Monday, December 26, 2016

The Goldfinch: Truth in Art and Life

Carel Fabritius, The Goldfinch, 1654
"We have art in order to not die for the truth."  Donna Tartt quotes Nietzche in the opening of one of her chapters in The Goldfinch, an epic journey of life novel.  It's taken me all year, but finally, I've finished reading The Goldfinch (need a long plane trip to do that).  The entire drama is centered around a missing painting, or, shall we say, a stolen painting in the hands of the narrator. It's interesting that Donna Tartt chose a painting to be the symbol of her protagonist. I always enjoy reading books that center around a painting.  Usually these books imagine the fictions that influenced the creation of the paintings, books by Sarah Dunant (In the Company of the Courtesan) and Tracy Chevalier (Girl with a Pearl Earring).

But this novel is not about how or why the painting was made.  It is about the journey of the painting and it's presumed caretaker, what it does for him through his growing years and into several years of adulthood.  It is a symbol of his life, his hopes and the man he became.

The Goldfinch -- the painting -- somehow made me think of my mother when I gave her a reproduction of the painting as a birthday gift about 12 years ago. (She loved it.) While I've used BIRDS and images of birds in Art Appreciation classes, I've never used this tiny painting by Carel Fabritius.  (Surprisingly, the book indicates it was actually the signpost for a tavern.)  The birds I show in class -- by Brancusi, Wyeth, Homer, Ma Fen, Klee -- are in flight or in action--eating, chirping.  Fabritius' Goldfinch is a bird chained on a pedestal. He's stationary--as if saying "I am."

At one point, the author gives a hint of original purpose for the painting, that it was a signpost for a tavern.  (I haven't verified this history.  That's the type of things art historians write about, but Tartt writes about the painting in a much more interesting way.)

Because I'm not a literary scholar, I can't go into the virtues of Tartt's writing. But I can say that she understands why we need art in our lives.  The quotes she uses in the book are full of wisdom about the intersection of art and humankind, art and life, truth and life.  She understands art as well as any art historian.  Here are some quotes from the book:

"If our secrets define us as opposed to the face we show the world: then painting was the secret that raised me above the surface of life and enabled me to know who I am."

The book is written from the voice of the protagonist, Theo Decker, starting when he's a 13-year old.  His life is a traumatic one, and he soon becomes an orphan.

"If every great painting is really a self-portrait what if anything is Fabritius saying about himself?"  (Here's the other blog I wrote about birds by multiple artists.)

She describes qualities the goldfinch has that are like human qualities: "It's hard not to see the human in the finch. Dignified, vulnerable. One prisoner looking at another." Later on Tartt writes: "... even a child can see its dignity: thimble of bravery, all fluff and brittle bone.  Not timid, not even hopeless, but steady and holding it's place. Refusing to pull back from the world."

Before coming to this conclusion, the protagonist makes these astute observations about life:

"Can't good sometimes come from strange back doors?"

"Coincidence is God's way of remaining anonymous."

As Theo goes through so many trials and tribulations, we think that it'll end in tragedy and that he'll be doomed.  Of Theo's relationship to Pippa, the narrator says: "Since our flaws and weaknesses were so much the same, and one of us could bring the other one down way too quick."  It seems this truth is often the case in many relationships. Kitsey, to whom Theo is engaged, seems quite the opposite of Theo in so many ways, shallow and disengaged.  Do such opposites anchor each other and keep them from going to deeply in the wrong direction?   (The answer, well, is that his transformation comes without her in the picture)

Tartt also makes us think about beauty and truth.

"Beauty alters the grain of reality."

"It's not about outward appearances but inward significance."  The narrator explains at the end that the "only truths that matter are the ones I don't, and I can't, understand." So what does the painting mean for him?  "Patch of sunlight on a yellow wall. The loneliness that separate every living creature from every other living creature,"  This description can be applied to the goldfinch, and how Theo sees his life.

"There's no truth beyond illusion.  Because between reality on the one hand, the where the mind strikes reality, there's a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not; and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic."

