Sunday, May 21, 2017

Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties

Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York City

April 3 - July 16, 2017

Reviewed by Ed Voves

China during the era of the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 B.C.–A.D. 220) experienced a "classical" age of artistic and intellectual achievement that forever influenced the character of Chinese civilization. The current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Age of Empires, does justice to this pivotal period of China's past - though not quite in the way I expected.

The headline-grabbing objects in Age of Empires are several of the life-sized terracotta soldiers and court officials found in the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the "First Emperor" of China. Qin Shi Huang conquered and united China's six "warring states" and then built himself a tomb complex where he was buried in 210 B.C.

In 1974, this burial site was accidentally discovered. The terracotta statues of the First Emperor's  retinue began to be unearthed. Each was a unique individual, with facial features that testify to the character of the soldier or courtier who was depicted. It was an astonishing discovery and when a statue like the Kneeling Archer on view at the Metropolitan is examined, the experience is a revelation.

It is impossible not to be impressed by the Kneeling Archer and his compatriots. Impressed - but strangely not inspired.

Kneeling Archer, Qin dynasty, 221–206 B.C.

As I made my way through the first galleries of Age of Empires, I felt contrarian sentiments akin to those expressed by the Devil in Rudyard Kipling's ironical reworking of the Bible, The Conundrum of the Workshops. At key moments, the Devil emerges to whisper a subversive refrain:

"It's human, but is it Art?"

Kneeling Archer's individuality is so marked that he appears almost human. But is a terracotta funerary figure, never intended to be seen, really a work of art? 

Certainly the ushabti and offering bearers placed in ancient Egyptian tombs pose the same dilemma. And some of these are among the most life-affirming works of art from antiquity. Yet, this guardsman of Emperor Qin Shi Huang testifies only to the emperor's fear of assassination and yearning for eternal life. Kneeling Archer is a soldier of the Kingdom of the Dead .  

Further on in Age of Empires are art works bursting with life, vitality and joy. Such sentiments are too strong to be reserved for a despot's exclusive welfare. These works also testify to the lasting influence of cultural achievement over the short-term effects of militarism.

The Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.) wielded impressive martial force which enabled it to conquer much of China. But it was an short-lived triumph. Within four years of Qin Shi Huang's burial, the Qin hegemony collapsed. The more humanistic Han Dynasty then began its four centuries of power, rivaling the influence of its contemporary in the West, the Roman Empire.

The Han Dynasty art in Age of Empires includes vibrant dancers and musicians that are studies of poetry in motion. Never mind that they are statues. The movement and the music are there before us in the Met's gallery. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2017), Female Dancer, 206 B.C.– A.D. 9

These earthenware figures are examples of mingqi, or spirit goods. Like the terracotta soldiers of Qin Shi Huang, they were destined for an emperor's tomb to provide eternal delight. Now, exhumed from the burial chamber, they perform for us. Two thousand years have not stilled their vitality. 

The entombment of statues of warriors and dancers - rather than actual people - represented a major advance in humanity. Earlier eras of Chinese history had witnessed human sacrifice on a large scale so that retainers and slaves could be sent to serve a deceased monarch or nobleman in the afterlife. 

Mingqi could be individually sculpted as the Kneeling Archer was or cast from a mold like the Han dancer. There were also bronze figures, humans and animals like the mighty horse and its diminutive groom who introduce this review. This pair was excavated in 1990 from a grave dating to the Eastern Han period, which lasted from 26 to 220 A.D.

Dog, Eastern Han dynasty, A.D. 25 - 220

The expressive features of mingqi  animals and the incredible diversity of species found in the Han tombs are wondrous to behold. The artists who created these amazing animals depicting them according to established conventions while imparting a degree of individuality to each of the animals. 

Han-era horses, dogs, lions, elephants, rhinos, cattle, pigs and goats are all on display, exerting a remarkably lifelike presence. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2017), Two Horses, Western Han dynasty, 206 B.C.–A.D. 9

The strength and nobility of these two horses, which come from the Museum of the Yangling Mausoleum, are especially striking. Here in central China, the capable Han ruler, Emperor Jing (188-141 BC), built a tomb with an earthenware army rivaling that of Qin Shi Huang's array in numbers though not size. Most of the figures are one-third in scale to those of the First Emperor's. 

In striking contrast to the vitality of these mingqi animals is the inert Burial Ensemble of Dou Wan. 

Burial Ensemble of Dou Wan, Western Han dynasty, 206 B.C.–A.D. 9

Lady Dou Wan was married to the son of Emperor Jing, Prince Liu Sheng, who died in 113 BC. Both husband and wife were clad in elaborate suits made of over 2,000 jade plaques, stitched together with gold wire. The sacred jade plaques were believed to prevent the decomposition of the body of the deceased, thus causing the release of malignant spirits.  

The Burial Ensemble of Dou Wan failed to preserve her body. Nothing but crumbled bones were found inside the glistening jade plaques, when the tomb was discovered in 1968. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2017), Detail of Burial Ensemble of Dou Wan, 206 B.C.– A.D. 9

Looking down on the mask of Lady Dou Wan is a sobering experience. However magnificent in outward appearance, the jade and gold costume is positively lifeless when compared to the mingqi dancer discussed earlier. It is the Chinese equivalent of the famous verse from the New Testament (Matthew 23:27) warning of "whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness."

The Han Empire should not be judged too harshly, as a beneficial interplay of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism took place during its rule. Chinese people today rightly regard the Han dynasty as one of the golden eras of their country. Yet, as with the "grave goods" in Egyptian tombs, these jade burial suits were a status item available to an elite few. Grave robbers targeted these jade "ensembles" burning them to retrieve the melted gold wire.

