Hopkinton Center for the Arts’ “Art in Bloom”

I was lucky enough to be chosen as this year’s juror for the HCA’s “Art in Bloom” show, on view now through July 18th. The show was an absolute delight to curate. With over 180 submissions to choose from, there was so much beautiful work that it was incredibly hard to select the final 40 or so that went on the walls.

Each winning piece also has a floral arrangement created for it, creating a unique interaction between the organic artwork of Mother Nature (selected and shaped by the human hand) and the artwork that springs directly from the human mind, potentially including natural elements, or not.

Here are some photos of the well-attended event and the gallery walls (I’ve named the pieces I can identify, but comment with the other titles and artists if you know them!)

The crowd at the opening
Beverly Tinklenberg’s “Bouquet”, Sandra Delbridge’s “Leaf me play with the sunshine” and another lovely piece
Rosie Finn’s “Old Things New” and floral arrangement, two other fun pieces complement it

In my letter to the artists I spoke a bit about my methodology in selecting work:

Whenever I jury a show, I look for a couple of specific things: originality, mastery of medium, message, and how a piece may fit into the arc of the show/theme. 

 Often when curating and hanging a show I look for how pieces interact with each other: for resonances, for a particularly interesting example of a “type” of work, or for something unique that brings an added dimension to the show. 

HCA Art in Bloom 2019 program booklet

I also had the opportunity to write about each of the pieces that I selected for an award. In fact, writing for the shows I jury is actually how I originally realized how much I enjoy writing about art!

As such, I thought that I would share the pieces that I selected as the winners of the show, as well as what I wrote about each, for your enjoyment. And, if you live in the Boston area, go and see them in person!

Here’s a link to the HCA for information on hours and location.

And now… onto the artwork!

Honorable Mentions (in no particular order)

Chelsea Bradway – Creativity is Contagious

Chelsea Bradway’s “Creativity is Contagious” is a fun photograph in a series that deserved to be recognized for its attempt to merge multiple media. This piece in particular stood out. The child stands before a colorful piece of artwork filled with abstractions of body parts. Some of the most recognizable are feet and hands: and on the girl, we see her fingers stretched out, echoing the stretched fingers in the canvas. As she is (one assumes) going to be inspired in her dance by this piece of artwork, she wears pointe shoes, hence we cannot see the toes so evident in the painting. The pale pink of her shoes and skin as well as the purple of her dress and her chestnut hair echo the tones found in the painting, where added warm tones such as yellow and orange make it stand out against the wall. The figures are in constant movement, and the child seems at rest in first position, ready to be inspired to move in a graceful echo of what she sees on the wall. 

Anita Helen Cohen – Sacred Spot

A form of impressionism taken to the extreme, Anita Helen Cohen’s “Sacred Spot” is a unique take on a landscape. One can make out a gnarled tree, vegetation, perhaps a rock wall and a sunset. Yet from there the painting takes on an almost abstract quality. We have only the merest suggestions of many of these forms, our mind fills in the blanks for us. The middle of the piece is an empty area of pale green. Is it a field? A hill? To each viewer, the actual “Sacred Spot” may different and this painting both creates an image and leaves space for imagination. 

Pupa – #643

Karen Laude’s mixed-media “Pupa” series are a sprightly group of (one assumes) immature creatures created from found objects. Straddling the lines between human and insect-like forms, they invite the viewer to gaze into their many eyes, and to give them anthropomorphic qualities. For instance – does “#643” have wings or arms? Are those tiny human legs wearing pants? Are those antennae on the head or hair? Questions such as these allow the viewer to engage with Laude’s clever works on many levels and lead to a rich experience with a piece of art. Well done! 

Third Place

Sasha Parfenova – Animal Instincts

A mixed media piece, “Animal Instincts” gives the viewer a fascinating experience as they try to parse out what they are seeing. As one gets in close to examine the piece one sees, amongst other images: a flower with teeth and wings, a bird with the wing of a butterfly, and a hermit crab positioned precipitously on a poppy. The flora and fauna together with the range of scarlet to burgundy hues work together in harmony: there is a lighthearted atmosphere in a piece that could, with its undertone of surrealism, end up feeling foreboding. Instead, the viewer is destabilized by a piece of artwork that seems both whimsical and ingenious. We have entered a wonderland filled with chimera-esque creatures and one can only marvel at their uniqueness.   

Second Place

Janet Montecalvo – An Apple a Day

Janet Montecalvo’s “An Apple a Day” is a luminous representation of a store window, possibly in a leisure location such as Atlantic City. This multi-layered image draws the viewer in: we have a strongly colored background as seen through multiple panes of glass. The image is also expertly divided up into approximately three equal panels (the panes of glass, with the doors on either side), with strong framing to the left and right. Textured reflections and shadows such as the smooth glass, the bright reflective metal, and the crinkled plastic on the candied apples all speak to the high level of detail this painting demanded. Overall, this compelling work manages to be both beautiful and technically skilled. 

First Place

Rosie Finn – Old Things New

“Old Things New” by Rosie Finn is a playful take on a floral sculpture. She takes what one imagines is a cast-off high heel and gives it new life and vibrancy. Every part of the shoe-sculpture is meticulously covered with green leaves, giving a base over which Finn adds her blooms, and demonstrating the levels of detail and attention she has given to her work. Color and species selection, with brighter blossoms towards the front and back, also give a dynamic feel to the piece, as does the detail of moss, a tiny bloom and the tendril of a fern added to the bottom of the heel. This piece demands the viewers attention with both its beauty and execution. 

Boston Society of Architects – New Visions of Designed Environments

Thursday June 6th marked the opening reception of “New Visions of Designed Environments.” (The exhibit is running June 04, 2019 – Jan 03, 2020)

As said in the initial press release on the show from the BSA, “New Visions of Designed Environments will mark the first in a five-year series of rotating photography exhibitions that will take place at BSA Space in the Storefront Gallery and second floor conference rooms. Exhibitions are expected to change every six months and will feature a roster of photographers exploring themes related to architecture, the built environment, and the power of design to transform and improve people’s lives.

