Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Prints of Francisco Goya at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Witness: Reality and Imagination in the Prints of Francisco Goya

The Philadelphia Museum of Art

April 22 – September 6, 2017 

Reviewed by Ed Voves

On the timeline of art history, Surrealism is usually placed between the end of the Dada movement around 1922 and Picasso's Guernica in 1937. This certainly was the heyday of Surrealism, when René Magritte, Max Ernst and André Masson probed the realm of the unconscious and the irrational with some of the greatest Surrealist works.

The problem with dating Surrealism to the 1920's and 30's is that Francisco José de Goya y Luciente (1746-1828) had created incomparable works of art over a century before that fully qualify as examples of Surrealism. If J.M.W.Turner can be lauded as a pioneer of Abstract art, Goya is certainly worthy of the title of the First Surrealist.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is currently mounting a major exhibition of selections from  Goya's prints. The Philadelphia Museum is able to draw upon complete first edition prints from all four series of Goya's etchings: Los Caprichos, Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War), La Tauromaquia and Los Disparates. Goya's bullfighting lithographs, created while he lived in exile in Bordeaux, France, during his last years, are also on view.

Goya's prints strike directly and deeply into the troubled soul of humanity. This is quite evident from the Philadelphia Museum exhibition. These are still-shocking works of art, two hundred years after their creation.  

When you look at The Disasters of War, Plate 15, And There Is No Remedy (Y No Hai Remedio), the execution of this prisoner could have occurred during any war or revolution from the 1600's to the contemporary world. The blunt, deadly rifle barrels, the last, terrifying moments of a blind-folded captive roped to a wooden stake are the only subjects here. Political ideology, military necessity, flags, bugles, etc. are all banished from the picture plane. A human being is going to die ... and There Is No Remedy. 

Francisco Goya, And There Is No Remedy1810-1820

Goya's Disasters of War might be disqualified from being Surrealist works of art, given that such scenes of carnage were a daily reality during Spain's war against the French army of Napoleon, 1808 to 1814. In the background of And There Is No Remedy, a second firing squad is at work, reprieving the pose and uniforms of the Napoleonic executioners in Goya's The Third of May

Yet, what appears to be ultra-realism in both etching and oil painting is, in fact, entirely imaginative. Goya was in Spain during these terrible years. Based in Madrid, he was removed from the actual fighting which was largely conducted with "hit-and-run" tactics soon to be  called "little war" or "guerrilla" warfare. These Disasters of War were events Goya "witnessed" through his mind's eye.

Goya's first series of etchings, Los Caprichos, are chiefly imaginative too. Goya maintained that these works were commentaries on the superstition and venality of Spanish society, especially of the Catholic Church which he detested. If so, few of the etchings were accurate depictions of scenes Goya actually witnessed. 

The very title of the series, the Spanish translation of "caprice," can be taken to be mean "whim."  This in turn can be interpreted as Goya's whim to render "the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society" as he saw them, rather than as they happened. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of Francisco Goya's self-portrait, 1799

Goya's early work as a portrait, religious and genre painter gave little indication of this capricious or "dark" side of his artistic vision.  In 1792, he fell seriously ill from what researches believe was a rare autoimmune condition called Susac’s syndrome. Beginning with severe headaches and buzzing in his ears, Goya then experienced hallucinations, paralysis and hearing loss. He went completely deaf, though he eventually recovered physical stamina sufficient to begin painting  – and etching. 

Goya's mastery of etching is astonishing. His handling of the tonal qualities of gray and black equaled Rembrandt's. Goya's use of blank space, as can be seen in Plate 6, Nobody Knows Himself, is in a class by itself. The patch of light on the temple and cheek of the woman on the left and over the breast of the younger woman on the right open passage ways straight to the human mind and heart and soul.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of Goya's Nobody Knows Himself,1799

That is what the experience of going deaf did to Goya. He seems to have developed a heightened degree of vision, cutting through all the pretense and posturing of society. As if in compensation for his loss of hearing, Goya was able to see more clearly, deep into the human spirit. No one could hide from him - including himself.

Plate 5 of Los Caprichos is a fitting example of Goya's penetrating vision. The scene is one that could be seen on most plazas of Spanish towns or cities in the late 1700's. A young, stylish gentleman is ogling a voluptuous woman in a revealing "maja" dress. Yet, this image has much more to reveal.

Francisco Goya, They've Already Got a Seat,1799

The facial features of the woman in Plate 5 resembles those of the Duchess of Alba (1762-1802). The wealthiest and most notorious woman in Spain,the Duchess had looks to match. "Every hair on her head elicits desire," an admiring Frenchman declared. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of Goya's They've Already Got a Seat, 1799

In 1796, the now-deaf Goya went to the country estate of the Duchess for a lengthy visit in order to paint portraits of her. The most famous of these, in the collection of the Hispanic Society in New York, shows her dressed in mourning for the recently deceased Duke of Alba. The Duchess was also shown wearing a ring inscribed "Goya."

