The Hecksher Museum in Huntington is showing a Latin American Art collection that will close on March 31st. Yesterday, Presidents’ Day, was an opportunity for me, my husband and my daughter to see this exhibit together.
I am a self-taught art lover. I have learned to love art by visiting museums and art exhibits whenever possible and have developed a cumulative knowledge of European and American art, supplemented by reading information about art or artists in newspapers and magazines. But my knowledge of art is limited. For instance, I know next to nothing about Latin American artists. I am very familiar with Diego Rivera’s work (see painting below) and Frida Kahlo’s, and I can spot a Botero anywhere.
Today was my opportunity to begin learning more about Latino artists and their artwork.
Whenever I enter a museum, no matter how big or small, I feel a small rush of excitement because I know that what I will be seeing will be stimulating to my senses and my imagination. Sometimes paintings conjure up memories, or desires to visit certain places, or familiarity with other works by the same artists, or complete newness. Sometimes it is the originality of the work or the ambiguity of the artist’s rendering that creates curiosity. Just as often it can be the artist’s painting techniques or innovative use of materials that inspire awe. I love knowing I will be experiencing art on a deep level and consequently, for me, it will be a learning experience. These are feelings I tried to share as a teacher when introducing my students to new art or poetry.
This exhibit proved to be everything that inspires me and more! There were about forty individual works of painting and sculpture from a personal collection that spans forty years: the Joan and Milton Bagley Collection. Museum guests were invited to place a paper heart next to the piece we liked the most. I was unable to choose since I loved each and every piece I encountered. The half dozen sculptured pieces were exceptional. The materials, marble for the most part, were gorgeous; both the black and white marble were lightly veined and satiny in the way that beautiful marble can be. All of them were of the human form: family groups, women in various poses as this goddess of the sea holding aloft a boatful of immigrants,
and my favorite…a black Mexican marble sculpture of a seated indigenous woman cloaked in her shawl reminiscent of all peasant women throughout Mexico, and South America. The overall shape of the piece was distinctly Latin American in its echoing of Pre-Columbian art. My daughter suggested it would fit in well with my Native American art collection.
It would be impossible to describe each of the paintings without writing a book, or at least a very long essay about them. What was most striking to me were their subject matter and the vivid colors. There were many street scenes and scenes of the local countryside that were of course different from those in European paintings.
By focusing on the details in these paintings I learn so much about the region without having to actually be there. In many of these paintings there is a lushness and a bigness of scale that is in stark contrast to the finely detailed European scenes I am accustomed to seeing. There is a much freer use of bright colors splashed across a canvas that clearly reflects the importance of sun and light in these cultures.
Figures in the paintings are often very large and iconic like those in murals,
which makes sense in a world that often de-emphasizes the individual in favor of the celebration of the “common person.”
One of the paintings which stands out in my mind from this collection is of a large multi-unit apartment building which is in a state of dilapidation, yet reveals many details about the poor inhabitants who once lived there. It’s like seeing the interiors of the favelas for which Rio de Janeiro is so famous, evoking the crush of humanity that once occupied the building. These overcrowded, neglected dwellings are so characteristic of places where the poor live in Central and South America that they have become icons.
I was very impressed with the quality of the art work in this exhibition. The tags provided information about how highly qualified and talented these artists are. Most studied in the highest institutes of art in their countries and were friends with well known artists both locally and abroad.
After seeing this outstanding exhibit I am left feeling that my personal art studies have been lacking; I have been mostly ignorant of a whole world of art that I find refreshing and stimulating. I am reminded of our bias in the Western World toward Western art and how this bias must change if we are to understand and welcome students from other parts of the world whose art exemplifies and reflects what is most memorable about their cultures. As teachers we must make more of an effort to know more about and to celebrate these artists and their works in our classrooms.