Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Berlin Painter and His World: Athenian Vase-Painting in the Early Fifth Century B.C.


The Berlin Painter and His World:

 Athenian Vase-Painting in the Early Fifth Century B.C.


Toledo Museum of Art 

July 8 to October 1, 2017

Reviewed Ed Voves

Pheidias. Praxiteles. Apelles.

We know the names of many great sculptors and painters from Ancient Greece but precious few of their works of art have survived. 

By contrast, an amazing number of terracotta vases, pots and other vessels that were decorated with scenes from mythology and daily life have been preserved. Yet, the names of many of these vase painters have been lost to history.

An impressive - and important - exhibition is currently highlighting the work of one of these anonymous vase painters from Athens. The Berlin Painter and His World: Athenian Vase-Painting in the Early Fifth Century B.C. was organized by the Princeton University Art Museum, where I saw it shortly before it closed on June 11. This exhibit will appear next at the Toledo Museum of Art starting July 8, 2017.



The Berlin Painter exhibit at the Princeton University Art Museum, spring 2017

"Berlin Painter" is a distinctly odd name for a master of ancient Greek art. This great Athenian artist, who lived around the time of the Persian Wars, has been called by this title for reasons we will discuss below. Since 1911, when the existence of the Berlin Painter was first deduced, over 330 works are now attributed to him.

When I went to the Princeton University Art Museum, sixty of the Berlin Painter's oeuvre were on view, along with examples of works by fellow vase painters, chiefly from Athens. A surprising number of the treasures gleaming in the gallery display cases were discovered in Italy. The Etruscans, the dominant power in Italy before the rise of Rome, were enthusiastic consumers of Greek wine and olive oil. They were also devoted collectors of Greek art, including the paintings of the Berlin Painter on the wine jugs and oil flasks that contained these precious liquids.

Just who was the Berlin Painter?

The scholarly "Sherlock Holmes" who discovered the Berlin Painter was an Oxford don working patiently in museum galleries and storerooms across Europe. Sir John Davidson Beazley (1885-1970) was one of the world's greatest experts on Greek red-figure pottery. In this technique, a scene or individual figure was painted directly on the unglazed surface of the ceramic piece. A coat of shining black glaze was applied to the rest of the vessel.



Sir John Davidson Beazley in November 1926 

In 1911, Beazley visited the museum of ancient art in Berlin, the Antikensammlung Berlin. As he began studying the Greek red-figure vases, a large amphora or lidded jar drew his attention. Examining it closely, Beazley experienced an epiphany.


Ed Voves, The Berlin Painter's "Name Vase" at the Princeton University Art Museum

This red-figure work, painted with a depiction of a satyr and the god Mercury, is a truly distinctive piece. But what struck Beazley were its similarities in artistic style and form with other red-figure works that he had examined. Beazley concluded that this unsigned amphora had been painted by an artist whom he dubbed the  "Master of the Berlin amphora."

If this title sounds a bit like the way that medieval paintings are credited to anonymous artists - "Master of the Merode alter piece" for example - that should come as no surprise. Beazley was also an expert on Flemish art from the late Middle Ages.

The lidded amphora with a hung-over satyr, the dapper Mercury in his winged-cap and a delicate-looking fawn is considered the "name vase" of the Berlin Painter.




Ed Voves (Photo 2017), The Berlin Painter's "Name Vase" (details)

The name vase is also a mysterious piece. Its theme evokes Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry, particularly the over-size wine goblet held by Mercury. But Dionysus does not appear on the amphora. A single satyr was painted on the other side. We are still in the dark about the message which the Berlin Painter sought to convey.

After making this brilliant deduction, Beazley continued to study Greek vases, drawing analytical sketches by the hundreds. These drawings enabled him to compile a list of works created by the "Master of the Berlin amphora."

Beazley took a hiatus from his labors to serve in British naval intelligence during World War I. His brilliant powers of analysis were put to good use in Room 40, the famous center for cryptanalysis, which broke the German radio communication code.

After the war ended, Beazley returned to the red-figure hunt. In an article published in 1922, he identified one of the most beautiful Greek vases in existence as a masterpiece by the Berlin Painter. Now one of the jewels of the Metropolitan Museum's collection, this amphora, dating to 490 B.C. (the year of the Battle of Marathon) shows a young singer playing the kithara, swaying to the sound of the music.



Attributed to the Berlin Painter, Young Man playing the Kithara (detail), ca. 490 B.C.

As the Berlin Painter's oeuvre was established, so was the work of other anonymous Greek vase painters. One of these, known as the Kleophrades Painter, is believed to have been a competitor of the Berlin Painter in Athens. Beazley had identified the Kleophrades Painter only the year before he discovered the Berlin Painter. 

A comparison of the two artists is fascinating. Beazley contrasted the Berlin Painter and the Kleophrades Painter, respectively, as the "the painter of grace and the painter of power." 

