Monday, December 26, 2016

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Art in Detail: 100 Masterpieces by Susie Hodge

Art in Detail: 100 Masterpieces

By Susie Hodge
Thames & Hudson/$39.95/432 pages

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Art in Detail: 100 Masterpieces is an acutely perceptive survey of some of the greatest paintings and sculptures of the Western world. Written by the noted scholar, Susie Hodge, it is truly an "eye-opening" look at art.

In reviewing a wide-ranging book like Art in Detail, the first task is to find  a common theme uniting all of the disparate parts. That is easy enough with Hodge's book. Every one of the one hundred works she examines, like Georges De La Tour's astonishing contrast of light and shadow, is indeed a "masterpiece."

Georges De La Tour, St Joseph the Carpenter, c. 1642

One might argue that Hodge should have selected several different choices for analysis. Leonardo da Vinci's The Virgin and Child with St. Anne would have made for intriguing study rather than another look at the relentlessly examined Mona Lisa. Yet - overwhelmingly - Art in Detail delivers what it promises: fascinating insights into one hundred of the supreme treasures of Western art.

Lurking just below the surface is another theme that is not so readily apparent. Each of these works of art was painted or sculpted by a recognizable artist. Each can be documented. We know who created it, when, where and what materials the artist used. 

Beginning with Giotto in 1305 and extending to a 2014 painting by Paula Rego, Art in Detail charts the rise of artists as creative individualists. Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors (1533), with its trove of cryptic details, and Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin's Soap Bubbles, painted exactly two centuries later, treat the subject of human mortality in totally unique and absolutely dissimilar ways.

Hans Holbein The Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Soap Bubbles, c. 1733-34

Over the vast expanse of human history, almost all artists were anonymous creators of       religious images or monuments to kings and rulers. Occasionally, a master from antiquity like Apelles achieved lasting renown but nothing of his actual oeuvre has survived. Several indisputable masterpieces like the Riace bronzes have been recovered but we do not know the identity of their creator.

That changed at the dawn of the Renaissance with Giotto and the painting of the Arena Chapel frescoes. Giotto was credited by Giorgio Vasari as having initiated 'the great art of painting as we know it today, introducing the techniques of drawing from life ..."

Hodge studies Giotto's Adoration of the Magi from the Arena Chapel frescoes, noting for instance that the Star of Bethlehem was painted to resemble Halley's Comet which had appeared in 1301. 

Significantly, the resounding success of the Arena Chapel frescoes did not lead to carbon copy imitations all over Italy. Every major artist who followed Giotto - even Lorenzo Monaco whose narrative sense was much the same - always left a different "finger print" in style and technique.

Lorenzo Monaco, The Adoration of the Magi, 1420-22

This is the central paradox of Western art. The Classical tradition was relentlessly extolled by high-brow theorists. Generation after generation of students were indoctrinated to paint or sculpt like the Old Masters. Yet, nobody taught Rembrandt van Rijn to paint like Rembrandt.

No one taught Frans Hals to paint in his unique manner either. Hodge has selected Hals'     The Laughing Cavalier for analysis and it is a brilliant choice. Painted in 1624, this work has many of the elements of Hals' signature style. But it also has a high degree of detail and "finish" not found in his later portraits.

Early in his career, the Flemish-born Hals used a color-drenched palette and an exacting eye for detail to impress his aristocratic patrons. We don't know the identity of the Cavalier (who really isn't laughing) but he would surely have been pleased with the embroidered lovers' knots, Mercury's staff and other motifs on his sleeves.

Frans Hals, The Laughing Cavalier, 1624

During the 1630's and 1640's, the Dutch middle-class gained social status to match their growing economic power. Hals found a ready market for portraits or character studies, the now famous tronies which American collectors have long favored.

Since many of these middle-class patrons dressed in black, Hals experimented with a bold, loose brushstroke to evoke the folds and sheen of the dark cloth. We can see an early example of this in the Cavalier's black cloak. Focusing closely on Hals' technique, Hodge provides illuminating commentary on this important detail. The following quote is characteristic of the power of perception which she devotes to all one hundred of the art works she studies:

At a time when brushstrokes were meant to be invisible, Hals made his obvious, from fine blended marks in the face to longer marks in the clothing, which create a sense of spontaneity. This freely handled application was unusual then, but in the 19th century was seen as a precursor to Realism and Impressionism.

Hodge has created a very effective technique of analyzing the details of these masterpieces. She divides each work under discussion into tightly-cropped frames. This enables her to focus on technical matters, for instance, the "wet-in-wet" method which Hals often used, "layering wet paint, rather than waiting for previous layers to dry."

This method of analysis also provides insight on thematic factors as well. The exceptional attention that Hals paid to the lace and embroidered sleeve enables Hodge to make the educated guess that the "Laughing Cavalier" was likely a cloth merchant as silk, lace and damask weaving had become major industries in Haarlem, the city in Holland where Hals worked.

Hodge's technique succeeds both for unfamiliar works or art and for paintings we've seen so often that we roll our eyes at the mention of their title. There is always something of value to discover in Art in Detail.

