Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Jerusalem 1000–1400: Every People Under Heaven at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Jerusalem 1000–1400: Every People Under Heaven

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
September 26, 2016– January 8, 2017

Faith and Photography: Auguste Salzmann in the Holy Land
September 12, 2016 - February 5, 2017

Reviewed by Ed Voves

According to the cosmic view of Medieval Europe, the world was divided into two realms: the Earthly City and the City of God. 

This mental universe came straight from St. Augustine in 426 AD. Following the shocking fall of Rome, Augustine pondered the fate of humanity, of those doomed by their moral failings and a fortunate elect redeemed from sin. Augustine's view shaped the philosophy of the West to an unprecidented degree. 

There was, however, another city: Jerusalem. Exposed to the universal lust for gold and power, Jerusalem also possessed a palpable sanctity. 

“Jerusalem is the most sublime of cities," wrote Al-Muqaddasi (ca. 946–991), a Jerusalem-born geographer. "It unites in itself the advantages of this world and the next."

Saint John Sees the Heavenly Jerusalem from The Cloisters Apocalypse, ca. 1330

This city of God - and men - is brought vividly to life in Jerusalem 1000–1400: Every People Under Heaven, a spectacular exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Faith and Photography: Auguste Salzmann in the Holy Land, a display of photos of Jerusalem in 1854, little changed since the Middle Ages, is also on view at the Met.

Jerusalem 1000–1400 focuses on this fabled city during a half-millennium of pilgrimage and plunder, conquest and co-existence. The new exhibition portrays history as a sharing of cultural achievements among peoples of many lands and faiths. 

An illustration from a book of Gospel readings dating to 1218 AD testifies to this theme. The text was written in the Syriac language of Christians living in what is today modern-day Iraq. But this picture brilliantly evokes the multiplicity of races in Jerusalem and a universal vision of harmony.  

The Entry into Jerusalem (detail) from a Syriac Lectionary, 1216–20

As Jesus rides into Jerusalem at the beginning of the fateful week leading to his crucifixion, an African man and a fair-skinned European gaze on the scene from upstairs windows. Turbaned men, one with a flowing red beard, ponder Jesus' entry into the city. A woman with Arab features has hoisted her young son to behold a moment of history that neither could possibly comprehend. 

Truly, "every people under Heaven" have been gathered into this extraordinary image - just as they were in the marketplaces of Jerusalem when this picture was painted. 

Six thematic sections document the cooperative connections among Christians, Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem during the Middle Ages. These themes include the role of trade in Jerusalem, the quest for holiness among the congregations of the three "Abrahamic" religions and the vital role of patrons for the creation of art works that still command reverence today.

All was not social harmony and shared spirituality, however. While the art works selected for Jerusalem 1000–1400 emphasize the "positives" of this fascinating time and place, battles raged and blood flowed. This was, lest we forget, the era of Holy War - Christian Crusade vs. Islamic Jihad. 

The curators of Jerusalem 1000–1400 wisely refrain from venturing into the tangled origins of the Crusades or in formulating an appraisal of the legacy of these controversial wars. Several of the exhibit objects relating to the Crusades, however, speak volumes.

 A number of weapons from the period are on display including a massive, two-handed broad sword.  Armaments of this type were used by Christian Crusaders like the Knights Templars. 

Crusader Sword donated to Mamluk Armory in Egypt in 1419

Close examination of this sword leads to a curious discovery. An Arabic inscription has been engraved on the blade, noting that it was war trophy donated to the Mamluk armory in Alexandria, Egypt in 1419. Whoever carried this fearsome weapon into battle evidently did not survive the carnage.

One Crusader who did make it home was Jean d'Aluye who journeyed to the Holy Land in 1241. Upon his return to France, d'Aluye founded the abbey of La Clarté-Dieu near Tours. 

A Knight of the d’Aluye Family, after 1248

The tomb effigy or gisant of Jean d'Aluye presents an almost text-book illustration of Crusader equipment - except for one significant detail. The chain mail shirt or hauberk worn by d'Aluye, the cloth surcoat covering his armor (which kept him from being grilled by the desert sun) and his kite-shaped shield were standard issue of the knights fighting in the Holy Land. 

D'Aluye's sword, as depicted on his effigy, is a different matter. Incredibly, he has a Chinese sword sheathed in his scabbard. The flower-shaped pommel and inverted hand guard are features of swords made in China - but not Europe - during the thirteenth century. D'Aluye most likely purchased his sword while he was in the Holy Land. There was a thriving traffic of many commodities via the Silk Road, including the celebrated Chinese stoneware ceramics glazed in gray-green celadon. 

The objects that most appealed to European pilgrims to Jerusalem were those related to religion, especially to display relics believed to be associated with the life of Jesus. 

Elaborate cases designed to hold these precious fragments are a major feature of the exhibit. Gilded and gem-encrusted, these reliquaries seem at variance with modern conceptions of piety. Medieval Europeans thought differently about extravagant display while maintaining standards of devotion that were sincere, if sometimes naive.

The Reliquary Cross of Jacques de Vitry exemplifies these glittering cases for religious relics. De Vitry is a fascinating figure, a "prince of the Church" yet devoted to ascetic religious convictions soon to be preached by St. Francis of Assisi. It was de Vitry, bishop of the Christian port-city of Acre, who described Jerusalem as being “honored by angels and frequented by every people under heaven.”

