The ambitious 364-piece exhibit "Degas to Picasso: Painters, Sculptors, and the Camera"assesses the impact of photography on the work of late-19th-century European artists, ranging from Picasso, Munch, and Gauguin to Franz von Stuck, Alphonse Mucha, Moreau, and Brancusi. Although the underlying, unifying premise -- that this impressive array of artists used photography as source, inspiration, and sales tool -- appears contrived, as a deft bit of marketing designed to entice traditionalists into a modern art museum, the show does offer the thrill of discovery.
Degas, influenced by the stop-action motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge, took photos of himself, Renoir, and Mallarme, along with his ballerinas, who populate the paintings that sealed his reputation. Rodin, who did not shoot photographs, enlisted the talents of Edward Steichen and used the photos to disseminate images of his work, though the power of Rodin's sculpture is barely captured by a two-dimensional medium. The theatrical German painter Franz von Stuck reworked the surface of photographs, cutting and pasting to create new compositions, while pictures taken by Bonnard and Vuillard, which reveal the artists at play with family and friends, provide an intimate look at their lives and alter one's perspective of their paintings. Most of these artists held the prevalent 19th-century view that relying on the camera was the sign of a weak imagination, but the works on display here contradict that notion. The show runs through Jan. 2 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St. (at Mission), S.F. Admission is free-$9; call 357-4000.