Sunday, May 28, 2017

A Special Exhibition: A World Of Emotions — Ancient Greece, 700 BC - 200 AD

Exhibition View
We New Yorkers like to talk about the many "secret" activities and events found throughout the city. And it's easy to understand why there are so many of these hidden things to see and experience, when you think about how many people live in New York or come into the city either as visitors or for work. There is a significant critical mass for experiencing what the city has to offer.

Yet many of these lesser-known activities get plenty of excellent publicity, and their sponsoring organizations work hard to get the word out. So I'm always surprised to see how much many of us miss. I suppose it’s because there’s so much on offer, and we just can’t keep up with all that’s available.

The work of the Onassis Cultural Center in Olympic Tower, 645 Fifth Avenue (at 51st Street) is a good example of what I’m describing. The excellence of the programs and exhibitions at the center is noteworthy, and I think these events are well attended, but somehow (through no fault of the center) many of us just don't know about them and we tend to forget about watching for what's coming up at the center. 

The current exhibition — the 17th, I've been told — opened to us on March 9, and now, having just discovered it, I want to tell all my friends about it and give you an idea of how impressed I was with what’s on at the Onassis Cultural Center just now. The exhibition ends on June 24, so if you're a fan of ancient Greek art, you want to take a look at A World of Emotions — Ancient Greece, 700 BC - 200 AD. Make a point of getting over to the Olympic Tower. 

Boy with a Goose
(Photo: National Archaeological
The idea behind the exhibition is to invite us, as visitors, to think about the role of emotion in our lives. At the same time the exhibition provides an opportunity to give attention to how all the many emotions we experience, “in our interpersonal relations, in private life, in the public sphere, and in religious worship” (as described in the exhibition’s very well-written guide) penetrate everything we do and contribute totally to all art and literature. So the exhibition gives us an opportunity to connect what we know and experience about our own emotions with what we can now learn about their role in ancient Greek life and behavior. 

It’s not possible to describe all of the beautiful objects on display in the exhibition. Of course there are the sweet innocent pleasures, satisfying just to look at (such as the famous Boy with a Goose, a third-century BC sculpture from the National Archaeological Museum, Athens). Once I looked at it the other day I immediately remembered how much I loved it when I saw it at the museum back in — I think it was — 1981 or so). Equally thrilling are some of the beautiful and often very moving depictions of funerary and commemorative steles. Indeed, the descriptions of the role of cemeteries and death in the lives of the ancient Greeks are touchingly described in the section on grief.

Naturally much attention is given over to drama, the art so often performed for the Greeks and comprising — as we all know — a big part of their life. One section of the exhibition is titled “Enslaved by Emotions” and I really liked one thesis put forward in this section: “The earliest and most emblematic text of Greek literature, the Iliad (ca. 700 BC) has an emotion as its subject: Achilles’ uncontrolled indignation, caused by an insult.” Immediately following is a section — certainly linked to emotions that enslave — about Medea. I was impressed by the description and visuals of (and wished I had been able to witness) a 1984 Japanese all-male staging produced by the Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa. And for opera lovers like me, it was real trip down memory lane to see the commentary about Maria Callas (including a fantastic oversize photograph of her in her perhaps-most-famous operative role). 

For me the exhibition also provided the great pleasure of connecting some of what I’ve experienced in my past with what is on display here, and I’m very satisfied with what I’ve seen in A World of Emotions. As I think about some of what I’ve learned in my own classical studies (although I am definitely no expert or authority, I can assure you), I find with this exhibition that I’m looking at wonderful depictions of many of the stories and myths I grew up with and learned about as I was educated. And what I kept hearing about and learning about throughout my adult life as I played with “the classics.” Certainly one of my endeavors of a few years ago returned vividly to mind as I viewed this exhibition, as many of the displayed items brought back happy memories of a long journey throughout Greece in the 1980s. On that trip I took along the fairly recent and much-lauded Robert Fitzgerald translation the Iliad and Odyssey. For me, reading these made ancient Greece came alive, even more so than I had experienced in previous trips. This exhibition helped me remember that time with even more pleasure.

Exhibition hours are Mon, Tue, Wed, Fri, and Sat: 10 AM - 6 PM (Thu from 10 AM - 9 PM). Find time to visit Onassis Cultural Center before June 24. 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Deeper Dive Into Art Nouveau (1)

Good friends like to tease me about my attention to my special interests. When asked, I’m always quick to note that I have three (in no particular order): my love of elephants, my devotion to opera, and my joy in discovering the subtle — and sometimes not-so-subtle — pleasures of Art Nouveau.

The first comes up pretty often, as demonstrated in my last post. Opera, too, gets written about frequently in these posts. My third interest, though, hasn’t had much coverage in the past. If you search the term “Art Nouveau” in the upper left-hand corner, just above the blog’s title bar, you’ll find I have written only twice about Art Nouveau, in a description of the style in Brussels when I visited there in 2010 (Art Nouveau, February 24, 2010) and a longer, very admiring post from Paris (Pierre Cardin’s Art Nouveau Museum at Maxim’s, January 26, 2014). Obviously I have a way to go if I’m going to catch up and give greater attention to Art Nouveau in the future.

Siegfried Bing's
Maison de l'Art Nouveau, Paris
As I speak with friends about Art Nouveau, I’m often asked for a definition, and I usually begin by noting that this decorative movement or style seems to have been particularly short-lived. Some say it began about 1889 and for others the beginning period was in the early 1880s. For me, 1895 to 1915 seems to work best, for it was at the end of 1895 that Siegfried Bing opened his Maison de l’Art Nouveau at 22 rue de Provence in Paris. The title soon was conveniently abbreviated in popular conversation to l’art nouveau and with the success of the gallery and with the equal success of the gallery’s displays at the 1900 Exposition Universelle, the phrase became attached to a type of decorative and design style that was to become increasingly popular.

The term (and the style) came about in reaction to what had preceded it. After all, there can’t be a “new” art/architecture without there having been an “old” one before it. Until the advent of Art Nouveau, almost all styles of architecture and decorative arts drew heavily on historical precedent. The 19th century was rife with revivals: Gothic, Romanesque, Greek, Renaissance (adapted with Beaux Arts) and more. Connected to this attraction to earlier forms and contributing to the need for and development of a new direction in art was the fact that the 19th century also saw a huge growth of wealth as a result of the industrial revolution, the expansion of the railroads, and other technological improvements. In most cases, wealth was concentrated in relatively few hands. In the United States, the period went under the name of the Gilded Age. In France it was La Belle Époque (the “beautiful era”), and other countries had their own names for this period. Many of these newly rich (the nouveau-riches) sought extravagant examples of these same revival styles. Others, sometimes but not always younger, sought a style that did not look to the past. They wanted something new. Art Nouveau fit the bill.

Sadly, and despite its earlier success, the popularity of Art Nouveau began to wane as early as the First World War (though certainly examples of fine Art Nouveau came later). And it spread out, turning up almost all over Western Europe (and even in Russia, as I discovered when I was in St. Petersburg a few years ago). Not surprisingly, there were many variations, and these variations were based on many factors, including geography, national interests, styles, and the specific tastes of many of the movement’s patrons.

One of the
Paris Metro entrances
designed by Hector Guimard
As Art Nouveau became more recognized, the style was referred to by a wide variety of names. The original designation — l’art nouveau — was generally capitalized when written in English but written in lower case in French. The term began to appear in many forms, reflecting the several languages of its different locations. In France, for example, in addition to the popular term (l’art nouveau) the style was sometimes spoken of with an English phrase, the “modern style,” related to the Arts and Crafts Movement. And in either case, when Art Nouveau was (and is) discussed in Paris the names of architect and designer Hector Guimard and the furniture designer and industrial designer Eugène Gaillard are often heard. Across the Channel, we hear about the Glasgow style and in most cases in the same sentence, the names of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the Scottish architect and designer and his artist wife Margaret Macdonald, both of whom were noticeably influential to the Art Nouveau movement. Although different from what most of us might think of as Art Nouveau, Mackintosh became one of the most respected of the Art Nouveau specialists (as did — in his own way — Louis Comfort Tiffany, who led this work in America).

Victor Horta
Entrance Hall to His Home (Brussels)
In Brussels there's the style coup de court, reflecting (jokingly I presume) the nickname "whiplash" and associated with architect Victor Horta and the architecture and furniture designs of Henry van de Velde. In a different part of Europe, if you visit Barcelona you’ll hear much discussion about a style that is similar to Art Nouveau. There it is known as Moderisme, reflecting the critical work of architect Antoni Gaudí and others. In Vienna you’ll hear Secessionsstil for the movement, with Otto Wagner’s name prominently associated with it, as well as that of designer Josef Hoffman. Germany has its Jugendstil, and in Italy we hear about Stile floreale or — the one I like — Stile Liberty, after the store in London that for Italians of the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries seemed to evoke what we think of as Art Nouveau. As I say, these are just a few examples but, hopefully, they give us a snapshot of how this style had so much influence in the short time in which it was such an important part of the architecture, art, and design movement.

Eugène Gaillard
cabinet displayed at the
Bröhan-Museum, Berlin
As you’ve noticed, I’ve used not only the term “style” to identify Art Nouveau. The term “movement” comes up often when we discuss Art Nouveau, and others speak about the “philosophy” underlying Art Nouveau as a style or movement. This is, I think, because of some of the external forces I mentioned above, the growth of wealth, the desire to move beyond artistic and design attributes of earlier historical times, and — not least of all — perhaps a late 19th century interest for exploring a style to “live with,” to create an environment that was not only pleasing to the people who created it and offered it to the (obviously well-to-do) public, but to the patrons themselves who were willing and even enthusiastic about having this particular style as part of their lives. There are indications that for many who were drawn to Art Nouveau — despite its brief popularity — they wanted to surround themselves with this particular style.

And they — many of them — took the idea of “surrounding themselves” seriously, to such an extent that some critics and scholars in the field came to recognize that with Art Nouveau its creators and patrons saw the movement as an “ideal” or “total” work of art and design (connecting, perhaps, with Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, in which all elements of the art combine to provide a unifying experience, all supporting a single form of expression). That idea might be a little grand but in fact with Art Nouveau the style (as short-lived as it was) became an almost universal way to think about architecture, art, design, furniture, jewelry, household utensils, silver, and a vast array of other art and craft applications. Indeed, the word “universal” is used in the current digital exhibition, through mid-May, Art Nouveau: A Universal Style at the Europeana Collections site, a delightful little display that provides considerable pleasure in and of itself. Had those of us who have so much fun with Art Nouveau today lived in the movement’s heyday, we too would have loved surrounding ourselves with Art Nouveau all over the place (or at least visiting places where it was available to be seen, even if we were not in the financial bracket for acquiring it for ourselves. 

So with all that background, how do we define Art Nouveau? The best definition, to my way of thinking, comes from looking at examples. As I say, it’s not all the same, but the similarities are there: the focus on nature and natural structures and, in particular, botanical shapes, the curving, almost sensuous lines, and, a special joy to me, the many bold and dynamic color combinations. Like any artistic movement, Art Nouveau did not develop in a vacuum. Indeed, it was in many ways made possible by technological changes in fields as varied as building, printing, furniture production, and more. Thanks to the openness of architects, designers, and artists (especially in reaction to what had come “before”), new opportunities to aesthetic possibilities led to graceful, eye-pleasing forms, demonstrated in what we have in our minds’ eye when we think about Art Nouveau.

[Guy St. Clair is the author of Knowledge Services: A Strategic Framework for the 21st Century Organization (Munich and Boston: De Gruyter, 2016). His Amazon author page is For this blog, Guy thanks Andrew Berner for his subject matter expertise and his editorial assistance.]