Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Rooms” may be a tough act for the High Museum to follow, but an exhibition of works from one of the world’s greatest collections of modern art — including masterpieces by Van Gogh, Picasso, Degas and Matisse — opens April 6, setting the stage for another record-breaking, blockbuster show.
“The Phillips Collection is one of the most satisfying, focused art collections I know,” says Claudia Einecke, the High’s new curator of European art and presenting curator for the touring exhibition “European Masterworks: The Phillips Collection.”
The Phillips Collection, America’s first museum dedicated to modern art, opened in 1921 in Washington, D.C., in the home of art collector and philanthropist Duncan Phillips. The museum’s collection consists of some of the most famous and beloved impressionist, post-impressionist and expressionist artworks in the world.
“It’s very different from what you would find in most museums,” says Einecke. “The Phillips Collection is a very personal collection. Duncan Phillips had the freedom to collect what he liked, what he thought was important and interesting … He liked artists who were able to create intense emotion in their work, artists who engage the viewer in a very direct and personal way, so he brought together paintings and sculptures that fulfilled those criteria. It always had to be the highest quality.”
Included in the show are masterpieces by Eugène Delacroix, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Honoré Daumier, Gustave Courbet, Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Wassily Kandinsky, Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh and others.
Born in 1886, Duncan Phillips, the grandson of a prominent Pittsburgh banker and steel magnate, was a D.C.-based art critic and collector who specialized in modern art. Beginning with a small family collection, he expanded the holdings and eventually created a memorial gallery in his home after the sudden deaths of his father and brother. From the start, the collection remained intensely personal and idiosyncratic, and Phillips always remained convinced of art’s power to serve as a beneficent force in society. He served as the museum’s director until his death in 1966.
“For him, art was not an investment,” says Einecke. “He felt very strongly that to engage with art makes us better people and makes the world a better place in a very humanistic sense. For him, it was a mission to collect the greatest art, the art that would do the most for the viewer by engaging on a certain level … In other institutions, modern art wasn’t really collected at all. It was his idea of bringing work over that would help and encourage emerging American artists to develop modern art as a category.”
The show is on tour while the museum undergoes renovation, having already shown at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, and the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, in Tokyo, Japan.
Although the selection of works was made by curators at The Phillips Collection, Einecke says laying out the new exhibition at the High did present some interesting challenges.
The selection of 75 works, consisting mostly of easel-sized paintings, is slated to occupy the same immense floor that held Kusama’s “Infinity Rooms.”
“We had to figure out a way to make the space smaller,” says Einecke. Cutting some of the space with a wall to create three rooms helped, but Einecke says the arrangement took a while to conceptualize. “Most exhibitions have a theme or a chronology running through them,” she says. “The selection that we have doesn’t lend itself to that. Duncan Phillips didn’t collect chronologically. He made groupings or pockets, what he called “units.” They’re mostly just individual masterpieces. There’s no art historical context for it.”
The collection shows Phillips’ wide-ranging interests, and the works included range in date from some of the first inklings of modernism in a 1738 still life by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin to a 1956 painting by George Braques. Phillips often collected an artist he admired in depth — viewers will encounter six works by Picasso — but others are sometimes represented by a single great work.
In line with Phillips’ own aesthetic, Einecke says she ultimately decided that powerful pieces can work well together in dialogue, even if the artists lived centuries apart and depicted vastly different subjects. When the works are placed side by side, fascinating affinities can become apparent.
“I invite the viewer to think about that as they look at some of these groups,” she says. “Why are they hanging together? Maybe it’s the way the brushstrokes are done or the way color works. I could put things together because they look good together. I’m really happy about that because it’s a different way than what we’re used to seeing. I really hope it makes people think about what they see.”
Einecke, who began her new post last August, grew up and studied art in Germany. She comes to the High after serving as a curator in the European art department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).
Einecke says she sees many parallels between the High Museum’s role in Atlanta and the position of prestige LACMA now occupies in Los Angeles.
“When Michael Govan came in as director in the mid-2000s, he managed to put LACMA on the map in a way it had never been before,” she says. “He did tremendous things there. That’s what Rand (Suffolk, director at the High Museum) is doing here, as well. He’s reimagining the High as a cultural center for Atlanta, as representing Atlanta as cosmopolitan, international, forward-thinking, progressive. It seems to me that he’s succeeding.”
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