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February 2004

NOTES & COMMENTS

EXHIBITION: Childhood in Ancient Greece
A small but rich exhibition now at the Onassis Cultural Center in New York City, through April 15, offers a welcome glimpse into the little-known domestic side of life in classical Greek culture. Entitled Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from the Classical Past, it opened at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College last year, and will travel to the Cincinnati Art Museum (May 21-August 1) and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles (September 14-December 5).

Many of the objects in the exhibition are more interesting as historical artifacts than as art, yet they contribute to an informed perspective from which to appreciate the works of painting and sculpture. Among the latter, most compelling for us were the several grave monuments mourning the loss of children or of wives who died before their time, often in childbirth. One example, the Gravestone of the Girl Melisto (pictured on the exhibition catalogue cover), depicts a girl of about seven, who gazes fondly at a doll she holds in one hand, while a small dog jumps up toward the bird she holds in her other hand. A particularly endearing vase painting is Baby on Stool with Mother [more], in which mother and child reach out toward each other (also shown in the first link is a baby feeder in the form of a pig--the spout of which protrudes like a tail from the animal's rear--furnished with two pierced handles to allow its suspension above a cradle). In another, Boy with His Pet Bird, a toddler is shown tempting a bird with a sweetcake. The terracotta figurine Girls Playing Ephedrismos [Piggyback], thought to have come from a female burial site, is a poignant reminder of the universality of this childhood pastime. Taken together, these tender embodiments of childhood and familial affection suggest a broader dimension to the male-dominated society of the time.

Coming of Age in Ancient Greece--the first exhibition to deal with these aspects of Greek culture--is documented in a handsomely illustrated catalogue by Jenifer Neils and John H. Oakley. "Fragments of Childhood: Growing Up in Ancient Greece," by Maggie Riechers (Humanities, July/August 2003), is of interest to both general readers and scholars.

In New York City, Coming of Age in Ancient Greece is supplemented by a special section of nine works illustrating the role of athletics in the life of ancient Greek boys--Striving for Excellence: Ancient Greek Childhood and the Olympic Spirit. An illustrated sixty-four page publication, available free of charge, features essays on the life of boys and girls in ancient Greece, in addition to cataloguing Striving for Excellence.

Onassis Cultural Center, 645 Fifth Avenue (entrance on 51st Street), New York City. Monday-Sunday, 10:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m. Admission: Free. Telephone: (212) 486-4448.

Gorky--One of the Great Draftsmen of All Time?
In a review of the Whitney Museum's "Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective of Drawings" (Wall Street Journal, January 28, 2004), Karen Wilkin deemed the exhibition "quite possibly the most fascinating, beautiful, disturbing and difficult" of the current season. Characterizing Gorky (1904-1948) as "a seminal figure of the Abstract Expressionist generation, and arguably the most convincing and powerful interpreter of Surrealist ideas among the American modernists," Wilkin added that he arrived at his "distinctive language" of "hallucinatory forms" through a "self-imposed apprenticeship to painters as diverse as Ingres, Picasso, and Miró, documenting his swings between abstraction and figuration." According to Wilkin,

Gorky [see also his Virginia Landscape (Untitled Study for Pastoral Series) and other drawings from the 1940s] was one of the great draftsmen of all time, able to deploy an incisive line with an assurance and acuity that not only demonstrated how much he learned from his hero Ingres [see also Bather of Valpinçon, 1808] but also proved the pupil a worthy heir of his chosen master.

Yet Wilkin also notes that Gorky's abstract paintings are "nearly impossible to pin down, like delirium visions," and that all his work "seems on the verge of escaping our understanding." In fact, it is impossible to "pin down" any abstract work. And surely Wilkin does Gorky no favor by comparing his abstractions to the visions characteristic of delirium, a lamentable mental disorder. Finally, we can only shake our heads at the absurdity of Wilkin's suggestion that Gorky is a "worthy heir" to Ingres.

Responses to Critics of What Art Is
Louis Torres's response to a symposium on Ayn Rand's esthetics in the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies (much of which dealt with What Art Is) appeared in the Fall 2003 issue of the journal, and is now available online. Entitled " Scholarly Engagement: When It Is Pleasurable and When It Is Not," it assesses the symposium's essays in relation to such standards of scholarly writing as knowledge of subject matter, attention to rules of evidence, and avoidance of jargon. For Michelle Kamhi's earlier response to the symposium, see "What 'Rand's Aesthetics' Is, and Why It Matters."

