Side by Side: Oberlin's Masterworks at the Phillips

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Editorial Review

In 'Side by Side: Oberlin's Masterworks at the Phillips,' ties aren't obvious

By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, October 1, 2010

According to the Phillips Collection, its latest exhibition is a "conversation," a "dialogue" between great artworks. A game of telephone is more like it.

Like that old children's game -- in which a phrase or sentence is whispered by one player to another, until enough errors of hearing have corrupted the original to make it unrecognizable, or at least funnier -- "Side by Side: Oberlin's Masterworks at the Phillips" tells the history of art though a process that is sometimes a little hard to follow.

Here's how it works. The core of the show features 24 pieces, on loan from the collection of the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College, while that museum is under renovation. Half are by old masters, dating from the 16th to the 18th centuries: Peter Paul Rubens, Hendrick ter Brugghen and other, less well-known painters. The other half are by 19th- and 20th-century painters: Paul Cézanne, Oskar Kokoschka, Mark Rothko. Supplementing this group are works from the Phillips Collection, whose holdings, for the most part, cluster in the decades immediately before and after the year 1900. The art from the two museums is grouped loosely around such themes as landscape, the human figure, moonlight, portraiture and religion.

The title notwithstanding, you will waste your time looking for side-by-side comparisons. With few exceptions -- the aforementioned Cézanne, Kokoschka and Rothko -- there aren't many examples of artistic twofers. You show me your Cézanne, and I'll show you mine.

Rather, this is an exercise in hidden, even in some cases arcane, connections.

The art of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, for instance, represented here by the Phillips's iconic "Luncheon of the Boating Party," is compared to Rubens's "The Finding of Erichthonius," from the Oberlin collection. What does a late 19th-century French picnic scene have to do with a mythological tableau painted in 1630s? Two things, actually. Duncan Phillips, we learn, always pined for, but never owned, a Rubens. Renoir himself suffered from a similar envy, coveting Rubens's flesh tones -- which we're told the Flemish artist achieved through a simple scumbling, or rubbing, of pigment -- when he studied his work in the Louvre.

The gallery devoted to portraiture invites what may be the most bizarre associations. On one wall is a 17th-century self-portrait by the Flemish artist Michiel Sweerts, from the Oberlin Collection. On another is the Phillips's 1909 portrait of Lotte Franzos, by Kokoschka. Look around though. There's another Kokoschka portrait of a man and woman, this one also from Oberlin, and painted in 1912.

Oberlin's Kokoschka, as it turns out, was once owned by Franzos. What a coincidence. It's also roughly contemporaneous with a nearby self-portrait by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, also on loan from Oberlin. Painted in 1915, it depicts the artist with a bloody stump for a hand, a metaphor for the psychic injuries he suffered in World War I. Now glance back to Sweerts's prissy self-portrait. His right hand -- a dainty, manicured thing -- is a stark contrast to Kirchner's gruesome invention. Do all that, and you've come full circle.

It's the kind of head-bending ride you'll find a lot of in this idiosyncratic art theme park. Whether it's exhilarating or exhausting depends not just on your knowledge of art history, but your stamina.