For Christians of de Vitry's era, the gold and jewels used to create reliquaries had a symbolic role, testifying to the incorruptibility of souls blessed by God's grace. De Vitry treasured a relic of his friend, the mystic Marie of Oignies who died in 1213. A finger of the deceased woman, famous for her visions and her care of lepers, was placed in a small case or phylactery which de Vitry wore around his neck on special occasions.

The Reliquary Cross of Jacques de Vitry, after 1216

Interestingly, the enamel portraits of saints on this reliquary point to divisions and misunderstandings within the diverse Christian communities. 

The enamels were made by Byzantine artists, most likely in Constantinople during the 1100's. These exquisite images were associated with specific saints but the placement on the cross is "out-of-sync" with their identity. The exhibition commentary perceptively notes that "the enamels of saints are not logically arranged, suggesting that the goldsmith could not read the Greek inscriptions identifying them."

This mutual incomprehension between Greek-speaking Christians and the pilgrims from Western Europe climaxed with tragic consequences. In 1204, a force of Crusaders from France and Belgium became embroiled in a dispute between Venice and the Byzantine Empire. The Crusaders went on a rampage, pillaging Constantinople. The loss of life and destruction of manuscripts and art works was only matched by the Mongol devastation of Baghdad in 1258.

Jerusalem somehow was spared the fate of Constantinople and Baghdad - yet did not escape unscathed. 

The first Crusaders to reach Jerusalem in 1099 massacred thousands of Muslims and Jews when they captured the city. The burning of the Jerusalem synagogue in 1099 recalled the Roman destruction of Herod's Temple in 70 AD. For Jews, the loss of the Temple and the dream of its re-establishment dominated their thoughts and prayers for centuries.

Jewish Wedding Ring. Germany, early 14th century

Jerusalem 1000-1400 displays many precious works evoking Judaism during the Middle Ages. An intricate wedding ring made in Germany during the early 1300's depicts the Temple. Such rings would have been used in the Jewish marriage ceremony "in which remembrance of the Temple played a vital role" rather than worn in daily life.

Even more profound is the page from the Barcelona Haggadah in the collection of the British Library. A small hare, symbol of the hunted and persecuted, rests peacefully, protected by the encircling vines at the bottom of the image.  Above, the text proclaims the immortal words of the Passover prayer: "Next year in Jerusalem."

Next Year in Jerusalem from the Barcelona Haggadah,1360–70

One of my favorite objects in the exhibition is too big to be represented here. It is a vast scroll, a Hajj certificate attesting to the pilgrimage of a Muslim gentleman with a very imposing name, Sayyid Yusuf bin Sayyid Shihab al-Din Mawara al-Nahri. Measuring seven meters long, the scroll plots the pilgrim's journey to Mecca, Medina, Karbala, Hebron, and Jerusalem. Symbols documenting Jerusalem show  the Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock, the grave of Adam and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. An inscription at the last site mentions “Jesus, peace be upon him.”

Another favorite display in the exhibition, however, places me in the position of having to criticize the Metropolitan Museum design team. 

The Saint Matthew Capital, 1170's

A group of stunning, carved capitals intended for the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth were placed close to a documentary film screen. This placement really interfered with my study of these wondrous objects which had been buried to prevent their destruction by the soldiers of the Muslim army of Saladin in 1187. 

I realize that museums have to experiment with innovative technology. But this continuous-loop documentary was unrelated to the extraordinary story of these architectural wonders. After listening and re-listening to the increasingly bothersome soundtrack, I had to cut short my study of these splendid works of art and move on - in a state of exasperation.

Fortunately, the final gallery of the exhibition concludes on a high note, with magnificent religious manuscripts on view, such as The Cloisters Apocalypse, illustrated above. 

A related exhibition of photos of Jerusalem taken during the 1850's by the early photographer, Auguste Salzmann (French, 1824–1872), provides a brilliant counterpoint to the main exhibit. Here was Jerusalem, hundreds of years after the era of the Crusades, but still looking very much as it did during the time of Jacques de Vitry and Jean d'Aluye. 

Auguste Salzmann, Jerusalem, Damascus Gate, Interior, 1854

Jerusalem 1000–1400: Every People Under Heaven
is a notable successor to such outstanding Metropolitan exhibits as The Glory of Byzantium (1997) and Byzantium: Faith and Power (2003). These were transformative explorations of the Medieval world, encompassing a richer and more nuanced view of the interlinked societies of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. 

So too is Jerusalem 1000–1400: Every People Under Heaven, definitely worth a pilgrimage to Fifth Avenue and 82nd Street. 

