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.

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Through January 4
Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway
1-888-9030-ART

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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.

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.)

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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