Thursday, January 28, 2016

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Art Since 1989 by Kelly Grovier

Art Since 1989

By Kelly Grovier
Thames & Hudson / 224 pages / $21.95

Reviewed by Ed Voves

This year, one of my New Year's resolutions is to pay more attention to contemporary art and to achieve a greater degree of insight and empathy for the Artists of Today.

To be honest, that was on my list of New Year's resolutions for 2015 and also for 2014.
Thanks to the latest volume in Thames and Hudson's World of Art series, Art Since 1989, I have a good chance of keeping my resolution in 2016. 

Art Since 1989 is not merely a worthy addition to this invaluable series. Written by Kelly Grovier, Art Since 1989 is one of the most intelligent and thoughtful books I have read in recent years. Brilliantly correlating political events and social trends with developments in the visual arts, this wide-ranging survey is rooted in the real world. Even as it probes visionary art theories, it keeps the reader's feet firmly planted on the ground.

Grovier is a notable poet and a perceptive scholar of the Romantic era of the late 1700's and early 1800's - also a tradition-shattering  period much like today.

The span of art history covered by Grovier's book begins in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. This momentous event were symbolized by the spectacular,Wrapped Reichstag, planned by Christo and Jeanne-Claude in 1971 to protest the division of Berlin by the Cold War. By the time permission was granted to place a vast, temporary curtain of aluminum-coated polypropylene fabric over the German parliament building in 1995, Germany was finally united.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Wrapped Reichstag, 1995

The Christo "wrap" was a mighty work, a human-constructed butterfly's chrysalis symbolizing reunification and harmony. But Wrapped Reichstag, as an appealing work of art, easily understood by people around the world, is the exception to the rule of contemporary art.

Grovier starts out by making an especially cogent point on the truly "shock of the new" aspect of contemporary art. We now live in an era which lacks a coherent ideology or a galvanizing "movement." There is in the art world of today no "overiding style, technique or attitude governing artistic practice..."

The art of the discredited Marxist regimes, Socialist Realism, is defunct. Hip "do your own thing" art is now a Madison Ave branding technique. Left-wing and right-wing have fallen, burying the central canons of art beneath the debris.

Art's revolutionary role has paradoxically taken a hit as well. Grovier writes, "Without an orthodoxy to resist, there can of course be no avant-garde - no overthrowing of an old order by a new one." 

The long reign of King "Ism" is over! Long live ...?

Antony Gormley, Horizon Field, 2010-2012

In a way, we are like the intriguing cast-iron figures of Antony Gormley's landscape installation, Horizon Field, watching to see who will pick up the scepter of King "Ism."

Grovier refrains from nominating any artists or art movements to fill the vacant throne. There is a note of irony here because Art Since 1989 recalls an earlier book by Grovier. This book documents selected works of contemporary art which Grovier contends are likely to stand the test of time. Also published by Thames & Hudson, 100 Works of Art That Will Define Our Age is a lavishly illustrated, big format volume with lively discussions of Grovier's chosen masterpieces. 

I was impressed with a number of Grovier's choices - notably Subodh Gupta's apocalyptic sculpture, Line of Control. Yet, Grovier's commentary on the "end of Art History," in terms similar to that noted above, argued against the idea that works of art made for a consumer society could outlive their creators' fifteen minutes of fame. 
Art Since 1989, by contrast, succeeds in addressing any lingering doubts about the enduring value of contemporary art. Not only is it filled with challenging insights, but Grovier's new book imparts a sense of coherence and relevance to the study of present-day art that seemed lacking in 100 Works of Art That Will Define Our Age

Grovier brilliantly makes the case that contemporary art legitimately addresses great themes of humanity and of our natural environment. He begins each of his chapters with cogent analysis of a major political event or scientific discovery, like the Hubble Space Telescope which was launched into orbit in 1990. Grovier then traces the effect of these developments on the creative achievements of contemporary artists.

In terms of political and social impact, the Feminist Movement and the global resurgence of Islam are among the most influential developments of recent times. These two dynamic forces came into prominence in the 1970's. Their cultural impact took a while to be felt as a generation of artists first absorbed and then reacted, pro or con, to the messages they impart.

In the case of Shirin Neshat, a talented Iranian-American photographer and film maker (b. 1957), that involved asserting herself in relation to both feminism and Islam. Neshat's family belonged to the Westernizing elite of Iran under the Shah. She was sent to study in the U.S, as feminism opened new creative venues for women and then as the radical form of Islam preached by the Ayatollah Khomeini suppressed many of the gains women had made in Iranian society since the Second World War.

Neshat eventually left Iran in 1975 to live in the U.S. Rebellious Silence, 1994, is perhaps Neshat's most famous photograph but it is a deeply ambivalent work. The Islamic veil, forced upon the female population of Iran by the male religious elite, is abhorrent to many in the West. Yet, the veil has actually been embraced by many Muslim women as a means of liberating them from being treated a sex-objects in a world where the degradation of women shows no sign of weakening. 

Shirin Neshat, Rebellious Silence, 1994

Likewise, the rifle may - or may not - symbolize the political subjugation of women. Given the position of the gun barrel, it is hard to say if the woman is embracing the weapon or have it thrust in her face. 

The words of a poem on the theme of martyrdom, written by a woman poet (Tahereh Saffarzadeh) and superimposed on Neshat's face, are hard to gauge as well. They may express Neshat's empathy with the fortitude of the people of Iran during the horrendous war with Iraq, 1980-1988, when nearly a million Iranians were killed by bombs and weapons supplied by the Western powers to  the Iraqi army under Saddam Hussein.

What does Neshat say about Rebellious Silence?

"From the beginning I made a decision that this work was not going to be about me or my opinions on the subject," Neshat declared, "and that my position was going to be no position." 

Far from being an evasive "cop-out" or a skillful repackaging of moral relativism, Neshat is encouraging, indeed forcing, the viewer, to directly engage with the content of her picture.

Neshat's reply, courageous and self-denying, establishes one of the central facets of contemporary art. The viewer, the gallery goer, is going to have to decide the meaning of the painting or the sculpture, the installation or the multi-media presentation - for themselves.

Given the deliberately challenging - and occasionally offensive - nature of much of contemporary art, it is not surprising that many people react negatively to the art scene of today. Grovier writes: 

So dubious are many sectors of society of the integrity of the very enterprise of making contemporary art that the achievement of artists is either condescendingly diminished ('my five-year-old could have done that') or dismissed altogether as an embarrassingly failed attempt even to operate within the unruly rules of the genre: 'yes, but is it art?'

Grovier goes on to note that many contemporary artists deal with this social 
stigmatization by emphasizing "the connections between scientific and aesthetic inquiry."
In some cases, this involves audacious initiatives using "cutting-edge" technology to express emotional and spiritual values. Doug Aitken's Mirror, installed on the facade of the Seattle Art Museum in 2013, uses a  computerized LED screen to show constantly changing images "synchronized to the changing tempo of the city itself."                           

Grovier also examines how contemporary artists are exploring the interfaces between art and other creative disciplines, literature and music. Two works by outstanding painters, Cy Twombly (1928-2011) and Christopher Le Brun (b.1951) show the process of  cultural "cross-pollination" at work.

Christopher Le Brun, Walton, 2013

Le Brun, in his painting entitled Walton, evokes the 1954 opera, Troilus and Cressidaby Sir William Walton. Le Brun, who was elected as President of the Royal Academy in 2011, started this work by painting Walton's name and those of his protagonists on to the canvas. Layer upon layer of searing red paint were then applied, until the names were nearly obliterated. 

"Nearly" is the operative word here. Somehow, the names of Walton and the two doomed lovers from ancient Troy manage to emerge from the sea of red. Culture, the creative expression of humankind, makes its presence felt, swimming to the surface like a survivor of a shipwreck. 

Toward the end of his long career, Cy Twombly exhibited a quintet of wall-sized paintings of roses which lead the viewer's gaze to scrawled quotations from Rainier Maria Rilke's 1949 poem cycle, The Roses

Cy Twombly, Rose (IV), 2008

These awesome works of representation art, so at odds with much of Twombly's Abstractionism are simply dazzling. When Twombly's Rose paintings were first shown at the Gagosian Gallery, the walls vibrated with vivid color. Blooms of deep crimson resonated in the cavernous gallery along with gold, purple and midnight blue.   
Image and word were united in Twombly's Rose paintings with an epic scope worthy of the great masters of the past. These are truly the work of a great master of the present age.

These sensational paintings are proof that John Keats' theory of "negative capability" is still worthy of consideration in the twenty-first century. Contemporary artists like Twombly, Le Brun, Doug Aitken and Shirin Neshat are indeed "capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason." 

Looking at Twombly's Rose IV and the great works of art discussed in Art Since 1989 shows us that the basic truth of Keats' theories on creative achievement still holds true:

The excellence of every Art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty and Truth.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images Courtesy of Thames & Hudson 

Introductory Image: Art Since 1989, 2015 (cover) Image credit: Thames & Hudson 

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Wrapped Reichstag, 1971–95. 100,000 square meters (1,076,000 square feet) of polypropylene fabric and 15,600 meters (51,181 feet) of rope. Photo Wolfgang Volz. © Christo 1995

Antony Gormley, Horizon Field, August 2010–April 2012.100 cast-iron elements, each 189 x 53 x 29 cm (74 ⅜ x 20 ⅞ x 11 ⅜ in), spread over an area of 150 square kilometers (detail). Installation view, the High Alps, Vorlarlberg, Austria. Presented by Kunsthaus Bregenz. Photograph by Makus Tretter. Antony Gormley and Kunsthaus Bregenz

100 Works of Art That Will Define Our Age, 2013 (cover) Image credit: Thames & Hudson 

Shirin Neshat, Rebellious Silence, from the series Women of Allah, 1994. Black-and-white, resin coated print with ink,  Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels. Photo Cynthia Preston. © Shirin Neshat

Christopher Le Brun, Walton, 2013. Oil on canvas, 240 x 170 cm (94 ½ x 66 ⅞ in).             Courtesy of the artist.

Cy Twombly, Rose (IV), 2008.Acrylic on wood panel, 252 x 740 cm (99 3/16 x 291 5/16 in)Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photo Mike Bruce. © Cy Twombly Foundation

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Made in the Americas:The New World Discovers Asia at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


Made in the Americas: The New World Discovers Asia

Museum of Fine Arts Boston
August 18, 2015–February 15, 2016

Winterthur Museum

 March 26, 2016–January 8, 2017

Reviewed by Ed Voves                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Made in the Americas: The New World Discovers Asia is an innovative exhibition at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. This exhibit is both colorful in presentation and fascinating in its content, but "unconventional" is an even more descriptive assessment.

Made in the Americas examines the visual arts and artisan crafts of the colonial era in the New World. The overarching theme, however, differs from the accustomed way of showing how European culture was transplanted to the recently discovered lands of the Americas. 

The second part of the exhibit title - The New World Discovers Asia - supplies a key interpretive insight. The Boston art display examines the influence of long-distance trading by Western seafarers with Asia. The luxury goods brought back aboard their storm-lashed ships helped transform the way of life in the Spanish dominions of Mexico and Peru and the thirteen British colonies destined to form the United States in 1776.

Asian imports were embraced by the ruling elites of Europe's colonies in the Americas. One of the earliest works of art on view is a Chinese porcelain plate which appears as the introductory image of this review. In an amazing amalgam of Europe's feudal heraldry and Oriental aesthetics, the plate bears the coat of arms of the viceroy of Peru, García Hurtado de Mendoza (1535-1609). 

Such precious objects also exerted a powerful influence by the peoples they ruled. The social transformation occurred in ways that were not initially apparent.

John Singleton Copley's portrait of Nicholas Boylston (1716-1771) shows exactly the sort of "merchant prince" who profited by the trade with Asia. Boylston’s import company, Green and Boylston, played a key role in clothing wealthy Bostonians with the rich textiles which he himself wore when painted by Copley. Boylston's firm also specialized in importing tea to the increasingly self-reliant British colonies.

John Singleton Copley, Nicholas Boylston, 1769 

Politically conservative, Boylston refused to support the boycott of British goods during the tense years before the American Revolution. He was denounced by Patriot leader, Samuel Adams, as one of the "enemies of their country." Boylston's death in 1771 spared him from witnessing the destruction of his refined, gentlemanly way of life when Paul Revere called the Minutemen of Massachusetts to arms against the British in 1775.

The growing appetite for Asia's furniture and furnishings, spices and ceramics, fed the New World's desire for more.  As demand rose, so too did the desire to have these goods at prices that people less affluent than Boylston could afford.

Unknown Artist, Portable Writing Desk, c. 1684

The populations of the British and Spanish colonies took matters into their own hands. They started marking versions of these exotic Asian imports for themselves. And once they succeeded in achieving a growing measure of economic self-sufficiency, the next step was to grasp after political independence.

The majority of the art treasures on view in the Boston exhibit exemplify this "can-do" American spirit. To maintain the Oriental allure of products made in the Americas, however, touches of faux Asian design known as chinoiserie were added. Motifs "in the Chinese taste" appeared on every imaginable object from fabrics and wall-paper to Queen Anne-style cabinets.

John Pimm, Japanned High Chest, 1730-1739

The great Boston furniture maker, John Pimm, created an exquisite high chest, during the 1730's, from black walnut and soft maple. It was then "japanned" with coats of a special varnish to make the surface look like Asian lacquer had been applied to it, with gilded Oriental figures to complete the illusion.

Unknown Artists (Mexico), Desk and Bookcase, Mid-18th Century

Another standout piece from the exhibition, a spectacular desk and bookcase from the mid-1700's which opens up to reveal a mythic realm in red and gold, was "Americas-made." It was created by Mexican craftsmen, rather than Chinese, as one would initially suspect.

This Asian influence of Asia on the creative energies of colonial America came about as a result of one of the most fantastic maritime ventures of world history. These were the voyages of ships known as the Manila Galleons. 

The story begins with the epic expedition by a Spanish ship, the San Pedro, in 1565. That year, an Augustinian monk named Fray Andrés de Urdaneta (1498-1568) guided the San Pedro on a perilous voyage to discover a trade route from the Spanish colony of the Philippines to Mexico. 

Urdaneta was a Basque sailor who had taken holy orders after surviving a disastrous earlier expedition. When King Philip II recalled Urdaneta to duty, the Basque sailor-monk put his experience to great use. 
The San Pedro sailed from Cebu Island in the Philippines on June 1, 1565, carrying a cargo of precious cinnamon. Urdaneta, on board as navigator, boldly sailed into the uncharted waters of the North Pacific rather than set the vessel's course by the Equator to reach South America. Urdaneta followed a hunch that there were favorable trade winds in the North Pacific, just as there were in the North Atlantic. Urdaneta was correct and though most of the crew died on the 6,000 mile voyage across the Pacific, the San Pedro made landfall near Acapulco on October 8, 1565.

For nearly 250 years, the Manila galleons followed "Urdaneta's route" bringing spices, textiles and the coveted blue and white glazed porcelain that would be known as "China" in the West. To pay for these high-profile goods, the Manila galleons brought tons of silver to Asia, nearly a third of the vast haul mined by the Spanish during the colonial era in Mexico and modern-day Bolivia. This cargo went into the coffers of the Ming and Manchu emperors of China and the Samurai rulers of Japan. The bartered Asian goods were then transported by the Manila galleons to Acapulco for reshipment to Spain.

Two centuries and a half centuries later, the annual oceanic trek was still going strong. Then, in 1815, the frigate San Fernando de Magallanes sailed into Acapulco to find that Mexico had rebelled against the Spanish crown. The age of the Manila Galleon came to an abrupt end.

Gallery view showing the byōbu, Southern Barbarians Come to Trade, c. 1600

In the long years between the two voyages, the Asian imports brought back by the Manila galleons created a cultural ripple effect that reached many distant shores. 

One of the first - and most remarkable - displays in the Boston exhibit directly evokes the Manila Galleon trade. Huge folding screens - byōbu ­- were brought from Japan to Mexico. Byōbu was transliterated as biombo in Spanish. The folding screens became so identified with the Hispanic­-speaking world that in Germany they were known as Spanische wand or Spanish walls.

Not only were biombos supremely practical in creating private space but they offered ample scope for a wide range of decorative schemes. Many were painted with New World genre scenes, Native-American weddings or feast day celebrations.

Unknown Artist, Biombo with Scenes of the Conquest of MexicoLate 17th century 

The biombo on view in the Boston exhibit, however, depicts various episodes of the conquest of Mexico by Hernan Cortes in 1519. It is a vast cinemascope affair, densely packed with dramatic incident. Appearing on the reverse side is a panorama of the rebuilt Mexico City at peace under the benign rule of the Spanish viceroys.

Like the 1950's movie epics, the biombo reveals more of the way that the story of Cortes was viewed when it was created in the 1600's than about the actual events a century and a half before. A scene showing armored-clad Spanish conquistadores plunging to their doom in the lake surrounding Mexico City evokes the human-cost of this horrific siege. But otherwise there is little indication of the staggering death toll that marked the overthrow of the Aztec Empire.

This romanticized view of the conquest of Mexico was no doubt influenced by the way that the Japanese Kano artists utilized the sweeping expanse of the byōbu screen to rework scenes from Japan's mythology or history. 

Set against a golden backdrop, the byōbu on view in the MFA exhibit is a magnificent example of these cherished works. This byōbu depicts the moment when European seafarers - Nanbanjin or "southern barbarians" - first reached Japan in the 1540's. It is a marvelous work of art, a true masterpiece, but it never was intended to represent the actual event, fraught with suspicion and duplicity. 

Another work of art related to the Manila Galleon trade testifies to the interaction of Asian and American craftsmen and the burgeoning self-expression among these "colonials."

Ivory carving ranked high among the accomplishments of artists in the Philippines. Stunning pieces of this delicate work were exported to Spain's colonies in the Americas. Often, the heads and hands of small figures were carved in ivory in the Philippines and then combined with wooden bodies carved in the New World. 

Unknown Artists (Philippines and Ecuador), Nativity Set, 18th Century

This heart-warming Nativity set from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York is a beautiful example of this collaborative effort.

There are so many incredible works of art in Made in the Americas: The New World Discovers Asia that it is bewildering to study them in a single museum visit. It is a pleasure to note that when the exhibit concludes in Boston, it will be revived at the Winterthur Museum, near Wilmington, Delaware. The exhibit will be on view at Winterthur from March 26, 2016 to January 8, 2017.

For a final reflection, I have chosen an object to appreciate that outwardly is of little significance. Yet, it has a symbolical importance for the age of the Manila galleons and chinoiserie - and for the era that came afterward. 

This is a blue-and-white tea bowl of the kind made at Puebla in Mexico and ceramic workshops throughout Europe. This reproduction of the real thing from China was made by a South Carolina potter, John Bartlam, and decorated in the finest chinoiserie style.

John Bartlam, Tea Bowl, 1765-1770

Bartlam's tea bowl was created around the time that tea importer Nicholas Boylston was denounced by Samuel Adams. One can only wonder what American colonials poured into Bartlam's china cups and bowls after the Boston Tea Party. Did they drink Oswego Tea, an all-American substitute?

Oswego Tea was an herbal concoction brewed by Native Americans and then made popular by a Philadelphia Quaker botanist with a similar sounding name to the South Carolina potter, John Bartram. While traveling in western New York as part of a delegation to meet with the chiefs of the Iroquois Confederacy in 1743, Bartram observed the Iroquois brewing a drink from the leaves of the Monarda didyma (Bee Balm) plant which he called Oswego Tea. 

Thousands of Bartram's fellow colonials borrowed his recipe in 1773. This was the year that the American colonies rejected King George III's tax on tea and dumped the East India Company's shipment from China into Boston Harbor. Oswego Tea became the beverage of choice of American sons and daughters of Liberty.

This exquisite little tea bowl, then, is a fitting symbol of the social transformation that enabled people in the Americas to adapt well-traveled objects from Asia to suit their rising communities. In the process, the people in the American colonies created a self-reliant, democratic way of life.

Chinoiserie tea bowls and representative democracy were by-products of the cultural transformation so brilliantly explored in The New World Discovers Asia at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. These too were "made in the Americas." 

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 
Images courtesy of the  Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Introductory Image:                                                                                               Unknown Artist, Plate with the arms of García Hurtado de Mendoza y Manrique and Teresa de Castro y de la Cueva, 1588-1593. Porcelain with underglaze blue decoration. Diameter - 8 inches. Thomas Lurie Collection. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 

John Singleton Copley (American, 1735-1815),  Nicholas Boylston, about 1769. Oil on canvas:  127.32 x 101.6 cm (50 1/8 x 40 in.) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Bequest of David P. Kimball, #23.504 Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 

Unknown Artist, Portable Writing Deskc.1684. Wood, varniz de pasto, silver fittings. On loan from The Hispanic Society of America, New York, NY. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

John Pimm (American, died 1773) Japanned High Chest, 1730-1739. Soft maple, black walnut, white pine, mahogany, brass: 218.44 cm x 104.14 cm x 62.23 cm. (86 in. x 41 in. x 24.5 in.) Winterthur Museum, Gift of Henry Francis du Pont. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Unknown Artists from Puebla de los Angeles, Mexico. Desk and Bookcase, mid-18th century. Inlaid and incised woods and painted bone, maque, and gold and polychrome paint: 87 in. x 41 in. x 261/2 in. Ann and Gordon Getty Collection, Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, photograph. Gallery view showing the byōbu, Southern Barbarians Come to Trade, attributed to Kano Naizen (Japanese, 1570–1616) c. 1600. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Unknown Artist, Biombo with Scenes of the Conquest of Mexico / View of the City of MexicoLate 17th.  Folding screen with ten oil-on-canvas panels, overall: 210 x 560 cm, (82 11/16 x 220 1/2 in.) Vera da Costa Autrey Collection, Mexico City. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Unknown Artists (Possibly Philippines and Ecuador), Nativity Set, 18th century or later. Wood, polychromed and gilded; ivory touched up with polychromy. Dimensions: Figure of Mary  - H. 7 3/4 in. (19.7 cm.); Figure of Infant Jesus -  L. 2 3/4 in. (7 cm); Figure of Joseph - H. 8 1/2 in. (21.6 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art,  Gift of Loretta Hines Howard, 1964. #s: 64.164.172, 64.164.174, 64.164.173 Photograph © Metropolitan Museum of  Art, NYC

John Bartlam (American, 1735/36-1781) Tea Bowl, 1765 - 1770 . Soft-paste porcelain, diameter 3 1/8 inches. Anonymous loan. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Friday, January 1, 2016

Art Eyewitness Looks at the Art Scene in 2015

Reflections on the Art Scene during 2015

By Ed Voves

In terms of the visual arts, 2015 was a wonderful year. Splendid art exhibitions, remarkable books about art and inspiring dialogues with curators and artists have offered an "embarrassment of riches" for Art Eyewitness to review.

Over the course of 2015, I had opportunities to study and reflect upon great works by some of the greatest artists of all time. I could not possibly present a Best Exhibit Award for 2015. There are some special cases that I will comment upon below, but these are based more on relevance to current events than any kind of arbitrary rating system.

I will say that photography as an artistic medium made its presence increasingly felt as the year progressed. I noted at the beginning of 2015 that I expected great things from Discovering Impressionism at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This exhibit, examining the career of art impresario Paul Durand-Ruel, did not disappoint. Yet, the photo exhibits I saw this year were a revelation

Anne Lloyd, View of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2015

Notable photography exhibits included Multitude, Solitude: The Photographs of Dave Heath at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and a brilliant survey, American Moments, at the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C. Toward the end of 2015, the Philadelphia Museum of Art unveiled an ensemble of major exhibitions of South Asian art including Picture This: Contemporary Photography and India. This intriguing anthology includes the work of Gauri Gill, one of whose photos introduces this essay. Leading my resolutions for 2016 is to review this wondrous display of South Asian creativity.

Sadly, the world beyond these wonderful art exhibits, away from my reading room with its stacks of books on Turner, Matisse and the painters of the Dutch Golden Age, is a less congenial place. 

We do not live in a rarefied state, free of sadness, anxiety or pain. All too frequently, "mountain-top" experiences of art were followed by news reports detailing the plight of refugees or acts or terror.

Exhibit entrance of Sculpture in the Age of Donatello at the Museum of Biblical Art

In the Art Eyewitness yearly reviews of 2013 and 2014, concern for the institutional welfare of art museums was a major topic. The sad closing of the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City in 2015, following a fabulous exhibit of Renaissance sculptures by Donatello, demonstrates that such fears are not misplaced. But my reflections on the role of art in our troubled world supplied the theme for my look back at 2015.

I chanced upon a profoundly moving quote by Italo Calvino (1923-1985) in his 1974 book, Invisible Cities, which provided food for thought:

The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for man: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.

Human beings find their "space" through creative acts. We endure by making a contribution to the common fund of humanity. We pass through the "inferno" with Virgil as a guide - and Eugene Delacroix, Winslow Homer, Bernice Abbott and many more to help us on the journey. And when we cherish the art work of these guides, we help insure that their memory will survive the inferno too.

Eugene Delacroix, The Barque of Dante, 1822

"Survival" is a singularly appropriate theme for reflecting on the art world in 2015. This year of outstanding exhibits began and ended for me with two unforgettable displays of ancient art. These were From Ancient to Modern: Archaeology and Aesthetics, which appeared at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) of New York University, February 12, 2015 - June 7, 2015, and Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture from the Hellenistic World, currently at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. to March 20, 2016.

The art exhibits at ISAW are small wonders. ISAW has no core collection of its own, but brings works of art from around the world to create unforgettable exhibitions. That probably sounds like an overload of superlatives. However, ISAW's From Ancient to Modern deserves special recognition for the intelligence and ethical awareness that went into curating this model exhibition.

To mount its exhibits, ISAW only has two galleries and a vestibule area at its headquarters near the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The exhibits at ISAW, of which I have seen several, give a solid background to the history of the ancient epoch under consideration. The curators at ISAW somehow find the space to acknowledge the dedicated professionals who make archaeology both a science and an art.

