Sunday, June 23, 2019

Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman at the New York Historical Society

Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman 

New York Historical Society, New York City 
May 3- July 28, 2019

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Augusta Savage (1892-1962) was one of the greatest artists affiliated with the Harlem Renaissance, the pivital moment of cultural awakening and racial equality during the 1920's and 1930's. Savage's impressive sculptural work literally embodied the ideas and ideals of the distinguished literary figures of the Harlem movement, such as Alain Locke and Langston Hughes. 

The use of the term "Renaissance" is also fitting since Savage inspired, taught or mentored many fellow African-American artists who carried on her work during the years of the Civil Rights Movement and beyond. Savage was a Renaissance master as Andrea del Verrocchio and Luca della Robbia had been during the 1400's, passing on skill, knowledge and enthusiasm to students and aspiring artists. Gwendolyn Knight, Jacob Lawrence and Norman Lewis were just a few of the African-American artists who acknowledged their debt to Savage.

Unidentified photographer, Augusta Savage, c. 1930

Augusta Savage recognized that the legacy she passed on to the post-Harlem Renaissance generation might well be more valued than her actual art.

"I have created nothing really beautiful, really lasting," Savage declared in 1935, "but if I can inspire one of these youngsters to develop the talent I know they possess, then my monument will be in their work."

Augusta Savage's self-criticism was much too harsh, as we can see in this remarkable exhibit.

Ed Voves, Photo (2018)
 Gallery view of the Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman exhibition. 
Augusta Savage's Boy on a Stump, c. 1930, appears in the foreground.

Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman is a collaborative effort of the New York Historical Society (NYHS) and the Cummer Museum of Art in Jacksonsville, Florida. The exhibition curators have assembled a remarkable array of Savage's oeuvre, as well as photographs and letters exploring her singular career.
This is also an exhibition which documents the "collective" story of twentieth century  African-American artists. Taking their lead from Savage, painters and sculptors like William Artis smashed the barriers of racial prejudice and asserted their creative talent. Signature works by these artists, whom Savage inspired, are prominently displayed in the exhibition.

William Artis, A Mother's Love, 1963

Jacob Lawrence, The Card Game, 1953

Savage's greatest work of art is conspicuous by its absence - physical absence that is. The spiritual resonance of Savage's The Harp, conveyed by a large format photo and a much smaller bronze version is so palpable that you will swear that the original is  on view at the NYHS.

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) 
Gallery view of the Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman exhibition.
 A miniature bronze version of Savage's The Harp appears in the foreground.

After nearly two decades of struggle in the New York art scene, Savage enjoyed a hard-won moment of success when she was selected to create a monumental sculpture for the 1939 New York World's Fair. The Harp was inspired by the hymn, Lift Every Voice and Sing, and took nearly two years to complete. Like most of the art made for the 1939 World's Fair, The Harp was subsequently destroyed. Yet, it continues to dominate the NYHS exhibit gallery by the sheer memory of its brilliance.

Such is the power of art - and the will to create art.

Augusta Savage's art sprang from the red clay of Florida which she modeled into figurines and small portraits. Savage's father, a Methodist minister, was infuriated at her disregard for the Biblical injunction against making "graven images."

"My father licked me four or five times a week," Savage later recalled, "and almost whipped all the art out of me."

Almost but not quite. Savage's early life was marked by great travail. She was married three times, two husbands dying young, the third marriage ending in divorce. In 1919, she won a prize at the West Palm Beach County Fair for a sculpture group. This success revived her determination to achieve a career in the arts. She joined the Great Migration to the north, arriving in New York City in 1921 with $4.60 in her purse.

Taking a job as an apartment house caretaker, Savage enrolled in the Cooper Union School of Art. Her skill and work ethic enabled her to complete the four-year course in three years. Savage next gained a scholarship from the Fontainebleau School of Fine Arts to study in France. Then, when the American officials selecting students for Fontainebleu discovered that Savage was "colored," the scholarship was cancelled.

Savage's disgraceful treatment by these Fontainebleau administrators was quickly noted by the redoubtable W.E.B. Du Bois. Launching a crusade on her behalf in the NAACP magazine, The Crisis, Du Bois directly challenged the Fontainebleau trustees. Responding to Du Bois' relentless criticism, J. Monroe Hewlett lamely replied that the rejection of Savage to travel and study in Europe "was due quite as much to consideration for her as to any other thought or feeling."

Unable to get the Fontainbleau decision reversed, Du Bois continued to advocate Savage's right to a scholarship to Europe. Eventually, in 1929, the Julius Rosenwald Fund awarded Savage a two-year scholarship to study in France. Six years had been lost, however. As David Levering Lewis, Du Bois' biographer, astutely noted the "steep learning curve" of Savage, now aged 37, "would have begun to flatten after so much time wasted waiting and deprived of expert mentoring."

This perceptive remark needs to be considered in relation to Savage's already sensational talent. There can be no doubt as to the exceptional level of her skill and to her determination to create realistic portraits of African-Americans. These likenesses exude self-awareness and pride - of artist and subject - quite at odds with the caricatures or patronizing stereotypes of African-Americans in the mainstream media of the 1920's. 

Augusta Savage, Gamin, c.1930

Savage's Gamin is a case in point. This portrait of a young African-American boy was the piece submitted with the application for the Rosenwald scholarship. Savage used her nephew as the model, creating a work that succeeds as a unique portrait and as an idealization of African-American identity. The Rosenwald judges were so impressed that they increased Savage's scholarship stipend from $1,500 to $1,800.

Gamin is Savage's most famous surviving work, but I was even more impressed with a later piece, from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Portrait of John Henry. 

Augusta Savage, Portrait of John Henry, c.1940

Portrait of John Henry was created around 1940 and shows Savage at the height of her powers. It is an exceptional work, establishing a living presence even in an exhibition gallery crowded with other masterpieces. The eyes of John Henry, often the most problematical element of a portrait sculpture, sparkle with life force and intelligence.

There is a shadow to Portrait of John Henry. This work represents the peak of Savage's artistic career. From 1940 on, the number of works created by Savage dwindled and after a few years all but stopped. The reasons for this are complex and need to be addressed in some detail.

The year 1940 should have marked another upward thrust in Savage's career trajectory - and she had every to believe so.

After returning from studying in France in 1932, Savage established the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts in Harlem, offering free art classes. Savage's community-based focus secured her the appointment as the first director of the Harlem Community Art Center, funded by the W.P.A., in 1937. In 1939, with The Harp gaining acclaim at the World's Fair, Savage opened the first African-American art gallery, the Salon of Contemporary Negro Art, with a major exhibition, June 8th to June 22nd, 1939.

Unidentified photographer
Augusta Savage viewing two of her sculptures, Susie Q and Truckin, c. 1939

This moment of triumph, following so much dedicated work, quickly vanished. Instead of being Savage's "breakout" year, 1940 saw the breakdown of her career. The Salon of Contemporary Negro Art soon closed for lack of support and Savage was sidelined from her directorship of the Harlem Community Art Center. Savage did not even have enough funds to place The Harp in storage until it could be cast in bronze and sold to a museum. 
As a result, The Harp was destroyed when the World's Fair closed in 1940.

Savage's career went into an eclipse from which she never really recovered. Most African-Americans during the 1940's lacked the degree of affluence to collect the art on view at the Salon of Contemporary Negro Art. Sympathetic White supporters increasingly became focused on charitable work related to the Second World War. Those who continued to collect art in the 1940's increasingly looked to Abstract Expressionism, what would soon be called the New York School. 

Augusta Savage, Gwendolyn Knight, 1934-35

After struggling against poverty and racism, Augusta Savage fell victim to the impact of Modernism on American art. Indeed, she had experienced a premonition of this threat years before.

Lewis, in his biography of Du Bois, recounted how Savage, when considered for a scholarship to Italy in 1926, discovered that the tide of opinion in the art world was shifting from her traditional handling of the human body to more avant garde styles. Savage wrote to Du Bois about the reaction of the Italian countess who interviewed her.

"I think she was a trifle disappointed to find that I am a realist instead of a modernist," Savage informed Du Bois.

In 1940, the Nazi Blitzkrieg sent a wave of refugee European modernists to the United States. Many young American artists began to follow the lead of Piet Mondrian and Fernand Leger. Realist art, especially in sculpture, lost out to Surrealism and "Ab-Ex." 

Augusta Savage, along with artists like Malvina Hoffman, another brilliant woman realist sculptor, were casualties of this shift in technique and taste. Hoffman continued to receive some major, war-monument commissions. Interest in Savage's work evaporated.

Augusta Savage,  Portrait of a Baby1942

Of great poignancy, one of the last of Savage's pieces on view in the New York Historical Society exhibition is a portrait of an unnamed baby. This supremely accomplished work of art was created in terracotta, unlike the plaster and bronze which Savage used on most of her other sculptures. Portrait of a Baby recalls the red clay that the young artist had first grasped in her fingers long years before.

Augusta Savage, like Zora Neale Hurston, experienced decades of obscurity after a few fleeting moments of success during the 1930's. Hopefully, just as Hurston's literary accomplishments are now recognized, so will Augusta Savage's achievements as an artist and a teacher finally receive their due. 

Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman at the New York Historical Society is certainly a big step forward in her "renaissance" as a major figure in American art.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                                           
Images courtesy of the New York Historical Society

Introductory Image:
Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Gallery view of the Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman, exhibition at the the New York Historical Society. A miniature bronze version of The Harp is displayed in front of a photograph of Augusta Savage working on the original. The photograph is from the New York Public Library (NYPL), Manuscript and Archives Division, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, New York Worlds Fair 1939-40 Records, 1654255

Unidentified photographer. Augusta Savage, 1930. Gelatin silver print: 6 x 4 in. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NYPL, Photographs and Prints Division, Augusta Savage Portrait Collection, 83-1053 Public domain. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Gallery view of Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman, exhibition at the the New York Historical Society. Photo shows Augusta Savage's Boy on a Stump, c. 1930, in the foreground.

William Artis (American, 1914-77) A Mother's Love, 1963. Limestone: 32 1/2 x 17 3/4 x 14 1/2 in. Clark Atlanta University Collection,1963.007

Jacob Lawrence (American, 1917-2000) The Card Game, 1953. Tempora on board, 19 x 23 1/2 in. Savannah College of Art and Design, Museum of Art Permanent Collection. Gift of Walter O. Evans and Mrs. Linda Evans.

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Gallery view of the Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman, exhibition at the the New York Historical Society. 

Augusta Savage (American, 1892-62) Gamin, ca. 1930. The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, Painted plaster: 9 1/4 x 6 x 4 in. Purchased with funds from the Morton Hirschberg Bequest, AP.2013.1.1

Augusta Savage (American, 1892-62) Portrait Head of John Henry, c. 1940. Patinated plaster: 6 5/8 x 3 1/2 x 4 3/4 in. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The John Axelrod Collection—Frank B. Bemis Fund, Charles H. Bayley Fund, and The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection, 2011.1813, Photograph © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Unidentified photographer. Augusta Savage viewing two of her sculptures, Susie Q and Truckin, c.1939. Gelatin silver print: 10 x 8 in. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NYPL, Photographs and Prints Division-Prophet, Nancy-Stull, Henry, Portrait Collection, 92-0360 Public domain.

Augusta Savage (American, 1892-62) Gwendolyn Knight, 1934-35, recast 2001. Bronze: 
18 1/2 x 8 1/2 x 9 in. Walter O. Evans Collection of African American Art. 

Augusta Savage (American, 1892-62) Portrait of a Baby, 1942. Terracotta, 10 x 8 1/2 x 8 inches. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY Public Domain.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Life of Animals in Japanese Art at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

The Life of Animals in Japanese Art

National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
June 2, 2019 - August 18, 2019

Reviewed by Ed Voves
Original photos by Anne Lloyd

When the National Gallery of Art announced the recently-opened exhibition, The Life of Animals in Japanese Art, I was tremendously excited. The National Gallery of Art (NGA), working with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and art museums in Japan, is displaying over three hundred rare works of art, spanning seventeen centuries of Japanese history.

As if the scope of the timeline of this wondrous exhibition was not audacious enough, the premise of its theme was even more so. Can a nation’s history be interpreted with art works depicting animals and their role in the national saga? The Life of Animals in Japanese Art answers that question with a resounding yes!

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
Gallery view of The Life of Animals in Japanese Art exhibition

Displayed in the NGA’s renovated East Wing, The Life of Animals in Japanese Art traces the course of Japan’s cultural history and identification with animal life from the iconic Haniwa earthenware sculptures of the 5th–7th centuries to colorful 21st century animal “companions” created by Kusama Yayoi. Many of the 180 art works lent by museums and collectors in Japan are so delicate and light sensitive that they will be displayed in a two-phased rotation, the second presentation occurring in mid-July.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Haniwa Horse, 6th century

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
Art works by Kusama Yayoi, Megu-chan (left) & Sho-chan 

The exhibition was organized by Robert T. Singer, curator of Japanese art, LACMA, and Masatomo Kawai, director, Chiba City Museum of Art. The Natonal Gallery does not collect in the subject area of Asian art, which is left in the capable hands of the nearby Freer-Sackler Galleries. The vast scale of The Life of Animals in Japanese Art would have overwhelmed the Freer-Sackler exhibit space. Also, the National Gallery has a tradition of mounting great touting exhibitions of Japanese art, including the memorable Japan: The Shaping of Daimyo Culture, back in 1988.

In their introductory remarks, Robert Singer and Masatomo Kawai commented on the very significant factor of human co-existence with animals and nature in Japanese culture.

This sense of compassion and respect for the animals which share the earth with us is exemplified by a painting by Kanō Eitai (died 1842) which shows an actual event in which devout Buddhists release captured animals to allow them to live in freedom. Especially noteworthy in this moving work of art is the act of liberation in which one fisherman returns turtles and fish back to the sea while another releases carp into a freshwater lake.

Kanō Eitai, Ritual of Releasing Captured Animals, early 19th century

In American history, by contrast, the emphasis was on the conquest of nature. This idea struck a particularly sensitive chord with me, so much so that I had to wrestle with this idea before I could begin to write this review.

As I reflected on this theme, I remembered a book which I had read as a child, Animals that Made U.S. History by Edith Dorian (1964). The author, who also wrote sensitively on Native American themes, narrated how the economic use – and abuse – of the beaver, salmon, buffalo, the longhorn cow and other animals had shaped the American nation. 

As the exhibition affirms, animals have also made Japan's history. If not as spectacular as the story Dorian told over a half-century ago, The Life of Animals in Japanese Art has vital lessons to teach.The Japanese learned over the course of centuries not to take animals for granted. This more benign attitude is reflected in their mythology, religion, life style and art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)    
   View of Utagawa Kuniyoshi's Bravery Matched with the Twelve Zodiac Signs, 
woodblock print scroll series, c. 1840

All the same, the Japanese empathy for animals is a hard-won attribute. At the entrance to the exhibition, scenes of the relationship of humans and animals are displayed in large woodblock prints made during the nineteenth century by Utagawa Kuniyoshi. The animals in question are the twelve zodiac animals

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
 Utagawa Kuniyoshi's Tiger and Kashiwade no Omi Hatebe, c.1840

Some of the scenes are quite violent such as the one depicting the warrior, Kashiwade no Omi Hatebe, killing a tiger in Korea which had slain his child. Others scenes in this series, Bravery Matched with the Twelve Zodiac Signs, show animals and humans using brain rather than brawn, as in the case of the monkey king, Sun Wukong, who outwits an enemy pig.

Animals in Japanese folklore and culture are a force to be reckoned. And no animal exemplifies this more than the fox. If there is a four-legged hero in the exhibition, it is the bushy-tailed kitsune. 

Foxes are regarded as a spiritual animal as we see in Utagawa Hiroshige's 1857 woodblock print, New Year's Eve Foxfires at the Changing Tree. According to Japanese folklore, foxes travel to the shrine of the god of the rice harvest, Inari, to pay homage on the last night of the year. From the breath of the foxes, tongues of flame are emitted which the foxes use to guide their journey through the darkness.

Utagawa Hiroshige, New Year's Eve Foxfires at the Changing Tree, ji,
from the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo,1857

These lantern-like foxfires or kitsunebi were regarded by farmers in ancient Japan as a providential sign that the rice harvest would be a good one. Or so the story goes.

Foxes are multi-taskers in Japanese myth and folklore. Along with being acolytes to Inari, foxes can play a trickster role, like the coyote in Native American cosmology. According to Masatomo Kawai's commentary, foxes were reputed to be shape-shifters, taking on human guise to tempt and mislead humans, especially innocent Buddhist monks. In extreme cases, foxes could be malevolent, vampire-like predators of human beings.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Sacred Foxes, 14th century

Looking at this pair of rare wooden fox statues which have been displayed since the 1300's at the shrine of Inari at Kiyama, is an unsettling experience. Nature, like the crafty expression of these foxes, is not something to dismiss as benign on all occasions.

The two principal religions of Japan, Shintoism and Buddhism, are the key determinants of the Japanese attitude to animal life. The more ancient of the two, Shinto, is native to Japan and stresses animals as messengers between humans and the divine forces residing in nature known as kami. Buddhism arrived from India and China via Korea in the sixth century. Buddhism, based on the principle of the rebirth of the soul, calls for kinship and compassion to animals. The souls of animals may indeed be the reborn souls of human beings trying to reach the ultimate state of salvation or nirvana.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
 Kōen's Monju Bosatsu Seated on a Lion, with Standing Attendants,1273

Asian animals, unknown in Japan, were often depicted in Buddhist art works. Buddhist deities like Fugen and Monju Bosatsu are often shown riding an an elephant or a lion.

Horses are a more conventional mount for humans but they too figure as spiritual beings. One of the center pieces of the NGA exhibition is the Sacred Horse sculpture, dated to the 1500's, Made from wood and lacquer with crystal eyes, this nearly life-sized steed was presented to the Sannosha shrine, in place of the gift of a living horse as was often done.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
Gallery view of The Life of Animals in Japanese Art exhibition,
 showing Sacred Horse,16th century

The color of horses was linked to rainfall and special prayers were said in conjunction with their presence. No doubt this was influenced by the Shinto concept of animal envoys to the divine kami. Prayers conveyed by dark-hued horses were held to be able to bring rain. When white horses were involved in these prayer rites, storms would cease.

Whatever effect this horse sculpture had on the weather around the Sannosha shrine, it exudes an uncanny sense of real life in the NGA gallery. Stand in its presence for a while and truly you will believe in the life force of this horse - in the now,in the present moment.  The attraction of this incredible sculpture drew me back repeatedly during my visit to the exhibit.

I truly believe that there is an energy field throughout the exhibition galleries of The Life of Animals in Japanese Art at the NGA. I felt a similar sensation at the wonderful Tale of Genji exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which also explored the intertwined nature of religion and culture in Japan.

The scope of The Life of Animals in Japanese Art is so great that even an extended review like this one can only convey an introductory survey. I have not even touched upon the spectacular screen paintings or the enchanting illustrated kimonos. These and other masterpieces of Japanese art I will leave for another essay, timed to coincide with the second rotation of art works in the exhibition.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2016)
 Deer Bearing Symbols of the Kasuga Deities,14th century

For now, I will leave you with the image of one of the greatest of all the masterpieces on display in The Life of Animals in Japanese Art. This is the bronze statue, Deer Bearing Symbols of the Kasuga Deities. Cherished as an "important cultural property" of the Japanese nation, this beautifully sculpted work of art combines elements of Shinto and Buddhist religious beliefs. 

In Japanese legend, a deity named Kasuga Myojin, mounted upon this deer, flew through the air from Hitachi to Nara, where deer are revered to this day. You can believe this legend or not. Yet, an air of serenity surrounds this wondrous animal. An ineffable "something" about it is so palpable that one's belief in divine forces is indeed stirred.  

Stand for a while in front of Deer Bearing Symbols of the Kasuga Deities or Hiroshige's New Year's Eve Foxfires at the Changing Tree or any work of art you may choose from the NGA exhibition. You will soon forget that you are in a museum.

Instead, you will feel that you are standing upon holy ground - as indeed you are.

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

Introductory Image:

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Detail of Tani Bunchō's Tiger Family and Magpies, 1807. Painted scroll; ink and color on silk: 61 15/16 × 33 3/4 in. (157.3 × 85.7 cm) Collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of The Life of Animals in Japanese Art exhibition at The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Haniwa Horse, Kofun period, 6th century. Earthenware: 121.3 × 116.2 × 41.3 cm (47 3/4 × 45 3/4 × 16 1/4 in.) Los Angeles County Museum of Art collection.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Art works by Kusama Yayoi, Megu-chan, 2014. (fiberglass-reinforced plastic; paint,  80 × 48 × 101 cm (31 1/2 × 18 7/8 × 39 3/4 in., collection of Cori and Tony Bates); Sho-chan, 2013. (fiberglass-reinforced plastic; paint, overall: 68 × 28 × 88 cm (26 3/4 × 11 × 34 5/8 in., private collection.

Kanō Eitai (Japanese, died 1842) Ritual of Releasing Captured Animals, Edo period, early 19th century. Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk: 28 × 56.2 cm (50 3/8 × 22 1/8 in.)  Private collection.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of The Life of Animals in Japanese Art exhibition, showing Utagawa Kuniyoshi's Bravery Matched with the Twelve Zodiac Signs, woodblock print scroll series, c. 1840. Arthur M. Sackler Gallery collection, Smithsonian Institution. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Utagawa Kuniyoshi's Tiger and Kashiwade no Omi Hatebe, c. 1840. (Woodblock print: 36.7 × 12.5 cm (14 7/16 × 4 15/16 in.) Arthur M. Sackler Gallery collection.

Utagawa Hiroshige (Japanese, 1797-1858) New Year's Eve Foxfires at the Changing Tree, ji, from the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, Edo period, 1857. Woodblock print: 33.7 x 21.7 cm (13 1/4 x 8 9/16 in.)  Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of Caroline and Jarred Morse. photo © Museum Associates/LACMA.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Sacred Foxes, Kamakura-Nanbokuchō periods, 14th century. (Wood with pigments: right statue, with a ball in mouth: (20 7/8 × 15 3/4 × 8 11/16 in.; left statue, with a key in mouth: 20 1/2 × 15 9/16 × 8 1/4 in.) Kiyama Jinja, Okayama Prefecture.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of The Life of Animals in Japanese Art exhibition, showing Kōen's Monju Bosatsu Seated on a Lion, with Standing Attendants, Kamakura period, 1273. (Set of five statues; wood with pigments, meta leaves, crystal eyes.) Tokyo National Museum.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of The Life of Animals in Japanese Art exhibition, showing Sacred Horse, Muromachi period, 16th century. Wood, lacquer, crystal eyes: height 60  5/8 inches, length 70 inches. Sensoji, Tokyo.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of The Life of Animals in Japanese Art exhibition, showing Deer Bearing Symbols of the Kasuga Deities, Nanbokuchō period, 14th century. (Bronze, wood with pigments: 42 1/2 in., height) Hosomi Museum, Kyoto.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Moroni: the Riches of Renaissance Portraiture at the Frick Collection

Moroni: the Riches of Renaissance Portraiture 

The Frick Collection, New York 

February 21 through June 2, 2019 

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Many of history's greatest creators achieve success because their abundant skills mirror the vision, ideals and needs of the societies in which they live. One may say of such fortunate individuals that they are the right artist in the right place at the right time.

Giovanni Battista Moroni (c.1520-1579) was not one of these artists. Moroni was blessed by neither time nor circumstance. His talent, however, was superlative and his paintings are masterpieces of the highest order.

Moroni is the subject of a brilliant exhibition at the Frick Collection. Moroni: the Riches of Renaissance Portraiture is now in its final days. 

  A view of art works from the Moroni: The Riches of Renaissance Portraiture exhibition in the East Gallery, Frick Collection; photo: Michael Bodycomb

So important and revelatory is this reappraisal of the little known Italian Renaissance master that a special trip to New York City is in order if you have not seen the show or if you want a second look. Cancel your engagements, adjust your schedule - go to the Frick exhibition and witness the paintings of a truly unsung hero of art.

Why is Moroni not better known? Geography, as we will discuss, certainly plays a major role. But the real reason for Moroni's eclipse is a consequence from what we can call the "end of the Renaissance." This is a little studied, indeed often unrecognized, aspect of cultural history. 

Following the sundering of Christendom by Martin Luther's challenge to Papal authority and the horrific sack of Rome in 1527, the intellectual climate of Europe dramatically changed. The mood of writers, philosophers and artists darkened. A controversial book or painting could alienate the "powers that be," with very painful consequences for the offending author or artist. Even Michelangelo was not above criticism.

Giovanni Battista Moroni, Giovanni Bressani,1562

Moroni's entire working life took place in the altered circumstances of the "end of the Renaissance." 

Moroni's obscurity was further affected by the fact that he was not a native of Florence or a Venetian. He was born in the small town of Albino in Lombardy. He spent almost all of his life there or in nearby Bergamo. Located between Milan and Venice, Moroni’s home ground was not exactly the dark side of the moon. Moroni was rewarded with portrait commissions from the nobles and merchants of Milan and Venice, but he never made an effort to relocate to either of these powerful and wealthy cities.

Little is known of Moroni's inner life but it is almost certainly true that he remained in Albino/Bergamo by choice, rather than by necessity. Moroni's decision to stay close to home is likely to have been motivated, at least in part, by a very sensible character trait in difficult times - discretion.

In 1545, Pope Paul III and the bishops and theologians of the Catholic Church convened a major council to strengthen the Church in response to the break-away Protestant denominations. The council was convened in the Italian city of Trent, located about ninety miles from Bergamo. 

Moroni, in his early twenties, was just entering the prime of life as the council began. He traveled to Trent, where commissions for religious-themed work could be expected. He stayed for a few years, long enough to discover that Church leaders were not pleased with the current trends of art, notably Mannerism with its self-indulgent,erotic paintings, thinly disguised as allegory.

Mannerism was mainly a Florentine school of art. Moroni had trained under another Lombard painter, Moretto da Brescia (c.1498-1554), who rejected the coy sensuality of the Mannerists. 

Moretto, a notably pious artist, specialized in full-length portraits. He also excelled in capturing the growing climate of fear and melancholy which was affecting people all over Europe. Moroni was greatly influenced by Moretto and, on his return from Trent, showed that he could match and even excel him. 

One of Moroni's first full-length portraits is on view in the Frick exhibition. This arresting work shows Gian Ludovico Madruzzo, a Catholic clergyman destined for high places in the Church. Moroni may have met him through Madruzzo's uncle, who was the prince-bishop of Trent. Madruzzo succeeded to the title later in life and was so esteemed that he was selected to deliver the funeral eulogy for Emperor Charles V.

Giovanni Battista Moroni, Gian Ludovico Madruzzo, c.1551-52

For all of his honors and friends in high places, Gian Ludovico Madruzzo does not appear in his portrait to be comfortable or confident. His pose is one of authority, but he stands stiff and “on guard.” Dressed in a black clerical gown, he looks more like an austere Spanish nobleman alert to a slight to his honor. But what really grabs and holds our attention is Madruzzo's facial expression. 

Giovanni Battista Moroni, Gian Ludovico Madruzzo (detail)

Madruzzo regards the viewer with deep scrutiny, bordering on suspicion. It is a tense moment. Just back from a walk with his faithful dog, he confronts a messenger with an official dispatch, or perhaps a favor-seeker begging a moment of his time. Madruzzo's skeptical, haunted expression testifies to the age of anxiety in which he and Moroni lived.

Moretto's influence on Moroni is also apparent in the religious paintings which were the other feature of his work. Moroni utilized the art of his teacher in a strikingly unique manner. 

In his reverential work, Gentleman in Adoration before the Madonna and Child, Moroni depicts an aristocratic worshiper in a scene straight out of the devotional practice being formulated by the Council of Trent. The Council was still in cession at the time of the painting, around 1555, and the theologians assembled at Trent were adamant that religious art be direct and understandable statements of Christian faith.

Moroni conformed exactly to the Council of Trent's doctrine, with brilliant psychological handling. The Virgin Mary and the Christ Child are painted in the style of painting by Moretto but the pious "gentleman" is not praying before a painting or a statue. He is worshiping in the living presence of Mary and Jesus.

Giovanni Battista Moroni, 
Gentleman in Adoration before the Madonna and Child, ca. 1555

Moroni reveals this by showing the thin golden ring of Mary's halo and her shadow on the wall.  Statues cast shadows but do not have ethereal circlets around their heads. In this subtle way, Moroni is depicting a religious experience of the most profound kind.

Gentleman in Adoration before the Madonna and Child is a powerful evocation of contemplative prayer. In the tormented times of the late 1500’s, Catholics were encouraged to meditate on their religious beliefs, as the protagonist is doing , and then put their faith into practice. One of the great books of the time, The Spiritual Exercises by St. Ignatius of Loyola, provided a step-by-step guide to this task. Moroni’s painting illustrates St. Ignatius’ injunction to keep our minds “secluded” by “concentrating instead all our attention on one alone, namely the service of our Creator and our own spiritual progress…”

Moroni’s art, however, was not “secluded” from the everyday rituals and realities of his era. The work ethic of the artisan class, macho male bravado, feminine “wiles” and folk magic all appear in his portraits. In a master stroke, the curators of the Frick exhibition have assembled artifacts from  Moroni’s era which match those in his paintings – often to an astonishing degree.

Giovanni Battista Moroni, Isotta Brembati, c.1555–56

This is best exemplified in Moroni’s full-length portrait of Isotta Brembati (1530-1586), painted around 1556.  Moroni had painted a portrait bust of the same lady about five years earlier, notable for the sharp, calculating look in her eyes. Born in Bergamo, she was a brilliant woman and an accomplished poet, writing in Latin.

Except to note that Isotta Brembati had aged quite a bit in the interim, our attention does not linger on her face very long in in the second portrait. Instead, we focus on her splendid apparel, jewelry and most spectacularly, a martin pelt draped over her shoulder. Directly in front of this magnificent portrait is a display of accoutrements replicating those in the painting.

Giovanni Battista Moroni's Isotta Brembati, with artifacts from the 1500's, on display in the Oval Room of the Frick Collection, photo: Michael Bodycomb

The most extraordinary of these artifacts is the a golden, bejeweled mask covering the marten's head, Bearing the symbol of a dove or the Holy Spirit,  it was an amulet for women of child-bearing years. The fur of the martin, according to folk lore, increased the chance of conceiving a child and protected the mother during pregnancy.

Unknown artist from Venice, Marten’s Head, ca. 1550–59

A golden-headed marten pelt also appears in a splendid portrait by Paolo Veronese of Countess Livia da Porto Thiene, a noblewoman from Vicenza who was pregnant when she posed in 1552. This portrait by Veronese is one of the treasures of the Walters Museum in Baltimore. In 1967, curators at the Walters secured an actual golden marten mask dating to the 1500's to complement the Veronese portrait. Thanks to the generous loan from the Walters, this golden mask and a more modern marten pelt are featured in the Moroni exhibition at the Frick.

Giovanni Battista Moroni, The Tailor ('Il Tagliapanni'), c.1570

Moroni's most famous painting is on view in the Frick exhibition. It is a portrait but not of a countess or clergyman or melancholy humanist. Instead, The Tailor ('Il Tagliapanni')
 is a true Renaissance man. Exuding intelligence, skill and confidence, the tailor is about to cut a bolt of black cloth, the most costly of fabrics due to the number of immersions in dye to "fix" the color. 

There are no known self-portraits of Moroni but I have an idea that the artist was painting a part of himself when he portrayed this unknown tailor. When Sir Charles Eastlake purchased this work for the National Gallery in London in 1862, he was certain that this showed a nobleman in the guise of a tailor. Close examination of the fabric of the tailor's suit shows that he is wearing cloth "suitable to his station."

The tailor's "station" is that of a master craftsman. Supremely gifted in his difficult trade and a perceptive student of human nature, the tailor had to satisfy the demands and needs of the "high and the mighty" - just as a portrait painter must do. He is the kind of man that Moroni proved himself to be.

Why did Giovanni Battista Moroni stay in Bergamo rather than Milan, Venice, Rome or the court of the Holy Roman Empire? The answer is there in his unforgettable paintings. The  "great' world exists on our doorstep, in our backyard, on our neighbor's face, just as much as it does in a glittering palace or the likeness of a fashionable celebrity.

Three centuries after Moroni died, another Italian genius was asked why he remained so close to home rather than seeking his fortune in the capital cities of Western Europe and the United States. Moroni would have appreciated his reply.

"You may have the universe," Giuseppe Verdi said, "if I may have Italy."

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                Images courtesy of the Frick Collection, New York City

Introductory Image:
Giovanni Battista Moroni (Italian, c.1520-1579) Bust Portrait of a Young Man with an Inscription, c. 1560. Oil on canvas: 18 5/8 x 15 5/8 inches. The National Gallery, London; Layard Bequest, 1916. Photo: © The National Gallery, London

A view of art works from the Moroni: The Riches of Renaissance Portraiture exhibition in the East Gallery of the Frick Collection, New York City; photo: Michael Bodycomb

Giovanni Battista Moroni (Italian, c.1520-1579) Giovanni Bressani, dated 1562. Oil on canvas: 45 3/4 x 35 inches. National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh; Purchased by  Private Treaty, 1977. Photo: National Galleries of Scotland

Giovanni Battista Moroni (Italian, c.1520-1579) Gian Ludovico Madruzzo, c. 1551-52. Oil on canvas: 78 5/8 x 45 5/8 inches. Art Institute of Chicago, Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester Collection. Photo: The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY

Giovanni Battista Moroni, Gian Ludovico Madruzzo (detail) Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons,,_gian_ludovico_madruzzo,_1551-52,_02.jpg

Giovanni Battista Moroni (Italian, c.1520-1579) Gentleman in Adoration before the Madonna and Child, ca. 1555. Oil on canvas: 23 1/2 x 25 1/2 inches. National Gallery of Art, Washington; Samuel H. Kress Collection. Photo: Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Giovanni Battista Moroni (Italian, c.1520-1579) Isotta Brembati, c. 1555–56. Oil on canvas: 63 x 45 1/4 inches. Fondazione Museo di Palazzo Moroni, Bergamo - Lucretia Moroni Collection. Photo: Fondazione Museo di Palazzo Moroni, Bergamo

Giovanni Battista Moroni's Isotta Brembati, with period artifacts from the 1500's, on display in the Oval Room of the Frick Collection, during the Moroni: The Riches of Renaissance Portraiture exhibition; photo: Michael Bodycomb

Unknown artist (Venetian, 1500's) Marten’s Head, c. 1550–59. Gold with enamel, rubies, garnets, and pearls; modern pelt;synthetic whiskers: 3 5/16 inches (jewel only). The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore; Museum acquisition by exchange, 1967. Photo: The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Giovanni Battista Moroni (Italian, c.1520-1579) The Tailor ('Il Tagliapanni'), c. 1570. Oil on canvas: 39 1/8 x 30 1/4 inches. National Gallery, London , purchased in 1862. Inventory number # NG697