April 09, 2017

Segers and Seurat at The Met

Print enthusiasts have a lot to be happy about this spring with the magnificent exhibition "The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers" now on view at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.  While Hercules Segers (1590-1638) may not be a household name even among specialists in the field, he was greatly admired by none other than Rembrandt (who owned a number of Segers's works in his own collection) and is considered one of the most experimental and original practitioners of the craft.

Hercules Segers, "Still Life with Books", c. 1618-22
Counterproof (?) of a line etching printed in
blue-green on cotton with a cream colored ground

Segers was an anomaly in several respects.  A member of the artists' guild in Haarlem, Segers worked there and later in Amsterdam as a print maker, painter and also an art dealer.  He was one of the first artists to depict a still life in European graphic art (see above) and he is credited with developing the technique of "sugar-biting", now known as aquatint in print making.  Probably most importantly was Segers's unique approach to print making as another form of painting rather than as a means of producing a number of identical images.  To this end, he experimented with papers, cloths, and methods, sometimes etching several plates for a single image, so that, though similar, no two pieces were exactly alike.  For example, take a look at these five variations of "Valley with a River and a Town with Four Towers" done circa 1626-27.  Each is basically the same composition but due to differences in the support (cloth or paper), ground color (grey-green, yellow-grey, cream, brown-grey), printing ink (blue, black, dark green) and hand-applied enhancements, each is a unique piece.

While Hercules Segers's name may be doomed to obscurity, his influence on the history of graphic art is profound and this exhibition is a well deserved homage to this important artist.

On a more popular note is the concurrent exhibition "Seurat's Circus Sideshow" centered around The Met's marvelous painting of the same name "Circus Sideshow (Parade de cirque)" by pointillist painter Georges Seurat (1859-1891).

Many 19th and 20th century artists were captivated by the circus and explored the spectacle's sociological narrative with a mixture of fascination and revulsion.  Seurat's look specifically at the sideshow, the lead-in to the main event, exhibits the same intrigue but with the added anticipation factor - the promise of what is to come.

Seurat was not alone in this obsession with the tease, and this exhibition presents, in a circular gallery setting (much like the ring at the circus), a selection of works on the theme by himself and his contemporaries.  Like the circus and its patrons, the pieces on display range from publicity posters to oil paintings, spanning the spectrum from common to highbrow.

Colorful publicity posters invite us to enter the magical world behind the curtain like this 1897 lithograph by Georges Redon...

A more sinister view is this etching by Marcel Roux taken from "Danse Macabre", 1905, entitled "The Fair:  Those Death Takes by Surprise"...

Seurat's genius with conté crayon on paper is revealed in these precursor to "Circus Sideshow" depicting two clowns in "Sidewalk Show (Une Parade)",  1883-84...
A rather brutal glimpse into the life of a sideshow performer is seen here in Gabriel Boutet's 1885 oil painting "The Fair at Montrouge"...

While Pierre Bonnard offers a more humorous vision as this clown seems to tiptoe off the stage in "Fairground Sideshow (Parade)", an oil on cardboard done in 1892...

Though Seurat's "Circus Sideshow" is a study in elegance and stillness, it was perhaps not the most accurate description of the world of the parade.  Here, in the massive mural "Grimaces and Misery - The Saltimbanques" by Fernand Pelez, we see a more realistic depiction of life as an itinerant entertainer.

Despite the dark undercurrents, the color and excitement of the circus and its sideshow have an enduring appeal - maybe not to artists but to the general public who are flocking to this exhibition like it's the "greatest show on earth"!

March 31, 2017

Bonjour Paris!

Spring has arrived in the City of Lights and with the new season comes a host of wonderful new exhibitions.  Here, in no particular order, is an abbreviated tour of some of the highlights.

Probably the hottest ticket in town is "Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting" which opened in February at the Louvre.  It is the first blockbuster show presented by the museum in many years and has been so popular that timed-entry tickets became mandatory for crowd control.  Whatever the wait, it is worth it as we will probably never have the chance to see twelve of Vermeer's paintings (about a third of his entire œuvre) in one place again.

Organized in conjunction with the National Gallery of Art, Dublin, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, this is a magnificent show featuring some very familiar images, like "The Milkmaid", c. 1658-61, on loan from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, as well as some less known works like "The Geographer", c. 1668-69, lent by the Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt.

