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An Exhibition So Big It Can’t Happen Again

Posted by gninja on October 18, 2007


(Michelangelo’s Manchester Madonna)

This sounds like the coolest thing… ever.  At the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857, an astonishing 16,272 works were assembled for a mass audience.  16,272.  All works were gathered from the private collections of very wealthy individuals and placed in display.

According to the journalist who wrote the piece:

This, then, is Manchester’s legacy. A century and a half ago, a few far-sighted wealthy individuals coaxed a lot of other wealthy individuals into letting the masses get a look at their priceless art. Having given it the once-over, the people decided that great art was simply too precious to be hidden away for the rich, and in a fairer world would just have to be shared with the rest of the nation.

Sounds like a little too touchy-feely a conclusion to me.  Especially after mentioning:

The organisers had, it was true, decided to base their event in the leafy surrounds of Old Trafford, well away from the belching chimneys of the city centre, but that was hardly the point. It was one thing for better-off folk in the shires to enjoy artistic treasures, far from the grime and sweat of the factory floor, but quite another to start introducing it to the impoverished masses. (And they were definitely impoverished: life expectancy in Manchester at the time was just 26, the lowest of anywhere in the UK. It was not uncommon for mill workers to live 12 to a room.)

So, when it was all over, with the glass palace dismantled and the artworks taken down, art historians – as snobbish a bunch, some of them, as the southern toffs – tried their best to forget it had ever happened.

Mostly I mention the article because 1) I would give quite a lot to have seen that exhibition and 2) with prices for museums (at least here in NY) like the MOMA, Guggenheim, and The Frick being so high, I wonder how public art really is.  Sure, moreso than when it was almost exclusively in the hands of private collectors, but certainly not as much as we like to tell ourselves it is.

Posted in art, art history, exhibitions, exhibits, galleries, museums | 1 Comment »

Concerning Photographic Evidence

Posted by gninja on September 26, 2007


( Fenton, Roger. Valley of The Shadow of Death. Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin.)


(Fenton, Roger. Valley of The Shadow of Death. Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin.)

Since the invention of the Daguerrotype, the status of photographs as objective depictions of nature has been debated.  So common was the belief that the camera was just an eye that photography had a rough time of it achieving the status of art.

And even though art historians and curators now express the general consensus that photographs are just as imbued with intention and subjectivity as the other fine arts, there still is some lingering fascination with the notion of photo as evidence.

To wit.  A recent opinion piece in the NY Times regarding the two photos above. The photographs, taken by Roger Fenton in April 1855, outside Sebastopol show the same landscape differing only in the absence and presence of cannon balls in the road. The author of the Times’ article went on a journalistic adventure, sleuthing about to determine which of the photos was taken first. His article spills some more ink over an issue that is already drenched in it.

Unsurprisingly, the author arrives at no conclusion and instead extends an invitation for the NY Times readers to compile their own “evidence” and make a case.

I was reminded a lot of Billy Kluver’s book A Day with Picasso,  the kind of art historical detective work a man like Dan Brown could really go for.  In the book, Kluver pieces together into their “original” sequence a series of 24 photos taken by Jacques Cocteau on a day out with Picasso and pals.

Fun, I guess.

But these sorts of endeavors conceal the calculated (and subjective) nature of the photograph, preferring instead to establish some kind of reality, ferret out some kind documentary quality from the images.  Sure, the photos by Cocteau were taken in a particular order– that’s how the day goes.  But why insist upon recreating that order? Why impose a narrative upon an un-ordered collection of images?

And I would ask the same question regarding Fenton’s Valley of the Shadow of Death images.   I’m more interested in the existence of two photographs taken by Fenton (apparently, he did not often take more than one photograph in the same location). How does the juxtaposition of the two make a commentary about war? The very ambiguity of their order may be a deliberate mode of forcing the viewer to confront his or her own suppositions. I think we do an injustice to the photographer by assuming that he wanted only one of these to be the “actual” display photograph.  Which is what much of the debate around these sound like (though no one comes out and makes that supposition explicit)– i.e. “which photo did Fenton mean for realsies?”

Posted in art, art history, photography | 1 Comment »

Speaking of Iran…

Posted by gninja on September 25, 2007

(Picasso, Painter and Model, 1927, Oil on Canvas, 214 cm x 200 cm, Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art)

Some newspapers just have a better sense of nuance than others.

If you can get past the first page, the LA Times has published a rather thoughtful article on the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, and their cache of masterpieces in the basement (though still on internet display).

The article provides a contrast to the pages printed throughout the country yesterday during Ahmahdinejad’s visit to NY.  Most importantly, the reporter draws attention to presence of the paintings in the basement vault, and not in the hands of foreign collectors and museums.  Why not sell them?  Have a vanities bonfire?

While the US media (and the current administration) paint broad slap-dash strokes over an entire country, equating it and its leader, there’s obviously a diversity of opinion that’s not being rendered.  But it’s hard to hard to have an enemy that exhibits more than one dimension.

I’d hate to think of what people in other countries might say about me, were they to cull the AP so selectively:

White Supremacist Backlash Builds over Jena Case

Don’t Tase Me Bro

Iraq’s Soldiers of Fortune

Why Did Fox Censor Sally Field’s Emmy Speech?

Censor Kathy Griffin 

Those are just from the last week and a half.

Posted in art, art history, exhibitions, exhibits, galleries, museums, patronage, politics | Leave a Comment »

Cardinal Joachim’s Been (Mis)Reading St. Bernard of Clairvaux?

Posted by gninja on September 15, 2007


(Gerhard Richter’s stained glass window in Cologne Cathedral)

The BBC reports that Cardinal Joachim Meisner doesn’t like Richter’s stained glass window. Doesn’t like it like a Nazi doesn’t like Max Ernst.

That Richter’s use of the word ‘entartete‘ (degenerate) is even being questioned as deliberate is silly. The term was a key rhetorical tool in the Nazi repertoire for describing art that offended their fascist sensibilities, and has become synonymous in Germany (when describing art, at least) with Nazi propaganda. Its mnemonic thrust is tantamount to that of “are you now or have you ever been…” in America. You don’t need to say the rest for your audience immediately to think of McCarthy (and perhaps have their sphincter tighten up in the process).

But, to the medieval art historian, the Cardinal’s words also recall those of Bernard of Clairvaux, prudish monk par excellence. Speaking of this newfangled art springing up all around him:

I shall speak plainly: Isn’t greed, a form of idolatry, responsible for all this? Aren’t we seeking contributions rather than spiritual profit? “How?” you ask. “In a strange and wonderful way,” I answer. Money is scattered about in such a way that it will multiply. It is spent so that it will increase. Pouring it out produces more of it. Faced with expensive but marvelous vanities, people are inspired to contribute rather than to pray. Thus riches attract riches and money produces more money. I don’t know why, but the wealthier a place, the readier people are to contribute to it. Just feast their eyes on gold-covered relics and their purses will open. Just show them a beautiful picture of some saint. The brighter the colors, the saintlier he’ll appear to them. Men rush to kiss and are invited to contribute. There is more admiration for beauty than veneration for sanctity. Thus churches are decorated, not simply with jeweled crowns, but with jeweled wheels illuminated as much by their precious stones as by their lamps. We see candelabra like big bronze trees, marvelously wrought, their gems glowing no less than their flames. What do you think is the purpose of such things? To gain the contrition of penitents or the admiration of spectators?

On vanity of vanities, yet no more vain than insane! The church is resplendent in her walls and wanting in her poor. She dresses her stones in gold and lets her sons go naked. The eyes of the rich are fed at the expense of the indigent. The curious find something to amuse them and the needy find nothing to sustain them.

What sort of reverence is shown to the saints when we place their pictures on the floor and then walk on them? Often someone spits in an angel’s mouth. Often the face of a saint is trampled by some passerby’s feet. If sacred images mean nothing to us, why don’t we at least economize on the paint? Why embellish what we’re about to befoul? Why decorate what we must walk upon? What good is it to have attractive pictures where they’re usually stained with dirt?

Finally, what good are such things to poor men, to monks, to spiritual men? Perhaps the poet’s question could be answered with words from the prophet: “Lord, I have loved the beauty of your house, and the place where your glory dwells” (Ps. 26:8). I agree. Let us allow this to be done in churches because, even if it is harmful to the vain and greedy, it is not such to the simple and devout. But in cloisters, where the brothers are reading, what is the point of this ridiculous monstrosity, this shapely misshapenness, this misshapen shapeliness? What is the point of those unclean apes, fierce lions, monstrous centaurs, half-men, striped tigers, fighting soldiers and hunters blowing their horns? In one place you see many bodies under a single head, in another several heads on a single body. Here on a quadruped we see the tail of a serpent. Over there on a fish we see the head of a quadruped. There we find a beast that is horse up front and goat behind, here another that is horned animal in front and horse behind. In short, so many and so marvelous are the various shapes surrounding us that it is more pleasant to read the marble than the books, and to spend the whole day marveling over these things rather than meditating on the law of God. Good Lord! If we aren’t embarrassed by the silliness of it all, shouldn’t we at least be disgusted by the expense?

On the one hand, there’s really nothing new to see here. The Church has, since its institutionalization, always fought for control over imagery, and as a skeptic I doubt that it has ever been anything but political. While Bernard saw the sculpture in cloisters as distracting his fellow monks from their devotions, Abbot Suger argued that intricate craftsmanship prompted worshippers to contemplate God. Each man had his own reasons, in about the same years no less, for mandating that art have a particular appearance. As, I’m sure, Cardinal Joachim Meisner does.

Perhaps the strangest thing of all, though, (well, the second strangest thing– that whole ‘entartete’ part still gets first place) is how the work that Meisner criticizes appears to me to be the kind of work that no other church-man in history would have lambasted. Its abstraction is mathematic, rather than figural. Funny thing about Cologne Cathedral (and all Gothic Cathedrals, to boot): it’s designed upon a precise application of ratios used for their symbolic associations, a kind of sacred math. For those with access to JSTOR, see Peter Kidson’s “A Metrological Investigation”in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 53. (1990), pp. 71-97. If Meisner knew his own Cathedral a bit better, and the principles behind its construction, he might see Richter’s work as completely consonant with the structure.

That whole ‘entartete’ thing was just plain stupid. Not a slip of the tongue, to be sure. But a deliberate use of language the Cardinal learned expresses the height of moralization in German culture.

Posted in art, art history, cathedrals, medieval | 1 Comment »

Intro to Saussure’s Semiotics

Posted by gninja on September 6, 2007


In the spring, I worked on a project to design a presentation demonstrating the basic concept of the sign, as defined by Saussure in his Course in General Linguistics. I collaborated on this with James Conlon, the wonderful director of the Visual Media Center at Columbia University, who is responsible for putting the content I provided into a great flash presentation. Enjoy.

Saussure: An Introduction

Posted in art history, semiotics | 2 Comments »