Sunday, June 30, 2019

Maurice Sendak Exhibit at the Morgan Library and Museum

Drawing the Curtain: 

Maurice Sendak’s Design for Opera and Ballet

Morgan Library and Museum, New York City
June 14 – October 6, 2019

Reviewed by Ed Voves

While F. Scott Fitzgerald worked on his final novel, The Last Tycoon, he jotted down a note which has since become a much-debated quote.

"There are no second acts in American lives.”

In Fitzgerald’s case, that remark was a self-fulfilling prophecy. He died shortly after jotting it down. The Last Tycoon, his come-back novel, was never finished.

Another American literary lion came close during the late 1970’s to suffering Fitzgerald’s fate. Yet, as Drawing the Curtain: Maurice Sendak's Design for Opera and Ballet at the Morgan Library and Museum shows, this beloved author did enjoy a “second act.”

Maurice Sendak, Ship (Nutcracker), 1982-84

Maurice Sendak (1928-2012) is arguably the greatest artist/illustrator of children's books of the twentieth century, certainly in the United States. Less well-known is his astonishing oeuvre for the theater. Based upon the bequest to the Morgan Library of 900 pieces of Sendak's art, Drawing the Curtain presents over 150 works of art, personal artifacts and documents related to Sendak's theatrical career.

Maurice Sendak, Study for Wild Things costume, with notes 
(Where the Wild Things Are), 1979

The theater costumes which Sendak designed were astonishing. Some of the costumes in Where the Wild Things Are measured eight feet in height and required two people to manipulate. On view at the Morgan are two less-intimidating characters from Sendak productions, the owl from Cunning Little Vixen and Tiger Boy from Nutcracker. They greet you at the gallery entrance, heralds of the wonders to be found inside.

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) View of the entrance of the Morgan Library & Museum exhibition, Drawing the Curtain: Maurice Sendak's Designs for Opera and Ballet

The Morgan exhibition focuses on Sendak's drawings and designs for costumes, “stage props” and theater curtains. These he created for the opera based on his celebrated children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are, and for Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Janáček's Cunning Little Vixen, Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges and Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. Each of these innovation productions is brilliantly explored.

During much of the 1970’s, Sendak was engaged on a new book, Outside Over There. Already a controversial figure in children’s literature, Sendak struggled to complete this magnificently illustrated, yet frightening tale. It tells the story of a young girl named Ida, who rescues her baby sister from goblins. It was not a reassuring “kid’s” book for the first Sesame Street generation. At one point, Sendak was advised to give-up on his problematical masterpiece.

Sendak persevered, especially since there was a strong current of autobiographical sentiment in Outside Over There. The youngest of three children, Sendak had enjoyed a close bond with his brother Jack and sister Natalie. Although he had never been kidnapped by "goblins," Sendak survived - and thrived - as a child of the 1930's Depression era largely through the affection and support of his siblings.

Brotherly - and sisterly - love also helped Sendak score his big breakthrough into the art world, ultimately leading him to a second career in the theater.  

Sendak had been fascinated with Disney cartoons and pop-up books as a child. His birthday, June 10, 1928, incredibly,was the day that Mickey Mouse was first designed. In 1948, Sendak, with the help of Jack and Natalie, crafted movable toy depictions of fairy tale episodes, including  Little Red Riding Hood and Pinocchio (below).

Ed Voves, Photo (2019)
 Wooden, mechanical toys made by Maurice Sendak & Jack Sendak in 1948

Sendak hoped that the famous New York City toy store, F.A.O. Schwarz, would be able to produce and market his creations. F.A.O. Schwarz declined, given the cost to produce the toys for a mass market. But the chief of advertising at F.A.O. Schwarz hired Sendak to help create the store's attention-grabbing window displays.

Later, the F.A.O. Schwarz staff member responsible for buying children's books, Frances Chrystie, introduced Sendak to Ursula Nordstrom, children's editor at Harper and Row. Nordstrom encouraged Sendak to create art for children's books. Sendak's "first" career as illustrator and author of children's books had begun.

In 1978, as Sendak anguished over Outside Over There, destiny once again came knocking on his door. He received a phone call from the noted theater director, Frank Corso.  Although he had never met Sendak, Corso had a feeling that Sendak's unconventional art and psychological insight would be well-suited to designing the costumes and sets for a new production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's The Magic Flute.

Sendak thought it over. The risk was huge, possibly derailing publishing Outside Over There.

"Fifty,” Sendak reflected, “is a good time to either change careers or have a nervous breakdown.”

Sendak accepted Corso's offer, in no small part because classical music was a personal passion and The Magic Flute just happened to be his favorite opera.

