Tuesday, October 22, 2013

MWA XVIII: Caravaggio's Medusa

If you weren't shocked by this Monthly Work of Art, then you're watching too many zombie movies. Our society today is overexposed to sensation. Every thrill has to be bettered by the next thrill. Special effects have to be even more realistic or over-the-top than what was seen before. And each time you're scared, you need to be scared even more by the next encounter. This all especially applies to the movies, our most popular of art forms, and you can probably blame Hitchcock and Psycho for starting that trend. But in the world of art (i.e. the "fine" arts), the ability to shock can still do that. We expect beauty, finesse, refinement, and serenity from paintings and sculptures of figurative subjects. Think Madonnas and Nativity scenes, Grand Manner portraits, and picturesque landscapes. So it startles us when we see something ugly or shocking or repulsive in a painting or sculpture. For some it is the sublime at work--beauty so terrifying it scares them. But for others it is simply the shock value of the grotesque.

Michelangelo Merisi, aka Caravaggio (ca.1571-1610), excelled in extreme forms of realism and in many ways ushered in the Baroque style, with dramatic lighting and unusual scenes, in Southern European painting. This work is no exception, and it is among Caravaggio's most disturbing. Painted in the late 1590s, this painting, oil on canvas laid on board, at the Uffizi in Florence (image: Web Gallery of Art), shows the decapitated head of Medusa. According to ancient the Roman poet Ovid, Medusa was a beautiful maiden who was raped by Poseidon, the sea god, in the temple of Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war. Athena blamed Medusa for seducing Poseidon and defiling her temple, so she cursed her and transformed her into a hideous monster with snakes for hair. One look at Medusa and you turned to stone (literally, petrified). She was eventually killed and beheaded by Perseus, who used his shield as a mirror to help him cut off her head. Athena then used the head as the aegis on her shield, a symbol to inspire fear in others. Hence, Caravaggio's painting depicts, rather shockingly in its naturalism, Medusa's head on Athena's shield. The blood and guts of the severed head are frightening enough, but it is the pathos of the painting that chills us even more. We fear her gaze, but we realize she is as frightened of us as we are of her. And that frozen scream of pain echoing from her gaping mouth makes us aware that she too was once was just a poor girl who suffered great tragedies in life. Beautiful works of art can convey many things, from spirituality to morality, but sometimes with gruesome, visceral subjects, they generate catharsis, that jolt, that sensation, which makes a viewer stop and pause, and feel something about what s/he sees, perhaps for the first time.

And, oh, yes...Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Simeon Solomon Fundraising Effort

If you think the grave site you see in this picture is appalling, then you're not alone. Those of us who are scholars (and simply enjoyers) of the life and work of Simeon Solomon (1840-1905) find it depressing. It is indeed a sad testament in the life of this extraordinary artist whose ended his days in a miserable way. I've written about Solomon more than once on this blog, and recently gave a talk about one of his first great oil paintings, so many of you are aware of my interest in him. I'm pleased to share the news, then, that Carolyn Conroy, my colleague and friend (and fellow Solomaniac), has been approached by Mr. Frank Vigon to help organize a fundraising effort that would place a new headstone at Solomon's grave in Willesden Jewish Cemetery in London. More importantly, the fundraising effort will also provide a scholarship/fund in the artist's name that will create opportunities for academic programs on the art of Solomon and the larger 19th-century British art world in which he worked. The scholarship/fund has the full support of Prof. Liz Prettejohn and will be based in the History of Art Department at the University of York, England. This project is a valiant effort on the part of Mr. Vigon, and with the support of many of us, it will be a great success. To read the full details about the fundraising effort, and to contribute by check or PayPal, go to http://www.simeonsolomon.com/simeon-solomon-fundraising-appeal.html.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Public Sculpture II: Columbia University

Following up on the post I just wrote about Storm King Art Center, another public sculpture-themed post is in order. My interest in public sculpture has taken another step forward, in that part of my job as Curator of Art Properties is to oversee the care of the public outdoor sculpture at Columbia University. (You may recall I went to a seminar recently on the care of metal outdoor sculpture!) We have a number of works that date from the late 1890s through the 2000s, and some are by major sculptors known to most people (can you say Rodin?). I'm pleased to announce that today we released the first iteration of what will be a growing collection of webpages or a blog about the public outdoor sculpture collection at Columbia. You can read the first webpage here, which was publicized today on Twitter and Facebook by TG. The image you see above is the subject of our first webpage: George Grey Barnard's The Great God Pan. I won't repeat all the information here about the sculpture, because that's on the webpage I just referenced. But I'm very pleased about this webpage, as it is a major step forward in helping to promote just one component of the art collections at Columbia, a task which is monumental in its scope, but something which I am eagerly challenged to take on. Stay tuned for more about the public outdoor sculpture collection at Columbia!

Public Sculpture I: Storm King

When I decided to move into the world of sculpture for my PhD studies and dissertation, I never anticipated that public sculpture would become an interest of mine. Even more surprising to me has been my gradual increase of interest in modern public sculpture (PR must be rolling his eyes right about now). Sculpture occupies space; thus, our interactions with it are determined by spatial arrangements. It forces you to engage with it (assuming you're actually looking at it), and it invites you to walk around it, take it in from all sides. It is, in many ways, a reflection of us, albeit in a different material form, be it stone, wood, or metal. The long history of figurative sculpture of course makes this idea of self-reflection more apparent. But abstract sculpture, works that base their existence on concepts and materiality over humanistic representation, can confuse people. In my personal experience, abstract sculptures are about their own material nature and how they blend/repel the environment that surrounds them. Placed in urban settings, they may take on a vitality that in a rural or nature-based setting changes them into some more contemplative. I make no claims to actually understand the socio-political and cultural ramifications of public sculpture, but I'm enjoying my own personal experience with it. Two weekends ago, AA and made a trip to Storm King Art Center up the Hudson River. We just meandered and took in nature and the sculpture installed everywhere. Some of it was fascinating, other parts just okay. It was a beautiful day though, with the leaves starting to change color, and just wandering, relaxing, admiring art and nature all from different angles was simply a great day. The sculpture above is by Mark di Suvero, Jambalaya, 2002-06, and for sense of scale you'll notice teeny weeny AA in the right foreground taking his own picture of the I-beam steel sculpture. Here are a few other pictures we took that day: Zhang Huan, Three Legged Buddha, 2007 (with another mini-AA beside it for scale); Andy Goldsworthy, Storm King Wall, 1997-98 (probably my favorite environmental piece that day, loving the way it interacts like a serpent of stone through the trees); Roy Lichtenstein, Mermaid, 1994; and Alexander Calder, The Arch, 1975.


Sunday, October 6, 2013

NECBS 2013

On Friday I headed up to the University of Connecticut in Storrs for the 2013 Northeast Conference on British Studies. I had never been there before, but I had heard that it was in the middle of nowhere and a rather charming campus. Both are true, and if you like being in the middle of nowhere in a small university town, then UConn is a place to consider. Not for me, however, but it was good to see a new place anyway, even if I had to take a 2-hour train to New Haven, then rent a car and drive in bumper-to-bumper traffic for nearly 2 more hours. Alas, because I had to return the car in New Haven before the agency closed, I wasn't able to stay for much of the conference, so I really can assess just what I experienced, which wasn't much.

I was there to read a queer-interpretation paper on the sculpture you see here, John Gibson's Mars Restrained by Cupid, 1819-25, a commission he received from the 6th Duke of Devonshire for his planned sculpture gallery at Chatsworth. I had given a less-organized (in retrospect) version of a paper on this same sculpture back in 2010 in Montreal at the British Queer History Conference (which I first blogged about here and talked more about the conference here). This current talk was an opportunity to polish up my presentation with a few new ideas. I was part of a panel session with 2 other NYers, our panel focusing on the role of British aristocratic patronage in the visual arts. Randolph Trumbach (Baruch Coll.) spoke first about the use (or dismissal) of images of Jesus with St. John in Last Supper scenes, as they moved from Italy to England during the period of the Reformation. Note that his paper was intended to be provocative in its homoerotic, iconographic approach; indeed, there has been scholarship on the so-called "queer Christ" image that includes him embracing on his lap the young St. John, to sensualized Crucifixion scenes (see also the great art historian Leo Steinberg's infamous book The Sexuality of Christ, which I mentioned here when Steinberg died). Although Trumbach is a well-respected scholar on the history of homosexuality, this was his admitted first foray into art history, and...well...it needs work. I have a great deal of respect for his past scholarship and publications. But this situation is not uncommon, when someone outside of art history chooses to explore so-called Visual Culture. Without art historical training, the "image" becomes merely a representation that, without proper contextualization in the making of art or its social historical construction, can easily be misread. His paper has future merit in his exploration of a changing iconographic theme, once he has a better grasp of exploring the background context for how the iconographic image was created and why it evolved over time.

And before it seems as if I am being hypercritical and not self-reflective, allow me to also say that I'm discovering more and more (frustratingly so) that my own explorations into queer-themed scholarship are often met with a lack of support and high levels of criticism. You would think one's (gay male) peers would encourage scholarship of any kind, but the essentialist/existentialist divide in gay studies/queer theory still creates an incredible sense of alienation. The essentialists want historical facts that "he" was gay and couldn't care less about theory; the existentialists dismiss anything as "gay" before the late 19th-century, when they argue homosexual identities came to exist for the first time. How then does one explore the middle-ground, which is how I work? It's a challenge, I must say, and I've found myself having to defend my work more often than not, and most often to other gay male scholars. (AA kindly stated they were jealous of what I had done. I appreciate the sentiment, but that isn't it. I do think some gay male scholars are simply catty bitches, but I would never claim my work is that good. I know it needs work. However, I also recognize that because it is in the in-between place, a moderate take that draws both on essentialism and existentialism, the extremists on either end just can't buy into this position because it doesn't satisfy their beliefs, practices, or perspectives.)  OK, that was a long-winded diatribe off-topic. Moving on with the conference...

Ching-Jung Chen's (City College) paper on 2 "conversation piece" paintings from 1732, commissioned by competing branches of the Wentworth family, was interesting. I like how she "read" so much iconography in these often understudied types of paintings and how they could tell the viewer so much about the families represented. The other panel session I attended also addressed of sexuality in 19th/20th-century British cultural history. Ruby Daily (Univ VT) gave a rather fun talk about the image of the governess as both a victim and a dominatrix (flagellation!) in Victorian literature and popular press illustrations. Brian Lewis (McGill) gave an excellent presentation about George Ives and his secret society, the Order of the Chaeronea, arguably one of the earliest gay-rights movements. Finally Paul Deslandes (Univ VT) spoke about the role of beauty and physique magazines in the 1950s/60s Britain. After a quick lunch, I had to head back to the City. It would have been good to hear more presentations, but alas it wasn't meant to be.

UPDATE 10/8/13: Ever since I published this post, I've been meaning to come back and do some editing. I've since decided not to edit what I've written, but add a follow-up comment. The feedback that I have received about this post has been both supportive and critical. Allow me to first say that in jumping from my discussion of Trumbach's paper to my diatribe on my personal reception of gay/queer interpretation was not related, so I didn't mean to suggest that it was. I'm still not exactly sure what led me to do proselytize about gay/queer studies, but clearly it was a personal sentiment I was feeling the need to express. I realize some might see what I've said as being defensive; but I'm also being honest about how I've felt working in this area of discourse, so I'm not going to sugar-coat that. (That said, to quote TM, one of my more sympathetic Facebook friends and colleagues, "Alas, it's not advisable to stand between two barricades when there is still some shooting.") As for Trumbach's paper, I don't mean to suggest that his paper and thesis were bad or not interesting. He has a solid working thesis that is worth pursuing and I look forward to seeing how he continues to work on this topic. One of his more interesting points was not only how or why the change in St. John occurred, but also how it manifested itself in English Reformation culture, in contrast to Counter-Reformation continental representations. My concern written here was more with how his images did not successfully communicate his thesis. If the image selection were fine-tuned and more time spent looking at a smaller number of images as exemplars of the thesis, then the overall presentation would have been--and would be--even stronger. I stand by what I said about numerous scholars in Visual Culture who have used images as merely illustrations of a thesis without understanding the making of the art object, which is critical to the understanding of how images are part of a culture's development.