The Great Art

By guest contributor Adrian Young

One can hardly imagine a more audacious ambit for a museum exhibit than that of the Staatlische Museen zu Berlin’s new show, Alchemy: the Great Art, now at the Kulturforum. In the curators’ words:

“Alchemy is a creation myth and therefore intimately related to artistic practice – this idea permeates all eras and cultures, shaping Alchemy’s theoretical underpinnings as well as artistic creativity. An exhibition dedicated to the art of Alchemy is consequently predestined for the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, whose diverse collections stretch over time from pre- and early history to the present. Alchemy is a universal theme for a universal museum”

As if to underpin its universal sweep, that thesis is inscribed on a wall above Matthäus Merian the Elder’s beautiful image of the cosmos, published in 1617.  Here, the position of the heavens above, the earth below, and humanity in between are assured within a hierarchy ordained by the divine unity of creation. The planets correspond to metals and vice versa, mercury for Mercury, at once products and signifiers of the same heavenly power.

L0029108 R. Fludd, Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet...

Robert Fludd, Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris metaphysica, physica atque technica historia (1617-1618). (Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library)

From this document, and from the assemblage of some 200 remarkable objects like it, spanning continents and millennia, we are meant to learn something of the universal creative ambition that drove alchemy as a global, timeless, and human craft. As a creative practice, the ars magna (or “great art,” to use alchemy’s medieval European appellation) wedded the pursuit of beauty and the pursuit of knowledge within the same practical tradition. It was only after the advent of Enlightenment rationality obscured their longstanding relationship that art and science seemed to diverge into bifurcating paths. However, though we rational moderns may have lost sight of a creative unity the pre-moderns knew well, by assembling the material culture of a deep alchemical past alongside the artistic products of a scientifically minded present, the exhibit suggests that “art” and “science” need be understood as separate enterprises. Rather, it claims, we have always been modern. We have always sought truth and beauty alike in the manipulation and transformation of material things. Creators have always been alchemists.

It is a seductive and tantalizing notion. Historians might chafe instinctively at claims of universality, as I did when I read the exhibit’s opening scrawl—“this idea permeates all eras and cultures”? But why not? One is inclined to indulge the thought, at least for a moment, while examining the treasures assembled here. And there are treasures. A ding, or ritual cauldron, from thirteenth-century BCE China still draws viewers in with a ring of intricately rendered cicadas; the metamorphosis of these insects suggest that a similar same property of transformation operated inside this metal crucible, and in remains at work in crucibles like it in laboratories and workshops the world over. Wall scrolls by sixteenth-century Daoist artist Lu Zhi depict the search for truth as the work of gathering herbs in the mountains. These hang near sixteenth-century European allegorical representations of the mountainous earth as a temple in which to mine divine knowledge.  Alchemical correspondences abound.

Whether these artifacts were products of “art” or “science” is of course a nonsensical question. Indeed, the exhibition reminds its visitors that artists and alchemists were practitioners of allied creative crafts, which they often plied in the same princely courts. A small work by Hans Jakob Sprüngli from the early seventeenth century drives that point home well. In his “Venus and Armor against the backdrop of renaissance architecture,” painted figures are ensconced in a field of gold leaf and stained glass. Master artists, like master alchemists, relied on an intimate, practical, and embodied knowledge of the materials from which they produced their works of truth or beauty. Artists today are much the same in their attention to material things, an alchemical affinity they even share with contemporary scientists. Think of Joseph Beuys, for instance, whose works are represented in the exhibition by a 1986 offprint displaying his “goldkuchen.” In Beuys’s use of fur, fat, and gold, physical objects became agents of affect, begetting emotional reactions and transformations. Pieces by a younger generation of artists do much the same. Sara Shönfeldt’s 2013 series “All You Can Feel (Maps)” is an object lesson in the commonalities of practice between science and art. Shönfeldt placed dissolved chemical compounds like the recreational drug MDMA onto pretreated negatives which, once developed produced full-color portraits of chemicals. Their crystalline browns and greens are reminiscent of minerals or landscapes, feeling simultaneously geological and geographical.  It is a use of darkroom technology that recalls earlier work by Walter Ziegler and Heinz Hajek-Halke, also represented in the gallery. Photography and its attendant chemical techniques long provided a practical if little-celebrated bridge between the hands-on work of art and science. Can we meaningfully call those shared practices alchemy? The genealogy, here at least, is manifest.

Continuities with the past need not be happy ones. Deep in the heart of the exhibit, in its lower level, lurks the specter of the homunculus. The artificial being, made living by the alchemist’s manipulation of inanimate matter is also evoked here to suggest alchemical practice’s persistence into our present.  Underscoring the idea’s lingering presence in the popular imagination, images of Frankenstein’s monster sit next to a copy of Japanese graphic novel Full Metal Alchemist. That the notion of a monstrous artificial life still haunts us powerfully reinforces the exhibition’s argument; in our era of genetically modified and artificial life, one of alchemy’s chief ambitions is enacted daily in scientific practice. At the center of the “Homonculus” section is one of the “Ripley Scrolls,” on loan from the Getty and one of the exhibition’s most arresting objects. Unwound inside a twenty-foot-long case, it becomes the body of arcane alchemical knowledge now splayed open for visitors. However, the exhibit which most monstrously evokes the grotesque possibilities of alchemical transformation might well be on the floor above, where another of Sara Schönfeldt’s pieces melds scientific and artistic practice. “Hero’s Journey (Lamp)” (2014) stores urine inside a large glass tank, lit by lamps on both sides. The light only penetrates so far through the liquid murk, fading from amber to blood red before disappearing in a dark center of clotted black.

By assembling in one gallery historical objects and art pieces from across time and space, the exhibition attempts a kind of curatorial alchemy, building a synthesis from diverse elements. Like most grand experiments, it falls somewhat short. Though the SMB is indeed a universal museum, Europe’s heritage dominates. While the exhibit proffers alchemy as a universal mode of creation, there are no representative objects from the New World, sub-Saharan Africa, or Oceania with which to substantiate such a claim. East Asian objects appear much more frequently–the Museum für Asiatische Kunst is the source of a number of fascinating exhibits– though these sometimes seem to reaffirm Western narratives. A section on the “chemical wedding” is a case in point. In a famous alchemical allegory, male and female, corresponding to mercury and sulfur, are bonded and give rise to a hermaphroditic compound.  It was a notion that originated with Jābir ibn Hayyān and spread in alchemical texts throughout the Mediterranean world, though we see it represented directly only by Western European artifacts. However, we are told that the idea shared an affinity with the wedding of opposites in other traditions—enter a bronze sculpture depicting the marriage of Shiva and Parvati from late eighteenth- or early nineteenth- century Madurai, which gestures at similar alchemical dualities in the Hindu world. The bronze’s precise relation to “alchemy” is sadly unexplained; rather,  we are left to ponder the exact global unities between such dualities on our own.

Those artifacts which do receive closer temporal or spatial framings are all the more compelling for it, even if the resulting narratives are in tension with the exhibition’s universal aspirations. Assertions of timeless continuity might productively trouble our understanding of science and art in the present, but historians of science have long offered more circumscribed historically situated assertions of continuity between alchemy, chymistry, and chemistry. In this show, too, the artifacts that best challenge the too-neat dichotomies that seem to separate modernity and reason from premodernity and magic are those that speak evocatively of their own historical moments. Take, for instance, that eminently enlightenment document, the Encyclopedie, whose entry “Chemie” is represented by Louis-Jacques Goussier’s engraving “Laboratoire et Table des Reports,” (1771).  Here, a table arranges the traditional signs for the elements, rationally ordering notations inherited from alchemy. Or, better, take the image of Sigismund Bacstrom’s “Apparatus to attract the Lunar Humidity” in Johan Freiderich Fleischer’s 1797 Chemical Moonshine, on loan from the Getty. Here, the glassware of the empirical chemical laboratory (an alchemical inheritance, to be sure) is turned toward the goal of capturing the fleeting essence of moonlight itself. It evokes Yoko Ono, but gestures even more strongly toward the tumultuous, contingent, and fleeting worlds that existed on the edges of the chemical revolution.

