Summertime is a season of escapes and big-budget blockbusters; both are evoked in the PMA’s summer show. “Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia,” curated by Joseph Rishel, traces explorations of an idealized paradise, a primeval landscape of blue skies; happy, gentle animals; and lots and lots of naked people.
At first glance, this seems like another decorative, Impressionist-heavy summer show that everyone will eventually take their mom to. However, there’s more to the big-names exhibition than the surface, showing “Arcadia” as both a utopian vision and a meme of academic painting out of which burst modernism and surrealism. New gestures, marks and cultural gazes bloom in these canvases of idyllic landscapes and luscious bathers. The show is anchored by monumental canvases; its centerpiece, Gauguin’s Where Do We Come From? Where Are We? Where Are We Going?, along with Emile Bernard’s Bathers with Water Lilies and André Derain’s Bathers, are tours de force of confident brush strokes and inspired color choices.
With the exceptions of Signac’s study for In the Time of Anarchy and Chavannes’ Summer, the Arcadian way is a life of leisure, though industrial modernity creeps in via Delaunay’s and Metzinger’s fragmented, mechanized visions. Many works, like Derain’s Earthly Paradise or Kirchner and Pechstein’s summer nudes, were actually produced while each artist was on retreat, and have a relaxed, vacation-y quality.
Exhilarated by Delaunay’s Paris and soothed by Franz Marc’s gentle dream animals, it’s easy to see the modern parallel: When packing for any vacation, whether camping or down the Shore, we each bring along our own version of these same visions of natural paradises and bathing beauties. Summer vacation is Arcadia, purchased.
The flip side of a commodified paradise can be found in another show, Ellen Harvey’s installation “Arcade/Arcadia” at Locks Gallery. Harvey counters the joyousness of modern boardwalk culture — a descendant of those canvases at the PMA — with visions of a faded seaside town. Harvey’s haunting installation examines Arcadia past its prime via the melancholy British resort town of Margate.
In its Victorian-era glory days, the town was a fashionable retreat for Londoners and home and inspiration to J.M.W. Turner, one of the great Romantic landscape painters of the 19th century. After decades of decline, Margate is now in the throes of an aggressive revitalization campaign, including the construction of the Turner Contemporary arts center, for which Harvey originally created “Arcade/Arcadia.”
The viewer enters an open-frame facsimile of Turner’s London gallery/studio wrapped in a giant, illuminated ARCADIA sign inspired by Margate’s now-defunct Dreamland amusement park. Inside, a series of Harvey’s trademark mirror etchings depict the town’s contemporary shoreline. One end is dominated by a large panel of moonlight on water; and we experience Margate in an eerie gloaming.
This shadow-Margate is devoid of people, except for the reflected viewers — the only visitors to this former Arcadia. Somehow, Harvey manages to simultaneously revile and celebrate the seaside retreat, Turner’s idealized vision and the role of the vacationer.
Framing these artifacts of modernity are timeless, meticulously rendered etchings of lapping waves and ocean surface. In the back room, Harvey has defaced her mirrored shorelines with frenetic scribbling, forcing the viewer to gaze at the natural beauty as if through a scratched bulletproof window. We see Arcadia, but we know we can never get there.
“Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia,” through Sept. 3, $25, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Ben Franklin Parkway, 215-763-8100, philamuseum.org.
“Ellen Harvey: Arcade/Arcadia,” through July 27, free, Locks Gallery, 600 Washington Square S., 215-629-1000, locksgallery.com.