Sunday, June 5, 2011

Brooklyn Museum Ibis Coffin

File this one under things you only need if you are Ancient Egyptian/and or you own a beloved Ibis.

It was common practice for the Egyptians to mummify animals, especially those they revered, including cats, hippopotami, and crocodiles.  Many Egyptian gods were associated with particular animals and were often depicted with human bodies and animal heads.  The ibis was associated with the god Thoth (who was also shown as a baboon).  Thoth has many roles in Egyptian religion.  He was the creator of magic, writing, and science; he was the messenger and mediator of the gods; and he recorded the judgement of the dead.  He also enjoyed long walks on the beach, drinking fine wine, and watching the sunset.

This is a particularly beautiful coffin.  It is made of gilded wood, silver, gold, and rock crystal and it dates to the Ptolemaic period (305-30 BCE).  While it is normal for animal coffins to take on the shape of the animal within, the high quality of this coffin makes it stand out from the tens of thousands of animal mummies placed in more everyday containers, such as pottery jars.

The ibis was placed inside the coffin through the detachable lid on the back.  I wish I had a better picture of its legs and feet which are nicely detailed.

This object can be found in the Brooklyn Museum which has an especially nice collection of Egyptian artifacts as well as Assyrian wall panels and Western paintings.  

Friday, June 3, 2011

Under the Sea

This past weekend I was in Boston and went to see the Chihuly show at one of my favorite museums, the MFA.  I think I have been living under a rock because prior to a few months ago, I had no knowledge of Chihuly.  Everyone else kept making comments like, "oh Chihuly, I'm so sick of him!"  So obviously I needed to get myself up to speed.  Additionally, I saw a video of the installation of the lime green icicle tower, which was so mind boggling that I had to see the show myself.  See the video here.

Chihuly is blind in one eye and has a shoulder injury and thus can no longer physically blow the glass himself.  Instead, he relies on a large studio of glassmakers and artists to bring his drawings and ideas to life.  A friend of mine who saw the exhibit with me questioned whether Chihuly could claim, still, to be the artist of the works on view.  There is a long history of artists who oversaw studios and attached their names to paintings they may not have painted--sometimes a name artist only drew the sketch for the final painting, sometimes he only painted the faces or the more important parts of the work.  In terms of modern labeling of these studio productions, as far as I can tell it varies from just naming the artist to acknowledging the existence of the studio.

Chihuly doesn't hide the important role of his studio in the production of his work and I would still very much label him as the artist.  Plenty of contemporary artists work in materials and scales that they themselves cannot make alone, or at all, yet we credit them for their ideas.  The same is true of fashion designers for large houses.  So for me, as long as Chihuly is the originator of his ideas, as long as he is the visionary and the creative director, he is essentially the main artist.

And besides, I would argue that for Chihuly's works it is the idea of the installations that is the most important component.  From what I could gather, Chihuly has his studio make tons and tons of different glass pieces that he recycles again and again in different arrangements.  A great example of how the installation trumps the individual object is Persian Ceiling, the object of the week.

This work is called Persian Ceiling but I prefer to think of it as Under the Sea because it made me feel like I was under an ocean of colorful jellyfish and sea creatures.  The object label said Chihuly titled it the way he did because he liked the word "Persian," so I don't really feel bad calling it something else.  Most of his works didn't seem to have a lot of "deep thoughts" behind them and instead were created because he thought they would look cool.  I can get on board with that--this was a fun and whimsical installation that gave my imagination plenty of room to react to the space.

I loved loved loved the colors cast on the wall--it felt like the air itself was made of different colors, kind of like a substitute for water.  And the layers of the different objects added depth to the ceiling, making me feel totally immersed.

I was so in awe of the colors of this room that it didn't even immediately register that the installation was made up of individual and distinctive pieces.  It was only until my friends asked which was my favorite piece that I thought to look at each object separately.  In the above photo you can see a little glass octopus that went nicely with my ocean perception. 

But in the end I preferred to see the ceiling as a whole rather than as individual pieces.  When viewed separately, each object loses its magic--it becomes just a bowl or a glass or an octopus--but together they create an experience, which can sometimes be the best type of art.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Gladiateur Borghèse

 This week's featured object is the Ancient Greek sculpture known by the name Gladiateur Borghèse.  It is one of my favorite works in the Louvre collection because it is a stunning example of Hellenistic sculpture as well as an intriguing case study for out-dated restoration practices.  It dates to about 100 BC and is signed by Agasias from Ephesus, an ancient Greek city located in modern day Turkey.  It was discovered in pieces in the early seventeenth century just south of Rome on the Borghese family's estate, from which it takes its name.  This is a monolithic work which means that it was sculpted from a single block of marble-- a huge accomplishment because marble is both heavy and fragile, and is in constant risk of breaking.

Despite its name, this sculpture does not depict a gladiator.  One way we can tell this is the statue's nudity, which is inconsistent with what we know about gladitorial combat where the gladiators are always heavily armed.  Also, gladitorial combat was a Roman tradition.  This artist was Greek and therefore it's unlikely he would have depicted a gladiator.  More likely, the figure is a warrior or perhaps a Greek hero, who is often shown nude.  Here the warrior is fending off a blow from an opponent to the left and above him, perhaps someone on horseback.  In his raised left arm would have been a shield, now lost, and in his right arm might have been a sword.

Aside from obvious surface damage, the statue is in remarkable condition and almost fully intact.  But this is of course due not so much to lucky chance as to the work of conservators.  The statue has been reassembled in such a way that it is only if one looks carefully that one can see the seams where parts have been put back together.  The reassembly helps us to simultaneously see the statue two ways--as it originally looked in antiquity and also how it has weathered the test of time.  

Which leads me to the most interesting aspect of the statue: the right arm.  This arm is not original to the statue.  It was made by a conservator, which one can clearly tell because the white of the arm does not match the weathered surface of the marble.  This arm comes from the imagination of the conservator who made his best guess as to what the arm actually looked like.  This was a huge gamble because there have been sculptures where added limbs have been found to be completely inaccurate.  And of course this right arm completely changes the entire composition--it further emphasizes the diagonal thrust of the figure, which completely shapes the dramatic impression it gives to viewers.

So you may wonder why a conservator would even add a fake arm and not just leave it missing.  The answer has everything to do with the conservation philosophy of the time period.  When this statue was discovered in the early seventeenth century, it was unthinkable to leave a statue incomplete, especially a statue belongong to one of Rome's great princes.  So a sculptor added the arm.  Later, conservation fashions changes and objects were left totally unrestored and in pieces, as they were found in the ground.  Today conservators try to strike more of a balance between not doing too much or taking too many liberties and also not leaving a statue in a state where its missing parts--such as a nose--create such a distraction that it is impossible to see the object as it was intended.

And obviously there might also be different cultural practices at play too.  Some of my international friends have commented on France's policy of over-restoring works of art, especially in terms of painting colors.  I can't verify if this is true or not but it seems clear to me that the ethics of restoration vary widely.

Personally, I find this object even more fascinating because of the fake arm.  To me, the work is a collaboration between artists of antiquity and of the modern age.  We can see the statue as it originally looked in antiquity and how it has weathered the test of time because there is a contrast between the old and the new.  In a sense, the statue is a record of the passing of time, and changing philosophies in art history and conservation.  Works of art can be a connecting force that link people of different time periods.  There can be no better example of this than the Gladiateur Borghèse.

Pastels at the D'Orsay

This post originally published 1/29/11 on Lily Lives Paris, my Paris blog.

This week I visited the Musée D'Orsay for the second time.  I went on a Thursday night when it is open late which was a good choice because it was MUCH less crowded than when I went during the weekend.  Unfortunately for me, my favorite D'Orsay works, Ours Blanc by François Pompon and Les raboteurs de parquet by Gustave Caillebotte (which may be my favorite painting ever, in fact), were not on view.  Still, I didn't suffer too deeply as I did find much to enjoy in one of the museum's temporary rooms devoted to pastels.  I tend to appreciate pastels because they are incredibly hard to do well and thus when I find myself admiring a pastel drawing it is more for the masterful show of technique than for the composition or subject.  My favorite pastel on view in the D'Orsay is Jeune fille en robe rouge sur fond de fleurs by Emile Lévy (1887), which I saw during my first visit to the museum and was drawn to yet again this week:

Sadly, the museum forbids picture taking and I am really terrible at taking pictures on the sly.  So we have to rely on internet photos.  This official image from the museum's website doesn't really do the pastel justice--in person the red of her dress is much more vibrant and striking.  Below is a better image that I found on flickr.  It's always good to look at several different photos of a work to get a true sense of what it actually looks like, and of course, it is even better to see the real thing in person!

What I love most about this work is the contrast in textures and shine between the girl's dress and her arms--they almost seem to belong to two different works and yet each component is masterfully done and together they show the range of skill of the artist and the best of what can be accomplished with the medium.  I should also note that this is a large pastel--1.185 by .86 meters--which only makes work more impressive.

And of course, the girl herself has a certain je ne sais quoi that is intriguing and draws you in.  In addition to masterfully rendering the physical components of the composition, the artist has also captured, I think, a bit of the girl's immaterial character.  The artist has captured her vitality and spirit in a way that makes this work live.  This is real skill, to master both the medium of pastel and the genre of portraiture.

A Hidden Gem from the Louvre

I am, shall we say, an Ancient Roman enthusiast, and when I stumbled upon this object late one night in the Louvre I sort of died from excitement.  What is it? A wax tablet, of course.

Anyone who has studied Roman history and/or seen the tv-show Rome will know that a wax tablet was a reusable and portable writing surface.  One would write on the tablet with a stylus (which had a spatula-like opposite end for erasing) and then reheat the wax later to erase the whole tablet.  According to the Louvre, this particular tablet was used by school children although they were also used by scribes and even Cicero.  This one comes from 7th century AD Fayoum, Egypt.

This was my first time seeing this sort of object in person and all I can say is: History!  Right in front of me!!  So so so so so so so cool, ok?


Welcome to Objet de la Semaine!  If you don't speak French, the title means Object of the Week and the premise is simple: I find an object I like and I write about it.

Featured objects can be anything really--a beautiful pair of shoes, an antique globe, an elaborate castle, or a classic painting--but all will have one thing in common: they will each be something I love and covet, something I return to see again and again, something unique and interesting.   More often than not, I'll feature art objects because that is what I am most passionate about.  I studied art history at college and have worked in a fair number of museums too.  And when I'm not working, I'm likely to be wandering about the galleries of my most favorite institutions.

So in summation, feel free to think of this as your own private collection of awesome curated by moi.  You're welcome in advance.