Sunday, January 16, 2022

January 6, 2021 & The Arts

This Missive was co-authored by Penelope Hunter-Stiebel.

With this Missive I am a couple of weeks late for the anniversary of the rightly called January 6 insurrection, but I do not believe the date should ever be forgotten, so it is always the right time to think about it.

Throughout history artists have taken on controversial subjects. In the present day they have strongly reacted to the important “Black Lives Matter” movement. Last year’s insurrection, however, has gathered far fewer artistic results than I would have expected. Maybe, it needs more time until we can fully digest it. The art I did find on-line, however, was poignant. 

I am going to start with a Digital Image printed in an edition of 12 by the Swedish experimental art photographer, Jan Oberg, creator of the on-line site Oberg PhotoGraphics. Inspired by the insurrection, his “Capitol Hill, January 6, 2021” is a collage of images based on Japer John’s “Flag” (1958). In the center is a screenshot of President Trump when he spoke during the storming of Capitol overlaid with the image from inside with armed guards ready to shoot. The artist notes “Colours have been carefully calibrated to make Trump the darkest and distorting the flag’s brightness.”

One image from my “collection” follows the event quite literally. It is a gauche by California artist and educator, Kevin Trivedi, titled “Courage.” It depicts Capitol Police Officer, Eugene Goodman who has been declared a hero for encouraging a mob in the Capitol to chase him in the wrong direction, away from the Senate chamber.

“Two Americas”, the title of a painting by D.C. muralist, Shawn Perkins, derives from a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called “The Other America” describing how differently racial groups in this country live. The painting is divided in half: on the left is the face of Black man with a gun to his head, his mouth gagged by the American flag, and a town in flames bursting out of his head which was painted the year before regarding Black Lives Mattter; on the right is a scene of the White insurrectionists lording it over the police in front of the Capitol. He combined the two images to put an exclamation point on the Two Americas!

A surrealistic painting by Celeste Dupuy-Spencer shows a clashing crowd of combatants, outside the Capitol. Trump’s face is painted in red white and blue on the back of a figure in the foreground. There is a fellow wearing a mask to be safe from Covid but carrying a machine gun at the same time! The tattooed Moses-type character in the lower left has a satchel with the date 8-12-17. That was the day in Charlottesville, Virginia when a protest turned violent after white supremacists clashed with counterdemonstrators, and a car ploughed into the crowd of anti-racist and anti-fascist protesters. Afterwards the former president said, “You also had some very fine people on both sides”. Explaining the title of the painting “Don’t You See That I am Burning”, a quotation from Sigmund Freud’s Dream Book, we see flames emanating from the Capitol, but we know it was only figuratively set on fire. Hailed in Artnet as “epic” and compared in Forbes with Last Judgement paintings from the Renaissance the seven-foot work is a perfect commentary on January 6.

We have all heard the adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words”. Thousands of words have already been written about January 6, 2021 with thousands more to come. They can all be summed up by the few images that I have shown.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Time Capsules

The term “Time Capsule” was coined for the publicity of the 1939 New York World’s Fair capsule that followed a long tradition of containers holding collections of memorabilia intended to inform future generations and made as air and watertight as current technology allowed.

I was surprised to learn that there is a register kept by the International Time Capsule Society at Oglethorpe University that estimates there are between 10,000 to 15,000 Time Capsules worldwide, with most of them lost. In 2020 Ogelthorpe University turned over all their records to the “Notforgotten Digital Preservation Library” which is now digitizing that catalog.

Locations of Time Capsules

The library also offers to preserve personal time capsules they will help you record. For an organization that deals in the past it is fascinating that they have linked up with the Ethereum Blockchain which only went online in 2015 and, according to what I have read, gives total security to the maintenance of the information. I can hear my wife, now, saying “until the next technology comes along.” The blockchain I is what keeps Crypto Currencies and NFT’s secure enough to invest in.

At present the official definition for a Blockchain “is a system of recording information in a way that makes it difficult or impossible to change, hack, or cheat the system. A blockchain is essentially a digital ledger of transactions that is duplicated and distributed across the entire network of computer systems on the blockchain.” Do note the words, “difficult or impossible” … well which is it?

Recent headlines announced the discovery of a second Time Capsule in the pedestal under the 1887 Statue of General Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia, now headed to its new home at the Black History Museum. What I did not understand was what was the first?

