Saturday, January 3, 2009

Appreciating Art: An Unorthodox Method for Maintaining Your Child's Interest at a Museum

I recall an August afternoon in Chicago in 1973 when I took my daughter, then seven, to see what Georgia O"Keeffe had done with where she had been. One of the vast O'Keeffe "Sky Above Clouds" canvases floated over the back stairs in the Chicago Art Institute that day, dominating what seemed to be several stories of empty light, and my daughter looked at it once, ran to the landing, and kept on looking. "Who drew it," she whispered after a while. I told her. "I need to talk to her," she said finally.
Joan Didion, The White Album. 1979.

Last Saturday, my husband, myself and my youngest son took my oldest son back to his home in Chicago and decided to spend the rainy afternoon at the Art Institute of Chicago. When we lived in Chicago before moving south in 2002, we were members of the Institute and paid it regular visits, but I hadn't been back since before I moved to Los Angeles in 2006. It was so good to be back but it is changing! We were lucky that the new Impressionist galleries had re-opened just before Christmas, and many works that were on loan previously were back in the collection. I can never visit the Art Institute without saying hello to old friends like Caillebotte's Paris Street or Seurat's La Grande Jatte! Also, in May, a new Modern Wing will open. Designed by Renzo Piano, the new space increases total museum space by 30%, and will display the entire range of modern and contemporary collections. Good stuff.

Now that my boys are grown up, we proceeded through the museum a bit differently than we had in the past. Together, the four of us walked through the photography exhibit, Henri Cartier-Bresson and the Art and Photography of Paris, but then we split up, each visiting our favorite collections. I spent most of my time in the European Sculpture and Painting area, especially admiring the Jacques Louis Davids and the Hubert Roberts. (I love this, and this.) I just finished Francis du Plessix-Gray's biography of Madame de Staël and felt drawn to see artists from the same time period (1766–1817) . We met for lunch in the Institute's Garden Restaurant, and then dashed to the parking garage under Chicago's beautiful Millenium Park in the pouring rain.

It was fun to see my sons, now 22 and 18, feel so at home and excited to be in the Art Institute. When we first moved to Chicago, in 1992, they were so small and I, thrilled to be living near one of the greatest museums in the world, felt compelled to drag them there. It was clear within minutes that I would need to devise a way to hold their interest long enough to give me time to enjoy it myself. Thus, follows my rather subversive technique, and I'm sure many will not approve. I should also add that both of my boys are artsy, liberal, and independent (intellectually, if not yet financially ;-)) so if you're trying to keep your children on the straight & narrow, this probably is not the best option. Leave them at home! Still, it worked, and here was the plan:

1. Arms and Armor collection. What boy doesn't like swords, pistols, halberds, cleavers, suits of armor, maces, and and chain mail? The Armor collection at the Art Institute used to be located on the first floor, and we would always start here. Then, I would rush the boys up to the Impressionist gallery for a few short minutes so I could see my Monets and Renoirs, until my sons lost interest and we would then find:

2. St. George Killing the Dragon, by Bernat Martorell (1430/35).

More armor, more weaponry, and a dragon to boot. There's a lot of blood and gore in the Renaissance & Baroque Art collection. My boys were also particularly taken with:

3. The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. Giovanni di Paolo (1455-60, in the Medieval to Modern European Painting and Sculpture).

Yes, truly disgusting, but imagine how interested the boys were in learning all about John the Baptist (locusts!!!) and Salome (veils!). (Here's another "head" shot, if you're also interested in this sort of thing.) We spent a lot of time in the Medieval to Modern European Painting and Sculpture gallery. I could look at the beautiful Davids (see above), and my sons would be thrillingly horrified by paintings such as:

4. Head of a Guillotined Man, Théodore Géricault (1818/19).

Ew. But still...memorable.

5. It wasn't all blood and gore. The Art Institute is home to the charming Thorne Miniature Rooms, which also entranced. My youngest son also developed an attachment to an earthenware Chinese horse.

6. Finally, we would go to the Museum store and the boys would choose postcards of their favorite pieces. I still find them when I'm cleaning out their drawers (among other, less savory, things)!

This Buddha is a family joke. Actually, it's between my husband and I; our youngest son isn't very amused. Anyways, at the time when we first started going to the Art Institute, he was just turned two. He was comforted by sucking the finger on one hand, and holding onto our earlobe (!?) with the other. You may not imagine, but someone continually holding onto your earlobe is very irritating. There's also a risk that you may end up looking up like the Buddha above. At least that's how it felt.


Petunia said...

Would you believe that when I raved about the jasmine green tea to my Hubby--he went & pulled a huge box of it out of our pantry?! Evidently he had discovered it last year and had special-ordered it. The website on the teabag is
I was ecstatic!!!

M.Lane said...

I don't think there is anything at all wrong with this technique...rather it is a masterstroke of parenting. You managed to 1)get them IN a museum; 2)see what YOU wanted to see; and 3) inspire them for the future, whether they wanted to be inspired or not.

You are reaping the rewards now. Where do you think that "artsy, intellectual" stuff came from?

An Epic BRAVO to you!!!


PS. you still have the best name of any blogger...

Bee said...

I thoroughly admire your technique! Do you have any ideas for girls, of which I have two?

Last summer we went to Italy (Florence and Siena)and we seem to have burned out the children on art. They kick up a mighty fuss if we even mention the word "museum" now. It pains me, particularly with London's marvels so close to us.

I have recently started Strapless - the story of Sargent's "Madame X" (subject, painting and scandal). Have you read it?

Heather said...

I think this is a great way to do it!

The Daily Connoisseur said...

Your technique is very creative and it shows that you care! What little boys wouldn't love those deliciously morbid paintings? I found them quite interesting myself :)

Barrie said...

Oh, I love your method for getting your boys interested in the museum. It would work perfectly for my Child #3. And I need the opposite for Child #4 (my only girl)!

Fantastic Forrest said...

LOVE, LOVE, LOVE your post here. I grew up in Chicago and we drove through on a cross country trip this summer. Took the kids to the Art Institute and they were blown away. The Portland Art Museum isn't quite of the same caliber. I had a lot of fun with my daughter in the miniature rooms section.

Your blog is great. Consider me your newest fan!