Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Art Eyewitness Book Review: The Oxford Illustrated History of the World

The Oxford Illustrated History of the World

Edited by Felipe Fernández-Armesto
 Oxford University Press/$60/481 pages

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Readers of the Christian New Testament (Hebrews 4:12) will be familiar with the image of a "two edged sword."  This weapon is used as metaphor for the living word of God which can pierce "unto the division of the soul and the spirit, of the joints also and the marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart."

On a more earthly plain, two edged swords certainly have stabbed and sliced "of the joints and the marrow" of countless human beings. Two edged swords cut both ways. The weapon you use to kill an enemy can kill you. Sometimes this occurs by accident rather than design -"friendly fire" is a current way of describing it. Two edged swords have also been used in acts of suicidal despair, as King Saul, forsaken by God and defeated by the Philistines, fell upon his sword.

As I read the brilliant and provocative new book, The Oxford Illustrated History of the World, the image of the two edged sword kept appearing and reappearing in my mind. Civilization is a two edged sword.

And not just swords. The biblical passage of swords being hammered into plowshares is worthy of note. Plowshares, the subject of much discussion in the Oxford book, are "two edged" too. Cutting through turf, plowshares create this year's topsoil which wind and rain turn into next year's dust and mud.

A plough pulled by oxen, from the Luttrell Psalter, c.1325 (British Library)

In just under five hundred pages, the authors of The Oxford Illustrated History of the World have achieved a near impossible feat of scholarship. They trace the rise of Homo Sapiens as the dominant living species on Planet Earth. The momentous journey from the cradle of human life in prehistoric Africa to the present phase of the "Great Acceleration" is presented in a judicious blend of sweeping narrative and lucid commentary.

Drawing upon the latest research in earth science, biology and climatology, the Oxford volume closely links the dominant status of Homo Sapiens to the ability to adapt to challenging living conditions on all continents except Antarctica.The book's first chapter (written by Clive Gamble) presents informed and intriguing speculation that the replacement of Neanderthals by humans in Europe occurred 40,000 years ago following a huge volcanic eruption. As Neanderthals were "as large brained as their human contemporaries," the change was not due to lack of intelligence. Humans likely gained predominance by their enhanced ability to respond to challenges, acquired during the migrations from East Africa.

The skull of Homo Sapiens (left) compared to a Neanderthal skull

Clive Gamble writes: 

We became the lonely, global species as a result of imagination, supported by advanced cognitive skills, which gave us myths, afterlives, ancestors, gods, and history - the cultural dreams of a clever, versatile biped...This imagination, validated by society and culture, saw benefit in going beyond, taking the risk, moving out of the long-inhabited hominin comfort zone...

The editor of The Oxford Illustrated History of the World, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, is the perfect leader of the team of scholars responsible for this splendid book. A brilliant and unorthodox historian,  Fernández-Armesto wrote two of the chapters of this global history. The first considers the birth of art and ideas during the Paleolithic "Ice Age," while the second surveys the rise and fall of the agriculture-based civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley city-states and the Shang and Zhou dynasties of ancient China. 

Other notable historians follow Fernández-Armesto's example and Gamble's superb opening chapter. The combined scholarship of this Oxford illustrated history balances wide-ranging appraisal with tightly-focused scrutiny on significant factors. The text is brilliantly complemented by pictures of extraordinary works of art and readily understandable maps and charts.

Buddhist Expansion in Asia to about 1300 CE

A good example of the book's balance of far-sighted perception  and incisive example occurs in the chapter on life during late antiquity and the Middle Ages. John Brooke notes that changed climate conditions in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries brought significant rainfall to the Eurasian steppe. Grassland grew in what had been a vast stretch of near desert. Mongol raiders under Genghis Khan thus had a ready supply of forage, enabling them to create a land empire from the Volga and Dnieper rivers in Russia to Korea and China. Along with the marauding armies of the Mongols traveled the Yersinia pestis bacillus, the plague microbe responsible for the Black Death.

Natural calamities of the magnitude of the Black Death or the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918-19 are comparatively rare. On the other hand, the frequency of societal smash-ups is almost predictable in its wheel-of-misfortune regularity.

Fernández-Armesto and his fellow scholars view the development of human societies from a broad continuum. As a result, traditional textbook dates for "smash-ups" like the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, 476 AD, sometimes appear in the middle of chapters, rather than more definitive places on history's timeline.

John Brooke's "Material Life: Bronze Age Crisis to the Black Death," is one of three chapters spanning the long period from the collapse of Bronze Age city-states and kingdoms around the presumed date for the Trojan War (1200 BC) to the Renaissance in Europe. Brooke, David Northrup and Ian Morris examine how humanity in this long phase of history developed complex societies and religious/philosophical foundations to sustain them.

Often the most creative ideas and innovations occurred during the "dark ages" which punctuated this millennium and a half. Homer's Iliad was composed during a truly dark time, a least in terms of written records, following the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization in Greece (1100-750 BC). It was only written down after the Greeks had adapted the alphabet of the seafaring Phoenicians for their own use. Not long after this, the Hebrew Bible began to be organized in written form by Jews who had been forced to migrate to Babylon after Judea was conquered and incorporated into the Babylonian Empire.

