Saturday, December 28, 2013

Armory Show at the New York Historical Society


The Armory Show at 100 

The New York Historical Society, New York City

October 11, 2013 – February 23, 2014

Reviewed by Ed Voves

No one can fault the New York Historical Society for the number or quality of the works of art on display in its exhibition recalling the Armory Show of 1913. This fabled event, when modern art made its debut in the United States, is recreated with an amazing number of the actual paintings and sculptures from the show, as well as vintage photos, documents and newspaper clippings.

I could not help thinking that an opportunity had been missed by not including, for the sake of a laugh as well as a sense of perspective, a modern painting called The Triumph of the New York School. It would have been a perfect parting image at the end of the exhibit.

The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York displays this big, monochromatic work, painted in 1984 by Mark Tansey. Measuring six by ten feet, The Triumph of the New York School depicts artists clad in French World War I uniforms surrendering to American counterparts wearing World War II khakis. Clement Greenberg, the Art Czar of the Abstract Expressionists, presides in the role of General MacArthur, while Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, decked-out in a fur overcoat used by flying aces in World War I, wait to sign the articles of capitulation.

The point of this sly, ironical work is well-taken. The New York School, the "Ab-Ex" painters of the 1950's, did triumph over the once revolutionary Fauves and Cubists of Paris. But a half-century before this mythical encounter took place, nobody would ever have guessed that American artists could gain the upper hand over the French. In 1913, in a real life encounter, the Left Bank Revolutionaries had swept the field, leaving the "home team" in disarray.

This face-off of American and European artists was of course the Armory Show in New York City. Despite its once notorious reputation, the Armory Show was not intended to be controversial. It was organized under the title of the International Exhibition of Modern Art in order to educate the public in the United States about current or recent trends in the visual arts. The goal of the Armory Show was to influence the taste of Americans in favor of contemporary art and get them to buy paintings and sculptures by living artists.

When New Yorkers, bundled in furs like Picasso's flying ace attire, braved the freezing weather of February 17, 1913 to attend the opening of the exhibition, a storm of controversy erupted.

The uproar centered upon one painting in particular, Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase. Painted only the year before, Duchamp's work was an interesting attempt to evoke a sense of movement in art. Like the Italian Futurists, Duchamp endeavored to go beyond a static moment, frozen or "hallowed" in time, to animate art.

Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2)

Whether it was a bold attempt to take art in a new direction or second generation cubism, Duchamp's painting sparked criticism and ridicule that had more to do with America's latent Puritanism than the vitriolic debate on Modernism. Had Duchamp entitled his work, Woman Descending a Staircase, it hardly would have occasioned more than a shrug or a grimace of disapproval.

In that case, the howls of protest would likely have surrounded another of the Armory Show's "black sheep." Henri Matisse's Blue Nude, 1907, defied all of the notions of idealized beauty and femininity that had dominated Western art since antiquity. Bernard Berenson, the doyen of Renaissance art, called Blue Nude "the toad." The painting evokes a sense of earthy, primal sexuality totally at odds with Renaissance allegory or with the Gibson Girl ideal of early-1900's America. It was a harbinger of the twentieth century revolts just beginning.

Henri Matisse, Blue Nude

The organizers of the Armory Show, Walt Kuhn and Arthur B. Davies, were - outwardly - anything but revolutionaries. They worked on behalf of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, formed in 1911 as a progressive alternative to the arch-conservative National Academy of Design. Robert Henri, leader of the ultra-Realist "Ashcan" painters had lampooned the venerable National Academy as being "no more national than the National Biscuit company." Kuhn and Davies were entrusted with putting together an exhibition of contemporary American artists.

Davies was a Symbolist painter and, in a way, Kuhn was one as well. Kuhn's favorite motif, circus performers with haunted, searching eyes, shared a theme with European painters like Gustav Doré and the young Pablo Picasso, both of whom had painted pictures of world-weary acrobats, Les Saltimbanques. To prepare for the Armory Show, Davies and Kuhn visited Europe in 1912, including the Sonderbund Exhibition in Cologne. They were hugely impressed by the upsurge of artistic innovation in the Old World and decided to include European imports in the Armory Show. This decision was to have a momentous effect on American art and culture.

The big exhibit gallery at the New York Historical Society can only hint at the cavernous dimensions of the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Ave between 25th and 26th streets. The arrangement of the works on display does allow for a sense of the path that visitors to the Armory Show were expected to follow, from viewing American works of art at the beginning to the octagonal cubicles or "rooms" with European works at the end.

Overhead view of Armory installation, 1913

As the notoriety of Duchamp's work spread, many of the sensation seekers who came to the show went straight to the "Chamber of Horrors" where Nude Descending a Staircase was hanging. American artists watched in dismay as superb paintings that evoked contemporary society like John Sloan's Sunday, Women Drying Their Hair or John Marin's brilliant display of modernist technique, Woolworth Building, No. 28, were passed over with hardly a second glance.

John Sloan, Sunday, Women Drying Their Hair

John Marin, Woolworth Building, No. 28

By the time the Armory Show began, Henri was already nursing emotional wounds from comments made by Alfred Stieglitz about his "conservative" approach to art. Although Henri had voted to approve Davies’ selection and organization methods for the Armory Show, he found himself and other Ashcan painters marginalized along with the National Academy of Design.

When Henri met Davies at the Armory Show, he said tersely, "If the Americans find that they’ve just been working for the French, they won’t be prompted to do this again."

