Faces–ancient, privileged, unfinished. That was the theme of my day in the galleries.
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.
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!
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 intricate 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.
Gorgeous, intriguing, each is a story.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.