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Thursday, December 22nd, 2011

Art at Christmas: Fernando Botero, Elija-Liisa Ahtila, Ludwig Blum


Fernando Botero: Via Crucis: The Passion of Christ at Marlborough Gallery
October 27 to December 3, 2011
40 W 57th Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues, New York City, (212) 541-4900

Eija-Liisa Ahtila at Marian Goodman Gallery
October 25 to December 3, 2011
24 West 57th Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues, New York City, 212-977-7160

 Fernando Botero, Entombment of Christ/ Entierro de Cristo, 2010. Oil on canvas, 59 x 79 7/8 inches. Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York

Fernando Botero, Entombment of Christ/ Entierro de Cristo, 2010. Oil on canvas, 59 x 79 7/8 inches. Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York

No one ridicules racial minorities, the blind or disabled people. But fat men and women are often the subject of jokes.  That shows a class bias. The grander the restaurant, the smaller the portions of food: and so most privileged people are slim. Until recently Fernando Botero who, like Thomas Kinkaid and Leroy Neiman is very successful commercially, was not taken seriously within the art world. It was easy to ridicule his signature style short fat people, often shown in take offs from old master paintings such as Olympia and Las Meninas. But in 2005, when few artists were able to translate their leftist politics into art, his Abu Ghraib series made him a figure worth reckoning within the art world.

In Precious (2009), Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe brilliantly plays an overweight teenager. We see such African-American girls, and so can accept that casting. The Gospels don’t tell Christ’s weight, but since in pre-modern cultures poor people were malnourished, it’s hard to imagine that he was fat. Botero is a gifted painter. Jesus and the Crowd (2010) shows Christ surrounded by a mob in modern dress; The Way of Sorrows (2010), presents him being beaten by a police officer in modern dress; and Jesus Nailed to the Cross (2011) depicts a soldier nailing his right foot to the cross. But in the end I was reminded, fatally, of an exhibition of crucifixions several decades ago also on 57th street in which Keith Haring depicted Donald Duck crucified. Botero’s Christ in Entombment of Christ (2010) is a powerful image, painted with great feeling. And his admirable Crucifixion (2011) sets that scene in a park within a modern city. Like the Renaissance masters who depicted Christ and his disciplines as contemporary Italians, Botero recognizes that unless the New Testament scenes are presented in the present, sacred Christian art is dead. When Titian shows Christ as a handsome Venetian, his paintings come off. Christ was a Middle-Eastern Jew, not a Venetian, but Titian’s fiction works. But Christ could not be plump- that’s my unreflective prejudice; and so Botero’s fiction, setting Christ’s passion in the contemporary world does not fly.

Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s Annunciation (2010), a thirty-three minute video uses three projected images to present the Annunciation.  An angel wearing wings, who is lifted aloft held by a harness, confronts a young actress playing the Virgin.  I don’t understand the idea, prominently cited in the gallery’s publicity, that living beings’ different worlds exist simultaneously.

We are easily deluded into assuming that the relationship between a foreign subject and the objects in his world exists on the same spatial and temporal plane as our own relations with the objects in our human world.  (Jakob von Uexküll, A Stroll through the Worlds of Animals and Men (1957))

But I can see that Ahtila’s fiction works, for in this scene staged in her Finnish studio the Annunciation comes alive.

***

The Land of Light and Promise: 50 Years Painting Jerusalem and Beyond. Ludwig Blum 1891-1974 at the Museum of Biblical Art
October 23, 2011- January 15, 2012
1865 Broadway at 61st Street, New York City, 212-408-1500

Ludwig Blum, Temple Mount and the Western Wall?, 1943?. Oil on canvas?, 32 x 46 cm. ?Private Collection. Courtesy of the Museum of the Biblical Image, New York

Ludwig Blum, Temple Mount and the Western Wall?, 1943?. Oil on canvas?, 32 x 46 cm. ?Private Collection. Courtesy of the Museum of the Biblical Image, New York

According to Arthur Danto, Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box (1964) inaugurated a post-historical period, in which everything was possible. The Land of Light and Promise: 50 Years Painting Jerusalem and Beyond. Ludwig Blum 1891-1974 at the Museum of Biblical Art, shows that our pluralistic period started somewhat earlier. The Metropolitan’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, posted on their web site demonstrates that 1949 was a good year for painting, for Barnett Newman’s Concord, Max Beckmann’s Beginning and Willem de Kooning’s classic Black Untitled have entered the collection. As if in a parallel universe, Ludwig Blum,  (1891-1974), a Czech of Jewish origin who moved to Palestine in 1923 painted Jerusalem, View from Mount Scopus. His son was killed fighting; some of his paintings show the results of the battles, which made Israel independent.  But this picture, which has more in common with Bernardo Bellotto’s eighteenth-century cityscapes than the paintings by Newman, Beckmann or de Kooning shows Jerusalem looking peaceful. The Dome of the Rock is on the left, the black roof of Dormition Church near the center and the yellow-roofed Rockefeller Museum of Archaeology on the right edge. By presenting this show, originally organized by the Ben Uri, London’s Jewish Art Museum, an American Protestant institution provides an invaluable portrait of Christian, Islamic and Jewish culture in Blum’s adopted country.

Eija-Liisa Ahtila, The Annunciation, 2010.  Video still.  Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery

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One Response to Art at Christmas: Fernando Botero, Elija-Liisa Ahtila, Ludwig Blum

  1. Carrier’s seasonal survey of contemporary exhibitions that resonate with the chaos of jangling Bloomingdales bags and the warmth of religious observance totally hits the spot, and the mark. His remarks on the various valences of fleshiness within a Botero context in particular present important reflections about class, wealth, corporealization, control and privilege for our Biggest Loser culture, and leave me thinking about Eve Sedgwick’s vital distinction between Fat Art and Thin Art.

    As he points out, the fiction of a corpulent Christ is not as plausible as that of a video-arted Annunciation that displays the tromperie at work behind angelic illusion, while the modern visage of a placid Jerusalem presents itself as chrnological partner to Andy Warhol’s notorious Brillo Box in a kind of pluralistic regression. Altogether, Carrier’s miniature cycle of reviews comes at the perfect time, and is a welcome enrichment of holiday festivity.

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