Jacques-Louis David,The Oath of the Horatii, 1784

Jacques-Louis David's The Oath of the Horatii, painted in 1784, has appeared in countless art history books. Kenneth Clark discussed it in the Civilization documentary series as a revolt against the status quo of Europe's Age of Enlightenment. Clark likened The Oath of the Horatii to Picasso's Guernica (which Hodge also discusses), calling it "the supreme picture of revolutionary action..."

The Oath of the Horatii is also the "supreme picture" of Neoclassical art. As such it can be readily contrasted with the "supreme picture" of Romanticism, Goya's The Third of May, 1808, which also is studied in Hodge's book.  But I was very stuck by a lesser known Romantic painting, which movingly demolishes all the male vanity and "call of duty" propaganda evoked by The Oath of the Horatii.

Eugéne Delacroix's Entry of the Crusaders Into Constantinople depicts a harrowing moment in one of the most disgraceful episodes of Western history. Crusading knights marching (ostensibly) to liberate Jerusalem from the Saracens in 1204 conspired with the Venetians to attack and despoil the Christian city of Constantinople instead.

Eugéne Delacroix, Entry of the Crusaders Into Constantinople,1840

The treachery of this incident needs no further comment here. But it is worth noting that Delacroix painted this compelling work of art while memories of the horror of the Napoleonic Wars still lingered in the European mind. These bloody, ruinous wars were founded upon the heartless sentiments of David's The Oath of the Horatii.

Delacroix saw war a bit differently from David. In Entry of the Crusaders Into Constantinople, the outstretched arm of the old man is a plea for the right to life rather than an invocation of the cold steel of revenge and slaughter.

When viewed in this light, Delacroix's Entry of the Crusaders Into Constantinople is not a "history" painting but a testament to humanity. The same can be said, to a greater or lesser degree, for all one hundred masterpieces in Hodge's book.

Art in Detail provides more than a mass of technical detail involved in creating a painting or a sculpture. Here, in this very fine book, is a wealth of information that will draw us back for many a return visit. Here we can explore how great artists have sought to find insights into the dilemmas of human existence and the mysteries of creative expression.

Genius is in the details, as Hodge certainly shows. Yet, the scope of skill in the visual arts is far wider than mastery of technique. Ever since cave walls served as the "picture plane," artists have been searching for ways to express the greater truths of earthly life. It's a messy, often chaotic process, but one that is directly related to human self-realization.

To her credit, Hodge finds room for such visionary matters. In an engaging discussion of Helen Frankenthaler's early experimentation with Color Field painting, Hodge quotes Frankenthaler's reaction to her efforts. Standing on a ladder to survey her work, Frankenthaler declared that she was "sort of amazed and surprised and interested."

No better description could possibly be given for the electric moment when a work of art becomes a masterpiece.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images Courtesy of Thames & Hudson 

Introductory Image: Art in Detail: 100 Masterpieces, 2016 (cover) Image credit: Thames & Hudson 

Georges De La Tour (French, 1593-1652) St Joseph the Carpenter, c. 1642. Oil on canvas. 137 x 102 cm (54 x 40 in.)  Louvre, Paris, France © ACTIVE MUSEUM/Alamy Stock Photo),  

Hans Holbein The Younger (German, 1497-1543) The Ambassadors, 1533. Oil on oak panel. 207 x 209.5 cm (81 1/2 x 82 1/2 in.) National Gallery, London, UK © Peter Barritt/Alamy Stock Photo

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (French, 1699-1779) Soap Bubbles, c. 1733-34.  Oil on canvas. 93 x 74.5 cm (36 5/8 x 29 3/8 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA     classicpaintings/Alamy Stock Photo        

Lorenzo Monaco (Italian, c.1370-c.1425) The Adoration of the Magi, 1420-22. Tempera on panel, 115 x 183 cm (45 x 72 in.) Uffizi, Florence, Italy The Art Archive/Alamy Stock Photo       

Frans Hals (Dutch, 1582-1666) The Laughing Cavalier, 1624. Oil on canvas. 83 x 67.5 cm (32 5/8 x 26 1/2 in.) Wallace Collection, London, UK © SuperStock/Alamy Stock Photo

Jacques-Louis David (French, 1748-1825) The Oath of the Horatii, 1784. Oil on canvas. 330 x 425 cm (129 7/8 x 167 3/8 in.) Louvre, Paris, France © Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

Eugéne Delacroix (French, 1798-1863) Entry of the Crusaders Into Constantinople,1840. Oil on canvas. 410 x 498 cm (161 1/2 x 196 in.) Louvre, Paris, France © Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo        


Friday, December 9, 2016

Art Eyewitness Review: Mystical Landscapes: From Vincent Van Gogh to Emily Carr

Mystical Landscapes: From Vincent Van Gogh to Emily Carr

Edited by Katherine Lochlan
Delmonico Books-Prestel/356 pages/$60
Mystical Landscapes Exhibit
Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto  
October 22, 2016 - January 29, 2017

Reviewed by Ed Voves

In September 1888, Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, about his "tremendous need for, shall I say the word - for religion - so I go outside at night to paint the stars." 
This was the genesis of two of van Gogh's most famous paintings, The Starry Night over the Rhone, created at the time of his note to Theo, and the tumultuous, visionary Starry Night, painted less than a year later, in June 1889.

