The Dead in Ancient Rome

Funerary shroud of Tasherytwedjahor from Roman Egypt, c. 150. Tempera on linen. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Nr. 54.993

Funerary imagery permeated Roman culture and riddled the visual landscape. Representations of death in the form of monuments and statuary are the best-known artifacts of Roman Imperial customs surrounding death, but these static glyphs complemented a “lively” practice of ancient Roman funerary practices in honor of the deceased and his or her family. During the city’s Caesarian and Julian centuries, roads leading into the city were lined with tombs, and to walk Roman streets meant encounters with representations of the dead on a daily basis. In Rome, the dead were ever-present.

However the civic perception was by no means entirely morbid. Rather than only mourn the death or commemorate the deceased, the Roman funerary cityscape offered opportunities for the display of familial, political, and personal symbolic capital. The accouterments of the funeral – chariots, triumphal regalia, the garb of magisterial office, and the display of past familial accomplishments – were intended to underscore the accomplishments of the deceased and demonstrable clout of aristocratic, wealthy, and politically connected citizens. In turn, the family could use funerary imagery as an internal yardstick that would present clear goals for its younger members to achieve. The dead offered exempla of past success, and reminders of one’s own place within the generational power structure of the family.

As the empire extended in all directions, Roman visual culture mixed with that of Egypt, Britain, and Byzantium, producing painted shrouds, sarcophagi, and mosaics. Some iconographic meanings are yet lost to us, such as a Roman sarcophagus depicting the Greek myth of Medea.

“[She] marries a Greek prince, a hero, goes back to Greece with him, they have two kids, but later on, her husband — a hero named Jason — has a mid-life crisis,” Dr. Mont Allen of Southern Illinois University has said. “He wants to jilt his wife, get a hot Ferrari and a hot trophy bride, and he essentially jilts Medea and her two kids there and she’s totally stranded, she’s a foreigner and here she is in Greece.”

Because Medea was a divorced woman, she had no protection in the ancient world.

“So she has her vengeance by killing her own two kids and then escaping, that’s the story of Medea,” Allen said. “What would [the sarcophagus] have cost, translated into modern dollars, $600,000? You think, ‘Why would an ancient Roman woman spend roughly $600,000 so that all her future generations of descendants could see the story of Medea on her coffin?’ Like, who on Earth would want to be remembered as a killer of children? The people looking at this are going to be your own family members.”

Roman Severan-Era Medea Sarcophagus, front view, c.190-200. Photo: University of California, San Diego


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Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the Mask, Another Mask

During 2013 when I lived in München Gillian Wearing had a mid-career retrospective at Museum Brandhorst and a poster of the image you see here, “Self Portrait at Seventeen Years Old” (2003) was on placards all over the city as well as a huge replica on the side of the museum.

Gillian Wearing, “Self Portrait at Seventeen Years Old,” 2003; Claude Cahun, Self-Portrait, 1928.

The capstone nature of the show at least intimated that Wearing was moving on to subjects other than herself and I remember thinking that perhaps at last we had reached “peak self portrait.” This proved not to be the case specifically or generally.

I decided to review the catalogue of this exhibition in the hopes of re-examining Wearing and also setting the record correct about one of my favorite photographers, Claude Cahun. I feared when Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the Mask, Another Mask was announced at the National Portrait Gallery in London that is would offer yet another opportunity for female erasure, which is what happened in reviews such as this one from Aindrea Emelife of the BBC shrieking: “Claude Cahun: The Trans Artists Years Ahead of Her Time.”

In fact Cahun was a woman, a lesbian woman, who was perfectly comfortable with her biological sex. She was sentenced to death during her time on Nazi-occupied Jersey for refusing to renounce her lifetime lover, Marcel Moore, so it seems especially egregious to suggest Cahun wavered in her “identity.”

One of the most distinctive aspects of Cahun’s auto-portraits is that her strong features are never obscured, she is always recognisably herself, no matter what the costume or haircut. This is something Wearing, in her response to Cahun’s oeuvre, seems also to diminish, as the series made for this exhibition find Wearing immersed in full disguises as Cahun, Robert Mapplethorpe, Dian Arbus, and others.

