Sunday, December 12, 2010

One Life At The Museum

by Sophie


Before I get going on today's topic, one I love, I have a little Pens-on-the-Loose photo to share. Juliet and I were down at one of our favorite bookstores over the weekend, Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego, for their holiday party and author event. We saw old friends, were introduced to some of the seasons hot titles by reps from Harper Collins and Random House, and met some fun people including YA authors Cindy Pon and Andrew Smith; Scott Browne, who wrote BREATHERS (which, as some of you know, is my second-favorite funny zombie book after DAWN OF THE DREADFULS); and the astonishing and tireless Philip Margo who was a member of the Tokens, that band that sang "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." Uh huh. That one. Now I can't get that song out of my head!

Me, Mysterious Galaxy publicity manager Maryelizabeth Hart, and Juliet

Back to the subject.

I'm a museum brat from way back. My mother was an artist, and she took me into the big city of St. Louis - quite an intimidating journey, from our smallish town two and a half hours away - several times to see shows at the Museum of Art. My mom could be a little prickly about art - it mattered deeply to her, and her opinions were closely held - but I have to say that when we went to the museum, she allowed the art to do all the talking. She kept her own counsel; she was not one of those dreadful loud people who carry on conversations in galleries as though - as though (can you tell I am sputtering?) - as though they are on their own *driveway* talking to the neighbors twenty feet away - -bah!

Museum of Art in St. Louis

These were in the days before audio guides. (Now, with the iphone apps, I think the entire museumgoing experience is changed forever; I can't decide how I feel about this. I daresay I appreciate the eerily silent crowd; and yet, I cannot believe it is a good thing for *all* of us to attend without comment. Perhaps if they allowed *me* to choose who could speak, and not?)

So anyway, I was exposed early, and there lodged in me a lifelong love of not just art but a true reverence for museums. I prefer the imposing ones, the oldest ones our country has to offer, though of course these are not very old at addition to the one in St. Louis - which will always be my favorite - I love the NY Met and the Chicago Art Institute and the Philadelphia museum of art, where I was briefly a volunteer. I am fond of the American Crafts Museum in New York - it was a favorite destination when my brother and I used to prowl NYC in the 80s. I have an uneasy relationship with the MOMAs on both coasts - I heartily endorse their existence, but I visit with about the same enthusiasm as I attend Mass - I feel I should, now and then, but I never particularly enjoy it. (I'll let Juliet explain her feelings about modern vs non-modern, high vs low; what she says what she says what she says.)

I have an emotional relationship with several pieces in a variety of cities that is too personal and in some cases, too melancholy to explore here. The thought of one work in particular always moves me to tears, though the story is a complicated one. I mention this only to make the point that I think that those who wander in and out of museums over the course of a lifetime are the true and right beneficiaries of permanent collections: far better for ____ to reside at the Art Institute in Chicago, where I know I can always find it - repository of my precious memories and stories - than in my own living room, which seems by comparison far too risky.

(I know that, here, i should chime in on art being for the masses, and accessibility and all that - but that's not my particular crusade. My mother made me feel like all the art in St. Louis was ours - for those few hours when we visited - and that is how I prefer to view it to this day. I ignore the busloads of visitors, the schoolchildren and the foreign tourists and the elderly ladies. My favorites are MINE and there is a small mean corner of my soul that doesn't want to share.)

Yes, of *course* I took my children to museums! I took them out of grade school without a second thought; I took their girl scout and boy scout troops. I took my daughter at the age of 5 to a Magritte exhibit featuring paintings of women's sexual organs (Geogria O'Keefe? - ho hum) and told her what they were when she asked. I don't regret that. I took my son to a Japanese textile exhibit that bored him to tantrums; his response was understandable, but I made up for it with a photograph of a sneeze magnified many times over (snot!! in mid-air!) and a performance art piece where a video played in a loop, of hairs being plucked from a scalp - magnified, again, many many times - perhaps that being the secret to modern installations. (Juliet will explain - I'm quite sure of it.)

a perplexing installation at the SF MOMA a year ago...

My favorite moments in museums, however, have been the ones when I have been alone. I suppose my mother is there with me, in some way, always; but on an inclement winter Tuesday afternoon, one can still find a gallery to oneself, I imagine, in any major museum. I like being there with my thoughts. I like to approach the canvases (oh, and if I didn't mention it before, my preference is for painting - acrylic or oil, with watercolor a distant second - then drawing, especially studies in a bold hand; and then three-dimensional art, but only if I must) and look at the brushstrokes, then draw back and squint. I can do that for a very long time.

