Art Review: ‘European Masterworks’ at the High Museum

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And now for something completely different.

After the rapturous reception and sold out run of “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors,”  the High Museum of Art has mounted a new exhibition that is equally showstopping in its  sheer star power.

“European Masterworks: The Phillips Collection” is a greatest hits collection on loan from the Washington DC museum created in 1921 by art collector and critic Duncan Phillips and his wife, the artist and collector Marjorie Acker Phillips. The Phillips were instrumental in introducing modern art to America and their eye for colorful, intense art by artists who have, over the last century, become icons was second to none. Duncan Phillips didn’t let his own taste get in the way of recognizing a masterwork, often adding pieces to the collection after initially dismissing the artist as inconsequential.

Duncan Phillips embraced Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, Expressionist, and Cubist artists, and his passion and outright joy at the art he added to the collection is palpable. Be sure to pause and read the quotes and labels and you, too, will feel the “joy-giving and life-enhancing” power of art.

Upon entering the gallery, there is literally a jaw-dropper at every turn: Cezanne, Daumier, Degas, Manet, Monet, Van Gogh, Seurat, Klee, Miro, Kandinsky, Modigliani, Roualt, Matisse, Bonnard, Picasso, Gris, Braque and Rodin.

The works are given plenty of room to breathe in the space, making even the smaller work pop off the walls. Larger pieces – like Degas’ “Dancers at the Barre” and Roualt’s “Verlaine” and Matisse’s “Studio, Quai Saint-Michel” – are given their own walls to better admire the detail and depth of each work.

But it’s those aforementioned smaller works that are likely to leave the most lasting impression: Cezanne’s intense gaze from his “Self-Portrait,” Van Gogh’s lush “Entrance to the Public Gardens at Arles” and Klee’s brand of hieroglyphics in “Painted Sheet with Picture.”

Unlike the 20 or 30 seconds given to each patron to experience the Kusama mirror rooms, this exhibition allows time to meditate and reflect on each individual work. You’re likely to find yourself lingering and returning to some of these paintings and Duncan Phillips would surely appreciate that desire.

European Masterworks: The Phillips Collection is on show through July 14. For tickets and information, visit high.org

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