Sunday, November 24, 2013

Julia Margaret Cameron

I did go back to the Metropolitan Museum to see several more shows but the one that I found most compelling was “Portraits by Julia Margaret Cameron”.  She was given her first camera in December of 1863 when she was 48 years old.  She had just moved to the Isle of Wight and for Christmas her daughter and son-in-law gave her the camera, with a note saying, “It may amuse you mother to try to photograph during your solitude in Freshwater”.  Cameron died in 1879 and in less that 2 decades changed photography forever.

The exhibition starts out with rather cold and antiseptic portraits by other photographers working at the start of Cameron’s career.   Of course, nothing else was expected at hat time in a photographic image which was expected to only copy what was before the lens.  Cameron, however, found character in her images so that you did not just see the features of the sitter but had some insight into the person, or the character they were portraying.  She said that it was quite by accident that she discovered the technique of not having the subject in perfect focus.  She found, however, that it added to the atmosphere of the photograph and the character of the sitter.  To her opponents, who believed the old way was better, it just meant that her technique was sloppy.

The prints are all albumen silver prints made from glass negatives.  All the images in the exhibition are from the Metropolitan Museum’s Collection and the illustrations for this Missive have been supplied by the Museum.

Cameron was born and lived much of her life in India but, her mother being French, she was educated in France.  She married Charles Hay Cameron, a member of the Law Commission stationed in Calcutta.  Later in their marriage he served as a model for some of her images.  Cameron did not accept commissions but she chose her own subjects, often poets, painters and scientists of the day.  I believe in some cases she picked a subject because she felt she could capture the character of the sitter with a single image. 

“King Lear allotting his Kingdom to his 3 Daughters”, [1872, Bequest of Maurice B, Sendak].  The characters were “played” by the Liddell sisters posing with Cameron’s own husband as King Lear.  For whatever reason I found this one of the most enticing of photographs.  The father figure in this image from Shakespeare’s play is certainly in his dotage and desperate to do the right thing is being seduced by the flattery of two of his daughters while looking at the third who is the picture of innocence.

Shown near the King Lear image is one entitled “Daughters of Jerusalem”, [1865, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund 1941].  The bible text says, “But Jesus turned to them and said, "Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.”  To me anyway, it seems that the picture was taken right after they have wiped their tears and are trying to compose themselves.  They are oh, so sad.

Cameron was commissioned to do a portrait for the British Nation of Sir John Herschel [April, 1867, Gilman Collection, Purchase, Robert Rosenkranz Gift] who was Victorian England’s preeminent scientist.  She had admired him since she was very young and they had been friends for over 30 years.  He chose the one illustrated here from a small selection of 4 images. The Met displays 3 of these including the one that he favored because he felt it portrayed him as the “Pater Familias”.  Photography was a slow and cumbersome process in those early days and a photographer took relatively few images, not like today when you will find rows of contact sheets to choose from.

Religious themes have been among of the basic subjects of artists throughout time. There is a famous image by Raphael of the Madonna and Child that has been mimicked by many artists.  It is the tondo called “Madonna della Sedia” of 1518 in the Pitti Palace in Florence.   We own a photograph of 1911 by Lewis Hine called, “The Madonna of the Tenements” and Cameron did her own version many years before in a photo called “La Madonna Riposata/Resting in Hope”, [1864, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund].  Conveying the emotional relationship between the Virgin, Christ Child and St. John has always been a crowd pleaser!

The Curator of the exhibition is Malcolm Daniel and he has done a masterful job of demonstrating  the talent of Julia Margaret Cameron aided, of course, by the Metropolitan’s incredible collection.