On p. 569, Horst describes the Fabritius painting: "It's a joke....and that's what all the very greatest masters do. Rembrandt, Velazquez. Late Titian.....They build up the illusion, the trick--but step closer? it falls apart into brushstrokes. Abstract, unearthly.  A different and much deeper sort of beauty altogether.  The thing and yet not the thing."  "There's a doubleness.  You see the mark, you see the paint for the paint, and also the living bird."  "He takes the image apart very deliberately to show us how he painted it. Daubs and patches, very shaped and handworked, the neckline especially, a solid piece of paint, very abstract."   What lovely descriptions of the intersection of realism and abstraction.

Why is The Goldfinch so touching to so many people, both the book and the painting?  Theo and Tartt express deep appreciation for the restoration specialists, like Hobie, Theo's caretaker and business partner.  Hobie lovingly bring works back to their original state. In the book, there's an intersection between truth and illusion, but there's also the understanding that great art is at once realistic and abstract.

The Goldfinch is a trompe l'oiel painting, but it is so much more.

"Its the slide of transubstantiation where paint is paint and yet also feather and bone.  It's the place where reality becomes serious and anything serious is a joke.  The magic point where every idea and it's opposite are equally true."   As I often say, art is about the reconciliation of opposites, and Theo and Tartt achieve this in The Goldfinch.    I'm also wanting and waiting for a sequel.

Another blogger, Gerry in Great Britain, did a tremendous job of explaining Fabritius and his painting.  Fabritius, a pupil of Rembrandt stands in between his teacher and the master of Delft, Vermeer.    Vermeer's simplicity could not be imagined without The Goldfinch, and one wonders if he was in fact Vermeer's teacher.  Fabritius lived in Delft at the time of his death in in 1654.  He died in a gunpowder explosion when he was only 32.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Élisabeth Louise Vigee-Le Brun: Confident Prodigy Became an International Sensation

Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, Self-Portrait with Cerise Ribbons, c. 1782, Kimbell Art Museum
Vigée-Le Brun: Woman Artist of Revolutionary France is major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum until May 15.  Élisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun's Self-Portrait from the Kimbell Art Museum explains her quite well. She shines with the confidence and elegance of a woman who would eventually become an international superstar. It shows off her top-notch artistic skills. Touches of brilliant red for the ribbon, sash, lips and cheeks to add sensual pizzaz. Portraits are not my favorite genre of painting, but Vigée-Le Brun's portraits are always dazzling. The light radiating through her earring is just the right touch. One reason we never hear her mentioned among France's top ten or twenty painters is that she was a painter of royalty who supported the wrong side of the French Revolution.  It is only last year that France gave her a major retrospective, although her international reputation was strong back in her day.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Rebecca Kamen Continues Her Scientific Explorations Through Art

Rebecca Kamen, NeuroCantos, an installation at Greater Reston Arts Center 

Six years ago, The Elemental Garden, an exhibition at Greater Reston Arts Center (GRACE) prompted me to start blogging about art. Like TED talks, the news of something so visually fascinating and mentally stimulating as Rebecca Kamen's integration of art with sciences needs to spread.  GRACE presented her work in 2009 and did a followup exhibition, Continuum, which closed February 13, 2016.

Rebecca Kamen, Lobe, Digital print of silkscreen, 15" x 22"
Like the Elemental Garden, Kamen's new works visually evoke and replicate scientific principles.  For the non-scientist and the scientist, the works and their presentation are fascinating.  Kamen worked with a British poet and a composer/musician from Portland, Oregon, each with similar intellectual interests.

Two prints included in the show create a dialogue between her design and the words of poet Steven Fowler. I like how the idea of gray matter is overlapped by darker conduits, in Lobe, above.  There's a wonderful sense of density and depth.

While her last exhibition at GRACE was mainly about the Periodic table in chemistry, this time Rebecca Kamen's exhibition included additional themes such as neural connectivity, gravitational pull, black holes and other mysteries of the universe.  Why use art to talk about science?  In a statement for Continuum, Kamen starts with a quote by Einstein: "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science."

