Tuesday, July 29, 2014

MWA XXVI: Leonardo's Supper

Despite everything that has been happening in my life these days, I didn't want to forgo the Monthly Work of Art, in part because it seemed rather appropriate to share as this month's subject an Italian Renaissance masterpiece that was arguably my father's favorite work of art: Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper (Il Cenacolo). Because Leonardo experimented with different media in the fresh plaster when he painted this work from about 1494 to 1498, it has suffered and degraded over time. Continuous restorations have attempted to preserve it as much as possible, so it hasn't always been available for public viewing. I saw it once with my father and Zia Marisa, and I remember more the experience of how the spotlight shines briefly then dims, so as not to expose the work to light for too long. It is beautiful in a subdued, peaceful way. It is a testament to Renaissance geometric and spatial practices in art, to create a more humanistic approach to the human form and to fool the eye into thinking a flat wall is a three-dimensional space. (So much has been written about this painting, I won't even bother commenting further. Readers are invited to post comments about their favorite texts that discuss this work though.)

When I think about why my father loved this work of art, I suspect it had less to do with all of that, however, and more to do with the fact that it is located in Milan, his hometown, at Santa Maria delle Grazie. With so many famous Renaissance and Baroque masterworks found in cities like Florence, Venice, and Rome, the placement of one of the greatest of these in Milan is rather unique. For my father I'm sure his love of this work of art was about civic pride, a constant reminder of the beauty of life, particularly during the dark days of World War II when his family struggled to find food and avoid bombings throughout the city. I choose Leonardo's Last Supper for this MWA, as a tribute to my father and to his Milanese cultural heritage.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Passing of Alfredo Ferrari

Although my father has been ill for quite some time, I have to confess I was unprepared for the news that he had had such a sharp decline about two weeks ago. He passed away on Friday, July 18. Fortunately, I was able to get to Florida and spend his last two days with him. Although it was a great challenge to watch him slowly fade, it was, in truth, an honor and privilege to hold his hand as he passed away. After suffering from the effects of Alzheimer's disease for more than five years, and following up on the long suffering my mother endured as well from early onset Alzheimer's disease, my father is now at rest and no longer in pain. Although my mother's death took place eight years ago, it seems strangely poetic that her death occurred on July 13, five days before my father's did. His memorial service will be held on Sunday, August 10, at Memorial Park Funeral Home in St. Petersburg, FL. I've written his obituary and you can leave comments with the online guestbook by clicking here. But at some point that will come down, so I'm reproducing what I've written here as well.

Alfredo Ferrari, 82, passed away on Friday, July 18, 2014. He was born in Milan, Italy on September 6, 1931, the third son of Giuseppe Ferrari and Adelaide Cogliati, and grew up in Fascist Italy under Mussolini during World War II. He worked for the film and photography company Agfa-Gevaert in Italy, and later emigrated to the United States, living in the Bronx, New York, and continuing to work for Agfa as a warehouse manager in New Jersey. He also was a drummer in the New York-based band Bits-n-Pieces, and later in life played with other musical groups as well. He moved to St. Petersburg, Florida upon retiring in 1989, and became very active in the Italian-American Society of St. Petersburg, performing with the Tarantella Dancers and teaching Italian language and culture. He is predeceased by his wife Kathleen Pape Ferrari, who died in 2006. He is survived by his daughters AnnaMaria Ferrari Polo and Anita Ferrari and their mother, all of Italy, his son Roberto C. Ferrari of New York City, his foster son Christopher Carattini of New Jersey, his sister Rosanna Ferrari Clementi and nieces, also of Italy, as well as grandchildren and a great-grandchild. In lieu of flowers, please consider making a donation to the Alzheimer's Association, Florida Gulf Coast Chapter,http://www.alz.org/flgulfcoast/.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Gibson, Northumberland, Cupid, and Psyche

