October 17, 2016

What's On in Paris, Part I

Bonjour from Paris where the sun is shining and there are a lot of really great exhibitions on view all over town.  So many in fact, that I was wondering how to cover such a range of periods and styles but I think I'll just begin with the earliest and work my way into the present.

Let's start off with a marvelous show presented in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Musée d'Orsay.  It is hard to believe that it is thirty years already since the Musée d'Orsay opened as the brilliantly re-purposed train station-cum-repository for the city's vast collection of Impressionist paintings.  On the other hand, it is such a fixture on the museum circuit that it seems like it's always been there.  In any case, the museum has used the occasion of this important milestone to offer a fresh perspective on another landmark era in French history, the Second Empire.

The short reign of Napoleon III (1852-1870) was an era of strong economic growth, a stable imperial regime, and a thriving artistic community.  While sometimes maligned as a time of conspicuous consumption, excess and corruption, the Second Empire has left a legacy of extraordinary achievements in the fine and decorative arts.

Franz-Xaver Winterhalter (after)
"Napoleon III, Emperor of the French", c. 1861

While Napoleon III certainly broke a few rules when he seized the throne after being elected President of the Republic in 1851 and then dissolving the National Assembly to become the sole ruler, he subsequently re-enacted both universal suffrage and freedom of the press.  Though he effectively appointed himself Emperor, he was extremely popular among his subjects.  Part of the reason for this adoration was his propensity for over-the-top celebrations and public fanfare - devices that instilled national pride and a sense of participation in something great on the part of the French citizenry.

For example, the marriage of Napoleon III and Eugenie was an extravagant ceremony involving the lavish decoration of Notre Dame Cathedral, and the birth of the Prince Imperial two years later was again cause for a gala event complete with a ceremonial cradle.  Though the marking of each of these occasions may seems excessive, it did achieve a couple of important objectives for the dynasty.  First, it gave the public a chance to revel in the success of the Empire and take pride in its sovereigns, and second, it promoted and honored French artistic and cultural superiority.  Furthermore, much as the Fête Impériale was undeniably a fabricated excuse to dress up and have a party, it also served the very important function of securing France's place as the most elegant and sophisticated place on earth while coalescing support for both the royal family and the luxury purveyors who supplied them.

Henri Baron
"Official Celebration at the Tuileries Palace During
the Universal Exhibition of 1867"

This beautifully installed exhibition is an opportunity to see some fabulous examples of works by French artists and craftsmen of the Second Empire.  Ornate vases by Sèvres, tapestries by Beauvais, portrait paintings by Tissot and Degas, Gothic Revival carved furniture, Imperial jewels, a baptismal font made entirely of crystal - all of these items were created in the mania for the elegant and exotic that captivated the public.  Yes, the Second Empire was a period of rampant consumerism, but it also left a legacy of some magnificent works of art that continue to delight.

As luck would have it, I made my visit to the Musée d'Orsay on the same afternoon as a costume ball was being held in their elegant Salle des Fêtes, and the museum was crowded with ladies and gentleman in period attire.  It was a funny sight to see women in decorated hats and hoop skirts talking on iPhones but it certainly added to the atmosphere of this historic show.

Over in the 6th Arrondisement, at the Musée du Luxembourg, is another exhibition devoted to the art of a 19th century painter, Henri Fantin-Latour.  "À fleur de peau" is a retrospective of the still lifes, portraits and "imaginative works" of this complex artist.

"Autoportrait", 1860

Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904) lived and breathed art.  "Painting is my only pleasure, my only goal" and this statement, made at the tender age of 19, guided his life to the end.  In the age of collectives, Fantin-Latour was an anomaly, an independent artist working on the fringes but guided by his own very developed sense of purpose.

In his quest for realism, he developed a reputation as a fine painter of portraits, especially group scenes.  Though sometimes rather grim and not always the most flattering depictions, they were nevertheless true to life.

"Coin de table", 1872
Group portrait of some of the most famous writers of the day
"Autour du piano", 1885
Group portrait of some of the most famous musicians 
and composers of the day
Perhaps more successful were his still lifes which proved very popular and provided his main source of income.  Exquisitely rendered, the flowers on these canvases look as though they had just been picked from a garden...
"La table garni", 1866

"The Rosy Wreath of June", 1886

Despite this dedication to the realistic (he was an early collector of photography), Fantin-Latour also had an imaginative side.  This foray into fantasy was expressed in paintings that verged on the Surreal.  Obsessed with music, particularly the composers Berlioz and Wagner, Fantin-Latour showed an entirely different side of himself with his "imaginative paintings".  Painted during his mature years, these were the works that ultimately offer the truest view of the artist's real self.

