Thursday, June 23, 2011

Brooklyn Museum

Winged Genie, Nimrud, Assyria c. 883-859 BCE
 7/24/2010, Saturday
TIME: 3 hrs
COST: $10 each

Mask for Mblo Masquerade, Baule
We hate to admit it, but we have come to dread going to Brooklyn.  We don’t want to disparage the borough: it has great restaurants, cool nightlife and an interesting and diverse culture, but somehow we always have a horrible experience.  Traffic is horrendous, parking non-existent and Brooklyn museums seem to open and close on a whim, seldom updating their WebPages.  Twice now we’ve taken a wrong turn on Brooklyn’s labyrinthine expressways and ended up in an orthodox Jewish neighborhood, with everyone wearing black hats and frock coats and glaring at us, while our GPS keeps insisting that we have reached our destination.  In our three visits to Brooklyn, we’ve managed to see only three museums.  To give you an idea of how horrible that is, in three visits to Queens (Brooklyn’s larger, supposedly rougher neighbor), we’ve seen eight museums, not including one we visited twice.  Simply put, Brooklyn has been a nightmare, and we are positive that our last museums will all be in this most difficult borough.

Pierre de Weissant, Monumental by Auguste Rodin
On this very hot day in July we visited the amazing Brooklyn Museum, and while we did take a few wrong turns in heavy traffic (as usual), we consider it our most successful Brooklyn trip (largely because the museum in question was open).  We were joined by our friends Peter and Petra, visiting from Canada.  The Brooklyn Museum has a massive art collection and an international reputation, but I think our motivation for visiting this museum today had more to do with finding good air-conditioning on a scorching day, and judging from the large number of people loitering and ignoring the lovely Rodin's in the indoor sculpture garden, we were not alone.

We went to breakfast beforehand at a local restaurant we choose based on air conditioning and the advertised “soul food.”  There were a fair number of people eating good looking, interesting southern food, but unfortunately our menus had nothing but very plain breakfast entrees, and we were not allowed to order anything else.  Annoyed, we ate our dry omelets and boring pancakes while everyone around us dug into delicious looking fried chicken and biscuits and gravy.  It set a bad precedent for Brooklyn, making the place seem closed and elitist, and future visits have not dispelled this feeling for us, but at least we were able to order the excellent strawberry lemonade, so Paul maintains that it wasn't all bad.
Brooklyn Museum
The Brooklyn Museum is a gigantic building (over half a million square feet), and is the lynchpin of a lovely complex of Victorian parks and gardens in this area, including Prospect Park, Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, and the Prospect Park Zoo.  The museum’s core is a splendid Beaux-Arts building, but it has a contemporary glass and steel entrance that gives it a modern vibe.  Walking in, our first impression was that it is huge.  In nearly any other city, this would be THE dominant museum.  It’s million-piece collection of art and historical pieces should be spoken in the same breath as the Met and the British museum in scope and range.  It’s truly impressive how much this museum crams into one building.  The museum is noted for major collections in Ancient Egyptian and Near East artifacts, the Art of Africa, American Art, Decorative Arts, and Feminist Art, and there are always several large temporary exhibitions as well.  We found this all very daunting but we jumped in and started looking around.  
The Last Supper by Andy Warhol 1986

One of the publicized exhibitions during our visit was a collection of Andy Warhol’s later works.  Titled “Andy Warhol: The Last Decade” it examined his commercial and artistic ventures during his last years.  Clips of his TV show and his gigantic series of “Last Supper” paintings were notable, but none of us are huge fans of pop art or Warhol in general.  We agreed that it was an interesting exhibit, but despite the fame of the artist, he didn’t really capture our interest.

Tree Evening Dress by Charles James 1955
Evening Ensemble by Norman Norell 1970
A bigger hit with us was the exhibitAmerican High Style: Fashioning a National Collection.”  This exhibit was a collaboration between the Brooklyn Museum and the Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art focusing on the most renowned clothes from the Met’s fashion collection.  The exhibit consisted of approximately eighty-five outfits and a grand selection of hats and shoes, covering early America to modern times and detailing the evolution of high fashion over the last 200 years.  Pauline loved the emphasis on clothing shape and structure.  The extensive exhibit text explained that the shape of clothes was once derived largely from rigid internal garments such as corsets, but modern clothing has transitioned to shapes derived from cloth selection and careful tailoring, resulting in less stiff looking clothes.  Paul and Petra were particularly fascinated by the evolution of footwear, noting that high heels and ribbons on shoes have gone in and out of fashion over the years, for both men and women.

