Monday, March 24, 2014

The Calling of Henry O Tanner: A Religious Painter for America

Henry Ossawa Tanner,   The Raising of Lazarus, Musee d'Orsay, Paris, 1896
Henry Ossawa Tanner, the most important African-American painter born in the 19th century, should probably be considered America's greatest religious painter, too.  He came into the world in when our country was on the brink of its Civil War, in Pittsburgh, 1859.  Though his paintings are profound, he normally doesn't get as much recognition as he deserves.

Religious painting has never been a significant genre in the United States. Mainly, it has been used for book illustration and in churches with stained glass windows. Of course, Europe had its own rich tradition of paintings for Catholic Churches and even in the Protestant Netherlands, Rembrandt made paintings and prints of biblical subjects for their religious significance.

Tanner reinvented religious painting with highly original interpretations.  His father was a minister in the AME Church who ultimately became the bishop of Philadelphia in 1888. His mother was born in slavery, but escaped on the underground railway. Although Tanner was born free, he obviously experienced turbulent times and discrimination; faith could have given him solace.
Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Annunciation, 1894, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

In 1894, Tanner painted Mary, mother of Jesus, at the Annunciation, the biblical story of an angel announcing to Mary she is to be the mother of God.  Typical Annunciation scenes put a flying angel interrupting a teenage girl in her bedroom.  Tanner leaves out the angel and only a beam of light represents the divine encounter.   Pictured as a young women in her bedroom, Mary reflects inward on the meaning of the light, knowing God has things in mind for her.  The painting is absolutely beautiful, a show-stopper with a profound imagining of how Christ's earthly life began. The streak of light appears as the leg of the cross as it passes through a horizontal shelf on the wall.  When we notice this detail, we're given a hint of how Jesus' life ended, death by crucifixion.

detail-The Raising of Lazarus
Tanner's technique uses mainly the pictorial language of realism to convey divine presence on Earth, in contrast to Abbot Handerson Thayer who used symbolic angels and winged figures in an idealized classical figural style.  Another way to explain the difference is to say that Tanner painted in a vernacular language, instead of using the classical Latin language.  His religious stories are without supernatural excess, but he uses light strategically to illuminate miracles.

Although born in Pittsburgh, most of his early life was in Philadelphia.  He became the pupil of legendary teacher Thomas Eakins in 1879.  Although Eakins considered him a star pupil, he faced racial prejudice from other students.  Not receiving recognition in the United States, he set out for Europe in 1891, and received additional training at the Academe Julian in Paris.  Philadelphia may have been the best place for an American to study art in the 19th century, but Paris was the best place for an artist to be.  By 1895, his work was accepted in the Paris Salon.  The next year he received an honorable mention at the Salon, and in 1897, his recognition was complete with The Raising of Lazarus, 1896.  The success which alluded him the US came after only a few years living in France. 

The Raising of Lazarus (top of this blog page, and to the right.) received a third class medal in the Paris Salon, but it also became the first painting to be bought by the nation of France and placed in a national museum. The painting tells the story of Jesus going into the grave of Lazarus to bring him back to life, with sisters Mary and Martha and a group of his stunned followers.  Tanner captures in paint the earthly event as it actually could have taken place, but uses heightened light-dark contrast to illuminate the miracle.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, Two Disciples at the Tomb, 1906
Art Institute of Chicago,  51 x 41-7/8"

We can think of Tanner as similar to Caravaggio who introduced dramatic light - dark contrast to show that the calling to follow the Lord is a mysterious event.  More importantly, we can think of Tanner like Rembrandt, who used light to convey subtle and mysterious psychological states that accompany a person undergoing a spiritual awakening, or witnessing a miracle.  As in the works of both the earlier artists, the drama becomes an interior event.


In 1906, Tanner's painting of Two Disciples at the Tomb won first prize at the Art Institute of Chicago's 19th exhibition of American painting..  In it, Peter, the older man points to himself as if saying "Oh my God," while the younger apostle John raises is head straining to with expectancy to see fulfillment of Jesus' promise with the Resurrection.   Light is strategically placed on the whitened necks against dark clothing, and the glow of their bony faces radiate a sudden awareness of the miraculous event of Christ's Resurrection.  They're the faces of simple men, whose faith has saved them.
Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Three Marys, 1910  Fisk University, Nashville, TN  42" x. 50"
The Three Marys is a particularly beautiful portrait of women as they see the light in front of Jesus' tomb and that he has risen from the dead.  The witnessing of a miracle is a profound spiritual event. Each woman has a slightly different psychological response. Like many of Rembrandt's paintings, The Three Marys is nearly monochromatic, with blue as the primary color. He explained the intent of his paintings, "My effort has been to not only put the Biblical incident in the original setting, but at the same time give it the human touch....to try to convey to the public the reverence and elevation these subjects impart to me."  It seemed that as time went on, the blues get stronger and stronger in his paintings.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Banjo Lesson, 1893
Hampton University, Hampton, VA