Frequently, human beings cannot resist drawing the sword and using force to defend themselves. Civilized states have suffered much from the attacks of wandering, pillaging nomads - Goths,  Huns, Vikings and Mongols. Small kingdoms and states must also resist being swallowed up by bigger states.  One of the more successful political entities to do so was ancient Assyria's New Empire, 912-612 BC. 

Assyrian cavalry relief, c. 700 BCE (British Museum)

Early Assyria had been an unremarkable Middle Eastern kingdom, often under the sway of Babylon. "New" Assyria built a powerful military establishment, developing horse cavalry units rather than relying on cumbersome chariots. This enabled Assyria to survive the tsunami of steppe raiders and "sea peoples" which wiped-out Mycenaean Greece, the Hittites in modern-day Turkey and nearly swamped once-mighty Egypt. According to Brooke, cooler temperatures and more rainfall favored the horse raiders and the likely spread of plague vectors similar to what occurred with the Mongols later during the Middle Ages. Assyria countered this grave threat and won.

Does this mean that we should extend a degree of sympathy to the New Assyrian Empire, given the narrow margin of survival which they faced? Ultimately no, for militarized Assyria became one of the most ruthless and blood-thirsty political states in history - and one of the least innovative once the nomad invaders had been driven off. In my 2014 Art Eyewitness review of the "Assyria to Iberia" exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I compared the sterile culture of the Assyrians with the immense creative achievements of the Phoenician city-states during the same period. 

In the case of the war-loving Assyrians, the image of the '''two edged sword" is literally true. But the law of unintended effect is equally appropriate to creative pursuits like the visual arts.

Fernández-Armesto writes movingly of the birth of art during the Paleolithic era. He notes that art painted or carved on the walls of cave shrines served a ritual purpose or as a record of hunting techniques. Much, indeed the majority, of art created around the time of the celebrated Chauvet Cave paintings, thirty thousand years ago, was religious in its intention, as human beings conceived and interpreted notions of divine powers and eternal life.

Not all prehistoric art was spiritually-motivated. Fernández-Armesto writes:

One of the reasons why humans make images of the objects they see is in an effort to understand them: understanding is inescapably prior to control. Like modern 'abstract' artists today, Ice Age predecessors tried to capture the key properties and patterns of the nature they observed, not to reproduce its exact appearance.

Note the words "understanding is inescapably prior to control." Humans created art to help them understand and control their natural environment and to conceptualize the unseen, but intuited, realm of divine beings. From there, it was but a step to using art as a means of understanding society, "prior to control" by some human beings over other, less favored men and women.

A richly bejewelled burial at Sunghir in Russia, dated to 28,000 years ago

Fernández-Armesto pauses in his survey of Paleolithic society to focus on an elite burial ground at Sunghir, near Moscow. The cemetery was found to contain the remains of an older man (shown above) and two children, dated to 28,000 years ago. The grave goods were staggering in their profusion and sophistication. Thousands of beads made from mammoth ivory,a necklace made of fox fangs and fur garments with fox teeth buttons were uncovered. One of the children, a boy of ten to twelve years, was buried with a spear or wand made from mammoth ivory.

Like the Egyptians, thousands of years later, these early "Russians" were well-equipped for the afterlife. But the spiritual connotation of these grave goods must also be interpreted from a political or societal perspective. These were privileged people, probably a clan or tribe leader and his children. Whoever they were, Fernández-Armesto is surely correct to identify them as members of an "Ice Age power class."

From that point, 28,000 years ago, the mutually reinforcing relationship of religion, politics and art shaped and determined the whole course of human existence. The discovery of the Sunghir grave goods in 1970 provided the earliest examples of the "trappings" of power.

In a later chapter of the Oxford book, dealing with the rise and crisis of modern culture, Paolo Luca Bernardini affirms that "the presence or absence of God is a key element in all spiritual, intellectual, and artistic work." Throughout history, Bernardini notes:

The arts constantly gave their account of the clash between mutability and eternity as they relate to the human world and the eternal God: through these representations, they justify their practice and express their deepest meaning. These conditions of mutability and visions of the world in which the sacred space plays a fundamental role plead in favor of the divine dimension of art. They suggest 'divine inspiration', as a human response to the same mystery of existence.

Japanese export pottery with VOC (Dutch East India Company) symbol

With brilliant (and disturbing) insight, Bernardini shows how a strain of atheism promulgated by radicals of the French Revolution spread throughout European cultural circles despite the eventual defeat suffered by the French Republic and its successor, Napoleon's empire. Later embraced in various forms by intellectuals all over the world, the belief that "God is Dead" has had staggering implications for humanity's creative impulses and emotional health.

A secularized perspective is now the dominant mode of thought and action in today's world, even in societies which profess strong belief in religious creeds. The critical turning point may have been earlier than the French Revolution of 1789. The chapter in the Oxford book dealing with the spread of global commerce following the voyages of "discovery" by Columbus, Vasco da Gama and others provides fascinating evidence for this crucial development.

"Exhibit A" is a porcelain plate made in Japan around 1660 for export to the Netherlands. Prominently placed in the center is the symbol of the Dutch East India Company. "VOC" stands for Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie. Although the Dutch were still a very pious people, by the 1660's many were equipping  or decorating their homes with nonreligious-themed products or pictures. Rembrandt's career took a fatal downturn around this time as his biblical paintings remained unsold.

