Friday, September 25, 2015

Dave Heath Photo Exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Multitude, Solitude: The Photographs of Dave Heath

The Philadelphia Museum of Art

September 19, 2015–February 21, 2016

Reviewed by Ed Voves

It is a rare person who does not experience a "Hamlet moment" once in a while. Life certainly presents us with many occasions amid our daily "sea of troubles" to question the meaning of existence. 

Such moments are vital to the new exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Multitude, Solitude: The Photographs of Dave Heath. The exhibition examines how a gifted artist, Dave Heath, turned his personal reflections into a classic book of "street" photography. The majority of these poignant, powerful images come from the photo collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri.

Dave Heath is a Philadelphia-born photographer now living, teaching and working in Canada. Heath's early years inflicted experiences of pain and rejection upon him that might have driven other souls to despair. Instead, as a young man, Heath discovered photography. 

In due course, Heath compiled the body of work that enabled him to create his classic photo book, A Dialogue with Solitude, first published in 1965. Highly regarded at the time, A Dialogue with Solitude, is a profoundly moving appraisal of humanity.

Heath was influenced by the great LIFE magazine photographer, W. Eugene Smith, who was a master of the photo essay. Heath became quite skilled in the placement of photos to create a mood to better appreciate these images. Yet it is vital to appreciate that in the composition of these photos, Heath avoided overt story-telling. There are no "poses" in Heath's photos, no attempt to frame a message.

The curator of the exhibition, Keith F. Davis of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, addressed the fact that there is "little extraneous information" in Heath's photos. Heath, Davis explained in his remarks at the exhibition opening, focused away from the details of day-to-day existence to reach "poetic realms."

Keith F. Davis, curator of the Dave Heath exhibit (photo by Anne Lloyd)

That did not entail ignoring pain, loneliness or alienation - all of which were very much present in the American "Mid-Century." The key element to Dave Heath's photos, Davis reiterated, was the way that these indelible images evoke "primal, visceral sensibility."

During the 1950's and 1960's, Heath took on the dual role of "man in the street" and wandering artist. From his military service in Korea in 1953-54 to an epic bus journey across the U.S. in 1964, Heath interacted with the world through the lens of his camera. Wisely, he let the world do most of the talking.

Heath's photos also require an enlightened level of listening. Before we impart our own interpretation of what is the "meaning" of the picture, we need to listen to what it says. Often our best reply is to remain silent.

A particularly good example is an early photo entitled Philadelphia,1952. The two clasped hands are self-evidently those of an African-American adult. Everything else is a mystery. 

Dave Heath, Philadelphia,1952

What is the cylindrical object wrapped in the paper bag? A can of soda? Before flip-top aluminum cans were invented in 1959, canned beverages were very rare. So that is an unlikely explanation. 

Investigation of other photos taken by Heath in the early 1950's include an intriguing group shot of African-American spectators at the annual New Year's Day Parade in Philadelphia. The photo of the hands and mysterious object might be from this "shoot." At that time - and for many years before and after - the parading Mummers often dressed in minstrel garb, including  "black face." Might those tightly clasped hands be expressing anger at this racial slight?

We'll never know. And to keep asking questions in this way risks missing something more important. If "the eyes are the mirror to the soul," as the old saying goes, hands are a prime indicator of a person's work history. With this photo of creased, calloused hands, Heath captured years of honest toil. 

Heath might have been a "street" photographer but he never engaged in Weegee-style storytelling. Nor did he venture into bizarre realms as did Diane Arbus. Certain of Heath's photos seem to share an affinity with Arbus' pictures. Heath photographed a woman suffering from dwarfism as she studied Egyptian statues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.Yet there is not even a hint of abnormality in this scene. It is such a sensitive and affecting picture that the woman's physical stature is not immediately noticeable.

A more telling work of narrative photography is Heath’s Drowning Scene, Central Park, New York City,1957. It is one of the most powerful depictions of the range of human feeling ever captured in a single photo. 

