Saturday, September 24, 2016

How preserving cultural heritage sites can help to combat ignorance and fight biased politics

Did you know that one of the oldest sites of human settlement in the Americas, from 15,000 years ago, Cactus Hill, is in Virginia?

The world these days seems to be in a state of constant chaos, with pain and suffering everywhere we turn. Instead of coming together to ease the suffering of those in need, we seem to be more divided than ever.  A big part of the problem is the manipulation of people with half-truths or flat-out lies by the so-called leaders of their own countries. If there is a population of ignorant or even disenfranchised people, those who want to get elected or stay in power are ready with their divisive politics to "divide and conquer." People are fed biased, skewed narratives according to the ideology of those in or near power. While in America, the narrative of America is for Americans can be heard in half the political arenas across the country, half way across the world, in Turkey, politicians appropriating the Ottoman culture in accordance with their vision, are misleading an ignorant populace towards an imported religious ideology that wants to curtail women's rights and impose archaic bans on people's social lives. Although this type of Islam is not the culture of Anatolia, it is being sold as such to the uneducated, the gullible and the innocent believer. Looking at the disheartening political debates taking place all around us, some might ask "Is it possible to combat ignorance and racism?" I argue it is...  by preserving, sharing and respecting cultural heritage.

Abdulmecid Efendi, Last Capliph and 37th Head of the Ottoman Dynasty, Beethoven in the Harem
(Istanbul Resim ve Heykel Muzesi)
(Istanbul Museum of Art and Sculpture) 
In a world full of so many urgent problems, people sometimes have a hard time understanding the emphasis we put on privileging cultural heritage preservation. But the relevance and importance of cultural heritage can be observed all around us, in the daily newspapers, on social media, in what is happening around the world everyday.
I was inspired to write this post after reading numerous articles in the Turkish newspapers about a Symposium being organized at the Parliament, to honor the 34th Ottoman Sultan, Abdulhamid II. Now, some might say, that is a Turkish issue... It has nothing to do with us... Why should we care about this? The specific case is such a great example of guiding the ignorant and the disenfranchised towards a certain ideology, that I think it is relevant to all of us around the world, no matter what religion, nationality or culture we may come from.

Label for Elif Raki produced without anise and referred to as "Plain Raki"
The current speaker of the Turkish Parliament, Ismail Kahraman, during his announcement about the Symposium organized for the occasion of Sultan Abdulhamid II's birthday, is reported as saying:
Unfortunately, history and cultural heritage is not known, especially the youth do not know it, they have been deliberately made to forget, we have a debt to our Sultan Abdulhamid.
To the outsider, this may seem an innocuous statement, but anyone who is familiar with Turkish politics will know the real meaning behind the statement. Sultan Abdulhamid II (r. 1876-1909) is a controversial figure in Turkish politics, being revered as Abdulhamid Han, due to his pan-Islamic ideologies for the Ottoman empire by the conservative Islamists in power today, and remembered for his one-man, autocratic rule, severe paranoia, extensive network of spies who reported and persecuted many innocents by everyone else. This, of course is not the correct way of examining a historical figure but it summarizes the two points of view and strengthens my argument towards the importance of cultural heritage.

Label for "Üzüm Kizi" Raki, produced in Istanbul, 1880s
by the Head Chamberlain of Sultan Abdulhamid II, Ragip Pasha

While the current ruling party, AKP is busy with the apotheosis of Abdulhamid II, they are concurrently trying to smirch the reputation and erase the memory of Ataturk, the founding father of modern, secular Turkey. Although Ataturk's habit of imbibing and entertaining regularly, where issues regarding the new Republic were discussed, are known by all and do not cast a flicker of a shadow on his character or deeds, AKP has been focusing on this as the evidence of the corruption of the foundation of the Republic. They have been calling him a drunk to insult not only Ataturk but everything that he represents. The sweet irony in all this is, that the first raki, beer and champagne production started in the Ottoman empire with the seal and approval of Abdulhamid know the "orthodox" Sultan as opposed to the "drunk" general who had dinner parties every night. It was the Head Chamberlain and one of the ministers of finance in Abdulhamid's court, Ragip Pasha, who opened the first raki production facility in the Ottoman empire. According to his grandson, Abdulhamid was known to prefer rum since it was made from sugar and not specifically prohibited in the Q'uran. Hypocrite or not, this only shows that the Ottoman Sultan was just like any other powerful man of his time... drinking, dancing, watching the performance of European opera companies and even frolicking with cabaret dancers... While one cannot help but be amused by the irony, none of these facts change Abdulhamid's deeds, the good along with the evil; however this post is not about Abdulhamid, but combating ignorance and manipulation of those who deify him, through the preservation of cultural heritage.

