This past Sunday, after the usual coffee-and-cookie outing at Calabria, Kelly and I hit the Vancouver Art Gallery to see The Modern Woman: Drawings by Degas, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and Other Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
It wasn’t quite a hit and run visit, but we didn’t linger either. The point of having a VAG membership, for me, is to go often and to leave as soon as my brain fills up or my feet get sore. I’d say we took the first two-thirds of the exhibit in at a leisurely pace and the remainder at a brisk walk.
I had been prepared to be underwhelmed: travelling exhibits are a mixed bag, and the fact that this one was all drawings suggested, to me, wall after wall of tiny scribblings and little else. I want variety, and I like big stuff, with lots of color. I’m glad to report that I was wrong-so-wrong on this apprehension. There were sketches aplenty, of course, and some of them were indeed miniscule. But there were glorious big pastel pieces too, colorful, rich and satisfying. The overall mix had a good deal of variety.
As is often true, wherever you go, the most interest was to be had from the people. Early on, we came into a good-sized room and confronted the word NUDE, emblazoned on the wall, in letters one and a half feet high. NUDE was accompanied by a short paragraph which discussed how artists had moved from depicting their nude models as idealized Greek goddesses (and other babes of the Classics) to doing portraits of real women, with flesh and wrinkles and fat rolls. These subjects were, increasingly, engaged in bathing and dressing and other types of private, thoroughly unethereal activity.
The walls, of course, were covered in nude sketches. And about ten steps behind me, half-a-room ahead of their adult escort, were an eight and ten year old girl.
They were visibly discomfited to be standing in a big room full of adults–maybe six men and eight women–all in contemplation of womanly nakedness. They also seemed to know it wasn’t cool to be uncomfortable. So instead of shrieking with laughter and running for the door, they kind of gabbled inarticulately. Then they gravitated, all in a rush, to an image by Paul Albert Besnard, of a woman with a peacock feather fan. Her back is to the viewer, with no breast exposed, and the fan itself covers her butt crack. Very demure. Very lovely, too, by the way–I liked it.
“This one’s okay,” the older girl said; she seemed relieved.
sketch by Paul Albert Besnard
Right next to the Besnard was a sketch of a girl of seven or eight years, face on to the viewer. I’d been stopped by that one. Images of older-than-infant kids without their clothes on aren’t something I encounter much. My assumption is that today’s artists aren’t making many these days, especially if they need models, for fear of getting arrested for making porn. (Is that so? I don’t actually know.)
So I was processing this and waiting to see what the girls made of it, this image of a girl essentially their age, staring at the viewer, starkers. Then their adult turned up and swept them on to an image of a woman with a robe over her chest. End scene.
Two galleries on, a six-ish boy asked his male adult, “Where’s the Mona Lisa?”
“Not here,” was all the reply he got.
So… kids in museums. Eavesdropping on the girls left me with that sand in my oyster shell feeling, that tickle of Hmmm, what, exactly?
I am certainly not one to think kids shouldn’t be exposed to nudes in art, or that museums should rate shows–PG, PG13, R, can you imagine it! I would argue it’s impossible to ensure a young person won’t experience any number of moments of alienation from or disconnection with the adult world throughout their growing years. You can probably all remember times when you bumped up against realities that were inexplicably adult and alien, whether they were from the sexual realm or elsewhere.
But I felt for this particular pair of girls as they coped with that awkward moment.
The exhibit being all about women, the whole thing felt eerily meta, too. Here we had two young proto-women, taking in what a bunch of mostly male Euro-painters thought femininity was, a couple centuries ago. Meanwhile, a feminist blogger was spying on them.
I didn’t reach any useful conclusions. I’ll go back and look at the room again, and peoplewatch some more. At some point, maybe, the oyster-itch will find its way into a story or book. That’s part of how it works for me. In the meantime, I’d welcome your thoughts.
Speaking of VAG, localfolk, they are in the process of trying to get a new space–it has room to display a trifling 3% of its collection, and no lecture space. They have a site explaining the issues here, which goes on to say how we-all can support the move to the old bus parkade at Georgia and Cambie.