Friday, March 18, 2011

Random Musings 5

The image you see here is William Holman Hunt's 1853 painting The Awakening Conscience, part of the collection at Tate Britain. The picture is modestly sized, about 30 x 22 in. (762 x 559 mm). The linear clarity and attention to detail in the work is extraordinary. That is one of the great charms of Pre-Raphaelite painting. Holman Hunt is probably the only one in the group who maintained all the principles of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood when they formed in 1848. Among these were the ideas of truth to nature and subjects of modern life. Dante Gabriel Rossetti eventually moved into lusch Venetian-style fantasy portraits of women, and John Everett Millais went more academic in painting Victorian genre scenes and portraits (note that their work in these styles is equally admirable). Here, Holman Hunt's picture shows a kept woman in her dressing gown. She has been at play with her lover, when suddenly she has looked out the window and sees the light, here taking on its metaphorical message of morality. She has seen the error of her ways and the epiphany on her face suggests that she will now live a more righteous life. One of my favorite parts of this picture is the way Holman Hunt used a mirror to show the open window, thus showing us what she sees. By doing this, the viewer interacts with the woman, not only seeing her epiphany but experiencing it as well by looking at the light too, pointing out the viewer's potential moral failings, showing there is still hope to change.

I've started with this picture in this latest Random Musing because the Tate recently announced that there will be a new Pre-Raphaelite exhibition in 2012. The last major British retrospective in all media of this group was in 1984, and although that was a landmark show, it was highly criticized at the time for excluding women artists and not engaging with new theoretical ideas in art history at the time. This new show promises to change all that, and the planned title--Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde--tells you the intended modernist trajectory the curators will be suggesting. In some ways I had been thinking I would avoid London in much of 2012 because of the Olympics (e.g. overpriced hotel rooms and overcrowded streets), but that exhibition is making me rethink my plans. It opens September 2012.

Also on exhibit in 2012 (closing just before that show opens) at Tate Modern will be a major retrospective of the career of contemporary bad boy artist Damien Hirst. This is the shark-in-formaldehyde guy, as well as the diamond-encrusted-skull guy. He is one of the most successful British artists in history (if you measure success in monetary value and pop cultural references). I'm not a big fan of his work (the animal rights part of me gets riled up at times), but I cannot argue with the fact that his work has revolutionized sculpture by abstracting the figurative, altering our expectations of what we think we will see and, naturally, by shocking us at times with his experiments in form. It's no surprise also that the painting which earned the most money at auction last May ($106.5 million), Picasso's Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, has gone on long-term loan to the Tate Modern, since they're going to launch a Picasso and Britain show in 2012 as well. (Note to reader: museums have figured out that if they want to draw large audiences, they should do an exhibition on either Picasso or Van Gogh or anything Impressionist.)

In other art news, Leo Steinberg has died at the age of 90. This art historian's writing was always interesting to read. He made you look back at works of art not just once but over and over, seeing new things each time. You have to love anyone who had the balls to write a book entitled The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and Modern Oblivion (who knew there were so many images of Christ showing pronounced bulges!). His obituary by Ken Johnson in The New York Times is quite fascinating and definitely worth reading, giving you insights into how life experiences make an art historian.

In Queens, NY, there's a movement both to sell off and to save a public monument called The Triumph of Civic Virtue by the American sculptor Frederic MacMonnies. The non-art people find it offensive because the nude male is crushing two women. The art people recognize it as a major NYC public commission that in allegorical terms represents civic virtue crushing vice and corruption. Maybe the problem is that politicians don't like being reminded of their civic responsibility to oppose the evils of society...or they're offended by the nudity.

The polemical gay-themed art exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture is apparently going to travel, including making a stop at the Brooklyn Museum later in 2011. I saw this exhibition in DC with RL just over 3 months ago, and it led to some great conversations between him and me about "gay" art and its social implications for the gay/lesbian community, not to mention basic principles in exhibition design. The Brooklyn Museum doesn't have information on its site yet about the exhibition, but the news was reported here in the NYT blog.

I'm writing this post from a hotel room in sunny St. Petersburg, Florida. I'm getting the Padre's house ready to go on the market next week. Work, work, work...but what can you do? At least there's art to think about and appease one's mind.


pranogajec said...

I'm not sure I buy that Hirst is revolutionary "by abstracting the figurative, altering our expectations of what we think we will see and, naturally, by shocking us at times with his experiments in form." Isn't that what the early modernists did way back when, esp the Dadaists and Surrealists? There I can see revolutionary. With Hirst, I really don't find his work shocking--I find it mostly pathetic and mostly a sorry example of what drives the art market. But that's just me.

bklynbiblio said...

Paul, certainly you're right both in your opinion and your questioning my words, referencing the early 20th century. I also agree that it's completely commercially driven. But to me that is the point of much (almost all?) of his work--to draw on the market itself as a form of performance art (hence the seemingly ridiculous auction happening "Beautiful Inside My Head Forever" and the diamond skull). He exploits and ridicules it simultaneously, and because people fall for it, he ultimately self-referentializing exactly what he was satirizing. Admittedly it's a loop, but he deterministic in seeing where else he can go with this, and the contemporary art community eats it up like candy. What I was suggesting in his "abstracting the figurative" does seem to ignore early 20th-century art, but what I was attempting to say was that we've become so accustomed to abstract art now that to see figurative sculptural forms again quite literally startles (shocks?) us, especially when some of it seems so 'scientific' but isn't in a science museum. Then the more we gaze at them and consider the title/subject, they become abstracted for us in an intellectual/conceptual way. As I've mentioned, I'm not a huge fan of his work either, but I've learned to respect him in the longer historic trajectory of modernist sculpture. Personally, I think it's at least more thought-provoking than Donald Judd's work.

pranogajec said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments. We'll just have to agree to disagree. If his work is thought-provoking, the thoughts it provokes in me are mostly, "what's for lunch?"

bklynbiblio said...

Well said! :-)