The Arrow

There are no answers; only choices.

Archive for the ‘art’ Category

Wood Music in the Forest

Posted by thearrow on April 12, 2011


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Virtual Museum Visits

Posted by thearrow on February 3, 2011

Later edit: The Work of Art in the Age of Google, from The New York Times.

The day has come when you don’t need to spend a gazillion Euros or dollars to actually “visit” the top art museums of the world as if you were walking in them, thanks to Google’s Street View technology. You just go to, sit back with a cup of coffee, and take in the beauty. Wow. Not only is it quite a technological feat, but it’s an absolutely brilliant project that opens up the art world to millions of people who might never be able to see those museums in person. Pretty effing amazing.

Which brings back my own art museum-going memories and the struggle to stay as close to them as possible. During Communism, when there was no hope of getting out of the country other than every two years and only to another Eastern block country, I had a class on comparative literature in high school. I was privileged enough to go to a humanities high school, of which there were only two in Bucharest and very few others in the country because the regime was hell bent on decimating the humanities and instating engineering as the only thing worth studying. The comparative literature teacher was talking about the Renaissance and Michelangelo’s magnificent sculptures, and said that The Pieta was in the Saint Peter Basilica in Rome, “on the right as you go in.” I was amazed at how someone could remember that detail and also a bit jealous that she had this familiarity, almost intimacy with the sculpture, and that  she got to see it while I had no idea if I ever could.

Fast forward seven-eight years later, after Communism fell and we were free to go anywhere, and I’m in Rome with my college friend, Teo, whose parents were incredibly generous to invite me over. It’s still the most wonderful trip abroad I’ve had and I will be forever grateful for it. Teo and I were avid museum-goers and loved ancient stuff; she had already been there a couple of times, so I had great guidance about where to go–a double treat! I walked about 12-13 hours a day and saw everything I could absorb in 10 days. Obviously, one of the things was the Basilica, with the much-treasured Pieta. When I turned my head and saw it, I got weak in my knees instantly, realizing it really was “on the right, as you go in,” just like my teacher said.

Back in 1994, I had the chance to go to London, a trip whose potential I royally squashed by focusing on buying books instead of visiting the heck out of it for the six weeks I was there–a chance I can’t dream of having again. London is a sore spot for me. The second time I visited it, three years ago, also invited by a friend, was pretty much a disaster. I’m very grateful to her and her husband for inviting me, but our long friendship crumbled with a bang and a lot of pain. I love the city; I’m just afraid a third attempt would be even worse. But I digress.

One of the few things I did was to see the British Museum, where I couldn’t help myself and touched the Rosetta Stone (which, incredibly, wasn’t encased in any protective display back then), Tate, and the National Gallery. My visit to the last one touched a raw nerve that still triggers a response today.

Before I get to that, I just wanted to remind you that this was happening at a time when Romanians still needed visas to travel pretty much anywhere in Europe. When you got to the U.K., you had to pass an interview with a customs official who tried to sniff if you were there to work. I was together with four of my college friends and the interview took us by surprise. Obviously, the group that invited us there had no clue this was going to happen. For once, I had the presence of mind to advise my colleagues to say that we were there to learn computer-assisted translations. Ha ha! As in, you type your translation on a computer. Remember, this was before the now-ubiquitous Word. We were interviewed standing in front of some narrow desks, each of us by a different customs official. I can’t describe the disgust on their faces when they saw us, poor college students from Eastern Europe. Ugh. But, my scheme worked and, after being surprised when hearing why we were there, they let us pass. With a stamp on the passport saying that we were not allowed to work even if we were unpaid.

But back to the museum story. Strolling through the National Gallery, I get to a room with five Van Goghs on a wall, one of them a Sun Flower. My breath and heart stopped for a moment. I just couldn’t continue to breathe while avidly trying to absorb the painting. Meanwhile, a group of middle-school kids with their art teacher walk by and sit down on a bench in front of it. The teacher asks them if they knew that one of his Irises was (at that time) the most expensive painting ever sold. “But to whom do his paintings belong now?” asks the guy. After some thought, the kids said that they belonged to everyone. “That’s exactly right! Anyone can walk in this museum any day and admire them,” he said.

At which I started yelling in my mind, “Well, I can’t!” I have to spend a lot of money and go through your shitty customs before I have this chance. I got so mad that I left that room immediately. Now I’m sorry I didn’t say it aloud, with a “let me put things in perspective for you a little bit” type of preface.

But, fast forward to 2001 and I’m in D.C., where most museums are free! Including my beloved National Gallery of Art, where I go almost every month. And yes, I can walk in whenever I want and see first-rate art collections. Museums weren’t anywhere on my radar when I was planning to come here. The goal was to go to grad school and change my career. I slowly realized that my other, never fully articulated, dream–of having unfettered access to museums–had also become true. Which is why I love D.C. so much.

That’s why I think Google’s Art Project is so great. It gives people who love art a way to know it and enjoy it. They will no longer feel as shut out of this experience as I once did. It might not be the same as actually walking in the real building, but it’s pretty darn close. In some respects it might be even better, because you can zoom in on the paintings and see brushstroke details. To do that in a museum you have to get much closer  to the painting than allowed. The only thing I’d add would be the little information placards; I’m sure they’ll do that at some point.


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Posted by thearrow on May 11, 2010

The FDR Memorial in DC is one of my favorites, with its big blocks of granite, the inspiring quotes, and the waterfalls, all enveloping you to transport you back in time. One of the less-noted features of the memorial are these small, gem-like portraits in bronze on several columns. They are carved in the negative, but when I photographed them, they appeared in the positive. I was quite stunned to see the result. In other words, where you see a convex facial feature, like a cheek or a lip, the actual carving is concave. I suspect it turns out convex in my photographs because I used a polarizing filter, which reveals what’s under a reflection. It didn’t occur to me that this was the reason (if, indeed, it was), so now I hope I’ll get back there at some point and try the same photographs without the filter, to see if I get the “negative,” as it were.

Below are a few of them and here’s the album:

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My Way of Visiting Museums

Posted by thearrow on August 5, 2009

I have been reflecting lately on how museum visiting has changed for me since I bought my beloved camera. As the few of you who have been reading this page might know, I’m an avid museum visitor. I can spend 7 hours in a museum in one stretch. Sure, my lower back will hurt, but I’ll go grab a bite in the cafe, get rested, and then start afresh.

I’m a collector at heart (been meaning to write about that, too). If I could, I would have a collection of classical literature and music but this is more a fantasy than anything else. Also if I could, I would have a huge house surrounded by a garden and an orchard, where I could spend my days reading from that huge collection. I actually doubt that I would be able to live such a secluded life, but I like to think I could.

When I visited great museums years ago I tried to imprint in my memory as many of the works of art I saw as possible, in an effort to collect them at least there and hopefully retrieve their polished image later. Of course, very few of them really did get that deep into my mind.

But now we live in a different world, where collecting images is so easy that everyone does it. And, just as I was musing about all this, a New York Times article describes the same phenomenon: “At Louvre, Many Stop to Snap but Few Stay to Focus.” It got me thinking about how taking pictures has changed my own viewing experience. I still linger quite a bit in front of exhibits I like, but taking pictures of them is like hunting trophy game. Needless to say, it helps me remember what I saw where. And here’s one more thing I do: I photograph the information plates next to the exhibits, too. I realized I remember zilch from what I read and I hated that. Well, now I capture it and I’m very proud of my trick. The little plates as well as the big ones, with info on certain historical periods, geographical areas, cultures, artistic currents etc.

I have yet to make online albums for four or five museums I’ve visited this way this year, though, and I can sense a certain hesitation. My memories of past museum visits are glowing warmly in my heart and part of the reason is that they were one-time intense experiences. There was (still is) no telling as to when or if I’ll see them again. I was also much younger, had not seen as many museums, and was completely thrilled to be in front of an original masterpiece. But because the camera always creates a distance between you and your subject, I inevitably have less of an intense viewing experience even if I do take my time to admire a painting. At the back of my mind there’s the thought that I’ll be able to see it again.

Now, with the pictures taken and (some time soon) neatly arranged in albums, I’m afraid my memories will not be as glowing either. I get to possess the images I love, but the beautiful experience of trying to absorb them with all my neurons and pores is probably gone. I will be able to access them any time but I’m afraid there will be no intensity whatsoever in doing it and that makes me sad. Imperfect memories in smoky shapes might very well mean (a lot?) more than the crisp high-resolution files stored on a hard drive.

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Posted by thearrow on December 7, 2008

I could not live without museums. Art takes my breath away and is my drug of choice. I went to the Louvre for 7 hours on one day and came back for 8 more the next one. I went through all the rooms open to the public. In Rome, Milan, and Florence I was in trance; overwhelmed by the beauty but wanting to take in more. I sit in front of paintings and sculptures with avid eyes, trying to absorb everything. I’m a collector at heart and my dream would be to remember each and every object of art I’ve ever seen, together with the info on the little placard next to it (which I always read religiously, even though I know I’m not going to remember it). If one day they invent an implantable chip to store such memories, I’ll be the first to volunteer for one. I absolutely have to go to a museum ever few weeks or I wilt.

I went to London in 1994, back when we still needed visas to get there and when they stamped our passports with something that read that we weren’t supposed to work even if unpaid. They interviewed the five of us (all in our third year in college) in the airport, trying to figure out if we were going to work, in which case they would have sent us back immediately. The trip wasn’t particularly great, at least for me, mostly because I didn’t take advantage of spending six weeks in that fabulous city, which I will always regret. But I did manage to see a few museums.

I was in the National Gallery one day, in front of a wall with five Van Gogh paintings. I was looking at one of the Sunflowers, I think the Irises were next to it, it was one of the first times I was seeing any authentic masterpieces, and I was just blown away. A group of middle-school kids was also there, with their young art teacher, who asked them, “who do these paintings belong to?” One of the kids said, “to the people.” “That’s exactly right. You and anyone else can come see them for free any time you want.” That simple conversation saddened and infuriated me at the same time. Well, YOU can come here any time. I CAN’T! I need a visa and have to go through your crappy border procedures, not to mention I don’t have the money. I left with a very bitter, heavy soul.

Now we’re in the EU and can travel without a passport. I was already in the States when that happened, though, so I’m still not quite used to the idea. But what do I have in DC? A free National Gallery of Art with works of from all the major currents starting with the Renaissance. A truly first-rate museum. Not to mention many other free museums, all part of the Smithsonian Institution. And even those that cost something are reasonable. (Not like in New York, where everything costs an arm, a leg, and your mother, although I will always gladly pay whatever to get into a museum.) This is why my love of DC is so deep. It’s a very unique town from many points of view, but for me the most important thing is the museums. The simple fact that on a whim I can go and admire a few Renaissance pieces, Rembrandt, Impressionists, Degas, etc., is invaluable. Not to mention great temporary exhibitions.

It’s not just the art I like there, but the gallery’s building, too. It has a wonderful rotunda lined with monumental columns and a small bronze statue of Mercury in the middle of a fountain, always decorated in a different way. The main corridor has two areas with indoor gardens, where temporary exhibitions are usually located. I’ll stop rhapsodizing about it here and let you enjoy some pics from today’s trip.

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Desiderio da Settignano; Saint Jerome in the Desert (1461)

Desiderio da Settignano; Saint Jerome in the Desert (1461)

Alexander the Great; Workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio (1483/1485)

Alexander the Great; Workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio (1483/1485)

Madonna and Child; Style of Agostino di Duccio (1460s)

Madonna and Child; Style of Agostino di Duccio (1460s)

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