Vincent Van Gogh, Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, 1890 at the National Gallery of Art, a recent gift from the Collection of Mr & Mrs Paul Mellon
Vincent Van Gogh’s Green Wheat Fields, Auvers came into Washington’s National Gallery of Art on December 20, 2013. It’s a windswept scene that sucks us in with intensity and urgency. Green Wheat Fields, Auvers is among the 70 or so paintings he did during the two months of 1890 when he lived in Auvers-sur-Oise. Experts believe he painted it in June, 1890, the month before he died.
Fortunately the new painting entered the museum at the same time Washington’s Phillips Collection is hosting an exhibition, Van Gogh Repetitions, until February 2, 2014. The exhibition of 14 paintings examines why the artist repeated compositions in the same format with different colors and very minor design changes. It features several portraits, The Bedroom at Arles and two magnificent Van Goghs owned by the Phillips Collection, The Road Menders, 1889, and The Entrance to the Public Gardens at Arles, 1888.
Vincent Van Gogh, The Road Menders, 1889, from the Phillips Collection, Washington
Like the National Gallery’s new canvas, the paintings from the Phillips Collection are also landscapes with sweeping roads veering to the right side. They have predominantly yellow-green color harmonies, rushed perspective and ground levels that are tilted. Although people are included in these paintings, they’re small compared to nature. Trees and rocks are more powerful than the people and nature is a force to behold. Like many Japanese artists, it seems that Van Gogh felt the power of the natural world more powerful than an individual.
Vincent Van Gogh, The Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles, 1888, Phillips Collection
To gain an historical perspective, he painted The Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles during the period he lived in Arles, and he did The Road Menders during his sojourn in the asylum of Saint- Paul de Mausole in St-Remy de Provence in 1889, the year after his notable breakdown. The National Gallery’s new painting comes from the next year, the last phase of his life, when he returned to northern France. Most of his landscapes from this time period totally lack figures, as it seems to him that the power of nature, as in Rain, Auvers, was taking over more and more in Van Gogh’s view.
Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, hung in a private residence from 1955 on, but now hangs with other Van Goghs: a very intense self-portrait, a vase of Roses, The Olive Orchard and Roulin’s Baby. Each of these paintings have variations of the magnificent Van Gogh greens or blues, including olive-greens, chartreuse, lime green, forest green, blue-greens and mint.
Green Wheat Fields, Auvers gives feelings of total immersion as the best Van Gogh paintings, including The Starry Night, do. It’s hard to imagine walking in this field without sinking or drowning in it. The road is very irregular and there is a roughness to this place. Texture is thick and visibly tactile even in the reproductions. The swirls of clouds feel like the swirls of fields. A swiftly rushing road on the right suggests the wind also flows from the same direction and brings field and clouds together. Colors of field and cloud are not the same, but they are in the same family of colors, analogous blues and greens.
Van Gogh was swept into this landscape, but a strong upright shaft of wheat in center seems to have brought him back to his center. It is here the viewers can be brought into focus, because the painting would not hold together as well without this strong vertical focus.
Van Gogh, Enclosed Field with the Rising Sun, 1889, painted in St-Remy Private Collection, photo taken from www.vggallery.com
In the same way, the power of the sun brings the viewer into focus on Enclosed Field with the Rising Sun, aview he painted looking out of the asylum in Saint-Remy de Provence. He expanded the natural vista, using a very wide-angle perspective. Tilted landscapes, openings in the foreground, and exaggerated perspective are some of Van Gogh’s best tools for making us feel his perspective.
Jean-Francois Millet, The Sower, 1850 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
He painted wheat fields over and over, but some of the best renditions of man in nature come from his portrayals of The Sower, of which he did several versions, acknowledging the artistic legacy of Jean-Francois Millet. These are my favorite paintings by Van Gogh because they remind us of mankind’s dependence on nature and the interconnectedness of nature.
Vincent Van Gogh, The Sower with Rising Sun, 1888, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo
Van Gogh felt a oneness with the natural world, as if he saw the separate parts of the natural world as one unifying force. The best of his landscape paintings, are so powerful when they remind us, like Green Wheat Fields, Auvers or The Starry Night, of the interconnectedness of all things.
