Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Two Museums in a Day - The St. Louis Museum of Art

The collection of the St. Louis Museum of Art is rich. Like a fine wine, it leaves one satisfied yet yearning for the opportunity to experience it again. There is a balance to the collection. It contains a wealth of works spanning eras and art movements from ancient Egypt to the present. No one period or style receives more emphasis than another. Despite the generous size of the collection, over 30,000 pieces, the museum has an intimacy to it which allows one feel a personal attachment to the works. It would be interesting to see if this intimate feeling remains when the expanded galleries, now under construction, are opened. Excellently curated, the galleries are arranged by art movement, subject matter or period, which helps provide focus. For instance, Impressionist landscapes and Impressionist portraits are housed in two separate spaces. The lower level concentrates on furnishings and artifacts, the second level on 17th century through early 20th century painting and sculpture and the third on more modern works. The building, originally constructed for the 1904 World's Fair was moved to it's present site in 1906.

I began on the lower level in the institutions furnishings collection, which  includes two reconstructed period rooms. The collection ranges from opulent 17th century furniture and decorative arts through the Arts and Crafts movement to free form, minimalist designs from the 60's and 70's. Several of the Arts and Crafts pieces are shown in their original settings through the use of period photographs, providing the opportunity to understand how, beautiful in themselves, they were also an integral part of a larger whole. There are galleries of china and silver pieces. Some almost vulgar in their level of ostentation and opulence. Others, like the Wedgewood Jasperwear displayed, familiar and simple in design. One case highlights objects associated with the English tradition of afternoon tea. Medieval armour, and Mesoamerican and ancient Egyptian artifacts are also housed on this floor.

The Egyptian collection is housed in two small rooms, one skylit, which gives a feeling of space to the small gallery. It also allowed me to see the fierce rain which had broken out outside. Three mummy cases are displayed. Two painted with elaborate hieroglyphs, the third a breathtaking example of gold and black lacquer. Xrays of the mummys encased in these are shown on the wall behind them describing the differing methods used for interring them. In one small case figures, meant to assist the dead with tasks in the next world are shown next to a collection of beads used to adorn a shroud. A rare marble figure of a God is juxtaposed with a beautifully simple, elegant bronze sculpture of a cat which bears the wonderful green patina of it's 2000 plus years of existence.

The small Mesoamerican collection has maps on the walls spotlighting the origins of the objects on view. There is a wonderful stone sculpture of a God, a piece of mural from Tenochtitlan, with a detailed explanation of the symbols employed and a well preserved, carved example of the girdle worn by the players in the Mayan's ball court rituals.

I move to the next level and work my way through a grouping of 18th century portraits. Masters of the genre like Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds hang next to works by other, lesser known, yet remarkably accomplished artists. I marvel at the ability of these painters to capture the light reflecting off the satin fabrics of the extravagant costumes worn by the subjects. The rendering of the delicate lace in the portraits look almost as if you could feel it's texture under your fingertips.

The landscape Impressionist gallery contains works by Van Gogh and Pissarro, as well as a small work by Seurat. A mammoth example of one of Monet's "Waterlily's" dominates the room, filling one wall.

A Dega sculpture of a young ballerina, considered shocking and grotesque in it's time, is housed in a gallery which also contains a work of his depicting women in a hat shop. A charming docent at the front desk tells me that this is a recent, major acquisition.

I linger over Millet's tender work "The Knitting Lesson". I am delighted by the visual assault of a collection of works by the German Expressionist Max Beckmann. In the modern galleries upstairs I discover a Rothko. His soft edged rectangles soothe me while a Lichtenstein sculpture nearby tickles my comic fancy.

There is a unique special exhibit on view during my visit. In the museum's collection is a panorama. These are large, multi-paneled works popular as a form of visual entertainment in the 19th century. Attached to rollers, they were used, accompanied by music and narration to gave an audience a view, often somewhat romanticized, of different destinations and  important historical events. As each event was being described, the accompanying scene would be rolled into view, comparable to a slide show. The rolling, as well as the constant transport of the pieces caused them to deteriorate. The one owned by the St. Louis museum is the only example known to exist depicting scenes and the history of the Mississippi Valley. A true American treasure, it had been in storage for several years due to it's delicate condition. It's paint had flaked badly and the fabric had become creased and wrinkled, causing further distress to the already damaged painted surface. Steam was used to smooth the fabric, the piece was reinstalled on new rollers and a painstaking restoration of the damaged paint was begun. Artist, sometimes resorting to ladders, the piece is quite tall, began filling in the damaged areas. This restoration is done in full view of  museum visitors. In addition to giving the visitor the unique and rare opportunity to see the curators at work first hand, the exhibit also includes photos of all the scenes depicted on the panorama.There is information on the details depicted on them,a history of the piece and an explanation of the work being performed.

The only other place I have seen something similar is at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix. There a window looks into the conservation lab allowing visitors to observe the technicians at work. As preservation and conservation of the priceless works held in museum collections is as important as the exhibition of the holdings, perhaps more museums should develop this type of exhibit. It allows the visitor to view, understand and appreciate the process and work involved in providing them with the uniquely enriching experience of a museum visit.

Since the rain from the tropical storm continues, some downpours being rather heavy, I decided to skip the zoo and continue on to the Missouri History Museum. I did not know of it until I saw it at the front of the park as I waited for the bus. Admission to it, like the Art Museum, is free. The woman at the front desk informs me that she had recently visited Chicago and feel in love with the Art Institute, sending her husband off on other activities so she could linger there. She tells me there is an exhibit at the History Museum, "Underneath it All", which is not to be missed. Armed with this information, I leave to catch the bus to my next destination.

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