Sunday, November 29, 2020

Art Eyewitness Review: Alexander von Humboldt and the United States


                                      Alexander von Humboldt and the United States:                                Art, Nature, and Culture 

Smithsonian American Art Museum 

September 18 - November 22, 2020

By Ed Voves

Alexander von Humboldt was one of the greatest German scientists of all time. During his lifetime, 1769 to 1859, Humboldt was a world-renowned figure. Surprisingly, he is under-appreciated today, especially in the English-speaking world. 

A recent exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum attempted to rectify this situation but was bedeviled by the Covid-19 quarantine. Originally scheduled to begin on March 14, 2020, the exhibit finally opened in mid-September. Then, on November 22nd, six weeks before its slated January 3, 2021 end date, it closed and the trove of exhibit treasures were returned to their home museums. 

I was one of the fortunate art lovers able to see Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture. Instead of encouraging you to visit this exhibit, I find myself - sadly - writing about it in the past tense. However, Alexander von Humboldt's achievements are part of the living legacy of humankind and are not easily dismissed. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) 
Gallery view of the Humboldt and the United States exhibition 

In some ways the obstacles which were encountered in presenting this wonderful exhibition recall the many challenges faced by Humboldt during his epic expedition to South America, 1799-1804. Likewise, the shortened length of the exhibition seems ironically in keeping with the mere six weeks which Humboldt was able to spend in the United States. Although Humboldt never explored the frontier regions of the U.S., he made a huge impact during his brief stay in the young American republic.

Humboldt's dates are important to consider in understanding his influence upon the U.S. and indeed the entire world. The year he was born, 1769, witnessed the true beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when James Watt registered for a patent for his design of a steam engine with a separate condenser. Ninety years later, as the world mourned Humboldt, Charles Darwin's Origin of Species was published. 

Throughout the decades of revolutionary changes which occurred between 1769 to 1859, Humboldt played a highly significant role. 

Every branch of the sciences during this pivotal era were transformed by discoveries or educated theories made by Humboldt. From his exacting measurement of the temperature of ocean currents to the study of volcanic action to observations on the atmospheric factors causing tropical storms, Humboldt made important contributions.

Baron Alexander von Humboldt was educated in the precepts of the 18th century Enlightenment. A gifted student of chemistry, he was also interested in the direct study of the natural world. Humboldt's brilliance was quickly recognized. The government of Prussia, the leading state of Germany, appointed the young scholar as inspector of mines in one of its territories and also sent him on diplomatic missions.

Charles Willson Peale, Alexander von Humboldt, 1804

Humboldt yearned for wider horizons and, in the company of a French naturalist, Aimé Bonpland, set off late in 1799 to explore the Spanish colonies in the Americas. Beginning with a perilous canoe journey up the Orinoco River into the Amazon rain forest, Humboldt constantly put his life at risk. In the process, Humboldt amassed a mountain-sized haul of specimens of flora and fauna and volumes of meticulously compiled notes. 

Symbolically, the climax to Humboldt's quest was an amazing ascent of Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador, then believed to be the highest mountain in the world. Without proper mountaineering equipment - much less oxygen cylinders - Humboldt and Bonpland scaled Chimborazo to the dizzying height of 18,893 feet, establishing the world's record for mountain climbing for many years thereafter. 

The Smithsonian exhibition briefly surveyed Humboldt's adventures in Latin America, displaying the hand-colored chart he made after descending from Chimborazo. The chart, later made into a print, showed the correlation of plant species with climate zones, rising from the floor of the jungle to snow-capped mountain peaks. 

Alexander von Humboldt & Aimé Bonpland,
 Géographie des plantes ÉquinoxialesTableau physique
 des Andes et Pays voisins1805

With this amazing graphic, Humboldt illustrated his greatest discovery. All of nature was united in a living, organic force he called Naturgemälde.

As the title of the Smithsonian exhibition attests, the primary topic was Humboldt's short visit to the United States and its long train of consequences. The news of his exploits in Latin America reached the U.S. and members of the nation's scientific establishment, led by President Thomas Jefferson, were eager to meet him.

Rembrandt Peale, Thomas Jefferson, 1805

Quite apart from Jefferson's insatiable appetite for scientific information, Humboldt's expedition validated plans already underway for similar American initiatives. In 1803, as Humboldt and Bonpland completed the last of their studies in Mexico, Captain Meriweather Lewis and Lt. William Clark were setting forth to explore the vast Western territory recently purchased from France by Jefferson. Humboldt's audacity - and real scientific achievements - created a template for Americans to utilize in their bold plans to push westward to the Pacific.

