January 21, 2009

Day Trip to Dayton

Judge not a city by its size. I'd not been to Dayton as a travel destination since a grade school trip to Wright-Patt despite the close proximity to Columbus. I figured two hours in Dayton would be plenty but boy was I wrong.

It happens there are some 26,500 results in the Google search "lost in a painting", and I got lost in a few at the Dayton Art Institute. It was a satisfying, wonderful refuge into art on this, an appendage'd vacation day to the MLK holiday. I took so many pictures that I had to start a new blog for display purposes. (Disclosure: I'm an art virgin, so it doesn't take much to excite me.)

The museum is next to an imposing Masonic temple, a registered historical landmark, so I wandered over there out of nosiness. Unfortunately there was a guy behind a desk, the universal symbol of "hey, you can't wander around in here freely". He looked a bit like one of the unwholesome characters in Koontz's "Odd Thomas". When I asked if I could look around he said that they don't really allow people to look around.

The next stop was the intriguing-looking Orthodox or Byzantine church on the other side. I walked around the whole church without seeing any identification, which brings to mind a paraphrase: "if you don't know what it's called then you don't belong here." In front of a couple other halls I came across a Greek and American flags flying, dedicated to American and Greek soldiers, and then at last to the somewhat anticlimactic name: "Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church". We have an Annunciation Greek Orthodox church in town too; it seems the Orthodox are really big on the Annunciation.

At the Art Institute...

The first area I came to was African masks, which included one used for the purposes of war, circumcision, and male rites of passage. It looked the epitome of aggression: very low and pronounced brow, foreshortened forehead, nose stubby and flared, teeth showing. Power in such a society is physical. Later I would see a 19th century painting of a woman who looked like she was balding. The description said women would shave the front part of their heads in order to give the appearance of a higher forehead, which suggested greater intelligence: power in that society was intellectual.

Much of modern art is so bad that it has the school-yard quality of "made you look!" There are signs saying "please do not touch" except where they say "please do touch" as is the case of the black steel plate on the ground that you are meant to walk on. For what purpose I'm not sure. Modern art's excuse is that it is wants to mimic the state of flux and emptiness of modernity.

Sometimes you're not sure what is art and what isn't in the abstract art arena. Should I sit on that bench, or is it an artwork, a statement of the banality of modern culture? Many of the fixtures tell us this is art and not to touch it. The funny thing about good art is that awe attends it such that you don't need a sign telling you not to touch it.

It was interesting to read of the tension in art (as in life and film and Santa) over the definition of real:
One of the most significant tensions surrounding realism in painting can be found in its relationship to photography. A mechnically produced image, a photograph was considered an exact and completely objective representation of the subject. In contrast, a painting enjoyed the privileged status of a unique, subjective creation. An audience steeped in these early 20th century discussions began to expect the exactitude and "truth" of the camera in their realist paintings. While this tension was never resolved, nor could it be, both media were forced to fight for the claim of possessing "the aura of the real".
Came across what might've been the first Bouguereau I'd seen in person. It was "Song of the Nightingale", a pretty peasant girl with an expression of ambiguity, which was said to be what makes for good art. (No wonder the Mona Lisa is so admired; it seems we almost long for ambiguity - or perhaps mystery?)

Religious Paintings...

It was surprising, to me, that there were two or three paintings involving Mary Magdalen (almost wrote 'Mary Matalin'). I saw two references in the museum to Noli Me Tange ("Don't cling to me"), the words said by Christ in a Resurrection appearance. I was surprised by how little we focus on the post-Resurrection visions of Christ in church and art, although it's likely the subject is more popular than I realize. In the painting at left, it looks as though the angel is eagerly seeking insight from Mary Magdalen rather than the reverse.

Another painting or two depicted the Magi adoring Christ, and mention was made of how that subject is one of the most often depicted of all scenes in Jesus's life. That was surprising - and yet we see a similar thing in songs, in that the Incarnation is a more favored subject than the death or Resurrection.

The three kings seeing Jesus, bowing to Him, is a very rich message. This painting also contained what looked to be the devil in the background, confused, understanding only power and wondering why the wise and strong would be interested in a fragile baby of seemingly humble parentage. According to "The Golden Legends", Christ's birth created "confusion of the demons".

Another painting showed the lamentation of the good women who prepared His body for burial. You live in that moment viewing it, that moment when they had no idea He would rise. It was an unmitigated tragedy for them at the time, but it teaches us not to despair.

There was the story of St. Sebastian next to his painting, an early martyr who reverse-illustrates Jason of Friday the 13th. In our modern horror stories evil won't die; in the Resurrection of Christ and many early martyrs, the opposite is the case.

Notes about other paintings:

  • The inspiration for a painting of a Civil War widow was the poem Evangeline by Longfellow
  • Volumetric - new word I learned, used to describe painting of a fulsome woman
  • Gigantic painting illustrated Act 4, Scene 6 of King Lear
  • Mayan stone carving from over 1,000 years ago. Life is so short! Use it well! We are so truly temporary figures on this earth.

    Richard said...

    Nice post! Some great images & great insights.

    "Sometimes you're not sure what is art and what isn't in the abstract art arena." Maybe that's the point. I prefer no signs; I think that's more in keeping with the approach. One can look at this as banality & emptiness, or as the inverse: imbuing all things w/ beauty, perhaps forcing us to stop and be mindful that each step is sacred.

    TS said...

    Thanks Richard.

    perhaps forcing us to stop and be mindful that each step is sacred.

    And it's easier on the artist too! I think my next post will be blank, in order for us to stop and be mindful. *grin*

    mrsdarwin said...

    I've been to the Art Institute in Dayton; the exterior is so architecturally rich that one longs to see the inside.

    I think I recall that there was an El Greco that held my attention for a long time. Paintings are so much more fascinating in real life than as plates in an art book. I never understood the fuss about the Mona Lisa until I saw it live in the Louvre. Then I wanted to stare at it for a long time, but the lines were prohibitive.

    TS said...

    It's so true that paintings are so much more interesting in person MrsD. A painting or a sculpture is a totally different experience when you see the real thing.

    Maureen said...

    I'm glad you enjoyed the DAI! It's full of lots of good things, although I've noticed that some days I appreciate them more than others. You seem to have had a very good day for it. :)

    The Bouguereau is kind of a cult painting around here. A guy wrote a column in the alternative newspaper about how he had a crush on the girl, and a bunch of shamefaced letters from other guys with crushes on her showed up. Maybe because she looks more like someone they might meet than girls in paintings usually do?

    TS said...

    I was hoping you'd see this post given it's your town. The crush on the Bouguereau girl puzzles me...I wasn't so much draw to the Bouuereau's girl's looks as I was to her expression. I thought it sad, until I looked at it from farther away.

    Btw, on the 1853 Cincinnati painting, I'm pretty sure my great-grandfather lived in town at that time. So it was fun to imagine him actually somewhere there amid the houses & churches at the time it was being created.