Sunday, April 26, 2020

Art Eyewitness Book Review: The Scythians by Barry Cunliffe


The Scythians 

Nomad Warriors of the Steppe

By Barry Cunliffe
Oxford University Press/400 pages/$32.95

Reviewed by Ed Voves

During the battle of Stalingrad, 1942-1943, the keystone of the Soviet defensive position was a hill known as Mamayev Kurgan. A little over 300 feet in height, Mamayev Kurgan had been created by the hand of man, centuries earlier. The crucial "high ground" of the Soviet stand at Stalingrad was a funeral mound or tumulus, reputedly for one of the leaders of the Mongol invaders who had devastated Russia during the thirteenth century.

Mamayev Kurgan is one of thousands of such burial mounds which dot a huge swathe of Eurasia, stretching from Mongolia to Macedonia. From these buried tombs, an impressive array of treasures and artifacts have been recovered, relics of human societies which flourished and faded without the benefit of written records.

Among the ancient peoples who buried their dead in "kurgans," the Scythians are by far the most important. By two strokes of good fortune, the culture of these otherwise mysterious nomads is known to us in considerable detail. Herodotus, the Greek "father" of history, wrote about the Scythians at great length during the fifth century B.C. and modern day archaeologists have been able to verify much of his narrative, often with incredible precision.

The Chertomlyk Amphora, 4th century BC

These two "good turns" have led to another, an outstanding book by Barry Cunliffe.  Written with the general reader in mind, The Scythians tells a centuries-long, very complicated story with a concise mastery of detail. Cunliffe, one of the greatest authorities on archaeology today, is an accomplished literary stylist, writing with insight and human feeling.

This last point is worthy of comment, before proceeding further with this essay. The Scythians were a restless, wandering group of Indo-European peoples. They were hardy nomads who were able to thrive in conditions which most modern people could not endure. Their social ethos was marked by hunting and warfare which was vividly depicted on their works of art.

Cunliffe relates the evidence of extreme violence in Scythian society with a fine balance of judgement and understanding. He describes the gruesome discovery in a Siberian kurgan of the well-preserved remains of Scythian man who had been killed and scalped around 300 B.C. The excavation of Kurgan 2 at Pazyryk in the remote Altai Mountain confirmed descriptions by Herodotus of the savagery of Scythian warfare in the region surrounding the Black Sea.

The history of the Scythians is not for the faint of heart. Yet, it is sobering indeed to contrast the singe corpse of a scalped Scythian warrior with the estimated 30,000 German and Russian soldiers who were killed in the struggle for Mamayev Kurgan, just one of the zones-of-combat at Stalingrad. The ancient Scythians had no monopoly of violence.

Gold Plaque of a Scythian Horseman Hunting a Hare, 4th century BC

The Scythians spent most of their lives hunting game animals and guiding vast herds of horses, sheep and cattle from one pasture to another. Some of the Scythians traveled over vast stretches of Eurasia. Others adhered to a regional mode of living, shepherding their animals on a seasonal rotation to mountain pastures in the summer and more protected valleys during the arduous Siberian winters. This was the life style of the Scythians who lived in the Altai Mountains on the present Russia/China border. 

The Altai region was the original homeland of the Scythians. Here in remote antiquity, they domesticated the horse, without a doubt their supreme achievement. With the incredible mobility conferred by riding, especially as horses were bred to a bigger and more powerful size, the Scythians were able to travel incredible distances. Nature provided them with a ready-made highway, the grasslands known as the steppes. Several hundreds of miles wide, the steppes extended from the Altai Mountains to the Great Hungarian Plain in Central Europe.

Gallery shot of From the Lands of the Scythians, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975

The map above was featured in the spectacular exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1975, From the Lands of the Scythians. The expanse of olive green which extends across the top of the map represents the steppes. More arid land, in tan, lay to the south, between the Caspian Sea and the mountains of Afghanistan. Cunliffe cogently describes the westward trek of the Scythian nomads, repeated many times, over this vast domain.

There were four distinct groups of nomadic peoples who shared the Scythian way of life: Kimmerians, Scythians, the Sakas, who veered southward past the Caspian and the Aral Sea where they ranged against the Persian Empire, and the Sarmatians (not to be confused with the biblical Samaritans). Like ripples in a pond, the movement of one group pushed its predecessor to look for new pastures and new horizons further to the west.

The epic venture of the Scythians occurred from around 900 B.C. to 100 B.C., roughly during the period of the rise of the Greek city-states to the establishment of the Roman Empire. The last of the Scythian groups, the Sarmatians, would fight against the legions of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius.

The central episode in this story, and the one which holds the most fascination for art lovers, concerns the Scythians who eventually settled in the region known as the North Pontic Steppe. Located on the north shores of the Black Sea, this area was the site of numerous Greek colonies, several on the Crimean peninsula. The mutually beneficial relationship of Greeks and Scythians shaped the course of Greek history and produced the glittering treasures which I saw in the From the Lands of the Scythians exhibit in 1975.

Gallery of From the Lands of the Scythians, with the Solokha Comb displayed at right

Many of the kurgans were robbed of their treasures in ancient times but several were overlooked or only partially looted. The "grave goods" crafted by Greek artists for the Scythian elite are truly stunning. One kurgan in particular, Kul'-Oba, in the Crimea, has yielded such a trove of magnificent works of art that it can be likened to the tomb of King Tutankhamun. 

The Kul'-Oba burial site was located very close to the Greek colony of Panticapaeum, so there is not doubt about where these sensational artifacts were created. The kurgan featured a stone-built tomb, in which a Scythian king was laid to rest with an ensemble of golden objects for his use in the afterlife. Along with him was the body of his wife and a servant, who was likely sacrificed as part of the funeral ceremony.

The Kul'-Oba treasures were recovered in 1830 by a team which included museum professionals. Thus, a rigorous method of digging and record keeping could establish dates and other evidence which otherwise would have been lost. Over and over again, the results of such scientific excavation verify the accuracy of Herodotus' account.

