Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Art Eyewitness Essay: A Van Gogh Moment during the Covid-19 Crisis


A "Van Gogh Moment" during the Covid-19 Crisis

By Ed Voves
Original Photography by Anne Lloyd

There were iron bars on the window of Vincent van Gogh's room at the hospital of Saint-Paul de Mausole in Saint-Rémy, France. But when van Gogh looked out of that window and began to paint scenes of an enclosed wheat field and the surrounding hills, the iron bars vanished. Van Gogh had managed to break through the "quarantine" of his confinement at the Saint-Rémy medical facility without even leaving his room.

Today, vast numbers of people all around the world are experiencing varying-degrees of quarantine or "lock-down" due to efforts to stop the spread of the Covid-19 virus. Van Gogh's experience in 1889 serves as a lesson, both inspiring and cautionary, for us all.

I had a "Van Gogh moment" recently which is helping me grasp the importance of reacting to illness, anguish, isolation and fear with some form of creative response. This is the "single candle" lit amidst the darkness or, in van Gogh's case, painting profoundly moving works of art even as his hopes for success and happiness were repeatedly dashed.

My "Van Gogh moment"  occurred during a food shopping expedition. Anne and I made our plans to go to the supermarket with a deliberation appropriate to the situation. We decided to walk via back streets instead of the main avenue. Maintaining the recommended social-distancing would be easier that way and we would have a chance to check out a number of the lovely gardens in our neighborhood.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2020) Garden View (above) and Wild Violets (below)

The universe responded. it was a lovely day, with a "John Constable sky" overhead. Everywhere we looked, the gardens, flower boxes, even cracks in the sidewalk were bursting into life. Carefully-planted pansies vied for our attention with wild violets, clinging tenaciously to the wall of house.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2020) Tulip Mania (above and below)

One of our neighbors utilizes a vintage cast iron bath tub as a flower bed. It reposes on their porch and puts on quite a show throughout the year. The tulips, lush red with velvety green leaves and stems, have been especially dazzling this year. 

Each tulip is a mini-universe, the "life force" in them surging forth as their petals open. It is hard not to give way to hyperbole when attempting to describe flowers as beautiful as these. Even the level-headed Dutch went crazy during the "Tulip-Mania" of the 1600's.

Vincent van Gogh certainly felt nature's life-force when he arrived in Provence in February 1888. He was intent on establishing the Studio of the South, a workmanlike substitute for his utopian dream of going to Japan. Just as van Gogh set up shop in Arles, winter changed to spring and he took his easel, canvas and paints on forays to the surrounding fields and orchards. The results were astounding, marking the transformation from the dark-toned landscapes of his early years to a realm of light.

Vincent van Gogh, The Pink Orchard, 1888

In a letter to his brother Theo, van Gogh shared his thoughts about this extraordinary series of trees in the springtime and drew sketches of the finished works he would soon be sending for potential sale. Sadly, none sold during van Gogh's lifetime.

                        Page of Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh,                       showing a sketch of Small Pear Tree in Blossom, April 1888

Vincent van Gogh, Small Pear Tree in Blossom, 1888

Van Gogh also mentioned in this letter to Theo how he intended to dedicate one of these paintings to the memory of their uncle, Anton Mauve (1838-88). Holland's leading realist painters, Mauve had unavailingly attempted to teach the basics of salon-style painting to van Gogh. Except for Theo, van Gogh found it difficult to collaborate with anyone but, such was his great heart, he did not forget a favor.

Van Gogh's mood swings never deterred him from wanting to succeed professionally and  to create inspiring art. To Theo, he wrote that he considered these depictions of blossoming fruit trees as subjects "that cheer everyone up." But in an even more revealing letter, this time to his sister, Wilhelmina, van Gogh wrote from Arles:

"We need good cheer and happiness, hope and love. The uglier, older, meaner, sicker, poorer I get, the more I wish to take my revenge by doing brilliant color, well arranged, resplendent."

Van Gogh certainly needed cheering-up when he was admitted to the Saint-Paul Hospital in Saint-Rémy in May 1889. No further commentary is needed about the bust-up with Gauguin. It does to be underscored, however, that van Gogh, sequestered at Saint-Paul, used his lifelong devotion to beauty to reply to life's challenges and disappointments. With his paintbrush, he declared a resounding "yes" to the universe.

From his bedroom window at Saint-Paul, van Gogh looked out upon a small, enclosed field, planted with wheat. Then, in the room he was permitted to use as a studio, van Gogh depicted this otherwise unremarkable patch of earth, over and over, at every time of day and in every weather condition, including driving rain, as we see in the second version, one of the most treasured works of art in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Vincent van Gogh, Field of Spring Wheat at Sunrise, 1889

Vincent van Gogh, Rain, 1889

Eventually, van Gogh responded to the care at at Saint-Paul but his recovery was marked by relapses. It was from the same window that he watched the night sky which led to painting Starry Night in June 1889. 

