Posts Tagged ‘museum’

Magritte exhibit at SFMOMA

October 12th, 2018

SFMOMA & Magritte
 

The Rene Magritte exhibit at SFMOMA, “The Fifth Season,” wraps up at the end of October. If you haven’t seen it yet now is the time. This isn’t the largest exhibit with only around 70 works, but what’s there is impressive.

I finally went to see it last weekend and strongly recommend it, with some minor caveats.

Not familiar with Magritte? You’ve seen his work before but may not know his name. He’s the artist behind “Son of Man,” aka the guy with the bowler hat and the apple floating in front of his face (see above) as well as other paintings including “The Treachery of Images,” aka “C’est ne pas une pipe.”

Instead of focusing on his life as an artist overall the exhibit focuses on a few key later points in Magritte’s life. This approach has its strengths and weaknesses, in particular it focuses on Magritte’s most well known periods while leaving out how he got his start.

 
SFMOMA & Magritte SFMOMA & Magritte
 

Magritte’s works tend to look simple at first glance, but on closer examination contain surprising visual contradictions. His paintings have themes between them, but the themes aren’t always clear unless they’re pointed out. Thankfully the exhibit’s arrangements and audio guide do an excellent job of explaining this.

The audio guides for the Magritte exhibit are worth checking out, available as a mobile app (bring earbuds and your phone.) There’s about half an hour of audio content including interviews with an artist who lived in Magritte’s attic.

Ultimately I would have stayed much longer listening to more tales of Magritte’s life and works if they’d been available. For an artist who has so many well known paintings, he also went through periods of different styles, particularly during World War II, that are difficult to contextualize against his most familiar style.

The trivia I found most interesting was how Magritte titled his paintings, or more accurately how he didn’t. He tended to bring out his latest works to friends over dinner and wine and let them come up with appropriate titles.

The entrance to the exhibit features floor to ceiling curtains, echoing many of Magritte’s works. Some reviewers felt this to be a little too on the nose but I thought it was amusing. The exit was more startling. By standing in certain places one could insert themselves into digital versions of Magritte’s works. To me these felt like they belonged at the Exploratorium, or worse at some Instagram-friendly “museum.”

And of course you have to exit the exhibit through a gift shop, with special Magritte-focused merchandise.
 

You have until October 28th to check out the Magritte Exhibit at SFMOMA. Tickets cost as much as $35 and include access to the entire museum. I highly recommend the SFMOMA app both for this exhibit and SFMOMA in general.

The Cable Car Museum

April 3rd, 2017

Some museums require a complicated explanation about how to get there; not so with the San Francisco Cable Car Museum. Both of the Powell Street lines stop outside of the museum, and the California Street line has a stop a few blocks away.

Despite living in San Francisco for almost a decade and a half, I’d never visited the Cable Car Museum, and decided on a whim today to pay a visit.

Most of SF’s tourist attractions fall into one of two buckets: a horrid tourist trap (Pier 39, Grant Avenue in Chinatown) or are actual gems that you shouldn’t miss (Telegraph Hill, Musee Mecanique, Cliff House.) The Cable Car Museum, I’m happy to report, falls into the latter category. That said there’s not much to the museum itself. The real show here is watching how the cable car system works.

I suspect an average tourist doesn’t give much thought as to how cable cars work — it’s just a weird old wooden train with a bell, right? Just like a big version of Mr. Rogers’ trolley? Anyone with that notion will be in for a shock if they visit the museum and watch the motors pulling the cables. More on that in a moment.

The Cable Car Museum is free to visit and is open most days. There are bathrooms open to the public, and of course a gift shop with books and trinkets. Much of the museum consists of panels explaining the history of the system, how it was invented, etc. Most of these factoids you could just as easily find on Wikipedia.

The most interesting of these exhibits explain in detail how the mechanisms that power the cable cars work, for example the grip and the truck pictured below.

 
Cable Car Museum Cable Car Museum
 

Another cool feature are the old cable cars. Did you know that at one time they had two cable cars hitched together? Or that ads on public transit apparently go way back further than you may have thought? These are the quirky little details you won’t find anywhere else.

 
Cable Car Museum Cable Car Museum
 

But like I said earlier, all of this is really secondary to what the museum is really about: seeing the mechanism that powers the cable cars up close. It’s like a factory tour in a way — the museum’s located inside the building that powers the entire cable car system in San Francisco.

Several enormous wheels spin a thick braided metal cable, one for each line. That cable is what the “grip” mechanism in each cable car latches to, which is what propels tourists between Powell and Market and Fisherman’s Wharf. Normally you can’t see those cables since they’re underneath the street, but here they’re in full view.

Apparently it’s some guy’s job to sit there watching the cables, checking for damage as they wiz by, and if there are any frayed bits they have to be repaired at night when the cable cars aren’t in service. While I’d assume this is the sort of job that could be easily automated, in the spirit of preserving a historical system maybe that would be cheating.

 
Cable Car Museum Cable Car Museum
 

In the basement of the building you can see the wheels that act as pulleys, tilting the cables into different directions for each line. Unfortunately it was too dark down there to get a usable photo.

A portion of the building is devoted to a machine shop. The cable cars are custom made, so if a part needs to be replaced it’s not like SFMTA can go on Amazon and order a new one. I spotted several fresh looking grip mechanisms sitting in one corner, ready to be installed as needed. Since it was a weekend there was unfortunately no activity in the machine shop. There might be more action to see if I’d visited on a weekday.

One last fact to mention here is the noise level. With the motors driving the giant wheels and the cables spinning around, this is not a quiet museum. Check out my very brief video below to look and listen to those motors in action.