The Kul'-Oba Gold Beaker4th century BC

If the Kul'-Oba treasures testify to the skill of the Greek artists residing in the Black Sea colonies, these masterpieces also reflect the customs and practices of Scythian everyday life. More importantly, the Greek-produced art works illustrate the political and religious ideals of the Scythians and their view of the cosmic order. Cunliffe's analysis is especially brilliant in the way that he shows that it was the Scythians, not the Greeks, who set the terms of the cultural agenda. 

While Greek influences were recognized, Cunliffe writes, the "nomad tradition remained strong, allowing in only those alien expressions that sat comfortably with their central beliefs and values."

Cunliffe's book features ten in-depth profiles of Scythian works of art, including the fabulous Kul'-Oba beaker shown above.  Cunliffe raises a novel theory that the scenes on the beaker held a deeper meaning for the Scythians than merely illustrating their social life and customs. The scenes on the golden masterpiece may represent episodes of the Scythian foundation myths.

Plaque in the Shape of a Recumbent Deer, 4th century BC

Such a deep "reading" seems a likely interpretation for the golden figurines of recumbent stags found in Scythian tombs, including Kul'-Oba. These are not merely depictions of noble beasts being devoured by natural predators such as snow leopards and mythological griffins. Cunliffe and other scholars believe that these golden deer reflect the struggle for survival and the cycle of life. In one of the most moving passages of his book, Cunliffe writes:

For pastoralists husbanding the flocks and herds in the mountains and forests, deer and other herbivores - the elk, the moose, and the ram - would have been familiar sights and scenes of predation would not have been uncommon. Life's struggle was ever present: it was the very essence of living and it is no surprise that it became a central theme in Scythian art. Here it was conceptualized to fit into a world view of the supernatural we can only guess at but the deer, or its herbivore substitutes, may have been conceived of as the Tree of Life sustaining a world always in tension...

Far to east of the Kul'-Oba kurgan, excavators during the 1920's discovered and excavated kurgans at Pazyryk in the Altai Mountains, mentioned earlier in reference to the victim of the grisly scalping attack. Climatic conditions had kept the soil underneath the graves in a state of permafrost. Thus the clothing, woven and leather artifacts such as saddles and saddle cloths, wooden objects, even the tattooed bodies of the deceased had remained in remarkable states of preservation.

Saddle Cover from Pazyryk5th century BC

The Pazyryk discoveries revealed the Scythians to have been supremely gifted artists in their own right. Their mastery of wood-carving, weaving, dying and embellishing cloth and many other craft skills proved that their common culture was a heritage which they cherished and sought to preserve.

The Scythians fought to preserve their independence, too. The Scythians of the Pontic Steppe had many foes, but one extremely formidable foe, the Persian Empire. This was another point in common with the Greeks of the Black Sea colonies and with Athens, which also successfully resisted Persian expansion. Eventually, the Pontic Steppe Scythians were hemmed in by the next nomadic wave, the Sarmatians. The Pontic Steppe Scythians and the Greeks living on the Crimea joined forced to create a formidable, if little known realm, the Bosporan Kingdom around 480 BC.

The Sarmatians feature only briefly in the last chapter of Cunliffe's narrative. He relates how they frequently raided the Roman Empire, usually crossing the Danube River when the overstretched legions were engaged elsewhere. On one occasion, during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, ca. 170, the Sarmatians did not retreat fast enough and were crushingly defeated. Rather than massacre the survivors, Marcus Aurelius enlisted them into a military unit and sent them to distant Britain, too far for them to escape back to their homeland.

 Tombstone of a Sarmatian Cavalryman in Britain, late 2nd century AD

During the 1800's, a crude stone memorial was discovered in England, featuring an armor-clad horseman with a pointed helmet and dragon banner. These were items of battle gear of the Sarmatians, hearkening back to the ancient customs and beliefs of the Scythians. 

Cunliffe quotes Herodotus who stated that the Scythians thrust a sword into a specially-prepared mound of earth. This sword-mound was an object of worship, as close as these nomads came to building a shrine or temple. Could this Scythian sword-cult have been brought to Britain by the Sarmatian troops, merging with Celtic and Nordic folklore to create the legend of Arthur and the sword in the stone? 

Cunliffe does not comment on this theory. He wisely adheres to the vast haul of archaeological evidence and the writings of Herodotus as the foundation of his book.

The Scythians, superbly written and lavishly illustrated, is the best account of these hard-riding nomads we are likely to have for a long time to come. Especially worthy of note are the excellent maps and diagrams, expertly placed to help the reader chart the wanderings of the Scythians in some of the world's most remote locations. If Cunliffe does not stray into the realm of speculation, this outstanding Oxford volume is a better book for his wise decision to stay on the "beaten path."

However, I can't easily dismiss the tantalizing possibility that the Arthurian romance is linked to the Scythians. These horsemen of the steppes gallop in-and-out of the pages of history, grabbing a hold on our imaginations. Yet, when we attempt to reach out to the Scythians and formulate a definitive estimate of their fascinating culture, they elude our grasp. 

Try and pin them down ... the Scythians just ride away, masters of their own destiny - and mystery.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                                           
Book Cover image, courtesy of Oxford University Press. Installation photos of the From the Lands of the Scythians exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975, © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Introductory Image:
Metropolitan Museum installation photo of the Solokha CombScythian Culture, 4th century BC, State Hermitage Museum. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Chertomlyk Amphora, Scythian Culture. 4th century BC. Find Spot: Dnieper Region, near Nikopol, Chertomlyk Barrow. Material: Silver cast, with embossing, chasing, engraving, gilding: h. 70 cm. State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. # Дн.1863-1/166 

Gold Plaque of a Scythian Horseman Hunting a HareScythian Culture. 4th century BC. Find Spot: Kul-Oba barrow. Crimea, the environs of Kerch. Gold, stamped, chased and engraved: 5.2 x 4.2 cm. State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. Entered the Hermitage in 1831, # КО.-48

