Archive for February 2011

LYING TO TELL THE TRUTH   Leave a comment

Truth — or rather, expressing the truth is such a slippery thing.

"Women's Toilet" from Felice Beato's "Views of Japan" on view at the Getty Center © The J Paul Getty Trust -- also accessible on-line

When I was writing  my review of “Felice Beato: A Photographer on the Eastern Road” at the Getty Center, I ended up  looking at lots of 19th-century photographs.   What struck me was how some resorted to lying in order to tell the truth.  Is the woman in Beato’s “Women’s Toilet” really shampooing the other one’s hair?  Probably not.  Did Beato really happen upon a courtyard filled with the bones of Indians slaughtered by British troops?   Definitely not.  By the time Beato got to Lucknow, the so-called Indian Mutiny of 1857 had been over for months.   These are bones Beato had  disinterred and scattered (much the way Roger Fenton in Crimea moved cannon balls in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, though just which way he moved them may still be up for discussion).  All of which makes you suspect that Beato might have rearranged some of the corpses he photographed during the Second Opium War in China — you know, the way Alexander Gardner later did during the Civil War.

So the question is: would Beato’s photographs have conveyed more “truth” had the Japanese women not frozen in position? had the site of a slaughter been barren? had the faces of killed soldiers not faced the camera, proclaiming to the lens that they were dead?

"Interior of the Secundrabagh after the Slaughter of 2,000 Rebels," Felice Beato, Lucknow, British India 1858 (The J. Paul Getty Museum, Partial gift from the Wilson Centre for Photography)

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Chinese cloisonné: just decorative or also art?   2 comments

Ming dynasty (1450-1550) touhu (or arrow) vase

Here’s the ultimate decorative arts medium — cloisonné — and new evidence that Ming Chinese scholar-artists might have prized it the way they did their craggy scholar’s rocks and understated ink paintings. The Economist has a great review of a show of cloisonné at the Bard Graduate Center; I also reviewed it in the Wall Street Journal.

Qing dynasty basin from the Brooklyn Museum

The rare white cloisonné basin to the left was used for Buddhist rituals — if you could look inside it, you would see that the wires trace the outline of Buddhist symbols.  The vase on the right with its fiery lotus flowers reminiscent of Tibetan paintings is a small copy of an ancient form.  The story is that ancient warriors would take a break and play a game of toss-the-arrow, using an empty wine jug.  I like to picture Ming scholars and rulers tossing ink brushes into the touhu rather than just displaying them on their desks as objets d’art.

Posted February 13, 2011 by leeadairlawrence in Asian art, craft art, museum shows

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Google Art Project in detail   Leave a comment

Wouldn’t you know it, I have to revise my earlier post because I discovered that  there is a big difference in the quality of the images if you opt for “view the artwork” as oppose to “explore the museum.” In the former, the resolution is very high, taking you right into the detail — something you can’t do so easily in the museum itself without setting off alarm bells.  And, at least in the case of the Freer, you can get in much closer on GAP than you can in the museum’s site itself.  So one point for GAP’s “view the artworks.”  Still no points for its “explore the museum.”

Posted February 12, 2011 by leeadairlawrence in Uncategorized

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Mining the GAP   1 comment

Made my first foray onto GAP, the Google Art Project thinking for sure it would be a new kind of borderland, but it ended up being more of a no man’s land.

I figured I would first “visit” a museum I knew so I picked the Freer Gallery of Art in DC.  The Whistlers looked small and unimpressive, so I thought, “well, that’s not fair, I’ll go to the Japanese galleries and look at those wonderful screens.”  A click on the arrow sent me whooshing in fits and starts round the gallery, through the wall (just like Hermione) out onto Independence Avenue, back into the gallery where I whooshed my way into the Japanese gallery where those glorious, gold-rich screens felt, well, remote.

“Not fair,” I thought, again giving the technology the benefit of the doubt.  I decided to check out a museum I have never visited, so that I could not possibly  be comparing the real experience to this ersatz visit.  So off I went to the Museo Thysen-Bornemisza in Madrid.  And that’s where the limitations of this technology really hit me: it isn’t so much that it fails to deliver an experience of artworks; it makes the whole endeavor of museums look vaguely odd and unappealing.  When you walk into a museum gallery, there is the come-hither of a particularly startling, intriguing, beautiful or puzzling work.  Works talk to each other through you.  A detail here sends you scurrying back to a detail there.  In Google Arts none of that can happen so you find yourself staring at a mausoleum of art.

Partly it is an issue of scale, partly it is a matter of remoteness– just think of the layers between your eyes and the work: there’s the computer screen on your desk, the browser window, the camera’s lens and then, finally, a wall with evenly spaced rectangular frames marching across its surface).   You have to move up close to get a sense of  the painting and fiddle with the controls to get the angle right (that part was actually kind of fun because I got to experience what it is like to be 8 feet tall looking down on a painting). Then when you get really close, the painting begins to dissolve into pixels rather than brushstrokes.  So, yes, you can move through walls and step over the security cordon, but what have you gained?

Still, maybe I am being unfair… I’ll try a sculpture gallery next time.

Posted February 12, 2011 by leeadairlawrence in Uncategorized

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ALHAMBRA TEXTURES   Leave a comment

For no particular reason, I changed my screensaver mode to randomly pick through photographs I took in southern Spain in 2009.  The first ones that flashed on the screen were some of Gibraltar apes alternatively grooming each other and begging from humans, but then came a succession of shots from the Alhambra — layer upon layer of patterning, a kind of visual Ritalin that calms the mind by overstimulating it.

Posted February 10, 2011 by leeadairlawrence in Uncategorized