It was a star-studded year for culture. We saw Uma Thurman in Ibsen’s Ghosts, J.M.W. Turner’s paintings at Mystic Seaport Museum and Ansel Adams’s photographs at the MFA in Boston.
But the real story in our wanderings this year was the secondary. At the Clark in Williamstown, Mass., Renoir was the headliner, but we got much more out of the sideshow of Ida Ten Eyck O’Keeffe’s small works. The Turner exhibit was certainly thrilling – 92 watercolors and four oils in their only North American stop – but a companion exhibit of Turner’s influence on the impressionists and tonalists, at the Mystic Museum of Art, made for a charming coda.
And the Ansel Adams exhibit was so crowded – three people deep – that we eventually departed for the MFA’s permanent exhibits.
The lesson here is that you never know what will wow you and what won’t, so you might as well keep an open mind.
Thurman certainly wowed us in the role of Helene in Ghosts. From our front-row seats, all the performances were powerful in this tale of a family disintegrating amid lies and blackmail in 19th-century Norway. Less impressive were the special effects, with a musician eerily lit but visible behind a glass partition at stage rear. The characters walked in and out of this space, challenging our suspension of disbelief and giving the play a gimmicky feel.
Up the road at the Clark, Renoir’s nudes took center stage in the main gallery space, while Ida O’Keeffe was relegated to the Manton Research Center. How fitting for someone who languished next to her sister Georgia – and lending irony to the show’s title, “Ida O’Keeffe, Escaping Georgia’s Shadow.”
Ida’s talents were as varied as her subject matter, and in this small show you could see her struggle to reconcile her need to make a living with her need to make art. From illustrating school materials to teaching as an adjunct at various colleges, she had to fit art into her life in a way that her more successful sister did not. Art was Georgia’s life, and financial success gave her the freedom to escape her philandering husband and make New Mexico her adopted home.
The Turner show is breathtaking – it remains up through Feb. 23 – and easily was the artistic highlight of the year. Curated by Tate and brought to Mystic Seaport Museum by former senior vice president Nicholas Bell, “J.M.W. Turner: Watercolors from Tate” brings together a sweeping series of works from 1790 to 1850. Here you can see the artist’s development of technique and how his travels widened his outlook. As a bonus, Tate included “Turner and the Sea,” 17 watercolors, oils and sketchbook scenes of whaling and the coast that speak to the museum’s main mission.
Having viewed the show during a preview for reporters, we headed to the Mystic Museum of Art a few months later to catch “Oil and Water: Mystic Art Colony Artists Respond to Turner.” The show was underplayed in a back gallery and on display for far too short a time (Oct. 11 to Nov. 16), but it provided striking evidence of Turner’s influence. Many of his techniques, including foregrounding trees, could be seen in these works from the museum’s permanent collection.
Not every show wowed us.
At the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Conn., the former artist colony was occupied by Jennifer Angus’s explosion of insects as part of “Fragile Earth: The Naturalist Impulse in Contemporary Art.” Some of this – insects in amber, insects pinned, insects in diorama – was inspired, but taken together the displays were overdone and, well, a little creepy. We can’t help imagining Miss Florence herself, who was so tolerant of her impressionist boarders’ impulses to paint her door panels, sweeping half of these insects off their perches in one decisive gesture.
As for the MFA, I suppose no one can expect to drop in on a Saturday and have an Ansel Adams exhibit all to themselves. Still, it makes an argument for limiting access during times of high demand. It’s impossible to take in the majesty of his prints when you have to jostle a crowd of people just to read the title of the photograph.
Overall, it was a great year of cultural and artistic adventure. You’ll notice I discuss only visual art and theater, not music, film, or TV, and that’s intentional. Painting and, to a lesser extent, theater feed my writing much more than popular culture does. It’s the rare art show that doesn’t send me off with a new way of looking at something. A visual artist’s struggles with creativity, while not completely parallel to a writer’s, give us new ways of creating as well. Theater may inspire dialogue, music mood, and film a story arc, but art speaks to the visual nature of good writing. As 2019 winds down, I’m still thinking about Turner’s landscapes, Ida O’Keeffe’s abstract lighthouses, even those preserved beetles camped out on Miss Florence Griswold’s windowsills.