Wednesday, February 18, 2015

From Ancient to Modern: Archaeology and Aesthetics at ISAW

From Ancient to Modern: Archaeology and Aesthetics Institute for the Study of the Ancient World

February 12, 2015 to June 7, 2015

Reviewed by Ed Voves

When visiting art exhibitions, one should always expect the unexpected. Unfamiliar masterpieces and unconventional exhibit presentations can transform our vision of humanity. 

Exhibitions ought to challenge our long-term assumptions about art, make us comprehend the inner dynamics of works of art, as well as their surface attributes. In fact there should be a little box at the end of each exhibit where we can dispose of our preconceptions like the ID tags that we discard when leaving museums.

The Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) in New York City does not provide a little box for ID tags, as its exhibits are free. Preconceptions don’t last very long in its galleries. Old, threadbare ideas are the only form of ancient history you will not find here.

From Ancient to Modern: Archaeology and Aesthetics is the latest exhibition at the ISAW. Fifty art works from ancient Mesopotamia are integrated with vintage photos and documents from two major archaeological expeditions during the 1920's and 1930's. These artifacts are expertly displayed in a way that recalls the 2011 ISAW exhibit Edge of Empires, which detailed the excavation of the Roman city in Syria, Dura-Europos, during the inter-war years.

Standing Male Worshiper, ca. 2900–2600 B.C.

The major innovation of From Ancient to Modern: Archaeology and Aesthetics is the inclusion of several masterpieces of modern art.  This is a first for ISAW and not as surprising as it might initially seem. These works, created by Henry Moore, Alberto Giacometti and Willem de Kooning were all influenced by the objects unearthed at the celebrated "digs" in Iraq during the period between the two world wars. 

Henry Moore, Half Figure II, 1929

The curators of From Ancient to Modern took the even bolder step of widening the scope of the exhibit to include art by contemporary artists. These works by Jananne al-Ani and Michael Rakowitz underscore the human tragedy of recent wars in Iraq and the tragic looting of the National Museum of Iraq in 2003.

With this deeply moving exhibition, Jennifer Chi, ISAW’s Director of Exhibitions, and Professor Pedro Azara, of the Polytechnic University of Catalonia, have powerfully asserted a visionary role for art in articulating the values of human society.

All this in two moderately-sized galleries at 15 E. 84th Street in NYC!

History begins at Sumer in Mesopotamia, as the famous book by Samuel Noah Kramer declared. But archaeological ventures to Mesopotamia got a late start, at least in comparison with expeditions to Egypt. The reasons for this are complex. But the discovery of the treasure-filled tomb of Tutankhamun in November 1922, which sparked world-wide Egyptomania, spurred two major efforts to uncover the buried past of Mesopotamia.

Leonard Woolley Waxing a Skeleton for Removal, Ur, ca. 1929-1930

The first of these was a joint British Museum/University of Pennsylvania partnership which focused on the site of Ur in southern Iraq. Ur of the Chaldees was the birthplace of the Biblical patriarch, Abraham. The great British archaeologist, Leonard Woolley, led a series of "campaigns" to Ur starting in 1922 and lasting until 1934. 

The second mission to Mesopotamia was the Iraq Expedition of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. From 1930 to 1937, a distinguished Dutch archaeologist, Henri Frankfort, brought a well-organized team of scholars to the Diyala River valley. A tributary flowing from the north into the Tigris River, the Diyala River had previously been thought to be too far from the main centers of early Sumerian civilization along the Euphrates River to yield much of interest. The methodical Frankfort disproved such speculations with history-changing finds on a very big scale.

The military terminology of archaeology this period is not coincidental. As the superb companion volume to the ISAW exhibit makes clear, Woolley's excavations had the direct support of the British Army and Colonial Office which dominated Iraq in the years following World War I. Frankfort's "campaigns" in the more remote Diyala region benefited too from the prestige and power of Western colonialism.

