Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Permanent Collection

The fourth floor of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts is a busy place this time of year. The period rooms are all done up for the holidays, and families and school groups wander through to see the glitter. Anyone who has ever had a doll house knows the fascination of the period rooms. We long to rearrange the furniture, we imagine dramatic domestic scenes around the fireplace, and we picture the people readying themselves for the night in that tiny colonial bed. I have a special fascination for the period rooms, because all the years I was a child I didn't even know they existed (did they exist then?), and it wasn't until one Christmas that my step-mother took me to see them in their full splendor that I discovered a whole wing of the MIA my usual tour guides (Jimmy, Claire, my dad) must have avoided on purpose. Still, as I've gotten older I've realized that the period rooms never change. Even the holiday dazzle is the same year after year. The sameness of the rooms makes them uninteresting. I've seen them. Done that.

Meanwhile, the rest of the art on the fourth floor is the same as it always was, but it just gets better every time I go. There's the stunning one of woman lying in the grass eating an apple with her baby (Cassatt, I think. I'm not very good at remembering to read the tags). There's a nude painted by a man who has never seen a naked woman. There's a baby painted by a man who has never seen a baby. And then stop! Here's that breathtaking scene of Lucretia with the knife. Rooms of angels and religious paintings lull me back into my museum stupor, and then she catches my eye again, the woman with the candle, the flame of it covered by some man's arm, but the glow of it perfectly reflected on each of the faces huddled urgently around her. There's the couple in the moonlight. I'm not sure I love Gauguin, with his bold swatches of color, but used to have a puzzle of one of his paintings, and so I spend some time reuniting with it in the museum. And of course, I have to pause each time at the bust of the Algerian, stark contrast of bronze and stone.

Around me, on the fourth floor of the museum, the ones who make it past the period rooms to look at the permanent collection gasp along with me. I think they must gasp each time at the same place in the room. I know I do. The best paintings are old friends that still catch me by the shirtsleeves each time I see them.

"Look!" says a man to his son, "If you stand close, it's just dots. If you back up you can see the picture. He did it all with dots. Can you believe it? Just dots."

"Oh no!" shouts a woman to her out-of-town companion. "They moved it. Where is it? Oh! Oh! Here it is. Isn't it breathtaking? Isn't it wonderful?"

"It's perfect," says the man of the elderly couple to his wife. She agrees, and they stand silently in front of the Carpet Vendor for a minute, just looking.

I wonder if the way we enjoy art is Minnesotan. If we lived in Manhattan, we'd have so many more paintings to see that it would take longer to make friends with our favorites. We'd have traveling shows come and visit us, and we'd be able to make new acquaintances so easily that we might not cling so steadfastly to what we know and like. We might not notice if they move one of our favorites to a different wall. We might go to the museum not to see the dozen paintings we already love, but to meet new ones and allow them to impress us. We might not spend our entire play-going budget each year on the same old "Christmas Carol" at the Guthrie.

I don't know, but I do know that I can't wait to go back again so I can see Lucretia without the tour of catholic school tenth graders blocking my view.