Monday, January 29, 2018

Art Eyewitness Book Review: I See A City: Todd Webb's New York

I See a City: Todd Webb's New York 

Essays by Sean Corcoran & Daniel Okrent - Edited by Betsy Evans Hunt
Thames & Hudson/$45/176 pages 
   Photos ©2017 Todd Webb Archive    
Reviewed by Ed Voves

New York City is  ever-changing, always new. Freshly-minted every morning, the Big City is already evolving by nightfall into the next day's New York.

New York City is a classic illustration of the statement by the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus (544 BC) who declared "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man."

Occasionally, even New York City takes a "breather" before plunging back into the river of change. 

In 1945, after a decade and half of economic depression and global war, a curious equilibrium occurred. This pause allowed a photographer named Todd Webb to immortalize the "rough-at-the edges" neighborhoods of Manhattan - Morningside Heights, Fulton Fish Market, the Bowery, Harlem. Careworn but proud, old New York posed for Webb for a brief moment before the incredible burst of modernist building of the 1950's-1960's transformed the city forever.

Webb's photographic journey through old New York is the subject of a brilliant book published by Thames & Hudson, I See A City: Todd Webb's New York. An exhibition of Webb's photos was presented last year at the Museum of the City of New York.

Todd Webb, The Battery, 1946
©2017 Todd Webb Archive 

Todd Webb (1905-2000) came to New York after being discharged from the U.S. Navy in World War II. Webb had been a Navy photographer in the Pacific during the war. Before that he had led an adventurous life, filed with ups-and-downs. A stock broker wiped-out by the Wall Street crash in 1929, Webb prospected for gold in Panama, served as a forest ranger and took a crash course in photography with Ansel Adams.

Webb saved much of his wartime Navy pay and headed to New York in 1945. His plan was to photograph the daily life of New Yorkers and their neighborhood surroundings. This was New York before air conditioning, electric clothes dryers, television (except in some restaurants) - and the ruthless "development" schemes of Robert Moses.

Webb began with a series of photos of special relevance to himself - "welcome home" signs for New York men returning from military service in World War II. Implicit in these photos is the acknowledgment of the GIs who did not make it back. Webb recognized this in his daily journal, excerpts of which are included in the introductory essays of I See A City.

Todd Webb, East 7th Street (Welcome Home McSorley Boys),1946         
©2017 Todd Webb Archive 

Webb succeeded brilliantly in documenting work-a-day New York, but his motivating idea was not original. Credit Berenice Abbott for that. Abbott (1898–1991) documented New York City for the Depression-era Federal Art Project from 1935 to 1939. Her photos, shown at the New York World's Fair in 1939 and the companion book, Changing New York, set American photography on a new path.

Webb took a momentous step in his art career before venturing forth with his 5x7 Deardorff large-format camera and tripod. En route to basic training in 1942, Webb stopped in New York and managed to meet Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), the elder statesman of American photography. Stieglitz could be quite disagreeable but he and Webb got along. In 1945, Webb was welcomed back to Stieglitz's gallery, An American Place, and until Stieglitz died in July 1946, consulted regularly with the "grand old man." 

It was through Webb's relationship with Stieglitz that he met Berenice Abbott. Webb and Abbott established an artistic friendship of enduring value. Abbott was a generous person, as well as one of America's greatest photographers. She was responsible for ensuring that the pioneering photo work of Eugene Atget was preserved and made known to a wide audience.

Webb was obviously inspired by Abbott. Some of his images of old New York directly correspond to Abbott's. In 1946, Webb photographed Under the El, Third Avenue, 1946. A decade earlier, Webb had taken one of the most artfully composed photos in the history of the medium, Under the El at the Battery. Both photos deal with the same topic, urban life under the iron superstructure of one of New York's elevated transit lines.

Todd Webb, Under the El, Third Avenue, 1946 
©2017 Todd Webb Archive 

The differences between Abbott and Webb are crucial to the understanding of the latter's work. Sean Corcoran, whose perceptive essay on Webb, is included in I See A City, notes that the way the two photographers "approached their subjects was quite different. Webb focused more on capturing the last vestiges of old New York and was not nearly as interested as Abbott in the juxtaposition of the old and the new."

The horse-drawn cart clattering past the parked cars is the key to Webb's fixation with the past in Under the El, Third Avenue. In many of Webb's photos there is a small detail like this that gives special relevance to the entire picture. 

