Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Thomas Cole's Journey: Atlantic Crossings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

    Thomas Cole's Journey: Atlantic Crossings

Metropolitan Museum of Art  

 January 30, 2018 - May 13, 2018

Reviewed by Ed Voves

The rise of landscape painting  during the first half of the nineteenth century is a familiar story. Usually told from a French perspective, the standard narrative acknowledges British innovators like J.M.W. Turner and John Constable, before proceeding to the struggle and eventual triumph of Impressionism.

A recently-opened exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas Cole's Journey: Atlantic Crossings, studies the embrace of landscape art during the 1800's from a different perspective. Instead of looking toward France, this superb exhibition directs our attention to the developing art scene in the young American Republic.

The key figure in bringing the landscape "school" to the United States was Thomas Cole (1801-1848). Cole was born in Lancashire, just as this region in the north of England experienced the first effects of full-scale industrialization. The volatile economic climate of the Industrial Revolution enriched some families, while devastating others. Cole's family, though well-to-do, was ruined  and sought to regain their fortune in the United States.

When the young Cole reached America in 1817, he had to earn his living and this search for employment took him and his family on a journey around the northern states of the U.S. Cole's artistic ability, already apparent in England, kept surfacing.  Fortunately, he was able to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art for a short period and then to make a bid to become a full-fledged artist.

Matthew Brady, Thomas Cole, ca.1845

In 1825, Cole exhibited several works in New York City, winning applause from the last of "founding Fathers" of American art, John Trumbull. More to the point, Trumbull purchased one of Cole's paintings - the highest praise one artist can give to another. This stroke of good fortune confirmed that a career in the arts was Cole's destiny.                                                                                                                            
The key to appreciating Cole's career path is that he focused on landscape painting from the start. Portrait painting was never a consideration. Cole fell in love with the face of American nature, both cultivated areas like the Hudson Valley and the "back country" which had yet to tamed by the pioneer's ax and plow. Surprisingly, no other American artist had made landscape painting their primary oeuvre. The field was open to Cole and he never looked back.

The Metropolitan exhibition displays a number of Cole's early works. His talent was evident from the first, though by European standards these first efforts were competent at best. But this was America and national pride was on the rise, particularly as the U.S. celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 1826. Americans were proud of their nation and appreciated rising literary talents, with Washington Irving in the lead, who celebrated American themes.

Thomas Cole, Scene from "The Last of the Mohicans," 
Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund,1827

Cole was quick to capitalize on the rising sense of America heritage. One of his early landscapes refers to James Fenimore Cooper's bestselling novel, Scene from “The Last of the Mohicans,” Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund, 1827. 

Given the diminutive size of the human figures, the action in the painting might just as well be a religious revival or a political rally. It really is the spectacular natural setting that counts. Cole cleverly used the appeal of Cooper's novel to get cultured Americans to take a look at the landscape around them. 

Cole's landscapes were highly-esteemed and began to sell. In 1826, Cole along with other American artists and cultural leaders joined ranks to found the National Academy of Design in New York City. Less than a decade after emigrating to the United States, Cole had become one of the leading lights of American art.

Thomas Cole, From Nature, 1823

Cole might have chosen a scene from “The Last of the Mohicans” as inspiration but there was a dark, nightmare lurking on the edge of many of his other paintings. In 1823, Cole sketched a withered, gnarled tree, with knotted bark resembling human features. Instead of a Fenimore Cooper novel, this tree would have been better suited to a story by Edgar Allen Poe.

Thomas Cole, Detail of The Oxbow, 1836

A version of this gaunt, twisted tree would reappear in many of Cole's paintings, most notably in his greatest work, The Oxbow (1836).  Even as he extolled the progress and promise of his adopted country, Cole began to worry that the American Eden might become Paradise Lost. 

Lurking fears did not prevent Cole from taking the bold move of travelling to England in 1829, followed by a sojourn in Italy.  At this point in the exhibit timeline, the distinctive nature of Cole's achievement can truly be appreciated. Cole profited enormously from his studies in Europe but he went there as an already successful artist, the essential features of his oeuvre already well defined .

On display are an impressive array of paintings by Turner, Constable, John Martin and other contemporary artists whose works Cole studied. Cole met several of these English masters in person and we can trace influences on his evolving style. 

Turner, like Cole, incorporated moral lessons and historical references as the themes of his major paintings. Turner's Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps has a lot more snow than Hannibal and his elephants, but this famous painting certainly conveys Turner's obsessive thoughts on the "fallacies of hope."

J.M.W. Turner, Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps, 1812

In keeping with Cole's experiences in England, the exhibit on view at the Met will travel to the National Gallery of Art in London during the summer of 2018.

While in England, Cole also studied the great harbor scene by the seventeenth century master, Claude Lorraine, Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula, 1641. This fabulous painting was one of the original anchors of the collection of the National Gallery, founded in 1824. Claude's masterpiece was a favorite of Turner's. It ranked high on Cole's list too, so high that when he visited Italy, he made a point to rent Claude's old studio. 

 Claude Lorraine, Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula, 1641

That feeling of self-assurance is significant. But the fact that Cole returned at all from Europe is more telling. The allure of Europe was hard to resist and many of America's greatest artists, Benjamin West, John Singleton Copley and Mather Brown, had traveled to the Old World, never to return. Cole came back. He was truly an American painter upon his return in 1832.

When Cole stepped-off the boat, he found that some of his fears for America were coming true. Industry was starting to replace agriculture, party politics was ramping-up, the  differences between North and South were proving  to be hard-set convictions not passing opinions. In Italy, Cole had seen and painted the ruins of a once-great republic, Rome. Might this be the eventual fate of the United States?