A century before this, very few persons in Europe of any social standing, Protestant or Catholic, would have displayed a work of art or costly artifacts which lacked some reference to religion.  Even the Medici of Florence were careful to have themselves portrayed on the edges of paintings devoutly worshiping the Christ child in the manger.

"Envy is a weed," Cosimo de Medici (1389-1464) declared, "which should never be watered."

As long as human beings feared - or more importantly, believed in - God's judgment, then art and religion provided the inspiring belief systems which motivated the rise of Homo Sapiens to unprecedented achievements. Once corporate "brands" like "VOC" began to replace religious symbolism and spiritual ideals, humanity entered a new phase of existence.

Earth Lights, 1994, illustrated by Craig Mayhew and Robert Simmon, NASA

We now live in a "new world" of instant communication and individual gratification. The NASA illustration, Earth Lights, shows how widespread is the present state of the globalism, the latest man-made Utopia. Created in 1994 using data from the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) and Operational Linescan System (OLS), the illustration shows "twinkling lights" which actually are "the locations of permanent lights on the Earth’s surface."

The dark spaces of Earth Lights also show how circumscribed is globalism. This is not a matter of civilization vs. barbarism, First World vs. Third World, but signifies instead how standards of certain regions cannot and should not be the measure for the whole planet.

The final chapters of The Oxford Illustrated History of the World have much to say - cogent and based upon the latest research - about the troubled condition of humanity. The epilogue of this magnificent book also reminds us that it is "the function of a prophet to be wrong..." 

Homo Sapiens, in the journey from Africa, survived by adapting not predicting, by problem-solving rather than pontificating. Felipe Fernández-Armesto and his team of all-star historians take the same measured approach. 

"The search for an ideal society," Fernández-Armesto counsels,"is like the pursuit of happiness: it is better to travel hopefully, because arrival breeds disillusionment."

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                                           
Images courtesy of Oxford University Press, the British Museum (via Wikipedia) and the British Library.  The New Testament quote (Hebrews 4:12) is from the Douay–Rheims Bible 1899 American Version of the Holy Bible.

Introductory Image:
Book Cover. Courtesy of Oxford University Press,

A plough pulled by oxen from the Luttrell Psalter, c.1325-35. Plowing scene, r, f.170r, from the digitized manuscript of the Luttrell Psalter on the British Library website: (https://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=add_ms_42130_fs001ar

The skull of Homo Sapiens (left) compared to a Neanderthal skull. hairymuseummatt (original photo), Dr Mike Baxter (derivative work) / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0 Courtesy of Oxford University Press

Buddhist Expansion to about 1300 CE.  Gunawan Kartapranata / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 Courtesy of Oxford University Press

Assyrian cavalry relief,c. 700 BCE. Gypsum wall panel relief showing King Ashurbanipal and attendants hunting. From the Assyrian galleries of the British Museum.                                  https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/9/93/Exhibition_I_am_Ashurbanipal_king_of_the_world%2C_king_of_Assyria%2C_British_Museum_%2831033563287%29.jpg/1280px-Exhibition_I_am_Ashurbanipal_king_of_the_world%2C_king_of_Assyria%2C_British_Museum_%2831033563287%29.jpg

A richly bejewelled burial at Sunghir in Russia, dated to 28,000 years ago.
José-Manuel Benito Álvarez / Wikimedia Commons Courtesy of Oxford University Press

Japanese export pottery with VOC symbol, ca. 1660. Porcelain, underglaze blue (Arita ware):H. 2 3/8 in. (6 cm); Diam. 12 3/8 in. (31.4 cm); Diam. of foot (6 3/8 in. (16.2 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC. Dr. and Mrs. Roger G. Gerry Collection, Bequest of Dr. and Mrs. Roger G. Gerry, 2000 Accession Number:2002.447.40 Courtesy of Oxford University Press

The Earth at night, 1994, as illustrated by NASA scientists Craig Mayhew and Robert Simmon    Data courtesy Marc Imhoff of NASA GSFC and Christopher Elvidge of NOAA NGDC. Image by Craig Mayhew and Robert Simmon, NASA GSFC  Courtesy of Oxford University Press

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The World between Empires at the Metropolitan Museum of Art


The World between Empires:

Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East

Metropolitan Museum of Art
March 18 - June 23, 2019

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Original Photography by Anne Lloyd

The World between Empires is the latest in a series of spectacular exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art dealing with the rise and fall of powerful states in the ancient Middle East. This often-told story, however, is viewed from an unconventional perspective. The Met exhibit focuses upon small political "players" trying to maintain a degree of independence, as rival superpowers plotted strategy and unleashed their armies.

Unlike Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms, the notable 2016 exhibit at the Met, World between Empires does not have many "show-stopper" art works among the 190 artifacts on display. Many of these objects lack the familiar hallmarks of Greco-Roman art. These factors, however, are not drawbacks as might at first be assumed.