Actually Tanner's best know paintings are The Banjo Lesson, 1893, at Hampden University and The Thankful Poor, 1894, in a private collection.  He painted them on return to the United States and based them on memories from travel in North Carolina.  Instead biblical stories, these paintings are scenes of everyday life.  Yet they have a religious significance in their contemplative spirit and the suggestion of humility.  The Banjo Lesson has two sources of light, an unseen window and an unseen fireplace or stove to the right.  The glow of light shows that he was familiar with Impressionism and applied some of its diffusive, scattered light it.

Tanner traveled extensive to the Middle East and into the Islamic world.  Trips to Egypt and Palestine in 1897 and 1898 may have given him inspiration for the settings in his paintings.  After 1900, he developed a looser style, with more tonalism and the possibility of becoming more poetic.



Henry Ossawa Tanner, Abraham's Oak, 1905, Smithsonian American Art Museum
As we may expect, the city of Philadelphia has a substantial collection of his work, particularly where he studied, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.  The Smithsonian American Art Museum has a large collection of his works also.  I particularly like Abraham's Oak, which can be read as a pure landscape painting.  Also fairly monochromatic, the painting reflects the Tonalist style prevalent in the United States at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century.  Tonalist landscapes are moody, evocative, contemplative and spiritual.  He combines the underlying beauty in nature with a symbolic oak, the place Abraham staked out for his people as the Jewish patriarch.

Like the great early 19th century artist Eugene Delacroix, Tanner was fascinated by North African subjects and themes.  (I see Delacroix's influence in the vivid colors and the way he treated the floor patterns in The Annunciation.)  He went to Algeria in 1908 and Morocco in 1912.  The Atlas Mountains of Morocco are said have been inspiration a late painting, The Good Shepherd, also in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.  Figures became smaller, but faith is still his driving force.  The unification of subject with landscape has increased.  There's a huge precipice these sheep could fall down, but their loving shepherd protects them.  According to Jesse Tanner, his son, the artist believed that “God needs us to help fight with him against evil and we need God to guide us.”  He lived to be 79, dying in 1937.
Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Good Shepherd, c. 1930 Smithsonian American Art Museum
(I have seen only one exhibition of his paintings at the Terra Museum of American Art, back around 1996 and the work mesmerized me.)  An exhibition in Philadelphia two years ago attempted to bring Tanner the recognition due to him.  Here's a professor's review of the exhibit which also traveled to Cincinnati and to Houston.

There may be reasons apart from racism as to why he is not more famous in America. The United States lacks a tradition of religious painting and doesn't easily embrace it.  Furthermore, art historians celebrate artists who are innovators, those who bring art forward.   Although Tanner was painting at the time of Picasso, Matisse, Kandinsky, Klee and O'Keeffe, he was not strongly affected by their trends of change.  He stayed true to himself and in that way, he is a prophet of his faith rather than a prophet of the avant-garde.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

On the Wings of Angels by Abbott Thayer

Abbot Handerson Thayer, Winged Figure, 1889, The Art Institute of Chicago
It may be the dreamer in me who is so attracted to the winged paintings of Abbott Handerson Thayer.  The first of his paintings that I fell in love with was Winged Figure. above, at the Art Institute of Chicago.   I've always admired the loose simplicity of the Grecian style of clothes, even before studying Greek art. However, what appeals most to me is the sense of security and peace this figure has as she sleeps, protected and held by the curve of her wing. Her leg and golden garment are strong and sculptural, but it's not clear if she's on the ground or on a cloud.
Abbott Handerson Thayer, Angel, 1887, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Gift of John Gellatly             Mary, the artist's daughter, posed.

After moving to Washington, I found that Thayer is represented well in the nation's capital.  Angel of 1887 is a very young figure, and Thayer's daughter Mary served as the model when she was 11. She's frontal, symmetric, quite pale and white. She may or may not be in flight.  Thayer is probably the premier American painter of angels, a Fra Angelico or a Luca della Robbia in paint.  He gives them an idealized beauty and paints in a pristine Neoclassical style, as well as Europeans did. 

