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Posts Tagged ‘Boston Museum of Fine Arts’

LACMA Buy May Be a “Secret Buddha”

A hibitsu or “secret Buddha” is a temple statue, not necessarily of the Buddha, that is shown rarely or not at all. Cultures around the globe have religious art intended to be displayed on special occasions. Japan takes this universal idea to chronological extremes. Some hibitsu are shown only every 7 years, or 33 years, 0r 60 years. In a few cases they have been made with the intention of never being displayed at all. LACMA’s new Fudo Myoo: The Indomitable Foe of Evil (about 1125), a gift of Irene Christopher, Scott M. Delman, and the 2012 Collectors Committee may be one of these rarely-seen objects.

It’s the latest coup of curator Robert T. Singer, who’s been equally adept at locating little-known works, navigating Japan’s complex export rules, and convincing wealthy Angelenos to put up funds. Fudo Myoo is a Buddhist guardian that loosely derives from the fierce Shiva of the Hindu pantheon. The LACMA carving is 39 inches high, the size of the Fudo Myoo at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts or a seated version in San Francisco, though considerably smaller than a life-size standing figure at the Metropolitan Museum. All four sculptures are 12th century. The two East Coast versions are of joined woodblock construction and have been repaired over the years. The LACMA figure is carved from a single block of Zelkova wood, otherwise used for fine furniture. According to Singer, the continuity of the wood grain demonstrates that fragile details like the hair braid and fingers are original. The state of preservation argues that the carving was long protected from the elements and perhaps even the light of day.

The most famous hibitsu has an American connection, too. It’s the 7th-century Yumedono Kannon (or Guze Kannon) in the Horyu-ji temple, about 30 miles south of Kyoto. A gilded, just-over-life-size figure, it was wrapped in 1/3 of a mile of white silk and never shown to anybody, not even the priests. In 1884 the Japanese government permitted flamboyant 31-year-old American Japanophile Ernest Fenollosa (left) and 22-year-old Japanese scholar Okakura Tensin to unwrap it.

Does the “unwrapping” business sound like a mummy movie? Well yes… there was a curse involved. Some predicted that bad fortune would befall the unwrappers. Inside of all that silk, Fenollosa and Okakura found the greatest and best-preserved monumental sculpture from 7th-century Japan (detail at right). Fenollosa’s comment was, “Korean of course.”

Probably not. Contemporary opinion supposes it to record the features of Prince Shotoku in the style of sculptor Tori Busshi, both Japanese c. 600. In a balance between tradition and access, the Yumedono Kannon is now shown at its temple, briefly, twice a year.

The find made Fenollosa and Okakura’s names as surely as King Tut did Howard Carter’s. Each was later curator of Japanese art at Boston MFA. Fenollosa had a lucrative sideline on the lecture circuit, taking advantage of a rich baritone speaking voice and an encyclopedic grasp of art, literature, and history. It was Okakura who secured Boston’s Fudo Myoo; he was also an advisor to Isabella Stewart Gardner and author of The Book of Tea. Both men did much to advance American appreciation of Japanese art and culture.

In September 1885 Fenellosa renewed his contract with Boston MFA. The next month his wife Lizzie filed for divorce, and Ernest took that as an opening to marry his 30-year-old curatorial assistant.

Naturally the scandal made him unemployable in Boston. The museum backed out of the contract. Fenollosa and trophy wife did what cursed Bostonians have always had to do. They moved to New York.

Aphrodite in Malibu

J. Paul Getty had married and divorced four wives before he was middle-aged. When he came to collect Mediterranean antiquities, he had a special affection for Aphrodite, goddess of love, sex, and marriage. In the 1970s, Getty’s Malibu museum dedicated a whole room to images of Aphrodite from Getty’s personal collection. They included the tiny rock-crystal Crouching Aphrodite at left.

Never has the Getty Villa hosted such an array of Aphrodites (and Venuses) as it does right now, in “Aphrodite and the Gods of Love.” Organized with the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the exhibition includes spectacular loans from Italy, most notably the over-life-size Venus of Capua (below) and a version of the Sleeping Hermaphrodite. Art lovers go to Europe to see such things. Through July 9, you can see them in Malibu for a $15 parking reservation.

Despite these stunners, this isn’t a cost-no-object attempt to corral the world’s greatest Aphrodites. Most of the pieces are from the Boston MFA’s fine collection. They are supplemented by works from the Getty (including the crystal Crouching Aphrodite) and an important Cypriot head of Aphrodite from the Worcester Museum of Art.

Aphrodite is complicated. She was Cypriot and foreign to the Greeks, who may not have appreciated her long backstory in Eastern goddesses of millenia BC. Aphrodite made war as well as love, and was charged with providing smooth sailing for sailors.

The lost original of the Sleeping Hermaphrodite must have been Hellenistic Greek. The sculptor is unknown—perhaps ancient commentators didn’t take it all that seriously. The chick’s got a dick, and the sculpture became a meme for basically the same reason that The Crying Game did. Countless copies, full-size and reduced, were produced throughout antiquity, in the Renaissance, and indeed today, by the crudest of Internet tchotchke mills. The version at the Getty is one of the few well-preserved life-size copies. It’s Roman, second century AD, from the Museo Nazionale Romano.

Boston’s staid reputation did not prevent it from assembling a secret museum of antique erotica. The exhibition has depictions of romance straight and gay, tender and nasty. A bronze mirror from c. 330 BC Corinth shows a position, known as “The Lioness,” that will educate many 21st-century roués (right).

Speaking of which. At least two of Aphrodite’s canonical images were based on the features of Athens’ most beloved whore, Phryne. She was the model for Praxiteles’ sculpture of the Cnidian Aphrodite, apparently the first female nude in Greek art. She was also the inspiration for a famous painting of Aphrodite wringing her hair, by Apelles, most famous painter of Greek antiquity. The Getty show has sculptural copies of both lost originals. Has any single sitter, even Mona Lisa or Rembrandt, had such a lasting influence on Western art history? And it was Phryne’s whole body that mesmerized.

Phryne was said to be so beautiful, and so shrewd, that she appeared public in a veil. The mystery was the best possible advertising. She charged clients a sliding fee based on virtue and ability to pay. Phryne comped the ragged philosopher Diogenes; demanded a king’s ransom from the King of Lydia (who paid it and defrayed it via a surtax on his subjects).

When the city of Cos commissioned Praxiteles to sculpt an Aphrodite, he did a nude of Phryne. Cos refused it as indecent. Praxiteles then sold it to the city of Cnidus. There the Cnidian Aphrodite became such a huge tourist attraction that it solved the Cnidian deficit problem.

The Getty owns a small second-century Roman version (left). The goddess doesn’t need clothes to do a strip tease, using her hand both to conceal her genitals and to direct the gaze toward them.

Apelles’ painting of Aphrodite wringing her hair was based on a true story. At an Eleusian festival dedicated to Poseidon, Phryne stripped naked in view of worshippers and walked into the sea. Like everything else by Apelles, that painting is lost. Descriptions of the Apelles informed Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (which however reverts to the pose of the Cnidian Aphrodite) and more directly Titian’s Venus Rising From the Sea. “Aphrodite and the Gods of Love” has a couple of small hair-wringing Aphrodites in marble.

Phryne’s action led to her arrest for public indeceny, followed by the trial of the 4th century BC.  Her attorney, Hypereides, also happened to be one of Phryne’s johns. In the midst of the trial, Hypereides removed Phryne’s gown in front of the judges. “How,” he demanded, “could a festival in honor of the gods be desecrated by beauty which they themselves bestowed?”

The courtroom drama was amusingly reimagined by Jean-Léon Gérôme in Phryne Before the Judges (1861, bottom of post and not in show). Naturally, Phryne was acquitted.

Athens thereafter banned the nudity defense, and a couple of millennia later, lovelorn billionaire J. Paul Getty regretted, “A lasting relationship with a woman is only possible if you are a business failure.”

Fontainebleau in America

With its recent purchase of a bronze Double Head attributed to Primaticcio, the Getty Museum has the two most significant School of Fontainebleau sculptures in America (the other being the Cellini Satyr). The acquisition is the latest expression of America’s fascination with the Chateau Fontainebleau, the French Renaissance pleasure dome of François I and his heirs. To be sure, most Americans know “Fontainebleau” only as a hotel in Miami Beach, resort of the Rat Pack and not royals. That establishment (above), the apex of Morris Lapidus’ eclectic modernism, looks nothing like the French palace. Miamians pronounce it “fountain-blue.” Yet the name records a moment when the School of Fontainebleau was in the air—synonymous with hedonism and even existentialism.

In 1954—the same year that Miami Beach’s Fontainebleau opened—Dr. and Mrs. Herbert Kalmus gave the Los Angeles County Museum its Rosso Fiorentino Allegory of Salvation (right). It was the first Rosso in an American museum and, not incidentally, the museum’s first Renaissance painting of any consequence. A decade after painting it, Rosso left Italy, recruited by French king François I to decorate Fontainebleau. Rosso was joined a few years later by another Italian, Francesco Primaticcio. Rosso died young (suicide said Vasari, that unreliable narrator), leaving Primaticcio to carry on for the next 30 years. Primaticcio’s job description ranged from architect to arts administrator to event planner. He must have supervised hundreds of talented artists and artisans in decorating and furnishing Fontainebleau. Many of their names are unknown. The most famous name of all was Benvenuto Cellini, who worked for François for five rocky years. Cellini managed to produce the famous gold Salt Cellar and the bronze Nymph of Fontainebleau in the Louvre—to which the Getty Satyr is related.

Back to the 20th century. The Fontainebleau school was an expression of mannerism, long dismissed as derivative and irrational and bad. Modernist critics decided that mannerism was so far out it was in. To that Fontainebleau added erotic heat. Check out the Louvre painting of a woman pinching her sister’s nipple.

“The long-despised Mannerists have at last been rescued from the dustbin and brushed off, to become Europe’s latest vogue,” wrote Time magazine in 1955. The article referred to the exhibition, “The Triumph of European Mannerism,” then touring Europe.

The title of a 1965 book by Arnold Hauser laid out the thesis—Mannerism: The Crisis of the Renaissance and the Origin of Modern Art. Mannerism was reinvented as Giacometti minus 400 years. It was all about the existential alienation of 16th-century man.

Whatever. American museums jumped on the bandwagon. In 1958 Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts bought its great Rosso Fiorentino, The Dead Christ with Angels, for a then-staggering $85,000 (above). In 1964 the Toledo Museum of Art bought a Primaticcio painting, Ulysses and Penelope (right). It relates directly to a fresco painting at Fontainebleau and is one of the few paintings believed to be by Primaticcio’s hand.

That was one problem with the School of Fontainebleau. It was hard to tell who did what. Primaticcio’s greatest achievement was said to have been the Gallery of Ulysses at Fontainebleau, but it was painted by assistants and has largely been destroyed.

Up until now, the most impressive Fontainebleau acquisition of recent years was a marble relief, called The Reign of Jupiter (below), that the Metropolitan Museum bought in 1997. Embodying the Primaticcio aesthetic, it’s assigned to an unknown artist, c. 1550-1570.

How did the Getty get two big-name Fontainebleau bronzes? The Cellini Satyr (below) came with the Erich Lederer collection of Renaissance bronzes purchased in 1985. It’s a relic cast, probably made after Cellini skipped town. He’d been accused of stealing (again).

The Double Head is a rediscovery. When in the collection of Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent, it was simply an interesting French bronze by somebody, from some time around 1600. Research by Christie’s suggested it was earlier. The catalog description read,

“It is interesting to note that at Fontainebleau there was listed in the 1707 Royal inventory of bronzes ‘au dessus de la porte du jardin de l’Etang: Une Teste de femme a double visage, de quatorze a quinze pouce’ (‘over the door of the Pond Garden: a female double-faced head, between 14 and 15 inches; inv. 0/1/976 A, p. 979). Although smaller than the present example, it does show that such heads were in use in France in the 17th century.”

That was a goof, it now appears. The bronze is in fact 15 inches high, on a modern porphyry stand that  raises the combined height to 21-1/2 inches. It’s now believed that the 1707 inventory is talking about the Double Head at the Getty.

Speculation that it was by Primaticcio led to a huge price at the 2009 auction ($2.6 million)—though not from the Getty. It was acquired by Galerie J. Kugel, Paris. It showed it, identifying it as “the only bronze by Primaticcio still in private hands.” In the two years since the auction, research has generally bolstered that idea.

It’s one of a group of bronzes after Roman antiquities that Primaticcio (and many helpers) produced for Fontainebleau. Vasari remarked that Primaticcio used the best bronze casters. The Double Head is not a straightforward, Thing-O-Matic copy. It’s a Janus-like head where the usual male faces are replaced with faces from the famous female statue, the Cesi Juno. Deciding exactly how to meld two faces would seem to require the attention of a master.

The Getty owns a small collection of Fontainebleau/French Renaissance works, including a pair of bronze figural andirons bearing François’ emblem, the salamander; a painting of an eclipse by the ever-weird Antoine Caron (ex-collection of art historian/Soviet spy Sir Anthony Blunt); and a spectacular ten-foot-high cabinet once owned by Norton Simon. Cheapskate J. Paul Getty defied curators to spend $1700 on it in 1971.

In the 1980s the Getty scooped up drawings by Rosso, Primaticcio, Étienne Delaune, Luca Penni, and Nicolò Dell’Abate. In the past few years, it’s added several additional School of Fontainebleau works, most notably a large (22-inch) Pan Cuts the Reed (above) by an unknown Fontainebleau school artist, mid-16th century.

Fontainebleau, the real French one, is now a museum like the Louvre and Versailles. The redecorating didn’t stop with the death of Primaticcio. Much of what today’s visitor sees is Empire style, dating from the time of Napoleon. Meanwhile the Fontainebleau school won one of American kitschdom’s honors in 1993 — a tableaux vivant in Laguna Beach’s Pageant of Masters. Two gilded actors portrayed Cellini’s Salt Cellar.

“The Clock” = Swag in Boston

Time is money, and one museum is taking that literally. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is charging $200 for its premiere showing of Christian Marclay’s The Clock. The MFA recently purchased one of the six editions. Obviously the $200 ticket limits the showing to wealthy supporters. The Marclay film will be free after 7:00 AM, and a free showing is planned for the future, so you can argue it’s not quite as evil as it sounds—but still, that’s a conversion a museum doesn’t want to be having. Boston should be using The Clock’s popularity to build audiences, not raise money.

A Pop Icon’s Pasadena Roots

Eli Broad has lent his set of five Roy Lichtenstein Rouen Cathedrals (1969) to a focus show uniting them with five of Monet’s Rouen Cathedral paintings. The exhibition opened this past weekend at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and comes to LACMA Oct. 2 through Jan. 2, 2012. Broad’s set of five Cathedrals is the largest—four other sets have three paintings each.

Lichtenstein drew the idea from John Coplans’ 1968 show “Serial Imagery” at the Pasadena Art Museum. That exhibition juxtaposed Monet’s series paintings with works of such 20th-century artists such as Duchamp, Mondrian, Yves Klein, and Ad Reinhardt. Lichtenstein wasn’t included, though Andy Warhol was.

After debuting in Pasadena, “Serial Imagery” toured to Seattle (the Henry Art Gallery) and Santa Barbara. You might not think that those venues would have commanded much attention in New York. But Coplans and the Pasadena Art Museum were among the earliest promoters of pop art. Maybe Lichtenstein wanted to assert that his comic strip paintings could be as “serial” as Warhol’s soup cans were—or maybe he just liked the in-joke of a reference to Coplans’ thesis.

Van Otterloos Play ElimiDATE

The Huntington gets an unexpected mention in a Boston Globe piece on Eijk and Rose-Marie van Otterloo, whose collection of 17th-century Dutch art is now on view at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM). The Globe’s Geoff Edgers writes,

Collectors usually don’t like to talk publicly about where their art may end up, but the “Golden’’ show has the van Otterloos contemplating that very subject. Standing in her study, Rose-Marie raised a series of possibilities.

“Should it stay in Massachusetts? Should Europe have the collection? Belgium?”

Eijk was more specific.

He said if they were to give it away now, it would probably go to the MFA. But he’s interested in hearing from MFA director Malcolm Rogers about how he might be able to accommodate a library of more than 10,000 Dutch art-history books the couple recently purchased.

The van Otterloos are also considering PEM; the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif.; and the National Gallery in Washington, at which admission is free, an attractive feature for a couple who say they think a lot about how to make art accessible to the public.

While it’s always nice to hear that Easterners know about West Coast institutions, this sounds like the old squeeze play. Collectors flirt with other suitors to make their steady date jealous. Boston MFA must be frantically figuring where it would put 10,000 books. (Not mentioned among the van Otterloo dance partners is the Getty. Prior to the PEM show, the couple had a spectacular Jan Both landscape on loan to the Getty Center.)

The van Otterloos have inherited Edward and Hannah Carter’s mantle as greatest-collectors-of-Dutch-art-still-in-private-hands. They even have an Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder still life (at top), identical in size to the Carter one at LACMA, and a Hendrick Avercamp ice-skating scene. The van Otterloo collection is broader in scope than the Carters’, including portraits by Rembrandt and Hals (the most expensive, though least memorable, works: most big American museums have better examples). Those portraits, along with Gerrit Dou’s Sleeping Dog, have been on loan to the MFA. As arts blogger Judith H. Dobrzynski said of the collection, “If MFA doesn’t get it, there should be trouble in that boardroom.”

Celtics’ Hometown Museum Too Scared to Bet Painting

On Tyler Green’s urging, LACMA has made an apparently unilateral bet with Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts: If the Celtics beat the Lakers, LACMA will lend Millard Sheets’ Angels Flight to Boston for six weeks. This raises two questions: Why isn’t Boston MFA putting up a painting? Does anyone in Boston know who Millard Sheets is?