Highlights of the ISAW exhibit From Ancient to Modern:      
Standing Male Worshiper, ca. 2900–2600 B.C.; Henry Moore, Half Figure II, 1929

From Ancient to Modern brilliantly integrated works of art from ancient Mesopotamia, vintage photos of the archaeological expeditions of the 1920's and modern art by Henry Moore and other artists who were inspired by the creative energy of their ancestors in Sumer and Babylon.

Power and Pathos, originally organized by curators at the Getty Museum before coming to the National Gallery, brings together over fifty very rare bronze statue statues from the Hellenistic age. The display is much bigger than that of the ISAW. But the effect is the same. These incomparable works of art survived the shipwreck of their civilizations (sometimes literally) to be rediscovered by great archaeologists and scuba divers. These ancient bronzes are now - or should be - the treasured inheritance of all humankind.

If I cannot give a Best Exhibit Award, I can acknowledge the Barnes Foundation autumn exhibition as the most unusual. Strength and Splendor: Wrought Iron from the Musée Le Secq des Tournelles  brought 150 wrought iron objects from a museum in Rouen, France, which specializes in these unique artifacts. 

Gallery view of the Strength and Splendor exhibit at the Barnes Foundation

Ornamental metal grills are sometimes acknowledged as art works. Most of the other wrought iron artifacts in the Barnes exhibit - candle sconces, door knockers, shop signs, locks and keys, strongboxes, and tools - seldom make it to the walls of a major exhibition.

Dr. Albert Barnes, the visionary (and contentious) American art collector, displayed 887 pieces of European and American wrought iron objects, interspersed among his peerless collection of paintings and sculptures. In a 1942 letter to American painter, Stuart Davis, Barnes credited the artisans of these iron objects, made for daily use rather than aesthetic appraisal, as "just as authentic an artist as a Titian, Renoir, or Cézanne.”

It would be hard to disagree with Dr. Barnes. The works of art from the Musée Le Secq des Tournelles are ingenious examples of design and craftsmanship. My favorite piece was a bat-shaped lantern, dated to the early nineteenth century. 

Necklace from Suite of Jewelry of “Berlin Iron,” early 19th century Germany 

Also on display were delicate necklaces made from cast iron with black lacquer. These “Berlin Iron" ornaments were bestowed upon patriotic German women who gave their gold and silver jewelry to help fund the war, 1813-1815, to liberate Germany from the despotic control of Napoleon. The Prussian government, which led the resistance to Napoleon, also created a military award made from iron.This was the Eisernes Kreuz or Iron Cross. This in time came to symbolize wars, not of liberation, but of enslavement and genocide.The Strength and Splendor exhibit does not include one of these ominous medals.

Around the time that German people were fighting for their independence from Napoleon, William Blake was endeavoring to liberate the mind and spirit of human kind through art. During my art studies, I found my way (or was led by unseen guides) to William Blake's Holy Thursday. In a year when I was blessed to see not one, but two, Henri Matisse exhibits, this illustrated poem was among the most powerful works of art I pondered.

   William Blake, Holy Thursday, 1794

 Is this a holy thing to see, 
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reducd to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?

Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!
Holy Thursday poses questions which the "powers that be" of Blake's time refused to answer. Their counterparts today likewise ignore the evidence of suffering. Blake, despite being an almost penniless engraver, knew how "to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure."

If such insight is here for the asking - or rather for the using - so is beauty!

During 2015, I was privileged to share in a spectacular sequence of photos taken from the window of my wife's studio. My wife Anne looked up from her painting and saw the sky in motion, a sky worthy of John Constable. If ever a testament was needed to acknowledge Annie's "artist's eye," the following photo is a fitting witness.

Anne Lloyd, Cloudscape, 2015

An "artist's eye" is a human attribute which we all possess, whatever level of accomplishment or field of art we aspire to - if we wish to engage in it. No amount of formal training can take the place of that desire and determination. 

One of the great demonstrations of the individual will power needed to motivate great art was provided this past year by a traveling exhibit devoted to the photos of Edward S. Curtis and by the magnificent companion book, Edward S. Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks, jointly published by Prestel Publishing and Delmonico Books.

Curtis, a self-taught photographer, transformed the reputation of the Native American tribes of North America and safeguarded much of their culture, then at the point of extinction around 1900. Curtis used his camera to assert the humanity and the right to life and dignity of a people regarded by mainstream America with contempt.