But the European Modernist works sold much better than paintings and sculptures by American artists. The biggest seller was a French Symbolist, Odilon Redon. Another painter, little heard of before or since, Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso (1887-1918), sold seven of his eight works on display. The Portuguese-born Souza-Cardoso was a friend of Walter Pach, another of the organizers of the Armory Show who favored European Modernism over American Realism.

For all the wisecracks about Duchamp’s Rude Descending a Staircase, the European avant-garde made a beach-head on American soil for the first time. A chasm opened in American art which to a real extent has never closed.

Davies and Kuhn had actually done a commendable job organizing the exhibition. They placed the contemporary American works in visible positions, including Henri's Figure in Motion, a realistic nude that might have stirred the ire of the guardians of American morality had not Duchamp done so first. If Davies and Kuhn did one thing differently for the Europeans than for the American artists, it was to trace the roots of Modernism in Europe back to the mid-1800's.

Honoré Daumier, Third Class Carriage

Among the early works of Modernism displayed at the Armory Show were Eugène Delacroix's Christ on the Lake of Genesareth and Honoré Daumier's Third Class Carriage. These works testify to Ernst Gombrich's contention that the real break in the traditions of Western art happened during the early decades of the 1800's rather than during the early 1900's. But that was in Europe. American society had been shielded to a large degree from this cultural revolution. When the Armory Show opened its doors, the effect confirmed Kuhn's prediction that "We will show New York something they never dreamed of."

What Americans saw for the first time was Modernism at full blast. Paintings by Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin from the 1880's and 1890's were displayed in close proximity to Cubist works by Picasso and Francis Picabia of very recent vintage.

Vincent van Gogh, Mountains at Saint Remy

Francis Picabia, Dances at the Spring

Young Americans, especially the Greenwich Village intelligentsia, hailed the works of the European "wild men" as touchstones of revolution. Many, like John Reed and Mabel Dodge, came to the Armory Show primed to revolt.

The New York Historical Society exhibit provides an excellent introduction to this portentous moment in American cultural history. The eventual triumph of the New York School, cleverly evoked in Tansey's 1984 painting, can be traced to the shock of the Armory Show. The same can be said for much of the controversy and intrigue that bedeviled culture in the United States since 1913.

The Armory Show was the moment of Modernism's awakening in the United States. It was also the first of the American Culture Wars.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved

Images Courtesy of the New York Historical Society
Introductory Image: Association of American Painters and Sculptors, Inc., International Exhibition of Modern Art, 1913. Exhibition catalogue. New-York Historical Society

Marcel Duchamp (French, 1887-1968), Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), 1912. Oil on canvas, 57 7/8 x 35 1/8 in. Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950, 1950-134-59. © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris / Succession Marcel Duchamp

Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954), Blue Nude, 1907. Oil on canvas, 36 ¼ x 55 ¼ in. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland, BMA 1950.228. © 2013 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photography by Mitro Hood.

Overhead view of Armory installation, 1913. Walt Kuhn, Kuhn family papers, and Armory Show records, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

John Sloan (American, 1871-1951), Sunday, Women Drying Their Hair, 1912. Oil on canvas, 26 1/8 x 32 1/8 in. Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts, Museum Purchase, 1938.67. © 2013 Delaware Art Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

John Marin (American, 1870-1953), Woolworth Building, No. 28, 1912. Watercolor over graphite, 18 ½ x 15 9/16 in. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer. © 2013 Estate of John Marin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Honoré Daumier (French, 1808–1879), Third Class Carriage (Un Wagon de Troisième Classe), 1856–58. Oil on panel, 10¼ × 13⅜ in. (26 × 33.9 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, Whitney Warren, Jr. Bequest Fund in memory of Mrs. Adolph B. Spreckels, Bequest funds of Henry S. Williams in memory of H. K. S. Williams, Magnin Income Fund, Art Trust Fund, Alexander and Jean de Bretteville Fund, Art Acquisition Endowment Income Fund in honor of Mrs. John N. Rosekrans, 1996.51

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890), Mountains at Saint Rémy (Montagnes à Saint-Rémy), 1889. Oil on canvas, 28 ¼ x 35 ¾ in. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Thannhauser Collection, Justin K. Thannhauser, 1978, 78.2514.24

Francis Picabia (French, 1879-1953), Dances at the Spring, 1912. Oil on canvas, 47 7/16 x 47 ½ in. Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950, 1950-134-155. © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Friday, December 6, 2013

Art Eyewitness Review: Japonisme and the Rise of the Modern Art Movement

Japonisme and the Rise of the Modern Art Movement: The Arts of the Meiji Period   

Edited by Gregory Irvine
Thames and Hudson/240 pages/$75

Reviewed by Ed Voves

If art books were nominated for annual awards the way that motion pictures are, then Japonisme and the Rise of the Modern Art Movement would definitely be a front-runner in the "most beautiful book" category for 2013.

Any doubts about that claim will be quickly dispelled by a perusal of this book. On its pages are displayed works by Japanese craftsman that astonished Western connoisseurs during the last decades of the nineteenth century. The ornate enamel vase created in 1893 by Suzuki Shirozaemon and Tsunekawa Seizaemon was monumental in its dimensions and bold in its depiction of nature. At the other end of the scale was the simplified elegance of a 1910 lacquerware box made by Tsujimura Shoka. Whatever the style or size, these are truly "things of beauty."

Monumental Vase. C.1893.

Asunaro Box, 1910.

Of equal - perhaps greater - significance, Japonisme and the Rise of the Modern Art Movement is also deserving of praise for its insightful text. This is a major study of a pivotal turning point in art history. The great national "schools" of European art, with their emphasis on defining characteristics by country, were challenged during the mid-1800's by waves of exotic pictures and objects brought back in the baggage of globe-trotting travelers and colonial officials. Beginning with the heyday of the Impressionist painters during the 1870's, the traditional art and crafts of Japan created such a sensation that the French art critic Philippe Burty coined a new term for this phenomenon: Japonisme.

