Once we’d completed the rounds of the Barnes Collection, our next stop was the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a short but frigid trek up the road under afternoon skies that were still bright with winter sunlight. As we approached the Museum, the presence of Rocky Balboa was inescapable: the “Rocky Run” was in preparation, and the park in front of the museum was lined with port-a-sans and crowd control barriers. As we got close to the iconic steps of the Museum, we could see what looked like choreographed relay sprints: young men, one at a time, taking the steps up to the Museum at a run. Our Australian friends, who’ve apparently never seen the Rocky films either, were perplexed. Even after we explained why there was all this athletic activity in front of the Museum, they remained somewhat perplexed. Sensible people, I’ve always thought.
The collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art are vast in scope, but with little time left in our day’s adventure, we elected to focus our energy on what we love best. Accordingly, we headed straight for the Modern and Contemporary Galleries on the first floor.
Of course, that path sent us through the galleries devoted to European art from the latter half of the nineteenth century. I’d have thought I’d had my fill of Impressionists by that point. And I’ll admit I didn’t tarry over the Cézannes for long and passed the Renoirs without a glance. But there was an irresistible selection of works by Monet lining the walls, and those did stop my progress—especially, of course, the scenes from Giverny. To the left is a picture of one of the two Japanese footbridges at Giverny that I snapped while we were there last May, and I offer it as a starting point for a look at the two versions of the scene that were on show in Philadelphia.
The first of these two, The Japanese Footbridge and the Water Lily Pool, Giverny, is among the most naturalistic renditions of the lily pond at Giverny that I’ve come across. Obviously, much has changed at Giverny in the course of a hundred years, but the overall effect of the scene as painted here does take too much imaginative adjustment. The day I took the photograph was overcast, and so the quality of light, so important to any Monet canvas, makes a huge difference. But one could almost see this painting as a realist interpretation with Impressionist overtones. What the comparison highlights for me, though, is how the real beauty of the painting does emanate precisely from the treatment of light. The gentle illumination of the willows and the pond below the bridge suggest early morning, and the hints of red reflected in the water in front of the bridge may suggest that sunrise is not far past. But even apart from this “decoding” of the painting’s moment, it is the light that makes the emotional connection for me. Despite the thrill I experienced standing on the shores of the pond a few months ago, I find much more happiness welling up inside me when I contemplate Monet’s transformation of the scene.
“Transformation” is a good descriptor for the second vision of the footbridge in Philadelphia’s collection. This version, Nympheas, Japanese Bridge, could be the twin of the one at MoMA; in fact, as I was preparing the images for this post, I had to go back and check the date stamps on the two photographs I’d taken in New York and Philadelphia to make sure I wasn’t misremembering what I seen, and when and where. What fascinates me about this particular rendition of the footbridge is the small daub of light green just below and to the right of center of the bridge. It appears to lie atop all the other brushwork, and is chromatically at odds with the rest of the painting. After staring at it for a while, a penny dropped: in Cézanne’s The Bridge at Maincy (1879, in the Musée d’Orsay, at right), there is a similar effect generated by a stroke of white paint, a light reflected in the water under the bridge. Homage or convergence? I’ll never know, but remain delighted all the same.
Our ultimate goal in the Modern wing was the set of galleries devoted to Marcel Duchamp, but along the way we encountered many surprises, the best of which was a room devoted to small works by Ellsworth Kelly. Almost all of them were early, simple, black and white compositions like this one, the 1956 Study for Atlantic. This work, especially in company with drawings in graphite and simple linear paintings, shows the elegance and simplicity of Kelly’s work, while retaining his interest in the way that colors interact with one another and the way that shapes, so seemingly flat, acquire heft, volume, and motion. It’s a masterpiece that captures the essence of Kelly.
And although the aesthetic might be quite different in some ways, Piet Mondrian’s Composition with White and Red (1936) demonstrates another way in which simplicity of composition can yield dynamic results. Far smaller and less complex than MoMA’s Broadway Boogie-Woogie, this painting—like Study for Atlantic does for Kelly—seems to capture the very essence of Mondrian’s art. Less pleasing was the gallery devoted to Cy Twombly’s enormous suite of ten canvases inspired by Homer. Fifty Days at Iliam is hailed as a masterpiece. I have long admired Twombly’s “blackboard” paintings, and was blown away by the giant canvases that comprise Untitled (Bacchus) that I saw at the Tate Modern in June. But the work in Philadelphia left me cold, if not downright hostile for reasons I still can’t articulate.
The Duchamps, however, did not disappoint in the least. There is a rich variety of work in many different media, some almost ephemeral and designed to grace catalogs or other publications, some that might be studies for larger, more complex works, and many that stand on their own as important documents in the development of Modernism. The replicas of Fountain (1950, original 1917) and Bicycle Wheel (1964, original 1913) are delightful still, even if their iconic status makes them hard to see in their stark originality and sheer cussedness. (And looking at Fountain, I remembered Robert Gober’s haunting sinks at MoMA the day before and understood better what an important and continuing effect these radical inventions had on art through the twentieth century.
But the unassailable masterpiece and focal point of the gallery is The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915-1923). I suppose it is as famous as the readymades, if utterly different from them. But it’s a work that’s nearly impossible to photograph (the PMA has a pretty good shot here, though) and so it retains its air of strangeness and mystery when you encounter it. The detailed constructedness of the chocolate grinder and the suits of the bachelors stands in sharp contrast to the randomness of the shuttering of the glass. The bride echoes the bachelors is some structural way, except that she doesn’t. Duchamp plays with perspective and yet every element, even those that are drawn, are flat—literally of course, but in affect as well. Perplexing and monumental, the work made me think of Basil Bunting’s poem “On the Flyleaf of Pound’s Cantos”:
There are the Alps. What is there to say about them?
They don’t make sense. Fatal glaciers, crags cranks climb,
jumbled boulder and weed, pasture and boulder, scree,
et l’on entend, maybe, le refrain joyeux et leger.
Who knows what the ice will have scraped on the rock it is smoothing?
There they are, you will have to go a long way round
if you want to avoid them.
It takes some getting used to. There are the Alps,
fools! Sit down and wait for them to crumble!
Even now, a hundred years later, the monuments of Modernism retain their ability to disturb, and keep their mysteries close. But they have lost none of their majesty and remain as commanding and irritating as they did when artists like Duchamp and Pound tried to define art anew. What leagues of aesthetic distance are spanned in a survey from Monet, through Duchamp, Mondrian, Kelly and Twombly! And yet through them all sounds a refrain, joyous and light.