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One of the worlds greatest collections comes to the DAM

click to enlarge Vincent van Gogh, The Road Menders, 1889. Oil on canvas; 29 x 36 1/2 inches. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
  • Vincent van Gogh, The Road Menders, 1889. Oil on canvas; 29 x 36 1/2 inches. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Wondering whether it's worth getting in your car, driving to Denver, fighting the traffic, paying big money to park, and then paying more money to get into the Denver Art Museum just to look at a few dozen paintings by dead white guys?

After all, a painting is a painting is a painting -- just a flat thing with paint on it that's supposed to look like something else. And one old painting is a lot like any other old painting ... right?

Well, that might be true of some shows, but not this one. If you're dim enough to miss this one, you probably think that Roy Orbison couldn't sing, that Beethoven's 9th is just random noise, that Eric Clapton can't play guitar, and that the full moon looks like a streetlight.

El Greco to Picasso: From the Phillips Collection, which opens tomorrow at the Denver Art Museum, is easily the most spectacular, the most important, and the best show of its kind that has ever come to the Rocky Mountain West.

It consists of 53 major European paintings and sculptures from the Phillipps Collection in Washington D.C., whose galleries are currently being expanded and renovated. Remarkably, the trustees of that museum decided to send the core of the collection to six U.S. museums as a traveling exhibit, and Denver was fortunate enough to be included in the group.

It's an incomprehensible decision; by sending the collection on a road trip, the museum put at risk some of the greatest masterpieces of our common heritage. Be that as it may, they're here, they're safe and they're good beyond imagining.

Duncan Phillips (1886-1966) was an American connoisseur who, over the course of 50 years, assembled the extraordinary group of works that now constitute the Phillips Collection. His goal was "to collect works that would resonate off one another, revealing visual harmonies that tied together historical masterworks with the art of his own time."

Like his contemporary Albert Barnes, Phillips' slightly crackpot theories didn't affect his eye for art. Remember, when Phillips began to assemble his collection in the early years of the last century, there was plenty of art for sale, almost all of it eminently affordable to a rich American collector. The works that Phillips chose to buy are, almost without exception, powerful and accomplished works by artists of the very first rank.

Let's start with Pierre-Auguste Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party," indisputably one of the greatest works of art ever created. So frequently reproduced that it has become an icon of kitsch, as overexposed as Britney Spears, this is a painting of unimaginable beauty. Nothing can prepare you for its initial impact. You think you know it, but you don't. Just as a picture of Chartres has little relation to the reality of that great cathedral, no reproduction captures even a tiny fragment of the original painting.

click to enlarge Edgar Degas, Women Combing Their Hair, 1875-76. Oil on paper mounted on canvas; 12 3/4 x 24 1/4 inches. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
  • Edgar Degas, Women Combing Their Hair, 1875-76. Oil on paper mounted on canvas; 12 3/4 x 24 1/4 inches. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

To begin with, it's much larger than you imagine -- four and a half feet by six feet. And it's radiantly alive, as light-filled and present, as suffused with the sheer joy of life and youth and love as the best day of any of our lives. Forget criticism; forget art history; forget anything but the sheer sensual joy of this great masterpiece.

By all accounts, Renoir created the painting in the same joyful spirit that animates it today. In 1880, he wrote to a friend describing a project he had long contemplated -- to capture a large group of people in a natural setting at a single moment in time.

For the painting's locale, he chose one of his favorite haunts: the Maison Fournaise, an outdoor riverside restaurant in a small town outside Paris. For subjects, he chose his friends, including his future wife, Aline Charigot (playing with her dog) and his friend and fellow painter, Gustave Caillebotte.

Renoir painted his friends one at a time over a six-month period, and painstakingly wove them into a swirling, complex composition. X-rays have shown many changes in his layout, including painting out the figure of a certain woman who, Renoir wrote to a friend, "had the impudence to come [unasked] to Chatou wanting to pose." Clearly, there was a certain amount of jockeying for position among Renoir's pals, all of whom wanted to be immortalized in his latest creation.

