John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s fantasy world Middle-earth had been decades in the making before The Hobbit was published in 1937. An orphan by age 12, Tolkien cradled a pure, child-like imagination his whole life. He began creating the language of his Elves when he was a teenager, he illustrated fantasy worlds in striking watercolor paintings that would influence his vision for Middle-earth’s landscapes, and he began writing lore for the nascent world in a unique, arabesque script that closely resembled that of his deceased mother. Until May 12, these manuscripts, paintings, and other personal items of the author are on view at the Morgan Library in New York City, in its captivating exhibit “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth.” It has drawn crowds of fans eager to see the genesis of The Lord of the Rings—last century’s most influential and beloved fantasy series described by Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis as “a lightning bolt from a clear sky.”
Watching two people argue about art is like watching two people try to ice-skate uphill. It happens often at the New York Museum of Modern Art, where visitors can tend to bring friends whose interest in abstract art is weakened by seeing abstract art. The MOMA has reignited debates about aesthetics and art with its Constantin Brancusi Sculptures exhibit, which arranges 11 sculptures that have never before been exhibited together. Brancusi (1876-1957) knew his abstract sculptures and those of his friends—Marcel DuChamp was one of them—would not always be welcomed by critics, but he couldn’t have known that his work would also lead the United States to reconsider what its law constituted as “art.”
Berthe Morisot was the only woman to show paintings at the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874. She first exhibited her work at the Paris Salon in 1864, at 23 years old, after studying under Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. And one year after her death from pneumonia in 1895, a tribute retrospective was held for her at the Durand-Ruel gallery, with her peers (and fans) Degas and Renoir curating her works. Now, the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia has a retrospective of Morisot, titled “Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist,” that runs until Jan. 14. The title of the exhibit makes one well aware that the artist’s gender had as much of an effect on the way she was viewed in her own life as she is viewed currently. It is still important, however, to judge a painting on the skill of the painter and the effect of the painting itself, rather than the struggles the painter faced to produce it.
“Andy Warhol is like the Beatles,” a family friend said to me. “It doesn’t matter whether you like them or not.” They are such large presences on the cultural landscape that they seem impervious to criticism. We were strolling through the sprawling exhibit “Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, open until March 31. Warhol, like the Beatles, was a cultural phenomenon, omnipresent in his place in time, and he still manages to hold unwavering relevance 31 years after his death. Time itself has much to do with not only his art but his posthumous popularity, considering our continuing interest in the raucous ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s—decades he ruled over with mystifying endurance and celebrity. The Whitney provides a startling abundance of his work, but its younger visitors will learn little about the man or his life. Warhol is turning mythic.
The 20th century German theologian Karl Barth once said that woman “is in her whole existence an appeal to the kindness of man.” Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875) saw in women something more—a side of them undefined by the male gaze—and captured this in his portraits of women that can be seen in the National Gallery’s exhibit “Corot: Women,” open until Dec. 31. Perhaps this is because his stalwart mother provided the primary source of income for his family with a substantial dowry and her successful milliner shops in Paris. From his early years, he recognized that some women could seize a sense of independence that many were denied. His portraits of women convey dignity and strength, not a Barthian fantasy of seduction or feudal delicacy.
The Guggenheim Museum in New York City is selling ouija boards, tarot cards, and a beginner’s guide to astrology “for the modern mystic.” The occasion for such oddities in a prestigious art museum’s gift shop is the Guggenheim’s latest retrospective exhibit, Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future, which is open until April 23. The Guggenheim stipulates that the Swedish artist and spiritualist was the true pioneer of the peak abstract movement, which is normally attributed to Kandinsky or Mondrian. It is a fair argument: Af Klint (1862-1944) made radically abstract paintings a decade before Kandinsky strayed from representational work. But she left specific instructions that her paintings never be shown until 20 years after she died. The world wasn’t ready for them—at least, that’s what her spirit guides told her.
Eugene Delacroix bucked whenever he was labeled a romanticist. “I am a pure classicist,” he insisted. That could come as a surprise: He is often called the leader of the romanticist genre that spread through the first half of the 19th century. While both movements celebrate the past, romanticism is unbridled while classicism is reserved. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit Devotion to Drawing: The Karen B. Cohen Collection of Eugène Delacroix, a preview for a far larger retrospective opening Sept. 17, shows that Delacroix managed to embody both. His commitment to “pure” classicism led to a romanticist style, however unintentional.
DETROIT—”Please refrain from trying to wear any of the artworks,” the docent tells me as I enter “Star Wars™ and the Power of the Costume,” on view at the Detroit Institute of Art until Sept. 30.
It’s a reasonable request: Even though “Star Wars” resides in one of the most prestigious galleries in the United States, this isn’t really an art exhibition. It’s a nerd-out—$24 for an hour with the industrial lights and magic of Lucasfilm’s costume designers. Who among the droves of children and twenty-somethings here today isn’t tempted to try on a couple outfits?
As Burning Man comes to an end this weekend, wealthy hippies and counterculture types will soon leave the Black Rock Desert in Nevada and return to normal society, perhaps with a newfound sense of community or maybe some new enlightenment. Or a police record for drug possession. The festival is known for many things—heavy drug use not least among them—like its themes of “radical inclusion,” the celebrities it attracts—noted miniature submarine enthusiast Elon Musk is a regular attendee—and of course the tradition that gives it its name, the burning of an enormous effigy of a man. But as this secular mecca has grown in popularity, another of its elements has taken on greater importance: the art installations that fill the desert before being set ablaze like the Man.
Let’s face it, most books that come along with art exhibits usually are too academically strenuous and boring for laymen. A lot of people buy them for the pictures. But Katie Hanson’s Klimt and Schiele Drawings, a companion guide to a just-concluded exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, breaks the mold. Hanson, the assistant curator of Paintings and Art of Europe at the MFA, writes with style, simplicity, and—even more rare—a goal for her readers. She wants you to learn how to admire and experience art the way Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele hoped we would.