This is not exactly a new interpretation of the rise of Modernism. Most books or exhibitions on Impressionism or Post-Impressionism have noted the effect of Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Manet, Monet, Whistler, Degas and Cassatt were influenced by the relaxed placement of figures and striking coloration in these depictions of the "floating world" of Japan. Vincent van Gogh was so taken by the work of Utagawa Hiroshige that he painted close copies of several of the Japanese artist's prints.

Japonisme and the Rise of the Modern Art Movement certainly has much to add to this familiar story. But the really innovative aspect of this book is its attention to the influence of the material culture of Japan on Western art. Japanese ceramics, bronze casts, fabric art and more prosaic daily objects made a deep and lasting impression on European and American artists.

Silver and Enamel Incense Burner. C.1885.

It is particularly ironic that Japanese art and crafts played a major role in the rise of a global arts culture during the last decades of the nineteenth century. The beautiful objects created by Japanese master craftsmen were in fact part of a carefully orchestrated campaign to elevate the political and economic status of the nation of Japan. The Meiji Restoration of 1868 terminated the rule of the Samurai class and ushered in the modernization of Japan's political and social structures. Scenes and themes from Old Japan were exploited to fund the rise of New Japan.

Okashibako (sweet box), c.1890-1900.

This began only a few years after the opening Japan's seaports, at gun point by U.S. warships in 1853. In 1867, the Japanese government, still under the control of the Samurai shogunate, sent a delegation to the Exposition Universelle in Paris. The art works and craft items they brought added to the growing mania in the West for Japanese exotica. A year later, after a strong central government took power under the aegis of the young emperor Meiji, the Japanese began to prepare for new exhibitions being planned in Europe and the United States. At the Vienna World’s Fair in 1873 and the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Japanese art and crafts scored major triumphs.

The visitors to these international exhibits were also buying customers whose cash purchases were of huge importance to the Japanese. Gregory Irvine, the editor of Japonisme, notes that the export of hand-crafted objects accounted for ten percent of the total exports of Japan from the late 1870's to final years of the nineteenth century.

Irvine, the Senior Curator of Asian art at the Victoria and Albert Museum, leads a team of noted scholars. Their essays provide new and stimulating insights into the strategy of the Japanese for exploiting their cultural heritage as part of the modernization campaign of the Meiji period. It was so important that the Japanese government actually adopted a slogan, Wakon Yosai - "Japanese spirit, Western techniques" - for this profit-oriented art initiative.

Tray, c.1890.

The essays in this impressive book must compete for attention with the exceptionally high-quality illustrations of the book. In one sense, the designers of Japonisme and the Rise of the Modern Art Movement may have done their work too well. For, if readers don't follow the text closely, they are likely to fall victim to the misconception that there was a very close correlation between Japanese crafts and specific works of Western art during this period. That occasionally happened. But for the most part there was a "cross-pollination" of cultural influences that emphasized inspiration over imitation.

Two examples in Japonisme and the Rise of the Modern Art Movement detail this process of West-East dialog and interaction.

Édouard Manet’s depiction of a woman and young child overlooking the Gare Saint–Lazare rail station in Paris is one of the French artist’s most beloved works, familiar to visitors to the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The Railway, painted in 1873, is contrasted in Japonisme and the Rise of the Modern Art Movement with a woodblock print that Manet is likely to have seen. Just as the woman and child in Manet’s painting are posed in front of the bars of an iron fence, so two courtesans or oiran appear informally before a slatted screen overlooking a country landscape.

Édouard Manet, The Railway

Two Oiran of Chojiya, which dates to 1815, is displayed next to Manet’s The Railway. It was a type of print much seen in the West by the time Manet painted his scene. But it was the informality and naturalness of the courtesans’ pose that influenced Manet, whose background was a gritty, steam-shrouded rail station rather than a peaceful river bank.

Art historian John House considers the relationship of this work by Manet and another by Degas to Ukiyo-e woodblock prints:

Such canvases are not direct derivations from the Japanese images. Both form part of Manet’s and Degas’s larger project, to create compositions that give a sense of the immediate experience of characteristically modern scenes; the Japanese examples acted as cues, suggesting ways in which this idea of immediacy could be evoked.

House’s insights apply equally to the craft objects from the Khalili collection, which are displayed in Japonisme and the Rise of the Modern Art Movement. The Khalili collection is one of the most important assemblages of Japanese arts and crafts in private hands.

These beautiful objects certainly reflect the process by which Western artists derived inspiration from the material culture of Japan as well as from Ukiyo-e prints. But most of the Khalili collection dates from 1890 through 1910 – well after Manet, Degas and van Gogh painted their pictures. What many of the Japonisme objects in the Khalili collection reflect is the way that Japanese awareness of Western style and taste was imparted to the second and third "generations" of hand-crafted items produced for export to Europe and the United States.

This cultural dialog is explored in one of the most astonishingly beautiful pairings of art and craft in the book. In 1890, shortly before his death, Vincent van Gogh painted Almond Blossom as a gift for his newly-born nephew. An array of thin branches and delicate flowers is arranged against a light blue background. It is one of van Gogh’s transcendent works, an affirmation of life on the brink of death.

