An Extraordinary Pietà in France

An Extraordinary Pietà in France

People flock to Saint Peter’s in Rome to see Michelangelo’s iconic Pietà, but few know of the extraordinary Pietà made in 1526 by Jacques Jubert (or Joubert) in a relatively obscure French church. This polychrome statue is part of a larger sculptural group with John the Apostle and Mary Magdalene in Saint-Ayoul, Provins. Although cataloged with the historic monuments of France, the artist of this masterpiece, Joubert or Jubert, remains unknown. International visitors don’t often visit the church of Saint Ayoul, or the city of Provins, which is 90 kilometers from Paris. However, during the Middle Ages, Provins was a center of international trade, and home to the Counts of Champagne.

What strikes me about Jubert’s work is the beautiful curve of Jesus’ body with a limp, cusped arm. It’s an extraordinary composition.

The cross behind the sculpture also directs our attention, leading to Mary’s head. Mary’s face shows her devastation, and the viewer feels her pain. The gifted artist employed compositional devices, using curves and angles to enhance meaning. It is part of a larger Lamentation scene, explained in the last section below.

The Pietà was a theme popular in France and it was a French cardinal commissioned Michelangelo’s Pietà. An inscription in the church says that Jubert made the statue group for the leprosy hospital of Sainte-Colombe, near Provins.

Research into this artist, his background and his influences, would provide an excellent dissertation topic.

Compared to Michelangelo’s Pietà

Left, Jacques Jubert, Pietà, 1526 Right, Michelangelo, Pietà, c. 1499

One wonders if the sculptor had seen Michelangelo’s marble masterpiece, completed about 25 years earlier. Jubert’s triangular composition and perfect balance conform to the Renaissance style. The anatomy is well done, but not as fine as Michelangelo’s, and limestone will never imitate the beauty of marble. The proportions work well too. Jesus’ arm lays limp and lifeless; the legs are crossed. But, unlike in the more famous sculpture by Michelangelo, Jesus’ body faces forward. Jubert followed French models in this respect, as if presenting the body of Christ to the world. Emotion is very strong in Mary’s face, and Christ’s wounds on the side and feet show blood.

Many Pietàs in France would have inspired Jubert, but his style, his composition, and his sense of unity are far more sophisticated than most. (Compare it a Pietà in New York’s Metropolitan Museum, c. 1515.) He may have known of the Michelangelo, but his sculpture is more open than Michelangelos’ closed pyramidal group. Both artists sculpted voluminous drapery! (I’m convinced that, if he did not go to Rome, he saw drawings of The Pietà.)

In Michelangelo’s Pietà, the very youthful Mary is serene and sad, but accepting. Her grief is in reserve.  She knows that, because of His suffering and death, Christ’s mission could be accomplished. Michelangelo presents Jesus’ death as the perfect gift to humanity. Mary is proportionally much larger than Jesus in order to keep the figures within the perfect triangle.

A Gothic Pietà

At the other end of the spectrum are German works such as the Röttgen Pietà, with its great distortion and overwhelming emotionality. Made of wood, the Röttgen statue stands only 35 inches high (89 cm). It represents a different aesthetic and intends to force viewers to feel great pain and grief. Though it dates to c. 1300, late Gothic period, it reminds me of early 20th-century German Expressionism.  In classes, I compare the Röttgen Pietà to Michelangelo’s. The contrasts are in style — as well as content. Mary’s large head is distorted to emphasize her unbearable suffering.

Röttgen Pietà, Germany, c. 1300-20

A Grieving Saint John and the Magdalene

Someone shared a magnificent photograph of the entire compositional group on Flickr. To the left of the central figures stands a grieving Saint John. Mary Magdalene flanks the scene on its right (see below, right). I think of the great textural contrasts of Bernini! She is elegant and beautiful, with magnificent long wavy hair. The figures of John and Mary follow the tradition of Deposition paintings and statues from Germany and the low countries, where contorted postures emphasize grief.

Jubert’s unknown masterpiece follows a French tradition depicting a painted city behind (Jerusalem? Istanbul?), as in the Avignon Pietà of 1450-60. Was it a different artist who painted the city, and how much of that painting is a restoration? Regardless, the planning that went into painting, sculpture and architecture was sophisticated, showing comprehensive spatial planning. It looks forward to the unified, multimedia 17th century installations of Bernini.

Other Information

The site of Saint-Ayoul contains both a parish church and a priory where monks lived and worshiped. A section of the priory is undergoing extensive renovation at present, revealing very old paintings from the Middle Ages.

