Archive for September, 2008

Bewitched by the Peplos Kore

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Sculpture with tags , on September 30, 2008 by Liz Hager


Peplos Kore, 530-525 BC
Marble, about 4 1/2 feet (statue only) not including plinth,
(courtesy Acropolis Museum, Athens)

In the 1880s archeologists clearing the Acropolis stumbled across an amazing find—dozens of broken statues of male (kouroi) and female (kourai) figures dating from the 4th century BCE.  The figureswere remarkably similar—all were depicted in the same forward-standing pose, the left foot thrust slightly ahead of the right foot.

In 480 BCE the Persians captured Athens and in the process laid waste to the Acropolis, presumably leaving the shattered remains of buildings and statues behind.  It seems the Athenians reverentially buried the pieces, perhaps as a way of paying homage to the dead, and they remained there until the late 19th century.

The “Peplos Kore” (above) was one of those Archaic-era (800—500 BCE) statues unearthed on the Acropolis. Like all kourai she is clothed (the convention of depicting the male figures naked and females clothed persisted until the fourth century BCE).  Peplos refers to her garment, common to the period, in which multiple layers of different weight fabrics were often elaborately folded and belted at the waist. The figure above wears quite a plain peplos in contrast to other korai (below), and it is not altogether clear whether less depiction of fabric folds was a stylistic choice or a competency limitation.

The right arm of the “Peplos” hangs at her side; it is thought that her left arm was extended with a hand either holding a sculptural offering or palm up to hold a devotee’s offering.  Though only a few fragments of paint survive, scholars surmise that this statue would have been painted all over in bright colors as was the tradition in ancient Greece. In this manner the textile patterns of her garments would have been gloriously emphasized; some of this is partially visible in the belt of the kore below.

Standing Female Figure (Akropolis #594), 530-520 BCE,
(Acropolis Museum, Athens)

The “kour” statues evolved from a well-established sculptural tradition. Greek and Egyptian cultures mixed fairly freely by the mid-seventh century BCE, owing to the establishment of a Greek trading station on the Nile delta and numbers of Greek mercenaries left in Egypt after the campaigns of Pharoah Psammetichos I. Thus, Greek sculptors would have had great familiarity with Egyptian sculptural techniques.

Statue of Mentuemhet, Prince of Thebes, early 6th century BCE,

The Greeks adopted the signature characteristics of Egyptian statuary—the frontal erect pose, left foot advancing, arms hung straight at sides, and the faint smile. However, they began to experiment with free-standing figures (unattached to a supporting backdrop); paradoxically this experimentation must have paved the way for the more fluid poses of subsequent Classic-era sculpture.

Although the “kour” figures were largely life-sized, sculptors abandoned the correct human body proportions—additional length in the torso—and this must have been related to the use of the “kours.” As evidenced by the inscriptions on their bases, these figures had two uses—as votive offerings from wealthy patrons to temples and as grave markers of prominent citizens.  Additionally, kourai displayed more stylized features than their Egyptian forerunners.  “Kours” were not conceived as portraits of individuals and thus not meant to be identified a separate beings, hence the standardized handling of pose and features.  Despite her rigidity, the Peplos Kore draws us in, her dancing almond-shaped eyes and bewitching smile beckoning our 21st century gaze.

Wider Connections

John Boardman—Greek Art (World of Art series)
Venetian Red—“Airport Art;” Michael Stutz’s contemporary interpretation of the “Peplos Kore.”
Egyptian Museum
Greece in the Archaic Period
Museum of Antiquities
“True Colors“—Matthew Gurewitsch’s Smithsonian article on painted sculpture
Egyptian vs. Greek statuary

The Content of Stripes: Frank Stella & Diego Velázquez

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , on September 29, 2008 by Liz Hager

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, Supper at Emmaus, 1622-1623,
Oil on canvas, 48 1/2 x 52 1/4″
(photo courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Frank Stella, Empress of India, 1965,
Metallic powder in polymer emulsion paint on canvas, 6′ 5″ x 18′ 8″ Gift
(© 2008 Frank Stella; photo courtesy Museum of Modern Art, New York).