Tongues wagged. 

Yet, if Goya had an illicit affair with the Duchess, it cannot have been a happy one.  The eighty prints of Los Caprichos, created in aquatint and etching, were published in an album in 1799. Quite a number of the prints show women with the features of the Duchess and not to her advantage - courtesans, women "on the make," shrews. One of the prints shows a group of  "two-faced" women, both faces looking like the Duchess of Alba.

In taking aim at Spanish society with Los Caprichos, was Goya also holding himself and the Duchess of Alba up to censure? It had to be a conscious decision to depict the Duchess of Alba in such fashion. But the motivation for this could only have come from powerful emotional factors, deep within himself, such as an admission of personal guilt.

The other prints of Goya's Los Caprichos made good his promise to depict humanity's "innumerable foibles and follies." This he did, skewering Spanish society like a bullfighting picador with his lance. 

Goya reserved special ridicule for the Spanish nobility, not just the Duchess of Alba. One of my favorite prints from this series shows an aristocratic mule studying his pedigree - a long line of mules.

Another print, entitled Chinchillas, derived from a famous eighteenth century comedy. Goya's Spanish noblemen, with their padlocked brains, may have inspired  the features of one of Hollywood's most dreaded monsters. There has been some speculation that the Universal Studio makeup man, Jack Pierce, based the features of Boris Karloff in the 1931 film, Frankenstein, on Goya's Chinchillas.

Francisco Goya, The Chinchillas, 1799

If the look of the Monster (Karloff) in Frankenstein did derive from Los Caprichos then the caption of the most famous print from the series takes on added significance.

Plate 43 of Los Caprichos, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, is the introductory image of this review. It is one of Goya's most familiar and most studied images. The common interpretation of this print has Goya, the Man of the Enlightenment, warning of the gathering irrational forces threatening the Age of Reason.  

A very different appraisal appears in the essay, "Tensions of the Enlightenment", which can be read in Nineteenth Century Art; a Critical History, edited by Stephen Eisenman. In this a challenging interpretation, Thomas Crow writes:

Yet it is by no means clear that the cloud of monsters that darkens Goya's self-portrait is that of popular ignorance, soon to be dispersed by the artist's satiric pen and sunlit powers of reason. Just as likely is it that Goya is reflecting upon the distressing antipodes of his own mind and upon the Janus-face of Enlightenment itself. For in fact, the very creation of art in an age of Reason entailed a dangerous flirtation with madness.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, 1799

In this view, the Age of Reason was the victim of its own ideology. Well-meaning Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire, Rousseau  and Thomas Paine had prepared the way for the Terror of 1792-94 and for the rise of ruthless, opportunistic tyrants like Napoleon, whose his first military conquests occurred just as Goya prepared Los Caprichos for print.

The Enlightenment had, unwittingly, unleashed the inner demons of humanity, symbolized by the bats, owls and cats surrounding the beleaguered man - Goya, himself - in The Sleep of Reason.

Whatever interpretation one gives to this famous image, its nightmare imagery was amply confirmed by the horrific events of the Spanish revolt against Napoleon, lasting from 1808 to 1814.

Many of the prints in The Disasters of War are so graphic, so revoltingly accurate in their depiction of the atrocities committed by both sides that the series was not published until 1863. Yet, even though he did not personally witness the savage conflict in person, Goya did not exaggerate the unspeakable cruelty. This astonishing realism is indeed surreal because even these horrifying images do not convey the full magnitude of the suffering.

Francisco Goya, What Courage!, 1810-1814

Consider the print What Valor! It records an actual incident, when a young woman, Agustina Domènech, rallied Spanish troops during the siege of Zaragoza by firing a cannon at the advancing French. Goya, who was born in the nearby town of Fuendetodos, was obviously proud of this heroic event. But he was well aware of the staggering death toll of 54,000 Spanish, soldiers and civilians, who died during the long siege of 1808-09.

The pile of corpses that Agustina of Zaragoza stands upon to fire the cannon may be viewed as symbolic of the reality the Spanish War - and of the best and worst that human beings are capable of. 

It would be some consolation to think that the loss of so many lives during the war against Napoleon resulted in freedom, justice and prosperity for Spain once the invader was expelled. But with the return of the Spanish monarchy in 1814, the constitution which the freedom fighters had created was suppressed and a reign of tyranny instituted, crushing the very patriots who struggled so courageously to free Spain from Napoleon's legions.

This is political "surrealism" at its absolute worst. Thomas Crow writes perceptively of Goya:

The reason Goya's despair was so great was that he had seen the barbarism of Enlightenment itself in the person of Napoleon as well as the defeat of Enlightenment by Spain.

