January 2009

Some of My Favorites

A few days ago, my friend Emilee asked what were my favorite museums and works of art that I have visited/seen during my travels abroad. The things I included in this list are the ones that made a greatest impression on me during my study abroad. I’ve also included some architectural sites and American museums that I love.

The Borghese Gallery, Rome. Anyone who loves Bernini and Caravaggio MUST go here. The collection is amazing. The only time I have cried in front of a work of art was here, in front of Bernini’s David.

The Cornaro Chapel (Santa Maria Vittoria), Rome. Bernini’s St. Theresa in Ecstasy is housed here. I don’t even remember how long I stared at this sculpture, but it was a long time.

St. Peter’s Cathedral and Piazza, Rome. I know that Maderno’s cathedral facade will eternally be the butt of all architectural jokes, but it’s kind of endearing all the same (despite the fact that it covers up the drum of the dome! Silly Maderno.). And to stand in Bernini’s piazza, looking at such a magnificent cathedral – wow. It’s an incredible experience. It’s just as incredible to stand inside the cathedral as well. One feels so small and insignificant inside such a massive structure. The Cathedra Petri (Bernini) and Pieta (Michelangelo) are also gorgeous. There are some great pics of the cathedral and piazza here.

San Vitale, Ravenna. Some of the most gorgeous, glittering mosaics in the world are located here. It’s so stunning.

San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice. I originally went here to see Palladio’s crisp architecture, but ended up being pleasantly surprised to find Tintoretto’s Last Supper here. This is probably my favorite depiction of the Last Supper.

The Louvre, Paris. The works of art that left the greatest impression on me were the Nike of Samothrace, Da Vinci’s Madonna of the Rocks, and David’s Coronation of Napoleon (this painting is MASSIVE!). Of course, I did meander over for my obligatory peep at the Mona Lisa, but it was a rather frustrating experience. There was a large crowd of people shouting and trying to take pictures of the portrait, and you can’t even see the painting very well because it is behind a plastic barrier. I’ve always felt kind of “meh” about the Mona Lisa, and this experience just solidified my indifference. Madonna of the Rocks is a much more striking, interesting painting (and there was no crowd gathered in front of it when I was there!)

The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. One has to see Van Gogh’s works in person.

The Anne Frank House, Amsterdam. I know this isn’t an art museum, but visiting this house was one of the most memorable experiences I have had abroad. I guess this is because I read Anne Frank’s diary as a girl.

The Ghent Altarpiece. This is a very, very large altarpiece, the fine details painted by Jan Van Eyck are absolutely amazing. See pics here.

The Tate. Seeing Ophelia by Millais was unforgettable. I have never seen a slide or reproduction that accurately captured the brillancy of the green vegetation.

United States
The Frick Collection, New York, NY. This collection is displayed in the house that was owned by Mr. Frick, and the staff strives to maintain the ambiance of a private residence. There are not ropes or glass cases protecting the art; rather, it feels as if you are a guest that is invited to walk around the home and view the incredible art. A lot of this art is from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, so I especially love this place. In fact, I’ve already blogged about my experience here. The two things I remember enjoying the most were Holbein’s portrait of Thomas More and Bellini’s St. Francis in Ecstasy.
The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. This is another house of a private collector. The Phillips were interested in collecting “modern” art, although I don’t think everyone would agree with Duncan Phillip’s definition of “modern.” I remember being struck by a beautiful El Greco painting of The Repentant St. Peter. I would imagine that most people wouldn’t label El Greco a modernist (this painting is from the early 17th century), but I can see why a modern art lover would be drawn to the bright colors and exaggerated features of the figure. Duncan Phillips actually called El Greco the “first impassioned expressionist.” This museum also has a great Rothko room that afforded me the most intimate experience with Rothko that I have had thus far. In addition, the collection has temporary exhibitions which are also fantastic.

There are many other places and works of art which left an impression on me, but these are some of my top favorites. When compiling this list, I realized how much I love to see art in settings other than the traditional modern museum space (sometimes called “the white cube” space in museum theory). A lot of the places listed above were/are private houses, palaces, and churches. I think this is partially because I like to look at the architecture as well as the art, and the “white cube” architecture tries to not compete with the art on display. I guess I must like a little of competition between the two mediums? Hmm – perhaps this also reveals how I feel about art’s original intent and where it should be displayed. I’ll have to think about that more.

What about YOU? What are your favorite museums and works of art?


No Art History Jobs

Art historians definitely suffer when the economy goes bad. Over the past few months, I’ve looked several times for positions related to art history in my area without luck. After reading this post, though, I’m realizing that the employment problem is widespread. Not only is the poor economy creating less jobs for art historians, but there are too many people completing doctoral programs in the humanities. The supply of potential professors far exceeds the current demand.

Sometimes I wonder if it would be better for me to get a secondary teaching certificate, so that I could teach AP Art History. Is it even worth considering a PhD program if you can never find a job?


Unique Fresco at Hosios Loukas

Over five years ago, I went on an art history study abroad to Europe. While we were in Greece, we were required to have a tour guide that was assigned by the government. This guide (I’ll call him “George”) was an interesting character who had halitosis and a penchant for recounting some of the more, er, naughty stories from Greek mythology. He was an interesting man that sometimes created rather awkward situations for our group. I remember one of my professors said that they would never go to Greece again if they had to have George as a guide.

