This winter break, I stumbled into the National Academy for the first time. I was on my way back from the Guggenheim when I bumped into a woman handing out flyers for the National Acamdey exhibit- “Beyond the Classical: Imagining the Ideal Across Time.” We chatted a bit about the concept for the show and I was hooked- I had to see this exhibit! “Beyond the Classical” is a collection of works that are both classical and drawn from classical motifs and themes. The duality of older works with art that modifies the idea of the “male nude” or “the Renaissance portrait” creates an interesting dialogue within the exhibit. One can see the trajectory of art through time, as well as references to the past that exist in many contemporary works. It is also comical at times to see how contemporary artists have drawn upon classical themes for various purposes.
Andres Sermano’s “White Baby Jesus” and “Black Baby Jesus,” draw on the motif of the Baby Jesus, seen in Medieval paintings usually with the Virgin Mary by his side. The two versions, one black and one white, draw attention to the question of race in the Bible. Was Jesus white, or was he black? Scientific evidence of where biblical events took place suggest something closer to the latter. But perhaps more importantly, these works bring to the forefront the question of race in modern society. Sermano’s “White Baby Jesus” is illuminated with a heavenly glow. Behind him, a white veil of smoke uncurls. Sermano’s “Black Baby Jesus” is also glowing, but with what looks like starlight from within. His face is both camouflaged by the array of stars and illuminated by it. Beside each other, the portraits look different, but I do not perceive a power dynamic to suggest that one is correct and the other is wrong. It is as if Sermano presents to the viewer two, different, yet equally beautiful, images of what the baby Jesus might have looked like. Looking at the two portraits, I wonder what they would look like overlapping one another. Would the image become clearer or more obscured? I left these works with no answer to the question of what Jesus looked like, but with a sense of calm and serenity. “White Baby Jesus” and “Black Baby Jesus” are universal symbols for Christianity, but only when paired together.
Katherine Gilje’s “Lady with an Ermine, Restored” (1945) also recalls a classical image: that of Lady with an Ermine, the famous painting by Leonardo DaVinci. Just as “White Baby Jesus” and “Black Baby Jesus” use a classical image to make a statement about the present, this work re-imagines a Renaissance image to critique a present day issue. The Lady’s neck and chest has been tattoo’d with the phrase, “Animals are not ours to eat, experiment, or wear.” Meanwhile, she holds an ermine in her claw-like hands, further signifying her support for the ethical treatment of animals. The anachronism of the Renaissance woman and tattoos is aesthetically shocking, and somewhat comical. Perhaps Gilje chose this anachronistic image to draw a viewer in initially and subsequently reveal her political purpose. Or, perhaps Gilje is recalling a time before the mass consumption of animals for food, experimentation, and clothing.
Marcel Duchamp’s, “L.H.O.O.Q.” also modifies a famous DaVinci image, the “Mona Lisa.” In this reproduction, a simple mustache has been doodled on her upper lip, and a triangular patch of facial hair placed below her bottom lip. This work is one of Duchamp’s ready-mades, a genre of art in which existing objects are modified or simply placed in a different context, in order to be considered ‘art.’ The modification here is the addition of facial hair, and the framing to change its context from doodle to artwork. It is a self-conscious mockery of the definition of art. The title is similarly snide. When pronounced in French, it is a rather rude pun suggesting female sexual restlessness. One could make the leap that “L.H.O.O.Q.” confronts stereotypes of femininity, but I found the mood of this artwork too lighthearted for such an interpretation. “L.H.O.O.Q.” impishly asks the viewer whether or not it is art. The Mona Lisa’s famously eerie eyes and small smile serve this purpose well. Her gaze follows the viewer, taunting him or her to make a judgment, yet without taking herself too seriously.
