When I visited Texas a little while ago, one thing I didn’t expect to encounter a lot of was highbrow culture. Indeed, during my first few days there, my expectations of encountering such a thing got lower still as I noticed certain details about the place. Details such as a Texan fondness for car-window stickers saying WE DON’T DIAL 911, WE USE COLT 45. Or the rolls of novelty toilet paper on sale in Texan souvenir stores that had Barack Obama’s face on them. Or the hulking roadside signs bearing the message THINK GOD in stark black letters. All these suggested I wasn’t in a part of the North American land mass much given to Manhattan-style cosmopolitanism and culture-vulture posing.
However, after another couple of days, I realised I’d been wrong. There is culture to be found in the USA’s biggest state and it isn’t just the culture you find festering on a half-eaten and month-old Big Mac. At least, there’s culture to be found in the Texan city I was staying in, San Antonio.
Here are my thoughts on three of the art museums I discovered in San Antonio which taught me not to jump the gun in drawing conclusions about people and how highbrow or lowbrow they are. (That said, ‘jump the gun’ does sound like an appropriate Texan expression.)
Sandwiched between the River Walk and West Market Street in central San Antonio, the Briscoe Western Art Museum is the type of cultural institution you’d expect to find in Texas. Its mission, to quote its website, is “celebrating the art, heritage and history of the American West”. Hence you get to see such items as a painted wood, steel and leather chuck wagon that would dispense ‘hot coffee, beans and biscuits’ to tired and hungry cowboys out on their rounds; a monstrous-looking beartrap collected by “J. Frank Doble, among the West’s finest writers and historians”; a 1950s / 1960s prairie windmill for pumping water up out of subterranean aquifers; and a collection of more than a hundred cowboy spurs from the 18th to 20th centuries. Seemingly hovering in mid-air behind sheets of display-case glass, those spurs resemble a moored fleet of steampunk submarines, powered by star-shaped paddles at their sterns.
There’s also a diorama of 1836’s legendary Alamo siege, which is much better than the one on display in the Alamo itself. And you get to see some American West-themed paintings. I recall being impressed by Terri Kelly’s Contemplación and Oleg Stavrowsky’s And Stay Off – both pictured below.
The final museum-room I visited had some lovely old posters advertising America’s national parks. (Take a bow, John Muir.) They had a pleasing 1930s-ish look to them and I detected a hint of Art Deco too, though maybe it was just me.
The Briscoe’s museum shop, of course, is dedicated to all things Western and cowboy. I thought it was brave of them to have on their bookshelves a few copies of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.
While the Briscoe deals with local culture, the San Antonio Museum of Art, on the River Walk too but out of the downtown area, up by West Jones Avenue and almost at the expressway, is unashamedly internationalist. You should set aside a good couple of hours to do this institution justice for it contains a lot of stuff. SAMA, as it’s called, features everything from 18th and 19th century European paintings to Oceanian spirit masks, from Buddhist statues to samurai armour, from Islamic-world ceramics to Chinese Qing Dynasty vases, from Korean folding screens to Egyptian sarcophagi. I could probably fill this blog from now until next Christmas with information about what I saw there. But I’ll mention a very few of my highlights.
Being Irish, I enjoyed the display of ‘Irish silver’ up on the fourth floor, which featured silver in every culinary form you could think of: corkscrews, wine coolers, cups, funnels, ladles, teapots, jugs, chocolate pots, toast racks, tankards, decanter stands, beakers, ewers, chalices, urns, cruets, sauceboats, butter dishes, fruit bowls, teaspoons and toasting forks.
In the Oceania section, I liked the ‘male ancestor figure’ from Papua New Guinea. Made of wood and shells, he sported a conical head, long nose, vacant expression and large arched member and he stood upon a luckless-looking squatting monkey. Another unhappy monkey was one in the Chinese section kneeling under the weight of a Tang Dynasty ‘spirit guardian’, whose distinctive features included a pig-like snout and chin, a twisting tusk erupting from his cranium and weaving flame-like spikes behind him.
And in the South Asian section there’s a fascinating Buddhist mandala made of marble sand. A mandala, it’s explained “is a cosmic diagram made of concentric circles and squares representing the symbolic home of a deity… used as tools for meditation and in spiritual development.” SAMA is only one of four American museums to contain a mandala, as normally they are taken apart after a few days to symbolise the transience of things: “Permission to preserve this mandala was granted by his Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama as a gesture to promote peace and harmony.”
Alas, I didn’t have time to look at SAMA’s collection of Latin American art, contained in the Nelson A. Rockefeller Centre on the ground floor.
And lastly to my favourite gallery in San Antonio, the McNay Art Musueum, north of the city centre, in Alamo Heights and on North New Braunfels Avenue. The McNay is the oldest institution of its type in Texas, dating back to 1854. Just inside its entrance stand some fun sculptures, such as Seymour Lipton’s Moloch, which resembles a mantrap folded into the shape of a pitbull terrier, or one by David Smith, which resembles a tangled weather vane but is really a representation of Groucho Marx’s face – look closely and you might spot his bowtie, cigar, moustache and glasses. However, the real goodies are the paintings on display further inside.
They include works by Cezanne, Chagall, Matisse, Monet, Picasso, Rousseau and Van Gogh. I particularly liked Edward Hopper’s Corn Hill, 1930, whose explanatory notes include this quote by the artist himself: “Maybe I am not very human. What I wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house”; Paul Gauguin’s Self-Portrait with the Idol, which has lurking in its top right corner the Polynesian goddess Hina, “symbol of happiness, calm and peace”; and Georgia O’Keefe’s From the Plains I, inspired by the summers that the artist spent in the stark landscapes of New Mexico.
There’s also a neat little Medieval and Renaissance Art section, containing more paintings as well as altarpieces, limestone and wooden statues (of Mary Magdalene, St Paul, St Anthony and sundry other saints), stained glass and the inevitable representations of the Madonna and Child. Actually, the atmosphere engendered by those venerable religious artefacts did more to make me ‘think God’ than any giant sign planted by the roadside.