Edward S. Curtis, Sioux Mother and Child, 1905

Edward S. Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks is my selection as best art book of 2015. It was not an easy choice, given the many great books published over the past year. But the quality of the pictures and the accompanying text is so good that I think that reading it is a close match to actually seeing the exhibit, a tribute I rarely give.

I would like to conclude my glance back at 2015 with another tribute. Book reviewing is a major focus of Art Eyewitness. Like St. Jerome in Durer's famous print, I have enjoyed the company of a "literary lion." This was my great cat pal, Henry, who shared many a masterpiece with me. When Henry wasn't helping review art books, he would make his way to my wife's studio to keep her company and assist with her beautiful paintings.

Anne Lloyd, Henry, 2014

Henry passed away last April, leaving an open spot amid all the art books waiting to be reviewed and canvases ready to be painted. But he still makes his presence felt in our hearts, reminding us of Kenneth Clark's beautiful words at the end of Civilization:

"And I think we should remember that we are part of a great whole, which for convenience we call nature. All living things are our brothers and sisters."

Henry was a great "being." That is the state to which we are all called in our earthly lives - and after.

Art Eyewitness is not a pulpit for moralizing. Yet it is vital to assert the importance of all living things and keep ourselves open to the feelings of others and the inspiration they impart. 

Animal friends like Henry are "our brothers and sisters." They are worthy companions in their special way as are Dante and Virgil and William Blake. These kindred souls, living in the present or alive in the past, inspire us and help us "recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure..." 


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA), New York City; 
courtesy of Anne Lloyd © Anne Lloyd; the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) of New York University; the Barnes Foundation; the British Library;
Prestel Publishing and Delmonico Books.

Introductory image:

Gauri Gill (Indian, born 1970) Manju and Parvati, 2010, From the series Balika Mela, Digital prints on glass, Sheet 10 x 6 1 /2 inches (25.4 x 16.5 cm) Courtesy of the artist and Thomas Erben Gallery, New York.

Anne Lloyd, View of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2015. Copyright of Anne Lloyd, all rights reserved

Installation view (Interior) of Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces from Florence Cathedral at the Museum of Biblical Art, 2015. Photo by Eduard Hueber. The exhibition was organized by Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, and the Museum of Biblical Art, New York

Eugène Delacroix (French, 1798-1863) Dante and Virgil in Hell, also known as The Barque of Dante, 1822. Oil on canvas, H. 189 cm x W. 246 cm  (74 in. x 95 in.) Louvre, Paris, acquired in 1985, INV. 3820. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Standing Male Worshiper, ca. 2900–2600 B.C., Early Dynastic I-II period of Mesopotamia, Eshnunna (modern Tell Asmar). Gypsum alabaster, shell, black limestone, bitumen, 11 5/8 x 5 1/8 x 3 7/8 in. (29.5 x 12.9 x 10 cm)  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fletcher Fund, 1940(40.156)  Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 

Henry Moore, Half Figure II. Cast concrete, H. 39.4 cm, W. 23 cm; D. 17 cm, 1929. The Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection, SCVA: UEA 79 © Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, UK

Gallery view (Interior) of the exhibit, Strength and Splendor: Wrought Iron from the Musée Le Secq des Tournelles, Rouen, 2015. Installation image. Image © The Barnes Foundation. Photo: Rick Echelmeyer

Necklace from Suite of Jewelry of “Berlin Iron,” early 19th century. Germany. Cast iron with black lacquer, called “Berlin iron,” 16 1/16 × 2 3/4 × 3/16 in. (40.8 × 7 × 0.4 cm). Inv. LS 2003.1.418. Musée de la ferronnerie Le Secq des Tournelles, Rouen.

William Blake (English, 1757- 1827) Holy Thursday, from Songs Of Innocence and Of Experience, 1794. Original colour relief etching predominantly in brown, blue, green and red, with hand colouring. Height: 113 millimetres Width: 73 millimetres. 1923 facsimile copy in the British Library, C.71.d.19

Anne Lloyd, Cloudscape, 2015. Copyright of Anne Lloyd, all rights reserved

Edward S. Curtis (American, 1868-1952), Sioux Mother and Child, 1905. Platinum,            7 11/16" x 5 7/16", Great Plains. Courtesy of Prestel Publishing and Delmonico Books, from the book, Edward S. Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks (2015).

Anne Lloyd, Henry, 2014. Copyright of Anne Lloyd, all rights reserved