26 March 2011

Pablum or Meat - Museum Exhibitions

It always makes for a pleasant weekend when one of us suggests that we go to a museum.  We do share a common attitude in museum attendance, and one that I share with my daughter as well.  I found this out when Anna and I went to the Vatican Museum in 2000.  In the lobby, she sat me down and said, "Dad, I don't do museums with any body."  "Great!" I replied, "I'll meet you back here at 4:30."  And so it is with Arthur and me - we go our separate ways, bumping into each other occasionally and making comments.  Over the past two weekends, we went to see three separate exhibitions that interested us - wending our way separately and then sharing thoughts.

The first was the Splendors of Faith, Scars of Conquest Exhibition at the Oakland Museum of California.  The museum just reopened a couple of months ago, after an extensive rehabilitation project that was long over due.  When we went for the reopening, we both felt that the exhibitions at the museum had been "dumbed down", not layering the amount of information that could be available either on the piece or the artist or the event.  In this particular exhibition, whose title promises a great deal of content and historical analysis, there was precious little.  Some items were miss-identified or the explanations of the object revealed a woeful lack of understanding of Roman Catholic liturgy and symbology.  The culture upon which all of this religiosity was imposed was barely mentioned, and the accommodations that the Church made to native understandings was either ignored or unknown.  I expected that there would be a piece on Churrigueresque, but perhaps that was too late a development for this exhibition.  The long and the short of it is that the show didn't deliver what the title promised, and didn't talk about the culture that received these baroque wonders.  We left a bit disappointed.

The next visit was to the Palace of the Legion of Honor, where we went to see Pulp Fashion - the art of Isabelle de Borchgrave.  Friends had been raving about this show, in which the artist reproduces costume shown in paintings from various museums, including the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, in paper.  

After one is stunned by the craft of the works, little else is there.  Several pieces were said to be "inspired" by works at the Uffizi, or the Louvre, but the inspiration wasn't faithful to the original.  I wondered what the art was, other than a very careful craft.  Of more interest were various samples of fabric, tapestry, and lace from the museum's own fabric collection, along with a couple of pieces of furniture.  This was something with which I could relate.  These artifacts were true representatives of their time and art, rather than being an "inspiration" of what that art was like.  However, there were some fine curatorial comments, noting what the social function of a few articles of clothing - attempting to link this effort to the real.  It, however, was not enough.  We both met at the appointed time a place and confessed that we were a bit underwhelmed.  It was definitely time for lunch.

There was still time in the afternoon, so we headed over to the de Young.  There were two exhibitions going on there, The huge Balenciaga and Spain, which had just opened that day, and the wonderful Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico.  The Balenciaga exhibition, which would have served as a great foil to the Pulp Fashion show, was likely to be very crowded and could be enjoyed another day.  The Olmec show was just amazing, and we thoroughly enjoyed it.  Here was an exhibition of artifacts that entertained, and educated, giving the museum goer a real sense of this 15th Century BCE civilization.  There was a good audio guide, excellent notations at the showcases or at the objects themselves, a video on various aspects of the archeology and the artifacts, and a sense that there was some respectable scholarship involved in staging and documenting the exhibition.

Unlike the Pulp exhibition at the Legion, and the Faith exhibition in Oakland, one got the sense of really engaging with the human experience of another time and age.  Although there is still no reliable ability to translate Olmec inscriptions, the iconographers have done an excellent job of tying the human experience recorded in the artifacts themselves with the natural world around - the world of time, the world of animals, and the world of cult, that hoped to bridge all of the Olmec experience.  This was a direct connect, unlike the Spanish missionaries who interpreted their catholic culture in European models laid upon a native culture (which was not interpreted at all in the exhibition) and unlike the craft of the artist whose "meta art" of the clothing of portraiture actually put another layer between the viewer and the human experience documented in the paintings.  We both left fulfilled. I felt a sermon coming on.