Reflections: Amanda Berman on a Pair of Decorative Groups

We’ve asked members of the Getty community to share short reflections on works of art they’re thinking about right now. These recordings feature stories related to our daily lives.

This week, Amanda Berman considers how studying a set of eighteenth-century French porcelain sculptures reveals hidden racism and what that might mean for us today. To learn more about this artwork, visit: https://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/5617.

Over the next few weeks, look for new recordings every other Tuesday.


Transcript

JAMES CUNO: Hi, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. In a new podcast feature, we’re asking members of the Getty community to share short reflections on works of art they’re thinking about right now. We’ll be releasing new recordings every other Tuesday. I hope you’ll find these stories about our daily lives—from laundry on the line to a dog at a scholar’s feet—thought provoking, illuminating, and entertaining.

AMANDA BERMAN: I’m Amanda Berman, and I’m a curator of sculpture and decorative arts. While following news on the pandemic, I’ve been struck by stories of the targeted harassment of Chinese people and the boycotts and vandalization of Chinese-owned businesses. Many of my friends have reacted with shock and outrage, asking, “How could this happen here?” This question got me thinking about the subtle, less obvious forms of racism that foster and support the overtly racist behavior. And it reminded me of these “decorative groups” in the Getty’s collection.

They were constructed in the mid-1700s in France. I say constructed because they’re made up of different elements that did not start off life together. Each one is a combination of a few Chinese porcelain objects made after the mid-1600s—figures of boys wearing Qing dynasty tunics and trousers, rocks, spheres, and lions. These porcelain items were imported to France, where a bronze caster combined them on gilt-bronze bases and added French porcelain flowers. So, the result is this invented thing which uses Chinese elements to create a European decorative item. They’re beautiful pieces, but knowing how they were made makes me a little uncomfortable. It’s clear the European craftsman didn’t understand the cultural origins of the original porcelain pieces, and they had no problem with decontextualizing these objects to turn them into something that played on stereotypes.

These decorative groups fit into a larger category of art from this time that featured Asian-inspired themes, to put it generously. There were furnishings and other objects that used Chinese materials in the construction of a European-designed piece, like these objects. And then there were objects created entirely in Europe, with European materials, made to look vaguely Asian or decorated with stereotypically Asian imagery like pagodas and people in kimonos. European craftspeople drew on styles from Persia to Japan, mixing and matching to create designs that seem strange and culturally insensitive today.

Racist ideas about Asian people weren’t new in 18th century Europe. But increasing trade with Asia brought about a new fascination with Asian cultures and a rise in this Asian-inspired decorative style. This created and reinforced the idea of Asians as “other”—people who were not mainstream or didn’t fully belong. Exoticizing cultures, conflating them, and disregarding their distinct histories stereotypes and dehumanizes people from those cultures.

So I’ve been thinking about how these 18th century French objects relate to the question of how anti-Chinese racism can happen here. This obsession with Asian aesthetics, seen in this pair, is akin to cultural appropriation now. And I see a similar subtle racism in the model minority myth—another example of how Asians in America are considered not fully American, regardless of how many generations have lived here. Not to mention the long history of specifically anti-Chinese racism in US immigration laws.

Subtle racism can hide behind the idea of “cultural appreciation,” but in reality, this creates an atmosphere that supports and encourages acts of overt racism. That’s why it can be just as damaging as racist vandalism or racial slurs. This decorative pair reminds me of the continuous presence of these more hidden forms of racism. That’s why it’s important to study these artworks and understand their contexts, not just appreciate them aesthetically.

CUNO: To view this porcelain Pair of Decorative Groups, composed in France about 1740-1745 from pieces dating from about 1662–1740, click the link in this episode’s description or look for it on getty.edu/art/collections.

Beirut after the Explosion

“The fifteen years of civil war did not produce as much damage as the few seconds did on August 4th.”

On the evening of August 4, 2020, Beirut—the capital of Lebanon and one of the oldest cities in the world—experienced a devastating explosion, when more than two and a half tons of ammonium nitrate detonated at its port on the Mediterranean Sea. The explosion was felt across the region, killing nearly two hundred and injuring and displacing thousands more, many of whom were already struggling to cope with the effects of a global pandemic and economic crisis. Settlement in Beirut dates to the Bronze Age, and this long history has made the city a vibrant cultural center for thousands of years. The immense destruction caused by the recent explosion threatens not only Beirut’s built cultural heritage but also its social fabric. 

