Sunday, May 28, 2023

Hector Guimard

Have a great Memorial Day … as soon as you have finished this Missive!

In New York we went to see an exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt: Smithsonian Design Museum. It was aptly named, “Hector Guimard: How Paris got its Curves”. It was organized by the Cooper Hewitt and the Richard H. Driehaus Museum in Chicago. In situ, or from the movies, or in an illustration for a book there is a good chance that you have seen an image to one of the old Paris Metro (subway) stations. Hector Guimard (1867-1942), received the contract in 1898 to design the entrance to the Paris underground which was developed in anticipation of the Paris Exposition of 1900. Guimard effectively introduced the art nouveau style into popular culture.

His design for the Metro was created in cast iron which I am sure was appealing in it being inexpensive for a mass transit system. The exhibition could obviously only show a photograph but you can still see some in Paris today.

Other designs in Iron are also shown such as a bracket for a bench. How often do you actually think about who designed the two sides of a park bench you may be sitting on, but when you do look you might see a pleasing and original design.

Richard H. Driehaus Collection

Guimard built the Hôtel Guimard (1909-1912) for himself and his new wife Adeline (1909) at 122 Avenue Mozart, in the fashionable 16th arrondissement. It had an architectural studio for himself and a studio for his wife, a water colorist. Her father, Edward Oppenheim was a member of a major German Banking family, so Adeline was able to be her husband’s benefactor as well.

The show exhibits many of the media that Guimard designed for. One that I found most unusual was a wall panel that looked like leather but was actually made from linoleum. It was created for the Castel Béranger (1896-98) which is also in the 16th arrondissement. It was Guimard’s first solo project and an important transitional work for his career. An inscription on the façade reveals that the building won the coveted prize for Paris’ most beautiful façade in a contest held in 1898 by the City of Paris.

Credit: Musée d’Orsay

I love Guimard’s furniture designs though we never had a piece by the artist in our own collection of art nouveau. Here, however, is an object that I do not think I would have wished to acquire. It is a side-chair (1900-1903) with a frame but lacking a back support. We can be sure it is a Guimard design because the drawing is shown beside it.

Credit: Lent by the Richard H. Driehaus

Credit: Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Between 1900 and 1901 Guimard produced three designs for the French porcelain factory at Sèvres. Only five of the largest model were made and the Metropolitan Museum lent their example known as the Binelles Vase (1903).

We gave our collection of Art Nouveau pewter to the Cooper Hewitt before moving to Santa Fe because the style did not fit in our newly adopted part of the country. However, one of the smallest pieces in the show I would make an exception for. It is a doorbell that would not be out of place on our front door.

After Guimard died, Adeline moved back to New York and worked on preserving her husband’s legacy. She donated works of art as well her husband’s drawings and papers to a number of different institutions. In the exhibition is the embroidered silk collar from the White Satin Coat her husband designed for their wedding day. Adeline donated it to the Cooper Hewitt in 1949.

Photo Credit: Matt Flynn

As I wrote this Missive, I realized that I miss our art nouveau collection though we did save 3 objects for our current home.

Sunday, May 21, 2023

The Frick Madison

I have written a number of Missives about the Frick Collection and Henry Clay Frick’s daughter as well.  There is even one about what would happen when the Frick had to leave it’s home while a building renovation was happening at the Mansion.

So it moved to the former Whitney Museum which was built by Marcel Breuer in his brutalist style. It is the antithesis of the Frick’s home. In 2020 I wrote I would be jealous of anyone who saw this new installation which was scheduled to last for 2 years but like all construction the Frick Collection will remain there for another year.

Finally, after 4 years, we were in New York again and this was our first destination. We were so pleasantly surprised. They did not try to recreate the Frick Mansion style but rather show the works of art to their best advantage by creating smaller rooms in some cases and using the Breuer architecture to its best advantage in others. The installation Is on the 2nd, 3rd and 4th floors with paintings, sculpture and decorative arts organized by period, geographic region and media.

