Geneva Anderson digs into art

review: Bling’s Big Three— Fabergé, Tiffany, Lalique—at 1900 World’s Fair, Legion of Honor, February 7- May 31, 2009

Tiffany & Co. (American, 1837 – present). Necklace, (Diamonds, pink tourmaline, yellow gold, platinum, c.1885 –1895).  The Cleveland Museum of Natural History, 1991-20. Photo:  Howard Agriesti, The Cleveland Museum of Art.

Tiffany & Co. (American, 1837 – present). Necklace, (Diamonds, pink tourmaline, yellow gold, platinum, c.1885 –1895). The Cleveland Museum of Natural History, 1991-20. Photo: Howard Agriesti, The Cleveland Museum of Art.

How gratifying that in an economic crisis, we can momentarily forget our worries, escape to a museum and indulge in pure fantasy.  “Artistic Luxury: Fabergé, Tiffany, Lalique” at the Legion of Honor through May 31, 2009 is an enticing show that will fuel your imagination and transport you back a century to a time when the world’s fair was the stage where all the newest innovations, curiosities and luxury goods were unveiled.  The show offers a glimpse of rare jewelry and design masterpieces from bling’s “big three” Peter Carl Fabergé, Louis Comfort Tiffany, and René Lalique set against the backdrop of the Exposition Universelle of 1900, the only world’s fair where all three masters showed simultaneously.  With some 300 objects from more than 50 international lenders, “Artistic Luxury” reunites works that have not been presented together since they were shown at this world’s fair and offers many pieces that have never been exhibited publicly in the United States before.  The exhibition is curated by Stephen Harrison of the Cleveland Museum of Art curator of decorative art and design, where the show originated and by Martin Chapman, curator of European decorative arts and sculpture for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

The Legion of Honor is the perfect venue for this show as its benefactor Alma Spreckels, “big Alma” was a passionate collector of all three of these master designers, particularly Fabergé.  And one of the Legion’s current benefactors, Diane B. “DeDe” Wilsey, Fine Arts Museum Board of Trustees President, is also a passionate collector.   The Legion also organized the impressive 1996 blockbuster show “Fabergé in America” that had a 16 month, 5-stop national run and left some critics scathing at the blatant promotion of Fabergé, a large financial sponsor of the show.  Some of those Fabergé objects, along with some bequeathed by Mrs. Spreckels are on display again, and Mrs. Wilsey has lent her Kelch egg, rarely shown in public.  

Grand Entrance, 1900 Paris International Exposition.  Courtesy of

Grand Entrance, 1900 Paris International Exposition. Courtesy of

Prepare to be pleasantly overwhelmed.  The show is awash with globetrotting royals, aristocrats, stage stars, gallerists and industrialists from several different eras. It would take a battalion of Vanity Fair readers to piece together all the juicy stories behind these treasures that the rich and famous have commissioned, bought, bequeathed, auctioned, hawked and sued each other for over the years.  Unfortunately, the placards on the display cases read like dry novels, long lists of owners and way too little gossip.  Because jewelry is intimate, it begs for intimate stories of those who owned and wore these items.    And, of course, what the original owners paid and how that translates in terms of today’s dollar.

The Exposition Universelle of 1900 in Paris provides a fresh and historically interesting context for examining these three luxury producers.  Billed as the summation of a century, this world’s fair aimed to celebrate the achievements of the past century and to accelerate movement into the next.  And it was the center stage on which the rivalry between these three great luxury makers took place as they attempted to outdo each other and to woo the upper crust to buy their exquisite creations.  From April through November of 1900, over 50 million visitors attended and some 60 countries presented 85,000 exhibitions of the best of their art and culture, scientific innovations and manufacturing accomplishments. Visitors were wowed by innovations such as a moving sidewalk which rattled around the exhibitions at two different speeds—9 km/hour and 4 km/hour, the wireless telegraph, scientific photography, the first projected sound films and the world’s most powerful telescope.  The Exposition’s legacy includes many grand Parisian buildings that were constructed as venues for the Exposition such as the Grand Palais, the Gare de Lyon, the Gare D’Orsay (now the Musee D’Orsay), the Pont Alexander III and the Petit Palais.  

The new style that was universally present and served to usher in modernism was Art Nouveau, a revolutionary movement which was a response to the radical changes caused by the rapid urban growth and technological advances that followed the Industrial Revolution.  Art Nouveau basically sought to make art central in the design of all things and to abandon the traditional separation of art into the distinct categories of fine art (painting and sculpture) and applied arts (ceramics, furniture, and other practical objects).  

House of Fabergé (Russian, 1846-1929).  Mikhail Perkhin (Russian, 1860-1903) designer.  Imperial Pansy Egg.  Nephrite, silver-gilt, enamel and rose-cut diamonds, 1899.  Private collection.  Photo:  © Judith Cooper.

House of Fabergé (Russian, 1846-1929). Mikhail Perkhin (Russian, 1860-1903) designer. Imperial Pansy Egg. Nephrite, silver-gilt, enamel and rose-cut diamonds, 1899. Private collection. Photo: © Judith Cooper.

 The three luxury makers embraced Art Nouveau in varying degrees—Rene Lalique and Louis Comfort Tiffany on the cutting edge; Fabergé worked in several styles; Charles Lewis Tiffany remained a traditionalist.  

When walking through the galleries at the Legion, it is hard to distinguish objects that were actually shown at the Paris world’s exhibition from those produced during that period.  According to curators Stephen Harrison and Emmanuel Ducamp, who have been researching this for years, verification of the actual objects that were on display has been a difficult task, especially so for  because little information was retained.  The best sources have been photographs taken of the various booths and of objects and also sales receipts and correspondence. 

Fabergé: Beyond Eggs

Peter Carl Fabergé of St. Petersburg was at his peak at Exposition Universelle of 1900 where he displayed all the exquisite imperial Easter eggs he and his craftsmen had made, plus a selection of other luxurious objects, and was awarded the Legion d’Honneur.   Fabergé was the most conservative of the big three, catering primarily to the tastes of the Russian and British royal families and to international clients such as the King of Siam.  He used a greater variety of precious and semi-precious stones than any other jeweler in history and the Czar’s patronage gave him access to exquisite and rare Russian hardstones from Imperial quarries in the Urals and Atai Mountains.  Sapphires, emeralds and rubies were usually en cabochon (not faceted) and diamonds were almost always rose cut.  His enameling techniques were unparalleled, especially the finishes he achieved: opaque, semipolished or brilliant, or color effects which varied according to the angel of light or vision.  Refinement is the distinctive characteristic of all his work: one object alone might have four differnt shades of gold, blended and contrasted exquisitely with the colors of the gems and enamels he chose.

The 7 Fabergé eggs on display at this exhibition wonderfully illustrate the competing push-pull factors at play between historical revival styles and the beginnings of modernism around the turn of the century.  Fabergé maintained a foot in both design camps:  some of his designs were executed the Art Nouveau style such as the “Imperial Pansy Egg,”  while others such as the “Imperial Blue Serpent Egg Clock” were done in Louis XVI taste from 18th Century France.  His complete mastery of historical styles was so proficient that he could readily adapt the very best elements from the past while keeping aspects of his pieces attractively modern. 

The well-known story behind the exquisite ornamental Imperial eggs is that they were commissioned by Czar Alexander III in 1885 and presented to his czarina, Maria Feodorovna, yearly at Easter up until the Russian Revolution.  After Alexander died, his son Czar Nicholas II continued the tradition with gifts of eggs to his mother and his wife, Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna.  Together, father and son commissioned 56 eggs in total.  Fabergé had to always best himself and over the years his eggs, which always related thematically to the Imperial family or to scenes from Russia important to the family, become more and more elaborate with an array of dizzying surprises inside.   

House of Fabergé (Russian, 1846 - 1918), Mikhail Perkhin, workmaster. Imperial Blue Serpent Egg, (Gold, blue guilloche enamel, opalescent white enamel, diamonds, sapphires, 1887). H.S.H. Prince Albert II of Monaco.

House of Fabergé (Russian, 1846 - 1918), Mikhail Perkhin, workmaster. Imperial Blue Serpent Egg, (Gold, blue guilloche enamel, opalescent white enamel, diamonds, sapphires, 1887). H.S.H. Prince Albert II of Monaco.

One of Fabergé’s most beloved eggs is the famous Art Nouveau style “Imperial Pansy Egg,” given in 1899 to Maria Feodorovna.  This stunning green egg in nephrite, a form of Siberian jade, has tender branches of twisted gold from which appliqué pansies in enamel and diamonds seem to grow.  The treat found inside is executed in a more traditionally historical design—a large white heart with a border of diamonds sitting on an easel; affixed are 11 red enamel medallions like holly berries that click open to show miniature portraits of the members of the imperial family.  The family lent the egg back to Fabergé so that it could be shown at the 1900 Paris exhibition.   

The more traditional “Imperial Blue Serpent Egg” is actually a clock with a rotating dial—a snake’s tongue marks the hour—and was inspired by a fantastic French desk clock by Jean André Lepaute from about 1785.   The midnight blue enamel egg with gold garlands and diamonds was originally presented on Easter in 1887 to Maria Feodorovna and later owned by Princess Grace of Monaco.  Prince Rainier III of Monaco received the egg as gift in 1974 from Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos and it became one of Princess Grace’s favorite objects, adorning her desk in her private study.  When we consider how cherished these objects were, it is remarkable that the Dowager Empress lent this egg, along with other treasures back to Fabergé to show at the 1900 Exposition Universelle. 

Also on display is the Fabergé “1902 Kelch Rocaille Egg” owned by Fine Arts Museum Board of Trustees President Diane B. “DeDe” B. Wilsey.  

House of Fabergé (Russian, 1846 – 1920).  Imperial Lilies-of-the-Valley Basket, St. Petersburg, (Yellow and green gold, silver, nephrite, pearl, rose-cut diamonds, 1896).  Cheekwood Botanical Garden & Museum of Art; on loan from the Matilda Geddings Gray Foundation.

House of Fabergé (Russian, 1846 – 1920). Imperial Lilies-of-the-Valley Basket, St. Petersburg, (Yellow and green gold, silver, nephrite, pearl, rose-cut diamonds, 1896). Cheekwood Botanical Garden & Museum of Art; on loan from the Matilda Geddings Gray Foundation.

 The 7 Kelch eggs were modeled after the Imperial Eggs and were all created by Michael Perkhin, Fabergé’s second head work master between 1898 and 1904.  They are as fine, if not even more sumptuous that those in the Imperial series.  The 1902 rocaille egg is made of translucent green enamel adorned with gold rococo cartouches, platinum flowers set with diamonds and varicolored gold palms, also set with diamonds.  The heart surprise picture frame is made of gold, rose-cut diamonds, and rose and white enamel.  Mrs. Wilsey keeps a portrait of her beloved dog in the diamond studded frame.

Fabergé and his craftsmen also created a wide range of personal luxury items and whimsical objects coveted by European aristocrats–all kinds of little boxes, small animal sculptures in semiprecious materials decorated with gold and gems, umbrella handles, cigarette cases, flowering branches set in vases and baskets, clocks and mechanical pieces.   One of his finest creations is the masterwork “Imperial Lilies of the Valley Basket” a basket of lilies of valley of seed pearls nesting in moss of spun gold with delicate leaves of carved stone.  It was presented to Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna by the merchants of Nizhny Novgorod as a coronation gift in 1896 and became her favorite object by Fabergé; she kept it on her desk until the 1917 Revolution.  Fabergé borrowed it back and took it to the 1900 exposition in Paris where it was a sensation.

One of Fabergé’s most popular works at the turn of the century was a delicate “Dandelion Puff Ball” whose real-looking powdery fluff was actually asbestos fiber fixed on a thread of gold with a small uncut diamonds at the edge.  His inspiration was the Hermitage’s collections of flowers cut in precious stones made for Catherine the Great and her aunt.  The Legion of Honor has an entire case of flowers carved of rare hardstones from Russian Siberia and the Urals, each flower exquisite in its endearing simplicity.

Tiffany & Co. (American, 1837-present), Paulding Farnham (American, 1859-1927), designer.  Iris Brooch.  Pink tourmalines, green garnets, platinum, c. 1900-1901.  Primavera Gallery, NY.  Photo:  Howard Agriesti, the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Tiffany & Co. (American, 1837-present), Paulding Farnham (American, 1859-1927), designer. Iris Brooch. Pink tourmalines, green garnets, platinum, c. 1900-1901. Primavera Gallery, NY. Photo: Howard Agriesti, the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Two Tiffanys: American Upstarts

Visitors to the 1900 Exposition Universal would not have missed the stunning displays of luxury goods in the American pavilion by Charles Lewis Tiffany’s firm, Tiffany and Co., and beside it, the Tiffany Glass & Decorating Co. owned by his son, Louis Comfort Tiffany.  The numerous awards won by father and son were reported widely and this critical exposure bolstered demand and secured the reputations of both Tiffanys as a brand source of museum-quality objects.  No greater contrast between the traditional and conservative versus the new Art Nouveau style—could be seen than in the two Tiffany booths. 

In the Tiffany & Co. display, the emphasis was on rare and expensive stones in lavish settings that beckoned the seriously wealthy to buy.  The exhibition at the Legion offers a stunning 5-inch-long “Iris Brooch” in pink tourmalines, green garnets and platinum as well as a breathtaking necklace of large pink tourmalines set in diamonds, both created by Tiffany and Co. for Jeptha Wade II and his wife Ellen, of Cleveland, Ohio.  Wade was the grandson of the founder of the Western Telegraph Union and he and his wife typified the type of wealthy and socially prominent clients that Tiffany cultivated.  Despite heavy American demand, most Europeans thought the flashy American works produced by Tiffany & Co. were vulgar because they were created for business tycoons and not true aristocrats.  An elaborately carved elephant tusk tankard on display clearly crosses the line into excess and humor as it mistakenly features painstakingly carved American-style alligators instead of the African crocodiles that big-game hunters would expect want to see carved on their African elephant ivory trophies.

 Louis Comfort Tiffany’s glass was well known in Europe before the Exposition Universelle of 1900 due to his association with Siegfried Bing, the Paris gallerist whose department store-museum “Salon de l’Art Nouveau” which opened in 1895 gave name to the Art Nouveau movement.  Tiffany was one of the top artists in Bing’s stable of artists and designers and Bing retained exclusive distribution rights over his work up until the 1900 exhibition.  By the time, Tiffany showed at the 1900 exposition, his Favrille (handmade) glass had become legendary to the point that any artwork that had any iridescent quality was called “Tiffany glass,” much like any copy is referred to as a “Xerox.”

Tiffany Studios (American, 1900-1932). Magnolia Window. Lead, stained glass, 1900. State Hermitage Museum.

