Understanding a Revered Art Form
25 July 2019 ~ The Wall Street Journal
Scholars have long valued Korean ceramics. More recently, shows have highlighted distinctive Korean styles within a painting tradition imported from China. And now, in the U.S. city with the largest population of Koreans, “Beyond Line: The Art of Korean Writing” spotlights calligraphy at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Anyone unsure why East Asians regard calligraphy as the highest art form might want to head straight to the gallery devoted to “Royal Calligraphy” and look at pages from a sketchbook of King Hyojong (who reigned from 1649 to 1659). Using Chinese characters and the occasional flower as his subjects, he experimented with scripts and styles, producing a remarkable range of energy, emotion and tone. In one column, characters stride, bold and dynamic. In another, they cascade like a wispy waterfall. In yet another, they fly off the page, as sprightly and exuberant as a Joan Miró drawing. (full review)
Astrolabe Tech Made… not so easy
Let me start with a confession: I am no engineering whiz, but I like to know how things work. I studied religion, and I often write about art, which is how I became entranced by astrolabes. Their beauty is mesmerizing, but their efficacy as an instrument leaves me perplexed. Imagine a medieval lass trying to ferret out the secrets of a smartphone, or even a dumb phone. Well, that’s how I feel, and I don’t like it.
So I’ll set myself a task: I, a Brooklynite, am going to find my way around an unfamiliar city—Boston—using an astrolabe. To get started, I ask Sara Schechner about this. She is a historian of science with a special interest in the history of astronomy, and she curates the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments at Harvard University. “It can’t do that,” she says. “Astrolabes,” she explains to this liberal arts major, “aren’t navigation devices. They’re early computers.”…. read the whole article and watch the accompanying video (there’s no firewall!)
Where Sacred Meets Secular
1 May 2019 ~ The Wall Street Journal
By the time you leave “Shinto: Discovery of the Divine in Japanese Art” at the Cleveland Museum of Art, you’ll have interacted with striking works—from depictions of exuberant festivities to evocative images of deities. You’ll know that many are on loan from Japan, including a number prized as Important Cultural Property, and that they are all tied in one way or another to the veneration of divine beings called kami. You may also remember that the works date from the 10th century until 1868, when the government declared Shinto the state religion. What you won’t be able to do is concisely define Japan’s age-old “way of the gods.” And that is good. (read full review)
An Ancient Story Continually Reinvented
10 April 2019 ~ The Wall Street Journal
At no time over the past 1,000 years has “The Tale of Genji” fallen out of favor with the Japanese public. Begun at the turn of the 11th century by a woman known to history as Murasaki Shikibu, the sprawling tale of amorous pursuits in a court rife with power plays came out in installments over a number of years. It was instantly and persistently popular even though, for centuries, the only way to reproduce the “Tale of Genji” was to either commission or transcribe a copy. Only in the early 17th century was the story printed, triggering yet another explosion in readership.
Beginning with illustrated books and albums, the book also inspired artists and artisans, from calligraphers and painters to ukiyo-eprintmakers, ceramists, and creators of luxury lacquerware. The resulting trove makes what many consider to be the world’s first novel an ideal subject for exhibitions, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “The Tale of Genji: A Japanese Classic Illuminated” is a particularly grand one. (link to review)
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)