little ode to provincial museums

Provincial(1) ...!

All the energy people spend so as not to appear provincial! Cosmopolitan, sophisticated, cynical, world-wise and post-modern city dwellers on top of the latest global trends (phew) – isn’t that what we all should want to be? Whereas local, unsophisticated, unfashionable, simple, outmoded surely are the kind of adjectives one definitely would not want any of one’s posts to be tagged with?(2)

But look, since we now know that we are all “lonely provincials” (3) anyhow, that none of us lives in the center of the world, why not also succumb without qualms to the genuine charms of provincial museums?

Many of those museums tend to live in a time-warp – embodying still a 19th century European Romantic spirit, oozing this outmoded stern respect for Antiquity & History & High Art but also being plain um, provincial, in their endearing urge to display local artists of dwindling repute.

Broadly speaking, these provincial museums come in two sorts: with and without pretension.

Provincial museums with pretension

Though usually harshly critical towards any kind of pretense – I do make an exception for pretentious provincial museums, because theirs is such a bygone pretense, such a threatened pomposity.
There we have these bloated buildings with neoclassical pillars, grand staircases and pompous statues of self-important (now mostly forgotten) white males. The rooms with either a creepily creaking parquet or a dusty musty carpet (often dating from a renovation-stint several decades earlier). (4)
And if one’s lucky – these rooms still have those old, oval-shaped central seats in the middle of the room, with faded upholstery, upon which many a lady and many a gentleman have rested during their promenade through high culture’s temple.

These rooms then are usually filled with works carefully chosen to flaunt specimens from every art historical period - blithely glossing over the fact that too many of them are second rate.

But shhh …. I’m being excessively unkind here! Perhaps these minor works set off all the better the dozen or so “masterpieces” these museums usually do harbor and to which the ambling visitor at least can devote the attention they merit (undisturbed by thronging fellow visitors and hundreds of competing masterworks) .
And besides, “minor works” or “second rate” are unduly condescending terms - it are not only the ‘universally validated’ masterworks of a certain era that can capture our imagination.

These “minor masters” plied themselves with great skill and dedication to their trade, thus exemplifying how their age saw and represented reality. And sometimes, precisely because they did not create “undisputed masterpieces” – we feel less awed, less boxed in by art historical formulas and we can freely savor this scarcely known painter’s sensitivity to light, or that secondary painter’s obsession with blue skies. Somehow they make us feel more entitled to personal affinity and even affection.(5)

Provincial museums without pretension

Now here the ode becomes an outright love letter … These little, struggling museums (6) with just a couple of rooms, with their “slightly embarrassed antiquities” (7) stemming from local archeological finds , their humble paintings’ collection based on gifts from the town’s richest businessman or from the local artist himself. With these endearing cards accompanying each work – typed in 70s fonts – carrying thoughtful commentaries by a local curator who has spend his or her entire life (oh well, at least a number of years) studying and cherishing these works .

Take the Beaune Musée des Beaux Arts – where I discovered a painter of whom I’d had never heard before. A Hippolyte (8) Michaud (1823-1886) – who of course painted within all the cliché 19th C categories: exalted-historical ; haunted-symbolical ; romantically tormented. But beyond musty historical categories, a vividly moving personal presence emanated from these paintings.

And not in the least from that fascinating self-portrait : a bold modeling and chiaroscuro making for a very tactile presence, a sensitive observation and rendering making us lock eyes with this inquisitive but shy looking young man – wondering about that soupcon of hurt, of despair in his eyes.

And blessed be the considerate curator who has noted some biographical facts for us: only after years of poverty and struggle this Michaud attained “a relative serenity, after his nomination as curator of the Beaune museum” (9)

There’s also an intriguing portrait by his hand of a woman – “in between two ages/ entre deux ages ” as the accompanying card nicely notes. And one cannot but agree with the curator incisively remarking upon the painter’s “subtlety of which he is capable when he is moved by a face” .

And then that arresting pathos in a painting of the dead Christ, which far from being melodramatic sentimentality, may rather be a sign of deep commiseration (10) – the curator again (11) : “a bathos witnessing of his sensibility”.

They’re strangely moving – these unexpected affinities found in small museums – these encounters with unknown dead painters and anonymous curators …

The usual full set of fake scholarly footnotes
1: of, relating to, or coming from a province
2 a: limited in outlook : narrow ; b: lacking the polish of urban society : unsophisticated
(2) Um, yes I have this thing for Microsoft Word’s list of synonyms
(3) Richard Rorty : “lonely provincialism” [...] stemming from the “admission that we are just the historical moment that we are, not the representative of something a-historical” . According to Rorty the bourgeois postmodern individual cannot but be a lonely provincial with continuing self-doubts, aware of the relativity of his or her perspective. Deeply aware of the fact that no cultural Canon, no way of life can claim any binding or lasting authority.
(4) Sometimes these rooms attempt a reconstruction of epoch furniture and decoration - which in France of course means a room full of Versailles- like pomp & frills - epoch curtains, mirrors, tapestries, do-not-touch tables & stuffed chairs on precariously thin legs– the whole lot often exuding a stale, moldy smell which, I’m afraid, puts off from future museum visits entire generations of whining children (dragged along by their parents).
(5) Examples in this category, starting with those who are located in a ‘province’ but whose collection is scarcely provincial: Antwerp, Lille, Liverpool. (not sure whether I should add Brussels – how provincial is Brussels? Hmmm). Then those with less Major Names on display: Bristol, Manchester, Caen, Reims, Rouen, Dijon, Ghent . & j’en passe.
(6) Cherished examples of small museums without pretence: Bath, Verviers, Laon, Chartres, Autun, Beaune, …
(7) Credits go, again, to Moss for this lovely expression
(8) I so regret that the first name “Hippolyte “ has fallen in disuse
(9) « une relative sérénité, après sa nomination au poste de conservateur du muse des Beaux Arts de Beaune »
(10) perhaps quite incongruously it reminded me of Bellini’s « dead Christ supported by angels”
(11) “effet de pathétisme qui témoigne de sa sensibilité” - don’t know who he or she is, but I’m filled with loving respect and gratitude for the person who wrote those thoughtful notes.

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