Saturday, January 31, 2015

MWA: 21 to 30

It was a year ago in February that I revisited the latest round of Monthly Works of Art from 11 to 20. Another ten have passed by, so here is the recap of #s 21 through 30. This MWA feature, which I've been doing for a while now, truly has been an attempt to bring a little beauty, and thoughts about that beauty, to readers out there. In this world in which we live, we are exposed every day--too much and in graphic detail--to news about horrific terrorist attacks and executions, natural disasters and health epidemics that destroy innocent lives, and too much lying and insulting and then false apologizing in politics, sports, entertainment, and the media. It may seem naive, but I hope that these posts about art help bring some beauty into the lives of those who read them, even if just for a few moments. We need more beauty in our lives, and there are so many exquisite examples of visual creativity out there that have demonstrated how unique and ingenious some men and women from all cultures around the world have been over time. Academically speaking, it is often considered a terrible thing these days to emphasize and discuss the aesthetics of art over its social politics, philosophical construct, and/or economic origins and reception. To speak about art's beauty first and foremost is seen to conjure the outdated writings of scholars such as Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768), whose History of the Art of Antiquity and other writings raised personal aesthetic value on par with an understanding of the making, interpretation, and criticism of the work of art itself. Today Winckelmann is usually disregarded as outdated and historically inaccurate, and while some of this may be true factually, reading the writings of Winckelmann at least helps the viewer understand how important it is to trust one's feelings about art and beauty. Is not beauty really why people are drawn to art? It is the visual component, the way a work of art captures the eye of a viewer, makes him or her stop and look more closely, and wonder how and why the artist did what he or she did. I went into art history because I believe the appreciation of beauty in works of art is important, and I contend that we need to keep that in mind no matter how or what methodologies we use to interpret artists and their works. This does not mean to say that every work of art is always beautiful to all people. Indeed, everyone has opinions as to what is or is not beautiful. One person may love a Rubens, another a Rossetti, a third a Rothko, and each might criticize the other as being ugly or incomparable to their own source of beauty. Thus, difference in the interpretation of beauty is as equally important when it comes to appreciating art. A work of art has the power to appeal to individuals on many levels: physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and frequently in a way that combines these levels. Art can do all that, and even more importantly, it can make you forget. For I hope this brief narrative about the power of art appealed to you, dear reader, and made you forget, for just a moment, all of the horrible things in our lives that I described in the opening of this paragraph.

In reviewing the past MWAs, I am amazed to see that the Good Shepherd sculpture from the Vatican still ranks as among the most popular with 568 page views. Following it is Edouard Manet's Repose with 244 views, and Isamu Noguchi's Core with 180 views. Here is the list of the MWAs from 21 to 30, and I'm pleased to see a few high numbers here as well, specifically works by the 19th-century German artist Overbeck (image above) and the 20th-century American woman artist Stettheimer (image below). You can click on the title of each to see the work and read more about it.

XXI. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Hunters in the Snow, 1565 (48 views)
XXII. Sandro Botticelli, Primavera (Spring), ca. 1482 (45 views)
XXIII. John William Waterhouse, Hylas and the Nymphs, 1896 (32 views)
XXIV. Bronzino, Portrait of a Young Man, 1530s (43 views)
XXV. GianLorenzo Bernini, The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, 1647-52 (21 views)
XXVI. Leonardo da Vinci, Last Supper (Il Cenacolo), 1494-98 (28 views) [This was a tribute to my father.]
XXVII. Sir Edwin Landseer, The Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner, 1837 (31 views)
XXVIII. Florine Stettheimer, A Model (Nude Self-Portrait), ca. 1915-16 (88 views)
XXIX. Lucas Cranach the Elder, Salome, ca. 1530 (25 views)
XXX. Friedrich Overbeck, Italia and Germania, 1828 (95 views)

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

MWA XXXII: Houdon's Winter

The great blizzard we were expecting turned out to be a bust in NYC. We got about 8 inches of snow in Central Park and a foot at LaGuardia Airport. Nevertheless, it is reportedly still windy and cold, with snow blowing everywhere. And anyone who endures this kind of winter weather knows that one of the great challenges is trying to stay warm outdoors. That challenge is, perhaps, one of the reasons why I've always admired the sculpture you see here, which I've selected as January's Monthly Work of Art. The statue is just under life size and was made by the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828), an artist known to this day for his ability to capture personality and psychology in his portrait busts and statues. This sculpture, Winter, was cast in bronze in 1787 and intended as an allegory, and likely may have been intended to be grouped with other figures representing the other seasons.

