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Art, Syria, and Why Beauty Matters

10 May

This weekend I posted a guide to Berlin’s Pergamonmuseum. If you read that and have also read the news recently, something probably caught your eye. I mentioned that one of my favorite things in the museum is the Aleppo Room, located in the Islamic Art galleries. I said it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen in any gallery of Islamic art. Then I read that the recent violence in Syria had reached the city of Aleppo, where the house containing the room was originally located.

That something so beautiful could be from a place that is currently so full of ugliness was both shocking and saddening to me. As someone who studies art I deal mostly with the aesthetic side of cultures and have the privilege of being able to put aside some of their baser elements. But I have to wonder, how much could we accomplish if we took the time to appreciate the beauty in other cultures? How much more open would our dialogue be, how would our opinions of others change, if we stopped to look at the artistic accomplishments of societies and simply acknowledge their merit?

In cases of human conflict it can be easy to overlook the beauty in other cultures. A perfect example of this is the underwhelming American Indian galleries in many American art museums. To fully accept these artifacts as art instead of anthropological objects is to bring up complex questions on the moral history of the United States. Likewise to study the art of the Middle East is to admit there is good in a part of the world that many in the West claim is backward or even evil. It’s harder to dismiss American Indians as primitive when looking at the amazing geometry of a mask done by the Kwakwaka’wakw people of the Pacific Northwest or Islam as violent when surrounded by the serenity of the colonnades of the Cordoba mosque.

Visiting an art museum and acknowledging the beauty in other cultures takes us a step closer to understanding. I’m not speaking of the fetishization of the exotic, but the real understanding that humans have always sought and appreciated beautiful things and that maybe we’re not as different as we think. I took more interest in the situation in Aleppo because of the room in the Pergamonmuseum. Rather than something happening in a foreign land, it feels closer somehow. Art creates a feeling of our common humanity. It helps us to feel, to understand, and allows us to grieve when we see mankind act against itself. Art is the shared heritage that unites us all.

There is one surprising thing about the Aleppo Room that only enhances its meaning. The man who commissioned it for his house was a rich merchant in the city, and he was also a Christian. Biblical scenes coexist with Ottoman decorations. Two cultures that seem at odds to our modern worldview converge to form one beautiful object. I think it was that very juxtaposition that fascinated me the most. Yet again I was reminded how the boundaries we know now, whether national, ethnic, or religious, are not now nor have ever been as set as they may seem.

They say that the opposite of seeing the world in black and white is to view the shades of gray, but I have to disagree. Instead we need to turn to the bright colors in artwork. The idea may seem naive in the face of global problems such as the current situation in Syria, but the beauty of one work of art or even one room can go a long way toward inspiring us. All we have to do is look.


What can the Google Art Project do for you?

4 Apr

If you’re not interested in art to begin with, not much of anything. You’ll probably still spend your time online watching videos of kittens on You Tube rather than browsing the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But let’s assume for a minute you are curious about art. What benefit can an online depository of thousands or artworks have?

For lack of a better way of putting it, browsing through the Google Art Project is fun. It can bring back memories of certain museums and artworks or make you excited for your next trip by letting you preview the museums. I enjoyed virtually walking through the Pergamon Museum in preparation for an upcoming trip to Berlin, for example. I could browse the works of Vermeer from museums worldwide and enjoy the wonderful high-resolution images of them. The Google Art Project also saved me a trip to New York by letting me see that I would be duly impressed yet underwhelmed by the new Islamic Art Galleries in the Met. An art nerd can spend several hours perusing a site like this. I certainly did.

There’s also the fact that the Google Art Project can bring some uniformity to the often hit-and-miss nature of museum websites in displaying their collections. Using the technological and financial might of Google to put museums online ensures that images are of good quality, easy to navigate, and with proper descriptions. Many also feature videos and other resources for helping to understand a work of art. And of course there’s the added benefit of being able to find an artwork if you’re not sure which museum it’s in or what the title is. In short, it makes art more accessible online than it ever has been before.

For education as well the Google Art Project can be beneficial. Imagine a classroom of students studying American history being able to take a virtual tour of the White House or a math teacher being able to demonstrate the mathematical principles of Renaissance Art using the images from the Art Project. Right now the education page is limited to art history, but hopefully teachers will find a myriad of ways to use art in their classrooms when discussing all manner of topics.

For all that, the best thing about the Google Art Project is its promise of things to come. They are working to add more museums and artworks to the collection and will hopefully be able to fix some glaring omissions sometime soon, notably the Louvre and Prado. And perhaps it’s just me, but I could not find a way to browse by artists’ last names, only first. I may just have missed it, but I would think something like that would be beneficial. Many people probably don’t know to look for Monet under “Claude” or Caravaggio under “Michelangelo”.

And despite all the excitement over the Google Art Project in the art community it is severely lacking in options for users to really interact with the content. Aside from creating your own galleries or posting an image to your social network page, there’s no real chance to share your thoughts on a work of art or read someone else’s. The videos seem limited to the kind of “I know better than you” commentary that has plagued art museums for years. Why not open it up? Let someone post the work they did inspired by a Van Gogh. Have a link to the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” on the page for one of Monet’s paintings of Waterloo Bridge.

The Google Art Project (like many art museums) needs to realize that “interactive” does not simply mean giving people more ways to access your opinion and the content you’ve created. Open up a dialogue. It’s not just my view, it’s been a dominant trend online and is one of the best ways for art museums to find their place in contemporary society. Until then, enjoy the gallery views and images of the Google Art Project. They really are lots of fun and promise to be even better in the future.

An American Master in Germany – Georgia O’Keeffe at the Hypo Kunsthalle

4 Feb

For the first time there is a retrospective of the works of Georgia O’Keeffe being exhibited in Germany.  In Munich until May, Georgia O’Keeffe: Life and Work at the Hypo Kunsthalle introduces visitors to the grande dame of American Art.  O’Keeffe ranks with Warhol as one of the most identifiable American artists of the twentieth century.  This traveling exhibition, which has previously been in Rome and will continue to Helsinki, was organized by the O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe and features over 70 of the artist’s works.  O’Keeffe is brought European audience who might not be completely familiar with her.  Overall, it’s an absolute success.

But first, I know what you’re thinking.  And no, despite the frequent jokes not all of Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings are thinly veiled representations of female genitalia.  She actually resented the fact that her artwork was seen merely as a statement of her gender instead of, well, artwork.  Although she did do a few paintings that seem rather feminine – note the two clam shell paintings near the beginning of the exhibition – she stopped using such forms when she realized people were critiquing the works based on Freudian psychology instead of art.

The exhibition covers all her subjects in a sweeping introduction to her career, from art school to final works.  Far from being a dry chronology, the retrospective is enhanced by the frequent photographs of O’Keeffe, many of which were taken by her husband Alfred Stieglitz.  At the same time that we see her art develop we also see her develop from a mousey art teacher to the strong, self-assured artist wandering the New Mexico landscape who is so familiar to us.  Indeed the exhibition itself begins not with a work of art, but a slide show of photographs of the artist.  From the beginning it’s not a show about Georgia O’Keeffe’s art, but rather a show about Georgia O’Keeffe the artist.

If there is one problem with this exhibition it’s the overall design.  Here in Munich the exhibition is done in an austere, modern style.  Large gray walls are only partly covered with artworks.  Especially as we reach O’Keeffe’s time in New Mexico, with its warm tones and sense of space, the bright Southwestern landscapes seem completely at odds with their surroundings.  Although not able to put my finger on it while visiting the exhibition, later when I was researching it and saw clips from its stop in Rome I realized what had been bothering me.  In Rome the rooms were smaller and warmer, allowing the visitor to feel more like the paintings are windows to another place instead of art on a wall.

But still this is a highly worthwhile exhibition for anyone who has the slightest interest in art.  Georgia O’Keeffe was one of the most accessible artists of the twentieth century.  Partly this was due to her personality and her status as an icon of the American Southwest, but mostly it’s because her paintings are absolutely beautiful.  Even those who don’t normally like abstract art are taken in by O’Keeffe’s use of color and contrast.  There’s a confidence in her paintings that can only be appreciated when you see the confidence in her eyes.  Fortunately Georgia O’Keeffe: Life and Work demonstrates both.

Georgia O’Keeffe: Life and Work runs in Munich until May 13, 2012

Open daily 10:00 – 20:00
Admission: €11, Students €5, Mondays half price all admission
Audio guide available in German and English for €5.  Be aware  that the audio guide isn’t available until after the coat check, so keep your money out if you want one.


An Open Letter

1 Dec

Dear People of the U.K.,

I congratulate you.  For ten years your major public museums have been free to enter, and by most standards it’s been a roaring success.  Attendance figures have risen dramatically, and the free museums have become a beloved part of British culture.  So please, do us all a huge favor.  Don’t screw it up.

