- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 23, 2000


The exhibit "Degas to Matisse: Impressionist and Modern Masterworks From the Detroit Institute of Arts" is a tale of two cities — and of two strong-willed collectors.
Opening today at the Phillips Collection, the show — despite its misleading title — juxtaposes the collecting approaches of Phillips Collection founder Duncan Phillips of this city and Robert Tannahill of Detroit. Mr. Tannahill gave and bequeathed his entire collection to the institute.
Contemporaries Tannahill (1893-1969) and Phillips (1886-1966) both championed modern art in America when doing so was not fashionable. They admired the French impressionist and modern artists such as Paul Cezanne, Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh, Edouard Manet, Henri Matisse and Pierre Auguste Renoir.
But Mr. Tannahill, influenced by then-Detroit Institute Director William R. Valentiner, went on to buy the searing, highly personal art of the German expressionists.
Mr. Tannahill liked portraits and human figures expressed through line and form. He never collected abstract images. He also was drawn to modernist sculpture, drawings and watercolors.
Mr. Phillips, as seen in last year's exhibit "Renoir to Rothko: The Eye of Duncan Phillips," regarded art as a spiritual pursuit. He collected works by artists who communicated this through a romantic expressionism and who utilized color as their primary tool. Mr. Phillips concentrated on landscapes and interiors.
The collector found this not only in the French but with American modernists such as Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley and Charles Demuth. Later he was attracted to paintings of his own time by abstract-expressionists Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.
The two collectors, who probably never met, often chose works by the same artist — but works that expressed different directions of the artist. One example is two paintings of Cezanne's "Mont Sainte-Victoire," two of the painter's many views of the mountain near his home in Aix-en-Provence. Mr. Phillips chose the earlier 1886-87 image; Mr. Tannahill selected the 1904-06 portrayal.
No collection of modern art would be complete without this revolutionary French painter who told a follower, "Treat nature in terms of the cylinder, the sphere and the cone." Cezanne simplified forms to their geometric equivalents, using color and marked distortions to express the essence of landscape.
Mr. Phillips' horizontal "Mont" is clearly a landscape with its use of color and simplified forms to create perspective. Each geometrical element combines to direct the eye to the mountain deep inside the painting.
Mr. Tannahill's vertical-format "Mont" is much looser and spare. Exhibit curator Stephen Bennett Phillips points to the enlarged mountain that, for him, appears as a portrait in its close-up view — it almost tumbles out of the painting. Cezanne thinned the paint to almost watercolor consistency, and watercolors were favorites of the Detroit collector.
Much of the exhibition's fascination lies in contrasting Mr. Phillips' and Mr. Tannahill's collecting viewpoints. They're like two persons at the seashore, one attracted to bits of colored glass washed up on the shore, the other reaching for the shells. Like all collectors, however, they had the compulsion to own what they considered beautiful.
The exhibit's first gallery focuses on the 88 works from Mr. Tannahill's collection. He amassed most of his 400 artworks in the 1930s and didn't mind the public knowing about his pursuits. Several of his pieces were included in art history books.
During and after the 1940s, however, he became more reclusive and protective of his art. The Detroit Institute has spread the collection through its modern-art holdings and not separated it under his name.
The first room in the Washington display is a revelation and gives the breadth of Mr. Tannahill's taste. Picasso's "Melancholy Woman" (1902) from the artist's "blue period" is the focus of a wall with works surveying 20 years of the artist's early work.
Nearby is one of Picasso's great large portraits, "Woman Seated in an Armchair" (1923). Probably a portrait of Sarah Murphy — wife of painter Gerald Murphy — with whom Picasso was infatuated at the time, it shows that Mr. Tannahill was able to buy modernist masterpieces for high prices. He was the owner of the J.L. Hudson department stores. The very large Matisse "Poppies," in which the oils are thinned to the texture of watercolor, probably was another pricey purchase.
Wander around the room and enjoy the unusual Georges Seurat view of water and sand in "View of Le Crotoy From Upstream" (he painted the frame as well in his pointillist style); Paul Gauguin's "Self-Portrait," painted between two of his Tahitian tours; and Van Gogh's "Bank of the Oise at Auvers," painted with the nervous, electric strokes typical of the artist's last works.
Riveting, also, is Mexican painter Diego Rivera's expressionistic likeness of Mr. Tannahill (1932). The collector and his close friend Edsel Ford, who were bringing contemporary artists to Detroit, had brought Rivera to the Detroit Institute of Arts to paint murals and supported him during his stay.
Other high points are Renoir's sensuous "Seated Bather" in the exhibit's Rose Gallery. This painting is juxtaposed with the Phillips Collection's "Small Bather" by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, and makes clear that Mr. Phillips never would have collected such an erotic work.
Henri Rousseau's "Notre Dame" (Phillips Collection) and his "The Environs of Paris" (Tannahill Collection), Demuth's "Red Chimneys" (Phillips) and "Trees and Barn"(Tannahill), and Hartley's "Log Jam, Penobscot Bay" (Tannahill) and "Wood Lot, Maine Woods" (Phillips) are other interesting pairings.
The room containing Mr. Tannahill's German expressionist holdings is one of the best displays. Max Beckmann's harshly frontal image of himself reflects Mr. Tannahill's interest in portraits. A Paula Modersohn-Becker painting shows a devout old peasant woman. Works by her are rare in this country. Mr. Tannahill and Mr. Phillips both collected the joyously colored paintings by Franz Marc, and two are included in the show. Mr. Tannahill's "Tulips and Bird" by Emil Nolde is a lilting addition.
Paul Klee, though Swiss, often is categorized with the Germans because he taught at the Bauhaus and the Dusseldorf Academy. Both Mr. Phillips and Mr. Tannahill admired Klee, and the curator has effectively mounted a grouping of their Klee paintings together.
Phillips Director Jay Gates came up with the idea of bringing in the works of another strong, individualistic collector.
"Tannahill was the obvious choice. He was a great collector but not known here," Mr. Phillips says. "He tried to bring modern art to the Midwest, just as Duncan Phillips pushed it in the East."
William Peck, Detroit Institute curator of ancient art, remembers Mr. Tannahill well. Mr. Peck, who came to the institute in 1960 just before the collector died, says, "I, and others, always addressed him as Mr. Tannahill. He had a great presence even as an elderly man."
Mr. Peck says the collector was involved with the Detroit arts community in the 1930s. He founded the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts and the Detroit Artists Market to show the work of local artists. He organized a Rivera show when Rivera was visiting. He also was a supporter of the Detroit Institute, first as a trustee, then as a member of its Arts Commission.
"Tannahill had a great range of Picassos, and they may have been connected to his interest in African art," he says. "He collected his greatest art in the 1930s."
Mr. Peck says Mr. Tannahill continued his great passion for art even when he became more reserved in the 1940s. Although the collector was still interested in the Artists Market in the 1950s and 1960s, he focused on his work with the Detroit Institute.
The curator remembers also that Mr. Tannahill, unlike Mr. Phillips, never liked American art such as abstract-expressionism, pop and minimalism. Mr. Tannahill's will stipulated that money he left to the institute be spent on works created before 1925.
The institute is recognizing his gifts by sending many of the Tannahill objects shown in Washington to Japan as part of a modernist show next April.

WHAT: "Degas to Matisse: Impressionist and Modern Masterworks From the Detroit Institute of Arts"

WHERE: Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, until 8:30 p.m. Thursday and noon to 7 p.m. Sunday, through Jan. 21

TICKETS: Weekend: $7.50 adults, $4 seniors, 18 and under free. Weekday: by contribution, suggested at the same level

PHONE: 202/307-2151

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