Cable Cars, Copley and the American Dream: AHA Alum Cassia Price explores Boston’s MFA

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, was the third stop on my US travels of Summer 2013

 The polar opposite of the first stop on my US travels, Los Angeles, Boston is small, quiet, and pretty. Perhaps due to its colonial past or proximity to Europe it has excellent collections of paintings and sculpture in comparison with its West Coast cousins. There is the feeling of quality rather than quantity throughout the city, felt nowhere more than at the MFA. Housed in a building not unfamiliar to eyes accustomed to the British Museum and National Gallery, it exudes sincerity in devotion of art and design. Spacious and airy throughout, rather than empty as the Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco felt, it has a diverse and extensive collection. Discouraged at first by the poor range of European art on the ground floor, restricted to two rooms of eclectic 19th and 20th Century work, the more I walked, the more impressed I became. Some beautiful Dutch work, and a striking Turner in one of the main galleries, which was a dynamic change from the surrounding still life immediately overshadowed the interesting but unfinished Gainsboroughs I had seen earlier.

Front view of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

 

Knowing very little about American art, I found the 18th and 19th century American portraits engaging and totally different in tone from what I had picked up from my AHA course in Northern Italy last Summer and from  English work of the same period. I felt that John Singleton Copley in particular, with his interesting range in technique and subject matter, differed from the European tradition. His subjects’ faces are often openly smiling and friendly, though they maintain a enigmatic and subtle quality that I found particularly appealing in my favourite painting from the gallery, a portrait of Mrs Richard Skinner.

Mrs Richard Skinner (Dorothy Wendell), John Singleton Copley, 1772

Another artist I was struck by was Singer Sargent: there is an unmatchable intimacy to his style that certainly merited the dedication of a whole gallery in the MFA to his work.

Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, John Singer Sargent, 1882

 

The Hippie Chic exhibition that was on at the time of my visit was underwhelming, but that may be a result of my frequent visits to the V&A. The single room had little atmosphere and said little about the design and background of the clothing on display. The exhibits were jolly but felt strikingly out of place. Despite this one flaw, the Boston MFA impressed me hugely, as possibly the most comprehensive and well-curated museum of its kind in the States.

2nd and 3rd pictures thanks to Museum of Fine Arts website

A Christmas trail around Cambridge: finding England’s religious history, by AHA alum Helena Roy

After considering art’s relationship with religion versus secularism (and with Christmas fast approaching) I decided to take a closer look at Christian art in my surroundings. Perhaps my location was too biased for an average survey – in Cambridge, where 31 colleges each have their own chapel, Christianity’s influence on art and architecture seeps through the city.

Starting with my own college – Pembroke. Pembroke was the first college in Cambridge to have its own chapel. Tucked between two courts, placed next to the church-like library, with its imposing bell tower, the chapel carries its own, having been the first building of Christopher Wren – the impetus behind St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Built after the Civil War, it breathed vitality into the tired late Gothic architecture of seventeenth century England.

Pembroke College Chapel, Cambridge, as designed by Christopher Wren

Pembroke is not alone in being built from pockets of Wren’s vision. The view that greets the visitor in Emmanuel College‘s first court is another Wren chapel framed by classical archways of a long gallery.

The view of Emmanuel College Chapel as you walk into the first court

Perhaps the most famous chapel in Cambridge is King’s College. With a world-famous choir and towering façade abutting Cambridge’s Market Square, the chapel is an inescapable figure on the city’s skyline: it is impossible to take a mediocre photo of it. Its magnificence is undeniable; with a delicate, lace-like beauty which complements its solid, immovable stone foundations. The chapel was built in phases, by a succession of Kings of England, from 1446 to 1525 – a period which spanned the War of the Roses.

King's College Chapel, Cambridge, viewed from the side, and the famous Backs perspective

Stepping out of the sandstone structures that pervade the collegiate system, there are snippets of religious architecture from other periods. St Bene’t’s is one grey example, while the Round Church is a geometric exception.

With origins dating back to 1130 AD, the Round Church is one of the oldest buildings in the city. Plumped up at a busy junction, it is covered with visual idiosyncrasies. In building the church, the architects were influenced by the style of a notable church in Jerusalem built by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century.

The Round Church, Cambridge, in the snow

 

The Round Church is beaten in age by St Bene’t’s Church – which is also the oldest building in Cambridge. Previously the chapel of Corpus Christi College, St Bene’t’s is now a mélange of Anglo-Saxon starkness and Victorian grey. The tower, built between 1000 AD and 1050 AD gives way to a beautifully monochrome interior, with deep chocolate wood and creamy plaster that belies pockets of light intricacy and stained glass.

The interior of St Bene't's Church, Cambridge

Alain de Botton argues that by focusing so much on the beauty of their buildings, religion was recognising that as humans we inherently ‘suffer from a heightened sensitivity to what is around us, that we will notice and be affected by everything our eyes light upon.’ Religious architecture can be admired by worshippers and atheists alike – that it holds a different meaning for each adds, rather than detracts, from its power.

With thanks to Wikipedia for photos.

Robert Indiana, Beyond Love: AHA Alum Jasmine Horsey spends Thanksgiving in New York City

Last week, the day before Thanksgiving, I visited the “Robert Indiana: Beyond LOVE” exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Thousands of tourists had descended on the city for the holiday, their photos showing off the usual sites—the Empire State, the Rockefeller, perhaps some shots of Central Park. One attraction that has become increasingly popular in recent years is Robert Indiana’s giant “LOVE” installation on Sixth Avenue.

Robert Indiana's LOVE installation on Sixth Avenue

“LOVE” (1966) speaks to the tourist, to the cosmopolitan visitor who poses by the sculpture, and quite possibly uploads it as their cover photo a few hours later. It is a Pop Art image of the 1960s, the extraordinary success of which has ironically contributed to its artist’s relative anonymity. Indiana, whose affiliation with America is so strong that he changed his professional name from “Clark” to “Indiana” (his native state,) has not exhibited in New York in years. His artistic merit clouded by the commerciality of “LOVE,” Indiana has been consigned to the backbench of Pop Artist fame. The Whitney, recognising the talent of an artist confined by commercial success, allows Indiana valuable space to broadcast his striking vision with “Beyond LOVE.”

The exhibition is arresting the second you exit the elevator: picture giant installations of colour and vibrancy, with piquant words—eat, hug, die—reappearing in different combinations at each corner. It is alarmingly American, with its installations evoking highway signs, adverts, gambling tables, pinballs and slot machines—the things that formed the cultural fabric of the American Midwest in the mid-twentieth century.

Indiana's monumental diptych EAT/DIE

The materials Indiana uses are fascinating, not least because of their variability. Indiana takes inspiration not only from the physical American landscape—industrial wreckage is notably featured in his repertoire—but also the literary greats who have shaped the distinctive American canon. One room features pieces with sentences from the works of great American authors (think Whitman, Melville and Longfellow) stencilled upon them. Often juxtaposed with Indiana’s signature hard-edged, polychromatic style, these transcendental quotes speak to the wonder of the American Dream. “Year of Meteors” (1961) has Whitman’s words “Nor forget I to sing of the wonder” arranged around its centre, allowing Whitman to call to the wonders of America and simultaneously make clear his awareness of its pitfalls.

Year of Meteors, featuring Whitman's "Nor forget I to sing of the wonder" quote

These pitfalls come in hard and gritty form, quite literally. In the late 1960’s, when Indiana fell on hard times and could not afford paint or canvas, he began salvaging industrial materials from the American landscape. Metal objects, derelict pieces of wood and discarded instruments became the focus of his “assemblages,” of which “Wall of China” (1960) is an example. Its broken pipes and wood aggressively invade the viewer’s space, allying the grime of industrial wastage with the real world. Recycled materials become art once again, except this time it is objects, not words, which facilitate the transformation.

Examples of Indiana's use of recycled materials

“Robert Indiana: Beyond LOVE” does exactly what it says on the tin: provides access to an artist whose repertoire extends beyond his quintessential image, and whose creations offer a poignant insight into the failure of the American Dream. As I watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on TV the next day, itself an essential part of the holiday, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Robert Indiana’s vibrant, kinetic pieces. The floats were bright and gaudy. Their pudgy round forms encouraged smiles, laughter, even wonder as they made their slow, bobbing way through New York’s streamlined verticality. They were also temporary, and I was aware that like the fragile American Dream Robert Indiana so frequently evokes, they could easily pop.