It is fascinating to examine the works of art which Sendak created for this production of The Magic Flute. Not only did Sendak design costumes and sets, he crafted dioramas to help envision how the production would look on the stage. 

      Ed Voves, Photo (2019)
        Two views of a diorama made by Maurice Sendak         
 for the 1980 production of The Magic Flute 

Here we can see a reassertion of the do-it-yourself savvy that was evident in the toy designs he unsuccessfully tried to sell to F.A.O. Schwarz thirty years before. With remarkable patience and skill, the Morgan curatorial team carefully reassembled these miniature marvels for the exhibition. 

Sendak's theater designs also reflect his art scholarship, particularly his visits to the Morgan Library to study the rich collection of works by William Blake and Giovanni Tiepolo. The latter's Venetian work influenced Sendak's design's for the 1981 production of Sergei Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges, the opera set during the French Revolution.

Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, 
Scene of Contemporary Life: The Chaperoned Visit, ca. 1791

Maurice Sendak, Design for show curtain (The Love for Three Oranges), 1981

Agreeing to collaborate with Corso on The Magic Flute launched Sendak into an incredible burst of creative energy. At one point, in 1981, Sendak was at work on four different operas at the same time. The pace, scope and scale of this schedule was punishing. Even Sendak could not always guarantee complete success. 

Maurice Sendak, Storyboard for Where the Wild Things Are, 1979

The 1980 premiere of the opera version of his own Where the Wild Things Are partly misfired. The score was not complete and the huge costumes difficult to use. Sendak  certainly devoted enormous effort on his part. He created a detailed storyboard, depicting the scenes of the opera in advance of the try-out. This storyboard, on view in the Morgan exhibit, makes for fascinating viewing as we see how Sendak managed the transfer of his classic 1963 story from book to stage.

Sendak teamed with Corso for a revival, indeed a completed version, of Wild Things in 1984. It was first performed in London and was a complete triumph.

One of the most notable - and controversial - features of Sendak's books was his refusal to "sugarcoat" life's challenges for children. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say he refused to add "sugarcoating" to mollify parents. In her book on Sendak, published in 1980, Selma Lanes quoted him on the challenges of writing and illustrating for children:

No one protects children from life because you cannot; and all we are trying to do in serious work is to tell them about life… You must tell the truth about a subject to a child as well as you are able, without any mitigating of that truth.

Sendak made few attempts to "mitigate" the truth as he saw it while working on the theatrical works under survey in the Morgan exhibition. Sendak's version of The Nutcracker was dark and alarming, yet closer to the original 1816 story than the charming Christmas classic which currently keeps ballet companies solvent from year-to-year.

Dark nuances may abound in Sendak's work but only because darkness as well as light, death as well as birth, are part of life.  

The nature of life was very much a feature of Sendak's art for Leoš Janáček's Cunning Little Vixen. This opera has comic elements, telling about the life and misadventures of a fox, Vixen Sharp-ears. The real theme, however, is the life-cycle of all creatures, in this case a fox. Perhaps, it was for that reason that Sendak agreed to add this little-known opera to his already overflowing work schedule in 1981.

Maurice Sendak, The Edge of the Forest, interlude between Act II, scene 2 and 3,
 for The Cunning Little Vixen, 1983

The art which Sendax created for Cunning Little Vixen is at once naturalistic and dreamlike. Vixen Sharp-ears, as Sendak sees her, is a creature from the real world and from the realm of the imagination. 

This leads us to consider Sendak's motives in adapting his style of art to the theater. Was he attempting to adapt his books and his vision to the conventions of the theater? Or was he aiming at something more subtle and profound?

Ed Voves, Photo (2019)
Costume designs by Maurice Sendak for the Where the Wild Things Are opera
A copy of the 1963 book appears at center

Life imitates art, as the old saying goes - and vice versa. Personally, I think that Sendak was striving to reach the unexplored country where imagination and reality are one and the same. I also think he reached that goal.

Tony Kushner, playwrite, friend and biographer of Sendak, wrote a superb book on the artist's late-career. Kushner's book is essential for understanding this phase of Sendak's work, but also for how it was based on his earlier achievements as an artist/writer for children. Here is a very astute comment from the book:

It is only on the stage that Sendak characters actually move among Sendak forests, houses and ruins. And yet there’s a curious thing about his designs. These are not polite sets, nor recessive, not background: they challenge, they crowd up against the theatrical event, as the best designs do. But for all their depth, sound, and motion, for all their atmospherically evocative power, they evoke nothing more powerful than do the book illustrations of Maurice Sendak.

Sendak, in his "second" act, continued on the same visionary, unconventional and challenging path of his first career. Like most explorers, he brought a lot of baggage with him on the journey, but it proved to be very adaptable to his "brave new world."

