Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Silent Film

With so much media focus on silent film I keep wondering what I missed.  In my early days, though the silent film, had already been replaced with the talkies I was still taken to classic silent films every once in a while.  Maybe, it was to get me to read but I was never a fan.

Now, we have two films and one play devoted to the advent of the film industry.  Why, I am still trying to figure out .  Two of them seem to be something of an indulgence on the part of the director, Martin Scorsese’s, “Hugo”, and Michel Hazanavicius’s, “The Artist.”  While Hugo certainly had it’s charming moments between the small boy who lived in the clock tower of the train station and the daughter of the boy’s nemesis, the small shop owner in the station, and it’s amusing side with the stationmaster played by Sacha Baron Cohen as an Inspector Cluzot type (Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther movies).

Sascha Baron Cohen w/ Asa Butterfield in "Hugo"
“The Artist” had plot and characters derived from films of the past such as “Singing in the Rain” and Errol Flynn.  I found it rather boring except, possibly, the exceptional performance by Uggie, the dog, who, for me, stole the show.

Jean Dujardin w/ Uggie in "The Artist" 
Obviously, I am part of a very small minority and will be thought of as a philistine.  I would have kept my opinions to myself, but we recently had the opportunity of seeing a simulcast from the National Theater in London of Nicholas Wright’s “Traveling Light.”

For me, it did all that the two films wished to achieve but revealed far more about why films became successful.  It has pathos, humor and characters I could relate to.  I quickly forgot I was watching a video of a play and was transported to the theater where I felt I was sitting in the theatre with the British audience.

“Traveling Light” takes place in a Shtetl (Yiddish for a small town) in Poland in the early 20th century.  It has a simple but engaging plot.  From the beginning of the play an older gentleman in a suit appears as narrator telling the story of his youth. He had moved, as a young man, to London to get away from his parents and his village.  Seven years later he returns, his father, a professional still photographer, has died and his son finds his moving picture camera. The local owner of the mill and the richest man in town convinces him to stay in the village and make films by funding him.

"Traveling Light"
Sure that he can teach the naïve Americans how to make motion pictures the young man eventually moves to the U.S. and becomes one of the early Hollywood Moguls.  In fact, many of them were Jewish and also came from Eastern Europe.  What made them successful was not new technology but rather the tradition of Yiddish theater and the stories that they liked to tell. Those stories remained basically the same, translated into the new medium and even transformed, into “westerns”.

So why did this movie/play engage me so much more than the two films.  The play had characters who were real people that one could relate to.  They expressed honest emotions unlike the fantasy of “Hugo” or the staffage figures of “The Artist”.  Together the three productions make a perfect triangle about the early film era.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Chocolate Party

I have been married to Penelope for over 35 years but in my youth I was married to another woman and it was said that if there were only enough chocolate for two people in the world I would still be married to her.  Yes, I am a chocoholic!

I had planned to come back to Santa Fe only the following week but when we received an invitation to a Chocolate Party how could I turn that down?  I quickly booked an earlier flight.

The party started at 8pm and we drove up this winding road in the dark.  Even though we had been up here before several hundred feet above our home which is already several hundred feet above Santa Fe which is at 7,000 feet, we were not too sure exactly where we were in the dark.  We had been told to put our car in a lot below and wait for the shuttle bus to take us up but I did not want to be waiting outside for the bus to come and, anyway, I am not very good at obeying instructions!  Since our hostess’s house is at the beginning of a hiking trail we were lucky enough to find a legitimate parking spot just in front of the house.

From up there you can see the lights of Santa Fe far below, a magical view.  Inside the house there is a wide and winding long stone spiral staircase with rooms off of every level and near the top there is a landing where we find the kitchen, and then the dining room and at the top the large very high ceilinged living room where many gathered

Our hostess was Rebecca Wurzburger, our councilwoman, who requested elegant attire and all the ladies responded with long dresses making for a most festive atmosphere.

