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.

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