Thursday, April 12, 2018

A Chronology of Art, A Timeline of Western Culture from Prehistory to the Present

A Chronology of Art

A Timeline of Western Culture from Prehistory to the Present

Edited by Iain Zaczek

Thames & Hudson/288 pages/$29.95

Reviewed by Ed Voves

A Chronology of Art, recently published by Thames & Hudson, explores how events shape art - and vice versa. The book skillfully juxtaposes an extended timeline of key dates in history with discussion of the great works of art which were created while these events unfolded. 

1533 is a case in point. It was a  year filled with momentous events. The Spanish conquest of Peru reached a bloody climax with the judicial murder of the ruler of the Incas, Atahualpa. A world away, the  "King's Great Matter" shattered England as Henry VIII broke with the Papacy over his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Henry then married Anne Boleyn and was excommunicated by Pope Clement VII.

That same year, two French diplomats in England, Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve, decided to have their portraits painted. They commissioned Henry's court painter, the Swiss-born Hans Holbein, to portray them together. De Dinteville and de Selve posed with symbolic artifacts such as a celestial globe and a terrestrial globe, a lute with a broken string, a hidden crucifix and a huge skull, tilted at a baffling angle.

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors (detail), 1533

The resulting work, now in the collection of the National Gallery in London, is the enigmatic painting entitled The Ambassadors. For all of their political skill and elegance, Holbein's diplomats confront a political reality characterized by the broken string of the lute and a globe of the earth, turned upside down. These testify to the shattered unity of Christendom.
Art and politics seldom connect so neatly as happened with The Ambassadors. Yet, there is almost always some shared idea or influential factor linking the world of art and affairs of state. 

A Chronology of Art is likely to become an essential reference work for art students. The book cogently documents the development of art in the West, while highlighting the progression of political and religious events. Although the civilizations of antiquity and the Middle Ages are surveyed, the art and events of recent times are given the fullest coverage.

A disturbing pattern emerges as you proceed with A Chronology of Art. The "best" art often emerges from the "worst" of times. 

The years, 1480 to 1500, are a good example. The Spanish Inquisition was launched during these two decades. The English "Princes in the Tower" were murdered during the Wars of the Roses. Columbus made his epic voyages of discovery, increasingly viewed in some circles as acts of genocide.

The Unicorn in Captivity tapestry (c.1495)

By contrast, the art of the period includes many works of singular beauty, including Botticelli's The Birth of Venus (c.1485) and The Unicorn in Captivity tapestry (c.1495). 
I was especially moved by The Glorification of the Virgin (c.1490) by the little known Flemish painter, Geertgen tot Sint Jans. 

In theological terms, Geertgen shows the victory of good over evil proclaimed by the Book of Revelations. Yet we scarcely notice this cosmic interpretation. This is partly due to the fact that The Glorification of the Virgin was one half of a diptych. The other panel, now separated, shows the crucifixion of Jesus. The real reason, at least for a modern art lover, is that this incredible work appeals to our heart rather than our beliefs.

Geertgen tot Sint Jans, The Glorification of the Virgin, c.1490

What we focus upon in The Glorification of the Virgin is a full symphony of the heavenly choirs. Angels play every conceivable musical instrument: lutes, trumpets, violins, a pipe organ powered by a bellows. They are making "a joyful noise unto the Lord" and the Christ Child joins in, tinkling away with a little bell.

The "march of time" chronology pauses every few pages for a thematic essay focusing on a subject of note -  Celtic metalwork, the discovery in 1939 of the incredible Sutton Hoo ship burial with its trove of early Anglo Saxon treasures, the invention of oil painting during the early Renaissance and many more topics - brilliantly complementing the unfolding timeline.

One of the most enjoyable of these essays traces the imagery of power in one of its most potent forms, the Equestrian Portrait. We follow the trend of depicting the "man on horseback" across art history. Anthony van Dyck's 1633 portrait of Charles I, mounted on a magnificent war horse, is paired with Jacques-Louis David's Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1801). (Napoleon actually rode a mule over the Alps as shown in an 1850 painting by Paul Delaroche). As both rulers were short of stature, their noble steeds gave them the advantage of height.

Carolus-Duran, Mademoiselle Croizette on Horseback, 1873
By contrast, Mademoiselle Croizette looks far more commanding - and certainly more dashing - in Carolus-Duran's 1873 portrait of her riding on the beach of Trouville. What a fabulous work of art, horse and horsewoman at ease in the enjoyment of life and vitality! Napoleon Bonaparte, the "Man of Destiny," never looked half so imposing on his steed as Sophie Croizette, riding sidesaddle on a summer's day.
Napoleon also figures significantly in the pages devoted to the years, 1800-1810. Two works of art display the French emperor in all his vanity and arrogance. In an intriguing comparison, William Blake's The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in the Sun also is highlighted. 
The "heroic" nude stature of Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker took flattery to an absurd level. Antonio Canova commenced work on the statue in 1802, during the brief Peace of Amiens with Great Britain. 

