The family is in town, making your house feel smaller by the minute.

The kids are out of school, parked in front of video games that seem to drain their brains and erase everything they’ve learned since September.

And you’ve always secretly wondered: What’s the big deal about art museums? Are they as boring as they sound? Why do people stand around looking at clay pots and pictures like a sophisticated New York version of Trader’s World?

Then again… admission is free. What have you got to lose? Cincinnati’s wealthiest philanthropists have been stockpiling the greatest works of art that lots and lots of money can buy since 1881—just for you. And they put it all in a fantastic old temple to the arts on Mount Adams.

Maybe the kids would enjoy seeing a 12-foot Pinocchio and a real mummy instead of four more hours of Mario’s Monkeys and Grand Theft IQ? And what about that show, “Into the Undergrowth,” featuring one of the greatest artists of all time, Vincent Van Gogh? That sounds at least as interesting as hearing (again) about Grandpa’s epic battle with sciatica.

Still need an excuse to visit the Cincinnati Art Museum? Here’s our list of Five Things You Have to See—beginning with five quotes that tell you why:

- “The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again.” – William Faulkner

- “If I could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.” –Edward Hopper

- “Art is a microscope which the artist fixes on the secrets of his soul, and shows to people these secrets which are common to all.” – Leo Tolstoy

- “The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” – Pablo Picasso

- “In other words, you don’t need an excuse.” – Cincy Magazine

Number 1: Van Gogh

What is it about those two people in the woods that makes you stop and stare and put your hand on your chin, striking that classic art-museum pose while the world around you melts into the picture like one of those Salvador Dali watches?

What is the couple in the woods doing? Are they illicit lovers stealing away for a secret affair? A married couple out for a leisurely Sunday stroll? Are they arguing? What is it that makes us imagine an entire E.M. Forster novel about two shadowy, indistinct figures who lived more than 100 years ago if they ever lived at all?

It’s Van Gogh.

Somehow, he draws us in like a snake charmer. His painting has that indefinable something that stops art experts and art skeptics in their tracks. It beckons with the pull of an emotional magnet, making us feel something like the silky edges of forgotten dreams slipping through our fingers.

“Undergrowth With Two Figures” is the most popular piece of art at the Cincinnati Art Museum, No. 1 on any list of things to see there.

“Part of it is the way Van Gogh paintings really touch people on an emotional level,” says Julie Aronson, Cincinnati Art Museum curator of American paintings, sculpture and drawings. “So much feeling goes into the way he paints.”

The feeling in this painting is one of enveloping peace, an escape to the deep and quiet woods. “Today, most of us are familiar with cities, but in late 19th century, the big city was relatively new,” Aronson explains. “There was a lot of industry, changes in transportation, the routine of work days, the whole pattern of how we lived our lives. It was all new and exciting. But it was also scary because of what people were leaving behind. A lot of artists retreated into landscapes, immersing themselves in something really quiet in the woods. This painting celebrates being alone or with one other person. Van Gogh was looking for that kind of retreat himself. He had very intense feelings about nature. His art responds to that.”

Take a closer look and there’s another surprise. “Undergrowth” isn’t painted so much as stabbed and dabbed with thick layers of pigment. Up close, the tiny splashes of color are like exploding flashes of light that merge into a picture as you step back.

“He was doing things that were not necessarily going to sell very well,” Aronson says. “He was doing adventurous things at the time. It’s easy to forget now that this kind of painting was outrageous when it was new. His way of using color was a contradiction to traditional art.”

So what do visitors see in the painting?

“It depends on whom you ask,” she says. “That’s one of the things that’s fun about it. You bring your own experience to it. The figures generate the most interesting conversations. Some people say they are creepy, and others think they are lovers strolling through the woods. Everybody’s emotional reaction is different.”

“Undergrowth” is part of a special exhibit at the museum until Jan. 8, featuring 20 works by artists who were inspired by Van Gogh, such as Paul Cezanne, Claude Monet and Paul Gauguin.