The parallel lives of the Kleophrades Painter and the Berlin Painter took place amid the profound changes and challenges in Greek life during the late sixth and the fifth centuries B.C. Their art illustrates the rise of democracy and individualism in ancient Greece around 500 B.C.  The red-figure vases of both also testify to the supreme ordeal faced by the city states of Greece when the Persian Empire launched invasions in 490 and 480 B.C. 

While the Berlin Painter emphasized individuals or intimate scenes such as that depicted on his name vase, the Kleophrades Painter aimed at dramatic effect. Wrap-around scenes, both from daily life and mythological events were his specialty. 



Attributed to the Kleophrades Painter, Four Male Youths in Conversation               early 5th century B.C.

The Kleophrades Painter often painted on the type of water pot known as a kalpis because this vessel gave him greater expanse on which to pose his figures. A fine example is the hunting group, depicted on the pot from the Getty Museum, on view in the exhibition.

This superb piece also shows another trademark of the Kleophrades Painter, the elaborate frames and borders for his scenes. By comparison, the Berlin Painter's elegant protagonists stand in splendid isolation, figures of warm, amber humanity set against the shimmering black glaze. 

As Greece braced for the second invasion, much better prepared than the initial Persian expedition which the Athenians had decimated at the battle of Marathon, artistic taste changed. The "action painting" of the Kleophrades Painter soared in popularity. The Berlin Painter followed suit with a raging battle between Herakles and a platoon of Amazons. It is dated to this time period, as the Greeks sharpened their swords and prepared to engage the Persian hordes at Thermopylae and Salamis.



Attributed to the Berlin Painter, Amazonomachy with Herkales , Ca. 480–470 B.C.

This Amazonomachy is a brilliant piece, but one cannot escape the feeling that the Berlin Painter was just a bit out of his element with such a"CinemaScope" production. The Kleophrades Painter was a master of foreshortening, equal to the masters of the Italian renaissance. His protagonists reach out and draw us into battle scene encircling the surface of the water pot. This cannot be said of the Berlin painter.

In this combat of Herakles and the Amazons, the Berlin painter has created "spectacle" and "costume drama." His strengths as an artist have been muted in the crowded composition. In the remarkable portrait of the youthful Ganymede which introduces this review, we see a Leonardo-like command of the human form and spirit. This is all but lost in the Amazonomachy.



Ed Voves (Photo 2017), The Berlin Painter's Amazonomachy (detail)

But when we focus on individual figures, the "painter of grace" makes his presence felt. In the depiction of the mortally wounded Amazon, stretching her hand heavenward in the last moment of life, we glimpse a sublime example of the Berlin Painter's art.

Both the Kleophrades Painter and the Berlin Painter created their works in what art scholars now call the "severe style." This rather odd term was formulated by German art historians beginning with Johann Winckelmann in the late 1700's. They wanted to show that a major change had taken place in Greek art, leaving the Archaic age behind.

The enigmatic "smile" of the kouros and kore statues, the stark "black-figure" format in which humans are almost always portrayed in stiff profile on vases, the overwhelming emphasis on war and violence as themes in art: such were the predominant elements of Archaic Greek art. Beginning in the last years of the sixth century, B.C., these were being replaced by the "severe" style.

A greater sense of humanity certainly began to emerge in Greek art as democracy made its presence felt. Vase painters and sculptors emphasized naturalism in the way they depicted both human beings and the gods. Why the German art writers chose to categorize this rising new spirit as "severe" escapes me. But there is no doubt that the Berlin painter was in the vanguard of one of the great "awakenings" of the human spirit.



Attributed to the Berlin Painter, Nike at an Altar, early 5th century B.C.

An outstanding example of this new spirit, "severe" or sensitive, is on display in the Berlin Painter exhibit. Painted on the surface of a wine jug with a trefoil mouth is Nike, winged goddess of victory, from the British Museum collection. Nike flutters above an altar where she is about to give thanks.  

There are a number of images of Nike on display in the Berlin Painter exhibit. Most are elegant, lithe spirits. The British Museum Nike is a more amply-endowed being. She holds an incense-burning thymiaterion in her right hand and a libation bowl in the left. Her pleated dress is a chiton, covered by a stole called a himation, standard garb of Greek women. Everything about this Nike is matronly, nurturing. She is more of an "earth mother" than a goddess, though a hint of the archaic "smile" hovers on her lips.



Ed Voves (Photo 2017), The Berlin Painter's Nike at an Altar (detail)

I was so struck by the everyday,down-to-earth presence of Nike that I spent some extra time and extra effort trying to get a close-up photo of her expressive face. It wasn't easy as the over-head lighting combined with the gleaming black glaze to make picture taking in the gallery a frustrating proposition. Yet, I persevered and I must say that the Berlin Painter was able to evoke the spirit of the women of ancient Greece to a remarkable degree with the British Museum Nike.

