Friday, January 27, 2017

I’m Nobody! Who are you? The Life and Poetry of Emily Dickinson at the Morgan Library

I’m Nobody! Who are you? The Life and Poetry of Emily Dickinson 

The Morgan Library and Museum, New York City
January 20 through May 21, 2017.

Reviewed by Ed Voves

"'Hope' is the thing with feathers," Emily Dickinson wrote, "That perches in the soul..."

Dickinson (1830-86) is the "solitary" genius of American literature. Like the unabashed little bird in this much-loved poem, Dickinson composed her verses amid the storm of America's Civil War and of her own personal anguish.

A thoughtful, brilliantly curated exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum considers the life of Emily Dickinson from a slightly different vantage point from the received wisdom about her. 

The exhibit takes its title from another of Dickinson's poems, I’m Nobody! Who are you? The Life and Poetry of Emily Dickinson. The exhibit shows that Dickinson was not quiet so reclusive, so remote or withdrawn from society as earlier biographers have maintained. 

The "solitary" nature of Dickinson's creative achievement was not the result of heightened individualism but rather of a profound inward focus. Dickinson nurtured insights and aspirations, sentiments and experiences with sublimated energy. This quiet, yet deliberate, cultivation flowered into 1,789 poems, some of the greatest ever written by an American poet.

Emily Dickinson may have written these poems anonymously but she was certainly a "somebody" - even though she did not want to proclaim it like a frog in an "admiring" bog.

Dickinson had an excellent education, was well-read and was a gifted musician. She was linked to a network of kindred souls - intelligent, vivacious relatives, friends and schoolmates. Thanks to her family's role in the administration of Amherst College, Dickinson was also exposed to the forward-thinking culture and contentious social issues of her day.

Dickinson was a classmate of Helen Hunt Jackson, the courageous advocate of Native American rights. Jackson encouraged, indeed prodded, Dickinson into publishing a poem in a volume called A Masque of Poets (1878). Dickinson's other literary advisers - and friends - were the crusading editor, Samuel Bowles, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, staunch Abolitionist and Civil War hero.

A Masque of Poets Including Guy Vernon, a Novelette in Verse, 1878

Success is Counted Sweetest was the poem contributed by Dickinson to a A Masque of Poets. Amazingly, this work, with its theme of dying soldiers and the bitter taste of defeat, was originally written in 1859, two years before the opening shots of the Civil War. Today, we would likely say that Dickinson was "channeling" when she wrote "Success." But in the nineteenth century, a more appropriate word was used. Prophecy.

It is difficult to evoke or define prophecy in terms of a museum exhibition. So the Morgan's display, organized with the help of Amherst College and Harvard University, necessarily emphasizes Dickinson's life and times.

Anne Lloyd, Gallery view of I’m Nobody! Who are you? at the Morgan Library

Upon entering the exhibit, visitors are presented with the very image of New England gentility. The childhood portrait of Emily Dickinson, her brother Austin and her sister, Lavinia, is set against a wall covered with flowery wallpaper. This design was recreated from samples of the actual wallpaper recovered during renovation of the Dickinson home.

Wallpaper in Emily Dickinson’s bedroom in Amherst, recreated at the Morgan Library.

The portrait, painted by a regional artist, Otis Allen Bullard around 1840, would excite little interest today, but for the fact that the youthful, auburn-haired Dickinson and her siblings posed for it. 

Otis Allen Bullard, Emily Elizabeth, Austin, and Lavinia Dickinson, Ca. 1840

Significantly, Dickinson is holding a small book and a flower in the portrait by Bullard. During her childhood, Dickinson collected flower and plant samples which she pressed onto the pages of a herbarium. 

The Bullard portrait and the example of a herbarium from the era - Dickinson's actual one is too delicate to leave Harvard's library - exemplify the proper, high-toned world of Dickinson's childhood, the world she both evoked and rebelled against in her poetry.

Anne Lloyd, Photo of the first page (facsimile) of Emily Dickinson's herbarium

Most of the visually-stimulating objects in the exhibition reflect the moral certainties of the America into which Dickinson was born. Liberty there was - 1776 was still a living memory - but the Puritanical discipline and restraint of the New England Way was still in force, certainly in towns like Amherst, Massachusetts. 

The cut paper silhouette of Dickinson, dated to 1845, the Stereoscope card photo of students at Mount Holyoke College where Dickinson went to school and the lock of her hair that Dickinson sent to a friend in 1853 - are all talismans of a society based on certitude and sentimentality.

Rectitude, responsibility and intimacy are so well represented in the exhibition that the converse - Dickinson's rebelliousness - is palpable even with the absence of documentary evidence. 

Charles Temple, Emily Dickinson, Cut paper silhouette, 1845

At some point in the  early 1850's, as she reached adulthood, Dickinson refused to continue to attend Sunday religious service. She also balked at proclaiming her Christian faith at a public revival meeting and began to refrain from visiting or writing close friends. 

