BOOK REVIEW: A FOOL’S ERRAND: CREATING THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY AND CULTURE IN THE AGE OF BUSH, OBAMA, AND TRUMP
“One can tell a great deal about a country by what it remembers. By what graces the wall if its museums.” – Lonnie G. Bunch III
The day I finished reading A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Age of Bush, Obama, and Trump by Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), I learned that a school board in Tennessee banned the teaching of the holocaust graphic novelMaus and a House committee in Florida passed a bill aiming to ban discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. Throughout A Fool’s Errand Bunch notes the friendship he formed with Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, and I couldn’t help but to think of the marker outside of Glendora, Mississippi, where Emmett Till’s body was found in 1955. Until 2008, the spot remained unmarked, but when a memorial was erected, it was vandalized four times. The most recent iteration of the memorial, erected in 2019, had to literally be bulletproofed. The parallels to the Till Memorial and the obstacles Bunch faced and the overall history of the museum’s founding are palpable. Bunch notes that efforts to launch this museum started a century prior, and were still being stifled as recent as the 1990s by the likes of Jesse Helms. Silencing the voices of history is bigotry’s fundamental move toward enacting racism.
A Fool’s Errand is framed by three presidents. First, there was George W. Bush, who wholeheartedly endorsed the project and signed the legislation to get it started. Bunch formed a friendship with George and Laura Bush and portrays them rather positively. While he acknowledges Hurricane Katrina, he does so, in my opinion, with a rather light touch. Second was Barack Obama, who had the honor of officially opening the museum. Bunch compares his philosophy of the museum to the way Obama approached his presidency: the museum is an American museum for all Americans and not just African Americans. The story of African Americans is the story of America. And finally, Trump. Bunch describes giving him a private tour, which he rightfully did not bowdlerize as he had been asked to (because Trump had been in a bad mood that day) and noted that Trump did not acknowledge the Dutch role in the African slave trade but conveyed that the people of the Netherlands “love him.” Right on brand. Bunch describes how during the first months of Trump’s administration a noose had been found in front of an exhibition case that contained artifacts of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. As I read the last two chapters, I couldn’t help but wonder if the museum would have opened when it did had Bunch not been so determined in his vision and execution. He worked hard to make this museum “for the next century and not the last one” happen. The politics surrounding this museum is nearly breathtaking but not unexpected.
The book is indeed a template for creating a museum from nothing, but what makes it so incredibly relatable is its humanity. Bunch is an excellent listener and observer and can easily connect with the elite as well as everyday people. For me, it was his interactions with everyday people that stood out. There was Princy Jenkins who had once lived in a slave cabin with his enslaved grandmother; the people he met during Save Our African American Treasures; and Dr. Charles Blockson who donated previously unknown artifacts that belonged to Harriet Tubman. Blockson lovingly donated those items and like many after him, wanted to contribute to the museum without any monetary gain (“This belongs in a place where the public can enjoy the collections. It is yours.”) Perhaps the most moving story was when Bunch met an elderly woman who had an unknown artifact from his own family.
I recommend you read this touching book with an open mind and a very open heart. If you enjoy storytelling and history, you will find a great deal to enjoy in this book. For me, the book inspired a self-reflection of the last two decades. Could I have done better? Can I still do better? I hope so.
“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” -Pablo Picasso
Pop culture is exactly that: culture that is popular, easy to understand and entertaining. High culture, on the other hand, is more sophisticated and challenging. I love when pop culture meets high culture. This is exactly what we have in Wonder Woman Historia: The Amazons. For those who don’t know, Historia was published via DC comics’ adult imprint, Black Label. DC Black Label is comprised of miniseries that take place outside of the monthly, mainstream story continuity. The books are printed in Prestige Format, which is a square bound comic book with higher quality paper and printing that uses card stock covers.
Perhaps the most dominant visual aesthetic is that of 1960s counterculture psychedelic art. Elements of psychedelic art includes surrealistic subject matters, intense depth and stylization of detail, contrasting colors and elements of collage. Psychedelic art was primarily informed by Art Nouveau, but in Historia, Jimenez also draws inspiration from High Renaissance Art, which is informed by the art of antiquity. Jimenez draws individuals in a manner that recall the works of Michelangelo and DaVinci surrounded in a brilliant, surrealistic psychedelic universe. If you look at the images below you can see the influences: on the left we have a poster created in 1967 by Bonnie Maclean as well as the 2014 album cover for the band Blue Pills created by Marijke Koger-Dunham. On the left are two panels from Historia.
While a wide range of animals are portrayed (which I love especially that panther with Hellene), Jimenez depicts the peacock rather prominently in Historia. In ancient Greek and early Christian art, the peacock was considered a symbol for immortality. Notably, in Greek mythology, the tail of peacock feathers are considered the eyes of the goddess Hera. Jimenez definitely did some deep research here as sometimes comic book artists depict Wonder Woman’s homeland of Themyscira in a generic ancient Mediterranean motif more informed by Hollywood than art history. Below on the left is a terracotta volute-krater (currently on view at The Met) that depicts the Greeks battling the Amazons. The ancient Greeks shared myths to convey their history. Greek artists painted scenes from myths on walls, vases, jars, and cups. On the right we have a panel from Historia.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle, in Sense and Sensibilia, notes sight as the most important of the senses because of color. The significance of color as the ultimate manifestation of sight was fostered in Byzantium, where color was associated with both earthly and heavenly powerfulness. Color in the aesthetics of late antiquity and Byzantium is closely connected to that of light: light and color combine to emphasize brilliance, glitter, and polychromatism. Hi-Fi, Prianto, and Fajardo embrace and execute this brilliance in superb glory. Below are two mosaics from Basilica of San Vitale of Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora along with two panels from Historia.
Wonder Woman Historia: The Amazons is a seminal work for comic books and a must own. In the spirit of the ancient world depicted in Historia, I would like to conclude this blog entry with some quotes from Aristotle on art.
“Art takes nature as its model.”
“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”
“Art is a higher type of knowledge than experience.”
Note: This was originally submitted as a paper (originally titled By the people, For the People) for my Master’s degree in Museum Studies at the CUNY School of Professional Studies. The accompanying video was part of the coursework.
From the Muses to the Aristocrats
The memory of humankind can be found in museums. Humanity has a long history of preserving artifacts. Ancient Greeks filled temples dedicated to the muses with scholarship and sculpture. The ancient Greeks coined the term “mouseion” when they first built a temple to the goddesses who kept watch over the arts and sciences known as muses. This tradition would be followed by conquering kings who exhibited spoils of war . Later we had cabinets of curiosity that would become rooms filled with artistic treasures that were the domains of the wealthy elite, open only to the collector and the occasional visitor . The Enlightenment, which concurrently fostered empirical thinking and imperialism, gave rise to the first museums in Europe. Museums in the United States were founded by wealthy patrons who emulated European models and collecting habits.
