Friday, November 06, 2009

Old and new

(Right: Female figure, attributed to the Ashmolean Master, Greece, Cycladic Islands, Naxos Early Cycladic II, Dokathismata variety, 2400–2300 B.C. The Menil Collection, Houston. Below: A building considerably newer in another part of town.)

You know what Houston is, don't you? It's an intoxicating mix of old and new.

The new I knew about (Houston has no zoning to speak of, and residents say it eats its old buildings for breakfast); the not-so-new I didn't know until now.

The not so new came in the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum and the Menil Collection (neither of which is depicted at left). The latter is home to the Cycladic woman pictured above and to collections from the Byzantine and Medieval worlds, Africa, the Pacific Islands (notably a giant anthropomorphic slit drum from Vanuatu and a war and hunting god from Papua New Guinea), the Pacific Northwest, and, from closer to our own time and place, rooms devoted to Cy Twombly and surrealism.

The Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum offers an evocative setting for some thirteenth-century church paintings that have an interesting history.

The two museums are recent foundations, both having opened since 1987. The founders came from oil-drilling money. It's always good to reflect on the wealth and power that brought great art collections together, whether in the museums and the National Gallery founded by the railroad and steel barons from Boston to Washington, or in the Vatican museums. It's one more layer of pulsating life behind all that art, and it's nice to know that rich people can find good things to do with their money.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Blogger Gary Corby said...

Your trivia for the day: there are many surviving female figurines from the Cyclades of this period. They all have their arms crossed in front of them, and no one knows why.

Let me know when you have the answer.

November 06, 2009  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

Byzantine culture makes for such fascinating study. I've found John Julius Norwich's A Short History of Byzantium particularly interesting.

November 06, 2009  
Blogger Declan Burke said...

Gary - the figurines adopt that pose for the reason every woman in history has adopted that pose ... the Cycladian men came home late from boozing with the guys, the dinner was ruined, the kids had been fighting again ... y'know.

Cheers, Dec

(v-word: 'frograck')

November 06, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gary, those Cycladic figures turn up everywhere. I just didn't expect to see any in Houston.

Declan beat me to the punch with his astute iconographic reading. The woman virtually says: "Urgent call from the Kephala office, my smooth marble rear end! You've been hitting the ouzo again."

November 06, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Declan, is it any coincidence that another known artifact type from the Cyclades is the Cycladic frying pan:

Those Cycladic women knew how to take care of wayward husbands.

In re v-word, I shall refrain from the obvious wisecracks about Paris and, er, you know ...

November 06, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren, I've read one volume of Norwich's longer history of the Byzantine empire, and I've visited a few of the great Byzantine sites. I'll count Venice among these, where one can see some of the art looted from Constantinople when the Christians undertook their great holy Crusade against their fellow Christians in 1204.

Byzantine history can be confusing: lots of Constantines, the occasional rude nickname for an emperor, eyes getting plucked out left and right, and lots of "Oh, shit! Turks!"

November 06, 2009  
Blogger Gary Corby said...

Declan & Peter, I believe you've solved a mystery which has puzzled lesser minds for centuries.

November 07, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gary, if the mystery is what ever happened to the Cycladic men, yes, I'd suggest the frying-pan hypothesis: They were afraid of getting whacked, so they made themselves scarce.

I saw a few more Cycladic figures at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston yesterday. In re the mystery surrounding the figures, one catalogue note suggested that much of it is due to destruction of context created by widespread theft, looting and illegal trade when the figures became popular in the last century. An apparent aura of impenetrable mystery may well be due to mere human greed.

November 07, 2009  

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