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Dutch Utopia: Christmas in January 


This past Saturday I woke up with strong resolve to take down the stale–feeling holiday decorations, clear the Christmas cards off the mantel, and hit the mall to exchange the wrong–size gifts.

But amid holiday festivities, the last weeks of December and early January brought with them an onslaught of familiar names in the obituaries–friends, former work associates, acquaintances, and friends–of–friends. Jeff LaRoe, Ricky McAllaster, James Toles, Karen Nelson, Chris Fogarty, Peter Verity, Tom Dillon, Walter Smith, Martha Fay. Last week it seemed that everyone I knew had a memorial service on their datebooks – me included.

Day in, day out, the papers are filled with such names, notices marking the end of a life, each name with a story, each with a list of survivors, each leaving a hole in the fabric of our city. Sometimes those holes are close enough to me or to my friends that they divert my attention for an hour, a day or longer. Saturday was one of those days.

That morning, shopping felt like an inadequate way to pass the time. I headed downtown for my first visit of the year to the Jepson Center for the Arts, and my first visit to the Dutch Utopia painting exhibit, just under the wire before the show closed on Sunday.

It was also my first time using my brand new membership to the Telfair Museums, which I received as a Christmas present. The membership gets me in the doors of the three Telfair Museums almost any time they’re open for the next 12 months, plus invitations to exhibit openings and lectures, and discounts at the museum stores. It’s the kind of gift that can keep on giving — or not. It all depends on me and whether I’m going to take advantage of its opportunities. Dutch Utopia seemed a great way to kick start my gift.

I arrived at the Jepson just past noon, several hours before the planned closing reception of tapas, music and cocktails. Patrons in small groups and pairs, or solo like me, drifted from picture to picture, low voices saying hello to friends and commenting on the gray skies of some paintings, the sunshine of others, the idyllic country scenes from the Netherlands in the late 19th to early 20th century.

And of course the canals, windmills, tulips, lace and wooden shoes.

Mostly I was drawn to paintings with people, so realistic in their depiction of traits and expressions. In one, a weary–looking printer’s apprentice stares out the window on a break, while typesetting goes on at the printing press.

The details of the press in the painting are precise enough to serve as instructions for a printing press assembly kit.

In another, the scene under a stone bridge along a canal seems alive, as a woman pours milk from a heavy round cask into another cask held by a friend. A man stands with arms uplifted, reaching for a cask about to pass to him. A woman walks downstairs, carrying a heavy load in each hand, and children look on or pass items to their mothers.
I mentioned to a friend that this one looked like the still shot from a movie.

“Back then, these were their movies,” he said.

Many people remarked on a painting called “The Absent One,” a scene of three straightbacked chairs. A young woman sits in the middle chair, reading a Bible, her father behind her left shoulder, listening. The chair behind her right shoulder at first seems empty. A more careful look reveals that on the empty chair is seated an older woman — the man’s wife, the young woman’s mother. She is transparent, but the details of her face, her hands, her dress are as precise as those of her husband and daughter. She is there and not there.

This image from 100 years ago, shows how a family keeps their mother’s presence with them: the hole in this family’s fabric as not a hole at all, but a thin spot. Reminding me, in a good way, of the other thin spots around me, some from 15 years ago, some from the past week.

After the Utopia exhibit, from habit I scooted into the exhibit for the Kirk Varnedoe Collection. The show of contemporary paintings, photographs and prints crashed in my brain in jarring contrast to the mostly soothing paintings I’d just seen, so I ducked back out after less than a minute.

Lucky for me, I have my Telfair membership tucked in my purse. No need to cram in every show they have in a one-day art overload. Next week, or the week after, I’ll head back downtown to see a show, to receive a brand-new Christmas gift in mid-January.

 

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Robin Wright Gunn

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