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Introductory Image
The Archangel Israfil (detail) from The Wonders of Creation and Oddities of Existence
(‘Aja’ib al-Makhluqat) by al-Qazwini (1202–1283). Egypt or Syria, late 14th – early 15th century. Opaque watercolor and ink on paper 15⅜ × 9⅝ in. (38.9 × 24.6 cm)
British Museum, London (1963,0420,0.1) Image: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Saint John Sees the Heavenly Jerusalem from The Cloisters Apocalypse. Normandy, France, ca. 1330. Tempera, gold, silver, and ink on parchment; 38 folios. 12⅛ × 9 in. (30.8 × 22.9 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1968 (68.174) Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Entry into Jerusalem (detail) from a Syriac Lectionary. Iraq, possibly Monastery of Mar Mattei, 1216 – 20. Tempera, ink, and gold on paper; 264 folios. 17½ × 13¾ in. (44.5 × 35 cm) British Library, London (Add. MS 7170) Image: © The British Library Board 

Sword. Before 1419 European. Steel, wood. L. 43 11/16 in. (111 cm); L. of blade 34 1/8 in. (86.7 cm); W. 12 3/8 in. (31.4 cm); Wt. 3 lb. 10 oz. (1644 g) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bashford Dean Memorial Collection, Bequest of Bashford Dean, 1928. (29.150.143) © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 

A Knight of the d’Aluye Family. Loire Valley, France, after 1248 – by 1267. From his tomb in the Cistercian Abbey of La Clarté-Dieu, between Le Mans and Tours. Limestone.
H. 83½ in. (212.1 cm), W. 34¼ in. (87 cm), D. 13 in. (33 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1925 (25.120.201) Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Reliquary Cross of Jacques de Vitry. Enamels: Byzantium, about 1160–80; cross: Acre, soon after 1216; base: Oignies, after 1228. Cross: gilded silver, cloisonné enamel on gold, semiprecious stones, and glass; base: gilded copper. H. 22⅛ in. (56.3 cm), W. 7⅛ in. (18 cm) The Treasure of Oignies, coll. King Baudoin Foundation, entrusted to the Musée Provincial des Arts Anciens du Namurois, Belgium

Jewish Wedding Ring. Germany, first half of the 14th century. Gold. H. 1⅞ in. (4.8 cm), W. 1 in. (2.5 cm), D. 1 in. (2.5 cm) Thüringisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege und
Archäologie, Weimar (5067/98) Image: Thüringisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege und
Archäologie (photograph by B. Stefan) 

Next Year in Jerusalem from the Barcelona Haggadah. Catalonia (present-day Spain), ca. 1360–70. Tempera, gold, and ink on paper; 163 folios. 10 × 7½ in. (25.5 × 19 cm)
British Library, London (Add. MS 14761) Image: © The British Library Board

The Saint Matthew Capital. Early 1170s. Limestone. b. 16⅝ × 21 ¼× 18½in., 355 lb. (42 × 54 × 47 cm, 161 kg) Terra Sancta Museum, Basilica of the Annunciation, Nazareth
Image: © Marie-Armelle Beaulieu /Custodia Terræ Sanctæ

Auguste Salzmann (French, 1824–1872) Jérusalem, Porte de Damas, Intérieur (Jerusalem, Damascus Gate, Interior), 1854. Salted paper print from paper negative.  Image: 23.1 x 32.6 cm (9 1/8 x 12 13/16 in.) Printer: Blanquart-Évrard, Lille. Gilman Collection, Gift of The Howard Gilman Foundation, 2005. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession Number:2005.100.373.147. Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Art Eyewitness Book Review:The Prado Masterpieces

The Prado Masterpieces

By the Museo Nacional del Prado

Thames & Hudson/494 pages/$125

Reviewed by Ed Voves

It would be easy to speak entirely in superlatives to describe Thames & Hudson's new book, The Prado Masterpieces.  Magnificent, authoritative, insightful, "all of the above."

The Prado Masterpieces certainly deserves such praise. The value of this huge volume, however, is the way that it truly complements a visit to the Prado. A close study of the Prado masterpieces, either on a pilgrimage to this vast museum or via the pages of this wonderful book, reveals the compelling, often ironic features of Spain's culture. 

The  Museo del Prado opened its doors "for the study of professors and the recreation of the public" in 1819. The museum was constructed on a meadow (prado in Spanish) in Madrid to display the royal art collections of Spain.

Founding the Prado represents the solitary enlightened act of one of the most narrow-minded autocrats in European history, King Ferdinand VII (1784-1833). The Prado was an assertion of Spanish nationalism and cultural achievement at the same time that Ferdinand VII shredded the liberal laws and social reforms formulated after the devastation of the Napoleonic War.  

The royal art works which Ferdinand placed on view in the new museum revealed a further irony. Over the centuries, the Spanish monarchy had lavished huge sums on art that often had little to do with Spain.

Beginning with the "Planet Kings" of the 1500's-1600's, a collection rich in Flemish and Italian paintings was purchased to grace the walls of Spanish palaces. Not until until quite late in Spain's era of world domination did Spanish artists receive the patronage they deserved. An otherwise inept king, Philip IV, appointed the great Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) to a position of prestige in his court.

The truth about many of the Prado's paintings is that these art works were status symbols of Spain's global empire. To be fair to the Spanish, they paid for their art rather than stealing en masse as Napoleon later did. But the payment for these Renaissance masterpieces came from the "King's Fifth." This was the share owed to the Spanish monarchy from the vast wealth coming from the Indies. Untold thousands of native peoples died, particularly in the silver mines of Potosi in Peru, to pay for stunning works of art like Titian's Venus and Adonis

Titian, Venus and Adonis, 1554

The text of The Prado Masterpieces was written by a team of curators from the Prado's staff. These unnamed  scholars provide a wide-ranging account of Spanish civilization at the same time as highlighting the treasures of the Prado. Here is a sample of the incisive text of The Prado Masterpieces:

Like his predecessors, Philip II had a preference for Flemish and Italian painting, especially Venetian. He acquired very few works by Spaniards, and the number of Spanish artists who worked for him was small, for the honour was achieved only by those whose versatility allowed them to adapt to his demands.  

