Sunday, May 26, 2019

Fort Union

I just bought a new car, a BMW 330xi and I wanted to drive it out of town. We did not have days for an extended road trip, so we decided to tour near Santa Fe, staying for two nights in Las Vegas, NM. I remember being so excited when we first bought a house and I learned we were a little more than an hour from Las Vegas. I thought of Las Vegas, Nevada, where I had never been there at the time but I learned New Mexico has its very own Las Vegas.  It is the antithesis of the famous one in Nevada and is older too. Next week I will write more about our stay.

We made a day trip from there to Fort Union National Monument, one of the 12 National Monuments in New Mexico, and that is not counting the State Historic Sites.  I had heard of it as a place to see, but it took us thirty years of coming to this part of the world to make the effort.  All I can say is that I wish we had done it earlier.  It is an amazing property and possibly more exciting because most of it is a ruin with only parts of buildings still extant.  Somehow, it allows one to use one’s imagination like at Stonehenge and come up with your own interpretation.  

That is not necessary, however, because there is plenty of literature available and a small educational museum illustrates the story of the fort with artifacts and weapons of the period.  I enjoyed particularly seeing the Colt 45, known as the Peacemaker made between 1873 and 1892.  After you have walked through the museum you can go outside to see the Howitzer, which is a cannon with a short barrel that needs relatively small charges to propel projectiles over relatively high trajectories, with a steep angle of descent.

Then you walk a straight line, up through the ruins of adobe, brick and stone walls of what was actually the third Fort Union, not a military stronghold but rather a complex of buildings that functioned as a supply depot for the 46 forts out west.  The first Fort Union (1851-61) had been built up against the mountains to protect from marauding Indians. Then they found that, set up against the bluffs would not be defensible against the armaments of the Confederate Army.

The outpost came into its own during the Civil War when a second fort (1861-62) was built to defend against the Confederate troops who came up from Texas.  It was an earthworks construction created by digging trenches in a star shape. This fort had 28 cannon platforms and could contain 1,000 troops. It did not last long because the Howitzer could fire rounds high up that would come down into the trenches.  However, one important event occurred there in 1861: when the U.S. Dragoons (mounted troops) were organized as a cavalry Fort Union became the home of the first regiments of the newly formed First U.S. Cavalry!

The fort was not located in the middle of nowhere without reason.   This was where two ecosystems met, the mountains and the plains.  I had not realized that the plains went this far west.  This is where the two main branches of the Santa Fe Trail met.  The Santa Fe Trail was not just a passage West for settlers but rather a continuing commercial supply route. The starting point was in what is today St. Louis, Missouri. Our house is right on the Trail just a short distance from where it ends at the Santa Fe Plaza.

 The language of the army was English but most of the troops were local volunteers who spoke Spanish, so it was preferable to have officers who spoke both languages. One of those who trained the New Mexican volunteers was Lieutenant Kit Carson.  He not only spoke Spanish but also several Indian languages.  By July 1861 New Mexico was in Confederate hands.  In March of 1862, however, at the Battle of the Glorieta Pass, the Union took New Mexico back.

Kit Carson

Though it must have been very difficult living on the frontier with no town nearby the third Fort Union which lasted the longest (1863 to 1891), formed its own community.  There were barracks for the troops, different corrals for the mechanics and transportation, store houses, a commissary, officers’ quarters, a quartermaster depot, guard house and stockade.  The soldiers in this period were there to protect travelers from Indian attack, escorting the wagon trains and accompany stagecoaches after the Civil War that carried mail and money as well as passengers.

Fort Walls

The Stockade

With the Indian Wars dying down, and the use of the Santa Fe Trail fading out before the advance of the railroad, Fort Union was no longer a vital link between East and West.  The remnants of the fort were established as a National Monument in 1954 to make it possible for visitors like us to experience the vast spaces and better understand the history of the United States’ push west. 

Sunday, May 19, 2019

A Feast for the Eyes

“A Feast for the Eyes” is an exhibition in St. Petersburg Florida that I stumbled across on line. I was at the Museum of Fine Arts there once before and through an exhibition there came back in touch with my first girl friend at age 12. But that, is another story:

The museum has a diverse permanent collection covering  European art, but it seems that they have latched on to a major cache of wonderful European Old Masters that fill many gaps from the Grasset Collection.  The Grasset family came to Spain from France in the 1850’s and their name is now pronounced Grassette. Juan Manuel Grasset, who is close to 93 years old started acquiring what is now a fine collection of Old Master in the 1960’s.

Unbeknownst, to the St. Petersburg Museum staff, his daughter, Christina, has been vacationing with her family in St. Petersburg for almost a decade. She recently got in touch, inquiring if the Museum would like to show the collection as they were looking for an institution where it would serve a real purpose. 

The exhibition certainly adds a whole new dimension to St. Petersburg’s holdings, being in the words of the Museum Director, Kirsten Shepherd, “a gift to young people in our community whose first impression of so-called ‘Old Masters’ will be these delightfully fresh and lively masterpieces.”

The exhibition features forty superb Old Master paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries by major Italian, Spanish, German, Dutch and Netherlandish artists, with an emphasis on the Low Countries. This is only the second time this collection has been shown publicly. It was at the San Diego Museum of Art in 2016.

An engineer by profession, Mr. Grasset was obviously a very dedicated and discerning collector to have been able to acquire so choice a group of Old Masters over the last half century. As museums gobble up collections there is less and less on the market. Still, there are deaccessions: Christies just announced that it was getting a group of works from a member of the Rothschild family. 

