Sunday, November 25, 2012

He was a Liar, an Imposter and a Thief

The above was the introduction by Klaus-Johen Guehlcke, German Consul General in Houston, to an exhibition that just opened at the History Museum in Santa Fe.

 “Tall Tales of the Wild West: The stories of Karl May” is based on the fictional travels of Karl May (pronounced My) who was the German author of over 100 books. Many of which were about the cowboys and Indians of the American Southwest and focused on the Mescalero Apache south of Roswell, New Mexico. 

May’s writings were guided by his own principle, “Don’t tell the truth when you can come up with something more interesting to say.”  His influence on Europe’s vision of the myth of the American West cannot be underestimated.  There is only one minor detail, he had never been to the United States, and when he finally did come, in his old age, he never got further west than Buffalo, New York.

May had a substantial library with books by the sources that he used to inform himself about our Southwest, however, much of the geography of the region was not yet recorded in the European atlases and maps available to him.  Today, his library resides in the Karl May Museum in Radebeul, Germany.

May was born in 1842, the son of poor weavers in a small town in Saxony, and died at age 70 in Radebeul, near Dresden in 1912.  Early on he got into trouble as a liar, a thief and an imposter, posing as a police officer and a doctor and as a result ended up in jail on three occasions.  At about the age of 35 he found that he could write and he published a number of articles.  In 1895 he published his first novel  and only then did he begin making real money from his writing, just fifteen years before his death.  His most famous series of books, selling over 200 million copies, was about a fictional Indian by the name of Winnetou and his closest friend a German, by the name of Old Shatterhand, who narrates the stories.  In the 1960’s a number of movies based on these stories were produced in Germany and Yugoslavia and some were dubbed in English.  May also lived the part of Old Shatterhand and would often dress according to his fantasies.  In this photo May poses as old Shatterhand.

The opening lecture for the exhibition at the History Museum in Santa Fe was given by Hans Grunert, the curator of the Karl May Museum, in Radebeul. With the introductory remarks by the Honorary German Consul to New Mexico and the German Consul General from Houston, for the entire Southwest,  it was quite an affair, and very German in style.

The audience was asked how many were from Germany or had German ancestors and half the audience must have raised their hands.  What really amazed me was when asked who had read Karl May in their youth, a good percentage kept their hands in the air.  My knowledge of Karl May was only when my father would talk about him because, as a child in the late 1940’s and early 50’s I loved cowboys and Indians. The curator from the Karl May museum said that he read the novels the only way he could, “under the covers” because his parents kept trying to get him to read more illustrious German authors such as Goethe, Schiller and Thomas Mann.  Today, he is very happy with his choice of author. 

The Librarian archivist at the New Mexico History Museum and curator of the exhibition, Thomas Jaehn, is also originally from Germany.   He told the story of trying to import
the mock rifle that Karl May said he took from the grave of Winnetou in Wyoming.  It  was actually made in the town of Radebeul.  When the curators naively tried to get permission to bring it in as hand luggage on their plane they did not succeed and before it was over the departments of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the TSA and Homeland Security were involved.  Here is a picture of the curator holding the gun victoriously in the store room of the History Museum

Thomas Jaehn with rifle

and another of the cover of May’s book “Winnetou”.  Here Winnetou leans on his trusted Silberbüchse, as he called it, with Old Shatterhand peering over the cliff next to him.

“Tall Tales  of the Wild West”  brings to a New Mexico  audience the stories that have long shaped the European view of the American West.  It is ironic that the one place that they have not been known is where they were situated.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Roentgen @ The Met

“Anyone who has seen one of Roentgen’s ingenious writing desks, where at a single touch many springs and hinges come into motion so that the writing surface and implements, pigeonholes for letters and money appear simultaneously or in quick succession – anyone who has seen one can imagine how that palace unfolded into which my sweet companion now drew me.”  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The New Melusine, 1816.

My family has been known in the field of what is known as FFF since the 1920’s when my uncle left Germany to work in Paris because he loved everything French, a German Francophile, if you will.  FFF refers to Fine French Furniture of the 18th century.  The pieces made for Royalty and the Aristocracy.  Some of the best cabinetmakers in Paris were not French but German.  Yet, it is still thought of as FFF.

Two of the latter were Abraham Roentgen  (1718-1779) and his son David (1743-1807).  David Roentgen was the first German with production outside of France to be admitted into the Paris furniture makers’ guild.  This occurred only after he became ébéniste-mécanicien first to Queen Marie Antoinette and then to her husband King Louis XVI.
I believe that I was first aware of the furniture of the Roentgens when I was a child and shown a piece in our gallery.  Why would a child be interested, you ask?  The answer is quite simple, the furniture, as Goethe observed, does all sorts of tricks. The ingenuity behind the work of this father and son team knew no limits.

