3 generations find pleasure at 4 Balboa Park art museums

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 By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO – Three family members of different ages and interests decided to tour four art museums in counterclockwise direction in Balboa Park—the Museum of Photographic Arts, the Timken Art Gallery, the San Diego Museum of Art, and the Mingei International Museum.

One family member, my grandson, Shor, 10, loves to draw, and was looking for interesting material at a gift shop.  Another family member, my niece Heather, has an MA in art from Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., teaches art to youngsters at Maud Morgan Visual Arts Center, and works at the Children’s Museum in Boston.  She enjoys visiting art museums to evaluate both their content and their manner of presentation.  I was the third member of the party, and, as always, I was hoping to run into some Jewish-interest stories.

Surprisingly, all three of us found what we were looking for at the same museum.  (Insert drum roll).  The San Diego Museum of Art.

Shor was quite taken with the life-sized, glass-enclosed sculpture there  of a Japanese Samurai warrior, so much so that he sat on the floor in front of it and sketched it in his notebook, completely absorbed in the task for approximately a half hour, as Heather and I observed from nearby chairs.  I think perhaps the warrior may have been reminiscent of toy Bakugan or Pokemon figures, which are among his other passions.   At the gift shop, Shor was so fascinated by flip books, he didn’t notice the postcard that Heather quietly purchased in his behalf: a photograph of the very same Samurai warrior which he had sketched.  Eventually, Shor selected as a souvenir a small flip book which builds a portrait of the artist Vincent Van Gogh.

Heather told me she was particularly impressed by the ease of transition at the San Diego Museum of Art from one gallery to another.  She liked the fact that visitors are presented with a simple map of the museum, giving guests who tend to linger an idea of how much more there is still to cover.   She also was pleased to see a representative sampling of the works of such well known modern artists as Jasper Johns, Joseph Albers, and Frank Stella.

In that so many art museums have collections inspired by the life of Jesus, I take a certain pleasure when artists reach back farther in time to Hebrew Scriptures for their inspiration, as indeed was the case for two 17th century paintings on exhibit at SDMA, one by Francesco Maffei and  the other by Massimo Stanzione.

Maffei painted “Joseph Sold By His Brothers” in which a bearded Ishmaelite counts coins into the palm of one of Joseph’s brothers as the other siblings concentrate on the counting.  Joseph, towered over by his older brothers, observes helplessly. 

Stanzione depicted a story that appears later in the Bible: “David With the Head of Goliath.”  The  giant’s head looks up, open-eyed from the bottom of the painting, as a young David considers what he has done with a somber, contemplative gaze.  Near the head is David’s sword, with a hilt that is fashioned into a ram’s head.

I was attracted as well to two works by well-known Jewish artists.   In one gallery, visitors can find Amedeo Modigliani’s “Blue-Eyed Boy,” painted in 1916.  With his long neck, the boy is almost immediately recognized as a Modigliani figure.   In another gallery, there was  “Helix and Crystal” by Ben Shahn, in which the opponent of the atom bomb juxtaposed a scientist and various molecules.

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Although the San Diego Museum of Art simultaneously satisfied the preoccupations of three family members, each of the other museums had pleasing features for one or the other of us.

At the Museum of Photographic Arts, for example, there was plenty of Jewish material for me, including a portrait by Yousuf Karsh of the artist Marc Chagall juxtaposed with one of his characteristic floating figures.  A “Face to Face” collection loaned by the Bank of America also included an unsmiling, cigar-less,  1972 portrait of comedian Groucho Marx by photographer Richard Avedon.   The museum’s own permanent collection includes four photos of Marilyn Monroe, who converted to Judaism before marrying playwright Arthur Miller.  One is by Arnold Newman and three are by Phillipe Halsman.  The latter’s works include a shot of her looking into her closet, a portrait, and one of her lying down, her expression flirtatious.

The “Man In the Moon” feature of MOPA’s “Imagine That!” exhibit invited visitors to sit on a crescent moon prop and take photos of themselves, which they may submit for publication on the Museum of Photographic Art’s website.  One reason this exhibit is so popular, for all ages, is that it is interactive.  Frequently in art museums, one may look but may not touch.  Here, not only could visitors touch, they were asked to become part of the art work. 

At the Timken Art Gallery, Heather was impressed by the docents, whom she found to be particularly engaging and informative.  At the Mingei International Museum, she expressed pleasure over the outdoor sculptures and one suspended sculpture indoors by Nikki de Saint Phalle,  whose imaginative animal sculptures are featured at the Jerusalem Zoo.  Heather also pronounced herself impressed by the  Maneki Niko exhibit, featuring 100 cats, each greeting visitors with an upraised paw.   Heather took careful note because the Boston Children’s Museum has a House of Japan as one of its exhibits.  Shor, on the other hand, had a contrasting reaction.   “Creepy!  All those eyes looking at you!” he shuddered.

While I encountered no direct Jewish references in the current Mingei exhibits, the impressive collection of African-American quilts lent itself to some cross-cultural leapfrogging.  The multi-colored patterns of the quilts, juxtaposed with the San Diego Museum of Art’s “Joseph Sold By His Brothers” led me on an appreciative inspection tour to find the quilt that most easily could have been transformed into Joseph’s coat of many colors.    I couldn’t decide.  There were so many good candidates.

In the Mingei’s gift shop, I was pleased to find several crafts with Jewish themes.  There was a channukiah from Mexico, featuring the Star of David, and numerous birds.   And there was a pewter “Tree of Life” pin, its place of origin not immediately apparent.

We covered the four museums in about five hours, allowing some time at the Sculpture Garden Café for lunch.  We agreed it had been a worthwhile day of learning for all of us.

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Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.  He may be contacted at [email protected]

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