The paintings are arranged according to theme, "Love Letters", "Night and Day", or "Aphrodisiacs", for example, and along with Vermeer's masterful paintings are works by his contemporaries who echoed, but never quite attained, his command of interior scenes.  Though Vermeer's nickname of The Sphinx of Delft implies a solitary painter toiling in isolation, there was, in fact, a real network of Dutch genre painters working at that time.  This exhibition gives visitors a unique opportunity to compare the similarities of technique and style between Vermeer and other artists like ter Borch, Netscher and Dou who, despite being spread throughout The Netherlands, were operating very much in tandem.

Caspar Netscher "The Lacemaker" 1669-70

A little to the east of The Louvre, in the Marais District, is the Musée Picasso where a brand new exhibition looks at the life of Pablo Picasso's first wife, Ukrainian-born Olga Khokhlova.  Thanks to a recently discovered treasure trove of personal letters and documents, the curators of this landmark show offer visitors an incredibly intimate look at the highs and lows of life with the greatest artist of the 20th century.

When Pablo Picasso met Olga in Rome in 1917, he was designing the decorations and costumes for the ballet "Parade",  and she was the prima ballerina.  It was love at first sight and they were married the next year.  In true honeymoon style, this early period was filled with parties and balls, Pablo's career was surging and the couple's son Paulo was born in 1921.  Olga was the ideal muse and Picasso first portrayed her as a melancholy figure, concerned about the plight of her family trapped in Russia during the Revolution, before softening her features to reflect her new motherhood and their domestic joy.

All this changed however when Pablo Picasso met and became obsessed with the much younger Marie-Thérèse Walter.  By 1929, portrayals of Olga had turned from elegant and womanly to tortured and grotesque, a not-so-subtle commentary on the state of their marital union.  Though the couple separated in 1935, they remained legally married until Olga's death twenty years later.

Enriched with a wealth of letters, photographs and other personal papers, "Olga Picasso" is far more than an art exhibition, it is an in depth look at a woman and her relationship with a very complicated man with a few fabulous paintings thrown in.

Now let's head over to the Left Bank and the Musée Maillol where "21 rue La Boétie" opened to large crowds on March 2.  The curious title refers to the address of what was the most famous and respected Modern Art gallery of the early 20th century.  It was owned by art dealer extraordinaire Paul Rosenberg (1881-1959), who represented, and collected, some of the great masters of modernism including Léger, Matisse, Braque and Picasso.

Though the exhibition features about 60 superb examples of Modern Art drawn from private and public collections throughout Europe, the intention is more than just presenting some nice pictures.  The far more compelling theme is the story of Paul Rosenberg himself, whose biography reads like a thriller but with lasting ramifications. 

Paul Rosenberg with Matisse's "Odalisque", 1937

The sons of an antiques dealer, Paul and his brother Léonce both followed in the family footsteps and became respected gallerists in their own rights.  Paul set up shop at 21, Rue La Boétie in 1911 where he became known as both an innovative and very ethical dealer and his stable of artists included both European and American Modern masters.  Everything was going swimmingly until the late 1930s when the Rosenbergs' Jewish heritage began to spell trouble.  Though Paul had taken preemptive action, in 1940, when the Nazis invaded France, he was forced to flee to America, via Lisbon, leaving approximately 2000 works of art behind in Paris.

Paul Rosenberg went on to establish a new gallery at 79 East 57th Street and in doing so, relocated the center of Modern Art from Paris to New York.  Though he returned to France after the war, his son Alexandre took over the 57th Street gallery and continued the family tradition. This exhibition is a wonderful tribute to the foresight and the true courage of conviction of Paul Rosenberg and his enduring contribution to Modern Art.
Finally we come to what was probably the highlight of my museum visits on this trip, "Beyond the Stars:  The Mystical Landscape from Monet to Kandinsky" now on view at the Musée d'Orsay.  I had been very eager to visit this exhibition and I was not disappointed.  From the first gallery where visitors were greeted with four examples of Claude Monet's "Rouen Cathedral" paintings each painted in a different light, and all from the collection of the Musée d'Orsay, it was obvious that this would be something special.
 Claude Monet "La Cathédrale de Rouen, Harmonie Bleu", 1893

 Claude Monet "La Cathédrale de Rouen, Harmonie Brune", 1892

 Claude Monet "La Cathédrale de Rouen, Harmonie Grise", 1892

Claude Monet "La Cathédrale de Rouen, Plein Soleil, Bleu et Or", 1893

Now, it was no real surprise to find great French Impressionist paintings in Paris.  But what was a surprise was to find a large portion of this exhibition dedicated to mystical landscapes by Scandinavian and especially Canadian artists (with a few Americans thrown in!).  It was a surprise, and for this native-born Canadian a great delight, to find the regionally famous but otherwise  little known "Group of Seven" very well represented...

Tom Thompson "The West Wind", 1916-17

Emily Carr "Indian Church", 1929
Though landscape painting has been around since the beginning of art, more often than not it is pedestrian and, let's face it, rather dull.  This fresh approach to the genre with its focus on symbolism, surrealism and the cosmos is a refreshing look at how we, as humans, co-exist with the natural, and super-natural, worlds.

Georgia O'Keeffe "Red Hills, Lake George", 1927

And now, unfortunately, my landscape will shift from beautiful Paris in the Springtime to New York at the end of winter.  But I leave with my head full of wonderful impressions and great anticipation for the new season ahead.  I hope you'll join me!

March 14, 2017

It's TEFAF Time Again!

Of all the art and antiques exhibitions and fairs I go to every year, the one I most look forward to is The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) held each March in the tiny town of Maastricht, The Netherlands.  Established in 1988 as a venue for dealers in Old Master paintings, TEFAF has grown and expanded to its present coterie of 275 international specialists presenting rare and wonderful works from Egyptian mummies to French wall papers, all thoroughly vetted and all for sale.

Last week I spent two very full days exploring the fair's myriad offerings and enjoying its unique ambiance.  One of the features that make this event so special, and something that the organizers pay extra attention to, is the flowers.  After all, this is the land of the tulip, and every visitor who comes through the entrance is expecting to be wowed by the floral displays.   This year's main installation was like a giant disc by Anish Kapoor, but instead of mirror, it comprised of thousands of test tubes, each suspended with a silver wire and each containing one or two stems in various shades of rose, lilac, green or white.  The effect was stunning, and set the stage for the magic that was to come.

With the tremendous variety of objects and artworks on view it was a challenge to choose the highlights.  So here is a short, extremely subjective selection of some of my favorite things...

"La Ville de Paris" is carved entirely of ivory and stands about 15" tall in its glass case.  It was made in Dieppe circa 1790 and can be found on the stand of Galerie Delalande, Paris...

This ornate ormolu-mounted parcel gilt and polychrome painted ivory, ebony and rose-wood cabinet was made in Augsburg circa 1650 and stands 33" tall.  It is offered for sale by Peter Mühlbauer, Pocking, Germany...

Looking for something a little simpler?  How about these inlaid side chairs designed by Wiener Werkstätte artist Kolomon Moser in 1902/03.  The pair of glass mosaic wall decorations are also by Moser and were made for the reading room at the Beethoven exhibition of the Vienna Secession XIV.  These items are on display with specialist Yves Macaux, London...

On a royal note, Didier Aaron, Paris/London, is presenting this larger than life ceremonial portrait painting of Louis XIV in his coronation finery by Antoine François Callet...

More modern princess fantasies can be indulged with this charming diamond tiara made in France in 1905.  Enquiries can be made at S.J. Phillips, London...

Another impractical but rather amazing piece is The Fabergé Potato on display at A La Vielle Russie, New York.  Made in St. Petersburg circa 1890 by workmaster Michael Perchin, the potato-shaped box is carved of pink-brown agate with a "sliced" lid...

This large seated Buddha exudes serenity.  Carved, painted and gilded during the Ming Dynasty (14th century), this massive (750+ lbs) Buddha is offered for sale by Dutch Oriental Art dealer Vanderven...

On the smaller side of the Buddha coin is this much smaller but equally intriguing black Delft Buddha officially titled "A Figure of Pu-Tai-Ho-Shang (Bodhisattva)" and attributed to the Metaale Pot Factory, Delft, circa 1700.  This rather jolly figure of Buddha can be viewed at Salomon Stodel Antiquités, Amsterdam...

My absolute favorite item offered for sale in this plethora of the fantastic, is, without a doubt, the marvelous Dutch dollhouse filled with 17th century Dutch silver miniatures on the stand of John Endlich Antiquairs, Amsterdam.  This large-scale dollhouse, made of walnut with mother-of-pearl, glass, paper, porcelain and damast was built and decorated in The Netherlands and China and was a real crowd-pleaser.  It was sold within the first hour, reputedly to an American buyer, at an asking price of nearly two million Euros.

Once again, I have enjoyed every single moment of my visit to Maastricht.  From the flowers to the furniture, the paintings to the pearls, it has been another voyage of amazing discoveries.  And though I am always sad to finish a visit to TEFAF, I am already looking forward to the next one!