From the Bottom Up
Five months before the Metropolitan Museum opened its exhibition, Harlem on my Mind, in January of 1969, Thomas P. F. Hoving, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art New York City, noted:
“To me Harlem on My Mind is a discussion. It is a confrontation. It is education. It is a dialogue. And today we better have these things. Today there is a growing gap between people, and particularly between black people and white people. And this despite the efforts to do otherwise. There is little communication. Harlem on My Mind will change that.”
There was no meaningful dialogue. Instead, Harlem residents were excluded from the planning process and artwork by Harlem artist was curiously excluded. The museum instead decided to use oversized photomurals to display images of African American people. The exhibition set off protests that fostered activism from the African American art community that looked to address the patently patronizing discrimination.
Two years before Harlem on my Mind opened, in a stark contrast to The Met, The Smithsonian founded the Anacostia Community Museum in 1967 which focused on local African American history and culture unique to the Anacostia neighborhood. The Smithsonian Institution was founded in 1846 and is the largest museum complex and research center in the world. The Anacostia Community Museum is one of the 19 museums, in addition to a zoological park, nine research centers, and 20 libraries that encompass the Smithsonian. The Anacostia Community Museum is the only Smithsonian museum that has a very local focus. The founding director of the Anacostia Community Museum, John Kinard, was a local minister, civil rights educator, and community activist whose engagement shaped the trajectory of the Museum . The community’s values were embedded in the core ideals of the Anacostia Community Museum. With a focus on local African American experiences and community issues, the Museum evolved its exhibition programs to reflect broad national themes in African American culture in the 1980s. The Anacostia Community Museum is the only Smithsonian museum that has a very local focus. It was the first federally funded community museum in the United States but is under the umbrella of the Smithsonian Institution. The late 1960’s and early 1970’s would see a change stemming from the activism of the day and give rise to museums for the people by people.
The same year the Harlem on My Mind exhibition opened, two museums took root that stemmed from this era of vibrant activism. El Museo del Barrio was founded in Spanish Harlem and was first located in a public school storage room. It focused on the Puerto Rican art from the diaspora that settled in the neighborhood (“El Barrio” is Spanish for the neighborhood). One of the first shows, “The Art of Needlework” was dedicated to the crocheting techniques of Puerto Rican women. Meanwhile, downtown, The Leslie-Lohman Museum, the only art museum in the world to exhibit artwork that conveys the LGBTQ experience, started to take root when Charles Leslie and Fritz Lohman, who had been collecting art for several years, mounted their first exhibit of gay art in their SoHo loft on Prince Street in New York City .
El Museo del Barrio’s founder, Raphael Montañez Ortiz, was part of a coalition of artists pursuing representation in New York museums. Unlike most museums in New York City at the time, El Museo was founded without assistance from wealthy patrons. It filed as nonprofit organization in 1971 . Similarly, after that first loft show in 1969, Leslie and Lohman opened a commercial art gallery devoted to gay art, but it closed in the early 1980s with the arrival of the AIDS epidemic . The pair then rescued the work of artists dying from AIDS from their families who wanted to destroy it. In 1987, the Leslie and Lohman applied for nonprofit status to establish a foundation to preserve their collection of gay artworks and continue exhibitions. The IRS actually objected to the word “gay” in the foundation’s title and hindered the nonprofit application until 1990 .
El Museo moved to its current location in 1977, on the ground floor of the city-owned Heckscher Building, on 5th Avenue and East 104th Street. Meanwhile, the Leslie-Lohman Gay Art Foundation’s first location was in a basement at 127B Prince Street in New York City. In 2006, the Foundation moved into a ground floor gallery at 26 Wooster Street in SoHo. In New York City, two museums took root around the same time that were truly by the people for the people: El Museo del Barrio and The Leslie-Lohman Museum. But are they still for the people? Have they stayed true to their original mission?
The Mirror Manifesto
The annual Museum Mile Festival, which went virtual in 2020, offers free admission to a 30-block stretch of Fifth Avenue for the following institutions: The Africa Center, El Museo del Barrio, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, the Jewish Museum, Neue Galerie and the Museum of the City of New York. In addition to all the art inside, there are outdoor festivities including live music. In August 2019, The New Yorker wrote an article titled “The Battle Over the Soul of El Museo del Barrio ” noting that during the annual Museum Mile festival (of which El Museo was one of the founding members) a group of protesters distributed flyers that read “El Museo Fue del Barrio” (The Museum was from the neighborhood). The protesters read from a printed statement, called the Mirror Manifesto , that accused El Museo of abandoning its core values as a museum for the community of East Harlem. The Mirror Manifesto notes:
“It requires us to first contend with “El Barrio’s” identity. While Puerto Ricans were instrumental in the foundation of the museum, it is not strictly a Puerto Rican museum. It is a museo “del Barrio.” Further, demographic changes in East Harlem and the overall growth of the Latinx diaspora in the last 50 years render the nationalist led push to make El Barrio mean “Puerto Rican” null. If El Museo is to be resuscitated, we must lay these claims to rest and set about addressing who we mean when we say El Barrio.
If El Barrio means neighborhood, or enclave, and we are defining the institution as encompassing a diasporic latinidad, then what we are contending with is what is now being called “Latinx.”
This is distinct from Latin America and should not be confused. For too long, this ambiguity has rendered Latinx artists invisible. Latinx artists continue to be marginalized, underrepresented, and erased. El Museo has shamelessly latched on to this ambiguity and forfeited its original mission. It has done very little as an institution to foster and cultivate Latinx Art.
The museum has failed to launch a studio residency program, it has failed to create an environment where intellectual work for us, by us, can be incubated. It has failed to cultivate diverse board members that represent the Latinx community. It has failed to expand board members beyond funding/development needs, or made sure to its boards’ institutional actions, partnerships, and programs correspond with its mission.
Given the continued failure of El Museo del Barrio to fully embrace its responsibility to the many diasporas that make up the Latinx communities in NYC and across North America, generations of Latinx artists pouring out of BFA, MFA, & PhD programs have come to see the El Museo as irrelevant.
Recent calls to steer the institution back towards its intended mission therefore have remained unanswered. In order to reinvigorate working and emerging Latinx artists to invest their energy in an institution that has gone out of its way to communicate that it cares nothing for their cultural production, the institution must take radical steps to more clearly define what it is. EL MUSEO DEL BARRIO MUST BE EL MUSEO DE LOS BARRIOS. It must fulfill its original mission or relinquish control to the community of Latinx scholars and artists to steer it back on course. It must DECOLONIZE.
