Thursday, November 13, 2008

Atlanta and the world: a meditation in three parts, one

At Last, After All These Years

Let the record show that in the waning days of the Bush Administration, it was finally possible for the determined seeker to get a certain amount of perspective on global art from the late Neolithic to somewhere in the mid-seventeenth century without leaving the city of Atlanta.

Granted, you have to cheat a little, by letting small numbers of objects represent entire regions of the world in a number of cases, and by excluding immovable rock paintings and artifacts from any number of cultures that used perishable materials, so that nineteenth century examples are taken to be emblematic. And you have to travel back and forth between several Atlanta locations to get much of a perspective.

But one could get a fair ways along in perspective-seeking just with the exhibition programs of the High and the Carlos at the moment, which is quite unusual.

Catherine Fox has already pointed out the odd coincidence that links the splendid objects in the shows of King Tutankhamun and of the First Emperor of China: both bodies of work were commissioned by rulers who came to the throne very young and who died young, too. And both were determined to carry on full tilt in the afterlife, resulting in the extraordinary objects found in these two blockbuster shows, both of which also include sufficient contextualizing objects to give some sense of the societies that spawned a Manhattan-sized underground tomb city in the state of Qin and an undersized tomb crammed full with paraphernalia in Pharaonic Egypt.

But these two draws provide only the biggest and most contextualized works of art from only two ancient civilizations. To find the rest, we have to go to the Carlos’ permanent collection or to two other exhibitions at the High, consisting of objects on loan from the Louvre and from the Victoria and Albert.

But both these shows at the High look different after a walkthrough of “The First Emperor.” One of the most arresting objects in that show of stunners is a small jade vessel dated “Late Neolithic to Early Dynastic,” or about 2000 – 1200 B.C. The skillful carving and elegant proportions of this “ritual object” (for so it is labeled) reveal a Chinese civilization already well on the way to the levels of artistic accomplishment that would permit the creation of thousands of larger-than-life-size individualized terra cotta warriors a millennium or two later.

And once sensitized to the skills of the Late Neolithic, the eye is drawn anew to the Egyptian stone vessel in “The Louvre and the Masterpiece.” Here, the craft of the carved vessel has been perfected nearly two millennia earlier than in our Chinese example.

Of course, if we want to do cross-cultural comparisons, we have to look at the Mesopotamian pieces contemporaneous with the Chinese ritual object, and progress chronologically through all the Egyptian dynastic material scattered between the High and the galleries of the Carlos and the Carlos’ Tut blockbuster at the Civic Center.
And that would take so long and would still omit so many periods of history that I can’t imagine anyone actually doing it. And after we had followed that trail of associative links, we would still have the art of the ancient Americas to work through at the Carlos, not to mention a trail of Greek art that includes the stunning seventh-century B. C. Lady of Auxerre from the Louvre.

And then it would be time to pick up the trail in medieval Europe and start thinking about its relationship to the art of the Islamic world (exemplified here by a remarkable fourteenth-century vessel from Syria that eventually served as a baptismal vessel for the French monarchy after having previously been used as a container for holy water during the Easter celebrations).

Actually, we could pick up the trail in Late Antiquity with the Byzantine consular tablet from shortly after the fall of the Western Roman empire, and go on from there through a succession of Western and Eastern Christian objects, but we would have to walk over to the show from the Victoria and Albert to do it.

And we would have to run over to the Carlos to look at some of the comparable materials from Egypt, and to trace things back through Rome and fill in a few more ancient cultures of the Mediterranean. But it would be worth it. Or at least it seemed that way when I did it in the opposite direction.

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