September 2008

Stonehenge and Healing

There is an interesting article in the October issue of Smithsonian magazine about Stonehenge. The inner circle of the site was excavated (for the first time in 44 years) by two archaeologists who believe that Stonehenge was a place which held mystical healing powers – a prehistoric Lourdes where the infirm could come to be healed. This new interpretation of the site is very different from previous interpretations that posited Stonehenge was some type of astronomical observatory or a royal burial ground.

The two archaeologists spearheading this project are Timothy Darvill and Geoffrey Wainwright. They believe that the key to interpreting the site as a place of healing is due to the inclusion of bluestones in the inner circle. These smaller bluestones (they are different than the large sarsen stones which form the famous trilithons for which Stonehenge is best known) are unique because they look blue when they are either wet or cut. For the past five years, these two archaeologists have studied why these bluestones may have contained mystical properties. It appears that most of their conclusion is based on a finding at Carn Menyn (where the bluestones for Stonehenge were quarried) of springs decorated with prehistoric art. This decoration of the springs is very significant, since springs and wells have long been associated with healing in areas like Southern Wales. Therefore, by because these springs are located at the same bluestones quarry, these archaeologists also find that the bluestones are also associated with healing. (I’m especially curious to find out what the prehistoric art was that these archaeologists found at the Carn Menyn springs. Could this prehistoric art depict healing in some fashion?)

Apparently, in the 13th century AD, cleric Geoffrey of Monmuth wrote in his history of Britain that Stonehenge’s medicinal purposes were effected when water was poured over the stones for the sick to bathe in. Could it be that Stonehenge served as a healing site all the way from the Neolithic period to the Middle Ages, and then this common knowledge of the site’s function was lost sometime after? If so, I wonder how this knowledge was lost.

It is also thought that perhaps some of the skeletons found in the area were sick travelers who came to be healed. One skeleton has been traced to have come as far away as the Swiss or German Alps – and his bones indicate that he suffered from an abscessed tooth (which destroyed part of his jawbone) and an infected kneecap. The first bluestones erected at Stonehenge date about the same time as this traveler’s bones, which further supports that he may have come to the site for healing.

Darvill and Wainwright have been working on this theory for some time. I found this blog post written a few years ago that also talks about their work. If anyone has the Smithsonian channel, there is a documentary called “Stonehenge Deciphered” which airs today (check for local listing times).

Although I’m not sure that I’m completely convinced by this theory (can any theory relating to the prehistoric era be concretely proven?), I think it’s a really interesting and appealing idea.

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Cindy Sherman and Madonna

Quatorze asked me to do a post on Cindy Sherman, a photographer whose work I find very interesting. Beginning in the late 1970s, Sherman created a series of photographs which are reminiscent of Hollywood stills – however the “stills” are generic enough in setting and composition that they resist attribution to any specific film.

Sherman appears in her own photographs, often dressed in a wig and costume. She takes the photographs herself, using either a timer or a shutter release cable that she holds in her hand.

These photographs can be seen as a commentary on typical feminine post-war stereotypes of the 50s and 60s. Shown in opposition to the stereotypes that were encouraged by the (male) film industry during these decades, Sherman takes control of her image by chosing and creating her identity within the photograph. Therefore, although her image is still the object of the viewer’s gaze, Sherman is in control of her image and identity and not the viewer.

These photographs are (postmodernly) ambivalent, which has led to many different interpretations by feminists. While many find Sherman’s work to be in resistance to the male gaze and masculine order, others think that she is still working under the masculine construct of society.

I can see valid reasoning for both arguments; my personal opinion of Sherman’s work relating to both male and female paradigms was reaffirmed when I learned that Sherman’s complete set of Untitled Film Stills was exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art (1997) under the sponsorship of Madonna. Yep, that’s right, the self-made sex symbol of the music industry sponsored the whole exhibition of a photographer who has been interpreted as resisting the male gaze! Given Madonna’s interest in Sherman’s work, it is obvious to see that her photographs are subject to multiple interpretations.

I find it completely fascinating that Madonna likes Cindy Sherman’s work. This image of Madonna and Cindy Sherman appeared in the Rolling Stone in 1997 (sorry for the poor reproduction – it’s a scan of a microfilm printout!). An interesting interpretation of the photograph appeared in this article in Afterimage, saying Sherman has experienced a role-reversal – instead of playing a starring role in the photograph (as she does in all of her own photographs), she is given second billing to the superstar Madonna. The article then continues to give an fascinating comparison and contrast of Madonna and Sherman, while also discussing the role that Sherman’s work plays in relation to media culture. One thing I found especially interesting was that Madonna is indebted to Sherman in some aspects – apparently many of Madonna’s photographs in Sex: Madonna look similar to Sherman’s film stills.

What do people think about this connection between Madonna and Cindy Sherman? For me, this reasserts that Sherman’s work really can be interpreted beyond a mere resistance of the male gaze. Plus, given Sherman’s interest in fashion (particularly outside of her film stills series), I can understand how she is interpreted as working within a masculine dominated society. But again, I can see her work being interpreted both ways. Just like the Untitled Film Series images resist attribution to a specific film, I guess that Sherman herself resists attribution to a single art interpretation.


Double Decadence?

I just read an article in the New York Times about a new Jeff Koons exhibition…at Versailles.

At first, I immediately thought I wouldn’t even like the thought of this exhibition. After all, a Baroque scholar would want to have Versailles shown in its pure, untainted decadence. And if I was there, I probably would get upset seeing Koons’ kitschy, flashy work all over the palace.

