Sunday, March 31, 2013

TEFAF from a Different Perspective

The European Art Fair ended for 2013 about a week ago.  It seems to me that more was written about it than ever before.  More importantly the TEFAF organization has done a masterful job of putting a great deal on line regarding the fair with lots of videos according to categories as well as interviews with some of the dealers.

The opening weekend is the most festive with many of the international glitterati having arrived on their private planes at the small Maastricht airport.  These include some of the heavy hitter collectors but just as important are the many museum curators, directors and trustees who come to try to fill gaps in their collections.   This year it was reported that many of these were from the U.S.   Nowhere else in the world will you find one stop shopping like this with over 250 dealers in every field you can imagine including old master paintings, European decorative arts, middle ages and renaissance art, classical antiquities, oriental and established modern.  To snare the rest of the visitors we find some unusual cars and jewelry represented by some of the finest jewelers in the world.

But if all this does not entice you to come to Maastricht next year, you would want to be there at the by-invitation-only preview which is not just a feast for the eyes but also for the stomach.  If you do not plan to go afterwards for a three-hour dinner in one of the excellent Dutch gourmet restaurants in the area, at the opening you can feast on every type of food you can imagine. It is served around the fair by waiters and waitresses or at food stands in finger-sized portions including such delicacies as filet mignon, sushi, soup, pastries and on and on.

Below is one of the many TEFAF videos where you will see the opening and interviews with the caterer, the director of the Rijksmuseum and some exhibitors. The second half of the film is devoted to two special exhibitions.  The first is a tour with the director, Peter van den Brink of the Suermondt-Ludwig Museum.  The museum is in Aachen about a 30 minute drive from the fair and there he has curated a special exhibition of sculpture from Utrecht dating before the Renaissance.  The final video is with curators from the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.  They have brought with them to TEFAF works on paper by van Gogh.  There is quite a selection including some early works which are not yet in the van Gogh style that we are used to.   This exhibition is within an oasis at TEFAF, a relatively small area on the floor above the main event.  This section is devoted to works on paper including manuscripts, old master drawings and watercolors, more modern fare and photography.  There you will also find one of the less busy sandwich coffee bars with a quieter place to sit.

VIDEO CREDIT: Chapeau Magazine

Though I am sorry not to have been there and seen it in person it is also fascinating to observe objectively from a different perspective.  The reports that I have had directly from exhibiting dealers is that they found the crowd a little thinner than usual and sales seem to have been fair and in some cases quite good.  Of course, much depends on what happens with the many museums and private collectors who have reserved works of art until after the fair.  While most dealers would like to refuse to do this, one has little choice when it is a museum or private collector who is serious and well known to buy.

So much goes on in and around TEFAF it is hard not to be breathless just reading and hearing about it.  One event that is always eagerly awaited is Dr. Clare McAndrew’s Art Market Report that is commissioned annually by TEFAF.  Clare is a cultural economist who founded Arts Economics in 2005.  This year her main observation was precisely contrary to last year’s.  The Chinese art market shrank in 2012 by 24% allowing the American market to regain its place as the largest in the world.

Sunday, March 24, 2013


In case you think that I am writing about magic and sorcerers I am afraid that you will be disappointed.  Merlin is the name of a French 19th century artist about whom very little is known.  In fact, his first or last name Merlin is the only name recorded.  A little like the music star of today, Sting.  Merlin’s dates are also not known.  What is known, however, is that he was a landscape artist who worked around Rouen, France and exhibited in the Salons between 1812 and 1824.

Some years ago I went to view a Christie’s auction sale because of a Rembrandt being sold by Steve Wynn, the casino owner and art collector.

All the hype was concentrated on this Rembrandt portrait estimated between 6 and 8 million dollars.   After tense bidding it was finally sold on the telephone for $11,500,000 plus the auction house commission.  We learned later that the picture was bought by Robert Noortman, the late Dutch dealer who is best known for having conceived of the TEFAF art fair which has just ended in Maastricht.  At the TEFAF fair following the sale of the Rembrandt it was front and center in his booth and the Fair organizers made a big fuss in the pre-fair publicity.

