The Droll Docent

The Blanton Museum: Keeping Austin Awesome

If there is one thing that can pry me away from my plate of three types of smoked meat while I am in Austin, it is the Blanton Museum. I make a point of heading over to the University of Texas campus every time I am in town just to see that amazing place. When I was lucky enough to be in Austin over the 4th of July holiday, I cleaned up my fingers with a wet wipe and headed over to the Blanton.

Currently on display through September 6, is the exhibition Impressionism and the Caribbean: Francisco Oller and His Transatlantic World. Oller (1833-1917) was born in Puerto Rico but later traveled to Spain and France to study art; he would bring back Impressionistic techniques to capture images of Caribbean life. The exhibition places Oller’s work alongside those of Paul Cézanne (who once briefly studied under Oller), Winslow Homer, and Claude Monet (among others), to show how Oller adapted techniques and ideas of the artistic movement in his own works. (Just as an FYI: Impressionistic artists were interested capturing how light affects subjects at various times of the day. You can see Impressionist artists’ works on a bag that is probably hanging in your local museum’s gift shop right now.)

The exhibit is nicely done, but the highlight of the area for me was the giant mural of Oller’s work, The Wake.

The Wake
The Wake

This large format highlights just how chaotic the scene is as the people hold a “Valerio,” or wake, for a deceased child. (You can see the child surrounded by flowers on the table with the white tablecloth. It is not sleeping. I know this because I tickled its feet and the baby didn’t wake up.) There are musicians, a priest, and other family and friends who have come to participate in this event. Animals are running wildly around the space, children are falling and screaming, people are holding their outstretched arms and playing instruments- the scene is rather chaotic for a dead child. The revelry of certain figures in the piece caught me off guard. According to tradition, this is a happy event as the baby is guaranteed access to heaven. But according to Oller, “This is an orgy of brutish appetites under the guise of gross superstition.” It’s just like what grandma always said: One man’s wake is another man’s orgy.

Displayed alongside this work at the Blanton are sketches that Oller completed as studies for the various subjects in the piece. To see how he transformed some or merely tweaked them a little to put them in a complete composition was fascinating to me as a non-artist. I am not sure I would post my rough drafts of my writings alongside the finished work, lest the readers question which is which.


Once at the Blanton, be sure to visit the permanent collection upstairs. The museum houses a collection of works by European, Latin American, and American artists, with a huge selection of modern/ contemporary pieces. One of my favorite interactive pieces was done by Constantina Zavitsanos called I Would Prefer Not To in which the artist printed out, hour by hour, her student debt balance which produced a “book” about 1,000 pages long and weighing about 13 pounds.


Zavitsanos then placed the papers in a large C-clamp with an invitation for the viewer to flip through the pages as well as tighten or loosen the clamp. The visualization of someone’s debt, combined with the ability to loosen (thereby enlarging the already expansive book) or tightening (symbolizing a metaphoric tightening that debt often feels like), makes this piece one of my favorites. Plus you get to touch it and in many art museums you get kicked out for such intimacy with the art.

I could write more about the Blanton but I really don’t want to make my other favorite museums jealous. If you ever want to see what is happening at the Blanton, the museum has an amazing social media presence so be sure to like them on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, etc. Better yet, let me know when you are going and maybe I can join you for a tour. But let’s meet for lunch first.

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