In 1994, Isaiah Zagar started working on the vacant lots located near his studio at 1020 South Street, according to the museum’s pamphlet. He first constructed a massive fence to protect the area then spent years sculpting multi-layer walls out of found objects.
In 2002, the Boston-based owner of the lots discovered Zagar’s installation and decided to sell the land, calling for the work to be dismantled. Unwilling to allow the now-beloved neighborhood art environment to be destroyed, the community rushed to support the artist. After a two-year legal battle, his creation, newly titled Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, became a non-profit organization intended to preserve the artwork, says the pamphlet.
Embedded in the walls of the outdoor installation are bottles, bicycle wheels, pottery shards, and folk sculptures.
We find a lot of names, phrases and sayings embedded in chains across the walled-canvas.
Some of the Magic Gardens’ values include inspiring others, creating community, championing originality, and embracing the creative process unbound by conventional norms.
The Gardens also interprets Isaiah Zagar’s art with a lighthearted, celebratory attitude. They believe in working hard while still maintaining levity and humor, according to the website.
I love the multi-armed painter who might bear a slight resemblance to Zagar.
Here, the artist is cradled by a three-headed woman.
PHILADELPHIA is spelled out along one passageway.
Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens is like a wilder version of Gaudi’s Park Güell in Barcelona, though it has no actual gardens. I highly recommend visiting here for a quirky afternoon.
After we finish our visit, it’s time for us to head back to Virginia. We decide to take a convoluted route home, passing through the Amish countryside of Lancaster County.
Friday, December 30: After walking the southern half of the Mural Arts Walk, we head to Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. As we walk down South Street, we pass a number of the artist’s murals on buildings and in alleys.
We find another mural with some religious verses adjacent to a small parking lot.
Zagar mural near Magic Gardens
detail of Zagar mural
detail of Zagar mural
Someone’s house is even decked out in mosaics.
The museum, spanning half a block on South Street, includes an immersive outdoor art installation and indoor galleries. As it’s the middle of winter, we first walk around the indoor galleries.
The artist, Isaiah Zagar, is an award-winning mosaic mural artist whose work can be found in over 200 public walls throughout Philadelphia and around the world, according to a museum pamphlet.
Zagar was born in Philadelphia and raised in Brooklyn; he received a B.F.A. in Painting and Graphics at the Pratt Institute of Art in New York City. The artist and his wife Julia settled in Philadelphia after serving 3 years in Peru with the Peace Corps. Zagar’s work is influenced by his travels as well as his interactions with international folk and visionary artists, says the pamphlet.
Zagar created the space at Magic Gardens using nontraditional materials such as folk art statues, found objects, bicycle wheels, colorful glass bottles, hand-made tiles, and thousands of glittering mirrors.
Visual anecdotes and personal narratives refer to Zagar’s life, family and community, as well as to the wider world, such as influential art history figures and other visionary artists and environments.
This place is a photographer’s paradise. Every surface is covered with mosaics and found objects, including the ceilings, stairs and bathrooms.
We walk outdoors into a small enclosed patio, but then are led right back into the indoor galleries.
We could spend hours and hours here marveling at all the details.
We brace ourselves to go the outdoor art installation. Luckily the area is enclosed and it doesn’t feel that cold outside. I hear it’s super crowded in summer, so I think it’s best we came at this time of year. The outdoor installation will follow in another post. 🙂
“Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.” ~ Pat Conroy
When an invitation to relive or extend a journey offers itself, I will always take it, no matter in what form. Often, after visiting a foreign country, I will bask in a book set in that locale, extending my experience of that place. When I come across buildings or gardens with particular architectural styles, those commonly found in exotic locales — European Gothic cathedrals, Chinese dragons or gates, Japanese gardens, Islamic mosques — my heart skips a beat; I ease back in time to my wanderings through those magical places. Whenever I take urban hikes through cities or natural landscapes, I feel that same sense of adventure I had when immersing myself in an exotic place; I remember the anticipation as I set off to explore China’s Longji Rice Terraces or Nepal’s village to village trails.
I felt a sense of exhilaration, as well as nostalgia and longing, on visiting the new South Asian Galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I was taken back to a not-so-long-ago time when I lived and traveled extensively in South Asia. I loved meandering through the happy reminders found in this place.
We had already visited the “Paint the Revolution” special exhibition and, rather than exhausting ourselves trying to see the rest of this great and sprawling museum, we picked one part of the permanent collection to visit. We walked up to the second floor via the Great Stair Hall Balcony and headed for the reopened South Asian Galleries.
