Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Ecstasy and the Agony

We left Santa Fe with our granddaughter, Lucy, and headed for Indian Country.  The first day we arrived at the North West corner of New Mexico where the Zuni Pueblo is located.

My granddaughter, Lucy

It is clearly a poor village but behind the general store we found the only Bed & Breakfast in town, called "The Inn at Halona".  It is owned by a Frenchman and his wife, a Native of New Mexico who comes from a family of missionaries.  The Inn was originally built in 1910 as her family's home and was turned into an Inn in 1998. 

The Inn at Halona

It is beautifully decorated with different fabrics for the curtains and bed spreads in each room, Navajo rugs, Zuni paintings, drawings, and pots and family mementos everywhere.  In the main house there are 4 rooms around a sitting area and a long table which serves as a breakfast table for all.  Luckily, everyone doesnt  get up at the same time so that a rotation system exists. The breakfast is scrumptious and huge.  Some of the choices are croissants, biscuits, different breads, eggs any style, many different juices and delicious fruit, etc. It is truly an oasis in the desert.

The main drag of town has many shops selling to tourists and commercial buyer the art that the Zuni produce.  They are best known for their small animal carvings called fetishes made out of different kinds of stone.  One can tell differences in quality after seeing only a few pieces and the best carvers with the choicest stones earn their reputations and their price.  On the same road we found Chu Chu's the only restaurant in town, it has a typical diner menu with additional Southwest specialties.  They are best known for their pizzas which are large in variety and size and quite good.

The only restaurant in town

The visit to the pueblo has to start at the Visitor Center. Though I purchased a permit to film, most places were off limits.  The Tribal Office was particularly nervous because the following day there was to be a religious dance and they did not want any of the preparations compromised.

It was suggested that we first visit the Zuni museum which was in a building that you might naturally avoid because the entrance is somewhat hidden and it looks more like a factory building than a museum. Inside, however, it is quite a different story and we were most impressed.  It is an up-to-date installation with some very good and interesting objects.  The presentation was not meant for the tourists, though they are welcome, but for the Zuni themselves to learn their own history and culture.   All the labels were written in Zuni first and then translated below in English.  It is ideal for teachers and students alike.

Penelope & Lucy at the Museum

The highlight of our Zuni visit was an almost private talk, with just one other couple, given at the 17th century Mission church. The walls are covered with a mural cycle showing life-size figures of the different katsinas of the four seasons by a Zuni artist, Alex Seotewa.  The local priest allowed them to be painted in the Catholic church because he believed that if the Zuni saw symbols of their native religion they would be more willing to enter the church.

Alex told us bits of his life story including a visit to Russia where he was invited as an honored guest.  His wife, however, was frightened and would not join him because the USSR was still a communist country then.  Alex, was, however, very well treated and asked if he would like to spend an afternoon painting with the young artists at one of the Dachas.  They gave him a large canvas and paint and said that they would be back for him in 3 hours.  Only then did he think, "What am I going to paint in 3 hours." He decided to paint the Zuni plateau which he saw every day and had painted often.  He told us that he finished in 2 hours and 50 minutes.  When the dignitaries came back to pick him up they were impressed with the picture and said that they would varnish it and send it to him when it was dry.  He said, No they should keep it as a gift from the American people to the Russians.  He has heard since that it resides in one of their embassies.

Alex Seotewa & Lucy

After Alex spent more than 30 years working on the murals a new priest was appointed to the pueblo Mission and he decided that it was more interesting to build a new church rather than restoring the old one.  He did not renew the lease so the Mission building reverted to the tribe.  Alex was ordered by the Tribal Council to stop working immediately and told that all supplies and scaffolding left behind would become the property of the tribe.   Making the situation even worse, nobody is taking care of the deconsecrated church so the roof is leaking and the murals are beginning to deteriorate. Therefore, his title not mine, "The Ecstasy and the Agony" which Alex said he wanted to use for his autobiography, someday.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The End of the Blockbuster?

A blockbuster is a large, popular, moneymaking crowd pleaser  that brings in the crowds and therefore revenue at the gate.  So I am afraid that the blockbuster is here to stay.

There is, however, an alternative that we have seen more and more of as museums have had to cut back.  They are small focused exhibitions which are easy to absorb.

When I was in New York briefly I saw, in addition to the Neuber show at the Frick that I wrote about last week, another little gem of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum: “Bellini, Titian, and Lotto: North Italian Paintings from the Academia Carrara, Bergamo.”

Academia Carrara, Bergamo

Bergamo, Italy is a small hill town near Milan.  This is not the first joint effort between these museums.  In 2000 they collaborated on a show of the work of Evaristo Baschenis (Bergamo, 1617-1677), the pre-eminent Italian still-life painter of the 17th century.  The Accademia in Bergamo, like so many other European institutions, is presently closed for renovation and they have sent exhibitions all over the world as far away as Australia to promote their treasures worldwide during this period.

At the Met the Bergamo  pictures are all in one small gallery in the middle of the Italian painting galleries.  In fact, it is totally unexpected and it is only thanks to a sign over the doorway and a stanchion with a sign in a gallery nearby that I stopped to see what was inside.

The show is easily digestible, just 15 small and medium-sized works focused on North Italian painting done between 1450 and 1550.  I like the fact that one does not have to study the entire history of Byzantium or try to remember 120 or more paintings that either all look similar or completely different: either way the blockbusters are a challenge.

At first I was not that excited by the pictures.  The Titian is not universally accepted, the Bellini is not the one that one would expect Bergamo to lend, but as I spent more time without the pressure of feeling I had many galleries to cover, it began to grow on me.  I have to confess here that I am a big fan of the curator, Andrea Bayer, who has done so many wonderful exhibitions at the Metropolitan such as “Art and Love in Renaissance Italy” in 2008/2009, so I willed myself to see what her goal was.

Curators get bored with always showing the same works of art or similar ones because that is what the public expects.  But like a Billy Joel concert with some new songs inserted among the old favorites a curator may include unexpected works or unfamiliar artists.

Having just seen, at the National Gallery in London, what was billed as “Titian’s earliest masterpiece,” “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt” (1506) from the Hermitage I saw a relationship with the Bergamo Titian of “Orpheus and Eurydice” (1508-1512).  Neither looks like what I would call a typical Titian.

Titian's “Orpheus and Eurydice” 

 As I studied the Bellini, however, it was everything one wants from Bellini and more.  The pathos of the “Pietå with the Virgin and Saint John” (1555-1560) is palpable.  If you look at it long enough you are totally absorbed into the moment.

Bellini's “Pietå with the Virgin and Saint John” 

In fact my very favorite picture in the show is by a relatively little-known artist, Bergognone (Ambrogio di Stefano da Fossano) (active 1481 died circa 1523) of “Saint Ambrose and Emperor Theodosius I” (1490).  I just saw as I am writing this that the back cover to the catalog is of this image. The participants in the picture all seem to relate to each other.  The Emperor is actually listening to St. Ambrose and the other figures are all paying attention to the interaction between these two.  At least to me, it seems that the artist actually witnessed this event and the participants were aware of the artist as well.

Bergognone's “Saint Ambrose and Emperor Theodosius I”

The catalog is mercifully small, not a tome that you cannot hold and read.  Sometimes, I jokingly ask the bookstore clerks that if I buy the catalog will they carry it home for me.  In this case, when I went back to the exhibition for a second look I could easily take the catalog along with me and make some notes in it. 

Andrea Bayer told me that one of her goals is to do a number of these more intimate exhibitions with smaller, easily readable catalogs that parenthetically have proven to sell very well.