Wisely, they did not try to squeeze too much into the space, instead, have a wonderful representation of what my father would have called “their greatest hits”. If I tried to list them it would just be volume one of the catalog.

Instillation is so important to get the most out of a work of art. On the first exhibition floor you are greeted by this bronze angel from 1475 by Jean Barbet. She is by herself, greeting you as the doors to the elevator open, such a wonderful moment and introduction to the collection.

Tastes change and as a boy, I would have taken home the famous Giovanni Bellini (circa 1430 – 1516) “St. Francis in The Desert”. Here it has been isolated, giving it it’s own space so the viewer is not distracted by other masterpieces along side. Every time I see the painting I see something new. This time, though I preferred seeing it in the mansion, in its new bright light, I could see more detail. I discovered that St. Francis has a cane near his bible. Using a cane these days, I could appreciate that!

Photo Credit: Joe Coscia

Detail from above

Today, however, I would like to leave with a much smaller masterpiece. It is the Duccio di Buoninsegna (circa 1255 – circa 1319) “The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain”. I find it such an enticing fantasy, not trying to paint an actual scene but rather an evocation of the moment.

My Wife’s favorite work, which always has her tears, is a great Rembrandt self-portrait. In it he shows himself off as just as important as any of his clients. He has no problem promoting himself which I guess an artist in any field needs to do in order to be recognized and a financial success. Photography is not allowed in the Frick but it has been placed with two other Rembrandts, a nice but not great portrait and another favorite of mine titled, “The Polish Rider”. This photo will only give you a vague idea of the space.

A few have suggested that the Frick should stay where it is now. The Frick, however, is renting the space from the Metropolitan Museum that had leased it from its owner, The Whitney Museum for which it was built. Also, the will of Henry Clay Frick was very specific and so much would be lost for the city of New York. The Frick mansion with the collection that its owner bought for it is a rare commodity and gives a totally different ambience for an old master and decorative arts collection than the twenty-first century concept of showing works of art against stark white walls where in many cases, with their flat lighting might as well be posters.

Congratulations and thanks to Director, Ian Wardropper, chief curator Xavier Salomon and curator Aimee Ng for making this impossible transition and transformation into such a wonderful temporary experience.

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Fernando Botero at The Museum of Latin American Art

We visited family in Long Beach in Los Angeles County and wanted to see a museum where a friend from Santa Fe, Stuart Ashman, had been President and Chief Executive Officer. It is the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA) . We had a nice surprise that they happened to have a Fernando Botero exhibition. It was not a very large show but with wonderful large works of art in a big gallery as well as a 2018 film which gave one great insight into the artist with his daughter as guide and the artist himself giving commentary on his view of painting.

Botero was born in 1932 in Medellin, Columbia and recently celebrated on his 91st birthday. He had no formal training but studied the masters in his native Bogota, Columbia and all over Europe, France, Italy and Spain … what better art education? Something you may not know was that he was originally trained as a Bull fighter!

He says he lives for his art and his daughter says when he walks into his studio he is young again. He refers to his overly large individuals and even in his still lives as “generous”. He loves the colors and richness of the figures and the viewer responds. He has exhibited all over the world and his works have been collected by many museums along the way. Also, much of his work can be found in the Museo Botero in Bogota which, I gather, is devoted mainly to the artists of the first half of the 20th century.

His subject matter for the most part is drawn from his own Country. However, the torture by U.S. guards of their Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib affected him greatly and he devoted 14 months to a series of paintings to these events. He donated 56 paintings and drawings from the series to the Berkeley Museum of Art, which is closely affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley.

This exhibition is not at all dark but more about family. The chief curator at MOLAA, Gabriela Urtiaga, sees the exhibition as a dialog between the artist’s sculpture, his drawings and paintings. The exhibition starts outside the museum with a monumental sculpture which I am not sure would even fit into the museum, if they wanted it to. It is a fraction more than 132x77x76 inches and a wonderful way to introduce Botero’s voluptuous work. I was once asked by an artist to help him give titles to his works for an exhibition because a gallery insisted on it. Botero does not worry about such details, this Bronze is titled “Reclining Woman”. You cannot argue with that, Botero wants his art to speak for itself.

Inside the show is this small bronze sculpture of a duo, the artist has captured the moment when the couple are waiting for the music to start and they can begin the dance.

He was quite the draughtsman as well and in these two drawings you can see what happens when the dancing couple get going!

In this large painting is a family where the parents loom large and both the son on his hobby horse and grandma in her wheelchair are very small in comparison. I keep wondering why is grandma depicted as diminutive. I will let you decide, but I do not believe it is to diminish the older woman since the grandmother is very important in Hispanic families, the “Abuela” often takes care of the kids while both parents are at work.

Even when Botero is painting a still life the canvas is large 68 ½ x 74 ½ as are the fruits, and I am dying to have a piece of that chocolate cake! Here the title is Still Life with Watermelon. Note the small size piece of watermelon on left and on the right is the entire very large watermelon! That is known as artistic license!

To be honest, I cannot say that Fernando Botero is my favorite artist, this show, however, gave an excellent introduction to his work and the film brought it all into perspective and allowed me to appreciate what he had in mind and why.

Sunday, May 7, 2023

Art as Promotion in Advertising

I guess there is nothing new in the use of art by advertisers but I have not paid much attention to it. My wife called to my attention that the Consolidated Cigar Corporation produced “Dutch Masters Cigars” with an image of a 1662 painting of the Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild by none other than Rembrandt van Rijn, now in the Rijksmuseum. The image appeared on every box.

As a self promoter in his own time Rembrandt would have probably been delighted seeing it as free advertising for his studio. Today the appropriation of this sort is decried, and artist rights organizations protect against it in the case of modern and contemporary artists.

What made me think about this subject recently was an article from the April 26 edition of The Art Newspaper by James Imam titled “Botticelli’s Venus as ‘Influencer’ in tourism campaign”. I only recently learned what an influencer is in our day and age. We are speaking of the internet and social media, of course. You can be considered an influencer with as few as 1,000 followers if you are in a niche market and there are celebrities with half a million to a million followers although most are in the 10 to 50,000 follower category.

The idea of course, is that these individuals will lead people to the advertiser’s products which in this case is an effort to bring more tourists to Italy. Sandro Botticelli’s, “Birth of Venus”, aka by some as “Venus on the half-shell” which resides in the Uffizi Museum in Florence is our influencer. In these adverts she appears in different forms in various cities including Rome and Venice in front of well-known landmarks: the Coliseum in Rome and the Campanile in Venice. Obviously, she has made the the 245 mile journey from Rome to Venice by bike! Guess what? The purists, art critics and even government officials find this act by the Ministry of Culture and The National Tourist Board to be “humiliating”, according to an article in Artnetnews by Jo-Lawson-Tancred. Every criticism imaginable including the flaws in translations of the text into different languages has been thrown at it in articles, social media etc.

If I were one of those who thought this campaign up, mainly the art critic Vittorio Sgarbi, Under Secretary of the culture ministry, I would be delighted with all the attention this brings to the campaign. Personally, I love it when art can be used in different ways and it may even bring the curious tourist to Florence to see the original!

You might expect see the Mona Lisa in advertising but you would think that the most famous religious Old Master painting, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” was sacrosanct. Of course, it has been replicated and adapted by artists throughout history. We even own a print of a 2015 photograph by Cara Romero (member of the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe) called “The Last Indian Market”. Indian Market is one of the most important events of the year in Santa Fe. Cara has photographed` some of the leading artists of the moment posed in the Coyote Café one of the city’s best-known restaurants to replicate Leonardo’s composition.

However, some felt that an advertisement by an Irish Casino apparently crossed the line. The reported result was, “Irish bookmaker Paddy Power has been forced to withdraw an advertising campaign featuring Jesus and the apostles gambling at the Last Supper following a deluge of complaints from outraged Christians”. 

There are many more examples and it is heartening, in a sense, that beloved Old Masters can demand great loyalty and their use in advertising can offend to the point of outrage.

Sunday, April 30, 2023

What's In a Name?

If you are a liberal, as I am, you decry the banning of books, the mandates to not teach Critical Race Theory (CRT) and what has become to be known as “don’t say gay” laws re: sexual orientation.

Liberals are very overbearing on this subject, saying these ideas are reprehensible because how can we learn without knowing our history. There is a much-quoted saying, in one form or another originated by philosopher George Santayana “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

When you think about it there are those on the Left that are behaving in the exact same way, if not as broadly and as often. You probably have read how the Metropolitan Museum and other institutions have taken the name of any and all Sacklers off of their walls because their pharmaceutical company is held responsible for having contributed mightily to exacerbating the opioid crisis in this country. I was reminded of this when I noted a recent headline for an article in Hyperallergic by Hakim Bishara, “In Surprise ‘Die-In’” Protesters Demand Harvard Take Down the Sackler Name”.

If the Sackler name disappears there is just a void with no recognition that they were complicit in this social tragedy. Pursuing museums’ current penchant for politically correct labels, why not wall texts describing the Sackler family’s source of their wealth, owning the pharmaceutical company, Purdue Pharma, that produced Oxcontin. Wouldn’t that be a motive for their generosity? Soothing their consciences? Of course, that might extend to many other donors as well.

Robert E. Lee is a name I have brought up in the past. Why do the liberals wish to erase him from history and memory by taking down all monuments to him? How then can future generations learn or, more importantly, understand the Civil War and why it was worth the loss of over 600,000 lives. On the other side conservatives wish to eliminate Black history and CRT; Critical Race Theory from being taught in schools. No one quite knows what CRT is, but some fear it. If we eliminate the story of slavery, one of the reasons for the Civil War, will study of the War itself be banned from schools? If this is all taken to its logical conclusion future generations won’t know how or why this country struggled to get to where it is today.

The statue of President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) has been removed from the entrance to the Museum of Natural History in New York because it was objected to as racist. The statue was put there in the first place because the President’s father was a founder of the museum and his son, the President, was a pioneering conservationist. It is true that the Pesident believed the White race to be more advanced than others, but, if it is civil liberties we are concerned with, why not celebrate his achievements as President, including taking on the case for women’s suffrage. It is so much easier to be against than to be for something.

There are liberals “sanitizing” new editions of Dr. Seuss and and excising the “N” word from Huckelberry Finn. In fact the publishers of the Dr. Seuss books have decided to no longer publish 6 from the series, 4 of which are illustrated below. Times change and vocabulary changes and what is thought to be offensive today may not have been thought of in the same sense earlier. Those with dark skin were known, when I was growing up, as Negroes, literally translated as Black, the latter being considered a more polite designation than colored. In recent times we hear the term, African Americans. Needless to say, a color-blind society would be the ideal but we are not there yet.

The Bible appears on lists of books that have been banned over history. However, there is currently no such move on the Right even though the Bible contains plenty of sex, incest and polygamy.

Why do we wish to censor history?

Sunday, April 23, 2023

The Ugly Duchess and her Partner

I recently read that there is a special exhibition at the National Gallery in London. called, “The Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance”. It is small, only 15 works, but it is a revelatory show on view until June 11.

The Old Woman circa 1513 is by Quinten Massys (1465/6-1530.) She is known as the Ugly Duchess because she inspired John Tenniel’s popular illustrations for Lewis Caroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” (1865). For a long time, the painting was thought to be by Leonardo da Vinci but scholars today agree that it is by Massys but modeled on one of the “grotesque” drawings by the Italian master.

Journalist Marianna Cerini titled her March 16, 2023 article for CNN, “The Ugly Duchess: how an unsettling Renaissance portrait challenges ideas of aging women and beauty.” She writes, “By focusing on the wrinkles, lines, and other physical features that come with age, these artists have highlighted the ways in which aging can shape and define a person, challenging the notion that youth is the only time worth celebrating, and old age something to be feared or avoided.”

As I have often said the interpretation of a painting is up to the viewer and there is a different interpretation of the painting by the curator of the show, Emma Capron, a Renaissance expert. She believes that she is a he, in her words, “a cross-dresser as a play on gender. We know that Massys was very interested in carnivals, where men would impersonate women”.

I would ask then why has Capron includes in the exhibition the painting that is believed to be the pendant and possibly the Ducchess’ husband. Their reunion was a nice surprise for me. In 1976 I sold the Massys Portrait of an Old Man to a private collector, saying we believed it was the pendant to the Ugly Duchess. This is only the second occasion they have come together in recent times. Their previous “marriage” happened 15 years ago at the National gallery in an exhibition called “Renaissance Faces”. If indeed it is a couple you can see who is in charge. She may be ugly but she is also formidable!

The exhibition includes other works in various media and from different countries mostly from the Museum’s collection, where the women depicted are anything but beautiful. There is one very important loan, a drawing borrowed from the Royal collection to illustrate the relationships of the Massys to its probable source, a drawing attributed to Francesco Meizi the leading assistant to Leonardo. It is believed that this drawing is a copy of Leonardo’s original concept.

Helpfully, the exhibition includes a facsimile sheet of of other Grotesques by Leonardo.

Is the Ugly Duchess a study of old age or an exercise in satire? A portrait of a marriage? A “he” or a “she”? I love the idea of a show that will force you to look, see and make up your own mind as to what to think.

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Vermeer Blockbuster

If you read a blog known as Missives from the art World I am going to assume that you are acquainted with the work of Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). What might surprise you is that he was not a famous artist in his life time nor a celebrity afterwards. With so little remaining production an air of mystery enhances the artist’s mystique and contributes to the blockbuster character of the current exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

The term blockbuster exhibition came into common usage when the flamboyant Thomas P.F. Hoving was Director of the Metropolitan Museum (1967-1977) and oversaw exhibitions that attracted tens of thousands of visitors. It is most apt to use that rubric to describe this Vermeer exhibition. The day after the exhibition was announced 200,000 tickets were sold and the next day the website crashed. Soon, however, all 450,000 available tickets were sold and it was announced that no more were to be had.

A museum is lucky to have a single Vermeer but the Rijksmuseum boasts four in their permanent collection. For the show they were able to assemble 28 of the 35 paintings agreed to be by the artist’s own hand. This was a colossal feat considering how closely every owner guards such rare treasures. In 1996 the National Gallery in Washington D.C. did a similar exhibition, but they could only assemble 21 out of the 35 paintings.

I totally understand why people want to go to such a show but what usually happens in an exhibition of works of small scale there are 10 people waiting to see each one and you have to move on. I would rather see these paintings in situ.

Aside from hope for revenue after all the expenses that go into such an exhibition, as well as notoriety for the museum (as if the Rijksmuseum needed any more) the real reason is to give art historians or as they like to be known, scholars, a chance to compare these masterpieces next to each other. Also each work will probably go through intense analysis by conservators before it travels so more will be learned about the artist’s technique and methodology.

Sometimes these investigations can become exciting detective stories with interesting conclusions both positive and once in a while negative. Many of the revelations go beyond the individual work to deepen our understanding for the artist

New technological advances allow conservators to see below the surface of the paint. Regarding the “Milk Maid” belonging to the Rijksmuseum they learned that contrary to the previous belief that Vermeer painted very slowly with meticulous precision the artist did an initial sketch in thick black paint that he then developed for his finished work. Also, a jug holder and fire basket behind the sitter were painted over by the artist himself.

Inevitably, a major exhibition results in every participating institution re-examining works in their collection to see if they missed something. The following headline appeared in Artnet News, “An Art Expert Has Made a Startling Claim: the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Vermeer Copy May Actually Be the Real Thing” “Lady with Guitar” has been in the collection of the museum since 1933, but has never been on view. So, I wondered why it looked so familiar to me. The reason is that I have seen the painting that has been considered the “original” in Kenwood House in London. The only obvious difference, aside from the condition, between the two paintings is that the sitter has a different hairstyle. The scholar, Arie Wallert, former scientific specialist at the Rijksmuseum believes, on the basis of the pigments, that the Philadelphia picture is authentic. He does not dispute the legitimacy of the Kenwood House version but believes the extremely poor condition of the Philadelphia Museum’s is why it has not been previously accepted.

Kenwood House

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Benjamin Binstock who wrote a book in 2008 claiming Vermeer’s daughter Maria had painted seven of the works attributed to her father. The assertion was dismissed by most scholars but it fascinated Lawrence Wechsler, who at the time was director at the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU. A few weeks ago Wechsler wrote a long article in the “Atlantic” discussing Binstock’s assertions including that. “The Girl in a Red Hat” (circa 1669) at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. may actually be a self-portrait by Maria. One of the reasons that Binstock’s theories had been dismissed is that all assistants to members of the painters’ guild at the time in Holland were required to be registered and there are no records of Vermeer ever having had an apprentice. However, an artist’s family members were exempt from registration, making the attribution to Vermeer’s daughter plausible. Then last year the National Gallery decided to reclassify “Girl with a Flute” as not by Vermeer but rather by a student which Binstock had already indicated.

Attributions are not easy and often change over time. A monographic exhibition may provide the inflection point. 

Sunday, April 9, 2023

The Art of Words

Words change their meaning over time. We were watching a TV show the other night and my wife asked me rhetorically, “why do they keep saying fuck and fucking all the time, it has lost all its impact.” I believe that is exactly why. If you look the word fuck up on Google there are serious and amusing articles on the subject but as the word is used in movies and books all the time it comes into common language. Only network news bleeps it even if it is something an interviewee or politician use it, i.e. censorship. But some are still seriously offended by the word even though as is pointed out on a website called Gymglish, that “In Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street alone, the expletive is dropped over 500 times over a 180-minute running time. In Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, the word is said around 400 times.”

I find etymology fascinating, how words come into being and how they change their meaning. A blog website called “Day Translation” gives examples of how expressions come into the vernacular, they are often coined from another source such as a book title. “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller became an often-used phrase to describe a circumstance … there is no escape in sight because the conditions are reciprocally conflicting” “Names of authors become descriptive words as well, such as “Kafkaesque” and “Orwellian” from Franz Kafka and George Orwell, respectively.”

Words change their meaning as well. You may not have thought about it lately but if somebody tweeted it meant they were making the sound of a bird and today it indicates how much money Elon Musk is losing every day! Obviously, words don’t change their meaning overnight, and we can still speak about a bird tweeting and then it is a question of context unless you teach your bird to peck on the keys of your keyboard! In the future one or the other meaning may fade away and another take its place!!

As early as the late 14th century, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary the word gay meant full of joy, merry, lighthearted and carefree. It came from the French gai and similar words in several other European languages and had similar joyous meanings and is still used in that way today. The surname Gay can be found in Scotland as early as the 16th century and in the 19th century the name appears often in a number of countries. By the end of the 19th century, it began to bear the concept of promiscuity, a brothel was known as a gay house. The use of the word describing homosexual first appears in psychological writings in the 1940’s. I could go on, but my point is obvious a single word can have different meanings both in the time and the way it was used.

To end on a familiar note, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word Missive is simply defined as a letter, as in one to mail. As synonyms I even see in the dictionary a “billet-doux” (love note) as well as “junk mail” which we can all identify with. I decided to use the word Missive 14 years ago when I wanted to distinguish my weekly emails from the word blog.

The word is derived from the Latin word “missus”, meaning "to send." An example is the expression, “firing off a missive”. Simply put it is a written communication which is exactly what I do every week.