The Baltimore Museum of Art

The Baltimore Museum of Art.

STEPHEN SPARTANA/COURTESY BALTIMORE MUSEUM OF ART

Under the leadership of director Christopher Bedford, the Baltimore Museum of Art has made strides towards diversifying its collection. In 2018, the institution sparked a controversy when it deaccessioned works by white male artists like Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Franz Kline, and used proceeds from those sales to purchase pieces by Charles Gaines, Emma Amos, Faith Ringgold, Ana Mendieta, and other artists of color and women artists.

As part of those ongoing efforts, the BMA has revealed that it will only acquire artworks by women in 2020. The Baltimore Sun reports that this policy will apply to works of all mediums obtained through either purchase or donation in 2020.

“You don’t just purchase one painting by a female artist of color and hang it on the wall next to a painting by Mark Rothko,” Bedford told the newspaper. “To rectify centuries of imbalance, you have to do something radical.”

The institution’s “2020 Vision” program, which comprises 22 exhibitions and marks the centennial of the passage of the 19th Amendment (granting the vote to women), will also focus on women artists. Presentations will spotlight Joan Mitchell, Mickalene Thomas, Ana Mendieta, and more figures, while other shows will be organized thematically, with subjects ranging from depictions of motherhood in African art to beaded works made by Lakota women in the 19th century.

The BMA acquired its first work by a woman artist in 1916, two years after its establishment. But just 3,800 of the 95,000 pieces in its permanent holdings today were made by women artists.

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Samuel West as Anthony Blunt in 'The Crown' on Netflix

Samuel West as Anthony Blunt in The Crown on Netflix.

DES WILLIE/NETFLIX/KOBAL/SHUTTERSTOCK

The third season of Netflix’s The Crown, which traces the life and reign of Queen Elizabeth II from the years 1964 to 1977, premiered last night with a look at the salacious past of the monarch’s former art surveyor, Anthony Blunt. Veteran English actor Samuel West plays the part.

Blunt, a British art historian, is believed to have been recruited by Soviet spies while he was studying at Cambridge University in the 1930s. The KGB agent went undetected for years, and was appointed the art surveyor at Buckingham Palace in 1945 by Queen Elizabeth’s father, George VI. He was charged with overseeing the royal family’s collection of works by Rembrandt, Monet, Artemisia Gentileschi, Leonardo da Vinci, and numerous other figures.

In the dramatized portrayal of Blunt’s tenure at Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip encounter the art historian’s preparations for an exhibition of early modern European artworks from the royal holdings at the Guildhall Gallery in London. Pointing to a work by Annibale Carracci, Philip inquires, “Who’s that by?” When he learns the Baroque painter’s name, Philip replies, gruffly, “Never heard of him,” adding of the family’s knowledge of art, “We’re country people, really.”

Blunt, whose secret dealings the episode also touches on, served as director of the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, and he published a number of important texts, including a monograph of painter Nicolas Poussin and the book Art and Architecture in France, 1500–1700.

In 1964, the year that episode one kicks off, Blunt was discovered by MI5 intelligence officer Arthur Martin, though the art surveyor was given immunity in exchange for a full confession. So as to protect the British intelligence community from humiliation and criticism, Blunt was allowed to maintain his position at Buckingham Palace for 15 more years, until Margaret Thatcher divulged his political treachery to Parliament in 1979. He was subsequently stripped of his knighthood by the Queen. (In The Crown, Blunt concludes a lecture on Carracci’s 1585 painting Allegory of Truth and Time when MI5 shows up to interrogate him.)

He said at the time that he felt he’d “made an appalling mistake,” and explained that he was initially drawn to work for the Soviet Union as a way to “serve the cause of anti-fascism.” Blunt added, “This was a case of political conscience against loyalty to country. I chose conscience.” Blunt died in 1983.

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KAWS with his sculpture GONE at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia in September 2019.

