Friday, January 10, 2014

Jun ware, reconstructing Cleopatra -- random thoughts

In one of her many delightful books -- I thought it was My Favorite Things, but I seem to be wrong -- the delightful art critic/nun Sister Wendy Beckett, may she live a thousand years, writes of the satisfaction of "silently communing" with a great piece of porcelain art. This may sound loopy but, assuming you have already absorbed her advice that the best tool for appreciating art is a chair, you will find she is right about the porcelain too. You feel strangely arrested when you go to an art gallery, sit down, and look at something like this:

Image from Facts and Details: "Looting, Breaking, and Copying Art in China"

This is Jun ware, porcelain distinguished, it seems, by a clear pale blue glaze often splotched with rich violet. Wikipedia tells us it was made for about four hundred years, from the Song through the Jin and the Yuan dynasties in China (circa 960 to 1360 A.D.).

There is some Jun ware in the quiet and seldom-visited Asian galleries of the Art Institute of Chicago, though I remember the piece I liked being a plain deep maroon color, not sky blue; and it seems if you have a few hundred bucks to splash around, you may buy some Jun ware of your own to commune with, if you don't mind trusting your credit card information to online shopping and antiques-auctioning sites. Perhaps such treasures are available because, throughout the Song and the Jin and the Yuan, spittoons and other dishes were not that rare. One David Fry, of David Fry Ceramics, writes with amusing blandness of re-creating a Jun ware dish for a London collector -- much like you or me, apparently -- whose own favorite, authentic Chinese piece, "after being looked after for nearly a thousand years," was accidentally smashed by his cleaning lady. One imagines a woman in a flowered dress and kerchief, looking down at the sky blue fragments and saying "Coo! What did he want to put it there for?"

It seems only right to give a nod to China, since the nation has just achieved the feat of "soft-landing" a probe on the moon  Taking up other cudgels, let me introduce my dear things -- my fatheads -- to a compelling artist working in a different medium, namely YouTube, which is to say music, writing, and Photoshop. She is one M. A. Ludwig. I have enjoyed her animated Photoshop reconstruction of the face of Cleopatra, accompanied by her narration of an elegant three-minute script on "the pharaoh" (2009). I enjoyed her second go at the queen, as well (2011). Unlike other Photoshop-artists fooling around on YouTube with old paintings and sculptures of historic people, "reconstructing" them into glamor-pusses minus any basic human jowls or vapidity, M.A. Ludwig stays firmly within the profiles of the busts or effigies that have come down to us. She creates a hook-nosed, "somewhat weak-chinned" Cleopatra who is nevertheless entrancing. When she proceeds to make the Cleopatra "of legend," essentially giving her a nose job and collagen lips, the result is a breathtaking but by no means vapid ancient beauty. As for Julius Caesar -- Cleopatra's lover and husband, father of her twins -- M. A. Ludwig has only to add color to the eyes, hair, and skin of the "Caesar Tusculum" marble to create a man whom we would fear to cross and thrill to please. Her reconstruction of the Emperor Augustus is magnificent. Alexander ends up looking a bit like a creepy, flabby punk, but maybe he was one.

I enjoy the comments at the bottom of each YouTube page, too. M.A. Ludwig gets a lot. For her and for other Photoshop artists, the commenters divide roughly into two camps: those who crab "he didn't look like that," and those who swoon "he was my ancestor on my mother's side -- thank you so much for this look at him!"

It makes one reflect a little on the passage of time. Not even in the grand sense of centuries past and famous lives, but in the small sense of the hours of an evening, and what to do with them. Leisure, hobbies, compromise. M.A. Ludwig makes Photoshop faces, master potters make pots. Sister Wendy prays, translates medieval Latin manuscripts, and writes about art. What do you do ... with a friend who assumes it's a pleasure, and all worthwhile, to watch t.v. together? Then again, if you've both just got back from those quiet and empty Asian galleries ... time, leisure, compromise.

After all this you'll want a glass of wine. We'll stick with warm reds for winter.

2010 Montes Alpha pinot noir. Retail, about $18.

90+ Cellars "Monster Red Blend," Washington state. Retail, about $19.

2010 The Calling Alexander Valley cabernet sauvignon. Retail, about $29.

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