One of the first ‘pastoral‘ paintings(not in the exhibition) was
The Pastoral Concert, 1509, by Titian and/or
Giorgione, originator of the pastoral, where landscape is on par with figures. Shepherds and musicians are frequent in this theme.
Good things always end, including summer and a chance to see how the greatest modern artists painted themes of leisure as Arcadian Visions: Gauguin, Cezanne, Matisse, ends Labor Day.
The exhibition highlights 3 large paintings: Gauguin’s frieze-like Where do We Come From?…, 1898, Cézanne’s Large Bathers, 1898-1905 and Matisse’s Bathers by a River, 1907-17.
Each painting was crucial to the goals of the artists, and crucial to the transitioning from the art and life of the past into the 20th century. These modernist visions actually are part of a much older theme descended from Greece and written about in Virgil’s Eclogues. Nineteenth-century masters were very familiar with this tradition from the 16th-century painting in the Louvre, The Pastoral Concert, by Giorgione and/or Titian. Édouard Manet’s infamous Luncheon on the Grass of 1863 was probably painted to fulfill that artist’s stated desire to modernize The Pastoral Concert. Those who think artists throw away tradition, think again; the greatest artists of the modern age did not.
Arcadia was originally thought to be in the mountains of central Greece. Virgil described a place where shepherds, nymphs and minor gods who lived on milk and honey, made music and were shielded from the vicissitudes of life. With its promise of calm simplicity, Arcadia was a place of refuge. Renaissance scholars writers and painters re-descovered it; Baroque painters developed the theme further, and 19th century artists glorified it because the Industrial created yearnings for a simpler life. (Musée d’Orsay in Paris has a small focused exhibit on Arcadia at the moment.) Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem of 1876, An Afternoon of the Faun, had this theme, too, and was followed by Claude Debussy’s musical interpretation after that poem.
But, even Virgil had warned, that things are not always as they seem. The exhibition’s signature pieces by Gauguin, Cézanne and Matisse reflect harmonious relationships between humans and nature, but tinged with loss. The best of Arcadian visions give equal importance to figures and landscape, as these artists do. Other 19th century painters, whose work is shown for comparison, include Corot, Millet, Signac, Seurat, and Puvis da Chavannes. It is interesting that the museum did not include Auguste Renoir’s Large Bathers, 1887, in the PMA’s own collection, probably because that idealized scene does not have anything foreboding.
Paul Gauguin, Where do we come From? Who Are We? Where Are We Going?(detail of left side), 1898
From the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is so large that it must be seen in real life.
Artist Paul Gauguin escaped France and settled in the the south seas, Tahiti, where he searched for his version of Arcadia. It was the first time I had seen Gauguin’s Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going? No reproduction does justice to its color, details and beauty. Twelve five feet wide and four feet high, it must be seen in person to adequately “read the painting.” Composed of figures familiar from other Gauguin paintings, this allegory makes us think deeply about the meaning of life via Gauguin’s favorite figural types, the women of Tahiti. He depicts youth, adulthood and old age and treats each phase as a moment of discovery and passing to the next, but we may end up with more questions than answers.
Paul Cézanne, The Large Bathers, 1898-1906, Philadelphia Museum of Art, is the
culminations of many studies he had been doing of bathers since the 1870s.
The acoustical guide to the exhibition quotes Paul Gauguin who said that Paul Cézanne spent days on mountaintop reading Virgil. Cézanne’s soul was always in his hometown of Aix-en-Provence and the connection to that past was in his blood, coming from a very classical childhood education of Latin and Greek and hiking through old Roman paths with friend and future novelist, Émile Zola. Even though the bathers have no sensuality, Cézanne’s Large Bathers is a painting which gives exquisite beauty to its concept. To me, it stands out as the most important painting in the show. An article links Cézanne to thoughts of death, Poussin and several poets who wrote of the territory surrounding Aix as Arcadia. This painting is perhaps the most Arcadian modern painting of the exhibition, although there are no shepherds, no musicians and no men. While it picks up the dream of humankind living simply in nature, under its beauty and its bounty, one woman points to the river, suggesting a place where these complacent bathers will ultimately go.
The design of The Large Bathers perfectly balances traditional space and compositional structure with the goals of modern art. I always knew how much I loved this painting, but now I know why. The exhibition gave me much new insight and appreciation to fill an entire blog about this painting. Matisse’s painting is in the same large room of the exhibition, but the message is less subtle.
Matisse spent ten years revising this painting, 8’7″ by 12’10” Art Institute of Chicago
He completed Bathers by a River around 1917
Bathers by a River is also very large and, as expected, even more abstract. Matisse worked on the painting for 10 years and changed it, as his ideas and conceptions changed. Noticeable is the lack of color and empty features of the faces. He paints verticals, a suitable balance to the curves, but a snake appears in front and in the center, which can be seen as a dire warning. World War I was happening at the time he finished it. His earlier paintings of bathers were far more joyful and colorful.
Henri Rousseau, The Dream, 1910, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,
is approximately 6’8″ x 9’9″
It was a complete surprise to see Henri Rousseau’s The Dream, also a very large painting. The tropical landscape with an elephant and lions is included in the same room of monumental paintings. Rousseau drew exotic plants in the botanical gardens of Paris and he painted them in a simplistic style with unexpected, evocative juxtapositions. He was a visionary before the Surrealists. His woman reclines in a traditional pose on a seat-less sofa, as a dark-skinned horn player and jungle animals appears. Music, repose, luxury of nature are typical Arcadian themes, and it is a joy to see it in the same room with the three signature paintings of the exhibition.
