Feasts for the eye and mind

Irving Spitz presents an overview of some noteworthy museum exhibits of 2013.

HEROD’S RECONSTRUCTED mausoleum at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem (photo credit: ELIE POSNER)
HEROD’S RECONSTRUCTED mausoleum at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem
(photo credit: ELIE POSNER)
Eight million people attended the major blockbuster art event of all time – the “Tutankhamun” exhibit at the at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which premiered in 1976 and ran for 30 months. Civic authorities were quick to realize that with a smash hit of this nature, vast financial benefits could be accrued from visitors.
New museums designed by famous architects then began to sprout all over the world, like Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which transformed a sleepy Basque town into a major tourist attraction.
It was also readily appreciated that impressive and thought-provoking exhibits could also boost museum attendance. Such unique events are so special that they warrant a dedicated trip to view them.
In that spirit, what follows is a summary of the most memorable 2013 artistic events I attended, led by the most outstanding – the Israel Museum’s Herod exhibit.
Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey
This most impressive 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, archeologist Prof. 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 theater.
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, Massada and Herodion. Emphasis was also given to Herod’s renovation and reconstruction 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 they had contained wine, fruit or fish sauce; many of these delicacies had been imported.
The centerpiece was a monumental, full-sized 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.
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 was accompanied by an outstanding scholarly catalogue, edited by Silvia Rozenberg and David Mevorah.
The museum staff toiled for over three 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 analyzed 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 jewelry.
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.
The Biblioteca Reale in Turin lent works to both the Leonardo show in Venice and New York’s Morgan Library and Museum.
Prominently displayed in New York was Leonardo’s Head of a Young Woman, acknowledged as one of the most beautiful drawings in the world as well as his Codex on the Flight of Birds.
Grand Hotel: Redesigning Modern Life
Another memorable show at Vancouver’s Art Gallery, “Redesigning Modern Life,” centered on themes of travel, design, culture and social interaction, 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, while influential cultural figures gathered at New York’s Algonquin and Chelsea Hotels.
This exhibit demonstrated that after World War II, 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, Tehran, Istanbul and Tel Aviv through the Marshall Plan, the aid program which rescued European economies after the war.
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, but 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, titled “Bang,” comprised a forest of 886 threelegged wooden stools. Such stools have a typical local Chinese flavor, 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, stretching 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, placing them on a conveyor belt which transported them to the roof. The flow of cash began again…
The author, an emeritus professor of medicine, writes, reviews and lectures on medical topics, music, art, history and travel (www.irvingspitz.com); he was recently recognized with the Sidney H. Ingbar Distinguished Service Award by the Endocrine Society for his contributions to the field. His photograph album can be viewed at www. pbase.com/ irvspitz; he may be contacted at [email protected]