It is open to interpretation whether this fabled painting was a visionary work combining spirituality with art or merely an experiment with a more abstract style. What can - and should be - stated is that great art and therefore sincere feeling are not exclusively determined by proximity to a particular vantage point. It is not where we are or even what we are looking at that proves if our creative response is of merit.

In a time of personal suffering, quarantined from the world, Vincent van Gogh created Field of Spring Wheat at Sunrise and Starry Night in the same tight quarters, a psychiatric hospital, let's not forget. 

Could van Gogh have done that, if there were no shimmering wheat field or wide expanse of sky beyond his bedroom window?  Could he have painted a masterpiece if the only plot of ground he had to look at was an overgrown, ill-tended garden? 

Vincent van Gogh, The Garden of the Asylum at Saint-Rémy, 1889

That is exactly what van Gogh did create with his painting of the hospital garden at Saint-Rémy. There is nothing particularly remarkable about this secluded place. Yet, in van Gogh's handling, this scene shimmers with life. The funky little bench by the side of the path offers us a place for a moment's reflection - or an hour's - under the shade of the straggly trees.

Most of us don't have ready access to a view of Provence beyond our bedroom window. With a little searching or maybe just plain luck, however, we can find a couple of trees, a tiny garden, even window box planted with flowers that is close to home, close at hand. For a few moments, we find refuge from the stresses of life, now made more difficult by Covid-19.

During our round-about walk to the supermarket, Anne and I spotted such a landmark, a cherry tree. We have walked past it, heaven know's how many times. But on that afternoon, it was gloriously in bloom, a "universe" unto itself, flowering into life.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2020) Spring Street Scene, Philadelphia

As I said earlier, it is hard to resist hyberbole when gazing on such a sight.  But there was no denying how incredible was the billowing mass of cherry blossoms or the delicate beauty of a single flower. When the sky, which was constantly in motion a-la-John Constable, shifted from bright blue to the soft gray of a passing cloud, the whole atmosphere changed. What was true for the Saint-Rémy wheatfield was true for the cherry tree in our Philadelphia neighborhood.


Anne Lloyd, Photo (2020) Spring Blossoms

Anne and I enjoyed our "Van Gogh moment" and then it was time to go to the supermarket. When we made it back home, the news about the Covid-19 pandemic was bad and getting worse all the time. Does a "Van Gogh moment" or any other kind of epiphany matter under such circumstances?

I believe such moments of reflection, of returning to the primal elements of life mean a great deal. Right now, we are seemingly enduring a diminished existence. Yet, the Covid-19 crisis is offering us the opportunity of focusing upon what is essential. Even under the shadow of a terrible calamity, we can nurture the flame of living.

Here is a final quote from Vincent van Gogh on a method for finding meaning in life, valid in all seasons and circumstances, but never more so than now, during the Covid-19 pandemic.  

If one studies Japanese art, one sees what it is that an incontestably wise and philosophical man spends his time doing… He studies a single blade of grass. But that blade of grass leads him on to paint every plant, then every season, rolling landscapes, then at last animals and the human form. That is how he spends his life, and life is too short for him to do it all. 

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves. Original Photos: Anne Lloyd. All rights reserved                                                                                           
Images of paintings by Vincent van Gogh and letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Introductory Image:

Vincent van Gogh, (Dutch, 1853-1890) The Pink Peach Tree. Oil on canvas, 80.9 cm x 60.2 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Vincent van Gogh,  (Dutch, 1853-1890) The Pink Orchard, 1888. Oil on canvas: 65.0 cm x 81.0 cm.  Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890)  Page of Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh with sketch  of Small Pear Tree in Blossom, Arles, c. April 13,1888. Pen and ink on paper, 21 cm x 27.1 cm.  Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) Small Pear Tree in Blossom, 1888Oil on canvas, 73.6 cm x 46.3 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)  Field of Spring Wheat at Sunrise, 1889. Oil on canvas: 72 cm (28.3 in) x  92 cm (36.2 in). Kröller-Müller Museum KM 106.596  Source: The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202.

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)  Rain, 1889. Oil on canvas: 28 7/8 × 36 3/8 inches (73.3 × 92.4 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art.  # 1986-26-36. The Henry P. McIlhenny Collection in memory of Frances P. McIlhenny, 1986

Vincent van Gogh (1853 - 1890) The Garden of the Asylum at Saint-Rémy. Oil on canvas: 91.5 x 72 cm. Kröller-Müller Museum KM 101.508

Friday, March 27, 2020

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Albrecht Dürer

Albrecht Dürer

 By Christof Metzger and Julia Zaunbauer
Prestel/488 pages/$75

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor and Europe's leading art collector, ordered his agents to purchase one of the greatest paintings in Italy, Feast of the Rose Garlands, and bring it to his palace in Prague. The large oil on wood painting, measuring 5.3 ft x 6.3 ft., was duly transported - at one point, hand-carried along a footpath across the Alps - to Prague Castle. 