Metropolitan Museum installation photo of the From the Lands of the Scythians exhibition, 1975, showing a map of the location of the Scythian tribal groups and their domains  © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Metropolitan Museum installation photo of the From the Lands of the Scythians exhibition, 1975, showing one of the galleries with the Solokha Comb displayed on the right. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Kul'-Oba Gold BeakerScythian Culture, 4th century BC.  Find Spot: Kul'-Oba barrow, Crimea, environs of Kerch. Gold, with chasing, soldering, engraving: height: 13 cm. State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. Entered the Hermitage in 1831, # КО.-11

Plaque in the Shape of a Recumbent Deer, Scythian Culture. 5th century BC. Find Spot: Kul'-Oba barrow. Crimea, environs of Kerch. Gold, with chasing: 30.6 x14 cm. State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. Entered the Hermitage in 1831, #  КО.-120

Saddle CoverScythian Culture. 5th century BCFind Spot: Kurgan 1 at Pazyryk, Sayan-Altai Mountains. Felt, leather, fur and hair, with gold decoration: 119 x 60 cm. State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. Entered the Hermitage in 1934, # 1295-150

Wolfgang Sauber, Photo (2011, Creative Commons) Tombstone of a Sarmatian cavalryman in the Roman army in Britain, late second century A.D. Collection of the Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Monet by James H. Rubin


by James H. Rubin
Thames and Hudson/233 pages/$19.95

Reviewed by Ed Voves

There is a mythic quality to the life of Claude Monet. Not only did Monet contribute mightily to the artistic revolution of Modernism, but his progress from a clever caricaturist as a young man to a venerable painter of vast, yet intimate, landscapes in old age encompasses the emotional journey of humanity in modern times.

The course of Monet's artistic development is the subject of a new volume in the Thames & Hudson World of Art series. Monet by James H. Rubin stakes a major claim for its protagonist as the "patriarch" of Modern Art. This is not a bold move aimed at toppling Cezanne from the throne of "father" of Modern Art.  Rather, Rubin's thesis serves as a reminder to art lovers to drop their preconceptions about Monet.

The word "patriarch" has biblical connotations. Monet, with his flowing beard and penetrating gaze, certainly looked the part. Rubin, a leading scholar of Impressionism, peers beneath the surface of Monet's life to discover spiritual depths which we had not expected to find. Monet was much more than "just an eye." Especially in the last two chapters of this outstanding book, Rubin presents several conclusions which ought to spur a reappraisal of Monet's place in the history of the art.

Artists during the last decades of the nineteenth century reacted against the "heroic materialism" of the Industrial Revolution. It was not second generation-Impressionists like Gauguin or the Symbolists who launched the revolt. In his quiet way, Monet had started the process, with the help of Renoir, as far back as 1869.

In that year, Monet and Renoir painted contrasting views of middle-class and working folk of Paris escaping - if only for a day - to the suburban swimming resort known as the "frog pond," La Grenouillère. Here in the dappled brushstrokes with which he depicted the current of the Seine, Monet began the journey which would lead him to the pond of Giverny. From there, he would to paint his beloved water lilies, "nymphéas," on the panels destined for the Orangerie Museum in Paris.

Claude Monet, The Water Lilies with Clouds, 1920-1926

When Monet was born in 1840, classically-trained painters like Théodore Chassériau (1819-1856) would never have dreamed of focusing on a pond filled with water lilies. Nymphs rather than "nymphéas," mythology in place of reality were deemed worthy of art.

Monet would revise the drama depicted by Chassériau's painting of the Greek nymph, Daphne, as she turns into a tree to evade the amorous advances of Apollo. Monet sought escape from the soulless mechanization of nineteenth century Europe by creating a "total work of art" centered upon his lily pond, with sky and clouds, tree branches and flowers reflected on the placid surface of the water.

Monet did not turn himself into a recluse, much less a laurel tree. His focus on the water lilies at Giverny was in no way comparable with the obsession of a cloistered cultivator of rare orchids. Rather the ensemble of water lily paintings, bequeathed by Monet to the French nation in 1926, was the culminating series of art works which testified to a life-long effort at understanding humankind's place in the natural world.

Rubin charts Monet's career with commendable balance and judicious treatment of its various phases. Wisely, he does not attempt a detailed examination of the Impressionist exhibitions, 1874-86, which Monet's friend, Frederic Bazille, had proposed before his tragic death in the Franco-Prussian War. Rubin, also to his credit, does not chronicle French political and economic turmoil in detail until the final chapter. By doing so, he ensures that the general reader will more readily grasp these difficult, if important, developments when these are examined.

The major unifying threads to Rubin's narrative are Monet's absorption in the human interaction with nature and his preference for painting works of art in groups of closely-related subjects. The role of series painting in Monet's oeuvre has, of course, been explored before, but I have not read a more concise and cogent analysis of this facet of Monet's career than Rubin presents in his book.

Lavishly illustrated, entirely in color, Rubin's Monet is the first new volume of the World of Art series, now being published with eye-catching cover art based upon the Golden Ratio. Along with Rubin's insightful text, 150 art works by Monet (and a few by fellow Impressionists like Renoir) are presented, some old favorites but others unfamiliar and intriguing.

Monet's transition from drawing caricatures to a new "old" master, was motivated by the example of Eugene Boudin's landscapes. Early on, Monet tried his hand at a variety of genres, including portraits. Amazingly, when his skill at evoking a human likeness in caricature is recalled, Monet showed little interest in conveying human character or probing psychological complexity in his paintings.

In 2013, the Metropolitan Museum of Art presented a spectacular exhibition entitled Impressionism: Fashion and Modernity. Several early paintings by Monet were displayed, one of which was paired with a period dress which, except for a few decorative bows on the skirt, might have been the actual one which Monet painted. The effect was so striking - for once this word was appropriate - that I missed a telling detail.

The face of Madame Gaudibert was in profile. 

