FROM READERS: Personal connections with MU Museum of Art and Archaeology exhibit

Monday, June 25, 2012 | 10:00 a.m. CDT
City-scapes will be on exhibit at the MU Museum of Art and Archaeology until September 2.

W. Arthur  Mehrhoff, Ph.D, is the academic coordinator for the MU Museum of Art and Archaeology which is currently exhibiting City-scapes: Silkscreen prints by Photorealist Artists. Please click the highlighted hyperlinks in the body of the text for additional background information.

The initial image of the MU Museum of Art & Archaeology's current City-scapes exhibition depicts a scantily clad sunbather basking on a downtown Manhattan rooftop in the late  seventies, the twin towers of the former World Trade Center looming like ancient ruins in the distance. I spent much of the decadent Disco Decade as a city planner and urban designer trying to reverse the course of urban decay in my hometown Saint Louis, so that troubling image made me think long and hard about the dramatic changes to American culture since those halcyon days of Donna Summer. At an even deeper level, the exhibition raises the matter of meaning and the very meaning of matter: What do our cityscapes tell us about ourselves?

Exhibit Information

City-scapes: Silkscreen prints by Photorealist Artists will be exhibited at the MU Museum of Art and Archaeology until Sept. 2.

The museum is open Tuesday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and open late Thursdays until 8 p.m. The museum is open Saturday and Sunday from noon-4 p.m. For more information, please call 882-5391.

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Humans (like mini-me in the related photo) may have initially dwelt in The Garden, but inevitably we have had to deal with the evolving complexities of life in The City, that entangling web of ecology, economy and ethos. We all carry cityscapes in our imaginations, consciously or unconsciously, positive or negative, aesthetic images imbued with stories interpreting these dynamic containers of our lives. Judging by the artistic evidence about their evolution, cityscapes seem to represent an archetypal human activity as well as an excellent barometer of the changing human condition.

Cityscapes have been with us for millennia, but since the Renaissance they have assumed increasing scope and significance in human culture. The Delft school of cityscape painting in the 17th century celebrated the rise of the Dutch mercantile elite, while the Vedute school of cityscape painting in the 18th century both promoted and documented the Grand Tour of European gentlemen throughout Italy. As historian David McCullough demonstrated in his fascinating book The Greater Journey, during the 19th century real and idealized cityscapes of Paris dominated the imaginations of upwardly mobile young American writers and artists. After the modernization of Paris under the iron hand of Baron von Haussmann and construction of the Eiffel Tower (novelist Guy de Maupassant reportedly dined there every day so that he did not have to view the tower in the cityscape), dueling cityscapes began to emerge. In particular, Eugene Atget's images of "lost Paris" created an alternative cityscape to that of Parisian Progress. A 1985 Saint Louis Art Museum exhibition on Atget's life and work strongly reinforced my historic preservation efforts and shaped my own personal cityscape; its sepia-toned exhibition poster still holds pride of place on my wall. Atget balanced photography as documentation with photography as fine art, a major theme of photorealism and of the Museum’s current City-scapes exhibition.

The contradictory American cityscape dominated for much of the 20th century as vital energy and investment drained from war-torn European capitals to emerging American city centers like New York and Chicago. Photographer Alfred Steiglitz brilliantly captured these urban energies and images of the early 20th American city, while artists like the Dutch émigré Piet Mondrian in his delightful "Broadway Boogie-Woogie" (the yellow lines represent taxi cabs) gave abstract expression to the American city at mid-century. As a native Saint Louisan, I watched with considerable personal interest as my hometown experienced perhaps the most dramatic decline of any major American city, its cityscape often associated with the mid-70s implosion of the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex (whose architect, Minoru Yamasaki, would later design the World Trade Center). City-scapes holds up a mirror to that languishing cityscape; the MAA Film series will present director Ridley Scott's 1982 cult classic Bladerunner at 7 p.m. Aug. 16 in conjunction with the exhibition.

Novelist Marcel Proust, like Atget a tireless chronicler of lost French cityscapes, concluded that "the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes." At least some Americans (especially the so-called Millenial generation) have now begun to rethink the sprawling American Dream and to view our existing city centers in new, more positive ways. Midtown Saint Louis, where my urban revitalization efforts began back in the mid-seventies, has now become a lively regional center of arts and culture. Here in CoMo, the paintings of David Spears convey an optimistic, energetic cityscape that many local residents view with pride.

In "The Human Phenomenon," Catholic theologian and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin observed: "One could say that the whole of life lies in seeing ... to try to see more and to see better is not, therefore, just a fantasy, curiosity, or a luxury. See or perish. This is the situation imposed on every element of the universe by the mysterious gift of existence. But unity grows … only if it is supported by an increase of consciousness, of vision."

For me the most amazing example of such a new vision of unity took place last autumn during the Cardinals' miraculous and occasionally squirrely playoff odyssey. Thirty years before I had worked on downtown planning while attention and investment turned away from the area; now I could not believe my eyes as an entire region (maybe even the nation) focused on a few square blocks of that downtown. When the final out nestled in Allen Craig’s glove, I saw on the television screen an image, ephemeral as a soap bubble but bright as a crystal, of an endlessly rocking crowd of democracy en masse filling the new/old stadium within the glowing penumbra of the glistening Gateway Arch. My thoughts drifted to my recently deceased friend Ken, who grew up with me in old north Saint Louis and also worked with me for many years in city planning and historic preservation, as I remembered the words of Revelations 21 about the holy city, the New Jerusalem, making all things (even the 1985 Denkinger call we had mourned together) new again.

Like that 70s image of the Manhattan rooftop sunbather, my evocative glimpse of the Grail appeared for just a moment and for just a small piece of our spinning blue planet. As Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote in Building the Earth: "No longer, as in the past, for our small selves, for our small family, our small country; but for the salvation and the success of the universe, how must we (moderns) organize around us for the best, the maintenance, distribution and progress of human energy?" How indeed, but the past is prologue. The most basic human task for every generation remains the challenge and responsibility of envisioning and building the ideal cityscape, The New Jerusalem. Only that hasn't changed…

This story is part of a section of the Missourian called From Readers, which is dedicated to your voices and your stories. We hope you'll consider sharing. Here's how. Supervising editor is Joy Mayer.

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