Tiffany Studios (American, 1900-1932). Magnolia Window. Lead, stained glass, 1900. State Hermitage Museum.

Louis Comfort Tiffany presented his finest work at the Paris fair, creating a special shaded gallery so that viewers could experience hismagnificent glass in all its glory.   His large “Four Seasons” window won a gold medal and his religious masterpiece, “The Flight of the Soul,” was extremely popular. In key parts of his windows, Tiffany and his team of artisans folded and layered glass to create texture, depth and realism. 

Tiffany’s precious “Magnolia Window” which has its U.S. debut at the Legion was displayed in Bing’s separate pavilion just outside the gates of the exhibition on the River Temps.  This window was bought in 1901 and taken to Russia by Baron Alexander von Stieglitz, for his Stieglitz Museum of Decorative and Applied Arts in St. Petersburg, as an example of contemporary art.  After the Russian Revolution and during the Soviet era, the window was in safe storage in the Hermitage but essentially lost to the art world.  This is the first time it has ever been seen.

The window exemplifies Tiffany rewriting the boundaries of conventional stained glass during this period, creating a canvas on which he essentially makes an Impressionist painting in glass.  The woman who actually worked the glass and created the cartoon or framework was Agnes Northrop, one of the many gifted women designers employed by Tiffany Studios.  In fact, the big three all had similar design studio set-ups where they were the master artist but employed a stable of very talented artists who could execute and sometimes extend their creative masterpieces.  The delicate shades of pink, green, and ivory glass selected for the petals and leaves of the tender magnolia blossoms show a remarkable sensitivity for color nuance.

Lalique: Uniquely Poetic Of the big three, Rene Lalique (1860-1945), the Parisian goldsmith and jeweler, had the most profound influence on his peers in Europe.  His booth was the sensation of the 1900 exposition, what everyone came to see—the walls were a glorious bestiary of women  crafted from bronze and glass with arms outstretched and transforming into winged butterflies, flanked by snakes and bats.  Beneath their protective wings were cases of his fabulous jewelry.  Lalique’s poetic interpretations, expressed through Art Nouveau design delivered a groundbreaking message: this not about was jewelry as precious stones but rather about jewelry as art.  Lalique was interested in conveying the mutual interdependence of the human, animal and plant realms and he created wildly provocative and metaphorical works that were a fusion of female, animal and plant in a mystical recognition of nature.

René Lalique (French, 1860-1945). Purse with Two Serpents, 1901-3. Gold, silver, antelope skin, silver thread; 23.1 x 17.9 cm.  Private Collection.

René Lalique (French, 1860-1945). Purse with Two Serpents, 1901-3. Gold, silver, antelope skin, silver thread; 23.1 x 17.9 cm. Private Collection.

Lalique’s designs were embraced by the celebrated actresses of the day, including Sarah Bernhardt and Julia Bartlett whose bold personalities could carry off these strong and often large artworks.  According to scholar Emmanuel Ducamp, who wrote the catalogue essay on Lalique, “The aristocracy backed away saying ‘too much and not enough,’ meaning too loud and the simple materials didn’t have enough value.” 

Lalique’s creativity and reformist vision of woman as earth mother, creator, warrior, and protector went hand in hand with the modernism embraced near the turn of the century in the theatrical repertoire.  Powerful roles for women like Salome, Jeanne d’Arc, Medee, Cleopatra—made impressions that had ripple effects.  The catalogue (p. 128) quotes the critic Plumet musing that Lalique’s jewelry had “a bizarre charm…disturbing, spellbinding, even Satanic.”  In all, a new woman was in the making and feminism was about to pop with Lalique’s designs stirring the pot.

While it was common among the big three to use serpents and insects in their designs, the snake in its various complex contortions was a principle theme of Lalique.  His “Purse with Two Serpents” (1901-03) created for Bernhardt has a clasp of two angry striking serpents cast in silver which guard the contents of the purse.  

According to Stephen Harrison, Lalique’s use of fighting snakes as guardians for the contents of a purse references not only the temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, but the general mood of titillation that was central to Art Nouveau.  The work’s realism is underscored by the slippery-looking snake skins embroidered into the bag’s surface with silver thread.

René Lalique (French, 1860-1945). Cattleya Orchid Hair Ornament. Carved ivory, horn, gold, enamel on gold, diamonds, 1903-1904. Private collection. Photo: Laurent Sully Jaulmes. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP Paris.

René Lalique (French, 1860-1945). Cattleya Orchid Hair Ornament. Carved ivory, horn, gold, enamel on gold, diamonds, 1903-1904. Private collection. Photo: Laurent Sully Jaulmes. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP Paris.

In the 19th Century, a passion for tropical orchids overtook Europe and people became practically manic in their interest which drove prices to incredible heights. Missions were sent to the tropics for collecting orchids to satisfy this passion for exotic plants.  Lalique’s ability to immortalize the delicate orchid in ivory must have been mesmerizing.  Around the turn of the century, he created a number of orchid hair combs which attest to his complete mastery of the material.  The “Cattleya Orchid Hair Ornament” on display has creamy petals whose lacey ruffled edges are so thin they are translucent. The piece is enhanced by pale green cloisonné leaves with veins of diamonds. 

As soon as mass production and second-rate firms began flooding the market with “Lalique-style” jewels, Lalique himself turned to a new medium–glass and a style that moved way from Art Nouveau’s interpretations of nature to a more abstract and simple form.  One of the reasons that Lalique became perhaps the greatest glassmaker of all times was that he applied his techniques of jewelry-making to glass art and his works conveyed his love of nature, capturing its poetry and enough realistic detail to impress everyone who encountered it. 

Saturday, May 30, the show’s very last weekend, offers “Luxe at the Legion: Divas as Patrons, Collectors”a free program that promises to let you relive la belle epoque in a luxurious day of music, films, lectures, and art.

The catalogue Artistic Luxury: Fabergé, Tiffany, Lalique by Stephen Harrison, Emmanuel Ducamp and Jeannine Falino, Yale University Press, is recommended, and provides a wealth of information about jewelry-making and styles at the turn of the century. 

May 16, 2009 Posted by | Art, Legion of Honor | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Visit to Paeonia: The Imperial Flower thrives in West County along with chickens and goats

Mother's Day at Paeonia, ARThound's mom Evelyn with Showgirl, a herbaceous peony

Mother’s Day at Paeonia, ARThound’s mom, Evelyn, with herbaceous peony, “Showgirl”

One of the blessings of living in Sonoma County is that every May, just around Mother’s Day, we experience nature in full bloom.  The ride to Paul Campion’s splendid peony farm, Paeonia, on the outskirts of Sebastopol is a journey down country roads awash in old roses, snowball bushes, bottle brush, lacey wild fennel and grasses just beginning their seasonal turn from green to gold.  A visit to this magical farm, set in a dwindling but lovely and fragrant apple farming region, lets us appreciate nature–and for a few moments, forget our problems (unless we suffer seasonal allergies).  Visiting on Mother’s Day has become an annual event for my family, topped off by a visit to Screamin’ Mimie’s in Sebastopol for home-made ice cream on the way home.

Paeonia is a two acre farm devoted to peonies, set in a valley with a temperate micro-climate perfect for growing peonies—very cool in the winter and warm in the early spring.  It seems a stone’s throw from Bodega but is actually about 20 minutes from the sea. Campion, an ophthalmologist, is fanatical about his peonies and so is the public which travels from all over the Bay Area for the few weekends in May that he open his gardens to the public. Mother’s Day visitors were still coming strong at 4 pm.


