Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Opposite of War is Creation

Chora Museum, Istanbul
It's hard to believe that it was only one week ago, that my husband and I were sitting in our New York apartment, discussing our preparations for our New Year's Eve meal.  I started writing this post with the intent to look at the past year to move forward to 2017 with optimism and a renewed energy... But the death and destruction that ensued in the just the first week of the new year have me wishing we had the power to roll everything up and start anew... in a completely secular sense of course.  Since we can't realistically accomplish this, we might as well concentrate on what we can actually do. As the American composer and playwright, Jonathan Larson said -
The opposite of war is not peace... It's creation!
As a way to stay positive and surround ourselves with truth, beauty and goodness, we have to go on creating... knowledge, art, literature, music... whatever is our passion, our specialty, we need to make sure we endow the world with our best. But for now, let's take a look at what made 2016 worth living... (Warning: this is a wordy post, laden with beautiful works of art. If you don't care for the commentary, I suggest you scroll down just for the images)

The Great Festivity (Maha Utsav): Six Figures Celebrate with Music and Dance," Folio from the "Early Bikaner" Bhagavata Purana (The Ancient Story of God) ca. 1610, (The Metropolitan Museum of Art Exhibition. "Divine Pleasures: Painting from India's Rajput Courts - The Kronos Collection", 2016)
We have entered a brand new year with hopes and plans for a better future than the state of dystopia that is becoming more of the reality of our times with each passing day. There is something that is uplifting and universal about New Year's Eve however one chooses to celebrate it. It's like a restart command on our computers - even though we are equipped with the same capabilities and content, we can start fresh with the hope and intent to perform a little bit better, fix some of the glitches from the previous session and get better results. Unfortunately, before we could even utter Happy New Year! in New York City, the devastating news of a mass shooting at Reina, a nightclub on the Bosphorus in Istanbul, came through our social media feeds. Tragedy had struck once again!

"The Nightmare dream of a King: The Fearsome Aftermath of the Battle of Kurukshetra" Folio from the unfinished  "Small Guler" Bhagavata Purana (The Ancient Story of God), Manadu, ca. 1740
(The Metropolitan Museum of Art Exhibition. "Divine Pleasures: Painting from India's Rajput Courts - The Kronos Collection", 2016)
A cowardly and vile act against humanity was made all the worse due to its timing on a night when people just wanted to celebrate the passing of a troubling year and look forward to making a brand new start.  2016 was a year that had given us the divisive politics of Brexit and Donald Trump, highest record of displacement with the number of displaced individuals reaching 65.3 million people all over the world and the number of people that are being forced from their homes due to conflict or persecution reaching 34,000 a day. In spite of all the calamities we faced, in contrast to the scene described in Book One of the Bhagavata Purana (depicted in the painting above,) where King Yudhisthira cries out after the fearsome battle, no world leader was ever heard saying -
Shame on me. I have caused to be slain young boys... kinsmen, friends, uncles, brothers and the preceptors. My horrible and despicable sin on account of this will not be fully expatiated even after suffering ten thousand years of hellfire. (1) 
Instead, the so-called leaders of the world blame, "the other," outside forces or even worse, their political opponents for the travesties that have befallen on their people.
"Angada, Prince of the Monkeys, Destroys Ravana's Palace and Steals His Crown," Illustrated folio from the "Shangdi" Ramayana (The Adventures of Rama) (Style III), ca. 1700-30,
(The Metropolitan Museum of Art Exhibition. "Divine Pleasures: Painting from India's Rajput Courts - The Kronos Collection", 2016)
While great acts of terror and loss of innocent lives continued ubiquitously, conservative right-wing politicians in the "civilized" West gained more power and advocated policies to keep out the refugees from entering their countries - those who suffered the most from the violence were supposed to be denied help with the suspicion that they might be terrorists in disguise.  An upsurge in racism and xenophobia caused not only by terrorism but also increased income disparity and loss of privileged ways of life has increased social polarization on the national as well as the international front.  Ironically, we all seem to be fighting for our basic rights and lifestyle choices, be it against religious fanatics or racist, hateful, and misogynist politicians who bring out the worst in their people.

Decorated Incipit Page recalling Byzantine tapestries
which were admired and coveted in the West,
about 1120 - 1140, from Gospel Book
(The J. Paul Getty Museum, "Traversing the Globe through
Illuminated Manuscripts Exhibitions)
I am a strong believer that art and culture have the power to heal and bring about social cohesion that our world desperately needs. As bad as contemporary events were, there were some excellent exhibitions in 2016 that were akin to the little bits of sunshine that appear in the cold, gray winter sky. Exploring the material culture of past civilizations and different societies, helped me to feel a greater connection to the world at large.  Noting the ways in which we are so similar in our humanity yet wonderfully unique in our cultural diversity, and how history repeats itself over and over again is both inspiring and reassuring.

 "Traversing the Globe through Illuminated Manuscripts" at the Getty Museum highlighted the connections and transcultural exchanges between the peoples of Asia, Europe, Africa and America from the 9th to the 17th century. It was a very well thought-out exhibit, not privileging one culture over another.  Each object was carefully chosen from the museum's collection with a few additions from local museums, emphasizing moments of encounter, exchange and exploration in the other, to say nothing of the breathtaking beauty of the illuminations.

Scenes from the Life of David, about 1250, Folio from the Morgan Picture Bible
(The J. Paul Getty Museum)
The Morgan Picture Bible consisted exclusively of pictures with no accompanying text, three sets of captions were later added to the leaves, summarizing the contents of the images. Scribes in southern Italy added inscriptions in Latin around 1300, and inscriptions in Persian and Judeo-Persian (Persian written in Hebrew alphabet) were added in the 1600s.
The Morgan Picture Bible was presented to the Persian ruler, Shah Abbas in the early 1600s.

The two canon tables from the Zeyt'un Gospels by the most accomplished illuminator and scribe in Armenia, T'oros Roslin, were two of the most magnificent manuscript I had ever seen. According to the Getty website, in medieval Armenia, religious books such as these were believed to serve as heavenly intercessors for those involved with the books' creation, patronage or care.

Canon tables from the Zeyt'un Gospels, T'oros Roslin, Armenian, 1256

Initial A: Saints Maurice and Theofredus, Frate Nebridio, Cremona, ca. 1460-1480
Saint Maurice, a third-century soldier, was martyred for not making sacrifices to pagan gods.  Saint Theofredus was among his companions. The two saints depicted in courtly, refined costumes was inspired by double portraits of the period. This cutting comes from an antiphonal. 
The manuscript with the 3rd century Saints Maurice and Theofredus is worthy of close inspection for the depiction of the two Saints from the Theban Legion in Egypt. The 15th-century Italian illuminator, Frate Nebridio, emphasized their Eastern origins by the dark dots on their skins.  

Iskandar at the Kaaba, Page from a Manuscript of the Khamsa (Quintet) of  Nizami
(Iskandarnama or "Book of Alexander"), Iran, Shiraz, circa 1485-1495
Alexander the Great, the greatest conquering hero that all later rulers would aspire to, was accepted and revered in the Islamic culture as well. He was written into the mythology of the Islamic tradition as Iskandar and depicted as a Muslim ruler sometimes seen visiting holy sites.


Élisabeth Louise Viger Le Brun, Self-Portrait, 1790
(Gallerie degli Uffizi, Corridoio Vasariano)

On a different note, there were many interesting facts in the Met's exhibition "Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France".  Vigée Le Brun was Marie Antoinette's favorite portraitist who was accepted into the prestigious Academie royale de peinture et du sculpture (a previous post has more details.) I have always admired Ms. LeBrun's perseverance and ability to survive one of the bloodiest times in history even with her close connections to the Royal family in France. Vigée LeBrun's oeuvre of flattering portraits of royalty and 18th-century notables are enjoyable to view but her delicate drawings and pastels with their intimate and honest portrayals made more of an impact on me.  The Self-portrait of 1790 where she represents herself as an artist at her easel making a sketch of Marie Antoinette, is the perfect calling card for a confident, talented and capable woman artist. In a white turban and a seemingly feminine, black dress with a delicate, white, ruffled collar and a striking red sash,  Le Brun looks out to the viewer with a direct gaze. According to the curator Joseph Baillio, her collar and turban are both a nod to the great masters. This type of collar was worn at the time of Rubens and Van Dyck and the turban recalls Rembrandt and Van Dyck's Self-portraits wearing turbans. 

"You had me at Hello" @sedefscorner
One of this year's blockbuster exhibitions at the Met was "Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World." Hellenistic The exhibition of 264 objects was a fine collection of Hellenistic sculptures, jewelry, gems, glass, precious medals and coins. Emphasizing Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Kingdoms that succeeded him, all the drama, the range of emotions and characters, individuality and naturalistic representation one could possibly hope to find from a fine collection of Hellenistic Greek Art were present in this show.  Besides seeing some of the Berlin, Pergamon Museum's fine collection of works from Pergamon, in present-day Turkey, the exhibition provided ample photo opportunities for visitors to capture dramatic images of their own.

Terracotta volute-krater (The Darius Krater),
Greek, Hellenistic period, ca. 330-320 B.C.
(Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples)
The gallery label for the Darius Crater, states that the conflict between ancient Greece and the East was as old as the Trojan War (ca.12th century B.C.) as written by Homer. This crater that features the Persian King Darius (identified by name) listening to a messenger on the round plinth inscribed "Persians"  is assumed to be based on the lost play The Persians, by Phrynichos. Above him, the god Zeus faces personifications of Asia and Hellas (Greece). 

After the Greek victory in the Persian Wars (490-479 B.C.) representations of Amazons, warrior women from the Black Sea region, and Amazonomachies, depicting the mythological battle between the Greeks and the Amazons became popular subjects as a metaphor for the historic confrontation.  


(L) Marble Dying Persian, 2nd cent. A.D. Roman copy of 2nd cent B.C. Greek bronze                               
(M) Athena Parthenos, from the Temple of Athena at Pergamon, 
(R) Marble Dying Amazon, 2nd cent. A.D. Roman copy of 2nd cent B.C. Greek bronze

Onyx Cameo, Early Hellenistic Period
Ptolemy II Philadelphos and his sister-wife, Arsinoe II, the first Ptolemies to enter into sibling marriage.
(Antikensammlung, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)
Epikouros, portrait heads of other leading Athenian philosophers and
Marble Statue of Athena Parthenos from the Sanctuary of Athena at Pergamon

Right next door to the Pergamon exhibit was the exhibition "Court and Cosmos: The Great Age of the Seljuqs." Seljuqs were a Turkic dynasty, from Central Asia that ruled a vast territory from Turkmenistan to Turkey from the 11th to the 14th centuries and this exhibition was a collection of objects that were used in the various courts and homes of wealthy dignitaries as well as the affluent middle class. This was a time of great cultural and artistic production that was a fusion of the various cultures and traditions including Persian, Byzantine, Islamic, Arabic, Armenian and other Christian cultures, that were part of the lands the Seljuqs ruled.  

A sovereign's personal guards, viziers or amirs that probably decorated the reception hall of a ruler's court. 


(L) Plate of Rukn al-Dawla Dawud Anatolia or Caucasus ca. 1114-44, Bearing the name of a Muslim ruler yet design recalling the Byzantine tradition.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  
(M) Pierced Jug with Harpies and Sphinxes, Kashan, 1215-16  
(R) Magic Mirror of Abu-l-Fadl, Artuq Shah, Eastern Anatolia, ca. 1220s-30s. Used to divine and  control the future through the signs of the zodiac


Enthroned figures were a favorite theme in Seljuq art, and could be found in different media with similar iconography. The centrally situated, prominent figure is usually seen holding the accouterments of kingship - a glass in one hand and a handkerchief in the other, and he is surrounded by attendants, peacocks, and apotropaic sphinxes, all the symbols associated with royalty.


Beautiful colors, whimsical animal motifs, ceramics with representations of epic love stories and extraordinary stone carvings were all part of this magical exhibition.

Panel with Enthroned Ruler and Courtiers, Iran, second half of 12th century
(Philadelphia Museum of Art)
The Rubin Museum of Art, in New York, had an exhibition, "Nepalese Seasons: Rain and Ritual" which displayed objects that were part of the rituals and festivals of the natural environment and seasons including the rainy season and monsoon as well as the cultural life of the Nepalese people. Out of all the precious objects, I found one that was extraordinary for the meaning it conveyed.

Ushnisavijaya and the Celebration of Old Age (Bhimartha Ritual), Nepal, 1775
(Rubin Museum of Art)
Newars celebrate their attainment of old age with an elaborte ritual. During the ritual the members of the family of the honoree place the old person or couple in a wooden chariot symbolically equipped with winged horses and other mythical creatures. This ritual symbolizes their ascendance to heaven, showing the couple seated in the chariot and moving toward heaven through the stylized cloud. The famous hilltop shirne of Svayambhu Stuba in Kathmandu is represented here as heaven. (2)


Arapachana Majushri, Nepal, 13th-14th century
(Chazen Museum of Art)
This sculpture shows the Buddhist god of knowledge seated in the middle of a giant cosmic lotus surrounded by his acolytes placed on the petals of the flower, cutting away ignorance with his sword. It has a mechanism that allows the petals to open and close turning the fully blossomed lotus to turn into a bud. I particularly liked it for its poignant message that could have the apotropaic properties we need today.

"Divine Pleasures: Painting from India's Rajput Courts" is a collection of 100 paintings that were produced between 16th and the early 19th century for the royal courts of Rajasthan and the Punjab Hills in northern India. These paintings produced for several powerful kingdoms were a synthesis of the naturalism, refined color and fine brushwork of Mughal painting with the shallow space, elemental color palette of black, white, red, blue yellow,  and green, as well as shallow space and simplified, bold drawing of Indian aesthetics. 

Krishna and the Gopas (Cowherders) Huddle
in the Rain
, Attributed to the Master of
Swirling Skies, ca. 1720-50
Attributed to India, Bahu, Punjab Hills
(The Kronos Collection)
Ladies on a Terrace, Painted by the artist
Ruknuddin, Rajasthan Kingdom of Bikaner,
(The Kronos Collection)

"Gujari Ragini: A Lady With A Vina Seated on
a Bed of Lotus Flowers
" Folio from a dispersed
Ragamala (Garland of Melodies)
Artist: Rukniddin, 1664
(The Kronos Collection)
Training a Horse, Rajasthan, 1765
(The Kronos Collection)

These charming paintings that contain a similar iconography of kingship as to the Seljuq objects,  depicting ladies playing instruments, horses and peacocks were also a way of seeking the divine through personal devotion.

Chitanya Dances in Ecstasy, ca. 1750
Attributed to India, Kishangarh, Rajsathan
(The Kronos Collection)
These were not the only exhibitions that I viewed in 2016 but I think there is a common bond that connects all of them to each other and to our present day. The times when these works were created were much harder than ours; they had wars, epidemics, tyrants, and autocrats as well as clear divisions between people of different social classes, race, gender and ethnicities that could not be breached. Yet, these wonderful works of art, that give us a glimpse into worlds so far removed from our own, survived. History does not remember the names of all the abhorrent leaders or the names of their enemies...They all disappeared but their cultural heritage did not. As the great mystic, Rumi said "This too will pass" and hopefully will be recalled through the great works of art and scholarship that we created in the interim.

"The Poet and Author Jayadeva Visualizes Radha and Krishna,"
Folio from the "Second" or "Tehri Garhwal" Gita Gowinda (Song of God)
ca. 1775-80, attributed to India, Kangra or Guler, Punjab Hills
(The Kronos Collection)


(1) Metropolitan Museum of Art Website (link), J.M. Sanyal, translator, The SrimadBhagavatam, New Delhi, 1970, vol I, pg.33.

(2) Rubin Museum of Art. "Nepalese Seasons: Rain and Ritual" Exhibition Gallery Label

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