In spite of economic downturns some museums have labored financially to finish renovations. Traveling exhibitions have been reduced but seem to be staying up longer. Disappointments when visiting a museum can be turned into new discoveries and fond memories. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts fall show Degas and the Nude failed my expectations as the title was misleading, the show was padded with other artists working around the same time. If you haven’t seen a Matisse or a Caillebotte nude, maybe their presence along with Degas’ dancers wouldn’t disappoint. But, whether or not you frequent shows it is only fair you are told what you are seeing. I was unhappy to see so many Degas black/white monotypes taking up wall space, I presume they are less expensive to ship and insure than a big oil painting. However, Degas’ use of cadmium orange against turquoise greens is always alluring, found here in a few paintings of women bathing. Degas’ The Interior is an eerie bedroom scene, a puzzle as to what has transgressed. Has the half-dressed woman refused the advances of the frock-coated gentleman who leans against the closed bedroom door? This painting, which can be found on by a simple web image search, holds clues without conclusions.
I wandered through old sections still displaying Greek and Roman sculpture on the same floor tiles I walked on when high school field trips brought me to the Fine Arts Museum. My parents once dragged me to a late fifties Van Gogh show. I scuffed my shoes around the rotunda and dragged my fingers along the concave walls. The Van Goghs are gone as are my parents but Sargent’s ceiling murals of nymphs and goddesses now excite me, as does the grand staircase that leads outside to the Indian on Horseback by Cyrus Ballin. Boxy structures seem a popular architectural addition to nineteenth century museums wanting space to display modern art.
Boston’s Fine Art Museum just opened its new glass/steel American Wing, rearranging its collections of Native American art along with renowned Colonial pieces. I find this cube rather sterile compared to the Neoclassical style. Nonetheless, Copley’s portrait of Paul Revere polishing silver and Sargent’s portrait of the four white-smocked Boit sisters standing next to oriental urns are unique, (the real urns stand next to the painting).
New York’s Metropolitan Museum was trimming its Christmas tree with Victorian dolls and angels as I headed to see the exhibition, Stieglitz and his Artist Friends. Stieglitz was the photographer whose turn of the century gallery promoted modern artists like Georgia O’Keeffe, whom he married. Unlike in the Degas show, the artists on exhibit really were friends of Stieglitz. One of the artists, John Marin, painted in a loose, impulsive way. Many watercolorists today feel they need to paint realistically, copying computer imagery. Here Marin executes a narrative with soft pencil marks and decisive brushstrokes that incorporate mistakes happily left for the viewer to enjoy. Anyone who likes to play with watercolors but feels uncomfortable being photo-realistic should look at Marin’s work (available on Amazon).
The Art of the Arab Lands at The Met took eight years to complete and is a permanent installation. The original collection was given to the museum in 1891 by Edwin C. Moore (head designer at Tiffany’s), the objects were once managed by the Department of Decorative Arts. Now the Department of Islamic Art manages 12,000 objects ranging from the seventh to nineteenth centuries.
I confess to being Eurocentric and tend to ignore non-Western art, passing it as I head to the café or gift shop. But walking through the Met’s Arab Lands made me forget about the Rembrandts down the hall. Mosque lamps were copied and commissioned giving mellow lighting to this essence of recreated geography. Tessellated floor tiles were newly made in appropriate regions on display and wood screens were designed to cover the museum’s western-style windows. A real fountain is meant to convey unification of the Islamic world and archways have been constructed to beckon visitors into small galleries of Spanish, North African and Southern Italian art.
There are places where you can see the museum’s Roman sculpture below the Islamic galleries and contemplate the influence. The Metropolitan’s catalogue, Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art shows that the Islamic collection was once displayed in clumsy mahogany cases much like the way that animal species were shown in nineteenth century natural history museums, not very inviting. Rows of rugs were once hung on walls the way European museums still stack paintings, very hard to enjoy the designs. Hard to believe, in 1935 the museum dressed white women in Indian costumes so tourists could identify with other cultures. Today the museum deliberately provides a point of entry through European art works showing visitors how Arab design elements influenced the West.
The museum’s remodel puts pitchers and jewelry in clear glass cases and has reduced the amount of rugs. The flora and fauna patterns on plates and bowls seem contemporary, a resource for today’s artists. Small watercolors of elephants or folio pages of courtly scenes are often humorous, showing flat-work was abundant. Art that Westerners consider decorative was actually functional. With the US involvement in the Middle East and the more recently the “Arab Spring,” it is imperative that we realize the contributions of Islamic cultures.
Over at New York’s Museum of Modern Art is the deKooning Retrospective. This Dutch artist who stowed away and landed in New York harbor eventually developed a unique style of abstraction. Employing heavy brushstrokes on large canvases, deKooning became synonymous with post-war Abstract-Expressionism. Like Degas, deKooning used oranges with turquoises to paint women in compromising positions. He tore the female body apart much to the chagrin of Sixties Feminists. DeKooning worked into his nineties in spite of an addiction to alcohol and advancing Alzheimer’s. His late work, devoid of wide brushstrokes and scraped house paints, became linear candy-like ribbons– think spaghetti made with M&M colors. The great question is…. did he paint on these canvases or was his brush pre-loaded by those who wanted him to keep producing lucrative art? The show goes from an early still-life done while he was at a Dutch art school to his last years painting ribbon designs in his Hamptons studio (catalogue at Amazon).