Posed next to van Gogh’s masterpiece is Vase Decorated with Plum Blossom from the Khalili collection. Created by the Japanese artist, Ando Jubei, the Cloisonné vase displays a similar scene to that of van Gogh’s painting. This vase, however, was made a decade after van Gogh’s death and well before his fame had spread worldwide. Is there a link between these two works of art or was the temptation too great to resist in placing them side-by-side during the design of the book?

Vase Decorated with Plum Blossom

The link indeed exists – and it confirms the indirect process of inspiration that House comments upon in his essay. The introductory chapter to Japonisme and the Rise of the Modern Art Movement displays a small, Japanese vase that Theo van Gogh gave to his mother. His brother Vincent painted a still life of this rather unremarkable vase, light blue with white flowers and a "crackle" effect in the glaze. Here, if anywhere, is the point of "cross-pollination" that produced Almond Blossom. Van Gogh’s painting, in turn, exemplified the sensitivity of the late-nineteenth century that Japanese artists responded to with works like Vase Decorated with Plum Blossom.

Such a magical process is inherent in art, spanning seas and continents, leaping across barriers of time. The exact process of influence and inspiration, like the alchemist’s stone, will never be discovered. But it certainly was at work during the decades of Japonisme and Impressionism, when East met West in a marriage of art and mind.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved

Images Courtesy of Thames & Hudson and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Introductory Image: Japonisme and the Rise of the Modern Art Movement, 2013 (cover) Image credit: Thames & Hudson

Monumental Vase. C.1893. Cloisonné enamels. Suzuki Shirozaemon and Tsunekawa. Khalili collection, E010.

Asunaro box, 1910. Tsujimura Shoka. Khalili collection, KX036.

Silver and Enamel Incense Burner. C.1885. Ozeki Co. Yokohama. Khalili collection, M058

Okashibako (sweet box), c.1890-1900. Wood, lacquered in Kinji and Hiramakie with applied ivory, mother of pearl and hardstones, unsigned. Khalili collection, L081.

Tray, c.1890. Musen and Cloisonné enamel with a gilt. Rim attributed to Namikawa Sosuke. Design by Watanabe Seitei. Kahlili Collection, EX393

Édouard Manet (French, 1832–1883), The Railway, 1872–1873. Oil on canvas,
93.3 x 111.5 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Gift of Horace Havemeyer in memory of his mother, Louisine W. Havemeyer, 1956.10.1

Vase Decorated with Plum Blossom. C.1900. Cloisonné enamel, Ando Jubei. Khalili collection, EX393.


Saturday, November 30, 2013

Girl with a Pearl Earring at the Frick Collection

Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis

Frick Collection, New York City

October 22, 2013, through January 19, 2014

Reviewed by Ed Voves

When I recently visited the Frick Collection in New York City, there was a line of visitors "queuing-up" as the English say, at the entrance. The line stretched nearly a block long and was continually reinforced with new art lovers anxious to get in.
The exhibition at the Frick, Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis, is certainly worth the wait. But I suspect that very few people in the daily throng at the door to the Frick come to see Nicolaes Maes' genre masterpiece, The Old Lacemaker, or even the clutch of major works by Rembrandt.

The majority of the art lovers in the line at the Frick come to pay homage to one of the true "beauties" of Holland. They are there to see Johannes Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring.

This celebrated character study or tronie is given the honor of its own separate gallery. It is a sensible curatorial decision because many visitors approach Girl with a Pearl Earring with a sense of visible anticipation, even with awe, and most want to linger. Some come back for a second or even a third look. Girl with a Pearl Earring exerts a magnetic force, drawing people to her, making it difficult for them to break free.

There are a number of reasons for the magnitude of the attraction of Girl with a Pearl Earring. We know absolutely nothing about this beautiful, enigmatic woman. For that matter, we know very little about Vermeer himself. The painter from Delft kept to himself, holding the world - and his creditors - at bay, while painting one masterpiece after another.

There is also the legend of Girl with a Pearl Earring. The painting lingered for decades, unremarked and unrecognized as a work by Vermeer until the mid-1800's. It was purchased for the princely sum of two guilders and change by Arnoldus des Tombe in 1881. Des Tombe was encouraged by the art historian Victor de Stuers, a passionate advocate of the work of Vermeer, whose reputation had earlier been eclipsed by Rembrandt and Hals.

Girl with a Pearl Earring was donated to the Royal Collection of the Netherlands. It is housed in the museum known as the Mauritshuis, currently being renovated. Girl with a Pearl's visit to museums in the U.S., of which the Frick is the last venue, is a result of this museum rehab. We probably will not be seeing her again in the U.S. any time soon.

Who is this young woman in the improvised turban, this "Mona Lisa of the North" as some now call her? Was she a serving girl in Vermeer's household? His daughter? A professional model? We are unlikely to ever know.

I think it fair to say that Girl with a Pearl Earring is the perfect symbol of the Dutch Golden Age. During this burst of creative energy spanning the seventeenth century, the people of the Netherlands beat back the armies of the Spanish Empire and Louis XIV of France, while creating the first recognizably modern, free market society in the Western world. These political and economic deeds were complemented by a remarkable degree of religious tolerance, major scientific innovations and soaring achievements in the visual arts.

Examples of the rich artistic heritage of the Dutch Golden Age are on view in the second gallery of the Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals exhibit - provided you can tear your gaze away from Girl with a Pearl Earring.

The selection of works from the Mauritshuis testifies to the diversity of Dutch art during the seventeenth century. The incredible range of genres and of technical virtuosity produced in such a small nation is sometimes hard to fathom.

Consider the paired portraits by Frans Hals of husband and wife, Jacob Olycan and Aletta Hanemans. With her plump, flushed cheeks offset by the neck ruff and headpiece which were the height of fashion in 1625. Aletta Hanemans conforms to the stereotype of female beauty of the Dutch Golden Age.

