The beauty of sunny San Diego may be a distraction to any indoor activity, yet art is ubiquitous. Amidst the lush green of Balboa Park are a few art museums, mostly housed in the original buildings from the Panama–California Exposition in 1915. Due to the limits of time, we chose just two: San Diego Museum of Art and Timken Museum of Art. Neither is as mammoth as museums of the east coast; yet I felt invigorated and grateful when stepping out of them. The experience once again proves perhaps too many great artworks seen at once only deludes our excitement and confounds our true feelings. It is in those smaller art institutes where you feel connected to one or two master pieces. Those works leave life-time memories of our initial raw sensual response to something extraordinary that transfer our mind of being to a different world. It is also in those lesser-known museums where you don’t feel pushed to cover the floor and instead look at a painting long enough that for an instance you break down the physical distance (usually an arm length) and live within its realm.
“Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber” by Sánchez Cotán is one of the most celebrated still life works in the world. But seeing it in person brought me an overwhelming sensation that could never be matched from those refined photographic copies. I have never stared at those humble vegetables intensively for so long, and the truth of each unique identity has a revelational beauty that can make me shudder as if suddenly some inner truth hit me like a thunder: through the strong raking light with volume and form against pure darkness, through the carefully balanced design with curved fresh objects against rectilinear background, the painting casts a spell with its mysterious stillness. What we behold is a perfect self-contained universe composed of five objects, yet it is exactly the kind of perfection that comes to touch our subconsciousness and psyche so that with examining each one in awe, we come to understand everything must be at its exact location and gesture , no less and no more. Yet we know that’s in vain as a light exhale may move the string or the tip of the melon, already overreaching the outer edge…
In the end, I came to the conclusion: if there is only one still life painting that can to be rescued from Armageddon, this is it.
At the center of the opposite room is a painting by Francisco de Goya – “Marqués de Sofraga.” Sofraga, the newly appointed director of the Royal Academy of History, is depicted in his official attire and formal pose. Yet there is a peculiar intellectual aloofness that makes Sofraga difficult to approach. His slight downward gaze has the air of superiority, and Goya’s perhaps faithful rendering of his heavy eye-lid gives him powerful authority to remain indiscernible against all discerning viewers.
Timken Museum of Art is the only museum free of admission in Balboa Park. The fact that it is free and the relatively small size makes it a perfect and unfair rest stop for visitors looking to break the walking boredom between buildings. The museum was built in the 1960’s to house the collection of Amy and Anne Putnam, two avid art connoisseurs and collectors. In fact, Cotán’s master piece was donated by the sisters to the San Diego Museum of Art (the Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego then) before they decided to open a museum to host their own collection. The museum’s European old master collection is filled with “A” works by “A” artists: Reuben, Rembrandt, Frans Hal…. But it was in their smaller American gallery that I found a work that I would always remember: Eastman Johnson’s Cranberry Harvest.
Nothing is better to describe it than to use Robert Vose, Jr’s own words. Vose sold the painting at the firm price of $400,000 in 1970’s to the museum: This painting is the greatest by an American artist that I have handled in our one hundred thirty years in business. Mr. Vose told Walter Ames, the founding director of the museum that both the Met and the National Gallery of Art were in line to grab the treasure if he did not act fast. Twenty days later, the check was sent.
I can hardly think any other outdoor genre painting by Johnson which has a more meritorious overtone. It is an ambitious work with many figures, the majority of whom are women– cheerfully working in the cranberry field. The strong light sculpts out their movement in a harmonious rhythm that viewers can comprehend; the entire neighborhood of activity at once. The landscape is also picturesque. Eastman Johnson captured the moist texture of the meadowland, dotted by bags of overloaded scarlet berries. The extreme long horizontal format helps viewers to read around and in a certain sense feel involved in the activity. Painted at the height of the Gilded Age, Johnson’s Cranberry Harvest reflects a growing nostalgia toward idealized agrarian life.
Curiously, I also spotted a painting by Raphaelle Peale. “Cutlet and Vegetables” is a rare example of a work by Peale which features meat and vegetables. Its relative large size and its extreme naturalistic detail gives any viewer a reason to stop and ponder. It is a testament of the inclination and intellectual curiosity toward nature and science of the Peale family who built the first American museum with comprehensive collection ranging from dinosaur bones, natural stone specimens and paintings. This reminds me of Gregory J. Kleiber, the treasurer of the Philadelphia History Museum who commented on Peale’s fish painting sold last year in Christie’s. “It’s a picture of a fish.”
p.s. The Timken Museum still makes 35mm slides available of some of their collection. I now have a wall-sized pork cutlet at my disposal.