Monday, 24 January 2011

December 8, Phillips Collection, Corcoran, Renwick

The Phillips Collection was showing Side by Side: Oberlin's Masterworks at the Phillips, which closed on January 16. This innovative exhibition of one museum's masterpieces in another museum's collection has been traveling while the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College is under construction. I saw it last spring at the Metropolitan Museum and was curious to see how the concept would be presented at another venue. At the Met I had accidentally come upon Hendrik Terbrugghen's St. Sebastian, and while I was admiring this painting that I have loved since I was an undergraduate, a guard handed me the guide that indicated where in the museum the other paintings in this "exhibition" were located. Each work was installed in the Met gallery most appropriate for it, and it became like a treasure hunt to find all of them. In the process of searching, I found myself deep in the reinstalled 19th-century galleries, where I discovered rooms of early 19th-century French and German paintings I had not seen at the Met before, so the Oberlin collection led me to discover more about the host museum's collection. This use of one museum's collection to provide a fresh view of another's seemed an great way for viewers to see the familiar in fresh ways.
At the Phillips Collection, with its focus on the 19th and 20th centuries, the Oberlin paintings did not always fit as clearly into historical periods as they had at the Met, so a person thinking about it might continue to learn about how display affects the way we respond to works of art. At the Phillips, the Terbrugghen had pride of place as the first thing you saw on the second floor of the museum. Although the other 16th-century Italian and north European paintings - as well as the Goya and Rodins near it - did not seem to relate to it in any illuminating way, it looked terrific in the space.

In an adjacent gallery I was starting to complain to myself about juxtaposing Rubens The Finding of Erichthonius (1632–33) from Oberlin with the Phillips's masterpiece, the Renoir Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880-81), until I started to notice the similarity of loose brushwork and thick paintstrokes that make up the figures in both. That Renoir copied works by Rubens adds historical fact to the visual evidence.

Renoir detail

Rubens detail

Oberlin's impressionist pictures fit in perfectly with the impressionist pictures of the Phillips. In fact, I was amazed that a trio of paintings had nearly identical frames and dimensions, to the degree that they appeared to belong together completely. Outside the Rothko Room several abstract expressionist works from Oberlin added some context to Rothko. I really like this idea of showing works from one collection in the context of another collection; it encourages one to look at both with fresh eyes.

The Phillips also hosted TruthBeauty: Pictorialism and the Photograph as Art, 1845–1945, organized by the Vancouver Art Gallery and George Eastman House. Pictorialism in photography was a part of the movement to have photograph acknowledged as the equal of painting as an art, and many pictorial photographs suggest some of the atmosphere and narrative qualities of paintings. Some, like those of Julia Margaret Cameron, have people posing as historical figures or emotional states. Others depict landscapes, cityscapes, important monuments, or still lifes. A series of images of The Seven Last Words of Christ by F. Holland Day, who also posed himself as Christ, was startling in its proximity to what I imagine Christ looks like. A harbor view reminded me of the wonderful Whistler I had seen the day before. All in all, this was an exhibition of marvelous, beautiful images, and an enormous pleasure to explore.

My purpose at the Phillips was the Side by Side exhibition and I came upon TruthBeauty almost by accident. In fact, I wasn't sure I wanted to spend more time looking at early photographs after the strange show I'd seen the day before at the National Gallery. The experience reminded me that it's always worthwhile to try an exhibition, whether you think you'll be interested or not.

Another surprise at the Phillips was the beautiful installation Force of Nature (through Feb. 20) by Korean-born artist Jae Ko of reams of rolled kraft paper lining the walls of a gallery space, creating waves of movement throught the room. This was part of the Phillips Intersections series of contemporary interventions in the galleries and there's a YouTube video of the artist doing the installation. The web is wonderful, but the impact of this work has a lot to do with scale and with relating your own size to the rolls on the walls.You need to be there...

Wandering down to the Corcoran, I ran into Tom, who had completed his role as a lay person on a National Endowment for the Arts panel. We looked at the cloud images by Spencer Finch, most of which seemed more to have satisfied the artist in his explorations of a vast range of approaches to the idea of a cloud than to be of any particular connection for us. And we went backwards through the show of Washington Color Field painting that included many wonderful examples by artists familiar and not so familiar, and a few that seemed a bit repetitive. We also wandered through the amazingly wonderful permanent collection of the Corcoran, of French, Dutch, and American paintings and sculpture, some of it installed in salon style, with paintings filling the walls of high galleries. I pointed out the wonderful Renoir landscape that inspired a blog entry when we were in DC last December.

Finally, we took a look in the Renwick, where I wasn't sure I wanted to go, but we had time and entry is free. They had a nice show of a recently donated collection of contemporary turned wood, with a few objects of spectactular virtuosity.

But the amazing exhibition was The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps 1942-1946 March 5, 2010-Jan. 30, 2011), an unexpectedly beautiful and touching gathering of works of art made in the many concentration camps the United States where Japanese Americans were confined during World War II. After seeing this exhibition with its catalogue listing all the camps and their locations its descriptions of how the Japanese were ordered to leave their homes and move to these usually desolate camps, I had another thought about the tolerance of American citizens for the concentration camps the Germans had made for the Jews and others during that war. Granted, the conditions were not the same, but if you have concentration camps in your own country, you might imagine that those of your enemy would be similar.

The objects were examples of extraordinary creativity, using the most banal materials, usually scavenged from the surrounding territory or from the stores and trash of the camps. The curator, Delphine Hirasuna, began with a bird pin she found in a box in her parents' storage room and was able to locate and borrow a host of beautiful small carved wooden birds and seashell flowers made as pins, lovely complex pieces of furniture made from scavenged wood, teapots carved from slate, dolls, toys, playing cards and paintings. The exhibition catalogue is beautifully illustrated and includes a helpful history of the camps. A photograph in the catalogue by Dorothea Lange of the camp at Manzanar, California bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the remains of Birkenau we saw last summer.

No comments:

Post a Comment