But I think that this exhibition poses a really interesting idea. Koons’ work is a commentary on mass-production, pop culture, kitsch, and consumption. For example, Koons’ sculpture Michael Jackson and Bubbles is created in the style of cheap porcelains that can be bought at the dollar store.

I am especially intrigued by this idea of consumption in regards to Versailles. In this sense, wouldn’t Koons’ works seem appropriate at Versailles palace, which is the epitome of European consumption and decadence? These kitsch sculptures even bring up associations of sweat shops, “MADE IN CHINA,” and cheap labor – all which can tie into the oppression of the common people that took place in seventeenth and eighteenth century France.

Of course, I’m pretty sure that Louis XIV would never have owned anything kitsch. The decor in his home would have been a little bit more, um, pricey.

If you read this article, make sure to check out the photo gallery too. What do people think?

*J made an interesting comparison tonight: both Koons’ art and Versailles are quintessential examples of things that are “over the top” – Koons in his ridiculously large balloon animals or stuffed animals cum garden sculptures, and Versailles in, well, every way imaginable.


Why Do You Go?

Last Friday I went and saw this exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum. Basically, the show displayed paintings by the Impressionist painters and also earlier paintings which had inspired the Impressionists. As an art historian, I love looking at things within a historical continuum and I enjoyed observing connections between the older paintings and the later Impressionist works. The Impressionist works weren’t that outstanding or famous – instead, they were relatively obscure works by big-name Impressionists (i.e. Monet, Manet, Degas, Cassatt, etc.). I have to admit, though, I’m not a die-hard lover of Impressionist art. I like it a lot, but I don’t love it. I was way more excited to see the older works of art (e.g. Velasquez, Fragonard, El Greco, Lorrain). This painting of “Young Girl Reading” (Fragonard, c. 1776) was one of my favorite works. The electric purpley-blue accent paint on her pillow and bow were absolutely stunning. I wish that my reproduction of the painting did the work better justice.

All in all, the exhibition was alright. I only had two problems with the show. First of all, there was a whole room dedicated to Cezanne. Art historically, I would argue that Cezanne was not an Impressionist. I think he was more concerned with geometric forms (really, he was a precursor to Cubism) than interested in the optical effects of color and light. And second, they displayed an absolutely HIDEOUS nude by Renoir. It was disproportionate and full of really awful color combinations (I think he was (unsuccessfully) trying his hand at Fauvism, since this work was rather late (1912)). Blech. And the irony is, this monstrous painting was in the center of a doorway, acting as the “draw” to pull people into that section of the gallery! I almost laughed out loud at the irony and kept looking around me, wondering if anyone else noticed how ugly this painting was. But no, there were the museum patrons, listening to their handheld audio tour devices and intently looking at the painting with blank stares.

My past instructor Mark Magleby would have been proud at my disgust for this work by Renoir. I looked in the museum gift shop to see if there was a postcard of this horrible painting, so I could send it to Mark as a joke. They didn’t have one. At least the painting wasn’t high enough in the exhibition hierarchy to make it to the gift shop. The curators must have anticipated that no one would want to buy a copy of that painting to take home. And for good reason.

Anyhow, after the exhibition I was chatting with a member of the museum staff. He mentioned that the show wasn’t as much of a blockbuster as the museum anticipated. He posited that the show was too “theoretical” in nature, since it asks the visitor to analyze the paintings and find connections between paintings and their painting-predecessors. While I don’t think that this was the failure of the show (in my opinion, there were not enough famous paintings – no water lilies, haystacks, Rouen cathedrals, ballerinas, or luncheons on the grass to bring in the crowds of people), I thought that this was an interesting observation.

Do people avoid museum exhibitions that are theoretical? Would people rather just go to look at exhibitions which display paintings in a chronological manner, such as the National Gallery in D.C.? Do people like reading informative text panels, or would they rather just see a “tombstone label” (containing only the title of the work, artist, and date?). When I took a curatorship seminar last year, these were some of the questions we discussed. Most of the students in the class decided that people prefer theoretical exhibitions, but like to make their own conclusions – therefore, visitors like having the theory presented in large text panels or overarching themes, but then they (postmodernly) prefer to make the individual connections between the works of art and the theory presented (having “tombstone labels” by the works of art so that people aren’t force-fed what connections to make with the theory). However, all of the people in this class were aspiring art historians or curators. I’m sure that our opinion of what the general public wants is tainted and biased.

So, why do you go to a museum? Is it to get “cultured?” Are you trying to figure out “what the big deal is” with famous works of art? Do you like looking at art, or do you like to analyze at the same time? How much information do you like presented to you? Would you prefer theoretical or historical information? I’m interested in responses from all types of people – and I encourage comments from people who don’t visit art museums on a regular basis.

*On a similar note, I think it would be fun to have a museum exhibition that bluntly explains the reasoning for hanging each painting on the wall. You could see text labels like, “This work is here because we are trying to keep on good terms with the estate of this deceased artist. The estate wouldn’t lend us another painting if we didn’t hang this one for at least six months out of the year” or “This isn’t a very good painting, but it is by a relatively well-known artist, so we felt justified in hanging it” or “We needed a large painting to fill this wall. You can see that the painting isn’t preserved very well (note X, Y, and Z), but we’re hanging it here until a better preserved painting finishes getting re-framed.” I don’t know if a museum would want to have an exhibition which made its authoritative/institutional voice so transparent (and think of all of the political problems it could cause between artists, curators, etc.!) but I think it would be fun.


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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.