Van Gogh, Yashima, and Lazzari

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Vincent van Gogh, Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles, 1888. Oil on canvas, 28 1/2 x 35 3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1930

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Taro Yashima, Tree, 1940, Oil on canvas, 15 1/8 x 18 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquisition date unknown

Today, March 30, we celebrate Vincent van Gogh’s birthday; 2015 is an especially poignant year as it marks 125 years since his death. Van Gogh, a painter whom Duncan Phillips admired throughout his entire collecting career, was celebrated for his modern expressionist painting style. Phillips wrote plenty about his technique, describing him uniquely as, “by turns, Japanese and Gothic.” As an art connoisseur who often drew unprecedented connections, Phillips’s statement may seem farfetched. But in examining one of Van Gogh’s works juxtaposed with both a Japanese painting and a Gothic painting, it becomes clear what Phillips meant.

In his 1888 painting Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles, Van Gogh utilizes his characteristic brushstrokes that are at times active and at others tranquil. In the foliage canopying the entryway into the gardens, there is a striking comparison to certain Japanese landscape paintings, such as one in the collection by Taro Yashima, Tree. Though he painted this work more than 50 years later, Yashima perfected the same short marks as Van Gogh’s that activate the singular tree as if it is blowing in the wind. The contrastingly steady pattern of strokes in the grass bed below the tree ground Yashima’s piece with their regularity, just as the almost monochromatic beige in Van Gogh’s piece anchors the garden scene. The green and blue color palette employed by Van Gogh is also similar to that of Yashima, who relies on a neo-impressionist style of juxtaposing darker shades of green next to lighter shades rather than blending them together. Such comparisons make it seem likely that Japanese artists like Yashima may have looked to the masterpieces of the Dutch painter.

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Pietro Lazzari, Gothic Still Life, 1943. Oil and casein on cardboard, 25 x 15 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1943

Similarly, Gothic paintings collected by Duncan Phillips completed around the same time as Yashima’s Tree, such as Pietro Lazzari’s Gothic Still Life, evoke a similarly expressionist mood. Rather than a landscape, however, Lazzari’s piece showcases a singular vase of flowers, taking over the canvas centrally and vertically. While the contour outlines typical of Van Gogh’s style are largely absent in Lazzari’s still life, the attention to natural detail with numerous short strokes of paint is apparent. With varying thicknesses of paint application atop the canvas, Lazzari calls attention to the 2D nature of the painting surface in the same way that Van Gogh does. Both Gothic Still Life and Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles are not meant to be exact replicas of the scenes they depict, but rather they acknowledge the fact that these are simply distorted images of reality as interpreted by the artists. Such is a modern expressionist idea that was pioneered by masters like Van Gogh in the 19th-century, clearly replicated by 20th-century artists.

But there is an inherent difference between Van Gogh’s Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles and each of these later works. While Tree and Gothic Still Life are lacking any sort of human presence, Van Gogh’s piece showcases seven faceless figures, some of which are mere silhouettes receding into the background. Even the simple indication of life in this garden scene brings more expression to his painting than what is found in Yashima and Lazzari’s pieces. Van Gogh’s frontal figure dressed in blue reading what appears to be a newspaper gives his painting a story. We begin to wonder why this man is set apart from the people sitting on a bench reading. Is he waiting for someone? If yes, who for? We might wonder why the seated silhouettes have their heads down, and thus question their mood. And we wonder what the woman in the blue skirt is walking towards, and whether or not she has any connection to any of these other people. In this way, Van Gogh’s painting spearheads a dialogue that the works by Yashima and Lazzari do not, adding an element of life and mystery that is perhaps the reason Van Gogh is so celebrated.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Van Gogh!

Annie Dolan, Marketing and Communications Intern

What’s in a Title?

