Appel to van Gogh: Contrasts of Light and Dark

Appel_van gogh side by side

(left) Karel Appel, Magnolia of the Night, 1989. Oil on canvas, Private Collection (right) Vincent van Gogh, Almond Blossom, February 1890. Oil on canvas, 73.3 cm x 92.4 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

I am completely taken with our Karel Appel: A Gesture of Color. I am so taken, in fact, that Liam Neeson showed up yesterday to rescue me.

I’m kidding, of course. But I did spend an inordinate amount of time standing in front of one painting in particular—Appel’s 1989 work, Magnolia of the Night. I was so enraptured that I ran to our museum shop to see if they had any prints of it. They did not, and rightfully so. The painting absolutely cannot be reproduced in a way that does justice to the original.

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Karel Appel, Magnolia of the Night (detail), 1989

Magnolia of the Night stands in stark contrast to the rest of the exhibition. While most rooms burst with effervescent, distorted color schemes reminiscent of Alice’s Wonderland, the room that contains Magnolia represents Appel’s darker experiments. The painting hosts a black magnolia tree, at once innocent and ominous, visible only by the glint of oil against the black matte canvas. Like a flashlight shone into a fog, the outline of the blossoms shimmers, a veiled suggestion of the life and daylight that the tree would normally represent. While the other works in the exhibition seem to speak—no, yell—as you regard them, this one is stony silent.

It struck me so forcefully, however, for more than just its aesthetic value. It reminded me almost immediately of a painting that hangs in my bedroom at home, Vincent van Gogh’s Almond Blossom. It was given to me by my aunt, rather fittingly, as the work was originally a gift from van Gogh to his brother Theo upon the birth of his nephew. I love it because it is devoid of any nightmarish undertones, so common in much of van Gogh’s work, suggesting some gesture of guardianship and affection. As if van Gogh wanted to shield his nephew from the darkest themes of life, and introduce him instead to the most beautiful ones.

In light of these themes, these two works juxtapose each other wonderfully—so well, in fact, that I wonder if Appel was inspired by Almond Blossoms. Unfortunately, he is not around for us to ask, and he never spoke specifically about Magnolia that I can find. But I think he would appreciate what the inclusion of this piece in our exhibition represents—a greater focus on his affinity for experimentation, whereas some have made the mistake of categorizing his work too quickly. The dark is just as important as the light.

Kelsey Frenkiel, Intern with The University of Maryland Center for Art and Knowledge at The Phillips Collection

Unpacking Double Monuments, Part 1

Pousttchi with Vesela_Photo Rhiannon Newman

Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Vesela Sretenovic and Bettina Pousttchi with the artist’s Double Monuments. Photo: Rhiannon Newman

Artists Bettina Pousttchi, Vladimir Tatlin, and Dan Flavin each present complex, layered art that reflects on the past and the present. Their work captures the attention of the viewer and reveals the ambitions of each artist.

In 1920s Russia, the Constructivist sculptor-architect Vladimir Tatlin led a government program to replace tsarist-era monuments with new public celebrations of the recently established regime and this new period in Russian history. Tatlin’s ideas for the nation’s new artistic practices favored abstraction over figurative representations of revolution heroes, and he proposed the Monument to the Third International, a soaring structure of iron and glass, two modern materials meant to emphasize the modernity of the Soviet nation. Russia was by no means an industrialized nation at the time; when a wooden model of the structure was paraded through the streets it was on a horse-drawn wagon. This model represented the aspirations and hopes for post-revolution Russia.

Tatlin’s monument was intended to be a celebration of the revolution and new communist regime as well as the headquarters of the Third International, known as the International Organization of Communist Parties or the Comintern. The building focused on the collective and the glass was meant to symbolically represent the transparency of the Third International. This structure, representing ingenuity and modernity, was never built.

This is a multi-part blog post; check back next week for Part 2.

