Tuesday Artist Date: The Legion of Honor

A few years ago, when I first tried to do regular artist dates, I’d start by planning the outings in detail. I’d make an agenda for the date, and usually this meant I was also trying to shoehorn in some goals too: “Let’s see, if I’ve only got two hours at Olvera Street, I can hit up this many stores and see this many sights…” These dates rarely moved beyond the planning stage, because thinking about all the logistical details and worrying about whether I’d meet these implicit goals stressed me out. “Forget it!” I’d think. “There’s no way this will actually be productive.” And that would be that.


Columns flank the main entrance

Now that I’ve started the dates again, I’m trying a gentler method of planning that doesn’t activate my control-freak inner adult. Now, when I plan, I ask myself, “What would be fun this week? What do you want to experience?” So far this has yielded far more interesting results. The first week I wanted to be next to the water; last week I took a train ride to an unknown destination. This week, my inner child informed me: “I want to be inside a beautiful indoor space.” Hmmm, I thought. So we went to the Legion of Honor.

I had to take the train and a bus to get there, but as soon as I entered the Presidio, I felt urban San Francisco drop away. I walked a half-mile on a slight uphill slope, surrounded by a lush green golf course dotted with windblown trees. In the distance, I could see the deep blue bay and the Golden Gate.

Legion of Honor

Entering the Legion of Honor

Once the curving balustrade and classical columns of the museum came into view, I realized this was not my first visit: I’d been there before, maybe a decade earlier, when my family visited a special exhibition of the Qin terracotta warriors. I remembered the awe and fascination I felt with the museum then, as a teenager; it felt right to be coming back on my own now as an adult.

Entry courtyard

Entrance courtyard

When I walked through the archway to the entrance courtyard, the bright sunshine on the bare symmetry of the columns gave me a spectacular sensation of being transported back to ancient times — like I was standing in a Greek agora, only with French inscriptions and Rodin’s Thinker hanging out beside me! There were few people in the courtyard, so no jostling, touristy crowds disturbed my pleasure in the space.

Entry arch

Entrance arch

I’d gone to the Legion expecting stunning Beaux-Arts interiors, but actually the inside of the museum was merely airy and pleasant (much like my other favorite museum, the Getty Center in LA). I liked it, but it didn’t stand out the way the outside of the building did. But the art, on the other hand…

I’ve said before that I dislike art museums. I discovered today that this is not strictly true. I dislike certain eras of art, I dislike crowds, I quickly develop art-viewing fatigue (“oh joy, another masterpiece, let’s move on to the gift shop”), and I get bored of seeing painting after painting without any historical or creative context. But when the collection is small and carefully curated, or spread out into accessible and logically-divided galleries, when the surroundings are beautiful and the crowd not too huge, and when there’s plenty of decorative art or artifacts (clothes, pottery, jewelry, furniture) around to add life and variety… well, then I like art museums!

Giacometti sketch

Alberto Giacometti, from Paris Sans Fin

What I’d thought would just be a pleasant outing ended up as a real art-appreciation excursion, as I immersed myself in the Legion’s various galleries. A dimly lit, tiny book-arts room held pages from Alberto Giacometti’s Paris Sans Fin, a collection of rapid sketches made all over Paris, over almost a decade. Not to compare myself with Giacometti, but I’d never seen sketches like this in a museum before, and I couldn’t help but think of my own quick sketches and be amazed to recognize something of their spirit in this book. Giacometti sought to capture his first impressions of the “feel” of these scenes, and that liveliness really comes across, even when the drawings are extremely rough. I left this gallery thinking I might start giving more energy to my own field-sketching practice.


Pierre Bonnard, House in the Courtyard, 1895-96.

In the extensive (and, truth be told, overwhelming) galleries of the main exhibit, “Impressionist Paris: City of Light,” I discovered the richness of the Impressionist era beyond the paint dabs of Seurat and Monet. There were etchings galore, some photographs, posters, newspaper cartoons, and lithographs, not to mention a good number of oil paintings. I really had thought everything from this era looked like Water Lilies, so I was astonished and delighted to discover smaller and more intimate works like Bonnard’s House (at left) or Vuilliard’s Landscapes and Interiors series (example below). It’s so reassuring to see that “great art” doesn’t have to be limited to epic landscapes and scenes, portraits, and still lifes.

Vuillard lithograph

Edouard Vuillard, La Cuisinière (incidentally his mother)

Yes, I realize I’m betraying my total ignorance of art history here. But it’s also a fair thing to be thinking about when it comes to the Impressionists, who (I learned from the exhibit) were also trying to break down old modes of art-making by introducing new perspectives and subjects. I guess Evelina‘s advice to me at VONA (to read more literature) can also be applied to art. I’ll try to go to more museums from now on, not only to fill my art-historical well, but also because seeing these works on the screen or in print is absolutely nothing compared to seeing them in person. And I am awfully fond of museum shops and cafes. 😉

Funnily enough, my recent “fun” reading made the museum even more interesting to me. After so much talk of ushebtis and excavations in Amelia Peabody, I was very excited to see them (and some mummies) on display at the Legion. And while examining some exquisite 19th-century Sèvres porcelain in the aptly named Bowles Collection, I imagined Peter Wimsey acquiring the same pieces at auctions and overwhelming his new wife Harriet by using them at breakfast. How our worlds do collide!


My hot self (literally!), enjoying a juice in the cafe.

On Thursday I think I’ll get back to this subject of what constitutes “great art,” only this time in the context of writing and literature. But first, tomorrow is Craft day! Come back then to watch me  put in some more work on my backpack makeover!