If you study one of my favorite photos by Webb, 125th Street, September, 1946, it won't take you long to spot the key object. The young girl and her baby sister are sharing a snowcone, a paper cup filled with chopped ice and a squirt of fruit syrup. This precursor to water ice became a popular summer treat during the 1930's. But the snowcone isn't what your eyes fix upon. It's the shoes.

Todd Webb, 125th Street, September,1946
 ©2017 Todd Webb Archive 

Webb did not have an overt political agenda in taking his photos. But the prominence of these scuffed, battered hand-me-down shoes asserts the hard lives of these children's family and community. The shortages of material goods in the U.S. continued for only a short time after the war, but inflation in 1946 soared to a staggering level, 18.1%. The nation's poor, especially African-Americans, had to keep on "making-do." The shoes that the toddler wears were likely worn by her big sister. But the sneakers worn by this older child are unlikely to have survived much longer.

Children figure in quite a number of Webb's greatest photos from the post-war years. Webb was not a "decisive moment" photographer like Henri Cartier-Bresson. Since Webb's bulky Deardorff camera took quite a bit of time to set-up, it is remarkable that he was able to achieve the degree of spontaneity that he did get.

In the case of one of Webb's most beloved pictures, LaSalle Street at Amsterdam Avenue,1946, the circle of children dancing around a sprinkler pipe looks like a posed shot. One of the girls looks over her shoulder, to see if Webb is taking the photo. In contrast, the book also includes two other, more natural, pictures of the same children, standing around, dripping wet, or hoping around in the sprinkler. 

Todd Webb, LaSalle Street at Amsterdam Avenue, 1946
 ©2017 Todd Webb Archive 

Further reflection makes me think that, if the dancing picture was posed, it was probably the children themselves who decided to form a circle and put on a show for Webb. Yet they don't look like they are "showing-off." Webb lived nearby and the children would have known and trusted him. This photo, as a result doesn't look "staged" in a contrived, artificial way. They are kids being kids, though they know an adult is watching.

Webb's greatest photo, however, was staged in a very deliberate and calculated way. This was Sixth Avenue between 43rd and 44th Street. Webb took eight separate pictures,  documenting an entire city block. He had to ensure that he photographed an entire car or let traffic pass and then take the picture. The eight separate frames were developed into a single image.

This spectacular photo is too big to present in a blog like Art Eyewitness.A similar one frame picture of Sixth Ave does give an idea of the panoramic, eight frame version. The effort that went into creating these life-pulsing images of modern day city life was extraordinary - and so is the effect of looking at it. 

Todd Webb, Sixth Avenue South, August,1946
 ©2017 Todd Webb Archive 

Despite the brilliance of the Sixth Ave photos, Webb came closest to perfection with the close-ups he took of roast peanut sellers, harried pedestrians, little boys petting a cat, a cloth-capped Jewish shop owner on Hester Street. Yet, Webb could not resist the gravity-defying impulse of ascending to the observation deck on the Empire State Building on a clear evening in 1946 to capture spectacular images of the city by night.

Here we see New York not as a world unto itself but as an image of the World in microcosm. Look at each of the lights, glimmering and glittering in the New York night. Think of each of those lights as a human life, a human soul destined to live in the City of God! 

Todd Webb, From the Empire State Building Looking South, 1946
 ©2017 Todd Webb Archive 

Inspiring thoughts like this often evaporate in the harsh reality of life after sun-up. The real world has little use for enchantment. 

Todd Webb's images of the daily, hum-drum humanity of New York City folk in the aftermath of World War II, however, do more than document a passing moment in the Big Apple's history. Webb's photos, splendidly displayed in I See A City, reinforce the conviction that the human spirit shall endure however much the architecture of the City of Man changes.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                                                                                                
Images: Courtesy of the Todd Webb Archive, ©2017 Todd Webb Archive, 61 Pleasant St., #104A, Portland, ME, 04101

Special thanks to Sam Walker, Archivist of the Todd Webb Archive and Andrea Smith (Andrea Smith Public Relations) 

Introductory Image: I See a City: Todd Webb's New York, 2017 (cover) Image courtesy: Thames & Hudson

Todd Webb (American, 1905-2000) The Battery, 1946. Photograph, black and white. ©2017 Todd Webb Archive 

