Art Reviews

Art Review: Titian’s “Flaying of Marsyas”

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Tuesday, December 12th, 2017

Titian–In the End:
From Wholesome Flesh to
Disintegrating Skin

[To view the slide show in a separate tab, place the mouse pointer over the first slide, right click, select <This Frame>, then <Open Frame in New Tab>.]

[slides 1-5]

Artist riddle:
How many artists does it take to
complete a painting?
One to do the painting
and five to drag her away from the canvas
when it’s finished.

[slide 6]

When Tiziano Vecellio (Titian) died in 1576 at an advanced age the delimiters of which are as elusive today as form edges in his late paintings, among the detritus left in what was a very busy bottega (workshop), was a large canvas on which paint melted into the story of the Flaying of Marsyas, conflated with the one about Midas, whose life was also turned upside down for errantly judging a musical competition (Fig. 1). In the aftermath of the master’s death from “a fever” and almost simultaneously that of his oldest son and business partner Orazio from plague, the abandoned houseful of art on Birri Grande in Venice became fair game for burglars, who had first pick of the hoard. Before the end of the 1570s, the place along with all its contents had been sold by the surviving younger son Pomponio.

In 1909, after long silence, the Flaying of Marsyas appeared in the art historical record. Since that emergence into contemporary consciousness, the painting has garnered much speculation as to motive, meaning, method, etc. Occam’s razor rules here, starting with incontrovertible givens. Titian loved oil paint. He spent a lifetime applying it to surfaces, mostly canvas, in increasingly complex ways that gained him notice, nobility, remuneration and not a little notoriety, all of which he shaped and fashioned to good effect but that also left their imprint on him. The Flaying of Marsyas is the Prince of Painters’ personal meditation on the choices he made–and clearly continued to make–as the artist he was. By rendering with sumptuous color and brushwork the myths that declared the superiority of divine order and reason–embodied in Apollo and his lyre–over the unfettered sensuality of satyr Marsyas and his pipes, Titian challenged the admonishing message of his subject matter. In the longstanding competitive conversation with Michelangelo’s disegno, this colorito canvas seems to be the Venetian’s attempt to have the last word.

The painting depicts the price of challenging a god at his own artistic game. Oddly, for all the paint and real estate Titian devoted to the Marsyas tale, it was the one about Midas on which Ovid lavished more words, and the character with whom the painter seems to have identified most. Regardless of whether the immediate viewers of the canvas were thieves or discerning collectors, it must have been quite a shock to whoever came upon it for the first time. So revolutionary was the appearance of the Flaying of Marsyas, [slide 7] that they must have wondered what did the great artist have in mind and hand when he chose these stories and rendered them as he did. Even those familiar with Titian’s contemporary works, like the earthy Nymph and Shepherd (early 1570s, Fig. 2)–with its similarly vibrant brushstrokes but (style-wise) backwards-glancing sculpted figures and spatial recession–were confronted with a distinctively different order of painting. Certainly considering much earlier output like his smooth Venus of Urbino (1538, Fig. 3)–with its well-defined forms, perspectival floor and geometric divisions–might have made them wonder how its artist could possibly be responsible for the Flaying of Marsyas. Seizing on the idea of the later painting’s apparently unfinished state, more-or-less erudite viewers had a handy explanation, but Titian declared his part done when he painted his name on the rock in the lower right foreground, a nicety that hasn’t foreclosed debate.

[slide 8]
Titian rendered here not one but two stories about aesthetic discernment versus sensory pleasure, and the potential for unfavorable outcomes. What becomes of the artist who professes his own brand of art to be better than Nature’s, i.e., better than that of the gods? Tied to a tree on the central axis of the composition, the inverted Marsyas suffers under the knives of the partially kneeling golden-haired Apollo and above him, his Phrygian-capped assistant–their crooked elbows echoing each other like tiered chevrons. After Minerva discarded her newly invented pipes, Marsyas retrieved them and perfecting his technique, foolishly challenged the sun god to a musical duel. The god of light chose flaying as the penalty, the pain of which Ovid communicated far more dramatically than Titian did, as evident in the poet’s lines:
[slide 9]
‘No! no! He screamed,/’Why tear me from myself? Oh, I repent!/A pipe’s not worth the price!’ and as he screamed/Apollo stripped his skin; the whole of him/Was one huge wound, blood streaming everywhere,/Sinews laid bare, veins naked, quivering/And pulsing. You could count his twitching guts,/And the tissues as the light shone through his ribs[…]”

[slide 10]
In the other poem, Midas–the only dissenter when all agreed Pan’s pipes inferior to Apollo’s lyre–inflamed the sun god’s ire at “ears so dull,” and suffered their transformation into those of an ass. “Disfigured and ashamed,” the Phrygian king wrapped his new appendages in a purple turban in an attempt to conceal them from his viewers.

Providing musical accompaniment on the Apollo side of the picture, a soloist has just completed a down bow on his lira da braccio, which visually addresses the syrinx hanging from the tree a few inches away, matching seven strings to seven pipes–a restatement of the duel between the instruments. On the other side, lined up diagonally from upper middle to lower right, a satyr enters the scene carrying a bucket, the crowned Midas sits with his hand over his mouth, and a boy holds the collar of a large, open-mouthed dog. A small dog licks up the blood flowing from the open wound of Marsyas–a bit of macabre humor for English speakers, as it is a lap dog.

The leaves in this natural setting, a mix of fiery red-orange and some version of green, echo the colors of the flesh, which are set off by the icy-blue sky, standing-flayer’s apron, bucket’s metal and Apollo’s opalescent drapery. [slide 11] Titian’s red accents ring the composition: Midas’s wrap, the blood-red strips of cloth attaching Marsyas’s left leg and–on the other side–his pipes to the tree, the musician’s garment, Apollo’s boot and [slide 12] the blood that drips down the front of the canvas as though applied to its surface, rather than following the form of the satyr’s arm (Fig. 4)–a self-aware passage that signals the image’s artifice and with it, Titian’s presence as creator/god.

[slide 13]
The composition has as its geometric center the navel of Marsyas, shifted now because of past alterations to the canvas size (Fig. 5). The navel’s central position and the strongly highlighted immediate surrounds guarantee its role as focal point to which relates all narrative action, reminiscent of the Umbilicus/Navel of the World–the axis mundi–mythological center of the world/universe made manifest in the Hellenistic symbol of the Omphalos stone. While it can’t be known whether Titian had these ideas in mind or was more simply, calling upon adolescent geometry lessons, the circular composition does reflect his deliberation on the power of the center. By assigning it to the area of the body associated with emotions, the artist directed attention to the satyr’s visceral nature.

As for the painting’s pictorial magic, technical investigations belie the impression that the Flaying of Marsyas was conceived and executed in a single sitting–or even several. [slide 14] A combination of x-rays from decades ago (Fig. 6), a published copy of an earlier version (Fig. 7) and extrapolation from a state-of-the-art, pre-conservation analysis of the elements of Titian’s Nymph and Satyr, revealed: that the painter applied pigment in complex layers according to intended color effect–in distinct sections–alternating impasto with glazes, a process that required in-between drying time and created Titian’s preferred relief-like surface; that he nonetheless worked the entire canvas at once; that he started with an underdrawing of thin, dark paint; that he exploited the canvas for its effect; and that the novelty of the old man’s style depended less on significant changes in ingredients than on his brilliant deployment of them. Perhaps apocryphal, when asked about his methods, Titian himself admitted, “svelaturetrenta o quaranta!” (“glazes–thirty or forty!”). As for the widely quoted possible eye-witness account reported by Marco Boschini–speaking through the mouth of artist Palma il Giovane–about Titian’s painting practice of “vigorous applied [color] with a loaded brush[…who] for final touches would blend the transitions from highlights to halftones with his fingers,” no fingerprints were found on Nymph and Satyr, a painting with many disappeared edges. The Flaying of Marsyas, then, was an important painting to its maker, who lavished on it much time and craft.

The copy’s agreement with evidence from the x-ray that Titian initially had a different idea about the activity and pose of the musician in the upper left, and that the child with the dog was a later replacement for the amphora in the lower right, lends credence to the existence of another version–copy or original–that predated the one left in the artist’s studio when he died. One such was recorded in a sale at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Thoughts of a flaying of Marsyas painting–and perhaps its application to the disegnocolorito debate–had obviously been marinating in Titian’s mind for some time, possibly for decades, indicating among other things that the subject itself was not necessarily pegged to the artist’s aging. As Titian neared the end of his life, however, the question of his legacy entered the picture. The myths’ long-standing presence in Titian’s thinking is further supported by his decision to invert Marsyas, an idea that seems to have sprung full grown from the brain of Raphael’s star pupil.

[slide 15]
Awash in antiquities as they were, sixteenth-century artists had a seemingly endless supply of new ideas for subjects and compositions, among them the contest between Apollo and Marsyas–and its prize. Of the motifs used to depict the popular narrative–on ancient sarcophagi (Fig. 8) and vases (Fig. 9), and as at least two types of sculpture-in-the-round of Marsyas tied to a tree in the exceedingly painful strappado position (Fig. 10)–none were known to upend the doomed satyr. During the 1520s and 1530s when Titian worked for Duke of Mantua Federico II Gonzaga, he had ample opportunity to rummage around the prince’s extensive collection of antiquities and while there, to browse that of court painter and architect Giulio Romano, with whom he developed at least a collegial relationship. Possibly among those marbles was a now-lost sarcophagus with the satyr inverted.

[slide 16]
Ideas must have been exchanged between the two artistic giants about compositions for a Flaying of Marsyas because by 1527, Giulio had sketched a scene of the punishment of Marsyas (Fig. 11), which was soon frescoed by him and assistants onto the wall of the Sala di Ovidio (Camera dei Metamorfosi) in Federico’s Palazzo del Te. (Fig. 12) [slide 17] Comparing the composition of the Flaying of Marsyas painting with that of the Apollo Flaying Marsyas drawing reveals how alike the artists’ thinking must have been. Although it’s been suggested that rather than making a copy of the drawing or being gifted one, that Titian sketched from the fresco, considering how high up on the wall the small fresco is, it’s unlikely he would have been able to see it well, even if he knew it was there. Because the drawing obviously precedes Titian’s painting, the assumption has been that the idea originated with Giulio and that proposed lost sarcophagus.

[slide 18]
An alternative hypothesis has Giulio standing in the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican under the ceiling fresco designed by his mentor Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael) and looking at Marsyas upside down, either from curiosity or by happenstance. [slide 19] (Figs. 14 and 15) The strappado-twisted arms of Marsyas in the drawing echo those in Raphael’s design, providing strong evidence that the ceiling painting was a convenient source of inspiration for Giulio. When he composed his own version, Titian wisely changed the position of those arms–such tension in arm muscles making no sense in a body hanging from its ankles. [slide 20] However the idea developed, not only did it appeal to Titian but it rapidly became a standard among other artists, who likewise corrected the arms–probably guided by other Giulio or Titian versions (Figs. 16, 17 and 18). When he elected to paint these myths of musical comparison (paragone), Titian entered a conversation already in progress, possibly doing so years before he painted the version that in his lifetime never left the studio.

[slide 21]
The significant ways in which Titian’s painting veers away from the drawings of Giulio and company provide clues to the Venetian’s intentions: Marsyas, strung up by his ankles, facing front, his genitals no longer the target of a flayer’s knife and his skin still mostly attached to his body; Apollo, dropped to one knee and wielding a knife; a musician, playing a lira da braccio taking the place of the man holding the victor’s lyre; the satyr with the bucket, looking at Apollo rather than out of the canvas; and joining the party with two dogs, a child implicating the viewer with his eye contact. Most significantly, instead of covering his eyes, Titian’s Midas–his ass’s ears lost in the shadowed space ringing his head–stares intently at the butchery unfolding before him, dispassionately regarding the face of Marsyas, who no longer opens his mouth in a scream [slide 22] (Figs. 19 and 20), but turns one eye toward the spectator in close-mouthed, strained silence. Where Giulio’s drawing mostly documents the denouement of a competition, Titian’s painting invites its audience to join the artist in reflecting on the contrasting positions, and hence significance, of flayer and victim.

[slide 23]
Giulio’s repeating diagonals from upper right to lower left (arm of bucket-bearer, tree, Marsyas and assistant flayer) create movement toward the left, counterbalanced by the stooped Apollo and the lyre-carrier behind him. Depth is indicated by the profile view of the sacrificial satyr who is turned in space, and by clear views of the legs that overlap each other or as in the case of the Phrygian butcher, disappear behind another form. Titian in contrast compressed his composition by suppressing those usual depth-defining disegno devices of: overlapping forms and distinctive edges, discriminating paint application and layering, and the atmospheric perspective that leads to infinity in landscape settings. [slide 24] His painting is all colorito–evident in a closeup photograph taken under ordinary inadequate museum lighting (Fig. 21), where to the left of the satyr’s right leg, background clouds merge with a patch of red cloth above and a hand grabbing a sliver of hide below. [slide 25] The blue and gold of sky and background trees assert themselves in competition with foreground figures that meet at the picture plane, like the musician atop Apollo’s back, the assistant flayer above the god’s head, and the bucket-carrier abutting Midas.

Compared to the other figures, the centrally-located body of Marsyas is massive, lending credence to observations that in constructing his composition, Titian channeled memories of Christ flanked by holy figures, or more generally the shallow space of sacre conversazioni (sacred conversations), where Madonna and child occupy center stage amid saints and donors bracketing them, and/or recalled archaic reliefs. Such conjecturing raises questions: What additional body of knowledge did Titian draw upon, if any, besides that of his craft? What personal meanings did he cram into this visually crowded canvas?

Clearly Titian knew the myths of Marsyas and Midas, though he conflated the two. How he came by this knowledge remains speculative, with some asserting that early artistic training–beginning at age ten–preempted any formal education, making it unlikely he ever learned to read Latin. That wouldn’t have constituted much of an impediment once he fell in with Venetian intellectual types like Pietro Aretino, Pietro Bembo, Daniele Barbaro and others whose portraits he painted–their conversations teeming with philosophical, literary and artistic content as they must have been. On the other hand, Titian has been characterized as a “cultivated man” who read classical literature–including poetry–and might have known Latin and even Greek, and who was familiar with the Renaissance current of Neo-Platonist and Pythagorean numerical theories, especially those related to music.

[slide 26]
More agreement exists, however, as to the role of Midas as stand-in for Titian, though not about whether it is a self-portrait (Fig. 22). Similarly, some have misread the king’s expression and pose as that of a melancholic, applying to it phrases like: “veiled in sorrow and profound gravity,” “tearfully falls silent,” “Saturnine melancholy,” and “grand and pensive mourner.” [slide 27] Comparing Titian’s Midas (Fig. 23) with the archetype of melancholy in Albrecht Dürer’s engraving Melancholia I (1514, Fig. 24), forces agreement with assessments of his stance as contemplative. The poses are just not the same.

[slide 28]
What might Titian as Midas have been thinking as he stared at the face of the sensual satyr (Fig. 25) under the knife of the god of divine order in the act of pulling away a slice of skin? [slide 29] With both his eyes and mouth wide open, Apollo seems to be singing (Fig. 26), perhaps in a duet with the musician playing on the Renaissance version of the ancient lyre–the instrument the sun god strummed to maintain the harmony of the spheres. If this was indeed the artist’s intention, it wouldn’t be the first time he subordinated the ear to the eye, setting a scene to music with his colorito.

[slide 30]
In a 1550s composition of a musician and nude woman (ca. 1550, Fig. 27), Titian explored more explicitly the relationship between music and sensuality (i.e., sex). His choice of a pipe organ for the ogling player, who has one hand on the keyboard and the other between his legs as he conjures up his Venus and Cupid in an erotically suggestive embrace, must surely relate to the nefarious reputation of wind instruments, associated as they were with vulgarity and phalluses. Unlike Apollo’s lyre, with its fixed tuning and illustrious Greek pedigree, the pipes of Marsyas–a goddess’s discard–had a structure that enabled a flexible tonal range, its lack of limits threatening to lead its devotees astray.

[slide 31]
In his Flaying of Marsyas, Titian played the open brushwork of Venetian colorito–the unfettered sensuality/sexuality embodied by the satyr’s syrinx–against the lines of Central Italian disegno–the contained order of Apollo’s harmonic strings. Indeed the artist was, quite literally, the poster child for the freewheeling style billed as improving on nature rather than slavishly mimicking it. In the impresa most likely chosen for him sometime before 1562 by close friend Aretino or writer M. Lodovico Dolce (Fig. 28), the painter is likened to a mother bear who licks her formless newborn into something resembling herself. The accompanying poem by Dolce leaves no doubt that Titian was known to have “[…]bested art, genius and nature.” The well-deserved inclusion of this impresa in an engraved anthology devoted to those of princes and other illustrious men of letters recognized Titian as a noble gentleman of refined intellect, placing his art alongside that of literature, seeming to link it with Apollo and his lyrical productions.

[slide 32]
In a picture constructed of riotous patches of color thoughtfully applied by design, inhabited by an unusual-for-Titian amount of bare male flesh, Midas contemplates the emotional response of Marsyas to his fate, with ample reason for identification. When the Phrygian king chose the sexy sound of pipes over a god’s heavenly instrument, he earned ass’s ears as a reward, though at least hung onto his skin. With this painting, the octogenarian painter (Fig. 29)–having already sustained losses to death of several loved ones and suffered some debilitating effects of aging–reflects on his own legacy. Decades earlier, well aware of Michelangelo’s celebrated disegno, Titian had chosen to go his own way, further developing the notorious open brushwork of his Venetian colorito. Would his gift be flayed after he was gone?

By choosing these myths, Titian seemed to bow to the inevitable triumph of the austere and rational over the luxuriant and sensual, watching it be cut to ribbons. Judging from the many philosophical readings (death by a thousand cuts) of this luscious compilation of pigment, and the avoidance of its near-erotic obsession with the flesh of both actors and canvas, if that’s what the old man feared would become of his art, his Flaying of Marsyas even as it pictures defeat, proclaims victory for colorito by its very existence.


For the full paper including footnotes and bibliography, contact the author at:


Art Review: Catalog Entry for Ribera painting

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Sunday, July 23rd, 2017

Catalog Entry for
Jusepe de Ribera,
The Holy Family with
Saints Anne and Catherine of Alexandria

Jusepe de Ribera, The Holy Family with Saints Anne and Catherine of Alexandria (1648, oil on canvas, 82½ x 60¾ in. [209.6 x 154.3 cm]).  New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Holy Family with Saints Anne and Catherine of Alexandria.  Jusepe de Ribera (Játiva [Valencia], Spain 1591 – 1652 Naples), Rome ca. 1606; Parma ca. 1611; Naples 1616–1652.  Signed and dated lower right on side of bench upon which Mary sits: “Jusepe de Ribera, español, accadamico [] F. 1648.”  Oil on canvas, 82½ x 60¾ in. (209.6 x 154.3 cm).  Restored in 1979.  Samuel D. Lee Fund, 1934, 34.73.

In a painting of the Holy Family, preceding the date of 1648, Jusepe de Ribera proudly affixed his signature as a Spaniard and Academy member to the end of the stone bench supporting Mary. Other than the secure facts of its dating and creator, little is known with certainty about the history and hence function of the work. A trail of information starts much later in its life with the murky circumstances of its acquisition in Genoa by a French art dealer. Much, however, can still be gleaned from its date, subject matter and physical characteristics.

Pictured on a canvas too large to be handled by one person and hence unlikely to have been intended for private individual devotion, the Virgin Mary holds the Christ child on her lap while Saint Catherine of Alexandria brushes her left cheek against the dorsal surface of the baby’s right hand. Mary’s mother Saint Anne proffers a rose to her daughter and Saint Joseph gazes at the viewer, as does the Madonna. A sewing basket in the lower right corner adds a note of tranquil domesticity, and the absence of mystical haloes renders the scene more conducive to viewers’ imagining themselves participating in the tender adoration of the child on his mother’s lap.

For the elderly participants who frame the central action, Ribera chose tenebristically dark colors, effectively keeping Anne and Joseph in the background. By bathing in bright light the two young women and baby, and clothing them in colorful garments, he brought them forward, directing the audience’s attention to the spiritual center of the composition.

Those viewers were likely to have been members of a wealthy family for whom the painting was created and guests who joined them in their private quarters, where the canvas would have been displayed. In keeping with the mid-sixteenth-century Council of Trent’s dictates, the subject matter chosen and the manner in which it was presented encouraged identification with, and emulation of, the holy personages depicted. Catherine would have provided an opportunity to meditate on her “admirable” qualities of “wisdom,” “eloquence,” “constancy,” “cleanness of chastity” and “privileged dignity.”

Primarily a holy family scene into which Ribera inserted Catherine, the painting presents an Alexandrian princess and Christian convert to whom Christ appeared when her faith was severely tested. Rather than the usual iconography of this saint’s mystical marriage to Christ–in which she is shown receiving a ring from the infant Jesus, here it’s the baby in a passive position, receiving Catherine’s tender adoration.

A popular source of saints’ stories, The Golden Legend left vague the exact content of Catherine’s visions, the second of which occurred during a twelve-day imprisonment without food. In her efforts to convert a ruling emperor to Christianity, Catherine so impressed him with erudite arguments that stumped fifty of his smartest philosophers, that he proposed marriage. When she explained that “He [Christ] is my God, my lover, my shepherd, and my one and only spouse,” the emperor became so enraged that he ordered her jailed. When starvation didn’t shake her faith, he sentenced her to be tortured to death across four spiked wheels, pieces of which later became the symbol of her martyrdom.

Those references to lover and spouse probably contributed to the subsequent myth of Catherine’s dream of the Christ child held by Mary, initially refusing to accept her as his servant because she was insufficiently beautiful, but much later–after Catherine spent time in the desert learning about the Christian faith from a hermit and then being baptized–Christ returned and placed a ring on the future martyr’s finger.

In a related version, also not in The Golden Legend but perhaps a product of the Counter-Reformation’s promotion of images as devotional aids, said hermit gifted Catherine with a picture of the Madonna and Child. Fervent prayers brought the Alexandrian princess a vision of the face of Christ turning toward her and later, when her faith had grown even stronger, Catherine envisioned Christ’s placing a ring on her finger. In a parallel fashion, Ribera created an image that invited similar spiritual engagement.

Techniques and Materials
The large oil-on-canvas painting has suffered damage. Before a 1979 restoration, there was a great deal of paint loss in the light-colored flesh tones. Additionally, what today looks like a well-preserved ultramarine cloak was back then a surface of disconnected flecks of paint before (one assumes) paint consolidation and in-painting. The canvas weave is evident below most of the paint, possibly a result of a relining in the early nineteenth century.

In this late work, Ribera combined the tenebristic effects of his earlier Roman style with a classical mode already apparent in the previous decade, perhaps inspired by contemporary artists Guido Reni, Domenichino, Lanfranco and Artemisia Gentileschi who–settling in Naples during those years–brought with them a classical way of painting. Likewise, the expansion of Ribera’s palette from muted earth colors to vibrant and varied hues might reflect the renewal of interest in Venetian art that spread across Italy during the 1630s.

The painting is imbued with a tenderness that suffuses the interactions among all the actors. Catherine’s intense and private adoration of the Christ child evokes in the baby enjoyment of, and fascination with, her behavior (evident by the slightly upturned left corner of his mouth). St. Anne smiles lovingly as she offers her daughter a rose that perhaps with its many equidistant thorns (curiously confined to only one side of the stem) prefigures the Passion with its crown of thorns. Mary and Joseph knowingly acknowledge visitors with ineffable stares that grasp and hold the viewer’s gaze on Catherine’s actions.

Evident from early on, Ribera’s determination to capture and convey affect evolved into an exceptional ability to paint deeply emotional sacred (and other) pictures well suited for the post-Tridentine precepts of his time. Whether patron-driven or expressive of a personal predisposition, that aspect of his work forever marked him as different from others. The Met’s Holy Family with Saints Anne and Catherine of Alexandria reflects the culture whence it springs but also the mastery of its creator.

Nothing is known about the painting before the nineteenth century when Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun acquired it, but sometime after around 1648 when it left the artist’s studio in Naples as an object of religious devotion, it became an object of art.

An unsigned typewritten note in its curatorial file suggests that after Napoleon’s invasion of Italy and his subsequent secularization of churches, the painting became available and ended up in a Genoese collection either as a purchase or spoil of war. It was picked up in Italy by Le Brun in 1807/08 with the intention of bringing it back to Paris to sell, either purchased from its Genoese owner or obtained illegally elsewhere and given a false provenance. Its exclusion from both Giacomo Brusco’s Description des beautes de Genes (1781) and Carlo Giuseppe Ratti’s Descrizione di Genova (1780) strongly suggests that the painting wasn’t commissioned for a Genoese church. A signed and dated work of this caliber was unlikely to have been missed by either writer.

Wherever and however it was acquired, it ended up in France where artist and art dealer Le Brun soon flipped it in an “unverified” Paris sale. By 1824 it resided in the collection of Sir Thomas Baring, a connoisseur and collector of fine art who served in the British government for many years. The painting remained in the Baring family until December 12, 1918, when it was sold at Christie’s in London, to P. & D. Colnaghi & Co., a well-established dealer and gallery founded in 1767.

Colnaghi held the painting till it came into the possession of Henry George Charles Lascelles, of royal heritage like the previous noncommercial owners. When the painting appeared on the market again in 1934 at Arnold Seligmann, Rey & Co., Inc. (New York and Paris), it was bought by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Though Ribera spent his entire working life in Italy, because he was Spanish born this painting is displayed in a gallery of Spanish art.


For citations and bibliography, contact the author at:


Art Review: Museum Collections & Exhibitions

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Tuesday, July 11th, 2017

The Long and Short of Displaying Art:
Permanent Collections and Temporary Exhibitions

[To view the slide show in a separate tab, place the mouse pointer over the first slide, right click, select <This Frame>, then <Open Frame in New Tab>.]

Permanent: Lasting or intended to last or remain unchanged indefinitely.
Temporary: Lasting for only a limited period of time; not permanent.

On a chilly, rainy September morning in 1978, the thirty-year-old artist found herself well positioned on a line that had grown exponentially behind her since she had arrived early enough to score a ticket for the King Tut show soon to open at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Fleeting entertainment during an otherwise long and dull wait on Fifth Avenue came in the form of then Governor Hugh Carey emerging from Central Park in running shorts, accompanied by a bodyguard. One had to wonder whether the office-attired chaperone was required to run alongside his charge as the latter enjoyed his morning jog.

On the last stop of its multi-city tour, the peripatetic Treasures of Tutankhamun had attracted crowds and money wherever it opened (Fig. 1), while repeated packing and unpacking had taken its toll on the objects, adding to the already high costs of the exhibition. Such was the power and some of the drawbacks of mounting these high-profile extravaganzas.

So it was that in 1977 when Philippe de Montebello took over the reins of the Metropolitan Museum of Art from Thomas Hoving (the man whose name became synonymous with blockbusters like the aforementioned) that the new director, acknowledging his predecessor’s unmatchable contributions to the growth of the museum, staked out his own territory. Where Hoving had expanded The Met with new wings, programs and gallery reconfigurations, de Montebello would take advantage of a new management structure that gave to a president administrative functions and left him, the director:
“[…]to allow for a total concentration on the collections, the activities and programs related to them, and the gifted people charged with their preservation, exhibition and interpretation.”

In that statement, de Montebello reminded his audience of the core functions of a museum, adding:
“The Museum’s basic mission is not only to acquire and conserve great works of art but also to make them more intelligible by recreating their historical context for the visitor[…]to sharpen the aesthetic experience and engage the intellect as well.”
He hoped, too:
“[…]that the public will respond to imaginative presentations and reinstallations of permanently-held works of art with the same eagerness that it now responds to special exhibitions.”

Forty years later, museums seem to have given up on letting art speak for itself, becoming addicted to temporary exhibitions and their accompanying glitzy technology that at times overwhelms the objects. In order to increase attendance to levels necessary for sustaining burgeoning operating expenses of ever-expanding physical structures, some museums have temporarily permitted shows to silence permanent collections entirely.

When The Met Costume Institute’s Manus & Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology took over the Lehman wing, Impressionist and other paintings became inaccessible (Figs. 2 and 3). Likewise, the Costume Institute’s use of the Asian galleries for the display of fashion in the 2015 exhibition China: Through the Looking Glass eclipsed the art with discotheque lighting, adding music to further the effect (Figs. 4 and 5).

Museum goers have been enticed, too, with seemingly infinite variations of shows on celebrity artists like Caravaggio, Vermeer, van Gogh, Rembrandt, Picasso, et al. Breaking from the pack, in the fall of 2016–determined to introduce a lesser-known artist to the viewing public–Keith Christiansen co-curated with Annick Lemoine, Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio (Fig. 6 and 7).

Showcasing an artist who for years had been of great interest to him, Christiansen resisted the pressure to include one of The Met’s Caravaggios since none of them would have been in the field of vision of Valentin or his Roman cohorts in the second decade of the seventeenth century. The curators couldn’t escape the opportunity, however, to add the name of the better-known artist to the show’s subtitle.

As curator and now chair of The Metropolitan Museum’s European Paintings Department, Christiansen has assembled many old masters exhibits but he has also been at least equally committed to the permanent collection, believing that a “museum redefines itself through its acquisitions and [thus] remakes with equal vigor its visitors’ experience of the great achievements of the past.”

Staying alert for any chance to fill collection gaps, Christiansen acted quickly in the summer of 2008 when learning of the availability of Valentin’s The Lute Player (ca. 1625-26, Fig. 6). Before the end of that year, the painting had become The Met’s only work by the artist. Perhaps the acquisition added fuel to the slow-burning fire of Christiansen’s desire to someday see as many as possible of his artist’s extant works brought together under one roof. In a dream come true, he and Lemoine successfully gathered forty-five of the known sixty, including all six belonging to the Louvre, providing scholars with a feast for their eyes and minds–one of the best justifications for taking the risks entailed in creating such shows.

After joining The Met’s family, Valentin’s Lute Player seems to have had some trouble getting comfortable. It settled for a time in a gallery with three Caravaggios, a location that celebrated Valentin’s Roman residency and Italian Baroque leanings (Fig. 7), but when last seen outside a special exhibition, the painting was living in a gallery with a distinctly French flavor (Fig. 8). Joining other seventeenth-century compatriots with ties to Italy (including Nicolas Poussin), Valentin ceased being acknowledged for his allegiance to Caravaggesque naturalism and dramatic lighting, and became instead identified by his country of origin.

Before appearing with its siblings in the large exhibition, The Lute Player found yet another purpose, appearing with Caravaggio’s Musician’s and Laurent de La Hyre’s Allegory of Music in a boutique show of Met-owned period instruments that were depicted in the three paintings (Fig. 9). The grouping of objects explored the possibility that knowledgeable viewers–then and now–might hear music when looking at the two-dimensional art. Not until the major retrospective would The Lute Player take its rightful place as a constituent of the Caravaggesque oeuvre of Valentin de Boulogne (Figs. 10 and 11).

The peregrinations of Valentin’s painting highlight the impermanence of collection displays and the holes left behind in the wake of special exhibitions that can empty a museum of all the holdings of one artist’s work. In the case of the Valentin de Boulogne show, visitors to the Louvre for several months did without and then when the exhibition relocated to Paris, those at The Met could do no more than take pictures of The Lute Player’s absence.

Encyclopedic museums like The Metropolitan, shelter within their walls thousands of objects, offering infinite possibilities for presentation, all of which express curators’ points of view, acknowledged or not. Each new regime brings with it fresh ideas and though altering so-called permanent installations is like turning an ocean liner, at The Met many did undergo major changes during the thirty-one years of Philippe de Montebello’s tenure as a “curator-director.”

Making good on his promise to recreate for the visitor some sense of the art’s original context, de Montebello supported gallery overhauls of Greek and Roman Art, Byzantine and Medieval Art, and Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia (which despite those heroic efforts gets called “Islamic” anyway). Although there were other reinstallations requiring extensive renovations, these three stand out as particularly effective recreations of original contexts.

Daylight streaming through skylights above Greek and Roman sculpture suggests the original outdoor settings of many of the exhibited works (Figs. 12 and 13). Brick arches–structures already existing under the great staircase–closely approximate the native crypt environments of the displayed objects (Figs. 14 and 15). New designs tooled with age-old techniques by a team of craftsmen imported from Morocco (Fig. 16), lend an air of authenticity and certainly fine craft to the new Islamic art milieu (Fig. 17).

Because of the extensive structural work involved in realizing the visions of de Montebello and his curators, and perhaps because of the popularity of the results, visitors of the future should expect to find these galleries as they are today. But since only change is here to stay, the reinstallations could go the way of the Nineteenth-Century European Paintings and Sculpture galleries, an area of The Met that has been likened to “a sort of cultural coral reef,” always growing and changing.

In the space of less than thirty years, this ocean liner made three sharp turns. The galleries as constructed for their 1979 debut (Fig. 18) represented a good idea at the time but eventually proved unwieldy. The most frequent visitor complaint was lack of direction. Nothing about the arrangement indicated an order to follow for optimum viewing. From a curatorial perspective, the staccato placement of the tripartite partitions made it impossible to show off the strength of a collection that had the depth to cover the walls of an entire gallery with paintings by a single artist.

There were enough other problems to warrant a redesign and so it was back to the drawing board in 1989, with de Montebello tasking then curator Gary Tinterow and the museum’s senior exhibition designer to come up with a plan. Not surprisingly, the hands-on director had more than a few suggestions. Happily, not only was sufficient funding forthcoming to realize them all, but Walter H. Annenberg and spouse decided to donate to The Met their collection of nineteenth-century French paintings.

The new space that opened in 1993 (Figs. 19 and 20) clarified for visitors both the nature of the art before them and the generosity of the donors behind the art’s presence. Written by Tinterow (with a foreward by the director), the special publication issued to commemorate the new galleries contains a paragraph that begins:
The idea governing the design[…]was to create rooms similar in scale and appearance to those for which the artists created their pictures: well-proportioned rooms articulated with baseboards, wainscoting, cornices, and coves.

He goes on to explain about seemingly neutral contemporary choices:
“A modern room[…]is not invisible: it colors our perception of things within it.” Surely those words flowed from the pen of de Montebello, for whom recreating context always takes center stage.

In 2007, The Metropolitan Museum again announced a reopening of the Nineteenth-Century European Paintings and Sculpture galleries (Fig. 21). The coral reef had experienced yet another growth spurt.