I am honored to be one of the three jurors for this inaugural year. I have been working with architectural photographer Peter Vanderwarker and Museum of Fine Arts curator Meghan Melvin. The BSA will continue with new jurors in the second half of 2020 as they continue their project.

This photographic open call attracted works by both amateur and professional photographers. All represented diverse perspectives made manifest though a static image. Their unique visions, as well as the thoughtful placement of the works, made for an experience where one is invited to both meditate upon the artistry of the images as well as the architecture they contain.

There are works by the following artists on view:

Sheldon Bachus
Ramsey Bakhoum
Sam Balukonis
Natalia Boltukhova
Elisif Brandon
Jamie Cascio
Glenn Church
Anthony Crisafulli
Lynne Damianos
Raj Das
Jeff Dietrich
Will Donham
Larry Dunn
Steve Dunwell
Maia Erslev
Howard Fineman
Jeffrey Fullerton
Mary Gerakaris
Christoph Gervais
Justin Hamel
Rachel Harris-Huffman
John Horner
Katrina Jannen
Louis Jones
Greer Muldowney
Eric Newnam
Mercedes Nuñez
Mark Peterson
Rudi Pizzi
Ganesh Ramachandran
Andrew Shea
Jonathan Sobin
Rustam Tahir
Setareh Tajbakhsh
Aaron Wilder
Jenn Wood
FeiFan Zhang

One of the conference room galleries. Photo credit: Peter Vanderwarker
Spectators checking out the show
Artist posing in front of his work
Howard Fineman and his piece, “Light at the End of the Tunnel, National Gallery of Art, D.C.”
Viewer checking out Greer Muldowney’s pieces

A few exceptional pieces…

FeiFan Zhang, “No.1140 from series No Man’s Land”

FeiFan Zhang, “No.1140 from series No Man’s Land”, 2016. Archival Inkjet Print.

Zhangs’s piece as an architectural photograph stands out for its palette and the geometry it captures. The color scheme, almost completely shades of gray, with a tan brick wall cutting straight through the center of the image, leaves the viewer with a sense of an image with an almost surreal, metallic quality. The shiny skyscraper and the way the sun hits the metal ducts and I-beams lead the mind to believe that the rest of the image also has a silvered quality to it. The gravel and wall and the tiny house take on a magical metallic aspect as well. The contrast between the fading white wall and its unpainted and shadowed continuation around the corner also seem to suggest a certain luminosity. The vertical beams and building line up, stretching to the sky, as the walls cut the image horizontally, dividing the image into masses to discover individually. Each aspect of the photograph, from the street and sidewalk with the hidden train tracks, to the pattern of rocks tumbling down the hill in the gravel is ripe for an eye to explore and enjoy.

Andrew Shea’s shot of Boston’s Theatre District

Andrew Shea

What a fantastic shot of Boston’s theatre district Andrew Shea managed to capture in the image above. The reflection in the puddle is clearly the “star of the show” with Paramount’s marquee glowing both above and below a horizontal axis. The curving line of the sidewalk with the inky black puddle and old-fashioned streetlamp complete the right-hand side of the piece, drawing the eye towards the distance. The streak of brake lights from a passing car does the same from the left. The curves and lines work together to create a compelling perspective on Boston that one does not usually see.

Justin Hamil’s “Zip Code 31730”

Justin Hamil, “Zip Code 31730”

Justin Hamil’s “Zip Code 31730” is part of a series focusing on the murals found at post offices around the US. This piece was an especially compelling addition to the series “New Visions” because of its unique composition and view.

First, this is an indoor space, and one that includes people. Many of the photographs received as part of the show were only comprised of architecture. (And while the images were fascinating, beautiful and well-composed, it can also be interesting to remember the “who” in architecture. The spaces being created are for a use or for the aesthetic pleasure of a viewer.)

In this scene, we have both the living people at the post office and those in the mural above their heads. The four civilians visiting the post office do not interact with each other, but bring a natural life to the space. In addition, their clothing choices seem to mimic the mural at the top. The peach shirt and blue pants (the outfit found on the man at the far left) can be found in the mural above, on a man wearing a blue hat rather than white. The peach color, as well as the scarlet red of the woman’s pants are repeated in many items of clothing at the top. This color connection helps to take what could just be a snapshot of a Post Office and turn it into a work of art.

The viewer may also notice the interplay of other aspects that make this a lively photograph. Working from the bottom up, we can see a checkerboard floor, with a patterned texture on each square. The black and whites speckles on the floor are echoed in the marble wainscoting, which is also black and white. The gentleman in the middle of the image, wearing what may be camouflage, seems to blend into the wainscoting as the colors and patterns in the cloth are not that different from the marble.

The middle of the piece is dominated by the wooden post office window on the left, and the display cases and doors in the middle. The placement of the window on the left draws the eye of the viewer towards the center of the piece. The rich colors of the wood can also be found in the mural above, and help to tie the piece together, as do the other architectural elements.

While on the surface, this is a picture of a couple of people waiting at their local post office, at its core this image is so much more. This photograph is a snapshot of America at a certain moment in time; it also looks backwards a piece of artwork that was created for a post office. This piece can remind us that there is beauty in the mundane, as long as we are willing to look for it.

About BSA’s Space

BSA Space, Boston’s leading cultural institution for architecture and design, is home to the Boston Society of Architects/AIA (BSA) and the BSA Foundation. The BSA is one of the oldest chapters of the American Institute of Architects. The BSA Foundation, a charitable organization, supports activities that illuminate the ways that design improves the quality of our lives. All exhibitions at BSA Space are supported by the BSA Foundation. BSA Space is open Monday through Friday from 10:00 am–6:00 pm, and on weekends and holidays from 10:00 am–5:00 pm. Admission is free and open to the public. For more information visit architects.org.

Boston Society of Architects

Copley’s Mercy Otis Warren at the MFA

With her serious gaze and sumptuous attire, Mercy Otis Warren (1728–1814), in the American wing of the MFA is definitely worth a look, both for its execution by John Singleton Copley (1738–1815) and for her remarkable life.

John Singleton Copley, Mrs. James Warren (Mercy Otis) c. 1763 Oil on canvas
On view at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, Carolyn A. and Peter S. Lynch Gallery (Gallery 132)

The portrait of Mrs. Warren is traditional in its format, with her body in profile and her head facing forwards.

The background is only vaguely rendered: there are trees behind her, perhaps out a window, and what one imagines to be curtain sweeps behind her head and towards the line of her shoulder and dress. The dark brown of the curtain, left only as a wash, allows her pale complexion and shining dark eyes to engage the viewer. Copley has captured a complex gaze: one might interpret it as soulful, given the fact that her sister, Mrs. John Gray is known to have died the same year that this portrait was painted (1763).

Mrs. Warren’s hands delicately reach out as if to touch the flowers in front of her (thought to be nasturtiums, a flower associated with the American Revolution), yet do not touch the blossoms themselves. Her right index finger curls around a small green shoot.

With most of her writing days lay ahead, the choice of this flower and her support of a tendril are prescient of her role in the American Revolution as a poet, writer and propagandist. Copley doesn’t acknowledge or support this future career of Warren’s; he could have painted her with a quill in her hand instead of a flowering vine (a vine being more adept at representing a family than a career). Yet, Warren was to be her own woman, forging a path for herself as an American political and creative voice.

Despite the uniqueness of Warren as an individual, the focal point of this piece could be argued to be the beauty of the clothing, which was actually painted multiple times by Copley on different women, all associated with the Warren family.

The MFA’s website has an excellent explanation:

Mercy Warren’s dress appears in two other portraits by Copley: Mrs. Benjamin Pickman (Mary Toppan) (1763, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut) and Mrs. Daniel Sargent (Mary Turner) (1763, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco). Mrs. Pickman and Mrs. Sargent were much younger than Mercy Warren, and were painted at the time of their marriages. Art historian Margaretta Lovell has suggested that the expensive blue dress belonged to the Warrens and that they loaned the dress to Mrs. Pickman and Mrs. Sargent for the purpose of wearing it for their portraits, augmenting it with different trimmings but emphasizing family friendships and alliances.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

A rich blue, in all images, the dress shines with the texture of silk. The ruched edging and gold braid show off its opulence. Warren’s version is the most modest of the three; with a transparent lace shawl covering her shoulders and the low neckline. Her positioning in profile also shows off less of the dress’s complex embroidery, whereas the portraits Mrs. Pickman and Mrs. Sargent, both are more revealing both of the women’s bodies and of the dress.

Mercy Otis Warren is not merely remembered as a subject of a Copley portrait, or the owner of an extravagant blue dress. In terms of Warren’s intellectual accomplishments, few women of the revolutionary time period can be considered her equal. Warren was a pamphlet writer, poet, playwright, historian and prolific correspondent with many of the founding fathers. Alexander Hamilton is quoted as having said of her, “In the career of dramatic composition at least, female genius in the United States has outstripped the male.”(1)

As a pamphlet writer Warren is known to have advocated for the inclusion of a Bill of Rights in a version of the constitution (and as such her work, published anonymously as “A Colombian Patriot” under the title Observations on the new Constitution, and on the Federal and State Conventions actually opposed that version’s of the constitution’s ratification). During the revolutionary time period, her work was published anonymously, as was almost all works, to avoid retaliation by the British. This may have allowed it to be judged on its merits. She is considered one of the few women of her time period to have written for publication. In the 1790s she published poetry and plays under her own name; rare for her time.

Warren was a prolific correspondent, originally answering letters on behalf of her father and brother when necessary, and later doing the same for her husband. Her keen wit and passion for the cause of the revolution shines through in the following anecdote:

During the war, Warren worked as her husband’s personal secretary and managed their Plymouth farm while he was away governing as president of the Massachusetts provincial congress. She kept up a frequent correspondence with John Adams, a protégé of her brother’s, and his wife, Abigail. In November 1775, as the British held Boston under siege, James Warren wrote to Adams, a friend and delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, urging him to give up on trying to reconcile with George III. “Your Congress can be no longer in any doubts, and hesitancy,” he wrote in his lawyerly style, “about taking capital and effectual strokes.”

Mercy insisted on adding a paragraph of her own. “You should no longer piddle at the threshold,” she dictated. “It is time to leap into the theatre to unlock the bars, and open every gate that impedes the rise and growth of the American republic.”

Smithsonian Magazine

Warren is also the author of the three-volume History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution. The title may be a reference to The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon’s epic six volume work published from 1776-1789. This series is considered the first history of the American Revolution written by a woman, and one of the definitive versions from that time period, although it should be noted that John Adams believed it to be an oversimplification of the Revolution’s history. It did include the concept that the “Battle of Yorktown” was not actually a battle at all.

An accomplished writer, and a woman who was able to push her political agenda with her pen, Mercy Otis Warren’s portrait at the MFA should be admired not only for its beauty, but also for the complexity and character of the woman it represents.

  1.  Zagarri, Rosemarie (2014). A Woman’s Dilemma: Mercy Otis Warren and the American Revolution (Second ed.). Somerset, NJ: Wiley. p. 142.

Tips for the Louvre (and some masterpieces to enjoy)

We’re at the start of summer travel season, so I thought I’d share some insight from my six years of living in Paris. As a card-carrying member of the Louvre for almost my entire stay in the City of Lights I was a frequent visitor – and still have not seen everything. Nonetheless, there are a couple of pieces of advice I can impart and some pieces of artwork that I could visit over and over again.

1. Skip the line at La Pyramide

The snaking line to descend into I.M. Pei’s Pyramide at the center of the Louvre’s courtyard isn’t a line to buy tickets: it’s a bottleneck to go through security. It’s also not the only way into the museum. Instead, and especially if you take the Métro, get off at “Palais Royale – Musée du Louvre” and follow signs for the Carousel du Louvre. You can also access the Carousel from Rue de Rivoli, at number 99.

The Carousel is the underground shopping mall between the Métro and the museum. You’ll find a security checkpoint to enter the museum at the other end from the Carousel entrance. Just keep walking, and you can go through and buy tickets on the other side, with significantly less wait time.

While there were or are other access points listed (other than the Pyramide and the Carousel), my understanding is that they are for members or for groups only.

2. Buy tickets in advance

Leverage the power of the internet! This is the most visited art museum in the world. As I researched the Louvre Website, a warning popped up that they weren’t letting any more un-ticketed people in for the day… and it wasn’t event 1:30 pm Paris time yet. Don’t get disappointed on the day you plan to see the Louvre – buy tickets in advance – especially during tourist season.

3. What to see?

In my opinion there are two ways to visit the Louvre:

  1. Identify a couple of “must-see” items you may have on your “list”: The Mona Lisa, Winged Victory, Venus de Milo, etc. and chart a path from one to another. Try to enjoy the scenery as you go. Just getting from one iconic masterpiece to another will probably be enough to cover an entire first-time visit.
  2. The other option is to choose a wing that houses a genre of art you enjoy and start there. There are three wings at the Louvre: Richelieu, Denon and Sully. Sully connects Richelieu and Denon. I’d recommend choosing either of the longer wings Richelieu or Denon and you can always wander into Sully as you go. Or, start in Sully and go from there.

The map of the first floor (below) is an illustration of just how large, and complex of a museum this is.

Remember, this is the largest art museum in the world. You can’t possibly see it all.

4. Be prepared for a Mona Lisa letdown

By Victor Grigas – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Unless you’re going specifically to crowd-surf, you may find your experience seeing the Mona Lisa to be less than transcendent. If you haven’t heard it before, hear it from me: the Mona Lisa is probably smaller than you imagine. Google lists it as 30.31″ x 20.87″. It’s also behind bulletproof glass and constantly surrounded by hundreds of people (taking what I have to assume are terrible pictures).

If you feel it absolutely necessary to see La Joconde (as the French call her) in person I’d recommend a walk-by – then examine a copy in-depth online or in a book for a better experience. You won’t get up close in person unless you are truly committed.

5. Finally: On to the art!

There are eight curatorial departments in the Louvre:

  • Decorative Arts
  • Egyptian Antiquities
  • Islamic Art
  • Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities
  • Near Eastern Antiquities
  • Paintings
  • Prints and Drawings
  • Sculptures

According to Wikipedia, The Louvre owns approximately 460,000 objects and displays 35,000 of them.

Most of the pieces below are paintings This is a personal list – some of my favorite pieces in the Louvre (in no particular order). I don’t cover all the departments. I’ve also skipped over some of the most famous pieces and instead focused on a few that I enjoyed over and over again. Feel free to comment with works that you love from the museum as well!

La Jeune Martyre

Paul Delaroche, La Jeune Martyre (The Young Martyr), 1855
(First Floor in Denon Wing, Room 700)

Delaroche’s Martyr is a stunning piece, and at 4 1/2 feet wide by 5 feet tall, its size and rounded top help to set it apart as unique.

Depicting a drowned young woman, ethereally beautiful even in death, this image exudes the quiet peace of death and a sense of spirit one expects from a living being.

The young woman floats, her hands bound in what seem to be leather laces. A delicate golden halo suggests her purity of soul, as does her flowing white dress. Painted at the end of the Romantic Era, the earlier version (1853, hanging in the Hermitage) with the longer title “A Christian Martyr Drowned in the Tiber During the Reign of Diocletian” gives more context. This young woman was considered an example of a young Christian in the era of Roman persecution, and particularly Diocletianic Persecution.

Delaroche, Paul – A Christian Martyr Drowned in the Tiber During the Reign of Diocletian (1853, Hermitage)

In the background, a man and a woman look on, and it has been suggested that these could be her parents.

Detail of Version of The Young Martyr in The Hermitage

Small details help to make this painting even more interesting. In the upper left background we can see a warmly colored sky and stars. Questions remain as to whether or not the sun is rising or setting, and which stars are visible. Different interpretations ensure from the time of day. Is it sunrise and hence the dawn of God and goodness reigning over evil? Or is it sunset and a reign of evil befalling the world?

“Hermaphrodite Endormi/Sleeping Hermaphroditos”

Hermaphrodite Endormi/Sleeping Hermaphroditos Greek marble, c. 3rd-1st centuries BC
Sully, Ground Floor, Room 348

This sculpture is always a must-see for me. It’s steps away from the iconic Venus de Milo, and while it’s mentioned as a “hidden treasures” of the Louvre in many lists (and hence… isn’t that hidden), it still deserves its place here.

Before discussing my love of this piece I want to personally say that the interest for me isn’t the unconventional juxtaposition of anatomy. Perhaps that’s what makes many people do a “double-take” (and honestly, if that’s what’s necessary for someone to actually stop an examine a piece of artwork in this day and age… so be it). Rather, the execution as well as my love of Ancient Greek mythology and beautiful art from multiple time periods come together here.

First, let’s take apart the two pieces: the cushion upon which Hermaphroditos rests was actually sculpted by Bernini in the 17th century. The cushion, looking like it would spring back under a gentle fingertip pressure, is an exceptional pedestal for this piece.

The figure of Hermaphroditos dates from the 3rd to the 1st century BC and was found near the Baths of Diocletians in what is now Rome. Take a moment to appreciate how exceptionally sculpted the folds of cloth on this piece are, as well as the supple muscles and tendrils of hair. I consistently marvel at such ancient pieces, made of stone, that look like they are humans that could spring to life at any moment.

Photo Credit: Musee du Louvre – Theirry Ollivier

The background of the the story is also fascinating. Hermaphroditos (son of Hermes and Aphrodite) is said to have refused the romantic overtures of the nymph Salmacis. Unable to resign herself to rejection, Salmacis convinced Zeus to unite the two of them into one body for all time: “producing one bisexed being with male sexual organs and the voluptuous curves of a woman.”

The official interpretation on the Louvre’s website suggests that “Hermaphroditos has only fallen half asleep: the twisting pose of the body and the tension apparent down to the slightly raised left foot are indicative of a dream state.” Before knowing this story, and even now, I imagine Hermaphroditos having cried himself/themselves (clearly this is the perfect individual to use a plural pronoun!) to sleep. I saw great sadness in this figure’s sleep – perhaps I was projecting my own difficulty and unhappiness with my life in Paris? (more on that in a future post…) But now that I know of Hermaphroditos being forced to live in the same body for all time with a nymph for whom he didn’t particularly care, I feel that sense of sadness even more strongly.

So, go and enjoy this piece, but do so knowing the history of its different pieces and the mythology behind it. Decide for youself: is Hermaphroditos’ a sorrowful slumber or a restful dream state?

Raft of the Medusa

By Théodore Géricault, “Le Radeau de la Méduse” 1818-1819 Public Domain

Disaster has always held great fascination for humankind, despite its inherent morbidity. Think of those of us whose first instinct is to hold up a smartphone when there’s an emergency, rather than to help in some way. While I am certainly not accusing Géricault of any sort of analog voyeurism, his work did intend to bring a certain “immediacy” of this great tragedy and immense suffering to the consumers of art in France and Great Britain.

A brief background on the piece: the unfortunately named “Méduse” (Medusa – from Greek Mythology one assumes – where every man who looks upon her face turns to stone, and the word for jellyfish in French) as a seafaring vehicle also had the distinction of killing all but approximately 15 of its crew members in a shipwreck off the coast of Africa. While approximately 147 survived the initial sinking of the frigate, almost all perished, committed suicide in despair or were murdered in the 13 days at sea where dehydration, starvation and cannibalism all ensued.

The technical brilliance of this painting, the story behind it as well as the the story of the artist are all worth learning. If you’re interested in learning more, click over to the wikipedia article which is well-written and well-researched.

In his short life as an artist (Géricault painted the Raft of the Medusa at 27 and died at only 32), managed to create one of the enduring masterpieces of the Romantic era, a painting centered around the timeless concepts of death, despair, and the slippery nature of hope.

Ingres’ Nudes

After such a dark and shall I say, male work, let us now slip into the feminine world of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Ingres’ work, and particularly his portraiture, has a special luminosity. The women have perfect alabaster skin, the sheen of the paint mimics the lush fabrics perfectly and the colors are somehow both vibrant (prints, feathers) and muted (the great expanses of nude flesh) at the same time. While I don’t particularly care for what I consider to be “Oriental Fetishism,” I still admire Ingres’ work. His portrait of Comtesse d’Haussonville from the Frick Collection is breathtaking, and will be discussed in a future blog post.

Below are two few of my favorites from the Louvre – I highly suggest seeking them out.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique INGRES, La Grande Odalisque, 1814
Jean-Auguste-Dominique INGRES, The Turkish Bath, 1852-1859, modified in 1862
Oil on canvas glued to wood

Unfortunately, these two pieces are not in proximity to one another. I’d be curious to know more about how the Louvre curates their works and how often they rotate their works in the galleries. More information to be gathered for a future blog post, I guess!

You may be wondering: Is all the art in the Louvre European?

“Diversity” can be a touchy subject in art, especially in Europe. That’s because a lot of non-Western pieces in museums such as the Louvre are usually the result of unauthorized excavation or from colonialism.

A future post will discuss Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, which contains artifacts from all over the Middle East, including an entire temple transported and rebuilt. There is so much to say on this subject; it’s simply too complex to adequately address here.

That said, if we look at the artwork presented at the Louvre from a strictly face-value point of view, in terms of what is interesting or enjoyable (not questioning why it’s there, how it was acquired, or anything more) There’s a fair amount of non-Western art in the Louvre worth exploring.

There is an amazing department devoted to Ancient Egypt, for instance, as well as a section on Mesopotamia with friezes and sculptures that remain etched in my mind. I would be remiss not to mention a couple of of the breathtaking pieces from outside the Western art tradition.

The Winged Human-Headed Bull

Photo Credit: Musee du Louvre – Theirry Ollivier
Technical Description (Translated from French)
Winged human-headed bull
Neo-Assyrien Era, Reign of Sargon II (721-705)
Facade m, Door k, Khorsabad, antique Dur-Sharrukin, Assyria, Iraq
High-relief and rounded, alabaster
Height : 4.20 m. ; Length. : 4.36 m. ; Depth. : 0.97 m.
Excavation by P.E. Botta 1843 – 1844

These fascinating creatures, with their chimera-esque quality similar to that of the Sphinx, once were guardians at gates or doorways of the city and the palace of Dur Sharrukin (present-day Khorsabad, North-East of Mosul, Iraq) under the reign of Sargon II. One of the most interesting features of these high relief pieces is that they seem to have five feet: they have two front hooves that are stationary, and then three behind them, giving the illusion of movement.

Such pieces can remind us all of the creativity and richness of human civilization across the world, and across many eras, and the many ways in which humanity has tried to protect itself from misfortune.

Hammurabi’s Code

Photo Credit: RMN / Franck Raux
Technical Description (Translated from French)
Hammurabi’s Code, King of Babylon
1792 – 1750 B.C. Basalt
Height. 2.25 m; Width. 0.65 m
Excavation by J. de Morgan, 1901 – 1902

While I don’t consider the aesthetic value of Hammurabi’s code to be particularly high in my mind; its value as one of the oldest set of codified laws is priceless. This is also the original. The others, in museums all over the world, are replicas.

It’s definitely worth having a look to see the original document that codified “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”

6. Go to Café Marly for post-visit break (or dinner with a view of the museum)

Image courtesy of Café Marly

Once you’re ready to exit the Louvre and find a place to eat, Café Marly can’t be beat in terms of location. It is housed under the Louvre’s arcades, looking out over the main courtyard or in on Louvre’s marble statues in a brightly-lit atrium.

Café Marly is not really a cafe and is not affiliated with the museum (in other words, it’s no snack bar).  It’s a restaurant with style and servers with attitude.  The food is fine (nothing exquisite) but here it is more about the scene and the setting.  If you go, I suggest trying to book a table out on the terrace, and enjoy the experience.