February 24, 2017

Looking at "A Revolutionary Impulse" @ MoMA

As the centennial of the Russian Revolution approaches, the curators of the Prints and Drawings and the Photography Departments at New York's Museum of Modern Art have combined forces to present an exhibition of avant-garde works created before, during and after this period of intense turmoil.  "A Revolutionary Impulse:  The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde" looks at how Russian artists bucked tradition by promoting an entire new style of art, one more in keeping with the social and political realities of the period.

With World War I raging in Europe and the centuries old Tsarist regime starting to crack, the time was ripe for a fresh approach to the visual and performing arts.  Artists like Natalia Goncharova...

"Rayonism, Blue-Green Forest", 1913

Vasily Kandinsky...

"Improvisation", c. 1914

and Kazimir Malevich...

...rejected classical form and replaced it with a new language - the language of Suprematism.  Art was no longer simply a re-creation of people, places or things, but a completely abstract expression of poetic form that freed the creators and viewers from the confines of reality.

With the overthrow of the Tsar and the installation of Bolshevism, avant-garde artists embraced an even more radical form of expression - Constructivism.  A reflection of the socialist agenda, this contemporary movement was no longer about the individual artist but society as a unit and with that a uniform language of abstraction.  Decorative painting was rejected in favor of more practical objects like posters and dishes that were produced mechanically rather than by hand.

Motion pictures, photography and dance, still relatively new forms of performance art, brought powerful messages of post-revolutionary ideals to a vast public.

Dziga Vertov "The Man with the Movie Camera", 1929

By the 1930s, when the "democratic" society was not quite as wonderful as people had hoped, Stalin turned to artists to promote the socialist agenda.  Graphic designers like Gustav Klutsis and Sergei Sen'kin were among many who were enlisted to create propaganda posters and pamphlets that glorified the new regime.

Some of these printed materials are remarkable in their design elements but ultimately the message was one of control.  Artists were no longer expressing their views but advertising for the Soviet power and experimentation was not allowed.   The age of "Socialist Realism" effectively ended the great avant-garde breakthroughs of the early part of the century and Russian artists were reduced to being civil servants rather than arbiters of change.  The rest, as they say, is history.  "A Revolutionary Impulse" can be seen at MoMA until March 12.

February 19, 2017

John McLaughlin "Total Abstraction" @ LACMA

Though born and raised a Yankee, John McLaughlin (1898-1976) is identified first and foremost as a Southern California artist.  So it is entirely appropriate that the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art (LACMA) honor the State's adopted son with a long-overdue retrospective of his "Hard Edge" works.  "John McLaughlin Paintings: Total Abstraction" is a comprehensive survey of the post war geometric paintings for which he is best known and only the third major museum exhibition ever devoted to his work.

Three "Untitled" paintings from the 1950s

While McLaughlin himself freely acknowledged the influence of such Minimalist artists as Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich, it is the art of Japan that had the most profound impact on his vision.  From his childhood spent in the Asian art galleries of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and his later travels throughout Japan and China, McLaughlin absorbed the Zen principals of the void, or "ma", the negative space where one's consciousness can expand.

"V-1957", 1957

His sharp geometric designs are not intended to represent any type of object or experience, rather they are meant to suggest complete abstraction and with that, the possibility of deep contemplation.   

Upper: "#22-1959", 1959
Lower: "Untitled", 1966

The precise and perfect lines permit the viewer to become immersed in the negative space and ideally develop a more complete connection with nature.  McLaughlin endeavored to push the concept of abstraction to its outer limit, ultimately employing solely the shape of a rectangle as the preferred form and black as the simplest and most powerful color.  By the 1970s McLaughlin's paintings had been simplified to the extreme as he pursued his quest to achieve the void.

"#12-1970", 1970

John McLaughlin's obsession with abstraction earned him quite a few accolades during his lifetime and has elevated him to almost cult status among followers of California art.  His work had an immeasurable influence on later 20th century movements such as Light and Space (think James Turrell) and Pop Art (think Ed Ruscha) and continues to inspire to this day.  "Total Abstraction" is on view at LACMA until April 16th.

Leaving the museum during a break in the rain, I passed the site-specific installation by another noted California artist Chris Burden (1946-2015) that has become a landmark for visitors to downtown Los Angeles.  "Urban Light", 2008, features two hundred and two restored cast-iron antique lamp posts arranged in a grid that is almost irresistible to anyone with a camera - myself included!