This withdrawal extended even to her confidante, Abiah Root (1830-1915). A surviving letter to Root dated to 1846, reveals that Dickinson felt that "I have not yet made my peace with God" even at that early stage of her life.

What is particularly significant about the 1846 date is that it took place during a period when a series of deaths of friends and teachers began to undermine Dickinson's acceptance of the image of God as a personal savior. These tragic early deaths also contradicted the widespread idea that the natural world was a benign environment testifying to God's grace.  

As Dickinson disengaged from those around her, she described or commented upon the process, but often in cryptic or contradictory terms. In 1873, she wrote a two line verse on a music program.

Of our deepest delights there is a solemn shyness                                                             The appetite for silence is seldom an acquired taste

It is clear that Dickinson's personal rebellion was not inherited, though a strain of Yankee contrariness may have  played its part. Rather it was based upon experience, "acquired" in her confrontation with death.

Mortality, as the theme of some of her greatest poems, made its debut in 1844. In that year, the young Dickinson stood at the deathbed of her fifteen-year old friend and cousin, Sophia Holland. Dickinson, was so distraught that she had to be sent to stay with relatives in Boston in order to recuperate. But part of her emotions never healed. Dickinson wrote of the experience, "it seemed to me I should die too if I could not be permitted to watch over her or even look at her face."

Almost every year thereafter brought some sort of challenging loss. But it was not always death's hand that did the deed. In 1853, one of Dickinson's closest friends, Susan Gilbert became engaged to Austin Dickinson, her brother. Their friendship continued - one of the most vital relationships in Dickinson's life - but there were differences and difficulties that contributed to Dickinson's increasing isolation.

In September 1861, another emotional crisis occurred, this time based upon an unknown relationship. Following this, Dickinson launched into one of her greatest creative periods. Over 800 poems were written during the Civil War years.

Dickinson wrote on whatever piece of paper was at hand, as noted with the music program for the two-lined Of our deepest delights. The Morgan exhibit provides numerous examples of Dickinson's poems and letters in all their variety.

Emily Dickinson, Alone and in circumstance, Ca. 1870

While some of the poems were hastily scrawled, Dickinson went to great lengths to write "fair copies." Some were were decorated, collage-style, like Alone and in a circumstance.
The names of “George Sand” and “Mauprat” were clipped from the May 1870 issue of Harper’s Monthly, and pasted to the sheet of paper. A profile of Athena or Lady Liberty was embossed on the paper and a three-cent postage stamp affixed to it. 

There is some scholarly speculation that the stamp, which bears the image of a railroad locomotive, may refer to the poet's father. Edward Dickinson was a dedicated proponent of railroad development. One would have thought that the poem I like to see it lap the miles (1862) would have served as a better vehicle to acknowledge the train enthusiast, Edward Dickinson, than the spider-haunted Alone and in a circumstance. Emily Dickinson's poems have levels of subtle meaning that we may never penetrate.
The Morgan exhibit also displays examples of the hand-sewn books, called fascicles, that Dickinson made to preserve her poems. Audio stations enable visitors to comprehend the various draft states of twenty-four of Dickinson's poems. 

Effort is also made to provide an overview of Dickinson's legacy and the effort involved in bringing Dickinson's poems to publication after her death.  

Mabel Loomis Todd, was entrusted with the editorship of Dickinson's poems by Lavinia, Dickinson's sister. Todd was assisted by Dickinson's mentor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson. But their diligent, devoted work has been tainted to a certain degree by the fact that Todd, who was married to an Amherst professor, was Austin Dickinson's mistress. Despite her affection for Austin, Emily Dickinson refused to meet Todd, leaving the room whenever Todd visited the Dickinson home.

This bizarre twist to the story of Emily Dickinson sounds like the plot of an Edith Wharton novel and is best kept to a minimum in an exhibition such as the Morgan is presenting. This indeed was the wise decision of the exhibit curators.

Fortunately, I’m Nobody! Who are you? concludes on a high note, though a speculative one.

 Photographer unknown, Two Woman, Ca.1859

A daguerreotype, dated to around 1859, was recently discovered showing  two unidentified women. With a high of degree of certainty, the woman on the right is likely Kate Scott Turner, a known friend of Dickinson.  

The woman on the left... Emily Dickinson...?

When you compare the only authenticated photograph of Emily Dickinson, the famous daguerreotype from 1847, with the 1859 photo, the temptation is either to accept or deny the 1859 image out of hand.

When I look at this picture, I am reminded of a remark that Emily Dickinson's niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, made about her aunt:  “She was not daily bread. She was stardust."  

I can't be absolutely certain that the woman on the left in this daguerreotype is Emily Dickinson. But I am absolutely certain that when I look into the eyes of this woman from the Civil War-era, what I see is vivacity, intelligence, a questioning spirit.



Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Introductory Image:                                                                                                         

Emily Dickinson, Daguerreotype, ca. 1847. Daguerreotype, ca. 1847. 3 3/4 × 6 1/2 × 1/2 in. (9.5 × 16.5 × 1.3 cm)  Amherst College Archives & Special Collections. Gift of Millicent Todd Bingham, 1956, 1956.002.

A Masque of Poets Including Guy Vernon, a Novelette in Verse, Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1878. The Morgan Library & Museum, Bequest of Gordon N. Ray, 1987.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Gallery view of I’m Nobody! Who are you? The Life and Poetry of Emily Dickinson. Exhibit at the Morgan Library and Museum, New York City, January 20 through May 21, 2017.

Reconstructed wallpaper from Emily Dickinson’s bedroom in Amherst, displayed at
the Morgan. Photography by Janny Chiu.

Otis Allen Bullard (American, 1816–1853), Emily Elizabeth, Austin, and Lavinia Dickinson, Oil on canvas, ca. 1840. 27 15/16 x 24 in. (71 x 61 cm) Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) of the first page (facsimile) of Emily Dickinson's herbarium. The original is preserved at Harvard's Houghton Library, MS Am 1118.11.

Charles Temple (American,1824–1906), Emily Dickinson, Cut paper silhouette, 1845. 4 1/4 × 4 3/4 × 1/2 in. (10.8 × 12.1 × 1.3 cm)  Amherst College Archives & Special Collections.

Emily Dickinson (American, 1830–1886), Alone and in circumstance, Poem with “George Sand” and “Mauprat” clipped from Harper's Monthly pasted to sheet, ca.1870. Amherst College Archives & Special Collections.

Photographer unknown. Two Women, Daguerreotype, ca. 1859 3 3/4 × 6 1/2 × 1/2 in. (9.5 × 16.5 × 1.3 cm)  Private collection.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Mad Enchantment by Ross King &Turner by Franny Moyle

Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies

 By Ross King 

Bloomsbury/403 pages/$30

Turner: The Extraordinary Life and Momentous Times of J.M.W. Turner 

By Franny Moyle

 Penguin Press/508 pages/$35

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Claude Monet and J.M.W. Turner were long-lived painters whose later years witnessed the creation of some of their greatest works of art. Both were self-centered, occasionally difficult, men who did "not go gentle into that good night..."

The words of Dylan Thomas's famous poem seem to have been written with Monet and Turner in mind. Yet, neither of these "wise men at their end" raged against "the dying of the light."

The aging Monet did battle a variety of eye ailments including cataracts, and Turner was widely considered to be deranged. Instead of raging against the spreading shadows of mortality, these Old Masters glimpsed the dawning of new visions of art.

The  prophetic experiences of Monet and Turner are recounted in two outstanding recent biographies, Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies by Ross King and Turner: The Extraordinary Life and Momentous Times of J.M.W. Turner by Franny Moyle. 

Mad Enchantment focuses with fascinating detail on Monet's reclusive last years in his garden at Giverny. Moyle's portrait of Turner, by contrast, stretches from his birth to the post-death litigation that was part of his momentous legacy.

Claude Monet (1840-1926) and J.M.W.Turner (1775-1851) have been paired in a number of recent art exhibitions. The comparison is not without its merit. Turner was the premier landscape painter of the first half of the nineteenth century while Monet dominated the latter part of the 1800's. Beyond this timeline relationship, the question of "passing the torch" is exactly that. A question.

Turner was not the "first Impressionist," as some writers assert. He hardly ever painted out-of-doors, even with watercolor of which he was one of the greatest masters in art history. Instead, Turner preferred to take notes of what he observed. 

Moyle vividly recounts the story behind one of Turner's key works, Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps. In 1810, Turner observed a storm sweeping over the hills and moors of Yorkshire. He was entranced by the spectacle but declined the offer of a sketch block upon which to make a detailed drawing. A few notes scrawled on the back of a letter were enough.

"There," Turner exclaimed to the young son of his great patron, Walter Fawkes. "Hawkey, in two years you will see this again, and call it Hannibal crossing the Alps."

J.M.W.Turner, Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps, 1812

Turner was as good as his word. In 1812, he exhibited the finished painting, filled with references to the conflict of empires and to the awesome power of nature.

The creative process behind Snow Storm differed from Monet's approach to painting. Monet did not merely observe the world, but painted directly from nature for much of his life - but not entirely. King notes that Monet was a bit disingenuous when he claimed that he "painted entirely out of doors." Virtually all of Monet's paintings were completed in his studio, "often far from the motif and with much teeth-gnashing labor."

