Archive | May, 2011

Heironymus Bosch

25 May

Detail of "Hell" from The Garden of Earthly Delights

So we didn’t experience the Rapture last Saturday.  Want to know what we missed out on?  Take a look, then, at Heironymus Bosch, who created some of the most well-known depictions of mankind being punished for its sins.

He was from the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch in what is now the Netherlands, but outside of that we know very little about Bosch.  None of his writings survive, and we can only judge his influence and popularity during his own time based on the number of paintings that survive that copy his style.  We don’t know anything about his religious or philosophical beliefs, either, which is especially unfortunate.  Knowing anything about his thought process and mental state would really help to clarify why Bosch painted the way he did.

Normally depictions of hell or the Last Judgement are somewhat lacking in creativity – put a few monsters up, maybe a snake or two, and you’re done.  Heironymus Bosch took things a step further.  In his paintings humans are shown suffering truly gruesome and horrific tortures at the hands of frightening demons.  Bosch’s best known painting, given the title The Garden of Earthly Delights after the original title was lost, is often interpreted as a moral guide to show people the result of their sins.  Some of the punishments are frighteningly appropriate to the crimes, such as the gambler who has been impaled onto his own table.  The whole scene takes place in a dark and fiery landscape.

You must say this for Heironymus Bosch – whether he devoutly painted in hopes of warning errant sinners or meant the whole thing as a satire on the church, he certainly had an imagination.  And it’s not just scenes of hell.  The Garden of Eden or the actual Garden of Earthly Delights depicted in the central panel of the triptych of the same name depict fantastic creatures and architecture not seen on earth until the 20th century.  Even fruits and flowers are painted in a fanciful manner.

It’s no wonder that Bosch has become so popular in recent decades.  Now that society has reached a point when horror movies can sell out theaters and acid trips become something to joke about, it’s fascinating to see such sights in a centuries-old painting.  It gives his works an air of mystery, as if he was working on some level totally apart from his contemporaries.  If one is of a philosophical bent, the resurgence of Bosch can also say all sorts of things about morality in contemporary society.  If that’s a topic you’d like to explore further, I recommend watching Martin McDonagh’s film In Bruges, which uses Bosch’s imagery to allude to questions of heaven and hell.

Unfortunately to truly appreciate Heironymus Bosch you really have to travel to Madrid and go to the Prado, which has not only The Garden of Earthly Delights but also two of his other famous triptychs, The Adoration of the Magi and The Hay Wain.  Interestingly enough, The Garden of Earthly Delights was brought to Spain by the illegitimate son of a Duke.  Somewhat ironic, don’t you think?

One of my personal goals in life is to go to the Prado first thing on a Tuesday morning in January or some other similarly non-crowded day and spend a full hour in front of The Garden of Earthly Delights taking it all in.  Although at times disturbing, the details are never less than fascinating, much like the artist himself.


Showing Social Status

20 May

As idealistic as I can be sometimes, even I can’t deny that throughout most of history art has been dominated by the ruling classes.  After all, they were the ones who had the money to commission works of art and the most pressing desire to display their status to the world.  It’s only understandable.  But despite how little it’s sometimes discussed, matters of patronage and social one-upmanship can provide a fascinating insight into art and society as a whole throughout history.

Masaccio, Holy Trinitity, Santa Maria Novello, Florence, Italy, ca. 1428

Take, for example, your average Renaissance altarpiece.  Or, for a rather obvious case, look at Masaccio’s Holy Trinity fresco from church of Santa Maria Novello in Florence.  Ignoring the iconography and the artist’s use of perspective, look instead at the two kneeling figures on either side of the scene.  Those would be the donors, Lorenzo Lenzi and his wife.  Donating to the church by sponsoring building, artworks, and clerical objects had been a popular way of demonstrating one’s piety and hoping to ensure a more favorable afterlife since organized religion began, but the idea of having one’s own likeness depicted within the work of art was relatively new.  It was a way for patrons to broadcast their wealth, piety, education, and generous nature in a place where many would see it – the church. Playing “Spot the Donors” can actually be kind of fun.  Some are a bit harder, being represented only by a coat of arms or other family or trade guild symbol, and oftentimes, especially in earlier paintings, donors are depicted as almost comically small, owing to the custom of using a hierarchy of scale to demonstrate the importance of figures.