The ISAW exhibit is subtitled Archaeology and Aesthetics. As well as being an accomplished archeologist with recent fieldwork (done under dangerous circumstances) in Iraq, Professor Azara is a noted authority on aesthetics. The way that human beings perceive art and then conceptualize it in terms of personal experience or societal influences is of vast significance.

Such aesthetic concerns are often ignored or treated as rarefied, elitist ideals. The ISAW exhibit proves that prejudice towards deep thinking about art is totally wide of the mark. Aesthetics, as the companion volume notes, is a vital mode of critical thinking. Aesthetics enables us to judge and to transform objects and images "with meaning, into windows to the world or to ourselves."

Aesthetics, from time to time, need a little help from the Publicity Department. The discoveries at Ur were a notable example of this interaction.

The ISAW exhibit deals with the savvy manipulation of the media culture of the 1920's and 1930's by Leonard Woolley and his fashion-conscious wife, Katherine. Woolley's PR efforts were rewarded by the discovery in 1927 of the glittering diadem of Queen Puabi and a mass of other jewels and golden accoutrements, dating from 2500 to 2300 BC, at Ur. It was an archaeological coup to rival the treasure of Tutankhamun. 

Puabi's headdress and cloak, ca. 2500–2300 B.C.

Woolley left no publicity venue untapped. From color photography supplements in the Sunday newspapers of the era to travelling exhibits of the Ur treasures, Woolley kept the Mesopotamian discoveries before the public eye. I was particularly struck by the catalog of a special display, Exhibits from the Royal Tombs of Ur of the Chaldees, held in 1934 at the Strawbridge and Clothier department store in Philadelphia! 

Female Worshipper, ca. 2700-2500 B.C.

The enjoyable and fascinating array of ancient art works and publicity documents related to Ur in the ISAW exhibit naturally command our interest. But Henri Frankfort's discoveries at the Diyala River excavations were hugely significant as well. These statues or votive images were initially characterized in some quarters as "idols." Many questions were raised whether these unsettling objects were art works at all. 

I am planning a separate post on Art Eyewitness to review the companion volume to From Ancient to Modern and will discuss this theme in more detail. For now, it is enough to note that Henry Moore and Willem de Kooning were moved by these ancient sculptures to create new art works of their own.

Cover of catalogue, Ancient to Modern: Archaeology and Aesthetics

It is in the second of the ISAW galleries that I wish to linger for there the contemporary works by Michael Rakowitz and Jananne al-Ani are presented. Rakowitz's family is of Iraqi-Jewish heritage and al-Ani was born in Kirkuk, Iraq. Both of these artists now live and work in the West, but the history of Iraq, ancient and modern, is woven into their work with the thread of memory.

Rakowitz recreated objects looted from the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad in 2003. Troops from the U.S. and coalition forces were posted nearby but failed or were not ordered to intervene to stop the vandalism. Rakowitz used cheap disposable materials from recycled milk cartoons and cigarette packs to recreate these lost art works in order to emphasize how a nation’s culture can be treated as "disposable."

Given the recent adulation for the "Monuments Men," who saved thousands of art works from the Nazis, the looting of the National Museum of Iraq is inexplicable. The failure of Allied troops to protect the cultural heritage of Iraq raises troubling questions about the level of Western commitment to the people of Iraq and other Middle Eastern nations. The team that Woolley led to Ur during the 1920's brought some of the most precious art works of Mesopotamia to the collections of the British Museum and to the University of Pennsylvania Museum. But the ancient art that was excavated and placed in the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad was shrugged-off in 2003.

Whatever the reason for this appalling blunder, Rakowitz's installation does not let the Western powers off the hook of collective responsibility.  Jananne al-Ani, with her photographic and multi-media work, likewise presents challenging, critical images relating to Iraq’s agony. 

