Yesterday, I took the bus to the Getty Villa rather than pay the $20 parking fee. The museum had several exhibits about the civilizations of ancient Persia. The above gypsum relief is typical of the art of the Palace of Ashurbanipal in Assyrian Nineveh.
I have always been interested in ancient Persia. It’s not a subject typically taught to American students. The impression I came away with is that virtually all the art is in glorification of the existing monarchy. Comparing it to the literature and art of ancient Greece, I find that in the latter there is more in it for the people. I will always remember the philosophical dialogues of Plato, the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides, and Greek statuary.
As for ancient Persia, I am reminded of these lines from Rudyard Kipling’s “Recessional”:
Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
When nothing is left of an ancient civilization is the dusty memory of its regal pomp, there is not much for succeeding generations to hold on to. Still, I plan to learn more about the Assyrians and the Persians that followed in their wake. Greece and Rome spent centuries fighting the Persian menace; and today we are only endangering ourselves when we fail to understand other civilizations.
The Almighty God Art Works in Kumasi, Ghana, is run by Kwame Akoto, an artist whose primitive but powerful work has garnered attention far from his native land. Akoto, who styles himself as “Almighty God,” is a convert to a Pentecostal Christian sect whose teachings have become the subject of much of his work. In one of his paintings, the following free verse appears:
The Supernatural eyes of God the Father
Sees all things.
So we must be extra careful.
When you go under the sea, the great eyes have seen you.
I am afraid of the eyes of God
If you hide under a mortar God have seen you
God saw you be careful
On Sunday afternoon, Akoto’s work impressed me when I visited the Fowler Museum at UCLA. His work, as well as the patterned textiles produced by the Aborigines of Northern Australia, convinced me that the art of Western Civilization is not the only game in town.
The Almighty God Art Works is not only in the art business: Akoto paints signs for local merchants, signs that are every bit as good as his other work.
I suspect that our world is tired of works by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and others of that ilk, of art that speaks only to the artist.
Today, I visited the Fowler Museum at UCLA and was entranced by an exhibition hall filled with screen-printed textiles created by Australian Aborigines. According to the Museum:
This exhibition takes us on a journey around northern Australia, known as the “Top End,” and invites us to explore more than 70 distinctive, screen-printed textiles made by contemporary artists at five Aboriginal-owned art centers. Since the 1960s, these textiles have become a vibrant medium for Indigenous expression, perpetuating traditional knowledge and reinvigorating its visual manifestations. Today these fabrics both serve the needs of their communities and circulate as prized collectibles, interior furnishings, and fashion apparel. The Fowler installation, organized around the individual art centers, reveals the creativity and innovation of Aboriginal artists and their sources of inspiration. Accompanying videos offer glimpses of the process of screen-printing textiles and the ways artists have translated ancient painting techniques into new media. The videos also introduce local environments—escarpments, flood plains, waterholes, rivers, and seas—that shelter the local flora and fauna seen on fabrics in bold colors and striking patterns. Screen-printed textiles enable Indigenous artists to share their cultures and identities, while providing them with a sustainable livelihood. The exhibition pays tribute to the resilience and beauty of Aboriginal Australia and reminds us of the enduring connections between peoples and their lands.
In each case, the artists created their own “brushes” from a native sedge, as well as their own paints made from vegetable and mineral sources.
I have always though the Australian Aborigines to be the most elusive primitive peoples of earth. They are all very conscious of revealing only so much of their secrets, and no more. The exhibit also contained several videos showing the textiles in the process of preparation.
Many of them were strikingly beautiful in strange ways.
No work of literature is so closely tied in with painting than Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. In the first volume, Swann’s Way, Charles Swann finds himself in an obsessive relationship with Odette de Crécy. At one point, he compares his inamorata with Zipporah, Jethro’s daughter, in Sandro Botticelli’s “Life of Moses.”
