Wednesday, August 14, 2013

New Orleans Museum of Art

The 2013 joint meeting of the Council of State Archivists and the Society of American Archivists will start -- for me, at least -- at noon tomorrow. I got into town late last night, and I spent most of the day at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA).

NOMA is situated on the edge of the 1,300-acre New Orleans City Park, which is one of the oldest urban parks in the nation. City Park suffered extensive damage as a result of Hurricane Katrina (2005), but New Orleanians rallied to repair it.  As a result, the park is once again a beautiful, inviting, and extremely popular place; however, if you look closely, you can still see lingering damage in many areas.

City Park is home to a wide array of trees, among them bald cypress, magnolias, live oaks, and a wide array of other oak varieties . . . .

. . . . And every now and then you find a tree growing in another tree.

 NOMA occupies a 1911 neoclassical building designed by Chicago architect Samuel Marx. A 1971 addition dramatically increased the museum's storage and exhibition space, and the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden (which I visited in 2010) opened in 2003.

NOMA's collections comprise approximately 40,000 objects.  Although the museum's collection spans the world and ranges from ancient to contemporary works, French and American art are particular strengths.

NOMA allows visitors to take non-flash photographs of works that it owns and which are on display in its permanent galleries, so I'm going to share a few of my favorite pieces.

NOMA has a small but carefully chosen collection of 16th- and 17th-century Dutch and Flemish paintings, and Marinus van Reymerswaele's The Lawyer's Office (oil on wood, 1545) has long been a favorite.  How could it not be?  The documents depicted in this painting relate to an actual lawsuit that was filed in 1526 but not resolved until 1538 . . . by which time the property at the center of the suit had been destroyed by storms.
Jehan Georges Vibert's The Cardinals' Friendly Chat (oil on canvas, ca. 1880) was meant to be at least slightly anti-clerical; the men are sitting in Marie Antoinette's Fontainebleau boudoir, completely oblivious to the upheavals heading their way.  To 21st-century eyes, however, there's something appealing about the contrast between their opulent surrounding and dress and their relaxed, informal demeanor.

NOMA's collection of French and American Impressionist works is impressive, and I was particularly taken by Elizabeth Woodward's Paradise Wood, Beaux Bridge, Louisiana (oil on canvas, ca. 1910).  If I hadn't seen the painting's title, I would have guessed that Woodward had depicted City Park.

Wassily Kandinsky's Sketch for "Several Circles" (oil on paper, laid down on canvas, 1926, draws the eye of every visitor who walks into the room in which it is hanging.  Owing to its fragility, it's kept under glass, and photographing it means photographing a reflected image of nearby works . . . and oneself.

As one might expect, NOMA's collection of contemporary New Orleans and Louisiana art is particularly strong.  Robert Gordy was known for his whimsical portraits, and his Female Head #2 (oil on canvas, 1976) made me chuckle aloud.

Alexis Rockman's Battle Royale (oil on canvas, 2011), seems humorous at first, but it's really deadly serious.  Rockman depicts fifty-four native and invasive species fighting for dominance in a Louisiana swamp.  Non-native plants and animals -- some of which have been present for a long time and some of which have recently arrived -- are placing increasing stress on the state's ecosystems, and the warfare Rockman depicts is quietly taking place all over the state.

Robert Warrens's The Command Ship of the Toxic Flotilla (painted wood, light bulbs, and mixed media, 1986) is another work that initially seems light-hearted but, as it's name indicates, it's anything but.  Southern Louisiana has long been a center of petroleum drilling and refining and chemical manufacturing, and Warrens's work draws attention to the impact of these human activities upon the natural world.

In contrast, Willie Burch's North Villere Street (acrylic and charcoal on paper, 2007) is a sensitive depiction of one small human community. 

I have a finite capacity for museum-going. After a few hours, my eyes start to skim over the works and my ability to comprehend the contextual information recedes.  When this starts to happen, I leave; there's no point in forcing oneself to look at things one can't appreciate and won't remember afterward. As a result, I didn't view NOMA's galleries of Indian, Japanese, Chinese, or African art -- and thus have a compelling reason to go back the next time I'm in New Orleans.

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