Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Houston Part II: The Quickie Artsy Tour

On Sunday morning before we left on our flight home, our wonderful friend, Rich (the one who took us to Goode Co. BBQ), gave us a quick tour of some of Houston's must-see sights.  We started by heading to the bayou for a view of the skyline and the sculptures in the surrounding park.

{"bayou" should always be said with a southern accent}

{emo statues lining the park and running trail}

And then we headed to the museum district to see the beautiful collection and chapels endowed by the De Menil family.  The area was so green and the streets were lined with the most charming bungalows.  If I ever live in Houston, it will be right here!  

As we were walking, I noticed this constant buzzing sound that reminded me of the noise the electric trolley lines make in San Francisco.  I kept looking for a trolley car, but it turns out it was just the buzzing of cicadas...can't take the California out of the girl...

The Menil Collection is one of the best examples of a private endowment truly being used for the benefit of a community.  The museum is completely free to the public, and is surrounded by a grassy park and giant outdoor sculptures.  Even the architecture of the building considers and complements the neighboring bungalows.  Who wouldn't want this place in their neighborhood?

{ (unfortunately, no photography was allowed inside the museum, or either of the chapels, so I can only show you what I could get from the outside}

The history of the de Menil family is also pretty interesting.  John de Menil was a banker in France who married Dominique Schlumberger, the heiress of the Schlumberger Ltd. oil services corporation fortune.  The couple moved to Houston from France during WWII, and started collecting cubist and surrealist art.  They eventually expanded their collection to include a large selection of native artwork from Africa, the Pacific Islands, and the Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest.  It's really an eclectic and unique collection, spanning the entire spectrum from oils of the Old Masters to a huge painted "dance curtain" from a native tribe in West Vancouver Island.  I wish I could invite the de Menil's over for dinner and pick their brains about the why they collected what they did.

The second stop on our quickie art tour was the Rothko Chapel, also free of charge, and meant to be a non-denominational place of meditation for the community.  There's a bench in the entryway with a multitude of religious texts from every religion you could think of for visitors to borrow.  The inside is striking, though expected if you know Rothko's style.  Large canvasses hang on tall cement walls displaying Rothko's signature color blocks, and light streams in from a partial sky-light built into the ceiling.  There are simple, low benches to sit on, and prayer pillows to use.  It's somber but welcoming; it's what I never knew I imagined a meditation room to be.

{outside the Rothko Chapel}

And finally, my favorite sight in Houston, and my favorite chapel of all time: the Byzantine Fresco Chapel.  The chapel was built in the 1990s to house frescoes rescued from thieves who had stolen them from a small votive chapel in Cyprus.  The de Menils made a deal with the Church of Cyprus where they agreed to pay the thieves their ransom price to acquire the frescoes and place them here in Houston, but official ownership of the frescoes would remain with the Church.  The chapel was designed and built by Francois de Menil, the son of Dominique and John.  (I wished so badly that I could photograph the inside of this place, and the photos on the de Menil website don't do it justice, but they will have to suffice.)

The outside of the chapel is a streamlined cement building with stone and wood touches -- my kind of chapel.

The inside of the chapel is even more surprising, and in the best possible way.  It is all contained in one room with a black suspended ceiling, four walls of concrete, and natural light streaming in from all sides.  The usual heavy stone arches you see in traditional churches are replaced with arches of opaque glass suspended from black metal rods, but the original proportions and relationships are maintained.  

{via the Menil Collection official website}

As you look up into the simple, modern dome, you see the 13th-century fresco of Christ Pantokrator, and at the front of the glass altar is another fresco of the Virgin Mary with the archangels, Gabriel and Michael.  It is the ultimate juxtaposition of old and new, traditional and modern, East and West.  Absolutely exquisite.

{via the Menil Collection official website}

Houston, it was a pleasure.

{picture composition and execution compliments of the fabulous Rich}

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's a pleasure to travel vicariously with you, Ashley, and learn about places I never heard about.