Archive for the ‘Visual Arts’ Category
The Bust of Nefertiti, the most famous work of Egyptian art, and among the most famous images of female beauty in the world, is not located in its country of origin. It is located in Egyptian Museum in Berlin, Germany. This has always been a controversial matter, much like the fact that the famous Elgin Marbles reside in the British Museum in London rather than their original position in the Greek Parthenon. The case of Nefertiti has been a long and odd one: a group of German archaeologists removed the bust from Egypt under false pretenses in 1912, and the Egyptian government has repeatedly attempted to have the bust returned. The first such attempt was made in 1933, when Hermann Goering offered to return the bust to King Fouad I of Egypt in return for a political alliance between Egypt and Nazi Germany. Hitler himself refused to let this happen: “”I know this famous bust. “I have viewed it and marveled at it many times. Nefertiti continually delights me. The bust is a unique masterpiece, an ornament, a true treasure!” The Führer would never let the bust leave Germany.
In the years since the controversy over the bust has died down somewhat, but it was reawakened recently by two Hungarian artists who named themselves “Little Warsaw.” In 2003, the pair conceived of a project that would involve creating a body for Nefertiti and briefly displaying the bust on top of it. Unlike the famous sculpture, however, The Body of Nefertiti would not represent an idealized beauty. As the artists put it in a statement about the work, “The marks time leaves on the woman’s body, her age and lifestyle, and the traces of her pregnancies mean more for Little Warsaw than any further analysis of beauty.” The idealized bust, and the body designed to represent “beauty on far more realistic grounds” made an odd pair. The sculpture of the body itself was first displayed at the Venice Biennial, and then briefly put on display in Berlin’s Egyptian Museum with the bust placed on top of it.
The Egyptian government was furious. They declared that the project demonstrated the museum’s inability to properly care for this masterpiece of human achievement and restated their demands that the sculpture be returned to Cairo, along with the famous Rosetta Stone (which is currently in Great Britain) and other famous works of Egyptian Antiquity. Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt, said he wanted the pieces returned by 2012 so that they could be displayed in the new Grand Museum meant to open that year near the great pyramids in Giza. So far, every request has been turned down.
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Robert Hughes, the great Australian art critic whose criticism spans from Lascaux to Lichtenstein, suggested an interesting theory about cave paintings in an article in Time Magazine about the Avignon cave paintings on the occasion of their discovery in 1995. Visual art, he mentioned, is generally agreed to have been created about 40 thousand years ago. That is, art was created just as Cro-Magnon man migrated from the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East to Ice Age Europe. The migration spelled the end of the current inhabitants of that continent – the Neanderthals – and the cave paintings provided a clue as to why: Cro-Magnon man was capable of associative thinking.
Compare the two skulls above. On the left is a Neanderthal skull, and on the right is a Cro-Magnon skull. There are numerous differences (as well as obvious similarities) but the one that concerns us is in the forehead, where the Cro-Magnon skull has much more room. This is where the frontal lobe is located, the part of the brain that manages our most complex functions: logical thinking, impulse control, judgment, language, memory, problem solving. It is here that the brain performs the operations that we call “associative thinking,” operations that Hughes saw as crucial to the production of art. As he put it in his article, “art, at its root, is association — the power to make one thing stand for and symbolize another, to create the agreements by which some marks on a surface denote, say, an animal, not just to the markmaker but to others.”
The Neanderthals did not have this power of associative thinking, and this is one of the many reasons why the Cro-Magnon species almost certainly drove them into extinction. In the battle for survival, abstract thought was the most powerful tool that natural selection had evolved yet. And even in its earliest appearance with Cro-Magnon man it was evident that abstract thought could be put to both peaceful use – as in the paintings on the walls of Lascaux – and destructive use – as in the now forgotten and lost history of the conflict and struggle that resulted in the extinction of Homo neanderthalis.
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Though considered one of the most famous paintings in the world, “The Scream” by Edvard Munch is actually a series of paintings. The Norwegian artist made numerous versions of his famous work (including a lithograph for reproduction), though the work on cardboard shown above is probably the most famous. That version is in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Another (shown below) resides at the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway. Both have been stolen.
The National Gallery’s painting was stolen in 1994. It had been moved into the main lobby of the museum to commemorate the opening of the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. With the entire world watching, the painting was stolen and offered back to the Norwegian government for a million dollars.
The Munch Museum’s painting was stolen a decade later, in 2004, along with “The Madonna,” another of Munch’s masterpieces. Armed thieves stormed the museum and made off with both works. This time, no ransom was offered, and it was feared that both works would never be seen again.
Both works were recovered. The National Gallery’s painting was found unharmed a few months after it was stolen, and the Munch Museum’s paintings were recovered in 2006. Tragically, both paintings stolen from the Munch Museum were extensively damaged, and have not been restored to perfection.
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Some of the most famous works of art are actually excerpts from larger enterprises. One well-known example is William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Red Wheelbarrow.” The poem reads, in its entirety:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
This mysterious little work, famous for its stark imagery and its use of “enjambment” (line breaks that don’t correspond to grammatical breaks), is part Carlos’ 1923 book Spring and All, a mixed collection of poetry and prose. He never published it as a stand-alone poem.
Another famous example is Auguste Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker. It is one of the most reproduced and recognizable works of art ever created, yet it too was a small part of a larger whole. In 1880, Rodin was awarded the commission to create the gate to Paris’ Museum of Decorative Arts. Rodin chose to depict “The Gates of Hell.” The work was never completed, but still contains over 180 figures, most of them writhing and disfigured bodies. Directly above the doors, however, was the image of a serene, powerful man, seated and lost in though. This piece of the larger work was called The Poet, and it was meant to represent the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, who had conceived of hell in the most spectacular way possible in his twelfth-century poem The Inferno. Eventually, Rodin presented The Poet as an independent work. He renamed it The Thinker.
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Look carefully at paintings from the late-19th century, and you’ll often spot glasses filled with an iridescent green liquid. This is absinthe, the famed “fée verte” (or “green fairy”) of Belle Epoque France. It appears in the works of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent van Gogh and, as in the painting L’Absinthe above, Edgar Degas.
Absinthe is made by distilling wormwood (the word “absinthe” is actually “wormwood” in French). It is an anise-based drink with a licorice flavor, like Sambuca or Pastis. (Herbs added after distillation give the drink its famous green color.) The ritual of serving absinthe is very elaborate: a perforated spoon is placed over a glass filled with absinthe, and a sugar cube is placed on the spoon. Water is then poured over the sugar drip by drip – a process known as the “louche” – which causes the drink to take on a cloudy white color. Every part of the process produced elaborate paraphernalia, even green glasses containing uranium!
But it wasn’t the flavor or the ritual that made absinthe famous. It was the “fact” that absinthe causes insanity. This notion was based on the fact that absinthe contains “thujone,” an oily chemical some believe to be a neurotoxin. As it happens, absinthe only contains trace amounts of thujone, not enough to cause any real harm. (Arsenic occurs naturally in seaweed and some species of fish, but you’re not gonna be poisoned the next time you eat sushi.) Nonetheless, the argument that absinthe did cause insanity won the day: France prohibited the manufacture and sale of the elixir in 1915, and the Era of Absinthe quickly came to an end.
Learn more about absinthe at La Fée Verte’s Absinthe House.
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One of the great pleasures of studying art history is watching the conversations that take place, across continents and centuries, between the great artists. Painters themselves are deeply aware of their predecessors’ work. Once an iconic image has been created no future artist can ignore it. One of the great iconic images of all Western art is Francisco de Goya’s Third of May 1808 (above), a depiction of Spanish peasants being massacred by Napoleon’s soldiers. Nearly 60 years later, the French painter Éduoard Manet (considered by some an Impressionist and by others a Post-Impressionist*) wanted to depict another firing squad. In many ways, his paintings were a direct response to Goya’s earlier work.
In the early 1860′s, the United States was fully occupied by its Civil War. This was one of the bloodiest wars in history up until that point, and the Union Army could not possibly engage in another conflict. Aware of this distraction, Napoleon III of France took the opportunity to increase his influence in North America. In 1861, President Benito Juárez of Mexico passed a law that ended the repayment of Mexican debts to European nations. Napoleon III responded by invading Mexico and installing the Austrian noble Maximilian von Habsburg as Emperor.
The intervention was a disaster. By 1865, the French military was on the retreat, and the end of the American Civil War meant that the United States might intervene on Mexico’s behalf. In February of 1867, Napoleon III withdrew all the remaining French troops. Maximilian was stranded. He was tried for treason by the Mexican government, found guilty, and executed on June 19, 1867.
Manet was deeply moved by these events and made five works depicting them. The most complete existing work is Death of Maximilian (below) which Manet completed in February 1869. It is one of Manet’s greatest works, but he still felt a need to respond to his Spanish predecessor. In Goya’s painting, the central Spanish peasant is a paragon of innocence: his hands are outstretched in a pose that recalls Christ on the cross, and his shirt is a shock of white on an otherwise dark canvas. Manet was much more ambivalent about his subject: Maximilian is robed in black, a point emphasized by the white shirts of his collaborators.
But the clearest response to the Third of May is in the depiction of the executioners. Like Goya, Manet depicts his executioners as an undifferentiated mass. The soldiers are nearly indistinguishable one from the other, unlike the uniquely traced victims. But Manet complicates this picture. He sets one of the executioners off to the side, holding a rifle that will administer the “coup de grâce” if it is needed. Like Maximilian, this soldier wears an expression of complete equanimity. What did Manet mean by this? Maybe another artist will shed some light in a great work to come.
In 2006, The Museum of Modern Art in New York City exhibited five of Manet’s works depicting the execution of Maximilian. View the “Online Exhibition” here.
Or read more about Manet’s series here.
* For more on “Impressionism,” see the entry for Week 27, Day 3. For “Post-Impressionism,” see the entry for Week 36, Day 3.
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Even people who’ve never heard of the Japanese printmaker Hokusai are familiar with his most famous image: a gigantic, stylized plunging wave that has been synonymous with the word “tsunami” for over a century. And what a remarkable image it is! All the violence of the ocean captured in three shades of blue. The yin and yang of the wave in the foreground and the sky in the back.* The tragic fate of the sailors who are about to be consumed. And the life-like quality of the wave itself, breaking into a mass of prehensile claws. With all of this, it’s easy to ignore the likeness, tucked away in the bottom-center of the print, of Mount Fuji.
In fact, Hokusai’s famous wave is only one image – the 18th – from a series called 36 Views of Mount Fuji (or Fugaku Sanju Rokkei in Japanese). The print of the wave (titled Mount Fuji from the Offing in Kanagawa) is undoubtedly the most famous. But there are many other beautiful images in the series.
In some of the prints, Mount Fuji is even more diminished than it is in the print above. Consider this picture of Mount Fuji from Owari, where the snow-capped mountain is only a tiny triangle inside the tub that an old peasant is caulking.
Perhaps the most serene image in the series is Mount Fuji from a Teahouse at Yoshida, a stark contrast to the infamous wave:
In some images, Mount Fuji is much more than a hidden triangle in the background, as in Mount Fuji from the Foot, more commonly known as the “Red Fuji”:
For all 36 views from Mount Fuji (and ten more besides), go here.
* For more on “yin and yang,” see the entry on Taoism: Week 48, Day 7.
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