May 24, 2012
One of the more surprising and unusual works in the new American Wing of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is an early ceramic bowl by Jackson Pollock, decorated in black and fierce fiery red, which was acquired in 2010 by the museum. The MFA describes the bowl as influenced by El Greco, which is not entirely wrong, since Pollock made pencil copies after paintings by El Greco around this time. But I’d like to propose that it’s possible to pin down its source more precisely. I believe it’s inspired by a work by a now largely forgotten painter of the 1930s, Ross Braught—in fact, based on Braught’s most ambitious painting, a mural in the Kansas City Music Hall. Identifying this source opens up a whole new set of questions and speculations.
Pollock’s interest in ceramics was inspired by the work of his teacher, Thomas Hart Benton, who had discovered during his impoverished years in New York that it was easier to sell decorated ceramics than paintings.
Pollock’s surviving ceramics seem to have been made at two times.He made one group during four successive summers, 1934-1937, while staying on Martha’s Vineyard with Benton and his wife, Rita. The Bentons kept quite a few of these ceramics and eventually donated them to various museums. The others were made in 1939 while Pollock was being treated for alcoholism at the Bloomingdale Hospital. Just two of these pieces survive, but they’re Pollock’s most impressive early ceramics: Flight of Man, the piece now in Boston, which he gave to his psychiatrist, James H. Wall, and The Story of My Life, which he made at the same time and sold to a gentleman named Thomas Dillon in Larchmont, New York. The whereabouts of this last piece are unknown. At the time Pollock made these two pieces, he had just returned from a visit to the Bentons in Kansas City, the only time he visited there.
The Story of My Life contains a series of scenes: an archer shooting an arrow at some horses in the sky; a sleeping woman; a child in fetal position; and a boat sailing on restless seas. Pollock’s biographers, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, have described it as “an impenetrable allegory”; in fact, its meaning is easy to construe once we recognize its source, an illustrated book, Phaeton, published by Braught in 1939. Phaeton was the son of Apollo and obtained permission from him to drive the chariot of the sun. But since he was unable to control the horses, the chariot plunged down close to earth, scorching the planet. To prevent further destruction, Apollo was forced to shoot his son down from the sky. The two most significant images on Pollock’s bowl, the archer and the sleeping woman are both derived from Braught’s book. The third, the boat on restless seas, relates to paintings that Pollock had made earlier on Martha’s Vineyard, of the boat of Benton’s son, T.P., sailing on Menemsha Pond. Clearly Pollock saw Phaeton’s story as parallel to his own life as an artist. At one moment he was soaring to great heights, at the next crashing to earth.
If we accept this source, it’s not surprising to discover that Pollock’s second painted bowl, the one in Boston, was also based on a work by Braught. Its imagery resembles that of the most ambitious painting of Braught’s career, a 27-feet-high mural, Mnemosyne and the Four Muses, which he created for the Kansas City Music Hall. As the title indicates, the swirling composition shows Mnemosyne, or Memory, who was the mother of the muses, and four muses, who are emerging from clouds that float over a landscape of the badlands of South Dakota. Braught also made a painting of the landscape at the bottom, which he titled Tchaikovsky’s Sixth (1936; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art). This was the last piece that Tchaikovsky wrote before he died—as some believe, by committing suicide. Perhaps that’s the music we’re meant to imagine when we look at the painting.
To be sure, Pollock didn’t follow his source very closely. What he took was Braught’s general formula: a central floating figure with outstretched arms, suffused with mysterious light, surrounded by other figures and cloud-like forms that fill the surrounding space. I suspect that close study would reveal prototypes for many of Pollock’s figures. For example, the over-scaled figure on the right-hand side loosely relates to a painting he had made shortly before, Naked Man with Knife (c. 1938; Tate, London). Compared with Braught’s design, Pollock’s is somewhat crude, with figures of differing scales, which often fill their spaces somewhat awkwardly. But it was precisely Pollock’s departures from traditional ideas of correct proportion or well-resolved design that led to his wildly expressive later work.
Who was Ross Braught? Why was Pollock interested in him?