You know those donation containers as you walk in kindly asking for £3 or so?  Please put some money in them.  Put more if you can.  Put less if you must.  Just donate something.  I know you live in a very expensive country and everyone is hurting, but please do what you can.  You’re paying for the privilege of being able to just stop in and see the Rosetta Stone whenever you want.

As an American, I’m extremely jealous of the system you have.  It’s my sincere hope that one day more museums in the U.S. will implement such a policy, but for right now the only ones who do are the museums of the Smithsonian, which are unfortunately limited to Washington, D.C..  And if you think London is an expensive city to live in, try being a tourist.  Hotels aren’t cheap, and most of our currencies can’t hold a candle to yours.  All that just for the sake of being able to enjoy your wonderful cultural institutions.  Your food may have improved in the last few years, but it’s not that good.

It’s not that the free admission policies of the museums are currently under direct attack, but with a government budget that’s coming up short in several key places the idea is starting to creep into some people’s’ minds.  Don’t let it happen, I’m begging you.  Do what you can to prevent it.  I’m not suggesting you start giving £20 whenever you go in, but do give something when you can.  Let’s make it even simpler.  If you haven’t been in a while, start by going to one of the museums.

I’m always amazed when I’m in London.  Most museums are a bit, for lack of a better word, serious.  You show up to a museum in London on an average Saturday and there are families taking part in the children’s activities, couples on dates, groups of friends just out to be social.  Some might find it distracting, I think it’s a miracle.  It makes the museums living, breathing spaces where you can interact with the objects on display as much as you can the other visitors.

So please, support your museums in any way possible.  I know you like being superior to us Yanks, and in this case you really are.  I admire you for it, and hope that you will do what you can to continue this great tradition.  I know some of the ways museums have developed to raise money, like asking £1 for a map, seem annoying, but they serve a good purpose.   They serve a higher purpose, if you will.  Your museums are some of the best and showcase the accomplishments of humanity like no other.  They should be open to everyone.  The rest of the world thanks you.

Yours Sincerely,
Kathleen Burnett

Van Gogh Reinterpreted

19 Oct

You might have read about the new biography of Vincent van Gogh that claims the artist did not commit suicide but instead was accidentally killed by two young boys.  Unfortunately the book is not yet available on Kindle, so I either have to order it from the U.K. (expensive) or wait until I’m in the U.S. for Christmas.  I am, however, very curious about this new idea.

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam was quick to refute the theory, saying that it still isn’t conclusive.  Although I don’t want to say anything definite until I read the book, I must say that the claim of the authors, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, actually makes sense.  In the great tradition of true crime there are several pieces of evidence that are open for interpretation from both sides, but the questions the book raises are valid.  Why wasn’t the gun ever found?  Why the odd angle of the shot?  And why wasn’t there a suicide note?

There are also those who jumped to say that it wouldn’t matter either way.  While a murdered van Gogh would have no bearing on his paintings being some of the greatest of all time, it would make all the difference in the legend of the artist.  After all, what is van Gogh if not the classic tale of the troubled artist?  Try to imagine Romeo & Juliet ending with the star-crossed lovers being murdered by others instead of committing suicide.  It changes things entirely.

A suicide is a special kind of tragedy.  Every creature on earth has been programmed through millennia of evolution to do whatever it takes to stay alive.  When a person, especially one as talented as van Gogh, defies that we are all shocked and dismayed.  We all know that the artist was a troubled soul.  The idea that not even his incredible paintings were enough to save him has held the public’s imagination since his death.

I can’t help but feel like this is part of the reason so many have been quick to dismiss this new theory.  Van Gogh’s life is a cautionary tale so ingrained into Western culture and to change it would throw into doubt one of the great archetypes of the modern age.  Even if this new claim is 100% true, the legend of Vincent van Gogh will remain intact.  He was a troubled soul who created some of the most beautiful images of all time, and no amount of research will change that.

Die Lange Nacht der Münchner Museen

18 Oct

What do an Art Nouveau swimming hall, BMW’s, medieval skeletons, and greenhouses full of desert plants have in common?  No, they’re not the latest purchases of some eccentric billionaire.  These are all things that you could see at this year’s Lange Nacht der Museen (Long Night of Museums) in Munich.  Far from being merely a night of art, Die Lange Nacht is a chance to see a bit of everything in Munich’s museums, galleries, and historic sites.  According to the organizers an estimated 20,000 visitors took part in the evening in one way or another and visited the 90-plus locations.

