I went on a 4-day road trip to Philadelphia last week, and amongst other things, saw a lot of really good art.
Of course I went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, my main motivation being that they have an excellent collection of work by Marcel Duchamp, knowing pretty much zilch about the collection other than that. They did have lots of Duchamp, and much more.
One interesting thing about the Philadelphia Museum of Art is that there are copyists in the galleries. I would guess offhand that it must be in affiliation with one of the many local art schools. Here’s one at work copying Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s painting, A Reading from Homer. That’s a pretty old-school (literally) approach to learning to paint, and I’m pleased to see that the kids are still down with that.
One of the things I like best about going to art museums is that you not only get to see work that you have only seen in reproduction, but you also get to really get up close. Take Chuck Close (no pun intended), for example. I really enjoy his work and have seen a bunch of his early photorealist work in real life, and it is impressive in magnitude and execution. His more recent work is a more complex tiling-based approach where each tile contains swirls and loops of a range of colours that, at a distance, cohere into a clear portrait. Take this portrait of Paul Cadmus from the Philadelphia Museum of art as an example:
Pretty cool, right? The thing you never notice in reproduction though is that those tiles are actually really painterly and loose. The brushstrokes are very unrestrained and while the repetition of the tiles themselves is very orderly, the grid lends a rhythmic quality to the freedom of the marks, like the visual equivalent of listening to music. It’s also all the more remarkable to see how much variation in colour really is going on there.
Another fun artist to do this with is James Rosenquist.
One of the interesting things about Rosenquist is that he started out as a billboard sign painter, back in the time when billboards were painted, and you can really see how the apparently finely detailed figurative realism in his work is actually quite loose when you get up close to it.
When you see details sometimes the work just makes more sense. For instance, Alice Neel – I’ve seen this painting in reproduction a gazillion times and it just does nothing for me. In real life, I saw how it’s this great combination of painterly and graphic approaches, though, and fell in love. I mean really, just look at that knee. Now that’s painting!
Then there are some paintings that go beyond mere craft and transcend form entirely. Take, for example, this painting by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Think of the lives he must have crossed paths with in late 19th century Paris, the countless faces shambling through the pains and triumphs of their lives, working, loving, living – all lost to the ages, because Toulouse-Lautrec decided to paint this stupid little dog instead. I love this painting. It’s so kitsch it’s a transgressive act of genius.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art actually does have a remarkably good collection on display taking into consideration that it’s not a huge space. Well, it is actually a very big building, but there’s not a lot of gallery space given the physical footprint of the building. It’s really quite massive, but very airy, a bit more reminiscent of a train station than an art museum. With the limited amount of wall space, the work on display is all wheat, no chaff. They have a few very good Monet paintings, for example, that I had no idea were in Philadelphia – including my very favourite Monet of all time.
People go on about Monet’s haystacks, his Poplar Series, and his paintings of his garden, but for me, this painting of a winter scene is a masterwork that shows off everything Monet knows about form and colour. Maybe it’s because I’m Canadian, but the subtlety required of a snow scene is to me the finest proof of painterly skill. I mean, really – viridian green? Cobalt blue? This is off the hook.
I know, right? Of course you want to see another detail, I completely understand. That’s alizarin crimson in there!
The special exhibit is currently a really good collection of Korean art, Treasures From Korea – no photography was allowed inside the exhibit so you’ll have to be satisfied with this shot I took of the display poster. It’s a detail of the larger piece that I found really compelling as it shows off a lot of the decorative motifs common to Korean (and Japanese and Chinese) textiles with a more naturalistic approach. I had no idea the scalloped patterns represent rocks, for instance. In this shot I juxtaposed it against the rigid architecture because that’s how I roll.
There was lots to see, but of course there was the Duchamp. I have written about Duchamp at length so I won’t bore you with repetition, but suffice to say that the Big Glass is far more impressive in real life than in reproduction, which should come as no surprise. One of the things I like best about the room Duchamp’s work is displayed in is that it is very light, and the play of light really brings out the Big Glass in a way I did not expect.
After a few hours in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I made my way over to the Rodin Museum, a couple of blocks away. It is not a vey big collection, but it is the best outside of Paris. Housed in a custom-built edifice that bears an eerie resemblance to the mausoleum in Arnold Böcklin’s painting, the Isle of the Dead. It’s pretty nifty in that you get to see a wide variety of Rodin’s work, from sketchy studies in plaster to fully realized bronzes, as well as a variety of his works in marble. Of course they have “the Kiss” in marble, “the Burghers of Calais” in bronze, etc. It’s pretty remarkable that Rodin’s artistic vision could be fluently expressed through both additive and subtractive approaches. Modelling and carving require very different artistic strengths, and Rodin was a master at both. Right at the front door is the impressive Gates of Hell, a mass of writhing forms depicting Dante’s “Inferno”. Here’s a detail.
Inside, there are a few galleries radiating off of a central gallery that shows a variety of finished pieces including lots of studies of hands. Boy, could Rodin ever do hands.
