December 30, 2016

colour study: marine colours x vermillion

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December 13, 2016

scenes from my last two weeks

image1{Cycling along Manly Beach in Sydney}

This year I spent Thanksgiving in Australia with my family. The weather was perfect, I got to spend some quality time with my one-year-old nephew, and I got my fill of authentic Asian food! Other recent highlights include spending some time in the conservation lab of the museum and the opening of our new exhibition, “Infinite Blue.” Happy Holidays!

image2{Bondi Beach}

image3{The exhibition that I’ve been working on finally went up!}

image5{A Mayan figure undergoing treatment in the conservation lab}

image4{One of our Egyptian sarcophagi in the lab}

image6{Church of St. Mary, the venue of a Renaissance music Christmas concert I attended}


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November 23, 2016

A historical look at how the nouveau riche have justified their wealth through art patronage (part 3/4)

titunamaScene from Tutinama (Tales of the Parrot), ca.1560

(For the introduction to this series, see here)


The Mughal Empire, a dynasty that presided over 4 million square kilometers of the Indian subcontinent and Afghanistan at the height of its power, was comprised of a Turco-Mongol lineage whose rulers insisted on a Persianate culture. This choice was based on their belief that the Persian heritage was more sophisticated. Babur (1483-1530), the founder of the empire, spoke Chagatai Turkic as his native language. Yet he so admired the Persian language and culture that he sought to emulate all aspects of it in the establishment of his new court. Such an adoption, along with its continuation by his successors, indicates the way in which Mughal emperors tried to rescue their nomadic, cross-cultural heritage from the barbaric label that was implied in their reputation as military conquerors.

To Babur’s credit, his occupation as a warlord had no effect on his introspective tendency and sensitivity toward the natural world. His interest in the native flora and fauna of northern India, for instance, is given great focus in his writings, the most famous of which is his epic autobiography, the Baburnama. While these memoirs chiefly chronicle the advancement of Babur’s military career, they also reveal his thoughtful nature, erudition, and worldliness as someone who organized his Chagatai Turkic prose into Persian sentence structures, interspersed with Persian poems and phrases. Indeed, Babur, devoted naturalist and poetry enthusiast, was no barbarian. Unfortunately, however, his short reign of only four years disabled him from making further strides in the cultural realm.

His son, Humayun (1508-1556), inherited his father’s artistic inclination and showed it to a more significant degree. While his reign was not without its own problems—most notably, his fifteen-year exile—the fact that he found refuge at the court of the Persian Shah Tahmasp proved to be a blessing in disguise. There he saw the running of the Shah’s renowned painting atelier firsthand and was able to replicate it to great success once power was restored to him. When Humayun returned to his court in Kabul in 1549, he brought with him two of the Shah’s finest painters, Mir Sayyid Ali and Abd as-Samad. As their patron he was attentive to their production processes, and he kept them so close by that he even had them accompany his military campaign when he retook Delhi in 1555. Despite Humayun’s ability to foster artistic talent within his court, however, the distinctive style that would begin to constitute Mughal art only came to light during the reign of his son, Akbar the Great (1556-1605).

Under Akbar’s rule, the Mughal Empire came into a golden age that tripled in both size and wealth. After creating a centralized system of government administration, which unified the state, the empire experienced one of its greatest periods of peace and prosperity. And, as with all golden ages, it also flourished culturally. In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of Akbar’s art patronage was how it was used as tool of governance. While the diverse ethnic landscape that Akbar’s territory encapsulated initially made it difficult for him to instill a sense of solidarity and loyalty in his subjects, by building an atelier that consisted of over a hundred Indian and Persian artists, who collaborated with one another to create a style of art that combined Indian and Persian visual elements, Akbar successfully fostered a new visual culture that his subjects could find pride in.

Popular subjects in this new mode included Persian fables depicted in Indian landscapes, as well as Hindu epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata that were rendered in the fine lines and realistic manner for which Persian painting was known. By this time, maritime trade with Europe had also allowed Akbar’s court to become familiar with the Western perspective in art, and as such, pictorial depth gradually became an element of the Mughal style as well. The range of visual material that Akbar’s atelier produced was a testament to the diversity of the Mughal Empire and the inclusiveness with which many of its emperors sought to rule.

