Monday, August 28, 2017

Wild: Michael Nichols at the Philadelphia Museum of Art & the National Geographic Museum


Wild: Michael Nichols 

Philadelphia Museum of Art, through September 17, 2017

National Geographic Museum, Washington D.C.
October 12, 2017 - January 12, 2018

Reviewed by Ed Voves

There is a temptation to apply the words "last of" to the great photographer, Michael "Nick" Nichols. "The Last Nature Photographer." "The Last Explorer." Or something like that.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is currently hosting an exhibition of Nichols' photos. Entitled Wild: Michael Nichols, the exhibit thoughtfully presents Nichols' incredible images in careful juxtaposition with works of art from the museum's collections.When Wild completes its run in Philadelphia in mid-September, it will head down to the National Geographic Museum in Washington D.C.

The effect of Nichols' photos and the brilliant work of the Philadelphia Museum of Art curators soon dispels impressions about the "last of the wild." Instead, what we see evoked on the exhibit walls is the resilience of nature, the enduring spirit of an organic world.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Gallery view of Wild: Michael Nichols
showing Richard Long's Limestone Circle (1985)

We see it on the gallery floor too. Richard Long's Limestone Circle (1985) is a deceptively simple sculpture. It represents the most perfect geometric shape, rendered with chipped, craggy bits of rock. A visually pleasing conceit on its own terms, Limestone Circle takes on a vastly more important meaning when you see it next to photos by Michael Nichols.

One of Nichols' pictures, an aerial view of cloud-dappled Lake Télé in the Republic of the Congo is a perfect match for comparison with Long's Limestone Circle. Lake Télé is ringed with forbidding jungle, still not fully explored to this day. The clear demarcation between land and water in the photo invites us to extend this distinction to our emotional response to this incredible image. The clear lake water evokes a sense of freedom and relative safety compared with the dangerous, trackless forests around it.

Michael Nichols, Lake Télé, Republic of the Congo, 1998

Lake Télé, however, is the reputed home of a Loch Ness-like monster, the Mokèlé-mbèmbé. Like Nessie, it hasn't been seen of late. Of course, the Mokèlé-mbèmbé is just a myth but crocodiles grow plenty big in Central Africa too.

We are on a lot safer ground with Limestone Circle. Yet, where is the "wild" in nature? Outside the circle of stones or within? Has the civilized, post-industrial world reduced nature to National Parks and extremely remote sites such as Lake Télé? Or will nature reassert itself, with the "wild" springing to life like weeds pushing  through cracks in the sidewalk?

I suspect that the really wild aspects of nature lie within - ourselves.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Gallery view of Wild: Michael Nichols

While walking through the exhibit galleries, I saw a fellow art-lover looking at Nichols' photo of the Grand Prismatic Spring at Yellowstone National Park. The primary colors in the spring come from microbes called thermophiles, which thrive in the scalding hot water. Nichols photographed the Grand Prismatic Spring  and its thermophiles, turning the spring into a huge eye, exploding with luminous color into its surroundings.

By contrast, Richard Long's Limestone Circle is a blank canvas, waiting for us to fill the empty space with the "wild" hues of our imaginations.

Michael Nichols certainly has a vivid imagination, balanced by a pragmatic outlook on life and art. My wife, Anne, and I were able to spend some time with him at the press preview of Wild. A native of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Nichols exudes a true "natural" character, able to adapt and flourish in any environment. He posed for Anne in front of one of his photos, fittingly, of Hildur, a Serengeti lion who has seen a lot of life.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Portrait of Michael Nichols

Nichols, a veteran photojournalist for National Geographic, is a master of realist photography. He personifies the proud job title that I used to hear back in the days when I worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News. Nichols is a real "lensman." 

That honorific means a lot of hard work and methodical planning. To get a shot of a Northern Spotted Owl swooping down through a Redwood Forest in Northern California involved staging an elaborate lure and split-second timing. The reward was an unforgettable image of a critically threatened species whose fate, due to habitat loss, has been the subject of controversy for nearly three decades.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Gallery view of Wild showing Michael Nichols' Northern Spotted Owl in a Young Redwood Forest

The Northern Spotted Owl is endangered because of the economic value of its forest home. Redwood trees, a prime candidate for the logger's saw, posed an even bigger challenge for Nichols' camera than the Northern Spotted Owl. To photograph two Redwoods for a five-page fold out for National Geographic, Nichols and a team of tree-climbing assistants spent weeks lowering cameras down the huge trees to create panoramic views of these towering giants. 

In an interview with Sid Rodriquez, Interactive Content Writer for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Nichols recorded the electric moment when the perfect moment for the perfect shots occurred:

On the thirteenth day, there was a moment where the sky got thin—we were doing these at dawn—and that’s what you’re looking for in the forest, where you still have some clouds to make the light soft. If it’s really cloudy, it’s just dead. It’s when—we call it cloudy bright—and the tree started glowing. I can’t see it, I’m looking through a computer on the ground, but the guys up in the tree are saying, “Nick, the tree, it’s glowing, it’s alive, we can feel it.” That’s when we made the set of pictures that became the composite we’re putting in the Great Stair Hall.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Michael Nichols posing before 3200 Year-Old Giant Sequoia 

The composite that Nichols refers to is one of a pair of 60-foot copies of the Redwood photographs he took for the National Geographic. One is a winter-time study (2012) of a 3,200 year-old Giant Sequoia, the other a much younger Coastal Redwood, "only" 1,500 years of age, photographed in 2009. 

The 60-foot tapestry-like photos are suspended from the rafters of the Great Hall of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. "Awesome" is perhaps the most over-used adjective in the English language (in polite society, that is) but for once it is an entirely accurate descriptor of Nichols' achievement.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Detail of Michael Nichols' 1500 Year-Old Coastal Redwood

If Nichols' Redwood photos testify to his patience and skill, there are others that testify to his courage and his strength of will. Nature really is "red in tooth and claw." The image of a tiger named Charger which Nichols took  in 1996 recalls Mutual of Omaha's "Wild Kingdom" TV series back in the 1950's. Nichols used a camera trap to get this incredible shot. Lot's of adventure but, like "Wild Kingdom," the gazelle gets away - this time.

Michael Nichols, Charger, Camera Trap Photograph, India, 1997

In other photos in Wild, we do see blood and gore. There's a wild-eyed lion named C-Boy chomping on a zebra, a chimp in the process of devouring a smaller monkey. We have to expect - and accept - that the working of the food cycle in nature is a messy process. All the same, Nichols must have nerves of steel and a cast-iron digestive system to be able to record such scenes.

Harder to stomach are Nichols' photos of animals abused by human beings. The frenzied chimpanzee chained in a squalid cage is a vastly more horrifying photo than C-Boy's lack of table manners. It took a great deal of moral courage, of professional focus tempered with fortitude, on Nichols' part, to take this picture.

Michael Nichols, Whiskey, A Pet Chimpanzee, Burundi, 1989

Ultimately, Wild is an exhibition about empathy. When one looks at the face of the Mandrill in the introductory image of this essay, the eyes that look back are very like a human's eyes. We sense a kinship with the Mandrill and the other wonderful animals depicted in Wild. Yet a gulf still separates us from them.

Will the empathy that we see displayed in Nichols' photos enable us to cross that divide? Will we every unchain the chimp in the cage and remove our shackles as well? If so, we will owe not a small debt of gratitude to Michael "Nick" Nichols.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved.  Images courtesy of Michael Nichols and the National Geographic Society and  Anne Lloyd. Interview text courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Introductory Image:
Michael Nichols, Mandrill in a hunting Camp, Gabon, 2000, (Courtesy of the artist) © Michael Nichols/National Geographic.  

Anne Lloyd Photo (2017), Gallery view of Wild: Michael Nicholsshowing Richard Long's Limestone Circle (1985) Original in the Collection of Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Michael Nichols, Lake Télé, Republic of the Congo, 1998. (Courtesy of the artist) © Michael Nichols/National Geographic.

Anne Lloyd Photo (2017), Gallery view of Wild: Michael Nichols.

