Everybody Loves Painting

The DAM's Phillips Collection blockbuster just opened, and already it's a great big hit.

Let me say this right off the bat: The fall-winter blockbuster at the Denver Art Museum, El Greco to Picasso from the Phillips Collection, is one of the best shows ever presented in our region. Not since the DAM's Matisse show a few years ago has the city been graced by the presence of so many paintings that played leading roles in the history of art. But considering the show's pushy title, this can hardly be a surprise to anyone. It's that El Greco to Picasso part that lets us know just what we're in for.

Phillips chief curator Eliza Rathbone led a committee that selected the works, which represent just a tiny fraction of the treasures owned by the Washington, D.C.-based museum. Denver was selected as a stop on the show's tour because of the longtime friendship between Phillips director Jay Gates and the DAM's Lewis Sharp.

There are so many things I like about the show that I hardly know where to begin. There are those fabulous paintings, of course, along with a handful of elegant sculptures, all of which are done by a who's who of European artists. Then there's the installation, which is laudably chronological, though not strictly so, and allows the topic of the show -- the way the Spanish old masters were a source for the birth of modernism in France -- to appear covertly and be absorbed simply by osmosis. It really works well.

"The Repentant St. Peter," by El Greco, oil on canvas.
"The Repentant St. Peter," by El Greco, oil on canvas.
"The Blue Room," by Picasso, oil on canvas.
"The Blue Room," by Picasso, oil on canvas.

Hiding the art history was no accident. Focus groups and marketing studies demonstrate that most people yawn when they hear the term "art history," so the DAM and other stops on the tour have downplayed this aspect when hawking the show. In fact, the catalogue is called Art Beyond Isms, which demonstrates how anti-art-history it is. However, by arranging the material chronologically, the art history gets put in invisibly.

This date-order approach is also an easy way to add information about stylistic development, an idea I've championed for years but had begun to believe that the town's curators were ignoring. El Greco to Picasso, laid out by DAM head curator Timothy Standring and his team, works so well, it proves I was right all along. Casual viewers will hardly notice the annoying intelligence that underlies the show, and I guarantee it won't get in their way. But if you want to look more carefully and interpret what you see, the message is completely clear. In a more or less straight line, through one coming of age after the next, the show reveals how realism gave way to impressionism, which led to post-impressionism and then to cubism and, finally, to the various kinds of modern abstraction that blossomed in the early twentieth century.

The exhibition begins in an entry gallery with only two paintings, both hanging on the wall directly in front of us. To the right is "The Repentant St. Peter," a gorgeous oil on canvas that's unmistakably El Greco. Dating to the early seventeenth century, the painting is shockingly modern in appearance, as are so many El Grecos. There's that expressionistic handling of the paint and the almost surrealist handling of the forms. The praying St. Peter is bathed in light and stands out boldly from the dark background.

Somewhat newer but still pretty old, having been completed in the 1820s, is "The Repentant St. Peter," Goya's painting of the same subject, which is also incredibly forward-looking. Goya renders the praying St. Peter confidently, in a naturalistic style, an approach that would soon be embraced by French artists in the mid- nineteenth century.

The pairing of the El Greco and the Goya is a re-creation of a configuration that was first laid out in the 1930s by the Phillips Collection's founding collector, curator and director, Duncan Phillips. It was at that time that he added the Goya to his collection, in which the El Greco was already ensconced.

Phillips was born in 1886 to a wealthy family in Pittsburgh; they moved to the nation's capital when he was still a child. As a student at Yale, he became interested in art and in writing about art. Phillips found his early fame as a critic, attacking modern art as vulgar -- an irony, given his later interests. In a review of the epoch-making Armory Show of 1913, which was filled with European modernism, Phillips took aim at exactly the same artists he would collect only a decade later, including Gauguin, Cézanne and Matisse. Later he explained himself in writing: "Consistency from youth to middle age is at best a stiff-necked virtue."

The collection began in earnest in 1916, when Phillips asked his father to provide a yearly stipend for art acquisitions. Then, in 1920, he and his mother founded the Phillips Memorial Art Gallery in two rooms of the family mansion. The following year, the Phillips quietly opened to the public, becoming the first museum in America to focus on modern art. Over the decades, the Phillips Memorial would consume the entire house as well as several additions constructed just for the gallery. In fact, the museum, now called the Phillips Collection, is currently undergoing an expansion and a renovation, which is why the paintings in El Greco to Picasso have gone on tour.

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