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).

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Birthday No. 44

In Italian, when you wish someone "Happy Birthday," you say "Buon Compleanno"--essentially "good completion of the year." It is meant as high praise, that you survived another year, and although I do not know this for certain I do suspect it has its origins in days of yore when mortality rates from disease, pestilence, hunger, etc., were more rampant in the Western world. This is a philosophical preamble for me to write about the recent completion of my 44th year. This past weekend turned out to be one of the more memorable birthdays I've ever had. There is some steep competition for this. On this blog, readers may remember past birthday-related events like when I went to Brussels with SVH in 2011, or my 40th celebration as a "Gay Boys Weekend." Other birthday posts referenced the ASPCA; my birthday falls on the anniversary date of its foundation. And I have had quite a few other historical birthday memories, such as my 30th, which was a week-long trip to Disney World and my first tattoo. I'm already starting to plan something travel-oriented for no. 45...

But this weekend was rather fantastic, and I owe it all to my dear AA. On Wednesday, we had dinner at Sangria for Spanish tapas, and then we went to go see Bullets Over Broadway at the St. James Theater. It was the last night of previews, and we thoroughly enjoyed it. It was funny, the women were especially talented in their singing, some of the dance numbers were great, and the 1920s music was very entertaining. The critics aren't as thrilled with it, as The New York Times has already reported (image above showing a scene from the show: Sara Krulwich/NYT). Woody Allen's reputation just isn't what it used to be, with more accusations and mud-slinging going on. But we went to see something different; we really couldn't care less about all that. And we enjoyed ourselves. Even better, as we left, we had a great celebrity sighting: Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick were looking like everyday people hanging out in the sidelines. AA & I were a bit starstruck.

On Thursday, my actual birthday, I worked from home writing an essay for an exhibition catalogue, plus got my free Starbucks mocha. I admit I checked Facebook a few times all day and it made me smile to receive birthday greetings from so many of my "friends" (many of whom are genuinely my friends). That evening I headed out to Jersey City for a yummy home-cooked meal and baked cake courtesy of AA, and I was delighted by a very cool gift of an Apple TV hook-up! Now I can easily stream my iTunes music, Netflix movies, etc., all to my TV. On Friday, I received a very nice book in the mail as a birthday gift from the PR-AMs: Friendship and Loss in the Victorian Portrait: "May Sartoris" by Frederic Leighton by Malcolm Warner. That night, I headed to Hoboken for a dinner for someone else's birthday at Zylo steakhouse at the W Hotel (who knew there was a W Hotel in Hoboken?!), and found myself rather startled to discover I was being feted with birthday wishes as well.

If all that wasn't enough, AA had coordinated birthday drinks and then dinner at Le Zie, a fantastic Italian place in Chelsea we've eaten at numerous times and enjoy very much. My friend RL has been staying with me for a conference in town, so he met up with us, as did nine others, making us a group of 12! I was startled to receive actual presents: a gorgeous Paul Stuart silk handkerchief for my blazers from RL; a bottle of Tito's vodka from the AG-GHs; a lovely floral arrangement made by JM; and from AR and DM an enormous, beautifully illustrated art book entitled The History of Florence in Painting by Antonella Fenech Kroke. And then AA treated everyone to dinner, which pretty much made my heart burst in appreciation and love. I am so touched by everyone's kindness, friendship, and generosity, as this all followed up on generous gifts from a few relatives that arrived during the week. It all has made this an incredibly memorable birthday. I ended the lovely weekend with something I have blogged about and shared more than once on this blog: AA and I headed to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden to see the cherry blossoms. They were only just starting to bloom, but we saw numerous daffodils, magnolia trees (such as the one below), and the bonsai. Partaking of nature in this relaxing way with my very special guy helped make this entire birthday weekend a smashing success.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

15 Minutes Are Over

The pictures above and below are installation views of my one-day exhibition "15 Minutes: Andy Warhol's Photographic Legacy," which was held outside the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia yesterday, April 4th. I blogged about this here a few weeks ago. I decided to make the exhibition more archival and less traditionally "museum"-like in its arrangement, largely because the more I looked at the Polaroids and black-and-white silver gelatin prints (156 total in the collection), the more ideas about what the images said to the viewer and to each other struck me as an interesting way to display them. For instance, I juxtaposed works that questioned aspects of masculinity and femininity, incorporating photographs of a woman with her baby and Halston's lover Victor Hugo carrying a beach ball under his robe simulating pregnancy. I incorporated one Polaroid of a drag queen named Kim from the Ladies and Gentlemen series. I also played with ideas of age and beauty, laying out a not-so-flattering collection of Polaroids of Lola Jacobson beside a runway fashion show photograph. And then I explored fame through Polaroids of well-known individuals in the collection, including Princess Caroline, Dolly Parton, and Dorothy Hamill (see below), but I also included elsewhere "unidentified" people to suggest how his photographs gave unknowns an equal amount of 15 minutes of fame. My staff in Art Properties (Larry & Lillian) deserve due credit for working hard on mounting the boards and creating the labels.

The public program was a great success. We wound up standing-room-only (200+), which was a fantastic surprise. My talk lasted 5 minutes (see below), then Deborah Cullen introduced each of the Warhol speakers, who couldn't help but go on longer than 15 minutes, although they all managed to introduce in their allotted time interesting thoughts about the significance of Warhol and his work, in its historical day and now. Blake Gopnik explored the mysterious origins of the quote attributed to Warhol on "15 minutes of fame," suggesting there is little evidence (or is there?) for Warhol ever having said it. Neil Printz gave a fantastic talk on Warhol's art work and brought in the Polaroids a lot to demonstrate how they related to Warhol's different projects. Larissa Harris spoke about the upcoming Warhol exhibition at Queens Museum of Art, and Tom Kalin discussed his own film projects and the influence of Warhol on him and his work. All in all, it went well, and the I think we were all satisfied with the results and feedback. I admit I was a little dismayed that by the time I got to the reception there was no more wine left (!!!!), and, since I had to take down the exhibition, it was getting late, etc., I did not get a chance to hear the chat between Peter Brant and Urs Fischer, but I was told it was another full house. Considering I am in no way a Warhol expert, let alone a contemporary art specialist, overall I think I can say things turned out pretty well. Below is the text of my "5 minutes" of fame. Admittedly parts of it only make sense in reference to the PowerPoint presentation I showed, but I think you get the basic gist of what I was trying to say.

