Friday, January 31, 2020

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Fra Angelico and the Rise of the Florentine Renaissance

Fra Angelico and the Rise of the Florentine Renaissance

By Carl Brandon Strehlke and Ana Gonzales Mozo

Thames & Hudson-Prado Museum/255 pages/$40

Reviewed by Ed Voves

For art scholars, conscientious about assigning correct dates to works of art, the Renaissance presents a problem. When did this "rebirth" of Western art begin? When did painting and sculpture in Europe cease being International Gothic in style and start exhibiting the hallmarks of Renaissance theory and practice?

Most histories of the Renaissance focus on 1401 as the "takeoff" of the Renaissance in Italy. That year marked the momentous competition between Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi to design the bronze doors of the Baptistery for the city of Florence. If one requires timeline accuracy, then Ghiberti vs. Brunelleschi provides a serviceable date.

The year 1425 is also a contender as the alternative birthday for the Renaissance. A brilliant new book, Fra Angelico and the Rise of the Florentine Renaissance, investigates the events of that decisive moment in art history. Published by Thames & Hudson, this thoughtful and lavishly illustrated book documents a major exhibition at the Prado during the summer of 2019 to help celebrate the 200th anniversary of Spain's greatest museum. 

A quarter of a century after the Ghiberti- Brunelleschi competition, a Dominican monk named Fra Giovanni da Fiesole painted a puzzling work entitled Annunciation and Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. In many ways, his work looks notably medieval. Yet closer inspection reveals that this egg tempora painting on wood panel exhibits Brunelleschi's revolutionary art theories. 

The implications of shifting the start of the Renaissance to this 1425 painting are unsettling. The key player in this scenario now becomes a monk who was proficient in manuscript illumination and application of gold leaf, hardly the skill set of a "Renaissance Man."

Fra Angelico, The Virgin with the Pomegranate, ca. 1424-25

Fra Giovanni da Fiesole is better known today as Fra Angelico. Born Guido di Pietro, around the year 1395, he was a native Tuscan from the town of Vicchio, near to Florence. Trained as an artist, he joined the Dominican Order, along with his brother, who was also a noted illustrator of manuscripts.

Not only did Fra Angelico paint some of the most ethereal, indeed celestial, beings imaginable, but his own personality was close to being angelic. He was held in high esteem during his lifetime, as an artist of exceptional talent and as a devout Christian. In 1982, Fra Angelico was beatified by Pope John Paul II, an important step on the road to sainthood.

Fra Angelico excelled in more than traditional medieval artistic conventions. Both Carl Brandon Strehlke, the primary author of the Thames & Hudson book, and Ana Gonzales Mozo, who contributed a perceptive essay on Fra Angelico's painting technique, affirm that he incorporated advanced ideas from Brunelleschi, solidly based on mathematics, in the Annunciation and Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise.

Fra Angelico, Annunciation and Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, 1425-1426

Strehlke, Curator Emeritus of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, notes that Fra Angelico took the bold step to accurately position his protagonists, the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary within an architectural setting in the picture. They are not floating in space but occupy a set position, a "you are here" point established by mathematical calculation. Strehlke writes:

The architecture of the Virgin's house shows how open Angelico was to Brunelleschi's ideas about drawing buildings in spatial recession. It is the earliest surviving painted example of architecture in perspective. The manipulation of the orthogonals, horizon line, and vanishing point suggests careful consideration of what Brunelleschi's biographer Antonio Manetti noted 'painters today term perspective.'

Fra Angelico's painting depicts the interface - we might also say the intrusion - of the realm of the sacred into human reality. Although the Virgin Mary's house has a theater-set ambiance, Fra Angelico revealed that he was adept at utilizing Brunelleschi's methodology in the depiction of the small side room which has a "homey" feel to it. Look through that door and you see a small patch of the real world shown in perspective.

Fra Angelico, as a Dominican monk, had also to be faithful to the theological precepts of his Order's great theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Aquinas believed that reason, if founded upon faith, will lead to understanding and union with God.

Fra Angelico, Annunciation and Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise (detail)

The painting of the Annunciation is a visualization of this process. The streams of golden light proceeding from the hands of God represent the Incarnation, the act of divine inspiration by which Mary, a virgin, will give birth to Jesus the Son of God. 

Fra Angelico, Annunciation and Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise (detail)

Mary is mystified by the Angel Gabriel's entreaty but accepts that she has been chosen to be mother of the Messiah. This act of faith engenders an awareness, a deeper form of knowledge, that God is intervening in the lives of human beings.

"Human salvation," Aquinas wrote, "demands the divine disclosure of truths surpassing reason."

Hard to believe?  Aquinas, the "Angelic Doctor," is famous for his voluminous, densely argued philosophical treatises, but he "cuts to the quick" on the point of faith.  

"To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible."

The faith-acceptance-awareness process is what we see depicted in the major incident of Annunciation and Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. But what about the  Paradise Lost "sidebar"?  Why was this seemingly-unrelated episode from Genesis placed in juxtaposition with the Annunciation?