Bomonti Brewery, opened 1888-1890, Istanbul

So, what does cultural heritage have to do with this, some might ask. It has everything to do with it.

Those who blindly believe in the rhetoric of populist politicians may disbelieve the facts that are presented to them as newspaper articles or scholarly papers but as they say, seeing is believing. The beauty and significance of material culture is that they stand before us as irrefutable facts. We had such a great opportunity with the Bomonti Brewery in Istanbul, the first modern brewery that opened in 1890 and continued to be in production until 1991. The site was recently renovated as an art, culture and entertainment space. Unfortunately, I was not able to visit it but from the promotion material and the media write ups I have read, it looks to be a carefully planned out space with everything in one complex, from restaurants, exhibition spaces and a bookstore to even a jazz club that utilized the historic texture, merely, as an ornamental backdrop. In light of these latest events, I can't help but ruminate why they could not have preserved it as the very important industrial heritage site that it was.

Aluyulala Hususi Raki Label
The Bomonti Brewery could have been the perfect space to set up a museum on the social life of 19th century Istanbul, highlighting minority narratives, providing information about the neighborhoods and the people who lived in the area. It could have been a space to highlight Industrialization in 19th century Istanbul. It could have been many things but instead of preserving the Industrial Heritage and utilizing it as a space for the dissemination of knowledge about our common past as the descendants of the Ottomans, it was handed over to developers for a venue that will probably be accessible only by the rich, secular, "marginal" (as the President often refers to them) and the few.

Bomonti Beer Gardens
The above example can be adapted to any country with leaders using racist narratives to rally support for their outdated, 19th century political ideologies. We should not judge historical events or figures anachronistically but we should learn from and improve upon them.  By being aware of and understanding the past, we can protect ourselves from fallacy of politicians and engender a better future. That, is why we need to prioritize the preservation of cultural heritage in all of its forms.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Contemplating Death from Ancient Rome to the Present: Momento Mori and Vanitas in Art

Carstian Luyckx, Allegory of Charles I of England and Henrietta of France in a Vanitas Still Life, 17th century
(Birmingham Museum of Art)

Recently discovered Skeleton Mosaic in Hatay, Roman
(Hatay Archaeology Museum)
Last week, the "Cheery Skeleton" excavated in the ancient city of Antioch, Hatay in modern-day Turkey, was one of the main topics on social media.  Originally it was reported that the ancient Greek inscription next to Şener (meaning merry, happy man, as he has been very aptly named) translated as "Be Cheerful, Live Your Life" (link). This was disputed by a journalist who claimed it was actually a warning about the effects of consuming too much food and wine (link). Whatever the inscription, it captured our 21st century imagination due to the meaning we associated with it. It was almost as if Şener's reclining figure next to a jug of wine and a loaf of bread was bringing a message of 'carpe-diem' to us from centuries ago. Just the type of message we needed to hear as everything around us was coming crumbling down.

Mosaic with Skull and Level, Pompeii (House cum workshop, triclinium 1. 5, 2) 30 B.C.E-14B.CE
(Naples National Archaeological Museum) 

Actually Şener is not the only skeleton from antiquity with a message.  There is a comprehensive post on the history blog about the "Cheery Skeleton" which includes more images of skeletons from antiquity. Of the numerous Roman mosaics excavated with skulls or skeletons, one of the most striking example has to be the mosaic from the triclinium of a House in Pompeii. In this mosaic a large skull at the center is balancing wealth and power, represented with the purple and the sceptre on the one side and poverty represented by the stick and the sac on the other. The idea of death as the great equalizer seems to give comfort for those of us dissatisfied with our present world.

All of these messages of carpe diem seem so relevant today as we deal with wars that leave people without home or country, hatred and racism against those who come from different cultures and religions and income inequality and social polarization. Just thinking about what is happening to the people of Syria, not to say anything of the so-called peaceful democracies in my two countries, Turkey and the United States, makes me ponder maybe we should take Horace's advise to heart as he writes in Odes 1.11 ...
Ask not - we cannot know - what end the gods have set
For you, for me; nor attempt the Babylonian reckonings Leuconoë.
How much better to endure whatever comes,
Whether Jupiter grants us additional winters or whether this is our last,
Which now wears out the Tuscan Sea upon the barrier of the cliffs!
Be wise, strain the wine; and since life is brief, prune back far-reaching hopes!
Even while we speak, envious time has passed;
Pluck the day, putting as little trust as possible in tomorrow! 

John William Waterhouse, Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May, 1909
(Private Collection)
Although carpe diem has become synonymous with a lighthearted approach to life, seizing the moment without a care for tomorrow, Horace's tone is actually more cautionary about the transient nature of time. There is also the simple and direct message of 17th century English poet, Robert Herrick's opening lines from To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time ...
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today,
Tomorrow will be dying.

Pieter Claesz, Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill, 1623
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The transiency and the fragility of human life has been a favorite subject for artists for centuries. Memento mori (translates from Latin as remember you must die) paintings were a genre that developed as a category of still-life painting in Western art in the 17th century. Moralizing canvases depicting skulls, extinguished candles, hour-glasses, pocket watches or clocks, flowers and even vegetables were reminders of the inevitability of death.

Jacques de Gheyn II, Vanitas Still Life, 1603
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)
There is another term that is used in reference to these types of paintings, vanitas. While memento mori paintings reminded the viewer of the shortness of life, vanitas paintings including musical instruments, books and sumptuous objects focused on the futility of earthly delights.  Vanitas Still Life by De Gheyn, a Netherlandish draftsman, is considered to be the earliest example of a vanitas painting. The symbols in this painting are explained in the Metropolitan Museum of Art website as:
The skull, large bubble, cut flowers, and smoking urn refer to the brevity of life, while images floating in the bubble - such as a wheel of torture and a leper's rattle - Spanish coins, and a Dutch medal refer to human folly. The figures flanking the arch above are Democritus and Heraclitus, the laughing and weeping philosophers of ancient Greece.1

Edward Collier, Still Life with a Volume of Wither's 'Emblemes', 1696
(Tate Britain)
Although the underlying message is dark, vanitas painting allowed artists to display their mastery in representations of different surfaces, materials and textures. The description for Still Life with a Volume of Wither's 'Emblemes' at the Tate website provides more details about vanitas paintings:
In this still-life painting the musical instruments, wine and jewels represent the fleeting pleasures of life, while the skull and hour-glass symbolize the inevitability of death. The open book shows a brief poem emphasizing the theme of mortality. The Latin inscription in the top left corner comes from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes: 'Vanity of vanities, all is vanity'. This is why such pictures are known as vanities paintings.2 

Willem Kalf, Still Life with a Porcelain Bowl and Nautilus Cup, 1660
(Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid)
Still Life with a Porcelain Bowl and Nautilus Cup  has many of the symbols that can be found in other Baroque vanitas paintings such as the peeled lemon as well as the watch alluding to the passage of time. The half-eaten fruit is supposed to refer to the transient nature of life. While there are religious connotations associated with Protestant principles, that the affluent Dutch merchant class felt a need to remind themselves, to these paintings, there is also a contradiction since the paintings themselves became the very things the viewer was being cautioned about - beautiful, expensive earthly possessions displaying their owners affluence and learning.

Juan de Valdes Leal, Allegory of Vanity,1660
(Wadsworth Atheneum)
It wasn't only the Protestants who moralized about the transience of life or the futility of pursuing earthly pleasures, in their vanitas paintings, Juan de Valdes Leal, the co-founder of the Seville Academy of Art was probably one of the most dramatic practitioners of the genre.  In the Wadsworth canvas Valdes Leal actually paints the Allegory of Vanity, that not only includes the trappings from material possessions to fame and power but also intellectual and artistic pursuits. The painting of the Last Judgement revealed behind the curtain is the final reminder of the end of the world and fate of all humankind. 

Finis Gloriae Mundi (End of the World's Glory), 1672
(Hospital de la Caridad- Charity Hospital, Seville) 

Two of Valdés Leal's works, End of the World's Glory and In the Blink of an Eye, that he painted for the Hospital de la Carded that took care of and burried the elderly and destitute are works that should hang in every palace, mansion or official residence of every dignitary across the world.

In Ictu Ocili (In the Blink of an Eye), 1672
(Hospital de la Caridad- Charity Hospital, Seville) 

If the Northern European artists utilized beautiful flowers and luxurious objects to convey the message that life on earth was merely a preparation for the afterlife, the Spanish Baroque artists painted bodegónes with raw vegetables and dead animals displayed austerely in front of a stark, dark background. 

