‘Rousseau had no theory of color, but fully understood its possibilities and became an absolute master of its effects.’ – Recollections of Henri Rousseau by Wilhelm Uhde

May 29, 2019 at 11:22 am (Art)

When I was a child, eight years old or thereabouts, my mother took me to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I recall walking up some steps, arriving in a small room, and finding myself face to face with this:

I stood for a long time, just gazing. I was transfixed. Not only was the image enchanting, but I remember that to my young mind, the painting made perfect sense. Peace, tranquility and beauty – they all dwelt there.

This is how Henri Rousseau describes The Sleeping Gypsy(1897):

“A wandering Negress, a mandolin player, lies with her jar beside her (a vase with drinking water), overcome by fatigue in a deep sleep. A lion chances to pass by, picks up her scent yet does not devour her. There is a moonlight effect, very poetic.”

When I was able to tear my gaze away from this vision, I beheld this, on a nearby wall:

The Dream, 1910

Also enchanting, but not quite in the same way, or to quite the same degree – at least, to my young eyes.

I am currently reading Recollections of Henri Rousseau by Wilhelm Uhde (with an introduction by Nancy Ireson). Uhde, whose dates are 1874 to 1947, was a German art collector particularly interested in modern art. He moved to Paris at the age of 30, becoming an admirer and ultimately a friend of the painter Rousseau. Uhde later observed:

There are people who go through life as though they were special guests on earth; and then there are those whose joy is to give, rather than receive. These latter are few and far between. One of them was Henri Rousseau.

This little book is one in a series published by Getty. Their dimensions are roughly 4 & 1/2 by 6 inches; the thickness varies from one quarter to half an inch. The quality of the  reproductions is stunning. Each one opens with an introduction by a contemporary writer. There follows the writings of those who were the artist’s contemporaries, or nearly so. It is inspired idea, beautifully carried out.

The series, called Lives of the Artists, is available from the Getty Museum Gift Shop, and, in certain cases, from Amazon. Thus far, in addition to the above, I am the happy possessor of these:

Meanwhile, back to Rousseau, here are some more favorites:

Carnival Evening, 1885-86

Self-portrait from Isle Saint Louis, 1890

Tiger in a Tropical storm, 1891

The Football Players, 1908

 

 

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‘Thus it will be our concern, however difficult the undertaking may be, to tell of the doings of the great Tintoretto….’

May 23, 2019 at 1:41 pm (Art)

….and through our narrative to make his works known, to tell how he reached the arduous apex of art; and how with his brush he brought to the images that he painted the greatest state of perfection and how he adorned painting with the most novel and rare inventions, so that nature, which at times is defective, obtained through his hands grace and grandeur.

Carlo Ridolfi, ‘Life of Tintoretto’: from The Marvels of Art, 1648, excerpt included in The Lives of Tintoretto

I do not know how to train my mouth to sing your praises adequately. How there could be so much intelligence in a small man’s body remains as much a mystery to me as a crocodile in the fourth clime.

….but you, twiddling with your paintbrush and a small dash of white lead, and mixing some red earth…you create a figure portrayed from Nature in half an hour….I also knew that you had so fine a conception for presenting gestures, postures, front-faces, foreshortenings, profiles, distant views and perspectives as anyone riding the modern Pegasus; and it would be very fair to say this truth, that if you had as many hands as you have stpirit and knowledge, there wouldn’t be a difficult thing that exists in Nature that you couldn’t create.

Andrea Calmo: ‘Further  delightful and ingenious letters from Calmo to Messer Giacomo Tinitoretto the Painter, the favourite of Nature, the Commixture of Aesculapius, and Stepson of Apelles’, 1548

Also from Lives of Tintoretto

[This post is a sort of addendum to a recent one entitled “A day at Washington’s National Gallery, Part One: The Little Dyer and his Outsized Genius.”]

