On July 28, Gray’s Auctioneers in Cleveland will be selling lot 177, a rare Civil War painting from 1865 entitled ‘Our Flag is There’. The signature is indecipherable however the Gray’s appraisal team has discovered a sketch by Thomas Nast which was featured on the cover of Harper’s Weekly, February 13, 1864. The sketch is an exact study for the painting. Thomas Nast famously caricatured political figures of his day and was declared the father of the American cartoon for his work at Harpers. He is credited with the creation of the modern version of Santa Claus, and Uncle Sam, as well as the political symbols of both major United States political parties: the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey. His early oil paintings are rare and all have historical and political significance. Of his paintings the most notable is ‘The Halt’ painted in 1864, depicting a Union soldier getting a drink of water from a sympathetic mother and baby, which sold at Doyles in 2007 for $252,000.
I suppose I didn’t know what to expect from an art museum in Kansas City. I didn’t really know what to expect from Kansas City. I had driven by it and seen the skyline before, but that hadn’t provided much of a flavor for the place.
That all changed with a day-trip by plane from Dallas. Arriving a full hour and a half before the Nelson-Atkins museum opened, a quick stop at the monumental Kansas City Union Station was in order. I’d seen images of the building on old postcards and in books, but its hard to tell the scale from those. The station was much larger than what I had presumed, and that theme would carry on throughout the day, both in the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts hall being constructed downtown and in the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum.
Approaching the museum, oversized badminton birdie’s, or more properly shuttlecocks, by Claus Oldenburg are seen on the great lawn. Another sits closer to the façade. I was proud of myself for correctly identifying these as the work of Oldenburg, someone who didn’t work in the 19th Century.
Inside, two comments carry for the theme of this post. One was from a docent who commented that she thought the museum was in the top if museums in the US were to be ranked. Perhaps even in the top five. Top five? A list quickly went through my head. Met, Boston, Philadelphia, National Gallery, Chicago, Brooklyn, Cleveland—that’s seven right there. Perhaps if we were to come up with a list of comprehensive museums, Philadelphia and Chicago might prove weak in some areas—Nelson-Atkins might make it to a higher ranking. That’s not so important, however. The fact is there was more here than could be seen in a day, plus a restaurant with architecture so alluring time had to be allotted for that!
The second comment was with a fellow from Boston we met in the Asian galleries. Like us, he had flown in for the day. “Whoa, why is this here?” This could be a common reaction, except he seems to have known about the great collection of Asian art before he left Logan Airport. He also mentioned Cleveland, the home of another great collection of Chinese and Asian art—and apparently the museum after which Nelson-Atkins was modeled. Both museums are fronted by Rodin’s The Thinker. The exception is the cast in Cleveland was badly damaged by vandalism in 1970 and is displayed in an unrepaired state. The perpetrators were a faction of the Weathermen, possibly the same individuals later killed in a bomb-making accident in New York City.
The Nelson-Atkins museum was built on the grounds of Oak Hall, the home of Kansas City Star publisher William Rockhill Nelson. When he died in 1915, his will provided that upon the deaths of his wife and daughter, the proceeds of his entire estate would go to purchasing artwork for public enjoyment. Around the same time, former schoolteacher Mary Atkins (widow of real estate speculator James Burris Atkins) bequeathed $300,000 to establish an art museum. The amount grew to $700,000 by 1927. Original plans called for two art museums based on the separate bequests. However, it was decided to combine the two bequests along with smaller bequests from others to make a single major art institution.
The original dimensions of the six-story building were 390 feet (120 m) long by 175 feet (53 m) wide–larger than the original Cleveland Museum of Art.
There’s an inscription on the museum that reads “The soul has greater need of the ideal than the real. It is by the real that we exist. It is by the ideal that we live.” It seemed a bit like John Galt was speaking. It also seems to be a statement discordant with most modern art. It’s a big statement to make, but big seems to be the norm around here.
When someone comes into your town from Texas and says it’s big, it’s big.
Stay tuned for some observations on favorite works of art inside the museum…
There’s a lot of excitement surrounding an appearance and performance by Blondie at the Brooklyn Museum tonight for the opening of the show “Who Shot Rock & Roll.” I just returned for a preview of the show and have to say it is very well arranged and presented. (I wonder why they are using & instead of ‘n’).
The first thing you see entering the exhibit is a giant poster of David Lee Roth. Hearing Elvis sing Heartbreak Hotel, you naturally look down and to the right and there’s an old video. In the main gallery a favorite photo is of Johnny Cash giving a television crew the finger. Having received an evil eye from Martha Stewart while taking photos at the Brooklyn Flea Market last week, I can understand how photographers can feel during the necessary actions that often invade personal space. At the Robert Frank show at the Met there’s a photo of a couple sitting in Alamo Square looking at San Francisco’s painted ladies. The look given by the man in that photo is similar to the effect of the look in the Johnny Cash photo.
After rounding all the corners and traversing the rooms, we’re again presented with some photos, these exceptional photos, of Elvis as he kisses a woman whose identity has been lost. From that early era, I was happy to see a Bill Haley photo (one of the few in color), which brings me to my criticism of the show. I know it was based on the work of photographers, but the artists presented seem to be more about who’s popularity survived rather than who’s who in Rock ‘n’ Roll. I saw only a thumbnail-sized photo of Grace Slick, no Stevie Nicks or Fleetwood Mac. Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground seem under-represented. What about Wolfman Jack? Dick Clark? Credence Clearwater Revival? What about the whole metal era, Iron Maiden, Metallica, Bon Jovi, etc (there is a photo of Axl Rose). I’ve seen some great photos of Leslie West (Don’t look around cause I’m never comin’ back.)–not here. I understand, they can’t show everything. The history of rock is far too expansive. I know everyone will go in there with their own musical preferences, but I couldn’t help but feel the ones who’s names are still on the tips of the tounges of popular culture are those best represented. Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, David Bowie, the Rolling Stones. Maybe they just had better photographers? I find my criticism warranted given the show is presented as a photographic history.
That said, Who Shot Rock & Roll is well worth seeing. The immediate sense from the exhibit is powerful. This music is something even the youngest among us are familiar with. It’s been a part of our culture since the 1950s; and the music tells the story of a half-century. This is not just music, it’s all tied up with culture and social movements. Sadly that connection between social movements and music has probably, for the most part, ended.
The exhibit brings to mind another song, Stairway to Cleveland, by the Jefferson Starship, which I’ve always assumed referred to the Rock ’n'Roll Hall of Fame. I thought of Cleveland when I first entered the exhibit. Across from the video of Elvis is a photo of Alan Freed’s Rock ’n’ Roll show at a theater in Brooklyn. Freed coined the term Rock’n’Roll and this is the primary reason why the Hall of Fame is in Cleveland. Cleveland. Cleveland, Cleveland, Cleveland. After Elvis and the Beatles and Woodstock and Motown and Nirvana… is that where it all leads? Cleveland? Cleveland.
That Alan Freed mention was an important one. Beginning in the 1950s, radio, and specifically pop radio (which is mostly rock and soul), tied American culture together. That continued through the Vietnam War era and into the early days of MTV. Today however Dick Clark and Casey Kasem would be lost. There is no top 40 or generally music that’s popular across a spectrum of cultural groups. I don’t even think the recent death of Michael Jackson could match the social impact the death of Elvis or John Lennon had on us. Bob Dylan’s times are still changing and they always will be. Neil Young sang “Hey hey, my my, Rock and Roll can never die. (There’s more to the picture than meets the eye.”) It’s a great line, but walking through the exhibit it’s clear that some of the power is the sense is the burning out. That the great and intense spirit of rock ‘n’ roll has faded. Some of it will always be there to be appreciated, but the zeitgeist that made rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t seem to be very present in our culture anymore. I wonder how firm my perspective will be after tonight’s performance by Debbie Harry.