Head of a Warrior, Western Han dynasty, 206 B.C.–A.D. 9

Very few jade burial ensembles survived the the fall of the Han dynasty in 220. Despite relatively benign government, the usual combination of corruption and greed combined to undermine the Han rulers. A peasant uprising called the Revolt of the Yellow Turbans, eventually crushed in 205 A.D., precipitated the slide of the Han Dynasty into oblivion. This rebellion no doubt caused a great deal of grave robbing and destruction of jade burial attire like that of Lady Dou Wan which survived.

The ancient Chinese governments, including the Han Dynasty, all stressed political centralization. Given China's vast size, there was no other recourse. But it is worth noting that most of the cultural vitality of China, so brilliantly displayed in Age of Empires, came from the provinces and outlying frontiers. The elaborate Imperial courts and impressive cities of Han China drew upon the strength and diversity of those outside the privileged center.

The cultural debt of rulers to the ruled is made very clear by one of the most striking art works on display in the Met's exhibit. This is the Cowry Container with Bull and Rider which comes from the Yunan Province in southwestern China, dating some time between 206 B.C.–A.D. 9. 

Cowry Container with Bull and Rider, Western Han dynasty, 206 B.C–A.D. 9

Cowry shells, imported from the Indian Ocean region, were used as China's first currency by earlier, pre-Han dynasties. This bronze container was made by the Dian people in the remote southwestern region bordering on today's Myanmar. The Dian still used cowries as a form of exchange during the Han era, even though bronze coins were in circulation elsewhere. Such backwardness earned the Dian the reputation of “southwestern barbarians” in the official court publication, Records of the Grand Historian.

The dynamism of this remarkable work of art tells a very different story. The superbly sculpted figures of the long-horned cattle, gilded herdsman and stalking tigers make this one of the most striking works on view in Age of Empires. Far from being "barbarians," the Dian artisans who made this wonderful piece were working in a timeless and universal tradition that stretches from the caves of Lascaux to Picasso - and beyond.

The tradition of mingqi "spirit goods" survived the fall of the Han and was given new shape and new life by the vigorous Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907) that eventually emerged from the chaos of the Han's eclipse. In this way, the "Art of Empires" outlived the heedless despots who buried it to insure their own immortality, forgetting that only art lives forever.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved  Images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Introductory Image
Horse and Groom, China, Eastern Han dynasty, 25– 220 A.D. Bronze. Horse: H. 53 1/8 in. (135 cm); W. 19 11/16 in. (50 cm); L. 43 5/16 in. (110 cm); approx. Wt. 56.7 lb. (25.7 kg) Groom: H. 26 3/4 in. (68 cm); W. 5 1/8 in. (13 cm); L. 11 13/16 in. (30 cm); approx. Wt. 11 lb. (5 kg). QH.353a–k.Lent by Mianyang Museum SL.1.2017.13.3a–k 

Kneeling Archer, China, Qin dynasty,221–206 B.C. Earthenware with traces of pigments. H. 48 in. (121.9 cm): W. 27 in. (68.6 cm); D.19 1/4 in. (48.9 cm); Wt. 304.2 lb. (138 kg) QH.006. Lent by Emperor Qinshihuang's Mausoleum Site Museum SL.1.2017.23.4. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2017), Female Dancer, China, Western Han dynasty, 206 B.C.– A.D. 9. Earthenware with pigment. H. 17 5/8 in. (44.7 cm) QH.087a, b. Lent by Xuzhou City Museum SL.1.2017.27.5a, b. 

Dog, China, Eastern Han dynasty, A.D.25–220, Earthenware. H. 16 3/4 in. (42.5 cm); W. 13 in. (33 cm); L. 19 11/16 in. (50 cm) QH.290 Lent by Henan Museum  SL.1.2017.28.2

Ed Voves, Photo (2017), Two Horses, China, Western Han dynasty, 206 B.C.–A.D. 9. Earthenware with pigment. a (YG1079): H. 23 7/16 in. (59.5 cm): W. 7 1/16 in. (18 cm): L. 27 9/16 in. (70 cm) b (YG1063): H. 24 in. (61 cm); W. 7 5/8 in. (19.3 cm); L. 28 9/16 in. (72.5 cm) QH.289a, b Lent by Museum of Yangling Mausoleum. SL.1.2017.26.7a, b. 

Burial Ensemble of Dou Wan, China, Western Han dynasty, 206 B.C.–A.D. 9. 
Suit: jade (nephrite) with gold wire; pillow: gilt bronze and jade (nephrite); orifice plugs: jade (nephrite)  H. 67 11/16 in. (171.9 cm); W. 30 7/8 in. (78.4 cm); D. 11 1/2 in. (29.2 cm); Wt. 77.2 lb. (35 kg)  QH.225a–r. Lent by Hebei Provincial Museum and Hebei Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics SL.1.2017.19.1a–r. .

Ed Voves, Photo (2017), Detail of Burial Ensemble of Dou Wan, China, Western Han dynasty, 206 B.C.–A.D. 9. Lent by Hebei Provincial Museum and Hebei Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics SL.1.2017.19.1a–r .