Next (part 4/4): Samurai and the Tea Ceremony as a Political Instrument



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November 3, 2016

colour study: cobalt x yellow




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October 24, 2016

scenes from my past few weeks

image7{The Fairy Pools at the Isle of Skye in Scotland}

As I was thinking about the past few weeks, I realized that my blog is now a year old! I wish I had a more momentous way of commemorating its survival, but I don’t, and can only offer a few reflective words instead. This blog was largely started without a distinct focus, hence its initial categorization as a ‘lifestyle blog.’ Although I expected the majority of my posts to be about the art that I deal with on a daily basis, I never imagined that the majority of its topics would cover disparate, unrelated areas ranging from Russian literature to the metaphysical lyrics of Florence+the Machine. That said, however, I’ve been starting to narrow my focus and will continue to do so after having discovered what works most for me. You’ll see what I mean! Until then, please enjoy a few moments of my life from this month below!

image4{Walking around Scotland}


{This one was especially friendly!}

image8{Me, as a red speck in the highlands}

image1-2{Some curators from Japan, examining some of our works}

image1{At Frieze in London}

image10{At the home of Steven Korff, a collector of Japanese ceramics who was featured in the New York Times in August}

image1-1{The Untermeyer Gardens in Yonkers, New York}



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October 16, 2016

A historical look at how the nouveau riche have justified their wealth through art patronage (part 2/4)

medicivs.sforza Francesco II Sforza (1495-1535); Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449-1492)

(For the introduction to this series, see here)


As discussed in the previous post of this series, the success of the Medici family in securing their position as tastemakers of the Renaissance was an impressive feat, given their low-born status among the feudal elites. But how did they achieve this recognition, over every other prominent family?

Not only was their competition with the established nobility difficult, but their task to turn Florence into a cultural centre proved challenging as well. Far from the picturesque attraction that it is today, Florence in the late 14th century was an unlikely location for such an explosion of artistic genius. Like Giovanni de’ Medici, it was born disadvantaged and poor. Landlocked, it was bereft of any ports, which cut off trade prospects. And, unlike Milan, which was known for its military might, Florence was vulnerable to its occasionally bellicose neighbours because of its weak army. Other city-states seemed to have higher chances of turning out more talent, either because they boasted larger populations, like Venice, or because they had more respected universities, like Bologna and Rome. And yet it was still in Florence that the greatest Renaissance masters were discovered. Why?

Because they were found by a family that truly understood what good patronage meant. During a time when artists were still considered ‘hands,’ the Medici respected their artists individually and cultivated a civic pride that treasured them. Not only did they have an eye for talent, but they also had the managerial skills to nurture it properly: while they demanded innovation and were scrupulous supervisors on the one hand, they were also generous with their artists and gave them enough freedom to fully express themselves on the other.

But all these praiseworthy practices could not be taken seriously if viewed in isolation. Thus, to gain a deeper understanding of how superior the Medici were in fostering artistic growth, we must compare them to at least another leading family that famously patronised the arts: the Sforzas.

We’ll begin with Galeazzo Maria Sforza (1444-1476), who, when not tormenting his subjects with tyrannical cruelty, supported several Lombard artists, such as Bonafacio Bembo, Cristoforo Moretti, and Vincenzo Foppa. While he was certainly not the most tasteful or interested of the Sforza patrons, Galeazzo’s patronage style is worthy of examination because his account is perhaps the most reliable one. He left behind a long and extant paper trail that provides us with the necessary evidence to properly assess his management abilities. The surviving correspondences between him and the aides who acted as his artist liasons, as well as the exchanges between those aides and the artists themselves, are plentiful and altogether paint a picture of a man who rarely interacted with his artists.

In many ways, he could afford to distance himself and do without the personal selection and supervision of talent because his tastes were so predictable. His surviving commissions, such as the illuminated New Testament in Turin, as well as his stated preferences, show that he consistently preferred the decorative luxury, realistic portraiture, and heavy use of gold that was typical of Lombard painting and sculpture at the time. He was not fond of innovation, as shown by his support of the traditional styles of Bembo and Moretti, and only he used the more creative Foppa in conjunction with the former two. Even the subjects of his commissions were predictable: although two different groups of artists were employed to paint the ground floor chapel in the Castello di Porta Giovia in Milan and that in Pavia, the style and subject matter of the frescoes are virtually identical, depicting the Annunciation, Resurrection, and God the Father against a starry blue background. Still, despite his prescribed preferences that championed the Lombard style, Galeazzo was not entirely unaffected by the Renaissance that was blooming in Florence by this time and liked the Medicean baptistery so much that he intended to copy it for his own memorial church. This plan in itself can be read as an acknowledgment of the status that the Medici had attained as the supreme arbiters of taste.

All of these actions point to an attitude that directly contrasts the Medici style of patronage. Far from predictable, they craved new representational strategies calibrated to the changing times and their personal visions for them. An example of this can be found in a commission by Galeazzo’s contemporary, Piero de’ Medici (1416-1469). When Piero asked Benozzo Gozzoli in 1459 to paint the Adoration in the small, private chapel of the Medici palace, he closely supervised the painting’s day-to-day progress and, together with Gozzoli, tailored the religious subject matter to suit his family’s dynastic ambitions under the guise of his spiritual ones. While at first glance the painting seems to mimic any other depiction of the Magi paying tribute to Christ, closer inspections and comparisons with surviving Medici portraits have revealed that certain male figures in the scene were modeled after Piero, his male family members, and their affiliates—some of whom would turn against him in the wake of the painting’s completion. Even Galeazzo, an important ally, is shown riding a white horse next to Cosimo de’ Medici.

Piero’s insertion of himself and his support network into the formula of a well-known biblical scene is both indicative of his own artistic creativity as well as his close involvement in production, which at times verged on micromanagement. And, read in the greater context of his family’s patronage history, these two characteristics demonstrate how personally invested the Medici were in their artwork. Piero’s son, Lorenzo (1449-1492), perhaps most exhibited this quality in his discovery and supervision of many Florentine artists, including Michelangelo, who he handpicked at the age of fourteen.

Even Galeazzo’s brother and successor, Ludovico (1452-1508), who commissioned the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci and was far more interested in art than his brother, recognized how skilled the Medici were in managing their art commissions. When searching for artists to paint the great monastery of Certosa in Pavia, he asked his agent in Florence to only consider the artists who had been employed by Lorenzo to decorate his villa at Spedaletto. This request, coupled with Ludovico’s hiring of Leonardo for various projects around Milan, attests to the reliance that aristocratic families like the Sforzas eventually had on Medici discernment.

Although the four examples above only concentrate on the management styles of two members from each family, they sufficiently highlight the characteristic personal involvement of the Medici in their commissions, as juxtaposed with another leading family’s style of patronage. Such devotion to their artists indicates from where the Renaissance artists in Florence drew their strength. Yet it is any wonder still that other patrons did not seek to replicate this management scheme for themselves. Instead, they preferred to hire artists who had already been discovered by the Medici rather than finding and nurturing their own local talents. Above all, the nobility’s gradual dependence upon Medicean taste was symptomatic of their overall deference to that family once the clan had garnered so much influence they could no longer be ignored by high society.

Next (part 3/4): Mughal Art as a Governance Method



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October 1, 2016

Packing list: Scotland

Next week I’ll be going to the Isle of Skye in Scotland! Below are the key wardrobe items that I’ll be bringing with me, sorted into two outfits.




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September 19, 2016

colour study: blue x coral


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September 1, 2016

A historical look at how the nouveau riche have justified their wealth through art patronage

mariaMaria de’ Medici, Bronzino, 1551

Part 1/4 : Introduction

After coming back from Tuscany, home to Florence and the Renaissance masters, I’ve been thinking about art patronage as a means of justifying newfound wealth. Without the patronage of the Medici family, it is doubtful that Florence would have achieved its status as the cradle and beacon of the Renaissance. Yet the family that was responsible for ensuring its greatness was neither descended from noble stock nor charged with responsibilities of the church—a noteworthy detail, given that the two most traditionally powerful patrons of the arts at the time were the aristocracy and the Catholic institution. Instead, their dynasty was founded on the banking that propelled the patriarch of the clan, Giovanni de’ Medici, to far-reaching financial success. So what reasons, apart from genuine enjoyment, did Giovanni’s son, Cosimo, and his descendants have in being such ardent art patrons?

One likely explanation is in the fact that, as private citizens, the Medicis possessed none of the noble titles needed to impress those with whom they negotiated on behalf of the republic. However, by gracing the city with celebrated works of classic and contemporary art they showed that they belonged in the company of the most important feudal lords. They were supported in this endeavour by the Florentine public, who also sought to promote its leading family based on the understanding that the reputation of their city was tied to the outside honour paid to the Medicis. Painfully aware were the Florentines of their lack of hereditary pedigree, and the pageantry of their artistic projects was in large part an expression of their cultural insecurity.

In short, through their patronage, the Medicis were able to overcome the age-old problem of ‘new money.’ Ever since the notion of taste was invented, the nouveau riche have never had a favourable image among the elites of society, leaving them with the conundrum of how to convince ‘the right people’ that they, too, belong. After all, a reputation as a cultured arbiter of taste is not so easily bought as the items used to advertise a person of great means. This is because ‘taste’ relies upon the exclusivist idea that persons of a higher calibre possess certain trained parts: a trained eye, a trained ear, a trained manner of speech and handwriting, the entire training process to which only few are given access from childhood and encouraged to accept as the only hallmark of respectability.

And so we history buffs are left with a long global history of newly rich members of society seeking to demonstrate their ability to discern the fine from the crude by supporting the arts. As such, this series will explore three cases in which important historical figures from India, Japan, and Italy became benevolent art enthusiasts after their quick ascension to wealth and power.

Next (part 2/4): Medici vs. Sforza Patronage Styles



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August 22, 2016

colour study: fall brights x pastels


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