We passed through the European Art Gallery from 1100-1500 on our way to the South Asian Galleries.
First we came upon some mosaic tiles from Iran. As these are Islamic, they reminded me of so many beautiful tiles I found in Oman, UAE, Egypt, and even in southern Spain, originating from the Moorish conquest. These Tile Mosaic Panels from Iran (Isfahan) are from the Safavid dynasty, 1501-1736.
Detail mosaic tiles
Tile Mosaic Panels, late 1400s – Iran (Isfahan)
I visited what seemed like infinite numbers of Buddhist temples in Korea, Japan, China, Myanmar, Vietnam, Singapore, and Thailand, and, to this day, I always feel a sense of peace when I see Buddhist figures anywhere in the world. Here, we found a gilded bronze White Tara, Buddhist Goddess of Compassion (1700s-1800s) from Inner Mongolia, Autonomous Region (Dolon Nor, Chahar province, China). The compassionate Buddhist goddess Tara is a bodhisattva (Buddhist savior). The eyes on her palms and forehead show that she sees and helps all living beings.
This Chinese cabinet is covered with symbols from ancient China: cranes as symbols of longevity and immortality; two deer, a stag and a doe, symbolic of domestic harmony between husband and wife; pot-shaped vase designs, painted in blue and green, suggestive of endless wealth; and lotuses representing purity.
The man in the detail of one panel is a successful merchant and the bolt of cloth next to him likely refers to his source of wealth.
In Tibetan Buddhism and Hinduism, a mandala helps seekers of enlightenment along their spiritual path. It represents both god’s palace and the entire cosmos in a geometric-circular format. It may be two-dimensional (a drawing or painting) or three-dimensional (a sculpture or architectural space).
By meditating on a mandala, a person undertakes a mental journey, beginning in the outermost circle – which can hold human patrons, teachers and lesser deities – and progresses inward to become one with the god or divine couple at the mandala’s center (according to a sign at the museum).
This Satchakravarti Samvara Mandala from Tibet is made up of six smaller mandalas. Each holds a different Buddha in sexual union with his female counterpart.
Mandalas are also found throughout Nepal; I bought a couple in Kathmandu to bring home. I still need to find a place in my house to hang them.
A thangka is the Tibetan term for a painting made on cloth that can be rolled up for travel or storage and unrolled and hung for use. Thangkas most often depict Buddhist deities, renowned religious teachers, or a mandala (a god’s cosmic palace). In Nepal, these types of paintings are often called paubhas. I bought one of these in Nepal, as a memento of my journey.
I cherish the mementos I have of my Asian travels, and of all my travels. They preserve and extend my travel experience. Collecting these items turns my travel into a collective experience of my repeated immersions into different cultures. Displaying them in my house surrounds me with happy recollections of travel moments and what I gleaned from them – a sense of independence, resilience, adventurousness and camaraderie with fellow travelers. These mementos spark a yearning to return to places I’ve been, to explore them again with fresh eyes and a new depth of appreciation.
In a traditional residence of a Chinese nobleman, a reception hall was the most formal building, where official activities were conducted. This Reception Hall from the Palace of Duke Zhou, displayed in its entirety here, was originally part of a Beijing palace built in the early 1640s. The hall has a thirty-foot ceiling and brilliantly painted floral and animal motifs on its beams and brackets that convey auspicious wishes. This hall is presently furnished with works of art dating between the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, the period during which the hall was in use.
It was dark in the room where this reception hall was exhibited, so it was difficult to get a photo of anything but one of the painted roof beams. Beams such as these in China delighted me every time I encountered them and remembered to turn my eyes to the ceiling.
I love the grand vision of the museum’s Director Fiske Kimball (1888-1955), who envisioned architectural elements providing historical context to objects on display. This whole reopened South Asian Gallery has architecture displayed in a grand way; I felt as if I were walking through ancient Asian cultures.
The hall in one large room is constructed as part of the Madana Gopala Swamy temple complex, dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu and his avatar Krishna. Apparently a woman, Adeline Pepper Gibson, purchased sixty granite carvings she found piled in the temple compound from local authorities in 1912. Most of the complex still stands in the famous temple-city of Madurai in southern India.
figure in the Madana Gopala Swamy temple complex
figure in the Madana Gopala Swamy temple complex
A visit to South Asian galleries wouldn’t be complete without something from Japan. Some Japanese tea houses were set up here, but it was hard to get decent pictures in the strong light.
