Friday, January 29, 2021

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Art: the Whole Story


Art: the Whole Story

                                   Edited by Stephen Farthing                                       Thames & Hudson/$29.95/576 pages

Reviewed by Ed Voves

In 2017, a study of the time spent by museum visitors, looking at paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago, computed the average or mean time per work of art at 28.63 seconds. A similar 2001 study at the Metropolitan Museum of Art had calculated the duration of patron-painting interface at 27.2 seconds.

Before exulting at the increase of slightly under one and a half seconds, an additional finding of the 2017 study needs to be considered. Many of the 2017 "brief encounters" included precious time spent taking "selfies" in front of the paintings.

How much attention people devote to works of art is their own business.  Heaven knows, I've breezed by many a painting or sculpture myself. But I can't help thinking that art lovers would be well-advised to devote some serious time to reading Art: the Whole Story. After reflecting on the abundant wisdom in this beautiful, modestly-priced book, they might want to slow down a bit.

Originally published by Thames and Hudson in 2010, the new edition of Art: the Whole Story shows how well it has stood the test of time.

The basic premise of Art: the Whole Story is the selection of major works of art for close study. Both as singular masterpieces and as representative examples of the epochs during which they were created, these works rate as the "best of the best." A supporting gallery of "focal points" - significant details - provide insights for appreciating each of these landmarks of visual expression. 

                        Art: the Whole Story book page spread, showing                        the Amitabha Triad, Goryeo Dynasty of Korea, 14th century

When judiciously used to guide our perception, Art: the Whole Story is a powerful research tool and a template for stimulating awareness. The subtitle of the book, however, is cause for concern. Despite its merits, it is not "the whole story" or even the final word about the works of art it examines. 

The editorial team is well aware of the dangers of a "quick fix" approach to art. Noted art scholar, Richard Cork, writes:

There are no formulae available, no surefire ways of arriving at the requisite sense of alert, probing observation. Each encounter with a particular work of art demands its own singular approach ... Those who argue that audio guides are the answer, providing instant commentaries on a select number of exhibits should think again. How can you formulate an authentic response of your own when a voice, lodged intimately in the ear, is telling you precisely what to think?

The answer to that question is provided by enhancing the power of human perception. This is one of the primary aims of Art: the Whole Story.

Let's explore a case study of how the editorial team of Art: the Whole Story helps us to formulate "an authentic response" to famous works of art. 

In 1821, the British Museum purchased fragments of frescoes from the tomb of Nebamun, an official in the government of Amenhotep III (c.1390-1352 BC). Amenhotep's reign was the high point of ancient Egypt's New Kingdom. The fresco episode showing Nebamun and his tabby cat hunting in the marshes of the Nile is especially well-known and beloved.

     Unknown Artists, Inspecting the Fields for Nebamun, 1350 BC

A different, more prosaic scene was chosen for study in Art: the Whole Story. This shows the normal workday routines underway on the estate of Nebamun. At center, two chariots are being readied for use. One of the chariots is harnessed to a team of mules or onagers.

Detail of Nebamun fresco, showing chariot team of mules or onagers 

To the left, stands an elderly farm worker, standing before a white boundary marker. Unlike Nebamun, who appears in a very stylized fashion in the other fresco scenes, the aging man is portrayed "warts and all" or in his case "wispy beard and all."

             Detail of Nebamun fresco, showing elderly farm worker

Why would a lowly worker in the fields be depicted with lifelike individuality that was denied to a powerful official like Nebamun? Dr. Craig Staff, who wrote the commentary entry on this fresco, observes that "realistic details... would never have appeared in depictions of gods and pharaohs."

The old farmer was imbued with naturalistic detail which was neither needed nor desired in the depictions of Nebamun. It was this farmer's task to maintain the necessary order and harmony on the estate for Nebamun to achieve eternal life and a semi-godlike status. At least that was how Nebamun would have interpreted the proper functioning of social life. But to us, over three thousand years later, the quiet nobility of the aged farmer is the true subject of this fresco scene.

Our perceptions of great works of art change as our consciousness expands. We can see more, appreciate more, as we look further and search deeper.

This process, of course, is at work in the lives and the oeuvres of great artists.

Christian artists were charged with creating works which directed the viewer to look inward or heavenward. As a result, the art of Christendom for many centuries rejected attempts at naturalism. Russian art, following the lead of Christian Byzantium, persisted in depicting scenes from biblical history in an ethereal manner, as can be seen in this celebrated icon, painted by Andrei Rublev in 1410.

Here, three angels visiting Abraham were depicted in a way to induce a state of meditation and prayer rather than to recreate how the event might have looked many centuries earlier.

Andrei Rublev, Old Testament Trinity, 1410

By the time Rublev was painting the visit of the three angels to Abraham's encampment, artists in Italy and the Netherlands had launched the artistic revolution we now call the Renaissance. As a result, Rublev's masterwork looks anachronistic, almost primitive, by comparison. Yet, a similar jarring note was sounded when later Italian paintings struggled to reconcile religious values with the new pictorial naturalism.

A little over a century after Rublev's icon, Jacapo Pontormo painted a disturbing, perplexing view of the aftermath of the Crucifixion. Everything seems "wrong" about this picture when you see it displayed in an art textbook. The garish choice of colors, the off-center placement of Jesus' corpse, the dense tangle of the bodies of the mourners and disciples - appears out of "sync."

Jacapo Pontormo, Deposition from the Cross, 1525-1528

Appearances are deceiving. As the brilliant critique of the Deposition from the Cross by Ann Kay demonstrates, Pontormo's technique and perspective differed from Rublev. But both artists painted with the eye of faith.

The flamboyant pinks and blues of Pontormo's color palate were chosen so that the drama of the painting would stand out from the gloom of the church interior where it is displayed. Jesus is deliberately positioned away from the center point, thus heightening the sense of loss so graphically portrayed on the anguished faces of his mother, Mary, and his grieving followers.

Art: the Whole Story has a global reference point. Art from all points of the compass, from all cultures and epochs are included in this remarkable book. The same degree of insight and authority which the writers apply to Western artists is accorded to Asian, African and Oceanic art. 

Lakota "Exploit" Robe, c. 1800–1830

I especially appreciated the inclusion of Native American art in the shape of a Lakota Sioux "exploit" robe. This remarkable work, brought to Europe from the Great Plains of North America in the early 1800's, was featured in a great Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition in 2015.

An excellent example of the sensitive and perceptive treatment of non-Western art appears in the section of the book devoted to Rajput or Rajasthani painting from India.

Ustad Sahibdin, Krishna Lifts Mount Govardhan, c. 1690

Krishna Lifts Mount Govardhan, dating to around 1690, is the featured work of Rajput art. An incisive introduction notes how Hindu art continued to develop under the political control of the Mughal Empire during the 1600's. Rajput paintings integrated elements of influence from the Mughal court, while blending regional styles from across the vast subcontinent.

This wondrous work shows the blue-skinned Krishna protecting a village from the wrath of the Vedic good of thunder. Krishna holds Mount Govardhan above the heads of the villagers and their cattle herds. This myth is drawn from the ancient Indian text, the Bhagavita Purana, but it may also have served as an assertion of Hindu cultural independence from the authoritarian rule of the Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb (1618-1707).

What really appeals in Krishna Lifts Mount Govardhan are the touching details of  humanity and the cycle of nature, the beautiful gopis waving Krishna on with their fly whisks, while a cow gives birth in the fields.

Krishna Lifts Mount Govardhan (details), c. 1690

Art: the Whole Story seldom disappoints in its selection of specific works of art to analyze. I do wish that the book could have focused on at least one of the great U.S. artists who worked in America, Thomas Eakins or Winslow Homer, rather than working abroad like James McNeil Whistler. But that is a small matter, when compared with the otherwise expansive coverage and clarity of detail.

Perhaps a more controversial point is the fact that nearly a third of the book is devoted to art since 1900. Given the ever-growing complexity of modern art, the burgeoning forms of artistic media to be covered and the diversity of individual expressions, the decision to devote so much space to such a comparatively short period was understandable, indeed correct.

Paul Klee, Fish Magic, 1925

If some major modern artists are not accorded "star treatment" - Alberto Giacometti gets only a brief mention - others, like Paul Klee, receive their due. I was particularly impressed with the analysis of Henri Cartier-Bresson's 1932 photo of a man hopping over a puddle of water near the Gare St. Lazare train station in Paris. 

Life and art intersect in Cartier-Bresson's wonderful photo. The "decisive moment," as it came to be called, occurred when the French photographer poked his Leica camera through a gap in the fence to record this incredible instant.

Thousands of years ago, the "decisive moment" occurred when the first artist dabbed mineral pigment on a cave wall. The moment came again and again as Praxiteles, Michelangelo, Vermeer, Turner, et al, followed suit.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018)
Henri Cartier-Bresson's 1952 book, The Decisive Moment,
 with the photo Behind the Gare St. Lazare at left

The decisive moment comes as well every time art lovers commune with great art. Sometimes, as we mentioned earlier, the duration of the encounter is brief - 28.63 seconds. Hopefully, we will learn to savor the moment at least a few seconds longer. 

Thanks to the wise counsel and enlightening format of Art: the Whole Story, this "decisive" moment is readily at hand.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved

 Art: the Whole Story book cover and image of page spread , courtesy of Thames and Hudson.

Introductory Image: Johannes Vermeer, The Kitchen Maid, c. 1658. Oil on canvas: 18 x 16 inches (45.5 x 41 cm)  Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Courtesy of Rijksmuseum.

Unknown Artists, Inspecting the Fields for Nebamun, 1350 BC. Fresco: 18 1/8 x 42 1/8 inches (46 x 107 cm) British Museum, London. Courtesy of British Museum, Creative Commons.

Andrei Rublev, Old Testament Trinity, 1410. Tempera on wood: 56 x 45 inches (142 x 114 cm) State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Jacapo Pontormo, Deposition from the Cross, 1525-1528. Oil on canvas on wood panel: 123 1/4 × 75 5/8 inches (313 × 192 cm)  Barbadori Chapel, Church of Saint Felicita, Florence, Italy.

Lakota "Exploit" Robe, c. 1800–1830, Central Plains artists. Native tanned leather, pigment, porcupine quills, 58 3/8 x 88 ¼ in. (148.3 x 224.2 cm) Musée du quai Branly, Paris. Gift of Chaplain Duparc (71.1886.17.1)

Ustad Sahibdin (Indian, c. 1601-1700) Krishna Lifts Mount Govardhan, c. 1690. Paint on Paper: 11 x 7 7/8 inches (28.5 x 20 cm) British Museum, London. Courtesy of British Museum, Creative Commons.

Paul Klee (Swiss, 1879-1940) Fish Magic,1925. Oil and watercolor on canvas on panel: 30 3/8 × 38 3/4 inches (77.2 × 98.4 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art # 1950-134-112 The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment (Simon & Schuster, 1952), p. 39-40.  Images shown are the 1932 photos, Behind the Gare St. Lazare, Place de l'Europe, Paris, France (left) and Allées du Prado, Marseille

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Art Eyewitness Book Review: The Wyvern Collection: Byzantine and Sasanian Silver


                                      The Wyvern Collection:                             

    Byzantine and Sasanian Silver, Enamels & Works of Art

  By Marco Aimone
Thames & Hudson/$95/552 pages

Reviewed by Ed Voves

The Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantium, survived the fall of its western partner in 476 by almost a thousand years. Despite the amazing tenacity of the Byzantine emperors, Edward Gibbon characterized the history of their realm as “a tedious and uniform tale of weakness and misery.” 

Gibbon was a scrupulous scholar but had limited access to the astonishing works of art created in the Byzantine dominions. Many of these were only discovered long after Gibbon finished writing The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Had Gibbon been able to study the magnificent new volume of the Wyvern Collection series, he would likely have modified his negative estimate of the "weak" and "miserable" successor of Imperial Rome.

The Wyvern Collection: Byzantine and Sasanian Silver, Enamels and Works of Art is the third volume to analyze a private collection whose works of art are rarely displayed in museum exhibitions. Published by Thames & Hudson, this latest book enables us to grasp the broad range of the Wyvern collection. The earlier volumes dealt almost exclusively with the art of the medieval West and I mistakenly stated in my first review that "the Wyvern collection has only a few works of art from the Byzantine Empire."

I stand corrected. 

Volume III of the Wyvern series provides insight on stunning Byzantine art works, dating from Late Antiquity to the time of the Crusades. These masterpieces refute any remaining misconceptions of Byzantium as "weak" and "miserable." 

Page spread from The Wyvern Collection: Byzantine and Sasani
an Silver, showing Plate with a horse & rider attacked by a lioness, 12th century. 
©The Wyvern Collection &Thames & Hudson, Ltd.

Not only were the high standards of ancient culture preserved by the artists of the Byzantine Empire, but many of the brilliant works of art discussed in this magnificent book reveal an unprecedented upsurge in spirituality, the Christian Revolution.  

Byzantium, based on its capital city of Constantinople, was a Christian empire. The conversion of the Roman emperor, Constantine I (272-337) to Christianity decisively shifted the religious orientation of the Roman Empire eastward. There, in Syria and in Egypt, Christianity had been embraced by ever-growing numbers of the populace, especially in leading cities like Antioch and Alexandria.

Perhaps the key work of art of the entire book is the Processional Cross, made in the mid-eleventh century. It is a Latin-style cross with five roundel images on each side. Those on the front were gilded, with the icon of Christ Pantokrator (cosmic ruler) in the center. The reverse side features images created in the niello process. Mary, the mother of Jesus, occupies the central placement. Mary is depicted in the Virgin Hodegetria pose, "She Who Points the Way."

                       Byzantine Processional Cross, mid-11th century.                      
  ©The Wyvern Collection &Thames & Hudson, Ltd.