Exhaustive exhibitions have their place but too often they are just exhausting! 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Johann Christian Neuber

“Gold, Jasper, and Carnelian: Johann Christian Neuber at the Saxon Court” is an exhibition currently showing at The Frick Collection in New York.  It is an absolute gem of an exhibition, pun intended.  It is a collaboration of the Frick, Galerie J.Kugel in Paris and the Grünes Gewölbe (the Green Vaults) of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden.  About 250 years ago, Neuber was director of the latter institution.

Johann Christian Neuber (1736-1808) was a renowned goldsmith who was appointed to the court of Friedrich Augustus III, elector of Saxony, around 1775 and served in that capacity for the rest of his life.  His specialty was working with gemstones from the Saxon region, his most popular boxes showing floral, landscape and complex geometric designs.  At the time there was a growing interest in the natural sciences and Neuber’s stone work was very much in vogue.  Feeding on this interest he used local stones, not importing them, and went out of his way to identify the stones and where they came from.

The exhibition is neither exhaustive nor exhausting but a perfect size to convey the artist’s work and technique.  It is beautifully curated by Charlotte Vignon, Associate Curator of Decorative Arts, and Ian Wardropper, Director, of the Frick Collection.  Works are arranged in the center round gallery of the museum.

Photo credit: Michael Bodycomb

There are 8 cases showing roughly 35 boxes, a few pieces of jewelry and 2 large Meissen porcelain allegorical groups on bases by Neuber.

The boxes are either tabatières (snuff boxes) or bonbonnières (candy boxes).  The snuff boxes are usually rectangular all have a hinge for they are for personal use, but the candy boxes which are round have removable lids so that one can offer a candy to others.  It is a nice touch that in some of the cases either the tabatière is shown open or the bobonnière is shown upside down with its lid beside it so that one can see that every surface is decorated.

Photo credit: Michael Bodycomb

In the center of the room is the piece de resistance, a table, which by any standard is over the top.

Photo credit: Michael Bodycomb

In 1779 the Congress of Teschen was held in order to make a peace treaty to settle the War of Bavarian Succession.  France and Russia both offered their diplomatic services to the warring parties.  Russia was represented by Prince Nikolai Repnin and France by the diplomat and Ambassador to Austria, Baron de Breteuil.  The resulting Treaty of Teschen ended the War to the great benefit of the Elector of Saxony and by way of thanks the Elector made a gift of a huge Meissen porcelain service to Repnin and the spectacular Neuber table to the Baron de Breuteuil.

The Louis XVI style table is made up of 128 stones all with a designated number on the frame securing each stone in place.

Photo credit: Georges Fessy

These numbers are listed in a handwritten catalog, which still exists inside the table (Neuber made similar catalogs for his boxes). An iPad app has been created which gives the history of the table and reproduces the handwritten catalog, with a printed version in English.  There is an iPad mounted on the wall within the exhibit to use there, but if you prefer, you can go to the iPad App Store and search for Neuber and the free app is there for you to download.

The catalog is exhaustive with 400 pages and 500 illustrations.  It is edited by Alexis Kugel who added a Neuber Catalogue Raissoné at the end of the tome.  The Director of the Green Vaults, Dirk Syndram and his deputy director, Jutta Kappel led a team of scholars from several countries in order to give us a complete picture of Neuber and his work.

I must say that while I had an appreciation of Neuber before seeing the show he was never on my favorites list, but this exhibition gave me a whole new slant on the artist and I will look more carefully next time I see an example of his work.

You only have one more month to see the exhibition which closes on August 19th.

**All images courtesy of the Frick Collection.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

London Town

One more comment on the Masterpiece Fair, in order to add a note of art education, they held a one day symposium with the director and the curators from the Wallace Collection.  The lectures all related to the Wallace’s wonderful collections.  But personally, I found the director’s, Dr. Christoph Vogtherr, the most interesting because he spoke about how paintings were displayed in the 18th century and how their hanging related to what is acceptable today.

