What is a Dithyramb?

Mann im Anzug – dithyrambisch II (Man in Suit—Dithyrambic II), 1976. Distemper on canvas, 98 1/2 x 73 1/2 in. Private collection

When you visit the Markus Lüpertz exhibition, you might find yourself asking, “what is the dithyramb?” You’d find that word repeated over and over again on several labels. So let me quote:  he said, “I didn’t want to paint figuratively anymore, so I invented something abstract that is also figurative, a dithyramb.” So, in there you feel the contradiction; he’s challenging us to figure out what he’s saying. He imposes that term on paintings that ostensibly present a tree trunk, roof tiles on a house, a helmet, a traditional cake form in Germany, a stalk of wheat, a man’s suit, such disparate and trivial objects, and again he paints them with authority and drama, instilling their trivialness with importance, or at least the importance of a painted object.

He defies normal expectations; it’s not really a depiction and it’s not figurative, but it’s not abstract. Those are the kind of norms that he’s discarding very vociferously. When we expect things to be part of a landscape, none of them appear outdoors; they seem to inhabit a flat, ill-defined, poster-like environment. That log does not rest in a landscape, it can hardly be described as a still life, is it now a monument? Those are the kinds of questions that he’s prompting us to engage in as we look closely.

I quote Lüpertz again: “the dithyramb was my totally individual contribution to abstraction, abstraction not in the sense of rational analysis or reduction, but as in the invention of a nonsense object.” He embraces riddles and mysteries as fundamental to art. He says, “art survives only in riddles, only in mystery can art’s eternal truth be retained, therefore the artist must be, as Nietzsche demands, a seeker of riddles, because those who seek to solve riddles are many.” The reference to Nietzsche is important because this whole Dionysian poetic term from the poetry of antiquity re-emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in the German-speaking world and had a resonance for him.

Dorothy Kosinski, Markus Lüpertz exhibition curator and Phillips Director

Things Aren’t Always What They Seem

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Photographs by Sharon Core currently on view at the Phillips

My very first experience in a museum was, as far as I can remember, intimidating. I over-distanced myself from Auguste Rodin’s exquisite bronze sculptures for fear that I would fail to resist the impulse to touch them and get myself into trouble.

I felt a similar impulse when I ran into Sharon Core’s series of works in a second floor gallery at the Phillips today. Although the experience wasn’t intimidating this time, the temptation to touch the work was as hard to resist. This time, it wasn’t a sculpture; yet as solid and life-like. The photographs’ three-dimensional quality and tangibility tricked my eyes into thinking that what I saw was a real object.

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Sharon Core, Peaches and Blackberries, 2008. Chromogenic print, 13 1/2 x 17 1/2 x 1 3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Gift of The Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, 2015

I had to stare at the works for a while to decide whether these were photos or paintings; their subject, composition, and painterly quality instantly reminded me of still life paintings from the 19th century. As speculated, Core was inspired by the compositions of 19th century American still life painter Raphaelle Peale. By meticulously rendering details and emphasizing texture, Core overcomes the limitations of photography and captures features that would have been hard to see even in real life. In fact, the highly contrasting lights, vibrant coloration, and the lustrous texture of the objects are all pictorial elements that could have only been achieved through the labor-intensive process of assembling the materials and arranging the setting.

Across the room hangs a row of still life paintings by post-Impressionist artists. One of them is Paul Cézanne’s Glass and Apples, which is rather muted in tone with no striking tactile appeal. With the emergence and development of photography in his time, Cézanne would have found no point in creating a photo-realistic representation; rather, he was more concerned with capturing the very essence of painting and conveying his own perception of the subject.

Ironically enough, Core’s vibrantly colored, highly-staged photographs that imitate the style of still life painters predating Cézanne, hang right across from his rather simple composition.

As FotoWeek is approaching, come visit the Phillips and take a look into Core’s work that jumps across the boundary between painting and photography. What about Core’s prints is similar to Cézanne’s painting? What’s different?

Summer Park, Marketing & Communications Intern

5 Disgruntled Characters from the Collection

Not every sitter is excited to be painted. The Phillips owns a wide range of portraits, and within them, all manner of expressions. Here are five less-than-enthused subjects from the museum’s permanent collection.

1. Chaim Soutine’s Woman in Profile  is #NotImpressed.

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Chaim Soutine, Woman in Profile, ca. 1937. Oil on canvas, 18 13/8 x 10 7/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Acquired 1943; © 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, NY

2. Paul Klee, The Witch with the Comb. The fierce brows say it all.

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Paul Klee, The Witch with the Comb, 1922. Lithograph, 20 7/8 in x 16 3/4 in x 1 1/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Gift of B. J. and Carol Cutler, 2006; © 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, NY

3. Sensing some side-eye from Joseph Solman’s Portrait in Yellow and Blue.

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Joseph Solman, Portrait in Yellow and Blue, not dated, Oil on canvas 20 x 16 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Acquired 1954

4) Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s Portrait of a Woman unsuccessfully feigning interest.

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Unsuccessfully feigning interest. Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Portrait of a Woman, 1870, Oil on canvas, 22 7/8 in x 19 in x 1 5/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Acquired 1922

5. Thomas Eakins, Miss Amelia Van Buren. Read what visitors told us she’s thinking in these earlier blog posts.

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Thomas Eakins, Miss Amelia Van Buren, ca. 1891. Oil on canvas, 45 x 32 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Acquired 1927

To end on a happy note: channel this woman from Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Cry Laughing!

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Sam Taylor-Johnson, Cry Laughing, 1997. 8 C-type prints on aluminum, each print: 16 x 12 in. The Phillips Collection. Gift of the Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC, 2011