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“Shahnama: 1000 Years of the Persian Book of Kings” at the Sackler
John Blee • July 26, 2011
The thousand-year-old “Shahnama,” or Persian book of kings, is resplendently represented
in a jewel of a show at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. “Shahnama,” written by the revered ninth century Persian poet Firdawsi, is “in its cultural significance and popularity on equal footing with the works of Shakespeare, Homer and the Mahabharata,” says Massumeh Farhad, chief curator and curator of Islamic art, and organizer of the exhibition.
It is impossible to overstate the cultural importance of Firdawsi. It is not a subtle fact that Arabic is not the national language of Iran, a predominantly Muslim country. Firdawsi’s writing of the “Shahnama”
revived Farsi and made it the cultural as well as the everyday language of Iran. Farsi is spoken in part of Afghanistan, but it was also the court language of the Mughals in India. Firdawsi did this through retelling the actual and sometimes mythical and fantastical stories of the Kings of Iran until the Arab conquest in the seventh century. Included in the tales are three women monarchs. The “Shahnama”
also uses the “Avesta,” a collection of texts sacred to the Zoroastrians, as one of its sources.
The “Shahnama” is not a simple book of myth and history. It also emphasizes justice, a concept that perhaps came into Judaism during contact with the Persians. It also emphasizes divine glory, known as “farr” in modern Farsi.
What can make the eye feel the sublime through color more than the Persian miniature? There is nowhere that greater pleasure can be taken in the concise and daring juxtapositions of shape and intense color in miniatures, including the “Court of Jamshid.” When Jamshid ruled, it is told that, “The world submitted to him, quarrels were laid to rest.” He is credited with establishing the Iranian celebration of Now-ruz, a festive celebration of spring even marked by US presidents with special broadcasts to Iran. It is also said that in the reign of Jamshid, “Men knew nothing of sorrow and evil…and the land was filled with music.” The celebration of Now-ruz as well as music was antithetical to the prevailing religion in Iran. In fact, the current government tried to ban Now-ruz.
In another miniature the tyrant Zahhak, who ruled for a thousand years, is resplendent in red with green sleeves on a low throne embellished with floral design. Behind him are mauve rocky hills. It is said during his reign the wise had to conceal themselves, which is much the same sort of history recounted in the “I Ching.”
One thing to note is that these miniatures were pages in books and were not imagined by their creators as hanging on a wall. Looking at them it is best to imagine holding them in your hands.
The spaces around the figures in the miniatures are often lyrically imagined gardens created in hues of passion. The name “Firdawsi” is a penname, as the word actually means paradise—and paradise in Persia is a garden. Through April 17th, 2011 at the Sackler Gallery. [gallery ids="102550,102551" nav="thumbs"]
Gods and Conservation: Paul Jett at the Freer/Sackler
John Blee •
Walking down the long staircase and into the galleries of the Sackler, a large stucco Gandharan head of a Bodhisattva from Afghanistan sits on a pedestal above eye level. Sensuous and spiritual at once, its lips are full and it is crowned and has flowing hair. The spiritual dimension is evoked with the semi-closed eyes and the tension of the eyebrows, seemingly meditative. It is many times larger than human scale and must have stood on top of a very large body.
When Paul Jett, head of the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research of the Freer/Sackler, first saw the piece, it was covered with detritus of almost 2,000 years. Jett related to me, “Pieces you spend a long time working on you get more attached to. I feel very attached to the Bodhisattva. No one would display it because of the way it looked. I thought this piece had potential, so I spent eight months working on it, often through a microscope, as stucco is very delicate. Everyone liked it so much that now it is on permanent exhibition.”
Adjacent to the Bodhisattva is an exhibition of Khmer art curated by Paul Jett and Louise Court, the highly regarded curator of ceramics at the Galleries. The exhibition will later go to the Getty in Los Angeles. The Khmer bronzes displayed are extraordinary in their energy and refinement. They have a certain formal reserve that is very apparent in Khmer stone sculpture, but due to the scale of the pieces they are more intimate. Paul Jett played a major role in this exhibition, mentoring the conservation staff at the Phnom Penh museum in Cambodia where these works are from.
