Friday, March 9, 2018

Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Golden Kingdoms: 

Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas

Metropolitan Museum of Art
February 28 - May 28, 2018

Reviewed by Ed Voves
Photos by Anne Lloyd

It is a very rare occasion when an art lover can relive the experience of a great exhibition of the past. We can make such a journey, thanks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's new exhibit, Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas.

Albrecht Dürer visited the townhall of Brussels on August 27, 1520. There he saw the spectacular treasures sent from Mexico by Hernan Cortes to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. 

None of the incredible array of art works from the Aztec, Maya, Inca and other native American cultures at the Met actually appeared in Brussels nearly 500 years ago. But the emotional impact which these dazzling objects makes surely approximates what Dürer felt as he beheld the glittering jewelry and "idols" seized by the Spanish conquistadores:

I saw the things which have been brought to the King from the new land of gold, a sun all of gold a whole fathom broad, and a moon all of silver of the same size, also two rooms full of armor of the people there, and all manner of wondrous weapons of theirs, harness and darts, very strange clothing, beds, and all kinds of wonderful objects of human use...  All the days of my life I have seen nothing that rejoiced my heart so much as these things, for I saw amongst them wonderful works of art, and I marveled at the subtle Ingenia of men in foreign lands. Indeed I cannot express all that I thought there.

Walking through the galleries of Golden Kingdoms produces the same sensations.This vast exhibit displays over 300 works of art of astonishing beauty and craftsmanship. There is enough here for three or four exhibitions and plenty of food for thought!

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Gallery view of the Golden Kingdoms Exhibit

Golden Kingdoms was organized and presented by the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, before coming to the Met. It is the most comprehensive examination of the art produced by the network of cultures that together constituted the civilization of the Americas before the arrival of Columbus and Cortes in the early sixteenth century.

As the title suggests, the emphasis is placed on works of cast gold ornaments and votive objects. This decision is sure to produce a lot of "bling" for the exhibit, no small consideration in trying to entice big crowds to art museums these days.

The Metropolitan exhibition of pre-Columbian art works is equally significant for the attention given to art works which were not created from precious metals.The native American peoples actually rated gold and silver as less valuable than jade and bird feathers. After glimpsing the few remaining  examples of featherwork, like the sleeveless garment or tabard decorated with feathers, made in Peru at some point between 500 to 750 AD, it is much easier to appreciate the regard for such works of art.

Tabard with Lizard-like Creatures, Nasca culture, 500-750 A.D.

This tabard was made by artists of the Nasca culture (100 B.C-800 A.D.), one of the precursors of the more famous Inca Empire. The Incas were the last of a long line of innovative peoples who lived on the arid west coast of Peru. The Chavin, 800–550 B.C., Moche, A.D. 200–850 A.D, Wari, A.D. 600–1000, and Chimú, A.D. 900–1470, cultures created astonishing art works, in all media, examples of which are on display in the Metropolitan exhibit.

The same pattern of creative achievement by earlier, less-well-known, groups is apparent in Mexico, Central America and the north coast of South America, today's nation of Columbia. The spectacular eagle-shaped pendents worn by the Chiriqui people of Costa Rica were observed by Columbus on his fourth voyage of 1502. Suspended by a cord around the neck, these pendents reminded Columbus of Christian religious medals, as "an Agnus Dei or other relic." 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Eagle Pendants, Chiriqui culture, 800-1519 A.D

Today, we marvel at the artistry of these works, but the Spanish conquistadors who came after Columbus valued them for their gold content. Whether crafted from gold, jade or other precious materials, the art works on display at the Metropolitan are testaments to a New World civilization that owed nothing to the influences or example of the Old - until after the conquests of the 1500's. 

Certainly, there were contacts and shared technologies between the native American cultures before Columbus. According to the exhibit curators, the innovations for working with gold began in Peru and gradually spread northward. But what is really remarkable about the works on display in Golden Kingdoms is the extreme level of artistic accomplishment among all these cultures, from very early dates. The skillful, unnamed artists could only have had limited interaction.

Comparison of two exceptional works of art are instructive in this regard: a golden octopus-shaped frontlet made by a Moche artist in Peru and a jade mask from the Olmec realm near the present-day city of Veracruz, Mexico.

The Moche, like the ancient Greeks, lived in a network of small independent communities. Based on the northern coast of Peru, facing the Pacific Ocean, the Moche are most famous today for creating ceramic portrait heads, which we will examine later. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Octopus Frontlet, Moche culture, 300-600 A.D.

The Moche mastery of goldsmithing was every bit as sensational. A sheet of beaten gold was cut into the shape of an extraordinary mythological being, a menacing octopus-like beast with clawed feet and catfish heads on the tips of its tentacles.