As I mentioned before, the fair is not the only art event in London at this time.  First come the modern auction sales and the following week the old masters.  Therefore, it is a perfect time to hold Master Drawings’ and Master Paintings’ week.  It adds up to an incredibly busy time in London.  This year, of course, art weeks are flanked by the Jubilee for the Queen’s 60th year on the throne and the summer Olympics.  That should bring London’s already slow moving traffic to a total standstill!

My challenge was how to best divide my time.  Sotheby’s and Christie’s had auctions in fields of interest overlapping each other.  There must have been 10 or 12 over four days .   Also, there were over 35 galleries to visit.  Needless to say, it is not possible to do it all but I did my best to see what I thought would be of interest.

In the auctions the biggest price of the week occurred at Christie’s for the John Constable of “The Lock” which was sold by Baroness Carmen ‘Tita’ Thyssen-Bornemisza  for 20 million British Pounds plus the commission.  Since Spain acquired her deceased husband’s collection and her pictures are on loan at the resulting museum in Madrid this caused quite a stir.  Sir Norman Rosenthal, a trustee of the Thyssen Museum, and former exhibitions director at the Royal Academy in London, quit in protest over the sale of the painting.  The Baroness, however, did go in with a guarantee from Sotheby’s that she would get a minimum no matter what happened.  It was announced before the lot was sold that the guarantee was in turn guaranteed by a third party who would be bidding on the lot.  Rumor has it that the guarantor is a Russian.  Since the picture brought the minimum of the estimate of 20 million pounds I presume that ‘The Lock’ is headed for Russia.

Another interesting lot at Christie’s was a small picture by Pietro Lorenzetti (active in Sienna between 1306 snd 1345) showing Christ between Saints Paul and Peter.  The estimate was 1 to 1.5 million pounds but it sold for over 5 million with commission.  Not only were there bidders in the room and on the telephone but also on the internet.  When the bids came from the latter the screen flashed ‘Texas’.  So we all know that there is a Texan interested in buying early Italian paintings.  Unfortunately, his or her bid was not high enough to acquire the picture.

In the Master Drawing and Master Paintings departments I have made it to probably 85% of the galleries.  It’s more physical work than you may think.  Though the British have mercifully discovered air conditioning, elevators or lifts as they call them are not all that common.  So at many galleries you walk up and down 1 to 3 steep flights. Happily, in many cases it is worth the trek.

Johnny van Haeften, a renowned dealer in Dutch 17th century painting was looking for something different to show this week.  He hit upon a superb idea.  One of his ancestors is a known artist, Nicolaes van Haeften (1663-1715) so Johnny decided to do an exhibition in his office above the gallery with paintings by his namesake.  He owned some, borrowed others and found prints done after a number of the pictures.

At some galleries they have a theme for what they are exhibiting such as at Rafael Valls, he is showing paintings in grisailles (various shades of grey) while Deborah Gage has hit on a water theme, including lakes, rivers and waterfalls.

When I travel I always try to visit some private collectors and if possible see their collections.  I was lucky enough to make two such visits this year. A friend of mine since the 1970’s has built up a beautiful collection of paintings of nature which fill her apartment floor to ceiling.  Most are 19th century with a smattering of 18th century as well.  I particularly relate to the northern schools of Germany and Denmark, I would have liked to take some home! 

I was also privileged to see quite a number of paintings from a family collection, many were, however, out on loan to museums throughout the world.  What I did see was extremely eclectic.  I must say that I enjoy it when a collector says to me, “we buy what we like.”  Somehow, that always makes me smile.

My last afternoon in London I also managed to squeeze in an hour at the National Gallery.  It is definitely one of the greatest old master museum collections in the world.  In artists working before 1500 alone, I could find names like Giotto, Duccio, Giovanni di Paolo, Uccello,  Leonardo, van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden.

There was certainly no lack of art to keep me occupied during this past week in London!

