Interpreting Art

Today the Beav and I took the train into town to see the Alexander Calder show at the MBAM.

What struck me at the show, and what I’m posting photographs to try to show, is the way the curators lit the sculptures to highlight and specify the complexity in what could seem like folk art or fairly imposing abstractions.

Shadows as interpretive tool.
“Performing Seal” and it’s shadow

The show was comprehensive. In addition to the various mobiles, there were examples of juvenilia, early paintings, early wire sculptures, and an early silent documentary showing Calder in his Parisian studio making a wire portrait. There were also scale models of late, monumental works like “Three Discs” on l’île Saint-Hélène in Montreal.

Yet despite its scope, the show was also small enough to be manageable. The beauty of the objects wasn’t overwhelmed by the scale.

Self-portrait with sculpture and the Beav

The Power and the Pathos

Over Christmas this past year, the Beav and I passed through DC and stopped to see a temporary exhibit of Hellenistic Bronzes called “Power and Pathos” at the National Gallery.

The show was great, full of large-scale pieces arranged in context, and I learned a lot. But overall it wasn’t the show I expected to see. Nearly all the sculptures were of noble politicians or worthy citizens or well-born children. Fine. What struck me as odd though was that the presentation also felt very carefully straight.

Saying that may sound willful—I mean, why should sexuality come up at all?—but I’m serious. This was a show with numerous male nudes. Yet, it felt constrained the way a group of friends are constrained when they are picking a gay friend up from work but they know that person isn’t out to co-workers and so they are on best behavior hoping not to give the game away. Everything here was proper and intellectual and sexless. Even the herms! And after a bit, the silence about the physicality of what we were seeing began to loom.

My consolation: someone among the curators—maybe all of them even—realized the problem. They must have. And I know this because of the presentation of the final sculpture in the final room of the show. The “Idolino.”


He stood on a pedestal in front of a false wall hiding the exit, holding a familiar pose: head tilted to the side, weight balanced on one foot. His left arm hung loosely by his side, and the right was raised to his waist, palm out. The curators had lit him crisply from the front with two lamps, which cast two well-defined shadows on the wall behind him. And those two shadows stood there against the wall, one beside the other, holding hands. The effect was too perfectly achieved, too sentimental, and too gay for me to take it as anything but purposeful.

So standing there looking at the shadows and the sculpture and seeing them together as a whole, I thought: someone gets it and is offering art comment in the language of art.

Métamorphoses. Dans le secret de l’atelier de Rodin.

Rodin 1

I first saw Rodin’s sculptures as a student when I travelled to Paris for the first time. Country mouse that I was, I was a bit intimidated by the city, by the famous museums, and rather than wander around the the Louvre or the d’Orsay stunned, I went instead to Pompidou (at least there I had some context) and the Rodin museum (because it was small). The Rodin felt like an introduction to what looking at art might be and I remember it as an essential moment in my education. Since then, I’ve seen other Rodin exhibits and have visited museums with large collections of pieces. Each time I do, I always remember (and feel a bit of nostalgia for) that summer in Paris.

Rodin 2So obviously when a large batch of Rodin sculptures came to Montreal as Métamorphoses. Dans le secret de l’atelier de Rodiny, I went to see them. And it proved to be a pretty impressive show. The emphasis was on the ways the artist fragmented forms and gestures in order to be able to use them in multiple works. At times, the curators arranged objects to highlight details, at others to present a project or process. It was all nicely done and I liked it a lot.

That said the crowds were madness. In room after room, I felt like art risked becoming blood sport.

The Age of Bronze
The Age of Bronze

Having survived the arena and now looking back, two works stood out. The first of these, The Age of Bronze, is a favorite of mine. There are copies at the National Gallery in Washington and in the National Gallery in Ottawa. Which means, thankfully, I get to see it more or less whenever I want.

What I like about it is the way it evokes Greek statuary with its graceful celebration of physical beauty but does so with a posture that is erotic enough to feel confrontational. It’s a work I look at and then realize after a few moments that I’m holding my breath. The second thing I like about it is that no matter how crowded the gallery, no one stops to stand in front of it. There is side-eye galore but people mostly rush by looking at the wall as if afraid to be caught staring. It’s great.