This frontlet, was designed to be affixed to a headdress, no doubt sporting eagle or condor feathers. The mythological beast it depicts is a composite being. No octopus has a human skull-shaped head with reptile fangs, and of course the Moche artists knew that. 

Anne LloydPhoto (2018) Olmec Mask, 900-400 B.C.

Rather, this extraordinary creation projects fearsome attributes that were intended to be emblematic of the power of a Moche leader or warrior. Moche culture was notable for astonishing creativity - and for internicine warfare.

Two thousand miles to the north of Peru, the Olmecs created the foundational culture of Mesoamerica, where the later Toltec, Maya and Aztec empires were to rise. The Olmecs flourished in the tropical coastal region bordering the Gulf of Mexico from 1200 to 400 BC. Their downfall, about which we know little, preceded the rise of the Moche in Peru by six hundred years.

If the Olmecs had any influence on the native American cultures of Peru, it could only have been indirect. Olmec carvings were collected by the Aztecs and others, much as Greek and Roman statues were sought after by the nobility of Europe during the Renaissance.   

The Olmecs perfected sculpting in jadeite and this gray-green stone was viewed as immensely valuable in Mesoamerica until the arrival of the Spaniards in 1519. This striking mask was created between 900 to 400 B.C., the same period as the flowering of Greek art. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Olmec Mask, 900-400 B.C.

The mask is noteworthy for the incredible degree of skill in carving out the jadeite core to make the mask lightweight and thereby wearable. Notable too, is the simplicity, the almost abstract quality of the face, so appealing to modern sensibilities. 

This mask likely represented an ancestor spirit. It has several small holes drilled near the top rim for a headdress to be attached, and holes in the ears for dangling ornaments. The Olmecs worshiped a maize god, in keeping with the vital role of the crop which fed the people of Mesoamerica for thousands of years. Perhaps, the mask was worn by a priest leading the people in religious devotions.

Golden Kingdoms provides a wealth of outstanding art to enjoy. I was particularly impressed with the reclining figure from the Mayan pilgrimage site of Chac Mool in the Yucatan Peninsula. Chac Mool was considered to be a portal to heaven because there was a pool of water on the site held to be sacred. Pilgrims brought offerings to Chac Mool, placing some on the tray held by this celestial being.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Chac Mool Sculpture, Maya Culture, 800-1250 A.D.

The great British sculptor, Henry Moore (1898-1986) was intrigued with Mesoamerican statues, especially Chac Mool figures of this type. The influence on Moore's work is obvious, even when looking at illustrations in art books. But when you come face-to-face with the real thing, the impact is tremendous.

Many of the objects on view in Golden Kingdoms are much smaller and less imposing than the Chac Mool statue. Exquisite golden pendants, ear rings and other items or personal adornment feature prominently in the exhibit. These were coveted items by Cortes and the Conquistadores, who melted them down into bullion.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Aztec ornaments and bar of gold bullion, ca. 1500's

Not all of this looted gold made it to Spain. One of the concluding galleries of Golden Kingdoms shows what happened to many treasures not on view. A bar of gold, excavated in Mexico City, was almost certainly made of Aztec gold, smelted by the Spanish and then  lost on the Noche Triste, the "Night of Sorrows."

On June 30,1520, Cortes and his men tried to escape from the Aztec capital under the cover of night. Laden with gold bullion and weighed down by their armor, many of the Spaniards were killed. Wounded in the fighting or disoriented in the darkness, they plunged to their deaths from the causeway into the lake surrounding Tenochtitlan.

The native American peoples were no strangers to war, even before the arrival of Cortes and his Conquistadores.

Aztec warrior from the Codex Ixtlilxochitl, Folio 106 (recto), 1582 A.D.

Just as the early native American cultures, the Olmecs and the Moche, set the tone of artistic achievement, so the manner and objectives of warfare were established at a distant time.The capture of enemies, who would then be sacrificed to appease the gods, became the principle goal of war among the peoples of Mexico and Peru. 

By an amazing stroke of luck, we can put a human face to this unpleasant aspect of life - and death - in the ancient Americas. A ceramic portrait vessel was discovered, showing a Moche warrior, whom archaeologists call "Black Stripe." Dated to ca. 550 A.D., this is a masterpiece of the first rank. In terms of physiological depiction and psychological insight, the ancient Greeks could not have done better in marble or bronze.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Moche Portrait Vessel, 400-650 A.D.

This magnificent portrait shows Black Stripe in his prime, a victorious combatant in many a duel. It reminds me of nineteenth century photographs of the warrior chiefs of the Great Plains who fought the U.S. Cavalry, Red Cloud of the Lakota Sioux and Quanah Parker of the Comanches. Here is the face of battle: bravery, cunning, toughness and cruelty.