The answer reveals more of the "medieval" roots of the Renaissance. 

Fra Angelico painted Annunciation and Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise for the Dominican Order's church, San Domenico in Fiesole. The Thames & Hudson book has an intriguing drawing showing how this painting was displayed. It was positioned on a large frame which straddled the width of the church. Called the Rood Screen, this framework separated the nave of the church where the congregation stood or knelt from the sanctuary and choir. In this most sacred area stood the altar where the priest and monks gathered. Here the priest conducted the sacrifice of the Mass, turning bread and wine into Christ's body and blood.

The positioning of the Rood Screen prevented direct observation of the sacred ceremony by the lay people in the church. By way of compensation, paintings and statues were placed on the Rood Screen for them to contemplate as they listened to the clergy conduct the Mass. 

One of the paintings hung on San Domenico's Rood Screen was Annunciation and Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. 

Fra Angelico
            Annunciation and Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise (detail)

An important hymn/prayer of the Roman Catholic liturgy during the Renaissance was Salve Regina, in honor of Mary, mother of Jesus. It was included in the evening prayer service known as Compline. The opening words of the prayer reveal why Fra Angelico painted Adam and Eve's banishment from Paradise on the same poplar board with the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary. 

Hail, holy Queen, Mother of Mercy,
Hail our life, our sweetness and our hope.
To thee do we cry,
Poor banished children of Eve; 
To thee do we send up our sighs,
Mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.

The words of the hymn would have been powerfully reinforced by the imagery of the painting. Humanity's suffering, caused by the disobedience of Adam and Eve, would be redeemed through the agency of Mary's faith and the life and death of her son, Jesus.

Fra Angelico created Annunciation and Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise in 1425Another version of the banishment of Adam and Eve was being painted at the same time in Florence: Masaccio's Expulsion of Adam and Eve in the Brancacci Chapel of the Santa Maria del Carmine Church. Fra Angelico almost certainly was aware of Masaccio's handling of this episode from Genesis. While Masaccio portrayed the existential grief of Adam and Eve, Fra Angelico chose to show the pair as less grief-stricken and ultimately redeemable.

Masaccio's Expulsion may appeal more to modern interpretations and ideas. Yet, Fra Angelico was an artist capable of great psychological insight. One of the supporting works in the Prado exhibition reveals the profound extent of his ability to probe human character and emotions.

In 1909, acting on the advice of Bernard Berenson, the Philadelphia collector, John G. Johnson, bought what was believed to be a portrait of St. Francis of Assisi. Johnson bequeathed his collection to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, including this work attributed to Fra Angelico.

Fra Angelico
                          Head and Torso of Saint Francis of Assisi, ca. 1427-30  

Berenson was correct in his assessment but only years later was it discovered that this image of St. Francis had been a part of an ensemble of two saints praying at the foot of the Cross. The figures of St. Francis, his companion on the other side of the Cross, St. Nicholas of Bari and of the martyred Jesus were all painted to appear as if they were statues, thus enhancing the realism of the scene.

Close inspection of the St. Francis "portrait," which survived the centuries since 1430 in much better condition than St. Nicholas, reveals the degree of Fra Angelico's close study of human physiognomy. The sagging "bags" beneath the eyes, the pinched features of the face, the straining neck muscles, all testify to the physical toll and privation of St. Francis'  austere devotion to God.

It is vital to remember that there is no portrait of St. Francis, drawn or painted from life. An imagined likeness was created about three years after his death in 1226. Fra Angelico's depiction of the beloved saint from Assisi is thus a psychological portrait and all the more convincing for being so. Fra Angelico, as a monk, well knew the personal cost of a life of sanctity. It is obvious - at least to me - that Fra Angelico painted the figures in this devotional work while in a state of meditative awareness of Christ, St. Francis and St. Nicholas.

This sense of communion between artist and subject is a key facet of Icon painting in the Greek and Russian Orthodox traditions. Fra Angelico, working according to the Western, Latin canon of Christianity, brought intense levels of spirituality to his work. Regardless of the form of interpretation, whether it was the medieval-looking Annunciation and Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise or the visceral realism of his St. Francis, Fra Angelico painted in "communion" with the divine.

Fra Angelico was later to combine his skill in narrative painting with the profound feel for character and emotion which we see in his St. Francis of Assisi. 

In 1436, Cosimo de Medici funded the rebuilding of the Dominican church and monastery of San Marco in Florence.  Fra Angelico was tasked with painting in fresco a contemplative scene from the life of Christ in each of the monk's cells and larger devotional works in the public spaces of the building. The series was brought to a high state of perfection, as can be seen in the version of the Annunciation which Fra Angelico painted in one of the corridors of San Marco.

Fra Angelico
            Annunciation fresco, corridor of the dormitory of San Marco, ca. 1438                                      
Observing Fra Angelico's work decades after his death in 1455, Michelangelo delivered a heartfelt testimonial.

