The "real" Jesus

There have been books and documentaries talking about what the “real” Jesus looked like. Of course, nobody knows. Scientists have tried to guess based on what a statistically representative person living in that region might look like. Of course, we don’t really know what people from that region looked like 2000 years ago and Jesus’ father was from outside the region anyway. Does it matter?

I have been looking at examples of religious art, depicting Jesus, Mary and the Apostles. Very often, the people in the paintings look like the people who painted them. There were some very old conventions and some artists followed them. Some say the idea of what Jesus, Paul and Peter looked like was set before the 5th Century in art. I have included some examples.

The first is from Florence by an artist called Phillip Lippi. It is Mary and Jesus. We don’t know what Mary and Jesus looked like for sure, but thanks to this picture we know what at least some people in Florence looked like around 1400, since historians think this is Lippi’s wife and baby.

Next is Mary and Jesus by Giotto. He was among the first to make paintings more lifelike. We don’t know who he used as models, but his is a more traditional type of painting for the Virgin.

Getting into some older visions, we have St Peter & St Paul from what is now Turkey but in those days Constantinople was Roman. This is close to places where Peter and Paul actually walked. Finally a mosaic from Jordan, which is closer to the original action.
We talk today about having role models that “look like” us. Same back in those days.

Prado and other works of art

Everybody said that you have to see the Prado Museum if you go to Madrid. I am glad we went, but really glad we did not take the tour, which would have required spending much more time.

Let me stipulate that for students of masterpiece paintings, this must be heaven. They can study the evolving techniques and even study how the brush strokes of the masters varied with their experience and age.

Let me further stipulate that I am glad that this art is in the world and that many people treasure it. It makes some people gloriously happy and uplifted. Good.

Let me finally stipulate that I generally love museums, but I guess I am less enamored with fine arts, arts of arts’ sake. I like it to have a relationship to something more.

I enjoyed the portraits of the Hapsburg monarchs – strong family resemblance but not an attractive bunch. I enjoyed seeing the originals of many painting I had long seen in books. I appreciate Brueghel because of the landscapes and insights into climate. Dürer I like, maybe arts for arts sake. And I enjoyed the nearby table of deadly sins attributed to Hieronymus Bosch, but otherwise there were just too many painting of chubby children, emaciated saints and religious symbolism.

I am firmly believe, or at least fervently hope, that the ideas of medieval religion are wrong, else I am surely headed straight to hell. I will have a lot of company there because these guys though pretty much every normal human feeling was a sin. They venerated saints and penitents who went out and abused their bodies and minds.

It was not featured at the Prado, but I recall the story of one Simeon Stylites, who was considered a saint and holy man because he sat on top of a pillar in the Syrian Desert for 37 years, eating and drinking little and exposing himself to the elements. I think that is just plain nuts, certainly not admirable. And the whole incentive system is wrong. Crazy Simeon beats the crap out of himself for 37 years with the goal of going to a better place where he never has to do that again.

Anyway, I am glad I went to the Prado and I do not have to go again. I enjoyed the grounds around the museum. There were some really big cedar trees and a grove of plane trees, and across the street was a remarkable vertical garden, you see in the first picture. Maybe better than the paintings of the chubby babies.

La Jornada

You don’t have to go into the Albuquerque Art Museum to enjoy its holdings. A sculpture garden surrounds the building. Most interesting for me was La Jornada.

It depicts the journey of Spanish pioneers coming to New Mexico in 1598. It is very reminiscent of American pioneers moving west with a few big differences. The most obvious was the time. 1598 – that was nine years before Jamestown and twenty-two years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Another difference was the organization of the colonization. The Spanish effort was centrally directed, although financed mostly privately, and it seemed to be well-equipped. American pioneers were usually people just moving on their own, sometimes in defiance of the central authorities.

You can see what the statues look like in the photos. It is big. In addition are plaques containing the names of the colonists and origins of the colonists. Most came directly from Spain or Portugal, but others came from Mexico. Many of their descendants still live in New Mexico.

I was broadly aware of this interesting history, but visiting New Mexico has given me a lot better appreciation for the extent of the settlement.

