The Phillips Collects: Aimé Mpane

Congolese artist Aimé Mpane (b. 1968), the son of a sculptor and cabinet-maker, and a sculptor and painter himself, splits his time between Kinshasha, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Brussels, Belgium. His work is deeply humanistic and appeals to the collective historical consciousness. Working primarily with wood and an adze—a traditional African woodworking tool—Mpane creates sculptures, mosaic-like wall hangings, and portraits carved on wood that explore the character of contemporary Congo, while demonstrating a deep understanding of its history. Mpane’s artworks often address the aftermath of Belgian colonialism and the Mobutu regime in Congo, while his brightly painted portraits of the men, women, and children he meets on the streets of Kinshasa give insight into modern Congolese identity. As he has said, “My work tells of hope, courage, empathy, and endurance.”

The Phillips Collection recently acquired Maman Calcule, 2013, a powerful example of Mpane’s larger mosaic works made up of over a thousand small painted blocks of plywood.

Photo of Aimé Mpane, Maman Calcule, 2013

Aimé Mpane, Maman Calcule, 2013, Mural on pieces of wood, 83 x 73 in., The Phillips Collection, Dreier Fund for Acquisitions. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

The back side of the pieces of Maman Calcule are painted red, producing a glow on the wall behind it. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Detail of Maman Calcule

As part of the Phillips’s efforts to grow the international foundation of the collection established by Duncan Phillips, this is the second work by Mpane to enter the collection. The first, Mapasa, 2012, was acquired from (e)merge, the contemporary art fair that took place at the Capitol Skyline Hotel every year between 2011 and 2015. Mapasa is a colorful, rough-hewn double-portrait of two sisters, carved out of plywood in his signature style.

Aimé Mpane, Mapasa, 2012, Acrylic and mixed media on two wooden panels, each panel: 12 1/2 in x 12 in., The Phillips Collection, The Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Award, 2012

Phillips Flashback: A Note From Georgia O’Keeffe

Every so often, routine messages from the past can provide new insights into historic connections and relationships. While preparing Duncan and Marjorie Phillips’s correspondence for an ambitious three-year digitization project of the Phillips archives (generously funded by a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services), Processing Archivist Juli Folk found a handwritten note from Georgia O’Keeffe from 1936 on the back of a Phillips Memorial Gallery (as the museum was called then) envelope:

“Dear Mr. Phillips, I came in this afternoon with my friend Anita Pollitzer and was very sorry not to see you. When I asked this morning if the gallery would be open it did not occur to me to ask if you would be here. I enjoyed the paintings very much. My greetings to Mrs. Phillips. Sincerely, Georgia O’Keeffe.”

A note from Georgia O’Keeffe from the Phillips Collection archives

After a visit to the museum one day, O’Keeffe used the envelope to leave a note telling Duncan Phillips that she and her companion, Anita Pollitzer, enjoyed the paintings and to express disappointment that she had not been able to see him that day. By this time, Phillips and O’Keeffe had an established correspondence and Phillips already owned her painting Ranchos Church, No. II, NM (1929). Pollitzer was O’Keeffe’s best friend, with whom she also carried on a prodigious correspondence and to whom O’Keeffe often showed her work. In fact, it was Pollitzer who sent some of O’Keeffe’s early abstract charcoal drawings, which O’Keeffe called the “Specials,” to Alfred Stieglitz, gallery dealer and photographer, launching a lifelong relationship. Stieglitz went on to become a champion of O’Keeffe’s work, giving her many exhibitions in his New York gallery, and the two were married in 1924.

It is tantalizing to speculate which works of art O’Keeffe saw at the gallery that day. According to the museum’s installation records, in 1936 she could have seen paintings such as Pierre Bonnard’s The Open Window, Paul Cézanne’s Self-Portrait, Arthur Dove’s Morning Sun, Vincent van Gogh’s The Public Gardens at Arles, Ernest Lawson’s Spring Morning, Edouard Manet’s Spanish Ballet, Pablo Picasso’s The Blue Room, and Albert Pinkham Ryder’s Moonlit Cove, as well as her own Ranchos Church, inspired by a trip to Taos, New Mexico.

The Nabis and the Decorative Arts

Bonnard to Vuillard: The Intimate Poetry of Everyday Life-The Nabi Collection of Vicki and Roger Sant (on view through January 26) demonstrates how the Nabis sought to break down the artificial barriers between the fine and decorative arts. Beyond painting and prints, the artist employed their aesthetic of flat colors, decorative patterning, and silhouetted forms on screens, wallpaper designs, tapestry, stained glass and more.