Dave Heath, Drowning Scene, Central Park, New York City, 1957

Here we see 1950's America gathered together to behold the aftermath of shocking event. The faces of the well-dressed, generally buttoned-down crowd betray every manner of emotion from the NYPD cop's impassive countenance to horror on the faces of several of the women and the bemused curiosity of some of the young men. 

Death has taken center stage in the Eisenhower-Hoody Doody era. Heath, unlike Weegee, denotes the presence of Death indirectly in his photo. No gore spattered corpse. But Death is there. You can see it in the faces of the Central Park onlookers.

This kind of thing was not supposed to happen in public during the 1950's. It was a case of "See It Now" without the televised commentary of Edward R. Murrow. Each onlooker is directly involved - even if at second-hand. Each person among the throng of bystanders is alone with their own thoughts. Each must deal individually with the emotional impact of seeing a dead body at close quarters.

There are no children among the crowd in Drowning Scene. Yet, many of the most disturbing of Heath's photos deal with children. The urge to psychoanalyze these pictures is almost irresistible once the details of Heath's childhood are known. 

Heath was born in 1931 during the Great Depression and abandoned at age four by his parents. He was raised in orphanages and foster homes in Philadelphia. At one point, after living for a year in a foster home, Heath was sent back to the orphanage while another child, a girl, was kept. The effect on a child of such a rejection cannot be imagined.

Dave Heath, Vengeful Sister, Chicago, 1956

One of Heath's most frequently reproduced photos is entitled Vengeful Sister, Chicago, 1956. The "subject" might well reflect suppressed childhood pain from Heath's past.

This scene is usually described as a boy writhing in pain while his sister lets out a shout of triumph. Perhaps that is what happened - the children were fighting and the sister knocked her brother down. But if I had not read the "vengeful sister" tag on this photo, I would never have thought to interpret it this way. By the arch or her back and the way she is running, the girl could easily be screaming in horror at the boy's plight.

Dave Heath, New York City,1962

Keith Davis is correct in emphasizing the "primal, visceral sensibility" of Heath's photos. These incredible, yet prosaic, images document raw emotion. There is nothing ambiguous about Heath's photos. It doesn't matter whether the little crying boy in New York City, 1962 is a spoiled brat or if he has witnessed something horrible. This is a depiction of pain. So is Vengeful Sister.The narrative details are unimportant.

And the same is true of Heath's images of joy. There are just as many of these moments of happiness as of woe in the exhibit. There is a delightful 1958 picture of a mother helping her daughter learn to roller skate that positively beams joyfulness throughout the gallery.

Dave Heath, Chicago, 1956

The same is true for the photo of two ragamuffin boys, larking about in Chicago, 1956. Perhaps Heath was subconsciously evoking the childhood joys that he was denied in Philadelphia twenty years before. But to "seize the moment" of joy and create a photo like this requires a special degree of humanity, as well as skill. This is a magnificent photo, a testament to these attributes in Heath's life.

In the fullness of time, children emerge into adulthood. Like the blank-faced young woman in Kansas City, Missouri, March 1967 , the introductory image to this essay, we all must face life on our own - but never alone. 

Henry David Thoreau described solitude as the most companionable of companions. Dave Heath's photos affirm the importance and the durability of our lived experiences. Our memories, happy or sad, are constant companions. Memory is always with us.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri

Introductory Image:                                                                                                         Dave Heath (born 1931) Kansas City, Missouri, March 1967 (negative); 1968 (print), Gelatin silver print, Image: 7 1/8 × 10 1/2 inches (18.1 × 26.67 cm) Sheet: 8 1/2 x 11 inches (21.59 x 27.94 cm) The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri: Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, 2011.67.23

Anne Lloyd, Keith F. Davis, curator of the Dave Heath exhibit, 2015.

Dave Heath (born 1931) Philadelphia,1952, Gelatin silver print, Image and sheet: 7 5/8 × 7 11/16 inches (19.37 × 19.53 cm) Mount: 14 x 11 inches (35.56 x 27.94 cm)  (Gift of the Hall Family Foundation) 2011.67.34

Dave Heath (born 1931) Drowning Scene, Central Park, New York City, 1957, Gelatin silver print, Image: 6 3/8 × 9 9/16 inches (16.19 × 24.29 cm) Mount: 13 3/4 × 11 inches (34.93 × 27.94 cm) The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri: Gift of the Hall Family Foundation 2005.37.170

Dave Heath (born 1931) Vengeful Sister, Chicago, 1956, Gelatin silver print, Image and sheet:    7 3/16 × 8 15/16 inches (18.26 × 22.7 cm) Mount: 13 3/4 × 11 inches (34.93 × 27.94 cm)  The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri: Gift of the Hall Family Foundation 2005.37.225

Dave Heath (born 1931) New York City, 1962, Gelatin silver print, Image: 10 13/16 × 7 7/16 inches (27.46 × 18.89 cm) Sheet: 11 1/16 x 8 1/2 inches (28.1 x 21.59 cm) The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri: Gift of the Hall Family Foundation 2011.67.32

Dave Heath (born 1931) Chicago, 1956, Gelatin silver print, 12-3/4 x 8-1/2 inches  (The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri: Gift of the Hall Family Foundation

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Art Eyewitness Review: The New Art of the Fifteenth Century by Shirley Neilsen Blum

The New Art of the Fifteenth Century:Faith and Art in Florence and the Netherlands

By Shirley Neilsen Blum 
Abbeville Press/314 pages/$85

Reviewed by Ed Voves

The fifteen century was a revolutionary age, matching the many changes and discoveries of the twentieth.  From Gutenberg's invention of the printing press  to the "discovery" of the Americas, the 1400's reshaped the world into a form we can now recognize.

In an authoritative new book, The New Art of the Fifteenth Century. Shirley Neilsen Blum, explores the art of Europe during the 1400's. This momentous era witnessed the introduction of oil painting, the invention of linear perspective and a revival of life-like portraiture - after an intermission of nearly one thousand years.

Blum builds a case that these new techniques originated in two small, but dynamic, cultural centers: the Republic of Florence and in Flanders, ruled by the dukes of Burgundy.

There was one major difference in the art revolution of the 1400's from the one the took place during the early 1900's. People in Western Europe embraced and applauded the innovations of great artists like Donatello, van Eyck and Masaccio without the consternation that greeted the early works of Matisse, Braque and Picasso. 

There was no "shock of the new" during the Quattrocento, as Italians call the 1400's.

Robert Campin, Mérode Altarpiece, c. 1427–1432 

As Blum cogently shows, paintings like Robert Campin's Mérode Altarpiece depicted hallowed Christian themes while introducing Europe to a new naturalism in the visual arts. Both the Florentine and Netherlandish schools aimed to make "seeing into believing."

Art in the fifteenth century was notable for great painting, especially for the way that the rules of perspective were applied to create the appearance of  three dimensions in a two-dimensional format. Blum however begins her study with works of sculpture.

Blum contrasts the sculptural group of Old Testament prophets called the Well of Moses with statues of New Testament saints by Donatello. The Well of Moses, located in a monastery in Dijon, France, was created by Claus Sluter for the dukes of Burgundy. Sluter carved six incredibly lifelike (and life-sized) statues of biblical prophets including Moses, Jeremiah and King David. These surrounded a monumental crucifixion scene which was smashed by French revolutionaries in 1791.

Sluter's Well of Moses was made to inspire monastic rather than public devotion. Given the urban orientation of religion during the 1400's, it may be questioned if this is indeed a Renaissance art work. 

Such a question could never be asked about the sculptures of Donatello (c.1386-1466). Along with Lorenzo Ghiberti's "Doors of Paradise" on the Baptistry of Florence, Donatello's marble saints and apostles are the signature works of the birth of the Renaissance in Italy.

I had the opportunity recently to see several  of these inspiring works in the Sculpture in the Age of Donatello exhibit at the Museum of Biblical History (MOBIA) in New York City. This rare display of Renaissance art in the United States was a perfect complement to Blum's book. Sadly, MOBIA closed its doors in in June, reducing the venues for such outstanding exhibits in the future.

Donatello, St. John the Evangelist, 1408–15

Even in the MOBIA exhibit setting, Donatello's first great statue, Saint John the Evangelist (1409-1411), exerted a powerful, almost living,  presence.  When it is remembered that Saint John the Evangelist once filled a niche on the facade of Florence' s Duomo, you realize that Donatello  was not creating a symbolical work for a monastery cloister or aristocratic patrons. Rather, his sculptures made a bold statement of public virtue. 

Donatello's statues were paid for by the guilds of Florence. The Wool Guild (the Arte della Lana) oversaw fund-raising for the completion of the Duomo. A select group, guild officials and clergy ,called the Opera del Duomo, hired Donatello and others to sculpt statues for the facade of the cathedral and its bell tower. It was on this latter building that Donatello's masterpiece, Prophet Habbakuk, called "Zuccone" or"Pumpkinhead," was displayed.

Saint John the Evangelist is an imposing, almost regal, portrait of saintliness while Habbakuk is a masterpiece of introspective soul-searing. Both were created to be constant examples of righteous living for the citizens of Florence. In this way, the mystical, devotional element of Medieval art was preserved and channeled into the urban life of the Renaissance.

Strange as this sounds, the acute naturalism of Donatello's sculptures aimed to draw viewers away from "this" world, into a union with God. The great French scholar of the early Renaissance, Jean Gerson (1363-1429) wrote, "We ought to learn to transcend with our minds from these visible things to the invisible, from the corporeal to the spiritual. For this is the purpose of the image."

While Donatello was creating sculptures to achieve this delicate balance of private piety with public expression of faith, Jan van Eyck in Flanders was preoccupied with the same task through painting with oils.

Jan van Eyck's Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, better known as the Ghent Altarpiece, was painted in collaboration with his brother, Hubert, and completed in 1432. It ranks among the  greatest and most complex paintings in the whole of Christian art. 

Jan van Eyck & Hubert van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, 1432

The exact meaning of the Ghent Altarpiece now eludes us in the twenty-first century. Blum is very perceptive in pointing out that nobody in the fifteenth century complained that it was enigmatic or indecipherable. It was intended for the instruction of the Christian faithful. Its now arcane symbolism, such as the central panel which shows a bleeding lamb representing Christ's sacrificial death, was readily comprehensible to all who crowded into St. Bavo's Cathedral, Ghent, to see it.

The Ghent Altarpiece was commissioned by a wealthy civic leader of Ghent, Joos Vijd. He and his wife appear as worshipers on facing panels on the altarpiece. 

Jan van Eyck, Rolin Madonna, 1436

So too, did Nicolas Rolin commission a devotional work by van Eyck. Rolin was a self-made man who became chancellor to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. Rolin, rather arrogantly, had van Eyck place him in the same room as the infant Jesus and the radiantly beautiful Virgin Mary. Yet, with Jesus blessing the kneeling Rolin the message could not be clearer: even the most powerful men in Christendom must bend their knees to God.

Van Eyck and other Netherlandish artists who painted with oils made a huge and almost immediately-felt impact on European art. Their work was highly esteemed in Italy, though few Florentine artists utilized oil paints, at least during this early stage of the Renaissance.

A highly influential Flemish work showing rugged, weather-beaten shepherds worshiping the new-born Jesus was brought to Florence by banker Tommaso Portinari in 1483. Painted by Hugo van der Goes, the Portinari Altarpiece directly influenced a similar work by Domenico del Ghirlandaio (1449-1494) for Francesco Sassetti, director of the Medici Bank.

