Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Museumalgamation pt. 2

September 14, 2009 · No Comments

And now, the thrilling conclusion to the epic saga that is Andrew’s London museum experience!

The British Museum

Because the British Museum is so darned enormous, I decided to stay within the comforting walls of the ancient Greece and Egypt exhibitions. Greece was fascination. As one of the few students in my major who actually enjoyed ancient philosophy, it was oh so cool to see the world in which some of the most important thinkers in history lived within. Part of the Parthenon was on display. The Parthenon! This building is the most significant symbol of democracy in existence. Throughout time, different civilizations used the structure for their own purposes. In the 6th Century, it was a church. During the Ottoman occupation, it was a mosque. It was unearthed by Lord Elgin in the early 1800s, and now resides, in part, in the British museum.

There is a major debate going on now about whether the Parthenon remains should remain in the UK or be transported back to Greece, its original location, where another segment of the structure is preserved and on display. I believe that it belongs back in Athens. After all, a puzzle missing half the pieces is much less decipherable than one only a quarter. The closer archeologists and historians can come to complete recreation of the Parthenon, the better. So get it out of London and back to Greece!

Egypt was as expected. Some statues. Some mosaic. Some mummies. I saw Cleopatra, which was cool. I’ve seen Egyptology exhibits in the Smithsonian and Egyptian art in the Met in New York. The British Museum didn’t offer me anything new and exciting, so I don’t have much else to say on the topic.

The National Gallery

As The Pitmen Painters made clear, art is in the eye of the beholder, and sometimes the beholder’s eye just isn’t sharp or refined enough. When I look at the countless portraits, landscapes, and still lifes I don’t have the same emotional response connoisseurs of the arts seem to undergo. I cannot seem to get past the raw aesthetics of most paintings and appreciate their apparent value.

Take Van Gogh’s seminal Sunflowers, for instance. This work is so loved, so well known, and so damned valuable and I just don’t understand why. In fact, Van Gogh once said that this particular painting is his crowning achievement. To me, the barbarian, “Sunflowers” is a beautiful rendering of a vase full of sunflowers against a black background. Why on Earth a Japanese man paid almost $40,000,000 for a version of the painting is beyond me. Maybe one day I will have a Pitmen Painters-esque revelation and understand, but until that day I remain in the dark.

Sunflowers by Van Gogh


That isn’t to say there aren’t any paintings that did stir me. Cézanne’s An Old Woman With a Rosary is a portrait of just that, an elderly woman clutching what seems to be a broken rosary. To me, the work encapsulates all the bleakness and sorrow of the world within her dead, black eyes. It seems transport you into the mind of the woman and forces the viewer to feel her pain. She knows that her life is almost at an end, so she desperately hangs on to her religion for salvation. Perhaps she has lived a life of sin and is afraid of what awaits her beyond the grave. Maybe she is trying to force herself to accept Jesus and repent for her sins in order to avoid damnation. Cézanne’s rendering of the woman’s eyes affected me most – a sea of darkness in which no one can escape. There is no light or color, only horror, pain, and sadness.

Ok, so maybe I can appreciate painting. Thanks, Mr. Cézanne.

An Old Woman With a Rosary by Cézanne


Tate Modern

Whew. Just when I was starting to think, hey, maybe I can appreciate and understand the visual arts on a deeper level, modern art punched me in the gut. I’ve never taken an art history or appreciation class and simply don’t know what to look for. When I see something by an artist by, say, Cy Twombly, all I see is colors and shapes on a background. Considering my laudable capacity for music appreciation, struggling so much in an art gallery is remarkably frustrating. Paul McCarthy’s sexually explicit video art strikes me as a petty cry for attention through shock value.

from Natural History, Part I, Mushrooms by Cy Twombly


That said, I have always had an affinity for the surreal and absurd in literature, film, and especially philosophy. The Tate Modern has an excellent surrealism section showcasing artists like Salvador Dalí and Marcel Duchamp. I found myself losing myself in the strange worlds of the artists’ creation. Dalí’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus pervaded my mind with a breed of thought only accessible through a surrealist lens. And then you have something like the Lobster Telephone that you can’t help but laugh at.

Metamorphosis of Narcissus by Dali


Lobster Telephone by Dalí


While the National Gallery was too concrete, much of the Tate Modern was just too abstract. Surrealism and Cézanne aside, my current capability to appreciate the visual arts is lacking. Art history majors, help me!

To conclude, I leave you with a photograph of a Paul McCarthy work that actually is safe for work, barely. I present to you Santa Clause with a Buttplug.



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