There are works of art which many people with a Euro-centric background agree are masterpieces – the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, The Pieta, Starry Night, Guernica, etc. It can be hard to view those works with fresh eyes after seeing them so many times. Examining lesser-known works of art, especially from non-European cultures, can wake up our eyes, deepening our aesthetic experience and maybe even giving us a new perspective on the old masterpieces.
These art works that aren’t so well known but were made with great care and great skill might be called minor masterpieces.
And in fact, (according to Wikipedia) the original meaning of the term masterpiece had to do with a piece of work an apprentice in the guild system made to demonstrate mastery of the craft for admission into a guild. In that context the works photographed here might comfortably be called masterpieces.
This fascinating Indonesian ear ornament, a small gold piece from the 19th century on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, shows “warriors clad in turbans and loincloths brandishing swords and shields as they stride boldly into battle, accompanied by smaller figures in attitudes of supplication.” The expression on the faces and the hands in supplication are so expressive!
A small seated Buddha from the Rubin Museum in New York also has very expressive hands, which held in this mudra, (symbolic or ritual gesture) signify passing along the teaching.
Continuing with the theme of hands in minor masterpieces of craftsmanship, a wooden totem pole in Seattle adorned with an impromptu bouquet speaks volumes about technique and the possibilities of expression in the hands of a master carver.
Another figurative minor masterpiece, this one in stone, decorates a building near Philadelphia’s historic Rittenhouse Square. The artist created amazing liveliness while keeping within the boundaries of tradition and the limits of the decorative frieze.
This minor masterpiece, made of glass, doesn’t necessarily depict anything beyond the indomitable human spirit. It is pure joy as you look up into the whirling colors of Dale Chihuly’s huge installation, the Bridge of Glass, in Tacoma, Washington.
A large hand-painted ceramic dish crafted by a Mehmet Gursoy, a renowned Turkish artist who received the “Living Treasure” prize from UNESCO a few years ago. He revived a lost technique of ceramic decoration, and as he explains here, he designs his pieces with harmony and balance in mind, forming them from natural materials, firing and shaping them himself, and painting them with the brilliant cobalt, emerald, turquoise and garnet colors that give so much life to the work.
Though it doesn’t have the power of the works above, this is still a “minor masterpiece” for me because I drew it with care and love. It was many years ago that I pulled the little violet plant from the soil somewhere in New York, brought it home, and drew it in pencil, and then in ink. I was pleased to catch the lilting spirit of the little violet just as it was unfurling its leaves and lifting its head to the spring sky.
Bloggers have a lot of ideas about the word “Masterpiece” – check them out here – and maybe you’ll find a new perspective on the concept.