Friday, December 31, 2004

We finally got a chance to go up to the Portland Art Museum this week, the one in Oregon. The main exhibit was a photo-montage exhibit of how Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris all is plain beige fabric, covering up those wonderful, satirical heads carved in stone. The project took 10 years (1975-1985) and lots of fabric; apparently people loved it, a splash of avante garde beige across the Seine.

My favorite this time was seeing the European collection (go to through my students' eyes, wondering which paintings would best reinforce the themes from 1400-1750, and if we should try to come up together, gather for lunch at Bush Gardens, wielding chopsticks Japanese-style, then wander the European collection with a docent.

The map in the tiny back room, the earliest part of the European collection, caught my eye because it showed the Etruscans north of Rome. I'd always imagined them east and south of Rome and older, much older than the Romans. Here the map showed the Etruscan culture running parallel to the Romans and the Greeks from about 1,000 BCE until about 200 CE, and located north, well up to the Italian border. Of course, that makes sense, Tuscany today, Etruscans then. And the lovely pottery, rounded painted scallops edge a bowl.

Once into the medieval period, I spotted a lovely small cutout Christ on a cross, painted by Botticelli about 1500. The quote underneath said: "Best known for poetic mythologies but late in his career, under the influence of the puritanical religious reformer, Savonarola, he turned to highly expressive and often archaic religious themes." Hah! So much information captured in that one phrase that ties right back into my interest in Savonarola and his influences on artists of the Renaissance in Florence. Botticelli did indeed paint those lovely "Venus Rising From the Sea" type paintings that decorated the mansions of the rich Florence merchant-princes. Savonarola inspired the people with charismatic preaching of the risks of hell-fire and the need for repentence, protesting the rampant materialism of the rich. Botticelli burned some of his paintings in the now famous bonfire of vanities, where Renaissance paintings and books were heaped up and burned. Savonarola's reward? After ruling for two years: to be hung and burned at the stake in the main piazza of Florence. The impact on Botticelli? Mysterious paintings coded with Savonarola's ideas about God, heaven and redemption. And maybe fewer ethereal mythological maidens. One of the museum notes called the Renaissance, "a balance between divinity and humanity."

The other exhibition-stopping moment for me was the wonderful comparison between two painters to show the essential conflict between realism and rationalism during the Baroque. Caravaggio (1511-1610) was much more influential than I thought in the Northern Renaissance. According to museum notes, realism exploded out of Rome about 1610, and swept through Italy, Spain, France and the Netherlands. Here, the Portland Art Museum compares side-by-side Dutch Caravaggist Gerrit Von Horthorst, "Liberation of St. Peter" (1620-1630) with the classical painting of "Mercury and Herse" (1650) by Thomas Blanchet. Both paintings are rather large, but not monumental. But the "Liberation of Peter" is personal, intimate, a dramatic focus on Peter in jail with light pouring in from the right, his face anguished. Blanchet's painting is almost a paint-by-number architectural rendering with small angels appearing to drift across the sky, almost pulled on strings. Realism (the power of the individual emotion, how what people feel strongly motivates them to action) versus classicism (the power of rationality, how what people think causes them to arrange reality).

Was there more? Yes, even a short walk through the somewhat truncated Asian collection just to look and appreciate was fun, and we saved the Native American collection for next time, because we just needed more time. I like to go very slowly through the museum. The last delight, the Mauritshuis Project, a collection of 7 paintings that help us see themes in Dutch painting from the 17th Century, only a corner in the museum, but beautifully documented with careful notes. This little corner, only here through January 29, 2006, was delightful, even with a painting that reminded me at first of the famous Jan Van Eyck Nederlandish painting, "Marriage of Anolfini and His Bride" (1434). Here, Jan Steen's "The Sick Girl" (1661-1665) continues the tradition of a homely scene, still shown with faithful dog but now more satirical, if the observer can read the clues left by the artist (the maidservant's efforts to curtail morning sickness in an obviously young and shamed girl). Compared to Van Eyck, the Steen painting looks almost like a cartoon, as if such paintings made fun of rather than celebrated the people shown. Interesting contrast and a lovely day as we draw to the end of the year to confront the larger issues of death and destruction in the wake of the tsunami.

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