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Miró at SAM, 2

April 20, 2014 Leave a comment

birdinspace

[From website of Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía]

I wrote two months ago about the opening at the Seattle Art Museum of the exhibition Miró: The Experience of Seeing. This past Wednesday, we were fortunate to see the exhibition again as part of a small tour group led by Catharina Manchanda, SAM’s curator of modern and contemporary art.

Let me repeat from my earlier post the exhibition description, provided jointly by Catharina and Chiyo Ishikawa, SAM’s curator of European painting:

This exhibition, drawn entirely from the collection of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, offers a fresh assessment of the late period in Miró’s work—a body of work that audiences in the United States have not had the opportunity to fully appreciate. The exhibition brings together over 50 paintings, drawings and sculptures made in the period between 1963 and 1983 that testify to the artist’s ingenuity and inventiveness to the very end of his life. Bold and colorful paintings employing his personal visual language alternate with near-abstract compositions. Although Miró had experimented with sculpture in earlier periods, it is only in the late years that painting and sculpture stand in direct dialogue with each other—a principal feature of this exhibition.

The paintings and sculptures in the exhibition plumb the process of making art, part of Miró’s concern since his earliest works. In his quest to transcend easel painting, Miró expanded pictorial space across vast canvas fields, using an increasingly simplified language to turn accidental or fortuitous motifs into calligraphic signs. In his sculpture, the inspiration of found objects is more overt, linking the work to his Surrealist explorations of the 1920s as well as the sculptural inventions of his contemporary, Pablo Picasso. Miró also employs many of the same forms and signs in his sculpture, as in his paintings, creating a synergy between the two bodies of work. His work during these mature years represents a personal language where painting and sculpture are equally valued.

Catharina is a superb guide, as we learned two Decembers ago when she led us through the exhibition Elles: Women Artists From the Centre Pompidou Paris. She gave us a much better appreciation of both Miró’s art and exhibition’s themes than we obtained on our visit opening night. I won’t try to pass any of that on in this post. Instead, I’ll highlight one aspect.

About halfway through the tour, Catharina brought us into a room that features three large paintings with white backgrounds. She turned to a boy, the youngest member of the audience, and asked what he thought one of the paintings was representing, inviting all of us (who didn’t know the painting’s title) to contemplate this as well. The painting is the one pictured at top.

I knew neither the title nor what the painting depicted, but I was reminded immediately of a famous scene, that of miners climbing the Chilkoot Trail to Chilkoot Pass in order to reach the gold fields during the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898.

An excellent place to learn more about the gold rush is the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, which has a branch right here in the Pioneer Square neighborhood of Seattle. You can follow the miners’ route yourself:

The Chilkoot Trail is one of two main routes to the Klondike that originate in this area. Long before the gold rush, the trail was established by Tlingit people as a trade route into the interior of Canada. Fish, seal oil and seaweed were traded with the First Nations peoples for moose and caribou hides, plant materials and other goods unavailable on the coast.

The most challenging way to follow in the footsteps of the stampeders and natives is by hiking the 33-mile-long Chilkoot Trail, accessible only on foot. It is a difficult hike and usually takes three to five days. The trail begins at the Taiya River bridge near the Dyea townsite and travels over the Chilkoot Pass to Lake Bennett.

But I stray. Here’s what the climb looked like:

chilkootpass

What do you think? Is there a resemblance? Could Miró have been painting the climb to Chilkoot Pass?

Apparently not. Miró gave the painting the title Oiseau dans l’espace, or Bird in Space. Nonetheless, I had fun imagining that the two scenes might be connected.

Categories: Art, Museums

Imagine That

April 20, 2014 Leave a comment

imaginethat

A new exhibition—Imagine That: Surprising Stories and Amazing Objects at the Burke Museum—opened last weekend at the Burke Museum of History and Culture. The Burke is our state museum, and one close to my heart. Here is the website description of the exhibition:

Over the past 145 years the Burke Museum has amassed millions of things—more than 15 million of them!

