Sedona CALLAHAN, Writer

 

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Masterpieces

By Sedona Callahan

"I will never forget that late afternoon when I lifted the gold casing off the King Tut, lifted it up in my arms, held it and kissed it full on the lips." So says the passionate, witty, opinionated and controversial Thomas Hoving of the Funerary Mask of Tutankhamun, the jewel among the artifacts Hoving chose for the American tour of Tutankhamun's Treasures. "I kept it a long time in the studio, just looking at it." Hoving includes the funerary mask in his latest literary contribution to the art world, "The Greatest Works of Art of Western Civilization", published by Artisan, a division of Workman Publishing Company in October 1997.

Hoving, former director of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as prolific author, and currently president of Hoving Associates, Inc, a museum and cultural affairs consulting firm, acknowledges his own insolence in reducing all of Western art to such a limited collection, and says, "I know it's arrogant of a guy to take from maybe six trillion works of art in the last 30,000 years and narrow it down to a few. But I was sitting in my garden one afternoon and got to thinking about my life as an art connoisseur from 1952 to today. I walked through what had socked and rocked me, and finally considered 123 pieces. Then I pared that to 111. I didn't consider who had done the piece, or the medium or the place. These are the works of art that come at you, straight across the room. These are the pieces that absolutely hit me and knocked me out. These are the ones that, after years, I could describe down to the tiniest details, as if standing in front of them."

"The Greatest Works of Art" is anything but a dry, academic tome. It's high-quality reproductions of the selected works of art are succintly interpreted with Hoving's wit and zeal. The collection encompasses ancient Greek statuary, and paintings by Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Poussin, Cezanne and Matisse. There are frescoes by Piero Della Francesca, illuminated manuscripts, mosaics, altarpieces, tapestries, jewelry, even musical instruments and Benvenuto Cellini's "Great Salt Cellar".

Hoving narrated a slide presentation of selections from his collection at a fund-raising event for the Monterey Museum of Art in Pebble Beach recently. His animated commentary shocked and delighted the art patrons and guests who gathered for a sneak peek at the latest publication of the New York Times Best Seller author ( "Making the Mummies Dance: Inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art").

"Robert Rauschenberg's 'The Bed'. It's a painting of a loathsome, unmade bed. I was totally wiped out by the impudence. God knows what was going on in that bed," Hoving smirked.

"'The Zeus' shows the sheer beauty of mankind. Edvard Munch is the most powerful expressionist. He got the idea of 'The Scream', which shows the fear of the twentieth century - the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, from viewing a Peruvian mummy."

"Thomas Gainsborough's 'Blue Boy'. There's nothing weak or shimmering silk about it. I thought it was postcard art until I saw it,". he confessed.

"Pierre-Auguste Renoir's 'The Luncheon of the Boating Party', currently with the Philips Collection in Washington, D.C., sums up every felicitous moment of that blessed, fortunate, short-lived age of placidity and divine naivete that existed, especially in France and particularly in Paris, just before the dawn of the twentieth century. Many an unsuspecting visitor, seeing the painting's pure exuberance, shouts, 'Wow!'. The guards understand."

Hoving excludes Michalengelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling from his collection, because "he was doing on-the-job training, learning al fresco painting. But "David"! - the crispness of the eyes! The casual stance! The divine spirit of God! The awesomeness of the unparalleled male figure - a young strapling. His hands are large because he hasn't grown into them yet."

Hoving said he wanted to write this book because he was beginning to detest the way art is equated to money. "Is that a Monet? How much? The question I'm asked most often is 'Who are the finest artists alive in America today that I should collect? You know, for investment?' My answer is in two parts: Never buy art for investment, only for love and to enrich your soul; and always collect contemporaries the way the founding director of the Museum of Modern art, Alfred Barr, did -with an intense contempt for acquiring what's chic at the moment."

"Greatest Works of Art" joins a virtual library of publications written by Hoving, including "Making the Mummies Dance", which tells tales-out-of-school of the inside workings of the Met. "The premise of 'Mummies' was, this is what really happens behind the scenes, behind closed doors," says Hoving. "It's what the high and mighty millionaires are up to. Somebody has to tell what happens in school." "False Impressions: The Hunt for Big-Time Art Fakes, (Hoving is an active fake-buster),"Tutankhamun: The Untold Story, and "The Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth" share the library shelves with numerous articles submitted to Connousseur magazine by Hoving, its former editor-in-chief.

Hoving's expertise as an art connousseur is honed both from his extensive curator and museum experience and the work of art itself. "If you've seen a half a million things, you know what is great," he says. "it helps to have years of experience, but it's the genius of a piece that roars at you."