Imperiled beauty in Myanmar

On the heels of the devastating earthquake in Italy’s Amatrice and surrounding area, another shook parts of Myanmar, damaging temples in Mrauk U, Bagan and other areas.   Here is a taste of what is imperiled, from photos I took on a trip in 2012 in Mrauk U

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and in Bagan.


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Demons of distraction

It’s a sunny afternoon in Brooklyn with a lovely, cool breeze.  The windows are open, the laptop fired up, books and notes spread around me, and I’m all set to write… but, outside, cars, trucks and fire engines keep blasting their horns and instead of coherent thoughts taking shape, this image fills my mind.  And it does so make me smile. the detail shows the Buddha sitting in full lotus, one hand reaching down to the earth while two demons, one on either side of him, blow trumpets right into his ears. It is a detail from a painting I saw recently at the Rubin Museum of Art: made around 1850, it is so far my favorite depiction of the famous episode in the Buddha’s  life when he is meditating and reaching enlightenment despite demons trying to distract him.

It is on view as part of “Nepalese Seasons: Rain and Ritual” — for those who can’t get to the show, there is an image at  Himalayan Art Resources (No. 89010) and my review in the WSJ.

Drawing to See

When the Philadelphia Museum of Art made sketchbooks available to visitors going through ‘Ink and Gold: Art of the Kano’ last year, the exercise proved very popular.  Visitors paused before floral compositions on gilded screens and paintings of Mt. Fuji, drawing what they saw.  Some tore out the sheets and pocketed them; others left their sketches in the notebooks for the next person to leaf through.  Whether by accomplished draftsmen and beginners, the  sketches were traces of time spent looking and translating to the hand how the brain processed images registered in the eye.

IMG_1552Through the end of this week, the National Gallery of Art in DC is offering a variation on this theme.  Building off the popularity of its Drawing Salon, it is giving out sketchpads, pencils and pointers in the information room off the Rotunda in the West Wing. The NGA came up with its Sketching is Seeing program to  celebrate the museum’s 75th anniversary.  By many accounts, the program has been successful, particularly in its first ten days or so.  I have no training or talent in drawing, but even I see better when I reproduce the ‘gist’ of what is before me, whether it is the lines of a figure’s pose, the orchestrated chaos of a crowd scene, or a detail that catches my eye — an upturned nose, the outline of a spire, the curling tendril in a still life.


A wonderful reunion at the Met

Such a treat to spend a few hours at the Met in the company of An Ho going through its Masterpieces of Chinese Painting show.  In the tradition of scholar artists, her teacher, Pu Ru, steeped her in calligraphy, philosophy and literature, laying the foundations for her work as a painter.   At 87, An Ho’s eye is as keen as ever and her enthusiasm was undiminished as she encountered one painting after another, admiring the calligraphy in the colophons as much as the brushstrokes in the imagery.

An Ho at Met- Zhao Menglian Narcissus

An Ho looking at Zhao Mongolian’s “Narcissus” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

I tried to capture some of this in my WSJ review but, really, words sitting on a page can’t convey the way her spirit trotted from one old friend to the next or the expression in her eyes when she made a new acquaintance.


Wonderful show at Grey Gallery

The work of two artists in particular stopped me in my tracks at “Global/Local 1960–2015: Six Artists from Iran.”  The works are among the most recent in the show and, while they could not be more different, they are equally haunting.   Without burdening them with words, here are some snapshots to entice you to go see more (the show is up through April 2).

Two views of an installation by Chohreh Feyzdjou





and two views of Shahpour Pouyan‘s “Projectile 11,” one of a series of which three are on view.
























Lines that caught my eye

Some stand-outs in recent WSJ reviews —  emphasis in bold added:

The last line — the kicker — in  Richard B. Woodward’s review of “Photo-Poetics: An Anthology” at the Guggenheim Museum:

It’s no use complaining that in the wake of the “Pictures Generation” artists, many have lost faith in a more direct engagement between photography and the world.(…) One of the pitfalls of Conceptualism, however, is brainy academicism, and a certain airlessness pervades the three floors of the Guggenheim where the show will be until March 23.  It’s not that these artists aren’t clever and accomplished; it’s that the stakes they’re playing for seem awfully small.


An exploration of the subjectivity of maps from Richard Hollis’s review of “Artist and Empire” at the Tate in London:

The maps (…) can also be interpreted as an expression of permanence; that this empire was here to stay.  How fleeting that proved to be in the case of Popple’s map. Yet how potent those pink splashes on the globe became as scenes and sagas of triumph and tragedy were played out—and how adroitly hopeless heroism was spun into triumph.


And, from Judith H. Dobrzynski’s review of “Picturing the Americas: Landscape Painting from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic” at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, a reminder of how eloquent absences are:

What’s missing from other pictures is equally telling. Paintings depicting the march of settlers into land occupied by natives, north and south, often left out the indigenous people entirely (…) There’s also no conflict in Pedro Gualdi’s “Grand Plaza of Mexico City, Following the American Occupation of September 1847” (1847), even though it shows the city’s square after Mexico’s defeat in the Mexican-American War. Rather, an American flag flies high above the national palace and business carries on below. That’s colonialism: no need for guilt.

Why do we keep talking about ‘Islamic art?’

First of all the term “Islamic Art” is disingenuous and intellectually dishonest, as it suggests the art is religious in nature. The truth is the art was merely produced by a wide variety of cultures in predominantly Islamic regions. The term “Islamic Art” makes as much sense as “Catholic Art” as a blanket term for Renaissance works. How it continues to be an official term in the West despite its patently misleading nature is beyond me.

This was a reader’s comment on my WSJ review of “Spirit and Matter: Masterpieces from the Keir Collection of Islamic Art,” and I cannot tell you how many times I have had these very same thoughts myself.  Nor am I alone.  There probably isn’t a student or writer or scholar who deals with art from Islamic societies that does not struggle over the use of this term.

So why does it survive?  My take on this is that, for all its inadequacies, the term offers a helpful shorthand.  “Islamic architecture” conjures images of domes, intricate geometric patterns, pointed arches, arabesques in tile…  “Islamic ceramics” triggers images of lusterware, bowls with beautiful calligraphy running along their borders, colorful tilework with arabesques and interlocking shapes…   If someone talks about “a 17th-century  Islamic battle scene” you’re not going to think it looks  like this Italian drawing by Francesco Allegrini…Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 3.41.05 PM

… or this Japanese screen.

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You’re going to immediately imagine something along the lines of this 17th-century Indian Mughal miniature…Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 4.25.56 PM

or this 16th century Persian miniature from the Princeton Peck Shahnama (whose 48 paintings, by the way, are currently on view in a lovely show).


Persian, Iran, Shiraz, Giv Charges into Battle against Piran, folio 185a from the Peck Shahnama, 1589–90. Image courtesy of Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.  Currently on view in “Princeton’s Great Persian book of Kings at the Princeton University Art Museum.

So is  “Islamic art” an all-comprehensive term?  No.  Is it sometimes misleading?  Absolutely.  Does it at least point us in the right direction?  Well, yes.  For good or ill, “Islamic art” has come to denote an aesthetic, an approach, a redilection for certain kinds of forms, and a repertoire of techniques that are recognizable even if not actually definable.  But — and this is a crucial but — “Islamic art” only means something if we’re on the outside looking in.  Its very vagueness implies  distance in the same  way that, say, “Indian art” is only meaningful from the perspective of someone standing in Europe or the US.  Go stand in Gujarat or Tamil Nadu, and a marble statue of Mahavir bears no resemblance to a Pala bronze of Shiva.  Yet, from afar, we recognize both as  “Indian.”

A conversation with artists in Kabul drove this point home not too long ago.  I was researching a piece for Aramco World magazine and, at one point, asked several artists at the Turquoise Mountain Institute  whether they were making “Islamic art.”  They answered no, their work was not religious.  And in terms of style, calling it “Islamic” seemed to make no sense to them at all.  Their work, they said, was Afghan.  But for many  in Europe and the Americas “Afghan art” doesn’t conjure an image.  Referring to “Islamic art” does.

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Chiseling between his guidelines, a wood-carving student at the Turquoise Mountain Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture in Kabul carves out an eight-point floral arabesque. All draw upon Afghanistan’s rich and colorful artistic heritage. Photo published in Aramco World courtesy of the Turquoise Mountain Institute.