Easy hour drive (albeit in the rain) to Dayton Art Institute. Once there = immediate captivation. I left, satisfied about three hours later. It felt like thirty minutes.
First I had to take in the neighborhood. I was struck by an imposing bomb shelter of a building (literally one back in the day), a 1920s-era colonnaded structure with the inspiring message “To the Glory of God” in huge block letters at the top. Alas, it turned out to be a Masonic temple. I walked to the front and saw a guard inside, so didn't try to enter.
Then another difficult building to access: a Greek Orthodox church. I knew the Orthodox are squeamish about outsiders, and sure enough the lady saw me enter and wanted to know what I was there for. I said I was a visitor to Dayton and just wanted to check out the church. “Are you Greek?” she asked, perfectly in tune with the stereotype that “only Greek may apply”. Anti-proselytizing at its finest. “Greek Catholic,” I said, because I am technically a parishioner at a Greek Catholic church (as well as an RC church). I said, “Just want to take a picture.” She said, “take one quick and then I have to ask you to leave”, while staring at me like I was going to torch the place. I took two pictures and bolted immediately if not sooner.
But then to a place where I was welcome, with far more precious and inspiring works of art. What a privilege to have such close access to these wondrous works of art from 500-1000 years ago. I predict in a generation people will not be allowed to come so close to these masterpieces given the increasing percentage of mentally unbalanced people who want to do them harm (such as the one-man wrecking crew at a Columbus-area modern art museum who damaged many paintings, although I wasn't sure what was damage and what was intended given the state of modern art). Art treasures may go the way of the White House - once unfettered access to any Joe Citizen, now a fortress impregnable.
How cool to see art from a contemporary of Durer, of whom I'm currently reading about in the latest Christopher Buckley novel. The history here feels so immediate and so personal in a way books rarely feel. I read Shakespeare not as an encounter with an individual who lived 400 years ago but as a contemporary, in the sense that his plays are ever ancient and ever new.
But here, in these pleasingly labyrinthal set of rooms it's like I'm a time traveler, seeing the most minute brush stroke a human made. It's like reading Shakespeare in his actual hand, the ink scarcely dried.
Some of the paintings illustrate a Martian-like oddness in dress, like the 1600s depiction of the daughter of Dieterich Bromsen. Shades of Lady Gaga! Amazing to think that was ever considered an attractive look.
I happy-thought this little icon in the corner of the deep black oils, that small shovel five centuries old, like a copy monk's doodle drawing of genitalia, signifying the German painter Schäufelein–meaning “small shovel” of course.
The art museum is a Lenten place in the sense of being a huge occasion for momento mori given all the artists and their subjects are long dead. The myriad of religious paintings and statues make me feel like I'm in the old churches of Rome. (Which is why most people go to the old churches of Rome - for the art and architecture.)
I see Byzantine pediments from the 600s and it occurs to me that this place can seem like a garage sale set back in time, only with a primo selection. The presence of old desks, bureaus, tables, clocks and teapots make it even more so.
It's been 7 years since I'd been here and I'm pleasantly surprised at how fresh and generally unfamiliar things feel. Of course great art should bear repeated viewings, but I'm subpar at art appreciation. A true student could go every other day and find something new and vivifying each time. I guess I could go to the wonderful Dayton Art Institute at a slightly more frequent interval than every seven years.
What's interesting too is how the pictures that struck me so forcefully seven years ago did not this time, and vice-versa. A completely different set of art enraptured me. Interesting to think my tastes or at least frame of reference have changed that much.