Thomas Cole, Aqueduct near Rome, 1832

Cole was not the only person who foresaw the future of the U.S. in the sun-bleached debris of ancient Rome. In 1834, a wealthy New York merchant, Lumen Reed, commissioned Cole to create a series of paintings showing the rise and fall of a classical civilization, a mix of fantasy and a close reading of Edward Gibbon's history of Rome's downfall. The resulting series, The Course of Empire, is displayed to spectacular effect in the Metropolitan's exhibit. I have seen The Course of Empire before, but never in such a striking way.

Beginning with The Savage State, in which tribal folk live in huts shaped like American Indian wig-wams, The Course of Empire proceeds to heights of material splendor, followed by destruction and desolation. Each of these brilliantly-realized paintings features a Gibraltar-like mountain peak. This distinctive massif appeared earlier in Scene from “The Last of the Mohicans.” Cole based its shape on sketches he had made of Mount Chocorua in New Hampshire.

While Cole painted this meditation on history, he was a work on his greatest single painting. It is one of the most important works in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum - which says a great deal. Cole gave a Turner-like title to his depiction of a meandering river:  View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow

Thomas Cole, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm —The Oxbow,1836

The real subject of this inspiring painting is the retreat of the American frontier before the  advance of ax-wielding pioneers and the farming families who followed in their wake. We can see Cole himself in the detail of the painting which introduces this review. He sits at his easel, a few feet from his umbrella which is planted on the cliff-face like a regimental banner waving over a conquered redoubt. Cole shows himself painting the beginning of the end of the "savage state" which inwardly he found hard to relinquish.

According to meticulous research of The Oxbow, Cole also used the actual setting of this painting for The Course of Empire paintings. Cole made an oil study of the river valley, which he used to plot the location of the magnificent temples, monuments and piers. 

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire - The Consummation of Empire, 1835 - 1836

Whenever - or wherever - Cole and his patron, Lumen Reed, conceived the idea for their "rise and fall" series, contemporary events likely supplied some vivid details. On December 16, 1835, a fire from a warehouse in lower Manhattan, ignited an inferno that torched seventeen city blocks, including most of the financial district, of the city of New York. Remarkably only two people were killed but the conflagration may well have informed Cole's apocalyptic vision in The Course of Empire - Destruction.

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire - Destruction,1836

Sadly, Lumen Reed died in 1836 just as the paintings were being prepared for display. The Course of Empire was so well received that Cole painted a second landscape series, The River of Life. He was in the process of painting a third series when he died, suddenly, of pleurisy in 1848. He was only 47 years old and at the height of his powers.

Cole's sudden death was a heavy blow to American culture. Fortunately, Cole had begun training talented pupils like Frederic Edwin Church, whose works would take American painting to sublime heights. Furthermore, Cole's great friend, Asher B. Durand, picked up the  reigns of leadership and guided the Hudson River movement during its time as America's major school of art, the years just before and after the Civil War.

The moralizing content of Thomas Cole's paintings is out of favor today. Likewise, Durand's beautiful tribute to Cole, Kindred Spirits, seems impossibly remote from our experience of life in the over-urbanized twenty-first century. 

Asher B. Durand, Kindred Spirits, 1849

Yet, when we leave the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, we have only to look a short distance to see the welcoming "wilderness" of Central Park. From the rear entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a "river of life" view greets our eyes, in this case Fairmount Park and the Schuylkill River. Most American art museums are built adjacent to green spaces. And then, there is the National Park System, which preserves a wide swathe of the natural world for the enjoyment and inspiration of all U.S. citizens

None of these wondrous things  - art museums, urban green spaces and National Parks  - might ever have taken root in the United States except for the art-inspired journeys that Thomas Cole made across the Atlantic and his exploration into the soul of America.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                Photos courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Introductory Image

Detail of View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm —The Oxbow, 1836, by Thomas Cole (American, 1801-1848) Oil on canvas, 51 1/2 x 76 in. (130.8 x 193 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. Russell Sage, 1908 (08.228). Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Mathew B. Brady, American, (1823?-1896) Thomas Cole,c.1845, Photograph, Half-plate daguerreotype on silver-coated copper plate. Plate: 13.7 x 10.2cm (5 3/8 x 4") Credit Line  National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Edith Cole Silberstein Object number NPG.76.11

Thomas Cole (American, 1801–1848) Scene from “The Last of the Mohicans,” Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund, 1827. Oil on canvas, 25 3/8 x 35 1/8 in. (64.5 x 89.1 cm). Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut, Bequest of Alfred Smith (1868.3). Photo: Allen Phillips\Wadsworth Atheneum

Thomas Cole (American, 1801–1848)  From Nature, 1823. Ink on paper, 9 5/8 x 7 1/4 in. (24.4 x 18.4 cm). Albany Institute of History & Art, Gift of Edith Cole (Mrs. Howard) Silberstein (1965.68.1) Photography provided by the Albany Institute of History & Art

Detail of View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm — The Oxbow, 1836, by Thomas Cole (American, 1801-1848)

Joseph Mallord William Turner (British, 1775– 1851) Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps, 1812. Oil on canvas, 57 1/2 × 93 1/2 in. (146 × 237.5 cm). Tate Britain, London, Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 (N00490). © Tate, London 2017

Claude Lorrain (French, 1604/5?–1682) Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula, 1641. Oil on canvas, 44 1/2 x 58 3/4 in. (112.9 x 149 cm). The National Gallery, London. Bought, 1824 (NG30). © The National Gallery, London/Art Resource, NY

Thomas Cole (American,1801–1848) Aqueduct near Rome, 1832. Oil on canvas, 45 x 68 1/8 in. (114.3 x 173 cm). Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University, St. Louis, University purchase, Bixby Fund, by exchange, 1987 (WU 1987.4)