Todd Webb (American, 1905-2000) East 7th Street (Welcome Home McSorley Boys),1946. Photograph, black and white. ©2017 Todd Webb Archive 

Todd Webb (American, 1905-2000) Under the El, Third Avenue, 1946. Photograph, black and white. ©2017 Todd Webb Archive 

Todd Webb (American, 1905-2000) 125th Street, September,1946. Photograph, black and white. ©2017 Todd Webb Archive 

Todd Webb (American, 1905-2000) LaSalle Street at Amsterdam Avenue1946. Photograph, black and white. ©2017 Todd Webb Archive

Todd Webb (American, 1905-2000)  Sixth Avenue, South,1946. Photograph, black and white. ©2017 Todd Webb Archive

Todd Webb (American, 1905-2000)  From the Empire State Building Looking South, 1946. Photograph, black and white. ©2017 Todd Webb Archive 

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Art Eyewitness Book Review: China: A History in Objects by Jessica Harrison-Hall

China: a History in Objects

Thames & Hudson - British Museum/$39.95/352 pages

By Jessica Harrison-Hall

Reviewed by Ed Voves

In 2010, the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor created a sensation with his book - and related exhibition - A History of the World in 100 Objects. Since then, there have been a host of "100 Objects" books. A quick search of revealed A History of American Sports in 100 Objects, A History of Birdwatching in 100 Objects, The Beatles in 100 Objects and many, many more. 

A similar book, just published by the British Museum and Thames & Hudson, explores the history of China. It is worth pausing a moment to reflect on the title of this splendid volume, China: a History in Objects

There is no mention of one hundred or two hundred objects. 

China's astonishing cultural achievements - past and present - cannot be limited to examining a few signature works of art, even ones as radiantly beautiful as the decorated  bronze mirror from the Tang Dynasty (ca. 700-800 AD). Mother-of-pearl was used to create a miniature lotus pond with swimming Mandarin ducks on the back of the mirror. Truly a symbol of eternal China, but only one of many.

Mirror (back), Tang Dynasty, ca. 700-800 AD

The new book coincides with the opening of a magnificent new gallery at the British Museum for the display of treasures of Asian civilization. 

In November 2017, Queen Elizabeth II visited the British Museum for the dedication of the new gallery devoted to the art of China and India, named for the philanthropist, Sir Joseph Hotung. The British Museum's vast collection of Chinese art, among the best in the world, serves as the source for almost all of the works discussed in this book.

The timing of the publication of China: a History in Objects also comes at a moment when China is poised to take a dominant position in world affairs, politically and economically. The British Museum book is commendably free of propaganda. The "objects" in the book speak for themselves and demonstrate the worldwide impact of Chinese creativity that weapons and armies of China have never achieved. 

Blue-and-white porcelain is the best exemplar of the way that beautiful and useful objects from Zhōngguó (as the Chinese call their native land) have transformed the world.

Porcelain Censer, Ming Dynasty, 1625

Durable ceramics in China can be dated back to the Hemudu culture, five thousand or more years ago. White porcelain most likely was introduced under the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD) but it took several centuries to develop the techniques that earned "china" its global status. 

The startling blue glaze of the blue and-white porcelain was produced from cobalt. Ironically, this "trademark" color was a legacy of the Mongol invasions of China and the Yuan Dynasty they subsequently imposed in 1279 on the entire country. Blue cobalt glaze traveled to China from the Middle East along the trade routes dominated by the Mongols.

China has a habit of conquering its conquerors. When the Ming Dynasty ousted the Mongols in 1368, Chinese blue-and-white porcelain became the first global industrial product. During the dynamic early phase of the Ming hegemony, maritime fleets sailed from China to the Middle East and Africa carrying porcelain of various hues and designs. Later, as Ming power declined, European merchant ships appeared in port cities like Guangzhou. Blue-and-white "china" was at the top of their shopping list.

The British Museum book discusses the great variety of design patterns and uses of blue-and white porcelain under the Ming dynasty. A particularly significant piece is an incense censor decorated with an episode from the classic Chinese novel, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. In this scene, the hero, Zhao Zilong, rescues a child, wrapped in his cloak, from the pursuing soldiers of the evil General Cao-Cao.

Detail of a Ming-era Porcelain Censer,1625,
showing a scene from The Romance of the Three Kingdoms

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms was based on actual events, the downfall of the Han Dynasty in 220 AD. It is interesting to compare the scene of daring deeds on the censor with Cinemascope movie heroics of films like Ben-Hur and El Cid.

