Sunday, July 28, 2019

Alphonse Mucha

The artist Alfonse Maria Mucha (1860-1939) was born in the town of Ivanicice, in what was then Moravia and now the Czech Republic, and died in Prague. It is however the commercial graphic work he did in Paris at the turn of the century for which he is best known.  His depictions of women with flowing hair and robes have become synonymous with the Art Nouveau style which he is given credit for popularizing.  Curiously, though we collected Art Nouveau and furnished our New York home with it, the only Muchas we had, were reproductions on coasters!

Currently there seems to be another in the series of revivals of interest in the artist, this one promoted by the Mucha Museum and Foundation in Prague. It has organized a new show “Timeless Mucha - Mucha to Manga: The Magic of Line” that began its tour of Japan this month.  It comprises about 250 works, concentrating on his graphic work.  It also explores how Mucha’s work influenced artists in the 1960’s and 1970’s, particularly those interested in psychedelic art.  In addition to his posters, drawings, book illustrations and designs, it includes Japanese prints from Mucha’s personal art collection and interpretations of his work in fin-de-siècle Japan. 

New York’s newest museum,  called the The Poster House opened last month with “Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau / Nouvelle Femme”.  The show  focuses on his portrayal of women as bold and independent, whether rolling a cigarette or riding a bicyle. Another Mucha exhibition called, “Alphonse Mucha - Art Nouveau & Utopia showing 178 important works from the Mucha Trust Collection is at the Pearl Art Museum in Shanghai. The 80th anniversary of the artist’s death, seems as good an excuse as any for arranging an exhibition.

Mucha is the only visual artist I have ever heard of who worked his way through continuing education by his singing.  He was certainly multi-dimensional, a painter, illustrator and graphic artist.  He worked at decorative painting jobs in Moravia, mostly painting theatrical scenery, then in 1879 moved to Vienna to work for a leading Viennese theatrical design company, while informally furthering his artistic education. In 1887 he went to Paris where he produced  magazine and advertising illustrations in order to continue his study of painting  at the Académie Julian and Académie Colarossi.

The Moravian Teacher’s Choir

Serendipitously, around Christmas time in 1894 he stopped by a print shop where they had a sudden need for a poster of Sarah Bernhardt in a new play. Impulsively, he said he could do it within their 2-week window.  The poster created a sensation with the public when it appeared on the streets of Paris on New Year’s Day, 1895. Bernhardt was so impressed that she entered into a 6-year contract with the artist.  Hence the plethora of posters of her that Mucha created.  Here is an image of the original poster and one from 1896.

Before the time of visual broadcasting, i.e. television and the internet, posters were a new way for an artist to get public attention.  But, like so many artists, Mucha did not wish to be pigeonholed so he did not want to be associated with a movement. He denied any French influence and that of colleagues who were adopting the Art Nouveau style.  [This reminds me of Georgia O’Keeffe’s claim  that she was not influenced by photography, though she was married to the foremost photographer of her day, Alfred Stieglitz, for over 20 years!]

Mucha felt he created his art for higher purposes and promoting the art of his country of birth. For the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris he decorated the Bosnia and Herzegovina pavilions and assisted in the Austrian one.  The work consisted of a series of monumental paintings of the history of Slavic people. He titled it “The Slave Epic” and considered it his masterpiece. 

It is, however, Mucha’s graphic style that remains instantly recognizable today and the importance of his role in the history of modern advertising is undeniable.  

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Collecting Bits & Pieces

I love it when I start writing about a subject and then look on line and find I am not the only one thinking along these lines. When it turns out to be the Metropolitan Museum, I am positively proud!

In this case after I picked my title and began writing and then looked up collecting fragments and wouldn’t you know it there were several entries for books in German which I decided I would not bother acquiring and then the headline: “The Dietrich von Bothmer Fragment Collection.”  Of course, it helped get my attention that I knew this famous art historian, curator and  head of the Department of Greek & Roman at the Met.  He came to the Met a couple of years after I was born and retired in 1990.

Dietrich, of course, acquired the important pieces for the museum but ,since Greek vases was the area of art he was most passionate about, he began to collect for himself broken pieces about the time he began to teach. I am sure he brought some of that collection into his classes before taking his students for a tour of the Met’s collection.  Dietrich passed away in 2009 and bequeathed his personal collection to the Met, which for all we know was a deal he made with the director of the Met when he told them he wanted to collect privately in his professional field, something that  was later frowned upon.

Aside from the headline grabbing auction records where people more interested in status than art are buying, there still are plenty of people who have the desire to collect art from various cultures in the old-fashioned way, because they love it.

So why do people collect fragments or even an unfinished drawing.  One looks for areas of art that one can afford, and it may just be part of a whole.  A small sketch might just be the first thoughts of an artist, maybe a record of someone on the street which the artist will use later in a painting.  With sculpture, you might think an entire figure was out of reach but owning a fragment can be something satisfying and part of history.