In the end, we, the viewers, are swept into his psyche and feel an empathy for him and his vision.
The Phillips Collection has an intimate Rothko Room which creates a meditative space to view his color field paintings. The museum’s founder designed the room specifically for this purpose.
Mark Rothko’s last years are chronicled in a play currently showing at the Arena Stage in Washington,DC. Washington holds a special place for this artist, with the National Gallery holding the largest collection of his work in the world and the Phillips Collection having a special Rothko Room designed for his work by the museum’s founder. “Red,” an award-winning Broadway play by John Logan, will continue its run until March 9. The entire play takes place in Rothko’s studio with a dialogue between Rothko and a young assistant named Ken. In 100 minutes without interruption, there are no lulls in this play.
Of Rothko, Duncan Phillips described “mysterious layers of paint…suggest depth in spite of their flat mat quality.” Orange and Red on Red, 1957, is part of the Phillips Collection.
The discussion of color illuminates meaning in Rothko’s paintings. Rothko refers to Matisse’s The Red Studio of 1911, a seminal work of 20th century art. Red is a life force, a vibrancy and the fire of creativity. But the color black diminishes that life force. Rothko explains in the play: “The only thing I fear in life is that one day the black will swallow the red.”
Through the dialogue, a strong, artistic character emerges. Rothko is both very moralistic and egotistical. He is an artist who wants success but has doubts about selling out to commercialism. He is kind and generous, but selfish and critical of his assistant. We can compare these diverging qualities of his character to his paintings, where he portrays shifting emotions felt in life and in nature, perhaps attempting to mend the divisions within himself.
Edward Gero gives a credible interpretation of this giant of the 20th century, a color field painter. Patrick Andrews is the artist’s assistant. The play’s action takes place when the painter was working on a series of murals for the new Four Seasons restaurant in New York’s Seagram Building, a major monument of modern architecture designed by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. It is not necessary to know Rothko or understand art to enjoy the play!
Mark Rothko, no 12, 1960, is an oil in Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
Dialogue in the play gives insight into the thought process of this enigmatic artist and the ebb and flow of 20th century art movements. The artist discusses Jackson Pollock and explains his drunk-driving death as a suicide. Rothko describes his fellow Abstract Expressions as the children of Cubism, with these artists admiring the father (Picasso) but killing off their father. Rothko, a philosophical thinker of considerable spiritual depth, disparages the flash of Andy Warhol. He acknowledges that Pop Art is eclipsing the Abstract Expressionists, which also means that, at that time, the children are killing off their fathers.
In the end, the black swallowed red, unfortunately.
Two Dancers at the Barre, early 1880s−c. 1900, Oil on canvas, 51 1/4 x 38 1/2 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1944. This painting is the centerpiece of the current exhibition.
Point….Flex…..Relevé—–these themes of ballet dancing were the obsession of Edgar Degas, an artist associated with Impressionism but known for his paintings and pastels of dancers. Washington’s Phillips Collection recently put their large painting, Dancers at the Barre, under their conservator’s care. In the process, they discovered wonderful color and took a deeper look into the process of this artist. The exhibitionDegas’ Dancers at the Barre: Point and Counterpoint transports the viewer into Degas’ mind and back into the opulent Garnier Opera House which opened in Paris in 1875.
Most of the paintings, drawings and studies in the exhibition feature women, mainly ballerinas. After viewing the show, I once again get the feeling that Degas is the foremost among artists in his understanding of the strength of the female body, just as Michelangelo leads all artists in the understanding of the male bodies. However, unlike Michelangelo, Degas did not demonstrate knowledge of musculature or make his figures sensual. At times he appears to negate the underlying anatomy and distort in order to show the body’s expressive possibilities.
Ballet Rehearsal, c. 1885–91. Oil on canvas, 18 7/8 x 34 5/8 in. Yale University Art Gallery. Gift of Duncan Phillips, B.A., 1908 The composition is asymmetric, typical of Edgar Degas.
Degas’s compositions are about contrast: left and right, point and counterpoint, up and down, orange and blue-green, line and shape, solid forms but with diaphanous clothes, stability and movement. He portrays movement with color and with spontaneous, oblique compositions, allying him with the Impressionists. He exhibited with them from 1873-1886. Arguably, Degas was the greatest of all draftsman during the 2nd half of the 19th century, a time of tremendous artistic creativity.
Degas’s studies of dancers reveal his desire to understand and express the outward effects of stretch and stress, not inner musculature. At this time, ballet was not the idealized performance art we imagine. Instead young girls worked long hours under difficult conditions, with much strain on their youthful physiques. Under Degas’ interpretation, we witness the precision and tour de force of their labors. He drew and painted the rehearsals more frequently than actual performances. In Degas’s early paintings, the viewers admire the dancers’ poise and balance, as they move into difficult positions. In later works, such as the signature piece of the exhibition, we see much contortion and distortion, somewhat like a Cirque du Soleil performance. Through Degas’s drawings, paintings and pastels, we do not necessarily appreciate the body’s outward beauty, but we understand its possibilities, flexibility and the strength of human effort. The bodies’ movements are gestural and evoke strong feelings. Dancer Adjusting her Shoe,1885, Pastel on paper, 19 x 24 in. Collection of The Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis, Tennessee; Bequest of Mr. and Mrs. Hugo N. Dixon, 1975.6.Drawings repeat poses in his paintings and often show changes of the artist’s mind. Degas is unique amongst the Impressionists in the strength of his line. Outlines at times contrast with the soft tutus of transparent colors. But his colors are sometimes brilliant, particularly oranges and blue-green. There are also vivid bows of pink, yellow, orange and red. He is superb at using color contrast to create light and shadow. Degas painted mainly indoors, but he used natural light from windows to sparkle on his dancers.
He normally works with off-center compositions, an effective foil to the dancers in their shoes. His asymmetry is like the fragile balance of the ballerinas on the tip of their toes: it can be a precarious balance. The art of the ballerina is to remain strong and poised in difficult positions, and Degas balanced his asymmetric compositions artfully, which was equally a challenge. In a nearby gallery are the works of other artists, such as Manet‘s Spanish Ballet. Sculpture helped Degas refine his vision and the exhibition includes 3 bronze-cast sculptures. Like any great artist, he worked on the same themes over and over, same pose with slight differences. Several late works are pastels, a ideal medium for his methods. The Phillips’ exhibition also runs a filmed performance of Swan Lake.Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Two Dancers Resting, c. 1890–95, Charcoal on paper, 22 3/4 x 16 3/8 in. Private Collection.
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.
Series 1, No. 3, 1918, is from the Milwaukee Art Museum
Once again the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, has put on a splendid exhibition of an early modern master, Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction. Although I’ve seen O’Keeffe exhibitions in the past, there is always something new to be seen in her work. Several compelling images that I had not seen before, especially from the Whitney Museum, a co-organizer of the exhibition, and the Milwaukee Art Museum, are in this show.
O’Keeffe’s abstract imagery is inspired by diverse subjects, more often natural than manmade–flowers, bones, mountains, aerial views, and the diverse places she lived, Wisconsin, Lake George, NY and New Mexico. Less well known is the fact that she lived in Charlottesville, Va., and some of her colors could easily be reflections of sunsets over the Blue Ridge Mountains. Even though a group of abstractions is inspired by music, one of the curators pointed out that Music, Pink and Blue, No. 2, resembles Natural Bridge, Va. The meaning of each single work is unique to the viewer; everyone who goes to visit the show is inclined to see something different and take their own inspiration from it.
The exhibition is enhanced by O’Keeffe’s charcoal drawings and the weather photographs of Alfred Stieglitz. One thing I recognized anew is the quality of O’Keeffe’s brushstrokes and how they reflect the particular form of each abstraction takes. Although photographs may provide a glimpse at her subtle blending of colors, it is only through seeing the exhibition that one can truly enjoy the wonder of O’Keeffe’s vision. It will be at the Phillips until May 9th, and then moves to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe.
Music, Pink and Blue, No. 2, from the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York