A Peek into the Newly Reinstalled Ancient Egyptian Galleries

January 19, 2011

LACMA’s displays for art from the ancient world (including Egypt, Greece and Rome, and the Near East) have just been reinstalled in newly refurbished galleries in the Hammer Building. As the curator of the Egyptian portion of the new installation, I’m excited to display some works that have not been on view for many years, including two colorful mummiform coffin lids, a diorite blocky squatting statue from the 26th dynasty, wooden tomb models of figures performing household duties, and burial implements including an embalming hook, a heart scarab and a two-finger amulet. Four 1850s to 1870s era photographs of Egypt by photographers Francis Frith and Antonio Beato drawn from LACMA’s Vernon Collection also add a new dimension to the gallery.

The Egyptian portion of the new gallery installation has been organized to address several specific themes: tomb, temple, animals, and royal images; it includes a number of works reflecting the surprising ingenuity of the ancient Egyptians. Three of my favorite works revealing this characteristic have not been seen before in LACMA’s galleries.  All three objects seem to evidence the intentions of the artist, an aspect that helps to bridge the very wide span of time between their creation and the present.

Jar with Lug Handles, Egypt, Naqada II Period (3500–3050 BCE), the Phil Berg Collection

The artist who created this elegant vase carefully incorporated a sweeping red vein of stone into the design, positioning the colorful band to form a bold swoop across the body of this vessel.

Composite Ibis Figure, Egypt, Late Period (711–322 BCE), gift of Varya and Hans Cohn

Here a combination of materials—weathered wood for the feathered body and patinated bronze for the elongated beak and head as well as the feet—creates a lifelike image of an Egyptian Sacred Ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus).

Vase, Egypt, New Kingdom (1550–1070 BCE), Shinji Shumeikai Acquisition Fund

The artist decorating this ceramic vessel created an amusing pattern of faux-stone, imitating the coloration and bold occlusions typical of breccia, a more enduring, and presumably eternal material.

Nancy Thomas, Curator, Egyptian Art, and Deputy Director, Art Administration and Collections

Fatal Attraction

January 18, 2011

If ever a story should start with “Once upon time,” India’s Fabled City is surely the one. It is hard to imagine a more perfect setting than Lucknow, this northern city nestled on the banks of the river Gomti where East met West which glowed for a moment with a luxurious promise of a shared, hybrid beauty. Here the culture of Awabh, a province of the great Sunni Muslim Mughal Empire, previously forbidden to Europeans, would ironically blossom with their presence. Lucknow, with a wealth of artistic forms of cultural history and expression would also be blessed with the leadership of Persian Shia religious thinking most dedicated to its enrichment and “fostering a sophisticated aesthetic vision,” as curator Stephen Markel so elegantly wrote in his essay in the accompanying book. As a result this beautiful city became a magnet for creative energy, attracting painters, musicians, poets, and entertainers who in turn brought the Britons (arrogant, disdainful) and the Europeans and all manner of fortune seekers of every nationality, dazzled by the courtly sumptuousness and sheer dynamic cross-cultural interplay of arts.

The nawabs, the ruling Shia elite in glorious regalia and extraordinary wealth with a complex history of shifting power between the Sunni and Hindu, were the relatively closed and richly endowed Persian Shia culture whose desire was to create a dynastic center. They were intensely immured by their own theatrical solipsistic obsessions, ancestral religious and ritualistic quest, and a labor of devotion. And yet they found themselves drawn to everything European—portrait painters, astronomers, coach makers, gunsmiths, cobblers, English tutors, and all manner of craftspeople. This attraction worked both ways. Formidable and ancient, the Indian culture was a mystery to the incoming foreigners. The array of jewel-like colors, and intimately choreographed dances had to be captivating to alien eyes. It was a world of intrigue, the perfume of an exotic culture, offering mysteriousness and an adventurer’s delight.

