An eclectic eyeful

Special to The Times

The people who run museums like exhibitions like “Renoir to Matisse: The Eye of Duncan Phillips” because they’re profitable. Ticket prices go up (to $20 on weekends, in this case), and if things go as planned, so does attendance. For cash-strapped institutions, it’s good business.

Such shows are also easy to organize. Once the business affairs department works out the percentages, renting an exhibition from another institution (here the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.) is basically one-stop shopping, which limits curatorial decisions to the bare minimum.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Oct. 30, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 30, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
LACMA exhibit -- The three photos in Friday’s Calendar section with the review of “Renoir to Matisse: The Eye of Duncan Phillips” were credited to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. They should have been credited to the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Of course, that’s not what museums say to the public. The official line is that they are bringing priceless masterpieces to audiences who would not otherwise see them, abolishing elitism and educating the public. That’s good for viewers, good for art, good for the city and good for the museum.


Many viewers agree. They are happy to see first- and second-rate paintings by the French Impressionists, not to mention Van Gogh and Picasso, for no reason other than pleasure. They have a point. There’s nothing like standing before such works and being transported to another time and place, or more deeply into the present.

But others grumble. We tend to visit museums more frequently than art tourists. And we believe that exhibitions are visual arguments that make philosophical propositions, not high-brow entertainments designed to increase the take at the gate.

The debate wouldn’t matter if blockbusters were to go bust. That hasn’t happened (although signs of their demise are beginning to appear), but it’s interesting to consider how museums that base programming on commercial models will change if profit margins shrink.

When I visited “Renoir to Matisse” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last Friday afternoon, the galleries were not crowded with visitors. The six rooms seemed even emptier because of how they are hung. In a few instances, the most popular of the 53 European paintings from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries are spread evenly among less-famous works. In many cases, however, the most recognizable paintings are given so much space that it appears as if some works have been removed, or not yet installed.

Other walls look comically unbalanced, such as the one on which a nearly 5-foot-tall picture of Cubist clutter by Georges Braque dwarfs a serene 8-inch-high-by-15-inch-wide bottle painting by Giorgio Morandi. Another disproportionate space counterposes two works by Paul Cezanne with a super-sized quotation from Phillips stuck to the mustard-colored wall like a high-end bumper sticker. The only cramped gallery features artists who are not household names, including Lyonel Feininger, Oskar Kokoschka and Franz Marc, all of who worked in styles without the fanfare of Impressionism or Cubism.

The oddest setup is the octagonal room in which three great paintings by Vincent van Gogh are hung, one each from 1888, 1889 and 1890 (the year he died), painted in Arles, Saint-Remy and Auvers. Two big, purple velvet sofas rest in the middle of the gray-walled room. Far from the intimately scaled paintings, they are not useful for observation. The dove gray wainscoting is nicely understated, but the trio of arched windows, three angled doorways and a blurry, larger-than-life-size photograph of Phillips and his wife, Marjorie, make the room feel like the foyer to a fraternity house whose members are trying to be tasteful but failing miserably.


Duncan Phillips was a bit of an eccentric. Born in 1886, he began collecting art in his 20s and continued until his death in 1966. In 1921, he opened his home at 1600 21st St. NW in Washington, D.C., as the first U.S. museum dedicated to modern art. (New York’s Museum of Modern Art opened eight years later, with Phillips as a founding member of its board of trustees.)

Many of the best works on view at LACMA were purchased by Phillips in the mid-1920s. Traces of his trial-and-error, do-it-yourself attitude are still visible in the otherwise streamlined show.

The exhibition opens with a lovely little landscape by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, “Genzano.” Painted in 1843, its mix of Realism and artifice anticipates Edouard Manet’s stark artistry, a piercing example of which, “Spanish Ballet,” anchors the second half of the first gallery. Manet’s fierce little painting of dancers in Spanish costumes hangs opposite the most famous painting in the Phillips Collection, Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party.” Despite its secondary position, Manet’s compact picture knocks the stuffing out of Renoir’s overstuffed luncheon.

A similar whiplashing of the senses takes place just beyond the Corot, where a viewer’s eyes pingpong between four muscular images by Honore Daumier and two sketches for murals by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. The earthy Realism of the former contrasts dramatically with the preposterous Idealism of the latter. This suggests the sensibility of a collector drawn to extremes.

Such engaging juxtapositions are not found in the remaining galleries, which feature such textbook groupings as Impressionists Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot and Alfred Sisley; Post-Impressionists Pierre Bonnard, Paul Gauguin and Edouard Vuillard; Expressionists Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Marc; and Cubists Braque, Juan Gris and Pablo Picasso.

As a collector, Phillips was at his best in selecting multiple works by individual artists. Four of the five Cezannes are masterpieces. They are: “Self-Portrait” from the 1870s; a landscape from the 1880s, “Mont Sainte-Victoire”; a still life from the 1890s, “Ginger Pot With Pomegranate and Pears”; and a portrait from 1904, “Seated Woman in Blue.” The fifth is an unfinished study from 1906, “The Garden at Les Lauves.” The three light-drenched Bonnards make luxury all the sweeter for being hard won.


Klee’s five intimate paintings on paper, cardboard, burlap, canvas and a handkerchief are whimsical yet moving, at once profound and cartoonish. And the three Van Goghs -- depicting street workers, “The Road Menders”; a public park, “Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles”; and a farmhouse in a field, “House at Auvers” -- deliver forlorn intensity unlike any other.

Dozens of reasons could explain the lack of visitors that Friday afternoon: ineffective advertising, bad word of mouth, baseball’s playoffs, or the weather (it was sunny). But the small number made me wonder if the market for exhibitions like this might soon be saturated, the public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for paintings by the Impressionists, Van Gogh and Picasso finally sated.

There would be some poetic justice to that: Museums, having dumbed down their programming so effectively, could make the public too discriminating to go for the same old shows. I began to hope that if such income-generating exhibitions stopped turning a profit, museums would take more risks; they would organize more adventuresome exhibitions, connoisseurship would count, original arguments would be put forth and the corporate atmosphere that prevails today would be sent packing, back to the world of big business from whence it came.

Until then, a visit to “Renoir to Matisse” is well worth your while. You can’t go wrong with an exhibition that is basically a checklist of greatest hits. And if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to look at paintings without a crowd, which is always more satisfying than squeezing between people to peer over someone’s shoulder.

As for the “Renoir to Matisse” part of the show’s title, it makes no sense chronologically. To be accurate in terms of the paintings’ dates, it would have to be “Corot to Morandi.” If it referred to the years Phillips purchased the paintings, it would be “Daumier to Monet.” But instead of the curious sequences of works such pairings call to mind, visitors are left with a title that’s all about marketing.


‘Renoir to Matisse: The Eye of Duncan Phillips’

Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd.

When: Noon to 8 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays; noon to 9 p.m. Fridays; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekends. Closed Wednesdays.


Ends: Ends Jan. 9

Price: Adults, $17 weekdays, $20 weekends; seniors and students, $14 weekdays, $17 weekends; children free

Contact: (323) 857-6000