Monday, August 24, 2009

The Weekend Report: Ode to Art Museums

I am by no means an artist. But I am an appreciator of art. That means that if you put a pencil/paintbrush/chalk/crayon in my hand, nothing good will come of it, but if you drop me off at an art museum, I will be set for the day.
That is yet another reason why DC is the best city for me. It combines two things I love – art museums and free stuff! What more could I ask for? (Use your tax dollars - go to a national museum!)

If you’re one of those people who hates art museums and thinks they’re boooorrrring, I’m not going to judge you – I once felt exactly the same way. I spent most of my childhood hating being dragged to various art exhibits. Their only redeeming feature in my eyes was that sometimes my mom would let us miss school to see a special exhibit on a weekday (because who likes crowds?). We would meet my grandma at the de Young or the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, peruse the exhibit, and then go out to lunch at the museum cafĂ©, Cliffhouse, or The Beach Chalet.

So in my eyes:
Pros = missing school, delicious lunch, feeling like a grown-up “lady” with my grandma
Price = spend some time with art

This attitude has evolved over time into a true love and
 appreciation for art museums. I love their air-conditioned quiet. You can’t be stressed in an art museum, you just can’t. In a city where museums are free, I don’t feel any pressure to see everything at once – I walk through the exhibits I like, look right, look left, stop if I feel so inclined, and then leave when I get tired. Sometimes I stay for the whole day, sometimes just an hour.
And I said, I am no artistic expert. Some “art” I just don’t get. It doesn’t matter how you explain it to me, a toilet is a toilet, it is not an artistic creation. And call it any fancy names you want, but a solid painted canvas is something even I am capable of. Sometimes I walk into a gallery and the first thought that pops into my head is “Ooh, ick, ugly art.” You know what I mean?
But for all the art I don’t get, there is exponentially more art that I do get.
This weekend I went to two museums. The first was the National Gallery, and the second was the American Indian Museum. Both are impressive Smithsonians – I’ve probably been to the National Gallery 10 times over the past two summers (it’s huge, so I recommend taking it one part at a time. One day I spend a few hours looking at all the Dutch Master’s paintings -  omg if I never see another still life again I will be ok…how is it that such a small country produced so much art???). But the Impressionist Exhibit there is phenomenal. In my mind that’s all you really need to see, the rest is just fluff.

The American Indian Museum is not an art museum at all, and spending an afternoon there made me realize why I prefer art museums. At an art museum, all you have to do is walk around and look at things. You see beautiful/interesting/ugly paintings, they make you think/feel/whatever something, and mission accomplished. But in a history/culture museum, there is a whole lot more work involved – you get out what you put in – you need to read all the plaques. It’s like a giant, visually engaging, interestingly designed history book. 

You all know I love to read, but some afternoons I’m just too ignorant-American style lazy.
Bottom line, I prefer an art museum.  And as I perused the exhibits at the national Gallery on Saturday with two friends (one new to DC, and one an artist) I realized that though I do not consider myself an “art person,” I am full of fun facts about art, artists, art dealers, and art theft.

Why? Books! Knowing the story behind a museum or a painting makes the experience more interesting and enjoyable. It’s kind of like combining the chock-full-of-info style of the American Indian Museum, with the purely visual National Gallery.
There are a lot of books about art – some non-fiction, some stories based on paintings, some stories inspired by paintings.
So here is a list of the art books I have read:
- Historical Fiction - Vreeland tells the story of August Renoir's famous painting by the same name. She tells of the artist's struggle to capture "la vie moderne" on canvas, while working with an array of models, including friends, other Impressionists, and a few lovers - all within 2 months of summer. You can see the actual painting at the Philips Collection in DC. 

- A memoir/biography written by the famous Impressionist's son (who himself became a famous filmmaker) depicting the life of a struggling artist and master of his craft. 
- Joseph Duveen was the art dealer for John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Mellon, Henry Clay Frick, and William Randolph Hearst. This biography is full of interesting information about how one clever man is responsible for many of the masterpieces in American museums today. 
- Non-fiction detective story about the greatest art theft off modern times. 

- This book-become-movie is a fictional tale based on the painting by Vermeer. 
- The fictional story of an adventure through France in a quest to find a stolen $30-million Cezanne.