Saturday, June 23, 2012

Philadelphia Museum of Art: 6/22/12, locus amoenus

The Philadelphia Museum of Art, from the South
I stole a page out of my graduate school Summer Survival Handbook yesterday and spent hours in the cool and cooled Philadelphia Museum of Art. When I was a graduate student in Music in Philadelphia, I used to retreat to the museum on hot days and just wander the galleries becoming acquainted with the collection, and making connections to the music history I was learning. It gave my studies depth, and created my appreciation and knowledge of art for its own sake. Yesterday's visit (the temperature outside was 95+ degrees) was inspired by the "Visions of Arcadia" exhibit, a special lecture by the senior curator, and a desire to wander around to visit my old art friends.Each time I visit this, my most familiar museum, I see paintings differently. For example, I recognized straight off John Singer Sargent's depiction of Paris's Luxembourg Gardens because I now have the experience of sitting their blissfully one July afternoon in 2007 eating pear ice cream. Other connections are formed by an attention to color theory, literary topics, and random interests, whatever's on my mind that day. (By the way, notice that the paintings mentioned here are linked to museum pages that furnish images and descriptions. Click away!)

One of the things I like to do when visiting an art museum is to select one item and study it carefully. I answer a set of questions from a book I have about writing about art (Looking and Writing by Marilyn Wyman, 2003) and try to look at the piece from different perspectives. Yesterday the museum was open late for their Friday Art-After-5 thing, so rather than listen to the music while noshing on museum food, I hung out in the galleries. I was drawn to Monet's "Marine View with a Sunset" from around 1875, probably because the theme of the day was locus amoenus or "pleasant place" and sunsets over water are very pleasant to me. This painting shows a tranquil scene with sailboats in silhouette on a still lake or river, with silhouetted trees and a cathedral in the distance. All of the silhouetted items are depicted with a purply blue which also shows up in the sky and water. The viewer is not part of the scene, but just peering at it from behind some leaves and grass. About a third of the bottom of the picture is obscured by foreground grasses, and in the same green, leaves provide the left quarter of the painting. The greenery frame draws the viewer in to the tranquil Impressionistic scene. The sun is not visible in this scene, but it is depicted by smears of pink and yellow on the blue of the sky and water.

I had a lot of time to wander the galleries yesterday, so I spent some time in the medieval era. I came across a chest that most likely belonged to Florence's Medici Family. The museum has spent decades researching and restoring the paint on this chest, and the experts have dated it to between 1450 and 1460. They believe it was owned by the Medicis based on the coat of arms and emblems painted on it. To modern eyes, it is an unusual size, about 63 inches wide and 19 inches high and deep, but, there is another similar chest in the medieval section of similar dimensions. Anyway, what drew me to this chest in the first place was the digital slide show mounted on the wall, showing the interested viewer highlights of the research and restoration. As if that wasn't enough for the art geek, there is a number to call with your cell phone, a code to punch in, and then the lead restorer tells you first-hand about the object and its restoration. (Items with cell phone numbers are sprinkled throughout the galleries.)

The point of yesterday's visit, though. was to attend the new special exhibit, "Gauguin, Cezanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia" and to hear Senior Curator Joseph Rishel speak about it. The exhibit is arranged so that the visitor learns first about the concept of Arcadia, the ideal place of glee and carefree living. The Roman poet Virgil wrote of locus amoenus or Arcadia, and many artists besides the Big Three in the exhibit title have been inspired by him since. Many of these are included in this exhibit: Ingres, Corot, Poussin, Pissauro, Signac, Derain, Titian, Picasso, and Rousseau, whose enormous "The Dream" leads into in the main exhibit room. "Giants walk among us" is how Joseph Rishel described this room: the huge Arcadian paintings of Gauguin, Cezanne, and Matisse were brought together so that people (including scholars) can see them all together in their enormity and compare the Arcadian visions. There is Cezanne's "Large Bathers," Gauguin's "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?", and Matisse's "Bathers By a River". The concept of Arcadia changed dramatically over the eight years Matisse worked on this painting: check out the New York Times story. The Arcadian paintings and sculpture rely heavily on eternal topics from mythology and literature. Apollo and Daphne are there, fauns and nymphs, and lots and lots of nude bathers in Tahiti, the South of France and elsewhere. The painting that closes the show in the last room (Arcadia outside France) is German painter Franz Marc's "Deer in the Forest," borrowed here from See how the deer are part of the natural landscape--wouldn't that be the best locus amoenus possible?
Franz Marc's "Deer in the Forest"

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