Like most museums, the Burke displays only a tiny portion of its collections in galleries. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, rows and rows of shelves hold an astounding variety of objects related to natural history and human culture—baskets and beetles, hummingbirds and hammerhead sharks, masks and mammoths.

It makes you wonder: Why do museums have all these things? Where did they come from? What are they used for?

This remarkable exhibit reveals the surprising stories, complex questions, and awe-inspiring answers hidden inside objects. See a new side of the Burke, and uncover some of the most fascinating, intriguing, and rare objects in its collection. Join scientists making daily discoveries in the exhibit, and learn how collections show us new things about the world around us every day. You might even learn something new about yourself. Imagine that!

Samantha Porter, the Burke’s Community Outreach Coordinator, has an excellent post on the Top 5 Things the Burke Reveals in the New Exhibit ‘Imagine That’, in which she offers more insights into the exhibition.

I’ve viewed the exhibition twice, and look forward to a third visit this Wednesday. I recommend it to those of you in the area.

Categories: Museums

The Morgan Library

April 13, 2014 Leave a comment

morganroom
A week ago we were in New York to celebrate my mother’s 94th birthday. What to do after the festive lunch at La Grenouille and leaving my parents? Well, we were on 52nd, with the Morgan Library just 16 blocks down Madison. Why not stop by? We did.

Good decision.

I see that I wrote a post about the Morgan in October 2010, on the occasion of the post-restoration reopening of the historic 1906 building that Charles McKim designed to serve as J.P. Morgan’s office and library. Reviewing it, I see that Gail and I last visited almost exactly three years before, when we were back in New York for my father’s 90th birthday. The Renzo Piano addition to the library was still new. Joel had flown back to Boston the day we visited. Last week we all went.

What did we see? Well, first, of course, the restored 1906 building.

In 2010 the Morgan restored the interior of the 1906 library to its original grandeur. A new lighting system was installed to illuminate the extraordinary murals and decor of the four historic rooms. Intricate marble surfaces and applied ornamentation were cleaned, period furniture was reupholstered, and original fixtures—including three chandeliers removed decades ago—were restored and reinstalled. A late-nineteenth-century Persian rug (similar to the one originally there) was laid in the grand East Room. The ornate ceiling of the librarian’s office, or North Room, was cleaned, and visitors are able to enter the refurbished space—now a gallery—for the first time. New, beautifully crafted display cases throughout the 1906 library feature selections from the Morgan’s collection of great works of art and literature from the ancient world to modern times.

You can read more about the restoration here and here. I especially love the “intricately carved cylinder seals produced by Mesopotamian sculptors” in the North Room.

Next we headed to one of the temporary exhibitions, The Little Prince: A New York Story. The description:

Since its publication seventy years ago, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince has captivated millions of readers throughout the world. It may come as a surprise that this French tale of an interstellar traveler who comes to Earth in search of friendship and understanding was written and first published in New York City, during the two years the author spent here at the height of the Second World War.

As he prepared to leave the city to rejoin the war effort as a reconnaissance pilot, Saint-Exupéry appeared at his friend Silvia Hamilton’s door wearing his military uniform. “I’d like to give you something splendid,” he said, “but this is all I have.” He tossed a rumpled paper bag onto her entryway table. Inside were the manuscript and drawings for The Little Prince, which the Morgan acquired from her in 1968.

Focusing on the story’s American origins, this exhibition features twenty-five of the manuscript pages—replete with crossed-out words, cigarette burns, and coffee stains—and all forty-three of the earliest versions of drawings for the book. Also on view are rare printed editions from the Morgan’s collection as well as personal letters, photographs, and artifacts on loan from the Saint-Exupéry estate, private collections, and museums and libraries in France and the United States.

The Little Prince: A New York Story is the first exhibition to explore in depth the creative decisions Saint-Exupéry made as he crafted his beloved story that reminds us that what matters most can only be seen with the heart.

We would have gotten more out of the exhibition if we had ever read The Little Prince.

Across the hall was A Collective Invention: Photographs at Play. Wow! We were so fortunate to stumble in. It was a stunner.

A Collective Invention: Photographs at Play signals the debut of photography as a curatorial focus at the Morgan. With over eighty works from more than two dozen collections arranged into a surprising chain of visual associations, the exhibition explores the many ways of interpreting a photograph and pays tribute to the unique role played by the creative collector. Each photograph in the exhibition’s “collective invention” shares a visual or conceptual quality with the piece to its left, another with the one to its right. Embodying photography’s rich history and wide range of applications in science, art, propaganda, journalism, and self-promotion, A Collective Invention celebrates a medium that mirrors the energy and complexity of modern life.

The photographs were wonderful on their own, ranging in time from the mid-nineteenth century to today, in location around the world, and in subject as wide as you can imagine. Here a photo taken by Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) in 1858 of the Lidell girls, Alice on the right. There a photo of Lenny Bruce in court in 1962 with a tape recorder. And one of my favorites, an array of photographer baseball cards.

The visitor can enjoy the photos for their intrinsic merits or add to the pleasure by observing the thematic pairings, each photo indeed connected obviously or subtly to the one on its left and, in an entirely different way, to the one on its right.

The exhibition webpage has a slide show with selected photos. I urge you to look through it. Better yet, if you’re in New York by May 18, see the exhibition itself. See also Ken Johnson’s review in the NYT.

Here’s the idea: Look at a photograph, and zero in on one element. It can be obvious or incidental, formal or conceptual. Then find another photograph that contains something similar to what you spotted in the first image. Now identify something in the second photograph — again, important or trivial — and discover something like that in a third picture. Repeat ad infinitum.

[snip]

Following this herky-jerky, daisy-chain path through the whole show is not only amusing, but also has some philosophical payoffs. Most immediately, it unsettles customary habits of visual consumption. The labels prompt you to examine aspects and details of pictures that might otherwise pass unnoticed, fostering an alertness to both what you’re looking at and how you’re looking at it.

Categories: Museums, Photography

Miró at SAM

February 16, 2014 Leave a comment
Woman, Bird and Star (Homage to Picasso), February 15, 1966/April 3-8, 1973, Joan Miró

Woman, Bird and Star (Homage to Picasso), February 15, 1966/April 3-8, 1973, Joan Miró

The latest exhibition at the Seattle Art MuseumMiró: The Experience of Seeing—has just opened. It is organized jointly by the Seattle Art Museum and Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía.

Here is the description of it by Chiyo Ishikawa and Catharina Manchanda, SAM’s curators of European painting and of modern and contemporary art:

This exhibition, drawn entirely from the collection of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, offers a fresh assessment of the late period in Miró’s work—a body of work that audiences in the United States have not had the opportunity to fully appreciate. The exhibition brings together over 50 paintings, drawings and sculptures made in the period between 1963 and 1983 that testify to the artist’s ingenuity and inventiveness to the very end of his life. Bold and colorful paintings employing his personal visual language alternate with near-abstract compositions. Although Miró had experimented with sculpture in earlier periods, it is only in the late years that painting and sculpture stand in direct dialogue with each other—a principal feature of this exhibition.

The paintings and sculptures in the exhibition plumb the process of making art, part of Miró’s concern since his earliest works. In his quest to transcend easel painting, Miró expanded pictorial space across vast canvas fields, using an increasingly simplified language to turn accidental or fortuitous motifs into calligraphic signs. In his sculpture, the inspiration of found objects is more overt, linking the work to his Surrealist explorations of the 1920s as well as the sculptural inventions of his contemporary, Pablo Picasso. Miró also employs many of the same forms and signs in his sculpture, as in his paintings, creating a synergy between the two bodies of work. His work during these mature years represents a personal language where painting and sculpture are equally valued.

We went to the opening celebration on Tuesday evening. Normally we arrive at these events just in time for the program of talks, then eat and see the art in one order or the other. This time we made it a point to arrive early so that we could see not just the Miró but also another show that would close today: Robert Davidson: Abstract Impulse.

Here’s the description of the Davidson show by Barbara Brotherton, the curator of Native American Art:

In partnership with the National Museum of the American Indian, NY, SAM is proud to organize the first major U.S. exhibition of the Haida artist, Robert Davidson.

Robert Davidson has been a pivotal figure in the Northwest Coast Native art renaissance since 1969, when he erected the first totem pole in his ancestral Massett village since the 1880s. For over 40 years he has mastered Haida art traditions by studying the great works of his great-grandfather Charles Edenshaw and others. More recently, Davidson has interjected his own interpretation of the old forms with forays into abstraction, explored in boldly minimalistic easel paintings, graphic works and sculpture, where images are pared to essential lines, elemental shapes and strong colors.

The exhibition will feature 45 paintings, sculptures and prints created since 2005, as well as key images from earlier in his career that show Davidson’s evolution toward an elemental language of form.

We’re sure glad we didn’t miss the show, but we wish we would have been able to make a return visit. You can get a sense of it by looking at the photos accompanying John Seed’s artist interview in the Huffington Post. Here’s one:

Bird In The Air, Acrylic on canvas, 40" x 60"

Bird In The Air, Acrylic on canvas, 40″ x 60″

And another:

There is Light In Darkness, Acrylic on canvas, 30" x 60"

There is Light In Darkness, Acrylic on canvas, 30″ x 60″

On leaving the exhibition, we headed up a floor to get a preview of the Miró. We figured seeing some of the works ahead of time might make for more informed listening during the program. We were enjoying our viewing when we ran into someone I know who hinted that we might find the program less informative than usual. he would turn out to be correct.

With program time drawing near, we headed back down with him and caught the tail end of the pre-program reception, at which locally based Spanish guitarist Andre Feriante performed while people mingled and drank. We stopped only briefly before heading into the auditorium.

SAM director Kim Rorschach opened with the usual greetings and thank yous, then brought up João Fernandes, the Deputy Director and Chief Curator at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, who gave us some background on the show. Carmen Fernández Aparicio, the Chief Curator of Sculpture at the museum and featured speaker, followed.

Ms Aparicio told us in perfectly clear English that she was sorry she couldn’t make her remarks in English, then switched to Spanish, with two women at microphones on the side taking turns translating. This got off to a slow start, first because we couldn’t hear Ms Aparicio (not that it mattered if we wanted the English only), then because the translators couldn’t hear her, and at some points later because the translators appeared to struggle in search of the most effective way to convey her thoughts. The result was that her ideas didn’t come through all that well, and no one seemed unhappy when the remarks came to an end. Kim came back up to release us.

Back in the main entry, a Spanish-themed buffet was provided by SAM’s usual caterer, the in-building restaurant Taste. It was a good one. A platter of cured meats and cheeses, a dish of grilled, bite-sized potato chunks, a tray of raw vegetables, flatbread, some green dipping sauce, a vegetarian paella, and chicken breast slices with an orange sauce. In addition to the usual passed drinks—red and white wine, water—there were glasses of Sangria. And for entertainment we had music by New Age Flamenco. There was also a flamenco dance performance, but we were eating with our vision blocked through most of it, moving up to see it only as it ended. The program card indicates that this was offered by Deseo Carmin and Marisela Fleites.

After listening to a couple of post-meal songs, we decided to head home. The Miró exhibition deserves a much closer look, which we will give when we return for a curator tour. I’ll say more about the exhibition then.

Categories: Art, Museums

Kingdoms of the Sun and the Moon, 2

December 15, 2013 Leave a comment
Litter, 750-1375, Peruvian, Lambayeque, North Coast, wood, gold, silver, cinnabar, sulphurous copper, ammonia, shells, turquoise, feathers

Litter, 750-1375, Peruvian, Lambayeque, North Coast, wood, gold, silver, cinnabar, sulphurous copper, ammonia, shells, turquoise, feathers

[Photo: Joaquín Rubio]

It’s been two months since I wrote about the then-new exhibition Peru: Kingdoms of the Sun and the Moon at the Seattle Art Museum. With its close three weeks away, we returned on Thursday morning for a tour with SAM’s curator of Native American art, Barbara Brotherton. Before I say a few words about that, let me quote again from the exhibition website:

Discover the mysteries of Machu Picchu, treasures from royal tombs and archeological wonders from one of the cradles of civilization in Peru: Kingdoms of the Sun and the Moon. More than 3,000 years of artistic history reveal a land of rich complexity and startling beauty.

