rooms serve, as they must, the higher purpose of facilitating the mystical union between audience and art.
These galleries are a civic treasure — a new sacred space in our city where hearts and minds will commune across generations. You just don’t need to think too hard about a thing like that. There’s no reason to dissect and analyze. The only thing to do is embrace it.