Provins’ importance as a city diminished when Champagne came under the rule of the French kings. Information on Jacques Jubert is sparse, but an inscription in Saint-Ayoul indicates that he came from Troyes, another major commercial center of Champagne. The limestone came from Tonnerre in Burgundy.

The upper city of Provins holds a magnificent tower, Tour César, and Les Souterains, a series of underground crypts. Fortification walls flank two sides of it. In 2001, Provins gained the status as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Getting there from Paris by train takes one hour and twenty minutes.

One wonders what other masterpieces may be hidden in the countryside, or in the unknown churches of Europe.

Follow the Dots and Reflect on the Beauty of Yayoi Kusama’s Art

Follow the Dots and Reflect on the Beauty of Yayoi Kusama’s Art


Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, with the Guest House and Yayoi Kusami’s Pumpkin

Yayoi Kusama is now the featured artist as the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.  Crowds are lining up out the door to see her exhibition, “Infinity Mirrors.”  It’s a blockbuster show made up of mirrors and dots that’s capturing the public imagination with huge crowds. 

When I went to visit Philip Johnson’s Glass House in Connecticut for the very first time in September, there was an installation of Kusama’s art in the house and on the property.   Red polka dots of various sizes were attached to all the glass walls.  

To me, the dots fit perfectly into Philip Johnson’s iconic house–as flat red circles on a very flat building.  Some visitors at that time remarked that it interfered with how they had hoped to appreciate “The Glass House.”  But the dots didn’t interfere with the building’s transparency. Shadows and reflections appeared that would not have been there otherwise. Perhaps the dots made me even more aware of the house’s transparency, and color shined through along with the light.
As for the Johnson property, there’s an eclectic mix of buildings, 14 in all.    They’re totally different from each other, representing the great diversity in Johnson’s architectural genius.  Each building was a work of art in itself, with a sense of wholeness to it.  Set into the landscape of 49 acres, it is part of something much larger than itself, an entire park or environment.
The polka dots of Yayoi Kusama are much the same.  They’re small pinpricks in the center of something much larger.    In reflecting on the dots, and in experiencing a multiplicity of dots, we become aware of the universe much larger than ourselves.   We go outside of ourselves, into the larger universe.  Presumably the Hirshhorn exhibition will make that world seem infinite and thus the title, “Infinity Mirrors.”  

 The difference between Kusama’s installations at The Glass House and in “Infinity Mirrors” is the difference between seeing the expansiveness of life in nature and being inside of our own small world and being forced to expand outward. The Hirshhorn is expecting an explosion of “selfies” taken at the exhibition. Visitors will only be allowed in the six installation rooms, with the doors closed, for a limited amount of time.

Pumpkin on the grounds of The Glass House

Kusama displayed one of her large pumpkins on the grounds of the Glass House.  The metal sculpture was pierced with polka dots and has a red interior. Kusama’s pumpkin theme repeats in one of the six installation rooms of the the Hirshhorn Exhibition.  It’s an installation called “All the eternal love I have is for the pumpkins.   (One of these glass pumpkins broke last Saturday, forcing a temporary closing of the exhibit.)

The photo by Domus was taken in November, 2016

Pumpkins, like the polka dots, are a lifelong obsession for the artist.  According to Kusama, “In Japanese, a ‘pumpkin head’ is an ignorant man or a pudgy woman, but for me, I am charmed by its shape, form, and lack of pretension.”    There’s a humor in Kusama work, too.

The Glass House’s Kusama installation also featured mirrors in an entirely different form — different from those at the Hirshhorn.  They were spherical balls in a pool of water called Narcissus Garden, surrounding the Pond Pavilion designed by Johnson. They spheres, 1300 of them, each 30 cm wide, moved and floated with the ponds currents.  They reflected the sky, the water and land.  Like Monet’s Water Lilies, Kusama’s water art unifies the elements of water, earth and air, except that it’s not done in a series of paintings. Its a form of kinetic sculpture.  In it’s effervescence, Narcissus Garden reminds me that some things can never appear the same again.

Philip Johnson’s Pond Pavilion and Yayoi Kusama’s Narcissus Garden, September 24, 2016, view from above

Kusama, born in 1929, is now 87.  She moved from Japan to New York in 1957 and played an important role in the avant-garde movement of the ’60s.  She participated in events with Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, Charlotte Moorman and Allan Kaprow, instances of performance art called “happenings.”  But in 1973 she moved back to Japan, exhausted and suffering from hallucinations.  She has lived in a mental institution since that time. There was a rebirth of interest in her art in the late ’90s.  Her work perfectly embodies Pop Art and Conceptual Art, bridging the two movements, as well as Environmental Art and Performance Art.  

The public appreciation for installations and Conceptual Art has finally risen, giving her the broad audience she has today. The Hirshhorn Show is a retrospective celebrating 50 years of her life as an artist.  It will travel to four other museums around the US and Canada.  Sometimes it takes a life time of work and struggle to finally achieve what you’re here for and today is her time. (The Narcissus Garden is a variation she had introduced years ago at the Venice Biennale in 1966.  The “Infinity Mirrors” concept actually goes back in Art History, used in the Hall of Mirrors and integrated into the design of the Palace at Versailles.)   

Yayoi Kusama

According to art critic Philip Kennicott, Kusama says, “My art originates from hallucinations only I can see. I translate the hallucinations and obsessional images that plague me into sculptures and paintings.” Is it a combination of the obsessiveness in OCD and the hallucinations of schizophrenia?   If it is mental illness that creates this great art, then we can recognize mental illness as a special gift and not stigmatize these people who suffer from it.  (Read Philip Kennecott’s Review.  He sees her as criticizing the art world’s narcissism. I believe that criticism is justified.) 

She has given us a visualization of the connectedness of all life. The only other contemporary artist who does it so well is Anselm Kiefer, or possibly Bill Viola (now at SAAM). Kiefer and Kusama distinguish themselves with their spiritual insights.  And her audience is enriched, coming away with an understanding of life that is so much fuller. Can’t wait to see the Hirshhorn show. 
(The best article on the Glass House exhibition is from DeZeen.)

Wonder, Awe and a Great Escape at the Renwick

Wonder, Awe and a Great Escape at the Renwick

Tara Donovan, Untitled, 2014

One afternoon last month I suddenly arrived in Cappadocia, or least that’s what it seemed.  I didn’t actually go there, nor have I ever been there except through pictures of that ancient Turkish landscape.  However, I spent my time going to the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery which had just re-opened with an exhibition entitled Wonder.

Gabriel Dawe, Plexus 1A

The works speak for themselves, as they’re huge installations that recall the wonders of the natural world in a beautiful 19th century building that recently underwent restoration.

Tara Donovan’s construction is made of styrene index cards, toothpicks and glue.  As an artist, she may not have been thinking of the same aspects of nature that evoked a response in me.  According to Donovan, “It’s not like I’m trying to simulate nature. It’s more of a mimicking of the way of nature.” On the nearby wall, a label quotes Albert Einstein: “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It’s the fundamental emotion in which starts the cradle of true art and true science.”

Then a rainbow of colors invited me into the next room.  Plexus 1A is miles of strings that weave prisms of color into the monumental architecture. Gabriel Dawe is the artist.  His design recalls the colors and embroideries of his early life in Mexico City and current home in East Texas. Viewers are invited to take their own photographs. It’s appropriate that the Renwick is a building dedicated to the contemporary crafts, since each of these works of art focuses on the materials and the tremendous time, skill and dedication required for fine art crafts.

Dawe, Plexus1A

Continuing back on the left side of the building, viewers come into a grandiose room with giant stick weavings by Patrick Daugherty. (A photo of Shindig is on bottom. See the previous blog about one of his interactive and impermanent environmental installations, in Reston, VA)

The Renwick invited nine well-known artists to celebrate the re-opening with works for this exhibition.  Each artist was given an entire room for a comprehensive creation, many of them recreating the natural world in a way that helps us understand it better.

John Grade,  Middle Fork (interior view)   Another view is directly below.
Upstairs is one of the true giants of nature, a tree. You look at it from the outside or take in the interior view.  Artist John Grade, a resident of the Pacific Northwest, engaged an army of volunteers. First, Grade made a cast of a 150-year-old hemlock tree in the Cascade Mountains. Then he reassembled the shape with half a million segments of reclaimed cedar and separated it into sections.  Named after the tree’s location in the middle fork of the Snoqualmie River, the tree cast as Middle Fork (Cascades) is 85 feet long. 

As you might expect, visitors walk all around the giant tree perched on its side.  When the exhibition is over, this “natural” model will be put back in nature, back to the area from which it comes.  The artist says the impermanence makes it poignant, since it will eventually decompose.