The year was 1606. Rudolf's prize acquisition was not a contemporary work by Caravaggio nor a classic painting from the studio of a High Renaissance master like Raphael. Indeed, Feast of the Rose Garlands, had not been painted by an Italian at all. It was the masterpiece of the greatest of German artists, Albrecht Dürer.

Albrecht Dürer, The Feast of the Rose Garlands, 1506 

Rudolf was obsessed with Dürer's art. The emperor, who was slightly mad to begin with, spared no expense to purchase Dürer's works of art. In 1588, he had spent a princely sum to buy a large bound volume known as the Kunstbuch, which contained 100 original drawings and watercolors by Dürer. The nature study, The Great Piece of Turf (1503), was just one of the works of Dürer's genius which were carefully preserved in the Kunstbuch

No art book today - or ever - can match the Kunstbuch. However, Albrecht Dürer, the catalog of the recent exhibition at the Albertina Museum in Vienna, comes close. 

Published by Prestel, Albrecht Dürer surveys the Renaissance artist's entire career. The quality of the illustrations makes descriptive words like "lavish" or "magnificent" seem trite. The scholarship which informs the accompanying essays by Christof Metzger and Julia Zaunbauer is of the highest quality, as well. This, truly, is an outstanding book about one of the greatest artists in European - and world - history. 
The Albrecht Dürer catalog essays, which include an excellent short biography, establish the salient features of Dürer the artist: "skill" and "versatility."  

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) succeeded not by virtue of raw talent - though he had plenty - but by study, experiment, application and discipline. His first work, a self-portrait drawn in silverpoint "when I was still a child" (as he noted on the sheet), was an audacious achievement. But the level of drawing testifies to the rigorous training he received from his father, a master goldsmith and a superb draftsman in his own right.

Albrecht Dürer, Self-Portrait at Thirteen, 1484

Dürer's skill extended to many artistic media: drawing, painting, etching and woodcarving. This last is a somewhat contentious point but important to consider from the standpoint of Dürer's versatility. Most of the woodcuts for Dürer's marvelous prints were created by master carvers based on his designs. But enough indications remain to show that Dürer was adept at this patient, meticulous form of artistry. 

Such mastery of woodcarving would have informed Dürer's relationship with the professional carvers he employed. When Dürer handed the design of a picture to a woodcarver or formschneider like Hieronymus Andreä, he could do so, secure in the knowledge that both he and Andreä were "on the same page" to use a modern expression.  

This ability to both delegate and to task-manage points to another of Dürer's great achievements. He succeeded brilliantly in organizing and operating a successful workshop. In this, he can be compared to Verrocchio, whose studio in Florence was the training ground for Leonardo, Ghirlandaio and, most likely, Botticelli. 

Dürer is often called the "Leonardo of the North" because he wrote major books on aesthetics later in life. Unlike, Leonardo, Dürer had the drive to see the job in hand through to completion. Dürer's output was staggering and there was little unfinished work in his studio when he died in 1528.

                                                       Albrecht Dürer,                                                       Detail of The Rape of Europa, Three Studies of a Lion's Head,
 Apollo and an Oriental Figure, 1494/1495

Dürer sketched and drew with relentless enthusiasm. A single page in the Kunstbuch preserved a mythological scene, with a typical south German town in the background,  figure studies of Apollo and a Hamlet-like philosopher and three views of a tired old lion, who would appear and reappear in Dürer's many depictions of St. Jerome and his faithful feline friend.

Albrecht Dürer, St. Jerome in His Study, 1514

The Prestel volume displays a generous selection of Dürer's drawings, ranging from delightful doodles on letters to friends and sketches for later reference to supremely finished works. These were often done on carefully prepared colored paper, executed with watercolor and body color and brilliant touches of white for contrast. The celebrated Praying Hands (1503), masterfully demonstrates Dürer's drawing technique.

It should be noted that Dürer "drew" with a paint brush, as well as charcoal, pen and ink, and the pointed stylus for silverpoint, one of the most exacting and unforgiving artistic techniques imaginable, as noted in the 2015 exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. Graphite pencils had not yet been invented.

In their most accomplished state, Dürer's drawings must be considered as Exempla. While such an expertly executed drawing might serve as part of the preparatory stage for a painting, it was also a work of art in its own right. On a higher, even more profound level, Dürer's exempla were a means of communicating ideas and ideals, the very essence of Renaissance humanism. 