Ad Reinhardt's Cartoons
In a review of a recent exhibition of Abstract Expressionist painter Ad Reinhardt's cartoons [click on main title] about the artworld of the late 1940s and early 1950s, Richard B. Woodward observed that "[the curator Thomas] Hess's annotations are needed to get all the inside jokes" ("Ad Reinhardt, Newspaper Cartoonist: The Abstract Double Agent," New York Times, December 21, 2003). The biggest joke, of course, is the notion that paintings such as Reinhardt's all-black canvases--whose "meaning" is entirely dependent on annotations by artworld insiders--are art.

WORTH READING
"In Search of Chopin," by Alexandra Mullen (The Hudson Review, Winter 2004), is an astute appreciation of this "most intimate" of all the great composers. Readers desiring further information may want to visit the website of the Frederick Chopin Society in Warsaw.

Remembering Black Orpheus
On a Central Park stroll not long ago, we were enchanted by hearing, on a lone saxophone, the haunting melody by Luiz Bonfá that was the theme song for the 1958 French-Brazilian film Black Orpheus. In a rush, the memory came back to us of that film's lyrical retelling, in the Carnival season of modern-day Rio de Janeiro, of the ancient Greek legend about the musician Orpheus and his ill-fated love for the beautiful Eurydice. Like West Side Story, Black Orpheus (which was based on a musical play by Vinícius de Moraes, Orfeu da Conceição) brilliantly transposes a famous tale to another time and place, and succeeds because it remains true to the essence of the original, while re-creating the atmosphere and spirit of a quite different culture, sensitively and without condescension. Beautifully acted and directed, it well deserved the Oscar it won as Best Foreign Film. If you have never seen it (or even if you have), treat yourself to a viewing on VHS or DVD. For more on the film, see "Black Orpheus: The Film and Bossa Nova."

The Many Hats of Sophie Calle
According to its publisher, Prestel, Sophie Calle: Did You See Me? is a comprehensive volume on the "conceptual artist" named in the title--celebrating the "breadth and intelligence" of her "iconoclastic work" and transporting the reader to a "deeper understanding of her unique artistic vision." There is, it seems, an awful lot to understand.

[Calle's work] embraces numerous media: photography, storytelling, film, and memoir, to name a few. Often controversial, [her] projects explore issues of voyeurism, intimacy, and identity as she secretly investigates, reconstructs and documents the lives of strangers--whether she's inviting them to sleep in her bed, trailing them through a hotel, or following them through the city. Taking on multiple roles--detective, documentarian, behaviorial scientist and diarist--Sophie Calle turns the interplay between life and art on its head.

She certainly does.

In addition to documenting Calle's best-known works--among them, The Hotel, The Sleepers, and The Address Book--the book includes excerpts from her diary, three "critical essays," and "a revealing interview with fellow artist Damien Hirst" (of pickled shark fame). It took the powerhouse artworld duo of Christine Macel (Curator of Contemporary Art at the Centre Pompidou in Paris) and Yve-Alain Bois (Joseph Pulitzer Professor of Modern Art at Harvard University) to put it all together, with the help of a third editor, Olivier Rolin (a mere "author and journalist").

A Talk by the Editors
On February 27, at the invitation of Professor Mark Conard, we gave a talk on "What Is Art? Who Decides?" at the Philosophy Forum of Marymount Manhattan College, to a full house of more than eighty. Students from various departments attended (including philosophy club members and art history majors), as well as several faculty members, a dean, and the president of the college. A stimulating, nearly hour-long Q&A period followed the talk.

Do You Know Your Art History?
Try this multiple-choice quiz by London's Guardian newspaper-- which features images (some of them details) of eight paintings and sculptures (most art, some not) by mostly well-known art-historical figures.

What Art Is Online--Appendixes
To our ever-expanding list in Appendix A - Part II: New Forms of Art, we add "living sculpture" (plus a link), and two other invented art forms. Our newest items in Appendix B - Part II: Artworld Buzz Words, are "disturbing" and "provocative," and a new example of the use of "explore." Finally, we add a new item (on a Times review of a documentary film unrelated to the arts) to Appendix C - The New York Times--"The Arts."

Letters to the Editors
We invite readers to comment on matters related to items published in the current or past issues (see archives).

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