Sunday, December 25, 2011

Illuminating the Word: The Saint John’s Bible

I think that this time of year with all its Religious Holidays is a most appropriate time to do a Missive about the Bible.  The one I have in mind is the subject of the exhibition Illuminating the Word: The Saint John’s Bible”.

At the New Mexico History Museum, pages from two sections of the Old Testament are shown in Santa Fe while other selections are being presented in venues around the country. It did sound to me as a bit of a yawn but it got so much attention and positive reviews that I went to see for myself.

On first viewing, it hit me as important but I could not immediately comprehend why.  Reduced to its essence it is an amazing visual work of art.  When you go into the subject further you realize there are so many aspects to the creation of this bible that several books have already been devoted to the subject.

Here is a revival of the lost art of manuscript illumination that brings the texts to life with compositions using cross cultural, scientific, realistic and abstract imagery intermingled in broad passages of color.

Note in the page from Job not just the use of abstraction and color representing his decline on the right but also, best seen in the original the detailed items representing his earlier wealth at the left; or the bones, skulls, eyeglasses and even a junked car in the detail from “The Valley of the Dry Bones” (Ezekiel 37: 1-14 ); or the amazing integration of  words and images of death in the beautiful pages from Ecclesiastes.

Courtesy Hill Museum and Manuscript Library, Collegeville, MN    

Courtesy Hill Museum and Manuscript Library, Collegeville, MN

Courtesy Hill Museum and Manuscript Library, Collegeville, MN
The exhibition was conceived by Thomas Leech, curator of the Press at the Palace of the Governors (part of the History Museum).  He became passionate about the idea after hearing a talk by Donald Jackson, scribe to Queen Elizabeth II.  Jackson ,was born in 1938 in Lancashire, England, and had a dream since childhood of creating his own illuminated bible.  In 1994 he was invited to a calligraphers’ retreat at Ghost Ranch (where Georgia O’Keeffe spent summers) and it was there that he did the first mock up for his illustrated bible with a sketch, Christ in the Desert.  This was not to be an illustrated bible depicting the scenes referred to in the text, but rather a contemporary interpretation. 

In 1996 Jackson presented his concept and sketch to the Benedictine Order of Monks at St. John’s University and Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota.  Having seen the great losses of treasures during World War II, the monks had embarked on a program to preserve manuscripts through the centuries.  They travelled the world and recorded the originals on microfilm, or whatever media was available at the time, in order to have a place where the written word would never be totally lost.

This was the perfect fit for the first illuminated bible to be commissioned since the Saint James’ Bible which was published in 1611.  After the monks agreed to get behind the project they raised the necessary funds from private sources.  Originally, budgeted at one million dollars the costs eventually went way beyond that.

The project itself is mindboggling.  Jackson had to assemble an international team of artists, scribes and theologians whose first task was to decide on which version of the bible to use.  They decided on the “New Revised Standard Version” which was accepted by Protestant, Anglican, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox Churches.  The images had to be approved as appropriate by The Committee on Illustration and Text, which included artists, art historians, medieval historians, theologians and biblical scholars and then integrated with the text.  Once the committee approved, the artists were given some leeway. 

The scribes and illustrators worked in Jackson’s scriptorium in Monmouth, Wales. They used a unique script he created for the project that varied only slightly form scribe to scribe.  Although they wrote with quills on vellum they needed to use computer technology to set up the pages of this colossal collaborative undertaking and decide where each would begin and end.

I cannot leave this exhibition without commenting on the superb installation.   It is done in the round with an independent but relevant photo exhibition on the outside walls curated by Mary Anne Redding and depicting locations in New Mexico associated with religious faith. 

Photo credit: Blair Clark Blair
The center of the show consists of a round room for contemplation with benches around and a circular rock fountain.  On the outside of the walls of the meditation room is didactic material including many of the sketches and materials used to create the bible.  The individual folio pages, which will be bound into seven volumes after all the exhibitions are done, are shown in free-standing cases.  The labels give the names of the artist and the scribe (Donald Jackson sometimes acted as both), as well as a reference to the biblical passage and a discussion of the imagery chosen.

The installation created the perfect environment in which to appreciate Donald Jackson’s amazing creation, until it is bound and hidden for generations. 

Sunday, December 18, 2011


Time is a subject that has always fascinated and tortured me.  Let’s get the latter over with first.  I have the curse of always being early or on time.  I am usually waiting for someone or am embarrassed by reaching someone’s house too early.  I am obsessive about deadlines no matter what they are.  I have always blamed this on my parents German background.  I remember being seriously late once (45 minutes) and my hosts were getting ready to call the police!  My father always said, if people are usually late, once in a while they should also be early, but it is never that way. I realize now that this is because they use every minute at their disposal to accomplish something while I am standing on one foot waiting!

The corollary is a lack of patience that I also suffer from.  When our son was a child he was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and I realized that I have always suffered from the same problem which makes me a good multi-tasker but horrible in the patience department. We also learned, that there are always some things that such an individual can concentrate on.  In a child it maybe video games: for me it is art that I love.

For instance, some years ago we sold a drawing by Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940).  Since none of the players are alive anymore, I think that I can mention the names.  We acquired it from the Richard S. Davis Collection, a well-known collector and former director of the Minneapolis Museum of Art.   We sold it to another renowned collector, John Gaines.  When the latter decided to sell it in a public sale, the auction house told him that the expert who was writing the catalog raisonné did not recognize the drawing as by the artist.  John Gaines came back to me and, of course, I bought the drawing back.  Then I set to work.  I researched the provenance and learned that Richard Davis had acquired the drawing from a most reputable dealer in works on paper, Lucien Goldschmidt.  

The portrait was of Thadée Nathanson whom Vuillard and other artists of the Nabis school drew and painted.  The best known images, however, are from around the time when Nathanson and his brother published the Revue Blanche (1891-1903), an arts journal of the time.  I then took the drawing out of its frame and saw that the sheet had been torn out of a sketchpad.  I sent all that I had found to the same expert that the auction house had been in touch with.  In due course, I received his expertise authenticating the work as by Vuillard, and the subject as Nathanson.  Because of the sitter’s obvious age in the drawing the date must be about 1930. The auction houses get so much to deal with that they cannot always do what is necessary, but I was determined and invested the time and effort to prove my conviction of the drawing’s authenticity.

It is kind of exciting being an art detective and that is what the collector must do as well.  You want to know as much as possible about a work of art that you wish to acquire both before and after it’s acquisition.  Not just is the price right, though this is important, the more passionate a collector, the lower down it will be on your priority list.  After hitting the books and if possible, asking scholars for their opinion, you  need to weigh the evidence and then you make the final decision. Usually by repeating the process over and over again our decisions become better and more informed, but still, in matters of art, I have found that an investment of time pays off.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


Getting back to my mid-west three city tour,  my last stop was Detroit to visit the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA).  Founded in 1885 the DIA moved to the current location on Woodward Avenue in 1927 where there have been several expansion projects over the years.

Many in the Ford family were major donors to the museum but the ones who did the most were Edsel and Eleanor Ford.   In 1932 Edsel Ford, son of Ford founder Henry Ford, and William Valetiner, the renowned museum director commissioned Mexican artist, Diego Rivera (1886-1957) to paint murals (27 fresco panels in all) for the garden court, just a gallery away from the  main entrance to the museum.  The only requirement was that the murals relate to Detroit and the development of industry.  When they were completed there was much controversy.  Rivera was a classic Marxist and he painted workers of all races toiling side by side.

Both Ford and Valentiner defended the artist’s work without equivocation.  During the McCarthy era of the 1950’s a sign was placed in the garden court lambasting the artist’s politics but defending his artistic merit and what he had done for Detroit.  Note the portraits at one end of a panel with the donor behind the Director who holds the written dedication of the murals.

I arrived at the DIA on a Saturday which was fortuitous because I could get to see their new exhibition, “Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus” on the member’s day before the show was open to the general public.  Though it was crowded I could see around the people who were studying their audio guide handsets more than studying the pictures!  There were a few wonderful paintings by the master both from the DIA collection and lent, but it was mostly a print and drawing exhibition.  It afforded an opportunity to see Rembrandt as he developed his view of Jesus.  As the artist lived in the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam he had the opportunity to draw a lot of the locals in order to come up with his vision.

The DIA has superb collections and though the works acquired from Rosenberg & Stiebel are not as numerous as in Cleveland and Toledo, the quality remains tops.  In paintings there are names such as Fra Angelico, Cranach, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Tiepolo and my favorite, the huge picture by Rubens of St. Yves.

Henry Ford II and his relatives of that generation bought a great deal from our firm, some of which was donated to the Museum.  One of the rarest pieces and my favorite in the decorative arts section is a decorated ostrich egg on an ormolu mount of about 1780.

The only weekday I was in Detroit was a Monday on which the museum is officially closed but I still had the opportunity to meet with a number of curators.  I spent the most time with Alan Darr, who I have known for well over 30 years.  His current designation as Senior Curator of the European Paintings, Sculpture and Decorative Arts encapsulates all our fields!  He took me to lunch and then gave me a special treat with a private tour of the collections.

You will not often find me giving recommendations of places to stay but The Inn at Ferry Street, which was recommended to me by Alan, is out of the ordinary.  It is on a lovely tree-lined street in an area designated as a historic district.  Four restored Victorian homes and two carriage houses provide forty rooms, all different. Breakfast was served in the main house buffet style and it was amazingly complete for an inn.  The staff were all most pleasant and helpful also supplying a shuttle service within a five mile radius.  It was an unexpected bonus to visiting the DIA and it is only two blocks away.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Thanksgiving in Philly

Since it has been quite a while since we had spent Thanksgiving with the family, we were determined to do it this year.   When your three children are distributed throughout the country in Philadelphia, Traverse City, Michigan and Los Angeles, all with families, it gets complicated.

Happily, my daughter, Cathy, in Philly, invited all, but our baby, Hunter (31), had commitments with his wife’s family to celebrate a special birthday.  My older son, Danny came with his two children, making four grandchildren in all.

Penelope flew in from Santa Fe and I came from Detroit (more on that fair city next week).  It was during the stormy days before Thanksgiving: in the middle of the country everything was delayed, but we were relatively lucky.  Except for one of the roughest airplane rides I have had, I was only an hour late and Penelope one and a half.  Lucky, because average delays at Philadelphia airport that night were 2 ½ hours.

The day before Thanksgiving we went to the Philadelphia Museum and saw their relatively new Perelman Wing.  It is situated, across the street, just opposite the main building.   It has an Art Deco façade and was originally opened in 1927 as the Headquarters for the Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Company.  It is now totally renovated into offices with an addition of beautiful exhibition galleries.

The galleries serve as the museum’s venue for contemporary exhibitions.  When we were there, one was the work of Tristin Lowe, a Philadelphia artist who does somewhat surrealistic sculpture.  A whole gallery was given over to his work “Lunacy”, which is a giant moon 12 ½ feet in diameter consisting of an inflatable sphere covered in 490 square feet of white felt. In a dark room with wonderful lighting, it certainly felt otherworldly.

Another exhibition was the work of Zaha Hadid, an Iraqi born British architect who has won the Pritzker Prize.  The show was called “Form in Motion” and exhibited mainly her designs for the decorative arts such as benches, tables, cutlery and shoes, all in curvaceous forms. But in the entry to the Perelman building was her sculpture called Z-Car I.

Across the street is, of course, the original great art museum, a legacy of the Centennial Exhibition of 1876.  Its treasures are vast and fine including Medieval, Renaissance, Old Masters, Impressionists, 18th century and contemporary decorative arts to name some categories. We only had a chance to look at a few of these.  We did, however, view a small exhibition titled “Dutch Treat”. It focused on feinschilder, Dutch artists of the Golden Age who painted, usually small, meticulously rendered images.  The exhibition focused on paintings by Gerrit Dou from a private collection complemented by other artists with ceramics and glass of the period from Philadelphia’s holdings.

For the Thanksgiving feast more parents and step-parents arrived, plus more siblings and cousins, until we were 20.  Dinner, buffet style, included not just turkey, stuffing, and sweet potatoes with marshmallows cooked on top and veggies, but a member of the family also brought brisket and another brought meatballs.  For desert there was fruit, cookies, brownies and several pies. We did not starve!

The next day the children and grandchildren went out early to do some Black Friday shopping but bought little and in the afternoon we all went to The Franklin Institute, which is Philadelphia’s first class science museum.  A staple there is the beating heart that you can walk through, the airplane pilot trainer you can ride in, and the sports area where you can learn things like what helps you to jump. We observed as the younger generations experienced all the above.

That night we had leftovers.  With great concern that there would not be enough the grandchildren made a platter of sushi that was large and tasty.

On very full stomachs we headed back to Santa Fe the next day.