On July 9th, Sotheby's London held an auction of 57 works of fine and decorative arts collected by the Dukes of Northumberland, put up for sale by the current 12th Duke. Among the works that sold were two bas reliefs in marble made by the sculptor John Gibson (about whom I have of course written rather extensively!). The reliefs were The Marriage of Psyche and Celestial Love and Cupid Pursuing Psyche, and sold for a rather surprising £122,500 each ($209,953; hammer price including buyer's premium). This is nowhere as high as the millions spent on contemporary art, of course, but in a day and age when many people believe Classicism is dead, it is noteworthy that for some people these works still hold great merit and are considered worthy acquisitions and beautiful works of art. Indeed, after having looked at many of Gibson's works in Europe and America, I can say with certainty that his relief sculptures in marble are among his finest works. Gibson was a draftsman at heart, and relief sculpture often allows the sculptor to "draw" in marble, if you will, in a way that is very different from how sculpture in the round is conceived and made. The image above showing Cupid Pursuing Psyche is actually from the collection at the Royal Academy, as Sotheby's does not allow you to download images, but the two works are seemingly identical based on a visual comparison of the two, which you can see here and here.

The subjects of both works come from the mythical tales of Eros/Cupid, the winged god of love, and the young woman Psyche, with whom he unexpectedly fell in love. The full love story is beyond the scope of this blog post, but it was a love fraught with challenges, and in the end they were united in the heavens, with Psyche being turned into a goddess and granted butterfly wings to join her spouse. Their love story was a popular subject in art at the time, so Gibson was no different from many of his fellow painters and sculptors in trying to capture an interpretation of their story of young love. He worked the subject in marble, in fact, in three different bas reliefs--the two named above, and a third entitled simply Cupid and Psyche, showing the two in a more passionate embrace. The dates of the original designs for all three reliefs probably originate in the late 1830s, for we know that Queen Victoria commissioned one of the earliest marble versions of The Marriage of Psyche and Celestial Love (seen here: Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014). It was intended as a wedding anniversary gift for Prince Albert, but she instead gave it to him for Christmas in 1845. Although this 1844-45 version and that commissioned by the Duke of Northumberland seem almost exactly the same, in fact Gibson changed where he put his signature. On the version in the Royal Collection, he signed his name on the bottom of the lyre; in the version for Northumberland, he signed it along the lower left.

Algernon Percy, the 4th Duke of Northumberland (1792-1865), and his wife, the Duchess Eleanor Grosvenor Percy, commissioned the two bas reliefs from Gibson in early 1854, when they were on holiday in Rome and visiting his studio. Gibson noted in letters that he was warmly received by them. In his memoirs, he even credited the Duke with giving him the idea of keeping his famous Tinted Venus statue on display in his studio longer than he intended to help market this masterpiece. The Duke said to him: "If you could keep the Venus in Rome for a considerable time, she would be visited by travellers [sic] of different nations, and they would spread her fame for you." (The Biography of John Gibson, R.A., Sculptor, Rome, ed. Thomas Matthews [London: Heinemann, 1911], p.184). He followed the Duke's suggestion and kept his polychrome Venus for another five years, until the owner, Mrs. Preston, demanded he send the sculpture to her in England as promised.

Gibson kept up good relations with the Duke and Duchess. Extant correspondence shows that he was invited by them to visit them in England in 1855, and he probably did on his visit there that Fall. Other correspondence and his journal at the Royal Academy show that he also visited them at their famous home of Syon House in the suburbs of London from August 1st through 3rd, 1863. These two bas reliefs may have been installed in any one of their homes, as they could be moved and presumably were not integral to the architecture of a particular room. The separation of them from the descendants of the Dukes of Northumberland today is but one of a number of important works in their collection that critics say are sad to see go, but real life often forces even the aristocracy to make sacrifices in order to pay debts and repairs so as to maintain the grand manor estates one wants to visit when abroad.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Off the Grid: Now Open!