Not quite as changeable as special exhibitions, but certainly not paragons of permanence, museum collections–in their potential for creative curating–don’t differ all that much from their briefer counterparts. A former Met associate director for exhibitions initially saw no huge disparities between temporary exhibitions and permanent installations. Both shared, for example, practical issues of traffic flow, pacing/rhythm and label content.

On closer examination, however, she noted the difficulties and expenses of securing, insuring, transporting and conserving art for special shows–no minor matters. Francis Haskell devoted the entire last chapter of his Ephemeral Museum to the dire consequences of cherry-picking artworks from permanent collections and amassing them in locations far from their homes.

In addition to the obvious danger of damage to art from otherwise unnecessary handling, there are risks involved with transportation of all kinds. When trains crash, planes go down and/or vehicles spontaneously combust, the presence of a courier affords no protection.

Less noticeable and seldom subject to comment is the hit that scholarship takes when exhibition catalogs masquerade as the latest word on an artist or collection, eating up publishing funds at the expense of more comprehensive research. Since no show can ever contain all of an artist’s work, as witness the huge but still incomplete one on Valentin de Boulogne, the accompanying publication must by its nature fall short of an all-encompassing monograph and catalogue raisonné. One wonders, too, whether the proliferation of typos in these hastily assembled books signals other errors as well.

Securing loans for an exhibition has created its own collection of problems, ensnaring museums in a tangle of demands for reciprocity. Where once a borrowing institution was expected to make a convincing scholarly case for its request, nowadays museums jeopardize their own prospects for future temporary acquisitions if they fail to deliver when asked, even for the skimpiest of reasons.

Despite the many risks and disadvantages inherent in maintaining a robust program of temporary exhibitions, gathering together in one place works of art that ordinarily reside in far-flung places and/or hide away in private collections can be exceptionally valuable–evident in the 2016-17 dual-venue and -title exhibit, Ribera: Maestro del dibujo (in Madrid at El Museo del Prado) and Between Heaven and Hell: The Drawings of Jusepe de Ribera (in Dallas at the Meadows Museum).

Rather than being the raison d’être for a publication, in a rare reversal the exhibitions followed the release of a long-awaited catalogue raisonné of Ribera’s drawings. The chronologically arranged first version of the show, mounted at the Prado by Gabriele Finaldi (the book’s editor), followed an approach inaccessible to catalogue-contributor Edward Payne for his Dallas iteration, where the limited availability of certain artworks called for a theme-based display.

Paintings and prints in addition to drawings graced the walls of each museum, with a core group appearing in both places, and adjustments made to accommodate lenders who were unwilling to expose to light their works on paper for longer than the three months span of one or another exhibit. Other variations seemed more a matter of philosophy than exigency, apparent in lighting, wall text and object labels, and placement of Ribera’s Apollo and Marsyas painting (1637, Fig. 25).

Taking pride of place in a publicity shot, at the end of a series of Prado open galleries (Fig. 22), the Capodimonte Museum’s star painting of the sun god relieving Marsyas of his skin, must have been greatly missed by tourists expecting to find it at home back in Naples during its six-month travels abroad. More modestly displayed at the Meadows in a dark room among torture drawings (Fig. 24), Ribera’s masterpiece struck up an incidental conversation with an Early Modern Spanish painting visiting from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston (Fig. 23).

The tourist-attracting Prado had little to say on labels about each drawing, perhaps depending on interested viewers to seek out explanations in the book. In contrast at the university-based-Meadows, curator Payne filled category-explaining wall text and object labels with observant descriptions and analyses, reading like excerpts from an art history text. The protectively dim lighting and atmospheric dark walls at the smaller museum invited slow looking and quiet contemplation.

Yet it was at the Prado where one Ribera scholar enjoyed the greatest treat. Surprised by a juxtaposition unlikely ever to be seen again–as is often the case with many a temporary exhibition–she stood transfixed in front of a four-by-five-inch compositional sketch (Fig. 24) in which the tentative hand of the draftsman jotted down sketchy fragments of lines, conveying ideas under development for what would eventually be the six-foot-high painting catty-cornered to it, the Apollo and Marsyas (Fig. 25).


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Art Review: William Kentridge, “9 Drawings for Projection”

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Sunday, December 11th, 2016

[Note: To respect copyright concerns, the slide show that accompanies the following review is available only for private viewing. Interested readers should contact the writer:]

Moving Pictures:
The Moral Aesthetic of
William Kentridge

[slide 2]
“…a drawing is a membrane between the world coming toward us and our projected understanding of the world, a negotiation between ourselves and that which is outside…”
William Kentridge, 2014

Wandering into his father’s study when he was six years old, William Kentridge became curious about the contents of a large, flat, yellow box sitting on the desk.  Thinking it might contain chocolates, he lifted the lid to find not the expected treats, but photographs of victims of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, the families of whom his father was representing in court (Fig. 2).

[slide 3]
In recounting the story in 2001, the artist described two of the images, “…a woman with her back blown off” and “someone with only half her head visible.”

Over a dozen years later, he told the story again, with added details and a description of several other pictures, including this sequence of two: “A man lies face downward, a dot and a dark stain in the center of his checkered jacket…the man rolled over…the whole chest disintegrated by the exit wound of the bullet,” and a third, “[a]nother chest…blown apart.”  The resulting jolt of “nonrecognition,” as the artist called it, eventually wore off, leaving in its wake a lifelong yearning to recapture the intense clarity of that childhood moment, before repeated exposures to pictures of “extraordinary adult violence” rendered them too familiar to elicit the same powerful reaction.

The theme of memory and its temporal degradation weaves through Kentridge’s oeuvre, a collection of stand-alone works on paper, drawings turned into animated films, multimedia installations, stage designs, theater productions, puppet shows–even a couple of operas, and a performance piece in which he took the role of narrator.  A prolific and versatile artist, Kentridge–who is white–grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, during the era of apartheid–a system of laws promulgated by the reigning Nationalist Party–aimed at consolidating white minority rule by exiling people of color to the outskirts of economic and social life.  The “brutal enforcement” of these laws increasingly separated Kentridge’s country from the rest of the world as foreign nations imposed sanctions and limited travel in mounting protest.

An exceptionally accessible and articulate artist, Kentridge has often ruminated publicly about the relationship between his life and his art. Yet in descriptions of his early brushes with the stark realities of apartheid (Fig. 3), his words fall short of the expressive power of his drawings, which render graphically far more dramatically the ravages wrought by the South African government and, indirectly, the profound impact on the artist of living among them for his first forty years.

[slide 4]

Acknowledging a preference for images over “language and logic,” Kentridge explained that among other reasons for his becoming an artist was his need to find a field “in which the construction of fictional authorities and imagined quotes would be a cause for celebration, rather than rustication and disgrace.”  More specifically, noting that his father’s being a lawyer “was not incidental to this narrative,” he wanted to construct a self “impervious to cross-examination.”  Art made it permissible for him to live with uncertainty, and his studio provided “a safe space for stupidity.”

As a young man, even as he reluctantly surrendered to the internal imperative to pursue art as a career, Kentridge wondered whether he had “the right to be an artist.”  With characteristic gravitas and a conceptualization of “art as a moral and philosophical calling,” he believed that to be an artist required “considerable self-examination and maturation.”  That he came from a long line of illustrious lawyers added to the difficulty of choosing such a divergent path, especially one for which he felt undeserving and unqualified.

By the time Kentridge committed to a life of art, he had already earned an undergraduate degree in politics and African studies, had taken courses in art, including printmaking–which he eventually taught–and had spent time working in theater.  Not quite ready to abandon acting for art, he spent a year in Paris studying mime and other theater arts, but quickly returned home to his first love, drawing.

[slide 5]
Over the years, Kentridge has sought to understand both his desire to draw and the images that emerge from his charcoal-smudged hands (Fig. 4), but for the most part he simply surrenders to a process that starts with an impulse rather than a well-formed concept.  He tracks his engagement with art to drawing lessons he took as a nine-year-old, where in answer to his teacher’s questions about what he wanted to draw and with what, his young self replied, “Landscape” and “Charcoal”–answers that a much older self still can’t explain.

Intuitive knowing has always characterized Kentridge’s studio practice, which begins with a desire to draw–usually joined by some vague notion of where he wants to go–and delivers meaning along the way.  He’s learned that “…things occur during the process that may modify, consolidate or shed doubts on what [he] know[s],” and likens the act of drawing to a mode of thought with the potential to provide new insights on life.

[slide 6]
When the impetus to draw fails to generate action,  Kentridge often paces around his studio for many minutes or hours (Fig. 5), waiting for “…the disconnected ideas and images to pull together,” despite experience having taught him that “…images or ideas will only clarify themselves in action–the charcoal on paper, the ink in the book.”  But still he’ll pace.

By allowing himself this “space for uncertainty,” Kentridge invites unconscious material onto the page–a byproduct of his process not entirely unknown to him.  What else could he be describing when he observes that “…parts of the world, and parts of us, are revealed, that we neither expressed nor knew, until we saw them–when we realized we always did know them.”  That’s exactly what happened with one of the drawings he developed for his film Felix in Exile.  To portray a body on the veld,

[slide 7]
Kentridge used a police photograph for reference.  Only much later did he recognize in his new picture the bloody bodies of the Sharpeville massacre victims that had shocked him as a child (Figs. 2 and 6).  A memory he was sure had lost its power lay dormant until an event reminiscent of the original trauma called it back.

Most artists can’t avoid intrusion of the autobiographical into their work, though the extent of its presence varies depending on their artistic practices. While not deliberately drawing attention to himself, Kentridge usually discovers after the fact–and willingly shares it with his listeners–the ways in which his personal history has melded–in his art–with stories of Johannesburg and its inhabitants.

[slide 8]
Although in the mid-1980s (when he resumed drawing with a passion) Kentridge was inspired by early French artists, later Impressionists, and more recent German Expressionists, he could not keep South Africa from insinuating itself into even these early graphic musings.  In the right panel of his triptych The Boating Party (1985, Fig. 7)–a riff on Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881), the flaming tire falling from above directly references the “burning necklaces” used by authorities (and others) to sadistically torture and kill Blacks (Fig. 8).  In the center panel, the tabletop gallows from which hangs a noose requires no additional explanation.

[slide 9]
Future favorites also made their debuts in these early explorations on paper.  The nude man in the background who turns his back on the party-goers as he exits the scene (a la Velazquez’s Las Meninas) in the left panel of the three-paneled The Conservationists’ Ball (1985, Fig. 9) later became Kentridge’s never-clothed alter-ego Felix Teitlebaum.  The binoculars displayed prominently on the table, in the middle panel, foregrounds Kentridge’s future preoccupation with instruments of sight, and leads the eye to the rhinoceros on a serving stand behind it.  The hyena in the right panel further announces the African setting, as does the cheetah on the left.

Of art in the 1960s and 1970s, Kentridge recalled:

“Much of what was contemporary in Europe and America…seemed distant and incomprehensible to me..the impulses behind the work did not make the transcontinental jump to South Africa.  The art that seemed most immediate and local dated from the early twentieth century, when there still seemed to be hope for political struggle rather than a world exhausted by war and failure…one had to look backwards…”

The unique case that was South Africa demanded its own brand of art.  The boy in his grandfather’s car as it drove past a side street in Johannesburg, noticing a man lying in the gutter surrounded by four men kicking him in his body and head, had to “rearrange” his worldview to accommodate this new reality of adult violence.  The same boy, a little older, flipping through that grandfather’s gift book of great-artists’ landscape paintings, had to reconcile the idyllic beauty reproduced in it with the “barbed-wire fences [and] hill with stones and thorns” he encountered on country-picnic outings with his family.

With his heart belonging to both dramatic and graphic arts, and perhaps feeling moved to merge them in the service of potentiating each, in 1988 Kentridge began creating Drawings for Projection, a fifteen-year project that concluded as 9 Drawings for Projection.  Devoting time and energy to the graphic arts had never pulled this artist away from filmmaking and theater.  Nor would work on his new long-term project mean there were not to be other animated films emerging from his studio during those years.  Kentridge has always stayed busy.

Coming at the time that it did–during the last few years of apartheid and several more leading up to the first free elections and later establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 9 Drawings for Projection encapsulates the artist’s personal reflections on his country of birth, its immoral treatment of native Africans and its rapacious exploitation of its mineral resources.  Throughout, Kentridge mulls over witnessing, memory, personal responsibility, love and forgiveness.

[slide 10]
In the first film, Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City after Paris (1989), the artist introduced the dramatis personae for the series, one of which is the city itself (Figs. 10 and 11), about which Kentridge confessed,

“I have been unable to escape Johannesburg.  The four houses I have lived in, my school, studio, have all been within three kilometers of each other.  And in the end all my work is rooted in this rather desperate provincial city.”

Indeed, he is held as captive as Felix in Johannesburg (Fig. 12), simultaneously confounded and enthralled by a city the serendipity of birth made his.  The oddness of this hometown rests partially on a vein of gold–the mining of which has left hills of pulverized stone dotting the land–and the need over a century ago to put to work a surfeit of dangerously unemployed soldiers.  Kept occupied planting a million suburban trees, they created “the largest man-made forest in the world.”

From the first of these films until the last in 2003, Kentridge scattered much charcoal attempting to come to grips with an internal agitation that has never quite left him.  He wrestled with the dilemma of time’s inevitable absorption of the years of apartheid horrors and in the end could find no respite from misery in the middle of an unrelenting AIDS epidemic.

[slide 11]
Drawing on many years of visual material, including his own memories, Kentridge created Soho Eckstein (Fig. 13), only afterwards realizing–as is his way–that the unstoppable capitalist in a pin-striped suit had his origins in an old photograph of his paternal grandfather, sitting on a beach in full business attire.  Kentridge’s name for this hard-hearted entrepreneur–Eckstein means “cornerstone” in German–alludes to the intractability of South Africa, just as does the rock he inserts intermittently throughout the series.

The businessman’s foil, Felix Teitlebaum (Fig. 12)–whose surname derives from a Yiddish/Germanic word for “date palm” and given name resembles that of the artist’s mother’s,  Felicia (both associations inadvertent)–never acquires a wardrobe lest he get fixed in time by the specificity of fashion that a pin-striped suit somehow manages to avoid.  While Soho’s driving passion is acquisition, that of Felix is love, though mostly experienced as reverie and longing.

At the outset, needing Felix to have the same consistency of appearance and personality that the far easier-to-stereotype Soho does, Kentridge turned to the mirror.  With his dreamer taken from his own self-reflection, the draftsman–finding himself inextricably identified with his new character–“had to take responsibility for his actions,” a turn of events that enhanced the autobiographical potential of the film.

[slide 12]
The action opens with lover boy already ensconced in an affair with Mrs. Eckstein, a woman who never develops a name of her own as she moves in and then out of the illicit affair–and unfolds before the desolate Johannesburg landscape traversed by desperate Africans.  Kentridge graphically contrasted the needy tenderness of Felix (Fig. 16) with the greedy hardness of Soho (Fig. 17), although the vulnerable cloak of nakedness worn by the former doesn’t stop him from besting his fully-suited rival in an old-fashioned fist fight.

[slide 13]
The dark cloud of the violent reality of their milieu coalesces into a bookcase stacked with disembodied heads, overflowing onto the surrounding plain (Fig. 18).  A composition originally explored in the etching Casspirs Full of Love (1989, Fig. 19), the subject alludes to the theme of callous impenetrability.  Casspirs are mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles that for decades were used to control the South African populace.  “Casspirs full of love” was a radio greeting sent by parents to their servicemen sons during 1974 military operations protecting the country’s borders against the newly liberated Portuguese colonies next door.  In the end, the bookcase and heads will disappear into the earth, leaving behind a ground unmarked by slaughter.

[slide 14]
In Monument (1990), the next film in the series, Soho aggrandizes himself by unveiling a commemorative statue dedicated to the black African worker.  Bent under the weight of an outsized burden, a flesh-and-blood man petrifies into the statue (Fig. 20), but the stone of his artificially constructed being soon yields to an irresistible urge to raise his head against the weight, lift his swollen eyelids and confront the not-so-innocent bystander.

Sensitive to the history accruing around him, Kentridge embodied within his work–not always intentionally–the story of South Africa’s slowly evolving deliverance from the black hole of apartheid.  Pivotal among the nine films, Sobriety, Obesity and Growing Old (1991) and Felix in Exile (1994) reflect the dramatic shifts effected by a 1989 change in the country’s administration, within a year of which freedom-fighter Nelson Mandela was released from prison.  In 1994 free elections were held for the first time.

The release dates of these two films roughly coincided with those developments, capturing Kentridge’s hope for, and adjustment to, a newly imaginable world.  In Sobriety, Obesity and Growing Old (1991), Felix and Mrs. Eckstein continue their affair against a backdrop of emboldened workers–chanting, carrying signs and parading through the bleak urban landscape.  Soho–torturing himself with erotic fantasies of his errant wife with her lover, humanized in his longing for her, presides over a collapsing empire and cries aloud for his eloped wife to “come home.”

[slide 15]
Early on in the film, Kentridge set a mining mountain and its barren location against the very modern cityscape of Johannesburg (Fig. 22), with its erect buildings in the background.  Later, when Soho’s monument to capitalism dissolves into dust in a scene all too evocative of the still-to-happen demise of the World Trade Towers (Fig. 23), it leaves behind a ghost of imperfectly erased charcoal (Fig. 24), expressive of Kentridge’s consternation over the mind’s ability to normalize absence even in the presence of cataclysmic events.