Ed Voves, Photo (2019)
 Museum banner for the Morgan Library & Museum's Maurice Sendak exhibit 
Maurice Sendak is shown wearing a costume from The Nutcracker

In closing, I would like to thank the Morgan Library and Museum for presenting Drawing the Curtain: Maurice Sendak's Design for Opera and Ballet. It helped me relive one of the peak experiences of my life, interviewing Sendak by phone for an article I wrote for the Philadelphia Daily News in 1995. I later met him at the Rosenbach Library in Philadelphia which was presenting an exhibit of his art work. It was a moment to cherish and so is a visit to this inspiring, life-affirming exhibition at the Morgan.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                
Images courtesy of the  Morgan Library and Museum 

Introductory Image:
Maurice Sendak (American, 1928-2012), Diorama of Moishe scrim and flower proscenium (Where the Wild Things Are), 1979-1983. Watercolor, pen and ink, and graphite pencil on laminated paperboard. © The Maurice Sendak Foundation. The Morgan Library & Museum, Bequest of Maurice Sendak, 2013.103:69, 70, 71. Photography by Graham Haber, 2018

Maurice Sendak (American, 1928-2012), Ship (Nutcracker), 1982-84. Gouache and graphite pencil on paper. © The Maurice Sendak Foundation. The Morgan Library & Museum, Bequest of Maurice Sendak, 2013.107:289. Photography by Janny Chiu

Maurice Sendak (American, 1928-2012), Study for Wild Things costume, with notes (Where the Wild Things Are), 1979. Watercolor, pen and ink, and graphite pencil on paper. 
© The Maurice Sendak Foundation. The Morgan Library & Museum, Bequest of Maurice Sendak, 2013.103:19. Photography by Janny Chiu

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) View of the entrance of the Morgan Library & Museum exhibition, Drawing the Curtain: Maurice Sendak's Designs for Opera and Ballet. The costumes shown here are the Owl from The Cunning Little Vixen and Tiger Boy from The Nutcracker.

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) View of wooden, mechanical toys made by Maurice Sendak and Jack Sendak in 1948. Photo shows Pinocchio (top) and Little Red Riding Hood. On view at the Maurice Sendak exhibit at the Morgan Library & Museum. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Two views of a diorama by Maurice Sendak for the Frank Corso production of The Magic Flute (1980). On view at the Maurice Sendak exhibit at the Morgan Library & Museum. 

Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo (Italian,1726?-1804) Scene of Contemporary Life: The Chaperoned Visit, ca. 1791. Pen and brown-black ink and wash over black chalk:
14 5/8 × 19 11/16 in. (37.1 × 50 cm) Morgan Library and Museum,Thaw Collection.    2017.255. Photography by Steven H. Crossot
                                                                                                                                    Maurice Sendak (American, 1928-2012) Design for show curtain (The Love for Three Oranges), 1981. Watercolor and graphite pencil on paper: 13 × 22 in. (33.02 × 55.88 cm) © The Maurice Sendak Foundation,  2013. Morgan Library and Museum 2013.106:167. Photography by Janny Chiu

Maurice Sendak (American, 1928-2012) Storyboard (Where the Wild Things Are,1979). Watercolor, pen and ink and graphite pencil on paper. © The Maurice Sendak Foundation, 2013. Morgan Library and Museum 2013.72ab. Photography by Janny Chiu

Maurice Sendak (American, 1928-2012) The Edge of the Forest, interlude between Act II, scene 2 and 3, for PBS broadcast (The Cunning Little Vixen), 1983. Watercolor and graphite pencil on paper: 11 15/16 × 16 in. (30.32 × 40.64 cm) Frame: 16 5/8 x 21 3/4 x 1 in. Bequest of Maurice Sendak, 2013.105:102. Photography by Janny Chiu

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Gallery view of the Morgan Library & Museum exhibition, Drawing the Curtain: Maurice Sendak's Designs for Opera and Ballet. Photo shows Maurice Sendak's costumes for the opera version of Where the Wild Things Are and a copy of the 1963 book.

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) View of the entrance of the Morgan Library & Museum exhibition, Drawing the Curtain: Maurice Sendak's Designs for Opera and Ballet. Photo show a museum banner of Maurice Sendak wearing a costume from The Nutcracker.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman at the New York Historical Society

Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman 

New York Historical Society, New York City 
May 3- July 28, 2019

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Augusta Savage (1892-1962) was one of the greatest artists affiliated with the Harlem Renaissance, the pivital moment of cultural awakening and racial equality during the 1920's and 1930's. Savage's impressive sculptural work literally embodied the ideas and ideals of the distinguished literary figures of the Harlem movement, such as Alain Locke and Langston Hughes. 

The use of the term "Renaissance" is also fitting since Savage inspired, taught or mentored many fellow African-American artists who carried on her work during the years of the Civil Rights Movement and beyond. Savage was a Renaissance master as Andrea del Verrocchio and Luca della Robbia had been during the 1400's, passing on skill, knowledge and enthusiasm to students and aspiring artists. Gwendolyn Knight, Jacob Lawrence and Norman Lewis were just a few of the African-American artists who acknowledged their debt to Savage.

Unidentified photographer, Augusta Savage, c. 1930

Augusta Savage recognized that the legacy she passed on to the post-Harlem Renaissance generation might well be more valued than her actual art.

"I have created nothing really beautiful, really lasting," Savage declared in 1935, "but if I can inspire one of these youngsters to develop the talent I know they possess, then my monument will be in their work."

Augusta Savage's self-criticism was much too harsh, as we can see in this remarkable exhibit.

Ed Voves, Photo (2019)
 Gallery view of the Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman exhibition. 
Augusta Savage's Boy on a Stump, c. 1930, appears in the foreground.

Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman is a collaborative effort of the New York Historical Society (NYHS) and the Cummer Museum of Art in Jacksonsville, Florida. The exhibition curators have assembled a remarkable array of Savage's oeuvre, as well as photographs and letters exploring her singular career.
This is also an exhibition which documents the "collective" story of twentieth century  African-American artists. Taking their lead from Savage, painters and sculptors like William Artis smashed the barriers of racial prejudice and asserted their creative talent. Signature works by these artists, whom Savage inspired, are prominently displayed in the exhibition.

William Artis, A Mother's Love, 1963

Jacob Lawrence, The Card Game, 1953

Savage's greatest work of art is conspicuous by its absence - physical absence that is. The spiritual resonance of Savage's The Harp, conveyed by a large format photo and a much smaller bronze version is so palpable that you will swear that the original is  on view at the NYHS.

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) 
Gallery view of the Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman exhibition.
 A miniature bronze version of Savage's The Harp appears in the foreground.

After nearly two decades of struggle in the New York art scene, Savage enjoyed a hard-won moment of success when she was selected to create a monumental sculpture for the 1939 New York World's Fair. The Harp was inspired by the hymn, Lift Every Voice and Sing, and took nearly two years to complete. Like most of the art made for the 1939 World's Fair, The Harp was subsequently destroyed. Yet, it continues to dominate the NYHS exhibit gallery by the sheer memory of its brilliance.

Such is the power of art - and the will to create art.

Augusta Savage's art sprang from the red clay of Florida which she modeled into figurines and small portraits. Savage's father, a Methodist minister, was infuriated at her disregard for the Biblical injunction against making "graven images."

"My father licked me four or five times a week," Savage later recalled, "and almost whipped all the art out of me."

Almost but not quite. Savage's early life was marked by great travail. She was married three times, two husbands dying young, the third marriage ending in divorce. In 1919, she won a prize at the West Palm Beach County Fair for a sculpture group. This success revived her determination to achieve a career in the arts. She joined the Great Migration to the north, arriving in New York City in 1921 with $4.60 in her purse.

Taking a job as an apartment house caretaker, Savage enrolled in the Cooper Union School of Art. Her skill and work ethic enabled her to complete the four-year course in three years. Savage next gained a scholarship from the Fontainebleau School of Fine Arts to study in France. Then, when the American officials selecting students for Fontainebleu discovered that Savage was "colored," the scholarship was cancelled.

Savage's disgraceful treatment by these Fontainebleau administrators was quickly noted by the redoubtable W.E.B. Du Bois. Launching a crusade on her behalf in the NAACP magazine, The Crisis, Du Bois directly challenged the Fontainebleau trustees. Responding to Du Bois' relentless criticism, J. Monroe Hewlett lamely replied that the rejection of Savage to travel and study in Europe "was due quite as much to consideration for her as to any other thought or feeling."

Unable to get the Fontainbleau decision reversed, Du Bois continued to advocate Savage's right to a scholarship to Europe. Eventually, in 1929, the Julius Rosenwald Fund awarded Savage a two-year scholarship to study in France. Six years had been lost, however. As David Levering Lewis, Du Bois' biographer, astutely noted the "steep learning curve" of Savage, now aged 37, "would have begun to flatten after so much time wasted waiting and deprived of expert mentoring."

This perceptive remark needs to be considered in relation to Savage's already sensational talent. There can be no doubt as to the exceptional level of her skill and to her determination to create realistic portraits of African-Americans. These likenesses exude self-awareness and pride - of artist and subject - quite at odds with the caricatures or patronizing stereotypes of African-Americans in the mainstream media of the 1920's. 