Of course perhaps the best statements of one’s social status can be found in portraits throughout history.  If you could afford to have your portrait painted, it was clear you were a wealthy individual.  If it was done by a relatively popular artist, even better.  If, like King Louis XIV of France, you have your life-size portrait painted in extremely expensive fur-lined robes featuring the icon of French monarchy then, well, pity the poor person who tries to outdo you.

But we can’t talk about social status in art without bringing up one of the most important artistic markings of class that one could have in the late twentieth century – the portrait by Andy Warhol.  For a time politicians, actors, sports figures, musicians, really anyone who could afford it, had their portrait done by Warhol.  He started out painting portraits as a way of showing how fleeting and impersonal fame was, but later in his career a portrait by Andy Warhol was a mark of fame itself.  Figures as diverse as Liza Minnelli, Brigitte Bardot, and even the Shah or Iran all paid to have their likeness done by the artist.  His portraits became so ubiquitous as to be often parodied, and if you look at your computer’s photo editing software I’m guessing there’s a setting to give a photo a “Pop Art” effect – essentially your own portrait by Warhol.

Warhol portrait of hockey player Wayne Gretzky

This may sound horribly vapid and make you feel more distant from art if it is, as I’m claiming, a history of large egos throwing their money around.  The thing is, these were often extremely fascinating personalities, and the marks that the well-to-do left on the art world hint at some interesting and often lurid stories.  Walk around the Vatican, for example, and you’ll see how many supposedly pious men of God spend unimaginable amounts of money to add their mark to the palaces, and you can be sure they weren’t exactly anonymous about it (individual Papal coats of arms can be found everywhere).  Or look at one of the most famous portraits in the collection of the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.  There, in all her glory, sits Madame de Pompadour, perhaps the most famous royal mistresses of all time.

So you see, much as we’ve come to understand how the personalities of the artists influence art, the patrons had a large and lasting effect, as well.  Since they were the ones paying for the works they often had major sway over what was created, and their desire to have great works in their honor in public places and the latest and most impressive works in their private quarters spurred artistic creation for centuries – still does.  It goes back to stopping and asking “Why was this work of art created?”  Quite often it can be traced back to some wealthy patron who wanted to show off their status.

The Art Institute of Chicago

17 May

A few years ago the Art Institute of Chicago had an ad on display at O’Hare International Airport featuring a large headline reading, “Just what you’d expect in the Midwest – Haystacks.”  The joke, of course, was that the words were superimposed over one of Monet’s famous Haystacks paintings.  I’m a sucker for people who can make fun of themselves.

The joke’s on everyone else, though.  Nestled in a city that’s known more for sports, music, and, to be perfectly honest, crime, is one of the world’s greatest art museums.  What makes it unique is that at a time when American art museums were mostly concerned with collecting ancient art and works of the Old Masters, the leaders of the Art Institute focused on the new painting styles in Europe so that now the museum has what’s widely considered to be the greatest collection of Impressionistic and Post-Impressionistic art outside of France.

The Art Institute is one of those museums with so many highlights that it’s hard to know where to begin.  Besides the Monet’s and Van Gogh’s, there’s also some of the most well-known works of American art, including Grant Wood’s American Gothic and Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.  Although both may be a bit like the Mona Lisa in that their cultural impact and use for parody make the actual works seem a bit anticlimactic, they’re certainly worth seeing.

