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If You Have To Wear A Mask, It Might As Well Be A Masterpiece

Photographer Catherine Opie made this mask for Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. "I wanted to make something with a bit of humor ... humor is needed in this moment," Opie says.
Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art
Photographer Catherine Opie made this mask for Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. "I wanted to make something with a bit of humor ... humor is needed in this moment," Opie says.

In the Old Normal, you bought a new shirt, wore it to work and people noticed. "Oh, new blouse!" Or, "Mmmm, new shirt." These Now Normal pandemic days, working at home means wearing the same thing (in my case an old T-shirt and ancient huge blue shorts that are fitting better day after imprisonment day). The only thing people comment on when you go out — if you go out — is your face mask. And if the comment is positive, they can't even see you smile.

Well, I've been doing a lot of smiling, discovering what museums are doing to help. Many museums are still closed, but their shops are doing a lively business with face masks that are funny, or gorgeous, or daring, and can be ordered online. Usually the masks are based on art in their collections. They're nonmedical (but at least one of them — The Detroit Institute of Arts — is selling liners you can tuck inside the mask, for extra protection.)

DIA is selling some stunning masks, too. One, based on a Monet painting, gives you an Impressionist beard!

The painting,Corbeille de Fleurs, is one of the most popular at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and this mask is the shop's top seller. Eric Huck, who runs retail operations at DIA, says he wanted "to have a cheery scene on something most people wouldn't choose to wear if we weren't in the middle of a pandemic."

That was the thinking behind choices for many museum retailers. Buyer Karen McNeely at the Milwaukee Art Museum picked a design that's less about beauty and more about mood.

/ Milwaukee Art Museum
Milwaukee Art Museum

Edvard Munch's The Scream is Milwaukee's second bestselling mask. Number one is Vincent van Gogh's Starry Night. Van Gogh exhibitions are usually blockbusters for museums. Online, he's also a big hit.

<em>Sunflowers</em>, 1889, by Vincent Willem van Gogh, oil on canvas
The Mr. and Mrs. Carroll S. Tyson, Jr., Collection / Philadelphia Museum of Art
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Sunflowers, 1889, by Vincent Willem van Gogh, oil on canvas

Van Gogh painted some 12 sunflower canvases. That one above, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, inspired a mask.

/ Ana Thorne
Ana Thorne

And still more sunflowers are planted on museum shop masks in The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, and at the Barnes Foundation shop in Philadelphia. Well, maybe not a sunflower. But gorgeous, no?

/ The Barnes Foundation
The Barnes Foundation

I've been lucky enough to have seen fields of sunflowers in different parts of France (and know that the sunlight of France turned van Gogh away from the dreary dark Dutch interiors he'd been painting). But I never thought I'd see fields of sunflowers in museum shop catalogs. Let alone on anti-pandemic masks.

The last examples — total magnets for people in love with the arts of Asia (me) — are offered in an unlikely place: Salem, Mass., home of the Peabody Essex Museum. These masks in their shop uphold an ancient tradition of witchcraft. They cast spells.

/ Peabody Essex Museum
Peabody Essex Museum

One of them — The Great Sea Serpent — has sold out twice, says Peabody's director of merchandising, Victor Oliveira. "I see a bit of humor in the image," he says, "as I don't know who looks more frightened, the sailors or the serpent. If I had to retitle the work, I would probably call it The Great Misunderstanding." (You can see the lithograph it's based on here.)

Just a thought about the Old Normal: All the museums mentioned here, with the exception of LA's MoCA, are now open. Still, the pandemic may make a bit of virtual retail therapy useful, from time to time.

Art Where You're At is an informal series showcasing lively online offerings from museums while their buildings are closed due to COVID-19.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.