ARThound with herbaceous peony, “Maestro”

Campion grows over 70 varieties of Tree, Herbaceous and Itoh hybrids—carefully grouped and worked into meandering paths that Campion and his three young sons plowed by tractor as a kind boys’ bonding experience. It took them over a year to convert this former brambled Arabian horse ranch to its current West County meets Asia fusion. The stock seems modest compared to the specialty nurseries awash with roses, but Campion has selectively honed his plants retaining only those that will produce spectacular results in here in the Bay Area.  Paeonia is Japanese inspired and there are Japanese maples, cedars, ornamental cherries, dogwoods and an enormous Buddha on one end of the grounds.  To the side of his formal gardens, are chickens scratching for grain and insects and adorable Nubian goats that he keeps in a converted horse barn—all the makings for a lovely country outing for city folk.  Campion’s home is there too, simple and tastefully executed, blending in rather than shouting out.  Campion’s office manager for his optometry practice pulls weekend shifts in April and May meeting, greeting, and selling plants as guests enter.  When asked why the telephone number has disappeared from Paeonia’s webpage, she feigns ignorance.

For those of us who garden, there’s the flower talk…how has he augmented his soil?  How does he fertilize? How often does he water and how?  How old are these huge plants anyway?  Can I achieve this in a pot?  Why are there ants crawling on my peony buds? (this is due to the nectar that forms on the bud)  And the list goes on. Campion is there in his garden chatting, fielding questions—the word “organic” comes up frequently-and pushing a Lynn Woolsey fundraising event coming up later in May.

After a few minutes, the magic of the place takes over.  Even the most begrudging visitors—partners dragged along by their significant other OR by their significant other using the “mother would love this” excuse—succumb, no melt, in the presence of these big bold blooms in pinks, yellow, reds, and shades of cocoa-orange.  These flowers are erotic…not crass (Mapplethorpe’s lilies) but their huge central tufts of bushy anthers ensconced in petals do entice…and the mind wanders to other things.  The names of two particularly gorgeous herbaceous plants seem crassly American—“Showgirl” pink with creamy ivory anthers and “Do Tell” pink with pink anthers– and almost counter to the regal beauty of these flowers which have long been associated with Asia, particularly China.

The mythology around the peony abounds.  Mischievous nymphs were said to hide in the petals causing this magnificent flower to be given the meaning of Shame or Bashfulness in the Language of Flowers.  One legend tells that the peony is named after Paeon, a physician to the gods, who received the flower on Mount Olympus from the mother of Apollo.  Another myth tells the story of that same physician, Paeon, who angered his teacher Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine and healing.  When Asclepius became enraged and jealous of his pupil Paeon, Zeus intervened and spared Paeon from dying as mortals do by being turned into a peony flower. Another story links the peony to a moon goddess who created this flower to reflect the moon’s beams during the night.  I also read that during the Middle Ages, lunatics were covered with the petals and leaves of the peony as it was thought it to cure them.

How I long for a man who will woo me with peonies..but, for now, I can buy my own plant for $35 and within two years, I will have my own steady supply.

May 10, 2009 Posted by | Gardening | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Petaluma Arts Council: A Feast of Color, Embroidery and Painting from the Villages of India, April 7- June 7, 2009



Malini Bakshi, founder of Pink Mango, at Petaluma Arts Center’s  “Feast of Color: Embroidery and Painting from the Villages of India,” through June 7, 2009.  Photo: Geneva Anderson

For centuries, Maithil women from the remote and impoverished Bihar region of eastern India have marked important rituals such as weddings and encouraged fertility and bountiful harvests, by creating unique freehand drawings directly on the plaster surfaces of their courtyards, verandas and interior rooms.  Over time several distinctive styles of Mathila painting evolved. Today, the practice continues on both paper and walls.  Malini Bakshi founded the Pink Mango organization to legitimize Mathila art, to share it with the rest of the world and to help Mathila artists generate income.  In April, I spoke with Malini, a remarkable young woman who was born in India and currently resides in the Bay Area about Pink Mango and her unique plan for giving back to her native society and spreading the joy of Mathila art here.

1. GA:  Can you tell me something about your first encounter with Mithila painting; was it a part of your childhood?  What about it did you find so engaging and how did this lead to forming an arts organization?

MB:  I grew up in Northern India with a lot of art around me and this work is clearly from East India, which is similar to someone growing up in CA and finding some work in North Dakota and trying to find commonalities—there are few.  Seven or eight years ago, I had gone to India to my parents’ place, which is an area that’s sort of a cross between Tahoe and Petaluma, not in the sticks but away from the hustle-bustle of the city—quiet, lots of fruit tress mangos, lychees.  An aunt of mine was visiting and she had done a lot of community-building work with villages in India.  I was living in the US—I had come over to study sculpture for my undergrad and then gotten my masters–and she was chiding me that Indians go abroad and get their education and they forget about India and nothing comes back to the country.

I wanted to do something with art, but I wasn’t the type of person who’d run right off to a village.  Art was a very strong interest, it runs in the family.  Also, I had studied art…How many Indians do you know who travel half way across the world to study sculpture, instead of the sciences or engineering?   So art was important and like everyone, I wanted to “do” something…but…the thought happens and time goes on.

I was introduced to an artist through this aunt who encouraged me to take a look.  I remember that when I saw that first piece, I was taken aback…it was Baua Devi’s orange cow.  It came out of the trunk of this beat-up car and her son started to unroll it and all I saw was this orange strip that grew into this fabulous cow.  It was such a modern piece and immediately upon looking at it, I fell in love.  It was so special.  The boy opened up a folded Xerox of a show that she had at Berkeley Art Museum in 1997 and I was blown away by that and wanted more information.  Then, I saw the rest of her works and I just bought them all.  I was also very touched by the idea that he was here on his mother’s behalf, that his mother had done them and he was so proud of her.

I asked about the iconography and some basic naïve questions and the stories just began to flow out of him and I was hooked…so I have the cow, all the rest of the paintings and these memories.  When I came home to SF and spent time with them in my home, I knew I had to do something with them.  I knew they had to be in a museum.  I spoke with the Museum of Crafts and Folk Art in San Francisco and they knew nothing about these pieces.  There was nothing written, anywhere, except an out-of-print pamphlet done by a French man.  The Asian Art Museum told there was not enough academic material on these pieces to warrant a show.  It was clearly a chicken and egg problem. I started to think about getting more information together.

2. GA:  I’m dieing to know, how did Baua Devi get that show?

MB:  Precisely!  The curators at the Berkley Art Museum told me about Raymond Owens who had spent many months with the Mathila painters between 1977 and 2000 and how he had helped her get that show.  That inspired me and while the institutional doors were closed because the art lacked legitimacy, I began to try and find a gallery for an exhibition.  I was lucky.   Our first exhibit was in April 2003 at the Shavaani Gallery in San Francisco, since closed.  I kept it very simple focusing on Baua Devi and other women artists from Jitwarpur, India.  I researched the story behind each painting and in retelling the mythology, hoped to educate.  David Szanton, an American anthropologist who had been working with the Mathila community for some 30 years heard about the show and contacted me.  David and Raymond Owens were friends.  David and I became fast friends and that was how our collaboration began.

3. GA: David Szanton co-authored the book, what led to your collaboration?

MB:  Well, David had this enthusiasm and knowledge and I had lots of enthusiasm but lacked the knowledge of this culture.  In 2004, David and I made our first trip to India to the region, along with my father and people from universities.  My parents felt I was literally visiting the armpit of the country and my father wanted to accompany me.  I welcomed the company.  We went on a journey from New Delhi to Patna, which is the capital of Bihar, and then by car to all these villages which might take an hour here but can take six, seven, eight hours by car because of the horrific roads…bridges washed out, etc.  For me, it was quite an eye opener because it’s a very poor part of the country, another dimension.  That’s what got me thinking about what I could do to help.  I knew it would not help to hand out a dollar, what you need is sustainable change and there has to be some kind of change in that community where the people themselves improve the way they live.   I grew up having all my needs met: we traveled abroad and didn’t think about the basics.   But suddenly it hit me, that this is my country and this is its state

What happened on that trip was that I was received differently because my father was with me. I also behaved in a very traditional way, I covered my head. This was a real discovery of an India that I had not known.   When we entered Bihar, there were so many things that I was shocked about.  Kids running around in the bitter cold without proper clothing, the towns were pristine, clean, no trash, so there was pride about the surroundings that you don’t see in the big cities, but there was real poverty.  I was also appalled at the callousness of others in my party, others from India, to the surroundings.  It really got me thinking.

The women who created these artworks are dignified, poised, wonderful…they may be poor, but they have pride.  They are carrying a child on one hip and offering no complaints about what they don’t have.  They tell you their stories. They also tell you to shut up at times.  They captured my heart: they were like my grandmom.

And they were wise.  Shashikala Devi told me, “You know, you have to get rid of this instinct of  yours to immediately ask questions to get an answer…you have to let it seep in and grow within you, because the understanding is not in any answer I will give you.”

The more time I spent with them, the more I wanted to get their work in a museum.  And so it began. David had the same thought.  The idea for the book came too.

4. GA:  How did Pink Mango happen?

MB:  It happened before that trip to India, with the very first show in 2003 at the Shavaani Gallery in San Francisco.  I had to sign all these papers and I was advised by an attorney who is a friend of mine to do this signing under the name of an organization.  From there, it emerged.

5. GA: And the name?

MB: India for me is color. The country is pink and red and orange.  And mangos, well, it’s just for fun…associations.  I did not want one of those serious Sanskrit names. This was a lighthearted endeavor and the name came before I’d actually met all the artists.  I wanted the name to be abstract with no symbolism associated with it.  Later, I thought it could not have been better.

6. GA: What are the immediately recognizable historical hallmarks of Mithila painting and what are some of the modern trends?

MB:  Traditionally, these paintings were done on ritual occasions on plaster…this art is believed to have survived from epic periods.  The wall paintings are done as part of a ritual to bring good results in marriage, to bless the home, bring fertility, bountiful harvest and also included protective deities. To bless and they served as auspicious purpose.  Nuptial paintings, called khobar were meant to bestow blessings on the newlyweds.  It was considered necessary to include all the main gods and goddesses in the paintings so that they could shower their blessings on the newlyweds.  When the couple marries they spend their first four days in a room of the bride’s house and the khobar is painted on the eastern wall of this room.  The women get together and do it.  The process it that the oldest woman who has children and whose husband is alive starts the painting by putting a red dot in the middle of the wall and then someone who is talented in the community makes the outlines and then everyone comes in and all together they start painting to create the total vibrant work with specific use of red.   You rarely see this vibrancy any more.  The bamboo grove is very important, highly symbolic, and every artist paints it differently.

In general, the mud images allowed for much larger and free-floating images than paper.  In the late 1960’s, when there was extreme drought in the region, the government, via the Crafts Council, went and introduced paper to the area so that the paintings could be done on paper and sold at regional craft fairs.  That did generate income and it had a profound impact on the community.  They continued to adorn the walls of their homes with these paintings too but over time, they have become less elaborate.

I have gotten pieces done with a ball point pen and I don’t tell them not to use it but I ask them why they chose to work with that.   I am most interested in the works with the natural colors and they know that.

7. GA: Is there anything distinctive about the transition from wall to paper?

MB:  I’ve been wanting to do an animated film to show this, but when they work on paper, they always start on the edges of the blank paper, working the border first and then inward.  Whereas they used to start with a dot on the center of a blank wall and expand outwards.  Paper is expensive and precious and there are no mistakes, no second guessing in this.  Paper gave permanence to their creative expression.

8. GA: When it goes to the paper, do they explore different themes?

MB:  It’s expanded…themes that we’ve seen are the epics–the Ramayana epic, so forth.  Shakuntala from the Mahabharata.  Baua Devi has done a lot of snake stories and there’s this growing narrative tradition in her paintings.

9. GA: Are these stories specific to the region or more general Indian mythology?

MB:   They are known throughout India.  Mithila is the goddess Sita who was called Mithila and she is from this area.  She was found in a furrow in a plowed field and adopted by Janaka, King of Mithila-Jankapur (now Nepal) and his wife Sunayana but she is regarded as a daughter of Bhudevi, the Goddess Mother Earth.  She was the princess of Mithila and known as Maithili.  When she came of age, she was wed to Rama, an avatar of Vishnu.  Sita is one of the central characters in the Ramayana, the Hindu epic. When people are looking at these works, instead of abstract design, there is a real story there.

10. GA:  Is everything in the work then symbolic?

MB: I wouldn’t say that.  They are almost like tapestries with portions that are filled in.  The borders are not so symbolic; the leaves are fillers but they also have a symbolism to them.  The fish is basically the Noah’s ark story…he has to get one male and female of each creature on earth.

11. GA: What about the subject matter…How is Madhubani painting changing due to the penetration of modern technology and contemporary culture?  What happens when cell phones start cropping up in the artworks or they start working with Sharpies?

MB:  The original purpose was ceremonial rituals and this is evolving and expanding.  One of the paintings in this exhibition is Kamlesh Roy’s “Twin Towers” (2001).  Another is Shalinee Kumari’s “Global Terrorism” (2005), which shows the globe and the twin towers.  Amrita Das did “Tsunami in Sri Lanka” in 2005.

12. GA:  And, in your opinion, is cross-pollination with contemporary culture a healthy trend in their artistic production or one that will lead them away from their traditional roots into something like touristy folk art?  Do you have concerns about maintaining the purity of the symbolism and not wanting the modern world to mess with that?

MB:  In terms of the art, it can’t stay pure forever, whatever pure is.  With the advent of technology—radio, BBC, newspapers, TV—the artists become aware of the world and that has impacted mostly the younger generation of artists. Shalinee Kumari is a young artist who will have a debut show in June in San Francisco at the Frey Norris Gallery.  She has done all these progressive feminist pieces where a woman can pilot a helicopter, mountain climb, drive a scooter and she cooks and cleans…she’s stepping out of the traditional role and addressing gender equality. The works are highly narrative. There have also been works that have been very critical of the dowry, bride burning, capitalism, etc.

In general, the villages in the Bihar region have had a lack of education, along with poverty, corruption, rotten weather, the list goes on.  There is electricity, but they don’t have many modern appliances.  So, it’s happening but it isn’t happening.  When I last visited, I met a woman who we picked up in the jeep, newly married and she had just finished her MS in physics in India.  She was from a village and her husband actually works at the Mathila Arts Institute, which is a school that the Ethnic Arts Foundation started that was financed by Ray.  She wanted to stay in her village.

I see changes in the short time I’ve been involved, but honestly, I enjoy both ends—the traditional and the new influences– and it’s inevitable.  That’s the evolution of an art form and that is addressed in the catalogue too.  For art to survive and to thrive, it must remain vital.  This is about the expression of a community done in a particular style and that makes it a genre in its own right and you have to acknowledge it and present it as a genre of art.  It is not about making little tourist pieces for them but about honoring the fact that this was part of a ritual.

13. GA:  Is there any effort underway to preserve the historical wall paintings?

MB:  This is not wall-painting like cave paintings, these are done on their interior walls and you’ve got moisture and they don’t last.  Rice paste or lime is what they use for the white and it is not a solid ground.  The air is very moist and the little stoves they use add black to the works over time, so give it a few weeks, a month and it all will be gone.  That’s the natural course of it.  These are ephemeral.

14. GA:  Have these drawings been documented?

MB:  There is a substantial documentation of Mathila paintings from the 1930’s in the Archer Photographs, black and white, which are covered in the book.

This is the change that worries me a more…you’ll hear them say that “my grandma did the old painting on the walls, but we’re cooler than that.”  I don’t care for that attitude.  I’d like for there to be recognition that my grandma used to paint durga with all her powers and I paint a woman with all her powers, a bachelor’s certificate, so forth.  That’s a positive attitude while the other is not.

15. GA: How much effort do these women put into these works?

MB:  It varies, basically it’s what ever time they’ve got left over.  They say “I save a bit of time like a few pennies and put it into the paintings and at the end of it, you’ve got a painting.”

16. GA: How does the sale of an artwork typically impact an artist?

MB: They are paid immediately.  I buy the paintings in India and then I sell them in the US for them and send them the money back.  They are paid twice.  Once an artwork is sold, whatever profit is generated, that profit goes back to India.  The most expensive piece I’ve sold is for $2,100, which is a huge sale, and that translates into lots of cash going back.  At first, my model was hard for them to believe–that they would get a share of what it sold for in the West.  Never in their life had someone bought something and then said, “Do you recall that three years ago I bought a painting, well I re-sold it and here’s your share.  One of the artists was in such complete disbelief that she took the money and started counting it in the corner.

17. GA: Is getting paid for their work problematic or empowering for the women in this society?  And has money been a factor in enticing men to take up this art form? How many men actually participate?

MB: You might think that it upsets things, but that’s where the poise of these women comes into play.  They don’t want to flex their muscles or stand shoulder to shoulder and rub it in.  They are so comfortable in being women that they handle it well.   For the next generation though, it may be different.  You hear the younger women like Shalinee saying that she’s listening to the BBC.  I don’t encourage the works about the bride burning, female infanticide, the heavy stuff.  I’d like to focus on the good, positive stuff going around basically because if you focus on the positive, you will be happier.  Getting back to the money, there is no idea of mortgages, big debt…what you need to survive there is very different from here. The focus is on marriage, kids and what they believe the real things in life are and less on accumulating objects you will spend the rest of your life paying for.

A lot of men have started painting. It is traditionally considered women’s work but it is legitimized because it is an income earning choice.

18. GA:  Are the men any good?

MB: They start out by filling in the paint.  The women will do the outline and they will fill them in and some of them are very talented.  One man was so good that he was sent to an art school.  Komlesh Roy did the twin towers piece, also Santish Kamar Das (??ask about spelling) did a series of works of the awful train burning and riots accidents and some pieces on the death of Raymond Owens.

19. GA:  The show at the Museum of Craft and Folk Art in San Francisco’s Year Buena Gardens in 2005 allowed Mathila art to enter the museum circuit and you won a quite prestigious curatorial award.  Can you tell me about that?

MB:  The idea for the show at this museum emerged over two years because the director, Kate Alexson, was pregnant.  It started small, but after David came along, it grew and I mean literally…from the mezzanine to several galleries until we had filled the museum with over 500 works. The key impact of that exhibition “Mithila Paintings: The Evolution of an Art Form” was that Mathila art entered the museum circuit.  I was interested in legitimization from the museum community because that would give us a solid base from which we could work and present this work.  I knew there would be added research, scholarship too, on their part.  I realized that if the value of the object went up, it would bring back more to the community tangibly and intangibly.  David is very interested in sales because the money goes back to the artists, whom he has a deep connection with

Kate Alexson had nominated Pink Mango, for the 2005 Curatorial Excellence Award from The Apple Valley Foundation. The award was for the most comprehensive and look at a new body of fresh work, material that had never been shown before.  The committee made unannounced visits to museums and galleries and evaluated exhibitions for their creativity, presentation, so forth.  When I learned that the runner up was The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C, and that we beat them out, I was stunned.  After that, David and I realized more than ever, that we had to do a book.

20. GA: I understand that other museums have expressed an interest in Mithila painting—both the Berkeley and Asian Art Museums have large collections.  How did they acquire the works? Did they paying decently for them?  I know that in this exhibition, works will sell from a hundred to about $4,500?

MB:  Well, at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, we met with curator Forrest McGill and he had bought all their paintings from Raymond Owens.  Raymond gave the money to the village.  This amount of $4,000 to $5,000 is a goal and it will come.  Right now, the majority of works that sell are smaller and between $40 and $150.  By the way, I love it when people tell me they are going to India and would like to visit the artists and buy directly.  When they do that, it forges a special bond and I love to see that.  This is not about Pink Mango having any exclusive.

When I think of really successful shows here in the State, our most successful financially was the show we had at the SRJC Mahoney library under Karen Petersen.  That was the maximum number of pieces we’ve ever sold.

21. GA:  The book, Mithila Painting: The Evolution of Art Form, was very important in your vision wasn’t it?

MB:  The intention of the book which was published in 2007 was to explain the history and of course to give the individual artists a tool they could use.  It gives them quite a lot to be able to show someone a book written in English that profiles them and their artwork.  This about empowering and that is all I care about.  I am more in sync with the philosophy of the Google boys rather than the Rockefellers.  The Google boys want to put systems in place during their lifetimes and say that my money is going to go toward the creation of this sustainability model rather than the Rockefellers who have this board distributing this lump sum and they are not so active. Our generation wants to be actively involved and to see results.  My idea with the book was to just give it to the artists, give them something to break the language barrier and let them run with this while we are helping them here.

22. GA: I understood that up until recently, the art was not well-known in India.  Was it taught about in the schools for example?

MB:  No.  There was no mention of Indian folk art in my education at all in India…it was Rembrandt, the classics.  But these are not artists waking up in the morning with berets on, saying I’m going to paint.  It’s part of a ritual that is integrated into their lifestyle.  When you get married, you have a little ritual that involves fertility and blesses the marriage.  It was not considered art per se.

People know something about the Multalbani paintings mainly because of the government-run craft emporiums.  People who go to India, go to the craft emporiums…and people who travel from India go to the craft emporiums to shop for gifts.  These emporiums are in every state, and in the major cities—New Delhi, Bombay– so that each state can showcase its own unique crafts, like in Oaxaca, Mexico. You can buy stuff straight from the villages from these women.  The transaction happens and money is exchanged and it’s over.

23. GA: Are there serious Indian or other collectors who are building collections within India?

MB:  In India, are there a handful of collectors of this type of art, including Menisha Mishra from Delhi, who I worked with on the Habitat Center exhibition.  She’s very involved and also works with the Ethnic Arts Foundation.  I think that this form of collecting will catch on.

24. GA:  What events have been organized in India?

MB:  The Habitat Centre show in January, 2007 in New Delhi is by far the most important thing we’ve done.  This is like the Lincoln Center, a huge government-run cultural center, which represent the arts, not a gallery, so it’s a very different mindset.  The proposals went in two or three years in advance because it’s very tough to get in, but that basically happens with all big museums.  We were able to show 500 plus paintings and several of the artists came from the villages.  Artworks were for sale, not very many sold, but a lot of people came and we had tremendous press coverage in India.  We rushed the book, so it was available at this show.  This was a tremendous success.

25. GA:  Is there a relationship between motifs in Indian textiles and these artworks?  I am speaking of composition, subject, color, border treatments and the basic evolution of the forms and symbolism?

MB:  First, the majority of these tapestries are from the Punjab region and all over, which is North and this Mathila painting from the East and key in both of these is their region of origin, so it’s very difficult to draw comparisons.  I do think a lot about what a craftswoman is though because these were all made by craftswomen.

A craftswoman is not an artist in the Western sense of an artist.  The West has a definition for an artist but I don’t think the East really has a definition for an artist. It’s a way of being, a kind of meditation that comes out of our spiritual traditions so it’s an integrated aspect of the personality and personal expression.  It’s like the mom doing the icing on cake for her kid’s birthday.  That’s what a craftswoman is.

GA:  Maybe now, you are giving them power to see that there is even more flexibility in being a woman, even more power that can come from sharing their creative expression and getting paid for it, or maybe that’s my Western overlay…linking identity and empowerment, to sending a message out to the world.

May 9, 2009 Posted by | Art, Petaluma Arts Council | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

SFIFF Review: “The Reckoning” Pamela Yates’ extraordinary documentary on the ICC and war crimes prosecution…prepare to be stirred, shaken

The Reckoning, Bogoro, Susan Meiselas, Magnum.

The Reckoning, Bogoro, Susan Meiselas, Magnum.

Emotions ran high at Monday’s West Coast premiere of  Pamela Yates’ new film “The Reckoning, ” a compelling overview of the first six years of the ICC, International Criminal Court, the world’s first permanent international court for prosecuting crimes against humanity, war crime and genocide.  The documentary film, a contender for the coveted $15,000 Golden Gate Gate award announced this Wednesday, is one of two important films at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, April 23- May 7,  that explore genocide and efforts to restore justice.  Through accounts offered by victims, ICC lawyers, advocates and an active opponent of the ICC, director Pamela Yates has created a compelling and often heartening account of the pursuit of justice and its effects, both direct and indirect, on murderers (frequently in positions of leadership) who formerly believed they could act with impunity.

The ICC came into being on July 1, 2002 — the date its founding treaty, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, came into force and it can only prosecute crimes committed on or after that date. The court’s official seat is in The Hague, The Netherlands, but its proceedings may take place anywhere.  “The Reckoning” explores the history of the court’s establishment and follows ICC Argentinean prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo and his team of prosecutors, for three years across four continents as investigate and pursue Lord’s Resistance Army leaders in Uganda, track down Congolese warlords, pressure the U.N Security Council to help indict Sudan’s president, Omar Al-Bashir, for the Darfur massacres and pressure the Columbian government to prosecute those at the highest ranks responsible for brutal systematic killings that occurred in Columbia.  Ocampo rose to public attention in 1985, as Assistant Prosecutor in the Argentina’s “Trial of the Juntas“—the first time since the Nuremberg Trials that senior military commanders were prosecuted for mass killings.

Watching the film is both an education and an emotional catharsis: we are sickened by the graphic footage of atrocities we have read about.  Senior Trial Attorney Christine Chung and Deputy Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda are particularly persuasive as they explain their backgrounds and commitment to prosecuting the top criminals who have so far gotten away with horrific crimes against humanity.  As we follow Ocampo’s team along narrow paths to killing fields in four continents, we are taken aback by the contrast–lush fertile landscapes that upon closer inspection are laden with skulls, human bones, and teeth.  The survivors, often women, who were left for dead, and who have agreed to testify, talk about surviving brutal beatings, rape and the systematic murder of their families and neighbors, often by conscripted child soldiers.  We are sickened further by the frank descriptions of massacre given by former conscripted killers, abducted as young children and trained to kill.  The common thread in all these killings—to obliterate by the swiftest means possible.   We are also sickened that the U.S., which was instrumental in setting up the fundamental building blocks of the court, pulled back under the Bush Administration and refused to become a signatory.  We listen as renowned American lawyer and diplomat David Scheffer who served as the first United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, during President Bill Clinton’s second term lays out the arguments in favor of U.S. participation and multilaterism in this important endeavor.   His explanation resonates at a very deep level with the principles of justice, leadership through example and intolerance for impunity honored by most Americans.  Scheffer led the U.S. negotiating team in the United Nations talks on the ICC and while he signed the Rome Statute hat established the ICC on behalf of the U.S. in 2000, he was critical of many aspects of the court and the negotiation process itself.  He particularly opposed the prohibition on any party making reservations to the Rome Statute and the manner in which the Statute structured the court’s jurisdiction.

If Yates’ film can be faulted, it is in this important segment which is not thorough enough in laying out the multilateral approach endorsed by Scheffer versus the unilateral course of the Bush Administration.  John Bolton,  Bush’s Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, is captured reading from his famous 2003 memo rejecting US participation and later in inflammatory bluster and the meat of the argument against U.S. membership takes a backseat to our immediate distaste for Bolton’s combative style.   The main argument that the U.S. has made against joining the ICC is that as the world’s superpower, it is frequently called upon and expected to take on a dominant policing role which puts it in a high liability situation.  The ICC would put the tiniest players on the world stage–Benin or Trinidad and Tobago– on an equal footing with the United States and the U.S. has feared that could lead to unfounded accusations against U.S. soldiers assigned as peacekeepers in difficult situations.  What global leader would agree to take on such high policing responsibility if the liability isn’t commensurate with the addition responsibility?  China, Russia, India have also refused to sign.  But Washington has not only refused to ratify the Rome Statute, it has also used its political and economic leverage to undermine the ICC by demanding that states sign bilateral agreements pledging not to subject American citizens to the court.  Those who refuse could be denied U.S. military or other aid.  Scheffer argues persuasively that the court is structured adequately to prohibit such occurrances and if the U.S. were to engage in illegal activities, it should be taken to task.  Moreover,  America needs to align itself again with international law to restore our credibility as a global power.  

IF the ultimate point of this excellent film is to convince us that the US needs to join, Yates has done her job; but if Yates is striving to change the mind of those in power, she has a ways to go.  Fortunately the film is an entre to a 3 year International Justice program IJcentral by Yates to involve citizens in safeguarding international justice.  Framing a story as complex as this is daunting. Yates’ ultimate message seems to be that despite US objections, the ICC has done and will continue to do important work.   A truly international court though needs the approval and backing of the world’s most powerful states.  What are the circumstances that might bring the U.S. and other powers  into the fold?

As of March 2009, 108 states are members of the ICC.  A further 40 countries have signed but not retified the Rome Statute.  The ICC can generally exercise jurisdiction only in cases where the accused is a national of a state party, the alleged crime took place on the territory of a state party, or a situation is referred to the court by the United nations security Council.  The ICC is designed to complement existing national judicial systems: it can exercise its jurisdiction only when national courts are unwilling or unable to investigate or prosecute such crimes.  The main responsibility to investigate and punish crimes is left to the individual states.

“The Reckoning” screens: Sun May 3, 5:30 pm at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, Tues May 5, 6:00 pm at PFA, Wed May 6, 6:15 pm at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.

May 5, 2009 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review “The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan” an unprecedented view of Bhutan’s treasures

The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, February 10 – May 20, 2009

Guru Nyima Ozer, late 1800s. Bhutan. Ink and mineral colors on cotton. Lent by Do Khachu Monastery, Chukka. Photo by Shuzo Uemoto/Honolulu Academy of Arts.

Guru Nyima Ozer, late 1800s. Bhutan. Ink and mineral colors on cotton. Lent by Do Khachu Monastery, Chukka. Photo by Shuzo Uemoto/Honolulu Academy of Arts.

It is not easy to write confidently about a distant culture’s art when it is not understood by the Western world and you are a complete stranger to it.  That is the precise situation that a number of journalists and critics faced (myself included) when confronting the stunning Bhutan show, “The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan,” which brought over 100 of Bhutan’s sacred ritual objects to a Western audience for the first time.  Even for those with a background in art of Himalayan region, it is difficult to discern differences between these rare Bhutanese artifacts and those from neighboring Nepal or Tibet.  After traveling for two years, this ambitious and  groundbreaking exhibition closes next Wednesday, May 10, at The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, it final venue. 

A precious culture perched on the fragile edge of the Himalayas, Bhutan is a land that has long cultivated fantasies of Shangri-la.  Bhutan is called “Drukyul” or the Land of the Thunder Dragon by speakers of Dzongkha, its obscure language.  With limited roads, almost no tourist facilities, monasteries at remote altitudes, and restrictions on trekking its breathtaking mountains, Bhutan’s inaccessibly has made it all the more appealing.  The country is well known for its vigorous efforts to preserve its Buddhist heritage and traditional culture, which remain vibrant today. “The Dragon’s Gift” is organized by the Honolulu Academy of Arts and the government of Bhutan and introduces us to the only existing Vajrayana, (“Tantric” or “Esoteric”) Buddhist kingdom in the world and its  sacred art which has remained virtually unknown both within and outside the country.

Bhutan is unique among its neighbors and among many small countries in that it has never been colonized, conquered or invaded, so its rich culture and its treasures are intact, creating an exciting opportunity for new scholarship.  Bhutan’s Drukpa lineage, introduced in the 15th Century, is the dominant Buddhist school, the state religion, and the subject of most of the 100 plus national treasures on display.  The show includes intricate and colorful thangka paintings, sculptures, textiles, stone and metal carvings and more – all sacred ritual objects selected by the curators and the Bhutanese government from among Bhutan’s over 2,000 active temples, monasteries and dzongs (fortress monasteries).  “In the eyes of the Bhutanese, these objects are not ‘art’ in the conventional sense, but are sacred images, supporting Buddhist practices,” explained Terese Tse Bartholomew, curator emeritus of Himalayan art at the Asian Art Museum and guest curator of  “The Dragon’s Gift.”  Even in the temples in Bhutan, these sacred works are rarely seen.   Perhaps one object at a time might be brought out for ritual use.

The objects have been escorted on their journey by several monks who bless them twice daily in the museum with a morning purification ritual and evening prayer.  A Bhutanese Buddhist altar has also been constructed in the museum’s foyer, honoring the country’s spiritual traditions.  The ritual movements and interactions between the monks, the altar, and the sacred objects reinforce the spiritual vitality of these objects.  Also documented, and playing throughout the galleries in video, are the colorful cham, ancient ritual dance forms that are integral today to Bhutanese Buddhist practice. 

Seated goddess Kongtsedemo, 600-800. Bhutan. Cast copper alloy with gold and traces of pigment. Lent by the National Museum of Bhutan, Paro. Photo by Shuzo Uemoto/Honolulu Academy of Arts.

Seated goddess Kongtsedemo, 600-800. Bhutan. Cast copper alloy with gold and traces of pigment. Lent by the National Museum of Bhutan, Paro. Photo by Shuzo Uemoto/Honolulu Academy of Arts.

Bhutanese art has two main characteristics: it is religious and it is anonymous. Strict iconographical conventions are observed as well.  For someone whose knowledge of Buddhism is sparse, these visually enticing artworks may be intellectually frustrating because we cannot easily enter the story.  But even for those with knowledge of the region’s art, this is new territory.  Looking at a thangka, or scroll painting executed on fabric is exhilarating but we are hungry for deeper understanding.  In general, almost all representation is a dramatization of the Buddha’s teachings about the path to liberation and constant struggles to overcome the delusions that lead to samsara, the cycle of reincarnation or rebirth.

The great teacher and saint Padmasambhava as the wrathful Guru Dragpo Marchen, 1800-1900. Bhutan. Ink and colors on cotton. Lent by Phajoding Monastery, Thimphu. Photo by Shuzo Uemoto/Honolulu Academy of Arts.

The great teacher and saint Padmasambhava as the wrathful Guru Dragpo Marchen, 1800-1900. Bhutan. Ink and colors on cotton. Lent by Phajoding Monastery, Thimphu. Photo by Shuzo Uemoto/Honolulu Academy of Arts.

The deities, their subtle attributes, and who they keep company with in the core composition differ from Tibetan or Nepalese forms although they look similar to the untrained eye.  The exhibition catalogue itself represents a substantial pioneering endeavor: the scholarship in the area of Bhutanese art history is so thin that the catalog authors lacked phonetic conventions for art terminology.  For some time to come then, the art of this distant culture will remain somewhat mysterious because the essential keys provided by their own language keeps it impenetrable.

Among the numerous sculptures on view, the oldest artwork in the show dates from the seventh or eighth century.  The image of the seated goddess called Kongtesedemo, a protector of Buddhism, is made from cast copper alloy with cold gold.  The rare image dates from the very founding of Bhutan’s two earliest temples and is from the collection of the National Museum of Bhutan, Paro, which is the only lending institution in the exhibition that is a museum. All other artworks come from active temples and monasteries.

Padmasambhava, lovingly known as Guru Rinpoche (“Precious Teacher”) in Bhutan and elsewhere, is credited with introducing Vajrayana Buddhism to Bhutan and a section of the exhibition is devoted entirely to depictions of him and illustrated stories of his life. Most spiritual figures in Vajrayana Buddhism have benign and wrathful counterparts.  This intense and vibrant 19th century thangka depicts Padmasambhava as the wrathful red deity, the Guru Dragpo Marchen.  The wrathful depiction gave visual form to the spiritual act of eliminating demonic influence form the consciousness and the external physical surroundings. His lower body assumes the form of a ritual dagger, symbolizing his power to quell anger, desire and ignorance.  He holds a scorpion in one hand and a ritual thunderbolt in the other.  He wears a garland of severed heads and is draped with tiger and elephant skins and is engulfed in an aurora of vibrant stylized flames.  A register of figures fill the cloudy sky and all are performing ritual acts—composing a ritual text, carrying an alms bowl, carrying a thunderbolt, holding a strong of prayer beads.  Below the central deity Guru Dragpo Marchen are two scenes enclosed in rainbows that form a narrative.   On the right Padmasambhava is giving instruction to two demon-servants.  On the left, the same two demons are seen delivering these texts to the great Drupka Kagyu master Pema Karpo.  The texts that are being delivered are instructions on how to visualize the phurba from of Dragpo, which is a practice that Pemo Karpo popularized and is the theme of this vivid thangka.

I have visited the exhibition three times now, and each time my eyes take in this feast of rare artworks, I leave with no doubt that Bhutan is a country that I will one day visit.

May 4, 2009 Posted by | Art, Asian Art Museum | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment