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5.12.05

The Phillips Collection Visits Paris

Alfred Sisley, Jardin à Louveciennes - effet de neige, 1874The Phillips Collection has what is, by all accounts (Paul Richard in the Post and Cyndi Spain at DCist), a winner right now with its current show, Sean Scully: Wall of Light. Don't worry, you folks around the United States, because this exhibit will travel to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, the Cincinnati Art Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The Phillips has been suffering through a major renovation and expansion for several years. This means that many of our favorite paintings in their extraordinary collection have been away from Washington for far too long. The return of the main collection and the grand reopening are scheduled for sometime this spring. Apparently the last venue for the traveling masterworks exhibit is the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris -- La Collection Phillips à Paris -- where it it will be shown through March 26, 2006. How are the Parisians reacting to the chance to see some of the best artwork brought to the U.S. thanks to Duncan Phillips's sharp eye? Ionarts brings you the review by Philippe Dagen (L'histoire de l'art selon Duncan Phillips, collectionneur scientifique, December 2) for Le Monde (my translation):

This show is an archetypal anthological exhibit, centered around canvases labeled masterworks, beginning with Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party. An incomplete inventory of the artists includes Bonnard, Braque, Cézanne, Daumier, Degas, Monet, Picasso and Van Gogh. Some are represented by excellent works, all by works emblematic of them so that one can tell, even from 20 meters away and despite the crowds, who made them. It would be absurd to refuse oneself the pleasure of going to see them.
Of course, he notes, the coherent story told by this collection about the history of art is "principally a French story." Many of the paintings that Phillips acquired, he adds, "one would have liked to have seen in Paris." In his review (Au pays des merveilles de la collection Phillips, December 2) for Le Figaro, Hervé de Saint Hilaire includes a long quote from the man who selected the works for the Paris exhibit, Jean-Jouis Prat, former director of the Fondation Maeght in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, a museum with a lot in common with the Phillips (my translation):
"An attractive collector," he insists, "cultivated, above all, in love with the artists of the past and curious about those of his own time, who never stopped buying works of art, not as an 'investment' -- horror of horrors! -- nor because it was fashionable or because he was afraid to miss the boat, but according to two very simple criteria, which are obviously the best ones: pleasure and personal opinion. Ah, yes, I love Duncan Phillips, this son of banquiers and businessman with the Puritan education, who studied at Yale and who acquired, in 1920, Honoré Daumier's L'Emeute (The Uprising)! I love his rigor, his passion for light, for color, for the liberty and "truths" of artists: the truth of Renoir's joy, of Daumier's sense of social justice, of Hopper's solitude, or the serenity of Braque, who knew how to give the humblest things a sense of grandeur. I also love his conception of art as a great consoler: his passion for it helped him greatly after the death in 1916 of his brother, with whom he had had the idea of create a collection of contemporary art, and then his father in the following year. I wanted this exhibit to remain faithful to Duncan's spirit."
For this critic as for the preceding one, the chance to look at Luncheon of the Boating Party in person is by itself worthwhile, because it "induces sensations far more vivid than an illustration in an art textbook." Finally, Jean Pierrard wrote a review (Duncan Phillips : « le » collectionneur, December 1) for Le Point. He may be the only one of the critics quoted here who has actually been to the Phillips here in Washington (my translation):
Even if it was opened in 1921 -- a few years before the MoMA in New York -- the Phillips Collection does not really seem like a museum. It is an old upper-class home, tastefully furnished, that always seems lived in. Less then 2 km from the White House, the building is the opposite of the sumptuous palace in a faux Louis XIV style built by Henry Clay Frick on 5th Avenue in Manhattan. The son and grandson of bankers and businessmen originally from Pittsburgh, Duncan Phillips, with his austere background of the upper WASP bourgeoisie, has nothing to prove to anyone. He does not seek to impress, but rather to make us discover and love the paintings that he loves. [...] At a time when the Mellons and Fricks were using "connaisseurs" like Bernard Berenson to buy and install Botticelli Madonnas or portraits of Amsterdam burghers by Rembrandt in their glowing living rooms, Duncan Phillips chose his own way.
I hate to say this, but it has to be said: the next thing the Phillips Collection needs to renovate is its Web site. If you want to see some online images of the most important paintings (and two sculptures), take a look at this exhibit's image gallery before the show closes, when it will disappear into the virtual ether. We are counting the days until Bonnard's Soleil d'avril comes back to Washington.

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