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Copley and West: American Adversaries

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What do an Egyptian mummy, Native American tribes of North America and the Revolutionary War have in common? One correct answer would be the paintings of 18th century American artists John Singleton Copley and Benjamin West. The truly stunning exhibit American Adversaries: West and Copley in a Transatlantic World is on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston until January 20, 2014.

This display of incredible art and artifacts of the late 18th century was curated by a couple of women, each of whom did their dissertations on one of the two artists. Emily Ballew Neff (Copley scholar) is the curator of American painting and sculpture and Kaylin Weber (West scholar) is a co-curator in the same department. During the media preview Neff commented on how Weber’s research turned up previously unknown facts about West and his amazing collection of old masters.

West and Copley had both emigrated to England, West in the 1760s and Copley much later on the eve of the Revolutionary War. Both men achieved success as painters for the court of King George III and were good friends. But after a series of events they ended up bitter rivals and the two never spoke to one other afterwards, an animosity that resulted in their respective wives unfriending each another. Viewed as Loyalists, West and Copley never returned to America.

On view are paintings that made the men famous, including two works of art that have not been seen together in the same exhibit for over 60 years, West’s The Death of General Wolfe and Copley’s Watson and the Shark. In their day it was common for an artist to make many versions of the same painting and thus Watson and the Shark is the actual original while The Death of General West is an authorized reproduction that’s smaller in scale than the original (even so it’s wall sized). Neff points out that the shark in Watson and the Shark was modified after the original and the painting hanging on the MFAH wall has an extra fin not seen in subsequent versions.

One painting by West deserves its own paragraph. Death on the Pale Horse (1796) just demands that you stare at its ghastly shapes for several minutes, there’s even a couch nearby. A little larger than a sideways movie one-sheet the images conjure rapture and death. At the bottom of the right side are a dead bird and snake. At the center is a naked man with his right arm extended to the heavens. All around him is a cavalcade of death, warriors on horseback chased by demons, innocents about to be torn apart by wild beasts. The eyes of all the animals and humans (and demons) seem to be glistening with either fright or delight. Maybe West was aware of his contemporary Goya since some of the imagery would be appropriate in that Spaniard’s work, although there’s also the possibility that it was West who influenced Goya. There’s also a hint of the surreal possibilities of epic movie battles. It’s as if West had seen the future of art and horror and merely translated what he saw. I was struck by the title, which reminded me of a 1967 western called Death Rides a Horse, a fairly obscure title regulated to film history for the line uttered by Lee Van Cleef: “Revenge is a dish best served cold.”

Both Copley and West were innovators and used many materials to recreate the look and sheen of paint used by the old masters, thus the reference to ground mummy parts that were used to achieve a brown varnish. Additionally the exhibit includes items from the era that would’ve been inspirational in the creation of some of the paintings; items like Indian talismans or bracelets. Perhaps the most striking sight is a tomahawk that’s also a pipe. Shining with a glean like it’s brand new (museum quality) the blade of the tomahawk appears deadly while its base has the bowl of the pipe with the stem and mouthpiece forming its long handle. You can just imagine a brave taking a long toke after a hard day of scalping the new world order. Incidentally weapons like this coined phrases such as “bury the hatchet and smoke the peace pipe.”

Other artists like Titian and Gilbert Stuart are represented here to show their influence on various paintings. Copley and West were generous in their portrayal of not just historical subjects but also Negros and Indians. After the last gallery there’s also an interactive room with video displays, comfortable chairs and the exhibit catalogue.

In another gallery on another floor of the same building is the exhibit Koloman Moser: Designing Modern Vienna 1897 – 1907. Today Moser is overshadowed by his collaborator Gustav Klimt, yet this small and intimate exhibit sets the record straight. Moser was a mover and shaker and his designs, art and furniture brought Vienna into the age of 20th century design with a vengeance. Moser was the foremost member of the Vienna Secession movement and a co-founder of the Wiener Werkstätte and the objects on display testify to that fact. The Moser exhibit runs until January 12, 2014.

- Michael Bergeron

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