I started to think of some pieces that we own which are remnants of a bygone era, both historically and for our life time.  In New York, one of my fields as a dealer was  in the European decorative arts of the 17th and 18th century. Most of that was sold because it was part of gallery inventory but I felt we had to keep some pieces so we would not totally lose our past to the world of the Southwest which has brought us to collecting Native American art.

Who wants to throw away a thing of beauty?  Here is a Meissen Porcelain handle with a silver letter opener of later date.  The handle would have originally been for a knife or fork. When the blade or tines were no longer usable someone refitted the handle for a new use rather than throw it away. This particular handle dates around 1740 and is painted with Meissen’s well known “Flying Dog” pattern adapted from the Japanese Kakiemon style.

Meissen, near Dresden, Germany was the first Western factory to produce true hard paste porcelain.  In 2012 a small early Meissen porcelain tea service came up at Bonham’s auction house.  In a sense it was a fragment because it was missing its most important piece, the teapot!  Still at least a couple of people got excited enough about it to shoot the price up to $760,000!

We on the other hand, own just one lonely saucer attributed to one of Meissen’s greatest artists, Christian Friedrich Herold.  He worked at the factory for half a century and when he started out there in 1725, he painted Chinoiserie subjects on the factory’s wares. On the bottom of the dish is a large number 17 in gold which was the gilder’s mark.  Placing gold leaf on porcelain was a sub specialty not done by the painter.

Take a look at this pair of German 17th century lions.  They clearly belonged together but were not just decoration. There is a small piece of gilt bronze on top that looks attached and not molded with the rest.  Turn it over and you find that a screw is holding this to the Lion’s back.  Without this top they are flat and clearly something was on top of them.  Since they are too small to hold a cupboard or chest of drawers, they probably propped up a small cabinet or, more likely a clock.  The clock might have stopped working and the owner had no more use for it, so they threw it out and an industrious person preserved the feet and turned It into a decoration which we enjoy every day.

Bits and pieces, or rather fragments can provide the acquirer with great personal pleasure.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Judy Tuwaletstiwa: The Dream Life of Objects

We met Judy Tuwaletstiwa at a pig roast!  Our friends from the Hopi Reservation took us along to a birthday party of a Hopi friend of theirs outside of Santa Fe. For this occasion, the entire pig was roasted… delicious and enough for all. Their friend turned out to be married to an extremely dynamic artist, Judy Tuwaletstiwa. 

Until September 15 the Center for Contemporary Arts (CCA) in Santa Fe has an exhibition called, “Judy Tuwaletstiwa: The Dream Life of Objects”. Judy is a very intellectual artist with a degree in English Literature from the University of California at Berkeley and a Masters in the same field from Harvard. When I was speaking to the young artist behind the gallery reception desk he said  you need to “feel”  this show as much as observe it.  If you give it a chance it will speak to you.

My thesis has always been that you should walk through any exhibition and then if you wish to dig deeper read the labels, take the audio guide, if it exists, and, if you are really serious, buy the catalog… and then read it!

In this show, however, I was told that Judy wished the visitor to see the 9-minute film first and then see the show.  Unfortunately, too much light poured into the room when I was there and the sound too low for my old ears, but I had watched the 3-minute version on line which I will share with you here: 

Judy speaks of language and how materials speak to her.  She tells us that the first language we hear is our mother’s heart beat before we are born.  The second language is our sense of touch.  She is shown touching a rock which she tells us holds history.  It made me think of an infant of touching its mother’s breast or clutching a rattle, that is how learning begins.

Judy had no formal art training, but allowed her materials to speak to her.  She speaks of working with the fragile medium of glass and weaving at the loom which the layman might find tedious, but it is there, she said, that she learned patience.

This brought two experiences to mind.  When my wife, Penelope, was a curator at the Metropolitan Museum she gave a lecture once in conjunction with a Corning show called “New Glass” at the Met.  She did not allow anyone to sit in the front 3 rows because she began the lecture by smashing a glass on the side of the lectern … yes glass breaks! 

The second was a personal experience.  The only art I was ever half way good at was photography, in the days when one could bulk load one’s own film and process it in one’s bathroom.  My enlarger and chemical trays were all on a board over my bathtub and I stayed up half the night working.  One certainly had to be patient getting the image that one wanted out of the negative.

Judy is not Native but Jewish. She was born and grew up in East Los Angeles, which she said was a melting pot of various ethnicities and “they all played together”.  Her family was from Poland and her first husband was Armenian. In 1993 she married Phillip, a Hopi Indian. His grandfather’s name, Tuwaletstiwa, was changed to Johnson at Keams Canyon boarding school in the late 1800’s because they could not pronounce his Hopi name!  Phillip wanted to take back his grandfather’s name and they both agreed to do so. The name Tuwaletstiwa has a beautiful meaning, “ripples made in the sand when the wind blows”.