Antonio Canova, Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker, 1802-1806

Mars, of course, was no peacemaker and neither was Napoleon. In less than a year, Napoleon was back on his career of conquest. He was addicted to war, but after a few moments of reckless glory as a young commander, he seldom exposed himself to danger on the battlefield. 
A "god of war" Napoleon may have been, but he tried to convince his subjects that he was a noble, humane ruler as well. The second work depicting him in the 1800 to 1810 section is Napoléon on the Battlefield of Eylau. Painted by Antoine-Jean Gros, shortly after the battle, this is one of the rare works in the history of art to show accurate depictions of battlefield casualties.

Antoine-Jean Gros, Napoléon on the Battlefield of Eylau, 1807

This surprising willingness to acknowledge the horrors of war was actually a sophisticated propaganda venture on Napoleon's part. The Battle of Eylau, fought during a blinding snowstorm in February 1807, was not a French victory. Everyone knew that Napoleon had come close to defeat, saved only by a massed cavalry charge which broke through the Russian lines, enabling Napoleon to hold out until reinforcements arrived. So many French troops fell in the battle (perhaps 25,000), that the exact number was never computed, or at least not published in the reports sent back to France. 
Antoine-Jean Gros, acting on Napoleon's directive, turned the frozen hell of Eylau into a moral victory. Napoleon is shown, haggard and distraught, directing care for French and Russian wounded alike. It was a clever ploy and convinced many that Napoleon was a wise and compassionate leader. More to the point, it did not stop Napoleon from going to war against Russia in 1812 where this dreadful scene was repeated on a vaster scale.
At the same time as Napoleon was pursuing his "destiny," William Blake was attempting to "see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour."

William Blake, The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun, c. 1805
Apart from a small band of admirers, many people thought the visionary Blake to be utterly insane. Others considered him a prophet. Blake's wife was perhaps closest to the truth when she noted that "I have very little of Mr. Blake's company. He is always in paradise."

Blake may have inhabited his own spiritual realm. But that did not mean that he was cut-off from the world around him or oblivious of the human cost of Napoleon's bid for glory. When you reflect on the scene of carnage at Eylau, you realize that Blake's attempt to visualize the struggle of good versus evil in biblical terms reflected the dark era that he shared with Napoleon.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, La Grenouillère, 1869
These reflections should not cast a shadow on the human genius for transcending history through art. That is certainly true for Blake. It was true, as well, for Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet, when they painted decent, ordinary people relaxing at the "frog's pond," La Grenouillère, as war clouds gathered over France in 1869.

Today, only historians can explain the reasons for the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. But the "dueling" paintings of Monet and Renoir at La Grenouillère, the founding works of Impressionism, are cherished all over the world. 
You don't have to study the historical background of great works of art like the La Grenouillère paintings in order to appreciate them. However, by establishing the context for the art works we love so much, A Chronology of Art reminds us that human beings, beset by "wars and rumors or wars," can rise to the challenges of life and create enduring masterpieces. 
This is a lesson of great relevance to the troubled times we live in and, if we are lucky, this lesson will apply to the timeline of the future. 

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                Photos courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the National Gallery, London; the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; Wikimedia Commons

Introductory Image
Hans Holbein the Younger (Swiss, 1497-1543) Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve, The Ambassadors, 1533. Oil on oak panel: 207 x 209.5 cm. National Gallery, London. Purchased 1890, NG 1314

Artist unknown (Flemish) The Unicorn in Captivity (from the Unicorn Tapestries), 1495–1505. Wool warp with wool, silk, silver, and gilt wefts: 144 7/8 x 99 in. (368 x 251.5 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1937 # 37.80.6

Geertgen tot Sint Jans (Flemish, c.1465-c.1495) The Glorification of the Virgin, c. 1490–1495,originally part of a diptych. Oil on panel: height: 24.5 cm (9.6 in) x Width: 20.5 cm (8 in) Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen  2450 (OK) Google Art Project.jpg  Wikimedia Commons

Carolus-Duran (French, 1837-1917) Equestrian Portrait of Mademoiselle Croizette, 1837. Oil on canvas.  Le MUba Eugène Leroy/Tourcoing. From Wikimedia Commons

Antonio Canova (Venetian, 1757-1822) Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker, 1802-1806. Marble: 345 cm. Apsley House, London. Wikimedia Commons

Antoine-Jean Gros (French, 1771-1835) Napoleon on the Battlefield of Eylau, 1807. Oil on Canvas, 104.9 × 145.1 cm (41.2 × 57.1 in) Toledo Museum of Art 1988.54. Purchased with funds from the Libbey Endowment, Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey. Google Art Project.jpg  Wikimedia Commons

