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The Pergamonmuseum

5 May

There is perhaps no other museum in the world that has such an impressive entryway as the Pergamon Museum.  As soon as you walk in you’re faced with one of the museum’s great highlights, (and also its namesake), the Pergamon Altar.  It’s not exactly subtle, but it does do a great job of preparing you for everything you’re about to see and experience within the museum’s walls.

The specialty of the Pergamon Museum is architectural reconstructions, as they call it.  These are full-size reproductions of some of antiquity’s great structures using the original remnants that were excavated and supplemented by modern materials.  They are what truly sets the museum apart from other museums of antiquity, as well.  Rather than room after room of statues and pottery, you get a slight glimpse of how a city would have really looked in ancient times.  Or to put it another way, you’re given a context in which to place all those statues and pottery.

Officially the museum consists of three “museums”, or collections: The Collection of Classical Antiquities, the Museum of the Ancient Near East, and the Museum of Islamic Art.  Although disparate, the three are all immensely fascinating in their own right.  Then you take a slightly closer look.  Even the supposedly “Western” collection, that of Greek and Roman antiquities, was excavated predominately in modern Turkey.  With this in mind, the museum reminds us how fluid and changing our fixed ideas of culture truly have been throughout history.

These are the kinds of big topics your mind automatically starts to wander to when confronted with the grandeur of the Pergamon Museum.  It’s hard not to when what you’re used to seeing as ruins are instead shown looking much more like they did 2,000 years ago.  Really, it leaves a person feeling quite insignificant, but in a good way.  Humanity has accomplished grand things in our history, and some of the grandest are on display in the Pergamon Museum.

Special Note: Through September 2012 one entire wing of the museum is devoted to the special exhibition “Pergamon: Panorama of the Ancient World.”  I’ll be honest with you here—if you’re really interested in ancient Greece and its art it’s probably worth it, but with admission charges reaching upwards of €20 if you include the special 360° panorama display most people would probably rather pass.  Don’t worry, you’ll still have plenty to see in the regular collections.

Suggested Plan:  You could go through in roughly chronological order if you so choose, starting with the Ancient Near East, moving on to the Greek & Roman rooms, and then finally moving on to the Islamic Art upstairs.  Really, though, most visitors just kind of end up walking around aimlessly and slightly in awe.  Nothing wrong with that, at all.

The size of the museum is rather deceptive, as well.  While it might not seem that large, you will probably want to spend longer than expected in the museum.  One note, though — the only restrooms are located outside of the galleries.  The downside here is that you have to return your audio guide and then pick up a new one.

Don’t Miss:  The museum’s big attractions may all be located on the ground floor, but be sure to take some time to visit the Islamic Art galleries upstairs.  The Allepo room is one of the most beautiful things you’ll ever see in an Islamic Art gallery.  Also be sure to visit the small room located underneath the Pergamon Altar (go to the right of the altar) which details its excavation and history.

Dining:  Odds are you’re not going to spend an entire day at the Pergamon Museum, but if you find yourself feeling a little peckish the cafe at the Pergamon Museum, accessed from outside the building, has good food inspired by the museum’s collections.  The one downside is that the service was unbelievably bad while I was there.  Be prepared to be assertive with the wait staff.

Audio Guide:  It’s not often I say this, but the audio guide of the Pergamon Museum is a must.  The descriptions of the artifacts are informative and well-done, and with so many fascinating things to see you’ll be glad to be able to hear more about them.  I’ve never used the “press * for more information” button so much in a museum.  The good news is that it’s free with your museum admission.

Information Sheets:  Detailed information on some objects can be found on extra sheets, found near the objects.  The most interesting of those available is the explanation of the Telephos Frieze on top of the Pergamon Altar, if for no other reason than the paper provides the only English-language explanation of the story of the frieze.  Just bear in mind that the museum asks you to leave a small donation for these papers.

Cashing In On History

13 Jun

During my daily search for arts-related news, I came upon this rather interesting story.  Basically Salem, Massachusetts is saying that they don’t want to simply be known for witches anymore.  It’s a nice idea, but will it work?

