Sunday, September 24, 2017

Stepping Out

Who would have thought that a woman from Northern Ireland who came to the U.S. as a child would develop a passion for 2,000 to 3,000 year old sandals from the Southwest but so it was that Maxine McBrinn curator at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture who produced an exhibition on the history of western Indian footwear.

McBrinn starts the show with plaster impressions of sandaled footprints from the birth of pueblo culture between 500 BC and 500AD (Basket Maker II) . She goes on to cover the Western tribes including the Apache, Cheyenne and Comanche with loans from all over the Southwest like the Edge of Cedars State Park Museum in Blanding, Utah.

McBrinn writes the shoes “are very personal and feel like a direct link to an individual in the past.  You can see the size of their foot, the imprint of each toe, and how the sandal was repaired.”  They can also tell us much about the wearer.  How large they were, were they male or female sometimes even about their health, if they had bunions or limped with an uneven gait.

Anglos seem to think that when they arrived in 1492 the Indians also suddenly appeared to torment them.  There is a reason that to be politically correct we call them Native Americans -  they were here first!   However, since I have never heard an Indian call himself a Native American I will stick to the name Whitey first gave them, Indians.  Driving home this point of their  length of time here the new exhibition at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (MIAC) is called “Stepping Out: 10,000 Years of Walking the West.” 

As a child back East we were introduced to moccasins as a stiff leather slipper with some beads on top but when one gets out West you learn that that is just a tourist version of the real thing.  We know someone who commissioned a pair of mocasins from a friend, as bedroom slippers which he called, “comfy”.  They were not unlike the quilled and beaded Sioux moccasins, circa 1910, from the museum’s collection.

What I did not know was that early on they were just a flat piece of material to go under the foot.  It makes sense when you think what a shoe is for, to protect the bottom of your feet not the top!  They had to be tied on and so came about the sandals we know so well.  Some sandals were made extra large to leave room to put in mud and grass to keep the wearer’s foot warm.  Here are three different examples: the first is an adult scuffer toe sandal  of about 1300, the second even earlier 750-13 00 is a plain weave sandal of an Ancestral Pueblo, and the third a winder sandal from the Canadian River area made of Yucca grass, also before 1300. 

It was not until about 1300 that moccasins came into fashion.  At first they were decorated with traditional quill work, but when beads came to this country as payment, trade bead-work began to be used.  Though the myth is that the island of Manhattan was acquired from the Indians for $24 worth of beads it wasn’t until about 1800 that that beaded pocasins came into common use. This pair of beautiful Sioux beaded sole moccasins from the museum’s large collection, dating prior to 1890 is made of hide, cloth, glass beads, tin, horse hair also from the museum’s large collection.

Photo Credit: Christopher Durantes

Change is inevitable and everything has to be brought up to date so today we find “High Fashion” shoes such as this pair of heels designed by the noted designer Steve Madden and beaded by Kiowa artist Teri Greeves.  These were commissioned for the show and paid for by The Friends of Indian Art, a support group for the museum.

Photo Credit: Stephen Lang

I found this exhibition to be an eye opener in a field that I thought I understood something about. Learning the history and having it illustrated will have me looking at sandals and moccasins quite differently and with more appreciation from now on.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

A Look Back: Two Dreamers

Quickly approaching is the eighth anniversary of Missives of the Art World ... and as such, from time to time previously published Missives will be featured.  "Two Dreamers" was originally published on October 3, 2010.


Two Dreamers … one with eyes lowered as if in prayer and the other looking to the stars. Who are these women? We will never know, for they are not commissioned portrait busts but rather idealized heads based on a sculptor’s study of a live model. Furthermore, they are not even in the traditional materials of “fine arts”, stone, or bronze. These two dreamers are made of red stoneware known as Böttgerware, and produced at the porcelain factory of Meissen somewhere between the late 1920’s and mid 1930’s. Their authors were sculptors who made their living creating models for ceramic production.

These sculptural studies are a world apart from the precious quality generally associated with porcelain figurines. But modelers for porcelain factories of the 18th century were often talented sculptors (Kaendler at Meissen, Bustelli at Nymphenburg foremost among them) who could shape the human figure to conform to the stylization of the Baroque and Rococo eras. Just so with these two heads, where the realistic study of models is transformed through the lens of the Art Deco style of the twenties and thirties.

We know little about the sculptors themselves. Professor Emile Paul Börner (1888-1970) studied in Florence and the Italian tradition of the depiction of the Virgin Mary is evident in the mystical tranquility he evokes in his female subject. Even less is known about Willi Münch-Khe (1885-1961), the author of the Balinese beauty, who worked as a modeler at several other German factories as well as at Meissen. He clearly shared in the fascination with the exotic that was current in the art deco and moderne periods.

They both realized the potential of the high-fired red-brown ceramic that had been overlooked in the centuries since it was developed by the alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger (1682-1719) in his attempts to produce porcelain for the princely patrons of the Meissen factory. He was the first in Europe to discover the formula for true porcelain known from oriental imports and Meissen began production in 1710. But the early vessels of red stoneware, now dubbed Bottgerware, are among the most prized by collectors today.

The exceptionally hard medium allows for the most refined detail and the contrast of matte and highly polished surfaces (see the eyelashes on Borner’s piece, the glistening lips on Münche-Khe’s) Did the director of the factory encourage the two sculptors to explore the medium in large sculpture? Did the two sculptors challenge each other? I have been so intrigued by my two ladies, their relationship and their contrasting beauty. They are hors de categorie, surpassing the stigma of “minor arts” associated with the products of porcelain factories.

Will we ever know the circumstance of their creation?

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Old Masters Rock

If you have not already guessed, “Old Masters Rock” is a book about how to look at art with children.  This book may not be unique in its goals but it certainly has a different way of approaching the subject.

The cover of the book shows a few wonderful Old Masters and the name of the person who had the idea and selected the pictures and wrote the text: Maria-Christina Sayn-Wittgenstein Nottenbohm.  It takes 3 lines to cover all of the names she was born with plus the last, which is her husband’s.  So it is with German aristocracy. If you forced her she could even add a title!  To make things simple she prefers her nickname, Puppa and that is how I shall refer to her.  Presently she is a dealer in the field of Old Masters under the gallery name Sayn-Wittgenstein in New York.  To assure you how well thought of she is in the art world, Gary Tinterow former  chairman of the Met’s department of 19th-century, modern and contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum and now director of the Fine Art Museum, Houston, wrote the introduction

The entries in Old Masters Rock started with regular pieces, emailed to friends over a year ago. Even though Puppa has kindly said to me that I had inspired her to do this, the real inspiration was taking her son Gaspar to museums in this country and abroad and discussing the paintings with him.  Here they are recently at the Metropolitan Museum discussing John Constable’s, Salisbury Cathedral of 1825.

The book begins with some tips for parents and their children.  It comes down to asking questions.  My wife always asked our son and his older brother and sister what they thought a painting was about.  Puppa goes much further with lots of questions and answers about subject, technique and vision of the artist.  The contents are divided into themes, Animals, Families, Myth & Magic, News of the Day and a number more.  Some of the most famous old masters ever are included and a number of my favorites are there in full-page color illustrations.

We might as well start at the beginning with the section on animals and a Leonardo da Vinci, “Lady with an Ermine”, circa 1490.  I was lucky enough to see this picture on a junket to Poland with Basia Johnson right after the Berlin wall came down and there were, as the Polish people called it, “the changes”. Since it had not yet been hung in the galleries at the Czartoryski Museum in Kraków, the painting was quite literally brought out of the vault for us. I would take it over the Mona Lisa any day of the week!  To each of these full-page illustrations Puppa has added an equal sized page of text with facts about the artist and technique, and in this case ermine and women of history and mystery.   It is material that will intrigue children and adults alike.    As an example, regarding Leonardo, Puppa writes, “Leonardo was a wizard!  He was brilliant and loved science… and imagined…flying machines”.  She tells about the Ermine that, “are great at catching mice… Ermine fur is traditionally used for royal robes”.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Like most children of parents involved in the arts, I was dragged to auction houses, galleries and museums from the time I was born.  I don’t mind admitting that I was often bored out of my mind, but tell me that I was not allowed somewhere and I was dying to go. This was so with the Frick Collection in New York, which restricted admittance until the age of 10 and I believe still does.  Maybe it was a birthday present, I don’t remember, but I know shortly after my 10th birthday I was taken to the Frick and fell totally in love with a painting, “St. Francis in the Desert”, 1475-1478 by Giovanni Bellini, who I later learned was one of the most important artists of the early Renaissance in Venice.  This large picture, almost 4 by 5 feet, absorbed me like a large screen television might absorb a football fan today!  Puppa introduces this image by the name of the movie “Brother Sun and Sister Moon” that alone is more interesting to a child than St. Frances in the Desert.  Don’t remember St. Francis from my Jewish upbringing.  Puppa puts the latter in historical context and describes the scene, asking questions like whether you can guess what time of day it is or how St. Francis feels while he is saying his morning prayers.  These are all short paragraphs: even technique is explained in simple terms.  They can be read with your child and made into a game or you can just remember one or two when you take your child to the museum.

Copyright The Frick Collection

Another painting that mesmerized me when I was young was Albrecht Altdorfer’s “Battle of Alexander at Issus”.   The picture is in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.  Puppa calls it “Middle Earth”.  She compares it to classic movie scenes and explains the battle and uniforms.  At the same time everything that is pertinent art historically is also there, including where to find the signature, which explains that Altdorfer was from Regenspurg.  I am sure it was all the tiny soldiers on horseback brandishing weapons that so intrigued me and Puppa describes them so you won’t miss it in the illustration.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

I will mention one more painting which Puppa titles “Construction Site”.  It is Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s “Tower of Babel” of 1563. I won’t give the story away just the punch line!  Everyone ends up speaking a different language.  We had just such a construction site next door to our house in New York where the contactor got a pick-up crew that spoke Chinese, Spanish, a language from India and many others.  We could never learn anything from them because they could not communicate.  Here is the entry and illustration from the book.

If I have not enticed you to order the book, and encourage your local books store to carry it, then note that the book is already so popular an article appeared in the arts section of the Wall Street Journal earlier this year.  Puppa’s lecture tour for the book started in the Queen’s Gallery of Buckingham Palace, which, as lofty as that sounds, has temporary exhibitions from the royal collections, open to all for an entry fee.  You can find her lecture schedule on her Amazon author page HERE.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Justice at the Opera

"Justice at the Opera” there could not be a better title for this once in a life-time experience.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg curated 90 minutes of arias from various operas relating to justice and the law at the Lensic Performing Arts Center with wonderful apprentice singers from the Santa Fe Opera.

For those not seriously interested in opera, it may not be well known, but Justice Ginsberg’s love of opera is legendary. She has been coming to Santa Fe for the opera season a very long time. In fact she told the Washington Post that she, “considers the Santa Fe Opera the finest summer opera company in the world.”

It has also been commented upon that until his death Justice Scalia, her archrival on the Supreme Court, would accompany her since, regarding opera, at least, there was a certain meeting of the minds.

Justices Ginsberg and Scalia last year

I am going to take a liberty here and I hope my readers, and most of all our favorite Supreme Court Justice, will forgive me, but in order to save space and not repeat Justice Ginsberg 10 more times, I will refer to her as others have, as RBG.  This is not the first time that RBG has done this program. In 2013 the New York Times reported on Justice at the Opera at the Glimmerglass Opera Festival in Cooperstown, New York and earlier this year the Washington Post had an article about a program similar to the one in Santa Fe at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.

The late afternoon performance started with introductions by the Executive Director of the Lensic, Joel Aalberts, welcoming the audience for this momentous occasion and introducing Charles MacKay, retiring General Director of the Santa Fe Opera to this joint benefit.  Both received energetic applause and cheers.  But when Mr. MacKay introduced Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg saying that she was Ambassador at Large for the Opera and must never retire from the court, everyone in the sold-out theatre rose to their feet and would not stop applauding and cheering.  It was most heartening.  When the Justice finally calmed the audience she quoted Justice O’Brian’s two favorite responses,  “Thank you and thank you again” and adding her own “Mille Grazie”.

RBG’s props were a podium and an armchair in an exaggerated Louis XV style, lent by the Santa Fe Opera, where she sat in rapt attention after making the introduction to each scene.  There were eight selections from famous operas. Justice Ginsberg’s commentary explained what was happening in the opera itself as well as some juicy tidbits from the law.    The first scene was a quartet from Verdi’s “Falstaff” and RBG explained that it was about mail fraud since two women received the exact same love letter from a suitor who was actually after their husband’s money.  She explained with mock seriousness how this had been responsible for a U.S. law regarding mail fraud.

With the aria from Puccinis’s “Tosca” where the hero anticipates the Firing Squad, the Justice mentioned that some in this country sentenced to death, who have been averse to the needle, have asked for a firing squad instead, but so far all have been denied.

In L’elisir d’Amore by  Donizetti during the quartet from Act II RBG was asked to notarize the  the contract. She rose to the podium to do so and the singer held it out to the audience for all to see.  These antics and comments added zest and laughter to the afternoon!

The most moving piece and only one that one felt quite convinced RBG had insisted on was from the opera, “Appomattox” by Philip Glass, a composer I do not care for.   The emotional aspect of the piece, however, cannot be denied. Terrence Chin-Loy, an African-American tenor who is also a wonderful actor, recounted the “Colfax Massacre” on Easter Sunday of 1873 in Colfax, Louisiana, where over a hundred black militiamen were cut down by white supremacists upset to see the freed “colored people”.

When a Supreme Court Justice, who sits on a  pedestal as the idol of many, joins the rest of us in a cultural experience, it gives one an exceptional feeling of belonging and edification.