MUSEUM AT A GLANCE: Santa Barbara Museum of Art

The I On the Arts cadre recently spent some time in Santa Barbara, and after strolling up and down State Street, my editor and I ducked into the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, a museum with a small permanent collection but that nonetheless has the capacity to put on extensive, interesting exhibits of some truly prestigious and beloved artists.  

(Four Seasons Magazine: Santa Barbara)

The first exhibit we saw, titled “Degas to Chagall”, was contained in one room, the Preston Morton Gallery and boasts an array of works by a good number of fantastic European artists.   The exhibit is an ongoing loan from the Armand Hammer Foundation, and the works contained in this room were among the best I saw in the museum that day.  This exhibit was largely based up of Impressionist paintings; the highlight of this small exhibit was not a painting, but a Degas pastel sketch from 1888-92, entitled “Laundress Carrying Linens”.  This sketch is simple but dynamic, with Degas’ skill as a draftsman on full display. With just a few spare colors in slashing pastel strokes, Degas created a vigorous portrait of the woman’s twisting body. 

Another highlight of this first exhibit was “Young Girl with a Dog” (below), painted in 1887 by Berthe Morisot, one of the most prominent female impressionists.  As with the Degas, I marveled at how the artist used simple slashing strokes to describe a believable human form, and I took in Morisot’s judicious use of color, especially in the girl’s peachy skin tone, with awe.  One last highlight of this  exhibit was an evocative Impressionist landscape by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot entitled “Pleasures of Evening”, from 1875.  This painting depicts nymphs frolicking in a dark-toned landscaped set off by a roiling yellow sky.  On the negative side, a seascape by Ivan Alasovsky titled “Russian Fleet in Crimea” from 1897 should not have been included among this survey of master artists.  The work in question is pleasingly inoffensive but veers into the cliche with its pretty blue waters and ships set among them.  In a room with such luminaries as the eponymous Degas and Chagall, this painting looks like a print one would buy in a vacation spot.
Berthe Morisot, "Young Girl with a Dog".  1887.

The next exhibit we saw was located in the Davidson Gallery just around the corner.  Titled “Totally 80s”, it contained works dating from the 1980s that represented current or future gifts to the museum’s permanent collection.  The works were mostly non-figurative or abstract, and as I lack familiarity with (or a general affinity for) contemporary art, most of the works failed to make an impression.  The work that did make an impression, however, was a lovely, huge collage on black velvet called “Ling” by Peter Alexander.  Dating from 1981, this work (seen below) combined the lushness of the velvet ground with bursts of color applied on top, recalling the burst of fireworks against a black night sky.
Peter Alexander, "Ling".  1981.
(Santa Barbara Museum of Art)

The largest exhibit in the museum, and the exhibit we had come from Los Angeles to see, was titled “Delacroix and the Matter of Finish”.  Despite walking through this exhibit beginning at the end, my editor and I found it both informative and enjoyable.  For my readers not in the know, Eugene Delacroix was a French Romantic painter working during the 19th century who helped end the Neoclassical dominance European art in the 19th century, shedding rigid line and order for a passionate, sketchy quality.  A timeline at the beginning of the exhibit helpfully shows the progression of his art over time, as it evolved from a Rubens-eque quality to the blurry, tempestuous forms he is best known for.   In contrast to the Neoclassicism of Ingres, his famed rival, rather than delineating every feature on a face or line of drapery, Delacroix’s brushstrokes imply them, creating a more atmospheric effect. 

Tucked away in a corner of the gallery housing this show is a collection of lithographs that Delacroix created to illustrate Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  These works displayed the same free-form quality of a drawing.  A fascinating blurb nearby relates Delacroix and his love of Shakespeare and literature in general, creating context for this example of a long-standing tradition of artists illustrating the classics.  Another section of this exhibit juxtaposed the works Delacroix and his pretenders/students, who often copied his compositions to poor effect.  From a curatorial standpoint, it seemed almost cruel to compare the Delacroix masterworks to the weaker, derivative versions by his little-known students.
Delacroix, "Collision of Moorish Horsemen", 1843-44.
(Santa Barbara Museum of Art)

Until I reached the beginning of this exhibit, it seemed a bit scattershot in its scope.  Yet as I took it in, I realized that it was an excellent chronicle of the influence Delacroix had on technique and draftsmanship of European art and what exactly he was bringing to the table.  As an artist, I appreciated that one wall lined up a set of sketch, oil sketch, pairing and wall-mounted reproduction of The Last Words of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, allowing me to view the progression of his process in creating the idea of a full composition.  I was a bit disappointed that the master works on comparison where often reproduced on the wall rather than displayed in person.   I also would have liked for the exhibit to display a Neoclassical work or two to give the audience something to compare Delacroix’s Romanticism to.

Lastly, we visited a more expansive exhibit: a “mid-career survey” of photographer John Divola titled “As Far As I Could Get”.  Each room contained a small grouping of related works.  Among the most interesting were a set of photographs of an abandoned, decrepit home in Moreno Valley, CA.  This home is covered in graffiti; its yard is given over to weeds.   Some of the black-and-white photos in this grouping have an eerie quality to them. One in particular has a Magritte-esque quality, with its circles painted on the back wall of a closet that seem to float.  A series of large black and white photos in another room, called “Untitled”, from the 1990s, were the most memorable.  In these photographs, Divola threw flour against a black ground and photographed the results.  The images he produced are murky, foggy and evocative.  They are mysteries with an amusing backstory.
John Divola, "Untitled C".  1990

While the museum’s traveling exhibitions were uneven, they did have some true standouts among them. However, the museum’s permanent collection, from what I saw, paled in comparison and failed to impress me.  I would recommend visiting the aforementioned exhibits, which provide a wide variety of art for all kinds of art lovers.


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed the day at the museum and your comments are spot on. I think I may have enjoyed the "totally 80's" exhibit a bit more than you did...but then, I was around for that decade! I love going to museums with you because your love of art...even when you don't actually love the works....energizes me! Great review!

  2. apparently the '80's exhibit looks better from the hood of Whitesnake's car...


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