May 23, 2014 | by Lilly Lampe
A professor’s unlikely quest for busts of Alexander Pope.
“Fame and Friendship: Pope, Roubiliac, and the Portrait Bust in Eighteen-Century Britain,” recently on view at the Yale Center for British Art, tells a curious tale of Alexander Pope’s legacy, focusing on the strange fervor that continues to surround busts and portraits of him. Pope, whose birthday was earlier this week, was a household name, at least in one sector of British society. He was the first English poet to publish two volumes of his own collected works while living—and with the publication of the first volume, he also became the first English author to sustain himself entirely on the proceeds of his work. And he didn’t lead a meager existence. Pope was able to lease a sizable villa near Richmond, a painting of which was on view in Yale’s exhibition.
For any writer, these achievements would’ve been no small feat, but they’re especially impressive in light of Pope’s many obstacles. He was a Catholic at a time when Catholics weren’t allowed to live within ten miles of London or Westminster or to attend university; and he was beset with health problems that led to a visible hunchback and permanently stunted his height. Even so, Pope became a celebrated member of the British literary canon—someone whose very image evoked intellectual achievement.
Paintings and busts of Pope were commissioned for wealthy families and artistic friends—they conferred status among men of letters. According to Joseph Roach, Sterling Professor of Theater and English at Yale, when Voltaire visited England in 1727, he marveled that he saw Pope’s portrait in “twenty noblemen’s houses.” The placement of these busts was telling of the poet’s reputation; he was displayed with such notable British intellectuals as Laurence Sterne and Isaac Newton.
“Fame and Friendship” assembled an intriguing array of these busts, made of stately marble or—in the case of a petite, mass-produced work—porcelain. At the center of the collection are eight busts of Pope by French émigré sculptor Louis François Roubiliac, created between 1738 and 1760. Though they were made over the course of twenty-two years, they carry certain hallmarks: a telltale droop beneath Pope’s eyes, a marked thinness in his cheeks, an inquisitive gaze, and a slender nose. In Roubiliac’s skillful hands, the signs of Pope’s infirmity are presented instead as characteristics befitting a poetic countenance, with all the sensitivity that poetry implies. Read More »
April 29, 2014 | by Lilly Lampe
Late last year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art unveiled “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China,” the institution’s first survey of contemporary art from the country. Situated within the museum’s Chinese art galleries, the exhibition interspersed the old with the new, adding context—or, perhaps, simply conserving space. In the permanent Ming Scholar’s retreat, an aubergine rubber scholar rock by Zhang Jianun cast a long shadow over its limestone brethren, while unusable furnishings by the artist-activist Ai Weiwei—a wobbly stool constructed like craniopagus twins, and a table folded at the middle so its four legs have become two legs and two arms—seemed poised to animate and wander away from their sixteenth-century predecessors. Resistance to tradition is a prominent theme in Ink Art, as is the importance of writing in—subtext, of course—a country with an active policy of censorship.
The exhibition looked at the evolution of China’s calligraphic traditions, but its most powerful statement came with works that play on an idea of language, rather than on actual words. Song Dong’s 1996 performance Printing on Water (Performance in the Lhasa River, Tibet), in which the artist futilely stamped the water’s surface with a large wooden seal, alludes to the hopelessness the act of writing can evoke, particularly if it leaves no trace. The final two works in “Ink Art” are also concerned with meaningless writing—but they combined to create a more comforting message. Xu Bing’s installation Book from the Sky filled the last room with scrolls covered in block-printed Chinese characters. The text cascaded in soft arcs across the ceiling, wallpapering the room and coming to rest in neat piles on the floor. The careful organization evokes a calm—which is abruptly displaced when one learns that the text comprises four thousand nonsense characters. Most Western viewers wouldn’t be able to read the text anyway, but the realization that no one can is transformative. An expanse of gibberish becomes an inhabitable space of words: the viewer is absolved from the act of reading. Read More »
February 25, 2014 | by Lilly Lampe
Ferran Adrià: Notes on Creativity, on view at the Drawing Center in New York through this week, seeks to claim the status of artist for one of the most innovative chefs working today. Adrià gained fame at the now-shuttered Spanish restaurant elBulli, where he sustained a three-star Michelin rating for fourteen years and garnered comparisons to another famous Catalan, Salvador Dali. To call a chef an artist can smack of hyperbole, but the new vanguard in contemporary cuisine, led in no small part by Adrià, is defying previous definitions of gastronomy. But despite the surge in technique—and for that matter, cost—food’s ephemeral, basic-need status inclines art purists to consider it a flash in the pan. Notes on Creativity resolves these tensions with sketches and notes that indicate the complex, restless work of Adrià’s kitchen, to say nothing of his mind.
The objects on display—ledgers, notebooks, scrap paper—illuminate the extent to which cooking is a creative process, as impassioned and compulsory as any. While he ran elBulli, Adrià kept detailed records, filling stray pieces of paper with plating ideas, loose concepts, and flavor profiles. In these ephemera we see the evolution of Adrià’s style over decades, and his determination to articulate his designs. The sketches are a window into the expanse of Adrià’s imagination, in particular the plasticity of his process. As it turns out, he is just as likely to start with a visual impression of a dish, figuring out the flavor components later, as he is to begin with an ingredient—an approach that seems like the culinary equivalent of Ginger Rogers doing Fred Astaire’s moves backward and in heels. Read More »