Goya, following the war with Napoleon, lived in a state of emotional collapse. He produced bullfighting etchings and lithographs, brilliantly executed but essentially popular escapism. 

Francisco Goya, A Way of Flying, c. 1815-1823

Goya also created a new series of fantasy works, Los Disparates (The Follies), that hint at the depths of his despair. This was to surface in his final "black paintings" created between 1819 to 1823, notably the chilling Saturn Devouring His Son.

What are we to make of these astonishing prints by Goya? I first saw The Disasters of War in a long-ago pilgrimage to the Prado in the late 1970's. The shock never wore-off. I have made two trips so far to the current exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and plan further visits. The wonder, the horror, the enigma of Goya's prints just keeps growing, an obsession that is linked, beyond doubt, to the mystery of life.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Introductory Image:                                                                                                         Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (Spanish, 1746-1828) The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, 1799. Etching and aquatint, Plate: 8 3/8 x 5 7/8 inches (21.3 x 14.9 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Purchased with the SmithKline Beckman Corporation Fund, 1949

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (Spanish, 1746-1828) Y No Hai Remedio (And There is No Remedy), 1810-1820. Etching and aquatint, Plate: 15 1/2 x 16 5/8 inches (39.4 x 42.2 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Purchased with the SmithKline Beckman Corporation Fund, 1949

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of  Plate 1 of Francisco Goya's Los Caprichos, Frontispiece, Fran.co Goya y Lucientes, Painter (self-portrait), 1799.  Etching and aquatint, Plate: 8 1/2 x 5 15/16 inches (21.6 x 15.1 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Purchased with the Bloomfield Moore Fund, 1950.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of  Plate 6 of Francisco Goya's Los Caprichos, Nobody Knows Himself, 1799. Etching and aquatint, Plate: 8 1/2 x 6 inches (21.6 x 15.2 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Purchased with the Bloomfield Moore Fund, 1950

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (Spanish, 1746-1828) They've Already Got a Seat, 1799. Etching and aquatint, Plate: 8 3/8 x 5 7/8 inches (21.3 x 14.9 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Purchased with the Bloomfield Moore Fund, 1950.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of Francisco Goya's They've Already Got a Seat, 1799. Etching and aquatint, Plate: 8 3/8 x 5 7/8 inches (21.3 x 14.9 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Purchased with the Bloomfield Moore Fund, 1950.

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (Spanish, 1746-1828) The Chinchillas, 1799. Etching and aquatint, Plate: 8 x 5 7/8 inches (20.3 x 14.9 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Purchased with the Bloomfield Moore Fund, 1950

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of Francisco Goya's The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, 1799. Etching and aquatint, Plate: 8 3/8 x 5 7/8 inches (21.3 x 14.9 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Purchased with the SmithKline Beckman Corporation Fund, 1949

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (Spanish, 1746-1828) What Courage!, 1810-1814, published 1863. Etching and aquatint, Plate: 6 1/8 x 8 1/8 inches (15.6 x 20.6 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Purchased with the SmithKline Beckman Corporation Fund, 1949.

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (Spanish, 1746-1828) A Way of Flying, c. 1815-1823 (published 1864). Etching and aquatint, Plate: 9 5/8 x 13 3/4 inches (24.4 x 34.9 cm) Sheet: 13 3/16 × 18 7/8 inches (33.5 × 48 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Marion B. F. Ingersoll, 1955.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties

Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York City

April 3 - July 16, 2017

Reviewed by Ed Voves

China during the era of the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 B.C.–A.D. 220) experienced a "classical" age of artistic and intellectual achievement that forever influenced the character of Chinese civilization. The current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Age of Empires, does justice to this pivotal period of China's past - though not quite in the way I expected.

The headline-grabbing objects in Age of Empires are several of the life-sized terracotta soldiers and court officials found in the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the "First Emperor" of China. Qin Shi Huang conquered and united China's six "warring states" and then built himself a tomb complex where he was buried in 210 B.C.

In 1974, this burial site was accidentally discovered. The terracotta statues of the First Emperor's  retinue began to be unearthed. Each was a unique individual, with facial features that testify to the character of the soldier or courtier who was depicted. It was an astonishing discovery and when a statue like the Kneeling Archer on view at the Metropolitan is examined, the experience is a revelation.

It is impossible not to be impressed by the Kneeling Archer and his compatriots. Impressed - but strangely not inspired.

Kneeling Archer, Qin dynasty, 221–206 B.C.

As I made my way through the first galleries of Age of Empires, I felt contrarian sentiments akin to those expressed by the Devil in Rudyard Kipling's ironical reworking of the Bible, The Conundrum of the Workshops. At key moments, the Devil emerges to whisper a subversive refrain:

"It's human, but is it Art?"

Kneeling Archer's individuality is so marked that he appears almost human. But is a terracotta funerary figure, never intended to be seen, really a work of art? 

