Saturday, December 30, 2023

Art Eyewitness Review: Africa and Byzantium at the Metropolitan Museum of Art


Africa and Byzantium

Metropolitan Museum of Art
November 19, 2023 - March 3, 2024

Reviewed by Ed Voves
Original Photography by Anne Lloyd

Africa and Byzantium is the latest in a series of exhibitions, presented by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which have transformed our understanding of the region surrounding the Mediterranean Sea during what used to be called the "Dark Ages." Now, we think of those distant centuries as Late Antiquity and the Medieval era. 

Africa is the geographic focus of the latest of The Met exhibitions, as its title proclaims. Africa and Byzantium covers a vast expanse of history, from Late Antiquity to the 1600's. On view until March 3, 2024, this exhibit is part of the current initiative at The Met to emphasize the importance of African art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Bust of an African Child, 2nd–3rd century

Achieving a greater recognition for African art dating to the long-ago era surveyed in Africa and Byzantium is no easy task. The difficulties are numerous and complex. But the most serious of these, in terms of this exhibition, does not actually relate to Africa or African art.

The problem with Africa and Byzantium lies with the use of "Byzantium" as the title of a political entity which, in actuality, was the surviving, eastern half of the Roman Empire. Ruled by Christian emperors from their strategic stronghold, the city of Constantinople, this much battered bulwark of civilization lasted until 1453.

Never, in its very long history was the Basileia Rhomanaion (Empire of the Romans) or Romania, as its citizens referred to it, called Byzantium.

Founded in the year 330 by the Roman emperor, Constantine, the Eastern Empire’s capital of Constantinople was built on the site of an earlier city, Byzantion. Western European scholars, beginning in the 1500’s, recast the Eastern Roman Empire as Byzantium, thereby undermining its historical significance and mystique.

If a credible "Byzantium" ever existed, it was the phase of the Eastern Roman Empire when Greek-speaking emperors ruled a much-reduced realm. This followed the Islamic conquest of Palestine, Egypt and North Africa in the seventh century, concluding with the attack by the treacherous Venetians and Crusaders on Constantinople in 1204.

For better or worse, the curators at The Met follow the almost universally accepted practice of speaking of "Byzantium.” No doubt, this is due, in part, to the tremendous importance of earlier exhibitions at The Met like Byzantium: Faith and Power in 2004. It is only natural that the curators of Africa and Byzantium would wish to build on their past success, but what works for one exhibition does not always do so for another.

In the promotional text for Africa and Byzantium, “Byzantium” is described as an empire whose “artistic, economic and cultural life” was shaped by the “vibrant multi-ethnic societies of north and east Africa.”  

To underscore this point, the lead artwork chosen for the exhibition is a striking mosaic fragment from the Louvre's collection.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) 
Mosaic Panel with Preparations for a Feast, c.175-200 

Mosaic Panel with Preparations for a Feast was excavated in present-day Tunisia on the northern tip of Africa. It does indeed show workmen with different racial features, but it dates to the end of the second century, when Marcus Aurelius ruled a unified Roman Empire, 161-180. 

This floor mosaic had felt the tread of many a sandal before the mighty walls and palaces of Constantinople were built.

The use of Mosaic Panel with Preparations for a Feast in this manner is a questionable attribution of a work of art from one historical era to illustrate another. It risks over-simplifying the complex nature of the Eastern Roman Empire. 

The leading contemporary historian of the empire, Anthony Kaldellis, treats this topic at length in a just-published narrative history, The New Roman Empire (Oxford University Press) which I plan to review in January 2024.

Rather than belabor the debate on the use and abuse of "Byzantium" as a historical term, let’s speak of the “better” aspects of The Met's exhibition. There are many.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) 
Gallery view of Africa and Byzantium
showing Mosaic of Date Palm, from Tunisia, 6th century

Africa and Byzantium is a mighty endeavor, truly an exhibition which only The Met could have carried through to success. The planning, transport and display of some of the rarest and most delicate works of art from ancient times is a fantastic achievement.

The art treasures on view in Africa and Byzantium span the range of human creativity – sacred and secular, precious jewels of the elite, shopworn ceramic molds used by working-class artisans.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Jeweled Bracelet, likely made in Constantinople, 500-700

From delicate carvings made from rock crystal, found in a cistern in Tunisia, to a jewel-encrusted silver crown from Nubia, the Met curators have assembled an array of sensational works of art, related either directly or indirectly to Africa. Few of these, however, document a direct relationship with the Eastern Roman Empire.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) 
Silver Crown, from Nubia, 5th–6th century

At the top of the list of these time-honored masterpieces are two works of art which speak directly to the religious experience of ancient Africa. These are true Icons, one a painting, the other a tapestry. Both date to the sixth century, their 1,500 years of survival due to the warm, dry climate of Egypt and the care of generations of devout Christians.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Icon with the Virgin and Child, Saints, Angels, and the Hand of God, 
from The Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine, Sinai, 6th century

Icon with the Virgin and Child, Saints, Angels, and the Hand of God, was created with the encaustic wax technique. One of the oldest surviving paintings related to Christian worship, it is believed to have been made in Constantinople and sent to Egypt. The apprehensive countenance of the Virgin Mary and the faces of the saints by her side, the bearded St. Theodore and the boyish St. George, reveal stylistic similarities to the mosaic portraits of the Empress Theodora and her retinue at Ravenna, c. 548. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) 
Icon of the Virgin Enthroned, from Egypt, 6th century 

The second work is a woolen tapestry, with a similar theme. Icon of the Virgin Enthroned is believed to have been made in Egypt, around the same time as the painted Icon with the Virgin and Child. One of the most treasured works in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, the tapestry was woven with woolen yarn dyed in twenty different colors. The price of such dyes was extremely high, making this tapestry more expensive to create than the painted icon.

Both of these icons are especially relevant to the fundamental role of African religious figures in the rise of Christianity, as revealed in two related events: the birth of monasticism and the diffusion of Christian belief from urban congregations to converts in the countryside.

Monasticism began in Egypt in the fourth century, as the political power of the Roman Empire declined and the cohesive unity of Christianity fractured amid disputes over doctrine. 

Zealous individuals such as St. Anthony (251-356) renounced the temptations of secular society and prestigious posts in the hierarchy of the Church. Instead, Anthony and like-minded souls elected to live as monks in sparsely inhabited regions such as the Sinai Desert.


Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) 
Detail of Painting of Holy Men, 5th–6th century

The reclusive lives of the Christian monks in the Sinai were transformed when the Emperor Justinian (reigned 527-565) built the basilica church of St. Catherine’s, surrounded by a defensive wall, on the reputed site of the incident of Moses and the Burning Bush. This form of monasticism, centered on an imposing church and living quarters for monks and nuns, replaced the hermit-like living conditions of earlier times. 

From St. Catherine's in the Sinai, this monastic revival spread throughout much of the Christian world. It is significant, however, to note that a different form of communal monastic life was being developed by St. Benedict at Monte Casino in Italy around the same time. Western and Eastern Christendom were already beginning to draw apart.

To edify the monks of St. Catherine’s, Justinian sent devotional works of art. One of these images of divinity, dispatched from Constantinople, may well have been Icon with the Virgin and Child, Saints, Angels, and the Hand of God. It is an immensely powerful work, exerting an almost hypnotic intensity, even in the artificial light of a museum gallery.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
Detail of Icon with the Virgin & Child, Saints, Angels, and the Hand of God
“The Hand of God” at the extreme top of Icon with the Virgin and Child, Saints, Angels (barely visible in the present condition of the painting) is likely a direct reference to God’s summons to Moses on the very spot where this icon is kept. 

One of the most fascinating details of this painted icon from St. Catherine's is the degree of realism imparted to the faces of the Virgin Mary and two saints, perhaps even the angels, as well. It is hard to imagine that living persons did not pose for the icon painter. The haunted look on the Virgin Mary's face is surely that of a real woman, perhaps, as mentioned above, a lady-in-waiting of the Empress Theodora's entourage - or even the empress, herself!

A major change in style occurred throughout the Eastern Roman Empire in later centuries. A greater emphasis on mysticism took hold in the religious sentiments of the empire's citizens, due mainly to influences form the east, including Islam. Painting conventions adapted to what the great medieval scholar, Sir Steven Runciman, called the "Aramaic conception of art.

Painters of icon portraits of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, saints and prophets down-played elements of realism in favor of an ethereal, otherworldly art form. The soul, rather than a physical likeness, was given the place of privilege in these depictions of holy persons. The Met exhibition displays several examples of these mystical icons from the later eras of "Byzantine" art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) 
Icon of the Virgin Galaktotrophousa, 1250-1350

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) 
Icon of the Virgin Hodegetria Dexiokratousa, 13th century 

In addition to being aides to spiritual meditation, mystical icons like the 
Virgin Galaktotrophousa and the Virgin Hodegetria Dexiokratousa embodied specific "types" or conventions of Christian beliefs that could be understood without elaborate theological texts. 

The breast-feeding Virgin Galaktotrophousa illustrated compassion and love, while the Virgin Hodegetria ("she who points the way") reminded Christians that the infant in Mary's arms would die on the cross in order to redeem the souls of humankind. 

Icons were thus "pictures worth a thousand words." This was hugely important as the Eastern Roman Empire, under repeated assault and invasion, gradually disintegrated until the final coup de grace was delivered by the Turks in 1453.

Christianity survived the eclipse and eventual fall of the Eastern Roman Empire. Christian devotional art, icons and sacred texts inspired Christians under Islamic rule, like the Copts of Egypt, or the citizens of Constantinople who endured the horrible decades when the once-mighty city was a conquered fiefdom of the Crusaders, 1204-1261.

The Met exhibit displays remarkable examples of these sacred manuscripts which show how true religious faith can outlive political and social adversity. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Encomium of Saint John Chrysostom, 892–893

The Encomium is one of the impressive group of rare, hand-written and illustrated manuscripts on view in Africa and Byzantium. A collection of religious writings, Encomium was composed by one of the great prelates of the early church, St. John Chrysostom (347-407). Almost five hundred years after the death of this St. John, called “golden-mouth” because of his charismatic preaching, an Egyptian priest, Isaac of Ptepouhar, copied the text and illustrated the manuscript with a full-page depiction of the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus, accompanied by two angels.

The rather crude ink drawing recalls the more striking images of the Virgin Mary, Jesus and heavenly hosts discussed above. But the power of this image and the accompanying text is truly profound. This book, easy to transport, reveals how Christianity spread beyond urban centers such as Constantinople and Alexandria and monasteries like St. Catherine’s, enabling its message to travel over vast distances and to survive the ravages of war and persecution.

Beneath the Virgin’s throne on the Encomium image is an inscription in Greek, “by Isaac, the priest, the humble one, I have written (it).” Modest clergyman like Apa (Father) Isaac were indeed the intrepid emissaries who carried the Christian faith up the Nile valley into the center of Africa. In the highlands of present-day Ethiopia, Christianity took root, producing a highly-distinctive version of Christian worship and belief.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Diptych of Saint George and the Virgin & Child, late 1400's-1500's

The Africa and Byzantium exhibition concludes with a magnificent display of twenty-five examples of Ethiopian Christian art: icons, illuminated manuscripts, wall paintings. Many of these have the Virgin Mary as the central figure or protagonist, thereby revealing the influence of “Byzantine” art – or seeming to.

ʾammərä Maryam or (Miracles of Mary) is a vividly-painted manuscript, made in Gondar, an important center of book production in Ethiopia during the late seventeenth century. It includes 32 painted scenes of legendary events related to the Virgin Mary which do not appear in the Holy Bible. These miracles involved cures of individuals like the afflicted man shown in this two-page spread (below), whose club-foot was healed by the intervention of the mother of Jesus.


Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) 
ʾammərä Maryam (Miracles of Mary), late 17th century

ʾammərä Maryam is a compelling work of art testifying to the spiritual convictions and creative talent of the African artist who made it. So too, do the other Ethiopian paintings and illuminated manuscripts. This is a very distinguished body of work, really an integrated exhibit within the larger exhibition. These impressive and appealing works of art confirm one of the objectives of the Met curators, namely emphasizing the tremendous accomplishments of African artIsts.

Sadly, the story behind ʾammərä Maryam does little to highlight the role of “multi-culturalism” in art, another goal of Africa and Byzantium.

This illuminated manuscript of the Virgin Mary’s miracles was produced during a time of religious dissension in Ethiopia, during (or soon after) the reign of King Yohannes I (1667–1682). 

Yohannes spent much time and effort trying to expel Roman Catholic missionaries from Ethiopia. It had been the Jesuits who first brought prints of religious art to Ethiopia, providing a major impetus for creating these wondrous images of the Virgin Mary. 

However, Yohannes and others among the Ethiopian elite grew suspicious of the Roman Catholic clergy and six Franciscans were executed to encourage the others to leave.

The road of good intentions is a hard one to travel, as the six Franciscans found out. The curators of Africa and Byzantium are likewise engaged on a well-meaning initiative. 

The aim of exhibitions like Africa and Byzantium - a praiseworthy one - is to secure a more prominent place for African art on the timeline of world history and to introduce it to a wider audience. It is a missionary-like endeavor and, like most such efforts, it is both visionary and, on certain points, it misses the mark.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
Mosaic with Lion, from Tunisia, 6th century

Abundant proof of ancient African creativity is certainly established by the trove of art treasures on view in this excellent Met exhibition. But the evidence linking these precious works of African art to an empire called “Byzantium” is stretched very thin indeed.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                  Original photography, copyright of Anne Lloyd, all rights reserved

 Introductory image: Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Jug, 290–320. From North Africa (Tunis El Aouja, Navigius school). African red slip ware: 9 1/16 × 4 1/2 × 4 5/16 in. (23 × 11.5 × 11.6 cm). Musée du Louvre. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Bust of an African Child, 2nd–3rd century. Bronze: 5 × 3 15/16 × 1 15/16 in. (12.7 × 10 × 4.9 cm) Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design.                                                  

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Mosaic Panel with Preparations for a Feast: 4th quarter of the 2nd century. Mosaics, limestone, glass paste: 83 7/8 × 92 1/2 × 2 9/16 in., 264.6 lb. (213 × 235 × 6.5 cm, 120 kg)  Musée du Louvre.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Gallery view of Africa and Byzantium, with Mosaic of Date Palm, 6th century. from Hamman Lif, Tunisia. Stone and mortar: without frame: 70 9/16 x 31 x 1 3/8 in., 248 lb. (179.2 x 78.8 x 3.5 cm, 112.5 kg) Brooklyn Museum of Art. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Jeweled Bracelet, 500-700. Made in probably Constantinople. Gold, silver, pearl, amethyst, sapphire, opal, glass, quartz, emerald plasma: Overall: 1 7/16 x 3 1/4 in. (3.7 x 8.2 cm) strap: 15/16 x 7 7/8 in. (2.4 x 20 cm) bezel: 1 5/16 in. (3.4 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Silver Crown, 5th–6th century. From Nubia. Silver metalwork and gemstones: 12 × 5 7/8 × 10 7/16 in., 35.27oz. (30.5 × 15 × 26.5 cm, 1 kg) The Egyptian Museum, Cairo.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Icon with the Virgin and Child, Saints, Angels, and the Hand of God, 6th century. Encaustic on panel: 26 15/16 × 19 1/2 in. (68.5 × 49.5 cm).The Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine, Sinai.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Icon of the Virgin Enthroned, 6th century. From Egypt. Tapestry, wool: 70 1/16 × 43 5/16 in., 65 lb. (178 × 110 cm, 29.5 kg). The Cleveland Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd (Photo, 2023) Painting of Holy Men, 5th–6th century (detail). Made in Egypt. Paint on linen: 17 5/16 × 12 13/16 in. (44 × 32.5 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Icon of the Virgin Galaktotrophousa1250–1350. Tempera on wood: 7 5/8 × 6 7/8 × 13/16 in. (19.3 × 17.5 × 2 cm). The Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine, Sinai.

 Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Icon with the Virgin Hodegetria Dexiokratousa, first quarter of 13th century. From Egypt. Miniature tesserae (gold and other materials), set in wax, on wood: Overall with mounting: 17 1/2 in. × 13 3/16 in. × 1 in. (44.5 × 33.5 × 2.5 cm) The Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine, Sinai.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Encomium of Saint John Chrysostom, 892–893. Copied and illustrated by Father Issac of Ptepouhar (Egypt). Ink on parchment: Overall with mounting: 8 1/2 × 17 7/8 × 13  1/2 in. (216 x 45.4 x 34.3 cm.) Morgan Library and Museum.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Diptych of Saint George and the Virgin and Child, late 1400's-1500's. Paint on wood: 20 1/2 in. × 26 5/16 in. × 13/16 in. (52 × 66.8 × 3 cm) National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) ʾammərä Maryam (Miracles of Mary), late 17th century. Manuscript made in Gondar, Ethiopia. Parchment, ink, tempera, wood, leather, cotton, and string: 14 5/8 × 12 3/4 × 4 1/4 in. (37.2 × 32.4 × 10.8 cm) The Art Institute of Chicago.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Mosaic with Lion, 6th century. from Hamman Lif, Tunisia. Stone tessarae: 29 5/16 x 42 1/4 x 1 5/8 in., 172 lb. (74.5 x 107.3 x 41.5 cm, 78 kg) Brooklyn Museum of Art.

Friday, December 15, 2023

Art Eyewitness Essay: Art Books to Give and to Cherish

 Art Books to Give and to Cherish

Art Unpacked by Matthew Wilson (Thames & Hudson, 240 pages, $39.95) 

 The Real & the Romantic by Frances Spalding (Thames & Hudson, 384 p., $50)  

Velazquez by Richard Verdi (Thames & Hudson, 276 pages, $24.95)

By Ed Voves

The Morgan Library and Museum is currently showing a special exhibition devoted to rare editions of the Holy Bible collected by J.P. Morgan. While visiting the exhibit, my attention focused on a first edition copy of the 1611 King James Version (KJV) of the Holy Bible.

By a somewhat convoluted thought process, the sight of this original KJV led me to compile a short list of recommended art books, all published in 2023. These, as I hope to explain, are books worthy to give and to cherish. But before I discuss these four titles, I would like to reflect a few moments more on the 1611 KJV on display in Morgan’s Bibles.

The Morgan's copy of the KJV has quite a personal history. It bears a hand-written list of biblical commentaries by Laurence Chaderton, one of "God's secretaries" who worked on the translation of the Bible at the command of King James I. On the binding is the coat of arms of the Prince of Wales, denoting its ownership by the two sons of King James, Prince Henry and Charles I.

Ed Voves, Photo (2023
Gallery view of the Morgan Library & Museum’s copy of the 
King James Version Bible, at the Morgan’s Bible exhibition

It was the personal name, signed with a bold flourish at the bottom of the title page, which was the most intriguing feature of all: Jane Fisher.

Jane Fisher (1626-1689) was the courageous Englishwoman who helped Charles II escape capture following the defeat at the Battle of Worcester, 1651, during the English Civil War. Charles, disguised as Jane Fisher’s servant, evaded capture by Oliver Cromwell’s troops, eventually reaching safety.

In 1660, Charles II was restored to the throne of Great Britain. This magnificent KJV Bible, once owned by his father, should have been safeguarded as a sacred  relic. Yet, at some point, this Bible became a treasured possession of Jane Fisher. 

Did Charles II give this KJV Bible to Jane Fisher in appreciation for saving his life and his reign? If so, it could not have been a more appropriate gift. 

Viewing this historic Bible was a great treat, but my attention did not linger on the bygone-era of Stuart kings. Instead, it nudged me to think about the importance of giving books as tokens of love and esteem.

The act of bestowing a gift involves giving a part of oneself. The money needed to buy a present represents the hours spent earning or saving the necessary funds to make the purchase. And of course, there is the time and energy involved in shopping, often the most difficult and frustrating part of the transaction.

Selecting a book as a gift takes this process a step further. Along with sharing a bit of ourselves, we are entering into a state of emotional/intellectual dialog with the recipient. Is the subject or author likely to appeal to the intended reader? Might the book become a favorite "read"? Could the book make a difference in their life?

With these considerations in mind, here is a short-list of 2023 art books which hopefully will provide a resounding “yes”  to the questions above. None of the titles appearing below were the subject of previous Art Eyewitness reviews, although Martin Gayford's Venice: City of Pictures is certainly worthy of inclusion in any list of recent art books likely to stand the test of time.

My first selection includes works of art from just about every artistic genre and works from virtually every historical era and geographic locale. Art Unpacked, just published by Thames & Hudson, is precise in its focus, global in its scope.

Art Unpacked offers a "museum highlights" trajectory to appreciate art history. A list of fifty essential works of art is selected for study, beginning with a cave painting from Chauvet, ca. 30,000 BCE, and proceeding to contemporary works of art with social justice themes. Quite a number of the book's "highlights" will be familiar to many art enthusiasts.

At first glance, Art Unpacked appears to be a fairly standard survey of the visual arts. An impressive book, certainly, but one which we've seen previously in similar guises, the British Museum's History of the World in 100 Objects for one.

Look again at Art Unpacked - and again - at the double-spread pages of closely integrated illustrations and analysis for each of the selected works. The author, Matthew Wilson, has created a blue-print guide for understanding composition and construction, complemented with insights into the mindset and social milieu of the artist and acknowledgement of related works of art, ones that set the stage or were influenced in turn by the masterpiece under study.

The "star" treatment which Wilson accords Michelangelo's Studies for the Libyan Sibyl, 1510-11, is a excellent example of his methodology.

Michelangelo, Studies for the Libyan Sibyl, 1510-11

Aside from Mona Lisa, there is no work of art which has been so intensively studied as Michelangelo's frescoes for the Sistine Chapel. The same is true for the preliminary drafts, of which the Libyan Sibyl, a jewel of The Metropolitan Museum's collection, is one of the most familiar. 

Yet, there are so many intriguing details in this "densely populated" drawing that when we get the rare opportunity to view it, information overload quickly sets in. That is exactly what I experienced at The Met's 2017 exhibit, Michelangelo: Divine Designer, where the Libyan Sibyl drawing was prominently displayed.

With a precise focus, Wilson succinctly deals with the major points of the Libyan Sibyl's composition. He focuses, point by point, on Michelangelo's masterful handling of tonal modeling to create a three-dimensional presence for this ethereal figure. Michelangelo's vigorous use of red chalk to create deep shadows, Wilson notes is "often compared to the way that a sculptor carves into the marble with a chisel."

As if that was not impressive enough, Wilson looks at the truly fine points, leaving readers astonished that they had missed these details before. Examining the Libyan Sibyl's torso, Wilson writes:

Michelangelo added lines that extend from the shoulders and end in a circle. A third line points toward the armpit. It is not known for certain what they represent, but he may have added them as notes to himself about the lightest to the darkest areas of shading, or to point out certain muscles to students or colleagues.

Never, in a hundred years of looking, would I have spotted these minute notations, but Wilson's sharp eye has opened a new window on Michelangelo's creative course.

Wilson extends the same masterful mix of analytical precision and perceptive commentary to works of art from non-Western societies. Dating to the same era as Michelangelo's Libyan Sibyl are superb studies of the Queen Mother Pendant Mask from the Kingdom of Benin, modern Nigeria, and The Concourse of Birds, an allegory of the Sufi search for spiritual enlightenment, painted by Habiballah of Sava (active, 1590-1610 in Persia).

Queen Mother Pendant Mask, Kingdom of Benin, c. 

 Habiballah of Sava, The Concourse of Birds (detail), c. 1600

One historical era overlooked in Art Unpacked is the twenty-year interlude in England between the First and Second World Wars. Many, indeed most, general surveys of art skip over English art, especially painting, between 1919 to 1939. In the era of Picasso and Matisse, Dada and Surrealism, English art appeared to be hopelessly retardataire.

Francis Spalding, the leading authority of twentieth British art, has rectified the omission with a magnificent narrative history which is likely to stand as the definitive treatment of the subject for many years to come. 

A fitting estimate of Spalding's achievement world be to compare Real and Romantic with the first edition of John Rewald's History of Impression (1946).  Amazingly, there was waning interest in Monet, Renoir, et al., until Rewald's book revived their reputation in the years after World War II. Spalding's book will, almost certainly, have the same effect.

In a key quotation from The Real and the Romantic, Spalding notes that: 

Whereas the Italian futurists had wanted to turn their backs on the past, to abandon it or destroy it, much English art between the wars was motivated by a wholly different attitude, by a desire to raid the past for ideas, subjects and methods that would challenge and enrich the present. This took many forms, but behind them all can be heard an echo of Laurence Binyon's words..."We cannot discard the past ... we must remold it in the fire of our necessities, we must make it new and our own."

Of particular influence, especially in the immediate aftermath of World War I, was the English landscape tradition, not only Turner and Constable, but other artists from the 1700's and 1800's.

Algernon Newton (1880-1968) looked to Canaletto for inspiration. Others, including Graham Sutherland, found a role-model in the mystical landscape painter, Samuel Palmer. 

John Sell Cotman, Greta Bridge, c. 1805

Eric Ravilious, Wannock Dew Pond, 1923

Eric Ravilious, in many ways the signature artist of the era, was inspired by the watercolors of the almost forgotten John Sell Cottman. But the somber, haunted tone of the landscapes of Ravilious hinted at the specter of impending war and the almost inescapable feeling that the slaughter and destruction would be worse, much worse, the second time around.

It was. Ravilious was killed in 1942 in an air rescue mission off the coast of Iceland. It was a noble effort but an attempt which seems doomed from the start, so futile that one wonders how Ravilious and his fellow air-crew had the courage to try. But try they did and so did English artists during the "between the wars" period so movingly described by Spalding.

The two books, above, were carefully chosen and come highly recommended as gift ideas. It's no secret that art books are generally expensive, no small matter in the current economic crisis. Exhibition catalogs and and major art monographs are generally worth the investment. But size or price need not be the deciding factor in purchasing an art book as a gift.

Thames and Hudson has been the leading publisher of quality paperback art books for decades with its classic World of Art series. My third- and final - selection is a new addition to the World of Art list, a biography of Diego Velazquez (1599-1660) by Richard Verdi, who also wrote a superb study of Cezanne for the series. 

I was saddened to discover, while researching this essay, that the World of Art Velazquez will be the last book written by Richard Verdi.This notable scholar died on Christmas Day, 2022. According to his obituary, an advance copy of Velazquez was presented to Verdi, already hospitalized, the week before he died. An uncompleted manuscript of a biography of Peter Paul Rubens lay on his desk at home.

The death of a distinguished writer and teacher like Richard Verdi - he was for many years the director of the Barber Institute of Art in Birmingham, England - is a great loss. But the gift of his talent and devotion to culture remain after his passing, another reason to cherish the World of Art's Velasquez.

Anne Lloyd (Photo, 2023)
 Gallery view of Juan de Pareja, Afro-Hispanic Painter

Verdi did not live to see the Metropolitan Museum exhibition, Juan de Pareja, Afro-Hispanic Painter, which was presented in the spring of 2023. The breathtaking portrait of Pareja by Velazquez served as the centerpiece of this exhibition. Verdi's discussion of this truly iconic painting (it is also one of the works examined in Art Unpacked) shows how vital it is to preserve the voice of humane scholars like Verdi.

