Duncan Phillips has been called a dilettante. His primary qualification to assemble a collection of art was the ability to purchase it. He had no advanced degrees, he never ran an art gallery, nobody ever hired him to do anything. He was born rich and elite. At one time, he even disparaged the famous Armory Show of 1913, writing that it was “stupefying in its vulgarity.” Ouch.
And yet—as both a writer and collector—he devoted himself to modern art for almost his entire life. He gave Oskar Kokoschka his first retrospective in an American museum, and mounted the first American solo exhibitions for Chaim Soutine, Nicolas de Staël, Ben Nicholson, Giorgio Morandi and Pierre Bonnard. In 1928 his museum acquired a self-portrait by Cezanne twenty years after the Met had passed on it for being “too modern.”
That portrait, on display in this show, is characteristic of what appealed to Phillips. Rather than being flashy and provocative, it is sedate and economical. Rather than displaying brilliance or cleverness, it presents honesty and determination. Just a few angular lines and planes define the character of the subject. Phillips declared it “defiant in intellectual isolation.”
Yet most of the pieces in this show are not really worth the trip to Milwaukee. Works on view by Degas, Vuillard, Seurat, Boudin, Modigliani, Picasso and Corot are not outstanding examples. Phillips was especially proud of Monet’s “Val St. Nicolas” (1897), which he considered “one of the most beautiful Monet paintings he had ever seen.” Those who frequent the Art Institute of Chicago, however, might find this fuzzy view of seaside cliffs far less thrilling. He was also proud of Edouard Manet’s “Spanish Ballet” (1862) for its “unexpected color accents and linear patterning—reduced modeling and arbitrary lighting.” But for me it has no more formal energy than a shelf of cute dolls in a gift shop.
Soon after Phillips purchased Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” he called it “one of the greatest paintings in the world.” No argument there, but sadly it did not travel to this exhibition. Nor could any other Renoir paintings, because Phillips never bought any more. That painter’s enthusiasm for sensuality probably offended him. One might note the absence of nudes in this exhibition, as well as the absence of Dada, Futurism, Constructivism and Surrealism.
Yet there are many good reasons to visit this show, beginning with a small room dominated by four large paintings by Pierre Bonnard. They are overwhelming with the pleasures of light and color, pulling you into the artist’s private, happy world. Another cheerful piece is a snowy winter village-scape by Alfred Sisley. Phillips declared that Sisley had “a more delicate sensibility than Monet and Pissarro,” with which I’m inclined to agree. Any opportunity to see a Sisley plein-air painting should not be missed.
More serious are works by Kokoschka and Roualt. I had forgotten how raw and uncomfortably real a Kokoschka portrait painting can feel. It’s nothing like images seen on the internet. As one contemporary critic wrote: “What a foul smell emanates from the picture of Frau Dr Franzos!” Kokoschka was twenty-three when he painted this attractive woman of twenty-eight, so it may have been pheromones that he was depicting, along with the blue aura and other energies emanating from her. Roualt’s posthumous portrait of Paul Verlaine presents a very different situation. The great poet of decadence is profiled against the tender and comforting image of the Holy Mother and Child. Verlaine had converted to Roman Catholicism while in prison for shooting his teenage lover, the poet Arthur Rimbaud. Roualt was serious about the church as well. Finished in 1939, this may be the last great Christian painting to enter the canon of European art.
Postmodernist viewers may be thrilled by Paul Klee’s “Tree Nursery.” Painted in 1929, its grid of notational signs is visually boring enough to suggest the presence of a conceptual weight not highly valued for another fifty years. I am more thrilled by the wacky ambivalence of Van Gogh’s “Entrance to the Public Gardens of Arles.” On one hand, it seems to be a happy stroll down a sunlit path toward a garden. On the other, that golden path leads into a dark tunnel lined with somber seated ladies dressed in black. Is this the entrance to a park or a hospice? It presents both great joy and great anxiety.
Phillips’ approach differed from the museum curatorial practice of today. He preferred to hang his diverse collection according to common visual elements. Since this exhibition has been hung chronologically, it’s not possible to gauge the success of his approach. He also appears to have had a strong preference for male artists. Berthe Morisot is the only female artist in this exhibit. (A much greater gender balance may be found upstairs in the Bradley Galleries of modern art). He was also less inclined than contemporary curators to dismiss living artists who painted in outdated styles. The Phillips Collection still owns over eighty oil paintings by Augustus Vincent Tack (1870-1949), an American painter of conventional landscapes and portraits as well as abstractions. Sadly, this exhibition only includes canonical French painters of the late-nineteenth century or the stars of early modernism.
You may call Phillips a dilettante—but in its original usage, that word just denoted a person who takes delight in certain things—for which no one should be disparaged, especially if you can take delight from those same things yourself. I just wish that this slice of his collection had more distinctive art by second-rate artists, instead of so much second-rate art by great ones. As a “retinal” collector, Phillips himself might have agreed. (Chris Miller)
“A Modern Vision: European Masterworks from the Phillips Collection,” Milwaukee Art Museum, 700 North Art Museum Drive, through March 22, 2020.