January 11, 2007

Art Appreciation and the Mechanics of Halos

The Hood Museum is one of the blessings of living near Dartmouth College.

It's a gem of an art collection: small enough to peruse everything in an hour, quiet enough to linger, and rich in quality and variety from ancient Assyrian bas reliefs to a Picasso.

And it's free to the public.

We had the kids there on Sunday, and they made us proud. Both are comfortable categorizing portraits, still-lifes, and landscapes. They even know something about how to start looking at a picture. When prompted, they speak comfortably about how it makes them feel, its colors, and whether it's realistic or abstract.

In the art museum, homeschooling shines. When I recall the somniferous sessions with the well-meaning “picture lady” at my own affluent grammar school, I'm gratified to see how easily my children converse with art.

Upstairs, the Hood is featuring a temporary exhibit by El Anatsui, an African artist. Much of his work is a comment on consumption and waste in the modern world. As we ascended the staircase, we stepped into a miniature mountain range built entirely of tin can tops.

“Mom,” Nathaniel eagerly suggested, “we should stop recycling so I can build this at home.”

A few minutes later we were looking at a giant wall made of rusty scrap metal and punctured with thousands of holes so it shimmered with light.

Nathaniel, ever concerned with the engineering of things, asked, “Was the wall already put together when they brought it here from Africa, or did they have to put it together here?”

“I don't know,” said Camille. “Why don't you ask the guard?”

Nathaniel confidently approached the man and inquired . . . “Do you have any free souvenirs?”

The guard promised him a bookmark about the exhibit, but—on discovering they had run out of bookmarks—heaped brochures and informational literature on him instead.

At an exhibit about consumerism and waste, Nathaniel swore off recycling and acquired an armload of printed brochures.

Our children's first visit to an art museum was unplanned. Shortly before moving out of Chicago, on the spur of a free day, we decided to introduce the kids to the Art Institute.

After fighting our way through hundreds of people lined up for a traveling Toulouse-Lautrec show, we made it inside. In the first gallery, a handful of well-dressed urbanites whispered quietly while some college students sat sketching from the floor.

As the door closed behind us and plunged the gallery into silence, Nathaniel looked about the large white room, unfurnished except for a central bench and the oils on the walls. Shouting as if we were still in the crowd, he exclaimed: “What the heck is this place!?”

Camille and I blushed, and most people politely pretended not to notice. The guard let out a peal of giggles.

The children were most comfortable with the Christian art. They knew the Bible stories so many of the paintings became a game of “name that Bible character.”

Camille and I tried to guide the children to particular pictures, but we were too late to steer them away from a grisly depiction of the beheading of John the Baptist.

As I recall the painting, St. John's corpse still kneels on the floor, spouting a fantastic arc of blood from his severed neck, while his head, eyes gazing upward, rests on a platter.

Our children pored over the painting in silence. Realizing that it was probably the most violent image they had ever seen, I scrambled for something comforting to say.

Finally Jessica spoke.

“So . . . when the head comes off . . . does the halo always go with it?”