Friday, 11 February 2011

Terra Firma in Chicago

John Vanderlyn's Ariadne at Naxos

What a boon that former Philadelphian Daniel J. Terra is moving his Museum of American Art smack down onto Chicago's Miracle Mile. And what a blessing, that the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, America's oldest museum (1805), is paying tribute to the newest such institution by sending 60 of its prime canvases to the Chicago inaugural. Until March 15th you can see two-thirds of these exiles from the PAFA basement here. You shouldn't miss the treat.

In passing, I hope I won't be misunderstood (or maybe it's just that I really want to be understood) when I say what a pity we don't see more of such "old chestnuts." Every up-do-date museum these days has got to prove it's hip--a special challenge to PAFA whose riches are so often historical.

Frankly, I hope (and predict) that Frank Stella's fatal crash collage--on which PAFA spent umpteen thousands--will take up the room in the basement in place of some of those old chestnuts before we're too deep into the 1990s.

Walk around PAFA with me for a few minutes and tell me whether you'd rather stare at Stella by starlight or relish these buried legacies. Start with Thomas Sully's radiant portrait of the actress Fanny Kemble. Her eyes are so full of lively joi I wanted to applaud his performance right on the spot.

It's cheek (if you'll forgive my grossness) by jowl with John Vanderlyn's "Ariadne at Naxos," a canvas that is (in)famous for having broken the bare-boob barrier in American art. Funny how much sexier I find Fanny's eyes than eyeing Ariadne's fanny. Kemble's portrait is alive: Vanderlyn's, a slab of cultural flab.

I really also responded to John Sloan's "Jefferson Market," so unAshcanny in the late afternoon sun bathing that quirky High Vic edifice from a high, high perspective--so far up that the El customers are tiny blobs. It's a kick, when the museum basement is given an airing, to see a familiar painter in an unfamiliar guise.

It is also a special treat to come across someone you've never even seen before. John White Alexander is new to me, and "A Quiet Hour" (1904) is a fresh pleasure--a young woman in a sensational pea-green brocaded gown reading as she leans against a bed covered in the same color, the richness of which ground color is set off marvelously by the lustrous black of her hair and the whiteness of her complexion.

I get the same kick of jamais vu from Daniel Ridgeway Knight, whose "Hailing the Ferry" (1888) is a fine genre piece, the two young women doing the hailing on the near bank in almost photorealist focus while the object of their solicitation comes arunning, in softest focus, on the far bank.

Such temporary house gleanings also fill in gaps in your local color. Having arrived in the Del Val only in 1956, I've only heard of the Chinese Wall connecting 30th Street Station with the old Broad Street Station. So Morris Hall Pancoast's "The Penny Pack Shed" (1918) was both extrinsically and intrinsically interesting. He had obviously pored over the many canvases of the Gare St. Lazarre by French Impressionist masters.

Some old chestnuts don't hold up, alas. Thomas Eakins' "Whitman" (1887) is a smarmy avuncular poet long past his prime at age 68--unless, of course, it was 43-year-old truthteller Tom telling us about a Walt who had dwindled badly after the stroke which brought him to Camden in 1873.

Bass Otis (1784-1861) was, on the other hand, new and delightfully fresh to me, his "Interior of a Smithy" (1815) crying out for explication. How old was that semi-automated anvil and what was it used to make? And who are the Beau Brummel types lolling in the right foreground? They seem out of place in their frippery in a mean smithy.

Otis's portrait of Alexander Lawson (1808) had just enough data in the captions to whet my appetite for more. It said he was the engraver, who brought Wilson's American Ornithology to press, and the first lithographer in the U.S. (1819). He is also characterized as the inventor of the perspective protractor in 1815. The what?

Finally, there's my favorite cultural hero, Charles Willson Peale, PAFA founder, who bet on the vitality of our country by naming his sons Rembrandt, Raphael and James (how did he make the cut?!) And to think that they actually ended up being entirely creditable artists. But what I really love was the way Peale appealed to the great unwashed American audience--using exhumed mastodons and live animals to tease his timid crowds into this museum so that they would end up being exposed to the Culture--with a capital C--he wanted them to savour.

How much better than that Jacksonian conman Phineas T. Barnum with his "To the Egret" signs that led his paying customers out onto the street, where they would have to pay another admission to drool again over his collection of oddities.

On Chicago's Miracle Mile, half way between the svelte Miesian Institute of Contemporary Art and the Peace Museum eking out a hand-to-mouth existence in an old loft, Daniel Terra may learn from PAFA that there is no substitute for solid scholarship doled out in strategically deployed captions. Terra firma!

Reprinted from Welcomat: Hazard-at-Large

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