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ESSAY: Peeking interests at the art museum

  • May 19, 2013 - 12:45 AM

A teacher was herding a group of school kids through a gallery at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts recently when she spotted a marble statue of three nude nymphs dancing on a pedestal. Instinctively, she veered toward a large wildlife painting.

"Look at the pretty deer," she said.

But a small girl at the front yelled what the rest of them were thinking: "Naked people!"

The moment quickly brought me back to my childhood, when I frequently walked the block from my home to the MIA, which in turn took me to the far corners of the world and my imagination. That's why the museum remains one of my favorite places to spend time.

As a kid living in the inner city, I was entranced by the wide steps leading up to soaring columns of the building and the exotic, mysterious things I found inside. In a single afternoon I could be transported to the Middle Ages by the suits of armor and swords, or dream about someday going to Paris after seeing Gustave Caillebotte's impressionist painting of people walking its streets in the rain.

Gazing at the painting "The Fanatics of Tangier," I would construct elaborate plots about the people running down the street with their hands in the air. I'm sure that painting, and another of Middle Eastern rug merchants, fueled my curiosity to visit Morocco and Istanbul later in life.

Another riveting work, "Destruction of the Beast and False Prophet," in which a man on a white horse battles demons and monsters, haunted my dreams and fueled my imagination for years, as did the bronze of a man clubbing a centaur senseless. Then there were the portraits of those creepy man-childs, little boys in weird clothes who looked way too much like my uncle.

The museum introduced me to revelations that people in Europe wore funny hats, painted a lot of tasty looking food and occasionally chopped each other's heads off.

Cool.

I went to the museum so I could throw pennies in the fountain, visit China through a giant hunk of carved jade and, yes, see naked people.

I clearly remember a class visit to the museum with one of my school nuns, who crossly admonished us when we snickered at the hands-down attention-getter for the boys -- Caillebotte's "Nude on a Couch." The work was so anatomically accurate it was not allowed to be shown during his lifetime.

"Move along, boys," said the nun, "you shouldn't be looking at that."

But of course we did, and always will.

By Jon Tevlin

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