Power Made Pretty
21 March 2019 ~ The Wall Street Journal
Seeing a portrait as claiming—and proclaiming—a ruler’s legitimacy or attributing political motives to a beautifully made artwork is hardly groundbreaking. Yet for all the familiarity of its underlying concept, the Rubin Museum of Art’s “Faith and Empire: Art and Politics in Tibetan Buddhism” proves refreshingly new. It provides a much needed and highly informative corrective to the prevailing tendency in the West to view Tibetan Buddhism and its adherents exclusively through the lens of spirituality and pacifism. (read full review)
19 February 2019 ~ The Wall Street Journal
On the third floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in a gallery overlooking a hall filled with South Asian statuary, bear and monkey soldiers look on in dismay as their divine leaders are assailed by enemy arrows; light reflects off the beetle-wing jewels of a fanged goddess; and a boar-headed avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu wades neck-high in a gray, swirling ocean, a gold mace resting on his shoulder while, by his feet, an orange demon sinks to the depths. Elsewhere, scenes feature the Hindu god Krishna—as a blue-skinned child sneaking a handful of butter from the churn; as a lad, perched in a tree on a riverbank, watching as bathing beauties whose clothes he’s stolen shyly rise from the water; as a lover eagerly embracing a maiden.
These are but some of the 20 17th- and 18th-century paintings and drawings featured in “Seeing the Divine: Pahari Painting of North India.” They are by artists in kingdoms nestled in the Himalayan foothills, all but four folio-sized, and together they show off the richness of this chapter in South Asia’s art history. (link to review)
Reclaiming a Country’s Creative History
1 January 2019
Floating like a teardrop pendant off the southern coast of India, Sri Lanka has for more than two millennia hosted mariners, traders and monks who’ve docked at its ports, purchased its gems and minerals, visited its monasteries and sacred sites. Successive conquerors and colonizers swept in from India and Europe, adding Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity into an already rich mix of indigenous beliefs, while ships carried works by the island’s artists and artisans to ports near and far. Just as travelers have long marveled at its monumental sculptures and murals, so have scholars recognized Sri Lanka’s artistic impact on Southeast Asia. Yet its art has often been considered an interesting but provincial stepchild of India’s.
Organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, “The Jeweled Isle: Art From Sri Lanka” is the latest attempt by a major U.S. museum to change this perception. (link to review)
Holy Objects That Transcend Religion
26 September 2018 ~ The Wall Street Journal
An exhibition examines the impetus behind votives, ultimately arguing that it exceeds the confines of any single faith, even of religion itself.
Heads and limbs carved of wood bound for a room of miracles in a Brazilian church. Two 19th-century figures: one from the Kongo kingdom, each leather strip of its dress a vow to the power spirit it houses; the other a lifelike wax boy displayed in a Bavarian church with thanks to the Holy Trinity. Engraved mother-of-pearl and 13th-century coins affixed to the cover of an Armenian Gospel from around 1675-1725. These are but a few of the more than 300 objects in “Agents of Faith: Votive Objects in Time and Place,” a show at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery that roams widely to explore deeply. (link to review)
photo: votive for a youth with digestive troubles, Etruscan (3rd to 2nd C BC)
Searching for Stories of Power
30 August 2018 ~ The Wall Street Journal
Little is known of the women who sat on the throne during China’s last imperial dynasty (1644-1912). Qing empresses left no personal writings, nor did any courtier record their confidences. Faced with this dearth of material, two curators of Chinese art—Jan Stuart of the Smithsonian’s Freer-Sackler and Daisy Yiyou Wang at the Peabody Essex Museum—mined objects, from the sumptuous clothes these women wore to the porcelains they used, the art they saw, the icons they prayed to and the portraits they posed for. In “Empresses of China’s Forbidden City,” currently on view at the Peabody Essex, they correlate these to facts about court life, teasing out the values and dictates by which the empresses lived. While they draw us in close, the curators maintain a calibrated balance, priming us to look through the eyes of empresses, yet never lulling us into imagining we know what it feels like to walk in their shoes. (read full review)
Intimations of Medieval Mortality
30 June – 1 July 2018 ~ The Wall Street Journal
Sometime in the mid-1440s, an as yet unidentified artist filled a wall at the entrance to Palermo’s first municipal hospital with a 19½-by-21-foot painting designed to scare people to death—and into the arms of the Church. Today, housed in the city’s Sicilian Regional Art Gallery, this interpretation of the “Triumph of Death” roots you to the spot with its masterly composition and complex, hard-hitting message.
Filling the center of an almost perfect square, a large horse lunges left to right, its bony haunches, washboard ribs and skull-like head reminiscent of the horse in Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica,” which some art historians speculate this depiction inspired. But this horse is devoid of emotion: Its eye sockets empty, its body cadaverous and colorless, it charges, implacable, into the mortal world. Sitting astride is an ash-colored skeleton, a thick loop of fabric lashing a scythe to its waist. (link to essay)
The Art Bridge
March-April 2018 ~ Aramco World magazine
Whether it is to learn, laugh or be challenged, to share discovery or wonder, art brings people together. And whether by stimulating appreciation or controversy, art helps people understand each other. This sounds straightforward enough, but is it true? Does art really do this and, if so, how? Those were my questions as I set out to write about the Building Bridges Program, which since 2007 has backed arts initiatives in the us through a total of 138 grants, all of them focused on Arab and Islamic cultures.
. . .
Art connects people because “art opens us up,” says Zeyba Rahman, senior program officer for Building Bridges. “Makes us consider and reconsider positions. Provokes us to think more deeply.”
Rahman unabashedly aims to “move the needle for people.” The problem, she acknowledges, is that nobody has devised a foolproof way to identify, much less quantify, just what makes us change our mind about others. Researchers can measure changes in people’s intrinsic biases, but they don’t agree on which tools to use. It is also hard to tease out the active ingredients in a program and correlate these to outcomes. Ask anyone who has filled out a grant request. They sigh. They often have more anecdotes than data. They know things in their gut but can’t prove them.
So what is it they think they know? How does art change us? I set out to find out by taking a close look at four Building Bridges-supported programs, each centered on a different approach: play, laughter, visual appeal and performance. (here’s the link to what I found)