: Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980
2018. USA. Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. 97 min.
The odalisque, a harem slave or concubine, was a popular subject in European art throughout the colonial period. These erotic images of women in the geographically vague “Orient” evoked a life of luxury and indolence far removed from nineteenth-century industrial society (and twenty-first century standards of representing race and gender). Indeed pictures of odalisques were often a matter of creative fantasy and invention rather than one of cultural documentation. Harem environments were constructed in the artist’s studio using models dressed in costume and a mélange of exotic props. And artists did not always disguise the fact that their scenes were staged, whether by depicting the odalisque changing into her costume or appropriating imagery from famous precedents. Revealing the picture’s fiction did not detract from its visual appeal.
This small-scale focus exhibition gathers together seven such subjects from the Norton Simon’s collections—including Frédéric Bazille’s Woman in a Moorish Costume (1869), Pablo Picasso’s Women of Algiers, Version "I" (1955), and Henri Matisse’s Odalisque with Tambourine (Harmony in Blue) (1926)—to show how artists exploit the tension between reality and artifice in these images. Matisse, for example, claimed that he made odalisques as an excuse to “paint the nude,” and because he had seen harems firsthand on his trips to Morocco. Yet the numerous odalisques that he produced in Nice in the 1920s revel in the imaginary, with excessively decorative environments that threaten to subsume the female figure altogether. Matisse/Odalisque contextualizes this artist’s distinctive approach to the orientalist theme with a range of examples from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It demonstrates that artists consistently accentuated the seductive aspect of the odalisque by foregrounding color, ornament, and dazzling surface effects.
Once Upon a Tapestry: Woven Tales of Helen and Dido presents a selection of artworks that explore the fates of two heroines from classical mythology whose stories have inspired poets, artists and musicians over the centuries: Helen of Troy and Dido of Carthage. Five tapestries from the 16th and 17th centuries, along with a rare set of cartoons, illustrate the currency of these female-centric narratives in early modern Europe, the power of tapestry to visualize such stories and the inventiveness and skill employed to produce these splendid objects, made for the wealthiest and most distinguished patrons.
Homer’s epic poem of the Trojan War, the Iliad, written in the eighth century BCE, is the source for the dramatic story of Helen of Troy. Medieval poets updated the ancient tale and often added commentary to connect European nobles to their heroic Trojan counterparts. In the visual arts, these contemporized versions of the Iliad challenged artists to depict the conflict of battle, and the large-scale, multipaneled character of tapestry provided a magnificent vehicle for their ambitions. It is all the more notable then that Helen, an icon of beauty whose abduction from Sparta and her king provoked the Trojan War, figures so prominently in four of the tapestries exhibited. They chronicle Helen’s fate, from her arrival in Troy and marriage to Paris to her return to Sparta and her reconciliation with her first husband, Menelaus. Her leading role in these panels may be a stage for exploring the then-topical power of female beauty. Rich with detail, these luxurious silk and wool tableaux introduce us to contemporary court attire and to medieval stagecraft, as seen in the jewel-encrusted architectural framework that calls attention to the principal subjects.
Titian’s 'Portrait of a Lady in White,' c. 1561, on loan from the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden
A beguiling young woman, in white satin gown, bejeweled with gold, precious stones and pearls, stops fanning herself with a ventuolo for a moment to catch our gaze. She is spotlighted, and the intensity of the illumination is reflected in her hair, the sheen of the fabric of her dress and the fervent flush of her cheeks and lips. Her warm brown eyes offset her opalescent skin and gown and echo the dark terracotta of the mottled background. Her image could almost be seen as a monochromatic impression, save for the punctuation of her evocative red lips, with that demure smile.
Interpretations of this inscrutable picture, generously on loan from the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, were voiced as early as 100 years after Titian (Tiziano Vecellio, c. 1488–1576) executed it, and uncertainty about the sitter’s identity remains. Is this a portrait of Titian’s daughter Lavinia, his illegitimate daughter Emilia, or might she be the artist’s mistress? Should it not be considered a traditional portrait, but rather an idealized image depicting the very essence of the beauty and spirit of Venetian women?
