Sunday, November 19, 2017

Murillo: The Self Portraits

We had a rare opportunity, since we are so seldom in New York, to attend a press opening where the curator, Xavier Salamon, Peter Jay Sharp Chief Curator at the Frick talked to us about the exhibition, “Murillo: The Self Portraits”.  It is the only show in the U.S. commemorating the 400th anniversary of the artist’s birth.  Salamon co-curated the show with Letizia Treves, curator at the National Gallery in London where a larger version of the show will be in the spring of next year. 

Salamon is an excellent speaker and could make the exhibition absolutely clear to us.  Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682), a baroque Spanish artist spent his life in Seville. Artists often paint many self-portraits because that is whom they are most familiar with and is always available.  Murillo, however, is known to have only painted two; in fact the artist only painted fifteen  portraits and the Frick is showing five of them including the two  self-portraits.  One belongs to the National Gallery in London and the other, which Henry Clay Frick, himself, bought in 1904 and stayed in the family, was given by Mrs. Clay Frick II in 2014.  

It is said that on Facebook we project our image as we would like people to think of us.  There we can use images and words but the artists of yore had to do it with paint and brush or chisel and marble.  In Murillo’s first self-portrait painted between 1650 and 1655 now in the Frick Collection, the artist is surrounded by a trompe l’oeil frame, a hollowed-out stone block, chipped away and eroded by time. The block, in turn, is propped up on a stone ledge.  This fictive frame is unique in concept and not found on any other work by the artist or his followers.  It also shows the artist with some gravitas even at the relatively young age of about 35.

Photo by Michael Bodycomb

Murillo’s second and last self-portrait, lent by London’s National Gallery, was done in 1670.  He wrote below it in Latin as if it were the label for the painting, (translated) “Bartolomé Murillo painted himself to fulfill the wishes and prayers of his children”.  Interesting that he felt he needed an excuse to do another picture of himself or maybe since their mother had died some years before they did not want him to die without a rendering by which to remember him.  Murillo’s wife had given him 9 children 5 of whom had died: that does given one a heavy burden and the necessity of coming face to face with mortality.  My mother asked my father to have his portrait done by fourth generation photographer, Louis Fabian Bachrach. He complied but I don’t remember her ever putting it up, he would not have wanted it!

Photo by Michael Bodycomb

As we know politicians are often elected on the basis of their name and image recognition so is with artists as well.  It is clear that Murillo was thought of as important in his own time for shortly after his death engravings of his early self-portrait started to be made and disseminated.  A sampling of these has been included in the show .

One painting that I cannot resist illustrating is the artist’s “Two Women at a Window” circa 1655-1660 from the National Gallery in Washington D.C.  Salamon explained that women would not have done this at the time unless they were looking for business and they were most probably prostitutes presenting themselves to the gentlemen walking by.  His point of including it was Murillo’s highly original use of trompe l’oeil: a woman leaning out from the stone ledge of a window, comparing this with the artist himself grasping the faux stone fame around his image.


Photo by Michael Bodycomb

The show is an interesting insight into an artist who was famous in the 18th and 19th centuries but who fell from favor in more recent times. It is another example of the Frick Collection’s small, very focused exhibitions, which are often the ones you can learn the most from.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Mexico City, After All

Our original journey to Mexico City was cancelled because of the earthquake so we tried again. After a smooth flight from New York’s JFK we landed in the valley between the mountains which holds one of the largest cities in the world with a population of 9 million, Mexico City.  We met up with our son Hunter who had flown in from L.A.  We were there for the tour Penelope had worked on in conjunction with an exhibition of photographs of Frida Kahlo at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art in Santa Fe.  It was just after the celebration of the Dead but there were still some vestiges remaining.



We arrived a day before the group and headed directly to the Cathedral, which was not on the established itinerary.  We went by subway which was quieter but even much more crowded during non rush hours than New York.  The Cathedral is incredible in size and decoration. Mexican gold was a large reason for the Spanish conquest and you could see that there was plenty to spare in that the gilding was so thick in the Cathedral that the altars have not needed re-gilding since the original in the 18th century.  Unfortunately the paintings were so black with years of soot, that without strong light, one could not see them.



Only in the sacristy were they viewable. The sacristy was what Penelope wanted most to see as its walls are covered with huge canvases painted in the late 17th century by Cristóbal Villapando (ca. 1649-1714) and Juan Correa 1646-1716). Here is a panorama of the Sacristy, a detail of the Correa and a detail of the Villapando (in that order).




Across the street from the Cathedral is the Templo Mayor.  The Spaniards had destroyed the great Aztec pyramid, using its stones to build the Cathedral.  Only in 1978 did electrical workers digging in a residential block near the Cathedral come across the remnants of the Temple.  When Archeologists took over, slowly but surely more of this important archeological site was revealed.  The Aztecs had kept building pyramid upon pyramid as they continuously enlarged their most important temple.  Within its precincts archeologists have found a ball court and the sacrificial remains of humans as well as every species of animal known in Mexico.  There is, of course, a museum attached and here is Penelope in front of a group of skulls.


Between the Cathedral and the Aztec excavation there is a small plaza where there are Aztec drummers and dancers in constant performance.  They are not necessarily descendants from the Aztecs, nor are the dances authentic, but they take their work very seriously. Here is a brief example.



The next day the official tour called “Frida in Context” commenced with James Oles as the scholar leading us.  Known as Jay, he grew up in Connecticut, got his degrees including a PhD from Yale and threw in a JD at the University of Virginia to boot.  Today, he is a professor at Wellesley for one semester a year and spends the rest of his time in Mexico.  He is curator at the Davis Museum at Wellesley, has written several books on Mexican art and Modernism and arranged important exhibitions on the subject.  We were lucky enough to have him give us the three intensive days in Mexico City devoted to Diego Rivera (1886-1957) and Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) - he is a phenomenal teacher!


Suffice it to say that to write about everything we have seen and the information gathered would be impossible.  But here goes - we started with Diego’s last large fresco from 1947-48 called “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park”, which was originally done for a hotel on the park that  was destroyed in the 1985 earthquake. The mural was thought important enough to save and restore.  Moving a fresco is not like moving a painting on canvas as the paint is applied directly onto wet plaster and becomes part of the wall. In this case the entire wall was moved to an exhibition space constructed for it.  The work shows important personages of different periods around images of Diego as a child with grown-up Frida behind him.  It is impossible to show a good illustration of the 50 foot painting so here is a detail.


Jay, like every good teacher, believes that one first must put the subject in historic context so we went to the Franz Mayer Museum.  Immigrating to Mexico in 1905, Franz Mayer became a very successful banker and stockbroker and an avid collector. He amassed not only decorative arts of colonial Spanish America but European and Asian works too, everything that was popular with the elite when the Mexican Modernists came onto the scene.

In the near future I will get into more detail on Frida and Diego and what we saw in the last two days in Mexico City.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

TEFAF New York, 2017

TEFAF stands for The European Fine Art Fair organized by the European Fine Art Foundation.  The Fair became known in the art world as simply “Maastricht” as it started in that city in the Netherlands in 1988.  I wrote about it several times when I was still traveling in Europe.  It had been a dream of many of the exhibitors to stage such a fair in New York but there had been no suitable  venue until two years ago when the Haughton Fair at the Park Avenue Armory closed.  Also known as the 7th Regiment Armory it was  built in  1861 in response to President Lincoln’s call for troops.  It has long been New York’s primary art fair venue.  A new administration at the Armory refurbished the building allowing the great rooms to shine with their original splendor so that bigger and better shows as well as performing arts could take place there.

The first “TEFAF, New York” took place last year and I wrote about that from a distance using press and dealer reports and images.  The positive reports lured not only me to New York this year, but also a lot of dealers who had been dubious and did not want to be pioneers. TEFAF now has a very large waiting list of dealers.  I participated in an art fair at the armory for the first time about a half-century ago and the armory had not changed one iota until last year.  It was an amazing transformation and we got totally lost more than once on this visit.  Since the period wood paneled rooms had been restored they could now be used and even the upper floor opened for exhibitors.  There was also room to pass food upstairs while below there were food stands.  TEFAF creates the most lavish fairs so they are naturally very expensive to participate in.  Opening night the food, wine and drinks are gratis.  We ate our fill of shrimp, duck paté, burger sliders and other delicacies.

People always think that the original was better (“in the good old days”) and while that often may be true, it does not have to be.  Yes, TEFAF in Maastricht is much larger, which allows for larger booths but, as one colleague said, the smaller booths in New York forced the exhibitors from all over the world to show only their best works of art!

Since the armory, even with the second floor, is so much smaller than the modern exhibit hall in Maastricht, there are 95 dealers exhibiting as compared to around 260 in the Netherlands. In New York in the Fall you see mostly older art from around the world: the organizers bill it as Antiquity to 1920.  In the Spring there will be another “TEFAF”, New York” with mostly modern and contemporary art exhibited. I liked that categories were mixed, making every booth seem different,-- silver, next to painting, next to furniture, and on the opening day, next to food!  Yes, some of the exhibitors thought the latter got in the way of the total art experience, but the way the visitors were storming the food tables, they did not see to have a problem with it.  The day after the opening there was no food on the main exhibit floor.

Among the visitors almost 30 museums and institutions were represented from all over the States as well as the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the Kunsthistorischesmuseum in Vienna and the Palazzo Stozzi represented by their Foundation in New York.  Among the celebrities present were Anderson Cooper who was spotted here last year as well.  A big hit was Whoopee Goldberg.  Famous collectors such as Jo-Carole and Ronald Lauder (Ronald was co-founder of the Neue Galerie Museum) and Anne Bass attended.  The lists go on and on.

My wife now being on the board of the Spanish Colonial Art Society and Museum in Santa Fe we were particularly aware of wonderful pieces from Spain, Mexico and various places in South America, which we had not seen in Maastricht last time we were there.

At the S. Mehringer gallery from Munich we saw a small altar with Madonna in soft woods including  boxwood by the Spanish artist Benito Alonzo Da Vila done around 1740.  It could have been made for a private chapel or as a master-work to show the skill of the artist.  I have included a detail behind the virgin and child but since I was using an old iPhone I could not capture the detail in the candle sticks or chandelier.




For me another sign of moving on was that I was more drawn to fields other than the ones that I had spent my life dealing in.  When I saw this bronze fulcrum fitting from Cahn International in Basel, Switzerland  showing Dionysos, god of wine, joined by a panther , I fell in love, --of course having no idea what it was.  I learned It was a furniture fitting probably for one of the four corners of a bed.  A few of the drill holes were surely to attach it to the bed but the rest would have been fitted with colored pieces of metal to make them even more decorative.



We become exhausted after 4 plus hours at a fair, imagine how the exhibitors feel after 8 or 9 hours… but there are parties as well, and, being almost Halloween, there was a costume party given by the Naumanns and Agnews, where the fare was oysters prepared by a professional oyster shucker from The Netherlands, pizza and, of course wine … what a way to go!