"One has to believe that this good monk has visited paradise and been allowed to choose his models there."


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images of Fra Angelico paintings from the collection of the Prado in Madrid, Spain, are  courtesy of the Prado web pages:

Introductory Image:
Fra Angelico and the Rise of the Florentine Renaissance, 2020 (book cover) courtesy Thames & Hudson

Fra Angelico (Italian, ca. 1395-1455) The Virgin with the Pomegranate, ca.1424. Egg tempera and tooled gold on poplar panel: Height: 87 cm. (height) X 59 cm. (width).  Museo Nacional del Prado, # P8233. Image © the Museo Nacional del Prado. 

Fra Angelico (Italian, ca. 1395-1455) Annunciation and Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, 1425-1426. Tempera on poplar panel: Height: 190.3 cm. (height) X 191.5 cm (width).  Museo Nacional del Prado, # P0015. Image © the Museo Nacional del Prado.

Fra Angelico (Italian, ca. 1395-1455) Head and Torso of Saint Francis of Assisi, ca. 1427-30. Egg tempera and tooled gold on poplar panel: Height: 61 cm. (height) X 35.2 cm. (width). Philadelphia Museum of Art. John G. Johnson collection. 1917. cat. 14.

Fra Angelico (Italian, ca. 1395-1455) Annunciation fresco, corridor of the dormitory of San Marco, ca. 1438.  Fresco: 230 cm. x 321 cm.  Museo di San Marco, Florence.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Edith Halpert and the Rise of American Art at the Jewish Museum, New York

Edith Halpert and the Rise of American Art 

Jewish Museum, New York City
October 18, 2019 - February 9, 2020

Reviewed by Ed Voves
Original Photography by Anne Lloyd

The walls of the special exhibition gallery at the Jewish Museum in New York City are currently hung with art works by many of the greatest American painters of the first half of the twentieth century. Major works by Charles Sheeler and John Marin are featured in the distinguished company of Arthur Dove, Ben Shahn and Jacob Lawrence. Displayed with these masterpieces of Modernism are equally extraordinary works of American folk art. 

                                                       Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)                                               Gallery view of the Edith Halpert and the Rise of American Art exhibition

Strolling through the exhibition, Edith Halpert and the Rise of American Art, you will be greeted by the improbable company of an iron horse weather vane, a "key and saw" trade sign, one of the earliest American portraits, painted by the "Gansevoort Limner" around 1735, and other rare specimens of Americana. I was especially impressed by the hen pheasant weathervane, likely made in New England around 1875. This wondrous creature  seemed about to take flight in the exhibition gallery right before my eyes.

      Anne Lloyd, Photo 2019  
Unknown Artist, Hen Pheasant Weathervane, ca. 1875

These enchanting, hand-crafted objects were not works of "art" according to the tastes and definitions of the 1920's and 1930's when they were first featured at a trend-setting New York City gallery. Nor would you expect them to have been displayed in close proximity to paintings by Stuart Davis. Yet, on second thought, Davis struggled for acceptance during those years, so this gallery owner, who displayed America's folk art and modern art, was indeed a visionary.

The Gansevoort Limner (possibly Pieter Vanderlyn), Miss Van Alen, ca. 1735

Stuart Davis, Little Giant Still Life, 1950

The most notable feature of the Jewish Museum exhibition, however, is not the abundance or variety of major art works. Rather, it is the palpable sense of "presence" of the American businesswomen who bought, sold and treasured these talismans of American creative genius. Edith Gregor Halpert, owner of the Downtown Gallery in Greenwich Village from the 1920's to 1970, died a half century ago but she is very much a spiritual force at the Jewish Museum.

There is much more, however, than the resonance of Halpert's extraordinary life and career to experience at the Jewish Museum. Over 100 works of art are on view, including several sensational paintings by Georgia O'Keeffe. In the Patio, IX, a virtually abstract work by O'Keefe, was one of the favorite paintings of Halpert's personal collection

                                                      Anne Lloyd, Photo 2019                                                View of the Edith Halpert exhibit, showing Georgia O’Keeffe's In the Patio, IX, 1950

With three weeks left to go, this intelligent, brilliantly curated - and long-overdue -  exhibition is a "must see" retrospective of Halpert and her era. 

Halpert was one of the first to grasp the deep links between the everyday artifacts and memorabilia of early America and sophisticated modern art. Contemporary museum practice places seemingly unrelated works of art, side-by-side, to promote "dialogue." Halpert, contrasting a flower-decorated baptismal certificate, created around 1805, with cutting-edge twentieth century paintings, pioneered that concept decades ago.

                                                    Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)                                                         Birth & baptismal certificate, attributed to Joseph Lochbaum, ca. 1805,                                                  and Georgia O’Keeffe's Poppies, 1950

Edith Halpert (1900-1970) is not a name most Americans - even art lovers - will recognize. The exhibition at the Jewish Museum will hopefully make her contribution better known.  Halpert championed American art and artists at a time when the eyes of the American art world were chiefly focused on the avant garde in Europe.

                                                Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)                                        
                    Samuel Halpert's Portrait of Edith Gregor Halpert,1928                 

Edith Halpert was born in Odessa, Russia, emigrating with her family to the U.S. to escape the anti-Jewish pogroms of Tsarist Russia. Halpert's life-story is a classic illustration of the contributions of immigrants to the American Story, especially her pivotal role as a champion of art created in the U.S.

Halpert opened the Downtown Gallery in 1926, in partnership with her friend, Berthe Kroll Goldsmith. Initially called Our Gallery, the name was changed a year later. With so much of the New York art scene situated in midtown Manhattan, Halpert and Goldsmith were swimming against the tide in more ways than one. The Downtown Gallery, from its start, was dedicated to American artists, both living and deceased exemplars of the culture of the United States.

The Downtown Gallery, ca. 1939, photo from the New York City Municipal Archives 

The Downtown Gallery was a pokey little place, located at 113 West 13th Street in the "Village." It was a very American-style, "do-it-yourself"  enterprise. 

As noted earlier, Halpert had plenty of business smarts. She started working at age sixteen, with remarkable success in the marketing department at Macy's, as an efficiency expert for several New York garment firms and then at S.W. Straus Bank, where she was appointed to the firm's board of directors.

This sensational string of achievements all took place before Halpert was twenty-five years old. However, she had nurtured a love of art since childhood, taking art lessons as a young teen. She married an artist, Samuel Halpert, who strongly encouraged her to focus on art at the expense of her business career. 

Against all expectation, given her dazzling rise in corporate America, Halpert took the plunge into the risky world of fine art sales. From the start, her insight into creative talent was astute, "on-target." Indeed, it might appear that Halpert marketed safe, conventional artists. When we see works by Charles Sheeler and Stuart Davis today, it is easy to forget the revolutionary aspects of their work during the early years of the Downtown Gallery.

                                                   Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)                                                       Gallery view of the Edith Halpert & the Rise of American Art exhibition,                                           showing Charles Sheeler's Americana, 1931

Samuel Halpert died in 1930 and Edith Halpert bought-out her partner, Berthe Goldsmith, in 1935. Except for her beloved dachsund assistant, Adam, Halpert was now the sole guiding force of her enterprise. This enabled her to continue to focus on American art and artists.

Despite her independent status, Edith Halpert, remained a team player. In 1931, she somehow found room in the same small building to open the American Folk Art Gallery, collaborating with Holger Cahill. Only a few short years later, Cahill was to play a major role in American cultural history as the head of the Federal Art Project during President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal.

Halpert supported and marketed major, but struggling, artists during the decade of the Great Depression. One of Halpert's major clients was Abby Rockefeller. Halpert used her "in" with Mrs. Rockefeller to secure commissions for Charles Sheeler at Colonial Williamsburg, under construction during the 1930's with financial support from the Rockefeller family.

Halpert also mentored emerging talent. She dedicated considerable effort - and belief - in championing African American artists, decades before it became a fashionable social-justice cause. 

Jacob Lawrence, The Music Lesson, 1943

Horace Pippin, Sunday Morning Breakfast, 1943 

Both the modernist style of Jacob Lawrence and the folk-art conventions of the paintings by Horace Pippin won Halpert's support, thus validating the premise of her marketing strategy, but more importantly of her social conscience.

“Our gallery has no special prejudice for any school," Halpert declared. "Its selection is directed by what’s enduring—not by what is in vogue.”

Halpert's eye for talent enabled her to judge artists without regard to "race, creed or color" long before that became a socially-correct phrase. For Halpert, it was a call to action and in 1941, she organized a major exhibition, American Negro Art, 19th and 20th Centuries. Held at the Downtown Gallery, this was the first show devoted to African-American art at a commercial gallery. Halpert donated funds raised by the exhibit to the Negro Art Fund.

It is noteworthy, however, that there are few masterpieces by post-World War II artists on view in the Jewish Museum exhibition. Halpert, like other great owners such as Alfred Stieglitz and Ambrose Vollard,  pioneered a revolution in the arts but, later in life, experienced difficulty in making the transition to the ongoing, ever-changing scenario of Modernism. Halpert certainly understood and appreciated abstract art but her focus as a gallery owner remained rooted in the art of 1920's and 30's

The remarkable 1952 photo of Halpert, taken by Life Magazine's Louis Faurer, shows her in the foreground like a commanding general. A group of "proteges," who look more like loyal retainers, maintain a discreet interval behind her. None of the artists - Charles Oscar, Robert Knipschild, Jonah Kinigstein, Wallace Reiss, Carroll Cloar, and Herbert Katzman - are "household" names today.

Louis Faurer, for Life Magazine, Edith Halpert at the Downtown Gallery, 1952

Halpert did plan her moves on the art scene like a bold commander. In 1927, with tactical flair, she launched an annual sale of modestly priced prints to entice new collectors into the art market. The print sales were held in December, for those in the gift-giving mode. The works of major print makers, Edward Hopper and Thomas Hart Benton, were featured along with talented, but underappreciated figures like Louis Lozowick and Wanda Gag.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
 Thomas Hart Benton's Going West (Express Train), 1934

It says a great deal about Edith Halpert's vision of American art and American society that one of the artists she did make into a famous name was Edward Hicks (1780–1849). The Pennsylvania Quaker had painted the now universally acclaimed Peaceable Kingdom series during the early decades of the nineteenth century. Sixty-two versions of Peaceable Kingdom are known to exist today.

Almost every major American art museum has a Hicks Peaceable Kingdom in its collection. The example below, from the collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, was a gift of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, 3rd. It was one of several versions of Peaceable Kingdom which Halpert listed on her inventory at the Downtown Gallery.

Edward Hicks, Peaceable Kingdom, ca.1846

What makes this otherwise standard gallery transaction worthy of note? Halpert was the first person in the American art world to realize the "enduring value" of Hicks and his now iconic paintings. In December 1931, she presented an exhibition entitled American Ancestors which prominently displayed Peaceable Kingdom. Prior to this landmark exhibition, Hicks was virtually unknown. 

Halpert had been introduced to American folk art by the great Polish-born sculptor, Elie Nadelman, who had built up a private collection of these American "primitives." Several of Nadelman's own works are on view in the Jewish Museum exhibition, which is only fitting as Halpert featured his sculptures at the Downtown Gallery.

                                                 Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)                                              Gallery view of the Edith Halpert exhibit, showing Elie Nadelman's Circus Performer, 1920–25 (left) and John Storrs' Study in Architectural Forms, 1927

If Halpert played a pivotal role in establishing the reputation of Edward Hicks and supporting Elie Nadelman, she performed similar acts of recognition for other artists as well. African-American artists, American women artists, American print-makers - all received powerful support from Edith Halpert at the Downtown Gallery.

Halpert died in 1970. Her niece tried unavailingly to continue operating the Downtown Galley.. In 1973, almost a half-century after it opened, the Downtown Gallery (by then relocated to midtown Manhattan) closed its doors forever.

A moving - and entirely accurate testimonial for Edith Halpert was delivered by sculptor, William Zorach:

Edith Halpert was always full of ideas and projects. She didn’t have to depend on anyone. She did not follow in the footsteps of others; she did not take the easy way of promoting and selling European art where the path was clear and well trodden. She set out to promote American art because she believed in it and realized that if this country was ever to have an American art it had to come out of American artists.... This she made her goal and she has stuck to it with a single-minded devotion. American art owes her a great debt. 

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 
Original photos, copyright of Anne Lloyd, all rights reserved                                                                                          
Images courtesy of the  Jewish Museum, New York City 

Introductory Image:
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of Edith Halpert and the Rise of American Art, showing Henry Leach's Liberty weathervane pattern, 1879. Shelburne Museum, Vermont, museum purchase, acquired from Edith Halpert, the Downtown Gallery

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of the Edith Halpert and the Rise of American Art exhibition, Jewish Museum, New York City

The Gansevoort Limner (Possibly Pieter Vanderlyn, ca. 1687 - 1778) Miss Van Alen, cs. 1735,  Oil on canvas: 79.2 x 66.4 cm (31 3/16 x 26 1/8 in.) National Gallery of Art. Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch

Stuart Davis, Little Giant Still Life, 1950. Oil on canvas. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, John Barton Payne Fund Artwork © Estate of Stuart Davis / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; photograph by Katherine Wetzel.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)  View of the Edith Halpert exhibition, showing Georgia O’Keeffe's In the Patio, IX, 1950.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)  Birth & baptismal certificate of Jacob Bosshaar, attributed to Joseph Lochbaum, ca. 1805 (Philadelphia Museum of Art, promised gift of Joan and Victor Johnson) and Georgia O’Keeffe's Poppies, 1950. (Milwaukee Art Museum, Wisconsin, gift of Mrs. Harry Lynde Bradley)

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Samuel Halpert's Portrait of Edith Gregor Halpert, 1928. (Palmer Museum of Art, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, gift of Joseph M. Erdelac)

The Downtown Gallery at 113 West 13th Street, Greenwich Villageca. 1939. Photo from the New York City Municipal Archives. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)  Gallery view of the Edith Halpert & the Rise of American Art exhibitionshowing Charles Sheeler's Americana, 1931. (Metropolitan Museum of Art,  Edith & Milton Lowenthal Collection, bequest of Edith Abrahamson Lowenthal)

Jacob Lawrence (1917-2001) The Music Lesson, 1943, from The Harlem Series. Gouache on paper New Jersey State Museum, Trenton, gift of the Association for the Arts of the New Jersey State Museum

Horace Pippin (1888-1946) Sunday Morning Breakfast, 1943. Oil on fabric Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri, museum funds; Friends Fund; bequest of Marie Setz Hertslet, museum purchase, Eliza McMillan Trust, and gift of Mrs. Carll Tucker, by exchange. 

Louis Faurer, (Life Magazine) Edith Halpert at the Downtown Gallery, 1952. Photograph © Estate of Louis Faurer.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)  Thomas Hart Benton's Going West (Express Train), 1934. (New York Public Library)

Attributed to Edward Hicks (1780-1849), Peaceable Kingdom, ca.1846  Oil on canvas. De Young/Legion of Honor, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, gift of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, 3rd.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of the Edith Halpert exhibition, showing, at left, Elie Nadelman 's Circus Performer, 1920–25 (Colby Museum of Art)  Colby College, Waterville, Maine) and John Storrs' Study in Architectural Forms (Forms in Space), 1927,(Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, Texas

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Art Eyewitness Looks at the Art Scene in 2019

Reflections on the Art Scene during 2019

By Ed Voves
Original Photos by Anne Lloyd

One of the most extraordinary works of art to be featured in Art Eyewitness during 2019 was Tsukioka Yoshitoshi's color woodcut print entitled The Twelfth‑Century Shogun Minamoto Yoritomo Releasing a Thousand Cranes at the Beach at Yuigahama. This unforgettable masterpiece was created in 1863, as Japan undertook the difficult process of engaging with the Western global economy.

Yoshitoshi, the subject of an outstanding exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was the last great practitioner of the Japanese woodblock prints. His work set the stage for Japan’s sensational Manga art. A Janus-figure, Yoshitoshi looked to the past while  gesturing toward the future. As we contemplate 2019's achievements  and begin to meet the challenges of a new year and a new decade, Yoshitoshi is a fitting companion.

In Yoshitoshi's woodcut, the Japanese warlord, Minamoto no Yorimoto (1147-99), ordered his retainers to release a thousand cranes. These majestic birds symbolize longevity in Japanese culture. A label was attached to the leg of each crane, enjoining whoever found one of the birds to report back to Yorimoto. As the first Shogun, or de facto ruler of Japan, this astonishing act was a way for Yorimoto to demonstrate his Buddhist piety. It also demonstrated the range of Yorimoto’s power.

                                                       Tsukioka Yoshitoshi                                                    The Twelfth‑Century Shogun Minamoto Yoritomo Releasing a Thousand Cranes,1863

By the time that Yoshitoshi created his version of the legendary event, the menacing implications of Yoritomo and the thousand cranes had faded. The cranes flying heavenward, with dawn coming-up on the eastern horizon, became a potent image of new beginnings, of the New Year.

It's time for 2020 to take its first bow on the art stage. But let’s have one more “cup of kindness” and a few parting reflections on the art scene in 2019. As if to remind us of what a wonderful year it was in the arts, 2019 staged a sun-up outside our bedroom window at dawn on New Year's Eve that was worthy of J.M.W. Turner.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Sunrise, Philadelphia, PA, December 31, 2019

2019 was certainly a busy year, with great exhibitions surveying almost all the eras of art history and the art present. It ended on a high note with Marking Marvels: Science and Splendor at the Courts of Europe at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Continuing until March 1, 2020, Making Marvels is the curtain-raiser for the celebration of the Met's 150th anniversary.

                                                      Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)                                                 Gallery view of the Marking Marvels exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum

Making Marvels is a hugely enjoyable look at the private collections of the Renaissance and Baroque eras known as Kunstkammern. The wondrous automata and gleaming court regalia from Making Marvels will be making a return appearance in an Art Eyewitness essay I'm preparing on the rise of public museums.

                                                     Ed Voves, Photo (2019)                                                      Gallery view The Tale of Genji exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

For Japanese art, 2019 was particularly auspicious. Two “once in a lifetime” exhibitions featured prominently in Art Eyewitness: The Tale of Genji, A Japanese Classic Illuminated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Life of Animals in Japanese Art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

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

These and other major exhibitions were supported by the Japanese government as part of a world-wide cultural initiative which will climax in 2020 with the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

It’s worth noting that the exhibition featuring Yoshitoshi’s Minamoto Yoritomo Releasing a Thousand Cranes was an entirely “home team” effort on the part of the curators of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Philly Museum is in the home stretch of the Frank Gehry-led remodeling of their great neoclassical building. 

                                               Anne Lloyd, Photos (2019)                                                                The renovated North Entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

This past autumn, the North Entrance  of the Philadelphia Museum of Art was reopened for the first time since 1975. The effect is electrifying and bodes well for the rest of the rehab, slated to be finished for the big autumn 2020 exhibition, a retrospective of the art of Jasper Johns.

There were so many outstanding exhibitions in 2019 that I don’t know where to begin.  Bonnard to Vuillard, the Phillips Collection's insightful survey of the Nabis, Gainsborough's Family Album at the Princeton University Museum of Art, the Verrocchio exhibit at the National Gallery ... 2019 provided an astonishing array of memorable exhibitions.