Pierre Bonnard, Stork and Four Frogs (Le Marabout et les Quatre Grenouilles), 1889, Three-panel screen, distemper on canvas, Each panel 62 3/4 x 21 1/2 in., overall 62 3/4 x 64 1/2 in., The Phillips Collection, Promised gift of Vicki and Roger Sant

This striking screen marks a major turning point in Pierre Bonnard’s adoption of the Nabi aesthetic. Just the year before, he had become one of the group’s founding members and a chief proponent of the group’s core belief in art as an extension of everyday life: “At that time I personally envisaged a popular art that was of everyday application: engravings, fans, furniture, screens.”

Bonnard’s choice of a bold vermilion ground and a palette of saturated, non-naturalistic colors owes a debt to the “magnificent example” of Paul Gauguin. Gauguin’s Vision of the Sermon (1888), which was shown in Paris earlier that year, left a lasting impression on Bonnard, who kept a postcard of it on his studio wall. Like many in the Nabis circle, Bonnard also found inspiration in Japanese art, especially 19th-century ukiyo-e prints. Bonnard later earned the moniker “le Nabi très japonard” (the very Japanese Nabis), and his screen bears the flat, unmodulated color, asymmetrical composition, and botanical motifs characteristic of Japanese art. Stork and Four Frogs is one of at least seven screens Bonnard made in the early years of his career.

Paul Ranson, Rabbits (Les Lapins), c. 1893, Design for wallpaper; distemper on paper, 23 5/8 x 29 1/2 in., The Phillips Collection, Promised gift of Vicki and Roger Sant

During the 1890s, wallpaper was in vogue as an interior design element, and wallpaper manufacturers turned to artists to develop appealing designs. Paul Ranson and Maurice Danis were among the Nabi painters who worked with wallpaper motifs. In 1893, Ranson received a commission from Arthur Sanderson & Sons, a major London wallpaper manufacturer and exporter.

The playful composition of Rabbits, featuring a trio of bunnies feasting on radishes, is one of several wallpaper designs painted by Ranson. In choosing the rabbit as his subject, Ranson followed the advice of art critic Charles Blanc, who spoke of the charm of painting objects in wallpaper that “we see every day—those things that we can easily recognize, such as flowers, fruit, familiar birds, domestic animals, and common plants.” Nevertheless the company must not have considered Ranson’s design marketable and never fabricated it into wallpaper.

Paul Ranson, Woman in Red or Woman with Cape (Femme en rouge or Femme à la cape), 1895, Needlepoint tapestry; wool on canvas, 59 x 39 3/8 in., The Phillips Collection, Promised gift of Vicki and Roger Sant

Woman in Red is one of several tapestries Paul Ranson made in the 1890s, a time when the medium enjoyed a revival in France as part of a larger embrace of the decorative arts within the official art salons. Ranson, like Aristide Maillol, became an enthusiastic practitioner of tapestry design, joining William Morris and other English artists who were leaders in the international Arts and Crafts movement of the late-19th- and early-20th century.

In this design, Ranson conjured out of a few sinuous lines and subtle, broad tones a standing female figure surrounded by a field of flowers, a subject common in medieval millefleurs tapestries. Ranson frequently depicted women in nature, finding the subject rich with mythological and biblical associations. His tapestries were shown in public and private galleries throughout the 1890s, with Woman in Red being featured most often.

Like his fellow Nabi artists, Ranson created the initial design for his tapestries, but did not fabricate them. In most instances, Ranson relied on the weaving skills of his wife, France. She was known for her coarse stitching, as seen in Woman in Red, which enlivens the surface with an undulating textural pattern.

Ker-Xavier Roussel, The Garden (Le Jardin), 1894 (executed 1895 by Tiffany and Co.), Stained glass; 48 7/8 x 36 5/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Promised gift of Vicki and Roger Sant

Made after a preparatory study or cartoon by Ker-Xavier Roussel, this window was one of 13 commissioned by German-born Paris-based dealer Siegfried Bing in collaboration with American designer Louis Comfort Tiffany. Bing conceived of the idea for the commission soon after his return from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where he admired a display of Tiffany’s stained-glass windows. Stained-glass design, revived from a grand tradition practiced by medieval guilds, provided a rich vehicle for the Nabi to reimagine their pictorial designs as light transmitted through color.

In addition to Roussel, Bing commissioned designs from other Nabi artists, including Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Henri-Gabriel Ibels, Paul Ranson, Paul Sérusier, Félix Vallotton, and Edouard Vuillard. Of the 13 commissioned windows, Roussel’s is one of only three surviving examples. Despite the valiant effort from Bing and Tiffany to introduce stained glass to the French market, the works met with mixed reviews and no further commissions followed.