This weekend I had the privilege of seeing the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s new exhibit Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia. The exhibit showcases works exploring the idea of “Arcadia“: an idyll pastoral world envisaged in Virgil’s first major poetic work Eclogues where nymphs and fauns dwell alongside Bacchus and Pan; where human dwellers exist in peace, rest, and joy in the natural world.
(To put it simply: you can usually recognize Arcadian themes at work in a piece of art when it has naked people hanging out in nature–usually around rivers.)
This image of Arcadia, having been explored in art epochs in the past, overtook art once more right as modern art was being born, right around the turn of the 20th century. In fact, the exhibit subtly makes the argument that this image of a rural, paradisal ideal is an essential element in modern art’s development. The modernists’ dilemma–the tensions between longing and reality, finding and losing, permanence and transience, human and mythic–all find their embodiment in this Arcadian world.
The exhibit begins with excerpts from Virgil’s poetic treatment of this theme, set beside works that visualized his words. These run along one wall. On the opposing wall of this introductory hallway, there are excerpts from Stéphane Mallarmé’s modernist treatment of Arcadia, L’Apres-midi d’un Faune, accompanied by pen-and-ink drawings from Matisse that visualize his words.
The exhibit is great, but very theoretical. It works subtly and on nuance. It’s not just a bunch of pretty things thrown into a room. Instead it is a thesis–an argument–in visual form. It watches a theme develop from myth to poetry to visual art (and then from Renaissance to modern) and explores how they are all connected and converse with one another. It’s really like no other exhibit to which I’ve ever been. If you get the chance, see it.
But that’s not why I’m writing today.
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