With the oppressive August temperatures of late, relaxing in Rittenhouse Square Park doesn’t quite feel like an escape from summer in the city; which is why, this past Sunday, I chose to escape the humid throng of city living indoors rather than out, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s exhibit: Visions of Arcadia: Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse.
Building upon three pivotal works by post-impressionists Paul Gauguin, Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse, Visions of Arcadia renders vivid the imaginations of artists on the brink of modernity, intent upon creating spaces that were at once timeless, bucolic and in harmony with nature. Tracing the artistic fascination with a paradisaical place on earth back to Virgil’s Eclogues, the exhibit seeks to compliment art and poetry in its presentation of Arcadia. Featuring scenes of carefree bathers and lush landscapes, the exhibit’s many works invite viewers to share in the artists’ colorful and poignant nostalgia for a lost world of pure pleasure and peace, one which leaves behind the constraints of an ever industrialized modern cityscape.
Visions of Arcadia however, to its credit, is not all about escape. As the exhibit moves into works such as Gauguin’s “Where Do We Come From?” or Delaunay’s “The City of Paris”, as viewers we begin to understand the problems inherent in the concept of Arcadia. Though we want to believe in the existence of natural spaces that remain untouched or unaffected by humanity’s presence on the planet, this masterful collection of dream-like scenes calls attention to the very fictionality of such a belief. Arcadia is a feeling, a dream, a vision, not a reality. Just as the picture’s frame contains the contents of an Utopian landscape where humans and nature coexist harmoniously, we wonder what such a composition has omitted. The smoke from a nearby factory? The threat of death hinted at by Gauguin in the figure of a skeletal elderly woman on the verge of his composition?
Visions of Arcadia is the kind of exhibit that not only draws you in, but also forces you back out, so that you leave thinking not only about the marvelous world of the paintings themselves, but also about the world that the exhibit’s artists have grappled with, the one which you inevitably return to after you exit the frame. Sometimes we need to step inside in order to appreciate what is outside, all around us. Visions of Arcadia is well worth a trip to the museum, if anything because it raises viewer’s awareness of humanity’s ever changing relationship to the natural world. The world outside may not look exactly like the renderings in these paintings, but that does not mean we should stop striving to achieve the ideals that these works envision.
For more information on the exhibit, check out the Museum’s website here. The exhibit will be running through September 3, 2012.
WHEN: Now through September 3, 2012
Tuesday – Sunday, 10 a.m.– 5 p.m.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art - Main Building
2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway
Philadelphia, PA 19130
TICKETS: $25 for adults, $23 for seniors, $20 for students and youth (ages 13-18) and $14 for children ages 5-12.
Includes an audio guided tour of the exhibit.