Tilly Kettle, "Shuja al-Daula, Nawab of Awadh, holding a bow," 1772, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, photo © Yale Center for British Art, USA

The first of the portrait painters was Tilly Kettle, who went to Faizabad, the other city in Awabh, to paint the Shuja al-Daula and his sons. The large-scale portrait, new to Indian painting, suggested the nawabh’s power and majestic presence, complimenting their grandiose self-image. Kettle’s success was the impetus for others to follow, such as Jonann Zoffany. There were realistic images of the exquisite world of Lucknow and the mythology that resulted in its fall. The photography of John Edward Saché, Samuel Bourne and Felice Beato and the earliest of them, Baron Alexis de la Grange, would reveal a city of immense diversity and sweep, allowing us a sense of the real Lucknow. But its delicate and romantic vistas are captured in the Renaissance Dutch-like drawings in pencil by Captain Robert Smith, while William Carpenter’s renderings in sensitive watercolor and pencil give our Western eyes some verisimilitude of an understanding.

John Edward Saché, "Husainabad Bazaar Gateway," c. 1867, Catherine Benkaim and Barbara Timmer Collection

The Indian’s dynamic, evocative, and gloriously vibrant paintings and portraits by Muhammad Azam and Mihr Chand, and many others, record life in such radiance that even hunting scenes and military encampments take on the aura of a celebration. Wandering through the exhibition, these glorious moments of commingled art reveal themselves—a union of worlds apparently balancing between pomp and desire, power and heritage. A world is revealed through the imposing architecture, the elaborate dress, and the decorative metalware in rich detail and the sensual tenet and complexity of their social graces.

Base for a Water Pipe (huqqa), c. 1700-1750, India, Uttar Pradesh, Lucknow, LACMA, from the Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck Collection, photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

I worry about the nightingales
Now that spring has come:
The hunter pitches his camp
Right outside the garden.
—A line from Urdu poetry

In this feast of art, money, goods, and services, the dark shadow of the English East India Company, a predatory trading enterprise, had insinuated itself as a political power into Lucknow’s ruling agenda (redolent of the British colonial, expansionistic aims and their Imperial hubris in the Awadh’s territory). In what can only be described as Machiavellian design, the company took control of Nawadh rulers through a series of forced concessions and downright economical chicanery, resulting in total control. Awadh was annexed by the English East India Company in 1856. There would follow the Great Uprising in 1857. There would be blood. A siege. A slaughter. And heroic tales told by the victor, in paint: Thomas Jones Barker’s The Relief of Lucknow or Frederick Goodall’s Jessie’s Dream (The Relief of Lucknow).

Thomas Jones Barker, "The Relief of Lucknow," 1857-59, National Portrait Gallery, London, 5851, photo © National Portrait Gallery, London

Lucknow became the source of great wealth for many. And yet this glittering moment would glow, fablelike, through history and time in spite of the darkness that fell upon it and the blood that was spilled.

Hylan Booker

LACMA Is Free Today!

January 17, 2011

Thanks to Target, LACMA is free all day today. Bring your family for some free NexGen art-making activities, storytime, and a tour the galleries with a free family guide (in English or Spanish). We’ll also have gallery educators in the American art galleries to spark discussions with visitors, including the paintings by John Biggers and Charles White which we mentioned on Unframed last week.

On the plaza, the Pan Afrikan People’s Arkestra will be performing at noon and at 2:45 pm. Here’s a clip of the Arkestra from when they performed at the museum during our Jazz at LACMA series:

In the galleries, we’ve got three special exhibitions on view. India’s Fabled City spans a hundred years of arts and culture in the northern India city of Lucknow, where Europeans and Indians influenced each others’ paintings, decorative arts, and more.

Mir Kalan Khan, Lovers in a Landscape (Detail), India, Uttar Pradesh, Lucknow, c. 1760–70, The David Collection, Copenhagen, 50/1981

You have to see the drawings in Steve Wolfe on Paper to believe them; Wolfe’s renderings of worn books and well-loved vinyl records is so lifelike you’ll wish you could pull them off the shelf and thumb through their pages. Over in the Resnick Pavilion, Fashioning Fashion continues its run; if you haven’t seen this display of European dress from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, do yourself a favor and check it out.

