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'Different, but Equally Valuable'

November 11, 2010 By:
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 Temple University Press has struck up a lovely relationship with our city -- and certain of its institutions -- that has led to the creation of several spiffy books for children (though older readers who are still young at heart can also join in and benefit). The prototype for what's now shaping up to be a series of sorts was P is for Philadelphia, which appeared in 2005. This color-mad alphabet primer took a brief tour of Philly highlights via art works executed by area public-school students. (A citywide contest determined which creations made the cut.)

Next came A is for Art Museum, another alphabet primer executed with great splashes of color, which focused upon the storied structure that helps anchor one end of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. While the book (geared for readers ages 2 to 5) took as its premise a guided tour of the museum and a number of its contents, it also stopped along the way to deal with concepts such as the appreciation of art, certain shapes and colors, and the proper etiquette to use when visiting an institution of this sort.

Now, a little more than a year later, these two popular titles have been joined by another bright "painterly" effort aimed at the young called Art Museum Opposites. It is again the work of Katy Friedland and Maria K. Shoemaker, and has a note of welcome by the institute's new director and CEO, Timothy Rub, who's taken over for the late legendary Anne d'Harnoncourt, who died two years ago, long before her time.

As Rub writes: "Art museums provide endless opportunities for learning and wonder. In their galleries we experience works of art in two different, but complementary ways -- individually and in relation to each other -- and learn different, but equally valuable things in the process." This new book highlights "selected works of art that, when paired, can help us learn about contrasts and about the meanings of opposites ... ."

One of my absolute favorite pieces in the museum -- Charles Willson Peale's Staircase Group (Portrait of Raphaelle Peale and Titian Ramsay Peale), which is built into a gallery wall and has an actual step at its base that adds a truly smashing trompe l'oeil effect to this irresistible painting -- is the first item in the book, teamed up with Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, one of the Philadelphia collection's modernist masterpieces, in order to exemplify the opposites of "up" and "down."

A small block of text accompanies all of the choices. In this first case, it reads: "In each picture find the curving staircase and follow it with your finger. Which painting shows a young man climbing up the stairs? Which shows someone going down the stairs? What else makes the pictures different from each other?"

Next comes "a little" and "a lot," with two funky pieces of modern furniture illustrating them: Plan-O-Spider Patio Chair, designed by Hoffer, along with Vermelha (Red) Chair, designed by Fernando Campana and Humberto Campana. The former really does look like a particularly strong but spare red spider web, while the latter looks like a thick red batch of spaghetti thrown over a bright silver chair frame.

Little-known but lovely paintings like Vincent van Gogh's landscape scene called Rain and Giovanni Boldini's Highway of Combes-la-Ville help illustrate "rainy" and "sunny."

And another pairing places an elaborate gothic side chair made in New York sometime between 1845 and 1860 beside modern architect Robert Venturi's bold take-off on the form called Gothic Revival Chair -- the two perfectly embodying the concepts of "old" and "new." 

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