One of the pieces I liked best was a small, rough piece called “the Sorceress”. Mike Mignola is an artist best known for the Hellboy comics, and I’m a fan of his work. This particular Rodin sculpture reminds me a lot of Mignola’s Baba Yaga. I wonder if Mignola is a Rodin fan. If not, he should be.
In any case, the shots that I have posted here represent only a very small portion of what you can expect to see at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Rodin Museum. There’s lots more art to see in Philadelphia, besides these two museums, too. The Barnes Foundation, for example, is supposedly awesome but unfortunately it requires advance reservations to get in, which I did not know (and isn’t explicitly mentioned on their website) so be forewarned. That aside, there really is a lot to see and do. If you should happen to be anywhere near Philadelphia or are considering a road trip that includes a healthy dose of art, I strongly recommend the City of Brotherly Love.
It’s a well-known fact that women are under-represented in most histories of art, especially before the 1960s. When we look at even modernist art movements, it’s rare to see women really talked about in books or represented in museum collections. When we think about surrealism, for example, one of the most iconic works of the movement is Meret Oppenheim’s “Object”, a teacup and saucer covered in fur – but when we read about surrealists, it’s usually about Dali & Magritte, or some other man.
It gets worse when we go pre-modernist as the areas of art that women traditionally worked within are undervalued; friezes, frescoes, and sculptures we hear about – but embroidery & weaving? Not so much.
In 1985 Guerilla Girls formed to showcase the undervaluing of women in the arts.
Guerrilla Girls were formed by 7 women artists in the spring of 1985 in response to the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture”, which opened in 1984. The exhibition was the inaugural show in the MoMA’s newly renovated and expanded building, and was planned to be a survey of the most important contemporary artists.
In total, the show featured works by 169 artists, of whom only 13 were female.
Now, I know I’m hammering on the same nail here, but the point of the Guerilla Girls bears repeating…
According to (the Guerilla Girls), male artists and the male viewpoint continued to dominate the visual art world. In a 1989 poster (displayed on NYC buses) titled “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” they reported that less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections of the Met. Museum were women, but 85% of the nudes were female.
Over 20 years later, women were still under-represented in the art world. In 2007, Jerry Saltz (journalist from the New York Times) criticized the Museum of Modern Art for undervaluing work by female artists. Of the 400 works of art he counted in the Museum of Modern Art, only 14 were by women (3.5%). Saltz also found a significant under-representation of female artists in the six other art institutions he studied.
The dearth of women being represented in the arts doesn’t end with art history texts and museums, though, it’s also evident in progressive metatexts like wikipedia. Why aren’t female artists as well represented as male artists? Well, not to make to fine a point, but quite simply nobody has been submitting female artists to the collective knowledge base.
Enter the Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon.
Last Saturday, about 600 volunteers in 31 venues around the globe engaged in a collective effort to change the world, one Wikipedia entry at a time.
In the United States, Canada, Australia, Italy, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, in nonprofits and art schools, in museums and universities, these people—mostly women—set out to write entries, uncredited and unpaid, for the fast-growing crowd-sourced online encyclopedia.
They had answered a call for the Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon, a massive multinational effort to correct apersistent bias in Wikipedia, which is disproportionally written by and about men.
One of the things I like best about the internet is how it enables diverse groups of people to interact with one another meaningfully in knowledge-sharing and in creating stronger networks . This kind of effort is exactly the sort of thing that puts the lie to early pooh-poohers of the internet that said nobody would contribute their knowledge for free… People not only do contribute to the internet for free, but revel in it.
As an opportunity for feminist history, the internet is unequalled – it is egalitarian in that the only information that exists is the information entered into it. When it hits a network with wide dispersal like Wikipedia, the only limitation is the involvement of the public.
There is some very cool work in here that I have to admit I was not aware of before; it is absolutely worth checking out.
My personal fave from the project is Eve Mosher:
Eve Mosher is an American environmental artist living and working in New York City. She is best known for her public art installation HighWaterLine, which premiered in New York City in 2007. Her predictions about where waters would rise due to climate change were validated by flood levels during Hurricane Sandy in 2012…. Eve Mosher used topographic maps, satellite images, and data from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies at Columbia University, to predict the locations likely to be subject to flooding. Then Mosher walked 70 miles of New York coastline to draw a 4″ blue chalk line on the ground, marking the predicted water levels.
I like this piece in particular in that it turned out to be prophetic – when Hurricane Irene hit New York it flooded to pretty much where Mosher predicted, destroying many of the Chelsea galleries.
In any case, check out the project. You will find an inspiring artist you have never heard of, in all probability.
And now that you’re inspired, add to the profile of a woman artist on Wikipedia, or start a new one. I can think of a couple of existing profiles I’d love to flesh out offhand, Genevieve Cadieux, Jana Sterbak, Betty Goodwin, and Irene Whittome – for a start.