Meeting Braque Halfway

Georges Braque, The Round Table, 1929. Oil, sand, charcoal on canvas, 57 3/8 x 44 3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1934 © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Georges Braque, The Round Table, 1929. Oil, sand, charcoal on canvas, 57 3/8 x 44 3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1934 © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

A few weeks after the exhibition Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life, 1928–1945 opened, I incorporated a quote by Duncan Phillips into my tour of Braque’s The Round Table. It’s from his 1926 book A Collection in the Making.

 “No matter how sound the museum director’s policy of ‘playing safe,’ there must be collectors bold enough to make mistakes while encouraging development and progress…. I cannot resist the temptation to introduce a few of these challenging young artists in our midst.” 

 When Phillips added The Round Table to his collection in 1934 it was the largest, most abstract, and what some considered the most challenging work he displayed to date.

After I read this quote, I invite viewers to spend a minute or so looking closely at The Round Table and thinking about what they see in the painting that might be challenging. The most common responses are:

  • Perspective – some do not see any perspective; others see many different perspectives
  • Size
  • Colors
  • Objects on the table look like they are about to fall off
  • Combination of abstraction and figuration
  • Cubist elements
  • Texture
  • The round table isn’t round!

Watching the visitors look for the challenges in Braque’s work and listening to their responses, I have noticed a change in the overall reaction to The Round Table. Many more visitors react positively, and as they share their ideas with the rest of the group, I can often see the satisfaction they feel in rising to the challenge of Braque’s work.

Sometimes we see a challenging work and dismiss it without digging deeper. Since I began my graduate studies in art history at George Washington University I have tried harder to unpack challenging works, or what some refer to as “meeting the work halfway.” It is not always easy, but I think it is worth the effort!

Beth Rizley Evans, Graduate Intern for Programs and Lectures

 

French Abstraction of the 1950s

Adjacent to the Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life, 1928-1945 exhibition, visitors can find a selection of works by another generation of School of Paris artists. In the 1940s, these painters experimented with abstraction and large format canvases loaded with paint, pattern, and texture. They worked in Paris after the Second World War, a time of intense creativity and renewal in France. Though many were foreign born, they all became French citizens. Paintings by Nicolas de Staël (b. St. Petersburg, Russian, 1914–d. Paris, 1955); Olivier Debré (b. Paris, 1920–d. Paris, 1999); Serge Poliakoff (b. Moscow 1906–d. Paris 1969); Pierre Soulages (b. Rodez, France 1919); Maria Elena Vieira da Silva (b. Lisbon, 1908–d. Paris, 1992) are on view in this installation.

(Left to right) Serge Poliakoff, Composition, 1957, Tempera on plywood panel 34 7/8 x 45 1/2 in.; 88.5825 x 115.57 cm.. Acquired 1959.; Pierre Soulages,  July 10, 1950, 1950, Oil on canvas 51 1/4 x 63 5/8 in.; 130.175 x 161.6075 cm.. Acquired 1951; Olivier Debré, Cliffs, 1955, Oil on canvas 57 1/2 x 38 1/2 in.; 146.05 x 97.79 cm.. Acquired 1959.

(Left to right) Serge Poliakoff, Composition, 1957, Tempera on plywood panel 34 7/8 x 45 1/2 in. Acquired 1959.; Pierre Soulages, July 10, 1950, 1950, Oil on canvas 51 1/4 x 63 5/8 in. Acquired 1951; Olivier Debré, Cliffs, 1955, Oil on canvas 57 1/2 x 38 1/2 in. Acquired 1959.

(Left to right) Nicolas de Staël, Fugue, between 1951 and 1952, Oil on canvas 31 3/4 x 39 1/2 in. Acquired 1952 ; Maria Elena Vieira Da Silva, Easels, 1960, Oil on canvas 45 1/4 x 53 7/8 in. Acquired 1961.

Duncan Phillips was the first museum director in America to purchase and exhibit work by many of these artists. Already in 1951, Phillips was showing the most current French art in Advancing France, an exhibition organized by Louis Carré Gallery, Paris, and circulated through the American Federation of Arts. Phillips purchased Soulages’s painting July 10, 1950 (1950) from this exhibition. A year earlier, through dealer Theodore Schempp, Phillips discovered Nicolas de Staël, an artist influenced by Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, and other French modernists. Soon after, Phillips acquired the first de Staël  painting for a U.S. museum and later in 1953, he hosted the artist’s first  solo show. In 1959, Phillips gave Olivier Debré his first U.S. museum exhibition, from which the paintings Personnage Blanc (1958) and Cliffs (1955) were both acquired through Knoedler Gallery, New York. In 1961, shortly after purchasing Easels (1960) by  Maria Elena Vieira da Silva, also through Knoedler Gallery, Phillips exhibited this painting with others in the artist’s first U.S. solo show. During his tenure as director, Phillips frequently featured these impressive works with European and American modern painting from the collection.

Renée Maurer, Assistant Curator

Some Company While You Wait

Marjorie Phillips's painting, Portrait of Duncan, undated, on view in Office Visitor Reception. Photo: Joshua Navarro

Marjorie Phillips’s painting, Portrait of Duncan, undated, on view in Office Visitor Reception. Photo: Joshua Navarro

I thought we might enjoy getting a “close look” at Duncan Phillips, our founder, rather than just reading or hearing about him. I chose Portrait of Duncan (undated) by Marjorie Phillips, perhaps because who better than his wife and fellow artist would be able to convey this distinguished figure as a real person. She painted several portraits of him in different settings; but, in this one, he is seen in his later years, book in hand, relaxing at home and surrounded by two of his own paintings (at top) and one by Marjorie (at left). The meaning of his look and style . . . well, I leave all that up to the viewer. It’s worth at least a thousand words.

Joseph Holbach, Chief Registrar and Director of Special Initiatives