As we walked through the exhibition, Paul Jett recalled his early career: “I grew up in New Mexico, where I pursued interests in photography, painting, and sculpture. I got a Bachelor of Fine Arts in New Mexico. I worked at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts doing a post-graduate fellowship and came to D.C. and got the job at the Freer/Sackler. I studied bronze casting at Glen Echo. When I started working at the Freer/Sackler, I realized that I had prepared for it by studying Mandarin, as well as Chinese philosophy and history.”
Working with Asian bronzes has involved Jett in precarious, technical studies with gold and silver. Asian bronzes often have silver as inlay or are coated in gold. The philosophy of conservation today, according to Jett, is “Do no harm to the object, make repairs unobtrusive, though not exactly invisible. And importantly, all repairs have to be able to be undone.” In looking at art in museums he says, “I do notice how it’s been restored, it’s hard to turn that part of me off.” He says of his work on pieces, “It will last for hundreds of years. We make decisions sometimes on our own or will consult with curators or directors depending on the piece.”
The work with the Phnom Penh Museum started in 2005, setting up the conservation lab. Most of the training took place in Phnom Penh. Jett says, “There was a blank slate for most of the students.” He says that this was an advantage, as he did not have to deprogram anyone. Jett became close to his colleagues and students who did most of the work on the pieces in the exhibition. “They are doing fine on their own,” he says.
One thing he did as a demonstration was to fill in a bit of the Nandi, a large 12th- to 13th-century bronze. It is discernibly not an Indian Nandi, yet having a similar languor. Many of the figures of the gods in the show are based on Indian prototypes, but have evolved into their own distinct Khmer-ness. The Ganesh has none of the earthiness found in his Indian prototype, even though it has a similar physique.
Being with Paul Jett at the Gods of Angkor show made me look harder at how the pieces were put together originally and through restoration. We stopped to admire an incredible bronze crowned Buddha from the 12th century. Holding up its arms in abhaya mudra it blesses this beautiful show. [gallery ids="99168,103020,103009,103017,103014" nav="thumbs"]
What’s Red, White, Blue and Black: American Modernism and Rothko
John Blee •
At the National Gallery of Art, early American Modernism from the Shein collection is featured on the first floor of the East Wing. The National Gallery does not have a strong showing of works from this critical period in American art, and the Shein collection will help fill in the gap. There are some very strong pieces here by major players, including Marsden Hartley, Georgia O’Keeffe, John Marin and Stuart Davis. But it is the lesser-known artists that can sometimes surprise.
One such surprise is Patrick Henry Bruce’s “Painting (Still Life)” that rivals a similar piece by Davis. In many ways I prefer the Bruce, which has a quiet energized classicism. Bruce’s “Painting” was completed in 1919, in the heat of the fray. Davis’ “Unfinished Business” was finished in 1962, toward the end of Davis’ career. Bruce was a much more important painter than Davis in 1919. He was a friend of Sonia and Robert Delaunay and possibly influenced the stark reductivism Matisse adopted in the ’30s for his large “Dance” murals. Unfortunately, Bruce, a descendant of Patrick Henry, killed himself in 1936. Though Davis achieved more and left a greater mark on American abstraction, Bruce deserves to be remembered.
I recall James Rosenquist remembering his teacher Edwin Dickinson, who said that the light was all off in New York studios, since north in New York City was not true north. If there is a northern light, it exists in Dickinson’s work, including “South Wellfleet Inn,” circa 1950-60. It is off every beaten track as a painting, coming close to a kind of obscurist realism. It is playful and morbid, like most of the work of Dickinson’s I have seen.
One cannot escape the fact that O’Keeffe’s “Dark Iris No. 2” and Hartley’s “Pre-War Pageant” eclipse most of the rest of the show, with the exception of Marin’s “Written Sea.” The Marin is one of the most restrained I have ever seen. It is more of a drawing than a painting, but masterful. The O’Keeffe and the Hartley are both at the center of their respective identities. O’Keeffe’s “Iris” is resplendently sensual. With Hartley, I quote Georgia O’Keeffe on his shows at Steichen’s gallery and say it’s “like a brass band in a small closet.”
Going into the tower where Matisse’s cutouts used to hang is now as Zen a place as I have been in D.C. It’s the home of several of Mark Rothko’s darkest work in as perfect an installation as possible. Somehow the off-rectangle of the tower with its high ceiling could not be a better setting.
The intermittent playing of Morton Feldman’s “Rothko Chapel” makes it complete. Feldman has written of his music that, “I envisioned an immobile procession not unlike the friezes on Greek temples.” A friend of mine recalled what Rothko said, on visiting a temple in Greece, “I’ve always been painting them, now I am in one.”
Darkness is not a metaphysical state much in favor these days. The medical industry is making huge amounts of money as a result. But facing darkness — and rendering it — is tough. Shostakovich did especially in his 14th and 15th quartets, as did Beethoven in his late quartets. In painting it is rarer. I recall Turner’s “Peace – Burial at Sea,” who, when he was questioned on the black sails he had painted, replied “I only wish I had any color to make them blacker.”
Reflecting on Rothko’s pictures, they do seem to me to bear some relation to Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings — though unlike Rothko, Reinhardt was ironic in his black pictures. Rothko is closer akin Gerard Manley Hopkins’ in his poem “Carrion Comfort”: “Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.”
“American Modernism” runs through January 2, 2011. [gallery ids="99176,103189,103193" nav="thumbs"]
Gallerist on the Go
John Blee • June 2, 2011
Siobhan Gavagan is a rising D.C. gallerist and formerly worked for Margery Goldberg. She is now with Susan Calloway at her elegant Georgetown space on Wisconsin Avenue. Siobhan’s energy, smarts, and charm make her a standout in the gallery scene.
What got you into the art business?
My family has always been involved in the arts. My father went to NYU for film and photography
and has a great love for the arts, so we would always go to museums, foreign films, and the theatre growing up. I’m very fortunate to be working in the field that I studied in college as most people get art degrees and end up not doing anything related to art.
Do you hang out with an “art crowd?”
Not really, I have a couple of friends that are painters and musicians, but D.C. is such a political
city, most of my friends work on the Hill or for NGOs. The art scene in D.C. is coming around and getting the younger crowd more involved, but it has a way to go.
What’s your favorite D.C. museum?
The National Portrait Gallery. I’m a big history buff so looking at all of the old portraits of great leaders is really exciting for me.
You’ve lived in a group house, what’s the inside scoop?
It was wild! I lived with nine roommates in Le Droit Park. It was like The Real World, but better.
I found the house on Craigslist and went in not knowing anyone. I’ve made some amazing friends from that experience. We had friends that lived in other group houses so our group would always grow with new people moving in and out. There was a Fourth of July party that we threw that will go down in history!
How was it working for the legendary Margery Goldberg?
Margery is great. I started off interning at Zenith and eventually took on the role as gallery manager. The openings were always fun at Zenith and Margery knows how to throw a party and get other people excited about art.
What’s your commission on selling a picture?
The most I’ve made from a commission was around $600. It’s a great incentive to really go after a sale.
Who ever gets your first name spelled right?
I think my Mom and Dad are the only ones who get it right. I still have family who misspell my name on birthday and Christmas cards! I was always the kid in class who would sink down in their chair when the teacher was calling roll, Sio-Bahn Gava-Gon — they never could pronounce
What about your own art, is it suffering or gaining by working in a gallery?
Sometimes I can get inspired from all of the beautiful work that surrounds me in the gallery, but other times it does get a bit draining.
What’s your day-to-day routine at Susan’s gallery?
My morning usually involves entering new sales into QuickBooks and updating the inventory. The gallery does custom framing so that takes up a great deal of time. Another big part of my day includes updating our website.
What’s your tip for a first time buyer?
Do some research on the artist. Also learn about their technique and read their resume. It’s an investment, so make sure you really love the piece. There is art out there for everyone and you don’t have to splurge on something expensive.