What I Saw at the Museum Yesterday
I went to the Museum of Fine Arts here in Houston Sunday afternoon. I wandered through the galleries of European paintings, then over to the Asian galleries, and finally over to the Kinder building where the 20th and 21st century art is kept. Here are a few things that I saw:
This was commissioned by a wealthy Roman follower of the mystery cult of Dionysis. There is a myth that Bacchus (whom the Romans called Dionysis) had conquered India in the mythical past. A legend says that when Alexander the Great reached a city called Nysa near the Indus River, the inhabitants told him it had been founded by Bacchus. I have lately become fascinated by the contacts that the Greeks made with with India and the ways they may have influenced one another. (However, I feel confident saying that Bacchus never conquered India.)
Here is another Roman sculpture with Dionysis standing next to a tumescent Pan. (Of all the Greek gods, it’s interesting that Pan’s name didn’t change like all the others did when the Romans adopted him into their pantheon. Although, sometimes Romans call him Faunus.) Pan is usually depicted as small compared to the human-sized gods. I don’t know why.
This carving is very small—a few inches square. The legend is that Prince Siddhartha left his cloistered life of pleasure inside his palace and witnessed a sick person, an aging person, a dead person, and a holy man. Made aware of the ubiquity of human suffering, Siddhartha renounced his luxurious palace life to live the life of a holy seeker, subsequently achieving enlightenment and becoming the Buddha. Gandhara was a region in what is now Pakistan. It was a crossroads of various cultures—it was conquered by Alexander the Great in 327 BCE, then by Ashoka in the mid 200s BCE (Ashoka famously converted to Buddhism around 261 BCE), then after the decline of Ashoka’s empire, it was conquered by the Indo-Greek kingdom whose greatest king, Menander 1 was a devout Buddhist, then it was subsequently conquered by the Kushan empire, who were, as Thomas McEvilley writes in his book The Shape of Ancient Thought, philhellenic. Their greatest emperor was Kanishka, an enthusiastic Buddhist who sent missionaries along the silk road, introducing Buddhism to the Chinese. This piece was probably produced during Kushan rule of Gandhara. The thing about Gandharan Buddhist art is that it was heavily influenced by Greek styles. It has been said that before Buddhism came to Gandhara, human images of Buddha were uncommon. In terms of art, Greco-Buddhism has had a profound effect.
Here is another example of Greek influence on Gandharan art. Mostly this can be seen in the folds. In some Gandharan sculptures, the Greek influence is even stonger—for example, the figures sometimes have a contrapasto pose. But not this stolid fellow.
Skipping ahead 1700 years or so, this large sparkly Buddha is by a contemporary Korean artist, Noh Sang Kyoon. He has done a lot of Buddha images, but if there is anything that characterizes his work, it is his use of sequins.
This woodcut by Albrecht Dürer is staggering. It’s only 15 and a half inches tall, but the level of detail is incredible. It’s hard to believe that a human being could create it. As an old guy who needs glasses, I conclude that Dürer had excellent eyesight.
Part of what appealed to me about this Christian Luycks vanitas was the presence of a skeleton holding a piece of sheet music. This genre of painting is usually a still-life, but here it has a figure in it, albeit a suoernatural character. But perhaps the presence of skulls, instruments and sheet music made me think of the recent demise of the San Antonio Symphony.
Francisco de Zurbarán was a Spanish baroque painter. I believe this is the only Zurbarán that the MFAH has. The myth of Saint Veronica was that she was a witness to Jesus carrying the cross, the wiped his face with her veil, and his image was miraculously imprinted on the veil. I can’t remember where I read this, but someone said that Veronica’s veil was an example of mystical printing.
There are two of these screens called biombos at the MFAH. Screens of this sort were first brought to Viceregal Spain in Mexico from Japan in the early 17th century (in the 17th century, Japan stopped trading with the West, except the Dutch—so Mexico must have gotten its folding Japanese screens just before Japan closed itself off). Like the Gandharan Buddhas, this struck me as another example of East meeting West.
Dovedale by Moonlight by Joseph Wright of Derby has long been one of my favorite paintings at the MFAH. Wright is primarily famous for his paintings of early scientific experiments (lots of 18th century men fiddling with glassware) and dramatic lighting. The lighting in this landscape has that drama. Did Wright just stumble across this spooky moonlit view while ambling about one night, commit it to memory, then go back to his studio to paint it? It feels unreal in the best possible way.
Painted almost exactly the same time as the Wright is this enormous portrait of Mrs. Purvis by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Reynolds was a highly respected painter in England, the first president of the Royal Academy, and writer of the of one of the first major works of art criticism in English, Discourses, which were talks he gave to the Royal Academy on art. I wish more artists I know would also write. One reason this Reynolds caught my attention is that I noticed how superior it was to the portrait by Firmin Massot I wrote about a week ago.
Here is one I wrote about in May when it was purchased at auction for $15.3 million by Houston energy trader, Bill Perkins. According to the New York Times, Perkins bought it for the express purpose of getting museums interested in Ernie Barnes. He was convinced that spending a lot of money on art like this sent a signal to museums that this art was worth looking at. It seems like an iffy proposition to me, but clearly the MFAH noticed—because here was Sugar Shack hanging on the wall of the Kinder building for Juneteenth. (It is on loan to the museum through the end of the year.) The painting is modest sized and feels tiny compared to the gigantic works hung in the Kinder.
It feels a little dwarfed by the huge wall on which it hangs, but it drew a crowd.
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