Café Marly
93, rue de Rivoli – in the 1st arrondissement

The courtyard of the Louvre, 2007

In conclusion…

The Louvre is one of the world’s great museums and is unparalleled in terms of its heritage. With these pieces of advice perhaps your first (or next) visit will be a pleasant experience where you see new art (or the same pieces but in a different light).

Sharing Gordon Parks’ work with children

After seeing the Gordon Parks exhibit now showing at Harvard’s Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art, it was clear that the work has a lot to offer to children who may not be aware of this time period in history.

While not a trained art teacher nor museum educator, I do have a Master’s Degree in Arts in Teaching (French) and worked as an educator for approximately 10 years (pre-K through 12, mostly in English as a Foreign Language in various foreign countries), and I now own an art gallery. With my current role, my two children and my teaching credentials, I like to think I’m qualified to talk about how to engage children with various subjects, including art.

Theme 1: Visually Compelling Work

The composition of Gordon Parks’s work is technically excellent. Sharing what makes those photographs great with children can be a fun exercise. Obviously, at what level this is done depends on the child.

Below are a few suggestions for different levels of children. They start with more simple shapes and color and go to more complex concepts of how certain Parks’s work tends to mirror Renaissance compositions. Even the most simple explanations are appropriate for all, whereas the more complex should be saved for older children or adults.

Color and Shapes (ages 2-5)

Langston Hughes
Ethel Sharrieff, Chicago, Illinois, 1963
Untitled, Shady Grove, Alabama, 1956

Using the three photographs above, there is a lot one can do for talking to a child. To engage, usually it’s best to start with the obvious, and the younger the child, (approx. 2-5 years old) don’t spend more than 30 seconds or a minute per photo, let the child be the guide. Let art be fun – not a chore.

Suggested Questions (can be used with all the photographs, and all art!)

Who / What do you see?

What shapes do you see?

What colors do you see?

How many people/things can you count?

What body parts do you see/can you name? (where is the man/boy/woman/girl ‘s ….)

What do you think is happening? Why?

Can you tell me a story about the picture? (to go deeper)

Composition (ages 5 and above)

A family portrait

Delving into composition, a compare and contrast can be a rich activity for children as it allows them an easy way to talk about artwork on their own level.

Such an activity may also drive home the artistic nature of Parks’ work, demonstrating his artistic genius as children may be able to appreciate the similarities between his work and those of masters from centuries before. Nonetheless, getting children to like the work isn’t the key – it’s getting them to look closely and in a different way than they usually look at things.

The Fontenelles at the Poverty Board is a beautiful piece that exudes an almost Renaissance-like quality due to its composition of the family, and yet is clearly modern with the clothing, background and even the way the photograph was taken over the shoulder of an individual we can assume is a bureaucrat.

The Fontenelles at the Poverty Board, Harlem, New York, 1967

An enjoyable activity may be to compare and contrast it with an older piece of artwork. I might suggest something with similar yet different aspects. In the first example, we find Nicolas Poussin’s The Holy Family on the Steps, where a triangular composition of five bodies is also present. Such similarities can be a good jumping off point.

Questions such as, what’s the same? What’s different? can start a conversation.

If children are having trouble delving into their personal analysis of the work, you can start with asking about how many people are in the image, and what their relationships may be. You can ask:

Who do you thing these people are? What do you think are their relationships to each other? What they are wearing? What season do you imagine it might be? What is each person in the image doing? What is the artist trying to say? Remember to try to follow up their answers with “why do you think that?” Getting children to give you evidence of their answers provides a richer experience for all.

If possible, try to avoid getting into “value judgements” of which piece of artwork one likes more, and instead try to think about how they are similar and different, despite the centuries that separate them.

Nicolas Poussin, The Holy Family on the Steps, 1648

An individual portrait

Parks’ Untitled below is reminiscent of many Renaissance profile paintings. With this woman’s beautifully ornate hair (the hat, the braid), her striking glasses, perfectly stern expression as well as the folds of her dress, she seems to be a work of art in herself.

Untitled, Washington D.C. 1963

As such, comparing her to another profile painting from hundreds of years previous might be an easy way to see how artistic and painterly Parks’ work really is.

Antonio del Pollaiuolo, Profile Portrait of a Young Woman, 1465

Similarly to the first set of images, here we can again compare and contrast the two works. Similarities and differences abound, and using questions such as the dress and look of the two women as well as the background would be good places to start.

What about skin color?

With both of these sets of images, and with much of art history, it is important to note that (as we see above) there is an unfortunate preponderance of European art (and Caucasian faces, and artists) in the “canon” of art history. What is fantastic about Parks is that he helped, in his own small way, to bring his own perspective and to bring another face and another view to art and journalism.

This imbalance may be a topic to either bring up unprompted or to address if the child mentions it. I would simply recommend that skin color, especially if brought up by a child, is never something to be ignored or glossed over as a topic of conversation. While every parent or adult has to decide how to address it themselves, I find that acknowledging the vast variation of skin color that exists (it’s not just black and white…) and trying to drive home the message that all skin colors are equally good (“we are all the same on the inside”), works for me. This has been a simple (and hopefully effective) message.

Theme 2: Segregation

In looking at Gordon Parks’ work it is, indeed, impossible to ignore the concept of skin color and the formative role that played in many people’s lives in the Jim Crow South, and how the undercurrents of racism and inequality continue to influence lives today.

Parks has many images from his collection that can help illustrate a message of inequality, especially for children. In presenting such images, it’s best to work with children who are mature enough to empathize with others. This means probably at least 5 years or older. Being able to “put themselves in someone else’s shoes” will allow these images to have a real impact.

Below are three selected images: one of children looking in at a carnival that they cannot attend, another where a family is ordering ice cream from the “colored” line, and a third where a family is drinking water from the “colored” water fountain.

A good jumping off point is to start with similar activities from the start of this post: talk to the child/children about what they see/notice. What do they think is happening? What is the artist trying to tell us? What questions do they have (“I see… I think… I wonder…”) From there, a conversation about what is happening in the image can commence.

