Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Alcove Shows

The New Mexico Museum of Art (NMMA) was conceived of before New Mexico became a State in 1912.  One of the results of the building was to identify the Santa Fe Style but that story is for another day.

New Mexico Museum of Art

Northern New Mexico was a large draw for artists from the East who came for health reasons.  Several sanatoriums for TB patients existed and for foreign artists as well who were attracted to the striking beauty of the South West.

Edgar Lee Hewitt (1865-1946), an archeologist and anthropologist, made his mark on the National scene in his work on the Antiquities Act of 1906 but his passion for archeology led him to become the director of the School of American Archeology, today known as the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe.

Hewitt was clearly an ambitious man with his finger in many pies during his long career and he was determined to promote the arts in New Mexico and bring culture to the residents of the State.  Already, in 1909 he founded the Museum of New Mexico in the Palace of the Governors where he began holding art shows but realized the region needed a proper art gallery to show off the work of the local artists.

Hewitt himself was responsible for the building that was created for the art Museum.  He commissioned areas for specific purposes.  Realizing that the women in the town actually controlled what was going to go on culturally in Santa Fe he built the grandest room on the second floor just for them and called it “The Women’s Board Room.”   It was actually more of a club where the ladies could have their teas and entertain the important men of the town such as the legislators.  If it still functioned today I am sure there would be a number of lobbyists in the mix.

Women's Boardroom circa 1920

 A large part of the Museum is devoted to a church like structure that was actually a meeting hall, where to this day, lectures and concerts take place.

Most of all, however, Hewitt wanted spaces in which to exhibit the work of all ‘his artists’.  When you walk past the courtyard and into the ground floor exhibition space the first areas that you see are a series of alcoves.  In fact, since there was no permanent collection the entire ground floor consisted of alcoves.  The purpose of the alcoves was to give artists individual spaces in which they could show their art for specified periods of time.  Today, however, some of these alcoves have been converted into standard exhibition galleries where part of the permanent collection can always be on view.  Also, in recent years an addition to the building was tacked on for special exhibitions and this has taken away from the original focus on those alcoves.

As part of its celebration of the centenary of New Mexico Statehood the Art Museum is recreating these Alcove shows.  The Alcoves that still exist in the museum are reserved for one year for a selected group of artists from New Mexico.  There will be 5-week rotations allowing for 5 artists at a time, making room for a total of 45 artists who will be able to exhibit in all different media.  This is not the first time that the original purpose of the museum has been revisited.  It has been done many times before.  The big difference is that originally when Hewitt knew all the artists in town he promoted an open door policy where artists could sign up to have an alcove.  Since the Museum’s original incarnation many more artists have settled in Santa Fe and throughout New Mexico, so in recent times the shows have been curated by professional curators picking the artists and monitoring what is being exhibited in the Alcoves.   They still must be, however, New Mexico artists showing work pertinent to this part of the world and preferably created within the last 3 years.

In this centennial year and leading up to the centennial of the Museum in 1917 the return of the art gallery spaces to the original Alcove Show format is a wonderful way of acknowledging the contribution made by the current generation of artists in a historical context.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Visit to Taos Pueblo

Last weekend we had an incredible opportunity.  We were invited by Bonnie Burnham, President of the World Monuments fund (WMF) and Frank Sanchis, Director of Programs in the United States to join them in Taos, New Mexico, a 90 minute drive from Santa Fe, for a visit to the Taos Pueblo.  I have known Bonnie since the mid 1970’s when we attended the first international conference on art theft when she was working with UNESCO. 

The night before our visit there was a dinner with The Friends of Heritage Preservation (FOHP) founded in 1998 by Suzanne Deal Booth.  This group predominantly from  Texas and California were contributors to the WMF project at the Taos Pueblo.  After cocktails Frank Sanchis did a slide presentation of the  project which involves an 11 room building at the entry to the Pueblo known as Sub-House #2.   There had been a fire and the building was in danger of collapse. It was explained to us that it was close to a million dollar project of which 10% was for a company that could take measurements of the structure from all its angles using laser or lidar (light detection and ranging) technology.  This included a drone that would fly over the Pueblo taking measurements. 

The next morning we all met at the entrance to the Pueblo, about 20 of us, and were escorted into the village where a receiving line from the Tribal Council greeted us, including the governor and lieutenant governor of the village.  We all shook hands and were then led into a meeting room which was set up with architectural sketches of the project as well as a model.

Before we were sat down the Secretary of the War Chief’s office grabbed me for a brief personal chat.  He told me he was lucky enough to live in the “North” building, which I learned was the main Pueblo, the famous image of the multi storied house that has come to symbolize the Taos Pueblo.  His rooms were on the back where he could see the forests and mountains of his ancestors.  When you think about it, who would want to be on the front where you would have to watch and listen to the tourists all day long!

The Main Pueblo

In the meeting room there were homemade cookies and cakes put out for us as well as a bottle of water at each place when we sat down.  The governor said a traditional blessing in their native Tiwa language.  Then he and the lieutenant governor explained the set up of the tribe as well as describing the project in detail. He told us that the people are considered as on the top rung of the ladder with the governor and tribal council below that.  The tribal council does not change and a governor and lieutenant governor are elected from the council by the tribe for one-year terms. We then learned about some of their issues regarding the return of their native lands confiscated by the U.S. Government.  it was amazing to hear about their successes and how politically astute they were.

Afterwards, we were introduced to the foreman who spoke a little bit about the project and then he introduced his crew each by name.  This was particularly relevant as World Monuments Fund does not just put money towards a project but their goal is to teach the people how to do the restoration work themselves so that they will be able to continue on their own.

Introduction of the Workmen

Our pockets were filled with the remaining cookies and we were sent off with guides to see the preservation site in detail as well as much more of the Pueblo.

Work at Preservation Site

The work on Sub-House #2 is being done in the traditional manner with hand-made adobe bricks.  The tribe’s goal is to reproduce exactly what was there before.  Other tribes doing restoration work on their pueblo sometimes wish to have some modern conveniences such as running water and electricity but not here.  If the Taos people want these conveniences they must live beyond the walls of the village.

There were many impressive sites to see but what I found the most profound was the cemetery.  Though they still bury people there it is not large enough to accommodate all so they have started a new cemetery beyond the walls of the Pueblo.

In the center of the old cemetery are the ruins of the first church on the Pueblo called St. Jerome’s, the patron saint of the pueblo.  It was built in 1619 and destroyed at the time of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 but then rebuilt in 1706 after the Spanish returned and destroyed yet again in 1847 during the Mexican war.  Today a new Church of St. Jerome stands as a show piece in the middle of the plaza.

Ruins of St. Jerome

Church of St. Jerome

We learned much about life on the Pueblo and dependence on a stream that brought water down from Blue Lake above the village.   We learned about their politics and religions (Christian and Native).  What more can you ask than to get an insight into what amounts to a foreign society and learn of their goals and aspirations.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

A Recent Acquisition

Though most collectors look for what they have seen elsewhere, particularly if it is similar to something their friend owns, I am always more interested in the unusual.  This is the case with our new acquisition of a “transition” period commode (chest of drawers).

In French 18th century furniture we usually speak of the Louis XV style, i.e. with curved lines, or Louis XVI style, i.e. straight lines.  Though the Louis XVI style came into being in the mid 1750’s during the flourishing of the Louis XV style there was something in between and it was known as “transition” - literally a transition from the Louis XV to Louis XVI.  “Transition” has some curves, usually in the legs, and some straight lines along the sides. 

It was not all that popular nor did it last that long, about 1760-80.  During much of the 20th century it was very much out of fashion but in recent years it has become more popular again.

There are standard heights for commodes and they usually stand at about 33 inches (84 cm) but a variation is known as “hauteur d’appui” literally leaning height.  In the case of our commode, measuring 40 inches (102cm), there is about a 7 inch difference.

How do we know whom it is by?  The best clue is that it is signed on the top of the right rear stile: ‘A. L. Gilbert’ for André-Louis Gilbert (1746-1809).  Gilbert received his designation as “Master” in 1774 but then stopped making furniture in 1789 when the French Revolution began.  He participated in the storming of the Bastille, joined the Paris police department and became a lieutenant in the Revolutionary army… now there is a mid-life crisis for you!