Head of a Warrior, China, Western Han dynasty, 206 B.C.–A.D. 9. Earthenware with pigment. H. 4 3/4 in. (12.1 cm); W. 2 5/8 in. (6.7 cm); W. 3 1/4 in. (8.3 cm) QH.055a, b. Lent by Museum of Yangling Mausoleum. SL.1.2017.26.2a, b 

Cowry Container with Bull and Rider, China, Western Han dynasty, 206 B.C.–A.D. 9. 
Bronze  H. 19 11/16 in. (50 cm); Diam. of cover 9 13/16 in. (25 cm) QH.171a, b. Lent by Yunnan Provincial Museum SL.1.2017.10.1a, b.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s at the Cooper Hewitt Museum, New York City

The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City
 April 7 - Aug.20, 2017

Cleveland Museum of Art
 Sept.30, 2017 - Jan.14, 2018

Reviewed by Ed Voves

The American 1920's were years so rich in accomplishments, so abounding in superlatives, that it is still something of a shock that the decade ended in abrupt, crashing failure. Not only did Wall Street lay an "egg"  in 1929 but the real successes of the "Twenties" were called into question by the Great Depression. 

Was Jazz Age America cruelly cut down in its prime like Paul Manship's sculpture of the mythological hero, Acteon?  Or was 1920's America an era of fraud and cynicism, a decade of glitter and doom?

The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s, at the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York City, provides plenty of evidence of solid achievement and brassy, sassy iconoclasm during that fabled era. The exhibit presents 350 artworks, ranging from innovative furniture designs to exquisite jewelry. Many of these stunning pieces reflect the great events of the Twenties, from the soaring rise of skyscrapers like the Chrysler Building to the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamen in 1922.

The Jazz Age is co-curated by the Cleveland Museum of Art which has a rich collection of decorative art created in the American Midwest during the 1920's.

Paul Fehér, Muse with Violin Screen (detail), 1930

The exhibit's signature work of art, Muse with Violin Screen was made by the Rose Iron Works, Inc., in Ohio. At first sight, a European craft studio would have seemed a more reasonable guess. That is partly because the designer was the Hungarian-born Paul Fehér (1898–1990). Many European artists and designers like Fehér came to work in the United States. But the quality of this evocative work of art shows that America in the 1920's, whether New York City, Cleveland or Hollywood, was ready to receive them.

Other examples of American Regionalism abound in the exhibit, works like "The New Yorker" (Jazz) Punch Bowl. For all its East Coast sophistication, this could have been called The Buckeye Bowl. It was designed by Viktor Schreckengost, a major artist of the time, for the Cowan Pottery Studio located in Rocky River, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland.

Viktor Schreckengost, "The New Yorker" (Jazz) Punch Bowl, 1931

This punch bowl design was commissioned by Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt in 1931, to be used for parties at the governor's mansion in Albany, New York. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was still Governor of New York, keenly observing from the sidelines as the Great Bull Market and then nearly the entire U.S. economy plunged over the "Niagara" of economic disaster. 

The Cowan Pottery Studio did not make a similar punch bowl to celebrate FDR'S New Deal. It closed in 1931, due to a fall in sales, shortly after this beautiful, glazed earthenware bowl came out of the kiln.

There is a significant point to the timing of the Jazz Punch Bowl creation in 1931. The Twenties were over but Jazz Age creativity was just hitting its stride when Wall Street's jitters turned into convulsions. 

It is often forgotten that the supreme example of Jazz Age architecture, the Chrysler Building, only opened its doors after the Depression hit. The iconic building was topped-off on Wednesday, October 23, 1929, with a 125 ft. spire, making it (briefly) the tallest building in the world. The next day was Black Thursday on Wall Street, the opening tremor to the financial earthquake of Black Tuesday, the following week.

The "skyscrapper" building was a dominant motif of the Twenties, figuring in designs for visionary cities like those created by Hugh Ferriss in 1922. It is a special treat to enjoy Jazz Age at the Cooper Hewitt and than head downtown to behold the Chrysler Building, with its Art Deco crown, looming over twenty-first century Manhattan.

Hugh Ferriss, Study for Maximum Mass Permitted by the 1916 New York Zoning Law

The key artistic event of the Jazz Age did not occur in New York and it took a while to happen at all. This trend-setting event was the Exposition des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes, held  in Paris during 1925. With Europe somewhat revived from the First World War, French chic opened the door to a new age. Art Deco was born.

No American designers exhibited at this exposition because Americans usually followed French cultural influences by a season or two. Once designers in the U.S. could study French Art Deco creations, the American response was not slow in coming. From Paul T. Frankl's Skyscraper Bookcase Desk, c.1928, to the hood ornament gargoyles on the Chrysler Building, Art Deco was embraced with fervor in America.

However, American influence was already paramount in Europe by the opening of the Exposition des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes in 1925. The introduction of jazz music by African-American troops serving on the Western Front in 1918 was the key cultural event in this respect. American tourists, with a zest for innovation and willingness to spend lavishly, made their presence felt at the exposition, as well.

Jewelry made a big impression on visitors to the Exposition des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes. Lavish ornamentation and exotic themes were a feature of the pieces created by the jewelers of Van Cleef and Arpels and those of Cartier. 

The recent discovery in November 1922 of the tomb of King Tutankhamen supplied an ancient Egyptian theme to many of the pieces on view at the 1925 exposition. A belt buckle owned by the wife of Broadway song writer, Cole Porter, contained actual pieces of ancient faiance from Egypt. It appears, looking rather like an aviator's insignia, in the center of the assembly shown below, along with examples of Tuti Fruti jewelry also owned by Linda Porter.

Ed Voves, Photo (2017), Jazz Age display of Jewelry by Boucheron and Cartier of Paris

Portable screens and fabrics gave added scope to the designers whose work went on display at the 1925 Exposition. Every conceivable motif from airplanes to cubism to African fabrics was given its due - as long as it looked "modern." 

Some of the most successful designs from the Twenties were anything but modern. On view at the Cooper Hewitt is a striking 1920's piece that was actually quite "medieval" in inspiration.  

Armand-Albert Rateau, Renards (Foxes),1921-22

A 10-panel folding screen by Armand-Albert Rateau, entitled Renards (Foxes)evoked the tapestries and embroidered court dress of the Valois Dynasty of France during the late Middle Ages. This splendid work, made in gilt and lacquered wood around 1921-22, is a testament to the timelessness of naturalism in art.

As I studied a nearby work in the exhibit, a wrought iron mirror designed by Paul Fehér and made by the Rose Iron Works in Cleveland, I caught of glimpse of Foxes in the glass.

Ed Voves, Photo (2017), Paul Fehér's Wrought-iron Console and Mirror, 1930

It was a special "in the moment" occasion. There were no art movements or styles to extol, no "isms" to promulgate. For just that moment of "now," beauty was reflected from the mirror on the wall to the mirror of the mind. 

The "flapper" style, by comparison, proclaimed "Jazz Age" then and now. This articulation of body-caressing form came into its own around the time of the Paris Exposition. Some of the other examples of Twenties couture on display at the Cooper Hewitt seem surprisingly sedate. But the stunning "flapper" evening dress from the House of Chanel is a real show stopper. 

The Evening Dress and Underslip, designed by Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel was "all the rage" in 1926. Perfectly matched to the slim, lithe figure that was the ideal flapper body-type, it was made from blue silk chiffon with applied blue ombré silk fringe. The shade of indigo was  dubbed Chanel Blue by Women's Wear Daily. Accentuated by the silver and gray of the dress, this striking garment evokes nightfall as a vibrant moment of coming alive.

Ed Voves (2017), Coco Chanel's Evening Dress and Underslip, 1926.

And that sense of "dancing in the dark" was reinforced by the dangling silk fringe. These strands were intended to shimmer and sway as the wearer danced the Charleston. This feeling of sensual vitality is so strong that it resonates nearly a century later, in the gallery of the Cooper Hewitt.

The "daring" atmosphere of the Jazz Age, represented by the rising hem of the flapper's skirt and the soaring height of skyscrapers like the Chrysler Building, were matched by the upward curve of Dow Jones Industrial Average during the Great Bull Market. If there was a measure of desperate gaiety about the 1920's, there was also an element of manic self-delusion to the views of economists like Irving Fisher who declared in early October 1929 that “Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau."

Fisher's pronouncement was a quasi-religious declaration of faith in progress. So were many of the beautiful objects now on view in the Cooper Hewitt galleries. The doors for the Music Room of Solomon R. Guggenheim, designed in 1925 by the Russian-born French artist, Seraphin Soudbinine, show trumpeting angels atop skyscrapers. After Black Tuesday, such images would seem like a bad joke.

Seraphin Soudbinine  Music Room Doors for Solomon R.Guggenheim, 1925-26 

Black humor was also part of the Jazz Age. In 1931, Frederick Lewis Allen, an editor for Harpers, published Only Yesterday: an Informal History of the 1920's. Allen's book was one of the great works of non-fiction in American history. In Only Yesterday, Allen probed the psyche of the American 1920's and found that "disillusionment (except about business and the physical improvements which business would bring) was the keynote of the nineteen-twenties."

Disillusionment is almost impossible to present in an art exhibition - except perhaps in a photo display. It is no carping criticism of Jazz Age at the Cooper Hewitt to point out that this theme is not really addressed by the exhibit. Yet Allen's brilliant insights are worth considering for a moment, as they explain why Americans in the 1920's were dismissive of the past and equally eager to visualize angels on top of skyscrapers.  

The lingering "shell shock" of World War I, Allen noted, was chiefly responsible for the widespread contempt for Victorian values. But even more astute was his observation on the vague discontent of the average "Joe" during the  American Jazz Age. About this disillusionment, Allen wrote of :

With the majority of Americans its workings were perhaps unconscious; they felt a queer disappointment after the war, they felt that life was not giving them all they had hoped it would, they knew that some of the values which had once meant much to them were melting away, but they remained cheerful and full of gusto, quite unaware of the change which was taking place beneath the surface of their own minds. 

During the 1920's, Americans of all classes and regions remembered the horror of the battlefields in France, the staggering loss of life from the Spanish Influenza of 1918-19. The Old Order was held in disrepute, but Americans wanted to believe in progress, in human excellence, in a future that would be better than the past.

Paul Manship's Actaeon, 1925. virtually defines the aesthetic vision of the American 1920's. But it does so based on its embodiment of American aspiration. In the Greek myth, Actaeon was turned into a stag by an arrow from Diana's bow. On the surface that is what Manship depicted. But what Americans saw in the 1920's was Actaeon's athletic figure, launching himself into heroic action, reaching for the stars.

Ed Voves (2017), Paul Manship's Actaeon at the Cooper Hewitt's Jazz Age exhibit

Americans during the 1920's cheered real-life heroes who aimed high as well. Americans saluted Charles Lindbergh, Gertrude Ederle, Bobby Jones, Babe Ruth, Red Grange and Duke Ellington. They bought Art Deco furniture and works of art that proclaimed their belief in freedom and progress.  

Were Americans of the 1920's naive to do so, to believe in a world tomorrow more promising than today? 

Judging from the stunning works of grace and beauty on view at the Cooper Hewitt Museum, it is impossible to blame them. Some of what glittered during the American 1920's was indeed solid gold. 