"Ariane abandonné", 1899

"Au bord de la mer", 1903

The popularity of Fantin-Latour has waxed and waned over the years, but he remains an important figure in the 19th century art world and bridged the gap between classic and modern.  This exhibition is a testament to his enduring influence and legacy.

October 10, 2016

Ab Ex at the R.A.

It may seem odd to visit an exhibition of a quintessentially American art movement in a foreign capital, but sometimes a fresh perspective makes one appreciate the familiar just that much more.  Such is certainly the case with the blockbuster show "Abstract Expressionism" that opened at the Royal Academy of Arts in London on September 24.

Arshile Gorky "Water of the Flowery Mill", 1944

Abstract Expressionism came into being in New York in the 1940s when a group of artists broke from the traditional, European-based tenets of painting and began to create works in an entirely different way.  Similar to the Dadaists' reaction to the horrors of The Great War, this group of avant garde artists, both native born and emigres, felt compelled to upend the conventional wisdom of pre-World War II modernism and invent a completely new language.

The result was Abstract Expressionism, a radical approach to every aspect of art as historically realized, from the subject to the relationship with the viewer to the basic act of painting.  The effect was seismic and it effected the previously unimaginable shift of the center of the art world from Paris to New York.

Despite its importance in American and indeed global art history, the Royal Academy's exhibition is the first comprehensive survey of the movement since 1959.  And they did it in style.  This show is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view rarely seen masterpieces from collections around the world.  Like, for example, the presence of not one but two of Jackson Pollack's most famous paintings - the recently restored "Mural" commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim in 1943 and now held by the University of Iowa's Museum of Art...

Hanging just across the gallery is one of my personal favorites, "Blue Poles", 1952, which traveled half way around the world from its home in Canberra at the National Gallery of Australia, to be shown in Europe...

These two paintings epitomize the principals of the Abstract Expressionist movement.  First, they are monumental in scale.  Measuring 6.5 and 5.3 yards across, respectively, the size alone has an initial impact on the viewer.  Second, they are "all over" paintings with no central focal point but an all-encompassing "image".  Third, the artist painted them using newly invented techniques of paint application.  Both were painted on the floor, as opposed to on an easel, and in the case of "Blue Poles", Jackson Pollack employed what became his signature "drip" style - literally pouring and spraying paint onto the canvas.

Another remarkable loan came from the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, Colorado.  Though a founding member and one of the most recognizable artists of the Abstract Expressionist movement, Still was famously anti-commercial and very few of his works were put on the market.  Today the majority of his works are held by his eponymous museum and are rarely on view except in rotating in-house exhibitions.  It was therefore a huge and happy surprise to enter a gallery at the Royal Academy dedicated to Clyfford Still and filled with some of his most magnificent works.

Clyfford Still "PH-950", 1950

Still another highlight was the amazing group of paintings by the Latvian-born artist, Mark Rothko.  Assembled in a round room, in a reference to the Rothko Chapel in Houston, these large format, intensely hued canvases envelope the viewer in emotion and feeling.  Typical of Abstract Expressionism, these works are all-over images that demand attention and create a dialogue between artist and observer.

Mark Rothko "Red Yellow Red"

Some of the galleries were devoted to one artist like Gorky, Pollock, Rothko, Still and De Kooning.

Willem De Kooning "Woman II", 1952

While others presented a theme or compare-and-contrast like Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt.

Barnett Newman "Profile of Light", 1967
 Ad Reinhardt "Untitled", c. 1966

Interspersed throughout were metal sculptures by David Smith, not a painter but definitely a member of the group, that provided an interesting counterpoint to all those big pictures.

David Smith "Blackburn, Song of an Irish Blacksmith", 1949-50

I had been looking forward to seeing this exhibition and it lived up to expectations and then some.  It's only too bad that one has to cross the Atlantic to find such an insightful and comprehensive perspective of this uniquely American movement.

October 08, 2016

I survived "The Slide"!

Let me state right from the beginning that I do not like scary rides.  I live in New York City which I find thrilling enough without seeking additional excitement in the form of roller coasters or haunted houses.  So when my husband informed me that he wanted more than anything to ride "The Slide" at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London, it took barely a nanosecond for me to say absolutely not!