George took us to some really interesting places, though. One of my favorite places that we visited was the Byzantine monastery Hosios Loukas. This church was built in the Middle Byzantine Period, soon after the renouncement of iconoclasm in 843 AD. There are many beautiful frescos and mosaics at this monastery, particularly in the main monastery church (called the Katholikon). I remember being awestruck by the beauty of the church and the etheral environment within the building itself. This special moment was a little disrupted when George started to break into some type of monastic chant. He wasn’t such a bad singer, but it was strange to hear such music coming from our tour guide. Nonetheless, Hosios Loukas made quite the impression on me.

The fresco above is found in the crypt of the Katholikon at Hosios Loukas. It contains two biblical scenes, the Burial of Christ (on the left) and the Women at the Tomb (on the right). This fresco especially interests me because of its uniqueness; at present, scholars have found no other artistic examples that combine these two scenes into one pictorial unit. Furthermore, it is unusual to depict Christ’s dead body wrapped in a shroud, which also pinpoints this fresco as unusual. Christ is being lifted into a sarcophagus by Joseph of Arimathea (at Christ’s head) and Nicodemus (at Christ’s feet). The Virgin Mary stands behind Christ. In the scene on the right, two Marys (as recorded in the Book of Matthew) have arrived at the tomb to anoint Christ’s body. They are confronted by the angel who points to the empty tomb; one woman gestures in surprise while the other makes a gesture of speech.*

More information and pictures of Hosios Loukas can be found at this site. The website is poorly designed and the photographs aren’t the best quality, but one still can get a general sense of the monastic complex and history.

* Disclaimer: I wrote some of the information about this fresco for an online academic database last year. Since I didn’t agree (I wasn’t even asked, actually) to give up the rights the material I wrote, I see no problem with including the information here as well. In other words, if you ever find part of this information verbatim elsewhere, don’t be alarmed. I didn’t plagiarize. I actually did write this.


Perhaps Not a Vermeer?

It was recently mentioned in a post by Lee Rosenbaum that this painting, Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, may actually not be painted by Vermeer. Benjamin Binstock argues in a new book, Vermeer’s Family Secrets, that this painting (along with six others) may have been painted by Vermeer’s eldest daughter. Walter Leidtke, the curator of Dutch Baroque art at the Met, obviously disagrees with this theory, having recently included this painting in his new monograph on Vermeer. However, the label for this painting at the Met does suggest that the yellow shawl may have been painted by someone else.

I wonder what kind of controversy will be sparked by Binstock’s new book! Some of the debates have already started. Rosenbaum cites one reviewer in Art Newspaper that called Binstock’s theory a “wild assumption based on limited information.” Since I’m not a connoisseur of Vermeer, I can’t give an opinion myself. I also have not read Binstock’s book yet. It does seem, though, that Dr. Binstock has credible expertise; he received a PhD in Northern Baroque and Renaissance art from Columbia, and currently teaches at Columbia and New York University.

Ah, revisionist theories. It looks like the art community is about to get riled up again…


Still Life and Van Gogh

Today I finished reading Still Life by A. S. Byatt. I didn’t like this book nearly as much as Possession, but it still was fairly interesting and engaging. I particularly liked this book because one character is fascinated with Van Gogh and several excerpts from Van Gogh’s writings are quoted and discussed. I also could relate quite a bit to one character, Stephanie. At the beginning of the book, Stephanie was the mother of a new baby that would spend her time dreaming up hypothetical Ph.D. dissertation topics. Yeah, I can relate to that.

Although Byatt wrote this book about a decade ago, the novel is mostly set in the 1950s. Throughout the book, Byatt suggests a postmodern critique of some of the modernist theories and ideas that her characters uphold.1 For example, Raphael, a modernist poet and scholar, explains why he dislikes Van Gogh:

“And [Van Gogh] obtrudes himself all the time-” Raphael’s carved upper lip curled in perfect scorn -“he has one of the most personal styles in major art. He lacks that final clarity and selflessness.”2

According to Raphael, anonymity is a factor which determines great art. This is such a modernist way of thinking! Modernist sculpture (think of the Minimalists) and architecture (like the Seagram Building) refuse to recognize the sculptor or architect which masterminded their creation. They also exude “clarity” and “selflessness” in their sleek, industrialized design. As a postmodern reader and art historian, I think this rejection of personal style is rather silly and extreme (although, granted, I do like the modernist aesthetic). Obviously, though, I feel this way because I have been trained and educated to celebrate individual thought and contribution. Today, most art history survey courses are constructed to follow the career of one great artist after another. These artists become recognizable by their distinct stylistic characteristics and “personal styles” which can then be recognized as influences on lesser (dare I say anonymous?) artists.

I love Van Gogh’s style. He has a great use of color which makes his paintings very striking. My favorite thing about Van Gogh, however, is his use of impasto. His paintings are so tactile and tangible – I adore it! One has to see a Van Gogh in person in order to appreciate the sculpturesque quality of some of his paintings. In this reproduction of The Yellow Chair (1888) some of the paint buildup can be seen on the brick tiles, but it really isn’t the same.

In Byatt’s book, a playwright is obsessed with this painting and writes a play about Van Gogh and The Yellow Chair. The play stage is set up with a lot of different colors which reference Van Gogh’s brightly painted canvases (and also some of his darker paintings, like The Potato Eaters). It was so fun to read about the play; I wish that it really was on the stage! Even though there really isn’t such a play, I do know of a good substitute. There is a brightly colored Van Gogh segment in Kurosawa’s film Dreams which can be seen here and here. Watch it. The cinematography is lovely.

1 There is some interesting literary analysis of Still Life found here.

2 A. S. Byatt, Still Life, (New York: Collier Books, 1985), 338.


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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.