Claude Cahun, “Untitled (I Am in Training, Don’t Kiss Me,” 1929; Gillian Wearing, “Self Portrait as Claude Cahun,” 2015.

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To Never Know You

My article “To Never Know You: Archival Photos of Russi and Franz Marc” has been published in the Fall 2017 issue of Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture.

Here is the abstract for the story, which also contains some valuable personal insights on vernacular photography from my friend Sabrina Hughes and benefited from the questions and comments from my Doktormutter Cecilia Novero:

This essay examines photographs of the German Expressionist artist, writer, and Tierliebhaber Franz Marc and his dog, Russi, taking the position that one of the most obvious characteristics of Marc’s life his – affectionate and respectful relationship with Russi – has been largely overlooked, though its documentation is clear. I extol the value of what are normally categorised as snapshots in reconstructing animal and human biographies. This raises questions about what photographs are valuable to such research, and why some are used repeatedly and others ignored. Significantly, a previously unknown photograph of Marc taken by his brother Paul in is published for the first time.

Mainly I had wanted to write about discovering this photo in the DKM/GNM, so here it is again:

Franz Marc, 1914, in Munich. Photo by Paul Marc. Germanisches Nationalmuseum | Des Deutschen Kunstarchivs | Nürnberg

documenta diaries iii: neue neue galerie

Arin Rungjang, 246247596248914102516 … And then there were none (2017). Video still.

The German friend I went with said aloud what I was thinking: “Whoever at Documenta decided to call this the ‘Neue Neue Galerie’…just…shouldn’t…ever…” accompanied by a grim sächsische head-shake. Restyling the already-interesting and well-known Brutalist Neue Post building in this way is so typical of Documenta 14: It’s that Mentos-commercial “humor” that isn’t funny and also isn’t nostalgic, ironic, kitschy, or whatever else might have settled the account with the “marketing team.” Nonetheless despite being afflicted by branding and the continuing curatorial confusion that has muddled much of Documenta 14, some of the art inside the former mail-sorting center ascends on its own merits.

The most interesting, and centrally important to Kassel, entries in all of Documenta is the project by the Society of Friends of Halit, a group of artists and researchers who apply pressure to the investigation into the 2006 murder of 21-year-old Halit Yozgat. Yozgat was shot to death in the Internet café his family ran on Höllandischestraße, just around the corner from the Neue Post, the ninth in a string of Neo-Nazi hate crimes. Hessian undercover detective Andreas Temme was in the café yet claims to have seen and heard nothing. With 77sqm_9:26min (2017), the Society reveals their findings – reconstructed through forensic architectural, olfactory projection (!), and sound renderings; interviews with passersby, and film clips of testimony and evidence. Finally an example of the ability of art to change and influence events in the world, and even render justice.

Arin Rungjang (geb. 1974, Bangkok) 246247596248914102516 … And then there were none (2017) Digitalvideo, Farbe, Ton; Holz- und Blechplastik; 2 Malereien und 2 Arbeiten auf Papier Video: 30 min

Perhaps the lone Documenta installation aspiring to Gesamtkunstwerk is Arin Rungjang’s 246247596248914102516… And then there were none (Democracy Monument) (2017). The installation is composed of a wood and brass panel-frieze, sculpture, photographic portraits, video installation, paintings, drawings, and books. The video itself includes an original modern dance performance about World War II historic sites in Berlin and Munich, the manufacture of the frieze, and an attendant controversy in Thailand, and – rare for Documenta Kassel – an acknowledgment of the fair’s earlier iteration in Athens. 246247596248914102516 is a reach that might not have worked, but Rungjang’s combination of precision and sincerity is peerless.
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Discovering a Photo of Franz Marc

Much as I enjoy burying the lede, the headline on this story is that I found a heretofore unpublished photo of Franz Marc, and this is the photo, taken in the spring of 1914 by the artist’s brother, Paul Marc, in Munich:

Franz Marc, 1914, in Munich. Photo by Paul Marc. Germanisches Nationalmuseum | Des Deutschen Kunstarchivs | Nürnberg

The whole story of finding the photograph and a thorough analysis of why it might be that significant images of people and animals are overlooked is forthcoming in the second part of the “Exposing Animals” sequence of Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture in September, and this photograph and some others will be reproduced there, but it is also appearing in a different kind of work I did for Empty Mirror Books that comes out this week, so I decided to post it, finally (I first found it in 2015!), here today.