It didn't get any better when I looked on the website and read the description as "visitors will descend the world's highest, and at 178m, the world's longest tunnel slide...they'll pass through light and dark sections with London's dramatic skyscape whizzing by!"

Maybe it was the art element in that the slide is part of an outdoor sculpture created by Sir Anish Kapoor for the 2012 Olympics.  Or maybe I figured if I was going to be widowed I might as well be there too, but against my saner instincts I ordered two tickets for earlier this week when we would be in London for the Frieze Masters art fair and some other events.

Briefly, The Slide is a collaboration between Anish Kapoor, the Indian-born artist now living in England who is probably best known for his lovely mirror sculptures, and Carsten Höller, a Belgian-born artist now living in Stockholm who has earned quite a reputation for slides.  The genesis of this project came from a conversation between the former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and Lakshmi Mittal, head of ArcelorMittal, the world's largest steel company.  Mr Johnson was exploring the idea of creating a lasting monument to commemorate the Olympic and Paralympic Games and Mr. Mittal enthusiastically offered to supply all the steel needed for the project.

Enter Anish Kapoor who worked with engineer Cecil Balmond to create Britain's tallest sculpture, the ArcelorMittal Orbit, as the symbol of the London Olympics.  Created out of 600 star shaped modules, held together with 35,000 steel bolts, the design loops in and out in a sort of giant red ampersand.   Love it or hate it, the ArcelorMittal Orbit received 130,000 visitors in August of 2012 before being shut down as part of the re-development of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park to assume its post-Olympic role as a community green space.  The sculpture re-opened to the public in April of 2014 and once again visitors could ride the elevator to the viewing platform and enjoy spectacular views stretching for 20 miles.

The City's skyscraper as seen from the Viewing Platform
But the developers wanted something more than just a tall sculpture with an observation deck, and the final phase, the design and construction of The Slide, was completed just a few months ago.  Now we come to the reason for my excursion on the Tube to Stratford in East London on a beautiful Monday in October.

In case you were thinking, as I had, that the spiral you see above is The Slide, think again.  This is a gently curving staircase easily walkable in a descent from the viewing platform.  The Slide, on the other hand, is a 580 foot long stainless steel tube that twists like a corkscrew from the top to the bottom of the sculpture and ends in a fifty foot drop to the finish.

Of course I didn't realize all this as I grimly rode the elevator to the first observation deck, the "launch pad" for The Slide.  There I joined a small group of fellow "sliders" as we nervously joked about the long list of do's and don'ts and geared up in protective arm pads, knee pads, and helmets.  One by one we were instructed to recline on a felt "toboggan" holding onto the reins with both hands, not to sit up nor lie down flat and not to lean into the curves.  When the monitor indicated "go", we were to pull ourselves along the slide to the precipice and then, heaven help you!  It was far from reassuring to hear the yelps and screams emanating from the tube as they disappeared into the great beyond.

Finally it was my turn.  My helmet was double checked, I assumed the position and off I went.  Honestly, I was too terrified to scream as I hurtled downward sometimes in darkness, sometimes in light, twisting and turning and dropping seemingly vertically into a black hole.  The idea of "seeing London's dramatic skyscape whizzing by" was preposterous as I was entirely focused on surviving.  I told myself just to hang on and it would soon be over and then, almost before I knew it, it was done.  I emerged from the tube a little wobbly but unscathed and greatly relieved that it was behind me.

Would I ever do it again?  Probably not.  But I earned my stripes and can truly claim to have survived "The Slide"!

Looking down at the slide through the floor of the Viewing Platform

September 26, 2016

"Proust's Muse: The Countess Greffulhe"

We have become almost inured to fashion spectacles by the likes of Lady Gaga or Kim Kardashian who seek to shock with more and more outrageous outfits on the red carpet or just on the town.  But their desire to create a sensation or gain notoriety through dress (or lack of it) is nothing new.  In fact, one could say that the trend began over a century ago, in Paris, with the original fashion queen, the Countess Greffulhe.

