Let's start with a very brief lesson on the history of art. The birth of art, ancient sages have long argued, most fundamentally arose from an internal urge to imitate nature, the external world; then to the need to express and to convey emotion. From the paleolithic cave painting, goddess idols, to neolithic pottery painting, and plastered skulls, rudimentary art by and large remained at the first stage, though the techniques kept improving. From 2,000 BC and on, many civilizations, such as Egyptian (1-4th) and Sumerian (5-6th), have achieved quite a high level in painting and sculpture.
Then remarkably, there came a dazzling breakthrough in classical Greek around 500 B.C., whose attainment made even the best of Egyptian and the Sumerian works appear dull, rigid, and artificial. Under the first real democracy, the artists were free to compete and innovate. Their sculptures became anatomically accurate, their postures natural and relaxed; their togas rippling softly around their curvatures; their theme become more secular and earthly. They were real human beings that connect, even today; they are alive! The Greek artistic ideal extended through the Hellenistic period and passed along to the Roman Empire, and would eventually inspired the modern aesthetic ideals (well, Western ideals).
Unfortunately, the classical lineage was snapped as we
entered the Dark Ages, and my goodness, what a setback. The production of art was for the most part monopolized by monks and monasteries. The nature of medieval art has shifted from the general representation of reality to mostly glorification of religions. All you needed were simple, rudimentary stimulations to impress the largely illiterate mass in their Sunday services: towering cathedrals, humongous pipe organs, colourful stain glasses, and lustrous holy manuscripts... For paintings and sculptures, no more anatomic details, no more nudity, no more lively postures - those were not required (in fact not preferred) to teach the simple about religions. Instead, you employed flat compositions, stiff figures, mechanical postures, numbing expressions, but vibrant and noisy colours, to produce paintings that all look exactly the same throughout the millennium. The themes of course were predominantly religious. Take for an example the 2nd painting below, The Martyrdom of Saint Barbara, depicts the moment of beheading of a young and emotionless Saint Barbara by her father, all because she refused to recant Christianity and adopt Roman pagan faith. Hideous isn't it?
The good news was, the classical heritage eventually reincarnated through the Renaissance in the 14th century. In small Italian city states such as Florence, Genoa, and Venice, an emerging wealthy merchant class, in their pursuit of liberty and political freedom from feudalism, re-discovered classical Greek philosophy (mainly humanism) and classic artistic ideals. The subtlety and realism of classical art revived, and with the aid of newly developed techniques and new scientific knowledge, achieved a new height. In the next a few centuries, artists followed the same streak and went through numerous movements such as the Baroque, the Neoclassicism, the Romantism, the Realism, and have never looked back since.
Then a disruptive invention shocked the art world. Photography was born in the early 19 century and was soon mature enough to outmatch the even finest painters in details. What a bummer for those who took pride in their finesse of brushwork for creating the most life-like images; now a camera could do a better job one hundred times faster, with the click of a button. Why imitate reality so arduously if you can actually capture it? Imagine the dismay of the artists in those days, when facing the prospect of losing their livelihood and pride to a mere machine. Was there a way out?
There was. What followed, was the birth of modern art. The train of thought went like this: if we can't outmatch the camera, why don't we go around it? Camera may be a good narrator of facts and details, but it's is limited on expression, and of course incapable of abstraction. How about we quit striving for realistic details, but focus on interpreting reality with novel perspectives or venturing deep into our own souls and exploring the unconscious world, on the canvas (Note that the development of psychoanalysis in the turn of the century, though itself carried very limited scientific merit, provided inspiration and fuel for the revolution)? It was a brilliant idea, by going from narration to abstraction and introspection. But then that was the point when modern art lost a large portion of the mass, whose interpretation of art dwelled on the more rudimental stage of precise imitation of reality and allegorical expression - straight, plain, simple show and tell. They were bound to be bewildered by this new breed of artists, who were "sloppy" on their techniques, but keen on exploiting all elements on the canvas and beyond: colours, lines, shapes... not just to portray, but to symbolize emotions, to describe different dimensions, movements, even time... Such unorthodox expression required a lot more effort from their spectators to reach in to the work, to introspect, to re-evaluate their world views. Usually it's difficult to interpret a modern painting without first reading into the little descriptive label at the corner, and then it'll take some time to grasp and absorb the idea, before you can decide to appreciate and resonate with it, or more often than not, totally hate it.
The first clan of modern artists that successfully reinvent themselves were the Impressionists. They used rather broad and crude strokes and bold colour to reconstruct strikingly touching effects of light and shadow, especially evasive subjects such as water, steam, and fog.
Monet, the original and most prolific impressionist, was particular gifted in recognizing the subtle interaction between light and landscapes and expressing them purely in terms of colours, instead of definite objects. It was also amazing how much mileage he managed to get out of a lily pond and a Japanese bridge in his garden.
The Post-Impressionists, led by van Gogh, Gauguin, and Cezanne, carried on and pushed the limits of coloration, composition, and geometric form even further.
Salute to van Gogh. What a passionate soul! What intensity, as he laid exuberantly thick paints of glorious colours on the canvas, resulted in expressive three-dimensional textures of brush strokes that almost match the wood carving on the frame. One can feel the zeal behind the canvas burning so violently, it was just... maddening.
Continued on the same lineage, Henry Matisse (1st-5th) and Andre Derain (6th) employed wild brush work and more daring, unnatural colours to the point of visually offensive. They were rightfully labeled "les Fauves" (the Wild Beast) and their short live yet influential style "Fauvism.".
If you think so far so good, the modern paintings to this point were at least tangible, get ready for the next shockwave. Now humour me, take wild guess what this is.
The works of Pablo Picasso, in chronological order, were a book of art history in themselves. I don't think any other major artists have ever undergone quite so many style metamorphosis in a lifetime. Talented as a child, he was capable of sketching in a concise and realistic style. In the dawn of a new century (20th), he entered a rather depressing phase (like a genius would inevitably experience), painting almost monochromatic bluish and blunt paintings of gloomy themes: loneliness, poverty, despair...It was called the Blue Period. In about 1905, he switched into a more pleasant epoch and painted mostly in warm colours (Rose period, 1st - 3rd pix below) and flirted with primitivism in style. In 1907 he fell in love with African Art (Black Period, 5th pic) while cultivating one of the most stunning artistic revolution of the 20th century. Generally 1909 is considered the beginning of Picasso's Cubism era. The concept is to disintegrate an object into simpler, abstract forms, to include visuals from different view points, and then re-assemble it on a 2-dimensional canvas. It was a crazy idea, and the outcome was generally quite challenging to our perception (6th and 7th pix, as well as above). The 6th painting below, Girl with Mandolin (1910), is a fine example of "analytical cubism," in which the artist simplified the female figure into geometric shaped from various perspectives - well, at least it's not totally out of touch with realism. Now look back to the riddle above. The paint is called Ma Jolie (My Pretty Girl, 1911-12). It's the refrain of a popular song played in a Parisian music hall the artist frequented; it's the nickname of his mistress at the time (he switched mistresses a lot more frequently than art styles, by the way), and the geometric figure implies a woman's torso and head, with a bowl of fruit above her head (what the...?!); certain symbols signify music; for instance the six parallel lines at lower center represent the strings of a guitar, which the woman plays... Give me an eternity, I still wouldn't begin to figure it out, not without that little label at the corner. Anyway, after making such a big splash, Picasso returned to a perfectly legible Neoclassicism period (8th) in 1917. Starting the mid 1920s, he began to toy with Surrealism (9th), and continued to experiment throughout his long, long career (he was still radically creative and productive in his late 80s). What a life!
The significance of Cubism was that it liberated the production and perception of art from conventions. It opened up Pandora's box and spawned a wide variety of anti-art, anti-war, anti-bourgeois movements. Things were about the get even more bizarre.
There was Dadaism, pioneered by Marcel Duchamp (1915, 1st pic), who launched a even more aggressive assault to the convention by declaring mundane manufactured goods can be "readymade artwork." There was Surrealism, represented here by Joan Miro (2nd-4th) and Salvador Dali (5-7th, that old rascal), who explored the subconscious mind and sketched dreamy, illogical, poetic, sometimes child-like images adorned with symbolic languages...
Lastly, let's not forget our very own Andy Warhol, who embodied the Pop Art Movement in the 1960s. Warhol famously selected iconic, "consumable" American objects from commercials, media, and pop cultures: Coke bottles, Campbell's Soup canisters, celebrities, newspaper clips... scrambled a bit and presented them repetitively with a deadpan attitude. The aspiration of pop art was to post challenge towards the elitist "fine art," by integrating elements of popular culture. They were superficial, utilitarian, vain, and scandalous to the traditional art establishment, but at the same time strangely likable and, as the name beckoned, popular. The pop art movement soon swept the world and reached even the communist Soviet Union in the 1970s.
So there it is, a short, encapsulated, somewhat Euro-centric history of art, with all materials taken from two hasty trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) and Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), with the exception of the classical Greek and Roman statues (borrowed from the British Museum.). The point is, although we didn't have time to browse through even a third of the exhibits, we still managed to travel through the major artistic developments in entire human history. Note that these two institutions are just two of the 2,500 plus cultural organizations and art galleries in New York City. How's that for the depth of the cultural center of the country?
The Met is the largest art museum in the US and one of the most visited in the world, though I'm not sure how many visitors get lost in it - it's perplexing like a maze. If you miss a certain door in the European Painting Exhibit, you'll never find your way from the American Impressionists to the the European Impressionists. But never mind, given the high quality of all exhibits, wondering through the exhibits aimlessly may be just as exciting, with a sense of treasure hunt.
Trapped in the Egyptian exhibits, we were amused by the creepy smiling face of a mummy (1st pic), spotted a decapitated figure holding his own head (2nd, actually he's holding a cult object, the actual head was lost); tried to decipher the early hieroglyphics (3,4th); and were proud to pick up subtle traces of Hellenistic influence on Egyptian statues (5th-7th).
With two little boys, how could we miss out the display of shiny amours, delicate swords, daggers, and antique firearms from all around the world?
In the American wing, there were quite a few portraits of George Washington, the most famous among them was probably the grand-sized Washington Cross the Delaware. With all due respect, aside from being regal and solemn and all, these didn't quite look like the same guy to me... Even the same artist (Gilbert Stuart, 3rd-5th) was not very consistent. Well never mind, certain version of his Washington was featured on the $1 bill, and will be the official face of George Washington forever. See that's why we need photography. By the way, Mr. Stuart reportedly made 130 copies of his Washington portrait and sold them at $100 each. Imagine how much trouble would be spared if he had a camera.
Oh Rodin, the prominent emblem of modern sculpture, whose copies of sculptures adorn every major modern art museum - you would be considered shallow if don't keep a copy of his grotesque Monument to Balzac, or the quiet yet anguished Thinker, or the lively, naturalistic Age of Bronze, now all iconic figures around the world. Probably not many are aware that Rodin was never meant to be a rebel. In fact, he was trained traditionally, heavily influenced by the old masters (most notably Michelangelo), and longed to be accepted by the mainstream orthodox academics (although he never was). His humanistic, expressive style was more incidental than intentional.
A pretty Arabic girl in traditional dress sat quietly in the Islamic exhibit; I almost mistaken her for a model.
Other random displays.
What we left off in the Met, was picked up in MoMA, the (not one of the) world's most influential institution of modern art. Its vast collection of truly riveting modern art was quite an eye-opener.
The exhibits, some flamboyant, some grotesque, some abstruse, some sickening, post such bold challenges to common aesthetic and our very definition of art, it was a cultural shock to the uninformed. They certainly left me speechless in awe of their audacity and creativity.
Interesting collections that I didn't get to mention above: The symbolist Gustav Klimt (1st-2nd); Diego Riviera took on cubism (3rd); the slightly melancholy self-portrait of his wife, Frida Kahlo with a monkey (symbolized her yearning for a child, 4th); Andrew Wyeth's realistic Christina's World (5th) proved that realism can survive in the modern art world; on the other hand, a few random lines and colour blocks, deftly named minimalism, are also fine art (by Piet Mondrian, 6th).
Modern sculptures. Kids loved Joan Miro's Pokemon-ish Moonbird (5th); Henri Matisse got beastly even with sculpture (The Surfer, 6th); and lastly, the inevitable, ubiquitous Balzac in the garden.
OK, that's enough for the delirious, barely comprehensible modern art. Let's come back down to earth in a more rational world of American Museum of Natural History. At least the exhibits here, as stunning as they may be, were all real.
This is one of the largest museum in the world with some 5 million visitors annually. In front of the entrance was
a towering bronze statue of Teddy Roosevelt on horse, flanked by a native American and a black dude, presumably to testify his avid interest in hunting endangered species like American grizzlies and African lions (just kidding; but hey, like it or not, it's true).
Have you ever mingled with so many world-class celebrities in the same room? There was the 18,000 year-old Flores the "Hobbit" (the skull of a tiny Homo florensis form Indonesia, i.e. the Java man, 1st pic); there was the 1.6 million-year old Turkana Boy (skeleton of a lanky Homo ergaster from Kenya, 2nd); there was the earliest set of fossilized hominid footprints (some 3.5 millions year-old), from which scientists remarkably reconstructed a scene with a pair of ape-like hominids intimately walking together (3rd), and provided with incredible detail on their heights, weights, brain sizes, and even their diet; and the most famous of all, in fact arguably the most famous human of all time, the 3.2 million-year old Lucy (as in Lucy in the Sky with Diamond by the Beatles, a song played repeatedly in the archeological site, 4-6th) from Ethiopia, the most complete skeleton of a Australopithecus afarensis, who was widely worshipped as the ancestor of modern human (might as well call her Eve) and the missing link between human and apes. Here she was, a puny little being, three and a half feet in all, but carries the genetic codes that have shaped the destiny of the planet in the last 3.2 millions years, and no doubt in many more to come. Imagine in the next millennium, who will remember Donald Trump? Or Kim Kardashian? But Lucy will no doubt still be Lucy, in the sky with diamond.
The museum is a heaven for dinosaur buffs. Pretty much all the big names and heavyweights (literally) can be found here: Velociraptor (intelligent killing machine of Jurassic Park fame, 1st); Triceratop with its characteristic giant bony frill and triple horn (2nd); Tyrannosaurus-Rex (ferocious predator, probably the best-known dinosaur of all, 3rd - 4th); Stegosaurus (with a tiny brain for such massive body, it needs all the physical defence of a spiked tail, palletted back, and an armoured body)...
Apatosaurus (probably the best know Sauropod, the behemoth among dinosaurs, 1st-2nd); Pterosaurus (the earliest flying vertebrate, 3rd-4th); Plesiosaurs (warm-blooded, wired-looking marine dinosaur with long neck, flat body and four flippers, 5th-6th) ...
An Allosaurus preyed on an Apatosaurus (It feels weird to see two skeletons posting for a supposedly bloody scene - looked more like a scene from Jason and the Argonauts, 1st); the duck-billed Anatotitan (2nd-3rd); the formidable, bird-like Deinonychus Antirrhopus (4th), the Ankylosaur (5th) with the toughest, most complete armor of all dinosaurs, and the giant marine lizard Tylosaurus (6th), an apex predator that once rivaled the shark in the Cretaceous sea.
There were of course more than just dinosaurs; creatures from other epochs were just as fascinating: Mastondonsaurus giganteus (1st), an early amphibian that resembled more a crocodile than a frog, in both size and life style; another amphibian Diplocaulus magniconis featured a boomerang-shaped skull; the gaping jaw of a Carcharodon maglodon (3rd), a pre-historic shark and the most powerful predator of all time (up to 59ft long, about three times bigger than a Great White); the unicorn-ish Monodon (4th) with its distinct protruding tusk, apparently ancestor of today's narwhals; the lizard-like Edaphosaurus (5th) with its soaring sail-like dorsal fin - scientists still not sure what that was for; the 15,000-lb Irish elk Megaloceros giganteus (6th), the largest deer ever lived...
Can you imagine these wonderful creatures once roamed the vast land of Americas before human arrived some 13,500 years ago? The giant ground sloth Maglocnus rodens (2nd); the saber-toothed Smilodon (3rd); enormous woolly Mammoth (4th) and its smaller, less hairy cousin, the gomphotherium (5th); the 3,300-lb tank-like Panochthus frenzelianus with a peculiar ball-like armor (6th).
This maybe embarrassing to environmentalists and liberals, but it's likely that most of these magnificent American creatures were hunted to extinction by the newly arrived human, whom we now call Native American.
Very realistic and detailed dioramas. Oh how I missed the boundless savanna...
The mineral collection. The petrified wood (1st, 3rd) is a very neat trick of mother nature. When a forest was buried by say a volcanic blast, the trees were rinsed by mineral water underground over millions of years; in the process its cell structure were gradually rotten away and replaced by mineral deposits (silica mostly). At the end the wooden stem was fossilized but maintained its original structure down to the cellular level. If we cut across stem and polish the surface, the imprint of wooden tissue and annual rings. Equally neat is the delicate fossil of the ammonite Placenticeras intercalare (4th).
Continue exploring along the cultural theme. Behind such sophistication and learned air are a number of world-class academic institutions, right in the city: the Juilliard (world's premier performing art school, 1st pic), Columbia (formerly King's College, ut ill the American decided to cut all British ties and establish their own identity - named it after Christopher Columbus appeared to be a good idea, but somehow they never changed that emblem, 2nd-5th), the New School (6th), NYU (the largest private university in the country, 2nd row), Cooper Union (one of the country's most selective college, and you don't pay tuition), CUYN...
Now shift to the religious end of the spectrum; New York has some of the most magnificent cathedrals and churches in the country. I was never tired of spotting them out of the street scenes, as they usually stand out with their retro styling and exquisite ornaments, even in such an architectural garden like New York. Well, with a tithe levied on their congregation, and their revenue virtually tax-free (what a generous country this is), these church people can certainly afford the best architects and craftsmen of the land. Take this imposing gothic-revival styled Cathedral of St. John the Divine for an example. Touted the world's largest Anglican cathedral, it towered over us like a mountain, yet every little crease and corner were adorned with the most lavish and elaborate details, like rich cream on a birthday cake. Its construction began in 1892, and here's the thing...it's still not finished today.
And there were more. The neo-gothic Riverside Church (a national center of activism and political debates, 1-4th); the gothic-revival Holy Name of Jesus Roman Catholic Church (5-6th).
The gothic-revival Trinity Church (located in lower Manhattan, it's quite well-endowed, as you can imagine, 1st pic); the Church of the Village (West Village, that is, 2nd); St. Michael's (reportedly has the best acoustic for its fine pipe organs, 3rd); West End Presbyterian Church (4-5th); and lastly, the Romanesque-revival West-Park Presbyterian Church (6th).
Another type of architectural delight was all the pre-war apartment buildings and row houses. These were stylish, study stone and brick buildings with spacious suites of hardwood flooring, elegant details and fireplaces. But of course they also cost a fortune. Our bus tour guides were never tired of yapping about the celebrities and worthies that resides in this or that building: Danzel Washington, Madonna, Sting, Jackie Kennedy Onasis... One guide was particularly anxious to point out the doorway of a luxury apartment, where John Lennon, its most famous resident, was shot (I supposed the shooter was pissed by the hypocrisy: imagine no possession huh?). Anyway, most of these pre-war buildings have a vintage wooden water tower on the top - not for decoration, but was required by a 19th century city ordinance to store water for any building over six stories.
Don't you just love those fire escape stairs? They are like mini stages hanging on the facade, where all drama happened: downstairs Audrey Hepburn was leisurely singing her melodic, slightly melancholy Moon River, which melted George Peppard's heart (Breakfast at Tiffany's, 1961); James Stewart nervously watch a young Grace Kelly, in a long dress, incredibly climbed up the fire stairs and sneaked into a murder suspect's window (Rear Window, 1951); an acrophobic Richard Gere showed up in a white limo, hobbled up the fire escape to propose to Julia Roberts (Pretty Woman, 1990)... OK, the last one actually happened in LA, but the point remains the same.
Then all the fine tradition ended with the post-war public housing projects, which brought about high-rise, low-cost, faceless, charmless public residential complex that would drastically change the face of the city. For one thing, with stricter building code and improved fire-fighting techniques, as wells as the ever-growing height, fire escape stairs became impractical and fell out of use. What a drag.
Well, enough for whining; next we shall cheer up to savor the best New York had to offer - its diverse and acclaimed culinary scene. After all, this is the city that brought us New York-style pizza, ultra creamy cheese cake, egg benedict, pastrami and corn beef sandwich, lobster newberg, and Manhattan clam chowder, among much else, and first popularised hot dog as a street food. I was particular impressed with their pizza, from the $25 coal oven 10-incher in an upscale restaurant to the $1 a slice thin-crust plain cheese on street side (so thin you have to fold it before eating), boy these people know how to make pizza.
Lastly, some random street scenes that I couldn't fit into the above sections. An interesting observation is that the city had a disproportional number of old-fashioned barber shops (certainly a lot more than adult movie stores), with their red, white and blue barber's poles hanging out the door. Apparently personal hair care was a top priority for the stylish New Yorkers (somehow the image of Ace Ventura popped into mind).
So this concludes our week-long trip to New York city, the big apple, the largest population, business, cultural center of the country, and the focal point of the cosmos. It is no doubt leading in the forefront of every facet of the age, yet it's certain old fashioned elements and mundane items - fire escapes, steam vents, telephone booths, uniformed doorman, chocolate egg cream soda, barber shops, Broadway musicals... that make it especially endearing and agreeable. It's the poster child of American power, the nucleus of Yankee pride, a testament that we may be a bit short on history, but never lack refinement and sophistication. And for that, I like it.
Next stop, Washington DC.
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