Having a favorite work of art can be compared to having a favorite movie: you can obsess over it and want to learn everything about its subject, you can like the story the work of art tells/expresses, you can like the colors, you can like the composition, and so on and so forth. Like movies works of art carry emotions: anger, love, happiness, passion, lust, greed, comfort, joy, etc. You can feel connected to a work of art like you would a movie and its characters.
Let me put what I have just written in a way you may better understand: I love watching Norma Shearer in films (for those of you who do not know who Shearer was she was a very famous and very successful actress for MGM in the late 1920s and into the 1930s). Shearer was not the best actresses ever nor was she very good looking but there was magnetism to her. When she comes on the screen I am very drawn to her and cannot look away. Her magnetism comes from the way she carried herself and put all of her pent up sexuality into her roles. My favorite painting is called Madame X by John Singer Sargent. It is a portrait of a woman named Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau. She was an American from New Orleans who moved with her mother to Paris after her father had died in the Civil War and her sister died from an illness. She became a woman of high society, everyone knew who she was. Sargent had been looking for important high society people to paint to boost his reputation as a portraitist. He painted Mme. Gautreau wearing a black dress against a tan-brown background with her right arm leaning against a small round tan-gold table and her left arm clutching a part of her dress. There are two aspects of this portrait and the woman that grab your attention, her milky white almost translucent skin and her sharp profile. Mme. Gautreau’s skin is so white it immediately grabs your eye. Her profile is my favorite aspect of this painting and why I adore it and why I consider it my favorite work of art in the whole of Art History. Her profile makes the portrait completely unconventional. All the portraits many are used to viewing are of the subjects facing their audiences. Mme. Gautreau looks away from the viewer as if she was refusing to give you the time of day and cannot be bothered by your presence in front of her. There is an attitude to entire body that takes hold of your attention and never lets go.
Madame X proudly resides in the American Wing Galleries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. I know the Met like the back of my hand. I know exactly where Madame X is and always have to go and see her. The gallery she resides in hangs mostly other portraits by Sargent. While the other portraits are beautiful in their own right none of them grab your attention like Madame X. As I mentioned she is not looking at you she is looking away. The other portraits want your attention so their subjects gaze out at you. Madame X does not want your attention and that is why you give it. (Madame X is a fascinating work of art. I highly encourage you to look up the painting. Her story caused quite a scandal when it was displayed in the Salon at the Louvre in 1884).
|Madame X by John Singer Sargent|
Art History is a passion of mine. So much so I hold a degree in it. Another passion of mine is museums. I recently obtained my MA in Museum Registration (I am a glorified record keeper and protector of the objects). I love museums. They were originally literally created to be temples of learning and knowledge. Museums of any kind are temples and shrines to me be them the Metropolitan Museum of Art or a small historical society in the middle of nowhere. They are history, they house history. They house stories and I love stories. My brain has been trained to see, what you may see as an ordinary everyday object, the skill that went into making an object and the materials and the time periods and societies it was made in. Where these objects are held and how they are displayed reflect their values within history and within the museum.
So now you may be wondering, if you have made it down this far and if you have I am so proud of you for sticking with me, why I have passionately rambled on about a portrait and museums. What on earth does this have to do with a movie titled Museum Hours? I am sure you are also thinking the movie has something to do with a museum being open and people visiting and possibly the plot of the story is two people falling in love and finding each other there. False on both thoughts.
The story is about a museum security guard named Johann. Johann has been working as a security guard in the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum in Vienna for six years. He likes his job and watching visitors come in and out of the galleries. In voiceovers throughout the movie he explains various works of art and their artists or time periods. He mostly discusses the works of Pieter Bruegl the Elder since that is his favorite gallery. Bruegel was part of the period known as the Dutch Renaissance in the 1500s. He painted people living and celebrating and doing normal everyday things such as weddings and field work.
A woman named Anna who has been called to Vienna by doctors to come and see her sick cousin. The cousin became ill and fell into a coma and Anna was the only familial contact in her phone book. To pass some time Anna goes to Kunsthistorisches. She goes there frequently and Johann notices her. He befriends her and helps her get information from the doctors looking after her cousin. Johann takes Anna around Vienna to some of the most popular tourist traps as well as some of his favorite places. He views his city in a new way.
The paintings and some of Johann’s stories are beautifully juxtaposed with scenes of life outside the museum. Works of art a reflections their time periods and the societies they were made it. There are works made hundreds of years ago that can reflect our society today. All of Bruegel’s highlighted works in this movie are discussed and shown to reflect our modern society.
The plot of Museum Hours is not a complicated story but for me is a bit hard to explain. I felt so connected to how the works of art were explained (which was brilliantly and better than I could since I am so rusty with my Art History-explaining-skills right now). Johann looked at the works of art everyday for six years. He noticed different aspects and qualities of them and the way visitors viewed them. His view was philosophical and contemplative. There are so many ways to view works of art and I like his view the best speaking as an art historian. Like movies you can definitely interpret art the way you want to interpret it. I love Museum Hours. I love how it was not all about being in a museum and looking at art. It was about looking at the works of art and seeing those hundreds of year old scenes playing out in the modern world. It was very refreshing watching a movie dealing with museums and art that was not about looting and art heists and just having it as a backdrop to some crappy love story. If you like a good interesting different story, absolutely watch Museum Hours. I can only hope that the movie sparks your interest in art and that you will be able to see the world in a whole new different way.