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart
The American Art section is famous for the iconic portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, but there was wide selection portraits of different people, famous and otherwise.  Peter and Petra spent some time playing what they claimed was a traditional Canadian game called “Dude or Not Dude.”  In it players decide whether portraits of women were in fact woman, or men in drag.  There were a number of portraits where arguments could be made either way, and Peter and Petra debated things like whether that was a 5 o’clock shadow or just a shadow.  It was a little surreal, but now when we see a portrait such as the one of Mrs. Thomas Mumford IV below, we can’t help wondering “Dude or not dude?”

Mrs Thomas Mumford IV by William Johnston
Another area that stuck out for us in the American section was an exhibit on landscapes, with one area concentrating totally on waterfalls.  (Paul grew up near Niagara Falls and has worked as a tour guide there, so this is a subject near to his heart.)  This part of the exhibit showed many different ways that waterfalls have been represented in art: such as realistic oil paintings, romantic Hudson River School paintings, direct modeling in sculpture and abstract representations in contemporary art.  Examining the different styles made us consider what each brought to the common subject and what they were able to evoke, turning a simple landscape piece into a thought-provoking exhibit.  This was one of the first times we’ve really thought beyond the wall text about what the curator was trying to say with an exhibit (bringing us one step closer to being real art critics).
Niagra, by Louis Remy Mignot 1866

Moorish Smoking Room, Worsham-Rockefeller House
The fourth floor of the Brooklyn Museum is devoted to two installations: the Decorative Arts Center and the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.  Demonstrating just how big this museum is, the Decorative Art Center takes the rather grandiose approach of including several entire houses and over twenty rebuilt furnished rooms.  They range from the older, plainer wood paneled Reuben Bliss house (1754) to more opulent rooms like the Moorish Smoking Room from the Worsham-Rockefeller House (1881).  Paul wanted to move into the Art Deco styled Weil-Worgelt study (1928); we only got him to leave after he took detailed photos of the paneling, muttering about “future plans.”  
Weil-Worgelt Study by Alavoine, 1923

The Dinner Party, by Judy Chicago, 1974-79
Also on this floor was the Center for Feminist Art, which is most well known for the major installation “The Dinner Party” by Judy Chicago.  The Dinner Party comprises a massive triangular table with thirty-nine place settings, each commemorating a woman from history or myth.  The settings consist of embroidered runners, gold chalices and utensils, and painted porcelain plates with raised motifs.  All the items in each place setting are rendered in styles appropriate to the individual women being honored.  The names of another 999 women are inscribed in gold on the white tile floor below the triangular table.  The amount of intricate work was stunning.  The exhibit came with a booklet explaining why each woman was included: some were well known and obvious (e.g. Mary Wollstonecraft, Georgia O’Keefe and Sacagawea) but others were much more obscure (Elizabeth Blackwell? Ethyl Smyth? Anna van Schurman?), with the implication being that maybe they shouldn’t be.
Mary Wollstonecraft place setting from The Dinner Party, by Judy Chigaco

Senwosret III, Hierakonpolis c 1836 BCE
Nespanetjerenpere c 945 BCE
Our last stop of the day was the impressive Egyptian section on the third floor.  It was packed with carvings and wall reliefs, and had some very impressive mummy cases.  Petra and Pauline were particularly intrigued by the Mummy Chamber, which had a number of human and animal mummies, a 25 foot long scroll of the book of the dead, and detailed instructions on the different ways that mummies were made. (They were all pretty disgusting.)  The museum has done CT scans of several mummies and has movies showing how everything is preserved.  Petra and Pauline felt that this was both educational and gruesomely fascinating.  The rest of the exhibit was broken down into the major epochs of the classical period and made for an interesting historical narrative of the area around the Nile River. 

Madonna of Humility, Sano di Pietro, 1405
By the time we finished the Egyptian exhibit, the museum was getting ready to close, so we got a cup of coffee, sat down to reflect and play “spot the Canadian.”  (Hint: If they are wearing “Roots” brand clothing head to toe, they are probably Canadian.)  We’d covered a lot of ground in three hours, but still had only seen about 70% of the museum and, despite the fact that the African Art section was closed for an exhibit change, we could have easily spent another few hours.  All of us had found the Brooklyn Museum to be both engaging and educational, and we were impressed by the huge variety of high quality exhibits.  It wasn’t quite the Met in size or scope, but it seemed more manageable and certainly less crowded, and it was a great place to spend a hot summer day.

Pauline: 9 out of 10.  Gigantic museum with amazing variety and range.
Paul: 8 out of 10.  It would be the best museum in any other city but New York City.

Images in this post, from the top: Winged Genie. Nimrud, Assyria (modern-day Iraq) 883–859 B.C.E. Alabaster.  One of many panels that once adorned the palace of King Ashur-nasir-pal II.  Mask for Mblo Masquerades, Baule, Ivory Coast, late 19th century.  This mask's delicate, symmetrical features, ornate hairstyle, and smooth surface exemplify personal beauty and composure.  Pierre de Wiessant, Monumental by Auguste Rodin (French) 1887, bronze 1979.  Exterior of the Brooklyn Museum.  The Last Supper by Andy Warhol, 1986, acrylic and silkscreen ink on linen.  "Tree" Evening Dress Charles James, 1955.  Rose pink silk taffeta; white silk satin; red, pink and white tulle.  Evening Ensemble, Norman Norell, 1970–71. Gold organdy, beaded gold silk jersey.  George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, 1796.  Standing in the classical pose of an orator, Washington appears in civilian clothing, but holds a sword that recalls his military achievements and suggests the might of his presidency.  Mrs. Thomas Mumford VI by William Johnston, 1763, the first portraitist to work in Connecticut, where he enjoyed the patronage of prominent colonists.  Niagara by Louis Rémy Mignot 1866.  Throughout the nineteenth century, few landscape forms were more recognizable than Niagara Falls, often employed to embody the natural might that underlay America's promise.  Moorish Smoking Room, from the Worsham-Rockefeller House, 1864–65, remodeled 1881.  Weil-Worgelt Study, originally part of the Park Avenue apartment of Mr. and Mrs. Milton Weil, decorated by Alavoine of Paris circa 1928–30.  The room is in the style now known as Art Deco, paneled in veneers of palisander and olive and a painted lacquered panel designed by Henri Redard and executed by Jean Dunand.  The Dinner Party, by Judy Chicago (1974-79) with a detail of the Mary Wollstoncraft place settingCartonnage of Nespanetjerenpere. Egypt, probably Thebes, circa 945–718 B.C.E. Linen or papyrus mixed with plaster, pigment, glass, lapis lazuli.  The decoration here associates its occupant, the priest Nespanetjerenpere, with divine resurrection. Senwosret III. Egypt, from Hierakonpolis, circa 1836–1818 B.C.E. Granite. A powerful king of the Egyptian Twelfth Dynasty.  Madonna of Humility, by Sano di Pietro, Italian 1405-1481.


  1. I had not heard of it before, but I was intrigued by the installation "The Dinner Party"... What is Feminist about associating accomplished women with a dinner setting? One would think that the association of women with food service is not particularly empowering. Just curious.

  2. Given the grandeur of each place setting at "The Dinner Party," I don't think the viewer would normaly envision each woman serving food. Instead, I pictured them all sitting down to a meal together and thought about what they would talk about. But perhaps the piece is also playing off the traditional association with women and food service by putting them at the table instead of in the kitchen.

  3. Nice way to decorate your walls. I have never done that. My effort to beautify the walls in my house was to order big-sized canvas prints from, from images of western art. I use the same angel motifs in all of the rooms painted by different painters, such as this one by very interesting English artist Stanley Spencer,

  4. Check out our favorite museums in NYC!