As I coyly mentioned last week in my post on Richmond, we did some big things in and amongst the little things we did. One of those big things was visiting the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which was quite an experience!
Having alighted from the train and had our fill of Chinese food, my super amazing girlfriend and I proceeded directly to the museum. She has the habit of looking things up beforehand, so maybe she wasn’t impressed, but I was extremely impressed by the size of the museum and the breadth of the museum’s collection. Not that the state of Virginia, of which we are both at this point proud(ish) citizens, isn’t impressive or anything, but who woulda thunk that Virginia would have put together such a gigantic art museum? The art ranged from contemporary to ancient, and from lifelike portraits to impressionist to beyond. For dedicated art lovers I recommend several trips; much like my experience at the Yale University Art Gallery the collection is so wide-ranging that it becomes overwhelming to one’s aesthetic sense.
One thing I especially liked about the museum is that it very much felt like a community space. Admission is free for everyone (though there are certain exhibits that have a separate admission) and there is wifi, so there were people clearly just hanging out and doing work or whatever while absorbing all the culture. The picture above is of the courtyard/sculpture garden space they have right outside the museum, and the photo fails to portray how many people there were just milling about enjoying the space. There were families with little kids, skateboarders practicing their tricks, and at least one man eating out of a bucket of fried chicken while his girlfriend looked a little bored (not me, to be clear, with the chicken).
Having wandered in without plan or indeed a map, the first wing we perused was some more contemporary art. The one contemporary piece of artwork I am going to show you as a representative sample is the above Horseman by Cynthia Carlson from 1974 (maybe half a century ago isn’t so contemporary). My photo doesn’t do it justice but the paint in this piece of artwork is thick like frosting, literally applied with cake-decorating tools as a comment on “women’s work.”
Other notable artworks were some modern-day masters, such Sisters (Susan and Toni) by Barkley Hendricks (VMFA frustratingly doesn’t appear to have an online catalog of their collections) and a sculpture of Paul Mellon’s head that looked like I imagine it would if place on a spike; he got this treatment due to donating a lot of money, it appears. Besides these galleries we also saw a collection of works by the Fabergé workshop, including several eggs, works on paper that meant, in this case, gorgeous Japanese woodblock paintings, and a huge hall of Egyptian art, including the obligatory dead guy the morals of which we won’t go into because we got other things to talk about.
Again, since I don’t read things, it was my girlfriend that informed me that the VFMA is known for its very large collection of African art. The picture above captures one small portion of a very large gallery arranged largely by geographic location of the arts’ origin. The gallery is kind of hidden in the back of the museum and it took us a bit to find it, but it is certainly worth a look. I won’t discuss the artificial distinction between “Egyptian” and “African” art, but within the African art section they had a range of religious and ceremonial objects and even things like iron currency.
However man this museum seems like, five years behind the curve when it comes to restitution and deep thinking about African art. If they didn’t seem like such sincere and nice people I would think they were courting controversy. For example, the sign they have by the door of the African art wing proudly proclaims that they are actively trying to acquire “rare works from antiquity,” which, I know what they mean, but man maybe read the room guys. In the above photo on the left is a statue of Maximilien Balot, who was killed in response to the cruel treatment perpetrated by the Belgian colonial administration. The statue was likely created as a way to immobilize his spirit. I don’t know if the controversy had erupted at the time, and I took the picture just because I hadn’t run into anything exactly like it before, but man it is a whole thing. And then, of course, they proudly display their de rigueur Benin bronze, even at a time when we are firmly on the side of restitution. After I visited the National Museum of African Art and wrote about it, next thing you know the Smithsonian is working to return their Benin bronzes, so maybe I can make some changes here too. The plaque next to the VFMA’s doesn’t even mention why this bronze no longer decorates the royal court in Benin City.
Overall the VFMA is a very nice museum and well worth a visit. It is a wonderful community space and I am very glad people are able to access all the culture and history it collects. I know I like to complain about these things but you gather enough of another people’s culture under a roof and you are going to run into problems of equity and historical wrongs that require contemporary solutions. But man you should make sure you are making an effort towards righting those historical wrongs before saying you want to buy more of them.