Thomas Cole (American, 1801–1848) View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, 1836. Oil on canvas, 51 1/2 x 76 in. (130.8 x 193 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. Russell Sage, 1908 (08.228). Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Thomas Cole (American, 1801–1848) The Course of the Empire: The Consummation of Empire, 1835–36. Oil on canvas, 51 1/4 x 76 in. (130.2 x 193 cm). New-York Historical Society, Gift of The New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts (1858.3). Digital image created by Oppenheimer Editions

Thomas Cole (American, 1801–1848 ) The Course of Empire: Destruction,1836. Oil on canvas, 39 1/4 x 63 1/2 in. (99.7 x 161.3 cm). New-York Historical Society, Gift of The New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts (1858.4). Digital image created by Oppenheimer Editions

Asher Brown Durand (American,1796–1886) Kindred Spirits, 1849. Oil on canvas, 46 x 36 in. (111.8 x 91.4 cm). Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas (2010.106). Photography by The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Monday, January 29, 2018

Art Eyewitness Book Review: I See A City: Todd Webb's New York

I See a City: Todd Webb's New York 

Essays by Sean Corcoran & Daniel Okrent - Edited by Betsy Evans Hunt
Thames & Hudson/$45/176 pages 
   Photos ©2017 Todd Webb Archive    
Reviewed by Ed Voves

New York City is  ever-changing, always new. Freshly-minted every morning, the Big City is already evolving by nightfall into the next day's New York.

New York City is a classic illustration of the statement by the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus (544 BC) who declared "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man."

Occasionally, even New York City takes a "breather" before plunging back into the river of change. 

In 1945, after a decade and half of economic depression and global war, a curious equilibrium occurred. This pause allowed a photographer named Todd Webb to immortalize the "rough-at-the edges" neighborhoods of Manhattan - Morningside Heights, Fulton Fish Market, the Bowery, Harlem. Careworn but proud, old New York posed for Webb for a brief moment before the incredible burst of modernist building of the 1950's-1960's transformed the city forever.

Webb's photographic journey through old New York is the subject of a brilliant book published by Thames & Hudson, I See A City: Todd Webb's New York. An exhibition of Webb's photos was presented last year at the Museum of the City of New York.

Todd Webb, The Battery, 1946
©2017 Todd Webb Archive 

Todd Webb (1905-2000) came to New York after being discharged from the U.S. Navy in World War II. Webb had been a Navy photographer in the Pacific during the war. Before that he had led an adventurous life, filed with ups-and-downs. A stock broker wiped-out by the Wall Street crash in 1929, Webb prospected for gold in Panama, served as a forest ranger and took a crash course in photography with Ansel Adams.

Webb saved much of his wartime Navy pay and headed to New York in 1945. His plan was to photograph the daily life of New Yorkers and their neighborhood surroundings. This was New York before air conditioning, electric clothes dryers, television (except in some restaurants) - and the ruthless "development" schemes of Robert Moses.

Webb began with a series of photos of special relevance to himself - "welcome home" signs for New York men returning from military service in World War II. Implicit in these photos is the acknowledgment of the GIs who did not make it back. Webb recognized this in his daily journal, excerpts of which are included in the introductory essays of I See A City.

Todd Webb, East 7th Street (Welcome Home McSorley Boys),1946         
©2017 Todd Webb Archive 

Webb succeed brilliantly in documenting work-a-day New York, but his motivating idea was not original. Credit Berenice Abbott for that. Abbott (1898–1991) documented New York City for the Depression-era Federal Art Project from 1935 to 1939. Her photos, shown at the New York World's Fair in 1939 and the companion book, Changing New York, set American photography on a new path.

Webb took a momentous step in his art career before venturing forth with his 5x7 Deardorff large-format camera and tripod. En route to basic training in 1942, Webb stopped in New York and managed to meet Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), the elder statesman of American photography. Stieglitz could be quite disagreeable but he and Webb got along. In 1945, Webb was welcomed back to Stieglitz's gallery, An American Place, and until Stieglitz died in July 1946, consulted regularly with the "grand old man." 

It was through Webb's relationship with Stieglitz that he met Berenice Abbott. Webb and Abbott established an artistic friendship of enduring value. Abbott was a generous person, as well as one of America's greatest photographers. She was responsible for ensuring that the pioneering photo work of Eugene Atget was preserved and made known to a wide audience.

Webb was obviously inspired by Abbott. Some of his images of old New York directly correspond to Abbott's. In 1946, Webb photographed Under the El, Third Avenue, 1946. A decade earlier, Webb had taken one of the most artfully composed photos in the history of the medium, Under the El at the Battery. Both photos deal with the same topic, urban life under the iron superstructure of one of New York's elevated transit lines.

Todd Webb, Under the El, Third Avenue, 1946 
©2017 Todd Webb Archive 

The differences between Abbott and Webb are crucial to the understanding of the latter's work. Sean Corcoran, whose perceptive essay on Webb, is included in I See A City, notes that the way the two photographers "approached their subjects was quite different. Webb focused more on capturing the last vestiges of old New York and was not nearly as interested as Abbott in the juxtaposition of the old and the new."

The horse-drawn cart clattering past the parked cars is the key to Webb's fixation with the past in Under the El, Third Avenue. In many of Webb's photos there is a small detail like this that gives special relevance to the entire picture. 

If you study one of my favorite photos by Webb, 125th Street, September, 1946, it won't take you long to spot the key object. The young girl and her baby sister are sharing a snowcone, a paper cup filled with chopped ice and a squirt of fruit syrup. This precursor to water ice became a popular summer treat during the 1930's. But the snowcone isn't what your eyes fix upon. It's the shoes.

