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The Eternal Life of Stone in Art

The Eternal Life of Stone in Art

The Eternal Life of Stone in Art

LOS ANGELES — Crystals, it seems, are everywhere. From shopping malls to airports, I’ve seen crystals sold in tiny bits and mega pieces, on bracelets and as standalone objects. New York City’s Mayor Eric Adams once said that crystals give the city “special energy,” and Texas State University Professor Joseph P. Laycock has connected their popularity to metaphysical religion. Whether spiritual or aesthetic, our modern fascination with crystals makes clear that these stones have more power than their physical properties. They look good, and for some people they also feel good to be around. 

Eternal Medium: Seeing the World in Stone at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art explores the use of stone primarily in Western art. The works on view are largely from the museum’s collections, alongside some from the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London and Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection on loan to the V&A.

The exhibition is organized around a few core themes, as in Fooling the Eye, which includes trompe l’oeil works such as a table with a still life that looks like a painting but is in fact made entirely of stones, marble, coral, and rock crystal. In Stone for Stone, works made of stone depict stone, which makes for an especially apt metaphor of St. Peter, whose name derives from the Greek petra, or stone. Leonard Bramer’s “The Liberation of Saint Peter” is an oil painting that uses slate to capture the essence of the stone walls of a prison that might have held the Biblical figure.

Opificio delle Pietre Dure (maker), Renato Bittoni (designer), “Valchirie” (c. 1954), mosaic of soft stones, hard stones, and marbles

And as anyone who’s visited a rock desert or collected crystals might recognize, sometimes stones themselves have their own painterly qualities. A marble slab from Yunnan, China, is presented as is, cut into the shape of a circle to help highlight its natural whites and grays, which look like a cloud or running stream. An untitled landscape designed by Richard Blow, manufactured by Monitici Workshop in Florence, is an example of a pietra paesina, or landscape stone. Blow arranged albarese limestone into a stone mosaic to create the sense of a landscape.

One important theme apparent in the show is the spiritual quality of stone. A detailed watercolor panel from the entrance to the Taj Mahal is decorated with gorgeous floral designs. As the exhibition text notes, the “constancy of the stone flowers [situated closer toward the Taj Mahal’s interior] compared to the ephemeral ones outside associated them with the garden of paradise, especially given the memorial function of the building.” 

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On the other end of the gallery, a white marble bust of Christ attributed to Giovanni Battista Della Porta is embellished with blue lapis lazuli that was aligned with the Virgin Mary and purple-red stone connected with divinity and empire. The bust, made in the 16th century, is presented alongside a Neo-Assyrian stamp seal made of lapis lazuli from the late 8th to 7th century, exhibiting the long history of this stone — still popular in crystal shops today — with beauty, power and the spirit.

I stopped by a small stone mosaic of white chalcedony, soft stones, and marble depicting valkyrie. The black and white figures appear sad or tired, slumped on horseback. More alive is the marble behind them, quarried from the Apuan Alps of northern Tuscany. It looks like a storm rolling in, a tornado perhaps, an earthly object as dynamic as the skies of Italy. It’s easy to think of stone as static, immutable, but as Eternal Medium shows, stone is a slice of the earth itself, as alive as the artists who mold and shape it.

Delhi School, “A panel at the entrance to the Taj Mahal” (c. 1816–22), watercolor
Unidentified maker, China, “Yellow celadon jade recumbent water buffalo with russet head and highlights” (possibly Ming dynasty, 1368–1644), jade
Unidentified maker, Italy, “Table with still life” (c. 1860–70), mosaic of hard stones, sort stones and marbles, and coral, set in a gilt-wood tilted table
Unidentified maker, “The Palazzo Vecchio” (c. 1873–1900), mosaic of hardstones (lapis lazuli), soft stones and marbles (alberese limestone, rosso di Pyrenees, gabbro, malachite), and shell
Richard Blow (owner and designer), Montici workshop (manufacturer), “Untitled (Landscape)” (c. 1960), soft stone mosaic
Castrucci Workshop, Prague “Cabinet with landscapes” (c. 1610–20), mosaic of hard stones set in an ebony and ebonized wood cabinet
Unidentified maker, Yunnan, China “Marble slab” (c. 1800–1872), marble

Eternal Medium: Seeing the World in Stone continues at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (5905 Wilshire Blvd, Mid-Wilshire, Los Angeles) through February 11. The exhibition was curated by Rosie Mills, Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation Associate Curator, Decorative Arts and Design.

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