“Live life as though nobody is watching, and express yourself as though everyone is listening.” Nelson Mandela’s enduring symbolism, by AHA alum Helena Roy

That Nelson Mandela’s influence is so pervasive is evident not just in the way he changed South Africa. Beyond that isolated period of history, it spreads from Hollywood, through galleries and music, to the streets of Johannesburg. From Clint Eastwood’s soaring film ‘Invictus’ to the eminence Mandela gave Henley’s poem by reciting its mantra of self-mastery to fellow prisoners on Robben Island, the strength of his values have gained extensive prominence in the creative arts.

His death is quite obviously a painful loss. The world has lost a statesman valued internationally for his humility and inescapable relevance to justice and freedom, and South Africa has lost its most beloved son. But the blow of his absence is softened by the fact that he was already an icon. The morals he represented transformed him into a symbol of kindness, modesty, forgiveness and reconciliation. The views he propagated have an unbeatable international following that will inevitably continue. Refusing to be classed by any label thrown upon him – be it as a criminal, judged by race or nationality – he became a universal icon in every sense of the phrase.

Murals and street art of Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, Soweto and Cape Town in South Africa

Street art blends Mandela into the very construction and bustling, heaving life of South Africa; it shows the history of the country not through architecture, but through urban mural. His image spreads from the streets of South Africa to squares on London; outside Parliament he serves as a constant reminder to the inevitability of defeat unjust government must face.

The statue of Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square, London

At a time when the ANC and Mandela were taboo in South African media, songs inspired by South African music spread worldwide. ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ remains the epitome of exploitation of popular music for powerful political purposes. The very act of singing when mere mention of his name was banned, was itself a peaceful, delighted expression of opposition to persecution and solidarity with divided South Africans.

The album cover for 'Free Nelson Mandela' (1984) by The Special AKA

Photographs of him capture the reality of his fight and act as proof of his message. In the National Portrait Gallery, photographs of a young man reasoning and challenging can be found from 1962; of an elderly statesman ever-conscious and proactive from 1997.

Mandela by Michael Peto (1962) and Jillian Edelstein (1997), in the National Portrait Gallery, London

Mandela has been, and remains, an intense creative symbol because the life he lived was so vibrant, poignant and real. Almost uniquely, the fact that this symbolism is backed up by reality strengthens the message in a way no myth or legend could, and thus ensures its enduring popularity among the creative. Mandela symbolised freedom and equality – but proved their worth by living his life for them, rather than asserting their value by analogy.

With thanks to the National Portrait Gallery, Wikipedia and ADN for pictures.

What came first, the turkey or the pumpkin? Will Martin looks into the origins of Thanksgiving Dinner

'Freedom from want' by Norman Rockwell (1943)

Being very much the Englishman, I’ve never known an awful lot about Thanksgiving, with my knowledge being limited to that episode of Friends where Monica puts a turkey on her head. However considering that I’m supposed to be AHA’s dedicated student foodie, I thought it might be interesting to explore the origins of the food that is seemingly everywhere throughout North America at this time of year.

For those of us unfamiliar with exactly what Thanksgiving is, it is a holiday celebrated in November, allowing the American people to give thanks, especially to God, as stated by President Lincoln in 1863 when he declared the official holiday. However, Thanksgiving’s origins can be traced to a feast held by the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony in 1621, to celebrate their first harvest. 53 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans are said to have attended the feast, which lasted three days.

'The First Thanksgiving' by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris (1915)

Obviously if you ask people what they associate with Thanksgiving dinner, 99.9% will say the turkey. Turkey has become so commonplace on the Thanksgiving table that many Americans now call the day ‘Turkey Day’. But why exactly is it that the turkey is so utterly ubiquitous on the tables of Americans on the third Thursday of November? To be honest, there is no definitive answer. It is known that at the ‘First Thanksgiving’, with the Pilgrims, the centrepieces of the meal were beef and an ‘assortment of wild fowl’, but we do not know exactly what these fowl were. We do however know that in a letter sent before the feast, Pilgrim Edward Winslow mentions going hunting for wild Turkeys.

Another tale, most likely apocryphal, is that Queen Elizabeth I, upon being informed of the sinking of the Spanish Armada in 1588, was so delighted that she ordered an extra goose to be prepared for dinner that evening. Some argue that the early settlers took inspiration from this action, but chose to roast turkey instead of goose.

