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.

Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 3.34.43 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2015-11-22 at 9.57.36 PM

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.



Escaping art history’s little boxes

It’s the difference between a crisp line drawing and modeled, shaded painting with plenty of blurred lines.  Not as easy to describe in short sentences, but oh so rewarding.  That’s how I feel about the shift in art history from a discipline of strict categories and linear progress to one that celebrates the porousness of cultural borders, the effervescnt curiosity that animates art, and the squiggly lines, radical turns and even dead ends that mark artistic journeys.  Just look at some current shows — Made in the Americas at the MFA, Boston, and before it Interwoven Globe and Lost Kingdoms at the Met, and a show I just saw at the Dallas Museum of Art, Inca: the Conquests of the Andes, which could be a prequel to the story told at the MFA.

Why am I so excited?  Here’s my simplistic recap of history.  Scholars and curators have, yes, long pointed out how artists have borrowed motifs from imported good or styles from earlier works.  But this has usually been done within art history’s tidy little boxes, each representing a distinct, well-defined movement or style.  There are good reasons why the discipline developed this way.  We’re hard-wired to think and analyze by sorting data into categories — we name forests so we don’t get bogged down by all those trees.   So it makes perfect sense that as  men and women of the Enlightenment set out to understand the world around them, they made lists and created groupings.  With the concept of nation-states came additional impetus to place art in well-defined and separate categories.  If people could claim a distinct culture, they constituted a “nation.”  They could draw borders around their land and  claim the right to govern themselves.   Throw in the additional notion of  progress, and all those little boxes line up into straight, forward pointing vectors.

So what about objects that don’t fit into a box or stray from the path of progress?  Easier to push them to the margins, label them anomalous, or ignore them altogether.  The alternative was to attack the very  sanctity of those boxes — which is exactly what is happening now.  IMG_0741

Look at this desk-cum-bookcase: as I point out in my WSJ review, its exterior has Mudéjar flair (Mudéjar already being a swirling mix of Moorish and Spanish, whatever that really means); its interior adopts the colors of Chinese lacquer imports, using a technique borrowed from the Inca; and the scenes depicted are South American complete with palm trees, enslaved Africans and haciendas.

The form itself, of course, comes straight from Europe.  And, yes, I am well aware that to describe this I am invoking all those categories this piece of furniture defies — which just goes to prove what useful tools these abstractions are.  But that is what they are: abstractions, not mirrors of reality.   What is exciting about the shift in art history is that what used to be marginalia are now celebrated as  the physical traces of  exciting, multi-layered, ever-shifting cultures.  Inca art itself, as the Dallas Museum show illustrates, has elements of other Andean peoples.  Take this tunic (which I love to imagine swaying with every step the wearer takes): made sometime between 1400 and 1540, it shows highland styles seeping into coastal areas (or so the label says — not my area of expertise.)  The take-away here is the same: cultural borders have always been porous because artists have always been curious, inventive, and experimental.  Want even more evidence? Check out Ferozkoh: Renewing the Arts of Turquoise Mountain.

Tunic, 1400-1540 Peru (Dallas Museum of Art 1989.W.2433, should you want to look it up)

Dallas Museum of Art 1989.W.2433, should you want to look it up

Beauty and meaning in a Roman villa’s paintings

triclinium 2nd styleNobody knows who the villa belonged to except that they were wealthy, Roman, and keen to dazzle guests with their lavish residence on the flanks of Mount Vesuvius.  Not far from Pompeii in the town of Torre Annunziata, the 1st century villa was consumed by lava in the eruption of 79, an eruption so violent that it altered the coastline, creating a landfill so that homes like this one that once had sea views now were further inland.

detail of mural
This particularly lavish country home is variously known as Villa Poppea and  Villa Oplontis.  By any name, it offers a treasure trove of Roman painting styles and an ingenious decorative scheme designed to keep everyone in their rightful place during extended visits.

That last part, at least, is what the University of Texas team, headed by John Clark and Michael Thomas, believes may be the reason behind a most unusual zebra-stripe motif.  It covers the walls in the courtyard reserved for slaves–


Courtyard in the villa’s slave quarters

hallway with stripesand the same stripe motif reappears in some of the hallways throughout the villa.  Clark’s and Thomas’s thesis is that it let the slaves of guests — as well as the guests themselves — know which areas were reserved for guests and which were to be used by their slaves.  Very clever.

John Clark (left) and Michael Thomas (right) in a storeroom-office in Villa Oplontis.

John Clark (left) and Michael Thomas (right) in a storeroom-office in Villa Oplontis.

For more information about the work the University of Texas team, check out The Oplontis Project.

And for more on Roman painting styles, there is a fabulous free on-line Yale class which you can also take through Coursera.  My husband and I took it before traveling to Pompeii last year, and it proved invaluable — the class was the reason we made a point of going to Villa Oplontis where we had the unexpected good fortune of running into John Clark and Michael Thomas hard at work.