Todd Webb, 125th Street, September,1946
 ©2017 Todd Webb Archive 

Webb did not have an overt political agenda in taking his photos. But the prominence of these scuffed, battered hand-me-down shoes asserts the hard lives of these children's family and community. The shortages of material goods in the U.S. continued for only a short time after the war, but inflation in 1946 soared to a staggering level, 18.1%. The nation's poor, especially African-Americans, had to keep on "making-do." The shoes that the toddler wears were likely worn by her big sister. But the sneakers worn by this older child are unlikely to have survived much longer.

Children figure in quite a number of Webb's greatest photos from the post-war years. Webb was not a "decisive moment" photographer like Henri Cartier-Bresson. Since Webb's bulky Deardorff camera took quite a bit of time to set-up, it is remarkable that he was able to achieve the degree of spontaneity that he did get.

In the case of one of Webb's most beloved pictures, LaSalle Street at Amsterdam Avenue,1946, the circle of children dancing around a sprinkler pipe looks like a posed shot. One of the girls looks over her shoulder, to see if Webb is taking the photo. In contrast, the book also includes two other, more natural, pictures of the same children, standing around, dripping wet, or hoping around in the sprinkler. 

Todd Webb, LaSalle Street at Amsterdam Avenue, 1946
 ©2017 Todd Webb Archive 

Further reflection makes me think that, if the dancing picture was posed, it was probably the children themselves who decided to form a circle and put on a show for Webb. Yet they don't look like they are "showing-off." Webb lived nearby and the children would have known and trusted him. This photo, as a result doesn't look "staged" in a contrived, artificial way. They are kids being kids, though they know an adult is watching.

Webb's greatest photo, however, was staged in a very deliberate and and calculated way. This was Sixth Avenue between 43rd and 44th Street. Webb took eight separate pictures,  documenting an entire city block. He had to ensure that he photographed an entire car or let traffic pass and then take the picture. The eight separate frames were developed into a single image.

This spectacular photo is too big to present in a blog like Art Eyewitness.A similar one frame picture of Sixth Ave does give an idea of the panoramic, eight frame version. The effort that went into creating these life-pulsing images of modern day city life was extraordinary - and so is the effect of looking at it. 

Todd Webb, Sixth Avenue South, August,1946
 ©2017 Todd Webb Archive 

Despite the brilliance of the Sixth Ave photos, Webb came closest to perfection with the close-ups he took of roast peanut sellers, harried pedestrians, little boys petting a cat, a cloth-capped Jewish shop owner on Hester Street. Yet, Webb could not resist the gravity-defying impulse of ascending to the observation deck on the Empire State Building on a clear evening in 1946 to capture spectacular images of the city by night.

Here we see New York not as a world unto itself but as an image of the World in microcosm. Look at each of the lights, glimmering and glittering in the New York night. Think of each of those lights as a human life, a human soul destined to live in the City of God! 

Todd Webb, From the Empire State Building Looking South, 1946
 ©2017 Todd Webb Archive 

Inspiring thoughts like this often evaporate in the harsh reality of life after sun-up. The real world has little use for enchantment. 

Todd Webb's images of the daily, hum-drum humanity of New York City folk in the aftermath of World War II, however, do more than document a passing moment in the Big Apple's history. Webb's photos, splendidly displayed in I See A City, reinforce the conviction that the human spirit shall endure however much the architecture of the City of Man changes.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                                                                                                
Images: Courtesy of the Todd Webb Archive, ©2017 Todd Webb Archive, 61 Pleasant St., #104A, Portland, ME, 04101  http://www.toddwebbarchive.com/

Special thanks to Sam Walker, Archivist of the Todd Webb Archive and Andrea Smith (Andrea Smith Public Relations) 

Introductory Image: I See a City: Todd Webb's New York, 2017 (cover) Image courtesy: Thames & Hudson

Todd Webb (American, 1905-2000) The Battery, 1946. Photograph, black and white. ©2017 Todd Webb Archive 

Todd Webb (American, 1905-2000) East 7th Street (Welcome Home McSorley Boys),1946. Photograph, black and white. ©2017 Todd Webb Archive 

Todd Webb (American, 1905-2000) Under the El, Third Avenue, 1946. Photograph, black and white. ©2017 Todd Webb Archive 

Todd Webb (American, 1905-2000) 125th Street, September,1946. Photograph, black and white. ©2017 Todd Webb Archive 

Todd Webb (American, 1905-2000) LaSalle Street at Amsterdam Avenue1946. Photograph, black and white. ©2017 Todd Webb Archive

Todd Webb (American, 1905-2000)  Sixth Avenue, South,1946. Photograph, black and white. ©2017 Todd Webb Archive

Todd Webb (American, 1905-2000)  From the Empire State Building Looking South, 1946. Photograph, black and white. ©2017 Todd Webb Archive 

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Art Eyewitness Book Review: China: A History in Objects by Jessica Harrison-Hall

China: a History in Objects

Thames & Hudson - British Museum/$39.95/352 pages

By Jessica Harrison-Hall

Reviewed by Ed Voves

In 2010, the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor created a sensation with his book - and related exhibition - A History of the World in 100 Objects. Since then, there have been a host of "100 Objects" books. A quick search of Amazon.com revealed A History of American Sports in 100 Objects, A History of Birdwatching in 100 Objects, The Beatles in 100 Objects and many, many more. 

A similar book, just published by the British Museum and Thames & Hudson, explores the history of China. It is worth pausing a moment to reflect on the title of this splendid volume, China: a History in Objects

There is no mention of one hundred or two hundred objects. 

China's astonishing cultural achievements - past and present - cannot be limited to examining a few signature works of art, even ones as radiantly beautiful as the decorated  bronze mirror from the Tang Dynasty (ca. 700-800 AD). Mother-of-pearl was used to create a miniature lotus pond with swimming Mandarin ducks on the back of the mirror. Truly a symbol of eternal China, but only one of many.

Mirror (back), Tang Dynasty, ca. 700-800 AD

The new book coincides with the opening of a magnificent new gallery at the British Museum for the display of treasures of Asian civilization. 

In November 2017, Queen Elizabeth II visited the British Museum for the dedication of the new gallery devoted to the art of China and India, named for the philanthropist, Sir Joseph Hotung. The British Museum's vast collection of Chinese art, among the best in the world, serves as the source for almost all of the works discussed in this book.

The timing of the publication of China: a History in Objects also comes at a moment when China is poised to take a dominant position in world affairs, politically and economically. The British Museum book is commendably free of propaganda. The "objects" in the book speak for themselves and demonstrate the worldwide impact of Chinese creativity that weapons and armies of China have never achieved. 

Blue-and-white porcelain is the best exemplar of the way that beautiful and useful objects from Zhōngguó (as the Chinese call their native land) have transformed the world.

Porcelain Censer, Ming Dynasty, 1625

Durable ceramics in China can be dated back to the Hemudu culture, five thousand or more years ago. White porcelain most likely was introduced under the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD) but it took several centuries to develop the techniques that earned "china" its global status. 

The startling blue glaze of the blue and-white porcelain was produced from cobalt. Ironically, this "trademark" color was a legacy of the Mongol invasions of China and the Yuan Dynasty they subsequently imposed in 1279 on the entire country. Blue cobalt glaze traveled to China from the Middle East along the trade routes dominated by the Mongols.

China has a habit of conquering its conquerors. When the Ming Dynasty ousted the Mongols in 1368, Chinese blue-and-white porcelain became the first global industrial product. During the dynamic early phase of the Ming hegemony, maritime fleets sailed from China to the Middle East and Africa carrying porcelain of various hues and designs. Later, as Ming power declined, European merchant ships appeared in port cities like Guangzhou. Blue-and-white "china" was at the top of their shopping list.

The British Museum book discusses the great variety of design patterns and uses of blue-and white porcelain under the Ming dynasty. A particularly significant piece is an incense censor decorated with an episode from the classic Chinese novel, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. In this scene, the hero, Zhao Zilong, rescues a child, wrapped in his cloak, from the pursuing soldiers of the evil General Cao-Cao.

Detail of a Ming-era Porcelain Censer,1625,
showing a scene from The Romance of the Three Kingdoms

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms was based on actual events, the downfall of the Han Dynasty in 220 AD. It is interesting to compare the scene of daring deeds on the censor with Cinemascope movie heroics of films like Ben-Hur and El Cid.

The achievements of the Ming Dynasty,1368-1644, take on added importance in this book because the British Museum mounted a special exhibition devoted to this Imperial regime in 2014. However, China: a History in Objects is a remarkably balanced book. Less famous epochs, like the Song Dynasty, receive their due from the author, Jessica Harrison-Hall, who is the chief curator of Chinese art at the British Museum.

The Song Dynasty, which replaced the more renowned Tang, was continually attacked by nomad raiders until it was finally crushed by the Mongols. After its northern territories were lost, a cultural renaissance of sorts under the Southern Song took place, 1127 to 1279 AD. 

A spectacular example of the Southern Song creative genius is included in the book. Made of black glazed stoneware, its sole decoration was a leaf placed on the glaze before being fired in the kiln. The actual leaf was burned away during the firing, but an impression remained, singularly beautiful and imperishable. 

Tea Bowl, Song Dynasty, ca. 960-1279 AD

This Blackware tea bowl is one of the most striking works of art in the book and - to me at least - far more meaningful than the world-famous ceramic soldiers from the tomb of the First Emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, 221-210 BC. This tea bowl was created nearly one thousand years ago and yet would bring high praise for any ceramic artist capable of making it today. 

The two dominant features of Chinese artistic achievement are reverence for the past and the importance of outside influences. The Ming-era censor celebrates China's past, while the practical purpose of the Southern Song bowl was tea drinking, an import from India during the late Tang era.

Incense vessels and tea bowls alone cannot do justice to these two essential features of Chinese culture. Signature artworks from the British Museum such as Shang bronzes from ca. 1000 BC and splendid Buddhist sculptures enable us to grasp the importance of the precepts of Chinese civilization.

Jia, Ritual Vessel, Late Shang Dynasty, ca. 1200 BC-1050 BC

Reverence for the past, especially for one's ancestors, occasioned China's first great art works, the Shang ritual wine and food vessels. Offerings were left at the tombs of the dead in these spectacular bronze vessels, cast in ceramic piece molds. 

These works of art represent the visible birth of Chinese civilization, though the skills needed to create the Shang bronzes were developed and refined over the preceding centuries.

Tea was introduced to China from India by wide-travelling Buddhist monks who spread the word of the new faith. These religious emissaries brought theological teachings and religious imagery that continue to inspire the estimated 245 million Buddhists in China.  

Few of the ideals and images of Buddhism had greater appeal than the cult of Guanyin. As with the veneration of the Virgin Mary in Christendom, Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, was embraced with fervent devotion by China's people and throughout East Asia.

Wooden figure of Guanyin, Late Song Dynasty, 1115-1234 AD

The appeal of a compassionate supernatural being like Guanyin is of course universal. But there is a undercurrent to Chinese history which may not be apparent in a book like China: a History in Objects

China's long-suffering peasantry and the well-educated elite have both endured much at the hands of invaders, from the rampaging horsemen of Mongolia during the Middle Ages to the ruthless Japanese invasion which lasted from 1937 to 1945. The most devastating wounds, however, have been inflicted by the centralized, bureaucratic governments of one Chinese dynasty after another. Foreign "devils" often administered the final death blow to regimes which had treated the people of China very poorly indeed.

