Sunday, August 11, 2019

Ancient mariner at Minnesota Marine Art Museum

It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
'By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp'st thou me?

Why did I stopp'st thou? I stopp'st thou to tell you about The Minnesota Marine Art Museum of Winona.

I do it as an old man did it for me, compelled, tugging at the sleeve of your coat, with a wild look in my eye as of one cursed or blessed by some riveting vision or come back from the terrible face of truth.  For years this old man would come to the library I work at, and, as if under suchlike compulsion, he would ask me if I had been yet to The Minnesota Marine Art Museum.

"No." I would sadly say over the years. Over and over. And every time I did so his heart would seem to break before my eyes.

He got older and older. So did I. And he never stopped asking.

Then one summer my wife and I decided to go to The Minnesota Marine Art Museum in Winona on a little overnight trip down the Mississippi.

We'd heard good things about it.

I for one had heard good things about it 271 times over the course of a decade.

Oh they were all of them true! Every last good thing!

I knew that one of the two existing versions of Washington Crossing the Delaware was there, and it is a striking painting indeed, full of clarity and moment and little historical details and inaccuracies. I knew they had a Van Gogh. I knew about the Picasso and the Monets. And they were all pretty great. But I knew about them almost as curiosities, like, how could this wee, insignificant museum in the middle of nowhere hold paintings by significant historical artists?

I was looking at it all wrong.

This would be a museum well worth visiting in any city in the world: Paris, Tokyo, Rome, New York. In a lovely, well-spaced building, echoing elements of rehabbed warehouse, northeastern seaside building of a couple hundred years ago, and an odd, subtle dash of prairie architecture, situated gracefully on the banks of the Mississippi, this museum's one rule is that the paintings and art relate to, feature, and are inspired by water. If you think about it this probably still includes a good third of all paintings from art history. So it's just about the right sort of restriction, giving focus and a connecting thread through everything without making one miss out on too many hot paintings. Does the Mona Lisa have water for instance? Yep. Starry Night? It might. I think so, but I can't tell for sure about those smeary blue lines in the foreground of the town. Birth of Venus? Yes, totally. Dali's Persistance of Memory? That's the sea behind all those melting clocks! Girl with a Pearl Earring? No, sorry, no water there even if you could, theoretically stretch the pearl to being a object of the Sea, but you get my point.

Are all these artists in this museum? No. But the list of artists of the first order that are there is far too long to list profitably here. In fact, to truly impress you I will take a page from The Minnesota Marine Art Museum itself. I will restrict myself to the sea, telling you about artists in the museum whose last names begin with, wait for it, "C". By some curious twist of fate I noticed that most of my favorite paintings in this gorgeous museum were, indeed, by these artists of the "C". So I jotted them down for you.

The best Courbet I have ever seen in my life, Source of the Lison, was in this museum, and, tremendously dazzled as I have been by Courbet in the past, this is no small thing.  It's a naturalistic picture of the mouth of a cave without horizon or sky.

Cezanne, who sometimes feels too detached and cerebral for me, has a gorgeous riverside painting that is pure impressionist delight. Mary Cassatt's picture of a girl reading (with a sliver of river out the window in the background) was a beautiful character study I only noticed in retrospect out of my wife's accolades. Corot's landscape was a work of strangely dappled magic, dotted about with leaves, texture and definition as if they were light itself. And then also in the realm of sheer, painterly wizardry was Constable's dark, oil smeary little creek hollow scene, somehow a quiet wonder among vast dozens of all the other superb, watery landscapes. And finally we get the gloriously romantic and heartstoppingly colorful Chagall, a dream of love that comes with a fish and flowers.

And so I was converted. I too became a Mariner of the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, compelled to wander the world telling everyone I meet, wild-eyed, that you must see it. You must.

It's a terrible curse, but it was worth it.


  1. I'm not much for museums, but you have pretty much convinced me that I need to plan a trip to Winona. Not just to see the eagles.

    1. Well, you might want to take it with a grain of salt as I appear to be under a geas.

  2. Replies
    1. It's kind of like under a magical contract. I think it might be Irish, or just a Faerie word.


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