The core of any party is the mix of people.  There is nothing drearier than an event where either no one communicates or there are only people who see each other all the time and split into tiny cliques not wishing to speak with anyone other than their group.  Well at this event, though many knew each other in this small town, there was plenty of variety.  Since Rebecca is also Mayor Pro Tem our Mayor David Koss was in attendance.  He is a large supporter of the arts and somehow manages to attend almost every public event that occurs in Santa Fe.  This makes him approachable and a Mayor of the people.

Councilwoman Rebecca Wurzburger & Mayor David Koss
We spoke with a couple of interesting architects, one of whom had a degree from Harvard, worked in New York City and then ended up in a small town in New Mexico before eventually finding work that she enjoyed and opening her own practice in Santa Fe.  We spoke to an officially retired art dealer, Marc Navarro, who was clearly not retired at all, but let his son and partner run the gallery day to day.  We met a local doctor who came from central casting, the perfect image of the doctor you can put all your trust in.  Unfortunately, his specialty is one of the few that I do not need…yet!

The mingling was wonderful but we came there for a Chocolate Party, but what is that?  Well, you might ask.  Of course, it includes lots of chocolate.  In this particular case our hostess asked her guests to bring either a home made chocolate concoction or their favorite champagne. They go well together though my personal favorite combination is chocolate and red wine.  Either way it works!

The piece de resistance was the chocolate fondue that our hostess makes every year.  It is a hot rich chocolate fudge sauce surrounded by bananas, strawberries, dried apricots and marshmallows.  Of course, there were long wooden skewers on which to spear our prey and dip into the rich sauce… divine!

There was a room with platters for various chocolate cakes, such as fudge cakes, nut cakes and German chocolate cakes.  The most innovative concoction was bacon, chocolate lollipops held together with caramelized sugar to add some crunch.  These were stuck into two metal balls on top of each other so the lollipops could be taken out easily one at a time.

What better way to spend an evening than with tasty chocolate and great company.  I can’t wait for next year.  Sure hope we get invited.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Renaissance Portrait: From Donatello to Bellini

A quote from the art historian, Jacob Burckhardt, introduces the great portrait exhibition currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He tells us that fifteenth century Italy was, “the place where the notion of the individual was born.”  Before this, portraits had been reserved for tombs and rulers, The show explores the concept of the portrait as a methodology to commemorate important people and remember family members much the way we use photography today, but also as a way to project ourselves as we would like to be seen.

Keith Christiansen, John Pope-Hennessy Chairman of European Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum and Stefan Weppelmann, curator of early Italian and Spanish Painting at the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin are credited with putting this illuminating exhibition together with curator Andrea Bayer at the Metropolitan.

They are responsible for conceiving and directing the show, but obviously, it takes many more to put on such a large exhibition. Therefore, we find about 200 acknowledgements in the exhibition catalog including 5 essay authors and 17 contributors to the 168 entries.

Most exhibitions start off with a strong first gallery and this one is no exception.  A most incredible gilded bronze bust by Donatello (circa 1386 – December 13, 1466) commissioned in 1425 as a reliquary for Saint Rossore, which resides today in the Museo Nazionale di San Marco in Pisa, greets us when we enter the room.

In that same room we find a drawing representing the head of a cleric by Fra Angelico, who worked in Florence from around 1417 to 1455 from the Collection of Queen Elizabeth II. The image is so delicate it is easy to pass by without studying it, but don’t.  It is absolutely lyrical.

We are also introduced here to the concept that the profile was thought to show the most distinctive features of an individual.  This theme is very important to the exhibition, especially when it comes to the medals which are inspired by ancient coins.

There is a bit of confusion between using the standard exhibition technique of showing works of art in chronological order and using themes such as the Medici Family of Florence and then another gallery of the Portrait in Florence This is one of the reasons we find images by Botticelli in many of the galleries.  But I must say these are well worth lingering over.

