Sunday, July 31, 2011

Appreciation of the Permanent Collection

Why do people often swarm to a museum exhibition but ignore the permanent collection? Is it the fact that the permanent collection “will always be there” and the special exhibition has a limited engagement or is it a smart title such as “Behind the Red Velvet Curtain” which engages the imagination?

One way that museums have faced this challenge is by doing exhibitions around the permanent collection.  The term Blockbuster was coined when Thomas P.F. Hoving was director of the Metropolitan Museum.  One of his first blockbusters took place in 1970.  Called “Masterpieces of Fifty Centuries” it was drawn exclusively from the Metropolitan’s collections.

Today, with finances tight the in-house exhibition has fiscal advantages as well. Some museums have put an additional twist on this formula by creating long term exhibitions that are intended to show works from the permanent collection but need not remain static.

The New Mexico Museum of Art did this with a show called, “How the West is One” which opened in April 2007.  Read that title again so you are sure you got it.  Not only an evocative title but one that has something to say.  The curator of the show is Joseph Traugott, curator of 20th century art at the museum.  He believes that the importance of New Mexico in the development of American art has been missed by many.  So here he shows the development of the styles from the late 19th century to the present.  This joining of the complexities of the various cultures of New Mexico is exemplified in the very first painting in the exhibition by Ray Martin Abeyta (1956-), ‘Indios’, showing an American Indian and an Eastern Indian, but separated and not in the same frame.

One of my favorite pictures in the show is by James Stovall Morris (1902-73).  It represents a Hispanic funeral in New Mexico and certainly demonstrates the mores of a culture.  It was commissioned by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) during the depression as part of the WPA program through which so much great art was sponsored by the government.  The resulting works belong to the Federal Government and are placed in museums as long term loans.

Our son Hunter, the Hopi kachina doll collector, used to lament that there was no joy in seeing examples in museum collections because he could not hope to own them, or even similar pieces.  They might be out of his price range or just not available.  “How the West is One” offers more hope to collectors as it extends to the present with pieces by artists active today.  Here, I cannot pick a favorite but I love the sneakers by a fabulous Native American Beader by the name of Terri Greeves (1970-).  While one might not be able to afford a pair of her beaded sneakers her bracelets start at around $200.

Over the past four years Traugott has added or switched out works of art in order to include new acquisitions that are pertinent to the exhibition.  As a result you are getting a dynamic and interesting exhibition which speaks to the tourist as well as the resident allowing them to enjoy the show and then revisit it without getting bored.

Should you be in Santa Fe between now and next March, when the exhibition is scheduled to end, I recommend that you see it for yourself.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Treasures of Heaven

Treasures of Heaven:
saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe”
As if I could come up with a better title than the one given by the joint venture of the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Walter’s Art Gallery in Baltimore and the British museum in their joint venture.  Looking at material from 330 AD to 1450, the exhibition “explores the spiritual and artistic significance of Christian relics and reliquaries in medieval Europe.
Exhibitions are, in my opinion, first and foremost about the works of art that they show but the ambience they are set in is extremely important as well, and every exhibition looks different in a different venue (a Missive for another day).  The installation conveys the curator and designer’s vision of the exhibition.
At the British Museum, as you enter the dark rooms of the exhibition you hear liturgical music throughout.  The religious objects are all on blue grey material, until you get to the relics of Christ where everything is against a royal red background.  Subtle changes like this that you might not even consciously realize, are most evocative in creating the atmosphere, and, as a result, one’s understanding of the material.
Among the earliest pieces in the show are sarcophagi.  These were created to hold the body of an important personage and most often to be seen above ground and therefore often richly carved with ornament or scenes from the deceased’s life.
Relics could consist of a bone from a saint or a fragment of a garment, something to be venerated in a public ceremony or a private chapel. 
Later in medieval times relics were enshrined in finely crafted containers, often created by a goldsmith.  The shapes varied sometimes indicating what the relic in the reliquary was; for instance, the beautiful late 12th century German “Arm Reliquary of the Apostles” from the Cleveland Museum of Art which was part of the, so called, Guelph Treasure.  The museum acquired it with several other pieces from a consortium that my family was part of in the early 1930’s.