Augusta Savage, Gamin, c.1930

Savage's Gamin is a case in point. This portrait of a young African-American boy was the piece submitted with the application for the Rosenwald scholarship. Savage used her nephew as the model, creating a work that succeeds as a unique portrait and as an idealization of African-American identity. The Rosenwald judges were so impressed that they increased Savage's scholarship stipend from $1,500 to $1,800.

Gamin is Savage's most famous surviving work, but I was even more impressed with a later piece, from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Portrait of John Henry. 

Augusta Savage, Portrait of John Henry, c.1940

Portrait of John Henry was created around 1940 and shows Savage at the height of her powers. It is an exceptional work, establishing a living presence even in an exhibition gallery crowded with other masterpieces. The eyes of John Henry, often the most problematical element of a portrait sculpture, sparkle with life force and intelligence.

There is a shadow to Portrait of John Henry. This work represents the peak of Savage's artistic career. From 1940 on, the number of works created by Savage dwindled and after a few years all but stopped. The reasons for this are complex and need to be addressed in some detail.

The year 1940 should have marked another upward thrust in Savage's career trajectory - and she had every to believe so.

After returning from studying in France in 1932, Savage established the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts in Harlem, offering free art classes. Savage's community-based focus secured her the appointment as the first director of the Harlem Community Art Center, funded by the W.P.A., in 1937. In 1939, with The Harp gaining acclaim at the World's Fair, Savage opened the first African-American art gallery, the Salon of Contemporary Negro Art, with a major exhibition, June 8th to June 22nd, 1939.

Unidentified photographer
Augusta Savage viewing two of her sculptures, Susie Q and Truckin, c. 1939

This moment of triumph, following so much dedicated work, quickly vanished. Instead of being Savage's "breakout" year, 1940 saw the breakdown of her career. The Salon of Contemporary Negro Art soon closed for lack of support and Savage was sidelined from her directorship of the Harlem Community Art Center. Savage did not even have enough funds to place The Harp in storage until it could be cast in bronze and sold to a museum. 
As a result, The Harp was destroyed when the World's Fair closed in 1940.

Savage's career went into an eclipse from which she never really recovered. Most African-Americans during the 1940's lacked the degree of affluence to collect the art on view at the Salon of Contemporary Negro Art. Sympathetic White supporters increasingly became focused on charitable work related to the Second World War. Those who continued to collect art in the 1940's increasingly looked to Abstract Expressionism, what would soon be called the New York School. 

Augusta Savage, Gwendolyn Knight, 1934-35

After struggling against poverty and racism, Augusta Savage fell victim to the impact of Modernism on American art. Indeed, she had experienced a premonition of this threat years before.

Lewis, in his biography of Du Bois, recounted how Savage, when considered for a scholarship to Italy in 1926, discovered that the tide of opinion in the art world was shifting from her traditional handling of the human body to more avant garde styles. Savage wrote to Du Bois about the reaction of the Italian countess who interviewed her.

"I think she was a trifle disappointed to find that I am a realist instead of a modernist," Savage informed Du Bois.

In 1940, the Nazi Blitzkrieg sent a wave of refugee European modernists to the United States. Many young American artists began to follow the lead of Piet Mondrian and Fernand Leger. Realist art, especially in sculpture, lost out to Surrealism and "Ab-Ex." 

Augusta Savage, along with artists like Malvina Hoffman, another brilliant woman realist sculptor, were casualties of this shift in technique and taste. Hoffman continued to receive some major, war-monument commissions. Interest in Savage's work evaporated.

Augusta Savage,  Portrait of a Baby1942

Of great poignancy, one of the last of Savage's pieces on view in the New York Historical Society exhibition is a portrait of an unnamed baby. This supremely accomplished work of art was created in terracotta, unlike the plaster and bronze which Savage used on most of her other sculptures. Portrait of a Baby recalls the red clay that the young artist had first grasped in her fingers long years before.

Augusta Savage, like Zora Neale Hurston, experienced decades of obscurity after a few fleeting moments of success during the 1930's. Hopefully, just as Hurston's literary accomplishments are now recognized, so will Augusta Savage's achievements as an artist and a teacher finally receive their due. 

Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman at the New York Historical Society is certainly a big step forward in her "renaissance" as a major figure in American art.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                                           
Images courtesy of the New York Historical Society

Introductory Image:
Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Gallery view of the Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman, exhibition at the the New York Historical Society. A miniature bronze version of The Harp is displayed in front of a photograph of Augusta Savage working on the original. The photograph is from the New York Public Library (NYPL), Manuscript and Archives Division, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, New York Worlds Fair 1939-40 Records, 1654255

Unidentified photographer. Augusta Savage, 1930. Gelatin silver print: 6 x 4 in. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NYPL, Photographs and Prints Division, Augusta Savage Portrait Collection, 83-1053 Public domain. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Gallery view of Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman, exhibition at the the New York Historical Society. Photo shows Augusta Savage's Boy on a Stump, c. 1930, in the foreground.

William Artis (American, 1914-77) A Mother's Love, 1963. Limestone: 32 1/2 x 17 3/4 x 14 1/2 in. Clark Atlanta University Collection,1963.007

Jacob Lawrence (American, 1917-2000) The Card Game, 1953. Tempora on board, 19 x 23 1/2 in. Savannah College of Art and Design, Museum of Art Permanent Collection. Gift of Walter O. Evans and Mrs. Linda Evans.

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Gallery view of the Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman, exhibition at the the New York Historical Society. 

Augusta Savage (American, 1892-62) Gamin, ca. 1930. The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, Painted plaster: 9 1/4 x 6 x 4 in. Purchased with funds from the Morton Hirschberg Bequest, AP.2013.1.1

Augusta Savage (American, 1892-62) Portrait Head of John Henry, c. 1940. Patinated plaster: 6 5/8 x 3 1/2 x 4 3/4 in. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The John Axelrod Collection—Frank B. Bemis Fund, Charles H. Bayley Fund, and The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection, 2011.1813, Photograph © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Unidentified photographer. Augusta Savage viewing two of her sculptures, Susie Q and Truckin, c.1939. Gelatin silver print: 10 x 8 in. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NYPL, Photographs and Prints Division-Prophet, Nancy-Stull, Henry, Portrait Collection, 92-0360 Public domain.

Augusta Savage (American, 1892-62) Gwendolyn Knight, 1934-35, recast 2001. Bronze: 
18 1/2 x 8 1/2 x 9 in. Walter O. Evans Collection of African American Art. 

Augusta Savage (American, 1892-62) Portrait of a Baby, 1942. Terracotta, 10 x 8 1/2 x 8 inches. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY Public Domain.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Life of Animals in Japanese Art at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

The Life of Animals in Japanese Art

National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
June 2, 2019 - August 18, 2019

Reviewed by Ed Voves
Original photos by Anne Lloyd

When the National Gallery of Art announced the recently-opened exhibition, The Life of Animals in Japanese Art, I was tremendously excited. The National Gallery of Art (NGA), working with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and art museums in Japan, is displaying over three hundred rare works of art, spanning seventeen centuries of Japanese history.

As if the scope of the timeline of this wondrous exhibition was not audacious enough, the premise of its theme was even more so. Can a nation’s history be interpreted with art works depicting animals and their role in the national saga? The Life of Animals in Japanese Art answers that question with a resounding yes!

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
Gallery view of The Life of Animals in Japanese Art exhibition

Displayed in the NGA’s renovated East Wing, The Life of Animals in Japanese Art traces the course of Japan’s cultural history and identification with animal life from the iconic Haniwa earthenware sculptures of the 5th–7th centuries to colorful 21st century animal “companions” created by Kusama Yayoi. Many of the 180 art works lent by museums and collectors in Japan are so delicate and light sensitive that they will be displayed in a two-phased rotation, the second presentation occurring in mid-July.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Haniwa Horse, 6th century

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
Art works by Kusama Yayoi, Megu-chan (left) & Sho-chan 

The exhibition was organized by Robert T. Singer, curator of Japanese art, LACMA, and Masatomo Kawai, director, Chiba City Museum of Art. The Natonal Gallery does not collect in the subject area of Asian art, which is left in the capable hands of the nearby Freer-Sackler Galleries. The vast scale of The Life of Animals in Japanese Art would have overwhelmed the Freer-Sackler exhibit space. Also, the National Gallery has a tradition of mounting great touting exhibitions of Japanese art, including the memorable Japan: The Shaping of Daimyo Culture, back in 1988.

In their introductory remarks, Robert Singer and Masatomo Kawai commented on the very significant factor of human co-existence with animals and nature in Japanese culture.

This sense of compassion and respect for the animals which share the earth with us is exemplified by a painting by Kanō Eitai (died 1842) which shows an actual event in which devout Buddhists release captured animals to allow them to live in freedom. Especially noteworthy in this moving work of art is the act of liberation in which one fisherman returns turtles and fish back to the sea while another releases carp into a freshwater lake.

Kanō Eitai, Ritual of Releasing Captured Animals, early 19th century

In American history, by contrast, the emphasis was on the conquest of nature. This idea struck a particularly sensitive chord with me, so much so that I had to wrestle with this idea before I could begin to write this review.

As I reflected on this theme, I remembered a book which I had read as a child, Animals that Made U.S. History by Edith Dorian (1964). The author, who also wrote sensitively on Native American themes, narrated how the economic use – and abuse – of the beaver, salmon, buffalo, the longhorn cow and other animals had shaped the American nation. 

As the exhibition affirms, animals have also made Japan's history. If not as spectacular as the story Dorian told over a half-century ago, The Life of Animals in Japanese Art has vital lessons to teach.The Japanese learned over the course of centuries not to take animals for granted. This more benign attitude is reflected in their mythology, religion, life style and art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)    
   View of Utagawa Kuniyoshi's Bravery Matched with the Twelve Zodiac Signs, 
woodblock print scroll series, c. 1840

All the same, the Japanese empathy for animals is a hard-won attribute. At the entrance to the exhibition, scenes of the relationship of humans and animals are displayed in large woodblock prints made during the nineteenth century by Utagawa Kuniyoshi. The animals in question are the twelve zodiac animals

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
 Utagawa Kuniyoshi's Tiger and Kashiwade no Omi Hatebe, c.1840

Some of the scenes are quite violent such as the one depicting the warrior, Kashiwade no Omi Hatebe, killing a tiger in Korea which had slain his child. Others scenes in this series, Bravery Matched with the Twelve Zodiac Signs, show animals and humans using brain rather than brawn, as in the case of the monkey king, Sun Wukong, who outwits an enemy pig.

Animals in Japanese folklore and culture are a force to be reckoned. And no animal exemplifies this more than the fox. If there is a four-legged hero in the exhibition, it is the bushy-tailed kitsune. 

Foxes are regarded as a spiritual animal as we see in Utagawa Hiroshige's 1857 woodblock print, New Year's Eve Foxfires at the Changing Tree. According to Japanese folklore, foxes travel to the shrine of the god of the rice harvest, Inari, to pay homage on the last night of the year. From the breath of the foxes, tongues of flame are emitted which the foxes use to guide their journey through the darkness.

Utagawa Hiroshige, New Year's Eve Foxfires at the Changing Tree, ji,
from the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo,1857

These lantern-like foxfires or kitsunebi were regarded by farmers in ancient Japan as a providential sign that the rice harvest would be a good one. Or so the story goes.

Foxes are multi-taskers in Japanese myth and folklore. Along with being acolytes to Inari, foxes can play a trickster role, like the coyote in Native American cosmology. According to Masatomo Kawai's commentary, foxes were reputed to be shape-shifters, taking on human guise to tempt and mislead humans, especially innocent Buddhist monks. In extreme cases, foxes could be malevolent, vampire-like predators of human beings.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Sacred Foxes, 14th century

Looking at this pair of rare wooden fox statues which have been displayed since the 1300's at the shrine of Inari at Kiyama, is an unsettling experience. Nature, like the crafty expression of these foxes, is not something to dismiss as benign on all occasions.

The two principal religions of Japan, Shintoism and Buddhism, are the key determinants of the Japanese attitude to animal life. The more ancient of the two, Shinto, is native to Japan and stresses animals as messengers between humans and the divine forces residing in nature known as kami. Buddhism arrived from India and China via Korea in the sixth century. Buddhism, based on the principle of the rebirth of the soul, calls for kinship and compassion to animals. The souls of animals may indeed be the reborn souls of human beings trying to reach the ultimate state of salvation or nirvana.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
 Kōen's Monju Bosatsu Seated on a Lion, with Standing Attendants,1273

Asian animals, unknown in Japan, were often depicted in Buddhist art works. Buddhist deities like Fugen and Monju Bosatsu are often shown riding an an elephant or a lion.

Horses are a more conventional mount for humans but they too figure as spiritual beings. One of the center pieces of the NGA exhibition is the Sacred Horse sculpture, dated to the 1500's, Made from wood and lacquer with crystal eyes, this nearly life-sized steed was presented to the Sannosha shrine, in place of the gift of a living horse as was often done.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
Gallery view of The Life of Animals in Japanese Art exhibition,
 showing Sacred Horse,16th century

The color of horses was linked to rainfall and special prayers were said in conjunction with their presence. No doubt this was influenced by the Shinto concept of animal envoys to the divine kami. Prayers conveyed by dark-hued horses were held to be able to bring rain. When white horses were involved in these prayer rites, storms would cease.

Whatever effect this horse sculpture had on the weather around the Sannosha shrine, it exudes an uncanny sense of real life in the NGA gallery. Stand in its presence for a while and truly you will believe in the life force of this horse - in the now,in the present moment.  The attraction of this incredible sculpture drew me back repeatedly during my visit to the exhibit.

