The Relevance of American Western Art

Grand Teton, in Wyoming

During my trip to Wyoming one of my stops were to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West located in Cody. It is a massive museum complex that encompasses five museums; one of which being the Whitney Western Art Museum.

It was dedicated in 1959 to artist Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. She was responsible for creating the Buffalo Bill memorial which sits outside of the Center of the West.

Inside the Whitney you can find over three hundred works of art, mostly displayed in chronological order, from Charlie Russell, Frederic Remington, Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt, and even some recent artists.

As I studied the pieces, I thought about the art history classes that I took and I couldn’t remember if there was a section about Western art. Upon returning back to my home, I cracked opened one of my art history textbooks to look for it.

After a bit of time, I found a small section about Western art, which only mentions Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt. I wondered if perhaps, the author didn’t believe it was that relevant.

I did some digging around about Western art and found that outside of the Smithsonian art museum in D.C., there are around fifteen American Western Art Museums; including the Briscoe Museum in San Antonio Texas which opened in 2013.

If there’s a Western Art museum that opened in 2013, then these types of museums must be popular. I suppose comparing American Western art to, say, the Renaissance or Modern art; wouldn’t hold much weight. Yet, it does to Americans.

As I learned more about the Whitney Western Art museum and Western Art; I realized something. Western Art shows us American history, geography and a glimpse into the lives of Indigenous Peoples.

Yes, there are plenty that are fictional pieces, yet you can’t overlook Charles Russell’s take on the cowboy life and Albert Bierstadt’s vision of the majestic mountains of the Rockies.

American Western art may not have the glamour of Impressionism or the provocation of Dadaism, but it stokes a curiosity of what life was like when the West was wild, the lands were unchanged, and the Native peoples’ history were altered.

Manifest Destiny in Art Works

I recently visited a living history park 4 miles outside of Denver, a 12 acre land with the oldest house and a small farm. It served as a resting spot on the intersecting trails during the mid 1800s, when many were crossing from the East to the West. As I gazed at one of the stage coaches in the dilapitated barn, the words manifest destiny came to mind.

Manifest destiny was the collective belief that Americans were meant to scatter across the West with the mindset of fulfilling their dreams of a better life. History will tell us that it was tainted by the fact that it took a tragic turn with the violent upending of Native Americans from their lands.

Yet, that’s not what I want to talk about, I’m addressing how it influenced artists of that time to create beautiful masterpieces of sweeping landscapes, stunning sunrises and idyllic life.

No one championed the idea of manifest destiny more so than artist Albert Bierstadt. His pieces brought attention to the Western regions, skillfully depicting serene natural settings of majestic mountain ranges, woodland animals and awe-inspiring skies; all used to beckon the viewers forth.

Yet, the best symbolic example of manifest destiny is John Gast’s American Progress, where he depicts America’s female figure, Columbia, leading people across the expanse of the West; with her book of American ideals in hand. It’s not exactly an easy painting to view since you can see she is clearing a path through Native Americans and animals for the ‘dreamers’ to continue.

English artist Thomas Cole found the American countryside appealing unlike many of his colleagues. He may not have been inspired by manifest destiny, yet he was amused with the idea of where America as a society was headed. Cole focused on revealing the unique qualities of America’s natural settings.

Having reached the Western most part of the US, the belief of manifest destiny had died out long ago, so has paintings of realistic landscapes. Not that there haven’t been any landscape artists. The more recent landscape artists incorporate abstract elements.

As dark as that part of history was, it was hard to imagine how, many Americans managed to cross over the Rocky Mountains with horses attached to this huge stage coach. All for a chance on a new life, a new adventure.

Porn and Artful Nudity

One of the most visited pornographic websites, PornHub, is facing charges from the Louvre in France and the Uffizi in Italy. Reason being that they recreated scenes from masterpieces using porn stars, on their site without permission.

Some of the paintings that inspired their suggestive scenes, were Spring (also known as Primavera) by Botticelli and Bacchus by Caravaggio. To top it, PornHub also wrote explicit descriptions of the recreations.

This is all quite scandalous… or is it? Is it offensive or comical? It depends on who you ask. Nudity in art has been around for years and it is always described as a form of beauty in an art setting. Yet, there would be people who would say otherwise. Not to say that it’s all pornographic, that’s on a different level.

