Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Soul Deep (A Day At The Philadelphia Museum)


        I made the acquaintance of this German vise (ca. 1500) two days ago at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 

        We spent several hours at PMA on Saturday, while Jane was in Puerto Rico, and for reasons I can’t be entirely sure about (the quality of light that day?, rearrangements in the galleries?, mood and state of mind?), it was my most enjoyable visit there in a very long time, and had some of the unexpected and appealing qualities of the first Night At The Museum movie, i.e., there was a palpable feeling of life, animation and expectant greeting in the artworks, which set aside usual "casting" priority relationships and found typically supporting player pieces (like this vise) sometimes assuming leading roles. 

        As additional examples, please see Pablo Picasso's marvelous small  Owl sculpture (1950)  above, perched on its lintel in a high corner of one of the Cubist galleries, or Andre Masson's Italian Postcard (1925) below, in its exquisite and unique wooden frame by Pierre Legrain.  Italian Postcard is an odd, uncharacteristic example of Masson's work, obviously derivative of major Cubist painting, but accomplished and affecting nonetheless (especially seen in conjunction with its wooden surround and in proper lighting showing its rich and subtle coloring, rather than the washed-out, slightly denatured image presented here). Viewed in person, the painting clearly anticipates Masson's more effectively inward-outward mature works.

        I wish I could find an illustration of the German craftsman Urban Holtzwarm's ca. 1500 massive, but elegant wooden door frame with black metal jambs and ornaments. Set into the museum's ochre walls, it is an image of what I believe my mind looks like on its (rare) best days.  I can show, however, below PMA's newly acquired Grant Wood chalk and charcoal (with small amounts of painting) drawing, Plowing (1936), an impressive American dreamscape, and another new acquisition, Juan Gris' 1909-10 charcoal Self-Portrait No. 1, a small work that on Saturday stood out among the impressive company of Cezannes, Monets, Manets, Braques and Brancusis, for its gravity, truth, skill and promise of the greatness that lay ahead.

        Five well-known works, all famous masterpieces, obviously, kept me up most of the night thinking in bed after our revisit.  Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Mademoiselle Legrand (1875) affected me both as someone who loves Renoir's painting (especially following intervals away from it) and as a lonely father missing his daughter badly. Renoir's Les Grands Boulevards (1875) prompts hope for life in an eternal Paris in springtime or summer of the mind, as well as regret for a New York City that seems lost forever.

        Rogier van der Weyden's 1460 Crucifixion and Thomas Eakins' 1880 Crucifixon both serve to remind of the conventions and artifice of painting, and the intersections of realism and abstraction, while powerfully and dramatically presenting their important subject.


        Along with Peter Paul Rubens' Prometheus Bound (1611-18), they also remind and state in certain terms what great vision, surpassing talent and supreme achievement are, i.e., how good good needs to be before we are compelled to recognize its quality.  (They and the other works featured here also remind how lucky one is to live in the neighborhood of a world-class museum of art.) 


        Bob Dylan wrote perceptively in Visions of Johanna: "inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial/voices echo 'this is what salvation must be like after a while'".  Saturday's visit to Philadelphia Museum seemed to indicate that infinity continues to make a convincing case for its existence. I am grateful for this, small gnat-like impediments like Bruce Nauman's 1967 neon work  The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (Window or Wall Sign), a fairly recent PMA acquisition,  notwithstanding.


  1. Those Renoirs are almost painfully beautiful. The Nauman piece is puzzling. I didn't find it immediately offensive.

  2. The Renoirs are really superb. The museum owns others that are just as nice. I don't find the Nauman piece offensive, just...uh-obvious and puerile, like something I myself might come up with. There are many examples of "conceptual"-type art that I find intellectually and viscerally engaging. And I love neon. Nauman generally leaves me cold, however. The various new acquisitions on view are mostly very, very impressive. It was a splendid, springlike (windy, though) afternoon. Now it's cold and snowy again. Damn. Curtis