Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Looking for History and Art in the Big Apple

In 2010 we spent a month in Washington DC, visiting museums almost every other day.  When we planned a similar trip to New York City for this year we expected to do a little less museum-going to avoid burning out on them, but we still managed to visit quite a few.

One that Louise passed on was the New York Subway Museum, which is housed in a subway station on a former spur that is no longer in use.  The former mezzanine level has typical museum displays conveying lots of information, but the heart of the place is another level down where both sides of the central platform are lined with subway cars illustrating changes over the years.  The first photo is of a car that was in service in 1904 when the subway began service, and the second image is of a car that was widely used in the 1960s when Jeff was commuting an hour each way from Queens to Manhattan to attend high school.  Ten hours a week for four years, much of it spent holding onto those metal straps with one hand, a Latin or German book in the other as he memorized vocabulary words for that day.  Perhaps not fond memories for Jeff, but certainly strong ones.

We had hoped to visit Teddy Roosevelt's home at Sagamore Hill a short ways outside the city, then discovered that it is undergoing a 3-year renovation that began earlier this year.  Instead, we visited the Teddy Roosevelt Birthplace on East 20th Street.  The actual building was demolished in 1916, but a group founded to create a museum to NYC's only president built this reconstruction in the 1920s and decorated it with many family furnishings.

History and art intersected in The Cloisters, a museum built in the 1930s with Rockefeller money and the stones of abandoned monasteries and nunneries from around Europe.  The buildings are from the 12th to 15th centuries, the art (about 3,000 items in the permanent collection) from the 9th to the 16th.

We got a distant view of The Cloisters a few days earlier when we walked across the Hudson River on the George Washington Bridge and did a hike along the river then up endless flights of stairs to the top of the rock formation known as the Palisades.  And straight across the river, almost as high above the east bank as we were above the west, was The Cloisters.

The name derives from a common architectural element of medieval monasteries, a "cloistered garden."  The museum incorporates five into what they call a "composite yet informed medieval style."  They ranged from austere to verdant.

Various halls contained art, almost all of which was, of course, religious.  We caught bits and pieces of docents' talks with school groups and were impressed with how well they got kids, even teenagers in one case, interested and inquisitive about what they were observing.

Perhaps the most famous items at The Cloisters are the seven Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries.  These were most likely commissioned to celebrate the marriage of Anne of Brittany to King Louis XII of France, and were created approximately 1495-1505.  Theories abound as to their interpretation, given that a unicorn is a wild animal that can only be tamed by a virgin.  An interesting premise for an animal no one has ever seen.  The tapestries themselves can be seen from inches away, and this series of three photos show you a portion of one tapestry, then two increasingly close close-ups so you can appreciate the level of detail that went into each square inch of this massive artwork.

At the opposite end of the art history spectrum was MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art.  For their purposes, "modern" begins with Impressionist art, particularly its more abstract later works, but their focus is mainly on much more recent art.  Since we find much more recent art often incomprehensible (other than this overly-comprehensible work Jeff is "enjoying"), we were able to "do" this large museum in one day by focusing on what we enjoyed.  We'll give you a small sampler, first a massive piece by Monet; then two paintings that are giants in the art world: Andrew Wyeth's Christina's World and Van Gogh's Starry Night; and lastly two we enjoyed for their simple beauty: Cezanne's Turning Road at Montgeroult and Edward Hopper's pensive New York Movie.  BTW, many of the artworks were protected by glass, only mildly annoying in the gallery but guaranteed to keep a photo of the artwork from being perfect.  All the more reason you need to get there and see these in person.

We showed you two paintings from the Brooklyn Museum in our last blog, so today we'll just tell you about their most remarkable item, a room-sized installation of "feminist art" by Judy Chicago called The Dinner Party.  It consists of a triangular table, representing equality, set for 39 women.  On the floor are the names of 999 other women.  In a nearby display are lists of all the names and their significance as mythic or historical women. 

The work was created in the late 1970s and toured the U.S, Europe and Australia, seen by over a million visitors.  A plan for it to be housed in Washington DC was abandoned when conservative congressmen denounced it as "pornographic," and in 2002 it finally found a permanent home at the Brooklyn Museum.  It is certainly controversial, whether one chooses to debate its basic premises, its choice of women to list, or its artistic decisions.  A common criticism is its "kitchiness," which others defend as a deliberate choice to point out the marginalization of women in art into artisanal crafts such as pottery and needlework.  If you're anywhere near Brooklyn, we suggest you take a look and decide for yourself, for the photos don't do justice to the mood that the whole work creates, or give you a chance to truly appreciate the fine details, or get lost in thinking about the women it commemorates.

Jeff remembered the Museum of the City of New York as a museum he enjoyed visiting several times in his teens.  What he discovered on this trip is that budget cuts have caused it to close the top floor and to focus more on traveling exhibitions.  Luckily, one painting on temporary exhibit so captured the feel of New York City that it was well worth the visit -- Stone Roberts' Early Autumn Looking South, painted in 2001.  He only posed the fellow trying to hail a taxi, and based the other figures on sketches he made as he wandered New York neighborhoods near the brownstone setting.

Of course, one can't talk about art museums without discussing the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Opinions vary over what art museum is "biggest" or "best" in the U.S., but just about everyone includes the Met in their top 5, whatever the make-up and order of their list.  It is so huge we spent three full days there, not including the half-day at The Cloisters, which are part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In wandering about the museum to the galleries we were interested in, we passed vast collections of ancient, medieval and Renaissance art and art from Asia, Africa and Latin America, but mostly kept moving in order to have time with the vast collections of American and Impressionist art.  But we did pause long enough to admire these 2900-year-old entrance guardians to the palace of Nimrud in Mesopotamia.

With the internet (and blogs like this) you can see images of paintings, but seeing them "in person" is a different experience.  Sometimes you just have to be overwhelmed by the size of a painting to fully take in its grandeur, such as Bierstadt's Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak.  With many paintings, especially those done in an Impressionist style, we stand there agape at how the artist has taken seemingly random strokes of color to create a vision of beauty, as Childe Hassam has done in The Water Garden.

Then there are those painters whose brushwork is so fine that unartistic types like the two of us cannot imagine how he or she created such realism with paint and paintbrushes.  Sometimes that realism conveys feelings that are hard to express in words, as in Hopper's Office in a Small City, or complex symbolism as when Thomas Cole created View of Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, After a Thunderstorm -- The Oxbow.  Although one can enjoy it in straightforward fashion as the capturing of  a specific time and place, it can also be appreciated (with the help of a curator's comments next to the painting, or a docent leading a tour) as an allegory about America emerging from "primitive" wilderness to the left into the "modern" world at the right.  Or is Cole warning us that our civilization is precarious and threatened by the wild forces of nature?  That's one of the joys we find in viewing great art, discussing what we see, or sometimes don't see, in a painting, and what it possibly meant to the artist or means to us today.
The museum's collection of French Impressionism is enormous, room after room.  We'll tease you with just a few:  a classic Renoir called In the Meadow; Van Gogh's Wheat Field with Cypresses; and two collections.  As regular readers of our blog and others will know, Monet painted many series of paintings: about a dozen of the Houses of Parliament in London, over two dozen of haystacks, over thirty of the cathedral at Rouen.  Many were worked on simultaneously, as he captured morning light, midday light, evening shadows or even fog, then moved on to another painting when the light changed.  Monet's colleague Camille Pissarro did less-well-known series himself, and the Met put three of them together, all painted from his room at 204 rue de Rivoli.  The center one represents an early spring morning, the other two winter afternoons.

We'll close our visit to the New York art scene with the most interesting art experience we've yet had in several years of exploring the world of art that began to intensify 2 1/2 years ago when we visited the Toledo Museum of Art and saw how exciting a good art museum could be.  One artist that stood out there was a fellow we had not heard of before, Jasper Cropsey.  They had a few of his paintings, including Starucca Viaduct, Pennsylvania. 
We started looking for him as we went from museum to museum, and were never disappointed.  Regular readers of our blog have seen at least a half dozen.  At the Metropolitan Museum of Art we admired yet another, The Valley of Wyoming (Pennsylvania).
In researching for this trip, Jeff discovered that Jasper Cropsey's home was a museum, and that it was an hour's train ride from NYC.  As he checked further he saw that there were free tours of the home, mornings only, plus free tours of a nearby art gallery dedicated to Mr. Cropsey, afternoons only.  Our friends Louise and Masaharu joined us for the ride up the Hudson River on Metro North, with views of the George Washington Bridge to the south and the Palisades across the river.  The train stops at little towns every 2-4 miles, and we disembarked one stop early to stretch our legs on a section of the Croton Aqueduct Trail.  When we got to the home we discovered that no photographs were allowed inside, so we can only show you a peekaboo view of the cute Carpenter Gothic exterior and tell you that it was fascinating inside. 

Our tour guide was a font of knowledge.  She's been giving the tour for two dozen years, and knows every painting well.  There were up to a dozen Jasper Cropsey paintings in every room, and she would say something about a few of them and wait for us to show some interest in a painting or ask a question, then dazzle us with details about its content, its creation or its history.  Particularly interesting was the last room on the tour, the studio that Cropsey designed and had added to the house.  This room alone held about three dozen paintings, and the light was as good for viewing as it had been for painting.  All told, the four of us had an unrushed private tour of the house and art for a little over an hour, with not even a collection box for a voluntary contribution at the end.
We timed our house and museum visits to give us and our companions Louise and Masharu time for a leisurely lunch at a Japanese restaurant in Dobbs Ferry.  Over lunch Jeff shared with them a story he had found in the NY Times, which we invite you to read as well: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/06/arts/design/jasper-f-cropsey-paintings-of-the-hudson-river-school-turn-up.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.  It's a classic "Rembrandt in the attic" story of two paintings found in a basement rec room when a mom dies at 99.  The son takes them to a charity event where appraisers mostly reviewing knicknacks suddenly turn excited and tell the son he might have inherited some long-lost "Jasper Cropseys."  Son soon learns that the record for a Jasper Cropsey is $2.5 million, and that paintings the size of his two have been fetching $250,000 to $500,000.  The Newington-Cropsey Foundation examines the paintings and determines that they are authentic.  Son puts them up for auction.  Story leaves you with that cliffhanger.
In a follow-up story, Jeff tracked down what happened at that art auction:  one painting sold for $288,000, the other for $552,000!
As we reached the Newington-Cropsey Foundation building, a newly-constructed edifice for their foundation offices and for a museum with yet another several dozen of Jasper Cropsey's paintings, we were met by a gentleman only slightly younger than us who took us on another hour-long private tour.  As we chatted about Jasper Cropsey and his paintings, we indicated familiarity with the story of the recently discovered paintings.  As we chatted further, it finally dawned on us that our tour guide was none other than the fellow whose expertise it was that authenticated the paintings.  He was happy to share with folks who appreciated the detective-story elements of his task just how he read the clues, and we ate it like bears to honey.  Like our morning guide, he too would say a few things about a group of paintings as we entered a new area, then wait for questions or obvious enthusiasm for a particular work before adding info or insights that invariably improved the experience.  Wow, what an interesting day!
Thank you once again for joining us on our history and art tour of NYC.  We'll write next about our ten-day journey to the Finger Lakes to take in some Fall Foliage color.

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