The Museum opened in its new home in 2003. The special exhibition, when we visited it, was William Dunlap’s “Panorama of the American Landscape,” a fourteen-paneled work. Half of it depicted a snow-covered landscape in which a row of deer heads continued into infinity. According to the curatorial note, the deer heads stand for the human casualties at the Battle of Antietem during the Civil War. The other seven panels of the panorama were verdant, with two horse-riding hunters in the background, and a troop of hunting dogs occupying much of the foreground.
The juxtaposition of an upper class sport and a terrible battle was strongly dissonant, and made me unsure how to read the painting. The hunters didn’t seem to be responsible in the painting for the harvest of deer. They were figures of grace and civilization, whose elegant houses dotted the green landscape unobstrusively. The dogs were painted with loving detail that ennobled them without anthropomorphizing them. In an exhibition note, Dunlap claimed that that particular breed of dogs were the finest huntera, a claim borne out by his own hunting experience.
If the relationship between hunters and deer was not one of simplistic cause-and-effect, perhaps it was one of ambiguity. Ambiguity was a more generous reading of the painting than the alternative: a propagandistic nostalgia for the past. The work bore little resemblance to present-day America, North or South, though it was painted in the 1980s as the American landscape. In another painting, completed soon after the panorama, the same dogs appeared in the foreground. A palladian-styled mansion, a Jefferson’s Monticello look-alike, presided on a high ground over a viewshed spoiled by the smoke from factory stacks. Olympian Republican virtue, informed by classical Greek civilization, faced off with crass modernization. A familiar ideology but one I was surprised to find represented so baldly in this painting, and so ambitiously in the “Panorama.”
Other galleries gave more pleasure. I was happy to encounter George Dureau. I felt quite sure I have seen his “Scandal at the Forge of Vulcan Café” in a book before seeing the original here. One gallery was devoted to his drawings. The male nudes, in the heroic mode, were mostly muscular black men. A self-portrait, with him holding his camera, was hung together with one of Robert Mapplethorpe holding the same camera. The most finished drawing was “George with Some of His Closest Friends,” depicting the four men as centaurs trotting side by side, George leading the pack, the others’ heads turned towards him. The centaur is a familiar trope but the verticals of legs in the lower part of the painting gave the painting its interest.
Besides Dureau, I also enjoyed Will Henry Stevens’ paintings of ships on the Mississippi. The visual language was borrowed from late Cezanne but the paintings showed convincingly how it applied to ships and rivers as much as to mountains and quarries.
I thought the museum lacked depth in its attempt to be comprehensive. Not only did the paintings range over various genres, media and periods, the collection also included many other art works such as quilts, sculpture, pottery and glassware and, moreover, tried to represent each Southern state. All this in three small floors of exhibition space. This meant that, besides the lack of depth, things got stuffed into corners. The glassware, for example, appeared in one display cabinet along a side corridor. I think the Ogden is worth a visit, if only to find out which Southern artist is getting canonized, and perhaps why.