CLEVELAND (June 15, 2016) – Recent acquisitions by the Cleveland Museum of Art include a Byzantine icon of the New Testament Trinity; a Bacchus centerpiece by famed artist René Lalique; an exceptionally beautiful Japanese lacquer writing box; a contemporary sculpture by a Cambodian artist; and an African figure from the Mbole people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Icon of the New Testament Trinity
Painting dates to before the fall of Constantinople
This rare Byzantine icon represents an important subject in Orthodox Christian art, “The New Testament Trinity,” which features Christ and the Ancient of Days (God the Father) seated on a bench with the dove representing the Holy Spirit between them. Christ is placed to the left and blesses with his right hand, holding a gospel book in his left hand. The Ancient of the Days––God the Father as Christ in old age––is placed to the right. Between them the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove hovers in an eight-pointed star that signifies the eighth day, or the future. On either side of the Trinity are two hymnographers, both identified by gold letters outlined in red.
The Icon of the New Testament Trinity is painted in a late Palaeologan style typical of Constantinople during its final century of existence and represents a moment when Byzantine painting reached a brilliant crescendo. The icon is not signed or dated; however, analysis of the painting’s style places it in Constantinople around 1450, just prior to the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453. The icon would have been part of a series of paintings on panel that decorated a church templon, the barrier that separated the nave from the sanctuary in an Orthodox church. The painting’s style is highly refined, and in a remarkable state of preservation.
A Byzantine icon assigned to Constantinople is exceptional on today’s market. This work provides for the museum a much sought-after representation of the most important center for painting in the Byzantine world: Constantinople. The Icon of the New Testament Trinity complements the museum’s other icon, Mother of God (Crete, c. 1425-50).
Icon of the New Testament Trinity, c. 1450. Byzantium, Constantinople. Tempera and gold on wood panel (poplar); 35.5 x 62.5 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art
Bacchus Figural Centerpiece Support
Work by René Lalique, one of the foremost figures in 20th-century decorative art and design
Created in 1923 as part of a group to adorn the table of the president of France in the Elysée Palace in Paris, this “Bacchus” figural centerpiece support by René Lalique was shown only once to the public in the Salon d’Automne of 1923. Later, Lalique created other figural models destined for commercial sale, but the “Bacchus” example remained unique. Eight supports of this type were created for the palace to be arranged around the center of a table supporting a garland of flowers or ivy. These eight supports remain in the state collection of France, while this figure and one other have emerged on the art marked in the last 25 years. The figure depicts “Bacchus,” the Roman version of the Greek god Dionysus, the god of wine, fertility, and ritual madness.
Realized in a neoclassical style consistent with the revival of traditional modes of decoration during the early 1920s, the form is updated to reflect modern sensibilities: stylized and ghost-like rather than realistic in form. Such “modernistic” interpretations of classical antiquity were an early vehicle for 20th-century decorative artisans seeking to create new versions of older iconography or forms. The “Bacchus” support also displays the finest of Lalique’s modeling and casting techniques from the period of his apex in glass production. His signature patination––in this case flesh-toned to emphasize the human form––gives definition to the three- dimensional aspect of the composition. Perfectly proportioned and balanced, this figure is the most successful of all of Lalique’s standing sculptural figures.
The museum owns several very important examples of Lalique’s work in its permanent collection. All of these works highlight different aspects of Lalique’s technique or design, yet none of them show his prowess in three-dimensional sculptural composition. This figure greatly enhances the stature of the CMA’s decorative arts collection with an object of unparalleled beauty.
Bacchus Figural Centerpiece Support, 1923. René Lalique (French, 1860-1945). Cast and patinated glass; h. 25.5 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art.
Writing Box (Suzuribako) with Phoenix in Paulownia
Lacquer writing box from Japan’s “Age of Gold”
This writing box is a beautiful and functional example of the cultural florescence of the Momoyama period (1573-1615), often called Japan’s “Age of Gold.” It has a design of a phoenix in a tree along the bank of a flowing river on its exterior, and a lush array of chrysanthemum flowers and grasses under a silver autumn moon on its interior. It contains a metal water dropper and an ink stone for calligraphy.
Lacquer occupies a central place in the decorative arts of Japan. Although lacquer inlaid with gold and silver was first made in China, it was only after it was exported to Japan that the wide variety of sprinkled gold powder (maki-e) techniques were developed to their highest level. Objects such as the Writing Box with Phoenix in Paulownia amply demonstrate why Japan remains the first country that comes to mind when lacquer is mentioned, and why Japanese lacquer has been celebrated by other cultures—including China—over the centuries. Dramatic effects are achieved in this box through the use of pear-skin ground (nashiji) decoration, foil application, and takamaki-e, in which sprinkled gold and silver powders are built up to create elements in high relief.
Although leading institutions in Japan have rich holdings in Momoyama period lacquers—and fine examples of lacquer writing boxes from the period—there are far fewer examples of early lacquer writing boxes in American collections. The Cleveland Museum of Art is fortunate to own a number of early Japanese lacquers, but this rare, beautifully preserved box exemplifying the exceptional beauty and technical achievements of Japanese maki-e lacquer artists is unique within the collection.
Writing Box (Suzuribako) with Phoenix in Paulownia, 1573-99. Momoyama period (1573-1615). Lacquer on wood with sprinkled gold and silver powder (maki-e) and gold and silver foil application; 4.3 x 20.4 x 23.8 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art.
Large-scale contemporary sculptures by Cambodian artist
This pair of large-scale sculptures was made by Cambodian artist Sopheap Pich (b. 1971). In his studio in Phnom Penh, the artist and his team make grid networks of hand-cut bamboo strips and rattan, secured with steel wire and manipulated by fire to create lyrically undulating, monumental, organic forms. The hardships and hunger of Pich’s childhood––marked by Cambodia’s social and political turmoil, the extremist Khmer Rouge regime, and life in refugee camps during the period of civil war––find expression in the emptiness of his sculptures.
In 1983, a Christian charity helped relocate Pich and his family to Northampton, Massachusetts, where he attended middle school and high school. He went on to earn a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts with a concentration in painting at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and an MFA at the Art Institute of Chicago. He returned to Cambodia in 2001 where he shifted his practice to making sculpture and has achieved widespread international acclaim for his work.
Seed Pods is the first work of art by a contemporary Southeast Asian artist to be added to the distinguished historical collections at the Cleveland Museum of Art. As a vegetal form, Seed Pods presents a vital link to the early Indian and modern Pan-Asian emphases on the life forces of nature in art.
Seed Pods, 2015. Sopheap Pich (Cambodian, 1971). Bamboo, rattan, steel wire; 249 x 221 x 30 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art.
Mbole Male Figure
A rare example of an iconic genre, used in secret male association
This male figure, with its expressive yellow and white heart-shaped face, belongs to a type and style of sculpture that is considered among the most iconic of Central Africa. Less than 20 comparable sculptures exist today. Such Mbole figures are admired for their abstraction and stylization, which they share with other northern and northeastern Congolese style traditions. What sets this sculpture apart within the small Mbole figure corpus is the rendering of its eyes—most other examples have slit-shaped eyes—and its well-preserved patina and color scheme.
Called ofika, figures like this would have been made for use within the all-male Lilwa association. Lilwa is a hierarchical organization defined by secrecy and an all-encompassing moral code. Ofika figures were the exclusive property of greatly respected members of the highest Lilwa rank and are believed to represent criminals who were ritually executed by hanging for transgressions against the Lilwa laws. Thought to house the soul of the deceased, the figures acquired mystical potency and the ability to put an end to all kinds of calamity and conflict, including bad luck in hunting, epidemics, and wars. With the aim to dispell evil and misfortune, the statues would be attached to a stretcher and carried through the village by the Lilwa association. In addition to their appearance in the context of crisis situations, the figures served as didactic devices during Lilwa transition rituals in the course of the boys’ initiation into the Lilwa’s first grade. When the novices emerged from a tunnel after having endured painful beatings by the association’s elders, they were presented with the ofika figures by their instructors and warned that they would be punished by hanging should they reveal any of the Lilwa’s secrets.
The Mbole ofika figure adds a superior example of an iconic and rare genre to the museum’s small but important collection of Congolese art.
Male figure (ofika), probably late 1800s or early 1900s. Mbole people, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Wood, copper tacks; h. 42.2 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art.
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