I have a special place in my heart for Salem.  When I was 2 or 3 years old my family took a road trip through New England.  My earliest memories are from that trip, and most of those are from Salem.  Fittingly one of the things I remember is going to one of the many witch-themed museums in town.  I doubt it was the first museum I had ever visited, but it is certainly the first one I remember.

Now the city authorities are trying to let everyone know that there’s much more to the town than its many haunted houses and fortune tellers, attractions that are hoping to lure tourists who come for the city’s association with witchcraft.  The problem they’re having is that these people often only come in October, and they’re looking to draw tourists the rest of the year, as well.  And more importantly, does anyone care about what happened in Salem beyond the witch trials?

What city authorities have done is to be applauded.  Rather than completely ignoring what they’re famous for, they’re simply trying to remind people that there’s more to the city.  Salem was a major port city for centuries and his home to one of the oldest museums in the United States, the Peabody Essex Museum.  Literary types can also follow in the footsteps of the author Nathaniel Hawthorne, the city’s most famous resident.  Tourism is an important industry for the city, and they’re trying to branch out and attract more people.  You can’t blame them for that.

Salem has always been a unique case, though.  Whereas other cities try to avoid the darker parts of their past, Salem has always embraced their association with the witch trials in 1692.  By way of comparison, a search of the Chicago tourism site yields no results when you look for words such as “Prohibition”, “mob”, “mafia”, or even “Capone”.  By keeping a certain reverence to their past, Salem is not only helping its tourism industry but also keeping alive the ideals of tolerance and justice, both of which were completely absent from the trials.

It’s not just good tourism, it’s good history.  People need to learn history to be able to understand what is happening in the present day, no matter what’s involved.  I’m not naive enough to think that all of the town’s emphasis on witchcraft is from an altruistic sense of reminding people of one of the low points in American colonial history.  Money is certainly also a factor, but it’s all part of the combination of history and tourism that exists in modern life.  The important thing is that they’re trying to keep all aspects of their history accessible to the public.  More cities should take note.

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.

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: www.daniel-libeskind.com

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.

Modern Art Part 2 – Your Opinion Matters

2 Apr

First of all, I’d like to give a brief explanation.  “Modern” and “Contemporary” are often used interchangeably in describing art, but there is a very subtle difference.  “Modern” normally applies to art of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, while contemporary art is normally art which dates from around the time of World War II until today.  The distinction follows roughly the shift in the 20th century to the philosophy of postmodernism, and indeed contemporary art is often referred to as postmodern art, but one must agree that even in art circles the term “postmodern art” sounds horribly pretentious and not at all appealing to the average visitor.  I’ll sometimes use both terms because “modern art” has a connotation of weird art that’s hard to understand while “contemporary art” isn’t as commonly used in the vernacular.

But the main question I’m going to try to answer today is, “How do I start to appreciate this stuff?”  Like I said in my previous post, a good percentage of it you can’t.  And no, I’m not making a derogatory comment about the intellectual capabilities of anyone who might be reading this.  The fact is that some of it is meant to be difficult to understand.  Contemporary artists love nothing more than pushing boundaries and being avant-garde, so there’s plenty of works out there that are just plain bizarre.

A good way to look at modern art is to think of it like music.  Music is by its very nature an abstract concept: a series of sounds that are put together and are normally pleasing for us to hear.  We love music and associate it with some of the most important moments and feelings in our lives, yet we all have our own taste in music.  Every single viewer brings their own unique perspective to a work of art, and rather than feeling like your perspective is somehow inferior because you don’t know anything about art, you have to embrace and enjoy your own perspective and how you see art.  We accept that people have different tastes in music but when it comes to art we get stuck on this idea that there are right and wrong answers and deeper meanings not accessible to the layperson, which simply isn’t true.

Just like music, some pieces we like, some we don’t.  Very often the ones that are our favorites we like because they invoke a certain emotion or memory.  My favorite painting in a local museum is a good example.  I don’t really care about the artistic merit of it.  I like it because it’s titled West Palm Beach and it reminds me of my childhood vacations. Sounds basic, I know, but you really don’t need any other reason to like a work of art.