This unusually wide-ranging exhibition covers archeology, ancient rituals, royal ceremonies, conquest and colonization, the formation of the republic and the emergence of a new national identity. Experience the unfolding of culture through the creative achievements of Peru, from gold funerary masks to modern folk art.

The Seattle Art Museum is proud to be the only U.S. venue presenting this spectacular exhibition of more than 300 works, including national treasures never before seen outside of Peru.

And let me quote also from my first post on the exhibition, recounting our experience on opening night:

We made an unfortunate error, relying on habit to pass from the opening room to a second one in a clockwise direction, not realizing that this time the natural route was counter-clockwise. The nineteenth- and twentieth-century paintings were evidence something was amiss, but maybe objects were grouped by medium, not chronologically. Plus, the exhibition showpiece—the forehead ornament—was in a neighboring space. So maybe there wasn’t a strict chronological order.

Off we went, room to room, evidence mounting that we were walking backwards. I should note that we weren’t alone in this choice, the people moving in both directions adding to the confusion. Well, no matter. We saw many extraordinary objects. And we can go counter-clockwise on our next visit.

This time we did go counter-clockwise. Not that there was any chance of erring, since we were following Barbara’s lead.

Thanks both to viewing in chronological order and to Barbara’s comments, we were able to appreciate everything much better, and to realize just how fabulous a show this is. One passes through rooms of objects from the Mochica culture of 100-800, then the Lambayeque culture of about 750 to 1375 and Huari culture of 700-1200, leading to the Inca objects of the fifteenth century and then, suddenly, the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the early 1500s. As one leaves the Inca room to enter the first room of art and artifacts influenced by Spain and Catholicism, one experiences in some small way the dramatic shock of that time.

Barbara opened our eyes to the ways that the locals, through their art, adopted Catholicism yet grafted onto it their own native culture. One memorable example is a painting depicting Mary in a triangular gown from neck to feet that gives her the shape of a mountain, realizing her as both Jesus’s mother and traditional earth goddess.

There’s still time to see the show. And still time for a tour. I recommend both.

Categories: Art, Museums

de Young Museum

December 1, 2013 Leave a comment

deyoungtower

Four weekends ago, we headed down to San Francisco for the wedding of our friends’ daughter Hannah. Years back, I had occasion to be in the Bay Area frequently, whether in San Francisco itself, Berkeley, Santa Cruz, the Peninsula. There was always some reason, from conferences to friend and family visits to stays at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute. Yet somehow a dozen years had elapsed since our last time there.

That was a memorable trip. The centerpiece was a game at the then-new Giants baseball stadium. It was the weekend that straddled June and July in 2001. Barry Bonds was on his way to a record 73 home runs. Friday night we watched the end of the game on TV as he ran into the wall and injured himself. He would not be playing Saturday. Darn. This rookie phenom from the Cardinals was playing though. Pujols. Albert Pujols. And Bonds came in after all to pinch hit in the 9th inning. All in all, a great game. Except for the sun. We forgot sunscreen and I got pretty well burned.

But we weren’t there just for baseball. We headed to Golden Gate Park on Sunday. Alas, I had missed the news that the de Young Museum had closed at the beginning of the year and would remain closed for years to come.

In 1989 the de Young suffered significant structural damage as a result of the Loma Prieta earthquake. The Fine Arts Museums’ board of trustees completed a project that braced the museum as a temporary measure until a long-term solution could be implemented. For the next several years, the board actively sought solutions to the de Young’s structural jeopardy and solicited feedback from throughout the community, conducting numerous visitor surveys and public workshops.

With extensive public input, the board initiated a process to plan and build a privately financed institution as a philanthropic gift to the city, in the tradition of M. H. de Young. An open architectural selection process took place from 1998 to 1999. The board endorsed a museum concept plan in October 1999, and a successful multimillion-dollar fundraising campaign was initiated under the leadership of board president Diane B. Wilsey.

The resulting design by the Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron weaves the museum into the natural environment of the park. It also provides open and light-filled spaces that facilitate and enhance the art-viewing experience. Historic elements from the former de Young, such as the sphinxes, the original palm trees, and the Pool of Enchantment, have been retained or reconstructed at the new museum. The former de Young Museum structure closed to the public on December 31, 2000. The new de Young opened on October 15, 2005.

Twelve years later, seeing the de Young was my top priority. Whatever else we did in our free time before the wedding events, we would see the de Young. And so we did.

Gail and I decided to focus on their permanent collection of American paintings, along with some of the American decorative art interspersed through the galleries.

The de Young’s American Art Department is home to one of the finest survey collections of American paintings in the United States. Strengthened by the acquisition of the Rockefeller Collection of American Art, the de Young’s holdings include more than 1000 paintings ranging from 1670 to the present day.

While essentially chronological, the installation of American art at the de Young juxtaposes works from different cultures and time periods to emphasize the historical connections between works in the collection, and includes galleries devoted to art in the following areas: Native American and Spanish Colonial; Anglo-Colonial; Federal and Neoclassical; Victorian genre and realism; trompe l’oeil still life; the Hudson River School, Barbizon and Tonalism; Impressionism and the Ashcan School; Arts and Crafts; Modernism; Social Realism and American Scene; Surrealism and Abstraction; Beat, Pop and Figurative; and contemporary. Also featured are important California collections with national significance, including examples of Spanish colonial, Arts and Crafts, Bay Area Figurative, and Assemblage art.

Joel and Jessica took off in their own direction, joining us for lunch in the de Young Café before splitting up again.

Here are a few highlights, courtesy of my iPhone.

First, a painting by Joshua Johnson, the earliest known African-American artist, a freed slave in Baltimore. The image is that of the daughter of a wealthy Baltimore merchant. (This and other descriptions are from the signage in the museum.)

Letitia Grace McCurdy, ca. 1800-1802, Joshua Johnson

Letitia Grace McCurdy, ca. 1800-1802, Joshua Johnson

This next one is blurry. Sorry. It’s by Horace Pippin, another African-American artist, whose grandmother saw John Brown being led to his hanging in 1859. Pippin emphasizes Brown as a Christ-like martyr, with the jury and prosecutor/persecutor recalling the twelve apostles and Judas.

The Trial of John Brown, 1942, Horace Pippin

The Trial of John Brown, 1942, Horace Pippin

Next, one of several John Frederick Peto paintings that need to be seen in person for a proper sense of texture.

The Cup We All Race 4, ca. 1900, John Frederick Peto

The Cup We All Race 4, ca. 1900, John Frederick Peto

Near the Peto is this nearly contemporaneous painting by John Haberle.

The Slate: Memoranda, ca. 1895, John Haberle

The Slate: Memoranda, ca. 1895, John Haberle

Here’s a wonderful Sargent.

La verre de porto (A Dinner Table at Night), 1884, John Singer Sargent

La verre de porto (A Dinner Table at Night), 1884, John Singer Sargent

How about this wonderful Stickley sideboard? I could find a spot for it in our house.

Leopold and John George Stickley, sideboard, 1910

Leopold and John George Stickley, sideboard, 1910

I can’t properly capture this Grant Wood, inspired by Wood’s childhood memories of the annual threshing ritual on his family’s Iowa farm. The accompanying sign suggests that the bisected farmhouse recalls early Renaissance paintings, especially those depicting the Last Supper. Wood thereby endows the farmers with the dignity of biblical disciples partaking of a sacred meal.

Dinner for Threshers, Grant Wood, 1934

Dinner for Threshers, Grant Wood, 1934

Here’s a detail.

deyoungwood2

I’ll end with a painting by William Zorach, who became a friend of my parents late in his life. I remember his visits to our house.

Provincetown Madonna, ca. 1916, William Zorach

Provincetown Madonna, ca. 1916, William Zorach

After viewing the art, we met up and walked to the elevator to go up the tower that contains museum offices and, at its top, a public observation floor. The shot I took of the tower as we left is at the start of this post. Here is the view north toward Marin County.

deyoungview

We left so much unexplored. There’s always next time, which I hope isn’t another dozen years away.

Categories: Art, Museums, Travel

Kingdoms of the Sun and the Moon

October 20, 2013 Leave a comment

peruoctopus

[Photo: Daniel Giannoni]

A new exhibition, Peru: Kingdoms of the Sun and the Moon, opened this week at the Seattle Art Museum. A description from the website:

Discover the mysteries of Machu Picchu, treasures from royal tombs and archeological wonders from one of the cradles of civilization in Peru: Kingdoms of the Sun and the Moon. More than 3,000 years of artistic history reveal a land of rich complexity and startling beauty.

This unusually wide-ranging exhibition covers archeology, ancient rituals, royal ceremonies, conquest and colonization, the formation of the republic and the emergence of a new national identity. Experience the unfolding of culture through the creative achievements of Peru, from gold funerary masks to modern folk art.

The Seattle Art Museum is proud to be the only U.S. venue presenting this spectacular exhibition of more than 300 works, including national treasures never before seen outside of Peru.

And also this:

Discover Peru, land of hidden treasures, home to the first city in the Americas, a country of beauty and mystery. Travel back 3,000 years through the pottery, textiles, and stunning gold work of cultures that developed in isolation before the Inca ever built Machu Picchu. Trace the incorporation of indigenous motifs into European-style paintings and religious objects during colonization, and watch a new national identity emerge after independence.

Each work has a place in history, and together, they provide an expansive view of the deep and complex artistic heritage of Peru.

As is our custom, we went to the opening celebration, which took place Tuesday night. All four of the usual components were available: a program in the auditorium, food and drink, entertainment, and the exhibition itself. We arrived shortly before the 6:30 start time for the program. After grabbing drinks (water for me, white wine for Gail, no red wine allowed in the auditorium), we took our seats.

The program began at 6:45 with remarks by the board president, Winnie Stratton. She was followed by museum director Kim Rorschach, who played the essential role of listing all the sponsors. Then came Harold Forsyth, the Peruvian ambassador to the US, who offered a high-level speech about the significance of the show, the role of Peru, and US-Peru relations, the details of which completely escape me now. Luis Jaime Castillo Butters followed. He is currently a government official, the Vice Minister of Cultural Patrimony and Cultural Industries, but also an archaeologist and scholar. Thus, he could talk knowledgeably about the significance of the exhibition itself, which he did, rather than operating at the platitudinous level.

The exhibition was organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, whose director, Nathalie Bondil, spoke next. She was the star of the show, a charming, light-hearted Frenchwoman who quickly confessed her lack of expertise and ordered her Curator of Pre-Columbian Art (and exhibition organizer) Victor Pimentel to join her onstage. They proceeded to work through a series of slides of exhibition objects, with Nathalie giving some of the background then, on occasion, dragging Victor by the sleeve to the microphone to pinch hit.

At 7:50, we were released to see the objects for ourselves. Not having eaten dinner, we decided to join the long line in the lobby for food. The line moved fast, and soon we were at the buffet table, prepared by in-house restaurant Taste. A spicy potato dish, a spinach pastry of some sort, a bean dish, and steak skewers, all excellent. While we ate, we listened to a local Andean folk music group, Hanumanta, with the Sonia Porras Dance Company performing.

With such good food and festive atmosphere, it was easy to forget why we were at the museum. But there was the exhibition to see, and so we did. We made an unfortunate error, relying on habit to pass from the opening room to a second one in a clockwise direction, not realizing that this time the natural route was counter-clockwise. The nineteenth- and twentieth-century paintings were evidence something was amiss, but maybe objects were grouped by medium, not chronologically. Plus, the exhibition showpiece—the forehead ornament featured at the top of the post—was in a neighboring space. (Forehead ornament with feline head and octopus tentacles ending in catfish heads, 100-800, Peruvian, Mochica, North Coast, possibly La Mina, gold, chrysocolla, shells, 11 1/4 x 16 5/16 x 1 3/4 in., Museo de la Nación, Lima.) So maybe there wasn’t a strict chronological order.

Off we went, room to room, evidence mounting that we were walking backwards. I should note that we weren’t alone in this choice, the people moving in both directions adding to the confusion. Well, no matter. We saw many extraordinary objects. And we can go counter-clockwise on our next visit.

What did we see? I’ll offer some examples from the website. You can go there to see and read more. (Click “Art”.)

First we have a feathered hanging from 700-1200: Peruvian, Huari, South Coast, possibly Rio Grande Valley, cotton, feathers, 25 7/8 × 85 1/16 in., The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. It is “one of 90 identical works found in the 1940s in a burial cache on Peru’s south coast. The Inca also made offerings at this site, suggesting it was a sacred place in the landscape over a long period of time.”

perufeather

[Photo: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Denis Farley]

Perhaps my biggest surprise was finding a wall of photos by Irving Penn.

In December 1948, after completing a photo shoot for Vogue in Lima, the fashion photographer, Irving Penn (1917–2009), did not immediately return to New York with his colleagues, but went to Cuzco, where he stayed for several days. He rented a local photographer’s studio.

“By incredible providence, there in the center of town was a daylight studio! A Victorian leftover, one broad wall of light to the north, a stone floor, a painted cloth backdrop—a dream come true. I hired the use of the studio for the next three days, sending the proprietor away to spend Christmas with his family, and set myself up as town photographer. When subjects arrived to be photographed they found me instead of him. Instead of them paying me, I paid them for posing, a very confusing affair.”

Here is one of the photos, “Cuzco: Three Sitting Men in Masks.”

cuzcopenn

[The Irving Penn Foundation, New York]

Going back in time, here’s the back of a litter, dated from 750-1375: Peruvian, Lambayeque, North Coast, wood, gold, silver, cinnabar, sulphurous copper, ammonia, shells, turquoise, feathers, 22 13/16 × 44 7/8 × 1 15/16 in., Museos “Oro del Perú” – “Armas del Mundo”.

While they lived, the rulers of ancient Peru traveled on litters, or platforms carried by servants. In death, their mummified bodies were also placed on litters, and carried to their tombs in great ceremonial parades. This remarkable backrest from a Lambayeque litter is inlaid with gold, silver, turquoise, cinnabar, shells, and feathers. The carving is an image of a funerary procession and features an audience of ancestors who await the leader in the afterlife.

perulitter

[Photo: Joaquín Rubio]

Next, an altarpiece from around 1970 by Joaquín López Antay, Peruvian, 1897-1981: Painted wood, polychrome paste, 36 7/16 × 46 7/16 × 5 1/2 in., Colección Museo de Arte de Lima.

Retablos are small three-dimensional altars featuring tiny figures arranged in scenes, usually telling an important religious story. The first retablos were placed behind the altars of Catholic churches in Spain, and carried by soldiers worshipping far from home during the Crusades against non-Christians in the Near East, Northern Africa and Eastern Europe during the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries.

In Peru, they were used to proselytize the native peoples during the colonial period. Peruvian folk artists then adopted the form to tell their own stories. While this retablo shows scenes from Catholic teachings on the top tiers, the lower tiers depict daily life in south-central Peru: the harvest of the prickly pear cactus, a celebration with music and dancing.

alterpieceperu

There’s an article in ARTnews from last March about the Montreal exhibition that has some excellent photos. I will close with one depicting an Inca noblewoman: Gran Nusta Mama Occollo, Cuzco, Peru, early 1800s, oil on canvas mounted on board, Denver Art Museum.

incanoble

The exhibition closes January 5. If you can, see it.

Categories: Art, Museums
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