thoughts from the Legion of Honor

Went to the Legion of Honor today, to see their Impressionist-era Paris exhibit — which I frankly didn’t care about that much, but I wanted to go Do Stuff with friends, and it’s a holiday weekend, and well why not.

For those of you who haven’t been there: there are probably prettier museums, and there may be museums with more spectacular settings, but I’ve never personally visited one that combines those two qualities to greater effect. Not only is it a lovely classical building with columns and such, but it sits atop a hill in the far northwest corner of the San Francisco peninsula, surrounded by flowers and grass and wind-sculpted trees, overlooking the Golden Gate. Just standing outside it in the sunshine makes me feel happy.

Then we went inside, and I spent more time looking at the photos (showing how Paris was modernized, and what it looked like before) than I did at the paintings and etchings and such, but as I’ve been studying the history of photography that’s to be expected. Of the artists displayed, I’m not a fan of Toulouse-Lautrec, but I was reminded that I genuinely do like Mucha; I’m burned out on the three or so works of his that every other college bookstore in the U.S. sells in poster form, but once I get past those to the rest of his stuff, it’s very appealing.

And then there was this one oil painting.

I didn’t have anywhere to write down the title or artist, so I can’t tell you what it was. An outdoor scene, mostly green, two women in the left foreground with a BRIGHT red umbrella. You need to understand that I’m usually not much interested in fine art; give me artifacts of the past or other parts of the world and I’m all over them, but paintings and such tend to be the galleries I skip. This is probably the first time I’ve taken a good look at a well-conserved oil painting since my conversations with tooth_and_claw, who waxed rhapsodic about the luminosity of oil paint, and the level of detail a good artist can achieve with them, and the textured quality of an oil painting seen in person.

People, she is right.

This thing seemed to leap out of its frame at me. The red GLOWED against the green, and the whole thing had this almost 3-D feel to it, the umbrella and the leaves and such standing out against their background because of the layers of paint. We also wandered through some of the standard collections, including a bunch of oil paintings in another wing, and while many of them were unremarkable, others could draw me in from the other side of the room — usually the ones that did something cool with light. A valley with a sunset sky glimpsed at the far end. People and angels gathered around a glowing baby Jesus. The only interesting still-life I recall ever seeing, because this one had flowers but also spiky holly bushes and half-dead leaves and thorny stuff in the background, in a hundred shades of rich dark green. I had heard, but never really understood, that a reproduction of an oil painting doesn’t do it justice. You really do lose the luminosity, the texture, that make oil such a compelling medium.

I am not an instant convert; I still find a lot of paintings to be completely forgettable. The card at the side may talk about the masterly brushwork or arresting composition or what have you, and I’ll just shrug and think, sure, if you say so. Art appreciation: I’m not very good at it. (Artifact appreciation, on the other hand. My favorite piece in the Sackler, frex, is a very plain but surpassingly lovely jade and bronze spear-head.) I must say, though, that I now get the oil painting thing better than I did twenty-four hours ago. To really understand them, you have to see them in person.

0 Responses to “thoughts from the Legion of Honor”

  1. tooth_and_claw

    Monet, Monet, Monet. Dude does . . . I mean . . . the haystacks . . . GUH. One day we’ll meet up in Chicago, go to the museum, and marvel.

    • Marie Brennan

      They had a bit of Monet there, but not much. (Probably more over in the De Young, where they have a special exhibition of pieces from the Musee d’Orsay, mostly — or entirely? — Impressionists.)

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