At the Denver Art Museum, it was a vibrant Hayagriva sand medallion crafted by Tibetan monks. At the Norman Rockwell Museum in Massachusetts, it was the artist’s quietly dramatic Civil Rights-era painting “The Problems We All Share.”
The beauty of art museums is that no two are exactly alike; and yet a consistency is that at each one we visit, there is usually a piece or two that really stands out—for its beauty or unusualness, or because it’s an unexpected find or it inspires nostalgia.
What surprised us most about the Honolulu Museum of Art‘s 50,000-item collection is how many struck our fancy. Here are just a few of our favorites.
Both Brian and I have become increasingly interested in Asian art, specifically the intriguing pantheon of Hindu gods and their companions. This creature is Nandi, a bull who acts as gatekeeper, attendant, and transportation for the powerful god Shiva, destroyer and creator of worlds. Carved from a single piece of wood in late 18th century India, Nandi’s Head was used as adornment on a temple’s processional cart.
It was impossible to walk by these walls dotted with Indonesian masks without stopping for a closer look. Ranging from a comical-looking mustached face to a serene Buddha-like image, they come from the islands of Java, Bali, and Madura. Dating from the 18th to the 20th centuries, they’re fashioned from polychromed wood and au naturel adornments—hair and teeth. Dancers donned the masks during narrated performances, a form of entertainment still popular in the region today.
Sometimes it’s the story behind a piece of artwork that makes it especially memorable. Fierce Vajrayogini is one of the key female deities of Himalayan Buddhism. The skull accessories she’s wearing represent freedom from attachment to the physical form. The chopper she’s wielding cuts through the bonds of ignorance, while from the cup she drinks blood symbolic of wrongful thoughts and deeds. The placard didn’t say who she’s stomping, although my money is on a demon.
Similar Technique, New Territory
Even though I had never before laid eyes on it, there was something familiar about a painting in one of the museum’s American art galleries. Within the vista of a waterfall shrouded in clouds and plunging into a deep-green valley was the subtle outline of what seemed to be a white lily. “That looks like…” Sure enough, Georgia O’Keeffe, best known for her depictions of the Southwest, had created this tropical-inspired artwork.
In 1939, O’Keeffe spent nine weeks traveling throughout the Hawaiian Islands on the Dole Company’s dime, hired to produce two paintings to grace their print ads. Her time in the then-little-known Territory of Hawaii inspired 20 pieces depicting everything from lava bridges to birds of paradise. O’Keeffe was at first reluctant to take the gig but ended up being charmed by the islands, later telling photographer Ansel Adams that journeying to Hawaii was “one of the best things I have done.”
Museum Note: A special exhibit of O’Keeffe’s and Adams’ Hawaiian works is on display at the Honolulu Museum of Art until January 12, 2014.