William Blake (British, 1757-1827) The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun. c. 1805. Pen and gray ink with watercolor over graphite, Rosenwald Collection, 1943.3.8999 National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French 1841-1919), La Grenouillère, 1869. Oil on canvas: 81 x 66.5 cm. Nationalmuseum, Sweden. #2425 From Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Cézanne Portraits at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C,

Cézanne Portraits

National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
March 25, 2018 - July 1, 2018

Reviewed by Ed Voves
Photos by Anne Lloyd

Cézanne Portraits, the new exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., places Paul Cézanne in the unaccustomed role as a master portraitist. 

Yes, Cezanne was the "father" of Modernism. Yes, too, he really was an obsessive investigator of a limited number of motifs. Over and over again, Cézanne painted Mont Sainte-Victoire, pipe-smoking card players, table top still-lifes. But a supremely accomplished portrait painter? Cézanne?

Yes, Cézanne.

Perhaps, the reason for our surprise at the degree of Cézanne's devotion to the human face is the lack of attention which art scholarship has paid to his portrait painting. 

The tremendous display at the National Gallery makes good the earlier omission. Sixty-plus works of art are being shown in the first exhibit since 1910 to be exclusively devoted to Cézanne's portraits. In that long-ago year, Cézanne's dealer, Ambroise Vollard, presented twenty-four portraits in his small Paris shop. 

The National Gallery exhibit is the third and final venue for Cézanne Portraits. The exhibition, previously shown at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, and the National Portrait Gallery in London, presents the full evolution of Cézanne's portraits. The works on view range from the thickly painted depictions of family members like his father reading a newspaper in 1866 to a minimalist portrait of The Gardener Vallier, painted shortly before Cézanne's death in 1906. 

Paul Cézanne, Boy in a Red Waistcoat, 1888–1890

Predictably, Cézanne's Boy in a Red Waistcoat, 1888–1890, gets "top-billing." This is one of the National Gallery's most beloved paintings. New insights on this iconic work are part of the benefits and pleasures of this outstanding exhibit. We can now appreciate Boy in a Red Waistcoat not only as a singular painting but as a milestone in Cézanne's devoted study of the features of humanity.

Cézanne's lifelong interest in portraiture should not come as a surprise. That this was no passing interest or "sideshow" to his landscapes is confirmed by the extraordinary self-portraits which Cézanne painted throughout his career. There are five of these works on view in the National Gallery exhibition.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) 
Detail of Paul Cézanne's Self Portrait with Bowler Hat, 1885-86

Look into the intense gaze of any one of Cézanne's self-portraits and you will see the focused scrutiny of an artist who did not blink when it came to appraising human beings, beginning with himself.

Cézanne confided to Vollard that “the culmination of all art is the human face.”

Theory aside, Vollard had a more direct experience of Cézanne's manner of portrait painting. Vollard endured one hundred fifteen sessions as the exacting artist attempted to portray his features. Cézanne eventually gave-up on Vollard's portrait, exclaiming that "the front of the shirt isn't bad."

The rest of Vollard's portrait may appear to be unfinished and, certainly by the canons of nineteenth century art, it was. By twentieth century standards, Cézanne's Ambroise Vollard is a masterpiece. It is the first great painting of the twentieth century, though it was created in 1899. 

Anne Lloyd Photo (2018), Paul Cézanne's Ambroise Vollard,1899

Ambroise Vollard is shown here as a human being whose life is in the process of "becoming" rather than fixed in a state of being. The cells of our bodies,as well as the thoughts in our minds, are always in a state of transformation. That is what we see here, as Vollard comes into focus, only to begin the process of changing to the next, transitory, stage of his life.

Cézanne painted with a sense of change in many of his pictures. Whether it was shadows falling on Mont Sainte-Victoire or the fleeting expressions on the faces of the people Cézanne painted, nothing remained the same. In many ways, the constant cycle of growth and decay tormented Cézanne who cherished tradition in his private life. In other ways, it drove Cézanne to new heights of artistic achievement.

Cézanne's Gustave Geffroy, 1895–1896, is a key work of the exhibit in this respect. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Paul Cézanne's Gustave Geffroy, 1895–1896

Gustave Geffroy, an influential art critic, praised Cézanne in an 1894 article. The early 1890's was a low point in popular esteem for Cézanne.

As an act of gratitude, Cézanne offered to paint Geffroy's portrait. He nearly pulled it off - even by nineteenth century standards. But, for all his effort, Cézanne could not "set the focus" on Geffroy's face. After much labor, the portrait - to Geffroy's dismay - was abandoned.