Juan Sánchez Cotán, Still Life with Game Fowl, Vegetables and Fruits, 1602
(Museo del Prado, Madrid)

The word Bodegón was derived from bodega, meaning tavern, wine-cellar or pantry. Although lacking skulls or skeletons, bodegónes containing everyday objects and foodstuffs found in pantries are interpreted by art historians as having a moralizing vanitas component, which is why I decided to include them in this post. Juan Sánchez Cotán is an enigmatic artist who chose to close his workshop and join a monastery; scholars tend to interpret his still-lifes as the artist renouncing worldly goods.

Pablo Picasso, Black Jug and Skull, 1946
(Tate Britain) 
Skipping several centuries, there are very striking contemporary examples of the momento mori and vanitas traditions in art from the 20th and 21st centuries. Made after World War II, Picasso's Black Jug and Skull is a modern vanitas, with the book alluding to excessive pride through learning, wine jug to temporary pleasure and the skull to death. I encountered my favorite vanitas work at the Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis exhibition at the Frick Collection in 2014. The work I am referring to was not one of the Dutch masterpieces but was included to complement the exhibition - Transforming Still Life Painting by Ron and Nick Carter. Inspired by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder's Vase with Flowers in a Window, c. 1618, this was a three-hour film that was the visual manifestation of the transient nature of earthly earthly existence. 3

Ron and Nick Carter, Transforming Still Life Painting
The picture Rob and Nick Carter start their digital painting with is a vase full of flowers recalling the Dutch tradition of still life paintings of a variety of flowers that would not be found in nature blooming at the same time, sitting in a windowsill, in front of a bright blue-skied landscape. As one stands in front of the work, insects start to fly around and flowers begin to wilt and eventually night falls over the landscape.

Transforming Still Life Painting at the Mauritshuis from Rob and Nick Carter on Vimeo.

Finally, I guess I must conclude with a modern-day momento mori with an actual skull, the very contreversial For the Love of God by Damien Hirst. According to the artist's website, the provocative work is made with 32 platinum plates and set with 8,601 VVS to flawless pavé-set diamonds, weighing 1,106.18 carats. The work has a convoluted history with the highest asking price for a living artist of £50 million in its inaugural exhibition in London. 
The work was supposedly sold to an anonymous consortium (which included the artist himself) for the full asking price paid in cash. The reason this piece belongs among such great works of art produced throughout centuries is because it represents our contemporary society, the art world and its values so perfectly. I hope the people who do invest in such pieces of "art" also own a momento mori or two to really contemplate their own mortality and what they can and can't take with them when they die. 

Damien Hirst, For the Love of God, 2007

1 Metropolitan Museum of Art Website , (link)
2 Tate Galley Website, (link)
3 The Frick Collection, (link)

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Elisabeth Louise Vigee-LeBrun - a Female Academician

Vigée Le Brun, Self-Portrait, 1790
(Gallerie degli Uffizi)
Art history is full of great male artists while we hear very little of the successful women who managed the almost impossible feat of carving out careers where no opportunities existed. Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun was one such artist who was not only the favorite portraitist of Marie Antoinette, the queen of France, but also to many notable aristocrats, artists, musicians and poets throughout 18th - 19th century Europe.  There is currently an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France, which displays 80 works from around the world of the artist who had a successful career in one of the most turbulent periods of European history.

Self_Portrait in Traveling Costume, 1789-90
(Private Collection)
This exhibition should be visited on site or online not only to view beautiful works of art from the Rococo period but also as an inspirational tale of one woman's journey of survival and success under some of the most unfavorable circumstances. The Met has a great exhibition page (link) that has all the works on display as well as the audioguide that is available in the museum. Of course nothing can compare to experiencing these works in person, but if you can not make it to the museum, this is a really great alternative. Instead of giving an overview of the exhibit, I want to take this opportunity to focus on the obstacles Vigee Le Brun had to overcome in order to become the celebrated artist of her time.

Vigee-LeBrunn, Peace Bringing Back Abundance,  1780,  exhibited at Salon of 1783
(Musee du Louvre)
This was the reception piece Vigee-LeBrun submitted into the Academie to be admitted as a member.  The French Royal Academy did not accept female artists as members on the premises of their supposed inferiority to the male artists but between its foundation in the 17th century and the revolution, a few women were allowed within its hallowed halls.  Out of the total of 450 members  there were between 12 to 15 who were female, and those would only would be accepted four at a time.  Elisabeth Louise Vigee-LeBrun along with Adelaide Labille-Guiard were accepted into the Academie in 1783 only after the deaths of two female artists.