Throughout the book, we see this Latin cross in many forms, a cross from a book binding, a reliquary cross, a cross engraved in the center of a Eucharistic dish or paten. All testify to one of the supreme events of Christian history, the crucifixion of Jesus, and to a moment of high political drama, as well. This was the Battle of Milvian Bridge, October 28, 312. Just prior to the battle against a rival for the Imperial throne, Constantine saw the shape of such a cross in the sky, accompanied by the words, "In this sign, conquer!" 

Up to that point, Constantine had shown little interest in the Christian religion. Yet, something mystical must have happened. Constantine heeded the vision and went on to win the battle. The victory set the stage for his eventual conversion to Christianity, which Byzantine artists never ceased depicting.

I had the good fortune to be able to study a similar cross, The Adrianople Cross, from the Benaki Museum in Athens. This inspiring object was positioned at the entrance to the 2013 Heaven and Earth exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. It was an unforgettable moment, underscoring the importance of art to religious belief - and vice versa.

A counterpart to the Adrianople Cross and the Processional Cross, shown above, will be familiar to art lovers who have seen or studied the mosaic of the Emperor Justinian and Archbishop Maximian in the church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. Indeed, examples of the other objects depicted in this famous scene - the glittering presentation vessel carried by Justinian, the incense-burning censor held by a clergyman in the retinue - are analyzed in considerable detail in this new volume of the Wyvern series.


Detail of the mosaic of The Emperor Justinian and His Retinue,
from the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna, c. 547

If many of the objects in the Wyvern Collection bring to mind similar works of art displayed in museums, others are less familiar and indeed are "wondrous strange." None fits this description better than the Enkolpion of Constantinos. 

Created around the same time as the Processional Cross, the Enkolpion of Constantinos was a small devotional object, measuring 7.1 x 5.9 cm (approximately 3 inches by 2.5 inches). Suspended on a thin chain around the neck, it was worn over the chest. There are other enkolpions studied in the present volume which were carved as single images, just like a religious medal today. Not so, the Enkolpion of Constantinos!

The Enkolpion of Constantinos, 11th century.
 ©The Wyvern Collection &Thames & Hudson, Ltd.

The Enkolpion of Constantinos opens to form a miniature triptych. It measures 11.4 cm or 4 1/2 inches in width. Two side panels show Christian saints and a central scene (shown above) portrays a Byzantine emperor worshiping at the feet of Christ Pantokrator. In essence, this enkolpion is a miniature altar piece. It is a small wonder indeed!

The Wyvern Collection: Byzantine and Sasanian Silver, Enamels and Works of Art is a wonder too, though hardly a small one. It is splendidly illustrated, authoritative in its analysis and  - within  the parameters of scholarly writing - very readable. The main text was written by Italian scholar, Marco Aimone, a senior curator for the Wyvern Collection. A supplemental essay on Byzantine enameling technique was provided by Jack Ogden. This, by every standard, is a definitive examination of one of the most sensational of all Byzantine art forms. 

As the title of the book proclaims, works of art from the great rival of early Byzantium, the Sasanian Persian Empire, are also studied. Although ever bit as accomplished as those of Byzantium, these Sasanian art works were backward-looking in theme. The hunting scenes are a deliberate throwback to ancient Persian, indeed Assyrian, art. The more sensual motifs, likewise, recall Hellenistic Greek art. The same applied to much late-Roman art, also examined in this book.

Byzantine art was much more dynamic - an accolade seldom given to this reputably "static" civilization. Byzantine art is moving art. Byzantine art, including icons, moves our minds, our hearts, our souls in transcendent directions.

Bronze vessel in the shape of a dove, 3rd-4th century
 ©The Wyvern Collection &Thames & Hudson, Ltd.

This bronze vessel, with silver inlay from the beginning of the Byzantine period, might represent the Holy Spirit or may be just a dove. It might have served a liturgical purpose or functioned as an unguentaria, a cosmetic receptacle. The superb naturalism of its form serves either purpose and succeeds so brilliantly that our imaginations take flight just looking at it! 

What better comment or praise can we give to wonderful works of art, such as these, or to the mighty volume which presents them to us? Though hardly bed-side reading, The Wyvern Collection: Byzantine and Sasanian Silver, Enamels and Artwork is a worthy successor to the earlier volumes. It is a book to be cherished, a feast for the eyes and the intellect and balm for the soul.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved  

Images from: The Wyvern Collection: Byzantine and Sasanian Silver, Enamels and Artwork ©  2020 The Wyvern Collection, Design and layout ©  2020 Thames & Hudson Ltd, London

The Emperopr Justinian and His Retinue; detail of mosaic from the left side (north wall) of the apse, San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy. Courtesy of the University of Michigan - Art Images for College Teaching. EC251