Frans Hals, Portrait of Jacob Olycan

Hals' portrait of Jacob Olycan, presents an altogether different image. Olycan's dark piercing eyes and sallow skin are the features that we associate with the Spanish enemies of the Dutch during this period. Yet Olycan was a brewer from Haarlem and an officer in the St. George Militia Company. Hals painted Olycan in a group portrait of the St. George Militia officers at a banquet in 1627. A more Dutch scene could hardly be imagined.

Vincent van Gogh praised Hals, commenting that he painted with twenty-seven different shades of black. Where did this Spanish-style obsession with black originate? Frans Hals (1582-1666) was born in Flanders, present-day Belgium, which remained under Spanish control after the Dutch revolted, led by the indomitable William of Orange in 1568. But Hals' parents fled from Antwerp to escape the Spanish in 1585 when he was a young child. Any Spanish influence upon his painting, therefore, could only have been indirect and marginal.

Hals was one of the greatest portrait painters in the history of art. He needs no chain of influences to explain his grasp of color and form, his "rough style" or his insight into human character.

Artists of the Netherlands during seventeenth century, however, did possess unrivaled access to the material culture of the entire globe. Thanks to the intrepid - and aggressive - outreach of Dutch maritime trade, all manner of things - Chinese porcelain, lacquerware from Japan, art prints from Italy - were easily attainable to Dutch artists. So vast was the Dutch control of world trade that the English, who had fought as allies against Spain, were infuriated at being locked-out of colonial trade zones and European markets. Warfare broke out between England and the Dutch Republic, with a heavy loss of ships and lives. Samuel Pepys, in his famous diary, records the exasperated comment of a fellow advisor to King Charles II, "By God, says he, I think the Devil shits Dutchmen."

The Dutch themselves were apprehensive about the effect of the unprecedented wealth flowing into their nation during the 1600's. This was particularly true during the first half of the seventeenth century when the strict commandments of Calvinist religious doctrine still dominated Dutch society.

Pieter Claesz, Vanitas Still Life.
Pieter Claesz was a German-born artist who settled in the city of Haarlem. Claesz specialized in still-life paintings. His Vanitas Still Life from 1630 reinforced the Sunday preaching of Calvinist ministers that life is short and worldly pursuits are ultimately in vain. The toppled wine glass, the dying flame of the oil lamp and the cracked, pitted skull are obvious reminders of such sermons.

Perhaps the most notable feature of this superbly crafted work is the way that Claesz treated the pages of the large folio. These are so jagged and brittle that they would crumble at the merest touch. With this master stroke, Claesz affirms that even knowledge and scholarship, major concerns for the scientific Dutch, will pass away.

Rembrandt's "Tronie" of a Man with a Feathered Beret was painted in 1635, during a decade of bravura portraits and major biblical scenes. The term "tronie" is derived from the Dutch word for "face." Tronies were smaller works, character studies or depictions of people in exotic garb. Rembrandt, flush with funds from his portraits, invested in all manner of hats, clothing and gear which he could use as props in his paintings. The fantastical hat and gleaming armor in this tronie were no doubt part of his collection, later auctioned-off after his bankruptcy in 1656.

Rembrandt, "Tronie" of a Man with a Feathered Beret

A close look at Rembrandt's "Tronie" reveals that it is a cautionary work like Vanitas Still Life by Claesz. The dashing beret, worthy of one of Hals' cavaliers, strikes a hollow note when we examine the puffy features and creased brow of Rembrandt's protagonist. Is he the recipient of bad news? Has he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror and realized his own mortality? Whatever the case, there is real fear in the eyes that flash at us from the picture. Here we can begin to see the origins of the introspection and self-knowing that were to transform Rembrandt's later portraits and self-portraits into the most insightful evocations of human character ever painted.

The fleeting nature of life is further attested to by another astonishing painting on view at the Frick, The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius. This wondrous painting is a trompe l’oeil masterpiece. Fabritius delicately balances brilliant handling of the feathery plumage of the goldfinch against an equally expert depiction of the wall plaster. Is that a real bird posed on a sunlit wall or is it a "trick of the eye" that we are looking at?

Carel Fabritius, The Goldfinch

Tragically, Fabritius, Rembrandt's most brilliant pupil, was killed the same year as this amazing work of art was created. On October 12, 1654, a gunpowder factory in the city of Delft, where both Fabritius and Vermeer lived, exploded. Hundreds of people perished, including Fabritius. His studio was burned and much of his work was consumed in the flames.

A year later, another talented pupil of Rembrandt, Nicolaes Maes, painted The Old Lacemaker. It is a sentimental genre work, but also one liberated from allegorical or didactic content.

Nicolaes Maes The Old Lacemaker

In the last decades of the seventeenth century, Dutch taste favored comforting images of hearth and home. The long years of constant warfare led to a reaction against grand visions of life or preachy moralizing. It was, perhaps, the beginning of the end of the Dutch Golden Age. But Maes' The Old Lacemaker also testifies to the patient, industrious and quietly courageous character of the Dutch people who had made the Golden Age possible in the first place.

Of course, we want to see Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring more than a picture of an old lady making lace. But if there is one lesson to be learned from these masterpieces from the Mauritshuis, it is that beauty can be found almost everywhere we look. Living as they do, in a small corner of Europe hemmed in by the North Sea, the Dutch have nurtured this faculty for appreciating the world around them to a remarkable degree.

