Archive for May 2011

PASTELS PORTRAITS – SO SELDOM SEEN   Leave a comment

When my mother got permission to see the 18th-century pastels in the Zwinger Museum in Dresden, the curator walked her through the public galleries to a set of locked doors.  Behind them, out of sight of museum visitors, hung the first Rosalba Carriera pastels I had ever seen.  Did I fall in love with the luminous quality of pastels or with the notion that we were being allowed into sealed-off galleries?  Whatever the case in 1970, in 2011 I was excited to be back in the presence of Carriera, this time in galleries open to the public at the Met.

My first thought was ‘should all these people be walking past?”  The Dresden curator had been very adamant about that — the vibration of visitors tromping by could over time jar loose the tiny specks of dust that make the magic of pastels.  And the second thought was “why aren’t any of these paintings familiar?”  The reason mother had taken me to Dresden was because she was writing a book.  A portrait painter herself, she had fallen in love with pastels and, finding little to nothing about its heyday in Europe, she decided to compile a coffee-table book herself.  Living in Italy at the time, she confined herself to museums in Europe which explains why none of the works on display at the Met are in mother’s  book:  The Met’s “Pastel Portraits: Images of 18th Century Europe” draws all but six works from private and public collections in New York.  The non-New York pieces come from Massachusetts and Connecticut from what I can tell — though there is mention of a London collection in the press materials which would seem to violate the curators’ insistence on pastels not traveling by air.

All of which brings us back to vibrations and the vulnerability of this medium.  Look carefully at some of the works and you can spot here and there a place where the dust has become unsettled.  On the whole though, the show bears witness to the durability of pastels assuming they are handled very carefully (and preferably not at all) and to the medium’s luminous beauty.  In some ways pastels work on the same principle as pointillist paintings: dots of pure color placed side by side to create, when viewed at a distance, an image.  The difference is that, since the dots in pastel are microscopic, you don’t have to stand far away to, quite literally, get the picture.   And what a picture: the cheeks of children, the lace of ladies’ clothes, the fur on men’s coats — you want to reach out and touch them. And then there are the tricks some artists use — like adding a bit of watercolor here and there to deepen the shadows and add extra depth.  It has been 40 years since my mother published her coffee-table book because she could find no central source of information and images on 18th century pastels.  Had this show and catalog and website information existed then, my mother would have been ecstatic.  But then she would not have felt compelled to visit the closed-off galleries of museums across Europe and given her daughter the thrill of discovering the magical beauty that hung behind locked doors.

center image:  Portrait of a Young Woman with Pearl Earrings by Rosalba Carriera, currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
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Posted May 20, 2011 by leeadairlawrence in museum shows

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SACRED RITUALS — SECULAR SPACE   Leave a comment

Museums just love sand mandalas —  and every time I see Tibetan monks streaming brightly colored sand into intricate patterns surrounded by people like me snapping photographs I wonder: what are they doing here?

Sand mandala at Newark Museum of Art, Newark, NJ

Part of me feels strongly that, if a public museum is going to host a Tibetan Buddhist ritual, then it should be ready to have a priest come in and consecrate hosts before a triptych in the European Medieval galleries.  The fact that museums don’t — and none do to my knowledge — leaves them open to attack on two fronts:

– museums can be accused of dismissing Buddhist sacred rituals as mere artifact and curiosity while considering Christian rituals so sacred as to be out of bounds (indeed, Blake Gopnik made this argument in the Washington Post)

and/or

– museums could be alternatively accused of using public funds to favor one religion over another.

Now, the very presence of monks in the museum — not to mention the fact that the Dalai Lama himself consecrated a shrine in the Newark Museum’s Tibetan galleries — pretty much says that  Tibetan Buddhists don’t feel any slight.  And since the Newark Museum has no Medieval galleries with art from Christian churches, it can’t be accused of favoring one religion over another (which is one of things I argued in writing about another instance of religion in museums).

Another part of me, however, sees no harm in inviting practitioners of a religion to show us their rituals and explain their beliefs.  On the contrary.  We walk into churches, mosques, synagogues, temples all the time in the hope of understanding people of another faith and culture.  The challenges in both instances strikes me as the same: namely making sure that the approach is respectful and does not reduce human beings and their beliefs to artifact.  You know, the way natural history museums in their early days used to display peoples of other (usually deemed more primitive) cultures.

Leaning over the balustrade at the Newark museum, with my phone in camera mode, I could not help but also wonder whether this was how Tibet is going to survive, no longer a country tied to mountains and valleys and rivers, but as collection of uprooted cultural/religious events that double as tourist attractions and living art exhibitions in museums and fairs across the globe.

Posted May 13, 2011 by leeadairlawrence in Asian art, Religion, religious art

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