It was painted in the summer of 1889, during the final months of Van Gogh’s life. The style is post-impressionism, Aronson says. “Van Gogh was in the avant-garde in the late 19th century, and wanted to be with the most adventurous painters. They inspired him, encouraged him to try things.”

It still inspires us, as well, showing why Van Gogh is the Van Gogh of art.

Number 2: The Mummy

Imagine the year is 330-something B.C. The Greeks are on top of the world. Aristotle and Plato are international celebrities, bigger than Brad Pitt and Bono. Alexander theGreat has just conquered Egypt. And some middle-class Egyptian nobody who just died will outlast all of the philosophers and kings.

While their names become footnotes in dusty libraries, he will be visited by thousands who come to see his glass tomb at the Cincinnati Art Museum—not far from the stone carving of a Greek lion that has been guarding the dead since about 350 B.C.

“All we know from the markings is that this mummy was the anonymous son of an anonymous woman from an upper-class Egyptian family,” says Chief Curator Cynthia Amneus. The mystery mummy is an adult, “mid-range mummy,” she says—but even a standard model mummy is still 2,350 years better than anything on eBay. The Cincinnati Woman’s Club donated it to the museum in the 1920s, when Egyptology was the rage following the discovery of King Tut’s tomb by British archeologist Howard Carter.

The “Tutmania” craze of the 1920s was bigger than vampires and zombies are today. And they didn’t need special effects in those days. They had the real thing: corpses that were thousands of years old, buried in treasure tombs, amazingly preserved and gift-wrapped in wound cloth and mysterious curses. Some were so well preserved they still look more lifelike than a 1970s rock star.

Cincinnati’s mummy is hand-painted with symbols and wears a smiling gold mask. His wrapping is stained with dark patterns, but Amneus says that’s probably water damage, not embalming fluids. He has never been unwrapped, but has been X-rayed. “I haven’t seen that done anywhere else,” says Amneus. “It shows you what’s behind the wrappings. It helps explain the mythology of the culture.”

Among the discoveries inside the hundreds of yards of wrappings was a carved scarab beetle, representing eternity and regeneration of life after death.

“Mummy” comes from the Latin word mumia, which can be loosely translated to “embalming.” The exact techniques of the Egyptians are mostly lost to history, but the process began with evisceration. The stomach, heart, lungs and liver were removed and put in canopic jars—just in case they were needed in the next world.

A set of canopic jars is also in the glass case with Unknown Mummy, but they are empty. Sometimes the glass case is empty too, as he goes looking for his lost heart, wandering the marble halls of the museum in moonlight…

But that’s another story.

Number 3: Pinocchio

The solemn stone pillars that frame the entrance to the Cincinnati Art Museum make it look like a temple in Rome, before Rome was ruined. But nearby, where Julius Caesar or Marcus Aurelius should stand in dignified marble, there’s a 12-foot boy in short pants and big clunky shoes, with matchstick legs and a giant needle nose, waving his arms like he’s trying to stop traffic or be rescued from a desert island.

Pinocchio.

It’s the first thing visitors see as they approach the art museum, and the first stop for group photos. Nobody can resist the fairytale wooden puppet who was brought to life by the woodcarver Geppetto.

The sculpture is bronze, not wood, by Jim Dine, a world-famous artist born in Cincinnati, who graduated from Walnut Hills High School and the University of Cincinnati and fell in love with Pinocchio when he was 6 years old.

His work is titled Pinocchio (Emotional).

As the giant puppet-boy throws his arms out and lifts his pencil nose to the sky, you have to wonder: What is the emotion?

Is he celebrating the joy of life?

Is he throwing his arms up in triumph after finally escaping Pleasure Island before he was turned into a donkey?

Is he running to embrace Geppetto like the Prodigal Son returning from his ordeals?

Maybe he’s welcoming visitors as they drive up to the museum entrance, waving, “Over here!”

Or is he telling another extravagant lie? Look at that nose. And why doesn’t he have any eyes?

Some critics have compared his pose to Christ on the cross. Pinocchio is, after all, a creation story about a man using his skill and imagination to bring life out of wood, just as Adam was created from dust.

Maybe Pinocchio is throwing his arms up in rapture because he stands in front of a temple devoted to the divine creative spirit in mankind, expressed through art.

And what better place for a creation like Pinocchio than Eden Park.

Number 4: Rookwood

There is no darkness like the kind that is buried in the earth in caves and coalmines—blackness like a natural element, so powerful it causes instant blindness and devours the world. Japanese artist Kitaro Shirayamadani mined that darkness and used it to fill a vase that may be the world’s most valuable piece of Rookwood Pottery.

His black glaze is not a color so much as the absence of color. It doesn’t shout a statement in bold blue, red or yellow. It speaks with silence. And that is the true meaning of black—a contrast that makes the light shine brighter.

On Kitaro’s masterpiece, the background Black Iris glaze is a night sky, unlit by stars or moon, framing the flight of softly lit blush-white cranes rising from a pond. The base is decorated in detailed lotus leaves that stand in relief, carved in electroplated copper and silver that almost glows against the darkness.

“That’s one of the showstoppers here,” says Amy Dehan, curator of decorative arts and design. “People travel to Cincinnati from all over the world to see our Rookwood collection. This is the art that takes Cincinnati art pottery all over the world.”

The Cincinnati Art Museum has the biggest institutional collection of Rookwood Pottery. And this single sculpture, simply named Vase, set a record for the highest price for American pottery when it was purchased by the museum in 2004, from a Cincinnati art gallery. The undisclosed price was based on its pedigree as a winner in numerous shows, including the Grand Prix in Paris and the Paris Exhibition. It was considered to be the finest piece of pottery in the world when it was created in 1900.

Kitaro was traveling the world with other Japanese artists when he was discovered and hired by Maria Longworth, who founded Rookwood Pottery in 1876 with help from her father, Joseph Longworth. He was the son of banker Nicholas Longworth, the father of American wine, whose vineyard became Eden Park, home to the Cincinnati Art Museum.

Rookwood Pottery put Cincinnati and American art on the map internationally. So it’s appropriate that the finest piece of art created by Maria Longworth’s Rookwood Pottery stands in a glass case on property her grandfather called his “Garden of Eden”—where darkness met light.

Number 5: Damascus Room

Most classic art is a window to the past, giving us a glimpse of timeless beauty and universal emotion. But one exhibit at the Cincinnati Museum of Art is more than a window—it’s an entire room.

Visitors can literally walk into the past, to a specific time and place: The parlor of a wealthy family in Damascus, Syria, in 1711-12.

Apparently, life was complicated. Convoluted. Intricate. Byzantine. Baroque.

If art reflects life, being alive at the high mark of the Ottoman Empire was anything but simple. As if illustrating a host of angels on the head of a pin, the walls are covered in an entire dictionary of design, every square inch decorated in flowers, apples, pears, pomegranates and a jungle of leaves, vines, blossoms and organic patterns.

The room is like stepping inside a Persian rug.

A prayer niche on one wall aims at Mecca, and scripture from the Koran on the ceiling offers a Hallmark proverb in Arabic: “Each does according to his own disposition.”

In 1711, while America was still a struggling colony and the British were attacking Quebec, the Ottoman Empire had spread across Eastern Europe, North Africa, parts of Asia and what we now know as the Middle East. It ruled for 600 years, beginning in 1300.

The Damascus Room could have been home to an affluent trader, merchant or satrap of the empire. It’s small and crowded with a frenzy of fine print. The ceiling hovers with darker circular patterns and carvings. The white marble floor tiles repeat the patterns, furnished with low couches—no ottomans—that hug the floor.

“It was an elaborate room for visiting, serving tea and coffee,” says Amneus. “All the geometric designs were hand painted.”

The theme is “geometric and vegetal,” she says, influenced by European Baroque, punctuated by “adages and blessings that refer to the Prophet Mohammed.”

A local collector purchased it in the 1930s, installed in his own home, then donated to the museum in 1966, she says. And now, for a few minutes at least, visitors can step into the room and step back to 1711. “Some visitors describe it as a religious experience,” says Amneus, “as if they are being taken back in time.”



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