Perhaps the most frightening piece in this exhibit was Barry X Ball’s, “Purity.” I have shown a frontal view, a back view, and a side view here. Ball has carved from Mexican onyx and stainless steel what looks like a classical bust, then draped it in a stone veil. On top of this veil he has carved chunks of stone out and given the bust the appearance of rotting, decaying flesh. In this first image, one can see a downturned left eye on the viewer’s right. The woman appears to be looking down, perhaps in prayer. Where her right eye should be is a patchwork of gaping red holes. Bits of white dust sprinkle the lining of these stomach-turning patches. My visceral response to “Purity” was a result of the uncanny resemblance to decay. Though the coloring is more burgundy than red, and the work is created from stone, not human parts, one cannot help but equate this statue to a corpse. Even more odd is the title, “Purity,” which is the opposite of this woman’s damaged, bloody figure. Upon reflection, I wondered if “Purity” used the classical motif of the female bust to make a statement about abuse against women. The bust’s arms are bound by the shroud that covers her face. Her downturned eyes could be closed in submission, pain, or death. The holes drilled into her skull could be a metaphor for the pain she has endured, or horrifying literal. It almost looks as if she is wrapped in a bloody sheet. From this perspective, “Purity” becomes a sadly ironic title. The purity has been stolen from this nameless woman, who is a symbol of female humanity.
Devorah Sperber’s “After the Mona Lisa 5,” (2007) utilizes the motif of the Mona Lisa as well. Seen from up close, the work is just a web of spools of thread. But behind the clear acrylic viewing sphere, the spools create the image of the Mona Lisa. This optical illusion is a scientific re-imagining of a classical image, and one that fascinates the eye.
I was also fascinated by Tallur L.N.’s “Eraser Pro” (2013). In this sculpture, the walking figure bears semblance to Greek and Roman figures in contrapposto. This is the term to describe the stride this figure is in the midst of, with one foot in front of the other. He is made from bronze and grasps a bronze walking stick. His form is in the middle of what is either decomposition or materialization. One cannot tell if the bits of bronze that form his likeness are fading away, or coming together to create a whole. Looking at this statue is an experience of oscillation between these two views. L.N.’s purpose is unclear. Perhaps he is making commentary on the state of man being merely an image, an outside form with vacant insides. Or perhaps he is portraying the decaying of Roman and Greek style as art and culture drift farther and farther from the past. Regardless of your interpretation, “Eraser Pro” bears both a majestic quality and a sadness. It glimmers and stands upright while it clings to representation, and its very existence.
“Beyond the Classical: Imagining the Ideal Across Time” includes several works that are not modern interpretations, but original portrayals of classical ideals.
Here is George Willoughby Maynard’s “Civilization” (1886). It demonstrates Pre-Raphaelite ideals of female beauty and a classically rendered throne.
Here is Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s “The Young Sorcerer” (1877). It is typical of nineteenth century portrayals of young boys, often exoticized and sexualized and shown in sharply geometrical, neoclassical rooms. The young boy’s form is both youthful and tantalizing, and strong and muscular, most likely to show off the painter’s technical prowess.
You may see, now, how interesting it was to wander this exhibit. Beside images that interpreted classical themes were classical images that were constructed from the purest forms of these ideals. It would only have been better if Duchamp’s “L.H.O.O.Q.” were hung in the Lourve beside the Mona Lisa herself. Some of these works made statements about the present, while others cheekily confronted the viewer’s view of art itself. It is a testament to the staying power of classical ideals that they can be used for such a variety of contemporary purposes. This exhibit was also a marvel of technology. The inventive use of materials, from spools of thread to digital manipulation created a wonderfully textured experience.
If you get a chance, stop by the National Academy Museum. It is certainly going on my list of must-sees when I’m home in NYC.
I have so many exhibits to catch up on writing about! Keep an eye out for several from the Met! So many wonderful exhibits on right now. I also found out that I am going to London for spring break and there’s TONS of museums to see there. Literally cannot wait.
Until next time,
xoxo, Chloe ❤