Thursday, November 30, 2017

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Modern Art in Detail by Susie Hodge

Modern Art in Detail: 75 Masterpieces

by Susie Hodge

Thames & Hudson/336 pages/$39.95

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Works of art are frequently the objects of disagreement and controversy. In 1927, a polished bronze sculpture, entitled Bird in Space, achieved the status of Exhibit A in a celebrated legal case, Brancusi vs. the United States.

Bird in Space, or rather a marble version of the notorious bronze, also features prominently in a new book, Modern Art in Detail: 75 Masterpieces. As the title of her book proclaims, author Susie Hodge considers Brancusi's abstract depiction of a soaring bird a great work of art.  

Officers of the U.S. Customs in 1926 saw Bird in Space quiet differently. Or rather, they were unclear of what it was. When the wingless metal object was first brought into the United States, Customs Officers designated it as a "miscellaneous household good." The owner of Bird in Space, the noted photographer Edward Steichen, was thereby liable for the payment of a tariff duty of $240. Had it been listed as an “original” work of art, Bird in Space would have been allowed into the country duty free.

Steichen and Brancusi refused to accept the Customs Department ruling and filed suit.

The ensuing court case established the artistic status of Bird in Space beyond a doubt.  Had it been available, Hodge's enlightening analysis would have saved U.S. officialdom a lot of trouble. Yet, nearly a century later, we still need a book like Modern Art in Detail because controversy and avant-garde art still go along, "hand in hand."

Art in Detail by Susie Hodge (Thames & Hudson, 2016)

Modern Art in Detail: 75 Masterpieces is a worthy successor to Hodge's Art in Detail: 100  Masterpieces. Published in 2016, Art in Detail covered the wide expanse of art history beginning with Giotto's Arena Chapel frescoes (1305) and extending to the present era.  Modern Art in Detail profiles some of the artists who appeared in the final chapters of the earlier book. But Hodge picks a new art work to be examined for those returning masters - Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Rene Magritte - so there is no repetition.

Hodge does repeat the same format used in Modern Art in Detail. Each artist is represented by a significant work of art, which is treated to incisive analysis, both for its topic and artistic technique. 

Hodge begins each chapter with a brief biographical essay of the artist in question, positioned next to a full-page (sometimes larger) illustration of their signature works of art. Despite the brevity of these bio sketches, Hodge manages to provide revealing details of the lives of these artists that explain much about their art.

Then, in the following pages, this work of art is divided into a number of framed "points of interest." Hodge focuses upon these, noting key factors ranging from contemporary events which influenced the artist to the choice of colors or materials used to create this masterpiece.

Paul Gauguin, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? 1897-98 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston     

Hodge's technique is exemplified by her analysis of Paul Gauguin's Where Do We Come From? What Are We?  Where Are We Going? One of the treasures of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, this late Gauguin masterpiece was painted upon a rough piece of sackcloth. This, as Hodge notes, was all Gauguin could afford, living destitute in Tahiti.

Where Are We Going? needs to be read from right to left. Its theme is much more profound than a rejection of Western morality for a return to a natural lifestyle. This is a painting which charts the journey of life, in this world and beyond.

Paul Gauguin, Detail of Where Do We Come From?, 1897-98 

The ages of the women posed in the foreground of the painting represent the stages of life, from birth to the brink of death. The black and white dog entering the picture from the extreme right is believed to symbolize Gauguin.

Paul Gauguin, Detail of Where Do We Come From?, 1897-98

Hodge in her analysis of the striking blue idol points out that Gauguin positioned a goat and a cat near to the statue. These animals are believed to have a "sixth sense or a spirituality that humans have lost." 

Paul Gauguin, Detail of Where Do We Come From?, 1897-98

In the left-hand corner of the painting reads the three questions of the work's title, profound, mysterious and unanswerable. 

This insightful treatment of Gauguin's painting is repeated for each of the other seventy-four modern masterpieces. Whether you have seen these works in person or only on the pages of art books, Hodge always provides insightful commentary.

Paul Cézanne, Monte Sainte-Victoire, 1902-04
Philadelphia Museum of Art

In the case of of Cezanne's Mont Sainte-Victoire, painted a few years after Where Are We Going?, Hodge pays close attention to Cezanne's brushstrokes. She notes that these "angled marks are methodical and rhythmic."  We can literally see Cezanne's focus "on the underlying structure  of the elements" of this pivotal work, setting the stage for Picasso, Georges Braque, Fernand Leger, Juan Gris and other artists who would launch the Cubist Revolution. 

All of these Cubist masters receive their due in Hodge's book. Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, painted in 1907, receives a thorough examination, as does Braque's The Portuguese. With these innovatory masterpieces, Cubism seemed poised to become the new "classicism" of Western art. But that of course did not happen. No school of art, no "ism" would define - or confine - Modernism into a single orthodoxy.

That one standard of ideology did not prevale was not for lack of trying. In the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, iconoclastic artists like Kazimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin tried - and failed - to institute a new aesthetic order for Soviet Russia. 

Vladimir Tatlin, Monument to the Third International,1919-20

Tatlin's Monument to the Third International was never built but served as a  model for starry-eyed nonsense like Lincoln Steffens' remark, "I have seen the future, and it works."