Latinx artists, cultural workers, scholars and concerned residents reject the elitism, white washing, LGTBQIA exclusion and anti-blackness perpetrated in the museum against its own museum goers and community of artists.”
How did El Museo get here?
During its first two decades in existence, El Museo’s mission was clearly defined as an institution that researched and displayed the cultural heritage of the Puerto Rican diaspora that lived in Spanish Harlem. By the late 1980s, Spanish Harlem was longer a Puerto Rican enclave; immigrants from Mexico, Central America, and the Dominican Republic had moved into the neighborhood. El Museo, with some struggle, reflected this . However, in 2002, El Museo appointed its first non Latinx director, Julián Zugazagoitia, a Mexican who was previously at the Guggenheim. That same year, an exhibit devoted to Mexico’s most famous artists, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera was mounted . For many in El Barrio, elite Latin-American art was overshadowing the El Museo’s grassroots mission. These concerns were fully realized this year when The New York Times reported that El Museo announced that its annual gala would honor Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, a wealthy German art collector known for her connections to the European far-right and Steve Bannon who once complained that Pope Francis is too liberal. After considerable backlash, she was uninvited . Two weeks after that faux pas, El Museo was inundated with complaints over a planned exhibit devoted to Chilean filmmaker and artist, Alejandro Jodorowsky. In the early 1970s, Jodorowsky said that a rape scene he performed for one of his films was real and not staged (something he later recanted). The exhibit was cancelled.
Why hasn’t the Leslie-Lohman Museum encountered similar issues? Both institutions started with the same idea: a museum by the people for people (OR for the marginalized by the marginalized). While both institutions engage the public in comparable ways, the Leslie-Lohman Museum still has not experienced the full growing pains: El Museo was granted nonprofit status nearly twenty years before Leslie-Lohman and it was only in 2011 that the State Board of Regents finally granted a Certificate of Museum Status. However, the Leslie-Lohman museum does publish a quarterly journal, The Archive, while El Museo does not. El Museo’s early research should have been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Perhaps the one significant thing that distinguishes El Museo from Leslie-Lohman has to do with its very specific geographical connection. The Mexican, Central American, and Dominican immigrants who moved into the neighborhood thirty years ago, as well as most of the Puerto Ricans, are now being forced out via gentrification. The New Yorker article noted that the board includes only one member who lives in the neighborhood. The article also noted that El Museo’s founder, Raphael Montañez Ortiz, now resides in Highland Park, New Jersey. Interestingly, the Brooklyn Museum has recently explored the impacts of gentrification. In November of 2016, anti-gentrification artists and activists protested the Brooklyn Museum when it hosted the 6th Annual Brooklyn Real Estate Summit, which was incongruent with the overwhelming gentrification hitting the communities the museum claims to serve. In April of 2018, an open letter called for the Brooklyn Museum to use the public anger surrounding a curatorial hiring decision (Kristen Windmuller-Luna, a White woman, as an African art consulting curator) as an opportunity to address deeply rooted injustices pertaining to the museum that included the colonial history of the museum’s non-western holdings, the lack of diversity among its curatorial staff and executive leadership, the fact that the museum’s buildings sit on stolen land, and the museum’s role as an agent of gentrification in Brooklyn, a long-standing grievance of community groups.
“We are thus calling for the Brooklyn Museum to participate in the creation of a Decolonization Commission of the kind that has recently been demanded of institutions — like the city’s own American Museum of Natural History — that are being publicly asked to account for their own role in the histories of colonialism and white supremacy. This would send a strong message to the people of Brooklyn, and to other art institutions around the country, about the museum’s will to redress ongoing legacies of oppression, especially when it comes to the status of African art and culture. It could be a first step in rebuilding trust with the communities to whom the museum should be accountable.
This decolonization process would have a time-frame, starting with the acknowledgment that the buildings sit on stolen indigenous land, that they contain thousands of objects expropriated from people of color around the world, and that the institution is governed by a group of majority-white members of the 1% actively involved in the dynamics of racialized dispossession and displacement in Brooklyn. Further steps would entail decisions about the framing of the display of its collection; who is appointed to make these decisions, and in consultation with which communities of conscience in the borough and beyond. Decolonization is never a finished process, but, once undertaken, its logic can and should unfold in ways that are transparent and just.”
El Museo needs to do the same starting inside its own doors. Interestingly, in response to the letter, Anne Pasternak, the director of the Brooklyn Museum, said that the museum “unequivocally” stood by its selection of Kristen Windmuller-Luna for the position.
Regardless of who lives in the neighborhood, El Museo’s leadership should not lose site of the museum’s mission. I would be the first to object if the Leslie-Lohman Museum decided to one day display the work of LGBTQ allies—regardless of their good intentions, they will never understand and properly convey the experience of being LGBTQ, the museum’s mission. The Mirror Manifesto protestors are right, the museum leadership has been gentrified and operating under a disguised blanketed term, “Latin American,” that solely considers the virtue of surname without considering the Latinx communities, and their art, fostered by diaspora (regardless of whether it is from Puerto Rico, Mexico, the Dominican Republic or Central America). And while I certainly think that everyone should experience the work of artists like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, their work comes from a different PLACE (and time) that has little to do with Spanish Harlem, or the Latinx communities now living and creating in New York City and the United States.
The COVID Denouement
Like every other New York City Museum, El Museo shut down in mid-March of 2020. The annual gala, which normally brings in about $1 million dollars, was canceled, event rentals for the newly restored theater space were also cancelled and its store and cafe were closed. A Paycheck Protection Program loan of about $500,000 helped, as well as a $600,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation but they were still losing money. In September, El Museo’s Executive Director was approached by a representative from the Ford Foundation, which had just announced a $156 million initiative called America’s Cultural Treasures, whose contributors include 16 foundations and private donors. El Museo received 68% of its annual budget in one swoop from the Ford Foundation.
Meanwhile, at the Leslie-Lohman Museum, the director, Gonzalo Casals, announced, just before the lockdown in March of 2020, that he was leaving to become the Cultural Affairs Commissioner of New York City. A new director, Alyssa Nitchun, was hired in December of 2020. Nitchun is the first queer woman to lead the museum. The New York Times reported that her first mission will be to expand the institution’s reputation abroad and help secure its financial future: “My dream is that we can scale up, welcoming a whole new group of artists and audiences.” 
Interestingly, the Leslie-Lohman Museum held an exhibition that would have been perfect for El Museo: “Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell,” is a retrospective that was part of “Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA,” a Getty Foundation-sponsored 2017 exhibition of more than 70 concurrent exhibitions in and around Los Angeles that together demonstrated the influence of Latin America and Latino art on the city . In the 1980s, Aguilar came out as gay and in 1986, she began a portrait series titled, “Latina Lesbians.” Meanwhile, at El Museo, it looks like the words and actions of the Mirror Manifesto did not fall on deaf ears.
“Estamos Bien” is El Museo’s first national survey of what it calls Latinx art, using the oft-debated gender-neutral alternative to Latino or Latina, to describe artists of Latin American descents working primarily in the United States. The museum’s original plan was to have the show coincide with, and reflect, two defining 2020 political events: the United States census and the presidential election. The pandemic derailed that. The title, “Estamos Bien” (“We’re fine”) was inspired by a work in the exhibition, a 2017 painting by the Chicago-based artist Cándida Álvarez, completed in the wake of the devastation by Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico.
The title, “Estamos Bien”, truly embodies El Museo’s history: equal parts of acrimony and hope. However, it is a step in the right direction that promises more and better representation.
Charlotte Powell, Village Painter seems to be following me around. Most recently, it came up in a course I recently completed for my graduate degree in Museum Studies. I also belong to many historical New York City photography groups on Facebook (Al Ponte’s Time Machine – New York and Bronx Third Ave El are two of my favorites) where I have seen it several times as well as websites like Gothamist and Monovision.
About the Photographer
Jessie Tarbox Beals (1870-1942) was a pioneer for women, working as the first published female photojournalist in the United States. While working, she carried heavy camera equipment while donning the bulky women’s fashions of the late 19th and early 20th century. Beals later opened her own studio as a divorced, single mother.
At the turn-of-the-century Beals lived and worked in Greenwich Village, which she photographed extensively. Greenwich Village, which resisted the City planning idea of the grid, was a haven for bohemian artists and writers. Beals may have found like-minded peers. It seemed natural that she would gravitate toward photographing the bohemians of Greenwich Village in New York City—the part of the City that said no to the grid and gave birth the Gay Liberation movement! In her photograph of Charlotte Powell, Beals captured a fellow unconventional woman, dressed in overalls, doing traditional men’s work
Notes on the Photograph
The first thing I would like to note about this photograph is the fact that an early 20th century woman is wearing pants. And she is not wearing pants to be fashionable like Marlene Dietrich, she is wearing overalls, work pants, not unlike Amelia Earhart’s aviator pants. Like Earhart, Charlotte Powell is seen working at what was then considered men’s labor. In contrast to her overall gruff fashion, Powell is wearing a rather delicate looking watch. I couldn’t help but wonder what Beals was wearing when she took this photograph.
We see two sets of stairs in this photograph. Stairs are a principal and practical part of architecture that stand with a sense of purpose. In the same way that water gives and takes life, stairs can bring us up and plunge us down. Powell may be at the bottom of the stone stairs, but she is slowly climbing out of the prison (see the bars on the far right) of cultural norms on a rickety ladder being held together by string, of her making.
I find the sign above Powell concurrently appropriate and irksome. Appropriate because it gives us a geographic marker of sorts and irksome, because the curtains are drawn, and we have no idea what that The Village Store sells. But the sign is also well designed—I admired the way the typeface emphasized The Village.
While writing this, I became more intrigued by the photograph and tried to find this location using Google Maps. I wanted to see if this building was still standing. New York undervalues older buildings. I was unsuccessful in finding the possible location of this photograph.
This digital image may be used for educational or scholarly purposes without restriction. Commercial and other uses of the item are prohibited without prior written permission from the New-York Historical Society. For more information, please visit the New-York Historical Society’s Rights and Reproductions Department web page at http://www.nyhistory.org/about/rights-reproductions
I visited the Brooklyn Museum on the opening day of the wonderful and timely exhibition, “Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving.” I naively thought that I could beat the crowds: after all, I had arrived at admissions at 12 noon, exactly one hour after the museum opened. Instead, I was surprisingly told I would have to wait until 2:30pm to enter the exhibition (in the meantime, I was able to enter and explore the rest of the museum)! My first recommendation is to buy tickets in advance. I checked the website and noticed that weekend shows for the next several weeks are already sold out.
recommendation is to put away your phone! Visitors are told that photography is
not allowed, but that didn’t stop quite a few rude people from taking out their
phones and ruining the experience for others. If you are one of those people
who just can’t help themselves, consider this for a moment: when you snap a
picture of a painting, that you can probably find online via a museum website,
how often do you go back and look it? How often do you study it? Why ruin a
rare moment of seeing a painting in person by fumbling with your phone? And if
you are snapping a picture on your phone for posting on social media, the
exhibition has two interesting displays to do just that before you enter the
is presented thematically, using paintings by Kahlo and peers, photographs, and
Mexican ceramics to explore Kahlo’s identity. Clothing and make-up are central
to this: for example, Kahlo used native clothing to express her Mexican
nationalism. It was surprising to see that she loved
using perfume and Revlon products (Revlon is the major supporter of this show).
Many of these items had been stored in Casa Azul, the home, Kahlo shared with
her husband, muralist Diego Rivera.
One of the most absorbing, and heartbreaking,
pieces of art was a lithograph depicting Kahlo’s miscarriage. It was as
powerful as the “Henry
Ford Hospital” painting, which explores the same subject. I absolutely
adored the home movies that were shown, which I saw twice! Among my favorite
pieces were the photographs, many of which I had never seen before. Standouts were
those by Gisele Freund, known for
her documentary photography and portraits of writers and artists.
The major problem with this exhibition
is how some of the artwork is displayed, most notably the photographs. Many are
presented in groups of four, with two of the four well below eye range. This means
that if two people stand in front of the four pictures, others have to wait to
properly study and contemplate them (as well as contend with the impolite
people who insist on taking pictures). With the crowds, this simply does not
work. The first two rooms were rather small with one wasted on a second ticket
checkpoint. Yes, there were two
checkpoints to get into the exhibition: one at the door and one in front of a wall,
projecting images of Kahlo. A wall. Interesting.
It has been over sixty years since Kahlo has passed away, but she still continues to fascinate. This exhibition is worth seeing—but only if you can go during a weekday, with minimal crowds. Each piece is worth quiet contemplation. The exhibition notes how much she loved New York City—the world is here and that is what she embraced and probably why we embrace here today. She is a voice from Mexico’s past conveying the need for more bridges and less walls.
Camille Paglia, in her book, Sexual Personae, presents an interesting theory on the relationship between cats and ancient Egyptians. Cats, which have a sense of narcissistic personality and ceremony, were the model for Egyptian culture. According to Paglia, Egyptians invented concepts of beauty and femininity from their observations of cats 1. I found this theory thought provoking and would, for years after first reading Sexual Personae, look for other examples of how animals can impact a culture. A favorite example are the Aztecs, who according to legend, founded the city of Tenochtitlan when their god Huitzilopochtli had commanded them to find an eagle perched atop a cactus, devouring a snake.