Claude Monet, Madame Gaudibert, 1868

Monet captured the rustle of her silk dress and the trendy elegance of her cashmere shawl. Yet, the personality of Madame Gaudibert, her unique combination of character traits, is absent. Monet might just as well have painted this magnificent dress on a shop manikin and left it at that.

Incredibly, Monet exhibited little interest in the features, and more importantly, the inner being, of his first wife, Camille, when he painted her in various fashion-related poses. One of the most celebrated shows Camille wearing a gaudy Japanese kimono.  Lacking any kind of empathy with his model, this painting is one of Monet's weakest, for all the effort and skill that went into painting the kimono.

Claude Monet, La Japonais(Camille Monet in Japanese Costume)1876

This disturbing lack of emotion may partly be explained by the fact that Monet was from Normandy, even though he was born in Paris. He grew-up in Le Havre, the site of the signature painting of Impressionism, Impression- Sunrise. Practical, taciturn and outwardly unsentimental, Monet was a Norman to his core. Yet, we know from surviving documents and personal recollections that he was capable of a great depth of feeling.

In the increasingly industrialized world of the 1800's, Monet sought to locate a place for human beings to root themselves, body and soul. Two of Monet's paintings, both from his early career, testify to the difficulty of achieving that goal. The first, The Seine at Bennecourt, is a proto-Impressionist work of the first rank. Painted in 1868, one year before the expedition to La Grenouillère, the scene shows a young woman in an idyllic setting. It is a superb painting, but of the type which would later earn Impressionism the unmerited reputation as "chocolate box" art.

Claude Monet, The Seine at Bennecourt, 1868

Claude Monet, Men Unloading Coal, 1875

A sunlit day in the countryside around Paris was not how the mass of French people lived during the age of Impressionism. Most worked in a variation, urban or rural, of Monet's Men Unloading Coal. Even white-collar employees labored long, stress-filled hours. The French economy, after a brief revival following the Franco-Prussian War, experienced repeated setbacks and bank failures. For Monet, the late 1870's were a personally bleak period, marked by the death of his wife, Camille, aged 32, in September 1879.

Painted in 1875, Men Unloading Coal is no less a masterpiece for being virtually monochromatic. The handling of light in such somber, depressing conditions was especially brilliant. But it is the "stick-men" figures of "les charbonniers" that make this a haunting work of art. Given such daily drudgery, how could any worker - or person of conscience - be expected to commune with nature?

Following his deathbed portrait of Camille, Monet rarely depicted people in his paintings. When he did, their facial features were sketched on, some faces were left blank.

In 1886, the year of the last Impressionist Salon, Monet visited Belle Île, a rugged island off the coast of Brittany. Here, Monet painted 40 breathtaking works in oil, devoid of all human presence. Three years later, Monet went on a similar expedition to the Creuse Valley in the sparsely inhabited Massif Central region of France. This series of paintings, almost as spectacular as the Belle Île seascapes, again bore no trace of mankind.

Claude Monet, Valley of the Creuse (Sunlight Effect), 1889

Rubin views these two under-studied series as pivotal moments in Monet's transition to his late, almost abstract, style. At the time these works were created, the paintings were recognizable as being in the "sublime" tradition reaching back to Edmund Burke's theories from the 1700's. The sense of sublime, which had infused and enriched the work of J.M.W. Turner, confronted humanity with our place in relation to the awesome scope and scale of nature.

From our perspective, thanks in no small part to Rubin's insights, we can see the Belle Île and Creuse Valley paintings as stepping stones to the Monet serial works of the last decades of his life: the rows of poplar trees, the humble grain stacks, the looming structure of Rouen Cathedral, the mist-shrouded Houses of Parliament and lastly the Garden of Giverny.

In each of these environments, whether "sublime" coastal cliff or tree-lined country lane, whether medieval edifice or carefully-harvested stack of crops, Monet is tasking himself - and us - to "feel with our bodies."  These paintings are not "step 1, step 2, step 3" documentation of what we see directly before us. Instead, Monet places us in a position to experience reality with all of our senses.  

To accomplish this oneness with the surrounding environment and with the universe-at-large, Monet relied upon his intuition. This was a form of subjective insight at variance with the earlier idea that Impressionist artists were on-the-spot "scientific" observers. Monet brusquely dismissed this contention when he lectured an art critic, "You ask my painting to give you an engineer's information. You have come to the wrong address."

Rubin quotes liberally from this and another late career interview. Monet, occasionally, sounds like a cranky curmudgeon. However, Rubin carefully notes the close correlation between Monet's guiding thoughts and the cutting-edge philosophy of Henri Bergson, one of France's leading thinkers. According to Rubin's perceptive analysis:

By looking inward, Monet was seeking to impart an essence to nature that he intuited. Bergson eventually called it elan vital, that is vital force or impetus... I would argue that Monet anticipated it through efforts to express personal sensations in his chosen medium... Seeming to represent a moment in time taken from the world, Monet's painting actually suspends the viewer's time, excerpting her or him from the clock time of reality, resisting it in order to convey the continuity and essence that lives within the individual's body.

Claude Monet, Japanese Footbridge, Giverny, 1895

Seen in this light, Monet's meditative, late-career paintings do not merely place us in a position to behold what was revealed to him. Monet's grain stacks and water lilies open the window of the universe to us so that we can experience our own revelation. In reaching out to all of creation through humble objects and sites such as Monet depicted, we are enabled to get in touch with our real, inner selves.

The best compliment I can pay to this wonderful book on Claude Monet is a personal aside. I have yet to make a pilgrimage to Giverny. But if I ever do, I have the "intuition" that I will feel like I have been there already, having read Monet in Thames and Hudson's World of Art series.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                                           
Images courtesy of the  Thames & Hudson Publishers; Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris;  Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris; Musée d’Orsay, Paris; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; 

Introductory Image:
Claude Monet (French,1840-1926) Impression: Sunrise, 1872. Oil on canvas: 48 x 63 cm (18.9 in × 24.8 in) Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris.

Claude Monet (French,1840–1926) The Water Lilies with Clouds, 1920-1926. Three panels. Oil on canvas: 200 x 1275 cm. (78 3/4  x 502 inches). Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris. (W. 2a, 2b, 2c)

Thames & Hudson Publishers, Cover of Monet (World of Art series) by James H. Rubin, 2020.  © Thames & Hudson

Thames & Hudson Publishers, Page Spread from Monet (World of Art series) by James H. Rubin, 2020.  © Thames & Hudson 

Claude Monet (French,1840–1926) Madame Gaudibert, 1868. Oil on canvas: 85 7/16 x 54 9/16 in. (217 x 138.5 cm). Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Acquired thanks to an anonymous Canadian gift, 1951.

Claude Monet (French, 1840–1926) La Japonaise (Camille Monet in Japanese Costume), 1876. Oil on canvas: 231.8 x 142.3 cm (91 1/4 x 56 in.) Museum of Fine Art, Boston. 1951 Purchase Fund. # 56.147

Claude Monet (French,1840-1926) The Seine at Bennecourt,1868. Oil on canvas: 81.5  x 100.7 cm (32 1/16 × 39 5/8 in) The Art Institute of Chicago, Potter Palmer Collection. # 1922.427

Claude Monet (French,1840-1926) Men Unloading Coal, 1875. Oil on canvas: 54 × 66 cm (21.2 × 25.9 in). Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

Claude Monet (French,1840-1926) Valley of the Creuse (Sunlight Effect), 1889. Oil on canvas: 65.1 x 92.4 cm (25 5/8 x 36 3/8 in.) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Juliana Cheney Edwards Collection. # 25.107

Claude Monet (French,1840-1926) Japanese Footbridge, Giverny, 1895. Oil on canvas: 31 x 38 1/2 inches (78.7 x 97.8 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of F. Otto Haas. #1993-151-2

Friday, April 10, 2020

Art Eyewitness Review: The New British Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Art Eyewitness Review
The New British Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Samuel Johnson and James Boswell were an unlikely pair whose travels around Great Britain during the 1700's were recorded in one of the great books of all time, Boswell's Life of Dr. Samuel Johnson (1791). On one of their journeys, the English "ink-stained wretch" and the Scottish laird visited a metal-working factory in Birmingham. Known as the Soho Works, the factory produced shoe buckles, coat buttons and ornamental boxes in vast numbers.

The date was March 22, 1776. Just as the rebellion of the thirteen American colonies was becoming a revolution, a similar transformation of the manufacturing methods of Great Britain was taking place. It was not to be called the Industrial Revolution for many years to come, but Matthew Boulton, the visionary proprietor of the Soho Works, understood the significance of the assembly line operation at Soho.

"I sell here, Sir," Boulton told Boswell, "what all the world desires to have - power."

Boulton's Soho factory was part of an epic process which transformed England and Scotland into the United Kingdom in 1707. At the same time, the island nation became the "workshop of the world."

Napoleon would later refer to the British as a "nation of shop keepers". A visit to the newly renovated British Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, however, will disprove Napoleon's sneering description and reveal how correct was Boulton's remark. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Max Hollein at the Met's British Galleries, February 24, 2020

I was honored to attend the press preview of the Met's British Galleries on February 24, 2020. It was the first event of the Met's celebration of its 150th Anniversary. By an unfortunate - and for many, tragic - turn of events, the global surge of the Covid-19 virus has temporarily closed the Met. In a brilliant combination of curatorial insight and tech skill, the Met is keeping the doors of the British Galleries open with a digital tour of its wonderful displays and period rooms.

The "New" British Galleries occupy 11,000 square feet, a sizable chunk of museum real estate. On display are 700 objects of all descriptions. These include magnificent portrait busts in marble and terracotta by the Flemish-born sculptor, John Michael Rysbrack (1694–1770) and examples of British folk art of the 1700s, such as Harvest Jug, with "Lion and Unicorn" graffito decoration, and salt-glazed stoneware bottles evoking the savage sport of bear-baiting. The ethereal beauty of a vase, designed by Harry Powell (1853–1922) and manufactured at the Whitefriars Glassworks around 1880, reveals unexpected sensitivity and modern flair in Victorian design.

                                                  Ed Voves, Photo (2020)                                              John Michael Rysbrack's portrait busts of John Barnard1743-44

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) British Folk Art from the 1700's

Harry Powell, Vase with Knopped Stem, ca.1880

These incredible art works confound our preconceptions about the true identity of Britain's people. You will need to check your "stiff upper-lip" at the entrance to the British Galleries but be prepared for display cases brimming with astonishing craftsmanship, artistic vision and human feeling.

The British Galleries are located in galleries, 509-516,on the first floor of the Met. This placement adjoins the church-like Medieval sculpture hall with its magnificent choir screen from the Valladolid Cathedral in Spain. This is entirely appropriate, as the timeline of the British Galleries spans the breakdown of the pan-European culture of Christendom to the highly individualistic society of late Victorian Britain and its worldwide empire.

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) The Betrayal of Christ, School of Nottingham, late 1400's

Upon entering the first of the British galleries, a remarkable object, or rather fragment, is on view. This much battered relief depicts The Betrayal of Christ. It was sculpted from alabaster and then painted and gilded, most likely during the last decades of the 1400's. These School of Nottingham reliefs were one of the glories of medieval English art but are now very rare. When Henry VIII broke away from Papal religious control, a wave of state-sanctioned iconoclasm brutally destroyed much of the religious art in England. Alabaster reliefs like this one seem to have been especially targeted for destruction and few now exist.

Nearby, in the dark, wood-paneled gallery is a portrait bust of Bishop John Fisher, created by the Italian sculptor, Pietro Torrigiano (1472-1528). A hot-tempered man, Torrigiano came to England seeking art commissions after he had worn-out his welcome in Italy. Torrigiano sculpted this terracotta likeness of Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, around 1515.

                                                Ed Voves, Photo (2020)                                                                         Pietro Torrigiano's Bust of Bishop John Fisher, ca. 1515 

Bishop John Fisher (1479-1535) was a casualty of the violent overthrow of Christendom during the Reformation, along with the Nottingham alabaster reliefs. A deeply spiritual man, Fisher refused to support Henry VIII in the break with Rome. Even though he had been Henry's tutor, Fisher was imprisoned in the Tower of London along with his friend, Sir Thomas More. Fisher was beheaded on June 22,1535, Thomas More two weeks later.

Hans Holbein the Younger, John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester (detail), ca.1534

It is worth spending a few moments to compare Torrigiano's bust of John Fisher with the portrait sketch of the bishop by Hans Holbein the Younger, not on view in the British Galleries. The tormented face of the martyred clergyman confronts us with the human cost of civilization's fitful progress and frequent lapses into brutality. One of the goals of the renovation of the British Galleries is to present a narrative which does not ignore the toll of lives sacrificed while these beautiful works of art were being created. 

The new "narrative"  providing insight into the British Galleries is especially attentive to the suffering entailed by the African Slave Trade, which was the source of much of Britain's wealth during the 1600's through the early 1800's. It is an important point, which we will address in more detail later. But it is noteworthy that the often heedless disregard for human life under British colonialism actually began in Britain - and Ireland - long before the "Sun never sets on the British Empire." Bishop John Fisher was one of the first fatalities.

With these weighty thoughts in mind, let's tour the British Galleries at the Met.

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Gallery view of the British Galleries, Metropolitan Museum, showing the Staircase from Cassiobury Park, ca.1677

From the tumult of the 1500's, we encounter the late Elizabethan and Stuart periods. A grand staircase, brought to the Met from England in 1932, is the centerpiece of this age of Royalist splendor and the Puritan counterattack which led to the public execution of King Charles I in 1649. Attributed to a master craftsman named Edward Pearce, who was active during the 1670's, this staircase once graced the country estate called Cassiobury Park, located in Herfordshire. It is a Baroque-era masterpiece, with a railing supported by an elaborately carved acanthus scroll. 

Such opulence testifies to the attempted revival of the magnificent court of Charles I by his son, Charles II, after he regained the throne in 1660. The chief political effect of the Restoration era was the Revolution of 1688 - due to the autocratic blunders of James II - but the architectural and cultural legacy of this era was tremendous. The reconfigured Cassiobury Staircase enables us to grasp the sense of grandeur of 1600's Britain far better than the layout of its previous installation at the Met.

A special gallery, Tea, Trade and Empire, illustrates how the adoption of tea as the national beverage  of Great Britain had social, economic and political implications in keeping with Matthew Boulton's salesmanship of "what all the world desires to have - power." 

The British came to drink tea as a consequence of their rising trade with Asia and the more tea they drank, the greater the level of involvement by the British Empire in the power politics of Asian nations, notably India.

Amoy Chinqua, Figure of a European Merchant, 1719

Tea in the late 1600's had been a curiosity for Englishmen like Samuel Pepys who mentions in his diary entry for September 25, 1660, "And afterwards I did send for a cup of tee (a china drink) of which I never had drank before."

A century later, tea drinking in Britain had become a national institution. This change of taste occurred in part as new standards of gentility took hold. Tea was also promoted as a means to reduce the shocking levels of alcoholism satirized by William Hogarth's 1751 print, Gin Lane... even though Hogarth's choice of a salubrious beverage for Britain was beer!

                         Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Gallery view of the British Galleries,                       Metropolitan Museum of Art, showing the Tea, Trade and Empire gallery

Tea's central place in British life and commerce is celebrated with a visually striking display of 100 English teapots arranged on a pair of ten-foot-tall semicircular glass cases. Visitors to the gallery are treated to a clear, unobstructed view of an incredible variety teapots. Many of these were made in Staffordshire, an area in the West Midlands with abundant reserves of clay for making pots and plenty of imagination and humor in designing them. 

                                                     Ed Voves, (Photo (2020)                                              Teapot, made by the Chelsea Porcelain Manufactory,1758–59

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Teapot in the Form of an Elephant, late 1700's

British humor, of a macabre sort, is evident in another product of Staffordshire, a
ceramic sculpture group made in 1830. The Death of Munrow depicts an actual event which occurred in December 1792. Lieutenant Hugh Monro, a young British army officer serving in India, was mauled by a Bengal Tiger while hunting deer. The tiger seized Monro by the head and throat, as in the sculpture group. Monro's fellow officers drove the tiger off but he died from his wounds.

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) The Death of Munrow, ca. 1820–30

The National Army Museum in London has a similar Staffordshire Death of Munrow in its collection (with a leg chewed-off). The curators at the National Army Museum record that Monro's father was a Scottish-born general who had helped defeat the Indian leader, Haidur Ali, in a battle in 1781. The son of Haidur Ali, Tipu Sultan, was still fighting the British when news of Hugh Munro's death reached his palace at Mysore. Tipu Sultan commissioned a much larger, mechanical version of a tiger devouring a British officer to celebrate the event, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

While the British were gaining control of India, they were facing defeat in North America in a war that had been sparked by a taxation scheme to benefit the East India Company. The Lansdowne Room in the Met's British Galleries recalls the ill-appreciated prime minister who negotiated Britain out of the War of American Independence, thereby preserving much of its global power elsewhere.

Lansdowne House was the palatial London residence of Lord Shelburne (1741-1805). It was his thankless task to negotiate a peace settlement after the British defeat at Yorktown in 1781. An able diplomat, Shelburne succeeded in gaining some concessions for Britain but there was no saving the thirteen American colonies. Shelburne was already distrusted by George III, who referred to him as the "Jesuit of Berkeley Square," and the ink was hardly dry on the peace treaty when Shelburne was forced to resign as prime minister.

Located overlooking Berkeley Square, Lansdowne House provided a meeting place for the Whig political party, who gathered here in the "eating room." This magnificent room was lined with marble statues from ancient Greece and Rome (except for one, all of those now on view are plaster copies). To give an idea of the view from the grand windows, a skillful artist/historian, James Boyd, painted a view of Berkeley Square at night as it would have appeared in 1781. The effect of the Lansdowne Room is magical from every point of view.

Joseph Coscia, Photo (2020) Gallery views of the Lansdowne Dining Room,
 Metropolitan Museum of Art, British Galleries © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Lord Shelburne was able to negotiate Britain's way out of the American Revolution in 1783 but six years later another political upheaval took place which many aristocrats in Britain feared would lead to rebellion and bloodshed at home. This was the French Revolution. Yet, except for a brief, savage uprising in Ireland in 1798, the "lower sort" did not revolt. 

Why was there no British Revolution, no guillotine set up at Hyde Park corner? During the long years of Britain's war against the French Revolution and Napoleon, the people of the "nation of shop keepers" were inspired by strong religious convictions. These ideals had been sparked by the teaching and example of John Wesley, founder of Methodism. It was the religious evangelicals of Britain, the French historian Élie Halévy later contended, who really thwarted the spread of French Revolutionary ideology to Britain.

The British evangelical movement did not limit its efforts to resisting Robespierre or Napoleon. Beginning with a handful of members of the Society of Friends, during the last years of the seventeenth century, a protest movement began in Britain and in Pennsylvania, the colony founded by the Friends. It targeted an enemy closer to home, based in Liverpool and Bristol, the African Slave Trade.

                                     Josiah Wedgwood & William Hackwood                                 
Antislavery Medallion, 1787 © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In 1787, Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795), the owner of the Etruria Pottery Works and friend of Matthew Boulton, directed one of his employees to design a symbol for the recently-founded Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. This truly iconic work of art is generally recognized as the first logo in world history. Unlike a heraldic device such as the lion and unicorn on the Harvest Jug shown above, this image of the kneeling slave represented the universal ideal of freedom and a very effective tool, one might say weapon, in the struggle against the influential pro-slavery faction in Britain.

The Wedgwood anti-slavery medallion is a key object among the vast array of art works on display in the Met's British Galleries.

As mentioned earlier, the curators of the British Galleries made the decision to reference the African Slave Trade in the narrative of British art and culture which the renovated galleries so vividly evoke. This is in keeping with the Met's recent and laudable decision to exhibit a newly donated collection of Native American art in the American Wing, rather than placing these precious objects from America's past alongside Oceanic and African art. 

I am thrilled to see the Charles and Valerie Diker Collection of Native American art in the Met's American Wing. However, I have reservations about a general policy of adjusting the "narrative" of works of art to suit changing  - and changeable - opinions. That does not mean that narrative editing should not be attempted. The wider implications cannot be ignored. 

If the social realities related to British art, 1500-1900, are underscored, will this also be done in other galleries at the Met? Should text captions be placed next to Impressionist paintings of the boulevards of Paris, reminding art lovers that the streets of Paris had been widened with riot control in mind, if necessary by rifle and cannon fire as was done during the suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871?

As I prepared this review, I recalled a powerful historical work, Revolutionary Empire by Angus Calder. Published in 1981, Calder's book was one of the first to study and integrate the story of the African Slave Trade (and other topics like the destructive effects of colonialism on Ireland) within the global context of the British Empire. Calder, a multi-talented historian and poet from Scotland, made a determined effort to create a "narrative" in print, just as the curators of the British Galleries are doing in terms of visual display.

I had read Revolutionary Empire when it was first published. Consulting this monumental and very moving book once again, leaves no doubt that exploitation of human "resources" was a key factor in the rise of British economic power and creative expression. Absorbed in Calder's spirited text, I felt a conviction that Josiah Wedgwood and his fellow members of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade would have applauded the change in "narrative" which we see on display in the British Galleries. That is exactly what they did themselves as they campaigned with the Wedgwood "Man and Brother" image as their emblem.

The efforts of all the staff of the Met who worked to bring the renovation of the British Galleries to a successful conclusion are truly to be commended. As a result of their vision and hard work, the way that we look at art and empire will certainly change - and change for the better.

One incident from Revolutionary Empire speaks to this transformation in world view which occurred alongside all of the other "revolutions" chronicled by Calder and by the Met's British Galleries.

Calder relates how, in 1750, a committee of members of Parliament met to discuss the charter of the Royal African Company, Britain's slave-trading consortium. One of these members of Parliament was Horace Walpole (1717-1797). The son of Britain's first prime minister, Walpole was appalled  by the efforts to assist the slave-traders rather than the slaves.

Walpole wrote in disgust that "we, the British Senate, that temple of liberty, and bulwark of Protestant Christianity, have this fortnight been pondering methods to make more effectual that horrid trade of selling negroes... it chills one's blood. I would not have to say that I voted for it for the continent of America!" 

Horace Walpole's humane sentiments would have been laughed to scorn only a few years before, when his father, Sir Robert Walpole, was the leader of the House of Commons, 1721 to 1742. As First Lord of the Treasury - or "Screen Master General" as his opponents called him - the elder Walpole was a strategist of political intrigue, little concerned about human rights. African slaves, Irish peasants, Scottish weavers, English coal miners were seldom considered, except for the wealth that their efforts brought to Great Britain. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Gallery view of the British Galleries, Metropolitan Museum, showing Joseph Willems' Figure of a Man in Ragged Clothes with a Mixing Bowl,1736

Yet, in 1807, a mere century after the formal union of England and Scotland, the infamous Slave Trade was abolished throughout the British Empire.

This great change of heart is very much in evidence in the Met's British Galleries. It is best exemplified in the 1736 terracotta statue of an African man by a Flemish artist who worked in England, Joseph Willems (1716-1766). We don't know the identity of this ragged, yet noble-looking  fellow. An escaped slave, since he is unchained? 

One glance of his rugged, self-confident face tells us all we need to know about him. He is a "Man and a Brother."