Indeed, my thoughts lately have been of the 2019 exhibits which I simply could not find the opportunity to review. The Verdi exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum was one.  

                                                 Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)                                                  Gallery view of Verdi: Creating Otello and Falstaff at the Morgan Library & Museum

A brilliant conception and superbly presented, Verdi: Creating Otello and Falstaff testifies to how the exhibit presentation “bar” keeps being raised and  how the curators at the Morgan, the Met, the National Gallery and all the other fabulous museums respond to the challenge.

One of the ways that modern museum practice is changing is worthy of some consideration here. Over the course of 2019, I noticed a trend developing, namely the “compare-contrast” mixing of works from different historical periods in the same gallery or display. In some cases, works of different artistic media were paired together. The aims were various, some marking an almost seamless progression of ideas. In other cases, the juxtaposition was dramatically different, challenging preconceptions and inspiring new ideas and appreciation for works of contemporary art.

An example in the "seamless" vein was Paris, Capital of Fashion, on view at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Since fashion designers reference the styles of earlier eras almost all the time, it made sense for Dr. Valerie Steele of the FIT to do the same in this outstanding exhibition. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) 
Gallery view of the Paris, Capital of Fashion exhibition 

It really was sensational to see incroyable and mervelouse attire from the latter phase of the French Revolution presented next to John Galliano’s 1992 ensemble, inspired as it was by the outlandish fashion sense of the survivors of the Terror.

Hymn to Apollo: the Ancient World and the Ballet Russes at The Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) also demonstrated the shared creative energies which exist between different cultures. By contrasting art and artifacts from antiquity with costumes  stage props and memorabilia from the famed Russian dance troop, the ISAW curators showed that distinctions, ancient vs. modern, are more artificial than we would think.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) 
Exhibition banner of Hymn to Apollo at ISAW, New York City

In the case of Paris, Capital of Fashion and Hymn to Apollo, the placement of works of art from different historical eras in the same gallery space was integral, indeed essential to the themes of the exhibitions.

The second category of "mix and match" is more problematic. The contrasting, in some respects contrarian, insertion of works of art from a different time period or lacking an actual relationship to other displayed works poses real problems when not sensibly handled. 

The Frick Collection in New York City showed how it could - and should - be handled. The Frick showcased nine examples of Edmund de Waal’s ceramic art in a display called Elective Affinities. De Waal, author of the beloved art memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes, presented minimalist works which contrasted with the Frick Old Masters in meaningful and provocative ways.

Proceeding up Fifth Ave’s “Museum Mile”, the Guggenheim dedicated its rotunda to a “compare-contrast” exhibition entitled Artistic License. Six contemporary artists - Cai Guo-Qiang, Paul Chan, Jenny Holzer, Julie Mehretu, Richard Prince, and Carrie Mae Weems -  were invited to select works from the Guggenheim’s core collection for a vast and ingenious re-interpretive exhibition. A conversation of art voices, past and present, spiraled upward and into the future at the Guggenheim.

Gallery view of the Artistic License exhibition, courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum

More controversially, the Museum of Modern Art "reimagined” its collection during a four-month hiatus in 2019. When MOMA reopened in October, a number of art works from different eras were displayed in the permanent, chronologically arranged galleries. For instance, Quarantania, I (1947-53) by Louise Bourgeois and Faith Ringgold’s American People Series #20: Die (1967) were placed in the Picasso gallery to promote a “dialogue” with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. The rationale for MOMA’s decision was explained in the following press release:

Demoiselles has been traditionally presented as the beginning of Cubism—the art of splintered forms and shifting vantage points that revolutionized pictorial language in the years prior to World War I. But this work may also be understood in other ways and other contexts. Here, a sculpture by Louise Bourgeois and a painting by Faith Ringgold, both made decades later, enter into dialogue with Picasso’s psychologically charged scene, intensifying the questions that Demoiselles raises about representations of women, power, and cultural difference.

If – as I suspect - MOMA’s curators periodically switch-out different paintings and sculptures in these “juxtapositions,” there may be few earth-shattering repercussions.  All the same, I have some strong reservations about mix-and match at MOMA.

Though well-intentioned, this “reimaged” curatorial approach in the permanent galleries may promote the artistic counterpart of moral relativism. This is the antithesis of the rigorous scholarship and devotion to accuracy which provide the foundation for properly appreciating art. If “narrative relativism” finds a place in museum collection policy – rather than in temporary exhibitions  - the result, over time, may lead art to the place where most good intentions terminate.

This is not to say that the precepts and rules of museum policy should not be modified. In some cases, change is needed and often overdue. The decision by the Metropolitan Museum of Art to display a major collection of Native American art (on loan from Charles and Valerie Diker, who have pledged to donate it to the Met) in the museum's American Wing was wise and courageous. Placing these stunning art works in the American Wing, rather than displaying them alongside African or Oceanic art, is a major turning point in appreciating the interwoven fabric of American identity.