I will be writing soon about my amazing trip to Chicago (and Milwaukee!), but for now I just wanted to share the news that my guest-curated exhibition "Off the Grid: Beyond the Noise" at the Atlantic Gallery (last blogged about here) has opened today. You see here two installation views I photographed today. The official opening reception is this Thursday, July 10th, from 5-8pm.

The art work in the show is in a variety of media: painting, sculpture, photography, printmaking, and drawings. Most, but not all, of the 28 artists are based in the larger NYC area. They include Mayen Alcantara, Nick Arcidy, Niki Berg, Joseph Cavalieri, Andrea Costantini, Lilian Engel, Amanda Fehring, Meryl Salzinger, among others. In selecting the works for the exhibition, I based my decisions on how the artists' submissions responded and reacted to the themes of the grid and noise. Here is my curatorial statement, which will be available to visitors to read when they enter the gallery. The exhibition is on until July 26th at the Atlantic Gallery.

a series of measured perpendicular lines
a geometric arrangement for mapping and plotting points
a logical algorithm to enforce harmony, standardization, and authority
Grids are everywhere. They can be found in reams of paper made for penmanship and drafting. Electrical grids channel bolts of energy that power the insomnia that is New York City. There are monochromatic grids in the paintings of Agnes Martin, and Marilyn-head grids in the screen prints of Andy Warhol. Technological grids operate iPhones and Androids, keeping us wired, day and night. Grids imply perfection and control; but what is perfection and who is in control? Dare we move off the grid…go beyond the noise?

The group exhibition Off the Grid: Beyond the Noise brings together twenty-eight artists whose creative visions engage with or reject grids and noise. The art works on display include paintings, sculptures, collages, prints, photographs, and works in multiple media. Some artists use figurative art and nature to tell their story. Others let line and color convey their abstract thoughts. Still others experiment with new media and techniques. Together these artists share their unique interpretations of the exhibition’s theme, each of them searching for ways to move off the grid and go beyond the noise.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014


Last summer when I went on vacation to San Francisco, I had managed to cross of my list one of the two major U.S. cities that I had been wanting to visit in my lifetime. This week I get to cross of the second one: Chicago! AA & I will be traversing his former stomping grounds and favorite hot spots and meeting up with his friends. I told him the Art Institute of Chicago is on my list and everything else is up for grabs. He's planned dinner at Frontera Grill for one night, and we are going on the Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise another day. And of course...fireworks for 4th of July over Lake Michigan! I'm really excited, in case you couldn't tell. I'm sure I'll have more to report sometime after I return... Happy Independence Day!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Portal 5

Portal 5: San Francisco (30 August 2013)
(For other works in my Portals series, click here.)

  After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will show thee things which must be hereafter.
  And immediately I was in the Spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne.
  And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald.
-- from Revelations 4:1-3, King James Bible

Saturday, June 21, 2014

MWA XXV: Bernini's Teresa

It's been some time in my Monthly Work of Art posts since I wrote about sculpture, so I thought I would return to that medium by writing about one of my favorite works of Baroque sculpture, The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, 1647-52, by GianLorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) [image: Web Gallery of Art]. The sculpture itself is located in the Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, in Rome. I've been fortunate to visit this church twice in order to see this work, and I will return to see it again the next time I am there. The subject is taken from the autobiography of Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), who wrote about spiritual ecstasy in the form of an angel visiting her and piercing her heart with an arrow. Here is an excerpt from her text that describes the experience (which I sheepishly admit I've ripped from Wikipedia):

I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron's point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.