One can only be relieved that this Babel-scaled edifice was never constructed. Designed to be taller than the Eiffel Tower, with rotating rooms and a searchlight for beaming Communist slogans on to clouds above, this monstrosity would likely have collapsed, killing hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Today, Tatlin's prototype exists only in a model in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

Tatlin subscribed to an ideological agenda called "Constructivism." It was but one of many artistic "brave new worlds" which came and went during the early decades of the twentieth century. Realism, pronounced dead or dying, somehow survived. In the hands of a true master like Edward Hopper, the existential meltdown of modern man was depicted with an intensity that even a Surrealist work by Salvador Dali could not match.

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942
Art Institute of Chicago

Hopper's Nighthawks are separated from the darkened urban street by the plate glass window and the glow of fluorescent light. But inside the diner, within the seeming safety of the restaurant, each of the nocturnal wayfarers is locked in an invisible prison with walls composed of alienation, separation and despair.

Flash forward from 1942 to 1968. The walls of galvanized steel of Eva Hesse's Accession II replace the barriers of glass, glaring light and repressed emotion of Hopper's Nighthawks. Thousands of strands of thin rubber tubes bristle from within the metal box.The meaning of this enigmatic work, like so much of the art produced following World War II, is anyone's guess.

We have to think "inside the box" to find our answer. But what clues are there to guide us? This could be an inner sanctum, a padded cell or a Black Hole. Usually, Hesse's work is given a feminist interpretation. Hodge notes that Accession II "references the 'masculine' - the rigid geometric box and the 'feminine' - the flexible, soft tubing." 

Eva Hesse, Accession II, 1968
Detroit Institute of Arts

Hodge's explanation, while certainly plausible, is curiously limiting. Looking at this mystifying image, I recalled that Hesse created Accession II in the same year as Stanley Kubrick's film, 2001 - A Space Odyssey. Like the black monoliths that appear at different intervals in 2001, Accession II confronts us with the ideal of potential and possibility. It is a treasure for the future, a "miscellaneous household good" whose form and functions we have yet to fully comprehend.

Eva Hesse (1936-70) was an innovator in the way that she used "odds and ends" to create compelling, if difficult to comprehend, works of art. The legacy of her tragically short life and career, however, is mixed. Frankly, I find it difficult to accord the status of masterpiece to some of the "mixed media" works that have appeared in the years following Hesse's early death at the age of 34, from cancer. 

Is a stack of smashed TV sets like Nam June Paik's TV Cello (1971) a true work or art? Does a pretentious title, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), turn a dead Tiger Shark suspended in formaldehyde into a masterpiece? Can great art be "assembled" rather than created?

Hodge cannot be faulted in her analysis of these controversial works. And she certainly has the right to select art works that she deems as masterpieces for her book.

However,the failure to include classic works of photography among Hodge's array of masterpieces seems an unaccountable omission. Modern Art in Detail would have been enriched by the presence of Steerage by Alfred Stieglitz (1907) or Henri Cartier-Bresson's vertigo-inducing photo of a boy riding a bicycle through the winding street of a French town, Hyères, France (1932).

More to the point, analysis of such classic photos would have provided a foundation for understanding Bill Viola's provocative video, Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water), one of the final works studied in Modern Art in Detail.

Bill Viola, Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water), 2014
Tate Gallery, on loan to St. Paul's Cathedral, London

Viola's Martyrs is a searing indictment of humankind's inhumanity. It certainly deserves inclusion in Hodge's book. Yet, for all of its power, this video is artificial. It is a simulation rather than an act of creation or documentation.

Nick Ut's photo, Napalm Girl, comes immediately to mind when considering photography as a visceral rather than a virtual art form. This horrifying image of a Vietnamese child, Kim Phuc, set on fire by an incendiary bomb in 1972, deserves the status of masterpiece. It deserves to be studied in detail. It needs to be remembered, so that art does not decline into the production of glorified "selfies" and little else.

That is a heavy and perhaps unfair burden to place on Susie Hodge. After all, she has provided art lovers with two thoughtful books, Art in Detail and Modern Art in Detail. 

May we hope for a third book in Hodge's well-tried format, Classic Photography in Detail?Such a book would complement her already published volumes and create a trilogy of art books destined to enlighten and challenge art lovers for a long time to come.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images Courtesy of Thames & Hudson.  Close-up images of Paul Gauguin's Where Do We Come From? courtesy Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Introductory Image: Modern Art in Detail: 75 Masterpieces, 2017 (cover) Image credit: Thames & Hudson 

Paul Gauguin (French, 1848-1903) Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, 1897-98. Oil on canvas. 139 x 374.5 cm (54 ¾ x 147 ½ in.) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA        

Paul Cézanne (French, 1839-1906) Monte Sainte-Victoire, 1902-04. Oil on canvas. 73 x 92 cm (28 ¾ x 36 ⅛ in.) Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania, USA

Vladimir Tatlin (Russian, 1885-1953) Monument to the Third International,1919-20. Model Wood, iron, and glass. 420 x 300 x 80 cm (165 ⅜ x 118 ⅛ x 31 ½ in.) Sovfoto/ UIG via Getty images