Click to enlarge each of the following images;

The Miracle of St Mark Freeing the Slave, 1548

Man in Armour, 1550

St Louis, St George, and the Princess, ca 1553. Our docent told us that the Princess’s depiction on the dragon was considered, at the time, to be indecorous. This led to a discussion as to whether there existed anywhere specific instructions on how ladies should ride dragons. (Side saddle, maybe?)

 

The Origin of the Milky Way, 1570. This painting possesses a rather bizarre back story. From Wikipedia: ‘According to myth, the infant Heracles was brought to Hera by his half-sister Athena who later played an important role as a goddess of protection. Hera nursed Heracles out of pity, but he suckled so strongly that he caused Hera pain, and she pushed him away. Her milk sprayed across the heavens and there formed the Milky Way With divine milk, Heracles acquired supernatural powers.’

 

The Last Supper, ca 1563-64

 

Deposition of Christ, ca 1562

Venus, Mars, and Vulcan, ca 1551. Vulcan catches his wife Venus in the act of cheating on him. Mars, the other guilty party, is hiding under the bed.

 

Portrait of a Procurator of St Mark’s, 1570s

Portrait of Doge Pietro Loredan, 1567

For a while now, I’ve been curious about those strange round objects found going down the edge of the Doge’s ceremonial robe, and probably elsewhere as well. They’re especially noteworthy in Giovanni Bellini’s masterful 1501 portrait of the Doge Lorenzo Loredan:

The docent explained that those round objects  contained within them a selection of aromatic herbs. The purpose was to sweeten the air around the person wearing the cloak – remember, bathing was an infrequent activity in those days – and more important, to ward off the Plague.

 

Self-Portrait 1588. Tintoretto had lived a long, eventful and largely successful life. By this time, he was elderly and tired. He died in 1594, age 75.

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife.
Nature I loved and, next to Nature, Art:
I warm’d both hands before the fire of life;
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

Poem by Walter Savage Landor, 1849

 

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A day at Washington’s National Gallery, Part One: The Little Dyer and his Outsized Genius

May 12, 2019 at 4:20 pm (Art, Poetry)

Summer 1555

 

The Creation of the Animals 1551-52

 

The Marriage of Bacchus and Ariadne 1576/1577

Tintoretto’s father was named Battista Comin. Because of his fearlessness in battle, he earned the nickname ‘Robusti’ – the Robust One. Upon completing his military service, he took up the profession of cloth dyer – tintore di panni. His son Jacopo thus became known by the diminutive, Tiintoretto.

Okay, so having gotten that out of the way….

The above art works are among my favorites from the National Gallery’s spectacular exhibit. I was in the process of determining the date(s) of The Marriage of Bacchus and Ariadne when I chanced on a poem written about the painting by one Michael Field. Here it is:

Tintoretto

The Ducal Palace at Venice

Dark sea-water round a shape
Hung about the loins with grape,
Hair the vine itself, in braids
On the brow—thus Bacchus wades
Through the water to the shore.
Strange to deck with hill-side store
Limbs that push against the tide ;
Strange to gird a wave-washed side
Foam should spring at and entwine—
Strange to burthen it with vine.

He has left the trellised isle,
Left the harvest vat awhile,
Left the Maenads of his troop,
Left his Fauns’ midsummer group
And his leopards far behind,
By lone Dia’s coast to find
Her whom Theseus dared to mock.
Queenly on the samphire rock
Ariadne sits, one hand
Stretching forth at Love’s command.

Love is poised above the twain,
Zealous to assuage the pain
In that stately woman’s breast ;
Love has set a starry crest
On the once dishonoured head ;
Love entreats the hand to wed,
Gently loosening out the cold
Fingers toward that hoop of gold
Bacchus, tremblingly content
To be patient, doth present.