Quotes are sprinkled on labels throughout the exhibition.  Taking her cue from the local area, well-known sculptor Maya Lin (architect of the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial) used fiberglass marbles to recreate the Chesapeake Bay.  There are thousands of tine blue-green marbles running floor to ceiling in the entire room.  Lin is a geographical artist, and I was reminded her provocative exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art a few years back.  Here she has recreated the many estuaries of the bay, which crawl in spider-like patterns up the walls. She re-used the glass her father and other artists had used in Ohio before the glass-making technology improved. The branches of the waterway are delicate and fragile, reminding us that nature itself is fragile, too. 
Maya Lin, Folding the Chesapeake
   

The Renwick itself is important historically, as it was originally home to the oldest art museum in the District of Columbia, the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The building was almost destroyed.   When Jacqueline Kennedy was First Lady, she recognized the building’s significance and used her influence to save the building from the wrecker’s ball.

Jennifer Angus, detail of  In the Midnight Garden
Wonder really hit me in the last room I saw of the exhibition.  Artist Jennifer Angus created a beautiful structural design of insects in room covered in vivid, vibrant pink.  In The Midnight Garden” forms several different patterns on walls stained with cochineal.  Using 5,000 insects, she made mandalas on the wall and interspersed them with skulls, reminders of death.  “It is not understanding but familiarity that destroys wonder,” is quoted by John Stuart Mill on the wall of another room. In an article I read about the artist, Angus freely admitted that she is no longer  in awe of the subject (too much familiarity) but wishes for her viewers to experience the wonder.  Throughout the exhibition, words of the philosophers — ancient to modern — makes us stop to ponder.
Jennifer Angus  In the Midnight Garden

One quote really hit me. Ranulf Higden of the 14th century said: “At the farthest reaches of the world often occur new marvels and wonders, as though Nature plays with greater freedom secretly at the edges of the world than she does openly and near us in the middle of it.”  For a few short hours, I had escaped to the edges, to the edges of wonder.  Locals and visitors in Washington, DC, please go to the Renwick and spend some time in Wonder.  Second floor galleries close May 8, 2016, but the 1st floor galleries stay up until July 10, 2016.  Leo Villareal, Janet Echelman and Chakaia Booker also have large installations in the show. 

Patrick Dougherty, Shindig

While the art inside of the building continuously amazes, it’s ironic that the wonder and beauty of the building is marred on the outside by a neon sign: “Dedicated to Art.”  There’s no need to be so banal since art speaks for itself. (When Philip Kennicott wrote a review for the the Washington Post, he said the neon sign had to go; I wonder if it has been taken down yet.)

An Environmental Art Playground

An Environmental Art Playground

Greater Reston Arts Center celebrated the completion of Patrick Dougherty’s environmental landscape in the middle of Town Square on April 25.  

Children ran through the maze and explored the many twists and turns of Patrick Dougherty’s site-specific sculpture in Reston Town Square on opening day, April 25. Their excitement is much like the frenzy of artistic creation. Dougherty and numerous volunteers had spent three weeks building the monumental construction, thanks to the sponsorship of Greater Reston Arts Center (GRACE) and the Initiative for Public Art-Reston (IPAR).

Making art is about being playful like a child, being open to the unexpected coincidence and experiencing the freedom that comes the joy of creation.  Spectators continues the process. “The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact to the external world….and thus adds his contribution to the creative act,” in the words of Marcel Duchamp.

Sue-Chen Cuff’s Gin Dance company will bring bring another free-flowing inspiration to Town Square this Saturday, May 16, at 1.p.m and 11 a.m. the next day, as part of the GRACE Arts Festival.  Groundworks will dance The Arc of Us at 4 p.m. on Saturday and 12:30 p.m the next day.  Ravel Dance Company and Classical Ballet Theatre will perform other works of choreography composed especially for the event and to interact with the sculpture.

The Reston sculpture is recognizable as fitting into the natural  stick work for which Dougherty is known.  At the outset, the artist had a plan with several drawings. The project changed as it took shape and brought about unexpected ideas.  Essentially it is a weaving of huge branches which huge sticks entangle themselves and form unexpected shapes.

The process began over a year ago when he gave a talk to the over a year ago and explained the project.  GRACE and IPAR spent a long time planning it and assembling additional volunteers. Dougherty and his assistants “harvested” the sticks and fallen branches from a site in Loudoun County, Virginia.  Other supplies and materials were left over from his last project at the Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia.

