Tuesday, February 18, 2014

MWA: 11 to 20

When I first started the Monthly Work of Art feature on bklynbiblio, I thought these posts would give the blog a nice art historical flair. I've frequently write my own original thoughts or interpretations about these works of art, but sometimes I've relied on the writings of other art historians to provide their thoughts as well. I've been pleasantly surprised by the responses I've received since I started this, and the number of page views on some of the works of art has been startling. For instance, in looking back at MWA: 1 to 10, imagine my surprise to discover that The Good Shepherd statue now has 473 page views. Cézanne's Tulips in a Vase is second at 119 and Noguchi's Core is right behind at 109. Here's a run-down of MWA 11 to 20 (and note that #13 is already beating these other two). The titles are hyperlinked to the posts so you can read more, and in parentheses are the current page views.

XI. Benjamin West, The Death of General Wolfe, 1770 (18 views)
XII. John Gibson, Cupid Disguised as a Shepherd Boy, ca.1830 (43 views)
XIII. Edouard Manet, Repose, ca.1870-71 (125 views)
XIV. Charles Wellington Furse, Diana of the Uplands, 1903-04 (41 views)
XV. Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of a Young Woman, probably Maria Trip, 1639 (55 views)
XVI. Peter Paul Rubens, Rubens, His Wife Helena Fourment, and Their Son Frans, ca.1635 (56 views)
XVII. William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience, 1853 (34 views)
XVIII. Caravaggio, Medusa, late 1590s (36 views)
XIX. Jean-François Millet, Autumn Landscape with a Flock of Turkeys, 1872-73 (26 views)
XX. Gerard David, The Nativity with Donors and Saints Jerome and Leonard, ca.1510-15 (19 views)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Solomon's Vision

On Monday, February 10, 2014, Bonhams Los Angeles sold at auction a rare book that anyone who is a follower of Simeon Solomon (1840-1905) and the Pre-Raphaelites would have loved to own…including me. However, it was clearly above my income bracket, as it sold for the amazing price of $17,500! The good news about this is that I know who the winning buyer was, and I’m delighted to hear this person was successful in the bid, for this treasure of a book will go to a good home and be available for scholars in the near future. The seller had been in touch with my fellow Solomaniac Carolyn Conroy and me about this book for a few months already, so we were very eager to know how things would progress with this sale.

The image you see here is the cover of the book, A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep, written by Solomon and published by F. S. Ellis for him in 1871 (i.e. self-published with Ellis). There were a small number of these beautifully-bound copies of his prose-poem published at the time, mostly for him to give away to his friends, so they are already unique on the market. (A search in WorldCat shows that only 16 libraries in the US, Canada, and the UK have copies.) What makes this particular copy even more special is that it was the one owned by the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909). Inside, it is inscribed in the author’s handwriting: “With S. Solomon’s affectionate regards / to his friend, A. C. Swinburne / March 1871.” As a personal copy given by the author to his friend, it’s a lovely complement to another copy that once belonged to the painter Edward Burne-Jones, which is now at the University of Rochester.

Solomon and Swinburne were for many years a “dynamic duo” in 1860s Pre-Raphaelitism. They probably met through Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Burne-Jones around 1862, and the two young men quickly took a liking to one another, Solomon (photo right) a Jewish youth with unkempt hair, a beard, and sad eyes, Swinburne a slender fop with a bush of red hair (photo below). One of the most audacious anecdotes ever told about them is that Rossetti came home one day to discover Swinburne chasing Solomon down the stairs, and both of them were naked. All that said, it is doubtful they were ever lovers. Biographers tend to see Swinburne as an auto-erotic who indulged in flagellation and birching. But combined with Solomon’s homosexuality, history saw fit to mix the two as sexual deviants of the Victorian era. Solomon is credited these days with being one of the first artists to depict the ancient Greek poetess Sappho as a lesbian (see, for instance, the Tate's Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene), and this imagery was clearly part of the working association he had with Swinburne, who wrote poetry about Sappho in a similar way. Solomon also illustrated Swinburne’s birching tales, such as Lesbia Brandon, drawings one can see in the collections of the British Library. With their friendship blooming, Solomon spent the 1860s painting provocative male figures and exhibited them at the Royal Academy and the Dudley Gallery, while Swinburne scandalized readers with the first edition of his Poems and Ballads (1866) with odes written for and about sado-masochistic women.

A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep is seen today as an early example of gay literature, and indeed it was republished in its entirety most recently in Chris White’s edited anthology Nineteenth-Century Writings on Homosexuality: A Sourcebook (Routledge, 1999). Expressing the physical and emotional angst of different types of love, Solomon’s text has come to be seen as a paean to same-sex passion at a time when one could not express this kind of love in society. At the time of its publication, however, his prose-poem was seen by reviewers as an artist’s statement for his highly symbolic, personalized imagery that drew on ancient mysticism—ephebic gods of love, angels, and love-struck youths—figures that populated his paintings such as Love in Autumn and Sacramentum Amoris and often left viewers confused as to what they meant. Discouraging reviews of the prose-poem appeared in the Athenaeum and the Jewish Chronicle, but John Addington Symonds (later a champion for same-sex passion) wrote a laudatory review in the Academy. Swinburne also wrote a review (at Solomon’s request) and it appeared in the first issue of the Dark Blue. Sadly, Solomon was less than pleased with Swinburne’s review, concerned that it gave the wrong impression of Solomon’s symbolic meaning. In retrospect it seems safe to speculate from some of their letters that this may have been the beginning of the rupture in their friendship.

After Solomon’s arrest in 1873 for homosexual crimes, Swinburne was among his former friends who outright rejected and distanced himself from Solomon, probably fearing for his own public reputation. Years afterward, when he was desperate for money, Solomon reportedly tried to sell off some of Swinburne’s more salacious letters, for which the now-reformed and alcohol-temperate Swinburne never forgave him. Swinburne’s letters to Solomon have never been found and probably were destroyed at some point. However, many of Solomon’s letters to Swinburne do still exist and were published in a few books, most recently Terry Meyers’s edited Uncollected Letters of Algernon Charles Swinburne (Pickering & Chatto, 2005). The letters reveal hints of their secret adventures, occasionally written in coded language. More boldly in 1871, just two months after the publication of Vision, Solomon wrote letters to Swinburne about the trial of the famous cross-dressers Thomas Ernest “Stella” Boulton and FrederickWilliam “Fanny” Parke. The friendship of Solomon and Swinburne lasted less than a decade, but it produced a fruitful, creative relationship that clearly benefited both of them in art and literature. This particular copy of Vision that has just been sold is rather special then. It records a moment in time at the apex of their relationship when this talented duo respected one another and were close, actively learning from one another. After this moment, things changed, and this book and its inscription now forever commemorate a relationship where each was able to say, for a short period of time, “affectionate regards” to a friend.

UPDATE 3/2/14: I can now announce with some excitement who won the auction for this rare copy of Solomon's 1871 prose-poem, dedicated to Swinburne. The book now resides in the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, on loan to the University of Delaware Library. Mark Samuels Lasner has spent much of his life amassing one of the best private collections of Victorian literature, manuscripts, and drawings. He has been incredibly generous in providing access to works in his collection for researchers (myself included), and he has exhibited his collection widely to encourage further scholarship. His long-term plan of making the collection accessible through the University of Delaware Library means scholars worldwide will be able to have access to these rare and excellent items for ages to come. I can't think of a better home for this special copy of Solomon's little book.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Review: The Hare with Amber Eyes

I just finished reading a superb book some of you may know: The Hare with Amber Eyes by the ceramics artist Edmund de Waal. It was highly recommended by a former student of mine who was of retired age, and I'm so glad she recommended it. The book is the story of the author's family's ownership of 264 netsuke, including the work you see here, a beautiful ivory hare with eyes inlaid with amber buffalo horn. For those who don't know what netsuke are, they are finely carved and polished Japanese figurines and sculptural objects no bigger than the size of your hand. Often carved in ivory or boxwood, they were originally made as toggles to hold the string that attached a purse/satchel to the Japanese kimono and obi. (You can download for free the Met Museum's excellent collection catalogue of netsuke here.) By the late 1800s, they had become collector's items not only in the West through the influence of japonisme but also in Japan as a form of its cultural past. De Waal's story recounts how his ancestors first acquired the netsuke from a dealer in Paris in the 1870s, and then continues the story of the netsuke as they passed on to relatives in Vienna during the World Wars, then post-War Tokyo, and modern-day London. But the story is not just about these netsuke. It's a cultural biography of his Jewish ancestors, the Ephrussi family from Russia, how they made their fortune and settled throughout Europe, and how they engaged with the art and literature of their day. It's not all high life society, however. The author also tells with pathos the trials his family endured in a world of anti-Semitism and Nazism, and how his family lost everything because of Hitler and the persecution of Jews at the time.

This book is one of those rare stories that beautifully links art and culture with personal experience. De Waal asks questions such as how people from the past felt about life and art, and how they felt to hold these beautifully carved netsuke generation after generation, hand-to-hand, a symbol of a family saga that reaches backward to the unknown makers of these figures, and forward to the author's own children. His personal experience as a craftsman and artist make his telling of the story even more poignant. To quote de Waal: "How things are made, how they are handled and what happens to them has been central to my life for over thirty years. ... How objects embody memory--or more particularly, whether objects can hold memories--is a real question for me. This book is my journey to the places in which this collection lived. It is my secret history of touch." To learn more about Edmund de Waal, his writing, and his exquisite minimalist ceramics and installation pieces, go to his website at http://www.edmunddewaal.com/.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Public Sculpture III: The Blog

Back in October, I had written that I was launching at work some new information about the public sculpture collection at Columbia. At that time I wasn't sure what format it would take (webpages, blog, etc.), but we finally settled on the blog format for its interactive capabilities and easy updating/navigating. With that, I'm pleased to announce that today we officially launched the Public Outdoor Sculpture at Columbia blog. I've already posted a few items, and more will be added over time, so check in when you can. The purpose of the blog is to document historical & current information & photographs about these outdoor artworks throughout the schools and campuses of Columbia. There are sculptures by major figures such as Auguste Rodin and Henry Moore, and lesser-known artists such as Charles Keck and Gertrude Schweitzer. The work you see here, by the British sculptor Moore, is but one example: Three-Way Piece: Points, 1967, bronze (image: Art Properties, Avery Library, Columbia).

Almost all of the 20+ public sculptures at Columbia were gifts over time, and the earliest work dates from its installation in 1903, so there is certainly plenty to write about over time. With the blog format, I'm hopeful that people will submit their own photographs of the public sculptures and thus make the blog a more dynamic environment in which to better appreciate these important works of art. Indeed, the interactive sensibility of a blog reinforces the "public" nature of these sculptures as works for the community to appreciate. I've designed a Google map that shows where all the sculptures are at the Morningside campus and Barnard College. It is embedded here for your information, but you can also visit it on the web by going to https://mapsengine.google.com/map/u/0/edit?mid=zzO_yMmGSiro.kPBAqqcLVfUA and utilizing it on your smart phone to walk around campus.