In early February I visited San Diego for the first time, and of course I made sure to check out one of their major museums, the San Diego Museum of Art. Seated within Balboa Park, a sprawling space with hiking trails, a golf course, a country club, restaurants, and several museums, SDMA offers a range of arts primarily from the Western and East Asian regions, as well as the Pacific Islands and Africa. Accompanied by my mom, I wandered through most of the museum’s galleries, taking in works from the fifteenth through twentieth centuries, as well as the temporary exhibition Women, War, and Industry (now closed), which showed wartime images of women (primarily propaganda posters) as well as works made by women artists to document or respond to war (eg, Margaret Bourke-White’s photography and Pae White’s explosive installation sculpture).
The galleries are organized in fairly standard fashion, with modern and contemporary works in a large, white-walled space. There is a good mix of recognizable names- Dali, Johns, Miro- mixed in with lesser-known figures like Oskar Fischinger and Rufino Tamayo. There was also a small exhibit of Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein prints, held within a dark space in the middle of the main gallery.
I was ecstatic to see one of my favorite Janet Sobel works right when I entered the door. Sobel is a sadly under-represented Abstract Expressionist who actually experimented with drip painting a few years before Jackson Pollock became famous for it. A Ukrainian immigrant and New York housewife, she began painting in her 40s and was shown at Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery in 1946, where Pollock saw her work and was influenced by its all-over composition. Another favorite was a late-career Magritte painting, which I don’t think I’d ever seen before. Painted shortly before his death, it shows the noted Surrealist returning to his trusty pipe iconography, now faded and hidden behind a lone dark tree. This period saw him often toying with silhouette and leaf imagery, but the bleak landscape and feeling of emptiness here create a darker tone than in many of his more famous, playful works.
The small Post-Impressionist gallery also sported some artists I didn’t know well, including Kees van Dongen and Marie Laurencin. A Dutch painter associated with the Fauvist and German Expressionist movement, van Dongen was known for his garish colors and portraits of high society women. French-born Laurencin was one of the few women associated with the Cubist movement, and sought to blend a specifically female sensibility with Picasso and Braque’s notions of abstraction. I was quite struck by her small painting on display at SDMA, something about those large dark eyes and slight turn of the lip made me want to look closer at the girl’s face and try to figure her out. Laurencin displays a wonderfully light touch with a blocky approach to coloring that shows her Cubist foundation.
The pre-twentieth-century paintings are found in wood-floored rooms decked out in warm tones. Admittedly, left to my own devices I tend to always favor modern and contemporary galleries, so it was nice to be pulled into the Baroque and early Renaissance rooms by my mom. Two paintings in their collection had actually been saved by the Monuments Men, and since at the time the film had just come out, there was a special attention paid to them. We were taken with both of them: the Madonna of the Roses, with its lively floral background, as well as Batoni’s 1758 portrait of Cardinal Etienne-René Potier de Gesvres, with its realistic depiction of mind-blowingly intricate lacework. Most of the works and artists in these areas would be considered “minor,” but honestly the talent on display was nothing to scoff at. I loved the little Frans Hals portrait, and Sofonisba Anguissola’s child courtier decked out in green silks. Hieronymus Bosch’s The Arrest of Christ is a marvel of smooth colors and exaggerated facial expressions, I got more out of it the more I looked at it. There was also a number of wonderfully-preserved Giotto pieces on view, including this golden fragment of God the Father, once the top tier of an altarpiece in Florence.
Pompeo Girolamo Batoni: Cardinal Etienne-René Potier de Gesvres, 1758. via UT San Diego
Pseudo Pier Francesco Fiorentino: Madonna of the Roses, ca. 1485-90. via Wikimedia Commons
Frans Hals: Portrait of Isaac Abrahamsz. Massa, ca. 1635.
Sofonisba Aguissola: Portrait of a Boy at the Spanish Court, ca. 1565-70.
Hieronymus Bosch: The Arrest of Christ, 1515.
Giotto: God the Father with Angels, ca. 1330. via Wikimedia Commons
All in all I enjoyed my visit to the San Diego Museum of Art very much. It’s a bit smaller than I expected but the quality of works on view is strong, and I was so happy to see a number of artists I didn’t know, many not found in the regular “canon.” It’s a great place to discover (or re-discover) lesser-known artists, and it’s the perfect size for a long afternoon of artistic exploration. I really liked their main exhibit, Women, War, and Industry, but I wasn’t able to take photos and it has since closed, so I won’t talk much about it. I found a few new-to-me artists in that show, too, though, so hopefully I’ll do some spotlights on their work in the future.