The Spanish monarchs and their advisers were certainly knowledgeable  collectors. Along with numerous paintings by Titian, works by Botticelli, Raphael, Durer, Tintoretto and van Dyck are now displayed at the Prado. I was particularly impressed by Christ among the Doctors in the Temple, painted by Paolo Veronese (1528-1588) around 1560. This Venetian master is sometimes forgotten, coming as he did between the High Renaissance and the heyday of Caravaggio. 

Paolo Veronese, Christ among the Doctors in the Temple, c.1560

This magnificent work exemplifies the outstanding talent of Veronese. Not only did Veronese place his protagonists in a totally convincing setting, but he displayed acute psychological insight. The conflicted emotions of the Temple scholars are revealed by the skillful way Veronese depicted their facial expressions and bodily postures.

There was another reason why the Spanish monarchs favored art by the great masters from Flanders like Rogier van der Weyden. The Hapsburg dynasty which ruled Spain during its "Golden Age" traced their roots to the medieval House of Burgundy, the feudal lords of Flanders. 

Rogier van der Weyden, The Descent from the Cross, before 1443

Van der Weyden's Descent from the Cross combined all the elements of Flemish culture, emotional piety and courtly tenderness, vivid depictions of the blood-oozing wounds of Christ and tactile realism of the rich, flowing robes of his mother and disciples.

During the period when Spanish political power was at its zenith, between 1519-1648, there was no shortage of talented Spanish painters. Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664) and Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652) were a match for any in Europe. Spanish artists, however, failed to attain the social status of their counterparts in Italy. Moreover, they had to pay a staggering ten-percent retail tax, the alcabala, on any work that was not religious in theme.

Spanish artists, needless to say, painted and sculpted religious works of art on a prodigious scale. Many are deeply moving like Velázquez' 1620 portrait of Jerónima de la Fuente,  a missionary nun posted to the distant Philippines. In order to evade the alcabala, Spanish artists frequently added a theological gloss to a still life or genre scene.

I am not sure what interpretation El Greco intended with his Fable, painted around 1580. 

Born Domenikos Theotokopoulos on the Venetian-controlled island of Crete, El Greco studied in Italy where he created several early masterpieces. But he did not find preferment at the court of Philip II (reigned 1556-1598) when he emigrated to Spain. Thematic elements in some of his religious works raised questions about his orthodoxy. 

El Greco then set up his studio in Toledo, painting magnificent portraits of Spanish hidalgos, one of which,The Nobleman with his Hand on his Chest, is among the most beloved paintings on view at the Prado.

El Greco, Fable, c.1580

Fable, however, confounds all attempts at explanation. 

Was El Greco depicting the wonder of human creativity or of worldly vanity? Is this a surreal work of imagination like Francisco Goya's later etchings, Los Disparates (The Follies). Might El Greco have been making a sly commentary of the attempts of Phillip II to "ape" the light of Venice while ignoring the talents of Spanish artists? We will never know. 

We do know that the collection of the Prado would have been richer still but for a disastrous fire on Christmas Eve, 1734, at a dilapidated palace known as the Alcázar. The fire alarm was mistaken for bells announcing midnight Mass. By the time the danger was realized, most of the 500 paintings in the Alcázar collection, including works by Leonardo da Vinci, were consumed by the flames. 

By heroic effort, a few precious paintings, slashed from their frames and hurled from the palace windows, were saved. One of the survivors is now recognized as the supreme masterpiece of Spanish art, Las Meninas, by Diego Velázquez in 1656. 

Las Meninas was painted during the twilight of Spain's global power. Ironically, the setting for this stunning work was the Alcázar where so many masterpieces were to be lost. Here Velázquez evoked the rarefied world of the Spanish court as the shadows of history gathered over it. Spain's economy was bankrupt and its population reduced by war, plague, starvation. France under the Sun King, the young Louis XIV, was now the greatest power in Europe.

Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656

But with the bloom of childhood on the face of Infanta Maragarita, Velázquez testified to the promise and resilience of the human spirit. Empires come and go, but the look of wonder and love in the eyes of the young princess is born and reborn everyday.

By an act of great fortune, I was able to visit the Prado back in 1979. I was only a couple of years out of college and knew very little about art. I can't even remember seeing Las Meninas, but I do recall Goya's The Third of May 1808 in Madrid.

Thanks to The Prado Masterpieces, I have been able to relive my long-ago visit.This magnificent book, the closest encounter to an actual tour of the galleries of the Prado short of going there, has rekindled my desire to return. 

I want to go back to the Museo del Prado. What higher praise for a book about this wondrous place can there be?