Certainly the ushabti and offering bearers placed in ancient Egyptian tombs pose the same dilemma. And some of these are among the most life-affirming works of art from antiquity. Yet, this guardsman of Emperor Qin Shi Huang testifies only to the emperor's fear of assassination and yearning for eternal life. Kneeling Archer is a soldier of the Kingdom of the Dead .  

Further on in Age of Empires are art works bursting with life, vitality and joy. Such sentiments are too strong to be reserved for a despot's exclusive welfare. These works also testify to the lasting influence of cultural achievement over the short-term effects of militarism.

The Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.) wielded impressive martial force which enabled it to conquer much of China. But it was an short-lived triumph. Within four years of Qin Shi Huang's burial, the Qin hegemony collapsed. The more humanistic Han Dynasty then began its four centuries of power, rivaling the influence of its contemporary in the West, the Roman Empire.

The Han Dynasty art in Age of Empires includes vibrant dancers and musicians that are studies of poetry in motion. Never mind that they are statues. The movement and the music are there before us in the Met's gallery. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2017), Female Dancer, 206 B.C.– A.D. 9

These earthenware figures are examples of mingqi, or spirit goods. Like the terracotta soldiers of Qin Shi Huang, they were destined for an emperor's tomb to provide eternal delight. Now, exhumed from the burial chamber, they perform for us. Two thousand years have not stilled their vitality. 

The entombment of statues of warriors and dancers - rather than actual people - represented a major advance in humanity. Earlier eras of Chinese history had witnessed human sacrifice on a large scale so that retainers and slaves could be sent to serve a deceased monarch or nobleman in the afterlife. 

Mingqi could be individually sculpted as the Kneeling Archer was or cast from a mold like the Han dancer. There were also bronze figures, humans and animals like the mighty horse and its diminutive groom who introduce this review. This pair was excavated in 1990 from a grave dating to the Eastern Han period, which lasted from 26 to 220 A.D.

Dog, Eastern Han dynasty, A.D. 25 - 220

The expressive features of mingqi  animals and the incredible diversity of species found in the Han tombs are wondrous to behold. The artists who created these amazing animals depicting them according to established conventions while imparting a degree of individuality to each of the animals. 

Han-era horses, dogs, lions, elephants, rhinos, cattle, pigs and goats are all on display, exerting a remarkably lifelike presence. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2017), Two Horses, Western Han dynasty, 206 B.C.–A.D. 9

The strength and nobility of these two horses, which come from the Museum of the Yangling Mausoleum, are especially striking. Here in central China, the capable Han ruler, Emperor Jing (188-141 BC), built a tomb with an earthenware army rivaling that of Qin Shi Huang's array in numbers though not size. Most of the figures are one-third in scale to those of the First Emperor's. 

In striking contrast to the vitality of these mingqi animals is the inert Burial Ensemble of Dou Wan. 

Burial Ensemble of Dou Wan, Western Han dynasty, 206 B.C.–A.D. 9

Lady Dou Wan was married to the son of Emperor Jing, Prince Liu Sheng, who died in 113 BC. Both husband and wife were clad in elaborate suits made of over 2,000 jade plaques, stitched together with gold wire. The sacred jade plaques were believed to prevent the decomposition of the body of the deceased, thus causing the release of malignant spirits.  

The Burial Ensemble of Dou Wan failed to preserve her body. Nothing but crumbled bones were found inside the glistening jade plaques, when the tomb was discovered in 1968. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2017), Detail of Burial Ensemble of Dou Wan, 206 B.C.– A.D. 9

Looking down on the mask of Lady Dou Wan is a sobering experience. However magnificent in outward appearance, the jade and gold costume is positively lifeless when compared to the mingqi dancer discussed earlier. It is the Chinese equivalent of the famous verse from the New Testament (Matthew 23:27) warning of "whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness."

The Han Empire should not be judged too harshly, as a beneficial interplay of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism took place during its rule. Chinese people today rightly regard the Han dynasty as one of the golden eras of their country. Yet, as with the "grave goods" in Egyptian tombs, these jade burial suits were a status item available to an elite few. Grave robbers targeted these jade "ensembles" burning them to retrieve the melted gold wire.

Head of a Warrior, Western Han dynasty, 206 B.C.–A.D. 9

Very few jade burial ensembles survived the the fall of the Han dynasty in 220. Despite relatively benign government, the usual combination of corruption and greed combined to undermine the Han rulers. A peasant uprising called the Revolt of the Yellow Turbans, eventually crushed in 205 A.D., precipitated the slide of the Han Dynasty into oblivion. This rebellion no doubt caused a great deal of grave robbing and destruction of jade burial attire like that of Lady Dou Wan which survived.