The keynote of the works on view in World between Empires is variety. The geographic area surveyed by the exhibition is vast. Likewise, the ethnic diversity of the populations who resided in the region's major cities like Palmyra or Petra, is reflected by the range of the art works on display. There were bonds of unity, as well, and these too can be studied in the Met's exhibit.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Rearing Horsefrom Southwestern Arabia, ca. 2nd century

The rearing horse, on loan from the Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Washington D.C., is a case in point. This bronze Arabian steed testifies to the remarkable way that shared cultural models promoted cohesion in the patchwork of city-states and small kingdoms of the ancient Middle East. The statue was discovered in Yemen, broken into eighty fragments. When reassembled, an early form of Arabic writing, Himyaritic, was found incised on the shoulder of the horse. The inscription mentions a second horse, fragments of which were later discovered.

But who were the riders? Scholars believe that they were local versions of the Greek gods, the twin brothers, Kastor and Polydeukes (Castor and Pollux to the Romans). These twins, also known as the Dioskouroi, were venerated for their role as protectors of travelers and victims of strife. In lands menaced by warfare, the appeal of this rearing horse and its now vanished rider would have been universal.

World between Empires is a major reappraisal of the ancient cultures of the Middle East from 100 BC to 250 AD. However, the unhappy parallels with the contemporary political situation in the Middle East is a "problem" which cannot be ignored. A battleground in ancient times, the region remains so today. At some point during the exhibition, most visitors are likely to stop and ask themselves "is the subject here dealing with ancient times or the present?"

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of The World Between Empire exhibition

At the very entrance to the exhibit, ghostly images of ancient funerary monuments appear as if by magic. Inwardly, we know that these are digital images of ancient people from Palmyra, a half-forgotten city on the trade route to the east. Yet, the front page of today's newspaper or the evening news report often present us with faces like these from Yemen, Syria, Israel or Iraq, victims of terrorist attacks or from "counter-terrorist" air strikes. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) 
Funerary relief of Tadmur, wife of  Mokimu, from Palmyra, ca. 148 A.D.

What do we see when we study this compelling monument?  Past or present?

This is the face of a long-dead woman named Tadmur, wife of Mokimu, a citizen of the oasis-city of Palmyra in Syria. The inscription, written in the Palmyrene version of Aramaic, tells us the date of her death, which corresponds to the year 148 by our reckoning. Tadmur's lively intelligence somehow emerges from the carved limestone to an extraordinary degree. It's not hard to think of her living today, trying to keep alive in a precarious, war-torn world.

The major focus of World between Empires is the way that small kingdoms and city-states like ancient Palmyra managed to survive in the crossfire of the two contending superpowers of that bygone era. The Roman Empire marched in from the west, confronting its formidable adversary, Parthia, riding in from the east. People like Tadmur, lived and worked in the region's cities, Palmyra, Hatra, Heliopolis-Ballbek and Dura-Europos, never knowing for sure from which direction the invading army might come.

The Middle East during the period covered by the exhibition, 100 B.C. to 250 A.D., was also cross-roads for religious ideals and practice.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
Statuette of standing nude goddess, from Babylon,1st century B.C.-2nd century A.D.

This extraordinary statuette comes from Babylon. The fabled city, much reduced from its former glory, was still an important urban center in Mesopotamia. The intermingling of artistic styles and of cross-cultural assimilation are present in this extraordinary work of art from the collection of the Louvre.

 The goddess depicted is most likely Ishtar, a very ancient figure from Mesopotamian mythology. The voluptuous body type is that of Venus or Aphrodite from the Greco-Roman pantheon. The ruby-inlaid eyes and navel most probably came from southeast Asia, via the Indian Ocean maritime trade route to the Persian Gulf and then brought to Babylon by caravan.

At the same time, new cults arose and flourished. Devotion to Mithras, engaged in battle against the malign forces of the cosmos, hopped over the battle lines. Originally an Indo-Iranian deity, Mithras was embraced by the troops of the Roman legions. Mithras was sometimes viewed as a companion of the Sun God, referred to as Sol Invictus. Others considered Mithas and Sol one and the same savior deity.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
 Altar for Sol, Malakbel and Palmyrene Gods, late 1st-2nd century

An altar on display in the Met exhibit shows Mithras/Sol  riding on the back of an eagle, one of the symbolical animals associated with Rome.

The veneration of Mithras reached incredible levels of devotion, especially among Rome's soldiers, as noted above. A fresco fragment form Dura-Europos, a strategic fortress guarding the Roman Empire's border with Parthia, shows Mithras and Sol. Mithras is shown wearing a Phrygian cap, also worn by freed slaves in ancient Rome. A version of the cap was worn by Patriot soldiers in the American Revolution, bearing the motto "Liberty or Death." Later, it was adapted during the French Revolution as the bonnet de la Liberté.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
 Wall painting of Mithras and Sol, from Dura-Europos, ca. 210 

Now in the collection of the Yale University Art Museum, this fresco would have decorated a temple called a mithraeum. Here, initiates into the cult of Mithras/Sol were baptized with the steaming blood of a sacrificed ox. This gruesome ritual took place at similar sites wherever the Roman legions set up their camps and forts.

Given the nearly invincible reputation of the Roman legions, it is surprising that Rome did not quickly conquer the Middle East as Alexander the Great had done. Two factors prevented this. A powerful kingdom, Parthia, had gained control of a large domain, centered upon present-day Iran. The highly effective cavalry of the Parthians, squads of swift-moving horse archers, followed by armored lancers known as cataphracts, thwarted Rome's infantry tactics.