The second work that stands out was a sculpture set in front of a contemporary, photographic series that documents its unpacking after being shipped. One of these photographs hangs in the National Gallery in Washington, but seeing it alone is not the same as seeing the full sequence juxtaposed with the statue itself. Together, they suggest the unexpected delicacy and mobility of the bronze.

Rodin 4


Harvard Art Museums

This summer when the Beav and I went down to Concord, we took a day to go see the renovated space for the Harvard art museums. The expansion is quite beautiful and we had a nice day wandering through the collections. Since I’d like to show something here to remind me of which trip this was, here are three works that stuck out for me that day.

The Drunken Silenus was a large-scale painting of large-scale bodies of the type we never get to see.

The Drunken Silenus
The Drunken Silenus

This Ammi Phillips portrait is gruesome and gorgeous.

Ammi Phillips
She only has one foot.

And for personal, traumatic (read: foolish) reasons, I will forever be drawn to paintings of Gloucester, Mass.

Fitz Henry Lane
Flashbacks of safe haven after a storm.

Marvels and Mirages of Orientalism

I didn’t realize it was possible to have so many orientalist paintings on display without having at least aspects of the collection seem queer. Somehow this show pulled off the trick and felt, well, it felt like something dead, stuffed, and put in a museum.

The best thing on display were a handful of photographs by Lalla Essayed tacked on in the last room that used arabic script and mosaic patterns to flatten the space and merge the figures and ground.

(image from linked museum site)
(image from linked museum site)


UPDATE: I finally found the one photograph that I took walking through the exhibit. (I snap quick photos to help me make sense of my notes. So no photos often means nothing noted.) Here it is:

My one "note to self" from the exhibit.
My one “note to self” from the exhibit.


It really is a beautiful painting and it pairs nicely with Essayed’s photograph.

David Altmejd, Flux

The best show that I saw this past summer was of David Altmejd’s sculptures at the Musée d’art contemporain. Each object felt like a confrontation with a completely new sensibility. The sculptures were complex, mysterious but always beautiful.



As we walked out, I told the Beav I felt like I felt the first time I watched Robert Lepage performed (by Yves Jacques) at the Théâtre du nouveau monde.

Which was my idiosyncratic way of saying “changed.”

Cartier-Bresson’s Images à la Sauvette

The Beav and I were in Drummondville, he had something to do, suggested I might be interested in the photo museum. I’d had no idea there was one.

(from Musée Populaire de la Photo)
(from Musée Populaire de la Photo)

Turns out there is. It’s in the basement of the church on the main square, and it was showing a selection of photos from the book Images à la Sauvette by Henri Cartier-Bresson. What they’d done was take apart a first edition of the book and mounted a dozen or so of the prints inside. It was a small, well done show, and I enjoyed it.

This wasn’t the first time I’d seen these photos in a museum though. In fact it was the third. The first time was at “Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century” at the MoMa in 2010.

The second was at the Museo Amparo in Puebla, Mexico in 2013 where some prints were shown in connection with the show “Un fotógrafo al acecho Manuel Álvarez Bravo.” (We showed up the afternoon before the show opened and were ushered in for the grip-and-grin on the rooftop for the hoity-toity of Puebla. It was very cool but very odd.)

Ozias Leduc

The museum at St. Hillaire has a small gallery space attached to the library and often shows interesting collections. This past Fall, they presented some of Ozias Leduc’s sketches and studies in an exhibit called “Les Traces d’Ozias Leduc.”

Everything on display was small scale and the entire collection could be looked at carefully in an hour or so, which made it a manageable in a way that large shows of preliminary materials often aren’t. I especially liked seeing the gridded studies Leduc made to position large paintings and murals.


Musee des beaux-arts de Saint-hillaire--Ozias Leduc

Memorial Art Gallery

A few weeks ago the Beav and I went down to Rochester to see what we could see. Our first stop was at the University of Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery, a museum for students, put together to demonstrate periods, styles, and themes. (That’s not a criticism btw. I wish I’d spent more time in museums like this when I was younger.)

