Sunday, May 1, 2011

Soaking up Culture in San Francisco

San Francisco, Ca - Pat and I spent a lovely day at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park last week, a welcome change of pace from what had become a daily diet of either boat chores or snow shoveling.

This is the "new" de Young, which replaced the old one with much fanfare a few years ago. It seems we have been to the Academy of Science across the park often enough to watch the albino crocodile grow old, but haven't visited the city's art museums in a long time.

Two major exhibits are being offered right now, one on the Olmec culture's art (big carved stone heads, no photos allowed) and the other on Balenciaga's textiles (lots of red dresses and handbags, not my thing).

Pat and I enjoyed most the great sampling of art we experienced on three guided tours: a look of the entire museum's highlights; a detailed tour of the American art collection, and the Olmec sculptures and carved icons, a convergence of art, archeology and history.
And, the building and grounds are among the most thoughtful anywhere, from the ironic cracks in the courtyard (fault line art) and the greening copper sheathed structure, to the spectacular views of art, architecture and scenery everywhere you look.

Our volunteer tour guides made the day, particularly the serendipitous presence of one docent who turned out to be a neighbor of our old friend Frank McCulloch. (Frank, one of my journalistic heroes, happened to be my boss and mentor at The Bee in the 1980s.)
The guide, named Joan, was knowledgeable, witty, clear-voiced and friendly. She was as delighted as we were to find out we have a great friend in common, and I was able to tell her a few Frank stories she had not heard. Pat sent a hug back to Santa Rosa with Joan for Frank.

Joan was particularly knowledgeable about early American portraits, telling stories about the people and their place in history. Every painting seemed to have a story, whether it was how the subject was too cheap to have his or her hands painted (that cost extra) or why drapes figured so prominently in the background so often (cheaper and easier to paint than detailed landscapes or interiors). Even artists have to make a living.

I enjoyed hearing, for the first-time since Fourth Grade Art Appreciation Class, the role that painters played in different eras of our history, whether reflecting Manifest Destiny, sanctifying John Brown, or preserving a Boston Sea Captain's vanity.

The most surprising moment at the museum for me came when were looking at an abstract sculpture (construction?) made of burned pieces of wood suspended from the ceiling into a giant hanging cube. Not much to look at.

A museum guard, standing against the wall, quietly told me that the pieces of wood came from the African American Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four little girls were murdered by a racist bomber in the 1960s. The museum's official description of the work discussed the work in abstract terms, but he made it more real than he could have known.

I lived in Alabama in the 1960s, briefly covered Civil Rights as a journalist in that era. The ashes of that destroyed church, and four lives destroyed by hate, will never be an abstraction for me.

It never occurred to me to take a photo. I just looked and thought about where it came from, and where we came from and where we are heading.

The art wasn't all that moving. There were satirical paintings, grand landscapes, and a very nice portrait of George Washington made from one dollar bills.

One of the world's ugliest vases (pictured at the top) was adorned by a bird singing his or her heart out.

The museum is far too full of delightful stuff to go into more detail, but you owe it to yourself to visit the next time you are in the Bay Area.

And the view from the observation tower is one of the best you will ever see anywhere in San Francisco.

No comments: