Art & Culture
Stunning Paintings from Swiss Private Collections at The Phillips
Published: December 10th, 2015
In a beautiful exhibition of both famous and, to American audiences, lesser known European art masterpieces, the Phillips Collection has mounted a holiday gift from Switzerland to Washington gallery goers with an exhibition of more than 60 paintings from the Rudolph Staechelin and Karl Im Obersteg collections at the Kunstmuseum Basel.
The exhibition includes such global icons as Paul Gauguin’s When Will You Marry?, his painterly paean to the exotic beauty of Tahitian women and the mysteriousness of marital availability of the younger of the two women pictured in this dramatic work; the capturing of a haunting, silent revere in Pablo Picasso’s early work, The Absinthe Drinker [Woman at the Theater]; and iconic Swiss works by Ferdinand Hodler and Cuno Amiet, two middle European pioneers in the introduction to art collection audiences in their native Switzerland of new, late 19th and early 20th century artistic tendencies, as noted in the handsomely printed, fully illustrated catalog for the exhibition, “such as Symbolism, Art Nouveau, and Expressionism.”
These Swiss works were joined by these two avant-garde collectors through contacts with dealers of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works of the artists of the School of Paris, and through friendships on the part of Obersteg with painters such as Marc Chagall and Alexej von Jawlensky — this, with the latter two artists, allowing for the creation of rare, in-depth gatherings of their respective works.
The nature of Staechelin’s and Obersteg’s collecting strategy parallels in time and place that of Duncan Phillips — all three collectors focusing on the period’s “art of the new” from France and the art of their two respective countries. A small, representative sample of Phillips’ parallel collecting and patronage follows that of the two Swiss collectors in this engaging show.
My favorites in this fine show include Cuno Amiet’s exuberantly colorful floral still-life, Bouquet of Carnations, and the beautifully and subtly colored, quietly depicted landscape by Ferdinand Hodler titled Mont-Blanc with Pink Cloud. Paul Cezanne’s The House of Dr. Gachet, Auver-Sur-Oise will enchant viewers with its association with Vincent van Gogh — its serenity being in such dramatic contrast with the explosiveness of creativity in Van Gogh’s tragic, final year of astounding productivity. Gauguin’s When Will You Marry?, a foundational work of late 19th century modern art, will delight and further inform anyone who views it and allows it to stamp an indelible image in his or her respective visual memories. Amedeo Modigliani’s stunning portrait of Mrs. Dorival will remind viewers of that artist’s greatness at deftly capturing a facial likeness in a uniquely colored and individually stylized manner.
Wonderful works by Alexej von Jawlensky intimately fill an entire gallery room and demonstrate the remarkable variety of styles in which he worked. The room begins with a small but riveting portrait of the artist’s mother, painted as she sat engaged at her sewing table with abstractions of color and form creating the domestic structure in which she is working. The power of Jawlensky’s self-portrait fills the entire room.
Also in depth is the exhibition’s presentation of works by Chaim Soutine. His tour de force Still Life with Violin, Bread, and Fish — a frenzy of erotic symbolism is unforgettable — and his full length, dramatically colored presentation of a shy and awkwardly standing choir boy is mesmerizing. There is an uncharacteristic sweetness to this work by Soutine, simply titled The Choir Boy, that is deeply moving.
The thundering and concluding show stoppers of masterworks are three large portraits — two of elderly itinerant Hasidic rabbis and one a wandering Jewish beggar — all painted from life as encountered in Paris in 1914 by Marc Chagall as the first World War was unfolding. The simple titles of these three works — Jew in Black and White, Jew in Green, and Jew in Red belie their incredible complexity and the terrifying somberness of their respective depictions and details. The three works are followed by an enigmatic self-portrait of the artist himself that seems to have no straightforward narrative.
The masterful catalog for the exhibition, which continues through January 10, 2016, is available for purchase in the museum’s gift shop. The museum is located at 21st & Q Sts., NW; tel., 387-2151. Open, Tue.-Sat., 10am-5pm; Thu., to 8:30pm; Sun., 11-6pm. Special Exhibit + all galleries $12 ($10 seniors/students); permanent collection only, weekdays by donation
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