Saturday, August 26, 2017

MIA (August 2017)

I spent a couple of hours at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.  I was recently abroad for two weeks and looked at art in about ten museums in Berlin and Leipzig.  Therefore, I have a basis for comparison.

The Gemaeldegalerie in Berlin has, at least, 15 Rembrandts, several of them quite beautiful.  But it has nothing to match the MIA's heartbreaking and profound Lucretia.  The Art Institute's Poussin, the intensely dramatic Death of Germanicus is certainly the equal of any painting that I saw in Germany, one of the greatest pictures in the world.  The forest of lances and hands pointing upward sweep the eye into the grandiose vaults of the huge basilica where Germanicus, who has been poisoned, lies dying.  But nothing can keep you from returning to look again and again at the greyish-green andanguished face of the poisoned emperor.  It's an astounding feat of composition and highly theatrical beauty.

Frangonard's spooky image of a palace's park in twilight always amazes me.  We see sculptures along a colonnade, a puff of fountain water materialized in the air, blurred and shadowy trees, a woman's back who looks into the darkness, as sober and upright as a chess-piece or one of Caspar David Friedrich's Rueckenfigur -- some murky figures gesture in the darkness and we can't tell whether these are real and animated courtiers, or mythical nymphs, or the mere statues of such nymphs.  It's almost monochrome, wonderfully dark and atmospheric.

New to the museum is a very dignified and compelling painting of the Dakota war chief, Little Crow.  The painting is said to have been made in 1863 -- at that time, the war chief had fled to Canada in the aftermath of the great Dakota war of 1862.  In the year the painting was made, Little Crow with his son crossed back into Minnesota, tried to steal some horses near Hutchinson and, at that place, the great chief was shot dead.  His body was scalped and mutilated and his corpse thrown on an offal heap in town where hogs were slaughtered. 

The painting is by someone named Henry Cross (1839 to 1918).  In the painting, Little Crow is portrayed life-size as an immensely noble figure.  He looks like a clergyman (Little Crow was, in fact, an Episcopalian deacon) and his big brown hands are crossed in repose over what looks like a Bible.  The Indian chief wears a beautifully tailored suit coat with brass buttons and a high collar nested around his neck.  He is sporting a vest and cravat tied like a black bouquet under this chin.  Little Crow looks enormously dignified and distinguished.  Yet this painting was made when he was either under a sentence of death in absentia for his role in war crimes and atrocities on the Minnesota frontier (and on the lam in Canada) or when he had been shot down like a dog and his corpse mutilated on the prairie near Hutchinson.  I don't know who Cross was or why he shows Little Crow as a heroic figure, dressed as a preacher and resting his hands on a Bible -- but it's a startling image and one that can't be assimilated easily to any of our accustomed narratives about the portrayal of Indians in the American West.  There's no hint of racism in the picture and, yet, the image was made when Little Crow's hundreds of victims, settlers slaughtered on the Minnesota frontier, were still being exhumed from mass graves to be individually reburied.  This is an extraordinary image, recently conserved, and well worth a trip to Minneapolis to see.

1 comment:

  1. I found the portrait of Little Crow interesting. Images in this museum such as Lucrezia and the Fragonard are parts of me, for better or worse. I found particularly striking the portrait of Katharina van Voorst, an eerie image of woman as subjugated pet from the days of scold's bridles that has haunted me all my life out of the corner of my eye. We spent more time than usual among the mysterious items of India and China this time around, including some animal statues that are 5,500 years old. I realized fully my distaste for the zigzagging monochromatic minutia of the world of artists such as Duhrer and Hogarth. This seems to me just so much solipsistic apotheosis of pubic hair. Women are barely to be found in those galleries. However, a man with a cabby hat and a ponytail made his due appearance.