Operation Big D: Artistic World Perspective

It was raining in downtown Dallas, which made it a great time to see art. At eleven, the doors to the Dallas Museum of Art opened, and we walked into a great open space with sterile walls, an information desk, and a graceful staircase sticking out of the side of the wall in the lobby leading to the fourth floor. The staircase gives you great views of the cafe below, as well as a glass-blown mural on the window showcasing assorted colors. We took a right at the top and bypassed the Ancient American Art exhibit and toured the Art in the Americas gallery, which showed colonial and modern American art.

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A Peruvian cabinet used in Lima to show off collectible items.

This wing was very neat to tour, because it shows you all kinds of art, from furniture to portraits, silverware, and paintings. It’s a versatile collection, not just focusing on one theme or media. You can see a mahogany cabinet from 17th-century Lima, a chalice from Guatemala, and Edward Hopper paintings of lighthouses. Another part of the American wing presented paintings of the Dust Bowl. One of them was”Drouth Stricken Area” by Alexandre Hogue, which was a bizarre, starkly-colored scene depicting an abandoned farm in the middle of the American heartland that was asphyxiated by a dust storm. It looks like the Sahara in the background, with a dust cloud over the horizon. A house, halfway obscured by a sand dune, sits behind a broken wooden windmill. The only two living things in the frame include a scrawny unfed cow, ribs visible, staring at a water trough that will never be filled. The other creature in the scene is a buzzard overseeing its eventual prey, ticking down the time before the cow’s starvation. The painting, an oil on canvas, does a great job describing the derelict state the central US had become during the Dust Bowl, the sheer hopelessness and desolation of the area. No people, no plant life, just an abandoned cow and a buzzard. If you read the plaque next to it, it talks about the 1934 work and how it talked about Hogue’s accusation that the culture had in fact caused the disaster by living out of balance with nature. And you can see that, from the color palette of brown and grey and- my all time favorite- beige. I thought this painting was so profound, I took home a souvenir postcard of this picture to commemorate its interesting features and critique on society.

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Drouth Stricken Area, Alexandre Hogue, 1934
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An Indian Paradise (Green River, Wyoming), Thomas Moran, 1911

Another highlight was The Icebergs by Frederic Edwin Church, which debuted in 1861 at a Civil War fundraiser to critical acclaim. This picture, showing an erosion-rocked seascape of icy waters showing icebergs, glacier-like outcroppings, natural bridges of ice, and the decomposing mast of some unlucky ship. Church did research on this masterpiece by going out for a month on a chartered boat off of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, where there obviously are a bunch of icebergs. Anyhow, the painting was a huge hit, and from the US it went to England, where after awhile it ended up in a schoolhouse before being recovered, and it smashed all American art records when it went up for auction in the 1970’s.

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The Icebergs, Frederic Edwin Church, 1861

From the Art in the Americas, we visited the Ancient American Art gallery, which featured art from Mesoamerica and civilizations like the Maya. There were also jade ornaments, statues that looked like they came straight from “The Broken Ear,” as well as figurines from the ancient Mexican site of Teotihuacan. One of such artifacts included a cylindrical vessel from the Maya civilization showing a guy wearing a jaguar hide while another guy disembowels a sacrifice victim. But the latter must’ve had a positive outlook on life, because he was smiling. Isn’t that nice?

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Cylindrical Vessel with Sacrificial Scene, Maya Late Classic Period, Guatemala or Mexico

One story lower (via elevator or stairs from the Art of the Americas) is the gallery for Africa, Asia, and the Pacific Islands. The Africa section was great, with sharps spears, knives, and ceremonial figurines. But the Pacific Island exhibit may have been the neatest place of all. There were Maori artifacts from New Zealand, a giant wooden trunk statue from Vanuatu, and -coolest of them all- artifacts from Papua New Guinea.

Papua New Guinea is a weird, mysterious place north of Australia that is so interesting, so fascinating, that nobody talks about. In movie terms, I’d call Papua New Guinea “The Adventures of Tintin” of countries. I always want to hear more about it, but never do. Which is why it was so strange to see tribal artworks from this remote archipelago end up in an art museum in Dallas. Anyways, I was shocked to come across a display case full of headdresses used in the malagan– which I had learned about, unintentionally, the day before while studying art history. How convenient!

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These statues are a great way to examine South Pacific culture.

So here’s what happens in Papua New Guinea. After a person dies, there is a mourning festival called the malagan in which a special statue commemorates the dead. The souls are said to inhabit and then leave the statues to move on into the spiritual realm after unveiling. These statues were an important way of remembering and sending off the dead, and keeping society stable even in times of death and despair. These statues are a great way of representing woodwork, artistry, and how societies rationalize death and the departed.

I had a wonderful time in the Dallas Museum of Art, and as a souvenir I purchased a magnet of the mural out in front of the museum. What better way to remember this great international display of places around the world.

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MASTER TRAVELER TIP: This museum is awesome! But, in case you bring kids along, please know that there are certain human statues (specifically in the Pacific and Africa) that display the whole human body. So maybe consider leaving the kids behind as to avoid any premature anatomy lessons. Please understand that I was amazed by this art showcase, and I respect all of these advanced cultures and their expressions of people. They represent human society, as well as human features and fertility. The art here is awesome, I just want future visitors to know that their may be some material to which sensitive youth may be exposed.

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