Seeing Red: Color, Form, and Sensory Experiences in the Music Room

Music Room at The Phillips Collection. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Duncan Phillips believed fervently in the intimate relationship between music and the visual arts. The Music Room has always been a unique gallery where this juxtaposition literally plays out during our Sunday Concerts series: melodies reverberating off the wood-paneled walls, the room packed with chairs, light filtering in through the windows, and an audience witness to this beautiful intersection of music and art. Frequently, artists well known in the museum’s collection, such as Milton Avery, Pierre Bonnard, Paul Cézanne, Gustave Courbet, John Marin, and Augustus Vincent Tack graced the walls.

With this inaugural installation after the re-opening of the original house galleries, the curatorial team saw an opportunity to change things up and feature some more recent acquisitions alongside old(er) favorites. The color red emerged as a guiding theme, allowing us to create some interesting conversations about color, form, and narrative between modern and contemporary art.

Joseph Marioni’s Crimson Painting, with its highly-saturated, monochromatic, luminous surface, conveys sensation over information and is narrative-free, focusing solely on the exploration and advancement of color and light, or as he says, “the liquid light.” Viewing the painting is a sensory experience. The color red, at its most intense and pure, appears to almost drip off the canvas onto the walls. Much like the live music played in the room during concerts, Marioni’s “liquid light” evokes a deeply personal, emotional response.

Contrast this painting with Piet Mondrian’s Composition No. 9 with Yellow and Red, to the right of the fireplace across the room from the Marioni, with its carefully orchestrated yet lively rhythm punctuated by primary colors. Its musicality derives from the intense contemplation of composition in relation to color and line. Whereas Marioni’s work echoes the emotional experience music provides, Mondrian’s pays homage to the rhythm and melody carefully composed in each music piece performed in the music room.

On the west wall, you’ll find Alex Katz’s Brisk Day I-III, 1990, with its repeated subject looking over her shoulder not only at the viewer, but also across the room at selections from Georg Baselitz’s La sedia di Paolo, 1988. Again, the visitor will likely pick up on the vibrant reds in both groupings, but there’s more to their inclusion. In the Katz lithographs, like the Mondrian and Marioni paintings, the subject matter is secondary to the formal properties (color, light) of the series, although the woman glancing over her shoulder could also be interpreted as a playful reference to the spectatorship during the concerts and of the visitors to the museum galleries on any given day.

The Baselitz works are a wink to the chairs that fill the music room during our Sunday concerts, but they also are similar to the other works in their formal focus of the physical and pictorial properties of their medium, and to the Katz in their repetition of forms.

Recently acquired sculptures below the Katz lithographs punctuate the installation, mimicking the focus on form and color. Fun fact: It is the first time we’ve installed sculptures in this space. We hope our visitors will enjoy the reenergized Music Room.

Those Brushstrokes, Though: Francis Bacon and Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh, House at Auvers, 1890. Oil on canvas, 19 1/8 x 24 3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1952

Re-opening the original Phillips house galleries this June allowed the curatorial team to create new dialogues between artists. One of the more surprising, on the surface, is the side-by-side installation of Vincent van Gogh’s House at Auvers, 1890, and Francis Bacon’s Study of a Figure in a Landscape, 1952. Painted more than 60 years apart, these paintings would never be hung together in a traditional, chronological museum installation. Luckily for everyone, the Phillips was founded with the belief that works be hung in conversations with one another regardless of art movement, time period, etc.

Francis Bacon, Study of Figure in a Landscape, 1952. Oil on canvas, 78 x 54 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1955 © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. / DACS, London / ARS, NY 2015

Bacon and van Gogh shared similar mental struggles that manifested themselves in their work. Their respective feelings of anxiety and alienation find parallels not only in subject matter but style. In fact, Bacon admired van Gogh, and it’s safe to assume van Gogh’s brushwork influenced this work in particular.

The high horizon lines that draw your eye back into the pictures along with the staccato brushstrokes of the fields create an almost foreboding sense of dread. In van Gogh’s painting, it seems as though we will never reach the home across the turbulent field. The hope for safety (and, perhaps, sanity) lies in the walled-off home that is almost being pushed out of the painting’s frame, out of view.

In Bacon’s, however, we are being pushed to confrontation with a crouching figure who appears to have just materialized like a hallucination. The open brushwork and the exposed, unprimed canvas leave us nowhere to hide. We are face to face with an embodiment of the artist’s anxiety and psychosis. Is the subject a predator, or someone seeking solitude?

Both paintings seem to be paused in time, a snapshot of each artist’s travails, with no beginning and no end.

Serenity Now!: Top 5 Quiet Moments in Neo-Impressionism and the Dream of Realities

As the hectic holiday season approaches, our minds are struggling to determine how it could be November already, our bodies are caffeinated by pumpkin spice lattes or peppermint mochas, our arms ache thinking of the impending burden of shopping bags, and our stomachs are soon-to-be overstuffed with turkey and the subsequent leftovers (mashed potatoes for days). Need a break from reality? Our Neo-Impressionism and the Dream of Realities: Painting, Poetry, Music exhibition offers an excellent opportunity for visitors to slow down and embrace stillness, if only for an hour. Behold, the top five quiet moments from the show:

5. Theo van Rysselberghe’s The Scheldt Upstream from Antwerp, Evening

Theo van Rysselberghe, The Scheldt Upstream from Antwerp, Evening, 1892. Oil on canvas, 26 3/4 x 35 1/2 in. Collection of Bruce and Robbi Toll

Theo van Rysselberghe, The Scheldt Upstream from Antwerp, Evening, 1892. Oil on canvas, 26 3/4 x 35 1/2 in. Private collection

The intense, complementary hues of yellow and purple create a magical atmosphere in this painting by van Rysselberghe. The mood is quiet, yet joyful, as we see the sun setting on a picturesque view of the Scheldt while a boat quietly sails past. The anchor poles and their relflection in the water provide a gentle rhythm to the composition, urging us to reflect on the day’s end and welcome nightfall.

 

4. Albert Dubois-Pillet’s The Seine at Paris

The Seine at Paris, 1888. Oil on canvas, 31 1/2 x 39 1/8 in. (79.9 x 99.5 cm). Private collection

Albert Dubois-Pillet, The Seine at Paris, 1888. Oil on canvas, 31 1/2 x 39 1/8 in. (79.9 x 99.5 cm). Private collection

Dubois-Pillet’s The Seine at Paris depicts that intangible, quiet moment amidst city chaos anyone who’s ever lived in an urban metropolis has sought at one point or another. Here, he paints Paris on the verge of another day, before the hustle and bustle begin. The sunlight is peeking over the buildings as the boats on the Seine await their captains, their engines slowing coming to life emitting puffs of steam in the chilly morning air. It allows a moment of contemplative meditation as the dreams of night fade and the reality of day emerges.

 

3. Georges Seurat’s The Channel of Gravelines, Grand-Fort Philippe

Georges Seurat, The Channel of Gravelines, Grand-Fort Philippe, 1890. Oil on canvas, 25 1/2 x 31 7/8 in. (65 x 81 cm). National Gallery, London, Bought with the aid of a  grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, 1995

Georges Seurat, The Channel of Gravelines, Grand-Fort Philippe, 1890. Oil on canvas, 25 1/2 x 31 7/8 in. (65 x 81 cm). National Gallery, London, Bought with the aid of a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, 1995

Seurat’s Channel of Gravelines, Grand-Fort Philippe proves that you don’t have to depict the morning, evening, or night to create a work that encourages the viewer to take a moment and let time stand still. In this painting, Seurat depicts accurately the landscape of Gravelines on the Normandy coast but removes all traces of human life in favor of a powerfully silent composition that is both peaceful and unsettling. The painting’s long vista and high horizon line encourage a meandering glance across the surface while the muted blues and yellows and Seurat’s pointillist technique softens and obscures any semblance of reality.

 

2. Charles Angrand’s The Good Samaritan

The Good Samaritan, 1895. Conté crayon. 33 x 24 in. (84 x 61 cm). Private collection

Charles Angrand, The Good Samaritan, 1895. Conté crayon, 33 x 24 in. (84 x 61 cm). Private collection

It took Angrand about three years to complete this drawing. THREE. YEARS. And it’s perfect. The figures of the samaritan, the man he’s hoisting onto the horse, and the horse seem to materialize from out of the darkness. The more you look and meditate on the picture, the more intricate and beautiful the details emerge. Angrand began as a painter but found his greatest artistic expression in Conté crayon and soon quit painting altogether to create masterworks such as this one.

 

1. Maximilien Luce’s Camaret, Moonlight and Fishing Boats

Camaret, Moonlight, and Fishing Boats, 1894. Oil on canvas. 28 1/2 x 36 1/4 in. (72.4 x 92.1 cm). Saint Louis Art Museum, Museum Purchase,  Museum Shop Fund, and funds given by Gary Wolff,  the Stephen F. Brauer and Camilla T. Brauer Charitable Trust,  the Pershing Charitable Trust, the Kate Stamper Wilhite  Charitable Foundation, the William Schmidt Charitable  Foundation, the John R. Goodall Charitable Trust,  Nooter Corporation, Eleanor C. Johnson, Mrs. Winifred Garber,  Hunter Engineering, the Joseph H. & Elizabeth E. Bascom  Charitable Foundation, the Stephen M. Boyd Fund, Robert  Brookings Smith, Irma Haeseler Bequest, BSI Constructors  Inc., Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Latzer, Samuel C. Davis Jr., Dr.  and Mrs. William H. Danforth, Mr. and Mrs. George Conant,  Mr. and Mrs. Michael Cramer, Dr. and Mrs. David M. Kipnis,  Mr. and Mrs. John O’Connell, Edith B. Schiele, and donors  to the Art Enrichment Fund, 29:1998

Maximilien Luce, Camaret, Moonlight and Fishing Boats, 1894. Oil on canvas, 28 1/2 x 36 1/4 in. (72.4 x 92.1 cm). Saint Louis Art Museum, Museum Purchase, Museum Shop Fund, and funds given by Gary Wolff, the Stephen F. Brauer and Camilla T. Brauer Charitable Trust, the Pershing Charitable Trust, the Kate Stamper Wilhite Charitable Foundation, the William Schmidt Charitable Foundation, the John R. Goodall Charitable Trust, Nooter Corporation, Eleanor C. Johnson, Mrs. Winifred Garber, Hunter Engineering, the Joseph H. & Elizabeth E. Bascom Charitable Foundation, the Stephen M. Boyd Fund, Robert Brookings Smith, Irma Haeseler Bequest, BSI Constructors Inc., Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Latzer, Samuel C. Davis Jr., Dr. and Mrs. William H. Danforth, Mr. and Mrs. George Conant, Mr. and Mrs. Michael Cramer, Dr. and Mrs. David M. Kipnis, Mr. and Mrs. John O’Connell, Edith B. Schiele, and donors to the Art Enrichment Fund, 29:1998

Is there anything more peaceful than observing a moonlit seashore in Normandy as boats bob gently up and down in the harbor while the world around you sleeps? I don’t think so. Luce was brilliant at utilizing deep blues and purples to evoke a quiet dreaminess in this and other works on view in the exhibition. Critic Gustave Geffroy praised this painting when it was exhibited in 1894 in Paris, writing “It is Camaret at night, the boats sleeping in the atmosphere of purple velvet, on the mysterious, phosphorescent sea…” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Neo-Impressionism and the Dream of Realities: Painting, Poetry, Music is on view through January 11, 2015.