Friday, March 30, 2007

The Phillips Collection

I really enjoyed my visit to The Phillips Collection, in Washington D.C., yesterday. The museum of modern art has split personalities: a Georgian Revival house and a modern white-wall gallery building. The jewel of its collection is Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party. After seeing so many reproductions in prints and books, I was surprised by the monumental size of the painting. Size is how an artist signals the importance of a painting to his oeuvre, a summation of his explorations, a claim to immortality. Another monumental painting is The Terrace (1918) by Bonnard. I was very touched by the elderly couple crouching in their garden in the painting. Their presence humanizes the monumentality of the canvas.

Richard Diebenkorn's Girl with Plant (1960) was particularly fascinating. Against the severe background of abstract expressionist wall, doorway and bed, the plant seems peculiarly alive. The brushstrokes are energetic and the strong colors look as if they were applied randomly. Since a frond seems to emerge from the side of the girl's head, the plant draws the more sombrely-colored girl into itself.

It was a Matisse that captured my heart, his Interior with Egyptian Curtain.

The artist understood all his elements perfectly. Elaine Scarry pointed out in her book on beauty that the palm in Matisse resembles the paintbrush, and thus symbolizes the artistic imagination. If that is so, then this painting is an altar to that imagination: the cross of the window lattice, the table with its bowl of fruits, the fabric column. The painting was strangely consoling to me, for a pain I was not even aware of feeling.

I was also entranced by the Rothko Room, where a painting hung on each of the four walls. After viewing the magnificent permanant collection, I found it a relief to the room, to sit and meditate on colors and shapes.

Green and Tangerine on Red


Angie said...

Your take on the Matisse is compelling. I, too, love Rothko; his work hums with whatever kind of energy you wish it to possess. And thanks for posting about the Diebenkorn painting - I'd love to see that one in person, myself. Maybe someday!

Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi Angie,
Diebenkorn was a discovery for me. His attempt to be both abstract and figurative, a fruitful tension for him, appeals to me. Thanks for reading.