Short Foray Away: SAM, Intimate Impressionism and the Taste Café…

PLUS…Frank Kunisgihe photos at the Seattle Public Library Central Branch.


Red Plums by Pierre Bonnard in the Intimate Impressionism Exhibit at SAM

But for the off-the-beaten-track, small, and obscure photo show we saw at The Seattle Public Library Central Branch (and, contrary to popular opinion regarding the rest) this was not my favorite short foray away. Realizing that my three star experience may be a five star one for you, I am reporting my latest downtown Seattle adventure. The Intimate Impressionism exhibit runs until January 10th with extended hours through the holidays. Almost everyone I have spoken to loves this exhibit, The Seattle Art Museum (SAM) and the Taste Café. This was not the case for me or my high school friend, an artist herself.

The little photo exhibit at the Seattle Public Library of Seattle photographer Frank Kunishige and all the surprising information it revealed about pictorialist photography, the early 1900’s photography and photographers in Seattle was a gem and made the trip worthwhile for us! Unfortunately, this exhibit has been taken down as of the 15th. But: You can access this collection, learn about pictorialism, other photographers and photos like Kunishige’s online. I will share with you some great links for you to explore later in this post.

I took the bus downtown (METRO bus schedules) – at 10:30am, $2.50 one way for off-peak hours and a quick way to go to and from my neighborhood to town. Leave the parking hassles behind. But, fyi…there is a new service called Luxe that will let you drop your car off downtown at a pre-arranged spot, park your car for you and have it back where you request for pick up. For all day parking at $15 it could be a service you want to explore!

It was a short walk to SAM from the bus stop. My friend Barb had purchased tickets online ($5 off the regular price for $20 each…if you go you should, too). We went to will call, checked our coats and bags. I kept my camera as picture taking is allowed unless the art is marked no photos. This exhibit allowed photos. We headed to the fourth floor and the much talked about Intimate Impressionism exhibit.

These 68 small scale paintings are on special loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC due to a remodel there. Andrew Mellon was the benefactor of that great museum and these paintings were collected by his children Paul and Alisa during their lives.

There are crowds and lots of school children attending the show so expect it to be noisy and lively in the galleries. There are also lots of docents leading them around to eavesdrop on as they explain to the students what is to be noticed and notable about the various paintings.

We began by watching the introductory film of the exhibit. I recommend you do this…but do it when there is not a large crowd around or you will not be able to hear the narration. This is where groups and docents seem to meet up and where the information booth is located. I inquired if the film could be turned up and the answer was no. This 16 minute video gives you an interesting history of the Mellon family and this exhibit.

Alisa, Paul and father Andrew Mellon.

These works are surprisingly small because they were hung in the homes of the Mellons before being donated. Many are studies, simple subjects or portraits. The literature says of this collection: “…the paintings…are more personal and intimate in scale…they were meant to be hung in domestic interiors…enjoyed at close proximity. Many depict friends, or favorite views, or an artist’s home, studio or garden.” This may be one reason they did not translate well in a gallery setting for us. They do show elements of the painters’ styles and this period. There are really no famous, standout examples of impressionism and the artists of this period. Also included are post-impressionist artists.

They are glimpses mostly of these two French movements and the artists most notable in them with no more than three or four (and mostly only one or two) little, lesser works of each artist: Monet, Manet, Pissarro, Degas, Morisot (the only female), Renoir…to name a few. SAM has one painting of most of the artists shown on the wall adjacent to this gallery in its permanent collection. They are of similar stature as those represented in this showing.

Pierre Bonnard‘s “Red Plums” (above), Vincent Van Gogh‘s “Tulip Fields” and Georges Seurat‘s two very tiny pointillist paintings were my favorites. The idea that many of these artists were dismissed because of their new painting style and, as a response to that, started small salons to show and sell their works is intriguing. That many painted outdoors (en plein air) and together is also wonderful to imagine. But in my opinion these particular paintings do not require much lingering over. For other points of view on this show The Seattle Times review and Herald Net offer their insights. How a painting of a mound of butter gets so much attention perplexes me. You can download the free audio guide to your mobile device when in the exhibit. Or, listen here for some of it.

