The Magazine

Only in America

The pictures, not the curatorial sermons, tell the tale.

Dec 21, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 14 • By MAUREEN MULLARKEY
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Art that speaks for itself might say the wrong thing. So The Music Lesson (1870), a delightful sample of American Victoriana and if-music-be-the-food-of-love scene, comes with a dour reminder of dropping birth and marriage rates in the post-Civil War era. Might the drop be due to a generation of men slaughtered and women left destitute? No. The catalogue is pleased to note that the rise of independent women put paid to the notion that marriage is essential to civilization. The posted blurb adds a swipe at "women who cling to men for support." (An odd snub, given the curatorial class's own dependence on the kindness of museum benefactors and the grant system!)

Along the same wall, a contented couple and their two children take a rest on moving day in Henry Mosler's Just Moved (1870). Their good cheer draws frowns from a wall text that smirks at the word breadwinner (in scare quotes on the plaque) and casts doubt on the family as the haven it appears.

Military history is almost extinct in academia where curatorial sensibilities are shaped. Perhaps that accounts for the sparseness of Civil War paintings, despite the number of artists who treated it. The war appears largely as a backdrop for discussions of the era, some of them forced or fanciful. Winslow Homer's Croquet Scene (1866)--to pluck just one example--is a straightforward plein-air vignette built on similar pictorial concerns as Monet's Women in a Garden, painted the same year. To break the stasis of a line of standing figures, Homer depicts the central one, a man, bending to help a woman place her ball on the green. It is a credible device, since hooped and crinolined women were hard-put to set the ball out of range of their own skirts. Unsmiling, the wall plaque knots the scene into an emblem of female "choices" and "opportunities" following the war.

The museum's public role expands here to guardian of mental health. Its audio guide enlists a clinical psychologist to reassure us--soothing violins audible in the background--that nothing unseemly is afoot in Seymour Guy's three radiant, post-Civil War gems of childhood, timeless in their veracity. In one, an older sister dramatizes a scary bedtime story for her brothers. In the second, a younger girl admires herself, baby chest exposed, playing dress-up. (Not to worry, croons our expert: The older girl means no harm; and the little one is quite normal.) The very presence of a clinician on tape raises the specter of disquiet where none exists.

Elsewhere on the guide, artist Eric Fischl, doyen of voyeuristic narratives, looks at Thomas Eakins's Swimming (1885), a manifesto for the exploration of human form in motion, and sees his own libidinal interests. Six young men skinny-dipping must be a "sexual allegory." Eakins's dog in the water telegraphs the sway of--but of course--"animal instincts."

Frederic Remington's iconic Fight for the Water Hole (1903) seems to have been hung, together with Charles Schreyvogel's 1899 cavalry scene, only to shoot down "masculine escapist fantasy." The wall text informs us that it is now fashionable to read Remington's work as an embodiment of xenophobia: "In such reading, the gunmen fighting Native Americans signify Anglo Saxons defending the United States against waves of immigrants." Such interpretation might have surprised those Army officers who invited Remington west to paint them in the field during the last Indian battles.

The exhibition closes with George Bellows's Club Night (1907), a gritty boxing scene designed to illumine rippling vectors of force between racked contestants in a darkened arena. Spectators' faces are rendered grotesque, even demonic, by pleasure in combat. Nothing here extols the subject; quite the opposite. By playing reading games, we could easily declare the painting a metaphor for the violence then occurring in the wake of the bloody Philippine-American war. Posted commentary plays Aunt Polly instead. It shakes a finger at masculine ways: "[Bellows glorifies] virile action more than quiet thought, and popular experience more than highbrow culture."

By now, we know who the quiet thinkers are.

In sum, American Stories is lovelier and more valuable than its supporting donnishness. When it comes to art, looking is the thing, not reading. The art historian Otto Pacht phrased it nicely: "In the beginning was the eye, not the word."

Maureen Mullarkey is a painter who writes on art and culture.