To the Editor:
For one who writes on politics and culture, the necessity of combining the two must be the sine qua non of his profession; otherwise, it is difficult to understand the rationale of Richard Ryan’s article on the “Circa 1492” exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. [“1492 and All That,” May]. Most of the arguments seem to reflect Mr. Ryan’s personal tastes, and the questions he raises neither concern nor are relevant to the general public, nor, for that matter, to a more informed audience.
Of the “Circa 1492” exhibition, Mr. Ryan notes: “Full-page advertisements . . . ran in newspapers around the country; the usual cottage industry of calendars and gift cards was quickly in evidence.” Yes, in order to make the public aware of an important exhibition, advertising is a necessity in the modern museum world which endeavors to cater to “capacity crowds” rather than to a small elite. The “blockbuster” exhibition is a highly debatable topic among museum directors and curators, but a good many of these exhibitions have become landmarks of museum achievement in curatorship and scholarship. They provide the public with an opportunity to view works within contexts previously unknown and see art that it would otherwise have no occasion to see at all. . . . To shrug off the “mammoth” exhibition altogether and absolutely is, at the very least, short-sighted. . . .
Yet it is not so much the highbrow cliché criticism of the modern museum that is disturbing; rather, it is the imposition of multiculturalist binoculars on the “Circa 1492” exhibition itself. . . . Barely have we gotten rid of Marxist art criticism than we are presented with a critic’s need to analyze an exhibition through another mode. Mr. Ryan points out that the show’s curators raise issues which they do not then go on to address. He is right: exhibitions, when they are good, do raise a lot of issues, and “Circa 1492” definitely brought to the surface more important questions than the few Mr. Ryan chose to focus on. However, the expectation that an exhibition must answer questions is totally misleading and has resulted in exhibitions, like that on degenerate art, in which totalitarian regimes provided the public with all the answers.
The catalogue of “Circa 1492” at no point raised the issue of multiculturalism, and, to the best of my knowledge, the term was not mentioned anywhere in the voluminous text. I also found no evidence that the exhibition claimed to instigate or stimulate a “politically-acceptable debate” on the topic.
Why could Mr. Ryan not take this exhibition at face value? As J. Carter Brown pointed out in the foreword to the catalogue, this was one of the most exciting periods in history, the beginning of a globalism that is now increasingly recognized. “Circa 1492” examined, first of all, the ethos of a Mediterranean world in which, with a new vibrancy and energy, mankind was searching to understand its place in relation to this earth. . . . The exhibition then went on to explore many other issues as spelled out by Brown in his introduction and by the often brilliant essays by scholars contained in the impressive catalogue.
Mounting an exhibition which endeavors to freeze a moment in time and illustrate its characteristics through material culture is a device that has been undertaken before, but never on such a grand scale and with such richness and abundance of works of art as in this show. A horizontal slice of history like this is definitely an eye-opener for the visitor; the unusual juxtapositions and groupings open a window to ideas and vistas of which the viewer was not previously aware.
Mr. Ryan dedicates nearly a third of his article to a review of a totally different exhibition, “Resplendence of the Spanish Monarchy,” which was held at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. In comparing it to the National Gallery’s monumental exhibition (which is like comparing apples and pears), and in his preoccupation with trivia (calendars and gift cards), he misses the considerable achievements of “Circa 1492.” By criticizing J. Carter Brown for his admiration of a bronze female head from Benin featured in the exhibition, Mr. Ryan denies the right to make discriminations of taste. And in his attempt to interject a political debate on multiculturalism into the context of the exhibition, he spoils the pleasure of the spontaneous art lover and museumgoer.
Director, The Israel Museum
To the Editor:
Richard Ryan’s assertion that the theory of multiculturalism considers all cultures morally equivalent is incorrect. Multiculturalists do not consider all societies and cultures to be morally equivalent; they consider European-based societies and cultures to be morally inferior. The problem with multiculturalism does not lie in its refusal to make moral judgments; it is, rather, that the ones it makes are misinformed.
University of California
To the Editor:
Richard Ryan’s article takes the National Gallery’s “Circa 1492” exhibition to task for its failure of Eurocentric nerve. How could anyone who displays Leonardo’s Portrait of a Lady with an Ermine (Cecilia Gallerani) as a climactic icon of Western Renaissance art and science neglect to add that Western art and science have peacefully conquered the world?
Far be it from me to contest either Mr. Ryan’s premise or his conclusion. But there is something gravely wrong, something un-Western, about the portrait’s title. The animal is not an ermine. An ermine is a small weasel species, Mustela erminea, in winter coat. Ermines are tiny, skinny, and snow-white—ten inches long, head and body, an inch or so in diameter, rarely more than a pound in weight. Ermines are wild. A real ermine would have bitten Gallerani. The animal portrayed is too large, too tame, and the wrong color, to pass as an ermine. Relative to the lady, it is as long as, and almost as robust as, the cat depicted in Leonardo’s Madonna with Cat—that is, perhaps fourteen inches long, and three or four pounds in weight. It is cream-colored, and tame enough to hold. These features say the animal is a good-sized domestic male European ferret, Mustela putorius furo.
Does it really matter if the name is not quite right? If it doesn’t, then the Renaissance doesn’t matter, either. Getting things exactly right, or at least trying to, was what the Renaissance was all about. It was certainly what Leonardo, the naturalist and anatomist, was all about. He may never have seen a live ermine, since their range is far north of Italy, but he knew that weasels are tiny (see fol. 67, v-d, of the Codex Atlanticus), and he must have known from ermine pelts in costumes that they are snow-white, except for their black-tipped tail. As a painter who made his own brushes, he may have been especially aware of differences between one mustelid species and another, since only three species have a pelage long enough, and springy enough, to make top-grade brushes.
The false title has certainly befuddled art critics. Garry Wills in the New York Review of Books makes much of the “use of ermine for painters’ brushes,” and the resemblance between the lady’s name, Gallerani, and the Greek word for weasel, galee. Other commentators note that Ludovico Sforza’s emblem was the ermine and suggest that Leonardo was applauding Ludovico by showing an ermine enjoying his mistress’s caress. But galee can mean ferret as well as weasel; ermine is not, in fact, used in painters’ brushes; and it is hardly a compliment to Ludovico if “the embosomed ermine with its aura of sexual energy” turns out to be an impostor, a shifty-eyed male ferret playing the title role.
Let us acknowledge that the age of 1492 was glorious, and the “ermine portrait” its fitting icon. We should be grateful to the National Gallery and the critics for highlighting the portrait and making it a household image. Mr. Ryan argues that the highlighting is too grudging for a portrait which embodies and presages the “peaceful conquest of the world by Western ideas.” If so, it would seem doubly appropriate, when we celebrate the quincentennium of the icon, that we call it by its proper name.
Claremont McKenna College
Richard Ryan writes:
Martin Weyl’s response to my critique of the National Gallery’s misguided megashow denies the importance of the issues I raised. Commercialization, indiscriminate popularizing, unspoken political bias are, in fact, issues central to curatorship. Mr. Weyl seems to believe that these topics “neither concern nor are relevant to the general public, nor . . . to a more informed audience.” I am surprised that he takes such a dim view of the potential subtlety and interests of museumgoers.
One of the significant tasks of art criticism is to encourage a politically informed response to art. A second and related task is to disclose how museums shape our understanding of the social conditions under which various cultures have expressed themselves aesthetically. A more careful reader than Mr. Weyl will have noticed that in my article I did not claim that the National Gallery had tried to impose a politically-correct viewpoint on the museumgoer. Rather, I argued that the curators of “Circa 1492,” intimidated by the fashionable forces of cultural relativism, backed away from the sort of cross-cultural comparisons that their show’s global scope explicitly demanded.