Beyond standing as a strong reminder that there is so much we have not yet learned about the historical avant-garde, this is just a wonderful photograph, “eerie and magnificent,” as Marc would say, so I will just leave it at that for now.

Alfred Flechtheim: Kunsthändler der Moderne

Rudolf Belling Dreiklang 1919 Bronze 905mm Foto G Ladwig Sammlung Karl H Knauf VG Bild Kunst

Update: My article about this exhibition, Alfred Flechtheim: Kunsthändler der Moderne, has been placed in the Routledge / Taylor & Francis publication Journal of Visual Art Practice.

 

Unfortunately there are no photos with the story but there are many on the website of The Georg Kolbe Museum, (Sensburger Allee 25, Charlottenburg, Berlin).

 

 

documenta diaries ii: topical solution

One of the paradoxes that has emerged from documenta 14 is that many of its spectacular installations make very simple statements about global consumerism using enormous material expenditures. In fact it can be difficult to see past the pyramids, windmills, and tents erected to comment on issues such as migration and the market-possessed-body – elaborate efforts to illustrate political generalities – to documenta’s truer theme, an attempt by curator Adam Szymczyk to assail, or at least supplement, canonical art history with work by indigenous and overlooked artists. 

iQhiya, Monday, 2017, Performance und Installation, Ehemaliger unterirdischer Bahnhof (KulturBahnhof), Kassel, documenta 14, Foto: Fred Dott

iQhiya, Monday, 2017, Performance und Installation, Ehemaliger unterirdischer Bahnhof (KulturBahnhof), Kassel, documenta 14, Foto: Fred Dott

But the contemporary art fair world floats above scholarship on a bubble of self-satisfaction. The documenta participants who are the big draws – Mona Hatoum and Pierre Huyghe for example – aren’t worried about posterity. So what was meant to be exposure becomes competition for a footnote. Some of this lesser-known work also really struggles when removed from its local context. Poor facture and inappropriate plinths meant as fauxnaïf comes across as a weird form of doubled sociological good intentions gone awry, and, amid Kassel’s half-hearted Brutalist buildings, calls to mind Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photographs of Bavarians dressed as Native Americans. In this respect, perhaps it was afterall an important achievement, and more consistent with Szymczyk’s goal, to move the most of documenta to Athens.

One excellent work, shown above, is iQhiya’s Monday (2017), which unfortunately was performed only once on 13 June. Staged in Kassel’s “little” Bahnhof, the spoken, moved, video, books, saws, pens, needles cloth, and film endurance piece used an eight-hour projection loop of Sarafina! (1992) to examine the “hidden curriculum” experience of black, South African women college students. Mimicking the rhythm of a real school day, naturally people wandered in and out. The coming and goings of the Eurobahn and Regio trains moving through the station plinked the hour glass and also made a rumbling vibration that was unsettling and comforting at the same time. I’m not sure if the reference to Pascale Marthine Tayou’s Human Being @Work (2009) was intentional or ephemeral coincidence, but the eleven-member iQhiya troupe made use of sound and light in a similar way as Tayou’s (also very successful) occupation of the Biennale di Venezia’s Arsenale – only with real trains.

Now, about Olu Oguibe…

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documenta diaries I: press opening

For the first installment of documenta diaries…here is George Baker’s “The Globalization of the False: A Response to Okwui Enwezor” (2004). Much of the work seen thus far at the German quinquennial, having liberated itself from theory and history, is therefore very literal, in a Thelma-Golden’s-1993-Whitney-Biennal way. There is more going on at documenta, of course, than granular personal narrative…but the emphasis is definitely on identity and by extension individuality. Continue reading

‘Animaloculomat’ • Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin

Klara Hobza, Animaloculomat, 2017

Already by 1909 Jakob Johann von Uexküll had, in Umwelt und Innenwelt der Tiere, given a great deal of consideration to the „Innenleben“ of animals. For Franz Marc this led to the question of how a horse, an eagle, a deer, or a dog saw and experienced the world, prompting the reflection „die Tiere in eine Landschaft zu setzen, die unsren Augen zugehört, statt uns in die Seele des Tieres zu versenken, um dessen Bildkreis zu erraten“.[1]

A painting like Liegender Hund im Schnee, a depiction of Marc’s dog Russi, radiates the oneness between the surrounding nature and the resting dog – „eine gemeinsame Stille von belebter und unbelebter Natur.“[2] .“ But Marc was interested in the actual physical reality of the dog’s vision as well.

Without specifically referencing Marc or von Uexküll, the scientific part of this proposition is taken up,  switching between animal and human perspectives, in the Animaloculomat (2017) by Klara Hobza. The technology really works, as you can see, like a regular Passbild machine that generates a split view between the sitter’s and the chosen animal’s – some invertebrates such as spiders and squids but also horses. The contraption sits in the dinosaur area, which is frequented by a lot of children, and my first impression was that this setting, and the toy-like features of the Animaloculomat, took away from the serious nature of this question so central to understanding animals. After I thought about it, though (and experienced having a photo made), I changed my mind and now think that such a lower-key approach that admits both a possibility for failure and a sense of humour is, as an art installation, very successful.

Inside Klara Hobza’s Animaloculomat

Hobza’s piece is part of Art/Nature, which is a pilot project initiated by the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin and the Kulturstiftung des Bundes, employing artists to create new works for the natural history museum. Though the taxidermy is very creepy and gives me nightmares, maybe this is a good way for contemporary, conceptual art to transcend some of its normal boundaries.

Now finally on to documenta 14, “fixing” CAA,  and the Georg-Kolbe Museum…

Klara Hobza • Art/Nature III  • Museum für Naturkunde Berlin  • 25 April-23 July 2017  • Curator: Bergit Arends (London).

[1] Gunther Meißner. Franz Marc, Briefe, Schriften und Aufzeichnungen. (Leipzig: Seeman, 1980) 50.

[2] Franz Marc, August Macke: Briefwechsel. (Köln: DuMont, 1964) 30.

“Vermisst: Der Turm der blauen Pferde von Franz Marc” at Haus am Waldsee, Berlin

Marcel van Eeden, High Mountains, a Rainbow, the Moon and Stars, 2017

I really wanted to like Haus am Waldsee’s thematic “Vermisst: Der Turm der blauen Pferde von Franz Marc,” but was also nervous about all the expectations I would bring to the exhibition. To (un)prepare, I imposed a media blackout upon myself, not reading up on who the artists were or any other reviews,[1] avoiding a seminar and joint show co-sponsored by the Pinakothek der Moderne in München. Vermisst’s concept was to pair some scholarly discussions of Marc’s missing 1913 masterwork with the expansions of contemporary artists upon its theme.

Beyond mild speculation, a purpose of Vermisst did not seem to be to offer any type of meaningful investigation into where the painting might actually be. It is not incumbent upon Haus am Waldsee, where the painting was last seen in 1949, to conduct such an inquiry…and yet the stubborn refusal, still, of German museums and art historians to grapple with the issue of Raubkunst, particularly in a case as famous as that of  Turm der blauen Pferde, where someone knows something, is a real problem. (I have an article coming out on this very subject, so I’ll just leave this here for now.)

Of contributions by a dozen artists, one seemed to address both the absent presence of TdbP and also the circumstances of its disappearance. In fact if Marcel van Eeden’s High Mountains, a Rainbow, the Moon and Stars (2017), a series of 26 prints including the text of a short story revealing some fantastical open-ended conclusions about what happened to the painting, had been the only component of the exhibition, that would have been fine. Only two of Eeden’s panels are in color, both reproductions of aspects of TdbP, which makes a nice allusion to the Wizard of Oz (1939), both in temporality and in the vibrancy of the world of dreams, and of lost alternative futures. Continue reading