Her Last Bow
Sister Wendy in America
If you missed Sister Wendy's American Collection which PBS broadcast over three weeknights this past September, not to worry. PBS and her publishers have insured that you can buy or rent the six videotapes, the companion book, as well as the many other videos and publications she has produced in the last decade. The 90's may have been, in W.H. Auden's memorable phrase, "a low dishonest decade" but for Sister Wendy they were a serious time for Odysseys and Grand Tours of the great museums of England and Europe.
PBS has even set up a good website for the series. Eighteen of the works of art that she talks about on the series -- ranging from Grant Wood's American Gothic to the Standing Bodhisattva, from the region of ancient Pakistan now controlled by the Taliban -- are accessible online in high definition images, with detailed views as well as excerpts from her commentary. The site also includes much biographical information and an interview conducted by her producer, David Willcock.
Sadly, as we learn from the interview, this is to be Sister Wendy's last tour.
Last fall, she had planned to tour North America, promoting the show and her books. A series of heart attacks grounded her before she left the UK.
Sister Wendy has suffered from health problems since the early 1970's. As a result, she was permitted to leave her order of teaching nuns which she entered at the age of sixteen, to enter a life of contemplation and prayer - her true vocation - under the protection of a Carmelite monastery in England.
In addition to full-time praying, contemplative nuns work to support their order. Sister Wendy requested special permission to study art. She mastered the history of art with the same discipline that won her a congratulatory first from Oxford.
She soon produced articles good enough to be published in such A-list journals as Apollo and Modern Painters. This in turn led to her first book, Contemporary Women Painters. An appearance on the BBC was so compelling that she was offered her own series. In the early nineties Art and the Spiritual, followed by Sister Wendy's Odyssey and Sister Wendy's Grand Tour, insinuated her into the hearts and minds of the British with her genuine honesty and talent for bringing paintings to life.
In 1997, PBS broadcast her ten-part series, The Story of Painting. It became the most successful program on art since Kenneth Clark's Civilization. Asked to do another series, she elected to visit some of the great American art museums.
Sister Wendy's American Collection devotes an hour to each of six museums. She chose her museums on the basis of the encyclopedic quality of their holdings, as well as geographic diversity - the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Kimbell Art Museum in Texas, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "America is so rich in museums and that's appropriate because museums are about freedom." Like most visitors to North America she reveled in astonishing scope and depth of the holdings. For example, there are more and better El Greco's in the U.S. than in Europe, French Impressionist collections tend to be the best because American collectors were more adventurous, and there is so much Renaissance Art that it is impossible to know this field without setting foot in America.
Sister Wendy in recent years has moved beyond easel paintings and sculptures to illuminated manuscripts, stained glass and decorative arts. She has also extended her keen attentions to include African, Indian and Asian Art. Last year she remarked that if she had to do it all over again, she would specialize in Chinese Art. In fact almost half of the works she chose to highlight on this tour are examples of non-western art.
So we have Sister Wendy at the Met in New York explaining the meaning of the Tughra of Suleyman the Magnificent, at the L.A. County Museum of Art talking about Richard Diebenkorn's Ocean Park Series, as well as a netsuke with the memorable title Baku, Monster Who Eats Nightmares.
Finally, from the art-rich Ohio Valley, she chooses the often-overlooked Cleveland Museum of Art. The match between this unprepossessing nun and the quietly cherished institution is a miracle. Even better, the museum, so proud to have been selected along with the heavy hitters in the series, has introduced a special interactive feature on their website. Here you can view each of the twenty-three works she discusses and read her commentary.
"Sister Wendy Visits Cleveland" is a great idea, and I only wish the folks in charge of websites at the other museums would do the same. But then the Cleveland Museum has always been in the vanguard of bringing art online. The place, as I learned last spring, is distinguished not only for its extraordinarily rich collections, but also for its well-informed, patient, and conscientious staff.
Videos: Tapes of Sister Wendy's Series: (all discounted 10% to 15% off retail)
Books: Sister Wendy books at Amazon.com: (all discounted 30% off retail!!)
This article is copyright 2001 by Joseph Phelan. Please do not republish any portion of this article without written permission.
Joseph Phelan can be contacted at email@example.com
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