Like many of the larger encyclopedic art museums, though, it’s the slightly hidden galleries that can be the most interesting to see.  The Folk Art gallery, for example, is a great way to see what popular arts & crafts were like through much of America’s history, and the basement contains outstanding photography galleries as well as the Thorne Miniature Rooms and the Touch Gallery.  All are easy to overlook, but if you’ve had enough paintings they’re a great way of exploring art.

My personal favorite is the Ando Gallery on the first floor.  It’s not so much a gallery as a place for meditation.  Completed in 1992 and designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, it’s a darkened and quiet space separated from the rest of the museum.  You enter through 16 large wooden columns that help with the feeling of being set apart from the world.  They change the objects on display in the gallery on a regular basis, but it really doesn’t matter.  I could sit there for hours on end and just let my mind wander.  It’s the perfect place to contemplate Japanese Art or whatever’s on your mind.

Eventually you’ll want to make your way to the Modern Wing, which was designed by architect Renzo Piano and completed in 2009.  The building itself is simply a great art museum.  It was clearly designed to showcase art, not the architect’s ability, and makes for an extremely pleasant experience, even if the art itself it’s everyone’s cup of tea.  I was a bit perplexed while trying to figure out how the gallery of European Modern Art was arranged – chronologically, supposedly?  By movement?  Not that it matters much.  The works of art could be arranged alphabetically by title and still be fascinating.  Even if you’re not particularly interested in modern art, the Magritte’s always tend to be amusing.  His realistic painting style combined with the surreal touches (If you can’t read French, the writing under the pipe reads “This is not a pipe.”) are thought-provoking, to say the least.

The downside of all this is the cost.  At $18 for adult admission it’s not the kind of place you can afford to stop in for an hour or two.  If you’re visiting Chicago you’re going to want to make a day of it.  I promise you won’t get bored.  If you live in the Chicago area, though, it might be worth it to splurge for a membership.  The cheapest option is $80 for one year, meaning you can go 4 times and it’s paid for itself, 2 if you bring a guest.  The benefit is that you’re relieved of the pressure of seeing everything at once.  Even I broke down and got a membership while I was there, thinking of how much I’d love to have an excuse to visit it again.  And I must say, I can’t wait.

Suggested Plan: If you want to see the real highlights and get a general idea of the timeline of art history, roughly follow the plan of the “What to See in an Hour” page on the back of the visitor’s guide with the following notes:
1) Start by going up the Grand Staircase and entering room 201.  Immediately go to your right and follow your way around the rooms on the 2nd floor, eventually going through the Impressionism rooms.
2) Go downstairs and wander through the Asian Art galleries and the galleries of Islamic and Indian Art, Ancient Art, and American Decorative Arts.  Make sure to see Chagall’s America Windows, too.
3) After this, take the time to see the American Wing
4) From here go to the Modern Wing.  Be aware that you have to go back to the first floor to get there.  Once you make it, start with the 3rd floor.

Otherwise you can simply wander through whichever galleries are most interesting to you, but do yourself a favor and make sure you’ve seen everything you want to in each of the museum’s three wings (signified by the 3 different colors in the visitor guide) before moving on to the next one.  It’ll save you a decent amount of walking.

Don’t Miss: Where to start?  Possibly the two most famous paintings in the whole museum or Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day and Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — 1884, the latter of which will be especially familiar to fans of John Hughes’s 1986 classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  Also of particular note are Mary Cassat’s The Bath and Picasso’s The Old Guitarist.  The museum boasts a splendid collection of Degas’s works, as well, including some of his famous ballet paintings.  After taking dance lessons for 12 years I’ll always be a bit partial to those.

Dining: The museum has two restaurants, the Garden Cafe, a cafeteria-style eatery on the lower level, and Terzo Piano, a rather expensive Italian restaurant located in the modern wing.  To be perfectly honest the full-service option was a bit out of my price range, so I stuck with the Garden Cafe instead.  For a cafeteria the food was actually pretty good, with brick-oven fired pizzas and freshly made deli sandwiches. Be aware that it’s best to eat at off-peak hours, as the stations aren’t always staffed as well as they should be.  It can be a bit hard to find, too – you have to take the stairs next to the old Stock Exchange Trading Room.

