Thursday, December 13, 2007

Highlights of the Hood Museum at Dartmouth

While we often think of America as being art poor when compared to Europe, there is actually quite a lot of good art tucked away in unexpected places. Small fine colleges frequently have very good museums, and Dartmouth has one that measures up to its high academic reputation. While not large, it is a satisfying museum with some very wonderful art. While the approach, above, is not very welcoming, inside it has great exhibition spaces.

At the entrance to the exhibition galleries I found this very curious juxtaposition, an abstract form of a black glazed vessel in front of the greatest treasure of the museum, the Assyrian relief panels. While at first I thought this vessel must be ancient it turns out to be a pot by a Kenyan born artist Magdalene Odundo. Currently living in England she is a professor of ceramics at the Surrey Institute of Art and Design University College in Farnham. No surprise, her work is inspired by ancient vessels and are so difficult to make, according to the information on the Dartmouth website, that she completes only a few each year. (This is the second ceramic artist I have stumbled across whose work is so laborious, an earlier post on a Chelsea tour featured the work of Eva Hild, another ceramicist doing coil built objects that take months to make. )

View of four of the six gypsum relief panels from the Palace of Ashurnasirpal, king of the Assyrian Empire in the 9th Century B.C. According to the museum label, these panels were discovered as part of the palace complex at Nimrud Iraq, in 1845. About 55 of the panels were exported to the United States, most to colleges, Dartmouth was able to get these six, some of the finest of the bunch. Interestingly the original gypsum slabs were one foot thick, in order to make them easier to transport the slabs were reduced to three inch thickness and cut into manageable sections.

Detail of one of the panels showing the King. Here you can get a sense of the incredible quality of the carving and preservation of these reliefs; each strand of hair is carved individually as are the tassels of his garment, and the details of his jewelry and weapons. One could mine these reliefs for ideas for jewelry designs that would be suitable today.

This detail of the same relief above is intended to show that the garments were embroidered with mythological scenes, incised in the stone and probably filled in with color, now lost. It is the first time I have seen that level of detail on one of the Assyrian reliefs, and I have seen a lot of them, the Metropolitan has a great suite of them. This was the only panel in the Dartmouth group with this level of detail, but I will have to revisit and look more closely at the Met's and those in other museums when I come across them.

One of the lost art forms of antiquity were the textile arts, which simply do not survive because of the perishable nature of cloth. This panel and some other sculptures from antiquity give a hint that it was a major art form in antiquity, one we can only imagine since no great textiles survive. On this relief we see a hint of what they may have been like.

I could not resist this little charmer, a Mochica vessel dating to 200 to 500 A.D., depicting a sick man pooping into a bowl. Those ancients, they would depict anything. No shame at all. It is wonderful. I wonder however about what is being depicted, administering drugs by enemas up the rectum was a big thing in ancient America, could something to do with that be the real subject of this arresting sculpture? Or perhaps it depicted an illness with an apotropaic purpose.

I cannot resist a beautiful young man, and neither could Paul Cadmus, the painter of this small gem, dating to the 1930's of a handsome factory worker on Mallorca. Done in a painstaking detailed technique inspired by Old Master paintings, that became Cadmus's signature style.

I also cannot resist the amazing technique and beauty of Maxfield Parrish's paintings, and this one, Hunt Farm (Daybreak), painted in 1946 is a great example of his style. The deep azure of the sky seems infinitely deep with billowing clouds set in it, with beautiful loamy moss like green ground and trees. It depicts a real site in Windsor Vermont, although it is so idealized and hyper real as to appear imaginary. One can see here why Maxfield Parrish was one of his times most popular and oft reproduced American painters.

Medusa, 1854, marble bust by Harriet Goodhue Hosmer.

This overwrought bust depicts that favorite anti-heroin, Medusa as a beautiful woman with snakes decoratively entwined in her hair and under her bosom. Wings in her hair complete her attributes as the gorgon earth goddess slain by Perseus. Here she is sympathetically portrayed, as the young beauty turning into the monster she became. In the myth she was born beautiful, but was seduced by Poseidon disguised as a horse in one of Athena's temples. Angered, Athena turned the maiden into a fearsome creature. Interestingly her image changed over the centuries, in the Archaic Period she is truly horrific and fearful, later Roman images depict her as a beautiful woman with snakes in her hair, as one historian wrote, her face had the stillness of death. Whether beautiful or monstrous, her visage turned men into stone, even after death; Athena wore her head on her chest as part of her aegis, it protected her by turning her enemies into stone.

No one describes the transformation better than Roberto Calasso in his beautiful book, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. He is Ovid reborn, he retells the myths so poetically and sheds such insights into the meanings of the myths that this book should be required reading for anyone interested in antiquity. In his words:

On the floor of one of Athena's temples, Poseidon was licking Medusa's pearly body, white in the shadows, with his marine saliva. Athena stood before them, a statue in her cell, obliged to watch those two writhing bodies twining together in the silence of her temple....She raised the aegis to annihilate them....the soft filaments of Medusa's hair, spread out on the floor, began to swell, and already you could see that the tips were turning into so many snakes' heads.

The Hood Museum is worth a detour should you find yourself going near Hanover, New Hampshire.

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