Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Encountering the Orient: Masterworks from the Dahesh Museum of Art

Jaffa, Recruiting of Turkish Soldiers in Palestine

It is not often that a show comes to New York that is thematically rich, expertly curated and deftly presented, but that is the case with Encountering the Orient: Masterworks from the Dahesh Museum of Art, presented at Christie’s at 20 Rockefeller Plaza, here in New York.  If you can only make one show this season, this should be it.

Though most New Yorkers know Christie’s primarily as an auction house, this venerable institution is not just for New York’s financial elite.  Great works of art are to be seen by the public, whether they are on the auction block or museum walls.  Christie’s is very welcoming to aesthetes of all stripes, and anyone who loves art should become familiar with their galleries.  For Christie’s to host the Dahesh show is an indication of their commitment to the greater artistic community, and is to be appreciated by all.  Diana Bramham, Assistant Vice President, Specialist 19th Century European Art Old Master & 19th Century Art at Christie’s, worked closely with the Dahesh to make this splendid show a reality.

Encountering the Orient remains on view until April 15, 2013.  The show celebrates the 19th Century rediscovery of the East by Western artists, and offers a fresh approach to Orientalism as a complex, highly contextual, cross-cultural encounter.

Curated by Alia Nour, Associate Curator of the Dahesh, Encountering the Orient is a compact, stunning tour de force for the perpetually travelling museum.  Encountering the Orient touches upon many fascinating themes to be found in 19th Century Orientalism, including the hold Egypt (and perceptions of Egypt) have over the Western mind, the role of women in North Africa and the Middle East, and the tradition of swashbuckling artists who ventured into then-exotic places with little more than paint and palette.

Readers of the Jade Sphinx will appreciate that there is something profoundly moving in standing before a great work of art and just … gazing.  I was deeply touched by many of the works, all of which were colored with a deep strain of romance.  It is a show I intend to see more than once.

Though filled with fine works, perhaps the centerpiece is Jaffa, Recruiting of Turkish Soldiers in Palestine, painted in 1888 by Gustav Bauernfeind (1848 - 1904).  Bauernfeind was a German painter who studied architecture at the Polytechnic Institute in Stuttgart and later worked in the architectural firm of Professor Wilhelm Bäumer.  He journeyed to the Levant from 1880 to 1882, and he became increasingly interested in the Orient and returned again and again. In 1896 he moved with his wife and son to Palestine and subsequently settled in Jerusalem in 1898. He also lived and worked in Lebanon and Syria, and is considered to be one of the most notable Orientalist painters from Germany.

On April 7, the Dahesh hosted a lecture on this stunning work by Dr. Roger Diederen, Director of the Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung, Munich.  Dr. Diederen detailed how Bauernfeind was enamored of Jaffa, and in an 1885 letter to his sister he described several aspects included in this painting: . . . what I saw here during the departure of the military conscripts, with the women chasing after them in dinghies far out into the sea, and holding up their infants so that they often could be rescued only at extreme peril; or the scene in the streets where aged fathers wanted to embrace their sons for the last time, and were beaten off with cudgels by the rough soldiery—would also furnish material for some interesting pictures.

This enormous picture fully dominated a whole wall of the exhibit, but it is not the only thing to see.  Also on hand are masterworks by Rudolf Ernst, Ludwig Deutsch and Frederick Arthur Bridgman.

Kudos to the Dahesh and Christie’s for putting together such a dynamic show, and for hosting comments from Dr. Diederen.  Both institutions are working to keep our artistic heritage intact, and are in the forefront of the revival of 19th Century Art. 

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