The fate of the Ming Dynasty graphically demonstrates this tragic aspect of Chinese history. After a brilliant beginning, the Ming court lapsed into a downward spiral of greed and arrogance, political incompetence and disregard for the starving, over-worked populace. In 1644, widespread internal revolts opened the gates to invaders from Manchuria, who established the Qing Dynasty which was to last until 1911.

In the British Museum collection is a painting album that illustrates the human cost of China's violant history. Entitled Eight Views of the South, it contains eight scenes that, on first sight, seem entirely peaceful and harmonious. Yet these remarkable landscapes testify to the bitter cost of rebellion and civil war.

The creator of Eight Views of the South was a Ming prince named Zhu Ruoji. He was born in 1642 and was only an infant when the Manchurian invaders swept in from the north. After the Qing dynasty was established, a purge of the surviving Ming royal family ensued. Zhu Ruoji evaded death by becoming a Buddhist monk and later a Daoist, taking the name Shitao by which he is known in history.

Shitao, album leaf from Eight Views of the South, ca.1662-1707

Look closely at this album leaf and you will see a wandering sage ascending a mountain in search of contemplation, peace and truth. What a compelling scene this is! It comes close to being the real self-portrait of Shitao, though he did paint an actual one of himself, sitting beneath a gnarled pine tree. 

Shitao was a remarkable figure, one of history's great artist-philosophers. Shitao created his paintings from a state of "no mind" where the spirit leads and the human intellect follows. He once wrote:

Mountains and streams compel me to speak for them. Mountains and streams emerge from me and I emerge from Mountains and streams. I thoroughly investigate strange peaks, making rough sketches. Mountains, streams and I meet in spirit and become one.

Translation by Dr Mae Anna Pang 

Liu Kuo-sung, Sun and Moon: Floating? Sinking?, 1970

How wonderful it is to see the modern day painting by Liu Kuo-sung in the concluding chapter of China: a History in Objects. Born in 1932, Liu escaped from Communist rule by going to Taiwan in 1949. He continues to paint in the tradition of great masters like Shitao, while also adapting to the new age of science and technology. 

This 1970 painting was inspired by the U.S. Apollo 11 mission to the moon. It shows the earth and the sun/moon exchanging energy. It is a brilliant work, a testament to the continuing two-fold basis of Chinese creativity. Reverence for the past motivated Liu, as did the example of humanity reaching toward the heavens. 
As long as wandering sages and aspiring artists of China look toward the mountain top, then the great ideals of Chinese art discussed in this impressive, thoughtfully written book will find new ways to make their mark.                                                             

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                                                                                                
Translation of Shitao's reflections on art by Dr Mae Anna Pang, Senior Curator of Asian Art, National Gallery of Art,Victoria, Australia (in 2007). The quotation comes from the article by Dr. Pang, "An Orthodox Master and an Individualist: Wang Yuanqi and Daoji".

Images Courtesy of the British Museum

Introductory Image: China: a History in Objects, 2018 (cover) Image credit: Thames & Hudson 

Mirror (octafoliate). China, Tang Dynasty, ca. 700-800 AD. Engraved and inlaid bronze, mother-of-pearl: diameter: 9.2 cm., 173 grams. The British Museum Purchased from George Eumorfopoulos  #1936.1118.265 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Porcelain censer, China, Ming Dynasty, 1625. Porcelain with underglaze blue decoration: height: 12 cm, diameter: 18.7 cm (mouth of vessel), weight: 2.15 kg. The British Museum  Purchased from Bluett& Sons  #1971.0622.1 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Detail of Ming-era Porcelain censer,1625. The glazed decoration shows a scene from The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Chapter 41, attributed to the late Yuan/early Ming novelist Luo Guanzhong. The British Museum  Purchased from Bluett & Sons  #1971.0622.1 © The Trustees of the British Museum  

Tea Bowl, China, Song Dynasty, ca. 960-1279 AD. Black glazed stoneware: diameter 14.9 cm The British Museum Bequeathed by Brenda Zara Seligman # 1973,0726.279 © The Trustees of the British Museum   

Jia, Ritual Vessel, China, Late Shang Dynasty, ca. 1200 BC - 1050 BC. Bronze cast: height: 25.6 cm (base + lid), height: 24.2 (base), width: 15.4 cm (base), depth: 15.3 cm (base)  The British Museum Bequeathed by Oscar Charles Raphael # 1945,1017.191 © The Trustees of the British Museum  

Wooden figure of a Bodhisattva, Guanyin. China, Late Song Dynasty, 1115 -1234 AD. Wood: height: 54 cm, width: 30 cm, depth: 21.5 cm The British Museum, Brooke Sewell Bequest, 1945. #1945,1017.191 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Shitao (Chinese, 1642-1707) Eight Views of the South, Ca. 1662-1707. Album, album leaf. Landscape. Ink and colors on paper. Landscape. Ink and colors on paper. Height: 20.9 cm (image)Width: 28.3 cm (image)Height: 52.3 cm The British Museum, Brooke Sewell Bequest.  #1965,0724,0.11.7 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Liu Kuo-sung (Chinese, 1932 - ) Sun and Moon: Floating? Sinking?, 1970. Panel mounted painting in ink and colors on paper collage.Height: 57.2 cm (image)Width: 94.2 cm (image) The British Museum Donated by Michael Goedhuis Gallery and Lin Kuo-sung,         #2010,3017.1 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Art Eyewitness Looks at the Art Scene in 2017

Reflections on the Art Scene during 2017

By Ed Voves
Photos by Anne Lloyd

The art world commemorated the life of sculptor, Auguste Rodin, in 2017. Rodin died one hundred years ago, as did Edgar Degas. The "War to End All Wars" was raging in all its pointless fury, destroying much of the civilization that Rodin and Degas had enriched with their works of art. The death of these great artists represented the end of an era and it is only natural to look back on their achievements as counterpoints to the mindless waste of life that was World War I.