The achievements of the Ming Dynasty,1368-1644, take on added importance in this book because the British Museum mounted a special exhibition devoted to this Imperial regime in 2014. However, China: a History in Objects is a remarkably balanced book. Less famous epochs, like the Song Dynasty, receive their due from the author, Jessica Harrison-Hall, who is the chief curator of Chinese art at the British Museum.

The Song Dynasty, which replaced the more renowned Tang, was continually attacked by nomad raiders until it was finally crushed by the Mongols. After its northern territories were lost, a cultural renaissance of sorts under the Southern Song took place, 1127 to 1279 AD. 

A spectacular example of the Southern Song creative genius is included in the book. Made of black glazed stoneware, its sole decoration was a leaf placed on the glaze before being fired in the kiln. The actual leaf was burned away during the firing, but an impression remained, singularly beautiful and imperishable. 

Tea Bowl, Song Dynasty, ca. 960-1279 AD

This Blackware tea bowl is one of the most striking works of art in the book and - to me at least - far more meaningful than the world-famous ceramic soldiers from the tomb of the First Emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, 221-210 BC. This tea bowl was created nearly one thousand years ago and yet would bring high praise for any ceramic artist capable of making it today. 

The two dominant features of Chinese artistic achievement are reverence for the past and the importance of outside influences. The Ming-era censor celebrates China's past, while the practical purpose of the Southern Song bowl was tea drinking, an import from India during the late Tang era.

Incense vessels and tea bowls alone cannot do justice to these two essential features of Chinese culture. Signature artworks from the British Museum such as Shang bronzes from ca. 1000 BC and splendid Buddhist sculptures enable us to grasp the importance of the precepts of Chinese civilization.

Jia, Ritual Vessel, Late Shang Dynasty, ca. 1200 BC-1050 BC

Reverence for the past, especially for one's ancestors, occasioned China's first great art works, the Shang ritual wine and food vessels. Offerings were left at the tombs of the dead in these spectacular bronze vessels, cast in ceramic piece molds. 

These works of art represent the visible birth of Chinese civilization, though the skills needed to create the Shang bronzes were developed and refined over the preceding centuries.

Tea was introduced to China from India by wide-travelling Buddhist monks who spread the word of the new faith. These religious emissaries brought theological teachings and religious imagery that continue to inspire the estimated 245 million Buddhists in China.  

Few of the ideals and images of Buddhism had greater appeal than the cult of Guanyin. As with the veneration of the Virgin Mary in Christendom, Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, was embraced with fervent devotion by China's people and throughout East Asia.

Wooden figure of Guanyin, Late Song Dynasty, 1115-1234 AD

The appeal of a compassionate supernatural being like Guanyin is of course universal. But there is a undercurrent to Chinese history which may not be apparent in a book like China: a History in Objects

China's long-suffering peasantry and the well-educated elite have both endured much at the hands of invaders, from the rampaging horsemen of Mongolia during the Middle Ages to the ruthless Japanese invasion which lasted from 1937 to 1945. The most devastating wounds, however, have been inflicted by the centralized, bureaucratic governments of one Chinese dynasty after another. Foreign "devils" often administered the final death blow to regimes which had treated the people of China very poorly indeed.

The fate of the Ming Dynasty graphically demonstrates this tragic aspect of Chinese history. After a brilliant beginning, the Ming court lapsed into a downward spiral of greed and arrogance, political incompetence and disregard for the starving, over-worked populace. In 1644, widespread internal revolts opened the gates to invaders from Manchuria, who established the Qing Dynasty which was to last until 1911.

In the British Museum collection is a painting album that illustrates the human cost of China's violant history. Entitled Eight Views of the South, it contains eight scenes that, on first sight, seem entirely peaceful and harmonious. Yet these remarkable landscapes testify to the bitter cost of rebellion and civil war.

The creator of Eight Views of the South was a Ming prince named Zhu Ruoji. He was born in 1642 and was only an infant when the Manchurian invaders swept in from the north. After the Qing dynasty was established, a purge of the surviving Ming royal family ensued. Zhu Ruoji evaded death by becoming a Buddhist monk and later a Daoist, taking the name Shitao by which he is known in history.

Shitao, album leaf from Eight Views of the South, ca.1662-1707

Look closely at this album leaf and you will see a wandering sage ascending a mountain in search of contemplation, peace and truth. What a compelling scene this is! It comes close to being the real self-portrait of Shitao, though he did paint an actual one of himself, sitting beneath a gnarled pine tree. 

Shitao was a remarkable figure, one of history's great artist-philosophers. Shitao created his paintings from a state of "no mind" where the spirit leads and the human intellect follows. He once wrote:

Mountains and streams compel me to speak for them. Mountains and streams emerge from me and I emerge from Mountains and streams. I thoroughly investigate strange peaks, making rough sketches. Mountains, streams and I meet in spirit and become one.

Translation by Dr Mae Anna Pang 

Liu Kuo-sung, Sun and Moon: Floating? Sinking?, 1970

How wonderful it is to see the modern day painting by Liu Kuo-sung in the concluding chapter of China: a History in Objects. Born in 1932, Liu escaped from Communist rule by going to Taiwan in 1949. He continues to paint in the tradition of great masters like Shitao, while also adapting to the new age of science and technology. 

This 1970 painting was inspired by the U.S. Apollo 11 mission to the moon. It shows the earth and the sun/moon exchanging energy. It is a brilliant work, a testament to the continuing two-fold basis of Chinese creativity. Reverence for the past motivated Liu, as did the example of humanity reaching toward the heavens. 
As long as wandering sages and aspiring artists of China look toward the mountain top, then the great ideals of Chinese art discussed in this impressive, thoughtfully written book will find new ways to make their mark.                                                             

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                                                                                                
Translation of Shitao's reflections on art by Dr Mae Anna Pang, Senior Curator of Asian Art, National Gallery of Art,Victoria, Australia (in 2007). The quotation comes from the article by Dr. Pang, "An Orthodox Master and an Individualist: Wang Yuanqi and Daoji".

Images Courtesy of the British Museum

Introductory Image: China: a History in Objects, 2018 (cover) Image credit: Thames & Hudson 

Mirror (octafoliate). China, Tang Dynasty, ca. 700-800 AD. Engraved and inlaid bronze, mother-of-pearl: diameter: 9.2 cm., 173 grams. The British Museum Purchased from George Eumorfopoulos  #1936.1118.265 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Porcelain censer, China, Ming Dynasty, 1625. Porcelain with underglaze blue decoration: height: 12 cm, diameter: 18.7 cm (mouth of vessel), weight: 2.15 kg. The British Museum  Purchased from Bluett& Sons  #1971.0622.1 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Detail of Ming-era Porcelain censer,1625. The glazed decoration shows a scene from The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Chapter 41, attributed to the late Yuan/early Ming novelist Luo Guanzhong. The British Museum  Purchased from Bluett & Sons  #1971.0622.1 © The Trustees of the British Museum  

Tea Bowl, China, Song Dynasty, ca. 960-1279 AD. Black glazed stoneware: diameter 14.9 cm The British Museum Bequeathed by Brenda Zara Seligman # 1973,0726.279 © The Trustees of the British Museum   

Jia, Ritual Vessel, China, Late Shang Dynasty, ca. 1200 BC - 1050 BC. Bronze cast: height: 25.6 cm (base + lid), height: 24.2 (base), width: 15.4 cm (base), depth: 15.3 cm (base)  The British Museum Bequeathed by Oscar Charles Raphael # 1945,1017.191 © The Trustees of the British Museum  

Wooden figure of a Bodhisattva, Guanyin. China, Late Song Dynasty, 1115 -1234 AD. Wood: height: 54 cm, width: 30 cm, depth: 21.5 cm The British Museum, Brooke Sewell Bequest, 1945. #1945,1017.191 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Shitao (Chinese, 1642-1707) Eight Views of the South, Ca. 1662-1707. Album, album leaf. Landscape. Ink and colors on paper. Landscape. Ink and colors on paper. Height: 20.9 cm (image)Width: 28.3 cm (image)Height: 52.3 cm The British Museum, Brooke Sewell Bequest.  #1965,0724,0.11.7 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Liu Kuo-sung (Chinese, 1932 - ) Sun and Moon: Floating? Sinking?, 1970. Panel mounted painting in ink and colors on paper collage.Height: 57.2 cm (image)Width: 94.2 cm (image) The British Museum Donated by Michael Goedhuis Gallery and Lin Kuo-sung,         #2010,3017.1 © The Trustees of the British Museum