Bernini's sculpture is breathtaking to behold, as Teresa lies half-asleep on a cloud as the grinning angel holds an arrow aloft like a spear about to stab her. We clearly have caught them in medias res because we can see from the way her face writhes and her mouth moans in ecstasy that the angel has already been piercing her. The scene is truly nothing less than a representation of a woman experiencing an orgasm. The talents of Bernini's studio workers and the master himself in the carving of these dynamic figures in marble is incredible. Their stone bodies undulate like waves of water, fooling the viewer into thinking this isn't stone at all. But Bernini's talents lie not only in his skills as a sculptor but also in his use of a theatrical tableau to frame his work (see the full installation of this work below). Above the figures are gilded wood rays that emanate the light coming from an unseen window, suggesting divine light from God, and on the left and right are balconies in which members of the Cornaro family--all male--gaze with varying degrees of emotion at the scene before them. Saint Teresa's ecstasy is a performance, arguably not unlike the performance art of Marina Abramovic and others in contemporary art today. The saint's spiritual contortion serves to entertain the Cornaro men, and all men who enter the church and stare along with them at the saint in ecstasy. This is artistic voyeurism at its finest, the spying on a female body in one of its most private moments.

In 2009, I included Bernini in my Top 10 Favorite Things About Rome series of posts. As I noted in that post then, you cannot avoid Bernini and his influence on Rome. He defined Baroque sculpture, and he made Rome the center of that artistic universe. The contortions and vibrancy of his sculpture and architecture is everywhere, whether it's the baldacchino and Cathedra Petri in St. Peter's, Vatican City, or Saint Teresa in Ecstasy at Santa Maria della Vittoria. Bernini is just one of the many reasons why it is worth visiting Rome.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Hooray Canada!

It's taken me a week to write my latest travelogue, but better late than never. Over Memorial Day weekend, AA and I took a road trip to Montreal and Quebec City with the FF-POs. bklynbiblio readers may recall my 2010 trip to Montreal for the BQH conference (Oh Canada!), about which I was initially excited, but afterward somewhat disappointed (Ugh Canada!). Hence the title of this post: yes, this trip was fantastic. My disappointment with Montreal last time was in large part because of the weather and the conference, but I did have a few highlights, like the Museum of Fine Arts. We did go back there, and it was even better than I remembered, because there was more time to explore the entire museum in all 3 buildings. The decorative arts and design collection is especially impressive. The picture you see above is of AA and I posing with Jim Dine's Six-Foot Hearts outside the museum, in their urban public outdoor sculpture park. We spent our time exploring more of the city, and spent some time at the Botanical Gardens, which we rather nice. We had amazing weather, so we couldn't complain about that at all.

Our two nights in Quebec City, however, really made this trip as great as it was. This charming city is everything I imagined French Canada would be: quaint village-like shops and cafes, a lot more spoken French, and a relaxing place to simply wander and take in the sites. Even better, we had fantastic meals. We stayed in a delightful hotel called Port-Royal, located in the lower part of Old Quebec, and we just meandered through the lower and upper parts of the city. The pictures you see here help narrate some of the highlights for me. The upper part of the city is crowned by the Chateau Frontenac, and had beautiful sweeping views down to the St. Lawrence River. In our wanderings, we found ourselves by the Parliament building, which had a gorgeous French fountain that originally was at the 1862 International Exposition. The bronze sculptures throughout the city, including installed on the Parliament building, are in impeccable condition, a testament to their interest in taking care of their art. The quaint streets are lined with stone buildings, and at night the street had a beautiful misty feel to them, that made me think of John Atkinson Grimshaw paintings, albeit with electric lights, not gas lights, but still atmospheric. Finally, I have to say, I had one of the most amazing meals of my entire life at Cafe Bistro du Cap. The dinner was table d'hote (prix-fixe), starting with a mousse pate, then a main course of beef bourguignon with thyme mashed potatoes, carrots, and asparagus, with panna cotta & berries for dessert. The restaurant was quiet and intimate, with only about eight tables, one server, and the owner who was the chef. Truly, the meal was superb. I definitely look forward to returning to Quebec City in the near future!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Maya Angelou

It was just 8 days ago that the world received news the great African-American writer Maya Angelou had died at the age of 86, having just celebrated her last birthday on April 4th. Her death struck me cold, and it has bothered me since. It's not because we are both Aries and I think we are kindred souls (I wouldn't dare compare myself to her genius). Nor am I troubled that she had died too young, or because I thought I "knew" her in some way. I'm saddened because the world will no longer be graced with the power of her voice and the power of her words. Her last message on Twitter, dated May 23rd, was as strong a message as any she had ever written and spoken: "Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God." I can still hear in my head her recitation of the inaugural poem "On the Pulse of Morning" in 1993--A Rock. A River. A Tree.--and its final stanza, resonant with hope:

Here, on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister's eyes, and into
Your brother's face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope--
Good morning.

These past 8 days I have been distressed by her death. I have felt a rivulet of emotion gurgling beneath the surface of my mind and my heart. I have been in mourning, and I only just realized this fact a little while ago. I never had the honor or privilege of meeting Maya Angelou, but there was always something about her voice and her words that have struck me. I am not alone; she has impacted many people's lives. But I realize that I am mourning the loss of a generation and a past and an understanding of the power of words, how when written from the heart and the mind, and spoken from the soul, words have the power to make a difference on a level that transcends basic textuality. Maya Angelou wasn't a perfect woman. She was something better. She was a human being, just like you and me, someone who made mistakes and learned from them, someone who knew that through our creative minds and bodies, one can make a small difference in this world, a difference that can enact positive change, hope, and love. Watch this short video interview with Maya Angelou that Ann Curry did about 12 years ago. You will quickly understand what I mean.

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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Off the Grid

The Atlantic Gallery here in NYC is holding an open call for artists to submit work for their 2014 Summer Group Show. Guess who the curator is? Yours truly! I've been asked by the Atlantic Gallery to act as their guest curator, selecting the art works for the show, each of them best responding to the theme of "Off the Grid: Beyond the Noise." The exhibition itself will take place from July 8th-26th. I also will be the juror and select the winning art work at the exhibition. The prize is a one-person show to be held at the gallery in 2015. I'm truly honored to be part of this exhibition and competition, and I thank the Atlantic Gallery for this exciting opportunity. Spread the word and submit entries. Details are on the image you see here, or you can go to http://www.atlanticgallery.org/upcoming.html to learn more.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

MWA XXIV: Bronzino's Man

Over the past few years, I have posted news when some major museums began to release images of works of public domain art for free for academic use. Each year the number of institutions is increasing, and the number of high-quality, high-resolution images now available for free for downloading is in the millions, because of these open-access initiatives. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has just announced the release of over 400,000 high-resolution images now available for free as part of their Open Access for Scholarly Content initiative. They join the Getty Museum, the National Gallery of Art, the Rijksmuseum, the British Museum, and Yale University in making these images available for non-profit, academic use without charging any fees. This, I can tell you, is an incredible advancement, and makes the work of writers who need images so much easier to be able to discuss works without paying hefty fees. In celebration of the Met's announcement, I decided to share as the May Monthly Work of Art one of my favorite paintings in the European Paintings galleries: Bronzino's Portrait of a Young Man, oil on wood, dated to the 1530s. The elegance of this young man and Bronzino's Manneristic approach in painting his physique, beauty, and self-assurance make him a striking subject. And the odd quirkiness of his lazy eye unsettles you enough to make you question whether it is in fact an abnormality or Bronzino's attempt to fool you into wondering at what or at whom the young man is gazing.

The release of these images means that, for the first time, X-rays and conservation photos will be made available for some works as well. So in looking through images of this painting, one finds a number of technical details that X-rays reveal through the layers of paint. You can see here an X-ray of the painting, and how it shows great differences in the original design of the architectural background. His face also is thinner and more attenuated, and the hand on his hip is posed differently, but this is indeed the same subject. Rather than cite more information about the painting, here is what the curators and conservators have to say about the painting.

"This arresting portrait of an unidentified young Florentine is dated by most scholars to the 1530s. During that decade Bronzino was often engaged in painting members of a close-knit circle of acquaintances with whom he shared literary interests, and this sitter—who so conspicuously holds open a book—may be from among that group. Vasari mentions the names of several of these sitters early in his biography of the artist and it has recently been suggested that this panel may portray Bonaccorso di Pietro Pinadori (born 1502), mentioned by the author alongside Ugolino Martelli and Lorenzo Lenzi, both of whose portraits have been identified (an earlier hypothesis that the picture is a self-portrait has not been taken up in the literature).