We are always saying that an image in a book or catalog cannot be a substitute for the real thing and in photography it is truer than in the other arts.  We accept that a photo will not be like the painting or drawing but in photography you have even a greater challenge.  Any substitute is a mere mirage of the original.  The exhibition will be up at the Met until January 5, 2014 so give yourselves a Christmas treat and pay a visit.  Let me know which image is your favorite.  It is a difficult choice!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Medieval Treasures from Hildesheim

Under “Current Exhibitions” the Metropolitan lists 27 different exhibitions from all parts of the world.  No wonder visitors are intimidated and feel they cannot take it all in.
My simple advice is don’t try.  I am always encouraging those who ask, to plan out their visit and decide what might interest them.  A cousin of mine had an agreement with his wife that they would visit a museum in the morning and in the afternoon do something else, like visit the Statue of Liberty or go to the zoo.

I was faced with the same problem during our two-week visit to New York.   My first stop at the Met was to see Medieval Treasures from Hildesheim, and that would have been sufficient.  It is small gem of an exhibition that, for me, put all else in the shade, though I did return to see more.

Tours of foreign and domestic art collections most often happen when restoration of an institution is taking place.  Over a decade ago when the concept was relatively new my wife suggested to the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, after they had been closed for more than a decade, that they might wish to exhibit part of their collection in the New World (Portland, Oregon).  For them it was a novel idea, but they agreed.

Now a greater, or in any case much rarer, collection has gone out on loan, Medieval Treasures from Hildesheim, one of the oldest cities in northern Germany.  As often happens the legend of a miracle allowed for the building of a sacred place.  The story goes that the chaplain accompanying Louis the Pious (778-840) on a hunt stopped and hung a reliquary of the Virgin on a rosebush and forgot it there.  When it was found the next day it could not be removed. Bishop Altfried who reigned from 851-875 built the first Cathedral in Hildesheim consecrated in 872, at the site of the rosebush, which survives to this day.  Subsequent Bishops eagerly expanded the Cathedral until it was ready for Bishop Bernward (reign 933-1022), the greatest patron of the arts in the middle ages to make Medieval Hildesheim flourish.  The quantity and quality of the art were unrivaled for the time and Bernward’s commissions were extraordinary.  Being a member of the Saxon Nobility did not harm either.  He had connections everywhere.

I have learned during the 4 years that I have written Missives from the Art World that the images I use, amplify my Missives and, as they say, are worth at least a 1000 words  that you would not wish to read anyway!  Also, images used to illustrate catalogs are usually silhouetted hiding the scale and removing the work of art from our world.  I was allowed to use my own camera (iPhone 5S) to take pictures in the Hildesheim exhibition, and, unless otherwise mentioned, these are my own images.

When you walk into the Medieval Hall of the Met, behind the Christmas tree and before the Lehman wing you encounter the largest and most striking object in the exhibition.  It is actually separated from the exhibition itself with a gallery in between but this site is perfect in the Medieval gallery behind the gates of a Spanish church, that are part of the Met’s permanent installation.  It is a 6 foot high Baptismal Font in copper alloy in which you could easily lose a baby!  It dates from 1226 and was cast in Hildesheim for the Hildesheim Cathedral.  It is incredibly elaborate and complex including scenes from both the New and Old Testament.

After spending a long time gawking at this spectacular object I continued to the main site of the exhibition and the next object to gain my attention was the so called “Golden Madonna”.  It dates from 1022, making it one of the oldest three-dimensional Western European Medieval sculptures to survive.  The Virgin and Child are made of linden wood, covered with gold sheet.  In spite of it missing both heads, three  of the four hands, and many of its precious stones, it makes quite an impression.  One can see its importance through the folds and delicate filigree on the garments.  During the 13th century it was known to be on the high altar of the Eastern Apse of Hildesheim Cathedral.

When I saw this pair of candlesticks for the first time in illustration I thought that they were 6 plus feet tall and was frustrated when I could not find them in the exhibition.  Upon my return to the show my mistake became obvious because they are only 16 inches high with gilding and niello on an iron core.  As you can see from the illustration they are incredibly elaborate and the design would easily support a larger format.  The inscription along the bottom which is neither a profound nor liturgical pronouncement says, “Bishop  Berward  ordered his servant to cast these candlesticks in the first flowering of this art, not out of gold, not out of silver, and nevertheless as you discern here.”  The material that looks like silver has recently been analyzed as electrum, a combination of gold and silver.