I don't know how to wrap this post up. It's late; I'm travel-weary. Maybe I'll just share a couple of the first works I feel irrevocably in love with:

Study by Drurer

Cezanne - Blue Vase


Rachael Herron said...

This is so interesting -- I approach museums and art so differently (but never, ever loudly) and I love hearing your (vastly more educated) take. I love a 3D Calder mobile, though. :) Welcome home!

Virna DePaul said...

Hi Sophie

I love the topic of museums. I'm going to Dublin in early Feb and wondering if there's one there I should visit. I miss going to museums without kids so I can explore at my leisure!

Unknown said...

Virna--you want to go see the Book of Kells at Trinity College. Totally worth the line :)

What Sophie didn't mention is whenever she is in a new city she tries to visit a museum. Art Institute in Chicago is one of my favorites too :)

Gigi Pandian said...

I'm with you, I love it when I can explore an uncrowded museum. I'm happy to see that big museums I've visited recently are flourishing, but that said, my favorite museum experience of the year was the Musee des Arts et Metiers in Paris. It's cool enough that it would have been high on my list regardless, but the fact that I didn't have to elbow my way to the exhibits was a HUGE plus.

I don't go to local museums nearly enough. This topic may inspire me to plan an excursion...

Mystii said...

Love it, thanks for sharing this!!!!

I finally got to see my favorite in Chicago, my only visit (for business, exactly 4 hours spare time for me) so far. Hopper hopper hopper hopper.

I always feel like a clod in museums, because I want to talk to everyone about what I'm seeing and feeling. Paintings so striking they should be a shared experience, but I've no idea what the rules are (first museum visit, age 16). Sometimes I just want to stand there forever, drinking it in.

The old Asian Art museum when it was in the Park. Then I'd always find a new hand of Bhudda that struck me still and silent, and seemed to communicate directly with my spirit. It was weird.

Mysti said...

oops, Buddha. my bad.

Sophie Littlefield said...

rachael...and mysti - it's me who's in the wrong, i think - people moved to talk about the art should do so. I just hate posers, you know, the people who turn to their companion and say "did you know that [fill in arcane art fact]" just to show off. But if you were to say "I love it! It's so....whatever" that would be fine with me. Or even "I hate it."

I actually love going with my sister. We get real immature and say things like "isn't that the exact shade of green as that rug you got by the toilet? sure would look nice in there!"

Sophie Littlefield said...

oh and no one should feel like a clod in museums. i am reversing myself a little. people who are just waiting until they have put in enough time so they can justify the snack shop and gift shop should be transported, star-trek-style, away...then everyone else should have fun.

Sophie Littlefield said...

lisa, you *know* that i was thinking of you when I was writing about the art institute. :)

and gigi...i saw the musee d'orsay right after it had moved to its new digs. that's on my faves list too.

oh, another cool one...down in tampa they have a melty-clocks-guy museum. sorry, forgot his name.

Sophie Littlefield said...

and virna: SOME DAY i am going to the british isles and do nothing but museums and scotch. and fried foods.

Susan C Shea said...

I'm intrigued by the essay and the comments alike. I grew up in the Met in New York and just assume people visit museums like they do everything else in their daily lives - as natural and important as the dry cleaners and the grocery store. Like Sophie, I have favorite works all over the country and the world, and wouldn't dream of stopping by that museum without dropping in on the particular piece (or pieces) that is indelibly etched in my memory. Museums shouldn't be off-putting. Art should surprise, delight, nourish, and make you think and feel. The artists do what they do for US!

Unknown said...

Salvador Dali is melty clock guy :)

Susan-lots of people don't go to museums. I grew up outside of Chicago which has AMAZING museums and we always went. But oddly for such a cosmopolitan city San Francisco's museums are just okay. They are getting better. The DeYoung has really, really stepped up their exhibits since I moved here twenty years ago.

Susan C Shea said...


Yes, Chicago is amazing. And, I agree, SF's not. But check out the new Oakland museum, which IS. And I just visited the new Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento and am raving about it, not because it has a lot of A List artists, which it doesn't, but because the new space and the curating invited us to really see some wonderful lesser known artists.

Sophie Littlefield said...

hey susan! wow, an expert in our midst :) thanks for the reminder on oakland...i haven't been there in several years. i did see the day of the dead exhibit in oakland but it was elsewhere i think. and it had not occured to me to put the crocker on my list but consider it done!

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