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

All images courtesy of Thames & Hudson and the Museo Nacional del Prado. The image of Christ among the Doctors in the Temple by Paolo Veronese, is from the Prado website:


Introductory Image:  The Prado Masterpieces. 2016 (book cover) Courtesy Thames & Hudson

Titian (Italian, 1490-1576) Venus and Adonis, 1554. Oil on canvas, 186 x 207 cm. © Museo Nacional del Prado

Paolo Veronese (Italian, 1528-1588) Christ among the Doctors in the Temple, c. 1560. Oil on canvas, 236 x 430 cm. © Museo Nacional del Prado

Rogier van der Weyden (Flemish, 1399–1464) The Descent from the Cross, before 1443. Oil on panel, 204.5 x 261.5 cm. © Museo Nacional del Prado

El Greco (Spanish, born Crete, 1541–1614)  Fable, c. 1580. Oil on canvas, 50.5 x 63.6 cm. © Museo Nacional del Prado

Diego Velázquez (Spanish, 1599–1660)  Las Meninas, 1656. Oil on canvas. 318 x 276 cm. © Museo Nacional del Prado

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Painting with Light at Tate Britain Museum, London

Painting with Light

 Art and Photography from the Pre-Raphaelites to the Modern Age

Tate Britain Museum, London 
May 11 – September 25, 2016 

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Pictures, rather than religion, were the true opiates of the "masses" during the nineteenth century. 

Images proliferated at an awesome rate during the 1800's. So too did opportunities to see and enjoy them. From the new public art museums to chromolithograph prints on the bedroom wall, from engravings in the morning newspaper to the family photographs on the mantle - there was so much to see. So little time to riot and revolt as had occurred in 1789.

Yet, a provocative exhibition currently at the Tate Britain in London makes a strong case that an upheaval did take place during the Victorian era - a cultural one. New ways of visual representation and a new image-making technology - photography - led this revolution.

Painting with Light, Art and Photography from the Pre-Raphaelites to the Modern Age is a vast exhibit with nearly two hundred works of art on view.  

Arthur Hacker, A Wet Night at Piccadilly Circus, 1910

Often seen as being in conflict during the 1800's, painting and photography were paired in a collaborative synergy. Painting with Light methodically - and often brilliantly - shows how these rival art forms joined forces during the Victorian and Edwardian eras in Great Britain. 

It is best to see this relationship as a "dialog." Photography and painting  certainly influenced each other but it is not always clear which was leading the way. Two signature works in Painting with Light illustrate this problematic partnership. 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix, c.1864–70.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti began work on Beata Beatrix in 1864. The painting honored the memory of Elizabeth "Lizzie" Siddal, Rossetti's wife, muse and gifted artist in her own right. "Lizzie" Siddal had died in 1862. Rossetti, whose emotions were notoriously brittle, struggled with this work and was unable to complete it until 1870.

During the interim, Rossetti's interest in photography waxed and waned. So too did his friendship with the great photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron. 

Rossetti had met Cameron in 1857. During the early years of the 1860's, Rossetti lauded Cameron's photos. By the end of the decade, however, his views had changed. In 1869, Rossetti wrote Cameron an accusatory letter stating that "photography is not always a trustworthy reporter even in your hands as regards facts."        

In 1867, while still on good terms with Rossetti, Cameron created a stunning photograph, Call, I Follow, I Follow, Let Me Die.The ostensible theme, like Beata Beatrix, was Medieval culture. Cameron adopted a line from Tennyson's Idylls of the King as her title and posed her maid, Mary Hillier, as Sir Lancelot's lover, Elaine.    

Julia Margaret Cameron, Call, I Follow, I Follow, Let Me Die, 1867

There are few traces of Camelot in this revolutionary photo. Tightly cropped and brilliantly composed, it presented Hillier in dramatic profile. Narrative details are nowhere in evidence, unlike Beata Beatrix. The pose aside, the two works are quite dissimilar. Cameron's photo gestures toward the future, while Rossetti's painting is rooted in the past. 

Was Rossetti annoyed that Cameron had borrowed the pose of Beata Beatrix to create such a strikingly modern work? Did the effect of seeing Call, I Follow, I Follow, Let Me Die rouse Rossetti to finish Beata Beatrix, thus reclaiming the image that he had struggled so long to complete?  

We are unlikely to know the answers to these questions with any degree of certainty. We do know that Rossetti never left his allegorical inner world to embrace modernism. 

In 1865, Rossetti commissioned a series of photos of Jane Morris, who had replaced Lizzie Siddal as his muse. Rossetti chose John Robert Parsons, a competent photographer but lacking the inspired vision of Cameron. Parson's photos provided Rossetti with striking views of Jane Morris which informed his unforgettable - but also unchanging - images of "Janey" in such paintings as Proserpine, painted in 1874. 

According to mythology, Proserpine or Persephone was doomed to remain Queen of the Underworld because she ate from a pomegranate while in Hades.This fatal fruit was the erotic focus point of Rossetti's painting and also of two later works in Painting with Light

Minna Keene, Decorative Study No.1, Pomegranates, c.1906

Zaida Ben-Yusuf"s 1899 photo, The Odor of Pomegranates, and Decorative Study No.1, Pomegranates, by Minna Keene, created around 1906, are rooted in the Pre-Raphaelite taste for rich detail. These works evoke the pictorial story-telling tradition which Rossetti's Proserpine exemplified. 

