Monday, April 23, 2018

University of Pennsylvania Museum’s New Middle East Galleries

University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology  

Middle East Galleries

Opening April 21, 2018

Reviewed by Ed Voves

There is no contest about who will be the "Homecoming Queen" for the big celebration at the University of Pennsylvania this year. Her name is Puabi and she may have been a real queen - of the Sumerian city-state of Ur in present-day Iraq.

Puabi lived approximately 4,500 years ago, give or take a century. This makes her a little old to be a "continuing ed" student at Penn and in fact her mortal remains are preserved in the Natural History Museum of London. From close study of her skeleton, it has been determined that Puabi died, aged 40 years, around 2,450 B.C.

Puabi has been "on campus" at Penn by virtue of her fabled crown or headdress which has been the star attraction of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology since the 1930's.

The Penn Museum, located in Philadelphia, is re-opening its galleries of ancient art from Mesopotamia and the Middle East after a transforming face-lift. The golden headdress and other regalia of Puabi (who may have been a priestess rather than a queen) have been traveling on a  special exhibition tour during the renovations at the Penn Museum.

I was able to review two of these itinerant exhibits for Art Eyewitness. In 2015, Puabi's headdress and other treasures from the Penn Museum were displayed in Ancient to Modern: Archaeology and Aesthetics at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in New York City. Last year, the Morgan Library and Museum presented a small, focused exhibit, Noah's Beasts. One of the signature Penn artifacts in the Morgan exhibit was a sensational sculpture once associated with the story of Abraham and Isaac, Ram Caught in a Thicket.  It is now thought to represent a goat  grazing on a flowering plant.

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Ram Caught in a Thicket, 2450 B.C.

When discovered by the great archaeologist, Leonard Woolley, the pieces of this wonderful work of art was assembled so that the animal's body appeared to be entangled in the plant. This recalled the biblical story where Abraham discovers a ram, just as he is about to sacrifice his son to appease God. Subsequent analysis determined that the hooves of the animal, a Markhor goat, should be positioned lower down, thus depicting it eating. Considering the voracious appetite of the Markhor, also known as the "screw horn" goat, that is a more realistic appraisal. 
Now that Puabi and the Ram/Goat have returned to the re-designed galleries at the Penn Museum, it's hard not to quote from the musical Hello Dolly!

It's so nice to have you back where you belong

Buried with Puabi were other artifacts such as an extraordinary game, believed by scholars to be an early form of backgammon. This board game predates the famous Egyptian Game of Hounds and Jackals (c.1814–1805 B.C.) in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum by over six hundred years.

Gameboard from Ur, 2450 B.C. 

The joy at seeing Puabi's glittering headdress and other treasures is tempered by awareness of the human cost of the queen's burial. In an exhibit case not far from the one displaying Puabi's regalia is a crushed human skull. This grim artifact is the head of one of her attendants, sacrificed so that Puabi could journey to the Underworld, the land of the dead which was ruled by the goddess, Ereshkigal, and her consort, Nergal.

The underworld, Ir-Kalla or Kur to the Summerians, was a grim place. The fact that there are so many precious objects in Puabi's tomb was determined by the need to present gifts to Ereshkigal and Nergal, as well as to serve Puabi's needs in her new, everlasting life.

Leonard Woolley, leading the joint British Museum-University of Pennsylvania team, excavated Ur in 1927. Woolley sent a message in Latin to the Penn Museum staff to preserve the news of the spectacular discovery of Puabi's tomb from prying eyes. But it is hard to keep a secret about a "Great Death Pit” as Woolley called the mass burial chamber which was discovered in 1928. Six male and sixty-eight female skeletons were found there, sacrificed to accompany Puabi to the Underworld.

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Skull of Queen Puabi's Attendant (Body 53), 2450 B.C. 

The young woman attendant, whose skull was flattened by the tons of earth which collapsed the chamber, was one of the victims. She is known as Body 53 from grave PG 1237, i.e. the "Great Death Pit.”  Her skull is adorned with leaves of beaten gold and precious gems similar to the headdress of Puabi.

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Skull of Queen Puabi's Attendant (detail)

Look closely and the gold and gems become mere details. What catches the eye and holds the imagination is the row of teeth, intact after four millennia. Body 53 was not just a number. She was a human being.

Woolley preserved the skull of Body 53 and several others by covering them with wax so that they would not disintegrate during recovery from the "dig." 

Initially, it was thought that the members of Puabi's retinue were drugged before death. But careful study of the Body 53 skull revealed that it had been struck by a military weapon similar to the deadly pole-ax used during the Middle Ages. Perhaps Body 53 died willingly to serve her queen but her's was not a peaceful death.

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Bull-headed Lyre, 2450 B.C. 

These somber reflections should not detract from the atmosphere of joy and wonder that pervades the newly renovated Penn Museum galleries. These exhibit spaces are brilliantly configured, with a judicious selection of artifacts enabling visitors to grasp the defining "particulars" of these long-ago city-states and empires. Not only treasures like the famous Bull's Head Lyre are on view, but more work-a-day objects are presented as well.

Ceramic Wine Jar, 5400 B.C.

One of  the most significant - and prosaic - artifacts dates to before the dawn of civilization. In 1969,fragments of a ceramic wine jar were excavated by Penn archaeologists in Iran at a place called Hajji Firuz Tepe. It dates to the Neolithic age, between 5400 to 5000 B.C. When it was reconstructed, a reddish residue on the inside was chemically tested and found to be a trace of wine. 

At the foundations of civilization can be found  the hum-drum things that make organized human society possible: food, drink, utensils, pots and jars. The Penn galleries have plenty of the latter on view, with well-designed diagrams and explanatory text, outlining their use and the resulting rise of international trade.

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Gallery view of the Penn Museum Middle East Galleries 

Hajji Firuz Tepe is located in the Zagros Mountains on the northern border of Mesopotamian civilization. It was an important crossroads for the raw materials which the Sumerian craftsman needed, Mesopotamia being almost destitute of minerals and even wood. 

Another extraordinary artifact on view illustrates the range  of the trade network that brought rare materials to the city-states that rose along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers: a vessel made from a gilded ostrich egg.

Ostrich Egg Vessel from Ur, c. 2450 B.C. 

To make this singular piece, Sumerian craftsman hammered a single sheet of gold which was carefully molded around an ostrich egg (ostriches still roamed the semi-arid areas of the Middle East in ancient times). Lapis lazuli, red limestone and bitumen were used to complete the decoration of this astonishing work of art. But equally impressive is the range of merchant partnerships that brought these raw materials to Ur: Afghanistan, Iran, and Anatolia.   

Exotic pieces like this gilded ostrich egg could never have been produced but for  unremarkable ceramic ware like the storage jar from Hajji Firuz Tepe. In return for gold and lapis lazuli, the Mesopotamian city-states traded the products needed by nomads and distant cities beyond the Fertile Crescent: wine and grain.

Another crucial innovation necessary for far-ranging trade ultimately laid the foundation for civilization itself. This of course was writing. While the tablets incised with cuneiform symbols lack the "bling" of gilded ostrich eggs, they are so far greater in importance that it seems silly to make a comparison. Yet, the temptation to bypass these small clay documents in favor of  "A" list artifacts like Puabi's golden headdress needs to be resisted.

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Tablet (Land Transfer Document), c. 3000 B.C.

A fairly typical example of cuneiform was to record land deeds or rules for the use of land. The Penn Museum has a remarkable real estate document, using an early, rudimentary form of cuneiform. It dates to c. 3000 BC and bears the inscription of Enkhegal, King of Lagash. The transfer of land recorded here was considered of such importance that the inscription was made on a more durable stone tablet than on fired clay.