Jananne al-Ani, Untitled, May 1991 [Gulf War Work]

Untitled May 1991 [Gulf War Work] is on display at the ISAW. It is a deceptively simple piece, with a grid of twenty images arranged on a wall in the manner of a family photo gallery. One of the rows indeed shows photos of al-Ani's family. The top row shows images of treasures from the National Museum of Iraq and a depiction of Queen Puabi wearing her fabled golden diadem. There is a row of portraits of Iraqi women with haunted or grief-stricken eyes. Any of these women could be a latter-day Puabi, fit to wear her golden diadem.

These photographs are followed in the bottom row by images of war.

Jananne al-Ani's Untitled May 1991 is the kind of art work that I referred to at the beginning of this review. It is the unexpected work that forces you to question your preconceptions. It struck me with particular force.

During the Gulf War years, I worked as a news research librarian for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News. One of my tasks was to retrieve and index the stream of Associated Press photos as they were digitally transmitted. Particularly during the 2003 Gulf War "campaign," marked as it was by the prolonged bombardment of Baghdad, I was sickened by many of the incoming images. The AP pictures of dead and mangled civilians, particularly children, were horrific. Very few of these were selected to appear in Western newspapers.

Jananne al-Ani's Untitled May 1991 brought the memories of these terrifying pictures flooding back to me. The “disposable” sculptures of Michael Rakowitz reinforced the effect.  I was not prepared for art work like this at the ISAW exhibit. I'm still looking for a box big enough to discard my preconceptions.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images Courtesy of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York City.

Introductory Image

Detail of Puabi’s headdress, apple clusters with large bales, ca. 2500–2300 B.C., Ur, Gold, Lapis Lazuli, Bitumen, L. 88 cm,  Joint Expedition of the British Museum and of the Museum of the University of  Pennsylvania, 8th season, 1929-1930. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology (B16684.1) © Bruce White

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

Leonard Woolley Waxing a Skeleton for Removal, Ur,  Photograph,  ca. 1929-1930 Courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (191485) © Courtesy of Penn Museum

Puabi's headdress and cloak, ca. 2500–2300 B.C., Ur, Tomb PG 800, Gold, Lapis Lazuli, Carnelian and various stones,  (Hair Ring), B17709 (Wreath), B16693 (Decorative Comb), B17710 (Wreath), B17711 (Wreath), B17711A (Hair Ribbon), B17712A, B (Earrings), 98-9-9A, B (Hair Rings), B17708 (Frontlet), B16694 (Necklace), 83-7-1.1–83-7-1.89 (Cloak). Joint Expedition of the British Museum and of the Museum of the University of  Pennsylvania, 6th season, 1927-1928.University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology © Bruce White

Female Worshipper, ca. 2700-2500 B.C., Tell Asmar, Khafajah,(Sin Temple IX) Iraq, Gypsum, shell, H, 36.1 cm, W, 13.5 cm,D. 7.1 cm, Oriental Institute Museum, Chicago, 1930-1937  (A12412)  Image © Oriental Institute Museum, Chicago

Cover of the exhibit catalogue, Ancient to Modern: Archaeology and Aesthetics, published by Princeton University Press. Cover illustration by Michael Rakowitz from his installation   The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist” (Recovered, Missing, Stolen) (2003) 

Jananne al-Ani, Untitled, May 1991 [Gulf War Work]. Silver gelatin prints on paper, 20 units: H. 20 cm; W. 20 cm (each), 1991. Courtesy of the artist. IWM: ART 16417 © Courtesy of Jananne al-Ani Estate and the Imperial War Museums

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Pennsylvania German Fraktur at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Drawn with Spirit: 
Pennsylvania German Fraktur from the Joan and Victor Johnson Collection

February 1–April 26, 2015
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Perelman Building

Reviewed by Ed Voves

This Valentine's Day, the best place to look for hearts and flowers is the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  There you will see wonderful examples of the American folk art genre known as fraktur

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is hosting an amazing exhibition, Drawn with Spirit: Pennsylvania German Fraktur from the Joan and Victor Johnson Collection.

One of the objects on display really stands out in terms of the Valentine's Day theme. This is an example of scherenschnitte, the Pennsylvania German - "Pennsylvania Dutch" - word for scissors-created "cutwork." The amount of skill, patience and affection that went into the creation of this love note over two and a half centuries ago totally dissolves the arbitrary boundaries between art or craft.

That is true of almost of the works on view in Drawn with Spirit. The exhibition presents the collection of a husband-wife team, Joan and Victor Johnson, who, for nearly a half-century, amassed a jaw-dropping array of fraktur. Folk art it is, but it's great art as well.

Fraktur refers to a form of lettering, "broken" or fractured, first developed during the 1500's. This distinctive calligraphy was embellished  with water color depictions of daily life and visionary spirituality.

Fraktur was most prevalent in southern Germany and parts of central Europe such as Moravia in the Czech Republic which then had a significant number of German-speaking citizens. These regions, devastated by the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), sent a stream of immigrants  during the 1700's to the refuge of William Penn's Quaker colony, Pennsylvania.

This work of "Valentine" fraktur is dated May 22,1754, a little late in the year for a formal Valentine's Day greeting. It is instead a liebesbrief or love letter, shared by a courting couple as they explored the path to marriage.

The ornate calligraphy of fraktur was often surrounded by a thick growth of flowers and vines, bewildering flocks of birds and animals and fantastical creatures, partly human and part-bird or part-fish.

The androgynous angels circling the border of this liebesbrief are pretty ominous-looking. They certainly aren't Victorian cupids. Nor do they have a “come hither” gleam in their eyes.

Fraktur long retained the cultural ambiance of the German-speaking world of the seventeenth century. The small Pietist religious groups which came to Pennsylvania established communities like the Ephrata Cloister that were located away from the mainstream of English-speaking culture. The distinctive nature of fraktur artworks, many of which served as personal or family documents, helped their owners preserve their Germanic identity.

These Pietist groups - Mennonites, the Moravian Brethren, the Schwenkfelders – had many unique features to their religious devotions, some of which did not fit comfortably within the framework of major Christian denominations. One of these involved letters reputedly written by God himself – in German, with fraktur decoration – and sent to earth for the instruction of the faithful. These were known as “letters from heaven” or Himmelsbrief.

A much more common use of fraktur was for creating birth and baptismal certificates. Known as Geburts und Taufschein, these documents were required by the governments of the German states and the Holy Roman Empire to identify new-born children. The English colonies, especially in the frontier country, were much more slipshod with record keeping. But the Pennsylvania Germans maintained this Old World tradition in their new surroundings.

Birth and Baptismal Certificate for Anna Maria Oberle, 1798

A particularly good example of this form of fraktur in the Johnson Collection is the Birth and Baptismal Certificate for Anna Maria Oberle. Created around 1798, the certificate is believed to have been the work of Johannes Ernst Spangenberg, (c. 1755 ‑ 1814).

In this document, the September 19, 1798 birth of Anna Maria Oberle in Northhampton County, Pennsylvania, is duly noted. Spangenberg depicted well-dressed couples, accompanied by musicians and leaping dogs, celebrating the event. In a particularly evocative touch, he portrayed a man and woman, perhaps baby Anna Maria's parents, relaxing in chairs decorated with human faces.

The festivities at the bottom of the certificate appear under a blessing invoked for Anna  Maria's future welfare. This charming expression rhymes in the original German:

Gott geb ihr Gluck und segen  Gesundheit allerwegen                                                       ihr schutz woll Jesus seyn, und Jesum zum Trost allein

(God give her happiness and blessing; good health at all times                                           Her protection shall be Jesus and Jesus her comfort alone)

A particularly interesting feature of this blessing is that it was used a decade earlier in another birth and baptismal certificate that was almost certainly the work of Johannes Spangenberg. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has this fraktur work in its collection. It documents the birth of Cathrina Seiffert, July 10, 1789, also in Northampton County, Pennsylvania.

