Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Art and the Wonder of Discovery

Jean, Marie-Christine, and I visited the Legion of Honor at dusk on the first night of their visit. While looking at some French paintings and furnishings from the 17th century, Jean turned to me and said, “I know this sounds somewhat prejudiced, but I do think that we French do painting rather well. There is just something about it.”

I agree that French artists are in a class by themselves, and so would the wealthy San Franciscans like Alma de Bretteville Spreckels who traveled to France and bought as much art as was for sale with the money that had poured in after the Gold Rush. They were determined to put California on the map. And when it came for California to develop its own art and artists, there were wonderful works from Europe, and especially France, for them to study. The Legion is home to the portion of their collections that they bequeathed to the people of the City.

Again Jean’s comment, “Some of the marvels of travel are its total surprises: in a gallery you stumble into a painter that you have only seen in France or know from study of the 17eme siécle.” In the Legion we wandered through paneled rooms exported whole from French chateaux and hotels. There was even a small ‘cabinet’ that Jean pointed out was where the mémoire was born. He also discovered some charming works from the Court of Luis XVI.

An exhibition of furniture and decoration from Le Petit Trianon was mounted after the Garapon’s departure. I will have another chance to visit France again in San Francisco. I will take you with me in my heart!

We visited the San Francisco MOMA on Thursday night when it stays open late into the evening. Immediately in the entrance to the first floor gallery is the lovely Femme au Chapeau by Matisse.

Here I was again face-to-face with San Francisco’s affinity with France.

Matisse is certainly among the greatest painters of the last century. The small room also holds two Picasso’s. San Francisco’s budding artists can study these paintings as they were meant to be seen and not in small digital reproductions which are only for blogs and Christmas cards.

Further into the galleries there is huge untitled piece by Mark Rothko which is stunning.

San Francisco is also willing to take real risks in art. The third floor galleries contained a display of illuminated photographs, not illuminated as in the decorations of medieval manuscripts, but huge transparencies by Jeff Wall.

A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai)

Unfortunately the small size really does a disservice to the startling impression of these huge imagesthe transparency is 2500 x 3970 mm. A more detailed view of some of his work can be found in the online catalogue.

Beijing-based artist Zhan Wang sculpted the San Francisco cityscape out of pots, pans, graters, and other kitchenware. The piece was part of a new exhibition of Wang's work at San Francisco's Asian Art Museum.

The first museum we visited was with Asian Art Museum the Civic Center, an imposing post ’06 beaux-arts building which used to house the public library. We feel the influence of Asia in more ways than just its art. San Francisco is home to what was the largest Chinese American community in the US for many years, the first immigrants supplying cheap labor for building the city, right from the beginning of the US occupation of California in 1846, and later the western half of the transcontinental railroad. The sad truth is that California as a territory and later as a state was designated “non-slave” in the Missouri Compromise, and the Chinese were coaxed to come to Gold Mountain as indentured servants which was little more than legal slavery. But that is a story that I am not really qualified to tell.

There are several collections that rival San Francisco’s, among them la Musée Guimet in Paris. I visited la Guimet just after it reopened in early 2001 and saw, among other things, a wonderful collection of calligraphy by Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1768), the religious genius who reinvigorated the Rinzai koan training in Japan in the 17th century and the root teacher of the zen lineage I practice in. There were perhaps a dozen calligraphs by Hakuin at the Guimet; in SF we have only two which were not on display when we visited. Here is what we missed, taken by my friend Ken MacDonald.

On the scroll is a calligraphy which is not shown, a poem that tells the story of a monk who is very happy, and perhaps drunk (with sake or satori, that is the question) after a rich patron gave him some money to make a temple offering.

For my generation of Californians, the Asian collision has many happy results, fusion cuisine, a new richness and texture in design, expertise in forms of meditation that began to root in the hearts and minds of my generation that felt abandoned, even betrayed, by the religions of our ancestors. Now after the initial blush has faded and less idealistic mind seems to have the upper hand --the trade imbalance on everyone’s mind--the treasures of the Asian Art Museum provide a way to study, examine, and enhance other influences of our Asian friends.

On almost every visit to the Asian Art, I have seen multi-generational Asian families, grandparents with kids and grand kids in tow, pointing, talking, translating, handing a rich heritage onto a new generation of Americans.

It is always seems to shock Westerners to see fierce the protectors, angels and guardians from the East. Here is Fudo from Buddhist Japan, who protects and cuts the snare of delusion with his fierce sword. May he protect us all!

In the next post I will talk about music and la grève.

No comments: