NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T his stunted, weird museum season has a sleeper star: Signs and Wonders: The Photographs of John Beasley Greene. It interprets the career of a dead young genius whose specialty was investigating and photographing ancient Egyptian ruins. Greene (1832–1856) worked in photography’s pioneer days when its capacity to document and its potential as art were just starting to ripen.
The show, organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, ran there last fall. I’d heard nothing but praise for it and planned to see it at the Art Institute of Chicago this spring, but, alas, the Art Institute opened in March and then went dark as did the rest of the museum world until the end of July. I finally saw it when I was in Chicago last week, on the day the Institute reopened. Fortunate for me, but it closes this weekend, joining 50 million American children out of school, 40 million jobless, hundreds of millions locked and cowering in their homes, and countless other casualties, large and small, in the reckless, hubristic, and naïve quest to beat a virus a tad more toxic than a bad seasonal flu by trashing the economy and our freedom.
The show’s so beautiful, I wanted a review to be part of my scribbles. And Greene’s death at 24 in Egypt, of what his death certificate calls a “cruelle maladie,” is so sad. As mysterious as so much of his life was, we know he had immense talent.
It’s not a touristical show, though the Pyramids and the Sphinx are there. Most of the sites he considers are places we don’t know. Closer to our time, many of these ruins have been moved or altered to present better and to accommodate tourists. Greene conveys them in the raw, and raw and ungussied are part of their magic. They’re beguiling as much for the sense of first discovery as for their beauty.
First, he needed the technical skills, and as a rich, ambitious savant he was able to hire Gustavo Le Gray (1820–1884), the French photographer who pushed the boundaries of camera technology, transformed the medium as an art form, and taught hundreds of students. Greene photographed the Forest of Fontainebleau, learning from Le Gray not only technology but how to frame a scene much as a painter would. Is the goal of the image to inspire or to document, to disguise or to enhance?
Until this exhibition, Greene was known to Egyptologists and photography nerds but to no one else. He was born in France, the son of an American investment banker whose business was in Paris but mostly in Le Havre, and catered to American expatriates. Greene family wealth allowed the precocious amateur Egyptologist to follow his calling. Egyptology was born when Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1799, courtesy of the small army of French archaeologists and scientists that accompanied the big army of French soldiers. Fifty years on, in Greene’s time, it was still new.
Greene worked with Le Gray in 1852 and 1853. During this period, he also introduced himself to Paris organizations such as the Société Héliographique, the Société Asiatique, and the Académie des Inscriptions et Belle-Lettres, which helped advance his plans to visit Egypt. By early 1854, he was at work in the desert. Greene was always an amateur, but passionate, smart, self-taught amateurs took the place of today’s schooled professionals.
The exhibition is curated for SF MoMA’s brilliant curator of photography, Corey Keller, who wrote the sumptuous, incisive book. Greene’s photographs are ethereal and minimalist on the one hand but packed with focused, miniaturist detail. Much expense and care went to getting his delicate tonalism right. DelMonico Books and Prestel produced the catalogue. By coincidence, they did the Mark Bradford catalogue I complimented in this column a few weeks ago when I reviewed the Mark Bradford show at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Clearly, this is a first-rate outfit.
Greene worked in Egypt at a time when archaeologists dug and catalogued either on their own or with small groups, sometimes part of a research outfit in Europe and sometimes not. He worked alone. He had a method, first photographing ruins from a distance and from all four directions and then focusing on parts. Since his career was so short, his oeuvre is tiny. He returned to Paris in 1854 with 300 negatives from which he selected 200 he then categorized as monuments, landscapes, or inscriptions. He then sequenced them by his trip’s chronology and produced two albums he presented to the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres.
Only a handful of his photographs were exhibited in his lifetime. He made two trips to Egypt, the first in 1854 and the second in 1855, where he worked and photographed, and one in 1856, where he died soon after he arrived. He also went to Algeria in 1855 on a stand-alone trip.
Greene’s devotion to photography was practical as well as aesthetic. Yes, his studies with Le Gray honed his artist’s eye. He also believed that the convenience, speed, and accuracy of photography better served the causes of philology and archeology than an old method of documentation such as on-the-spot drawings made into engravings or paintings. Photographing hieroglyphics was more accurate than copying them, since copyists made mistakes, and quicker than making plaster casts of them. His hieroglyphics sometimes fill the entire image like a flat, abstract painting by Adolph Gottlieb.
Sometimes the photographs suggest secrets just revealed, or still hidden. Ruins of a temple in Ombos are half-buried, with sand up to the base of the pillars’ capitals. A close-up of a portal at the palace of Thutmose III is a big black void framed by unadorned blocks. Decorated portals in El-Assasif stand alone, the rest of the building having disappeared, seeming to wonder “where’s the rest of me?”
Greene’s landscapes are exquisite. Craggy rocks are so focused they seem sharp as axes. Date palms are as slender as the legs of spiders. Here and there colossus figures at Thebes seem to stride toward us. He photographs colossus sculptures close-up, too. Viewed from one angle, a single, isolated colossus at Thebes, all stacked cubes, looks abstract and modern. From another, it’s more organic and limber, like a prehistoric robot.
Greene was American but never was in the United States and probably never saw work by luminist landscapists like John Kensett or Sanford Gifford done in the 1850s but, at least compositionally, Greene and the luminists used the same long, straight horizon lines running from one end of the picture to the other, sometimes with structures or hills puncturing the line, but the emphasis is on an insistent linearity with a big, rectangular patch of earth in the foreground and a big, rectangular sky blank except for gentle shifts in tone. Greene’s most beautiful and purely simple landscapes are in Luxor, where the Nile is in the foreground, a big sky in the background, and in the center a strip of land and low-rising buildings.
Greene conveys the immensity of the desert and a landscape entirely unknown in France — barren, airless, like the surface of the moon. He learned well from Le Gray, and though Fontainebleau could not be more different from the desert, Greene understood the basic mechanisms photography offered to capture light and texture.
Greene’s palette is warm brown and cool gray. This conveyed timelessness in a way painting couldn’t since, in reality, Egyptian landscape was colorful, with bright blue skies and birds. Greene’s distant hills look like strokes of transparent wash, convincing yet dissolving. He wasn’t imitating watercolor or drawing or etching. It’s not mimicry. Greene was juggling documentation with evocation, making specimens into gems.
He was unusual among the early photographers of Egypt in that he didn’t include people in his photographs. He wasn’t isolated — he organized a small team to help him, and many of the sites were in villages, but, mission-driven scientist as he was, he focused on architecture and hieroglyphs. French artists and archeologists working in Europe tended to include the locals in their documentation, sometimes to give viewers a sense of a structure’s scale but, the show tells us, sometimes to present the natives as at best exotic and at worst inferiors.
In 1855, Greene traveled to Algeria, then part of France. There, he documented the excavation of a burial mound from the first century b.c. but also made landscape photographs unrelated to any scientific projects. The burial mound belonged to the daughter of Antony and Cleopatra. Greene used a similar system to arrange his work: distant shots to get a total view but also views of the monument from the four directions and then close-ups.
The exhibition is organized chronologically. There’s a nice, dark gallery showing a group of his plate negatives, which resolve themselves as nocturnes and are wonderfully spooky. The Algerian photographs are in an adjacent gallery. The space isn’t ideal. For years, curators and directors saw photography as a lesser art. Photography scholars were rare and often self-taught, having started in prints or paintings.
Photography galleries reflected this status, and in my curatorial youth they were usually in the basement, next to the bathrooms. Such is still the case at the Art Institute, at least for its focus shows on historic photography. It is what it is, though modern and contemporary photographs are shown in big, spiffy galleries in the new addition. The Greene galleries have ceilings on the low side, but there’s no missing the bathrooms if you need them.
The arrangement is what I call the “Most Wanted” look, rows of photographs evenly spaced like the old “Most Wanted” pictures in post offices. Photography curators often do this, and I wonder why. The galleries suffer from sameness, like a row of dominos. Much as Greene grouped his photographs, I wish the show creates more groupings, using double hangs, too.
It’s a small quibble, and my only one, in a stellar, informative show. Greene died so young, at 24, that we’ll never know what experience, opportunity, and fate might have made of him. He saw himself primarily as an archeologist, not as an artist. We also know his father’s business failed a year after Greene died, and this would have left him broke. Still, we are put on this earth to overcome adversity, as my Episcopalian grandmother said, and with his intelligence and initiative, Greene might have done just that.
Next week, I’ll write about the Art Institute’s El Greco exhibition. Last week, I arrived at the museum at noon on July 30, just as it reopened. It was clear to me that its careful, conscientious press and visitor-services staff went not only the extra mile but many more lengths than that to assure that visitors felt safe and welcomed. They’re detail-oriented and devoted. I appreciated their obvious diligence and concern. As always, the guards were lovely. I hope they all get big pay raises.
Nothing was onerous to the visitor, though I think eliminating paper tickets and cash in favor of virtual reservations and tickets caters to neurotics. We’ll all go crazy if we try to eliminate touch from our daily lives. Everyone seemed to ignore the one-way markers on the floor. I know I did. I’m walking in a museum, not driving a car.
I have to say that, putting aside my basic egalitarianism, I loved the feel of galleries capped at 25 percent of maximum attendance. Generally, during a museum visit I go to places that are empty even when hoards are in the building. These blissfully quiet spaces often cover the Renaissance and Baroque eras and early American art. During my afternoon at the Art Institute, its splendid impressionist galleries, capped at 25 percent, were a pleasure. Even the El Greco show had space to breathe and look.
Signs and Wonders is a big show with many loans so, once dispersed, we won’t see another Greene show for a long time. The project’s for connoisseurs and archeologists, but it’s also for art lovers. The catalogue suits each.