Thursday, September 21, 2017

Art Eyewitness Essay: Toys R Art

Toys R Art

Some Thoughts on the Role of Toys in the Art World

Text by Ed Voves  

Photo Essay by Anne Lloyd

Sometimes a visit to the art museum presents a difficult choice. Should I go see the exhibit or check out the gift shop first. The temptation to follow the latter course is often irresistible.

The recent Wild: Michael Nichols exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a case in point. The inventory of the gift shop reflected Nichols' status as one of the world's greatest nature photographers.  A vast herd of animal-themed toys thronged the shelves and display racks. Floor to ceiling, lions, tigers, bears and a stray elephant or two were everywhere. 

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Philadelphia Museum shop for Wild: Michael Nichols 

These Wild toys reinforced a growing interest in toys since I reviewed the Embracing the Contemporary exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This exhibition of modern art, collected by Keith and Katherine Sachs, included a tiny wooden toy box filled with miniature toys. This small wonder was crafted by Charles LeDray in 2005-06. I had a much bigger version of such a toy box as a child, long gone - but not forgotten.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2016), Toy Chest, 2005–6, by Charles LeDray

In my 2016 review of Embracing the Contemporary, I wrote:

Looking at LeDray's wondrous work of art, I was stuck by the thought that we begin to collect memories as children and continue to do so throughout our lives. This in turn leads to a point when we are moved to share our emotional riches with others.

Lately, my wife Anne has been going on photo "safaris," chiefly of the many remarkable gardens of our Philadelphia neighborhood. Anne stopped in to the local Salvation Army store during one of her expeditions. A creative moment, relating to my toy box meditations, ensued.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Salvation Army Store, Philadelphia PA

When you go into the Salvation Army store, you are confronted by row upon row of cleaned, if slightly time-worn, clothing. On top of some of the metal shelves are trays of cast-off stuffed animals. Once these were treasured companions of a little Jane or Johnny. Kids grow-up and outgrow their playthings. Computer games take the place of plush animals. Time marches on.

Anne started snapping photos and then began rearranging the stuffed animals into little "photo-op" scenes. Evidently, someone else had a similar idea earlier. Anne found a lion and a lamb sharing a shelf. With a little propping-up, predator and prey were reconciled and ready to pose again for a new incarnation of the Peaceable Kingdom.  

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Peaceable Kingdom at the Salvation Army Store

These discarded toys are especially affecting and poignant because they were once loved by children. Some resonance of this love clings to them still. I sensed that when I saw the first batch of photos that Anne took. When I went with Anne for a return visit, I was amazed to see the transformation for myself. 

Anne's careful groupings of these toys seemed to bring them to life. Something struck a chord or touched a nerve in me. Those inanimate objects really appeared to be awakening to the kind of life they once enjoyed in the company of young children. 

Toys play a really important part in children's lives. I'm not referring here to toys that have a clearly "educational" role - which most kids instinctively reject. 

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Monkey Friend at the Salvation Army Store

A smiling monkey doll, like this one, is more life affirming. It helps a young child adjust to the world, to identify, appreciate and respond to kindness and love in the immediate family circle. 

Then comes the next import step, to appreciate and love beyond the family unit.

The big, beaming smile that spreads across this monkey's silly mug also appears on the face of Frans Hals' Fisher Boy with a Basket. Why did the cash-strapped Hals paint a picture of an impoverished working-class kid with a toothy smile?  He cannot have made much money selling this or the other versions of street urchins that he did.

Frans Hals, Fisher Boy with Basket, ca. 1630

I believe that Frans Hals and his compatriots in Golden Age Holland could appreciate a smile on a poor boy's face because their society invested so much in the well-being of children.  This regard for others which Dutch children learned early in their lives was a social "glue" which helped the United Provinces survive repeated invasions and internal stresses that would have wrecked less well-adjusted societies during the 1600's.

Artists and writers have been imparting human attributes to animals since Aesop.That's certainly a comforting thought. Perhaps my reflections on stuffed animals and art are not quite so “off-beat” after all!

On second thought, the ridiculous elements in life need to be cherished in art along with the sublime. Take a look at these Salvation Army recruits and try and keep a straight face. The kooky clown in his fright wig and the teddy bear and panda posing for a selfie. Just fun! Purely, simply fun!

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017),  Candid Photography at the Salvation Army Store! 

I've come to believe that a totally serious approach to art isn't always necessary - or even wise all the time. Not that I'm in favor of drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa, either.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), "Photo-Op" at the Salvation Army Store

Here is a demonstration of what I mean. Anne arranged a troop of the Salvation Army critters for a group portrait. The cartoon expressions of these beasties range from befuddlement and alarm to kindly acceptance. It is truly a very funny tableau.

Where have we seen such a range of emotion in the art world?

Rembrandt, The Syndics of the Clothmakers Guild, 1662

Rembrandt's Syndics of the Clothmakers Guild? Surely I jest! 

Yes, but Syndics of the Clothmakers Guild is based on an underlying strata of humor. According to the most accepted interpretation of Syndics, Rembrandt depicted these officials responding to a challenging question during a policy-making meeting. It records a rather uncomfortable moment.

Syndics is unquestionably a masterpiece. But it is also a warm, funny evocation of the human comedy. From the suspicion and startled dignity of several of the syndics to the bemused look of the secretary behind them, we glimpse faces of men who have let the mask of officialdom slip down. For once, we see them, not as a group of "stuffed shirts," but as decent, if fallible, mortals like ourselves.

I suspect that there is a cartoon character or two in all of us. We don't need to arrange stuffed animals and find parallels with masterpieces like Rembrandt's Syndics to put a smile on our faces. Sometimes, a great painting will produce that effect without the need for props.

Titian was not especially well known for his sense of humor. Yet, in his Supper at Emmaus, Titian included a confrontation between a snappy, combative little dog and a gray tabby cat, poking its head under the table cloth.

Titian, The Supper at Emmaus,  ca. 1530

The Supper at Emmaus is one of the key events of Christian history. Following Jesus' crucifixion, two disciples met a stranger on the road to the village of Emmaus, a day's journey from Jerusalem. This of course was Jesus, risen from the dead. The disciples only recognized him when he blessed the bread for dinner. The story appears in the Gospel of St. Luke.

Titian, The Supper at Emmaus (Detail)

Nowhere does St. Luke mention a dog and a cat at the table at Emmaus. Other artists, Caravaggio and Rembrandt, painted this scene without any animal intervention. Why did Titian do so?

The first owners of this painting were the Maffei family from Verona, rather than a Catholic religious order. Perhaps, Titian wanted to include a homey detail or to show that the trifling details of life do not stop even when the Divine Presence is being manifested. 

Whatever the case, Titian demonstrated that humor has a secure place in great art.

Anne and I spent a delightful half-hour arranging the Salvation Army animals for their "photo shoots."  One of the plush animals, a sweet, demure mouse, called to mind the subject of one of Renoir's greatest portraits. Renoir painted Adelphine Legrand in 1875, the year after the First Impressionist Salon and its dissappointing sales.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Portrait of Mademoiselle Legrand, 1875

Adelphine Legrand was eight years old when Renoir painted her. This sweet, demure girl was just at the point in her life when she would no longer be a child but rather be Mademoiselle Legrand.

Adelphine's dolls and toys, counterparts of this little mouse, would have had to be set on the shelf or given away. This is part of the price of growing up and I could not help but reflect that this particular toy mouse surely had been loved and cherished by a modern-day Adelphine only a short time ago.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Mouse Friend at the Salvation Army Store

Life passes swiftly. Pleasant interludes such as Anne and I spent at the Salvation Army store come to an end almost as soon as they begin. 

Yet occasions for humor, joy and inspiration should be cherished, however brief and wherever these take place. A museum gallery or an aisle in a Salvation Army store. You never know when or where an "art moment" may occur.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved. Images courtesy of the National Gallery of Ireland, Rijksmuseum, the Louvre and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, via Creative Commons. Gallery and  Salvation Army Store images courtesy of Anne Lloyd.

Introductory Image:
Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Second-hand Toys at the Salvation Army Store, Philadelphia PA, September 2017.
Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017),  Museum shop for the Wild: Michael Nichols exhibit, Philadelphia Museum of Art, June 2017.  
Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Toy Chest, 2005–6, by Charles LeDray. Mixed-media object from the Keith and Katherine Sachs Collection. Promised gift to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Salvation Army Store, Philadelphia PA , September 2017.   
Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Peaceable Kingdom at the Salvation Army Store, Philadelphia PA , September 2017.    
Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Monkey Toy at the Salvation Army Store , Philadelphia PA, September 2017.                     
Frans Hals, (Dutch, 1581-1666) Fisher Boy with Basket, ca. 1630. Oil on canvas, 72 cm × 58 cm (28 in × 23 in). National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. Purchased in 1881. NGI.193.
Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Second-hand Toys at the Salvation Army Store, Philadelphia PA . Three photos taken during September 2017.
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669) The Syndics of the Cloth Makers Guild, about 1662 Oil on canvas,191.5 x 279 cm. © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (SK-C-6).
Titian (Italian, 1490–1576) The Supper at Emmaus,  ca. 1530. Oil on canvas. 169 cm (66.5 in). Width: 244 cm (96.1 in). Louvre, Paris. Inventory # 746.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French, 1841–1919) Portrait of Mademoiselle Legrand, 1872, Oil on canvas, 32 x 23 1/2 inches, 81.3 x 59.7 cm. Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Henry P. McIlhenny Collection in memory of Frances P. McIlhenny, 1986, (1986-26-28)  Image: © The Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Mouse Toy at the Salvation Army Store , Philadelphia PA, September 2017.                     

Thursday, September 14, 2017

French and British Drawing Exhibits - Morgan Library and Princeton University Art Museum

      Poussin, Claude & French Drawing in the Classical Age       

     Morgan Library and Museum
June 16 - October 15, 2017

Great British Drawings

Princeton University Art Museum
July 1 – September 17, 2017 

Reviewed by Ed Voves

The English Channel is twenty miles wide at its narrowest point between Dover on the British shore and Cap Griz Nez in France. Two remarkable exhibitions of drawings, one at New York's Morgan Library and Museum and the other at the Princeton University Art Museum, show that the cultural gulf between the two nations has often been much wider.

Great British Drawings, a travelling exhibit drawn entirely from the outstanding collection of Oxford University's Ashmolean Museum, charts the course of British art from its post-Reformation awakening in the late 1600's to the mid-twentieth century. 

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017) Great British Drawings at Princeton University Art Museum

Poussin, Claude and French Drawing in the Classical Age at the Morgan is more tightly focused, devoted exclusively to the seventeenth century. The Morgan exhibit is overwhelming composed of drawings from its own, seemingly inexhaustible, holdings, with a few loans from the Metropolitan Museum and several private collections.

These exhibits enable us to see the differing approaches to art which artists from France and Britain followed for much of the modern period. 

The seventeenth century for France was the "splendid century." French art during the 1600's followed the centralizing political agenda of Cardinal Richelieu and Louis XIV. French painters, especially after the foundation of the Académie Royal in 1648, drew support and inspiration from the ideology of France as the "grand nation." 

The annual award of the Prix de Rome, inaugurated in 1663, enabled the lucky winner to study and work in Italy for several years at the expense of the King of France.The prestige of the award insured that the visual arts followed the prescribed religious and classical themes favored by the Royal authorities. Artists were expected to revolve like planets around the Sun King just as the fawning nobles did at the court of Versailles.

Despite occasional attempts to follow the French patronage model, British art was attuned to the fickle dictates of the market place. The "milords" of the eighteenth century, followed by factory owners in the 1800's, bought the kind of art they liked - pictures of themselves and their horses, especially - rather than what King George ordained.

The Morgan exhibit takes its title from from two of the  greatest French artists of all time and from the classical ideal that was the foundation of their work. Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) and Claude Lorrain (1600-1682) both lived most of their adult lives in Italy. Poussin was ordered home to France by Cardinal Richelieu in 1640, but escaped back to Italy in 1642. Lorrain went to Italy as a pastry chef in the 1620's but found he was better at painting. He was not technically a French subject, which enabled him to avoid the suffocating embrace of the French monarchy.

Both Poussin and Lorrain were masterful draftsmen. Their drawings were clearly intended as the foundation for major oil paintings. To modern eyes, the classical-themed paintings by  Poussin and Lorrain can seem dated and unconvincing. Their drawings are another matter.

Nicholas Poussin, Holy Family on the Steps, 1646-48

Poussin's Holy Family on the Steps is a tour de force of integrating human figures in a believable setting. The scene is superbly accentuated with sharp contrasts of light and shadow. And the fact that facial features are not delineated lets the viewer "finish" the character details in his or her own mind. 

For this work, Poussin used pen and brown ink, with brown and gray wash, over black chalk, on paper. Lorrain often used the same technique with equal effectiveness.

J.M.W. Turner revered Claude Lorrain's oil paintings for their masterly handling of light. Yet, even a brief look at Claude's Landscape with a Procession Crossing a Bridge (1645) and The Sermon on the Mount (1655) opens our eyes to the incredible skill with which the limited range of color is used in these sketches.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Claude's Landscape with a Procession Crossing a Bridge

Less is more. What we see in these drawings is the flowering of organic forms over allegorical references. Nature transcends narrative.

We see that too in the psychological insights of the highest caliber in the portrait drawings on display at the Morgan. The artists of seventeenth century France followed in the footsteps of the Renaissance masters, Jean Clouet (c.1485/90–1540) and François Clouet (c.1515–1572). French portrait sketches from the 1600's clearly show a major advance in depicting both facial features and "interior lives" that rival the more famous Dutch achievements from that era.

Simon Vouet, Study of a Woman Seated on a Step..., ca.1630–35

A superb example of character "formation" is Simon Vouet's Study of a Woman Seated on a Step with Another Study of Her Right Hand, ca. 1630–35. Vouet has depicted a human body in motion, a being whose inner self is stirring to life as well.  

Another masterful achievement is Daniel Dumonstier's Portrait of a Gentleman of the French Court. Created in 1628, during the reign of Louis XIII, this brilliant work is the introductory image for this review.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Detail of Daniel Dumonstier's Portrait of a Gentleman, 1628

Dumonstier's Portrait of a Gentleman immediately calls to mind Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers. It is unlikely that the identity of this courtier will ever be revealed. But this stunning portrait probes the psyche of this individual with such amazing perception that we feel we know him for certain.

Great British Drawings begins with a portrait from roughly the same period as Dumonstier's Portrait of a Gentleman. Samuel Cooper, famous for his "warts and all" portrait of Oliver Cromwell, sketched this amazing likeness with black chalk and a bit of white accent. In this case, we know the name of the sitter and his identity raises questions of why Cooper lavished so much skill on it.

Samuel Cooper, Thomas Alcock, ca. 1650

At first glance, Thomas Alcock looks like a "plain, russet-coated Captain, that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows." Such men were the field officers in Cromwell's Puritan army. Looks are deceiving.

In fact, Alcock was a henchman of the libertine Earl of Rochester, notorious for his sexual escapades during the reign of King Charles II. An inscription on the back of the drawing records that Alcock, aged eighteen, commissioned the "famous Mr. Cooper of Covent Garden" to draw his portrait.

Vanity of vanities ... plus a little expendable cash keeps the art market primed!

British art followed a gloriously eccentric and commercial course. Many of the influences which appealed to the French also influenced the British. Italy provided a magnetic appeal during the 1700's - when Britons could get there. 

The frequent wars with France, especially the long Napoleonic Wars, often prevented painters like Turner from travelling to Italy. Unable to sketch and paint Roman ruins or Renaissance churches, British artists depicted ruins on their native shore, usually castles. John Sell Cotman, in a bizarre choice, selected a dilapidated house waiting to be demolished.  

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Christ Church College, Oxford, 1832–33

Turner, with an eye on sales chose the "dreaming spires" of Oxford. Watercolor "drawings" like Turner's 1832 view of Christ Church College, Oxford, served as templates for prints, hugely popular with the growing middle class.

British art during the 1700's and 1800's reacted against the marketplace as well as obeying the call of profit. The Ashmolean drawings on view at Princeton include a rural study by Thomas Gainsborough, created as an antidote to his disgust at painting society portraits. 

John Ruskin, Morning in Spring, with North-east Wind, at Vevey, 1849 or 1869

Another watercolor, sharply in contrast to works with a commercial motivation, is John Ruskin's Morning in Spring, with North-east Wind, at Vevey. Ruskin painted this for the sheer love or art and to satisfy his insatiable quest for a close study of nature.

Ruskin, of course, inherited a large fortune from his indulgent father. But it would be wrong to belabor the issue of economics at the expense of Ruskin's empathy for his fellow human beings and for "truth to nature."

One of the great delights in wide-ranging exhibits like the Morgan and Princeton shows is the opportunity of discovering new artists. Great British Drawings includes a stunning work by an artist I had not heard of previously. Austin Osman Spare (1886-1956) was both an accomplished artist and an unusual personality. He was obsessed with spiritualism and "automatic" drawing. Spare's pastel depiction, A Dressing Station, 1919, is one of the most striking depictions of the tragic human coast of World War I ever created. 

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Austin Osman Spare's A Dressing Station,1919

This stunning work recalls John Singer Sargent's Gassed. Every detail is accurate, from the "thousand yard" stares of the wounded soldiers to their muddy boots. Yet, Spare, who did serve in the Royal Army Medical Corps, never reached France until after the war, in 1919. A tremendous emotional leap was necessary for Spare to grasp the horrors of the Western Front and there is no doubt but that he did exactly that.

Great British Drawings ends on a somber note with David Bomberg's Evening in the City of London,1944, and John Piper's The Abbey from the Churchyard, Arbroath,1982. In this work, Piper conflated the actual architecture of the ruined Scottish Church to achieve a ghostly presence of the entire structure and of its long history.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), The Abbey from the Churchyard, Arbroath, 1982

This postwar work is particularly unsettling. Piper had earlier traveled throughout Britain, recording bombed-out buildings. But this ruin is a long-standing one from Scotland's distant past. Or is it a vision of the future? Is this the fate of all human creation, the point where decay reaches a terminal state? 

If so, it needs to be remembered that new life and new social forms will arise to take the place of what has been lost. And with this will come the "moment" for the creation of great art, a renewed opportunity for artists of vision and merit to make their mark. 

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

Introductory Image:                                                                                                         Daniel Dumonstier (French,1574–1646) Portrait of a Gentleman of the French Court, 1628 Black, red, yellow, and white chalk. The Morgan Library & Museum Purchased as the gift of John M. Crawford, Jr.; 1956.9

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017) Exhibition banner for Great British Drawings, Summer 2017, at the Princeton University Art Museum.

Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) The Holy Family on the Steps, 1646–48. Pen and brown ink and wash, with gray wash, over black chalk. The Morgan Library & Museum Purchased by Pierpont Morgan in 1909; III, 71

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Detail of Claude Lorrain’s Landscape with a Procession Crossing a Bridge, ca. 1645. Black chalk and graphite, with brush and brown wash, on paper tinted a pinkish brown. The Morgan Library & Museum Purchased by Pierpont Morgan in 1909; III, 76

Simon Vouet (French, 1590–1649) Study of a Woman Seated on a Step with Another Study of Her Right Hand, ca. 1630–35. Black and white chalk on light brown paper. The Morgan Library & Museum Bequest of Therese Kuhn Straus in memory of her husband, Herbert N. Straus; 1977.59

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Detail of Daniel Dumonstier's Portrait of a Gentleman of the French Court, 1628.

Samuel Cooper, English, (1608–1672), Thomas Alcock, ca. 1650. Black chalk heightened with white on paper. The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, (English, 1775–1851), Christ Church College, Oxford, 1832–33. Watercolour and bodycolour over graphite with scratching out, on paper. The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

John Ruskin, (English, 1819–1900), Morning in Spring, with North-east Wind, at Vevey, May–June 1849, or 1 May 1869. Watercolour and bodycolour over graphite on pale grey wove paper. The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Austin Osman Spare (English, 1886-1956) A Dressing Station, 1919. Pastel on Ingres paper. 52.1 x 39.5 cm Presented by Mrs. Elizabeth Mitchell,  2004. WA 2004.110 © The Estate of Austin Osman Spare

John Piper (English, 1903-1992) The Abbey from the Churchyard, Arbroath, 1982. Brush in Indian ink with watercolor, bodycolor and colored chalks on paper. 57.7 x 67.5 cm Signed: John Piper  Bequeathed by Robert and Rena Lewin, 2004. WA2006.21 © The Piper Estate / DA CS 2015

Monday, August 28, 2017

Wild: Michael Nichols at the Philadelphia Museum of Art & the National Geographic Museum


Wild: Michael Nichols 

Philadelphia Museum of Art, through September 17, 2017

National Geographic Museum, Washington D.C.
October 12, 2017 - January 12, 2018

Reviewed by Ed Voves

There is a temptation to apply the words "last of" to the great photographer, Michael "Nick" Nichols. "The Last Nature Photographer." "The Last Explorer." Or something like that.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is currently hosting an exhibition of Nichols' photos. Entitled Wild: Michael Nichols, the exhibit thoughtfully presents Nichols' incredible images in careful juxtaposition with works of art from the museum's collections.When Wild completes its run in Philadelphia in mid-September, it will head down to the National Geographic Museum in Washington D.C.

The effect of Nichols' photos and the brilliant work of the Philadelphia Museum of Art curators soon dispels impressions about the "last of the wild." Instead, what we see evoked on the exhibit walls is the resilience of nature, the enduring spirit of an organic world.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Gallery view of Wild: Michael Nichols
showing Richard Long's Limestone Circle (1985)

We see it on the gallery floor too. Richard Long's Limestone Circle (1985) is a deceptively simple sculpture. It represents the most perfect geometric shape, rendered with chipped, craggy bits of rock. A visually pleasing conceit on its own terms, Limestone Circle takes on a vastly more important meaning when you see it next to photos by Michael Nichols.

One of Nichols' pictures, an aerial view of cloud-dappled Lake Télé in the Republic of the Congo is a perfect match for comparison with Long's Limestone Circle. Lake Télé is ringed with forbidding jungle, still not fully explored to this day. The clear demarcation between land and water in the photo invites us to extend this distinction to our emotional response to this incredible image. The clear lake water evokes a sense of freedom and relative safety compared with the dangerous, trackless forests around it.

Michael Nichols, Lake Télé, Republic of the Congo, 1998

Lake Télé, however, is the reputed home of a Loch Ness-like monster, the Mokèlé-mbèmbé. Like Nessie, it hasn't been seen of late. Of course, the Mokèlé-mbèmbé is just a myth but crocodiles grow plenty big in Central Africa too.

We are on a lot safer ground with Limestone Circle. Yet, where is the "wild" in nature? Outside the circle of stones or within? Has the civilized, post-industrial world reduced nature to National Parks and extremely remote sites such as Lake Télé? Or will nature reassert itself, with the "wild" springing to life like weeds pushing  through cracks in the sidewalk?

I suspect that the really wild aspects of nature lie within - ourselves.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Gallery view of Wild: Michael Nichols

While walking through the exhibit galleries, I saw a fellow art-lover looking at Nichols' photo of the Grand Prismatic Spring at Yellowstone National Park. The primary colors in the spring come from microbes called thermophiles, which thrive in the scalding hot water. Nichols photographed the Grand Prismatic Spring  and its thermophiles, turning the spring into a huge eye, exploding with luminous color into its surroundings.

By contrast, Richard Long's Limestone Circle is a blank canvas, waiting for us to fill the empty space with the "wild" hues of our imaginations.

Michael Nichols certainly has a vivid imagination, balanced by a pragmatic outlook on life and art. My wife, Anne, and I were able to spend some time with him at the press preview of Wild. A native of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Nichols exudes a true "natural" character, able to adapt and flourish in any environment. He posed for Anne in front of one of his photos, fittingly, of Hildur, a Serengeti lion who has seen a lot of life.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Portrait of Michael Nichols

Nichols, a veteran photojournalist for National Geographic, is a master of realist photography. He personifies the proud job title that I used to hear back in the days when I worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News. Nichols is a real "lensman." 

That honorific means a lot of hard work and methodical planning. To get a shot of a Northern Spotted Owl swooping down through a Redwood Forest in Northern California involved staging an elaborate lure and split-second timing. The reward was an unforgettable image of a critically threatened species whose fate, due to habitat loss, has been the subject of controversy for nearly three decades.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Gallery view of Wild showing Michael Nichols' Northern Spotted Owl in a Young Redwood Forest

The Northern Spotted Owl is endangered because of the economic value of its forest home. Redwood trees, a prime candidate for the logger's saw, posed an even bigger challenge for Nichols' camera than the Northern Spotted Owl. To photograph two Redwoods for a five-page fold out for National Geographic, Nichols and a team of tree-climbing assistants spent weeks lowering cameras down the huge trees to create panoramic views of these towering giants. 

In an interview with Sid Rodriquez, Interactive Content Writer for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Nichols recorded the electric moment when the perfect moment for the perfect shots occurred:

On the thirteenth day, there was a moment where the sky got thin—we were doing these at dawn—and that’s what you’re looking for in the forest, where you still have some clouds to make the light soft. If it’s really cloudy, it’s just dead. It’s when—we call it cloudy bright—and the tree started glowing. I can’t see it, I’m looking through a computer on the ground, but the guys up in the tree are saying, “Nick, the tree, it’s glowing, it’s alive, we can feel it.” That’s when we made the set of pictures that became the composite we’re putting in the Great Stair Hall.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Michael Nichols posing before 3200 Year-Old Giant Sequoia 

The composite that Nichols refers to is one of a pair of 60-foot copies of the Redwood photographs he took for the National Geographic. One is a winter-time study (2012) of a 3,200 year-old Giant Sequoia, the other a much younger Coastal Redwood, "only" 1,500 years of age, photographed in 2009. 

The 60-foot tapestry-like photos are suspended from the rafters of the Great Hall of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. "Awesome" is perhaps the most over-used adjective in the English language (in polite society, that is) but for once it is an entirely accurate descriptor of Nichols' achievement.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Detail of Michael Nichols' 1500 Year-Old Coastal Redwood

If Nichols' Redwood photos testify to his patience and skill, there are others that testify to his courage and his strength of will. Nature really is "red in tooth and claw." The image of a tiger named Charger which Nichols took  in 1996 recalls Mutual of Omaha's "Wild Kingdom" TV series back in the 1950's. Nichols used a camera trap to get this incredible shot. Lot's of adventure but, like "Wild Kingdom," the gazelle gets away - this time.

Michael Nichols, Charger, Camera Trap Photograph, India, 1997

In other photos in Wild, we do see blood and gore. There's a wild-eyed lion named C-Boy chomping on a zebra, a chimp in the process of devouring a smaller monkey. We have to expect - and accept - that the working of the food cycle in nature is a messy process. All the same, Nichols must have nerves of steel and a cast-iron digestive system to be able to record such scenes.

Harder to stomach are Nichols' photos of animals abused by human beings. The frenzied chimpanzee chained in a squalid cage is a vastly more horrifying photo than C-Boy's lack of table manners. It took a great deal of moral courage, of professional focus tempered with fortitude, on Nichols' part, to take this picture.

Michael Nichols, Whiskey, A Pet Chimpanzee, Burundi, 1989

Ultimately, Wild is an exhibition about empathy. When one looks at the face of the Mandrill in the introductory image of this essay, the eyes that look back are very like a human's eyes. We sense a kinship with the Mandrill and the other wonderful animals depicted in Wild. Yet a gulf still separates us from them.

Will the empathy that we see displayed in Nichols' photos enable us to cross that divide? Will we every unchain the chimp in the cage and remove our shackles as well? If so, we will owe not a small debt of gratitude to Michael "Nick" Nichols.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved.  Images courtesy of Michael Nichols and the National Geographic Society and  Anne Lloyd. Interview text courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Introductory Image:
Michael Nichols, Mandrill in a hunting Camp, Gabon, 2000, (Courtesy of the artist) © Michael Nichols/National Geographic.  

Anne Lloyd Photo (2017), Gallery view of Wild: Michael Nicholsshowing Richard Long's Limestone Circle (1985) Original in the Collection of Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Michael Nichols, Lake Télé, Republic of the Congo, 1998. (Courtesy of the artist) © Michael Nichols/National Geographic.

Anne Lloyd Photo (2017), Gallery view of Wild: Michael Nichols.

Anne Lloyd Photo (2017), Portrait of Michael Nichols.

Anne Lloyd Photo (2017), Gallery view of Wild: Michael Nicholsshowing Northern Spotted Owl in a Young Redwood Forest, 2009. Original photo © Michael Nichols/National Geographic.

Anne Lloyd Photo (2017), Michael Nichols posing before 3200 Year-Old Giant Sequoia, 2009. Original photo © Michael Nichols/National Geographic.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Detail of Michael Nichols' 1500 Year-Old Coastal Redwood, California, 2009. Original photo © Michael Nichols/National Geographic.

Michael Nichols, Charger, Camera Trap Photograph, India, 1997. Original photo © Michael Nichols/National Geographic.

Michael Nichols, Whiskey, A Pet Chimpanzee, Burundi, 1889. (Courtesy of the artist) © Michael Nichols/National Geographic

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Art Eyewitness Essay: A Visitation to Art - Reflections on Masterpieces by Sargent, French Classic Drawing and Della Robbia

Henry James and American Painting
June 9 - September 10, 2017

Poussin, Claude and French Drawing in the Classical Age
June 16 - October 15, 2017

By Ed Voves

You never know the direction that art will take you. Great art can lead us to make journeys of discovery that we are not aware of until much later. Sometimes, the act of recognition comes in dimly remembered dreams. On other occasions, art grabs our attention, snapping us wide awake.

Recently, a visit to the Morgan Library and Museum in New York spurred my thoughts from a painting set in Venice by John Singer Sargent to a French seventeenth century drawing to reflections on one of the great episodes of Christian history.

This incident, called the Visitation, is part of the "infancy narrative" in the gospel of St. Luke (Chapter 1, verses 39-56). Mary, bearing the unborn Jesus, journeys to see an older relative. Elizabeth, long the childless wife of Zachariah, is pregnant too. Her child will be the future St. John the Baptist.  

According to St. Luke, Mary had earlier been told by the Angel Gabriel that she will give birth to the Messiah - and that Elizabeth has received glad tidings as well.

And behold thy cousin Elizabeth, she also hath conceived a son in her old age; and this is the sixth month with her that is called barren: Because no word shall be impossible with God.

The Visitation is a key moment in Christian sacred history, depicted countless times in all manner of artistic media. Elizabeth, upon greeting Mary, realizes that her younger relative will give birth to the Messiah. Elizabeth is the first person to identify Jesus as redeemer of all humanity.

And it came to pass, that when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the infant leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost:  And she cried out with a loud voice, and said: Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.

In addition to its religious implications, the Visitation happens to be a fascinating example of human nature in action. It is an encounter of youth and age, a meeting between women with different expectations and fears relating to the lives of their unborn infants. And possibly a degree of mutual rivalry might be lurking in the emotional mix too.

Human nature is very much in evidence in John Singer Sargent's painting on display at the Morgan's exhibit, Henry James and American Painting. Sargent's A Venetian Interior, painted between 1880 -1882, shows an encounter between two woman in the shabby interior of a once grand Venetian palace, the Palazzo Rezzonico. It is a secular version of the Visitation, featuring the interaction of a veiled  woman and a younger woman, who is clearly making an appraisal of her older compatriot.

Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2017), Detail of John Singer Sargent's A Venetian Interior, c.1880

What is going on here? The Venetian working class women used the hallway of the Palazzo Rezzonico to escape the fierce summer heat, string beads and have a chat. Sargent's studio was located on an upper level of the beleaguered building. We will never know what the veiled woman is saying or why the younger woman regards her so skeptically.

Sargent was not a religious painter in 1880. His controversial murals, Triumph of Religion, painted between 1890-1919 for the Boston Public Library, were a decade in the future. Yet there is an encounter taking place in this painting, as in depictions of the Visitation. The incredible shaft of sunlight pierces the gloom of the Palazzo Rezzonico just as beams of heavenly light streamed on to countless works of art with sacred themes.

I came close to missing the parallels between Sargent's painting and the Visitation. However, I was able to study a sketch showing the Visitation on view in another exhibit at the Morgan, Poussin, Claude, and French Drawing in the Classical Age.  

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Detail of Laurent de La Hyre's The Visitation, ca.1645 

On the Morgan's gallery walls, The Visitation by Laurent de La Hyre (1606–1656) seems impressive but hardly a show-stopper. De La Hyre was highly influential in his day, but his overly didactic style works against the human drama of Mary's encounter with Elizabeth. A similar painted version of The Visitation by de La Hyre (not on view in the Morgan exhibit) undermines the power of the meeting to an even greater degree.

De La Hyre's Visitation sketch, on the other hand, gets more than just an honorable mention. Once we look past all the billowing drapery, the dynamics of human interaction once again take center stage.

The connection between Sargent's painting and de La Hyre's drawing is not obvious. Yet, de La Hyre's sketch helped me see that Sargent's painting also portrayed a dramatic encounter, a meeting of minds and spirits. And, as it turned out, I had recently seen two other representations of the Visitation that made the same point. 

Luca della Robbia, The Visitation, c. 1445

The centerpiece of the recent exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, Della Robbia: Sculpting with Color in Renaissance Florence was a magnificent nearly life-size depiction of the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth. This glazed terracotta statue group by Luca della Robbia was assembled from several interlocking parts which had been fired separately in the kiln, no mean feat as any ceramic artist will tell you.

Technical mastery aside, the real wonder is that Luca captured the spirit of the encounter. We see  the loveliness of the young Mary and the wonderment showing through the lines and wrinkles of Elizabeth's careworn face. There is something more, too.

Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2017), Details of Luca Della Robbia's The Visitation 

Look at Luca's Visitation for more than a moment or two and I think you will discern an element of doubt, of concern, of questioning in the eyes of Mary and of Elizabeth. These sentiments are elusive and intangible. Yet they make their presence felt.

And why not? Would Mary and Elizabeth not question the angelic revelations surrounding the improbable circumstances of both their pregnancies. A virgin giving birth? A barren old  woman with child? Would their instinct or "radar" not be sensitive to the possibility that what God decreed, other human beings might doubt? And what would Elizabeth think after realizing that Mary's son, rather than hers, was destined to be the "Lord."

There is a complicated tangle of emotions involved in the Visitation story. If I had to pick one word to describe the feelings of Mary and Elisabeth it would be "solemn." There is sense of solemnity in almost every artistic depiction of the Visitation. Joyfulness is there, but not unrestrained happiness. New life is waiting to be born - into a world of sorrows. 

With such thoughts in mind, I was not surprised to find that the best description of solemnity is in a book written by the brother of Henry James, whose interest in art supplies the theme of the Morgan's exhibit. In The Varieties of  Religious Experience, William James wrote:

A solemn state of mind is never crude or simple—it seems to contain a certain measure of its own opposite in solution. A solemn joy preserves a sort of bitter in its sweetness; a solemn sorrow is one to which we intimately consent.

The experience of birth involves pains that lead to new life. Mothers forget the pangs of child birth when they behold their infants. And with each new born child comes an opportunity to redeem this fallen world.                                                                                                                                  
One of the fascinating details I discovered while researching the Visitation, is that the choice of word to describe Elizabeth's relationship with Mary is the Greek term syngenis. This is often translated as "cousin," as in the King James Version. But a more correct translation is "relative" or "kin." As biblical scholars note, Mary and Elizabeth might have been distant relatives, even members of different tribes of Israel. The Visitation may have been an effort to heal the wounds of family divisions or estrangement.

The second artistic rendition of the Visitation comes from a surprising source, St. Michael and All Angels' Church in Haworth, Yorkshire. This is the Church of England parish church where Rev. Patrick Brontë was the "perpetual curate" or minister from 1820 to 1861. Here his novelist daughters, Charlotte, Emily and Ann, lived  and wrote immortal works including Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), St. Michael and All Angels' Church, Haworth, West Yorkshire

The current church was built between 1879 and 1881 after the Brontës had died. Only the tower remains of the church the Brontës knew and where all are buried, save for Anne. A set of magnificent High-Victorian stained glass windows grace the church, which my wife Anne and I visited this past spring. The Visitation is one of the scenes prominently displayed.

No one who looks closely at this stained glass depiction of the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth can deride it as an example of Victorian sentimentality. There is such a notable feeling of tension between the "cousins" that one might almost conclude that the artist was aware of the syngenis issue. The arms of the two women are stretched to form an embrace that is not reflected in the expression of their faces. 

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Detail of The Visitation, St. Michael and All Angels' Church

Mary's probing eyes meet those of Elizabeth in an interval of suspended engagement. The stained glass scene of St. Michael's Church shows the moment of decision when human beings decide to love or not to love. We know the outcome to the Visitation story. Mary and Elizabeth do embrace. They do recognize the wonder of new life arising within their bodies.

Many people at moments like this cannot embrace the person opposite to them. They hang back, frozen in an act of judgment, like Sargent's young woman in the Palazzo Rezzonico.   
As I researched the place of the Visitation in Western art, I came across the version of this biblical incident painted by Jacopo Pontormo (1494–1557). This Mannerist painter is no great favorite of mine but his rendering of the Visitation is a masterpiece.

Other depictions of the Visitation show servants in the background or Elizabeth's husband, Zachariah, off to the side. Here Pontormo has posed a young woman and an older women facing towards the viewer. They are focusing directly on us. Although these women are not graced with halos above their heads, they bear striking resemblance to Mary and Elizabeth. It is an uncanny  technique of drawing us into the moment of decision, to love or not to love.

Jacopo Pontormo, The Visitation, 1528-1529 (detail)

Pontormo would probably have identified these woman as servants. Yet, they serve no supporting role in this painting. The two woman, looking directly at us, are alter egos for Mary and Elizabeth. Their eyes meet ours and the wordless questions are asked.
Will we reach out to embrace the "other" person?  Will we cherish the gift of life they carry within themselves?

That is the message I derived from studying Sargent's A Venetian Interior and Laurent de La Hyre's compelling drawing of the Visitation. 

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Detail of Laurent de La Hyre's The Visitation, ca. 1645 

Such thoughts were far from my mind when I walked through the door of the Morgan intent upon learning about  the artistic circle of Henry James and French art of "le grand siecle."   
Man proposes. God disposes. 

As I said at the beginning of this essay, great art can direct us on journeys of discovery over which we have little or no control. But once we get to where we're going, then a pattern of meaning will almost magically appear.The invisible walls which once barred our way crumble, letting the light of spirit stream in.                                                                                                                                       
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images courtesy of the  Morgan Library and Museum, the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. and Anne Lloyd

Introductory and Leading Images: 
Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Detail of John Singer Sargent's  A Venetian Interior, c.1880 - 1882. Oil on canvas.  60.7 x 49.8 cm Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA                       

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Detail of Laurent de La Hyre's The Visitation, ca. 1645, black chalk and gray wash. The Morgan Library & Museum; Bequest of Ethylene Seligman; 1994.4

Luca della Robbia (Italian, 1399/1400-1482) The Visitation, c. 1445. Glazed terracotta. 151 x 148 x 60 cm (59 7/16 x 58 1/4 x 23 5/8 in.) Church of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas, Pistoia. Displayed  by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Feb. 5–June 4, 2017

Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2017), Details of The Luca Della Robbia's The Visitation.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), St. Michael and All Angels' Church, Haworth, West Yorkshire

Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2017), Detail of Stained Glass Window (c. 1879-1881) of St. Michael and All Angels' Church, Haworth, West Yorkshire. 

Jacopo Pontormo  (Italian, 1494–1557) The Visitation, 1528-1529 (Detail). Oil on panel. 202 × 156 cm (79.5 × 61.4 in) Church of San Francesco e Michele, Carmignano. Wikipedia images, The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing Gmb

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Detail of Laurent de La Hyre's The Visitation, ca. 1645, black chalk and gray wash. The Morgan Library & Museum; Bequest of Ethylene Seligman; 1994.4