Monday, December 26, 2011

Keighley and Perry

Although I talk about libraries and museums on this blog, I haven't said much about my job at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I work part time as an Associate Museum Librarian in the Image Library, which for over a century has been the repository and archive for the collection and dissemination of visual images in all media for educational and commercial uses. The collection holdings include stereoscopes, negatives, and 35mm slides, although not surprisingly we work almost exclusively with digital images now. I do a variety of tasks, including reference, instruction, and cataloging, but I'm also project manager for a few digitization projects. For instance, I'm currently working on selecting and cataloging historic views of the Met's galleries from the 1900s through the 1950s, which will be scanned from our lantern slide collection. This is a project being done in partnership with NYU's Institute of Fine Arts Visual Resources Center. But another project on which I was working for more than 5 years (with IFA and ARTstor, in particular a large number of individuals deserving lots of credit for all their hard work over the years) has been the digitization of selected images from the William Keighley Collection, a set of about 35,000 slides donated to the Met from 1958 through the 1970s by Keighley, a well-known film director. He had a second career as an amateur art and architectural historian and with his directorial eye took beautiful images of exterior and interior spaces throughout Europe, including private estates closed to the public at the time. We've been working to make about 10% of these images available for educational uses in digital format, including the image you see here showing the library of Saint Florian Abbey in northern Austria, which ARTstor is using to promote the collection. In order to see and download the images, you must belong to a university/museum that subscribes to ARTstor, but you can read more about the project here and see the official release here.

In related news, bklynbiblio readers may recall my very positive blog review of the Grayson Perry exhibition currently on at the British Museum. I subsequently revised and expanded this review in its entirety and I am pleased to announce that it has just been published in the Winter 2012 newsletter of the Historians of British Art. (I do hope the teddy bear god Alan Measles is pleased by the news.)

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas 2011

The tree you see here is from The Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection. It is installed in the Medieval Hall during the holidays. The enormous tree and the nativity scene, with accompanying angels decorating the tree itself, were made in Naples in the 18th century. To all the bklynbiblio readers out there, here's wishing you and your loved ones a very Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Random Musings 10

I'm heading to Florida for a dysfunctional family Christmas. If you're wondering if this is a picture of my relatives, it's not, but I swear if my lesbian cousins (the DG-JBs) were to ever really let loose, I'm convinced they would be just like Edina and Patsy (more on them below). I've been saving up a bunch of links and posts to blog about, so enjoy this Random Musing.

The Guardian has an interesting interactive guide that allows you to zoom in and find out more about drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, in conjunction with the National Gallery's current exhibition about his years at the court of Milan.

When I was at the YCBA, my co-visiting scholar was Georgina Cole, who received her PhD from Sydney University in Australia. She was there working on a project relating to the senses in 18th-century British painting. She's also started a new blog/website, Early Modern Art Network, which focuses on news relating to art from the 17th and 18th centuries. She's transcribed a funny 18th-century letter to the editor from an enraged parent about how having his children trained to be artists had made his life miserable: "When I the other Day found that Remonstrance was in vain, and rage exerted without Effect, and clasped my Hands and sighed with pure Vexation, my Daughter told me I looked like the Soldier in Belisarius; my eldest Son said I was more like West’s weeping Grenadier, and my youngest, a little Imp about ten Years of Age, got into a Corner of the Room with his Chalks and blue Paper to copy my Face, his own Father’s Face, Sir, for a Head of Despair."

I've blogged about the World of the Year in the past, but unfortunately we now have conflicts depending on the source as to what the actual word of 2011 is. had declared "tergiversate" to be the annual word (huh?), but now Merriam-Webster claims the word of the year is "pragmatic," based on the number of people who searched for that word. Complicating matters is the Oxford English Dictionary, which apparently declared "squeezed middle" the word of the year, never mind that's a phrase, not a word.

Thanks to my dear friend SVH, my latest sci-fi obsession is Farscape. Yes, I'm a little late to this, as it's been off the air for a while, but it's fun. A pregnant bio-ship with a sexy lost human and escaped alien prisoners, none of whom know or trust one another? What a fun concept!

New York magazine has declared 2011 to be the year in which male bodies were exploited in the movies, such as Chris Evans here in Captain America. There is a rather lovely slideshow of images worth seeing on the site, although I do find it odd that they all look alike (never mind why  Evans insists on shaving his chest hair). Unfortunately, my fantasy boyfriend Ewan McGregor wasn't on the list, although I guess he didn't actually take his shirt off in any films this year (a first for him!). His film Beginners, with Christopher Plummer as his aging father who comes out of the closet late in life, was absolutely one of the best movies of the year. The Anglophenia blog put up a post earlier this year with video clips of all things Ewan, so check it out.

And unless you've been living under a rock I'm sure you've heard the news that--20 years after the first episodes premiered--Absolutely Fabulous is coming back with some new episodes with Edina and Patsy partying hard and Saffie scolding them the whole time. I can't wait! Here's a hilarious clip from the newest episode in which they trash-talk the Kardashians (who I still to this day do not understand why people think they are important!!). Enjoy, sweetie dahling!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

28 New Haven Days: Part 4

If you've been following my posts about New Haven, you know that I've been lamenting about the crime here. Shermania commented on my last post about how he's in New Orleans right now and that their crime is much higher, and the RL-DGs have told me as well that since they moved to New Orleans, they have been warned about the crime and it has prevented them from exploring their neighborhood like they normally would. In a bizarre coincidence, The New York Times happened to publish an article last week about crime in New Orleans. This year they have had 175 murders, which is a ratio of 51 per 100,000 citizens. Compared to NYC, where it's 7 per 100,000, that is a shocking difference. The current population of New Haven is about 130,000, however, which means this city has a ratio of about 28 murders for the same number. Clearly it's not as bad as New Orleans, but it's certainly much higher than NYC. In thinking more about this, I've come to the conclusion that 2 issues here are at stake: (1) people (myself included) envision this area as a "New England college town" when in fact it is a city, even if it is small; and (2) NYC has become so safe it has given us a false sense of security about how other cities really are.  On Sunday, the PR-AMs came from NYC to visit, and even they were a bit surprised that we were asked for money by people out in the street about six times. Our favorite incident happened during dinner when a guy asked us for $3 and when we said no he went back to the bar where he was drinking a beer. Not surprisingly, he ducked out without paying.

After all is said and done, however, I cannot emphasize enough how fantastic my time here has been. The staff of the YCBA has been simply incredible. This really has been an amazing opportunity and it has helped me tremendously in my dissertation research. The picture above is a shot of the Reference Library where I spent most of my time in one of those study carrels on the mezzanine level, upper right. I'm going to regret leaving in a couple of days! And in spite of the issues with crime, I have ventured out and eaten a number of delicious meals here: vegetarian restaurant Claire's just across the street from the Taft (great soup), Big Bear Saloon (awesome burgers), Zinc Artisan (tasty personal pizzas), Istanbul Cafe (yummy Turkish), Zaroka (inexpensive Indian buffet), Woodland Cafe (tea & bagel sandwiches), Caseus Cheese food truck (delectable grilled cheese), and of course the old standby Atticus Cafe & Bookshop on the ground floor of the YCBA. There are many good restaurants here too, but I haven't had time to eat everywhere.

As far as my work goes, last Friday I gave a presentation to the YCBA staff. About 25 people showed up, which was great, and they provided boxed lunches for everyone. Although I gave an overview of my dissertation itself using PowerPoint, I focused more on things I've discovered since I've been here. What started out to be an almost 25-minute presentation turned into nearly 75 minutes of round-table discussion with excellent feedback, which I needed and greatly appreciated. One of the challenges of working on an artist from the past (in particular one who hasn't had a book published on him since an edition of his memoirs came out in 1911) is that there is a tremendous amount of information to cover, and so I must be very selective in what I work on, or postpone for a future project. For instance, in the process of working on John Gibson, I've found myself now also interested in his brother Benjamin (1811-1851), who also was a sculptor. This portrait bust of John is by Benjamin, made about the year 1838 (image: YCBA). Benjamin was 20 years John's junior and was never the success his brother was, but he did work in John's Roman studio, taught himself Latin and Greek, and published a few articles on archaeological discoveries in Rome. He was frequently ill, however, and sadly he died near the baths of Lucca when he tripped and suffered a concussion. He is buried in Lucca, but John also set up a memorial in his honor in Rome at the Protestant Cemetery where he himself was buried in 1866. My interest in him is probably not too much a coincidence; he was about my age when he died.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

28 New Haven Days: Part 3

After my last New Haven post, I was starting to think that I may have overdone it in my descriptions about the urban environment here. Okay, so it's a city and it has crime and sharp contrasts in socio-economic classes. But the university area is of course delightful, as you can imagine from the picture I took here of a rather adorable Justice figure decorating the exterior of the neo-Gothic Yale School of Law. But then my friend JM was here for 2 nights (his mother had to have emergency surgery, so I was able to provide him with a place to crash; she's recovering!), and he agreed with me that he saw exactly what I was talking about. Having grown up in CT, he knows many other areas in the state are like this as well. Still, I thought, I must be exaggerating. After all, when last week citizens gathered in the park to light the big Christmas tree, they had a carousel, snacks, petting zoo, and so on. I had no idea there were so many children in this city! It couldn't be that bad. And then, I heard it again: this morning on the local news they announced that yet another murder had taken place during the night. This is New Haven's 32nd murder this year. So now I know for sure I'm not cracking up. Surprisingly though the community seems to getting upset as well. This evening I was coming out of the Beinecke Library and I heard/saw what must have been a crowd of over 200 people protesting and marching in the streets. At first I thought it was an Occupy New Haven event, but their chants corrected me: "What do we want?" - "SAFE STREETS!" - "When do want it?" - "NOW!" I rest my case.

Sticking within the enclave that is the museum and university environment, I joined the YCBA staff for their annual holiday party, which was delightful. I also went to a lunch-lecture last Thursday sponsored by the Material Culture Study Group. Becky Conekin, Senior Research Fellow in the History Department, gave a fun talk about '60s model Twiggy and mopeds. She based the talk on a series of photos taken of Twiggy in the late 1960s and proceeded to explore more about how the moped in the shots related to new ideas about youth, women, sexuality, and London as a new counterculture city. I also went today to an "Art in Context" talk at the YCBA, which is free and open to the public, although many people in the university art community come as well. Set in conjunction with the current exhibition Adapting the Eye: An Archive of the British in India, 1770-1830, the talk was about this near life-sized painting you see here, Dancing Girl, 1772, by a little-known English painter named Tilly Kelly, who had a productive career in India. The talk was given by Gillian Forrester, Sylvia Houghteling, and Holly Shaffer, each of whom addressed different aspects about the painting, from the subject to details like the sari the woman wears. One of the more intriguing things about this picture was that conservation work and x-rays have shown that the subject originally was part of a much larger painting in which the woman was performing or paired with another figure, probably a man who was reclining looking up at her. The background was also completely different and repainted by Kelly, perhaps to suit a patron who decided he wanted just an exotic Indian woman. More research needs to be done to consider other aspects about this picture, but it just goes to show how art shouldn't be taken at face value. There is often much more going on behind the layers of paint, and its social history makes it a much more living thing.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Gerald Mocarsky: War Paint

My friend Gerald Mocarsky is having an exhibition of works entitled War Paint, a documentary-style photography series with images of women over 40 applying make-up. Some of my favorites from the series are ones like this of Esther because of the way the mirror refracts what you see. The exhibition is at Causey Contemporary Gallery in Brooklyn. The opening is on Friday, December 16 at 6pm, so if you're in the NYC area, come check it out. The show runs until January 22, 2012. For more about Mocarsky and his work, including this series, see my blog interview with him, which you may recall also was published in a revised, expanded version in The Gay & Lesbian Review. His website is

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Roman Advertiser

I've been browsing through issues of The Roman Advertiser, a weekly newspaper that premiered in October 1846, but only lasted for the next 3 years. Although it was short-lived, at the time it was important because it provided British and American tourists who didn't speak English with an opportunity to know what was going on in Rome. These tourists would frequently stay in Rome for months, not 3 days like tourists today, so they would become part of this English-language community while they were there. Keep in mind also that "Italy" did not exist as an independent country until 1861, and even then Rome was still an independent country until it was annexed in 1870 (which is why Vatican City is still an independent country). Rome was always a major tourist spot, as you can see from this 1821 painting by Sir Charles Eastlake of A View of Trajan's Forum, Rome (image: YCBA). Painting pictures like this (18 years before photography was officially invented) allowed tourists the opportunity to record visual memories to bring home. In our world, we snap digital pictures and we read our newspapers online, so it was rather exciting to actually turn the pages of a 19th-century newspaper, skimming articles and reenacting what someone else in Rome actually was doing more than 150 years ago. Although I've been focusing on art-related news for my research, I came across a few things today that I couldn't resist blogging about. (Stay tuned for the funny stuff below!)

Even though each issue opened with local news about the Pope and the surrounding Italian states, the real juice was when they talked about the famous people who had come to town and what hotels they are staying in. When the Duke of Devonshire showed up to spend the winter in Rome, the newspaper reported regularly on his dinner parties and the aristocrats he hosted, such as Prince and Princess Torlonia, the Earl and Countess Shelbourn, Lady J. Grey, etc. He also had Mr. and Madame Oury perform concerts for his guests, he a violinist, she a pianist. Although there was social excitement, Mother Nature sometimes got in the way too. In early December 1846, after a storm the Tiber River overflowed and flooded the streets of Rome. Although devastation was more extensive in the Campagna, the city itself had its share of problems. The jeweler Castellani had to take out an advertisement to let patrons know that he had temporarily moved after "being visited by the Tiber in his establishment."

On April 10, 1847, they published an article on current demographics about Rome. At that time, they estimated there were 177,971 people living in Rome. Of this number, 17,606 were domiciled strangers such as John Gibson and other artists living there, which accounted for 10% of the population. There were 32 cardinals, 21 archbishops and bishops, 313 physicians, 223 surgeons, 66 midwives, 339 masters and mistresses of schools, 46,672 shopkeepers, and 16,552 servants. Curiously, they also reported that there were 3,828 Jews living in Rome, which accounted for 2% of the population. To put this all in context, I did some Googling and discovered that at about same time NYC had a population of 371,223, while Paris was at 1 million and London 2 million. In other words, Rome was small in comparison. What is even more staggering is that 1800 years earlier during the reign of Emperor Augustus Caesar, the city of ancient Rome had 800,000 people living in it, and that may not even include the slaves!