In his eyes there is the pain
Shy, dumb passions can attain
In the valley, on the skirt
Of lone mountains, pine-begirt ;
Yearning pleasure such as pleads
In dark wine that no one heeds
Till the feast is ranged and lit.
But his mouth—what gifts in it !
Though the round lips do not dare
Aught to proffer, save a prayer.

Is he not a mendicant
Who has almost died of want ?
Through far countries he has roved,
Blessing, blessing, unbeloved ;
Therefore is he come in weed
Of a mortal bowed by need,
With the bunches of the grape
As sole glory round his shape :
For there is no god that can
Taste of pleasure save as man.

I had not heard of this particular poet and so set about doing further research. The facts came to light quite readily.

This is Michael Field:

Under this pseudonym, Katherine Harris Bradley (1846-1914), left, and her niece and ward Edith Emma Cooper (1862-1913) published numerous works of poetry and drama and kept a lengthy journal entitled Works and Days. More information on these two can be found on Wikipedia and on the Poetry Foundation site.

For me, one of the chief joys of the internet consists in discovering unexpected linkages like this.

And never fear – There’s more Tintoretto to come…

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Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas

April 8, 2019 at 1:36 pm (Art, books)

Yesterday I came home from the library with two art  books that were vastly different from each other in size.

The Degas is voluminous! It weighs 5.5 pounds, and is 10.5″ x 13″, with a thickness of 1.25 inches. In contrast – and what a contrast! – The Manet book is petite in the extreme: 4.5″ x 5.75. It is maybe a quarter of an inch thick and weighs about 5 ounces.

I very nearly missed the latter, as it was wedged in between larger volumes on the shelves of new nonfiction. As soon as I pulled it out, I was enchanted. Small and almost delicate, the tiny volume was a delight. I soon noted that it contained several paintings by Manet that I hadn’t previously seen. I was particularly pleased to make the acquaintance of this one:

Le Bon Bock (A Good Glass of Beer), 1876

A number of my favorites appear as well:

Gare St. Lazare, 1872-73

The Old Musician, 1862

Both of the above paintings reside at our own National Gallery, for which I am profoundly grateful. It means I actually get to see them from time to time. To my mind, Manet more than any other painter renders nineteenth century Paris palpably real.

It may seem as though the small format of Looking At Manet would render the art reproductions less than satisfactory. Oddly enough, I do not find it so at all.

Apparently the writer Emile Zola was an ardent supporter of  Edouard Manet. His commentary on the artist and his works provides the main text for this book.

Right from the beginning, you know where Zola is coming from:

At the age of seventeen, on leaving college, [Manet] fell in love with painting. What a terrible love that is–parents tolerate a mistress, even two; they will close their eyes if necessary to a straying heart and senses. But the Arts! Painting for them is the Scarlet Woman, the Courtesan, always hungry for flesh, who must drink the blood of their children, who clutches them panting, to her insatiable lips. Here is Orgy unforgivable, Debauchery–the bloody spectre which appears sometimes in the midst of families and upsets the peace of the domestic hearth.

Okay, Monsieur Zola – now tell us how you really feel about the sensibilities of the French bourgeoisie!

Looking at Manet is as good an example as I’ve seen recently of a book that should always exist in physical space. I not only enjoy reading it in this form, but also just handling it.  I may have to buy it. And there are others like it, in a series called Lives of the Artists, from Getty Publications.

********

The Degas volume, by Robert Gordon and Andrew Forge, is a huge doorstop of a book filled with fascinating facts and wonderful reproductions. I obtained it through interlibrary loan because there was a still photo in it that I wanted to see. This photo would serve as confirmation that the bearded gentleman seen in this film clip is in fact Edgar Degas:

Here is the photo:

(This linkage was pointed out in a comment on YouTube.)

The video clip comes from a documentary called Ceux de Chez Nous made by by Sasha Guitry in 1914-15. This film also contains footage of Renoir painting and Claude Monet conversing with an unidentified man.

