Trips Through Space and Time

Thirsty for knowledge? Escape to an art museum this summer.

Posted Jun 30, 2014

We all know that travel is broadening. Who wouldn’t love to shoo one’s troubles into a closet, kiss the humdrum blues goodbye and fly off to an adventure in a distant land? But in this age of shrinking airline seats and rising airline fees, I have a suggestion for a different kind of get-away: Spend a day at an art museum.

For the price of an admission ticket, I have transported myself into lost worlds and gazed at the faces of people who passed from this earth centuries—and in some cases millennia—ago. I have stood before images of ancient Chinese warriors, luminous young women in Vermeer’s Holland and an Egyptian couple who lived a century before Tutankhamun. Closer to home, I have confronted searing scenes of racial injustice captured by one of America’s great photographers and viewed stunning works of 20th-century abstract art fashioned out of fabric by African American women in the Deep South. For students of human nature, art museums offer endless opportunities for reflection and contemplation.

Beyond a survey course in art history I took in college, I never formally studied art. But I was lucky enough to go to college in Washington; on afternoons when I had no classes, I would periodically escape the confines of the campus and take a city bus to the National Gallery of Art. There I would happily wander through the galleries, drawn especially to Rembrandt’s dark, brooding canvases and to examples of 19th-century painting, including Whistler’s “The White Girl.”

One day when I was gazing at the Whistler painting for the umpteenth time, a kindly guard broke the gallery’s silence and said to me, “You look like her.” Even in my youthful naiveté, I knew there was no real resemblance between me and the subject of the painting, but I was touched by the guard’s comment nonetheless. How thrilling to be associated—if only for a moment and only by one person—with a beautiful, mysterious young woman in a long white dress who had lived in the 19th century and been an artist’s model!

In the years since college, I have continued to escape to art galleries for inspiration, illumination and solace in cities large and small, in the U.S. and on my occasional trips abroad. I have sought out exhibits or happened upon them by chance. I have gone with friends and alone; I confess that—with rare exceptions (and much as I love my friends)—solo visits generally work better for me.

I wish I could boast that I discovered the splendors of art museums all by myself, but it seems to be an inherited trait. My father, who was a talented amateur painter, had a long-standing love of museums—although I don’t remember that our family of four ever visited art galleries while I was growing up. (We did trek to innumerable historic sites up and down the East Coast and, one summer, into the Midwest. But that is a subject for another column.)

Because I did not discover these publications until long after my father died, I was not able to talk with him about the exhibits. But they nonetheless serve as vivid testimony to his interest. “15 Americans” includes a portion of a letter written in February 1952 by the painter Irving Kriesberg; he made his own case for appreciating art by writing, “How can patches of color transmit to one man the passions felt by another? It is impossible. It is utterly marvelous.”

In my years of museum-going, I have amassed my own set of memorabilia from the exhibits I have seen. The slim publications of the 1950s seem to be a thing of the past as far as museum exhibits are concerned; curators today apparently feel that the worth of an exhibit can best be measured by the weight of the exhibit’s commemorative book. And yet I happily keep these increasingly hefty tomes on my bookshelves as reminders of the hours I have spent in one museum or another, oblivious to the here and now as I disappear into the universe of the painting, photograph, piece of sculpture or household object in front of me.

I was lucky enough to be living in Honolulu in 1995 when the exhibit “Tomb Treasures From China: The Buried Art of Ancient Xi’an” came to the Honolulu Academy of Arts, one of just three U.S. museums to host this exhibit. I was so enamored of the life-size terracotta warriors—created for the burial tomb of the First Emperor of China, Qin Shihuangdi, who died in 210 B.C.—that I went to the exhibit twice, spellbound by the chance to see these long-buried emissaries from 2,000 years ago.

The configuration of the exhibit (combined perhaps with Hawaii’s relaxed aloha spirit) made it possible to stand at arm’s length from one of the warriors and his life-size terracotta horse, which—astonishingly—was outfitted with an ancient metal-and-leather bridle. With nothing but the air of the museum between us, I was free to imagine for a moment that I was standing with the young cavalryman and his steed on a hot and dusty road in ancient Shaanxi province.

When I left Honolulu in 2003 to help care for my mother in Pennsylvania, I realized with some humility that the area I had scorned as a cultural backwater when I departed for college decades before was a mere two-hour drive from three great museum cities—Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.—and a short three-hour train trip from New York. Since my return, I have visited wonderful exhibits in all four cities.

A 2005 exhibit of André Kertész’s dreamy black-and-white photographs at the National Gallery of Art gave me entrée into the vanished worlds of his native Hungary before and after World War I, Paris in the 1920s and ‘30s, and New York in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. At the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore in 2007, I marveled at the artistry of the quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama—rural 20th-century African American women who, working with scraps of fabric to construct quilts with extraordinary designs, patterns and colors, created what a New York Times art critic termed “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.”

My most recent museum visit was in May, when I went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to see “Treasures from Korea: Arts and Culture of the Joseon Dynasty.” (Note to art lovers: This exhibit has left Philadelphia; it has just opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and will open in November at The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.)

This exhibit presented another chance for me to lose myself completely in a culture radically different from my own: Korea’s 518-year-old Joseon dynasty, which began in 1392 and ended in 1910 with the Japanese occupation of Korea. The hundreds of items on display included painted folding screens used at court and in private homes, porcelain jars and bottles, portraits of scholars and statesmen, elegant robes worn by the nobility, graceful hanging scrolls, and wood furniture and other objects found in the homes of the middle and upper classes.

Visitors to the exhibit learn of the influence of Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism in Joseon culture; the meaning of symbols such as bamboo, plum trees, peonies and rocks in Joseon art; the Confucian tradition of reverence for ancestors; and the limitations placed on women in Joseon society. As remote as some of the customs may seem, the exhibit notes, “many of the cultural values and societal practices developed during the dynasty continue to influence Korean culture today.”

The final section of the Joseon exhibit includes a poignant silk hanging scroll by the artist An Jung-sik. Painted in 1915, five years after the Japanese occupation began, it is titled “Spring Dawn at Mount Baekak” and it depicts stately palace buildings in a serene landscape at the foot of a majestic mountain. The exhibit text beside the scroll, however, explains that the painting is elegiac. The artist was re-creating a scene that no longer existed; the Gyeongbok Palace he had so carefully rendered “was in the midst of being demolished by the Japanese government.” Thus, the exhibit explains, “The portrayal of a more glorious past reflects An’s hope for a brighter future for his lost country.”

A friend whose intelligence and perspective I greatly admire once told me that he didn’t like to go to museums because, as he put it with a shrug and a half-smile, “It’s boring.” His answer startled me then, and it does now as I remember it. My visits to museums over the years have left me fascinated, if at times fatigued; I invariably want to learn even more about the subject of the exhibit I have just seen. In addition, with each successive trip, I feel I am adding to my all-too-incomplete knowledge of humankind, from its glorious creativity to its deplorable addiction to war, conquest and destruction. In fact, I am beginning to think that it’s not too soon to start planning my next day at the museum.

Copyright © 2014 By Susan Hooper

Stack of Art Books Photo and Exhibit Flyers Photo Copyright © 2014 By Susan Hooper