Edward Hopper (American, 1882-1967) Nighthawks, 1942. Oil on canvas. 84 x 152.5 cm (33 ⅛ x 60 in.) Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois, USA/Friends of American Art Collection/ Bridgeman images

Eve Hesse (American, 1936-70) Accession II, 1968. Galvanized steel and vinyl. 78 x 78 x 78 cm (30 ¾ x 30 ¾ x 30 ¾ in.)  Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan, USA. © The Estate of Eva Hesse Courtesy Hauser & Wirth  Detroit Institute of Arts, USA/ Bridgeman Images

Bill Viola (American, 1951- ) Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water), 2014. Color high-definition video polyptych on four vertical plasma displays,, 7:15 minutes. Executive producer: Kira Perov. Performers: Norman Scott, Sarah Steben, Darrow Igus, John Hay. On loan to St Paul’s Cathedral, London, UK.  Gift to Tate by Bill Viola and Kira Perov, with support from donors. © Bill Viola Photo: Peter Mallet, courtesy Blain|Southern, London

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer

Metropolitan Museum of Art
November 13, 2017–February 12, 2018

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer joins a long list of landmark exhibitions at Metropolitan Museum of Art. These exhibits do far more than just present great works of art for us to enjoy.  New insights, sometimes revolutionary in their implications, emerge from the Met exhibitions.

Many of these exhibits, like Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer, appeared in the Tisch Galleries on the second floor of the Met. I have been privileged to see quite of few of them over the years and to review the more recent ones in Art Eyewitness.

To name but a few: Byzantium: Faith and Power (2004), Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity (2013) and Ancient Egypt Transformed: The MIddle Kingdom (2015). These brilliant exhibits transformed the Tisch Galleries into portals to the past and to the living essence of art. 

Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer does no less.  However, the exhibit curator, Dr. Carmen Bambach, faced a seemingly impossible obstacle which her colleagues generally do not encounter. Michelangelo's greatest masterpieces do not travel.

David, "Il Gigante," cannot be loaned to museums like the Metropolitan. Nor can The Pieta - though it was sent over from the Vatican for the 1964 New York World's Fair.To view the statue, art lovers stood on a conveyor-belt like the moving walkway between the East and West buildings of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. That permitted about a 45 second look at The Pieta.

With Michelangelo's "greatest hits" off-limits, Dr. Bambach focused on what was available. In an epic eight year quest, she secured the loan of several smaller sculptures, a very good copy of The Last Judgement, much reduced in scale, a splendid selection of Michelangelo's drawings and a number of contrasting art works by other Renaissance artists.Two hundred pieces of art are on view, the greatest number of works by Michelangelo ever presented in a single exhibition.

Michelangelo, Three Labours of Hercules, 1530–33
Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2017

With these drawings - and a "special effects" masterstroke - Dr. Bambach has curated a comprehensive and readily comprehensible introduction to the life of Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564).

Michelangelo is known to have burned many of his drawings toward the end of his life and was only prevented from destroying more by the art historian, Giorgio Vasari. But the great Florentine would have approved of an exhibition which emphasizes the importance of disegno or drawing. Disegno was the foundation of Michelangelo's art and life.

“Draw Antonio," Michelangelo wrote to his studio assistant, Antonia Mini. "Draw and don't waste time.” 

Mini did not waste any time selling the trove of drawings that Michelangelo had given him to inspire his practice of disegno. Deeply in debt, Mini sold the drawings, ironically insuring that they would survive to bear witness to Michelangelo's rise to greatness.

Michelangelo learned the basics of art in the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio (1448/49–1494). Several of Ghirlandaio's sketches are on view in the opening gallery, along with early efforts by Michelangelo. Ghirlandaio was a master of the fresco technique in painting and the main thrust of his desegno was to prepare the images to be painted in his frescoes.

Michelangelo must have profited by working with Ghirlandaio but he claimed to have taught himself art.There is some truth to that claim as Michelangelo's drawings have a sustained power and insight that Ghirlandaio's seldom match. 

Michelangelo, Portrait of Andrea Quaratesi, 1532

Michelangelo's Portrait of Andrea Quaratesi, created in black chalk in 1532, is one of the finest Renaissance character studies, matching the best of Hans Holbein's similar works. 

After a bit more than a year,1488-89, Michelangelo left Ghirlandaio's studio to survey the art collection of Lorenzo da Medici. Il Magnifico had created a sculpture garden at the Medici palace in Florence. Michelangelo was permitted to sketch the antiquities and then try his hand at sculpture.
In a famous encounter, Lorenzo da Medici commented favorably on the small sculpture of an aged satyr that Michelangelo had made. He noted, with wry humor, that the mythological creature would not likely have had a full set of teeth, as Michelangelo had depicted. The thirteen-year-old artist took a file and chipped away one of the satyr's teeth. Il Magnifico was so impressed that he invited Michelangelo to join his court.

Michelangelo's apprenticeship was over.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Michelangelo’s Study of Adam & Eve after Masaccio

The young Michelangelo also spent a lot of time in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence, sketching the frescoes created by the tragically short-lived Masaccio (1401-1428). Michelangelo's copy in red chalk of Masaccio's Expulsion from the Garden of Eden adheres closely to Masaccio but we can glimpse the beginnings of his version of this fabled event, immortalized on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Lorenzo da Medici died in 1492 and within a few, short years, the searing drama of Masaccio's fresco was repeated in the lives of countless people in Italy, including Michelangelo. The French invasion of 1494 and the wave of puritanical religious fervor under Savanorola led to the fall of the Medici. The fragile political framework of the Italian city-states, especially Florence, never recovered, though the cultural awakening of the  Renaissance continued. 

Michelangelo found himself without a patron, a refugee from the lost Medici paradise. He  sought work first in Bologna and then in Rome under the revived power of the Papacy. 
Michelangelo  took with him an impressive portfolio of artistic skills. But his years with the Medici gifted him with a philosophical treasure of equal value: the Neo-Platonic philosophy of Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494). 

Pico's teaching emphasized human dignity, the ability of individuals to shape their own destiny and the ideal of perfection as goal. Human beings could thus worship their Divine Creator with deeds, as well as prayers.

Michelangelo, Il Sogno (The Dream), 1530's

Michelangelo's The Dreamfrom the collection of the Courtauld Gallery in London, illustrates Pico's philosophy in action. A young man, perfect in bodily form, listens to the word of God, transmitted by an angelic trumpeter. The young man grasps the globe, while behind him rages scenes of cruelty, violence, lust and greed.

The symbolism in The Dream invites speculation and interpretation. Some commentators believe that the idealized youth is grappling with melancholy, as well as resisting temptation. The drawing was created in the early 1530's, following the terrible Sack of Rome in 1527 by the mercenary troops of Emperor Charles V.  It was certainly a depressing period in Italian history.

The Dream was probably part of a group of presentation drawings which Michelangelo made as gifts for Tommaso de’ Cavalieri. A young Roman nobleman, Tommaso de’ Cavalieri was also the recipient of Michelangelo's passionate friendship. Quaratesi likely was, as well. 

Michelangelo's homoerotic yearnings for these young nobles is quite evident. Yet the degree to which this passion was physically pursued will never be known. Michelangelo's private life, extremely limited by his obsessive work ethic, left him little time for self-indulgence. 

Michelangelo was a devout Christian and during his later years was a member of the religious circle inspired by the reform-minded poet, Vittoria Collona. Michelangelo was a close friend of Collona, for whom he created a powerful depiction of the Pieta, very different from the famous statue he had carved decades before.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Michelangelo's Pieta, ca. 1540 

Throughout his life, Michelangelo labored to create visual images testifying to the glory of God. This was done  chiefly through depictions of the male nude, including those of the dead Christ in his mother's arms. For Michelangelo, the youthful male body represented the epitome of God's creative handiwork.

This was such a far-reaching ideal that Michelangelo extended it to the way he portrayed women. A number of cultural historians, including Camille Paglia in her book, Sexual Personae, maintain that Michelangelo used male models for female characters in his paintings. Looking on his painted panel of the Holy Family called the Doni Tondo, the lithe, athletic body of the Virgin Mary certainly lends weight to that argument.

The Doni Tondo is not in the Metropolitan Museum exhibition but confirmation of this theory can be found in one of the the Met's own treasures, Michelangelo's Studies for the Libyan Sibyl which he painted on the Sistine Ceiling. The rippling arm muscles, the broad shoulders and ramrod straight spinal column are matched by the strength of character of the Libyan Sibyl's face. 

Michelangelo, Studies for the Libyan Sibyl, c.1510–11

It should not it be forgotten that the finished version of the Libyan Sibyl is holding a massive volume, a Wisdom Book. The Libyan Sibyl represents the incarnation of mind/body perfection possible to a person, male or female, who is devoted to God's truth.

The incomparable physique of the Libyan Sibyl sketch is also evident in a preparatory study made around 1504 for the famous, now lost, cartoon for the Battle of Cascina fresco. Looking at Male Back with a Flag, one is struck by the obvious fact that Michelangelo retained much of his sculptor's technique even when he sketched and painted.

 Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of Michelangelo's Male Back with a Flag, c. 1504. 

That was especially true of the Sistine Chapel frescoes. Unlike the Battle of Cascina, the cosmic drama of the Book of Genesis was carried through to completion. With skill and audacity to match Michelangelo, the Metropolitan has replicated the fabled Sistine Chapel ceiling with a lighted photo version above the Tisch galleries. The scale, though reduced, approximates the experience of looking at the original in Rome.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery view of Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer

The effect of being able to study Michelangelo's studies for the figures of the Sistine ceiling and then to look above you at the wondrous copy is enlightening in a way that no close study of the many fine books dealing with the Sistine frescoes can ever be. 

The sheer brilliance of the Metropolitan exhibit enables you to look at the original study for the Cumaean Sybyl, check it against the dazzling overhead display and thus progressively see how the image was incorporated into the whole design of the Sistine Chapel fresco.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Detail of Michelangelo' s Study of the Cumaean Sibyl (top),
followed by details of Metropolitan Museum reproductions of the Cumaean Sibyl

Even straining your neck to look at the original in the Vatican does not allow you to do that. My wife, Anne, an accomplished artist herself, described the effect. 

"I finally get the Sistine Chapel," Anne said. 

The sensational impact of the re-imagined Sistine Chapel is reinforced by the presence of a sculpture group in the very next gallery. To see a Michelangelo statute in the United States is a rare treat. There are two in this group, along with contrasting portrait busts, one from ancient Rome and another of Julius Caesar by Andrea Ferrucci (1465-1526). 

.Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery view of the Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer exhibit, Michelangelo's David/Apollo at left.

The standing sculpture, David/Apollo, begun around 1530, was never completed by the overworked Michelangelo. As a result, this non-finito work is impossible to identify as either David or Apollo. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery view of the Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer exhibit, Michelangelo's Brutus at center.

That's not case with the bust of Brutus. Sculpted in 1539, Brutus exerts a living presence. Here unquestionably is the portrait of a noble Roman. This forceful evocation of Caesar's assassin also points to the power-politics of Michelangelo's era.

Michelangelo was a supporter of the Republic of Florence, which had been suppressed by one of the Medici successors to Lorenzo the Magnificent. This was the brutal Duke Alessandro, assassinated in 1537 by his cousin, Lorenzino da Medici. Lorenzino was motivated by Republican sentiments similar to Michelangelo's. Alessandro's death, alas, did not lead to the restoration of the Florentine Republic. Michelangelo may have left his bust of Brutus unfinished in silent protest to the passing of Florence's republican tradition.

It is incredible to think that when Michelangelo stopped working on Brutus in 1539, he had a quarter of a century of life before him. Could he not have finished the bust of Brutus?

The obvious answer to this question is provided by the Metropolitan exhibit which cogently outlines his later epic works: the Last Judgment fresco and the architectural design of the basilica of St. Peter's. Michelangelo might cease working on a statue like Brutus but he never stopped working.

There is another reason, I believe, that many of the statues from his later years remained non-finito. Michelangelo was motivated by spiritual impulses that compelled him to work to the point that Spirit, God's spirit, was satisfied and then to move on. It was a case of God's will be done rather than Michelangelo's.

Michelangelo composed a beautiful poem, a madrigal, around 1534. These verses, translated by the great Renaissance scholar, Creighton Gilbert, confirm that Michelangelo certainly believed that he was obeying God's will.

Beautiful things are the longing of my eyes,                                                                  Just as it is my soul’s to be secure,                                                                                  But they’ve no other power                                                                                              That lifts to Heaven, but staring at all those.                                                                    A shining glory falls                                                                                                          From furthest stars above,                                                                                              Toward them our wish it pulls,                                                                                        And here we call it love.                                                                                                Kind heart can never have,                                                                                                To enamor and fire it, and to counsel,                                                                            More than a face with eyes that they resemble.

If my interpretation of this madrigal is correct, Michelangelo believed that God's face, with eyes that resemble stars, watched over his creative achievements. It was not Michelangelo's "kind heart" but heavenly inspiration that impelled him to attempt and to achieve the impossible.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) The Metropolitan Museum reproduction of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, with Michelangelo's Creation of Adam at center. 

Any person fortunate to visit Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer at the Metropolitan is likely come to the same conclusion. The evidence is overwhelming.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved    

Madrigal by Michelangelo Buonarroti, c.1534. Translated by Creighton Gilbert in Complete Poems and Selected Letters of Michelangelo, Princeton University Press, 1980, first edition published by Random House, 1963.

Images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Anne Lloyd

Introductory Image:
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Daniele da Volterra's Portrait of Michelangelo Buonarroti, ca. 1544, oil on wood, 34 3/4 x 25 1/4 in. (88.3 x 64.1 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art

Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475–1564) Three Labours of Hercules, 1530–33. Drawing, red chalk; 10 11/16 x 16 5/8 in. (27.2 x 42.2 cm) ROYAL COLLECTION TRUST / © HER MAJESTY QUEEN ELIZABETH II 2017,

Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475–1564) Portrait of Andrea Quaratesi, 1532.
Drawing, black chalk; 16 3/16 x 11 ½ in. (41.1 x 29.2 cm) The British Museum, London

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Photo of Michelangelo’s Study of Adam and Eve after The Expulsion from Paradise fresco by Masaccio, c. 1503-04. Red chalk. Musée du Louvre, Department des arts Graphiques, Paris (3897 recto)

Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475–1564) Il Sogno (The Dream), 1530's. Black chalk. Sheet: 15 5/16 × 10 15/16 in. (38.9 × 27.8 cm) Sheet: 15 5/16 × 10 15/16 in. (38.9 × 27.8 cm) London, Courtauld Gallery, Prince Gate Bequest (1978) inv. D 1978.PG.424

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Michelangelo's Pieta, ca. 1540, Black chalk,  28.9 x 18.9 cm (11 3/8 x 7 7/16 in. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. 1.2.o.16

Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian,1475–1564) Studies for the Libyan Sibyl (recto), Ca. 1510–11. Red chalk, with small accents of white chalk. Sheet: 11 3/8 x 8 7/16 in. (28.9 x 21.4 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1924. 24.197.2

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of Michelangelo's Male Back with a Flag, c. 1504.  Albertina, Vienna.123v

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery view of Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Detail of Michelangelo' s Study of the Cumaean Sibyl and the Metropolitan Museum of Art's reproductions of the Cumaean Sibyl on the Sistine Chapel ceiling at the Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer exhibit.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery view of the Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, showing Michelangelo's David/Apollo (C. 1530) and Brutus (1539), Marble Portrait of Emperor of Caracalla, Third Century A.D., and Andrea Ferrucci's Julius Caesar (c.1512-14) 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery view of the Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Michelangelo's Brutus, center.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery view of Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer, showing the Metropolitan Museum reproduction of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, with Michelanglo's Creation of Adam at center. 

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Old Masters Now: Celebrating the Johnson Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Old Masters Now: Celebrating the Johnson Collection

Philadelphia Museum of Art

November 3, 2017 –February 19, 2018

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Old Masters Now: Celebrating the Johnson Collection, on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is an exciting and important exhibition - for unexpected reasons. 

This exhibition is much more than a thoughtful reexamination of great masterpieces collected over a century ago. Old Masters Now presents a living collection, rich in new insights and revelations, asserting its cultural importance in ways that its first owner never could have expected.

The Johnson Collection occupies a special place in Philadelphia's cultural history. John G. Johnson is certainly not as famous an art collector as the controversial Dr. Albert Barnes. But in many ways, he was just as daring and adventurous in acquiring major works of art. Indeed, Johnson's choices often confound our stereotypes of Gilded Age art collectors. 

John Graver Johnson (1841–1917) was born in Chestnut Hill, then a small town outside Philadelphia. The son of a blacksmith, Johnson graduated from the city's prestigious Central High School and the University of Pennsylvania. Incredibly, a childhood photo of him survives from the 1840's, showing the sharp, perceptive eyes of a "Philadelphia lawyer" - years before he became one.

John G. Johnson: Boy and Man

Johnson was the greatest corporate lawyer of post-Civil War America. Although he only served briefly in the Pennsylvania Militia during the Civil War, it should not be forgotten that Johnson was a member of a generation that had passed through the "fire" of America's most tragic era. 

Johnson was a charter member - through hard work, rather than inheritance - of the American elite. But he knew the meaning of "nobless oblige," of giving back to the community that had nurtured him.  In Johnson's case, this was Philadelphia.

"I have lived my life in this City," Johnson stated in his will. "I want the collection to have its home here.” 

Johnson's collection - 1,279 paintings, 51 sculptures and  over 100 objects in other media - is the keystone of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery View showing photo of John G. Johnson's home

When you enter the exhibition galleries, huge mural-size photos of Johnson's splendid homes on S. Broad Street are on display. For a moment or two, you can imagine yourself entering these opulent Edwardian-era rooms. 

Fantasy should not edge out reality, however. My wife, Anne, noted that the second interior photo, taken in 1936 long after Johnson's death in 1917, is stacked floor-to-ceiling with framed paintings. Significantly, it shows the escalating collection after Johnson's wife, Ida, died in 1908. 

     Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery View of the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibit,          Old Masters Now: Celebrating the Johnson Collection

The exhibit galleries, in contrast, display a significant number of Johnson's treasures in a spacious, almost contemplative atmosphere. In a nod to historical authenticity, one wall of the exhibit gallery is hung in the "stacked" manner of Johnson's home. 

I did not linger very long in front of this vintage display. There are so many great masterpieces in the exhibit, commanding our attention. 

Callisto Piazza, Musical Group, c.1520's

I've been looking at many of these "Old Masters" in the Johnson collection for decades now. For many years, these were grouped together in a separate gallery, by the terms of Johnson's will. He actually stipulated that they be kept in his Broad Street mansion, but his executors wisely ignored his wishes and brought them to the much safer environment of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Seeing the Johnson Collection masterpieces in this brilliantly curated exhibition is a revelation. I realize that, for all the times I have looked, I have never really "seen" many of them as Johnson did. One gets the sense that Johnson's art collection became a way for him to channel his love, after the great personal loss of his wife's death, to future generations.

When it came to his day job, Johnson was a hard-eyed realist. Johnson twice refused appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court. He did not want to exchange the $100,000 per year he made representing J.P Morgan, the Rockefeller family and the Sugar Trust for a paltry Supreme Court salary of $8,000. 

At the same time that he made all that money, Johnson also served on Philadelphia's Fairmount Park Commission which oversaw the city art collection. It was upon his recommendation that Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Annunciation was purchased in 1899. This painting was the first work by an African-American artist to enter a public collection in the United States and now hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Art had great meaning  for Johnson on many emotional levels. Empathy, intellectual stimulation and aesthetic pleasure obviously guided his choices. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Mark Tucker, the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Director of Conservation, about one of Johnson's most surprising selections

The painting in question is Portrait of a Young Gentleman, by Antonello da Messina. Antonello came from Sicily, the only major Renaissance artist born in southern Italy. Somehow, Antonello established contacts with artists from the Netherlands and learned about oil painting. He was the first to master oil painting in Italy. His surviving works of art are comparatively rare and were not especially popular with American collectors in Johnson's time.

Antonello da Messina, Portrait of a Young Gentleman, 1474

Why, then, did Johnson buy this portrait of a brash young man with a probing look in his eyes?

"The subject of Antonello's portrait," Mark Tucker noted, "has just come into the studio from the street. The collar of his doublet is undone and the cord used to stitch it in place is dangling loose. Usually, the sitter in a Renaissance portrait is posed very formally, every detail of his attire in perfect order.

"Antonello is not concerned with a formal pose in this portrait, of how the subject was dressed. Instead, he painted the movements of his mind."

There can be little doubt that Johnson bought this outstanding work of Renaissance art because he sensed that this alert, questioning, savvy fellow from the Quattrocento was a kindred soul.

The movements of Johnson's mind led him from collecting rather conventional  contemporary works like Mary Cassatt's very early genre scene, On the Balcony, to more daring choices like the Antonello portrait . 

Édouard Manet, The Battle of the U.S.S.“Kearsarge” and the C.S.S.“Alabama”, 1864

Johnson's range of interest extended to the Impressionists and  in 1888 he purchased Édouard Manet's Civil War naval scene, The Battle of the U.S.S. “Kearsarge” and the C.S.S. “Alabama.” Johnson saw this striking painting at a display of Impressionist art, organized by the French art agent, Paul Durand-Ruel, in New York City. Johnson may have been influenced to buy Manet's painting by his own military experience during the Gettysburg campaign.

This almost monochromatic work utilized Japanese-inspired compositional elements like a high horizon line and the off-center placement of the schooner in the foreground of the painting to convey a "you-are-there" viewpoint. Manet was long thought to have witnessed the sea combat, which took place just outside Cherbourg harbor in 1864, but careful scholarship has revealed that he painted the battle based on newspaper accounts.

In 1894, Johnson purchased Jan van Eyck's small devotional work, St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata. With this pivotal acquisition, Johnson began assembling one of the largest collections of paintings from the Netherlands, works created between 1400 and 1700. By the end of his life, Johnson 's Flemish and Dutch masterpieces numbered 425. On the whole, he chose very wisely. But with art scholarship still in its infancy, a number of his paintings, thought to be by Rembrandt or by Bosch, have not retained their attribution.

Johnson also bought what he thought was a pair of tipsy Dutch drinkers by Frans Hals.  Subsequent research showed that it was painted by Judith Leyster, the greatest woman artist of the Dutch Golden Age. But an even greater surprise was in store about The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier), painted around 1639. A print from the 1600 showed the same pair in the company of a lively skeleton, encouraging them to drink. In 1992, the conservators at the Philadelphia Museum of Art decided to put Leyster's painting to the test.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Detail of Judith Leyster's The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier) 

As expected, a skeleton was detected lurking below a layer of overpainting. Mark Tucker meticulously removed this paint, restoring the skeleton to "life" and showing that Leyster's work had a very serious message. It was a memento mori, a caution about heedless over-indulgence and a warning against disregard of God's commandments.

Along with van Eyck's St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata, the jewel of the Johnson Collection's Netherlandish works is Rogier van der Weyden’s Crucifixion, with Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning, c. 1460.  Along with Thomas Eakin's The Gross Clinic, van der Weyden's Crucifixion is the greatest painting in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It is also a very powerful depiction of the struggle of faith vs. despair. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of Rogier van der Weyden's Crucifixion, with Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning, c. 1460

This pair of complementary wood panel paintings has been the subject of exhaustive study. It is now believed that they were placed side-by-side on the shutters of an elaborate altarpiece. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Mark Tucker showing the placement of Rogier van der Weyden's Crucifixion on a model of a medieval church altarpiece, now missing

A wonderful model, which  Mark Tucker demonstrated at the press preview, shows the configuration of these Johnson collection paintings along with two others, discovered in 2012, that were part of the amazing altarpiece. The remaining paintings - and the altar - have yet to be discovered, if indeed they still exist.

Another work by Rogier van der Weyden figures in the Johnson Collection exhibit. The life-sized altarpiece, now in the Prado, Descent from the Cross, c. 1434, was copied many times. Around 1520, the Netherlandish artist, Joos van Cleve, reprieved Descent from the Cross, placing the dramatic scene against a naturalistic landscape. The original has a gold-leaf background.

Van Cleve's homage to van der Weyden has not been displayed for thirty years. It was painted on five wooden panels which have separated several times causing paint loss and other damage. The panels have also warped over time.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Lucia Bay with Joos van Cleve's The Descent from the Cross

A major conservation effort, requiring a year's exhaustive labor, was undertaken by Lucia Bay, an assistant conservator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The triumphant restoration is on display in the exhibit, enabling us to value van Cleve's painting as a major work of art. Rather than a derivative copy, van Cleve created a new version of this moving scene by van der Weyden, placing it within the context of the emerging school of landscape art.

