The Ashmolean

First of all, “Ashmole” is a pretty silly surname, don’t you think? Aren’t you glad it isn’t yours? It’s almost as silly as any number of mine.

Second, I love the Ashmolean.

After class today, I popped into the free museum that Oxford University (I think) sponsors and was pleasantly surprised by its wonderful collection. I don’t know what I was expecting– maybe something like Buffalo Gap Historic Village, but with a British accent. The museum really was wonderful. It had a varied collection of many excellent pieces as well as some very credible reproductions. Best of all, it had lots of benches for sitting and thinking or resting one’s feet. A pleasant bonus was a wonderful staff member who went out of his way to make sure the patrons of the museum had an enjoyable visit.

While I was there, I was taking some pictures of a piano (harpsichord? I couldn’t find a display tag) next to another young woman who was from France. The staff member noticed our interest, and waved us over to him. “You’ve got to see this. Make sure you don’t leave the Museum without seeing this,” he said. He pointed us to the back of a reproduction of a Stradivarius instrument. The front was impressive enough, but the back was even more beautiful. It had a lovely miniature scene of Adam, Eve, the serpent, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. On the back of the very top part there was another figure (one that I could not identify, but which might have been an angel) that was also intricate and very impressive.

After we’d seen this, my new French friend (Ines, from Avignon, studying art history in Paris, visiting Oxford in order to improve her English, and absolutely stunning, says I must see the museums there. There are excellent Impressionist and Fauvist collections, she says.) and myself were once again waved over by the curator. He pointed us to a painting of the back of a man riding a horse. “Why do you think he’s trotting away?” asked the staff member. Ines and I observed that one didn’t usually see paintings of the backside of horses. The staff member then proceeded to tell us his interpretation of the painting– the marks on the road were not pebbles, as I’d assumed, but were pieces of money, like the 30 pieces of silver that Judas accepted to betray Christ. The man in the painting had sold out his soldier companions, and was now slowly riding through the battlefield (hence, the smoke in the painting) observing the fruits of his betrayal. Our guide believed that the soldier, seeing his friends’ deaths, wouldn’t be able to live with himself and was on his way to commit suicide. Ines and I agreed that it was certainly a possibility. It was really neat listening to him talk about something he’d obviously considered at length.

Our guide then directed us to a lovely statue. It’s gorgeous. It depicts a couple whose relationship is obviously in trouble. The woman has wrapped her arm around the man’s shoulder and holds his arm close to her chest. She is looking kind of up and around, trying to look into his face. The man, though, is looking down and away. He allows the woman to touch him, but he does not respond. It’s a beautiful, expressive, intricate sculpture. Apparently this is meant to portray the story of a man who was convinced that his wife was cheating on him and had her locked up in a tower for the rest of her life, which was not long. The guide and I speculated about whether or not she had been faithful. We both figured that she had been, since the desperation in her face would have been of a different sort if she was just pleading for her life. The guide thinks that the man looks as though he’s just then called the sentries to drag her away, and he can’t bear to look at her. Very tragic.

The other marvelous thing that this guide did for me and Ines was getting us into The Western Art Print room, which has drawing, studies, sketches, and prints done by various artists. Anyone can go, but you have to call ahead. We didn’t know anything about it before, but our guide thought we’d really enjoy it, so he got us in there today. We went in with a couple of other people. We saw some of da Vinci’s sketches, which were tiny, but very detailed. I was afraid to breathe on them. We saw some of Turner’s studies, which were amazing. Even at very undeveloped stages, his grasp of light and form is so apparent. We also saw quite a number of Degas’ sketches and such. They were so inspiring. I love Degas. It was a thrilling moment. I could have stayed longer to look at the Durer, Rubens, and Rembrandt they’d agreed to pull out for us, but by this time I was experiencing a little sensory overload. I made an appointment to go back with Jennifer on Friday to see Raphael and Michelangelo.

It really was an amazing visit. It’s so different from the British Museum, which has everything, it seems, but is too busy to really be fully enjoyed. I got to see most of the Ashmolean today, but I will certainly enjoy seeing it again and again. It is right here, after all, and it is free. I definitely intend to return.

Check out pictures of some of the stuff I saw there (but not everything. Photographs were not allowed in the print room, and my battery went dead while I was there anyway): http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=47117&l=b6d2d&id=500823168.

My evening after my visit to the Ashmolean was also pleasant– I went out for Indian food with some friends and then sat in the backyard with classmates and ate some more– but much less eventful. I hope your lives are going similarly.

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