Anne Lloyd Photo (2017), Portrait of Michael Nichols.

Anne Lloyd Photo (2017), Gallery view of Wild: Michael Nicholsshowing Northern Spotted Owl in a Young Redwood Forest, 2009. Original photo © Michael Nichols/National Geographic.

Anne Lloyd Photo (2017), Michael Nichols posing before 3200 Year-Old Giant Sequoia, 2009. Original photo © Michael Nichols/National Geographic.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Detail of Michael Nichols' 1500 Year-Old Coastal Redwood, California, 2009. Original photo © Michael Nichols/National Geographic.

Michael Nichols, Charger, Camera Trap Photograph, India, 1997. Original photo © Michael Nichols/National Geographic.

Michael Nichols, Whiskey, A Pet Chimpanzee, Burundi, 1889. (Courtesy of the artist) © Michael Nichols/National Geographic

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Art Eyewitness Essay: A Visitation to Art - Reflections on Masterpieces by Sargent, French Classic Drawing and Della Robbia

Henry James and American Painting
June 9 - September 10, 2017

Poussin, Claude and French Drawing in the Classical Age
June 16 - October 15, 2017

By Ed Voves

You never know the direction that art will take you. Great art can lead us to make journeys of discovery that we are not aware of until much later. Sometimes, the act of recognition comes in dimly remembered dreams. On other occasions, art grabs our attention, snapping us wide awake.

Recently, a visit to the Morgan Library and Museum in New York spurred my thoughts from a painting set in Venice by John Singer Sargent to a French seventeenth century drawing to reflections on one of the great episodes of Christian history.

This incident, called the Visitation, is part of the "infancy narrative" in the gospel of St. Luke (Chapter 1, verses 39-56). Mary, bearing the unborn Jesus, journeys to see an older relative. Elizabeth, long the childless wife of Zachariah, is pregnant too. Her child will be the future St. John the Baptist.  

According to St. Luke, Mary had earlier been told by the Angel Gabriel that she will give birth to the Messiah - and that Elizabeth has received glad tidings as well.

And behold thy cousin Elizabeth, she also hath conceived a son in her old age; and this is the sixth month with her that is called barren: Because no word shall be impossible with God.

The Visitation is a key moment in Christian sacred history, depicted countless times in all manner of artistic media. Elizabeth, upon greeting Mary, realizes that her younger relative will give birth to the Messiah. Elizabeth is the first person to identify Jesus as redeemer of all humanity.

And it came to pass, that when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the infant leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost:  And she cried out with a loud voice, and said: Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.

In addition to its religious implications, the Visitation happens to be a fascinating example of human nature in action. It is an encounter of youth and age, a meeting between women with different expectations and fears relating to the lives of their unborn infants. And possibly a degree of mutual rivalry might be lurking in the emotional mix too.

Human nature is very much in evidence in John Singer Sargent's painting on display at the Morgan's exhibit, Henry James and American Painting. Sargent's A Venetian Interior, painted between 1880 -1882, shows an encounter between two woman in the shabby interior of a once grand Venetian palace, the Palazzo Rezzonico. It is a secular version of the Visitation, featuring the interaction of a veiled  woman and a younger woman, who is clearly making an appraisal of her older compatriot.

Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2017), Detail of John Singer Sargent's A Venetian Interior, c.1880

What is going on here? The Venetian working class women used the hallway of the Palazzo Rezzonico to escape the fierce summer heat, string beads and have a chat. Sargent's studio was located on an upper level of the beleaguered building. We will never know what the veiled woman is saying or why the younger woman regards her so skeptically.

Sargent was not a religious painter in 1880. His controversial murals, Triumph of Religion, painted between 1890-1919 for the Boston Public Library, were a decade in the future. Yet there is an encounter taking place in this painting, as in depictions of the Visitation. The incredible shaft of sunlight pierces the gloom of the Palazzo Rezzonico just as beams of heavenly light streamed on to countless works of art with sacred themes.

I came close to missing the parallels between Sargent's painting and the Visitation. However, I was able to study a sketch showing the Visitation on view in another exhibit at the Morgan, Poussin, Claude, and French Drawing in the Classical Age.  

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Detail of Laurent de La Hyre's The Visitation, ca.1645 

On the Morgan's gallery walls, The Visitation by Laurent de La Hyre (1606–1656) seems impressive but hardly a show-stopper. De La Hyre was highly influential in his day, but his overly didactic style works against the human drama of Mary's encounter with Elizabeth. A similar painted version of The Visitation by de La Hyre (not on view in the Morgan exhibit) undermines the power of the meeting to an even greater degree.

De La Hyre's Visitation sketch, on the other hand, gets more than just an honorable mention. Once we look past all the billowing drapery, the dynamics of human interaction once again take center stage.

The connection between Sargent's painting and de La Hyre's drawing is not obvious. Yet, de La Hyre's sketch helped me see that Sargent's painting also portrayed a dramatic encounter, a meeting of minds and spirits. And, as it turned out, I had recently seen two other representations of the Visitation that made the same point. 

Luca della Robbia, The Visitation, c. 1445

The centerpiece of the recent exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, Della Robbia: Sculpting with Color in Renaissance Florence was a magnificent nearly life-size depiction of the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth. This glazed terracotta statue group by Luca della Robbia was assembled from several interlocking parts which had been fired separately in the kiln, no mean feat as any ceramic artist will tell you.

Technical mastery aside, the real wonder is that Luca captured the spirit of the encounter. We see  the loveliness of the young Mary and the wonderment showing through the lines and wrinkles of Elizabeth's careworn face. There is something more, too.

Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2017), Details of Luca Della Robbia's The Visitation 

Look at Luca's Visitation for more than a moment or two and I think you will discern an element of doubt, of concern, of questioning in the eyes of Mary and of Elizabeth. These sentiments are elusive and intangible. Yet they make their presence felt.

And why not? Would Mary and Elizabeth not question the angelic revelations surrounding the improbable circumstances of both their pregnancies. A virgin giving birth? A barren old  woman with child? Would their instinct or "radar" not be sensitive to the possibility that what God decreed, other human beings might doubt? And what would Elizabeth think after realizing that Mary's son, rather than hers, was destined to be the "Lord."

There is a complicated tangle of emotions involved in the Visitation story. If I had to pick one word to describe the feelings of Mary and Elisabeth it would be "solemn." There is sense of solemnity in almost every artistic depiction of the Visitation. Joyfulness is there, but not unrestrained happiness. New life is waiting to be born - into a world of sorrows. 

With such thoughts in mind, I was not surprised to find that the best description of solemnity is in a book written by the brother of Henry James, whose interest in art supplies the theme of the Morgan's exhibit. In The Varieties of  Religious Experience, William James wrote:

A solemn state of mind is never crude or simple—it seems to contain a certain measure of its own opposite in solution. A solemn joy preserves a sort of bitter in its sweetness; a solemn sorrow is one to which we intimately consent.

The experience of birth involves pains that lead to new life. Mothers forget the pangs of child birth when they behold their infants. And with each new born child comes an opportunity to redeem this fallen world.                                                                                                                                  
One of the fascinating details I discovered while researching the Visitation, is that the choice of word to describe Elizabeth's relationship with Mary is the Greek term syngenis. This is often translated as "cousin," as in the King James Version. But a more correct translation is "relative" or "kin." As biblical scholars note, Mary and Elizabeth might have been distant relatives, even members of different tribes of Israel. The Visitation may have been an effort to heal the wounds of family divisions or estrangement.

The second artistic rendition of the Visitation comes from a surprising source, St. Michael and All Angels' Church in Haworth, Yorkshire. This is the Church of England parish church where Rev. Patrick Brontë was the "perpetual curate" or minister from 1820 to 1861. Here his novelist daughters, Charlotte, Emily and Ann, lived  and wrote immortal works including Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), St. Michael and All Angels' Church, Haworth, West Yorkshire

The current church was built between 1879 and 1881 after the Brontës had died. Only the tower remains of the church the Brontës knew and where all are buried, save for Anne. A set of magnificent High-Victorian stained glass windows grace the church, which my wife Anne and I visited this past spring. The Visitation is one of the scenes prominently displayed.

