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Noteworthy Museum Exhibits of 2013: Feasts for the Eye and the Mind

Impressive and thought provoking museum exhibits are so unique and special that they warrant a dedicated trip to view them.  What follows is a summary of the most memorable 2013 artistic events I attended, led by the most outstanding - The Herod exhibit at Jerusalem's Israel Museum.

Herod the Great: The King's Final Journey: This notable show deserved all accolades for its content and extraordinary curatorship.  It was the first ever exhibit dedicated to Herod, the greatest builder in Jewish history.  Indeed, Herod's main legacy lies in his massive building projects.  This ambitious exhibit was seen by over 450,000 visitors, an Israel museum record.    

In 2007, after a 40-year search, archaeologist Professor Ehud Netzer discovered Herod's tomb at Herodion, a palace fortress that the king had built on the edge of the Judean Desert.  Herodion also included gardens, pools, decorated bathhouses and a theatre.  After discovering the tomb, Netzer broached the idea of this exhibit with the Israel Museum.  Tragically, he died in 2010 after sustaining a fall at Herodion.  Fittingly this milestone exhibit was dedicated to his memory. 

The museum utilized computer-generated models of Herodian palaces in Jericho as well as his massive building projects in Caesarea, Masada and Herodion.  Emphasis was also given to Herod's renovation and re-construction of the Temple in Jerusalem, reputed to be the largest and most magnificent building of its kind in the Roman world.

The exhibit shed new light on the political and aesthetic influence of the controversial king.  It emphasized the delicate relationship between Rome and Judea attesting to Herod's political savvy.  Originally a protégé of Mark Antony, Herod switched sides to Octavian (Augustus) when the latter defeated Antony.  In the exhibit there were busts of Herod's Roman contemporaries, including Augustus and his wife Livia, his friend Marcus Agrippa as well as Mark Antony and Cleopatra.

On view were many reconstructed palace rooms decorated with stucco, restored frescoes and mosaics.  In total, there were about 250 artifacts, many of which had never been previously exhibited.  There were remarkable wall paintings including a nautical scene with ships in battle.  There were also carved stone fragments from the Temple Mount, an imperial marble basin believed to be a gift from Augustus to Herod and a huge stone bathtub which had been unearthed in Cypros, one of his palaces overlooking Jericho.  In the display of amphorae, there were several with inscriptions indicating that they contained wine, fruit or fish sauce.  Many of these delicacies had been imported. 

The centrepiece was a monumental, full-size reconstruction of Herod's mausoleum.  It featured stone blocks excavated at the site with Ionic columns and intricate cornices.  This edifice weighed some 30 tons and the museum had to strengthen the gallery foundations to support this weight.

Fig 1:  Herod's reconstructed mausoleum


Elie Posner

The Israel Museum, Jerusalem,

Three shattered limestone sarcophagi were found in the tomb's vicinity.  The most elaborate was intricately carved from expensive reddish limestone.  It had been deliberately and almost totally destroyed soon after its construction but was painstakingly restored for the exhibit.  This sarcophagus was placed inside the burial chamber and may possibly have held Herod's body. 

The exhibit is accompanied by an outstanding scholarly catalogue edited by Silvia Rozenberg and David Mevorah.  The museum staff toiled for over 3 years to bring this once in a lifetime show to fruition.  The results represent an artistic triumph for Israel in general and the Museum and its director, James Snyder, in particular.

Cleopatra, Rome and the Magic of Egypt: Rome's Chiostro del Bramante hosted this show which ideally complemented that of Herod in Jerusalem.  It analysed Cleopatra's relationship with Rome and that city's fascination for Egypt.  The charismatic queen, Cleopatra, a contemporary of Herod, was barely 20 when she seduced Julius Caesar and subsequently Mark Antony.  Highly intelligent, she spoke at least seven languages including Hebrew and Aramaic.  The 180 masterpieces on show include frescoes, mosaics, funerary urns, coins, sculptures and jewellery.

Fig 2:  Head of Cleopatra, the "Nahman" Cleopatra     


Private collection

Leonardo da Vinci: The Universal Man: This show-stopper was featured in Venice's Gallerie dell'Accademia and highlighted 52 of Leonardo's graphic works.  Because of their fragility and sensitivity to light, this was the first time since 1980 that the entire Accademia's collection was on display.  There were also loans from other great museums.  Pride of place went to the renowned Vitruvian Man, a representation of the union of art and science, one of the greatest icons of Western Art.  In addition to studies of the human body, the exhibit also featured preparatory drawings for Leonardo's lost painting, the Battle of Anghiari as well as sections on botany and weapons.  The latter illustrated another facet of Leonardo's versatility, that of a designer of arms.  

Fig 3:  Leonardo da Vinci


The Vitruvian Man

Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venezia.

Venice's 55th Biennale:  This is arguably the most prestigious and influential international contemporary art event.  This year, 88 countries participated.  It would have required many days to do justice to this massive show.  Three pavilions were especially noteworthy.  Germany featured an installation by Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist who because of his political views has had several run-ins with the Chinese authorities.  His intriguing exhibit entitled Bang comprised a forest of 886 three legged wooden stools.  Such stools have a typical local Chinese flavour and have been used there for centuries. 

Britain's contribution was designed by artist Jeremy Deller.  It took subtle aim at England's social, political and economic society.  It stretched back to Palaeolithic times with a display of ancient hand axes.  A contemporary painting featured a colossal figure of William Morris, the Victorian socialist and designer, hurtling Russian tycoon Roman Abramovich's yacht into the Venetian lagoon. 

 In the Russian pavilion, Vadim Zakharov also created an installation highlighting the political and social milieu of the new Russia.  It was based on the Greek mythological story of Danae, who despite being imprisoned in a tower was still impregnated by Zeus who appeared in the form of golden rain.  Gold coins rained down from the ceiling on women visitors protected by umbrellas; men were barred from this area but could view the proceedings from a balcony.  A rather grave unsmiling bureaucrat collected the coins with a bucket, placed them on a conveyor belt which transported them to the roof.  The flow of cash began again...

The Frick Collection:  The Royal Picture Gallery, Mauritshuis, in The Hague, loaned the Frick 15 paintings from the 17th Century, the Dutch Golden Age which comprised portraits, still-lifes, landscapes as well as biblical and genre scenes.  The most dramatic painting was The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, a most talented artist and pupil of Rembrandt, whose life was tragically cut short by a gunpowder explosion which destroyed much of Delft.  The brilliant trompe l'oeil effects in this unique gem are remarkable.   

Another eye-catcher was Rembrandt's Susanna.  According to the book of Daniel, the virtuous Susanna was spied upon by 2 Babylonian Elders, whilst taking a bath.  This is one of art's supreme examples of voyeurism.  The unfortunate Susanna, desperately trying to shield her body, is not idealized but the anguish on her face is readily evident as the two elders leer in the background.  Another three stunning paintings by Rembrandt were also part of the exhibit. 

Pride of place, however, went to Johannes Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring.  The pensive enigmatic girl is one of the great icons of western art and is the Dutch equivalent of the Mona Lisa.  The sitter remains unidentified and thus the painting is a tronie, which represent an idealized character.  Ironically this painting was purchased in 1881 for less that $5. 

Figure 4:  Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675)


Girl with a Pearl Earring, c. 1665

Oil on canvas

Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague

Other masterpieces from the Mauritshuis included those by Hals, Steen, Terborch, and van Ruisdal amongst others.  The Dutch exhibit complemented the Frick's three genre scenes by Vermeer making this museum an obligatory pilgrimage for Vermeer lovers in 2013.

Morgan Library and Museum:  Here one was privileged to see another iconic portrait, The Head of a Young Woman by Leonardo da Vinci.  This metal point drawing served as a study for the angel in Leonardo's great painting, The Virgin of the Rocks described by art historian, Kenneth Clark as one of the most beautiful drawings in the world.  This was part of the collection from the Biblioteca Reale, Turin which also showcases Leonardo's Codex on the Flight of Birds.  Of particular interest are the artist's annotations in his left handed backward mirror script. 

Figure 5:  Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)


Head of a young woman, 1480s

Metal point

Biblioteca Reale, Turin

The New York Historical Society:  They mounted The Armory Show at 100 to celebrate the centenary of this seminal event, one of the key art exhibits ever held in the US since it introduced European avant-garde to America.  Th4 original exhibit opened in New York in February 1913 and approximately 87,000 people attended the one month event. 

The Historical Society has reunited more than 100 paintings of the original 1,350 works displayed.  Half the artists in the original show were American.  European artists represented included Brancusi, Braque, Cezanne, Degas, Duchamp, Gaugain, Lautrec, Matisse, Munch, Picasso, Picabia, Renoir, Rousseau and van Gogh.  The best selling artist was Odilon Redon.  

 Many of the paintings exhibited in 1913 were new and unconventional and provoked derision from critics and public alike.  Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase (No 2) was regarded as the most scandalous of all and attracted the most attention.  Matisse's Blue Nude considered today as one of the prized paintings in the Baltimore Museum of Art, was also regarded as primitive and depraved.  A scholarly catalogue accompanies the exhibit.

Figure 6:  Henri Matisse (1869-1954)


Blue Nude, 1907

Oil on Canvas

The Baltimore Museum of Art

© 2013 Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Neue Galerie:  The exhibit, Vasily Kandinsky: From Blaue Reiter to the Bauhaus (1910-1925) highlighted more than 80 works and included paintings, drawings and decorative materials.  It was drawn from the Neue Galerie's own collection with generous loans from major museums and private collections.  Key works by Kandinsky's contemporaries including Gabriele Munter, Franz Marc and Paul Klee amongst others are also on display.

The exhibit traced the development of the artist over this fifteen year period.  Born in Moscow, Kandinsky only began painting at the age of 30 when he settled in Munich.  It was there that he and his colleagues formed Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) movement.  The name was coined by Franz Marc who loved horses and Kandinsky who had an infatuation with the color blue as well as riders.  Kandinsky's paintings from this period were initially romantic and expressionistic with rainbow colors.  He gradually abandoned this free dynamic brushwork and representation altogether creating a completely non-objective style.  With the outbreak of World War 1, Kandinsky returned to Russia where he devoted his time to teaching.

In 1921, Kandinsky joined the Bauhaus school in Weimar.  It was here that he developed his geometric style which evolved into pure abstraction.  Kandinsky was much influenced by music, particularly by that of Arnold Schoenberg and he often used musical terms such as improvisations, fugues and compositions to identify his works. 

Kandinsky believed that art, music and theatre, the so-called Gesamtkunstwerk (Total work of art) were all connected.  Central to the exhibition is a special reconstruction of Kandinsky's lost murals for the Juryfreie Kunstschau (Jury Free Art Show) held in Berlin in 1922.  This project was designed by Kandinsky and executed by his Bauhaus students.

Figure 7:  Vasily Kandinsky (1866-1944)


Fugue, 1914

Oil on Canvas

Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel

Grand Hotel: Redesigning Modern Life, another memorable show could be seen at Vancouver's Art Gallery.  It centred on themes of travel, design, culture and social interactions by charting the evolution of the hotel from its origins to its establishment as a major cultural phenomenon.  The exhibit showed how the hotel had been a fertile environment for art, literature, music, film, poetry and science.  Sigmund Freud and Richard Wagner worked in the café at Vienna's Hotel Imperial whilst influential cultural figures gathered at New York's Algonquin and Chelsea Hotels.  

This exhibit demonstrated that after the Second World War, the US government believed that American style hotels could bolster economic and political stability in the face of Soviet expansionism.  The US actually financed some of the Hilton hotel constructions in Cairo, Teheran, Istanbul and Tel Aviv through the Marshall Plan, the aid program which rescued European economies after the War.

This review was published in part in The Jerusalem Post on 15 December, 2013 and 9 February 2014.

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