Dale M. Brumfield, a journalist and author had written an article 4 years ago saying that he found documents suggesting that there was a Time Capsule under the Lee monument containing Confederate artifacts, weapons used in the Civil War and a piece of wood cut from a tree near the grave of General Stonewall Jackson. Therefore, the first discovery made a week before was not what they expected. It was a led box that contained an 1875 Almanac, a waterlogged book of fiction, a British coin, a catalog, one letter and a photograph of James Netherwood, a master stonemason who worked on the pedestal and clearly wanted to commemorate himself.

Devon Henry, who oversees the company that was assigned to remove the statue was, however, determined to find the one they were looking for. Even though they had already dug 15 feet down below the pedestal, he had his team dig further and at 20 feet below the surface they found a granite capstone protecting the sought-after Time Capsule. Katherine Ridgway, the state archeological conservator at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources cut into the 36-pound copper box measuring 13.5 x 13.5 x 7.5 inches. Before she started, however, because there was the possibility of explosives inside, they first x-rayed it and had the bomb squad examine it. I presume that fear came from the fact that they hoped to find Confederate munitions. Here Katherine Ridgeway, excited to see the box gets on her knees to wrap it as well as her showing fellow historians and the press the contents of the Time Capsule (photos for the AP by Eva Russo Sarah Rankin).

The copper box contained Confederate money, 12 copper coins, an edition of Harper's Weekly from 1865, military memorabilia, multiple books including directories and a Holy Bible, a wood flag and a Masonic symbol allegedly carved from the tree that grew above Gen. Stonewall Jackson's original grave.

The contents were in better shape than they expected even though some items were wet, but the box also held some disappointment. An issue of the Richmond Dispatch from October 1887 gave clues as to what they could expect to find, the most exciting of which was a photo of President Abraham Lincoln in his casket. Alas, it turned out to be a mass-produced printed engraving from a newspaper of 1865 or a reprint and it had already been mended a number of times. The dreams of discovery are often tempered by reality.

What would you put in your time capsule?

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Why Does the Public Trust Curators?

I saw this headline in recently, “Brits Rank Museum Curators Among Top 5 Most Trusted Professions”! That was something to chew on particularly since my wife is a curator. Of course, there are also, in order Nurses, Librarians, Doctors and Teachers just ahead of the museum curators in this British poll called the Ipsos MORI Veracity Index. In many other professions one reads about scandals and misbehavior while rarely for these five. What do they all have in common? I believe they are all in a world where we feel we have little expertise and we depend on their knowledge, in some cases even for survival.

In all five professions you do not have a great deal of choice but to trust them to one extent or another. As for curators you need to be seduced by their museum, collection or exhibitions. Once you are, you probably begin to trust them even without meeting them.

I wonder how many people actually know what a Museum Curator does unless they start to collect or go regularly to museums and exhibitions and begin to wonder how did all this art get here and why. Like General Practitioners who must have a wide range of knowledge to make a diagnosis, the curator must have a broad knowledge of art history to understand the area that they wish to work in and how it interacts with its historical context. Like the librarian the curator must be good at research and organization in order to catalog collections or put together an exhibition.

While nurses and doctors are concerned with the well-being of their patients, curators care about the works of art in their collection. There is no other reason to go into their line of work. … it is not the pay. The most important part of their work is to create the understanding necessary for art to be preserved. They do research to gather information about the objects in their collections and work with conservators on their physical preservation. But also, just like the librarian leads you in the right direction to the section or book you are looking for, they make the art understandable giving it context for the public through their installations and publications.

Part of a curator’s job is to teach, so they will explain to an individual or a group why the art is situated where it is. Art seeks context, but put a Houdon of Benjamin Franklin in the Metropolitan Museum, next to a Jeff Koons of a Rabbit that brought 91.1 million at auction and an abstract sculpture by Cecil Cartensen in the Kansas City Public Library and without explanation you would probably feel it is a chaotic mess and never visit that exhibition gallery or museum again.

If, however, the curator wanted to do an exhibition of the ideal male figure and placed a Giacometti of “Walking Man (1960) in the Fondation Giacometti, next to a marble Roman copy (1st century AD) of the bronze Discus-thrower of Myron Sculpture (460-450 BC) in the Palazzo Lancellotti in Rome, next to Michelangelo’s David (1501-1504) in the Gallerian dell’Academia in Florence it might be a show that will intrigue you by the comparison without any explanation. If this were to be put into further context by the curator explaining her choices, you would enjoy the exhibition all the more. You might even wish to look deeper into other sculpture of these periods. (Images Walking Man, Discus-thrower, Michelangelo’s David)

Personally, I want an exhibition to speak to me without explanation first, but like all the arts the more you know and understand the more you can enjoy and get out of the presentation. Curators explain works in labels, didactic panels, audio guides and interactive videos, but if you have the chance of a visit with the curator as guide that makes it all the more enlightening.