Note: Last week due to a technical glitch the video was a day late.  You can link back to it here.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Masterpiece London - 2012

At this time of year I usually go to London in order to celebrate Independence Day with our original oppressors!  I cannot remember when I was last in the U.S. for the 4th of July.  But seriously, the reason that I come is that the larger auction houses such as Christie's, Sothebys and Bonhams have their old master sales and this stimulates other arts events to occur at the same time.

One of the highlights is the Masterpiece Fair which is now in its 3rd year.  It takes place on the South Grounds of The Royal Hospital, Chelsea.  No, it is not in one of the hospital wards but rather in a huge tent that seems so solid that when I went last year it had to be explained to me that it was not actually in a building with a foundation.

Masterpiece is bigger this year.  There are about 160 dealers in fields as diverse as old masters, antique furniture, ancient, medieval, Egyptian and primitive art, jewelry, motorcycles, yachts and much more. 

I happened by 3 New York dealers that I know who had not been here before.  Merrin Galleries known for their classical art and Alexander Galleries that is exhibiting Old Master Paintings.  Alexander Acevedo, proprietor of the latter said to me, I am enjoying this so much I have met people here that I would never have seen in New York.  That is the reason a dealer does a show and its the gravy if he or she makes back his/her expenses and maybe a bit more.

A big surprise was Collisart, also from New York.  They are showing, of all things, American Art before 1950, not a category you ever see at a European art fair.   Fred Hill and his daughter Daisy Hill Sanders started the company not that long ago and they have a most impressive booth.  Their star picture is a Mary Cassatt, an artist recognized even here across the pond.

Mary Cassatt painting at CollisArt

Another painting in their booth that has caught a lot of attention is a picture that from a distance looks like a van Gogh until you get closer.  I would call it an homage to van Gogh.  It is titled Road on the Moors and it is signed and dated Stuart Davis, 1919.

"Road on the Moors" by Stuart Davis (1919)

As you probably have realized, I love different, something that we have not seen over and over again.  Alberto di Castro and Sperone Westwater have done just that.  This old master and sculpture gallery from Rome has collaborated with a contemporary gallery from New Yorks Bowery.   They showed a terra cotta relief by Massimiliano Soldani-Benzi of 1681 next to an Andy Warhol painting of 1981.

Soldani & Warhol

There is also a row of sculpture busts where I had to look twice before I realized that one or the other might be created hundreds of years before or after the one next to it.  It is a most stimulating challenge for the mind... Not what is expected in a typical booth.

Maybe this surprise factor, of moving from one category of art to another, without warning actually defines this show and makes it so enjoyable to attend.  You never know what is going to be in the following booth.  If it turns out to be a Rolls Royce or motorcycles it causes at least a smile and often great interest.

I became intrigued with just such a non sequitur when I spotted a portrait of Clarence Dillon, founder of the financial firm Dillon Read.  He was also the father of C. Douglas Dillon, Ambassador to France (1953-1957) and Secretary of the Treasury (1961-1965).  In the arts, however, he was known for his relationship with the Metropolitan Museum.  He was not only a great donor he also served as an executive of the Museum for more than 50 years – including terms as President  (1970 to 1978), and Chairman of the Board of Trustees (1977 to 1983).

What may not be as well known is that in 1935 Clarence Dillon bought a major vineyard in France, Domaine Clarence Dillon. Its board still includes only the heirs of Clarence and Douglas Dillon.  Their most celebrated wine is Château Haut-Brion, so naturally, their booth is devoted to the various Dillon wines with magnums of Haut-Brion on display.

Antonella Schmidt Bernheimer

Of course, there are plenty of booths that show just fine jewelry, or English furniture or old master paintings in a very normal fashion but it is the leitmotif of variety that makes it all so easy to digest.  I heard a few complaints that Masterpiece is not serious enough but serious can sometimes get boring.  As long as I see high quality in whatever the field I can be satisfied and in Masterpiece there is an awful lot that qualifies.

Masterpiece does not run all that long.  It opened with a preview last Wednesday, June 27 and runs through this coming Wednesday, July 4.