My first two picture show the sculpture. Next is the story of the jornada. The last two are unrelated. Number 4 is St Francis and the last one is Geoffrey and Rothco. I think Rothco is the dog, but the plaque did not specify.

The Eye of the Beholder

I am not a big admirer of modern art, although I am learning to like it better. We usually appreciate things as we learn more about them and get more accustomed to them. It is like exposing your kids to vegetables. Eventually they get to like them at least some. I also understand that this art is popular among many of our friends and I can see the potential for exchanges and cooperation between our Brazilian friends and American counterparts.  In our work, the relationships are what count. Art, music & information are the shared interests that make the human connections work and make our work interesting. That is why we scheduled meetings with leaders at the Oscar Niemeyer Museum in Curitiba and a couple days later at the Fundação Iberé Camargo in Porto Alegre.

The Oscar Niemeyer Museum includes lots of his work as permanent exhibits and the works of other artists rotate through. During my visit, they were showing Polish poster art. The Fundação Iberé Camargo has a similar policy, with one floor devoted to the work of their eponymous artist and the others featuring temporary collections. (FYI – Most people are familiar with Oscar Niemeyer. Iberé Camargo was a Brazilian expressionist  from Rio Grande do Sul.) In both cases, the most remarkable part of the installations for me was not the art itself, but rather the cultural communities built around the museums and the buildings that housed them, which were also works of art.  

(Among the people I was supposed to meet in Porto Alegre was Eva Sopher, the woman responsible for the Theatro São Pedro.  You can see the Theatro just above. Notice that it is spelled in the old fashioned way, with an h. It was from her that I first learned to appreciate the importance of the total community that clusters around any cultural center. I wrote a post about this a couple years ago and if you read this post I suggest you read that one too at this link. I added the picture, BTW, so it is the same in both, but I took it on this most recent trip. Unfortunately, Eva couldn’t make it to our meeting.  I wanted to tell her the story. I did talk to her on the phone, but I don’t think I made the point well.)

You can see in the picture of the Oscar Niemeyer Museum why they informally call it “the eye.” Fundação Iberé Camargo also has a great architecture with “floating” corridors (i.e. the hang outside the building) to get from floor to floor. The building is made from white concrete and the “floating” aspect must have been a significant engineering challenge.  Nevertheless, the most striking aspect, IMO, is the beautiful location.  You can see on the picture the fantastic view of Porto Alegre you get from the Fundação building.

Disrespecting the Wishes of the Artist

The Milwaukee Art Museum building is itself a work of art, perched on a wonderful location up against Lake Michigan.  Chrissy & I saw it shrouded in the lake mists.   I am sure that the designers anticipated such meteorological events as part of the presentation.

How much does art belong to the artist?  This is a difficult question.  IMO, we revere artists too much.  Artists express themselves through their art.  But it only becomes meaningful when interpreted by other people.   I don’t really think very much of individual expression. Art is a social activity.  Below is a good example. It is the infinity room. The artist evidently thought it represented outer space. Do you think it does? And I think that Chrissy standing there greatly improves the artist’s vision. It is a human showing wonder at the otherwise soul-less light show. So the art was not complete until we stepped into it. And it will not be complete until others do too.

I wrote a couple of posts on this general subject here & here and won’t repeat it here.  I guess the general idea is that art is like a general idea.  You put it out there and other people add to it, change it and maybe perfect it. Below is the infinity room again with my feet improving the art.

I think it was a good thing when artists had patron who could help call the shots. A lot of great art resulted from the tensions between the creator and his patron.  When artists are left to their own, they too often drift into a kind of self-indulgence.  Art usually improves when it ages because it gets modified or reinterpreted.   Most art is incomplete when the artist gets done with his part.  Below is a “sunburst” sculpture.  It is made our of girders. It is interesting, but the city paid too much for it, since any competent steelworkers could make the same thing. In fact, when the city bought the thing, I recall that some old guy on the South Side made his own smaller version out of scrap steel.  Some art is like the “Emperor’s New Clothes”.