Born Marie-Joséphine Anatole Louise Élizabeth de Riquet de Caraman-Chimay to an aristocratic French family in 1860, she married the very wealthy Viscount (later Count) Henri Greffulhe at the age of 18.  This advantageous union provided the Countess Greffulhe the fortune she desired to indulge her many passions, and indulge she did.  As well as a generous supporter of the arts and sciences - she was a patron of causes from Diaghilev's Ballets Russes to Marie Curie's research into radioactivity - the Countess was also a major client of some of the greatest couturiers of the age.
"Lily Dress", attributed to Worth, 1896
Black velvet with ivory silk appliqued "lilies", sequins and pearls

A stunning beauty with a slim build, dark eyes and auburn hair, the Countess had a very clear idea of how she wished to present herself and dictated those fashion terms to her dress designers.  Even such masters as Worth and Paul Poiret were forced to alter their sartorial visions to accommodate her wishes.  According to the press at the time "Her fashions, whether invented for her or by her must resemble no one else's."   She preferred to look "bizarre" rather than "banal".

Photograph by Nadar of the Countess Greffulhe posing
in front of a mirror, wearing the "Lily Dress"

While this may have rubbed some gentry the wrong way, it had the opposite effect on the up and coming writer Marcel Proust.  Though not a personal acquaintance, he became infatuated with the Countess Greffulhe and modeled Oriane, the Duchess de Guermantes in his magnum opus "A la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time)" after her.  Oriane, like the Countess, used fashion as a tool to project social standing, as a language to express her individuality and as a form of artistic expression.

Szekely de Doba "Portrait of Marcel Proust", 1926
Etching with drypoint

In collaboration with the Palais Galliera, the Fashion Museum of the City of Paris and the repository for the Countess' wardrobe, Dr. Valerie Steele and her team at New York's Museum at FIT are now presenting twenty eight magnificent examples of the Countess' gowns and wraps, plus an assortment of accessories including stockings, hats and shoes.  Dating from around 1885 to the late 1930s, the collection comprises fashions from day dresses to ball gowns, from the House of Worth to Jeanne Lanvin, each a masterpiece of couture in both style and workmanship.

"Tea Gown", House of Worth, circa 1897
Blue cut velvet on green satin ground

Two items in particular exemplified the Countess' identity as a very self aware fashion icon.  The first is an evening cape that originated as a gift from Tsar Nicolas II on a visit to Paris in 1896.  He presented the Countess with a heavily embellished court robe from Bukhara.  She promptly took it to Charles Worth and had it re-styled and transformed into an evening cape that is almost ecclesiastical in feeling.  The second is the gown she wore to her daughter's wedding.  Conservative in style with long sleeves, a train and a high neckline, the dress, nevertheless, is a show stopper.  Taffeta lamé with gold and silver embroidery, sequins, pearls and a fur trim, the "Byzantine Gown" was created in 1904 by a young Paul Poiret when he was still at the House of Worth.  The story goes that when the Countess arrived at the wedding, a good fifteen minutes before her daughter, the crowd exclaimed "My God, is that the mother of the bride" and the poor bride was completely forgotten!

The Countess Greffulhe lived a very long life and maintained her unique sense of style until the end.  And though Marcel Proust immortalized her in prose and worshiped her in private, she did not return the favor and refused his repeated requests for a photograph.  Fortunately for us, the legend lives on in this fascinating testament to a woman ahead of her time.

September 18, 2016

Stuart Davis @ The Whitney

Now that summer is drawing to a close, it's time to catch up on the exhibitions that I had been meaning to go to and are about to close.  One of the shows on my "must see" list was "Stuart Davis:  In Full Swing" on view at the Whitney until September 25.  So, last week on a beautiful September afternoon, I took a ride downtown on the Number 1 train and checked it out.

"Egg Beater No. 3", 1928

Stuart Davis (1892-1964) is a study in contrasts.  Born in Philadelphia to artist parents, he grew up in the company of painters from the Ashcan school who promoted social realism and the role of everyday experiences in art.  Exposure to Fauvism and Abstraction, primarily at the groundbreaking Armory Show of 1913, introduced the idea of form and composition taking precedence over subject and caused Davis to question his formative beliefs.

"Lucky Strike", 1921

Conflicted over the idea of pure abstraction superseding the social responsibility of art, Davis strove to reach a happy medium by developing a style that used bright colors and abstract shapes to express the speed and excitement of modernism.

"House and Street", 1931

Davis' "Aha!" moment arrived when he successfully merged every day objects with the avant-garde creating a look that was both European and American, Abstract and Realistic.

"Salt Shaker", 1931

After World War I, Paris was the undisputed center of the art world attracting painters, writers and musicians from all over the world.  Stuart Davis did not make the pilgrimage until 1928, when, with the support of Gertrude Whitney, he booked passage and stayed in the French capital until the crash of 1929 forced his return to the States.  The thirteen months he spent soaking up the fertile atmosphere were seminal to his artistic development and informed his work for the rest of his career.

"New York - Paris, No. 2", 1931

The Great Depression left Davis, and many other people, desperate for an income, and he turned to mural painting to earn some money.  In murals, he found a large canvas on which to paint his vivid abstractions filled with energy and motion.

"New York Mural", 1932

Another source of inspiration was commercial advertising.  Davis was a pioneer in the use of popular imagery and words as artistic subjects, a treatment later made famous by Pop artists such as Andy Warhol and Ed Ruscha.

 "Little Giant Still Life" 1950

In his later years Davis continued to explore abstract shapes making them bigger and more dominant, but reduced his color palatte to just three, red, green and yellow, plus black and white.

"Blips and Ifs", 1963-64

"Stuart Davis:  In Full Swing" gives visitors a fresh perspective on the work of this American icon.  Davis' unique mélange of abstraction and realism, of popular culture with fine art, of tradition with modernity and with American and European sensibilities, gives his work a unique place in both the history of art and as an influence on contemporary culture.

September 13, 2016

Announcing Catalogue Number Eleven!

Though the summer days are getting shorter and the sun has lost its bite, the new fall season is right around the corner and that is cause for some celebration.  Since 2006, I have ushered in the autumn with my annual catalogue presenting a selection of fine prints, drawings and watercolors acquired throughout the year.

For the first time the catalogue is structured around a theme, "Cherchez la femme", and features works honoring women from Belle Epoque "coquettes" to World War I nurses through mediums ranging from drawings, lithographs, pochoirs and etchings.  As usual, there is something for almost every taste and pocketbook.

This edition is somewhat bittersweet as it is the first time that my mother no longer with us, anxiously awaiting its arrival in the post.  I honor her memory with this small tribute to a woman who was a model of independence, fortitude and positivity.

August 24, 2016

Women of the Southwest - Millicent Rogers

A few miles north of the town of Taos, and just to the west of the Taos Pueblo, is a museum devoted to one of the area's more colorful characters, Millicent Rogers.  Though a resident for only six years, she left a lasting impact both for her own personal style and for her support of the arts and culture of the Southwest.

Mary Millicent Abigail Rogers (1902-1953) was the grand daughter of the co-founder of Standard Oil and grew up in high society with all the trappings of great wealth.  Despite a glamorous lifestyle with no financial worries, Millicent Rogers did not lead a carefree life.  A bout of rheumatic fever as a child left her prone to illness throughout her life but also taught her how to benefit from the periods of bed rest by drawing and designing.  Her quest for the "perfect man" resulted in three brief marriages but gave her three sons whom she adored.  And in 1947, a broken heart after an affair with Clark Gable ended badly, drove her west to Taos, New Mexico, where she found her own nirvana.

Which brings me back to the present and my recent visit to the Millicent Rogers Museum.  Situated in the former hacienda of Claude and Elizabeth Anderson, great friends of Millicent Rogers and a place she visited often, is a museum showcasing the artistic heritage of the native population as collected by Ms Rogers, as well as an homage to this remarkable lady and her vision.

Visitors to this remote site enter the private realm of one of the Southwest culture's earliest proponents.  Though Millicent Rogers may have rejected many of the trappings of her fashionable upbringing, she did apply her cultivated eye and substantial resources to collecting and promoting the great arts and crafts tradition of local Hispanic and Indian people.  An avid collector of woven blankets, like the Navajo examples seen above, and a patron of potters, especially Maria Martinez whose work is seen below, Millicent Rogers amassed over 7,000 objects that were donated to the museum by her son Paulie shortly after her death.

Not surprisingly, Millicent Rogers' main obsession was jewelry which she collected passionately and also designed.  The Museum offers a magnificent selection of silver and turquoise bracelets, belts, necklaces and other adornments most of which were owned and worn by Millicent Rogers herself.

There are further galleries devoted to other traditional arts such as Kachina dolls, woven baskets and tinwork, and still more that are closer to installations than museum displays.  The individual collections and the wide variety of items accumulated leave no doubt that Millicent Rogers was devoted to protecting and promoting indigenous culture long before it was considered "real art".

While it must have been curious that a jet setter like Millicent Rogers would finish her days as champion of an overlooked population in the middle of no where, in retrospect it seems perfectly natural.  Millicent Rogers wrote to her son Paulie shortly before she died that being in Taos made her feel "part of the earth".  I can only say that in my own experience, re-visiting the area after a decade long absence, I wish I could have been there then too.