Johnson traveled frequently to Europe to search out masterpieces. In an engaging memoir, Sight-Seeing in Berlin and Holland among Pictures (1892), he explained the philosophy upon which he based his collecting endeavors:

Art gives us real delight only when the eye derives pleasure from what is really worthy.

This is a cryptic remark, capable of being interpreted in a number of ways. Johnson closely studied art, becoming a master of appraisal. Yet the financial value of art works did not determine what was "really worthy" about the paintings and sculptures he collected.  Nor did Johnson select art works because they conformed to popular standards or the dictates of academic authority.

"Worth" derived from a process of engagement between collector and  object. Johnson carefully took the measure of the art he chose for his collection and  the paintings and sculptures, in turn, became an expression of his life, of the "the movements of his mind."

      Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Detail of photo of John G. Johnson's home, c.1936                       Auguste Rodin's Thought appears at center

In one of the mural-sized photo's of his mansion, the one with paintings stacked floor to ceiling, we see one of the sculptures he collected. Thought by Auguste Rodin shows the head of his mistress/muse, Camille Claudel, emerging from a block of undressed marble. Rodin modeled the likeness of Claudel in clay but another artist, Camille Raynaud, did the actual sculpting.

Rodin originally called the work Thought Emerging from Matter. Looking at it in the exhibition galley of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one senses again "the movements of his mind" coming into play. Rodin's Thought clearly resonated with Johnson's powerful intellect and equally powerful emotions. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Auguste Rodin's Thought 

Upon receiving Thought, Johnson wrote to Rodin: 

[Y]our lovely marble has at last arrived and fascinates me . . . you have made that coldest of all things—marble—warm with life. I hope it will long dream in its present surroundings of paintings by the Masters of the Old and of the New Art.

That is where Rodin's Thought does indeed find its home, "dreaming" in the company of Johnson's treasures at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Its companionship with The Battle of the U.S.S. “Kearsarge” and the C.S.S. “Alabama,” St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata and the other great works on display is about to enter a new phase, or perhaps new "dimension" would be more exact. 

The Philadelphia Museum will soon unveil the Johnson Collection in a new digital publication. According to a press release, the Philadelphia Museum curators have "made use of a new technology implementing IIIF (International Image Interoperability Framework) to present digital images in a more versatile and flexible way."
When the digital version of the Johnson collection is released, I plan to do a follow-up review on this wonderful research tool.

"Masters of the Old and of the New Art" appearing in a new, digital format! There can be no more fitting way to begin the second century of the John G. Johnson Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                                           
Images courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Anne Lloyd

Introductory Image
Rogier van der Weyden (Netherlandish 1400-1464) Crucifixion, with Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning, c. 1460. Oil on panel, 71 inches × 6 feet 1 3/8 inches (180.3 × 186.4 cm)  Philadelphia Museum of Art, Cat. 335, 334. John G. Johnson Collection, 1917.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Detail of photo of John G. Johnson, as a young boy, 1840's, combined with detail of Conrad F. Haeseler's Portrait of John G. Johnson, 1917. Oil on Panel, 34 x 24 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Miss Julia W. Frick and Sidney W. Frick, 1971.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery View of the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibit, Old Masters Now: Celebrating the Johnson Collection.showing photo of John G. Johnson's home. Archival Photo.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery View of the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibit, Old Masters Now: Celebrating the Johnson Collection.

Callisto Piazza (Italian,c.1500-1561/62) Musical Group, c.1520's, Oil on panel, 35 5/8 x 35 3/4 inches (90.5 x 90.8 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art, Cat. 234, John G. Johnson Collection, 1917.

Antonello da Messina (Italian,1430-1479) Portrait of a Young Gentleman.  Oil on panel,
12 5/8 x 10 11/16 inches (32.1 x 27.1 cm)  Philadelphia Museum of Art, Cat. 159, John G. Johnson Collection, 1917.

Édouard Manet (French, 1832-1883) The Battle of the U.S.S. “Kearsarge” and the C.S.S. “Alabama.”  Oil on canvas, 54 1/4 x 50 3/4 inches (137.8 x 128.9 cm)  Philadelphia Museum of Art, Cat. 1027, John G. Johnson Collection, 1917

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Detail of Judith Leyster's The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier), c.  1639. Oil on canvas, 35 1/16 x 28 15/16 inches (89.1 x 73.5 cm).  Philadelphia Museum of Art, Cat. 440, John G. Johnson Collection, 1917.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of Rogier van der Weyden's Crucifixion, with Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning, c. 1460.

Anne Lloyd, Photos (2017) Mark Tucker, Director of Conservation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, showing the placement of Rogier van der Weyden's Crucifixion on a model of a medieval church altarpiece, now missing. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Lucia Bay, Conservator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with Joos van Cleve's The Descent from the Cross. Philadelphia Museum of Art, John G. Johnson Collection, 1917.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Detail of photo of John G. Johnson's home, c.1936                Auguste Rodin's Thought appears at center. Archival Photo.                                               
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Auguste Rodin's Thought, modeled,1895, carved by Camille Raynaud, c.1900, Marble, 29 1/8 x 17 1/16 x 18 1/8 inches (74 x 43.4 x 46.1 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Cat. 1148, John G. Johnson Collection, 1917.