I have seen many furniture exhibitions and even for me, they can be a crashing bore but now the Metropolitan has done an exhibition of Roentgen furniture, which one can only describe as fun.  It is aptly called “Extravagant Inventions:  The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens”.  Not only is the furniture exciting to look at with its elaborate marquetry but the exhibition uses the technology available today so that we can see the furniture doing all of its tricks.

At the entrance to the exhibition there is a wall size video showing two pieces from the Met’s collection, a gaming table revealing all of its different game boards and a desk which with the turn of a key has many drawers pop open.  The video also shows an automaton of Marie Antoinette playing the clavichord.  She first looks at the audience and then strikes the keys with tiny mallets.  She is wearing real clothes but in the video they have taken off her billowing skirt exposing a pair of shapely legs, so that Marie Antoinette looks like a barroom pianist from the Wild West.  It is unusual to see a sexy Marie Antoinette and so the fun begins.

There is then a small wall of portraits of the Roentgen family.  Although as paintings they are not very interesting they do give the family a personal presence in the galleries.  Turn around and you see a tabernacle rotating on a turntable.  Somehow you believe for a moment it has always been so, of course, originally it was turned in the church depending on which liturgical service was being performed.  The first niche originally held a Monstrance, the second a small Altar Cross and the third a Ciborium.  The latter was in the niche with a marquetry (ebony, rosewood, mother of pearl, and tortoise shell) depiction of The Last Supper taking place in the center of a very ornate apse.

The afore mentioned automaton of Marie Antoinette which is said to bear a fair likeness to the Queen was made by David Roentgen and sent under the greatest secrecy to Louis XVI. It arrived as a surprise at the court of Versailles. No one who must have participated in such a difficult endeavor like the clock making workshops of Neuwied, Germany where the Roentgens lived and worked had leaked the story.  Automatons were considered the ultimate in scientific success and for, a foreign furniture maker to pull one off must have been the marketing coup of the age.  It was so highly prized by all that it survived the Revolution and today resides in the Conservatoire des arts et métiers in Paris.

My final illustration comes near the end of the show.  Nearly identical commodes, one from the Met and the other from the Victoria & Albert Museum in London are placed next to each other.  The back has been taken off of the latter revealing its counter weights which enable the turn of a key in the frieze of the commode to open a door with a compartment attached behind which are three shallow drawers.

The concept for the show and curator of the exhibition is Wolfram Koeppe from the Metropolitan Museum.  He has been a wonderful interpreter for the public and using either the objects themselves or video has shown all the incredible feats that the Roentgens’ furniture can do.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Master Drawings

No, this is not about our annual January joint dealer exhibition of our master drawings but rather the title of an exhibition at the Frick in New York.  It is called “Mantegna to Matisse: Master Drawings from the Courtauld Gallery”.

Between college and graduate school I spent a year abroad and during part of that time I received a certificate for completing several courses in the Fine & Decorative Arts as well as architecture.  I took advantage of being in London by also auditing courses at the Courtauld Institute for advanced learning in art history which was founded by a philanthropic trio: the industrialist and art collector  Samuel Courtauld (1876 –1947), the diplomat and collector Lord Lee of Fareham (1868-1947), and the art historian Sir Robert Witt (1872-1952).  All three of the co-founders left their art collections to the Institute, forming the basis of the Courtauld Collection. Witt also founded the Witt Library a treasured photographic resource for art historians. When I studied there the collection was housed in a Robert Adam house on Portman Square along with the art history Institute, but in 1989 it moved to Summerset House on the Thames.  The exhibition is introduced by a Canaletto panoramic view from Somerset Gardens looking toward London Bridge, which ironically was bought in 1967 and placed in Lake Havasu City, Arizona.

"View from Somerset Gardens" by Canaletto

I was well aware of the Courtauld’s paintings and have seen them in various shows at the Courtauld Gallery and in loan exhibitions.  What I was not aware of was the wealth of the drawings collection, consisting of 7,000 works on paper and in particular the Old Master collection.

Stephanie Buck from the Courtauld and Colin Bailey from the Frick have done a masterful job of picking works to give an overall view of the high quality of the collection.  I have seen the show three times now and every time I go through it I find more “prime examples”.  Of course, if you can cover from Leonardo to Picasso how wrong can you go?  There are also works by Durer, Pieter Brueghel the elder, Rubens, Rembrandt, Canaletto, Bernini, Watteau, Goya, Ingres, and Turner etc. etc. etc.  It is really a jaw dropping display.

Naturally, I must choose a few to write about and as usual I will pick on personal favorites.  But I should tell you first that I asked my wife, the curator, what her choices would be and we often did not agree.  In a show like this there are, of course, no wrong choices but inevitably I would pick the picture that would be called the more “popular” one and Penelope would go for the unusual image.  Suffice it to say, the choices are mine, but on some we agreed.