As Tim Standring, the DAM's chief curator, points out, Phillips actually got three paintings for the price of one when he purchased "The Boating Party" in 1923. It's a group portrait, an impressionist landscape and a brilliantly realized still life all in one. And Standring points out details that would escape most of us -- the hand-rolled cigarette between Caillebotte's fingers, the rolling papers on the table, the way that the light gleams from the eye of Aline's little dog ... the painting is full of such delights. Go, and spend time with it.

And although it'd be worth the trip for "The Boating Party" alone, there are 52 other magnificent works to enjoy along with it.

Consider the Vincent van Goghs: There are no less three of 'em, each one an extraordinary piece. And, in common with most of the paintings in the exhibition, none are behind glass. And since we experience a painting only through the reflected light that hits our eyeballs, this is hugely important. There's a real difference between a van Gogh protected by a thick slab of bulletproof glass and one with nothing but air between you and the canvas. So take your time -- it's not every day that you get to spend time with three superb van Goghs, one of which -- "The Road Menders" -- is as good as anything he ever painted.

The exhibition is organized chronologically, which means that, upon entering, the first exhibition space contains four paintings: El Greco's "The Repentent St. Peter," Francisco Goya's "The Repentant St. Peter," Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres' "The Small Bather," and Eugene Delacroix's "Horses Coming out of the Sea."

What a feast for the eyes -- El Greco's extraordinary power, Goya's brooding intensity, and Delacroix's superbly realized imagery. And as for Ingres -- to look at this painting is to realize why the artist came to be called "the Divine Ingres" for his otherworldly mastery of the craft of painting. And having passed through that space, you're on notice: This is no ordinary show.

Looking at the exhibition checklist, it's hard to find a painting that doesn't deserve prolonged and repeated viewing. But, with apologies to George Orwell, even though all masterpieces are equal, some are more equal than others.

click to enlarge Pierre Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1880-81. Oil on canvas; 51 1/4 x 35 3/4 inches. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
  • Pierre Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1880-81. Oil on canvas; 51 1/4 x 35 3/4 inches. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

So don't miss: Pablo Picasso's "The Blue Room" -- one of the best early Picassos; Honer Daumier's "The Uprising" -- powerfully evocative of the events of 1848 when Europe was convulsed by revolutionary violence; Chardin's "A Bowl of Plums," (1728) which is paired with Paul Czanne's still life "Ginger Pot with Pomegranate and Pears" (1890) -- two centuries of art history compressed into a couple of wonderful paintings.

Then there's John Constable's "On the River Stour." How do you paint a midday hailstorm with fishermen on the river and muted shafts of sunlight glancing off the white torrents of hail? No problem, if you're Constable, the nonpareil 18th-century English landscape artist. Among all of these great masterpieces, this piece in particular is a quiet tour de force -- a painting that would be right at home in your living room (although far better suited to my living room!).

Then you come to Edgar Degas' "Women Combing Their Hair" and "Dancers at the Barre." The latter, like much of Degas' work, is as free and expressive as a five-minute oil sketch, and as monumental as a stone wall. Degas captures the fluidity of dancers, even in repose, while still conveying the earthbound heaviness of our flesh. And the former, an unpretentious little piece that Tim Standring audaciously compares to Francois Boucher and Jean-Antoine Watteau, is as lyrically beautiful as anything Degas ever attempted.

Well, we could go on and on in a similar vein ... but let's leave it at that. Just realize that it's highly unlikely that a collection of this caliber will ever again be hanging on the walls of the Denver Art Museum, and that, for the cost of a trip to Denver plus 15 bucks ($14.75, to be exact), you can see it.

So if you don't go, you must have only one excuse: You're saving your $14.75 for Seriously, Dude! Where's my Car?

capsule

El Greco to Picasso: From the Phillips Collection

Denver Art Museum , 100 W. 4th Ave. Parkway, Denver

Oct. 4 through Jan. 4

Tues., Sat. and Sun., 10 a.m. 5 p.m.; Weds., Thurs. and Fri., 10 a.m. 9 p.m.

$14.75 for adults, $11.75 for students, $6 for youth 6-18.

Call 720/865-5000

www.denverartmuseum.org

  • One of the worlds greatest collections comes to the DAM

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