Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - May 14, 2010

The appeal of antiquity

Cantor show explores ancient Europe — and the artists from centuries past who were fascinated with it

by Rebecca Wallace

You may not think you have much in common with a European man from the 1700s, but drop by an exhibit of ancient art. That fellow might have been fascinated by the same Grecian vase you can't stop looking at.

The enduring appeal of antiquity — its art, artifacts and architecture — is evident these days in a newly revamped gallery on the second floor of Stanford's Cantor Arts Center. The museum has opened a new, ongoing exhibition of European works both drawn from its collection and on long-term loan.

One gallery section, its walls painted sky-blue, is dedicated to ancient Greek, Roman and Cypriot artifacts: marble torsos, animal sculptures, portrait reliefs.

Across the gallery, a space for works on paper spotlights etchings, drawings, paintings and other images of ancient ruins, all done by European artists from past centuries who were beguiled by those venerable buildings.

Works on paper are very light-sensitive, so these "small, focused displays" will change twice a year, according to European art curator Bernard Barryte. But for now, the second floor offers various glimpses of antiquity, through the eyes of the people who built, and of the people who depicted.

The sky-blue area has display cases packed with ancient figures, vessels and other items. A jaunty little Bronze Age bull sculpture from Cyprus, for instance, perches in front of a red-glazed terra-cotta jug made some time between 150 B.C.E. and 250 A.D.

In another case, a krater — a vessel that ancient Greeks used for diluting wine and water — stands grandly, about 27 inches tall. Golden figures of people stand out against the dark background of the terra-cotta vessel, barely marred by time. It's dated in Greece's Classical period, possibly around 430 B.C.E.

Guarding the exhibition are Roman marble torsos, sculptures that undoubtedly would have fascinated the creators of the works on paper across the gallery.

According to the exhibition cards, many 18th-century artists and academic sorts from Britain and other parts of Northern Europe were drawn to ancient Rome. One simply had to take the Grand Tour to Italy. And then put the view down on paper.

On the Cantor walls, fruits of these journeys include "Arch of Constantine," a graceful pen-and-ink drawing with watercolor attributed to French artist Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, possibly done in 1790. His paintings often depicted ruins, and "Arch of Constantine" has a majesty that seems to capture the artist's awe of the imperial Roman arch. The Colosseum stands in the background.

Nancy H. Ferguson, assistant curator of works on paper, wrote in the exhibition: "The imagery of ruins in prints, drawings and paintings can reflect religion, history or fanciful aesthetics. In the Renaissance, dilapidated buildings appeared in images of Christ's birth or of saints, reflecting their humble environment and ancient civilizations. In the 17th century, ruins became secular and romantic subjects, often including dramatic light and shadow."

Another card speculates that the mountainous areas and warm skies of Southern Europe were especially attractive to Dutch artists, who came from a flat, rainy landscape.

Many of the works on paper are meticulously detailed, especially the etchings by Italian printmaker Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Every line is in place in his painterly "Temple of Hercules" from 1753-54, almost providing a clearer image than a camera could.

The second-floor gallery also includes many European paintings and sculptures, some of which visitors may recognize from past exhibitions. Artists include the British painters Joseph Wright, Thomas Gainsborough and Gavin Hamilton; the Dutch painter Abraham van Beyeren; and the Milanese artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo.

One huge oil painting, "The Last Judgment," stops many in their tracks. Painted by an unidentified artist in Cuzco, Peru, in the late 17th or early 18th century, it portrays heaven above and the terrifying inferno below, the dead suffering a myriad of agonies.

Visitors may remember the painting from the Cantor's 2006 exhibition "The Virgin, Saints, and Angels," which explored art from 1600 to 1825 in the Viceroyalty of Peru. Marilynn and Carl Thoma, who collected those works, have also lent three other paintings from colonial South America to the Cantor.

A gentler view of the world is seen in Francesco Guardi's oil on canvas "Landscape with Ruins." The 18th-century Italian painter has captured the allure of the ruins in cloudy yet glowing light. His contemporaries cavort beneath the arches, which still contain elegance and dignity — even as greenery grows on them, creating new life atop the past.

What: "Collection Highlights from Europe, Ancient Greece and Rome," an ongoing exhibition in a newly arranged gallery at the Cantor Arts Center

Where: The museum is off Palm Drive at Museum Way, at Stanford University.

When: The show is ongoing; works on paper will change twice a year. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Thursdays until 8 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to http://museum.stanford.edu or call 650-723-4177.

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