Martine and the Giant Bunny

Martine and Friend at the Hawaii State Art Museum

There it was, occupying its own gallery and lying on its side. A giant inflated pink and white bunny. We were at the Hawaii State Art Museum, right across the street from the Iolani Palace. Actually, we had come to eat at the museum’s much heralded cafe, Artizen by MW. Unaccountably, it was closed that day.

The museum itself is interesting. The budget for the State of Hawaii sets aside a percentage to be used for promoting the arts. One result is the Hawaii State Art Museum, which doesn’t charge admission. Included in its galleries were works of art protesting state projects such as the construction of the H3 limited access highway from west Honolulu to the windward side of O’ahu. I can just imagine the stink that public sponsorship of protest art would cause in California.

In any case, the giant bunny was friendly, and Martine looked happy to have her picture taken with him.

The Flight Into Egypt

Aelbert Cuyp’s “The Flight Into Egypt” (ca. 1665)

Although I saw this painting at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, it is actually on loan from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Apparently Aelbert Cuyp (1620-1691) painted several canvases of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt to escape Herod’s massacre of the innocents born around Bethlehem. According to the Gospel of St. Matthew (2:16):

Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.

This painting appealed to me because it moves its subject into an obviously European setting—certainly as far removed from the Sinai Peninsula as it is possible to be. At the same time, the scene is as peaceful as a bucolic Poussin or Lorrain painting of the same period.

Cuyp was noted for his landscapes. According to the Wikipedia entry on him, “he is especially known for his large views of Dutch riverside scenes in a golden early morning or late afternoon light.”

A Calm and Serene Time

Nicolas Poussin’s “Landscape with a Calm” (ca. 1650)

I choose to translate the title of painting as “A Calm and Serene Time” (from the French “Un temps calme et serein”). Ever since I first ran into his paintings at the Cleveland Museum of Art as a high school student, I have loved the work of Nicolas Poussin and his near contemporary Claude Lorrain (about whom in a follow-up post).

The 17th century in France has always been a special interest of mine, and Lorrain, Poussin, and a handful of others have only engaged my interest the more in the intervening years.

According to the description on the Getty Center’s website”

In the late 1640s and early 1650s, at the height of his artistic maturity, Nicolas Poussin turned from historical narrative to landscape painting. Landscape with a Calm does not illustrate a story but rather evokes a mood. The ordered composition and clear, golden light contribute to A Calm’s utter tranquility, while glowing, gem-like colors and fluid paint strokes enliven this scene of benevolent nature. Poussin’s sketching campaigns in the Roman countryside with his friend and fellow landscape painter Claude Lorrain account, in part, for its fresh observation of cloud-scattered sky and grazing goats.

The peacefulness of this image and its subtle classical overtones makes me regard this as one of my favorite paintings at the Getty Center.

The Story of Joseph

In One Image, Several Scenes of the Story of Joseph

Yesterday at the Getty Center, I spent most of my time in the Medieval and Renaissance galleries, reacquainting myself with old friends. One painting that fascinated me was “The Story of Joseph” (circa 1485), attributed to the Florentine Biagio d’Antonio, which in foreground and background gives several early episodes of the tale of Joseph from the Old Testament. By focusing on different parts of the image, one saw different scenes from the story.

The following is the description of the painting from the Getty Center website:

Drawn from the Old Testament, a series of continuous narratives depicts episodes from the life of Joseph, the favorite son of the Hebrew patriarch Jacob. To make the story easier to follow, Biagio d’Antonio included inscriptions identifying the principal characters.

In the left-hand loggia, Jacob, seated on a throne, sends Joseph to his half-brothers tending sheep in the field. In the far left corner, the brothers, jealous of their father’s love for Joseph, strip him of his jacket and throw him into a pit. Passing merchants purchase the young boy from his brothers for twenty pieces of silver. In the background to the right, the merchants board the ship that will take them and their cargo to Egypt. In the right-hand loggia, the brothers show a blood-smeared coat to their father as evidence that Joseph is dead. With his head in his hand, Jacob mourns his son, whom he believes to be dead.

It’s almost as if this were a precursor to the cinema by telling a detailed story in a single still image. One of the things I love most about Medieval and Renaissance painting are the picturesque landscape backgrounds, which lend an aura of fantasy.

Many people (Martine among them) don’t care for the repetitive Biblical themes of the art of the period. What interests me is the almost endless variety within a familiar, given subject matter.

25 Years of the Getty

This year the Getty Center in Los Angeles is celebrating its silver anniversary. I took the MTA 761 bus to the museum (neatly avoiding the $20 parking fee) and spent several hours looking at the new exhibits and reacquainting myself with the Medieval, Renaissance, and 19th century artworks in the permanent collection.

The Cy Twombly (1928-2011) special exhibit left me speechless. Who slipped up? The man’s work left me shaking my head: Nothing in the gallery spoke to me except to say, “Just pass on through, Bud—the quicker the better.” There was another exhibit on “Conserving de Kooning,” but as I didn’t give a hang for Willem de Kooning’s work, I passed up on it.

Curiously, for the first time, I began to have my doubts about French Impressionism. There was a huge crowd around a Van Gogh still life which was nice, but not spectacular. I disliked some of the Claude Monets: There were some haystacks and a study of the Cathedral of Rouen, but I thought they were merely experiments in the quality of sunlight at different times of the day.

Claude Monet’s “Sunrise”

The Monet that grabbed my attention was a painting titled “Sunrise.” According to the Getty:

In the muted palette of the emerging dawn, Claude Monet portrayed the industrial port of Le Havre on the northern coast of France. The brilliant orange of the rising sun glimmers amid the damp air and dances on the gentle rippling water, lighting up its iridescent blues and greens. Barely discernible through a cool haze, pack boats on the left billow smoke from their stacks. Painted during the spring of 1873 as the country struggled to rebuild following the Franco-Prussian war, this Sunrise might also metaphorically suggest a new day dawning in France.

What struck me about the painting was its hovering on the edge of abstractness while still being clearly representational. I love the sun trying to break through the early morning fog and clouds.

In the days to come, I will discuss some other paintings and photographs that favorably impressed me. My visits to the Getty Center and the Getty Villa always energize me. I have long since given up regularly visiting the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as it is expensive ($16 for Seniors) and they are perennially suffering attacks of constructionitis. They are replacing their perfectly adequate main building with a more jazzy building with less exhibition space.

“One With Nineveh and Tyre”

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.

Almighty God Art Works

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.
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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.

From the Top End

Aboriginal Screen-Printed Textile

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.

Proust & Art: Odette as Zipporah

Detail from Botticelli’s Life of Moses: Zipporah

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.

An Islander Recalls Cythera

Antoine Watteau’s “The Embarkation for Cythera”

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.