The wonder of faces

Faces–ancient, privileged, unfinished.  That was the theme of my day in the galleries.

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Satyr and Maenad, Egypt, 4th century; note the halos

If you haven’t seen the ancient textiles exhibit at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, rush quickly.  It’s a small show, focused on a narrow window in time.  You can linger over each object.

These are primarily tapestries and tunics, surviving because they were used in funerary rites, created during that chaotic period when the Middle East and Europe were shifting from polytheism to Christianity.  Polytheistic traditions were observed in secret during the 300s and 400s, still at home as was traditional.  Temples became churches, but carried the ancient aesthetics forward to new subject matter.

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Dionysus and Pan, c.4th century, Egypt

Most of the textiles were from Egypt, where Greco-Roman traditions had already been merged with ancient Egyptian sensibilities.  I just loved Dionysus, god of wine, with Pan, both encircled in halos, a Christian allusion, used to warm an Egyptian home and then entombed.

Dionysus was the right god to depict, as the Romans inherited the tomb party concept, celebrating the life of the dead, from the Etruscans.  Tunics were worn to such parties and banquets where Dionysus ruled!

Bust of Spring (small)

Bust of Spring, see her halo?

You will marvel at the colors–lustrous greens and corals, probably faded from red, that have remarkably survived for 1500-1800 years.  My clothes only last a few months before falling apart.

The figures show such delicacy along with the Egyptian love of patterning.  Animals and birds and intricaScreen Shot 2016-04-16 at 6.40.55 PMte geometric patterns, which may reference Islamic influences.

You can click on the photo to enlarge it.  People take magnifying glasses to these works to see how they are constructed.  Remarkable.

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Gorgeous, intriguing, each is a story.

The Comtesse Du Barry in a Straw Hat, c.1781


The portraits of Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun each tell a story, too, mostly subservient in interest to her own.  She was a favorite of Marie Antoinette as a young artist, making grand, official family depictions.  She also was the master of the intimate, bust length portrait, making all the aristocrats look fresh, young, and lively.





Marie Antoinette with a Rose, 1783, a breathtakingly beautiful painting

That is until they started losing their heads.

Vigee-Lebrun hit the road, before settling for several years at the Russian court of Catherine the Great.  She seemed to do well with powerful women.

Eventually, she returned to France where a new generation of artists kept her from regaining her popularity.  She kept painting and lived a long life until the mid-19th century.

Thank you to the Met for hosting an exhibit of an historic woman artist.  That’s a rarity.  Perhaps it was no accident, though, that a light bulb was burned out, with its sole job to illuminate the one self-portrait in the show.  I guess we still have a way to go to get these women out of the dark.

Self-portrait, 1790

The exhibit did play on the surface, with few new ah ha’s.  Yes, there was the light reference to the turbulent relationship with her daughter, who fled France as a girl with her resourceful mother.  (The self-portrait with Julia, alas, is not in this show.)  Few other insights came out of the dark.

Although very uneven, the Unfinished show at the Met’s new Breuer building is more interesting.  For the life of me, this building, for all the hoopla, still like just like the Whitney did. There’s even the same overly humid HVAC system.  You’ll have to tell me the differences you see.

Meantime, the opening exhibit works a little too hard to make its point and would have been served by some culling. Still many of the unfinished works tell good stories.

James Hunter Black Draftee, by Alice Neel, 1965 What’s he thinking about?

Alice Neel.  A powerhouse.  She taps into the poignant so seemingly effortlessly.  Look at this portrait of James Hunter from 1965.  It’s unfinished because after the first sitting, James didn’t return for the second.  Why?  He was off to Vietnam.

Gustav Klimt wasn’t the only artist in the exhibit to have trouble finishing a portrait out of frustration.  Manet gave up on a painting of his wife after three failed attempts.  He scraped the paint off her face each time, dissatisfied.  Hmmm.  Knowing Manet, this may say something about that marriage.

Madame Édouard Manet, c.1873

Manet gave up; Klimt died.  But not before his sitter died, and her family rejected two other portraits.  Sheesh!  Still this painting shows something joyous, even as the object label describes the placement of color as tentative.  After two rejections, you might be a little leery, too!  Klimt seemed to die to get out of finishing it!

Posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk III, by Gustav Klimt, 1917-8

I was captivated by this hauntingly modern, surreal portrait of Mariana da Silva by Mengs.  He couldn’t get the placement of the little lapdog quit right and apparently was unhappy with the face.  So he painted a gauzy veil over it.

Portrait of Mariana de Silva y Sarmiento, by Anton Raphael Mengs, 1775

Not all the painting in the show were portraits, but those were the ones I was attracted to, I think for the way they blurred identity.  I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, and this day shows in pictures how identity is mutable in the moment and in reflection later, even centuries later.

Fascinating stuff.  Let me know what you think.


3 thoughts on “The wonder of faces

  1. Well, I dawdled so long about these shows that you wrote about them without my comments. No burned out light bulb when I was there and I was impressed by the quality of Vegee-Lebrun’s portrait output. My biggest lasting impression was the you, Rena Tobey. would have been an excellent model for her. She seemed to be attracted to fair skinned pick cheeked women. Everyone had that scrubbed rosy cheeked look. Don’t you wish you could time travel and sit for her to see what she would done with your image?

    Now to the Breuer. I enjoyed the Unfinished show although I would have removed some of the filler paintings for a better exhibition. How can one tell if a amid 20th century painting is finished or not? They seem to be in a constant state of flux, ever changing and sometimes dripping before our eyes. I think it was a sort if an artist’s reach for immortality
    to keep the painting alive and morphing.

    What could they do with the Whitney building? There is only so much space exposed as one exits the elevators. I thought they did the best possible with it. I have aleays loved the textures in that building and made a point of walking down a flight of steps just to revisit the wonderful walls. It is almost worth the price of admission to interact in that space.

    Another exhibit I saw was at the MOMA. Was interested to see Degas’s monotypes (as they were labeled). Very disappointed in the quality of the landscapes. IF it were not for his signature I do believe several should have ended up in the reject pile. His women were strong as always but some of his poor nude models took on such contorted poses just to dry themselves off after the bath. I hurt for them. Was always taught and taught my students to feel the pose in one’s muscles when drawing from the model and some of these poses “hurt”.

  2. And Oh, yes, I learned never to go to the MOMA on a rainy Monday. Have never seen such mobs when there was not a big block buster show there. Long crowded lines. Never more.

  3. Before I saw any faces, I was struck by the first one’s breast so high up on her chest and so close together! Loved your humor about light bulb and light not shining on women artists. Her self-portrait is really gentle and elegant. Funny comment on Manet’s painting of his wife (and their marriage). I don’t understand why paintings with unfinished/blurred faces get in the museums when my (our) friend Kathleen’s paintings — which are really good — don’t!

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