Part of the problem may have been Cézanne's emotional discomfort at being back in the Parisian art world which had rejected him during the 1870's. Some accounts also assert that Cézanne and Geffroy did not find much common emotional ground, apart from the critic's sincere praise of Cézanne. There is a deeper, more fundamental, fault line, however, that prevented this otherwise excellent painting from being completed.
Geffroy's portrait by the celebrated photographer, Nadar, provides convincing evidence that Cézanne did indeed capture the "inner" man. 

Felix Nadar, Gustave Geffroy, date unknown

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) 
Detail of Paul Cézanne's Gustave Geffroy, 1895-96

Look closely at the Nadar photo and then at Cézanne's portrait. Uncertainty, evasiveness, tension radiate from Geffroy's expression in Nadar's portrait of him - and from Cézanne's. This is the face of a modern European intellectual, the kind of conflicted individual who would embrace Freud's theories of psychoanalysis.

It is intriguing to speculate on the difference between the unfinished "likeness" of Gustave Geffroy and Cézanne's portraits of unnamed working class people like the formidable
Woman with a Cafetière, 1890–1895, or Man with Pipe, c.1896. These are fully realized portraits because the sitters appealed to Cézanne as "complete" human beings. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Paul Cézanne's Woman with a Cafetière, c.1895

In a constantly changing world, Cézanne valued his neighbors in Aix-en-Provence for the way that they embodied tradition. The portraits he created celebrate the natural qualities of their lives, their strength and fortitude and the raw, pragmatic honesty which they projected to the world.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) 
Detail of Paul Cézanne's Woman with a Cafetière, c.1895

Alex Danchev, Cézanne's greatest modern biographer, quotes a letter to a young admirer which Cézanne wrote late in his life. It is very revealing of his attitude to working-class people which was transferred to the portraits he painted of them. Cézanne wrote:

I live in the town of my boyhood, and I recover the past in the faces of the people of my own age. What I like most of all is the look of the people who have grown old without drastically changing their habits, who obey the rule of time; I deplore the efforts of those who try to insulate themselves from that process.

Cézanne referred to his paintings as "my studies." There is every reason to link his late portraits of the rough hewn locals of Aix-en-Provence with the more than sixty views of Mont Sainte-Victoire which he painted during the last decades of his life. The traditional values of the Provencal folk appealed to Cézanne in the same manner as the enduring mountain which so obsessed him.

Caution, however, should be exercised in ascribing any overarching values to Cézanne's work except his determined effort to continue studying nature through his work. No artist every commented more acerbically about art theory than Cézanne. In a letter to Emil Bernard in 1904, he asserted:

But I always come back to this: the painter should devote himself completely to the study of nature, and try to produce paintings that will be an education. Talking about art is virtually useless. Work that leads to progress in one's own métier is sufficient recompense for not being understood by imbeciles.

If one takes Cézanne at his word, then all of the portraits on view in the National Gallery exhibit make perfect sense. With the ideals of work and the study of nature in mind,  Cézanne's groups of paintings succeed as individual works and as series of related works.

The rough finish of the early paintings of Cézanne's uncle, Dominique Aubert, speak of character. Cézanne had his uncle pose in various costumes and, using a palette knife to apply paint, created what a friend called "a mason's painting."

There is more here than experimentation in depicting the strong features of a native of Provence. Here, "character" alludes to ribald humor, always a feature of country folk. Perhaps, too, there is a note of mockery in the  paintings of Uncle Dominique, decked out in a turban or a monk's robe. Such role playing is likely a sly comment on the moralizing of paintings at the Salon from which Cézanne had been rejected.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) 
Paul Cézanne's Antony Valabrègue (Detail), 1869–187

The same "sculpted" finish was applied to the portrait of Cézanne's friend, Antony Valabrègue, painted around between 1869-1871. This is a moving, emotionally charged work.  Valabrègue is shown, very like Gustave Geffroy, as a human being of modern times. There are no props, no setting as in the portrait of Geffroy. Instead, Valabrègue is defined by his own interior attributes - sincerity and dedication, worry and self-doubt. It is the face that many of us see, every morning, in the mirror.

There are several faces that we see repeatedly in the exhibit. Looking down from the gallery walls are five paintings of Uncle Dominique, two of Antony Valabrègue and two of an early, devoted patron named Victor Chocquet. But, apart from the numerous self-portraits, nobody can compete with Hortense Fiquet (1850–1922) in the number of works depicting her in the exhibit.

Hortense Fiquet began posing for Cézanne 1872. Fourteen years later, she became  Madame Cézanne. It should come as no surprise that there are twenty-nine existing portraits of her by Cézanne or that these works play a dominant role in the exhibition.

