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' 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Chagall Mosaic Gift to Washington Mall

Detail - Marc Chagall, with Lino Melano, Orpheus, 1971, from the upper
right side--Pegasus, Three Graces, Orpheus
The nation's capital city added a sudden burst of color this season in the form of Marc Chagall's Orpheus, a glass and stone mosaic.  It's a 17' by 10' wall standing in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden, between 7th and 9th Streets, NW, Constitution Avenue and Madison Avenue.  Evelyn Stephansson Nef, who died in 2009, donated it to the museum.   (The composition is one of three new acquisitions in the National Gallery, a must-see along with a Van Gogh, a Gerrit von Honthorst and a loan of the Dying Gaul from the Capitoline Museum in Rome.)

The mosaic stands in the garden behind the restaurant, but in front of the heavily traveled Route 1.  Fortunately, a lot trees shield it from view of the traffic, providing a reflective space for viewers.  The sculpture garden is on the National Mall, but open only from 10-5 daily and 11-6 Sundays, except for an ice rink in winter which has longer hours.

Evelyn Nef and her husband, John Nef, were friends of the artist who was inspired after visiting them in 1968.   The artist gave the mosaic to the couple back in 1971.  For years, it was in the garden of their Georgetown residence, vaguely visible from the street.  The National Gallery spent years preparing, repairing, moving and re-installing its 10 separate concrete panels, a process described in the Washington Post.  The seams aren't visible.

Detail, Marc Chagall, Orpheus, 1971. Here Orpheus
is crowned and holds his lyre.
Chagall did the drawings for the composition in his studio back in France, and then hired mosaicist Lino Melano to complete it.  Melano supervised installation which was finished in November, 1971. The artist returned at the time to see it.  It was his first mosaic installed in the US.  Afterwards, Chagall did the renowned Four Seasons mosaics for the First National Plaza in Chicago.

The composition has the spontaneity, verve and joy we can expect from Chagall.  The execution, however, took a highly skilled Italian mosaicist who was steeped in the tradition.  Melano used Murano glass, natural-colored stones and stones cut from Carrara marble.  On close inspection, viewers can discern where there is glass: in the most brightly-colored passages, the shining blues, reds and radiant yellows.  There is a touch gold leaf behind some of the glass, a technique inherited from the Byzantine mosaicists.

(For a good comparison, Byzantine mosaics are currently on view in the marvelous National Gallery Exhibition, Heaven and Earth: Byzantine Art from Greek Collections, until March 2, 2014.)  Byzantine mosaics also combine stone cubes and glass cubes, called tesserae, but the tesserae are much, much smaller in Byzantine mosaics.

Melano wisely reserved the gold leaf for a few choice places, but only on Orpheus, his crown and his knee.
Detail,  Marc Chagall, Orpheus, mosaic, 1971.  Figures cross the ocean,
with an angel guide, the sun and mythological horse, Pegasus

The god Orpheus is shown without his ill-fated mortal lover, Eurydice.  Eurydice lost him because she disobeyed fate and dared to turn back and look at him while in the underworld.  Chagall ignores the pessimistic part of the story.  How then do we interpret what Chagall was trying to convey?

The other mythological figures are the flying horse Pegasus and the Three Graces.  The winged-horse does not have feet, reminding me of the incomplete depictions of animals painted in the caves of southern France, near Chagall's studio. Orpheus holds his lyre in a prominent position.  Pegasus flies and Orpheus makes music while a little birdie flies.  The Graces are not dancing here, but they remind us of our gifts and that grace is indeed possible.   Chagall, who escaped Europe in the Holocaust, had a knack for putting a positive spin on events.  He obviously chooses the highest potentials of human nature, while not exactly ignoring the negative.
Detail, lower left corner with Chagall's signature

Of course the myth of Orpheus also conjures up images of the underworld.  On the left, there is water where people are entering in groups and fishes are swimming.  Could this be the River Styx of Greek mythology?  Chagall said it referred to the groups of immigrants who crossed the ocean to get a better life.  Above the river is a huge burst of sun.  An angel flies triumphantly overhead, with open arms.  The artist ignored the rules of perspective and foreshortening on this figure, reminding us that flight, or overcoming limitation, is indeed possible.  He suggests that dreams can come true.