Both art and science are creative endeavors that start with questions. One time Kamen told me that she knows there is some connection between the design of the human brain and the design of the solar system, that has not yet been explained. NeuroCantos, the installation shown in the photo on top, explores this relationship. Floating, hanging cone-like structures made of mylar represent the neuronal networks in the brain, while circular shapes below symbolize the similarity of pattern between the brain and outer space, the micro and macro scales. It investigates "how the brain creates a conduit between inner and outer space through its ability to perceive similar patterns of complexity," Kamen explained in an interview for SciArt in America, December 2015. The installation brings together neuroscience and astrophysics, but it's initial spark came from a dialogue with poet Fowler. (They met as fellows at the Salzburg Global Seminar last February and participated in a 5-day seminar exploring The Art of Neuroscience.)

Rebecca Kamen, Portals, 2014, Mylar and fossils
Nearby another installation, Portals, also features suspended cones hanging over orbital patterns on the floor.  The installation interprets the tracery patterns of the orbits of black holes, and it celebrates the 100th anniversary of Einstein's discovery of general relativity. It's inspired by gravitational wave physics. To me, it's just beautiful. I can't pretend to really understand the rest. The entire exhibit is collaborative in nature, with Susan Alexjander, composer, recreating sounds originating from outer space.  The combination of sound, slow movement and suspension is mesmerizing.

Terry Lowenthal made a video projection of "Moving Poems" excerpts from Steven Fowler's poems and a quote from Santiago Ramon y Cajal, artist and neuroscientist.

There are also earlier works by Kamen, mainly steel and wire sculptures.  With names like Synapse, Wave Ride: For Albert and Doppler Effect, they obviously mimic scientific effects as she interprets them.  Doppler Effect, 2005, appears to replicate sound waves drawing contrast in how they are experienced from near or far away.
Rebecca Kamen, Doppler Effect, 2005, steel and copper wire


Kamen is Professor Emeritus at Northern Virginia Community College.  She has been an artist-in-residence at the National Institutes of Health. She did research Harvard's Center for Astrophysics and at the Cajal Institute in Madrid. Her art has been featured throughout the country; while her thoughts and concepts  have been shared around the world.

For more information, check out www.rebeccakamen.com, www.oursounduniverse.com (Susan Alexjander) and www.stevenjfowler.com


The Elemental Garden 


Elemental Garden, 2011, mylar, fiberglass rods

To the left is a version of The Elemental Garden in Continuum.  An identical version is in the educational program of the Taubman Museum of Art, Roanoke, VA.

(The following is how I described it while writing the original blog back in 2010) Sculptor Rebecca Kamen has taken the elemental table to create a wondrous work of art. The beautiful floating universe of Divining Nature: The Elemental Garden--recently shown at Greater Reston Area Arts Center (GRACE)--is based on the formulas of 83 elements in chemistry. Its amazing that an artist can transform factual information into visual poetry with a lightweight, swirling rhythm of white flowers.

According to Kamen, she had the inspiration upon returning home from Chile. After 2 years of research, study and contemplation, she built 3-dimensional flowers based upon the orbital patterns of each atom of all 83 elements in nature, using Mylar to form the petals and thin fiberglass rods to hold each flower together. The 83 flowers vary in size, with the simplest elements being smallest and the most complex appearing larger. The infinite variety of shapes is like the varieties possible in snowflakes; the uniform white mylar material connects them, but individually they are quite different.


Rebecca Kamen, The Elemental Garden, 2009, as installed in GRACE in 2009 (from artist's website)
One could walk in the garden and feel a mystical sensation in the arrangement of flowers, as intriguing as the "floral arrangement" of each single element. After awhile I discovered that the atomic flowers were installed in a pattern based upon the spiral pattern of Fibonacci's sequence. Medieval writer Leonardo Fibonacci and ancient Indian mathematicians had discovered the divine proportion present in nature. This mystical phenomenon explains the spirals we see in nature: the bottom of a pine cone, the spirals of shells and the interior of sunflowers among other things. Greeks also created this pattern in the "golden section" which defines the measured harmony of their architecture. Kamen wanted to replicate this beauty found in nature


Kamen likened her flowers to the pagodas she had seen in Burma. However, there is an even more interesting, interdisciplinary connection. Research on the Internet brought Kamen to a musician, Susan Alexjander of Portland, OR, who composes music derived from Larmor Frequencies (radio waves)emitted from the nuclei of atoms and translated into tone. Alexjander collaborated, also, and her sound sequences were included with the installation. Putting music and art together with science mirrors the universe and it is pure pleasure to experience this mystery of creation.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Isamu Noguchi, Biomorphic Art and Design

Isamu Noguchi, Trinity, 1945, Gregory, 1948, Strange Bird (To the Sunflower)
Photo taken from the Hirshhorn's Facebook page
Biomorphic and anthropomorphic themes run through quite a few exhibitions of modern artists in Washington at the moment.  The Hirshhorn's Marvelous Objects: Surrealist Sculpture from Paris to New York has several of the abstract, biomorphic Surrealists such as Miro and Calder.  The wonderful exhibition will come to a close after this weekend.

Isamu Noguchi's many sculptures that are part of Marvelous Objects deal with an unexpected part of the artist's life and work. Noguchi was interned in a prison camp in Arizona for Japanese-Americans during World War II. Whatever the horrors of his experience, he dealt with it as an artist does -- making art and using creativity to express the experience by transforming it. 

Isamu Noguchi, Lunar Landscape, 1944
Lunar landscape comes from immediately after this difficult time period. The artist explained, "The memory of Arizona was like that of the moon... a moonscape of the mind...Not given the actual space of freedom, one makes its equivalent -- an illusion within the confines of a room or a box -- where imagination may roam, to the further limits of possibility and to the moon and beyond."   It's like taking tragedy and turning it into magic.

Strange Bird (To the Sunflower), 1945 Noguchi Museum, NY

The most interesting piece from this period is Strange Bird (To the Sunflower), 1945.  It is pictured here 2x -- on top photo, right side, and from a different angle on the left, from a photo in the Noguchi Museum. Between 1945 and 1948, Noguchi made a series of fantastic hybrid creatures that he called memories of humanity "transfigurative archetypes and magical distillations."  Yet the simplicity and the Zen quality I expect to see in his work is gone from this time of his life.

From the beginning of time, "humans have wanted a unifying vision by which to see the chaos of our world.  Artists fulfill this role," said Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto.

I'm reminded of the ancient Greeks who created satyrs and centaurs to deal with their animal nature.  At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there's a small Greek sculpture of a man and centaur from about 750 BCE, the Geometric period.  The  man confronting the centaur seems to be taming him or subduing his own animal nature. Like Noguchi's sculpture, it has hybrid forms and angularity, but it's made of bronze.  Noguchi's sculpture is of smooth green slate, which gives it much of its beauty and polish.
Man and Centaur, bronze, 4-3/4" mid-8th century BCE Metropolitan Museum


Noguchi was a landscape architect as well as a sculptor. When designing gardens, he rarely used sculpture other than his own.  Yet he bought garden seats by ceramicist Karen Karnes.  A pair of these benches by Karnes are now on display at the National Museum for Women in the Arts' exhibition of design visionaries.  Looking closely, one sees how she used flattened, hand-rolled coils of clay to build her chairs.  The craftsmanship is superb.  It's easy to see how her aesthetic fit into Noguchi's refined vision of nature.
Karen Karnes, Garden seats, ceramic, from the Museum of Arts in Design, now at NMWA
Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft and Design, Midcentury and Today is the current large-scale exhibition at National Museum for Women in the Arts-- on view until February 28.   So much in NMWA's exhibition continues the anthropomorphic and biomorphic qualities noticed in Isamu Noguchi's sculpture. It includes fiber artists and ceramic artists of the 20th century and today, an international group of women who have shaped the world of design. Scandinavian fabric designers and Native American ceramicists from the Southwest are brought together, along with Anni Albers, who brought German design ideas to America.  Here's a wonderful explanation of the exhibition, with a good summary of the major artists covered.   Even the works of furniture and fixture designers are on display, too.


Ruth Asawa, Form-Within-Form Sculpture, 1952, at NMWA
(This exhibition  encourages photo taking, so the following pictures are from my cell phone.)

There's an interesting piece by Ruth Asawa. It's a delicate wire crochet that hangs as a sculpture. It's interior and exterior forms are seemingly drawn in the air.  A photo found online shows here surrounded by her children and several of the sculptures.  The interior forms are like babies in the womb.

Asawa, a  Japanese-American artist, like Isamu Noguchi, had been in a prison camp during World War I, when she would have been in high school.  It was there that other prisoners taught her to draw. After the war, Asawa studied at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, as did other artists in the show.

When she reflected on the experience of internment Asawa said:  "I hold no hostilities for what happened; I blame no one. Sometimes good comes through adversity. I would not be who I am today had it not been for the Internment, and I like who I am."  Asawa settled in San Francisco and became an advocate for the arts in education. The DeYoung Museum of Art held a major retrospective of her work in 2006.

Eva Zeisel, candlesticks and Pepper and Salt Shaker, at NMWA



Many of the ceramic artists who really take their cues from the human body.   Perhaps the most famous of them is  Eva Zeisel, who was born in Hungary but had a long and distinguished career in beginning in Germany and then the United States.  Her works have been sold by Crate and Barrel, Design Within Reach, Red Wing Pottery and Hall China Company.  For more information see theNMWA's blog at broadstrokes.org.

Eva Zeisel, Gravy Boat at NMWA's Pathmaker's exhibition


I like her Salt Shaker and Pepper Shakers and her candlesticks which have lovely flowing curves.  Zeisel's designs were picked up by major American china companies of the 20th century.   The most sensual of pieces to me, however, is a delicate white gravy boat.  Its handle reminded me of lips, and I think of how ancient Greek pottery is usually described by the neck, shoulders, belly, mouth and foot.



Eva Zeisel's Belly Button Room Divider was a model made of ceramic and metal rods, but it was never manufactured.  The colors shock and glow.  It's a nice change from all the subdued colors and also a blast of fun.  It seems like Zeisel had a wonderful sense of humor.   (Many of the works in this blog have important points of comparison with my last blog about Louise Bourgeois.)

Eve Zeisel, Belly Button Room Divider, 1957

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Louise Bourgeois, Abstraction and Archetypes in Modern Sculpture

"Contemporary and ancient art are like oil and water, seemingly opposite poles....now I have found the two melding ineffably into one, more like water and air."  Hiroshi Sugimoto, Japanese artist
Louise Bourgeois, Untitled, 1952, Spring, 1949 and Mortise, 1950 National Gallery of Art


Two separate exhibitions in Washington at the moment illustrate the commonality of modern art and prehistoric -- especially in sculpture.  The me, that theme resonates with two sculptors who lived through most of the 20th century, Louise bourgeois and Isamu Noguchi.  The National Gallery has a two-room exhibition Louise Bourgeois:No Exit, and Noguchi (hopefully in another blog)'s works are part of the Hirshhorn's exhibition, Marvelous Objects: Surrealist Sculpture from Paris to New York.

Constantin Brancusi, Endless Column,1937


Three sculptures by Bourgeois in the National Gallery are what she called personages.  As a whole they're not unlike the archetypal images of Henry Moore or Constantin Brancusi.  Among these three works are a group of three piles of stones resting on stilts.  It's one of the Bourgeois sculptures that
Barbara Hepworth, Figure in Landscape,cast 1965
appears simple and somewhat primitive.  Untitled is above on the left.  The stones stand tall and top heavy; they seem to be wearing big hats.  I'm reminded of the precarious state of human existence. I am also thinking of the top-heavy candidates in the recent Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, weak on bottom and they may fall. Aesthetically these works form a link to Brancusi's birds on pedestals and the Endless Column, Targu Jui, Romania, part of a memorial for fallen soldiers in World War I.

The sculpture of Spring center above is reminiscent of a woman, or of the ancient Venus figures, which date to the Paleolithic era, around 20,000 BCE.  It can be compared the the elongated marble burial figures from prehistoric, Cycladic Greece as well.
"Venus" figures from Dolni Vestinici, Willendorf, Austria and Lespuge, France


A version of Alberto Giacometti's bronze Spoon Woman from the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas is in the surrealist exhibition (Example below from Art Institute of Chicago). Giacometti made this archetypal image in 1926/27, but the bronze was cast in 1954.  Henry Moore's Interior and Exterior Forms, is a theme he did over and over, is an archetype of the mother and child

Giacometti, Spoon Woman, 1926/27, cast 1954
In 1967, the Museum Ludwig, founded by chocolate manufacturers in Cologne, Germany, asked for one of her sculptures to be replicated in a single large piece of chocolate.  She chose Germinal, its name suggestive of germination and new beginnings.  (Germinal is also the name of Emile Zola's famous French novel of 19th century coal minors.  I wouldn't put it past her to be referring to the story, but don't have an idea as to how and why)
Germinal, 1967, promised gift of Dian Woodner, copyright


Bourgeois, who died in 2010, lived to be 98 years. She continually worked and invented anew. In time, I think she will be considered a giant among the sculptors of the 20th century, on par with Moore, Brancusi and Calder.  Her art was more varied than the others and she defied categorization and/or predictability.  However, certain themes seemed to carry her for long periods of time, such as the personages of her early to middle period and the cells she did late in her life.  She worked both vary large and very small and with an infinite variety of materials including fiber. She grew up in a family which worked in the tapestry business, primarily repairing antique tapestries.  To her, making art was making reparations making peace with the past.  Some wish to put her in the category of Surrealism, but she calls herself an Existentialist, in the philosophical realm of Jean-Paul Sartre.  Looking at some of the drawings in the National Gallery and how she explained it does give a clue into the existential thoughts and feelings.

Spider, 2003 (not in exhibition)
One of Bourgeois's best-known themes was the spider, having done several monumental statues in public places.  The spider stands for the protective mother, and her version of the archetype, as it also alludes to the weaving activity in her family.   It is large and embracing but can also have a dark side.  I like best the spiders that combine the metal sculpture with the delicate tapestry figures.  The delicacy and litheness of her spider people remind me of the wonderful organic acrobat sculptures from ancient Crete.

Bull-leaping acrobat, ivory, from Palace at Knossos, Crete, c. 1500 BCE
Bourgeois deals with metaphors.  She calls sculpture the architecture of memory.  She is poetic, but she's also quite humorous.   She also made a sculpture series of giant eyes.  She describes eyes mirrors reflecting various realities.  I'm reminded that in ancient times, the eyes were the mirrors of  a person's soul. As different as her works may be, she portrays a consistent voice and aesthetic throughout her career.
Eye Bench, 1996-97, Olympic Sculpture Park, Seattle

When I went to the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle back in 2010, a friend of mine from California and I came upon her Eye Benches.  We sat down and enjoyed it.   She designed three different sets of eye benches made of granite.  In the end, it seems Bourgeois used her art to make sense of her very complicated world and our experience of that world. Sometimes she seems to laugh at it all, so this experience calls for a good laugh and relaxation.
Louise Bourgeois, Eye Bench, Olympic Sculpture Park, Seattle.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Gauguin, Picasso, Rouault and Split Identities in the Phillips' show

Paul Gauguin, NAFAE faaipoipo  (When Will You Marry?) 1892
 Rudolph Staechelin Collection
The Phillips Collection's latest loan exhibition, "Gauguin to Picasso: Masterworks from Switzerland," draws upon a pair of collections assembled by two prominent but very different Swiss art collectors. To me, the theme of dualism, pairs and split identities stands out strongly.  The exhibition highlights one of Gauguin's most famous paintings, When are You to be Married? -- a painting that recently was sold.  (The Staechelin and Im Oberstag collections of modern art are normally on display at the Basel Kunstmuseum. Here's an article for background on the collectors why the paintings are traveling.) 

Like so many other paintings by Gauguin, the two women in this infamous painting express two realities, which could represent the split identities within Tahitian society. He painted it during his first stay in Tahiti in 1892. The woman in front is natural, organic, relaxed and colorful in her red skirt. The orchid in her hair was said to suggest that she is looking for a mate.  A woman behind is taller, more severe and covered in a pink dress buttoned to the top--an influence of Western missionaries. The woman in back has a bigger head than the woman in front.  Does he mean to imply that she dominates? Or, is Gauguin imagining a single Tahitian woman who is torn between her native identity and the invasion of western civilization.


Eugene Delacroix, Women of Algiers, 1834, The Louvre
The woman in front may be inspired by one of the very beautiful, sensual women painted in Delacroix's Women of Algiers, one of my all-time favorite paintings. (Delacroix was allowed into the mayor's harem to sketch the women--pictured at right.  Like Gauguin, Delacroix was European observing women in an exotic, foreign land.)

Gauguin, Self-Portrait, 1889, NGA



In his self-portraits and so much of his art, Gauguin expresses the split nature in mankind, the areas where there is inner conflict. Symbolist Self-Portrait at the National Gallery of Art (NGA), Washington, is a divided person, both a saint and a sinner.  He has a choice in the matter, and we wonder what he'll choose.

The two Tahitian women are different, yet blended.  Warm brown skin tones unite them and the hot red skirt of the "natural" native woman flawlessly flows into the warm pink of the stiffer, "civilized" woman. The colors blend and contrast simultaneously into a beautiful harmony.  (Is it surprising that this picture was the most expensive painting ever sold?  Rumor has it that it was purchased by a Qatari for Qatar Museums.)
Georges Rouault, Landscape with Red Sail, 1939, Im Obersteg Foundation, permanent loan to the Kunstmuseum Basel. Photo © Mark Gisler, Müllheim. Image © 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Other artists in this exhibition continue the theme of duality and split personality. Early 20th century Expressionist Georges Rouault was honest about his identity as a person belonging in another century, the age of the cathedrals.  His heavily-outlined Landscape with Red Sail uses colors reminiscent of the colors in stained glass and the way stained glass is divided by lines of lead. Yet, his paint is applied in a very rough, heavy manner, hardly like the smoothness of glass. His beautiful seascape does, however, evoke the light of a sunset peaking behind the sailboat--like the light filtering in medieval churches.

Alexej Jawlensky, Self-Portrait, 1911 Im Obersteg Collection

The Expressionist painter Alexej von Jawlensky was a Russian living in Switzerland, in exile there during World War I.  There's a haunting quality to his Self-Portrait, left. Jawlensky and Im Obersteg had a strong friendship throughout his career.

One side of a Picasso painting features a woman in a Post-Impressionist style, "Woman At the Theatre," and the other side has a sad woman, The Absinthe Drinker, from the beginning of the "Blue period." Both were painted in 1901. They could not be more different from each other.  Picasso  was very experimental at that
Picasso, The Absinthe Drinker, 1901 Im Obersteg Collection

time of his life and in his career.

Expressionism is a large part of the exhibition, especially with Wassily Kandinsky, Chaim Soutine, Marc Chagall and Alexej von Jawlinsky.  Swiss Symbolist Ferdinand Hodler shares with us his experience of love and death in a group of paintings of his dying lover Valentine Gode-Darel.  It is difficult to watch and for him painting may have been an attempt to make peace with the awful situation.  

The series of paintings by Hodler are some of the most powerful in the exhibition because we experience the unfolding of a tragedy.  Gode-Darel died of cancer in
Ferdinand Hodler, The Patient, painted 1914, dated 1915. The Rudolf Staechelin Collection © Kunstmuseum Basel, Martin P. Bühler
1915, a year after diagnosis.  The three paintings of rabbis by Marc Chagall continue in the theme of portraiture.

There are very fine small paintings by Cezanne, Monet, Manet, Renoir and Pissaro, two beautiful landscapes by Maurice de Vlaminck. Van Gogh's, The Garden of Daubigny, 1890 is one of three he did of the same subject weeks before his death. The black cat in the painting is small but curiously out of place. The 60 paintings on view, on view until January 10 -- are worth the trip to the Phillips. Here are some of the best photographs of the paintings in the show. These Swiss collections complement the Phillips own marvelous collection of early Modernism.  It is curious that the Swiss collections don't show the greatest of all 20th century Swiss artists, Paul Klee. 

Vincent Van Gogh. The Garden of Daubigny, 1890  Rudolf Staechelin Collection