In this episode, Lebanese architect Fares el-Dahdah discusses the crisis in Beirut, the dangers facing people, communities, and buildings, and the innovative responses underway. El-Dahdah is a professor of architecture and director of the Humanities Research Center at Rice University, Houston, Texas. He is currently living in Beirut. 

For images, transcripts, and more, visit getty.edu/podcasts.

Reflections: Anna Sapenuk on a Hydra Hydria

We’ve asked members of the Getty community to share short reflections on works of art they’re thinking about right now. These recordings feature stories related to our daily lives.

This week, educator Anna Sapenuk finds parallels in Herakles and Iolaos’s fight against the Hydra and our global battle against the coronavirus. To learn more about this artwork, visit: https://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/10600/.

Over the next few weeks, look for new recordings every other Tuesday.

JAMES CUNO: Hi, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. In a new podcast feature, we’re asking members of the Getty community to share short reflections on works of art they’re thinking about right now. We’ll be releasing new recordings every other Tuesday. I hope you’ll find these stories about our daily lives—from laundry on the line to a dog at a scholar’s feet—thought provoking, illuminating, and entertaining.

ANNA SAPENUK: Hello my name is Anna Sapenuk, and I’m an educator at the Getty Center and the Getty Villa. Lately, I’ve been thinking how relevant certain works of art are to the struggle of the coronavirus and us battling this multi-dimensional monster, so to speak. The work of art that I have in mind is this really wonderful hydria or water jug from the Getty Villa. It is one of my favorite pieces there.

And the star of the show on this hydria is this Hydra or watersnake, this mythical watersnake, that is nine headed. And in antiquity, it was known to kill people, even with the smell coming from it.

And on the hydria itself, the watersnake is coiling its body and its nine heads are emerging out of it, ready to strike. In this work of art, not only the watersnake is shown, but also there are two characters that are fighting with it. Those two figures are those of Herakles and his nephew Iolaos. And of course, you know, Herakles, he’s a super strong mythological figure, and what he’s doing is he’s raising his club to take off one of Hydra’s heads. And Iolaos, his nephew, kind of his henchmen, he has a sickle to cut one of the heads of the Hydra.

But the issue of the Hydra, much like the issue that we have with the coronavirus, is that, you know, if you cut one of his head, two heads grow in its place. So it’s a very complex problem that they’re dealing with and that we’re dealing with today.

So they come up with a really smart solution to this problem. There’s actually a flame, and they use the heat from the flame to cauterize where the heads were chopped off so that new heads don’t grow in its place.
And it’s just immediately so connected, I feel, to our struggle with the coronavirus that is also a many-headed monster, in many ways, and we need so many different approaches to battle with it. Like we have to continue social distancing, and wear masks, and the vaccine is still in development.

These two heroes, Herakles and Iolaos, end up defeating the Hydra, and I hope that the same can be said for us and our fight with the coronavirus. I hope that we find those solutions that we’re seeking, and that we defeat this many-headed monster in our own right.

CUNO: To view this hydria, or water jug, featuring Herakles and Iolaos slaying the Hydra, made in Etruria around 520 to 510 BCE, click the link in this episode’s description or look for it on getty.edu/art/collection.

The Legacies of Pliny the Elder and Younger

“I think we can all empathize with someone who’s like a son, or in this case, an adopted son, trying to kind of make his own mark and escape the shadow of his father, and leave something on the world of his own.”

In the year 79 CE, Pliny the Elder set out to investigate a large cloud of ash rising in the sky above the Bay of Naples. It was the eruption of Vesuvius, and Pliny did not survive. A trailblazing naturalist, he is best remembered today for his multivolume encyclopedia Natural History, and we are able to retrace his final hours thanks to a vivid account by his nephew, Pliny the Younger. Inspired by his beloved uncle, the young Pliny became a lawyer, senator, poet, and representative of the emperor. His published letters are fascinating reflections on life and politics in the Roman Empire.