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved. Images courtesy of the  Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York City

Introductory Image:                                                                                                         
Paul Manship (American, 1885–1966) Actaeon, 1925.  Bronze; 121.2 x 128.7 x 31.7 cm. David Owsley Museum of Art, Frank C. Ball Collection, gift of the Ball Brothers Foundation, 1995.035.164.

Paul Fehér (Hungarian, 1898–1990) Muse with Violin Screen (detail), 1930. Rose Iron Works, Inc. (American, Cleveland, est. 1904). Wrought iron, brass; silver and gold plating; 156.2 x 156.2 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, On Loan from the Rose Iron Works Collections, LLC, 352.1996. © Rose Iron Works Collections, LLC.) Photo: Howard Agriesti

Viktor Schreckengost (American, 1906–2008) "The New Yorker" (Jazz) Punch Bowl, 1931. Manufactured by Cowan Pottery Studio (Rocky River, Ohio, USA); Glazed, molded earthenware; 29.9 x 42.2 cm (11 3/4 x 16 5/8 in.); Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Gift of Mrs. Homer Kripke, 1980-21-7; Photo: © Smithsonian Institution Copyright: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Hugh Ferriss (American, 1889-1962) Study for Maximum Mass Permitted by the 1916 New York Zoning Law, Stage 4, 1922. Black crayon, stumped; pen and black ink, brush and black wash, varnish on illustration board; 66.8 x 51 cm. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Gift of Mrs. Hugh Ferriss, 1969-137-4

Ed Voves, Photo (2017) Gallery view of The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt Museum, showing (left)  Bracelet, 1925, by Boucheron of Paris, Ancient Egyptian Faience Belt Buckle ,1926, by Cartier of Paris, owned by Linda Porter, “Tutti Frutti” Jewelry by Cartier of Paris, owned by Linda Porter.

Ed Voves, Photo (2017), Armand-Albert Rateau (French, 1882-1938) Ten-Panel Screen, Renards (Foxes), Ca. 1921–22. Gilt and lacquered wood, patinated bronze. Lent by Musée des Arts décoratifs, Paris, 39952A

Ed Voves, Photo (2017), Detail of  Paul Fehér's Wrought-iron Console and Mirror, 1930, made by Rose Iron Works LLC. Cleveland, Ohio, on loan from the Rose Iron Works Collections,

Ed Voves, Photo (2017), Gabrielle Chanel (French, 1883 - 1971) Evening Dress and Underslip, 1926. Blue silk chiffon with applied blue ombré silk fringe. Kent State University Libraries.  The Helen O. Borowitz Collection, KSUM 1997.71.7ab.

Doors for the Music Room of Mr. and Mrs. Solomon R. Guggenheim, 1925–26; Designed by Seraphin Soudbinine (French, b. Russia 1870–1944); Executed by Jean Dunand (French, b. Switzerland, 1877–1942); Made in Paris, France; Carved, joined, and lacquered wood, eggshell, mother-of-pearl, gold leaf, cast bronze; 271.2 × 65.9 × 7.6 cm (8 ft. 10 3/4 in. × 25 15/16 in. × 3 in.); Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum; Gift of Mrs. Solomon R. Guggenheim, 1950-104-1/4; Photo: Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution Copyright: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Ed Voves, Photo (2017) Gallery view of The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt Museum, showing Paul Manship's sculpture, Actaeon, 1925.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Frédéric Bazille and the the Birth of Impressionism at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Frédéric Bazille and the the Birth of Impressionism

National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
April 9 - July 9, 2017

Reviewed by Ed Voves

The prologue to the 1948 film version of Hamlet, directed by Laurence Olivier, concludes with a controversial assertion. "This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind."

This line of cinematic psychoanalysis flashed into my mind as I considered the art of Frédéric Bazille (1841-1870). Bazille is the guiding spirit of an excellent new exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. The exhibit is partly biographical, as well as an inquiry into the origins of Impressionism.

On the surface, Bazille was not a Hamlet-figure. Affable and charming, Bazille was generous in support of his less affluent friends, Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Berthe Morisot called him "Big" Bazille and his tall, slightly-stooping frame figures in a number of pivotal early Impressionist works, several of which are on view in the  National Gallery exhibit.

Claude Monet, Bazille and Camille (Study for "Déjeuner sur l'Herbe")

"Big" Bazille was gifted, intelligent, loved by his devoted family and highly-regarded by friends and colleagues in the rising art scene of Paris in the 1860's. Then the upward curve of his life suddenly plunged straight-down into death and near oblivion in 1870.

The immediate cause of death was a German bullet, which struck Bazille during the Franco-Prussian War. But the evidence of his art reveals conflicted emotions and an anxious search for meaning in his life. This led him - fatally - to enlist in the war effort of the corrupt Second Empire of Napoleon III.

Frédéric Bazille, Self Portrait with Detachable Collar, C. 1865-1867 (Detail)

This was an undeserved fate for such an admirable human being. But there is an even crueler irony here. Bazille was not only a pioneer of the Impressionist movement before its formal beginning in 1874. He was killed in a pointless and stupid war, the chief effect of which was to plant the seed of World War I. Bazille was a "lost generation" artist, decades before the battles of 1914-18 claimed the lives of Franz Marc, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Guillaume Apollinaire, Wilfrid Owen and many more.

Had he followed his father's wishes, Bazille would have become a doctor. After graduating from college with a degree in science, Bazille entered medical school. The appeal of painting and music, however, was too great to resist.

In 1863, Bazille began to taking art lessons in the studio of a Swiss painter, Charles Gleyre. There  he met Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Alfred Sisley. There is an intriguing painting on view in the National Gallery exhibit showing portraits of forty-three of the students at Gleyre's academy, each painted by a fellow student.

Anne Lloyd, Gallery view of the Frédéric Bazille exhibit at the National Gallery

Most of these aspiring artists are forgotten today, though Renoir and Sisley do appear on the crowded canvas. It is the message behind the image that counts.

What is portrayed here is the competitive, convivial brotherhood of artists among whom Bazille would search for meaning in life and art. Later, Bazille would join the group of painters and writers who met at the Café Guerbois in Paris: Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, Emil Zola, Monet and Renoir, with occasional appearances by Paul Cezanne.
Bazille joined in this camaraderie of genius. His paintings and those of his fellow Bohèmes au café are skillfully integrated in the National Galley exhibit, which is on view in the newly renovated East Wing  building.

What is so notable about Bazille's work is how impressive it was from the start - but also how uneven it remained throughout his short-lived career. In 1869, Bazille painted two portraits which appear to have been created by different artists.

Frédéric Bazille, Edmond Maître, 1869

Bazille painted his music-loving friend, Edmond Maître, with the assurance and attention to detail of a seventeenth century master like Van Dyck or Velazquez. This is a work which can stand comparison with the kind of portraits that John Singer Sargent was to make his stock and trade during the 1880's and 1890's.
Bazille's portrait of the writer, Édouard Blau, painted later in 1869, is equal in psychological insight to that of Edmond Maître. But the color is applied, even on the face, with only minimal attention to blending and shadow. Was this due to a search for a new, more expressive style of portrait painting?  The considerable merit of this work raises questions about Bazille's ability to create and maintain a "signature" style, not about skill or attention to detail.

Frédéric Bazille, Édouard Blau, 1869

Bazille collaborated with Blau, working on a theatrical production which was never produced. He also spent a lot of time with Maître studying and playing contemporary music. Such wide-ranging interests speak highly of Bazille's intellect and enthusiasm. But these departures from painting also reveal a emotional response to art very different from that of Monet. 

Monet, though hard-pressed for cash, did not deviate from his single-minded devotion to landscape painting. Bazille, by contrast, was cushioned from financial hardship by a modest allowance from his parents - which he shared with Monet. He was thus able to pursue many artistic paths, but seldom achieved the masterpieces of which his great talent was capable.

The question of Bazille's lack - or change - of focus is observable in one of his best known paintings. This is The Family Gathering, painted in 1867-1868, a truly iconic work of nineteenth century French art.

Frédéric Bazille, Portraits of the *** Family, called The Family Gathering, 1867-68

Bazille painted his parents, relatives and future in-laws during the summer vacation he took on his family's estate, Domaine de Méric, in the south of France. Once again, his reach eluded his grasp. To an incredible extent, Bazille's bravura treatment of the "center stage" group is unbalanced by exceptionally weak handling of the figures on the wings. 

This central group is anchored by a brilliant depiction of Bazille's parents. His mother looks at the viewer with a mixture of compassion and apprehension while his father stares off into space, perhaps wondering about his son's problematic future. 

Frédéric Bazille, The Family Gathering, 1867-68 (Detail)

Seated or standing nearby are Bazille's aunt and cousins, notably Pauline des Hours, arm-in-arm with her fiance. All are beautifully rendered.

Behind his parents, Bazille painted himself and his uncle glaring from the left-hand edge of the picture. They look like intruders, rather than members of a family gathering.

It is the handling of the right-hand group - Bazille's brother Marc, his fiancee, Suzanne Tissié and his cousin, Camille des Hours - that really raises a major question about Bazille's ability to remain focused.

Once again, it seems to be the case of a different - notably inferior - painter at work. Marc Bazille's arms look like they are made of rubber, while Suzanne Tissié poses with almost rigor mortis stiffness. Most incredible of all is the way that that Camille des Hours holds her face as if it were a mask. She looks as if she had been painted by René Magritte in one of his surrealist works from the 1920's.

Such criticism may seem very harsh for the work of an idealistic young man who was still, essentially, a student. But Bazille had discerned the proper course for his art at the very start of his career. In December 1863, he wrote that “painting figures in the sun” was his ideal. When he focused on that aim, he achieved sensational success.

Frédéric Bazille, View of the Village, 1868

Bazille's View of the Village, 1868, is a testament to what he could achieve when he focused his abilities on reality rather than a "theme." Here a young girl poses on a hill overlooking the village near to his family home. It is very simple, entirely naturalistic and totally believable. The girl, no great "looker" by Parisian standards, exudes an inner beauty and psychological complexity that makes this one of the great character studies of nineteenth century art.

Berthe Morisot thought very highly of View of the Village, believing that it embodied the vision of the rising generation, soon to be called Impressionists, “to place a figure en plein air.” 

Berthe Morisot,The Harbor at Lorient, 1869

Bazille's influence on Morisot can clearly be seen in The Harbor at Lorient, which Morisot painted in 1869, after she had admired View of the Village.

Bazille achieved equally high results when painting landscapes "en plein air.” In 1867, he created a series of works depicting the famous castle, Aigues-Mortes. The bright, almost cloudless sky of Provence, the sun-baked battlements and shoreline were painted in the style that was to sweep the world following the first Impressionist Salon of 1874.

Bazille, despite these path-breaking works of art was still wrestling with himself over the direction of his art when he stunned his family and friends by joining the French Army. It was as perplexing a decision as it was unexpected.

Bazille volunteered to serve in the elite Third Regiment of Zouaves on August 16, 1870. At that stage, the recently declared war with Prussia/Germany was a duel between two rival empires, not as it later became a patriotic struggle to defend the Republic of France from invasion. Bazille was not obligated to join the military and, as a staunch believer in democracy, he detested Napoleon III. 

