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When art travels across the ocean

Artists are stubborn people. As soon as someone puts a label on them they move into different styles of painting, different ways of thinking about how to go about making pictures.

There are, however, ideas in general circulation at any given time which wash over them all.

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"Post-Impressionism: Cross-Currents in European and American Painting 1880- 1906," at the National Gallery of Art here illustrates comprehensively what happens when mainstream ideas of the art world are carried into backwaters or across the ocean.

One of the ideas of the late 1900s was that art should be concerned with social and political problems. It is ironic but perhaps appropriate that this show should have come to Washington because of a political situation. When the exhibition of paintings from the Hermitage in Leningrad was unexpectedly canceled early this year, the National Gallery was able to replace it with a remodeled version of a larger Post- Impressionist show put together in London last year. What we lost on the roundabouts we gained on the swings, as the British saying goes.

For this is the opportunity of a lifetime to see many pictures that are usually inaccessible to most of us because they are in private collections or housed in museums off the tourist track. It is a revelation to go through room after room of paintings from a period in art fairly well represented in our museums and there find first-rate paintings by artists we may never have heard of. Or to see pictures done by Italian painters, for instance, taking Seurat's pointillist technique and transforming it into something else. Or just to see what a variety of things were going on at the same time.

Having explored the problems of rendering the surface appearance of the world about them, painters begin to investigate a deeper reality once again, but now with the express intent to involve the viewer in the search and to emphasize the artist's individuality.

It must have been a time rather like the present, in which each artist was doing his own thing, or small groups were promoting their particular ideas (Nabis, Symbolists, Les XX, etc.), all influencing each other.

Cezanne sought a unity of pictorial and natural structure. Monet examined the atmospheric effect and Seurat the vibrations of light, each manipulating color in a specific way for the purpose rather scientifically. Gauguin became interested in the psychological effect of color and abstract pattern to indicate mood or mystical ideas. Van Gogh said he wanted to do something for humanity.

Expressionist painters painted their own state of mind, as it were, their own reactions to a given event or scene or person, Edvard Munch being a familiar example. But there were others who combined some of the new ideas with some of the old, thus transforming conservative or Salon work. James Ensor's still life "The Ray" takes a time-honored category and subject into a new realm, for instance.

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The exhibition leans heavily on the color experiments of the day but, oddly enough, makes no reference at all to the impact of photography on post-Impressionist painters, even though literary, musical, scientific, social theories are noted. Gustave Caillebotte, not represented in the show, was very interested in photography, both for its own sake and as an aid in planning his harmonic painting compositions. Photography introduced a sense of immediacy and allowed cropping or focusing of a picture in unaccustomed ways, too. We are so used to it now we don't even notice it in paintings, but then it was a new and important influence.

The show does indicate how much later it was that artists in Northern Europe and the United States were affected by what the French painters did, and how much of a sea-change there was. The Washington version of the exhibition includes more American works than the one in London, but is about one-third smaller to fit into the available space. The two catalogs reflect these differences.

The crosscurrents carried what look to be the seeds of Cubism, Constructivism , Abstract Expressionism, Surrealism and other 20th century-isms as well as holdovers from the past. Thus it is possible that the organizers of the exhibition have done more than they intended -- or perhaps that viewers, like the artists, bring to it their own insights.

In any case it is so big that one would be well advised to come back again and again to get the most out of it.

All told, the show is a remarkable opportunity to broaden the enjoyment and appreciation of the artists who opened European thought to more of the infinite uses and meanings of art.

The exhibition continues until Sept. 1.

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