'The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth' by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914)

Whilst the turkey is very obviously the centerpiece of any Thanksgiving dinner, there are of course a multitude of accompaniments and side dishes which are equally important and delicious. Cranberry sauce, different types of squash, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie and mashed potatoes are just a few of the foods eaten during the traditional Thanksgiving dinner, and it is known that the vast majority of these foods were either native to America, or were brought over on the Mayflower. As well as being native to America, many of the foods consumed at Thanksgiving dinners are seasonal, especially the squashes and pumpkins served. These have always been fruits associated with the Autumnal harvest, and therefore it seems apt that they are eaten at a festival, which initially existed to celebrate the fact that the Pilgrims had survived their first year in the New World and had managed a successful harvest.

Whilst it may be a holiday celebrated in only some parts of the world, the food history of Thanksgiving is fascinating and manages to provide an insight into how the Pilgrims lived in the early days of Plymouth colony and how their struggle shaped the America we know today. Now, off for some leftover turkey!

All images courtesy of Google

How Francis Bacon influenced ‘The Dark Knight’ – by AHA alum Charlie Whelton

“You have to look to art to teach you and guide you in terms of expressing things beyond dialogue”

When The Dark Knight was released in 2008, it was an immediate critical and commercial success – not least due to Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning portrayal of The Joker. While The Joker is no new character, having appeared in Batman comics since 1940, Ledger and director Christopher Nolan brought a darker, more nuanced interpretation to the role. This was not the giggling ‘Clown Prince of Crime’ people had grown accustomed to, but an anarchic and sinister sociopath. In a recent interview with the Tate for their Film Meets Art series, Nolan revealed how his disturbing and violent villain had been influenced by an artist who often saw those same two words applied to his works – Francis Bacon.

In the interview, Nolan discusses tackling the issue of The Joker’s make-up. Previous depictions had put the character’s white skin, green hair and bright red mouth down to falling into an open vat of unspecified chemicals. Clearly this would not do for the grittier, more realistic universe of Nolan’s Batman films. The problem was solved when the director brought a book of Francis Bacon’s art to the set. A concerted effort was made to incorporate Bacon’s distortions and mixtures of colour into The Joker’s make-up, ‘letting it have a kind of slightly worn-through quality’. Looking at the images below, the influence is clear.

It is not just the appearance of Ledger’s Joker that bears the mark of Bacon, but his character also. In the interview, Nolan talks about the artist’s use of dark spaces in his art, and how this relates to his filmmaking:

I quite like the paradoxical nature of it. The more he removes, the less he tells you really about what’s out there, the more I find myself thinking about what’s in that dark space behind.

You never have the resources to fully create the world that you’re creating so you are leaving a lot of voids, leaving a lot of gaps. So part of what you’re trying to do is using those necessary gaps intelligently, so that where you’re not showing something, it’s helping you rather than feeling the limitations of the world you’ve created.

The Nolan/Ledger Joker differed from many of his past iterations in the fact that rather than explicitly assigning him a backstory, or ignoring it altogether, they deliberately obscured his past. By having him tell different versions of the story of how he got his scars to different people, the audience is left not knowing which, if any, is real. The resulting effect is of a truly unnerving, yet fascinating character. Leaving the ‘gaps’ may have been necessary (for reasons of time or the flow of the film) but Nolan, like Bacon, paradoxically uses the void to enhance his work. The effect for the audience is the same as that which Bacon has on Nolan – they are left ‘thinking about what’s in that dark space behind’.

Interestingly, while Nolan developed the Bacon link, he was not the first to notice the connection. Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film has the Joker intervening to save just one piece of art from destruction at a museum: Francis Bacon’s Figure With Meat.

 

“I kind of like this one, Bob. Leave it”.

The influence that art has had, and continues to have over film is monumental. The connections are by no means limited to the few presented by the Tate. For example, Nolan’s next film, Inception, borrows the impossible architecture of M.C. Escher for its dream sequences; Martin Scorsese has spoken of the debt his Mean Streets owes to Caravaggio; and several of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films contain nods to Edward Hopper. Bacon himself inspired not only Nolan, but also James Cameron’s Alien. His Study After Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X reportedly inspired the monster’s mouth. The fact that Bacon modelled the mouth in that piece after a still from the 1925 film Battleship Potemkin illustrates nicely the symbiotic relationship that art and cinema share.