Another adversary of the Pax Romana, less formidable in military power, was equally tenacious: the Jews.

In 115, the Roman emperor, Trajan, unleashed a massive campaign to knock-out the Parthians. Trajan was a gifted strategist. He and his veteran cavalry commander from North Africa, Lusius Quietus, defeated the Parthian frontier forces and rapidly marched through Mesopotamia toward the Persian Gulf. For a brief moment, the Romans under Trajan appeared to be repeating the sensational conquests of Alexander.

Like a mirage in the desert, the visions of glory quickly vanished. Jewish communities in many regions of the Roman Empire rose in revolt. Embittered by the Roman destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in the year 70, Jewish resistance groups seized the opportunity for revenge with so many of the Roman legions deployed far to the east.

By the time the revolts were suppressed, Trajan was dead. The Parthians regrouped and began to counterattack. The prospect of a very long, very bloody war confronted Trajan's successor, Hadrian.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
 Head and torso of cuirassed statue of Hadrian, ca.117–138

This brings us, face to face, with one of the most notable art works in World between Empires. In 1975, Israeli archaeologists, excavating a Roman military base, discovered the head and torso of a bronze statue of Hadrian which had once been displayed in the camp shrine. Seldom, in my experience, has an  "official" statue captured the inner conflicts and contradictions of a great leader to the degree achieved by this incredible portrait of Hadrian.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Head of cuirassed statue of Hadrian, ca.117–138

Hadrian (76 A.D.-138 A.D.) was arguably the most intelligent and effective of the Roman emperors. He proved himself an able diplomat, negotiating an end to Trajan's deadlocked Parthian War. The peace treaty lasted almost fifty years, one of the longest periods without a major war in the history of the Middle East.

Unfortunately, Hadrian was also capable of remarkable cruelty, murdering Lusius Quietus, Trajan's cavalry leader, on a baseless charge of treason. Far worse, Hadrian made one of the most spectacular blunders in history, the effects of which still resonate in today's world.

Following the Jewish revolts that plagued Trajan's campaign, Hadrian planned to rebuild Jerusalem and restore it to the Jews. In 130, he changed his mind, renaming the city, Aelia Capitolina, and turning it into a Greco-Roman municipality. The Jewish population of Judea, under the charismatic leadership of Simon Bar Kokhba, fought back, initially driving the Romans out of the land they planned to colonize. It took Hadrian three years to crush the insurgency and he followed his "victory" by exiling most of the Jewish survivors. 

The statue of Hadrian on display in World between Empires is thus a direct link to one of the defining incidents of world history. Looking at the features of Hadrian, one senses the combination of brilliant talent and heedless insensitivity that triggered the Bar Kokhba revolt. It was Hadrian's fatal decision that created the Jewish diaspora, culminating in the founding of the nation of Israel, nearly two thousand years later.

The scorched earth tactics of Hadrian's Sixth "Iron" Legion left few artifacts of this tragic era in Jewish history except for the emperor's statue later found in their camp. The Muse of History (or Divine Providence) provided a measure of compensation.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) 
Herbert Gute’s 1930's painting of the Dura-Europos fresco, 
The Wilderness Encampment and the Miraculous Well of Be'er 

At the end of World War I, the chance discovery of the ruins of the ancient city of Dura-Europos led to a long-term series of excavations during the 1920's-1930's. The city, located in the desert of eastern Syria, had been a Roman outpost on the border with Parthia, later the Persian Sasanian Empire.

Dura-Europos was a cosmopolitan city with temples and shrines to almost every conceivable god. It was also home to the oldest Christian Church yet found, dating to 232, with the earliest depictions of Jesus. Equally significant, a Jewish synagogue was excavated. Spectacular paintings of biblical scenes were unearthed. The originals are part of the collection of the National Museum of Damascus. As a result of the recurrent wars in the area, few Westerners get to see these extraordinary works of art.  

Yale University provided many of the archaeologists for the Dura-Europos "dig." Most of the artifacts from Dura-Europos in the Met exhibit come from Yale's collection. The Yale excavators went one step further. Unable to bring the synagogue frescoes back to New Haven, they commissioned an artist, Herbert J. Gute (1908–1977) to paint copies of some of them. Gute used gouache paint to recreate the ancient works of art. As can be seen in the above work, The Wilderness Encampment and the Miraculous Well of Be'er, he succeeded brilliantly.

Thanks to the rediscovery of Dura-Europos and its Jewish synagogue, valuable insights have been gained into the lost Jewish civilization of the ancient Middle East. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
 Stele with schematic face, from Timan, southwestern Arabia, early 1st century

Archaeology, like history, often repeats itself. The sensational finds at Dura-Europos  were matched by post-World War II excavations in Yemen in the south-west tip of the Arabian peninsula.  

A young American archaeologist, Wendell Phillips, established the American Foundation for the Study of Man in 1949. Phillips led expeditions to Yemen in the 1940's and 50's, unearthing spectacular artifacts. Many of these are now part of the collection of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution. The Sackler loaned several major pieces to the Met, including this extraordinary Stele with Schematic Face, from the early first century. This funerary monument would have been painted in ancient times, but now can sit next to one of Modigliani's sculptures without causing a raised eyebrow. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
Gallery view of The World between Empires showing Rearing Horse, ca. 2nd century

These fascinating artifacts and works of art yield powerful reflections. Many of these thoughts are somber ones, clouded by current events. Yemen has been torn apart by civil war since 2015. An international coalition led by Saudi Arabia, with U.S. support, has only made the situation worse. Over 50,000 people have been killed in the fighting, uncounted thousands more have perished from disease and starvation. Hunger menaces millions - and the war in Yemen continues.

Palmyra and Dura-Europos were excavated only to be targeted for destruction by ISIS terrorists in 2015. A heroic scholar, Khaled Al-Asaad, was brutally murdered trying to save some of Palmyra's precious antiquities. 

This is a world not unlike that of Tadmur, wife of Mokimu of ancient Palmyra. I could not but wonder about our troubled future, as I visited the World between Empires galleries.

Will the Middle East (and the world in general) ever be reassembled from its broken bits and pieces like the Rearing Horse from ancient Arabia? Or will civilization once again be reclaimed by the sands?

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved

Original images: Copyright of Anne Lloyd
Images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

Introductory image:

Aedicula for Aglibol and Malakbel, February 236. Roman, Imperial period. Marble sculpture: H. 38 9/16 × W. 26 3/8 × D. 4 3/4 in. (98 × 67 × 12 cm). Musei Capitolini, Rome, MC 1206; NCE 2406.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Rearing Horse, ca. 2nd century. From Southwestern Arabia, possibly near Ghayman. Bronze sculpture: H. 40 3/16 × W. 11 × L. 41 3/4 in. (102 × 28 × 106 cm) Dumbarton Oaks Library and Museum, Washington, D.C., DO 1938.12

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of the entrance to The World Between Empire exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Funerary relief of Tadmur, wife of  Mokimu. ca. 148. From Syria, Palmyra. Limestone sculpture-inscribed: 20 5/8 × 15 1/8 × 7 5/8 in. (52.4 × 38.4 × 19.4 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art. Purchase, 1898. Accession Number: 98.19.2.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Statuette of standing nude goddess, 1st century B.C.-2nd century A.D. Mesopotamia, Babylon. Stone sculpture (alabaster), stucco, gold, rubies:  H. 10 1/4 × W. 1 15/16 × D. 1 15/16 in. (26 × 5 × 5 cm). Credit Line: Musée du Louvre, Paris, AO 20127

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Altar for Sol, Malakbel, and Palmyrene Gods, late 1st–2nd century, late 1st–2nd century.  Marble sculpture:  H. 33 1/4 × W. 20 7/8 × D. 20 7/8 in. (84.5 × 53 × 53 cm). Capitoline Museums, Rome.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Head and torso of cuirassed statue of Hadrian, ca. 117–138. Found in Israel, Camp of Legio VI Ferrata, near Tel Shalem. Bronze sculpture: H. 32 11/16 in. (83 cm). Israel Antiquities Authority, Jerusalem, 1975-763 (head) and 1975-764 (cuirass).

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Head of cuirassed statue of Hadrian, ca. 117–138. (Details above).

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Herbert J. Gute’s painting of the Dura-Europos fresco, The Wilderness Encampment and the Miraculous Well of Be'er, 1933-35. Gouache on paper on board: 73 3/4 x 8 ft.10 in (73 3/4 x 106 in.) Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven. 1936.127.7

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of The World between Empires exhibition showing Rearing Horse, ca. 2nd century, from Southwestern Arabia. Dumbarton Oaks Library and Museum collection (Details above).

Sunday, April 7, 2019

The Self-Portrait, from Schiele to Beckmann at the Neue Galerie, New York City

The Self-Portrait, from Schiele to Beckmann

The Neue Galerie, New York City

February 28 - June  24, 2019

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Shell Shock. The Blast of War. The Thousand Yard Stare.

Today we have new, scientific names for the dreadful psychological and physiological consequences of the horrifying slaughter of World War I.

Shell shock is recognized as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)  while "blast" wounds, which later appear after physical recovery has seemingly occurred, are called Heterotopic Ossification, or HO.

Hundreds of thousands of men suffered from the effects of PTSD during the First World War. So many were emotionally shattered that whole nations could be said to have been "shell shocked." And no nation experienced shell shock to such as debilitating degree as defeated Germany. You can see the effects of war in the many portraits painted by German artists following the Armistice of 1918 or in the photos taken of survivors, soldiers and civilians alike.

You can see the scars of  "Weltkreig" on the faces of the artists themselves.

The Neue Galerie, located on New York City's "museum mile", is currently presenting The Self-Portrait, from Schiele to Beckmann. This brilliant, unsettling exhibition displays self-portraits by most of the the leading German and Austrian painters of the first half of the twentieth century. Although direct references to the First World War are few, the facial expressions and eye contact depicted in these works all testify to what the great British historian, John Keegan, called "the face of battle."

The searing experience of war - and its disturbing, violent aftermath - found artistic expression in a school of new painting. This was known as Neue Sachlichkeit or the New Objectivity. It was a "warts and and all" style of visual representation which made no concessions to beauty. Indeed, the self-portraits painted under the auspices of Neue Sachlichkeit often accentuated the negative.