 Monet was, none-the-less, the greatest student of nature among the major painters of his era. Even the vast paintings of water lilies of his last years, painted in his studio, were the result of an obsessive effort of continuous investigation of nature. The fabled nymphéas represent a "dialogue" between man and nature, between Monet and the very stuff of creation, earth, water and air, as revealed by the water garden he created at Giverny.

Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1916

Turner's influence on Monet is therefore a matter of controversy. Many commentators claim that Monet's sojourn in England, 1870-71, was a transforming experience, owing to the influence of studying Turner's works on display in London museums. Such a contention is dubious, certainly in terms of artistic technique. Monet, along with Renoir, had already painted the "proto-Impressionist" works at La Grenouillere in 1869. Monet confided to Camille Pissarro in 1871 that Turner's works were "antipathetic because of the exuberant romanticism of his imagination."

So, is there a basis for pairing Monet and Turner in art exhibitions or in a joint book review? The answer, based on the fascinating insights provided by King and Moyle is an emphatic "yes."

There are so many parallels in the life experiences of Monet and Turner that differences in technique might easily be forgotten. Both men loved the sea and rivers, capturing the reflection of light upon water as they navigated their painting boats on the Seine or the Thames. 

Both men also dedicated themselves to grand visionary enterprises. Turner devoted himself to provide a financial endowment for "decayed" artists (later contested by his relatives) and to bequeath a impressive array of his greatest paintings to the British nation. Monet painted works to benefit wounded soldiers during the First World War and labored to create a permanent exhibition of his nymphéas in appreciation of France's trial and triumph in the Great War.

The agonized effort to create the Grand Decoration, as Monet's series of water lilies is called, is the overarching theme of Ross King's Mad Enchantment. It is a story that has few counterparts in art history, except perhaps Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel frescoes, about which King has also written a splendid book. 

Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1914-26 
This version at MOMA is similar in size to the Grand Decoration in Paris

One of the most notable accomplishments of Mad Enchantment is the gripping descriptions of the herculean efforts involved in painting the cycle of water lily paintings for the Grand Decoration. Far from withdrawing from the world, Monet at Giverny probed to the very essence of nature, just as Turner had done decades before. King writes:

Monet was not, as Cézanne had claimed,"only an eye," for his incredible accuity of vision was combined with an equally adroit hand capable of subtle but masterful techniques... 
Paradoxically for a man who wished to give the impression of the spontaneous capture of a fleeting moment in time, he sometimes used a dozen or more layers of paint on a canvas.

Henri Manuel, Monet at work in his large studio,1920

Monet, as King relates, used every "trick" in the painter's book to create the effect he wanted. Turner had been a kindred spirit in this respect, using varied undercoats of color, thick layers of paint in some instances, stretches of canvas barely painted at other times, rubbing-off paint, applying pigment with brush, palette knife and - in Turner's case at least - the artist's oldest utensil, his fingers.

Both Ross King and Franny Moyle have placed the humanity of their respective protagonists "center stage" in their accounts. These are classic biographies, blessedly free of deconstruction, political agendas and other post-modern baggage. Wide-ranging research, perceptive analysis of the great works of art and compelling narratives make each book a "must" read for art enthusiasts.

The story of how Turner and Monet struggled against the art establishments of Britain and France is, of course, well-known. King and Moyle, however, show that Monet's battle against the Salon and Turner's controversies lasted much longer than generally realized. 

Félix Nadar, Claude Monet, c.1899

Even after Monet's desperate financial woes began to lesson in the 1890's, he still faced criticism over the place of Impressionism in art. Acceptance in some conservative circles came at the expense of dismissal by a number of avant garde critics for being passé.

Monet was fortunate in having a powerful advocate in Georges Clemenceau, the Prime Minister of France who masterminded the Allied victory in 1918. Clemenceau guided, goaded, pampered and encouraged Monet to complete the Grand Decoration. When Monet died in 1926, it was Clemenceau who saw to the installation of the nymphéas in the Orangerie Museum in Paris.

Félix Nadar, Georges Clemenceau, early 20th Century

After a rapid rise to prominence in the 1790's, Turner had to contend with opposition from Sir George Beaumont, co-founder of the National Gallery, who strongly disapproved of the lack of "finish" of Turner's paintings. Beaumont died in 1827 but Turner's reputation had sustained critical, if not mortal, injury.

Richard Doyle, Turner Painting One of His Pictures, 1846

For the rest of his life, Turner faced derisive criticism for allegedly painting with "soap suds and whitewash." 
It was Turner's good fortune to find an advocate like Clemenceau - though not as highly-placed in the British establishment. 

 Francis Holl (after George Richmond), John Ruskin, 1857

John Ruskin (1819-1900) championed Turner with his multi-volume work, Modern Painters. And just as Clemenceau handled the details of installing the nymphéas in the Orangerie, Ruskin was the principal executor of the great mass of Turner's works, eventually displayed in the Tate Gallery in London.