Etienne Vigée, 1773, painted at 18 prior to joining the Academie de Saint-Luc
(Saint Louis Art Museum)
Prior to their acceptance into the academy both Elisabeth Louise Vigee-LeBrun along with Adelaide Labille-Guiardthey were members of the Academie de Saint-Luc which was the ancient artist's guild.  One of the original reasons for establishing the Academie de peinture et de sculpture was to distinguish real artists from the artisans and provide them with the necessary teachings besides drawing and painting to allow them to become the artistic geniuses they were.  Also the Academie was state sponsored and artist got paid by the government so they could create without being beholden to trade. Members of the Academy of Saint-Luc were frowned upon because of their involvement with the trade. The Allegory of Poetry was one of the works from Vigée Le Brun's first exhibition at the Academie de Saint-Luc.

Allegory of Poetry, 1774
(Henry and Catherine Robet)

Although Vigee-LeBrun aspired to be a history painter, the most prestigious of the genres, she could only be accepted as genre painter, two steps lower than male academicians.  Since women could not work from live models and were not educated in anatomy, they could not become history painters which would preclude them from having all the privileges the male artists gained like studio space and an allowance.  Although it was impossible for her to be a history painter, Vigee-LeBrun still produced a work of art that could actually very well have been accepted as such.

Study for Abundance, 1780
(Private Collection)
In Peace Bringing Back Abundance, Vigee-LeBrun represents two allegorical figures using traditional symbols, Peace on the right garbed in darker colors is wearing a crown of laurels on her dark hair, and carrying an olive branch, while Abundance is blond wearing white and gold and bearing a cornucopia full of fruits, flowers in her hair and holding ears of wheat, her fertility is pronounced with her exposed breast.  France had been a supporter of the American War of Revolution and this painting underscores that involvement.

Vigee-LeBrun showed incredible artistry in this piece but she was admitted into the Academie with reluctance plus pressure from the crown, because of her husband's profession of being an art dealer.   It seems the Academie did all they can to try to dissuade female artists from joining their ranks but one or two exceptional artists still managed to get by.

- This is an edited version, with additional content, of a prior post that was written in October 2011.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Hürrem: the Woman who Stole the Heart of Süleyman the Magnificent

Rosa, Consort of Suleiman, Emperor of the Turks, ca. 1600-70, French School
(The Royal Collection
Today is Valentines Day, a day we tend to associate with love and lovers. From Marc Antony and Cleopatra to Romeo and Juliet, to Wallis Simpson and the Prince of Wales, there have been some great couples throughout history with stories that are the very definition of romance. There is another great love story about a great romance that took place in 16th century Istanbul that is not so well known in mainstream Western society - that of the Ottoman Sultan, Suleyman the Magnificent, and his favorite concubine, Roxelana. Their story is striking not only for the unprecedented context but also for its extraordinary contribution to Ottoman arts. Named Hürrem (meaning cheerful, smiling, blooming) upon her arrival in the Sultan's palace, Roxelana, the daughter of a Ruthenian Catholic priest, is thought to have been enslaved during a Tatar raid in western Ukraine.

 Portrait of Hurrem Sultan titled Rossa Solymanni Vxor, c. 18th century
(Topkapi Palace Museum) 
The harem of the Ottoman Sultan, filled with the most beautiful women across the land, has always been a source of exotic fantasies. Although it did house the women the Sultan took as concubines, the harem was much more than just a house for hundreds of beautiful women, trained and groomed to perfection, lounging about in hammams and on Turkish carpets awaiting for their turn to assure one man's pleasure. The harem was the Sultan's household, which also encompased the households of his mother, his favorites and concubines. The girls that came to the palace were bought at slave markets, given to the Sultan as gifts by high ranking officials or sold by their own families. Although these practices seem barbaric and impossible to understand for us, the Sultan's harem was a place for a young girl to receive a thorough education in housekeeping, gardening and languages and live in comfort and luxury. Some of the odalisques were even married off to Sultan's favorites or high ranking government officials, whereby she would be the head of her own household. There was a very strict hierarchy that everyone in the harem adhered to. Except for very rare cases, the girls deemed beautiful and/or smart enough by the Valide Sultan (the queen mother) would get further training in the arts, literature, music, dancing and of course the erotic arts.  Contrary to the Western tradition of forming alliances thorough marriage, the Ottoman Sultans made sure to use slaves for sexual reproduction assuring there would not be any other family to gain prominence or aspire for power in the empire. The Ottoman empire was a true meritocracy from the harem to its governing body. What was extraordinary about Hurrem's relationship with Suleyman was that he married her... against a 200 year tradition that inhibited Ottoman Sultans from offically marrying their concubines, even if they had borne a male heir.

