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A walk with the masters

Wren Wertin
Timothy Standring, chief curator at the Denver Art Museum, examines the surface of the famous Pierre Renoir painting, "Luncheon of the Boating Party." This painting is one of 53 paintings and sculptures on view October 4 through January 4 in El Greco to Picasso at the Denver Art Museum.
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We played “which canvas would you take home?” in each gallery – there are five – so by the end of my tour my imaginary knapsack held works by Pablo Picasso, Odilon Redon, Paul Klee, and I clasped my own dream version of Vincent van Gogh’s vibrating “Entrance to the Public Gardens at Arles” possessively under my arm.

The Denver Art Museum is one of five museums nationwide hosting “El Greco to Picasso from the Phillips Collection,” 53 paintings and sculpture from the collection. It opens to the public Oct. 4 and runs through Jan. 4, 2004.

Timothy Standring, chief curator for the museum, took me on a walk through the exhibit last week. His perfectly drawn bow tie at odds with his disheveled shirt, Standring was chock full of wonderment and excitement at the parade of new pieces on display in his museum.



“It’s the Woodstock of painting, one hit band after another,” he exclaimed. “These are works that are in classic art history books.”

The exhibit celebrates modern art, but there’s nothing passe about it. No painting is hung symmetrically on the walls – everything always slightly off centered. Bold blue lettering above the work announces the artists, while swirls of colors just beyond the next wall tease the eye. While gazing at Pierre Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” Edgar Degas’ dancers beckon with the arch of a ballet slipper; as people wait to be let into the exhibit, the swinging exit doors reveal splashes of Kandinsky’s wildly colorful canvasses. It is seduction, it is energy, it is movement.



“It’s an edgy hang,” said Stranding.

The collector

Duncan Phillips spent 50 years assembling his collection of European and American works. When he opened two of the rooms in his home to the public in 1921, he created the first museum of modern art in the country. This is the first time such a large slice of the collection has gone on tour.



Smitten with the painterly style, Phillips amassed a treasure trove of work paying homage to multiple ways of seeing and painting.

“I was eager to demonstrate how good art of all kinds can be mixed – how a large collection is like a world, with the same attraction of opposites or invigorating contact of contending forces.”

Upon entering the show, the first two canvasses are Francisco Jose de Goya’s “The Repentant St. Peter” and El Greco’s “St. Peter.” Though not modern artists, Phillips recognized modernism within the paintings. It’s a fitting start to the show. Though both artists deal with the same subject, they have completely different styles. Phillips already had the El Greco work when the other was available. In the museum’s audio tour for the exhibit he’s quoted as saying:

“But in order to get Goya’s painting, which I so admired, I had to trade a Tahitian landscape by Paul Gauguin. Well, it wasn’t the first – or the last time – I’d have to make the difficult choice of parting with one acquisition to make another.”

The piece

de resistance

The crown jewel of the collection is Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party.” Reproductions abound – the Glass Man in “Amelie” labored over it, notecards bear its likeness, framed posters are sold by the hundreds. But nothing can prepare a person for the real deal. Almost 6 feet wide and 4 feet tall, it’s many paintings, many genres, in one – landscape, still life, group portrait.

“Get closer, get closer,” Standring continually urged, stepping up to the work himself.

The burst of poppies on the hat of Renoir’s future wife, Aline Charigot, the glaze of wine in the near-empty goblets, the wandering eyes of the woman in blue who had so obviously overindulged – these are the things that leapt out at me. The texture of the paint ranges from insistently thick to feathery light.

This is the first time the painting has left Washington, D.C., in 15 years. Phillips bought it in 1923 for a purported $125,000.

“Its fame is tremendous and people will travel thousands of miles to our house to see it,” he is recorded saying.

The ambitious work didn’t come easily to Renoir. He wrote to a friend in a letter, “I no longer know where I am with it, except that it is annoying me more and more.”

The fulcrum

Until Paul Cezanne came along, artists were primarily engaged in portraying the world as they knew it. But he had other ideas, explained Standring:

“I no longer have to represent reality as it exists. I can paint the feeling of it.”

