Sunday, March 07, 2004

Yesterday's adventures at the Nelson-Atkins

For those keeping score, yes, it IS Sunday and thus book day. And you may also be saying, And Saturday's entry (which was supposed to be a film)? Okay, okay. In the first place, I was gone most of Saturday (see the subject heading above); in the second place, I'm letting the discussion of The Ox-Bow Incident stand for the Saturday film. In the third place, I'll have the book discussion in a later entry today/tonight.
For now, though, I'd like to recount my trip to Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. This was an optional field trip offered to my Humanities class. Though the Nelson is not the Met or Art Institute in terms of the size or star-quality of its collection, it IS a nice collection, containing works by many of the artists you've heard of, if not the WORKS you've heard of. Also, it's only 3 hours away from Wichita, and it's not such a large museum that it overwhelms or exhausts even the person relatively unaccustomed to museum-going.
So anyway. Only one student showed for this trip, and not exactly my favorite student, either. Not that I don't mind honesty from my students, but the overriding impression I had gotten from him throughout the class is that he would just not be bothered to look at and consider things he didn't immediately like. Moreover, he has not been shy in sharing his disdain for works or about speculating (briefly) about the artists: "He must have been a fruit" has often been about as introspective as he's gotten. So when this student was the only one to show, I decided, well, at least we're taking our own vehicles up there.
We arrived. And before we even got inside, we actually spent a good 5 minutes looking at and talking about the Nelson's bronze copy of Rodin's The Thinker that sits in front of the south entrance (he made no remarks--to me, at least--about the monumental Oldenburg shuttlecocks on the lawn). My student revealed himself to be intrigued by technique: the surfaces of the paintings in particular--smooth? rough? Thick/thin paints? etc. So, then, the Nelson's Renaissance religious paintings, with their gold-leaf overlays and glossy surfaces, intrigued him to the point that the docents had to warn him to back up a couple of times. So also did a Renaissance-era painting of the Last Judgment by a German indebted, it appeared to my untrained eye, to Bruegel's The Triumph of Death. He confessed to being attracted to violent images, so I made sure he also saw a small German Renaissance portrait of the Christ wearing a crown of thorns painted with such attention to detail that you can actually see some of the thorns not just penetrating the forehead but actually visible beneath the skin's surface. Yet not 10 minutes later and with no sense of irony, as we looked at a spectacular Bierstadt landscape depicting a sunset in a Yosemite valley, he confessed a deep appreciation for Thomas Kinkaide. Ah, well.
The best moment of the trip, I think, came when we went to look at the post-WW II and contemporary galleries. The first thing we saw was a Warhol portrait of Mao; my student looked for a bit and then said something like, "What was THAT about?" and then said that if a piece of art doesn't immediately "tell me what it's about," it has failed in his eyes. Ditto, apparently, for the Kapoor sculptures (which he DID look at, though) and, in the next gallery, the Kline. But then I took him to one of my favorite paintings in the museum, one of Rhinehardt's so-called "black paintings." Here, I said. I think you might find this one interesting. This painting appears, from a distance, to be a solid, even black canvas. Up close, though, it reveals itself to be a series of black squares measuring about 1' each and arranged in such a way that some of them form, by design, a Roman cross. I told my student, Here's a painting that seems to be purely about technique; whatever representation occurs in this painting is the order our eye imposes on it. So, it becomes an object of contemplation, yet we're the one who provide most of the stuff to be contemplated.
That's not exactly what I said, but the gist is there. He sat. He actually looked at it. Really LOOKED at it. He actually liked it. Score! And immediately from there we looked at a small De Kooning called Boudoir that I hadn't seen there before--a pink figure all but amorphous in a Henry-Moore sort of way, surrounded by various lines intended to represent bedroom furniture, and he immediately said, "That reminds me of a pregnant woman--I don't know why; maybe because of this" ::pointing to a large, egg-like distension in the pink figure:: But he didn't scoff; he was LOOKING.
And then we were done. The American gallery is closed because of construction, and a large Catlin exhibition was off-limits to us because we didn't pay to see it (the other neat thing about the Nelson is that admission is free). As we said our good-byes, he thanked me a couple of times for showing him around, that it was "interesting."
He didn't like everything, but that's not the point of museum-going. The point is to look and to think. Why? How? What does this remind you of, if anything? I think that on those grounds, my student had a good experience. And I actually enjoyed showing him around.

Other random observations:
1) It happens every time and happened yet again to me yesterday: the Nelson has some very nice Impressionist paintings in its collection by the people you've heard of, but the one I always look at for the longest is the Corot landscape showing two men sitting under a tree on the bank of a river or pond. The times I've seen Corots--including the first time I recall seeing his work, at a small exibition of Impressionist paintings in Tulsa a few years ago--they have been the ones that stand out in my mind. Something about that gauzy, even dreamy yet utterly natural light . . .
2) This one deserves more development when I know more, but I was noticing that even the earliest Flemish paintings in the Nelson's collection (from the 14th century) delight in including that motif so common in the more familiar ones from Vermeer's time, the one of the interior with an open door or window in the background that permits us to look out into the street and the skyline beyond. I've always liked the more familar ones (I'm thinking in particular of de Hooch's paintings, but he was by no means the only painter who did them)--"liked" to the point of fascination. And--after my recent encounter with the Bruegel book--I found myself paying close attention to the Flemish landscapes, all aquas and beige/sepia rock formations. And, again as with the Bruegels--I'm thinking in particular of his Landscape with the Fall of Icarus--the Nelson's Flemish lanscapes are so arranged as to require their viewer to hunt for the nominative "subject" of the painting. Poor St. Jerome, having to undergo his temptation almost unnoticed in the lower-left of the painting whose title is The Temptation of St. Jerome, while elsewhere there's a drover with pack animals, a village scene, and a ship-filled bay stretching off toward the sea in the distance. I feel instinctively that there's some connection between the interiors and the landscapes, but I haven't quite worked out the link. Of course, I could just be delusional.
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1 comment:

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