Two other incredible pieces of goldsmiths’ work are the arm reliquary of Saint Bernward  (yes, formerly known as Bishop Bernward) of 1194 and the reliquary of Saint Oswald from the same period which still today contains his skull.  In the 13th century the latter was shown together with the Golden Madonna on the same high altar.  Here my photograph falls short of showing the incredible detail of the engraving of the piece but the portraiture is perfectly clear and if I ever meet Saint Oswald I shall surely recognize him!  While an arm reliquary is not that rare in medieval art I have never seen one this fine or elaborate.

What a show!  There is so much to learn about each piece and so much more to see in the exhibition including enamels, ivories and manuscript illuminations of the period.  The show is up until January 5, 2014 .

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Mauritshuis at the Frick

No sooner had I written about the David dAngers that I turned around again and went back to the Frick to see some pretty spectacular art lent from the Royal Picture Gallery Maurithuis in the Hague.

The collection at the Mauritshuis is all Dutch and mainly 17th Century.  Though concentrated in one field, it is a gem just as our Frick Collection is. The museum has been closed for renovation and therefore about 50 of their paintings have gone on tour through Japan and the United States.  The Frick is showing 15 works from this group that represent the different genres of Dutch painting.

To digress, several years ago we had just visited the Louvre and stopped for a bite at a bistro nearby and began discussing what we had seen at the museum.  Next to us there was a mother sitting with her young teenage son who had his nose buried deep inside a book.  The woman overhearing our conversation told us that her 13 year old son had read the “Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown and had insisted that they pick up and go to visit the Louvre; thus ensued our dinner conversation.  While we may not have been big fans of the book (actually I liked it and Penelope didnt) we were both thrilled at all the people who came to visit a museum because of it.

Now again, another novel, Girl with the Pearl Earring," written by Tracy Chevalier in 1999 and turned into a movie in 2003 brings visitors to the Frick to see the Vermeer painting in reality.  The author is an American who studied and now lives in England.  When Penelope was working with Peter van der Ploeg, then Maurithuis chief curator, on an exhibition for the Portland Art Museum, he stopped at the guest book at the entrance to check the comments of recent visitors. To his surprise he found Tracy Chevalier had been there again and signed with the message “I love her as much as ever"!

As an added bonus coinciding with the American tour Donna Tartt has come out with a novel called The Goldfinchwhich is titled after the small picture by Carel Fabritius in the Mauritshuis collection, though, from what I understand, in the novel the picture is at the Metropolitan Museum.

My one disappointment in the show is that the museum felt it necessary to glaze (cover with glass) all but one of the pictures giving reflections and hiding impasto and craquelure from the viewer.  I can excuse this when we are speaking of an iconic painting such as the Girl with the Pearl Hearing”, or for paintings on wood panel that have to be enclosed for  climate control during travel, but I find it distorts our view of the art.  The Mauritshuis catalog is so well produced and printed that in some cases the illustrations are excellent substitutes for the painting (I never thought I would ever hear myself say that!).  For once I am delighted to be as old as I am since I had the opportunity to see these pictures unglazed.

There comes a point that some paintings are so overpublicized that they become what the British used to refer to as candy box.  In other words an image that became so familiar that you might find it on a box of fine chocolates.  I would rather make a new discovery. While there was no picture in the show that I had never seen before the one that I probably could look at longer than the others was Rembrandt’s “Susanna and the Elders”.  This is the story from the book of Daniel about the two old men who prey upon  Susanna who is bathing alone.  When she resists them they claim that she was having an illicit rendez-vous with a young lover.  She is about to be put to death as an unchaste woman when a man called Daniel appears and suggests that maybe the elders should be questioned.  When they are separated it becomes evident that they are lying and they are put to death instead. 

In the Mauritshuis version of Rembrandt’s painting the men are hidden in the bushes and almost impossible to see.  Susanna has not yet seen them but has heard them and looks at the viewers as if pleading for their help.  You see that she is not an idealized young woman but attractive in her fleshiness, which was the taste of the day.  Her vulnerability is what makes one sympathetic to the painting.

If you haven’t seen these pictures in a while it is definitely worth going to the Frick and If you are a member of the museum you can go right to the front of the line.  I met one gentleman who became a member just so he could do that.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

David d’Angers at the Frick

Pierre-Jean David (March 12, 1788 – January 4, 1856) adopted the name of his home town to become known as David d’Angers. He did this not only to honor the town that financed his studies but also in order to distinguish himself from the master Jacques-Louis David when he was invited to attend his classes. 

I had always thought of David d’Angers as a specialist in small sculptures and medallions and with good reason.  He made about 500 medallions, some relatively large, in his lifetime and 100 busts, but he also created some 30 monumental sculptures in marble.  Obviously, I missed out.  My wife said that she was blown away when she went to the town of Angers as a student.  The museum there has the greatest collection of the sculptor’s work anywhere including thousands of his drawings.

In spite of having made so many portrait medals he was not a portraitist in the usual sense.  Just like the contemporary artist, Chuck Close, it was not his habit to take commissions from individuals but rather he made portraits of the people that he thought were important in history and also portraits of many artists.  You will find lots of these at the Frick.

I had the rare privilege of having the Australian curator of the show presently at the Frick Collection in New York, Emerson Bowyer, give me a tour of the exhibition during which I gained some insights that I might not otherwise have had.  This exhibition has more diverse media than has ever been shown together at the Frick, consisting of plasters, bronzes, waxes, prints and drawings.  The latter were an unexpected surprise.  David d’Angers was an incredible draughtsman.  His perception was not a classic one but rather, as Emerson Boyer repeatedly pointed out, a Romantic one.  His view of the Apollo Belvedere was most unusual indeed with Apollo’s head prone but so so beautifully drawn.

The first stop on his road to fame was a bust representing “La Douleur” (sadness). With this soulful sculpture he won École de Beaux Arts annual tête d’expression prize.  There are two surviving plasters, made from the pieced mold: one is in the Musée d’Angers; and the other is right here in New York in the collection of Roberta J.M. Olsen and Alexander B.V. Johnson and has been lent to the show.

When David was just 28 years old he was asked to carry out the commission that his teacher Philippe-Laurent Roland (1746-1816) had been given.  The latter had died unexpectedly after only designing his concept of the marble statue for “Le Grand Condé” which was to go with the other Grands Hommes on the bridge in Paris known today as Le Pont de la Concorde.  It was under Louis XVI that the idea to pay homage to the great men of France was conceived and it was revived after the fall of Napoleon.  Although the monumental marble of “Le Grand Condé” was destroyed, one of David’s bronzes of the model can be found in this exhibition lent from a private collection.

David d’Anger’s work was not always prized and the sculptor himself told the story about walking into a friends apartment “and he felt a violent blow to the ankle… It was, would you believe, my great men in bronze, rolling through the corridors like shuffleboard pucks, down the stairs four at a time, to the delight of the little children.  I have also seen a model housewife grate sugar with these unfortunate profiles, choosing for this purpose those with the most hooked noses…”

One of the pieces that I would like to have taken home is neither plaster nor bronze but rather a wax medallion of The Abbé de Lamennais also from a private collection.  The detail is phenomenal and it seems to live.  You feel you can look into the sitter’s thoughts.

As mentioned last week, we are showing in our gallery for just another 2 weeks a large plaster by David d’Angers of François-René de Chateaubriand as part of the PADA exhibition “Private Goes Public”.  It was his working model for the large portrait bust in marble still in the collection of the sitter’s family and never seen in public.  On it you can see the supports and points that were used to transfer the sculpture from the plaster to the finished marble.