Now for the humor. At the end of each issue, there were advertisements. Many of these related to the tourist industry, restaurants and hotels marketing themselves for clients. But there were personal ads also, individuals seeking employment from the tourists. For instance, one young woman was apparently desperate to leave Rome and was willing to work for it: "A LADY wishes to go to England, or Paris, with a family as travelling companion, and would be happy to take the charge of young persons, or to devote her attentions to an invalid." Another woman sought employment in Rome: "WANTS A PLACE as lady’s maid a Swiss who can speak several languages and knows very well her business. The best references can be given." The Swiss maid must have found work, for a few weeks later his mistress was leaving town and wanted to help her find another employer: "A LADY about to leave Rome after Easter, is anxious to procure a situation for her femme-de-chambre (a Swiss, speaking French, German and Italian) whom she can recommend in every respect as honest and industrious, capable of dressing hair, making dresses and getting up fine linen.—Has also no objection to undertake the charge of one child." Women seeking employment as companions, nurses, maids, etc. were not uncommon (image: Justin Cormack's Flickr). A single woman in 19th-century society really had few options if she had been unable to marry. What is very strange, however, is this next ad, in which a man seems to be seeking similar work. I may be reading too much into this, but if I didn't know any better, this guy was looking for his own Sugar Daddy! It ran: "WANTED, by an English Gentleman, of good family, aged thirty, the situation of companion to an Invalid, or Elderly Gentleman, or that of Secretary or Amanuensis. He speaks French fluently, also a little German and Italian; plays on the Organ and Piano with considerable talent; possesses a good voice for reading and writes an excellent hand. Superior and unexceptionable references can be given in Rome, Paris and London." Hey, I could have written that ad! (Well, maybe not.)

Images were not yet regularly appearing in the mainstream press at this time, so advertisers had to rely on clever writing to market their work. If ever you thought bodily concerns were just something we worried about now, think again. Here's an ad for Grimstone's Aromatic Regenerator:
EYEBROWS, MUSTACHIOS and WHISKERS produced in a few weeks, and Baldness removed by the use of GRIMSTONE'S AROMATIC REGENERATOR, an essential spirit, drawn from aromatic herbs and flowers, a few drops of which cure headache in a few minutes; it is also a most delightful, fragrant toilet perfume. Sold only in triangular bottles, protected by the Government stamp, at 4s [i.e. shillings]; double the size, 7s; and double this size, 11s each; enclosed in a Pamphlet, containing testimonials of undoubted authority, entitled "Three Minutes' Advice on the Growth and Preservation of the Human Hair, etc."
It grows hair, removes baldness, cures headaches, AND is a perfume?? No way! Do you think it works? I wonder if anyone has tried it? Well, what do you know...
Mrs. Weekley, of No. 3, Swan-street, Borough, takes this opportunity of publicly thanking Mr. W. Grimstone, of the Herbary, High-gate, for the efficacy of his Aromatic Regenerator, in having completely restored the hair on her head after using it about four months, and her hair is now much stronger and more luxuriant than it was previous to its falling off. Mrs. W. inserts this testimony, thinking that the virtues of his preparation cannot be too generally known, not only in the restoration and production of hair, but in the cure of nervous and other headaches, and will be happy to answer the inquiries of any respectable person.
Technology may have changed, but advertising certainly hasn't!

Monday, November 28, 2011

28 New Haven Days: Part 2

The picture you see here is a view from the kitchen window of my flat at the Taft Apartments. It's an interesting sight, showing bank towers, church towers, and Occupy New Haven tents on the lawn. The visual diminution from right to left is almost poetic; it says a lot about this city. I have to confess, I'm not fond of New Haven. I've been here a number of times, and while the Yale architecture and environment is beautiful in all its 19th-century glory, the rest of the city leaves much to be desired. Once you leave the university area, it's a shady city. The extremes of wealth and poverty are bizarre. Whenever I turn right to head to the (only!) grocery store in the entire city, I start moving into the "bad" side of town. It's a little nerve-wracking at times. People at the YCBA have said things like "Don't walk too far in that direction after dark!" and "There was a shooting a block away from the museum a few weeks ago!" It doesn't instill a sense of serenity, as you can imagine. I went back to the City (in other words, NYC!) over the weekend, and it amazes me how I can feel 100% safer there than I do here. Don't get wrong, I'm not paranoid. But what do you make of a city where you're sitting in Starbucks and you overhear two police officers telling people they have to order drinks or they'll get thrown out for loitering, and then telling the manager about how dangerous this neighborhood is? Or, better yet, I get off the train last night and while waiting for a cab only see a number of police cars just near the train station. Turns out there was another shooting in that area just before I returned. According to the local news, that was the 31st murder in New Haven this year. If you calculate that statistically, that means there's been a murder here approximately every 10 days. And this is Yale? It's bizarre, but what can you do? Stay within the university environment as much as possible apparently. Life is much more enjoyable when you're living in the proverbial ivory tower. As I mentioned, though, the campus area itself is lovely, as my previous post showed with some pictures, and there are some fun surprises at times. For instance, I was returning from the grocery store this evening and bumped into one of the YCBA curators and we chatted for a few minutes in the street. It occurred to me that this was one of the joys of small city living, just randomly bumping into people you know and having a chat. I also spent a lovely Thanksgiving with my friends, the JJK-SPs, who live near here, and they said they'd take me around so I can see more of the surrounding area too, so I'm looking forward to seeing more.

But of course I am here to research and network, and that I have been doing. I've met a number of people and have been surprised to discover that the YCBA is bigger than I thought, but they all seem to know one another. I attended a lecture given by visiting senior scholar Clarissa Campell Orr, a well-published historian who is writing a biography about Mary Delany (1700-1788), maker of fascinating paper cut-out botanical collages, about which the YCBA recently did an exhibition. I have a computer work station in the library and have already worked in the Rare Book Room, plus I have access to resources in other libraries on campus. I've also had the opportunity to examine more closely the John Gibson busts in the collection, and they've now actually brought 2 of them out for the public to see, which is great (one of them being the unknown young woman about whom I blogged).

I've been asked to give a presentation on Dec. 16th about my research (yikes!). Fortunately, I've already uncovered some new interesting little tidbits of information, so that should help. For instance, Yale has digitized a travel diary written by Susan Horner (1816-1900). In 1847-48, she accompanied her sister Frances and newlywed brother-in-law Charles (later Sir Charles James Fox Bunbury, 8th Baronet, and Lady Bunbury) on a trip to France and Italy. An artist and historian, Horner later authored books such as Walks in Florence: Churches, Street and Palaces (1877) and Greek Vases: Historical and Descriptive (1897). In the 1850s and 1860s, she carried on a regular correspondence with Gibson and they saw one another socially in London and Rome on future visits, but it appears she first met him while on this trip with her family. Gibson had been living in Rome for 30 years at this time, so he was well-acquainted with everything the city had to offer, and he delighted in acting as a tour guide when it came to art. Ever the classicist, he always looked to ancient Greece and Rome for inspiration. The drawing you see here is but one of many examples of his sketches in which he explored Greco-Roman subjects. The drawing is from the Greek playwright Euripides and shows Antigone Discovered over the Dead Body of Her Brother (image: Royal Academy). I thought it would be interesting to share one of Horner's encounters with Gibson. On this occasion they visited the Vatican Museum, much like you or I have done in the past, traipsing through the same corridors she mentions as well. The only difference then was that there was no electricity, just natural light and maybe gas lanterns or candles for evening visits. Their particular visit together took place on April 10, 1848--exactly 122 years before I was born.
At three we called for Mr Gibson at his studio. He showed us a beautiful drawing he is making, and also some engravings from his works, very well executed; he then accompanied us to the Vatican, where Charles and Frances walked through the Gallery together, and Mr Gibson showed me its wonders. The galleries are very beautiful and very rich, and as we walked along, he stopped me at the most remarkable among its treasures. We entered the Braccio Nuovo which has been added of late years. Mr Gibson pointed out to me the statue of Minerva as the best time of Greek art. ... As Mr Gibson is occupied making a drawing for a bas relief of Hyppolitus, he examined these well, and satisfied himself as to the legitimacy of adding ears or horns to his creatures. I asked him, why it was necessary to confine himself to an imitation of the ancients, to which he replied, that when treating a Greek subject, it ought to be treated as a Greek artist would have conceived it, whereas, in Christian subjects the master is free to use what models he may please. (fol. 51v-52r)

