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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Museum Hopping by the Bay

One of my friends took me to an exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. "The Steins Collect Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde." A collection of paintings and sculpture collected by the Stein family at the beginning of the 20th century. The exhibit included writings, furniture, photographs and personal effects of the family. I learned that Gertrude Stein (before she was famous) and her siblings had moved to Paris, began buying art from then unknowns and displaying it in their home. Eventually they had to expand to three apartments, since each sibling collected different artists and there was no more room to display it all in one place. They opened their homes to the 'public' to show the paintings and hosted salons of those interested in discussing art etc. Clearly they had the money to move from the Bay Area to Paris, buy the art and show it...they did not have to work at anything else. Eventually they became artists and writers and famous themselves.

What they bought was considered outrageous and worthless at the time, but somehow they understood the significance it would someday have. Now.. the art they collected is priceless.

They did it because they were fascinated with it...because at the time it was of no value at all. In fact, they helped to make it famous so much so that within a few years, they could no longer afford it themselves. They popularized the art to such an extent they priced themselves out of the market.

The family, once close, develop schisms, partly due to their ideas about art, partly due to Gertrude's relationship with Alice B. Toklas, which did not fit into the Victorian ideas that were still extant in society.

Their collections became the basis for collections of many art museums. They had a huge impact on the modern art movement. Among the artists they collected at an early stage: Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and others.

The exhibit runs until September 6. It's a huge exhibit, so be prepared for hours of viewing or multiple visits. I could not see it all nor take it all in at one time. Have to go again.

The next day we went to the Oakland Museum. We happened to be there for the member's only preview of the John Muir exhibit. Another day of revelation. Just out of sheer interest and love, John Muir studied the Yosemite Valley and parts of Alaska, collecting plant and animal samples, making incredible drawings, writing his journals, recording information of all types. It appears he was on a spiritual quest, with Nature as his guru.

As per the Oakland Museum's mission, there were many opportunities to do 'hands on' activities. You could try to draw birds, record your own and listen to others' reactions to the exhibit. For me, one delightful addition to the exhibit that I have NEVER seen before, was aromatherapy! They actually had the scents of the individual plants, the forest and other natural settings. Push a button and smell the woods, the trees, the meadow etc. A wonderful addition. Another special feature of the exhibit is that you can listen to the recorded sounds of birds and other wildlife. There were places where you can take pictures of yourself 'climbing a mountain' or 'scaling a glacier" then email the picture to yourself.

What struck me about both these exhibits of 'famous' people, is that they did what they did out of love for the thing itself. For it's own sake. Not to be rich or famous. That was not their intent. There was no guarantee that anything would come of it. They didn't care about that - they did it anyway. Today people need guarantees. They need to know that any action they take with be 'successful'. Hence, they don't do things for the sheer love of the activity. They want to 'make money' 'be famous' 'be successful' and rarely follow their dreams or their heart. Often people reach old age after years of work and a modicum of financial stability feeling their lives have been a waste because they never did what they wanted to do.

How many people collect unpopular art because they like it? Or hike into wilderness recording everything they see because they love nature and want to understand it?

Most of us live lives of "quiet desperation" (Thoreau) rather than what Jack London aspired towards:

I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather
that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze
than it should be stifled by dryrot.
I would rather be a superb meteor,
every atom of me in magnificent glow,
than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The proper function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.

Looking at Jack London's life, we can see that he walked his talk. Let us dare to do something because we love it...no other reason. Let us not be satisfied with mere existing.