Saturday, 20 November 2010

Baltimore: Proper Pots And Papish Pomp

The holiday rush prompted Greyhound to lay on an express section to Baltimore, getting me there before the Walters Art Gallery was open. (My seatmates were two delightfully glasnosted Russkies in their 20s taking their first whirl in the First Evil Empire—viz., U.S. More later about the ways we perestroked one another.)
So I was in the beautiful B with two pre-“Vatican Splendor” hours on my hand. I picked up the city’s Welcomat—The Baltimore City Paper, ad-fat and full of good prose, including the information that there was a new Muse in town, the National Museum of Ceramic Art. When the Baltimore Sun ran a crit of their current exhibition, “American Studio Sculpture: 1920-1950,” an American Federation of Art traveling show, I knew I had an epiphanizing way to blow two hours. It’s $1 admission is a steal.
The exhibition explores the rise of studio-generated fine ceramics after the collapse of art pottery factory production during World War I. The catalog is full of color and solid information about this important aesthetic movement: The Syracuse Museum of Art (now the Everson) gave a boost to the artists with its Ceramics International annuals in 1930.
This new museum is worth a trip to Baltimore by itself. And the shop has a swatch of ceramic artifacts of a very high standard. Look especially for the figurine dolls (ceramic heads, cotton bodies by Ellen Sheer of Madison, Wis.—marvelous bibelots at $24.) I bought a Paul Chaeleff raku pot T-shirt for $10.
I walked over to Charles Street, looking for the 25-cent culture trolley. It was late and I was cold, so I popped onto the regular Charles Street bus, only to find I had a $5 bill. A matronly post office clerk popped for my $1 fare! So I was in a euphoric mood when I decamped at the Walters.
Alas, the so-called “Splendors of the Vatican” were many-splintered indeed. From the Sancta Sanctorum of the Lateran Palace, these two dozen 16th- and 17th-Century “masterpieces” tell us more about the aggrandizing power of the secular side of the Papistry than of high artistic achievement.
With one exception—the absolutely luminous Cross of Pope Pashcal I (817-24). It presents a cloisonne narrative of several episodes of Christ’s infancy and youth, deployed about the wide intersection arms of the Cross. I would go back to Baltimore just to savour its elegant beauty.
However, most of the rest of the stuff would give Thorstein Veblen toxic shock for its conspicuous consumption—gold-threaded chasubles and chalice covers of overweening arrogance.
These objects were brought here with the clout that accrued to the Baltimore diocese as the founding one of the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. (1789). It made me think dark thoughts, especially because I had just read Penny Lernoux’s brilliant People of God (Viking, $19.95), about the current struggle between an often cynical Curia and the Liberation Theologians.
Much more impressive than these so-called “Splendors” is Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s cathedral a few blocks away, across from the Enoch Pratt Free Library (where the street-side display cases, always interesting, are now brilliant with Lego treatments of Christmas scenes and themes).
And there’s a better reason to go to the Walters (by January 23): for the Japanese collection of cloisonne enamel ceramics collected by an area high school principal and his wife. The Fishers’ cache is both luminous per se and pedagogically brilliant, showing the sequence of stages in the cloisonneization of a tiny pot. I had never really understood the process.
There’s a section on the visit of William Walters to the Philly Bicentennial—to winnow out a hundred objects from the 50 railroad car caravan the Japanese brought from California to Philadelphia for the expo. Oh what collectors, those Walters, father and son! So get crocked in Baltimore.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, January 17, 1990

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