"The elegant young man wears a black satin doublet, with fashionably slashed sleeves, over a white camicia with a ruffled collar, and with a brilliant blue belt. Both his hat and the ties supporting his codpiece are decorated with gold aglets, and he wears one ring. He stands between an elaborately decorated table and chair within an architectural setting meant to suggest a Florentine palace. Both pieces of furniture include grotesque masks; that of the remarkable table is stretched as if made of fabric rather than stone. A third "mask" is suggested in an insistent pattern resembling a face within the drapery of the lower part of the costume. The meaning of these grotesque masks is debated; it may be that they are in some way analogous to poetic ideas of the time and refer to identity as a kind of mask. Bronzino was himself a poet. It is clear that they are meant to provide a contrast to the sitter's refined facial features and bearing.

"The numerous and important changes made by the artist as he painted were documented in x-radiographs as early as 1930. These have been clarified, and Bronzino's artistic process further elucidated, through new x-radiography and infrared reflectography of 2009 revealing underdrawing. Most conspicuously, the architectural setting was transformed: initially a straight molding ran at a diagonal behind the sitter (the underdrawing includes a corbel below that visible now at the left to coincide with this first idea for the setting). Two types of underdrawing have been revealed. The more unusual was done, probably with the butt end of a brush, directly into the panel's thick white imprimitura, or preparation layer. It was used vigorously to describe the draped grotesque mask at the left, outlining contours but also indicating shadows with diagonal hatching. Many of the artist's original compositional ideas are indicated in this type of drawing (these can be seen as well in the x-radiograph): they include the first position of the proper right hand and book, with the hand in stricter profile and the book shown with its spine facing the viewer and covers splayed; the placement of the proper left hand with the thumb tucked behind the waist; different contours of the sleeves, collar, and cuffs of the costume; and an elaboration in the area of the codpiece, into which an article of clothing—almost certainly gloves—was originally tucked. More traditional underdrawing in black chalk or charcoal and carbon-based ink or paint applied with a brush is found throughout the head and the hands. As seen in the x-radiograph as well, drawing of the head shows its initial shape to have been much narrower but with the features identically placed (dispelling the possibility that the final version is of a second sitter). The x-radiograph also indicates changes in the furniture at right that are not easily decipherable. Because of the extent of these changes, it has sometimes been speculated that the painting was begun at one time and then finished later—perhaps years later."

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

AAMG in Seattle

I'm heading to Seattle, Washington for the weekend for the 2014 Association of Academic Museums & Galleries (AAMG) annual conference. It will be the first time I've ever attended this conference. Fortunately, I will know at least one person who is going. AAMG is a somewhat of an off-shoot of the American Alliance for Museums (AAM), and their annual conference with a big expo starts right after AAMG, but I actually have to miss that part of things to get back to work, which is a little disappointing. The AAMG conference seems interesting, with sessions on museum education for undergraduates and the role of visual literacy in writing about art as just two examples. I'm also attending an intensive "Bootcamp for Academic Museums" workshop on Sunday morning, for which I actually have homework to do! I haven't been to Seattle since 1997, when I attended the Special Libraries Association conference, and I enjoyed the visit then, so I'm looking forward to strolling through Pike Place Market along the waterfront, checking out the Seattle Art Museum and its Olympic Sculpture Park, and maybe even climb the Space Needle (even if it is a bit of a kitschy thing to do). The crazy thing is that this is a marathon visit--60 hours! And then I fly back in NYC for a work event. Yes, sometimes I am a little nutty.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