Women had a very limited roll in ancient Greek life, beyond child-bearing and house work. Taking part, if in a limited role, in religious ceremonies was the exception to the rule. This endearing work emphasizes the public place of women in society, marking an advance in human awareness as well as the arts.

With every giant step forward, there is usually a halting half-step back. The Berlin Painter exhibition concludes with several painted vases that the government of Athens commissioned as rewards for victory in athletic competitions. But the Athenian leaders evidently insisted that these be painted in the traditional black-figure style from the "good old" days. 



Attributed to the Berlin Painter, Black-figure Panathenic Prize Amphora, 480–470 B.C

That the leaders of the world's first democracy should require its best vase painter to paint in a style that recalled the preceding age of oligarchs and tyrants is baffling in the extreme. The Berlin Painter, whoever he was, probably did not pay much heed to this inconsistency. Whatever medium is chosen - or prescribed - a great artist will find ways to create great art. 

At a critical juncture in Greek history, an unknown Athenian painter of vases whom we call the Berlin Painter did exactly that.

***
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Introductory Image:                                                                                              Attributed to the Berlin Painter (Greek, Attic, fl. ca. 500-ca. 460 B.C.) Red-figure bell-krater: Ganymede, Side A. 500–490 B.C. Ceramic. h. 30 cm (11 13/16 in.) Paris, Louvre Museum, Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities (G 175) Courtesy of Princeton University Art Museum

Ed Voves (Photo 2017), View of the Princeton University Campus, showing a banner for The Berlin Painter and His World exhibit.

Sir John Davidson Beazley by Lafayette (Lafayette Ltd) half-plate film negative, 18 November 1926 NPG x41553 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Ed Voves (Photo 2017), Gallery View of The Berlin Painter and His World exhibit at the Princeton University Art, showing the Berlin Painter's "Name Vase" Red-figure Amphora of Type A.

Ed Voves (Photo 2017), The Berlin Painter's Name Vase, Red-figure Amphora of Type A: Satyr and Hermes, side A (detail); Fawn, side A (detail)

Attributed to the Berlin Painter (Greek, fl. Ca. 500-Ca. 460 B.C.) Young man singing and playing the kithara, Ca. 490 B.C. Terracotta amphora, red-figure painting.  H. 16 5/16 in. (41.50 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art. Fletcher Fund, 1956. Accession Number:56.171.38 Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art

Attributed to the Kleophrades Painter  (Greek, fl. Ca. 510-ca. 470 B.C.) Attic red-figure hydria: four male youths in coversation, two dogs, early 5th century B.C. Ceramic. 40.6 × 38.4 × diam. 31 cm (16 × 15 1/8 × 12 3/16 in.)The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California BP-89 86.AE.7 (Courtesy of Princeton University)

Attributed to the Berlin Painter (Greek, fl. Ca. 500-Ca. 460 B.C.) Red-figure Neck-amphora with Ridged Handles:  Amazonomachy with Herkales , Ca. 480–470 B.C. Ceramic. h. 55 × diam. 30.2 × diam. rim 19.1 × diam. foot 16.6 cm (21 5/8 × 11 7/8 × 7 1/2 × 6 9/16 in.) Antikenmuseum Basel und Sammlung Ludwig (BS 453) Courtesy of Princeton University Museum of Art

Ed Voves (Photo 2017), The Berlin Painter's Amazonomachy with Herkales (detail)

Attributed to the Berlin Painter (Greek, fl. ca. 500-ca. 460 B.C.) Nike at an altar, early 5th century B.C. Oinochoe, with trefoil mouth, red-figure painting. Ceramic  H. 38.1 cm. The British Museum (E513/ 1859, 0301.6)BP-59 1859,0301. Courtesy of British Museum

Ed Voves (Photo 2017), The Berlin Painter's Nike at an Altar (detail)

Attributed to the Berlin Painter (Greek, fl. ca. 500-ca. 460 B.C.) Black-figure Panathenic Prize Amphora; Athena between Columns Topped by Cocks, side A; Runners , side B.

Ca. 480–470 B.C. Ceramic. h. 62.3 × diam. 41.9 × diam. rim 18.5 × diam. foot 13.9 cm (24 1/2 × 16 1/2 × 7 5/16 × 5 1/2 in.) Collection of Gregory Callimanopulos, New York. Courtesy of Princeton University Museum of Art


Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Noah's Beasts: Sculpted Animals from Ancient Mesopotamia at the Morgan Library and Museum





Noah's Beasts: Sculpted Animals from Ancient Mesopotamia


Morgan Library and Museum
May 26 through August 27, 2017

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Noah's Beasts, the wonderful exhibit currently at the Morgan Library and Museum, recalls the lyrics sung by "General" Tom Thumb in the musical Barnum

Bigger isn't better  
Taller isn't braver
Stronger isn't always wise  

Noah's Beasts: Sculpted Animals from Ancient Mesopotamia is very small exhibit. The are only sixteen objects on view. However, this select number includes some of the oldest and most striking works of art in existence - anywhere. This is a "focused" exhibit, but one which is remarkable for its thematic scope, brilliant curatorial design and the insight it provides on issues ancient and modern.

