Monday 7 June 2010

Writers and museums

Last week I read in Intelligent Life magazine and article in the Authors on Museums series. It was a text by mexican writer Carlos Fuentes on the Museum of Anthropology of Xalapa, México, entitled Moving in Time and Space. It started like this:

“I have always tried to visit a museum that I love as though it was the first time. Sometimes the attempt is successful, sometimes not. When the revisited museum makes me feel that I am just repeating an experience, I rush away to the nearest café. Museums, like lovers, can lose their charms. But the next time can always be the first time.”

I found the introduction marvellous, that way of speaking about one´s relationship with a museum. I read the rest of the article, a beautiful report about the places the author saw on his way to Xalapa, in the company of two south american writers, and then his new encounter with the museum. After that, I didn´t resist and read the rest of the texts in the Authors on Museums series, that started in September 2008.

British writer and journalist Allison Pearson
wrote the following introduction in her article on Musée Rodin, entitled Rodin´s sonnets in stone:

“You never forget your first kiss. Mine happened on a school trip to Paris over 30 years ago and it was either a happy coincidence or a divine joke that, during that same Easter, I encountered another unforgettable Kiss. (...) The other Kiss—by Auguste Rodin—started a love affair with a small museum on the Left Bank in which “Le Baiser” sits among the sculptor’s sublime works and several fine pieces by his mistress, Camille Claudel. The kisses bestowed by art, unlike those of men, are set in stone. It was in the Musée Rodin that I first realised what Art was capable of.”

Another interesting text was that of british writer William Boyd
on his favorite museum, Leopold Museum in Vienna, entitled William Boyd´s debt to Rudolph Lepold:

“This largely explains why the Leopold Museum in Vienna is my favourite art gallery: not only does it house the world’s outstanding collection of Schiele’s work—with many masterworks on its walls—but it is also, haphazardly and wholly inadvertently, a storehouse of my own youthful ambitions to live the life of an artist. Seeing Schiele’s work acts as a kind of infallible Proustian trigger for me, providing a fast rewind to my teenage years and their fervid dreams. Whenever I’m in Vienna I visit it, even for ten minutes or so, and it never fails to entrance, delight and, because the hang of Rudolf Leopold’s collection is forever changing in subtle ways, there is always some new revelation.”

What passionate, involving, profoundly human texts on people´s relationship with museums. How beautiful it is to see the way they can touch us for ever e how we go back to them looking for shelter, comfort, passed but not forgotten feelings, surprises, new discoveries. One of the most significant increases in visitor numbers in New York museums was registered after 9/11. And it didn´t have to do with tourists.

But, going back to writers and museums, reading the articles in Intelligent Life magazine I remembered a project of the National Portrait Gallery
in London. In March, I had read in the Guardian that the Gallery had invited seven popular writers to imagine the lives hidden behind the portraits of uknown people, that were part of its collection (read the article here). For more than 50 years, these 16th and 17th century portraits were in the museum stores, not seen by anyone. The initiative resulted in an exhibition called
Imagined Lives: mystery portraits
. Some of these portraits may be seen here. Among the writes invited, there was John Banville, winner of the Booker Prize, the popular Joanna Trollope and Tracy Chevallier, author of “Girl with a Pearl Earring”.

I confess, I love museums with imagination and with original ideas. Museums that think constantly of their collections and find new ‘pretexts’ to re-exhibit them, to group them in a different way, looking for new stories. Stories that do not necessarily have to be those of the curators.

The names of the writers invited by the National Portrait Gallery must have helped a lot in promoting the exhibition. In the meantime, at the time I read the news I remember having thought that this could have been an excellent opportunity to involve people. Some of the labels in Tate Britain´s
permanent exhibition have been written by visitors. They bring a new perspective, but equally interesting and, some times, surprising, about the works exhibited. So I thought that, in the case of the portraits, the National Portrait Gallery could have promoted a writting contest for the general public. (Still) anonymous writers on the anonymous sitters. Looking for new talents.

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