Is PornHub being disrespectful by tainting these works of art? Perhaps they were bringing attention the classical arts or trying to bring forward these artworks into the present? Like I had mentioned before, this site is visited often.

Either way, it makes one think about the ideas and issues over nudity and art and what is acceptable and what is not. It’s a thin line that artists tight-rope on a lot of times.

Ultimately, it’s part of a form of expression and that’s what art is all about. Whether PornHub was doing it for art sakes (which I would be surprised if it was) or not; who knows.

I found it funny, that the representative of the Uffizi was stating that PornHub needed to have asked for permission and even if they did they would have declined.

Sound Art: The Next New Art Movement

At the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas; a new project is under way. Funded by art philanthropists Ernest and Sara Butler (a cool 5 millions was dropped) the art installation is set to open to the public in 2022.

Being built by Norwegian based architecture firm, Snøhetta, a sound garden is what is expected to become part of a revitalization mission. It will be set as an open space park, where listeners will stroll through.

What does this sound garden entail? For it’s first commission, a sound artist by the name of Bill Fontana (who started his passion in sound art back in the 50s and 60s) is tasked with traveling across the Bay Area region to record sounds. In his previous project, he had created the SoundScape park in Miami Beach, Florida.

One of Fontana’s goal is to capture the echolocation sounds of bats. Since the sound is not perceptible to the human ear, Fontana will be controlling the sound quality.

The Butler Sound Gallery will be the first of its kind, only specializing in the art form of sounds. Fontana’s installation is expected to be displayed for two years and with the large endowment from the Butlers, there will be future sound commissions to come.

Sound art, also known as sound installation is nothing new. It goes back as far as 1913, where futurist Luigi Russolo invented sound machines to recreate the bang and clang of the industrial revolution.

Not long after that the Dadaists and Surrealists picked up on the medium, spawning such works as Marcel Duchamp’s Erratum Musical and John Cage’s 4’33.” With the advent of digital technology, sound art took a vast transformation; since the technology is there to make it more inventive and creative.

In my area of Denver, artist Jim Green installed grates into the sidewalk of the 16th street mall (a touristy hotspot) and placed recorded sounds underneath. What one hears is not exactly what you would think, since he collected a variety of sounds that range from a lion’s roar to ocean waves. It’s titled Soundwalk like sidewalk; get it?

Recently, Denver musician Divya Maus invented a geolocation software that allows people to listen to different sounds depending on where they are standing in a park. You could be listening to cows mooing under a tree or the music of grasshoppers while sitting on a bench.

Mesopotamia and Persia: The Cradle of Civilization and Big Baby Steps

The Sumerians of Mesopotamia were responsible for many inventions, including writing, the wheel, the plow and the irrigation canals. They also influenced for the next 2,000 years after that the pictorial narrative. The pictorial narrative is scenes depicting a story. We saw a little bit of that with the decorated rooms of Catal Hoyuk.

This change from hunter/gatherer to farmer/herder is called Neolithic Revolution. It first developed in Mesopotamia (“The land between the rivers.” The rivers being the Tigris and Euphrates), which spawned the three great religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Historians and archaeologists have been digging around there since about the 19th century and have excavated exciting goodies.

Museums across Europe and North America began stocking up on Mesopotamian art, starting with hunting and warfare reliefs and statues of winged bulls with a man’s head. The most significant find was a treasure trove of gold items, jewelry, artworks, and musical instruments. The excavation was led by archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley in the 1920s at the Royal Cemetery at Ur in southern Iraq. This discovery rivaled that of King Tutankhamen in 1922.

Sumerians created independent city-states (if you’re wondering what this is, it’s a city with surrounding territories), each protected by Mesopotamian gods. The rulers of each city-state were the mortal representatives of the gods, and they also were keepers of the goods, the rich kind. They also dealt in city management, such as the building of canals and food distribution.

As you can see, besides the invention of writing and farming, the Sumerians created the first type of government. Which as I remember it, Disney World’s Spaceship Earth fail to mention. I only remember them mentioning writing, which only stuck because I’ve ridden the ride thousands of times.

