Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Of Elgin Marbles and Art Glass

by Danielle Forsyth
Hamilton College intern and special to the Weekly Wright-up

Sometimes, I feel like a Greek.

In the Art History classes I have had over the years, the teachers and professors would always spend at least one 50-minute class on the infamous Elgin Marbles. I have heard it so many times in the classroom that
I can almost give you the story by heart:

Lord Elgin was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799–1803, and he had obtained a controversial permission from the Ottoman authorities to remove marble sculptures, inscriptions, and architectural friezes from the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. From 1801 to 1812, Elgin's agents removed about half of the surviving sculptures from the Parthenon. Many thought that Elgin was saving these priceless works from further destruction because for many years the ancient Greek temple laid vacant, exposed to the elements. Others compared Elgin’s actions to vandalism and looting. This sparked a Parliamentary debate which ended with the British Government purchasing Elgin’s entire collection in 1816 and placing it on display in the British Museum, where the marbles are on view to this day
in the custom-built Duveen Gallery.

As I am going through file after file repr
esenting art glass pieces from the Martin House that have ended up in museums all over the world, I recall the story of the Elgin Marbles and the surprising similarities between them and the art glass: these architectural fragments that are not now - and may never be - where they were intended to be. The museums that obtained Martin House art glass for public display did it through absolutely legitimate means and usually consider them to be “gems” in their collections. Yet, I wonder what gets lost when works of art are taken out of their original context. Does a “Tree of Life” window displayed in a museum, with its white-washed walls and artificial lighting, have the same spirit as when you see its cascading reflection on the ceiling in the reception room in the Martin House?

However discouraged I become, seeing Martin House windows built into the walls of museums, discovering in their online collections that they have the art glass shown upside-down, and cringing at the oversight of details such as the spelling of Isabelle Martin (Isabel, Isabella, you name it), I look to one courageous bunch of activists for inspiration: the Greeks. The persistence of these people, hell-bent on uniting the Parthenon marbles in Athens once again, gives me hope for our own plight here at the Martin House. The Greeks have never given up the effort. In order to prove they were ready to have their marbles back, they built a brand-new Acropolis museum (completed in 2008), equipped to hold all of the artifacts that were ever found on the ancient site. And guess what? They have an empty room for t
he sole intention of housing those long-lost marbles taken by Lord Elgin.

The Martin House Restoration Corporation realizes that it will never be able to get back all of the nearly 400 pieces of original art glass, no matter how Greek-like it is, and maybe that’s not such bad thing. The Australian kid who is a Frank Lloyd Wright-enthusiast most likely doesn’t have the means to fly out to Buffalo to view the Martin House. He or she can, however, go to the National Gallery of Australia and see a “Tree of Life” window, study it, appreciate it, and maybe keep a mental note that this Martin House would be a cool place to visit someday.

So, with the Greeks cheering me on, I continue my research on the art glass in public collections and do my best to be a good
ambassador (un-Elgin-like) to the world’s museums.

altered (1909) "Tree of Life" window from the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

1 comment:

Jeff Freeland said...

Dear Danielle
Good points, well made, and excellent observations.
One of my early visits (in the late 80's or early 90's) to the Martin House was with a group of Rochester friends after having seen the "Dominos Pizza" collection of FLLW objects at the Albright-Knox. One of the Tree of Life windows was there in a gallery, isolated, on a pedestal, one source of natural light no where near it, and nothing to be seen on looking through Wright's light screen, except the blank, white, gallery wall.
At that time, one of the Tree of Life windows remained in the Reception Room at the Martin House. It was the one at the immediate left and perpendicular to the front door. Inside, in the corner, was a weeping fig tree, tired but green and living. The context; stone and brick, green window trim, dark oak, gold and iridescent glass flashing and changing as we moved left and right, and especially the ficus growing on the other side of the glass, made the window (and this is not too strong a word) profound and vital. The window in the Albright-Knox was two dimensional in every sense, an excercise in pattern and color, but little more.
Art objects have been moved from their original context and "de-framed" for centuries, often with the intent of expanding access to the object. The latest incarnation is art presented on the internet. But, as you have found, their is no substitute for the real thing. A cliche yes, but not one so commonplace as I would hope.
Good Luck as you finish your schooling and continue your education. You're off to a great start.
Yours sincerely,
Jeff Freeland