And so, when the Girl with a Pearl Earring turns her gaze upon us at the Frick Collection, we are transfixed by that gleam in her eyes. It conveys a visible, lively sense of humor and humanity, pouring out from the soul of Girl with a Pearl. It beams from her eyes, turning the space beyond the picture plain into a place of wonder.

It is the look that defined the Dutch Golden Age - and perhaps ours as well.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved

Images Courtesy of the Frick Collection, New York City
Introductory Image: Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675). Girl with a Pearl Earring, c. 1665. Oil on canvas: 44.5 x 39 cm. Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague.

Frans Hals (1581/15851666). Portrait of Jacob Olycan (1596–1638), 1625. Oil on canvas: 124.8 x 97.5 cm. Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague.

Pieter Claesz Vanitas Still Life, 1630. Oil on panel: 39.5 x 56 cm. Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669). "Tronie" of a Man with a Feathered Beret, c. 1635. Oil on panel: 62.5 x 47 cm. Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague.

Carel Fabritius (1622–1654). The Goldfinch, 1654. Oil on panel: 33.5 x 22.8 cm. Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague.

Nicolaes Maes The Old Lacemaker, c. 1655. Oil on panel: 37.5 x 35 cm. Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague.


Friday, November 22, 2013

Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium at the National Gallery

Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collection


National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. October 6, 2013–March 2, 2014

J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, April 9 through August 25, 2014

Reviewed by Ed Voves

The display of Byzantine art on view at the National Gallery of Art is a small wonder. This modestly-sized exhibition details the complex evolution of one of history's most misunderstood civilizations.

In the space of five thematic galleries, Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections evokes the culture and religious life of the realm centered upon the fabled city of Constantinople. This was the Eastern Roman Empire, known to later ages as Byzantium. Drawn exclusively from museums in Greece, many of the exhibit’s 170 paintings, mosaics, sculptures and objects from daily life have never previously travelled to museums in the United States.

Heaven and Earth is a story over one thousand years in the making. It begins in 330 AD with the momentous decision by Constantine I to relocate the capital of his empire from Rome to the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Constantine's choice was the city called Byzantium, located on the Bosporus straits that separate the two continents. With a genius for survival and self-promotion, the Roman ruler encircled the city with impregnable defensive walls and renamed it for himself: Constantinople.

This long enduring citadel withstood many sieges. Clear-sighted strategy - a word much used by the rulers of the Eastern Roman Empire - enabled Byzantium to endure for over a millennium. The walls of Constantinople were only breached by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, with the aid of artillery manned by European mercenaries.

The depressing details of wars and upheavals are kept to a minimum in this profoundly moving exhibition. Upon entering Heaven and Earth, one immediately beholds an imposing wall-sized image of the interior of a Byzantine church. This sets the scene for the Adrianople Cross, striking in both its beauty and simplicity. Dated to the late tenth century, the Adrianople Cross reinforces the central fact of cultural life in Constantinople and the other cities of the Eastern Roman Empire. Byzantine art was Christian art.

The Adrianople Cross

Initially, the attitude of the early Christians toward art was very hostile. Most of the art of Imperial Rome was based upon the gods of classical Greece or the practice of emperor worship. Until Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313, granting legal recognition to Christianity, there was little force behind the opposition to "graven images" among the followers of Jesus. Then, as Christianity was embraced as the official state religion of the Roman Empire, the cult statues of the Greek and Roman deities were targeted by puritanical Christians for destruction.

Head of Artemis
The Heaven and Earth exhibition illustrates this purge of "pagan" art with a severed head of a statue of the goddess Aphrodite, defaced by having a Christian cross chiseled onto its forehead. An exquisite head of the goddess Artemis or Diana, about the size of a child's fist, is almost certainly another victim of Christian violence. It is one of ten fragments from a mid-third century statuette, treated with particular scorn, as there is evidence of scorching on the top of the head.

The third and fourth centuries - the period when Christianity was gaining the upper hand - witnessed a final flourishing of portrait sculpture in the Roman world. The exhibit has an impressive portrait bust, only recently unearthed in 1982 at Chania on the island of Crete. Sculpted in white Phrygian marble from Asia-Minor (modern-day Turkey), this bust shows a young woman with elaborately arranged braids wrapped around her head. According to the exhibit catalog, traces of rose-colored glass paste were found in the indentations made for her irises. This feature would have given an even more lively presence to this vivid work of art.

Unknown Artist, Bust of a Lady
The really remarkable feature of this wonderful portrait bust, however, is that it was one of the last of its kind. Not until the age of the Medici in fifteenth century Florence would sculptors like Donatello attain such an astonishing proficiency in depicting the human form or probing the inner spirit of mankind.

The Bust of a Lady is now dated, after much discussion, to 410. In that year, Visigoth mercenaries, unpaid by the Imperial government, sacked the city of Rome. This event shocked the civilized world and led St. Augustine to write his theological masterpiece, The City of God. St. Augustine urged rich and poor alike to direct their attention to the next world, to the Heavenly City, rather than be concerned with the affairs of this world. His message found a wide-spread audience. As a result, few people, even among the fabulously wealthy Patrician class, cared to have images of themselves preserved for posterity - at a time when the world was coming to an end.

A new type of art came into being, one that stressed the mystical theology of Christians in Syria, Egypt and points further east. The naturalism of depictions of the old gods enjoying the pleasures of Arcadia was rejected in favor of an ascetic treatment of Christian themes. The great British scholar, Sir Steven Runciman, described this eastern influence as the "Aramaic conception of art" in his path-breaking book published in the 1930's, Byzantine Civilization. Runciman remarked:

The triumph of Christianity inevitably meant the furthering of this Aramaic conception of art. Christ could not be depicted as Apollo had been. He was the God that suffered, the Great Judge, the Redeemer. His worshipper ought to feel Him at once in one of these roles; the lines of suffering, of sternness, or divine benevolence should be emphasized on His face. Religion demanded an impressionism unknown in the Greco-Roman world.