The ancient Chinese governments, including the Han Dynasty, all stressed political centralization. Given China's vast size, there was no other recourse. But it is worth noting that most of the cultural vitality of China, so brilliantly displayed in Age of Empires, came from the provinces and outlying frontiers. The elaborate Imperial courts and impressive cities of Han China drew upon the strength and diversity of those outside the privileged center.

The cultural debt of rulers to the ruled is made very clear by one of the most striking art works on display in the Met's exhibit. This is the Cowry Container with Bull and Rider which comes from the Yunan Province in southwestern China, dating some time between 206 B.C.–A.D. 9. 

Cowry Container with Bull and Rider, Western Han dynasty, 206 B.C–A.D. 9

Cowry shells, imported from the Indian Ocean region, were used as China's first currency by earlier, pre-Han dynasties. This bronze container was made by the Dian people in the remote southwestern region bordering on today's Myanmar. The Dian still used cowries as a form of exchange during the Han era, even though bronze coins were in circulation elsewhere. Such backwardness earned the Dian the reputation of “southwestern barbarians” in the official court publication, Records of the Grand Historian.

The dynamism of this remarkable work of art tells a very different story. The superbly sculpted figures of the long-horned cattle, gilded herdsman and stalking tigers make this one of the most striking works on view in Age of Empires. Far from being "barbarians," the Dian artisans who made this wonderful piece were working in a timeless and universal tradition that stretches from the caves of Lascaux to Picasso - and beyond.

The tradition of mingqi "spirit goods" survived the fall of the Han and was given new shape and new life by the vigorous Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907) that eventually emerged from the chaos of the Han's eclipse. In this way, the "Art of Empires" outlived the heedless despots who buried it to insure their own immortality, forgetting that only art lives forever.

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

Introductory Image
Horse and Groom, China, Eastern Han dynasty, 25– 220 A.D. Bronze. Horse: H. 53 1/8 in. (135 cm); W. 19 11/16 in. (50 cm); L. 43 5/16 in. (110 cm); approx. Wt. 56.7 lb. (25.7 kg) Groom: H. 26 3/4 in. (68 cm); W. 5 1/8 in. (13 cm); L. 11 13/16 in. (30 cm); approx. Wt. 11 lb. (5 kg). QH.353a–k.Lent by Mianyang Museum SL.1.2017.13.3a–k 

Kneeling Archer, China, Qin dynasty,221–206 B.C. Earthenware with traces of pigments. H. 48 in. (121.9 cm): W. 27 in. (68.6 cm); D.19 1/4 in. (48.9 cm); Wt. 304.2 lb. (138 kg) QH.006. Lent by Emperor Qinshihuang's Mausoleum Site Museum SL.1.2017.23.4. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2017), Female Dancer, China, Western Han dynasty, 206 B.C.– A.D. 9. Earthenware with pigment. H. 17 5/8 in. (44.7 cm) QH.087a, b. Lent by Xuzhou City Museum SL.1.2017.27.5a, b. 

Dog, China, Eastern Han dynasty, A.D.25–220, Earthenware. H. 16 3/4 in. (42.5 cm); W. 13 in. (33 cm); L. 19 11/16 in. (50 cm) QH.290 Lent by Henan Museum  SL.1.2017.28.2

Ed Voves, Photo (2017), Two Horses, China, Western Han dynasty, 206 B.C.–A.D. 9. Earthenware with pigment. a (YG1079): H. 23 7/16 in. (59.5 cm): W. 7 1/16 in. (18 cm): L. 27 9/16 in. (70 cm) b (YG1063): H. 24 in. (61 cm); W. 7 5/8 in. (19.3 cm); L. 28 9/16 in. (72.5 cm) QH.289a, b Lent by Museum of Yangling Mausoleum. SL.1.2017.26.7a, b. 

Burial Ensemble of Dou Wan, China, Western Han dynasty, 206 B.C.–A.D. 9. 
Suit: jade (nephrite) with gold wire; pillow: gilt bronze and jade (nephrite); orifice plugs: jade (nephrite)  H. 67 11/16 in. (171.9 cm); W. 30 7/8 in. (78.4 cm); D. 11 1/2 in. (29.2 cm); Wt. 77.2 lb. (35 kg)  QH.225a–r. Lent by Hebei Provincial Museum and Hebei Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics SL.1.2017.19.1a–r. .

Ed Voves, Photo (2017), Detail of Burial Ensemble of Dou Wan, China, Western Han dynasty, 206 B.C.–A.D. 9. Lent by Hebei Provincial Museum and Hebei Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics SL.1.2017.19.1a–r .

Head of a Warrior, China, Western Han dynasty, 206 B.C.–A.D. 9. Earthenware with pigment. H. 4 3/4 in. (12.1 cm); W. 2 5/8 in. (6.7 cm); W. 3 1/4 in. (8.3 cm) QH.055a, b. Lent by Museum of Yangling Mausoleum. SL.1.2017.26.2a, b 

Cowry Container with Bull and Rider, China, Western Han dynasty, 206 B.C.–A.D. 9. 
Bronze  H. 19 11/16 in. (50 cm); Diam. of cover 9 13/16 in. (25 cm) QH.171a, b. Lent by Yunnan Provincial Museum SL.1.2017.10.1a, b.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s at the Cooper Hewitt Museum, New York City

The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City
 April 7 - Aug.20, 2017

Cleveland Museum of Art
 Sept.30, 2017 - Jan.14, 2018

Reviewed by Ed Voves

The American 1920's were years so rich in accomplishments, so abounding in superlatives, that it is still something of a shock that the decade ended in abrupt, crashing failure. Not only did Wall Street lay an "egg"  in 1929 but the real successes of the "Twenties" were called into question by the Great Depression. 

Was Jazz Age America cruelly cut down in its prime like Paul Manship's sculpture of the mythological hero, Acteon?  Or was 1920's America an era of fraud and cynicism, a decade of glitter and doom?

The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s, at the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York City, provides plenty of evidence of solid achievement and brassy, sassy iconoclasm during that fabled era. The exhibit presents 350 artworks, ranging from innovative furniture designs to exquisite jewelry. Many of these stunning pieces reflect the great events of the Twenties, from the soaring rise of skyscrapers like the Chrysler Building to the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamen in 1922.

The Jazz Age is co-curated by the Cleveland Museum of Art which has a rich collection of decorative art created in the American Midwest during the 1920's.

Paul Fehér, Muse with Violin Screen (detail), 1930

The exhibit's signature work of art, Muse with Violin Screen was made by the Rose Iron Works, Inc., in Ohio. At first sight, a European craft studio would have seemed a more reasonable guess. That is partly because the designer was the Hungarian-born Paul Fehér (1898–1990). Many European artists and designers like Fehér came to work in the United States. But the quality of this evocative work of art shows that America in the 1920's, whether New York City, Cleveland or Hollywood, was ready to receive them.

Other examples of American Regionalism abound in the exhibit, works like "The New Yorker" (Jazz) Punch Bowl. For all its East Coast sophistication, this could have been called The Buckeye Bowl. It was designed by Viktor Schreckengost, a major artist of the time, for the Cowan Pottery Studio located in Rocky River, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland.

Viktor Schreckengost, "The New Yorker" (Jazz) Punch Bowl, 1931

This punch bowl design was commissioned by Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt in 1931, to be used for parties at the governor's mansion in Albany, New York. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was still Governor of New York, keenly observing from the sidelines as the Great Bull Market and then nearly the entire U.S. economy plunged over the "Niagara" of economic disaster. 

The Cowan Pottery Studio did not make a similar punch bowl to celebrate FDR'S New Deal. It closed in 1931, due to a fall in sales, shortly after this beautiful, glazed earthenware bowl came out of the kiln.

There is a significant point to the timing of the Jazz Punch Bowl creation in 1931. The Twenties were over but Jazz Age creativity was just hitting its stride when Wall Street's jitters turned into convulsions. 

It is often forgotten that the supreme example of Jazz Age architecture, the Chrysler Building, only opened its doors after the Depression hit. The iconic building was topped-off on Wednesday, October 23, 1929, with a 125 ft. spire, making it (briefly) the tallest building in the world. The next day was Black Thursday on Wall Street, the opening tremor to the financial earthquake of Black Tuesday, the following week.

The "skyscrapper" building was a dominant motif of the Twenties, figuring in designs for visionary cities like those created by Hugh Ferriss in 1922. It is a special treat to enjoy Jazz Age at the Cooper Hewitt and than head downtown to behold the Chrysler Building, with its Art Deco crown, looming over twenty-first century Manhattan.

Hugh Ferriss, Study for Maximum Mass Permitted by the 1916 New York Zoning Law

The key artistic event of the Jazz Age did not occur in New York and it took a while to happen at all. This trend-setting event was the Exposition des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes, held  in Paris during 1925. With Europe somewhat revived from the First World War, French chic opened the door to a new age. Art Deco was born.

No American designers exhibited at this exposition because Americans usually followed French cultural influences by a season or two. Once designers in the U.S. could study French Art Deco creations, the American response was not slow in coming. From Paul T. Frankl's Skyscraper Bookcase Desk, c.1928, to the hood ornament gargoyles on the Chrysler Building, Art Deco was embraced with fervor in America.

However, American influence was already paramount in Europe by the opening of the Exposition des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes in 1925. The introduction of jazz music by African-American troops serving on the Western Front in 1918 was the key cultural event in this respect. American tourists, with a zest for innovation and willingness to spend lavishly, made their presence felt at the exposition, as well.

Jewelry made a big impression on visitors to the Exposition des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes. Lavish ornamentation and exotic themes were a feature of the pieces created by the jewelers of Van Cleef and Arpels and those of Cartier. 

The recent discovery in November 1922 of the tomb of King Tutankhamen supplied an ancient Egyptian theme to many of the pieces on view at the 1925 exposition. A belt buckle owned by the wife of Broadway song writer, Cole Porter, contained actual pieces of ancient faiance from Egypt. It appears, looking rather like an aviator's insignia, in the center of the assembly shown below, along with examples of Tuti Fruti jewelry also owned by Linda Porter.

Ed Voves, Photo (2017), Jazz Age display of Jewelry by Boucheron and Cartier of Paris

Portable screens and fabrics gave added scope to the designers whose work went on display at the 1925 Exposition. Every conceivable motif from airplanes to cubism to African fabrics was given its due - as long as it looked "modern." 

Some of the most successful designs from the Twenties were anything but modern. On view at the Cooper Hewitt is a striking 1920's piece that was actually quite "medieval" in inspiration.  

Armand-Albert Rateau, Renards (Foxes),1921-22

A 10-panel folding screen by Armand-Albert Rateau, entitled Renards (Foxes)evoked the tapestries and embroidered court dress of the Valois Dynasty of France during the late Middle Ages. This splendid work, made in gilt and lacquered wood around 1921-22, is a testament to the timelessness of naturalism in art.

As I studied a nearby work in the exhibit, a wrought iron mirror designed by Paul Fehér and made by the Rose Iron Works in Cleveland, I caught of glimpse of Foxes in the glass.

Ed Voves, Photo (2017), Paul Fehér's Wrought-iron Console and Mirror, 1930

It was a special "in the moment" occasion. There were no art movements or styles to extol, no "isms" to promulgate. For just that moment of "now," beauty was reflected from the mirror on the wall to the mirror of the mind. 

The "flapper" style, by comparison, proclaimed "Jazz Age" then and now. This articulation of body-caressing form came into its own around the time of the Paris Exposition. Some of the other examples of Twenties couture on display at the Cooper Hewitt seem surprisingly sedate. But the stunning "flapper" evening dress from the House of Chanel is a real show stopper. 

The Evening Dress and Underslip, designed by Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel was "all the rage" in 1926. Perfectly matched to the slim, lithe figure that was the ideal flapper body-type, it was made from blue silk chiffon with applied blue ombré silk fringe. The shade of indigo was  dubbed Chanel Blue by Women's Wear Daily. Accentuated by the silver and gray of the dress, this striking garment evokes nightfall as a vibrant moment of coming alive.

Ed Voves (2017), Coco Chanel's Evening Dress and Underslip, 1926.

And that sense of "dancing in the dark" was reinforced by the dangling silk fringe. These strands were intended to shimmer and sway as the wearer danced the Charleston. This feeling of sensual vitality is so strong that it resonates nearly a century later, in the gallery of the Cooper Hewitt.

The "daring" atmosphere of the Jazz Age, represented by the rising hem of the flapper's skirt and the soaring height of skyscrapers like the Chrysler Building, were matched by the upward curve of Dow Jones Industrial Average during the Great Bull Market. If there was a measure of desperate gaiety about the 1920's, there was also an element of manic self-delusion to the views of economists like Irving Fisher who declared in early October 1929 that “Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau."

Fisher's pronouncement was a quasi-religious declaration of faith in progress. So were many of the beautiful objects now on view in the Cooper Hewitt galleries. The doors for the Music Room of Solomon R. Guggenheim, designed in 1925 by the Russian-born French artist, Seraphin Soudbinine, show trumpeting angels atop skyscrapers. After Black Tuesday, such images would seem like a bad joke.

Seraphin Soudbinine  Music Room Doors for Solomon R.Guggenheim, 1925-26 

Black humor was also part of the Jazz Age. In 1931, Frederick Lewis Allen, an editor for Harpers, published Only Yesterday: an Informal History of the 1920's. Allen's book was one of the great works of non-fiction in American history. In Only Yesterday, Allen probed the psyche of the American 1920's and found that "disillusionment (except about business and the physical improvements which business would bring) was the keynote of the nineteen-twenties."

Disillusionment is almost impossible to present in an art exhibition - except perhaps in a photo display. It is no carping criticism of Jazz Age at the Cooper Hewitt to point out that this theme is not really addressed by the exhibit. Yet Allen's brilliant insights are worth considering for a moment, as they explain why Americans in the 1920's were dismissive of the past and equally eager to visualize angels on top of skyscrapers.  

The lingering "shell shock" of World War I, Allen noted, was chiefly responsible for the widespread contempt for Victorian values. But even more astute was his observation on the vague discontent of the average "Joe" during the  American Jazz Age. About this disillusionment, Allen wrote of :

With the majority of Americans its workings were perhaps unconscious; they felt a queer disappointment after the war, they felt that life was not giving them all they had hoped it would, they knew that some of the values which had once meant much to them were melting away, but they remained cheerful and full of gusto, quite unaware of the change which was taking place beneath the surface of their own minds. 

During the 1920's, Americans of all classes and regions remembered the horror of the battlefields in France, the staggering loss of life from the Spanish Influenza of 1918-19. The Old Order was held in disrepute, but Americans wanted to believe in progress, in human excellence, in a future that would be better than the past.

Paul Manship's Actaeon, 1925. virtually defines the aesthetic vision of the American 1920's. But it does so based on its embodiment of American aspiration. In the Greek myth, Actaeon was turned into a stag by an arrow from Diana's bow. On the surface that is what Manship depicted. But what Americans saw in the 1920's was Actaeon's athletic figure, launching himself into heroic action, reaching for the stars.

Ed Voves (2017), Paul Manship's Actaeon at the Cooper Hewitt's Jazz Age exhibit

Americans during the 1920's cheered real-life heroes who aimed high as well. Americans saluted Charles Lindbergh, Gertrude Ederle, Bobby Jones, Babe Ruth, Red Grange and Duke Ellington. They bought Art Deco furniture and works of art that proclaimed their belief in freedom and progress.  

Were Americans of the 1920's naive to do so, to believe in a world tomorrow more promising than today? 

Judging from the stunning works of grace and beauty on view at the Cooper Hewitt Museum, it is impossible to blame them. Some of what glittered during the American 1920's was indeed solid gold. 

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved. Images courtesy of the  Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York City

Introductory Image:                                                                                                         
Paul Manship (American, 1885–1966) Actaeon, 1925.  Bronze; 121.2 x 128.7 x 31.7 cm. David Owsley Museum of Art, Frank C. Ball Collection, gift of the Ball Brothers Foundation, 1995.035.164.

Paul Fehér (Hungarian, 1898–1990) Muse with Violin Screen (detail), 1930. Rose Iron Works, Inc. (American, Cleveland, est. 1904). Wrought iron, brass; silver and gold plating; 156.2 x 156.2 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, On Loan from the Rose Iron Works Collections, LLC, 352.1996. © Rose Iron Works Collections, LLC.) Photo: Howard Agriesti

Viktor Schreckengost (American, 1906–2008) "The New Yorker" (Jazz) Punch Bowl, 1931. Manufactured by Cowan Pottery Studio (Rocky River, Ohio, USA); Glazed, molded earthenware; 29.9 x 42.2 cm (11 3/4 x 16 5/8 in.); Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Gift of Mrs. Homer Kripke, 1980-21-7; Photo: © Smithsonian Institution Copyright: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Hugh Ferriss (American, 1889-1962) Study for Maximum Mass Permitted by the 1916 New York Zoning Law, Stage 4, 1922. Black crayon, stumped; pen and black ink, brush and black wash, varnish on illustration board; 66.8 x 51 cm. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Gift of Mrs. Hugh Ferriss, 1969-137-4

Ed Voves, Photo (2017) Gallery view of The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt Museum, showing (left)  Bracelet, 1925, by Boucheron of Paris, Ancient Egyptian Faience Belt Buckle ,1926, by Cartier of Paris, owned by Linda Porter, “Tutti Frutti” Jewelry by Cartier of Paris, owned by Linda Porter.

Ed Voves, Photo (2017), Armand-Albert Rateau (French, 1882-1938) Ten-Panel Screen, Renards (Foxes), Ca. 1921–22. Gilt and lacquered wood, patinated bronze. Lent by Musée des Arts décoratifs, Paris, 39952A

Ed Voves, Photo (2017), Detail of  Paul Fehér's Wrought-iron Console and Mirror, 1930, made by Rose Iron Works LLC. Cleveland, Ohio, on loan from the Rose Iron Works Collections,

Ed Voves, Photo (2017), Gabrielle Chanel (French, 1883 - 1971) Evening Dress and Underslip, 1926. Blue silk chiffon with applied blue ombré silk fringe. Kent State University Libraries.  The Helen O. Borowitz Collection, KSUM 1997.71.7ab.

Doors for the Music Room of Mr. and Mrs. Solomon R. Guggenheim, 1925–26; Designed by Seraphin Soudbinine (French, b. Russia 1870–1944); Executed by Jean Dunand (French, b. Switzerland, 1877–1942); Made in Paris, France; Carved, joined, and lacquered wood, eggshell, mother-of-pearl, gold leaf, cast bronze; 271.2 × 65.9 × 7.6 cm (8 ft. 10 3/4 in. × 25 15/16 in. × 3 in.); Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum; Gift of Mrs. Solomon R. Guggenheim, 1950-104-1/4; Photo: Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution Copyright: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Ed Voves, Photo (2017) Gallery view of The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt Museum, showing Paul Manship's sculpture, Actaeon, 1925.