Tom Thumb was right, "bigger isn't better."

This emphasis on exhibition size is motivated in part by memories of the vast Art of the First Cities presented at the Metropolitan Museum in 2003. One of the greatest exhibits of ancient art in recent times, with 400 objects on view, Art of the First Cities was almost too big to comprehend. 

Several of the works of art appearing in Noah's Beasts were displayed in Art of the First Cities. Their impact was somewhat reduced by the sheer magnitude of the exhibit. But there is no chance that these stunning depictions of animals from antiquity will be overlooked at the Morgan.



Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Recumbent Sheep, Late Uruk-Jamdat Nasr, 3300–2900 B.C

Even in Noah's Beasts, however, there is a chance that the smaller pieces on display might get "lost in the shuffle." Some of the cylinder seals and a fragment of a baked clay tablet inscribed with the Akkadian cuneiform script (a distant ancestor of Hebrew) are easy to pass by. This would be a big mistake and Sidney Babcock, the Morgan's Curator Ancient Near Eastern Seals and Tablets, wasn't about to let that error be made at the press preview for Noah's Beasts.

"I want you to look at this," Babcock said, with quiet, if unrestrained enthusiasm. "Please take a look at this." 

Babcock pointed out the details of modern impressions made in wax from the ancient cylinder seals. Invented in Mesopotamia, cylinder seals played a major role in the development of writing and visual art. 



Priest-King Offering Lion at Temple, Late Uruk- Jamdat Nasr, ca.3300–2900 B.C.

These small cylinders were made from hard minerals like serpentine or marble and carved with images and letters. The cylinders were then rolled on to clay, producing seals for official documents. Over and over again, the images are of "priest-kings" or warriors dealing with animals - offering them in sacrifice to the gods, fighting predators in deadly combat, herding cattle and sheep in from the fields.

Few people in the Sumerian city-states would ever have seen incredible works of art like the silver head of a lion from the fabled tomb of Queen Puabi. The images produced from cylinder seals were another matter. The same is true of a battered clay tablet from the Morgan's collection. This rather mundane object is key to the entire Noah's Beasts exhibition.



Tablet Inscribed with a Fragment of the Epic of Atrahasis, ca. 1646–1626 B.C.

What appears on the tablet is an early version of the biblical story of Noah's Ark. Entitled The Epic of Atrahasis, the parallels with Noah's ordeal in this "epic" are not coincidental. In the quote below, we read how the Sumerian god Enki warns Atrahasis, sleeping in his reed hut, to prepare for the worst in flood-prone Mesopotamia.

(The god) Enki made his voice heard . . . “Wall, wall! Reed wall, reed wall! Atrahasis, pay heed to my advice, That you may live forever! Dismantle the house, build a boat, Reject possessions, and save living things. The boat that you build . . . Make upper and lower decks. The tackle must be very strong, The bitumen strong, to give it strength. . . .

And then, roaring "like a bull ... like a wild ass screaming" the flood raged across the land.

The Epic of Atrahasis dates to ca. 1646–1626 BC, about one-thousand years before the Book of Genesis is believed to have been written. This hugely influential act is dated to the reign of the reforming king of Judah, Josiah, during the late seventh century BC. 

Interestingly, the Morgan's fragment of The Epic of Atrahasis can be dated to the reign of Ammi-saduqa, king of Babylon. His father had been Hammurabi, author of the first written law code in history. 

The Morgan's exhibit can thus be seen as illustrating humanity's attempt to implement legal structures for society, following in the wake of divine punishment of mankind's misdeeds. Noah's story, and that of Atrahasis, narrates nothing less than a new beginning for the human race.

It must be admitted, however, that what really interests us about Noah and Atrahasis is the animals in their lives  - and in the hulls of their flood-tossed ships.

Many of the animal sculptures on view at the Morgan come from the rich collection of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. 

The silver lion head, whose image introduces this review, the extraordinary Rearing Goat with a Flowering Plant, the Head of a Markhor Goat with his corkscrew horns were discovered by Sir Leonard Woolley during his expeditions in the 1920's and 1930's. Often found in pairs, (one would go to British Museum, the other to the University of Pennsylvania) Woolley's treasures created a sensation during the inter-war years.The passage of time has not dulled their brilliance.

These sculpted animals are nothing short of incredible. Created five millennia ago, they impress both by their astonishing naturalism and also for their symbolical impact. 



Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Head of a Lion, Ur, Early Dynastic IIIa, ca. 2550–2400 B.C.

The silver lion's eyes, for instance have inscribed slits, creating a remarkable sense of predatory realism. The lion head (and its partner at the British Museum) may have graced the arm rests of a throne. If so, the hint of a snarl created by the incised markings above the upper lip of the lion would have given anyone approaching the throne cause to tremble.



Head of a Markhor Goat, Sumerian, Early Dynastic III, ca. 2550–2250 B.C.

