Sunday, January 26, 2014

Portal 4

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

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

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

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Chinese Bronzes & Korean Ceramics

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

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

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

Monday, January 20, 2014

Animals & Goddesses: Anna Hyatt Huntington

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

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

Friday, January 3, 2014

Return to Downton Abbey

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

Thursday, January 2, 2014

MWA XXI: Bruegel's Hunters

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

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

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Happy 2014!

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

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