Art Created 100 Years Apart, Linked by Trauma, Offers Solace

This article is part of our latest special report on Museums, which focuses on reopening, reinvention and resilience.

1The American art collector Duncan Phillips opened the doors of the Phillips Collection on a quiet side street in the Washington, D.C., neighborhood of Dupont Circle 100 years ago.

Mr. Phillips’s motivation for the museum, then called The Phillips Memorial Gallery, was to heal from the loss of his father, Major Duncan Phillips, a Civil War veteran who died suddenly in 1917 from a heart condition, and his brother James Laughlin Phillips, who perished in the 1918 influenza pandemic. “Sorrow all but overwhelmed me,” wrote Mr. Phillips in his 1926 book “A Collection in the Making.” “Then I turned to my love of painting for the will to live.”

At the time, the intimate museum, which is still housed in his family home, included 237 works. That number has since grown to nearly 6,000.

Now open for visitors with time-ticketed entry, the spirit of rejoining with friends and family after a scarcity of social contact this past year is manifest in the quintessential work displayed there, Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party.” The oil on canvas of the al fresco gathering that Mr. Phillips purchased in 1923 epitomizes the joy of human connection.

To mark its centennial, the museum is showcasing more than 200 works in a show, spread across the entire mansion and galleries, entitled “Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects for a New Century,” through Sept. 12. The exhibition features artists from the 19th century to the present across gender, national and racial lines. It includes paintings, works on paper, prints, photographs, sculptures, quilts and videos.

As the country begins to mend from Covid-19, the parallel of the exhibit is uncanny — the museum itself arose as means to heal from death during the earlier pandemic.

“The exhibition reminds us of our founder’s abiding belief in the power of art to heal wounds, foster empathy, and build community through a greater understanding of our shared humanity,” said Dorothy Kosinski, the Vradenburg director and chief executive of the Phillips Collection, “to not only see beauty, but to also help us see differently.”

The historical parallels between the show and the founding of its venue are not lost on Ms. Kosinski. “It gives me shivers that a hundred years later our world is again totally wrapped up in an influenza pandemic,” she said. “It’s bizarre.”

Mr. Phillips wrote in his book: “Art offers two great gifts of emotion — the emotion of recognition and the emotion of escape. Both emotions take us out of the boundaries of self. At my period of crisis, I was prompted to create something which would express my awareness of life’s returning joys and my potential escape in to the land of artists’ dreams.”

The exhibition’s galleries are arranged by themes of identity, history, place and the senses. “We took very seriously all the different intertwined emergencies and urgencies that unfolded around us in the last year,” Ms. Kosinski said. “Health is not only one’s physical health, but also the health and well-being of the community in which we live and work and that we serve. Art can be soothing, and it can be thought-provoking.”

Works include the haunting, but hopeful images from Jeanine Michna-Bales’s photographic essay “Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad.”

Benny Andrews’s “Trail of Tears” retraces the forced march west in the 1830s of Native Americans from Florida, during which thousands died. Part painting and part collage, Mr. Andrews’s technique uses painted fabric and oil on four canvases in a three-dimensional method to evoke the weight of bundles and shrouds people carried with them.

It reminds one, however, of the plight of refugees fleeing oppressors today. “It is a monumental work,” Ms. Kosinski said. “It’s the displacement of the Indigenous peoples westward. I can’t even think of another major work of art that deals with that subject.”

“We present history in this country by submerging those harrowing tales. And so, for me, that’s about spiritual health and sense of civic and community health to be confronted with that image. Its majesty is important and bracing and inspiring to me.”

Two 20-foot vibrant, hand-colored, painted and printed pieces by Howard Hodgkin —“As Time Goes By (red)” and “As Time Goes By (blue),” from 2009 — “create a joyous immersive environment,” Ms. Kosinski said.

Three 20th-century quilts, by the women of Gee’s Bend, a small, remote, Black community in Alabama, exude a sense of community and resourcefulness. These patchworks of salvaged remnants of worn work clothes and faded denim, feed sacks and threadbare fabric “are an explosion of radiance and color and inventive expression,” Ms. Kosinski said.

A forthcoming juried exhibition, “Inside Outside, Upside Down,” running from July 17 to Sept. 12, builds on Mr. Phillips’s commitment to presenting, acquiring and promoting the work of artists from the D.C. metropolitan area. Local artists were invited to submit work created between March 2020 and February 2021 that speaks to the struggle and resiliency of the human spirit in the face of the global Covid-19 pandemic and recent social upheavals.

A jury composed of Elsa Smithgall, senior curator at the Phillips Collection; Abigail McEwen, associate professor of Latin American Art at the University of Maryland; Phil Hutinet, publisher of East City Arts; and Renée Stout, a visual artist based in Washington and the guest curator of the upcoming exhibition, reviewed the 1,300 plus entries through two rounds. They were eventually whittled down to 65 works that range from painting to drawing, sculpture, photography, mixed media and video.

The year 2020 “left us all discombobulated and disoriented in various ways,” Ms. Stout said. “The themes that emerged in the works ran the spectrum — from coping with feelings of depression brought on by the isolation of sheltering in place due to the Covid-19 pandemic to domestic discord or abuse as a result of the same, and the rage and frustration of names being added to the already too long list of names of unarmed Black people who have been killed by police in this country.”

But the subjects that emerged were also about “finding comfort within the family unit or appreciating the quiet solace of nature during isolation, as well as how the pandemic and social upheavals are forcing each of us to reassess who we are and our relationship to our community and the greater society,” she said.

One distinctive aspect to the upcoming exhibition is that it wasn’t just open to professionally trained artists with a number of shows under their belts. “It includes emerging and self-taught artists who may have ‘day jobs’ as well,” Ms. Stout said. “During the process, I saw art by so many artists that I had not heard of before this call, and as a juror, that was refreshing.”

“Inside Outside, Upside Down” confirms the mission of the museum’s founder. “When we talk about art and wellness, or if we talk about the museum and community, we’re really talking about our community and equity or social justice. We are firm and deliberate and committed to bringing in the voices of the community and to give the platform to artists,” Ms. Kosinski said.

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