The 1874 date of Proserpine, however, reminds us that the First Impressionist Salon occurred that same year. The 1906 date of Mina Keene's Decorative Study No.1 is even more disconcerting. Picasso's Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was painted the following year.

It is hard to escape the feeling that eminent Victorians like Rossetti had tasted a few pomegranates too many.

Photography was invented in 1839 by Louis Jacques Daguerre (if you are French) or by William Fox Talbot (if you are English). It is clear from Painting with Light that British technical ingenuity never slackened from Fox Talbot's calotype process to the first experiments with color photos, based on theories by the scientist, James Clerk Maxwell, in 1861.

This spirit of British innovation did not transfer to artistic inspiration. During much of the 1800's, Great Britain was the world's wealthiest and most powerful nation. But the price of pioneering the Industrial Revolution was staggering. British painters and photographers generally looked away from social issues, ignoring the child prostitutes, the open sewers and the cholera victims who died by the tens of thousands. 

John Everett Millais, The Woodman’s Daughter, 1850-5

Instead, British painters like John Everett Millais (1829-1896) chose safe, moralistic themes like The Woodman’s Daughter.  

Many photographers likewise averted their eyes from urban and industrial realities. Peter Henry Emerson (1856-1933), to his credit, used advanced photographic techniques to record the lives of rural folk living in the marshes of eastern England.These brilliant images, which record quietly heroic lives little changed from the Middle Ages, were collected and published in a major book, Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads.

Ten years before Claude Monet created his lily pond at Giverny, Emerson and his painter colleague, Thomas Frederick Goodall (1856-1944) documented country people gathering water lilies for use in fish traps. Emerson initially believed that photography was a great art form and urged photographers to "first see the picture in nature and be struck by its beauty....”

Peter Henry Emerson,Setting the Bow-Net,1885

In a stunning "about face" in 1890, Emerson declared "Photography not Art." Emerson's reversal, like Rossetti's harsh criticism of Julia Margaret Cameron, shows how difficult was the process of moving a very traditional society like Great Britain into the modern world.

"Festina lente," Caesar Augustus proclaimed in antiquity. "Make haste slowly."  

Thomas Frederick Goodall,The Bow Net, 1886

The British during the last decades of the nineteenth century faced the future with an apprehension of radical change. Responding to the Industrial Revolution, the British opted for unifying art forms based on the narrative traditions of English literature and reverence for the natural world.  

We have only to study John Singer Sargent's Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose to see this single-minded devotion in action. Sargent painted Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose in 1885-86 after he fled to England to escape the Madame X scandal at the l884 Paris Salon. 

Staying with friends at an artist's colony in the Cotswolds, Sargent almost literally "painted with light." He took the en plein air technique of the Impressionists to an unimaginable level of dedication. He painted for less than fifteen minutes each evening to capture the exact light conditions at dusk, when Japanese lanterns would be lit.

John Singer Sargent, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose,1885-86

Sargent worked in this fashion for two summers in order to complete Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. In essence, Sargent focused with his brush and palette in a way that photographers manipulate their camera lens. 

In 1909, the pioneer of color photography in Britain, John Cimon Warburg (1867–1931) paid a tribute to Sargent's masterful painting. Warburg's autochrome portrait of his daughter, Peggy in the Garden, is so evocative of Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose that one would be pardoned for mistaking it as a work by Sargent himself.

In a world beset by bewildering change, British art during the late nineteenth century focused on themes readily appreciated by people across a broad social spectrum. As a result, British art failed to score the breakthrough triumphs that are now associated with Monet, Cezanne and Matisse. France, not Britain, was the high road to Modern Art.

Yet, Painting with Light at Tate Britain shows that quiet revolutions can succeed in making an enduring, effectual mark. In the house of art, as in heaven, there are many mansions.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved. 
Images Courtesy of the Tate Britain Museum, London, UK

Introductory Image:                                                                                                         Dante Gabriel Rossetti (British,1828–1882) Proserpine, 1874. Oil paint on canvas, 1251 x 610 mm. Tate. Presented by W. Graham Robertson, 1940.

Arthur Hacker (British,1858-1919) A Wet Night at Piccadilly Circus, 1910. Oil on canvas
710 x 915 mm. Royal Academy of Arts, London.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (British, 1828–1882) Beata Beatrix, c.1864–70. Oil paint on canvas, 864 x 660 mm. Tate Acquisition Presented by Georgiana, Baroness Mount-Temple, in memory of her husband, Francis, Baron Mount-Temple, 1889.

Julia Margaret Cameron (British, 1815-1879) Call, I Follow, I Follow, Let Me Die, 1867. Photograph, carbon print on paper, 372 x 266 mm. © Royal Photographic Society/National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library 

Minna Keene (British, 1861-1943) Decorative Study No.1, Pomegranates, c.1906. Carbon Print, 470 x 328 mm. © Royal Photographic Society / National Media Museum/ Science & Society Picture Library

John Everett Millais (British,1829-1896) The Woodman’s Daughter, 1850-51. Oil paint on canvas, 889 x 648 mm. Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London.

Thomas Frederick Goodall (British, 1856-1944) and Peter Henry Emerson (British,1856-1936) Setting the Bow-Net, in Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads,1885, published 1887. Book – open at ‘The Bow Net’. Photograph, platinum print on paper 300 x 420 mm (book closed) Private collection.

Thomas Frederick Goodall (British,1856-1944) The Bow Net, 1886. Oil paint on canvas,
838 x 1270 mm. National Museums Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery

John Singer Sargent (American,1856-1925) Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose,1885-86. Oil paint on canvas, 1740 x 1537 mm. Tate. Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest, 1887.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Artrage: the Story of the BritArt Revolution by Elizabeth Fullerton

Artrage: the Story of the BritArt Revolution

By Elizabeth Fullerton

Thames & Hudson/285 pages/$45.00

Reviewed by Ed Voves

The moment that all artists should fear has arrived for The Young British Artists. The YBAs have become an institution. 

These "BritArt" iconoclasts of the 1990s are the subject of a superb chronicle of their lives and art. The aptly-named book, Artrage, recently published by Thames and Hudson, comes just as the work of one of their founding members, Damien Hirst, has entered the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.

Can the dreaded word, retrospective, be far off? 

Artrage: the Story of the Britart Revolution was written by Elizabeth Fullerton. An accomplished journalist, Fullerton worked as a foreign correspondent for Reuters. She has an MA in art history and has covered the cultural scene for a number of top tier publications. Fullerton writes about contemporary art in an engaging, exciting and insightful way. The Young British Artists could not have asked for a better biographer.

For her part, Fullerton could not have dreamed-up a more colorful group of protagonists. Collectively and individually, the YBAs personified ambition and anxiety, brash outward behavior and repressed fault lines of insecurity.

The YBAs - Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread, Mat Collishaw, Tracy Emin, Sarah Lucas, Angus Fairhurst, Angela Bullock, Gillian Wearing and  others - first made headlines in 1988. The Thatcher Revolution was in its terminal phase. Having destroyed the labor movement in Britain and undermined the Welfare State, "Thatcherism" created a polarized environment ripe for revolution. 

A number of the YBAs came from working class families who had suffered under the Iron Lady's rule. But their "revenge" came by embracing many of the principles of the Thatcherite creed. With van Gogh paintings being auctioned at Christies for mind-boggling sums, the YBAs decided to manipulate the system in their favor rather than overturn it.

Several of the YBAs, notably the sculptor Rachel Whiteread, have created social statements of enduring merit. But making "relevant art" generally took a back seat to just making the kind of art that Sarah Lucas described as "what's sort of poking me in the eye." 

Marcus Taylor, Rachel Whiteread, Fiona Rae and Richard Patterson in Venice to celebrate Gary Hume at the British Pavilion, 1999

Five years before the YBAs scored their 1988 breakthrough, Cyndi Lauper released the song that would become the anthem of the 1980's and 1990's, Girls Just Want to Have Fun. One of the lines from the song directly pertains to the YBAs. They refused to follow in van Gogh's suicidal footsteps or meekly accept what the elitist art establishment cared to offer:

I want to be the one to walk in the sun

The YBAs were mostly graduates of Goldsmiths College of Art in South London. The faculty at Goldsmiths encouraged personal initiative, equipping "students with a set of valuable practical tools with which to face a hostile art world."      

Fullerton provides just enough background detail to set the tone for her narrative. But she quickly - and sensibly - launches into the story of the 1988 "Freeze" exhibit, organized by Damien Hirst. Although still a student at Goldsmiths, Hirst demonstrated the finesse and daring of seasoned impresario. He gained access to a vacant London Docklands building as a site for a group exhibition and secured enough funding to mount the show.

Hirst gave everyone their marching orders in a typed memo with the bold-face declaration "IT IS GONNA BE GOOD."

Angela Bulloch sitting on Damien Hirst’s lap during the preparations for “Freeze”

Despite an intolerable work load, cruel dismissals of the work of a couple of the participants (for not "fitting in") and a drinking binge at the exhibit opening, "Freeze" was a success. The exhibit generated a momentum and elan that would last for over a decade.

Sales and media reviews were a different matter. A deal for Mat Collishaw's brilliant, disturbing Bullet Hole fell through. The solitary major review of the exhibit - in The Guardian - castigated the group for their lack of "self-doubt." 

Mat Collishaw, Bullet Hole, 1988

Self-doubt? The YBAs might have sampled a bit too much from the drinks table at the "Freeze" premier but they ignored such absurd media commentary.

"Freeze" introduced the work of the YBA's to art dealers and collectors. Artrage focuses on  these gallery owners and patrons almost as much as upon the artists. Visionaries like the German-born dealer, Karsten Schubert, worked to raise the public profile of the YBA's while struggling to keep from drowning in red ink. Others, notably the aristocratic Jay Jopling, joined in for the fun and profit of it all.

Jay Jopling and Damien Hirst, 1992

When it comes to collectors of YBA art, Charles Saatchi is a special case. Saatchi virtually created several YBA "brands." Saatchi purchased  Damien Hirst's notorious "Shark Tank" piece and Adam Chodzko's compelling, unsettling Secretors

Saatchi also used his British establishment connections to win approval for an exhibit of YBA art at the sanctum sanctorum of the Royal Academy in 1997. It is a key episode in Fullerton's narrative which she recounts with a judicious balance of drama and analysis. 

The planning committee for "Sensation" at the Royal Academy included Damien Hirst and Norman Rosenthal, the exhibition administrator of the Royal Academy. This insured that noteworthy art by the YBA "core group" like Fiona Rae's Untitled (Parliament) would be included. 

But it was a work by an artist on the periphery of the YBAs that detonated the major explosion at "Sensation." Marcus Harvey's billboard-size portrait of the child-murderer, Myra Hindley, triggered howls of protest. 

"Sensation" was mounted only a few weeks after Princess Diana's death. Presenting a "heroic" portrait (at least in its physical dimensions) of a child-murderer so soon after the passing of a noted humanitarian like Princess Diana was bound to give offense and to detract from mature assessment of works like Rae's Untitled (Parliament).

Fiona Rae, Untitled (Parliament), 1996

Was the inclusion of Myra a misstep or a case of "there's no such thing as bad publicity?" Saatchi after all manages a very successful advertising agency. Dark thoughts about his manipulation of the art scene are not easy to dismiss. 

Only a short time after the closing of "Sensation," Saatchi castigated the YBAs for having embraced the cult of celebrity. Yet it was  Saatchi who had insisted that the "Sensation" artists be featured with full page portraits in the exhibit catalog against Rosenthal's dissent. 

Whether or not Saatchi was a malign Svengali-figure or just a very astute player in the lucrative art market, he did provide needed financial support early-on and pointed the YBAs in the direction of career success.

Yet, in terms of validation, the mere fact that many of the YBAs never succumbed to "starving artist syndrome" has worked against them. Jealousy and resentment of their success began to surface around the time of the "Sensations" exhibit.

Gillian Wearing  unwittingly served as a lightning-rod for such criticism. Wearing had questioned contemporary society with a series of portrait photographs. She took pictures of people on the streets of London holding placards with a word or phrase that described their emotions. In a wise choice, a  London "Bobbie" chose the word, "Help." 

Like much of YBA art, Wearing's photo expressed a theme, however brilliant, that allowed for little variation. With devilish (and terribly unfair) sarcasm, critics sharpened the barbs on their tongues. Her photo series was lambasted as "Gillian Wearing-Thin."

By extension, such criticism was aimed at the whole YBA group. In 2004, a devastating fire at a London warehouse used by many of the YBAs destroyed a huge trove of art. An editorial in The Daily Mirror exulted at the incineration of the "over-priced, over-discussed trash that we have had rammed down our throats in recent years by these ageing enfants terribles..."

Fullerton emphasizes dramatic incident over extended commentary. But when she pauses to provide insight, her words command respect. Collectively, the YBAs are a generational group rather than a stylistic one. Fullerton notes:

The vexed issue of what connected the BritArtists has never been resolved for want of a simple answer. While common threads exist in their art, such as black humor, focus on the self or emphasis on death and decay, there was no overriding style. The artists certainly didn't consider themselves as a movement and had no manifesto or shared philosophy; yet they were undeniably a phenomenon.  

Fullerton manages the difficult task of presenting these disparate artists as individuals while coming to terms with the "phenomenon" of BritArt during the 1990's. If the YBAs were "self-absorbed" or included elements of gratuitous violence, these can be interpreted as comments on the era as well-as pandering after quick sales or headline-grabbing. 

Too much media attention has been given to the "bad-boy" or "bad-girl" images of the YBAs. Fullerton's book certainly opened my eyes - and my mind - to the work of artists I scarcely understood because of all the hype surrounding them. 

The work by Angela Bullock is a case in point. From her early "drawing machines" using infrared detectors to Firamental Night Sky: Oculus.12, 2008, Bullock has brilliantly utilized cutting-edge technology. Firmamental Night Sky used LED (light-emitting diodes) technology to create a "starry" sky in the oculus of the Guggenheim Museum's rotunda during a 2008 exhibition. This was a profound statement on humanity's place in the cosmos and a comparison with van Gogh is entirely deserved.

I missed this 2008 exhibit at the Guggenheim. At that point, I simply could not appreciate innovative contemporary artists like Angela Bullock. The kind of media chatter that has - until now - defined the YBAs has been an obstacle for me. It has made it difficult to appreciate them as creative individuals.

Thanks to Elizabeth Fullerton's outstanding saga of The Young British Artists, I won't make that mistake again.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Introductory Image: Artrage: the Story of the BritArt Revolution. 2016 (book cover) Courtesy Thames & Hudson

Marcus Taylor, Rachel Whiteread, Fiona Rae and Richard Patterson in Venice to celebrate Gary Hume at the British Pavilion, 1999.  Photograph Fiona Rae  © Fiona Rae. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2016

Angela Bulloch sitting on Damien Hirst’s lap during the preparations for “Freeze” in Port of London Authority (PLA) building, 1988. Photograph Simon Patterson Courtesy Angela Bulloch

Mat Collishaw, Bullet Hole, 1988. Cibachrome mounted on fifteen light boxes.                   243.8 x 265.8 cm (96 x 44 in.) Copyright the artist

Jay Jopling and Damien Hirst, 1992.  Photograph Jillian Edelstein  © Jillian Edelstein

Fiona Rae, Untitled (Parliament), 1996. Oil and acrylic on canvas , 274.3 x 243.8 cm (108 x 96 in.)  Courtesy Timothy Taylor Gallery, London © Fiona Rae. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2016