The Starry Night over the Rhone, from the collection of the Musée d'Orsay, Paris, is currently on display in a splendid exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Mystical Landscapes. The brilliant art and provocative ideas set forth in the exhibit are treated in an outstanding companion catalog, Mystical Landscapes: Vincent Van Gogh to Emily Carr.

Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night over the Rhone, 1888

Van Gogh's search for religion led him to paint the constellation, Ursa major - commonly referred to as the Big Dipper. Glimmering above the Rhone River as it flows through the city of Arles in southern France, the star-filled sky evoked a sense of promise and purpose. 

Van Gogh, full of plans for his "Studio of the South," painted this scene which reflected his hopes for the future. Only a few months later, tragic disputes with Paul Gauguin triggered a shattering nervous breakdown.

Mystical Landscapes at the Art Gallery of Ontario shows that van Gogh's yearning for "shall I say the word - for religion" was part of a cultural quest known as Symbolism. Beginning in the 1880's and continuing to the years immediately before World War II, Symbolism was a search for "meaning." Artists probed the human soul and reflected upon the spiritual environment in which they - and we - live.  

Symbolism as an art movement included such a diversity of styles that is easy to think of it as an idiosyncratic sideshow of Modern Art. Yet, Symbolism was regarded by most artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a serious and sincere response to the troubles and challenges of the Industrial Age.

The exhibit Mystical Landscapes was conceived by Katherine Lochlan, one of the leading curators of the Art Gallery of Ontario. In her poignant introduction to the exhibit catalog, Lochlan notes that she experienced a spiritual awakening during a visit to Ireland. This motivated her to begin planning Mystical Landscapes

Several of the team of scholars who assisted Lochlan are members of the clergy. Their essays provide insights of enduring value. Especially valuable are reflections on the need to approach art  - and life - from the point of view of humility and contemplation. John Franklin, who teaches theology at the University of Toronto, comments on mysticism:

This is the way of unknowing. At the heart of this invitation to unknowing is the fact that God is not an object of human knowing. All efforts to include God as simply one more object for our human knowledge bank ultimately fail because of the uniqueness of the divine. 

Comprehending these theological concepts sometimes entails concerted effort on the part of readers. Franklin's essay, for instance, provides a detailed contrast of the two paths of mysticism. Cataphatic, the positive, proactive form of mysticism, takes place when God's presence is closely felt. Apophatic mysticism occurs in the "absence" of God, during the Dark Night of the Soul.

Van Gogh's experience of cataphatic and apophatic mysticism is graphically depicted in his Starry Night paintings. Other artists experienced pain and tragedy, too, like Charles-Marie Dulac who died, aged 33 in 1898, from lead-poisoning which he had contracted early in life while working in the wall paper industry. The dying Dulac was inspired to create stunning works of art based upon the poem by St. Francis of Assisi, Cantacle of the Creatures.

The art works on view in Mystical Landscapes range in date from the 1880's to the 1930's. Yet this impressive exhibit and the superb catalog, jointly published by Delmonico Books and Prestel Publishing, is a tract for our times. Indeed, it will remain relevant for a very long time to come.

The late Victorian era and the first decades of the twentieth century were marked by a crisis of faith. The heartless creed of Social Darwinism became the new "gospel," preempting the place of the four Evangelists. The seeds of spiritual doubt were sown by philosophers like Ernest Renan (1823-1892) who praised the historical Jesus while demythologizing Christ.

Reacting against these developments, artists and poets looked for signs, symbols, testaments to God's presence in the universe. Some artists, like Maurice Denis, remained devout Christians. Denis depicted traditional Christian imagery like Christ's "agony in the garden." Denis, however, placed this sacred scene in a contemporary setting. Gethsemane in his 1918 painting has been relocated to Brittany where a small vessel sails perilously close to the rocky shoreline.

Maurice Denis, La Solitude de Christ, 1918

Brittany was an interesting locale for Denis' La Solitude de Christ. This remote province had been the site of the artist's colony of Pont Aven, founded during the 1880's. It was in Brittany that Paul Gauguin first shaped the religious orientation of Symbolism with three stunning works on view in Mystical Landscapes.

Vision after the Sermon (1888), The Yellow Christ (1889) and Christ in the Garden of Olives (1889) combine Christian iconography with personal, some might say blasphemous, elements. Gauguin placed his own features in each of these works: on a Breton priest, on a statue of the crucified Christ and finally on the face of the suffering, agonized Jesus. 
This identification appears to be scandalous but actually reflects a mystical experience where God and believer become one. 

Paul Gauguin, Christ in the Garden of Olives, 1889

In a brilliant essay in the exhibit catalog, Gauguin's three paintings are interpreted as a triptych, created in a similar way to medieval works by Hans Memling and other masters of religious art. The noted  scholar, Bobomila Welsh-Ovcharov, also makes a convincing case that these paintings reflect the stages of spiritual searching. 