By 1915, Degas was nearly blind. It’s hard to reconcile the image in this video with the vigorous artist as he appears in earlier self-portraits, such as this one, from 1863 . For more, see this poignant article on the Open Culture site.

Edgar Degas died in 1917 at the age of 83.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Addendum to the recent post about ‘Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen’

March 31, 2019 at 8:53 pm (Art, Family)

My daughter-in-law Erica and grandson Welles also came with us on our recent visit to the Art Institute of Chicago. This made everything more festive.

Welles got to see the museum’s impressive collection of arms and armor.

Both Welles and Etta love to stop in the Family Room of the museum’s Ryan Learning Center. There’s always a new crafting opportunity on offer there – and Welles and Etta are both very crafty children!

Each time we go, there’s a different craft theme. This time it was textiles.

 

Etta and her Mom gearing up for ‘work’

Welles and Grandma ‘Berta – the least crafty person on the planet!

Along with others making crafts, Welles donated one of his creations to the ‘craft wall.’

The art theme carried over when we got home. Ron and I both felt that Welles’s creation here was museum-worthy:

Etta, on the other hand, migrated over to the culinary arts. There was a small impromptu gathering taking place in the backyard, and Etta decided to make a dish of hors d’oeuvres for the visitors. These consisted of small pieces of cheese, green olives, and sugar snap peas threaded onto tooth picks.

 

Etta presented a tray full of these items to the guests – adults and children both – and they ate all of them in record time!
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In Camille Laurens’s book about Marie Genevieve van Goethem – the eponymous Little Dancer – she mentions photos  in which Marilyn Monroe gazes, seemingly transfixed, at the sculpture. (At the time, it was situated in the apartment of a wealthy New York collector.) The author seemed to feel that her readers would be familiar with these pictures. I had never seen or heard of them:

Interesting commentary on the occasion of this photo shoot can  be found on the art history blog Alberti’s Window and on another blog, Maison Roos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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‘Her name was Marie Geneviève Van Goethem.’

March 27, 2019 at 9:26 pm (Art, Family)

  The above sentence opens the first chapter of Little Dancer Aged Fourteen by Camille Laurens.

Marie Van Goethem, originally from Belgium, was one of three sisters. She joined the Paris Opera, primarily because her family needed the money. (Young members of the corps de ballet were frequently called “les petits rats” – Little Rats, or Opera Rats.) When the opportunity to pose for Edgar Degas came along, it meant additional income.

When completed, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen was not universally loved. In fact, the reaction of contemporary viewers was quite the opposite. They had their reasons. Laurens describes of the zeitgeist prevalent in the Paris of the 1880s:

France was industrializing, and its working class was  growing in importance….The ruling classes needed to be reassured about their privileges. Small wonder they clung to theories that “proved” the natural superiority of the bourgeoisie over the working class, the rich over the poor, whites over blacks, and men over women.

With regard to the sculpture itself:

The bourgeois viewer looked at the work and saw his own antithesis. Hie preference was for Madonnas, or for plump, healthy young women. He could not fathom why a common, hardworking Opera rat with the face of a “monkey” and a “depraved” aspect should be the subject of a work of art.

Degas himself was a complex personality, not an easy person to know. At one point, the author offers the observation:

It seems that Degas shared the misogyny that was rampant at the end of the nineteenth century….

Yet Degas and Mary Casssatt were good friends and genuinely admired each others’ work:

The American expatriate painter Mary Cassatt and the French artist Edgar Degas formed a long, if tumultuous, artistic relationship and friendship in the late 19th century that lasted for decades. The two admired each other’s work during the early 1870s, years before they met. In 1877, Degas visited Cassatt in her studio—possibly their first official meeting—to personally invite her to exhibit with the Impressionists, bringing her into the fold of the Parisian avant-garde.

From The Saint Louis Art Museum site

The friendship endured for many years. Neither artist ever married.