It is an interesting subject to mull over and think why we might trust people that we may have never met before.

Sunday, December 26, 2021

International Art Transport 2.1

Art transport within the United States is not that complicated as long as it is properly insured, and you use an experienced art packer and shipper. A carton for a painting that a fork-lift can go through will not arrive in the same shape it left.

For International shipments it is not so simple, you need a company that is familiar with the ins and outs. One of the biggest issues is that of customs regulations in different countries. There are forms to fill out and knowledge of customs duties. For instance, an antique coming into the U.S. is usually duty free, but it must be at least hundred years old. JFK’s rocking chair would not qualify while Abraham Lincoln’s top hat might and there may be an exception for objects of historical importance. This is where your experienced and specialized customs agent comes in.

One of the companies we used to use when we were shipping to and from France was Chenue. No newcomer to the field, André Chenue founded the company in 1760. Chenue became the Royal trunk maker for Marie-Antoinette. They were responsible for packing her first layette which included a great deal of linen for mother and child as well as a crib. When all went well the company was entrusted with the manufacture of all cases, crates and trunks for transport and storage for the monarchs clothing. From there they developed the concept of being fine art shippers with a reputation that rests on delivering works of art safely and expeditiously.

We often take these things for granted, but that is a big mistake. There is always someone cheaper but as I have told friends and clients alike, “you get what you pay for”. You disregard that at your own risk.

Heading the parent Group ESI, a 100-year-old leader in the global fine arts shipping and exhibition industry, Amaury Chaumet, founded “ThePackengers” in 2018. Note the name is a single word and has an interesting spelling.

Hôtel Drouot the venerated Paris auction house founded in 1852 sells all qualities of old masters, drawings, books, jewelry, wines where many great discoveries have been made as well as many disappointments, has hooked up with this new company.

ThePackengers have crossed the Atlantic opening facilities first in New York and now in Los Angeles. They have made the very smart move of joining forces with the leading auction houses Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Bonhams as well as poaching some of their top shipping talent. What ThePackengers offer that all the other shipping companies do not is, according to M. Chaumet, their advanced digital ability. Online art sales have risen substantially and even more because of Covid. For instance, if you are considering buying a work of art from an auction house, before you have even put a bid on it you can get an estimate for packing, transport, and customs issues just by giving the company the details and you will have the answer immediately. Should you succeed in your bid, all will be taken care of with no more effort for you as the purchaser. Their mission statement is simple: “Instant pricing & e-logistics for unique objects”. Staff tee shirts say, “ThePackengers – Pick, Pack & Track”

We are living in a digital and technological age and every-once-in a-while it even improves on a business model that has already worked for several hundred years. We become spoiled as some things get easier, e.g. I have not had to use “white-out” once while writing this missive. Although this art transport service is one, I have never tried, it certainly sounds like it could make a complicated system easier on our nerves.

This is my last Missive for 2021 and on to 2022. I thank all my readers who have born with me and wish all a most happy and healthy 2022.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Artistic Talent

My father always said we were art dealers because we could not create art.

How true it is. I love singing but the only way I could get into my school glee club was to have an upper classman with perfect pitch stand behind me singing. In shop I wanted to make a car but could not cut a wheel. I used my allergies (which were for real) to get an excuse because of the sawdust. Paint? Draw? I could not draw a head or a circle without a compass!

For all these failings I respect and am in awe of those who have the ability and talent to work and be successful in more than one form of the arts.

The most famous multi-disciplinary artist was, of course, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). He is best known as a painter who worked through quite a number of the styles of the 20th century starting out grounded in reality in his blue period but the style in which he had the most influence was Cubism beginning in 1907 with his “Demoiselles d'Avignon”. Painting was not enough for him and he created sculpture and ceramics as well. While his greatest success was in painting his other work still brings good prices.

Have you ever seen a 65-page entry in Wikipedia? That is what I found when I tried to print the entry on the English rock and roll singer David Bowie (1947-20016). Born David Robert Jones, he always dreamed of being an entertainer and formed his first band at the age of 15. He studied art, music, and design, including layout and typesetting, so was ready for anything. While working with a tutor who came out of avant-garde theater, he became immersed in the creation of personae which went on to become icons of fashion. Their ever-changing wardrobe influenced some of the greatest designers such as Armani, Jean Paul Gautier and Katy Foreman. He developed a sexually ambiguous alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, then killed off Ziggy Stardust to develop a new alter ego Aladdin Sane who he portrayed on a 1973 album cover with a red and blue lightning bolt painted on his face.

