Monday, 2 March 2015

Orozco - The Hospicio Cabanas

Continuing with images of Orozco in Guadalajara with descriptions of the frescoes from Desmond Rochfort's Mexican Muralists. The Hospicio Cabanas was founded in 1791 by Bishop Ruiz de Cabanas, who planned it as a combination workhouse, hospital, orphanage, and almshouse. The architect who designed it was Manuel Tolsa from Mexico City, but he died before it was completed. It served as a hospital until 1980, when it was converted to the Cabanas Cultural Institute.

Orozco painted 57 frescoes in the building, covering the vaulted ceiling and walls with scenes of the history of Mexico from before the Spanish arrived to early 20th century industrialization. Like the other Guadalajara frescoes, his history has few heroes and does not suggest either an idyllic pre-Hispanic world or progress toward a peaceful and cultured present.

The transepts have images of ancient Mexico as a barbaric world, with rituals for the god of war, Huitzilipochtli.
Huitzilipochtli, God of War


In the vaults of the nave, he depicted the Spanish conquest, with Philip II of Spain carrying a cross and crown, two-headed horses, and a Franciscan monk who carries a cross that doubles as a dagger. The Franciscan stands in front of a sheet of letters, indicating that the missionaries brought reading as well as torment to the Mexican people.
Philip II of Spain

Cabanas ceiling, Franciscan

Two-headed horse, Spanish conquest

An armored horse, a mechanical, machine horse and rider suggests the invincible force of the Spanish army, and anticipates Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, as the Aztecs, weakened by foreign diseases, were no match for the Spanish weapons and armor.

Mechanized horse and rider

The most puzzling scenes are the walls of the nave and transepts, where Orozco painted both icons of culture and art like Cervantes, El Greco and Cabanas himself, alternated with images of despotism and demagogery. Orozco continues to juxtapose positive and negative back into early history and forward into the contemporary world. Describing himself as a "free thinker," he does not adopt any political dogma and questions all ideology. Unlike most traditional narrative painting cycles, this one does not promote the idea of historical progress or lead to a happy ending, or even to an unhappy ending.


Bishop Cabanas
The culminating image, in the high dome of the hall, is Man of Fire, a nude figure rising through red and orange flames above three grey figures seated or reclining below. The grey figures are identified as either observers or as the other elements: air, earth and water. Below and around them are smaller panels depicting trades or occupations in grey. While one wants to see this as a heroic image, an apotheosis, it also looks like a horrific immolation.

Man of Fire, with surrounding trades/occupations

Man of Fire and three surrounding figures

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Orozco in Guadalajara

Preparing for a brief presentation in anticipation of taking a group to Guadalajara, I hunted all over the web for descriptions of Jose Clemente Orozco's (1883-1949) frescoes in Guadalajara, especially those at the Hospicio Cabanas, which is considered his masterpiece. Basic biographical information can be found at Wikipedia and other online sites. Finally I found what I needed in the book by Desmond Rochfort, Mexican Muralists: Orozco, Rivera, Siqueiros, San Francisco, Chronicle Books, 1993, pp 111-119 and 134-145. For others who would like a brief explanation of the murals, I thought I would give a summary of what I learned, plus an observation or two of my own, with my own photographs from the cycles.

Orozco was in the United States from 1927 to 1934. When he returned to Mexico, he first painted the mural Catharsis in the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, a devastating image of humanity overwhelmed by mechanization, depravity, and war.
Orozco, Catharsis, detail
Almost immediately after Orozco completed this upsetting image, the governor of Jalisco invited him to Guadalajara, where between 1936 and 1939 he completed three monumental fresco cycles. At the assembly hall of the University of Guadalajara, he painted the dome and the backdrop of the stage. 

Orozco, University assembly hall dome fresco, Creative Man
Four monumental figures dominate the dome: 1) the worker emerging from some kind of machine; 2) the scientist with heads facing in all directions and holding tools referring to his inquiring mind; 3) the philosopher/professor with one armed raised and the other hand clasping that of 4) the rebel, whose head is down and in a noose (not visible in the photo above) while he holds a red flag in his free hand. The latter two represent thought and action, the active and contemplative life. 

Orozco, The Rebellion of Man: The People and their False Leaders

Orozco, The Leaders

Orozco,The Victims
On the stage, the imagery is more negative. The People and their False Leaders depicts skeletal masses furiously attaching idealogues like Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, union bosses and a worker holding a book and a saw. The left wall shows ape like Leaders and the right pitiable Victims. 

