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

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