What is remarkable about these portraits is that Madame Cézanne never ages or seems more self-assured. Even with their marriage, the portraits of Madame Cézanne seldom progressed to a formal, finished state like the Woman with a Cafetière, 1890–1895. The magnificent Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair, 1877, from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, comes close to a fully-realized portrait, though few people in the 1870's would have accepted it as one.

Paul Cézanne, Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair, c.1877

However impressive or inscrutable, these portraits of Madame Cézanne remain "studies." Questions remain about the relationship between Cézanne and his wife. Cézanne's famous quip that his wife cared only for "Switzerland and lemonade" remains unverified. We just don't know much about their emotional bond - or lack of one. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Paul Cézanne's Madame Cézanne, 1885-86

As we examine these portraits of his wife, the most valid point is that these works are not concerned with biographical details. Nor are they emotional statements. Cézanne studied the human face from a number of viewpoints, as he did with his other works, to reach a better understanding of the principals of art.

Ultimately, we have to be satisfied with Cézanne's remark than “the culmination of all art is the human face.” 

Cézanne's obsessive exactitude left many portraits incomplete, unrealized. Yet, we are all "works in progress." Despite himself, Cézanne created the template for portraying human beings in the conflicted "Age of Anxiety," otherwise known as the twentieth century.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Gallery view of Cézanne Portraits

In his last letter to Emil Bernard, Cézanne wrote that “now it seems to me that I’m seeing better and thinking more clearly about the direction of my studies. Will I reach the goal  which I’ve sought so hard and pursued for so long?”

In his own mind, Cézanne is unlikely to have been satisfied with the sum total of his efforts. However, he also wrote to Bernard that "I have vowed to die painting.”

Cézanne Portraits proves, in that respect, that the "father of us all," as Matisse called Cézanne, was as good as his word.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                Photos courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. and Anne Lloyd

Introductory Image:
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Photo of Paul Cézanne's Man with Pipe, 1891–1896. Oil on canvas: unframed: 73 x 60 cm (28 3/4 x 23 5/8 in.); framed: 98.4 x 85.2 cm (38 3/4 x 33 9/16 in.) The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery.

Paul Cézanne (French,1839-1906) Boy in a Red Waistcoat, 1888–1890. Oil on canvas: overall: 89.5 x 72.4 cm (35 1/4 x 28 1/2 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Photo of Paul Cézanne's Self Portrait with Bowler Hat (Detail), 1885-86. Oil on canvas: overall: 44.5 x 35.5 cm (17 1/2 x 14 in.); framed: 66.1 x 57.3 x 7.8 cm (26 x 22 9/16 x 3 1/16 in.) Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Photo of Paul Cézanne's Ambroise Vollard, 1899. Oil on canvas: unframed: 101 x 81 cm (39 3/4 x 31 7/8 in.); framed: 120.5 x 101.5 x 9 cm (47 7/16 x 39 15/16 x 3 9/16 in.) Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Photo of Paul Cézanne's Gustave Geffroy, 1895–1896. Oil on canvas: 117 x 89.5 cm (46 1/16 x 35 1/4 in.) Musée d'Orsay, Paris, gift of the Pellerin family, 1969

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Paul Cézanne's Woman with a Cafetière, c. 1895. Oil on canvas: 130 x 97 cm (51 3/16 x 38 3/16 in.) Musée d'Orsay, Paris, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Jean-Victor Pellerin, 1956. 

Nadar, Félix (French, 1820-1910) Gustave Geffroy, date unknown. Photograph. New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division,  MssCol 3040, b11652251

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Paul Cézanne's Antony Valabrègue (Detail), 1869–1871. Oil on canvas:unframed: 60 x 50.2 cm (23 5/8 x 19 3/4 in.); framed: 71.8 x 61.9 x 3.5 cm (28 1/4 x 24 3/8 x 1 3/8 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Paul Cézanne (French,1839-1906) Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair, c.1877. Oil on canvas: overall: 72.4 x 55.9 cm (28 1/2 x 22 in.) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Bequest of Robert Treat Paine, 2nd Photograph © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Photo of Paul Cézanne's Madame Cézanne, c.1885-86. Oil on canvas: unframed: 46 x 38 cm (18 1/8 x 14 15/16) Musée d'Orsay, Paris, on loan to Musée Granet, Aix-en-Provence

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Gallery view of Cézanne Portraits at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Egyptian Art by Bill Manley & Ancient Egypt by Campbell Price

Egyptian Art
By Bill Manley
Thames & Hudson/320 pages/$23.95

Ancient Egypt
By Campbell Price
Thames & Hudson/268 pages/$17.95

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Egypt has been known as the "gift of the Nile" ever since Herodotus described it so memorably around the year 450 BC.  Creative, industrious and disciplined, the Egyptians of antiquity shared the gifts of the Nile with the peoples and cultures around them and with us today  - many, many centuries later.

