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ART REVIEW : Duncan Phillips Collection: Romantic Idealism Led Astray

April 06, 1993|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

Nestled not far from Washington's magisterial monuments is a small museum that looks like a private home. It's the beloved Phillips Collection, which attracts art lovers to this day, despite the competition of the behemoths on the mall.

Now a selection of some 60 works from its collection are on view at Westwood's Armand Hammer Museum and Cultural Center under the title "Duncan Phillips Collects: Paris Between the Wars."

The idea for the showplace came to Duncan Phillips, the son of a Pittsburgh steel family, in 1918. A poet, writer and collector, he wanted, altruistically, to create a museum devoted to living artists. According to a catalogue essay by curator Elizabeth Hutton Turner, Phillips--a tweedy patrician in the British mold--was at heart a romantic. He was bent on celebrating the personal vision of the artist as one who sees "differently," sees "beautifully" and produces imagery with the power to "enchant."

One of the things that attracts people to the fruits of his desire was both his success and failure in sticking to his program. Like Boston's wonderfully wacky Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Phillips is more a portrait of the collectors' taste and enthusiasm than a scholarly compendium. And thank goodness. Otherwise the collection would not bang about as it does from El Greco's moving "The Repentant Peter" to Renoir's masterpiece of the bohemian good life, "The Luncheon of the Boating Party."

It would not encompass both the scruffy humanism of the American Ashcan School and the avant-garde rebellion of the School of Paris--the latter being the subject of this show, which concentrates numerically on Pierre Bonnard, Georges Rouault, Raoul Dufy and Georges Braque with cameo appearances by a gaggle of other masters as varied as Amedeo Modigliani or Pablo Picasso.

Phillips came late to fast-track modernism. In 1913 he wrote that Matisse was "not only crude but deliberately false." In 1927 he recanted, labeling him "the brilliant descendant of a great Oriental tradition."

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Anybody who likes the Nabis master, Bonnard, will find the lovely group of his works on view reason enough to visit the Hammer.

Bonnard, for all his virtually willful posturing as as lightly bumbling minor intimist, was a painter of keen eye, sure touch and exquisitely nuanced feelings.

His largest canvas here is "The Palm." It shows a woman's head against the light sheltered by a frond. Then the composition opens up to a deep landscape view of a village in the background. The orchestration of a pastel palette is so closely worked that the image seems flooded with light and air.

In contrast, the very small "Woman With Dog" is set in a shadowed interior that makes color darker and more pungent. A pensive lady in a stripped red frock sits behind the dining table with a dachshund in her lap eyeing the remains of a meal. Relaxed and slightly disharmonic, it's like an eccentric ditty by Erik Satie. Significantly, this was Phillips' first acquisition from the School of Paris. It makes a remarkably easy transition from the American Ashcan School and suggests that their shared love of commonplace life and painterly tradition represented an authentic part of what Phillips both liked and understood.

From that point in the show things go rather sharply downhill. Phillips can't be blamed for his attraction to artists like Rouault and Dufy. At the time, they seemed like men with something to say and a distinctive way of articulating it.

Rouault had the guts to reintroduce religious ideas into a secular art. Using his morality play cast of circus characters and rendering them to resemble Romanesque enamels, he created an impression of brooding seriousness.

Dufy, by radical contrast, looked like the apogee of the light touch the world admired in French art from Boucher to Marcel Vertes.

The introduction of any art that looks radically new seems to suspend the normal rules of visual grammar. For a while there's an exhilarating sense that anything goes. People are so caught up in the sheer newness of the art it takes them a while to say, "Wait a minute. Picasso's radical imagery is as structured as a skeleton while Roualt's looks as turgid as a leaky mud bath. Matisse's joie de vivre sits on foundations with bedrock in the ancient world. Dufy's is all fizz and no champagne, charming but as disposable as pastel Kleenex."

Phillips' romantic idealism sometimes led him astray. He sensed the rightness of traditional painting underpinning a Cubist abstraction by Juan Gris. His humanism was on sure ground with Modigliani's long-necked bohemian waifs. More French Ashcan School.

But his weakness for distinctive personality sang him a siren song. He floundered on a gaggle of Braque post-Cubist still lifes from a weak, decorative period when the work was as harmlessly poignant as faded wallpaper. By the time he got to Giorgio di Chirico, the artist had substituted horsepower for contemplation.

Phillips seemed determined to do the right thing even when he didn't know what he was doing. Admirable conviction left him with some forgettable art. It also paints a memorable image of him as a good American Henry James character honorably negotiating the wiles of Old Europe.

* Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center, 10899 Wilshire Blvd.; through May 23, closed Mondays . (310) 443-7000 .

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