There is a further parallel between Turner and Monet that needs to be examined in more detail than King or Moyle were able to do. This task however might best be handled by a psychologist rather than by a biographer. 

Both Turner and Monet were accomplished at depicting  the human figure - early in their careers. Monet in fact started as a caricaturist and a very good one. But he abandoned this celebrity art form to devote himself to landscape. The longer Monet painted, fewer and fewer people appeared in his works, until they disappeared entirely from his garden scenes in Giverny.

Claude Monet, The Japanese Footbridge, 1899

The young Turner painted a masterful self-portrait in 1799 and never bothered to create a really creditable human likeness again.

Moyle, with her astounding insight into small but significant details, notes that Turner presents himself in the Self-Portrait with powdered hair. This coiffure had gone out of vogue due to the French Revolution. Aristocrats, anxious to keep their heads on their shoulders, affected a more plebian hair style. Turner's father, whom he deeply loved, was a barber and wig-maker. The change-in-style had ruined the business of Turner Senior.

J.M.W.Turner, Self-Portrait, c. 1799

Turner's Self-Portrait was painted around the time he was elected as an associate member of the Royal Academy. The whitened-hair can be interpreted as flattery of the British political establishment in the hope of getting full Royal Academy status, which he achieved in 1802.  But it is more likely to have been a sensitive gesture of a loving son to his proud father.

For the rest of his long life, Turner resorted to populating his paintings with hobbit-like figures or even "stick-men," as in the case of Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps. People just don't seem to have mattered much in Turner's world-view, when compared to the cosmic forces of nature.  A similar emotional process apparently affected Monet as well.

Both Moyle and King  present evidence that some of this blinkered approach to their fellow human beings was due to the very human foibles of Turner and Monet. Turner, for all his generosity of spirit, was so focused on his income that he charged one of his most devoted patrons, Sir John Leicester, a consulting fee to critique an amateur painting by the nobleman. It was an incredible gaffe.

Turner was also so competitive, even when he was a well-established and wealthy artist, that he could not resist turning the "tables" on rival artists. Yet, when David Wilkie died in 1842, Turner painted one of the most affecting memorial works in all of Western art, Peace - Burial at Sea.

J.M.W.Turner, Peace - Burial at Sea, 1842

Turner and Monet certainly had their faults but lack of humanity was not one their shortcomings.  In actuality, people did not shrink in size or disappear from the canvases of Turner and Monet. Instead, these gifted painters placed the viewer, the beholder, in short, us, into the picture. 

When we look at Hannibal's troops cowering under a threatening sky, we become protagonists, no longer spectators, in this drama. We stand in meditative communion with Monet's nymphéas and we are no longer in an art gallery. We are truly one with nature.

Claude Monet, Waterlilies, 1908

In her moving commentary on Turner's last works, Moyle writes:

In these late paintings Turner used every ounce of his painterly virtuosity to depict a complex, mysterious world and contain it within a single holistic emblem. As if encouraging his viewer to peer through a multidimensional telescope, he shows time, science, different worldly planes and natural phenomena in a mysterious kaleidoscope.

Turner, Moyle concludes "sought to communicate the ultimate truth about the world of which he was a part..."

If one really wants to trace the influence of Turner on Monet, this example of seeking  "to communicate the ultimate truth"  is where the trail leads. This "example" rather than painterly technique is the gift that Monet found for the taking during his sojourn in England in 1870-71
Cherishing "the ultimate truth about the world of which" we are a part is still here - for the taking.  And you don't have to be a Modern Painter to partake of this gift.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Introductory Image: Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies. 2016 (book cover ) Courtesy Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

J.M.W.Turner (British, 1775-1851) Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps, 1812. Oil on Canvas, Support: 1460 x 2375 mm. Tate Britain. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest,1856 N00490

Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926) Water Lilies, 1916. National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo.  Photograph by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926) Water Lilies, 1914-26. Oil on canvas, three panels, each 6' 6 3/4" x 13' 11 1/4" (200 x 424.8 cm), overall 6' 6 3/4" x 41' 10 3/8" (200 x 1276 cm). Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, Museum of Modern Art, New York City, ID # 666.1959.a-c

Henri Manuel (French, 1874-1947), Monet at work in his large studio, 1920. Courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc and Getty Images

Félix Nadar (French, 1820-1910) Claude Monet, 1899. Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Félix Nadar (French, 1820-1910) Georges Clemenceau, early 20th Century. New York Public Library Digital Gallery: [] and Wikimedia Commons

Richard Doyle (British, 1824-1883) Turner Painting One of His Pictures, 1846. Woodcut, 3 3/8 in. x 4 1/8 in., Acquired, 1973. National Portrait Gallery, London, D6996   
Francis Holl (British, 1815-1884) John Ruskin, Stipple engraving of portrait by George Richmond, 1857. 21 3/4 in. x 16 in. (551 mm x 407 mm) plate size; 22 1/2 in. x 17 3/4 in. (573 mm x 450 mm) paper size. Given by Mrs C.M. Baker, 1937. National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG D33440

Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926) The Japanese Footbridge, 1899. Oil on canvas,  81.3 x 101.6 cm (32 x 40 in.) framed: 101 x 120.7 x 7.6 cm (39 3/4 x 47 1/2 x 3 in.) Gift of Victoria Nebeker Coberly, in memory of her son John W. Mudd, and Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. No.1992.9.

J.M.W.Turner (British,1775-1851) Self-Portrait, c.1799. Oil paint on canvas, Support: 743 x 584 mm, frame: 985 x 820 x 110 mm. Tate Britain. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest,1856. N00458

J.M.W.Turner (British,1775-1851) Peace - Burial at Sea, 1842. Oil paint on canvas, Support: 870 x 867 mm framed: 1110 x 1108 x 120 mm. Tate Britain. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest,1856. N00528

Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926) Water Lilies, 1908. National Museum Wales, Cardiff. Photograph by  National Museum of Wales Enterprises Limited/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Monday, January 2, 2017

Art Eyewitness Looks at the Art Scene in 2016

Reflections on the Art Scene during 2016

By Ed Voves

A few years following World War II, the British writer Rose Macaulay (1881-1958) pondered the vagaries of human imagination, "half of whose desire is to build up, while the other half smashes and levels to the earth."

These lines appeared in A Pleasure of Ruins, published in 1953. In this brilliant meditation on art and life, Macaulay surveyed the bittersweet experience of reflecting on the shattered remains of ancient civilizations. She also detailed the bizarre, chiefly 18th century British, mania for building artificial "ruins" or follies on country estates. If you could not travel to Rome to tour the Forum Romanum, then you could build your own version, smaller of course, in Sussex or Oxfordshire.

During the past year, I have had a number of "pleasure of ruins" moments while reviewing exhibitions for Art Eyewitness. 2016 was crowded with great exhibits, especially ones dealing with ancient times and modern war. All provided food for thought.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art showcased Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World, a stunning appraisal of later Greek art between the conquests of Alexander and the rise of the Roman Empire. 
A month before the Met's Pergamon exhibit previewed, the Onassis Cultural Center in New York City reopened its doors on March 24th, after being closed for renovation since the spring of 2012. The premier exhibit at the Onassis Center, Gods and Mortals at Olympus, looked at the course of Ancient Greek culture by focusing on the archaeological discoveries at the city of Dion in northern Greece overshadowed by the home of the gods on Mount Olympus.

In November, my wife Anne and I attended the press preview of the Met's exhibition, Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion, which I plan to review in coming weeks.

Anne Lloyd, Gallery view of the Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion exhibit

After leaving Masterworks, I was delighted to see that two of the monumental art works from the Pergamon exhibit remained on display in the lobby galleries of the Met. These are on extended loan from the Staatliche Museum in Berlin, which is being refurbished as the Onassis Cultural Center had been.

Anne took a magnificent photo of the fragmentary marble head of Apollo or Alexander. It is believed to have decorated the wall of the gymnasium of Pergamon. This city was the capital of the Greek dynasty which ruled much of what is now Turkey until the Romans marched in. The degree of skill which went into the carving of this monumental object needs to be emphasized because its very size is so striking that the artistry that went into its creation can easily be overlooked.

Anne Lloyd, Gallery view of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, showing Fragmentary Colossal Marble Head of a Youth, 2nd century B.C., from Staatliche Museen zu Berlin 

When I studied Anne's photo of the shattered head of Apollo/Alexander, I was immediately struck by the way the composition of her picture evokes paintings by Hubert Robert, the French eighteenth century painter who specialized in depictions of ruins, real and imagined.  
The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. mounted a spectacular exhibit of the oeuvre of "Robert of the Ruins" during the summer of 2016. I saw it just before it closed and was especially impressed by Robert's fantastical depiction of the Louvre - in ruins.

Robert painted View of the Grande Galerie of the Louvre in Ruins in 1796, shortly after he had been released from prison during the French Revolution. Artists and scientists who had enjoyed the patronage of the Ancien Regime were held in suspicion by the Republican tribunals and Robert was lucky to escape with his head on his shoulders. 

Robert's close shave with the Madame Guillotine coincided with the rampage of destruction that took place in France during the Revolution. It was not just the Bastille, hated symbol of Royal repression, that was destroyed but churches and sacred sites like St. Denis as well. 

Hubert Robert, View of the Grande Galerie of the Louvre in Ruins, 1796

The open vault of the ruined Louvre in Robert's painting so closely mirrors the curved ceiling of the Metropolitan's Ancient Greek galleries in Anne's photo that it causes me to cringe to contemplate these two images. Could the grim fantasy of Robert's painting actually occur to the Louvre, to the Met or one of our other beloved museums?

Given the on-going destruction of World Heritage sites like Palmyra in Syria by terrorist groups, the answer is - sadly - yes. And history shows that this is not just a contemporary phenomenon. The devastation of World War Two included a number of terrible cultural losses. The cloisters of Camposanto Cemetery in Pisa, for instance, were hit by Allied bombs in 1944 resulting in the destruction of some of the most important frescoes from the early Renaissance. 

The hand of Father Time is the ultimate and inevitable curator of Macaulay's "pleasure of ruins." Occasionally, what seems lost forever is rediscovered. Around 800 A.D., two cities on Nile delta in Egypt, Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus, were lost to erosion and the encroachment of the Mediterranean Sea. 

Christoph Gerigk, Franck Goddio during the excavation of the Stele of Nectanebo I

Artifacts are now emerging from these cities, one populated by Greek immigrants, the other - Canopis - a major Egyptian religious site. Beginning in the 1990's, a major underwater archaeological campaign has recovered a trove of statues, cult images and everyday objects abandoned to the rising tides over thousand years ago.

In May, Anne and I visited the British Museum to see an unforgettable exhibit of these works of art and daily life, Sunken Cities: Egypt's Lost Worlds. Incredible images of Franck Goddio and his team of divers, excavating treasures from beneath the waves of Aboukir Bay, were matched with the actual objects. Whether it was the imposing Stele of Pharaoh Nectanebo I (378-362 BC) or an exquisite statue of the god Osiris, the works on display in Sunken Cities were profoundly moving.

Christoph Gerigk, Statue of Osiris, ca. 664-610 B.C. 

The special nature of the Sunken Cities exhibit was reinforced by the fact that Anne and I nearly missed our chance to see it. We had tickets for the opening day of the exhibit but a protest by Green Peace over the sponsorship of the exhibit by British Petroleum nearly derailed our plans. The British Museum staff rose to the challenge and we were able to visit the exhibit next day.  

However well-meaning, the Green Peace protesters might have been better advised to encourage people to see the Sunken Cities exhibit than to prevent them from getting into the British Museum. If there is a more prescient warning of the dangers of Global Warming than Sunken Cities, I'll be very much surprised.

Sunken Cities also highlighted the special relationship of Greeks and Egyptians during ancient times.  These two ethnic groups generally lived in harmony. The tremendous cultural heritage of Egypt influenced Greek artistic expression while the vigor and intellectual achievements of the Greeks supplied an infusion of vitality to Egypt.  

The dynamism of Ancient Greece was very much in evidence in the exhibit,The Greeks: Agamemnon to Alexander the Great. Drawn from the collections of Greek museums, it traced the entire evolution of Greek culture from prehistory to Alexander's empire. 

Meda's Wreath, Gold wreath of myrtle leaves, Macedon, 4th century B.C.

This traveling exhibition displayed striking archaeological finds like the golden myrtle wreath discovered at the royal tombs of Macedon. It is thought to have been worn by Queen Meda, the fifth wife of Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander.

It was another work of Greek art dealing with a crown that deeply impressed me when I saw Agamemnon to Alexander at its final stop, the National Geographic Museum in Washington D.C. Carved from marble, this striking work from the fifth century B.C. is entitled Votive Relief of a Youth Crowning Himself. It was discovered at Sounion near Athens. 

Votive Relief of a Youth Crowning Himself, Athens, ca. 470-460 B.C

This bas relief, created in the austere "Severe" style, shows a victorious athlete placing an olive crown on his own head. It is a self-confident act, evoking the triumphant emotions of the Greeks following their defeat of mighty Persia in 480-479. 

War, however, begets more war. The victories of Athens and Sparta over the Persians planted the seeds of the self-destructive battles they soon began to wage against each other. Amid all of the wonderful 2016 exhibits which I saw, several had military themes which left unsettled feelings and unanswered questions in my mind. 

The Frick Collection mounted Watteau's Soldiersa small but brilliant display of paintings and sketches by the least warlike artist imaginable, Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). 

Jean-Antoine Watteau, The Portal of Valenciennes, ca. 1710−11

Watteau was born in Valenciennes, on the border of France and Belgium. This was one of the most fought-over regions of Europe. Watteau's home turf provided him with the subjects for scenes utterly different from his scenes of wistful romance. Tired, dispirited troops populate Watteau's paintings and sketches, their once-smart uniforms now tattered and dingy gray.

In November, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts opened World War I and American Art. In May 2017, this searing, disquieting exhibit will travel to the New-York Historical Society, and then on to the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville during the autumn. Seldom has the direct relationship between propaganda and the destructiveness of war been so convincingly presented.

Clagett Wilson, Front Line Stuff, ca. 1919

The menacing apparitions emerging from the detonating shells seem to be advancing on the embattled infantrymen in Clagett Wilson's Front Line Stuff. Clagett Wilson (1887-1952) served with the U.S. Marines in the thick of the 1918 campaign. He painted this watercolor shortly after the Armistice. It is an accurate depiction  of battlefield conditions but also of the psychotic state inflicted on the minds of the survivors.

Clagett Wilson went on to design Broadway theatrical sets. His World War I watercolors were forgotten and then rediscovered in the Smithsonian archives. The past yields both lost treasures and haunted images.

From the foregoing, you might derive the idea that 2016 was a year of doom and gloom. The art scene, however, provided much to be confident about and worthy of gratitude. 

Gallery view of the East Building, National Gallery of Art, showing works by  Constantin Brancusi, left to right: Maiastra (1911), Bird in Space (1925), Bird in Space (1927), Agnes B. Meyer (1929) Photo by Rob Shelley

The East Building of the National Gallery of Art was reopened in September with a brilliant configuration of the Modern collection at the NGA. The role of women in the arts was championed by sensational Metropolitan Museum exhibits on Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun and Diane Arbus. The Philadelphia Museum of Art presented fabulous exhibits of Pop Art, the art of Africa and the Mexican Renaissance. Ruins were nowhere in evidence.

If I were forced to pick one image to evoke 2016, it would be the portrait of Charlotte Brontë  by George Richmond. This stunning, truly iconic work anchored the phenomenal exhibit, Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will, at the The Morgan Library and Museum.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2016), Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond (1850)

A couple days after Christmas, Anne and I went back to the Morgan for a last look at this exhibit. The Richmond Portrait fairly glowed with the life force of Charlotte Brontë.
Melancholy spirits may choose to meditate on the "pleasure of ruins." But when you look into the eyes of Charlotte Brontë in the Richmond Portrait, you are struck and inspired by the vitality of the human soul. 

Ruins collapse and human bodies age, wither and finally perish. The human soul, when possessed of unquenchable spirit such as Charlotte Brontë had in abundance, endures.

Empires fall. Art lives.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Introductory Image:                                                                                                         Anne Lloyd, Photo (2016), Gallery View of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, showing Statue of Athena Parthenos Greek, Hellenistic period, ca. 170 B.C.; copy of a mid-5th century B.C. chryselephantine cult statue of Athena Parthenos by Pheidias. On loan from the Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (AvP VII 24). 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2016), Gallery view of the Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, November 18, 2016 - February 5, 2017.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2016), Gallery View of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, showing Fragmentary Colossal Marble Head of a Youth, Greek, Hellenistic period, 2nd century B.C. Discovered at Pergamon, on upper terrace of gymnasium, 1879. On loan from the Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (AvP VII 283) Cat. 58

Hubert Robert (French, 1733-1808) View of the Grande Galerie of the Louvre in Ruins, 1796. Oil on canvas, 115 x 145 cm (45 1/4 x 57 1/16 in.) Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures, Paris © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY (Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) 

Christoph Gerigk, Photo, Franck Goddio during the excavation of the Stele of Nectanebo I. © Christoph Gerigk / Franck Goddio / Hilti Foundation. (Image courtesy of the British Museum, London, U.K.)

Christoph Gerigk, Photo, Statue of Osiris, ca. Egyptian, 664-610 B.C. © Christoph Gerigk / Franck Goddio / Hilti Foundation. (Image courtesy of the British Museum, London, U.K.)

Meda's Wreath, Greek-Macedonian, 4th century B.C. Gold wreath of myrtle leaves and blossoms. Found in the antechamber of the tomb of Philip II of Macedon, at ancient Aigai, 1977. Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki, Greece. (Image courtesy of the National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C.)

Votive Relief of a Youth Crowning Himself, Greek, Severe style (Attic). ca. 470-460 B.C. Marble, 48x50cm. National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece ID GSM025 (Image courtesy of the National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C.)

Jean-Antoine Watteau (French,1684−1721) The Portal of Valenciennes, ca. 1710−11. Oil on canvas (lined). 12 3/4 x 16 in. (32.4 x 40.6 cm) Framed: 18 11/16 × 21 5/8 in. (47.5 × 54.9 cm) The Frick Collection, New York City. Purchased with funds from the bequest of Arthemise Redpath, 1991. Accession number: 1991.1.173 (Image courtesy of the Frick Collection)

Claggett Wilson (American, 1887–1952) Front Line Stuff, c. 1919 Watercolor, pencil and varnish on paperboard, 18 3/4 × 22 7/8 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Alice H. Rossin, 1981.163.11 Photo: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC/Art Resource, NY (Image courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of Art)

Rob Shelley, Photo (2016) Installation view of Modern Art in East Building, Upper level galleries. Photo Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2016) Detail of Charlotte Brontë, 1850, by George Richmond, National Portrait Gallery Collection, London. (Image courtesy of the Morgan Library and Museum, New York City)