Titian, La Sultana Rossa, c. 1550
The existing portraits of Hürrem, are mostly figments of the artists'  imagination since no one other than the Sultan and the eunuchs were allowed to see harem women. However she was noted for not being especially pretty. The 16th century accounts of Hürrem all attest to her intelligence and talent for strategizing. The old palace where Hürrem first resided in was in Beyazit, 2 kilometers away from Topkapi. After becoming a favorite, she managed to move into the Topkapi palace, gaining easier access to Suleyman and stay with him to the end of her life instead of moving out to the city her son would be sent, to acquire experience and rule till his father's demise. She used her influence to send off the heir apparent, Mustafa with his mother, Mahidevran, to Manisa in 1533. The first favorite who bore the Sultan a son would be the second most powerful woman in the harem, after the Valide Sultan. With Mustafa and Mahidevran out of the way, Hürrem began to rule the Harem in 1534 after her mother-in-law passed away.

Haseki Hurrem Sultan (La Rossa), c. 1540-1550
Woodcut published by Matteo Pagani
(©Trustees of the British Museum
Suleyman the Magnificent, c. 1540-50
Woodcut published by Matteo Pagani
©Trustees of the British Museum

I had written in a previous post about a series of Ottoman Sultans portraits, based on a series made by Nakkas Nigari, that existed in a Venetian collection in the 16th century. These woodcuts published by Matteo Pagani may have similar origins but their influence in later representation of the Sultan and the Sultana can be seen from the 18th century Portrait of Hurrem Sultan in the Topkapi Palace collection.  

Suleyman is noted as a 'creative conquerer' who could wield a pen as well as a sword.1 The age of Süleyman which lasted for 46 years from 1520 - 1566 is known as the Ottoman Golden Age where the arts flourished under his patronage and some of the greatest Ottoman artists lived. The great architect Sinan, the poet, thinker and writer, Fuzuli, the polymath artist, mathematician, painter and cartographer, Matrakci Nasuh, and the innovative illuminator Karamemi all lived and worked for the Ottoman Sultan at this time. The Sultan who is referred to as Suleyman the Lawgiver due to having reorganized all the archaic laws of the empire, was also a poet who wrote under the pseudonym of Muhibbi.

Illuminated pages from the Muhibbi Divani, illuminated by Karamemi  (Istanbul University Central Library, Rare Manuscripts Department)

Süleyman spent almost a third of this 46 year rule away on campaign. His ardor for Hürrem seems to have been constant which is proven by the love poems he sent to her when he was away. Muhibbi Divani was a book of Suleyman's poems which were written in Talik inscription by the calligrapher Mehmed el-Serif and illuminated with a different design on each page by Karamemi. The entire book is available digitally online to page through on a Istanbul University webpage (link). One of the poems that he wrote to his sweetheart, Hürrem is as follows:
Thorne of my lovely niche, my wealth, my love, my moonlight
My most sincere friend, my confidant, my very existence, my Sultan
The most beautiful among the beautiful...
My springtime, my merry faced love, my daytime, my sweetheart, laughing leaf...
My plants, my sweet, my rose, the one only who does not distress me in this world...
My Istanbul, my Caraman, the earth of my Anatolia
My Badakhshanmy Baghdad, my Khorasan
My woman of the beautiful hair, my love of the slanted brow, my love of eyes full of mischief...
I'll sing your praises always
I, lover of the tormented heart, Muhibbi of the eyes full of tears, I am happy. 
 Despite being the beloved and dear wife of one of the most successful Sultans of the Ottoman Empire, Hürrem has always been remembered as the scheming, evil female who turned the tide of history by instigating the execution of Suleyman's first-born Mustafa, his closest aid and grand vizier Pargali Ibrahim Pasha and placing her son-in-law Rustem Pasha and her other supporters in high places within the government. It is a well-known fact that she had great influence and advised Suleyman in matters of the state. Although she was not revered as she should be, she was the inspiration for many European artists including Haydn who titled the second movement in his Symphony no. 63 Roxelane. Being an intelligent, powerful woman, Hürrem also knew the power of royal patronage in promoting a positive public image, which is why she commissioned from the architect Sinan religious complexes, waterways, hamams and soup kitchens throughout the empire including Istanbul and Jerusalem.  Unfortunately, none of her good works were enough to cleanse Hürrem's reputation who is to this day still remembered as a nefarious temptress, but Süleyman's poems reveal how special she was to one of the most powerful emperors in history.

1 Halman, Talat Sait. Süleyman the Magnificent Poet: The Sultan's Selected Poems, Beyoglu, Istanbul, Türkiye: Dost, 1987

Sunday, January 24, 2016

#MadameCezanne was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Madame Cézanne Sewing, ca. 1877
(Nationalmuseum, Stockholm) 
We are in the middle of a record breaking blizzard on the East Coast, and while we are enveloped in the tranquility of mountains of snow,  I thought it a perfect opportunity to tackle my own mountain... of photographs taken at numerous museum visits and exhibitions. Since it was Cézanne's birthday this week - he was born on January 19, 1839 - and there was an incredible exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last year, I decided to post some of my favorites from the exhibit with some notes from the gallery labels that I found interesting. Madame Cézannean exhibition of 25 of the 29 portraits the artist painted of his wife and partner Hortense Fiquet, included oils, watercolors and graphite studies, as well as pages from sketch books. Filled with intimate sketches, I loved seeing Cézanne's sketch books and getting an unguarded glimpse into how he observed his world.

Madame Cézanne Leaning on a Table, ca. 1873-74
(Private Collection)
Whether he was painting apples and oranges or his beloved Mont Sainte-Victoire,  Paul Cézanne is renowned for his obsessive exploration of the many ways of observing and interacting with a particular object or landscape he found interesting. Although I was familiar with Cézanne's portraits, I had never considered portraits of Madame Cézanne along the same lines as his bowls of fruit of Mont Sainte-Victoire, subjects he returned to time and again. After viewing the exhibition and listening to the presentations given at the colloquium for the exhibit, Hortense's position in the artist's life and artistic oeuvre became more clear. Taking in her stoic countenance and plain visage, Hortense Piquet was always disparaged by critics and art historians as being a most unpleasant female that was responsible for holding the artist back. This led me to ponder the meanings we assign to works of art and what it says about our culture as opposed to the artist's intent. Especially with an artist like Cézanne, who constructed his canvases very deliberately brush stroke by brush stroke, it seems so misleading to think of Hortense's portraits as mere likenesses revealing her inner persona. As the Met website states "the portraits attest to the constancy of a relationship that was critical to the artist's practice and development."

Portrait of Madame Cézanne, ca. 1886-87
(Philadelphia Museum of Art)
Cézanne's carefully constructed canvases are an infinite source of fascination for me, as I roam their surfaces, following his contours as they outline forms, becoming more pronounced, dissolving into the background or just stopping in midair. The many layers of color used to build up his paintings create an oscillating effect constantly shifting and generating movement. I find Cézanne's paintings intriguing not only for the full experience of space they convey, including different points of view, angles as well as shifts in light and shade but also for what he tried to achieve. According to the late Philipe Conisbe, who used to be the senior curator of European Art at the National Gallery in Washington:
Maybe his greatest goal was to try to put into permanent artistic form, his feeling of engagement with the world. His sense of being in the world... his existential experience as a man and an artist.
So, here is a selection from Madame Cézanne, an extraordinary exhibition for an extraordinary subject ...

Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair, ca. 1877
(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
When poet Rainer Maria Rilke discovered this portrait at the 1907 Salon d'Automne, he was overcome with emotion. Writing to his wife, he described the intensity of the color relationships even in his sleep, "color coming into its own in response to another, asserting itself, recollecting itself... in this hither and back of mutual and manifold influence, the interior of the picture vibrates, rises and falls back into itself, and does not have a single unmoving part."
Portrait of Madame Cézanne, ca. 1890-92
(Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Portrait of Madame Cézanne, ca. 1877
(Private Collection)
Cézanne emphasizes the interiority of his model; she is positioned close to the picture plane, with head titled forward and eyes lowered. It may be the most abstract of all the portraits. The hair, with its wide central part, is highly simplified and the stripes on the dress emphatically refuse to model the torso. These vertical lines echo across the canvas. 
Portrait of Madame Cézanne in a Striped Dress, ca. 1883-85
(Yokohama Museum of Art) 
This portrait, one of the few portraits of Hortense shown in Cézanne's famed 1895 exhibition at Ambroise Vollard's gallery in Paris was also came to the Armory Show in New York in 1913. 
Portrait of Madame Cézanne, ca. 1885-87
(Philadelphia Museum of Art)
There has been much speculation about the curtain-like abstraction of flowers and leaves at the top of this painting. Technical investigation reveals that Cézanne reused this canvas and that these forms were appropriated from an earlier composition, a floral still life that was in turn based on the contours of an abandoned figure. 

Portrait of Madame Cézanne in the Conservatory, 1891
(Metropolitan Museum of Art) 
The varying degrees of finish in this portrait allow us to track its evolution from the Conté crayon or graphite underdrawing to the application of colored washes and body color, which are accumulated to balanced perfection in the head. 

Madame Cézanne in Blue, 1888-90
(Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)
Each portrait of Hortense has its own color scheme. Cézanne established a subdued version of his palette in the underpaint, and then went on to articulate brighter hues across the canvas Color correspondences, sometimes quite subtle, eventually tie the structure together. Working with a narrow palatte in this example, the artist laid passages of ochre in the sideboard and wallpaper, and gray-blue in the dress and paneled door. He then syncopated these colors throughout the canvas in small calculated touches. 

Portrait of Madame Cézanne ca. 1885
(Private Collection, on loan to Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)
Cézanne's brushwork and paint density thins in the 1880s. This shift is nowhere more apparent than in this ravishing bust-length portrait of Hortense, which itself is very similar in structure and curlicues choreograph the pattern while individual strokes of paint fill in the anatomy. Soft pinks and flesh tones describe a tender face, gazing head on, as if in dialogue with the artist. 
Portrait of Madame Cézanne, ca. 1885-87  (Musée d'Orsay, Paris)
The application of paint in this work has more in common with watercolor technique than with oil. For most of the portraits in oil, beyond the underpaint, Cézanne mixed his colors with white, which added opacity. Here, by contrast, the artist built up color very thinly with glazes and semiglazes.  
Portrait photography by Albert Eugene Gallatin
of Henri Matisse with this painting, in his Nice
apartment, 1932
Portrait of Madame Cézanne, ca. 1885-88
(Musée d'Orsay, Paris)

Sketch of a Portrait of Madame Cézanne, ca. 1883
(Richard and Mary L. Gray and the Gray Collections Trust)

Woman Nursing Her Child, 1872
Young Woman with Loosened Hair, ca. 1873-74

 These two tender images of the young Hortense are the earliest traceable painted portraits of her. As a rare snapshot of family life, the portrait on the right is a poignant artifact of a lifelong partnership, here in its nascency.


Still Life with a Watermelon and Pomegranates, ca. 1900-1906
Bathers, ca. 1890-92
Bathers by a Bridge, 1900-1906
In the Oise Valley, ca. 1870-80

Portrait of the Artist

Page Studies, Including Madame Cézanne Sewing, 1877-80
Cézanne employed his sketchbooks for visual notations of all kinds, often using the same sheet over several years. Here, the near horizontal Hortense, bearing a somewhat dismayed expression, shares the leaf with a study of Victor Chocquet, a drawing of a table end, and a sketch of a woman sewing, laid out in framing lines. It is very possible that Cézanne used Conté crayon rather than graphite to achieve the jet-black definition of form. 

Portrait of Madame Cézanne, ca. 1890
This unfinished sketch offers clues to Cézanne's methodology as a watercolorist. He outlined his composition in pencil and then laid in form using blue watercolor both for the figure and background.
Sketch of Madame Cézanne
(Private Collections)

Over the course of is lifetime, Cézanne returned repeatedly to his earlier sketchboooks, filling in empty spaces with more drawings. This practice is evident from the different pencil tones on the pages and the often odd assemblage of images. This charming study of Hortense (right), with her head tilted, is evocative of many of the artist's oils. There is a tenderness to her expression and to the later inscription above her, probably in the hand of young Paul.

Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress, 1888-90
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Portrait of Madame Cézanne in a Yellow Chair, 1888-90
(The Art Institute of Chicago)
Madame Cézanne in a Yellow Dress, 1888-90
(Fondation Beyeler, Basel)
Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress, ca. 1888-90
(Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand)


Madame Cézanne Exhibit, Metropolitan Museum of Art (link)
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