Art talk is a habit for Sister Wendy

Preview: English nun casts her appreciative eye on the works inside American museums.

September 05, 2001|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

If we all could look at art with the eye and enthusiasm of Sister Wendy Beckett, museums would be turning acolytes away at the door.

Most of us don't, of course, which is why people like Sister Wendy are so valuable, and why experiences like Sister Wendy's American Tour, premiering at 8 p.m. and continuing Wednesdays through Sept. 19, should be cherished.

American Tour offers six one-hour visits to American art museums, from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). And while the series' approach is a little too scattershot to engage viewers fully (taking only an hour to tour the Met, even on TV, is sheer folly), its host's ability to communicate her genuine (and generous) enthusiasm are sharp as ever. Impressive for a woman who, when she isn't sharing her love of art, spends all but two hours of each day silently praying inside her trailer on the grounds of a Carmelite monastery in England.

American Tour marks Sister Wendy's second effort for PBS; her first, Sister Wendy's Story of Painting, was educational television at its finest, running the gamut from cave paintings to Andy Warhol and opening the wonders of the myriad styles that came in-between to viewers.

The scope of her new series is not nearly as grand, reducing her role from that of educator to tour guide. She's been brought to these shores to give Americans a sort of pep talk, to help them develop an appreciation for the treasures their finest museums contain, and, it's hoped, persuade them to visit.

"America has some of the greatest museums in the world," she says in the series' press materials, "but because it's such a vast country, even Americans themselves don't realize the extent of their good fortune."

Tonight starts off with a visit to Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, where Sister Wendy opens with a sure crowd-pleaser: John Singleton Copley's 1768 portrait of Paul Revere. Noting the famed silversmith's "square, solid workman's face," she suggests the portrait represents a balancing act by Copley, who did not share Revere's fiery sense of Revolutionary patriotism. Yes, Revere is depicted as strong and heroic (and even wearing American-made linen, a no-no under British rule), but he's also holding a teapot, which Copley meant either to be taken ironically or, Sister Wendy suggests, as "conciliatory."

American Tour is filled with such insights, sometimes squaring with convention, sometimes not. For instance, Gauguin's 1897 masterpiece, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? might not be as impromptu a work as the artist has led us to believe. Sister Wendy maintains that the artwork's careful composition indicates that it was carefully thought out.

Hour 2 takes Sister Wendy to Fort Worth's Kimbell Art Museum. With some 300 pieces, it's the smallest museum on her tour. But she praises the museum for its selectivity, and finds unexpected pleasures in pieces that might escape the notice of casual observers. A terra cotta carving of an ancient African king, she notes, "is so supremely beautiful that it transcends all boundaries."

Week 2 takes Sister Wendy to the Met in New York and LACMA. In week 3, she visits the Art Institute of Chicago (which seems to have more instantly recognizable works in its collection than any other museum this side of the Louvre), then concludes her American odyssey at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Throughout the series, Sister Wendy approaches art not with the eyes of an expert, but those of a fan. She's not afraid to gush, and freely admits that sometimes words fail her (at the Met, she explains away Balthas' 1937 The Mountain as "a picture that remains fundamentally baffling").

But most times, Sister Wendy has little trouble putting her feelings into simple, descriptive words. Confronting Edward Hopper's famous 1942 Nighthawks, showing a lonely couple seated inside a near-empty diner late at night, she praises the work as " an image of existential loneliness," depicting "a couple so sunk in misery that they can't communicate."

She's also doesn't hesitate to admit her own quirks. "Picasso is a very good artist," she says. "Unfortunately, I don't really like him." And after waxing poetic about a piece of ceramic art, she adds, "if at first this strikes you as hideous, rebuke yourself and look more closely."

Sister Wendy is at her best with painting, and American Collection loses some of its spring when she delves into such areas as sculpture, clothing, pottery and the ancient arts. Still, she's game, enthusiastic and gracious, never condescending to either the artist or her viewers. The arts world could use a few hundred more like her.

Sister Wendy's American Tour

When: 8 p.m.-10 p.m. today, Sept. 12, Sept. 19

Where: MPT, Channels 22 and 67

In brief: England's "art nun" crosses the Big Pond

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