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Philadelphia's Pair of Winter Delights

The Philadelphia Flower Show includes a 15,000-square-foot display inspired by this year's theme, "Bella Italia."
The Philadelphia Flower Show includes a 15,000-square-foot display inspired by this year's theme, "Bella Italia." (Pennsylvania Horticultural Society)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 4, 2009; Page C02

If you arrive at Delilah's in Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market just before closing time on a Saturday evening and attempt to order the Southern fried chicken, even though all you see are bits of chicken crumbs on an otherwise empty tray, you will be met with silence from the counterperson, then a sarcastic look, then an eye roll and then a stern, "What you see here is what we've got."

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It's the kind of thing we normally decide is rude, but in fact the remark permits multiple interpretations. Perhaps the woman is not rude but merely charmingly no-nonsense; perhaps Philly is not a cold, angry place in winter but simply a metropolis sophisticated and serious. And perhaps you will settle for a bowl of the restaurant's storied macaroni and cheese, thereby escaping Delilah's without further incident.

Which is to say, Philly is a place where a flair for correct interpretation makes all the difference. Coincidentally, or maybe not, two quite different instances of this flair are currently filling the city with delight.

"The most pleasurable thing in the world, for me, is to see something, and then translate how I see it."

Thus spake Ellsworth Kelly, one of 19 artists represented in "Cézanne and Beyond," the Philadelphia Museum of Art's big new exhibition, which continues through May 17. Among Kelly's works in the show is "Lake II," a massive blue wedge of a painting whose angles are a clear homage to Paul Cézanne's 1879 take on the Gulf of Marseille. Another painting of a diagonal coastline hangs adjacent, by German artist Max Beckmann. His beautiful 1939 "Seascape With Agaves and Old Castle" also was inspired by the Cézanne.

It's a thrilling way for a museum to simultaneously showcase artists both familiar and not, but make no mistake, the PMA's curatorial conceit still allows for plenty of big names. In one corner of the exhibition alone you'll find a picture of Cézanne's wife, Hortense, sitting in a red armchair, her hands clasped together in a serene pose. Off to her right but still within conversational distance hangs a portrait of another woman in a red armchair, this a 1937 work by Henri Matisse ("I thought: If Cézanne is right, I am right," as the younger French artist once pithily put it). And not far away from those two, yet in a world all her own, is Picasso's cubist "The Dream," the celebrated painting of his mistress Marie-Therese sitting, yes, in a red armchair. Three women, three great paintings, one incredibly versatile armchair and a PMA exhibition that's deservedly drawing big crowds.

"When it's over, you have this feeling of exhaustion and accomplishment, but the best part, I always say, is bringing a dream to fruition."

Thus spake landscape designer Joe Cugliotta, whose Roman formal gardens display is the central exhibit in this year's Philadelphia Flower Show, the largest indoor show of its type in the world, which continues through Sunday. It's Cugliotta's 12-by-8-foot floral arrangement that greets visitors entering the Pennsylvania Convention Center, a massive spray containing more than 300 roses, all of which fade and need to be replaced once, maybe twice, during the eight-day event. Archways lead to the rest of his exhibit, 15,000 square feet of statuary, fountains and, most important, greenery, "more than a thousand trees and shrubs, and probably 10,000 annuals and perennials," Cugliotta says.

The spellbinding Rome exhibit is surrounded by six others dedicated to different regions of "Bella Italia," the theme of this year's show. Conceived by Sam Lemheney, the show's overall designer, the exhibits are devoted to Lake Maggiore, Florence, even Milan's fashion industry.

"That exhibit is absolutely amazing when you look at what they've created fashion-wise out of flowers," said Lemheney, an assessment with which we wholeheartedly agree. "There are dresses, shoes, handbags; the detail in them is spectacular."

And then there's florist Jamie Rothstein's romantic take on a wedding scene in Venice, complete with its own small-scale Doge's Palace, not to mention an actual Venetian gondola floating on a water-filled canal.

"I created this story line of a newlywed couple coming back to their beautiful palace in Venice," said Rothstein, who was pleased with her exhibit's outcome even as she could kick herself for having concocted such an elaborate idea in the first place. "This is probably a hundred years old," she says of the 36-foot gondola, which Rothstein spent months trolling for on the Internet, finally locating a Florida man whose usual beat is offering reservations-only gondola rides on the Intracoastal Waterway and who is known professionally as Gondola Mike.

As with everything else Philly-related, the final verdict on this year's Italian-themed flower show is open to interpretation, but suffice it to say that few leave unhappy.

"Literally, I've heard people who've been to the show for 20-plus years say that this is the best ever," said a relieved Lemheney. "And these are people who don't say that unless they mean it."


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