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New reflections on art

Museums trade white walls for vivid colors and create hands-on experiences for the entire family

By M.S. Mason Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 13, 2001

If you've gone to an art museum lately, you may have noticed that the walls are not necessarily white anymore: Bright colors, warm dark colors, and special lighting help create the illusion of other worlds.

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And you'll notice that the paintings or sculpture are not displayed in strict chronological order, or even by culture of origin, but by themes. Paintings from different eras rub shoulders and "talk" to each other, helping us understand how different artists handle similar subjects.

A splendid exhibition at the Denver Art Museum, "European Masterpieces: Six Centuries of Paintings from the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia," does just these things.

"We've put up symphonic speed bumps," jokes Timothy Standring, the Denver museum's curator of European art. "We've taken away the white walls, put in themes, music, cul-de-sacs, and built in 'meanderings.'

"These 88 paintings represent every major school, every major stylistic tradition, every major iconographic tradition of European painting for 600 years....

"I challenged the staff to think outside the box," says curator Standring. "Suspend your idea of what an exhibition is and tell me what you think should be done."

Evoking an atmosphere

Painting the walls in vivid colors helps create an evocative environment for the European masterpieces. Sometimes those colors are keyed to shades in the paintings: The Impressionists' room is a dusky French blue; other rooms are sunflower gold, leaf green, or melon. The colors evoke the hushed atmosphere of an ancient church, or the high pomp of a grand salon.

At the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, curators sometimes reproduce period wallpaper to show off the art.

The Denver museum's exhilarating installation of European Masters includes period music - Vivaldi, Gregorian chants, and Debussy - that wafts across the appropriate rooms, reminding us of both the gaiety and seriousness of court life.

The first pair of images that greets visitors includes Picasso's "Weeping Woman" (1937). Green, black, and white dominate the harsh profile showing emotional distress. Facing her, also in profile, is a Florentine "Profile of a Lady" (circa 1541). Reading her expression is more difficult than reading Picasso's lady. But each speaks to us of how women have been portrayed through time.

Think-and-play rooms

Denver has built into its special exhibition wonderful tactile experiences to help children experience more of each painting.

In a roomful of medieval paintings, a short podium allows children to lean on their arms and study a reproduction of a painting on the wall, where each symbol is explained. She need only turn to see the original and think about it afresh.

In museums across the country, devotion to the arts education of children is growing. Many museums, like the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the J.B. Speed Museum in Louisville, Ky., have think-and-play rooms equipped with computers, puzzles, dress-up period clothes, and easels that provide children with extended art learning.

In another room at the Denver exhibition, a child (or adult) may place a hand in a covered cubbyhole and try to figure out which of the fabrics he is touching matches which of those worn by the figures in the paintings.

One large Denver exhibit offers an enlarged reproduction of a portrait. Period clothes and wigs hang nearby, allowing visitors to dress up and pose like the characters in the painting. They can look in a mirror to compare themselves to the painted figures. The real painting ("Portrait Group: The Singer Farinelli and Friends by Jacopo Amigoni" (1750-1752) hangs nearby.

Wandering with 'wands'

Like the Getty and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Denver Art Museum offers "random access" audio tours that allow the visitor to punch in the number of a painting to find out more, rather then follow a predetermined path through the exhibition.