Archival documents give us some clues, but no answers. In 1561, Titian himself referred to this painting in a letter to Alfonso II d’Este of Ferrara (1533–1597), saying that the image represented someone very dear to him, “the most precious being” in his life. In an earlier letter to Philip II of Spain, an avid collector of Titian’s work, the artist referred to another version of the painting (now lost), calling the sitter “the absolute mistress of my soul.” Based on these words, the painting was catalogued as early as 1663 in the Este collection as “Titian’s mistress.” Over the centuries, art historians and biographers have speculated on the subject’s identity, but to this day we cannot be certain who this mysterious beauty might be.
In Search of New Markets: Craft Traditions in Nineteenth-Century India
Monumental stone sculpture, metal shrines, votive objects, painted textiles, manuscripts and so-called “miniatures” from South Asia offer visitors to the Museum’s lower-level galleries a rich overview of the region’s art history. The vast majority of these works were created for religious or courtly settings, whether in Buddhist, Hindu, Jain or Islamic cultural contexts. The objects on display for In Search of New Markets, by contrast, were created for commercial purposes. This exhibition, which marks the first time that several of these works have been on view at the Museum, explores the historical sources and practices that informed the production of ceramics and wooden furniture in colonial India. It also reveals the distinctly modern modes of promotion and distribution that were used to generate demand for them.
The ceramic vessels in the exhibition reveal points of connection—and tension—between established Indian art forms and the commercial ambitions of colonial administrators and Indian artists trying to find new buyers for this work. While earthenware cups and bowls have a long history in India, they have often been regarded as a disposable alternative to metal utensils, left unembellished and discarded after use. The glazed ceramics produced in South Asia were predominantly tiles used to adorn mosques or tombs. Demand for them tapered as the number of Indian patrons who could fund such architectural projects waned. The city of Multan, in what is now Pakistan, was once a center for the production of blue and white architectural tile. By 1883, a commentator writing for the Journal of Indian Art remarked instead on the wide variety of flowerpots and vases that were for sale there, in forms that “neither the Potter in India nor his ancestors in Persia ever conceived.” The blue and white decoration of an ornamental vase created around 1880 exemplifies the palette and style of floral decoration that characterize Multan tile, whereas the vessel’s shape and size correspond with the new forms produced for European buyers.
In 1948, artist Ellsworth Kelly moved to Paris in order to be near all that European culture had to offer. He stayed for almost a decade, traveling to see museums and making sketches of frescoes and stone sculptures in the many cities he visited, something he was not able to do while he was stationed near Paris during World War II. He befriended fellow American artists while absorbing the artwork of the early 20th century, as well as European masters such as Arp, Matisse and Brancusi. In the mid-1950s, he moved back to the United States just as New York was becoming a central cultural hub. By this point, Kelly’s creative vocabulary had been established. His vision of abstraction reflected the world around him, rather than the emotional and process-based abstraction of New York artists such as Pollock, Rothko and de Kooning.
At the end of 1964, Kelly returned to the City of Light for a solo exhibit of his paintings at the Galerie Maeght. While there, he took advantage of the fact that the owners of the gallery were also publishers of artist books and fine art prints. He made his first significant foray into the medium of prints and multiples with two series—Suite of Twenty-Seven Color Lithographs and Suite of Plant Lithographs. Thus began Kelly’s lifelong relationship with lithography.
The fact that these two suites were created simultaneously is significant. Kelly wanted these two subjects of his art to be seen as correlative. The plant drawings informed the abstracted shapes, just as much as he saw abstract shapes in plants. “I did not want to ‘invent’ pictures, so my sources were in nature, which to me includes everything seen,” the artist once said. In the same way that he drew from plant material for the Suite of Plant Lithographs, he also lifted shapes from his everyday life to create the abstracted forms that became fodder for the Twenty-Seven Color Lithographs. The planar forms of a staircase and the grid of a window frame held as much potency as the plant forms he found in the garden. His artwork continued along these intertwined paths for the entirety of his career.