Surihaku theatrical robes are used exclusively in Noh drama to symbolize the uncontrolled passions of certain female roles. This Noh Costume from 1700s Japan is a silk satin weave decorated with patinated metallic leaf applied to a stenciled paste base (surihaku), representing the reptilian skin of the character, who has been transformed into a serpent or demon by the corrosive power of jealousy and hatred.
A modern piece from 2008, Kotodama (the soul of language), is embellished with word-filled fragments from antique books and accounting ledgers and layered scraps of red silk from kimono undergarments. For the artist, Maio Motoko, words had spiritual power. Here, the assembled fragments create a visual world of words.
Finally as we exited the South Asian galleries and made our way back out through the European galleries, we stopped to admire the French Gothic Chapel. I am always enamored by decorative doors, and these doors I find particularly beautiful. This one reminds me of doors I found during the two years I lived in Oman.
The chapel was composed of elements from two buildings that were part of a large religious community at Aumonieres near Dijon in central France that was administered by the Knights of Saint Anthony. This nursing order, founded in the 11th century, established many hospices.
We finally walked out of the Philadelphia Museum of Art by 3:20, only an hour and a half after we entered. It was a good visit and not too tiresome, and we were able to enjoy the special exhibition and one part of the permanent collection. We used a number of suggestions from the compact but interesting book, How to Visit a Museum. I hope to take to heart more of David Finn’s ideas for exploring museums during these winter months, when it’s too cold and generally miserable to explore outdoors.
Living is like tearing through a museum. Not until later do you really start absorbing what you saw, thinking about it, looking it up in a book, and remembering – because you can’t take it in all at once. ~ Audrey Hepburn
Why do we visit museums? I don’t know about you, but I visit them for a hodgepodge of unrelated reasons. When I’m at home near Washington, D.C., where so many museums are free, I visit them to pass the time, to have special day outings (topped off with lunch or dinner), to learn about cultures, to explore artists and artistic styles, to have something to do in miserable weather, to expand my appreciation for beauty, or simply to be inspired — either to expand my creativity or to discover new travel destinations.
While traveling, I don’t visit museums as often as I ought to, mainly because of time constraints. I would usually prefer to be outdoors doing urban or nature hiking. Most often I go if there is a really famous museum or collection to see, such as the Louvre or the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, or the National Archeological Museum in Athens. Sometimes, such as when we visited the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, we went only because it was pouring rain. In Barcelona, I visited Fundació Joan Miró and Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya-MNAC only because I had nearly four days there and these museums happened to be on the Barcelona Bus Turista route.
To be honest, I’ve always felt overwhelmed by museums. I’m always exhausted after I’ve visited one, as I’ve usually attempted to see the whole museum over a 3-4 hour stretch. Because I’m rushing through, trying desperately to see everything, I feel only slightly enriched by the multitudes of things I’ve seen. I feel like I’m not devoting enough time, or I’m devoting too much time; mostly I’m feeling unfocused and adrift. I feel guilty because I’m giving the art too little consideration. By the time I’m done, I’m too often relieved the whole experience is over. Frankly, I’ve never thought about how one should visit a museum and thus have done it haphazardly.
That is, until I read the thin volume: How to Visit a Museum, by David Finn. You’ll have to read the book to get the full value of David’s wisdom, but when Mike and I went to Philadelphia right before New Year to see the special exhibition themed “Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910-1950,” I tried to put into practice some of David’s suggestions; one we took to heart is that we should go at our own pace and try to limit our time to 1-2 hours.
First, I thought about why I was so set on seeing this special exhibition. It was due to leave the Philadelphia Museum of Art on January 8, so time was running out. The event was highly publicized so I felt abuzz with excitement. I had gone to Mexico for a two-week study abroad trip in May of 2007, before I discovered my love of photography, so my pictures from there are disappointingly pathetic. I would love to go back now with a new eye to appreciate and capture the colors, art, and culture of Mexico: the whimsical parrot-hued villas and haciendas, arched doors and windows, colorful and folksy tiles, the ubiquitous Virgin Mary, plantations, Talavera vases. I had seen the 2002 film Frida and was inspired to see some of her work as well as that of her long-time lover, Diego Rivera. Finally, I didn’t know anything about the Mexican Revolution and wanted to learn something about it. I wondered what finally pushes people to revolt against evil governments.
The one thing I forgot about special exhibitions is how crowded they often are. This one was no exception. However, I still managed to enjoy it by taking David Finn’s advice and following my instincts. He says: Be prepared to find what excites you, to enjoy what delights your heart and mind, perhaps to have esthetic experiences you will never forget.
I was drawn to the brilliant orange marigolds in a caravan of punt boats along a canal in The Offering of 1913 by Saturnino Herran. The artist is known for his innovative approach to representing scenes of everyday life and indigenous customs. Little did I know that orange marigolds are placed as offerings on altars and graves on the Day of the Dead. The varied ages of the passengers allude to the cycle of life. I like the detail of the baby and the girl’s face, which looks rather melancholy.
The Offering by Saturnino Herran
Detail of girls and babies in The Offering
Alfredo Ramos Martinez (which by the way is my mother’s maiden name), liked to emphasize the effects of natural light and atmosphere. This pastel shows a Flower Seller traveling with wares by a punt boat. Seeing this pastel so close made me wish I could learn to do pastels, but first I need to learn how to draw!
Here, a man and woman, Peasants, stand in a typically Mexican landscape identified by the cacti on the ridge and the prickly pears the man carries. This is another gorgeous pastel.
Some of the paintings I simply admired in passing for their use of color without studying them very carefully.
I love this Portrait of Marin Luis Guzman (a Mexican writer) by Diego Rivera, mainly for his brightly colored Mexican serape, and the equipal, the woven wicker chair, he sits on. The top of the writer’s head is stylized in the manner of a matador’s hat. I love these symbols of Mexican culture and would be inspired to find examples of these on the streets of Mexico if I revisited.
Portrait of Martin Luis Guzman (1915) by Diego Rivera
Detail of serape
After a Cubist period in Diego Rivera’s work, he went back to following the old masters, especially Renoir and Paul Cezanne, in this Still Life with a Bottle of Anise.
After Rivera returned from France, he traveled through Mexico for two years to capture indigenous culture. I love the colorful mural panel depicting native couples in traditional garb dancing the Zandunga, a traditional Mexican waltz popular in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. I love how the dance takes place under arches formed by banana trees.
Dance in Tehuantepec (1928) – Diego Rivera
Detail – Dance in Tehuantepec
Diego Rivera also painted 17,000 square feet of murals depicting the Agricultural Revolution from 1926-27. These decorated the Ministry for Public Education in Mexico City and showed the Mexican people’s revolt against the old social order. In the exhibition, these murals are shown as a rotating video on a blank wall, so we can stand and watch an ever-changing panorama.
As fascinated as I am by Frida Kahlo, I was excited to find this Self-Portrait in Velvet, her first self-portrait, which drew on the early Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli and his paintings of women with their elegantly elongated necks. As a lover of textiles and rich color, I love the pattern on the shawl collar of her dress. I also love how Frida never hesitated to portray herself with the hair above her upper lip and her ungainly eyebrows. She seemed to embrace her less-than-feminine characteristics.
Frida Kahlo traveled with Diego Rivera through the United States for a number of years, and in this painting, Self Portrait on the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States, Mexico is represented by archaeological ruins, lush plants, and flowers, while the United States is mechanical and industrial, with its skyscrapers and smokestacks. Kahlo stands between the two worlds, holding a Mexican flag.
I love the curly hair and coy face, as well as the fountains and birds, in The Powdered Woman by Adolfo Best Maugard.
The Powdered Woman (1922) – Adolfo Best Maugard
detail of The Powdered Woman
I’m always drawn to Mexican architecture and colors. It brings back memories of my visits to Mexico City and Cuernavaca in 2007.
As we walk further into the exhibition, we come to the paintings focused on the revolution. Here, David Alfaro Siqueiros depicted Zapata, a man of action who led peasants against landowners, a political martyr, and the human personification of the Revolution itself.
Alfredo Ramos Martinez, after moving to California in 1928, became known for painting a picturesque world of rural flower and fruit vendors, agricultural and craft workers, and indigenous Mexican families, such as the Flower Seller I showed above. Zapatistas (formerly Mexican soldiers) belongs to a subset of works on themes of conflict and struggle.
Zapatistas (1932) – Alfredo Ramos Martinez
Detail of Zapatistas
Finally, Luis Arenal Bastar painted The Death of Zapata in 1937.
Fermin Revueltas showed industrialization creeping into the Mexican economy here in Port.
Three Nudes by Julio Castellanos shows a spirit of classicism that was strong across Europe in the 1920s. He gave the women dark complexions and surrounded them with the rush chairs and white plaster walls of a typical Mexican home.
In the original version of The Birth of Fascism, David Alfaro Siqueiros painted the female figure giving birth to a monstrous newborn with the heads of Hitler, Mussolini, and William Randolph Hearst, the U.S. newspaper publisher seen by the left as an American Fascist. A few years later, he removed the portrait heads, painted over a view of a partially submerged Statue of Liberty, and added a swastika floating on the water’s surface.
Home altars in Mexico are often dedicated to the suffering Virgin Mary in Mexican folk Catholicism. This painting, Altar de Dolores (Altar [for the Virgin] of Sorrows), is organized around a dark-skinned Virgin surrounded by objects traditionally placed on such altars, including bitter oranges symbolic of sorrow, sugar-paste angels, and sprouting wheat that refers to Eucharistic bread and by extension to the body of Christ.
Altar de Dolores (Altar [for the Virgin] of Sorrows) – 1943 – Maria Izquierdo
Detail – Altar de Dolores
Mock battles and disguises are typical of the carnival that marks the beginning of the Catholic Lent. These enigmatic figures suggest the interaction between life and death, good and evil.
Manuel Rodriguez Lozano painted his first fresco, Pietà in the Desert, the Virgin Mary cradling the dead Christ, while he was incarcerated on false charges, probably politically motivated, in Mexico City’s Lecumberri Prison.
Below are a couple of posters related to Fascism.
I’m not sure of this painting’s significance, but the colorful Lion and Horse was painted by Rufino Tamayo in 1942.
Troubled Waters earned Jose Chavez Morado a prize in a 1949 Excelsior newspaper competition for paintings of Mexico City. This allegory of social stratification, corruption, and other evils of modernization continues a perennial theme of modern Mexican art: life in the big city.
Finally, Juan O’Gorman won first prize in the 1949 Excelsior newspaper competition for Mexico City. Besides showing the center of town, it is also about the capital city and the power of national symbols. Two hands hold up a 1540 map of the gridded Aztec capital to connect the present to the past. The figures floating over the skyline are the feathered serpent, representing the Mesoamerican deity Quetzalcoatl; the golden eagle from the Mexican coat of arms; and a pair of flying nudes with the tricolor flat emblazoned with the slogan “Long Live Mexico.”
I thoroughly enjoyed this exhibition, while also learning about Mexican culture and the Mexican Revolution. While we drove to Philadelphia, I read aloud to Mike from my phone while he drove, all about the history and important figures in the Revolution; thus, we learned some of the history before we went, further helping us to appreciate our experience.
One thing David Finn recommends in his book is that when you go to see a special exhibition, you should make it a point to visit some part of the permanent collection while you’re there. Since we’ve come all the way to Philadelphia to see this exhibit, we also wander through the New South Asian Galleries. I’ll share those with you in another post. As I’ve lived and traveled throughout South Asia, visiting this part of the museum was a special way for me to travel vicariously back to that part of the world. 🙂
SHE WHO WAS ONCE THE HELMET-MAKER’S BEAUTIFUL WIFE A sculpture by August Rodin 1880-85 at The Hirshhorn, Washington, D.C. 2001
Her skin flows
down her frail neck, rib cage, legs –
then solidifies, bronzed.
Gravity – hypnotic –
tugs at her deflated breasts. Punctuated
by sunken nipples, invisible aureoles, they lounge
against her ribs, her tired mound of belly.
Her hair hangs in a horseshoe on her back.
Her kneecaps jut in knotted knobs, dark
and pockmarked as peppercorns.
The pitted surfaces of her skin
refract the museum light,
deflect her despair
to her companions – Crouching Woman,
Head of Sorrow, Kneeling Woman Combing Her Hair.
The Hirshhorn docent points at her,
while students scribble in notebooks,
raincoats tossed over their arms.
Rodin insists she was once beautiful,
and maybe she was, but today
and until bronze disintegrates,
her essence hides within a craggy oyster shell,
pearly, air-thin bones under loose-fitting skin.
Inside her hollows, she just remembers
wandering to her husband’s shop
on woolen summer evenings,
moonlight glancing off canary grass,
a whippoorwill’s lament in liquid air.
on her skin as she watched his shoulders
strain in the light from the fire.
She silently slid her fingers over the cool ridge
of a helmet, her own reflection – beguiling –
in the metal-mirror curve.
She loved to seduce him on those ancient evenings,
the helmets – like a crowd
of floating, gleaming heads – peering
as she and her husband
made tangled love
on the dusty floor.
~ by Cathy Birdsong Dutchak
July 12, 2001
Today, I go in search of the sculpture at the Hirshhorn, but because of an exhibit called Damage Control: Art and Destruction since 1950, much of the permanent collection has been put in storage. No one at the museum can even tell me if the sculpture is even still part of the permanent collection. I wrote this poem over 10 years ago in a poetry class, inspired by art at the Hirshhorn.