My wife and I went down to Washington, D.C. yesterday to visit the Phillips Collection, the lovely small museum in a residential neighborhood that bills itself as the first museum in the country dedicated to modern art. We were there to see their Georgia O'Keefe: Abstraction show up through May 9, 2010. It's a collaboration between the Phillips, the Whitney Museum, and the Georgia O'Keefe Museum, where my old friend Barbara Lynes is the Curator. The show is very good and I would highly recommend it to anyone.
The Museum guards are told to not let visitors photograph work that isn't part of the Phillips' Permanent Collection, so I wasn't able to show you views of the O'Keefe show. But there is enough other stuff up that there's an embarrassment of riches. It's pretty hard to feel slighted. Above is probably the Phillips' most famous work, Luncheon of the Boating Party by Renoir.
French impressionism has been so famous for so long that contemporary artists sometimes rush past it to look at something else. Yet this is one heck of a painting. Renoir clothes his partying figures in white, knitting them together with the heavily laden tablecloth in a seamless and dancing whole. So delicate is Renoir's brushstroke that you feel you're looking at the scene through a sweet imperceptible mist. He loads up the food and wine on the front table with extra detail and thick impasto highlights, going right up to the limit. Then he pulls back and paints the background figures with just enough restraint and economy that the piece tells a story of rich abundance rather than cheesy excess. It is a remarkable balance.
Below is another favorite of mine from the Phillips' collection, a Bonnard oil of what is surely the most politely posing dog in all of French painting. He sits still and erect for us, with his long snout lining up perfectly with the neck of the inevitable bottle of wine and a vertical stripe in the back wall. (Sometimes I wonder if every one of the old French painters took an oath to paint as many wine bottles as possible). Bonnard leans his sitter over to the left and give her red blouse the most lovely diagonal stripes to contrast the stiffness of the hound's pose. The relaxed intensity of the greens and blues surrounding the figure play off against the intense color of her top. A lucky dog to spend eternity among such exquisite colors.
Speaking of blues and greens, pictured below there was a cubist oil by Jun Gris in another gallery that played those cool colors off of greys and browns in the foreground in a delicate harmony. Gris was I think the very first painter I bought a book on in my freshman year at Oberlin College. I'd just started taking a color design class and Gris' ability to get a lot of color impact employing relatively little color intrigued me. That first addition to my art library was shortly to be followed by countless other art books. I have learned so much from them over the years.
Here's my wife Alice making time with good old Paul Cezanne. It's funny to think of Cezanne as the pivotal painter who swung open the doors for modernism to bound into European art when you look at this conservatively toned self portrait. Look for a moment at how expressive the shape is of his receding hair, forming a little dark peninsula reaching up into the broad expanse of his balding scull. Like any good painter, Cezanne knew to find personality in the things other people were likely to overlook.
Compared to the moody darkness of the preceding Cezanne, this Van Gogh is absolutely wild in how light the shadows are painted. It's a lovely balance of contrasting cool grey green tree limbs against a warm orange background. Van Gogh carefully goes back in and draws dark outlines around some of his favorite branches. This is a painting that could easily have failed had the artist not had such an eye for how much outlining he needed. Just enough and no more, he seems to say. Like Renoir, Van Gogh is often overlooked by today's artists, probably because of the ear story that everyone seems to know. It's almost like a curse that keeps people from taking the artists very real accomplishments seriously. Well, when his illness didn't immobilize him, Van Gogh was a deeply impressive painter.