Which is why he calls him the fulcrum – he changed the direction of art by leveraging the past against the future as he saw it. Phillips initially ignored Cezanne’s work, but came to appreciate him as a builder whose material was color. His self portrait is on the wall directly in front of “Luncheon.”

“Prior to Cezanne is where many artists had attempted to re-capture the world as we know it,” says Standring on the audio tour. “And now after Cezanne, we have a world where we think it or feel it. Sneak back and come and see this painting and spend more time when a lot of people aren’t in front of it because this is the kind of painting that you want to spend time in front of.”

The madman’s vision

It was the three van Gogh paintings that held me in thrall, especially “Entrance to the Public Gardens at Arles.” He painted it soon after moving to the South of France, and was anticipating starting an artists colony with his dear friend, Paul Gauguin. There’s an irrepressible quality to the painting, full of sunshine and blue trees, with a couple of shadowy figures to temper the joy. Phillips held much the same opinion.

“It is an outcry of the soul, that canvas,” he said. “A shout of triumph, of joy in the sun, of thanks to God for a brush and some good pigments with which to surpass the light of life itself in intensity.”

Each brushstroke is visible to the eye, thick and exact. There is no sheen of glass between the viewer and the painting – it’s uninhibited dialogue.

Van Gogh was epileptic, said Standring.

“He suffered with that urgency, but couldn’t control himself,” he said.

In the audio tour, he waxes poetical about the riot of colors that run through his paintings, no matter the subject:

“What we love in van Gogh’s paintings is exactly that sort of abstracting element of color against color. And we’re afraid to admit it. You know, how can you say to your wife or your significant other, “I just love color next to color! Well, that is important!’ And this is the key to what’s going on in these paintings.”

And no less important, that’s the key of what’s going on in the museum – it’s accessible and exciting. There’s nothing stuffy about it.

An embarrassment

of riches

Redon’s “Mystery” is an invitation to colorful ambiguity. The artist explained the meaning behind the painting was “forms which will be, or which will become according to the state of mind of the beholder.”

Pierre Bonnard’s “The Palm” is another canvas full of color. He was the original cropper, and stretched his canvasses only after painting them. He’d pin them to a wall and cut out what he liked, said Standring, throwing the rest away.

Though Phillips wasn’t drawn to cubism immediately, he developed an appreciation for it largely due to Georges Braque’s “taste, logic and balance.” Braque’s “The Round Table” is one of the 13 the collector bought, and a large one at that.

“He likes to play off of what is real and what is fiction,” said Standring.

Klee, who “loved to take a line for a walk” has four paintings in the exhibit, including “Arab Song,” painted on burlap. He was one of Phillips’ favorites, “a dreamer, a poet, and a brooding rebel.”

Klee shares a gallery with Picasso’s “The Blue Room” and Wassily Kandinsky’s “Autumn II,” among others. It’s a rather spectacular send-off to guests. Between Kandinsky’s belief that color had spiritual emanations and Picasso’s blue-tinted manipulations of scale and space, it can make a person woozy. It did me.

The why of it

“Aren’t these paintings amazing?” asked Standring probably 15 different times over the course of our hour together. “I want people to go away and say, “This is what this institution is all about. I saw van Gogh without glass, I saw Cezanne’s colors. Wow – I was able to experience a dialogue with Picasso.”

Special pricing applies to the exhibit: $14.75 for adults, $11.75 for seniors, $6 for youth 6-18 and free for children 5 and under.

Modern perspective

what: El Greco to Picasso from the Phillips Collection

when: Oct. 4, 2003 – Jan. 4, 2004

Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, 10 a.m.- 9 p.m.

Closed to public every Monday, open to members 2-8 p.m.

where: Denver Art Museum, 13th Ave., between Broadway and BAnnock, Denver

more info: http://www.denverartmuseum.org or (888) 9030-ART

Wren Wertin can be reached via e-mail at wrenw@vaildaily.com or phone at 949-0555, ext. 618.


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