The astonishing range of Egypt's gifts is the subject of two new books from Thames & Hudson: Egyptian Art by Bill Manley (World of Art series) and Ancient Egypt by Campbell Price (Pocket Museum series). 

Egyptian Art by Bill Manley (Thames & Hudson, 2018)

The two authors are British specialists in Egyptology, Manley at the University of Glasgow, Price at the University of Manchester. They incorporate evidence from the latest archaeological studies into engagingly written narratives.

Ancient Egypt by Campbell Price (Thames & Hudson, 2018)

Both books investigate the objects of everyday life in Egypt, as well as what we would consider as "fine art." That distinction did not exist in ancient Egypt. Indeed, the modern idea of art as an aesthetic ideal, divorced from the dictates of daily reality and the hope of eternal life, would have been difficult for the Egyptians to grasp.

A significant factor why the Egyptians did not treat art as a separate entity is that their creative lives were inseparably  bound to the toil of human existence and their overwhelming concern for the destiny of the human soul. 

Cartonnage mummy-mask of Satdjehuty (c.1500 B.C.)

Nothing came easily to the Egyptians, despite the talent and energy they displayed throughout ancient times.The full quote from Herodotus - and one that is rarely given in full - is worth considering.

Egypt, Herodotus declared is "a land won by the Egyptians and given them by the Nile."

The Egyptians "won" by fighting a never-ending battle against the most formidable opponent imaginable: the "red land." This was the desert that surrounded the fertile "black land" of the Nile Valley on both sides. The desert threatened Egypt with desolation should the Akhet, the annual overflow of silt-bearing river water between June and September, fail to come in sufficient volume.

If you want to gain insight into the struggle for survival of the Egyptians, a good place to start is study of two remarkable statues from the Old Kingdom. These sculptures are analyzed in Manley's Egyptian Art. The subjects of both statues were real men, high-ranking officials yet neither a pharaoh. Their portraits bring us closer to the reality of Egyptian life than the celebrated golden mask of Tutankhamun.

Bust of Prince (Vizier) Ankhhaf (2520–2494 B.C.)

The first is Vizier Ankhhaf, an overseer of the construction of the Great Pyramid and the Great Sphinx, 2589–2566 BC. Ankhhaf's portrait "bust" was created in painted limestone and probably had arms which did not survive. The natural effect is quite stunning, very different from the impersonal or stylized portraits of many pharaohs. Ankhhaf has the weary, if determined, expression of a battle-tested commander.

The second statue is of a less-exalted figure, a regional supervisor of farm labor named Meryrahashtef. A  vigorous, self-confident man of action, Meryrahashtef bears one of the most expressive faces in all of ancient art.

Striding Figure of Meryrahashtef (detail) 

Amazingly, Meryrahashtef is shown without a kilt or loin cloth. Male nudity was never part of the Egyptian art canon, except for propaganda depictions of war captives. 

Meryrahashtef's statue, carved from rare ebony, would never have been displayed in such a manner in his tomb chapel. Rather, it would have been ritually garbed for ceremonies honoring his "immortal presence."

Striding Figure of Meryrahashtef (c. 2345-2181 B.C.) 

Meryrahashtef certainly deserved to be honored. He had a tough job, getting the harvest collected during years of drought. Living three centuries after Ankhhaf, he had to confront Egypt's worst nightmare. 

Around 2200 BC, the yearly inundation dramatically diminished. The overflow from the Nile proved to be "too little, too late." Crop yields declined and the population of Egypt faced starvation. The once centralized sovereignty of the Old Kingdom unraveled. Anarchy prevailed.  
As if to confirm the collapse of authority at the end of the Old Kingdom, Meryrahashtef's skull was discovered. Scientific analysis revealed that he had sustained a very serious, most likely fatal, skull fracture. Meryrahashtef may have been struck during a protest by angry farm workers or killed in battle. The collapse of the authority of Pharaoh Pepi II around this time resulted in the rise of regional power brokers called nomarchs. The shattered cohesion of Egypt lasted for 150 years until national unity was restored by the powerful Middle Kingdom dynasties in 2020 BC.                                                                                                                                                         
We don't like to think about ancient Egypt in terms of the grim circumstances of Meryrahashtef's death. The received wisdom about Egypt, especially under the Old Kingdom, was that the surrounding deserts protected this African nation from invasion. The Nile flooded, just enough and on time, to insure the provision of ample food supplies. With these basic needs provided for, Egypt's people were able to devote themselves to all the best that human beings are capable of. 

Pectoral of Sithathoryunet with the name of Senwosret II (c. 1887–1878 B.C.)

The work ethic, skill and dedication of Egypt's people are reflected in this pectoral from a necklace worn by a Middle Kingdom princess. At the base of this pectoral is a symbol for "millions of years." This is an invocation of the perpetual power of the reigning pharaoh, mighty Senwosret II. But this sense of divine favor, harmony, and elan vital was maintained throughout Egyptian society over the course of nearly three thousand years. 

