If it is not true, then it should be

Phillips Educator Carla Freyvogel on Pierre Bonnard’s depiction of reality in his paintings in Bonnard’s Worlds (on view through June 2, 2024). 

My cousins and I, jaws slack, eyes wide, stare at our grandfather. He is seated at the head of the kitchen table, delicately dabbing the corners of his mouth with his napkin and sipping wine. He has just told another one of his spellbinding stories. 

Then we ask, “Really? Is that a true story?” We hung on to his every word and laughed at his outrageous descriptions and cartoon-worthy voices. We loved his stories. 

“Well,” he explained, “if it is not true, then it should be.” 

This statement baffled me in my youth. Did my grandfather just simply make up a story? Did he lie? It did not seem like a lie. A renowned storyteller*, his stories always seemed completely believable, yet wonderfully dramatic. As he expressed real life experiences, they were filled with heightened conflict, absurd coincidences, unexpected wisdom, and aggrandized feats. The characters in his stories had foibles that were understandable and universal. He made summers feel hotter and winters feel colder. 

Later in life, I could grasp that what happened in his stories was not his point. The characters were not as important as the emotions. The settings, while fantastical, did not define the tale. What mattered was the unbridled and irrepressible spirit of humankind. 

As I stroll through Bonnard’s Worlds, taking in the rich vistas, the shimmering yellows of summer’s warmth, the rumble jumble of garden colors, the swaths of paint in hues so unique that I must contemplate the order in which they went on the canvas, I am taken into a scene; be it Normandy or the Riviera, the garden or the bedroom, I understand that Pierre Bonnard did not give a fig about reality. 

Pierre Bonnard, Southern Landscape with Two Children, 1916–18, Oil on canvas, 54 3/4 x 77 7/8 in., Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Gift of Sam and Ayala Zacks, 1970, Photo Courtesy of AGO, © 2024 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Even without a realistic rendition of Bonnard’s garden, I am swatting away flies, hearing chickens clucking, and feeling the warmth of sun on my arms. In his shimmering interiors I can sense the aloneness of his wife, Marthe, before their dining room cupboard (Now what was I looking for?). I feel the warm weight of a dog in my lap and the languidness of a long bath in a deep tub. 

I am inspired by Bonnard’s work to have these experiences. I am not presented with reality; I am not told the true story. But, if it is not true, then it should be. I am dealing with a version of the truth that has been deftly distilled, giving me the spirit of it all. 

Wait, wait! The tiles in Marthe’s bathroom were white? If they were not the slightly undulating shapes of glistening purple, succulent orange, flaming red, and mottled teal, then they should have been! 

Pierre Bonnard, Nude in the Bath, 1936, Oil on canvas, 36 5/8 x 57 7/8 in., Musée d’art moderne de Paris, Purchased from the artist, 1937, for the Universal Exposition of 1937 © 2024 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Bonnard said, “For the painter, the presence of the object, of the motif, gets in the way while he is painting, so after working for a time, the painter can no longer recapture the idea that he started with.” 

So, it was for my grandfather that the reality of the story got in the way of its point. He wanted to recapture the essence of the idea that he started with. The month of the year, the number of dollars owed, the age of the farmer—these details got in the way of the point of the story. The idea of the story must be preserved so that in all honesty, if it is not true then it should be.  

*Nelson C. White (1900-1988) was a landscape painter in the style of American Impressionism. He was also a noted storyteller. https://archive.org/details/lp_connecticut-characters_nelson-c-white

In Memoriam: Dani Levinas, Champion of Contemporary Art

The Phillips Collection mourns the passing of Dani Levinas, Chair Emeritus of the Board of Trustees, and expresses its deepest condolences to his family, friends, and the Washington, DC, community he loved.

Dani Levinas in his Georgetown home. Photo: Rhiannon Newman

Dani, along with his late wife, Mirella, was a true advocate for contemporary art and experimentation. His extraordinary dedication and leadership during his tenure as Chair of the Board from 2016 to 2022, as the Phillips celebrated its centennial, helped the museum dramatically expand its focus on contemporary art, community engagement, and diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion. Like the museum’s founder Duncan Phillips, Dani was passionate about supporting living artists, collecting art of his time, and living with his art. This was evident by his art-filled Georgetown home and his recent book, The Guardians of Art: Conversations with Major Collectors—both of which he generously shared with the Phillips community. The Phillips was honored to host an intimate evening with Dani last October celebrating the launch of The Guardians of Art, which highlights the motivations, passions, and practices of major art collectors around the world.

Dani and Mirella Levinas at The Phillips Collection 2016 Annual Gala

Through his decades-long work as a collector, writer, publisher, and curator, Dani was particularly dedicated to contemporary Latin American art and artists. He connected the Phillips with Spanish artists Bernardí Roig and Daniel Canogar and Cuban artists Los Carpinteros, who, because of Dani’s generosity and vision, are now part of the museum’s permanent collection. He made an indelible mark on the Phillips by encouraging the museum to be more innovative, experimental, and global in scope.

With their travels and time spent living in Argentina, Spain, and Miami, Dani and Mirella were intimately aware of urgent social issues in the US and around the world. Dani’s support made possible the groundbreaking and expansive exhibition The Warmth of Other Suns in 2019, which shared poignant stories about global displacement. Dani also cared deeply about expanding access to art through technology and reimagining the role of cultural institutions by spearheading enhancements to the visitor experience.

Dani Levinas and curators Massimiliano Gioni and Natalie Bell at the opening of The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement. Photo: Rhiannon Newman

“Dani was a crisp and intelligent thinker and a joyful and passionate advocate for contemporary art and artists. His network of friends, colleagues, and people who loved and appreciated him spans the globe,” says Vradenburg Director & CEO Jonathan P. Binstock. “Indeed, well before reconnecting with him in my role at the Phillips, like many, I saw Dani regularly at art events in global cultural capitals year after year. He was steadfast in his warmth and welcoming posture, and his eagerness to discuss all the latest developments in the art world and beyond. I learned a lot from Dani. He will be sorely missed.”

“Dani Levinas’s passion and enthusiasm for art by living artists will have an enduring impact on The Phillips Collection. We will truly miss his inspiration and guidance,” says Phillips Board Chair John Despres.

Jennifer Bartlett’s Process

Jennifer Bartlett: In and Out of the Garden is on view through April 30, 2024.

This installation presents selections from Jennifer Bartlett’s In the Garden series, created from 1979 to 1983. Bartlett depicted several views of the same garden scene using an astounding range of techniques, styles, and media, including pencil, charcoal, ink, Conté crayon, watercolor, pastel, and gouache.

Julie Matsumoto, Jennifer Bartlett’s sister, describes the artist’s process of creating the In the Garden series:

“Each day Jennifer taped a fresh piece of drawing paper onto her table and settled in to peer through the French doors and draw the garden. For each drawing she would use one of the ten or so drawing materials she had decided upon; pencil, pen and ink, brush and ink, charcoal, pastel, etc. The rule she established was that the drawing was finished when she had something else to do and left the table. She would not return to it. When she had finished using each media, she moved forward using combinations of different media – left side of the paper, pencil, right side of the paper, pen and Ink and so on. Once she had exhausted all combinations, she wrote the name of each media on a slip of paper and placed the papers in a bowl. She would then ask Marianne and I to pick two slips of paper out of the bowl which would determine that day’s drawing. Setting up a system helped her work, but she inevitably broke her system’s rules and enjoyed the randomness of the outcome. Establishing a system, then breaking the rules is evident in many of her works. I think the system was comforting and breaking the rules exciting. It was a way she could really think and work.”

Hear more from Julie Matsumoto, as well as Bartlett’s daughter Alice Carriere, and studio manager Joan LiPuma on the Bloomberg Connects app or on Soundcloud.