These steps would feature in the seminal 1911 book by Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual ConsciousnessUnderhill's five steps - Awakening of Self, Purgation of Self, Illumination, Dark Night of the Soul and Unitive Life  - appear again and again in the paintings on display in Mystical Landscapes

I have yet to visit Mystical Landscapes exhibit. But when I did see Gauguin's three Breton paintings at an exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in 2011 the relation of these works to the stages of spiritual searching escaped me. Once the connection is grasped between the religious convictions of artists like Gauguin and the elements of their paintings, these works take on a whole new significance. They become "icons" in the true sense of the word.

Van Gogh found Gauguin's artistic approach to mysticism hard to accept. Van Gogh, raised a Protestant, believed  that spiritual encounters should be conveyed in "here and now" images not by "abstractions" as he described Gauguin's Breton paintings. While enduring a spiritual "Dark Night" at the Saint-Paul asylum in Saint-Rémy, he painted his markedly different version of the Garden of Olives. Here, a cloud (representing the Holy Spirit) drifts over the olive trees, signifying God's presence in our lives.

Vincent van Gogh, The Olive Trees, 1889

At first glance, van Gogh's choice of terms to describe his painting is hard to grasp. His mysterious cloud is more of an abstraction than Gauguin's identification with the face of Jesus. In a moving letter to Emil Bernard, a fellow artist and mutual friend of Gauguin, van Gogh advised against painting "sterile metaphysical meditations that aren't up to bottling chaos, which is chaotic for the very reason that it won't fit into any glass of our caliber..."

As I noted earlier, I am familiar with Gauguin's Breton triptych and I studied van Gogh's 
Starry Night over the Rhone at a 2008 exhibit at MOMA. But Mystical Landscapes presents works by major artists rarely seen in exhibits in the United States. We are introduced to unfamiliar artists like Eugène Jansson, the Swedish painter who brilliantly evoked the Dark Night of the Soul in several paintings. 

Eugène Jansson, Dawn over Riddarfjarden, 1899

In an exhibit that emphasizes the way of unknowing, it is a very good thing when we are introduced to new artists or have our assumptions challenged about artists we thought we knew.

In the case of Claude Monet, an unexpected spiritual dimension is explored in the essay on his Nympheas, the fabled Water Lilies.

Claude Monet, Water Lilies (Nymphéas), 1907

Most accounts simply accept that Monet was an atheist. Lochlan notes that Monet worked on the huge panel paintings of the water lilies after prolonged periods of meditation. 

"Monet spent so much time in contemplation," Lochlan writes, "that he entered into a mystical state that he compared to a hypnotic trance."

Learning about the Canadian painters featured in Mystical Landscapes was also a revelation. The spiritual power of Tom Thomson, the Group of Seven and especially the astonishing Emily Carr is certainly worthy of more study - and further exhibits "south of the border."                                                                                                                          
The experience of these Canadian artists was shaped by many factors, a number of which linked them to the mystical experiences of Symbolist artists in Europe and the United States. Walt Whitman's poetry. Ralph Waldo Emerson's transcendental philosophy and military service in World War I were powerful factors. So too were the Theosophical writings of Madam Blavatsky which Lawren Harris fervently embraced. 

Ultimately, it was the Canadian landscape that lead Tom Thomson, Harris, Emily Carr and the others to approach God from the "way of unknowing." Vast, breathtakingly beautiful and still (relatively) undeveloped, Canada in the 1920's inspired these Canadian artists. 

Emily Carr, Sky (ciel), 1935-6

Writing in her journal, Emily Carr placed into words what she had visualized with brush and paint - the mystical landscape within all our souls. 

We are of the same substance for there is only one substance. God is all there is. There is one life, God life, that flows through all. He that formed me formed you. Oh Father of all raise my consciousness to that sense of oneness with the universal.

Mystical Landscapes will travel to the Musée d'Orsay, Paris, in the spring of 2017. It will not, sadly, be making a stop-over in the U.S. But thanks to the wonderful catalog, I have profited immensely by journeying to this exhibition in spirit.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 
Images courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

Introductory Image:                                                                                                         
Edvard Munch (Norwegian,1863-1944) The Sun,1910-13. Oil on canvas, 162 x 205 cm. Collection of the Munch Museum, Oslo. Image courtesy of Munch Museum 

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890) The Starry Night over the Rhone, 1888. Oil on canvas, 73 x 92 cm. Collection of Musée d’Orsay Image courtesy the Musee d'Orsay, Paris, France/Bridgeman Images 

Maurice Denis (French, 1870-1943) La Solitude de Christ, 1918. Oil on canvas, 88 x 136 cm. Private Collection 

Paul Gauguin (French, 1848-1903) Christ in the Garden of Olives, 1889. Oil on canvas, 73 x 93 cm. Norton Museum of Art, Gift of Elizabeth C. Norton

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890) The Olive Trees,1889. Oil on canvas, 72.6 x 91.4 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York Mrs. John Hay Whitney Bequest, 1998 
© The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY 

Eugène Jansson (Swedish 1862-1915) Dawn over Riddarfjarden, 1899. Oil on canvas, 150 x 201 cm. Collection of Prins Eugens Waldemarsudde 

Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926) Water Lilies (Nymphéas), 1907. Oil on canvas, 80.98 x 92.07  cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Gift of Mrs. Harry C. Hanszen Courtesy Bridgeman Images 

Emily Carr (Canadian, 1871-1945) Sky (ciel), 1935-6. Oil on wove paper, 58.7 x 90.7 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Purchased, 1937

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will at the Morgan Library, New York City

Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will

The Morgan Library and Museum
September 9, 2016 through January 2, 2017

Reviewed by Ed Voves and Anne Lloyd

Charlotte Brontë's life was like a Victorian "three-decker" novel. Her incredible rise from obscurity to become a literary sensation with the publication of Jane Eyre in 1847 was followed by staggering family tragedies, then marriage, brief happiness and early death in 1855.

What sounds like the plot of one of her novels was actually Charlotte Brontë's path to immortality.

The Morgan Library and Museum in New York City has organized an exhibition in honor of the bicentennial of Brontë's birth. With the cooperation of the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, Yorkshire, and the National Portrait Gallery and the British Library in London, the Morgan's exhibit is worthy of Brontë's life and achievement. Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will sets a standard of curatorial excellence that will be hard to top.

Earlier this year, I reviewed part of this exhibition as it appeared at the National Portrait Gallery. The Morgan's exhibit, drawing upon three international famed institutions, is vaster in scale and superlative in the quality of the objects on display. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2016) Detail of the Richmond Portrait (1850) by George Richmond

In the earlier post, I focused upon the 1850 portrait of Charlotte Brontë, created by George Richmond. It was a gift to Bronte's father, Patrick, from her publisher, George Smith. In this review, I will comment upon several of the other Brontë treasures on view in the spectacular exhibit at the Morgan.

Born two hundred years ago in 1816, Charlotte Brontë was a product of what used to be dismissively referred to as England's "Celtic Fringe." Her father, the Rev. Patrick Brontë was born in Ireland in 1777, while her mother's family came from Cornwall. Charlotte Brontë was also a strong-willed Yorkshire woman at a time when the northern regions of England were the epicenter of the Industrial Revolution. She also represented, along with her sisters Emily and Anne, the final flowering of the literature of the Romantic Rebellion. Seldom has one little woman embodied so much British history and so much individual achievement in one, very brief life.

And Charlotte Brontë was a little woman.  In physical stature, that is. According to the joyner who made her coffin, she measured four feet, nine inches.

Anne Lloyd, View of Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will, Morgan Library, 2016

The first object to greet visitors to the Morgan exhibit is one of Charlotte Brontë's dresses, the so-called "Thackeray dress". Brontë is reputed to have worn this dress to an ill-fated dinner party at the home of William Makepeace Thackeray on June 12, 1850. She almost certainly did not wear the dress to dinner. But the story illustrates the "outsider" position of Brontë - and her sisters - in the British literary scene of the 1840's and 1850's.

The Brontë dress on view at the Morgan is of a type known as delaine dress. The word "delaine" originally referred to woolen dresses. By 1850, the term was used for light-weight dresses made of various printed fabrics, including wool-cotton mix as in the case of this dress.

Anne Lloyd, Photo of Charlotte Brontë's "Thackeray Dress", 2016

Historian Eleanor Houghton of the University of Sussex has made a detailed study of this dress. She believes that Charlotte Brontë likely wore the dress for daytime business or social meetings, including one with Thackeray prior to the dinner party. The style was certainly acceptable for daytime use in 1850. But it would have been a laughable blunder to wear it at a dinner party when silk dresses were the norm. Charlotte Brontë was extremely sensitive about her appearance, so much so that she refused to have photos taken of herself when she was married in 1854.

Thackeray's thirteen-year old daughter, Anne, left a vivid account of the dinner party. She described Charlotte Brontë as "a tiny delicate, serious little lady, pale with fair straight hair, and steady eyes. She may be a little over thirty; she is dressed in a little barège dress, with a pattern of faint green moss."

According to Houghton, barège was a mix of woolen and silk threads, very much in fashion for evening dresses in 1850. When it came to fabrics, Charlotte Brontë clearly knew her "stuff."

Anne Lloyd, Detail of Charlotte Brontë's "Thackeray Dress", 2016

To focus upon the "Thackeray" dress may seem obsessive, when the Morgan exhibit is bursting with "once-in-a-lifetime" treasures, including the manuscript of Jane Eyre. Yet, it is worth considering this dress along with a famous quote by Brontë who was responding to critics of Jane Eyre.

"To you I am neither Man nor Woman - I come before you as an Author only - it is the sole standard by which you have a right to judge me - the sole ground on which I accept your judgement."

