April 4, 2010

The Brooklyn Museum

An important touchstone of my childhood in Brooklyn, in addition to the Botanic Garden, was the Brooklyn Museum, a place of wonders for a youngster. I didn't think of my visits there, with family or school classes, as trips to a sanctuary of art, but as a place of fun and excitement where I could see odd and interesting things. On the first floor of the museum was a large collection of Native American objects, clothing and sculpture and pottery; I vividly remember the totem poles towering over the room; what could be more thrilling? This room is now under construction, a few of the objects scattered in other galleries. But my memory still holds on to the vivid image of stylized, powerful faces rising above me.

Another favorite place was upstairs in the Decorative Arts galleries, which housed several period rooms, magical spaces for the imagination. (You can see the 17th century Schenck house, which had stood in Brooklyn here.) I loved seeing these each time we were in the museum. They are now surrounded by the Sackler Center for Feminist Art, an undreamed of idea in the 1950s.

Statue of Metjetji, detail of head, 2371-2288 BC, wood, gessoed and painted.

Statue of Metjetji, detail of hand.

The Egyptian collection, an outstanding one at the Brooklyn Museum, was a fascinating place. For a child, seeing objects from such an ancient time––the time of the Bible, of the Hanukah Haggadah––was amazing. Of course the mummies were most compelling, and I see children today still gathering around them with interest; what magical things they are!

This wood sculpture, a portrait, is so lifelike and sensitively sculpted; it seems full of breath, and grace.

Head, Yoruba, 11th-14th century, Nigeria-Ife, terracotta.

On the first floor of the museum is a small but strong collection of African art. I have to admit that I know this area fairly well because I pass through it on the way to the cafeteria. I don't have a strong childhood memory of the African work and it may be that it wasn't housed in this area when I was young, or that the Native American objects grabbed all my attention. However, I had to photograph this Yoruba head; it is quietly powerful, simple yet expressive, and subtly rendered. I see a relationship with the Egyptian portrait above; at least I see that I respond strongly to certain styles of sculpture.

There is also a very good collection of American painting at the museum, that I look at during each visit, but paintings didn't seem to be of most interest to me as a child, at least not as I remember (and memory can certainly be faulty). I think there is something more compelling in the fact and presence of an object; it draws the attention in a way the more abstract art of painting cannot do. As children we may be less sophisticated viewers, who find it hard to translate a two dimensional image into reality. I wonder if any of you have strong memories of art viewing as children; did you love any particular things you saw? did you feel, like me, that objects stayed with you more than painting?


  1. We didn't spend alot of time in museums as children because we lived in a regional area. But I do remember my first visit to the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne when I was about 13. I loved the paintings which showed a story. There was one of a crowded persian market scene which stuck with me, for a long time... I checked it out as an adult and it wasn't fabulous as I remembered it LOL.

    I can't wait to see how my son responds to art as he grows :-) He's currently 1 year old.

    I can't wait to see how my son

  2. I wasn't fond of art museums as a kid, preferred looking at pictures in books where I could really see them, spend time with them, day dream on them. I preferred drawing my own rather than looking at others. that all changed when I saw a huge Picasso show. he was so inventive, colorful, by then I was in my teens....

  3. Clare, your comment brought to mind my interest in not-very-good paintings when I was, I think, in my early teens: Pavel Tchelitchew's 'Hide and Seek' at MOMA and 'Joan of Arc' by Jules Bastien-Lepage at the Met. Both had hidden imagery, so were fun to look at, as though solving a puzzle. It took me many years to appreciate Picasso; I certainly didn't in my teens, as rappel did.

  4. Being raised by artists meant my childhood wasn't typical. Still, I think this is a very interesting question and I hope more respond. ( You inspired me to ask a question in my blog: thanks!). What sticks with me the most were actually the art exhibits & happenings at the MCA ( Museum if Contemporary Art in Chicago) in the late 60s and early seventies when I was a teen. The first director, Jan van der Marck, was very progressive and so was the institution before it became established. I vividly recall Oldenburg, Flavin and Christo and the year I graduated high school they showed Eva Hesse who remains one of my favorite artists to this day. But what I mostly recollect was that great vital energy of a community building something different and how at ease I felt in that space, at the openings, in the building. The MCA has long since moved and shed it's earlier incarnation. Of course it is no longer intimate and became rather uninteresting to me for many reasons. But I cherish the memories. Thanks for stirring them...

  5. Julie, you certainly had sophisticated early art viewing; it wasn't till I was in college, an art major, that I knew anything of these artists. I 'discovered' Eva Hesse years later, when I saw a show of her reliefs at a gallery in nyc; I love her work too.

  6. Visiting this museum is definitely on my Bucket List, because I really want to see Judy Chicago's Dinner Party installation that is in the Elizabeth Sackler wing.If I ever bring off this dream, I will let you know, you can meet me in N.Y. and give me a tour of your favorite places! Re: memories of childhood regarding artwork--my favorite place to go was my grandfather's workshop with all its woodworking tools, bins full of metal fasteners and nails, strangely shaped machinery, the smell of oil and turpentine and paint and sawdust. This was the place where things were made, the most powerful place on the farm. The only important art I saw was in books because I was a country child...no museums. I'm sure this has shaped my awed attitude toward fine art.