DAVID CROSLING/EPA-EFE/SHUTTERSTOCK

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News

A Banksy sculpture that had been set to go up for sale at Sotheby’s in London has been withdrawn over an ownership dispute. [The Art Newspaper]

KAWS paid $17 million to Thor Equities in New York to buy a 10,000-square-foot building next to his studio in Brooklyn. The artist has been there since 2017. [The Real Deal]

Kelly Crow reports on efforts by Bettina Bryant to maintain the art collection assembled by her husband, Donald L. Bryant Jr., who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Crow: “They are encumbered with more than $90 million in art-backed loans, and with the 77-year-old Mr. Bryant no longer able to weigh in, Ms. Bryant, 52, has been doing everything she can to make monthly interest payments totaling around $300,000.” [The Wall Street Journal]

History

The prime minister of France returned a 19th-century sword to Senegal’s president “as a symbolic gesture of France’s commitment to its pledge to return African cultural heritage.” [The Art Newspaper]

The first episode of the Netflix series The Queen focused on Anthony Blunt, the former art surveyor for Buckingham Palace who doubled as a Soviet spy. [ARTnews]

Issues

Artist Ai Weiwei commented on the turmoil in Hong Kong, saying “Hong Kong demonstrators are the heroes of our time.” [The Art Newspaper]

Taking a question posed as part of an audio guide to a show at the National Gallery in London, Farah Nayeri wonders: “Is it time to stop looking at Gauguin altogether?” [The New York Times]

The New Yorker devoted a “Talk of the Town” piece to artist Kehinde Wiley and playwright Jeremy O. Harris—both of whom are “making provocative incursions into Times Square” by way of Rumors of War (Wiley’s public sculpture) and Slave Play (Harris’s Broadway show). [The New Yorker]

Misc.

Here’s an appreciation of a new wave of figurative painting that is “breathing new life into a form that has traditionally been dominated by white male artists and has been described as ‘anachronistic, inert, crusty.’” [The Guardian]

A tennis racket that Serena Williams smashed in a notorious match in 2018 is going up for auction. “I think the low end would be $10,000, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes to $25,000 or $50,000,” the founder of Golden Auctions said. [The New York Times]

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John Beasley Greene, “Giza, Pyramid of Cheops, or Khufu” (1853–54) National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

SAN FRANCISCO — Ancient Egypt has turned up in some unexpected museum exhibitions this year. First, there was the Pulitzer Arts Foundation’s Striking Power: Iconoclasm in Ancient Egypt, followed by the Freud Museum London’s exhibition on Freud’s fascination with Egypt. Now the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has opened Signs and Wonders: The Photographs of John Beasley Greene, featuring photographs of ancient monuments and landscapes in Egypt and Algeria from the 1850s.

John Beasley Greene is an enigmatic figure. Almost nothing was known of his life until about 40 years ago, and even after four decades of research biographical details are sparse. We do know that he came from a wealthy American banking family resident in France. Like many other photographers of the day (including fellow pioneering photographer of Egypt Maxime Du Camp, and Auguste Salzmann, whose Palestine photographs were the subject of a recent Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition), Greene trained under the influential Gustave Le Gray. What set Greene apart was his dual role as photographer and archaeologist. As the exhibition notes, he was the first known archaeologist to photograph Egypt. Greene took at least two trips to Egypt (between 1853 and 1855), the first for travel and photography, the second largely for excavation. On these visits he photographed not only ancient monuments but also excavations in progress — his own at the site of Medinet Habu as well as those of Frenchman (and future founding director of Egypt’s Antiquities Service) Auguste Mariette at Giza. He then traveled to Algeria from 1855 to 1856 for more archaeological and photographic projects. But Greene died shortly after his return, only 24 years old.

Greene’s photographs, frequently exhibited during his lifetime, were forgotten quickly soon after, until revived about 40 years ago. Since that time, many of Greene’s prints have come on the art market and so are more widely available today. The current exhibition — the first to focus exclusively on Greene — features a large number of Greene’s prints (86 total) from a wide range of museums and private collections, including the SFMOMA’s own holdings.

Installation view of Signs and Wonders: The Photographs of John Beasley Greene, 2019, showing waxed paper negatives (photo by Don Ross and courtesy SFMOMA)

That recent transition from a long period of obscurity to renewed interest also characterizes the 1840s photographs of Frenchman Girault de Prangey, the subject of the Met’s exhibition Monumental Journey from earlier this year. Like Girault, Greene was able to take advantage of his independent wealth and France’s status as a colonial power to study photography and to travel around the Mediterranean using it. But their techniques were quite different. Girault, active near the beginnings of photography, worked with daguerreotypes — his images are sharp and remarkably detailed even in miniature format. By contrast, Greene adopted his teacher Le Gray’s innovative technique for making waxed paper negatives and salted paper prints. The coarse nature of the paper surface lent his images a softer, more atmospheric quality — one that for Greene, like Le Gray, became an aesthetic preference. The difference is clearly visible in the images on display.

In addition to the prints, there are four paper negatives on one wall, with a button beneath each (press it and you can illuminate the negative to see it better). The curator, Corey Keller, explained in an email that she chose to display these in part because many viewers, in this digital age, may never have seen a photographic negative before. However, even many older viewers (like me), have never seen 19th-century paper negatives. While the small size of Girault’s daguerreotypes stood out in Monumental Journey, here I was struck by how large the negatives are, in comparison with 35 mm film negatives.

John Beasley Greene, [Still life with statuette of the Venus de Milo] (1852–53) Hans P. Kraus, Jr. Inc., New York

Signs and Wonders — like Monumental Journey — also emphasizes how the photographs were distributed. Greene’s photographs were exhibited frequently during his lifetime, but they were also printed in a handful of albums. This was a decisive advantage of using negatives — daguerreotypes could only be reproduced in engravings or lithographs. Copies of two of Greene’s albums are on display, along with two digital facsimiles (of the three others that Greene produced during his lifetime). I had trouble figuring out how to use the digital facsimiles, since when I visited they were displayed without instructions. (Keller told me that signs will be put in place to make it clearer how to use them.)

Greene’s application of photography to archaeology resulted in a combination of the two strands of interest in early photography (as the exhibition does well to note): photography as art and photography as science. Of course, this combination was not new. W.H.F. Talbot, one of the inventors of photography in the 1830s, was also a respected Assyriologist, though he kept these pursuits separate. But the same combination of scientific and aesthetic concerns seen in Greene is already visible with Girault de Prangey, who had taken the earliest surviving photographs of Egypt and West Asia a decade earlier. Nor was Greene the first person to photograph an archaeological excavation in progress. (In the catalogue, Keller suggests it was Gabriel Tranchard at Victor Place’s Khorsabad excavations in 1852.) But he was, as far as we know, the first to photograph an excavation in progress in Egypt — Auguste Mariette’s excavations by the Sphinx at Giza, in 1853-54. He was also the first practicing archaeologist to photograph the country. This is significant, because it meant he was attuned to specific needs and problems that other photographers (like Girault or Du Camp) were not. Greene was very concerned with recording inscriptions of significance to Egyptology, but this was made difficult by the lighting, as building walls with inscriptions were often split between bright sunlight and shadow. Greene’s innovative solution was to make casts of the inscriptions and then photograph the casts.

John Beasley Greene, “Pyramids of Giza, [Mr. Mariette’s site], Excavation to the left of the Sphinx” (1853) the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

But what about the images themselves? Greene’s interest in photography as both art and science shows in his choice of images. Most are either landscape views or documents of specific monuments. When Greene used titles like Egyptian Sculptures and Inscriptions and Monuments and Landscapes for his albums, he was very prosaic but accurate. The Nile, trees, and temples appear again and again on the walls of the exhibition gallery. What’s missing throughout are people. Early photographs of the Eastern Mediterranean are notorious for the lack of people. If anything, Greene’s are even emptier than the norm.

Why is this? Is it due to lengthy exposures, or something else? Keller explained to me that Greene left little technical information on his photographic work, but we know from the manual that Gustave Le Gray published on his process that exposure times might have ranged anywhere from 30 seconds to 20 minutes, depending on the lighting conditions, the type of camera and lens, and what was being photographed. Capturing people in action could not be done except as a blur, but certainly posed images were possible. And yet we have few examples even of these. Keller points out in the catalogue that there are several negatives of people from Greene’s Egyptian trips, but he never printed most of these. Of course, there was a risk of blurred images even with people standing or sitting still. And in fact, blurred figures can be made out in a few of his images.

John Beasley Greene, “[Island of Philae]” (1853–54) (image via and courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Many of the traces of human life that are present in Greene’s photographs are still mostly devoid of actual people — a tent and laundry line (presumably his own) at Medinet Habu, modern houses of Cairo, or boats on the Nile. Mariette’s excavation at Giza, where Greene shows several posed workmen, is a rare exception. One photograph not in the exhibition shows the courtyard of the famous Temple of Horus at Edfu. On top of the building the viewer can make out a mudbrick structure. This is a house — the temple was (and still is) at the edge of the modern town of Edfu, and up to the 19th century, the inhabitants built houses around and even on top of and inside the temple. Within a few years after Greene’s visit, dozens of these houses would be removed by Mariette when he began to excavate the temple (there is no record of what happened to the residents). But, in Greene’s photograph, the only sign of the modern village are mudbrick walls — the people themselves are absent.

John Beasley Greene, “Edfou — Temple” (1854), from the album The Nile: Monuments — Landscapes. Photographic Explorations (1854) (image via and courtesy Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Among the prints that are on display, Greene’s focus is perhaps best summed up by a photograph of a shack next to a palm tree. Inside the shack we see one of the rare examples of a blurred person in a Greene print. But Greene chose to title this print as one of his “Studies of Date Palms” — as if the person and their domicile were invisible, or incidental.

John Beasley Greene, “Studies of Date Palms” (1854), from the album The Nile: Monuments — Landscapes. Photographic Explorations (1854) (image via and courtesy Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Greene’s photographs of Egypt and Algeria look much like typical European ones of the Orient in this period with their lack of people and focus on monuments and landscapes. (Discussed only at brief points in the exhibition, Greene’s treatment of people and landscapes is explored in admirable depth in the catalogue.) But is this simply orientalism in Greene’s case? We must be careful here. In his early photographs taken in France, too, Greene avoided images of people, and when he did take photographs of them he again failed to make prints. Yet, whatever the case, Greene’s Egyptian images show the same stillness of the landscape we commonly see in photographs of the eastern Mediterranean at this time. “How much have things changed?” we might ask. Looking at Greene’s photographs, we get the same effect as looking at almost any of the many exhibitions on ancient Egypt — modern Egyptians are conspicuously absent. The message, however dubious, is consistent: modern Egyptians have little connection to the past of their own country, a past which is instead at home among us in Europe and North America.

Where we do find the missing people is in the exhibition Hannah Collins: I Will Make Up a Song, which is mounted immediately beside Signs and Wonders in the museum. Collins’s exhibition features a video installation on the work of Hassan Fathy, a prominent Egyptian architect of the 20th century. Fathy may be best known for planning new towns for the Egyptian poor. Two of those are featured here: New Baris and New Gourna.

Still from: “Hannah Collins: I will make up a song and sing it in a theatre with the night air above my head” (2018) (© Hannah Collins)

New Gourna in particular is famous, or notorious (depending on your viewpoint) as part of the Egyptian government’s decades-long efforts to remove the village of Gourna because it sat on part of the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes. (The government wished to preserve the ancient site and develop it for tourism. Besides standing in the way, the villagers had long conducted illegal excavations at the site.) One of Greene’s prints on display in Signs and Wonders is of a temple at Gourna (also written Qurna), though the connection is not made in the exhibition.

Collins’s video is essentially a slideshow of her photographs of New Gourna and New Baris — along with one slide of text, in both English and Arabic, repeated a couple of times — set to an eerie soundtrack. Her wall text at the entrance to the exhibition is ambivalent, suggesting Fathy’s noble intentions in wanting to help the poor villagers while also showing sympathy for the residents in their attachment to their original villages. My impression of the film was different. That one slide of text, from which the title of the film is taken, is in the voice of the villagers, and centers on their desire not to be forcibly removed. “I will build my own place to live and I will not be driven from my home,” as part of it reads. But Fathy’s viewpoint is not present in the film, at least not directly.

I found I Will Make Up a Song moving at times, but in the end difficult to follow since the video is just a series of images without a clear story. Perhaps this is the point. But combined with Signs and Wonders, it has the potential to be a powerful meditation on the collision of the past and the present in Egypt, and the role of Egyptians themselves in this process. Closer integration of the exhibitions, and some more explicit discussion, might help visitors make those connections.

Signs and Wonders: The Photographs of John Beasley Greene and Hannah Collins: I Will Make Up a Song runs through January 5, 2020 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (151 Third Street, San Francisco, California). The exhibitions were curated by Corey Keller, curator of photography at SFMOMA. Signs and Wondersis scheduled to travel to the Art Institute of Chicago in February 2020.

Editor’s Note: The author’s travel expenses to San Francisco to see the exhibition were paid by SFMOMA.

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Installation view of Maren Hassenger’s The Spirit of Things at Baltimore Museum of Art in 2018 (photo by Cara Ober for Hyperallergic)

Last Thursday, Christopher Bedford, the Director of the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), announced in an interview with the Baltimore Sun that the museum plans to adopt a new strategy for acquisitions and donations in 2020 by collecting only works by female-identifying artists as part of their “2020 Vision” programming. Considering that only 4% of the 95,000 artworks in the BMA’s permanent collection at present were created by women, it makes the decision practical as well as political. “We’re attempting to correct our own canon,” Bedford told the Sun. “We recognize the blind spots we have had in the past, and we are taking the initiative to do something about them.”

In recognition of the approaching centennial of the 19th amendment, which granted some women the right to vote in the United States, marks an impending trend of institutional programming designed to promote the work of marginalized female artists. A survey conducted earlier this year, looking at the permanent collections of 18 prominent art museums in the US, found that out of over 10,000 artists, 87% are male and 85% are white, illustrating how little has changed. According to our own publication, in 2014, on average only 30% of artists represented by commercial galleries in the US were women. Addressing this long history of exclusion, Bedford says: “this how you raise awareness and shift the identity of an institution. You don’t just purchase one painting by a female artist of color and hang it on the wall next to a painting by Mark Rothko. To rectify centuries of imbalance, you have to do something radical.”

In keeping with this radical theme, the museum is planning next year’s programming around the same topic. Twenty-two of its exhibitions on view in 2020 will have a “female-centric focus,” and 19 will showcase artworks exclusively by women. Two exhibitions will explore how male artists perceive women, according to the Sun, while another will honor the visionary Adelyn Breeskin, historian, curator and longtime director (1942-1962) of the BMA. The museums two ticketed exhibitions will likely be a “selection of videos” by South African artist Candice Breitz and a painting retrospective of the second generation abstract expressionist Joan Mitchell. Local Baltimore-based artists as Grace Hartigan, Betty Cooke, and Jo Smail are also on the exhibition list for 2020.

With the BMA expecting to spend up to $2 million next year purchasing the work of female artists, we hope this is just the beginning. As Bedford says, “This is a declaration of intent going forward of the kinds of exhibits we will have and the kind of acquisitions we will make. There can be no beginning and no end, just a consistency of effort in the right direction.”

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