All this hype sometimes has the advantage for a buyer who is interested in another painting in the same auction sale.   In this case, I had been taken by this Merlin landscape.  Clearly Christies had also been aware of its quality because they used it as the inside back cover image.

This is one of those cases of a wonderful painting by a little known artist, and as I have said before, I would rather have the best of a not so well known artist than a mediocre picture by a more famous one.   Museum directors, and more so their boards of trustees, often disagree.  Names, Names, Names that is what most care about so it is up to the collector to buy what he or she likes… but all this is worthy of a separate Missive.  It seems that ”my” picture had escaped wide notice since the actual illustration in the catalog entry made it look small and inconsequential.

The Merlin landscape seems to be a very specific location.  The catalog said that the scene was around Rouen but why should it be?   There was nothing to be found on line about the elusive Merlin and the two lexicons that had anything about him had extremely brief entries.  One, however, did give a list of the Salons in which he had exhibited between 1812 and 1824 with a list of the paintings that he had shown.  The fact that the painting is signed and dated “Merlin 1824” is evidence of the probability that it is one of his views of a country house near Rouen’s route de Bapaume listed in the 1824 Salon.

When I had possession of the painting I asked a French collector what he thought and he saw no reason not to believe it was a scene near Rouen and then I followed up with a curator from one of the French Museums and he also thought that it was likely.  In the distance you can see the town on the river but the focus of the painting is a formal garden typical of what one finds in France.  But what is that exotic plant that stands out on the left?  It is an agave and it turns out that in the 19th century many varieties of agave were imported from the New World and collected in Europe.  Since Rouen was a port they were able to import plants and vegetation from 4 other continents and already in the 18th century the city established a botanical garden.

There is so much else to see in the painting. Note the woman wearing the straw hat who seems to be one of the gardening staff and may be clipping a specimen from a bush to offer to her employer’s family approaching along the path.  Also, the unusual construction of the tall building on the left with openings under the pitched roof suggests a specialized conservatory structure. What is more difficult to see in the illustration are the tiny figures of gardeners in the distance.  Come by the gallery to see for yourself.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Piero Della Francesca

I am writing about an exhibition that I have not seen first hand. Due to back surgery I was not able to travel to New York and Maastricht as planned.  I will miss a great deal that I want to do but thanks to the marvels of the internet and a wonderful catalog I can write about the exhibition “Piero della Francesca in America” that opened recently at the Frick Collection.

Piero was born around 1415 and died in 1492. Famed in his own time, he is credited as one of the first masters of the Renaissance. The Frick has four Pieros, more than any other museum in the U.S,. and they were all painted between 1454 and 1469 for an altarpiece  in the church of Sant’Agostino, in Sansepolcro,  the artist’s hometown.  Miss Frick, Henry Clay Frick’s daughter, persuaded the Board of Trustees to buy their first, “Saint John the Evengelist” in 1936 to celebrate the opening of the conversion of her father’s mansion into a Museum. The last one, The Crucifixion, was added in 1961, a bequest from a Frick trustee, John D. Rockefeller, Jr.

I first came to know Piero when I was finally allowed into the Frick at the age of 10 but it was as a student in London that I learned to truly appreciate him. I was smitten by one of his earliest works, The Baptism of Christ (1437), in London’s National Gallery. It comes from Sanspolcro but from a different church.

The guest curator for the exhibition at the Frick, Nathaniel Silver, had the idea of bringing together other panels from the Sant’Agostino altarpiece altar in the United States.  The Washington National Gallery lent their Saint Apollonia but the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum could not lend its Hercules. The Museu Naciaonal de Arte Antigua in Lisbon, however, did lend their full-length Saint Augustine  from the altarpiece, and the Stirling and Francine Clark Institute contributed their Virgin and Child Enthroned that was painted for a family in Sansepolcro.

To digress, last Wednesday I was supposed to be arriving in Maastricht for the TEFAF fair, instead I found myself, sitting in front of the television watching white smoke rise from the chimney of the Vatican indicating that a new Pope had been chosen.  I have no idea why but the day before I had decided that, though it would be great to have an American Pope, I thought that it should be a South American.  Sure enough Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires was chosen and he picked an original name, Francis I. To me this was the sign of independence and possible reform, at least in some ways.

When he ad-libbed at the beginning of his blessings and asked the people in St. Peter’s Square to first bless him and his Papacy I found myself in tears.   Why?  I am Jewish after all.  The truth is I am usually rather cynical.  Something that I had never felt before had moved me.  I realized that I had had a religious experience. It was a first , even though I have attended ceremonies in any number of churches and synagogues. 

To return to Piero, the installation of his paintings so intelligently assembled in the Frick’s wood-paneled oval gallery along with a reconstruction of the Sant’Agostino altarpiece can be viewed through the virtual tour on the Frick Collection website. Of course, what is missing is the spiritual experience of visitors to the modest church of Sant’Agostino when it was dominated by Piero’s ensemble that towered above the altar before it was disassembled in 1555.  At the high point of his career Piero was besieged by lucrative commissions from wealthy and powerful clients, not the least among them the Pope. Surely religious inspiration played a part in the years he devoted to creating this monumental work for the Augustinian friars of his hometown.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Annie Leibovitz Takes a Sabbatical

The renowned photographer, Annie Leibovitz, came to Santa Fe in order to promote her new book and traveling exhibition, “Pilgrimage”. She termed it a “sabbatical” in the sense that she had become tired of the pressure of working for magazines such a Rolling Stone and wanted to do a project just for herself.

Between 2009 and 2011 she picked about a dozen places in the United States and England that had significance to her, either in a literary or historical sense.  The places were as diverse as Lincoln Memorial, Graceland, Sigmund Freud’s study and Virginia Woolf’s summer home in Surrey.  It was her first project done only with  a digital camera.

I have never been so aware of the differences between a reproduction and the original as I have been in the last couple of weeks.  We first heard her speak to a packed house at the Lensic Theater.  She showed slides mostly from her exhibition and while I found her talk very interesting I was not taken by the photography.  I attributed this to the fact that she had ventured into the world of still life, landscape and historic places instead of her amazing close-ups of the likes of John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Demi Moore.

When I saw the actual exhibition presented at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum I realized that the slides had missed the quality and immediacy of the work.   Then I bought the catalog and there was a third version of the images somewhere between the two former experiences.  I buy very few photography books these days because they all fall so far short of the originals but this one is so much better than most.  It seems to be laid out by the artist herself with historical information interspersed among double-page bleeds, the emphasis being on the latter.

What is fascinating is the fact that Leibovitz refers to herself as a historian and one sees that she is.  She has gone into depth with each of her subjects and when she explains the context one understands the images so much better.

She went to Sigmund Freud’s home in London where she photographed his famous couch and the carpet in front.  It is in many respects very reminiscent of Vermeer.   Even though there are no figures one can imagine the patient on the couch and Freud sitting on the other side of the camera.  Penelope pointed out that her focal point was, however, the opposite of Vermeer’s.  He painted his center point in perfect focus and his foreground some what out of focus as if he were using a longer focal length than Leibovitz.  In Leibovitz’s case her foreground carpet is in perfect focus with the couch being the slightest bit off. In a strange way it makes the image seem less photographic than Vermeer’s!

When she visited Virginia Woolf’s home the person who was supposed to show Leibovitz around was not yet there to let her in, so she photographed through a window, creating a atmospheric image of the home. In this series there was also a picture of a choppy river, and while the photo is most evocative I did not understand how it fit into the narrative.  One thing I enjoy is when the work of art speaks for itself but the story behind it gives one a whole different dimension.  In this case, Annie Leibovitz walked along the river that Virginia Woolf swam in every day and where she drowned in 1941.

In her somewhat informal talk she spoke about some of her heroes and I learned that many were mine as well.  Abraham Lincoln is an obvious choice for anyone, but less obvious is the folk singer Pete Seeger, who like Lincoln cleared some woods and build a log cabin in which to raise his family. When I was a teenager I frequented various folk music clubs in Greenwich Village and I learned that Leivowitz enjoyed listening while she worked to what her assistants referred to as Kumbaya music. I have been accused of similar preferences.