The Blog

| July 17, 2015

Number 124

Lasting Impressions

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has a major Impressionist show up right now. I went to see it ... because you do.

I like the Impressionists… for the most part. Everbody likes the Impressionists… for the most part. So the museum put on another show, promising a lot of important pieces rarely seen. Think about that. Major works by major artists that are rarely seen… because they’re in a vault… or in a basement… because there isn’t enough wall space in the world… because there are too many paintings. How about that? Strange thought. And not a good one. Especially if you paint.

Anyway, I went to the museum alone. Sometimes I like to go to museums alone. It feels very personal and you have the added bonus feature of watching people watching art and that’s always entertaining. Here, a very serious art student writing copious notes about a Monet landscape, probably spending more time writing than he did painting; there, a much older couple who walk hand in hand, greeting each painting as if they’re old friends, which, in a way, they are. Little kids, young families, wonderfully eccentric seniors (my group), the occasional stalker, many accents, many attitudes. The art is definitely not only on the walls.

The museum is beautiful and they always mount a beautiful show. But I’m one room in and not loving it. I don’t think all of these pieces are the artist’s best works. Maybe that’s why they’ve been in the basement. And then, when I realized that, I immediately enjoyed the show more because I realized I actually had a valid opinion about that. One of the great things about getting older is, you develop these opinions based on experience and interest and stuff and you’re no longer regurgitating ideas you’ve been taught just because you were taught them a long time ago by someone who knew more… at the time.

The, to me, curious selections become mystery links between career periods. The trees are nasty, but look what he did with the shadows over there – that’s gonna happen more often… or… Step away from the pink and blue, just a thought… or… I like that scene every time someone paints it. Maybe you want to turn around and see what’s in the other direction?

Just because a painter is historically-A-list famous, doesn’t mean they never had an off day… or era (i.e. Picasso, the Rose Period) and it’s ok to look at a hand-picked painting in a hand-curated show and say to yourself, and by yourself, I mean me,”I usually like Manet but that’s just bad.” Funny thing is, he may have agreed.  A lot of the art that makes it into these “rarely seen” exhibits is art that the artist never meant to be seen. Kind of invasive, but that’s a whole other topic.

So, I’m veering back to the point about having an opinion that you’re completely comfortable with, for example, 90% of Matisse’s paintings are ugly to me and I think many people only say they like him because they think they’re supposed to, or Ellsworth Kelly’s body of work would make for a beautiful scarf collection. The great thing about art of any kind is that you do have a personal relationship with it and sometimes things touch you and you can’t say why and sometimes things are hideous to you and you can’t say why. But you’re having a conversation and it’s a good thing.

After I wandered through the rest of the Impressionist exhibit, having enjoyed the Sisley’s and Pisarro’s for the most part (It’s always a beautiful day in Sisley-ville), trying to ignore the Renoirs and the Cassatts for the most part (Mary, what happened to their faces?), I thought it might be interesting to run through the museum, literally run through it and seek out some old favorites and see what grabbed my attention or spoke to me, as it were, without any preconceived notions. So, iPhone at the ready, I took off and this is what stayed with me.

1. Joseph Cornell Untitled – quiet and private and odd and precise.

2. Paul KleeFish Magic – looks like music and it’s funny and kinda nightlife-y. He was a little whacky.

3. Marcel DuchampNude Descending a Staircase – great title, phenomenal movement and it’s hung next to a staircase. Bonus irony.

4. Claude Monet Morning Haze – not often a fan, rarely in fact, but the color palette in this is so beautiful, in a supremely subtle way.

5. James WhistlerNocturne – thought it was huge, turns out to be tiny. I love this. Practically edible. The frame’s a disaster.

6. Master of the Tiburtine Sibyl – The Marriage of the Virgin, with the Expulsion of Saint Joachim from the Temple, the Angel Appearing to Saint Joachim, the Meeting at the Golden Gate, the Birth of the Virgin, and the Presentation of the Virgin – it’s like a full season miniseries in one shot with incredible composition and balance and color and storylines and everything represents something and there’s an angel hovering in the background. Happymaking.

7. Peter Paul RubensPrometheus Bound – powerful, sexy, dynamic and brilliantly composed. 4 characteristics I always strive for.

8. Barbara MorganMartha Graham and me – it takes a lot of strength to make delicate beauty.

9. Charles DemuthThe Green Dancer – attitude and confident style, and you can hear the beat.

10. Henri Matisse Icarus – The paintings – hit or miss. The cut outs – usually. Cut outs with hand writing – Magic!

It’s a nicely diverse group, I think, and an interesting exercise with iPhone in hand. It’s also a self-analytic photo album, no denying it.

Next time you’re in a museum, and picture taking is allowed, try it. Find what you like, not what someone tells you to like. Give it a moment.Take a picture, mentally or actually. And bring it home. Curate your own personal memory exhibition! Every picture tells a story. Listen.

What we see depends mainly on what we look for.

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