Lyonel Feininger, Self-Portrait, 1915

Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956) was born in New York City but spent much of his adult life in Germany. He was an accomplished woodcut artist, a pioneer of comic strip art and painted mystical landscapes and seascapes. Yet in this unsparing 1915 self-portrait, Feininger turns a withering glance upon himself and the viewer. The Great War, which experts had predicted would end in victory by Christmas 1914, was still raging. The world where Feininger's abundant artistic gifts had flourished was bleeding from a million wounds.

Was the anger so manifest in Feininger's self-portrait entirely the result of the ravages of war? Or were there deeper, unseen wounds as well?

The seventy-plus paintings on view at the Neue Gallerie testify to the emotional struggle which has characterized the art of the Germanic societies throughout most of modern history. To call Germany a "nation" before 1871 would be a misnomer. After 1871, the German "nation" marched to the orders of the militaristic Prussian elite. Austria during this period should more correctly be referred to as the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Thus, the dynamic cultural forces in Germany and Austria, bursting with achievements in art and science, were imprisoned by the straight-jacket of autocratic rule. 

As a result of making the talents of modern Germanic artists conform to the authoritarianism of the Hapsburgs and Hohenzollerns, a state of psychological warfare was already under way even before 1914.

The Neue Gallerie exhibition begins with the self-portraits of Egon Schiele. This precocious and controversial artist was one of the indirect casualties of World War I. He spent the war guarding Russian POW's, only to succumb to the Influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 which killed over fifty million people worldwide.

Egon Schiele, Self-Portrait in Brown Coat, 1910

Schiele painted this sepia-toned self-portrait in 1910. Here we see a brilliant evocation of the agitated state of mind which was disturbing the European (especially the German) psyche in the run-up to the war. 

Schiele's furrowed brow, unfocused eyes, gaunt face and the drab, uniform-like coat convey the image of a POW, such as he guarded during the war. But what really makes this self-portrait stand-out is the flaring nimbus of harsh, almost blinding, white light which surrounds his head. It is the halo of a martyr, or at least a premonition of martyrdom such as befell so many of Schiele's generation.

For many young Germans, this martyrdom came at the First Battle of Ypres in October 1914. Entire regiments of German students, who had volunteered only a few months before, were hurled at the British trenches and mowed down by rifle and machine gun fire. The slaughter was dubbed the "Kindermord" or "Slaughter of the Innocents." 

One of those who fell in the "Kindermord" was Peter Kollwitz. His mother, Käthe Kollwitz  (1867-1945) was one of the most talented artists of her generation. When Germany's leading painter, Adolf Menzil, recommended her for a medal, Kaiser Wilhelm promptly denied the request.

Käthe Kollwitz, Frontal Self-Portrait, ca. 1910

Kollwitz came from a family with Socialist leanings, so the Kaiser's slight probably had little effect on her. But the death of Peter haunted Kollwitz for the rest of her life.

Amazingly, this self-portrait, shadowed by a wave of black, was created in 1910. As we saw with Schiele's self-portrait of the same year, there is a palpable sense of foreboding, of dread of the unthinkable. Sadly, for Kollwitz, the unthinkable was to happen again in 1942 when her grandson, also named Peter, was killed on the Russian Front.

Unlike Peter Kollwitz, Otto Dix served on the Western Front and survived. He took part in one of the worst slaughters of the war, the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The experience transformed him from a loyal German and a good soldier into a brutally, almost sadistically, honest critic of the folly of war - and of "peace" too. 

"Peacetime" Germany was governed by the Weimar Republic. Weimar leaders like President Friedrich Ebert made an honest, if uninspired, attempt to deal with post-war Germany's many problems. The worst was the rampant inflation (at one point in 1923 a single US dollar was worth 4.6 million German marks). Dix, outraged at the catastrophic influence of Prussian militarism on German politics and society, might have been expected to extend the Weimar Republic a measure of  sympathy.

Otto Dix, Self-Portrait with Easel, 1926

Dix, however, excoriated Weimar's politics and society. He was ruthless in exposing the financial profiteers, the disregard of the vast numbers of crippled and shell-shocked veterans and the lurid sexual atmosphere of Berlin. He also depicted himself with Neue Sachlichkeit candor. 

Following the war, Dix studied Old Master techniques such as the use of tempera paint and layering techniques pioneered by Jan van Eyck in the 1400's. Fellow artist, George Grosz (1893-1959), nicknamed him "Otto Hans Baldung Dix" after the Reformation-era painter, Hans Baldung (1484-1545). Baldung's Death and the Maiden, the most notable version of which was painted in 1517, was emblematic of the collapse of Christendom. Martin Luther set forth his Ninety-five Theses, attacking Church corruption, the same year.

With that demonic look in his eye, Dix may well be painting a twentieth century version of Death and the Maiden. Or he might be peering into the soul of the person whose portrait he is painting. Or is he, the decorated machine-gunner of the Somme (Iron Cross, second-class), looking blankly on the world with a "thousand-yard" stare?"

A century later, we don't know the answers to such questions, either about Dix or Weimar-era culture. Dix's art and that of many other Weimar artists held postwar Germany up for scrutiny. What they discovered was a society adrift, without an anchor and troubled waters looming ahead. That, however, was the only answer to their many questions. In truth, Neue Sachlichkeit could just as well have been termed the New Ambiguity. 

George Scholz, Self-Portrait in Front of an Advertising Column, 1926

George Scholz (1890-1945) was another harsh critic of Weimar. In his self-portrait, he presents himself dressed as a proper business executive. in the background is an advertising column covered with samples of the inventive sales posters which were a trademark of Weimar. Scholz was a staunch Communist, later targeted as a "degenerate" artist by the Nazis. But in posing in a banker's suit and bowler hat, Scholz castigated himself as surely as the Nazis were to do.

Max Beckmann, arguably the greatest German artist of the twentieth century, portrayed himself with similar ambiguity. He often depicted himself as an urban sophisticate, in "tux and tails." Beckmann so often dipped his paint brush in "acid" in his depictions of life in Weimar Germany, that it is hard to know what his inner thoughts and motivations were - especially concerning himself. 

Max Beckmann, Self-Portrait with a Cigarette, 1923

Beckmann had served as a medic in the war, but after only a short spell at the front, he suffered a nervous collapse. Beckmann's work, equally brilliant in painting, sculpture and printmaking, showed a society which had experienced a comparable nervous breakdown.  Sometimes, Beckmann portrayed himself like a clinical psychologist observing his patient. On other occasions, as in the introductory image to this essay, Beckmann presents himself as a clownish figure or a sleazy "cad."

In 1933, the Nazis took power. The failed-artist who commanded them resolved all of the ambiguities of the Weimar Republic by abolishing it. Germany entered into a time of nightmarish certainty.

In 1919, William Butler Yeats had written in "The Second Coming" words that applied to the Weimar Republic, to the Nazi new-order and to its victims:

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The passionate intensity of the Nazis victimized all of the artists whose self-portraits we see on the walls at the Neue Galerie. All were banished from teaching jobs or driven into exile. But only one paid the ultimate price of Hitler's Final Solution. This was Felix Nussbaum (1904-1944). Originally a Surrealist painter, Nussbaum fled from Germany after Hitler and the Nazis gained power. But he did not go far enough to escape them. In 1944, Nussbaum was murdered in Auschwitz.

Felix Nussbaum, Self-Portrait with Jewish Identity Card, ca. 1943

What can one say, looking upon the self-portraits of Nussbaum on display in this staggering Neue Galerie exhibition? 

The first thing to admit is that the "ceremony of innocence" was drowned in the Communist Soviet Union at the very same time as the moral center collapsed in Nazi Germany. Totalitarianism during the 1930's and 40's flourished on both sides of the battle lines. It can take root anywhere.

The second, most important, admission must be that the "ceremony of innocence" could easily be drowned today. All it would take is for you and I to stop honestly looking 
for answers to the human dilemma. This was something which, despite their inner uncertainties, Otto Dix, Käthe Kollwitz and Max Beckmann never ceased searching for.

Images: Courtesy of the Neue Galerie, New York City

Introductory image:
Max Beckmann (German, 1884–1950) Self-Portrait in Front of Red Curtain, 1923.
Oil on canvas: 122.9 x 59.2 cm (48 3/8 x 23 1/4 in.) Private Collection © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Lyonel Feininger (German, American, 1871–1956) Self-Portrait, 1915. Oil on canvas:
100.3 x 80 cm (39 1/2 x 31 1/2 in.) The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by the Caroline Wiess Law Accessions Endowment Fund © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Egon Schiele (Austrian,1890–1918) Self-Portrait in Brown Coat, 1910. Watercolor, gouache, and black crayon on paper: 45.6 x 32.2 cm (18 x 12 5/8 in.) Private Collection

Käthe Kollwitz (German,1867–1945) Frontal Self-Portrait, ca. 1910. Charcoal on gray-blue Ingres paper: 28.5 x 26 cm (11 1/4 x 10 1/4 in.). Käthe Kollwitz Museum Cologne. Photo: Käthe Kollwitz Museum Cologne © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Otto Dix (German, 1891–1969) Self-Portrait with Easel, 1926. Tempera on panel
80.5 x 55.5 cm (31 3/4 x 21 7/8 in.) Leopold-Hoesch-Museum, Düren Photo: Peter Hinschläger © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

George Scholz (1890-1945) Self-Portrait in front of an Advertising Column, 1926.
Oil on canvas: 60 x 77.8 cm (23 5/8 x 30 5/8 in.) Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe
Photo: bpk Bildagentur / Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe/Art Resource, NY
© 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Max Beckmann (1884–1950) Self-Portrait with a Cigarette, 1923. Oil on canvas:
60.2 x 40.3 cm (23 3/4 x 15 7/8 in.) The Museum of Modern Art, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. F. H. Hirschland Photo: © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Felix Nussbaum (German,1904–1944) Self-Portrait with Jewish Identity Card, ca. 1943. Oil on canvas: 56 x 49 cm (22 x 19 1/4 in.) Felix-Nussbaum-Haus Osnabrück, loan from the Niedersächsische Sparkassenstiftung. Photo: Museumsquartier Osnabrück, Felix-Nussbaum-Haus Osnabrück © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York