Mesopotamian civilization, rising at the same time, was not so lucky. Devastating floods, recalled in the biblical story of Noah, and constant raids by nomadic tribes, made life in Sumer and Babylon much more of trial than on the banks of the Nile.

This rose-tinted view of Egyptian civilization is exemplified by the famous painting of Nebamun and his family on a hunting trip. Dating to the 18th Dynasty, ca. 1350 B.C., this scene is one of eleven wall-paintings from Nebamun's tomb-chapel which the British Museum purchased back in the 1820's.

Nebamun with his wife and daughter capturing water-fowl (c.1350 B.C.)

Nebamun and his family are having a great time on their "camping" trip. Nebamun even brought his brown-tabby cat along to join in the festivities. We see the cat, with perfectly articulated fur and claws,  picking-off water fowl with the precision of a modern fighter ace. 

Nebamun with his wife and daughter capturing water-fowl (detail)

However, this is no holiday excursion, as Bill Manley perceptively notes in Egyptian Art. There are details of human mastery and divine favor at work here that make this painting an affirmation of  the "winning" of Egypt. 

Nebamun and his family are not dressed for hunting and fishing in the Nile marshes. They wear their "Sunday-best," including the lump of scented wax atop his wife's wig. Nebamun's throw-stick is a snake and the fragile boat, made from papyrus, seems to be steered as if by magic.

Magic of a sort is indeed at work. Manley writes that these details "guide us away from the initial, literal interpretation of the scene towards a deeper meaning."

This remarkable painting depicts a virtuous Egyptian, Nebamun, in control of his earthly environment. This scene also prefigures the abode of eternal bliss, Aaru, the divine field of reeds. Here Nebamun will reside if his heart is judged favorably on the scale of justice by the goddess, Maat.

Since so much of Egyptian art evoked harmony on earth and the hope of heavenly reward, it is natural that we project a favorable assessment on Egyptian civilization. Thanks to the "gift of the Sahara," an abundance of everyday artifacts from Egypt has been preserved by the arid climate of the surrounding desert. 

Ancient Egypt by Campbell Price is particularly well-stocked with such "grave goods."  

Especially noteworthy is the Tarkhan Dress. The world's oldest known woven garment, this pleated linen dress or shirt dates to the First Dynasty of Egypt, 5,000 years ago. It was excavated in 1913 by the renowned archaeologist, Flinders Petrie, at the ancient cemetery of Tarkhan, south of Cairo. 

Tarkhan Dress (c. 3482 and 3102 B.C.)

Ironically, it had to be rediscovered in 1977, as the garment was mixed with other textiles and was not recognized as an actual dress or shirt. (Lacking a hem at the bottom, it could be either.) Only in Egypt, could this remarkable survivor from remote antiquity have survived.

Wooden objects seldom stand the test of time better than textiles. But this small,piano-shaped game board is another "gift of the desert." Egyptians played a number of different board games, according to Campbell Price. This one pitted carved-ivory hounds versus jackals to see which player could reach the goal point in the middle of the board. The drawer is thought to have been used to hold the dice or knuckle bones used in the game.

Game of Hounds and Jackals, (c.1814–1805 B.C.) 

The Hounds and Jackals game, from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a favored art work of mine.  A replica of the game (considerably enlarged) was used in a key scene of the 1956 Hollywood epic, The Ten Commandments. I was startled one day at the Met by the exultant remark of another museum visitor who was transfixed before the case where this game board was displayed. After four thousand years, this object from antiquity can still cause delight and wonder.

These objects are confirmation of the "good life" in ancient Egypt. But other artifacts have been unearthed that put ancient Egypt in a less reassuring  light. 

Despite the protective deserts, Egypt's rulers fought violent, bloody wars of aggression. Floor tiles, modeled after Nubian and Syrian war prisoners were placed in the palace of Medinet Habu, near Thebes, so that the glory-mad Ramesses III (1187-1156 BC) could enjoy the pleasure of walking on the prostrate bodies of his enemies, even in rare moments of peace. 

Egypt's New Kingdom empire did not outlast Ramesses III for very long. However, the quest for meaning in life and in life hereafter among Egypt's people did persist. 

Indeed, the number of people devoting themselves to the mystery cult of Isis and Osiris grew in number with the passage of centuries. And the process of preparing one's body and soul for the afterlife continued into the era of the Roman occupation of Egypt.

Mummy-portrait of anonymous woman (110-30 A.D.)

Mummy images might only be painted, using the encaustic paint technique, rather than encased in gold. Yet the centuries-long devotion of the people of Egypt to achieving eternal happiness opened the gates of heaven to all whose deeds in life outweighed their faults and failings.
                                                                                                                                        In the final analysis, the greatest achievement of ancient Egypt was the promotion of the ideal of the ka. The ka was the spirit or life-force of each human being. 

Bill Manley comments movingly on the philosopher, Ptahhatp, who declared that the "wise man is the one who nurtures his soul by realizing on earth the perfection within him."

Manley notes that Ptahhap's concept of perfection is not our "phantasmic 'ideal' of beauty" such as we project on film stars or "super" models. Egyptian statues, such as that of Pharaoh Menkaura, which introduces this review, may emphasize the perfection of face, torso, arms and legs. But these statues were more the symbols of the virtuous soul than the body beautiful. Manley writes:

Far from eternal youth, this is the radical opposite - spiritual growth. Of course, a statue is a physical object because it cannot be otherwise, but a sculpture in a tomb chapel illustrates the authority of the spirit. Hence these statues defy modern expectations of physical perfection and 'self-preservation', which may demand cosmetic surgery and denial of mortality. But then what do we know of the meaning of life, if our only purpose is just to stay alive.

The Egyptians of ancient times certainly devoted themselves to staying alive. Century upon century, they resisted the encroaching "red land" and used the life-restoring "gift of the Nile" to sustain body and soul. Ultimately, it was the soul - the kathat really counted. 

It was the ideal of the ka which made Eternal Egypt - eternal.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the British Museum and the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London, and the National Museums of Scotland, Edinburgh. Book cover illustrations, courtesy of Thames & Hudson.

Introductory Image:                                                                                                          Statue of King Menkaura and queen. Greywacke. Height: 142.2 Width: 57.1 Depth  55.2 cm, Weight: 676.8 kg (56 x 22 1/2 x 21 3/4 in., 1492.1 lb). Old Kingdom, 4th Dynasty, reign of Menkaura  2490–2472 B.C. Boston Museum of Fine Arts # 11.1738

Cartonnage mummy-mask of Satdjehuty.  Plaster, linen, gold - gilded. Height: 45.5 centimetres Width: 32.5 centimetres Depth: 19 centimetres. New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, c. 1500 B.C. British Museum,  purchased 1880, from the sale of the collection of Samuel Hall. #  EA29770 ©Trustees of The British Museum

Bust of Prince (Vizier) Ankhhaf. Painted limestone. Height: 50.48 cm (19 7/8 in.) Old Kingdom, Fourth Dynasty, reign of Khafra (Chephren), 2520–2494 B.C. From Giza, tomb G 7510. 1925: excavated 1927. Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition, # 27.442.

Striding Figure of Meryrahashtef. Ebony and sycamore, Height 22-7/8 in. Old Kingdom, Sixth Dynasty (about 2345-2181 B.C.) British Museum, acquired in 1923, purchased with the assistance of the National Art Collections Fund, # EA 55722,  ©Trustees of The British Museum

Pectoral of Sithathoryunet with the name of Senwosret II. Gold, carnelian, lapis lazuli, turquoise, garnet. H. of pectoral (a): 4.5 cm (1 3/4 in.); W. 8.2 cm (3 1/4 in.) Middle Kingdom, Twelth Dynasty, reign of Senwosret II, c. 1887–1878 B.C. Metropolitan Museum of Art, purchased with Rogers Fund and Henry Walters Gift, 1916. # 16.1.3b. 

Nebamun with his wife and daughter capturing water-fowl (detail). Plaster - painted. Height: 98 centimetres Width: 115 centimetres Thickness: 22 centimetres Width: New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, c. British Museum, acquired in 1821. # EA37977, ©Trustees of The British Museum

Nebamun with his wife and daughter capturing water-fowl (detail). (See above) ©Trustees of The British Museum

Tarkhan Dress, Linen. Woven, pleated dress or shirt. Old Kingdom, First Dynasty. Discovered in 1913. Radio carbon dated in 2015 to c. 3482 and 3102 B.C. Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. UC28614B Photograph courtesy Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College London

Game of Hounds and Jackals. Ebony, ivory. Board: H. 6.8 cm (2 11/16 in.); W. 10.1 cm (4 in.); D. 15.6 cm (6 1/8 in.); Average height with pins: H. 14 cm (5 1/2 in.) Middle Kingdom, Twelfth Dynasty,reign of Amenemhat IV, c. 1814–1805 B.C.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Edward S. Harkness Gift, 1926 (26.7.1287a-k); Gift of Lord Carnarvon, 2012 (2012.508) #26.7.1287a–k

Mummy-portrait of anonymous woman. Encaustic waxes on wooden panel. Height. 44 cm (1 ft. 5 1/2 in.) Middle Egypt, Hawara, Roman Period, 110-30 A.D. National Museums of Scotland, Edinburgh #A.1951.160