On his way to the house, as always when he knew that they were to meet, he formed a picture of her in his mind; and the necessity, if he was to find any beauty in her face, of fixing his eyes on the fresh and rosy protuberance of her cheekbones, and of shutting out all the rest of those cheeks which were so often languorous and sallow, except when they were punctuated with little fiery spots, plunged him in acute depression, as proving that one’s ideal is always unattainable, and one’s actual happiness mediocre. He was taking her an engraving which she had asked to see. She was not very well; she received him, wearing a wrapper of mauve crêpe de Chine, which draped her bosom, like a mantle, with a richly embroidered web. As she stood there beside him, brushing his cheek with the loosened tresses of her hair, bending one knee in what was almost a dancer’s pose, so that she could lean without tiring herself over the picture, at which she was gazing, with bended head, out of those great eyes, which seemed so weary and so sullen when there was nothing to animate her, Swann was struck by her resemblance to the figure of Zipporah, Jethro’s Daughter, which is to be seen in one of the Sistine frescoes. He had always found a peculiar fascination in tracing in the paintings of the Old Masters, not merely the general characteristics of the people whom he encountered in his daily life, but rather what seems least susceptible of generalisation, the individual features of men and women whom he knew, as, for instance, in a bust of the Doge Loredan by Antonio Rizzo, the prominent cheekbones, the slanting eyebrows, in short, a speaking likeness to his own coachman Rémi; in the colouring of a Ghirlandaio, the nose of M. de Palancy; in a portrait by Tintoretto, the invasion of the plumpness of the cheek by an outcrop of whisker, the broken nose, the penetrating stare, the swollen eyelids of Dr. du Boulbon. Perhaps because he had always regretted, in his heart, that he had confined his attention to the social side of life, had talked, always, rather than acted, he felt that he might find a sort of indulgence bestowed upon him by those great artists, in his perception of the fact that they also had regarded with pleasure and had admitted into the canon of their works such types of physiognomy as give those works the strongest possible certificate of reality and trueness to life; a modern, almost a topical savour; perhaps, also, he had so far succumbed to the prevailing frivolity of the world of fashion that he felt the necessity of finding in an old masterpiece some such obvious and refreshing allusion to a person about whom jokes could be made and repeated and enjoyed to-day. Perhaps, on the other hand, he had retained enough of the artistic temperament to be able to find a genuine satisfaction in watching these individual features take on a more general significance when he saw them, uprooted and disembodied, in the abstract idea of similarity between an historic portrait and a modern original, whom it was not intended to represent. However that might be, and perhaps because the abundance of impressions which he, for some time past, had been receiving—though, indeed, they had come to him rather through the channel of his appreciation of music—had enriched his appetite for painting as well, it was with an unusual intensity of pleasure, a pleasure destined to have a lasting effect upon his character and conduct, that Swann remarked Odette’s resemblance to the Zipporah of that Alessandro de Mariano, to whom one shrinks from giving his more popular surname, now that ‘Botticelli’ suggests not so much the actual work of the Master as that false and banal conception of it which has of late obtained common currency. He no longer based his estimate of the merit of Odette’s face on the more or less good quality of her cheeks, and the softness and sweetness—as of carnation-petals—which, he supposed, would greet his lips there, should he ever hazard an embrace, but regarded it rather as a skein of subtle and lovely silken threads, which his gazing eyes collected and wound together, following the curving line from the skein to the ball, where he mingled the cadence of her neck with the spring of her hair and the droop of her eyelids, as though from a portrait of herself, in which her type was made clearly intelligible.
