Around Town: Seeing Nature at Phillips

by Evan Berkowitz

A Phillips Collection show opening Saturday explores perception and cognition through the Paul G. Allen Collection.

By Evan J. Berkowitz

Claude Monet - "The Water Lily Pond" (detail)

Claude Monet, “The Water Lily Pond” (detail), 1919. Oil on canvas. Paul G. Allen Family Collection/via The Phillips Collection.

“Many of you will know Paul Allen as one of the 20th century’s great tech pioneers,” said Mary Ann Prior, director of art collections for Allen’s Vulcan Inc., speaking at a Phillips Collection press preview Tuesday morning.

Some might know Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, as owner of the football powerhouse Seattle Seahawks and the NBA also-ran Portland, Ore., Trail Blazers. Some may know his space exploration initiatives or his countless other endeavors across myriad fields of study.

But it is two remaining callings that bring Allen’s name and sizeable creative holdings to Phillips Collection walls beginning Saturday: his “deep and lifelong passion for the arts” — per Prior — and his recent venture to map the human brain.

The new show, Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection, subtly explores the intricacies of perception and cognition as it charts four centuries of what curators have liberally dubbed landscapes. Artists on view include Claude Monet, Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Hopper, René Magritte, John Singer Sargent and others.

Whether consciously or not (with either lending credence to the neural notion), the show expertly discusses concepts of sensory understanding through color, visuals and the five faculties of touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing themselves.

The five senses are explored most explicitly and to most wondrous effect by a Jan Breughel the Younger series replicating works Brueghel’s father, Jan the Elder, had collaborated with Peter Paul Rubens to create just 15 years earlier.

Occupying a room whose wall paint color is “Laser,” the paintings prompt visceral, empathic, sense-correspondent reactions that, while not presented first, establish those reactions as a goal of the show.

“We were so excited about this … because we feel that our museum puts a great emphasis on … sensory experience,” Phillips Deputy Director for Curatorial and Academic Affairs Klaus Ottman said at the preview. “I think it’s very appropriate for us to have these five paintings that focus on sensory experience.”

Sight shows things to be treasured, collected and ogled at: paintings, coins, books, prints, rugs and other trappings of the cultural elite. Touch presents pleasure and pain at odds: the grasp of a loved one juxtaposed with pointy surgical instruments.

Smell presents the fragrant and the noxious: skunk-like animals and a paradisiacal panorama of nothing but flowers. Taste is a banquet of meat, fish and other gourmandian glut balanced by the humble piety of Christ transubstantiating water to wine in a painting-within-the-painting of Cana. Hearing is a festival of music, birds, clocks and other noisemakers in front of a great window open to what Ottmann called “the most stunning landscape of them all.”

“What I found so amazing about these paintings,” Ottmann said, “ is how multi-dimensional they are.”

“It’s really quite almost postmodern in a way. They’re not simplistic in any form.” – Klaus Ottman, Deputy Director for Curatorial and Academic Affairs, The Phillips Collection

“It’s very interesting,” he said, “these meta-narratives that go on throughout these paintings that, again, I found very contemporary.”

Like Allen’s foundation’s exploration of the brain, Brueghel attempts to map what exactly happens when we perceive the world around us.

Gustav Klimt - "Birch Forest"

Gustav Klimt, “Birch Forest,” 1903. Oil on canvas. Paul G. Allen Family Collection/via The Phillips Collection.

And scientific or not, this viewpoint prompts museumgoers to encounter every work primed for a sensory overdrive. At a magnificent Pierre-Jacques Volaire painting of Vesuvius’s eruption, one can almost hear the thunderous rumble, feel the utterly chthonic heat and smell the sulfurous brimstone as it ferociously spurts up from the fiery below.

At a peaceful Gustav Klimt forest painting that is the best standalone in the show, one can practically feel the unnervingly smooth, almost vellus texture of the birch bark and hear the crunch of dried leaves — represented by a shimmering multitude of directional brushstrokes — crackling underfoot.

Color is played upon curatorially to similar ends. A solitary Provençal landscape by Paul Cézanne placed between two radically different Grand Canyon works is an ingenious digestif, engaging in brilliant stylistic dialogue with the Arthur Wesley Dow while introducing the Thomas Moran work’s palette.

The show betrays a few notable miscues, such as a slough of Venetian works that seem to exist only because, as Ottman said, “Venice is one of Paul Allen’s favorite places.” The works, while beautiful (traversing J.M.W. Turner, Canaletto and Édouard Manet), lack coherence with the rest of the show’s landscape undertone and, except for a luxuriant play of light by Moran, are strapped for sensory connections.

Unconsciously or consciously as well, the show provides an interesting commentary on art collecting, from the obvious allegory of preciousness in Brueghel’s “Sight” to more prescient commentaries on the modern connoisseur (as in one painting where wealthy vacationers gallivant around the Coliseum).

Édouard Manet - "Views in Venice - The Grand Canal"

Édouard Manet – “Views in Venice – The Grand Canal,” 1874. Oil on canvas. Paul G. Allen Family Collection/via The Phillips Collection.

Seeing Nature just barely skirts the usual problems with single-private collection shows. All too often, they can present not a curator’s careful picks but a donor’s personal favorites. Aside from the whiplashing Venetian works, the show avoids this problem wonderfully.

Furthermore, Allen’s brain science efforts add an empiric angle to his collection beyond aesthetics and prestige. Finally, the self-consciousness with which Prior discussed the collection evinces Allen’s sincere acceptance of art ownership’s grave cultural responsibility — it’s not simply running through Janson’s Art History as though it were a market circular.

“[Allen] realizes it’s not just about investment or aesthetic appreciation, it’s really about having a passion … for art in order to collect great masterworks and feel them deeply,” Prior said. “I can attest to the fact that he really does.”

“We know we’re only temporary custodians of these works,” she said. “He really believes that art should be accessible to everyone.”

Seeing Nature — which was organized by the Portland Art Museum, the Seattle Art Museum and the Paul G. Allen Family Collection — runs at the Phillips Collection in Dupont Circle through May 8.


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