[slide 16]
Daring to conjure a new reality but still haunted by violent memories not so easily expunged, in Felix in Exile (1994) Kentridge conjures up Nandi, a land surveyor who uses a theodolite to bravely take the measure of her people’s losses.  Alone in a room sparsely furnished with chair, desk, bed, sink and fly-surrounded light bulb hanging from the ceiling, artist Felix rifles through his stash of drawings (Fig. 25), a window into the activities of his new beloved, Nandi.  Seeing through her eyes, quite literally in a mirror scene where each views the other from opposite ends of a double-sided scope, Felix must reckon now with the same carnage that she does (Fig. 26).

Through the power of animation, Kentridge transformed the remembered stills of the Sharpeville massacre into moving pictures of bodies bleeding on the veld.  A seismograph attempts to record the earth’s convulsed reaction but the line remains flat even after a bullet finds Nandi (Fig. 27) and the ground absorbs all traces of her life and violent death.  Throughout the film, a poignant native song cues the desired emotional response.

More redolent still of childhood memories of violence, History of the Main Complaint (1996) finds Soho in a hospital bed under intense internal scrutiny by doctors with their surveying instruments, and by his psyche through an eidetic nightmare that begins with a view through the windshield of a moving vehicle.

[slide 17]
A pair of eyes visible in the rear-view mirror registers the sudden appearance of a Black man lying on the road ahead (Fig. 28), being kicked in the face by two assailants, then subjected to body blows with a stick (Fig. 29), then kicked again and again in the head and body, each strike recording red crosses on related x-rays of torso and skull.  The latter of the two anatomical images soon morphs into Soho’s profile, glimpsed through the car window.  When night falls, taking visibility with it, Soho’s car hits one of a number of figures that dart out in front of him.  The sound of breaking glass wakes him with a start.  Despite the return of these repressed memories, the hospital patient magically mends and returns to his desk to conduct business as usual, albeit with noticeably less frenzy.

[slide 18]
No hint of Felix appears in the rest of the series as Soho becomes increasingly subdued, even self-reflective.  In Stereoscope (1999), amid bright-blue-on-black representations of communication devices and networks, besieged by lists of numbers and reminiscences of brutality (Figs. 30, 31 and 32), Soho is sometimes seen in a split screen that Kentridge left to the viewer to combine into “a true representation of the world,” effectively avoiding the daunting task of integrating disparate aspects of himself.

In its own way chronicling the challenges faced by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the film ends with a block-lettered, blue-on-black “give,” soon joined by its partner “for,” to finally form “forgive,” repeated several times in that order of word appearance (Fig. 33).  In the end, Soho stands with eyes downcast and head bowed, watching water–a recurring motif in these films–cascade from first his breast pocket and then the others, till his sorrow floods the room and threatens to drown him (Fig. 34).

Tide Table (2003), the final film of the series, begins with pin-stripe-suited Soho, like Kentridge’s original reference photo for him, sitting on a beach (Fig. 35).  Children watched by their women caregivers, play in the sand and cavort in the water to the strains of upbeat music.  Within minutes, the tone darkens as these carefree activities come under the scrutiny of military men perched on the balconies of a nearby art deco resort, peering through binoculars.  The scene switches to an overcrowded hospital ward–a medical setting in complete contrast to the spacious private room Soho occupied in the History of the Main Complaint.

[slide 19]
For Kentridge, the AIDS epidemic in South Africa raised the question of “inappropriate mortality, of people dying very young…unnecessarily” because of “the inability of the society to deal with it.”  In vignettes of sick and dying men, the artist conveyed the sorrow of survivors (Figs. 37 and 38) yet still found his way back to up-tempo, wistful shots of a boy playing on the rocks and in the sand, and Soho at the water’s edge, skimming stones across the swells.  The film series ends as the tide takes with it memories of loved ones lost to AIDS, just as the land had consumed all traces of the country’s violent history.

Despite Kentridge’s expressed concern about the unreliability of memory and time’s inevitable dulling of initial shock and/or outrage (a clouding of clarity) in response to traumatic events, when realizing “some months or years later” the connection between the bodies he drew in Felix in Exile and the photographs of the Sharpeville massacre victims, he was “sure that, in a sense, it was trying to tame that horror of seeing those images.”  In using the third person “it” rather than first person “I,” Kentridge unintentionally demonstrated the power of the unconscious to keep unbearable memories at a safe remove.

In this series of nine films, the adult artist deliberately and repeatedly affirmed memory’s inevitable erosion, using the natural behavior of land and water as visual metaphors for the process.  But his child-artist self refused to abide by that precept, consistently ejecting onto the page violent memories that defiantly remained very much alive in the deep recesses of his brain, ready to be summoned by the slightest evocation of those original experiences.


Notes and references available upon request.

A special note of appreciation
for making the films available to the writer goes to:

Marian Goodman Gallery
24 West 57th Street
New York, NY 10019
Tel : 212-977-7160

William Kentridge’s art can be visited there.


Art Review: Art Objects?

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Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

All That Glitters…
Art Museums Making It Art

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so.  But I know it when I see it…1

When Justice Potter Stewart penned those word in a 1964 concurring opinion on a case involving a motion picture, he had in mind pornography.  Today the statement could easily apply to a certain attitude held by many people toward art, unaware as they are of the vulnerability to manipulation of their belief.

Attempting to define the “kinds of material embraced within that shorthand description” art has been a favorite pastime of deep thinkers from at least as far back as Plato, with neuroscientists recently adding their voices to the cacophony.2  When creative types stepped outside accepted norms (as they are wont to do), they further complicated this age-old struggle to determine the nature of art.

The terminology problem achieved critical mass when in April 1917 Marcel Duchamp–pushing the limits of the Society of Independent Artists’ policy of accepting all proffered objects–presented to its hanging committee a urinal he purchased from the J. L. Mott Iron Works company, having affixed to it the signature “R. Mutt” and anointed it Fountain.3  In another sphere of activity but also during the early part of the twentieth century, a boom in archaeological digs coupled with a proliferation of publications for a general audience introduced yet another set of objects for consideration as art.4  Contemporaneously, indigenous works from Africa began to migrate from ethnic collections to art galleries,5 setting in motion a reevaluation of comparable items brought from analogous cultures elsewhere.

The legacy of these developments can be found today gracing the interiors of art museums, where (among other factors) a simple change in accompanying label can alter the meaning of an object on display.6

Theaster Gates, In Case of Race Riot II (2011, wood, metal and hoses, 32 x 25 x 6 in [81.3 x 63.5 x 15.2 cm]). Brooklyn Museum, New York.

Theaster Gates, In Case of Race Riot II (2011, wood, metal and hoses, 32 x 25 x 6 in [81.3 x 63.5 x 15.2 cm]). Brooklyn Museum, New York.

 Tucked away in a corner in the American Identities galleries of the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York on the wall of a section headed “Everyday Life/A Nation Divided,” behind a framed sheet of glass, a length of coiled hose invites associations with its primary purpose of extinguishing fires.  One could be forgiven for expecting the accompanying wall text to announce, “In case of fire, break glass.”

Instead, the explanatory label begins with a name–Theaster Gates, adds a title–In Case of Race Riot II, and includes a list of materials used in its assemblage.  The story of the piece follows.  The viewer is cued to consider the object a work of art by the box that frames it, the label that describes it, the spotlighting that illuminates it, and the art museum that placed it in the company of other similarly designated pieces.  The power of this image to evoke an emotional response in beholders is enhanced by any personal recollections of the civil rights events of the 1960s to which it refers.  Such reminiscences are encouraged by the declared theme of the gallery, “A Nation Divided.”

Clearly art museums do far more than simply collect and display artwork.  These structures have been variously described as: ritual spaces ”designed to induce in viewers an intense absorption with artistic spirits of the past;”7  “philosophical instruments” that “propose taxonomies of the world” and “encourage aesthetic engagement with their contents,”8 “optical instrument[s] for the refracting of society;”9 places for the “staging of objects relative to other objects in a plotting system that transforms juxtaposition and simple succession into an evolutionary narrative of influence and descent…a configured story culminating in our present;”10 guarantors of the “artificial longevity” of ultimately perishable commodities,11 which attempt to “contradict the irreversibility of time and its end result in death;”12 and–most relevant to this exploration–an institution with the purpose of teaching “the difference between pencils and works of art”13 or more generally, “works of art and mere real things.”14

Marcel Duchamp, In Advance of the Broken Arm (1964 [prototype, 1915], wood and galvanized-iron snow shovel, 52 in [132 cm] high). Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Marcel Duchamp, In Advance of the Broken Arm (1964 [prototype, 1915], wood and galvanized-iron snow shovel, 52 in [132 cm] high).  Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Enter Marcel Duchamp with his readymades and insistence that “‘[a]n ordinary object’ can be ‘elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist,’”15 which is to say that intention trumps all.  Of course, minus the hallowed halls of art museums and related gallery spaces such pieces would lose the foils so essential to their argument.16

The heights of absurdity possible when artists (or art museums or the art market) become sole arbiters of an object’s artistic status found dramatic expression in 1998 when Alan Alda played Marc, an outraged skeptic in the Broadway production of Art.  When Marc’s longtime friend proudly displayed the latest (and very expensive) addition to his modern art collection–a totally white canvas, the ensuing conflict over the nature of art (which included a third pal as intermediary) threatened to derail a fifteen-year friendship.17  Such is the passion invoked by the question, “What is art?”

An alternative way of posing the question–“When is art?”18–underscores the importance of context.  One can designate as art a found, constructed, fabricated or handcrafted work, but its definitive determination as such seems to rely on its ultimate resting place.  Art museums display art.  Natural history museums house ethnographic collections and archaeological finds.  Design museums celebrate human’s ingenuity.  Large enough encyclopedic museums show it all.  Or so it would seem.

The visitor to a Surrealism exhibit, encountering Duchamp’s snow shovel suspended in the museum gallery, can’t see how it differs from the one that leans against the wall in a suburban garage.  Titled In Advance of the Broken Arm, the readymade proves that “a thing may function as a work of art at some times and not at others.”19

Radio Compass Loop Antenna Housing (c. 1940, rag-filled Bakelite and metal, 13¾ x 91/16 x 26⅜ in [35 x 23 x 67 cm]). Smithsonian Design Museum, Cooper Hewitt, New York.

Radio Compass Loop Antenna Housing (c. 1940, rag-filled Bakelite and metal, 13¾ x 91/16 x 26⅜ in [35 x 23 x 67 cm]). Smithsonian Design Museum, Cooper Hewitt, New York.

Constantin Brancusi, Sleeping Muse II (c. 1926, polished bronze, 6½ x 7½ x 11½ in [16.5 x 19.1 x 29.2 cm]). Harvard Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Constantin Brancusi, Sleeping Muse II (c. 1926, polished bronze, 6½ x 7½ x 11½ in [16.5 x 19.1 x 29.2 cm]).  Harvard Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

At the Cooper Hewitt, the Smithsonian’s Design Museum in New York, ensconced in a vitrine (those ubiquitous glass cases that prepare visitors for an art experience), an oblate spheroid tapering to a point at one end, with the appearance of wood but actually composed of “the first entirely synthetic plastic,”20 rests on a base of metal that functions as a stand.  Relocated to the sculpture wing of a modern/contemporary art museum, this Radio Compass Loop Antenna Housing from about 1940 would nestle comfortably up against the Jean Arps and Henry Moores.  But even more striking is its formal resemblance to the Constantin Brancusi Sleeping Muse II (c. 1926) that resides in the Harvard Art Museums.

Henry Dreyfuss, Design for Acratherm Gauge (1943, brush and gouache, graphite, pen and black ink on illustration board, 11 × 8½ in [27.9 × 21.6 cm]). Smithsonian Design Museum, Cooper Hewitt, New York.

Henry Dreyfuss, Design for Acratherm Gauge (1943, brush and gouache, graphite, pen and black ink on illustration board, 11 × 8½ in [27.9 × 21.6 cm]).  Smithsonian Design Museum, Cooper Hewitt, New York.

This ambiguity is also evident on the first floor of the Cooper Hewitt amid an assemblage of aids to mobility and handling, where a framed gouache drawing by Henry Dreyfuss called Design for Acratherm Gauge presents the observer with a tour de force of trompe l’oeil effect.  This picture’s placement in a room with other useful instruments and its clear designation as a product of design attempt unsuccessfully to differentiate it from an artist’s finished work on paper.

Walter Launt Palmer, Painting, Interior of Henry de Forest House (1878, oil on canvas mounted on canvas, 24⅛ x 18 in [61.3 x 45.7 cm]). Smithsonian Design Museum, Cooper Hewitt, New York.

Walter Launt Palmer, Painting, Interior of Henry de Forest House (1878, oil on canvas mounted on canvas, 24⅛ x 18 in [61.3 x 45.7 cm]). Smithsonian Design Museum, Cooper Hewitt, New York.

Label for Walter Launt Palmer, Painting, Interior of Henry de Forest House.

Label for Walter Launt Palmer, Painting, Interior of Henry de Forest House.

Upstairs at the same design museum, great pains have been taken to ensure that visitors don’t mistake a bona fide artwork for an architect’s rendering of a domestic interior.  The first word on the label for Walter Launt Palmer’s painting of the Interior of Henry de Forest House (1878) is “painting.”

Damián Ortega, Controller of the Universe (2007, found tools and wire, dimensions vary). Collection of Glenn and Amanda Fuhrman, New York.

Displayed on “Tools” floor of Cooper Hewitt. Damián Ortega, Controller of the Universe (2007, found tools and wire, 9⅓ x 13⅓ x 15 ft [2.85 x 4.06 x 4.55 m]).  Collection of Glenn and Amanda Fuhrman, New York.

Displayed in art gallery. Damián Ortega, Controller of the Universe (2007, found tools and wire, dimensions vary). Collection of Glenn and Amanda Fuhrman, New York.

Displayed in art gallery. Damián Ortega, Controller of the Universe (2007, found tools and wire, dimensions vary). Collection of Glenn and Amanda Fuhrman, New York.

The Cooper Hewitt is filled with objects harboring this potential for dual identities.  A relative of Duchamp’s snow shovel (functional identity)/In Advance of the Broken Arm (art identity) appears in Damián Ortega’s Controller of the Universe (2007) as one element in a starburst of tools through the axis of which visitors can wander.  This central attraction of the design museum’s “Tools” floor makes a solo appearance in a room with white walls in a photo posted on the museum’s website.21  Reassembled to fit into an art gallery, this spatially condensed version transforms the viewers’ experience from active participation to passive contemplation of an esteemed work of art.

Unidentified (French) artist, Salt Cellar with the Episodes from the Life of Hercules and Salt Cellar with Allegorical Scenes (c. 1550, enamel on copper, 2⅞ x 3 in [7.3 x 7.6 cm]). Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Unidentified (French) artist, Salt Cellar with the Episodes from the Life of Hercules and Salt Cellar with Allegorical Scenes (c. 1550, enamel on copper, 2⅞ x 3 in [7.3 x 7.6 cm]). Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Likewise, stepping into the Harvard Art Museums–whose august exterior signals visitors to expect an elevated cultural experience, then ambling through acres of paintings, sculptures and less definable objects, and coming upon a vitrine with an array of utilitarian things of venerable pedigree, one is already well primed to see two attractive French salt cellars from about 1550 as works of art.  That impression gets considerable assistance from a painting on the wall immediately behind them–of Martin Luther (1546, from the workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder), and an additional boost from an identifying label that calls their maker an “Unidentified artist.”

Egmont Arons, designer, Meat Slicer (c. 1935, steel, 12½ x 17 x 20½ in [31.8 x 43.2 x 52.1 cm]) and Edo Period, Japan, Pothook Hanger (Jizai-Gake) (18th to 19th century, iron and wood, 18 x 16 x 4½ in [45.7 x 40.6 x 11.4 cm]). Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York.

Egmont Arons, designer, Meat Slicer (c. 1935, steel, 12½ x 17 x 20½ in [31.8 x 43.2 x 52.1 cm]) and Edo Period, Japan, Pothook Hanger (Jizai-Gake) (18th to 19th century, iron and wood, 18 x 16 x 4½ in [45.7 x 40.6 x 11.4 cm]). Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York.

Less clear is the message communicated by the Brooklyn Museum of Art in its “Connecting Cultures” exhibit, a room hosting a hodgepodge of paintings, sculpture, ethnic objects and useful things from across millennia. Putting aside the impossibility of getting close enough to see some of them (placed on shelves that soar above eye level), one confronts a dilemma in a vitrine containing a twentieth-century American-made, shiny steel Meat Slicer and a two-hundred-year-old, dark-hued Edo period iron-and-wood Pothook Hanger (Jizai-Gake).

Visitors might be less inclined to regard the all-too-familiar deli appliance as art and feel similarly about the slicer’s neighbor, the large hook.  Situate the much older, exotic Japanese piece in the Asian wing of any art museum, hang it on a wall under spotlighting and affix to the display a typical artwork label, and responses will likely change.

“University Collections Gallery: African Art,” Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“University Collections Gallery: African Art,” Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Ample evidence of this “museum effect–the tendency to isolate something from its world, to offer it up for attentive looking and thus to transform it into art like our own”22 exists in the University Collections Gallery of African Art at the Harvard Art Museums.  There a select group of products from several countries in Africa, sparsely arranged in various shaped glass enclosures, hangs on the walls–a collection small enough in number for a single wall label to comfortably contain descriptions of all the pieces.

