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Art Inspires: John Himle on Dorothea Lange

WHEN ASKED IF I would write about a work of art at the MIA that inspires me, I immediately said, “Yes.” But as I began to reflect, I recalled the utter frustration years ago of having to identify only ten pieces of music I would want if stranded on a deserted island. Impossible!

As I mentally surveyed my favorites in the MIA’s permanent collection, Monet’s Grainstack, Sun in the Mist and Van Gogh’s Olive Trees quickly came to mind. My interest in China frequently draws me to the Wu Family Reception Hall. I’m also captivated by Doug Aitken’s video, Migration, whenever I’m in the Target Wing.

Dorothea Lange, American, 1895–1965, Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936, gelatin silver print; The Alfred and Ingrid Lenz Harrison Fund, 92.136

But for this assignment I nominate Dorothea Lange’s iconic 1936 photograph, Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California. Many would question the premise that this photograph can inspire—the hopeless face of a thirty-two-year-old mother, hardened by the ravages of Depression-era poverty and starvation. Two of the woman’s children are huddled next to her, their lifeline. The mother’s expression is deeply haunting—the pained look of desperation seeking hope, and finding none.

I don’t know whether this woman later found a better life. I do know that eventually the economy recovered and people had hope restored. This is the inspiration of Migrant Mother. It is difficult today to fully grasp the horrible conditions of the 1930s Great Depression and dustbowl. I recall the turbulence of the 1960s, which included political assassinations, conflict over Vietnam, and the struggle to gain civil rights. Currently, our country suffers from economic malaise, sharp political divisions, and international conflict.

Galleries of the MIA are richly populated with objects that record centuries of similar challenges, but also the triumph of improving the human condition. This is the value of the MIA: great art helps us understand our past, provides context for the present, and inspires us for days and even years into the future.