Between 1995 and 1997 he painted a series of portraits he called “Dead Heads” using models from his band, friends, and himself. In June of this year one of his paintings, “DHead XLVI” came up at auction in Toronto with an estimate of $9,00-$12,000. Instead, it sold for $108,120!

Other noted performers who painted were Paul McCartney of the Beetles, the great actor, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Dennis Hopper actor and filmmaker, and Rosie O‘Donnell who created disparaging portraits of our former president with whom she had a vendetta predating his presidency. There are many more.

But believe it or not there may be an artist who today outshines them all and dare I say it, may be even better known than Picasso, -- that is Bob Dylan (1941-). I still think of him as the young man with a harmonica and guitar I saw on the stage at the Café Wha in Greenwich village in the early 1960’s. In 1963 I acquired his second album, which he titled “The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan” and I still have it today. Soon after he switched to the electric guitar and electronic music for which he took a lot of criticism from many including me. After all it is a totally different sound, as if Beethoven had suddenly switched to Jazz. Dylan was ahead of his time. He continued to write songs which today total over 500 that are sung by thousands of artists all over the world. For that he received the Nobel Prize for literature in 2016.

As if that was not enough, Dylan was a painter. Like everything else he has accomplished Dylan did it big. From the 1960’s when he used some of his drawings for album covers, he has gone on to paintings, sculpture and large-scale installations shown in gallery and museum exhibitions, and, most recently, a retrospective which is touring through 2022. Here is his mural in Minneapolis completed in 2015.

All of these performers are pigeonholed by the general public and the press for the activity for which they are best known. Their talents in the fine arts however, have offered them not only a form of escape and peace in their hectic lives, but also the opportunity to communicate through a one-on-one experience with the individuals who see the works of art they create.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Art Theft: For Love or Money

Doesn’t everyone enjoy a heist story and particularly one that involves art. I came across a whole list recently and I thought I would give you a sampling.

The first art theft I ever heard of was that of the Mona Lisa which my father told me about when I was 6 years old, and we visited the Louvre. The theft occurred in August 1911, just a month after he was born -- what better alibi! The caper was pulled by Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian artist and museum worker, with two cohorts. They hid in a broom closet overnight and before the museum opened the next morning they took the painting off the wall, got it out of its fame and protective glass, and walked out with the painting under a blanket. A bit over two years later Peruggia tried to sell the painting to a dealer who informed the police, and the picture was returned to the museum. In a sense, Peruggia did the Louvre a great favor since the Mona Lisa had not been regarded as such an important picture until its theft, but from then on people flocked to the Louvre to see the painting, and nothing has changed.

Another famous robbery took place in 1990 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. It was an audacious heist where two thieves posing as policemen were let in by guards, who were then tied up while the thieves made off with 13 paintings including 3 Rembrandts, a Vermeer and several Degas drawings. The crime has never been solved and the empty frames have been left in place lest the search should escape anyone’s memory. The FBI has estimated the value at about $500 million but today, who knows. Should you see any of the missing works you might want to report it to the FBI because the Museum has offered $10 million to anyone leading to their recovery.

This crime was called to mind again when earlier this year a man was arrested for breaking into the same museum but never entered the building. He smashed a glass door and threw something inside, prompting the police to call the bomb squad. It turned out the man had thrown a blanket-covered painting he had stolen from a private gallery some days earlier. Why? Who knows?

Last year a thief, taking no chances used a sledgehammer to break into a small museum in Laren, the Netherlands, to steal an early van Gogh, “The Parsonage Garden at Neunen”. That was the only picture he took, and he left with it under his arm. The painting had been on loan from a better-known institution, the Groninger. Was he a picky collector or was it a commissioned deal? In any case, the painting has not yet been found though photographs were circulated in September of this year by the unknown perpetrator.

When you look up art theft on the web, 90% of the reports are about paintings but what about the decorative arts? They don’t get ignored, it is just that most people steal for a possible cash reward or hold their loot for ransom or even use it for collateral on loans, and paintings are worth more.

Decorative arts, however, were the focus of one Dr. John Quincy Feller, a professor of history for over 30 years at the University of Scranton. Living in a modest brick apartment on the edge of town, he was the last person you would suspect of larceny. He wrote scholarly books and articles and had access to museums through his friendship with staff members. He clearly would not have had the same eagle eyes on him than unknown visitors. He was proud to have been invited to become a trustee of the Peabody Museum at Harvard University. His particular passions were for porcelain and glass of the 18th and 19th centuries, especially pieces with historical associations. Once in a while he would even lend objects from his purloined collection for exhibitions.