SECAC 2014

I received word over the weekend that my proposal was accepted to give a paper at the 2014 Southeastern College Art Conference (SECAC), which will be held in Sarasota, FL this coming October. Although it is an independent organization, SECAC is often seen as an off-shoot of the College Art Association (CAA), at which I have spoken before, but this will be my first SECAC paper. I've heard from colleagues that this conference is often eagerly attended by art historians working in the Southeast who often don't have the opportunity to travel to larger conferences. As a result, the conference is considered more collegial, with a warmer, more encouraging reception to presentations than one often gets from the CAA crowd  of highly-competitive academics. SECAC seems to draw a number of colleagues that I know rather well, professionally and personally, so I will be among a number of friends when I'm there in October. (Conveniently, I also will be near the Padre and la famiglia in St. Petersburg so I will also go for a visit to see them as well.)

I am part of the panel session entitled "The Color of Sculpture," discussing the revitalization and different applications of polychromy in sculpture during the 19th and 20th centuries. Two of my CUNY Graduate Center colleagues are also on the same panel, so that was a nice surprise. The image you see here is a photograph I took a few years ago showing a close-up of the Tinted Venus, 1851-53, by John Gibson, at the Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool, which will be the subject of my talk. The statue is installed in a glass-walled tempietto, hence the off sheen seen in the photograph. Here is the brief proposal that I submitted.

Tinting Venus: John Gibson and Polychrome Sculpture, from the Studio to the Fair
by Roberto C. Ferrari, Columbia University

Art history has both credited and derided the British sculptor John Gibson for the reintroduction of polychrome sculpture in the nineteenth century. The display of his Tinted Venus at the 1862 International Exhibition in London is seen by most as the highlight and death knell of his career. Perceiving Gibson as a Victorian Pygmalion, critics and scholars—then and now—claim he tinted his statue to make marble appear like flesh. In fact, this is but one of a number of erroneous misconceptions about his Tinted Venus and other polychrome works. Rather, Gibson’s intent was to introduce an ancient Greco-Roman decorative practice, reinvented for a modern audience.

This paper will redress art history’s misconceptions about Gibson and his polychrome sculpture. Among the areas to be discussed will be his sources of inspiration, his studio practice, and the display of the Tinted Venus in Rome long before its premiere in London. This paper also will consider the surprising number of positive reviews that this statue received at the time. Gibson’s experiment was certainly polarizing, but only by correcting assumptions about his practice can art historians today better understand his important role in the history of polychrome sculpture.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Meera Thompson Returns

Regular followers of bklynbiblio may recall my posts on the art of Meera Thompson, first mentioned here and then here, followed by our collaborative video production with Anna Fahr two years ago (a project of which I am still quite proud). Meera has a new exhibition opening this week at the Atlantic Gallery entitled "The Landscape Listens," premiering new works in watercolor and gouache on hand-made paper. You can take a sneak peak of the exhibition by going to her website here. The work you see above is entitled Prelude and is one of the many pieces in the exhibition that immediately suggest to me music. A "prelude" is a brief composition, but in this case Claude Debussy's Impressionistic Prelude to the Afternoon of the Faun seems an appropriate analogy to the complexities of color and atmospheric moods that permeate this work.

I will be giving a gallery lecture this Friday afternoon about her work to her students and other invited artists. I know I will be speaking about the musical connections mentioned above, but more importantly I will be talking about synesthesia, the way one sense can respond to a stimulus applied to a different sense. For instance, one hears a piece of music and it conjures an image of colors or a physical sensation in one's hands. Meera uses the title of her exhibition as a form of synesthesia itself, referencing the poetry of Emily Dickinson, who was a master at blending sensations using words that can conjure images and make you hear sounds. I could go on and say more, but I will reserve those thoughts for the talk on Friday. If you're in the NYC area and want to stop by, feel free to do so, or at the very least visit Meera's exhibition and see her beautiful paintings in person. The Atlantic Gallery is located at 548 W. 28th St., Suite 540, in Chelsea.

Friday, April 25, 2014

MWA XXIII: Waterhouse's Nymphs

Even though the work I've selected for April's Monthly Work of Art is properly titled Hylas and the Nymphs, the focus of the painting clearly are is the group of sensual nymphs who are seducing the young Hylas. This painting dates from 1896 and is by the British painter John William Waterhouse (image: Manchester Art Gallery). Waterhouse is often classified as a late Pre-Raphaelite painter, but, as a 2009 exhibition and its catalogue authors argued, his paintings often reveal an awareness of French plein-aire painting and possibly even Impressionism. Hence he based his subjects on historical figures and mythological stories, but he painted them with a combination of brush stroke styles and with new optic visions as to what he is representing. (I've written about Waterhouse before on this blog, when Elizabeth Prettejohn gave a talk about this exhibition at the NAVSA conference at Yale, which you can read here.) In the painting the repetitive image of the nymphs, who all resemble one another, is startling to behold and works to emphasize their beauty as they entrance young Hylas. There is a beautiful sense of naturalism in the painting as well, in the way Waterhouse paints the lily pads, water, and the nymphs, as if to convince the viewer that these imaginative women are truly part of our world. Their seduction and ultimate killing of Hylas follows numerous other representations of the femme fatale in art throughout Europe at this time, including Salome (Gustave Moreau), Eve (Franz von Stuck), mermaids (Edward Burne-Jones), and female vampires (Edvard Munch).

According to the ancient Greek myth, the youth Hylas and his companion the heroic Hercules (they were perceived to be lovers) were part of the Argonauts, the crew of sailors who joined Jason on his quest for the golden fleece. They stopped on an island to rest, and Hylas went off to find fresh water to refill their supply of water jugs. His beauty attracted the attentions of the water nymphs, who dragged him underwater to be with them, and ultimately to his death. Hercules grieved over the loss of his companion and when to find Hylas. They were both gone so long, the Argonauts set sail leaving them behind, and Hercules went on to have other adventures. Although variations of this myth frequently appear in ancient texts, in 1867 the Arts and Crafts founder William Morris published his epic The Life and Death of Jason, in which the story of Hylas appears in Book IV. Morris died in 1896, the same year Waterhouse painted this work, although this association could just be a coincidence.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Solomon's Arrest in Paris

Exactly 140 years ago in Paris, on Friday, April 18, 1874, the 33-year-old Anglo-Jewish artist Simeon Solomon was sentenced to 3 months in prison for "mutually indulging in obscene contact in public" with 17-year-old Henri Lefranc (aka Raphael-Maximillien Dumont), both having been arrested in a public urinal at the Place de la Bourse on March 4. One often doesn't think to commemorate an event such as this, particularly since it isn't as well-known as Solomon's previous arrest for the same crime in London the year beforehand. Both arrests attest to the secrecy and danger male lovers faced at a time when same-sex passion was a criminal act. Credit goes to historian William Peniston for first uncovering the documentation of this arrest, and my colleague Carolyn Conroy has expanded on Peniston's research. It's actually rather surprising that biographers and art history has chosen to forget about the Parisian arrest. His friend and collector Robbie Ross (himself later buried with Oscar Wilde) wrote about Solomon in his obituary that he: "used to boast that he had been in prison in every country in Europe; but besides London there is no evidence that he was arrested elsewhere than in Paris, where he was detained three months." Solomon's artistic productivity in 1874 was blunted by this time in prison; nevertheless, he produced that year this beautiful drawing you see above, Until the Day Break and the Shadows Flee Away, a quote from the Song of Solomon 2:17 (King James Version). The image you see here is a Frederick Hollyer platinum print photograph of the drawing from the collection of the Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery.

For more information:
Carolyn Conroy, "'He Hath Mingled with the Ungodly': The Life of Simeon Solomon after 1873 with a Survey of the Extant Work" (Ph.D. Diss., University of York, 2009).

William A. Peniston, Pederasts and Others: Urban Culture and Sexual Identity in Nineteenth-Century Paris (New York: Harrington Park Press, 2004).

Robert Ross, "A Note on Simeon Solomon," Westminster Gazette (August 24, 1905).