We also just reinstalled our galleries for art from the ancient world, including a couple of Egyptian coffins and amazing Assyrian wall reliefs. Just steps from those galleries are some newly reinstalled European galleries as well, including beautiful works of decorative arts from the Gilbert Collection. If those don’t pique your curiosity, there’s always our other permanent collection galleries for Korean art, Japanese art, modern and contemporary art, Latin American art, Islamic art, and much more. Have a look at this list of smaller installations interspersed around campus.

Scott Tennent

This Weekend at LACMA: Eggleston and Palermo Closing, Road Movies Film Series, and More

January 14, 2011

This is your last chance to see two excellent exhibitions occupying BCAM’s second level—William Eggleston: Democratic Camera—Photographs and Video, 1961–2008 and Blinky Palermo: Retrospective 1964–1977 This is the last stop on a long tour for the Eggleston exhibition, and the first stop for Palermo, which is heading to the Hirshhorn Museum next, followed by a run at Dia: Beacon in the summer.

William Eggleston, "Greenwood, Mississippi," 1973, collection of Adam Bartos, © Eggleston Artistic Trust, courtesy Cheim & Read, New York

Blinky Palermo, Coney Island II, 1975, Collection Ströher, Darmstadt, Germany, photo: Jens Ziehe, Berli

This weekend our latest film series, True Grit: The Golden Age of Road Movies,  continues with some classics as well as some underrated gems. Tonight’s double-feature kicks off with Bonnie and Clyde, followed by a Clint Eastwood/Jeff Bridges road trip from Utah to Montana in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.

Saturday night sees two personal appearances accompanying the screenings. Screenwriter Robert Boris will introduce Electra Glide in Blue; followed by a screening of Scarecrow, with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond on hand. Zsigmond is one of the greats—along with Scarecrow he was the cinematographer or director of photography for iconic films like Deliverance, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and The Deer Hunter.

Saturday at LACMA sees a day-long symposium, Fashioning a Collection, held in conjunction with our exhibition Fashioning Fashion.  This symposium is sold out, though a standby line will open starting at 9 am (the event begins at 10 am).

Also of note on Saturday morning—though not at LACMA—is the 19th annual Empowerment Congress Summit at USC. Brooke Anderson, LACMA’s deputy director of curatorial planning, will be on hand for an this engaging summit hosted by Council Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. The morning-long event will include lively and educational workshops on a variety of topics including community economic development, social justice and the arts, urban planning, green technology, and youth empowerment. More info can be found at the Empowerment Congress website.

Bring your kids or grandkids on Sunday for our regular Andell Family Sunday programming, including art-making activities and free admission for families. All month long the activities are based around the current exhibition India’s Fabled City.

The weekend closes out with our free Sundays Live concert series, in which pianist Inyoung Huh will perform works by Debussy, Schumann, and Ravel. Also, don’t forget that Monday is a holiday, and that means the museum will be free all day, thanks to support from Target. We’ll have family programming all day as well as a performance from the Pan Afrikan People’s Arkestra.

Scott Tennent

A Painting To Rest My Head Upon

January 14, 2011

While perusing my usual blogs the other morning I stumbled across this post on Remodelista. Cleverly titled “Off the Wall and Onto the Sofa,” designers John and Linda Meyers took inspiration from abstract expressionist painters Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, and Jackson Pollock and re-imagined them into pillows; John doing the painting, and Linda sewing them by hand. You can always come to LACMA to see the real thing—we’ve got paintings by all four artists in our modern galleries—but now there’s a way to have your own piece of “modern” art in your living room too.

Left: pillow inspired by De Kooning. Right: Willem De Kooning, Montauk Highway, 1958, gift from the Michael and Dorothy Blankfort Collection in honor of the museum’s twenty-fifth anniversary, © The Willem De Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Left: pillow inspired by Kline. Right: Franz Kline, Study for Initial, 1959, gift of Robert H. Halff through the Modern and Contemporary Art Council

Left: pillow inspired by Pollock. Right: Jackson Pollock, No. 15, 1950, Museum Associates Purchase Award, © Pollock-Krassner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Left: pillow inspired by Motherwell. Right: Robert Motherwell, Elegy to the Spanish Republic 100 (detail), 1963–1975, purchased with funds provided by the Art Museum Council and gift of the Dedalus Foundation

Meghan Moran

Two Powerful Works by John Biggers

January 13, 2011

Imagine my amazement when my colleague Franklin Sirmans, curator of contemporary art, asked me if I would be interested in displaying a major painting by John Biggers (1924–2001), one of the most important African American artists of the twentieth century.

John Biggers, Shotguns, 1987, courtesy of William O. Perkins III

Biggers’s masterpiece, Shotguns, Franklin told me, was available for long-term loan. Needless to say, I was very excited about the prospect and jumped at the opportunity. Not only is Shotguns widely considered one of Biggers’s most important achievements, but also the loan would offer us a chance to display—in context—the first (and only) John Biggers in LACMA’s collection: the monumental Cotton Pickers, an extraordinarily powerful drawing from 1947 that we acquired in 2007.

John Biggers, Cotton Pickers, 1947, purchased with funds provided by Mr. and Mrs. Thomas H. Crawford, Jr., and the Black Art Acquisition Fund

In the 1940s, Biggers created large drawings of extreme pathos like Cotton Pickers, in which four workers are isolated from any landscape setting and grouped together as if a monumental bronze sculpture memorializing their labors. Forty years later, Biggers’s heightened realist style had evolved into more symbolic vision of African American community life in which he emphasized its foundations in African culture. In Shotguns, a dense pattern of quilt swatches extends into an accumulation of the rooftops of shotgun houses, an African-influenced form of architecture prevalent in the American South. Five caryatid-like women, contained inside their porches, each hold a model house and stand next to traditional evil-catching cast-iron pots. Those with features resembling African sculpture (left) block their doorways, while the two grandmotherly figures (right), who allow views inside their homes, are transformed into modern-day cultural guardians.

gallery installation at LACMA

The power of these works, now on view along with a painting in LACMA’s collection by Biggers’s mentor, artist Charles White, cannot be underestimated. (This is the same Charles White whose name graces the elementary school where our exhibition LA Icons: Urban Light and Watts Towers is now on view.)

Charles White, Lovers, 1942, bequest of Fannie and Alan Leslie

To underscore the significance of Biggers’s art and the inaugural presentation of these works at LACMA, we have organized a panel discussion about Biggers on Tuesday, January 18 including artists and scholars who knew Biggers at different stages in his career. Biggers’s art will also be featured in family programming scheduled for LACMA’s next Target Free Holiday Monday on Martin Luther King Jr. Day next week.

Austen Bailly

Decorative Arts from the Gilbert Collection Return to LACMA

January 12, 2011

Now open in the Ahmanson Building are two newly reinstalled European art galleries displaying a number of LACMA’s decorative arts that have long been in storage, plus a representation of extraordinary works that are part of the Gilbert Collection. Through the generosity of The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation and Lady Marjorie Gilbert, and with collegial support from the Victoria and Albert Museum, the installation presents fifty outstanding works of silver and gold, Italian mosaics, and gold boxes interspersed among our permanent collection of European paintings and sculpture.

A collection of decorative arts now housed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London may seem to have little to do with the city of Los Angeles, but it is here that the collection was formed. Although Arthur Gilbert and his wife, Rosalinde, had planned to retire when they moved to Los Angeles in 1949, Gilbert was attracted to the city’s burgeoning real-estate business and quickly proved to be a savvy developer. His professional successes and artistic passions formed the basis of what would become one of the largest collections of decorative arts amassed by an individual. The collection now comprises more than eight hundred extraordinary works acquired over the course of forty years, beginning in the 1960s. Gilbert was a LACMA trustee for many years, and a number of treasures from his collection were on view at the museum. Seeing these objects on long-term loan from the collection—plus a number of generous gifts and promised gifts from Gilbert’s second wife, Lady Marjorie Gilbert, who lives in Los Angeles—brings the Gilbert Collection’s journey full circle.

Thomas Pitts, Epergne, 1763–64, long-term loan from the Arthur and Rosalinde Gilbert Collection on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Gilbert first started collecting British eighteenth and nineteenth-century British silver. Similar to the composition of the collection as a whole, the Gilbert works of silver and gold displayed at LACMA are mainly of British origin, but Arthur’s interest in Continental silver is also evident, specifically in objects from France, Italy, and Russia. The British pieces in the collection on view at LACMA were fashioned mainly for domestic use and span the late seventeenth to early nineteenth centuries, such as the Thomas Pitts epergne, which would have been filled with exotic fruits and sweets and placed in the center of the table during the dessert course.

Clementi Ciuli (micromosaic) and Adrien-Jean-Maximilien Vachette (gold box), Snuffbox with Head of Bacchus, 1804 (micromosaic), 1809–19 (gold box), gift from Lady Marjorie W. Gilbert in honor of Sir Arthur Gilbert

Upon first glance, the designs on this gold box may appear to be painted or enamels. A closer look reveals that the head of Bacchus is composed of thousands of tiny pieces of glass in myriad hues, called tesserae. Known as micromosaics—a term coined by Sir Arthur Gilbert—this technique derives from ancient Roman and Byzantine mosaics. The invention of micromosaics dates to 1775, and the finest examples can contain more than 5,000 tesserae per square inch. The Bacchus gold box is one of two micromosaics from the Gilbert Collection believed to have been selected by sculptor Antonio Canova (1757–1822) for presentation to Napoleon from Pope Pius VII during his attendance at Napoleon’s coronation in 1804. A generous gift to LACMA from Sir Arthur’s second wife, Lady Marjorie Gilbert, it was the first of its kind purchased by Gilbert and was one of his favorite pieces.

Bacchus Bonniere (detail)

Grand Ducal Workshops (Galleria dei Lavori), manufacturer, Cabinet, c. 1650–75, Long-term loan from the Arthur and Rosalinde Gilbert Collection on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Arthur Gilbert’s discovery of micromosaics, works made mainly in Rome from small pieces of glass, led to his interest in pietre dure (hard stones), decorative designs formed with semiprecious stones that fit together so tightly, the seams are barely visible to the eye. Although Florence was the seventeenth-century center of production for pietre dure pieces, the art form descended from ancient Roman floor and wall mosaics. Gilbert pursued both forms of Italian mosaics in tandem, ultimately amassing a collection of more than three hundred micromosaics and pietre dure pieces, including secular and ecclesiastical plaques, jewelry, gold boxes and furniture, such as the seventeenth-century cabinet from Florence.

Moulinié, Bautte et Moynier (gold box) and Jean-Baptiste Isabey (portrait miniature), Snuffbox with Napoleon Bonaparte I, c. 1812, long-term loan from The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

By taking a pinch of snuff from a gold box, wealthy aristocrats could signify their taste, status and wealth in a single gesture. The display of a gold box also showcased the talents of the designers and various craftsmen who were commissioned to create these magnificent status symbols. These small treasures are masterful examples of the luxury arts that goldsmiths, jewelers, and miniature portrait painters of the era produced. While gold is the main component of the boxes, the examples exhibited at LACMA incorporate an array of exotic and precious materials from around the world, including rock crystal; precious stones; Japanese lacquer panels; enamelwork; and glazed figural, landscape, and portrait paintings.

The miniature portrait gold box of Napoleon Bonaparte I is a stunning combination of an exquisitely rendered portrait by French painter Jean-Baptiste Isabey, and a tour de force of goldsmithing. Napoleon is depicted as an official icon, shown in the coronation regalia he wore when he crowned himself Emperor Napoleon I. The blue pendant with an “N” that Napoleon wears relates to the golden “N” set on a ground of blue enamel on the base of the box, and radiating trophées d’armes composed of three tones of gold encircle the base.

Snuffbox, back side

Elizabeth Williams, the Marylin B. and Calvin B. Gross Associate Curator of Decorative Arts and Design

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