Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Franz Marc and August Macke, 1909-1914 at the Neue Galerie

Franz Marc and August Macke, 1909-1914

Neue Galerie, New York City 
October 4, 2018 - January 21, 2019

Reviewed by Ed Voves 

Original Photos by Anne Lloyd

During  the spring of 1915, a hastily scrawled postcard arrived at the office of Der Sturm, the avant garde gallery and publishing firm in Berlin. It was a German Army postcard, a quick message format designed to let family and friends know that their soldier son or husband was alive.

In this case, the postcard was addressed to Herwarth Walden, director of Der Sturm, requesting him to sell a painting, The Yellow Cow, for 900 marks. The sender was Franz Marc, Expressionist painter and co-founder of the Blue Rider art group. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018)
View of the Franz Marc and August Macke exhibit, showing Marc's The Yellow Cow

The Yellow Cow now hangs on a gallery wall in a special exhibition at the Neue Galerie. This outstanding New York City museum is dedicated to German and Austrian art of the early twentieth century.

Franz Marc and August Macke, 1909-1914, is a jaw-dropping beauty of an art show. It tells the story of Marc and his close friend, August Macke, who raised modern art in Germany to a pinnacle of insight, innovation and skill during the glorious interlude just before the opening shots of World War I.

Gallery view of the Franz Marc and August Macke exhibit at the Neue Galerie

Hulya Kolbas, Photo (2018) Courtesy Neue Gallery

In his brief 1915 message to Herwarth Walden, Marc concluded with a remark on the 900 marks he hoped to make from the sale of the painting.

"Of course that is the war price and in no way binding for future times, but only for the time being," Marc wrote. "It would be really worth my while to sell now."

 "The time being" was in fact all the time Marc had. Less than a year later, in March 1916,  Marc was struck in the head by a shell fragment during the murderous Battle of Verdun.

August Macke (1887-1914) did not even have the "time being." A devoted husband and father of two  young children, Macke had been drafted into the German Army at the very beginning of the war. In late September 1914, Macke was killed in action in France. He was one of the 116,750 Germans to be listed on the "official" record of war dead on the Western Front for the first four months of World War I, August to November 1914.

By November 1918, Germany had lost a total of 1,773,700 war dead. It is a sobering thought that two such brilliant artists and compelling human beings should have had their lives cut-short during this futile, insane slaughter.

This tragedy was compounded by Marc's posthumous reputation under the Third Reich. Despite his patriotic service and  death in battle, the Nazis blacklisted him after they gained power in 1933. Why would a German hero suffer such a fate?

Marc had enjoyed warm friendships with Jews like Herwarth Walden.  His collaboration with Vasily Kandinsky led to the formation of the Blue Rider group, the kind of progressive and idealistic collaboration which Hitler detested.  As a result, Marc's masterpiece, The Tower of Horses, was among the paintings vilified in the Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937. It disappeared afterward and has never been seen since.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018)

  View of the main gallery at the Franz Marc and August Macke exhibit

Despite this catalog of woe, the Neue Galerie's Franz Marc and August Macke, 1909-1914 is a life-affirming experience. It is a brilliantly mounted exhibition with paintings that seem to levitate above the shining floor, rather than hang on the gallery walls.

Indeed there is something of a church-like atmosphere to the exhibition, rather appropriate for these two artists. 

Marc was a notable for his spiritual leanings - he had briefly considered study for the ministry. Following several years of doubt and depression, he journeyed to Greece with his brother Paul, a scholar of Byzantine religion and culture. There he witnessed forms of Christian devotion little changed since the early Church.

Abandoning his Impressionistic landscapes, Marc developed a form of color-coded  symbolism. Animals, rather than humans, embodied the virtues and values of the world as he saw - or felt - it. This was a unexpected turn, given Marc's earlier aspirations to become a clergyman.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Franz Marc's The Dream, 1912

The paintings of Marc's "blue horse" period are more worthy of Rousseau than of the Apostle Paul. Yet there is a psychological sophistication to The Dream, one of my favorite works by Marc, which shows an affinity with the theories of Sigmund Freud.

In 1908, just as he began to paint his now-celebrated blue horses and yellow cows, Marc expressed his views in a revealing letter:

I am trying to intensify my feeling for the organic rhythm in all things, trying to establish a pantheistic contact with the tremor and flow of blood in nature.

For a few years, Marc achieved spectacular results, bringing forth on his easel a vision of Paradise before it was "lost." 

Franz Marc, Monkey Frieze, 1911 

Every manner of animal - deer, foxes, monkeys - migrated across the canvases upon which Marc worked. This is one of the surprises of the Neue Galerie exhibition. Famous for painting horses, Marc embraced the family of creation in a truly Peaceable Kingdom.

August Macke had something of missionary zeal, too, though his subject was not a  spiritual realm. His signature style paintings have a stained-glass effect, with bold, contrasting colors and, quite often, strongly outlined forms.

August Macke, Forest Stream, 1910 

Macke, unlike Marc, used this format to record the world as it is. A quote from Macke neatly sums-up his philosophy:

He who paints must be able to see an object in its uniform tone, in its whole magic, be it a flower or a human hair. All paintings created this way are the mirrors of a soul in harmony. It is quite simply vast and has no need of symbols to paint the sea.

To an extraordinary degree, Macke evoked a Paradise "regained" just as his friend, Marc, was doing. Macke, however, populated his Eden with people. Most often they were anonymous, featureless beings or nearly so. In virtually every scene, there is a sense of well-being, of the world at peace with itself, a world as people have longed for it to be. 

August Macke, Lady in a Park, 1914 

Lady in the Park (1914), awkward, homely, yet endearing, is an inhabitant of Macke's Arcadia. How different she is from Ernst Kirchner's predatory prostitutes "making the rounds" on Berlin's Potsdamer Platz, painted around the same time!

There is only the faintest delineation of eyes and expression in Lady in the Park. The erasing of physical features from many of his paintings is a troubling aspect of Macke's oeuvre

August Macke, Portrait with Apples, 1909

In 1909, Macke painted a striking portrait of his wife, Elizabeth, pregnant with their first child. It is a lovely, loving work and one is left wondering why Macke abandoned portraiture.

How the two artists met provides insight into their respective characters. Macke was a dedicated patron of art museums and galleries. Visits to France led him to exhibitions of the Fauves and he enthusiastically embraced the vigorous use of color by Matisse. In January 1910, Macke saw two lithographs by Marc in a Munich gallery. He immediately sought the address of Marc's studio and they struck-up a close friendship.

It was Marc, personable, passionate and visionary, who saw the potential for a collaborative relationship. He wrote Macke, "I consider it a great stroke of luck to have at last met a colleague of so inward and artistic a disposition - rarissme! How pleased I would be if we were to succeed in exhibiting our pictures side-by-side."

The opportunity to jointly exhibit their work came quickly. the Blue Rider group - in reality a breakaway faction from an earlier group, the Neue Künstlervereinigung München or NKM. Kandinsky, who had formed a friendship with Marc that paralleled Macke's, was the presiding spirit of Blue Rider. As much a shaman as an artist, Kandinsky aimed to promote the "spiritual in art." This appealed to Marc, but Macke was dubious.

Despite his doubts, Macke exhibited work in the 1911 Blue Rider exhibition at the Galerie Thannhauser in Munich along with Marc. By the end of the exhibition, Macke could not restrain himself and wrote to Marc in January 1912:

I have just been thinking that the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) does not really represent my work... All those high-sounding words about the birth of a great spiritual moment still resounding in my ears. Kandinsky can air his personal opinion about that or any other revolution he cares to mention. But I dislike the whole thing...Take my advice – work, and don't spend so much time thinking about blue riders or blue horses.

In keeping with Macke's views, the Neue Galerie exhibition does not linger on the Blue Rider exhibitions. Nor does it examine the celebrated companion volume, the Blue Rider Almanac. Published in 1912 with funds provided by Macke's uncle, the industrialist Bernhard Koehler, this seminal book deserves an exhibition entirely devoted to its development and legacy.

Instead, the Neue Galerie exhibition follows the course of the friendship and artistic development of these two amazing artists. Both of them increasingly ventured beyond their "signature" styles into pure abstraction. 

The exhibition displays several of the abstract works by Macke and Marc. These remarkable experiments show that both artists faced an impasse prior to exploring the realm of abstraction. Macke's investigations of color and light and Marc's symbolism had both reached the point where they must transcend their favored motifs or watch them atrophy. Pure abstraction represented a path to the future. Both Marc and Macke rose to the challenge.

August Macke, Colored Forms I, 1913 (top); Franz Marc, Broken Forms, 1914

These works are amazingly in "sync" given that the two artists saw little of each other from 1913 onward. This was due to conflicting schedules rather than a falling-out over the Blue Rider exhibitions. Macke was planning a painting trip to Tunisia. The future beckoned.

Neither Marc nor Macke had much future remaining when they painted these abstract works. War was coming and Marc appears to have been aware of the ominous developments. In 1913, he combined abstraction with his earlier symbolism in one of the greatest paintings of modern times, Fate of the Animals. A forest fire consumes Marc's beloved beasts. Paradise is lost again - perhaps forever.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Franz Marc's The Wolves (Balkan War), 1913
Fate of the Animals is not on view in the Neue Galerie exhibition. Given its iconic status, it is unlikely to ever travel from its home location in Switzerland. Marc painted The Wolves (Balkan War) around the same time and in the same vein. It is a powerful, haunting painting.

Given these two works, Marc should have recoiled from war when it did come in August 1914. Shockingly, he did not. Instead, he volunteered for military service in the belief that war would "cleanse" Europe. 

Despite his love of French culture and friendship for Kandinsky, Marc believed in Germany's role as leader of Europe and expected Kaiser Wilhelm's well-drilled army to win. Macke went to war reluctantly, Marc enthusiastically.

It is the word "cleanse" that really casts a shadow on an appraisal of Marc. He certainly did not mean any form of ethnic cleansing. In many ways, he hoped that the war would sweep away ossified political forms in the way that the "Generation of 98" had promoted beneficial change in Spain after that nation was defeated in 1898 by the United States.

The implications of his initial pro-war views were not in keeping with Marc's deep sense of humanity or his genuine spirituality. His wife, Maria, was alarmed by his naive, reckless patriotism and so, after a century, are art lovers like myself who hold Marc in high esteem.

Marc was quickly made aware of his folly. August Macke was killed in action on September 26, 1914. Stunned by Macke's death, Marc wrote, “It is truly the cruelest blow this war could have dealt me; I lost a piece of me when he died.”

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) August Macke's Little Walter's Toys, 1912

One of the most affecting paintings in the Neue Galerie exhibition is Macke's Little Walter's Toys. Painted in 1912, Macke shows the playthings of his young son, who was four years old when his father died. The unused toys have taken on a symbolism that was never intended at the time of the painting.

Little Walter's Toys is a precious relic of the "Lost Generation" of 1914-18, of August Macke, of Franz Marc, of the martyred soldiers of all the warring nations. And it is a reminder of all the little Walters, whose hearts were broken by the War to End All Wars.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                                           
Images courtesy of the Neue Galerie, New York City, and Anne Lloyd

Introductory Image:
Franz Marc (German, 1880-1916) The First Animals, 1913. Gouache and pencil on paper: 39.05 x 46.67 cm. Private Collection

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Gallery view of the Franz Marc and August Macke, 1909-1914 exhibition, showing Franz Marc's The Yellow Cow, 1911. Oil on Canvas: 55 3/8 x 74 1/2 inches (140.7 x 189.2 cm  Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection

Hulya Kolas, Photo (2018) Gallery view of the Franz Marc and August Macke, 1909-1914 exhibition. Courtesy of the Neue Galerie, New York City.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Gallery view of the Franz Marc and August Macke, 1909-1914 exhibition at the Neue Galerie, New York City

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Franz Marc's The Dream, 1912. Oil on canvas. 100.5 x 135.5 cm Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid Inv. no. 660 1978.15

Franz Marc (German, 1880-1916) Monkey Frieze, 1911. Oil on Canvas: 135.5 x 75.5 cm Hamburger Kunsthalle

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) August Macke's Forest Stream (Waldbach), 1910. Oil on canvas: 24 ¼ x 24 1/8 in. (61.6 x 61.3 cm) Indiana University, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Partial gift of the Robert Gore Rifkind Collection, 78.67

August Macke (German,1887-1914) Lady in a Park, 1914. Oil on canvas: 38 1/2 x 23 1/4" (97.8 x 58.9 cm).The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the Henry Pearlman Foundation, 1956   

August Macke (German, 1887-1914) Portrait with Apples, 1909. Oil on Canvas:  66 x 59.5 cm Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau, Munich

August Macke (German, 1887–1914) Colored Forms I, 1913 Oil on board, mounted on panel: 53.1 x 38.5 cm. LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur, Westfälisches Landesmuseum, Münster, Germany Photo: LWL-LMKuk/Sabine Ahlbrand-Dornseif

Franz Marc (German, 1880-1916) Broken Forms,1914. Oil on Canvas: 44 x 33 1/4 inches (111.8 x 84.4 cm) Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Franz Marc's The Wolves (Balkan War), 1913. Oil on Canvas: 70.8 x 139.7 cm  Albright-Knox Art Gallery Buffalo, NY 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) August Macke's Little Walter's Toys, 1912. Oil on Canvas: 50 x 60 cm, Städel Museum, Frankfurt Germany

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Fabulous Fashion: From Dior’s New Look to Now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Fabulous Fashion: From Dior’s New Look to Now

Philadelphia Museum of Art
October 16, 2018–March 3, 2019

Reviewed by Ed Voves

If you ask art lovers about the term haute couture, most would likely resort to a list of familiar adjectives to set the visual tone of their reply. Stylish, elegant, classy, exquisite, sensual, hip, sassy, glamorous, etc., etc. Describing "fashion" is easier than achieving a satisfactory definition. 

All of the above "superlatives" are applicable to to the Philadelphia Museum of Art's just-opened exhibition. Fabulous Fashion: From Dior’s New Look to Now is a superb exhibit, a feast for eye and mind. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2018)  View of the entrance to the Fabulous Fashion: From Dior’s New Look to Now exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

There is an element of irony to the term haute couture, certainly relating to its second word. To American ears at least, couture denotes Old World sophistication. The basic meaning is quite mundane, a very "work-a-day" French word.

Couture means sewing.  

To be exact, a French haute couture garment is a unique, hand-fitted dress. However, the incredible amount of work involved in a high fashion "ready made" garment makes the distinction less meaningful than one would think. 

High fashion sewing, in either form, entails a great deal of meticulous work: creating patterns, handling fabrics, cutting, stitching, fitting and all the other delicate tasks involved in turning a fashion designer's concepts into reality. It is this "sewing" which makes these dresses "works" of art. 

In the case of the New Look of 1947, Christian Dior and his dedicated staff helped reawaken a sense of beauty in a war-ravaged world. Other designers, stressing femininity and romanticism, followed suit. Fashion tastes have certainly changed since then and the Sexual Revolution has challenged some of our conceptions of beauty. Yet, when we look to the models coming down the runways, we still expect to see beautiful people and beautiful clothing and our expectations are usually met.

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Kristina Haugland, curator of Fabulous Fashion

Kristina Haugland is the Le Vine Associate Curator of Costume and Textiles at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She organized Fabulous Fashion along thematic lines, much as a fashion house does when a new collection is introduced. Wisely, she begins with a comparison of two signature House of Dior ensembles.

The New Look began in 1947 with a striking two-piece dress (below, right) designed by Christian Dior. The trim waste and full skirt emphasized traditional feminine attributes. Made from pale pink silk and satin (which looks burnished gold in the exhibit), Dior's dress proclaimed that the wartime shortages of rich materials were a phenomenon of the past. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Fall/Winter Suit,1998, designed by John Galliano (left)
 Two-Piece Dress, Spring 1948, designed by Christian Dior  

According to the insightful exhibition text, Dior's New Look dress "redefined high fashion’s feminine ideal. To emphasize his new shape, the shirt has diagonal shoulder seams and stiffened tails that tuck in, while the skirt has a stiff lining and bands of topstitching." 

By comparison, the House of Dior Fall/Winter ensemble from 1998 stressed modern urban living, combining jaunty flair with a sense of luxury. A "ready-to-wear" outfit, it was created  from a wide range of materials, including dyed wool to resemble a fur collar. A lot of effort and skill went into this process, undercutting any negative comparisons about using "faux" versus organic components.

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Tina Leser's Sea Fan Fantasy Evening Dress,1947

A surprising number of twentieth century fashion designers worked or were born in Philadelphia. Their creations are featured prominently in the exhibition. I was particularly impressed by the artistry of Tina Leser's hand-painted "underwater" design of large sea fans on a billowing blue blouse and skirt. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Detail of Tina Leser's Sea Fan Fantasy Evening Dress,1947

Made the same year as Dior's "New Look" dress, Leser's Sea Fan Fantasy shows how trends in fashion respond to wide-spread feelings or emotions, in this case a yearning for adventure and romance after the austerity and regimentation of the war years. 

              Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Gallery View of Fabulous Fashion exhibit                  Ralph Rucci's 2001 Stingray Swan evening dress is at center

The full, flowing skirt continues to have a long life, outlasting the "conventional" 1950's by many years. Another Philadelphia-born designer, Ralph Rucci designed the Stingray Swan evening dress for the Chado 2001 spring/summer collection. Shown in striking midnight blue at center, this dress covers everything that the "mini" skirt left bare. Yet, it is one of the sexiest evening gowns of the Fabulous Fashion show.

Another sensational dress demonstrates that an eye for color and integrity of design can work with a short skirt or a long one. In 1952, Ellsworth Kelly utilized the hard-edged color blocks that had figured in his breakthrough painting the previous year, Colors for a Large Wall. The 1952 work was a set of panels made from brightly dyed cotton.

When he had completed his fabric art creation, Kelly had leftover material. With the help of designer, Anne Weber, he juxtaposed leftover strips of color on a simple, yet elegant sleeveless dress that reached down to the calves. Kelly declared his intention of of "getting color off the wall and having it walk around the room.” 

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Gallery view showing Brazilian designer, Francisco Costa's reinterpretation of a 1952 dress based on artwork by Ellsworth Kelly

The original dress based on Kelly's design has not survived. In 2013, Brazilian designer, Francisco Costa, reinterpreted the Fifties' classic with a much shorter hem. The result is dazzling in its simplicity, making it one of the most remarkable works on view in Fabulous Fashion.

The 1950's has an undeserved reputation as a "gray decade." Over and over again, when you look at the dates of the works in the exhibition, many of the most colorful and innovative dresses are "Fifties" creations. I was very impressed by a sensual, body-hugging evening dress designed by another Philadelphia-born fashion artist. James Galanos created this sparkling tartan gown in 1957 from beads and sequins meticulously sewn on sheer silk crepe. There is not a hint of being "dated" with this truly classic evening dress.

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Evening Dress,1957, designed by James Galanos

Kristina Haugland's thematic approach gives a powerful assist to art lovers like myself who are not especially knowledgeable about fashion. It also promotes a "dialog" among like-minded designers and their dresses. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2018)  Fashion designs (left to right) by:
 Norman Norell, Todd Oldham, Geoffrey Beene and Hubert de Givenchy

The array of "metallic" dresses actually works better as a group than would have been the case had each been singled-out for attention. Here four gifted designers - Norman Norell, Todd Oldham, Geoffrey Beene and Hubert de Givenchy - used unorthodox materials like metallized plastic sequins and rhinestones on silk to create fashion "statements" which are also beautiful, wearable dresses.

The Fabulous Fashion exhibition is anchored by a multi-tiered stage which brilliantly evokes the setting of fashion shows. Haugland and the exhibition set designers further enhance the "star quality" of the exhibit by the masterful synchronization of lights. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Gallery views the lighting effects of the multi-tiered fashion display of the Fabulous Fashion exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

In the alternating glow of gold and blue light, we see these dresses in terms of daylight and evening shadow. Even more important, we are enabled to see these fashion creations as the designers envisioned them as they worked out the details of color and form on their drawing boards. Before there was a New Look there was an image in the mind's eye of Christian Dior, as for all great artists.

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) "Photo-op" at Fabulous Fashion: From Dior’s New Look to Now

The inspiration which empowers the world of fashion, the "haute" of haute couture, is brilliantly explored in this wonderful exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is one of the few American museums with a major costume and textile department. As a result, Haugland and her colleagues were able to mount this major reappraisal of twentieth century fashion exclusively with dresses, hats and accessories from their own museum's extensive collection. Not one item was loaned from another institution.

You don't have to be a fashionista to crave further exhibitions like Fabulous Fashion: From Dior’s New Look to Now. And you don't have to be a prophet to make a prediction that we will be seeing many more such shows come down the "runway" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Text and photos: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                                           
Introductory Image:
Gallery view of Fabulous Fashion: From Dior’s New Look to Now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photo shows the "Color and Pattern" section of exhibition.
Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Gallery view of Fabulous Fashion: From Dior’s New Look to Now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Digital film projection of fashion shows dating to the period covered by the exhibition.
Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Kristina Haugland, curator of Fabulous Fashion: From Dior’s New Look to Now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Fall/Winter Suit,1998, designed by John Galliano (left);

Two-Piece Dress, Spring 1948, designed by Christian Dior.

Ed Voves, Photo (2018)  Tina Leser's Sea Fan Fantasy Evening Dress, 1947, from the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Gallery View of Fabulous Fashion exhibit. Ralph Rucci's 2001 Stingray Swan evening dress is at center

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Gallery View showing Brazilian designer Francisco Costa's reinterpretation of a 1952 dress, based on an artwork of Ellsworth Kelly. Dress was made by Calvin Klein Collection. Cotton/nylon/spandex double weave. Gift of the artist to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2015-5-1.

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Evening Dress, 1957, designed by James Galanos (American, 1924–2016). Beads and sequins on sheer silk crepe. Philadelphia Museum of Art,  Gift of the designer, 1957-103-1

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Gallery View of the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibit, Fabulous Fashion: From Dior’s New Look to Now. On view, left to right, are dresses designed by:  Norman Norell, Evening Dress, ca. 1967–70; Todd Oldham, “Mirror” Evening Dress, Fall 1992; Geoffrey Beene, “Mercury” Evening Dress, Fall/Winter 1994–95; Hubert de Givenchy, Evening Dress, Fall 1982.

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Gallery views the lighting effects of the multi-tiered fashion display of the Fabulous Fashion exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) "Photo-op" at Philadelphia Museum of Art's Fabulous Fashion: From Dior’s New Look to Now exhibition.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Armenia! at the Metropolitan Museum of Art


The Metropolitan Museum of Art
September 22, 2018 - January 13, 2019

Reviewed by Ed Voves

"My kingdom is not of this world," Jesus of Nazareth declared to Pontius Pilate. Ignoring this truthful testimony, the Roman procurator "washed his hands" and sent Jesus to his death. 

The same scenario applies to the first Christian nation, an "other-worldly" state which has suffered murderous persecution and exile during its long, tortured existence.

That nation is Armenia.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has just opened a spectacular exhibition showcasing Armenian art over the course of a thousand and more years, beginning in 301 AD. That year, the Armenian king, Tiridates III adopted Christianity as the state religion for his ancient country. 

The vast span of time covered by the Met's exhibit witnessed endless wars and invasions, heart-rending suffering and incredible fortitude. The cast of would-be conquerors changed over the centuries but the result was always the same: the survival and triumph of Armenian national identity.                                                                                                                 
Ed Voves Photo (2018), Gallery view of Armenia! at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
It is absolutely essential, before examining the wondrous Met exhibition, to emphasize that the resilient Armenian nation differs from what is normally considered a "nation." The French scholar, Jean Michel Thierry, wrote in his massive 1987 study of Armenian art that it is "impossible to define Armenia as a state, for it has seldom been one in the full sense of the word, that is to say it has rarely enjoyed autonomous political and social structures.”

Armenian art should not be considered as art made within well-defined borders. Armenian identity likewise transcends the limitations that define what other peoples regard as normal. Thierry concluded: 

If it is difficult to define Armenia as a country, a state or a race, the Armenians are nonetheless a very specific people, independent from all others. Armenians are supportive of one another, and have a strong sense of solidarity. They thus form a nation united by these very feelings, which emanate from their own two cultural bases: language and religion.

These two foundations of Armenian identity are exemplified by the impressive number of illuminated manuscripts on display in the Metropolitan exhibition and by the astonishing carved monuments known as khachkars (cross stones), most of which were created during the late Middle Ages.

Sargis Pidzak, Bible of Yerevan, 1338

The precious, hand-written bibles and chronicles on display in Armenia! are testaments to an unbroken chain of heritage and religion. The Armenian language is one of the most ancient in the world, a survivor of the Thracian language group which was brought to Central Asia when the ancestors of the Armenians migrated there around 1200 BC. This was the ancient "Dark Age" during which the Bronze Age empires bordering on the Mediterranean Sea collapsed and new political entities arose. The city states of Greece originated during this time of "overturning." So too did Armenia.

The Bible of Yerevan, created  in 1338, is a superb example of the sacred books of the Armenians. It was made for the Cathololicos or leader of the Armenian Church, Hakob II. A very significant - and charming -  feature of this Bible is the portrait of the artist and scribe, Sargis. He appears in the lower left-hand corner of the page, busily working away. This may explain his "nickname" of Pidzak, which means bee.

The above pages of the Bible of Yerevan show the Gospel of St. Matthew. If the language of the Armenians survives from remote antiquity, their alphabet is a more recent creation. The Armenian alphabet was developed about 405 AD by the Christian church leader, Mesrop Mashtots.

A century before, Armenia had embraced Christianity in 301 AD and the need for a vernacular translation of the Bible was paramount. Without an Armenian alphabet, Armenia risked being engulfed by the Greek culture of the Roman Empire. Armenia faced a comparable Persian threat from the east. It was a land-locked version of "between the devil and the deep-blue sea." 

Sacred scripture, Christian religious doctrines, the lives of Armenia's saintly heroes, moral precepts and folk wisdom - all were written in the Armenian alphabet and copied into stunningly beautiful manuscripts. And when movable print enabled the publication of books in massive print runs, the Armenians were quick to embrace the new technology. 

Book of Friday (Urbat'agirk'), the first printed book in Armenian, 1512

The first printed volume in the Armenian language was a religious work called the Book of Friday or Urbat'agirk'. It was published in Venice in 1512, a hugely significant point. 

The Ottoman Turkish overlords of Armenia had banned the printing press in 1485 to thwart dissent among their subjects. That decision cost the Turks dearly. Though still a formidable military force for the next century, the Turks doomed their empire by stifling scientific inquiry and technological innovation. The Armenians, through their business contacts in Italy, survived and thrived by using the printing press.

Over a thousand years before, the Armenians, beset by danger on all sides, had embraced Christianity in similar fashion. They did so both from sincere, religious belief and from an instinctive awareness of threats to their existence. That is still true today. No greater testament to the faith-based endurance of Armenia exists than the awesome khachkar.

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Khachkar (Stone Cross), 12th century, Northern Armenia

This stunning work of art and faith stands six feet high, taller than the average height of a man during the thirteenth century. At the very top corners, are two pairs of birds who symbolize the risen dead. At the foot of the cross are the symbols of the four gospel writers: the ox at the very bottom for St. Luke, the lion for St. Mark, the eagle for St. John and the face of a man for St. Matthew.  

 Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Khachkar from Northern Armenia (detail)

The man's face may also  have been intended for "double duty." In Christian imagery, a skull is often shown at the foot of the cross, based on the belief that the site of Jesus' execution was the burial place of Adam. In this way, the khachkar is doing "double duty" as a memorial to a Christian believer and as a symbol of the power of Holy Scripture.

Thousands of khachkars were sculpted over the centuries, beginning around 800 AD. Most were original works of devotion, rearing-up over the rugged countryside of Armenia. For the most part, khachkars were commissioned by individual patrons to express their desire for the salvation of their souls and of their loved ones, living and dead. 

Cruciform Khachkar, made in Sevan, Eastern Armenia, 1448

Some khatchers, from the Lake Van region, reused ancient stele monuments from the predecessors of the Armenians, the Urartu kingdom. Most khachkars are inscribed rectangles of stone, but there are rare examples like the one shown above that were carved in a cruciform shape.

Looking at the khachkars in the Armenia! exhibition taps into primal emotions. Khachkars, without exaggeration, are some of the most impressive works of human faith and creativity in the world.

Sadly, khachkars are also objects of desecration. Hundreds have been destroyed or damaged, casualties in a deliberate campaign of cultural destruction aimed at removing all trace of Armenian civilization.

Khachkar (damaged), 13th–14th century, made in Eastern Armenia

Fortunately, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has played a key role in promoting awareness of the beauty and importance of the imperiled art of Central Asia, the Middle East and other war-torn areas. Armenia! follows in the footsteps of some of the most landmark exhibitions of modern times: The Glory of Byzantium (1997), Byzantium: Faith and Power (2004), Byzantium and Islam (2012).  

A common thread - indeed a crucial point - of all these exhibitions has been the role of Dr. Helen C. Evans of the Metropolitan staff. She was the curator of each of the Byzantine exhibits as well as Armenia! The "before and after" effect of the earlier ones dealing with the art and culture of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire has been remarkable.

Dr.Helen C. Evans (center), with members of the clergy of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America, at the preview of Armenia! 

Before the Met's Byzantium exhibits, many art text books often glossed over Byzantine art - but no longer. Hopefully, Dr. Evans' tremendous efforts on behalf of Armenian art will have the same beneficial result.

Dr. Evans has assembled over 140 masterpieces for the Armenia! exhibition. Like its Byzantium predecessors, the sheer number, variety and antiquity of these works leaves the gallery visitor stunned by the magnitude of this curatorial achievement.

Many of the works of art on display have never traveled from Armenia or from the communities of Armenians living in Iran and Europe. I hope in a future review to focus on some of the more unusual pieces in the exhibition. For now, I will highlight three artifacts from the exhibit, including a carved door, dating to the fifteenth century that is little short of miraculous.

The first of these signature works need a bit of explaining. One is a tapestry showing Chinese dragons. What seems an unusual piece to include in this exhibit is indeed one of the key works of Armenia! at The Met.

Silk tapestry from China, 11th–12th century

During the long period covered by the exhibition, Armenian merchants played a crucial role as "middle-men" on the Silk Road trade. So important were the Armenians in the east-west commerce during the Middle Ages, that the otherwise ferocious Mongol khans utilized their talents and, for the most part, allowed them to keep their heads on their shoulders. 

The silk treasured in Europe was principally used to create garments of western design for the nobility and merchant class. But this tapestry, dated to the eleventh or twelfth centuries, is worthy of note because it shows a direct influence on Armenian art.

Gospel Book of Archbishop John, made in Sis, Lesser Armenia, 1289

 An illuminated manuscript, the Gospel Book of Archbishop John, created around 1289 AD, shows a Chinese dragon on the hem of the vestments of a very high-ranking Armenian clergyman. Archbishop John was the half-brother of the Armenian king, Hetum I. The dragon robe which he wears was likely a gift from the Mongols. It takes considerable attention to spot the dragon on the archbishop's robes but it's worth the extra effort. 

In the case of the carved wooden door from the Church of the Holy Apostles at the Monastery of Sevan, an entire review seems in order for just this one, wondrous work of art! 

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) 
Carved Door from the Church of the Holy Apostles, Eastern Armenia, 1486

I kept returning to look and study this astonishing door while at the Armenia! exhibit. Comparison with the "Gates of Paradise" of the Baptistry of Florence seems entirely appropriate. Created slightly later than the Renaissance masterpiece of Lorenzo Ghiberti (1425-1452), the door was carved from walnut wood in 1486. An inscription at the bottom mentions the artists, Abraham and Grigoris. 

While the "Gates of Paradise" depict historical scenes from the Old Testament, the Sevan doors are dedicated to the heaven-oriented spirituality of the New Testament. 

Carved Door from the Church of the Holy Apostles (detail)
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Here we see the risen Christ attended by the symbolical creatures of the four gospel writers. Below this scene, Christ's disciples are shown, receiving the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Stylistic elements from khachkars and illuminated manuscripts are clearly identifiable.

The Sevan Monastery doors are the total embodiment of the Armenian view of the cosmos. For all of their mercantile acumen and survival skills, the ultimate goal of life in Armenian civilization is the resurrection of the immortal soul and union with God. 

Carved Door from the Church of the Holy Apostles (detail)

The works of art on view in Armenia! testify to this "other-worldly" world view. Armenians, past and present, well know the importance of keeping the eye of faith focused on the life of the world to come.

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

Introductory Image:
Altar Frontal, 1741. Made in Isfahan, Iran. Embroidered textiles. Gold thread, silver thread, and silk thread on silk: 26 9/16 × 38 3/8 in. (67.5 × 97.5 cm) Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, Armenia (626)

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Gallery view of the Armenia! exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sargis Pidzak (Armenian, active 14th century) Bible of Yerevan, 1338. Manuscript and illuminations. Ink, tempera, and gold on parchment: 546 folios. 9 3/16 × 6 5/16 in. (23.4 × 16 cm) Weight: 5.4 lb. (2430g) “Matenadaran” Mesrop Mashtots‘ Institute-Museum of Ancient Manuscripts, Yerevan, Armenia (ms 2627)

Book of Friday (Urbat'agirk'), 1512. Printed book, published in Venice. Ink on paper,124 pages: 6 1/4 × 4 3/4 in. (15.8 × 12.1 cm) Armenian Mekhitarist Congregation, Library of San Lazzaro Abbey, Venice, Italy (2225)
Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Khachkar (Stone Cross), 12th century. Made in Lori-Berd, Armenia. Basalt: 72 x 38 3/4 x 9 in. (182.9 x 98.4 x 22.9 cm). Weight: 2000lb. (907.2kg). Special loan of the History Museum of Armenia

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Khachkar (Stone Cross) from Lori-Berd, Armenia (Detail). 

Cruciform Khachkar, 1448. Made in Lake Sevan. Tufa stone: 52 3/8 × 31 1/2 × 11 13/16 in. Weight: 563.1 lb. (255.4 kg) History Museum of Armenia, Yerevan (1658)

Khachkar (damaged), 13th–14th century. Made in Eastern Armenia. Tuff: 50 3/8 × 27 3/16 × 7 1/16 in. Weight  392.6 lb. (178.1 kg) Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, Armenia (N 4-Q)

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Dr. Helen Evans, curator of Armenia! at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with members of the clergy of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America.

Tapestry with Dragons and Flowers, 11th–12th century. Made in China. Silk tapestry: 21 x 13 in. (53.3 x 33 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Fletcher Fund, 1987  Accession Number:1987.275 Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Gospel Book of the Archbishop John, 1289. Made in Sis, Lesser Armenia. Manuscript and Illuminations. Ink, tempera, and gold on parchment; 353 folios. 10 3/16 × 7 11/16 in. (25.8 × 19.5 cm) Weight: 6.2 lb. (2805g) “Matenadaran” Mesrop Mashtots‘ Institute-Museum of Ancient Manuscripts, Yerevan, Armenia (ms 197)

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Carved Door, 1486. Made in Sevan, Armenia. Walnut wood: 72 13/16 × 38 9/16 × 7 7/8 in. Weight: 335.8 lb. (152.3 kg) History Museum of Armenia, Yerevan (86)

Carved Door, made in Sevan, Armenia. (Detail views, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Ed Voves, 2018).