Humboldt was hailed as a hero when he reached the United States in May 1804. He was invited by Jefferson to come to the White House, but another highlight of his sojourn in the U.S. was his visit to Peale's Museum in Philadelphia. Charles Willson Peale, the leading American artist of this era, was also a science enthusiast. In 1801, Peale led the effort to "exhume" the bones of a prehistoric mastodon which had been discovered near Newburgh, New York. He then transported the complete skeleton of the mighty beast to Philadelphia where it was reassembled and placed on display. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2020)
 Gallery view of Humboldt and the United States, showing the Skeleton of the Mastodon, excavated by Charles Willson Peale

In an outstanding curatorial "coup," the mastodon skeleton was brought to the Smithsonian from a museum in Germany, where it eventually went after Peale's death. 

What a fantastic experience to be able to study the mastodon, back on its native soil. It was close to stepping back in time to the moment of its discovery. To see the very mastodon skeleton, excavated by Peale and admired by Humboldt, was a moment to treasure.

The "exhumation" of the Mastodon, coming at the same time as Humboldt's achievements, marked the triumph of scientific methodology. It was not just a lucky discovery of rare fossils. Peale later painted a detailed view of the event, complete with water wheel and pulley system, used in dredging the muck from the excavation site. 

Charles Willson Peale, Exhumation of the Mastodon, ca. 1806–08

Peale placed himself in a commanding position in the picture, as might be expected from a self-promoting showman, as he indeed was. But without Peale's ambition and risk-taking, American art and science would not have been ready to take advantage of Humboldt's lead.

Humboldt always expected to return to the U.S. for an expedition similar to his exploits in South America and Mexico. This objective was never realized due to the long years of examining and cataloging the specimens from his journey with Bonpland. Also, the king of Prussia loaded Humboldt with honors, but also piled-on endless court duties which consumed his time and energy.

It has also to be considered that Humboldt did not return to America because he was deeply troubled by the simmering crisis over slavery in the U.S. Humboldt had traveled to Cuba with Bonpland and was horrified by the treatment of African slaves on the Spanish-held island. Also, he saw frequent acts of inhumanity toward the native populations in Latin America. 

John Quincy Adams Ward, The Freedman, 1863

Although Humboldt deeply admired the democratic institutions of the U.S., he was skeptical of the view of many Americans that slavery and the "Indian problem" would eventually fade away, as the great economic strength of the nation asserted itself. Too much of a diplomat to raise the topic while he was visiting the U.S., Humboldt urged the cause of freedom in his writings upon returning to Europe.

If Humboldt was disappointed with the continuance of African-American slavery in the U.S., his hopes for Latin America were also dashed, following the revolt against Spain led by Simon Bolivar. Everywhere, in Europe as well, the cause of freedom during the early decades of the 1800's seemed to be in retreat.

After Eduard Hildebrandt, Humboldt in His Library, 1856

Humboldt retired to his study to write a book testifying to the power of  Naturgemälde. In this great, multi-volume work, Humboldt aimed to convince the general reading public of the unity of creation where "organic powers are incessantly at work."

Humboldt's book was entitled Cosmos: Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe. Volume I, the product of years of work, was published in 1845. In its pages, Humboldt proclaimed:

Nature is a unity in diversity of phenomena: a harmony, blending together all created things, however dissimilar in form and attributes: one great whole animated by the breath of life.

These words were reassuring, scientifically and spiritually. Humboldt's thesis especially appealed to the citizens of the United States, grappling with complex social issues. Humboldt's ideals were reflected in the paintings of the Hudson River School. One of these influential artists, Frederick E. Church (1826-1900) embraced Humboldt's creed with special fervor.

Church had studied painting with Thomas Cole, who had raised landscape painting in the U.S. almost to the status of religion. When Cole died in 1848, Church was poised to take up his mantle as the prophet-painter of American nature. But in 1853, he made the unexpected move of traveling to South America, following in the footsteps of Humboldt.

The Smithsonian exhibition displayed an impressive array of Church's drawings, oil sketches and finished paintings. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Frederic Edwin Church's Cayambe, 1858
Frederic Edwin Church,
 Mount Chimborazo through Rising Mist and Clouds, 1857

Special emphasis in the exhibit was given to Church's prolonged efforts to depict Mount Chimborazo. This mountain, the scene of Humboldt's mountaineering exploits, came to obsess Church to the point that he repeated Humboldt's perilous climb.

In 1857, Church returned to South America, determined to paint a huge work which would evoke the atmosphere and ambiance of the Andes. Chimborazo would feature in Church's magnum opus, Heart of the Andes, though it was not the focus of the work. Instead, Church presented a "spiritual topography" rather than a depiction of a specific locale. 

Frederic Edwin Church, Study for “The Heart of the Andes”, 1858

This huge work, in its finished form, is one of the key paintings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection. It is too fragile to be transported to other museums for special exhibitions, but the Smithsonian presented a special audio-visual study exploring how Church created his masterpiece.

Church intended to take Heart of the Andes to Germany to show Humboldt, writing to a friend:

The "Andes" will probably be on its way to Europe before your return to the City ... [The] principal motive in taking the picture to Berlin is to have the satisfaction of placing before Humboldt a transcript of the scenery which delighted his eyes sixty years ago—and which he had pronounced to be the finest in the world.

Sadly, Humboldt died before Church was able to travel to Europe, but the painting created a sensation when it was displayed in London. 

Church followed the great success of Heart of the Andes with "sublime landscapes" set in the United States. During the Civil War years, Church's paintings, extolling the unity of nature, likewise testified to the ideals of political union and individual freedom. 

Humboldt's Naturgemälde became so much an American ideal that it could easily be forgotten that a foreign scholar had originally planted the seed of America the "beautiful." When looking at the sympathetic portraits of Native Americans by George Catlin, several of which were on display in the Smithsonian exhibit, or Carlton Watkins' incredible photo, Cascade, Nevada Falls, Yosemite, California, there is no denying the influence of Humboldt.

Ed Voves, Photo (2020)
     George Catlin's portraits of Little Wolf & Strutting Pigeon, 1844-45

Carleton Watkins, Cascade, Nevada Falls, Yosemite, Calif., ca. 1861

Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture was an outstanding exhibition. Eleanor Jones Harvey, senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, deserves special credit for organizing the exhibit and keeping it open for at least part of its scheduled run. Along with the excellent recent biography of Humboldt, The Invention of Nature, by Andre Wulf, the Smithsonian exhibit has re-established Humboldt's preeminent position as one of the most influential scientists of all time - and especially so for the United States.  

Reflecting upon Humboldt's legacy, I could not help but smile - inwardly - about the "science as the last frontier" rhetoric which used to be a common mantra of TV documentaries.  Alexander von Humboldt was so far ahead of his time that we are still catching up with him. If humankind ever does reach that "last frontier," I have the feeling that Humboldt will already have reached there ahead of us.

  Henry Berger, Bust of Humboldt, 1860


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved. Humboldt and the United States exhibition images courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.

Introductory Image:                                                                          Friedrich Georg Weitsch, Portrait of Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), 1806. Oil on canvas:49 5/8 x 36 3/8 in. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie, Photo: bpk Bildagentur / Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin, Germany / Klaus Goeken / Art Resource, NY. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Gallery view of the Humboldt and the United States exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.

Charles Willson Peale, Portrait of Baron von Humboldt, 1804. Oil on canvas: 21 x 17 in., The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, The image of the Baron Von Humboldt is used by kind permission of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Photograph by Constance Mensh, Copyright 2019 by The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland, Géographie des plantes Équinoxiales: Tableau physique des Andes et Pays voisins, from Essai sur la géographie des plantes, 1805. Hand colored print: 24 x 36 in., Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, © Copyright The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Rembrandt Peale, Thomas Jefferson, 1805. Oil on linen: 28 x 23 1/2 in., New-York Historical Society, Gift of Thomas Jefferson Bryan, Photography ©New-York Historical Society.

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Gallery view of the Humboldt and the United States exhibition, showing the Skeleton of the Mastodon, excavated 1801–2 by Charles Willson Peale. Bone, wood, and papier mâché: approx. 118 × 177 × 65 in., Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt, Germany. 

Charles Willson Peale, Exhumation of the Mastodon, ca. 1806–08. Oil on canvas: 49 x 61 1/2 in.  Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore City Life Museum Collection, Gift of Bertha White in memory of her husband, Harry White, BCLM-MA.5911.

John Quincy Adams Ward, The Freedman, 1863. Bronze: 19 1/2 x 14 11/16 x 9 5/8 in.Boston Athenæum, gift of Elizabeth Frothingham (Mrs. William L.) Parker, 1922, Photograph by Jerry L. Thompson for the Boston Athenæum

After Eduard Hildebrandt, Humboldt in His Library, 1856. Chromolithograph on paper: 18 5/8 x 26 5/8 in. Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Robert F. Norfleet Jr., Photo: Travis Fullerton, Courtesy Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Frederic Edwin Church's Cayambe, 1858. Oil on canvas: 30.48 x 45.72 cm (12 x 18 in.) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Martha C. Karolik # 47.1237

Frederic Edwin Church, Mount Chimborazo through Rising Mist and Clouds, 1857. Oil and pencil on paperboard: 13 9/16 x 21 1/8 in. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Gift of Louis P. Church, 1917-4-824, Photo © Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. 

Frederic Edwin Church, Study for “The Heart of the Andes,” 1858. Oil on canvas: 10 1/4 x 18 1/4 in. Olana State Historic Site, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, OL.1981.47.A.B.

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) George Catlin's Shon-ta-yi-ga, Little Wolf, a Famous Warrior, 1844-1845. Oil on canvas. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr. 1985.66.521 and Ru-ton-ye-wee-ma, Strutting Pigeon, Wife of White Cloud, 1844. Oil on canvas. Smithsonian American Art Museum.  Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr., 1985.66.525

Carleton E. Watkins, Cascade, Nevada Falls, Yosemite, California, ca. 1861. Albumen silver print:15 5/8 x 20 7/8 in., Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase from the Charles Isaacs Collection made possible in part by the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 1994.91.276. 

Henry Berger, Bust of Humboldt, 1860. Painted plaster: 27 x 16 x 12 1/2 in., The National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Shaping the World by Antony Gormley and Martin Gayford

Shaping the World
Sculpture from Prehistory to Now

By Antony Gormley and Martin Gayford
Thames & Hudson/$60/391 pages

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Sculpture was the first art form to go "public." With the Neolithic revolution twelve thousand years ago, the brilliant, yet secluded, cave paintings of Lascaux and other sites no longer satisfied the human compulsion to create images. Homo sapiens needed to represent their spiritual aspirations and physical prowess in new settings. 

Hunter-gather peoples, all over the globe, abandoned their wandering life styles to live in fixed settlements. To mark their presence and invoke the protection of their deities, they created carefully sited arrays of megaliths like Stonehenge, free standing statues or scenes carved in relief.

The message of these Neolithic sculptures is clear:

We are here. The gods are with us.

Haida Totem Pole from Graham Island, British Columbia, c.1850

Sculpture in antiquity was part of a dialog of people living in changed and ever-changing physical environments. This dialog, continuing in today's world, is the focus of a brilliant new book from Thames and Hudson. Shaping the World features an extended discussion between British sculptor Antony Gormley and the noted art historian Martin Gayford. Together, they present an incisive and expansive survey of sculpture across space and time.  

Beginning with cave artists, Gormley and Gayford note the way that the contours of stone walls and even the scratch marks of bear claws were utilized to create a sense of mass and volume for cave art. In the wake of the Neolithic Revolution, artists created wooden sculptures like Native American totem poles (which continued to be carved into historic times) and raised monumental edifices like the man-made mountain in England known as Silbury Hill. With such astonishing works of art, ancient artists evoked the sacred rituals which had earlier taken place in the recesses of Lascaux and comparable sites around the world. 

Silbury Hill, Avebury, Wiltshire, c. 2400 BCE 
Photo © Clickos/Dreamstime 

In some cases, as with the Newgrange shrine in Ireland and its inner tomb chamber, these first artists recreated the very caves which their ancestors had utilized as the inner sanctums of their worship. 

Many modern artists, including Gormley, are tracking the long-ago footsteps of their Neolithic predecessors in practice and in spirit. Gormley's Cave, described as "a vast cluster of cuboid voids with irregular facets, set as if at random angles one to another" was featured in the galleries of the Royal Academy in London. This "Sculpture on the scale of architecture" is a telling example how artistic self-expression and re-discovery are constant companions.

Antony Gormley, Cave, 2019 Installation view, Royal Academy of Arts
Photo credit: Oak Taylor-Smith

Following such insights on "deep" antiquity, Gormley and Gayford proceed to examine, consider, debate and - not infrequently - disagree on every major form of three-dimensional art.

It needs to be acknowledged that, yes, Shaping the World is a staged debate. A major book could hardly be otherwise. Gormley and Gayford, however, are too passionate, too dedicated to human creativity to allow their enterprise to descend to the level of aesthetic lawn tennis. 

When Gormley (AG) delivers a "backhand" volley to a remark by Gayford (MG), you better believe he means it. Likewise, his "opponent" is not going to be easily dissuaded. Here's is a sample exchange in their debate on the art of  uber-modernist, Tino Sehgal.

MG I must admit that's the point at which I get lost: when art completely ceases to be visual. I thing we are coming to the boundary of where sculpture is merging into something else - and definitely something that cannot be illustrated in a book.

AG But that's the whole point! This is a space and time of art revitalizing human exchange and awareness without the need for an object.

MG I can cope with the loss of the object, but I'm afraid I struggle without something compelling to look at.

The issue at stake in this instance was the gallery setting, in this case a darkened room. Most of us, like Gayford, appreciate seeing art works in well-lighted galleries. Gormley might be playing "devil's advocate" here, but he and Gayford discuss intriguing issues such as the relation of a work of sculpture to the area surrounding it or the empty space or "void" within it. 

Sculpture can be created from a wide-range of materials - wood, stone (marble especially), various metals, clay, modern synthetic substances - but most three dimensional works of art share a vital point in common. They are usually made for a specific location. This serves as their "natural habitat" as the jungle does for a tiger. 

Parinirvana Buddha, Sri Lanka, 11th–12th century
Photo credit: Pierre Vauthey/Sygma/Getty Images 
Measuring forty-six feet, the Parinirvana Buddha was carved from living rock. It is a sublime work, entirely at peace with its surroundings in Sri Lanka. Yet, if it were removed from its "habitat" and somehow moved to another site, even one which could accommodate its monumental size, it would be woefully out of place. 

What is true for the Parinirvana Buddha, applies to sculpture in general, as Gayford comments:

... the surroundings are part of the meaning. A sculpture of a saint on an altar has a different meaning from one in a glass case at the Victoria and Albert Museum, even if they look exactly the same. One is an object to pray in front of, the other is something to examine for its beauty or historical interest.

An example of removing a statue from its "habitat" involves one of the most iconic of all sculptures, Michelangelo's first Pietà, created in 1499. Superbly crafted, with a highly polished surface, this Pietà was originally placed in a chapel lit by a skylight. The effect must have been dazzling, with a beam of light surrounding the statue in a heavenly glow. Now housed in a Vatican museum with modern electric lighting, the numinous quality of Michelangelo's early masterpiece is greatly reduced.

Michelangelo worked on a second Pietà, with himself posing as Nicodemus, and a final version, the Rondanini Pietà, begun in 1552 and left unfinished at his death in 1564. One might say, that the aging Michelangelo liberated the souls of this statue group, rather than their bodies, from the encasing marble. 

Michelangelo, Rondanini Pietà, c. 1552–64 
 Photo Credit: Photo Peter Horree/Alamy Stock Photo 

Michelangelo, Rondanini Pietà, c. 1552–64
Photo © Abbrescia Santinelli – f2f studio  

When viewed from the back, however, the 
Rondanini Pietà looks as if it had just been been given a "roughing out", after being excavated from the quarries. Looks are deceiving. Michelangelo worked on this piece for years. What we see here is an artist communing with the raw material of his craft, which just happens to be one of the primal elements of creation, earth. 

Here is Gormley's moving commentary on the Rondanini Pietà:

The block ends as a sliver of marble - an eroded nugget of rock in which living and dying cohere. It is a testament to the sculptor's belief that sculpture could carry in itself a feeling otherwise inexpressible. The tottering insubstantiality of this stela; and the fact that it is a residue, a left-behind, ever-unfinished thing, is what gives it its power to move us. Here, long before Pollock or Serra, the results of direct action become the subject of art as well as its means.

 The above quote gives a good idea of the insight and empathy which Gormley and Gayford accord to the great sculptors of past and present. Cogent commentary is accorded to Auguste Rodin, Henry Moore, Alberto Giacometti and other familiar figures. Less well known talents get their due, the Italian nineteenth century sculptor, Melardo Rosso being a notable example. 

Gormley and Gayford discuss the effort of contemporary artists to adjust the focus of art from the exclusive setting of museums and galleries. They seek to shift it back to the shared environment of people where they live and work. 

In a way, the situation faced by our great museums is a repeat of the Neolithic Revolution. Museums - especially in the wake of Covid-19 - face the dreadful prospect of becoming like the once-sacred caves of Lascaux and Chauvet after the hunter gatherers had migrated to villages in the rising agricultural zones.

Gormley has dedicated much of his impressive sculpture making to help reintegrate art into the everyday world. His array of iron figures, entitled Another Place, set-up in a tidal area on the English coastline, recalls the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. These anonymous, rather frightening figures also provide us with sobering reminders of our mortality.

Antony Gormley, Another Place, 1997
Photo Credit: A Sefton Metropolitan Borough Council Commission Photo: Stephen White

These iron men, as they rust and disintegrate, become more sympathetic figures, less intimidating, more more inspiring. Battered by the daily assault of the sea, the figures of Gormley's Another Place continue to stand. One day, one-by-one, they will fall, but not just yet.
Others may disagree with such a favorable assessment. The didactic emphasis of such works, displayed in public, could easily become a form of authoritarian propaganda. I, for one, am uneasy about some of the possible implications of Gormley's assertion that art is "about complicating things and about providing the mind with alternative avenues of thought and feeling, and has to be confrontational."

Art and time, I believe, have a way of restoring a sense of balance to life that does not require constant stage-managing. Gormley and Gayford discuss in some detail how the awesome monuments of ancient potentates like the statue of Ramses II (below) have been brought "down to earth" by the unstoppable march of the centuries.

The Younger Memnon (Rameses II), 19th Dynasty, c. 1270 BCE

Percy Bysshe Shelley's Ozymandias used such sculptural debris from fallen empires as its subject. To many European aristocrats during the early decades of the nineteenth century, Ozymandias was indeed a "confrontational" poem and therefore an excuse to implement evermore censorship and repression.

It is better to emphasize the other words of Gormley's statement on the role of art, namely its opportunity to provide "the mind with alternative avenues of thought and feeling." 

That is exactly what Gormley and Gayford do in their refreshing and insight-filled book. 

In Shaping the World, Antony Gormley and Martin Gayford agree, disagree, respect each other's opinions and keep the dialog moving until they find some common ground.

And in the process, they let Art have the final say.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved.
Book cover and images courtesy of Thames & Hudson, with individual photographer's copyrights listed below. The images of the Haida Totem Pole and The Younger Memnon (Ramses II), courtesy of the British Museum.

Introductory image:  Auguste Rodin, Assemblage: Mask of Camille Claudel and left hand of Pierre de Wissant, c. 1895 Plaster, Height 32.1 cm (12¾ in.) Musée Rodin, Paris Photo Credit: Photo Denis Chevalier/akg-images 

Haida Totem Pole, c.1850. Findspot: Graham Island (British Columbia) Carved cedar wood: Height: 12 metres (estimate) Weight: 1.20 metres (estimate). British Museum, purchased in 1903. # Am1903,0314.1

Silbury Hill, Avebury, Wiltshire, c. 2400 BCE Photo © Clickos/Dreamstime 

Antony Gormley, Cave, 2019. Installation view, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2019. 8 mm weathering steel, 14.1 × 11.4 × 7.3 m (46 ft 3⅝ in. × 37 ft 3¾ in. × 24 ft 1 in.) Photo credit: Oak Taylor-Smith. © the artist 

Shaping the World book cover. Courtesy of Thames and Hudson. 

Parinirvana Buddha, Gal Vihara, Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka, 11th–12th century Stone, Length c. 14 m (45 ft 11¼ in.) Photo credit: Pierre Vauthey / Sygma/Getty Images

Michelangelo, Rondanini Pietà, c. 1552–64 Marble Height 196 cm (77¼ in.) Castello Sforzesco, Milan Photo Credit: Photo Peter Horree/Alamy Stock Photo 

Michelangelo, Rondanini Pietà, c. 1552–64 Marble, Height 196 cm (77¼ in.) Castello Sforzesco, Milan Photo © Abbrescia Santinelli – f2f studio
Antony Gormley, Another Place, 1997 Permanent installation, Crosby Beach, Merseyside, England. Photo Credit: A Sefton Metropolitan Borough Council Commission. Photo: Stephen White. © the artist 

The Younger Memnon (Ramses II), 19th Dynasty, 1270 BCE. Pink/grey carved granite: height: 266.80 centimetres (max); width: 203.30 centimetres (max;across shoulders). Findspot: Upper Egypt: Ramesseum (Thebes). British Museum. # EA19

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Art Eyewitness Essay: A Turner Sunset Outside Our Window


An Art Eyewitness Essay
A Turner Sunset Outside Our Window

Text By Ed Voves

Original Photos by Anne Lloyd

All true artists share an essential, defining attribute: they live and work in "the moment."  Their vision of the "now" before their eyes must be truthful - truth as they see it. Whether they aim to make a preparatory sketch or create a work of art which will stand the test of time, they must first honestly depict their chosen subject.

For all artists - painters, sculptors, photographers, ceramic artists - their chosen medium does not ultimately decide the value or validity of their creations. Being true to the moment of inspiration is what matters.

A few evenings ago, I experienced a compelling demonstration of the truth of the above.

A little after 6 pm, my wife, Anne, noticed that the sky was being transformed by several bands of color, yellow, pink, light-orange. Anne was looking out from our bedroom window, but to get a really good look at a sunset from our house, you need to go to the westward-oriented front windows.

As I got up to go and take a look, I recall commenting that the sunset looked to be like a painting by Mark Rothko. I was wrong. What I saw outside our window was a stunning skyscape worthy of J.M.W. Turner.

To call the sunset "magnificent" was an understatement. "Turnerian" is more appropriate. It was quite simply a color-drenched masterpiece, created by nature, but worthy of the brush of the great J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). I alerted Anne and she began to take a sequence of photos which explored all the nuances of the spectacle, including the reflection of the sunset on the window to the left.

Had Turner been there with us "in the moment," there is no doubt that he would have conceived the blazing spectacle as a fit subject for a major work. That is just what he did in 1810 when he observed a storm sweeping over the hills and moors of Yorkshire. The result was one of the key paintings of his career.

Turner closely observed the storm clouds, making quick notations on the back of a letter. When he was finished, Turner exclaimed to the young son of his great patron, Walter Fawkes, "There, Hawkey, in two years you will see this again, and call it Hannibal crossing the Alps."

J. M.W.Turner,
 Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps, 1812

Turner declined the use of the "Hawkey's" sketch book to record the dramatic weather effects. While Turner did drawings and water colors, on the spot, as an aide memoire for works to be created later in his studio, he often preferred seemingly "slap-dash" notes and cursory sketches. Turner lived and worked "in the moment," preferring to register the scene in his prodigious memory. 

Turner commented on his working method in a note for a lecture he gave around the same time as he began painting Hannibal crossing the Alps.

In our variable climate where the seasons are recognizable in one day, where all the vapoury turbulance involves the face of things ... how happily is the landscape painter situated, how roused by every change of nature in every moment, that allows no langour even in her effects which she places before him, and demands most peremptorily every moment his admiration and investigation, to store his mind with every change of time and place.

As Anne responded to
the dazzling light show in the sky before us, I started wondering how to use her photos as the basis for an Art Eyewitness post. 

Turner had actually been on my mind before the "Turnerian" sunset outside our window. Tate Britain had just opened a major exhibition, Turner and the Modern World on October 28th. The exhibition is slated to make two appearances in the U.S., including the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Yet, after being opened for less than a week, the exhibition has been suspended as the Tate and other London museum have closed again due to a renewed upsurge of Covid-19.   

Turner's era experienced its own share of calamities. One of these, the explosion of volcanic Mount Tambora, in Indonesia, on April 10, 1815, may have influenced his emphasis on bright coloration later in life. I have had doubts about that, but I've wanted to at least examine the possibility.

According to an incisive account from the website of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)), the explosion of Mount Tambora killed 12,000 people, hurling vast amounts of ash, pumice and sulfuric acid into the atmosphere. A "nuclear winter" scenario ensued. The average temperature dropped 1 degree, enough when combined with the darkened skies and above average rainfall, to produce the "Year without a Summer" in 1816. 

One of the less-catastrophic effects of the Mount Tambora explosion was the large number of spectacular sunsets which occurred during 1816. A number of art scholars have speculated that Turner, having observed these sunsets, changed his use of color from the rather sedate hues of his early career to a palette dripping with gold and scarlet. 

J. M.W.Turner, Study of Sky from the Skies Sketchbook, c. 1816-18

Did Turner catch "Yellow Fever" during the "Year without a Summer" of 1816? The Tate Britain archives preserves one of his watercolor sketchbooks (above), dated to 1816-1818. Turner may have painted these watercolors to record the remarkable sunsets of 1816. He was on a working tour of northern England during the summer of 1816 - generally getting soaked to the skin by the endless rain. 

However,Turner's greatest sunset paintings were not created until many years later. If the sunsets of 1816 planted the seeds for such masterpieces as The Fighting Temeraire (1838) and Sun Setting over a Lake (1840), these took a long time to sprout. 

J. M.W.Turner, The Fighting Temeraire, 1838

J. M.W.Turner, Sun Setting over a Lake, c.1840

The story of how the aging Turner changed his approach to painting from Old Master methods to something approaching Abstract art is a compelling one. Yet, as I prepared this essay, something did not seem correct with how I was addressing my topic. 

I had the uneasy feeling that I was letting slip "this moment," the incredible experience of witnessing the "Turner Sunset" outside our window. I was failing to hold on to the instants of inspiration recorded in Anne's photos. 
                                                                                                                                                                  Rereading the chapters on Turner in Kenneth Clark's The Romantic Rebellion confirmed my suspicion. Clark wrote that the "part played by sunsets in romantic art is too large a subject for a single chapter." If that's the case for a book by one of the greatest of art historians, how much more of an overreach would it be for a short essay like this?

Richard Doyle, Turner Painting One of his Pictures, 1846

It should be noted that Turner's late career experiments with color and form made him a target of much criticism, as in the infamous cartoon from 1846. Clark, writing with great insight, notes the dangers Turner and other Romantic-era painters faced in relying upon a bright color scheme. 

It was often a perilous procedure, leading to garishness, and one might have expected Turner,with his love of stunning effects to have sometimes forced the tone. But the remarkable thing about his sunsets, is their delicacy.

Clark might well have used "sensitivity" rather than delicacy, though both words imply Turner's awareness of and communion with nature. Whether a sunset or a sunrise, storm clouds over a Yorkshire moor or some other natural  phenomenon, Turner was alive to the "moment."

These reflections make the Turner Sunset outside our window so much more meaningful. It was a moment of beauty to be cherished, a lesson about awareness to be taken to heart.

When I first studied Anne's photo (above), I was struck by how the dark orange and dusky purple clouds sweeping down from the left resembled the flow of magma from a volcano, igniting the trees and huts standing in its path. When confronted with a scene of such awesome force or beauty, the human imagination tries to grapple with it, to make it comprehensible by drawing a comparison, making a metaphor or giving it a name. 

That is what Turner did when he likened winter storm clouds to Hannibal's army marching over the Alps. He had a painting to sell and his patrons were gentlemen schooled in ancient history.  

Delicacy of awareness, sensitivity, living in the moment are enough for us. All of these attributes signify mindfulness. It is in the spirit of mindfulness that I conclude this essay with a sequence of photos of the special sunset, a Turner Sunset, which we saw outside our window.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves. Original Photos: Copyright of Anne Lloyd. All rights reserved 
Images courtesy of the Tate Britain Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery, London, U.K.

Introductory Image and all other original photos:
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2020)

J. M.W.Turner (British, 1775–1851) Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps, 1812. Oil on canvas, 57 1/2 × 93 1/2 in. (146 × 237.5 cm). Tate Britain, London, Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 (N00490). © Tate, London 2017

J. M.W.Turner (British, 1775–1851) Study of Sky from the Skies Sketchbook, c. 1816-18. Watercolour on paper: 125 × 247 mm. Tate Britain. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856. # D12490

J. M.W.Turner (British, 1775–1851) The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to be Broken Up, 1838. Oil on canvas: 90.7 x 121.6 cm. National Gallery, London. Turner Bequest, 1856. NG524

J. M.W.Turner (British, 1775–1851) Sun Setting over a Lake, c.1840. Oil on canvas:  911 × 1226 mm. Tate Britain.  Accepted by the British nation as part of the Turner Bequest, 1856.  # N04665
                                                                                                                    Richard Doyle (British, 1824–1883) Turner Painting One of his Pictures, 1846. Woodcut, 3 3/8 x 4 1/8 in., Acquired, 1973. National Portrait Gallery, London, D6996.


Original Photos by Anne Lloyd