The piece also bears the stamp ‘JME’ for jurande des menuisiers-ébénistes (Jury of carvers and cabinetmakers).  After 1743 all French furniture makers, unless, they worked for the court, were supposed to have their pieces passed by a jury that would stamp the piece with a “JME”.  The way this worked was that the jury would appear every now and then at the door of the furniture maker and stamp the furniture available and they expected to be paid. For some reason not everything was always available for the stamp.  I wonder whether pieces that were not being offered in the shop but rather as specific commissions were not available to the jury.  Additionally, restorers of the past often eliminated these stamps through careless sanding.  In the case of our commode the stamp is still present.

It has wonderful marquetry, which relates to work done in Germany and is slightly naïve in style.  It also adds to the identification that there are comparable pieces with pictorial marquetry panels by Gilbert in the Louvre, Waddesdon Manor and the Frick Collection.

Another unusual aspect is that Gilbert’s marquetry often does not conform to the construction of the piece.  In this specific case note the center top drawer.  The usual methodology would be to have the geometric frieze be exactly the depth of the drawer but in this case the drawer extends into the top of the picture marquetry with its trees and houses.

Why not come visit and see what observations you can make on what makes this piece different and unusual?

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Offering of the Angels

One recent weekend I went down to Philadelphia to visit my daughter and her family.  One day was spent watching my grandson’s Lacrosse game (my first ever) and having a boys night out at a Phillies baseball game with my son-in-law and both my east coast grandsons.

The next day my daughter drove me up to Doylestown, Pennsylvania to visit the James A. Michener Art Museum.  Yes, it is the author of all those best sellers such as, "Alaska", "Chesapeake" and "The Source".  He made quite a fortune from his books and gave a great deal of it away.  The museum, however, seems to have been the idea of the city fathers in honor of their favorite son who graduated from High School there in the 1920’s.

The reason for our visit was to see the above named exhibition,  “Offering of the Angels” and the part of the title that I left out comes after a colon, “Paintings from the Uffizi”.  We were recently at the Uffizi in Florence and that is the caliber of paintings I had hoped for.  I guess that was wishful thinking.  Obviously most of the pictures were from the museum’s reserves or as the Press Release would have it, “Secret Rooms” where the public does not go.

Sandro  Botticelli is extremely well represented in the Uffizi and they include some of the best such as “The Birth of Venus” and “Allegory of Spring”  and many others.  But the one they showed of a Madonna and Child bore a label that says, “Botticelli and a 19th century Restorer”… a first in my experience!

 On the other hand, there are some wonderful paintings such as the Lorenzo Monaco (1370-1425) of Christ Crucified and the grieving virgin with Saint John and Mary Magdalene, on parchment laid down on wood.

And the Alessandro Allori of the Grieving Madonna and Symbols of Christ’s Passion.

The exhibition is broken into religious sections such as "Old Testament/New Testament", "Infancy of Jesus/ Madonna and Child", "Miracles and Passion of Jesus", "Lamentation, Resurrection and Epiphany", "The Eucharist".   A better title than “Offering of the Angels” might have been, “Pathways through the New Testament”.

I must say I felt for the curators both the one who had to go into the Uffizi’s reserves to find the paintings and the one on the other end who had to figure out how to put them together again.  The Uffizi curator must have been torn by certainly not willing to part with their prize paintings but also by not being able to lend some of the great great religious pictures which would have been perfect for the subject matter but were on view in the main galleries.

Years ago, an exhibition from a major museum abroad would go to the National Gallery in D.C. and/or the Metropolitan.  Later on major museums in the largest cities such as LA, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia would also get important exhibitions but it is a relatively recent phenomenon that museums in less central locations would get serious loans.

I remember that when my wife, who was curator in Portland, Oregon, brought international exhibitions from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg or Brescia, Italy nobody in these locations had heard of the town but things change and today when foreign museums close for renovations they are happy to make a deal or just get more wide spread exposure as a tourist stop by lending to any responsible institution.  The story goes that the Uffizi was sold on the concept of the Michener when they heard that the Museum was half way between Philadelphia and New York.  Whatever the reason, it is nice that a regional museum can be exposed to the art of another culture.