Outside Looking In, Mobile, Alabama, 1956
Untitled, Shady Grove, Alabama, 1956
At Segregated Drinking Fountain, Mobile, Alabama, 1956

Once a conversation has begun either about one or more of the images, children may volunteer their own feelings about what they see. If not, they can be asked directly about how they would feel if they were one of the children. Following up the answers with a “why” may give more insight or lead to a more fruitful conversation.

Such a conversation should ideally be part of a larger study of the topic of Civil Rights if possible, or part of a continuing discussion either in school or at home about Civil Rights/Racism/Injustice/Social Justice. One-off discussions with children on such topics such as segregation will never make as much as an impact as an ongoing dialogue.

Conclusion

Sharing artwork with children can sometimes feel like a daunting task. Bringing a child (or – even harder – multiple children) to an art museum can feel overwhelming. That said, there are always ways to share art with children. Whether through brief visits to exhibits or galleries (and don’t forget to prep children beforehand on what skills to be “practicing”!), or looking at a book full of paintings, photographs or sculptures, there’s always something new to discover. Or, in this day and age, just ask a child what kind of art they’d like to look up online – they’re sure to give you something (even if you just end up looking at photographs or paintings of lizards!).

With such comfort around art will come the ability to use it as a tool for dialogue. Here, in this post, it has been used with younger children as an enjoyable exercise to look at the forms and shapes one sees in art. For slightly older children, has been used as a compare-and-contrast analysis between two pieces of artwork. In the final set of images we saw how art, and particularly photography, can also be used as a historical artifact and an educational tool to help younger generations understand the struggles of the older generations.

While art may sometimes seem like a static piece of material hanging on the wall, it’s up to us, those who love it and have the capacity to use it to teach, to do so, and to help it come alive for others! Please use this post and any other pieces of artwork that move you to engage children, and help pass on a love and appreciation for the arts!

The visual language of Gordon Parks

The Gordon Parks exhibit, on view now at Harvard’s Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art, is a exceptional body of work. The collection, that of Alicia Keys and Kasseem Dean (also known as Swizz Beatz), gives an overview of many different areas of Park’s work, and lets the eloquence of his imagery shine.

Left to right: Consulting curator Maurice Berger, Radcliffe Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Alicia Keys, Swizz Beats, Henry Louis Gates Jr, Peter W. Kunhardt Jr. (Photograph from the Harvard Gazette)

The Cooper Gallery deserves praise for the show is beautifully lit, and curated in a manner that draws the viewer through the exhibit, leaving one eager to both linger in front of each image and to see more at the same time.

The first photograph seen when arriving is a reimagined “American Gothic” entitled “American Gothic, Washington, D.C.” Cleaning woman Ella Watson imitates the iconic painting as she stands holding a broom and a mop rather than a pitchfork, with an American flag behind her rather than buildings.

Parks’ image depicts Watson on her own; she is both the masculine and feminine energy in this image: she wears glasses and stares unabashedly at the artist with her mouth grimly set, like the male figure in the original American Gothic. Yet, Watson is also in feminine attire with her slim waist on display, and details such as she sleeves of her dress. Parks melds both male and female into one persona and has her stand beneath the American flag, rather than in front of a traditional farmhouse and barn.

Her placement in front of the flag, her head is perfectly bisecting it, seems to imply that Parks wished to make a strong statement about either the working class, persons of color or perhaps both. Parks gives Watson a placement of importance, clearly well thought-out and suggests value the artist places on Watson’s contribution.

As one moves further into the exhibition, one is confronted over and over again, either with images making reference to art (such as above), literature (like his Invisible Man series based on Ralph Ellison’s book) or to current events of the time. All provide fodder for visually stunning and thought-provoking images.

Hands

Given the fact that Ella Watson’s hands remained invisible in the reimagining of American Gothic, it’s ironic to note that the first series of works in this show seem to focus on hands. Fingers point, hands reach out or they clutch objects, and we the viewers and left to interpret meaning.

In the image below, a hand reaches out from a pool of water, seemingly drowning. the fingers and arm stretch out of a rippling reflection – searching for assistance. The photograph’s grey-green cast contributes to this sinister moment with its otherworldly palette. The viewer is left with just this one piece of the story – just one frame in what was so a much longer tale. It can leave one short of breath.

Gordon Parks, Untitled.
New York, New York. 1957
Archival Pigment Print

A more subtle hand gesture, yet again unsettling, awaits just across from it: a child is presented with two baby dolls in two adult hands: one black and one white. He gestures subtly to the white one, seemingly selecting it. This image was from “Doll Test” where a psychologist was studying internalized racism. Parks eloquently captures this significant and heartbreaking moment where a black child chooses a white doll rather than a black one, in a single photograph.

A piece from Park’s Life series “The Atmosphere of Crime” series shows another eloquent hand; one that elegantly dangles a cigarette through prison bars. Yet, his other hand grips the bars tightly.

The timeless nature of this image, simple elegant hands, blocks of color, and a shadow slanting across the wall make it seem like it could almost be a photograph. It could be an image from any age: as much from 70 years ago as from today.

To delve deeper into the sociological side of this image, the disproportionate number of people of color who are incarcerated, even today make this piece timeless.

For context, find the tables below. While, dear reader, you probably didn’t need me to point out that there was an imbalance between the black population as a portion of the percentage incarcerated, nor that this is a long-standing problem (dating back to Park’s day), these figures do help to clearly illustrate the starkness of this disparity.

“Incarceration in the United States” Wikipedia
Race of Prisoners Admitted to State and Federal Institutions, 1926-86
By Patrick A. Langan, Ph.D.

Here we are, almost seventy years after many of the photographs were taken any yet it feels as though some of them could have been taken yesterday: the same issues remain and the imagery is timeless in its beauty.

Certainly, “timeless” is an adjective that cannot be applied to all of Park’s work. He has recorded history with his lens as well: the portraits he has taken give glimpses of both powerful and unguarded moments amongst historical icons. It’s a delight to see such individuals such as Muhammad Ali recorded at the height of his career in rich black and white photographs. Malcolm X, photographed emerging from darkness while he speaks, is also another inspired piece.

A selection of photographs devoted to Muhammad Ali
Malcolm X

While Park’s portraits of celebrities are wonderful, personally I find the works that focus on less well-known individuals is where Park’s artistic eye really shows through.

Park’s focus on social justice and recording the Jim Crow era in the South is both a historical artifact and an example of excellence in photography. These photographs feature the every person living their life, and allow us all to project ourselves into their reality.

They are also more accessible to a younger audience in terms of helping them to grasp the injustices of the Jim Crow era – and sharing artwork with a younger generation – and particularly political and socially conscious artwork is something incredibly important. The second Parks blog post (coming soon) will focus on these photographs, and also how to share them with children. 

Jules Arthur’s Work for Resilient Sisterhood Project

On May 11th I had the honor of attending the Resilient Sisterhood‘s event entitled “A Celebration to Remember Our Foremothers in Gynecology.” This may sound like a strange event to have even the most tenuous connection with art… but stick with me.

First of all, let’s start with what the Resilient Sisterhood Project is. In a nutshell, they are a Boston-area group dedicated to reproductive equality. Click the links to learn more about them and about the concept of reproductive equality via at New York Times article that explains how the US is full of inequality in the health system: particularly for black women.

The event I attended was filled with amazing music and eloquent speakers all addressing the topic of the history of medicine and the hidden contributions of women. The focus was particularly on Dr. J. Marion Sims, who experimented on black women as he perfected certain gynecological techniques (such as repairing a fistula) and inventing the speculum. I also learned that he is the physician with the most statues honoring him in the United States, yet is also known to have practiced medicine under horribly cruel medical conditions in an completely unethical manner, with only questionable consent from his patients, as he experimented on slaves.

This NPR segment sums up the situation neatly.

Sims also kept quite good records. He, however, only names three of the female slaves in his writings. As such, these three women, Anarcha, Betsy and Lucy, are used a proxy to represent all the women who underwent experimentation at his hand. To properly honor all three of these women, the Resilient Sisterhood Project commissioned three paintings by Jules Arthur. The unveiling of these works was the culmination of the event on May 11th.

These are beautiful works and deserve to be seen and honored, both for their workmanship and for the story that they help tell. While I could never do as good a job as Jules Arthur describing his own work, I am delighted to attempt to analyze aspects of of these paintings in my own particular way, bringing my personal perspective.

Jules Arthur, Mothers of Gynecology

Supporters and patrons of the Resilient Sisterhood Project ended up commissioning three works altogether once they had seen the amazing strength of the first piece (pictured above). This piece is reminiscent of much of Arthur’s work, as can be seen on his website. His pieces tend to feature shoulder-up portraits, done in a circular frame. This style is often called a “tondo” in the art history community, a derivative of the the Italian word for round, “rotondo.”

The details in this work of art really help to bring it alive and give it the depth of meaning that Arthur sought. The piece is made on a solid plank of wood with metal corners. The tondo has a functional yet decorative metal frame with rivets. Lace, or a worn wallpaper, embellishes the top of the piece, masking the distressed wooden planks. The blue in the wallpaper echoes the same color found in the kerchief adorning the head of one of the women in the portraits, and the scalloped edge of the lace worn by another seems to echo the lace wallpaper background as well. These details, functional yet with a graceful flair, beautiful yet slightly worn, echo the beauty of the women, and bring into relief the cruelty of the story that told in the box at the bottom.

Detail of Mothers of Gynecology

The bottom of the first piece shows a portrait of Dr. Sims, samples of the original Sims Speculum and other gynecological tools, and the “The History of Medicine,” by Robert Thom, painted circa 1952 which purports to show the slave Anarcha. This sort of “box” that could exist in a cabinet of curiosities serves to ground Arthur’s painting in reality, reminding the viewer of the reasons for which the portrait above was painted. The sharp edges of the square box, and of the items painted to look pinned inside give it a haphazard look. This is purposeful as it parallels the questionable manner in which Sims completed his medical experiments. The medical instruments add to the unpalatable reality of it all.

The second piece to be unveiled is pictured below. In the dying light of dusk we see two female slaves looking after a third, with Sims standing in the shadows. The dynamic placement of the three main figures creates a religious nature to the work, where one could argue the the purple and red-clothed woman takes the role of a Jesus figure attempting a healing. The triangular nature with an ill woman on her left and the woman in blue on her right also suggests either the Holy Trinity or perhaps even a modified Pieta.

Jules Arthur, A Bond of Sisterhood

Taking the Pieta concept further, if we compare Arthur’s work above with Agnolo Bronzino’s Renaissance work below, one can see many similarities in color and form. One might note that both main figures are draped in purple, and there is a triangular placement of the three, as well as the fact that dark shadows lurk in the background in both, intimating the presence of evil nearby. All these aspects suggest the classical nature of Arthur’s second work in this series.

Agnolo Bronzino, Pietà, oil, c. 1530

Despite the classical nature of the second piece, it’s also important to recognize it as innovative as well. Sims’s slaves, in this painting were also acting as his midwives and nurses. And, in that sense, they were given more agency to heal and “change history” than the Virgin Mary or a disciple could after Jesus’s crucifixion. These strong women in Arthur’s work nursed each other through moments of extreme suffering wrought by their creator, over and over again. For example, Anarcha underwent at least 30 (!) surgeries at the hand of Sims before her fistula was repaired, all without the benefit of any type of anesthesia. (1)

With such medical experiments frequently visited upon them, it’s no surprise that the 21st century brought a desire from many to remove his statue from Central Park, where it had stood for 124 years, as depicted in the third image.

Jules Arthur, Sisterly Resilience

The three named women are shown looking down as the statue is removed, women and men of all races and from all time periods contribute to its destruction. This piece represents the culmination of many years of hard work to bring the truth of Sims’ story to light.

Hopefully with the continued work of the Resilient Sisterhood Project and so many other groups dedicated to the reproductive rights of women of color, this story will continue to be known. We cannot turn back the clock: women do benefit from what was learned by the horrific non-consensual medical experiments. However, what we can do is sing the praises of the brave women who underwent these procedures – over and over again – rather than lionizing the perpetrator.

Thank you RSP and Jules Arthur for helping to make this story more widely understood.