An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 61

Clinton Howell Antiques - December 2, 2019 - Issue 61
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
Presence-in-absence are the last words of an article in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's, "Bulletin". The article is about a current exhibition called "Rayyabe Tabet, Alien Property" that features an artist's view of things to do with both his past and our collective past and present, to wit, items excavated from Tell Halaf in 1913 in an area in northern Syria that have ended up in a variety of western museums. The artist started this project based on his great-grandfather's association as personal secretary to Max von Oppenheim, the excavator of Tell Halaf, on whom he was supposed to spy and send information to the French as the First World War was about to break out. As you can tell, there are many strands to this spaghetti and it is hard not to get a little confused about who was doing what to whom and what did it have to do with contemporary art and neo-Hittite antiquities? Good question.

The Bulletin has three articles, two by MMA personnel and one by the artist which talks about his discovery of his great-grandfather's past. The phrase, "presence-in-absence" references the artist's rubbings of pieces taken from the frieze of the palace that was unearthed by von Oppenheim and which are currently being shown at the Met along with some of the original frieze. Without further ado, I want to focus on the key phrase==presence-in-absence. (That was my excuse for skipping so much of my sixth grade as I was absent but I was present--I learned, but not what they were teaching.) Joking aside, I want to elaborate on the concept of what we miss when we look at something or what is present but of which we are unawares.

When I look at a piece of furniture, I see all sorts of things simultaneously. The two most prominent things are function and design. But this is only the start of understanding what one sees in a piece of furniture (or object for that matter). As the story in the exhibition at the Met makes clear, we all have the opportunity to make more of something. For example, the plain old golden oak table I grew up eating at has marks all over it from where we, as kids, sat. I know immediately where I sat by a quick glance at the table. I can see my two brothers, my parents and my sister just on looking at the table. Of course, it was my grandparent's table before that, so what would my father, or grandparents for that matter, see when looking at the table? And what about the maker? Why is the table golden oak? The questions are almost endless, the amount of presence only hinting at the enormous absence we could uncover.