Great tales of human struggle and redemption have always been set against epic natural landscapes, ranging from Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to, most recently, Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant. So it’s disappointing that “Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection,” now on view at the Phillips Collection, isn’t more, well, epic.
The Phillips is the exhibition’s second venue—and only East Coast stop—out of a five-museum national tour that began in Portland last fall and will end in Seattle in 2017. Gleaned from the collection of Microsoft mega-millionaire Paul G. Allen, “Seeing Nature” features 39 paintings generally about nature by lots of big-name artists from the last 400 years. Though touted in the press release as a potential crash course on the development of landscape painting, don’t expect to learn anything new about the genre—like most Art History 101 classes, the show is excessively broad, very Western, and a mostly white male-centric survey.
“Seeing Nature” showcases the commodification of landscape painting more so than its historical development. Chronologically, it begins with allegorical scenes of the five senses created in 1617-1618 for rich patrons by Dutch master Jan Brueghel the Younger. The most recent work in the show is a 2008 lake scene by contemporary artist April Gornik that looks like something from Room & Board. These two artists, separated by four centuries, prove one thing: Figurative landscape is always in style for wealthy collectors.
The obvious (and intended) headliners of the exhibition are the well-known Impressionist artists: Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, and Paul Signac. Two very recognizable Monets—guaranteed crowd-drawers—greet visitors as they enter the exhibition. (In total, there are five works by Monet, the most of any one artist in the show besides Brueghel’s five-part sense series.) To the Phillips’ credit, the gallery’s limited sightlines are put to excellent use in the show’s opening, presumably to draw visitors away from the Monet flame—Gustav Klimt’s mesmerizing “Birch Forest” (1903) beckons from the left, Milton Avery’s whimsical blue “Dancing Trees” (1960) tango enticingly straight ahead in the next room, and David Hockney’s punchy “The Grand Canyon” (1998) pulsates with color to the right.
If the 19th-century French tableaus are a tad too basic for your taste, there are some stand-out works in the show that haven’t yet been mainstreamed into magnets and mugs. It’s worth the Phillips’ entry fee just to bask in the sumptuous splendor of Henri Le Sidaner’s moody yet luminescent “La Serenade, Venice” (1920) and the alien terrain of Arthur Wesley Dow’s “Cosmic Cities, Grand Canyon of Arizona” (1912).
Plenty of works included in “Seeing Nature” aren’t necessarily landscapes, which raises questions about what exactly constitutes a landscape painting. Paintings that stand out as liberal interpretations of the word include Georgia O’Keefe’s macro floral illustration “Black Iris VI” (1936), René Magritte’s surrealist tree “The Voice of Blood” (1959), and Ed Ruscha’s “Untitled” (1989)—a planar, close-up view of a desolate gas station. Additionally, John Singer Sargent’s “The Chess Game” (1907), Thomas Hart Benton’s “Spring Plowing” (1940), and Edward Hopper’s “Clamdigger” (1935) are more genre paintings—simple depictions of everyday life—than they are landscapes; they just happen to be set outside.
But “Seeing Nature” can’t really be faulted for this: it’s less a survey of landscape art than it is one person’s grandiose collection. The show lacks any kind of informed critical inquiry beyond the flabby introductory wall text that hurriedly historicizes the roster of artists on view. The rest of the text panels throughout the show are mere descriptions and anecdotes.
What “Seeing Nature” does offer, if not depth and diverse discourse, is a perfectly palatable smattering of mostly conventional, idealized, figurative landscapes. And how one, very blessed man chooses to see nature.
1600 21st St. NW. $12. phillipscollection.org