He stood gazing at her; traces of the old fresco were apparent in her face and limbs, and these he tried incessantly, afterwards, to recapture, both when he was with Odette, and when he was only thinking of her in her absence; and, albeit his admiration for the Florentine masterpiece was probably based upon his discovery that it had been reproduced in her, the similarity enhanced her beauty also, and rendered her more precious in his sight. Swann reproached himself with his failure, hitherto, to estimate at her true worth a creature whom the great Sandro would have adored, and counted himself fortunate that his pleasure in the contemplation of Odette found a justification in his own system of aesthetic. He told himself that, in choosing the thought of Odette as the inspiration of his dreams of ideal happiness, he was not, as he had until then supposed, falling back, merely, upon an expedient of doubtful and certainly inadequate value, since she contained in herself what satisfied the utmost refinement of his taste in art. He failed to observe that this quality would not naturally avail to bring Odette into the category of women whom he found desirable, simply because his desires had always run counter to his aesthetic taste. The words ‘Florentine painting’ were invaluable to Swann. They enabled him (gave him, as it were, a legal title) to introduce the image of Odette into a world of dreams and fancies which, until then, she had been debarred from entering, and where she assumed a new and nobler form. And whereas the mere sight of her in the flesh, by perpetually reviving his misgivings as to the quality of her face, her figure, the whole of her beauty, used to cool the ardour of his love, those misgivings were swept away and that love confirmed now that he could re-erect his estimate of her on the sure foundations of his aesthetic principles; while the kiss, the bodily surrender which would have seemed natural and but moderately attractive, had they been granted him by a creature of somewhat withered flesh and sluggish blood, coming, as now they came, to crown his adoration of a masterpiece in a gallery, must, it seemed, prove as exquisite as they would be supernatural.
I am always enchanted by poems based on paintings that I love. And my favorite painting of the Eighteenth Century is Antoine Watteau’s “The Embarkation for Cythera,” a promise of love in the offing, but no delivery for certain. Cythera, or Kythira, is an island off the Peloponnese. The following poem was written by another islander, from Saint Lucia in the Caribbean, namely Derek Walcott. It is poem XX in the sequence of his collection Midsummer and called simply “Watteau”:
The amber spray of trees feather-brushed with the dusk,
the ruined cavity of some spectral château, the groin
of a leering satyr eaten with ivy. In the distance, the grain
of some unreapable, alchemical harvest, the hollow at
the heart of all embarkations. Nothing stays green
in that prodigious urging towards twilight;
in all of his journeys the pilgrims are in fever
from the tremulous strokes of malaria’s laureate.
So where is Cythera? It, too, is far and feverish,
it dilates on the horizon of his near-delirium, near
and then further, it can break like the spidery rigging
of his ribboned barquentines, it is as much nowhere
as these broad-leafed islands, it is the disease
of elephantine vegetation in Baudelaire,
the tropic bug in the Paris fog. For him, it is the mirror
of what it is. Paradise is life repeated spectrally,
an empty chair echoing the emptiness.
There is something dreamlike in the paintings of Henri Rousseau (1844-1910), mistakenly nicknamed Douanier Rousseau (he never worked for customs). Perhaps his most famous painting is that of the Sleeping Gypsy, shown above, in the presence of a lion, a stringed instrument, and a piece of pottery. Many of Rousseau’s paintings are set in the jungle or the desert, though he himself never visited either.
Below is one of his jungle scenes:
This painting is title Dreams of Henri Rousseau. The two jungle cats in the foreground have the same expression of the eyes as the lion in Sleeping Gypsy. As the art historian Daniel Catton Rich wrote:
His approach was far from literal. Inspired by his vision he arbitrarily rewove the appearance of nature to suit his purpose. The long series of imaginative paintings show Rousseau obsessed by one repeated scheme of composition. He imagines a strongly lighted distance against which he silhouettes darker forms of trees or foliage. Plane upon plane is piled up in intricate design, and usually two small figures focus the eye on the foreground. This same ‘dream picture’ haunted him from the days of “Carnival Evening” to the last jungle picture he painted.
Hitherto tied to the more realistic classics, Henri Rousseau represented an abrupt journey in the direction of modern art. His reality was what he dreamed it to be. Fortunately, it was close enough to actual reality in its intent if not its execution to remain mainstream long after many masterpieces of abstract expressionism fall by the wayside.
The illustration above is of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s La Promenade, painted in 1870, and on display at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. I have always been partial to Renoir’s paintings, particularly when they have these luminous portraits of women. In the painting, the man’s face is in shadow; he is reduced to a polite gesture of leading his lady on. The young woman, on the other hand, lights up the canvas.