There’s also a small cafe, Caffè Moderno, located on the second floor of the Modern Wing.  They serve some soups and sandwiches, but the seating isn’t really conducive to a full meal.  It’s a great place to stop in the afternoon for a coffee (which was good), snack (the red velvet cupcakes were amazing), or even a beer (they feature local breweries).

Audio Guide: With admission already being so much, odds are you’re not going to want to pay $5 extra to listen to an audio guide, but if you’re really curious it might be worth it.  The benefit is that it forces you to sit and really look at some of the highlights of the collection, although I should warn you that the commentary can be rather dry at times.  The nice part is that each guide has all 3 tours on it – the standard tour, the Director’s Tour, and the Children’s Tour.  When in doubt, listen to the children’s tour.  There’s actually some interesting facts and interviews on there and one very adorable bit about a Korean ewer shaped like a duck.

Other Tips:

  • Before going to the Art Institute, check out their website, especially the Orientation Videos.
  • You can also browse through the collection of Self Guides published on the website.  They’re very well-done lists of six works pertaining to a certain theme.  Odds are you’ll find an interesting topic among them to enhance your visit, just be aware that they need to be printed out before you get to the museum.
  • If you’re particularly interested in the museum’s collection of Impressionist art, you can get an iPhone app on the subject.  Unfortunately it costs $3.99, so it’s probably something more for true fans.
  • On a budget?  As of June 1, 2011 the first and second Wednesday of every month will feature free admission.  It’s a great move on the museum’s part, but be aware that “free days” at museums can get a bit crowded
  • First and foremost, look at a visitor guide when you arrive and see when the gallery closures are for the day.  If there’s something you really want to see, plan accordingly.
  • Be aware that food and drinks are not allowed anywhere in the museum, including the coat check, so don’t do what I did and buy a new bottle of juice right before going in.

Daniel Libeskind

17 May

When I was visiting the Denver Art Museum recently I saw a book in one of their reading areas titled Daniel Libeskind and The Contemporary Jewish Museum: New Jewish Architecture from Berlin to San Francisco.  I thought it was interesting that the work of one architect was being seen as a complete Renaissance in Jewish architecture, especially when so many find those works less than inspiring.

Since his first main work, the Jewish Museum in Berlin, received international acclaim, Daniel Libeskind has been one of the starts of architecture.  He’s gone on to do additions for some of the major museums of the world and was also the lead designer of the new World Trade Center complex in New York.  All of this has happened after he spent most of his career as an academic – he was already 54 years old when the Jewish Museum in Berlin was constructed.  Libeskind’s time in the spotlight has been relatively brief, but he’s developed quite a name for himself in that time.

It’s this academic nature that irks people about Libeskind (myself included).  Sometimes he seems far too concerned with the philosiphy behind the architecture than the building itself.  Case in point is his most famous work, the Jewish Museum in Berlin.  Rather than being a place to tell a story and allow for exploration and interpretation, Libeskind has designed the building to be one big reminder of the oppression that the Jews have faced in European history, hardly telling a nuanced story or leaving room to appreciate the beautiful works of Judaica on display.   There is also the question of just how good of a museum it really is – if the display cases are laid out well, how accesible it is for visitors, and so on.  He has gone on to come up with all sorts of grandiose themes and symbols for work that is often very repetitive, such as the Royal Ontario Museum and the Denver Art Museum.

The thing is, when I started researching this post I was dead set on being against Libeskind, but after looking at some of his more commercial works I’ve come to respect him as a great architect.  He has created buildings that are extremely unique and beautiful to look at.  It’s unfortunate, then, that the museum buildings that he’s known for leave so much to be desired.  Even sadder is his refusal to stand up for his plan for the World Trade Center, which had the support of so many New Yorkers when it was first chosen but is now being watered down by corporate influences.

Perhaps, then, Daniel Libeskind is smarter than we all give him credit for.  His work often seeks to highlight uncomfortable truths in our society and in the process incites heated discussion on the nature of architecture.  If that’s his mission he’s certainly been successful.  But he’s much more captivating when he’s not trying to make a point and is instead just experimenting with his own aesthetic values.  I can only hope we see more of that from him in the future.

To view Libeskind’s Works:

Painting, Sculpture, Soup – New Museum Restaurants

9 May

I’m not the first person to bring up the fact that museums have been steadily revamping their dining options for some years now.  Most people try to be as tactful about the causes of this phenomenon as possible, using quotes about the “discerning clientele” of art museums who want “a better experience.”  It all sounds nice, but the fact is that the aim of these new restaurants is simply to make money.  Perhaps that sounds a bit negative, but in reality it’s a very positive thing for museums and even more for their visitors.

For years dining in museums was limited to a cafeteria that provided lunch for staff and students on field trips.  You could have found better food on an airplane.  But then in the late 1990’s there was a remodeling boom for museums worldwide and they needed new ways to pay for their expansion plans.  This was all taking place at the same time that “foodie” culture really began to take off, so the logic was simple.  Why not add a nice restaurant or two to help boost profits?  Donors could only be counted on for so much, and museums had to be careful about raising entrance prices lest they lose attendance.  Thus they adopted something almost like an amusement park’s approach – just get them in the door, and then find any way you can to take their money.

Despite how horribly cynical that may sound, it actually improved the museum-going experience for patrons.  You don’t have to resign yourself to a day-old chicken salad sandwich if you want to stop for lunch.  There are plenty of options, as well, ranging from family friendly offerings to more expensive gourmet restaurants.  Some of the nicer options are even open outside of museum hours for dinner, although lunch is still the main meal.  We’re all aware of that unique feeling of exhaustion we get after a few hours of strolling through a museum; having a chance to sit and eat or drink something that actually tastes good in a welcoming environment does wonders to remedy that.

You can also feel good about eating at museum restaurants.  Museums are still mostly non-profits relying on donations to continue their work.  You might not be able to endow a gallery, but something as simple as stopping for a plate of pasta can help museums continue their work in education and preservation.  Plus the more revenue that museums make from other sources such as dining, the less they have to charge for admission.  It’s really a win-win for everyone.

And although most dining options are still glorified versions of the cafeteria, there are some truly unique experiences to be had.  Some of my personal favorites in the U.S. are Café Calatrava at the Milwaukee Art Museum, which features a stunning view of Lake Michigan, and the L.S. Ayres Tea Room at the Indiana State Museum.  The Tea Room is especially interesting and is almost a museum piece in and of itself – it’s a replica of the café that was located in an downtown Indianapolis department store from 1905-1990.

It might seem rather trivial, but museum dining has become big business in recent years.  I won’t even try to pretend that I’m any kind of gourmet, but I will say that many of the new options are actually pretty good.  Sitting down to reflect on what I’ve seen and enjoy my lunch has actually become one of my favorite parts of any museum trip.  Take the time to enjoy it, as well, and you might be surprised what you can find.

Denver Art Museum

8 May

I’ll be perfectly honest.  I love the Denver Art Museum.  I’ve never been to another art museum that is as welcoming and open as the DAM.  From the first time I went there I was impressed and I still am.  You see, most art museums in the United States, with the exception of the majors such as the Met and the Art Institute of Chicago, tend to focus on impressing with the names of their artists and their ties to local society.  You walk into the Denver Art Museum and it’s obvious from the friendly greeting you get from the docent handing out museum maps that it’s something different.