Now to get to the art part, and there’s no art without some history. In each city-state were temples that played a central role in the lives of the Sumerians. They were a city inside a city, similar to the Vatican City. One of the ones found was the White Temple at Uruk; it is well-preserved and is 5,000 years old. It is remarkable because it has not eroded along with the other buildings since it is made with the same material – mud.

Archaeologists believe that the White Temple was the worshipping site for Anu, the sky god. The rooms where the priests and high-ranking individuals would hang out were considered “waiting rooms.” They were waiting for God to descend upon them; there might have been no roof to the White Temple.

 A marble head of a female was found in Uruk, leading archaeologists to believe that it is the head of Inanna, a goddess that the Sumerians worshipped. The back of the head is flat, and there are drill marks and a grove on the crown of the head, where a wig would have been fitted. It was attached to a body, yet the stone body was never found. 

The city-states weren’t neighborly and were constantly at war, documented on the Stele of the Vultures, found in Girsu. A Stele is a slab of carved stone that depicts historical events. It is covered in cuneiform (no, it’s not a foot bone, but an ancient language), and it’s not the first of its kind. The Egyptians had made their own three centuries earlier, and I will get into that later in a different blog post.

The reason behind the name comes from the relief showing vultures carrying off the heads of defeated enemies at the end of the war of Eannatum, the ruler of Lagash. The relief is similar to the Neolithic deer hunters in that it is composed of frontal and profile views. One can see an infantry with shields and spears. You can also see Eannatum on one size larger than the other soldiers, showing his power and fearlessness.

Finding the Stele of the Vultures gave archaeologists a glimpse into the life of the Sumerians, particularly the social issues between the city-states and their warfare. It is among many reliefs and artifacts to come, where ancient people recorded their history. The historians believe that the images on the Stele were the start of conceptual representation, where the figures are done in realistic poses. In other words, if an artist were to paint a figure in profile, they had to hide the limbs from the other side because then it would like an octopus person.

Ur, the wealthy city and home of biblical Abraham, had a massive burial ground that the archaeologist named the Royal Cemetery of Ur. It was an exquisite find since what was found were treasures made of gold and lapis lazuli, such as helmets, bowls, and musical instruments. During the third millennium, the leading families of Ur were buried with their luxurious items.

Among the items found in the Royal Cemetery were the Standard Of Ur, a wooden box covered in shell, lapis lazuli, and red limestone. Because of its shape, it was believed that it was a military standard. If you ask me, it looks more like a rectangle. On the two long sides of the box, there are narratives carved. On one side, it has a war procession complete with foot soldiers and chariots; the other side is of a lavish banquet and a musician using a bull-headed harp.

The harp seen on the Standard was a fragmentary harp found on the same site in the tomb of Lady Pu-abi. Besides the wooden frame, gold leaf and lapis lazuli are inlaid on the bullhead and wood. It is an extraordinary musical piece seen at the British Museum; I remember standing before it and imagining it being played.

Lady Pu-abi’s remains were found with a headdress and jewelry made of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, carnelian, and agate. Next to her body were three cylinder seals. A cylinder seal is a cylindrical piece of stone engraved with a cuneiform script. It is made by rolling an engraved stone over clay which would leave behind an impression. One of them had Lady Pu-abi’s name on it. The others have shown scenes from her life.

In 2332 BCE, Sumer went under new management and fell under the arrogant reign of Sargon of Akkad (if the word Sargon, meaning true king, doesn’t describe his arrogance well; then I don’t know what does). He brought with him their language, Akkadian, yet used the Sumerian cuneiform for writing. All the power went to Sargon the Akkad, instead of the city-states, as it was before he took over. His grandson, Naram-Sin, was no different; he decided to call himself the King of Four Quarters – ruler of the earth. This man had a god complex.

Naram-Sin had a Stele made to commemorate his defeat of the Lullubi people of the East Iranian mountains. It had two inscriptions, one honoring Naram-Sin and the other naming the Elamite king who took over Sippar in 1157 BCE. The Elamite king had taken the Stele to Susa in southwestern Iran as a prize.

A copper head of one of the Akkadian kings was found in Nineveh, which is now Kuyunjik, Iraq. It was part of a statue, and it was knocked over sometime when the Medes peopled stormed the area in 612 BCE; the eyes were gouged out to make a political statement. It has these patterns reflecting the person’s beard and hat. It is one of the oldest life-size hollow-cast heads found.

The Third Dynasty of Ur rolled in around 2150 BCE, pushing out the Akkadians, done by the mountain people, the Gutians, and then pushing the Gutians out by the Sumerians. The Sumerians still had some fights in them. During this period, the ensi (ruler) of Lagash, Gudea, had commissioned a statue of himself with inscriptions. To show how prestigious he was, he had it made diorite. Diorite is one of the hardest stones to carve on. He also made sure that the viewer knew it was diorite by adding an inscription that said so.

Unfortunately, the rise of the Sumerians was a short period where the Elamites took over the governing city-states came back into play. One of these city-states was Babylon, run by the famous king Hammurabi. Hammurabi is known for his laws that influenced societies to come. There were punishments for all sorts of crimes, from murder to cutting a neighbor’s tree. He sure thought of everything.

Hammurabi had a Stele made with his laws carved and the image of the sun god Shamash and himself standing before the God. The unique thing about the Stele is that it was the first hint at foreshortening. Foreshortening is when there is depth in an art piece by making the figure or object pose at an angle instead of in profile or frontal.

Another one bit the dust when it came to the Babylonian Empire. Overrun by the Hittites, Anatolian people, Babylon was left for the Kassites. East of Babylon was Elam, a city mentioned in the Bible; its capital was Susa (present-day Iran). Here, archaeologists found painted pottery dating back to the Neolithic age. These Elamites were cheeky enough to steal the stelae of Naram-Sin and Hammurabi as war prizes.

In Susa, the life-sized bronze and copper statue of Queen Napir-Asu was found. Queen Napir-Asu was the wife of King Untash-Napirisha, a great Elamite king. Its core is bronze, and the outside is covered in a copper shell. The statue was found in a temple where it was meant to stay immovable. An inscription on the sculpture read that whoever mutilated it would be cursed by the gods. Pretty serious.

Next up on the society list are the Assyrians, who pushed over the Elamites in 641 BCE. Assyrian is derived from the name of Assur, named after the God Ashur, located in Zagros (northern Iraq). The Assyrians became a massive empire.

They built fortified citadels instead of palaces since they had a ‘join us or die’ mentality. One of them was the Palace of Sargon II. It was ‘guarded’ by guardian figures and decorated with murals and relief sculptures. The guardians are man-headed, winged bulls (a Lamassu).

Not much is left of the Assyrian dynasty, except for a panel from the Palace of Ashurnasirpal II. It depicted King Ashurnasirpal II and his customary homage to the gods. The panel was made with glazed brick, which is probably why it survived. There were also reliefs found within the walls of Ashurnasirpal’s palace, many of which depicted Assyrian life, specifically hunting. Many were found in another palace of King Ashurbanipal, not to be confused with the other guy with a similar name.

The Assyrian empire ended with Ashurbanipal, where they were constantly being attacked by the Medes and the remaining people of Babylon. This takes us to Neo-Babylonia and Persia.  

Moving onto Babylon, part of the great Achaemenid Empire, which encompassed the region from the Indus river in South Asia to the Danube river in northeastern Europe around 480 BCE. Achaemenid would have added southeastern Europe if it weren’t for those resilient Persians. After the death of the last line of Achaemenid, Darius III, the empire fell to Alexander the Great.

A vast institute of knowledge was built in the citadel of Persepolis, set on a high plateau and fortified to include a royal audience hall and other official buildings. A nice spot to have an engaging debate about politics and history.

Of course, it was also a sight to behold complete with guarding man-headed winged bulls (griffins) and columns; thirty-six to be exact. The columns were part of the audience hall, apadana, which could house 10,000 guests. There are reliefs that cover the terrace walls depicting royal processions.

The Persian art style is a confluence of artistic views from Persia, Mesopotamia, and the Mediterranean. Even Darius I boasted having a impressive line of artists, naming Medes, Egyptians, Babylonians and Ionian Greeks as part of his team.

Besides having top notch artists and sculptures, the Achaemenid kings knew how to through a great party when they entertained guests. Instead of using paper plates and cups they showed off with gold and silver dinnerware. When Alexander the Great took over Persepolis he found plenty of pretty, expensive stuff, like a rhyton; a pouring vessel with an animal hammered (repoussé) onto it (protome). Don’t worry there won’t be a quiz for all of these fancy words at the end.

After Alexander the Great took over Persia in 330 BCE, it followed Greek and then Roman rule. Shortly after that the empire of the Sasanians rose to power. These people were direct descendants of the Achaemenid kings, and you thought that was the end of that for the Achaemenids.

One significant part of the Sasanian rule was the Palace of Shapur I in Ctesiphon, which is near modern Baghdad in Iraq. Shapur I was the son of the first king of the New Persian Empire and he had the palace built with an iwan, an audience hall, and a series of reliefs that show the capturing of the Roman emperor Valerian in 260.

The reign of the New Persian Empire stood for 400 years until the Arabs pushed them out of Mesopotamia in 636 BCE. Next blog post we’ll check out the Egyptians.

The Advent of Immersive Art

The other day I stood in line with my husband for a ride in Elitch Gardens, situated in downtown Denver. The idea of the ride is like no other, yet the actual ride mechanics was like a typical haunted house ride with a boxcar to sit in.

Its concept and creation came from Meow Wolf, an art collective stationed out of Santa Fe, New Mexico. They have permanent art installations in Santa Fe, Las Vegas, and now in Denver. Besides the ride, they are planning on another permanent residence.

On the ride’s official website, which is called Kaleidoscape, they bill it as being a thrill ride. It’s not a roller coaster; heck, it doesn’t even go fast. The ride is similar to Buzz Lightyear’s boxcar ride in Disney World. There is a light gun that you use to shoot at triangular lit bullseyes.

My husband and I didn’t understand the point of the guns, even though we used them because there was no scoring system. It wasn’t until I read about it that there is a backstory to the art installation amusement park ride. The guns have “semi-quantum technology” where they are used to guide a light source in becoming a “hyper being.”

Lately, I’ve been reading art news about interactive or immersive art installations, either permanent or traveling, particularly in my city. Interactive art is nothing new; back in the 60s, Yoko Ono gave guests a chance to cut pieces of her clothing in her art performance, Cut Piece. There was also Yard by Allan Kaprow, where guests had to walk overused tires.

Immersive art is on a new level or, that is, the next level.  Instead of using items for engagement, you are in the art. In this case, with Kaleidoscape, we were in the art installation and interacting with high-tech guns.

In each megacity in the US, local artists are experimenting with their installation of immersive art. In 2019, there was Natura Obscura by Denver artists Jennifer Mosquera and Eric Jaenike, a dream-like maze for guests. There was also Camp Christmas by Lonnie Hanzon, a landscape of Christmas wonders.

In a couple of months, Denver will be hosting the ever-popular Immersive Van Gogh, where guests will be invited to step into the art of Vincent Van Gogh. The use of projectors and wide screens give the illusion that you’re inside his paintings. Tickets are a bit pricey, but I’ve been told it’s worth it.

The next trending immersive art installation is by New York City artist Alois Kronschlaeger titled Kind of Blue, where guests enter a blue tent-like structure held up by wood, which changes as the blue fabric moves. It is temporarily being viewed in Manhattan, New York.

My Trip to the Art Institute of Chicago and the Search for Water

Mike Burgquist

Recently I took a five-day trip to Chicago, Illinois with my husband and one of our stops was to the Art Institute of Chicago. It was a highlight for me during the trip, for my husband – not so much. It balanced out because the week before I had to commit two hours straight of gameplay for his gaming channel.

I had goosebumps as I entered the museum since it’s one of the premiere art museums in the world. Founded in 1879, it served as a museum and a school of fine arts and sits on the homelands of the Council of the Three Fires.

The Council of the Three Fires are the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi peoples. Chicago was and still is home to Native Americans because of the federal urban relocation policies. Much of the land that it sits on was turned into a landfill containing remnants from the Chicago Fire.

Just in time for the World’s Columbian Fair in 1893, the Art Institute found it’s place where it is now on Michigan Avenue and Adam Street, not too far from the shoreline of Lake Michigan. You are greeted by two bronze lions as you walk in through the same entrance that many guests before had gone.

The building is done in the Beaux Arts style, combining French neoclassicism with Gothic and Renaissance elements. A style that originated from Paris, France. Recently, it had added a Modern Wing by Renzo Piano. The museum houses masterpieces from such artists as Monet, Diego Rivera and de Kooning.

I found it a bit overwhelming halfway through the tour, there is so much to see and read. Catching the suggested highlights from the map is a great way to pace yourself if you only have a couple of hours. My awe-inspiring moments were viewing George Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte and the Medieval department with its armor and weaponry.

The Seurat was bigger than I expected. You get the dimensions of these art pieces in an art history book, yet it’s not the same when you actually see it.  I tried imagining how he did his style of pointillism on this piece of work and it boggled me. The displayed armor renewed my romantic, fantastical imagination I would have when I read about King Arthur and Camelot.

We also viewed the Monet and Chicago exhibit, a temporary exhibit on Claude Monet and how his works had an impact on Chicago. If you’re a fan of Monet, this is an exhibit to see. You’ll be able to see many of his famous works, such as his Stack of Wheat series and Water Lily Pond and his lesser known works such as, Branch of the Seine and Apples and Grapes.

Now you must be wondering why I mentioned about searching for water, not too long into the tour of the Art Institute I started getting thirsty. They didn’t have the water fountains on, their café was closed and I had left my water bottle behind. At one point I found myself drinking out of the restroom sink. If it wasn’t for this problem, I would have stayed longer in the museum. TIP: if you’re traveling here or any museum for that matter during this time, bring a water bottle and wear comfortable shoes.

Netflix’s “This is a Robbery: World’s Biggest Art Heist:” (The Mystery Continues)

I binge-watched the rest of the episodes of This is a Robbery while recovering from the side effects of the COVID vaccine – dose two. There is a possibility that I wasn’t entirely paying attention since my mind was in a fog and my body was playing tricks on me. (Hot? Cold? Both?) The series only has four episodes, and they’re about an hour-long—enough back and forth about the mafia, the FBI, and thieves. Wait… is this still about art?

It was amusing to learn that the heist was not small when it came to the extent of the mafia’s involvement. I guess that’s what makes it big, still not the world’s biggest if you ask me. The gist of the series, which I would suggest watching, is that two individuals dressed as Boston cops got away with stealing 13 pieces of art from the Isabel Gardner museum on March 18th, 1990.

In the first episode, it seemed like an inside job involving one of the security guards and two robbers. It was funny to see how many of the interviewees were throwing the “hippie” security guard under the bus by pointing out all this funny business he was doing, especially on that night. The series took a turn, where the witnesses were pointing out things that were fishy about the police, like missing evidence and inaccurate descriptions of the robbers. That does seem to be quite fishy.

The FBI was interested in a known art thief/ local rock and roll singer who had stolen from another location. Yet the kicker was that he was in prison when the Gardner museum robbery happened. So, he had a break, sort of; he was in jail after all.

Then the next couple of episodes was like watching the Goodfellas. Apparently, there was a crew of mobsters run by a Godfather-type figure who was into thefts, petty crimes, and possible murders. Many of them were in and out of jail. One by one, the FBI watched and followed them. Nothing much turned up, and it didn’t help that slowly they all died mainly by homicide.

In the end, the paintings supposedly ended up floating around between Maine and Connecticut. One of the leads took the FBI back to the art thief and an associate of his, who claimed to know where the art pieces were. He had a game with the press and FBI, where he would send pictures to the media, and he actually took one of the reporters to a warehouse and showed him a painting.

This is where things get foggy for me, and perhaps it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the COVID vaccine side effects. I thought for a moment; the FBI found the art; they’re going to bust down the doors of that warehouse and confiscate everything. Yet, it didn’t happen. There was nothing there, all gone.

There was yet another lead that took the FBI to another mobster; well, he was actually a wanna-be who cooked for them. They loved his special marinara sauce, which might have been a truth serum because the mobsters would tell him all their dirty little secrets. This made him very desirable to the FBI. Ultimately, the FBI raided his house but came up with nothing – again.

That was the last big lead, until 2013 when the FBI claimed that they knew the names of the robbers of the Isabel Gardener museum. It seemed like there was more movement happening with the case. The funny thing is, they never mentioned the names. Names can’t be said on an ongoing case. After that there was nothing else. The reward still stands at $10 million, and the FBI incessantly receives tips from all over the world.

Maybe the use of social media would help to find the art. I’d hate to think it’s all gone forever.

Netflix’s “This is a Robbery: World’s Biggest Art Heist” (Is the Title an Exaggeration?)

Two episodes into the docuseries This is a Robbery: World’s Biggest Art Heist, I get a sense that it seems to be overly exaggerated and dramatic. Not to say that it didn’t happen, just the little details seem off. First of all, is it really the world’s biggest art heist? I decided to dig a little.

Besides the famous robberies of the Mona Lisa and The Scream, both of which were returned, there is the plundering of European Art done by the Nazis between 1933-1945. Twenty percent of European art were stolen for Hitler to either put into his Fuhrer museum or to destroy because he deemed it unworthy to exist. The most notable being the theft of the Amber Room of the Catherine Palace near St. Petersburg in Russia. Sculptures and other items were taken, never to be seen again. People have theorized that they were bombed, sunken with a submarine, or buried.

Even before World War II ended, a massive campaign started to recover and return these art pieces. Yet, by 1994, there were still 100,000 pieces missing, and 16 of the 40 top paintings were recovered. Then in 1997, the National Jewish Museum renewed the efforts in retrieving the pieces through a program they had established. In conjunction with the National Jewish Museum and the National Archives, they began pouring over the photographs and records taken of War Crimes.

In the early 2010s, a trove of 1,280 paintings was discovered being squirreled away in Germany by a recluse named Hildebrand Gurlitt. He had inherited these paintings from his father, who was a big-name art dealer. Gurlitt kept these paintings believing that he was a ‘steward’ and was protecting. A website was created for claimants to come forth, and towards the end of his life, Gurlitt attempted to thwart the authorities from confiscating the art.

Let’s not forget the countless thefts of archaeological artifacts and artworks, all done primarily on online trading markets. Last year alone, Interpol, Europol, and WCO (World Customs Organization) seized 19,000 stolen items and arrested 101 people in conjunction with these thefts. This was the second time that these organizations worked together to thwart these art thieves.

If you were to combine these two robberies, wouldn’t it be much bigger than the theft of 13 paintings from a museum in Boston? What I’m trying to get at is that the title of the docuseries is not true. Obviously, there have been bigger thefts.

I plan on watching the rest of the episodes. The show is intriguing, but I’m trying to figure out if it’s because it’s more like a show or a true accounts telling of an art robbery.

UPDATE: Recently a French heiress dropped her fight with the University of Alabama over her right to claim back a painting by Danish-French artist Camille Pissaro; which was one of the paintings stolen by the Nazis. The heiress had lost relatives during the Holocaust and was adopted by a couple; they were the ones that had owned the painting. Facing legal threats from the university and the fact that she had signed a document (“under duress”) indicating that she had agreed on donating the piece to them, she had no choice but to drop the case. Another art casualty in the recovery of the Nazi-looted masterpieces.

Stone Age Art: Art Made of Stone? Part 2

We’re taking a giant leap into 7000 BCE, the Neolithic age, where great societies emerged in Anatolia and Mesopotamia (what is now Turkey and Syria/Iraq). One of those was Jericho, which laid on a plateau in the Jordan River Valley. The citizens built mud-brick houses, farmed, and constructed a walled fortification. Eventually, the people abandoned Jericho giving way to new settlers who built larger rectangular structures with painted floors and walls. It is believed that they were shrines because archaeologists had found figurines of animals and women.

These people would bury their dead underneath their homes, but not before claiming the skulls for themselves. They took these skulls and adorned them with seashells for eyes and plaster to fill in the gaps. There was one found that had a painted-on mustache. The heads found constituted the first known gallery of portraits. Of course, later, they just painted people before their passing. Archaeologists believe the purpose of the skulls was for ritualistic beliefs in the connection between their ancestors and the afterlife. They thought that the dead had power over the living.

Another ancient settlement was the Ain Ghazal, near what is now the capital of Jordan, Amman. From 7200 to 5000 BCE, the citizens built stone houses with floors and walls made with plaster. What was found there by archaeologists were caches of about three dozen statuettes and busts made of plaster. Oddly, some of the busts had two heads. The white plaster covered the core; it was made up of reeds and twine mixed with bitumen (some tar-like liquid). They stand out (literally) from the Venus of Willendorf and the Hohlenstein-Stadel figures by their sizes, most of which are 3 feet tall. This started off the history of large-scale sculptures in the land of Mesopotamia.

Looking back to wall paintings, in the ancient city of Catal Hoyuk, which flourished between 6500 – 5700 BCE, painted hunting scenes were found in decorated rooms. The murals are vastly different from the Paleolithic cave paintings in that humans were added to the scene and seen in groups; with different poses. The idea of narration is vital because archaeologists have found human interactions with animals and their need for dominance over them, viewed in all Neolithic art. The Catal Hoyuk mural tells the story of a hunting party complete with discernable facial features and weapons in hand, chasing after red deer.

At this point, there was a shift from the Paleolithic art style to the Neolithic art style. If you take anything away from this article to understand better Paleolithic and Neoliothic’s difference, understand that in Neolithic, the painters used paint brushes and would prepare the wall for painting. One of the unique finds, which dates back to 6150 BCE, is the landscape mural found in one of the decorated rooms in Catal Hoyuk. It’s the world’s first landscape image and had remained one of a kind for thousands of years. Archaeologists determined that it was a mural of the city with wobbling squares depicting homes. In the background, a twin-peaked volcano can be seen erupting.

Hopping over to Europe, there was plenty of Paleolithic imagery to be seen, but it didn’t change over to Neolithic. Around 4000 BCE, many European communities constructed monuments with enormous stones as high as 17 feet and weighing 50 tons. Historians gave them the name Megaliths, and instead of categorizing them as Neolithic, they are known as Megalithic.

The oldest known megalithic monument is in Newgrange, Ireland, and it dates to 3200 BCE. It is a funerary monument with a passage grave into a burial chamber under a tumulus (sounds like a cloud, but it’s not); a burial mound.

As a curious tourist, I had entered the burial mound and walked the long passage. It is a tight passage into a small dark chamber. Not for people who have claustrophobia. I do consider myself claustrophobic, but it was a chance I didn’t want to let go. The experience was both awe-inspiring and humbling. You can feel how ancient the mound was, and you get a view of how light would enter the passageway into the chamber during the winter solstice. The fascinating part of the chamber is looking up and seeing the corbeled dome. The megaliths were placed strategically to be held up by their weight. You will also spy decorated stones with spirals incised with a tool.

The burial mounds of Newgrange aren’t the only ones. There are others in England, France, Spain, and Scandinavia. A true testimony to the significance of honoring the dead during Neolithic times. By the fourth millennium, Neolithic peoples had gone as far as Skara Brae in the Orkney Islands and to the far south in Malta.

In Malta, in a place called Hagar Qim, a megalithic temple was built between 3200 and 2500 BCE. The architects built the temple by stacking stones in horizontal rows, called courses. Doors were done in a post-and-lintel system—kind of like what you would do as a child with wooden blocks. Upright stones were posts, and horizontal stones were the lintel. What was found inside the temple were altars and headless nude women. It was indeed an early stage in sophistication.

The most famous of all of the megalithic monuments is Stonehenge in Salisbury Plain, England. The backstory on Stonehenge is remarkable. First, I’ll explain what the word means. Henge means a circular arrangement of stones and stone… well, you should know what that means. The stones are either sarsen, a type of sandstone and bluestones, volcanic rocks. The middle encompasses a ring of bluestones surrounding a horseshoe of three-stone constructions; trilithons. Standing on its own is a heel stone, a tiny nub of a stone to indicate where the sun would rise when it was the summer solstice. Don’t worry; there’s no quiz at the bottom of this post.

Backstory and this includes recent discoveries, is that Stonehenge is a funerary sight. For many years, archaeologists weren’t entirely sure. It was built in stages taking up hundreds of years and different generations of people.

I had visited both Stonehenge and the newly discovered items on exhibit at the local natural history museum. When you visit the site, you are not as close as you would like, but you do get to walk around it. As you walk, you notice that mounds are surrounding you and the megalithic monument. You start to imagine what ancient life was like and what they did in the center of Stonehenge.

At the exhibit, animal and human bones found at Stonehenge were on display, along with tools and flints. There are also models to show how these people could take these large stones from a long distance away to where it stands now.