15 Minutes: Andy Warhol's Photographic Legacy
Roberto C. Ferrari

Good Afternoon. As the Curator of Art Properties at Columbia University, I also would like to welcome you to this program today, and tell you how excited we are to be able to showcase a curated selection of the photographic works by Andy Warhol from our permanent collection. Art Properties is based in Avery Library, and our department acts as the steward for the approximately 15,000 works of fine and decorative art that have been donated to Columbia since its foundation over 250 years ago. The exhibition component of our program is located in display cases outside the Wallach Art Gallery. If you have not had a chance to see the exhibition, you will have time after the round-table discussion. I would like to thank my staff in Art Properties, as well as my colleagues in Avery and the Wallach Art Gallery, for their assistance in making this exhibition come together. And, as a reminder, be sure to engage with all forms of social media using #WarholColumbia this afternoon. If he were alive today, Warhol likely would have been a prominent Tweeter and shot numerous digital photos with his iPhone.

Indeed, our technology-driven social world is arguably linked to our obsession with pop culture, celebrity, and glamour. The opportunity for fame through reality television, selfies, Twitter, and Instagram owes much of its success to the cult of celebrity spawned by Andy Warhol. The artist reportedly once said, “in the future everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes,” and through his art Warhol ensured that everyone—the famous, the infamous, and the mundane—all had 15 minutes of fame. Our exhibition echoes this time-based ideology as a one-day event, giving you, the public, a mere glimpse—a snapshot, if you will—of Warhol’s photographs at Columbia. These works in our collection were a gift from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts as part of their Photographic Legacy Program, which began in 2007 when the Foundation made the decision to disseminate to Columbia and numerous other institutions selections of photographs in an effort to share Warhol’s artistic legacy. Columbia received 106 Polaroids and 50 black-and-white silver gelatin prints, and I am pleased to announce that this year we also acquired an extension of this gift with six large silkscreen prints. Among these is this image of Martha Graham, which Warhol created from a 1940 photograph by Barbara Morgan, demonstrating Warhol’s interest not only in his own photography, but that of others, as sources for his artistic interpretations.

Warhol shot Polaroids during the 1970s and ‘80s, primarily as studies for the portrait paintings he made at that time. An artist-friend of mine recently commented that Warhol used his camera like a drawing instrument, and certainly in utilizing photographs as studies for paintings he was following the historical legacy of painters since the Renaissance. Art historians see drawings as glimpses into the artist’s mind at work; similarly, Warhol’s Polaroids allow us to emulate what he saw through the lens of his camera. Individually, his Polaroids personify idealized types: models and movie stars, royalty and rock stars, swindlers and socialites, all of them ready for their proverbial close-ups, posed and displayed as emblems of glamor, fame, and fortune. Collectively, however, these same photographs reveal the mechanics of an artist at work, as if on an assembly line. They show all the ticks and quirks of the sitters, and they do not always flatter them. The instantaneity of the Polaroid allowed Warhol to act spontaneously and waste film in an effort to find the right image that he ultimately chose as worthy of becoming one of his squared portraits, painted in multiples in a hyperbolic display of colors, all churned out by Factory assistants.

Unlike the glam of the Polaroids, Warhol’s black-and-white prints seem more documentary in nature. They reveal snippets of Warhol’s quotidian existence…touristy pictures and vapid interiors…candid paparazzi shots and scenes of yet another party. They have their own aesthetic, and certainly warrant further study. But what strikes me most about these prints and Polaroids are the messages they send when shuffled and juxtaposed against one another. These are some of the themes you will find in the exhibition upstairs. For instance, why is aging so ugly, in need of white cover up? And why is young and blonde so idealized and beautiful? How does society judge femininity? What exactly ‘makes’ a man? And how do you judge those who are somewhere sexually in-between? Are these charming socialites or elitist snobs? And are there any limits as to who or what can win fame, or even how one achieves it?

We live in a society where glamor, fame, and fortune are pandemic, but they can only flourish because of the image. Paparazzi or selfie, it is how one maintains celebrity. Warhol understood this and utilized the image above almost everything else to propagate the cult of celebrity, for without a face, anyone is just another name. Warhol’s photographic legacy is the cult of celebrity, an enticement for all of us to strive for our own 15 minutes of fame. Thank you.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

MWA XXII: Botticelli's Spring

This Winter has been incredibly cold, with record amounts of snow and below-normal temperatures, even this late in March. Needless to say, I am ready for Spring! So what better way to celebrate the start of the new season this week than to share as this Monthly Work of Art the Primavera (Spring), ca.1482, by the early Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli (images: Web Gallery of Art). This painting hangs at the Uffizi in Firenze. The first time I ever saw it in person (1991?) I was in awe. In fact, I was so much in awe, that my father took the photograph you see below, which admittedly is quite embarrassing because of my mullet, but you get the impression from my stunned look how awestruck I was to see this painting in person.