I truly believe that there is an energy field throughout the exhibition galleries of The Life of Animals in Japanese Art at the NGA. I felt a similar sensation at the wonderful Tale of Genji exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which also explored the intertwined nature of religion and culture in Japan.

The scope of The Life of Animals in Japanese Art is so great that even an extended review like this one can only convey an introductory survey. I have not even touched upon the spectacular screen paintings or the enchanting illustrated kimonos. These and other masterpieces of Japanese art I will leave for another essay, timed to coincide with the second rotation of art works in the exhibition.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2016)
 Deer Bearing Symbols of the Kasuga Deities,14th century

For now, I will leave you with the image of one of the greatest of all the masterpieces on display in The Life of Animals in Japanese Art. This is the bronze statue, Deer Bearing Symbols of the Kasuga Deities. Cherished as an "important cultural property" of the Japanese nation, this beautifully sculpted work of art combines elements of Shinto and Buddhist religious beliefs. 

In Japanese legend, a deity named Kasuga Myojin, mounted upon this deer, flew through the air from Hitachi to Nara, where deer are revered to this day. You can believe this legend or not. Yet, an air of serenity surrounds this wondrous animal. An ineffable "something" about it is so palpable that one's belief in divine forces is indeed stirred.  

Stand for a while in front of Deer Bearing Symbols of the Kasuga Deities or Hiroshige's New Year's Eve Foxfires at the Changing Tree or any work of art you may choose from the NGA exhibition. You will soon forget that you are in a museum.

Instead, you will feel that you are standing upon holy ground - as indeed you are.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves. Original Photos: Anne Lloyd. All rights reserved                                                                                           
Images courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Introductory Image:

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Detail of Tani Bunchō's Tiger Family and Magpies, 1807. Painted scroll; ink and color on silk: 61 15/16 × 33 3/4 in. (157.3 × 85.7 cm) Collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of The Life of Animals in Japanese Art exhibition at The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Haniwa Horse, Kofun period, 6th century. Earthenware: 121.3 × 116.2 × 41.3 cm (47 3/4 × 45 3/4 × 16 1/4 in.) Los Angeles County Museum of Art collection.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Art works by Kusama Yayoi, Megu-chan, 2014. (fiberglass-reinforced plastic; paint,  80 × 48 × 101 cm (31 1/2 × 18 7/8 × 39 3/4 in., collection of Cori and Tony Bates); Sho-chan, 2013. (fiberglass-reinforced plastic; paint, overall: 68 × 28 × 88 cm (26 3/4 × 11 × 34 5/8 in., private collection.

Kanō Eitai (Japanese, died 1842) Ritual of Releasing Captured Animals, Edo period, early 19th century. Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk: 28 × 56.2 cm (50 3/8 × 22 1/8 in.)  Private collection.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of The Life of Animals in Japanese Art exhibition, showing Utagawa Kuniyoshi's Bravery Matched with the Twelve Zodiac Signs, woodblock print scroll series, c. 1840. Arthur M. Sackler Gallery collection, Smithsonian Institution. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Utagawa Kuniyoshi's Tiger and Kashiwade no Omi Hatebe, c. 1840. (Woodblock print: 36.7 × 12.5 cm (14 7/16 × 4 15/16 in.) Arthur M. Sackler Gallery collection.

Utagawa Hiroshige (Japanese, 1797-1858) New Year's Eve Foxfires at the Changing Tree, ji, from the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, Edo period, 1857. Woodblock print: 33.7 x 21.7 cm (13 1/4 x 8 9/16 in.)  Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of Caroline and Jarred Morse. photo © Museum Associates/LACMA.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Sacred Foxes, Kamakura-Nanbokuchō periods, 14th century. (Wood with pigments: right statue, with a ball in mouth: (20 7/8 × 15 3/4 × 8 11/16 in.; left statue, with a key in mouth: 20 1/2 × 15 9/16 × 8 1/4 in.) Kiyama Jinja, Okayama Prefecture.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of The Life of Animals in Japanese Art exhibition, showing Kōen's Monju Bosatsu Seated on a Lion, with Standing Attendants, Kamakura period, 1273. (Set of five statues; wood with pigments, meta leaves, crystal eyes.) Tokyo National Museum.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of The Life of Animals in Japanese Art exhibition, showing Sacred Horse, Muromachi period, 16th century. Wood, lacquer, crystal eyes: height 60  5/8 inches, length 70 inches. Sensoji, Tokyo.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of The Life of Animals in Japanese Art exhibition, showing Deer Bearing Symbols of the Kasuga Deities, Nanbokuchō period, 14th century. (Bronze, wood with pigments: 42 1/2 in., height) Hosomi Museum, Kyoto.