Friday, November 19, 2010

Part V: The Tour of the Boston Public Library

The last installment of the Boston Public Library Tour series is the main reason that I wanted to tour this library in the first place. One of the largest and most controversial murals of all time is known as the Sargent Gallery. This 84 foot long, 23 foot wide, and 26 foot high space is actually a hallway between the Chavannes Gallery and Bates Hall. The atmosphere in this gallery is rather somber as is the subject matter, which is the progress of religion from pagan worship to modern individual freedom and spirituality. Named the Triumph of Religion, Sargent worked for years on the murals that depict Christian and Jewish religious scenes from the Bible and other writings. The figures depict the influence of pagan gods on mankind, and religious law, redemption, and guidance. Figures of the Messiah, Madonna, the blessed Trinity, and angels are painted in storybook style illustration in large murals high on the walls.

Sargent began the Triumph of Religion mural project in 1890 in Gloucestershire, England, and later, when he moved to London, he constructed a one-third-scale of the Library’s Special Collections Hall. Some of that construction still exists today. He made hundreds of preparatory studies in graphite, charcoal, and oil and sometimes added text to his murals from religious writings. He traveled extensively abroad for inspiration, visiting museums, and making sketches of historical monuments abroad. He copied Byzantine style painting, Egyptian and Greek art and hieroglyphics, medieval sculpture and European architecture.

Sargent used plaster and gold inlays for the first time on some of his murals to give them a three dimensional appearance. A crucifix is the most sculptural of all the pieces in the Hall, with the arms and heads of the figures rising outward completely from the wall.

The Synagogue panel was the subject of much controversy when it was displayed. Both Jewish and Christian individuals and groups urged its removal.

The Massachusetts state legislature passed—and then repealed—a bill to remove the picture. In 1924, two months before the repeal of the legislature’s bill, an unidentified individual splattered Sargent’s Synagogue with ink. Sargent and Herbert Thompson from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, headed the restoration and were able to repair the damage done. Though it is unknown why, the controversy appears to have been the main reason that he abandoned Triumph of Religion before painting the planned keynote image, Sermon on the Mount. There remains one lone panel that is empty.

Another reason might be that after WWI, the artist’s metaphorical use of Jewish and Christian history and scripture to signal the progress of Western civilization from a pagan, dogmatic, and institutional past toward individual freedom and spiritual subjectivity became a less compelling subject.

The Triumph of Religion was completed in 1919.

Photos courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Part IV: The Tour of the Boston Public Library

From the Chavannes murals, we passed into the Bates Hall, which was featured in the film, "Good Will Hunting." The reading room was dedicated to Joshua Bates, who donated $50,00 for books for the library. It was simply decorated with green shaded reading lights that light the rows of plain wooden tables.
Occupying the whole front of the building on the second floor level and lighted by high arched windows, it is 218 long, 42 feet wide, and 50 feet high, to the crown of its barrel vaulted ceiling.
The next room that we entered was the Edwin Abby Room. This room held the murals of the Tennison version of the Search for the Holy Grail. Installed in 1895, Edwin Austin Abbey painted fifteen scenes from Tennison’s story and arranged them in a circle high up on the walls in this large room (64’x22’) that is now often rented for special events and parties. The ceiling is made of heavy ornamental rafters, and the floors are made of Istrian and red Verona marble. There are also two grand fireplaces made of red Verona marble.

The Holy Grail was fabled to be the sacred vessel from which the Lord had eaten at the Last Supper. Joseph of Arimathea had gathered the divine blood of the Lord’s wounds after purchasing it from Pontius Pilate. Its existence, its preservation, its miraculous virtues and properties were a cherished popular belief in the early ages of European Christianity. From twelfth-century narrators, Walter Mapes in England, ChrÈtien de Troyes in France, and Wolfram von Eschenbach in Germany, came folklore that the Grail was guarded for ages in the Castle of the Grail by the descendants of the "rich man," to whom the body of Jesus had been surrendered, where it awaited the coming of the perfect knight, who alone should be worthy to have knowledge of it.

King Arthur’s court first introduced us to the romances of the Holy Grail and to the perfect knight. To the one who possessed the Grail was granted the ability to live, and to cause others to live, indefinitely without food, as well as the achievement of universal knowledge, and of invulnerability in battle.

The scenes recount the journey of Sir Galahad and the knights of the round table to find the Holy Grail, and the mishaps, dangers, and triumphs along the way. Sir Galahad, always in red, the symbol of purity, eventually breaks the spell of Amfortas, the Fisher King, King of the Grail, and later frees the Virtues, maidens of the Castle of the Maidens. He remains virtuous and renounces every human desire, and is able to accomplish his mission. The Holy Grail appears before him and his soul is freed from his body.

The room is magnificent, the paintings are very powerful. If you have a chance to read the book and then see the paintings, do so.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Part III: Tour of the Boston Public Library

Puvis de Chavannes (1824-98) was a French painter and the president and co-founder of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. He was born Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes in Lyon, Rhone, France, the son of a mining engineer, descendant of an old noble family of Burgundy. Pierre Puvis was educated at the Lyons College and at the Lycée Henri IV in Paris. A journey to Italy inspired him, and on his return to Paris in 1844, he began his study as a painter under Eugène Delacroix, Henri Scheffer, and later under Thomas Couture. It was not until a number of years later, when the government of France acquired one of his works, that he gained wide recognition. In Montmartre, he had an affair with one of his models, Suzanne Valadon, who would become one of the leading artists of the day as well as the mother, teacher, and mentor of Maurice Utrillo.

His work is seen as symbolist in nature, even though he studied with some of the romanticists, and he is credited with influencing an entire generation of painters and sculptors. One of his protégés was Georges de Feure.

Puvis de Chavannes is noted for painting murals, several of which may be seen at the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) in Paris, the Sorbonne, and the Paris Panthéon, and at Poitiers, as well as at the Boston Public Library in the United States.

His paintings were done on canvas and then affixed to the walls (marouflage), but their pale colors imitated the effect of fresco. He had only modest success early in his career but he went on to achieve an enormous reputation, and he was universally respected even by artists of very different aims and outlook from his own. Gauguin, Seurat, and Toulouse-Lautrec were among his professed admirers.

At the Boston Public Library, his mural designs were influenced by four academic categories:  Poetry, Philosophy, History, and Science. His murals decorate the marble staircase leading to the second floor.

On the right-hand wall of the staircase as you enter appear in three panels Pastoral Poetry. Virgil, Dramatic Poetry. Æschylus and the Oceanides, and Epic Poetry. Homer crowned by the Iliad and Odyssey.

On the left-hand wall, three panels display more academics: History-attended by a Spirit bearing a torch calls up the Past, Astronomy-The Chaldean Shepherds observe the stars and discover the law of numbers, and Philosophy-Plato sums up in an immortal phrase the eternal conflict between Spirit and Matter. "Man is a plant of heavenly not of earthly growth."

 On the end wall to the right and left of the windows there are two murals.

To the left is Chemistry (mineral, organic, vegetable): A process of mysterious change evolves itself under the magic wand of a fairy surrounded by watching spirits. To the right is Physics: By the wondrous agency of Electricity, Speech flashes through Space and swift as lightning bears tidings of good and evil.

In my next installment of this series, I will describe the Quest and Achievement of the Holy Grail.