                                                      Albrecht Dürer,                                                          A Pastoral Landscape with Shepherds Playing a Viola & Panpipes, 1496/1497

One of Dürer's greatest friends was Willibald Pirckheimer (1470-1530), a pioneer of the "New Learning" in Germany. Dürer created a special illustration for Pirckheimer's copy of the first print edition of the classical Greek philosopher, Theocritus. Executed in watercolor and gouache heightened with pen and ink and gold, Durer's image of musician-shepherds surrounds the opening page of Theocritus' IdyllsDürer drew this charming, one-of-a-kind illustration much as medieval artists created elaborate initials to mark the beginning of hand-copied prayer books and bibles. 

Although Pirckheimer's copy of Theocritus is a printed volume, its status is of supreme importance. It was printed in 1496 by Aldus Manutius in Venice. It was Manutius who established the first truly successful publishing company in Europe. The classical texts of the Aldine editions transformed scholarship because they were modestly priced and carefully edited. If one wanted to mark the moment when the Renaissance became a pan-European movement, Dürer's illustration for his friend's copy of Theocritus admirably performs that service.

Viewing Dürer's drawings as a totality, Cristof Metzger notes that Dürer's exempla "are ultimately conversation pieces, physical manifestations of the master's consummate artistic abilities whose purpose is to demonstrate this capacity to every visitor to the artists's workshop."

This is beautifully stated, but I would take it a stage-further. Dürer's drawings and prints are a means of dialogue between his time and our era - and those to come. And, when we look and reflect upon The Great Piece of Turf, we join with Dürer in a form of communication with the cosmic spirit, in short with God.

Albrecht Dürer, The Great Piece of Turf, 1503

Here, in this stunning depiction of a small plot of soil and plant life, we can feel and partake of the life force of the universe. A two-dimensional picture, 16 x 12 3/8 in., created half of millennium ago, takes us to dimensions of time and the spirit almost beyond our ability to grasp.

Dürer's drawings enable us to probe another realm of the infinite, namely the character of humanity. 

Albrecht Dürer, Head of an African, 1508

In a drawing dating to 1508, Dürer depicted the likeness of an African man of unknown origin. Dürer may have seen him in Venice during his recent trip or perhaps the man was a servant of an Imperial official visiting Nuremberg. We don't know the details, but we are given a higher degree of insight, straight into the heart and soul of this fellow human being, long dead and very much alive to us still.

Thanks to the exceptional quality of the illustrations of this Prestel book, viewing Dürer's art works on its pages is almost as rewarding as a visit to the Albertina Museum in Vienna!
If I have one criticism of this magnificent book, it is the abrupt, jarring manner in which the text comes to an abrupt halt. 

In the final section, "Dürer the Storyteller", Christof Metzger discusses a number of late works, pen and ink depictions of incidents in the life and death of Jesus. We read how these remarkable drawings were not "preliminary drawings for a specific work but rather experiments for the workshop stock."

We turn the page, expecting more, only to confront the book's section of notes. It struck me as quite a jolt to suddenly be deprived of Albrecht Dürer's company after page-upon-page of stunning illustrations and spirited, compelling commentary. This book is an exhibition catalog, rather than a formal biography, so this word of censure is undeserved.

All the same, it was with a real sense of loss, that I finished this wonderful book. Was this how Dürer's family, friends and colleagues felt when they received word that he had died on April 6, 1528? I suspect so.

Fortunately, a heartfelt valedictory of Dürer is available in Paul Johnson's Art: a New History (2003). Commenting on the large trove of Dürer's letters, travel diaries and other documents which have survived the centuries, Johnson notes how these personal writings:

 ... reveal the enthusiasm with which the boy, then the man, embraced a career in art; the assiduity with which he studied its techniques and absorbed any knowledge relevant to its practice; the humility with which, despite his obvious and overwhelming gifts, he approached art, and the generosity with which he helped others who shared his love of it.

"Dürer was the archetypal man of art," Johnson affirms. "He loved the world and nature, and sought to reduce it to orderly truth by his skill at putting real things and creatures in two dimensions."

Albrecht Dürer, Young Hare, 1502

In doing go, Dürer reached beyond tangible, visible reality to a higher level of creation. Here physical nature was infused with spirituality; transcendental themes took the shape of earthly creatures, birds, animals, human beings, which somehow - even now, five centuries after Dürer's death - do not seem out-of-place in heaven.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                                           
Images courtesy of the Albertina Museum, Vienna, Austria, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. Book cover ©  Prestel Publishing Company

Introductory Image:
Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528) Praying Hands, 1508. Brush and gray wash heightened with white on blue prepared paper: 29.1 x 19.7 cm (11 1/2 x 7 3/4 in.), Albertina Museum, Vienna

Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528) The Feast of the Rose Garlands (Rosenkranzfest), 1506. Oil on panel:162 x 194.5 cm (64 x 76.5 inches or 5.3 ft x 6.3 ft.) National Gallery in Prague, Prague, Czech Republic.

Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528) Self-Portrait at Thirteen, 1484. Silverpoint on prepared paper, 27.3 x 19.5 cm (10 3/4 x 7 5/8 in.) Albertina Museum, Vienna 

Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528) The Rape of Europa, Three Studies of a Lion's Head, Apollo and an Oriental Figure (detail), 1494/1495. Pen and brown and black/brown ink. Albertina Museum, Vienna 

Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528)  St. Jerome in His Study, 1514. Engraving on laid paper: 25.4 x 19 cm (10 x 7 1/2 in.). National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. Gift of R. Horace Gallatin. 1949.1.11

Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528) A Pastoral Landscape with Shepherds Playing a Viola & Panpipes, 1496/1497. Watercolor and gouache heightened with pen and ink and gold, pasted back onto page 1 of Aldus Manutius' first edition of Theocritus' Idylls and other texts (Venice, 1496): page size: 31 x 20.3 cm (12 3/16 x 8 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. Woodner Collection. 2005.1.1.a

Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528) The Great Piece of Turf, 1503. Watercolor, pen and ink: 40.3 cm × 31.1 cm (​15 7⁄8 in × ​12 1⁄4 in). Albertina Museum, Vienna

Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528) Head of an African, 1508. Black chalk: 31.8 x 21.7 cm (12 1/2 x 8 1/2 in.), Albertina Museum, Vienna 

Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528) Young Hare, 1502. Watercolor and body color: 25.1 cm × 22.6 cm (9.9 in × 8.9 in). Albertina Museum, Vienna

Friday, March 20, 2020

Art Eyewitness Essay: Art in a Time of Suffering

Art in a Time of Suffering

Reflections on Coping with the Covid-19 Crisis

By Ed Voves
Original Photography by Anne Lloyd

On Thursday afternoon, March 12, 2020, the Press Room of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City released a major communique. The headline proclaimed:

Metropolitan Museum to Close Temporarily Starting March 13

It was a shock to read this - but not a surprise. With the global spread of the Covid-19 virus and thousands of deaths already reported in China, Iran and Italy, it was only a matter of time before the disease reached the United States.

The press release quoted Daniel H. Weiss, the Met's President and CEO: 

"The Met's priority is to protect and support our staff, volunteers, and visitors, and we have been taking several proactive precautionary measures, including discouraging travel to affected areas, implementing rigorous cleaning routines, and staying in close communication with New York City health officials and the Centers for Disease Control. While we don't have any confirmed cases connected to the Museum, we believe that we must do all that we can to ensure a safe and healthy environment for our community..."

It was a wise, caring and effective move. As Thursday afternoon wore on, more museums followed suit.

The next morning - Friday the 13th - more closings were announced and not just by art museums. "March Madness" was cancelled, despite earlier plans to play the exciting college basketball tournament without direct fan participation. Many of life's pleasures - creative or recreational endeavors which supply our lives with meaning - were being postponed or eliminated to prevent the spread of infection.

The ominous thought passed through my mind that this was how Sir Edward Grey, Britain's Foreign Secretary, must have felt during the last hours of peace in 1914.

"The lamps are going out all over Europe," Sir Edward exclaimed, "we shall not see them lit again in our life-time."

Reflecting on the daily, often hourly, updates on the globalization of Covid-19, I recalled a provocative 2014 exhibition at the Met. Death Becomes Her surveyed mourning apparel and funeral artifacts from the early 1800's to the twentieth century. Although medical science had begun to "conquer" some diseases during this period, other maladies, tuberculosis, cholera and the "Spanish" influenza of 1918, killed countless people all over the world.

                                                 Anne Lloyd, Photo (2014)                                                       Gallery view of the Death Becomes Her exhibition, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Death Becomes Her, however, was not in the least morbid. The exhibition showed that people are resilient. The clothes they wear and their rituals during times of grief reflect the human ability to endure. Some of the "widow's weeds" on view were quiet stylish, for the most part those worn at the end of the grieving cycle, and striking funeral clothing for men and children was included in the exhibition. Life - and art - goes on.

None-the-less, a pandemic cannot easily be shrugged-off with comforting reflections on a fondly remembered art exhibit.

It has been increasingly difficult for me to focus on art, despite the embarrassment of riches, in terms of the many exhibitions planned for 2020. This year is the Metropolitan Museum of Art's 150th anniversary and a host of special programs and exhibitions are planned to celebrate this auspicious event. At the top of this list is Making the Met, a retrospective look at the landmark exhibits, inspired leadership and human drama at 82nd and Fifth Ave.

                                            Metropolitan Museum of Art                                          
Publicity image for Making the Met, 1870-2020© The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Big events at other museums are planned in 2020, as well, though I almost wrote about these in the past tense - "were planned."

