That jagged red line

Our stop at the Harvard Art Museums was an enlightening and entertaining experience. Walking through the galleries with their surprisingly large and varied art collection, it is easy to forget that this is, first and foremost, a teaching institution. For the Museums’ collections and exhibitions may be admired by the art loving general public but their main purpose is to serve as catalysts for teaching and research projects and encourage active learning and thinking across disciplines and cultures.

We leave the galleries with two ladies that, in my view, personify this intercultural dialogue; so far apart in time and style, yet so similar in their delicate, minimalistic technique; their differences and those red subtle details, only bringing them closer together.

Zhang Xiaogang (b. 1958)
Portrait, 1996
Oil on canvas

”Painted from a photograph, Zhang’s Portrait situates the subject in an eerie grey dreamscape. By imbuing the precision of photography with the modulated tones of a painting, Zhang imparts a surreal quality to the work. The portrait belongs to the artist’s Bloodline: Big Family series, based on family photographs taken before and during China’s Cultural Revolution. In the 1980s Zhang was part of a group of artists and philosophers opposing government repression and advocating for humanism, individual freedom and democracy. Despite its formal portrait conventions and the ubiquitous collared jacket, the painting represents an individual. Yet the notion of collectivity, central to the Cultural Revolution, still permeated Chinese society, as is evident in the repetition evoked by this series of paintings. The jagged red line, a reference to the bloodlines that tie a family together, cuts across the subject like a wound, imparting a subtle violence to the cool grey portrait.”

Ammi Phillips (1788-1865)
Harriet Leavens, ca. 1815
Oil on canvas

”Phillips was an itinerant, self-taught painter who spent much of his career travelling through small towns in the Berkshires and the Connecticut River Valley. An able marketer, he promoted his portraits in local newspapers as having been done ”in a correct style” with ”perfect shadows and elegant dresses in the prevailing fashion of the day.”
This portrait, among the most celebrated and widely recognized works in Phillips’ oeuvre, depicts the eldest daughter of the Leavens family of Lansingburgh, New York. She is portrayed as a slender, stylish young woman dressed in a gown in the Empire style, which as adopted from France.
With its simple geometries and pastel palette punctuated by flashes of blue, orange and red, the portrait looks forward to the modernist abstractions of the early twentieth century. Phillips’ work held particular appeal for American painters of that era.”

Harvard Art Museums, Boston

May 3rd, 2017

East meeting West in the Harvard Museums of Art

I already mentioned in the first part of this series, that the Harvard Art Museums collection spans centuries, styles and continents. Even a brief walk through the galleries proves this to be quite true. See, for example, how the display of objects from ancient Eastern civilizations is arranged so that they blend seamlessly with art from the 18th century.

Head of a Buddha
Gandharan, Kushan period, 2nd century AD
From Pakistan. Dark grey schist

”With small mouth, slender nose, crisp, planar intersection of forehead and eyes and wavy locks of hair, this idealized image of a Buddha bears all the Classical features of Greek-inspired Gandharan sculptures.”

Attributed to Kaikei (active c. 1183-c. 1236)
Left Hand of a Colossal Amitābha Buddha (Amida)
Japanese, Kamakura period, late 12th-early 13th century
Wood, lacquer and gold

”The third and fourth fingers of this enormous left hand in the centre of the gallery, sculpted in a palm-up posture, would originally have curled upward to the thumb as part of a symbolic hand gesture, or mudra. Recent scholarly detective work has established that this hand belonged to a 16-foot standing Amida Buddha, installed at Shin-Daibutsu-ji Temple in Mie prefecture in central Japan. The sculpture’s right hand would have been held pendant, palm facing outward to complete the mudra, which is known in Japanese as the sakate raigō-in, or ”gesture of welcome to the soul of the deceased with upturned palm”.”

Inkstone Box (Suzuribako)
Japanese, Edo period, late 17th-early 18th century
Lacquer on wood with decoration in gold, silver and sabi urushi (thick lacquer paste) utilizing the hiramaki-e (low-relief sprinkled design), takamaki-e (high-relief sprinkled design) and nashiji (”pear-skinned” ground) techniques, with applied kirikane (cut gold and silver) and with sheet-lead inlays; stone and metal fittings

Pair of Jade Circular Table Screens
Mounted on Cloisonné Stands
Chinese, Quing dynasty, 19th century
Dark green nephrite (so-called spinach green jade); stands made of enamels on brass

”Table screens such as this pair were intended for decorative display within a scholar’s studio.  The flamboyancy of these ornate, deeply carved screens and cloisonné stands suggests that they were likely made for a scholar’s studio within a palace, as the environs of a typical Confucian scholar’s studio would have been more restrained.”

Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827)
Susanna Steuart Tilghman (Mrs. James Tilghman), 1775
Oil on canvas

”Charles Willson Peale, who founded one of the first museums in America, began his career as a portraitist. He spent his early years in Annapolis and during the Revolutionary period enjoyed the patronage of prominent landed families in the area. Susanna Steuart Tilghman and her husband, James, helped fund Peale’s travel to London where he studied with the expatriate American painter Benjamin West. Emulating the grand patrons of Europe, the Tilghmans and their peers helped launch Peale’s distinguished career, which would include commissions from important dignitaries and would culminate in the founding of the Philadelphia Museum. Housing natural history specimens and portraits of Revolutionary heroes, the museum opened in the city’s Independence Hall in 1786.”

Otto van Meurs (1714-1783)
Case, mounts and face by unidentified artists
Long Case Musical Clock, ca. 1750-75
Oak with burl walnut veneer, mahogany inlay (possibly with later additions), walnut moldings and a gilt brass mount; silvered, gilt and pained brass dial

”Crafted by one of the leading clockmakers in 18th-century Amsterdam, this clock displays important information but is also a richly symbolic object. Its elaborately ornamented dial keeps time and indicates the day of the week, the month, the phase of the moon, the lunar date and the tides. The case, inlaid with woods imported from around the world, is adorned with a gilt brass mount showing Father Time holding an hourglass. Finials representing Atlas and a pair of trumpeting angels rise at the top of the pediment.
The true marvel of this clock is its music. To mark the hour, a set of ten carillon bells powered by an internal gear train sounds on of eight popular tunes.”

Paintings on the left & right side of the clock are by John Singleton Copley (1738-1815)
Left: Sarah Morecock Boylston (Mrs. Thomas Boylston), 1766 – Oil on canvas
Right: Thomas Boylston II, ca. 1767-69 – Oil on canvas

John Singleton Copley (1738-1815)
Major General August de la Motte, 1787
Oil on canvas

Colonel Ernst August von Hugo and Lieutenant Colonel von Schlepegrell, 1787
Oil on canvas

Colonel Gustav Friedrich von Dachenhausen, 1787
Oil on canvas

”In 1783, the City of London commissioned Copley to create a large public painting commemorating Britain’s victory over the French and Spanish navies at the Siege of Gibraltar in 1782. These portraits were preparatory studies for that painting.”

Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806)
Young Girl Reading, ca. 1770
Oil on canvas

On loan to the Harvard Art Museums from the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Harvard Museums of Art, Boston

May 3rd, 2017

More Harvard Art

”So this is their home”, I silently exclaimed! A lot of the art in these galleries has been bequeathed to the Museums by former students. Please enjoy a fraction of this unimaginable wealth!

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin, 1888. Oil on canvas. Dedicating this work, van Gogh inscribed it ”To my friend Paul Gauguin” and send it to him. Shortly afterwards, however, their friendship deteriorated and Gauguin sold it for three hundred francs.
Reginald Marsh (1898-1954), Astor Hotel, 1933. Mezzo-fresco (lime wash on plaster). Marsh’s Depression-era work focuses on urban landscapes and everyday life in America; his subjects include burlesque performers, unemployed workers on the Bowery and Coney Island beach scenes. He was particularly concerned with the exploitation of the nation’s millions of unemployed women and portrayed them as independent figures.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), Seated Bather, ca. 1883-84. Oil on canvas. Renoir painted this figure and her drapery differently from the landscape, so that she appears to float in the setting. He also left her right foot unresolved where it meets the fabric, signaling that his pictorial approach was no longer a purely naturalistic enterprise.
Pablo Ruiz Picasso (1881-1973), Mother and Child, ca. 1901. Oil on canvas. Following his visit to the Saint-Lazare prison hospital, an institution for Parisian prostitutes with venereal disease, Picasso produced a number of paintings of destitute mothers embracing their small children. This painting was executed on a reused canvas and another composition lies beneath this scene. That painting is a portrait of Picasso’s friend, the poet Max Jacob, who sits in his study surrounded by books. Some evidence of the image is still visible, particularly the contours of the face, which is roughly the same size as the mother’s head and is located above her knees.
Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Three Pairs of Shoes, 1886-87. Oil on canvas. Made at a time when van Gogh was deeply engaged with still life, this composition is painted over another image of a large bouquet of flowers in a vase. It is one of a series of five paintings of shoes by the artist.
Pablo Ruiz Picasso (1881-1973), Woman with a Chignon, 1901. Oil on canvas. Picasso painted this portrait during his early-career ”Blue Period”, so named for the colour that predominated in his work at the time. The muted palette, blocks of interrupted colour and abstracted forms with strong outlines typify the artist’s approach at this stage, one of the most celebrated of his career.

Harvard Art Museums

May 3rd, 2017

Mass || Worker

Hanging together, side-by-side, as if they were made for each other.

Perhaps they were.

Franz Wilhelm Seiwert (1894-1933) Mass, 1931. Oil on wood
Heinrich Hoerle (1895-1936) Worker (Self-Portrait in Front of Trees and Chimneys), 1931. Oil on paper, mounted to board

”In the 1920s and early 1930s, Seiwert and Heinrich Hoerle were a the core of the gruppe progressiver künstler (progressive artists’ group), more commonly known as the Cologne Progressives. Unlike exact contemporaries Willi Baumeister and the Bauhaus artists, the group believed in the unification of modern art and radical politics.

In Mass, Seiwert depicts seven figures in a wide range of paint colours applied in distinct planes with thick, visible brushstrokes. The purest white is reserved for the head of the centermost figure, creating a forward thrust to the group. Despite the absence of symbolically raised fists or, in fact, any arms at all, the figures are clearly joined in collective demonstration. The rectangular planes that flank the group may refer to farm fields and factory buildings. Seiwert hereby challenged the common embodiment of revolution in an idealized singular socialist ”hero”. As critic Enrst Kállai described it at the time, this ”patchwork” forms ”an undividable unity: all for one, one for all”.”


”In an age of new technologies such as film and photography, Hoerle and his close contemporaries, known as the Cologne Progressives, remained committed to the medium of painting as a means to unite artistic form with radical left-wing politics. Their work challenged the notion of the subjective, expressionist brushstroke by embedding it in a strict compositional structure. Hoerle meticulously painted Worker on a horizontal plane, laying the surface flat on a table. Questioning the privileged status of the individual artwork, he conceived the painting as part of a larger numbered series. His aim was to combine multiple painterly concepts into murals — larger, public formats he found more suitable for collective experience. Understanding the role of the artist as vital in the establishment of a new society, in this self-portrait he divides his surroundings and himself into two distinct realms: industry and agriculture. The artist, spanning both, embodies the utopian vision of a classless society, thought achievable only by the combined efforts of industrial workers and farmers.”

Lines @ Harvard Art Museums

May 3rd, 2017


The Yard & The Art

Everything about Harvard commands respect: the Institution, the studies, the buildings and – my personal favourite – the art. If Harvard were a car, it would have been a Rolls-Royce. As things stand, Harvard is one of the top Universities in the world and, as we are about to find out, boasts an astonishing art collection that can be viewed at the Harvard Art Museums. The use of plural is intentional, because there are actually three Museums – the Fogg, the Busch-Reisinger and the Arthur M. Sackler – consolidated under one roof just outside the Harvard Yard, in the newly renovated building on 32 Quincy St., re-designed and extended by (you guessed it) Renzo Piano.

John Harvard (1607–1638)

Max Beckmann (1884 – 1950)
Self-Portrait in Tuxedo, 1927
Oil on canvas

Franz von Stuck (1863-1928)
Wounded Amazon, 1905
Oil on canvas

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938)
Self-Portrait with Cat, 1920
Oil on commercially woven cotton fabric

Victor Grippo (1936 – 2002)
Analogia I, 1970-71
electric circuits, electric meter and switch, potatoes, ink, paper, paint and wood

Claude Monet (1840-1926)
Eugénie Graff (Madame Paul), 1882
Oil on canvas

Robert Gober (b. 1954)
Untitled, 2009-10
Plaster, beeswax, human hair, cotton, leather, aluminium pull tabs, enamel paint

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)
Seated Bather, c. 1883-84
Oil on canvas

William Holman Hunt, (1827 – 1910)
The Miracle of the Sacred Fire, Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem / The Miracle of the Holy Fire, 1892-99
Mixture of oil and resin on canvas

Hunt, a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and a painter of religious subjects, made four trips to the Holy Land. This painting represents the annual “miracle of the sacred fire” at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Denounced as a fraud for centuries, the event continued to attract thousands of pilgrims, who eagerly awaited the rekindling of the flame over Christ’s purported tomb. Hunt found the scene, with its crush of bodies, to be distasteful and heretical, but was keen to capture its “dramatic, historic, and picturesque” qualities. When the painting was exhibited in London in 1899, he was obliged to provide a key to the complex array of figures. The flame, borne by a priest to the right of the shrine, is barely visible. An English woman at the lower right, protecting her children from the spectacle, serves as a surrogate for the curious viewer and a contrast to the expectant pilgrim family in the foreground.

Auguste Rodin (1840-1917)
Eternal Idol, 1893

The Renzo Piano effect

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)
Victor Chocquet, c. 1875
Oil on canvas

An employee at the Ministry of Finance, Victor Chocquet (1821–1891) met Degas in 1875, and by the second impressionist exhibition, in 1876, had become an avid supporter of the progressive artistic movement, collecting works by Renoir, Monet, and Cézanne. Here Renoir paints his new friend and patron dressed in casual attire. With his hands informally clasped across the bottom left corner of the canvas, Chocquet’s pose suggests the sitter’s closeness with the painter. Chocquet had identified Renoir as the inheritor of the romantic painter Eugène Delacroix’s approach to color. Renoir acknowledges this compliment and pays homage to the celebrated colorist by including one of Delacroix’s preparatory studies from Chocquet’s collection in the background. The study was for a lunette in the Hôtel de Ville (Paris city hall), which was destroyed in 1871.

There will be more art from the Harvard Art Museums in the coming days, the collection is vast and spans centuries, styles and continents.

May 3rd, 2017