The RISD Museum – that is, the museum at the Rhode Island School of Design – was kind of a surprise. A friend had worked there for a while, but, really, I had no idea what the museum was like. I guess I assumed it was like many other university galleries, that it would be pretty small, and dominated chiefly by works by the RISD students. Either that, or just by obscure American contemporary artists who someone else is telling you is a really big deal.
Turns out it’s not like that at all. The RISD Museum, less fully officially associated with RISD than I’d have expected, and surprisingly adjacent to the Brown University campus, is a real, proper museum, filled with
six four floors of historical art from all around the world.
I love this blue. This European painting gallery – the gallery itself – is gorgeous.
Now, granted, each floor is quite small; really kind of tiny, compared to a place like the Metropolitan or something. But, then, who needs to compare? That’s totally besides the point. They’ve got serious galleries of American art, European, Ancient Egyptian, Contemporary, Asian art, and a whole separate annex historical house featuring 18th- and 19th-century furnishings and stuff. I’ve been watching random YouTube videos a lot today, and I think it’s influenced my writing. I actually kind of like the aesthetic, the mood, the culture for lack of a better word, of these videos by people in their early twenties who are “YouTube famous.” There’s something strangely addicting about their videos – like, I don’t know who you are, or why I should care, and the content of your videos is really nothing special, you’re basically just talking about random more-or-less-everyday stuff, and yet I find myself transfixed. Well, good on you. Congratulations, good for you, that you’ve managed to be so successful at such a thing. I’m not even being sarcastic at all, but truly genuine. Good for you. I’m envious, really. Thousands of followers? Getting invited to go behind the scenes at Doctor Who? Envious.
Anyway. Sorry. Back to the subject at hand. Lol. One day, months or maybe a year or two from now, I’m going to come back and re-read my old blog post about my trip to the RISD Museum, and I’m going to think “what the hell was I doing, going on about random YouTube videos?”
Right. So. A surprisingly large Jesus head from Spain. And, A Van Gogh that only very recently was determined/decided to almost definitely most likely be genuinely by Van Gogh – and, determined/decided to be quite likely painted very shortly before his death.
All in all, the museum is surprisingly extensive. My father actually said, numerous times, something to the effect of “wow, I can’t believe this place just keeps going! I can’t believe there are still more rooms!” We actually had to take breaks a couple times. But, it’s not just the number of galleries, and the beautiful way they’re arranged, but in addition, unlike the Walters, which I visited a few weeks later (sorry, Walters!!), the RISD collection, that is, the actual artworks, is pretty damned impressive too. They have an Egyptian mummy casket on display that’s surely in the best condition of any I’ve ever seen, with bright vibrant colors and just generally not looking decayed or fallen apart or anything at all (has it been restored at some point? Seems not unlikely), along with numerous other smaller Egyptian artifacts in amazingly good condition, including several encaustic (wax) paintings from Roman-controlled Egypt (kind of like this one from the Met).
A display showing how traditional woodblock carvers in Edo period Japan would lay a design (ink on paper) over a block of wood, and carefully, expertly, chip away around the lines to create a woodblock to print from.
And, another thing that I really loved seeing at the RISD Museum was exhibits explaining, describing, the process of making art. Specifically, in this case, Japanese woodblock prints. The Honolulu Museum, a few years ago, when they had their Hokusai show, did discuss the process, and even had a hands-on-interactive bit where visitors, as they moved through the exhibition, collected ink stamps onto their card that when combined formed a more complete, full-color, reproduction of one of Hokusai’s Fuji images, thus giving the visitor something of an idea of how many multiple separate woodblocks were needed, one for each color, to come together to make a multi-color ukiyo-e woodblock print. But I don’t believe I have ever seen any major museum do what RISD does, in having a whole set of displays displaying the paper, the tools, pigments, actual historical woodblocks, the prints made from those woodblocks, and walking the visitor through the process in just about as much complex, intense detail as one might find in any museum catalog or academic publication on Japanese woodblock prints.
Though I didn’t mention it in my earlier post about the Walters, the Walters Museum in Baltimore has a similar, and equally wonderful, set of displays describing a whole bunch of related processes of the medieval European techniques of making parchment, “illuminating” a manuscript (that means adding decorative elements, in color and gold), and bookbinding, again with actual examples of pigments, parchment, etc. on display. The Walters also, despite its sadly limited Asian art displays (read: no paintings or prints), had surprisingly good gallery labels describing the culture of Early Modern Japan, and various aspects of it, such as how women wore their hair, inkstones and writing boxes, and how a Japanese sword is “mounted” (fit together). So, yeah. Props to the Walters, for taking that important step beyond “this is art, and it’s artistic. Gaze upon it and be inspired,” or whatever, to “this comes from a particular time and place, let me explain a bit about the culture of that time & place.”
But, what was for me easily the most impressive and enjoyable element of my visit to the RISD Museum was the discovery of their 12th century Japanese wooden Buddha statue, which, seated, stands nine feet eight inches tall, and is described as one of the largest Buddha statues in the United States. I had no idea, no idea at all, that the RISD Museum possessed such an object. As I walked into the Textiles/Costume Gallery, as you can see in the above shot, I saw it through the doorway at the other end of the room. Not something one expects to see. A most impressive thing to see.
The arrangement, of course, reminds me of the Buddha/Temple Room at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which I strangely cannot find any good links for, where a smaller Dainichi sits. The MFA’s Temple Room is widely praised as an excellent space for meditation, and I do think it entirely laudable, attractive, and impressive that they’ve done up the whole room to be like the interior of a Japanese Temple, rather than displaying these works in a more sterile, out-of-context, “museum” sort of atmosphere. Yet, RISD’s Buddha room, which if I saw it correctly, is basically just an unadorned concrete cube, somehow works so much better to focus the visitor’s attention on the sculpture, on its calming expression, and to create a surprisingly, impressively, meditative space. There are few times that I have found a space to be truly meditative, to have some kind of spiritual energy, some kind of spiritual feel, to the space that really strikes you, that really makes you sit up and notice it. And this was one of those times. There was unfortunately a gaggle of kids coming through with their summer camp group (or something), so I could not stay and enjoy the space in peace, alone, to quite the extent or in the manner I might have liked, but, for sure, if I were ever again to be based in New England, I would choose this room as my spot for meditation.