Brontë published Jane Eyre under the nom de plume, Currer Bell. When she and her sisters, Emily and Anne decided to "earn their fortune" as professional writers they chose enigmatic male names, Currer, Ellis and Acton, respectively. The surname "Bell" was, perhaps coincidentally, the middle name of their father's assistant curate and Charlotte's eventual husband, Arthur Bell Nicholls. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2016) of The Brontë Sisters (c.1834) by Patrick Branwell Brontë

The Brontë sisters tried every form of employment deemed suitable for gentlewomen to earn their bread. Governessing, managing a school of their own, all that was now at an end. Their hearts were not in it and their brother Branwell's erratic behavior forbade housing students even if they could find any.

A legacy left to the sisters by their Aunt Branwell allowed them some financial freedom, but it wasn't a complete answer. In the autumn 1845, during  this time of uncertainty , Charlotte Bronte came across her sister's Emily's poems. They electrified her. Charlotte faced down Emily's fury and insisted that the poems must be put before the public. The rest is history. 

Charlotte Brontë, aka Currer Bell, had the right to insist upon being judged "as an Author only."  Though politically conservative, Charlotte Brontë was in the vanguard of the eminent Victorian women who would stubbornly smash the barriers of the "Old Boy" British establishment.

Anne Lloyd, Photo of Charlotte Brontë's portable writing desk, 2016

The "Thackeray" dress, Charlotte Brontë's portable writing desk, the Richmond's portrait and the manuscript of Jane Eyre testify to the front-row place which Charlotte Brontë earned for herself among the "greats" of English literature. But these objects from Brontë's later life can only be understood in terms of the wondrous "little books" and poems which she and her siblings created as children.

On display at the Morgan exhibit is a miniature manuscript book with water color drawings. It is dated to 1828, when the nine-year old Charlotte created this tiny treasure for her younger sister, Anne, later the author of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2016) of Miniature Booklet (c.1828) by Charlotte Brontë

There once was a little girl and her name was Ane” reads the opening line of Charlotte Brontë’s first tale, complete with misspelling. Looking at this incredible work of love, one is struck by the unshakable thought that here is “genius" or at least the seed of genius.

The Brontë treasures, currently on view in the gallery of the Morgan Library, certainly testify to one of the great sagas of creativity in human history. Why else would we continue to read Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Villette and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall? Why else would we throng to an exhibition such as Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will at the Morgan Library?

Anne Lloyd, View of the Brontë's Parsonage Museum, Haworth, U.K., 2014

The truth is that our hearts, our souls, our imaginations are still moved and shall ever be moved by the greatest Brontë epic of all - the lives of the Brontë family of Haworth.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images courtesy of Anne Lloyd and the Morgan Library and Museum, New York City

Introductory Image:                                                                                                         Anne Lloyd, Photo (2016) Detail of The Brontë Sisters (c.1834) by Patrick Branwell Brontë, Primary Collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2016) Detail of the Richmond Portrait (Charlotte Brontë) (1850) by George Richmond, National Portrait Gallery Collection, London.

Anne Lloyd, Gallery view of Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will (the "Thackeray dress") at the Morgan Library and Museum, New York City, digital photograph, 2016

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2016) The "Thackeray dress," two-piece printed delaine dress (of cotton and wool), ca. 1850, worn by Charlotte Brontë, Brontë Parsonage Museum

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2016) Detail of the "Thackeray dress," c. 1850, worn by Charlotte Brontë, Brontë Parsonage Museum

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2016) The Brontë Sisters (Anne Brontë; Emily Brontë; Charlotte Brontë)  by Patrick Branwell Brontë. Oil on canvas, c.1834, 35 1/2 in. x 29 3/8 in. (902 mm x 746 mm) Purchased, 1914. Primary Collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 1725 (c.1834)

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2016) Charlotte Brontë’s portable writing desk, with contents including pen nibs, ink bottle, and other tools, Parsonage Museum

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2016) Miniature manuscript booklet with watercolor drawings, by Charlotte Brontë, c.1828, Brontë Parsonage Museum

Anne Lloyd, View of the Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth, U.K., digital photograph, 2014

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Greek Art by John Boardman

Greek Art

By John Boardman
Thames & Hudson/320 pages/$23.95

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Greek Art by John Boardman is one of the most trusted and well-used books in my art library. I own three editions of this classic Thames & Hudson book. One of these copies is usually close to hand  - because the creative genius of the Greeks is never far from the scene of great art.

Thames and Hudson has just published the fifth edition of Greek Art. As Sir John Boardman will turn 90 in 2017, there is cause for celebrating the longevity of this outstanding scholar and of his most widely-read book. And of course, one should never miss an opportunity of emphasizing the continuing importance of the art of ancient Greece.

Boardman's book often sits on the shelf next to my battered copy of Kenneth Clark's Civilization. Greek art, declared Clark "was without doubt the most extraordinary creation in the whole of history, so complete, so convincing, so satisfying to the mind and the eye, that it lasted practically unchanged for over six hundred years."

This "ideal" art of Athens, created in the decades following the amazing victories of the Greeks over the mighty Persian Empire in 480 B.C., was carried by Alexander the Great as far as India and by the Romans to Britannia, the northernmost outpost of their empire.

Perseus and Andromeda, fresco from Pompei, c. 55-79 A.D.

But Classical Greek art is only one "highlight" of the incredibly diverse and complex artistic heritage of the Greeks, the Hellenes as they called themselves. This is the story that Boardman tells so well in Greek Art

Boardman begins with early Greek pottery, decorated with intricate geometric designs. Then comes the "Orientalizing" period which began around 750 B.C., the era "in which Greece was not the teacher, but the taught." This was followed by the Archaic age and its fantastic Kouros and Kore statues, the Greek "miracle" of the fifth century and the spread of Hellenistic art in the footsteps of Alexander. The art of each epoch is brilliantly analysed.

Kroisos Kouros, Attica, c. 540–515 B.C.

Greek art in Boardman's account begins in the "Dark Age" following the fall of Troy and the collapse of the Mycenaean kingdoms around 1200 B.C. The Mycenaeans, as Boardman notes, were Greek-speakers. Was Greek art a new civilization arising from the ashes of Pylos and Mycenae? Or did a "Renaissance" take place with artistic themes and techniques from the Mycenaens invigorating the culture of the new Greek city-states?

Boardman declares without hesitation: 

But the fact remains that Mycenaen art, which is itself but a provincial version of the arts of the non-Greek Minoans, is utterly different, both at first sight and in many of its principles, to that of Geometric Greece. For this reason our story begins within the not-so Dark Ages, with Greek artists working out afresh, and without the overwhelming incubus of the Minoan tradition to stifle them, art forms which satisfied their particular temperament, and out of which the classical tradition was to be born.

The earliest Greek art is wonderfully strange to behold. I particularly love the clay centaur from Lefkandi, dating to 900 B.C. Decorated with geometric motifs, it was unearthed at Lefkandi, one of the major archaeological "digs" of recent times. 

Cast Bronze Siren, from Olympia, early 7th century

And then there is the bizarre winged-siren which once clung to the rim of a cauldron. With a wig that looks like Darth Vader's helmet, this siren was one of a group of figurines, a common decorative motif on great bronze pots throughout the Middle East.To the Greek mind, they no doubt symbolized the seductive, treacherous beings who nearly lured Odysseus to his doom.

Looking over the various editions of Boardman's book points to another evolutionary process, namely the changing perceptions of Greek art over the last 40 years. Boardman's own astute scholarship has played a major role in this process. But the discovery of "unclassical" statues and other artifacts in the last few decades has shown that Greek art was not quite "so satisfying to the mind and the eye" as Kenneth Clark once affirmed.

When Boardman's book first was published in 1964, a picture of the Marathon Ephebe (or Boy) graced the cover. This bronze statue of a young athlete was raised from the sea in 1925. It was probably en route to a villa of one of those lovers of Greek culture, the Romans, but was lost in a shipwreck.

The Marathon Ephebe, cover illustration to early edition of Greek Art  

The Marathon Ephebe is the absolute embodiment of the "body beautiful" school of Greek art. It's not difficult to see why a rich Roman would desire such a treasure or that a book designer in 1964 decided to place it on the cover of an exciting new art history.

In 1972, an amateur scuba diver discovered two bronze statues from the fifth century under the sea near the "toe" of Italy. The Riace Bronzes depict mature men, possibly warriors from the Persian Wars or mythic heroes from the story of the Seven Against Thebes. Whatever the case, "A" and "B," as the Riace Bronzes are called, have none of the smooth-faced beauty of the Marathon Ephebe. They are tough "hombres" like the Spartans who defended the pass at Thermopylae.

The Riace Bronzes have become the "rock stars" of ancient art. Their erotic qualities have found them a place in the contemporary porn culture of the West. That's hardly worthy of comment here since the Greeks had no sexual inhibitions whatsoever. 

If the Riace Bronzes disturb our conceptions of the "hallowed" nature of ancient art, there are many violent, unsettling themes in ancient art. The new edition of Greek Art has a two-page photo spread showing a marble sarcophagus carved with a bas relief of the sacrifice of Polyxena during the Trojan War. On the other side, there is a complementary bas relief showing dancing women in a religious festival. The sarcophagus was discovered in 1994 near the site of Troy in Turkey.

The Greeks, according to legend, avenged the death of Achilles by murdering the captive Trojan princess, Polyxena. The scene is quite graphically portrayed as one of the vengeful Greeks plunges a dagger into the young girl's throat.

Boardman does not comment in the text about this disgusting incident (to a modern-day American) or why it was paired with a scene of dancing women. The past "is a different country" and the Greeks saw the world in different ways than we do.

Exekias, Achilles Slaying Penthesilea, c. 530 B.C-525 B.C.

The cult of war appears in much of Greek art and scenes of violence against women are shown too. The two themes are combined in the famous black-figure amphora from the collection of the British Museum showing Achilles slaying the Amazon queen, Penthesilia, during the Trojan War. It is notable because we know the artist's name, Exekias. But what sticks in my mind is the cold, cruel killer's eye of Achilles as he spears Penthesilia.

The Polyxena Sarcophagus and the Achilles-Penthesilia Amphora date from the end of the Archaic Period, around 525 B.C. It is difficult to judge this period of Greek history, at least from a social standpoint. 

