Archive for ‘March, 2013’ Blog

Model Boat from West Africa

March 25th, 2013 by Denison Museum

Model boat with five figures Republic of Benin, 20th Century Gift of John E. Geil and Eva Rockwood Geil. DU1963.33 Denison Museum Collection

Model boat with five figures
Republic of Benin, 20th Century
Gift of John E. Geil and Eva Rockwood Geil. DU1963.33
Denison Museum Collection


Denison Museum Object of the Week
by Marisa Zemesarajs ’15

When interpreting art, we open up worlds of meaning and experience for ourselves. There is no one way to look at art, just as there is no checklist that exists that can prove whether a work is great, horrible, significant, or neither. We very rarely can put into words the reason why we gravitate towards such-and-such sculpture or that painting. Or conversely, why we avoid certain areas of a gallery. Some pieces remind us of something familiar and we are all at once flooded with waves of personal experience all Slumdog Millionaire-like; every lasting memory shapes the way we answer certain questions and the way in which we look at what lies in front of us. When standing before a piece of art we don’t see the artist’s intentions bit-by-bit, perfectly framed in their own intimate narration, we just see a faint smudge. We can interpret the smudge however we choose; we can stamp our own creation myth onto a work of art; we can assume the mind of the artist.

This notion becomes especially handy when the history of a piece is unclear. Take for example, this African sculpture that is a part of the collection here at the museum. Very little is known about this piece aside from its place of origin. There is no impression of the artist, no date of creation, even its very function is ambiguous. This wood and metal sculpture could have served as a shrine piece or offering, but even that assumption is a murky one.

This piece struck me with familiarity. It immediately reminded me of an epic poem I once read in high school, The Epic of Gilgamesh, where Gilgamesh crafts a boat and travels up the River Euphrates in search for an enchanted plant that will provide him with eternal youth. Upon drawing this familiar connection I realized that it is unlikely that the artist assumed an association with an ancient Mesopotamian creation myth, but nonetheless my memory of the tale in contact with this foreign object entwined like kite strings, strewn with endless narrative possibilities. And who’s to say that I’m wrong? That’s the thing about interpreting a work of art, you can never really be wrong. Like the myth of Gilgamesh, the demi-god that undertakes a long journey in a futile quest for immortality, who finds that life is inextricably woven with the promise of death, a myth of woven personal experience can be applied to any work of art.

Twelve Medical Caricatures by Thomas Rowlandson

March 7th, 2013 by Denison Museum

Thomas Rowlandson. “A Going! A Going” English, early 19th century. Etching. Gift of Denison University Library. S1972.326.1-12 Denison Museum Collection

Thomas Rowlandson. “A Going! A Going”
English, early 19th century. Etching.
Gift of Denison University Library. S1972.326.1-12
Denison Museum Collection


Denison Museum Object of the Week
by Marisa Zemesarajs ’15

We don’t commonly associate humor with art. And who can blame us, really? Entering a museum has become something that requires mental preparation: I am going to walk up these marble stairs and enter a facility of knowledge – I am going to learn something. This mentality is kept throughout the museum experience. Born at the height of postmodernism I’m sure we all have traversed a gallery and felt confused, angry, and annoyed upon facing a piece with only two colors side by side. Since its origin, art has been this thing (I’m so articulate today, I know) that evokes thought, memory, and emotion – serious things that require serious attention. But who says that asking questions about humanity needs to be a serious, tedious task? In life, people say that if you can’t make fun of yourself, you’re doing something wrong; don’t take life too seriously. If that’s so then why does it seem like all visual representations of life, from the Lascaux cave paintings to Mondrian are so solemn?

I find it refreshing when I can take a break from thinking: what sort of societal implications are reflected in this piece; what does the use of abstraction speak of; what’s the meaning? Even as I casually type these questions I am exhausted by the cognitive promises they make. You can keep pulling back layer upon layer upon layer of anything in life, art included, in search of a profound discovery. Or you can step back for a second and take some of what you observe for its face value. This is what brings me to Thomas Rowlandson’s series Twelve Medical Caricatures, only one of the thousands of pieces in Denison Museum’s works on paper collection.

Thomas Rowlandson was an English artist and caricaturist during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Growing up in a fairly well-to-do family, Rowlandson was able to study at the Royal Academy and enjoy advantages of the art culture of England at the time. In time; however, poverty overtook him and Rowlandson ventured to try caricature as a means of earning a living. With his macabre humor and flair for satire, Rowlandson found a ready target in the foibles and follies of medical practices at the time. I particularly loved the works titled The Anatomist, A Visit to the Doctor, and A Going! A Going, in which the medical professionals pictured provide flighty, unrefined suggestions to a sick patient. In A Going! A Going, the doctor caters a bewildered response to a dying patient, “My Dear Sir you look this Morning the Picture of health. I have nay doubt at my next visit I shall find you untimely cured of all your earthly infirmities.” Here, the cure is death, which isn’t much of a cure at all. Rowlandson had a reputation for capturing the spirit of his time. A time incidentally, where the medical field was held in low regard.

The underlying truth of Rowlandson’s caricatural series is distressing, a picture where the value of human life is neglected; however, the comical presentation creates an interesting balance. At its heart that’s what satire is, a laugh and a cry all muddled up in one. Sometimes it is just easier to laugh. Art will always have a serious core and entertain the ugly truths of life, but if we can find humor in its image art will no longer be viewed as an inaccessible being, it’ll just be, and that’s pretty neat.

“Working at the Denison Museum helped to activate my learning by giving me practical applications for my liberal arts degree, while I was still in school. The things that I learned while I was on the job made my coursework come to life.”

— Cara Lovati '09