Nature is Imagination Itself

In preparation for his Curator’s Perspective tonight, Seeing Nature Curator Klaus Ottmann shares some thoughts on the exhibition.

Install shot_dow cezanne

Installation view of Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection. Arthur Wesley Dow, “Cosmic Cities, Grand Canyon of Arizona” (1912). At right, Paul Cézanne, “Mont Sainte-Victoire” (1888–90)

But to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination
Nature is Imagination itself.
As a man is so he sees.
                                     — William Blake (1799)

What is the power of landscapes? What is it that makes the vision of artists applied to canvas able to connect our individual lives with the cosmos itself?

Innate to any landscape are the emotions we feel in its presence. These moods and feelings are not merely in our brains, our heart, and our senses; they are also inherent to the landscapes themselves. For the ancient Greeks, each landscape evoked particular divinities. For the 17th-century English travelers crossing the Alps to Italy, it was the feeling of the Sublime, a “delight that is consistent with reason yet mingled with Horrors, and sometimes almost with despair.”

As William Blake noted in 1799, there is a special connection between Nature and the Imagination. For this exhibition, the Allen Institute for Brain Science has been investigating this special link: “People talk about how our brains are wired to see landscapes, to look at landscapes and to see what’s going on in them—so there’s something about landscapes that seems almost universally attractive,” Paul Allen has said. “It’s a way of looking outward.”

Collection Comparisons: Cézanne’s Still Lifes

In the Collection Comparisons series, we pair one work from Gauguin to Picasso: Masterworks from Switzerland with a similar work from the Phillips’s own permanent collection.

Collection Comparison_Cezanne

(left) Paul Cézanne, Glass and Apples, 1879–1882. Oil on canvas, 12 3/8 x 15 3/4 in. The Rudolf Staechelin Collection © Kunstmuseum Basel, Martin P. Bühler (right) Paul Cézanne, Ginger Pot with Pomegranate and Pears, 1893. Oil on canvas, 18 1/4 x 21 7/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Gift of Gifford Phillips in memory of his father, James Laughlin Phillips, 1939

Paul Cézanne painted almost 200 still lifes over the course of four decades. By the late 1870s, he focused on household items, such as clusters of fruit, cloth, and a vessel. In 1879, Cézanne produced a series of 11 still lifes, each arranged on a chest set before bluish floral wallpaper. Rudolf Staechelin purchased Glass and Apples, at left above, in 1918.

Painted over a decade later, The Phillips Collection’s Ginger Pot with Pomegranate and Pears by Cézanne (above right, and on view in a gallery adjacent to the special exhibition) shares formal motifs with the Staechelin example, including a display of fruit set on furniture before similar wallpaper. Both paintings were formerly owned by Impressionist artists: the Phillips still life was in Claude Monet’s collection, while Staechelin’s canvas was featured in Ambroise Vollard’s first solo show of Cézanne’s work in 1895 and shortly thereafter purchased by Edgar Degas for 400 francs.

Close inspection of the two works side by side also reveals a key difference. While Cézanne keeps the focus in the foreground in Glass and Apples, the artist adds depth and complexity to Ginger Pot with Pomegranate and Pears by including a second table in the upper left portion of the painting as well as an artfully arranged piece of patterned cloth that hangs along the top edge of the composition.

Staff Show 2013: Natalie O’Dell

Natalie O'Dell, Le Jardin des Tags, 2013, Acrylic paint and Phillips Collection tags

Natalie O’Dell, Le Jardin des Tags, 2013, Acrylic paint and Phillips Collection tags

In this series, Young Artists Exhibitions Program Coordinator Emily Bray profiles participants in the 2013 James McLaughlin Memorial Staff Show.

Natalie O’Dell holds an MA in Art History from New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts and previously worked as a freelance research consultant for Hollis Taggart Galleries in New York. Born in Chicago, she applied herself to dance and the visual arts from an early age. While studying for her BA in Art History and Romance Languages at Washington & Lee University, she worked in art conservation, collection management, and exhibition coordination in the United States and abroad. Since moving to the Washington area, Natalie has enjoyed focusing her efforts on creative pursuits.

What do you do at The Phillips Collection? Are there any unique/interesting parts about your job that most people might not know about?
I’m a Museum Assistant, a position that features duties ranging from the mundane to the exciting. Mostly, I help visitors navigate the collection – find the nearest bathroom, locate their favorite artwork, etc. But sometimes people ask me about the history of the collection or pose insightful questions about the art on display. I think my favorite part of the job is observing and interacting with people as they encounter art, especially those who aren’t afraid to challenge the Modernist canon we hold so dear.

Who are your favorite artist/artists in the collection?
Cézanne. Well, for right now at least … My artwork for this year’s staff show, Le Jardin des Tags, is based on Cézanne’s The Garden at Les Lauves (Le Jardin des Lauves). During my time working as a Museum Assistant I’ve developed a bit of an obsession with this painting. The debate over whether or not it’s finished is largely irrelevant to me. What I find most compelling is the dynamic sense of process – and even struggle – this work embodies.

In Le Jardin des Lauves we see the visible traces of Cézanne’s hand as he searches out the familiar forms of a landscape he returned to again and again. Painted near the end of his life, Le Jardin gives us a rare opportunity to witness the mature Cézanne as he strives to give nature its truest expression in oil on canvas. For me, there is tremendous dignity in this struggle, no matter how tortured it may appear, no matter its level of completion.

(detail) Natalie O'Dell, Le Jardin des Tags, 2013, Acrylic paint and Phillips Collection tags

(detail) Natalie O’Dell, Le Jardin des Tags, 2013, Acrylic paint and Phillips Collection tags

What would you like people to know about your artwork on view in the 2013 Staff Show (ie: subject matter, materials, process, etc.)?
For my copy of Cézanne’s Le Jardin des Lauves, I decided to incorporate the colored tags we give to museum visitors to indicate whether they have paid the admission fee, hence its name, Le Jardin des Tags (The Garden of Tags). With the help of my fellow Museum Assistants, I collected discarded tags worn by patrons as they visited the collection. I then embedded the tags into the layers of paint, making them a vital part of the work itself and the experience of viewing it.

The tags serve two purposes. First, they highlight the geometric grid structure that underlies Cézanne’s work and laid the foundation for so many formal developments by later artists. The tags also draw attention to the inescapable institutional context of Le Jardin des Lauves. The artwork’s position in The Phillips Collection both directly determines and indirectly affects the viewer’s perception of it, making the relationship between art and institution mutually constitutive. Even when admission is free, it is always regulated; thus access to the work is controlled. Once inside the Phillips the viewer’s estimation of the painting is inevitably influenced by its inclusion (and prominence) in such a world-class collection. Rather than passing a value judgment, I hope to provoke thought about this special artwork and how its institutional setting might affect our perception of it.

The 2013 James McLaughlin Memorial Staff Show will be on view September 23, 2013 through October 20, 2013. The show features artwork from Phillips Collection staff.

Emily Bray, Young Artists Exhibitions Program Coordinator