Birth and Baptismal Certificate of Cathrina Seiffert (detail), 1789, Metropolitan Museum

Note how the Gluck und segen blessings are placed within heart motif designs in the Metropolitan Museum piece. Fraktur artists like Spangenberg may have utilized standard blessings and iconography. But one of the most significant features of fraktur was its emphasis on the individuality of the person being celebrated.

Fraktur continued to be created up until the era of World War II, by which time museums and private collectors began to acquire it for their collections. During the nineteenth century, the distinctive Germanic "old world" traits of fraktur gradually gave way to include some American themes. However, there was never a chance of mistaking the Pennsylvania German origins of the fraktur artists.

The Johnson collection, which has been generously pledged to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, contains several works by the Sussel‑Washington Artist. A particular motif of this anonymous creator involved equestrian portraits of colonial gentlemen and ladies. They are sometimes identified with "Genneral Waschington" and his wife. One suspects that nobody, then or since, ever thought that Martha Washington ever looked like the red-cheeked rider below. 

Drawing of Woman on Horseback, c. 1775

I don't think many people ever confused the Sussel-Washington artist's depiction of a doe-eyed, humpbacked quadruped (below) with a real camel, either. There was a circus troop traveling about the newly independent United States and the Sussel-Washington artist may have seen or heard about the camel that appeared in the show. 

Drawing of a Camel, c. 1775.

The Sussel-Washington artist chose to make the outward reality of life in America conform to the inner vision which he (or she) shared with other fraktur artists. This is not just a matter of personal preference or an early version of "my way." Instead, beneath the surface of this cheerful creature, there is a very powerful life-force at work.

"Out of Many - One" is the political motto of the United States. It is not the cultural maxim for American society. Diversity, not uniformity, has been the hallmark of art in the United States. 

The Pennsylvania German artists who developed fraktur over the course of two centuries can thus be recognized as pioneers of a multi-ethnic society where art can be created from many points of view and be appreciated and cherished by all.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

Introductory Image                                                                                                         Cutwork Valentine, May 22, 1754. Artist/maker unknown, American, Pennsylvania German?. Watercolor and ink on laid paper, Diameter: 12 1/2 inches (31.8 cm). Promised gift of Joan and Victor Johnson.

Birth and Baptismal Certificate for Anna Maria Oberle (born September 19, 1798), c. 1798. Attributed to Johannes Ernst Spangenberg, American, c. 1755 ‑ 1814. Watercolor and ink on laid paper, 13 1/8 × 16 1/4 inches (33.3 × 41.3 cm). Promised gift of Joan and Victor Johnson.

Birth and Baptismal Certificate of Cathrina Seiffert (detail), 1789. Likely created by Johannes Ernst Spangenberg, American, c. 1755 ‑ 1814. Ink and watercolor on paper,  17 x 13 1/2 in. (43.2 x 34.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art,  Gift of Mrs. Robert W. de Forest, 1933 (34.100.62) Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 

Drawing of Woman on Horseback, c. 1775. Attributed to the Sussel‑Washington Artist, American, active 1760 ‑ 1785. Watercolor and ink on laid paper, 8 × 6 3/8 inches (20.3 × 16.2 cm). Promised gift of Joan and Victor Johnson

Drawing of a Camel, c. 1775. Attributed to the Sussel‑Washington Artist, American, active 1760 ‑ 1785. Watercolor and ink on laid paper, 4 1/4 × 3 1/2 inches (10.8 × 8.9 cm). Promised gift of Joan and Victor Johnson

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Art Eyewitness Close-up: The Fall of Icarus by Henri Matisse

The Fall of Icarus by Henri Matisse 

By Ed Voves

The Fall of Icarus by Henri Matisse (1869-1954) is an example of the paper cut-outs or gouaches découpés that figured so prominently during the last decade of Matisse's life. I have selected this wonderful work of art for the first of a new series of short, focused essays in Art Eyewitness. 