To be honest, I’ve avoided Die Lange Nacht for the past few years.  Like many others I’ve dismissed it as overcrowded and overrated, but in the spirit of research I went this year to see again what it’s all about.  The “research” lasted until I made it inside the first museum.  It didn’t take long for my demeanor to switch from impartial observer to kid in a candy store.  I realized the key difference between a normal visit to a museum and a visit on some such evening:  it’s a party for the curious rather than a chance for serious study.

In a period of three hours I went into six different locations.  Obviously I didn’t spend much time in any of them, but for the most part these were all places I had been to be before.  It was more about taking a quick look at some of my favorites and then moving along.  There was always more to be seen.  It wasn’t until the end of the night that I slowed down enough to really look at one of the exhibitions, and by then I was so exhausted that I couldn’t be bothered to read through most of the labels.

The truly great part of such an event is the special events and programming that many of the locations have for the evening.  The absolute highlight for me was being able to look through the new Egyptian Museum here in Munich, which won’t even open for almost two more years.  Another location was showing a series of short films done by students.  Even the Alte Pinakothek had interpreters walking around in full eighteenth century costume.  Many locations had special offers on food and drinks, as well.

I’ve written before about how easy it is to overlook the cultural institutions in your own city.  For those who live in Munich, Die Lange Nacht gives you a great chance to remember why you should go to places like the Antikensammlung and also see some of the hidden treasures the city has to offer.  After years away, I’m hooked all over again, and I can’t wait until next year.

The Museum as Tourist Attraction – in Arkansas.

17 Jun

We all know that museums are, for better or worse, tourist attractions.  One tends to associate visiting art museums with large cities, however.  You go to Paris you visit the Louvre.  You take a trip to New York you see the Met.  Cultural offerings are one of the main reasons people travel to the larger metropolitan areas for vacations rather than sitting on the beach with a mai tai.  Some people like to use their brains as well as their livers on holiday.  Now smaller cities are catching on to the idea.  Most experts will say that it all started with Bilbao.  The opening of the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum there put the city on the map.  In the first 10 years it opened tourist numbers in the city grew to about 20 times where they were before.  It was a resounding success.

But the phenomenon is a bit older than that.  Fans will go to great lengths to visit a place of importance.  The best example I can think of is the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.  The town has fewer than 2,000 residents, yet it gets about 350,000 visitors a year to see the Hall.  You have to want to go to Cooperstown, too.  To put it mildly, it’s in the middle of nowhere. (Look at this map if you don’t believe me.)  It’s a trip in and of itself, and it was popular long before the idea of art museums in smaller cities took off.

There are plenty of similar examples.  Obviously sports fans are a bit zealous, but even in art it’s a common to travel out of your way for something interesting.  People will take a trip to Arles to be able to follow in the footsteps of Van Gogh or a day trip from Paris to see Monet’s house in Giverny.  The Centre Pompidou recently opened a satellite branch in Metz, no doubt hoping for a similar effect as seen in Bilbao.  The artist colony of Taos, New Mexico was a tourist destination long before Julia Roberts added to its fame.  Where art is, tourists often follow.

The next place that’s hoping to become a destination for art is Bentonville, Arkansas.  If the name sounds familiar it’s because the city is the headquarters of Walmart.  Love it or hate it, the company has made more money than most of us can imagine, and now a member of the Walton family is using all that money to open an American art museum in the city.  By all accounts the collection is outstanding and Alice Walton, the main force behind the museum, is still working to build it.  It seemed a bit odd at first, though.  Who would want to go to Arkansas to see art?

I asked a friend from the state about the idea and was reminded that there is already a decent amount of tourism in the region owing to the Ozark mountains.  The combination could end up attracting people who like outdoor activities as well as culture.  I really hope it does.  Ms. Walton has put together a collection that is not only wonderful artistically but is also a great tool for teaching American history.  I firmly believe there’s something to the idea of having such a collection surrounded by lush green mountains rather than the concrete and noise in large cities.  American history is so closely linked to the wilderness of the country that viewing the art in such a context can open up new meanings to visitors.

Now I am aware of my own eccentricity, but I’d drive 6 hours from Dallas for that.  People shouldn’t be afraid to visit these out-of-the-way places for art.  The rewards of going somewhere a bit off the beaten path are wonderful, and such institutions can transform an entire region.  If you don’t believe me, just look at what the Getty Museum managed to do to the cultural wasteland that is Los Angeles.  If a place like that can become known for culture, Arkansas certainly can.