Thursday, March 12, 2009

ASCSA Art 2: Edward Lear's Watercolors and Landscapes

We spend a lot of time in the dining room, where the watercolors of Piet de Jong hang in frames from invisible thread. The Saloni, however, is pretty much where everything important happens in Loring Hall: tea, ouzo, after dinner coffee, hang out sessions, Loeb reading, tea talks, etc. So what art decorates the walls? More watercolors, actually. These are not by an archaeologist, however, but are by Edward Lear.

Who was Edward Lear, you ask? Lear (1812-1888) was a famous British comic poet, limerick writer and illustrator. He was, in fact, a lauded writer of ‘nonsense,’ his most recognizable titles being A Book of Nonsense and The Owl and the Pussycat. Literary nonsense, Wikipedia propounds, is a “style or motif in literature that plays with the conventions of language and the rules of logic and reason via sensical and non-sensical elements.” It’s what we expect from Lewis Carroll and Dr. Seuss. It’s emphasis on the fantastical, unusual and absurd has had quite an impact on the genre of fantasy literature and its champions like JRR Tolkien. It has also been argued that nonsense literature like that of Edward Lear contains a hidden but overwhelming potential for philosophical theory and inquiry.

Lear, when he wasn’t tutoring Queen Victoria, spent his time in Italy and in Greece, producing large quantities of watercolors. In the 1920s, the Gennadion library was fortunate enough to purchase some 200 of his watercolors (for 25 English pounds!). In 1971-2, Lear’s paintings were on exhibit in the US, and when they came back, several of them went on the wall in the Saloni. That is, the prints went up, not just in Loring Hall, but sprinkled throughout the American School’s buildings.

His quick and spontaneous paintings employ a sparse use of color (usually only a few tones) and the squiggly outlines so well-loved in his ‘nonsense’ work.
They depict desolate locations or include strategically placed locals. Antiquities and ruins are rare, and when they do appear, they seem to be regulated to evocative spots in the background (at least in those that I have seen). So what art historical analysis can I come up with about the content and context of these replicas?

1) They are copies of works owned by the American School and therefore reinforce, celebrate and advertise the School’s collection.

2) They depict a topic much beloved by the School’s decorator, the landscapes of historical Greece. After all, both Piet de Jong and Edward Lear did extremely quirky, colorful and amusing work, but it is the muted landscapes that we have framed and hanging up. This subject matter is one of the more popular in the School buildings, for probably many reasons. First, it is a reminder of a simpler, pastoral, more romantic time or place. No pictures of bustling Athens here. Second, a lot of them evoke the experiences of the early Western travelers in Greece, whom many archaeologists see as our discipline’s grandparents. Third, they emphasize the School’s connection to Greece, its appreciation of the country’s recent history, and thus in a round-about way, it’s street cred. I mean street cred in the way 1) a rock n’ roll hipster wears a Johnny Cash shirt to show that she knows her stuff and 2) to emphasize that the School really does LIKE Greece, not just its antiquities (note that I have not yet come across any pictures of the Blue Ridge Mountains or Amber Fields of Grain anywhere in the School artwork).

3) Somehow, the two artists who most decorate Loring’s walls, Edward Lear and Piet de Jong, are British. Curses. Edit: An art historical approach would talk about how the choice of two British artists stresses American ties to the Mother Country while also reiterating the international nature of the archaeological community in Greece, the fluid boundaries between foreign archaeological schools, etc etc. I tend to think, however, that this was purely coincidence.

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