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December 1, 2003

An arsenal of art at the Atheneum

By Joe Keo and Katie Jordan

Imagine a place where a sculpture is carved from human bones, ghosts peer out of paintings, and unseen people watch every move you make.

It may sound spooky, but it really isnít.

The Wadsworth Atheneum, a well-known art museum in Hartford , has all that and more.

It sounds like a nerdy place to hang out. You may think any place called an Atheneum ó a center of knowledge, named for the Greek goddess Athena ó is only fit for a boring field trip.

Here, again, you havenít got the whole story.

The Wadsworth is worth a visit, and itís far from boring.

Step through the revolving doors and breathe in the scent of art. There isnít actually a distinctodor to art. Itís really the smell of paint, chemicals, canvas, and the fancy perfumes worn by the museumís many employees.

Stop still in your tracks, take a look around, and take in the spaciousness of this renowned arsenal of art.

The Wadsworth experience begins with your first steps inside its walls.

The Wadsworth is home to many famous pieces of art and includes works from all over the world. Visitors can see Pablo Picassoís cubism, French impressionism, Renaissance masterpieces and modern and contemporary work. Theyíve got Alexander Calderís wild sculptures and even an Egyptian mummy.

Many of the works are elegant and masterfully created. Others stir the imagination and causeyou to scratch your head.

Thereís a sculpture of miniature furniture, each piece only centimeters tall. They stand piled one on top of another in a glass case. It seems rather bland ó until the docent reveals that each piece is made of human bones that theartist bought off the black market.

The fun doesnít end there.

Eerie ghost faces gaze at bypassing visitors from within several paintings. These arenít stereotypical spirits, but rather artistsí mistakes ó images that were painted over, but havebecome dimly visible over time.

Donít monkey around or lean against any of the exhibits or sculptures, because the observant unseen people are watching constantly, making sure you donít touch or damage anything.

Theyíre security guards, and the Wadsworth Atheneum needs a lot of them, with all the famous and valuable art pieces in its collection.

Although you may not recognize all of the paintings at the Wadsworth , there will be some familiar faces peeking out from frames.

Vincent Van Goghís famous self-portrait looks out from one wall, his signature brushstrokes in varying shades of reds and blues. He resides humbly in a corner, with no presumptuous or showy display.

Near Van Gogh hangs Nympheas, Water Lilies, the peaceful painting of water lilies floating on a reflective pool. Anyone can see why this beautiful piece by Claude Monet is so beloved.

One of the most famous works in the Wadsworth is The Ecstasy of Saint Francis,painted by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. In it, the saint lies in the darkness with his eyes on a radiant, beautiful angel.

The Lady of Shallot, painted by Holman Hunt, stands horrified by her broken mirror, grieving over Sir Lancelot.

Massive battle paintings in a great red hall portray famous generals from the American Revolution, many done by renowned Connecticut painter John Trumbull.

The Wadsworth offers some pretty offbeat attractions, too.

If conceptualism and contemporary art is your cup of tea, the Atheneum has what youíre looking for, with three-dimensional pop-out paintings and splatters of paint on canvas.

At the Wadsworth , art lovers can observe a piece and try to interpret the artistís meaning.

Whether it is an original Alexander Calder sculpture or someoneís umbrella leaned against a wall, everything inside the walls of the museum is art.

But once you kick that crumpled paper bag outside the Wadsworth ís doors, art becomes nothing but mere street litter.

The Atheneumís array of contemporary art allows visitors to have fun, expand their imaginations and step out of the box for a few hours.

Visitors will be scratching their heads while looking at Salvador Daliís surrealistic pieces or just admiring the walls of Sol LeWittís ingenious creations. Given the intense scratching involved with some of the works, itís unbelievable no one has ever become bald.

The Wadsworth Atheneum is also a treasure chest of pure American art. Artists such as Andy Warhol , Georgia OíKeeffe and Norman Rockwell bring energy, beauty and humor to the world.

Rockwellís Girl with Shiner portrays an all-American experience ó a girl outside a principalís office with a black eye.

The museum pleases the homegrown American art taste along with the international.

If wandering on your own gets you lost, the docents, or guides, are very helpful. Knowledgeable guides point out quirks and interesting stories about paintings and their artists.

When your art cravings are nearly satisfied, step through the revolving glass doors and back onto Hartford ís busy streets. Alongside the graffiti, street signs and billboards, the Wadsworth even offers art outdoors.

Be careful and donít walk into the path of the red-orange stegosaurus. Donít worry ó dinosaurs are extinct, but Calder resurrected Stegosaurus out of tall steel frames and rafters.

Not far from Stegosaurus is a large rusty steel girder. It looks like a neglected city repair project, but in reality itís Untitled by Robert Morris, a work of art.

Enter the Wadsworth with an appetite for art, sample its visual smorgasboard and youíll leave pleasantly stuffed.

Click here for The Tattoo's all-art issue



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