Axe, Songya, Democratic Republic of Congo (1914 or earlier, iron, copper and wood). Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Axe, Songya, Democratic Republic of Congo (1914 or earlier, iron, copper and wood).  Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts

A stunningly beautiful axe, with a wooden handle and complex wrought iron head, shares its glass box frame with a less ornate companion, emitting conflicting messages about its identity.  Everything about the setup, especially the segregation of the axes in their own display cases, emphasizes the uniqueness of each piece, connecting it with the art just seen in nearby galleries.

Shown in an exhibit hall at a natural history museum among many other examples of its type, these implements might be classified as artifacts, things that have “primarily the status of tools, of instruments or objects of use.”23  In a more inclusive definition, the dictionary describes them as “object[s] made by a human being, typically…of cultural or historical interest,”24 a category that can range from “sophisticated and culturally valuable the smallest everyday thing.”25

The pool of opinion on what qualifies something as art teems with dangerous life forms, but the variables of “complex abstract thinking,”26 embodiment of a thought and expression of meaning,27 and evocation of emotions28 that include aesthetic delight,29 serve to classify most of them.  While that last trait is both an unnecessary and insufficient determinant of artistic status, it can easily seduce observers into believing they are in the presence of real art (whatever that might be).  Art museums, intentionally or not, often cash in on that response.

With barrier. Ai Weiwei, Untitled (2014, edition of 60, mixed media, primarily stainless steel). Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York.

With barrier. Ai Weiwei, Untitled (2014, edition of 60, mixed media, primarily stainless steel).  Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York.

On a wall near the ticket counter at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, a glittery silver city bike hangs behind a barrier, its artist Ai Weiwei having given it the noncommittal tag of Untitled.  In the list of materials provided by either him or the museum–“mixed media, primarily stainless steel”30–the word bicycle is conspicuously absence, perhaps in hopes of enticing some unsuspecting bike-riding enthusiast, smitten by the beauty of the artifact glowing before her, to perceive the object as a work of art by world-famous Chinese artist Ai (as the label, lighting, ribbon barrier and placement on an art museum wall encourage) and part with the asking price of $27,500, an amount designed to offset the cost of the artist’s now past exhibition, Ai Weiwei: According to What?

Tooling around the city mounted on this splendid bike might turn it back into a “mere real thing,” diminishing its monetary though not aesthetic value.  Hanging it back on a wall would restore its identity as art, the preference of any art collector (or curator).  But for the rider, whose delight derives from speeding along on wheels, immobilizing such an exquisitely crafted bicycle would rob it of its raison d’être and, incidentally, extinguish the pleasure of exhibiting a prized possession in an arena markedly different from the interior of any art museum.


1 Justice Potter Stewart, Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964), p. 197.

2 Anjan Chatterjee, The  Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

3 Thierry de Duve, “‘This is Art’: Anatomy of a Sentence,” ArtForum, April 2014, 2.

4 Ably demonstrated in From Ancient to Modern: Archaeology and Aesthetics, an exhibition at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, February 12- June 7, 2015.

5 In 1914, Alfred Stieglitz mounted at his Gallery 291 “what he claimed to be the first exhibition anywhere to present African sculpture as fine art rather than ethnography.”  See Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and his New York Galleries, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.  Accessed March 15, 2015, exhibitions/modart_2.shtm.

6 Chatterjee, The  Aesthetic Brain, 140.

7 Carol Duncan, “The  Art Museum as Ritual,” Art Bulletin LXXVII, no. 1 (March 1995): 12.

8 Ivan Gaskell, “The Riddle of a Riddle,” Contemporary Aesthetics 6 (2008): 7.

9 Donald Preziosi, “Brain of the Earth’s Body: Museums and the Framing of Modernity,” in Museum Studies: An Anthology of Contexts, edited by Bettina Messias Carbonell (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004), 77.

10 Ibid., 78.

11 Boris Groys, Art Power (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2008), 38.

12 Duncan, 12.

13 E. H. Gombrich, “The Museum: Past, Present and Future,” Critical Inquiry 3, no. 3 (Spring 1977), 465.

14 Arthur C. Danto, “Artifact and Art,” in ART/artifact: African Art in Anthropology Collections (New York: The Center for African Art, 1988), 23.

15 Museum of Modern Art, catalog entry for In Advance of the Broken Arm.  Accessed March 17, 2015. advance-of-the-broken-arm-august-1964-fourth-version-after-lost-original-of-november-1915.

16 Groys, “On the New.”

17 “Art (play),” Wikipedia.  Accessed March 19, 2015: Art_(play).

18 Nelson Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, 1978), 66.

19 Ibid.

20 Object label, Radio Compass Loop Antenna Housing, Smithsonian Design Museum, Cooper Hewitt, New York.

21 “Controller of the Universe, 2007,” Cooper Hewitt website.  Accessed March 19, 2015:

22 Svetlana Alpers, “The Museum as a Way of Seeing” in Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, edited by Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institute, 1991), 27.

23 Google definition.  Accessed March 19, 2015: search?q=define:+arbiters+&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8#q=define:+artifact.

24 Danto, “Artifact and Art,” 28.

25 Gaskell, “The Riddle of the Riddle,” 4.

26 Ibid.

27 Danto, “Artifact and Art,” 32.

28 Chatterjee, The  Aesthetic Brain, 131.

29 E. H. Gombrich, “The Museum: Past, Present and Future,” 450.

30 Object label, Ai Weiwei, Untitled, Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York.


Art Review: Mummy Portrait Panels

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Saturday, January 3rd, 2015

Identity Dilemma:
Greco-Roman Egyptian
Mummy Portraits at
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

View of “Young Woman with Gilded Wreath” in Vitrine, Egypt, Roman Period (120–140 CE, encaustic with gold leaf on wood , 14⅜ x 7 in [36.5 x 17.8 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo © Deborah Feller.

View of “Young Woman with Gilded Wreath” in Vitrine, Egypt, Roman Period (120–140 CE, encaustic with gold leaf on wood , 14⅜ x 7 in [36.5 x 17.8 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo © Deborah Feller.

Crowned by light, the lovely young lady with forehead-framing corkscrew curls and golden hair ornament inhabits a tall, slim vitrine intended to suggest a coffin to the viewer, providing a reminder of her original function as a portrait panel nesting in the linen wrappings of an Egyptian mummy.1 The encaustic painting, set off dramatically against a warm red display mat, might feel far more at home exhibited with other representatives of early Western European artistic traditions.

When asked how this work, Young Woman with a Gilded Wreath, came to reside in the gallery of Egypt Under Roman Rule 40 B.C. – 400 A.D. at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Marsha Hill (co-curator of the 2000 show Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt) replied that when the work became available for purchase in 1909 from Cairo antiquities collector and dealer Maurice Nahman, the Egyptian Art Department pursued its acquisition using Rogers Fund money; at the time, the Greco-Roman Art Department expressed no interest in any of the Egyptian panel paintings then appearing on the market. Thus, the circumstances of the artwork’s acquisition largely determined its ultimate context2 and how future museum goers would come to perceive this example of Greek-influenced Roman-era painting.

In the early twentieth century, the Met’s Egyptian Art Department demonstrated impressive foresight with its enthusiasm for artwork from the land of the Nile deemed a “classical development” by most Egyptologists and of little importance to classicists who associated the mummy portraits with Egypt (not Greece or Rome).3 Even in the twenty-first century, a recent book about ancient Egyptian art failed to include any reference to these mummy portraits,4 and an exhibition catalog on Egyptian portraiture concluded with a beautiful example of a Roman mummy plaster mask but failed to mention the contemporaneous and identically used panel paintings.5

Across the Great Hall from the Egyptian wing at The Metropolitan Museum, in the relatively new Greco-Roman galleries, there are only four examples of Greek painting displayed–all small murals and predating by several centuries Young Woman and her kind. One is Lucanian from southern Italy; the other three are from the Alexandria region of Egypt. Whether or not an argument was ever advanced for placing the latter in the Egyptian wing, a case could certainly have been made for exhibiting the Greco-Roman Egyptian mummy portraits somewhere among the museum’s extensive holdings of Roman wall paintings.

When the Ptolemies took control of Egypt after the death of Alexander in 323 BCE, they drained part of the Fayum lake and built an advanced irrigation system to create additional arable land that they then gave to their Greek soldiers, following an already existing practice. Egyptians were later recruited to work on this newly inhabited farmland and after 30 BCE, both these groups were joined by Romans carrying out the business of empire.6 Art like Young Woman, emerging from this conglomeration, was bound to defy easy categorization.

Conceding that they represent a “confluence of Greek painting, Roman portraiture and Egyptian burial practices,” curator Hill explained that an effort has been made to provide a context for the mummy portraits in the room with Young Woman and in the area where the display continues past the nearby gallery-titled doorway. As an example, she pointed to a vitrine there that encases an intact mummy7 intricately wrapped in linen bands with its portrait panel still in place. Rather than serving to emphasize the Egyptian pedigree of these Roman-period portraits, the mummy highlights the startling contrast between the ancient and contemporary burial and artistic practices of its time.

View of “Egypt Under Roman Rule” Gallery at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Photo © Deborah Feller.

View of “Egypt Under Roman Rule” Gallery at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Photo © Deborah Feller.

The museum succeeded in situating Young Woman in an Egyptian context primarily through its physical location. Entering the gallery that contains the painting, visitors are introduced to the entire Egyptian wing by a sign containing text and photos highlighting the collection, and an ancient tomb structure from Saqqara. Crossing the large room on the way to the far wall of mummy plaster masks, painted shrouds and panel portraits, they encounter two coffins from the Roman period decorated with images of deities associated with Egyptian burial practices.

Object Label for “Young Woman with a Gilded Wreath” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo © Deborah Feller.

Object Label for “Young Woman with a Gilded Wreath” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Photo © Deborah Feller.

Casual viewers attracted to Young Woman with a Gilded Wreath who read the picture’s accompanying label learn nothing of how an object so uncharacteristic of Egyptian art came to be displayed in that wing. The text describes the painting as a work of art–with notes on technique, appearance and dating–and gives nothing of its history.8

Visitors never learn that before being displayed as an art object, Young Woman functioned to ensure safe passage to the netherworld and, consequently, eternal life for its subject. Meant to act as backup in case harm came to the physical self (preservation of the body being essential to the continuation of the ka [spirit]),9 long ago severed from its body and home, now exhibited out of context, the mummy portrait as shown tells an incomplete story.

Map of Fayum Lake District from Paul Roberts, Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt (London: the British Museum Press, 2008.

Map of Fayum Lake District from Paul Roberts, Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt (London: the British Museum Press, 2008).

For The Metropolitan Museum, that story probably began in the late 1880s with the rediscovery of mummies with painted faces in the Fayum lake district in northern Egypt. Tempera examples were already saturating the market when British archaeologist, Flinders Petrie, excavating at Hawara in that area, came across a trove of encaustic portraits10–soon to prove more appealing to contemporary Western eyes than the previously discovered tempera ones.11

Most of Petrie’s finds ended up in London at the National Gallery and British Museum;12 some found their way to dealers like Nahman. Over the course of time, mummy portraits were unearthed throughout Egypt, though they still continued to carry the epithet “Fayum.”13 Unprovenanced, if Young Woman did originate from that lake district, the discoverer might have provided a service by rescuing it from likely destruction had its burial place been in the path of mid-nineteenth-century farmland expansion, a response to economic incentives and technical assistance from England for Egypt to produce more cotton.14

The civil war tearing apart the United States in the 1860s had halted that country’s exportation of cotton and created new European markets for Egyptian farmers in the fertile Fayum region. “[F]armers…in search of sebbakh,…Nile mud enriched with human- and animal-produced organic materials”–a cheap source of excellent fertilizer, and raw material for mudbricks and saltpeter (used in gunpowder)15–widened their search for this much prized commodity. As farmland reached ancient settlements, and ruins became more valuable as agricultural resources, farmers lost motivation to preserve and sell unearthed antiquities as was their previous custom.16

While sebbakh was more plentiful around town mounds–not necessarily in the area of necropolises,17 related population expansion and its attendant pressures constituted other threats. Had Petrie and his ilk not excavated and removed these paintings–and in the case of the former, given many to public institutions–the portraits might have been destroyed, or hidden away in private collections, Egyptian antiquities law at the time being as lax as it was.18

In the current century, objects of questionable provenance are increasingly repatriated to the countries from which they were removed,19 and national and international antiquities laws make legal exportation of cultural patrimony almost impossible.20 But up until 1912, Egyptian laws on the books since 1835 allowed for easy acquisition of excavation permits with the proviso that finds be split equally with the state.21

Digging up mummies, separating them from their masks, shrouds and/or panel paintings, and then removing them and their accessories for sale by dealers headquartered in Cairo would have been considered sacrilegious by the elite, mostly Greek and Egyptian early-first-century residents of the Fayum region22 who entombed their dead in accordance with ancient beliefs, but at the time it was happening it wasn’t even illegal. With no constituency left to speak for them, the two-thousand-year-old mummies were fair game.

This contrasts with far more recent twentieth-century disinterments, a potent example of which was the 1991 discovery of human remains in downtown New York City during a “cultural resource survey” that included “archeological field-testing” in advance of the construction of a federal building. Identified as a burial ground for African slaves, the site quickly attracted attention from the African-American community and its supporters. After years of productive research agreed upon by all parties, the long-ago-forgotten Africans were reburied at the original site, now a national monument–the African Burial Ground Memorial.23

Similarly, in 1990 the United States passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, providing a process for the return of Native American remains and their related artifacts already in museum and federal agency collections. The law also set down procedures respecting new burial ground discoveries, acknowledging their spiritual importance to surviving tribes.24

The mummies that Petrie, other archaeologists, treasure hunters and farmers were unearthing in the late 1800s, early 1900s, and even before, don’t seem to have been considered by anyone as ancestral remains. Egyptian statutes governing these practices regulated antiquities dealers, not the treatment of the buried dead.25 When The Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased Young Woman in 1909, the action engendered no controversy, their being no Greco-Roman-Egyptian descendants to make a fuss.

In fact, probably with the motivation to present the mummy portrait Young Woman as a work of art rather than a funerary object, someone had flattened what was originally a convex panel and mounted it on a board. Whether the curve was part of the original form or had developed over time with use,26 the retaining of that bowed shape by the excavator/dealer/collector would have made storage and/or shipping inconvenient, rendering the piece less desirable.

Young Woman with a Gilded Wreath, Egypt, Roman Period (120–140 CE, encaustic with gold leaf on wood , 14⅜ x 7 in [36.5 x 17.8 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo © Deborah Feller.

Young Woman with a Gilded Wreath, Egypt, Roman Period (120–140 CE, encaustic with gold leaf on wood , 14⅜ x 7 in [36.5 x 17.8 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo © Deborah Feller.

According to curator Hill, other than the alteration in the panel’s shape the surface of Young Woman appears pretty much as it was when found.27 Although the four vertical fissures that probably resulted from the flattening were filled in, along with some minor cuts,28 the painting underwent no comprehensive restoration by a conservator intent on imposing upon it some contemporary aesthetic ideal. Fortunately, the portrait retains enough of its original wax pigment and gold leaf to satisfy as both a thing of beauty and a historical document.

If any record chronicled something of Young Woman’s original condition, it would be found in the Maurice Nahman Archives.29 In the absence of such a reference, it seems safe to assume that this portrait panel belonged with others described by Petrie “as [being] fresh as the day they were painted.”30

Displayed to emphasize its aesthetic value, Young Woman with a Gilded Wreath showcases its creator’s skill in the rendering of three-dimensionality, rarely of interest to Pharaonic Egyptian painters. Illumination from the upper left throws warm shadows to the right of prominent forms, while a cool grey tone signals where these forms turn from the light, an effect most obvious along the bridge of the nose and the front plane of the face where it meets the only side visible to the viewer.

Those tricks of the trade surely originated with the great masters of Greek painting chronicled by Pliny the Elder (around 77-79 CE) in Book XXXV of his Natural History31 and took on a new life during the Renaissance, Baroque and later Neoclassical periods of European painting. Nature is not the only teacher here, however. Young Woman’s larger-than-life eyes–like those found on many other mummy portraits–bring to mind ancient Egyptian wall paintings of profile faces with over-sized, kohl-lined eyes.

Viewer in the “Gallery of Egypt Under Roman Rule 30 B.C. to 400 A.D.” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Photo © Deborah Feller.

Viewer in the “Gallery of Egypt Under Roman Rule 30 B.C. to 400 A.D.” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Photo © Deborah Feller.