I realize that if you’re a visitor to Denver odds are you’re going to be going on to the mountains or at least the microbreweries, but it’s worth it to pay a visit to the Denver Art Museum.  If you live in the Denver area, though, go, and go often.  One of the things that sets the DAM apart is their obvious committment to the local community.  Colorado residents are given a discount on admission, and it doesn’t stop there.

One of the strengths of the Denver Art Museum’s collections, and part of what makes it such a great part of the Colorado community, is the emphasis on American Indian and Western art.  The new American Indian galleries are especially fascinating.  They display the importance of the arts in American Indian culture but they do so in a way that is neither pandering nor overly ethnographic and seamlessly combines the old and new in one constant narrative.  The emphasis on individual artists in various cultures is particularly impressive.  It helps frame what you’re seeing in terms of fine art, something which is often lacking from galleries devoted to anything but European and American art.

Additionally, the museum features an important collection of Western American art.  Fans of old Western movies won’t be disappointed by the Remingtons and Russels on display in the seventh floor Historic gallery.  Equally interesting, however, is the second gallery for Western Art in the new part of the museum.  Even if you’re not a fan of modern art, the various works present a fascinating view of what the American West has become through the eyes of some of the most influential artists of the region.  If you think art is just for people in New York who think grass is a drug, this gallery should change your mind.

Another thing that stands out about the Denver Art Museum is that it’s truly interactive.  The offerings for children are probably the best I’ve ever seen in an art museum, but adults aren’t left out.  The labeling is informative, yet isn’t the dense list of art terms you often find in museums.  Look, I study art, I know about these things, but even I find reading about how Mary Cassat was accepted by her fellow artists during her life much more interesting than how her style reflects a French influence.  The reading areas are spectacular, as well.  Not only do they provide a comfortable place to sit, but the books and activities give you a chance to go beyond what’s hanging on the walls to find out more about art.  Even one of the museum’s signature works is interactive in its own way – Sandy Skoglund’s Fox Games.  Walking through the work (yes, you read that right) is guaranteed to bring a smile to anyone’s face.

Overall the impression you get from the Denver Art Museum is that art’s supposed to be fun.  Interesting, yes.  Informative, absolutely.  But also fun.  It’s an art museum that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and in doing so it creates an environment that connects you to the art and local culture better than many other museums do.  You

Suggested Plan: The DAM is divided into two buildings.  If you’re really concerned about seeing everything, it’s easiest to work your way down one and up the other.  Otherwise, just wander and see what looks interesting to you.

Don’t Miss: Reading about the process of collaboration with Denver locals on Miyajima’s ENGI (the flashing numbers on the walls of the Hamilton Building) provides an interesting glimpse into what people think is important in life.  Be sure to check out Red Groom’s sculpture Shootout, located on the roof of the restaurant.  It can be seen from the bridge connecting the two buildings of the museum, where it was placed after Native groups demanded it be moved from public for its subject matter.

Dining: The local chain Mad Greens has a cafe across the plaza from the museum if you want something quick.  They also have a coffee shop & wine bar in the same location if you need a libation before or after your visit.  While there I went for lunch at Palettes Restaurant, which made for a nice break and was genuinely good.  People watching from the restaurant is like watching an art exhibition in itself, too.  If neither option sounds good to you, try the pub one block west of the museum on 13th Avenue.  Good ales, and a nice break from art.

Other Tips:

  • Take a tour.  They’re short, and very interesting.  I did a 45-minute Collection Highlights tour, during which the docent showed off some of her favorite works in the museum.  You get a fresh perspective, see some things you probably would otherwise miss, and you’re not made to feel like an idiot if you don’t know as much about art.
  • Admire the architecture.  The buildings of the Denver Art Museum are very different, but they both offer a striking profile and an interesting take on what a museum should be like.
  • The DAM is one of the best museums around for giving children an introduction to art.  Look for brochures that explain what programs are for families that day.  Even adults will want to join in the fun.
  • If you only want to spend a few hours, go in the afternoon.  More school groups are there in the morning.