In this episode, Daisy Dunn, classicist and author of The Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny,and Kenneth Lapatin, curator of antiquities at the Getty Museum, discuss the two Plinys and their profound impact on our understanding of ancient Rome.

For images, transcripts, and more, visit getty.edu/podcasts.

Reflections: Carolyn Peter on Hippolyte Bayard

We’ve asked members of the Getty community to share short reflections on works of art they’re thinking about right now. These recordings feature stories related to our daily lives.

This week, Carolyn Peter considers how gardening is like early photography—and how both involve a little bit of wonder. To learn more about this artwork, visit: www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/64876/.

Over the next few weeks, look for new recordings every other Tuesday.


Transcript

JAMES CUNO: Hi, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. In a new podcast feature, we’re asking members of the Getty community to share short reflections on works of art they’re thinking about right now. We’ll be releasing new recordings every other Tuesday. I hope you’ll find these stories about our daily lives—from laundry on the line to a dog at a scholar’s feet—thought provoking, illuminating, and entertaining.

CAROLYN PETER: I’m Carolyn Peter, curatorial assistant in the Department of Photographs at the Getty Museum.

While sheltering at home, I have been thinking about Hippolyte Bayard’s self-portraits in the garden. Bayard was a 19th-century inventor of photography; he had no set instructions to follow for making a photograph. He had to be in tune with his environment. To make an image, he collaborated with the sun, photo-sensitive chemicals, thin sheets of writing paper, his lens, and his subjects.

Like Bayard, I have been paying attention to the shifting patterns of light through the day and the seasons. I am lucky enough to have an outdoor space just beyond my back door. My husband and I planted a vegetable garden early on, just before the stay at home orders came. Over the past few months, we have been watching things grow.

To create a garden, we collaborated with the sun, as well as the soil, water, nutrients, seeds, insects, and other creatures. Both ventures require patience and an openness to risk. We had a vision, but we humbly had to leave much up to nature.

Bayard placed himself in the garden for his self-portraits because natural light was a necessity for photography in the 1840s, but also because it was one of his favorite places. He too loved gardening. It was in his blood. His father was renowned for his peaches. A legend tells of how he imprinted his initial “B” on peaches by placing cut paper over peaches as they were ripening on the tree. It is said this is how Bayard first learned about the sun’s power to imprint and eventually led to his photographic experiments.

In one of Bayard’s self-portraits, he leans on a wooden cask, perhaps a nineteenth-century version of a rain barrel. He is surrounded by familiar gardening tools: a watering can, flower pots, a ladder, and a trellis. I can’t see his feet under the foliage. It as if he has sprouted out from the earth. I identify with this feeling of connectedness to a place. Returning to my garden day after day, I notice the minute changes: the plants’ growth, the holes left in leaves by hungry insects, the thirsty soil.  

Bayard’s self-portraits were some the first photographs of human beings ever made. Seeing an image of himself emerge on the paper must have been magical. Such a revolution took place in the quiet chamber of Bayard’s camera in the middle of his garden. In the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic, so much is happening in the stillness of my garden. Seeing a passion fruit start from a bud, transform into a space-age flower, then into a green orb that turns a deep reddish purple fills me with wonder. I find great comfort in cradling a warm tomato in my hand, monitoring a peach on my windowsill as it ripens with a paper letter “C” pinned to it, and watching the sun continuing on its steady course through the sky.

CUNO: To view Hippolyte Bayard’s Self-Portrait in the Garden, made in Paris, France, around 1847, click the link in this episode’s description or look for it on getty.edu/art/collection.

Michelangelo’s Drawings: Mind of the Master

“You have all these incredibly powerful people across Italy, all writing to Michelangelo and saying, ‘Please, please, pretty please, can I have one of your drawings?’ And, you know, Michelangelo never obliged them.”

Michelangelo is among the most influential and impressive artists of the Italian High Renaissance. His lifelike sculptures and powerful paintings are some of the most recognizable works in Western art history. He also drew prolifically, making sketch after sketch of figures in slightly varying poses, focusing on form and gesture. However, remarkably few of these drawings remain today, many of them burned by the artist himself, others lost or damaged over the centuries. 

A recent exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Michelangelo: Mind of the Master, brought together more than two dozen of Michelangelo’s surviving drawings—including designs for the Sistine Chapel ceiling and The Last Judgment—to shed light on the artist’s creativity and working method. In this episode, co-curators of this exhibition, Julian Brooks and Edina Adam, discuss the master and what we can learn from his works on paper. 

For images, transcripts, and more, visit getty.edu/podcasts.

Reflections: Aleia McDaniel on an Illuminated Letter P

We’ve asked members of the Getty community to share short reflections on works of art they’re thinking about right now. These recordings feature stories related to our daily lives.

This week, Aleia McDaniel discusses her long-held love for cursive and how it relates to an illuminated manuscript from 1180. To learn more about this artwork, visit: https://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/103710/.

Over the next few weeks, look for new recordings every other Tuesday.


Transcript

JAMES CUNO: Hi, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. In a new podcast feature, we’re asking members of the Getty community to share short reflections on works of art they’re thinking about right now. We’ll be releasing new recordings every other Tuesday. I hope you’ll find these stories about our daily lives—from laundry on the line to a dog at a scholar’s feet—thought provoking, illuminating, and entertaining.

ALEIA MCDANIEL: My name is Aleia McDaniel and I am a curatorial assistant in the department of manuscripts at the Getty Museum.

Growing up I was drawn to cursive. Both of my parents wrote in cursive regularly, my mother exclusively, and my father on important documents, though he preferred printing in all caps most of the time. My grandfather, a retired professor, also used cursive for his everyday writing. I like to think I take after him; he was also a practitioner of the arts.

When most students dropped cursive in junior high, I held on to it. During the stay-at-home order, I was able to clean out a few old and cluttered files, and I found coursework dating back to my early high school career. I was shocked to see the huge change in my handwriting from my high school days. I began to use computers for taking all of my notes during undergrad, and it’s sad to say that my handwriting has almost, degraded in a way. That’s not to say that it’s illegible, but rather it has developed kind of a personality; it’s no longer purely cursive, but it’s also not quite print.
Working from home now has granted me the time not only to focus on developing my own handwriting again, but also the ability to browse the many different calligraphic styles in the Getty’s manuscript collection. When I came across this page from a manuscript written in Germany in 1180, I saw my own hybrid cursive style reflected back at me.

The Initial P is ornate, the red, golds, and blue of the decorated letter reminded me of how I felt when I first learned cursive, overwhelmed. There were so many loops, turns, and decorations that my mind couldn’t comprehend how someone would be able to understand where the word began, or which was the final letter. But as a child, the more I looked at and learned the script, the more I could understand how the detail attached to the calligraphy was not daunting, but rather smooth, inviting.

The flourishes on the other letters on this page give a fluid-like character to the text. The script is a strong and seamless black, but the flow is interrupted by the brightness of the blue and red letters. These bright colors remind me to explore my surroundings.

I’ve been finding inspiration in nature too recently, and the blues on this page remind me of the freedom of the blue sky when I go for a hike. My imagination can go into overdrive while hiking, imaging the creatures that are hidden from our sight, quite like the dragon at the base of the decorated letter P.

I am taking this re-imagined freedom and using it to develop my script even further. Even though the emotional response I have to cursive is not universal, it’s comforting to know that there is a sense of normalcy in the old, and that we can take its style and apply it to our everyday lives. I will continue to use various illuminated manuscripts to help further my understanding of calligraphy, and who knows, maybe my own handwriting might one day gain its own dragon guardian.

CUNO: To view this illuminated initial P, made in Germany around 1180, click the link in this episode’s description, or look for it on getty.edu/art/collection.

Finding Dora Maar: A Surreal(ist) Story Told through an Address Book

When Brigitte Benkemoun bought a leather diary case from eBay, she did not expect to find a small address book tucked into the back. And she certainly didn’t expect that book to contain the names of some of the most renowned figures of 20th century Paris—names like André Breton, Brassaï, Jean Cocteau, and Jacques Lacan. She began researching these contacts until she uncovered the identity of the address book’s former owner: the surrealist artist Dora Maar. 

In this episode, Benkemoun discusses the provocative life of Dora Maar and the book that resulted from her research, a unique blend of detective story, biography, memoir, and cultural history. Finding Dora Maar: An Artist, an Address Book, a Life has recently been translated into English by Jody Gladding and published by Getty Publications.

For images, transcripts, and more, visit getty.edu/podcasts.

Reflections: Johnny Tran on Pueblo del Rio

We’ve asked members of the Getty community to share short reflections on works of art they’re thinking about right now. These recordings feature stories related to our daily lives.

This week, Johnny Tran relates deeply to the joy of a family gathered around the dinner table and considers the importance of beautiful public housing to Black Angelenos in the 1940s. He discusses a photograph of architect Paul R. Williams’s Pueblo del Rio project from Leonard Nadel’s unpublished book Pueblo Del Rio: A Study of a Planned Community. To learn more about this photograph, visit: rosettaapp.getty.edu/delivery/Deliv…s_pid=FL218644.

Over the next few weeks, look for new recordings every other Tuesday.


Transcript

JAMES CUNO: Hi, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. In a new podcast feature, we’re asking members of the Getty community to share short reflections on works of art they’re thinking about right now. We’ll be releasing new recordings every other Tuesday. I hope you’ll find these stories about our daily lives—from laundry on the line to a dog at a scholar’s feet—thought provoking, illuminating, and entertaining.

JOHNNY TRAN: Hi I’m Johnny Tran from the curatorial department of the Getty Research Institute.

Due to COVID-19, I decided to move back to my childhood home, in Anaheim, California to be with my parents and sister. And moving back I realized just how lucky I was to have the option of going back home to be with family in these difficult times. That’s something my immigrant parents didn’t really have a chance to do, and it got me thinking about what makes a home a home.

I work primarily with our architecture and design collections. And in these recent months, I find myself coming back to this unpublished book that we have in the archives called Pueblo Del Rio: A Study of a Planned Community. There are stunning photographs in this book, but there is one in particular, of a woman named Bessie Samuel and her family and that just pulls me back every time.

It’s an image of a Black family sharing a meal in their new modern kitchen. It’s an sort of everyday sort of scene. However, for the Samuel family, it takes a lot of effort to get to this moment.

The Samuels called Pueblo del Rio their home. It’s a public housing project in the South Central area of Los Angeles, and the designs were led by actually the most renowned African American architect, Paul Williams. Built in the early 1940s, it was primarily for African American defense workers. This was a time when LA was highly segregated, there are very few housing options available, particularly for people of color.

By the late 1940s Leonard Nadel, an American photographer, was hired to document the public housing projects like Pueblo Del Rio. You see Nadel’s skill and not only documenting the really beautiful functional modernist design of the house. But you see the everyday life, the people who live in these buildings, like the Samuel family.

It makes me appreciate the steps that my parents took to have a home, and these little family moments that I get to have with them. Like every night when we have dinner.

It also makes me realize just how far we still have to go and the enormous changes and challenges we face to provide housing for underserved communities. Pueblo del Rio was a positive step forward, and I realize it takes community engagement and government action to achieve this.

I love this quote that Nadel ends the book with, from Franklin Roosevelt: “We have accepted a second bill of rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all. Regardless of station, race, or creed. Among these are the right of every American for a decent home.”

CUNO: To view Leonard Nadel’s photographs of Paul R. William’s Pueblo del Rio from the late 1940s, click the link in this episode’s description or look for it on primo.getty.edu

International Museum Directors on COVID-19 and Collaboration, Part 2

Art institutions around the world responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by closing their doors and rethinking planned exhibitions, programming, and partnerships. Now, a few months into the crisis, museums are beginning to reopen, but they are also reevaluating what the next few years might bring and how they might continue to work collaboratively.

The pandemic hit just as the Getty was beginning to partner with museums in Mumbai, Mexico City, Shanghai, and Berlin on its Ancient Worlds Now initiative, a ten-year project dedicated to the study, presentation, and conservation of the world’s ancient cultures.

In this episode, Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum, joins Yang Zhigang, director of the Shanghai Museum, and Andreas Scholl, director of the Altes Museum, Antikensaammlung, Collection of Classical Antiquities, in Berlin. They discuss their responses to COVID-19 and their hopes for the future of the Ancient Worlds Now initiative.

For images, transcripts, and more, visit getty.edu/podcasts.