Of the galleries in the permanent collection, the one covering American art was the most interesting, and Mortimer Smith’s painting is the best thing I saw all day.

Home Late
Home Late 
(Thumbnail links to image; caption to info)

This painting is the seed of a story and a trap: I start looking and can’t stop. My eye goes from fire to door to window to man to the boy’s silhouette and then round again without stopping, but the image is completely still. It’s a tableau, evocative, enigmatic and menacing. Yet details like the hams and the gun hanging from the rafters or the way the colours and lines in the doorway are distorted in the window are beautiful and reassuring. So just what exactly is going on here? I love it.

I also liked this painting by Winslow Homer. He’s a late-great and I’m often drawn to his moody seascapes, but this one really moved me.

The Artist's Studio in an Afternoon Fog
The Artist’s Studio in an Afternoon Fog

Clearly there is something in me that wants to spend my every afternoon by the sea on rocks like these under a bright cool sun hanging in dim, quiet air. I swear I can hear gulls calling to each other (rudely of course) just above the frame.

Hale woodruff’s painting of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln stood out for being topical: Rochester is where Douglass and Susan B. Anthony are buried, and the city is steeped in the history of the Abolitionist and women’s movements. But context aside, the stark, graphic contrast and the arrangement of the figures remind me of a relief carving done in bright colour and I really liked it. Good hands and feet too.

Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln Discussing Emancipation
Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln Discussing Emancipation

Finally, some proof that kids were kids even back in the day: a dog named Gun.

Pierrepont Edward Lacey and his dog Gun
Pierrepont Edward Lacey and his dog Gun

Little Edward also rocks the red slippers and black pant suit.

(All images from the Memorial Art Gallery site.)

The Great Upheaval, 1910-1918

A few months ago, the Beav and I went to Toronto and saw The Great Upheaval, a show of works from the Guggenheim that was packed with kids on field trips. The exhibit was focused, coherent, and dense. Every work was major.  We spent a few hours and walked through it twice.

For me, the revelation was watching Mondrian transform himself into an abstract-expressionist. The three early works that caught my attention all showed an artist, who was essentially a very late post-impressionist, discovering the beauty of painted lines on a flat surface. In chronological order, the paintings were (images from the Guggenheim):

Summer, Dune in Zeeland
Summer, Dune in Zeeland


Still Life with Gingerpot I
Still Life with Gingerpot I


Still Life with Gingerpot II
Still Life with Gingerpot II

The first and last are just gorgeous, but the middle one, which is less beautiful, fascinates me. It’s so obviously operating in Cézanne’s shadow, yet it’s also attempting to create a complex matrix of lines which are not merely outlines. I look at it and I see something struggling–actually struggling–to become something new. And that makes Still Life with Gingerpot II feel like a triumph. 

(The painting of the dune–with it’s roughly horizontal lines and it’s solid blocks of layered colour–looks like it wants to become a Rothko.)

The Beav’s favourite was a painting by Chagall. He explained why, and I looked and stared–and the painting’s amazing! really it is–but I remain mystified. And, yes, I like the mystery. If our tastes were the same, I’m not sure museums would be so much fun.

Paris Through Window
Paris Through Window

We both agreed that this painting by a Russian we’d never heard of was one of the gems of the show:

Morning in the Village after Snowstorm
Morning in the Village after Snowstorm



Maurice Le Bel

The Beav heard about an exhibit of engraving and paintings by Maurice Le Bel at the Bibliothèque du Boisé in Ville St. Laurent. He’s more-or-less unknown but he had some connections with members of the Monté Saint Michel. This exhibit was small but interesting. I liked the engravings and a few of the early paintings. Le Bel struck me as a talented painter without any strong ideas of what to do with his talent, and so his paintings tended to look like other people’s work.

The gallery space in the library was really quite beautiful. I like that Montreal is putting money into renovating their libraries. The new spaces are packed with people.