Renovations at the Philadelphia Museum of Art are almost complete, with a ribbon-cutting and a big Jasper Johns exhibition set for the autumn. Thomas Eakins' The Gross Clinic, which the museum jointly owns with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, will be back on display. 

A fabulous Degas exhibit has just debuted at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Another major exhibition, scheduled for May, A Superb Baroque: Art in Genoa, 1600–1750, has been postponed. Given the severe impact of the Covid-19 virus on Italy, it is likely to be a long wait before these rarely-seen (in the U.S.) Baroque masterpieces travel to D.C.  

"Der mentsh trakht un Got lakht." How timely is this Yiddish proverb! Man plans and God laughs.

One of the essays planned for Art Eyewitness this spring was a follow-up to the review of Making Marvels, the Met’s exhibition of wondrous scientific instruments, automatons and other "gizmos" from the Renaissance to the Age of Enlightenment. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Portable Sun Dial, made by Paulus Reinman, 1602

Works of art, as well as technological masterpieces, these "marvels" once graced the “cabinets of wonder” called Kunstkammern in Germanic-speaking realms.

These private art and science collections evolved into today's museums. The first truly public institution, the British Museum, was founded in 1759 by Sir Hans Sloane, an Irish-born physician with an insatiable appetite for collecting.

Admission ticket to the British Museum, 1790. ©Trustees of the British Museum

The rise of museums is an important topic and I had amassed fascinating information on how the transformation occurred. Yet, my thoughts kept heading along a different path, to reflections on the status of museums, now, in these dark moments of sickness and death, sorrow and fear. 

On view in Making Marvels was an intriguing painting, entitled The Knight's Dream (1670) by Antonio de Pereda. Principally known as a master of still-life paintings, the Spanish-born Pereda painted an allegorical scene foreshadowing Francisco Goya's The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1799).

                                                     Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)                                             Detail of The Knight's Dream (1670) by Antonio de Pereda 

In The Knight's Dream, a Spanish hidalgo, surrounded by the treasures of his "cabinet of wonders," dozes off. He is not haunted by “monsters” as in Goya’s print. Rather he is visited by a heavenly messenger whose banner bears a warning about the nature of time: "Eternally it stings, swiftly it flies and it kills."

It was a timely message – then and now. The curators of Making Marvels doubled the impact of this powerful work of art by displaying an astronomical table clock that is almost an exact duplicate of the one we see ticking away in the painting.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Astronomical table clock, mid-17th century

By the time Pereda painted The Knight’s Dream in 1670, once mighty Spain’s political power was in rapid decline. The Spanish economy disintegrated as the silver shipments from its New World colonies decreased, leaving massive debts unpaid from vast expenditure on futile wars.

Spanish scholars, interested in the arts and sciences like the napping hidalgo, received little support from the bankrupt state. Some years prior to the creation of this symbolic work of art, a Spanish historian and poet living in Seville, Rodrigo Caro (1573-1647) wrote despairingly to a colleague, "I know not if you will find here in these unhappy times three men who occupy themselves with these studies …"

Edme de Boulonois. Juan Luis Vives, ca. 17th century

It was not always so. During the early Renaissance, Spain produced a number of outstanding humanist scholars. The most notable was Juan Luis Vives (1493-1540), whose writings on human memory and emotions laid the foundation for modern psychology. The city of Seville, birthplace of two of Spain’s greatest artists, Velázquez and Murillo, was a glittering, cosmopolitan center of culture.

Disaster struck Seville in 1646, with a devastating outbreak of plague, most likely a form of the bubonic plague or Black Death which had wiped out close to half of Europe’s population during the 1300’s. By the time it ended in 1652, an estimated 500,000 people perished in Seville and adjacent regions in southern Spain. Furthermore, there had been an earlier outbreak of plague in 1596 and it reoccurred in 1676, lasting until 1685. When Spanish deaths from its endless military campaigns are factored-in, it is no wonder that Spain’s political power and economic clout vanished during the late 1600’s.

But why did Spain’s culture go into an eclipse at the same time? A "golden age" of art and literature, of El Greco and Cervantes, had flourished during the opening decades of the seventeenth century. England also suffered major bouts of the plague during the late 1500’s and 1600’s, but English literature and science - and to a lesser extent art - continued on the upswing throughout the whole seventeenth century. The answer can be found by probing the identity of the "Invisible College."

By 1600, Spain appeared to have vastly outpaced England in the founding of universities. Spain had thirty. England had three. (Scotland's universities were a separate system.) The primary emphasis of Spain's universities, however was theology, law, philosophy and the classical medical theories of the Greeks and Romans. That was true, for most of the 1600's, at Oxford, Cambridge and Durham. The crucial difference was the development of an informal network of "Natural Philosophers" throughout England. 

