Sunday, November 18, 2018

Pontormo

Before we left for New York I was perusing the New Yorker Magazine when I came across what looked like an afterthought at the bottom of the “In the Museums” page.  It was, however, written by the incredibly discerning and articulate art critic, Peter Schjeldahl.   His subject was another small focused exhibition, this time at the Morgan Library and Museum. He started the paragraph by saying, “The small show ‘Pontormo: Miraculous Encounters,’ at the Morgan Library, centers on one of the damnedest great paintings of all time: Jacopo Pontormo’s ‘Visitation’ (1528-29), on loan from a church near Florence”.  Now, how can one resist that come on?

Jacopo da Pontormo’s (1494-1557) was born Jacopo Carrucci, and his father, Vasari noted, was also a painter.  Jacopo had some illustrious apprenticeships among them with Leonardo da Vinci and Piero di Cosimo.  He broke away from the classic Renaissance style of his teachers to become one of the champions of a new style called Mannerism, a movement some art historians consider originated with Michelangelo.

The Morgan’s exhibition focuses on Pontormo’s impressive “Visitation”, an altarpiece thought to have been painted for a location in Florence but which has been installed in a side chapel in a small parish church in Carmignano for the past 480 years.  It represents The Virgin and her older cousin, Elizabeth, both pregnant, the latter with John the Baptist, and two attendants looking out at the viewer.


Next to it is a rare drawing for the painting lent by the Uffizi in Florence. For some reason the Morgan could not release a photo, but I did find it on WikiArt marked “public domain”.  It is alway exciting when you can study the “modello” next to the final product.  The drawing has been squared so that the composition transferred to the panel with each square of the drawing enlarged 7½ times.


There are just five works of art in the exhibition which includes a print by Durer which may have inspired Pontormo’s “Visitation” composition, a red chalk self-portrait by Pontormo and his drawing of an armed youth. They are shown in a gallery the size of a doctor’s waiting room. It is the first gallery you see on the main floor of the museum and was named after a great dealer/collector and his wife who contributed mightily to the drawings collection of the Morgan, Clare and Gene Thaw.  Both passed away recently but knowing them, they would have loved this show!


Pontormo only painted 15 portraits most of which are in Italy but we are extremely lucky to have one in a private collection in New York which was lent to this show.   It is “Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap”, circa 1530, tentatively identified as Carlo Neroni, a Floretine nobleman.   In spite of being much smaller than the altarpiece, it is such a strong image and shows the artists hand so clearly, that it is offers the possibility of contrasting Pontormo’s public and private style.


How the portrait came to New York is an interesting story by itself.  It had been on view, as a loan to the National Gallery in London where J. Tomilson Hill, the New York financier and  major art collector, first saw it.  He learned that the owner, the Earl of Caledon, was interested in a cash sale.   Hill paid $48 million for the picture which was, in 2015, £30.7 million.  Hill then applied for an export license.  The British government has the right to hold up export to see if the sum can be raised to buy it from the exporter.  The National Gallery managed to raise the £30.7 million but over the time it took to raise that sum, Brexit caused the value of the pound to fall. Hill said he would have let the painting go if he had received the dollar amount he paid but accepting the original figure in post-Brexit pounds would have cost him 10 million dollars and he would not take that loss.  

Market values aside the last sentence of Peter Schjeldahl’s mini review returns us to the impact of Pontormo’s “Visitation” altarpiece, “The work simultaneously maximizes the two classic functions of painting, narrative and decoration like nothing else you have ever seen.”  The show is up at the Morgan until January 6, 2019 before it heads to the J. Paul Getty Museum from February 5 to April 28th.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Charterhouse of Bruges

As I have said before, I love small focused exhibitions since too often I get lost or confused in the larger ones when the curator of the show is trying to make too many points at once.  Our trip to New York revealed two such small exhibitions and I will write about one this week and the other next.

The Frick Collection was kind enough to send me an elaborate Press Kit when the show “The Charter House of Bruges: Jan van Eyck, Petrus Christus, and Jan Vos” opened but I decided I had to see it before writing.  It was well worth waiting for.  The Frick has one small exhibition space, smaller than a New York hotel room, which they often use to show that would get lost in a larger venue and they used it to optimal advantage for this exhibition.

A Charter House is a Carthusian monastery. For those like me who are not sure who the Carthusians are, they are part of an austere monastic order started by St. Bruno of Cologne in 1084.  They remove themselves from the world as we know it, one of solitude and silence, staying mostly in their cells  I would go mad by day two, but that is their chosen life to concentrate on their religious beliefs.  While some art might be considered distracting other subjects were believed to be of assistance in meditation, at least in the 15th century.   As a result the Charterhouse in Bruges, became a repository some of the major art of the period and and the subject of this show.

Sometimes one enjoys works of art by association and that is the case for me.  This exhibition includes two marble relief sculptures of Carthusian monks, ca. 1380-1400 from the Cleveland Museum of Art. I remember close to a decade ago a long row of alabaster figures of Carthusians, 36 strong and 16 inches high, at the Metropolitan Museum.  Known as the Mourners. They were lent by the museum in Dijon where they were created to surround the ducal tomb.  The photo below shows how impressive they were by the throngs around them in the Met’s Medieval Court.   Here is the article from the New York Times covering that event.

Here is the image from the Met in 2010 and the 2 kneeling figures from Cleveland at the Frick.




Bruges is a small town in Belgium that had some truly great artists working there including one of the greatest, and a teacher to so many others, Jan van Eyck (1395-1441).  Looking at some of his small paintings one gets the feeling he painted with a single brush hair, he is so precise and his little figures so perfect.  Often it is helpful to have a magnifying glass which is graciously supplied by the Frick from a rack of several on the wall.

The nine works in the show are all of a small scale so one can grasp the sense of the exhibition quite easily.   The smallest of the objects is a Boxwood carved “prayer nut” by Adam Dircksz and his workshop which was lent by a private collector.  It was made for the Carthusian Fran├žois du Puy, circa 1517-21 just 1 7/8 inches in diameter.  Here the magnifying glass was most helpful, and the artist also must have used some visual aid!  It is beautifully carved with praying monks outside and the inside shows the mother and Child on one side and two monks praying on the other.  A prayer tool that could be carried in a pocket must have been a source of great comfort and support to the bearer.



Jan Vos was elected to be prior of the Charterhouse of Bruges in 1441 and remained so for nine years.   While most works of art were given to the Charterhouse by lay patrons, Vos
commissioned the two pre-eminent artists of Bruges to paint works, so he himself became a patron.  I wonder what others thought of him being portrayed as such in some of the paintings he commissioned.  Jan van Eyck’s “The Virgin and Child with St. Barbara, St. Elizabeth and Jan Vos” in the Frick collection was commissioned shortly before the artist’s death in 1441.  It is thought that a very accomplished member of his studio completed the painting and it has been suggested that was Petrus Christus.  The closely related “Virgin and Child with St. Barbara and Jan Vos“ lent for the exhibition by the State Museum Painting Gallery in Berlin, was painted by Petrus Christus a few years later.  The Frick’s painting was once in the care of my family gallery from a private collection.



I will end with a painting we sold to a private collector that has been lent to the show, “The Virgin and Child by a Fountain”, about 1440.  It is called a workshop copy of a work painted by Jan van Eyck in 1439, though I heard from at least one museum director that if the virtually identical painting did not exist in the Museum in Antwerp our picture would be considered the original by van Eyck.  Years ago we were lucky enough to see the two paintings side by side and I could not see that the one considered autograph was superior or different, for that matter.   Such is the life of a purveyor of Old Masters.  It is not unusual for an artist to repeat a painting for second patron.  How many portraits did Gilbert Stuart do of George Washington, some of them virtually identical?   In one museum I once found the papers where a curator said that theirs’s was the original of a work of sculpture though he was not sure himself!  The rule is don’t buy a work of art if the copy hangs in the Louvre, because you are bound to lose that argument, no matter what.  As hard as it is still for me to believe this incredible “Virgin and Child by a Fountain” was not an easy sell!


Curating this exhibition and gathering these loans is a rather remarkable feat and it was done by Emma Capron, who is the current Anne L. Poulet, Curatorial Fellow at the Frick.  Judging by the show and catalog which includes far more material than in the exhibition, this budding professional is a definite keeper!  She did the catalog with two of my old friends, Dr. Maryan W. Ainsworth Curator in the Department of Painting at the Metropolitan Museum and Till-Holger Borchert, Director of the 16 City Museums of Bruges.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

New York, New York, It’s a Hell of a Town

There were 4 art fairs in New York during the 5 days we were there and we spent 7 hours at just one of them, and that was TEFAF, New York.  TEFAF, The European Art Fair, started in 1988 in the small town of Maastricht, The Netherlands and expanded to New York in 2016.  If you put TEFAF in the search engine at the upper left you will see a number of my Missives written about it over the last 8 years, first in Maastricht and now here in the States.  In New York  the Park Avenue Armory allows space for just 93 exhibitors while the Maastricht fair building held 288 in 2012.  It gives you an idea of the size of the European exhibit halls but also why there is a TEFAF, New York both in the fall, for art up to 1820, and spring, when they bring in the more modern and contemporary art from well-known dealers.  Meanwhile, TEFAF, Maastricht has not been abandoned.

It seems to me that the fair here has gotten better and better with more and more being spent by both the fair organizers and the dealers themselves who might spend as much as a quarter of a million dollars to participate including booth rental, installation, and decoration not including transport and housing .  TEFAF always starts off with champagne and flowers are a TEFAF hallmark and this time the Armory was hung with strings of purple orchids dripping from the ceiling.



Being there on a press pass I was early as people arrived slowly for the VIP opening from 1pm until 5pm.  When the benefit for Sloan Kettering began at 5, there were so many attendees that they had someone in charge of apologizing to people regarding the wait for the coat check.  Of course, if you are going to drink champagne you need to eat something so there were continuous small hors d’oevres passed around such as miniature crab cakes or duck wrapped in a miniature tortilla.   Another staple is the Oyster Man with his bucket of oysters shucking them on a first come first serve, basis.  He is present at so many TEFAF fairs that someone asked him if he had a favorite artist yet.  He admitted he had found something he fancied at this fair, but it was out of his league.  I ventured, “Do you ever trade oysters for art?” He said he had a few dealers he did work with in that manner. When the benefit began the food became more extravagant with two different kinds of smoked salmon and miniature pizzas etc.   Here, an image of the crowds beginning at 5 and the oysterman in Maastricht.



Of course, the reason to go to the fair is to see and consider the art and even with just 93 exhibitors there is plenty to think about.  I have picked a few pieces that caught my eye and made me curious enough to walk over and read what I could about them.  If you asked my wife what her favorite pieces were she would come up with a totally different list.  Years ago we played a game.  She picked what she would have wanted to buy for the museum she was working for at the time and I said what I wanted to take home.

The first work to capture my attention was a carved and painted wood Calvary scene.  It was  an 18th century Ecuadorian piece brought by Jaime Eguiguren from Buenos Aires, Argentina.  It is stylized yet gripping the viewer to the scene.


At the booth of Carlo Orsi, Milan and Trinity Fine Art, London, I saw a lifesize 5 foot 8 inch marble representing “Milo of Croton,” a 6th century wrestler, by Giuseppi Piamontini signed and dated G.P./F./1740 and bearing the Arms of the Gerini Family.  It came alive for me as I could not be sure if he had won that round or not!


A real coup for Hirschl & Adler, a venerable old gallery in American painting, was to show the over life size Munro Lenox Portrait of George Washington, circa 1800, by Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828).  You will have to take my word for this but standing looking at the painting was celebrity, Steve Martin; when he saw my iphone he spun around so quickly that I just got part of his silver haired head, far left.


One of the most important pieces in the fair, and one that Penelope and I would have agreed on both for the museum and our home, was a small figure that might easily have been missed. It was the so-called Galatea Salt, dated 1624,and signed  by the renowned Dutch silversmith, Adam van Viannen on the stand of A. Aardewerk, from The Hague, The Netherlands. In a tour de force of silversmithing it was hammered out of a single sheet with the only two almost invisible seams. Although designed as a salt dish it was created as an objet d’art, not part of a table service. You can imagine that works by Adam van Vianen are extremely rare but I have loved them since my visit as a child to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam which has the largest collection of his work.


Fairs are places to make discoveries, but if you go to the best fairs, true “discoveries” are rare. You will, however, have wonderful experiences.   It is great to have such a treat in New York as well.