Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Milwaukee Art Museum - A Second Look

While prowling about on line I came across an announcement of a major special exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum. A manor house outside of London was being renovated. During the renovation, it's superlative art collection, instead of languishing in storage, was being shipped "across the pond" to be exhibited at 4 institutions in the U.S. Milwaukee's architectural masterwork of a museum was of of the 4 afforded this honor. This provided me with a reason to day trip to our neighbor to the north and revisit the museum.

It was the type of midwestern November day one hopes for, but realizes is unlikely to occur, windy but sunny with highs in the upper 60's. My friend arrived to pick me up in his convertible, top down to take advantage of what we both knew could be the last warmth we would experience before the onslaught of winters chill. Traveling past woods, suburban neighborhoods and rolling green pastures  sprinkled with venerable farmhouses and dairy barns, we arrived a the museum and parked in the underground parking garage. It's curved steel columns mirror the architecture of the museum above it. My friend immediately proclaimed it the nicest garage he had ever parked in. Admitting that a parking structure being granted that honor is not a high bar to jump, this one, with it's temperature controlled interior and it's uppermost edge lined with celestry windows, is a particularly handsome example of it's genre.

Entering the lobby we purchased our tickets and went to the museum's cafe for lunch before touring the exhibit. The pavilion portion of the museum is situated on a slope. The cafe is housed on the bottom portion of the slope. Above it, entered from the upper part of the slope, is the stunning glass atrium with it's trademark rooftop wings. The cafe is lined with floor to ceiling windows giving diners a wonderful view of the lake as well as the people that were biking and jogging along the lakeshore path on that nearly impossibly warm and sunny November afternoon. It being a Sunday families were among those enjoying the weather, the young children appearing to have been given more than their usual considerable amount of energy by the temperate clime. The food was as satisfying as the view, unusual for a museum restaurant. Eggs scrambled with turkey, carrots, potatoes and asparagus, accompanied by hash browns blended with sharp, rich, melted cheddar cheese; we were in Wisconsin after all.

After lunch we headed up to the exhibition. It opened with several examples of 17th century Dutch maritime works, favored by the Earl that amassed the collection. Soon one encountered a Rembrandt self portrait. Since my early teens Rembrandt has been a favorite artist of mine. Usually I am deeply affected by his work. This piece was the cornerstone of  the exhibition. Even though touted as one of the world's great art treasures viewing it left me underwhelmed. The thick, heavy brushstrokes used for the facial features more closely echo the quick, fevered, emotional style of Van Gogh than the elegant polish I associate with Rembrandt. The work, at least to me, appeared unfinished. The body of the artist, tools of his trade in his hand, looks slightly opaque. It's as if the image has been blocked in but never given detail. I felt almost as if it were a "rainy day" project he began one afternoon when he was bored and had nothing better to do. While this one work, in no way, dims the respect I have for his work or the sense of awe that accompanies that respect, I found the piece lacked the high standard on evidence in his other works that I have had the good fortune to view. Conferring with my friend he also found it less than he expected from an artist of such legendary stature.

The disappointment in the Rembrandt proved to be minor due to the rich visual treat that awaited us. Across the room from the Rembrandt hung a small Van Dyck, which excellently captured and brought to life the jovial nature of the sitter it portrayed. Exhibited in the next gallery was a portrait by Gainsborough titled "Mary Countess Howe". The extraordinary beauty of the painting served to draw the viewer in from across the room, momentarily overshadowing the great works which shared space with it. I marveled, as I did at the Gainsboroughs I had the opportunity to view in St. Louis, at the artist's ability to depict the light reflecting off of the satin gown worn by the beautiful young woman pictured. I admired the technical precision required to portray the delicate lace which overlaid the gown. Considering that it was only the third full length portrait he had ever done the work shows an advanced level of maturity in artistic skill and vision. His works involving male subjects, of which there were several examples, do not show the same care and skill as his portraits of women. Perhaps with women he was attempting to appease their sense of vanity while with men he was simply recording history. A staged photo session as opposed to a quick snapshot of a subject who has more important things to attend to . Several Gainsborough landscapes, I do not recall have seen one prior to this, are also on view. They too show his masterful depiction of light. In one piece the sunlit late afternoon scene almost appears to glow.

Works by Gainsborough's contemporary Joshua Reynolds are also included in this exhibition. He shares Gainsborough's excellent sense of light, however he often depicted his subjects as figures out of myths and legends, imparting in them a sense of drama. It is an interesting juxtaposition with Gainsborough's softer, more romantic vision.

A contemporary of both Gainsborough and Reynolds, George Romney, is also represented. He is an artist I was not familiar with prior to the exhibition. His soft brushstrokes and palette create a tranquil effect. His considerable skill as an artist disappears into the subjects he depicts. One excellent example of this is his gentle and endearing portrait of Anne Countess of Albemarle and her son. The love between mother and child is masterfully yet subtlety displayed in this work.

Later we encountered 2 portraits of the same woman. Her first love had been the 3rd son of a noble. As the son would not inherit the title or property of his families house the girl's father would not allow the marriage. She instead was forced into an arranged marriage in which she was very unhappy. By the time the second portrait was done she had apparently been linked romantically with several other men. Another portrait of 2 extremely homely women, with Kirk Douglas clefts in their chins and flat faces, makes arranged marriages seem somewhat more sensible, if not absolutely necessary! This painting was meant to attract suitors. My friend and I both agreed that it might send them running screaming in the opposite direction.

After the special exhibition we left the architectural brilliance of the pavilion and proceeded to the museum's permanent collection. We had viewed the collection, housed in concrete walled, loftlike galleries, several years earlier. The collection is impressive, particularly for a city the size of Milwaukee, and very well curated. Several works by the same artist are displayed together allowing visitors to get a strong impression of the artist's visual voice. 3 bright Hans Hofmanns hang in one alcove. In another Pissarros share space with Monet. Sculpture filled side galleries offer spectacular lake views through floor to ceiling windows. The collection is strong on German Expressionism, not surprising since fully one half of Milwaukee's population claims a German heritage.

Stepping briefly outside the museum to admire the pavilion's exterior, we discovered that the temperature had dropped steeply and a light rain had begun to fall. Traveling home with the convertible top down would not be an option. Sharp swings in weather conditions are not unusual in the midwest in November, or any of the other 11 months of the year for that matter.

Before leaving Milwaukee we took a short drive through it's historic downtown area. Although some buildings appeared to have been sacrificed to accommodate multistoried parking structures, much of the city's architectural legacy remains. A stylized flame glows atop the jazz era skyscraper housing the power company. A grand Victorian mansion, with an addition that complements the original structure, houses a private club. The East Commercial Historic District features streets lined with late 19th century storefronts. Milwaukee's pride in it's heritage and interest in historical preservation are well evidenced.

We rode home through a hard, occasionally driving rain, a far cry from our pleasant, warm and sundrenched trip earlier that day. We made the obligatory Wisconsin border "cheese stop" before crossing into Illinois and continuing home.


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