This "New Art" was revolutionary and, Runciman goes on to say, "was direct, but was not simple." In another of his books, Byzantine Civilization and Style, published in 1975, Runciman expanded on this theme. The aim of Byzantine art was to put the citizen of the empire "in mystical contact with Christ and the saints whose glances were fixed so searchingly upon him."

Susanna and the Elders
These forces can be seen at work in Susanna and the Elders, an early 5th century fresco. This rare survival of ancient painting comes from a vaulted tomb in Thessaloniki, the second most important city in Byzantium.

The story of Susanna from the Old Testament would be frequently painted by European masters in later centuries. Painters like Rembrandt emphasized the early part of the story, when Susanna is surprised while bathing, as an exercise in painting the nude. Here, Susanna is clad in a type of leather, fur-trimmed coat from the province of Dalmatia in the Balkans. Susanna is praying for God's help against the lecherous elders, who will be judged and punished by the Prophet Daniel. It is an image of piety, chastity and faith.

The "New Art," described by Runciman, extended event to the Imperial coinage. Roman coins in earlier centuries had featured lifelike renderings of the features of the Caesars. These were always depicted in profile. Around the same time that the fresco of Susanna was painted, the position of the Byzantine emperors on their coins was shifted to a frontal vantage point.

Solidus of Theodosius II

We can actually witness the change taking place in a coin from the reign of Theodosius II, dated to around 430. Some of Theodosius' distinctive features are still apparent. The inscription hearkens back to the arrogant bombast of Imperial Rome, far removed from the ineffectual personality of Theodosius II: "Our Lord Theodosius Pious Fortunate Augustus."

As the impressive display of gold coins in the exhibit shows, later depictions of the emperors were entirely stylized, showing archetypes rather than portraits. The gold coinage of Byzantium did have the merit of remained secure, enabling emperors like Justinian I to pay their troops and to build an astonishing range of palaces and churches, the greatest of which was the domed Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.

Nothing, not even a well-paid army, could prepare Byzantium for the emergence of Islam. Over the course of the seventh century, following the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632, Islam gained control of much of the Byzantine Empire, including Egypt, the primary source of its grain supply. The sudden onslaught of the Arab armies was halted only after bitter fighting and the expenditure of vast sums of money on fortresses and weapons at the expense of building new churches and commissioning works of art. But an even worse fate awaited the artistic heritage of Byzantium after the repulse of the Arab invaders.

In 726, Emperor Leo III removed the sacred image of Christ above the main gate of Constantinople. Leo, a soldier from Armenia, shared the aversion to "graven images" of his Muslim enemies. The earlier Byzantine defeats at the hands of the Arabs could be explained as a consequence of failing to properly worship God. According to this view, superstitious Christians had venerated icons - religious paintings, statues or mosaics - rather than worshipping Jesus or the saints depicted on them.

Leo ordered a campaign of destruction of religious icons. Iconoclasm, as the attack on these images was called, was renewed by subsequent emperors. Most of them came from the Asian provinces of the empire and shared Leo's disregard for religious imagery. Iconoclasm only came to an end a century later, in 843. The almost complete lack of art works from the seventh through ninth centuries in the Heaven and Earth exhibit is proof of the levels of destruction reached during this tragic episode.

The return of icons coincided with later Byzantium's most prosperous and powerful era. The hauntingly beautiful icon, the Virgin Hodegetria, dated to the last quarter of the twelfth century, exemplifies the continuity of the religious sensibility of Byzantine society. This depiction of the Virgin Mary and Jesus was used as a processional icon. Like a battle flag, it was designed to be held aloft for use in the impressive ceremonies of the Orthodox rite, with the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Byzantine emperor often in attendance.


Processional Icon of the Virgin Hodegetria
Hodegetria means "the guide who shows the way." Here the Virgin Mary directs the viewer's gaze to the child Jesus, whose status as redeemer of humankind is emphasized by his mature countenance. Mary's worried expression testifies to her foreknowledge that Jesus will save the world by dying for it. On the back of this icon is another image, the Man of Sorrows, showing the lifeless Jesus, who has paid that ultimate sacrifice.

The Virgin Hodegetria was based on an ancient painting of Mary, the mother of Jesus, supposedly done from life by the Apostle Luke. This image was brought to Constantinople in the fifth century. The many copies of this beloved work, lost during the Turkish conquest of 1453, helped create a misleading idea in Western Europe that Byzantine art was derivative, "static" and lacking in skill and narrative power.

Hostility to Byzantine culture has a long, poisonous pedigree. Giorgio Vasari, the sixteenth century Florentine art historian, bears a major share of the onus for creating false impressions about Byzantine art. In his book, Lives of the Artists (first edition, 1550), Vasari set himself the task of proving that Italian painters, chiefly from Tuscany, had rescued art from the rigor mortis of the Byzantine style. A number of works included in the Heaven and Earth exhibition conclusively refute Vasari's contention.

Fragment of Fresco from Vlatadon Monastery

A small fragment of a fresco from the Vlatadon Monastery in Thessaloniki is especially noteworthy. Painted between 1360 to 1380, a century before Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper, this fragment demonstrates the unknown artist's exceptional ability to delineate the characters of the apostles at this sacred event. The moment depicted, the washing of the feet of the apostles by Jesus, is different from Leonardo's painting. But the effect of establishing the individual characters of the apostles is brilliantly handled. The skillful use of contrasting colors for the apostles' garments further underscores the fact that the painter of this scene was a very accomplished artist.