Emma Kennedy, Marketing & Communications Intern


The Technical Brilliance and Self-Expression of William Merritt Chase

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William Merritt Chase, “I Think I Am Ready Now,” c. 1883

This article, written by “William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master” curator Elsa Smithgall, was first published by Yale ARTbooks Blog on June 22, 2016.

The storytelling picture, of course, is an absolute impossibility, the picture that depends for its interest alone on the story. Imagine how impossible! We who have ever told a story, seek not to tell the same story to the same person the second time.

—William Merritt Chase, 1916


Over the course of working on the retrospective on William Merritt Chase I came to appreciate all the more deeply the artist’s overriding aesthetic belief that technical brilliance, beauty, and self-expression are the highest mark of a great masterpiece. Chase strongly avowed that “it is never the subject of a picture which makes it great; it is the brush treatment, the color, the form. There is not great art without great technique back of it.”[1]

Any subject could be made beautiful, declared Chase, but it was how that subject was painted and not what that subject represented that mattered most. With this in mind, the question of content is a fascinating one in the art of Chase. Without doubt, Chase sought to avoid the trite sentimentality or the staid quality of a fixed narrative that would grow old and lose its hold on the viewer. Perhaps with this motivation in mind, it is not surprising to find that in many of Chase’s finest interiors, he often instills a sense of drama, mystery, or ambiguity into the scene.

Consider for example, the painting “I Think I Am Ready Now” (c. 1883; Private collection) showing a woman in a pink dress before a mirror holding a hair brush in one hand and fixing her hair with the other.

Darkness surrounds her suggestive form conjured out of thick brush strokes that mesmerize us as they reach a dramatic flourish in the abstract train of her dress. With her back turned, we encounter the subject from behind, glimpsing her face only through its reflection in the mirror. Through the title, Chase conjures an imagined dialogue between the subject and the unseen protagonist (the artist) who hovers outside the frame.

In another equally captivating work called May I Come In? (c. 1883; Private collection), Chase entreats us into the picture with the title itself, if not visually with the woman peering behind a partially open door.

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William Merritt Chase, May I Come In?, c. 1883

We traverse an empty, shimmering hardwood floor offset by a soft green hanging textile. No sign of the woman’s interlocutor may be found; instead our eyes settle on two discrete, carefully arranged shimmering pots on the floor that command center stage. In this intimate space suggestive of the interior chamber of Chase’s Tenth Street studio, the woman appears reluctant to cross the threshold into the room itself. We too remain behind that door, our imaginations stirred by the anticipation of what will come—as our eyes seize upon the beauty of the surroundings—a red tassel dangling from a door strung with three framed pictures and a cropped portion of a gilded frame above a blue upholstered ottoman.

A similar sense of the unknown lurking in our everyday life awaits the viewer in The Phillips Collection’s playfully beguiling Hide and Seek (1888).

By framing the composition with the children posed from behind and their facial expressions masked from view, Chase heightens the emotional tension in the scene. At the far left edge of the picture, the gaze of the young child leads the viewer to the ghost-like figure approaching a sliver of light spilling through a curtain. We witness the mystery of the deceptively simple game unfolding in a spare, dark-filled domestic space. Yet Chase fills that void with an intensity of color, subtlety of touch, and spatial complexity, all the while imbuing the work with striking, cinematic power.

In such works as Hide and Seek, May I Come In?, and “I Think I am Ready Now,” Chase evokes a world outside the frame, a world shaped by his lifelong commitment to forging a personal artistic language with which to express his response to a changing modern world at the turn of the twentieth century.

Elsa Smithgall, Exhibition Curator

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William Merritt Chase, Hide and Seek, 1888. Oil on canvas, 27 5/8 x 35 7/8 in. Acquired 1923. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC

[1] Perriton Maxwell, “William Merritt Chase—Artist, Wit and Philosopher,” Saturday Evening Post, November 4, 1899, 347.