A dreaming couple on the bottom right hand side are happily in a paradise, under a tree.  The artist's signature is underneath.  Chagall may have thought of himself with his wife, Bella.  According to the National  Gallery's website, Evelyn Nef asked Chagall if this was her and her husband, John.  He replied, "If you like."  There's a border to the composition.  Everywhere lines are curved, making this composition the image of life as a joyful journey, a graceful dance with much optimism.
Marc Chagall, Russian, 1887-1985, Orpheus, designed 1969, executed 1971, stone and glass mosaic
overall size: 302.9 x 517.84 cm (119 1/4 x 203 7/8 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington
The John U. and Evelyn S. Nef Collection

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Into the Fields With Van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh,  Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, 1890 at the National Gallery of Art,
a recent gift from the Collection of Mr & Mrs Paul Mellon
Vincent Van Gogh's Green Wheat Fields, Auvers came into Washington's National Gallery of Art on December 20, 2013.  It's a windswept scene that sucks us in with intensity and urgency.    Green Wheat Fields, Auvers is among the 70 or so paintings he did during the two months of 1890 when he lived in Auvers-sur-Oise.  Experts believe he painted it in June, 1890, the month before he died.

Fortunately the new painting entered the museum at the same time Washington's Phillips Collection is hosting an exhibition, Van Gogh Repetitions, until February 2, 2014. The exhibition of 14 paintings examines why the artist repeated compositions in the same format with different colors and very minor design changes. It features several portraits, The Bedroom at Arles and two magnificent Van Goghs owned by the Phillips Collection, The Road Menders, 1889, and The Entrance to the Public Gardens at Arles, 1888.  
Vincent Van Gogh, The Road Menders, 1889, from the Phillips Collection, Washington

Like the National Gallery's new canvas, the paintings from the Phillips Collection are also landscapes with sweeping roads veering to the right side.  They have predominantly yellow-green color harmonies, rushed perspective and ground levels that are tilted.  Although people are included in these paintings, they're small compared to nature.  Trees and rocks are more powerful than the people and nature is a force to behold.  Like many Japanese artists, it seems that Van Gogh felt the power of the natural world more powerful than an individual.
Vincent Van Gogh, The Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles, 1888, Phillips Collection

To gain an historical perspective, he painted The Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles during the period he lived in Arles, and he did The Road Menders during his sojourn in the asylum of Saint- Paul de Mausole in St-Remy de Provence in 1889, the year after his notable breakdown.  The National Gallery's new painting comes from the next year, the last phase of his life, when he returned to northern France.  Most of his landscapes from this time period totally lack figures, as it seems to him that the power of nature, as in Rain, Auvers, was taking over more and more in Van Gogh's view.
Girl in White, 1890 (also called Young Girl
Standing in a Background of Wheat
National Gallery of Art, from
The Chester Dale Collection

Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, had hung in a private residence since 1955, but now it  hangs with other Van Goghs:  a very intense self-portrait, a vase of Roses, The Olive Orchard and Roulin's Baby.   Each of these paintings have variations of the magnificent Van Gogh greens or blues, including olive-greens, chartreuse, lime green, forest green, blue-greens and mint.  Van Gogh's Young Girl Standing Against a Background of Wheat, is from the same year and on the same wall.  Often, I'm left unsatisfied with some of his portraits. In this case, is it because she is is not as harmonious with nature as some of his laborers or working figures? 

Green Wheat Fields, Auvers has the feeling of total immersion that the best Van Gogh paintings have, including The Starry Night.  It's hard to imagine walking in this field without sinking or drowning in it. The road is very irregular and there is a roughness to this place.  Texture is thick and  visibly tactile even in the reproductions. The swirls of clouds feel like the swirls of fields.  A swiftly rushing road on the right suggests the wind also flows from the same direction and brings field and clouds together. Colors of field and cloud are not the same, but they are in the same family of colors, analogous blues and greens.

Van Gogh was swept into this landscape, but a strong upright shaft of wheat in center seems to have brought him back to his center.  It is here the viewers can be brought into focus, because the painting would not hold together as well without this strong vertical focus. 
Van Gogh, Enclosed Field with the Rising Sun, 1889, painted in St-Remy
Private Collection, photo taken from
In the same way,  the power of the sun brings the viewer into focus on Enclosed Field with the Rising Sun, a view he painted looking out of the asylum in Saint-Remy de Provence.   He expanded the natural vista, using a very wide-angle perspective.  Tilted landscapes, openings in the foreground, and exaggerated perspective are some of Van Gogh's best tools for making us feel his perspective.

Jean-Francois Millet, The Sower, 1850
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
He painted wheat fields over and over, but some of the best renditions of man in nature come from his portrayals of The Sower, of which he did several versions, acknowledging the artistic legacy of Jean-Francois Millet.  These are my favorite paintings by Van Gogh because they remind us of mankind's dependence on nature and the interconnectedness of nature.

Vincent Van Gogh, The Sower with Rising Sun, 1888, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo
Van Gogh felt a oneness with the natural world, as if he saw the separate parts of the natural world as one unifying force.  The best of his landscape paintings, are so powerful when they remind us, like Green Wheat Fields, Auvers or The Starry Night, of the interconnectedness of all things.

In the end,  we, the viewers, are swept into his psyche and feel an empathy for him and his vision.  Several videos have circulated on Van Gogh, putting his paintings to lyrics. This video explains him better than I can: