The Last Museum

My last museum outing? Before *gestures at everything*

I had a great day with my father in law at the small, quirky, and absolutely hidden-gem level of beautiful Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis. This was in September of 2019. My 2020 started in 2019, as I spent the year stumbling toward a big surgery at year end. It’s a bit of a blur, but anyway –

Your immune suppressed pals are tired, folks. We are tired.

The Museum of Russian Art sits in a Spanish Mission style Church-Turned-Funeral-Home-Turned-Russian-Art-Museum – a building which sits out proudly in a pure “well that’s different” refusal to just be normal in this town, you really can’t miss it.

And you shouldn’t miss it.

If you do the Art track in a liberal arts college when I did it, you had a certain compulsory amount of art history coursework. I don’t mind – it’s a good thing and I love art history – although I think that the actual “I make art” art students had more compelling and vital art historical discourse on a regular basis than the art history majors – we were living breathing eating and sleeping theory and always made to know where we were coming from and who was the visual ancestor of just about every line we drew. It was….intense, and weird.

But my point in saying this, is that nobody teaches the Russians. (Unless you take a film class, then Russia exists and is a thing.) You can’t go through a program without exposure to Raphael or Matisse, you can’t get through it without Cezanne or El Greco, Giorgione or Giotto, but you can absolutely graduate a top program and have no idea who Shishkin is.

I mean, they don’t even teach the British, to be fair. Not one Reynolds. No mention of where Holbein was busy Holbein-ing.

So I’ve never really compensated to the extent I should for this deficit. I hadn’t made it to the Museum of Russian Art in over a decade of it being around.

The thing that got me out and motivated for this last hurrah of the almost-normal was this show:

Mystical Imprints: Marc Chagall, Ben-Zion, and Ben Shahn

The Russian-ness of Russian-born Jewish artists is…complicated. Kind of a bold idea to claim folks you drove out when they were under 18, no? Even ones who went through the bother of becoming American citizens?

I love Chagall, but not for his printmaking, you know? Worth a peek, sure.

Ben-Zion is all right, kind of dark and lumpy and very early modernism, reminded me of the art in our mid-century down at the heels working class temple. His series showing the righteous men as shtetl regulars was moving, though, and more forthright in a way than Chagall’s mysticism. These righteous men are not experiencing their oppression and limitation as a colorful dream. I appreciate that.

But I was there for Ben Shahn, not gonna lie.

Categorizing American artists Ben Shahn and Ben-Zion as anything but American is really pushing it and still sort of pushes my buttons in a not-good way. BUT – HOWEVER – ignoring where an artist spent their childhood is to ignore a bigger part of their worldview. Do you make any kind of art? Where are your real dreams hopes nightmares and preferences forged? When you’re 34 or when you’re 4?

It’s not completely unreasonable to get these three guys together as a supergroup, and frankly, I really didn’t need a reason to see more Ben Shahns than I usually can in person.

Ben Shahn Alphabet of Creation 1957 Hill Museum and Collection

I was pretty awestruck by them. I don’t know what I expected. Something illustrative, jittery, Ben Shahn-ish. Instead I got the lettering. Wow.

I don’t read Hebrew, and I think it’s actually an asset in looking at these. They possess a pure graphic knockout power – anyone with even the least curiosity about hand lettering should see them. You don’t have to read Hebrew and you don’t have to know Kabbalah to be knocked on your butt by the mystical power of the presence of Words.

We even got to wrap this last really good day up with a good enough bagel, definitely feeling my roots, and not a bad set of memories at all. Hopefully some new ones soon!

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