Friday, November 25, 2011

Books of 2011

It’s that time again! The annual “best” lists have begun. They seem to be happening earlier and earlier each year, including The New York Times’s 100 Notable Books of 2011, which was published today on their website. As I’ve noted in the past, I rarely read these books as they’re published, but their potential sustainability appeals to me. After all, a good book (song, movie, etc.) needs to transcend its momentary popularity. If you read it years later and you can still feel its impact, then the author has proven him/herself. The NYT list is divided into fiction/short-stories (no poems this year) and non-fiction, although they haven’t yet published their usual explanation for how they came up with their list. Only 5 of the titles on Amazon’s Top 10 Fiction & Literature Books of  2011 made it onto the NYT list, which once again seems strange to me. In any case, based on the NYT recommendations, I’m adding to my wish list the novels The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka (sounds like a Japanese twist on The Joy Luck Club) and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child (must catch up on his earlier books too). In biography I’m going for Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie. I’m also tempted by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s Van Gogh: The Life, but another Vincent van Gogh biography? (Try Judy Sund’s Van Gogh [2002], which people I've told about always seem to love.) Of course, you can’t always trust lists like these, as I discovered this past year. In 2010 the NYT had Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists (stories about people working at an English-language newspaper in Rome) on their list, but I read it and I wasn’t nearly as thrilled by it as they seemed to be (I’m convinced there’s some journalististic nepotism at work here).

Since last year’s post on this topic, I’ve read 29 books. This is down a bit from the 44 of last year, but 2010 was an exceptionally intense year studying for my PhD Oral Exam. Among my noteworthy art historical reads were Alex Potts’s Flesh and the Ideal: Winckelmann and the Origins of Art History (1994) and Henry Fuseli by Martin Myrone (2001). One of my favorite non-fiction books was The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: Or, The Murder at Road Hill House by Kate Summerscale (2008), an 1860s true-crime murder mystery which every mystery buff should read. I also couldn’t resist reading Betty White’s memoir If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won’t) (2011). Between her comedic sense of living and her devotion to the proper care of animals, how could you not love Betty White?

Last year at this time I was reading Howards End (1910) by E.M. Forster. The Schlegel sisters are divine, but it was even more fascinating how Forster was able to anthropomorphize the homes themselves so that even they became characters in the novel. I was sitting in a coffee shop reading one afternoon and a non-descript gray-haired woman saw me and squealed in delight because it was one of her favorite books and I had now saved her from the despair of thinking no one ever read Forster anymore. Among some of the other novels I read, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones (2002) was thought-provoking and worth reading, but The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (English ed. 2008) was an incredibly smart, witty, tour de force of a novel (thank you, PR, for the gift). Shermania has more than one blog post about this book, so that should tell you how good it is. My big fiction discovery this year was British novelist Barbara Pym (thanks to TC giving a paper at the Barbara Pym Society earlier this year). Excellent Women (1952) will have you chuckling aloud as you pour a cup of tea and join the witty, thirtysomething spinster Mildred Lathbury through another seemingly boring day with her fellow church ladies and her high-strung neighbors. Another must-read. Since I’ve been here in New Haven, I’m reading The Night Watch (2006) by Sarah Waters. It’s a World War II-themed story and includes both a lesbian and gay male couple, both living under the radar since it was illegal then. Curiously, the story moves backwards through time, which should prove interesting, although I have to confess right now it’s moving a bit slowly. Waters is great storyteller though, as bklynbiblio readers will recall me saying not too long ago.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

28 New Haven Days: Part 1

I've been in New Haven for approximately 55 hours, and while I'm more settled now than when I first arrived, so far it's been a relatively quiet start. Friday night I was staying at the Graduate Club, and I spent that afternoon getting my Yale ID, then touching base with the YCBA staff and getting acquainted in more detail with the Library itself. Because yesterday was the annual Harvard-Yale game (I presume that's football?), plus with Thanksgiving coming up, I'm arriving here during an unusual time when many things are shut down for the week, including some of the Libraries. Nevertheless, I managed to keep myself entertained a bit this weekend. On Saturday, I moved into the Taft Apartments, which you see here. They were built in 1912 and named for Pres. Taft, who after his presidency taught at Yale and lived here. The apartments, however, are perhaps more famous because they're next to the Shubert Theater, which historically has been a testing ground for plays before heading to Broadway, but these days seem to be stuck doing revivals and seasonal works like A Christmas Carol in early December. The Taft has made an appearance in more than one film too, like All About Eve (1950), when Eve (Anne Baxter) is performing at the Shubert and she is confronted in her Taft apartment about her own past. (If you haven't seen this movie, get it's one of Bette Davis's best films with her classic line "Fasten your seat belts--it's gonna be a bumpy night!") As for my apartment, so far so good, although my previous occupant wasn't exactly the cleanest person, leaving behind half-dirty dishes and her long black hair on more than one towel, including (shockingly) the kitchen dish towels which, alas, I did not discover until after I cooked my dinner and found hair in my food. (Yes...very gross.)

Shermania had written me about an exhibition at Artspace called Library Science, and I'm so glad he told me. It's the perfect combination of contemporary art and librarianship coming together in a way that would satisfy any bibliophile or library nerd. Candida Höfer was of course included, showcasing one of her large-scale photographs of libraries, but a number of other artists in the show were new to me and had some interesting ideas about libraries, books, and cataloging. Mickey Smith rephotographs found photos of people posing with faux libraries as backdrops, calling into question what the library is meant to suggest when it is not real. He also laid out an entire collection of hundreds of volumes of the Federal Reserve in a way that one quite literally walks over the books in order to look at his photographs. Considering this entire series is now available through online databases, Smith makes us rethink the evolution of information and the gradual disappearance of books in the e-publishing world as we walk all over them and what they historically have represented. Reynard Loki reenvisions the idea of cataloging with an ongoing project in which he indexes on paper his entire library by the first and last lines of each book he owns, and Erica Baum's large-scale photographs of subject heading cards from old card catalogs suddenly makes words like "Power" take on a whole new visual sensibility. This was an interesting exhibition for sure.

I was working on a different review today, but by lunchtime I decided I needed to get some air so I took a long stroll and wound up, oddly enough, in the Grove Street Cemetery. Yes, I admit, I'm a cemetery stroller. I find cemeteries to be very peaceful places where you can commune with nature (loved the birds and squirrels), but also look at the sculpture of the tomb stones and learn about people with whom I have no connection but who were important to someone at some time enough that a marker still exists to mark their remains. A number of the oldest tombstones here date from the 1700s and are now in very bad shape, but a number of 19th-century stones are still intact. I was pleasantly surprised to discover the grave for Eli Whitney (inventor of the cotton gin), but of all the plots I saw the one that caught my eye was that of Edward Elbridge Salisbury (1814-1901), which you see in the foreground of the image above. It's not that the sculpture is of great significance, but when you read the accomplishments of this man, most notably his becoming Yale's first Professor of Arabic and Sanskrit during a period when hardly anyone knew a thing about these languages, you realize he was an important academic figure. I had to look up more about him and discovered that his entire collection of books and manuscripts was donated to the Libraries and are the foundation for the Near East Collection. Looking in WorldCat, however, I was surprised to see what he had authored. While he did publish a few tracts on things like the Persian cuneiform alphabet (1849), he also wrote about Michelangelo (1861), and published a number of books about genealogy and his own family history. It makes you realize how specialized we've become in academia today, and it reminds me of the importance of making sure I don't get too pigeon-holed in my own work.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

DW: Christmas 2011

The trailer for the annual Doctor Who Christmas special has been released. Entitled The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, you can imagine that it definitely is taking as its inspiration C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but with an alien twist, I'm sure. It takes place during World War II, so the added historical element will make it an even more enjoyable Christmas, as last year's did, inspired by Charles Dickens but successfully mingling the futuristic with the past. From the new trailer, it looks like Amy and Rory are both absent from the episode, which is a refreshing change. It will be good to see Doctor Matt have his own adventure without having to rescue those two. Here's the trailer, but if YouTube breaks the link, you can view it here, or keep up with all things Doctor Who on their BBC America website.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Gibson and the YCBA

I'm off to New Haven to begin my Visiting Scholar Award at the Yale Center for British Art, about which I posted back in April. This is not to be confused with the "Artist's Studio in Britain" seminar I attended there back in June (which I posted about here, here, here, and here). You'd think with all my traveling I would have packing down to a science, but it's not easy coordinating a wardrobe when the weather is moving from temperately chilly to cold but could warm up at any time. In any case, the fellowship is in support of my dissertation on John Gibson. The bust of an unknown young woman that you see here is by Gibson and from the YCBA collection. They date the marble bust to the late 1820s, which seems reasonable based on her hair style, but her identity is a mystery. One of my many goals for this trip is to identify her. I would like to think that it is a bust of Emily d'Aguilar Robinson from Liverpool. She was one of Gibson's earliest supporters. She was married, but she and Gibson may have had a bit of a love affair. She died in 1829 while he was in Rome, and he designed her funerary monument which is now in the Oratory at St. James's Cemetery in Liverpool. Of course, it's very possible the bust is of someone else, so that and many other Gibson mysteries await me as I spend some time doing research.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Autumn Leaves 2011

Word is out that this coming weekend is the last chance we'll have in NYC to see beautifully colored fall foliage on the trees. Soon the leaves will all be brown and dropping to the ground. I took a lovely walk in Central Park today during my lunch break. The sun was shining and there was a cool breeze blowing. Here are a few pictures I took, all in the vicinity of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. To see more pictures from my walk, click here. Enjoy!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Random Musings 9

This morning I received an email from Sladmore Gallery announcing the current exhibition at their Jermyn Street location in London, and I so wish I could go see this in person before it closes next month. The picture you see here should give you a clue. Yes, they’re doing The Dog Show. Now, in the world of art history, animals have never been taken too seriously. Think “dog” and “art” and the first think that comes to mind is the ridiculous picture of dogs playing poker. To some extent, Victorians like Edwin Landseer perhaps did make animals in art seem trite with paintings like Trial by Jury where dogs hold court, but Landseer also was enormously famous for Monarch of the Glen, a beautiful picture of a stag in the highlands which came to be seen as an icon of national pride. Dogs, however, have been faithful companions for centuries and frequently appear in art, such as in just some of these important paintings at The Metropolitan Museum of Art by Anthony van Dyke and Jean-Honoré Fragonard. The exhibition at Sladmore Gallery focuses on 19th- and 20th-century paintings and sculptures, which is another reason to see the show since combining these two media in one show is so infrequently done. And if you’re wondering why I chose this particular image of a West Highland Terrier by the British artist Lilian Cheviot, it is an homage to the memory of my own adorable little Westie named Duchess, who died in 2003.

Speaking of the Met, the Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia opened to the public on Tuesday. I had an opportunity to preview them the week beforehand, and they are simply magnificent. The image you see here is of the restored Damascus Room, which is but one of the many galleries that have been reinstalled after an 8-year renovation. The room showcasing a number of exquisite carpets is just stunning, but my personal favorite sections showcase objects from the Ottoman Empire and India. Considering that cultural relations between the U.S. and various Islamic nations and peoples have been precarious to say the least, these galleries can only help in educating about the fascinating culture of Islam and its exquisite works of art from so many parts of its world for over a millennium. You can read from The New York Times a full review and description of the galleries by Holland Carter, who describes them as being “beyond fabulous,” which they are.

In case you haven’t heard the news, the world population is now at over 7 billion. That number alone is staggering to say the least, but the rate of growth is even more disturbing. At the current rate of population growth, it is estimated that by the year 2080 we will have 10 billion people on the planet. Whatever happened to those futuristic modules of living in underwater colonies or outer space? Someone needs to start working fast to accommodate our ever-increasing population. But did you ever wonder what number you were at your birth? Turns out, I was person number 3,678,956,784. I’m also the 77,803,200,647th person who’s ever lived on the planet. Go to the BBC population calculator app to find out your numbers and learn more about population growth around the world. You may be surprised by what you find out.

Finally, whenever I report on the British royal family, I always get scolded by a number of my friends for being a royal follower.’s part of history, and I love it. (Besides, I recently made a lovely visit to Hampton Court Palace, and without the royal family, that place probably wouldn't exist right now.) Parliament made history this week by reforming the rules for the royal family’s line of succession. It has always been that daughters are passed over in favor of sons, even when they are born first. Henry VIII had two daughters before he got his son, who became Edward VI. Only because Edward died young and childless did Mary and Elizabeth subsequently become rulers. This change means that if the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (Will & Kate) have a daughter, she will automatically be the heir to the throne regardless if a son is born afterwards. Interestingly, this law now automatically changes the current line of succession. It had been Charles, William, Harry, Andrew (Charles’s brother) and his daughters Beatrice and Eugenia, then brother Edward, then Anne and her children. But with this change, Princess Anne now has moved to 4th and her son and daughter are higher in the line of succession now too. The Guardian had an interesting report on all this, and they pointed out a few important historical turns that could have made British history very different if this law had been changes ages ago. One of the more interesting possibilities from modern history relates to Queen Victoria’s first-born, Princess Vicky (1840-1901), whom you see here. She was married to the Crown Prince of Prussia and eventually became Empress of Germany when that country was united. Her son eventually rose to power and took over the imperial throne as Emperor Wilhelm II, ruling Germany during World War I. But technically speaking Vicky would still have been heir to the throne of England, so upon the death of her mother she would have been named Queen Victoria II but remained Dowager Empress of Germany. When she died 7 months after her mother, her son Kaiser Wilhelm II then would have become King of England and thus united England and Germany into one imperial nation. Can you imagine if that had happened? World War I may never have happened...or we all would be speaking German right now.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

All a-Twitter

I've moved another step forward in social networking and I now have a Twitter account (finally). You can follow my tweets by going to @bklynbiblio. I'm not sure yet how much activity we'll have, but in just following some of my friends (and a celebrity or two) it looks like it's going to be another obsessive virtual world worth exploring. I'll be tweeting (and retweeting) shorter posts and link that I don't always get to on the blog, where I can write more substantial posts than the 140 word limit. So stay tuned, because this "bert" is ready to start "tweeting"!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

First Snowfall: 2011-2012 Fall/Winter

It's the perfect day for me to be home writing my dissertation. The meteorologists have been predicting that today was going to be a bad day weather-wise. Everywhere from NJ up to ME we are being hit with an early Nor'easter. I didn't actually expect we would get snow in Brooklyn, but sure enough at 11:35 snowflakes started tumbling out of the sky, and it is just getting heavier by the minute. I took the picture you see here twenty minutes after it started. This is my backyard with the snow falling, already covering the fig tree you see in the foreground, and it's just getting heavier as I'm writing this. Needless to say, I never thought when I started writing about and photographing these first snowfalls each year that I'd be posting about them this early! Blizzards, a spring tornado in Brooklyn, a brutally hot summer, an earthquake, Hurricane Irene, and now an early snowfall? This has certainly been a crazy year for weather in NYC!

Friday, October 28, 2011

From Buddha to Dickens

I had to do some research at my school's library today, so I thought I would use part of the day also to catch up on a few special exhibitions here in the City. I made my way first to the Asia Society on Park Ave. & 70th St. to see The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara, which I had included on my list of must-see shows for the fall. The show was fantastic, and I am so glad I went. I have a weakness for Asian art like Chinese landscape paintings, Japanese prints, Chinese/Islamic calligraphy, and Buddhist sculpture. In many ways it is so different from Western art that it allows us the opportunity to look at it with fresh eyes, unadulterated by our expectations of what we assume the artist did or what we know about the school in which he/she lived because we're used to certain things. But I am actually schooled a bit in Asian art, having taken a number of classes years ago and having taught courses on Asian art, literature, and religions in my past, but I would never consider myself a specialist. So I love to see shows like this and simply appreciate the subtle beauty of these works exactly for what they are. Take the Buddha you see here, for instance, from the Lahore Museum in Pakistan. He dates from the 2nd-3rd century and stands just under 5 feet high. The figure shows the Buddha as a teacher, raising his (missing) hand in the mudra of peace, and he wears the ushnisha (knot of knowledge) on his head and the urna (third eye of spiritual awakening) in the middle of his forehead. But what makes this figure so spectacular is the way his cloak ripples down his body, carved in a way that you can sense it is translucent and you can see the contours of his body beneath it. This "classical"-style Buddha is Gandharan, and what makes the art of this period and region so amazing is that it encapsulates a global culture from two millennia ago. Located near the silk route and conquered by the Persians and Greeks, the art of this area reflects an amalgamation of cultures coming together. From the Western perspective, this Buddha looks very Greek. If it were in white marble, one might thing an ancient Greek or Roman carved it. The entire exhibition brought together works from the Lahore Museum, a feat unto itself considering the political instability in which the U.S. and Pakistan find themselves today. The Asia Society also had an exhibition of the watercolors and paintings of Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel prize-winning writer from India, celebrating his 150th birthday. Much of his visual art resembles the work of modernists popular at the time. Paul Klee and Amadeo Modigliani come to mind. It wasn't really my taste, but it was worth seeing. They also had a single-room exhibition of a kinetic sculpture by the contemporary Korean artist U-Ram Choe. The sculpture looked like the skeletal remains of a manatee with sea oats growing out of it, their tips moving in the air like grabbing peacock feathers. There is a long conceptual narrative to the piece, but you can tell I wasn't into it, although the clockwork mechanics of it were interesting.

I ventured over to the Morgan Library today as well, which had four exhibitions that interested me. I started with the show on Islamic manuscript paintings from their permanent collection, some of which were vibrant and delightful. I then moved downstairs to see David, Delacroix, and Revolutionary France: Drawings from the Louvre. Encompassing French drawings from about 1780 to 1860, the emphasis here was on the Neoclassicists and Romantics. Many of the drawings were quite good, but without contextualization of paintings for which some were studies, it is more challenging for the general viewer person to appreciate what it is you are looking at.

I love the art of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, so it was a pleasure to see works of his not only in the exhibition from the Louvre, but also in a separate small exhibition with drawings from the Morgan's permanent collection. Ingres was a skilled draftsman, and he bridged the gap in many ways between the classical and romantic. The image you see here by him is his Odalisque and Slave, 1839, and relates directly to a painting of the same subject. Depicting a fantasy Orientalist scene that exploits the beauty of the female nude and the exoticism of the Middle East, the subject is Romantic; however, the crisp line and detailed precision and balance in the picture allow it to fall neatly into the Neoclassical style. I'm essentializing all this just to keep it simple, but normally I don't like pigeon-holing artists into categories like this because it creates an unnecessary hierarchy of excellence. Regardless, what strikes me most about this work is that when I saw it, I was convinced it was an engraving. In fact, it is a drawing in pencil, chalk, and wash, which is a testament to Ingres's incredible skills as an artist.

I also had to stop in the exhibition celebrating Charles Dickens's 200th birthday as well. There were letters, manuscripts, books, photographs, caricatures, and other related items all on display in cases and hanging on the wall. Now, I confess I've never been a big fan of Dickens. I've read Hard Times and Nicholas Nickleby, and of course read more than once A Christmas Carol, but to me Dickens seemed to focus too much on sensationalizing the poor in a way that objectified them. Then again, he was a journalist and his books did get people to start thinking about social programs for the underprivileged, so it's understandable why he was and is so popular.

Now if you've read this entire post (for which you get my applause!), you may be wondering what the heck the image at the top of this post has to do with Buddha or Dickens or anything in-between. In truth, nothing. But it does relate to the end of my day in the City, for as I was heading toward the subway, I was drawn into Banana Republic like a moth to a flame. As I walked in a shop girl said, "40% off everything!", flailing a coupon in my face. "40%," said I, "off everything?" "Yes, everything!" she exclaimed. Needless to say, I couldn't resist adding a few items for my work wardrobe for the fall/winter season...but don't you just LOVE what I bought?! By the way, they're saying we may get snow flurries tomorrow...I'm pretty sure I'm ready.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Review: Grayson Perry, Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

Last month after I posted about upcoming Fall Exhibitions 2011, I discovered another show I had to see when I was in London, Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman at the British Museum. Readers may recall Perry first making an appearance on bklynbiblio earlier this year when I wrote about his recent election to the Royal Academy as a printmaker. Perry works in different media, but is best known as an artist who makes ceramic pots and vases. He won the highly-acclaimed Turner Prize in 2003 as well. However, he's probably most notoriously known as a transvestite named Claire, and frequently shows up for events like the annual RA dinner dressed in frocks he himself designed. To me, there is something innately British about Perry, a theatricality to his persona in and out of drag that fits into the longer trajectory of British drama, reaching as far back as Shakespeare and beyond. This may seem far-fetched to some--after all, he is a 51-year-old man wearing baby-doll frocks and bonnets--but Perry sees his art as part of history, and thus Claire is more than just a put-on character but an important part of his creative personality. Because of this, I believe Perry is a more difficult sell in the U.S., where no major museum as yet has given him an exhibition (although based on its recent history of solo contemporary artists from the U.K., the Brooklyn Museum would be a perfect venue).  The fact is, Americans are uncomfortable with “trans”-anything, and in the ongoing fight for social equality in marriage and the military, even many gays and lesbians are uncomfortable with "trans" culture, preferring their own “trans”-gressive behavior not to challenge too much the easy-to-identify gay/straight sexual binary.

Perry is a queer artist. He blurs the boundaries of gender and sexuality, but then also pushes the definitions of topics like art, craft, religion, history, and the museum, and ultimately points out the foibles of personal identity as well. And yet (as my friend CC pointed out as we walked through the exhibition) unlike the White Cube commercial sensationalism that his contemporary Damien Hirst exudes, what is so striking about Perry is that you can actually understand him. He may be conceptual at times, but he works with real art objects that the masses can appreciate: ceramic pots (such as the one here, The Rosetta Vase, 2011), cast iron sculptures, prints and drawings, tapestries, and costumes. Hirst favors esoterically titled vitrines with dead sharks or large jewel-encrusted skulls. The very nature of Perry's art, with an intended focus on craft, demonstrates how real of an artist he is, even when he shows up for openings dressed as Claire.

Following the current trend in museums to host artists-as-curators, Perry was given the opportunity to rummage through the seven-million-plus holdings of the British Museum. Director Neil MacGregor has described the show as “eccentrically personal yet infinitely universal in its sense of humanity and commonality.” Rather than use his art to respond to these objects as other artists have done in the past, Perry unites them, demonstrating their commonality in the longer history of civilization. In an interview for the August 2011 issue of the British Museum Journal, he says that he sees himself as a one-man civilization, although he astutely notes that “no civilisation is an island and there’s always an interplay with other civilisations.” In this spirit, he has brought together 200 objects from the BM's collection, all representing Africa, Native America, the Pacific Islands, China, Anglo-Saxon England, and other cultures, along with 35 of his own original works, some premiering for the first time. Like all civilizations, his also has a religion and he announces to the visitor upon entering that his chief god is Alan Measles. Who is Alan Measles? Why, he's a teddy bear that Perry has had since he was a child who has come to represent Claire's alter-ego.

Now, if you're rolling your eyes and thinking this guy is a crack pot, I beg to differ. Sure, it seems a bit inane, but the fact of the matter is, you have to laugh aloud at all of this, and then you realize that Perry is laughing along with you, but in that "Britty" (i.e. British witty) sarcastic way that Americans will never be able to master. Claire/Alan Measles...this is Perry queering our understandings about civilization and religion as we (think we) know it. CC and I laughed aloud through the exhibition. We were joined by a few others in the know, people who realized not to take any of it too seriously. But it wasn't all fun and games. At the same time, we could not stop talking about his work and his ideas, how he manages to make the artifacts of past civilizations relevant to us here and now, not just as sanitized detritus of the past.

Returning to Alan Measles, however, this was really an opportunity for him to shine, for Claire is largely missing from this exhibition (probably the only disappointment with the show). Or rather it was Alan Measles himself who apparently has decided this. After all, he has his own blog where he writes that 2011 is his year to reveal himself, following the examples of Christ, Buddha, and Mohamed before him. But Alan Measles is no ordinary god: “One of my core messages is that I want people to think about what fantasies they are holding on to and to hold their beliefs lightly. If I am a God of anything, I am God of a doubt. Pretty useless for a religion I know, but I feel the world has enough zealots and people attached to being right already.” In a world where religious followers teleologically rely on texts written thousands of years ago to justify living in 2011, it is refreshing to consider that maybe doubting can be even stronger than asserting. (All hail the great Alan Measles!)

The exhibition opens with Perry telling the visitor not to think too hard. He’s not an art historian, just a craftsman, and so he introduces us to his imaginary world and invites the visitor to participate in its artifacts along with those from other world cultures. Arranged thematically, there are sections dedicated shrines, pilgrimages and badges, maps, and the spiritual dimension to sexuality. On the theme of Magick, Perry writes: “Part of my role as an artist is similar to that of a shaman or witch doctor. I dress up, I tell stories, give things meaning and make them a bit more significant. Like religion, this is not a rational process, I use my intuition. Sometimes our very human desire for meaning can get in the way of having a good experience of the world. Some people call this irrational unconscious experience spirituality. I don’t.”  In wall texts such as these, we encounter over and over succinct yet intelligent explanations for how the artist-craftsman throughout time has not only participated in the making of the visual identifiers of civilizations, but in fact has superimposed his/her supremacy on them because their handiwork is all that survives. He invites us to ponder who  these artist-craftsmen were. We will never know, and this is Perry’s point. The unknown craftsman of the show’s title elevates the importance of these unnamed masters and shows how anonymity has the power to create the most important features of a civilization.

From here the visitor begins to see that Perry actually is taking him/her on an actual pilgrimage. The very museum in which they have been viewing these cultural artifacts all this time now becomes a temple to the past and present. These objects that we see inside vitrines and raised on pedestals aren’t just representations of long-dead peoples but mirrors that show us who we are as well. The fact that so many have come from tombs now plays into the title of his show as well, for the BM (and all museums) are not only temples but also tombs in which we excavate an understanding of the past and how it relates to us.

Many of Perry’s individual art works are simply beautiful. His vases are undoubtedly my favorite works.  The first one seen upon entering is You Are Here, a vase in which Perry envisions different types of visitors to his exhibition, suggesting in bubbles over their heads the many reasons why they may have shown up, from having a free ticket or needing to write a school report, to the social critic who declares “I need to have my negative prejudices confirmed.” Perry's Shrine to Alan Measles could pass for a Tang Dynasty tomb sculpture, except for its contemporary references, dangling  pictures of Princess Diana and the Twin Towers. His cast-iron sculptures were new for me and simply exquisite with their rust-colored sheen. These included Alan Measles on Horseback, a primitivist Don Quixote-like figurine, and the pathos-driven paired figures Our Father, Our Mother, who carry the weight of all civilizations in baskets and satchels on their broken bodies. The tour de force of the exhibition itself, however, is the final piece in the last gallery, appropriately entitled The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman. A new work made for this exhibition, it is rusty cast-iron funerary ship decorated with casts of numerous objects seen throughout the exhibition itself, from African figure heads to Asian shrines. At the heart of it is a piece of 250,000-year-old flint, the very first tool that allowed an unknown craftsman to make the first product of civilization.

Perry’s exhibition is simply brilliant. I can't say it enough. There is an entrance fee, which may make some people balk, but it is absolutely worth it. Despite his warning not to think about it too much, you cannot help but ponder the associations he has made and how his own beautiful work complements and relates to the long history of artifacts that surround you. But at the same time, the absurdity of Claire/Alan Measles makes you realize you truly do need to take it all in stride, and to laugh—yes, laugh in a museum!—whenever you think it is appropriate. Perry isn't so intellectual about his art that he wants you to forgo enjoying it. On the contrary, he'd rather you simply enjoy it first and perhaps never think about it at all. That of course is almost impossible for art historians like CC and me, but fortunately we were able not only to get excited about his messages, but also laugh our way through the exhibition at his intentional queering of everything you might come to expect from art and the museum.

The exhibition is on until February 19, 2012. There is an exhibition catalogue as well. Be sure to visit the exhibition website where you can see a short video about Perry's preparations for the exhibition.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

London Exhibitions, Fall 2011

Back in May 2010, I had written about Yinka Shonibare's sculptural piece Nelson's Ship in a Bottle outside the National Gallery in London. As it turned out, I didn't get to see it then, but on this recent trip I was pleased to discover it was still resting on the fourth plinth. I took the picture above showing the ship in a bottle just overlooking Nelson's Column at the heart of Trafalgar Square. The sculpture is 3.25 meters high and 5 meters long (10 feet 7 inches by 16 feet 4 inches) and weighs 4 tons. It was great to see it, but since it was so difficult to examine closely, I admit I was a bit disappointed.

Alas, this disappointment continued elsewhere. I had been looking forward to the NG's exhibition on Sir Charles Lock Eastlake, their first Director and a President of the Royal Academy. This exhibition was a one-room show highlighting masterpieces in Renaissance art that on his art-buying trips he brought back to London. There were some archival objects in the show, but all-in-all it was a bit uninspiring. Compounding disappointment was The House of Annie Lennox installation at the Victoria & Albert Museum. CC and I ventured over to see it after doing research in the National Art Library all day. I was looking forward to this exhibition a great deal, and admittedly two highlights were some of her costumes and the array of professional photographs taken of her over the span of her career. But the exhibition itself was actually quite boring. It looked more like someone had invaded her closet and thus apotheosized aspects of her life in a way that borders on the inane...unless of course you're dead. Case in point: a pair of shoes Annie wore sometime in the 1980s while walking in London. Really? And where's the piece of gum she spat out on May 7, 1986? The "house" of Lennox was meant to be a doll's house-like recreation of some of her personal manuscripts and scores, but even this seems rather pathetic in its selection and display. Annie Lennox is a powerhouse of a singer, entertainer, and activist. She deserves more space, more room, and more interpretation that simply a tiny interactive room where you can pull out drawers and listen to her songs.

The British Museum had a lovely surprise for CC and me when we visited. This was an exhibition of German Romantic prints and drawings. Many of these works were from a private collection, and the curators noted that very few people have been active in acquiring the work of German artists, so this was a rare opportunity to showcase some of their important works. These included Philip Otto Runge's Times of the Day series of line engravings, which were delightful to finally see in person. Carl Wilhelm Kolbe's botanical prints probably impressed me the most, as his exaggerated foliage swallows humans in their explorations of the power of nature, such as in this 1801 print, Auch ich war in Arkadien (I too was in Arcadia). The BM also gave CC and I one of the best exhibition experiences: Grayson Perry. It was so damn good, I'm writing a separate review just of that exhibition.

And finally, even though it cost me £10 (student rate) to get in, I did go to Tate Britain to see John Martin: Apocalypse. An artist who made a career out of merging the sublime landscape with moralistic narrative tales of death and destruction, Martin in his paintings and prints make you aware of how much the Romantics and Victorians cherished being thrilled and frightened by melodramatic art and literature. The tour de force of the exhibition, however, was near the end, where the curators recreated a multi-sensory experience that Victorian audiences would have encountered in the 1850s. Called The Last Judgment, audiences were surrounded by his three enormous paintings (including The Great Day of His Wrath, 1851-3, below) as well as loud, dramatic music, intense flashes of light, and actors reciting texts from the Book of Revelations in booming voices. The recreated experience made me chuckle, but you could absolutely understand how in the days long before moving pictures had even been imagined participants would have been terrified and thrilled by the sensation created by these pictures and the importance of their spiritual message. It was worth paying the £10, if even just for the cinematic experience of Martin's paintings.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A Day at the British Library

I’m in London right now on a bit of a marathon research trip for my dissertation on the sculptor John Gibson (1790-1866).  I thought bklynbiblio readers might be curious to know what exactly a typical day during one of these research trips actually means.  I arrived at Heathrow Airport on Wednesday morning, having slept about three hours on the plane, then took the Express train to Paddington Station and a taxi to my hotel, where I dropped off my bag and freshened up.  I grabbed my laptop, made the twenty-minute walk toward the British Library, stopping briefly for a large cappuccino (caffeine will be a key ingredient all day) and a sandwich at Pret a Manger.  By the time I actually crossed the plaza and entered the doors of the BL (picture left from Haiku Girl's Flickr pool), it was about 11:30am.  Now, I’m familiar with the BL to some extent, having secured a reader’s card and done research here in the past, not to mention seeing some of their excellent exhibitions.  You can bring very little into the reading rooms of the BL, so the rest of what I’m carrying goes into a locker.  I had ordered a few items days earlier, so I logged into the system and discovered most of them were ready.  Off I went to the Manuscripts Reading Room.

One of the items I had ordered was the July 1823 catalogue for the Christie’s auction of the contents of the studio of the British sculptor Joseph Nollekens.  My interest in this was based on the fact that Liverpool-raised Gibson went to London in 1817 for about six months before moving on to Rome, and I had uncovered in past research that apparently a small sculpture of Gibson’s was included in this auction, suggesting Gibson may have worked with Nollekens briefly during this stint in London.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the listing; the auction catalogue at the BL only detailed the works for the first day of the sale.  Days two and three are separate catalogues and presumably Gibson’s work was listed in those.  So unfortunately my first bit of research for the day turned out to be a bust, but ever the optimist I am hopeful I can track this down, because the National Art Library at the Victoria & Albert Museum also has a copy of the catalogue and I’ll be there on Friday.  I moved on to my second request, an enormous tome called Pictures and Drawings Selected from the Works of Edward Armitage, R.A. (1898).  What does Armitage have to do with Gibson?  Nothing actually.  I’ve been wanting to look at this rare volume of engravings after Armitage’s works because of a long-term article I’m working on related to the Anglo-Jewish Pre-Raphaelite artist Simeon Solomon, about whom bklynbiblio readers will recall I have written about in the past.  Did I find what I was looking for?  No, but again it was good to be introduced to the work of this man who was another important Victorian painter, but about whom we know very little today (although readers may recall my writing about his fabulous allegorical painting Retribution at the Leeds Art Gallery).

Fighting exhaustion, I moved on to the Rare Books Reading Room, where I immersed myself in another rare item, the 1816 sale catalogues for the collections of prints, drawings, and books owned by William Roscoe.  Roscoe was a Liverpool-based attorney who in the 1790s retired early to become a Renaissance historian, writing a biography of Lorenzo de’ Medici that is still considered by scholars today to be a foundational text on the Florentine patron.  Roscoe made a series of bad financial investments and was forced in 1816 to auction off much of his art collection and library.  Following the example of the de’ Medici, Roscoe was Gibson’s first patron in Liverpool and helped nurture him in his pursuit of becoming a sculptor.  Gibson reported in his memoirs about Roscoe allowing him to study his print collection, so I was pleased to be able to look through these catalogues and was quite successful in identifying some of the works he owned, because (as I suspected) they relate to some of Gibson’s earliest works of art, making the scholar in me happy that I had just proven I was right.

Admittedly, reading through 1816 sale catalogues was exhausting, even though I risked the humiliating gawking of other researchers when more than once I got up and started jogging in place to wake up.  By the time I was finished, I needed a break, so I headed to the outdoor café for a Coke and biscuit (that’s a cookie in America).  Reinvigorated from more caffeine and the brisk cool air, I headed back inside, this time to the Humanities Reading Room, where I had a few books waiting for me here as well.  Although Derrick Pritchard Webley’s Cast to the Winds: The Life and Work of Penry Williams (1802-1885) is a relatively recent work, hardly anyone has this book because no one knows who Penry Williams was.  He was a Welsh painter who went to Rome and became Gibson’s closest friend.  The two bachelors traveled extensively together and Williams was Gibson’s executor of his will and estate.  If you think I may be insinuating something between the two of them, you may be right, although I will admit more to speculative thinking rather than outright factual arguing about their relationship.  The book held some interesting surprises for me and did add more information about Gibson that I didn’t know, so that was definitely another success of the day.

And then the fire alarm went off!  Everyone in the BL had to evacuate, so I grabbed my laptop and we left.  Forty-five minutes later we finally were all allowed back inside, and if you could have watched the crowd of researchers herd back into the building, you would have thought we were either cattle blindly walking to our destiny, or perhaps more appropriately braindead zombie researchers dedicated to finding out that one fact everyone else has missed about X-topic, knowing the BL held it in its bowels of knowledge.  Allow me to point out I’m actually not joking about this.  The BL is ALWAYS mobbed with people.  They range from college-aged students to the elderly, and it never ceases to amaze me how sometimes it’s nearly impossible to get a seat in one of the reading rooms because all 200+ are taken…that’s per reading room, and there are about a dozen or more reading rooms!  But I digress…

Finally getting back inside again, I was able to look at my next item, volumes one and two of L’Ape Italiana delle Belle Arti Giornale Dedicato ai Loro Cultori ed Amatori, which began publication in Rome in 1835.  This is a beautiful large-format journal with short essays in Italian and exquisitely produced line engravings after past Renaissance and modern paintings and sculptures by artists working in Rome.  This journal really was for the wealthy collector.  Gibson had two works engraved (remember, at this time he was a “modern” artist!) in these first two volumes, a privilege matched only by two other contemporary sculptors, the Belgian-born Matthieu Kessels and the German artist Emil Wolff.  My reading knowledge of Italian got a workout (and this still on the three hours of sleep on the plane), so I decided to hold off on going through more issues of this journal for now and find out about two other works I had ordered.  Turns out they were housed in one of their off-site facilities and wouldn’t be available until Thursday, so I’ll have to go back to look at those.  By this point in the day (nearing 6pm), I was shattered, so I went for a lovely cuppa tea and another biscuit, and meandered back to the hotel so I could finally unpack.