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Modern art from a pivotal era

The Phillips Collection

“The Road Menders” by Vincent van Gogh(1889)

By Robert Reed / Special to The Japan NewsSpeaking at the press preview for the exhibition “The Phillips Collection: A Modern Vision” at the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum in Tokyo’s Marunouchi district, the museum’s director, Akiya Takahashi, described The Phillips Collection as the “top of the top” collections of late 19th- and 20th-century art by a single collector.

As a museum, The Phillips Collection today has three buildings in Washington D.C. and a collection of over 4,000 works of modern and contemporary art, most of them collected by one man, Duncan Phillips (1886-1966). Phillips had a unique approach to collecting that this show seeks to illustrate with a selection of 75 works mostly collected by Phillips from 1920 to 1966.

Phillips became interested in art and criticism while at Yale University. He made his first journey to Paris in 1911 to see exhibitions and meet artists. Seeing the collection of art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, Phillips was immediately captivated by the work of impressionists like Monet, Renoir and Degas. Soon, he decided to make it his mission to introduce this new art to America. The embodiment of that dream was his museum, which opened in 1921 as the first museum of modern art in the United States.

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  • The Phillips Collection

    “La Repetition au foyer de la danse” by Edgar Degas (ca 1870-72)

  • The Phillips Collection

    ”Printed Sheet with Picture“ by Paul Klee (1937)

  • The Phillips Collection

    “Snow at Louveciennes” by Alfred Sisley (1874)

Mitsubishi Museum Curator Hiroo Yasui pointed out that Phillips’ interpretation of the term “modern art” was actually what today we would call “contemporary art” — the art of living artists of the day. And it was largely the newest, most innovative art that caught his eye.

During the course of his collecting, Phillips naturally developed a special love for particular artists. Among the first of these were Gustave Courbet and Honore Daumier, the latter becoming the subject of one of the extensive collections of definitive works that Phillips came to call “units.” Other artists for whom he collected “units” were the Cubist Georges Braque, Paul Klee — whose works Phillips gave an entire gallery to in his museum — and the colorist Pierre Bonnard. Phillips was particularly struck by the power of freely used color in the European art of the early 20th century, and his unit of Bonnard paintings — represented in this show by works like “The Palm” (1926) — is said to be the finest collection of the artist’s work in North America.

Claude Monet was a painter Phillips admired as an innovator “who gave color and form to single, personal impressions.” In this show we see two of his favorite Monets, “The Road to Vetheuil” (1879), which he purchased from the Durand-Ruel Galleries, and “Val-Saint-Nicolas, near Dieppe (Morning)” (1897), which Phillips called “one of the most beautiful Monets I have ever seen.”

There are also two superb Van Gogh paintings in this show, “Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles” (1888), which Phillips was able to acquire only by giving up another Van Gogh in his collection, and “The Road Menders” (1889), which Phillips called one of Van Gogh’s finest paintings.

Phillips was the grandson of a prominent Pittsburg industrialist, but his funds for collecting were by no means unlimited, and in order to maintain the quality of his collection he often had to give up works in order to acquire more important ones. To purchase the definitive early Cubist painting “The Round Table” (1929) by Braque, which Phillips especially admired, he gave up two of his favorite works by Daumier and Sisley.

In addition to the latest art, Phillips also collected works by older masters who predated the impressionists, like Goya, Delacroix and Manet, in order to show the path that led to more modern painting. Good examples are the Goya painting “The Repentant St. Peter” (ca 1820-24) and “On the River Stour” (ca 1834-37) by the early British landscape artist John Constable. Another more classical work in an almost monochromatic style is Degas’ “La Repetition au foyer de la danse” (ca. 1870-72).

Years in preparation, this show has been hung beautifully in the rooms of the Mitsubishi Ichigokan building, which, like the original Phillips Collection building, was never intended to be a museum but has been renovated into a wonderful one. Speaking at the press preview, both Yasui and The Phillips Collection Associate Curator Renee Maurer commented on the similarities in the gallery spaces and floor plans of the two museums. Yasui cited an example in the hanging of one of the most important paintings in this show, Paul Cezanne’s “Self-Portrait” (1878-80). In Washington D.C., it hangs over a fireplace next to a passage into the next gallery; an almost identical setting was found for it in Tokyo.

All in all, the show is a wonderful viewing experience of true masterpieces, with plenty of natural space between the works and non-reflective glass in the frames that lets you get up close and admire the brushwork of artists like Van Gogh.

Maurer summed it up: “The Phillips has never looked better.”

“The Phillips Collection: A Modern Vision” runs through Feb. 11 at the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo. The museum is closed on Mondays (except Jan. 28), Jan.1. Visit mimt.jp/pc/eng/ for details.Speech

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