The Head of a Markhor Goat, its copper alloy green with age, was created by the lost wax casting process, certainly one of the earliest examples we have. There is debate among scholars about the gleaming triangular piece of shell inserted into the animal's forehead. Most likely it represents, a fringe of hair. But might it also represent a "third eye" or some other acknowledgement of the animal's spiritual nature. Scholars have commented on the "numinous" quality of this animal, so the latter interpretation is certainly worthy of consideration.

It is important to keep in mind that these wondrous animals represent creatures that both Noah and Atrahasis loaded on board their ships. These were the animals. wild and domesticated, with both heroes were familiar. Later depictions like the charming scene painted 1846 by the American Quaker artist, Edward Hicks, showed two of each species trooping on board. Giraffes, zebras, an entire zoo marched up the gangplank.



Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Vessel Supported by Two Rams, ca. 2600–2500 B.C.

The citizens of Ur, Nippur and other city states of Mesopotamia were not likely to have seen any giraffes in the flood-menaced plain between the Tigris and Euphrates. These founders of Civilization - as we know the term - were a bit more pragmatic to have spent much time saving exotic animals when their own herds of cattle, sheep and goats were at risk. 

A "great" flood may have occurred- and there are many hypothetical dates and explanations.  But the Sumerians were exposed to constant danger from sudden, killer floods. Most, like Atrahasis, lived in reed huts that could be readily rebuilt, Their domestic animals bunked with them in the same structures. So, great flood or small, it would not have been a stretch for Noah and Atrahasis to share cabin space on a hastily-built "ark" with animals from field and farm.

it also needs to be emphasized that Noah and Atrahasis saved their lives and those of their "beasts" so that all could serve the gods.

In his remarks at the press preview, Sidney Babcock paid special attention to an exquisite figure of a cow kneeling in supplication to the gods. This amazing figure,dating to around 3000 BC, needs to be viewed from a special angle to be properly understood. As they say in real estate, location is everything.

The tendency of museum visitors to seek the best view of a museum object, either profile or three-quarters, requires a bit of restraint in the case of this kneeling cow. 



Kneeling Cow Holding a Vessel, Proto-Elamite, ca. 3000–2800 B.C.

Babcock perceptively noted that this silver statue would have been positioned so that the vessel that cow is holding would be the most prominent feature. What the god saw was what mattered and what mattered was the gift-offering or act of devotion.



The Kneeling Cow Holding a Vessel  is thought to come from southern Mesopotamia, not far from Ur. This was the city where Queen Puabi's tomb was found and more, importantly, the home town of Abraham, the first leader of the Chosen People. There is a temptation to view splendid objects like this in terms of the Holy Bible. Sir Leonard Woolley, himself, was unable to resist.

In the late 1920's, Woolley excavated the "Great Death Pit" where Puabi's tomb and many other royal burials were uncovered. There he discovered an extraordinary, multi-piece sculpture of a what he called “ram caught in a thicket." This was a direct reference to the story in Genesis 22:13 when Abraham, about to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, saw such an animal, its horns tangled in vines. The ram, not Isaac, was sacrificed sealing God's covenant with Abraham.



Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Rearing Goat with a Flowering Plant, ca. 2550–2400 B.C.

Woolley, despite being one of the greatest archaeologists of all time, incorrectly reassembled this extraordinary sculpture. According to the fascinating account in the University of Pennsylvania Museum website, Woolley pressed the trunk of the "thicket" too deeply into the base. The ram's hooves dangled above the surface of the ground, as if caught in the bush. When the piece was closely examined in the 1990's, conservators realized the mistake. 

The "ram" is actually a Markhor Goat, preparing to "mount" the flowering plant. The goat represents male sexual potency, the plant female fertility. This is not exactly the "missionary position" nor is it as inspiring as the Bible story of Abraham. But the earthy, agrarian people of Ur of the Chaldees would have understood.

It is amazing how many new insights there are to be gained from the ancient treasures from Ur on view at the Morgan Library. This outstanding exhibit at the Morgan Library and Museum also reveals how deep the roots are of the Judeo-Christian Bible. 

The Garden of Eden was once thought to have been situated in the "land between the rivers." Looking at these "beasts," these animal companions of Noah, it's easy to understand why.

***
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved. Images courtesy of the Morgan Library and Museum and by Anne Lloyd.


Introductory Image
Head of a Lion, Mesopotamia, Sumerian, Ur, PG 800, Dromos of Queen Puabi’s Tomb, U.10465, Early Dynastic IIIa, ca. 2550–2400 B.C., silver, lapis lazuli, and shell, 4 3/8 × 4 3/4 in. (11.1 × 12.1 cm). University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia B17064.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), A Recumbent Sheep, Mesopotamia, Sumerian, Late Uruk- Jamdat Nasr, ca. 3300–2900 B.C., black stone. Babylonian Collection, Yale University, New Haven; YBC 2261.