Why did he risk his life for a despotic ruler who had betrayed the ideals of Republican rule in France? Perhaps the answer can be found in the way that Bazille signed his enlistment papers: "Bazille, Jean Frédéric, esquire, aged 28, history painter by trade.”

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Frédéric Bazille, 1867

Bazille addressed an amazing variety of themes in his short artistic career, 1864 to 1870. However, he never painted a true "history" painting. Perhaps he was thinking of a recent work with a biblical theme, Ruth and Boaz (1870). More likely, the words "history painter by trade” reveal that he was still searching for meaning in art, for proof of himself as a man, for "something" greater than what life had offered him so far.

Whatever motivated Bazille to join the hard-fighting Zouaves, his death in battle deprived the nineteenth century art world of one of its most promising, talented artists.

As the National Gallery exhibit clearly shows, Bazille had already made a significant impact on French art by the time of his death in 1870. In doing so, Bazille set the stage for the Impressionist movement. How ironic that the young man who could not make up his mind helped to determine the future course of Modern Art.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved. Images courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. and Anne Lloyd 

Introductory Image:                                                                                                         Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of Frédéric Bazille's The Family Gathering, 1867.
oil on canvas 152 x 230 cm (59 13/16 x 90 9/16 in.) Musée d'Orsay, Paris, purchased with the assistance of Marc Bazille, 1924 

Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926) Bazille and Camille (Study for "Déjeuner sur l'Herbe"), 1865. Oil on canvas, 93 x 68.9 cm (36 5/8 x 27 1/8 in.) framed: 121.9 x 98.4 x 10.7 cm (48 x 38 3/4 x 4 3/16 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of Frédéric Bazille's Self Portrait with Detachable Collar, C. 1865-1867. Oil on canvas. 54 x 46 cm. (21 1/4 x 18 in.) Minneapolis Institute of Art. The John R. Van Derlap fund, 62.39 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery view of the Frédéric Bazille exhibit, showing Forty-three Portraits by Painters at Charles Gleyre's Studio, c. 1856-1868. Oil on canvas, 114 x 146 cm (44 7/8 x 57 1/2 in.) framed: 126 x 160 cm (49 5/8 x 63 in.) The Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris 

Frédéric Bazille (French, 1841-1870) Edmond Maître, early 1869.Oil on canvas, 83.2 x 64 cm (32 3/4 x 25 3/16 in.) framed: 109.2 x 90.2 x 8.9 cm (43 x 35 1/2 x 3 1/2 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon.

Frédéric Bazille (French, 1841-1870) Édouard Blau, probably December 1869. Oil on canvas,  59.5 x 43.2 cm (23 7/16 x 17 in.) framed: 69.5 x 53 x 5.1 cm (27 3/8 x 20 7/8 x 2 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Chester Dale Collection.

Frédéric Bazille (French, 1841-1870) Portraits of the *** Family, called The Family Gathering, 1867. Oil on canvas, 152 x 230 cm (59 13/16 x 90 9/16 in.) Musée d'Orsay, Paris, purchased with the assistance of Marc Bazille, 1924

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of Frédéric Bazille's The Family Gathering, 1867. (Bazille's parents, Camille and Gaston Bazille) Oil on canvas 152 x 230 cm (59 13/16 x 90 9/16 in.) Musée d'Orsay, Paris, purchased with the assistance of Marc Bazille, 1924.

Frédéric Bazille (French, 1841-1870) View of the Village, 1868. Oil on canvas, 137.5 x 85.5 x 2.5 cm (54 1/8 x 33 11/16 x 1 in.) framed: 157 x 107 x 8 cm (61 13/16 x 42 1/8 x 3 1/8 in.) Musée Fabre, Montpellier Méditerranée Métropole

Berthe Morisot (French, 1841-1895) The Harbor at Lorient, 1869. Oil on canvas. 43.5 x 73 cm (17 1/8 x 28 3/4 in.) framed: 64.7 x 95.2 x 7.6 cm (25 1/2 x 37 1/2 x 3 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French, 1841-1919) Frédéric Bazille, 1867. Oil on canvas. 105 x 73.5 cm (41 5/16 x 28 15/16 in.) On loan to the Musée d'Orsay, from the Musée Fabre, Montpellier.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Frank Gehry's Master Plan for the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Frank Gehry and the Core Project Renovations  

at the Phildelphia Museum of Art

Reviewed by Ed Voves

March 30, 2017 was a cold spring morning in Philadelphia. But pure "sunshine" radiated throughout the Philadelphia Museum of Art on that day. An impressive ground breaking ceremony launched the Core Project, the decisive phase of a great renovation effort dating back to 2004. 

My wife, Anne, and I were honored to be invited to the ceremony. A dazzling red carpet marked the path into the rather forbidding Vaulted Walkway on the museum's ground level. Symbolically at least, the light of a new era beamed into this grand museum, home to world-class masterpieces by Thomas Eakins, Paul Cezanne, Vincent van Gogh and the "Rocky" steps!

The Vaulted Passageway of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The ceremonial shovels used to launch the Core Project renovations are at the ready.

It is important to emphasize the word "throughout" in terms of the Philadelphia Museum rehab effort. This massive project is literally an "inside" job.

When the renovation project, known as the 2004 Facilities Master Plan, is completed in 2020, the Philadelphia Museum of Art will be dramatically transformed. The Core Project will reopen and reconfigure huge expanses of space within the honey-colored neoclassical building. These spaces have been blocked-off or under-utilized for many years. 

