The Annunciation will never look the same.
I’m talking about Henry Ossawa Tanner’s 1898 oil painting of the moment the angel Gabriel announced to Mary she would bear the son of God.
In search of art
You can catch the original in Gallery 111 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), or you can stroll through the city's East Passyunk nieghborhood, where a weatherproofed reproduction of Tanner’s canvas sits on display as part of Inside Out: Art in Unexpected Places, a PMA project that brings masterpieces into neighborhoods.
There, on the lawn of Saints Neumann and Goretti Catholic High School, Mary looks not much different than the students inside: a freaked-out teen sitting on a chaste twin mattress, rumpled covers drawn around her shoulders and pooled at her bare feet. You can imagine her reaction as she gapes at the shaft of light blinding the painting’s left side: Who, me?
For this third year of Inside Out, PMA coordinators decided to return to some neighborhoods where the project was welcomed in the past; pieces will remain in East Passyunk, Media, and Manayunk (a first-time locale for Inside Out), and Haddonfield, New Jersey through mid-August. In the fall, the art will come to Brewerytown, Glenside, Lansdowne, and Old City. One gray day last week, I made an obsessive pilgrimage through the entire collection: 77 car miles; 21,323 steps, 44 works of art displayed along commercial corridors, in parks, and on the lawns of schools and churches.
Monet’s The Japanese Footbridge and the Water Lily Pool is almost an art cliché. But in front of Haddonfield’s Grace Episcopal Church, its leafy greens and teals echo the foliage around it and remind me of Monet’s genius in capturing his landscape’s evanescent colors and light. Ben Franklin, twice removed from real life (a two-dimensional image of the marble bust by French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon), gazes statesmanlike from the lawn of Haddonfield’s Borough Hall. Franklin’s lips are pursed, his eyes distant; it’s hard not to wonder what he’d say about the scrambled state of our nation. A few blocks away in Tatem Memorial Garden, Juan Gris’s Man in a Café feels even more politically apt: a well-dressed gent, knees dandily crossed, martini glass at hand, while the background and his features fracture into Cubist planes. Gris made the painting in 1912, the year the Titanic sank; who’s sitting pretty in 2017, I wondered, while the world capsizes?
“We’re trying to create opportunities for people to have spontaneous interactions with these artworks, or start a conversation on the street,” says Sophie Don, coordinator of Inside Out.
That’s exactly what happened as I stood at the north entrance to Columbus Square Park in South Philly, admiring another Monet, Poplars on the Bank of the Epte River. “That is so beautiful!” exclaimed a passerby. She told me her name was Josie and that she was thrilled to see fine art in her neighborhood. “I love anything that shows a person’s talent and ability. When I look at this, what I see is a reflection in the water — and maybe a reflection of myself.”
Unlike placards inside the museum, the signs accompanying Inside Out pieces list only the artist’s name, the date the work was made and a quote, refreshingly free of art-historian jargon, from a current or former PMA curator or educator. “It’s people saying, here’s my experience with this work: why this one is funny, or beautiful, or weird,” Don explains. “It opens up the conversation a little bit more for people who might not be comfortable talking about these artworks.”
Sometimes, image and location chime: The Libraries Are Appreciated, by Jacob Lawrence, in front of — you guessed it — the Media-Upper Providence Free Library, or Van Gogh’s louche sunflowers at the edge of Manayunk’s Canal View Park. In other instances, the dissonance between art and setting charges a painting with new meaning. Camille Pissarro’s peaceful Fair on a Sunny Afternoon tugs against the bleat and hustle of Broad Street. Salvador Dalí’s Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), a grotesque body dismembering itself, becomes commentary not only on warfare but on our culture’s pursuit of physical beauty (and its cost) when positioned next to the “makeup and brow bar” at Manayunk’s Salon L.
I felt dizzied by the colors and crosshatching of Vasily Kandinsky’s Little Painting with Yellow (Improvisation) until I noticed another painting just behind it: Andrew Wyeth’s Groundhog Day, a palette of grays, whites and pale yellows — an empty plate, a vacant cup — made a kind of existential joke with the Kandinsky. There hung stillness and chaos, back to back.
Inside or out?
PMA's website offers maps with thumbnail images of each piece of art, along with street grids so a hardy walker or biker can trace the works through each neighborhood. There are accompanying events, including an Instagram contest and a free weekend at PMA for residents of all current and former Inside Out locations. The project aims, in part, to coax viewers to PMA. But in some ways, I preferred to see these works en plein air, unmediated by guides or audio commentary, surprising me from the wall of a hardware store or the parking lot of a Trader Joe’s.
In Haddonfield, I paused near the Kings Court Gazebo to examine Thomas Eakins’s Sailboats Racing on the Delaware. A man named Jim rattled a handcart over the brick plaza, making deliveries from a Bassett’s truck. He paused by the painting. “I like it. It reminds me of the shore, the Jersey Shore, Ocean City.” A Beach Boys tune warbled from a nearby speaker. In a few weeks, it would be summer: Salt-licked surf, globes of ice cream, splintered boardwalks. And isn’t that another aim of art — not to lure us into galleries, but to help us remember and feel and re-engage with our own lives?
I asked Jim if seeing Eakins’s painting made him want to go to the museum. “Nah,” he said. “It makes me want to go to the shore.”
To read Jennifer Zarro's essay about another outdoor exhibition, click here.