Monday, November 19, 2012

Déjà vu at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna

My trip to Austria and Italy in October included fodder for more blog posts than I'll likely ever write. I'll start, belatedly, with one of the first among our many museum visits in Vienna, Graz, Venice, Padova, Bologna, and Ferrara: a visit to Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Back up for just a moment...

Late last year, between Christmas and New Year's Day, I visited San Francisco's deYoung Museum (across the bay from where I live in Berkeley), to see an exhibit of paintings by masters of the Venetian school on loan from the selfsame Kunsthistorisches Museum. I wrote about that visit in Portraiture and history: Masters of Venice at the de Young Museum.

Among the many treasures on view in early October at the Kunsthistorisches were the very portraits that had been on loan to the de Young a little more than nine months before. These included both paintings I mentioned in my blog post of 2 January: Tintoretto's Portrait of Sebastiano Venier (and the Battle of Lepanto) and Bernardino Licinio's Portrait of Ottaviano Grimani.

For recidivist museumgoers it's not unusual to find a work of art in Museum X that one saw previously in Museum Y. The proximity in time, though, between the Venetian Masters' visit to San Francisco, and when we encountered these paintings again at their long-term home in Vienna, imbued last month's re-viewing with a strong sense of déjà vu. This sense was heightened by the fact that we were en route to Venice -- whose rulers, landscapes, and history were the subject of these paintings.

But there was more.

As I explained in that prior blog postI visited the de Young museum in San Francisco with my partner and an old and dear friend.

We visited the de Young on the 27th of December last year. The old and dear friend was Susan Poff, whose life -- along with the life of her partner, Bob Kamin -- was taken suddenly and brutally less than a month later. Our museum visit was the second-to-last time I would see Susan alive; she was like a sister to me over the course of our thirty year friendship, much of which we spent living in a collective household.

Some sixteen years after our household scattered across the Bay Area and beyond, we didn't often get a chance to enjoy Susan's company unencumbered by the many demands on her life and time and attention: motherhood especially; her relationship with Bob; an intellectually and emotionally demanding career providing medical and social care for the deepest down and furthest out in San Francisco's Tenderloin. Most often we saw Susan at reading group meetings, where we talked about fiction in the company of six or eight others of our close community.

That de Young Museum Tuesday in December, Susan was giddy to have the better part of a day as 'adult time' to do as she wished: time to be with a couple of close friends and take in an exhibition well beyond the usual orbits of love and commitment that filled her life. Matthew and I were buoyed by our outing with Susan, even during the serious bits of our conversation over lunch.

In Vienna we immersed ourselves, for the second time in ten months, in works by Giorgione, Licinio, Mantegna, Tintoretto, Titian, and Veronese. The echoes that reverberated that day were certainly echoes of the people and histories they depicted; and echoes of thought and feeling inspired when we saw the same cavanses in San Francisco late last year; but, beyond these expected resonances, also the echoes of a penultimate, glad, and -- especially in retrospect -- precious day with Susan.

As we moved through the rooms of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, I reflected on the layers and dimensions of culture carried by paintings, sculpture, architecture, and artifacts preserved there.

After our visit to the de Young I focused on the human history directly depicted and deliberately enshrined in portraits painted by the Venetian Masters whose work was on loan to that museum.

Like any regular museumgoer, the manner and technique of representing (or abstracting) the sensed and conceptualized world -- forever evolving as artists push the boundaries of representational media, and seek their own voices and the voice of their time and place -- is another dimension I mull over most every time I step into an exhibition, whether fresh or familiar.

And this time around, in the Kunsthistorisches Museum galleries that host the great portraitists of sixteenth century Venice, I was keenly aware of the way that repeatedly viewed and considered artworks can become  personal touchstones, imbued with meaning idiosyncratic to the viewer over the long and winding paths of life and friendship.

That's a lot of weight to load onto a canvas. The master painters of Venice were up to the task.

Susan and Bob, rest in peace.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Portraiture and history: Masters of Venice at the de Young Museum
A eulogy for Susan and Bob
Shape, stone, seeing: Andy Goldsworthy, Richard Long, Michael Ondaatje

Thanks once again to Wikimedia Commons for the image of Bernardino Licinio's portrait of Ottaviano Grimani. Thanks to Matthew Felix Sun for the image of Susan in front of El Anatsui's installation Hovor II, photographed at the de Young Museum on 27 December 2011.

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