That the artists of Byzantium were masters at evoking the psychological and spiritual complexity of their subjects, human and divine, is clearly established by Icon of the Archangel Michael, painted during the first half of the 14th century. This is an undeniable masterpiece, a superb illustration of the cultural renaissance that took place in the diminished, impoverished realm of the Byzantine emperors as the Ottoman Turks prepared for the final, fatal siege of Constantinople in 1453.

The Heaven and Earth exhibition, which will later be shown at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, establishes beyond doubt the virtuosity of the Byzantine masters. It shows that the art of the Eastern Roman Empire influenced the rising artistic traditions throughout Western Europe during the Middle Ages and also Russia, converted to Christianity by Byzantine missionaries in 988. Yet, there are important differences between Byzantine art and the Tuscan masters who were championed by Vasari. Heaven and Earth enables us to see these points in a new light.

The National Gallery in Washington D.C. is one of the few American museums fortunate to have a work by Giotto di Bondone (c. 1266 - 1337). Kenneth Clark regarded Giotto's cycle of paintings in the Arena Chapel in Padua as "one of the holy places of the world." Giotto's Madonna and Child, painted between 1320 to 1330, is not included in the Heaven and Earth galleries. But it should be studied in detail after viewing the exhibition.

Giotto, Madonna and Child.

Giotto's Madonna and Child clearly shows the influence of the Virgin Hodegetria tradition. In Giotto's work, however, the religious symbolism is entirely different. The Virgin Mary is not pointing to a "boy-man" who will die on the cross to redeem humankind. Here the infant Jesus, clearly a child, reaches for a carnation in his mother's hand and, in a particularly touching gesture, wraps his little hand around Mary's finger. With these humanistic details, Giotto sought to establish an appreciation of God's loving presence in our daily lives. In the work of later Italian masters, Luca della Robbia and Raphael especially, this Madonna and Child theme would assume a dominating, almost obsessive, presence.

The Heaven and Earth exhibit includes a Byzantine "Madonna and Child" that serves as a perfect point of comparison with the National Gallery's Giotto. Painted perhaps a decade after Giotto's Madonna and Child, this icon displays many similarities. Jesus, more clearly a child than in the twelfth century Virgin Hodegetria, reaches up to touch his mother's face. Mary clasps Jesus in her hands in one of the most tender evocations of maternal love in any artistic tradition, East or West.

Icon of the Virgin and Child, Church Feasts, and Saints
For all that it shares with Giotto's painting, Icon of the Virgin and Child, Church Feasts, and Saints is a tour de force of Byzantine art. The vital concept of Byzantine art, of the transcendent importance of the human soul, is powerfully expressed here. The mortal body perishes, as do human empires. Mary's all-encompassing love will not save Jesus from death on the cross. But the human soul is imperishable and this poignant work of art from the mid-fourteenth century positively radiates such spiritual reassurance.

So too does Byzantine art as a whole. Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections is a magnificent reminder that, though the Eastern Roman Empire was destroyed amid fire and sword in 1453, the art and spirituality of Byzantium endures.
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved

Images Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Introductory Image: Icon of the Archangel Michael, first half 14th century. Egg tempera and gold on wood, overall: 110 x 80 cm (43 5/16 x 31 1/2 in.) Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens

The Adrianople Cross, late 10th-early 11th century. Silver, iron core, partial gilding, and niello, overall: 51 x 30 cm (20 1/16 x 11 13/16 in.) Benaki Museum, Athens ©Benaki Museum, Athens, 2013

Head of Artemis, mid-3rd century or later. Marble, height: 12.1 cm (4 3/4 in.) Archaeological Museum of Ancient Corinth

Unknown Artist, Bust of a lady, c. 410. White Phrygian (Dokimion) marble, overall size: 56 × 34 cm (22 1/16 × 13 3/8 in.) Chania Archaeological Museum

Susanna and the Elders, early 5th century. Fresco, overall 170 × 127 × 5 cm (66 15/16 × 50 × 1 15/16 in.) Museum of Byzantine Culture, Thessaloniki

Solidus of Theodosius II, 408 – 450. Gold, diameter: 2 cm (13/16 in.) Numismatic Museum, Athens

Processional icon of the Virgin Hodegetria (front) and the Man of Sorrows (back), last quarter of 12th century. Tempera and silver on wood, overall size: 115 × 77.5 × 3.5 cm (45 1/4 × 30 1/2 × 1 3/8 in.) Byzantine Museum, Kastoria

Fragment of a wall painting of the washing of the feet, 1360-1380. Fresco, overall: 92 × 78 × 6 cm (36 1/4 × 30 11/16 × 2 3/8 in.) Museum of Byzantine Culture, Thessaloniki

Giotto, Italian, probably 1266 – 1337. Madonna and Child, probably 1320/1330. Tempera on panel overall: 85.5 x 62 cm (33 11/16 x 24 7/16 in.) framed: 128.3 x 72.1 x 5.1 cm (50 1/2 x 28 3/8 x 2 in.) Samuel H. Kress Collection 1939.1.256

Icon of the Virgin and Child, Church Feasts, and Saints, mid-14th century. Egg tempera and gold on wood, stucco, gold glass (verre églomisé) overall: 42 × 30 × 1 cm (16 9/16 × 11 13/16 × 3/8 in.) Benaki Museum, Athens ©Benaki Museum, Athens, 2013