The story of their relationship is not told in Camille Laurens’s book. Yet her intense focus on Marie and her likeness in bronze pays dividends. She forces us to look more closely, and to question:

What is she thinking about? What is her inner world like? Do her face and pose reflect concentration or relaxation? Boredom or pleasure? Is she taking herself elsewhere, and if so, to what foreign parts? Is she filled with a sense of her own self or does she savor the vacuum at its core? What lies behind her closed eyes, her skinny chest? Tears, dreams. unspeakable emotions? Or a kind of absence, a beneficent nothingness in suspended time?

This past weekend, while we were in Chicago, I looked forward to our now customary visit to the Art Institute. I wanted to contemplate Marie once again, with those questions in mind. And my granddaughter Etta also wanted to see her again.

The Little Dancer, in her accustomed place in the Art Institute

Alas, when we reached the gallery where the French Impressionist paintings are hung and where we have heretofore encountered the Little Dancer, she was not there. There was information desk right outside the gallery, but the individual staffing it was sadly clueless as to Marie’s whereabouts. Had she somehow mysteriously absconded? Yet another question…. A small couplet stole into my brain:

Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen,
Little Dancer can’t be seen.

Ah, well; Etta and I must hope for better luck next time. And of course, it’s not as though we didn’t have plenty of other objets d’art with which to occupy ourselves:

The Church of Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, 1740-1741 by Michele Marieschi

 

Portrait of Marthe-Marie Tronchin, 1758-61, by Jean-Etienne Liotard

 

Calvary, Artist Unknown, Guatemala, 1760-1800

 

Van Gogh’s Bedroom at Arles, painted in 1889, just a year before his death

 

Being of a scientific bent, Etta was interested in this device, located in a corner of one of the galleries. A museum guard, delighted by her question, explained that it was a hygrometer, a device for monitoring humidity in enclosed spaces.

 

This time around my favorite new discovery:

Adoration of the Christ Child, Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen and Workshop, 1470-1475

 

And of course, we always make time to revisit our favorites – which are hopefully in their usual place:

Roman Theatre Mask, with Etta imitating as best she can

And finally, Un dimanche après-midi à l’îsle de la Grande Jatte, par Georges Seurat, 1886-1886:

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte

Here is Camille Laurens’s poignant conclusion to the story of Edgar Degas and Marie van Goethem:

The shade of Marie melts into the deep shadow that Degas himself disappeared into. Her ghost is carried off, buried  with his remains. Nothing can separate them any longer. If we  take their two lives as one, at that point in time when  their trajectories intersected, like a momentary couple glimpsed through  a pane of glass, the resulting life is neither resounding nor insignificant. It is a life of hard  work. And also sadness, I believe. Yet it is a remarkable life, sovereign and vast in import. Both of them while still alive, she posing and he sculpting, had  the experience of death. The little statue restores their absent presence. It is their monument, their requiem.

A very special book, slight in length yet filled with grace and meaning, beautifully written by Camille Laurens and meticulously translated from the French by Willard Wood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Despite glimpses of green….

January 21, 2019 at 3:05 pm (Art, Music)

Despite glimpses of green, despite the promise of sun ( though harsh and greatly weakened) soon to come, we are in the deep midwinter:

Music by Gustav Holst, to a poem by Christina G Rosetti.

The bleak midwinter calls forth a need for visions of beauty filled with color. Here are two:

Paradise Garden, Upper Rhenish Master, ca 1410-1420

 

Virgin Among Virgins, in a Rose Garden, Master of the Legend of St. Lucy, , ca 1475-1480

 

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Best of 2018, Four: Nonfiction, part two

December 27, 2018 at 2:03 pm (Art, Best of 2018, Book review, books, Poetry)

So I’m getting ready to divide my 2018 nonfiction reading into neat categories, and I run into trouble right away. Some of these books are hard to pigeonhole: they’re sort-of biographies, sort-of true crime – was there actually a crime? – and, well, you get the idea.

  The only more or less conventional biography I read this year was Gainsborough: A Portrait, by James Hamilton. As is the case with the most engaging biographies, the life of this distinguished  artist was set vividly within the context of his times.

Almost exactly ten years later, a well-dressed, brisk and persistent gentleman called on a friend of his in London. There was nobody at home, just the servant. On the table was a small landscape painting which caught the man’s attention. He picked it up, looked at it closely, turned it over. ‘Ruisdael improved,’ he thought to himself. ‘Warmer colouring, as truly drawn and painted as Ruisdael, but more spirited.’ It was quite clear from the back of the canvas that this was a new, modern picture, not Dutch seventeenth century. The following conversation was published in 1772:

‘James, where did your master get this picture?’

‘At the auctioneers Langford’s, sir, I have just brought it home.’

‘Do you know whose it is?’ ‘My master’s, sir.’

‘Fool! I mean the painter.’ There was a knock at the door. James let his master in.

‘Who painted that picture?’ demanded the visitor. ‘Who do you think?’ replied his friend. ‘Don’t know, tell me instantly!’ ‘Come, come – you are a judge of pictures, and a bit of a painter yourself. It’s a gem, isn’t it?’

The visitor was even more intrigued.

‘You will like it so much more when I tell you it is painted by an artist who is unknown, unfollowed, and unencouraged.’

‘What’s his name?’

‘Gainsborough.’

 

Mary Little, later Lady Carr

 

Portrait of the Composer Carl Friedrich Abel with his Viola da Gamba (c. 1765)

 

Road from Market

Oh, those trees!

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Three fascinating women figure in this narrative: Emily Dickinson, Mabel Loomis Todd, the lover of Emily’s brother Austin, and Millicent Todd Bingham, daughter of Mabel and her husband David Todd.

After Emily begins with Emily Dickinson’s funeral.

“And in the spring, also rare Emily Dickinson died & went back into a little deeper mystery than that she has always lived in. The sweet spring days have something in all their tender beauty when she was carried through the daisies and buttercups across the summer fields to be in her flowered couch,” Mabel later reflected in her journal. “It was a very great sorrow to Austin, but I have lived through greater with him, when little Gib [Austin’s son] died. He and I are so one that we comfort each other for everything, perfectly.”

There follows a furious nonstop battle over who owns the rights to her works. The story of the love affair of her brother and Mabel Loomis Todd is unexpected and remarkable. The fallout from it is significant, even profound. If you’re wondering whether Emily knew, she did – and did and said nothing, apparently.

But over and above the events of the narrative hovers the restless spirit of  that reclusive, brilliant poet:

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.
——-
We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –
————-
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –
————–
Or rather – He passed Us –
The Dews drew quivering and Chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –
————
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –
————
Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –
—————-

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Holiday Wishes, 2018

December 24, 2018 at 8:48 pm (Art, Christmas, Family, Music)

My best holiday wishes to everyone.

I am deeply blessed and fortunate, and I wish the same for every one of you!

 

 

Wilton Diptych, left panel. Artist unknown

Wilton Diptych, Right panel. Artist unknown

 

Annunciation. Fra Angelico

 

Virgin of the Rocks. Leonardo Da Vinci

 

The Alba Madonna. Raphael

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FAMILY!!

My Aunt Patsy and Uncle Hal, enjoying life to the fullest, and always generously sharing that joy with friends and family. Forever in our hearts…

 

My parents, Lillian and Samuel ‘Ted’ Tedlow at the opera in Bayreuth, Germany. They exemplified class, elegance, and sophistication. I miss them.

Daughter-in-law Erica and Son Ben – Beautiful people in every way

 

Etta and Welles, growing by leaps and bounds, my love for them growing at the same dizzying speed

 

My husband Ron. His love, kindness, and companionship make my life worth living.

