FROM READERS: The 'liminality' of MU's Museum of Art and Archaeology

Monday, October 28, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT
To W. Arthur Mehrhoff, contemporary American artist David Ligare's "Dido in Resolve" mirrors the Museum of Art and Archaeology's transition to the Ellis Fischel hospital complex.

W. Arthur Mehrhoff, Ph.D, is the academic coordinator for the MU Museum of Art and Archaeology.

As most readers of the Columbia Missourian know by now, the Museum of Art and Archaeology is in transition as it moves to the site of the former Ellis Fischel hospital complex. During this period of what anthropologists might call liminality (a rite de passage or transition between two worlds), I think it’s very important to continue to call the museum to mind, if only in our imaginations.

Museum docents at the famous Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, continued to give tours of its collection during the siege of the city by the Nazis, even though the paintings and art objects themselves had been removed. The Brits calmly queued up at the National Gallery in London once each month to view one of the paintings that had been brought back from its bomb-proof sanctuary for public viewing; 45,000 people came to view Tintoretto’s "Noli Me Tangere." Now it’s our turn to reimagine our museum. …

"Dido in Resolve" by contemporary American artist David Ligare has long been one of the favorite paintings at the Museum of Art and Archaeology in its Pickard Hall incarnation, sited at a crossroads stairway landing between the Cast Gallery and the Weinberg Gallery of Ancient Art. The painting depicts a twilight experience of liminality as Dido, Queen of Carthage, resolves to take her own life after the epic hero Aeneas (prompted by the god Hermes) departs from Carthage to pursue his divinely ordained mission of founding Rome. From The Aeneid, (IV.644): "Dear momentos, (mourns Dido) as long as the fates and the god allowed it, take this spirit, and set me free from these cares. I have lived and I have acted out the course which fortune had given, and now the great image of me will go under the grounds."

This carefully balanced composition — with its carefully crafted horizon line, diagonal of the curtain and frame within a frame — deftly juxtaposes classical and post-modern aesthetics. Like almost all of David Ligare's compositions, it was painted during the "golden hour" transition time between daylight and darkness to facilitate his search for the "primal unity" of classical Greek culture.

In one of his essays on his website, Ligare quotes:

"Nietzsche argued that the 'serenity' claimed by (classical historian) Winkleman to be at the very heart of Greek art, and which Nietzsche termed the Apollonian ideal, was, in reality, a sublimation, a necessary antidote to the forces of terror and anarchy."

Perhaps a museum like ours is as much a process of engaging with the past as it is a place in space, helping to create meaningful contexts for when you again encounter these works of art firsthand. Does classical antiquity still "speak" to us during this very transitional time in human history as well as in the life of the Museum of Art and Archaeology? Can it still help us find (or create) some balance in our lives? And what role does art such as "Dido in Resolve" (and museums like ours) have in this process? I look forward to musing with you. …

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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