Another artist who gets in depth study is Antonio di Puccio Pisano, more easily remembered as Pisanello (1395- circa 1455).  He was the most praised portraitist of the early Quattrocento.  His murals, his drawings and his medals, mostly of individuals, caused him to be sought out by all who could afford him. His portrait medals in profile were most highly prized.  Note the medal of Vittorino da Feltra from a private New York Collection. The dark gallery created in deference to the sensitive works on paper also allows the paintings to shine and the medals to glow.

The following gallery I must admit was also somewhat confusing.  It showed court portraits in both paintings and many sculptures but for me they did not all hold up to the quality of the rest of the show.  Also, in this room there is a wall label speaking of the great influence that the art of Flanders had on portraiture by the end of the fifteenth century though there is only one small Flemish painting in this large room.

The final gallery, however, makes up for this and fully demonstrates the relationship between the art of the North and South.  Note this image of “A Man with Roman Coin” by Hans Memling (ca. 1433-1494) painted between 1471 and 1474 from Antwerp and the “Portrait of a Young Man” by Antonello da Messina (1439-1479) painted circa 1478 from Berlin.

“A Man with Roman Coin” by Hans Memling (ca. 1433-1494) 
“Portrait of a Young Man” by Antonello da Messina (1439-1479)
When I passed the reading room on two different occasions I was impressed by the fact that all 16 chairs were filled with young and old studying the catalog and only one out of all of them was just resting.  For me an exhibition can be considered a success when so many who see it wish to learn more, and the works of art in this exhibition certainly deserve study.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

I can't do it all

Sound familiar?  There is just too much going on in our lives to get it all done and when you’re in the art world your holidays often are art related as well.

Even in Santa Fe I can be overwhelmed by all I would like to do and see and hear but when I come back to New York it can become totally overwhelming.  Especially during Old Master Drawings and Paintings week in New York there was no way of seeing all the shows of colleagues and the exhibitions.  For instance, a fair I wrote about last year and really planned to go to, “The Outsider Art Fair”, I did not make.

Just going to the Metropolitan Museum one weekend I had a list of 8 exhibitions and renovated galleries I wanted to see, not including what I saw last time I was in New York.  Admittedly they were not all large shows but still…

One lady at the Met literally ran into me on a staircase.  She came reeling out of the American Galleries saying, “There is just too much to see” and that is what made me think I should say out loud what I said sotto voce to her.  You need to take it in chunks.  Decide what it is you want to see on one day and come back another. Yes, I am saying that to myself as well.

My father had a system when he went into a museum that was new to him.  He walked through all the galleries once and then he walked through again to see more thoroughly what he had seen the first time.   One can extend that to an exhibition and come back a second or third time if you find it worthwhile.

The Italian Renaissance Portrait exhibition at the Met, which I plan to write about next week, is a case in point.  It is quite large and Penelope and I walked through, not quickly, but not lingering too long in front of any one work of art.  We bought the catalogue and Penelope plans to go back to take the audio guide.  I too hope to have the chance to return to the show in the next week.  On each viewing more will reveal itself.

When I discussed this idea with my son, the question came up, but what if you can’t go back as could happen with an exhibition that is on only for a brief period of time.

If you travel in order to see a particular museum or exhibition you can easily be disappointed.  On my first trip to Milan 40 years ago, I stayed for 4 days and, as is not too unusual in Italy, there was a strike.  All museums were closed until the afternoon that I was leaving.  I must admit that I ran through a couple of museums so that I would have time to see Leonardo’s “Last Supper”.  Thank goodness I made that decision because by the time I returned to Milan the process of viewing The Last Supper had become a codified, ticketed, limited-time visit, and the work was glazed, which as with the Mona Lisa, separates you from the immediate experience of it.

As I try to cover as many of New York’s current Old Master shows as possible, I know that I can’t do it all. As my father used to say “you cannot dance at two weddings at the same time.”