Visions of… Arcadia?

Courtesy of
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“Visions of Arcadia,” on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the Dorrance Special Exhibition Galleries through September 3, attempts to demonstrate the profound influence of Arcadia, as described by Virgil in his Eclogues, on French artists throughout history, beginning with Nicholas Poussin and concluding with Pablo Picasso and the Cubists. A few paintings by Russian and German expressionists add to the scope of Arcadia’s significance as well.

The exhibition begins in a long hallway, a poetry-filled rabbit hole filled with quotes from Virgil’s Eclogues that transport us to the valley of Arcadia through Virgil’s original lens. On the other side, viewers supposedly find themselves submerged in visions of Arcadia spanning centuries after Virgil’s time.

For Virgil, Arcadia was the name of a mythical valley in Ancient Greece populated by shepherds with a penchant for singing. These denizens couldn’t abandon all despair in their simple, harmonious existence, for Arcadia did not grant them immunity from mortality. But by and large these Arcadians sang, worked, and enjoyed both their time with others and solitary encounters with nature. With the exception of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, none of the featured artists fully connect to Virgil’s ideas other than in the general sense of depicting idyllic places. Though the exhibition haphazardly plants a variation of the word “Arcadia” countless times throughout — an attempt to assert Arcadia’s presence with dubious success — the influence of Arcadia, and even its actual definition, remains muddled and contradictory. The exhibition posits some of its most spurious claims regarding the featured paintings of Paul Gauguin, Paul Cézanne, and Henri Matisse, the three artists around which the exhibition is centered.

The rooms following the Virgil précis are organized more or less chronologically, starting with Poussin, Corot, and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Corot’s contemplative, serene man in his circa 1871 oil painting Goatherd of Terni reminds viewers most of Virgil’s Arcadia. Corot painted the canvas about forty-five years after he visited Terni, an Italian city north of Rome. Viewers look on with the depicted goatherd through the darkened foliage into the sublime golden sunset, and we feel as close to Arcadia as that goatherd. Corot’s paintings achieve a synergy when coupled with Virgil’s poetry seen nowhere else in the exhibition, and for that they stand out; all the other paintings seem confusingly disparate with Virgil’s ideas in comparison.

Puvis de Chavannes’ 1867 Peace canvas, a public commission for the Second French Empire, reveals a bit of appropriation of the Arcadian theme to serve as a vehicle for civic cooperation and national unity propaganda. The scene shows a large group of nude and loosely dressed figures engaged in various tasks for the good of the community, with intent reminiscent of fourteenth century Sienese artist Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Good Government fresco. While one may argue that harmony among a nation’s citizenry embodies a vision of the ideal, this viewpoint doesn’t speak to Virgil’s words, which made no mention of Arcadians happily managed by a bureaucratic foundation.

The second room in the exhibition transitions to the work of the Neoimpressionists (also known as the Pointillists), who offered their own varying visions of paradise. Maximilien Luce’s 1892 painting Bathers at Saint-Tropez presents a tantalizing image with gracefully modeled nudes in an exotically colored landscape. The dots set the figures ablaze with an enchanting mosaic of countless hues placed side by side, giving their skin a fascinating, chameleon-like quality. It provides a titillating visual experience to viewers that makes it welcome for the pleasure of experiencing dazzling art.

The third room intends to be the central focus of the exhibition, featuring the monumental canvases by Gauguin, Cézanne, and Matisse: Gauguin’s Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1898), Cézanne’s The Large Bathers (1906), and Matisse’s Bathers by a River (1909-1917). Despite varying widely in composition and style, all three canvases share a similarly unsettling mood. Gauguin’s canvas predominantly employs dark, ominous colors in a montage of figures at various life stages, putting onto canvas that frightening mental Halloween hay ride when one sees his life flashing before his eyes. Cézanne’s The Large Bathers portrays an anything but idyllic landscape of bathers. The bathers have sketchy, anonymous forms with nondescript faces, their bodies covered with dirty patches of brown despite the fact they’re supposed to be bathing. One particularly curious bather on the far right has unusually masculine, robotic arms. The women emit a baleful aura similar to that in Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, a picture that may be as far removed from Arcadia as a scene of nudes can reach. Matisse’s further-abstracted Bathers by a River amplifies the effects of The Large Bathers to greater extremes, with nudes completely devoid of faces, curves, and feelings. There is no mix of pleasure and seriousness here like Virgil described in the Eclogues; instead there is only austere coldness.

The following room focuses on Cubism, a movement that arrived on the heels of the Postimpressionists in the early twentieth century. Robert Delaunay’s 1910-1912 painting The City of Paris combines a Cubist rendering of the Eiffel Tower and a view of the Seine with the Three Graces in the middle. The painting towers over viewers in a symphony that combines the angularity of Cubism with the rich colors of Fauvism, a blend of precision and passion. The last room of the exhibition shows some German and Russian artists who focused on the importance of man’s harmony with animals. Franz Marc’s 1913 Deer in the Forest I and Nicholas Konstantinovich Roerich’s circa 1911 Our Forefathers offer stirring insights on this theme. That theme, though, can only be shoehorned into the Arcadia label if we accept Arcadia as only meaning some halcyon realm.

“Some halcyon realm,” a watered down definition that is less sweeping than what the exhibition posits but is the only one that gives the exhibition credence, reduces the power of Arcadia according to Virgil’s writings; he becomes just another link in the chain of writers and artists that expressed yearnings for a lost Eden. As a result, the modern artists featured lose their claim on Arcadia. If Cézanne envisioned Arcadia in The Large Bathers, then surely Auguste Renoir’s voluptuous, luminescent bathers represent an Arcadian vision; so what made them unworthy for this exhibition? Claude Monet’s impressionist landscapes, which capture fleeting moments of beauty in time, should qualify as well. The breathtaking transcendental vistas of the American Hudson River School would also seem to offer an adequate interpretation of Arcadia.

Myriad other paintings could pass this indulgent Arcadian litmus test as well, which points to the lack of clarity and justification in the exhibition. It seems more like an excuse to bring together an array of intriguing paintings, with an ambiguous Arcadia providing the precarious grounds for this compilation.

The bottom line? Go see “Visions of Arcadia” for the pleasure of viewing some modernist masterpieces that won’t grace the East Coast again for who knows how long. The paintings on view are so mesmerizing, it’s no wonder that the curators, in their captivating presence, had trouble stringing together a justification for bringing them together.

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