09 July 2006

Memorable Museum Moments

Perhaps this should be titled Memorable Art Moments, but all of these are in museums and I like the alliteration, so there.

In thinking about my upcoming vacation and the opportunities to go to some great museums I don't have ready access to (oh, too many choices...) I found myself reminiscing about art experiences I've had. Those kicked-in-the-gut, will-never-forget moments where I can remember not just the work of art, but the surroundings -- the sounds, the lighting, the physical presence of the gallery, the smells; in short, the "complete" experience, experiences so powerful that I hope they are imprinted forever on my brain so that I don't forget them.

Impression Sunrise at Musee Marmottan Monet. Whenever anyone asks me for recommendations in Paris, I can't help but say 'if you only go to one museum, go to the Marmottan'. I'm sure many would disagree with me -- and I don't know that you can go wrong with any of the museums in Paris -- but Musee Marmottan Monet, a small museum tucked away in a Parisian neighborhood that houses several of Monet's larger scaled waterlillies as well as a large collection of works by Manet and Berth Morisot, is my favorite. I was wandering through the galleries when I came across Impression Sunrise. I knew of the work, but didn't know it was in this museum. It was a surprising find. It is small and unassuming. And yet, you only need to glance at it for a short time to know why the title of this work gave name to an entire movement in art. One can only imagine how people looked at this and knew that something very different was happening with Monet and the other painters at the first Impressionist Exhibition. I can picture not only the painting but exactly where it was hanging when I last saw it. I'm sure I could walk right to it if I were there today.

The Brancusi sculptures at MOMA: Positioned between two galleries, a grouping of Brancusi sculptures rest on their pedestals on a raised platform. You can walk around to view the grouping on 3 sides. (I think these are the works: Bird in Space, Blond Negresse II, The Cock, Young Bird, Endless Column) Individually, each sculpture is beautiful, majestic, and demands your eye. As a whole they are like flowers wild in a field: simple, elegant, a landscape. What I wanted to do was to have the gallery to myself so I could walk up to each and touch it, to feel the difference in temperatures between the brass, the wood, the marble. Or lie down on the floor in front of them and gaze at them uninterrupted.

The Seagram Murals at The Tate Modern: I had only a passing knowledge of Rothko and knew nothing about these paintings when I first encountered them in 2001. They hang in a room by themselves between two larger, brightly lit galleries. The walls are grey, the lights dim. Maybe it is because the lights are dim and the walls darkened, but this room just feels cooler than the rest of the museum. If you sit on the bench and study the murals they seem to both fade into the wall and to jump out apart from it, background and painting moving in and out of focus, complimenting each other, blending together, and separating each other. I have sat in front of these paintings on each return visit since I first saw them. The murals are jarringly emotional. It was only as I was leaving the room on that first visit that I read the story of these paintings: After returning his commission and refusing to have the paintings displayed at The Four Seasons in the Seagram building, Rothko gave them to the Tate on the condition that they be displayed according to his design and with instructions that they be displayed apart from other works. With ironic timing, they arrived at the Tate the day that the news of Rothko's suicide was announced. This quote has been attributed to Rothko: "I am not an abstract painter. I am not interested in the relationship between form and colour. The only thing I care about is the expression of man's basic emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, destiny." These paintings are more than just black and red painted canvas on grey walls, they are bold emotion hanging on a wall. It's a safe bet that I'll spend at least a few minutes in front of these on my next trip to London.

Calder, Indianapolis Children's Museum. There wasn't just one piece of art in this exhibit that was memorable -- it was the entire exhibit. This exhibit was about 10 years ago. It was interesting that it wasn't in an 'art' museum, but a Children's Museum (local bias aside, this is a great children's museum, for both kids and adults). I remember my son, who was about seven years old, and me standing under one of Calder's mobiles. Following the instructions posted we jumped up & down and flapped our arms like whooping cranes doing a mating dance. Why? To create just enough air turbulence to make the mobile start to move. Kinetic! What a great experience. What a great way to introduce kids to art by getting them to interact with it and to have fun.

Whenever I return to a museum I'm conflicted whether I want it to be just the same as the last time I was there, with my favorites in the places I expect, or if I want them to have changed. There's always a little apprehension that I may look at a work and think "Why did I like that?" Of course, I've changed so I should expect my reaction to a work of art to have changed too. Still, one's initial reactions are those that tend to stay with you, as if they too were changed by the experience. I came across this quote recently that sums this up well: "When art is made, we are made new with it." (John Russell).

The Guardian on The Seagram Murals

Brancusi at MOMA

Musee Marmottan Monet

No comments: