Beyond becoming cultured in the subjects of beer drinking, bar hopping and exam cramming, University of Wisconsin-Madison students can refine their knowledge of other fine arts by visiting the Elvehjem Museum of Art. Located at the bottom of Bascom, between campus and State Street, the Elvehjem is the ideal spot to take a breather after a long day of classes.
In addition to the impressive permanent collection that boasts the work of many infamous artists, the Elvehjem routinely rotates collections and works of different museums and artists from around the globe.
With a permanent collection of over 16,000 pieces ranging from 2300 B.C. to the present, the average local yokel is bound to be intrigued by at least one of the works. It is also possible that a visitor with even the most limited knowledge of art history may recognize some of the works as well as the artists who created them.
With only a semester of art history behind me, I was able to identify the works of three influential artists whose creations are definitely worth viewing.
Undeniably one of the most recognizable sculptures in history, Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker” has been displayed in the most prestigious museums, as well as exploited as an image in many posters and other pop culture arenas. While the seated nude male figure whose eternal contemplation is implied by the placement of his hand under his chin is not on display at the Elvehjem, one of Rodin’s less popular but comparable works can be found on the second floor.
“Fauness” depicts the figure of a nude female whose rigid facial features and chiseled muscles lend the sculpture masculine characteristics. The use of bronze for this cast further emphasizes the combination of feminine and masculine attributes by allowing the light to enhance the respective soft and hard lines of the form.
The sculpture has been strategically placed in the center of the room, as most sculptures are, so that the visitor can view the figure from all angles and can begin to understand the artist’s placement of limbs used to emphasize the figure’s features. “Fauness” has been positioned so that her arms are stretched in a butterfly-like stance that successfully displays the defined musculature of her arms and back.
Another infamous work that has been overly exposed in commercial culture, Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” shows an elderly couple in front of their farm house with the husband clenching a pitchfork and the wife crowned by a plain bonnet. Although the Elvehjem does not display this work, which is easily as recognizable as “The Thinker,” they do show a piece by Wood on the second floor that is similar in style and theme.
“Portrait of Nan” portrays the seated image of a woman who is as equally homely as the grandmother in “American Gothic.” The unattractive appearance of the woman is emphasized by her sullen facial features and dreary eyes. The woman’s thin lips are pursed and turned in a slight frown, and the dark circles under her eyes evoke sympathy and force the viewer to wonder what could be causing her unhappiness.
While her dress and appearance are otherwise normal, the woman holds a small yellow chick and a ripe plum in her hand that seem to relay a deeper meaning and significance. While I am unsure of the artist’s intent with these random objects, I believe that the work as a whole, which was finished in 1933, may be a reflection of the desperate times Americans experienced during the aftermath of the Great Depression. Art is magnificent in that there is no absolute way to interpret a piece, and different viewers may find completely opposite meanings in the same work.
Famous for her unique depiction of flora, fauna and western landscapes, Georgia O’Keeffe has become one of the most distinguished female artists of the last century. O’Keeffe’s mastery of color and line are apparent in her oil painting “Red and Brown Leaves” that can also be found on the second floor of the Elvehjem. A vibrant red and orange elm leaf is overlapped by a milk-chocolate brown and maroon oval-shaped leaf.
O’Keeffe shows incredible detail in the veins and the edges of the leaves by slightly differentiating shades of color to suggest the appearance of lines. The leaves are placed on a soothing green background that engulfs every inch of the canvas. The forward progression of color beginning with green and ending with brown coincides with the life span of a leaf and shows how the shades of nature change with the season. O’Keeffe successfully portrays Mother Nature’s color scheme through her seemingly simple representation of leaves.
Currently on display as one of the specialized collections the museum offers throughout the year is “Masterworks of Chinese Painting: In Pursuit of Mists and Clouds.” This collection of painted hanging and rolled scrolls features works from several Chinese dynasties.
Chinese paintings differ from Western art in that the artist paints or draws with the intention of interpreting nature rather than realistically portraying it. Chinese artists also use multiple simultaneous points of view rather than the single-point perspective common to most western artists’ work.
These distinguishing techniques are easily seen in Chen Kyun’s “Landscape with Cranes.” Painted with ink on a silk scroll in 1638, this relatively large interpretation of a Chinese landscape enchants the viewer by creating a dream-like image of a rocky cliff jutting through a forest. The absence of line and color around some areas of the rocks forms the appearance of hazy clouds that soften the overall feel of the work. The multiple-point perspective can be seen by noting that although the human figures are at different heights on the scroll and should thus be at different distances from the viewer, they all appear to be the same size. The only features that show a progression of space are the rocks that imply distance by appearing obscure at the very top of the scroll.
The Elvehjem is open 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. With free admission year-round, the museum is an impressive but cheap place to take a date and a great way to spend an afternoon for the last few chilly weekends of spring.
There’s no need to feel uncultured if the artists or works I’ve mentioned don’t ring a bell. The museum is user friendly and has plenty of reading material as well as educated curators on staff to help even the most sheltered yokel locals on their way to artistic enlightenment.