Saturday, June 20, 2009

Maryhill Museum of Art - Part 1

While driving down the Oregon side of the Gorge on my way to Hood River, I suddenly remembered Maryhill Museum on the Washington side. The last time I'd visited was in the 1980's and I couldn't remember exactly where it was along the river, but I guessed it wouldn't be much out of my way if I wanted to catch it on my way back home. Sure enough, it wasn't long until I saw signs for it and it wouldn't be out of my way at all. Once in Hood River, I checked the website to see about hours and exhibits and quickly added a visit to my itinerary.

This Museum has extraordinary holdings for being out in the middle of nowhere. No offense to the tiny burgs nearby, but really, this is about 2 hours from the closest major city, Portland, and to most eyes would be a very bleak area in which to live. Some wineries & vineyards have recently been established nearby, but truly, this is a stark landscape. This is looking southeast into Oregon at Biggs Junction (population 50 and essentially a pit stop). Click on this or any picture for larger view.

The windmills scattered along the horizon tell you how windswept it is. So how did this Art Museum come to be? You can read the full story here, but the short version is Sam Hill began building it as a private home with the intention of also developing a Quaker farming community nearby. The community didn't work out and his wife took one look at this desolate place (I believe the train or the river were the only means of transportation to it) and went back to the city the next day. Poor Sam - not everyone saw the beauty of the Gorge as he did.

However, as a successful businessman who traveled the world, he had friends in high places. One of them, famed avant-garde dancer Loie Fuller, talked him into turning the residence into an art museum, and used her connections in the art world to secure over 80 sculptures & drawings by Rodin. Yes, THAT Rodin.

Another friend, Queen Marie of Romania, dedicated the museum at its opening in 1926 and donated a gown & mantle, one of her crowns, Orthodox icons and many pieces of her palace furniture. Yeah, that's not something you expect to see in the range land of Washington state. Add Hill's own extensive art collection and the committed efforts of another friend, sugar heiress Alma De Bretteville Spreckels, and the Maryhill Museum of Art was off and running. Follow this link for a complete listing of on-going exhibits including a fascinating collection of chess sets and Theatre de la Mode French Fashion Dolls.

The featured changing exhibit was a collection of Hudson River School paintings. To be honest, I've never been drawn to these, although I know the reasoning behind them. They always looked dark and dull to me as represented in books and magazines. I figured I owed it to myself to see them in person, knowing how different the actual art looks compared to reproductions. In truth, in person they still looked dark and dull, with a few exceptions. Just not my cup of tea, but still interesting to study.

I remembered the Queen of Romania exhibit from my previous visit so I planned a quick walk-through to refresh my memory. As my eye scanned this corner throne, I did a double take. What was all this Celtic design doing there? I certainly did not remember it (which only indicates that I was not into Celtic designs then like I am now).

I eventually found the explanation that Queen Marie was very into the Celtic, Byzantine and Romanesque styles of the 6th through 11th centuries, so had all her furnishings designed around those motifs. Fascinating! Guess it goes back to her English roots. Here are more examples:

Another ongoing exhibit I planned to quickly view was the Native American collection. I've seen many such exhibits, and frankly thought, just how many baskets, moccasins and the like do you need to see - aren't they all pretty much the same? Well, no, as this exhibit excellently showcases. The items are grouped by region, and it is easy to see the subtle differences in material, shape and design motifs from different areas of the United States.

Not only that, I saw some techniques I'd not noticed before. The Clallam baskets above are twined plain, the decorative design being an overlay showing only on the outside.

These Western Canadian Athapaskan bark trays aren't woven at all, but are made of birch bark - the outer surface of the bark on the outside.

Other birch containers from this area had the outer surface of the bark on the inside. This one doesn't show it, but others made this way had designs scratched on this underside of the bark that is the outside of the basket. Also common to the baskets of this area is the decorative addition of yarn along the rim or embedded in the bark.

These baskets are among the most elaborately plaited in North America and were made by the Chitimacha tribe. It never ceases to amaze me how humans have this need to make the most utilitarian item decorative.

Here's a "bridal veil," something I'm not sure I'd seen before. The beading alone is fascinating to study, but check out what's dangling along the edges along with shells and beads. Yes, those are sewing thimbles. Acquired in trade with the white man, it is speculated that they were added to these veils as a symbol of the domestic prowess of the bride.

Obviously a prized possession, many thimbles adorn this dress. Could this also represent the trading prowess or wealth of the husband or father?

Finally, let me share with you this petroglyph removed from the gorge before floodwaters from a dam covered it forever. According to the signage: "A human face with rays surrounding it is a motif found throughout northwestern North America. It has been call a "solar figure" by some researchers who associate it with shamanism. In this piece the carved design has been emphasized with red ochre." I found it quite compelling and it reminded me of motifs found on 18th century headstones in New England (see this post).

Well, that was a lot for one post, but not all that Maryhill has to offer. Tomorrow...a tour of the grounds.


RHONDA said...

What a fascinating place - and lucky you to be able to visit it!

Katney said...

When we were last there the temporary exhibit include several Andy Warhols. A far cry from the Hudson River School.