Then there is the shrine (aka a châsse) of Saint Amandus from the early 13th century called “The Heavenly Jerusalem” from the Walter’s Art Gallery.  It unfortunately has losses and additions but it does give one the spirit of this type of object shaped like a church to contain relics.  I must, however, admit to missing the great châsses (many many times as large) from Aachen and Cologne but these, are considered so important that it is unlikely they would ever be lent.

In the addendum of the exhibition, having left the religious material and coming into the Protestant era there is this wonderful quote from John Calvin, “How do we know we are venerating the ring and comb of the Virgin Mary rather than the baubles of a harlot”
It is a bit like throwing a wet towel on your face after having been mesmerized by the religious fervor of what came before, and is probably very much what the protestants felt when Martin Luther came to the fore.

Sunday, July 17, 2011


What a crazy week!  Christies is at one end and Bonham's auction house at the other with Sotheby's in between, a walk too short for a taxi ride but a long schlep of around a mile from one end to the other.  This walk is not just done once a day but many times to view and to review.  Of course, there are dozens of galleries in this neighborhood and as I said last week there are exhibitions in many of them.

There is more than one art world, but most of those interested in old works of European art come for this week.  There are collectors, curators, foreign dealers and friends whom you run into continuously.  We greet each other every year complaining that there is nothing interesting and, after a while, admitting that we did see something here or there that we are considering, but not always saying what it is.

Of course, what interests one doesn't always interest the other, so a lot of material changes hands, though never as much as one hoped.  Usually the auction houses hand one third of the auction's works of art back to their original owners, while the dealers, who are not selling well, say there are lots of people interested in their wares.Master Paintings Week joined Master Drawings London giving us a list of just under 50 galleries to visit. Mercifully, many of these galleries participate in both shows making it fewer actual locations to go to.  One does not always wish to see all of them but there are enough to keep one on the go. I never want to miss the ones with the best titles such as “Senses and Sensibility: Intimate Depictions of French Society 1700 – 1900“ at Deborah Gage and  “Finding Van Dyck – Newly discovered and rarely seen works by Van Dyck and his followers“ at Philip Mould. 

The most important auctions are usually scheduled as evening sales and for some, one needs to book a ticket in advance.  This year the offerings seemed slim. Usually an evening sale has just the best of the best but this was not the case, so slightly under a third of the material went unsold at these sales as well.  Still there are always the exceptions that make the headlines like the large Francesco Guardi, Venice, A View from the Realto Bridge, which brought £26,697,250 including the buyer’s premium.  Of course, with the wide estimate of £15-25,000 this means the picture only brought close to the high estimate.

There were some special auctions too.  Sotheby’s came up with a clever title, “Treasures: Princely Taste”.  This was a mixture of furniture, objects, bronzes and other pieces suitable for royalty, if you will.  But huge estimates often dwarfed the quality of the pieces but again there were some prices that exceeded expectations such as a pair of Italian 18th century settees made for a palazzo in Genoa.  They were estimated at £3-500,000 and brought over £1,700,000.  I did not attend, but Christies did something similar and called it “The Exceptional Sale” which, for variety’s sake, even included an eighteenth century Spanish pistol estimated at £50-70,000 brought £55,250.  So not everything brought telephone numbers!

If it is variety and activity you are looking for it was a most exciting time in London.

As usual there were a number of excellent exhibitions on in the museums and next week I will tell you about the one I loved and could have seen earlier without a trans-Atlantic trip.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Masterpiece Fair

I headed for London for Old Master week.  There is lots going on.  The paintings dealers have open houses, Master Drawings London is on, the major auction houses have their sales of older art and there is a new fair in town.  Well, it actually was inaugurated last year.  Now they have coordinated it with the rest of the London activities and a number of major dealers have joined the throng.

It is called simply Masterpiece and was started when the Grosvenor House Fair shut it's doors.  Some prospective participants were rightly wary the first year but it was so well designed and had some serious dealers so it got good reviews.

This year they found a space in The Royal Hospital in Chelsea, I say space advisedly because it is actually a field with a huge tent suitable for housing some 150. Exhibitors. With its wooden floors and carpeting, you would never know it was a field.  The same designer that does TEFAF was hired and he was given a free hand.  It all works marvelously and a number top dealers have joined this year.