The renovation of the Philadelphia Museum of Art has been placed in the capable hands of architect Frank Gehry. Famed for his innovative design of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, Gehry also handled an interior-focused renovation of the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California.

At the opening ceremony, Philadelphia's mayor, Jim Kenney (left), sits alongside Frank Gehry (center) and Timothy Rub, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In his remarks at the March 30 ceremony, Gehry made the ironic comment that when the Core Project is completed people looking at the museum exterior "won't even know that I've been here."

On the inside, there will be plenty of evidence of Gehry's presence - and expertise.

According to statistics released by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Core Project will open-up  90,000 sq. feet. to the public, of which 23,000 sq. feet will be used for new galleries to display the ever-growing collection of the museum. 

The need for more exhibit space at the Philadelphia Museum of Art has been apparent for a long-time. The 2016 Embracing the Contemporary exhibit illustrated the dilemma of providing sufficient display space for the treasures of the Keith and Katherine Sachs Collection. 

The vast array of Modern art in the exhibit - which Keith and Katherine Sachs have promised to give to the Philadelphia Museum of Art - overflowed the Dorrance Galleries where special exhibits are usually shown. Several galleries in the Modern wing had to re-hung to display the remainder of the Sachs Collection. Iconic works by the "Old Masters of Modern Art" like Modigliani's Blue Eyes (Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne) had to find temporary homes elsewhere in the museum.

Amedeo Modigliani, Blue Eyes (Portrait of Madame Jeanne Hébuterne), 1917

With a space crunch like this at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Core Project comes not a moment too soon. Much of the newly available gallery space will be devoted to The museum's outstanding collection of Modern and Contemporary art.

The Van Pelt Auditorium under demolition, part of the initial phase of the              Core Project renovation of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Artist's rendering of the planned Forum of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The view is looking West, as in the above photo of the demolished Van Pelt Auditorium.

Some familiar landmarks of the old museum have already been demolished as part of the project. We visited the vacated space of the Van Pelt Auditorium, scene of so many great lectures and classic film presentations. The auditorium had been torn down to provide access to the great central space that Gehry's plans will open-up.

This great public space is being styled as the Forum. The title from ancient Rome is well-chosen, even if the Philadelphia Museum is designed like a Greek temple. The Forum will provide better access routes throughout the rather cramped museum. It will also impart a sense of majesty to the interior of the museum to match that of its Greek temple facade.

Artist's view of of the planned Forum as seen from an overlook space.

A spectacular staircase will dominate the Forum, providing access from the renovated Vaulted Walkway - where the groundbreaking ceremony took place - to the exhibit floors. One of these new gallery areas will be designated for a reconfiguration of the museum's American art collection, one of the finest in the world. Of the new gallery space to be made available by the Core Project, 11,500 sq. feet will be dedicated to the display of American art.

What better way to honor the great artists from Philadelphia's past - and future ones too! During the 1876 Centennial Exposition,Thomas Eakins' Gross Clinic was banished to a display of hospital beds and medical equipment at this first world's fair held in the U.S. But now Eakins' masterpiece is going to hang in style in the new American art galleries!

A cutaway view of the model of the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Core Project. The Great Stair Hall with Calder Mobile is above the new Forum planned by Frank Gehry.

A fabulous scale model of the Philadelphia Museum of Art with cutaways of the Core Project renovations is currently on display at the museum. It is a work of art in its own right and it will be a pleasure to refer back to this model as construction moves forward.

There will be so much more in the "new" museum, beyond the majestic Forum. New restaurants and shops, state-of-the-art classrooms and a terrific art studio for school groups. There will better access for the physically-challenged and the elderly.

If all goes according to plan, the Core Project will add a total of 169,000 square feet to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

I hope that somewhere in all that bustling, creative space there will be a memorial of some kind to Anne d'Harnoncourt. This great lady was the long-time director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the person who brought Frank Gehry to the museum as the architect of the Facilities Master Plan.

Anne d'Harnoncourt in 1994 
Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

I frequently saw Ms. d'Harnoncourt at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, though I did not know her personally. I never had the chance to interview her, as I occasionally do Mr.Timothy Rub, the dynamic director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art today. I did not begin reviewing art exhibitions until 2008, the year that Ms. d'Harnoncourt died, tragically, years before her time. The first great exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art that I reviewed was one of the last that she planned, the awesome Frida Kahlo exhibit in 2009.

Anne d'Harnoncourt positively exuded love of art and love for people. You just felt that love whenever you saw her. I still sense her spirit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and I have the feeling that she will be there at the grand opening ceremony of the Core Project renovations in 2020.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved Images Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art  and Anne Lloyd

Introductory Image: 
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Portrait of Frank Gehry at the Opening Ceremony of the Core Project Renovations at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), The Vaulted Passageway of the Philadelphia Museum of Art prior to the Opening Ceremony of the Core Project Renovations, March 30, 2017.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Jim Kenney, Frank Gehry and Timothy Rub the Opening Ceremony of the Core Project Renovations at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Amedeo Modigliani, Blue Eyes (Portrait of Madame Jeanne Hébuterne), 1917. Oil on Canvas, 21 1/2 x 16 7/8 inches (54.6 x 42.9 cm). Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, # 1967-30-59.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), The Van Pelt Auditorium of the Philadelphia Museum of Art under demolition.

Artist's rendering of the planned Forum of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, looking West. Architectural rendering by Gehry Partners, LLP and KX-L. Photo courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art

Artist's view of of the planned Forum as seen from an overlook spaceArchitectural rendering by Gehry Partners, LLP and KX-L. Photo courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), A cutaway view of the model of the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Core Project. 

Anne d'Harnoncourt in 1994Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art