Abbott Handerson Thayer, A Winged Figure, 1904-1913, The Freer Gallery of Art,
Smithsonian Institution  Gift of Charles Lang Freer.  The model is the

artist's daughter, Gladys
One of the winged figures at the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art wears a laurel wreath.  More rigid than his other angels, she faces us frontally with the geometry of a Greek column.  Her face is severe, too, and she doesn't quite touch the ground.  Daughter Gladys was his model. (The Freer Gallery of the Smithsonian has published an explanation of the Winged Figures collected by Charles Lang Freer.)

Thayer's preference for painting winged figures was not entirely religious.  His interest in naturalism started as a 6-year old living near Keene, New Hampshire, when he began the avid study of birds and nature.  However, his obsession with painting winged figures, angels and innocent children may have something to do with the fact that two of his children died unexpectedly in the early 1880s.   That so many of his figures gained wings may represent hopes he had for coming to terms with loss.
Abbott Handerson Thayer, Virgin, 1892-93, 
Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution  Gift of Charles Lang Freer
(The artist's children, Gladys, Mary, Gerald)




He painted his three remaining children over and over again, and three of these paintings are in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. In Virgin at the Freer Gallery of Art, the oldest Mary faces us frontally walking in a pose similar to the Nike of Samothrace.  Although she doesn't technically have wings like the Nike of Samothrace, the clouds behind her become large, white wings.   Mary is an icon in the center who boldly holds and leads the younger sister and brother.  She is noble and unflappable but moves swiftly.  The younger children are strong, too, and do not smile. Their hair flies in the wind and the ground they walk on is hazy.  Above all, they're innocent.   (These two younger children, Gladys and Gerald, also became painters.)   

Understandingly, there was some intense melancholy surrounding he and his wife for some time.  In 1891, his wife died, too. Thayer may be sentimental, but the paintings of his children would suggest he wanted them to be strong, triumphant and prepared for any event.   

Abbott Handerson Thayer, Roses, 1890, oil on canvas 22 1/4 x 31 3/8 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum,   Gift of John Gellatly

Thayer was a superb painter of other subjects.  He also did portraits, landscapes and still lives, which can be found on the Smithsonian's websiteAn exceptional still life at Smithsonian American Art Museum, Roses, demonstrates his incredible skill.  He manages to be highly detailed with the leaves and blooms but spontaneous and expressive for the vase and background.  The color is somewhat muted, but the texture is strong.   The style of his still lives compares well to Edouard Manet's textured still lives and the pristine beauty Henri Fantin-Latour's still lives.  Like the highly skilled academic painter Bouguereau, he seems to be able to combine the best of the great 19th century styles: Neoclassicism, Realism and the emotional or dreamy qualities of Romanticism.

Abbott Handerson Thayer, Mount Monadnock, 1911, 22 3/16 x. 24 3/16 "
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
The other great style of the period was Impressionism, which captured the fleeting qualities of light and colors.  While Thayer may not be categorized as an Impressionist, he should be added to the list of marvelous snow painters.  His best scenes of snow come from the area near where he lived in Keene and in Dublin, New Hampshire.   In the Corcoran Gallery of Art's Mount Monadnock, 1911, Thayer captured some of the beautiful scenery surrounding this mountain very familiar to him. There are vivid blues, purples and reds in this snow and the lights on the mountain top are brilliant.  There's a small, horizontal string of light coming across the ground to separate trees from mountain. 
Abbott Handerson Thayer, Monadnock No. 2, 1912,
Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution. Gift of Charles Lang Freer

He repeated the composition over and over, as Impressionists did.  Mount Monadnock, 1904 and Monadnock No. 2, 1912 are in the Freer Gallery of Art.   The snow topped mountain is also brilliant and even whiter in the painting of 1912.  Touches purplish-gray suggest how cold it must have been.  The trees are dark however, a definite force of nature.  Thayer knew Impressionistic techniques and had lived in France, but he was also an artist who wanted to find some solidity and permanence in the world, even as it will change and be gone.  He painted Winter Dawn on Monadnock in 1918, now in the Freer, too.  There were less pine trees at this time, but the radiant pinks of dawn pervade the scene on the left.


Abbott Handerson Thayer, Winter Dawn on Monadnock, 1918, The Freer Gallery of Art,
Smithsonian Institution  Gift of Charles Lang Freer.

Who can see and understand illusion in nature better than an artist?  In 1909, he and his son, Gerald Handerson Thayer,  wrote a major book on protective coloration in nature, Concealing and Coloration in the Animal Kingdom: An Exposition of the Laws of Disguise.   He ascertained that in shadow birds or animals become darker to be hidden, but naturally turn lighter in sun.  Another naturalist, former President Teddy Roosevelt, scoffed at his ideas and they were not accepted. However, he tried to share his ideas with the American government during World War I.
Abbott Handerson Thayer, Stevenson Memorial, 1903,  81-7/16 x 16 1/8 "
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC  Gift of John Gellatly
Thayer made as a memorial, above, to author Robert Louis Stevenson, someone he deeply admired but did not know.  His first idea was for the memorial was to paint his three children, in honor of Stevenson's book, A Child's Garden of Verses.   He changed his mind, and a winged figure sits on a stone marked VAEA, the spot in Samoa where Stevenson is buried.

Thayer memorialized Stevenson, but what about his salvation?  In 2008, the Smithsonian did a documentary film about him, Invisible: Abbott Thayer and the Art of Camouflage.  Apparently his ideas about camouflage are more readily accepted now than they were in his time.  Doesn't his reputation as a painter deserve wide recognition, too?   While keeping a foothold here on earth, his winged figures suggest that humans have the potential to transcend the hard life and fly above our limitations.



Monday, February 24, 2014

Heaven and Earth: The Middle Ages in Hildesheim and in Greece

Archangel Michael, First half 14th century tempera on wood, gold leaf 
overall: 110 x 80 cm (43 5/16 x 31 1/2 in.) Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens



Gold radiates throughout dimly-lit rooms of the National Gallery of Art's exhibition, Heaven and Earth: Byzantine Art from Greek Collections.  Some 170 important works on loan from museums in Greece trace the development of Byzantine visual culture from the fourth to the 15th century. Organized by the Benaki Museum in Athens, it will be on view until March 2 and then at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles beginning April 19.  The National Gallery has a done a great job organizing the show, getting across themes of both spiritual and secular life spanning more than 1000 years.  The exhibition design is masterful and includes a film about four key Greek churches. The photography is exquisite and provides the full context for the Byzantine church art.

There are dining tables, coins, ivories, jewelry and other objects, but it's the mosaics which I find most captivating, and this exhibition allows a close-up view.  Their nuances of size and shape can be closely observed here, but not in slides or in the distance. Byzantine artists gradually replaced stone mosaics with glass tesserae, painting gold leaf behind the glass to portray backgrounds for the figures.  It was the Byzantines created these wondrous images by transforming the Greco-Roman tradition of floor mosaics to that of wall mosaics.

Van Eyck, St John the Baptist, det-Ghent Altarpiece

New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art recently hosted another exhibition of the Middle Ages, "Treasures from Hildesheim," works from the 10th through 13th centuries from Hildesheim Cathedral in Germany.  Even though Greek Christians of Byzantine world officially split from Rome in the 11th century, the two exhibitions show that the art of east and west continued to share much in terms of iconography and style.  Jan Van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece, from the 15th century, contains a Deesis composed of Mary, Jesus and John the Baptist, in its center, proving how persistent Byzantine iconography was in the West.  That altarpiece shows the early Renaissance continuation of imagining heaven as glistening gold and jewels.

Church architecture evolved very differently however, with the Latin church preferring elongated churches with the floor plan of Roman basilicas. The ritual requirements of the Orthodox Church resulted in a more compact form using domes, squinches and half-domes.  Fortunately, the National Gallery's exhibition has a lot of information about Orthodox churches, their layout and how the Iconostasis (a screen for icons) divided the priests from the congregation. 

Reliquary of St. Oswald, c. 1100, is silver gilt
Both cultures re-used works from antiquity.  In the East, the statue heads of pagan goddesses could become Christian saints with a addition of a cross on their foreheads.  In the west, ancient portrait busts inspired gorgeous metalwork used for the relics of saints, such as the reliquary of St. Oswald, which actually contained a portion of this 7th century English saint's skull.   Mastering anatomy, perspective and foreshortening was not as important an aim as it was to evoke the glory and golden beauty of heaven as it was imagined to be.  The goldsmiths and metalsmiths were considered the best artists of all during this period in the west.

Mosaic with a font, mid-5th century Museum of 
Byzantine culture, Thessaloniki
Photo source: NGA website


Perhaps the parallels exist because many artists from the Greek world went to the west during the Iconoclast controversy, spanning most years from 726 to 843.  Mosaic artists from the Byzantine Empire peddled their talents in the west, particularly in Carolingian courts of Charlemagne and his sons.  From that time forward certain standards of Byzantine representation, such as the long, dark, bearded Jesus on the cross. While we seem to see these images as either icons or mosaics in Greek art, they become symbols in the west, often translated into sculptures of wood, stone or even stained glass.
An interesting parallel of the two exhibitions is the early Byzantine fountain, a wall mosaic of gold, glass and stone in the NGA's exhibition, which compares well to the 13th century Baptismal font from Hildesheim, showing the Baptism of Christ.  The font mosaic is from the Church of the  Acheiropoietos in Thessaloniki.  It is thought to emulate the fountains and gardens of Paradise.  One can visualize of the context in which the fragmentary mosaic was made by watching the film in the exhibition, which shows another wondrous 5th century church in Thessaloniki, the Rotonda Church.
A Baptismal Font, 1226, is superb example of Medieval
metalwork from Hildesheim Cathedral.

The exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum had a life-size wooden statue of the dead Jesus, dated to the 11th century, originally on a wood cross, now gone. Wood carvers out of Germany were masters of emotional expression.    In the iconic Crucifixion image in the Greek exhibition, a very sad Mary and Apostle John are grieving at the side of Jesus.  It's poignant and emotional, with knit eyebrows, tilted heads and a profoundly felt grief. 


Golden Madonna is wood covered in gold, made for St. Michael's Cathedral before 1002
The iconographic image of the Theotokos, a Greek type is normally a rigid, enthroned Mary who solidly holds her son, a little emperor. The format expresses that she is the throne, a seat for God in the form of Baby Jesus.   From Hildesheim, there is a carved  statue which dates to c. 970, carved of wood and covered with a sheet of real good.  Both heads are now missing. At one time the statue was covered with jewels, offerings people had given to the statue. In the west, this type became common, called the sedes sapientaie, but the origin is probably Byzantium.
Although heaven is more important than earth, and God and saints in heaven are more powerful than humans, sometimes medieval artists have been capable of revealing the greatest truths about what it's like to be a human being.  In the icons, there is great poignancy and beauty in the eyes.  At times the portrayal of grief is overwhelming, as we see on an icon of the Hodegetria image where Mary points the way, the baby Jesus but knows He will die.  On the reverse is an excruciatingly painful Man of Sorrows.


Icon of the Virgin Hodegetria, last quarter 12th century, tempera and silver on wood, Kastoria, Byzantine Museum. On the Reverse is a Man of Sorrows
The Metropolitan exhibition of course could not bring the two most important works from Hildesheim, the bronze relief sculptures: a triumphal column with the Passion of Christ and a set of bronze doors for the Cathedral.    Completed before 1016, I often think of the figures on the relief panels on those doors as one of the most honest works of art ever created.  As God convicts Adam of eating the forbidden fruit,  Adam crosses his arm to point to Eve who twists her arms pointing downward to a snake on the ground.  We may laugh because God's arm seems to be caught in his sleeve as he points to Adam. Though this medieval artist/metalsmith (Bishop Bernward?) may not have understood anatomy and perspective, he understood how easy it is for humans to pass the blame and not take responsibility for their actions.  
The Expulsion, before 1016, detail of bronze door, St. Michael's, Hildesheim

Medieval artists in both the Greek and Latin churches are normally not known by name.  After all, their work was for God, not for themselves, for money or for fame.



Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Last Missing Pieces of The Monuments Men

Jan Van Eyck, Mary, part of the Deesis composition,  detail
of The Ghent Altarpiece in St. Bavo's Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium, c. 1430
photo source: Wikipedia
The Monuments Men is a true story about saving cultural artifacts in war.  George Clooney has done a great job acting and directing this film which has an important message about art, what it means for us and the efforts some would go to save culture. One woman who played a huge part in saving art is shown and Cate Blanchett played that role with depth and finesse.   An all-star cast doesn't guarantee good reviews, but I often disagree with movie reviewers.   Matt Damon, Bill Murray and Jean Dujardin star in the movie, too.
Tourists in front of the Ghent Altarpiece in recent times. A film, The Monuments Men,
explores its theft and recovery in World War II.  Photo source: daydreamtourist.com
The star monument is Jan Van Eyck's The Ghent Altarpiece, an example of one of the earliest oil paintings. (If students had seen the movie, they would have known it on a test, but the film was released only 5 days earlier and we had a snowstorm) In fact, the last missing part of the Ghent Altarpiece, was the panel of Mary, mother of Jesus from a Deesis grouping (an iconographic type western painters adopted from the eastern Orthodox Church).  She is exquisitely beautiful and radiant. Van Eyck's ability to visualize heavenly splendor and beauty in paint is astounding.  I appreciate the film for showing how big the altarpiece actually is, and how a polyptych, of many panels, needed to be broken up into its parts to be moved.  Actually, I wonder if Van Eyck and the patrons knew that using the polyptych format, rather than just a three-part triptych, would have its advantages in the time of war.  Actually that painting has been the victim of crime 13 times and stolen 7 times, including the times of the Reformation, Napoleon and World War I.
Michelangelo's  Bruges Madonna, the last work to be
recovered, is under glass at the Church of Our Lady
in Bruges.  Photo source:Wikipedia

The other star monument is Michelangelo's Bruges Madonna, a free-standing sculpture the artist did shortly after The Pieta.  It was the last and most precious piece to be found.  The film makes an important point about the British man who insisted on protecting it during the war.  I'm honored to have seen both monuments in their current homes and thank the determined people who sacrificed so much to do this for posterity.  (I also love that the movie gives goes into the Hospital of Sint-Jans in Bruges and gives good views of the medieval cities of Bruges and Ghent, even in the night time.  Thanks for acknowledging to what these places represent to earlier European culture.

Much of the film is about uncovering the mysteries, as well as anticipating the need for protection.  It has both comic and tragic elements, as we watch injury and death and the dangers that common to all war.  Not all paintings were saved, however.  Some works ended up in Russia after the war and are still there.  Picassos and Max Ernst paintings, even in German hands, were determined to be decadent and burned.   The movie showed a Raphael portrait of a young man that has never been found.
Leonardo da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine, c. 1490, is a
portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, and an early work of Leonardo.  It's
in the Czarytorski Museum in Krakow  Photo source: Wikipedia

Among the paintings captured by the Nazis, saved and uncovered by the rescue team of  Americans, French and English were: a Rembrandt portrait, a Renoir, a Van Gogh, Manet's In the Conservatory and Leonardo da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine which had been taken from Krakow, Poland.  Most of these paintings were shown to be hidden in underground mines.  I've checked a little bit into the history of each of these and found that the Leonardo had been hidden in a castle in Bavaria.  The Nazis stole the Manet from a museum in Berlin, and it's not clear to me why they would do that unless it was planned to be in Hitler's own museum.

The movie may have intentional inaccuracies. It also looked like a poor replica of Leonardo's  Ginevre de' Benci was in the movie, and I am not sure if that could be accurate.  That painting, as far as I know, already had been in the Mellon Collection that became part of the National Gallery.

There is much more to the story, I know, because Italy was allied with Nazis during most of the war  and those works of art needed to be protected, too. At the point of action where the movie had started, most of the works in France had already been protected.  The Monuments Men deals mostly with works in Belgium and the Netherlands.

Robert Edsel wrote the book that is the basis for the movie.   I certainly hope to read it now, as well as another followup book he published last year, Saving Italy.
Edouard Manet, In the Conservatory, 1879, Altes Museum Berlin  Photo: Wikipedia



Saturday, February 1, 2014

Stitches and Patches Now and Then



Rania Hassan, Pensive I, II, III, 2009, oil, fiber, canvas, metal wood,  Each piece
is 31"h x 12"w x 2-1/2"  It's currently on view at Greater Reston Arts Center.

There's a revival of status and attention given to traditional, highly-skilled arts and crafts made of yarn, thread and materials. "Stitch," a new show at Greater Reston Arts Center (GRACE), proves that traditional sewing arts are at the forefront of contemporary art, and that fiber is a forceful vehicle for expression.  Meanwhile, the National Museum of Women in the Arts puts the historical spin on traditional women's art in "Workt by Hand," a collection of stunning quilts from the Brooklyn Museum which were shown in exhibition at their home museum last year.

Bars Quilt, ca. 1890, Pennsylvania; Cotton and wool, 83 x 82";
Brooklyn Museum,

Gift of Mr. and Mrs. H. Peter Findlay, 77.122.3;
Photography by Gavin Ashworth,

2012 / Brooklyn Museum

Quilts are normally very large and utilitarian in nature.  To some historians, American quilts are appreciated as material culture with possible stories of the people who made them, but they also have some vivid abstract patterns and strong color harmonies.  Their bold geometric shapes vary and change with different color combinations.  Quilting is a folk art since it is a passed down tradition, and the patterns may seem stylized and highly decorative. Yet there is room for tremendous variation, creativity and individual style.   

Within the United States there are important regional folk groups whose quilts have a distinctive style, like the Amish quilt, above.   Amish designs can have a sophisticated abstraction deeply appreciated during the period of Minimal Art of the 1960s and 1970s.   The exhibition outlines distinctions and also shows styles popular at certain times, including Mariners' Knot quilts around 1840-1860, the Crazy Quilts of the Victorian period and the Double Wedding Ring pattern popular in the Midwest after World War I.

Victoria Royall Broadhead, Tumbling Blocks quilt--detail, 1865-70 Gift of  Mrs Richard Draper, Brooklyn Museum of Art.  Photo by Gavin Ashworth/Brooklyn Museum.  This silk/velvet creation won first place in contests at state fairs in St. Louis and Kansas City.


One beautifully patterned quilt is from Sweden, but the rest of them are made in the USA.  The patterns change like an optical illusions when we move near to far, or when we view in real life or in reproduction.  There's the Maltese Cross pattern, Star of Bethlehem pattern, Log Cabin pattern, Basket pattern and Flying Geese pattern, to name a few. The same patterns can come out looking very differently, depending on the maker.  An Album Quilt has the signatures of different people who worked on different squares. We know the names of a handful of the quilting artists.
Orly Cogan, Sexy Beast, Hand stitched embroidery
and paint on vintage table cloth, 34" x 34"


While most of the quilts featured in the exhibition were made by anonymous artists, the Reston exhibition includes well-known national  figures in fiber art, such as Orly Cogan and Nathan Vincent.   Cogan uses traditional techniques on vintage fabrics to explore contemporary femininity and relationships.  Her works appear to be large-scale drawings in thread. She adds paint and sews into old tablecloths. I loved the beautiful Butterfly Song Diptich and Sexy Beast, a human-beast combination with multiple arms, like the god Shiva.  Vincent, the only man in the show, works against the traditional gender role, crocheting objects of typically masculine themes, such as a slingshot.
Pam Rogers, Herbarium Study, 2013, Sewn leaves, handmade
soil and mineral pigments, graphite, 

on cotton paper, 22" x 13-1/2"


Most "Stitch" artists are local.  Pam Rogers stitches the themes of people, place, nature and myth found in her other works.  Kate Kretz, another local luminary of fiber art, embroiders in intricate detail, expressing feelings about motherhood, aging and even the art world.

 Kretz's own blog illuminates her work, including many of the pieces in "Stitch.  The pictures there and the detailed photos on an embroidery blog display in sharper detail and explain some of her working methods.

Often she embroiders human hair into the designs and materials, connecting tangible bits of a self with an audience. Kretz explains, "One of the functions of art is to strip us bare, reminding us of the fragility common to every human being across continents and centuries."

Kretz adds, "The objects that I make are an attempt to articulate this feeling of vulnerability."  Yet some of the works also make us laugh and chuckle, like Hag, a circle of gray hair, Unruly, and Une Femme d'Un Certain Age.   Watch out for a dagger embroidered from those gray hairs!
Kate Kretz,  Beauty of Your Breathing, 2013,  Mothers hair from gestation
period embroidered on child's garment, velvet, 20" x 25" x 1"

Suzi Fox, Organ II, 2014, Recycled
motor wire, canvas, embroidery hoop

12-1/2" x 8" x  1-1/2"
Kretz is certainly not the only artist who punches us with wit and irony, and/or human hair, into the seemingly delicate stitches. Stephanie Booth combines real hair fibers with photography, and her works relate well to the family history aspect alluded to in NMWA's quilting exhibition.  Rania Hassan is also a multimedia artist who brings together canvas paintings with knitted works.  In Dream Catcher and the Pensive series of three, shown at top of this page, she alludes to the fact that knitting is a pensive, meditative act.  She painted her own hands on canvases of Pensive I, II, III and Ktog, using the knitted parts to pull together the various parts of three-dimensional, sculptural constructions.  She adds wire to the threads for stiffness, although the wires are indiscernible.  Suzi Fox uses wire, also, but for delicate, three-dimensional embroideries of hearts, lungs and ribcages (right).

There's an inside to all of us and an outside.  Erin Edicott Sheldon reminds us that stitches are sutures, and she calls her works sutras.  Stitches heal our wounds.  "I use contemporary embroidery on antique fabric as a canvas to explore the common threads that bind countless generations of women."   Her "Healing Sutras" have a meditative quality, recalling the ancient Indian sutras, the threads that hold  all things together.

Erin Endicott Sheldon, Healing Sutra#26,  2012, hand
embroidery on antique fabric stained with walnut ink
In this way she relates who work to the many unknown artists who participated in a traditional arts of quilting.  Like the Star of Bethlehem quilt now at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the  traditional "Stitch" arts remind us to follow our stars while staying grounded in our traditions.
Star of Bethlehem Quilt, 1830, Brooklyn Museum of Art   Gift of Alice Bauer Frankenberg.  Photo by Gavin Ashworth/Brooklyn Museum



Sunday, January 26, 2014

East Meets West in Mandala Art

Temporary floor mandala, flashed by light onto the floor
of the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery of Asian Art
Mandalas, an important tradition in India, Nepal and Tibet have spread well into the West, or as some think, have always been in the West.  The exhibition, Yoga: The Art of Transformation at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery of Art, takes us into art and history surrounding the physical, spiritual and spiritual exercise of yoga.  It's the first exhibition of its kind. This is the last weekend of the show, featuring works of art in Hindu, Jain and Buddhist practice.   Yoga hold some keys to mental and physical healing.

