March 6, 2010

Fleming Museum features Warhol, Egyptian mummy, 'Barn Ball'

Warhol, Egyptian mummy, 'Barn Ball' among showings


If you go

Robert Hull Fleming Museum, University of Vermont, 61 Colchester Ave., Burlington, VT 05405. Phone (802) 656-2090. The Andy Warhol exhibit continues through April 26 and the Soviet posters until May 23. An additional temporary exhibit, "Storied Objects: Tracing Women's Lives in Vermont," opened just after our visit and remains up through Sept. 3.

Now that it's become clear that we live too far north for cross-country skiing, we've decided to catch up with cultural attractions in the area.

Despite its proximity, my wife, Marty, and I visit the Fleming Museum on the University of Vermont campus in Burlington far too infrequently. Housed in a Colonial Revival-style brick building designed by the notable architectural firm McKim, Mead and White, the museum combines its permanent holdings with regularly changing special exhibitions. Originally, the entrance led to the Marble Court, a gleaming space with marble floor, Ionic columns and a dominating bipartite staircase. It's still a commanding presence.

Right now, a newly acquired collection of Andy Warhol (1928-1987) Polaroid photos has garnered considerable attention. I'm not that much of a fan of Warhol's work, though his rise from blue-collar Pittsburgh to New York art celebrity may testify to my being in the minority. The pictures on display show how he used individual Polaroids as the basis of more idealized works, including some of his famed silkscreens.

Appearances were everything to Warhol, who relied heavily on makeup and costume to create an image. Calling his photography a "fictionalizing tool" seems accurate. The artist didn't rely on the casual photo; he generally took 100 snapshots to get the exact one he wanted.

Warhol has become an everyday icon, at least as judged by some items accompanying the photos. Burton has created an "Andy Warhol Snowboard Jacket." I don't remember seeing one of those at the Olympics.

There's another unusual collection now on exhibit.

"Views and Re-Views: Soviet Political Posters and Cartoons" shows graphic art "in the service of political belief and subject to state regulation." Early drawings, from the time of the Russian Revolution, emulate folk art. Later ones featuring larger-than-life Stalin images are anything but.

No Manichaean from the early days of Christianity could have better separated friend and enemy, hero and villain or good and evil than these works do. In depictions of capitalism, Nazism and eventually Americanism, the artists make quite clear what one is to believe. I liked some bold graphics depicting everyday work, like that of women at textile looms in "International Working Women's Day" from 1930, and soldiers in "1905: The Road to October." "Comrade! We want you" offers a Soviet equivalent of the Uncle Sam images commonplace in America.

I guess no matter how often we go to the Fleming, the mummy will always end up being a favorite attraction. Other cultures besides those of ancient Egypt preserved bodies, but Egyptian mummification was unique for its painstaking process. The 70-day preparation aimed to provide sustenance for the spirit in afterlife.

The sixth-century B.C. body under all that wrapping would have had its internal organs removed (and preserved in specific vessels), then be packed in natron (a salt substance) for a period of weeks. Then the corpse would have been anointed with fragrant oils and resins, and packed with resin-impregnated cloth. Then hundreds of yards of linen strips provided the final wrapping.

Other less-ancient African artifacts include elaborately carved wood headrests for use in tombs and vibrantly colored silk and cotton Kente cloth from Ghana. There's a detailed scene of a king and his retinue crafted in brass. Analogous to some Native American craftwork, this was fashioned as a tourist souvenir in Dahomey after French colonization in the late 19th century.

The European and American Gallery can provide the casual observer a solid introduction into artistic disciplines. In the first half of this permanent installation, sequential paintings and sculptures delineate evolution from Gothic and Renaissance through Baroque and Rococo to Neoclassicism.

The second half of the display, "Thematic Traditions in Western Art," changes the focus to that of artists' subjects. Portraiture and landscape speak for themselves. Among the latter, I especially enjoyed Charles Louis Heyde's view of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks as seen from Burlington Bay. Additional categories include still life and scenes of everyday life, generally called genre paintings.

One new addition to the "genre" sampling is a Norman Rockwell painting entitled "The Babysitter." Its backstory makes it captivating.

When a sixth-grade girl at Burlington's Taft School died of leukemia, classmates wanted to memorialize her with a print from Rockwell's Arlington, Vt., gallery, which the class had visited the previous year.

They collected a modest fund and sent it to Rockwell with their request. The artist returned the money, along with this original painting for a 1947 Saturday Evening Post magazine cover. Later, when Taft School closed, members of the class arranged to restore the canvas and have it moved to the Fleming on long-term loan.

Around the perimeter of the second-floor mezzanine hangs work of New England artists.

Most are landscapes and scenes of village life.

A few works make social and political statements, such as Ronald Slayton's 1935 creation "Unemployed."

The James B. Petersen Gallery of Native American Cultures introduces a range of artifacts from local Abenaki ash and sweetgrass basketry to a Kwakiutl raven headdress from the Pacific Northwest. Painted hides, beadwork and leathercraft (including a wonderful pair of grizzly paw mocassins) represent Plains tribes. Navajo rugs, laboriously woven on hanging looms, such as the Two Grey Hills example on display, have long captivated us.

On our way out, we stopped to study "Barn Ball" by Lars-Erik Fisk. It's a spherical representation of a classic New England landscape structure, with layers of red clapboard and stone foundation plus white windows and an interior filled with hay.

One can't imagine it being exhibited anywhere but Vermont.

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