Monday, November 10, 2008


At a certain point in a conference, it is necessary to have a break. That happened to me on day two. I gave my paper at 9 a.m. that morning. At 10:40 Robert Richards gave the keynote speech, in which he maintained that Goethe and Schelling had anticipated Darwin's theories, including those of species generation. Bob, by the way, has written a fascinating book, which I have used in my own research, called The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe. Some of us then went to lunch at the Carnegie Museum cafe, after which, at 1:30, facing the prospect of a talk entitled "Epistemology of Sensing and Feeling in Goethe's Faust I," I decided to take a break and go instead to see some paintings in the Carnegie Museum of Art.

What is it I like about museums? Probably being by myself for an hour. Solitary museum visits also replicate my first experience of museums, when I was 18 and visiting Europe for the first time. Europe: that means, museums, right? There was a lovely small museum in Paris, then called the Jeu de Paume, devoted solely to the Impressionists. For a person who had never been to a museum before, the Impressionists are immediately accessible. Thus I would spend hours there, taking notes in a small notebook I always carried and trying to decipher the French in the labels next to the paintings. I was particularly intrigued by the phrase "nature morte."

Despite the fact that Pittsburgh was once an important industrial city and that the Fricks and Mellons established their fortunes there, the art acquired by those men has gone for the most part elsewhere, to the Frick Museum here in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Wahington, D.C. (the Mellons). Thus, there is not the fullness of representation at the Carnegie Museum of Art, despite being the obvious recipient of the largesse of Andrew Carnegie (though many of the older public buildings in the city bear the Carnegie profile), that you find at, say, the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The paintings in the first two galleries are in fact arranged in a very 19th-century style, as in the charming scene of schoolgirls drawing.

What I find interesting about the three paintings below, by Edvard Munch, Pierre Bonnard, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, is that they were painted within the same decade, from 1904 to 1914. The same for the painting at the top, "The Picnic" by Maurice Prendergast, a wonderfully cheery painting from 1914. (Check out this better image of the painting at the Carnegie website.) If you look at a painting by Raphael or any of his contemporaries, you usually assign it to a "period," in their case the Renaissance. The very different styles of the paintings by Munch and his contemporaries, however, are indicative of what we now called "Modernism" or even modernity itself: multiplicity of  styles, without any authoritative one, an era when art is about individual sensibility and is dependent for its reception on taste, but mostly on the marketplace.

It should be mentioned that the Carnegie is a very public- and family-friendly museum. Besides the schoolgirls who were drawing in the galleries (above), the large rooms invited antics from the two munchkins below.

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