The Hidden World of the Maya @ the Witte Museum

I continue to be a fan of San Antonio’s art museums. The Witte has been on Broadway since 1926; I remember going there on field trips as a child and every few decades since. After hearing about the new  Mays Family Center exhibit  Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed I decided to see how much it had changed. I was impressed.

Many of the stations were interactive, fun for all ages. And in the fine tradition of Curly, the maitre d butler at Earl Able’s restaurant, the Witte has a robot who greets you with “Como etas.”

Entering the world of the Maya means opening your imagination to a remarkable culture that knew as much about the stars as it did the Earth and built pyramids and cities in the jungles of Mexico and Central America. Like Atlantis, it vanished mysteriously, leaving behind monumental cities, sign and numeric alphabets with sound and picture hieroglyphics and an ongoing farming tradition featuring corn, squash and beans called the three sisters. Mathematically and astronomically, they established epochal calendars without a telescope, based on centuries of recorded observations.  The model city and pyramid below are from the city of Caracol, thought to have had a population of around 150,000.

There were hundreds of villages and cities, trading, warring and forming alliances, with a peak population of more than 2 million.  Rulers were Gods, they gave their blood to ensure continuing prosperity while priests observed and recorded the movements of Venus, the moon, sun and stars using a 13 month calendar crafted over hundreds of years. Caves and other sacred portals to the underworld conveyed the God of Maize from death to rebirth in an ongoing cycle of resurrection, a theme common to cultures the world over.

Mayan folk paid taxes in woven textiles, an artisanal  tradition alive and well  today. They mined jade, used for making beautiful jewelry and as adornments embedded in teeth by dentists, whose practices flourished alongside other healers and surgeons.  Advanced mathematical, architectural and astronomical insights are preserved in the few remaining codices, rescued from destruction by conquistadores and Catholic priests, who considered them the devil’s handiwork. Like the Library of Alexandria, the loss is incalculable.

Some credit the Maya with inventing the game of basketball. While there are some similarities, the stakes were much higher for the warriors at their ball courts. Ball Court The ball was made of rubber, drained from trees and layered until it was an 8-10 pound missile. The players strapped on 20 pound stone waist guards and used their amazing core strength to keep the ball in play.  Losers were often sacrificed and winners were richly rewarded with the losers’ wealth.  The game changed over centuries of play, with some suggestion that it served as a ritual substitute for warfare.  Hero Twin myths point to the origin of the game as a transitional space between the underworld and the land above.  The court was a place to work out the disputes and manage competition that allowed for alliances and trade to flourish.

I highly recommend this great end of summer day trip for the whole family.  It will be interesting to see how the Witte integrates the programs at the Mays Center into exhibits that have kept Texans informed and entertained  for almost a century.



Intimate Impressionism at the McNay

MellonFamilyThe Impressionist exhibit at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio is on loan from the National Gallery in Washington DC.  It is arguably one of the finest and most deeply personal collections of Impressionist and Post Impressionist art in the world.  Ailsa Mellon and her brother Paul (pictured above) spent many years crafting a selection of smaller paintings meant to convey a more intimate glimpse into the life and times of a generation of artists that changed the way we see  and hear the world. These pretty pictures cannot capture the feeling and the character of the paintings.  We will all experience them differently and feel drawn to the vision of each artist in our own way. For example, I would not have expected Lautrec’s small painting of Carmen Gaudin to be so compelling, so imbued with her presence.  To feel inexplicably moved or to step into a moment when time stands still – this is the felt experience of art.

It is so inspiring to resonate with a vision that changes the way you see the world.  I highly recommend seeing the show for yourself, but make haste. This exhibit ends on January 4th.

Matisse, Oracle of the Emergent Anima

The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom
Maya Angelou

Josephine Baker was a living symbol of the new 20th Century woman.  Sexually daring, athletic, funny and beautiful, she became the cultural amima of Paris in the Jazz Age.  Matisse was one of many admirers and she dined well among luminaries of the Moveable Feast.  Flappers like Zelda Fitzgerald lived on the edge, walking a tightrope between two world wars, booze in one hand, pen and paper in the other. TheCowboy  Paris embraced the world of American Jazz, Oriental art, philosophy and African and Sub-Saharan culture with a explosion of visual art, music and literature.  From Dada to Existentialism, the French avant garde movements provided vigorous intellectual fireworks, until they were overshadowed by the bombs of World War II.   Salons, like Gertrude Stein’s gathered and supported writers and artists who found patronage and creative synergy. The Cone Sisters and the Steins were among the most loyal collectors of Matisse, including most of the paintings and sculptures shown in these posts.

Matisse painted vital, often sexual imagery in the inner language of the subconscious.  Yet, he portrayed women with their own agency who were emotionally and intellectually complex.

Obviously, we have a long way to go before we achieve true equality; there always seems to be one step backward for every two forward. But, the energy of independent women in the arts, in the workforce and culturally propells us forward through interminable wars.

We started with Josephine Baker and I’ll end with a clip from Princesse Tam Tam, somewhat ironic yet apt.   Josephine Baker’s character came to Paris as an exotic Moroccan “princess” who arouses the ire of blonde society matrons. They trick her into throwing off the flimsy chains of civilization, revealing the wild beast within as she must respond to the beat of tribal drums. Notice the synchronized choreography of the white chorus girls (ala Busby Berkeley) before she leaps into the dance, a wild  woman freed.

Wild Beasts of the Jazz Age – Matisse and Fauvism

Riverwalk by SAMA

The Matisse: Life in Color exhibit at the San Antonio Museum of Art, on loan from the Baltimore Museum of Art features more than 80 drawings, paintings and sculptures.  The extensive Cone Sisters collection contributes the bulk of these phenomenal works and will only be in San Antonio until September 7, 2014.  A pop up cafe  (The Wild Beast) and Matisse themed treats are offered around town, in the spirit of the man whose exquisite sense of color started a movement all its own.

Fauvism poster at the Wild Beast Cafe

Fauvism was a short lived but potent bridge between the impressionist and later avant-garde movements of the early 20th Century.  Henri Matisse was the acknowledged leader and the yin to Pablo Picasso’s Cubist yang. Wild beasts were loosed into Europe, through the advent of psychoanalysis, World War I and the Jazz Age.  Vibrant, living, emotive color flowed from the Impressionists into the palettes of these passionate, unruly artists.  In 1906, the 20th Century was full of promise, psychology having just lifted the lid off the unconscious mind.  ElevatorWild beasts fighting the repression of the Victorian era found a welcome home in Paris, which later became an international haven for writers, artists and African American jazz musicians in the 1920’s.  I’ve separated the photos I took at the exhibit into 2 parts.  The gallery below focuses on the undulating rhythms of color and form, the beasts.  The second post will focus on the emergence of the dark feminine, the liberated erotic woman of the new era.  Asian and Africa design themes influenced European culture in ways never imagined by colonialists who kept Queen and country sacrosanct.

Paris was the crucible of art, literature, philosophy and fashion in the early 1900s. France and Spain were always more open to the exotic influences of the Orient and of Africa than the English and Dutch colonialists. Artists began to see the world in ways that could be considered prescient, given the perspectives  science and technology afford us today. Light, form and color were transformed to capture the life of the mind, the spirit and speak directly to the flesh. It’s that experience of color splashing into the body, senses undulating with the rhythm of the paintings, the secret language of artistic seduction that a live viewing of these works convey.   Energizing the body, mind and spirit and lifting us out of the doldrums that being human imposes – this is the gift of art.  Go and see for yourself.  MatisseBed

I would like to recapture that freshness of vision which is characteristic of extreme youth when all the world is new to it.

SAMA presents “Tim’s Vermeer”

Cello_FlowersTim’s Vermeer is an amazing project and now a film in which Tim Jennison, a computer engineer attempts to replicate Vermeer’s The Music Lesson, despite having no formal training as a painter. Tim, the owner of NewTek, a post-production video tool and visual imaging software company, described his magnicent obsession at the San Antonio Museum of Art to an appreciative hometown audience.

The Camera Obscura is a device which projects an image of its surroundings onto a screen.  Artists and astronomers have been using projectors in many forms for centuries, with early mentions from China in the 4th Century, in 14th Century Islam and in Europe, where the astronomer Johannes Kepler coined the phrase camera obscura. Camera_Obscura Leonardo da Vinci was an enthusiast:

“Who would believe that so small a space could contain the image of all the universe? O mighty process! What talent can avail to penetrate a nature such as these? What tongue will it be that can unfold so great a wonder? Verily, none! This it is that guides the human discourse to the considering of divine things. Here the figures, here the colors, here all the images of every part of the universe are contracted to a point. O what a point is so marvelous!”

Speculation that Vermeer used a mechanical aid have been entertained for centuries, but no one could prove it. Tim Jennison had a stark realization, while looking closely at The Music Lesson, that drove him to recreate the studio and the device that would allow him to replicate the painting.  He began his talk admitting that it was an exercise in obsession, and he did go to almost unbelievable lengths to use exactly the same technology that Vermeer would have used in the 17th Century. Grinding_Lens This included grinding the lens for the mirror, making the paint from minerals of the era and building the furniture, including the harpsichord.  Most fortuitously, they found a rare, 15th Century Persian rug that exactly matched the rug in the painting.  I would highly recommend renting the movie to see how one man’s passion became a labor of love and an amazing journey for all the people involved in the project including his friends, magicians Penn and Teller. David Hockney, the painter and physicist Charles Falco wrote about Renaissance artists’ use of optics in their controversial book Secret Knowledge in 2001, prompting outrage and near hysterical resistance on the part of art historians and artists alike.
SetupSo, when Tim realized that the human eye was incapable of perceiving the many gradations of white to grey that he saw in the wall of Vermeer’s painting, he decided to see if the camera obscura  would make the difference. What he found, was that once he set up his device he could paint from the projection until the color on the canvas blended with the image, whether or not  it looked “right” to his eye.  It worked like magic, which is kind of expected when you’re working with magicians. It’s a great story, including the clincher which made it almost certain that Vermeer used a lens, but you’ll have to rent the movie to find out.  Shown below is Tim’s painting of The Music Lesson.

Faux_VermeerThe art community has become less defensive on behalf of its revered masters and indeed, ingenuity and painstaking craft are tools of the trade, however transcendent the final expression.  As David Hockney has said on many occasions, the use of a device does not diminish Vermeer’s genius in any way. The soul of the artist shines through.

Fabric, fashion and texture

The McNay Museum in San Antonio has a wonderful costume exhibit made even better by its masterful presentation.  Costumes and Cinema features fashion from Pirates of the Caribbean, The Duchess, Sense and Sensibility, Sherlock Holmes and others. I focused on the textures and elegant lines, shifting between my appreciation for the exquisite craft of the costumers and the many dimensions of touch my eyes allowed me to feel.


Castroville and the Orient Expressed at the McNay in San Antonio

Tasty tour of Castroville, the charming Alsatian village with the ever enticing Old Alsatian Steakhouse and Ristorante. Tito’s tip of the day: 2010 Victor Hugo Viognier from the Paseo Robles region (yelp reviews), paired with flounder – resonant! The old world charm of this unique village is understated enough to provide a welcome reprieve from the standard issue box houses that line the I-35, 410, I-10 corridors. Historically strategic during the civil and Indian wars, the city has kept many historical dwellings intact along with the French/German (Alsace) heritage that distinguishes it from the Germanic dorf of Fredricksburg.

The McNay Art Museum in San Antonio took us back into the tine of Japonisme and its influence on Art Nouveau and Impressionism in Europe in the 1890’s and 1900’s with drawings of Mary Cassatt featured. While no pictures of the exhibit were allowed, I include a few whimsical shots below.

San Antonio Christmas and sauntering down 1826

It’s always nice to be with family for a traditional Christmas dinner. Our hosts, my sister Lucy and brother in-law Bill are beyond gracious. Growing up in a military family with a European mother and living oversees made me a world citizen before I knew I was American. In the last few years I’ve understood how much honor and courage means to me. It takes courage to face the ups and downs, the battle of life. Generally I prefer a more aesthetic approach, but one rises to meet challenges with grit, a quality I learned at home. Missing Aurora, who traveled north to Buffalo for a white (and frigid) Christmas, we were warm but not as bright.

The tables turned to more down home fare at the Salt Lick, as I meandered out to meet my sister Carol, Mike (my other brother in-law) and Dick, in from California and up for ribs. Holy smoke, I believe it has expanded threefold (like my waistline) but the food is still authentic and the people friendly. Except in the parking lot, where the feeding frenzy prompted snapping carnivores to lose some holiday cheer. We got our cheer back at the Duchman Family Winery (formerly Mandola’s) where we sipped some reds and whites, and split North and South. It’s probably clear to most who venture into this blog that I’m “big on Austin” but honestly, where else can you drive out in the country for great barbecue, enjoy the rolling hills and fields, cypress creeks, vineyards, an ass or two and Barsana Dham, a Hindu temple? The evidence speaks for itself. I hope you stay merry through the New Year and into 2011!

Sauntering around San Antonio

Bill and I had fun in San Antonio, staying at the Hotel Havana on the Riverwalk. I was given a membership to the McNay Museum as an early Christmas gift, signaling the start of a new series of photo abstractions. I’ve included a few, but most are in development. Friday evening we dined at the famed Liberty Bar in its new location in the King William district (housed in a former convent). A lovely meal, nice appetizers and a particularly tasty Cotes du Rhone, easily 3.75 stars. Apparently, Black Friday was cause for celebration and a river parade, adding a little glitter to the experience and a lot of traffic. The Havana Bar was a fabulous dungeon with underground cellar or hotel elevator entrances, good drinks and quaint alcoves. While it was busy, Bill, Carol and I managed to take over a sitting room with little fanfare. On Saturday we visited the Pearl Brewery farmer’s market, had a drab cup of coffee and a questionable taco. Off to La Villita looking for blankets then back to the King William district for an outstanding breakfast at Tito’s. For a convenient overnight trip, this was a lot of fun. I recommend everything but the Hotel Havana for a quiet night’s sleep. Charm trumps comfort there.