Priest-King Offering Lion at Temple, Mesopotamia, Sumerian, Late Uruk- Jamdat Nasr, ca.
3300–2900 B.C., cylinder seal (with modern impression), marble. Babylonian Collection, Yale University, New Haven; Buchannan 135.

Tablet Inscribed with a Fragment of the Babylonian Flood Story Epic of Atrahasis in Akkadian, Mesopotamia, First Dynasty of Babylon, reign of King Ammi-saduqa (ca. 1646–1626 B.C.), Clay, 4 1/2 × 3 9/16 in. (11.4 × 9 cm). The Morgan Library & Museum.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Head of a Lion, Mesopotamia, Sumerian, Ur, PG 800, Dromos of Queen Puabi’s Tomb, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia B17064.

Head of a Markhor Goat, Mesopotamia, Sumerian,Early Dynastic III, ca. 2550–2250 B.C., copper alloy, shell, and red stone. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia; 29-20-3.


Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Vessel Supported by Two Rams, Mesopotamia, Sumerian, Early Dynastic IIIa, ca. 2600–2500 B.C., gypsum alabaster, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, gift of Norbert Schimmel Trust, 1989; 1989.281.3

Kneeling Cow Holding a Vessel, Southwestern Iran or Southeastern Mesopotamia, Proto-
Elamite, ca. 3000–2800 B.C., silver. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1966; 66.173.

Rearing Goat with a Flowering Plant (“Ram Caught in a Thicket”), Mesopotamia, Sumerian, Ur, PG 1237, Great Death Pit, U.12357, Early Dynastic IIIa, ca. 2550–2400 B.C., gold, silver, lapis lazuli, copper alloy, shell, red limestone, and bitumen. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia 30-12-702.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Prints of Francisco Goya at the Philadelphia Museum of Art



Witness: Reality and Imagination in the Prints of Francisco Goya


The Philadelphia Museum of Art

April 22 – September 6, 2017 


Reviewed by Ed Voves

On the timeline of art history, Surrealism is usually placed between the end of the Dada movement around 1922 and Picasso's Guernica in 1937. This certainly was the heyday of Surrealism, when René Magritte, Max Ernst and André Masson probed the realm of the unconscious and the irrational with some of the greatest Surrealist works.

The problem with dating Surrealism to the 1920's and 30's is that Francisco José de Goya y Luciente (1746-1828) had created incomparable works of art over a century before that fully qualify as examples of Surrealism. If J.M.W.Turner can be lauded as a pioneer of Abstract art, Goya is certainly worthy of the title of the First Surrealist.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is currently mounting a major exhibition of selections from  Goya's prints. The Philadelphia Museum is able to draw upon complete first edition prints from all four series of Goya's etchings: Los Caprichos, Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War), La Tauromaquia and Los Disparates. Goya's bullfighting lithographs, created while he lived in exile in Bordeaux, France, during his last years, are also on view.

Goya's prints strike directly and deeply into the troubled soul of humanity. This is quite evident from the Philadelphia Museum exhibition. These are still-shocking works of art, two hundred years after their creation.  

When you look at The Disasters of War, Plate 15, And There Is No Remedy (Y No Hai Remedio), the execution of this prisoner could have occurred during any war or revolution from the 1600's to the contemporary world. The blunt, deadly rifle barrels, the last, terrifying moments of a blind-folded captive roped to a wooden stake are the only subjects here. Political ideology, military necessity, flags, bugles, etc. are all banished from the picture plane. A human being is going to die ... and There Is No Remedy. 



Francisco Goya, And There Is No Remedy1810-1820

Goya's Disasters of War might be disqualified from being Surrealist works of art, given that such scenes of carnage were a daily reality during Spain's war against the French army of Napoleon, 1808 to 1814. In the background of And There Is No Remedy, a second firing squad is at work, reprieving the pose and uniforms of the Napoleonic executioners in Goya's The Third of May

Yet, what appears to be ultra-realism in both etching and oil painting is, in fact, entirely imaginative. Goya was in Spain during these terrible years. Based in Madrid, he was removed from the actual fighting which was largely conducted with "hit-and-run" tactics soon to be  called "little war" or "guerrilla" warfare. These Disasters of War were events Goya "witnessed" through his mind's eye.

Goya's first series of etchings, Los Caprichos, are chiefly imaginative too. Goya maintained that these works were commentaries on the superstition and venality of Spanish society, especially of the Catholic Church which he detested. If so, few of the etchings were accurate depictions of scenes Goya actually witnessed. 

The very title of the series, the Spanish translation of "caprice," can be taken to be mean "whim."  This in turn can be interpreted as Goya's whim to render "the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society" as he saw them, rather than as they happened. 



Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of Francisco Goya's self-portrait, 1799

Goya's early work as a portrait, religious and genre painter gave little indication of this capricious or "dark" side of his artistic vision.  In 1792, he fell seriously ill from what researches believe was a rare autoimmune condition called Susac’s syndrome. Beginning with severe headaches and buzzing in his ears, Goya then experienced hallucinations, paralysis and hearing loss. He went completely deaf, though he eventually recovered physical stamina sufficient to begin painting  – and etching. 

Goya's mastery of etching is astonishing. His handling of the tonal qualities of gray and black equaled Rembrandt's. Goya's use of blank space, as can be seen in Plate 6, Nobody Knows Himself, is in a class by itself. The patch of light on the temple and cheek of the woman on the left and over the breast of the younger woman on the right open passage ways straight to the human mind and heart and soul.



Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of Goya's Nobody Knows Himself,1799

That is what the experience of going deaf did to Goya. He seems to have developed a heightened degree of vision, cutting through all the pretense and posturing of society. As if in compensation for his loss of hearing, Goya was able to see more clearly, deep into the human spirit. No one could hide from him - including himself.

Plate 5 of Los Caprichos is a fitting example of Goya's penetrating vision. The scene is one that could be seen on most plazas of Spanish towns or cities in the late 1700's. A young, stylish gentleman is ogling a voluptuous woman in a revealing "maja" dress. Yet, this image has much more to reveal.



Francisco Goya, They've Already Got a Seat,1799

The facial features of the woman in Plate 5 resembles those of the Duchess of Alba (1762-1802). The wealthiest and most notorious woman in Spain,the Duchess had looks to match. "Every hair on her head elicits desire," an admiring Frenchman declared. 



Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of Goya's They've Already Got a Seat, 1799

In 1796, the now-deaf Goya went to the country estate of the Duchess for a lengthy visit in order to paint portraits of her. The most famous of these, in the collection of the Hispanic Society in New York, shows her dressed in mourning for the recently deceased Duke of Alba. The Duchess was also shown wearing a ring inscribed "Goya."

Tongues wagged. 

Yet, if Goya had an illicit affair with the Duchess, it cannot have been a happy one.  The eighty prints of Los Caprichos, created in aquatint and etching, were published in an album in 1799. Quite a number of the prints show women with the features of the Duchess and not to her advantage - courtesans, women "on the make," shrews. One of the prints shows a group of  "two-faced" women, both faces looking like the Duchess of Alba.

In taking aim at Spanish society with Los Caprichos, was Goya also holding himself and the Duchess of Alba up to censure? It had to be a conscious decision to depict the Duchess of Alba in such fashion. But the motivation for this could only have come from powerful emotional factors, deep within himself, such as an admission of personal guilt.

The other prints of Goya's Los Caprichos made good his promise to depict humanity's "innumerable foibles and follies." This he did, skewering Spanish society like a bullfighting picador with his lance. 

Goya reserved special ridicule for the Spanish nobility, not just the Duchess of Alba. One of my favorite prints from this series shows an aristocratic mule studying his pedigree - a long line of mules.

Another print, entitled Chinchillas, derived from a famous eighteenth century comedy. Goya's Spanish noblemen, with their padlocked brains, may have inspired  the features of one of Hollywood's most dreaded monsters. There has been some speculation that the Universal Studio makeup man, Jack Pierce, based the features of Boris Karloff in the 1931 film, Frankenstein, on Goya's Chinchillas.



Francisco Goya, The Chinchillas, 1799

If the look of the Monster (Karloff) in Frankenstein did derive from Los Caprichos then the caption of the most famous print from the series takes on added significance.

Plate 43 of Los Caprichos, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, is the introductory image of this review. It is one of Goya's most familiar and most studied images. The common interpretation of this print has Goya, the Man of the Enlightenment, warning of the gathering irrational forces threatening the Age of Reason.  

A very different appraisal appears in the essay, "Tensions of the Enlightenment", which can be read in Nineteenth Century Art; a Critical History, edited by Stephen Eisenman. In this a challenging interpretation, Thomas Crow writes:

Yet it is by no means clear that the cloud of monsters that darkens Goya's self-portrait is that of popular ignorance, soon to be dispersed by the artist's satiric pen and sunlit powers of reason. Just as likely is it that Goya is reflecting upon the distressing antipodes of his own mind and upon the Janus-face of Enlightenment itself. For in fact, the very creation of art in an age of Reason entailed a dangerous flirtation with madness.



Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, 1799

In this view, the Age of Reason was the victim of its own ideology. Well-meaning Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire, Rousseau  and Thomas Paine had prepared the way for the Terror of 1792-94 and for the rise of ruthless, opportunistic tyrants like Napoleon, whose his first military conquests occurred just as Goya prepared Los Caprichos for print.

The Enlightenment had, unwittingly, unleashed the inner demons of humanity, symbolized by the bats, owls and cats surrounding the beleaguered man - Goya, himself - in The Sleep of Reason.

Whatever interpretation one gives to this famous image, its nightmare imagery was amply confirmed by the horrific events of the Spanish revolt against Napoleon, lasting from 1808 to 1814.