At the Government Palace Orozco painted the iconic image of Father Hidalgo, whose cry (El Grito de Dolores) started the Mexican War of Independence in 1810. Heroic as he is, below him are warring figures, none of them truly heroic. The left wall is Phantasms of Religion and Alliance with the Military and the right is The Carnival of Ideolgies.

Orozco, Government Palace, Father Hidalgo
Carnival of Ideologies, detail

Orozco, Hidalgo, detail, Guadalajara Government Palace
For years I have had difficulty figuring out what the Orozco murals were supposed to be saying, looking for the resolution of the narratives, for the good guys. Finally I realize that except for Hidalgo, whose revolutionary acts resulted in his death, no one is a hero and things don't work out in the end in these murals. Unlike Rivera, with his peasant heroes, Orozco seems not to heroize any group or have faith in any political system.. 

Constraints of space and time compel me to post this section and continue with the Hospicio Cabanas in my next post.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Farm auction

Driving to Kansas City for the Lyric Opera's performance of Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell's Silent Night we noticed a sign for an auction at the farm market that's about 2 miles from our house. We get peach boxes and crates from them for our apples, and since last summer was not a very good one for the market owner, we were concerned that he might be closing. So Tom wanted to go over there this morning.

It's snowing nicely and I imagined that there would be a few cars there and some store furniture for sale. The place was packed; the field across the road, and the road, were filled with pickups from neighboring counties and there were huge John Deere vehicles parked around the store.

parking in the field
There were maybe 70 trucks 

We trudged through the snow and went inside, where farmers, all in padded tan coveralls and black jackets were monitoring their I-phones and waiting in line for numbers. We found one of the women who works there and she assured us that this is just a routine sale the owner has and that they'll be selling plants in a few weeks. Reassured, we left.

I saw a couple of small tractors, a little bigger than ours and tried to get Tom to bid on them, to no avail.
Some of the farm vehicles for sale

The auctioneer is in red to the left

The surrounding fields and road

Monday, 9 February 2015

Ancient objects in Mexico as art and history

In 2012 I visited the Rufino Tamayo Museum in Oaxaca, a lovely colonial building that houses Tamayo’s collection of ancient American objects, mainly sculpture. The museum presents these ancient objects in colored niches, a different bright color in each room. I believe they are meant to be seen as art, rather than archaeological finds. 

In January this year I returned to Mexico City, for a conference of the Association of Art Museum Directors. We visited were the Museum of Anthropology and also Anahuacalli, a dramatic structure designed by Diego Rivera to house his collection of some 54,000 ancient American objects, primarily stone and clay sculpture and vessels. About 2000 are on view, in simple well-lighted niches with descriptive labels for each gallery and individual labels for only a few select objects.

Stone carving, Tamayo Museum, Oaxaca
At each of these museums I had the same unexpected experience: Looking at a single object, I was engaged by its specific expression and began to think of its personal history. Some 1500 years ago a person, probably a man, carved the stone  or modeled and carved and fired clay to make one of these figures. I don’t know if he made it for someone to use in daily life or not, but I’m pretty sure it ultimately landed in a tomb, where it would accompany the deceased person for eternity, in the dark and in private. Here he is now, alone, standing on a pedestal in a lavender exhibition case.

Stone sculpture, Anahuacalli
Now I look at these things in brightly lit museum cases, far from the locations and uses for which they were intended. Mostly, I wander past them, giving them a quick admiring or bored glance. But sometimes their intense expressions capture me and I find myself pondering the vicissitudes of their history. I think of them in the dark for 1500 years, then being dug or bulldozed out of their tombs and grabbed up by eager collectors. Treasured by artists who want to share them with everyone and left alone in clean, brightly lit vitrines for another eternity. 
Clay figure, Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City

Although there is information about the general types of the objects and the geographical area where they were probably made, there are no specifics about how and where they were found. At the time Tamayo and Rivera were collecting it was easy to overlook the possibilities that more detailed understanding of the history of the objects might offer. They bought or traded or cajoled these works as gifts, along with the silver entrepreneur William Spratling, the artist Miguel Covarrubias and many others living in Mexico during the 20th century. 

