Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Antiquities Auctions and the Guennol Goddess

It is upon us, the fall/winter antiquity auctions, Sotheby's and Christies in New York, the first week of December. There are two antiquity auctions each year, one in summer, the second in early December. This past summer saw the sale of items from the Albright Knox Gallery in Buffalo, NY, which had the spectacular Artemis which went for so much money.(See my old post "Out with the old, in with the New") This upcoming auction has another star, the Guennol Goddess, which has been on loan for decades to the Brooklyn Museum, but the owners have decided to sell it now.

Statuette of lioness goddess, Elamite, ca. 3000 B.C.
Magnesite or crystaline limestone, Height: 3 1/4 inches.

This monumental miniature statue depicts a mysterious goddess in the form of a lioness, with drilled holes which may have been fitted with tufts of fur for tail, mane and ornaments. Very little is known about the figure, it was purchased in the early 20th Century in Baghdad, and then handled by Joseph Brummer, the venerable dealer of antiquities of his time, sold by him in 1931, and purchased by the present owners Alastair and Edith Martin in 1948. It has been on loan to the Brooklyn Museum since they purchased it, and I have known it since I became interested in ancient art as it has often been published as one of the seminal objects of Near Eastern art. I would visit it in the Brooklyn Museum, and own a museum replica of it. I am not alone in admiring this sculpture, she has become a member of the Canon of Ancient Art. Everyone with an interest in the field will inevitably refer to this piece as one of their favorite works of ancient art if they want to seem to be in the know. Outside the field however, she is very little known, she is not like the Treasures of Tutankhamen for example, which captured the public imagination. Admiration of this little figure allows entry into a exclusive club of cognoscenti, proves that your taste and knowledge is so refined that a miniature 3 inch tall sculpture looms large in your mind.

Which brings up a big problem for Sotheby's since their estimate is what you would expect for a monumental, I mean BIG, work of art: $14,000,000. to $18,000,000. Yes that is right, fourteen to eighteen million dollars. If art value is awarded solely on historic and artistic importance, than the value is certainly there; she is as important and far rarer than many other works of art that sell in that rarefied range. However, high value art also generally has a wow factor that translates out of its field; i.e., anyone looking at it will be impressed by it, even if they don't fully know what it is or why it is important. Everyone knows Picasso by now, Rothko is widely known, Jeff Koons' stainless extravaganzas which sold for so much this fall are ostentatiously large and flashy, if you don't know who he is you will look at them and be impressed regardless. The Artemis was a wow piece, so complete, so perfect, large enough to demand your attention, and beautiful. I fear that this piece, which is truly priceless in its importance, is not of the type that will command this type of valuation.

The gamble is evident in their promotion of the piece, you have the plummy voiced Englishman Hugh Hildesley, executive Vice President of Sotheby's, doing a video lecture on the piece, making a case for the valuation despite its size, and talking about Faberge eggs as a comparable miniature object of high value. Interesting to me they even need to make the case which indicates that they do. If you know what I mean. Below is a link to the mini video:

I will be very interested to see how it does.

Another piece in the Sotheby's sale that does command my attention because of its beauty and scale is the monumental head of Zeus in marble below:

Monumental Head of Zeus, ca First Century A.D.
Marble, Height 17 1/2 inches (44.5 cm)

Now this is a show stopper; it is large, well over life sized, and while fragmentary, there is more than enough there to allow for a complete mental image of the God in all his glory. The condition of the piece, aside from its completeness, is extraordinarily well preserved, the surfaces retain their original finish, the hair is deeply drilled and undercut, the lips full, sharply edged and sensuous and the eyes are deep set under the commanding brow, with the lower lid having that line under the edge of the lid giving it more definition which is only found in marble sculptures of the highest quality from the Roman Period. Its estimate is a relatively modest $300,000. to $500,000. in comparison to the Goddess. I suppose the logic is that heads of Zeus are not as rare a thing, however, large beautiful ones like this, on the market and not in museums, that is quite rare. And this head has an impeccable and old provenance so one not need fear buying it.