Here are some of the Grasset pictures that caught my eye.  The one that has received the most publicity is the Giovanni Antonio Canal, known as Canaletto, Italian, 1697–1768.  It is probably also the most accessible since it is a scene of the Grand Canal in Venice. Who is not in love with the myth and reality of Venice?

There are a number of still lives, one by the most famous 17th century Dutch Still-Life painters, Jan Davidsz De Heem.  Titled, and this will be a surprise, “A Still Life of Flowers in a Glass”!    Another well-known artist of the period was Floris Claesz who has actually painted “The Feast for the Eyes” with the table setting with pitcher, goblet and cheese, fruit and nuts.  Note the trompe l’oeil effect of the knife tipped up against the cheese plate. 

My final example is possibly the most valuable,-- Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625), Flemish, “A Wooded River Landscape, with a Fish Market and Fishing Boats,” It is a small picture and painted on copper which gives it a luminous quality because the paint is not absorbed by wood or canvas but sits on the surface, glistening.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Block Buster

In 2012, I wrote a Missive about “the End of the Blockbuster” which focused on small exhibitions.  If you look at the art news today many museums are trying to do Blockbusters according to their means.  Marking the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death this year several institutions are giving him homage worthy of a great artist.  However, not every museum can afford the costs of transporting and insuring great works of art. 

I am not sure when the term “block buster” was first used but I believe it was in the late 1960’s when Thomas P.F. Hoving became director of the Metropolitan Museum and he created the exhibition, “In the Presence of Kings”.  Obviously, there were blockbusters long before the 1960’s but by then it was much easier for people to travel from far and wide to see a show and, therefore, could attract a larger crowd.  I am sure they began already in the 18th century when the Princes of Germany opened their treasure houses to the public.  In 1930-31 when the great medieval treasure known as the Welfenschatz came to Cleveland there were long lines and here is an image from a 1948 exhibition at the National Gallery of Paintings from the Berlin Museums.

In an on line publication, The, I found an article from 2014, “What Happened to the Blockbuster Art Exhibition”.  It reminds me that another amazing young museum director, Carter Brown, at the National Gallery competed with Hoving to do blockbusters. The competition added to the drama and certainly helped attendance.  

According to the article, “In the Presence of Kings, was a rather haphazard assortment of paintings, sculptures, coins, furniture, crossbows and other bric-a-brac from the Metropolitan Museum’s own collection – all possessing some sort of tenuous link to royal ownership.”   While I remember the show as spectacular, I am sure I was seduced by the novel theatrical installation using lush fabrics and royal colors of red and purple.  I even remember the show’s introduction with a crown shown on a revolving stand. The technique borrowed from automobile shows was not serious enough for conservative curators of the time… and art should always be taken seriously… I certainly hope not.  Here is an image of Tom Hoving with a Sasanian head from the 4th Century AD which was in the show.

Though “In the Presence of Kings” was a great popular success the article quite rightly expresses the fact that there are serious financial considerations for the series of blockbusters it initiated.  Even for in-house shows where the many departments to work together (a political challenge), the more elaborate and installation the greater the cost.  In my opinion, however, putting together an exhibition is only half the battle.  You have to first prime the pump with sponsorship.  When my wife was doing International exhibitions for the Portland Art Museum, I asked why they were spending up to $3 and a half million on organizing a show when they could rent a travelling show for a fraction of the cost.  The development officer explained that local pride made it easier to gain support from benefactors for shows organized by their home museum than touring exhibitions organized elsewhere. 

A curator doesn’t just think up a show and do it.  After approval of the director comes review by a committee of exhibition decision makers, be they the marketing department, other curators or another peer group. It takes a village, --I mean a team of dedicated professionals.

If it is not an exhibition of in-house material, loans have to be secured.  This requires visits to the venues of those loans to be sure they are actually what they seem to be in the literature. Then it is up to curator to convince the lending institution that their show is worth the risk of the loan.  It helps if the curator’s institution has already lent to the institution that has the desired work of art.  In other words, literally, “You Owe Me One”.

The curator has to work with the development officer to see how to raise the funds to ship and ensure the loans and cover the travel feeding and housing of the couriers which are now almost always required these days. The registrar has to work with the registrar of the other institution on the safest way of transporting the piece The couriers get to travel but they have to stay with the object at all times, whether it is days and nights on a truck or on a cargo plane making sure the work is not left on the tarmac at the airport.

There is work with the designer to make sure the art looks its best in the installation and at the same time doesn’t outshine either the point of the show or a more important work of art.

After that, of course, you have to let people know that the show is on via public relations and advertising.  You need to capture the imagination and one way to do it is with a great title such as “Behind the Red Velvet Curtain” or “In the Presence of Kings” or a well-known work like Vermeer’s  “Girl with a Pearl Earring” from the Dutch Royal Collection made even more famous  after the book and a movie came out.  When it was lent to the Frick Collection, they had lines waiting to get in.

I guess I could sum it up that no matter the quality of the works in an exhibition, if you can’t sell it, it won’t attract crowds and then the question is, was it worth doing. When Philippe de Montebello was director of the Metropolitan Museum, he kept a balance, alternating or overlapping scholarly shows and popular blockbusters. It gave different audiences what they were looking for. There was always something new at the Met that would give them a reason to come.