I understand that Rivera and Tamayo thought they were protecting these objects from being “stolen” and taken out of Mexico (while Spratling and other collectors sold some of them to museums in the United States) and indeed they probably were. But they also loved them for their age and beauty, but apparently not for any historical context. And so we don’t usually know much about where, why or how they were buried.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Crystal Bridges, again: State of the Art

Crystal Bridges reflections
We drove down to Bentonville, Arkansas on Dec. 26 specifically to catch the State of the Art exhibition of contemporary art at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, our first visit since we first saw the new building and I wrote about it and its art in 2012. The museum still has an inauspicious entrance and people were confused about which way they should go in the elevator, but once we entered the building the staff were invariably friendly and helpful. Some of the architecture is stunning and some is not. Arrows on the floor pointed us through the entire permanent collection to the exhibition and we rushed through to see the show.

This is an exhibition of works by 107 artists chosen by the museum director and curator after visits to about 1000 studios across the country. I think the concept was to present artists of high quality who might now be well-known in the major arts centers. In a way it reminded me of the top floor of the last Whitney Biennial, where I discovered a number of mature and fascinating artists of whom I knew nothing. But any gathering of such artists will reflect the taste and biases of the curators and in the Crystal Bridges case it seemed that the curators were most impressed with craft, often obsessive craft, and colorful broad gestural painting, often of large human figures or flowers. So there were many inventive, well-made, interesting objects, but somehow the overall impression was less thrilling or challenging than one might expect.

I loved a few of the works:Angela Ellsworth's Mormon bonnets (titled Close to You) made from about 25,000 corsage pins, Gabriel Dawe's Plexus C8, an elaborate but simple installation of colored thread in the stairwell (this link is to that work; if you Google the artist and images you'll get lots more); Mark Wagner's skyscraper collage made from cut-up dollar bills (Were they real?), and Alison Ruttan's ceramic sculptures of bombed buildings in war-torn countries of the Middle East. John Salvest's Forever, that word made from hundreds of second-hand romance novels, all the same dimensions, Joel S. Allen's Hooked on Svelte, suspended brush-like objects made from various everyday materials such as plastic pill containers caught out attention. Use of large quantities of mundane or recycled materials fascinates me, particularly since so many artists are using them. I was familiar with very few of the artists; one is Mary Ann Currier, born in 1927, who paints exquisitely detailed fruits and vegetables. I first saw her work in New York in the late 70s and was amazed to see it again in this exhibition.

The exhibition made some connections with the work in the permanent collection and Tom and I decided we would go back to the museum the next day to take another look at the collection. We loved it. We both really wanted to see the Francis Guy painting, Winter Scene in Brooklyn in 1820 and were fascinated that the label identified some of the characters in the painting, which was made from the artist's window, and we talked about how much Brooklyn has changed since then. Checking on the internet, I found that there is another version of the painting in the Brooklyn Museum (where it never caught my attention) and Brooklyn had an exhibition of the two versions in 2006. Next to the Guy is Richard Woodville's War News from Mexico of 1848, another painting we have found fascinating for its historical connections and discovered had been deaccessioned by the National Academy of Design.

As we moved from painting to painting, we kept stopping to point out details, read the label, look more closely, much more than we usually do in major museums in big cities. It occurred to me that the paintings in the collection, while not always by the most famous artists, are engaging in various ways that would appeal to people who aren't art experts, but also to those who are. There are several portraits of working people: a clock repair man, several professors (including one by Eakins), and a glass engraver. The details in these tell about everyday life in times past as well as elucidating the character of the sitters and providing the artist the opportunity for bravura brushwork or detailed mastery.  I re-visited the Worthington Whittredge painting mentioned in my first review of the museum, enjoyed the Thomas Moran Green River, Wyoming painting, and we both admired the Norman Rockwell Rosy the Riveter again, Whatever I think about its architecture and Walmart politics, the museum provided us a rewarding and delightful experience of art.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

"Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia, 5th to 8th century," at the Metropolitan Museum

For years, possibly decades, I have fumed and ranted about the labels in many of the exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When I visit exhibitions of art from outside Europe especially, I find myself confused and frustrated, confronted with labels full of unfamiliar names of things and places I can’t locate. With Italian Renaissance exhibitions (my Ph.D. is in Italian Renaissance art) I understand the labels but am at a loss to figure out why the label writer chose to use  irrelevant, obscure, or evaluative statements, for example describing an obviously mediocre painting as one of the most beautiful of the artist’s career.

Last year’s Asian textile exhibition was an example. While I was copying one of the labels from that exhibition, another visitor lingered by the work. I explained that I wasn't copying the label because it was important, but because it was awful and she replied that she had just read another label that was useless to a general audience. She suggested that no one reads the labels and that’s how the Met gets away with it. It’s a shame, because the Met has access to the most important objects through its ability to get loans and the highest level scholarship in its curators.

A year or two ago when the Islamic galleries opened I couldn't understand what the labels were telling about the art; they were about historical periods and movements and geography and rarely connected the object I was looking at with anything that helped me to understand its purpose or design. I have multiple examples in my notebooks that could be used in teaching as examples of the worst labels imaginable.

I rant about this because some of us actually look at labels to get a hook into seeing the work of art more clearly. I often wonder what some figure is doing or what the story of the image is. Or I want to know why the artist used a color, a material, a style, whatever. In the best of circumstances, labels help create the narrative, the story of an exhibition. And some exhibitions at the Metropolitan have succeeded in this, especially those in the 19th-century department. But in other Met departments they seem to be opportunities for graduate students to show off their erudition and knowledge of arcane terminology. Why does the most visited art museum in the country have some of the least helpful educational materials?

O.k., so in April, after reading Holland Cotter’s rhapsodic review in the Times, I made a point of seeing Lost Kingdoms, the exhibition of pre-Angkor Southeast Asian art atthe Metropolitan. In this instance I had the advantage of having been to Southeast Asia several years ago and having a soft spot for art from Cambodia. For the first time in decades, I was able to follow the basic organization of the exhibition, to understand that one room was dedicated to Buddhas and the advent of Buddhism to Southeast Asia, one contained images of Vishnu, one of Shiva and his associates, one of Bodhisattvas and even, through the introductory labels, to have a sense of the role of these religious figures in the power structure of the different cultures. At the same time, I have no real concept of the cultures that created the sculptures or their pre-modern entities, and the labels identified the works primarily by their modern source countries, the geographical sites where they were excavated, rather than associate them with the pre-modern political entities responsible for their creation.

Many of the objects in this exhibition are remarkable. A wonderful thing the Met has done is to put images of ALL the objects in the exhibition on its website, with their labels, as well as offering the works in their exhibition groupings with the appropriate introductory labels. This does not make it unnecessary to visit the exhibition, however, mainly because the images give little idea of the scale of the works and don’t in any way reveal their placement in each gallery, which really helps make connections between them.  Even showing photographs of several views of some sculpture cannot substitute for the experience of walking around them. And while photographs may give a hint of the beauty of the objects, in person they are astounding. 

I can give a few examples of the objects I found most memorable. The first one that caught my eye was a strangely posed figure with exaggerated features, arms akimbo, crossed ankles, curly ringlets and leaves around its head. It is identified as a yaksha, a figure from the “animistic spirit cults” common in this region before the arrival of Buddhism. The space held several other yakshas and I was able to grasp and remember the concept of a nature-based animistic religion with these caricatured embodiments of spirits that predated and perhaps set the stage for Buddhism in Southeast Asia.

In the next section, addressing the arrival of Buddhism in Southeast Asia there are, understandable, a number of Buddhas. I got very interested in three standing figures, all made of stone and approximately the same size, about 39 inches high. At first glance they are similar, but closer inspection reveals differences. The first, from the Musee Guimet in Paris, is considered quite important for the inscription on its back. I must admit that the label did not enlighten me about the reason the inscription is so important: “The sculpture’s importance is enhanced by a contemporary Prakrit inscription on the reverse proclaiming the Ye dhamma “stanza of causation” in a version of the text from northern India. It is among the earliest known uses of the Ye dhamma stanza in early Cambodia, foreshadowing its widespread appearance across Southeast Asia from the eighth century onward. The style, like its counterparts in Dvaravati Thailand, looks to the Saranth school of north India.“ I don’t know what Prakrit is, have no idea what Ye dhamma “stanza of causation” means, and don’t remember what Dvaravati Thailand has to do with it and never heard of the “Saranth school of north India.” I did see the brief inscription on its back and duly noted that it must be important. The figure itself is rather static and I think of it as symmetrical, broad shoulders, small waist, a robe that falls in two layers, and two feet solidly planted on the ground, with a peaceful expression and a sensual, smooth surface.

One thing I noted in the exhibition was that most of the object labels noted where and when the work was excavated or found, something I really appreciate, partly because it lets me know how long the object has been known to scholars, and partly because it gives a clue that the work was legally excavated. I don’t see these notes in the online label copy.

So I noticed with interest that another Buddha image quitesimilar to this one, from the Met’s own collection, had no indication of where or when it was excavated, only the accession number that tells me it was given to the museum by Florence and Herbert Irving in 1993. Also quite symmetrical, this one has neither feet nor hands and seems somehow more schematic than the Musee Guimet version. Although this figure appears in the exhibition later than the Guimet one, the label gives a clue as to what Sarnath is, a monastic school in India with a prolific Buddha-making workshop.

