Sunday, February 26, 2017

St. Joan by George Bernard Shaw

The other evening at the Lensic Theater in Santa Fe we watched the National Theater’s “St. Joan” by George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) streamed live from the Donmar Warehouse in London.  It was quite an incredible performance with a number of excellent actors especially St. Joan played by Gemma Arterton.  She is just 30 years old and has already spent a decade in great theatre.  For me it was perfect casting.  She has the most angelic face when she smiles but can turn that into the face of the ardent believer, one might say fanatic when need be.

After Shaw’s play “Pygmalion” (1913) made famous in the last half century by the musical “My Fair Lady” “St. Joan” (1923) must be his best known.  It is certainly most quotable and was written just 3 years after Joan of Arc was declared a Saint.  The play has been called a tragedy without villains and that is a very good description, indeed.  The grand inquisitor, another fanatic, is just as ardent a speaker for his cause as Joan is for hers.

Shaw’s script is based on a well documented history; in 1429 a young country girl known as Joan of Arc though most call her simply “The Maid”, appeals to Robert de Baudricourt asking for men, horses and armor because she has heard the voices of St. Margaret and St. Catherine commanding her to go to the Dauphin of France, have him crowned King and raise the siege of Orleans which was occupied by the British.  Needless to say, she is thought quite daft but she is so persuasive that slowly but surely she has men following her.  De Baudricourt OK’s the expedition and sure enough she wins the day.  Later, she wishes to go on and take Paris because god wants France to belong to the French.  Her arrogance knows no bounds and those that followed her before are not willing to see her killed after her “beginners luck”.  Her insistence that she is doing god’s work is finally too much for the Church.  When an inquisitor is sent by the Pope she is tried and finally burned at the stake.

Joan as Warrior
Many of the lines in this play are so insightful that they get you thinking: Joan comes to de Baudricourt and says “I hear voices telling me what to do. They come from God” His response is “they come from your imagination”.   Joan replies “Of course, That is how the messages of God come to us.”  Who can argue with either statement?

Joan as Persuader
So often we see a production that is updated to the present, and so often I just don’t see it’s pertinence. But while watching “St. Joan” I kept having to remind myself, that though set in a modern board-room by the director Josie Rourke, it was written almost 100 years ago.  There are so many great lines.  For instance, the Inquisitor says ,“ I’ve never seen a fairer trial. It's so fair that Joan doesn't even need a defense attorney, because everybody here is trying to save her.”  Right out of today’s headlines, I can hear our President saying it.

Joan over King Charles
Another gem,  “Political necessities sometimes turn out to be political mistakes.”  Wouldn’t it be nice if our politicians would learn that lesson?  From the preface, “The degree of tolerance attainable at any moment depends on the strain under which society is maintaining its cohesion.” It seems to me that today there is, anything but cohesion in our country.

We should remember, however, that “A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.”

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Turner’s Modern and Ancient Ports: Passages through Time

“Turner’s Modern and Ancient Ports: Passages Through Time” is an exhibition coming to The Frick Collection, New York on February 23 and remaining until May 14.  J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) has always been a difficult artist for me.  I admit that this may have to do with the fact that I am a Francophile and not an Anglophile.

Years ago my wife was writing articles for GQ Magazine and did one on the British architect Sir James Frazer Stirling (1926 –1992).  So we went to the Clore Galleries that Stirling had completed in 1987 for the Tate Britain to house their amazing collection of Turners.  I must say seeing them all together in a single room with their shimmering light was quite exciting.

Though Turner’s “avant la lettre” impressionistic style may cover up the fact nicely, he probably left more unfinished paintings than any other well-known artist.  A little known reason is that he liked to finish his paintings while they were on exhibition, finding that they sold better that way.

The Frick is not prone to doing large-scale paintings exhibitions and this is clearly an exception that proves the rule.  In all there are over thirty paintings and watercolors, but, as is usual, at the Frick, the show is tightly focused, in this case the subject of ports,  and Frick holdings remain front and center.  The show is created organized around three paintings: the Frick’s own two large-scale works of the harbors of Dieppe and Cologne, painted in the mid 1820’s together with an unfinished work from the Tate of the Harbor of Brest in Brittany.

"Harbor of Dieppe"
"Harbor of Brest"

One of the related works lent by the Tate collection to this exhibition is a striking watercolor, called “Sheilds, on the River Tyne, for the Rivers of England, 1823” part of a series completed in 1824.  The picture was accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest in 1856.  Turner originally wished the paintings left behind to go to the National Gallery in London so they could hang with the Old Masters and in particular the Claudes (Claude Lorrain (1604/5?–1682). Many were later transferred to the Tate.

Something pointed out in the Frick’s press material that I had never thought about was the fact that travel restrictions between England and France had been in effect since 1797 and were finally lifted in 1815 after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo.   At that point ports used for the Navy and the defense of Britain were turned into commercial hubs and seaside resorts.  Turner’s travels back and forth from England to France afforded him the opportunity to pass through and paint the many ports he would have visited.  Today with the Chunnel connecting England with the Continent we never see the water since we are beneath it!

It is hard for Americans to understand with our large country where going from state to state can be a long distance achievement, but in Continental Europe I have been in parts of four  countries in the same day.  It is not difficult to understand that on Turner’s travels he also visited parts of Germany such as Cologne and the Rhineland.  So I will end with a photo of the third monumental picture that the exhibition is based on, the Harbor of Cologne from the Frick.

A catalog accompanies the exhibition with entries from the curators of the show, Susan Grace Galassi, Senior Curator at the Frick and Ian Warrel, independent curator and Turner specialist who is currently the  Anne L. Poulet Curatorial Fellow.  There are a number of additional essays by illustrious scholars exploring the subject of Turner’s interpretations of ports he knew or imagined.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Lyman Allyn Museum

To my surprise a museum was among the dealers who exhibited at the Academy Mansion as part of Master Drawings New York at the end of January . The mansion was built in 1921 by the architect Frederick Sterner for the heir to the Royal Baking Powder Company fortune, William Ziegler.  The typical New York brownstone is 25 feet wide but Ziegler’s mansion is 75 feet.  So it was perfect as a venue for 5 or 6 art galleries from different cities in the States and abroad that did not have a New York City venue.  The museum in question was the Lyman Allyn Museum.  It seems to have been the idea of Christopher Bishop, an art  dealer  from Norwalk, Connecticut to invite a nearby institution from New London Connecticut to participate.

I have always been aware of the small local museums in France and their high quality holdings but much less so in this country.  Here we have so many major museums to visit we rarely get to the small gems that exist.  I was only vaguely aware of the Lyman Allyn Museum and don’t believe I ever visited though I know I had been in the area.  To my delight they exhibited a group of high quality Old Master drawings, which looked especially good in the Academy Mansion’s wood paneled rooms.  Here are two of those drawings, the head of Mary Magdalene by an anonymous German 15th century master and an elaborate Abraham Bloemaert (Dutch, 1564-1651) of “A Dove Cote” which has on the verso a Portrait Sketch of a woman (not shown).

I wanted to learn more and spoke briefly with the representative from the museum, Tanya Pohrt, who is Curator for Special Projects.  Of course, I also looked them up on line.  In 1910 Harriet Allyn requested that her bank which was clearly administrating her will would use money from her estate to create a park and museum.  She made the task easier by supplying a large piece of land next to Connecticut College, which was a girls school at the time.  Upon the donor’s death in 1926 the architect Charles A. Platt was hired to build a neoclassical museum which he based on his Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.  It was completed in 1932.

The Lyman Allyn Museum is focused, though not exclusively, on American Art with collections of paintings, works on paper, decorative arts between the 17th and 20th century.  Two examples from the American Painting collection are an Isaac Sheffield (1807-1845) who was the son of a sea captain known for painting portraits of sea captains but here he made an exception and painted the 5 year old son of a sea captain.  An absolute classic by a better known artist is a New England scene by Frederick Edwyn Church (1826-1900) painted in 1850.

Clearly, the Museum has more than American art, in the exhibition I saw there were works by a number of European artists as well as ones mentioned above they showed a Frederico Zuccaro and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.  There are 900 drawings out of 15,000 objects in the collection.

The plot of land that Ms. Allyn gave to the museum was turned into a lovely sculpture garden. Several of the works are by a local artist, David Smalley, and here is one in the 11 acre sculpture walk.

The museum collection includes some ancient and non-western objects.  There is a contemporary gallery and several contemporary photography exhibitions are on the books.

In the early 19th century the Town of New London was one of the world’s busiest whaling ports and it is still used by the Coast Guard as well as pleasure craft. There is a large beach and a grand theater.  It seems like the perfect place for a summer visit Since I plan all my travels around museums in the area this will certainly be on my list.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Kerry James Marshall: Mastry and the Segregation of Art Worlds

I presume that others of you have complained that you need a different doctor for whichever muscle or limb bothers you or figuring out which of the dozen olive oils you are supposed to buy on the grocery shelves.  So it is in the art world.

We see headlines that the art market is booming because an auction in contemporary art did well or maybe that just a few paintings brought records.  But that does not mean that all contemporary art is doing well.  What about Native American Art?   What about 21st century Design?  What about art by African Americans?

I don’t even remember learning about African American art at university except maybe Jacob Lawrence one of the few African Americans to make it into my Art 1 course.  Of course, the problem is that we make these distinctions and that you have to take a separate course, if it exists, in these different areas. And you thought that it was only Asian art that you were missing?

Artists want to be known as Artists without the modifiers.  Thanks to the Met Breuer museum in New York I was introduced to Kerry James Marshall.  Actually, I might not have gone to see the show if it had not been brought to my attention by Nancy Hoving, widow of the Metropolitan Museum Director and medievalist , Tom Hoving.  I thought if Nancy recommended it I should take a look and I am certainly glad I did.

The exhibition Kerry James Marshall: Mastry was organized by The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  It was co-curated by Helen Molesworth, Chief Curator, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Dieter Roelstraete, Guest curator for the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; and Ian Alteveer, Associate Curator, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Kerry James Marshall was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1955, grew up in Los Angeles, went to Otis College of Art and Design in LA, worked in museums in New York and now lives and works in Chicago.  In his own words, “You can’t be born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955 and grow up in South Central [Los Angeles] near the Black Panthers headquarters, and not feel like you’ve got some kind of social responsibility. You can’t move to Watts in 1963 and not speak about it. That determined a lot of where my work was going to go…”

The show is a retrospective on 35 years of Marshall’s art placing black figures in a medium where black figures are rarely seen.  As I looked at many of the monumental canvases I was struck by the dense blackness of the figures and had a reaction quite different than I might have had to white people.  It was by no means negative but it took some getting used to because they are solid black making some features of the people very difficult to read without great concentration.  I have no idea if African Americans feel the same way because I only have my own perspective.  A great example of what I am speaking of is in a painting called “Could this be Love, 1992” lent by a private collector courtesy of Segalot, New York.   They are in my mind, haunting figures, more shapes than portraits that you might see on the street.

Marshall’s “Past Times, 1997” where the credit line reads, Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, McCormick Place Art Collection, Chicago is part of a series of paintings of public leisure in Chicago.  Note the high-rises in the background.  It makes me think of one of Tom Hoving’s singular achievements when he was New York City’s Parks Commissioner before becoming Director of the Met.  He opened Central Park to all, making it a place that people would flock to on weekends.  I had spent my life as one of the few who played and biked in Central Park and frankly I lamented no longer having my private place where others did not go.   Still I did like to see so many more enjoying what I always had to myself, particularly the families who celebrated the Puerto Rican Day parade with picnics and outdoor barbecues, which made the whole park smell inviting until the latter were banned.

An apt picture to close with is “Untitled 2008” from a private collection courtesy of Segalot, New York.  I presume the artist thinks this painting needs no explanation.  It is, of course, about looking into the future or getting lost in nature.  To me it recalls paintings by Caspar David Friedrich (German 1774-1840).  Here are illustrations of the Marshall and  “Two Men Contemplating the Moon” by Friedrich in the Metropolitan Museum.

The exhibition presents a lot of social commentary which you can already see in Past Times but generally I have avoided that subject here.  if you get to see the show you won’t miss it.  For me it is the common values between the black and white experience that resonate in Marshall’s work.  The exhibition has closed at the Met Breuer but you have another chance to see it at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art from March 3 to July 3, 2017.