The Legion of Honor

7 Dec

Some blogs have movie or TV or book reviews. Here’s a museum review. Not like a museum exhibition review, because you see those sometimes too. Just an overall museum review.

Thumbs up for Neoclassical architecture

Thumbs up for Neoclassical architecture

The Legion of Honor is in Lincoln Park in San Francisco. It’s on the top of a hill in the middle of a golf course. The golf course aspect is weird but overall it’s a really cool place for a museum. Lots of great views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin County and such.

I told you it was a great view

I told you it was a great view

The Legion of Honor is a cool name for a museum. Its full name is “The California Palace of the Legion of Honor”. Boss. The building is a replica of a palace in France. There should be more palaces in the US.

One thing I like about the Legion (I’m calling it the Legion from now on) is that it’s a fairly small building, and it seems content to be small. One thing I don’t like is museum expansions and additions. They’re always a big architectural mess. I love the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. It’s a beautiful Beaux-Arts building with a giant International Style disaster tacked onto the back. The mishmash is depressing. A big part of the problem is that museums are under pressure to be adventurous and bold architecturally. The idea is that buildings holding art should be art themselves. This is dangerous. I think too many museums hop onto architectural trends that end up looking dated very quickly. The MIA mentioned above being a prime example.* Here’s how to do a museum: build it and then fill it with art. If you run out of room either start making hard decisions, build something new, or build an inconspicuous addition. The Legion of Honor has gone with the third option–they just added a basement that doesn’t really change the building. (This might be incorrect. I assume the basement is newer. It feels like it. I could be wrong.) They should be applauded for it.

*I’d make an exception for museums focused on modern/contemporary art. I can see the logic in that case. The Walker, also in Minneapolis, is a nice example.

What a great museum building

What a great museum building

Ohhh noooooooo

Ohhh noooooooo

The Legion’s permanent collection isn’t spectacular or large, but it has a lot of variety while retaining some sense of focus. It’s unapologetically a museum of European art. The collection spans from the middle ages to 1900 or so, and they have works by a lot of famous painters you find in museums. There’s a lot of early religious art, which isn’t my favorite. I still enjoy looking at it in museums. It’s amazing to think that there are pristine paintings from the 1400s on display in America. That’s a long time ago.

The most well-known work is probably one of Monet’s big water lily paintings. I saw a special show of two of his giant water lily canvases in Kansas City once. That was impressive. Like 8×30. Just huge. Monet painted the one in the legion between 1914 and 1917. It’s tempting to think of art history as a sequential series of events and schools and trends. 1917 was a decade after the emergence of Cubism and the same year as Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. The general idea is that Impressionism ended in the 1890 or so, and it’s hard to make yourself think of all these things as overlapping and interrelated.

The Legion also has a lot of sculptures by Rodin, including a huge cast of The Thinker in the courtyard. I like Rodin, but sculptures like this don’t really thrill me since there are so many identical casts around the world. There isn’t the same feeling of seeing a one-of-a-kind piece. Still good though.

This is a good statue to have in the courtyard

This is a good statue to have in the courtyard

The Legion is a fairly small building, and I mostly like the way its laid out. The building is like a big “U” with the entrance in the middle. There are 20 or so galleries, in mostly chronological order from one tip of the U to the other. This is a perfect way to do it–except that the entrance is in the middle. You have to walk through half of the museum to get to the start. That’s not ideal. Although honestly it wouldn’t really work to make the tips of the U the focal points of the building. It would really diminish the courtyard and the sense of the building having a front, so to speak. I guess I can manage.

The current special exhibition at the Legion is decorative arts on loan from the Louvre. These are pieces from the collections of Louis XIV, XV, and XVI. It was pretty good. Bowls and tea services aren’t usually my favorite, but this was an impressive collection. The best part were several snuffboxes that were given by the French royal family as gifts to foreign diplomats. They were gold, enamel, or jade, often with miniature paintings and encrusted with copious amounts of gemstones. Diamonds mostly.

I couldn't find a snuffbox picture so here's a gold coffee grinder with an ivory handle

I couldn’t find a snuffbox picture so here’s a gold coffee grinder with an ivory handle

I’m a member of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, which includes the Legion and the DeYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park. Members get free admission, which I enjoy. When I have to pay admission to a museum, I always feel like I have to get my money’s worth and I have to see everything and spend a lot of time at the museum. That’s not always the best way to do it. I like that I can just pop in whenever I want and see what I want and it’s no big deal. Maybe not everyone feels this way. I’m a pretty cheap guy.

One of the cool things about the Legion is that it was the place where the museum scenes in the movie Vertigo were filmed. Vertigo is a great movie. Some might even call it the greatest film of all time. I don’t want to get into explaining why Kim Novak goes to the museum in the movie, but I think you can watch the scene without spoiling the movie. Seriously, watch the whole movie. I should watch it again and then visit all the filming locations in the City and write a blog post about it. That’s a good idea. I bet no one’s ever done that before.

The Portrait of Carlotta is just a prop painting and isn’t in the museum. That’s a shame. It would be cool to see it.

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