Nicolas Poussin, The Grande Bacchanal, c. 1627, from the Louvre, Paris
To understand all these connections, the curator included a painting by the most representative painter of the Arcadian tradition, Nicolas Poussin. (New York’s Metropolitan Museum hosted an exhibition, Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions, 4 years ago.) Poussin was a Baroque artist who was thoroughly engrossed in a classical style with themes taken from ancient writers. His painting The Grande Bacchanal, 1627, on loan from the Louvre, has beautiful women, musicians, a Silenus and even baby revelers, with darkess approaching the landscape. Each of the early modern artists featured in the exhibition were familiar with Poussin’s style and sources, as well as Watteau and Boucher who painted pastoral themes in the 18th century.
Matisse’s early Fauvist paintings, Music and The Dance, are abstract and modern but thoroughly a part of the pastoral tradition. Athough the exhibition does not show any of the colorful compositions Matisse did in the first decade of the 20th century, those paintings have tons of color and are steeped in the pastoral tradition. (I’ll need to take trip to Philadelphia to see the Barnes Collection with another large version of Cézanne’s Bathers and Matisse’s famous The Joy of Life.)
A sketch of “Music” from MoMA links back to Poussin’s The Andrians, with dancers, a lounging woman and a violinist. This painting is not in the exhibition..
Quotes from the poet Virgil’s pastoral literature line the walls. We witness how various artists of the 19th and 20th centuries interpreted his poetry in drawings, paintings, etchings and illustrated books. The exhibition ends with Picasso, Cubists, Expressionists and little-known Russian painters of the 20th century. Although not always inspired by Virgil or Ovid, these paintings can be linked to the desire for a bucolic life of simplicity and harmony in nature.
I was awed to see the Robert Delaunay’s City of Paris, 1910-12. Delaunay famously painted the Eiffel Tower in a Cubist jumble of colors and shifting perspectives. That symbol of modernism was only a little more than 20 years old at this time. This giant canvas of Paris also has three large nudes. They are the Three Graces, just as Botticelli and Raphael had painted them. Delaunay’s vision of Paris includes the past and the present, but the nudes of the past are actually seem more central to this composition of shifting triangles, circles and planes of colors. If anything, Cubism reminds us of life’s impermanence.
Robert Delaunay, City of Paris, 1910-12, is 8’9″ x 13’4″
Finally, at the end we see Franz Marc’s Deer in Forest, II,
from the Phillips Collection. Here the humans are gone and only animals are in the forest. The exhibition is very thoughtful and reflective, and I thank Curator Joseph Rishel for giving us so much to ponder. It is one designed not only to make us only look art more closely, but we must also think more deeply.
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016
The Phillips’ Kandinsky exhibition centers around this painting from
the Guggenheim, Painting with White Border, 1913. It appears primarily
abstract, but has two specifically Russian iconographic references: a troika
(three horses) and St. George and the Dragon.
The Phillips Collection’s current exhibition on Kandinsky not only provides insight into the thought process of this giant of early 20th century abstraction, but it also gives us a chance to compare the artists with whom he worked and influenced.
The Kandinsky exhibition is juxtaposed next to an exhibition of contemporary artist Frank Stella, whose sculptures are influenced by music of Domenico Scarlatti, called Stella Sounds. The metal and plastic sculptures point, poke off the walls and into space curving vigorously with color. They become 3-dimensional expressions of abstraction comparable to Kandinsky.
Frank Stella’s K43 comes out of the wall and into space. His sculptures
on view at the Phillips are based on the Sonatas of Italian composer Domenico Scarlatti
Both artists were inspired by music and Stella admits his appreciation for Kandinsky. Kandinsky named most of his early abstract paintings with titles suggestive of music: Improvisation, Composition, Impression, followed by a number. Ironically, the Phillips calls its exhibition Kandinsky and the Harmony of Silence: Painting with a Large White Border. The white border may be silent and restful, but the rest of this large painting has a rich depth, as each strong color pushes into space and clamors for attention.
The Phillips exhibition is educational, showing his drawings and his working process. Included is Sketch 1 for Painting with White Border (Moscow), a major holding of The Phillips Collection, as well as ten other preparatory studies in watercolor, ink, and pencil. But even more instructive is putting Kandinsky in perspective with his colleagues in two German art groups, the Blaue Reiter and the Bauhaus. If the great Russian painter and philosopher was the spiritual leader amongst the abstract artists centered around Munich, their spokesman, it is fitting because his art is the brashest and most assertive of the group.
The Phillips Collection has a superb painting by Franz Marc, Deer in the Forest, II. Looking forward to environmentalism, this painting hints at the destruction of nature in the 20th century. Unfortunately the artist himself died in World War I.
The Phillips owns many paintings done by Kandinsky’s colleagues : Franz Marc, the other leader of Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) who died in World War I; the nervous Austrian, Oskar Kokoschka; the whimsical, childlike but sophisticated Paul Klee, and the playful American-German Lyonel Feininger. It’s a special treat to see the other early masters of Expressionism.
Lionel Feininger’s Village is a geometric construction of shifting planes of color.
Beginning in 1922, Kandinsky taught at the Die Bauhaus, a comprehensive art and design school. Paul Klee was one of his colleagues there, as well as in Der Blaue Reiter. Klee’s art is as abstract, automatic and free as Kandinsky. But his vision is more subtle, more simple and more symbolic. Having at least 5 paintings by Klee to compare, we clearly see the difference.
Paul Klee,Tree Nursery, 1929, is one of several Klee paintings on view to compare with Kandinsky. In Klee’s paintings–not Kandinsky’s – we see the harmony of silence.
One of the great strengths of this Washington museum is its commitment to comparative exhibitions which give the viewer a fuller understanding of individual artists. Fortunately, the Phillips already has a large collection of early Modernism to supplement its exhibitions. The Kandinsky and Stella displays will be on view until September 4.
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016