What I find truly amazing is that much of the same sensibility was passed on to his son, Jean, who became one of the great motion picture directors. There are times when the viewer feels that the father could have directed the same scene in the same way.
Above is a still from A Day in the Country (1946), which is set in the same period and shows us a picnic in the woods—with the same feeling of the radiance of the female character. Some of the same feeling is in his earlier The Rules of the Game (1939), which is set in the present day. The men in the film all fly around the Marquise de la Chesnaye (played by Nora Gregor) like moths circling a flame.
Of course, Jean Renoir was very conscious of his father’s work, appearing in several of the paintings. He also wrote a beautiful biography of him called Renoir, My Father, which is available in a New York Review edition and is well worth reading.
Look at the bottom right of the above painting, Pieter Breughel the Elder’s “The Fall of Icarus.” I would particularly direct your attention to the bare legs of Icarus, who has fallen from the sky into the ocean—punishment for presuming to fly too close to the sun. The following poem by W. H. Auden refers to it in the last stanza. The poem is called “Musée des Beaux Arte.”
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
The title of the illustrated painting is “Modern Rome—Campo Vaccino.” It was painted in 1839 by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851). It is the third of five paintings that moved me during my last visit to the Getty Center in Los Angeles.
There is something about the quality of light in J.M.W. Turner’s work. The painting is described as follows by the Getty’s database:
Ten years after his final journey to Rome, Turner envisioned the Eternal City through a veil of memory. Baroque churches and ancient monuments in and around the Roman Forum seem to dissolve in iridescent light shed by a moon rising at left and a sun setting behind the Capitoline Hill at right. Amidst these splendors, the city’s inhabitants carry on with their daily activities. The picture’s nacreous palette and shimmering light effects exemplify Turner at his most accomplished.
When first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1839 with its pendant, Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus, the painting was accompanied by a modified quotation from Lord Byron’s masterpiece, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1818): “The moon is up, and yet it is not night, / The sun as yet divides the day with her.” Like the poem, Turner’s painting evokes the enduring sublimity of Rome, which had been for artists throughout history less a place in the real world than one in the imagination.
Note the characters and livestock in the foreground of the painting. In the background, ancient and contemporary Rome are intermingled as the light at the end of day washes out all the details. It looks almost as if Rome is in flames.
Campo Vaccino literally means cow pasture or cattle field in Italian. For years, the location had been a cattle market. According to the Princeton Art Museum, “Essentially in ruins since the fifth century A.D., by the seventeenth century the still-to-be excavated Roman Forum was popularly known as the Campo Vaccino, or cow field, alluding to its dual role as pasture and cattle market; it was also a popular sketching spot for artists.”
If you were to look closely at the word Halloween, you may notice that it means the Eve of All Hallows Day, November 1, which is also called All Saints’ Day. In fact, the period from October 31 through November 2 is sometimes referred to as Allhallowtide. In a way, the period is a kind of liturgical trifecta, in that November 2 is All Souls’ Day, also known as the Day of the Dead.
The idea of All Saints’ Day was primarily to commemorate the nameless martyrs who died for their faith at the hands of certain Roman emperors who persecuted them. Perhaps the largest single group is the Theban Legion, commanded by Saint Maurice, who was ordered by the Emperor Maximian to defeat rebels in what is now Switzerland and, in the process, to make sacrifices to pagan gods. Maurice and his men refused. As punishment, Maximian ordered the legion to be decimated, that is, to have every tenth man executed. After two rounds of decimation, it was decided to execute the entire legion, which consisted of some 6,700 legionaries. Their martyrdom took place in AD 286.
Above is a painting by Fra Angelico of various saints and martyrs, not including the entire Theban Legion. In fact, none of the saints depicted look particularly like Roman legionaries.
All Saints’ Day (November 1) is still considered a Holy Day of Obligation in the Catholic Church, during which all Catholics are required to attend Mass or commit a mortal sin for failure to comply.
Although I continue to hold warm feelings about my Catholic upbringing, I am pretty much a lapsed Catholic and am probably doomed to the fires of Heck.