DIA presentation delves into art’s ‘hidden stories’

By: Cortney Casey | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published October 24, 2012


A bouquet of flowers: a common still life subject that’s pleasing to the eye, if not particularly thought-provoking.
At least, not at first glance.

An upcoming Detroit Institute of Arts Speakers’ Bureau presentation at the Sterling Heights Public Library, “Hidden Stories,” will explore the deeper meanings and symbolism buried amid some of the museum’s famed pieces.

Scott Boberg, head of interpretive programs for the DIA, said the Nov. 1 program will likely rekindle the interest of visitors who haven’t been to the museum in years, while sparking curiosity among those who have never been.

“I think it’s a great program for people who are curious about the world, who are interested in knowing more about art, who are interested in knowing more about the DIA and its collection,” he said. “The museum is more than 125 years old, and has an extraordinary collection for everybody to enjoy and learn from.”

Through the DIA’s Speakers’ Bureau, volunteers conduct presentations on aspects of the museum’s permanent collection at libraries, schools, senior centers and other facilities, said Boberg.

They address frequently requested topics — like the DIA in general and its famous Rivera Court, home of the massive “Detroit Industry” fresco mural by Mexican artist Diego Rivera — but volunteers also have latitude to pitch ideas on subjects that intrigue them, then develop presentations with the assistance of DIA personnel, he said.

Such was the case for “Hidden Stories,” created by docent Margaret Prizer, who will deliver the talk in Sterling Heights.

“Basically, she was fascinated by the museum’s collection and especially by paintings that have more information in them than you would necessarily guess at first glance,” said Boberg.

That includes historical contexts, multiple interpretations, ambiguous meanings and hidden symbolism. As an example, Boberg called upon “Flowers in a Glass Vase,” a 1704 oil painting by Dutch artist Rachel Ruysch.

The innocuously titled piece is “intensely detailed and realistic,” gorgeous to behold; yet, there’s much more depth than initially meets the eye, especially when one learns that the Dutch were known for their “highly symbolic” works, he said.

In the days before FedEx and UPS, possessing an assortment of flowers as varied as the one Ruysch portrays would not have been feasible, as all of the types depicted bloom at different points of the year, said Boberg.

“In 1704 … this would have been an impossible painting,” he said.

Looking closer, the viewer also can discern insects embedded throughout the painting that aren’t necessarily obvious at first: in the flowers, on the stems and on the pedestal.

Also, though the flowers appear radiant to the casual passer-by, upon further examination, it becomes clear that they range in condition from unopened buds to full blooms in a state of decay.

It’s reminiscent, said Boberg, of “the fleetingness of life, of the quickness of life, a reminder to kind of be in the moment.”

It’s those types of cultural and hidden meanings that Prizer will examine through Ruysch’s paintings and others during the session, he said.

Kathryn Ribant Payne, the library’s programming specialist, said she believes patrons will enjoy looking “a little deeper in the art we see, to find what lies beneath the surface.”

“The nice thing is that the works featured are all part of the DIA’s collection,” she said, “so people can attend this program and then go down to the DIA to experience some of the pieces for themselves.”

Due to the passage of a tri-county millage in August, general admission to the DIA is free, and Boberg said visitors need only bring proof of residency.

“Hidden Stories” is free, but registration is required. The event begins at 7 p.m. The library is located at 40255 Dodge Park Road, at Utica Road.  For more information or to register, call the library at (586) 446-2640 or visit www.shpl.net.

The DIA is located at 5200 Woodward in Detroit. For more information, call (313) 833-7900 or visit www.dia.org.