Old and Modern Masters, Side by Side

Phillips Collection Exhibit Highlights Influence of the Venerable on the Modern

Posted September 22, 2010 at 4:55pm

Oberlin College’s Allen Memorial Art Museum is under construction, but the artwork normally housed there hasn’t gone into storage.

Instead, some pieces have come to Washington for temporary display in the Phillips Collection exhibit “Side by Side: Oberlin’s Masterworks at the Phillips.” The AMAM loaned 24 paintings and one sculpture to the Phillips for the recently opened exhibit. Half of the paintings are old masters from the 16th to 18th centuries.

But rather than simply present an old masters’ exhibit or show the works merely as selections from Oberlin’s collection, the Phillips has combined the loaned pieces with its own to show how old master works influence modern artists.

Phillips assistant curator Renee Maurer said the museum jumped at the chance to feature part of Oberlin’s collection.

“We thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Maurer said. “They have such treasures there.”

For example, visitors to the exhibit can see Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s famous “Luncheon of the Boating Party” juxtaposed with a Peter Paul Rubens work depicting the Greek myth of the finding of Erichthonius. At first glance, the paintings are seemingly unrelated, but on closer inspection, it’s easy to see that Renoir could have learned to delicately arrange figures in his painting only by studying artists such as Rubens.

This style of exhibit is consistent with the vision of the collection’s founder, Duncan Phillips. According to Maurer, he liked to find thematic links between works of art, regardless of their period or country of origin, to show how the old can influence the new.

The arrangement of the exhibit shows that the artists, despite being part of the distinctive movements of their time, weren’t afraid to look to the past for inspiration.

“A lot of these modernists did look back to tradition for their training and felt it was essential,” Maurer said.

Many considered the Louvre in Paris as the only place where an artist could gain a sufficient education by copying the famous museum’s old master works.

Another gallery in the exhibit shows the development of landscape paintings. In this room, a hazy view of Venice by Joseph William Mallord Turner hangs alongside a Claude Monet work painted in the Louvre.

But while his fellow artists were copying works inside, Monet turned his easel toward a window and painted the view of Paris. Other works in the room include two other Monet Impressionist landscapes and a Paul Cezanne landscape, among others.

A portrait gallery shows how one of the oldest forms of art developed from old master works. The focal point in this room is a confident self-portrait by Michiel Sweerts, a 17th-century Flemish artist. Just to the left hang a dark and introspective Cezanne self-portrait and a self-
portrait by German expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.

The Sweerts and Cezanne self-
portraits differ greatly in mood. The Kirchner portrait, painted after World War I, shows the artist as a soldier, with a bloody stump where his hand used to be. This never happened to Kirchner, but it shows the effect his service had on him.

While it may be unusual for other museums to arrange artwork in this manner, Maurer feels it is consistent with the Phillips’ history.

“I would think it suits the mission of the Phillips,” she said.

Duncan Phillips’ “openness and great eye to have these works come together in this way [show that] they have kind of a natural connection,” Maurer added.

“Side by Side” will be on display at the Phillips Collection (1600 21st St. NW) until Jan. 16.