Sunday, May 19, 2019

A Feast for the Eyes

“A Feast for the Eyes” is an exhibition in St. Petersburg Florida that I stumbled across on line. I was at the Museum of Fine Arts there once before and through an exhibition there came back in touch with my first girl friend at age 12. But that, is another story:

The museum has a diverse permanent collection covering  European art, but it seems that they have latched on to a major cache of wonderful European Old Masters that fill many gaps from the Grasset Collection.  The Grasset family came to Spain from France in the 1850’s and their name is now pronounced Grassette. Juan Manuel Grasset, who is close to 93 years old started acquiring what is now a fine collection of Old Master in the 1960’s.

Unbeknownst, to the St. Petersburg Museum staff, his daughter, Christina, has been vacationing with her family in St. Petersburg for almost a decade. She recently got in touch, inquiring if the Museum would like to show the collection as they were looking for an institution where it would serve a real purpose. 

The exhibition certainly adds a whole new dimension to St. Petersburg’s holdings, being in the words of the Museum Director, Kirsten Shepherd, “a gift to young people in our community whose first impression of so-called ‘Old Masters’ will be these delightfully fresh and lively masterpieces.”

The exhibition features forty superb Old Master paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries by major Italian, Spanish, German, Dutch and Netherlandish artists, with an emphasis on the Low Countries. This is only the second time this collection has been shown publicly. It was at the San Diego Museum of Art in 2016.

An engineer by profession, Mr. Grasset was obviously a very dedicated and discerning collector to have been able to acquire so choice a group of Old Masters over the last half century. As museums gobble up collections there is less and less on the market. Still, there are deaccessions: Christies just announced that it was getting a group of works from a member of the Rothschild family. 

Here are some of the Grasset pictures that caught my eye.  The one that has received the most publicity is the Giovanni Antonio Canal, known as Canaletto, Italian, 1697–1768.  It is probably also the most accessible since it is a scene of the Grand Canal in Venice. Who is not in love with the myth and reality of Venice?

There are a number of still lives, one by the most famous 17th century Dutch Still-Life painters, Jan Davidsz De Heem.  Titled, and this will be a surprise, “A Still Life of Flowers in a Glass”!    Another well-known artist of the period was Floris Claesz who has actually painted “The Feast for the Eyes” with the table setting with pitcher, goblet and cheese, fruit and nuts.  Note the trompe l’oeil effect of the knife tipped up against the cheese plate. 

My final example is possibly the most valuable,-- Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625), Flemish, “A Wooded River Landscape, with a Fish Market and Fishing Boats,” It is a small picture and painted on copper which gives it a luminous quality because the paint is not absorbed by wood or canvas but sits on the surface, glistening.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Block Buster

In 2012, I wrote a Missive about “the End of the Blockbuster” which focused on small exhibitions.  If you look at the art news today many museums are trying to do Blockbusters according to their means.  Marking the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death this year several institutions are giving him homage worthy of a great artist.  However, not every museum can afford the costs of transporting and insuring great works of art. 

I am not sure when the term “block buster” was first used but I believe it was in the late 1960’s when Thomas P.F. Hoving became director of the Metropolitan Museum and he created the exhibition, “In the Presence of Kings”.  Obviously, there were blockbusters long before the 1960’s but by then it was much easier for people to travel from far and wide to see a show and, therefore, could attract a larger crowd.  I am sure they began already in the 18th century when the Princes of Germany opened their treasure houses to the public.  In 1930-31 when the great medieval treasure known as the Welfenschatz came to Cleveland there were long lines and here is an image from a 1948 exhibition at the National Gallery of Paintings from the Berlin Museums.

In an on line publication, The, I found an article from 2014, “What Happened to the Blockbuster Art Exhibition”.  It reminds me that another amazing young museum director, Carter Brown, at the National Gallery competed with Hoving to do blockbusters. The competition added to the drama and certainly helped attendance.  

According to the article, “In the Presence of Kings, was a rather haphazard assortment of paintings, sculptures, coins, furniture, crossbows and other bric-a-brac from the Metropolitan Museum’s own collection – all possessing some sort of tenuous link to royal ownership.”   While I remember the show as spectacular, I am sure I was seduced by the novel theatrical installation using lush fabrics and royal colors of red and purple.  I even remember the show’s introduction with a crown shown on a revolving stand. The technique borrowed from automobile shows was not serious enough for conservative curators of the time… and art should always be taken seriously… I certainly hope not.  Here is an image of Tom Hoving with a Sasanian head from the 4th Century AD which was in the show.

Though “In the Presence of Kings” was a great popular success the article quite rightly expresses the fact that there are serious financial considerations for the series of blockbusters it initiated.  Even for in-house shows where the many departments to work together (a political challenge), the more elaborate and installation the greater the cost.  In my opinion, however, putting together an exhibition is only half the battle.  You have to first prime the pump with sponsorship.  When my wife was doing International exhibitions for the Portland Art Museum, I asked why they were spending up to $3 and a half million on organizing a show when they could rent a travelling show for a fraction of the cost.  The development officer explained that local pride made it easier to gain support from benefactors for shows organized by their home museum than touring exhibitions organized elsewhere. 

A curator doesn’t just think up a show and do it.  After approval of the director comes review by a committee of exhibition decision makers, be they the marketing department, other curators or another peer group. It takes a village, --I mean a team of dedicated professionals.

If it is not an exhibition of in-house material, loans have to be secured.  This requires visits to the venues of those loans to be sure they are actually what they seem to be in the literature. Then it is up to curator to convince the lending institution that their show is worth the risk of the loan.  It helps if the curator’s institution has already lent to the institution that has the desired work of art.  In other words, literally, “You Owe Me One”.

The curator has to work with the development officer to see how to raise the funds to ship and ensure the loans and cover the travel feeding and housing of the couriers which are now almost always required these days. The registrar has to work with the registrar of the other institution on the safest way of transporting the piece The couriers get to travel but they have to stay with the object at all times, whether it is days and nights on a truck or on a cargo plane making sure the work is not left on the tarmac at the airport.

There is work with the designer to make sure the art looks its best in the installation and at the same time doesn’t outshine either the point of the show or a more important work of art.

After that, of course, you have to let people know that the show is on via public relations and advertising.  You need to capture the imagination and one way to do it is with a great title such as “Behind the Red Velvet Curtain” or “In the Presence of Kings” or a well-known work like Vermeer’s  “Girl with a Pearl Earring” from the Dutch Royal Collection made even more famous  after the book and a movie came out.  When it was lent to the Frick Collection, they had lines waiting to get in.

I guess I could sum it up that no matter the quality of the works in an exhibition, if you can’t sell it, it won’t attract crowds and then the question is, was it worth doing. When Philippe de Montebello was director of the Metropolitan Museum, he kept a balance, alternating or overlapping scholarly shows and popular blockbusters. It gave different audiences what they were looking for. There was always something new at the Met that would give them a reason to come.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Jayne Wrightsman (1920-2019)

On April 20 of this year the New York Times announced the death of Jayne Wrightsman at 99.  I am sure that the great majority of my readers have never heard of this philanthropist and socialite. She with her husband Charlie, invented themselves.

It is said that Jayne’s early years in Los Angeles holding various jobs from model, to salesperson in a department store, to secretary, all changed when she married Charles Wrightsman, He was more than 25 years her senior and newly divorced when gossip columns recorded their  romance in 1938.  Married in 1944, they remained together until his death in 1986.  Charlie, as he was known, was an Oklahoma oil man and while he would have been considered rich by normal standards, he was not yet super rich.  He decided, however, that they were going to break into high society. When they were not accepted in Newport, they headed to Palm Beach where Charlie had been before.  In New York they found an apartment at 820 Fifth Avenue, a very posh address, but on a lower floor.

Then, they decided they would collect art to assist in thier social trajectory that would eventually bring them to the circles of Jackie Kennedy and Mrs. Astor.  Initially they could not afford major Old Master paintings, but they could afford fine French 18th Century furniture, which, after all, was worthy of the Kings of France.  Lucky for my family they were introduced to our firm, Rosenberg & Stiebel, by a member of the Rothschild family.  When they first came in my father told me that Jayne took copious notes for Charlie. This was a serious study and slowly, but surely, they built a major collection of French Furniture and other 18th century European decorative arts.  In the 50’s, 60’s and much of the 70’s they were major clients of ours.  Even later they came in regularly  to check the market.  I remember when Jayne came in to buy a gift for a friend and we had a small collection of renaissance bronze animals for sale.  Was I surprised when she picked out a bronze snake!

Since their neighbor, Baroness Renée de Becker (née Rothschild) collected Meissen birds the Wrightsmans had to have a similar collection.  You can see those in this image of Jayne.  Also, as far as I know, all the works of art in this image are from or through Rosenberg & Stiebel aside from the Vermeer.

When they decided that they were able to buy paintings Jayne invited the new young assistant curator of paintings at the Metropolitan Museum, Keith Christiansen, to lunch.  That was in 1977 and they got on well.  From then on, they worked together building the Met’s collection.  In 1989 Keith became the Jayne Wrightsman Curator of European Paintings and today Chair of the Department as well.  Jayne & Charlie then, as Charlie’s health declined, Jayne alone, bought for the Met some of its most important paintings acquisitions. Keith wrote a wonderful commemoration of her as a patron in the Art Newspaper. He specifically mentions 2 paintings including one of my favorites by Lorenzo Lotto, a great Venetian renaissance artist.  It represents Venus and her son, Cupid.  It was probably done to commemorate a wedding in the 1520’s.

Slowly but surely Jayne became an expert in whatever she and her husband decided to collect.   She studied and read copiously, befriended experts and even hiring tutors for language.  Art education is not simply gained by standing in front of a painting for a few minutes, otherwise, as Sherman Lee, former director of the Cleveland Museum said, “all guards would be great art experts”.  For collectors there is a difference.  One wants to learn more about what one acquires and find out where it fits into the story of art.  Is it better or lesser than the work in the museum? Is the subject matter consistent with the artists other paintings? How does the brush stroke compare and where are other works by the artist?  Constant comparison helps in the education. 

In 1969 Jayne phoned the gallery and asked that a large Ormolu mounted celadon vase had to come up to the Met IMMEDIATELY.  I took the call and mentioned, as they already knew, that it had been repaired and therefore, the less than usual price.  Our art handler was on holiday so I bundled up the vase and sent our young temp in a taxi to the Met.

Here, my wife, Penelope picked up the story because she was at the receiving end at the Museum.  I, of course, learned this much later.  The reason for the rush was that the Wrightsman rooms were opening that evening with a huge bash. Their decorator, Henri Samuel, said that one of a pair of commodes had to have a piece on top to balance the vase he had placed on the other and Mrs. Wrightman recalled the vase in our gallery.  In this image the Varengeville room with the vase all the way at the end.  In the center is the red lacquer desk that had belonged to Louis XV acquired from our gallery.

To end with my wife’s story, “it was the end of my first year at the Met and the opening of the Wrightsman Rooms of French 18th century art.   As a fellow I had contributed to the label writing and done innumerable errands. I was astonished to receive the invitation to the seated dinner in the Louis XVI gallery. I climbed the ladders to light the candles in the chandeliers which had not yet been electrified in the Paar and Varengeville Rooms, then raced downstairs to the department offices to put on my long evening dress. Returning breathless I learned that Mrs. Wrightsman had decreed that I should join at the end of the receiving line, greeting the honored guests.

I am afraid I have no idea whose hands I shook nor whom I sat beside, nor what was served at that banquet. One vivid memory remains: During the cocktail hour the guests roamed the period rooms. Pierre Rosenberg former director of the Louvre, spotted my speechless expression of horror as Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., publisher of the New York Times, wandered across the Louis XIV Savonnerie carpet holding a lit cigar with a growing length of ash.  Rosenberg dived past me to catch it and usher Mr. Sulzberger off one of the glories of the Louvre Grande Galerie.“ 

There is no question that the Wrightsman legacy enriched the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art over years with donations and purchases that collectively amounts to a treasure trove.