Monday, September 21, 2009

Mining the MIA

"Portrait of Anna Blocken", Aelbert Cuyp, 1649
"Portrait of a Woman as Judith", Agostino Carracci, 1590
"Portrait of a Burgomaster", Bartholomeus van der Heist, 1665-70

"Portrait of a Young Girl", Jacob van Leo, 1650

(All photographs were taken by me at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts)

The Fourth floor of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts is one people usually have polarizing opinions on. They either fall in love and return, or see enough halfway through and wander downstairs for something more unique. This floor holds what most people would think of as more "classic" art even though much of it covers a few centuries. Many countries are also represented; there's the American painters, the French the English, the Flemish- just to name a few. But the overwhelming tie between all these on the fourth floor are that they're portraits, the standard, realistic yet idealized kind. Most of them are commissioned portraits of families or family members, all made to capture the person or people at their regal best. And yet, every once in a while, every few rooms or so, there is a portrait that captures something else entirely. It might be in the way their eyes are, their mouth, the colors, or sometimes something more obvious. These small elements, every once in a while add up to make something much more unsettling, more haunting. The beauty of that is that it's done subtly rather than outright (see previous post about Ray Caesar), which can be more chilling, the thought that maybe that truly is the essence of that person, caught on canvas. The kind of paintings that make you feel as though you're being watched. But don't worry, it's alright; these paintings are always sandwiched between cherubic baby Jesus and happy rich families with dogs at their feet. But what if they weren't? What if there was a collection simply for these? A room to house all the haunting souls ever captured in painted eyes? Would you sleepily wander downstairs then?

All of these would be hung at different heights around the room. Ideally, the collection would feature so many of these types of portraits that the walls would be almost completely covered, leaving the viewer stared at from dozens of pairs of eyes. The room would be kept intentionally colder than all other rooms, with the walls painted a deep shadowy purple or green. Also, I would put speakers behind some of the paintings that would remain quiet most of the time, but would occasionally play a rolling whisper across the room. This would happen only a few times a day, so anyone alone in this room would not be able to replicate it for a friend. Otherwise, the room would be sealed well enough to be more quiet than the rest of the museum. The goal is to really push that sense of being slightly uncomfortable, a bit unsettled. Not so much that it becomes a joke, but enough to bring these troubling faces a room of their own, no longer the odd one out in a plethora of fat happy rich people.


  1. Nice observations - both on people's reactions about the work initially, but also how even the raising or / and lowering of a work affects it in relation to another. I like your tone as you write as well. Conversational, and you bring us along with you as you ask questions, making sure it is free of any insult, but more as a proposition of changing the dialog between the works.

    Great proposal

  2. It's a good thing that's not really creepy. I liked your synopsis...

    Blog title: Mining the MIA
    It’s interesting to think that these bizarre subtleties could be
    commissioned artists’ way of spitting water at the rich people and
    families that they were painting. It reminds of those people that have
    theories that artists forced by the church to paint religious paintings
    included hidden messages and symbols in the paintings to hint at lies or
    corruption in Christianity. I can’t remember the painting or the artist,
    but it’s supposed to suggest that we were created by aliens rather than