There is however, another portrait of Black Stripe, which is not shown in the Golden Kingdoms exhibit. It appears in the Thames and Hudson book, What Makes a Masterpiece (2010). In this later portrait, Black Stripe is a captive, stripped of his regalia and no longer wearing his signature war paint. He is waiting to be sacrificed.

Historians have still to figure out why the Moche would go to such great lengths to create unforgettable portraits on ceramic vessels with stirrup-like handles. It is a mystery and will probably ever remain so. 

Detail of Moche Portrait Vessel, 400-650 A.D.

However, in a delicious piece of irony, Moche ceramics were collected by Paul Gauguin's mother, Alina, while they lived in Peru during his childhood. It is amazing to think that these were the first art works that Gauguin studied. The artist who later rejected many of the canons of Western art, in order to embrace the "savage," spent time as a boy looking at examples of Moche art similar to the portrait of Black Stripe! 

Moche art and other superlative examples of native American creativity are now displayed in the Golden Kingdoms exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There's no telling what impact these things "from the new land of gold" may have on a future Albrecht Dürer, Paul Gauguin or Henry Moore. 

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                               

Photos courtesy of Anne Lloyd and the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Introductory Image:                                                                                                          Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery view of Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas, showing a Pendant, Tolima culture, 1 B.C. – 700 A.D. Gold.  H. 12 5/8 × W. 6 3/8 in. (32 × 16.2 cm) Museo del Oro, Banco de la República, Bogotá (O06061)

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery view of Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas

Tabard with Lizard-Like Creatures, Nasca culture, Peru, 500-750 A.D. Feathers on cotton. W. 30 1/2 × L. 46 in. (77.5 × 116.8 cm) Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Fund (60.44.3)

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Gallery view of Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas, showing Eagle Pendants, Chiriqui culture,  800-1519  A.D. Gold. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Photo of an Octopus Frontlet, Moche Culture, Peru, 300-600 A.D.  Gold, chrysocolla, shells  H. 11 × W. 16 15/16 × D. 1 3/4 in. (27.9 × 43.1 × 4.4 cm) Museo de la Nación, Lima, Ministerio de Cultura del Perú (MN-14602)

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Detail of an Octopus Frontlet, Moche Culture, Peru, 300-600 A.D.  Museo de la Nación, Lima, Ministerio de Cultura del Perú (MN-14602

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Photo of an Olmec Mask, Olmec Culture, Mexico, Veracruz 900-400 B.C. Jadeite. H. 6 3/4 x W. 5 7/8 x D. 3 5/8 in., Approximately 144 oz.) Museo de Antropologia de Xalapa, Universidad Veracruzana, Xalapa (10-582642)

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery view of Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas, showing a Chac Mool sculpture, Mayan culture, 800-1250  A.D. Stone. (H. 36 1/2 × W. 41 × D. 22 1/4 in., Wt. 1200 lb. (92.7 × 104.1 × 56.5 cm, 544316.429g) Museo Regional de Antropología de Yucatán, Palacio Cantón, Secretaría de Cultura-INAH, Mérida (10-290458)

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Photo of Aztec-era golden pendant and ornaments and a bar of gold bullion, ca. 1519-20 A.D. Aztec and Spanish.  Pendant and ornaments -  Museo Baluarte de Santiago, Secretaría de Cultura-INAH, Veracruz (10-213084) Bar of gold bullion - Museo Nacional de Antropología, Secretaría de Cultura-INAH, Mexico City (10-220012)

Codex Ixtlilxochitl, Folio 106 (recto) Paper, pigment Nahua-Spanish, A.D. 1582. Mexico, Tetzcoco Compilation attributed to Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl (Nahua-Spanish, ca. A.D. 1578–1650) Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Photo of Moche Portrait Vessel. Ceramic, pigment. Moche, A.D. 400–650 Peru, North Coast Museo Larco, Lima, Peru (ML018883) 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Detail of Moche Portrait Vessel. 

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

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

    Thomas Cole's Journey: Atlantic Crossings

Metropolitan Museum of Art  

 January 30, 2018 - May 13, 2018

Reviewed by Ed Voves

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

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

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

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

Matthew Brady, Thomas Cole, ca.1845

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas Cole, From Nature, 1823

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

Thomas Cole, Detail of The Oxbow, 1836

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas Cole, Aqueduct near Rome, 1832

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire - Destruction,1836

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

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

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

Asher B. Durand, Kindred Spirits, 1849

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

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

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

Introductory Image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 29, 2018

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

I See a City: Todd Webb's New York 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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