Many of the prints in The Disasters of War are so graphic, so revoltingly accurate in their depiction of the atrocities committed by both sides that the series was not published until 1863. Yet, even though he did not personally witness the savage conflict in person, Goya did not exaggerate the unspeakable cruelty. This astonishing realism is indeed surreal because even these horrifying images do not convey the full magnitude of the suffering.



Francisco Goya, What Courage!, 1810-1814

Consider the print What Valor! It records an actual incident, when a young woman, Agustina Domènech, rallied Spanish troops during the siege of Zaragoza by firing a cannon at the advancing French. Goya, who was born in the nearby town of Fuendetodos, was obviously proud of this heroic event. But he was well aware of the staggering death toll of 54,000 Spanish, soldiers and civilians, who died during the long siege of 1808-09.

The pile of corpses that Agustina of Zaragoza stands upon to fire the cannon may be viewed as symbolic of the reality the Spanish War - and of the best and worst that human beings are capable of. 

It would be some consolation to think that the loss of so many lives during the war against Napoleon resulted in freedom, justice and prosperity for Spain once the invader was expelled. But with the return of the Spanish monarchy in 1814, the constitution which the freedom fighters had created was suppressed and a reign of tyranny instituted, crushing the very patriots who struggled so courageously to free Spain from Napoleon's legions.

This is political "surrealism" at its absolute worst. Thomas Crow writes perceptively of Goya:

The reason Goya's despair was so great was that he had seen the barbarism of Enlightenment itself in the person of Napoleon as well as the defeat of Enlightenment by Spain.

Goya, following the war with Napoleon, lived in a state of emotional collapse. He produced bullfighting etchings and lithographs, brilliantly executed but essentially popular escapism. 



Francisco Goya, A Way of Flying, c. 1815-1823

Goya also created a new series of fantasy works, Los Disparates (The Follies), that hint at the depths of his despair. This was to surface in his final "black paintings" created between 1819 to 1823, notably the chilling Saturn Devouring His Son.

What are we to make of these astonishing prints by Goya? I first saw The Disasters of War in a long-ago pilgrimage to the Prado in the late 1970's. The shock never wore-off. I have made two trips so far to the current exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and plan further visits. The wonder, the horror, the enigma of Goya's prints just keeps growing, an obsession that is linked, beyond doubt, to the mystery of life.

***
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Introductory Image:                                                                                                         Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (Spanish, 1746-1828) The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, 1799. Etching and aquatint, Plate: 8 3/8 x 5 7/8 inches (21.3 x 14.9 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Purchased with the SmithKline Beckman Corporation Fund, 1949

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (Spanish, 1746-1828) Y No Hai Remedio (And There is No Remedy), 1810-1820. Etching and aquatint, Plate: 15 1/2 x 16 5/8 inches (39.4 x 42.2 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Purchased with the SmithKline Beckman Corporation Fund, 1949

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of  Plate 1 of Francisco Goya's Los Caprichos, Frontispiece, Fran.co Goya y Lucientes, Painter (self-portrait), 1799.  Etching and aquatint, Plate: 8 1/2 x 5 15/16 inches (21.6 x 15.1 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Purchased with the Bloomfield Moore Fund, 1950.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of  Plate 6 of Francisco Goya's Los Caprichos, Nobody Knows Himself, 1799. Etching and aquatint, Plate: 8 1/2 x 6 inches (21.6 x 15.2 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Purchased with the Bloomfield Moore Fund, 1950

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (Spanish, 1746-1828) They've Already Got a Seat, 1799. Etching and aquatint, Plate: 8 3/8 x 5 7/8 inches (21.3 x 14.9 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Purchased with the Bloomfield Moore Fund, 1950.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of Francisco Goya's They've Already Got a Seat, 1799. Etching and aquatint, Plate: 8 3/8 x 5 7/8 inches (21.3 x 14.9 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Purchased with the Bloomfield Moore Fund, 1950.

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (Spanish, 1746-1828) The Chinchillas, 1799. Etching and aquatint, Plate: 8 x 5 7/8 inches (20.3 x 14.9 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Purchased with the Bloomfield Moore Fund, 1950

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of Francisco Goya's The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, 1799. Etching and aquatint, Plate: 8 3/8 x 5 7/8 inches (21.3 x 14.9 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Purchased with the SmithKline Beckman Corporation Fund, 1949

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (Spanish, 1746-1828) What Courage!, 1810-1814, published 1863. Etching and aquatint, Plate: 6 1/8 x 8 1/8 inches (15.6 x 20.6 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Purchased with the SmithKline Beckman Corporation Fund, 1949.


Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (Spanish, 1746-1828) A Way of Flying, c. 1815-1823 (published 1864). Etching and aquatint, Plate: 9 5/8 x 13 3/4 inches (24.4 x 34.9 cm) Sheet: 13 3/16 × 18 7/8 inches (33.5 × 48 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Marion B. F. Ingersoll, 1955.