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves. Original Photos: Ed Voves. All rights reserved                                                                                           
Images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Introductory Image:
Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Gallery view of the British Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, showing the Hexagonal Teapot, ca. 1760–65, made by Thomas Whieldon (British, 1719–1795), possibly from a mold by William Greatbatch (1735–1813). Lead-glazed earthenware: 5×7 3/8 in. (12.7×18.7 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rogers Fund, 1910. #10.126.3 a, b 

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Max Hollein, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, speaking at the press preview of the renovated British Galleries at the Met, Feb. 24, 2020.

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) John Michael Rysbrack's portrait busts of John Barnard in Marble (left), 1744, and Terracotta, 1743. Marble: 17 × 12 1/8 × 9 1/8 in. (43.2 × 30.8 × 23.2 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art Purchase, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, The Moses Lazarus Collection, Gift of Sarah and Josephine Lazarus, Bequest of Kate Read Blacque, in memory of her husband, Valentine Alexander Blacque, and Bequests of Mary Clark Thompson and Barbara S. Adler, by exchange, 1976. #1976.330. Terracotta (1743): 14¾ in. (37.5 cm.) high; 20½ in. (52 cm.) high. Loan from a Private Collection, 2019. L.2019.53a, b

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Harvest Jug, Somerset,ca. 1781. Slipware with graffito decoration: Height: 12 5/8 in. (32.1 cm) The Charles E. Sampson Memorial Fund, 1969, # 69.47.2. Bear Bottles, Nottingham, ca. 1740–50. Salt-glazed stoneware, measurements of pair: 9 5/16 in., 4 lb. (23.7 cm, 1.8 kg) and (with cover): 9 1/4 in., 4 lb. (23.5 cm, 1.8 kg) Metropolitan Art Museum. The Charles E. Sampson Memorial Fund, 1969. 69.25.1a, b

Harry Powell, designer (British, 1853–1922) Vase with Knopped Stem, manufactured at Whitefriars Glassworks, ca. 1880. “Straw opal” glass with uranium glass knop: 8 1/16 × 4 × 4 in. (20.5 × 10.2 × 10.2 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art. Funds from various donors, 2015. #2015.244

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) The Betrayal of Christ by a School of Nottingham Artist, second half of the 15th century. Relief, alabaster with paint and gilding: 15 3/4 x 10 1/2 x 2 1/8 in. (40 x 26.7 x 5.4 cm); 15.1 lbs (6.9 kg). Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of Miss Louise Crane, in memory of her mother, Mrs. W. Murray Crane, 1980 #1980.476

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Pietro Torrigiano's Bust of Bishop John Fisher, 1510–15. Polychromed terracotta: 24 1/4 x 25 7/8 x 13 3/8 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Fund, 1936 (36.69)

Hans Holbein the Younger (Swiss-German, 1497/98-1543 ) John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester (detail) c.1532-4. Black and coloured chalks, brown wash, pen and ink, brush and ink on pale pink prepared paper: 38.2 x 23.2 cm (sheet of paper) Royal Collection Trust. RCIN 912205

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Gallery view of the British Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, showing the Staircase from Cassiobury Park, Herfordshire, attributed to Edward Pearce (British, ca. 1630–1695), ca. 1677–80. Risers, treads: oak; balustrade friezes, finials: elm; newel posts, stringers, skirting, baluster bases, balusters, handrails: pine: Height: 186 in. (472.4 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rogers Fund, 1932. # 32.152

Amoy Chinqua (Chinese, Canton), Figure of a European Merchant, 1719.
Polychrome unfired clay and wood: Overall (confirmed): 12 15/16 × 5 9/16 × 5 3/8 in. (32.9 × 14.1 × 13.7 cm); Height of figure only: 11 9/16 in. (29.4 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art Purchase, Louis V. Bell, Harris Brisbane Dick, Fletcher, and Rogers Funds and Joseph Pulitzer Bequest and several members of The Chairman's Council Gifts, 2014 # 2014.569.

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Gallery view of the British Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, showing the Tea, Trade and Empire gallery.

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Teapot, part of a tea service made by the Chelsea Porcelain Manufactory,1758–59. Soft-paste porcelain with enamel decoration and gilding: Height (with cover): 5 1/2 in. (14 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of Mrs. Francis P. Garvan, in memory of Francis P. Garvan, 1954. # 54.163.7a, b

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Teapot in the Form of an Elephant, second half 18th century, made by Ralph Wood the Younger (British, 1748–1795). Lead-glazed earthenware: Overall: 9 × 4 3/4 × 11 1/2 in. (22.9 × 12.1 × 29.2 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Leslie R. Samuels, 1952 # 52.57 a, b

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) The Death of Munrow, made in Staffordshire, ca. 1820–30. Lead-glazed earthenware with enamel decoration: 11 × 14 3/8 × 5 3/4 in. (27.9 × 36.5 × 14.6 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art Purchase, funds from various donors, The Charles E. Sampson Memorial Fund, and The Malcolm Hewitt Wiener Foundation Gift, in memory of George Munroe, 2016.  # 2016.129.

Joseph Coscia, Photo (2020) Gallery views of the Lansdowne Dining Room in the Metropolitan Museum's British Galleries. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Josiah Wedgwood, manufacturer (British, 1730–1795) and William Hackwood, modeler (British, 1753–1836) Antislavery Medallion, 1787. Jasperware: 1 3/16 × 1 1/16 in. (3 × 2.7 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of Frederick Rathbone, 1908. # 08.242

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2020) Cover of Revolutionary Empire: the Rise of the English-Speaking Empires from the Fifteenth Century to the 1780's by Angus Calder (Dutton, 1981)

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Gallery view of the British Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, showing Joseph Willems' Figure of a Man in Ragged Clothes with a Mixing Bowl, 1736. Terracotta: 29 1/4 × 11 1/2 × 9 in., 48.5 lb. (74.3 × 29.2 × 22.9 cm, 21.9995 kg) Metropolitan Museum of Art Purchase, Gift of Wildenstein and Co., Inc., by exchange; Josephine Bay Paul and C. Michael Paul Foundation Inc. and Charles Ulrick and Josephine Bay Foundation Inc. Gifts, by exchange; and Gift of Mrs. Russell Sage, by exchange, 2013. #2013.601