A Stroll Through The Phillips Collection

On a gloriously sunny and unusually warm Saturday last weekend, a day that can only be called a gift to everyone on the East Coast who is trudging through this winter of below-freezing temperatures, I spent the afternoon wandering through The Phillips Collection on Dupont Circle.  I grew up in DC so, I’m sad to admit, don’t always go “see the sights” as often as someone who is visiting might.  It was a magical afternoon.  When I was 15 – 16 years old, my eldest sister, and several of her friends at the time, worked at The Phillips Collection as Museum Assistants.  The responsibilities of an MA are deep and varied but I remember mostly that they were in charge of keeping people from touching the art, answering questions about various paintings, and being verbal maps for visitors.  Out of a burgeoning love of art, and also quite possibly the usual adolescent desire to get away from mom and dad, I visited them, and the art, almost every Sunday.  I can’t remember the last time I was in the building since those days, but being back there on Saturday was a bit like visiting the home in which one spent few but formative years; the rooms felt familiar yet everything seemed a tad smaller and also tinged with an aura of bittersweet melancholy.  Art often elicits that reaction in me anyway, but there was something very serene and beautiful about returning to this place on a such a beautiful day. It was like visiting old friends.

Works in the collection that really touched me:

Selections from Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series.  The Migration Series (1940-41) is a series of 60 paintings depicting the movement of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North between World I and World War II.  Lawrence created the paintings in tempera, a medium that dries incredibly quickly.  To keep the colors and hues consistent, Lawrence essentially made all 60 paintings at the same time, applying one hue to all 60 works at once.  This series brought attention to a topic that until then had been given little attention.  The 60 works are divided between the Phillips Collection and The Museum of Modern Art.  The Phillips has the odd numbered paintings and MoMA has the even.

The Migration Series, Panel No. 15: There Were Lynchings/ The Phillips Collection
The Migration Series, Panel No. 15: There Were Lynchings/ The Phillips Collection

In this painting, a figure sits alone on a rock grieving the loss of a loved one killed because of hate.  The simple, austere landscape shows nothing but the tool of murder, the noose, still dangling from the one branch that covers more than half of the composition, and the unidentified mourner, who could be male or female, we do not know.  This stark landscape allows no distraction from the emotional event to which the viewer bears witness.  Rather than depicting the gruesome and violent death, Lawrence chose to depict the moment after the crime is committed, after the body has been removed, focusing instead on the loss and grief experienced by this individual.  The effect is incredibly powerful and devastating.  Though one can say that the viewer is privy to a very private and painful moment, the simple composition and anonymous figure creates space for a collective mourning for the deaths of so many others like this one.

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