Art, Syria, and Why Beauty Matters

10 May

This weekend I posted a guide to Berlin’s Pergamonmuseum. If you read that and have also read the news recently, something probably caught your eye. I mentioned that one of my favorite things in the museum is the Aleppo Room, located in the Islamic Art galleries. I said it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen in any gallery of Islamic art. Then I read that the recent violence in Syria had reached the city of Aleppo, where the house containing the room was originally located.

That something so beautiful could be from a place that is currently so full of ugliness was both shocking and saddening to me. As someone who studies art I deal mostly with the aesthetic side of cultures and have the privilege of being able to put aside some of their baser elements. But I have to wonder, how much could we accomplish if we took the time to appreciate the beauty in other cultures? How much more open would our dialogue be, how would our opinions of others change, if we stopped to look at the artistic accomplishments of societies and simply acknowledge their merit?

In cases of human conflict it can be easy to overlook the beauty in other cultures. A perfect example of this is the underwhelming American Indian galleries in many American art museums. To fully accept these artifacts as art instead of anthropological objects is to bring up complex questions on the moral history of the United States. Likewise to study the art of the Middle East is to admit there is good in a part of the world that many in the West claim is backward or even evil. It’s harder to dismiss American Indians as primitive when looking at the amazing geometry of a mask done by the Kwakwaka’wakw people of the Pacific Northwest or Islam as violent when surrounded by the serenity of the colonnades of the Cordoba mosque.

Visiting an art museum and acknowledging the beauty in other cultures takes us a step closer to understanding. I’m not speaking of the fetishization of the exotic, but the real understanding that humans have always sought and appreciated beautiful things and that maybe we’re not as different as we think. I took more interest in the situation in Aleppo because of the room in the Pergamonmuseum. Rather than something happening in a foreign land, it feels closer somehow. Art creates a feeling of our common humanity. It helps us to feel, to understand, and allows us to grieve when we see mankind act against itself. Art is the shared heritage that unites us all.

There is one surprising thing about the Aleppo Room that only enhances its meaning. The man who commissioned it for his house was a rich merchant in the city, and he was also a Christian. Biblical scenes coexist with Ottoman decorations. Two cultures that seem at odds to our modern worldview converge to form one beautiful object. I think it was that very juxtaposition that fascinated me the most. Yet again I was reminded how the boundaries we know now, whether national, ethnic, or religious, are not now nor have ever been as set as they may seem.

They say that the opposite of seeing the world in black and white is to view the shades of gray, but I have to disagree. Instead we need to turn to the bright colors in artwork. The idea may seem naive in the face of global problems such as the current situation in Syria, but the beauty of one work of art or even one room can go a long way toward inspiring us. All we have to do is look.


The Pergamonmuseum

5 May

There is perhaps no other museum in the world that has such an impressive entryway as the Pergamon Museum.  As soon as you walk in you’re faced with one of the museum’s great highlights, (and also its namesake), the Pergamon Altar.  It’s not exactly subtle, but it does do a great job of preparing you for everything you’re about to see and experience within the museum’s walls.

The specialty of the Pergamon Museum is architectural reconstructions, as they call it.  These are full-size reproductions of some of antiquity’s great structures using the original remnants that were excavated and supplemented by modern materials.  They are what truly sets the museum apart from other museums of antiquity, as well.  Rather than room after room of statues and pottery, you get a slight glimpse of how a city would have really looked in ancient times.  Or to put it another way, you’re given a context in which to place all those statues and pottery.

Officially the museum consists of three “museums”, or collections: The Collection of Classical Antiquities, the Museum of the Ancient Near East, and the Museum of Islamic Art.  Although disparate, the three are all immensely fascinating in their own right.  Then you take a slightly closer look.  Even the supposedly “Western” collection, that of Greek and Roman antiquities, was excavated predominately in modern Turkey.  With this in mind, the museum reminds us how fluid and changing our fixed ideas of culture truly have been throughout history.

These are the kinds of big topics your mind automatically starts to wander to when confronted with the grandeur of the Pergamon Museum.  It’s hard not to when what you’re used to seeing as ruins are instead shown looking much more like they did 2,000 years ago.  Really, it leaves a person feeling quite insignificant, but in a good way.  Humanity has accomplished grand things in our history, and some of the grandest are on display in the Pergamon Museum.