Braught just preceded Benton as the head of the painting department at the Kansas City Art Institute. An eccentric figure, he bore a striking resemblance to Boris Karloff. He generally wore a black cape, and sometimes brought a skeleton with him on the streetcar, so that he could draw it at home. His work had a mystical, visionary cast. It clearly held strong appeal for Pollock at a time when he was going through intense emotional turmoil, and was also attempting to move beyond the influence of Benton.
Pollock surely met Braught in 1939, just before he made the bowl, when he visited the Bentons in Kansas City in January of that year. At the time, Pollock also socialized with Ted Wahl, the printer of Braught’s lithographs for Phaeton. While not well known today, Braught was getting a good deal of press coverage at the time, both for his painting for the Kansas City Music Hall, which was praised in Art Digest, and for his lithograph Mako Sica, which received a first prize at the Mid-Western Exhibit at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1935 (and became the subject of articles questioning its merit shortly afterward in the Print Collector’s Quarterly).
Sadly, Braught’s career faded at this point, perhaps in part because he was so unworldly and impractical. After leaving Kansas City in 1936, he lived for most of the next decade in the tropics, where he made drawings and paintings of dense jungle foliage. From 1946 to 1962, he returned to teach at the Kansas City Art Institute, but in 1962, when Abstract Expressionism was in vogue, he was fired because his style was considered too old-fashioned. The figure who had inspired Jackson Pollock was no longer good enough to matter. Braught spent the last 20 years of his life living in extreme poverty in Philadelphia, no one knows exactly where.
There’s been only one exhibition of Braught’s work since his death, a show at Hirschl & Adler Galleries in New York in March-April 2000, accompanied by an excellent, hard-to-find catalog written by David Cleveland. Both the Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia have paintings by him in their collections.
For two reasons, Pollock’s interest in Braught is worth noting. One is that when we identify Pollock’s sources, his creative process is illuminated and we can see the step-by-step process by which he moved toward being an original artist. In some ways it’s a bit deflating. Pollock clearly started off as a copyist. Nonetheless, while Pollock’s bowl is in some ways quite derivative, you can already sense his emerging artistic personality.
Second, perhaps Pollock’s interest in Braught will encourage a modest revival of interest in Braught. Braught’s output is so scarce that he’ll surely never be regarded as a major figure, but it is well worth a visit to see his work at the Kansas City Music Hall, one of the greatest Art Deco interiors anywhere, which also houses some good paintings made around the same time by Walter Bailley.
Braught’s Mnemosyne and the Four Muses is surely one of the weirdest and most unusual wall paintings in this country. As you stand in front of it, you wonder why Pollock chose it as a model for his own work and what to make of his artistic taste. Was he misguided? Or right to be inspired by an artist who’s now so thoroughly forgotten?
There’s a copy of Ross Braught’s book Phaeton in the library of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Some early ceramics by Jackson Pollock reside in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and in a few private hands.
May 16, 2012
What happens when we walk through a museum? In a class I’m teaching on American art in the age of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, this question came up. As a speculative exercise, we are designing an exhibition that involves trying to lay out a group of varied objects—including some that require close attention, such as architectural drawings—in a pathway that will make sense to visitors of different ages and levels of art experience.
To devise a good layout requires some understanding of what museum visitors do, and there’s surprisingly little literature on this topic. Most of the studies of museum-goers that I’ve seen rely on questionnaires. They ask people what they did, what they learned, and what they liked and didn’t like. No doubt there are virtues to this technique, but it assumes that people are aware of what they’re doing. It doesn’t take into account how much looking depends on parts of the brain that are largely instinctive and intuitive and often not easily accessible to our rational consciousness. Was there another mode of investigation and description that would illuminate what was actually taking place?
One of the students in my class, Andrew Oriani, is a physicist who spends much of his time doing mathematical proofs consisting of six or seven pages of equations. (He also has notable visual gifts: as a child he liked to draw elaborate cross-sections of ocean liners). He immediately grasped that the question we were asking was similar to one that comes up in physics all the time. How can one describe the activity of a group of subatomic particles that are moving unpredictably, seemingly erratically, in space? In physics this has become a subdiscipline known as statistical mechanics, and physicists have devised sophisticated tools, such as heat mapping, to describe how particles move in time and where they collect. In essence, physicists have found ways to describe and analyze events that are not specifically predictable, but that, when they’re repeated over and over again, turn out to obey recognizable principles. What would we find, Andrew asked, if we simply mapped the movements of visitors through a museum? What kinds of patterns would we find if we gathered enough data? Could we discern a recognizable pattern that had a shape? What would these patterns of movement reveal about the act of looking?
The preliminary results of asking these questions are provided by the three diagrams in this post. Perhaps there are studies of this sort that have already been published, but I haven’t come across them. Admittedly, Andrew’s diagrams are not precisely accurate—he worked freehand, without exact measurements—but for that very reason they have a wonderfully expressive quality: I must confess that part of what appeals to me about them is simply their beauty as drawings. Even without knowing what they’re about, we can sense that they contain information and they record something mysterious and interesting. In fact, what they record is not difficult to explain.
Basically, Andrew sat for about 20 minutes apiece in three galleries of the Cleveland Museum of Art, and as visitors entered he tracked their route and made notations of where they stopped and for how many seconds. A line indicates a path of movement. A dot indicates when someone stopped to look. The dots are accompanied by little notations indicating how many seconds the viewer stood still. There are also other scattered notations indicating the sex and general age of the people who were being tracked.
A more precise experiment would use some sort of electronic tracking device. You could record data in a fashion similar to a heat map, with spatial position indicated by lines and dots, and time indicated by a change of color. No doubt it would also be accompanied by demographic data, recording people’s age, sex, height, weight, income, profession, ZIP code and so forth. But what’s interesting to me is that even without such precision, this simple process encourages us to think about what museum visitors do in fresh and interesting ways. As usual, I have theories about the deeper implications of what Andrew recorded. By taking “psychology” out of the initial fund of data, and reducing the question to one of simple physical movement, the results end up illuminating what is actually taking place in psychological terms. But let me start with some observations.
- Museum visitors are surprisingly mobile: They move through a space in zigzagging patterns. One might even humorously point out that this is not the sort of walking in a straight line that police officers ask for when they’re conducting a sobriety test. This is the erratic track of people who are intoxicated. While rooms with a certain shape seem to affect patterns of movement, people make different choices and move differently. Some people like to turn left, others right; some people like to move in small increments along a wall, others to move across a room and back again. (With regard to people who move in opposite ways, I’ve always been impressed by how quickly my wife and I lose each other in a museum. Before cellphones, we would part ways in the first five minutes and it would often take two or three hours before we found each other again.)
- While most museum visitors would probably report they’ve looked carefully at art during their visit, in fact the looking time devoted to specific objects is often surprisingly brief. It’s often just two or three seconds, and seldom longer than 45 seconds. (If you asked them, they would probably say the time was much longer.)
- Different kinds of art seem to produce different patterns of movement. In the gallery of 17thand 18th century paintings, most visitors seemed to do a circuit of the room, moving from painting to painting. In the gallery with modern art, they tended to cross through the center of the room, looking first at what was on one wall and then what was on the opposite wall. While it would take a lot of study to isolate the key variables, even without knowing what they are, it’s clear that the movement of visitors is extraordinarily responsive to changes in the environment, including the placement of doorways and the arrangement of art.
- Even this quick study suggests that patterns of looking can be broken down into subsets. For example, in the 18th century gallery, women tended to move more regularly from one painting to the next, but to look at the individual paintings only briefly. Men tended to skip objects and follow a more erratic pattern of movement, but to stop for slightly longer when an object captured their attention. They also often chose vantage points farther away from the object. Not surprisingly, specific objects seemed to have particular appeal to particular groups. For example, a portrait by Benjamin West of his wife and child seemed to please middle-aged women, who often smiled. Men didn’t change their path or their expression.
With a larger body of data we could start to use the mathematical tools devised by physicists to analyze what was taking place. In the meantime, it’s rather fun to speculate about what Andrew has discovered so far. Perhaps recklessly, let me attempt to draw a few conclusions.
Writers about art museums and visiting art museums tend to be moralists. They’re distressed that museum-goers are looking in a “superficial” way—that they look too quickly, that they don’t really “see,” and that they don’t get much understanding from the experience. In a certain way, this preliminary study confirms this complaint. Indeed, it suggests that visitors look even more quickly than one would have thought.
Is this bad? I’m not sure. What strikes me is that museum-going seems to connect with very deep-rooted and “primitive” instincts. In fact, the way that patrons go through a museum is very similar to the way a hunter-gatherer would move through grassland or a forest or streambed or ocean shore, moving back and forth from scanning the whole environment to closing in on some interesting plant, mushroom or living creature. The process of visual recognition and assessment occurs quickly. Think of beachcombing and the curious way in which a shell or piece of beach glass in our peripheral vision can suddenly become the center of our focus. We stoop to pick it up almost before we’re aware that we’re doing so.
Curiously, it seems to me that the popularity of museums is connected with something that many curators probably view as a nuisance and problem: that the pathway of the viewer is difficult to control. Curators and exhibition designers sometimes spend a lot of time trying to arrange paintings in a logical historical order, but in fact, most viewers don’t seem to obey these sequences. They may skip over things or go through the sequence backward. Yet what’s interesting is that at some level I think the curatorial arrangement does matter a great deal and people who go through an installation backward are nonetheless aware that the objects have been placed in some sort of deliberate scheme of organization. Much of the fun of a museum, however, lies in the fact that we’re allowed to choose our own pathway. In essence, our movement through a gallery is a way of arranging these objects in an order of our own choosing.
Andrew’s lines tracing movement have a certain parallel with the time-motion studies of Frank Gilbreth (1868-1924) and his wife, Lillian (1878-1972). The Gilbreths noted that in manual work, such as bricklaying, some workers laid bricks both faster and more accurately than others—significantly, the faster workers also did a better job. They then devised a method of fastening lights to arms and hands of such craftsmen, and of using stop-motion photography to trace the pattern of their movements. The Gilbreths discovered that certain patterns of movement, as revealed by an arc of lights, produce better work.
Is there a pattern of movement that reveals more intense looking—that perhaps distinguishes the art connoisseur from the mere amateur? I suspect that there is, although its most desirable pattern is probably almost the opposite of what the Gilbreths learned to favor. The Gilbreths discovered that good craftsmen work smoothly, in clean, direct movement, with little wavering or hesitation. With museum viewing, on the other hand, I suspect that back-tracking and hesitation are good—at least in the sense that they indicate serious interest, a sort of closing-in on the object that’s being hunted or examined.
I’m conjecturing a good deal, I must confess, but the lesson of these diagrams, if I’m correct, is that looking at art is not merely a logical process but also harnesses some of our deepest and most primitive sensory instincts. We were designed as hunter-gatherers. Museums allow us to go back to these roots—to learn and explore in the way that’s most natural for us.
It was rare for most visitors to stop for long. Would it be better if viewers stood still and looked more carefully? My own feeling is both “yes” and “no.” It seems to me that one of the pleasures of museum-going is to rapidly compare objects with one another. But yes, it would be nice if viewers sometimes stopped to look at an object very closely—and of course this is what the most gifted art historians do. To do this kind of close looking, however—looking for an hour or more at a single object—often requires a good deal of knowledge about the process of painting and the work of a particular artist. I suspect it also requires something a bit peculiar: a sort of infatuation.
Visual processing is one of the most complex of mental operations and by some estimates takes up about a third of our thinking process, although we’re almost unconscious of what’s happening. Taking long looks at something surely doesn’t follow a single pattern. Sometimes, I suspect, it becomes a sort of reverie, similar to spiritual meditation. At other times, I would propose, it is intensely exploratory, and if we mapped our eye movements we would discover that they have the same sort of unpredictable pattern that we discover when we chart the path of visitors to a museum. With darting movements, our glance is ricocheting across the picture surface, quickly taking in the whole thing part by part and then, somehow, assembling all these fragments into a unified gestalt. In some strange way, the mind synthesizes different acts of sight to create a sort of composite. In other words, the hunter-gather instinct is still at work. Our eyes are not contemplative grazers; they’re active hunters on the prowl. For an experienced art historian, for the passionate “long looker,” a single painting has become a vast landscape, filled with individual objects of interest that need to be cornered, approached and investigated.
Let’s not pretend that wandering through a museum or looking at a work of art needs to be done in a logical or linear way. As hunter-gatherers, we’re designed to work differently. It’s all right to zigzag.
May 10, 2012
It’s not every day that a work by Praxiteles, one of the most famous sculptors of ancient Greece, shows up out of nowhere. But that’s happened at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where a bronze sculpture of Apollo attributed to Praxiteles is prominently displayed at the entrance of its newly renovated Classical galleries.
Indeed, it was news when the museum acquired it several years ago. The New York Times reported that, if authentic, the statue would be “one of the most important ancient bronzes in an American museum.” It has become one of the most widely reproduced images of the Cleveland Museum since its major overhaul and expansion.
Meanwhile, the museum, along with numerous other institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Getty, has been asked by the government of Turkey to return allegedly looted artifacts, according to the Los Angeles Times. ”Twenty-one objects are being sought from the Cleveland Museum, which Turkish officials say has not responded to their inquiries. A museum spokeswoman declined to comment or release a list of contested objects,” the L.A. Times reported in March.
Apollo Sauroktonos (Apollo the Lizard-Slayer) is not among the items reportedly being requested by the Turkish government, but the controversy is likely to increase scrutiny of the museum’s acquisition practices.
The display of the Apollo raises a lot of questions, some of them troubling ones. In particular, is the statue really by Praxiteles, and just where did it come from?
To my mind, the statue is very likely by him, although the phrase “by Praxiteles” needs clarification and qualification. The bronze portrays the god Apollo as a dragon slayer, although for some reason—the intent may have been humorous—the “dragon” is portrayed as a tiny lizard on a tree trunk. Pliny the Elder mentions that Praxiteles as a young man made a statue of this unusual subject, and the composition has long been identified through Roman copies, including marble versions in the Louvre and the Vatican, which were linked to Praxiteles by Adolf Furtwangler, the famous German archaeologist.
What’s extraordinary about the Cleveland statue is that it doesn’t seem to be a Roman copy. While more research needs to be done, experts seem to agree that this statue looks like an original Greek cast from about the fourth century B.C.
Pliny doesn’t tell us who the statue by Praxiteles was made for, so we don’t know where it was located. It’s possible that the piece Cleveland acquired is the original statue mentioned by Pliny. I believe, however, it’s more likely a copy made just a little later, although still in the Classical, or Hellenistic, period, not under Roman rule. Greek bronzes are extremely rare, since they were generally melted down, and we don’t know much about when or how the Greeks made bronze replicas. In the normal “lost-wax” process used by the Greeks, you get only a single cast, because the clay mold is destroyed after the bronze is poured. But it’s believed that the studio of Praxiteles lasted for three generations—that it was continued by his son and grandson. Surely Praxiteles’s heirs had some way of producing replicas of works by their famous forebear, whether made from clay or wax models by his hand or from earlier bronze castings.
When we ask where the statue came from, we enter a strange shadow land of mysterious statements and dealings. The museum purchased the piece from the Geneva branch of Phoenix Ancient Art, a gallery owned by brothers Ali and Hicham Aboutaam, who also maintain a showroom in New York. The Aboutaams will not reveal the person or persons from whom they bought it. This should have set off warning bells, since Switzerland is a hub for the buying, selling and transport of stolen antiquities.
The gallery did provide the name of a retired East German lawyer, Ernst-Ulrich Walter, who says he discovered the statue on his family’s ancestral estate in Lausitz, east of Dresden. This estate had been confiscated from the family after World War II. After Germany reunified in 1990, Walter filed suit and was successful in recovering the property. According to Walter’s account, as relayed by Michael Bennett, the Cleveland’s curator of Greek and Roman art, Walters found the statue around 1993 or 1994, lying broken on the floor of a building on this property.
Shortly after its alleged discovery, the statue was viewed by Lucia Marinescu, former director of the National History Museum of Romania. Marinescu concluded the statue was of Roman origin and she later published an essay making this proposal.
Nonetheless, Walter allegedly sold the statue as a 19th-century garden ornament for a mere 1600 deutsche marks (about $1,250). Remarkably, Walter says he does not recall the buyer’s name and has no receipt from the transaction. Not until ten years later did the five-foot-tall Apollo reappear, in Switzerland, with no record of where it had been in the intervening years. Reportedly, the Cleveland museum received signed papers from Walter and Marinescu, but the museum has refused to make these papers public and neither individual responded to requests for interviews.
(Much of the information in this blog post comes from “Risky Business: Playing Fast and Loose With Suspicious Antiquity, the Ethics of Collecting and Public Trust at the Cleveland Museum of Art,” by Katie Steiner, Discussions, vol. 1, 2006. Among Steiner’s sources was an article by Steven Litt published September 12, 2004, in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.)
Why would Walter sell the statue as a garden ornament if it had the appearance of a broken archaeological fragment? In particular, why did he do so if Marinescu thought it was Roman, which would make it worth 50 or 100 times the price he said he sold it for? Is it really credible that Walter does not remember anything about the person to whom he sold it, other than that he was Dutch?
To my way of thinking, the statue came from somewhere else. Why supposedly East Germany? Because when the Communist government collapsed, it placed much of what happened before that date into a sort of legal limbo.
On several occasions the Aboutaams have had their professional behavior questioned or had run-ins with the law. In 2003 the gallery agreed to return two ancient stelae that had been smuggled out of Egypt. Also in 2003, Ali Aboutaam was prosecuted in Cairo for alleged involvement in a smuggling ring for Egyptian antiquities and was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison. On June 23, 2004, a day after the Cleveland Museum announced its purchase of the Apollo, Hicham Aboutaam pleaded guilty in a Manhattan court to a federal misdemeanor charge that he falsified customs documents associated with a silver rhyton (drinking cup) that originated in Iran. He was ordered to pay a $5,000 fine.
One can twist and turn the facts in various ways, but I think that by any reasonable construction of the evidence, the Cleveland Museum has chosen to operate in an arena of ethically controversial activities.
The Greek government believes the Apollo came from somewhere in Greece. When the Louvre held an exhibition of the work of Praxiteles, the Greeks declared that they would withdraw their loans if the bronze from Cleveland was included. Consequently, the Louvre’s loan request to the Cleveland Museum was withdrawn.
But the statue could have come from somewhere else, since in the third century B.C. the Greeks had colonies in Italy, Spain, Africa and on the coast of the Black Sea in Turkey and the Crimea.
It will probably be a long time before we know—if we ever know—where the statue is originally from. While the purchase goes against the guidelines of the American Association of Museums, these guidelines are toothless—mere recommendations that carry no sanctions or punishment. To be fair, even if the museum did have reason to believe that the statue was stolen or smuggled, it’s not clear who it should give it back to.
Forward movement with cases of questionable provenance is generally very slow. In the case of the notorious Euphronios vase, for example, rumors were circulating within weeks of its purchase in 1972 by the Metropolitan Museum about precisely where it had been discovered in Italy—rumors that turned out to be correct. Nonetheless, it took nearly 40 years before the piece was returned to Italy, and no one has ever been prosecuted for the incident.
These cases have a way of making institutions more secretive. Recently, a faculty member in art history at Case Western Reserve (not me) asked to see the curatorial file on the Apollo statue but was refused. While this is well within the museum’s legal rights, it was the first time in his 40 years of teaching that such a request had been declined.
(The L.A. Times’s Ralph Frammolino wrote this piece for Smithsonian about the return to Italy from the Getty of an celebrated statue believed to be Aphrodite. His investigative reporting with Jason Felch on provenance controversies resulted in their book Chasing Aphrodite about the hunt for looted antiquities.)