Museums

Micro Surprise and the Young Hare

For the past academic year I have driven weekly through the famous Boston rush hour, closing in eventually on a small classroom near the border with New Hamphire, to teach a roomful of teens a survey of art history.

We began back in the sunny fall, delving into the depths of cave art; traveled through Mesopotamia and the halls of the British Museum, vicariously taking in wall reliefs, massive bull spirits, minuscule cuneiform; and emerged via Egypt into the sun of Greece and Italy.

Things took a rather wintry turn as we roamed medieval Europe, and we barely escaped the Renaissance as the depths of snow and New England ice clawed at our timetable and frequently cancelled our gatherings. 

Somehow we seemed to specialize in auctions, art theft, and the history of museums themselves. We managed to journey through the actual halls of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the riveting beauty of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, whose inner Venetian courtyard provides such lush beauty in the depths of winter. And whose notorious art heist we were compelled to study. Some of us also took in the details of iconography in a Russian museum to that sole subject in the center of Massachusetts. 

Of course, so much more remained to be seen, studied, known. The large ideas, I love. The administration of a class, I do not. However, I did (I hope) impart a love of art. 

As we draw our studies to a conclusion, I am bringing in prints for each student of Dürer's lovely 1502 watercolor, Young Hare. (Also Bruegal's Hunters in the Snow, in reluctant deference to our seemingly continuous winter).

Albrecht Dürer - Hare, 1502 

Micro Surprise!

We perhaps hope for too much and give up too soon, wishing for miracles when the delight of daily noticing is at our feet. 

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not Eureka! (I found it!) but rather, ‘hmm ... that’s funny.’
— Isaac Asimov

John Muir Laws says that he is always on the lookout for the sensation of micro surprise. Rather than wait for a eureka moment, as a scientist he pursues the questions that follow a slight surprise. And that often leads to all sorts of learning and discovery, whether drawing nature as he does, or while teaching any subject.

So it was with each art history class that I asked questions and experienced one micro surprise after another. 

This week I learned one reality of watercolor and conservation.

Researching Dürer and Bruegal, I was surprised to discover that Dürer's 1502 Young Hare, despite being the most prized possession of the museum where it's housed, is only on public display every ten years. And then for an appearance of mere weeks. 

Reporter Kimberly Bradley states, "After a maximum of three months, Young Hare needs five years in dark storage with a humidity level of less than 50% for the paper to adequately rest. It was on view briefly in 2014 after a break of ten years ..."

What a privilege it would be to visit the Albertina Museum in Vienna when Young Hare and it's companion paintings are next available in person. 

Novelist Mark Brownlow responded, when I mentioned my surprise on Twitter:

Was lucky enough to see Dürer's hare. They had it out for a few hours for Vienna's Night of the Museums. The queue went all the way from the display room, through the Albertina and outside, but they kept us fed with little treats. And the wait was worth it. Next out 2019 I think.

It's interesting how desire to see a work rises with rarity. Now I'm dying to go to Vienna.

Visit the Albertina, Vienna for the brief showing of the masterpiece in 2014

The director of the Albertina describes his surprised thoughts about Young Hare

Indeed, the next available time to view Durer's hare in person is September, 20 2019 until  January 6, 2020.

Art History for All

How about you? Feeling overwhelmed by art history, or a longing to finally learn more? 

May I recommend the sparkling achievement of Khan Academy's online videos and lessons which will shepherd you gently through the many byways of the subject. Also the incomparable readability of Ernst Gombrich's, The Story of Art.

With those two resources you can go a long way towards remedying any lack you feel in your former art history education.

There is always more to learn.

Khan Academy

The Albertina videos above are unrelated to Khan Academy but you will also find an abundance of surprises in the many videos at Khan Academy's website.

This free, work-at-your-own-pace treasure trove of classes was originally developed to help tutor students with math. The site's success spilled over to include the humanities. In this expansion, they adopted the resources and materials developed by SmartHistory to bring the gamut of art history to anyone who wants to learn. 

You can open your own (free) account and keep track of your progress, earning points for each video and section completed. Or you can just enjoy.

Two professors, Beth Harris and Steven Zucker, who never appear in person but dialog in a chatty but relevant way, visit a work of art and discuss it in surprising depth, as they reveal the mysteries of everything from Assyrian lion hunt wall reliefs to the realities of oil paint versus tempera. They are friendly and inviting and my class enjoyed their back-and-forth banter. Essays with further links are sandwiched between or lead up to each video topic.

Enjoy. As my high school class concludes, I know I will still be ever on the lookout for those small daily micro surprises that lead to more.

So my question now is, Is there any other such revered artwork as Young Hare that is seen only once a decade or so? I guess that's my next rabbit trail.