Whenever I see this work in the Petrie Court at the Met Museum, I'm always struck by how successfully the sculptor personified the feeling of shivering, to the point that it makes the viewer shiver with her. One could argue that the most obvious reason why is because she is essentially nude but for the shawl draped around her head and shoulders. But the real reason she shivers is because of how she holds her body. You sense a shiver not from her nudity but from her body language. The shawl is clutched around her, her arms wrap tightly together, and her legs are pressed tightly, so as to create a feeling of warmth in the cold. With a title such as Winter, one imagines she has been removed from a narrative scene where perhaps she is poverty-stricken and shivering in the cold. In a greater display of art, it is possible Houdon intended her to be dressed, but he may have reconsidered his plan when he saw the study of the nude form itself and recognized how important the body language spoke the sensation he sought to capture. The position of her leg in contrapposto also suggests motion, and I've often wondered if perhaps she has just touched her big toe into a pool of water and that is what is making her shiver. From that perspective, the title of Winter is misleading, for this is not an outdoor scene but a naturalistic scene of a woman bathing, a tradition in art that one associates more with Japanese Ukiyo-e and Impressionist paintings and prints by Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt. Regardless, the girl's naturalism in her body language is what makes this sculpture so fascinating. There is a frisson of sensuality in her nudity as well, for she covers herself modestly like a Venus Pudica, and hides her innocent face with the cloak. In doing so, she is stripped of her identity and she comes to represent any innocent young woman alone in the world. Indeed, the more one ponders her state of being, one cannot help but wonder if she also represents the victim of a sexual attack, something which has robbed her of her innocence and left her shivering in the coldness of society. It is this multi-layered combination of innocence and sensuality, external coldness and bodily warmth, that makes this sculpture such a fascinating work to behold. Details of the sculpture enhance aspects of its naturalism further, how the texture of the cloth differs from her glossy fingernails and supple flesh pressing into her arm. But it is the overall sensation of her body shivering that makes this a magnificent work of art.

The Met Museum recently has launched a new online media component called Viewpoints: Body Language, in which a group of figurative sculptures are given due acknowledgment through the use of video and audio clips, highlighting their power as representations of the human form. It is worth going to the page for Winter (click here) and listening to the curator, educator, and outside scholars respond to the sculpture in short videos and audio clips. There are links on the left to numerous other works in the collection. This is a fine example of how social media can enhance the learning experience of sculpture and educate people about an art form frequently misunderstood and often underappreciated.

Monday, January 26, 2015

First Snowstorm: 2014-2015 Winter

Ever since we had our first snowfall in late November, we have had a few brief spots of snow, but it always melted quickly. Today, however, is the "snowpocalypse" and "snowmageddon" event people reportedly have been waiting for (who comes up with these ridiculous terms anyway?). It was snowing already when I went to work this morning, and by the time they let us out early a few inches had fallen and it was heavy blizzard-like conditions. I took the photo you see here as I was about to walk down the stairs outside Low Library at Columbia and stopped to admire how the snow was building up on the great bronze sculpture Alma Mater. The meteorologists were calling earlier today for over 24 in. of snow in the NYC area, but that seems like an exaggeration now. I predict we will get about a foot to 18 inches tops, although I'm sure Long Island and further north of us they will get more. Nevertheless, Governor Cuomo has stopped all the public transportation (including the subways!) and no one is allowed out in their vehicles after 11pm. We are off tomorrow as a snow day, but I'll be working from home. Overall, it's a bit late in the season for our first big snowstorm (especially when compared to last fall/winter), but you can never predict how each season will go...

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Art Properties in the Times

A few months ago, my department of Art Properties at Columbia was profiled in a news article in the university press. Now, I'm delighted to share that we've made it into The New York Times. Appearing in the print and online editions yesterday, Eve M. Kahn's excellent article about how we are raising the public profile of the university art collection is already generating some great feedback. Although I am quoted and credited as leading the charge in this new mission, it is important to emphasize that my staff is essential to everything we do. Without them, nothing could be accomplished the way we are doing it. You can read the article online by clicking here. Also, this seems like a good opportunity to mention that you can also find a few works from the university art collection in digital format by going to our collection page on

Image credit: Florine Stettheimer, Self-Portrait with Paradise Birds (Self-Portrait in Front of Chinese Screen), no date, oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 31 3/4 in., Art Properties, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University in the City of New York, Gift of the Estate of Ettie Stettheimer, 1967 (1967.23.13).

