Art makes life bearable

“Art makes life bearable. It isn’t a luxury. Like our capacity for understanding, and our experience of love, it is a vitally important part of life.” ~ Gillian Pederson-Krag

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Movie review: National Gallery (2014)

National Gallery is another documentary directed by Frederick Weiseman, very similar to the format of his later Ex Libris. He and his cameras are flies on the wall during the normal activities that occur in the National Gallery in London. Through his camera, we the audience are present for lectures about paintings, sketching workshops, painting restorations, board meetings, and artistic performances. There is no single narrative. We are left to take from the documentary what we will—sort of, I would argue, as one does by viewing a painting in an art museum.

I enjoyed listening to the mini-lectures that docents gave to groups at the National Gallery about a particular painting or artist. The docents describe context around the painting in order to help us view the painting in a different way. In one case, in a small gathering, a museum employee explains how and where the painting was made—in situ over a large, high fireplace to the right of a window that let in light. That he knew from knowledge of the painting’s providence, how light was used for painting before the advent of electricity, etc.

In another lecture, a museum employee walks a group through restoration of a huge image of a nobleman astride a horse. Before restoration, X-rays are taken. In this case, it showed another full figure painted underneath. The artist painted over it and rotated the canvas before painting what became his final piece. Over time paintings underneath bleed through. In this case, some of that bleeding through probably confused previous restorers of the painting about what to restore or what not to restore.

And I learned more about the restoration process. I always thought it odd that museums would touch up paintings. Doesn’t that risk damaging them? How is the modern-day museum employee able to touch up a painting that doesn’t do a disservice to the skill and technique used by the original artist? I learned that at least in modern day restoration, they clean the painting, re-varnish the painting, and then do the touch-ups on top of the varnish. By doing so, future restorations can easily remove the touch-ups and varnish when they clean the painting. So in essence, the painting isn’t damaged or permanently altered by touch-ups. Well, that’s not entirely true.

In another talk, an employee discusses how sometimes the original artist used a particular varnish on the painting to get a certain effect with the color. With restoration, when cleaning is done, the varnish is stripped off. So the original intent of the colors may be permanently altered. The restorer is in effect altering the painting. My original fear was well founded.

Like libraries in Ex Libris, art museums are moving beyond their traditional mission. In addition to being places to enjoy art, art museums like the National Gallery are becoming much more. The documentary shows the plethora of lectures to different audiences—in the gallery and back in the areas where restoration is done (normally not accessible to the public). Workshops employ different techniques, creating more 3D type images of paintings that blind audience members can feel as the speaker discusses the painting. Other workshops are hands-on creative enterprises—participants sketch human nudes.

A recent trend with art museums is to become more than places that house works of art. In the case of the National Gallery, it is working to become a place of doing art and enjoying performances. The National Gallery hosts musical and dance performances. Audience members enjoy the performance surrounded by beautiful works of art. The ambiance is as important as the performance itself.

In meetings that the documentary shows, the board is not ready to popularize the venue simply to bring in revenue. Other art museums have chosen the path of popularizing their venues. The modern goal of art museums seems to be to bring people (and revenue) into their spaces, not necessarily to enjoy the works of art, but to enjoy more popular activities and spaces—all in the name of popularizing their space (aka bringing in revenue). At what point does it go too far? The National Gallery seem to have a clear demarcation. Other museums, like the Indianapolis Museum of Art, are becoming more popular community spaces.

The IMA for several years has embraced the popularization movement. Some of their new activities try to meld art with popular appeal. Others not so much. For two years the museum hosted a mini-golf course, with each hole a work of art designed around a theme. The museum also opened a beer garden with at least one beer locally crafted specifically for the museum. Recently the museum completed an indoor/outdoor exhibit of cracking art—brightly colored plastic animal sculptures that spoke to environmental themes. For the second year, the museum is hosting an outdoor winter lights display—a grandiose affair in terms of time, effort, and money. For years, the museum has hosted film festivals and musical/ballet performances. The common theme seems to be to reach out to the non-art museum goer and get them into the museum or at least on the museum grounds.

The National Gallery, at least at the time of this documentary, decided against such a popularization. They discuss a marketing approach to museum, but seem to want to maintain the museum as an art venue meant for lovers of art, artistic performances, and artistic endeavors.

With the numerous mini-lectures that National Gallery shows, I felt that the three hours was an easier watch than Ex Libris. But I am a lover of traditional art museums and eagerly attend lectures on the works in their galleries. With the documentary, I was able to attend a number of mini lectures and learn interesting tidbits about how paintings are restored and how to look at paintings as stories and examine the context in which paintings were created. But I am an old-school art museum attendee. I ride the popularization wave albeit somewhat reluctantly.

Book review: The World of Pooh: The Complete Winnie-the-Pooh and The House At Pooh Corner

It is amazing how much of Pooh sticks with you over the years.

I had a longing to revisit Winnie-the-Pooh and managed to get my hands on the complete works of Pooh by A. A. Milne. I remember one particular Pooh book from my youth: the one where Pooh visits Rabbit and gets stuck in his doorway. This story is included in the complete works.

The Pooh stories were clearly inspired by a young boy and his teddy bear. Originally in the stories the bear was named Edward Bear but quickly referred to as Winne-the-Pooh. Milne created these stories to entertain a real Christopher Robin who dragged his stuffed bear around.

The stories in Winne-the-Pooh contain the original cast of characters: Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga and baby Roo. The House At Pooh Corner introduces Tigger to the Hundred Acre Wood. Christopher Robin is always popping in and out of the stories. He lives in a tree in the forest but is often out doing things and only occasionally joins the other inhabitants in the forest.

The stories were a delight to reread. I remember most, if not all, of the various chapter-length tales—the game of Poohsticks, Roo’s Strengthening Medicine, Eeyore losing his tail. This odd collection of friends is timeless. They do not age and frankly neither do you. Like Christopher Robin in the stories, you can pop in to visit them at any time and it feels like no time has passed since you last interacted with them.

Pooh and his friends seem like archetypes—I always thought that they each represent different aspects of ourselves. Rabbit the know-it-all. Owl the wise and knowledgeable. Kanga the kind mother. Roo the overexcited youngster. Eeyore the perpetually depressed. Piglet the anxious and fearful. (Well, he is a Very Small Animal after all.) Tigger the exuberant lover of life. Pooh the calm, humble bear who accepts all. (My favorite was always Tigger who is quite bouncy.)

I was surprised that in addition to the stories, I remembered the dialogue. Milne had a way with witty banter. I often found myself laughing out loud at exchanges between characters. In one story, Rabbit clearly wanted to be left alone, but he encountered Pooh who wanted to talk. (Who hasn’t been in this situation before?) “Hallo, Rabbit,” [Pooh] said, “is that you?” “Let’s pretend it isn’t,” said Rabbit, “and see what happens.” (page 106)

Other times, Pooh, a Bear of Very Little Brain, says something quite profound. Piglet, who is always nervous and worried, asks Pooh a question as they are walking in the forest. “Supposing a tree feel down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?” “Supposing it didn’t,” said Pooh after careful thought. Piglet was comforted by this. (page 272)

Other times he clearly is not too bright. As Piglet observed, “Pooh hasn’t much Brain, but he never comes to any harm. He does silly things and they turn out right.” (page 122). He cannot remember left from right. He knocks on the door to his own house, mentions that it is taking the occupant forever to answer, and then is reminded that it is his own house. He falls into his own trap for the mythical Heffalump. But he is a true and tried friend to all with a heart of gold.

The last story in the collection is sad—a collective good-bye to Christopher Robin who is clearly going off to school and putting his group of stuffed animals aside to Grow Up. But the nice thing is that the group did not grow old. The inhabitants of Hundred Acre Wood are still there, visiting each other to wish a Happy Thursday or doing simply Nothing. You can join them any time you need a break from Being an Adult.

Asking questions

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“Once you have learned how to ask questions—relevant and appropriate and substantial questions—you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know.” ~ Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity

I tend to ask lots of questions in an effort to understand things. But I’ve discovered that a cohort of people really, really dislike being asked questions (and the people who ask them). Happily, there is another cohort of people who really, really like being asked questions and sharing their knowledge. I’d prefer to live in a world populated by the latter folks.