We took a quick tour of some of the other galleries and quite honestly the space and collections do not thrill. There must be a reason that all the noses of the Roman busts are missing! But, I could not find any explanation. We had wandered about two hours. We agreed it was time for lunch.

The Taste Café located in the Museum recommends you get reservations which is kind of a pain if you are in a spontaneous mood for an art/lunch date. Luckily, we did get seated right away (without having one) at a table by the entrance…again a noisy spot. The café is not warm and cozy. And, given its many windows on this typical Seattle dreary, dark, rainy day it was in need of that. The menu is alright and a bit pricey. We had a side salad, a “Louie Louie” shrimp salad (with a very good deviled egg on the side) and split a Rueben.

The salads were fresh if not standouts in presentation and creativity. The Rueben was smallish and lacked good sauerkraut and enough of it to make it a standout sandwich. The black pepper potato chips were very good. We did not order from the drink menu. The price of just over $45 dollars with tip was too high for such fare. Museum cafés are usually good spots to get good food and a rest after a couple hours of taking in art in my experience. Sadly, this was not the case here. I had high hopes!

Our next foray was to the Seattle Public Library to view a small photo exhibit in the 8th floor art gallery. You can try getting from SAM to the library using POPS – Publically Owned Private Spaces. Inside escalators make the hill climb a bit easier and small corridors with piano music or view spots with public art are interesting. Navigation is somewhat hard though.

The library rotates shows in this little gallery space. This one was particularly interesting as I had not heard of the early 1900s, mostly immigrant Japanese-American photographers working in Seattle belonging to The Seattle Camera Club who were striving to imitate art, using traditional “art” subjects like nudes, still life groupings and landscapes in photos with the intention that they look like a painting that evoked feeling. I found it fascinating.

The photos were on delicate paper, an invention of Kunishige. The SPL site says: “He developed his photographs on ‘textura tissue”, a paper of his own creation, which allowed him to produce luminous prints.” The explanations of the movement were intriguing and enlightening. The Smith Tower photo and the landscapes were my favorites. There were also books on display that advertised the camera club and showed publications of other photos by Kunishige. Many of the artists were later interred in Idaho during WWII.

Three of the Kunishige photos.

This exhibit came down the 15th of December but there are some interesting links to help you see and learn of this photography. The SPL has a site that shows Kunishige works, more than were in the gallery. The University of Washington also has an interesting site on pictorialism and the Seattle Camera Club, as well as a review of a book on the subject, Shadows of a Fleeting World. There is also a special TV interview on the topic.

The Final Word: This ticket was not worth the experience. SAM is not one of my favorite art museums, which makes me sad because it is in my hometown! It is not a vibrant space nor does it attract the most vibrant and best art or curations in my opinion. You can always apply the amount of your ticket to special exhibitions toward a year-long membership…for some that might be a good idea. This has never made sense for me since in the course of a usual year there is little I want to see at SAM as past experience has taught me.

A common criticism of this particular exhibit is how noisy and busy the galleries are with school children. Like I mentioned before, for me this is an opportunity to listen to docents and watch the younger generation learn about art. Many just find it annoying. If you are looking for great impressionism works they are not here. The pieces are small and rather insignificant with hints of the artist’s style in off-beat subjects for the most part.

The Taste Café is expensive, noisy and not worth it. Look elsewhere for another special place to dine if you are downtown.

Frankly, the Seattle Public Library Central Branch is another space I do not love. It is hard to navigate. It is cold and hard on the inside and there is no snuggling up in a chair with a book. It has a good collection. It is a busy place offering lots of free computers to the public. It is known for the homeless finding a resting place and that is bothersome to some patrons. There are often good lectures and exhibits. The Seattle Room is full of interesting history for researchers. This display was a real gem despite the less than perfect lighting in the gallery. NOTE: Off the subject but just because I want you to know: this library’s free lending for electronic readers of books (kindle and other formats), audiobooks, and magazines is outstanding. I have used the overdrive app and zinio apps for borrowing books on my iPad for over two years and love it!

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