Thursday, January 1, 2015

500 Posts and Happy 2015!

January 1, 2015...HAPPY NEW YEAR! I start off each year with the proper greeting. Sometimes I modify the layout of the blog, but I've decided to leave it as is for now. However, I have added a link to the bklynbiblio Instagram account, so check it out and follow me there, as well as on Twitter (where we now have reached 515 tweets). The big news, however, is that this New Year's Day post also coincides with the 500th post on this blog. The image above is from the Fortune 500 list from 2014; the bold, gold numbers seemed appropriate for a New Year's association. (It is strangely coincidental that two years ago we reached the 400th post on New Year's Day.)

When I first started this blog back in August 2008, I envisioned it as a space where I could write and see the results of my writing. I was still taking courses in my doctoral program, and I lamented that I could not spend more time writing my own work. A blog seemed to be the most logical way to do this. People claim that blogs today are dead, and arguably social media products like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are the preferred way of maintaining communication. But I still find this blog an effective place for me to write. It is a virtual zone where I can be creative or critical, analytical or entertaining. It is an aesthetic arena in which I can share images of works of art so they can be admired and contemplated as objects of beauty and constructs of social engagement. What I never imagined was, more than 6 years later, that I would still be writing this blog and that I would reach my 500th post. It is a milestone, and I am admittedly proud of this accomplishment.

As always, I find these centenary markers an opportunity to share some interesting statistics about bklynbiblio. Since August 2008, there have been 91,565 page views. That works out to be approximately 1189 page views per month. More than half of the traffic coming to the blog is from U.S. Internet addresses, but after that the traffic comes from, in order, the United Kingdom, France, Ukraine, and Germany. (This is an interesting contrast to the top countries when we had hit 400 posts: UK, Germany, Canada, and Russia.) About 40% of readers use Internet Explorer to read my blog posts, followed by 26% on Firefox and 19% on Chrome (note: I use Chrome for all my blogging). Most interesting, of course, are the blog posts that rank as the highest viewed. Amazingly, #s 1 and 2 have retained their top most popular posts, while #3 moves up one from its former position. The next two are new entries and I'm pleased to see at #5 one of my Monthly Works of Art. Here are the official ranks:
#1. Male Enhancement [Jul. 5, 2010; 2090 views]
#2. Review: Yinka Shonibare MBE [Sep. 6, 2009; 1038 views]
#3. Is It Baroque, and Do We Fix It? [Aug. 7, 2011; 513 views]
#4. Post-Queer Art History [Oct. 13, 2009; 445 views]
#5. MWA II: Vatican Shepherd [Apr. 7, 2012; 438 views]
Among the ranks for #6 through #10 are my obituary of art historian Lionel Lambourne and my post about the sale of Simeon Solomon's signed copy of his 1871 prose poem A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep dedicated to Algernon Charles Swinburne.

Although this blog is a way for me to express myself, my writing only has perpetual value because there are readers out there who appreciate, agree, disagree, comment, "like," and respond to these words over time, if not on this blog directly, then in emails, on social media, and in person. Thank you, readers, for helping bklynbiblio reach its 500th post. Here's to reaching 600!

Travels of 2014: From Maine to Munich

I enjoy traveling. be more accurate...I enjoy all the experiences I can gather when I visit a new city or country...but getting there isn't necessarily something enjoyable. Nevertheless, it is a necessity and worth enduring for the end result. I am about to do this yet again as I return to Munich on another work-related trip. Not all travel is a vacation, as the trip to Munich was work (although, as I will comment on below, I did have the opportunity for some site-seeing). And then there are the personal family-related trips, such as the 7 I made to Florida in 2014 that were all largely associated with my father's care. As bklynbiblio readers know, he passed away in July, and although I miss him terribly, I am fortunate that I was able to be with him for his passing. We had his services in August, and it was truly a celebration of his life. On my March visit, I was very glad that AA joined me to meet the family and my father, and a year ago on my January visit I also made a short jaunt to Jacksonville to see my dear friend SVH and meet my canine nephew Winnie, a rambunctious young greyhound. October saw me back again for the SECAC conference in Sarasota, and I took a day to see the family again, and I made another quick trip back for Christmas as well. As emotionally challenging as these visits were to endure while my father was getting worse and worse, it always has been a comfort to know I have family and friends there to help create balance and give me the opportunity to also enjoy some parts of those trips.

In May I made a 60-hour trip to Seattle for the AAMG conference, about which I blogged here. My memory of Seattle from 1997 was better than I experienced this time, but that was because my colleague DCM and I weren't in the downtown area but in the university district, which was removed from the things we would have wanted to see, like Pike Place Market. Over Memorial Day weekend, AA and I joined the FF-POs for a few days in Montreal and Quebec City, which I absolutely loved. I blogged about that trip here. I still have fond memories of Quebec City and look forward to visiting again in the near future.

Over the long 4th of July weekend, AA and I went to Chicago, one of the American cities long on my list of places to visit. I loved it! And I cannot stress to readers how difficult that is for this NYer to admit to! The one thing I did hate was the pizza. Fortunately everything else outweighed that. The city is clean. The architecture is magnificent. Lake Michigan is simply amazing. (We spent 4th of July on JK's boat on the Lake and watched the fireworks from there--just awesome!) Millennium Park is tons of fun; the image you see here shows Anish Kapour's interactive sculpture with the skyline behind it. And then there was the Art Institute of Chicago, where I finally was able to see the work you see at the top of this post: Georges Seurat's Sunday on La Grande Jatte, 1884-86. I think my photograph of viewers staring at the painting demonstrates well how observers inevitably become part of the melange of social classes intermingling in the park in true pointilist fashion, as Seurat likely intended. On our last day in Chicago AA and I climbed the Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) and I confronted my fear of heights by climbing out onto the glass ledge. I can't say I am no longer afraid of heights...truthfully it terrified me even more...but it was important that I did it. (AA of course strolled out there like it was nothing. He is fearless. So annoying!) We also took a day trip to Milwaukee, which I wasn't so crazy about, although the Calatrava-designed wing on the art museum is spectacular, particularly overlooking Lake Michigan.

After my father's funeral, I needed to get away for a few days and have a truly relaxing trip with very little to do, so AA and I flew to Boston then drove to Maine. I had not been in Maine since about 1998 or so, and I had only visited Ogunquit at that time. We went there our first night and it was everything beautiful I remembered. Walking along the rock paths overlooking the Atlantic was just breathtaking. I love the fresh smell of sea air, the cool breeze blowing off the water, and the sound of nature's ferocity as waves crash against the rocks like the crack of a slap but with a magnificent electric sting. With each passing day we moved up the coast further and visited Portland, Cape Elizabeth with its famous lighthouse (seen here), Camden (so clam chowder ever!), Belfast, and adorable little spot with nothing to do...exactly what I needed. I hated having to leave, because we only made it 1/3 of the way up the coast, but I do look forward to visiting again. I really loved that relaxing summer weekend in Maine.

As for Munich, I was fortunate amidst all my days of work to have some free time to hit so many of the museums. The Lenbachhaus, where the exhibition was held, is close to the Glyptothek and the Alte and Neue Pinakotheks, so I was able to see all the masterworks of ancient, Renaissance, and modern art that I was eager to see. One of the photos you see here is a zoomed-in shot of the glockenspiel, the mechanical life-sized music performers that play a few times a day in the main square, Marienplatz. Munich surprised me frequently. The old streets wind like concentric circles in a way that as soon as you assume you are walking east, suddenly you are walking southwest. I got lost so many times it was ridiculous. However, it gave me more of an opportunity to see much of the city as a result. I was also surprised at how German and Italian it was. There is Germanic architecture, but there is a surprising amount of Italianate architecture as well, and indeed I found myself able to communicate using Italian more than English with various people. The Oktoberfest was starting while I was there, so I had a chance to visit the grounds. It is basically a giant beer festival, but family friendly (and gay friendly--another surprise!). lederhosen and "beer wench" Bavarian costumes were everywhere. The pastries and pretzels were divine...(why don't we use pretzels as bread? it's ingenious!)...I devoured about 3 of these plum tarts that you see in the picture below. I definitely enjoyed Munich much more than my trip to Frankfurt last year. Rumor has it there is about a foot of snow on the ground in Munich at present, and potentially more coming this better not ruin more chances to see the city over the weekend before work starts!

What's on the travel agenda for 2015? I have a work trip to Fort Worth coming up. I may do a pop-over to London to see a few exhibitions I'm very interested in. But the big trip I'm very much looking forward to is Italia in April. I have not been since 2009, so I am going first to visit family, and then AA is flying over with the DPG-JBs and we are going to visit Rome, Florence, and Milan. I'm even scheduled to give a talk at the Keats-Shelley House in Rome while I'm there. More details coming soon....