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Le Paradis, by Henri Maik

 

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‘One of the most arresting jobs of ancient – as well as modern – sculptures was to be some kind of antidote to death and loss.’ – How Do We Look by Mary Beard

October 12, 2018 at 1:09 pm (Art, History)

  What a lovely gift to art lovers  and history buffs this book is! Renowned classicist Mary Beard has ranged far and wide to set before our eyes stunning images of ancient art. In some cases, the works and locales are familiar – Greece, Rome, Egypt – but even in these places, she introduces us to previously unseen objects – unseen by me, at any rate. Some examples:

 

This is the mummy of a Greek youth, between the ages of 19 and 21. It is owned by the British Museum. It dates from some time in the second century AD. The inscription on the painted stucco case reads: “Artemidoros – Farewell.”

The Boxer_of_Quirinal, dated somewhere between 330 and 50 BCE

Unlike the heroic, flawless athletes usually depicted in classical sculpture, this boxer is battered by past injuries and seems to be nearing the end of his career as a pugilist.

Boxing was always an important part of the ancient athletic repertoire, and the conceit of this sculpture is that the man must once have had a fit and toned body – but it has really suffered. The anonymous artist has focused on a wreck of a human being, devoting all his skill to a broken nose and cauliflower ears, flabby from all those blows. In fact, he appears to be still bleeding from fresh wounds. The blood is shown in copper and the bruises on his cheeks are brought out by a slightly different colour of a slightly different bronze alloy. It is almost as if the  bronze has become the mans skin.

Mary Beard, in How Do We Look

Compare him, for instance, to the Belvedere Apollo, the subject of Johann Winkelmann‘s rapturous description:

In gazing upon this masterpiece of art, I forget all else, and I myself adopt an elevated stance, in order to be worthy of gazing upon it. My chest seems to expand with veneration and to heave like those I have seen swollen as if by the spirit of prophecy, and I feel myself transported to Delos and to the Lycian groves, places Apollo honored with his presence—for my figure seems to take on life and movement, like Pygmalion’s beauty.

Back to  the subject of rough sport: Behold the Olmec Wrestler:

Made of basalt and described as nearly life size, this piece was found  by a farmer in 1933 in Veracruz, Mexico. (One is tempted to imagine his astonishment when, upon turning up a clod of earth, he finds himself confronted by this strange, otherworldly object.) There being little or no archaeological context with which to work, the Wrestler is extremely difficult to date – anywhere from 1200 BCE to 400 BCE. He is called a wrestler for lack of anything else to call him. He may not be a wrestler. He may even be a fake. If he is, he’s a mighty compelling one.

Probably the single most amazing surviving art from the Olmec culture – and certifiably genuine – is represented by the gigantic heads:

These heads, seventeen of which have this far been recovered, vary in height from between four and five feet to just over eleven feet. At least one weighs as much as fifty tons.

Above you see one of the the La Venta Heads. There are three more, located at La Venta Park, a premier archaeological site in Mexico.

Again, Mary Beard:

It is hard not to feel just a little bit moved by the close encounter with an image of a person from the distant past. Despite that distance in time, and despite the fact that he is, after all, just a face of stone, it is hard not to feel some sense of shared humanity.

But oh, the questions raised and not answered by this strange artifact of a remote time and place:

Ever since it was rediscovered in 1939, it has defied explanation. Why is it so big? Was he a ruler or perhaps a god? Was it a portrait of a particular individual, or something much less specific than that?Why is it just a head – and not even a complete one at that, but severed at the chin? And what on earth was the image for? It was carved using only stone tools, out of a single block of basalt that came from more than fifty miles away from where the head was found. It could not have been made without huge amounts of time, effort and human resources. But why?

Many other such phenomena are surveyed in this slender volume, packed as it is with riches. How Do We Look is a companion to the tv series Civilizations: From the Ancient to the Modern:

Episode Two featuring Mary Beard can be viewed in its entirety here.

 

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