Friday, October 18, 2013

Sacred Visions: Nineteenth-Century Biblical Art from the Dahesh Museum Collection

Abel's Offer

Proving once again that they are the country’s premiere museum-without-walls, the Dahesh makes its treasures available to New Yorkers in one of the most stunning shows I have seen in years.

Housed in the Museum of Biblical Art, Sacred Visions: Nineteenth-Century Biblical Art from the Dahesh Museum Collection features some 30 works from the Dahesh collection, all masterful pictures by leading 19th Century French academicians.  The exhibition traces the renewed interest in Biblical myths following the expansion of biblical archeology and the advent of photography, which produced travel books with pictures of the Holy Land.

As co-curator Sarah Schaefer of the Dahesh (with Alia Nour) writes in her exhibition notes:  One very important way that artists modernized the representation of biblical subjects was by creating what they considered more historically “authentic” images, stimulated by popular interest in the Holy Land beginning in the late eighteenth century.  As travel and communication to the Middle East became more feasible and desirable, artists explored Egypt, Jerusalem, Hebron, and other significant sites in order to produce more “objective” representations of the Bible.  Some sought to depict biblical monuments in their contemporary form, while others saw the people of the Holy Land as living relics of a distant past.  … For those artists who were unwilling or unable to visit the Holy Land, there were countless travel accounts, prints, and eventually photographs that documented the region.  It was thus possible to create what the public considered a “true” image of the biblical past without having actually seen the sites mentioned.

The show, which opens today, is has many stunning pieces.  Oddly, most of them are not the ‘showcase’ pieces, but, rather, things that are remarkable in-and-of themselves.  More important, this exhibition demonstrates how essential the male nude was to the academic tradition, and how drawing the figure led to virtuosic, finished work. 

Very interesting is Alexandre Cabanel’s (1823-1889) Death of Moses.  But while this picture is quite remarkable, more interesting still is the drawing hung along side of it, which is a graph drawing of the finished painting, blocked out in grids for final painting on the massive canvas.  Cabanel actually changed God’s pose from the test drawing to finished painting, and it is a fascinating insight into the creative process.

Also beautiful is Joseph’s Coat Brought Back to Jacob (1841) by Jules Ambroise Francois Naudin (1817-1876), which is a masterful painting combining both the historic and neoclassic strains of art.  The figures are clearly and cleanly depicted, and the emotion telegraphed beautifully, but it is rather cold in the final analysis.

More captivating is what might be the most interesting piece in the exhibition, The Last judgment, a drawing by Paul Chenavard (1808-1895).  Chenavard was an Enlightenment Era freethinker, so his feelings for religious paintings must always be interpreted.  This massive drawing, which must be about 40x80, will happily reward hours of study.  In many ways a meditation on Michelangelo’s Judgment Day painting on the wall of the Sistine Chapel, Chenavard spins his own take on the Christian cosmos.  Christ is paramount, and, like Michelangelo’s Christ, this is a beardless, curiously human Jesus.  (There is no halo.)  In the lower corner of the picture is a crowned figure entwined with a giant serpent.  Is this Satan?  Or the Archangel Michael?  The figure is ambiguous and multi-faceted.  While speaking with co-curator Alia Nour, she told me that “Chenavard delighted in ambiguity.  Being a humanist, he drew very human figures, and it is left to the educated viewer to interpret the meanings of his cosmos.”

For this viewer, however, the most beautiful picture in this exhibition is Abel’s Offering by Hans Andersen Brendekilde (1857-1942), dated 1908.  This picture alone is worth going to this stunning show.  In it, Brendekilde depicts Abel leading a long train of sheep along a sunlit landscape.  On the pyre before him is a sacrifice to God; the sheep watch as he gesticulates towards heaven and the smoke lifts the remains on a fellow lamb towards the heavens.  It is a stunning, pagan note to add to a Biblical exhibition; though created in the early days of the 20th Century, it is a wonderfully pagan piece of art.  It cuts deep to the heart of a primal paganism, and the composition perhaps borrows something from the painters of the American West, Charles Marion Russell, in particular.

The exhibition was hung and designed with a sure hand by Dean Ebben.  Ebben restored and re-stretched and re-framed the massive Christ and the Children (1894) by Franck Kirchbach (1859-1912), which is a large-scale painting of a type seldom seen today.  It is a wonderful piece of work and a heroic installation.

Sacred Visions: Nineteenth-Century Biblical Art from the Dahesh Museum Collection is the first exhibition under the auspices of the museum’s new Director, Richard P. Townsend, an accomplished art historian and museum professional.  Townsend has previously held curatorial and leadership positions in the Museum of Latin American Art and Price Tower Arts Center.  If the show is an indication of his tenure-to-come, The Museum of Biblical Art has chosen wisely and well.

We here at the Jade Sphinx have had a special relationship with the Dahesh.  Mainly, this is because we share a similar vision: that the artist is the creator of beautiful things, and that art is the celebration of beauty.  It is a position out-of-tune with Modernists and Post-Modernists, but beauty always will win out over time.  Be part of the avant garde and return to the past of Academic portraiture.

The Museum of Biblical Art is at 1865 Broadway at 61st Street, and admission is free.  For more information, call 212.408.1500.

Joseph's Coat Brought Back to Jacob

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