I am certainly grateful for the chance to have seen the myriad beautiful works that the National Gallery gathered from around the world. I remain convinced, however, that by treating all cultures as aesthetic equals, J. Carter Brown et al. avoided obvious hierarchies of value and played it entirely too safe. I never wanted the National Gallery to dictate cultural preferences to the populace (far be it from me to deny anyone’s “right” to enjoy mediocre Benin sculpture). I simply suggested that the National Gallery might have worked harder to create an atmosphere in which, free from intimidating intellectual fashions, members of the public could have developed such preferences on their own.
David Vogel, having the mixed fortune to work in the beautiful but schismatic city of Berkeley, is subject to a more virulent strain of multiculturalism than many of us. Obviously, multiculturalism is neither monolithic nor consistently defined, in part because the movement has become a Trojan horse for other more radical intellectual programs.
To reiterate and clarify: some multiculturalists are simply liberal cultural pluralists, whose views I mostly endorse. Then there are the cultural relativists (who have dominated the multicultural movement), led in this country by Barbara Herrnstein Smith and Stanley Fish. The relativists are typically post-structural scholars and critics who coddle primitive or backward societies by denying the objective authority of Western values and evaluations. This relativistic multiculturalism, as I indicated in my article, set the tone for the National Gallery’s exhibit. Finally, there are reverse racists who treat multiculturalism as a platform for proclaiming the moral superiority of non-Western cultures and races. The racists are particularly offensive, but I did not detect their presence at the 1492 exhibit.
On to a different identity problem: I have to disagree, though hesitantly, with Ward Elliott’s intriguing taxonomic response to my article. I find that Martin Kemp, in his note to the painting in the “Circa 1492” catalogue, anticipates Mr. Elliott’s analysis, and responds that “the unnaturally large scale of the ermine . . . may be compared to the exaggerated size of the babies in Leonardo’s Madonna and Child compositions.” Kemp also acknowledges, however, that scholars such as Lome Campbell (in Renaissance Portraits) regard the creature as a ferret.
Nowhere in the painter’s notebooks have I been able to find a reference to furreti. Leonardo may have associated ferrets generically with weasels; in any case, his knowledge of the latter animal seems to derive from folk wisdom rather than scientific observation. For instance, he says that a weasel (donnola) will hunt basilisks, and kill them by “spreading [its urine] about and the smell of this urine often kills the weasel itself.” These comments do not demonstrate the zoologically acute grasp of the genus Mustela which Mr. Elliott would like to grant the painter.
Leonardo did seem to know something about ermines, however, and would have disagreed with Mr. Elliott’s assertion that they are not of Italian origin. In his topographic notes he places their breeding ground in the snow-covered Bormio mountains, not more than 150 kilometers northeast of Milan. Perhaps their range has receded since the days of Leonardo and Ludovico.
Objections to the ermine identification are based on the animal’s unseemly size and color. The distortion may be attributable to Leonardo’s use of dramatic foreshortening. Lome Campbell observes that the sitter’s hand is unusually large, and the exaggeration of the hand and animal together does seem to heighten the painting’s vivid multi-dimensional effect. The beast appears ready to spring from her arms into ours.
The whole matter of “natural” proportion is settled for me by the painter’s “Leda” studies (see, for example, the Popham edition of the drawings, plate 208, tentatively dated 1510). In the extant sketches and drawings the bird is enormous, with fantastic musculature and bulk, distinctly unlike that of an actual swan. The deviation is understandable: a bird would have to be supernaturally large to embody a god, just as an ermine would have to be disproportionately large to embody a duke.
The color problem, on the other hand, is troubling, since the animal is more a creamy yellow than a snowy white, and as Leonardo himself writes, “The ermine [ermellino] would rather die than soil itself.” If only its tail were visible, the presence or absence of the black tip would settle the question.
Nevertheless, as long as we continue to accept (as we do for good technical reasons I will brush past here) that this is a portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Duke Ludovico Sforza, who took ermines as his emblem, I must tilt toward the ermine identification. Mr. Elliott and Mr. Campbell embrace the “ferret conjecture” because they emphasize Leonardo’s naturalism at the expense of his iconology. Ermines carried deep meaning for Leonardo and his patron, and unless the good professor can offer more evidence, I resist. A Lady with an Ermine she remains.