Sunday, September 10, 2017

Old Masters Rock

If you have not already guessed, “Old Masters Rock” is a book about how to look at art with children.  This book may not be unique in its goals but it certainly has a different way of approaching the subject.

The cover of the book shows a few wonderful Old Masters and the name of the person who had the idea and selected the pictures and wrote the text: Maria-Christina Sayn-Wittgenstein Nottenbohm.  It takes 3 lines to cover all of the names she was born with plus the last, which is her husband’s.  So it is with German aristocracy. If you forced her she could even add a title!  To make things simple she prefers her nickname, Puppa and that is how I shall refer to her.  Presently she is a dealer in the field of Old Masters under the gallery name Sayn-Wittgenstein in New York.  To assure you how well thought of she is in the art world, Gary Tinterow former  chairman of the Met’s department of 19th-century, modern and contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum and now director of the Fine Art Museum, Houston, wrote the introduction

The entries in Old Masters Rock started with regular pieces, emailed to friends over a year ago. Even though Puppa has kindly said to me that I had inspired her to do this, the real inspiration was taking her son Gaspar to museums in this country and abroad and discussing the paintings with him.  Here they are recently at the Metropolitan Museum discussing John Constable’s, Salisbury Cathedral of 1825.


The book begins with some tips for parents and their children.  It comes down to asking questions.  My wife always asked our son and his older brother and sister what they thought a painting was about.  Puppa goes much further with lots of questions and answers about subject, technique and vision of the artist.  The contents are divided into themes, Animals, Families, Myth & Magic, News of the Day and a number more.  Some of the most famous old masters ever are included and a number of my favorites are there in full-page color illustrations.

We might as well start at the beginning with the section on animals and a Leonardo da Vinci, “Lady with an Ermine”, circa 1490.  I was lucky enough to see this picture on a junket to Poland with Basia Johnson right after the Berlin wall came down and there were, as the Polish people called it, “the changes”. Since it had not yet been hung in the galleries at the Czartoryski Museum in Krak√≥w, the painting was quite literally brought out of the vault for us. I would take it over the Mona Lisa any day of the week!  To each of these full-page illustrations Puppa has added an equal sized page of text with facts about the artist and technique, and in this case ermine and women of history and mystery.   It is material that will intrigue children and adults alike.    As an example, regarding Leonardo, Puppa writes, “Leonardo was a wizard!  He was brilliant and loved science… and imagined…flying machines”.  She tells about the Ermine that, “are great at catching mice… Ermine fur is traditionally used for royal robes”.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Like most children of parents involved in the arts, I was dragged to auction houses, galleries and museums from the time I was born.  I don’t mind admitting that I was often bored out of my mind, but tell me that I was not allowed somewhere and I was dying to go. This was so with the Frick Collection in New York, which restricted admittance until the age of 10 and I believe still does.  Maybe it was a birthday present, I don’t remember, but I know shortly after my 10th birthday I was taken to the Frick and fell totally in love with a painting, “St. Francis in the Desert”, 1475-1478 by Giovanni Bellini, who I later learned was one of the most important artists of the early Renaissance in Venice.  This large picture, almost 4 by 5 feet, absorbed me like a large screen television might absorb a football fan today!  Puppa introduces this image by the name of the movie “Brother Sun and Sister Moon” that alone is more interesting to a child than St. Frances in the Desert.  Don’t remember St. Francis from my Jewish upbringing.  Puppa puts the latter in historical context and describes the scene, asking questions like whether you can guess what time of day it is or how St. Francis feels while he is saying his morning prayers.  These are all short paragraphs: even technique is explained in simple terms.  They can be read with your child and made into a game or you can just remember one or two when you take your child to the museum.

Copyright The Frick Collection

Another painting that mesmerized me when I was young was Albrecht Altdorfer’s “Battle of Alexander at Issus”.   The picture is in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.  Puppa calls it “Middle Earth”.  She compares it to classic movie scenes and explains the battle and uniforms.  At the same time everything that is pertinent art historically is also there, including where to find the signature, which explains that Altdorfer was from Regenspurg.  I am sure it was all the tiny soldiers on horseback brandishing weapons that so intrigued me and Puppa describes them so you won’t miss it in the illustration.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

I will mention one more painting which Puppa titles “Construction Site”.  It is Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s “Tower of Babel” of 1563. I won’t give the story away just the punch line!  Everyone ends up speaking a different language.  We had just such a construction site next door to our house in New York where the contactor got a pick-up crew that spoke Chinese, Spanish, a language from India and many others.  We could never learn anything from them because they could not communicate.  Here is the entry and illustration from the book.


If I have not enticed you to order the book, and encourage your local books store to carry it, then note that the book is already so popular an article appeared in the arts section of the Wall Street Journal earlier this year.  Puppa’s lecture tour for the book started in the Queen’s Gallery of Buckingham Palace, which, as lofty as that sounds, has temporary exhibitions from the royal collections, open to all for an entry fee.  You can find her lecture schedule on her Amazon author page HERE.


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