Bronze man and centaur, mid-8th century B.C.E.
Paglia makes an interesting contrast between Egypt and Greece: In Egypt, the cat; in Greece, the horse. Another way to view it is, in Egypt, the Sphinx; in Greece, the Centaur. Paglia hypothesizes that cats were “too feminine for the male loving Greeks” who preferred to depict the more muscular horse in art 2. Paglia’s theory appears to be realized on an Archaic helmet from the late 7th century B.C.E. where a horse and two lions (one on each cheek piece) are portrayed in repoussé; the horse is about three times larger than the lions. Conversely, Egyptian depictions of horses appear to be more feminine than Greek muscular / masculine forms (figure III).
One of Two bronze helmets, late 7th century B.C.E.
Egyptian Horse, 1391–1353 B.C.E.
The ancient Greeks rarely depicted contemporary or historical events in art. However, horses were consistently present in mythical and historical depictions alike. This blog entry will examine the presence of the horse in narratives depicted on various Greek works.
Death and War
Ancient Egyptians venerated cats and mummified them. The practice of interring horses was not uncommon in Greece 3 (a pair of horses were discovered buried at the outer end of a Stholos tomb at Marathon (The Mycenaean tholos tomb consists of a circular, subterranean burial chamber, sometimes referred to as the thalamos, roofed by a corbelled vault and approached by an entrance passage that narrows abruptly at the doorway actually opening into the tomb chamber. The chamber or thalamos is built of stone. Tholoi of this kind are usually set into slopes or hillsides. Burials were either laid out on the floor of the tomb chamber or were placed in pits, cists, or shafts cut into this floor.); a human skeleton was discovered with a horse skeleton in a grave near Nauplia). Like the cat in Egypt, Horses were also featured prominently in works connected to funerary traditions. A Geometric krater, (740 B.C.E.) from the Dipylon Cemetery,
Terracotta krater, 750–735 B.C.E.
that functioned as a grave marker, depicts scenes of mourning for a man; the horses are pulling a chariot in his honor 4. One theory suggests that the horse with chariot was a transporter to the afterlife 5. The practice of depicting horses on grave markers continued to be common into the late classical period. Several loutrophoros vessels, which were used as grave markers for soldiers, depict young men on horseback 6. Ancient Greek citizens were required to perform a number of duties to help serve their community in the best way possible; soldiers saw the act of war as an act of patriotism. The depictions may be viewed as a commemoration of the solider and horse. The horse is as proud as a soldier, but unlike donkeys, cows, or bulls, is decidedly trainable and will, with no hesitation, ride into battle. Horses are in line with the concept of unselfish Greek citizenship (unlike cats, which are self-serving animals).
Depictions of horses were not solely limited to krater or loutrophoro vessels. A black figure terracotta amphora (Figure V) depicts a departing warrior on a four-horse chariot bidding his parents farewell. Interestingly, one of the four horses are not depicted in black figure, actually matching the color of the charioteer, also not in black figure. It is also curious that the charioteer was in the foreground while the solider and his family was in the background and behind the chariot. Could this have also been a commemoration of charioteer and horse for their contributions to the cause?
Terracotta neck-amphora, 540 B.C.E
Mythology and Reality
Rhyton in form of mounted Amazon, 5th century B.C.E .
The horse, featured prominently in pottery narratives depicting combat and death, is also a fixture in mythology. One of the most remarkable works of a mythological subject prominently featuring a horse may be found at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which I had the opportunity to visit earlier this year. The museum identifies the work as a rhyton in the form of a mounted Amazon. Another source identifies this same work as a plastic vase 7. The mounted figure wears a crested plume helmet with large appendages on the sides. The red figure vessel behind the Amazonian warrior depicts four figures, Persians and Greek, in combat. A Persian figure is mounted on a horse and appears to be overtaking a Greek warrior with a spear. Conveniently, the Amazon’s plume is bellowing on to the scene. However, it is interesting to note the striking difference between the Persian and Greek horses; the Greek horse that the Amazon is riding is muscular, while the Persian horse appears to be almost Rubenesque and not proportionate. The Greek horse also has a gait / gallop similar to the horses depicted on the Parthenon frieze, which is a somewhat curious because the Amazonian rhyton was found in Egypt.
Details of the Panathenaic Festival procession frieze, 447-438 B.C.E.
Kylix, 540–530 B.C.E.
The frieze on the Parthenon is thought to represent the Panathenaic procession, a religious festival held on 28 Hekatombaion, the first month of the Athenian calendar 8 . The presence of the horse on the frieze of the Parthenon clearly demonstrates their importance in Greek society, real and mythological. According to mythology, Poseidon desired Demeter and to put him off, Demeter asked Poseidon to make the most beautiful animal the world had ever seen. Poseidon created the horse. The horses represented on the frieze are based on the Greek ideal perfect proportions. Beauty and proportion are bedfellows in ancient Greece.
North frieze, 447-438 B. C. E.
One part of west frieze of the Parthenon depicts horsemen preparing their horses. The care that the horsemen appear to be giving their horses recalls one of the first manuals on riding the horse titled The Art of Horsemanship written by a Greek named Xenophon. Xenophon, who was a pupil of Socrates, was an equestrian for his entire life, first as a cavalryman and then as a country gentleman on an estate given to him by the King of Sparta 9. Xenophon, in the same manual, encourages a mutual respect between man and horse: “There are, indeed, other methods of teaching these arts. Some do so by touching the horse with a switch under the gaskins. For ourselves, however, far the best method of instruction, as we keep repeating, is to let the horse feel that whatever he does in obedience to the rider’s wishes will be followed by some rest and relaxation.”
Xenophon’s approach to horse care and training appears to be realized on a kylix in the Met attributed to Amasis painter. The reverse depicts an atmosphere of excitement in Poseidon’s stables, while four grooms attempt to soothe four high-strung horses. The obverse depicts Poseidon among Greek warriors. The subjects are drawn from book 13 of Homer’s Iliad: Poseidon, seeing the Greek soldiers hard pressed, decides to renew their spirit. Prior to viewing this work, I happened to view a Terracotta pykster (figure IX) that depicted soldiers mounted on dolphins. I found it curious that the scene on the pykster depicting the dolphins was not a work connected to the god of the sea, Poseidon. Instead, the pyskster chose to depict Poseidon’s most beautiful creature, the horse.
Horses were an integral part of ancient Greek culture. Horses resemble the Greek ideal human form in terms of proportion and musculature. “Coming to the thighs below the shoulder blades, or arms, these if thick and muscular present a stronger and handsomer appearance, just as in the case of the human being” 10.
Horses are also in line with Greek concepts of citizenship. “Such an animal, we venture to predict, will give the greatest security to his rider in the circumstances of war.”10
“The majesty of men themselves is best discovered in the graceful handling of such animals. The man who knows how to manage such a creature gracefully himself at once appears magnificent. A horse so prancing is indeed a thing of beauty, a wonder and a marvel; riveting the gaze of all who see him, young alike and graybeards. They will never turn their back, I venture to predict, or weary of their gazing so long as he continues to display his splendid action. Such are the horses on which gods and heroes ride, as represented by the artist.”
– Xenophon, The Art of Horsemanship
1 Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), Page 64
2 Paglia, Page 65
3 Jack Leonard Benson, Horse, Bird & Man; The Origins of Greek Paintings (Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1970), Page 20
4 Fred S. Kleiner and Christin J. Mamiya, Gardner’s Art through the Ages, The Western Perspective (Belmont, CA: Thomson Learning, 2005), Page 94
5 Benson, Page 24
6 Andrew Clark, Understanding Greek vases: a guide to terms, styles, and techniques (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2002), Page 115
Artist Lucien Smith misses an opportunity and simply creates novelty art for the 1%.
How did the Bronx become the poster child for urban decay in the 1970’s and 1980’s?
Generally speaking, individuals like Robert Moses siphoned monetary resources out of New York City to build up the surrounding suburbs while concurrently fostering the automobile and neglecting mass transit. The Cross-Bronx Expressway has NEVER benefited the Bronx and actually contributed greatly to the destruction: people once lived where this roadway now stands. And then the 3rd Avenue El, which had played a significant role in the creation of entire neighborhoods, was razed, leaving many isolated from public transportation and further devaluing real estate. Industry fled for various reasons that included moving to southern states that outlawed unions via “right to work” laws. The middle class tax base moved away and the poor and people of color moved into their former neighborhoods, which were subsequently redlined by banks and investors (Harlem, for example, had been red lined since the 1920’s). The media portrayed people of color as gun totting, drug-using savages who burn and vandalize their neighborhoods. They are bad for real estate, a stigma that has had an almost mythic impact. The fact is that the landlords of these redlined areas paid arsons so that they could collect insurance. I am fairly certain that artist Lucien Smith or his recent benefactors, Somerset Partners, are cognizant of these facts or bothered with any research.
On October 29th, in a former South Bronx piano factory, a rave took place that was hosted by real estate developers Somerset Partners. The rave was to launch the re-branding of the South Bronx as the “Piano District” in the tradition of DUMBO, Hudson Heights, iTri and East Willamsburg. The event, which was curated (or decorated, depending on your source) by Mr. Smith, included flaming garbage cans and bullet-riddled cars. From the photographs I have seen, it was essentially disaster porn.
Much has been written about the rave and perhaps the best source is Ed García Conde’s oft quoted blog Welcome2TheBronx. As a fellow artist who works in the Bronx, I found myself wondering why Mr. Smith would produce something so utterly jejune.
“I reached a point when I was independent financially and I was able to take a step back. I was producing work like a madman—I wanted to be this “superartist,” and I saw artists going down that road, and I didn’t want that anymore. I wanted to find a more honest approach to making art.”
When asked about future shows he responded:
“As far as future shows, I don’t have anything on my plate. I’m being very careful about what I do now.”
This interview was published in July of 2015. If Mr. Smith was being truthful, he was not working on the rave yet — an indication that it was simply thrown together. In response to the criticism, Mr. Smith noted:
“…people are always going to have their own interpretation. Let’s just remember New York, in its entirety, is a city that has and still struggles with violence and poverty, not just the Bronx.”
Mr. Smith, of all people, should understand the mythic power that images can have and missed an opportunity to use his fame to elevate those who struggle with violence and poverty. It was also an opportunity to convey how struggle creates great art. The late, distinguished CCNY Professor of Political Science, Marshall Berman, once said:
“Grace Paley, one of the great New York writers, has a story written early-’70s South Bronx. And one of the characters, who’s like a community organizer there, says, “The buildings are burning down on one side of the street, and the kids are trying to put something together on the other.” And this could be a parable of one of the great achievements of that period from a lot of the neighborhoods that were most devastated in New York. The earliest form in which most people who weren’t part of that neighborhood saw it were the graffiti that appeared on the subways in the ’70s. And this was on a very rickety, decaying generation of gray trains, they painted enormously exuberant, colored names and reliefs and mottoes. And you can see many films now: a gray day, a gray neighborhood, an El train. And suddenly, the El train, it’s like a rainbow! And it’s thrilling. The next incarnation was rap. The earliest form that people saw would be there would be one kid rapping with small speakers and a drum track in the subway, you know, with a hat open for money. And, you know, these are parables of a city that’s being ruined, that’s being destroyed, and that’s saying, “We can rise again. We come from ruins, but we’re not ruined.” And, I mean, in 15 years, it’s become the basic form of world music. So it’s a thrill, but it’s important to understand that it came from totally burnt-out, ruined districts, and that’s where it was born. And that it was born out of this suffering and misery, and that a lot of the creativity that New York has always had has come from the cellars, from the ruins, from how the other half lives.”
Picasso’s Guernica was painted as a reaction to the Nazi bombing on the unarmed Basque town during Spanish Civil War. It has since become a symbol for peace. Columbia University Art History professor, Simon Schama, once said that Picasso with Guernica “…rescued modern art from the curse of it’s own cleverness, from the curse of novelty. Guernica has always been bigger than art, uncontainable by mere museum walls. It is one of those rare creations that gets into the blood stream of common culture.” In other words, it does what great art should: communicate to everyone regardless of education or economic status.
In August of 2014, Mr. Smith gave a TEDx talk at Columbia College where he discussed how discovering his father cheating on his mother created a fear of failing that has fostered his career. His father responded to this by calling his son a “gold digging bitch” and noting “My ex-wife, who shares his lust for superficiality and materialism, raised him.”
What Mr. Smith has done with this show in the South Bronx is to further foster gentrification by creating novelty art that is exclusively for the 1%: it is their view of the Bronx and is nothing short of pusillanimous.
Please note that the featured image of this blog entry was not part of the South Bronx re-branding event. I discovered it on Mr. Smith’s website while doing some research and have been wondering why, as a man of color, he felt compelled to paint this.
The first line in the prologue of Alan Trachtenberg’s vivacious study on the Brooklyn Bridge states, “Brooklyn Bridge belongs first to the eye.” Trachtenberg further goes on to describe the experience of walking over the bridge; how the stone towers “seem to frame the irregular lines of Manhattan” and how the steel “cable compels the eye.”
The Brooklyn Bridge also belongs to, and is a colleague of, the camera: modern structural engineering and photography both evolved simultaneously and explored new ways of looking at the organization of space and visual representation. Equally significant is the role that both played in America’s industrial growth.
“As photography bespoke the influence of new technology-new ways of seeing and experiencing-its practitioners rushed to the nation’s burgeoning cities. From Albert S. Southworth and Josiah J. Hawes’s early daguerreotypes of Boston, through George R. Fardon and Eadweard Muybridge’s San Francisco panorama’s and Robert Newell and John Moran’s cityscapes, to the urban images of Henry R. Koopman in Chicago and George Francois Magnier in New Orleans, photographers strove to capture and present the new modern environment. Nowhere was this mission more keenly felt than in New York City. As the city marched uptown, as buildings and neighborhoods were created and demolished at a staggering rate, the camera was there to document every stage and each new detail.” – Richard Haw
Stereoscopic views were perhaps the most effectual method of documentation because of their three-dimensional quality. Stereoscopic photography began in England when Sir Charles Wheatstone published “Contributions to the physiology of Vision-on Some Remarkable, and Hitherto Unobserved, Phenomena of Binocular Vision,” a paper he presented to the British Royal Society in 1838. Wheatstone demonstrated that the mind perceives an object in three dimensions because each eye receives a somewhat different view. To define this phenomenon, he devised the word stereograph, from the Greek words stereo (solid) and graph (I look at). Wheatstone prepared drawings of single objects seen by each eye and devised a viewing instrument of angled mirrors called the stereoscope. After the announcement of Daguerre’s and Talbot’s photographic processes in 1839, Wheatstone commissioned Talbot and Henry Collen to make stereo daguerreotypes and calotypes. Research by Sir David Brewster resulted in the a stereoscope that duplicated the normal 2 ½ inch separation between the eyes by placing a pair of lenses side by side in a small box with a lid at the top to admit light and a slot at the opposite end for inserting the mounted pair of stereoscopic images. A version made by French optician Louis-Jules Duboscq was presented to Queen Victoria after she admired the invention at the Great Exhibition in 1851.
William and Frederick Langenheim introduced stereoscopic photography in America in 1854 and within four years, numerous local photographers and major publishers were creating scenes for a very enthusiastic public. Initially, most stereoscopic collectors were professional men who had returned from trips to Europe with groups of views. One of these men was poet and physician, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was fascinated with the new phenomena and saw infinite possibilities for its uses. Holmes’s zeal for the stereoscope’s possibilities surpassed mere praise for the stunning representation of the visible world. Through the means of the photograph and the stereograph, he explained, form had become an intellectual entity-distinct from physical objects-in the same way that the printing press had liberated thought. Holmes recognized the need for a more affordable stereoscope and created a hand-held stereoscope from scraps of wood and showed his design to several people in Boston. Holmes eventually met Joseph L. Bates, who had a small business selling stereoscopes and views. Bates refined the Holmes design by adding the sliding focus stage with wire holders for the view. The stereoscope was a success and the lower cost brought stereoscopic photographs to the masses.
Early stereoscopic photographers referred to themselves as artists. Like painters, stereoscopic photographers were equally concerned with composition, a factor crucial to producing a fine stereoscopic image. Equally critical was a print with rich, even tones much like mixing paint on a palette. And like the first time one views a stunning painting, the experience of looking at a stereoscopic view was unmistakable:
“Everyone who views a good stereoscopic image is immediately enthralled. I have noted a level of excitement and involvement unmatched by two-dimensional visuals, other factors being equal. The strong emotional and esthetic reaction observed and reported by many artists throughout the stereoscopy’s 130-year history raises the interesting speculation that we may be imprinted with specific responses to fundamental or archetypal spatial stimuli in our visual world, in addition to many shapes, patterns and colors.” -Robert Silverman
As a twenty-first century American living in the digital age, I did not expect to be very taken with stereoviews. The contrary proved to be true-I was nothing short of enthralled. I didn’t just see the tallest structure in New York; I stood on the tallest structure and concur with Holmes reaction to stereoscopic photography: “Every conceivable object of nature and art will soon scale off its surface for us.”Every angle, steel wire, and cut stone of the bridge was there for me to experience. The Dennis Collection of stereoviews at the New York Public Library allowed to me feel as if I was witness to the construction.
McCullough, David. The Great Bridge. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972
Haw, Richard. The Brooklyn Bridge: a cultural history. New Brunswick: Rutgers University, 2005
Bowers, Brian, Wilson, Margaret. Sir Charles Wheatstone Frs 1802-1875 (I E E History of Technology Series). London: Institution of Electrical Engineer, 2001
Stereoscopic photography is a technique for creating the illusion of depth in an image via binocular vision.
This three-part blog looks at the stereoscopic photographs taken during the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. The history of the construction of the bridge as well as the history of stereoscopic photography will also be explored.
PART ONE: From Agrarian to Industrial Nation
The day before the Brooklyn Bridge opened, merchants, in the then City of Brooklyn, prominently displayed a sign in their windows that read:
Babylon had her hanging gardens, Egypt her pyramid, Athens her Acropolis, Rome her Athenaeum; so Brooklyn has her bridge.
Juxtaposing the Brooklyn Bridge with these structural engineering marvels was not premature: the bridge is more than just a span over water because of its innovative design and functionality. The bridge also represents America’s transition from agrarian to industrial society, fostered by the nation’s greatest resource: immigrants. Perhaps the bridge’s greatest achievements are in its visually collective aesthetic qualities: those that anyone, regardless of education or economic status, can understand and appreciate.
The idea for a bridge spanning over the East River was first proposed in 1800 by General Jeremiah Johnson (who would later serve as mayor of Brooklyn), in a pamphlet that examined the topography of Brooklyn:
It has been suggested that a bridge should be constructed across the East River to New York. This idea has been treated a chimerical from the magnitude of the design; but whosoever takes it into their serious consideration will find more weight in the practicability of the scheme than at first sight he imagined.
In other words, the builder of a successful bridge over the East River will have to conceptualize something new and never before attempted. The bridge would have to be able to withstand the elements and not interfere with the busy maritime traffic. Johnson went on to convey, “Every objection to the building of the bridge could be refuted.” A bridge of this magnitude would require vast industrial resources. Industry was something many Americans did not envision for the young nation. This sentiment was echoed, one year after Johnson’s pamphlet was published, when President Thomas Jefferson, in his inaugural speech, conveyed that America’s best defense against the corruption of the old world (crowded fuming cities) was to remain an agrarian society:
“Kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe; too high-minded to endure the degradations of the others; possessing a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation.”
Rousseau theorized that democracy has “natural limits.” The concept of a republic had been realized in smaller nations, but could it survive on the large scale that America presented? Jefferson realized that in order to assure the Union and benefit from the land, a national system of roads and canals would have to be built. Interestingly, one argument for a bridge over the East River had to do with national security and a safe, viable connection to the nation’s largest city. America had to become an industrial nation in order to survive. Industry breeds technology and technology breeds industry. The day the bridge opened, one article from the New York Times declared, “With the towers and anchorages completed, the stone age, as it may be conveniently called, gave way to the period of steel.” Stone and steel, the materials that comprise the Brooklyn Bridge, also make it a factual, visual representation of the nation’s shift to industry.
McCullough, David. The Great Bridge. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972
Trachtenberg, Alan. Brooklyn Bridge, fact and symbol. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965
Jefferson, Thomas, Koch, Adrienne, and Peden, William. The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Modern Library, 1998
Barnett, Clive, Low, Murray. Spaces of Democracy: Geographical Perspectives on Citizenship, Participation and Representation. London: Sage, 2004
“Making The Big Cables” New York Times 24 May 1883
Saint Augustine writes that what is important is not whether the animals existed, but what they meant: the focus is clearly on doctrine. The Bible is filled with an assortment of stories involving animals, fantastic and real. In Joel 2, an army of locusts resembling horses appears, they shake the earth, darken the sky, and shoot out flames that burn everything in their path. In Revelation 5, a dead lamb with seven horns and seven eyes comes back to life. In Revelation 9:17, fire-breathing horses with the heads of lions appear wearing breastplates of jacinth and brimstone. In Revelation 13:1-3, a seven headed beast with ten horns comes out of the sea wearing ten crowns on each horn: it resembles a leopard but has the feet of a bear and the mouth of a lion. One of his heads dies, but it comes back to life. In Revelation 13:11, a beast with horns like a lamb and a voice like a dragon comes out of the earth. In Revelation 16:13, unclean spirits in the shape of frogs come out of the mouth of a dragon, a beast, and a false prophet.
Ezekiel, in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is acknowledged as a prophet. Ezekiel has visions of four living creatures coming out of a cloud. Each creature shaped like a man, but each had four faces: the front face was human; the right was that of a lion; the left was that of an ox; and the back was that of an eagle (Ezekiel 1.4–14). Saint Jerome, translator of the bible, interpreted the human face as representing the rational part of man, the lion as the emotional, the ox as the appetitive, and the eagle as the spark of conscience by which we discern that we sin.
The griffin is a legendary creature with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. The griffin was thought to be an especially powerful and majestic creature because it combined the lion, considered the king of the beasts, and the eagle, the king of the birds. In antiquity it was a symbol of divine power and a guardian of the divine. George Chase noted that the Greeks borrowed the griffin from Asian art, but that the Greek griffins present a much livelier appearance than their Asian prototypes. The photograph on the right shows the head of a griffin from a Greek cauldron from the third quarter of 7th century BCE.
Head of a griffin from a cauldron, third quarter of 7th century BCE. Greek (from Olympia) Bronze On Display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Griffins, in the ancient world, were symbols of royalty and protectors of the dead. They continued to play these roles for Christians. A popular legend in the Byzantine era told of griffins carrying Alexander the Great through the sky so that he could view his empire. The second photograph on the right shows carved griffins found on Byzantine tombs, where they may have been placed to identify the dead of royal status and to afford them protection. The design of the relief is similar to patterns on Byzantine and Islamic silks.
Panel with a Griffin, 1250–1300 Byzantine; Possibly from Greece or the Balkans Marble On Display at the Metropolitan Museum of Ar
Between the second and fifth centuries19 CE an unidentified Christian writer compiled a book about animals, some of them fantastic, drawing on the work of pagan predecessors, but adding allegory. The Physiologus was comprised of fifty allegories in which each entry began with a biblical quotation, followed by a description of the animal which might be whimsical, followed in turn by an analogy or moral which would instruct the reader in some Christian truth.
The Physiologus was condemned as heretical in 469 A.D. by Pope Gelasius, but his ban had no real effect, as later Christian writers quoted from and even added to it. The photo below is of the Bern Physiologus, which is a 9th century copy of a 5th century manuscript of the Latin translation of the Physiologus. Many of its miniatures are set, unframed, into the text block, which was a characteristic of late-antique manuscripts. It is one of the oldest existing illustrated copies of the Physiologus. In the later Middle Ages, three works stand out as noteworthy in animal lore: De proprietatibus rerum by Bartholomaeus Anglicus; De apibus by Thomas of Cantempre’; and the Speculum aturale by Vincent of Beauvais.
The Bern Physiologus is a 9th century illuminated copy of the Latin translation of the Physiologus. About 825-850.
A terrific book for anyone interested in New York City history is Top Cats: The Life and Times of The New York Public Library Lions, by Susan G. Larkin. The book surveys the two lion sculptures that sit in front of the New York Public Library on 5th Avenue. Specifically, Larkin notes that the two lions have had several nicknames over the decades. First they were called Leo Astor and Leo Lenox, after The New York Public Library founders John Jacob Astor and James Lenox. Later, they were known as Lady Astor and Lord Lenox — even though they are both male lions (female lions do not have manes). During the 1930s, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia named the two lions in front of the Public Library on 5th Avenue, Patience and Fortitude, for the qualities he felt New Yorkers would need to survive the economic depression. These two names are still used today.
From books like Charlotte’s Web (an allegory for true friendship) to films like Godzilla (an allegory against the use of nuclear weapons) and Over the Hedge (an allegory about the effects of deforestation) animals play a part in telling mankind’s story: they stand in for humans in allegories and take the place of people in morality stories. The personification of animals is so common that we inherently accept animals as representatives for human behavior. Mankind, as the dominant species on the planet, should take better care of their cohabitants.
In Animals in Art and Thought, Francis Klingender writes, “neither the real relationship between men and beasts, nor the symbolic meanings attached at various times to beasts should be neglected to interpret the ever-changing forms of animal art.”
Brett, Gerard. “The Mosaic of the Great Palace in Constantinople.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 5, (1942), pp. 34-43
St. Augustine, the Literal Meaning of Genesis. vol. 1, Ancient Christian Writers., vol. 41. Translated and annotated by John Hammond Taylor, S.J. New York: Paulist Press, 1982
Chase, George H. “Three Griffins’ Heads.” Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts, Vol. 48, No. 272 (Jun., 1950), pp. 33-37
Evans, Helen C., Melanie Holcomb, and Robert Hallman. “The Arts of Byzantium.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, v. 58, no. 4 (Spring, 2001).
19 Scott, Alan. “The Date of the Physiologus.” Vigiliae Christianae, Vol. 52, No. 4 (Nov., 1998), pp. 430-441
20 Diekstra, F. N. M., “The Physiologus, the Bestiaries and Medieval Animal Lore,” Neophilologus, LXIX (1985), 142-55