Monday, December 03, 2007

"A Turner, I own one..."

For some reason, the words of a Rufus Wainwright song went through my head as I ambled through the National Gallery of Art. Two special exhibits are on during this period: J.M.W. Turner, the great English landscape painter of the 19th century, and Edward Hopper, the iconic yet laconic American painter of the 20th century. Two different wings of the gallery with two distinctly different takes on the world.

I took great pleasure letting the afternoon slipping away and frolicking with my wife; after all, this is what newlyweds do, right? In spending the requisite time studying some of the works, though, I got to thinking: who are these family of so-and-so and endowment/foundation groups who own these works anyway?
Special art exhibits have a penchant for bringing together the varied works of an artist that have long-since scattered the collecting elites. Some of these pieces come from museums naturally, but a good number come from private collectors, some of whom remain nameless on the walls of the exhibition space. I wondered who these people might be and how deep their art appreciation went, particularly when I witnessed the prancing antics of a young girl who was touring the museum with her mother. In her bounding excitement for the works and while answering the children's museum guide pamphlet of "age-appropriate" activities, she came quite close to touching several paintings in pointing out the violent waves and inscrutable figures of various Turner landscapes. Seeing the faces of those private collectors whose works were almost marred by the innocent joy of a child would have been priceless and brought me back to Rufus' song. He sings of a girl who falls in love with her art teacher in high school, many years later to marry a rich executive and own artwork of the masters she once studied. In her moment, she wonders what has happened to her beloved art teacher as she now amasses without feeling what she once studied with fervor at his feet.

Perhaps these varied vignetted paint the picture, so to speak, of art and life and love and loss. Who knows? Maybe those private collectors would find it timeless that a five-year-old marred their precious works in a liminal moment of happiness. Who knows? Maybe those private collectors would be just as heartless as a stereotype would portray them, stacks of money around with no chance for contentment. Who knows? Maybe one day I will be able to own just one of Turner's melodramatic yet majestic landscape paintings or a Hopper moment stuck in a hotel room with a solitary woman. Then again, I doubt the likelihood.
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