They are stifling, elitist. You won’t know what to watch or how to interpret it. You might come across a bust. Busted for bust busting.
Many believe these stereotypes about art museums, and museums around the world are working to change that.
In the newly renovated Indiana University Eskenazi Art Museum with a bill of $ 30 million, you will enter the atrium and hostesses will feed you. They will give you a cool mask. They’ll almost be doing hand hopping to make sure your visit is informative, comfortable, and, yes, fun.
The renovation was made possible in large part by the largest cash donation in the museum’s history, $ 15 million from Sidney and Lois Eskenazi.
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It is not the museum of your great-uncle nor that of Louis Stanislas Xavier. It is an airy, friendly, open place whose illuminated display cases have not been veiled, whose collections contain 45,000 pieces (rest assured, only around 3% are generally on display) and whose security personnel was recently trained as an educator.
These knowledgeable staff – and the museum’s many volunteer docents (artistic tour leaders) – live to help you revel in art. They want you to love this place and come back with everyone you love.
The UI Center for Rural Engagement partners with the museum and has helped it connect with the community, for example by working with teachers in Indiana.
“We have also teamed up to expand our reach for art therapy beyond the walls of the museum,” said Heidi Davis-Soylu, Patricia and Joel Meier education president of the museum.
“One example is our Creative Art Program for Veterans. ”
Inside the museum, a rack of combinations of walkers and portable benches awaits anyone who wishes to be helped with walking or standing. Lightweight and sturdy, they are free to use and also provide an immediate place to sit.
Where to start
Walk past these cheerful hosts and, after looking up into the echo chamber of the glorious atrium (lobby), go right. There is a new little recessed area whose sole purpose is to help you transition to what you will soon see.
Stop. Go through its doors and stop again.
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People often meander right past one of the museum’s most amazing sections, attributed to sculptor Felipe Vigarny (sometimes called Bigarny), “Scenes from the Life of the Virgin”.
There is real gold here. Vigarny was born in 1475; maybe it has something to do with the gold he – or someone after him – applied to his carved relief (figures carved into the stand) in wood. Spain was bathed in wealth at the time. He had also lost his cosmopolitan nature and was now adamantly Catholic.
Eight of the 10 Vigarny panels in the museum (all from different origins and each part of a Renaissance altarpiece) extol the Holy Family. You won’t see ragged clothes; Vigarny opts for very elaborate outfits. Find Joseph’s Boots! Look for the dove in Mary’s offering basket as Vigarny has her present her child to her, at the artist’s discretion here in a temple.
Notice the clothes of all the artists’ subjects. They provide clues to customs, as artists typically included popular costumes from an era.
Turn right. Find Judith, or maybe the woman in the pink dress is Queen Tomyris. Certainty is difficult; the two women beheaded a burly man. Only the painter, believed to be Matteo di Giovanni, knows this. Notice his sword in one hand, head in the other. There is another Judith, attributed to Antiveduto Gramatica, around the bend. The Assyrian general Holofernes is stretched out on a table; at least his torso does.
The Apocryphal Book of Judith (unauthenticated broadcast accounts) is a fictionalized romance, depicting Holofernes invading Israel. In the city of Bethulia, the Jewish widow Judith rants against the lack of faith in God of the leaders of her region. She serves Holofernes wine and then beheads him in his tent, his death providing the Israelites with the energy they need to defeat their Assyrian enemies.
Walk to “The Preaching of Saint John the Baptist”, by Jacopo Palma il Giovane. The artist highlights the listeners, keeping the Baptist in the dark. Could it be that by hearing it, his listeners now have light in their lives? Notice the woman twisting to recognize another woman, her face lit and proud. She is most likely the donor who paid to commission the painting, possibly donating it to a hospice.
‘Look for the donkey’
Viviano Codazzi’s oil on canvas “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt” focuses on architecture, with the less important Holy Family, lower right. “Always look for the donkey,” a passerby told docent Kathie Durkel. And there he is, glancing through an ark ready to collapse and ready to carry Mary and Jesus, Joseph to walk beside them.
The Flight into Egypt is a story from the Bible (Matthew 2: 13-23) and the New Testament apocrypha. An angel advised Joseph to flee to Egypt with Mary and the baby Jesus; a king Herod, feeling threatened, sought Jesus to kill him.
Mattias Stomer’s “The Mockery of Christ” sheds light on two subjects, a seated and resolute Christ – crowned with thorns – and a young man clad in blue of an apparent aristocracy. What does the expression of this mocker tell us? Does this differ from the body language of the man kneeling down before Christ, directing his staff to the throat of Christ?
Ask a guide to locate the Judaic covenant possibly dating back to AD 1700. This is a group with a miniature silver synagogue. Inside the tiny synagogue, among other miniatures, is a menorah. Jewish families would pass these rings down through the generations. Sometimes a group owned them collectively.
Next step: Asian and Islamic art
Find the collection of Asian and Islamic art (spanning 4000 years). Mongolian papier-mâché masks line a wall. Buddhists used them to scare away evil spirits during ceremonies, and wearers, to appear taller, looked not through the mask’s eyes, but its mouth.
Take a walk on the new sky bridge and feel like you have ascended to the skies of Bloomington. (The new café will also open this fall.)
Do not miss one of the 20 known statues of the “Emaciated Buddha”.
Siddhartha, the future Buddha, stopped eating, in order to attain enlightenment, and you will see the effect of famine; The sculpture “Emaciated Buddha” depicts him in a shocking manner. Scholars say Siddhartha’s mother tried to persuade him to eat, but it was a little girl saying “I have porridge for you” who changed her mind.
Last stop: Africa, Oceania, and Native American art
Finish with the Africa, Ocean and Indigenous Art of the Americas collection.
Many objects here have to do with indigenous African religions: all testify to the belief in a creator. Followers of many indigenous African religions believe that knowledge remains in a person’s mind after death, in a different realm. These spirits can interact with the living, both positively and negatively.
For many who live on and around the island of New Guinea, canoes have retained their historical significance. People used bow ornaments to decorate the canoe and also as a protective jewel for the crew.
The museum exhibit shows a bird with hands and two heads. We turn to the crew. Birds were believed to help sailors because they could find land.
In New Guinea, people revere the spirits of nature, which are part of the culture’s belief system. Today, most people in Papua New Guinea practice Christianity, introduced by missionaries in the 19th and 20th centuries. Most churches are Roman Catholic, Anglican, or Evangelical Lutheran, with Pentecostalism and Seventh-day Adventism also being popular.
The pre-Christian art of New Guineans includes sculptures made from pieces of canoes. Massive canoes, carved out of a single log, were used for trading and fishing. Canoes are no longer used for wars, but Iatmul sculptors continue to make examples for use in trade and transportation.
This story touches only a few of the religious art pieces in the museum. There are many more.
If you are going to
WHAT: Religious art at the Eskenazi Art Museum at IU.
WHEN: In progress, some exhibitions may change.
OR: Eskenazi Art Museum, 1133 E. Seventh St., 812-855-5545; artmuseum.indiana.edu.
TICKETS: Free for all. (Snacks available for purchase in the cafe, later this year.)
CAR PARK: Jordan Avenue parking on the upper level is generally available free on weekends. Paid parking, very close to the museum, is available on the grounds of the Indiana Memorial Union.