Besides its unbeatable lineup of special exhibitions, the BMA has one of the finest permanent collections in the Southeast. With more than 24,000 paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, videos, and decorative arts, the collection spans more than 4000 years and represents cultures from around the globe. Now, discover your Museum with the Spotlight on the Collection series. Experience the spotlight work in the galleries with an ArtBreak or Slow Art Sunday, like us on Facebook to learn more, or join the conversation below to tell us what you think about these artworks!
June 2013: Portland Vase copy
Portland Vase copy, Josiah Wedgwood, 1789
A Roman artist carved the Portland Vase from cameo glass around the 1st century AD. Unearthed in the late 16th or early 17th century, it came into the collection of Margaret Bentinck, 2nd Duchess of Portland, in 1783. Since then, it has borne the name of her family’s seat; they donated it permanently to the British Museum, where it has been a cornerstone of its antiquities collection since 1810.
Sculptor John Flaxman suggested that potter Josiah Wedgwood study the Portland Vase and make copies. Instead of cameo glass, Wedgwood used jasperware, a material he developed from barium sulfate. It took him four years to complete the first copy to his satisfaction, which he then put into production.
Several detailed figures form a frieze around the vase. Although many scholars identify one as Cupid, god of love, the other figures are more ambiguous. Some scholars believe that figures are mythological, suggesting that the couple holding hands are the hero Peleus and his sea-nymph wife, Thetis. Others believe these scenes contain both historic and mythological figures, such as the Roman emperor Augustus, his mother, the sun god Apollo (as a snake), and the sea god Neptune. On the opposite side, still others identify the handsome Trojan mortal Paris, his mother Hecuba, and Venus, the goddess of beauty.
The Birmingham Museum of Art’s Wedgwood collection includes two first-edition copies of the Portland Vase. When removing them from the kiln, Wedgwood hand-numbered each copy on the inside; the Museum’s black copy is number 12. Sir Joshua Reynolds, painter, wrote about number 12, stating that it was so accurate to the original Portland Vase that Wedgwood thought it his best copy. A year later, he made a few copies in slate blue; the Museum houses one of only five copies known in this color.
—Katherine Ladd, education–visitor engagement intern spring 2013
May 2013: School of Beauty, School of Culture
School of Beauty, School of Culture, Kerry James Marshall, 2012
For many African American artists born during the Civil Rights Movement, turbulent events they witnessed or experienced growing up during that time affect their later work. Kerry James Marshall, who was born in Birmingham in 1955 and grew up in South Central Los Angeles, experienced two hotbeds of national change firsthand. His body of work responds directly to the Civil Rights Movement, its legacy, and evolving, complicated notions of African American identity.
April 2013: Urn Representing Cosijo, the God of Rain
Urn Representing Cosijo, the God of Rain, Zapotec culture, Mexico, about AD 450
You can’t take it with you–or can you?
The saying “you can’t take it with you” encourages people to enjoy life to the fullest since worldly goods and wealth remain behind after death. However, not all cultures agree with this idea, as evidenced by the wealth of objects discovered in ancient tombs from across the globe. Even in contemporary society, people deposit personal mementos, family heirlooms, or other significant items into the caskets and urns of loved ones they have lost.
March 2013: Shiva and Parvati
Shiva and Parvati (Uma-Mahesvara), Indian, about 1150
Shiva and Parvati (Uma-Mahesvara) once adorned a temple in Halebid, India. This sculpture depicts the Hindu gods Shiva, his wife Parvati, and their two sons: the elephant-headed god Ganesha on their right, and the peacock god Karttikeya on their left. The Sanskrit term Uma-Mahesvara refers to images of this divine couple.
Shiva and Parvati likely graced the outside wall of a temple dedicated to Shiva. The god’s knee is particularly shiny, most likely as a result of the temple’s visitors rubbing it in passing for good luck.
February 2013: Power Figure (Nkishi)
Power Figure (Nkishi), Songye People
Every culture has idea about power and how to represent it. Some may define power as physical strength; others may conceive of it as the ability to change and influence people; still others may describe it as a spiritual quality. For the Songye people of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the latter idea of power was an essential part of their culture. The Songye–as well as other peoples in the Southern Savannah region of Africa–used minkishi (singular nkishi) to capture that power for the benefit of the tribe, such as protecting the village from illness or outside aggression.
January 2013: The Sorceress
L’envoûteuse (The Sorceress), Georges Merle
The worldview of Europeans in the 19th century expanded far beyond their own borders. While Napoleon’s military campaigns exposed the French to Moorish culture in Spain and North Africa, the Industrial Revolution introduced the railroad, which made distant lands, cultures, and peoples more accessible. Artists interested in the Middle and Far East–called Orientalists–traveled to the Ottoman Empire, North Africa, the Holy Lands, and occasionally East Asia to portray the people and monuments there firsthand.
December 2012: Cradleboard
Cradleboard; Native American, Kiowa or Comanche people
The Kiowa and Comanche peoples once inhabited the plains and hills of central North America. Rather than establishing permanent settlements for farming, these nomads followed herds of buffalo, an animal that provided both food and raw materials for everyday objects. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the acquisition of horses allowed them to travel faster and to transport goods more easily.
Kiowa and Comanche artists decorated objects that were both functional and beautiful, like this cradleboard. To incorporate children into society as early as possible, mothers used them to carry infants on their backs or to keep children upright when at rest. The Kiowa and Comanche often passed down cradleboards through generations, linking both familial and cultural identity.
November 2012: The Ascetic Sakyamuni
The Ascetic Sakyamuni, Chinese
Buddhist practitioners strive for nirvana, or enlightenment, when they no longer yearn for earthly temptations or desires. For Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha and the religion’s most important teacher, this moment came after seven years of extreme asceticism, or self-denial. Shortly before his enlightenment, the Buddha finally accepted a meager meal out of physical weakness due to starvation.
Artists depict Sakyamuni in different ways. Sculptures vary in size, materials, and appearance based on the artist’s own culture. Representations like the Ascetic Sakyamuni come from China’s Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). This dynasty’s Mongol rulers supported Buddhism as the state religion in order both to gain the Chinese population’s allegiance as well as to encourage the growth of the arts.
October 2012: Three for Five
Three for Five, John George Brown, 1890
Child labor was common in large urban areas in the second half of the 19th century. Parents often forced their children to work out of necessity to support the family.
Street urchins interested John George Brown and other 19th-century artists. The boy in Brown’s Three for Five tries to make a living on the streets; however, he is well groomed and clean, contradicting the viewer’s natural assumption that he is poor. Indeed, the reality of children that worked on the street was much bleaker than Brown suggested.
Realism predominated the art world across much of Europe at the time Brown painted Three for Five. Realist painters captured people and places “true to life.” Why then, when realism was at its height, did Brown gloss over one of the darker sides of society?