A Visit to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston

Museum of Fine Arts HoustonThe ultimate destination on a short trip to Houston Memorial Day was the Houston Museum of Fine Arts (MFAH). That and Bayou Bend, a collection of American fine and decorative arts in the former home of noted philanthropist and Houstonian Ima Hogg. It was unclear from the website if Bayou Bend would be open Memorial Day, but it was clear the Museum would be open, so we took our chances. We arrived at Bayou Bend first, but found it closed. On the way to the museum we called and were informed Bayou Bend would open at 1 p.m. We rushed through the Museum of Fine Arts to arrive back at Bayou Bend as the clock approached two. Once again, not open. To say the least, this was aggravating. Not only did the web site not make things clear, but its also possible the web site had incorrect information we did not find. We headed back to the MHAHto make another go through.

We do not understand the photograph policy at MFAH, which sets the limits for the current visitors to 16th to 20th Century European Art (this does appear to be where the bulk of items not on loan are located, however) of the permanent collection, nor would we be able to comprehend the floor plans in which Japanese Art, Indian Art and Chinese Art are on a different floor from Asian Art. But the museum’s two buildings provide ample space to house an encyclopedic collection and our four-hour visit only covered American Art, part of European Art, Chinese Art and one special exhibition.

Since there is a historical house to showcase American fine art and decorative art in situ, it is understandable the six-room American art galleries in the main building of MFAH are for those who do not have time to drive another 15 minutes to see only Bayou Bend, the Winterthur of the Southwest.

LatourA bureau table attributed to John Townsend was the first item that caught our eyes. It was formerly displayed in the drawing room of Bayou Bend. Even though the market for federal and classical period furniture in general has declined, the extraordinary artisanship in Newport furniture withstands the economic weathering. Earlier this year a similar piece appeared at Christie’s (attributed to John Goddard, the other family which dominated the trade). That bureau table was sold for more than $5.8 million, a near-four-million-dollar increase from the price realized in 2005.

DaumierSeveral items in the European collections had particular allure. These include Vase of Chrysanthemums by Henri Fantin-Latour, A Meeting of Lawyers by Honore Daumier, Susan Comforting the Baby by Mary Cassatt, The Eiffel Tower by Henri Rousseau and The Music Lesson by Pietro Longhi.

In the work by Cassatt it came off as striking how abstract the figure of the baby was and how real the figure of the caretaker was. If you know the work of Honore Damier, this work won’t need much explaining. The facial expressions tell the story.

Was this painter looking at Longhi (left)?

The Music Lesson by Pietro Longhi was not so interesting in itself, but interesting because it reminded me of another painting of which the artist has not been identified. I’ll post the photos side-by-side and see what you think.

In a large hall dominated with French Rococo aesthetics and British Reynoldian mannerism, the small kitchen still life painting by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin is a great diversion. Modest in subject matter and muted in color, the small gem captures the marvelous light and texture on the food of our daily life. I was fascinated by his choice of composition with the counter top slightly tilted upward, an off-balanced plate and basket and even one of the garlic was cut off from the picture. The rather painterly image glimpses our modest living and enlivens such modesty with light that renders both space and texture. And in doing so it reflects the spiritual harmony in tonality and special relationship between objects.

Pieter Claesz’s Still Life With Basket of Grapes was another painting that we spent quite some time with. While the large-scaled picture is a fanfare of sumptuous lifestyle, it maintains a rather sober and restrained aesthetics.

Claesz Grapes Still Life

The incongruity attracts my eyes to examine every single objects from bread crumbles to the freckles on the apples. Later I found out that his painting was the cover picture in the exhibition Pieter Claesz: Master of Haarlem Still Life at the National Gallery of Art back in 2005. Through the relationship between Edgar Peters Bowron, the curator at MFAH who used to work at NGA and the London art dealer Edward Speelman who owned the picture, the work is now loaned and displayed at the museum, as a splendid addition to the still life tradition from the Dutch Gilded Age. The information can still be found in NGA’s website: Tabletop Still Life with Mince Pie and Basket of Grapes (1625) demonstrates a number of Claesz’s pictorial innovations. The vantage point is lowered, the perception of spatial depth increased, and the composition more unified in comparison to the previous generation’s work.”

In the Asian Collection, the number of works on display was not by any means numerous, but most satisfying was their being displayed surrounded by a large work by contemporary Chinese artist Cai Guoqiang. This arrangement did much to make the ancient works relevant to our time and selves.

The ancient Chinese potteries, stoneware and bronzeware are set against a 42-panel gunpowder drawing by Cai. Featuring mist, cloud, water, mountain and lotus flowers in the traditional free-style, the drawings on the wall seamlessly connect to the individual objects and set as a cultural backdrop against Cizhou porcelain or Zhou Dynasty’s Zun should be read and interpreted. I have been intentionally averting Cai’s works after reading the news about his installation of Flying Pack of Wolves in Guggenheim Museum of New York. But I love how he transformed the explosive gunpowder into something tranquil and eternal. Unlike Ai Weiwei, Cai’s works is less extreme with ideological messages and also bear more oriental sensitivity.

In the gift shop I had picked up a book that contained the writings of Weiwei-all translated from his blog. Like much of the rest of the Western World, I am discovering the work of this artist through news reports of his imprisonment. Perhaps some of this is Western propaganda purposely directed as a critique of the Chinese government, by what I read struck me more as a Chinese Upton Sinclair, calling out corruption that idealist dogma.

A book on Frederick Remington purchased in the gift shop provides some additional insight into the collecting activities of both Ima and Will Hogg. It turns out Will Hogg was collecting works by Remington before Amon Carter, the later who visited Mr. Hogg in his business offices in Houston to see the works. Many are on display in the galleries, including the The Call for Help, a night scene that is among the artist’s greatest achievements.

The final exhibit we visited was Circa 1900: Decorative Arts at the Turn of the Century. Of which the major benefit was the discovery of the artist František Kupka whose self-portrait was particularly extraordinary.


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