serves up divergent views of good and evil, encompasses artworks from
the Middle Ages and the late 20th century, and presents artistic styles
ranging from figurative to sheer fantasy.
As a starting point for discussion, the
show’s curator, David Prince, includes works like “St. Andrew,” a 1630
painting honoring a saint and generally attributed to Jusepe de Ribera.
“Judith with the Head of Holofernes” references the biblical story of
the widow Judith, whose husband died in battle with the Assyrians.
After deceiving the Assyrian general Holofernes, she waits until he’s
asleep and then cuts off his head. Here the exhibit emphasizes art as a
primary visual medium for a largely illiterate populace, a way of
educating people about morality and church doctrine.
At the same time, the rich imagery and
narratives of the Bible have emerged in modern artworks such as
Salvador Dali’s 1966 work “Moses and Pharaoh,” devoted to an epic
confrontation in ancient Egypt. In the Bible and Dali’s painting,
monotheism, as seen in the God worshiped by Moses and his fellow Jews,
proves far superior to the deities revered by Pharaoh Ramses II and his
Much of the exhibition features modern
works discussing good and evil absent a religious context. Some pieces
reflect belief in individual virtue and appraisal of what might be good
for a community. James Earle Fraser’s sculpture “Pioneer Woman,”
portrays a heroic figure: a woman nursing a baby on her left breast
while also cradling a rifle. In Barbara Morgan’s photo “Hearst Over the
People,” William Randolph Hearst, a newspaper baron and the inspiration
for the 1941 movie Citizen Kane, is seen as an evil sprite
flying over a crowd. Hearst is viewed as a master manipulator wielding
not only financial power but also considerable political influence.
A history of violence: Andy Warhol’s
“Birmingham Race Riot, 1964” and Lucas Cranach The Elder’s “Judith with
the Head of Holofernes, 1525” show that over a 400-year span humans
still try to make right with might.
Other pieces draw ever more directly on
ideological conflicts and how they shaped perceptions of good and evil.
Two prints by Pablo Picasso depict Francisco Franco, the longtime
Spanish dictator, as a contemptible creature. Picasso also created
“Guernica,” an epic painting showing how German bombers allied with
Franco destroyed a small Spanish town and killed numerous civilians.
A very different perspective appears in
Leonard Baskin’s woodcut “Man of Peace,” done in 1952 at the height of
the Cold War. The work, which depicts Picasso holding a dead dove and
standing behind barbed wire, portrays the artist as a fool, an
individual unable or unwilling to confront Stalinism.
Rico Lebrun’s “Split Figures from
Dante’s Inferno” works off the famous poem describing the various
levels of hell. In the ninth level, those who attempted to splinter the
Roman Catholic church are dismembered again and again, throughout
eternity. In his work, Lebrun depicts a male body literally torn apart.
He wasn’t endorsing punishment of
heretics; Lebrun didn’t believe in organized religion. Instead, the
work highlights his obsession with the human body and his focus on the
human condition. His best-known pieces, done between 1940 and 1964,
deal with war, the Holocaust and severe illness, celebrating the human
spirit’s resilience in the worst situations. For him, that resilience
was the ultimate virtue.
Locating notions of vice and virtue in
Martin Wong’s “Chainsaw Valentine” is difficult at best. In this 1984
oil, he portrayed a New York City neighborhood as an urban nightmare:
grim, dirty, barren, without any sense of community or hope. His vision
is profoundly pessimistic: Government and other institutions have
failed, creating a disaster.
There are other noteworthy artworks on
display. Baskin’s bronze, “Cerberus,” depicts a figure from Greek
mythology, the three-headed dog guarding the entrance to Hades.
“Birmingham Race Riot,” Andy Warhol’s screenprint, reworks Charles
Moore’s photo documenting a 1964 clash between civil rights
demonstrators and police directed by Bull Connor.
Images of Vice and Virtue both
provides a historical perspective on the relationship between artists
and society and challenges us to look at artworks from a different
point of view. Nonetheless, selecting a 25-piece exhibit from one
collection poses certain limitations. There’s little sense of the
transition from the Middle Ages to modern times. There are no works
referencing the political upheaval of the 19th century, starting with
the revolutions that took place in France, Haiti, the United States and
other nations. And there’s little discussion of how, in modern society,
laws and court decisions reflect or shape concepts of good or evil.
While incomplete in some respects, Images of Vice and Virtue
is still a worthwhile show, one with a complex agenda. The exhibit is
on display through May 25 at the Everson Museum, 401 Harrison St. Hours
are Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Tuesdays through Fridays and
Sundays, noon to 5 p.m. For more information, call 474-6064.