Special Note: Through September 2012 one entire wing of the museum is devoted to the special exhibition “Pergamon: Panorama of the Ancient World.”  I’ll be honest with you here—if you’re really interested in ancient Greece and its art it’s probably worth it, but with admission charges reaching upwards of €20 if you include the special 360° panorama display most people would probably rather pass.  Don’t worry, you’ll still have plenty to see in the regular collections.

Suggested Plan:  You could go through in roughly chronological order if you so choose, starting with the Ancient Near East, moving on to the Greek & Roman rooms, and then finally moving on to the Islamic Art upstairs.  Really, though, most visitors just kind of end up walking around aimlessly and slightly in awe.  Nothing wrong with that, at all.

The size of the museum is rather deceptive, as well.  While it might not seem that large, you will probably want to spend longer than expected in the museum.  One note, though — the only restrooms are located outside of the galleries.  The downside here is that you have to return your audio guide and then pick up a new one.

Don’t Miss:  The museum’s big attractions may all be located on the ground floor, but be sure to take some time to visit the Islamic Art galleries upstairs.  The Allepo room is one of the most beautiful things you’ll ever see in an Islamic Art gallery.  Also be sure to visit the small room located underneath the Pergamon Altar (go to the right of the altar) which details its excavation and history.

Dining:  Odds are you’re not going to spend an entire day at the Pergamon Museum, but if you find yourself feeling a little peckish the cafe at the Pergamon Museum, accessed from outside the building, has good food inspired by the museum’s collections.  The one downside is that the service was unbelievably bad while I was there.  Be prepared to be assertive with the wait staff.

Audio Guide:  It’s not often I say this, but the audio guide of the Pergamon Museum is a must.  The descriptions of the artifacts are informative and well-done, and with so many fascinating things to see you’ll be glad to be able to hear more about them.  I’ve never used the “press * for more information” button so much in a museum.  The good news is that it’s free with your museum admission.

Information Sheets:  Detailed information on some objects can be found on extra sheets, found near the objects.  The most interesting of those available is the explanation of the Telephos Frieze on top of the Pergamon Altar, if for no other reason than the paper provides the only English-language explanation of the story of the frieze.  Just bear in mind that the museum asks you to leave a small donation for these papers.

What can the Google Art Project do for you?

4 Apr

If you’re not interested in art to begin with, not much of anything. You’ll probably still spend your time online watching videos of kittens on You Tube rather than browsing the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But let’s assume for a minute you are curious about art. What benefit can an online depository of thousands or artworks have?

For lack of a better way of putting it, browsing through the Google Art Project is fun. It can bring back memories of certain museums and artworks or make you excited for your next trip by letting you preview the museums. I enjoyed virtually walking through the Pergamon Museum in preparation for an upcoming trip to Berlin, for example. I could browse the works of Vermeer from museums worldwide and enjoy the wonderful high-resolution images of them. The Google Art Project also saved me a trip to New York by letting me see that I would be duly impressed yet underwhelmed by the new Islamic Art Galleries in the Met. An art nerd can spend several hours perusing a site like this. I certainly did.

There’s also the fact that the Google Art Project can bring some uniformity to the often hit-and-miss nature of museum websites in displaying their collections. Using the technological and financial might of Google to put museums online ensures that images are of good quality, easy to navigate, and with proper descriptions. Many also feature videos and other resources for helping to understand a work of art. And of course there’s the added benefit of being able to find an artwork if you’re not sure which museum it’s in or what the title is. In short, it makes art more accessible online than it ever has been before.

For education as well the Google Art Project can be beneficial. Imagine a classroom of students studying American history being able to take a virtual tour of the White House or a math teacher being able to demonstrate the mathematical principles of Renaissance Art using the images from the Art Project. Right now the education page is limited to art history, but hopefully teachers will find a myriad of ways to use art in their classrooms when discussing all manner of topics.

For all that, the best thing about the Google Art Project is its promise of things to come. They are working to add more museums and artworks to the collection and will hopefully be able to fix some glaring omissions sometime soon, notably the Louvre and Prado. And perhaps it’s just me, but I could not find a way to browse by artists’ last names, only first. I may just have missed it, but I would think something like that would be beneficial. Many people probably don’t know to look for Monet under “Claude” or Caravaggio under “Michelangelo”.

And despite all the excitement over the Google Art Project in the art community it is severely lacking in options for users to really interact with the content. Aside from creating your own galleries or posting an image to your social network page, there’s no real chance to share your thoughts on a work of art or read someone else’s. The videos seem limited to the kind of “I know better than you” commentary that has plagued art museums for years. Why not open it up? Let someone post the work they did inspired by a Van Gogh. Have a link to the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” on the page for one of Monet’s paintings of Waterloo Bridge.

The Google Art Project (like many art museums) needs to realize that “interactive” does not simply mean giving people more ways to access your opinion and the content you’ve created. Open up a dialogue. It’s not just my view, it’s been a dominant trend online and is one of the best ways for art museums to find their place in contemporary society. Until then, enjoy the gallery views and images of the Google Art Project. They really are lots of fun and promise to be even better in the future.

Why Visit Gothic Cathedrals Part II

29 Mar

There is a slight problem with discussing the emotional side of Gothic cathedrals. Emotion, as I’m sure you’re aware, is a very personal thing. What I find amazing about Gothic cathedrals might not do anything for you. I’m not trying to make you have any one particular feeling about the structures,though. I’m just hoping that the next time you visit one you’ll take a moment to soak up the atmosphere instead of just ticking it off your list like any other tourist attraction.

Of couse a certain amount of the emotional impact of a Gothic cathedral depends on a person having at least some appreciation for religion, even if one is not religious themselves. Critics will focus on the negatives, but it’s helpful to stop and think that for many people a cathedral, and by extention religion, is a source of comfort and charity, to say nothing of the incredible impact the church has had in the world of the arts over the centuries. We can’t forget that religion is responsible for just as many beautiful things as it is for the faults for which many people condemn it. If you close your mind to this fact you’ll never be able to enjoy your surroundings. I’m not asking you to suddenly find God, I’m just saying it helps to appreciate that, “Someone was feeling something when they built this,” as a friend of mine once said.

When I enter a cathedral I’m normally struck first simply by how beautiful the space is. I first notice the pools of colored light on the ground from the stained glass windows before my eye is drawn up past the sculptures on the column capitals to the soaring roof. The whole scene is breathtaking, if you take the time to just get a feel for the space. And once you’ve enjoyed the overall atmosphere a bit, there are thousands of details to notice. If visiting during the summer, feel the cool when you step into the building. Look at how worn the floor is at certain points from the thousands of feet that have passed over it. Smell the lingering scent of incense left from the latest service. Take notice of the names on the memorials located throughout the nave.

Part of what makes it amazing is the fact that very few other buildings from that time are still used for their original purpose. Think about that for a minute. A roughly similar ritual has been happening on a regular basis for between 800 and 600 years. Through disasters such as war and plague and celebrations like weddings and coronations, cathedrals have continued with their original missions. If you pay attention you’ll often notice a priest or other church official caring for the building and its treasures or preparing for the next service, just as they have for centuries.

It’s also nice to stop and think about how people would have seen such a structure when it was first built. Well, once it was finished being built, that is. The construction of a Gothic cathedral often took centuries. At the short end of the scale, Chartres Cathedral took approximately 57 years to build; Cologne took 632. There was a very good chance that if a cathedral was begun during your lifetime you wouldn’t live to see it finished. Even so the parts you could visit were often wonders to behold, and the completion of a cathedral was cause for a major celebration.  These weren’t only the tallest structures for miles, but the grandest.

Overall there’s so much to see while visiting a Gothic cathedral it’s a shame they’re often so crowded. Even so, they still provide the perfect opportunity to sit and contemplate not just religion but the very nature of history. You can still find time to really look at the intricacies of a stained glass window. Look up, look down, and take it all in. Regardless of your religious beliefs, you’ll be amazed.

Why Visit Gothic Cathedrals Part I

29 Feb

Anyone who has ever been to Europe has probably been inside a Gothic cathedral.  These large and imposing structures are some of the most frequently visited tourist attractions in the world.  But here’s a question for you — why do we go see them?  Is it really just because your Paris guidebook says that you should go see Notre Dame?  Hopefully you put a bit more individual thought into your vacation plans, but you’ll probably still visit the cathedral.  Why?

I’ve realized the trick to explaining the importance of Gothic cathedrals requires two parts roughly corresponding to the two halves of our brains, the scientific left side and the emotional right.  You can focus on either or both depending on your personal taste, but you’ll never appreciate just how incredible these structures are until you learn to think about at least one aspect of them.

First of all, the scientific.  Gothic cathedrals were technological marvels for their time.  No one had seen buildings that reached such heights and had such thin walls, features which allowed the extensive use of stained glass that the cathedrals are still known for.  The people of the time believed what they were seeing was a glimpse of heaven itself.  Nothing else on earth could compare with it.

With the benefit of our modern knowledge, however, we know that the wonders of the Gothic cathedral are the result of some cunning mathematical ideas.  The most obvious of these is the pointed arch.  For centuries these arches, which were borrowed from Islamic architecture, have been some of the most recognizable images of European culture.  They were used throughout cathedrals, but they were most important to the ceilings.

Look up as you walk through a cathedral.  The ceilings are divided into sections called bays.  Each bay has rib vaults spanning it and forming pointed arches.  It’s an ingenious system that allowed the sides of each bay to be the same height while directing more of the weight of the ceiling straight down instead of out, which meant the walls needed less support.  The arches created a nifty optical trick, as well, making the ceilings seem higher than they actually were.

Flying Buttresses on the side of Strasbourg Cathedral

The pointed arches were important but the great hero of the Gothic cathedral (and the inspiration for this blog’s name) was the flying buttress.  Buttressing is quite simply the system of supporting the weight of a building’s ceiling and walls so that the thrust doesn’t push out and cause the building to collapse.  People had figured out that large buildings needed such supports centuries earlier, but to accomplish it they simply made thicker walls.  An anonymous architect working at Notre Dame realized that these could be placed outside of the building in such a way that they provided even more support and also let in more light.  The combination of pointed arches and the external supports of the flying buttresses allowed for walls to become thinner than previously possible.  The look of the Gothic cathedral was thus established, both interior and exterior.

You may by now be wondering what’s so great about having thin walls.  The answer is that since the walls didn’t have to support as much of the building’s weight there could be more room for windows, and those windows were filled with stained glass.  These were the final touch that created the beautiful and mysterious interiors of Gothic cathedrals.    While not the first time Biblical passages were illustrated in churches—frescoes and mosaics had been used for centuries—this was the first time that they let light pass through and seemed to glow.  Even today the effect is still breathtaking.

And all of this was done with technology which to us seems positively prehistoric.  To build even a one-story house today you need several trained professionals with master’s degrees in architectures who let a computer do all the work anyway, and then of course everything needs to pass the local building codes before you can even dig up some dirt.  Gothic cathedrals were built by men with a basic grasp of mathematical ideas and a few years spent as apprentices.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why Gothic cathedrals are so amazing.  At least part of the reason.  There’s more to come.

An American Master in Germany – Georgia O’Keeffe at the Hypo Kunsthalle

4 Feb

For the first time there is a retrospective of the works of Georgia O’Keeffe being exhibited in Germany.  In Munich until May, Georgia O’Keeffe: Life and Work at the Hypo Kunsthalle introduces visitors to the grande dame of American Art.  O’Keeffe ranks with Warhol as one of the most identifiable American artists of the twentieth century.  This traveling exhibition, which has previously been in Rome and will continue to Helsinki, was organized by the O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe and features over 70 of the artist’s works.  O’Keeffe is brought European audience who might not be completely familiar with her.  Overall, it’s an absolute success.

But first, I know what you’re thinking.  And no, despite the frequent jokes not all of Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings are thinly veiled representations of female genitalia.  She actually resented the fact that her artwork was seen merely as a statement of her gender instead of, well, artwork.  Although she did do a few paintings that seem rather feminine – note the two clam shell paintings near the beginning of the exhibition – she stopped using such forms when she realized people were critiquing the works based on Freudian psychology instead of art.

The exhibition covers all her subjects in a sweeping introduction to her career, from art school to final works.  Far from being a dry chronology, the retrospective is enhanced by the frequent photographs of O’Keeffe, many of which were taken by her husband Alfred Stieglitz.  At the same time that we see her art develop we also see her develop from a mousey art teacher to the strong, self-assured artist wandering the New Mexico landscape who is so familiar to us.  Indeed the exhibition itself begins not with a work of art, but a slide show of photographs of the artist.  From the beginning it’s not a show about Georgia O’Keeffe’s art, but rather a show about Georgia O’Keeffe the artist.

If there is one problem with this exhibition it’s the overall design.  Here in Munich the exhibition is done in an austere, modern style.  Large gray walls are only partly covered with artworks.  Especially as we reach O’Keeffe’s time in New Mexico, with its warm tones and sense of space, the bright Southwestern landscapes seem completely at odds with their surroundings.  Although not able to put my finger on it while visiting the exhibition, later when I was researching it and saw clips from its stop in Rome I realized what had been bothering me.  In Rome the rooms were smaller and warmer, allowing the visitor to feel more like the paintings are windows to another place instead of art on a wall.

But still this is a highly worthwhile exhibition for anyone who has the slightest interest in art.  Georgia O’Keeffe was one of the most accessible artists of the twentieth century.  Partly this was due to her personality and her status as an icon of the American Southwest, but mostly it’s because her paintings are absolutely beautiful.  Even those who don’t normally like abstract art are taken in by O’Keeffe’s use of color and contrast.  There’s a confidence in her paintings that can only be appreciated when you see the confidence in her eyes.  Fortunately Georgia O’Keeffe: Life and Work demonstrates both.

Georgia O’Keeffe: Life and Work runs in Munich until May 13, 2012

Open daily 10:00 – 20:00
Admission: €11, Students €5, Mondays half price all admission
Audio guide available in German and English for €5.  Be aware  that the audio guide isn’t available until after the coat check, so keep your money out if you want one.


A New Breed of Art Gallery

15 Jan

When you hear “art gallery” you often picture someone dressed in black, talking with an indistinct accent and showing off the latest abstract art in an austere environment.  Put the thought out of your head and visit Gallery on the Square in Danville, Indiana.  It won’t just change how you feel about galleries, it can give you an entirely new perspective on art.

Gallery on the Square works on two levels.  First of all, it highlights local art.  The best artworks aren’t necessarily the ones that hang in a museum or receive glowing praise from critics; if a work of art means something to the viewer, it is important.  For me seeing artworks inspired by the people and places that I grew up around was more touching than much of the art I’ve seen in the museums of Europe.  One of my favorite pieces, for example, was a watercolor depicting a stack of quilts.  Far from thinking about composition or style, I immediately started recalling the summer I spent working with a local museum’s quilt collection.  Did I need a degree in art history to appreciate it?  Absolutely not.  I could enjoy it solely based on how it made me feel and what it reminded me of.  That’s the benefit of local art.

Secondly, Gallery on the Square showcases a variety of mediums, some that you might not even think of as “art”.  You expect to see paintings and photography but will also find works in clay, wood, fiber, and metal.  The best part is that many of the works for sale are items you can use.  Being able to incorporate handmade artworks into our daily lives is special, especially when most of our possessions are mass-produced wares from large chain stores.  If you’re looking for a gift or a way to add some character to your own home there is no better place to start than Gallery on the Square.  From jewelry and handbags to woodwork and pottery there are plenty of unique pieces to be found that you will treasure using.

Even if you have no plans to visit the Indianapolis area anytime soon you can still experience the benefits of Gallery on the Square.  Similar galleries, often run in conjunction with local art associations, are opening up all over.  You can talk with the artists, view their works, and even take classes from them in many cases.  It’s a great way to get in touch with art whether you’ve been an art lover your whole life or have never been too excited by it.  Either way I guarantee you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you find.