Adrian 2 Chemical Moonshine 10_1024

Sigismund Bacstrom (German, ca. 1750–1805), “Device for Distilling Lunar Humidity,” ink and watercolor in Johan Friedrich Fleischer, “Chemical Moonshine,” trans. Sigismund Bacstrom, 1797, frontispiece. 950053.4.1 (Image courtesy of the Getty Research Institute.)


 Was I ultimately taken in by the allure of the exhibition’s universal aspiration? More than I might have expected. Assertions of similarity between art and science abound in books and museum exhibits, perhaps less because we aim to bridge C.P. Snow’s two cultures and more because we in the fragile arts hope to ally with the slightly sturdier sciences in this era of shrinking funding and diminishing respect for the academy.  Alchemy, by focusing our attention on the practical knowledge required by the work of creation, suggests genuine and overlooked affinities. I am inclined to understand those commonalities as the product of a shared, historically and regionally specific genealogy. But no matter. If the ideal of a common and universal human creative impulse can compel us to study the rich material heritage of the alchemical past, or indeed any past, then all to the good. Like the elusive philosopher’s stone, perhaps the ambition itself is of less consequence than the things learned in yearning for it. What’s more, artists and alchemists alike have long known what some historians have only recently rediscovered: that objects can speak with a vocabulary the written word does not always afford. In this exhibit, aesthetic objects, whether contemporary sculptures or scientific plates, evoke their pasts with a remarkable richness. As windows into the practical histories of alchemy and art, these materials, whatever their ordering, exude a transformative power of their own.

“Alchemy: The Great Art” is on view at the Kulturforum in Berlin until the 23rd of July, 2017.

Adrian Young is a postdoctoral fellow at the Berlin Center for the History of Knowledge, where he is revising his dissertation “Mutiny’s Bounty: Pitcairn Islanders and the Making of a Natural Laboratory on the Edge of Britain’s Pacific Empire” for publication. Though not a historian of alchemy by any stretch, he maintains an abiding interest in material culture and object lessons.

Russian Art 1917-1932 at the Royal Academy, London

by guest contributor Audrey Borowski

The imperial red hits you as soon as you enter the Royal Academy’s latest exhibition, “Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932,” which sets out to explore the frenzy that gripped the Russian artistic scene between 1917 and 1932.

The artistic avant-garde initially enthusiastically extolled the ideals of the new Bolshevik regime. A new age had dawned on Russia, and its artists embraced their roles as apostles of this new vision. This exhibit explores the remarkable vitality and versatility of Russian art during that short but turbulent window, often presenting the viewers with lesser-known artists. From Isaak Brodsky’s studious portraits of its leaders Lenin and Stalin to Boris Kustodiev’s depiction of enthused masses, many artists set out to capture the euphoria that followed the revolution and the hope that it would be extended to the whole world.

At the heart of their endeavor lay the desire to create innovative paintings, sculptures, ceramics, crockery, textiles, and even architectural designs that would reach a mass, and for the most part illiterate, audience. New technologies were enlisted to convey these political messages and aestheticize the experience of the worker and peasant; through the magic of film and photography, the latter were refashioned as muscular heroic figures and Russia transfigured from a still overwhelmingly agricultural nation into a great industrial super-power. And whereas in the pictures, workers and peasants emerged liberated and sublimated, in reality, these machine-men and women were generally little more than slaves, dying of starvation in the name of communal collective agriculture. Reality, as this avant-garde movement would soon find out, fell dramatically short of its ideals.

Pavel Filonov, Formula of the Petrograd Proletariat, 1920-21 (State Russian Museum, St Petersburg)

Pavel Filonov, Formula of the Petrograd Proletariat, 1920-21 (State Russian Museum, St Petersburg)

Radical innovations had already been under way for a few years, but this artistic avant-garde seized the momentum of the revolution to precipitate change and formulate new art for a new world, exploring the full range of abstraction. In this era of radical experimentation, each artist developed his own particular visual language and vocabulary across a wide range of media. The painter Alexander Deineka deployed his characteristic use of geometric lines and collages of drawings, graphic images, and photo montages to convey workers’ dedication to the cause. Pavel Filonov’s method of “universal flowering” produced anguished phantasmagorias merging urban landscapes, heads, and geometric shapes in his “Formula for the Petrograd Proletariat.” Mikhail Matiushin projected pure cosmic teleology in his 1921 “Movement in Space.” Blok’s symbolist poetry greeted the revolution as a quasi-religious second coming. El Lissitzky designed new apartments for the new soviet lifestyle. The theatre director Vsevold Meyerhold designed biomechanics, a system in which emotions were experienced primarily through bodily movements and gestures. Vladimir Tatlin imagined flying gliders, Sergei Eisenstein recreated the revolution in his films, and Vassily Kandinsky conjured up symphonic abstract explosions.

Mikhail Mokh, State Porcelain Factory, Leningrad, tea set "Metal," 1930 (The Petr Aven Collection)

Mikhail Mokh, State Porcelain Factory, Leningrad, tea set “Metal,” 1930 (The Petr Aven Collection)

The artist Kazimir Malevich took geometric abstraction to a whole new level with his invention of “suprematism” in 1915. Art, he thought, should first and foremost express spirituality, away from the “dead weight of the real world.” The Royal Academy’s exhibition recreates his display at the original 1932 exhibit in which he famously exposed “Black square,” the work he claimed marked the “zero point of art.” And yet, as artists were increasingly urged to depict social realities, the soviet man caught up in a dynamic vision of the cosmos soon began to give way to visions of faceless figures far removed from the utopian visions of cheery peasants laboring for the cause in the golden fields of collective farm labor that the Party extolled. As artists grew more ambivalent towards the regime, they started deploying their art to subvert its imagery.

A particularly striking and, for western viewers, unusual piece is “Insurrection” (1925) by Kliment Redko. In it, the painter has replaced Christ with Lenin, surrounded by his disciples in a diamond of fire that burns the city. The atmosphere of the painting is dark and infernal; the city has turned into prison. The revolution was slowly morphing into state repression. While the Revolution of 1917 had heralded a new age of hope and equality for most, repression had already started to kick in by 1921, with artistic freedom increasingly constrained in favor of the collective ideology.

Kliment Redko, Insurrection, 1925 (State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

Kliment Redko, Insurrection, 1925 (State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

The exhibit not only showcases the gradual shift in power over the years, but also brings to the fore the inner contradictions of the age. In the face of extreme conditions and growing misery after the collapse of the economy and the urban infrastructure in the wake of the civil war, many artists looked back towards an idealized Russian past with its birch trees, snowed-under villages, troikas and countryside churches. They sought comfort in a world they felt had been lost forever before one that was failing to materialize, like Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, a lesser-known painter who sought to discern the “optical magic” that coursed through reality. His pieces hark back to a more peaceful, curiously atemporal time, away from the tumult and prospect of hardship.

Over the years, the window for creativity and freedom of expression gradually narrowed, until Stalin decreed that socialist realism would be the only acceptable art form in the Soviet Union. 1932 simultaneously signaled the apex and the end of this artistic revolution; it was the year Nikolai Punin curated the exhibit “Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic” at the state Russian museum in then-Leningrad; it showcased more than two thousand works of art and has served as the inspiration for the present exhibition. That same year also sounded the final death knell of that era of dazzling creativity. Overnight, the Soviet state’s fittingly-named “People’s commissariat of Enlightenment” became the sole commissioner of art, and socialist realism the only acceptable art form. The soaring spirit of the avant-garde was brought to an abrupt halt.

While Lenin had envisaged art in mainly pragmatic terms as a tool of propaganda, Stalin had an acute understanding of the power of art and, with social realism, was intent on harnessing it towards the cultivation of his own legacy. His utopian vision celebrated physically perfect sportsmen and parading workers as the new heroes of this politically unified and collectivist vision. Art was to be in the image of regime: insipid, impersonal and soulless.

Disillusionment gradually set in. Mayakovsky shot himself in 1930; Meyerhold was executed in 1940; Punin died in a gulag in 1953. Many others would be purged in the following years.

Ultimately, the exhibit charts one of the human spirit’s greatest experiments in hope, as it first soared and was then violently repressed and crushed by a dream-turned-nightmare. Each piece documents a different facet of this human epic in striving and aspiration and bears testimony, in spite of mankind’s fragile memory and constant attempts to rewrite history, to the indomitable nature of the human spirit. That much is certain – and as I was walking away from the Royal Academy, Vladimir Mayakovsky’s fateful and all too timely words from 1921 continued to resonate in my ears:

“And since the crisis exists the world over—worldwide revolution is at their door—As clearly as two times two is four.”

Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 at the Royal Academy, London
Until 17 April

Audrey Borowski is a DPhil student in History of Ideas at the University of Oxford.

“Herman Melville’s New York, 1850” at The New York Society Library

by guest contributor Charles Cuykendall Carter

Circulation ledger featuring Melville's Society Library borrowing history, 1847-50. New York Society Library.

Circulation ledger featuring Melville’s Society Library borrowing history, 1847-50. New York Society Library.

The New York Society Library’s current pop-up exhibit explores the life and experiences of Herman Melville in New York City, during the time leading up to the 1851 publication of Moby-Dick. The more specific, and more intimate, concern of the exhibit is the symbiotic relationship between an author and his library, both as a site of research and as a vehicle for promotion.

For much of 1848, and then again for a time in 1850, the Society Library was Melville’s library. (He did also personally own a good number of books, many of which he annotated; some can be seen in digitized form through the impressive Melville’s Marginalia website.) While in the throes of composing his masterpiece, Melville regularly spent time doing research in the reading room of the Society Library, then on Broadway and Leonard Street. He was again a Society Library member in the years before his death in 1891.

Some treasures from the Society Library’s archives featured in the exhibit vividly demonstrate Melville’s membership and activity. One charming display item is a facsimile of Melville’s 1850 Society Library membership certificate, reproduced on cardboard and able to be handled and examined up close. Other indices of Melville’s personal relationship to the Library include a contemporary city directory listing Melville’s home address at “103 Av. 4,” about a half-hour’s walk away; and his large autograph signature in a circulation ledger, dated 1850.

Most exhibition materials reflect Melville as author. Among them are the first published excerpt of Moby-Dick in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine of fall 1851, and a facsimile of an early manuscript invoice showing Society Library purchases of Melville books.

The largest exhibit piece is a pin-board chart covered with index cards, which are connected with tightly-strung lengths of different colored yarn. The cards represent specific Society Library readers; the yarn, Melville’s first seven novels. The display renders visible for the viewer what is addressed by most modern introductions to Moby-Dick: upon publication, it was a commercial dud.

Melville’s earlier, less complex, more straightforward travel adventures—Typee, Omoo, White-Jacket—were in frequent circulation at the Society Library in the late 1840s–early 1850s. Moby-Dick was borrowed fewer than twenty times during the period represented by the chart. Melville’s next book, Pierre, was even less popular—and, as the exhibit points out, earned him the headline “Herman Melville Crazy” from a contemporary reviewer.

Perhaps the most amusing exhibit item shows a unique exchange between Society Library readers of Melville. In what amounts to a nineteenth-century version of internet comments (including insults and a silly pseudonym), at least three Library members left penciled notes at the end of a chapter of White-Jacket:

[annotator 1:] This is a bad chapter. / E. B. / July 5 1860
[annotator 2:] Why the devil don’t you put the real date in. (Signed) Adolphus Fitz Noodle
[annotator 3:] I should think you were a noodle indeed. G.J.V.

Also on display are several mid-nineteenth-century scenes—prints and photographs of the New York City harbor—artfully paired with quotations from Moby-Dick. A panoramic engraved view of the city from the East River accompanies Ishmael’s opening admission that seafaring adventures are his cure for frustrations with obnoxious city life, when “it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off . . . .”

The absent star of the exhibit, the barely-circulated first edition of Moby-Dick belonging to the Society Library, is unfortunately now lost, perhaps disappeared in its depths.

Herman Melville’s New York, 1850” is on display, free to the public, at the New York Society Library, in the Peluso Family Gallery, until November 7.

Charles Cuykendall Carter is the Assistant Curator of the Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle at the New York Public Library. He is also Associate Editor of the Shelley-Godwin Archive, and is on the board of The American Printing History Association.

Paris’s New Musée de l’Homme: Then, Now, Tomorrow

by guest contributor Anna Toledano

Autobiography is an art form that only few have mastered. The newly reopened permanent exhibition at the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Mankind) in Paris does a remarkable job of writing the book on our entire species. The museum tells the tale of what makes humanity unique through universal themes such as reproduction, death, and language using its rich collections, which featured in both the storied, racist Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro (1882–1936) and the first iteration of the Musée de l’Homme opened in 1938. The curators are sensitive to equity among different cultural groups and the breadth of the human experience, although the interpretation suffers from a tinge of human exceptionalism.

Phrenological busts repurposed to show the failings of such methodology (author photo)

Phrenological busts repurposed to show the failings of such methodology (author photo)

Alice L. Conklin deftly describes in her book In the Museum of Man: Race, Anthropology, and Empire in France, 1850–1950 (Cornell, 2013) the role that the historic museum played in the establishment of traditional French colonial, racist anthropology. See Alice L. Conklin’s and Christine Laurière’s essays in the museum catalog for a more in-depth look at the historical context for the reimagined permanent exhibition. While the social missteps of the former institution are carefully avoided today, the message of the modern museum is strongly tied to its historical legacy. (Consider the repurposing of busts that once spread the edicts of phrenology: today curators use them to show that such methodology is not science.) This legacy is characterized by the words of Paul Rivet, the glorified father of the museum, that “Humanity is one and indivisible, not only in terms of space, but also in terms of time.” The challenge to make culture timeless, but not frozen in time is one that all anthropological museums face. The museum in Paris tackles the additional challenge of showing that it is no longer frozen in time either.
Objects from the historical collections feature in displays (author photo)

Objects from the historical collections feature in displays (author photo)

The curators structure our collective biography in the Galerie de l’Homme into three parts: “Who are we?” “Where do we come from?” “Where are we going?” This chronological narrative leads visitors through displays featuring pieces from the historic collection, such as skeletons and ceremonial clothing, as well as model reconstructions of classic sites such as the footsteps at Laetoli. The strength of the exhibitry comes not from the well-done model of a half-eaten mammoth, but from the objects from the original collection. The historic medical moulages are a highlight, although the objects are placed in darkened kiosks (perhaps due to both preservation concerns and shock value). The real fossil skulls of our evolutionary ancestors excavated in the rich caves of France are breathtaking. The inclusion of animal specimens from the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle gives context to the place of humans within the history of evolution. This 2015 renovation is part of a larger set of relatively recent overhauls of permanent exhibitions at the MNHN; the Musée de l’Homme has been associated with the MNHN since the early twentieth century. A feature on domestication and our bond with dogs is heartwarming, but the principal focus on hunting only elevates our position relative to the other creatures on display.

A separate viewing experience for historic medical moulages (author photo)

A separate viewing experience for historic medical moulages (author photo)

Real skulls from our ancestors, such as Cro-Magnon man, excavated in France are a highlight (author photo)

Real skulls from our ancestors, such as Cro-Magnon man, excavated in France are a highlight (author photo)

The museum embodies its commitment to include all peoples not only within its narrative but also in the experience of the exhibition. A visually arresting wall of tongues, which visitors can pull to hear snippets of little-spoken languages from across the globe, caters to auditory learners. This section on linguistics is well-conceived in its emphasis on diversity as well as the intersectionality of multiple cultural identities, such as being an American and a Yiddish speaker. Videos for visual learners feature experts discussing how terminology matters, especially with regard to vestiges of colonialism. Through this lens, it is interesting that the majority of interpretation is only available in French. The main signage, as well as some audio testimony, is trilingual—French, English, and Spanish—but that is not the majority.

Visitors experience sounds of little-known languages from around the world by giving each tongue a yank (author photo)

Visitors experience sounds of little-known languages from around the world by giving each tongue a yank (author photo)

Touch screens with which visitors can call up a high-resolution photo as well as provenance information about any object in the richly filled cases are a victory for useful museum technology. The interactive label format is perfectly suited to the exhibitry. The options for English and Spanish are grayed out here, indicating the intention to add them, but for the moment they are noticeably lacking. The curators make a nod to accessibility by offering French Sign Language, but its purpose is unclear since all of the interpretation is communicated textually here.

The theme of intersectionality—critical to our modern understanding of culture—is happily at the forefront of the discussion upstairs of our future. Visitors play a globalization game on a touch table, matching photos of things like sushi to their place of origin (the California roll matches to the American West). Sensory learners can enjoy the scents of dishes of cuisines from the world over that all feature rice (but, in this visitor’s opinion, the synthetic smells weren’t all that appetizing).

A digital label, complete with a fantastic photo and a full description of the featured object (author photo)

A digital label, complete with a fantastic photo and a full description of the featured object (author photo)

Our interconnectedness comes to the fore at the end of the exhibit hall, where curators urge us to save our common planet in light of ever-pressing natural resource conservation and biodiversity crises. The success of our future is not one devoid of technology, though. We evolve alongside medical technologies such as antibiotics and artificial limbs, which the museum frames as a positive outcome. In a final interactive feature, visitors are invited to imagine the future of the human race in a photo booth; their videos are added to an ever-changing smart wall. The new participatory museum model, the future of audience-curated content in museum education, is structurally a perfect way to show our future.

In Chris Marker’s 1962 science fiction dystopian short film, La Jetée (The Jetty), the original Musée de l’Homme serves as the unchanging location to which Marker’s time traveler returns. The museum, filled with ageless specimens, is frozen and timeless. While the new Galerie de l’Homme honors this legacy, it stresses that time marches on and acknowledges that we are a living, breathing, changing species, much like the museum itself.

Anna Toledano is pursuing a PhD in history of science at Stanford University. A museum professional by training, her research focuses on natural history collecting in early modern Spain. Follow her on Twitter at @annatoledano.

Meet the Collected Past: “The Keeper” at the New Museum

by Erin Schreiner

Whose stories are told in museums?  And how are they told? “The Keeper,” an ongoing show at the New Museum that is a tonic to the eye and the soul, addresses these questions and raises even more with brilliance, economy, and creativity not only through the choice of materials on display, but also in their presentation. It is essential viewing for all of us in the business of keeping  – collecting and preserving stuff – and (hi)storytelling.

Devoting an exhibition to keepers provided the museum with a reason to show Ydessa Hendeles’ Partners (The Teddy Bear Project), a 2002 installation of over 3,000 photographs of people and their teddy bears. To those of you who are thinking, “Really? Teddy bears?” I confess that I didn’t have high expectations for this part of the show. I was excited about Hilma af Klint’s paintings, Ye Jinglu’s portraits, and Shinro Ohtake’s scrapbooks, the things that I thought would be the heavy hitters. These images, these objects, would make me think; so I thought. They did, but not as much as Partners.

In Partners, the teddy bear functions as an organizing principle: Helendes collected and preserved twentieth-century photographs of people and teddy bears, and because everybody loves to pose with a teddy bear, Partners presents astonishingly broad and intimate portrait of humanity. The photographs, which Hendeles collected on eBay, came from 25 countries, and show people of every age, race and ethnicity, creed, and class. There are, of course, tons of pictures of kids, but children do not dominate the collection. Elvis posed with teddy bears to promote his hit single “Teddy Bear”, and Ringo Starr talked to reporters clutching a teddy that someone gave him as he emerged from an airplane. There are teddy bears in band photographs (Tony’s Jazz Madcaps and the Stella Orchestre of Riga propped teddies on the bass drum before saying cheese), teddy bears in family greeting cards, teddies in snapshots exchanged between lovers or between parents and their grown children, teddies in class photos, teddy bears of all sizes on the beach and at parties, and there are even teddy bears in pornography. Adults often laugh or look silly with teddy bears, but they can also look painfully sincere.  Many portraits of children show tremendous pride, especially candid photos like one of a young black girl on a porch with all her entire toy collection laid out on a blanket. They also show great disappointment: one memorable shot shows two young south-Asian children in formal dress looking rather depressed and put-upon in front of the Christmas tree. There are real teddy bears on display, too, with stories and photographs of their original owners.  (The labels accompanying the real bears are the only text in the installation.) Sneezy, a tiny bear with a scrunched up face and a perky yellow vest belonged to Ted Able, an English Soldier in World War II. Able’s mother gave him the bear when he shipped off to serve. He survived, and Sneezy remained on his bedside table until the day he died in 1991, at 81 years old.


“Sneezy”, Ted Able’s teddy bear on display in “The Keeper”.

In her dissertation, Hendeles says that “the teddy bear was chosen for what it reveals about the complex partnership of culture and commerce.” (26) While one might pursue that thread to fascinating ends, I found that the teddy bear enriched these images because it emphasized the humanity of the people in the pictures. As Hendeles points out, the teddy bear is an object that comforts the many children and adults who own (and cuddle) their bears, (25) but the pictures show that human beings lived a tremendous range of emotions and experiences with their teddies. They inspire people to be silly, to play, to express their affection for loved ones, or to stand before a camera with confidence. As a result, the teddy bear shows us the vulnerability of the people that pose with it, and this is what makes this the collection so emotionally and intellectually stirring.

In 2012, the novelist Orhan Pamuk published “A Modest Manifesto for Museums” in The Innocence of Objects, a printed catalog for his Museum of Innocence, which he curated and opened in Istanbul as a museum of his novel of the same name. In his manifesto, he urges museums to prioritize the stories human lives over those of “society, community, team, nation, state, tribe, company, or species.”  Partners, conceived a full decade before Pamuk’s museum and manifesto, is an example of just how this can work.  Its success as a collection – and as a work of art – can be measured exactly as Pamuk suggests in point five:

The measure of a museum’s success should not be its ability to represent a state, a nation, or company, or a particular history. It should be its capacity to reveal the humanity of individuals.

Viewers looking into the faces of more than 3,000 people with their teddy bears are witnesses to the tenderest exposition of the humanity of individuals.  For viewers, witnessing this is an intense experience. One of the first vitrines of photographs in the installation contains images of Nazi men and women with teddy bears.  The stuffed animals in these pictures transform images of uniformed Nazis into gut-wrenching portraits of the human faces of fascism. (I’m still trying to figure out what these images can or should mean.) These are followed by more pictures of soldiers, like Ted Able, whose story is a bit more straight forward: a mother loves her son and sends him off to battle with conduit for that love.  In other ways, however, Able and Sneezy challenge the normative view of the soldier ready for combat. In the back of the second room of the installation, photographs of child survivors of the Holocaust appear together in long vitrines, and the accompanying labels document the story of each individual’s survival. In this case, photographs of these children with their teddy bears gives Hendeles a context in which to share and preserve their personal histories alongside their photographs.

Partners exhibits the photographs and teddy bears in a display system borrowed from national museums  and private galleries that Pamuk deemphasizes in his manifesto.  Pictures cover the walls from floor to ceiling. A mezzanine gallery provides access to a second viewing level, and dark wooden vitrines display the original bears, sometimes with related ephemera like photographs, letters, or (in one case) a teddy bear genealogy. This lends the photographs and objects an air of seriousness and grandeur, and it’s a clever way to engage viewers who might dismiss the images because of their playful, innocent subject matter. This antiquated mode of display also emphasizes the historic nature of the photographs, which appear to cover the twentieth century only up to the mid-sixties.  Most of the images date to the interwar period or the period of the second World War, which provides some critical distance between the viewer and the human subjects of these photographs. These images show us moments in the lives of people we will never know, but whose worlds we study and interpret as historians.


Partners (The Teddy Bear Project) by Ydessa Hendeles, installed at the New Museum.

The traditional style display seen in Partners – which, walls, vitrines, and all were brought in as a whole from Canada – is in stark contrast to the rest of the show, which features photographs, model buildings, scrapbooks, paintings, sketches, and other works of art shown in the white-box style settings that one would expect in the New Museum. And perhaps as a result, the impact of Partners far exceeds that of the other works on display. Nevertheless, the rest of the show presents an enormous range of materials, from Joseph Cornell-like assemblages to collections of rare stones that play with and challenge ideas about the purpose of collecting and the meanings that collections take on in their afterlives. And while I commend the New Museum for showing admirable restraint in providing succinct, well edited, wall text, I found that some of the labels lacked information about collectors, focusing instead on critical analyses of the images or objects on display.  For example, Tong Bingxue discovered the delightful series of photographs of Ye Jinglu, taken annually throughout his life. Tong Bingxue is a journalist and young collector of antique Chinese photographs, but I discovered this through a Google search rather than in the gallery. Given the show’s focus on collectors and collecting, the series would have been enriched by more information about Bingxue’s collecting and the discovery of this particular set of images.


There is a lot to see in “The Keeper.” Orhan Pamuk might say that there are a lot of people to meet. I believe that as people and as historians must meet them, and study their stories (and their teddy bears) in all of their silly, tender, tragic glory.  Oliver Sacks explains why better than I ever could:

In 1992, I went with [Gerald Edelman] to a conference on consciousness at Jesus College in Cambridge.  While Gerry’s books were often difficult to read, hearing him speak gave a feeling of revelation to many in the audience.
At the same meeting… Gerry said to me, “You’re no theoretician.”
“I know,” I said, “but I am a field-worker, and you need the sort of fieldwork I do for the sort of theory making you do.”
Gerry agreed.

(from On the Move, page 366)

Visit “The Keeper,” and see for yourself what’s been collected in the field.


The Keeper is open through September 25 at the New Museum, 235 Bowery, New York City.




Images of history

by John Raimo

As often as historians and art historians talk past one another, they also come together before common problems, questions, and sources. Both groups recognize the sheer power of images. Such a moment has reappeared in intellectual history. The recent one hundred and fiftieth celebrations of Aby Warburg’s birth underscored how widely Warburg’s terminology could stretch between art and cultural history. Historians such as Carlo Ginzburg and Patrick Boucheron take iconography as a starting point for deeper and deeper reconstructions of political and intellectual milieus. The work of art historians such as Georges Did-Huberman and Giovanni Careri follow similar patterns shuttling between contextual and formal considerations. Anthropologists too have not been far behind, finding in images the source for new methodologies across disciplines dealing with ideas both in and of history. And many museum curators do not shy away from presenting both ethical and historiographical challenges to the public in precisely this tenor, perhaps most spectacularly in the recent Conflict, Time, Photography exhibit at the Tate Modern.


Guerre 1939-1945. Occupation. Destruction de statues pour récupérer les métaux. La statue du marquis de Condorcet, homme politique français, par Jacques Perrin (1847-1915). Paris, 1941. JAH-REP-34-8

Four ongoing or recent exhibits in Paris also directly engage with the stakes that images—and specifically photography—hold for intellectual history today. Exhibitions dedicated to Seydou Keïta (1921-2001) at the Grand Palais, the photographers of France’s Front populaire (1936-1938) at the Hôtel de Ville, Lore Krüger (1914-2009) at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, and Josef Sudek (1896-1976) at the Jeu de Paume have this much in common: their images possess immediate documentary and historical charges, intervening histories challenge any recovery of the same, and the images themselves pose different meanings—political and otherwise—in our own time. How does one reconcile these knotty realities to one another, let alone relate them to questions of sheer aesthetic value, enduring or otherwise? Perhaps counter-intuitively, the question touches at once upon the artists themselves as much as upon each show’s respective curators. Together, they answer for the most part magnificently just how ideas and patterns of thinking flow into and out from photographs.


Seydou Keïta, Untitled (1956-1957)

Perhaps no exhibit succeeds so brilliantly as that dedicated to the Malinese photographer Keïta. Self-taught and a portraitist by trade in Bamako, Keïta carefully arranges various customers against complex cloth backdrops in plain-light settings. Several layers of history collide in what only first appear as beautiful, if straightforward portraits. Keïta’s private practice runs from 1948 to 1962, shortly after Mali achieves independence from the French colonial empire. His customers find themselves at a crossroads: both women and men dress in traditional clothing as often as in European or American fashions, often modeling themselves upon the figures of the latest films and popular magazines. A watch ostentatiously displayed, a certain hairstyle, new western clothing, or certain postures together subtly betray consciousness of new cultural models, economic statuses, and social change ranged against Keïta’s brilliantly-patterned backgrounds. Both the circumstances of the photography session and the material object—the photo itself, as the exhibit makes clear—are intended to circulate by word of mouth and hand to hand. Yet an alchemical change also occurs. Keïta’s subjects prove subjects in every sense of the term; their glances say as much, even as they slowly come to look out upon a new country.

At the same time, a personal iconography emerges across the œuvre. Keïta’s workshop feature props (pens, glasses, flowers, and so on) that appear regularly throughout the portraits. An iconographic vocabulary similarly developed in the photographer’s carefully-choreographed poses. An uneasy sort of modernity can be teased out in the tension between these hugely personable figures, their clothing and possessions, and those objects and gestures which both they and Keïta saw fit to add to the compositions.

The art proves doubly-reflexive, looking inwards to the person and to life in Bamako as much as outwards to a rapidly changing Africa and globalization. Keïta’s own touch emerges in the gap. He arranges women into odalisque reclinings, organizes groups of civil servants into full profile portraits, and captures others at their ease wearing traditional clothing. The hindsight of a retrospective allows us to see how closely Keïta simultaneously engages European art history, the stock imagery of popular culture, and a Malinese society in transition throughout his career. The complex of ideas here reveal the subject much as the same ideas flow from the same person, the photographer himself, and finally the image in its own right.

The Front populaire exhibition at the Hôtel de Ville attains a similar achievement, albeit on a different scale. The show follows upon a burst of renewed popular and academic interest in Léon Blum’s government and the period immediately preceding WWII. What emerges in the photos of such luminaries as Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Chim (David Seymour), Robert Doisneau, and Willy Ronis among other photojournalists is little less than a unified, if contested image of a society rapidly refiguring itself. Here technology proves the first hero. The portability of cameras, wide lens and higher resolution photography, and the ability to turn shots into next day’s paper gave birth to a new documentary language. Close-ups from within a crowd, odd angles, photos taken from rooftops hold their own with group portraits of politicians at ease in saloon lounges or mid-speech before thousands.

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Bastille Day demonstrations, Vincennes 1935 (©

The great range or even discrepancy of Capa and company’s interests and work suggest a whole society falling at once under the same photographic lens, even as history jostles against advertisements and film stars in the daily papers. The photos appear on equal terms. Even publicity in the sense of public relations proves nascent, if not off balance. Airs of improvisation and the same-old business surround political figures like Blum and his contemporaries. Striking workers and public amusements achieve a glamour just as photographers accord the homeless and unemployed a new dignity. And slowly certain dramatic poses and compositions take on a new regularity across the exhibit. The vocabulary hardens and situations reprise themselves. New understandings of personal and sexual relationships, masculinity and femininity, and modernity itself track across the years. (One gentle criticism should be added here: it would have done well to have included far more female photographers.) What happens, as Michel Winock and others argue, is that French society comes to understand itself in images just as photographers came to learn their full historical potential—‘History’ with a capital ‘H.’

The German photographer Lore Krüger’s work confronts many of the same issues, if more obliquely. Her career and biography stagger the mind. Krüger studies photography with Florence Henri and other Bauhaus-trained photographers while attending lectures with László Rádványi in 1930s Paris, all the while absorbing the lessons of interwar avant-garde photographers (and living in the same house as Arthur Koestler and Walter Benjamin). An exile from Nazi Germany, Krüger passes through Majorca—witnessing Franco’s troops massacre Republican forces in 1936—and mainland Spain at the height of its Civil War before making her way to New York, where she and her husband work for the exile community’s German-language press. Giving up photography after the war, Krüger eventually returns to a quiet life as a translator and author in Eastern Germany before dying in 2009.


Lore Krüger, “Jeune Gitan, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer” (1936; © Estate of Lore Krüger)

The exhibits’ curators posthumously assemble what remained of Krüger’s photography. In their composition, lighting, and psychological reach, her work achieves a uniform excellence across still lives, landscapes, portraits of friends, and above all in her studies of interwar gypsies. The balance between all her influences is remarkable, not least as Krüger too follows in the wake of glossy magazines and photojournalism. Yet a dichotomy of sorts also arises. For every ‘political’ image or photograph taken on the street, Krüger veers to high avant-garde experimentation elsewhere. These activities both overlap and command longer periods in her work, persisting until the end of Krüger’s artistic career. Something new emerges at the same time: what might be called the private lives of an avant-garde and an artist in wartime apart from any political engagement. The exhibit’s repeated argument that Krüger’s œuvre forms a consistent whole here seems to miss a much more interesting set of questions. How do we reconstruct private intellectual life, the persistence of international movements once contacts have been severed, and the experience of artistic experimentation continued under the hardest conditions?