Ordinary museum goers, stopping to admire the dramatically-lit, unusual painting in the corner of a room containing a reconstructed Egyptian tomb, probably wouldn’t notice its finer points of technique nor, because of the way Young Woman is currently presented, would they be aware of the critical function the painting once served. For that matter, no person can know the thoughts of the aggrieved who commissioned the portrait for someone so young32 when seeing it for the first time, probably already held in place by the linen enwrapping the mummified body. In these many ways, the identity of Young Woman with a Gilded Wreath has yet to be fully understood and adequately presented.
1 Marsha Hill, Curator of Egyptian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, interview by author, New York, October 28, 2014.
2 Ibid.
3 Morris Bierbrier, “The Discovery of the Mummy Portraits” in Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt, edited by Susan Walker (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000), 33.
4 Gay Robins, The Art of Ancient Egypt, revised edition (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2008).
5 Donald Spanel, Through Ancient Eyes: Egyptian Portraiture (Birmingham, Alabama: Birmingham Museum of Art, 1988).
6 R. S. Bagnall, “The Fayum and its People” in Ancient Faces, 26-28.
7 Hill, interview.
8 The Metropolitan Museum, object label, Young Woman with a Gilded Wreath, read on October 28, 2014.
9 John Taylor, “Before the Portraits: Burial Practices in Pharaonic Egypt” in Ancient Faces, 9.
10 Nicholas Reeves, Ancient Egypt: The Great Discoveries, A Year-by-Year Chronicle (London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2000), 76-78.
11 Ibid.
12 Bierbrier in Ancient Faces, 32.
13 Ibid., 33.
14 Paola Davoli, “Papyri, Archaeology, and Modern History,” The Center for the Tebtunis Papyri Lecture Series, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, n.d., accessed October 24, 2014,
15 Ibid.
16 Ibid.
17 Hill, interview.
18 Davoli, “Papyri, Archaeology, and Modern History.”
19 For example see: Jason Felch, “Getty ships Aphrodite statue to Sicily,” Los Angeles Times, March 23, 2011, accessed November 4, 2014,; and Elisabetta Povoledo, “Ancient Vase Comes Home to a Hero’s Welcome,” New York Times, January 19, 2008, accessed November 4, 2014, arts/design/19bowl.html.
20 “International Antiquities Law Since 1900,” Archaeology, April 22, 2002, accessed November 4, 2014,
21 Davoli, “Papyri, Archaeology, and Modern History.”
22 R. S. Bagnall in Ancient Faces, 28-29.
23 “African Burial Ground Memorial, New York, NY,” Historic Buildings, US General Services Administration, accessed November 8, 2014,
24 “National NAGPRA, Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act,” National Park Service, U. S. Department of the Interior, accessed November 8, 2014,
25 Davoli, “Papyri, Archaeology, and Modern History.”
26 Hill, interview.
27 Ibid.
28 Catalog entry, Ancient Faces, 109.
29 “Maurice Nahman, Antiquaire. Visitor book and miscellaneous papers. 1909-2006 (inclusive),” Wilbour Library of Egyptology.  Special Collections Brooklyn Museum Libraries, Brooklyn Museum, accessed November 8, 2014,
30 Reeves, Ancient Egypt: The Great Discoveries, 78.
31 Pliny the Elder, Natural History, translated by D. E. Eichholz (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press and London: William Heinemann, 1949-54), Vol. 10, Book XXXV, 38-53.
32 The existence of portraits of young children as well as the very old make it unlikely the paintings were done during the lifetime of the subject, and CAT scans of mummies show age and sex consonant with still-attached portraits. See Susan Walker, “Mummy Portraits and Roman Portraiture” in Ancient Faces, 24.


Art Review: “Young Husband, First Marketing” by Lilly Martin Spencer

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Sunday, December 28th, 2014

Lilly Martin Spencer
Playfully Paints
Her Husband’s Travails

Lilly Martin Spencer, Young Husband, First Marketing (1854, oil on canvas, 29½  x 24¾ in [74.9 x 62.9 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo by D. Feller.

Lilly Martin Spencer, Young Husband, First Marketing (1854, oil on canvas, 29½ x 24¾ in [74.9 x 62.9 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo by D. Feller.

In the newly appointed American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, entering gallery 758 one encounters a rectangular painting of modest size (a couple of feet wide by a little more than that tall) in a gilded frame with ornate corners and a similarly colored plaque that announces in black lettering the subject (Young Husband, First Marketing) and artist (Lilly Martin Spencer), and includes dates that seem to indicate the maker’s life span (1822 and 1902).

In the vertical center of this oil-on-canvas composition, a man clutches in his right hand a folded black umbrella, while with his other hand he grabs the far side (from him) of a wicker basket and one of the legs of a chicken carcass attempting to escape from it. Roped to the feet of that fowl another one has already broken free and dangles head first in front, and to the proper left, of the burden bearer at an angle reflecting that of the right leg the man has raised so that his knee might function as a platform–albeit an unsteady one–to support this cornucopia of foodstuff in danger of toppling over.

On the glistening ground to his right, a bunch of carrots straddles some stalks of rhubarb, the collective leaves of which abut a splayed head of lettuce on which two cracked eggs spill out their contents. Close by, a lone tomato has come to rest on the center of the lower border of the painting, below the shoe heel of the man wrestling for control of his charges.

Light directs the eye to the man’s neatly bearded face with its furrowed, knitted brow capping lowered lids and eyes that gaze down at the vegetables on the ground. Lest anyone miss the ongoing drama of the basket contents, the artist has reserved the brightest painted value for the white eggs participating in it. Keeping them company are a bunch of asparagus, three tomatoes, an orange gourd, a pineapple, some greens, a cut of meat and the aforementioned dead chicken. Only a small portion (perhaps a third) of the basket’s lid rests on those contents, effectively revealing them as it slips back and to the proper right of the protagonist.

Lilly Martin Spencer, Young Husband, First Marketing (1854, oil on canvas, 29½  x 24¾ in [74.9 x 62.9 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Lilly Martin Spencer, Young Husband, First Marketing (1854, oil on canvas, 29½ x 24¾ in [74.9 x 62.9 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

This struggling man is dressed in black top coat, dark brown pants and stack-heeled black shoes with buttoned grey spats. Under his coat, he has piled on several layers of clothing, including something black (perhaps a sweater) fastened just under his white collar, and a maroon vest. On his head he sports a squat, brimmed hat.

To his proper right and a few steps behind him, another even more carefully bearded man strides toward the left edge of the painting, elegantly attired in black top hat, leather gloves, brown coat, black pants, similarly styled shoes, black vest with a row of light paint spots crossing his vest (perhaps a gold chain for a pocket watch), and a light-colored shirt with two small areas of dark paint near the collar that might be a bow tie. He holds over his head a large open umbrella and leans forward while turning his head toward the painting’s center of interest. His eyes on the basket, this striding man’s upturned mouth corners, bared upper teeth, puffed out left cheek that catches the only high-value light falling on him, all indicate the action of the zygomatic muscle pulling his expression into a smile.

In the far background, two other figures walk toward each other in front of a wall covered with posters. The one to the left of the two foregrounded men, a woman, lifts up her heavy-cloth brown skirt and lacy petticoat to reveal legs clad in white hose and black shoes. A dark-turquoise-and-rust-colored scarf covers her head, and a waist-length reddish-brown jacket of thick material protects her upper body. The umbrella she holds open over her head runs parallel to the one held by the striding man, pairing her with him in the same way as does the turn of her head toward the man with the basket. Her sufficiently lighted face with its open eyes, upturned lip corners and puffed cheek echoes, too, that other onlooker’s amusement.

The other background figure, a man (more sketchily rendered), walks onto the scene from the right, leaning forward at an angle parallel to that of the uselessly folded umbrella gripped by the man with the tilting basket. Carrying a pail on his left arm, this ruggedly dressed character steadies it with his right, far more successful in this task than his counterpart up front. Although similarly not protected by an umbrella, he wears a tall, wrinkled hat with a brim ample enough to shade his eyes, and wide-cuffed boots that reach almost to his knees.

The curb of the sidewalk on which they walk forms the horizontal midline of the composition. Green-crowned trees of differing heights rise up behind the wall that runs along the length of this sidewalk, turning a corner on the far left and ending at that edge of the canvas.

Behind the foliage, several structures comprise an urban skyline, all vaguely indicated except for the one seen in the space between the open umbrella of the dapper strider and the hat of the man with the basket. On the roof of that more well-defined, light-grey house sit several reddish-brown chimneys. Across its face, two rows of windows are visible, each window framed by sills and flanking shutters.

The painting has an overall warm, brown tone, punctuated by the red of the tomatoes, white and orange of the cracked eggs, and white, red and green of the basket contents. Highlights on the face and hands of the foremost figure, on the butt of the hanging chicken carcass and on the cheek of the striding man provide additional areas of contrast.

Splashes of low-value highlights on the cobblestone street and stone-slab sidewalk create the impression of moisture. Resembling water stains on the four-stepped stoop that occupies half of the lower right quadrant, a brown wash trickles over thicker light-brown paint. The grey-green trees, turquoise of the woman’s scarf, green of a row of grass growing along the base of the wall and of some of the produce, all combine to complement the reddish-brown elements in the rest of the painting.

Time and the environment have affected the painting’s surface. The hanging chicken’s head, neck and upper body have become transparent, revealing the sidewalk and cobblestones behind it, and the basket’s handle has practically disappeared. Craquelure has developed in the lightest areas of the sidewalk, helpfully in the broken eggs on the ground but also in the basketed ones, and throughout the rest of the painting, including in the darks. There are two prominent areas of concentric cracks, one between the lifted right foot of the man balancing the basket and the forward foot of the man walking behind him, and the other at the right shoulder of the latter.

The bright light that falls on the protagonist conflicts with the many cues that this beleaguered man is caught in a windy downpour, unable to open his umbrella because of an uncooperative basket of provisions. Yet that doesn’t detract from the whimsical way in which Spencer has successfully poked fun at a young husband grappling with the challenges of his new role.


Art Review: Decorated Glass Lamps from Mamluk Mosques at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Sunday, December 28th, 2014

Glittering Gold &
Colorful Enamel Glazes
Illuminated Medieval Mosques

Mosque Lamp of Ahmir Ahmad al-Mahmandar, Egypt or Syria, Mamluk Period (c. 1325, enameled and gilded glass) and others.

Mosque Lamp of Ahmir Ahmad al-Mahmandar, Egypt or Syria, Mamluk period (c. 1325, enameled and gilded glass) and others.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo by D. Feller.

Illuminated in their vitrines in a relatively dark gallery, the glass lamps created in Mamluk Egypt and Syria during the fourteenth century attract immediate attention with their colorfully enameled and gilded calligraphic designs. Among the ones displayed in gallery 454 in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, four line up in a vitrine against a wall, while in a case in the center of the room, a fifth appears with two non-lamp glass pieces.

Blue and gold, with accents of red and the occasional green and yellow, spell out Qur’anic texts and florid blessings related to the donor and those he served.1 Produced during the Mamluk period (and the previous Ayyubid one) primarily in factories in Damascus and Aleppo, decorated glass had been around for centuries. Building on advances in technique achieved during those years, Islamic craftsmen perfected a tricky process that required a different firing temperature for the colors than for the gold.2

Enameled and gilded glassware from Syria and Egypt.

Enameled and gilded glassware from Syria and Egypt, Mamluk period.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo by D. Feller.

This glassware from the Near East during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries acquired an international reputation, so much so that in the next century the renowned factories of Venice adopted what was probably the Syrian method. Closer to home, Syrian suqs abounded with multicolored examples fabricated by local artisans who also catered to Egyptian demand.3 A contemporary commentator wrote of glass items so wondrous in Aleppo markets that visitors did not want to leave.4

At the beginning of the fifteenth century, the invasion by the Central Asian Timur (also known as Tamerlane) devastated Syria, shattering the glassmaking centers in Damascus and Aleppo. Rumor had it that he also made off with the craftsmen. By 1500, trade in enameled glassware was totally reversed, with Venice now supplying the Mamluks.5

Such valued objects as those of fourteenth-century Syria would of course over time spawn knock-offs, and samples from the nineteenth century were particularly difficult to differentiate from originals until the conservation laboratory associated with the Musée du Louvre trained Raman spectroscopes on some Syrian glassware to identify the chemical composition of the colors used in known originals.6

Mosque Lamp of Sultan Barquq, Egypt or Syria, Mamluk period (c. 1382-99, enameled and gilded glass).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Mosque Lamp of Sultan Barquq, Egypt or Syria, Mamluk period (c. 1382-99, enameled and gilded glass).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo by D. Feller.

As expected, lapis lazuli was used for blue and when mixed with Naples yellow, to derive green. Alternatively, cobalt blue was also used to make green. White came from tin oxide and sometimes calcium phosphate. These pigments differed significantly from those used by the nineteenth century imitators–arsenate white, cobalt blue and lead chromate yellow.7

To craft their masterpieces, Syrian artisans would first apply gold to the bare glass shape, using either a pen for lines or a brush for fill. Then a first firing would occur to fix the gold in place. Next came an outline of the design in red and the application of the other enamel colors, followed by another firing8 at temperatures ranging from 600 to 900 degrees Celsius.9 Since the gold and enamels required different temperatures to fuse with the glass, the trick was to find the sweet spot where colors wouldn’t run, the job would get done and the glass wouldn’t be compromised.10

Mosque Lamp, Egypt or Syria, Mamluk period (14th century, enameled and gilded glass).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo by D. Feller.

Mosque Lamp, Egypt or Syria, Mamluk period (14th century, enameled and gilded glass).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo by D. Feller.

The resulting enameled and gilded glass lamps were hung on chains festooned with glass balls. Inside them, smaller glass vessels held oil, to be ignited when needed to illuminate the prayer hall.11 Inscriptions appropriately quoted the “Light Verse” from the Qur’an:

God is the Light of the heavens and the earth;
the likeness of His Light is as a niche
wherein is a lamp
(the lamp in a glass,
the glass as it were a glittering star)
kindled from a Blessed Tree,
an olive that is neither of the East nor of the West
whose oil wellnigh would shine, even if no fire touched it;
Light upon Light;
(God guides to His Light whom He will.)12

Elements of this poem form part of the inscriptions of at least two of The Metropolitan Museum’s lamps.13

Visitors enjoying the beauty of these objects are afforded a close-up view denied to worshipers for whom the lamps were originally intended, but undoubtedly afforded to like-minded connoisseurs wandering the stalls of a fourteenth-century Aleppo suq in search of a vendor to craft a lamp with inscriptions powerful enough to ensure the patron a place in heaven.
1 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, online object information, accessed December 7, 2014, =Mosque+lamp.
2 Object label text, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
3 M. S. Dimand, “An Enameled-Glass Bottle of the Mamluk Period, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, no date but probably 1930s, 73.
4 Marilyn Jenkins, “Islamic Glass: A Brief History,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Fall 1986, 41.
5 Ibid.
6 CNRS (Le Centre national de la recherche scientifique), “Chemistry sheds light on Mamluk lamps,” press release, September 11, 2012, accessed December 7, 2014,
7 Ibid.
8 Dimand, 74.
9 CNRS press release.
10 Object label text.
11 Dimand, 74.
12 Jenkins, 41.
13 Online object information.


Art Historical Musing: Art Historical Methods

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Sunday, November 24th, 2013

Doing Together
What Can’t Be Done Alone:
An Integrative Approach to
Raped by Käthe Kollwitz


The Blind Men and the Elephant
by John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887)

It was six men of Indostan,
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approach’d the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -“Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear,
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”

The Third approach’d the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” -quoth he- “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!

“The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee:
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” -quoth he,-
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said- “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” -quoth he,- “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

Raped (Vergewaltigt) (1907/08, etching on heavy cream wove paper, 11¾

Raped (Vergewaltigt) (1907/08, etching on heavy cream wove paper, 11¾″ x 20⅝″ [29.9 x 52.4 cm)].  Plate 2 from the cycle Peasant War.  Proof before the edition of about 300 impressions of 1908.  Knesebeck 101/Va.  Photo © Kollwitz Estate.

The way to the blockbuster show led through a long corridor that at its beginning widened into an area whose walls the museum exploited for temporary exhibitions of works on paper too light-sensitive for permanent display.  Attracted by the drawings and prints in this accidental gallery, some visitors slow for a more sustained look.

One image, which looked like an ill-kept garden, revealed itself via the wall text to be a 1907/8 etching called Raped by a German artist named Käthe Kollwitz,1 who lived between 1867 and 1945.  Viewers who took the time to look more closely would detect amid the foliage a woman with legs splayed and head thrown back, the subject of the picture’s title.  At that point most would move on to look at other works.  Some few would linger, wanting to learn more about this depiction of sexual assault.

The only other information available at that moment–the description nearby on the wall–identified the brown-ink print as a plate from the Peasant War series executed on heavy cream wove paper.  Although unschooled in art historical methods, an intrigued viewer might intuitively know that much could be gained by exploring every aspect of this simply-framed etching.

Drawing the viewer’s immediate attention and bisecting the bottom of the almost-double-square (approximately 12-by-21-inch) composition, the woman’s foot–set off from lighter surroundings by its dark sole–meets the picture plane and beckons the onlooker to follow its arch to the foreshortened, thick-set leg that disappears under a skirt.  The eye continues along an arc, through the torso and extended neck, stopping at the chin beyond which lies the shadowed face with its features distorted by the angle of view.

Searching for the rest of her, the observer discovers behind a bent-over, wilted sunflower the right leg, forming a horizontal line with the top edge of the skirt and ending in a foot that points toward the upper left corner.  Assisted by a nearby still-upright flower slanted at an angle running parallel to it, the foot directs the gaze to a blossoming sunflower in the background’s deep shadow, the form of which echoes the head of a barely discernible child with a pony tail (or braid) who drapes her right arm over a fence and looks down at the body before her.  Faintly silhouetted against a patch of open space, the young girl can easily be missed by all but the most attentive viewers as she blends in with the leafy plants around her.

Once noticed, the child leads the eye to a structure suggested by two sets of vertical lines hiding in the dark recesses of the upper register–perhaps a house.  Across the rest of this small patch of verdant landscape, damaged plants and flowers tell a story of struggle and recent destruction in what might have been a well-tended, backyard vegetable garden.

A shadow originating from outside the picture plane on the left ends in a point that meets the prone woman’s right foot and relates to her dark skirt.  Cast by a structure with straight edges and therefore of human origin, its top boundary becomes one side of a flattened diamond, the other three edges of which are the overgrown part of the fence that supports the girl, its dark extension to the right, and the left side of the woman on the ground.  Ominous in nature, the sharply angled shadow seems a stand-in for the recently-fled rapist.

Following the perimeter of that diamond shape brings the inquisitive observer to the figure’s left hand, the fingers of which curl around the edge of her torn garment near some trickles of blood on her torso and provide the final clue to the story.  A peasant woman working in her garden has been raped and stabbed, then left for dead.  Hearing the commotion and perhaps some screams, her daughter has come to see what happened and now stares sadly at the sight of her mother, wondering what to do.

Having followed the trail of clues and figured out the narrative, the formerly-naive tourist, seduced by a compelling work of art, has unwittingly entered the empirical world of the connoisseur.  Questions tumble forth about the decisions that went into creating the etching.  Who was Käthe Kollwitz?  What was the Peasant War and why did the artist choose it as a subject?  Why did she make a print instead of a painting?  If this is a series, what does the rest of it look like?  Most curious, why didn’t Kollwitz just tell her story directly and not force her audience to work so hard?

As often happens in exhibits, another visitor approaches and, noticing the engrossed tourist with nose scant inches from the print’s protective glass, engages in conversation about the piece.  An art historian by trade, the newcomer eagerly offers information about a favorite artist, her work and her art.  An exchange ensues.

First they talk about the etching itself.  When the tourist points out the little girl in the background and the trickles of blood near the victim’s left hand, the art historian is surprised, having never before engaged closely enough with the image to notice these elements.  More concerned with Kollwitz’s subject matter in general and how it relates to the context in which the artist lived and worked, the art historian appreciated this new insight and resolved to be more attentive in the future to the object itself.

Uprising (1902-03, etching on heavy beige wove paper. 20¼

Uprising (1902-03, etching on heavy beige wove paper, 20¼″ x 23⅜″ [51.4 x 59.4 cm]).  Plate 5 from the cycle Peasant War.  From the 1908 edition of approximately 300 impressions.  Knesebeck 70/VIIIb.  Private collection.  Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.

Familiar with most of Kollwitz’s oeuvre, this knowledgeable viewer knew that Raped was the second plate of seven in the print cycle Peasant War, commissioned by the Association for Historical Art in Germany following submission for consideration of the first completed etching of the series, Uprising (originally called Outbreak).2  In that print, a powerful woman, Black Anna, leads a contingent of fellow peasants armed with makeshift weapons against their feudal lords.3

Revolt (1899, etching on heavy cream wove paper. 11⅝

Revolt (1899, etching on heavy cream wove paper, 11⅝” x 12½” [29.5 x 31.8 cm]).  First concept for plate 5 (Knesebeck 70) from the cycle Peasant War.  Knesebeck 46/V.  Private collection.  Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.

The idea for the cycle began in 1899 with a plate Kollwitz etched, variously translated as Uprising and Revolt, that pictured a rag-tag but triumphant mob of scythe-wielding farmers accompanied by a nude woman flying above, carrying a torch from which a flame leaps into the distant background to set ablaze the manor house, home of the oppressors.  Coming from a long line of socialists,4 Kollwitz had already explored the topic a few years earlier in her gold-medal-winning first cycle, A Weaver’s Rebellion.

From childhood, when the young Käthe had enacted barricade scenes with her father and brother, she had imagined herself a revolutionary.  It followed that as an artist she would draw strong women into her narratives, depicting them as they sharpened scythes, galvanized men into action, cared for the wounded and identified the dead.  When Kollwitz read Wilhelm Zimmermann’s 1841 General History of the Great Peasants’ War and discovered Black Anna, an actual participant in the 1525 revolt by peasants against their overseers, the idea for this cycle was born.

Answering the tourist’s questions about Kollwitz’s choice of printmaking, the art historian explained that after struggling unsuccessfully to master color in her studies at a Berlin academy for women and later in a painter’s studio, and being introduced in 1884 to the work of master printmaker Max Klinger, the young artist finally gave up on painting and in 1890 took up etching, a technique at which she soon excelled.  Although Kollwitz later devoted herself to the medium of sculpture, in which she modeled emotionally compelling figurative pieces, she never abandoned printmaking.  Expanding her practice to include lithographs and woodcuts, she valued the reproductive capabilities inherent in these mediums, guaranteeing the widest possible audience for her socio-political ideas.

The composition of Raped differs markedly from Kollwitz’s usual images of women who are shown in active roles, not supine on the ground.  It is also the only instance where she tackled landscape with enough details to identify cabbage leaves, sunflowers and other plants.5  As for its narrative, in correspondence about this print the artist referred to Raped as “the next to the last plate,” which would have made it the sixth out of seven (though it was published as Plate 2) and described it as “an abducted woman, who after the devastation of her cottage is left lying in the herb garden, while her child, who had run away, looks over the fence.”6

Knowing the artist’s intentions and how she came to etch Raped served only to whet the tourist’s appetite for more information.  Just then someone else approached, walking directly up to the two viewers who were blocking access to the print.  As chance would have it, the latest arrival turned out to be a psychotherapist who worked with trauma survivors and had a long-standing interest in art depicting sexual abuse and other forms of personal violence.

Käthe Kollwitz, whose work is permeated with meditations on struggle and death, naturally aroused the psychotherapist’s curiosity, especially with respect to how the artist came to focus on those themes.  Joining the already in-progress discussion, the clinician related how the printmaker’s son, Hans, had nagged his mother into writing about her life and her development as an artist, and how despite her initial objections, she had surprised him with a manuscript in 1922 that he later augmented with diary entries and letters, and published in 1955.7  Hearing what had already been learned by exploring the image and its creation, the therapist added to the discourse aspects of Kollwitz’s psychosocial history crucial to understanding her choice of subject matter for the etching.8

In recounting her early years, Kollwitz described seeing a photo of her stoic mother holding her firstborn son, “‘the holy child,’” who had died within a year of his birth.  Her mother lost a second son before Kollwitz’s older brother Konrad was born.  When Käthe was nine, her mother had Benjamin, who also failed to survive beyond his first year, dying from the same meningitis that took the firstborn.

The artist remembered how one night, during her baby brother’s illness, the nurse had burst into the kitchen where her mother was dishing out soup and yelled that the infant was throwing up again.  Her mother had stiffened and then went on serving dinner, her refusal to cry in front of her family failing to conceal her suffering from her young daughter, to whom it was obvious.

After that dinner, Käthe–with her younger sister Lise–was sent to play in the nursery where she built with her blocks a temple to Venus and began preparing a sacrifice to a goddess she had learned about in a book on mythology, and who she had chosen to worship over the Christian “Lord”–a stranger to her despite her family’s devotion to him.  When her parents walked into the room to convey the bad news that her little brother had died, Käthe was certain “God had taken him” as punishment for her disbelief and sacrifice to Venus.

Because the family’s way was to grit teeth and carry on, with no discussion or even expression of loss and grief, Käthe carried the burden of guilt for her brother’s death into her adult years.  Her mother’s unexpressed sorrow suffused their home and her oldest daughter lived in fear that her parents would come to harm.

Stopping the story at that point, the psychotherapist retrieved an ebook reader from a handbag and read from Kollwitz’s autobiography.  “I was always afraid [my mother] would come to some harm…If she were bathing…I feared she would drown.”  Reflecting on watching through the apartment window as her mother walked by, Kollwitz continued, “I felt the oppressive fear in my heart that she might get lost and never find her way back to us…I became afraid Mother might go mad.”

As the clinician tucked away the ebook reader, the trio of observers turned back to the etching Raped.  Suddenly they understood what the artist might not have known herself, that the young girl looking over the fence was nine-year-old Käthe and the woman on the ground was her mother, finally felled by a trauma too insistent to be repelled.

As the three viewers continued contemplating the poignant image before them, another person approached.  They eagerly began sharing their recent discoveries as they made room for the newcomer who, noticing the dates of the artist’s life, explained that Käthe Kollwitz was not a twentieth century artist but a woman born, raised and educated in the second half of the nineteenth century.9 Living in Germany in the late 1800s must have affected her art, they all agreed.

But that’s a story for another time.
1A print of the etching was displayed for a while in the Drawing and Print Gallery of The Metropolitan Museum of Art several years ago.  The work under consideration, a proof, is in the private collection of the writer.

2Martha Kearns, Käthe Kollwitz: Woman and Artist (New York: The Feminist Press at The City University of New York, 1976), 85.

3See Elizabeth Prelinger, Käthe Kollwitz (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 30-39, for a description of the evolution and content of The Peasant War cycle.

4See Jane Kallir, “Käthe Kollwitz: The Complete Print Cycles” (Galerie St. Etienne, exhibit essay, October 8 through December 28, 2013) for additional information about Kollwitz’s print cycles.

5 Hildegard Bachert, “Käthe Kollwitz: The Complete Print Cycles,” gallery talk (Galerie St. Etienne, November 7, 2013).

6Käthe Kollwitz, quoted in Käthe Kollwitz: Werkverzeichnis der Graphik, by Alexandra von dem Knesebeck, trans. James Hofmaier (Bern: Verlag Kornfeld, 2002), 291.  Relevant excerpt of text included in provenance documents accompanying the proof.

7The Diary and Letters of Kaethe Kollwitz, ed. Hans Kollwitz, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1955).

8See Ibid., 18-20, for information about Kollwitz’s childhood experiences of loss.

9Bachert, gallery talk.

Käthe Kollwitz: The Complete Print Cycles
The Galerie St. Etienne
24 West 57th Street
New York, NY 10019

Now till December 28, 2013.


Art Review: Burst of Light: Caravaggio & His Legacy

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Sunday, August 4th, 2013

An Unlikely Master,
Caravaggio Brings Light
To the World of Painting

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ (detail) (1602, oil on canvas, 135.5 x 169.5 cm). National Gallery of Ireland. Courtesy of the Jesuit Community, Leeson St. Dublin. Photograph © National Gallery of Ireland.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ (detail) (1602, oil on canvas, 135.5 x 169.5 cm).  National Gallery of Ireland.  Courtesy of the Jesuit Community, Leeson St. Dublin.  Photograph © National Gallery of Ireland.

In 1610 in the Italian coastal city of Port’Ercole, at the all-too-young age of 38, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio succumbed to either malarial fever (historically preferred version) or violence (supported by newer research).1  He left behind several paintings on a boat wending its way without him (another story) to his patrons in Rome and more critically, a new way of painting that had already changed the practices of many of his contemporaries, and would continue to inspire artists in the near and distant future.

In the spring of 2013, Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art hosted the final stop on an international tour of the exhibition, Burst of Light: Caravaggio and His Legacy.  The multi-venue show, which grew out of a collaboration among the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Atheneum and several French museums, displayed a selection of works by Caravaggio and his many followers that could be seen in its entirety in the finely illustrated catalog but only enjoyed in part at each site.

For the movie-going, novel-reading public, facts and fantasies about Caravaggio’s tumultuous social life might be better known than the significance of his contributions to the practice of figurative painting.  Two well-attended gallery talks in the space of a few hours on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in June demonstrated that given the opportunity, a contemporary audience could be captivated by the images that centuries ago first attracted fans.

A visitor asking at the Atheneum information desk for directions to the exhibit was told that straight ahead at the top of the grand staircase was a room with the Caravaggios and on either side of it, ones with the work of other artists.  Unlike with the usual blockbuster that sprawls over an endless succession of galleries, the close proximity of these 32 paintings allowed for comparisons among them via a short walk from one to the other.

Only four of the five Caravaggios originally slated for the show were on display.  Apparently the Metropolitan Museum of Art had decided to hold onto its jewel, The Denial of Saint Peter (1610), for the spring opening of its new European painting galleries.  A late work, the painting demonstrates how far the master had gone in his ability to pick out light from darkness with just a few deftly applied swipes of high-value color.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy (c.1595–96, oil on canvas, 36⅜

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy (c.1595–96, oil on canvas, 36⅜″ x 50¼″ [92.5 cm x 127.8 cm]).  Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut.

Caravaggio’s potential to do a lot with a little was already evident fifteen years earlier when he created Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy (c.1595–96).  In a three-by-four composition with a sweeping diagonal, an angel with a highlighted bare left shoulder supports the weight of Saint Francis, whose head is thrown back in dreamy contentment as he indicates with his right hand a chest wound similar to the one inflicted on Christ when he was crucified.

In the right half of the painting, Caravaggio’s light draws attention to the action as it lands on the angel’s face, upper body and right hand (which tugs on the rope around the saint’s habit), and Francis’s face and hands.  Following the sweep of the brown cloth brings the viewer to a bright spot that opens up the rest of the scene where a man curled in a fetal position leans against a tree and props up his head with his hand, perhaps sleeping, unaware of the drama taking place nearby.

Behind him several much smaller figures gather around the bright spot–a fire–intent on something outside the picture on the left.  Further back, light of unknown origin, either from an unseen full moon or a spiritual presence, illuminates a body of water.

The tenderness with which the spiritual being gazes upon and cradles in his arms the ecstatic mortal borders on a far more profane tableau of post-coital bliss.  The barely open, unfocused eyes, slightly upturned corners of the mouth, and limp body of the saint remind the viewer of the thin line between religious ecstasy and sexual arousal.

That double entendre was probably not accidental.  Caravaggio ran with a wild bunch of like-minded painters in Rome and when not working in his studio to “destroy the art of painting”2 with his rebellious naturalism, managed to repeatedly come into conflict with the law.  As unconventional with his sexual behavior as he was with his brush, the great iconoclast enjoyed an intimate relationship with one of his young followers nicknamed Cecco del (as in belonging to) Caravaggio.  An accomplished artist in his own right, Cecco modeled for his master and accompanied him on his travels.3

Caravaggio, having lost his father at age six and a brother several years later, sent by the time he was thirteen to live in the house of the painter with whom he apprenticed, then having his mother die when he was nineteen,4 arrived in Rome at age twenty–a young man with a history of many losses and maybe even exploitation.  Born in Milan in 1571 as Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, this fledgling artist soon after his mother’s death cashed in his inheritance and headed to Rome where, within the next few years, he found a wealthy supporter and developed a revolutionary style of painting.

Proclaiming Nature as his teacher, Caravaggio painted from life; he found his models among the street people he met on his usual rounds and portrayed them as they appeared–without idealization.  Using a single source of light that raked across figures placed in a shallow, dark space without an identifying context, the artist sometimes encountered outright rejection of his in-your-face realism when one patron or another refused to accept a commissioned piece (usually one bound for a church).  But the look caught on and others emulated it, though none except perhaps Jusepe de Ribera came close to wielding a brush the way this virtuoso could.

Martha and Mary Magdalen (1595–96, oil and tempera on canvas, 39⅜

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Martha and Mary Magdalen (1595–96, oil and tempera on canvas, 39⅜″ x 53″ [100 x 134.5 cm]).  Detroit Institute of Arts.

In what was to become that signature style, in another early work, Martha and Mary Magdalen (1595–96), Caravaggio again used light to differentiate between the spiritual and material.  Bright spotlighting on the compositionally central Magdalen’s face emphasizes her enlightenment at the same time it draws attention to her cleavage-revealing low-cut dress, a reminder of her former attachment to worldly things.  A bright island amid an area of dark colors, her left hand points to an almost pure white rectangle in a mirror that supports her arm.  While probably meant to represent the presence of the Divine, the reflection also suggests Caravaggio’s light source: a small (basement?) window high up in an otherwise very dark room.

The curve of Mary’s red-satin-clad right arm leads to a white flower held close to her heart and onwards to the yellow sash that ends at a sponge in a bowl near a comb, all of symbolic value.  Open-mouthed Martha, in the midst of a debate with her sister, enumerates her first point with brightly defined hands.  Her shadowed face and far more sober attire attest to her attachment to good deeds as the path to spiritual attainment in contrast to Mary’s preferred life of contemplation.

The purple of Mary’s dress, green of the cloth near the mirror, and variety of hues of Martha’s attire, painted in large areas of local color, would continue for a while in Caravaggio’s early paintings and later be supplanted by mostly monochromatic images with an occasional bright red section, perhaps because of the high cost of other pigments.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Salome Receives the Head of Saint John the Baptist (c. 1606–10, oil on canvas, 36

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Salome Receives the Head of Saint John the Baptist (c. 1606–10, oil on canvas, 36″ x 42″ [91.5 x 106.7 cm]).  The National Gallery, London.

The late work Salome Receives the Head of Saint John the Baptist (c. 1606–10) is a good example of the way Caravaggio eventually distilled his style to a tenebristic scene of light and dark with few hints of color.  In a setting lacking description, three half-length figures joined by the head of another are caught in the moment immediately following a decapitation.  Looking at something outside the picture frame, Salome turns her head away from the platter she holds on which the executioner places that part of Saint John she had requested, while an elderly, ghost-like woman behind her rests head on clasped hands and looks downward.  The grim-faced executioner, with his characteristically Caravaggio light-bathed bared shoulder, extends his arm to deliver Salome’s trophy, as if to create distance between himself and his deed.

Similar in style and format to The Denial of Saint Peter, the Salome seems to have been cut off on the left.  A few more inches on that side would bring it closer to the three-by-four proportion of the Denial and other Caravaggio paintings.  Also, although identified as Salome, the woman receiving the head is entirely too dressed down to be the seductress of myth.

At this point in his career, Caravaggio painted with light.  Notorious for having left behind few if any drawings, he scratched his ideas directly onto a wet underpainting and built upon that with observations from life.  In the Salome, unhesitant brush strokes of almost pure white describe the folds in the cloths and pick out the highlights on the cross-like sword.  The few notes of warm color can be seen in the slight blush on Salome’s face and in the sun-exposed visage of the executioner, in the still-flushed ear of the saint’s head and the neat little trickle of blood below it, pooling in the dish.  The artist’s true genius can be found in his ability to model barely perceptible form in very dark shadows.

Early on, Caravaggio’s rapid rise to artistic prominence in Rome, along with his notoriety, attracted the attention of the many other young artists who had come to the ancient city in search of fame and fortune.  Among them was Bartolomeo Manfredi (1582-1622), who adopted his teacher’s tenebrism and half-length figures set in dramatic, often violent, tableaux, and eventually influenced future generations of artists with what came to be known as the Manfrediana methodus.5

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Salome Receives the Head of Saint John the Baptist (c. 1606–10, oil on canvas, 36

Bartolomeo Manfredi, Christ Crowned with Thorns (c. 1620, oil on canvas, 33″x 44″ [82.6 x 110.5 cm]).  Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts.

Caravaggio’s influence on this older artist was especially evident in one of the two Manfredi paintings at the exhibit, Christ Crowned with Thorns (c. 1620).  In a zoomed-in view of Christ’s tormentor yanking on a rope that seems to simultaneously force his captive to bend over while at the same time embedding the wreath of thorns securely into the skin, Manfredi emulated Caravaggio’s use of dramatically lit half-length figures–even including a spotlighted bare shoulder–and the latter’s often imitated head-bowed Christ as seen in his The Crowning with Thorns (1604).

Neither Manfredi nor most of the others desirous of cashing in on this much-in-demand new style of painting could approach Caravaggio’s drawing ability and paint handling.  Where the master’s brushstrokes demonstrate the same swaggering self-confidence that was his undoing in the streets, Manfredi’s reveal the effort required to accurately render his intentions.

Orazio Riminaldi, Daedalus and Icarus (c. 1625, oil on canvas, 52

Orazio Riminaldi, Daedalus and Icarus (c. 1625, oil on canvas, 52″ x 37″ [132 x 96.1 cm]).  Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut.

Another member of the club was Orazio Riminaldi (1593-1630), whose Icarus with open mouth, red lips and come-hither expression in the homoerotic show stopper Daedalus and Icarus (c. 1625) shares an affinity with the lute player in Caravaggio’s The Concert (c. 1595), who presents himself to the onlooker in much the same way.

Ostensibly, Riminaldi has illustrated the myth of the architect of the Labyrinth, imprisoned with his son in his own creation, who fashioned wings from wax and feathers to enable their escape, and is here seen affixing them to the boy, who will fly too close to the sun and perish.  Interpreted by some as an allegory of the risks of creative genius,6 the subject affords this artist an opportunity to exquisitely contrast the freshness of youth with the weathered appearance of maturity.

The wrinkled skin on the forehead of the older man, his tan and muscular right arm, and the prominent veins on the hand holding the wing are set against the curly hair, silky smooth pale complexion and less developed musculature of the boy.  The brightly lit, perfectly painted flesh of the latter’s thigh, the softness of which is alluded to by the nearby downy feathers, invites the viewer to caress it.

Taking away the wings and the title, one sees a much older man about to embrace a rather fey, nude, prepubescent boy who supports himself with his right arm as he leans back, perhaps in response to the pressure of the other between his legs.  Riminaldi discreetly draped a red cloth down the front of the man’s body to avoid the appearance of skin-to-skin contact in the area of the youth’s genitals.  The boy’s raised arm, which provides freer access to his body, parallels that of the man’s and avoids direct contact with it.

Riminaldi’s compositions indicate substantial knowledge of Caravaggio’s paintings, primarily via Orazio Gentileschi (1565-1639) and Manfredi but also from Simon Vouet (1590-1649).7  Much more challenging to trace was how Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652) came to incorporate in his own work the tenebrism and brute naturalism of Caravaggism.

Jusepe de Ribera, Protagoras (1637, oil on canvas, 48⅞

Jusepe de Ribera, Protagoras (1637, oil on canvas, 48⅞″ x 38¾″ [124 x 98 cm]).  Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut.

A Spanish artist working for a while in Rome and later in Naples–called Lo Spagnoletto by the Italians–Ribera produced a large body of work during his stay in the birthplace of Caravaggism, enough to push back his dates of residence to those contemporaneous with Manfredi and his cohorts (as early as 1604-5), and allow for at least eight of his formative years for absorbing their influence.8

Tucked away in a small room where visitors could thumb through the exhibition catalog and other relevant books was Ribera’s Protagoras (1637), a prime example of Roman lessons well learned.  Luminescent thanks in part to direct lighting, this exquisitely drawn and painted oil places in a nondescript setting a three-quarter length figure whose hands hold a book that abuts the picture plane.  Other black-infused canvases from these later years, epitomized by the 1637 Apollo Flaying Marsyas, demonstrate the continued appeal to Ribera of Caravaggio’s use of starkly lit figures in the depiction of suffering, martyrdom and death.

Simon Vouet, The Fortune Teller (c. 1620, oil on canvas, 47

Simon Vouet, The Fortune Teller (c. 1620, oil on canvas, 47″ x 67″ [120 x 170 cm]).  National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

Another arrival from foreign shores, Simon Vouet (1590-1649) built a very successful career in Rome by cashing in on the Caravaggism craze, initially with portraits of spotlighted subjects and later with amusing genre subjects like The Fortune Teller (c. 1620), the subject of which was popularized by Caravaggio with at least two versions of The Gypsy Fortune Teller (1595).  In these scenes, costume-clad characters enact comical scripts of chicanery for the entertainment and perhaps instruction of the viewer, not unlike theater performances.

In Vouet’s reading, the shining smile of the fancily dressed woman on the right, who makes eye contact with the audience, directs attention to the unfolding events.  An astounding interplay of five hands in the center of the composition distract the eye from the missing three hands of the expected eight possible among four actors.

The scruffy looking guy with the strange mouth rests his right hand on the lady’s shoulder in a too-familiar gesture, points at her with his other hand, and looks toward the other man who raises a finger in a just-a-moment pose while ransacking the gypsy’s shoulder bag for means of payment.  The lack of jewelry (other than a simple ring) on the well-dressed woman adds yet another clue that she is not some wealthy woman visiting a poor neighborhood to find out her future. The fortune teller seems poised to drop a coin into the extended hand while looking across at its owner with the slightly raised eyebrows of curiosity and expectancy.

Lest anyone miss the joke, Vouet painted a red sash on the brown-skinned woman’s bag, leading the eye straight to the action.  Likewise, the high-value white of the fortune teller’s blouse in contrast with the dark tone of her skin draws focus to the right side of the painting and the man in the shadows behind her.  Each facial expression adds to the drama played out by three-quarter length figures set close to the picture plane in an indeterminate setting lit in typical Caravaggesque fashion.

Simon Vouet, Saint Jerome and the Angel (c. 1622, oil on canvas, 57

Simon Vouet, Saint Jerome and the Angel (c. 1622, oil on canvas, 57″ x 70″ [144.8 x 179.8 cm]).  The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

Picking up on another well-known Caravaggio theme, Vouet painted his own Saint Jerome and the Angel (c. 1622), a tour de force of gesture and facial expression with even more dramatic lighting accenting the action.  The same red garment, exposed torso, balding head and white beard that characterize the protagonist in Caravaggio’s Saint Jerome Writing (c. 1606) appear in Vouet’s rendition of the story.  The debt to his predecessor is further evident in the angel’s right hand, which takes its pose from the left hand of the Boy Bitten by a Lizard (1595), an early painting by Caravaggio.

Arriving trumpet in hand to announce to Jerome his imminent death, the curly-haired angel with its sweet smile of compassion encounters the busy scholar in the midst of his work transcribing ancient Greek and Hebrew biblical texts into Latin.9  Jerome turns from his work, makes eye contact with his visitor and raises his left hand as if to say, “Give me a break!  I’ve barely made a dent in this stuff.”

Vouet choreographs the figures within a diamond shape, the top point of which is the angel’s left wing and the bottom the foremost corner of the table, lying just beyond the picture plane.  All but one of the their combined four arms synchronize with each other in their movement upwards.  The rebellious exception remains adamantly planted on the desk, its hand poised to continue writing if given the chance.

Despite wrinkles, receding hairline and long white beard, Jerome sports the musculature of a much younger man.  The red drapery against which his left arm must work to achieve levitation serves to define part of the lower left side of the diamond while doing nothing to cover that by-now-familiar, well-lighted, bare male shoulder.

Some of the abilities that made Vouet so successful in Rome are apparent in his modeling in the dark of the angel’s face and his skill in rendering a great variety of textures, especially the characters’ hair and skin.  Never fully wedded to Caravaggism, however, this artist went on to paint in other styles.

Nicolas Tournier, The Denial of Saint Peter (c. 1625, oil on canvas, 63

Nicolas Tournier, The Denial of Saint Peter (c. 1625, oil on canvas, 63″ x 94″ [160 x 240 cm]).  High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia.

In contrast, Nicolas Tournier (1590-1639) completely adopted the current fashion of painting in Rome when he arrived there sometime around 161910–quite obvious in The Denial of Saint Peter (c. 1625), his one work in the exhibit.  Eager to demonstrate his skill at depicting the prevailing themes among the Caravaggisti, Tournier combined two separate stories in his one large canvas.

On the left, Peter denies to the soldier about to arrest him that he knows Christ.  On the right, another soldier watches three colorfully dressed men in a game of dice.  The beautifully painted sword that adorns the one in the skin-tight leggings and blousy, yellow shirt, and the hilt of another peaking out from the dice player who stares with wide-eyed, open-mouthed alarm at the events unfolding nearby, bring to mind the artists who originally ran with Caravaggio; they also carried blades and often got into street brawls.  Perhaps Tournier’s idea was to show on one side a biblical scene a la Caravaggio and Manfredi, and on the other, the artists who looked closely at their work.

This multi-figured composition contains plenty of action along an arc that begins with the head of the sleeping disciple on the left and travels through all the heads to the back of the young man on the far right.  Tournier adeptly portrays facial expression and packs into the painting lots of opportunity to display his talent for depicting texture, from hard, shiny armor to coarse cloth, and throws in a pail of very convincing burning coals for viewers’ enjoyment.  While his artistic model was Caravaggio, unlike the master, Tournier applied paint in thin and carefully applied layers to slowly build up form and define surfaces.

Francisco de Zurbarán, Saint Serapion (1628, oil on canvas, 475/16

Francisco de Zurbarán, Saint Serapion (1628, oil on canvas, 475/16″ x 4015/16″ [120.2 x 104 cm]).  Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut.

A Spanish artist with a much thinner connection to the crowd in Rome, Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664) might have been chosen by the Atheneum’s curators because a stunning example of his work, Saint Serapion (1628), already hung on their walls.  Studying in Seville when awareness of Ribera’s work ran high,11 he seems to have incorporated the tenebristic lighting of Caravaggism, if little else.

Zurbarán brilliantly summarizes the martyrdom of Serapion–by crucifixion, beheading and quartering–in the pose.  The slumping saint’s body held up by ropes that fix his outstretched arms above his head represents death on the cross.  His head falling to the side, disconnected from his body by the hood of his habit, suggests decapitation.  And the securely tied rope around his right wrist references his quartering.

Lacking the usual bloody drama of Caravaggesque martyrdom scenes, Zurbarán’s almost square composition provides a sense of stability.  His placement of the saint’s head in repose on his right shoulder and the calm look on his face have little in common with the theatrics found among other works in the exhibit.

By affixing to the canvas with a tromp l’oeil pin a torn scrap of paper with his signature in ultra thin lettering, and rendering the red and yellow shield of Serapion’s monastic order in a decidedly unrealistic fashion, Zurbarán calls attention to the artifice of painting.  Unlike the three-dimensional drapery folds, and the hands and head of the figure, the shield–with its central placement and sole use of color in this monochromatic picture–loudly calls attention to the two-dimensional nature of the canvas by appearing to float on the picture plane rather than be attached to the robe.

Gerrit van Honthorst, Christ Crowned with Thorns (c. 1617, oil on canvas, 51⅜

Gerrit van Honthorst, Christ Crowned with Thorns (c. 1617, oil on canvas, 51⅜″ x 67⅜″ [146 x 207 cm]).  Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Unlike Zurbarán with his attenuated connection to Caravaggio’s circle of followers, Gerrit van Honthorst (1592-1656) lived and painted in Rome starting in 1616.  Part of a small community of other Dutch artists, he quickly adapted the latest style of painting, especially apparent in Christ Crowned with Thorns (c. 1617), one of three of his paintings in the exhibit.

Taking compositional ideas from Manfredi and company, particularly in his choice of subject matter,12 tenebristic lighting, undefined background and zoomed-in view, van Honthorst followed his own path in the material execution of the painting.  Figures are contained within their own contours.  Fabrics are devoid of identifying details.  And brushstrokes are barely detectable.  He differed too in his choice of body types for his figure of Christ, which lacks the buff male body with its bared shoulder(s) so popular among the Roman crowd.

Instead, van Honthorst’s mocked man, with sad resignation, gracefully submits to the humiliation and physical pain being forced upon him; though he bows his head, he doesn’t resist the thorns being implanted there.  Slightly slumped forward, Christ accepts the stick placed in his hand by one of his tormentors, a man whose open-mouthed laugh, wrinkled brow and wide-open eye express a sadistic enjoyment rarely depicted among Christ’s torturers.

Georges de La Tour, Old Man (c. 1618–19, oil on canvas, 35⅞

Georges de La Tour, Old Man (c. 1618–19, oil on canvas, 35⅞″ x 23″ [91 x 60.5 cm]).  The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, California.

Georges de La Tour, Old Woman (c. 1618–19, oil on canvas, 35⅞

Georges de La Tour, Old Woman (c. 1618–19, oil on canvas, 35⅞″ x 23″ [91 x 60.5 cm]).  The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, California.

Awareness of the work of northern European artists like van Honthorst contributed to the spread of Caravaggism beyond the Alps and might have been how Georges de La Tour acquired knowledge of this new way of painting.  Whether or not he ever made it to Rome remains indeterminable and his inclusion seemed like an afterthought, quite literally since his were the last three works in the exhibit.

Unlike the first of those (de La Tour’s much later candlelit scene of The Magdalen with the Smoking Flame [1638-40]), the other two–a pair of full length figures, Old Man and Old Woman (c. 1618–19)–were far from Caravaggesque.  These striking portrayals of an elderly couple lack most of what had come to be associated with artists inspired by the works of Caravaggio.

The man, whose painting was displayed to the left of the woman’s, supports his weight on a walking stick, leans over as if to peer around the picture frame, and casts a sidelong glance at the woman in the other picture.  The object of his gaze stands with hands on hips–perhaps removing the apron that falls away as her left hand slips under it–and looks back at him with her mouth open, as if in midsentence.

De La Tour made the man the more colorful subject, with his green jacket, orange-red pants, yellow leggings and suntanned skin, and indicated his age with a bald head, grey hair, white beard and need for a stick to prop him up.  For the woman, the artist used stark white for her hat and blouse without benefit of modifying colors, a flat green with revealing bits of brown underpainting for the bodice of her dress, and a golden hue for the fold-creased apron that covers most of a burgundy skirt, a sliver of which turns lavender under the light on the left.  Giving her far fewer wrinkles than her mate, the artist somehow still managed to convey her seniority.

In each painting, de La Tour made the background dark for the lighted area of the figure and lighter for the shadowed side.  The man’s right leg hides the point where diagonal lines meet convincingly to indicate a corner at the base of the walls.  The woman’s body covers most of the edge where dark walls meet light ones, but the horizontal line running along their base would destroy any illusion that this is a corner were one to look too closely at it.  In his skillful rendering of an elderly woman in the midst of an interaction, de La Tour manages to provide enough distractions for the viewer not to notice.

The inclusion of de La Tour in an exhibit on Caravaggism demonstrated just how far afield Caravaggio’s groundbreaking approach to figurative painting reached, extending its spread throughout Europe over the next few hundred years.  One man’s impulse to transmute his inner turmoil into art resulted in a new way of constructing images, one still practiced in the present by artists who place emotionally expressive, ordinary characters within tenebristically lighted settings, and assign them roles in emotionally and/or spiritually significant stories, hoping to engage their audience in the contemplation of the often violent drama of human relationships.
1 Spike, John T.  Caravaggio (New York: Abbeville Press, 2001), 239.

2 Papi, Gianni.  “Some Reflections and Revisions on Caravaggio, His Method, and his ‘Schola’” in Caravaggio and His Legacy, ed. J. Patrice Marandel (New York: Prestel Verlag, 2012), 14.

3 Ibid., footnote 21, 30-31.

4 All biographical information from Spike, Caravaggio.

5 Marandel, J. Patrice.  “Caravaggio and His Legacy” in Caravaggio and His Legacy, 13.

6 Zafran, Eric.  “Orazio Riminaldi, Daedalus and Icarus” in Caravaggio and His Legacy, 62.

7 Ibid.

8 Papi, 24-26

9 Exhibit object label.

10 Caravaggio and His Legacy, 78.

11 Ibid, 109.

12 Ibid, 118.

Burst of Light: Caravaggio and His Legacy
The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
600 Main Street
Hartford, Connecticut 06103
(860) 278-2670

Catalog available.