There is always much excitement when a new fair begins to take off but it requires a very diligent effort by the organizers to keep it alive. This fair which is being inevitably compared with Maastricht's TEFAF has a long way to go before it reaches such heights but it is off to a good start.  It is already an International show.  There was an attempt to do the same in Munich in the 90's but it never got legs and therefore remained regional with the international dealers slowly bowing out.

Wisely, Masterpiece is not trying to do the same thing as Maastricht . It covers a broader range and is showing all different fields higgledy-piggledy next to each other.  This means you might find a precision watchmaker next to a dealer in old master paintings, and then a photography dealer and a classic car dealership. This makes the whole experience much more fun. 

The fair organizers broadcast the fact that in this fair there is something for everyone. You do not feel that you have to work so hard to get something out of it... It is far less intimidating.  As one individual said to me, any exhibition that offers me a World War II Spitfire is alright with me! 

There is a big choice of food too.  A famous gourmet restaurant, a large bar with food and a deli with wine.  This means there is no need to leave the fair. 

Sales do not seem to be gangbusters but there is clearly some action.  Also, the organizers need to weed out some of the lesser dealers and lure in more of the top ones and encourage them to put their best foot forward in their offerings.  But it takes time to hone the exhibitors and build the audience.  You are not going to get the same crowds in a city like London as you do in a small town in Holland.  There are too many distractions here.

If you are only interested in a concentration of the best of the best in a specific area, Maastricht has it all set up for you.  But if you want to see good art and enjoy the comparisons of various fields and not feel pressured, come to London’s new “Masterpiece”.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Artist as Photoshop Master

Tom Freudenheim former museum director and curator in 3 countries writes on the arts for the Wall Street Journal.  In one of his articles I came across the phrase “the artist as Photoshop master”.  What a wonderful concept!

As you know by now I have a great interest in photography and have seriously taken photographs since I was in grade school.  Some of my photos look surrealistic because of the juxtaposition of the people or objects in them.  Every once in a while I feel that a photo really looks better shown upside down or with a change of color or a more elaborated enhancement.  One such image was one I took from outside the Frank Lloyd Wright spiral Guggenheim museum.  Flip that on its side and you are looking through the bars of a prison onto a barren landscape. This drives my wife nuts because it is not honest, ie it is not the picture that I have actually taken.

But wait a minute, what about the artist? No, not the abstract painter but the old master painter.  We know that Canaletto, the painter of Venetian scenes did similar pictures over and over again.  They were sometimes the same building from different angles around the Grand Canal and sometimes over a period of time as areas changed and buildings were added or demolished.   Were these totally accurate?  There is evidence that they often were  But then he also would just add boats or people or make other small changes. These were surely just for the sake of variation and accentuation.

Similarly, Joseph Vernet (1714-1789) was commissioned by the Marquis de Marigny, Madame de Pompadour’s brother and art minister to Louis XV to paint the ports of France.  He spent 12 years on the process and created hundreds sketches of the people  and objects he saw around the ports.  Then he painted his pictures of the ships in the ports and added the people and paraphernalia as he saw fit.

Gerrit Berckhede (1638-1698) convinces viewers to this day of the “photographic” accuracy of his Dutch cityscapes by his precisely detailed depictions, down to the brickwork, yet he would rearrange the view, to make a better composition, or show what the eye could not possibly see. In this scene of the Hague, which has not changed to this day, a building in the foreground blocked the view so the artist moved it and replaced it with trees.

Sometimes an artist will wish to paint a scene so that the viewer will see the scene with the same effect it had on the artist.  In some cases, however, it is the client that may demand changes.   Gilbert Stuart the portraitist best known for painting multiple images of George Washington is quoted as saying,  "What a business this of a portrait painter - you bring him a potato, and expect he will paint you a peach."  After all you must please your client.

One of the old master painters who brings major prices today is J.M.W.Turner and often the paintings that show vast abstract backgrounds of land or seacape with seeming little content bring the most money.  I found out he left so many works unfinished.  He found that he could sell better if he finished his paintings in front of his public, possibly including content that was requested.  Therefore, he would finish his pictures while they were on exhibition.  Needless, to say he would paint the background scene earlier and many pictures today that have found there way to the market with out content are actually unfinished.

Just as there is no one truth but many aspects of the same truth.  No view is totally accurate.  It depends on the time of day, the weather, and the view at the moment and the artist’s mood.  We all add our interpretation even to a simple snapshot… or masterpiece in any media.