The fact is, Primavera is my favorite painting in the world. It's often not easy to narrow down one's ideas of what is a favorite anything, but I can say for sure that this painting seems to have always been, and remains, my favorite. The question is...why? The painting itself is an enigma. We know that it is intended to be an allegory of spring. We can identify the central figure as the goddess of love, Venus, here seen as a glorified wife and mother goddess, Venus Victrix, not a sexualized goddess. She gazes at the viewer and her raised hand offers a sign of welcome to her bower as if it were a mudra of peace. Behind her, among the trees, the branches form an arched niche, and the sky becomes like a halo around her head. She is Venus and Virgin Mary in one. Above her is her son Cupid, blind as is love, shooting an arrow. As for the other figures, they should be read right-to-left. The god of the wind Zephyrus chases after the nymph Chloris, ravishing her, symbolically transforming her into Flora, the goddess of flowers, who throws petals from her dress into the grass. Sexuality has been allegorized as fertility. On Venus's proper right are the 3 Graces (image here), who perform a dance of celebration, their hands gently touching one another, their diaphonous clothes floating around their nude bodies, commingled, dancing to music only they can hear. And beside them is the god Mercury, the messenger god who carries the souls of the dead to the underworld. Is this the finality to love and life for all humankind?

The painting is done in tempera (egg yolk with pigment), a favored medium in Florence at this time. Tempera paint helps reinforce linear structure, as the colors rarely blend, but Botticelli devises a way in his brush strokes to make the paint create motion, not only in each figure's positions and bodily forms, but in the way the clothes on each figure move, most notably the aforementioned dresses on the 3 Graces. These mythological figures all appear like a painted relief, presented to the viewer with no obvious subject, but at least with recognizable iconographic forms. It is said that the painting was commissioned from Botticelli for a cousin of the Medici family as a wedding present for the bride and groom, and that it hung in a main room in the couple's villa, just beside Botticelli's other masterpiece from this time, The Birth of Venus, a symbol of Venus as a idealized beauty and sexualized love.

I've actually written about this painting before on this blog, emphasizing Mercury in particular, albeit with some humor in that post. But it is true that this painting is my favorite. It has always struck me for its frozen beauty. It is timeless. It is the perfect Eden, populated by beauty and sound and nature, but represented only as a flat painting. It is Spring, a perpetual sense of new life and new love, and it offers viewers the hope of a future, one that leaves them peaceful and happy, in their own personal Arcadian bower. I have not seen this painting in person in almost a decade now, but the next time I return to Firenze, I will revisit my personal Spring once again.

Friday, March 7, 2014

15 Minutes

One of the great surprises of my new position at Columbia is that there is such a vast array of works in the Art Properties collection that I'm often surprised what I may be working on. Take, for instance, the photography of Andy Warhol (1928-1987). I certainly would never claim to be a specialist on Warhol's work, but I can certainly recognize aspects of glamour, celebrity, and fame that his photographs conjure up for viewers. His famous phrase "In the future everyone will be world famous for fifteen minutes" clearly continues to resonate in our fame-obsessed world today, from reality TV to Twitter and YouTube. His Polaroids and black-and-white prints are visual evidence of his own attempt not only to apotheosize the mundane and unknown, but exploit the famous for their glam as sham.

On April 4, 2014, Columbia University will hold a 1-day exhibition (curated by me!) of photographs by Warhol and host a public program of talks about Warhol's legacy and the cult of fame, fashion, portraiture, and so on. Our keynote speaker is the Swiss-born contemporary artist Urs Fischer, and there will be a round-table discussion by Warhol specialists: Neil Printz, Blake Gopnik, Larissa Harris, and Tom Kalin. As for the exhibition of his photographs, why only 1 day? It's in the spirit of his "15 minutes" of fame ideology...present for the moment, gone before you know it. This program is a joint venture between my department, the School of the Arts, the Wallach Art Gallery, the Art History & Archaeology Dept., and sponsored by the Brant Foundation Art Study Center. For more information and to RSVP, go to And follow news at the collection, exhibition, and program on Twitter and other social networks, #WarholColumbia.

Image Credit: Andy Warhol, © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Princess Caroline of Monaco, 1983, Polacolor ER, Art Properties, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University in the City of New York, Gift of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts (2008.6.18).

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Review: Modernity of Ancient Sculpture

This book review that I wrote last year, transcribed below, was scheduled to be published in the final 2013 issue of Art Libraries Journal (vol. 38, no. 4), but for some reason I still haven't seen a copy of the journal issue (print copy lost in the mail? electronic not released yet?). In any case, word has it that it was actually published in that issue, so I thought I would share what I submitted here as well.


The Modernity of Ancient Sculpture: Greek Sculpture and Modern Art from Winckelmann to Picasso by Elizabeth Prettejohn (London; New York: I. B. Tauris, 2012).

Reviewed by Roberto C. Ferrari, Columbia University

The long-standing ‘march-to-modernism’ approach seen in art history textbooks has begun to break down due to new approaches and interpretations that appreciate the art of the past for its own value and contribution to its own time period. Postmodernist discourse began to disrupt this ideology decades ago, but there has been a persistent block among modernists that in order to be ‘modern’ one had to overthrow the dominant art form of the past: classicism. That is, to be avant-garde one had to be anti-academic/anti-classical. In art museums, only very recently have exhibitions begun to challenge this notion. Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy,and Germany, 1918-1936 at the Guggenheim (2010-11), and Modern Antiquity: Picasso, de Chirico,Léger, and Picabia in the Presence of the Antique at the Getty (2011-12), are just two examples of such shows that offered refreshing views of twentieth-century art as embracing classicism as part of modernism. Elizabeth Prettejohn’s latest book The Modernity of Ancient Sculpture: Greek Sculpture and Modern Art from Winckelmann to Picasso thus is timely in its publication. She cites these catalogs in her text, but she expands upon them in other ways, ultimately proposing that modernism and classicism are inextricably linked.

Focusing on the period 1750-1950, Prettejohn argues that the histories of antiquity and modernism not only were written parallel to one another during this period of time, but they also share methodologies and artistry. The basis for her study is ancient Greek sculpture, specifically its changing perception and appreciation over time: Roman copies (misidentified by Johann Joachim Winckelmann as Greek works); the Elgin Marbles; the Venus de’ Milo; Praxiteles’ Dionysus with the Infant Bacchus; and Archaic-style works pre-dating all of these. She discusses the discovery of these works and their reception by critics and artists. Readers expecting a iconographic analysis of the Apollo Belvedere and Aphrodite of Knidos repurposed in modern art, however, may be disappointed in this book. Unlike the aforementioned exhibition catalogs, Prettejohn’s primary interest is reception theory, not iconology. She does bring in examples of ways artists visually repurposed ancient sculptural imagery in their art, but her underlying interest is exploring why artists were aware of these classical works at a specific time and how their consideration of these works defined modern taste in art. Prettejohn argues that reception theory is critical to understanding the intersection between ancient and modern art, and in fact encourages the reader to see ancient sculptures themselves as modern because they first appeared (i.e. were excavated) during the formation of modernity.

As a specialist in nineteenth-century art, particularly of Britain (having published books and essays on Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic Movement artists and critics), Prettejohn in this text seems most comfortable when writing about figures such as Frederic Leighton and Walter Pater, discussing how they saw and interpreted antiquity. For example, her comparative discussion of Rodin’s Age of Bronze, 1877-80, Adolf von Hildebrand’s Standing Youth, 1881-84, and Leighton’s Sluggard, 1886, is fascinating. She argues that they are modern reinterpretations of then-discovered works by Praxiteles, Polykleitos, and Lysippos. She shows that the physical characteristics of each modern work, from contrapposto to muscular attenuation, mirror the different styles from ancient art that classicists have described as evolutionary in their naturalistic development over two centuries. Then, in an interesting twist, she notes how these modern works were all made in a short period of time, leaving the reader to speculate whether the ancient works themselves should be seen as evolutionary. After all, little evidence survives to correctly attribute works to these ancient sculptors or to the dates assumed for their creation.

Arranged into an introduction and three lengthy essays, the book resembles in format the author’s earlier Beauty and Art, which surveyed art and aesthetics of the same period in time. In the introduction of Modernity, Prettejohn proposes her argument about the linking of antiquity and modernism to one another and their simultaneous interactive developments. Rightfully so, she begins her discussion with Winckelmann, demonstrating how his reception of ancient sculpture through texts and surviving examples inspired ekphrasis-like writing, teaching others how to appreciate ancient and modern art, and establishing the idea of an art historical canon. Her first chapter discusses the Elgin Marbles as the nineteenth-century’s first awareness of actual Greek marble statues, and discusses their critical reception by scholars such as G.W.F. Hegel. The chapter continues with the discovery of the Venus de’ Milo (image: left) about this time, which gives Prettejohn the opportunity to explore ways this statue has been analyzed and received by classicists, artists, and scholars over time. Chapter two focuses on the Romantic idea of the individual artist as it related to antiquity. With the discovery of more ancient statues during the 1800s, the historical placement of specific ancient sculptors and their works were secured. But here Prettejohn exposes the weaknesses in these attributions, often with biased nationalistic tendencies, and instead emphasizes the importance of the afterlife of these works rather than their inherent ancient histories. ‘Modernism’, the subject of chapter three, will appeal to scholars of twentieth-century art for its emphasis on ancient sculptures from the Archaic period and the parallel interest in primitivism seen in the work of Picasso, Modigliani, and others. Prettejohn focuses on the importance of carving over modeling as a modern ideology, but traces its connections with the rising interest in the stiff, geometric figures from ancient Greece that were carved directly from blocks of marble by unidentified artists’ hands. Prettejohn ends the chapter and book with an examination of works by Picasso that do not specifically draw on any one particular ancient statue but, in a democratized, modernist appreciation of antiquity, shows how Picasso ignored the classical canon but used multiple aspects of antiquity for inspiration.

Prettejohn’s book is part of the ‘New Directions in Classics’ series based at the Institute of Greece, Rome and the Classical Tradition at the University of Bristol, where the author previously worked. The intent of this series is to move beyond traditional views of Greco-Roman culture and offer new methodological approaches and interpretations about antiquity. One might assume, then, that the intended reader for this text would be classical scholars. Indeed, much of Prettejohn’s text relates to archaeological discoveries and the scholarship that helped establish a framework for the study of classical sculpture itself. But the student and scholar of modern art will find the text useful as well, for Prettejohn frames ideas about nineteenth- and twentieth-century modern art as it was influenced by these discoveries from antiquity.

This text is appropriate for academic and museum libraries with researchers interested in expanding beyond traditional approaches to ancient and modern art, and is perhaps most useful for postgraduates, professors, and museum curators. It is not overpriced for an art book (£57.50 hardcover, £18.99 paperback), although all 51 illustrations are reproduced in black-and-white. This is not uncommon for sculpture books. Because Prettejohn’s focus is on methodology and not the aesthetic appreciation of these objects, black-and-white images do make sense, especially that they help keep the price of the book lower. Ultimately, the future success of this book rests in how it is received by scholars, mirroring Prettejohn’s own emphasis on reception theory for ancient sculptures. In reading it I found myself inspired by ways in which her ideas could be incorporated into art history seminars and used as the basis for small art exhibitions. Her numerous ideas about rethinking and merging antiquity and modernism certainly invite responses, and frequently the text reads like a dialogue with half the conversation waiting to be spoken. It will be fascinating to see how in fact her text may influence ideas about how aspects of antiquity and modernism are retaught or rethought. Indeed, if scholars are open to rethinking the development of the history of art itself, then this book will have accomplished its mission.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

MWA: 11 to 20

When I first started the Monthly Work of Art feature on bklynbiblio, I thought these posts would give the blog a nice art historical flair. I've frequently write my own original thoughts or interpretations about these works of art, but sometimes I've relied on the writings of other art historians to provide their thoughts as well. I've been pleasantly surprised by the responses I've received since I started this, and the number of page views on some of the works of art has been startling. For instance, in looking back at MWA: 1 to 10, imagine my surprise to discover that The Good Shepherd statue now has 473 page views. Cézanne's Tulips in a Vase is second at 119 and Noguchi's Core is right behind at 109. Here's a run-down of MWA 11 to 20 (and note that #13 is already beating these other two). The titles are hyperlinked to the posts so you can read more, and in parentheses are the current page views.

XI. Benjamin West, The Death of General Wolfe, 1770 (18 views)
XII. John Gibson, Cupid Disguised as a Shepherd Boy, ca.1830 (43 views)
XIII. Edouard Manet, Repose, ca.1870-71 (125 views)
XIV. Charles Wellington Furse, Diana of the Uplands, 1903-04 (41 views)
XV. Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of a Young Woman, probably Maria Trip, 1639 (55 views)
XVI. Peter Paul Rubens, Rubens, His Wife Helena Fourment, and Their Son Frans, ca.1635 (56 views)
XVII. William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience, 1853 (34 views)
XVIII. Caravaggio, Medusa, late 1590s (36 views)
XIX. Jean-François Millet, Autumn Landscape with a Flock of Turkeys, 1872-73 (26 views)
XX. Gerard David, The Nativity with Donors and Saints Jerome and Leonard, ca.1510-15 (19 views)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Solomon's Vision

On Monday, February 10, 2014, Bonhams Los Angeles sold at auction a rare book that anyone who is a follower of Simeon Solomon (1840-1905) and the Pre-Raphaelites would have loved to own…including me. However, it was clearly above my income bracket, as it sold for the amazing price of $17,500! The good news about this is that I know who the winning buyer was, and I’m delighted to hear this person was successful in the bid, for this treasure of a book will go to a good home and be available for scholars in the near future. The seller had been in touch with my fellow Solomaniac Carolyn Conroy and me about this book for a few months already, so we were very eager to know how things would progress with this sale.

The image you see here is the cover of the book, A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep, written by Solomon and published by F. S. Ellis for him in 1871 (i.e. self-published with Ellis). There were a small number of these beautifully-bound copies of his prose-poem published at the time, mostly for him to give away to his friends, so they are already unique on the market. (A search in WorldCat shows that only 16 libraries in the US, Canada, and the UK have copies.) What makes this particular copy even more special is that it was the one owned by the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909). Inside, it is inscribed in the author’s handwriting: “With S. Solomon’s affectionate regards / to his friend, A. C. Swinburne / March 1871.” As a personal copy given by the author to his friend, it’s a lovely complement to another copy that once belonged to the painter Edward Burne-Jones, which is now at the University of Rochester.

Solomon and Swinburne were for many years a “dynamic duo” in 1860s Pre-Raphaelitism. They probably met through Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Burne-Jones around 1862, and the two young men quickly took a liking to one another, Solomon (photo right) a Jewish youth with unkempt hair, a beard, and sad eyes, Swinburne a slender fop with a bush of red hair (photo below). One of the most audacious anecdotes ever told about them is that Rossetti came home one day to discover Swinburne chasing Solomon down the stairs, and both of them were naked. All that said, it is doubtful they were ever lovers. Biographers tend to see Swinburne as an auto-erotic who indulged in flagellation and birching. But combined with Solomon’s homosexuality, history saw fit to mix the two as sexual deviants of the Victorian era. Solomon is credited these days with being one of the first artists to depict the ancient Greek poetess Sappho as a lesbian (see, for instance, the Tate's Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene), and this imagery was clearly part of the working association he had with Swinburne, who wrote poetry about Sappho in a similar way. Solomon also illustrated Swinburne’s birching tales, such as Lesbia Brandon, drawings one can see in the collections of the British Library. With their friendship blooming, Solomon spent the 1860s painting provocative male figures and exhibited them at the Royal Academy and the Dudley Gallery, while Swinburne scandalized readers with the first edition of his Poems and Ballads (1866) with odes written for and about sado-masochistic women.

A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep is seen today as an early example of gay literature, and indeed it was republished in its entirety most recently in Chris White’s edited anthology Nineteenth-Century Writings on Homosexuality: A Sourcebook (Routledge, 1999). Expressing the physical and emotional angst of different types of love, Solomon’s text has come to be seen as a paean to same-sex passion at a time when one could not express this kind of love in society. At the time of its publication, however, his prose-poem was seen by reviewers as an artist’s statement for his highly symbolic, personalized imagery that drew on ancient mysticism—ephebic gods of love, angels, and love-struck youths—figures that populated his paintings such as Love in Autumn and Sacramentum Amoris and often left viewers confused as to what they meant. Discouraging reviews of the prose-poem appeared in the Athenaeum and the Jewish Chronicle, but John Addington Symonds (later a champion for same-sex passion) wrote a laudatory review in the Academy. Swinburne also wrote a review (at Solomon’s request) and it appeared in the first issue of the Dark Blue. Sadly, Solomon was less than pleased with Swinburne’s review, concerned that it gave the wrong impression of Solomon’s symbolic meaning. In retrospect it seems safe to speculate from some of their letters that this may have been the beginning of the rupture in their friendship.

After Solomon’s arrest in 1873 for homosexual crimes, Swinburne was among his former friends who outright rejected and distanced himself from Solomon, probably fearing for his own public reputation. Years afterward, when he was desperate for money, Solomon reportedly tried to sell off some of Swinburne’s more salacious letters, for which the now-reformed and alcohol-temperate Swinburne never forgave him. Swinburne’s letters to Solomon have never been found and probably were destroyed at some point. However, many of Solomon’s letters to Swinburne do still exist and were published in a few books, most recently Terry Meyers’s edited Uncollected Letters of Algernon Charles Swinburne (Pickering & Chatto, 2005). The letters reveal hints of their secret adventures, occasionally written in coded language. More boldly in 1871, just two months after the publication of Vision, Solomon wrote letters to Swinburne about the trial of the famous cross-dressers Thomas Ernest “Stella” Boulton and FrederickWilliam “Fanny” Parke. The friendship of Solomon and Swinburne lasted less than a decade, but it produced a fruitful, creative relationship that clearly benefited both of them in art and literature. This particular copy of Vision that has just been sold is rather special then. It records a moment in time at the apex of their relationship when this talented duo respected one another and were close, actively learning from one another. After this moment, things changed, and this book and its inscription now forever commemorate a relationship where each was able to say, for a short period of time, “affectionate regards” to a friend.

UPDATE 3/2/14: I can now announce with some excitement who won the auction for this rare copy of Solomon's 1871 prose-poem, dedicated to Swinburne. The book now resides in the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, on loan to the University of Delaware Library. Mark Samuels Lasner has spent much of his life amassing one of the best private collections of Victorian literature, manuscripts, and drawings. He has been incredibly generous in providing access to works in his collection for researchers (myself included), and he has exhibited his collection widely to encourage further scholarship. His long-term plan of making the collection accessible through the University of Delaware Library means scholars worldwide will be able to have access to these rare and excellent items for ages to come. I can't think of a better home for this special copy of Solomon's little book.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Review: The Hare with Amber Eyes

I just finished reading a superb book some of you may know: The Hare with Amber Eyes by the ceramics artist Edmund de Waal. It was highly recommended by a former student of mine who was of retired age, and I'm so glad she recommended it. The book is the story of the author's family's ownership of 264 netsuke, including the work you see here, a beautiful ivory hare with eyes inlaid with amber buffalo horn. For those who don't know what netsuke are, they are finely carved and polished Japanese figurines and sculptural objects no bigger than the size of your hand. Often carved in ivory or boxwood, they were originally made as toggles to hold the string that attached a purse/satchel to the Japanese kimono and obi. (You can download for free the Met Museum's excellent collection catalogue of netsuke here.) By the late 1800s, they had become collector's items not only in the West through the influence of japonisme but also in Japan as a form of its cultural past. De Waal's story recounts how his ancestors first acquired the netsuke from a dealer in Paris in the 1870s, and then continues the story of the netsuke as they passed on to relatives in Vienna during the World Wars, then post-War Tokyo, and modern-day London. But the story is not just about these netsuke. It's a cultural biography of his Jewish ancestors, the Ephrussi family from Russia, how they made their fortune and settled throughout Europe, and how they engaged with the art and literature of their day. It's not all high life society, however. The author also tells with pathos the trials his family endured in a world of anti-Semitism and Nazism, and how his family lost everything because of Hitler and the persecution of Jews at the time.

This book is one of those rare stories that beautifully links art and culture with personal experience. De Waal asks questions such as how people from the past felt about life and art, and how they felt to hold these beautifully carved netsuke generation after generation, hand-to-hand, a symbol of a family saga that reaches backward to the unknown makers of these figures, and forward to the author's own children. His personal experience as a craftsman and artist make his telling of the story even more poignant. To quote de Waal: "How things are made, how they are handled and what happens to them has been central to my life for over thirty years. ... How objects embody memory--or more particularly, whether objects can hold memories--is a real question for me. This book is my journey to the places in which this collection lived. It is my secret history of touch." To learn more about Edmund de Waal, his writing, and his exquisite minimalist ceramics and installation pieces, go to his website at

Monday, February 3, 2014

Public Sculpture III: The Blog

Back in October, I had written that I was launching at work some new information about the public sculpture collection at Columbia. At that time I wasn't sure what format it would take (webpages, blog, etc.), but we finally settled on the blog format for its interactive capabilities and easy updating/navigating. With that, I'm pleased to announce that today we officially launched the Public Outdoor Sculpture at Columbia blog. I've already posted a few items, and more will be added over time, so check in when you can. The purpose of the blog is to document historical & current information & photographs about these outdoor artworks throughout the schools and campuses of Columbia. There are sculptures by major figures such as Auguste Rodin and Henry Moore, and lesser-known artists such as Charles Keck and Gertrude Schweitzer. The work you see here, by the British sculptor Moore, is but one example: Three-Way Piece: Points, 1967, bronze (image: Art Properties, Avery Library, Columbia).

Almost all of the 20+ public sculptures at Columbia were gifts over time, and the earliest work dates from its installation in 1903, so there is certainly plenty to write about over time. With the blog format, I'm hopeful that people will submit their own photographs of the public sculptures and thus make the blog a more dynamic environment in which to better appreciate these important works of art. Indeed, the interactive sensibility of a blog reinforces the "public" nature of these sculptures as works for the community to appreciate. I've designed a Google map that shows where all the sculptures are at the Morningside campus and Barnard College. It is embedded here for your information, but you can also visit it on the web by going to and utilizing it on your smart phone to walk around campus.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Portal 4

Portal 4: Vizzola Ticino (10 July 2005)
(For other works in my Portal series, click here.)

On scenes of solitary windows as a motif:
"No figures are present to lend thematic interest to the scene. Properly speaking, these pictures cannot be considered as genre paintings at all ... . The pure window-view is a romantic innovation--neither landscape, nor interior, but a curious combination of both. It brings the confinement of an interior into the most immediate contrast with an immensity of space outside, outdoors, a space which need not be a landscape, but can be a view of houses or of the empty sky. It often places the beholder so close to the window that little more than an enclosing frame of darkness remains of the interior, but this is sufficient to maintain the suggestion of a separation between him and the world outside. He is actually put in the position of the 'figure at the window.' The situation closely resembles a favorite theme in [Romanticism]: the poet at the window surveys a distant landscape and is troubled by a desire to escape from his narrow existence into the world spread out before him. ... The window is like a threshold and at the same time a barrier. Through it, nature, the world, the active life beckon, but the artist remains imprisoned, not unpleasantly, in domestic snugness. The window image thus illustrates perfectly the themes of frustrated longing, of lust for travel or escape which run through [Romanticism]."

-- from Lorenz Eitner, "The Open Window and the Storm-Tossed Boat: An Essay in the Iconography of Romanticism," The Art Bulletin (December 1955), pp. 285-86.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Chinese Bronzes & Korean Ceramics

Whenever people ask me about my job and I tell them I'm the Curator of Art Properties at Columbia University, they inevitably ask me the most obvious question: "What do you do?", or the derivative, "What does that mean?" However, I enjoy most this question-phrased-as-a-statement that requires more thought: "Tell me what a typical day is like for you." The trouble with responding to that is there is no such thing as a "typical day" for me. Sometimes I'm dealing with loans (external exhibitions or on-campus displays). Other days I teach a class about a selection of artwork chosen by a professor. I sometimes meet with potential donors and then process their donations through a variety of channels. I'm frequently in meetings (a LOT of meetings) and dealing with email (a LOT of email) on more things than I can bother relaying. I try to do as much research on art objects in the collection for a variety of projects as I can. Preservation of art objects is also a regular concern. With a universal art collection such as ours, in 1 week I have been known to deal with a public monumental sculpture from 1967, a Dutch portrait from 1626, Polaroids by Andy Warhol, and ancient Chinese bronzes. One of the greatest parts of this job, however, is working directly with the objects themselves, and when I have time to be creative, arranging an installation of these objects can just turn out to make my day a laborious, but fun-filled one.

Today was just one of those days. This semester my department is working with Prof. Robert Harrist and 9 PhD students for a seminar entitled "Chinese Art at Columbia." I was the impetus behind this in that I first presented to him last semester the idea of having students study objects in the collection, especially the works from China on display in our gallery in Low Library. The installation in this room quite literally had not been touched in over 40 years, which means no one had ever done research on them since they were donated by Arthur M. Sackler (yes, that Sackler!) from the 1960s and 1970s. This graduate seminar has begun, and the students are doing their first assignment already, researching and writing about some of our bronze vessels from the Shang and Zhou dynasties (ca.1650-ca.250 BCE). Today, my staff and I moved about 100 objects out of the main gallery space, put most of them in storage, and then reinstalled the Shang and Zhou bronzes in display cases near the seminar room so the students have easier access to them. The photograph you see at the bottom is the new display we set up for the Shang dynasty ritual bronzes. We then did a temporary installation in the original gallery space, putting in 9 cases a selection of Korean ceramics that are also from the Sackler donation. The photograph above is what 3 of those display cases now look like. When the seminar is over, the research by the students will help us reenvision a new installation in the gallery for the Chinese art, with proper signage to educate people about the works, and make them all look better and more up-to-date with modern backdrops.

I confess that I'm extremely proud with how it all worked out today. The installation of the bronzes and ceramics in the cases all came out even better than I had hoped. It was a full day of work to get it all accomplished, and LGS and LV (my staff) did a wonderful job packing and moving everything back and forth between buildings, but it was definitely worth it. We're Art Properties. And we rock!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Animals & Goddesses: Anna Hyatt Huntington

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University has hosted, since the late 1980s, an array of rotating exhibitions, many often directly linked to curriculum programs at the university. The latest is no exception. Entitled Goddess, Heroine, Beast: Anna Hyatt Huntington's New York Sculpture, 1902-1936, the exhibition is a retrospective of this woman sculptor (1876-1973) who, during at least the first half of the 20th century, was one of New York City's most popular artists. The exhibition was curated by Prof. Anne Higonnet and her seminar students. I had a sneak peak during the installation, and the show is going to be fantastic. Huntington's favored medium was bronze, and she was clearly a student of close observation when it came to animals. Her sculptures are quite amazing in their realism. The work you see here is Cranes Rising, 1934, a gift from the artist to Columbia (photo: Mark Ostrander), which my department (Art Properties) agreed to include in the exhibition. (I must give my art handler LGS credit for working hard on cleaning and waxing the sculpture, and I encouraged everyone involved with the exhibition to consider using this piece as a focal point as it was a Columbia-owned work and properly should be given due credit in a Columbia exhibition.)

In the piece you see here, notice how Huntington shows a flock of cranes first at rest in the marshes, then moving upward in a coil, with the top crane soaring into the sky. It's fascinating how she expressed the sweeping movement in time with such a naturalistic effect, yet still managed to kept the work within a quadrilateral space, reducing the potential "baroque" effect of affected motion and exaggerated theatricality. Her interest in animals clearly hearkens back to the Romantic sculptor Antoine-Louis Barye (1796-1875), who established a career for himself as an animalier, specializing in animals in action--usually in their most violent forms. Barye also produced high-quality reduced bronzes commercially, enabling the middle classes to own fine works of art for their homes, although his practice was highly criticized by the Academy as a form of "selling out." Huntington also sculpted works depicting strong female saints like Joan of Arc and goddesses like Diana, suggesting an affinity for masculinity not only in her choice of subjects but also in the very art of bronze-making itself. Many of her sculptures are large public monuments: the Joan of Arc equestrian statue is less than 10 blocks away from my apartment near Riverside Park! Like Harriet Hosmer, Emma Stebbins, and other great women sculptors of the past, Huntington is arguably a feminist sculptor who takes pride in demonstrating what a woman can do as an artist. The exhibition opens this week and runs until March 15. News about it is already buzzing: an article in The New York Times (scroll down on the page); and The Magazine Antiques has an article written by Higonnet giving a summary of her life and work

