Saturday, April 06, 2013

Musing on the Musee des Beaux Arts and Grande Bibliotheque in Montreal

Tomorrow marks the end of a two-week long circular trek along the East Coast, from Michigan to Montreal, down through New England to New Jersey and Pennsylvania, to Virginia and Washington, DC, and then back to Michigan. Although we were in Montreal primarily to visit my brother for Passover, we had a few hours to spend touring the city. Two destinations worth highlighting are the Grande Bibliotheque and the Musee des Beaux Arts.

The Grande Bibliotheque combines the convenience of a lending library with a truly vast array of research resources in social and natural sciences, math, literature, history, music, and fine arts. The library is accessible directly via the metro, for those cold, cold Montreal winter days, and on a Sunday in March, it was packed with users of all ages. People were seated in sunny alcoves reading books and magazines, using computer terminals, browsing a large collection of CDs and DVDs and wandering in and out of the shelves in search of   new and classic materials in French and English. Although the library's archives and special collections were not open when we visited, I enjoyed the way they were separated from the general collections areas only by glass walls, seemingly designed to pique visitors' curiosity. Particularly intriguing objects could be found in display cases on every level, creating a continuum from circulation to limited use to preservation that seemed logical and non-contrived.

On the other end of the conoisseurship spectrum, the Musee des Beaux Arts, which I had visited previously a number of years ago, boasted some singular objects with virtually inscrutable labels and no greater narrative to speak of. In our visit, we stuck with the permanent or semi-permanent exhibits, opting not to visit the blockbuster Peru exhibit (about which we heard nothing glowing). In the museum's contemporary art building, angst seemed to be the order of the day with large-scale works in the conceptual art tradition. Unfortunately, we were not even given the benefit of artists' statements to point our way toward meaning. Instead, labels included only titles, the names of the artists or art-collectives (with possibly some general biographical information about the artsits) and, of course, the name of the donor/patron.

Giovanni Rufi, La Cova Sofa, 1973, on display at the Musee Des Beaux Arts
The design exhibits across the street were more to my taste, but I still found the labels and navigation supremely disappointing. I can't help but want to know more about how artistic traditions evolved in a historical context.  Why are particular materials used more at different times than others. What makes some designers break with functionality while others innovate to create objects of beauty or significance that can still serve the functions for which their inspirational objects were originally intended? Once I turned off these probing questions in my head and resolved to experience the exhibit with the only sense allowed to me, my eyes, I found a great deal to enjoy. Favorite pieces included the "Mama Chair" by an Italian designer, made to look like a large inviting lap complete with a very comforting-looking bust, and a "birds' nest" couch with some very soft-looking eggs nestled among brown fabric.
Gaetano Pesce, La Mamma Armchair and Ottoman, 1969 (examples of 1984) On view


It is a rather strange sensation to have to experience furniture entirely with your eyes. This was made even more acute to me given that this was the first museum I've visited since passing into the second trimester of my first pregnancy. Oh how inviting some of these chairs and cushions appeared to me!  Especially in a free museum that seemed to eliminate the availability of comfortable benches as a matter of course. I'm not sure if this was an intentional measure to prevent the homeless people from taking shelter within the museum's hallowed walls, but I truly felt this absence of comfort as the hours of walking and looking seemed to increase the forces of gravity exponentially.  It's useful to experience museums and other public spaces in different states of "fitness" in order to gain a clearer understanding of "the visitor experience" overall.

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