Juan de Pareja (1606-1680) was the son of a Moorish slave woman and, though born in Spain, remained a slave himself until 1650. The date was significant. Pareja was in Rome with Velazquez, at that time. Velazquez was vying for a commission to paint Pope Innocent X. To demonstrate his talent, Velazquez painted the portrait of Pareja, who had worked in his studio since 1630.

Anne Lloyd (Photo, 2023)
 Detail of Portrait of Juan de Pareja, by Diego Velazquez, 1650

Portrait of Juan de Pareja astonished the art community of Rome, then the most influential in Europe. The reputation of Velazquez soared and he went on to paint an impressive likeness of Pope Innocent. However, by a rare combination of factors  -  the alchemy of art - Portrait of Juan de Pareja was a superior work, greatly so in my estimation.

What happened? Verdi writes of this incomparable work of art:

The handling throughout is free, sketchy and even somewhat impulsive, as befits a picture intended as a dry run for a more prestigious commission, In short, this may be seen as both Velazquez and Pareja caught off guard - two cohorts engaged in a frank and intimate conversation.

There it is - "two cohorts." Two fellow human beings suddenly aware of each other's God-given talents and personalities. No longer master and slave, Spaniard or Moor, artist or assistant, they joined to create a masterpiece. In giving of themselves, both men gained much.

Juan de Pareja was emancipated by Diego Velazquez and went on to a successful painting career of his own. Velazquez became a Knight of Santiago, the trusted advisor of King Philip IV of Spain and, most importantly, the artist who would paint Las Meininas, the single greatest masterpiece in the canon of Western art.

And us? We have these wonderful books to read and to give, to share their sentiments, their brilliant insights to enjoy, to learn and live by. Or these three titles could be replaced by other books of your choosing with the same intention, the same desired effect. 

Ultimately, it is the giving rather than the gift, which counts. 

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved

Original photography by Anne Lloyd and Ed Voves, all rights reserved                  

Book cover art for Art Unpacked by Matthew Wilson (2023), The Real and the Romantic, English Art between Two World Wars by Frances Spalding (2023) and Velazquez by Richard Verdi (2023) Image credits: Thames & Hudson

Introductory image: Michelangelo’s Libyan Sibyl fresco from the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. Image from https //

Ed Voves, Photo (2023 ) Gallery view the Morgan Library & Museum’s copy of the King James Version (KJV), The Holy Bible, Conteyning the Old Testament and the New, Newly Translate Out of the Original Tongues. Published in London by Robert Barker, 1611. On view at the Morgan’s Bible exhibition.

Michelangelo (Italian, 1475-1564) Studies for the Libyan Sibyl, 1510-11. Red chalk drawing with accents of white chalk on the shoulder of the figure in the main study: 28.9 x 21.4 cm. (11 1/4 x 8 1/2 in.) Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Unknown artist (Present-day Nigeria) Queen Mother Pendant Mask, Kingdom of Benin, 16th century. Ivory sculpture, with iron and copper: 23.8 x 12.7 x 6.4 cm. (9 1/4 x 5 x 2 1/2 in.) Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Habiballah of Sava (Persian, active, 1590-1610) The Concourse of Birds, c. 1600. Ink, opaque watercolor, gold and silver on paper: 25.4 x 11.4 cm. (10 x 4 1/2 in.)  Metropolitan Museum of Art.

John Sell Cotman (British, 1782-1842) Greta Bridge, c. 1805. Watercolor over graphite sketch: 22.7 x 32.9 cm. (8.9 x 12.9 in.) British Museum.

Eric Ravilious (British, 1903-1942) Wannock Dew Pond, 1923. Watercolor, pen and brown ink over graphite sketch: 27.8 x 38.6 cm. (10.9 x 15.2 in.) British Museum.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023 ) Gallery view the Juan de Pareja, Afro-Hispanic Painter exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023 ) Diego Velazquez' Portrait of Juan de Pareja, 1650 (detail). Oil on canvas: 32 x 27 1/2 in. (81.3 x 69.9 cm.) Metropolitan Museum of Art.