The earliest University of Pennsylvania Museum expedition in 1889 unearthed many superb examples of cuneiform writing like the Medical Tablet, dating to 2300 B.C, which is the world's oldest preserved prescription. 

Medical Tablet from Nippur, c. 2300 B.C 

No particular malady or disease was specified on the Medical Tablet, unlike later ones.  Many of the Mesopotamian remedies listed on cuneiform tablets were for poultices, salves or potions. Ingredients ranged from mustard, fig and myrrh to river silt and bat droppings! Stir into wine or beer and if you survive the night, repeat until the prescription is finished. 

There was no prescription for the growing number of ills that began to plague Sumerian civilization in the years after Puabi's death. The reasons for the collapse of the independent city states of Mesopotamia are many and complex. The Penn galleries examine the eventual demise of the world's first civilization by focusing on the violent overthrow of one city, Hasanlu, during the ninth century B.C.

Later events in Middle Eastern history are covered as well. The Penn Museum is among the few American institutions that have artifacts from the Scythian nomadic culture. The Scythians roamed across the vast plains of what is now Russia, periodically launching raids against the more settled regions of the Middle East. It is a treat to be able to study the golden ornaments - deer, lions, griffins and other savage animals - that adorned the tunics and riding gear of the Scythians. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Scythian Golden Plaques, c. 499-400 B.C. 

Last year, a spectacular exhibit of Scythian art from Russian museums was shown at the British Museum. But given international tensions between the U.S. and Russia, it is unlikely to be presented in America any time soon - or ever.

The rise of civilization in Mesopotamia is one of the essential stories that all thoughtful human beings ought to consider. It is also a difficult - indeed exhausting - subject to master. No institution in the world has done a better job at uncovering the rich complexity of Mesopotamian history and then making it understandable to the general public than University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Given the horrifying news headlines that keep coming out of the Middle East, it often seems to me that civilization will end in that region, where it began five thousand years ago. However, when I go the University of Pennsylvania Museum and see the inspired work that is being done there, in the Middle East galleries and in all the other subject collections, I am filled with hope.

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) The University of Pennsylvania Museum, Philadelphia, PA 

"History begins with Sumer" proclaimed a famous book by Samuel Noah Kramer (1897-1990), a noted scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. If Kramer's devoted colleagues at the Penn Museum having anything to do with it, history will remain an open book for all humankind.

Text and Photos: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                
Photos courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology 

Introductory Image:
Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Queen Puabi's Headdress and Cloak. Ur (in modern-day Iraq) 2450 B.C. Gold, Lapis Lazuli, Carnelian and various stones. Joint Expedition of the British Museum and of the Museum of the University of  Pennsylvania, 6th season, 1927-1928.University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Ram in Thicket (Rearing Goat with a Flowering Plant). Ur (in modern-day Iraq) 2450 B.C. Gold, lapis lazuli, copper, shell, red limestone, and bitumen.  British Museum/University Museum Expedition to Ur, Iraq, 1928. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology (Object No. 30-12-702)

Gameboard. Ur (in modern-day Iraq) 2450 B.C. Shell, Limestone, lapis lazuli  Height: 1.5 cm;  Length 14 cm; Width 11.5cm.  British Museum/University Museum Expedition to Ur, Iraq, 1928. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, B16742. Photo: Penn Museum.

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Skull with Headress of Queen Puabi's Attendant (Body 53), c. 2450 B.C. British Museum/University Museum Expedition to Ur, Iraq, 1928. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology.

Ed Voves (Photo 2018) Bull-headed Lyre. Ur (in modern-day Iraq) 2450 B.C. Gold, silver, lapis lazuli, shell, bitumen and wood. British Museum/University Museum Expedition to Ur, Iraq, 1928. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, B17694A.

Wine Jar. Hajji Firuz (in modern-day Iran) 5400-5000 BC   Pottery jar, restricted, carinated; found in fragments, capacity of approximately 9 liters (2.5 gallons)  Height:  32cm - outside Diameter:  33.4cm. The Hasanlu Project (Hajji Firuz); Mary M. Voight, 1969. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, 69- 12-15. Photo:  Penn Museum

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Gallery view of the Penn Museum Middle East Galleries

Ostrich Egg Vessel. Ur (in modern-day Iraq) 2450 B.C. Gold, lapis lazuli, red limestone, shell, and bitumen, hammered from a single sheet of gold and with geometric mosaics at the top and bottom of the egg. British Museum/University Museum Expedition to Ur, Iraq, 1928. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, B16692. Photo:  Penn Museum

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Tablet (Land Transfer document with inscription of Enkhegal, King of Lagash) c.3000 B.C. Excavated in Iraq during 19th century. Purchased from the Turkish Commissioner, Constantinople, 1898. Stone tablet, incised. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, B10000

Medical Tablet. c. 2300 B.C. (Excavated during the Penn Museum’s Babylonian Expedition to Nippur in Iraq, 1888-1900. Clay tablet, incised. University of Pennsylvania Museum  (Object No. B14221) Photo: Penn Museum.

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Scythian Golden Plaques (used to decorate a tunic or shirt). c. 499 - 400 B.C. Excavated in Maikop, southern Russia during 19th century or early 20th century. Gold, punched or soldered. Height: 2.6cm. Purchased from the Anderson Galleries (Canessa Estate Sale), subscription of William Hinckle Smith, 1930. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Object # 30-33-1.6 (Griffin) 

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Exterior), Philadelphia, PA. 

Thursday, April 12, 2018

A Chronology of Art, A Timeline of Western Culture from Prehistory to the Present

A Chronology of Art

A Timeline of Western Culture from Prehistory to the Present

Edited by Iain Zaczek

Thames & Hudson/288 pages/$29.95

Reviewed by Ed Voves

A Chronology of Art, recently published by Thames & Hudson, explores how events shape art - and vice versa. The book skillfully juxtaposes an extended timeline of key dates in history with discussion of the great works of art which were created while these events unfolded. 

1533 is a case in point. It was a  year filled with momentous events. The Spanish conquest of Peru reached a bloody climax with the judicial murder of the ruler of the Incas, Atahualpa. A world away, the  "King's Great Matter" shattered England as Henry VIII broke with the Papacy over his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Henry then married Anne Boleyn and was excommunicated by Pope Clement VII.

That same year, two French diplomats in England, Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve, decided to have their portraits painted. They commissioned Henry's court painter, the Swiss-born Hans Holbein, to portray them together. De Dinteville and de Selve posed with symbolic artifacts such as a celestial globe and a terrestrial globe, a lute with a broken string, a hidden crucifix and a huge skull, tilted at a baffling angle.

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors (detail), 1533

The resulting work, now in the collection of the National Gallery in London, is the enigmatic painting entitled The Ambassadors. For all of their political skill and elegance, Holbein's diplomats confront a political reality characterized by the broken string of the lute and a globe of the earth, turned upside down. These testify to the shattered unity of Christendom.
Art and politics seldom connect so neatly as happened with The Ambassadors. Yet, there is almost always some shared idea or influential factor linking the world of art and affairs of state. 

A Chronology of Art is likely to become an essential reference work for art students. The book cogently documents the development of art in the West, while highlighting the progression of political and religious events. Although the civilizations of antiquity and the Middle Ages are surveyed, the art and events of recent times are given the fullest coverage.

A disturbing pattern emerges as you proceed with A Chronology of Art. The "best" art often emerges from the "worst" of times. 

The years, 1480 to 1500, are a good example. The Spanish Inquisition was launched during these two decades. The English "Princes in the Tower" were murdered during the Wars of the Roses. Columbus made his epic voyages of discovery, increasingly viewed in some circles as acts of genocide.

The Unicorn in Captivity tapestry (c.1495)

By contrast, the art of the period includes many works of singular beauty, including Botticelli's The Birth of Venus (c.1485) and The Unicorn in Captivity tapestry (c.1495). 
I was especially moved by The Glorification of the Virgin (c.1490) by the little known Flemish painter, Geertgen tot Sint Jans. 

In theological terms, Geertgen shows the victory of good over evil proclaimed by the Book of Revelations. Yet we scarcely notice this cosmic interpretation. This is partly due to the fact that The Glorification of the Virgin was one half of a diptych. The other panel, now separated, shows the crucifixion of Jesus. The real reason, at least for a modern art lover, is that this incredible work appeals to our heart rather than our beliefs.

Geertgen tot Sint Jans, The Glorification of the Virgin, c.1490

What we focus upon in The Glorification of the Virgin is a full symphony of the heavenly choirs. Angels play every conceivable musical instrument: lutes, trumpets, violins, a pipe organ powered by a bellows. They are making "a joyful noise unto the Lord" and the Christ Child joins in, tinkling away with a little bell.

The "march of time" chronology pauses every few pages for a thematic essay focusing on a subject of note -  Celtic metalwork, the discovery in 1939 of the incredible Sutton Hoo ship burial with its trove of early Anglo Saxon treasures, the invention of oil painting during the early Renaissance and many more topics - brilliantly complementing the unfolding timeline.

One of the most enjoyable of these essays traces the imagery of power in one of its most potent forms, the Equestrian Portrait. We follow the trend of depicting the "man on horseback" across art history. Anthony van Dyck's 1633 portrait of Charles I, mounted on a magnificent war horse, is paired with Jacques-Louis David's Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1801). (Napoleon actually rode a mule over the Alps as shown in an 1850 painting by Paul Delaroche). As both rulers were short of stature, their noble steeds gave them the advantage of height.

Carolus-Duran, Mademoiselle Croizette on Horseback, 1873
By contrast, Mademoiselle Croizette looks far more commanding - and certainly more dashing - in Carolus-Duran's 1873 portrait of her riding on the beach of Trouville. What a fabulous work of art, horse and horsewoman at ease in the enjoyment of life and vitality! Napoleon Bonaparte, the "Man of Destiny," never looked half so imposing on his steed as Sophie Croizette, riding sidesaddle on a summer's day.
Napoleon also figures significantly in the pages devoted to the years, 1800-1810. Two works of art display the French emperor in all his vanity and arrogance. In an intriguing comparison, William Blake's The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in the Sun also is highlighted. 
The "heroic" nude stature of Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker took flattery to an absurd level. Antonio Canova commenced work on the statue in 1802, during the brief Peace of Amiens with Great Britain. 

Antonio Canova, Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker, 1802-1806

Mars, of course, was no peacemaker and neither was Napoleon. In less than a year, Napoleon was back on his career of conquest. He was addicted to war, but after a few moments of reckless glory as a young commander, he seldom exposed himself to danger on the battlefield. 
A "god of war" Napoleon may have been, but he tried to convince his subjects that he was a noble, humane ruler as well. The second work depicting him in the 1800 to 1810 section is Napoléon on the Battlefield of Eylau. Painted by Antoine-Jean Gros, shortly after the battle, this is one of the rare works in the history of art to show accurate depictions of battlefield casualties.

Antoine-Jean Gros, Napoléon on the Battlefield of Eylau, 1807

This surprising willingness to acknowledge the horrors of war was actually a sophisticated propaganda venture on Napoleon's part. The Battle of Eylau, fought during a blinding snowstorm in February 1807, was not a French victory. Everyone knew that Napoleon had come close to defeat, saved only by a massed cavalry charge which broke through the Russian lines, enabling Napoleon to hold out until reinforcements arrived. So many French troops fell in the battle (perhaps 25,000), that the exact number was never computed, or at least not published in the reports sent back to France. 
Antoine-Jean Gros, acting on Napoleon's directive, turned the frozen hell of Eylau into a moral victory. Napoleon is shown, haggard and distraught, directing care for French and Russian wounded alike. It was a clever ploy and convinced many that Napoleon was a wise and compassionate leader. More to the point, it did not stop Napoleon from going to war against Russia in 1812 where this dreadful scene was repeated on a vaster scale.
At the same time as Napoleon was pursuing his "destiny," William Blake was attempting to "see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour."

William Blake, The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun, c. 1805
Apart from a small band of admirers, many people thought the visionary Blake to be utterly insane. Others considered him a prophet. Blake's wife was perhaps closest to the truth when she noted that "I have very little of Mr. Blake's company. He is always in paradise."

Blake may have inhabited his own spiritual realm. But that did not mean that he was cut-off from the world around him or oblivious of the human cost of Napoleon's bid for glory. When you reflect on the scene of carnage at Eylau, you realize that Blake's attempt to visualize the struggle of good versus evil in biblical terms reflected the dark era that he shared with Napoleon.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, La Grenouillère, 1869
These reflections should not cast a shadow on the human genius for transcending history through art. That is certainly true for Blake. It was true, as well, for Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet, when they painted decent, ordinary people relaxing at the "frog's pond," La Grenouillère, as war clouds gathered over France in 1869.

Today, only historians can explain the reasons for the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. But the "dueling" paintings of Monet and Renoir at La Grenouillère, the founding works of Impressionism, are cherished all over the world. 
You don't have to study the historical background of great works of art like the La Grenouillère paintings in order to appreciate them. However, by establishing the context for the art works we love so much, A Chronology of Art reminds us that human beings, beset by "wars and rumors or wars," can rise to the challenges of life and create enduring masterpieces. 
This is a lesson of great relevance to the troubled times we live in and, if we are lucky, this lesson will apply to the timeline of the future. 

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                Photos courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the National Gallery, London; the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; Wikimedia Commons

Introductory Image
Hans Holbein the Younger (Swiss, 1497-1543) Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve, The Ambassadors, 1533. Oil on oak panel: 207 x 209.5 cm. National Gallery, London. Purchased 1890, NG 1314

Artist unknown (Flemish) The Unicorn in Captivity (from the Unicorn Tapestries), 1495–1505. Wool warp with wool, silk, silver, and gilt wefts: 144 7/8 x 99 in. (368 x 251.5 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1937 # 37.80.6

Geertgen tot Sint Jans (Flemish, c.1465-c.1495) The Glorification of the Virgin, c. 1490–1495,originally part of a diptych. Oil on panel: height: 24.5 cm (9.6 in) x Width: 20.5 cm (8 in) Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen  2450 (OK) Google Art Project.jpg  Wikimedia Commons

Carolus-Duran (French, 1837-1917) Equestrian Portrait of Mademoiselle Croizette, 1837. Oil on canvas.  Le MUba Eugène Leroy/Tourcoing. From Wikimedia Commons

Antonio Canova (Venetian, 1757-1822) Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker, 1802-1806. Marble: 345 cm. Apsley House, London. Wikimedia Commons

Antoine-Jean Gros (French, 1771-1835) Napoleon on the Battlefield of Eylau, 1807. Oil on Canvas, 104.9 × 145.1 cm (41.2 × 57.1 in) Toledo Museum of Art 1988.54. Purchased with funds from the Libbey Endowment, Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey. Google Art Project.jpg  Wikimedia Commons

William Blake (British, 1757-1827) The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun. c. 1805. Pen and gray ink with watercolor over graphite, Rosenwald Collection, 1943.3.8999 National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French 1841-1919), La Grenouillère, 1869. Oil on canvas: 81 x 66.5 cm. Nationalmuseum, Sweden. #2425 From Wikimedia Commons