Josef Sudek, “The Last Rose” (1956, Musée des Beaux-arts du Canada, Ottawa. 2010 © Estate of Josef Sudek)

All the same issues confront any attempt to wrangle the great, protean Czech photographer Josef Sudek into a coherent retrospective. The portraitist, the architecture and the landscape photographer, the artist of still lives, and the commercial man all jostle against one another over a career spanning the complicated histories of interwar and then communist-era Czechoslovakia. To reduce Sudek’s photography to any political (or apolitical) stance or simpler historical context would be a mistake on the same order of privileging one genre above the others. Yet the Jeu de Paume’s curators attempt something like this. Moving backwards from the interior studies, they claim a certain artistic unity which in turn drives the late Sudek into a sort of inner exile. An impression grows of intervening notions organizing a narrative: the late Romantic artist gradually finds himself confined to a window by the history beyond it, something like an uncritical reprise of Günter Gaus’s old notion of East Germany as a ‘niche society.’ This is not to say that the merits of Sudek’s work do not shine through the exhibit, or that the curators entirely mute his own thinking. The problem is rather that later ideas and contexts—historical or otherwise—drown out the images. As confidently as Keïta’s or as loudly as the Front populaire journalists’ pictures speak to audiences today, others such as Krüger’s and Sudek’s talk to historians, art historians, and all of us in much quieter tones.

Exhibitions reviewed: “Seydou Keïta,” Grand Palais (31 March to 11 July, 2016); “Exposition 1936 : le Front populaire en photographie,” Hôtel de Ville de Paris (19 May to 23 July, 2016); “Lore Krüger : une photographe en exil, 1934-1944,” Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme (30 March to 17 July, 2016); Josef Sudek : Le monde à ma fenêtre,” Jeu de Paume (7 June to 25 September, 2016).

Institutions and Fragments: “A Portrait of Antinous, In Two Parts” at the AIC

By guest contributor Luke A. Fidler

The postwar art museum has increasingly served as a site of artistic intervention, whether through sanctioned forms of institutional critique (Fred Wilson’s pointed rearrangements of the collections at the Maryland Historical Society and the Seattle Art Museum, for example) or unsanctioned action. Museums like the Kolumba (the former Cologne Diözesanmuseum) have taken note, juxtaposing their medieval and modern collections in an attempt to lend older art a frisson of novelty and to speak to the postmodern mal d’archive. In a similar vein, this small show at the Art Institute of Chicago (running through August 28, 2016) frames the museological archive as an archaeological site, ripe with potential finds.

The find in question is a fragment of a mid-second century marble portrait head of Antinous, Hadrian’s teenage companion whose untimely end in 130 CE sparked an unprecedented wave of memorialization (below). Controversially deified after his death, he was repeatedly rendered in a distinctively individuated style. The Art Institute’s fragment, comprising most of his face and his distinctive curls, typifies this wave of production. It entered the museum’s collection in 1922 after being removed from its original bust and remounted as a quasi-bas-relief. A fine example of imperial carving, it compares favorably to a slightly earlier bust of Antinous as Osiris presented here as comparison.

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Fragment of a portrait head of Antinous (mid-2nd century A.D. Roman. Gift of Mrs. Charles L. Hutchinson; Art Institute of Chicago)

About a decade ago, scholars noted the fragment’s similarity to a heavily-restored bust of Antinous in the collection of the Palazzo Altemps (below). The Altemps work features an eighteenth-century face stuck awkwardly to a second-century head, the join between old and new sculpture clearly articulated by a line running down the cheek, under the jaw, and across the tousled locks. A battery of tests, supplemented by the wizardry of 3-D printing and laser-scanning, determined that the Art Institute’s fragment had, indeed, been lopped off the Altemps bust at some past point. The museum is not wrong to claim this as a significant discovery. In a rare turn, we can examine the particularities of a story too often told in generalities, for the long life of a Roman sculptural object, ravaged by time, taste, and restoration, gets some real specificity. Although it’s unclear exactly when the bust and fragment parted company, their rich modern biographies are telling.

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Monica Cola, Roberto Bonavenia, Francesco Borgogni, Franco Trasatti, Studio M.C.M. srl., Rome. Bust of Antinous, 2015–16. © The Art Institute of Chicago

They show us, for example, how early modern collectors broke apart ancient objects and recontextualized them according to their tastes. They show us how one statue could multiply into two, how a bust could beget a bas-relief which could turn into a more explicitly orphaned fragment. How an English (probably) sculptor could sculpt a facsimile of Antinous’ visage in the eighteenth century (probably) for a faceless bust thanks, no doubt, to the obsessive antiquarian collection of Roman medals and statues. The stories of the sculptures’ early modern afterlife—not to mention their susceptibility to contemporary analysis—are bound up with Hadrian’s relentless imaging of his dead companion in a recognizable, replicable form.

The curators have smartly used the show to reflect on the conditions that enabled the objects’ reunification. (Unfortunately, however, they eschew any critical reflection on those conditions’ limits or negative consequences. To my mind, this is a missed opportunity to engage thorny questions of method, collecting, institutional practice, and display, to name but a few issues occluded by the show’s occasionally triumphalist tone.) The captions, wall text, and object selection frame the fragments in a story of connoisseurial sleuthing and trans-Atlantic technological gumption. A large portion of the exhibition space is given over to a long video replete with interviews. Differently-scaled models and prints of the Art Institute fragment and the Altemps bust surround the objects. One model, marked by the glossy sheen of contemporary facture, recombines them in a spectral approximation of how Antinous would have appeared before its dismemberment. A selection of ancillary objects—including a portrait of Charles L. Hutchison, the Art Institute’s first president who also purchased the fragment—attempt to place the fragment with respect to the taste of fin-de-siècle American collectors, while other ancient and early modern comparanda help contextualize other key moments when the objects were altered.

And so, this show is as much about the way museums tell complex, object-centered stories to the general public as it is about the genuine historical insights afforded by the busts and their models. If material objects are uniquely positioned to make the past legible, how should museums best interpret the ways those objects register the vicissitudes of taste? The fragment and bust are exciting testimony to interdisciplinary, inter-institutional collaboration. But they are also testimony to the means by which museums and collectors have historically proved hostile to the integrity of art objects, severing illuminations from medieval codices and chiseling the faces of Roman busts. If Hadrian desired overly much to keep Antinous whole through art, perhaps it’s worth querying our own desire for unification too

Luke A. Fidler is a PhD student in the Department of Art History at the University of Chicago.

Dressing Up in Late Antique Egypt: A Review of ISAW’s ‘Designing Identity’

by contributing editor Jake Purcell

One of the joys of being in New York is the relative plethora of late-antique objects scattered throughout the city. The Met does not exactly have a late antique room, but, in a corridor gallery alongside a staircase, you can make your way around the Mediterranean from a Roman case to a Byzantine case and across many cases of various Germanic groups (Visigothic, Frankish, or Avar, to name a few). The pieces of Germanic metalwork collected by J.P. Morgan that did not make their way to the Met share a room with cuneiform tablets and seals at the Morgan Library, also home to some famous late antique manuscripts. Recently, the Cloisters hosted a number of late Roman and Germanic rings that were part of the Griffin Collection, some of which are still on display. The numerous university libraries serve as another source of material: in a couple of weeks, my students will visit a handful of late antique papyri in Columbia’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Library.

To these treasuries, we can now add the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World—at least, until May 22. The exhibition Designing Identity: The Power of Textiles in Late Antiquity includes more than fifty textile objects (and a handful of non-textile items), almost all of which were probably associated with Egypt between about the third and seventh centuries CE. Curator Thelma K. Thomas assembled a diverse collection of stunning items on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Dumbarton Oaks, the Brooklyn Museum, the University of Michigan’s Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Met, among other institutions. The result is a delightful and refreshingly current exhibition that teaches its viewer what to make of an unfamiliar and occasionally opaque corpus of material.

Designing Identity conceives of identity principally as a set of choices about personal and household adornment that yield a display. The various objects demonstrate how a wealthy, mostly eastern Roman elite could thus express “ideals of self, household, and society through materials, techniques, and the types and decorations of garments and furnishings.” The first gallery shows how this might work through a case study of different uses of specifically Dionysian motifs in different household items. A second room demonstrates a large chunk of the range of possibilities for expression, often within categories like Christian or pagan, abstract or figurative, starkly minimalist or boldly colored.

'Designing Identity' has a lot of delightful twists. Take this hanging (fifth century, possibly from Egypt, now belonging to the MFA) with a servant dressed in a tunic who is pulling back a curtain in a stone arcade. How often do premodernists get to see cloth depicted in cloth, let alone alongside stone and flesh and in such vivid polychromy? Elsewhere in the same gallery, there are three complete tunics: one for an adult, one for a child, and one for a doll.

‘Designing Identity’ has a lot of delightful twists. Take this hanging (fifth century, possibly from Egypt, now belonging to the MFA) with a servant dressed in a tunic who is pulling back a curtain in a stone arcade. How often do premodernists get to see cloth depicted in cloth, let alone alongside stone and flesh and in such vivid polychromy? Elsewhere in the same gallery, there are three complete tunics: one for an adult, one for a child, and one for a doll.

Textiles emerge as an extremely effective source for talking about elite identity. They were widely traded, and so a wide range of choices were likely to have been available to eastern Roman elites. Textiles were also valued highly—by weight, silk cost more than ivory or silver. Finally, it’s so easy, given their relative rarity now, to forget how ubiquitous textiles were in the late-antique world. The category “textile” includes clothes, other kinds of personal adornment, wall hangings, and furniture coverings, to name a few of the types of object on display. Textiles also reflect a version of identity that is firmly grounded in materiality. The exhibition explains how linen and dyed wool were paired to create dramatic contrasts of dark and light, how thicker threads of linen were used to weight down the bottom of tunics so they would drape properly, and how threads of different thicknesses could be fused to generate sculptural effects. Identity here is not abstract philosophizing, but the product of resources, labor, and expertise.

The exhibition asks a lot of the visitor. The panels themselves do some serious heavy lifting: whether it be narrating late antiquity as something other than the fall of Rome, explaining the techniques used to produce textiles, providing an overview of the different associations that Dionysus could have, and teasing out the complicated geometry and cosmology behind some of the more abstract patterns. It is often left to the viewer to combine all of this information to determine how any individual object might display identity. Smaller acts of historical imagination are explicitly encouraged along the way, however—perhaps as a way of encouraging the viewer to practice. For example, the exhibition often describes how a textile might be draped over a piece of furniture in situ, and asks the viewer to imagine a room coated in hangings and also awash in portable objects of silver and ivory.

Identity in the late antique world is a big, hairy topic of scholarly research. In fairly basic strokes, there are the persistent questions of antiquity about what it meant to be Roman, made even more obscure in late antiquity by the fracturing of the empire into western and eastern portions. What were the elements of Romanitas and Hellenism? Turning to the Germanic groups, to what extent is it helpful to think of the distinctions among them as ethnic distinctions? Scholars have done a lot of work to break down the idea of a culture package in which language, material culture, and personal characteristics must all go together, but how do these elements relate to one another, and what constrains the range of possible expressions that an individual can make with, say, a tunic?

Designing Identity does not set out to raise all of these questions, most of which emerge concretely only when zooming out beyond Egypt to the late antique world more broadly. (The move need not have been quite so big—late antique textiles, and Egyptian textiles in particular, traveled widely; and could be used, for example, to wrap relics in Merovingian Gaul.) The exhibition does, however, provide a set of tools for thinking in specific ways about how identity functioned in the context of late antique Egypt: identity emerged out of a set of choices intended to convey social standing, function, and belief to a viewer through objects.

Thinking with the Hand: Andrea del Sarto and the Practice of Drawing

by guest contributor Cynthia Houng

So the point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have a factual record of what I have been doing or thinking. That would be a different impulse entirely, an instinct for reality which I sometimes envy but do not possess.
-Joan Didion, On Keeping a Notebook.

Drawing, much like keeping a notebook, is a way of thinking with the hand. Some drawings are quick dashes, glimmers caught in passing, or, as Didion put it, bits of the minds string too short to use.Others are more fully realized, pensées given weight and heft. Bodies emerge, out of tangled lines, becoming flesh. Figures acquire definite relationships to each other, and to space.

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Study of Figures Behind a Balustrade (recto), about 1522, Andrea del Sarto, red chalk. The J. Paul Getty Museum

Andrea Del Sartos Study of Figures Behind a Balustradeis a record of this process of thinking with the hand. The drawing is a mixture of clarity and hesitation, speed and deferralwhere Andrea could see clearly, he moved decisively, drawing firmly and cleanly. Certain passages of drapery, especially on the left-hand figure, were drawn in with a single stroke. Touch chalk to paper, and then move on. Other portions of the drawing clearly gave him trouble, for he returned again and again, layering line upon line. He labored over the right-hand figure, positioning the head in one way, and then another. Andrea, unconvinced by the first composition, sketched in an alternate position. We see how Andrea first sketched the figures as nudes, and then clothed them with draperies. Through the lines and hatch marks meant to indicate their vestmentsswags and draperies, the artists first thoughtson how to render the body as a thing made of flesh and bloodremain poignantly visible. The page still feels something like an open box, offering up the traces of its own making, traces that would be erased, or masked, in the transition from thought to finished work.

The Andrea del Sarto drawings currently on view at the Frick Gallery for “Andrea del Sarto: The Renaissance Workshop in Action” span the range of drawings possibilities, from thoughts caught on the wing to full compositions. They feel revelatory, in their intimacy and their incompleteness. Their lack of finish conveys a vulnerability that is absentor impossiblein a finished painting.

Birth of the Baptist. Chiostro dello Scalzo, Florence

Birth of the Baptist. Chiostro dello Scalzo, Florence

Andrea’s grisaille fresco of The Birth of Saint John the Baptist (Florence, Chiostro dello Scalzo) depicts the moment when Elizabeth turns, in surprise, to look at her husband, Zacharias. Struck dumb at the beginning of Elizabeth’s pregnancy for his lack of faith—for when the Angel Gabriel visited Elizabeth and Zacharias with the news that she would bear a son, named John, Zacharias expressed his skepticism and fell mute–Zacharias regained his powers of speech at John’s birth. In the painting, Andrea gives us the moment when Zacharias writes “His name is John” on a tablet, and Elizabeth, startled by her husband’s voice, looks away from her newborn child and focuses her gaze on Zacharias instead. The painting is confident, precise, the composition is balanced and calm. Every gesture, every movement, is a given. It could be no other way.

The compositional drawing for this fresco, however, is full of second thoughts and revisions. The Andrea plays with different postures for each of the attendents. He reconsiders John’s posture. Elizabeth’s face is a blur of pentimenti. The decisive moment—Elizabeth turning to look at Zacharias, writing on the tablet—appears to have been a last-minute intervention. The drawing is a flurry of thought.

The Birth of Saint John the Baptist (Florence, Chiostro della scala)

The Birth of Saint John the Baptist (Florence, Chiostro della scala). © The Trustees of the British Museum

Modern viewers find that openness and vulnerability immensely seductive. The intimacy of drawing resonates with our own notions of creativity and process. We treasure the psychological implications of this intimacy, the way that it brings us closer to the artists psyche. We love the draft more than the finished composition, for the draft reveals what the finished object hidesthe pain and the pleasure inherent in the process of creation. It is a particular kind of romanticization, and one that suits our rapid-fire world, where the sense of living in flux mirrors more the manic motion of process than the impenetrable gloss and stillness of a highly-finished work.

In the Renaissance workshop, drawings were more than aesthetic objects. They were capital. Andrea saved and re-used his drawings, a practice in-line with the medieval tradition of keeping model-books or sketchbooks in the workshop. Both master and assistant relied upon existing sketches, models, and compositions throughout the process of making a new work, for these extant pensées saved labor. Instead of composing a whole new image, the artist could use an existing composition as a foundation, and through the process of lifting and reworking that image, transform it into something quite new.

This drawing was used in the composition process for the Bogherini Holy Family, which is currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of ArtHead of an Infant in Profile to the Right, about 1527, Andrea del Sarto, red chalk. Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe, Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence. Su concessione del Ministero dei beni e delle attività culturali e del turismo

This drawing was used in the composition process for the Bogherini Holy Family, which is currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Head of an Infant in Profile to the Right, about 1527, Andrea del Sarto, red chalk. Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe, Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence. Su concessione del Ministero dei beni e delle attività culturali e del turismo

In the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, Julian Brooks (curator of drawings at the J. Paul Getty Museum, and one of the organizers of this show) noted that the head featured [in this drawing] appears in no fewer than three compositions, as the infant Baptist in The Holy Family with Saint John the Baptist (St. Petersburg, Hermitage), and the Bogherini Holy Family (New York, Metropolitan Museum), and also as one of the three children in Charity (Washington D.C., National Gallery)” (40, 137). Drawings lingered around the workshop. They were used and re-used, as the basis for new compositions, as teaching aids, as cartoons (to be pricked and transferred onto a panel or canvas), as models and inspirations. They were valued both as traces of a particular hand, and as an essential part of the workshops daily practice.

The installation at the Frick takes us through all of these facets of Andrea del Sartos drawing practice. The lower galleries showcase the drawings. Moving from sheet to sheet, the viewer comes to know the Andreas hand. He favored black and, above all, red chalk, and in his hands, chalk could be made to yield tones and textures that were soft and fluid as smoke, or quick, crisp, and bright. The upper gallery highlights the relationship between the drawings and Andreas finished paintings.

One of the loveliest drawings in the show, a study of a young womans head, reveals Andreas mastery of this medium. The drawing is at once fragile and substantive. We feel the heft and weight of her existence in his modeling of her flesh, in the materiality of her headband. Andrea defined her cheek and neck with curving contour lines, so soft that we imagine the sensation of flesh yielding to the touch.   

Study of the Head of a Young Woman, about 1523, Andrea del Sarto, red chalk. Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe, Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence. Su concessione del Ministero dei beni e delle attività culturali e del turismo

Study of the Head of a Young Woman, about 1523, Andrea del Sarto, red chalk. Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe, Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence. Su concessione del Ministero dei beni e delle attività culturali e del turismo

Drawings never reproduce well, and chalk drawings reward viewers in specific ways. When we stand in front of these drawings, we can see how the grains of pigment cling to the papers rough tooth. In this drawing, we can see the lightness of Andreas touch, when he applied chalk to paper to give dimension and form to the young womans forehead, and observe how he softened his lines when he defined her eyes, smudging the lines so that they seemed to pool into smoky shadows. The drawing is a life study for the figure of Mary Magdalene in the Luco Pietà (Florence, Palazzo Pitti). Andrea painted this altarpiece in the plague year of 1523. It is a working drawing, part of the artists process of thinking through different problems of representation and composition, and it is more than that. Though drawn from life, she transcends it. Standing before her, almost five hundred years laterthe past wings open, and we are once again in the middle of that plague year, somewhere in the countryside north of Florence, caught in the nexus of eye and hand and experience. The tenderness and fragility of the young womans face, framed by fallen wisps of hair, are counterbalanced by the soft solidity of her physical form. She is marmoreal, sculpted, and yet soft and breathing and full of life. The drawing is full of the grief of survival in a terrible time. I am here, and yet.

Andrea del Sarto: The Renaissance Workshop in Action” is on view at the Frick Collection until January 10, 2016.

Cynthia Houng is a doctoral candidate in the History department at Princeton University. Her scholarly interests lie at the intersection of art history and economic history. Her dissertation examines relationships between connoisseurship, epistemology, and art and luxury markets in early modern Europe. She is interested in tracing the ways that shifting approaches to epistemology, aesthetics and economics—together with changing economic institutions and practices—shaped and reshaped regimes of value.

Reflections on “Treasured Possessions” and Material Culture

by Madeline McMahon

Treasured Possessions from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment,” an exhibit at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, folds the viewer into the fabric of life in early modern Europe. Street venders hawked their fare and pharmacists displayed their wares, and men paraded around in the latest fashion while women stepped into slippers to protect their elaborately embroidered heels from the mud and dung of the city. In the relative quiet of the house, people cooked, ate, drank, sewed, prayed, and saved money, all aided by or in the setting of their material belongings, which, of course, they also spent time arranging. Much in the same way an early modern household would display its finest objects for view, the exhibit shows off some of the Fitzwilliam’s fantastic collection of decorative arts.

The exhibit is also an instance of historians in the museum: it was co-curated by three historians from Cambridge’s faculty—Melissa Calaresu, Mary Laven, and Ulinka Rublack— and the keeper of applied arts at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Victoria Avery. Thanks to this collaboration, “Treasured Possessions” responds to recent historiographical developments in the study of cultural history and reflects their own research interests. Objects, not just archives, can teach us about the past—about production, acquisition, possession, and use. This exhibit is an homage to the rise of the study of material culture and it makes a strong case for that study’s importance by putting material evidence before the public. The cases and commentary do not merely display objects but also create a historical narrative around them—setting them into their local and larger contexts, while focusing on no one country or region in particular. The rooms depict the consumer revolution as Neil McKendrick and others have envisioned it since the 1980s, but with important addenda, noting, for example, that “alongside the production of worldly goods…[there was] a simultaneous surge in the production and consumption of items of religious significance” (case 18).

In fact, the case of “Spiritual Belongings” (18) especially captured my imagination (in part thanks to my own interest in early modern religious history). The case is in the final section of the exhibition, “At Home and On Display.” The exhibit as a whole gradually takes the viewer from the marketplace (a 17th-century print of Roman venders and their cries adorns the right-hand wall at the entrance) into the home, but to show devotional objects used in private versus those used in public—that is, in a church—is a helpful intervention. We would expect a cross or crucifix in many early modern churches, but to see the scene of the crucifixion on a bright green lead-glazed stove tile from late sixteenth-century Germany is almost startling. The tile is telling—Christ made his way into the early modern kitchen—but also obscure: we can’t be sure whether that stove fed and heated a Protestant or a Catholic family (Treasured Possessions, 241). Yet many of these objects were nonetheless crucial to confessional identity, as Laven observes in the catalogue (244). An 18th-century Dutch wall panel bearing an inscription from Paul’s letter to the Phillipians was likely Protestant, while a tin-glazed earthenware statuette of the Virgin and Child would have been a treasured possession in a Catholic home. Perhaps more than other items, religious objects reveal the limitations as well as the possibilites of the study of material culture: ultimately we cannot recreate precisely what they meant to early modern owners, even if aided by signs of use and the help of accompanying text or images.

Text and images, after all, are objects, too. Early moderns recorded their own use of objects—as in Matthäus Schwarz’s “book of fashion,” a manuscript in which he recorded his outfits for forty years—and they were eager to capture the material culture of the world around them, as the prints of venders and costume books attest. They were even interested in the material culture of the past, as we are in theirs. They also used and displayed books in much the same way they showed off their other stuff. A pendant in the shape of a book, with biblical scenes as pages, and a book of hours would have worked in much the same way, and both were deluxe goods that signalled material well being as well as spiritual.

The mere survival of early modern objects can speak volumes. Many treasured possessions were ephemeral—such as tulips and camellias, and food and drink (although some trendy foods were represented in surviving objects, such as the this pineapple-shaped teapot, the container for an even trendier drink). Textiles and leather easily disintegrated: the only full suit of clothes in the exhibition is a reconstruction, and we are fortunate to have this worn pair of sixteenth-century leather shoes. But the objects that lasted despite their delicate nature, such as the many items from the Fitzwilliam’s impressive porcelain and maiolica collection, were clearly conserved thanks to the people who treasured them in the early modern period and after. The collection and display of objects are in so many ways distinctively early modern, and the exhibit captures and plays on that, like a modern Wunderkammer of ordinary and luxury goods.

“Treasured Possession from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment” is open at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, UK until September 6, 2015.