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Online art experiences

With Google Arts & Culture and various reading resources, there's a world of ways to stimulate our minds

By Philip Kennicott | May 28, 2020 | Design

I miss the world dearly, going to exhibitions and concerts, seeing friends and interrupting my productive hours with unnecessary visits to overpriced cafes crammed with supercilious hipsters. But when this all began, it seemed to me that if one must make sense of the world without leaving the confines of the home, then it's best to look for things - media, art, entertainment- that are fundamentally adapted to cruising the universe from your armchair.

I want stuff that has not been made in response to the pandemic, that would exist if we weren't all in the same boat. Or things I know I won't have time for once the real world begins to make its usual demands once again. I want to use my brain in ways that it didn't ordinarily get exercised in the pre-pandemic world, things that I know I probably won't have the time or patience for once this all gets back to some kind of normal. 

- Google Arts and Culture

Before the pandemic shut down, I almost never visited the vast trove compiled by Google's Arts and Culture platform. I wrote about it when the online partnership with major museums was announced in 2011 and then never paid it a second thought. Today, I find myself slinking back and enjoying parts of it thoroughly. The curated high-resolution images allow you to do things you might be chastised for doing in an art gallery: Monopolize a particular painting, and stick your nose right up to its surface. 

It lets you see what is called "facture," the particular surface quality and characteristic brushwork of a painted surface. It also lets you pursue the work of particular artists, rummaging through the collections of museums across the world. Joachim Patinir, a Flemish artist who died in 1524, is a favorite of mine, an artist for whom I am always searching, who I rarely expect to find, and whose work always delights me when I do. Here's a painting of the Rest During the Flight into Egypt, which may be by Patinir, from the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Buenos Aires. Like other paintings confidently attributed to the artist, it is full of detailed landscape, and figures who seemed almost engulfed by it. 

The site can also be used didactically. A lot of art we encounter, especially when visiting archaeological sites or trying to decipher cultural objects remote from our own experience, overwhelms with its complexity. Often, especially if you are a tourist, you think: I wish I had studied up on this. Or: I need to figure this out when I get back home. The Arts and Culture platform is a good tool for that. I've enjoyed looking at carved biomorphic forms from the British Museum's Mayan collection, available in 3-D such that you can spin them on the screen, and see them from above and all sides. The museum's "Untangling Maya Glyphs" walks the viewer slide by slide through the basic construction of Mayan inscriptions. It won't get you anywhere near the point of being able to read them, but it will help your eyes get their bearings when encountering them in a museum, or better, in the field.

The model room at Sir John Sloane's Museum in London. Image: Tom Ryley

- Sir John Soane's Museum Virtual Tour

At what point in life do you start returning to things you saw and loved years ago, when there is still so much to be seen? The pandemic makes that an easy question: Now. So, I've happily revisited Sir John Soane's Museum in London via the museum's excellent interactive virtual tour. 

I first visited this wonderfully crazy, cobbled-together collection of houses 30 years ago, and since then, the museum has made changes, including the restoration of the map room. Architecturally, Soane's museum is marvel, a dizzying array of spaces hidden behind a sober facade, all of it stuffed with art and antiquities and other treasures. The virtual tour is still a work in progress, but it includes rich visual access to the model room and the sepulchral chamber, and moves you through the strange, Piranesi-like spaces in a way that actually gives a better sense of their architectural relation than seeing them in the flesh.

- Poetry Foundation website

In 2003, the organization that published Poetry Magazine received a gift of some $200 million, which enabled it to grow and reach a far wider audience. The Poetry Foundation website is now an inexhaustibly rich trove of poems, classic and contemporary, criticism and analysis. I used to use it as a resource, to check a text or search for things I've forgotten. 

Now I use it as part of the daily regimen, surfing for a few minutes every morning to find something that will delight me. As the owner of a dog who hates music, I recommend James Merrill's "The Victor Dog," an ode to the little dog who spins forever on the old RCA recording label (RCA was earlier known as the Victor Talking Machine Company).

- The Big Read: Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Among the more interesting experiments with poetry is an online, all-star reading of Samuel Colerdige's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," commissioned by the Arts Institute of the University of Plymouth. The masterfully produced reading is divided into more than three dozen short sections, with voicings by Jeremy Irons, Rupert Everett, Hilary Mantel, Neil Tennant, Marianne Faithful and others.

The readings include a text of the poem, a sidebar analysis, and streaming art work. It's a wonderfully mixed bag, but the whole is greater than the parts, and in the end, it's Coleridge who is the star here. This is a poem meant to be heard, not pored over on the page. Also available on YouTube. 

- The Novels of Thornton Wilder Audiobooks

If you enjoy being read to, then consider a new audiobook series of the novels of Thornton Wilder. The playwright was also an exceptionally fine and nuanced novelist, and his family has partnered with HarperCollins to release his novels as a recording, some of them for the first time in that format. The ones I've spent time with are well done and engaging, and will make your ears sharper. 

Wilder published seven novels and won the Pulitzer Prize for "The Bridge of San Luis Rey." I am particularly drawn to his later novels, including the "Ides of March," a complex historical fiction about Julius Caesar, structured as a series of documents, including letters and journal entries. Wilder had an astute understanding of the ancient world, but his Caesar is a canny, contemporary figure, a wily and brilliant man locked in a brutal and superstitious age.

- Anthony Trollope

Frankly, however, I spend inordinate amounts of time scanning Twitter, reading listlessly through half-thoughts and decontextualized observations until I hate myself, a loathing which expands quickly to an encompassing misanthropy. When I can't take it anymore, when it seems life itself is being sucked into a virtual sinkhole of trivia, then I stop, put away the phone and ... read Trollope. 

Anthony Trollope is the opposite of Twitter, a medium that fractures life into disconnected particulate matter. Trollope, a contemporary of Dickens but a far more keen psychologist, wrote sprawling, interconnected novels about English life in the 19th century. Like Balzac, he kept expanding his canvas, adding detail to it, straining to capture an entire social system in recurring characters, often telling the same story over and over again, but dressed in new and intriguing ways. 

Well into these months of plague, I reached an overwhelmingly moving chapter in "Framley Parsonage," the fourth in his six-volume Chronicles of Barsetshire, set in and around a fictional cathedral town. It concerns a young woman named Lucy, who is considered "insignificant" by the social matrons of her day but who is loved by and in love with an eligible young Lord. In chapter 36, Lucy arrives at the home of a priggish parson, whose wife is desperately ill with typhoid. She takes charge of the situation, rescues his children from the threat of infection, ministers to his wife and shuts down his ridiculous objections to receiving assistance. The men around her watch in amazement as she does what they are incapable or unwilling to do. 

It is one of the great scenes in fiction, and one of many such in the work of Trollope, who was extraordinarily prolific. Much of his vast oeuvre is available online free. If we don't have a vaccine in a year, or five years, there will still be plenty of Trollope to be read. And that is strangely comforting. 

This article was originally published on The Washington Post

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