We're led into yoga's 3,000-year history by a series of light patterns flashed on the floor--patterns that are mandalas and have lotus patterns. (Lotus is also the name of a yoga pose.) After this weekend, they'll be gone with the show, but that's the spirit of mandalas, at least in the Tibetan tradition.
Light Pattern on the floor of the Sackler Gallery of Asian Art forms a Mandala
Mandalas have radial balance, because their designs flow radially from the center, somewhat like the spokes of a wheel.  Traditional Buddhist monks in Tibet spend time together making mandalas of colored sand, working from the center outward using funnels of sand that form thin lines. Deities are invoked during this process of creation, following the same ancient pattern of 2,500 years.  The creation is thought to have healing influence.  Shortly after its completion, a sand mandala is poured into a river to spread its healing influence to the world.  
Chenrezig Sand Mandala was made for Great Britain's House of Commons in honor of the Dalai Lama's visit in May, 2008.   Material: sand, Size:  7' x 7'    Source of photo:  Wikipedia



Like the Buddhist Stupas which began in India, the Mandalas are microcosms of the macrocosm, or  small replicas of the universe.   Yantras are mandalas that are an Indian tradition which may have a more personal meaning.  Their beautiful geometric designs can be highly efficient tools for contemplation, concentration and meditations.  Concentrating on a focal point, outward chatter ceases and the mind empties to gain a window into truth.   Making mandalas can be a powerful aid in Art Therapy.
North Rose Window of Chartres Cathedral, France, c. 1235

Circles, without a beginning or end, have an association with God and perfection.  They're an integral part of the design of Gothic Cathedrals, such as Chartres Cathedral and Notre-Dame of Paris which are among the most famous.  Their patterns radiate out from the center, into rose patterns.  I didn't believe it when, years ago, a student mentioned they were inspired by Indian mandalas.  The greater possibility is that spiritual wisdom comes from the same or similar sources.
Sri Chakra Mandala, ceramic tile, made by Ruth Frances Greenberg
17-1/4" x 17-1/4" x 1-1/4'  photo Lubosh Cech 

Artist Ruth Frances Greenberg makes ceramic tile mosaic mandalas in her Portland, Oregon studio, and sells them for personal and decorative use.  Some are inspired by the Om symbol and by the home blessing doorway mandalas of Tibet.   Others are inspired by the Chakras, the energy centers in ancient Indian tradition.  The Sri Chakra Mandala has nine interlocking triangles and beautiful geometric complexity. It combines the basic geometric shapes of circle, square and triangle, and expresses powerful energies.
Hildegard of Bingen, Wheel of Life, c. 1170, photo courtesy of Contemplative Cottage

The circle within a square is common in many traditions, but in Indian art the openings of the square represent gateways.  Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, a study of perfection in human proportions, has a circle within a square.   Medieval mystic, St. Hildegard of Bingen, a Doctor of Church, wrote music and created art in response to her visions.  Wheel of Life is one of her many visions that were put into illumination in the mandala form, in the 12th century.

Chicago artist Allison Svoboda makes mandalas from a surprising combination of media: ink and collage.  She explains, "The same way a plant grows following the path of least resistance, the quick gestures and simplicity of working with ink allows the law of least resistance to prevail....With this process, I work intuitively through thousands of brushstrokes creating hundreds of small paintings. I then collate the work...When I find compositions that intrigue me, I delve into the longer process of collage. Each viewer has his own experience as a new image emerges from the completed arrangement.   The ephemeral quality of the paper and meditative aspect of the brushwork evoke a Buddhist mandala." 

Allison Svoboda, Mandala, GRAM, 211--detail
The 14' by 14' Mandala GRAM from the Grand Rapids Art Museum is a radial construction with many inner designs. Some of these designs resemble a Rorschach test, but infinitely more complicated.

The intricacies of the GRAM Mandala alternate and change as our eyes move around it.  It's like a kaleidoscope or spinning wheel.  But a configuration in center pull us back in, reminding us to stay centered and whole, as the world changes around us.
Allison Svoboda, Mandala, GRAM, 2011, Grand Rapids Museum of Art, in on paper, collaged 14' x 14'