Sunday, August 26, 2012

(No.212) Visiting Arcadia in the Philadelphia Museum of Art

"Visiting the 'Arcadia' exhibition in the magnificent Philadelphia Museum of Art"

by Alastair Rickard

With architecture, as in life itself, it is becoming ever more difficult for me to be impressed with certain modern creations such as London's 'Gherkin' (the informal but apt title of 30 St.Mary Axe) protruding from the city's skyline like a boil on a baby's bum; or Quai Branly Museum beside the Seine in Paris, former President Jacques Chirac's legacy project and a building that is even less appealing to the eye than the legacy of another French president: the Centre Georges Pompidou museum of modern art.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art's main building is a truly magnificent 1927 neo-classical structure sitting at the end of a boulevard designed in 1917 by Frenchman Jacques Greber as a faux Champs-Elysees.

Nearby is the former head office of the Fidelity Mutual Life, an impressive Art Deco structure. It was acquired as an expansion venue by the Philadelphia Museum for $90 million, renovated and expanded to 114,000 square feet and opened in 2007. It is now called the Perelman Building.

The third building in the Philadelphia Museum's triumvirate is the Rodin Museum located not far along on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. It was opened in 1929 amd reopened in July of this year after a 3 year renovation. It houses more than 120 of Rodin's sculpures as well as his drawings and paintings.

Very near the Rodin Museum is the newly constructed and just opened Barnes Foundation gallery which houses one of the world's greatest private collections of art. More about the Barnes in a future column on

The main building of the Philadelphia Museum of Art has hosted since June 20 (closing Sept.3) a special exhibition organized by the Museum's senior European art curator Joseph Rishel. Sadly this is the only museum in the U.S. or Canada in which the exhibition can be seen. It is called "Gaugin, Cezanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia".

It is a shame that the Arcadia exhibition will not be seen elsewhere. It deserves to have a wider audience. Rishel has put together an impressive group of loans of works held by other museums and they make up most of the 60 works in the exhibition which features (mostly) the works of painters from the later 19th and early 20th centuries. They are all there in the service of the exhibition's view of Arcadia, "a mythic place of beauty and repose where humankind lives in harmony with nature".

Three cornerstones of the exhibition are Paul Cezanne's "The large bathers" (1906), whose home is the Philadelphia Museum's own collection; Paul Gaugin's "Where do we come from? Where are we? Where are we going?" (1897-98), on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and Henri Matisse's "Bathers by a river" (1909-17), on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago.

In my view a fourth cornerstone of the exhibition (although much earlier than most works in the show) is Nicolas Poussin's "Le Grand Bacchanal" (The Andrians) ca 1627. But it does fit into this exhibition, witness Cezanne's comment that he wanted to "redo Poussin after nature".

In any case "Arcadia" creates the opportunity for a viewer to examine together these related landmarks in modern art. However, judging from several of the reviews of the exhibition by art critics the exhibition "fell flat". The main reason for such a judgement seemed to come down to failing to connect for the viewer the artistic dots in the Arcadia theme by using sufficiently bright, bold lines.

For example: The New Republic's critic thought the paintings will give "most well-informed museum goers ... a case of intellectual whiplash" in part, apparently, because the paintings "fail to communicate with one another". Could a criticism be more precious and pretentious? This sort of frilly comment, this filigree work on nothing, is hardly rare these days among those art critics trying to be seen to be holding the fort against the onslaught of artistic peasantry who are less likely to appreciate much less laud, say, a 6 ft by 6ft white canvas with 3 orange dots in one quadrant.

The Arcadia exhibition was one of two main reasons my wife Pat and I visited Philadelphia this month. The other was the recent opening of the new museum built to house the relocated Barnes collection.

As a theme the Arcadia exhibition's collection of art may have seemed insufficiently coherent to some critics. It invited facile criticism for hanging only 10 works by its three headline painters. But it brought together an impressive collection of paintings related by theme, especially those by French artists. Seeing the Arcadia exhibition was a rewarding experience and the result of an effort for which the Philadelphia Museum of Art deserves to be congratulated.

For Pat and I what was also rewarding was being able to visit just a few of the Philadelphia Museum's permanent galleries, in particular its European Art 1850-1900. This part of the permanent collection has as its focus Impressionism and the evolution of avant-garde art. What an impressive collection of works by principally French painters: many by Claude Monet, Paul-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissaro among others.

Monet's stunningly effective "Morning at Antibes" (1888) stands out for me as does his "The Japanese footbridge and the water lily pool, Giverny" (1899). In sharp contrast is his "Water lilies, Japanese footbridge" finished in the year he died (1926) by which time his eyesight had deteriorated very badly. Pat has been to Monet's Giverny home and gardens; he is one of her favourite painters. She gazed at the 1926 painting of an unrecognizable Giverny garden scene and said, as she turned away, "it makes me feel sad".

For me one of the most enjoyable parts of visiting any gallery for the first time is the encounter with paintings with which I am completely unfamiliar but particularly like or discovering a work by a favourite artist which I have never seen even in a book.

Two examples from my too brief time in the Philadelphia Museum's European Gallery: "Return from the races" by Giuseppe De Nittis (1846-84) and an earlier work by one of my favourite painters James (Jacques-Joseph) Tissot "Portrait of Eugene Coppens de Fontenay".

Obviously one cannot begin to do justice to a permanent collection as large as that held by the Philadelphia Museum of Art on a single visit, especially based on time remaining after visiting a major special exhibition like "Arcadia". The Museum is a major cultural institution. A visit is richly rewarding.

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