February 18, 2014

"Museum Hours": Art and Life

In a room at the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum is a collection of Pieter Bruegel paintings that is the greatest in the world. Bruegel's paintings––their complex liveliness, their focus on both the mundane and the sacred––are a central theme, I might even say the central metaphor, in the quiet, observant, intriguing film by Jem Cohen, Museum Hours.

The thoughtful museum guard Johann is our guide through this film, as he muses on the art surrounding him, the people visiting the museum, and his city of Vienna. Johann, who in earlier days had been a manager for a rock band, then a woodworking teacher, loved the quiet of the museum.

He especially loved the Bruegel room where there was "so much watching out to do" and always something new to see. 

Cohen shows us many beautiful works throughout the museum, lingering on them with a sense of longing. 

But then he takes us out onto the streets of Vienna, looking with as much interest at a group of flea market objects as at ancient Egyptian artifacts. In other juxtaposed shots, we see a group of miniature portraits at the museum and then a wall of photos in a neighborhood cafe.

Johann mentions noticing a frying pan sticking out of a person's hat in a Bruegel painting, which got him looking for eggs in paintings in the collection. He spends many pleasant hours on searches such as this. 

And the filmmaker goes on searches to find equivalent images in everyday life. For Cohen, everything is worth paying attention to: great art and the stuff of the street.

Museum visitors hold the camera's attention, singly, in pairs, in groups. Johann is amused by groups of teenagers who are insistently uninterested, except in paintings of severed heads or of sex. They might surreptitiously look at a roman sculpture of a man "whose ass so tenderly rests on a tree"; and at what Johann calls soft-core porn; in one such painting, even a small dog in it "looks a bit embarrassed".

Johann says "I like people". He found it interesting that he was curious about some, but with others he didn't want to know any more about them. He got to know Anne, a visitor to the museum from Montreal, in Vienna to visit a sick relative. They became friends, looking at art together....

....and visiting various parts of the city, seeing sights such as this chimney sweep sculpture/sign, visiting bars, going to the hospital. It was a lovely, reserved friendship; it was a way for the filmmaker to show the city, to show a human connection with art, with life.

For me the heart of the film was a discussion of Bruegel's work by a "guest lecturer", a fascinating and complex presentation. When a visitor responded to her query of "what do we like about Bruegel's paintings?" with "they are timeless", she responds that they carry time along with them. We can understand some of what is depicted, and some is a mystery. One thing that is certain is that Bruegel lived in a time of upheaval and chaos, something I had learned about by watching the interesting The Mill and the Cross inspired by his The Procession to Calvary, also in Vienna. And that he was radical in painting the lower classes, even being known as "the peasant painter", though not a peasant himself. The lecturer describes his paintings as "hallucinations of the real", as combinations of the allegorical and the realistic.

In the painting Conversion of Saint Paul, she points out a small figure of a little boy in a too-large helmet standing under a tree and claims, to the extreme consternation of a listener, that he is the center.....

Pieter Bruegel, Conversion of Saint Paul, 1567; oil on panel, 43 x 61 in.
image courtesy Wikipedia

....of this painting, the "center of the turning earth". Why is it that Bruegel filled his paintings with so much incident and near-hid the action of the title? why is it that the asses of horses seem more important than the figure of Saint Paul, a tiny figure in the distance? For me it is because of his insistence on the importance of the everyday, the odd; the equating of high and low, of sacred and profane. It is an expansive view of humanity, and of the things of the world; it is a view that Jem Cohen presents in his wonderful film.

And so as to emphasize this fact, at the end of the film Johann describes, in the same way he describes a painting, the scene, "a landscape of sorts", of an old woman walking up a path; he speaks of the "tail lights, impossibly red, and even beautiful"; he is reminded of the "transience of things". It is a transience that art attempts to overcome.

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