I really don't mean to be talking down the Guennol Goddess, she is one of my favorite ancient objects, but I wonder if Sotheby's is not overplaying their hand. And I am quite sorry she is no longer going to be at the Brooklyn Museum, it gave that institution some added depth and significance. It is a shame that the Martin's did not just give it to them, but the type of money being estimated would tempt most people who are not super rich. I don't know anything about the Martins, they might be really rich, but given how long ago they bought this piece, when such things could be bought by any professional and not just the super rich, I suspect they are not in the uber class of wealth. Another aspect that troubles me, is that this object was preserved by sheer chance, so little survives from that era, that this does is due to pure happenstance. What I mean to say is that we have no idea what status this object had in its own era, it could have been just a minor thing, even though today it has great impact, who knows what else they created then, which has been lost. Perhaps that is why it is important, but future finds may supplant it. We shall see, I wish them and Sotheby's luck and hope it commands the price they think, it will really make people take notice of ancient art as being worthy of interest.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Chicest things I saw this week

I think this will be a regular feature of my blog, selecting the piece, whether a work of art, jewelry or other object that most impressed me in the past week.

Living in Hudson is great because of the window shopping, the quality of what is up here is often quit surprising and wonderful. There are more sophisticated dealers on Warren Street then I remember there being in the past and the level has gone up a lot. So have the prices, which some people who remember Hudson from the past complain about, but what they don't mention is that the material on offer is so good, and with the advent of the Internet, everyone everywhere knows what everything is worth; there are no bargains anymore. Because the cost of maintaining a shop is so much less in Hudson, dealers do price their items better than they would in the city.

So this week it is two modern pieces of furniture.

Lucite and bronze coffee table by Pierre Giraudon, ca. 1970's.
window of GRIS, 614 Warren St., Hudson, NY.

This table is made of what Giraudon called "fractal resin", and you can see why, it is like craqueline that crazed glaze once popular on ceramics. The effect is as if the Lucite was shot through with gold leaf bits, is probably partly the color of the Lucite itself that on the break planes reflects a golden glint. Contemporary and modern design pieces have become quite popular and with this piece you can see why, the materials are wonderful, the quality of the making high, and the production was actually quite low in quantity. These pieces are actually quite rare and distinctive, and priced accordingly.

Another gem is to be found on Warren St:

Limed oak sideboard by Claude Aliver Merson, with verre eglomise panel by Max Ingrand.
French, 1942.
In the windows of Historical Materialism, at 601 Warren St. in Hudson, NY.

This amazing sideboard is a knockout, commissioned for a grand apartment in Paris in the early 1940's, it is over the top. The medieval references are done with such bravura and in such an over scaled manner as to make it cinematic in its effect. It looks to me very Hollywood, something you would see in Norma Desmond's house in Sunset Boulevard. It takes a special buyer who has operatic taste for this, don't you think? I imagine a piece like this in an otherwise very muted room, this would kick it up a notch, and set off everything else. I believe in foils, employing something really off base to keep things from being bland, but a whole room of this, might be too too much.

Hudson is great, if I ever feel slightly down, all I have to do is go to Warren Street for some visual stimulation.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Vassar Loeb Art Center

View of the galleries of the Loeb Art Center looking towards the Egyptian red granite head.

After visiting the Hessel Museum at Bard, I headed South to visit the very fine small museum at Vassar, the full name of which is: The Francis Lehman Loeb Art Center. I have been there before but not for a long while, so a visit was overdue. It has a small diverse collection, with some very nice Hudson River Paintings, a few antiquities, and old masters. They have visiting exhibitions, the current one was "Saul Steinberg: Illuminations", a touring exhibition. Finding the college and museum was not difficult although the directions tell you to look for a stone arch that serves as the entrance, and what is in fact there is a large Gothic revival building with a tiny pointed arch road entrance going through it, so I missed it. The museum is just inside that entrance.

The entrance is through a beautiful glass, steel and wood tunnel that leads you back into the building housing the museum. The design of the galleries is quite contemporary and simple, the objects well displayed and lit. Currently in the entrance hall are three Chinese objects on loan from the Sackler Collection, most of which is in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington. They are two archaic Chinese bronze vessels and a Buddhist schist carving from the Wei Dynasty, nice and give some needed depth to the museums holdings. Once inside antiquities are on the left, where I headed, to see what for me was the most beautiful work of art that I saw that day, an Egyptian granite head from a sarcophagus, 19th Dynasty, of the highest quality and of a good size.