The first room of the show is a wall of photographs of the Warsaw Ghetto, lent by the Hollocaust Museum in Washington D.C., and families that were slaughtered there at the orders of Heinrich Himmler.  Judy writes about the figure of a little boy with his hands up. “This image has haunted me since I was young:  I identified with the boy in the foreground who was only a few years older than I in 1943. If my grandparents had remained in Poland, I might have huddled in this group.”

Associated with these images is a series of works which one sees and feels in particular, for me, these hands cast in glass. Are they charred?

In another gallery a fair amount of wall space is used to show what look like a series of abstract banners.  They are 72 photographs showing a process.  In 1987, Judy decided that her first attempt at painting was going to be a red painting, but she would work her way there…again a process. In a public discussion she had with David Krakauer, American evolutionary biologist, who is President and William H. Miller Professor of Complex Systems at the Santa Fe Institute, she speaks of Native American kivas.  These holy places have images painted on the walls for a ceremony, which are then painted over for the next event. Often hundreds of images are layered on top of each other.  For doubters of process she asked her audience how many were writers?  Then she asked whether they ever rewrote and effectively wrote over what they had written, sometimes having to delete their favorite words in a quest for the final result.  Count me in that group and sometimes I keep the sentence or phrase for another time.  Here is the end result and one wall of the photographs recording the process.

Bringing you up to date here is a piece in one of the artist’s favorite media, kiln-fired glass adhered to canvas. It is titled “Text. Shards 2, 2019”.  Shards in this part of the world usually refer to the broken remnants of Native American pottery that have survived over time.  In fact, there is an archive in New Mexico of pieces of pottery collected at building sites when excavation starts.  These are important evidence from which we can learn of earlier Indian generations.

In this show Judy Tuwaletsivwa gives us much to feel and think about and I have only scratched the surface.

Sunday, July 7, 2019


After seeing the great exhibition in San Diego, we took the train up to Pasadena, where our son, Hunter and his wife now live. Since childhood our son has loved touring, so he organized a tour to introduce us to his new home city. 

One of the cultural stops was The Gamble House. We had visited the house before, maybe 40 years earlier, and I remember being more excited by it then.  That was possibly because we were then with colleagues on a junket, not on a general public tour. I love the period and looking at the photos I am posting I feel what I did then … the harmony of this Arts and Crafts house, from its Japanese-influenced wood structure to the stained glass of its front door.

David Gamble, second generation of Proctor & Gamble, and his wife Mary, from Cincinnati decided to build their winter residence in Pasadena and hired the firm of Greene & Greene.  The latter were architects who had built other houses in the neighborhood which the Gambles obviously liked, and it could not have hurt that the Greene Brothers originally came from the Gambles’ home town.

Charles Greene (1868-1957) and Henry Greene (1870-1954) were born on the outskirts of Cincinnati.  Their father became a physician in St. Louis and put the boys in a Manual Training School at Washington University.  He then decided that they should become architects and enrolled them in the architectural school at MIT.  They found work as apprentices in a couple of architectural firms when their parents moved to Pasadena and asked their boys to join them.  On the trip west they visited the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago where Japanese architecture made a lasting impression on them.  Opening their own architectural firm, they designed what they called “Ultimate Bungalows” of which the Gamble House is one. Some bungalow! Our tour of most of the rooms took over an hour and we were not lingering. 

The drawings were ready in February of 1908 and construction was started in March.  Not everything moves quicker today then in yesteryear! The Gambles also wanted Greene & Greene to design the furniture which was all completed by the summer of 1910.  The house included a number of blind doors and inset closets giving a very clean look, accentuated by the furniture.

Mary and David were not the only Gambles living in the house but two of the sons were there at different times.  it seems there was always a child or grandchild around and Mary’s sister, Julia, became a full-time resident. There were bedrooms for all, most of them with sleeping porches which were much appreciated in the days before air conditioning. The dining room table was expandable, and the large sitting room was designed to accommodate the different activities of family members.

We also went to see the City Hall of Pasadena, a very grand building indeed. The project began in 1923 when the people of Pasadena approved a $3.5 million project to develop a civic center with City Hall being the centerpiece. This was near the end of the “City Beautiful Movement” 1890’s to 1920’s when urban planners decided that “design could not be separated from social issues and should encourage civic pride and engagement.”  It continues to do so almost a century later.

The low relief armorials on the building have the seal of the city on a shield. My schoolmate, David Phillips, who is an expert in armorials, supplied me with the explanation: The word Pasadena means “valley” in the Ojibwa (Chippewa) language but has been interpreted as “Crown of the Valley” or “Key of the Valley,” hence the adoption of both the crown and the key in the official City Seal.

It is not easy to keep a hundred-year old building in mint condition particularly when it is being used by hundreds of employees and visitors every day!  Near the end of the 1990’s the City hired an architectural firm to do a major renovation that included earthquake-proofing the building by floating the pillars of the foundation on moveable steel balls. The employees were all cleared out in 2004 and were finally allowed to return in 2007.  Now again, it is worth a look.