We have in west-central Florida a remarkable concentration of art museums, each with a unique mission. Most have permanent collections kept on view all the time, but we don't pay much attention to them. We go for the "special" exhibitions that are up for a limited time. (The Salvador Dalí Museum is the exception here, with its permanent collection being the big draw. Then again, few of us locals go to the Dalí at all; at least 90 percent of its visitors come from other parts.) ¶ I'm a big advocate of visiting permanent collections repeatedly over time. We think we know what's there, but I have found that, as often as I go to museums and see the same art, I always find new things to think about, even in the works most familiar to me. And, over time, I have come to love certain works in a personal way. They aren't the greatest in the permanent collections, but they're the ones I want to see again and again. ¶ My choices teach me a lot about myself. I'm drawn to realism. I like stories. I'm fascinated by light and shadow. ¶ I admire many other kinds of artistic expression, too — abstraction can be fabulous! — but that is more an intellectual appreciation. ¶ Today, I'm going to step out of my role as an art critic and tell you about some my favorite artworks in our museums. I won't try to defend any of them; love needs no justification. I encourage you to make a regular date with a permanent collection near you and fall in love, too. Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.
The Basket of Bread Salvador Dalí, 1926, oil on panel
Salvador Dalí was a mere 22 years old when he painted The Basket of Bread. I am charmed by the youthful bravado in this tour de force still life. "The Old Masters have nothing over me!" it practically shouts. But its visual pleasures go deeper. It may not be as great as his later works, but it's the one I'd grab and save during a fire. There are only three things in it, a basket, bread and linens. But how they glow and radiate a powerful life force. It reaches out to me in a palpable way, feeding a hunger beyond the physical.
Gathering at Church Entrance Richard Hall, 1884, oil on canvas
I wrote earlier that I like stories. With a caveat. I don't like sentimental ones, those that bang me over the head with a message, those without subtlety. This painting by Richard Hall teeters on that thematic line. It's an obvious statement about social classes gathered together on a church's steps, also a bit obvious. The wealthy little girl and her mother have their backs to us, but we know they're pretty. The poor mother and her children who face us are expectably careworn. Cue the sad violins. Yet the richness of white against dark that floats through the painting — the lace on a baby's gown, the feathers on a stylish bonnet, the winged headcovering of a nun — trumps my reservations. I love this painting; to heck with its cliches.
Portrait of Bettina Bedwell
Abraham Rattner, 1921, oil on canvas
Bettina Bedwell was a glamorous, beautiful woman, the great love and first wife of artist Abraham Rattner. He painted this portrait in 1921. (She died in 1947.) It shows her slumped unglamorously and looking frail. Why this portrayal? I ask myself every time I see it. I feel as if I'm intruding on a private moment between the two of them. But he wanted to paint this adored woman in a posture and mood perhaps he alone ever saw. Such intimacy, so well communicated and yet so subtle, is deeply affecting to me.
Pomegranate ca. 725 B.C., clay
This humble clay object changed my feelings about antiquities. I had always found them a little boring. All those big vessels in terra cotta and black looked the same to me. And the bits and pieces of stone carvings … don't get me started. But I have a professional duty to appreciate and understand them, which I dutifully did for years. One day, I was wandering again around the antiquities collection at the Tampa Museum of Art, which, by the way, is considered very fine by people who judge such things. Usually I studied one of the kraters, those immense urns, because I felt I should. Walking around, I noticed this little clay thing that looked like a top. Its label informed me it was a pomegranate, probably found in a child's tomb. I had a mental image of a grieving parent burying a little boy or girl, maybe a baby. It reminded me that antiquities were rarely created as art; they were things people used and touched in their homes, wore on their bodies. Loved. They have become art mostly because a few of them survived through the centuries. I think: Will my beat-up colander be unearthed someday amid nuclear rubble and declared a rich and wondrous find? It won't hold my personal story anymore but instead suggest more broadly how we all lived. Just like the pomegranate.
Robert Henri, 1909, oil on canvas
So many European Old Masters are in the collection at the John and Mable Ringling Museum. And I love so many of them. But the painting that stops me dead in my tracks every time is this one, Salome, by American artist Robert Henri from 1909. I love its contrast of light and dark. I love the way Henri curves her body so she looks as if she's really dancing. I love getting up really close to it and seeing how the artist creates the illusion of glittering sequins, filmy chiffon and realistic skin tones. I love this woman (wicked though she was, according to stories) and her confidence, even when she's semi-naked for all to see. I could give you some art-speak validation for why it's so compelling: Henri borrowed composition ideas from Diego Velazquez and brushwork from Frans Hals, and let's not forget the light-dark thing from that genius of it, Caravaggio. All true. But in the end, the work belongs to Henri. Through many decades, I have never tired of studying it.