One such and my overall favorite is an Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), the only German drawing among the six drawings that date from the 15th century.  In fact, I believe that it is the only German drawing in the show.  From World War I until relatively recently in the Anglo-Saxon countries there was a deep prejudice against anything German.   Helen Frick, Henry Clay’s daughter would not allow any German pictures to be bought and again, until relatively recently, the Metropolitan Museum would not allow German art to be acquired.  I actually have difficulty thinking of this dream-like girl as a Wise Virgin because she seems just an innocent taking her first tender steps into the real world.  Durer made this drawing in 1493, when, after finishing his studies in Nuremberg he was on his way to Colmar to meet and learn from the marvelous painter and engraver, Martin Schongauer.  Unfortunately, Schongauer died before he got there but one can see that the latter’s work had a great influence on the young Durer.

"Wise Virgin" by Albrecht Durer

I am always fascinated by the reflections of nationalism in the history of art. One such is the Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s (1589-1680) East Façade of the Louvre, a project he did in a competition for the completion of the Louvre for Louis XIV.   The complex curves Bernini proposed come from the Italian Baroque vocabulary he developed for the Vatican in Rome and contrast dramatically with the iconic French straight colonnade actually built to the winning design of the Claude Perrault (1613-1688).

"East facade of the Louvre" by Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Finally, another personal favorite is the Honoré Daumier (1808-1879) of “The Hypocondriac” as they call it on the label.  Here we see the sick patient listening to the pontificating doctor and not seeing the doctor’s assistant hiding behind the latter with a huge enema, which the patient probably knows is coming.  To my mind it is a slightly different interpretation of the same subject as “The Quack Doctor” that I learned about in Dutch 17th century painting.  But that is the fun of it.  There is no right and wrong.

"The Hypocondriac" by Honore Daumier

You have until January 27 to see the show but don’t delay I dare you to pick your favorites.  While I always find the brevity of my Missives frustrating this one has been particularly so because there are so many more drawings that I would like to mention.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

An Excuse for a Party

There’s a new art fair coming to the Armory in New York and this one will have a French flair. The Syndicat National Des Antiquaires, the French art and antiques association centered in Paris, and Sanford L. Smith & Associates, New York’s legendary art show manager, have organized “The Salon Art + Design”.  All dealers everywhere are looking for new venues and this is an effort by the French to get more global exposure.  In fact the Syndicat’s next venue is expected to be Hong Kong.  We know well one participating member of the Syndicat, the Kraemer family, who concentrate on French 18th century furniture of the highest caliber but have never before exhibited in the U.S.  I don’t know yet what they will show at the Salon Art + Design, but you can be sure it will be incredible.

Then we have another friend and colleague by the name of Emanuel von Baeyer, originally from Germany, who has made his home in London.  He is a very serious prints and drawings dealer with the emphasis on the former.  He is coming here to do the International Fine Print Dealers Fair, which is also organized by Sanford L. Smith. We have done Master Drawings, New York together with Emanuel in the past and this year, in addition to participating in the Print Fair at the Armory, he asked us if he could show some prints at our gallery at the same time.

With these two fairs happening we decided to do an exhibition at Stiebel Ltd., with some of our own prints and a marvelous French 18th century lunar clock in the center.

There is an additional hook here and to explain it, I need to give you a little history.  In 1990 we opened a separate entity called Stiebel Modern.  It featured representational painting with emerging artists but also some well established ones.  We closed it 5 years later because we felt that we were spread too thin.  Then as now, one of my favorite contemporary artists is Lucian Freud (1922-2011). To me his work puts to rest the dictum of Clement Greenberg, the champion of Abstract Expressionism, that, “The one thing you can’t do anymore is make a portrait.” Freud himself said “I would wish my portraits to be of the people, not like them.  Not having a look of the sitter, being them.”

Unfortunately, I was not able to acquire a painting by the artist for the opening but we borrowed a fabulous one from a private collector.  I did, however, purchase a number of prints from Brooke Alexander Freud’s American publisher.  We did not sell any of these during Stiebel Modern’s tenure so I put them away. 

"Blond Girl" by Lucian Freud (1922-2011)

"Man Posing" by Lucian Freud (1922-2011)

Slowly but surely I began to see more and more interest in these prints and then in 2007-2008 The Museum of Modern Art did an exhibition of Freud’s etchings from 1982 on when Freud went back to this medium after a 34 year hiatus.  All of the prints that I had acquired dated from 1984 to 1990.  Now a year after Freud’s death seems to me to be a very good time to take out these gems, which have not been on view in over 20 years. 

I hope that you will be able to join us tomorrow evening (Tuesday, November 6 from 6-8pm) have a drink and enjoy the exhibition which will run through the end of the month.