There simply was so much in flux during the Archaic Period and no living historians to analyze the details, as Herodotus and Thucydides were later to do. Solon's law reforms, establishing democracy in Athens, 594 B.C., and the triumph of Spartan militarism, symbolized by the famous Battle of the Champions against Argos in 546, took place during the Archaic Period. But the place of art during this troubled time is hard to assess.

Base of a Kouros showing Gymnasium Scenes, Attica, c. 510 B.C.

Sensibly, Boardman focuses on the technical changes in art. But he notes the growing interest by vase painters in depicting satyrs. This was a sly way to comment on male misbehavior in the brazenly masculine society of Greece. And when the opportunity arises to trace important trends during later epochs, Boardman does not refrain from doing so.

A good example can be found in the discussion of nudity in art during the fourth century. Social conventions weakened as the power of the individual Greek city-states waned. Where women had always been sculpted clothed, as in the celebrated Peplos Kore, now there appeared the first instance of "deliberate sensuality in the rendering of women." Boardman explains:

At the end of the 5th century, Aphrodite could be shown in a closely clinging dress. Now she is naked, and so successful was Praxiteles in his cult statue of the goddess at Cnidus that (in later times) the marble was exhibited under peep-show conditions and was even the object of indecent assault.

When necessary, the text of Boardman's Greek Art has changed to accommodate the new discoveries. A close reading of the different editions, however, shows no major "about-face" reappraisals. Early in his career, Boardman took part in a number of archaeological excavations and was for three years assistant Director of the British School of Archaeology in Athens. Boardman has been a master of his subject for a very long time - and remains so today.

Yet, in his handling of the concluding paragraphs of Greek Art, it is fascinating to see how Boardman has grapples with the changes in how art history is viewed. Especially in the case of Greek art history, there is no longer the kind of consensus that enabled Kenneth Clark to speak so magisterially - and sensibly - in Civilization.

All three of the most recent editions of Greek Art show the same illustrations on the final pages. There is the drawing of a nude man and woman, perfectly proportioned according to Greek standards, that was sent into Deep Space aboard the Pioneer 10 spacecraft in 1972. 

Albrect Durer also referred to the Greek concept of the nude to depict Adam and Eve in an engraving which is displayed next to the Pioneer 10 picture. Thus, as Boardman notes, Greek art provided the imagery and the spirit to create depictions of the Fall of Man and of humanity's Space Age Apotheosis.

The Second Revised edition, 1985, states the same basic message as the latest edition. It does so, however, in an almost "bible-thumping" manner. Boardman wrote that the Durer engraving and the Pioneer 10 drawing "both derive in pose and detail from that idealized and basically unrealistic view of man and his mate - nakedly modest in either covering or removing the body hair that draw attention to their shame - devised by the artists of Classical Greece." 

Linda Salzman Sagan, Pioneer 10 Plaque, 1972

The 1996 and 2016 editions make no mention of naked modesty, body hair, etc. Instead, we simply read Boardman's moving tribute to the continuing influence of "the artists of Classical Greece." Could this be a recognition that people in the twenty-first century are now more accepting of overt sexuality? Is this in some way, a result of the cult status of the Riace Bronzes?

If we have grown used to the "full frontal" potency of "A" and "B," I think that Western Civilization will somehow endure. 

I just hope and pray that we never come to accept the dehumanizing violence that is depicted on the Polyxena Sarcophagus. That is one aspect of the "glory that was Greece" that deserves no celebration.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images Courtesy of Thames & Hudson, the British Museum and NASA 

Introductory Image: Greek Art, 2016 (cover) Image credit: Thames & Hudson 

Perseus and Andromeda (after a Greek original attributed to late-4th-century BC painter Nicias),  c. 55-79 A.D. Fresco. Height: 1.22 m. From House of Dioscuri at Pompei. Museo Nazionale, Naples, Italy

Kroisos Kouros from Anavyssos in Attica. Grave marker for a fallen warrior named Kroîsos, c. 540–515 BC. Parian Marble. Height: 1.95 m. National Archaeological Museum of Athens (inv. no. 3851)

Cast bronze siren attachment from the rim of a cauldron, facing in. From Olympia, early 7th century BC. Width 15 cm. Olympia (inv. no. B 1690)

Greek Art by John Boardman, 1964 revised edition, (cover)  credit: Thames & Hudson 

Achilles slaying Penthesilea Amphora (attributed to Exekias), c. 530 B.C-525 B.C. Height: 41 cm Width: 29 cm. Diameter: 18 cm. (mouth of the vase.) British Museum (inv. no.1836,0224.127)

Relief on the base of a Kouros statue marking a grave in Athens,  c. 510 BC. Marble. Height: 0.29 m. Width 0.79 m National Archeological Museum, Athens (inv. no. 3476)

Linda Salzman Sagan, Pioneer10 Plaque, 1972. Gold-anodized aluminum. Width: 229 mm (9 inches) Height: 152 mm (6 inches) Thickness: 1.27 mm (0.05 inch)  NASA