The Book-Meets-Art Tour: A Creative Visitor Experience

Edith Wharton meets John Singer Sargent. More precisely, aspects of the society that Edith Wharton describes in The Age of Innocence can be seen reflected in portraits by John Singer Sargent of his wealthy and privileged sitters. Edith Wharton and John Singer Sargent, both American artists, were at the peak of their creative energies during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a period known as the Gilded Age for the tremendous number of fortunes that were amassed during this time, and the lavish lifestyles those fortunes supported. What relationships do you see between the culture Edith Wharton describes and the culture of John Singer Sargent's sitter—Wharton's illuminated in words, and Sargent's illuminated in oil paints? How are they similar? How are they different?

If the above paragraph sounds like the beginning of a discussion, it is intended to be. It is a sample setting for a 'Book-Meets-Art Tour' as we have been conducting these at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH). First, let me explain the philosophy that drives a Book-Meets-Art Tour, why we're calling it a 'creative visitor experience, and how we're implementing it.

The premise of the 'Book-Meets-Art Tour' is that both great literature and great art express great ideas, timeless ideas. Careful selection can bring together a work of literature and a work of art that express similar ideas. For example, in the Wharton/Sargent pairing cited at the beginning of this article, the common idea centers on the behavioral norms of society and the subtle sanctions that preserve these norms. When both works—literary and visual—have sufficient depth to allow for multiple layers of interpretation, as they do in the Wharton/Sargent pairing, it makes for lively discussion between the Docent and the attendees on their 'Book-Meets-Art Tour' as they explore the subtleties, variations, similarities and differences to expressing the same basic idea.

As another example, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby easily connects to the portraits of Sir Joshua Reynolds, as both reflect attempts to surpass the 'real' in order to approach a perceived

'ideal.' In fact, it is my belief that any work of literature that is considered great, as indicated by the test of reputation over time, can be legitimately related to any work of visual art that is similarly considered great.

How are we implementing the concept of the 'Book-Meets-Art Tour' at the MFAH? Every four months, the Museum selects one book as the focus of these tours, often to complement an upcoming art exhibition. Groups request these tours and Museum staff schedule them. Meanwhile, interested docents read the book, discuss it together, and brainstorm to identify relevant works of art. Then each docent crafts a tour combining the book and several works of art. In doing so, the docent selects passages from the book to be read, works of art to be visited, and the sequence to be followed. Typically, the group sits (on camp stools) before a work of art, then reads a relevant passage, then interprets the art in light of or in contrast to the passage, then moves to the next work of art, repeating this process. The docent facilitates the entire conversation. Many groups, once enjoying this experience, will revisit for each book selected.

Why am I emphasizing the word 'creative' in describing these tours? For two reasons. First, each docent must discover the ideas in the book and the ideas in the art that can connect in an engaging tour and link the two together. There is no formula for doing this, as a docent's selections reflect his/her personal view of the book, the art, and the ideas. The docent literally 'creates' the tour. Second, successful relating of the book and the art requires imagination and ingenuity on the part of the visiting group. As the tour progresses, the group often discovers new relationships not foreseen by the docent or by the visitors individually. In this sense, the group 'creates' the experience that its members enjoy.

Founded in the Fall of 2009, the Book-Meets-Art Tour experiences continue to be enjoyed by docents and visitors alike, and the audience continues to grow.

Now back to our Book-Meets-Art Tour of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. As the tour moves through the Museum's galleries, the discussion broadens to consider the question, what relationships do you discover if you consider the world Edith Wharton describes in relation to the society and culture depicted in portraits by Rembrandt, Van Dyck, or even Picasso?

Happy Reading and Looking!

Eric Timmreck, Senior Docent, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

 

 

 

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