The exhibit Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World at the Getty in Los Angeles is pretty impressive. I listened to a podcast episode with the curators on Getty Arts & Ideas show, and though manuscripts exhibits don’t particularly move me (think dark rooms, small print, Latin, teeny-tiny pictures), my interest was piqued. It deserved a visit. I took a group tour with a Getty docent this past Saturday, perused the exhibit even further afterwards, and followed up browsing the exhibit’s webpages on Getty’s site when I got home. I’ve taken it one step further here by giving you the inside scoop on the exhibit—some museum scuttlebutt about the exhibit’s promotional campaign and the need-to-know particulars that will make Book of the Beasts a rockstar exhibit, online or in person.
I love the image that greets you at the exhibit’s entrance (image above), a griffin with a person in its mouth. It’s whimsical. It’s also the image The Getty chose to use on its promotional banners displayed around the city of Los Angeles. Yet the choice stirred up major controversy according to the docent. The City of Los Angeles took issue with the griffin, which to the city council suggested violence against women given he (?) was holding a woman in its mouth. It’s a theme the City (and rightly so) is addressing through Mayor Garcetti’s domestic violence awareness campaign, yet it’s an example of political correctness gone wild. The Getty thought so too. Their response, according to the docent, is that the griffin is a mythical creature, a winged, beaked creature from a manuscript of the Middle Ages; it’s a far stretch that the image condones violence in the current day. The Getty got their way—the banners are up.
It always makes an exhibit more interesting when you hear a snippet of behind-the-scenes drama—it makes museums more real don’t you think?
What are ‘Bestiaries’?
Before I get into more drama (which is how the exhibit begins with a dramatic giant unicorn horn), I’ll give a brief description of what a bestiary is. Background is much needed for an exhibition; in fact it’s essential. It gives context. When background information is missing or skipped, the objects and descriptions in the exhibit won’t make sense, because then it’s just a bunch of stuff that doesn’t relate to each other or you. Without this step, it's hard for visitors to make connections to real life and why it matters.
Definition: Bestiaries (or bestiary) are books, also called illuminated manuscripts, from the Middle Ages (500 to 1500 A.D.) decorated with mythical creatures and animals along with text. Bestiaries describe the creatures and include stories using them as symbols of the Christian faith in allegories. Though first used by the church for religious education, bestiaries were also a source of entertainment and learning for members of the wealthy society due to their dramatic and gorgeous illustrations. Over time bestiaries led to more encyclopedic books of natural history that moved away from religious instruction. The first encyclopedia of natural history was The Garden of Health published in 1491 (image at end of article). In current day, bestiaries have influenced art, literature, and film.
Stupendous oak ceiling panels from France (1225 - 75). Depicts images from the bestiary, including the leaping unicorn, (bottom panel, center), as well as images of real animals, like the lion (top panel, center), shown frequently in bestiaries as the 'king of the beasts'. From 'Book of Beasts' exhibit at the Getty
Why the Exhibit is Not just a bunch of Boring Books
The Book of Beasts is one of the best temporary exhibits I’ve experienced at The Getty. It was ten years in the making according to the exhibit's senior curator. It’s far more than a display of old books—it brings together unique and provocative pieces of ancient and modern artwork and objects from select museums in North America and Europe that show the bestiaries' influence. Two of the most impressive objects are oak ceiling panels from France (image above) that show images of a leaping unicorn, an ostrich, lion and other real and mythical creatures.
Five out of Five Stars
The exhibit seems to flow chronologically through the gallery rooms which feature several manuscripts (under glass opened to specific pages), objects and art that highlight three distinct periods starting with, 1) the origins of the Bestiary: the books starting in the 1200s, objects and art works that incorporate ‘beasts’ with religious motifs, then moves to, 2) the influences of the bestiary on books, art and objects that emphasized the natural world—a shift away from the religion, and finally, 3) the last gallery room (pictured right) that focuses on current day, with objects and art of (mostly) living artists works that incorporate humans, animals and mythological creatures.
The exhibit feels relevant, approachable, even hip with the curators selection of 21st century art. As I’ve written in this website’s section on creating learning programs and exhibits for museums, they need to be relevant, so visitors can make connections to things they are interested in—to their real lives. Book of Beasts does so with its progression throughout the exhibit, you see how encyclopedias developed (think wikipedia), how images of animals were incorporated into art and literature, and finally to current day art objects with works that are large, dramatic. It’s thought-provoking, real.
I give the Book of the Beasts a solid 5 out of 5 stars, not only to the in-person exhibit but also the online elements included on Getty’s website.
How to Experience The Exhibit
The exhibition is must-see either online or in-person (until August 18, 2019) . The excellent web resources also incorporate social media channels brilliantly. To learn more, check out the YouTube video (below), peruse the web pages on the Getty’s online exhibit pages, and for more in-depth learning download the object checklist (PDF) which describes every object shown in the exhibit including the museum it’s from. There are also four videos featuring the curators discussing different beasts on ‘Beastly Banter’ available on Getty’s Facebook page. Enjoy!
More ways to explore Book of Beasts
You Tube video (4:18 min.) about Book Of Beasts featuring Senior Curator Beth Morrison
I tried to find an online exhibit on Rembrandt given a ‘wealth of museums’ according to the Art Newspaper, around the world are celebrating the ‘Year of the Rembrandt’ as the year 2019 marks the 350th anniversary Rembrandt’s death (Luke & Da Silva, 2019). Other than a rather static virtual exhibition sponsored by a group of museums in Southern California, I couldn’t find one—so I created my own. Though there are several terrific exhibits to visit in person, including at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam with its year long celebration of events and exhibitions, and at The Met, Praise of Painting: Dutch Masterpieces, and Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt at the Saint Louis Museum of Art, my online exhibit is the next best thing.
I created ‘Celebrate Rembrandt’ online exhibit using a variety of dynamic media which allows you to enjoy a selection of Rembrandt’s works and learn about this Dutch Master from the convenience of your desktop or digital device. It includes a selection of excellent (and brief) videos, images, and an interactive media piece that explores one of Rembrandt’s most famous works, The Night Watch.
But First, A Brief Background of Rembrandt
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn born in 1606 known as ‘Rembrandt’, was one of the most innovative and greatest artists of his time, and the most significant in Dutch art history. Rembrandt created works in three mediums—painting, drawing and etching, that included self-portraits, landscapes, nudes, ‘tronies’ (paintings of character studies often with exaggerated expressions). His etchings created a new category of enduring works (prints) which transformed printmaking into a legitimate art form (below is a terrific video that shows how he made his etchings). He also introduced a new brushstroke technique consisting of a rough and coarse appearance, described in Dutch as ‘grof mania’ (later Van Gogh took this technique to a new level). His textured brushstrokes differed (drastically) from the smooth, fine painting of the time. Also of significance are Rembrandt’s self-portraits; he painted many, which left us with a visual biography that captures Rembrandt in a series of realistic and frequently unglamorous poses.
Rembrandt lived in the Dutch Republic (now the Netherlands) and mostly in Amsterdam for the duration of his life, never traveling to study in Italy or elsewhere as many of his contemporaries had. He worked as an apprentice under two artists for brief periods, eventually opening his own studio and taking on students. Rembrandt’s talents were recognized early on which led to several patrons, though his success is also attributed to connections of his wife's family which benefited Rembrandt greatly. He married Saskia van Ulyenburgh in 1634, and moved into a newly built (expensive) home in an upscale neighborhood in 1639. And though Rembrandt earned a good living, his living expenses were onerous; he was known for living well beyond his means. He struggled financially for most of his life, and died a poor man in 1669.
Two Rembrandt Masterpieces
The Night Watch (1642)
One of Rembrandt most famous works is The Night Watch, on view in the Rijksmuseum. It’s considered one of Rembrandt’s most significant works not only because of its size, but because of how he depicted a militia, which was typically painted as formal and static, yet Rembrandt created a dynamic scene, with action and interesting figures including a young child. The work was commissioned by the musketeer branch of the civic militia; it was finished in 1642. The painting is so enormous that the Risksmuseum had to build a custom gallery for a fitting display in a recent renovation. In 1715, when the painting was moved to Amsterdam Hall, it was trimmed on all four sides to accommodate the painting in it’s new location. The trimmings have yet to be found.
Click on The Night Watch image below to explore the painting. Return back to this webpage to continue with the exhibition.
Old Man in Military Costume (1630-31)
This is is marvelous work, considered a tronie (character study). Just look at the expression of the man’s face and how Rembrandt’s technique created his expression, and the ostrich plume on his hat. Most interesting is the discovery of what’s under the painting, which was discovered with x-ray fluorescene technology. There’s another figure underneath, which a conservation team at The Getty Research Institute reconstructed.
Click on the Old Man in Military Costume image below (it will open in a new window on a different website) to read about the painting's analysis, and scroll down the page to view the re-constructed image and the machine used for scanning.
Rembrandt as Printmaker
Rembrandt created a new genre of art with his etching technique, known as printmaking. I never was clear on how prints were made in Rembrandt's time—the video by Christie's describes the process beautifully (and briefly). His prints transformed how printmaking was viewed—which was into a legitimate art category. His contemporaries at the time were duly impressed with his etching ability, critics even suggested he had a ‘secret method’ all his own that he didn’t even share with his students. Rembrandt made approximately 290 plates, of which 79 exist today. Interesting is their size; the plates were small, none larger than 21 by 18 inches, most the size of a postcard.
Video: Rembrandt: Pioneer Printmaker (1:52 minutes)
Video: How Rembrandt Made His Etchings: Christie's (4:08 minutes)
To learn even more about Rembrandt’s prints, visit this link to an essay by the Met Museum by Nadine Orenstein, and this article by Ed de Heer.
Rembrandt painted, drew and etched, 50 magnificent self portraits, and even though there are approximately 90 that exist, not all are attributed to Rembrandt; research reveals that several were painted by Rembrandt’s students—he had them copy his portraits as part of their training. Rembrandt created self portraits starting in his early 20s up until his death at the age of 63. Some of his portraits show him in unflattering poses, such as Rembrandt with an open mouth, messy hair, a surprised expression and even as an older man complete with wrinkles and extra flesh.
Video: Rembrandt, Self Portrait (3:55 minutes)
To learn more about Rembrandt’s self portraits, see Rembrandt: Selected Self Portraits at rembrandtpainting.net.
I hope you enjoyed 'Celebrate Rembrandt' online exhibit. Below I've pulled together a selection of sites to further explore Rembrandt's works, this Dutch Master and most significant artist of all time. Enjoy!
More to Explore Online
List of Museum Exhibitions
I recently saw the exhibit, ‘Fashion Redefined: Miyake, Kawakubo, Yamamoto’ at the Indianapolis Museum Art (now called Newfields). The exhibit was on a second floor gallery, adjacent to the European and American Painting and Sculpture Galleries that feature some of my favorites works of Van Gogh, Gaugin and Georgia O’Keefe, Edward Hopper. As I viewed the collections displayed on mannequins, it didn’t feel much different than when I engage with works of art in the other galleries. Yet after pondering the questions later, 'is fashion art' and 'does fashion belong in a museum', and reading what others had to say, I reconsidered: perhaps fashion isn’t really art at all and might belong in a more obscure gallery, or not belong at all. I review here not only the exhibit, but also the idea of fashion as art and its place (or not) in an art museum.
The Fashion Redefined exhibit consists of pieces from Newfields collection of Japanese designer fashions that the museum has been collecting since 2009, as well as loans from private collections. The featured Japanese designers were part of a group who arrived on the Paris couture fashion scene in the 1970s and 1980s, and shook things up in the fashion world. These designers not only infused Japanese aesthetics into their designs with clean lines and a focus on minimalism, but challenged the female silhouette—that hourglass figure (or the skinny hourglass figure) that haute couture fashion liked to celebrate. One of the designers, Rei Kawakubo, really disrupted the status quo with her collections that were viewed as gender-neutral, with loose-fitting garments, frayed hems and dark colours. Another collection of Kawakubo’s, the, ‘Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body’ collection, also known as the ‘bump’ collection was another sensation (a few are featured in the exhibit--see blue dress far right in image below). These I found most intruging. So did Paris though not in a good way, they were appalled that these bumps purposefully built into garments, appeared in all the wrong places—they made hips, buttocks and even tummies looks bigger! How dare Kawakubo do so? I found it refreshing.
Other interesting garments were four sheath dresses featuring works of art by designer Issey Miyake. These were part of Miyake’s 'Pleats Please Guest Artist Series'. The dresses, were literally, the artist’s canvas’. Miyake chose artists who created art works specifically for the pleated sheath dresses. One off white dress, features a work by Cai Guo-Quiang who used gun powder explosions to create an image of a dragon which was then photographed and printed on flat fabrics before it was pleated (image below).
Is Fashion Art?
The exhibit was well done; the fashions intriguing, the exhibit labels interesting, even thought-provoking. Was this exhibit much different than traditional art exhibits of paintings or sculpture? I did a bit of digging to try and find out what the experts, artists, fashion designers and museum professionals had to say. Overall there's a lack of consensus. Some consider fashion, when in museum at least, like a glorified store window, while others consider fashion similar to decorative arts like ceramics, or jewelery. Others say fashion is not art and doesn’t belong, as fashion is interactive—it requires an active participant—a person wearing the garment.
Fashion designers have strong and contradictory views. Designer Jean Paul Gaultier famously said in 2001 “Fashion is not art. Never” (Cathcart & Taylor, 2014). Other designers concurred, including Prada and Marc Jacobs. Artists of traditional mediums weighed in on the discussion and suggested that fashion belongs in its OWN museum, so fashion could be "put into context". Their argument—fashion takes gallery space away from ‘real’ art (Cathcart & Taylor, 2014). My guess is that some museum curators would agree with this argument.
Attendance at Fashion Exhibits
More importantly though, we should consider what museum visitors think. And if we use attendance numbers as a benchmark, it seems that museum-goers love fashion exhibits—in a big way. The most visited museum exhibit worldwide in 2018 according to the Art Newspaper’s annual museum-visit attendance survey, was a fashion exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination with about 1.7 million visitors. The show, featuring haute couture fashion with religious works of art, was a smash hit—the most visited exhibit in history of The Met! It beat the #1 show of all time at The Met, the 1978 King Tut exhibit, Treasures of Tutankhamen. It also beat out the Mona Lisa Exhibit, when she was on view at the Met in 1963 (with just over a million visitors). Not only that, more than double the number of visitors want to see Heavenly Bodies than another exhibit at the Met that was going on at the same time--Michelangelo in the Divine Draftsman and Designer.
Yet not all people agree that fashion belongs in a museum. After reading a selection of reader comments in response to a 2014 article, 'Does Fashion belong in an art gallery', you’ll see what I mean, for example, “…a lot of so called fashion should be in the trash can not in museums”. The comments goes on.
What’s Going On Here?
Still, museums can’t ignore visitor attendance numbers, discouraging as they may be for artists and museum professionals, that fashion exhibits attract more visitors than traditional art exhibitions. The overwhelming numbers are telling—the response suggests that visitors, (and new visitors who might never have set foot in a museum if not for fashion) find fashion approachable, relatable, interesting and fun.
The attendance numbers alone create a strong argument that fashion does belong in an art museum. Perhaps museum professionals need to think differently about what art is, and consider that fashion goes beyond telling a story about how people dressed in a culture or time period, and is thought-provoking, challenging, engaging with potential to change people’s thinking just as traditional art does. What do you think?
A blog sharing my museum experiences and ideas to make museum programs, exhibits & practices more welcoming, relevant, engaging and real!