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Magic, Monsters & Masters:
My DMA Dream Tour

Story + Photographs by J R Compton

a rambling photo tour of the Dallas museum in October 2004

Vincent Van Gogh - River Bank in Springtime, 1887 - oil on canvas   Haystacks below.

Dallas Museum of Art PR person Ellen Key recently asked me if there was anything she could do for me. I told her my DMA Dream was to wander through the building taking photographs of whatever struck my fancy.

I knew to accomplish that, someone with full credentials would have to go every step of the way with me, warding off all the art cops, whose task is to stop me from photographing anything.

She said set a date before she retired. We did, and she led me through all the galleries except where they only had art I was not allowed to photograph. It took two hours and 14 minutes, starting on the fourth floor, ending in the grand hallway.


Skin Guardian

Skin Guardian

I told Ellen I was especially interested in art that's magic. And that I collected dragons. This guy (Skin Guardian) fit that category. He's someone who has carefully fitted himself with somebody else's skin, a serious, if symbolic, transformation.

I photographed nearly every step of the way, taking Ellen's guidance not to shoot work by any artist less than 75 years dead or anything on loan, but missing mightily many thereby passed-by opportunities. I didn't realize till later that such exclusions hardly fit my category of dream visit.

The only photo I took that did not meet the official criteria was Georgia O'Keefe's Bare Tree Trunks After Snow, 1946 (The DMA calls it "wintry colors and ghostly emptiness... eerily foreshadowing [her] husband Alfred Stieglitz's death."

I call it nearly completely abstract and almost unrecognizable as anything but.) Dark stalks of rounded gray tree-like trunks and reddish shadows in snow and blue sky beyond — that I just wanted to look at once in awhile, thus qualifying as "personal use." I would also love to share Piet Mondria's two paintings — a dark tree and a gloomy house, that have always been stark in my visual memory from other trips to the mu.


I wish I knew what this was — all those hands out catching spirits
and the feathers attracting them. I'm sure there's a story behind it...

Nail Man

Standing Male Figure with Nails, 19th Century
(Nkisi Nkonde, Mangaaka type)
Yombe subgroup, Kongo peoples, Chiloango River Valley
Democratic Republic of the Congo
wood, iron, raffia, pigment of kaolin and red camwood powder


There were others I missed photographing and talking about, but it's not like we didn't find anything else. What I did capture is a lively and varied bunch — 149 photographs, total. So far, I've winnowed those to 34, although I may add to or subtract from the collection you see before your eyes now.

Except when I was deep in the tech of photography, Ellen and I kept up a fascinating conversation about what she knows (formidable quantity and quality) about these things, and what we both thought about them.

Not so much ongoing critique as letting my mind wander from each image. Art as a starting place, off on lots of fast-paced tangents. Grand fun art walking down through the mu. If I ever do this again, I'll have a tape recorder going. Make writing these words easier, more interesting and more complete to the experience.

I also snapped some architectural interiors. Except for the Van Gough at the top, these photos were originally presented in chronological order, and in the peculiar circular logic of museums, they merged in and out of specific time periods and places, like art does. After several major reconstructions, however, there is no discernable progression of chrons' logic — very like my understanding of art and its history.


Eastman Johnson - Five Boys on a Wall, circa 1875-1880
oil on composition board


I love the shadows, hats, shirts, natural composition and that lilting light — no wonder I was watching for an Edward Hopper I.D long past finding none. It is from Nantuckett. Like the naked boy bathers in Fort Worth's Amon Carter, here is a group of boys hanging out in a nice place with great light.

Frederick Childe Hassamm - Duck Island, 1906 (paintstroke detail)

Here we have a hunk of the coast of New Hampshire: It's the paint strokes that carry me away. I'd give it a 9. I can always dance to a rock concert of polychrome paint.

Egbukele Masquerade Headdress
from the Abua people of the Nigerian Delta
Ca. Mid 20th Century
wood, paint, pigment and fiber
carved from a single piece of wood
with elements attached with nails

More bright polychrome, this time wrapped around a fanciful form from darkest Africa. More magic. If this guy is not a dragon, he's a second cousin. Lotta rhythm here, too. Handles seem to indicate this thing has power, like a James Bond scuba puller, only this machine might be made to go into the underworld. Scare the bejesus outta anything threatening down there, too.



Ibis — Late Period Egyptian (712-332 BC), bronze


Helmet Mask (Kponyungo)
Ivory Coast, Mali or Burkina Faso
Senufo People, 20th Century
wood, glass, animal horns, fiber, cowrie shells and mirrors


Initiation Crown — 18th or 19th Century Tibet
gilt, paint and leather

Initially, I liked this Initiation Crown, because it reminded me of Texican Day of the Dead art, Super Lucha skeletons with big, goofy grins, and, according to the official description, they also remind us "of the persistence of human life," but doesn't just about everything?

the museum's oldest piece of art

Vessel with Suspension Lugs
Turkey: Anatolia (Hacilar), 5th Millennium B.C.
ceramic and paint

The museum's oldest piece of art. a painted pot.

I like being wowed by history. Many times along this tour, I was. I think I would have liked this pot even if it had been formed last week. Instead it's more than 7,000 years old. Wow.

Necklace with pendant of Ganesha
India: Kerala, 19th Century
gold and rubies

stone ganesh

Ganesha - Indonesia Majapahit empire,
Java, 14th Century, stone

Rubbing Ganesh tummies removes obstacles. Ellen said they do lots of other things, too. Ganesh, a.k.a., the god of domestic harmony and of success; lord of wisdom, intelligence, education, prudence, luck and fortune, gates, doors, doorways, household and writing. Etc.


Cosmetic Palette - Pakistan or Afghanistan: Gandharan
2-3rd Century, schist

Note the dragon carved into this stone palette. Lending power from his compressed form? Or just a popular symbol?

Sword in sheath - Nias Island, Indonesia
Late 19th, Early 20th Century
wood, metal, tusk and glass

Another dragonish serpent, fierce to the bone and glass eyeballs, darkly malevolent and menacing. A not-so-sublte warning. "He wore his gun outside his pants for all the honest world to see," Bob Dylan sang many years later about the same show of force in potentia.


Beaded bag - Lesser Sunda Islands, East Sumba, Indonesia
Late 19th - Early 20th Century
glass beads and palm leaves

"An ancestor figure, shown with upraised arms and very large feet. The figure usually dominates the scene, as it does on this bag, which probably contained a raja's betel nut and the paraphernalia needed for chewing it."

Here to remind us that beads can be a potent art source — and that big-footed, submissive, full male frontal nudity is available at a museum near you.

Chimera - China, 25-220 AD
earthenware and paint

Warrior's Headdress Ornament

Warrior's headdress ornament: frontal figure
brassware from China and Malaysia, made by the Modang or Bahau people,
East Kalimantan, Mahakam River region, Indonesia

Chimera can change their shape to anything they want, we joked. And this one chose to be a dragon, a noble and ancient ambition. Next down, according to the mu, "Attached to a warrior's headdress, the glinting silhouette of this ornament probably signified protection. Round hollow eyes, circular nostrils and an open, anguished mouth mark the skeletal head of this stylized crouching figure."

Another of my mu prejudices is the decorative arts. I have trouble with all the space devoted to furniture, joked about starting a group called "Friends of Furniture." Ellen said there was one already. Mine would have been more ironic.

Knowing my predisposition against it, Ellen attempted to steer us through that wide and popular section, but the decorative does not lack for beauty or substance. Besides, there's lovely pots standing and pterodactylish dragons aloft. Soft wings of light in dark space.

Chandelier - Albert Cheuret, Ca 1925
Paris, France - bronze and alabaster


Embroidered Rug - England, ca 1840 - wool
Wendy Reeves Collection

Ellen loved this lush rug in the Wendy Reeves Wing. Despite the hovering of bejeweled furniture and its fenced-off peculiarity, I had to agree. My toes wanted to luxuriate in its plush golds and red.


Vincent Van Gogh - Sheaves of Wheat, 1890 - oil on canvas

Created to be viewed together with his other haystacks to note their subtle differences. Gaudy frame; exquisite painting. More typical of Vincent's work than the sweet, subtle bridge, there seems to be a horizontal line of brightness across the top middle, perhaps faded / discolored from the attached lamp? Not sure any sane art conservator would go for that, but this is WendyLand, not reality.


Kerykeion (Hermes' Staff) - Greece, Early 5th Century BC - bronze

Hermes (Mercury) is communications, publishing and probably taking photographs and writing about art, among other skills and tricks. I was drawn to this diminutive push-me-pull-me ring of power, like obvious magic. Into the loop below, goes a finger. It's that small.

Snake Armlet - Rome, First Century BC, gold

I used to have a similarly textured, silver stainless bolo tie snake with turquoise rattlers that I polished into oblivion in my 20s. This gold armlet pulled me back into that teen time place, throwing off the sparks of a long-gone piece of cheap western jewelry. That, of course, wasn't anything nearly like the Roman armlet, just reminiscent.

Honoré Daumier - Human Weaknesses, number one, 1840 - lithograph

"Do you hear me, my dear Sir, what I am telling you?
I am not only hearing it, Sir. I am smelling it."


Felix Edouard Vallotton - The Laundry Woman, The Blue Room

Félix Edouard Vallotton - The Laundry Woman, The Blue Room, 1900
tempera on board laid on canvas, Swiss

Not the Potato Eaters, but dark like that. Something of a family gathered in a darkened room. Not gloomy, exactly, but moody, especially the silhouetted lady at left. Mysterious and colorful, rich and dark. My photo was dark, probably contrasting up the colors.

Jean-Achille Benouville - Collesium Viewed from the Palatine

Jean-Achille Benouville - Colosseum Viewed from the Palatine, 1844, oil on canvas (detail)

I never cared much for the main subjects of this historical landscape — priests chatting incomprehensibly. No, soon as I see it, my eyes travel out onto the desert beyond the trees, where the bright sunlight carries me into its mysterious, late afternoon geometry.

Man with turban and bookA single mounain, purple on the far horizon, that perfect evening amber delineating all those perfect buildings, the faraway low-lying clouds in the pale blue sky, and that golden glowing coliseum cropped abruptly on the right. Art fantasy land.

Barely visible and silhouetted in my darkened, horizontally cropped version above, there's what I think of as a mystic reading a book in a colorful turban. You can just see his hat to the right of the big tree above.

For me, he's the star here, a man of mystery. I want to know what he is reading, and does he, as I think he might, know more than the trio of priests, large in the full painting?



Felix Bracquemond - Panurge Leaving Rominagrobis' House, 1855 - etching

Passage from Rabelais' Pantagruel: "Devil take me, if I thither! The chamber is already full of devils. O what a swinging, thwacking noise is now amongst them! O the terrible coin that they keep! Harken, so you not hear the rustling, thumping bustle of their strokes and blows, as they scuffle with one another, like true devils indeed."

Our word dragon is from Dracos, which fundamentalist Christians assure me is "son of the devil." The dictionary says it's from Old English from Old French from Latin, dracon for large serpent. Draco is "A constellation in the polar region of the Northern Hemisphere near Cepheus and Ursa Major."

So it's not surprising dragons have acquired dark reputations among the recently converted. I like them (the beasts, not so much the converts) for their semi-mythical qualities. They're real — think Komodos now or pterodactyls long ago — and they're fanciful — from the Chinese to New Age goofy.

I'm not a fan of St. George, who did not always prevail, despite the shortage of artists to mark his several defeats.

Dragons are guardian protectors who sometimes set careless fires when they're sparked, so I can't help identify.


Théodore Chassériau - Battle of Arab Horsemen
Around a Standard, 1854 - oil on canvas


I love the flurry of color and action here, and my mind wanders, as it does so often in art and art history.


Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot
Palluel, Boater in the Marshes, 1871
oil on canvas

Painted from memory, almost a dream.

I'm realizing now, this far down this long-scrolling page, that this page was never before finished — just left adrift here on this site. It is, in fact, still unfinished, lacking identifications I must have writ down somewhere and lost.

You get the drift, I hope. I like having this curved-top box of art close by, where I can visit when I need to. And yeah, sometimes it just pissed me off with its small-mindedness and petty concerns. But other times, it's just so handy, so heady, so comfortably here and hometown.

We have a pretty little museum here, filled with divurgent histories, winding all around, going nobody really knows quite where. I wonder sometimes whether I'll ever have to rethink that oft-repeated quote about all of Dallas' best museums being in Fort Worth.

The West begins a long, long way away, and this mu is here.

stairs down


ladder in room

Ellen seemed to think I was daft (she was polite but incredulous) to be photographing this ladder, whose chiaroscuro I admired, especially the shadow revealing its extended self below. After so much art, it was easy to see reality as the art it often is.

If it's in the museum, it must be art.


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