Sunday, June 30, 2019

Art & Empire: The Golden Age of Spain

My wife lured me to San Diego with the carrot that we would then go to Pasadena to see our son and his pregnant wife.  No, San Diego, was not to tour this lovely sea side town or lounge around but to go see an exhibition and the rest of the time, sit and listen to talks about the ideas behind the show. Having said that,  I am so glad I came along because, “Art & Empire: The Golden Age of Spain” is one of the best exhibitions I have seen in a very long time.   The paintings and sculpture are top notch.  The decorative arts a little less so but I am not complaining.  

The premise of the exhibition is that from the later 16th through the 17th century the glory of Spanish art was not restricted to the Iberian peninsula but was a global phenomenon of an empress that covered Flanders, southern Italy, the Americas and the Philippines.  Our friend Judith Dobrzynski, wrote about the show for the Wall Street Journal which certainly influenced our decision to come. Her only mild criticism  was that the thesis of the show she found “a bit of a stretch” in saying that while Spain may have influenced the art of the New World it did not work in reverse.  The curator for the show, Michael Brown, said that influences either way were not his goal.  I believe  that he was just demonstrating that great art  was produced in the mother country but also in Spain’s empire which is said to have been the largest in history.    I found that in some cases the paintings he selected  from Mexico and South America were  better than comparable works from Spain!

The first day we heard the inaugural lecture given by the Director of the National Gallery in London, Gabriele Finaldi, a specialist in Spanish art. The large auditorium was totally sold out for his very entertaining talk about the Spanish paintings in the National Gallery. He pointed out how recent cleaning revealed depth and detail in the St. Francis in Meditation by Francisco de Zurbaran which was lent to the show.

The next day’s program comprised 10 speakers and many of the talks were excellent. They illustrated the originality of art made in the New World from the creative interpretation of Flemish prints to the use of newly discovered gems or indigenous feather work.     

I had asked permission from the curator to take photos though that turned out to be unnecessary.  I thought, however, that I could be selective in the photos I took but since there were so many images that I found wonderful.   I must have taken pictures of 75% of the 110 works shown.  Therefore, here are a few that at this moment stand out in my memory.

Since its founding in 1926 the San Diego Museum has built a collection of Spanish painting and in recent years has staged a number of exhibitions  on the history of Spanish art. The current Director Roxana Velasquez, encouraged  and supported Michael Brown, over the four years it took to put this show together.  Although 20% of the works came from the museum’s own collection, just think what it takes to get 35 private collectors and public institutions from here and abroad to lend the remainder which include stellar works, including three paintings by  Velazquez.  Here is my favorite of these, “The Kitchen Maid with Supper at Emmaus” from the National Gallery of Ireland.

The San Diego Museum owns a lovely small Rubens cartoon for a tapestry, “Allegory of  Eternity, the Succession of Popes” and the Monasterio Descalzas Reales in Madrid lent the Flemish tapestry derived from it.   The latter had just been restored and Michael Brown was thrilled when he was informed that it was safe for it to travel.  As you see from the photo it was too tall for the ceiling of the museum but was ingeniously mounted  to a support curved at the top.

I have written about Biombos (folding screens) before and this one lent by the Brooklyn Museum and dating circa 1697-1701, was special.  It was actually only half a screen since it had  originally 12 folds and the other half is now in The Museum of the Americas in Madrid. On one side of the screen on view is a battle scene, the siege of Belgrade,  and the other is a hunting scene of which I am illustrating a detail. The subjects derive from European  prints but they are painted in oil  and inlaid with mother-of-pearl In an adaptation of Japanese technique practiced by the Gonzalez family in Mexico. The images below is the full screen of the battle and a detail from the verso.

I have seen Nun’s shields before but they always looked to me that they were too large for a wearable brooch and  in this show I saw the proof.  There was  a Nun’s Shield from the Phoenix Art Museum made in Mexico around 1700 installed beside the celebrated great painting dating around1750 by the Mexican master, Miguel Cabrera,   of “Sister Juana Ines de la Cruz” from  the National History Museum in Mexico City. With no lifetime image of learned woman to work from Cabrera imagined her as the prototype of a scholar, even depicting the Anunciation scene on her Nun’s Shield with the Virgin’s reading being interrupted by the Angel.

I mentioned sculpture and there are so many possible choices but if you force me I will pick this small woodcarving lent by the Denver Art Museum  of “St. Peter de Alcantara Penitente.”  The joke that went around the viewers was, “no, it’s not Hamlet!.”  The label attributes it to an indigenous Ecuador artist, Manuel Chili (circa 1723-1796) but it was Donna Pierce, former curator at the Denver Art Museum who explained what seemed a unique style was derived from Manilla Ivories imported through the galleon trade.

I will end with my wife’s favorite image by Zurbaran, an artist exceptionally well represented in the San Diego Museum’s permanent collection. There is another version of this lovely small picture of “The Lamb of God”  in the Prado in Spain.  At the time there was no concern about multiple versions, in fact they were frequently commissioned. One of the symposium speakers emphasized that in the history of Spanish art the copy of an image was of equal value and power as the original.

I have just scratched the surface and all I can say is if you are near San Diego before September 2nd do stop by the museum to see this wonderful and original exhibition.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Jews, Money, Myth

“A Terribly Durable Myth” is the title of an article by Sara Linton in The New York Review of Books that was emailed to me by a friend.  It deals with the exhibition, “Jews, Money, Myth” at the Jewish Museum in London.  I was intrigued but then I paused, my father had a problem with Jewish Museums, saying there is no such thing as Jewish art unless you are speaking of ceremonial objects.  He felt, as I do that art is art or not!  On the other hand, Jewish History is, obviously, extremely important.  As I tell people, I am not a religious Jew, but I feel very strongly that I am an ethnic Jew.  After all that is how I was brought up to be both proud of my Jewish heritage and aware that anti-Semitism exists.

As I read the article, I saw that Jews and money is one of the straws that Ant-Semites latch onto.  Ms. Linton mentions that the first object in the show is the “Oxford English Dictionary” of 1933 and its definition for “Jew, as a name of opprobrium spec. applied to a grasping or extortionate person” and that is in the Anglo-Saxon world.  Is it that far a stretch to Nazi Germany and Hitler using the Jews as a scape goat for the national economic disaster of the 1930’s, pointing to “the enemy within.”

Since everything has to start somewhere, Judas is credited with that “honor.”  The Bible says that Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus to the Jewish chief priests in exchange for 30 pieces of silver. By the 12h century he had become the personification of all Jews.  This is where the association of Jews with money begins.  Also, Jesus threw the money lenders out of the Temple.  Remember, there were no Christians yet!  Around 1200, the Catholic church prohibited Christians charging interest on loans, leaving the function of money lending to the Jews who were often accused of usury.

What I particularly like about this exhibition is that aside from manuscripts it uses works of art to illustrate its story.  We all love stained glass windows whether we grew up going to church or not.  Sometimes we forget, however, that they were often made to tell a story.  In this case this 16th century German window shows “Christ Cleansing the Temple” lent by the Victoria & Albert Museum.

In order to illustrate the fact that after Jesus was arrested Judas returned the 30 pieces of silver to the priests, the show’s curator, Joanne Rosenthal, borrowed a Rembrandt “Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver” 1629, from the National Gallery in London.  This sympathetic depiction of Judas’ remorse is referred to as Rembrandt’s first masterpiece. painted when the artist was just 23 years old. 

Antisemitic propaganda targeted the international banking family of the Rothschilds. Their story starts with Amschel Rothschild (1744–1812) from Frankfurt who had five sons whom he sent to London, Paris, Vienna, Naples and one stayed in Frankfurt.   In several cases they even funded wars and became, in the 19th century, the world’s wealthiest family.  Here is a poster, lent by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, demonizing Baron James, founder of the French branch of the family.  It was produced in France around 1900 for the Musée des Horreurs, a series of caricatures inspired by the Dreyfus Affair. (

Today many members of the Rothschild family have remained in the international banking world.  My family, also from Frankfurt, were art dealers to several of the Rothschilds in the same way that Amschel was a factor to the noble Hesse-Kassel family.  In England some brand names proudly announce in their advertising and on their products that they are “Purveyors to the Queen”.   

One of the most poignant images in the exhibition is a war poster, titled, “The Way of the Red Sea is a Way of Blood” from Italy in 1944.  In a parody of Moses parting the Red Sea so the Jews could flee Egypt, you have Jewish bankers carrying money bags through the Red Sea with a tank on one side and the dead on the other.  Again, the implication that the Jews start and then profit from wars.

In these sadly divided times, I believe it is a good moment to show how long some prejudices have lasted and where they come from.  This is not only true for Jews but for the Muslims, Black people, Asians, Hispanics and even Native Americans.  I think Bob Haozous, a Native American artist, summed it up best.  “There were no Indians before Columbus!”

Sunday, June 16, 2019

The Museum of Bad Art

It is amazing what one finds when trolling the internet.  I was looking for interesting art exhibitions at art museums around the country when I happened upon, “The Museum of Bad Art”.  Of course, I thought it was a joke, so I wrote to them and sure enough received a response from Michael Frank, Curator-in-Chief Museum of Bad Art.  The museum's catchphrase? "Art too bad to be ignored." I guess it is true, “there are no new ideas under the sun”!

The concept for the museum was born in 1994 when an art and antiques dealer, Scott Wilson, found a painting in a pile of trash and picked it up so he could unframe it and sell the latter and again discard the painting.  A friend of his, Jerry Reilly, saw the painting and asked if he could acquire it with the frame.  When Mr. Wilson found an equally unsuccessful work Mr. Reilly again acquired it and the latter started his Museum of bad art in his basement.

Mr. Reilly’s wife, Marie Jackson, started to write brief blurbs about the art they were collecting so their friends could better understand it and they made a CD-Rom as a virtual museum. The photographer, Tom Stankowicz and Mr. Reilly’s sister, Louise Reilly Sacco all became founders of the museum.  Amazingly enough, they were able to gain the attention of Rolling Stone and Wired magazines and even the Wall Street Journal and the museum moved to the basement of a 1927 art-house movie theater outside of Boston.  It was always open when there was a movie on.

When Michael Frank was asked, what were the criteria for bad art that would be accepted by the museum, he gave the ageold explanation used by the courts regarding pornography. “I know it when I see it”.  I would find this difficult to accept were it not for the fact that the question what is art has never been successfully answered though many a bottle of ink has been spilled on the subject, so how can good or bad art be defined.  My father gave me a book called “A child of Six could do it” regarding abstract expressionism and the like but happily the museum that has some 700 works in its permanent collection does not collect works by children.

They are looking for works “created by someone seriously attempting to make an artistic statement-one that has gone horribly awry in either concept of execution”. Just because an artist has poor technique does not ensure acceptance by the museum and the conditions go on such as no works on black velvet or art made for the tourist trade.  

I don’t think you will have any problem recognizing bad art, at least not what is on their website.  For Instance, under the section called “Poor Traits”, is an anonymous painting titled “Welcome to the New World”.  The museum’s description is as follows “An Aztec emperor (possibly Montezuma) introduces the no-look high-five to a new friend who, judging from his suntan, has only recently arrived in the tropics”. Yes, and the wall label goes on from there!

In the section “In The Nood” I found “Chiquita” purchased in a thrift store in Boston.  Here part of the description is “Oblivious to the advancing lava flow, the lovely iconic tropical spokeswoman calmly gives us an alluring wink of the eye as all hell breaks loose behind her”.

My final image is from “The Sports Section” called “Yoga Class” which was found in the donor’s apartment building lobby. It is described briefly “We see an unidentified woman achieving the rarely attempted downwardly-mobile pigeon pose”.

I think that the Harvard Review summed the museum up beautifully, “MOBA is Affordable, Amusing, and a good place to share a laugh”.

Wait a moment, If you are already in your cars heading to the museum, please make a U-Turn at the next safe intersection and return home.  At this time the museum is closed for renovation with no reopening date scheduled!  You can, however, go to their website or find them on Facebook.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Richard Brockway Stolley

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing the eminent journalist and editor, Richard (Dick) Stolley.  I knew Dick, previously, as a member of the Board of Directors of the Lensic Performing Arts Center here in Santa Fe.  He and his wife Lise moved to Santa Fe in 2004.  There is, of course, so much more to his story.

He was born in 1928 in Pekin, a small town south of Peoria, Illinois.  Already in his pre-teen years he fell in love with journalism and became editor of his junior and high school newspapers.  Also, while in high school he started his professional career as the sports reporter for his town’s newspaper, The Pekin Daily Times which still exists.  

He and his twin brother, Jim, decided that before going on to university they would join the Navy.  His brother remained in the States during his enlistment, but Dick was on a ship in the Mediterranean.  He got out in 1948 and went to the journalism school at Northwestern while his twin went to MIT as an engineering student.  Dick wrote a wonderful sad article about losing his twin in 2014.

While they were in the Navy their family moved to Peekskill New York so, of course, Dick got a job with the Peekskill Evening Star.  Wherever Dick went he found the local newspaper and since Northwestern  was in Chicago he went to work at the Chicago Sun Times.  Yet his career really kicked off and he came into his own when he joined Time, Inc. with its dozen or so publications.

He stayed the longest with Life magazine with four years in Atlanta, Georgia as Bureau Chief, then four years in Los Angeles, another four in Washington D.C. and finally as Bureau Chief in Paris covering all of Europe.  In 1974 Dick founded People Magazine. He emphasizes that he made a great effort not to limit People to celebrities and when he speaks of it he emphasizes the other figures covered.

Dick is probably best known for having been the first to see and then acquire the Zapruder film documenting the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK) As soon as the President was shot Dick got a call from Time-Life  headquarters to get to Dallas.  Bringing a fellow writer and photographer he was able to get on a commercial flight that landed just as Air Force One was getting ready to take off with the body of JFK.

Life had a stringer in Dallas who had just left the police department to go home to feed her child when she got a phone call from the department saying that there was a video of the shooting.  She told Dick it was taken by Abraham Zapruder, a woman’s clothing manufacturer with offices around the corner from Dealey Plaza.  He had run out with his Bell & Howell movie camera to film the President driving by.  The bloody results were far from his plan.  It was evening by then, Stolley looked up Zapruder’s number in the phone book. and asked if he could come right over.  Zapruder told him they should meet in his office the next morning at 9am.  Dick arrived at 8.

Other Journalists showed up at 9 but Dick had already seen the film which Zapruder had sent out to Kodak for duplication.  Dick did not want to see it again so he waited in another office.  Of course, all the other journalists wanted the film and were furious to learn that Zapruder was in negotiations with Dick. When one of them started banging on the door of the office where he and Dick were speaking, Zapruder had it and accepted the offer of $50,000 that was on the table.  The police received a copy of the film and Dick took 2 copies with him, expediting one to Time-Life headquarters.  There was no time to publish in color, so the issue came out in black and white.  The negotiations had only been for the rights to the stills, but when legendary publisher Henry Luce saw the video, he said they had to have it. Dick was sent back to negotiate all rights for $150,000, a princely sum for the time.  It was , however, considered too gruesome  to show on the big screen or TV so little use was made of it. The Warren Commission reported their finding 11 months later and here is an image of the Life Magazine cover with some Zapruder images.

As you can imagine, Dick had many other important assignments, and he told me of  a few such as a lynching down south in the 1950’s, which I won’t dwell on.  One that he enjoyed was interviewing Georges Pompidou, Prime Minister and then President of France.  Not surprisingly Pompidou was puffing away on a cigarette when the ash fell on his desk and papers burst into flame!  I asked if he had a photographer with him, but the French would not allow it!

My favorite anecdote was about a brief interview he had with President Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) when he was sent from Los Angeles to his new post in to Washington D.C. I want you to read this in Dick’s own words, “Two writers at Life were doing a story about LBJ and Texas and had a few questions which they hoped I could get answers to.  I asked to see him, and press secretary Bill Moyers agreed to ask the President to speak briefly to me in a small office next to the Oval Office in the White House.  I asked him the few questions.  I was embarrassed, so I sort of sat there with the President staring at me, at which point, he punched my arm, and said, ‘Come on, boy, you’ve got the President of the United States here.  Ask me some questions!’ I mumbled a few questions and fled as soon as I could.”  When I heard this I could just hear that Texas drawl!

It was fascinating to have Dick Stolley take me behind the scenes of just a few of the stories he has covered. 

Sunday, June 2, 2019

The Town that Time Forgot

As mentioned last week Las Vegas New Mexico is a world away from Las Vegas, Nevada. It is a quiet, you might even say a sleepy, town with antique shops and, diners that have been there since the 1950s. In one of them there were even mini jukeboxes at some tables.  For those of my younger readers, you put in a coin in and pick the song you want to hear, and it plays your selection in turn with other requests from diners.

As we walked and drove through town we noticed how little traffic there was.  Traffic lights lasted far too long for the lack of cars, and at one intersection that begged for a traffic light there was not even a stop sign!

In the 1880’s Las Vegas was New Mexico’s big town, bigger and richer than Santa Fe or Albuquerque. There are nearly 100 buildings in the area on the National Register of Historic Places!  Now there is clearly an effort to revive the town and one of the prime movers in this direction is Allan Affeldt. We did not know him before, but we stayed at his hotel, La Posada, in Winslow, Arizona, a number of times when we were visiting the Hopi reservation.

In Las Vegas we had booked at the Castañeda, an 1898 hotel which is Affeldt’s latest restoration project. Affeldt was there on his biweekly visit and generously allowed us to interview him. We soon realized that he was extremely well-connected including many government officials in Arizona and New Mexico. I asked if he knew our mayor, Alan Webber, and he said they were great friends which was confirmed to us by the mayor who cited “the great care and integrity he practices in his exacting projects”.  Affeldt has a serious interest in historic places and preserving them, but he treats them as businesses.  He told us he averages 90% occupancy it is his hotels which is absolutely amazing.

1907 Postcard of the Castañeda Hotel

The Winslow La Posada Hotel, built in 1929 was his first project. It had long been abandoned although the railroad still operated a depot in one wing. In 1994 before Affeldt and his wife, Tina Mion, made the final decision to acquire La Posada, she insisted that they stay there overnight. So, they took their sleeping bags, broke into the building and slept in an empty room. The next morning, they began negotiations with the railroad, which would take three years, and the restoration would cost 12 million dollars. Ms Mion is an artist and her paintings are hanging throughout their hotels where a section of each is set aside for the owners  quarters and she gets a studio there as well.

Allan Affeldt, Tina Mion and Friends

La Posada and the Castañeda, , were both built as Harvey hotels along the railroad tracks still used by AMTRAK.  Fred Harvey (1835 – 1901), who had immigrated from England at age 15, saw opportunity as the railroad was moving west across the United States. There were no dining cars in those days, so he convinced the railroad company to let him establish restaurants and eventually hotels at the depots. These hotels were on a very grand scale and could no longer be kept up in the smaller towns as railroad travel declined. The Castañeda had been closed for 70 years when the Affeldt/ Mion team acquired it in 2014 and you could see the sky through the lobby roof.

The Castañeda is a boutique hotel with just 20 rooms as compared with La Posada’s 54 rooms.  While they were negotiating for the Castañeda, Affeldt acquired another big historic hotel, the Plaza, in the center of Las Vegas’ old town. That has 70 rooms and is handsomely restored but does not have the same charm and cachet as the former Harvey hotels.

The Castañeda began to open gradually in April this year, a few rooms at a time. We stayed in a luxurious suite created by removing the door between the original rooms.  All the spaces are furnished with an eclectic collection of antiques. When we spoke to Mr. Afffeldt, I asked him about the lack of an armoire or somewhere you could put a hanger in our attractively decorated room. He replied that he is always adding to the rooms and is still finding pieces for La Posada which they opened 20+ years ago.

The restaurants in Affeldt’s hotels are leased so the only risk is the loss of rent if the bar and restaurant fail.  The Castañeda restaurant had not yet opened but they had a food truck and served food in the bar in the evening. The entire hotel and restaurant are on schedule to open during the summer.  Affeldt had a meal he liked in a Santa Fe restaurant and asked the chef, Sean Sinclair and his wife Katie, whether they would like to have their own place.  Sean, age 31, had already worked in restaurants around the country including a Michelin three star in Virginia outside of Washington D.C.  They jumped at the chance and they have leased the bar and restaurant. I asked Sean if he planned to make it a three star and he demurred. He did say, however, that while they would continue to serve bar food out of the same hotel kitchen, they plan gourmet meals with many courses and commensurate prices in the dining room. We are definitely going back to try that out.

Sean & Katie Sinclair

Lest you think there is no adventure anymore out west, on our return from Las Vegas we visited Pecos National Historical Park where we were told to beware of rattlesnakes which we had been told at Fort Union as well.  Sure enough, on our walk around the mission ruins we ran into a couple which we carefully avoided.  In this photo I took you can see the rattles on this one’s tail. Luckily he was a small one.