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) 
Gallery view of Art of Native America: the Charles and Valerie Diker Collection

No good deed goes unpunished, however. Some critics have contended that most Native American art works are really sacred objects and should be repatriated. However, that could be said of almost all art made throughout the world before 1600. To my mind, the Met's decision to display these First American icons in the setting of the American Wing shows the courage of conviction rather than a disregard for Native American culture.

The interplay of works of art, transcending boundaries of time and genres is a major force for good in human affairs. It encourages interpretation. The ability to interpret is the foundation of freedom of thought. Properly done, interpretation fosters awareness and empathy for others.

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) 
Gallery view of the Andrea del Verrocchio exhibition at the National Gallery of Art

When a museum experience opens our minds and hearts, we are no longer just looking at paintings or statues.  Framing thoughts, pondering unusual or unfamiliar images,  interpreting the world around us, these activities occur all the time - or should - in art museums.

I love looking at great works of art but I equally enjoy the sight of people communing with a favorite painting or a newly discovered treasure. The dapper gentleman in the photo which introduces this essay was so visibly moved by the sight of an iconic painting that one could grasp his emotions without seeing his face. Posed before Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party, he seemed to have crossed a portal of time, to have joined in the Impressionist-era festivities himself.

The greatest service which art museums perform is not creating "narratives" or a set-piece rationale about art. Instead, it is providing the opportunity to museum visitors to frame ideas and feelings about art for themselves that is so vital. 

This is best done when in the company of others. It is not just a case that we really need see the actual painting or sculpture for ourselves. It is important to see others doing so, to engage in the process of art appreciation - by appreciating other art lovers.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
 Gallery view of the Yoshitoshi exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

What was this young woman's "take" on the extraordinary series of prints by Yoshitoshi, as she intently snapped a digital photo? Considering that the images in Yoshitoshi's "One Hundred Aspects of the Moon" traverse a vast expanse of emotions and experiences, drawn from myths and legends, the emotional imprint was likely much greater than she was aware of at the time. 

I am still "dealing" with the impact of my visits to the Yoshitoshi exhibit back in the spring and summer of 2019. Having done so, however, in the company of other art lovers, makes my private contemplation now so much more meaningful and immediate, months later. 

What is true for me and other art loving adults will - I hope - be true for art-loving young people. The "little gal photographer" (as I described her in my notes) testified to this hope on a very crowded afternoon at MOMA, shortly before the museum closed for renovations. I was much impressed by her methodical effort to snap a keep-sake photo of Georges Seurat's The Channel at Gravelines, Evening. 

I am further touched by the thought that this young photographer should have focused upon one of Seurat's final paintings. He died, aged 31, a few months after finishing Channel at Gravelines, Evening. This child, almost certainly, did not know this or need to know. She was busy engaging with life, snapping pictures, imprinting images into her mind and memory. 

Seurat would have approved. Artists live and die. Art lives, empowering us to live.

Ed Voves, Photo (2019)
 Gallery view of the Museum of Modern Art, New York City,
 showing Georges Seurat's The Channel at Gravelines, Evening, 1891

Happy New Year from Art Eyewitness! 

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved. Photos by Anne Lloyd, all rights reserved.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi's The Twelfth‑Century Shogun Minamoto Yoritomo Releasing a Thousand Cranes at the Beach at Yuigahama is used, courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of ArtThe photo of the Artistic License exhibition is courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum, New York City.

Introductory Photo:
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of the Phillips Collection, Washington D.C., showing Pierre Auguste Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1883.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (Japanese,1839-18) The Twelfth‑Century Shogun Minamoto Yoritomo Releasing a Thousand Cranes at the Beach at Yuigahama, 1863. Color woodcut print:

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)  Sunrise, Philadelphia, PA, December 31, 2019.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of the Marking Marvels: Science and Splendor at the Courts of Europe exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Gallery view of the exhibition, The Tale of Genji, A Japanese Classic Illuminated, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

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

Anne Lloyd, Photos (2019) Exterior and interior views of the renovated North Entrance  of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of the Verdi: Creating Otello and Falstaff exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum, 2019.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of the Paris, Capital of Fashion exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York City, showing French Revolution era clothing (left) and a John Galliano 1992 ensemble (right).

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Exhibition banner of Hymn to Apollo: the Ancient World and the Ballet Russes at The Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW).

Gallery view of the Artistic License exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, New York. Courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum.

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Gallery view of Metropolitan Museum exhibition, Art of Native America: the Charles and Valerie Diker Collection, showing a boy's jacket from the Apsaalooke (Crow) tribe, Montana, ca. 1880.

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Gallery view of the Andrea del Verrocchio: Sculptor-Painter of Renaissance Florence exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of the Yoshitoshi, Spirit and Spectacle exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, showing Georges Seurat's The Channel at Gravelines, Evening, 1891.