Intimations of Medieval Mortality
30 June – 1 July 2018 ~ 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)
Stories Told in All Their Splendor
27 June 2018 ~ Wall Street Journal
Back in 1990, the San Diego Museum of Art received more than 1,400 works representing just about every school, region and style of South Asian painting. Bequeathed by Edward Binney 3rd, heir to the Crayola fortune, it is one of the best collections of its kind outside India. Currently, a selection of some 90 works from the late 16th through 19th centuries illustrates stories from literature, poetry and oral traditions while at the same time showcasing the variety within South Asia’s painting tradition. Together, the show and catalog of “Epic Tales From Ancient India” provide an education and a visual journey that takes us from rambunctious battles against enemies human and demonic to quiet, tender love scenes; from intrigues and trickery to imaginative renderings of divine interventions in worldly affairs. A case in point: To show how gods helped a king bear sons, an artist working in a North Indian court around 1770 depicted a miracle in the “Ramayana” most imaginatively. Priest to the left, king to the right, and, between them, only half embodied within the flames of a ritual fire, a clone of the priest proffers a dish of magical, son-producing food. (link to review)
Elegance that Encourages Laughter
4 June 2018 ~ Wall Street Journal
Thick black lines mark the contours of an elephant depicted head-on, its legs merging into a single, columnar mass fringed with a curlicue of toes, its body so large only a sliver fits inside the painting. Ito Jakuchu’s 1795 “Elephant” is at once imposing and cute, one of many of the 48 ink paintings in “Unexpected Smiles: Seven Types of Humor in Japanese Paintings” with a high “Aw!” factor. That is a good thing. Humor and entertainment depend greatly on a body of shared knowledge and references, and the labels can better work their magic when playful visuals have already hooked us. (link to review)
A Giant Leap
26 April 2018 ~ Wall Street Journal
‘A Giant Leap: The Transformation of Hasegawa Tohaku” is a small, entrancing show, the first in the U.S. dedicated to a 16th-century artist widely considered one of Japan’s greatest and most versatile painters. But anyone expecting a grand retrospective will be disappointed. This is an introspective show that immerses us in select masterpieces while piercing the mystery that has shrouded their maker.
Because of restrictions on loans from Japanese temples and museums, the Japan Society Gallery split the show into two rotations, the second of which is now on view. It showcases a pair of colorful flower-and-bird paintings and three compositions painted on gilded screens—held over from the first rotation—along with two portraits, and large-scale ink paintings that fill two pairs of six-paneled screens. (link to review)
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)