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Loren MacIver, The Window Shade, 1948, Oil on canvas 43 x 29 1/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1951

In art, we often think of abstraction and representation as being complete opposites. We think of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, titled with numbers, as being polar opposites to Paul Cézanne’s still lifes, labeled exactly what they are: apples, oranges, and flowers. But what if something is both abstract and representational? Is it possible? Currently on view is Loren MacIver’s painting, The Window Shade. At first glance, the work appears completely abstract, but upon closer inspection of both the painting and the wall text beside it, we learn that it does in fact represent something from real life: a window shade.

Walking past MacIver’s work, I recognized that I liked the aesthetic, but it didn’t necessarily evoke a specific emotion from me. Circling back, I decided to look at it more closely. When I approach a piece, I tend to ignore the wall text at first and look instead at the surface texture. I liked that the artist applied the grayish blue color very thinly, leaving specks of the canvas showing behind it. To me, that reveals more of the process, which is something I like to be aware of when studying a work of art. Scanning the painting, I then noticed a recognizable object in the bottom fourth of the canvas: a string hanging down with a hollow circular pendant attached. I wondered why this would be there given the abstract nature of the work. It was only then that I turned to the title, The Window Shade. Suddenly, the piece had so much more meaning for me. I began to think of the specks of untouched canvas as illumination from street lamps coming through the rips of a worn piece of fabric. The slightly different hue in the bottom quarter of the canvas, separated by a darker border, became the color of twilight filtered by the glass on top of it. These are conclusions I would not have come up with had I not stopped to read the wall text beside the piece and inspect it more closely.

So what is in a title? A title can help us pull meaning from a seemingly non-representational work of art. It can turn thinly painted canvases, almost monochromatic in nature, into old window shades, evoking a sense of nostalgia for a passing day.

Annie Dolan, Marketing and Communications Intern

Pedro Lasch’s Abstract Nationalism / National Abstraction: Part 4

On October 27, artist Pedro Lasch will premiere his work Abstract Nationalism/National Abstraction: Anthems for Four Voices at The Phillips Collection as part of the International Forum Weekend in Washington. In this audio-visual performance, national anthems of specific countries are sung in the language of the country listed alphabetically after it in the World Almanac.

In a six part blog series, Curatorial Intern Lauren Reuter asks the artist about this work and how it fits into the Phillips, art, and politics. Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.

How do you draw the line between different styles of art? Where do you think your work “belongs,” in the traditional sense? How does it fit into the Phillips’s mission of the “experiment station,” which you discussed with Vesela [Sretenović, Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art]?

I’ve never believed in the separations that, to me, seem like artificial constructs of artistic labels like “contemporary.” Half the time, these labels aren’t helpful. I love the idea of the “experiment station,” and I’m completely in agreement with it. That’s what we’re trying to do: we’re experimenting at the Phillips together, collectively, and with the audience, with different fields of the arts. The separations I am referring to between modern, contemporary, historical, European, non-European—these have been produced for practical purposes, but then people forget to see their limitations.

Pedro Lasch, Schematic Scores, Flag Fusions and Visual Props from Abstract Nationalism & National Abstraction (2001/2014)

Pedro Lasch, Schematic Scores, Flag Fusions and Visual Props from Abstract Nationalism & National Abstraction (2001/2014)

While I know the Phillips focuses on collecting and showing “modern art,” as a contemporary artist I don’t separate myself from modernism and modernity. In general, I try very hard to make work that doesn’t allow people to maintain these divides, just like the Phillips project doesn’t allow people to maintain rigid separations between nations and languages.

Working in the Phillips is a fantastic opportunity to highlight the complexity of history and of how artists work with history. I think the reason Vesela pointed out the “experiment station” is that she also doesn’t see this neat separation between modern, post-modern, and contemporary. And that’s part of what she and others are doing at the Phillips: stressing the contemporary and how alive many of these things are. Art is made alive by keeping a certain engagement with it. In the case of programs like the Intersections contemporary art series, it’s by setting up dialogues with artists who are alive. But in other cases it’s by simply pressing the idea of the ongoing experiment, returning to the moment when a space was conceived and thinking about how that moment and meaning has changed over time.