Over the course of the seventeenth century, these early English scientists began to organize groups with regular meetings and guiding precepts, based upon the ideas of Francis Bacon. Robert Boyle (1627-1691), one of the founders of the Royal Society in 1660, played a major role in helping to diffuse ideas and information, as well as formulating the methodology of scientific inquiry.

George Vertue, after Johann Kerseboom. Robert Boyle, 1739

Samuel Hartlib's "Comenian" circle, the Philosophical Society of Oxford, Gresham College (where Boyle was an active member) in London are some of the more well-known of these groups of natural philosophers. A remarkable woman, Lady Anne Conway (1631-1679), a patron of this "new" learning and a scientist herself, established her country estate as a research center for the Cambridge Platonists.

These free-thinking English scholars conducted experiments, published pamphlets and corresponded across the battle lines of the English Civil War and the Puritan Revolution. Their "Invisible College" enabled scholarship, science and literature in England to thrive  at the same time as higher learning and cultural activities in Spain withered.

There is a special relevance of the contrasting fortunes of Spain and England during the 1600's to our present situation. The "Invisible College" which nurtured English genius during the tumultuous seventeenth century is available to us as we confront the Covid-19 pandemic and the political/social ramifications which are likely to occur as a consequence.

                                                 Anne Lloyd, Photo (2020)                                                      Gallery view of Degas at the Opera at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C

As I write these words, art galleries all over the world stand empty. Thanks to the vision and generosity of museum administrators and curators, a vast array of digital resources is available to us during the Covid-19 crisis. Art museums, especially in the United States, have made thousands of images of paintings, drawings, sculptures and other works of art available for use via Creative Commons.

Many museum staffs have gone the extra mile by creating special web pages granting easy access to the research and home schooling textual content which is routinely uploaded on their web sites. What Juan Luis Vives, Robert Boyle and Anne Conway did long ago to assist their fellow natural philosophers, the behind-the-scenes curators and "techies" at our art museums are doing for us during the "plague year" of 2020.

      The Met 360° Project. The Temple of Dendur © The Metropolitan Museum of Art   

I don't wish to slight any museum curators for their efforts in sharing their collections via the Internet. However, since this is the Met's anniversary year, I am  going to comment at some length on the riches to be found at www.metmuseum.org.  First of all, even though the Met is closed, you can take a virtual tour of the museum via the Met 360° Project. Six videos, created by using spherical 360° technology, enable visitors to "virtually" visit selected sites at the Met, including the Temple of Dendur and the Cloisters.

The Met also introduces key works of art and new acquisitions on the Website with the Connections and the MetCollects series. In these engaging interviews, Met curators, conservators, educators, security officers, as well as collectors and artists, share their insights on iconic works of art.

In researching Art Eyewitness, I regularly use the Met’s invaluable Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Even though I spend a good bit of time on the Met's website, I have only scratched the surface. The resources, images and text, provided by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, enable us to continue to work and enjoy, protected from the threat of Covid-19. And what is true for the Met is true for the National Gallery of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and other museums in the United States and other nations.

As I prepared to write this essay, I came across a search tool in the Met Digital Collections giving access to vintage photos of many of the great special exhibitions over the years at the Met. It was like being given a ticket to a time machine and I went a little crazy.

Many of the exhibition series have only a few pictures available, but there are 85 photos covering the 1983 blockbuster The Vatican Collections: The Papacy and ArtThis incredible series, photographed by Al Mozell, shows the entire process of installing the exhibition - removing the art works from their wooden crates, building the exhibition set, positioning the statues on their pedestals, scenes of throngs of appreciative art lovers crowding the galleries.

                                                   Al Mozell, Photos (1983)                                            The Vatican Collections: the Papacy & Art exhibition, © Metropolitan Museum of Art

I was one of the awe-struck visitors to the Vatican Collections exhibition. For me, it was like spending a day in the Vatican Museums, a Roman Holiday if you will.

Unlike my recent discovery of the exhibition photo site of the Met, I was aware of - and a frequent visitor to - a comparable digital picture archive of the Museum of Modern Art. There I discovered a photo of Audrey Hepburn visiting MOMA in 1957 for a Picasso exhibition. Ms. Hepburn is shown with Alfred H. Barr, the legendary founder of MOMA. I loved this photo from the minute I first saw it and I have kept it in reserve for my long-planned essay on the rise of art museums.

                                                Barry Kramer, Photo (1957)                                        Audrey Hepburn & Alfred H. Barr, at the MOMA exhibit,"Picasso: 75th Anniversary" 

There is no time like the present. However, I am motivated to use this photo of Audrey Hepburn based on her life experience, rather than to illustrate an art history theme,

Recently, I read the compelling biography of Audrey Hepburn's early life, Dutch Girl, by Robert Matzen (GoodKnight Books/2019). Hepburn was no stranger to danger and suffering. As a teenager during World War II, she was a messenger for the Dutch resistance and was nearly killed in the Battle of Arnhem in September 1944 when rockets fired by a British aircraft at German tanks missed and exploded a few feet from where she stood.

After the Allies failed to capture a key bridge at Arnhem, the Nazis were able to halt the attack. The north of Holland, where most of the Dutch population lived, was cut-off without food. The "Hunger Winter" ensued, 20,000 people starved to death and many young people, Audrey Hepburn included, suffered the physical and emotional effects of this privation for the rest of their lives.

A visit to an art exhibition is a life-enhancing experience. So are all the joys of living. People like Audrey Hepburn, who survived several encounters with death, know this in their hearts and souls.

Naturally, human beings do not relish being reminded of the effects and after-effects of catastrophes. In closing, I am reminded of the response to Thomas Eakins' Gross Clinic, which I mentioned earlier. Eakins painted his heroic depiction of Dr. Samuel Gross, one of the pioneers of American medicine, for display in the Centennial Exhibition of 1876. His masterpiece was rejected. The American Civil War had ended only ten years before. The dark red oil paint dripping from Dr. Gross' fingers and surgical knife was too real, too close to the actual blood shed in the war.

Thomas Eakins, Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic), 1875

Great art is for the dark days as well as sunny afternoons. Artists paint their souls into their masterpieces. Sculptors carve the marrow of their being into theirs. When we draw comfort from works of art during times of suffering, the "blood, sweat and tears" of Van Gogh, Michelangelo, Rodin and all the rest are there for our asking.

At some point, the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic will be lifted. Until then, thanks to the "Invisible College" provided by museum web sites, we can continue to draw inspiration from the works of art we so cherish.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2020) Gallery view of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Hopefully, that happy day will soon come, making it is possible for art lovers to renew their kinship - for that is what it is -with the inspiring masters of great art. The experience, I think, will be even sweeter and more meaningful than before.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves. Original Photos: Anne Lloyd. All rights reserved                                                                                           
Images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, NYC, the National Portrait Gallery, London, and the British Museum

Introductory Image:
Thomas Eakins (American, 1844-1916) Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross  (The Gross Clinic) (detail), 1875. Full entry below.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2014)  Gallery view of the Death Becomes Her exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

Metropolitan Museum of Art publicity image for the Making the Met, 1870-2020, exhibition. Copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)  Portable Sun Dial, made by Paulus Reinman, 1602. Ivory, brass: 4 1/2 × 3 1/2 in. (11.4 × 8.9 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of Mrs. Stephen D. Tucker, 1903. # 03.21.24

Admission ticket to the British Museum, 1790. ©Trustees of the British Museum.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)  Detail of The Knight's Dream (1670) by Antonio de Pereda y Salgado (Spanish, 1611-1678) Collection of Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Spain.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Astronomical table clock. From Augsburg, Germany, mid-17th century. Case: gilded brass and gilded copper; Dials: gilded brass and silver; Movement: brass, gilded brass, and steel: 25 × 10 × 10 in. (63.5 × 25.4 × 25.4 cm). Metropolitan museum of Art. Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917. # 17.190.747

Edme de Boulonois. Juan Lewis Vives, possibly late 17th century. Line engraving, 8 in. x 5 1/4 in. (204 mm x 132 mm) paper size. Given by the daughter of compiler William Fleming MD, Mary Elizabeth Stopford (née Fleming), 1931. National Portrait Gallery, London. NPG D24337

George Vertue, after Johann Kerseboom. Robert Boyle, 1739. Line engraving: 15 3/8 in. x 9 7/8 in. (391 mm x 250 mm) paper size. Acquired unknown source, 1953. National Portrait Gallery, London. NPG D32051

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2020)  Gallery view of the Degas at the Opera exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Metropolitan Museum of Art photo.The Met 360° Project, The Temple of Dendur. Copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

Al Mozell, Photos (1983) The Vatican Collections: The Papacy and Art. Exhibition Photographs:  2 x 2 inch slides. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts. Copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

Barry Kramer, Photo (1957) Audrey Hepburn and Alfred H. Barr, Jr. at the exhibition, "Picasso: 75th Anniversary". Photographic Archive - The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York. IN619.73. Copyright © The Museum of Modern Art, NYC.

Thomas Eakins (American, 1844-1916) Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross  (The Gross Clinic), 1875. Oil on canvas: 8 feet × 6 feet 6 inches (243.8 × 198.1 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art/Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. # 2007-1-1

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2020)  Gallery view of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Patrons are examining Sunflowers (1889) by Vincent van Gogh in Gallery 261, the Resnick Rotunda. Van Gogh's Portrait of Madame Augustine Roulin and Baby Marcelle (1888) is at right.