There are a few other things that I like to do personally while looking at contemporary art.  One continues with the whole music idea.  As I wrote before, the twentieth century was a time of enormous upheaval which affected all branches of the arts as well as daily life.  I find that just by thinking about the music of the era I enjoy the art more; it’s even better if I actually have some of it on my iPod.  Since music is something I automatically associate more with certain time periods it helps me get the feel for an era better than looking at art alone.  Listening to 1920’s jazz or 60’s rock and knowing how revolutionary they were reminds me that the art was meant to be revolutionary, as well.

But what do you do when you absolutely hate a work of art?  It’s challenging, but it can be extremely interesting to ask yourself why you don’t like it.  Even if it’s a Dali and you feel like you should like it for that reason alone, think about what you don’t like rather than trying to make yourself appreciate it.  Often once you get over your initial shock and start figuring out what exactly is causing such a strong reaction you can learn a great deal.  Sometimes it might be personal, and other times it can help you discover how you feel about art.

I can only imagine that there would be some art historians, curators, critics, etc. who would be a bit upset with me for dismissing modern art as a matter of personal opinion.  They would be right in one important aspect – knowing a bit about art can make it seem much more interesting, but the best place to start isn’t with movement names or techniques, but the artists themselves.  The great names of the twentieth century were also larger-than-life personalities, and knowing their stories can often give their art a new dimension.  The works of Otto Dix reflect his experiences as a soldier during World War I, for example, and it’s impossible to look at Andy Warhol work without thinking about his obsession with fame and consumerism.

There’s one other sure-fire way to appreciate art more – experience it.  Previously I’ve presented the Five Reasons For Art.  Think about these when you can’t comprehend a work of art.  Is it an idea?  A story, perhaps?  Is it meant to be beautiful?  Is it religious?  Does it show social status?  You’re not looking for right answers, you’re just thinking about it for a moment.  Maybe you’ll hit on something that makes you understand it more, or at least like it more.  The thing is that rather than immediately dismissing all modern art as something that’s incomprehensible and at times bizarre you have to go see it a few times before you start to understand it and appreciate it.

The Danger of Academics

16 Feb

Recently I was discussing art with an acquaintance.  An artist in his own right, he has been working in theater in Europe for years.  We started talking about the purpose of art and the first thing that he brought up was the importance of emotion.  Despite the fact that I’ve always considered myself a bit of a rebellious, back-to-basics sort of art student, I found I was taken aback by this.  Emotion?  Could it really be that simple?

Thankfully I visited Florence soon after.  For those who haven’t been, imagine a giant outdoor museum with some of the best food you’ve ever had.  That’s Florence.  It’s an absolutely incredible place.  It would be very easy to turn any trip to the city into a Long March-style art history class, but my acquaintance’s words haunted me throughout my trip.  Yes, the interior of San Lorenzo was a masterwork of Renaissance architecture, but that wasn’t why I spent quite a while standing in awe while my friends waited outside.  I was amazed not by the specifics, but by the sense of serenity that came from the space.  After all, that’s what makes great art great.  Academics may argue about the artistic or historic merits of a particular piece, drop words like “composition”, “tone”, or “perspective”, but those really aren’t the things that will hold your attention.

I kept trying to find the median – explaining works as an art historian while encouraging my friends to simply enjoy what they saw, and I have to tell you it was extremely difficult.  I guess the proper way can, like the Renaissance that inspired Florentine artists, be traced back to Greek philosophy.  Moderation in all things.  I had to work to balance the obsessive need I had to see all the great works of art and architecture with the simple enjoyment of what is a beautiful city.  Not that it stopped me from dragging them to Santa Croce to see the Pazzi Chapel on our last day, but I made sure to leave time to wander through the city one last time before dinner.

I think in some ways why I’ve found it so difficult to really work on this blog.  Once you start to analyze art too much it loses its power.  Sometimes you have to stand in front of a work of art and simply enjoy the experience and feel the emotions.  Even I can forget to be excited about art sometimes.  Visiting the favorites helps.  Standing in front of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus I can tell you I wasn’t thinking about what the painting meant to art history or how the artist had constructed the work.  It’s a beautiful painting, pure and simple.  To think anything beyond that is to diminish the talent of the artist.  I guess, too, that art is in many ways like life itself.  It should never be taken too seriously.  There are times you can learn more from the emotions than any of the academics.