To "look back" comes naturally to human beings. One can look back with nostalgia or with hesitation or "look back in anger" as in the case of John Osborne's 1950's play. We live a lot of our lives, toeing the water of the future, glancing over our shoulders at the past.

One of Rodin's greatest works, small in scale but astonishing in its power, treats such a moment of looking back. Orpheus and Eurydice depicts the moment when the mythological hero, Orpheus, makes the fatal mistake of checking if his wife has escaped from Hades. 

Anne Lloyd Photo (2017), Detail of Auguste Rodin's Orpheus and Eurydice, 1893

Orpheus' bid to rescue Eurydice from Hades depended on not look upon her until she is safely beyond the gate of Hades. Yet, on the brink of escape and triumph, he looks back -thus dooming Eurydice to oblivion.

Like smoke dissolving into empty air,                                                                                Passed and was sundered from his sight ...                                                                                    
Virgil, Georgics, Book IV, lines 501-502, J.B. Greenough Translation, 1900

Orpheus and Eurydice is on display in an excellent exhibition honoring Rodin at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on view to January 15, 2018. Rodin's works appear in all their glorious variety - sketches, plaster models, finished sculptures -  in the Met's B. Gerald Cantor Sculpture Gallery. Down the hall is an exhibit of the drawings (plus a few sculptures) of a man with whom Rodin is often compared: Michelangelo. 

Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer is one of 2017's stellar exhibitions. The lighted photo version of the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes is a spectacular feature of the exhibit in the Metropolitan's Tisch gallery.  

Anne Lloyd Photo (2017) Gallery view of Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer 

As magnificent as this recreation of Michelangelo's magnum opus is, the really significant feature of the exhibit is the rare opportunity to study drawings by the great Florentine master of disegno.

The art of disegno or drawing was so omnipresent in the exhibits that featured in Art Eyewitness that this proved to be the dominant theme for 2017. 

There were outstanding exhibits of painting, sculpture, photography, fashion and ceramics during 2017, too. The National Gallery of Art in Washington reawakened memories of one of their greatest triumphs, the fabled 1995 Vermeer exhibit, with a superb presentation of Dutch Golden Age painting, Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry (October 22, 2017 - January 21, 2018)

Johannes Vermeer, The Astronomer, 1668

The Vermeer show came close to rivaling the 1995 exhibit, but it is worth remembering that in 2016, the National Gallery presented Drawings for Paintings in the Age of Rembrandt which emphasized the role of sketching and draughtmanship in seventeenth century Holland. 

Time and again, 2017 exhibitions dealing with drawings delivered the greatest impact. Drawing, "the pencil of nature" as it was called during the eighteenth century, comes closest to the individual artist's perception of the world as he or she directly sees it.

To make a drawing is an act of looking back at nature or at a person we esteem without experiencing the tragic fate of Orpheus and Eurydice. Drawings are investments of time, talent, energy and belief in the future.

Two exhibitions at the Morgan Library and Museum during 2017 proved the power of drawing with special force. 

The highlight of Treasures from the Nationalmuseum of Sweden at the Morgan (February 3 - May 14, 2017) was supposed to be François Boucher's The Triumph of Venus, 1740. This painting was the pride and joy of the Swedish emissary to the court of Versailles, Count Carl Gustaf Tessin (1696-1770). Tessin also purchased superb drawings - and nearly bankrupted himself in the process - by Rembrandt, Dürer, Watteau and others. These drawings are so far above Boucher's erotic "eye candy" in quality that I spent most of my time studying them rather than the voluptuous Venus and her minions.                                                                         
Of course, Rembrandt, Dürer and Watteau are pretty stiff competition for any artist to encounter. However, I felt the same about the drawings of an obscure French artist, 
Nicolas de Plattemontagne (1631–1706) when compared to Boucher or other French eighteenth century painters like Fragonard. I had never even heard of Nicolas de Plattemontagne before seeing this magnificent study of hands and drapery at another Morgan exhibit, Poussin, Claude, and French Drawing in the Classical Age, June 16 - October 15, 2017. 

Nicolas de Plattemontagne, Study of St. Agnesca. 1680

In popular estimation, French art of the seventeenth century usually ranks well-below Dutch art of the same period. The Morgan exhibit of French drawing was a revelation not because it proved the facility of Nicholas Poussin and Claude Lorrain in drawing. That hardly needs emphasizing. Rather, by showcasing an unknown (to me at least) artist like De Plattemontagne, the importance that was attached to drawing by the Academic establishments of Europe was highlighted and underscored.

To be a successful artist in the Western world between the Renaissance and the Second World War, you needed to be skillful in drawing. It says something about the crisis of confidence in the West today, that the importance of drawing well is no longer insisted upon as a hallmark of a successful artist.

This comment is not intended as an editorial rant. There are still many great artists, technically proficient and artistically inspired. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) David Hockney at the Metropolitan Museum, Nov. 20, 2017

It was a great experience to attend the press preview in November 2017 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the David Hockney exhibit. Hockney made an appearance at the preview, a moment I will long cherish. 

To everyone's delight, Hockney made the rounds, subjecting himself to a barrage of digital cameras and phones. There is certain appropriateness to this, as Hockney has been a bold innovator using everything from a Polaroid camera to the iPad and iPhone to further his explorations of landscapes and people.

