Angelic Offering; Philosopher's Brush

2 Art Shows in the US Provide Occasion for Reflection

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, SEPT. 6, 2012 ( I admit it; I am the queen of the busman’s holiday. My vacations are liberally seasoned with museums, usually old favorites in major collections with a few smaller surprises in between. This summer, I am happy to report my trips were bracketed by two particularly intriguing shows. 

In the middle of the torrid New England summer heat I happened upon the James A Michener Museum in Doyleston, Pennsylvania. The exhibit, «Offering of the Angels: Treasures From the Uffizi» seemed an almost surreal proposition. Italian Renaissance painting in a museum founded by an author most famous for his sagas of the American Pacific. 

I certainly wasn’t expecting to see Leonardo’s Annunciation or Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. Indeed, I assumed that we would be perusing selections from the Uffizi cellar. But with works by Titian, Allori and even Botticelli, it appears that the Uffizi has quite the basement and, more importantly, the organizers had quite a vision.

Sponsored by Friends of Florence, an organization dedicated to preserving the art treasures of Florence, and curated by Antonio Natali, director of Uffizi, with guest curator Dr. Marcia Hall, «Offering of the Angels» brought more than 45 paintings ranging from small devotional panels to large altarpieces to tapestries. 

The delightful innovation of the Michener exhibit was the arrangements of the works not by chronology or geography, but by subject, and every subject was sacred.

«Offering of the Angels» organized the paintings into the events of the history of salvation, from Old Testament prophets to the Passion of Christ; an entire catechesis in a few small rooms.

The religious context was developed by an interfaith council comprising representatives of the Muslim, Christian (both Catholic and Protestant), Jewish, Buddhist and Quaker faiths. The result is that each visitor, no matter from what religious background, can follow the stories and understand how they are interconnected.

The paintings ranged from the 14th century to the dawn of the Enlightenment. The Passion narrative undergoes a startling transformation from the harmoniously balanced Crucifixion by Lorenzo Monaco from 1400 to the passionate Ascent to Calvary by Luca Giordano. Giordano’s grand scale and stirring brushstrokes herald the Baroque era, marked by intense mystical visions.

The Old Testament scenes are honored in their own right, but also provide an introduction to the Gospel narrative, hence the Fall of Man prepares the visitor for the Redemption. The exquisitely painted Manna in the Desert by Franceso Boschi, shows people gathering manna from the Heavens, but the gestures and color help the viewer to glimpse the promise of the Eucharist. Christ and the Eucharist, the «offering of the angels» is subtly and continuously woven through the show.

Botticelli receives star billing with his recently restored Madonna and Child. In the Uffizi, Botticelli is honored with a room dedicated to his most famous works; the Michener panel reveals a intimate side to his production, with this work meant for private prayer. Fifty years after Botticelli described the Holy Family with his elegant lines, Parmigianino artfully elongated his graceful Mary teaching her Son to read.

The many images of the Annunciation allow viewers to meditate on the different moments of Mary’s encounter with Gabriel. We are accustomed to the fiat of Mary, her head bowed as she accepts divine will. Pietro Liberi’s version, painted for Cosimo de’Medici, captures the startled young woman, as she discovers she has been Chosen by the Lord.

As I walked through the show, I heard a father talking to his children about the Last Supper and in the next room, a pastor discussing the Fall of Man with his flock. This exhibit gathered people together to admire art and recount the great stories of our salvation, the purpose and mission of Christian art.

The «Offering of the Angels» encourages visitors to familiarize themselves with the stories of the Bible, an essential part of Western culture, and one that has lapsed from common knowledge in our day. Pope Gregory the Great once wrote in defense of sacred images, claiming that in them, «the illiterate read.» This exhibition allows the Biblically illiterate modern audience to learn the stories that stimulated the most creative minds of the Golden Age of art to paint, weave or sculpt them with endless variety.

The exhibit will make its way across the United States, like the missionaries who first brought the Gospels to the New World. The show started in Spain, went to Florida and Pennsylvania, and is off to the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison, Wisconsin, and the Telfair Museum in Savannah, Georgia. 

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If my artistic wanderings started with theology in Doyleston, they closed with philosophy in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, at the exhibit «Paul Klee: Philosophical Vision; From Nature to Art» in the McMullen Museum of Boston College. Sixty-five drawings, watercolors and oil paintings by the Swiss born artist are on display.

Unlike most European old masters and indeed many of his contemporaries, Klee, born in 1879, came later to painting, studying music during his formative years under his parents who were both musicians. Klee, like Leonardo da Vinci, was a gifted musician who excelled on the violin. Indeed the structure of music combined with its emotive effects influenced his art. A section in the show explores this facet of his work with images like Scherzo with the Number 13.

He took up painting in 1898 heading to Rome in 1902. There he walked through the Forum and the Vatican, but wrote that «Humanism wants to stifle me.» Pursuing his research, he journeyed to Tunisia in 1914, where the intensity of the light brought out the greatest spectrum of color. He wrote of this experience, «Color has taken possession of me; … Color and I are one. I am a painter.»

He went on to produce almost 10,000 works before his death in 1940 and became one of the fathers of abstract art. For an artist given so entirely to color, I would have liked to see more of his oil paintings, his preferred medium after his epiphany in Tunisia. About 20 of the works give a taste of Klee’s love of hue, mostly in watercolors, but asking for a «Clarification» is probably a bit much.

As it stands, the exhibit focuses on the thought of Paul Klee, whose works were much admired by contemporary philosophers Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau Ponty.

Klee kept a diary of his artistic evolution from 1897 to 1918 and these developed into treatises on art, not unlike those published posthumously by Leonardo da Vinci. Whereas Leonardo, however, was principally concerned with perfecting the figurative, Klee’s musing would lead him further into a «transcendent abstraction. «

Klee and Leonardo have much in common; one can only wonder what the two would say to each other. Both loved nature; Leonardo working to capture the perfect physical form, and Klee who saw nature as a treasure trove of stimuli. Like a child out exploring in his backyard, Klee retrieves «treasures» — an insect, a leaf, a twig or a pebble. Reproduced through the fine lines of his pen, they develop their own artistic language. The 1919 watercolor «Insects» challenges viewers to think about what he or she defines as beautiful.

The two men shared a love of ethereal drawing, the feathery strokes that form Leonardo’s landscapes or ringlets of hair find their counterpart in Klee’s light swipes of pen, evoking rather than defining his images. They also loved to try to capture motion; Leonardo with rearing horses, while Klee’s painting of «Gliding to Rising» explores the idea of flight. Another work, Tightrope, freezes the precariousness of balance just as Giotto’s «Inconstancy» did in the Scrovegni Chapel some 600 years earlier.

Leonardo never took students however,
while Klee taught at the Bauhaus school from 1919 to 1931. There he formulated his most compelling theories about art. His treatise, «The Thinking Eye» presents, in the words of the late art historian Robert Hughes, a «science of design … conceived in terms of an all-embracing theory of visual ‘equivalents’ for spiritual states.» Klee’s efforts drove him to try to see like children, free from the constraints of tradition, emulating the child-like ability to prize a simple object for the meaning it holds at that moment.

Words, shapes, colors, objects become an expression of larger sentiments and connections. Merleau Ponty describes them as transcendent «not only in the realm of the real but also in that of the imaginary.» Several of Klee’s diagrams and lectures from the Bauhuas years illustrate these ideas.

Profoundly cerebral and increasingly abstract, these works provoke both thought and pleasure, but it still seems to this stick-in-the-mud art historian that Leonardo’s «Last Supper» offers greater nourishment for the mind and spirit. 

When I visited the exhibition, most people seemed absorbed by Klee’s more personal works. His «Emigration,» seemingly a few arcs of pencil, captures the emptiness of those forced to leave their homes. Klee was fired from his teaching post when the Nazis took power for being a «degenerate» artist, and in 1933 he was exiled from Germany after being accused of being a Jew (which in fact he was not.) The drawings of «Manhunt» and «Double Murder» evoke the senselessness of violence through swirling pencil marks, much as Leonardo once seized the power of storms with his hatched lines. 

Klee’s final years were marked with grave illness and suffering. I found the works from this period the most riveting of the show. The Gate , a symphony in gray given shape by hard black outlines, makes present the dread of the inevitability of death, while at the same time implying a world beyond. Heidegger studied it repeatedly. «Nein!» presents a ghostly figure trying to repel death, but these gloomy sentiments are countered by a defiant work from 1940, the last year of Klee’s life, called Stick It Out. The figure, perhaps a «portrait,» is a mass of angles surmounted by curves. The sharp lines channel energy through the tufts at his crown. As a last message, Klee’s work becomes timeless, whether during the Renaissance, or the early stages of the second World War or the dawn of the 21st century.

The exhibit will run until Dec. 9, 2012, at the McMullen Museum at Boston College; more exhibition details

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. Her new book, The Tigress of Forlì: Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici» was published by Harcourt, Mifflin Houghton Press Fall 2011. She can be reached

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