Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Cincinnati Art Museum

I spent the hour prior to RJ's birthday party
last Saturday
going through
The Cincinnati Art Museum

shooting pictures
of pieces that met the following qualifications:

1. I remember liking them 40-50 years ago

2. I still like them

3. They're photographable (which is a real problem
since so much sculpture
is now behind reflective glass)

I've led off with the above Twachtman
since it really does strike me as the most remarkable
work by a local painter.
It's dreamy moodiness appealed to me
when I was a teenager,
and it's oriental power
appeals to me now.

I've also always been drawn
by these reliefs from Persepolis,
fragmentary to begin with,
and even more fragmentary now,
since I can only photograph them
by putting the lens right up against the glass case.

I hate glass cases !

I like to feel that me and the stone
are breathing the same air.

These Persians were wonderful !
Can you imagine an entire wall of this stuff ?

The dimly lit galleries
of ancient stone-silver-bronze
artifacts have always been my favorite.

So quiet - dark - empty - peaceful.

Most of the things I remember liking
are the things my father told me were
especially good...

like this Guanyin
from the 14th C.

I'd like to show you the entire piece,
but once again,
it's been put into a big glass case
and I can't shoot (or see) through the reflections.

Here's the enormous
mural that was always
shown in the same room as the above statue.

It's something of a ruin,
but it still is a powerful,
magical image
that turns the room into a temple.

And most regretfully,
it is now
on display in the entire museum !!!

the great collection
of Chinese landscape and calligraphy
that made me such a lover of that genre
has now been completely removed from view.

(even including this
famous scroll after which this blog has been named!)

I don't know why the curators have done this,
but I do know that with a
few good thumbscrews,
Judge Dee could get to the bottom of this crime.

Just outside the Chinese galleries,
lies this delightful spot
where I have spent many a meditative moment
while working through my life as a teenager.

That grassy plot running down the middle
used to be a reflecting pool,
and RJ tells me that
it was a fine place for drunken parties
back when he and Bill Leonard
were on the faculty of the Art Academy.

(which used to be adjacent to the Art Museum)
(Bill was the father of Danny Leonard -
who just threw RJ such a great birthday party)

For me,
this curious fellow always served
as the epitome
of Classical culture

The courtyard is also home
to two over-life size statues
by Harriet Frishmuth.

RJ always castigated them as sissy stuff
(after all -- Harriet was a woman -- and Lesbian as well)
but I always enjoyed their
endless, serpentine, sensuality.

Isn't that a grape vine she's holding ?

Don't we need to
be tipping wine glasses ?

Here's one of the glorious English portraits
from the museum,
this one by Thomas Lawrence
(whose portrait of Mrs. Wolff
so captures me at the Art Institute)

our other favorite portrait
was on loan elsewhere today
(Gainsborough's "Mrs. Philip Thicknesse" ,
after whom RJ named
his family of English bulldogs)

This Mantenga has always amazed me
with the chiseled quality of its drawing.

How could anyone have the patience
to move so slowly across the space ?

It exemplifies a kind of rock hard determination
that seems so foreign to anything done after 1800

This medieval statue
has always reminded me of me
so I've drawn it several times over the years.

a bookish lad

with a wide-eyed
blank stare
(like a deer caught in the headlights)

(actually -- this is John the Evangelist, 13th C. French)

and now we move on the Duvenecks
like this early one from 1873
when Frank was 25

It's hard to think of Cincinnati's "old master"
as a precocious kid
knocking around Europe,
but he was


What especially intrigues me now,
is that Duveneck
would fit right in
to my Palette and Chisel Academy
as it is today.

(for example, this painting by Douglas David)


..and I've always loved the theme of
Harem Guards.

(ready to give their lives,
or take yours,
in defense of the Master's women)

and though I knew they were "only illustration",
the wild west paintings of Henry Farny always appealed to me,
and always made me feel like I was there
(even if Farny never was)

But what happened to his depiction of the
cavalryman who was captured by Indians
and staked spread-eagle on the sand
beneath the burning sun?

Where has that painting gone ???

moving on to the more serious works,
I've always been intrigued by this scene
by Herri met de Bles (c. 1540)

for both the bizarre scene in the foreground
(why would a father ever want to kill his son ?)
the infinite landscape behind them.

This is really the kind of painting
that invites you to move in,
find some shady tree,
and take a nap for a few hours,
before hiking up to those distant mountains.

a happy world,
where beautiful angels
save gentle innocent sons
from judgmental fathers.

But this painting also brings to mind
the great tragedy of the old master collection
at the Cincinnati Art Museum

where, 30 years ago,
some half-witted curators
sent so many early European paintings off to be over-cleaned,
stripping the paintings of their outer glazes,
removing the areas of depth,
and making them all feel like pastel drawings.

It was really a tragedy
that effectively
and irreversibly
damaged so much of the collection
of the Cincinnati Art Museum,
demoting it down to the level of

By now,
the perpetrators are long gone,
but their crimes will live forever.

(note: the above Botticelli is in tempera,
so it never had any glazes to remove,
but it still seems to have been scrubbed
to within a millimeter of its life)

On a happier note,
this Rubens sketch
somehow escaped the massacre,
and I feel it had a strong effect
on the direction of RJ's aesthetic

this tour ends with RJ's favorite sculpture
from the museum,
this Hellenistic bull.

This piece was always in a glass case,
but it used to have a stand-alone pedastal
so the viewer could walk around for all the views.

No more.

RJ tells the story
of how the Museum Director,
Philip Rhys Adams,
stuck out his neck
to exhaust the museum's budget
to purchase this piece back in the early 50's,
back when RJ taught at the Art Academy
and Philip Adams was the boss.

(So it appears that Adams and RJ had similar tastes,
but that didn't prevent the one from
firing the other for insubordination
a short time later.)


Anonymous marly said...


Another of your delicious and opinionated tours...

Is the Herri met de Bles meant to be Abraham and Isaac, rendered up-to-date in European landscape? Is that blue-gray thing to the left the sheep caught in thorns? Must be. Very appropriate to the season.

Of course, a father named Abraham didn't want to kill his son. He was just obedient to his Father's seemingly irrational demand. He had the bizarre idea that he could be obedient and yet still have the promised seed spread like stars. Oddly enough, he was right.

You knew that.

You just didn't like it!

March 24, 2008  
Blogger chris miller said...

Thanks for pointing out the sheep caught in the thorn bush.

Maybe if I had seen it before -- I wouldn't have felt so bad about the abuse of poor Isaac.

Couldn't those three (God, Abraham, and Isaac) have found some better entertainment for that beautiful, sunny day ?

March 24, 2008  
Blogger marlyat2 said...


Just think what a loss to the Arts if the three had gone sunbathing instead!

Another thought: the historian Josephus described Isaac as a full-grown man in his 20's or 30's. Abraham is old. That suggests something very different about the nature of the sacrifice (willing) and I suppose strengthens it as a prefiguring of Christ's sacrifice.

But nobody paints it that way.

March 28, 2008  
Blogger Lee M said...

Was Harriet Frishmuth really a lesbian? The fact that she created so much erotic female nude sculpture would seem to suggest it (The Vine is practically pornographic), but I'm wondering if there's any documentary proof.

May 20, 2015  

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