No one who looks closely at this stained glass depiction of the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth can deride it as an example of Victorian sentimentality. There is such a notable feeling of tension between the "cousins" that one might almost conclude that the artist was aware of the syngenis issue. The arms of the two women are stretched to form an embrace that is not reflected in the expression of their faces. 

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Detail of The Visitation, St. Michael and All Angels' Church

Mary's probing eyes meet those of Elizabeth in an interval of suspended engagement. The stained glass scene of St. Michael's Church shows the moment of decision when human beings decide to love or not to love. We know the outcome to the Visitation story. Mary and Elizabeth do embrace. They do recognize the wonder of new life arising within their bodies.

Many people at moments like this cannot embrace the person opposite to them. They hang back, frozen in an act of judgment, like Sargent's young woman in the Palazzo Rezzonico.   
As I researched the place of the Visitation in Western art, I came across the version of this biblical incident painted by Jacopo Pontormo (1494–1557). This Mannerist painter is no great favorite of mine but his rendering of the Visitation is a masterpiece.

Other depictions of the Visitation show servants in the background or Elizabeth's husband, Zachariah, off to the side. Here Pontormo has posed a young woman and an older women facing towards the viewer. They are focusing directly on us. Although these women are not graced with halos above their heads, they bear striking resemblance to Mary and Elizabeth. It is an uncanny  technique of drawing us into the moment of decision, to love or not to love.

Jacopo Pontormo, The Visitation, 1528-1529 (detail)

Pontormo would probably have identified these woman as servants. Yet, they serve no supporting role in this painting. The two woman, looking directly at us, are alter egos for Mary and Elizabeth. Their eyes meet ours and the wordless questions are asked.
Will we reach out to embrace the "other" person?  Will we cherish the gift of life they carry within themselves?

That is the message I derived from studying Sargent's A Venetian Interior and Laurent de La Hyre's compelling drawing of the Visitation. 

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Detail of Laurent de La Hyre's The Visitation, ca. 1645 

Such thoughts were far from my mind when I walked through the door of the Morgan intent upon learning about  the artistic circle of Henry James and French art of "le grand siecle."   
Man proposes. God disposes. 

As I said at the beginning of this essay, great art can direct us on journeys of discovery over which we have little or no control. But once we get to where we're going, then a pattern of meaning will almost magically appear.The invisible walls which once barred our way crumble, letting the light of spirit stream in.                                                                                                                                       
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images courtesy of the  Morgan Library and Museum, the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. and Anne Lloyd

Introductory and Leading Images: 
Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Detail of John Singer Sargent's  A Venetian Interior, c.1880 - 1882. Oil on canvas.  60.7 x 49.8 cm Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA                       

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Detail of Laurent de La Hyre's The Visitation, ca. 1645, black chalk and gray wash. The Morgan Library & Museum; Bequest of Ethylene Seligman; 1994.4

Luca della Robbia (Italian, 1399/1400-1482) The Visitation, c. 1445. Glazed terracotta. 151 x 148 x 60 cm (59 7/16 x 58 1/4 x 23 5/8 in.) Church of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas, Pistoia. Displayed  by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Feb. 5–June 4, 2017

Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2017), Details of The Luca Della Robbia's The Visitation.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), St. Michael and All Angels' Church, Haworth, West Yorkshire

Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2017), Detail of Stained Glass Window (c. 1879-1881) of St. Michael and All Angels' Church, Haworth, West Yorkshire. 

Jacopo Pontormo  (Italian, 1494–1557) The Visitation, 1528-1529 (Detail). Oil on panel. 202 × 156 cm (79.5 × 61.4 in) Church of San Francesco e Michele, Carmignano. Wikipedia images, The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing Gmb

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Detail of Laurent de La Hyre's The Visitation, ca. 1645, black chalk and gray wash. The Morgan Library & Museum; Bequest of Ethylene Seligman; 1994.4