Reviewed by Karen Schwartzkopf
Even though I was taking in Van Gogh, Manet, Matisse: The Art of the Flower at VMFA with one of my all-time favorite people (shout-out to Margaret Thompson, RFM’s publisher, and yes, editors and publishers do like each other!) I had to fight the urge to dash out of the exhibit, drive to the West End, and haul my 14-year-old daughter out of her middle school classroom.
All of my children love art, but this one has said many times that she loves to do art, not look at it.
Two words for you, woman-child: sketching gallery.
In the heart of The Art of the Flower, some very enlightened folks, including Mitchell Merlin, curator of the Paul Mellon collection and head of the European art department at VMFA, and Heather McDonald from the Dallas Museum of Art, have installed a space in which we amateurs can create our own works of floral still life art. Clipboards and colored pencils are mounted on nearby walls for easy-access, and comfortable seating surrounds a huge, live floral arrangement on a pedestal table.
Courtney Morano, who heads up the school and family programs at VMFA, said guests can choose to create and display their work on the wall in the sketching gallery or take them home. The arrangement will change about every two weeks, giving you a reason to come back again and again and again…
Of course, there are more than sixty other reasons to visit The Art of the Flower, the first major American exhibition to consider the French floral still life across the 19th century. That’s how many paintings (from thirty artists) are on display in the exhibit’s eight sections. The first section looks at flower painting in France in the 17th century; section two explores the Lyon School and the relationship between French luxury textiles; section three features the work of Eugene Delacroix, a Romantic, among others; and section four focuses on artist Henri Fantin-Latour and Victoria Dubourg. Section five is dedicated to “The New Painting,” the name given to the movement that would become known as Impressionism, and features work by Edgar Degas, Paul Cezanne, and Peirre-Auguste Renoir (in other words, the painters most of us have heard of). Sections six, seven, and eight showcase more names you also probably know: Edouard Manet, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Odilon Redon, and Henri Mattisse, to name a few.
Now that we got that out of the way, guess what? The exhibit is breathtakingly beautiful.
And Renoir’s quote displayed on the gallery wall sums up why you need to visit with your family: “…we have freed painting from the importance of the subject. I am at liberty to paint flowers and call them flowers without their needing to tell a story.”
The Art of the Flower is art for art’s sake. No interpretation is necessary. There is no underlying symbolism to explore. You won’t even hear the question, “But what does it mean?” You might inspire the members of the family to discuss technique – or not. Or if your kids are younger, you can challenge them to count the butterflies or cats or purple flowers in the paintings throughout The Art of the Flower. You’ll also marvel at the frames around these pieces, works of art themselves. That’s about as deep as it gets – and that is the absolute delight of the exhibit for families.
When RFM published this important article on VMFA five years ago this month, we had no idea how on track Alex Nyerges was when he said to families, “This is your museum!”
As for my youngest daughter, she has been delighting in drawing flowers (doing art) since she could hold a crayon, and this time I think she might take equal pleasure in viewing it. She has already planned a visit with several art-loving friends, and has been carefully considering the hashtag she’ll use on Instagram (because that’s what middle schoolers do) when she posts a picture of her original artwork hanging at VMFA on the sketching gallery wall. (Although she knows pictures aren’t allowed in the rest of the exhibit.) Another perk? We can also access VMFA’s free web-based audio tour from a mobile device while visiting the exhibit, or enjoy the tour at home on the computer.
The Art of the Flower runs through June 21 at VMFA. It’s free for VMFA members, children six and under, and active-duty personnel. Adults, $15; seniors, $12; student with ID, $10.
Before you go, do investigate VMFA’s very affordable family membership and enjoy free tickets and previews for special exhibitions (like The Art of the Flower); free parking in the convenient VMFA parking deck; a 10 percent discount in the gift shop and restaurants; and discounted rates on classes, programs, and other ticketed events.
Visit The Art of the Flower at VMFA for details.