Saturday, February 11, 2012

Adventures at the Wichita Art Museum #8, Part II: Pairings from the Permanent Collection

Edward Hopper, Sunlight on Brownstones (1956). Image found here.


Joseph Lorusso, Red Brick and Shadow (ca. 2000). Biography. Image found here.

In yesterday's post, I mentioned that the WAM's selections from the permanent collection "look a little different these days." That's due to the fact that the museum has hung the pieces (or, in a few cases, has arranged sculptures and other objects alongside paintings) in pairs, inviting the viewer to compare and contrast them. The introductory placard notes that the most obvious pairings are those in which the subject or theme is similar, as with the two paintings you see here; at times, the pairings are attributable to that time-honored art museum curator's principle, "whimsy." Whatever the case, this very simple idea provides us with at once a decent survey of the collection, a good way to get less-frequently-seen pieces out of storage and on view (I'd estimate that I'd not seen a good 1/3 of the pieces currently being exhibited), and (for me, at least) a good way to look more closely at some paintings I thought I already knew.

Below the fold, a discussion of that last.

One of the exhibition's pairings is Louis Bouché, Summer of 1941 (1941) (sorry: no decent-sized image available to post here; here is the WAM's image and discussion of the painting) and Andrée Ruellan, River Men (On the Savannah) (1941) (same deal as above; here's the link). The Bouché will be familiar to regular visitors; as for the Ruellan, I had not seen it before. I admit to being underwhelmed by the Bouché when I'd seen it in the past, to the point that, when I'd visit and see it in the gallery in the distance, I wouldn't go look at it. As you'll see at the link, it's a woodland scene set by some water; off in the distance you see a family; the style of the painting reminds me of mid-20th century advertising art. So, this time around, I started by paying closer attention to the Ruellan, with its painterly yet well-composed rendering of the African-American workers taking a brief rest on this austere, even bleak-looking riverbank that serves as their workplace. At first, the only reason I could see for these paintings' being paired was that they both were painted in 1941 and that water figured in the settings of each. But as I took a closer look at the Bouché, I saw some things I hadn't really noticed before. In the left middle ground I noticed, for the first time, the presence of the maid, who appears to be African-American; and then I looked carefully at the foreground: a wastecan and a couple of washtubs whose contents I can't determine. Yes: Images of work, and a worker, are, in more ways than one, front and center in this painting that is supposed to be depicting a leisurely family outing; meanwhile, the family who is ostensibly providing us with the occasion for the making of this painting, is well off in the background.

Is this painting, then, actually a wry commentary on the work (of others) which makes possible the leisure of others? According to Elizabeth Navas, who selected the painting for the collection and whose comments are based on a letter from Bouché, it "presents the effect of pleasure and relaxation of an American family. The maid is present, and so are the dogs." This begs to be put on the couch and poked at a bit, don't you think? My larger point, though, is that if not for the pairing of these two paintings, I may never have given any subsequent thought to the one painting I thought I knew so well. I don't know if I like its aesthetics any more now, but I do find it much more interesting to think about--and I certainly won't skip over it the next time I visit.

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