A third standing Buddha, this one from the National Museumin Cambodia, caught my eye because its drapery was asymmetrical, something that seemed very unusual. Also smoothly carved with a peaceful expression on its youthful face, it had other characteristics that differentiated it from the others. Like the other two, the man’s legs are visible through the drapery, but I noticed a slight bulge in his belly above the belt. Then I saw that one leg was just slightly in front of the other, one foot supporting just a little more weight than the other, so he gives the sense of movement. Likewise, one shoulder is slightly forward. The artist who carved this figure gave it an exquisitely subtle sense of movement and life, while maintaining the Buddha’s characteristically peaceful expression and overall mood. I kept coming back to this sculpture, comparing it to the others, marveling at it. It is the object I will remember from this exhibition.

Four seated Buddhas in the next gallery - from Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia - were fun to compare and impressively monumental, even if the one from Vietnam is only 18 1/2 inches high. I needed help to figure out which label was for which one, as the four labels were in a square on one wall. And on the website they are not shown together so it is not possible to imagine the mood they create, each on one side of a large structure, in a low-lit room.

Then Vishnu, Durga and Garuda figures fill the next space, with one strikingly movemented and dramatic figure of Krishna, its shadows accentuated by the strong lighting. 

Shiva and his associates, also connected with the rulers, fill the following gallery. A couple of charming Ganeshas and a very phallic linga attracted me here. But this is where I realized I was getting tired. There’s not much to explain a relationship between Buddhism and Hinduism anywhere in the exhibition, for example whether the two religions intersected or characterized specific and separate cultures, rulers, or kingdoms.

In the next gallery, State Art, I did stop and wonder at the clay head of Buddha with eyes closed
I think this was about the importance of Buddhism for the state in ancient Thailand, as opposed to Hinduism, but at this point I remembered that most people can’t distinguish the two completely different religions from each other. Then a room of boddhisatvas, nicely identified by their princely dress, changed the pace a little and revived me, looking for the attributes of Maitreya and Avalokiteshvara.

In the end, I was not able to get much sense of the cultures of this period in Southeast Asia, which actually led me to find the subtlety and complexity of the sculptures all the more wondrous. The exhibition is full of aesthetically amazing works of art and one of the best things I saw in New York in April. But I sure wish the Metropolitan Museum staff would work on those labels.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

The Little Prince: A New York Story, at the Morgan Library till April 27

My mother’s favorite book was Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. She talked about it often, but I only read it after her death. And I loved it.

I don’t know when they gave me The Little Prince but I feel like I’ve always remembered the drawing of the elephant in the boa constrictor and “Dessine-moi un mouton.” Maybe it has something to do with my own inability to draw anything that the book reverberated with me, and still does. I bought the 50th anniversary edition, still have a couple of other editions, including one in French. I have a 50th anniversary t-shirt and kept a French 50 franc note that depicts the little prince.

So, the 70th anniversary (is it there already?) exhibition at the Morgan Library, focusing on the New York component of the book, was the event reviewed in the January Times that gave me the April 27 deadline to get to New York before the show closes. I had no idea that Saint-Exupéry was in New York when he wrote the book, or that the little prince was a character he used often to illustrate his letters and notes. The exhibition is fascinating, with various versions of the prince plus bits and pieces of the book - including characters and planets - that eventually were not included in the final manuscript. I really wanted a catalogue or publication, but all the show offered were a 70th anniversary edition, mugs, plates, postcards and other tchotchokes, and paperbacks of Wind, Sand and Stars.  At least I had hoped for a copy of Flight to Arras, his book of war recollections that is mentioned in the exhibition and I haven’t read, or Vol de Nuit (Night Flight), or even just the little guide handout that accompanies the exhibition but is not available for purchase. 

What touched me most though, and I found unforgettable, is Saint-Exupery’s ID bracelet. After trying for several years, he was finally permitted to rejoin the war, with the Free French Air Force. He left his Little Prince manuscript with the publisher in New York in April 1943 and returned to the war. In 1944 he took off on a reconnaissance mission from Corsica. He was never seen again. The ID bracelet was found by a Marseille fisherman in 1998, caught in his net. Only the ID part and half the chain was on view and no photographs were allowed. But the story, and an image, can be seen in the Wikipedia article on the writer.