Sunday, May 30, 2010

Profit From the Unexpected

Last week I wrote about the opening of “The Birth of Impressionism” exhibition at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and mentioned the symposium that we were going to attend. The symposium, though part of the museum’s opening weekend program, was not organized by the museum but by Rick Brettell, former curator and museum director, who is now The Margaret McDermott Distinguished Chair, of the department of Art and Aesthetics at the University of Texas, Dallas. We have known Rick for over 35 years, during which time we have followed his career as museum curator, director, author, and brilliant lecturer in his field of greatest expertise, the time of the Impressionists. We believed we had a pretty good idea of everything he might offer up on symposium day but, as always, he managed to surprise.

Rick decided, as he put it, he was tired of sharing the stage with the same familiar cast of Impressionist scholars. Therefore, the subject of the day was the teaching of art history of the French late 19th and early 20th centuries as it was taught on the west coast of the United States, as distinct from the Ivy League schools and other major art history departments at universities east of the Mississippi.

The morning program revisited the very different approaches of a series of West Coast professors, from those with a Socialist interpretation to the conservative approach which valued Academic Salon painting over the avant garde of the Impressionists. In the afternoon current graduate students from California universities gave papers on a varied menu of late 19th and early 20th century topics.

We spent our one free day in the downtown area where we saw several interesting exhibitions. SFMOMA has a 75th Anniversary exhibition that presents a chronological look at the San Francisco museum’s collecting of contemporary art. Obviously, what was contemporary when it was given is no longer so 25, 50, 75 years later. Since the donations and purchases were of work of the time, the show offers a fascinating review of recent art history, through a contemporary lens, particularly, though not exclusively, focused on Bay Area artists.

The greatest surprise, however, came at the one museum I only went to because a curator at the Museums of San Francisco recommended it. That was the Contemporary Jewish Museum where we saw a totally gripping exhibition. A French artist, Linda Ellia, was faced with a dilemma when her young daughter came across a copy of Hitler’s infamous anti Semitic tome, Mein Kampf. She asks the question: do we ignore it? ban it? burn it?, instead she created this exhibition, "Our Struggle: Responding to Mein Kampf".

She decided to give out the pages, mainly to strangers, asking the recipients to react in image or text on the page itself. She found a second copy of the book in order to have both sides of each page available. The result is hundreds of pages of the most haunting images and commentary. About two thirds are on view and you would need to go back several times to take it in thoroughly.

If you are in San Francisco don’t miss these three great shows. The surprises they offered made our journey all the more worth while.

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