Friday, January 3, 2014

Return to Downton Abbey

According to the PBS countdown, season 4 of that amazing miniseries Downton Abbey begins in just 1 day, 23 hours, and 48 minutes (as of when I'm writing this). I've been raving about this show for the past few years now. But I confess that for some reason I'm just a little less excited this time than I was the last 3 seasons. Is it because of poor Matthew's demise? Is it because I'm uncertain who Lady Mary will turn to for solace? Will something devastating ruin Anna and Mr. Bates's romantic bliss? Will the Dowager Countess not have as many witty lines this season? Or is it that I'm simply concerned that the show is getting too big for its own Edwardian britches and turning into a sappy soap opera? I shall leave you to decide the answer to that question. So far I've been fortunate that I've only heard a few little secrets about the current season (my UK friends have been respectfully quiet not to ruin it for me, thank you very much), and I'm not sure how I feel about what I know. The show has now entered the 1920s, so we're expecting jazz, booze, and more upstairs/downstairs shenanigans, a reminder of the differences between the ultra-wealthy and the ultra-poor who cannot seem to live without one another. I do admit I am looking forward most to seeing Maggie Smith on the screen again as the Dowager Countess. She really does make this show everything it is. And suave actor Julian Ovenden is joining the cast, which should steam things up a bit. I'm definitely geared up for it. Bring it on, Downton! I await your premiere...just as soon as the maid brings me my tea and biscuits.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

MWA XXI: Bruegel's Hunters

As I'm writing this, the NYC area is getting slammed in a far-reaching snowstorm (called Hercules? since when do we name snowstorms?). We may get up to a foot of snow by lunchtime tomorrow. Even my job has closed down and given us a snow day off! So what better say to celebrate winter and snow (and our Monthly Work of Art) then with one of the greatest winter-themed paintings ever: The Hunters in the Snow, 1565, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525-1569; image: Web Gallery of Art). The Flemish-born painter is known for his so-called "peasant" scenes, with their emphases on the working and lower classes toiling at labor or simply playing and drinking. He painted religious and allegorical scenes as well, but his "peasant" genre paintings made him famous during an age when Catholicism was heavily embattled by the rise of Protestantism in the Germanic/Nordic countries, ultimately eliminating opportunities for Christian iconography from the oeuvre of many artists. This painting was one of a series depicting the seasons/months of the year. It was commissioned by the wealthy Antwerp-based merchant Niclaes Jongelinck. Of the six that were commissioned, only five exist today, with this painting representing winter or December/January. Another famous work in Bruegel's series is The Harvesters in the collection at the Met Museum (a painting that Director Thomas Campbell has professed to be one of his most favorite paintings in the collection; see a video about the painting by clicking here). This series of paintings also spawned one of the most erudite and hilarious novels I've ever read, Headlong by Michael Frayn, in which the narrator (a philosophy professor on sabbatical) discovers the missing sixth Bruegel painting and goes on a mission to acquire (i.e. steal) it at any cost.

The Hunters in the Snow is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, a city that is on my list of places I would love to visit. Until I see it live I must rely on reproductions. What fascinates me in this painting is the level of detail and the sweep of perspective that draws you into it. It's as if you can see every feather on the birds and and count how much snow has fallen on the mountains in the background. When you see the painting, you approach it from the left. It is as if you are one of the men returning from their hunt. The trees draw you into the painting as they grow smaller and smaller, and the slope of the landscape pulls you further in as you begin the descent down the hill to the lake and further into the village. You can almost hear the cawing of the blackbirds in the grey, barren sky. The desolation of the season unfolds before you. But the further you travel into the painting, you are at its heart, and you see that it isn't about death but life. Just looking at the number of people figure skating on the frozen lake cannot help but make you grin. These people understand that in the dreariness that is winter and the starkness that is life, there is always a way to find joy. These skaters take in every moment of it. Winter suddenly doesn't seem as cold and stark as it did once before.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Happy 2014!

I kicked off the new year today by visiting the New-York Historical Society, as I suggested I would do in my last post. Their big exhibition has been The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution, a celebration of the international modern art show that arguably revolutionized the history of American art itself with the introduction of Cubism and Fauvism to American audiences. The exhibition gave a survey appreciation of the 1913 show by bringing back many of the most famous works that were on exhibit, but I was actually surprised the show wasn't very large. It was an interesting study of the history and impact of the 1913 Armory show, and I did learn a few new things, but the show didn't impress me as I had expected. In contrast, Beauty's Legacy: Gilded Age Portraits in America was much more appealing. Highlighting exquisite grand-manner portraits of wealthy Americans painted from about 1880 to 1920, when the Astors and Vanderbilts ruled New York City's social scene, this exhibition offered interesting ways to consider these portraits as symbols of feminine beauty and masculine virility. One of the stand-out portraits was the one you see here of James Hazen Hyde (1876-1959) painted by the French artist Theobald Cartran (1849-1907). The portrait dates from 1901 when he was 25 years of age, and both his proud, peacock-like stance and hand gestures connect the portrait to a 16th-century work by Bronzino at the Met Museum. Hyde was the chief owner of his father's company, Equitable Life Assurance Society, and soon after this painting was completed he was unjustly accused of a scandalous bungling of the company's assets. He spent the rest of his years as an expatriate living in if that were such a tragedy. (Image source: New-York Historical Society)

bklynbiblio readers know I start off the new year with a blog post; last year's coincided with my 400th post! It's been a quiet holiday season for me this year, giving me time to write and catch up on a few things. I've even redesigned the look of bklynbiblio, since I had not changed it in a couple of years. If you're reading this by email and/or through an RSS feeder, go to to see the new look. I've also activated the mobile version with a slightly different template, so it will read better on iPhones, iPads, etc. And's to another year of blogging, and working toward my 500th post. Happy 2014!