Everybody Loves Painting

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

Duncan Phillips collected avidly until his death, in 1966, and everything in the DAM show was personally selected by him. He was an idiosyncratic collector, shaping the collection as a unified whole. The individual paintings he chose were selected in part for the way they would relate to what he already owned, an approach that is well expressed in the representative pieces at the DAM.

The consistency of the collection is seen in spades in the first gallery beyond the El Greco and the Goya. Everything works beautifully together -- but then, all of the artists in this section, from the romantics to the realists, are Goya's heirs. One striking aspect of the show is the absence of Manet, the premier realist of the nineteenth century and among the first French artists to respond to Goya. Considering that everything comes from a single collection, however, I guess the Manet gap is an excusable one.

(I was able to immediately notice that Manet was missing because all of the artists who are represented have their names emblazoned on the walls above their paintings. These artist brand names, which have the same luxurious cachet as Dior or Chanel, are surely the product of the fertile minds of the marketing department, but in spite of myself, I actually liked the effort. The super-titles added clarity to the exhibit, just as the chronological arrangement does.)

"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.


Through January 4
Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway

Several of the paintings in this section are spectacular. There's the intimate Ingres bather, which is exquisite; the two Corot landscapes, which are so simple they're all but abstract; and Daumier's "Uprising," an oil on canvas that's generally acknowledged to be the artist's greatest work. And check out that wild Constable.

In the next gallery, the romantics and realists are superseded by the impressionists and post-impressionists. Facing visitors is a very Manet-esque Cézanne self-portrait that's out of this world, a description that's also apt for Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party," one of the greatest paintings of the nineteenth century and one of the most important holdings of the Phillips. When Phillips bought the 1880-1881 painting, in 1923, he felt it would put his then-new museum on the art map, and he was right. He purchased it in Paris and wrote to the Phillips's treasurer, explaining, "It is as fine as any Titian or Giorgione...and people will travel thousands of miles to our house to see it."

In a small gallery behind the Renoir are a group of Degas paintings, the most striking of which is the hypnotic "Dancers at the Bar" from 1890, a major signature example of the artist's classic style. The colors, especially the glowing orange that covers most of it, are outrageous.

The triumph of post-impressionism is shown off in the next space, which holds a couple more Cézannes, including one of his famous views of Mont Sainte-Victoire. There are also -- get this -- three van Goghs hanging in a row, which is surely a first for any wall in Colorado.

The large gallery up next is filled with full-tilt modernism. There's a first-rate Gris and three tasty Braques -- most notably, that over-the-top masterpiece "The Round Table," from 1929, in oil, charcoal and sand on canvas. (According to the wall copy, Phillips passed up Picasso's "Three Musicians" to get this Braque; in hindsight, maybe he should have bought them both.)

From here on out, the works in the show get increasingly abstract, like the three Klees in the next space and the pair of Kandinskys from the artist's German expressionist period, which are displayed in the final gallery given over to the show. Though based on landscapes, the Kandinskys are as non-objective as any '50s abstract-expressionist composition. Adjacent to them is Franz Marc's stunning futurist scene of nature, "Deer in the Forest," done in 1913, near the end of the German expressionist's short life.

The show started with El Greco, so it makes sense, given the title, that the finale consists of three Picassos -- a bronze and two paintings. The first painting, "The Blue Room," an oil on canvas from 1901, exemplifies Picasso's Blue Period and will be familiar to many since it's so frequently reproduced. Before Phillips acquired the Goya, he had put the Picasso together with the El Greco, a pairing that inspired this exhibit's name. The other Picasso painting, "The Bullfight," an oil on canvas from 1934, is a definitive example of surrealism.

I don't need to say it, do I? El Greco to Picasso should not be missed.

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