One of the student assistants in Ghirlandaio's studio was the young Michelangelo. He evidently was more impressed with the work of an earlier Florentine painter, Masaccio. Michelangelo is known to have spent long periods in Florence's Brancacci Chapel. There he studied the cycle of paintings of the life of St.Peter left unfinished by Masaccio when he died, aged 27 in 1428. The frescoes were completed by Masaccio's colleague, Masolino.

Masaccio, Tribute Money (detail), c. 1425

Masaccio painted biblical themes, like the story of the Tribute Money from Matthew 17:23-26, with amazing vigor. In his tragically short life, Masaccio created "new and dynamic" versions of age-old Christian images "much more closely related to the world of the viewer."

Of Masaccio, Blum writes: 

Masaccio's people, saints and sinners alike, are rooted in the earth.Their forms are solid, often ungainly, revealed rather than flattered by light... Masaccio's figures are separated from the viewer only by their historical relation to Christ. Very like Donatello's saints, they dwell in a world possible of imitation and thereby humanly attainable. The promise has been given not just by an unknowable God, but through his human agents.The highest of which man is  capable may indeed win him a place next to the disciples, now so very much like him.  

Masaccio, Tribute Money (detail)c. 1425

Masaccio, of course, was in good company, with Sluter, Donatello and van Eyck. He found a kindred spirit in Robert Campin (c.1375–1444), as well. 

Robert Campin, Mérode Altarpiece (detail)c. 1427–1432

Campin's Mérode Altarpiece has a side panel showing a devout couple looking on the central scene of the Annunciation. They are neither aristocrats nor clergy - nor directors of the Medici bank. Campin's onlookers are simply God-fearing townsfolk, people of deep and abiding faith.  

In her concluding remarks, Blum writes movingly of the way that the artists of the 1400's in Flanders and Florence drew beholders of all social strata "ever closer to the divine object of their devotion," in short to God.

"Christian art," Blum affirms, "had never dared so much nor rendered earth more sacred."

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images Courtesy of Abbeville Press, the Metropolitan  Museum of Art, and and the Museum of Biblical History (MOBIA) in conjunction with the Sculpture in the Age of Donatello exhibit

Introductory Image: 
Cover Image Courtesy of Abbeville Press

Robert Campin (ca. 1375–1444) and Workshop, Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece), ca. 1427–1432 Oil paint on oak; Central panel 25 1/4 x 24 7/8 in. (64.1 x 63.2 cm); each wing 25 3/8 x 10 3/4 in. (64.5 x 27.3 cm)The Cloisters Collection, 1956 (56.70) © Metropolitan Museum of Art

Donatello (c.1386-1466), St. John the Evangelist, 1408–15, Marble, 212 × 91 × 62 cm (83½ × 35¾ × 24½ in.) Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, inv. no 2005/113 © Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore / Antonio Quattrone -  in conjunction with the Sculpture in the Age of Donatello exhibit at the Museum of Biblical History

Hubert van Eyck (c.1370-1426) and Jan van Eyck (c.1390-1441) Ghent Altarpiece, 1426 - 1432) Oil on panel: 11 ft x 15 ft (3.35 x 4.6 m) open. Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (Central panel, bottom ) 95.39 inches wide x 54.21 inch high. Cathedral of Saint Bavo, Ghent, Belgium

Jan van Eyck (c.1390-95-1441)  Rolin Madonna, 1436 Oil on panel: 25 7/8  x  34 3/8 inches H. 0.66 m; W. 0.62 m Removed from Notre-Dame-du Châtel in Autun and sent to the Louvre, 1800, INV. 1271, Musee du Louvre

Masaccio  (1401-1428) The Trubute Money, 1425 Fresco 247 cm × 597 cm (97.2 in × 235 in) Santa Maria del Carmine - Brancacci Chapel

Robert Campin Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece), ca. 1427–1432 (Detail - Left Panell) The Cloisters Collection, 1956 (56.70) © Metropolitan Museum of Art