“A Bird in the Hand” is the name suggested in the end. It is perishable, and can be expected to last about two years.  Those who work or live in one of the high rises will have will have a bird’s eye view from out their windows and will be able to see above the 15 foot high sculpture.  Town Square is a place where people who work in offices congregate at lunch time.  It also is a very residential area, with high-rise and low rise apartment buildings.


Jackson Pollock said that Modern Art is “nothing more than the contemporary aims of the age we’re living in.”  In that vein, Dougherty is environmentally aware, as he reuses nature’s discarded materials.  Some of his saplings were taken at the site of a new development, Willowford.  When he and his helpers scrounge around for the sources that will become part of the creation, he is relating to our hunting and gathering past.  (See his work on the eco-jardin-culture art blog.  There’s another blog I’ve written on environmental art.)

For over 30 years Patrick Dougherty, who lives in North Carolina has been doing environmental art with sticks as his primary media. An internationally known artist, he has built over 200 site-specific installations throughout the world. Many of these are on view in a photo exhibition at the adjacent GRACE Art Center until July 3.  Simultaneously there is another very interesting exhibition of weed shrines: Patterson Clark: Edicole, which should be the topic of another blog.

This photo and the two directly above it are from Greater Reston Art Center’s Facebook page 
Water and Glass in House of Sweden

Water and Glass in House of Sweden

Ingalena Klenell’s glass postcard hangs against the windows of the House of Sweden until May 

What a coincidence to finish writing the last blog — about window art and glass — and then receive an invitation to the opening of a glass art exhibition at the beautiful House of Sweden.  Washington’s Swedish Embassy is a beautiful building because it celebrates the water, with water flowing down its front entrance.  Also a portion of the building cantilevers over the water.  It’s in the eastern part of Georgetown, not quite on the Potomac, but overlooking it. 

A postcard on glass intermingles with reflections
and views of the Potomac, from inside the
House of Sweden, Washington, DC

The display brings together images of the Nordic lands, waters and forests with the flowing panorama of the Potomac River.  The centerpiece of the current showings is Homeland, works of glass by Ingalena Klenell, a noted glass artist from Sweden.  Her work has been shown at Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington and the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis.  However, there’s a great advantage to displaying some of the works at the House of Sweden.  A series of large glass postcards are put up against the windows.  We see them as relate to their setting, surrounded by the waters of the Potomac and with openings for the pedestrians to weave in and out of the holes.

Klenell made the postcards from realistic photographs that have been transferred to glass.  The glass windows, though, have holes in them to evoke the fact that memories are incomplete and imperfect.  The artist believes in the importance of connection to place and emphasizes these links.  Therefore, the largest glass installation is a mirrored reflection that evokes the place of display, the rapidly flowing waters of Washington’s Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay region.   

Artist Ingalena Klenell is from the province of Varmland, a region of  in the middle of the country that is the focus of the Embassy’s current promotion and display.  We see her installation along with displays of regional storytelling, some of the beautiful fabrics of the region, and a historical home celebrating its 250th aniversay.

Table glass to celebrate the 250th birthday of the Baroque
von Echstedtska Manor in Varmland, made by
Ingalena Klenell

Krenell made a table display with gorgeous place settings of glass to celebrate the birthday of the home being referenced, the von Echstedtska Manor, a masterpiece of the Baroque style.  Her precision and attention to detail show in the roses, horses and swans on the table.  She uses a mixture of glass techniques such as hot casting, kiln-forming and kiln casting.

Of her work, Klenell has said that there is a brittleness and a vulnerability of the glass medium.  These qualities combine with light as the source of inspiration and are intimately intertwined with the search of what is central in the human condition.   (Information taken from European Glass Context 2012 website, an exhibit of the best in European glass, in Bornholm)

Centerpiece of the Birthday table celebration
by Klenell at House of Sweden





Certainly Sweden has a rich tradition of beautiful glass.  I think of the wonderful glass products produced by Orrfors and Kosta Boda, which originate in Sweden.  Everywhere in the exhibition, it’s clear that Klenell was inspired by her landscape, the tall firs, pines and birch trees but also the snow and the icicles. Her art is at the intersection of folk art, decorative arts, craft  and the avant-garde art of today.

The beauty of icicles especially is difficult to replicate and even the finest of artists struggle to capture the beauty of nature.  Ingalena Klenell succeeds.  I only wish I had seen the huge glass forests that were on display in Tacoma, the Figge Museum in Davenport and Minneapolis.