Some of the museums he stole from were the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Rhode Island School of Design Museum, the Wadsworth Athenaeum and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford England. A late 18th century porcelain saucer with the great seal of the United States that he had donated to the State Department in Washington D.C. was seized by the FBI. It was one of the roughly one hundred objects the FBI concluded the professor had stolen. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 18 months in prison and a $30,000 fine. He stole for his love of objects. How can you hate a guy like that?

One more before I leave you to find your own crime stories. Another thief from Pennsylvania, Thomas Gavin, had gone on his crime spree in the 1960’s and 70’s. His passion was for firearms and found his loot in a dozen East Coast museums. He seems to have also stolen for the love of the objects and not for quick money. He was only recently caught when he raised suspicion as he tried to sell a private collector an American Revolutionary War rifle with an estimated value of $175,000 for $4,000. This says to me that he was trying to sell to survive not for vast profits, or maybe in the end he wanted to get caught and confess. The statute of limitations had expired on most counts and the one that remained when he was sentenced at the end of November this year was trying to sell a stolen article of historical importance. This carries a maximum ten-year sentence and a $50,000 fine. However, since he is now 78 years old, and in a wheelchair, he was given just one day in the slammer. Here is an image by Yong Kim for the Philadelphia Inquirer of the rifle.

There is always more sympathy for one who steals for his love of art and not just for profit!

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Mackintosh: A Very Special Traveling Exhibition

How very lucky the Albuquerque Museum in New Mexico is to have a Museum Director like Andrew Connors, to snag a show worthy of the greatest museums in the world. It is called, “Designing the New: Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Glasgow Style”.

The show was organized by the curator of European Decorative Arts and Design at he Glasgow Museums, Alison Brown, in 2018 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Mackintosh’s birth. Even though Covid put it on hiatus it is continuing its tour of just four venues in the States.

Mackintosh and his collaborators were known as ‘The Four’ comprised Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928), James Herbert MacNair (1868 - 1955), and the sisters, Margaret Macdonald (1864 - 1933) and Frances Macdonald (1873 - 1921). TheFour had met at the Glasgow School of Art and Mackintosh married Margaret and MacNair married Frances. Together they came up with innovative designs that influenced design and style for generations to come.

Mackintosh, as architect, and designer became the main exponent of the style. The Four were best known for their decorative arts and this exhibition has 165 works including Furniture, textiles, posters, drawings and glass. While artists may wish for control of the space their work will occupy, they rarely do. Mackintosh worked as an architect designed every detail of his buildings using the full range of media, thus “owning” the entire environment.

The imaginative interiors he created from 1896 to 1917 for Miss Catherine Cranston’s four tearooms in central Glasgow are his best known works. Here is an image of the lady herself and one of the high-back chairs from her Argyle Street Tea Rooms. (Images Catherine Cranston and one of the chairs)

A highlight of the exhibition is a large frieze by Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh. created in gesso on burlap with painted string, glass beads, thread, tin leaf, papier-mache and steel pins. It was a partner panel to a frieze by her husband, Charles, in their collaborative decoration of the Ladies Luncheon Room for Miss Cranston’s Ingram Street Tearooms. They had international impact as they were shown in the Vienna Seccession exhibition of 1900 before installation in the Tea Rooms. Here is the entire image and a detail.

Personally, I love the posters and on-line you can still buy copies. Here is one Mackintosh did in 1896 for the The Scottish Musical Review.

I couldn’t resist this design for a music room (1905) by George Logan (1866-1939) a furniture designer, musician, and poet. It was inspired by the “Choric Song” from Alfred Tennyson’s “Lotus Eaters.”, note the motto inscribed along the picture rail. The patterns of flowers on the walls and textiles and the attenuated shapes of the furniture are typical of the Glasgow Style.

Similar forms can be found on the cabinet designed by Mackintosh for Mrs. Ellen Pickering in 1898. The cabinet was intended to store music books and sheet music. Its design drawing shows that its lower shelves would have been hidden by a linen curtain embroidered with a delicate rosebush and bluebells.

Maybe it’s just my prurient instincts but a good way to end this Missive is with a door that Mackintosh designed in 1907-8 in his later geometric style for the gentlemen’s basement restroom cubicle. It demonstrates his concern for detail, -- and where else but for the Ingram Street Tea Rooms. Here is the full door and a detail.

While I must confess to not loving every object in the show there was enough to enthrall for both the layman and the scholar. A film takes you through Mackintosh’s major architectural commissions and there are detailed timelines, along with labels that are unfailingly illuminating. The show will remain at the Albuquerque Museum until January 23, 2022.