Monday, December 31, 2012

Daumier & Oliphant: Together again for 3 more weeks

Political Wits, 100 Years Apart: Daumier and Oliphant at the Phillips. Washington, DC: The Phillips Collection, September 6, 2012 - January 20, 2013.

            This slim one-room show has only nine pieces of art in it, split almost half and half between caricaturist Honore Daumier and political cartoonist Patrick Oliphant. The text for the show focuses on Oliphant’s Pulitzer Prize-winning career. The most striking piece of artwork is a lifesize painting of Gifford Phillips (1999) that Oliphant did in chalk and oil. Oliphant drew Phillips in charcoal and then outlined him in a muted orange. Other Oliphant pieces include “Homage to Daumier” (2000), a Richard Nixon caricature “I have Returned” (1984), his sculpture “Naked Nixon” (1985), and “Tweedledum and Tweedledee” a 2000 lithograph of failed Democratic presidential candidates. These were all given to the Collection by the Oliphants who formerly lived in Washington. The Daumier works are untranslated prints, including his famous image “Le Ventre Legislatif” (1834) which caricatured France’s politicians.

Why do this exhibit? The textual focus on Oliphant - with a large biographical note - and a corresponding lack of one on Daumier seems odd. Does it suggest that their audience would of course know Daumier and his work and accept it, but that such would not be the case for Oliphant? Although the exhibit title implies a co-equal relationship, the focus is definitely on Oliphant.

Chief Curator Eliza Rathbone returned the following response: We wanted to get out all our works by Oliphant because they haven't been presented before all together.  It is intended as a primarily Oliphant show but also one that shows how his work connects with the enduring history of the Phillips (specifically its work by Daumier which has been central to the museum since its inception).  It is election season with a greater than usual focus on politics.  Also it is really an installation rather than an exhibition and should only be presented as such.

            I cannot quibble with Dr. Rathbone’s rationale. For 3 more weeks, one can see artwork by two great caricaturists that normally would be hidden away in storage.  Longtime residents may also recall the Phillips was the site of a truly great Daumier show, the 2000 exhibit that Oliphant’s “Homage” was drawn for. Daumier’s oil on wood painting, “The Strong Man” (1865) which is a carnival scene with a barker presenting the strong man can also be seen in the permanent collection. Sometimes one must simply accept and enjoy an opportunity. It's like that ad for chocolate and peanut butter candy - "Two great tastes together."

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