One day while the show “Three American Painters” was hanging at the Fogg Museum at Harvard, Michael Fried and I were standing in one of the galleris. To our right was a copper painting by Frank Stella, its surface burnished by the light which flooded the room. A Harvard student who had entered the gallery approached us. With his left arm raised and his finger pointing to the Stella, he confronted Michael Fried. “What’s so good about that?” he demanded. Fried looked back at him. “Look,” he said slowly, “there are days when Stella goes to the Metropolitan Museum. And he sits for hours looking at the Velázquez, utterly knocked out by them and then he goes back to his studio. What he would like more than anything else is to paint like Velázquez. But what he knows is that that is an option that is not open to him. So he paints stripes.” Fried’s voice had risen. “He wants to be Velázquez so he paints stripes.

I don’t know what the boy thought, but it was clear enough to me. That statement, which linked Velázquez’d needs to Stella’s in the immense broad jump of a single sentence, was a giant ellipsis whose leap cleared three centuries of art. But in my mind’s eye it was more like one of those strobe photographs in which each increment of the jumper’s act registers on the single image. I could see what the student could not, and what Fried’s statement did not fill in for him. Under the glittering panes of that skylight, I could visualize the logic of an argument that connected hundreds of separate pictorial acts into the fluid clarity of a single motion, an argument that was as present to me as the paintings hanging in the gallery —their clean, spare surfaces tied back into the faint grime of walls dedicated to the history of art. If Fried had not chose to give the whole of that argument to the student, he had tried to make the student think about one piece of the obvious: that Stella’s need to say something through his art was the same as a seventeenth-century Spaniard’s; only the point in time was different. In 1965, the fact that Stella’s stripes were invovled with what he wanted to say —a product, that is, of content—was clear enough to me.

Rosalind Krauss, “A View of Modernism,” Artforum, September 1972

Swimmers in the Desert: Von Le Coq and the Kizil Caves

Posted in Central Asia, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , on September 28, 2008 by Liz Hager

“Swimmers,” wall fresco, Kizil, Cave of the Seafarers, ca. 500 (photo courtesy Museum of Asian Art, Berlin)

Aurel Stein belonged to a special breed of 19th-century European archeologists; classically overachieving Victorian-era men, who possessed a multi-disciplinarian body of knowledge, a curiosity about ancient civilizations, and a heightened sense of adventure.  Fueled by tales of the “lost” cities along the Silk Route, these men endured the brutal conditions of the Takla Makan desert in pursuit ancient cultural artifacts, which were often literally buried in the sands.  At its peak, the modern exploration of Central Asia became a race between scholars of different lands, each desperate to outdo the others in a discovery that might change contemporary understanding of these unknown cultures. In the process, as was the 19th century custom, Stein and others pillaged thousands of artifacts from their resting places, ferrying them away on camels and horses to various European museums.

By the mid-19th century with the British firmly ensconced in India a lively scholarly interest had developed in the cultures, religions,  and languages of India, the Middle East and China. Between 1889 and 1899 this world was set aflutter by a fragmentary manuscript brought to India from Kucha, an oasis town along the northern Silk Route in the province then known as Chinese Turkestan. This birch-bark page with Sanskrit and ancient Indian text prompted wide speculation on whether the culture and language of ancient Central Asia derived from India.

Albert Grünwald, director of the Indian Department in Berlin’s Museum für Völkerkunde (now The Museum of Asian Art) and a highly-regarded scholar in the field of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, took a particular interest in the manuscript. As a result of examining it, he paved the way for the German archeological involvement in Chinese Turkestan, mounting a first expedition in 1902.  For health reasons, Grünwald could not accompany the second expedition in 1904, and the Royal Prussian Turfan Expedition was headed by Albert von Le Coq, who had been working for two years as an unpaid volunteer in Grünwald’s department.

Present day Kizil caves (courtesy World Bank Traveller).

Von Le Coq came from a wealthy Berlin Huguenot family and studied commercial subjects in London and America, before entering his father’s wine trading business. He switched careers at the age of 40; by the time he was chosen to lead the expedition, von Le Coq had only been studying Oriental languages for five years. Despite the handicap of junior level experience in the field of Oriental studies, von Le Coq led four highly-successful expeditions along the northern fork of the Silk Route.  As a result, he became Aurel Stein’s most ardent rival in Central Asia.

It was not until 1905 and the third German expedition that von Le Coq and Grünwedel (having rejoined the team) discovered the Kizil Caves. Like the Dunhuang caves, Kizil is a warren of monk’s cells.  Regrettably,  von le Coq hacked off huge portions of the frescoes, leaving the remainder utterly defaced. Further damage was inflicted by Russian and Chinese soldiers hiding out in the caves during

View from a monk’s cave, overlooking the Muzart River at Kizil, photographer unknown (photo courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Stylistically, the art at Kizil is more closely allied to India and the West than to China. You can see that in the faces of the Bodhisattvas, whether statues or figures painted on the wall. The Swimmers fragment was found in a long-narrow rectangular room with a barrel-vaulted ceiling. The paintings on either wall illustrate two Buddhist seafaring legends—the Shronakotikarna and the Maitrakanyaka Avadana, which remind viewers of the consequences of good and bad deeds.  The fragment pictured above was part of the ceiling scene, which still has not been fully identified.  The scene is enchanting both for the facial expressions of the swimmers and unusual aqua green color of the water (perhaps made from verdigris). It’s a color that doesn’t appear in the Dunhuang art.

Wider Connections

Peter Hopkirk—The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia

Frances Wood—The Silk Route: 2000 Years in the Heart of Asia

“Real Love Ahead”—Look Down!: IWP #16

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Graffiti, Liz Hager with tags , on September 28, 2008 by Liz Hager

Photo ©2008 Liz Hager

Date: 08/01/08

Time: 3:05 pm

Location: Bunker wall, Marin Headlands

“Indispensable Wisdom on the Pavement”:  All the Look Down! posts have been published on the day I took the photo. All of them have been on the pavement.  I constantly debate with myself about the wisdom of posting “Wisdom” outside those rules, MY rules.  “Real Love Ahead” wasn’t taken on this day and the message is scrawled across a wall, not laid down on the pavement. This time expediency got in the way of the rules. Plus, I loved this hopeful message lurking near the light as you emerge from a long, dark tunnel. Sometimes, you just gotta break the rules.

Smithson’s Antediluvian Spiral Jetty

Posted in Artists Speak, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Site Work with tags , on September 25, 2008 by Liz Hager

Robert Smithson, “Sprial Jetty,” Great Salt Lake, Utah, 1970. (photo: George Steinmetz 2002)

Occasionally an artist does a better job than critics eliciting through words the majesty of a work of art.  In the paragraphs below extracted from a longer essay,  Robert Smithson poetically evokes the primordial forces that called his Spiral Jetty into being:

. . . About one mile north of the oil seeps I selected my site. Irregular beds of limestone dip gently eastward, massive deposits of black basalt are broken over the peninsula, giving the region a shattered appearance. It is one of the few places on the lake where the water comes right up to the mainland. Under shallow pinkish water is a network of mud cracks supporting the jigsaw puzzle that composes the salt flats.  As I looked at the site, it reverberated out to the horizons only to suggest an immobile cyclone while flickering light made the entire landscape appear to quake.  A dormant earthquake spread into the fluttering stillness, into a spinning sensation without movement. This site was a rotary that enclosed itself in an immense roundness. From that gyrating space emerged the possibility of the Spiral Jetty. . . 

. . . The scale of the Spiral Jetty tends to fluctuate depending on where the viewer happens to be. Size determines an object, but scale determines art. A crack in the wall, if viewed in terms of scale, not size, could be called the Grand Canyon. A room could be made to take on the immensity of the solar system. Scale depends on one’s capacity to be conscious of the actualities of perception. When one refuses to release scale from size, one is left with an object or language that appears to be certain. For me scale operates by uncertainty. To be in the scale of the Spiral Jetty is to be out of it. On eye leve, the tail leads on into an undifferentiated state of matter. One’s downward gaze pitches from side to side, picking out random depositions of salt crystals on the inner and outer edges, while the entire mass echoes the irregular horizons. And each cubic salt crystal echoes the Spiral Jetty in terms of the crystal’s molecular lattice. Growth in a crystal advances around a dislocation point, in the manner of a screw. The Spiral Jetty could be considered one layer within the spiralling crystal lattice, magnified trillions of times. 

Chemically speaking, our blood is analogous in composition to the primordial seas. Following the spiral steps we return to our origins, back to some pulpy protoplasm, a floating eye adrift in an antediluvian ocean. On the slopes of Rozel Point I closed my yes, and the sun burned crimson through the lids. I opened them and the Great Salt Lake was bleeding scarlet streaks. My sight was saturated by the colour of red algae circulating in the heart of the lake, pumping into ruby currents, no they were veins and arteries sucking up the obscure sediments. My eyes became combustion chambers churning orbs of blood blazing by the light of the sun. All was enveloped in a flaming chromosphere; I thought of Jackson Pollock’s Eyes in the Heat. . . Swirling within the incandescence of solar energy were sprays of blood. My movie would end in sunstroke. Perception was heaving, the stomach turning. I was on a geologic fault that groaned within me. Between heat lightning and heat exhaustion the spiral curled into radiations. Rays of glare hit my eyes with the frequency of a Geiger counter. Surely, the storm clouds massing would turn into a rain of blood.

(The Writings of Robert Smithson, edited by Nancy Holt, 1979)


Robert Smithson essays

Return of Spiral Jetty

Buddha of the Renunciation—Look Down!: Wisdom on the Pavement #15

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Graffiti, Liz Hager with tags , on September 23, 2008 by Liz Hager

Photo ©2008 Liz Hager

Date: 09/23/08

Time: 8:35 am

Location: Oak SW corner of Broderick

“Indispensable Wisdom on the Pavement”: At first I thought I recognized this serene being as the Buddha. Weren’t his elongated ears and “third eye” the give away?  But the baldness stumped me—I had only seen Buddha portrayed with a top-knot of hair. 

Buddhists consider a properly-rendered Buddha image not to be a representation, but the actual spiritual emanation of the teacher. Much like Byzantine icons (13th Century Shock & Awe), a Buddha image carries supernatural powers.  Each attribute of his image symbolizes something specific in the Buddhist doctrine. 

The typically elongated ears denote Prince Siddhartha’s noble origin; they are also are a reminder of all that the prince renounced to become an ascetic and a symbol of the power to hear things other people could not. The extra eye references the Buddha’s all-seeing nature.  The top-knot is a symbol of renunciation. In this lies the clue to this Buddha. 

After seeing the apocalyptic Four Signs, Prince Siddhartha decided to renounce his worldly life. He fled the palace on horseback in the dead of night. At the edge of the Anoma (Illustrious) River, he cut off the top-knot of his long hair and tossed it to the heavens, crying ” “If I am to become a Buddha, let it stay in the sky; but if not, let it fall to the ground.” And that’s why Buddhist monks undergo a symbolic head shaving during ordination.

So, though he’s a bit non-traditional for Buddha depictions, I think he squeezes by the iconography as The Buddha of the Renunciation.

Little Paper Offerings

Posted in Central Asia, Liz Hager, Paper, Sculpture with tags , , , , on September 22, 2008 by Liz Hager

Editors Note: For more on the Buddhist art of Dunhuang, see Flying Down the Central Asian Steppe; Talisman of the Pole Star; On the Trail of Alexander.


Collaged Flowers, Tang Dynasty (9th-10th c. AD),
“retrieved” from Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China, by Sir Aurel Stein
(photo ©The British Museum)

The paper flowers above, found in the Mogao caves by Aurel Stein, are probably the earliest surviving examples of Buddhist votive flowers. Stein must have been electrified when he discovered these prosaic gems among the sacred art. It’s nothing less than a miracle that they even survived, having been in the caves for perhaps as long as 1500 years.

Glue found on the backs of the flowers suggests that they were offerings pasted by devotees onto the walls of the shrines or perhaps on to the Buddha statues themselves. Flowers, the lotus in particular, are a central motif in Buddhist iconography, so it is not surprising that the Dunhuang grottos would be full of floral rosettes; stylized flowers have been painted on ceilings, woven or embroidered in textiles, added to borders and patterns. In the harsh desert climate of the Takla Makan, it would make sense that delicately cut and painted paper would stand in ceremoniously for natural flowers.

As Susan Whitfield observes in the Dunhuang chapter of The Silk Road, her catalog of the 2004 British Library exhibit:

Despite the wall to ceiling painting, the Mogao caves as they appear today are denuded of much of the decoration which would have once adorned the walls and the Buddha statues. . . It is difficult to image now but the caves full of offerings, colorful hangings, and other decorations, with the sound of prayers being recited and the smell of the hemp oil from the flickering lamps mingling with the incense offered to Buddha, must have had a very different atmosphere from today.

Wider Connections

Susan Whitfield—The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War And Faith

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