Head of Merymose from his sarcophagus, Egyptian, 18th Dynasty, ca. 1375 B.C. in red granite.
Beautifully carved the details are crisp and well defined with the lips outlined by the sharp ridge referred to by Egyptologists as the vermilion line, a feature of the highest quality sculptures. Here the perfect slight smile captures that sense of knowing and slight sadness that typify Egyptian art. This sculpture is as fine as Egyptian art gets, it is large, the face is complete, the surfaces polished and smooth, it competes with the best examples in any other museum in the world. As such an argument could be made that this is the best piece in the museum, certainly it is my favorite.

side view of the head of Merymose.
(I just learned from a friend of mine who is an Egyptologist, who worked for many years at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, that the donor of this head had shown it first to the MFA, but that the head curator at that time did not seem interested in it, so when Vassar was soliciting donors, she gave it to them. Boston's loss is the Hudson Valley's gain, I for one am glad it ended up at Vassar. Boston is already art rich.)

The next piece to capture my attention was this small but romantic head of Hercules, late Hellenistic Period Greek.

head of Hercules, Greek, late Hellenistic, ca 200 B.C.
This small head comes from a statuette of Hercules crowned as the victor after the completion of his labors and when he has become a god. The eyes are hollow as originally they were inlaid with white and black stone to give the figure a more lifelike appearance. The turn of the head and open mouth animate the head, the carving is soft but the forms are ideal and beautifully defined, with the bulging brow and curly beard and hair typical of Hercules. Again, there is a sense of sadness to it which exemplifies the best of Classical art.

Nearly missed in a case of Greek vases was this beautiful rhyton in the form of the head of a dog, one of the most sympathetic renderings of a dog I have ever seen. Not the best example of its type, not in perfect condition as its surface is missing the paint that would have given it more detail and color, it still manages to capture and express a feeling and the naturalism and quality of the modeling is very high.

rhyton, terracotta, Greek 4th Century B.C. probably from South Italy.
the thin face of this expressive dog looks like it is of a greyhound, or whatever ancient equivalent breed they had.

The next piece that captured me was this beautiful vibrant panel painting of the pieta.

Crucifixion with the donor, oil on oak panel.
Netherlandish, 15th Century.
A jewel of a painting the exquisitely fine details are beautifully painted and the colors remain vibrant and intense the whole jewel like feeling heightened by the gold leaf ground.

some other paintings that captured my affection are below

this little painting is by Benjamin West I think, of a mythological subject. Unfortunately I did not note the title, but reading the image now, I can tell why I selected it, I think it depicts Achilles morning over Patrocles, visited by his mother Thetis bearing new armor for him. The male nudity of course caught my eye, the gay subject matter my unconscious mind. The fact it is by one of America's first painters is a side note.

The Defense of Paris, 1871 by Gustave Dore, French, oil on canvas.
This large painting is by one of my favorite painters, whose works are not common in America. Painted in grisaille, the only color is in the flag held by the winged figure behind her back. It was painted to commemorate the Prussian siege of Paris in 1870-71, which was a traumatic event for France.
view of the room of 19th Century American paintings, of the Hudson River School. While the paintings are mostly small, this is a very nice group of paintings, and a good study collection for those who like the Hudson River School, of which I am one. Just beautiful, although I could not identify the artists in this view.

another jewel of a painting, by Sanford Gifford, of Lake George I think.

view of the Catskills, can't remember the painter. a very familiar view to me, the area still looks like this.

This has to be the strangest painting in the Loeb. Titled, "Who Wears the Pants has the Power"
by Adriaen Pietersz van de Venne, Flemish, early 17th Century.
Hard to make out, there is a group of woman, some presenting bare buttocks, being spanked by a man behind the mass of figures, overseen by a man with pants hanging down loosely below the knees, it is the strangest subject. Sort of salacious but also with a message, maybe an early women's lib pitch? Weird but amusing.

Petrus Staverenus, Dutch, 17th Century, oil on canvas.
This amusing painting exemplifies the unsympathetic naturalism the Dutch often went for. The untidy drunken features of this hag with missing teeth contrast with the exquisite Venetian blown glass that she is tippling from. Scenes like this can be had at the Red Dot in Hudson today! This is a great little Dutch painting.

For more information and directions please visit the website for the Loeb Art Center:

Here are some other things at Vassar that caught my eye.

The Gothic revival architecture of much of the campus would make Hogwarts proud.

This huge tree is a sycamore and one of the largest I have ever seen, it dominates a vast area hundreds of feet in circumference.
Another view of the great tree, the bench gives you a sense of its vast size, the trunk must be over 10 feet in diameter.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Hessell Museum at Bard

view of the Hessel Museum of Art at Bard College

I need to get out of Hudson at least one day a week, so either I go to the City, or take a day trip in the region. This week it was an afternoon outing to down to Poughkeepsie to see The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar. As I was driving south on Rt. 9G, I realized I would pass by Bard and that I had not seen the latest show at their museum, the Center for Curatorial Studies, Hessel Museum of Art. I had seen the first installation of the collection, this fall they reinstalled it with a different part of the very large collection, and had an exhibition of an artist who I did not know before, Keith Edmier.

First let me briefly talk about the Marieluise Hessel Collection. Last year what was exhibited was a wide range of contemporary art, much of which I was not familiar with. This year they brought out another group from the collection which they have titled, "Exhibitionism", which the museum describes as an exhibition of exhibitions, autonomous displays and installations. Much of the art in this show was from the 80s, and so some of the artists I recognized. However I have to admit that much of this art has not aged well, a lot of it seems slight, shallow, and not very interesting. Very little from the show has stood the test of time in my opinion. Of course I didn't like much of the art when it was created, but at least then it had relevance as being of our time, now, it seems irrelevant to me. Harsh I know. There were a few things that I liked, and I will share some pictures I took. Most impressive are the galleries themselves, it is a beautiful building with great spaces.

view of a piece by Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, from the "For Holly..." installation, a room devoted to pieces purchased from Holly Solomon. I remember Holly well, in my days when I ran Daedalus, I went to a number of parties at her apartment. I remember Thomas's work from that time, I like it, it is fun, but it seems really insubstantial and fleeting. This piece for example looks like it is made of glitter and tin foil, hardly materials that will last, and must be a nightmare to store and transport. But at least it is pretty and fun.

bench by Jenny Holzer, marble inscribed with truisms, I believe many of her own invention. Her work I like, and the benches are beautiful objects on their own, and the words are intriguing. I cannot remember who the colorful piece in the background is by, and I don't like it.

The Hessel collection is interesting as a document of a moment in the art world, not one I personally like much, but fortunately many others do. For more information on this particular exhibit go to the website here:

In the other half of the Hessel Museum is the Keith Edmier exhibition. Again, I really don't connect with much of this, although some of the works are impressive. But I remembered him when I got to two strangely realistic sculptures that he did in collaboration with Farrah Fawcett, and then I remembered when they were working together and I think they were also romantically involved. They got allot of press at the time. See the pictures below.

Farrah Fawcett in marble by Keith Edmier. This life sized marble is quite well carved, although it looks more like a Lladro piece than a work of serious art. Mostly its interest lies in the subject.

Keith Edmier, statue in bronze by Farrah Fawcett. Certainly a loving portrayal of the subject, again sort of tacky but fun, and sexy. Not great sculpture though, the modeling of the body is not particularly good. But one forgives the flaws for the sheer bravado of it.

Keith Edmier, I don't recall the title, this is a resin sculpture that recedes into the wall and is very hard to photograph in that the color came out wrong, it really is a translucent purple, and I think it depicts a huge vagina.

Keith Edmier, Victoria Regia, a pretty impressive installation in a beautiful gallery. This depicts the huge waterlily, and the viewer is put in the position of seeing the plant as if we were in the water, looking at the stalks as the huge floating leaves rest on the surface above us. It is fun certainly.

view of Bremen Towne.
Here is a quote describing the piece:
"Bremen Towne is a full-scale sculptural reproduction of the interior spaces from the ranch house where I grew up in the southwest Chicago suburb, Tinley Park. It is made to resemble what it would have looked like when I first moved there with my parents in 1971. Essentially, it is a brand new home," explains Edmier.

Fun, it looks like some of the houses for sale up here in Columbia County.

another view from Bremen Towne, this showing the shocking wall paper, high 70s tack.

another view of Bremen Towne, gold and black wallpaper!

the kitchen of Bremen Towne. I actually see these kitchens in some of the houses for sale up here, they really are incredibly ugly.

The coolest thing in the Hessel Museum:

flushless urinal, I had not seen one before, although have read about them. It actually works well in that the urine goes right down, does not stick to the walls and disappears, with no residual smell. Pretty amazing technology.

All in all, the CCS Hessel Museum is well worth a visit, but I cannot say I particularly like or understand this type of contemporary art. It is too conceptual for me, it is all about the idea, expressed in some cases like the Edmier show, in painstakingly well done pieces on a grand scale. But, it all sort of misses me, and fails to move me.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Gallery shows in Hudson, NY

Since I live here, in Hudson, I thought I should make some mention of what is going on in the art scene in my own town. It actually has blossomed in the years I have lived here, with a number of quite good and interesting galleries now open. I will only mention a few here, with more to come in future posts.

Tony Thompson painting at Carrie Haddad
titled, Kensett, clearly meant to evoke or inspired by the wonderful paintings by the artist of that name, one of the leading practitioners of the Hudson River School.

Tony Thompson is well known to those of us who live here in Hudson, he has been here for quite a few years now, so I follow his work partly as a friend, but also I actually like his paintings. He has very good technique, and here he employs it in an odd way, doing a double image, one right side up, the other upside down. Between the two is a heavy application of oil paint to forming a cloven ridge down the boundary between the two images. This painting in particular I don't see an upside down image, the mirroring of the images creates a satisfying symmetry which makes a complete picture in ones mind. I will illustrate with another painting which does something similar in a different way.

Tony Thompson, F.H. Lane. Named after another Hudson River School painter, this mirrored image again creates a beautiful symmetry.

Another painter exhibited in the Gallery that I liked is Russel DeYoung, whose abstract expressionist paintings remind me of Joan Mitchell and other practitioners of that school. They are somewhat beautiful, the application of paint to canvas is satisfying. Below is a sample of his work, you be the judge.

King of Beers, 36 x 40 inches.
Russel DeYoung

Abstract expressionism is a hard school to describe, I find I judge it on the color palette, the application of paint to the surface, the composition, and the overall feeling. At its best it induces a contemplative feeling, which this work does for me. Here the title almost ruins the painting, it is too specific, when nothing apparent is being depicted.

There are other painter shown at Carrie Haddad, visit the gallery and her website; for complete information. Her gallery is always worth a visit, if you don't like the show, you will inevitably like something being shown in the less formal back room, or the photography upstairs.

View of the back room showing paintings by Paul Rowntree, which I actually rather like.

another view of the back room of Carrie Haddad Gallery showing a wide range of the artists she shows.

Among the galleries now in Hudson, of which there are a number, John Davies is one of my favorites. I like the art often that he shows, and I like John's courtly manner, always self effacing, kind, and appreciative of those who visit his gallery. The gallery itself is a jewel box, very crisp, and a pretty space on two levels. During the summer months the carriage barn is an adjunct gallery space and it is spectacular, four floors with an hand drawn elevator going up the middle. No pictures yet, it is now closed, but look for more on it in the spring.
John's current show is of an artist whose last name is familiar, Robert Reitzfeld. His wife Lucy, also shows at John Davies. Roberts paintings are not so much my taste, but they are interesting to see, and he has had a long and distinguished career. Below are some of the paintings in the show to give you a flavor of his work.

view of downstairs gallery with some of Robert Reitzfeld's paintings.

Here is one of Robert Reitzfeld's paintings, TBT 48. I respond to its masterful composition and energy, and color. However, I don't get the imagery at all, perhaps that is the point, there is no point to what is depicted. I like the fish, but what does it mean?
For more information visit the galleries website:

Another art space is that of the Columbia County Council for the Arts, or CCCA, at 209 Warren Street. Currently on view is a show of postcard sized works titled "The Postcard Show", each of which is just $50. The idea was to allow everyone a chance to buy an original work of art by a local artist. Many are really sweet and present good buys. Below are some images from the show.

some of the postcard sized works on view at the CCCA

For more information go to their website:

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Shark at the Metropolitan Museum

The Met does not allow photography of the Shark, so I got this from Raw art Weblog, and think the blogger probably did what I had hoped to do but did not dare, just take a photo discreetly. He did dare, so I will use his photo, the best one I could find easily that shows the tank before the windows.

This is not news, Damien Hirst's infamous shark in formaldehyde is now on view at the Met and has been for about a month now. I went to see it on my day of going through the museum as I have heard about it for years, and while I have seen other works by Damien Hirst, had never this iconic piece.
Pretentiously titled, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, it is a shark suspended in a beautifully built tank of blue green formaldehyde. It is important, whether one likes it or not, because of the impact it has had on the art world, and the tremendous attention it received and continues to receive in the art and general media. Before I go into my reaction and thoughts on it, let me share a snippet of a review of it from the New York Times by Roberta Smith:

"In keeping with the piece’s title, the shark is simultaneously life and death incarnate in a way you don’t quite grasp until you see it, suspended and silent, in its tank. It gives the innately demonic urge to live a demonic, deathlike form."

photo taken from the NYT website, again because I could not take my own. This does show the gaping maw, the most impressive aspect of this installation.

Wow. Deep. I had to see the shark for myself after reading this review.

While formally beautiful, the tank is beautifully well made, the formaldehyde is clear greeny blue, like glass; the shark itself is sad. Looking into its gaping maw and seeing the rows of sharp triangular teeth is a bit scary, if you can fool yourself for a second of suspended disbelief. I could only do that for a second, the rest of the time the shark just looked dead, really dead, wrinkling in the solution, with holes where it had been shot or harpooned to death, its eyes white and rolled back into their sockets, not threatening at all. Sad when one thought of this tremendous animal which normally is no threat to humans, and only rarely attacks us, on display like the trophy of some testosterone driven hunter. I could not generate the frisson that the reviewers apparently experienced. It just did not do for me.

The main reason the shark is worth seeing is to see it for yourself, it cannot be ignored, it has established a place for itself in the artworld. I am disimpressed by it, and feel it is a con, but it is amazing to me how many people have fallen for it. After seeing it, I was very happy to go look at works of art that actually touched me, moved me with their authentic human expression, as the other shows at the Met I saw that day and discuss in an earlier post did.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

the new Wrightsman Galleries at the Met

On my tour I took a quick spin through the newly redone Wrightsman Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum. I have always loved these rooms, and the new re installation is subtle and beautiful, at a quick glance nothing has changed, but be in them for a few minutes and you see the changes. First, they are even more dimly lit than before, but clever spots shed light just where you need it to see particular objects or details in the rooms. However, as I gazed upon the white and gold rococo room, I was struck by how real the candles looked. First and most important the quality of light was identical to natural candles and then unnervingly, with a gust of air, the flames moved, identically to the way real candle flames do. I was a little startled, and was wondering how they got away with real candle flames, after all this is a museum, when closer examination of a torchere close to me revealed that these are the cleverest and best simulated candles I have ever seen. As I gazed upon the candles, a gust of air blew and I realized that the bulbs pivot so that the natural movement of a candle flame is matched. Below are some photos that attempt to capture the feeling of the rooms, but with my iphone and the low light levels they are not very clear.
This is the torchere that first caught my eye, and where I realized the incredible candle flame light bulbs that pivot. Very importantly they also match the light output of a real candle flame, which most electric bulbs do not.

This lovely room, late 18th Century, has always appealed to me because of its intimate scale and classically inspired decor. Here the lighting comprises those clever candle bulbs and beautifully simulate indirect daylight.

I ask my readers who know, where can you get these light bulbs? Try googling and all you get are the cheap ugly ones we all know.
Now I will have to go back to the Wrightsman Galleries and look at the art and furniture again, one thing the Met did was put out some pieces that had not been on view before.

Chicest thing I saw last week

I saw this in the window of a jewelry store on Madison Avenue in the 70's, between 77th and 78th St. I think it is called Edith Weber and Associates Jewelry. If I have it wrong, I apologize. I have always enjoyed their windows since they carry antique jewelry of great quality, sometimes with intaglios which are ancient or inspired by the antique.

This pair of earrings caught my eye. What a conceit, magnificent large mine cut diamonds with gold covers in the shape of globes which themselves are beautiful, with engraving and even a little diamonds set in them. The covers were intended to hide the magnificent large diamonds, so that a lady could travel discreetly without attracting too much attention, and then when she arrived at her destination, pop off the covers to reveal them. How fabulous is that? Truly classy objects.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

the Metropolitan Museum of Art Highlights

The next day I did my usual pilgrimage to the Metropolitan Museum. There are several really great shows there; Tapestry of the Baroque, Eternal Ancestors (African sculpture), and three panels from the Gates of Paradise by Ghiberti, and a small exquisite show of Egyptian bronze statuettes titled, Gifts for the Gods. There are several other great shows at the Met, but most of them, such as the Age of Rembrandt and a collection of Abstract Expressionist paintings, are not of such interest to me, and such art already has so many fans being hugely popular.

The tapestry exhibition is a follow up to a wonderful show they did in 2002, Tapestry in the Renaissance, which made quite an impact on me. I had never really considered tapestries, and this exhibition made the point that they were the non plus ultra of their time, the absolutely top expression of wealth, taking years and many hands to create, being made of the most expensive materials available, and because of their huge size, having a great impact upon the viewer. The tapestries were coupled with examples of armor, and there I saw a steel man skirt, a suite of armor with a skirt for wearing on a horse while jousting. Really swinging.

What makes this show so worthwhile going to see is that many of these tapestries are the very best of their kind in existence, some seemingly in pristine condition, either from just being well preserved or restored; with brilliant intense colors with glittering silver and gold thread accents. A few of these photos should give an idea as to what I mean. Unfortunately they are mostly just details, but that was all I can do since they won’t let you take photos in the exhibit and the Met’s website only has a few details on view. Go see the show, even if you never thought you would be interested in tapestries, they are pretty wonderful.

This tapestry is after a cartoon by Rubens, woven in 1620-29 in Brussels.
It is of the Battle of Veseris and the Death of Decius Mus.
This is one of the only photos of a complete tapestry panel on the Met. website, where this and the other photos come from since they will not allow you take your own photos. The panels are huge, this is 13 by 19 feet and is one of the smaller ones. They may be simply too large to photograph well.

Detail of the panel illustrated above showing the incredible skill at rendering a painting in thread.

This was one of my favorite panels in the show; designed by Peter Candid, and woven in Munich in 1614, it measures
13 by 9 feet apr., and is in wool, silk, and gilt-metal wrapped thread. The preservation is amazing, the colors are intense and vibrant, the next illustration will give an idea of its quality.

While a depicting a hag, the quality of the workmanship, and intense deep colors and glittering gold thread makes this one of the most beautiful figures in the exhibit.

Of course the famous gilt bronze doors of the Baptistery in Florence by Lorenzo Ghiberti, hardly needs introduction, they are among the most famous works of art in the world. Only three are on view at the Met, the last time they will travel and for that alone one should go see them.
Ghiberti, 1425-52, from the Baptistery in Florence.
Gilt bronze, 31 1/2 x 31 1/2 inches.

My favorite panel is here, Jacob and Esau, is very spare and airy in feeling with the figures occupying the lower third, the space above being given over to a fantasy of Roman arches and pilasters, very simple, giving a sense of depth and space pictorial in effect and quite unlike a sculpture. The foreground figures are nearly in the round and fully detached from the background, like actors on a stage in front of the set. Interesting the foremost figures present their backs the viewer which oddly brings the viewer into the piece, these figures relate to the other figures in the piece, not to the viewer, we are truly observing the scene as if we were there ourselves.
The doors have just been cleaned by a new laser process and look brilliant, sparking gold with deeper hints of the bronze underneath. The doors are now in the museum, the doors on the Baptistery itself are reproductions, the original doors are now kept in a climate controlled nitrogen rich atmosphere where no oxidation can take place. This is a very special opportunity to see some of the world’s greatest art objects up close. In my Renaissance art history course at Harvard one mind blowing fact about these doors stood out; they were hugely expensive for the time, costing the equivalent of many millions of dollars to make today. Our society today is not willing to spend that kind of money on the ornament for a public building today. Not to say that art has no value, there is a lot of money being spent on art, but not for this type of communal public works that are really everybody’s property because they are there for everyone to enjoy.

Fang peoples, Gabon, 19th Century.
Element from a Reliquary Ensemble.
wood, Height: 24 13/15 inches.

The show, Eternal Ancestors, The art of the Central African Reliquary, is a slim excuse to gather as many great Fang sculptures in one place as possible. I say this, even though the show has a host of Kota copper covered figures and objects from other cultures like the Kwele from Gabon. However for me, it is the abundance of Fang sculptures that struck me. This great artistic tradition is great not only because the sculptures are so intrinsically compelling, but also because they were seminal in their impact upon the West; they helped create modern art. And many of the important pieces known early on are included in this exhibit; pieces that were seen by Picasso, Braque and the other creators of modern art are here on display. Rarely does one get to see such a gathering of Fang sculptures. One feature of them is they are glistening black with a sheen of oil, they were soaked in it as a part of ritual ancestor worship and they are almost weeping with it.
Again pictures are better than words in telling the story.

This amazing sculpture is in our own Brooklyn Museum's collection.
I find it very compelling, although it is not classic Fang, it is brown, and does not weep oil, the expression and quality of carving makes it a great sculpture.

Kwele mask, 19th Century, Gabon.
This white ghost like mask is a classic, very recognizable in its type.

photo shows display of Kwele masks and how well the Met displayed them.

case with Fang heads, one of which has been so worshiped that its features are rubbed off with adoration. Classic Fang with weeping surface, and hair.

The last show I will cover is one of the types of shows that only a museum as committed to scholarship as the Met would have; namely a small show of rare Egyptian bronze statuettes titled, Gifts for the Gods. I know this field, I have looked at Egyptian bronzes for years, and this exhibit opened my eyes to them. Often considered of marginal interest, there are a lot found in late Egyptian sites, the examples here reveal that they belong along with all the other great aspects of Egyptian art. Our impression of the bronzes is shaped in part by their deteriorated condition, originally they were often highly decorated either by paint or inlays of various types. Here are some examples with extensive traces of inlay in gold, silver, copper, niello, etc. Some bronzes contained in their alloy allot of gold, which made them nearly black, and also gave them a sheen. Again photos tell the story, some of the greatest objects in the show are but fragments of even greater sculptures.

Fragment of a Menit. Bronze inlaid with precious metal and copper alloy inlays.
Amazing object in which metals have been used to pictorial effect in a labor intensive manner to depict the Goddess Sekhmet receiving an offering from the young child Horus, with the vulture goddess Nekhbet watching. A Menit is a counterweight to the enormous collar necklaces the Egyptians wore at high occasions.

This amazing fragment is of a statuette of King Pedubaste, 3rd Intermediate Period, ca. 818-793 B.C.
The complete figure was large for a bronze, and this fragment shows it to have been of the highest quality despite its degraded condition. Again we see the use of metal inlays to pictorial effect on his belt. The crispness of the pleats of his kilt also give a sense of the quality of the workmanship of what was a splendid statue. In addition to marveling at the technical excellence of this fragment is the sense of motion conveyed in such a bit of a sculpture, you feel his forward movement in just this kilt fragment.

This small bronze of the child Horus, may well be of a royal child, and dates to the 18th or early 19th Dynasty, ca 1300 B.C. What is remarkable about it is the sheer quality of its facture and it is cast in a bronze alloy that contains a high amount of gold, which accounts for its black patina and lack of corrosion. Until this show, I had not heard of a gold containing bronze alloy, but the Egyptians were quite experimental in their metal mixes always searching for new better casting alloys and different coloristic effects. In the profile, not available on the Met website, the head of this child reminds one very much of the famous Amarna Princesses, supporting the dating to the late 18th Dynasty.