Sunday, January 5, 2020

Art Eyewitness Looks at the Art Scene in 2019

Reflections on the Art Scene during 2019

By Ed Voves
Original Photos by Anne Lloyd

One of the most extraordinary works of art to be featured in Art Eyewitness during 2019 was Tsukioka Yoshitoshi's color woodcut print entitled The Twelfth‑Century Shogun Minamoto Yoritomo Releasing a Thousand Cranes at the Beach at Yuigahama. This unforgettable masterpiece was created in 1863, as Japan undertook the difficult process of engaging with the Western global economy.

Yoshitoshi, the subject of an outstanding exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was the last great practitioner of the Japanese woodblock prints. His work set the stage for Japan’s sensational Manga art. A Janus-figure, Yoshitoshi looked to the past while  gesturing toward the future. As we contemplate 2019's achievements  and begin to meet the challenges of a new year and a new decade, Yoshitoshi is a fitting companion.

In Yoshitoshi's woodcut, the Japanese warlord, Minamoto no Yorimoto (1147-99), ordered his retainers to release a thousand cranes. These majestic birds symbolize longevity in Japanese culture. A label was attached to the leg of each crane, enjoining whoever found one of the birds to report back to Yorimoto. As the first Shogun, or de facto ruler of Japan, this astonishing act was a way for Yorimoto to demonstrate his Buddhist piety. It also demonstrated the range of Yorimoto’s power.

                                                       Tsukioka Yoshitoshi                                                    The Twelfth‑Century Shogun Minamoto Yoritomo Releasing a Thousand Cranes,1863

By the time that Yoshitoshi created his version of the legendary event, the menacing implications of Yoritomo and the thousand cranes had faded. The cranes flying heavenward, with dawn coming-up on the eastern horizon, became a potent image of new beginnings, of the New Year.

It's time for 2020 to take its first bow on the art stage. But let’s have one more “cup of kindness” and a few parting reflections on the art scene in 2019. As if to remind us of what a wonderful year it was in the arts, 2019 staged a sun-up outside our bedroom window at dawn on New Year's Eve that was worthy of J.M.W. Turner.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Sunrise, Philadelphia, PA, December 31, 2019

2019 was certainly a busy year, with great exhibitions surveying almost all the eras of art history and the art present. It ended on a high note with Marking Marvels: Science and Splendor at the Courts of Europe at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Continuing until March 1, 2020, Making Marvels is the curtain-raiser for the celebration of the Met's 150th anniversary.

                                                      Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)                                                 Gallery view of the Marking Marvels exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum

Making Marvels is a hugely enjoyable look at the private collections of the Renaissance and Baroque eras known as Kunstkammern. The wondrous automata and gleaming court regalia from Making Marvels will be making a return appearance in an Art Eyewitness essay I'm preparing on the rise of public museums.

                                                     Ed Voves, Photo (2019)                                                      Gallery view The Tale of Genji exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

For Japanese art, 2019 was particularly auspicious. Two “once in a lifetime” exhibitions featured prominently in Art Eyewitness: The Tale of Genji, A Japanese Classic Illuminated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Life of Animals in Japanese Art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

                                                     Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)                                                   Gallery view of The Life of Animals in Japanese Art at the National Gallery

These and other major exhibitions were supported by the Japanese government as part of a world-wide cultural initiative which will climax in 2020 with the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

It’s worth noting that the exhibition featuring Yoshitoshi’s Minamoto Yoritomo Releasing a Thousand Cranes was an entirely “home team” effort on the part of the curators of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Philly Museum is in the home stretch of the Frank Gehry-led remodeling of their great neoclassical building. 

                                               Anne Lloyd, Photos (2019)                                                                The renovated North Entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

This past autumn, the North Entrance  of the Philadelphia Museum of Art was reopened for the first time since 1975. The effect is electrifying and bodes well for the rest of the rehab, slated to be finished for the big autumn 2020 exhibition, a retrospective of the art of Jasper Johns.

There were so many outstanding exhibitions in 2019 that I don’t know where to begin.  Bonnard to Vuillard, the Phillips Collection's insightful survey of the Nabis, Gainsborough's Family Album at the Princeton University Museum of Art, the Verrocchio exhibit at the National Gallery ... 2019 provided an astonishing array of memorable exhibitions.

Indeed, my thoughts lately have been of the 2019 exhibits which I simply could not find the opportunity to review. The Verdi exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum was one.  

                                                 Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)                                                  Gallery view of Verdi: Creating Otello and Falstaff at the Morgan Library & Museum

A brilliant conception and superbly presented, Verdi: Creating Otello and Falstaff testifies to how the exhibit presentation “bar” keeps being raised and  how the curators at the Morgan, the Met, the National Gallery and all the other fabulous museums respond to the challenge.

One of the ways that modern museum practice is changing is worthy of some consideration here. Over the course of 2019, I noticed a trend developing, namely the “compare-contrast” mixing of works from different historical periods in the same gallery or display. In some cases, works of different artistic media were paired together. The aims were various, some marking an almost seamless progression of ideas. In other cases, the juxtaposition was dramatically different, challenging preconceptions and inspiring new ideas and appreciation for works of contemporary art.

An example in the "seamless" vein was Paris, Capital of Fashion, on view at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Since fashion designers reference the styles of earlier eras almost all the time, it made sense for Dr. Valerie Steele of the FIT to do the same in this outstanding exhibition. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) 
Gallery view of the Paris, Capital of Fashion exhibition 

It really was sensational to see incroyable and mervelouse attire from the latter phase of the French Revolution presented next to John Galliano’s 1992 ensemble, inspired as it was by the outlandish fashion sense of the survivors of the Terror.

Hymn to Apollo: the Ancient World and the Ballet Russes at The Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) also demonstrated the shared creative energies which exist between different cultures. By contrasting art and artifacts from antiquity with costumes  stage props and memorabilia from the famed Russian dance troop, the ISAW curators showed that distinctions, ancient vs. modern, are more artificial than we would think.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) 
Exhibition banner of Hymn to Apollo at ISAW, New York City

In the case of Paris, Capital of Fashion and Hymn to Apollo, the placement of works of art from different historical eras in the same gallery space was integral, indeed essential to the themes of the exhibitions.

The second category of "mix and match" is more problematic. The contrasting, in some respects contrarian, insertion of works of art from a different time period or lacking an actual relationship to other displayed works poses real problems when not sensibly handled. 

The Frick Collection in New York City showed how it could - and should - be handled. The Frick showcased nine examples of Edmund de Waal’s ceramic art in a display called Elective Affinities. De Waal, author of the beloved art memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes, presented minimalist works which contrasted with the Frick Old Masters in meaningful and provocative ways.

Proceeding up Fifth Ave’s “Museum Mile”, the Guggenheim dedicated its rotunda to a “compare-contrast” exhibition entitled Artistic License. Six contemporary artists - Cai Guo-Qiang, Paul Chan, Jenny Holzer, Julie Mehretu, Richard Prince, and Carrie Mae Weems -  were invited to select works from the Guggenheim’s core collection for a vast and ingenious re-interpretive exhibition. A conversation of art voices, past and present, spiraled upward and into the future at the Guggenheim.

Gallery view of the Artistic License exhibition, courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum

More controversially, the Museum of Modern Art "reimagined” its collection during a four-month hiatus in 2019. When MOMA reopened in October, a number of art works from different eras were displayed in the permanent, chronologically arranged galleries. For instance, Quarantania, I (1947-53) by Louise Bourgeois and Faith Ringgold’s American People Series #20: Die (1967) were placed in the Picasso gallery to promote a “dialogue” with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. The rationale for MOMA’s decision was explained in the following press release:

Demoiselles has been traditionally presented as the beginning of Cubism—the art of splintered forms and shifting vantage points that revolutionized pictorial language in the years prior to World War I. But this work may also be understood in other ways and other contexts. Here, a sculpture by Louise Bourgeois and a painting by Faith Ringgold, both made decades later, enter into dialogue with Picasso’s psychologically charged scene, intensifying the questions that Demoiselles raises about representations of women, power, and cultural difference.

If – as I suspect - MOMA’s curators periodically switch-out different paintings and sculptures in these “juxtapositions,” there may be few earth-shattering repercussions.  All the same, I have some strong reservations about mix-and match at MOMA.

Though well-intentioned, this “reimaged” curatorial approach in the permanent galleries may promote the artistic counterpart of moral relativism. This is the antithesis of the rigorous scholarship and devotion to accuracy which provide the foundation for properly appreciating art. If “narrative relativism” finds a place in museum collection policy – rather than in temporary exhibitions  - the result, over time, may lead art to the place where most good intentions terminate.

This is not to say that the precepts and rules of museum policy should not be modified. In some cases, change is needed and often overdue. The decision by the Metropolitan Museum of Art to display a major collection of Native American art (on loan from Charles and Valerie Diker, who have pledged to donate it to the Met) in the museum's American Wing was wise and courageous. Placing these stunning art works in the American Wing, rather than displaying them alongside African or Oceanic art, is a major turning point in appreciating the interwoven fabric of American identity.

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) 
Gallery view of Art of Native America: the Charles and Valerie Diker Collection

No good deed goes unpunished, however. Some critics have contended that most Native American art works are really sacred objects and should be repatriated. However, that could be said of almost all art made throughout the world before 1600. To my mind, the Met's decision to display these First American icons in the setting of the American Wing shows the courage of conviction rather than a disregard for Native American culture.

The interplay of works of art, transcending boundaries of time and genres is a major force for good in human affairs. It encourages interpretation. The ability to interpret is the foundation of freedom of thought. Properly done, interpretation fosters awareness and empathy for others.

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) 
Gallery view of the Andrea del Verrocchio exhibition at the National Gallery of Art

When a museum experience opens our minds and hearts, we are no longer just looking at paintings or statues.  Framing thoughts, pondering unusual or unfamiliar images,  interpreting the world around us, these activities occur all the time - or should - in art museums.

I love looking at great works of art but I equally enjoy the sight of people communing with a favorite painting or a newly discovered treasure. The dapper gentleman in the photo which introduces this essay was so visibly moved by the sight of an iconic painting that one could grasp his emotions without seeing his face. Posed before Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party, he seemed to have crossed a portal of time, to have joined in the Impressionist-era festivities himself.

The greatest service which art museums perform is not creating "narratives" or a set-piece rationale about art. Instead, it is providing the opportunity to museum visitors to frame ideas and feelings about art for themselves that is so vital. 

This is best done when in the company of others. It is not just a case that we really need see the actual painting or sculpture for ourselves. It is important to see others doing so, to engage in the process of art appreciation - by appreciating other art lovers.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
 Gallery view of the Yoshitoshi exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

What was this young woman's "take" on the extraordinary series of prints by Yoshitoshi, as she intently snapped a digital photo? Considering that the images in Yoshitoshi's "One Hundred Aspects of the Moon" traverse a vast expanse of emotions and experiences, drawn from myths and legends, the emotional imprint was likely much greater than she was aware of at the time. 

I am still "dealing" with the impact of my visits to the Yoshitoshi exhibit back in the spring and summer of 2019. Having done so, however, in the company of other art lovers, makes my private contemplation now so much more meaningful and immediate, months later. 

What is true for me and other art loving adults will - I hope - be true for art-loving young people. The "little gal photographer" (as I described her in my notes) testified to this hope on a very crowded afternoon at MOMA, shortly before the museum closed for renovations. I was much impressed by her methodical effort to snap a keep-sake photo of Georges Seurat's The Channel at Gravelines, Evening. 

I am further touched by the thought that this young photographer should have focused upon one of Seurat's final paintings. He died, aged 31, a few months after finishing Channel at Gravelines, Evening. This child, almost certainly, did not know this or need to know. She was busy engaging with life, snapping pictures, imprinting images into her mind and memory. 

Seurat would have approved. Artists live and die. Art lives, empowering us to live.

Ed Voves, Photo (2019)
 Gallery view of the Museum of Modern Art, New York City,
 showing Georges Seurat's The Channel at Gravelines, Evening, 1891

Happy New Year from Art Eyewitness! 

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved. Photos by Anne Lloyd, all rights reserved.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi's The Twelfth‑Century Shogun Minamoto Yoritomo Releasing a Thousand Cranes at the Beach at Yuigahama is used, courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of ArtThe photo of the Artistic License exhibition is courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum, New York City.

Introductory Photo:
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of the Phillips Collection, Washington D.C., showing Pierre Auguste Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1883.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (Japanese,1839-18) The Twelfth‑Century Shogun Minamoto Yoritomo Releasing a Thousand Cranes at the Beach at Yuigahama, 1863. Color woodcut print:

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)  Sunrise, Philadelphia, PA, December 31, 2019.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of the Marking Marvels: Science and Splendor at the Courts of Europe exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Gallery view of the exhibition, The Tale of Genji, A Japanese Classic Illuminated, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of the exhibition, The Life of Animals in Japanese Art, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Anne Lloyd, Photos (2019) Exterior and interior views of the renovated North Entrance  of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of the Verdi: Creating Otello and Falstaff exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum, 2019.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of the Paris, Capital of Fashion exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York City, showing French Revolution era clothing (left) and a John Galliano 1992 ensemble (right).

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Exhibition banner of Hymn to Apollo: the Ancient World and the Ballet Russes at The Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW).

Gallery view of the Artistic License exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, New York. Courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum.

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Gallery view of Metropolitan Museum exhibition, Art of Native America: the Charles and Valerie Diker Collection, showing a boy's jacket from the Apsaalooke (Crow) tribe, Montana, ca. 1880.

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Gallery view of the Andrea del Verrocchio: Sculptor-Painter of Renaissance Florence exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of the Yoshitoshi, Spirit and Spectacle exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, showing Georges Seurat's The Channel at Gravelines, Evening, 1891.

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