MINOR MASTERPIECES

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.

Iznik Ceramics by Mehmet Gursoy

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.


46 comments

  1. I love your interpretations of Masterpieces, Lynn. As always your photos are delightful. My favorite is the Dale Chihuly glass (I’m always a sucker for fluid color) and the wooden totem pole with the impromptu bouquet. 🙂

  2. I agree with you. These are in fact masterpieces. I don’t think I would condition the label/// though i have little enthusiasm for labels, by calling them minor. I enjoyed each and every one.

    • It’s always good to hear your thoughts. Labels are a two-edged sword, no? They can be very helpful in life, as long as you remember there’s another reality – one without labels – and that can be hard to do.

  3. I’m sure that I’ve heard this before by some one much wiser than I, but I couldn’t find the quote, though I believe it fits you post…one should never use minor and masterpiece in the same sentence

  4. Nice. With so many people doing amazing things artistically, it is amazing that we can figure out which pieces are masterpieces. You have some good ones here. Especially the last one! 🙂

    • True, they’re very watery looking, and Chihuly talks about the relationship between water and glass, and I believe this series of shapes was inspired by underwater life. Thanks for commenting!

  5. Pingback: Weekly Photo Challenge: Masterpiece | Flickr Comments

  6. Brava! As I scrolled down to the last one I said, “Oh I like the black and white” and then read it’s your drawing! A Masterpiece indeed! 🙂 And I understand your comment about Euro-centric art. When we were in Tokyo I had an afternoon to myself and went to the Tokyo National Museum. What treasures and the collections, the artists, their works, the artifacts were all so new to my eyes. And the age of many of the pieces, thousands and thousands and thousands of years BC. It was a wonderful afternoon!

    • I was glad that one was in the permanent collection, which meant it was OK to take pictures. They won’t let you photograph anything in the changing exhibits, but at the Rubin, there’s always great art everywhere.

  7. You have assembled a fine and beautiful selection here Lynn. For my part, I have long since rejected labels – they serve only to reflect external opinions and have little to do with intrinsic value. Your simple but exquisitely expressive line drawing illustrates my point well.

    • Thanks! Yes, they’re almost always pretty impressive – I think he aims for that. Yes, any artist does, but for some just the wow factor is more important than for others, and I suspect it’s a big motivator for Chihuly. He has done some amazing work, and a lot of it.

  8. if it lasts a long time: it IS a masterpiece, for example yours: “… 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…” – and now on internet your drawing is drifting to eternity!

    • I appreciate that Frizz! Interesting thought…and it’s funny, how this blogging world both preserves our work and makes it even more ephemeral. Posts are read and passed by so quickly. Unlike a physical art work or a book or a CD, which might invite more lingering…but can be lost or destroyed. Both mediums have their advantages and disadvantages, yes?

  9. Very well said, you are so right. We do need to refresh our eyes and our thought processes in order to see clearly and with fresh ideas. Thank you, I thoroughly enjoyed the variety of masterpieces you posted in stone, metal, glass, wood, ceramic and the purity of the line drawing of your violet, lovely.

  10. As a European person (half German, half Swedish, living in England), raised in this intellectual European tradition, I agree that we tend to judge art from a European – and mostly classic – point of view. On the other hand, is art that different if it is produced outside the western world? When I study your great pictures I immediatly see those archetypes we know from every culture, the mandala, the quaternity-symbol and so on. It`s a kind of a grammar of human perception but the different cultures find different ways to express these basic structures. The basic structures are all the same but the semiotics may differ (quite often depending on the geographical and sociological structures the artist is a part of).
    Thanks for making us think about our perception.
    Greetings from the sunny coast of Norfolk
    Klausbernd
    And thanks for visiting and commenting my blogs 🙂

    • And thank YOU very much for deepening the discussion. You make a great point by noting that certain themes and structures occur in art throughout, or across, time and space. But I always am wary of arguments that assert sameness across cultures. I do agree with what you’re saying and I imagine that what is common across cultures is hard-wired – a function of biology. And that’s a fascinating area to study. But I believe it’s very important to recognize and celebrate the differences (and I know you do), before we are homogenized into one universal culture (a personal horror). Thank you again! I really enjoy your hearing thoughts (and looking at your excellent blog :-)).

      • Thank you so much for your kind answer 🙂
        Yes, I agree with you it is very important to see the differences of cultural expressions otherwise we end up in a kind homogenized culture like that of the international companies steeling the individual expression of a specific culture.
        Have a nice evening.I will end the day in my sauna and will have a cold beer afterwards 🙂


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