Hockney remains a staunch believer in the discipline of drawing. "Teaching someone to draw," Hockney affirms, "is teaching them to look."

I came across this quote in a book I read while working on my review of the Hockney exhibition: Martin Gayford's, A Bigger Picture: Conversations with David Hockney (Thames & Hudson, 2016 edition). Gayford and Hockney are a brilliant team and their engaging dialogue on the nature of art is hugely enjoyable and thought provoking. 

The Yorkshire-born artist told Gayford that he believed one of his ancestors had been "a cave artist who liked making marks on the wall." In short, Hockney's distant relative had been an experimenter in art, innovating with a piece of chalk the way Hockney has adapted the iPhone to be his sketchbook. 

Yet, Hockney does not believe that new modes of technology will make traditional drawing or painting obsolete. Rather, drawing and painting are primal modes of human expression. Mass media like films and newspapers are being edged aside by the iPhone and the iPad.  

Anne Lloyd Photo (2017), David Hockney's Contre-Jour in the French Style,1974

Hockney believes that drawing and painting will endure. The whole person is engaged in these modes of artistic expression, especially in drawing. Hockney confided to Gayford:

When you are drawing, you are always one or two marks ahead. You are always thinking. 'After what I'm doing here I'll go there and there.' It's like chess or something. In drawing I've always thought economy of means was a great quality - not always in painting, but always in drawing. It's breathtaking in Rembrandt, Picasso and van Gogh. To achieve that is hard work, but stimulating: finding how to reduce everything you've looked at to just lines -  lines that contain volume in them.

Along with seeing Hockney at the Metropolitan Museum, my wife Anne and I met one of the great nature photographers of the present age, Michael Nichols, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Nichols' photos are awesome (for once the word is used accurately). 

Anne Lloyd Photo (2017), Portrait of Michael Nichols

Nichols' stunning images of the remnant of Planet Earth's undomesticated animals were displayed in brilliant contrast to selected works of art from the Philadelphia Museum of Art collection. Wild: Michael Nichols, as the exhibit was called, was the big summer exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Then it traveled to the National Geographic Society Museum in Washington D.C. where it will be on view until January 12, 2018.

Wild or domesticated, every animal is a unique individual. Each animal exerts a dynamic presence in the world and in the lives of those humans lucky to create a bond or relationship with them. Anne and I were blessed to enjoy the friendship, support and example of Lily for nearly sixteen years. Lily, the Queen, could only be described as "indomitable."

One of my favorite pictorial themes is the story of St. Jerome and the Lion. Lily was our Lion. Like St. Jerome's companion, who had a thorn in his paw that Jerome removed, Lily faced many physical challenges. She survived a stroke two years ago which left her limping but unbowed.

Anne Lloyd Photo (2015), Lily.

Lily was the guardian of my wife's painting studio just as St Jerome's Lion guarded his study. Lily certainly ran a "good ship"  and Anne was never without companionship as she created her beautiful art.

On December 19th, we had to save Lily from further physical suffering. Sadly, there was no thorn for us to remove that would enable Lily to resume her watch in the studio. We had to free Lily's spirit to spare her pain and now Lily's spirit is free. 

Art is an act of freeing the spirit. Art enables us to engage the creative energies within ourselves, letting these spirits express themselves. And these spirits, once engaged will emerge, ready, willing and able to assert beauty in an often ugly, uncaring world.

2017 was a difficult year in many ways. Yet, the creative spirits were always in evidence in our lives. One such magic moment occurred when a monarch butterfly paid a late autumn visit to the zinnias in our neighbor's garden. 

Anne Lloyd Photo (2017), Butterfly Garden

Anne snapped this marvelous photo. It is proof, if any is necessary, that life's "wild"  moments  - and beautiful ones - are not as rare as we sometimes mistakenly think. 

May the coming year, 2018, provide us all with many such moments.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved  Photos courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., the Morgan Library and Museum, New York City and Anne Lloyd

Introductory Image:
Anne Lloyd Photo (2017), Gallery view of at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, showing Auguste Rodin's Orpheus and Eurydice, modeled ca. 1887, carved 1893. Marble: 48 3/4 × 31 1/8 × 25 3/8 in., 856 lb. (123.8 × 79.1 × 64.5 cm, 388.3 kg) Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Thomas F. Ryan, 1910. Accession Number:10.63.2

Anne Lloyd Photo (2017), Detail of Auguste Rodin's Orpheus and Eurydice at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

Anne Lloyd Photo (2017) Gallery view of Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer 

Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632-1675) The Astronomer, 1668. Oil on canvas: 51.5 × 45.5 cm (20 1/4 × 17 15/16 in.) Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures, Paris. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre)/Franck Raux. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Nicolas de Plattemontagne (French, 1631-1706) , Study of St. Agnes, with a Secondary Study of Her Hand Holding a Palm, ca. 1680. Red and white chalk The Morgan Library & Museum. Purchased on the E. J. Rousuck Fund, the Seligman Fund,and the Fellows Acquisition Fund; 2015.28

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) David Hockney at the Metropolitan Museum, Nov. 20, 2017. Digital Photo.  Copyright of Anne Lloyd, all rights reserved.

Anne Lloyd Photo (2017), David Hockney's Contre-Jour in the French Style (Against the Day dans le Style-Francais),1974. Oil on canvas: 83 x 83 cm. Ludwig Museum-Museum of Contemporary Art, Budepest

Anne Lloyd Photo (2017), Portrait of Michael Nichols. Copyright of Anne Lloyd, all rights reserved

Anne Lloyd, Lily, 2015. Copyright of Anne Lloyd, all rights reserved

Anne Lloyd, Butterfly Garden, 2017. Copyright of Anne Lloyd, all rights reserved