I also hope to encourage art lovers to make their way to the Museum of Modern Art in New York to see the exhibit Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs before it closes on February 10. It is truly a "once-in-a-lifetime" exhibition.

The Fall of Icarus was not the first time that Matisse created cut-outs. Earlier, he made cut-outs to help him prepare the composition of the mural The Dance which he painted for Dr. Albert Barnes during the early 1930's. But when Matisse took a pair of scissors in hand and created The Fall of Icarus in 1943, the very idea of planning any large-scale works in the future must have seemed very problematic.

As years go, 1943 was a terrible one. Although it was apparent that Hitler was not going to conquer the world, it was not clear if he could be stopped from destroying it - starting with France. 

Matisse, who had barely survived cancer surgery in 1941, was confined to a wheelchair, no longer able to stand before an easel. But just as an illness in 1890 had occasioned his first bed-ridden efforts to paint pictures, so his precarious medical condition in 1943 led him to launch into the new venture of gouaches découpés.

Matisse in front of gouache-painted papers.

Apart from the brilliant color of The Fall of Icarus, the first thing that impresses me is how utterly different Matisse's handling of the subject was from the versions of earlier artists. This is true whether one compares it to Bruegel's ironic scene, where the farmhands fail to notice Icarus drowning in the sea, or more melodramatic versions from the Baroque era replete with melting wax, shredding feathers and a doomed youth plunging earthward.                                                                                                                                                           
Matisse's Icarus looks like he has been shot and is reeling backward. There is a famous - and terrifying - photograph of a French soldier being struck by a bullet in the 1916 battle of Verdun. Was Matisse thinking of this photo from the first "war to end all wars" or contemporary scenes from the second?

According to Hilary Spurling, Matisse's biographer, the writer Louis Aragon saw the work soon after it was created. He noted that Matisse said that the splashes of yellow surrounding Icarus "- suns  or stars if you want to be mythological - were exploding shells in 1943."

The Fall of Icarus, however, has a resonance far beyond the war years. By thrusting Icarus in our faces, Matisse banished mythology from the work and made the scene part of our "here and now" reality. Icarus expires before our eyes and Matisse won't let us turn away. 

This is a scene of reckoning. Matisse requires our verdict. Do we value glory like Icarus or survival? 

Matisse chose survival. But it was not a case of picking flight over fight. Matisse refused offers of refuge in America during the dark days of 1940. Though initially safe in the unoccupied south of France, the situation had changed by 1943. Matisse created The Fall of Icarus while German troops were stationed in the very building that he lived in. The cut-out was an act of defiance, an artist's statement on the coming fall of the Third Reich.

Once peace returned, The Fall of Icarus also marked the beginning of a new phase in Matisse's career. In 1945, a lithograph of the work was used as an illustration in the fine art magazine Verve and two years later a similar version appeared as plate VIII in Jazz, the stunning, limited edition book that Matisse created for his publisher, Tériade.

The Fall of Icarus has lost none of its emotion-shaping power.

The Fall of Icarus (detail)

How moving it was to stand before The Fall of Icarus at the MOMA exhibition. How poignant is the sight of the very pins inserted by Matisse to hold the pieces of painted paper together to create this masterpiece. How life affirming - ironically - is this depiction of the dying fall of Icarus.

As power-mad despots tore civilization apart in 1943, Henri Matisse took hold of a pair of scissors, a sheaf of colored papers, a handful of pins and started to put the world of beauty back together again.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved

Images Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York City.
Introductory image:                                                                                                                                                        
Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954). The Fall of Icarus (La Chute d’Icare), 1943. Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, and pins. 13 2/4 x 10 5/8” (35 x 27 cm). Private collection. © 2015 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Matisse in front of gouache-painted papers, Hôtel Régina, Nice. Photo: Lydia Delectorskaya. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse