May 31, 2007

The Romance of the Motor Car

What is it about the automobile that has enthralled people for over a century?

From the earliest "horseless carriages" to today's "concept cars", people of all ages have had a love affair with the motor car. Not just as a means of transportation, but as an identity, a symbol of speed, glamor and freedom to travel the highways and byways of our land.

I remember begging my parents to let me drive. Just to sit on their laps and steer the car as they pressed the pedals that my legs were too short to reach. Probably not the safest move, but we lived in the country on a dirt road and there wasn't much traffic. I couldn't wait to get my learner's permit and then came the negotiations to borrow the car to go to school functions and into "the City". I dreamed of owning a sporty red MG convertible! The supreme irony is that I now live in Manhattan and have never owned a car. Heck, I haven't even sat behind the wheel of a rental in almost a year!

But all the fantasies of car ownership and the romance of the automobile came back last week when I happened to be at Christies auction house at Rockefeller Center for a sale of Latin American art. Specially installed in a small ground floor gallery was the "McQueen Ferrari" - the prime lot of a touring exhibition for a sale of "Exceptional Motor Cars" coming up in Monterey, California.

We all know Steve McQueen as a daring and handsome movie star. He was a brilliant actor and he was passionate about his cars. The jewel of his collection was a 1963 Ferrari 250 Grand Touring Berlinetta Lusso, one of only 350 examples built between 1962-63. This elegant and powerful auto was a custom order V-12 painted a gorgeous chestnut brown metallic with beige leather interior. Now fully restored by its current owner, this superb example of engineering beauty and speed will be offered for sale in August. The successful bidder will be buying not only a rare and prized machine, but part of the legend that was its original owner.

I will probably never own a car, much less a vintage collectible motor car, but as I looked at this beautiful machine I thought of how much more than a utilitarian means of getting from point A to point B the automobile was and remains. The grease monkeys who spend every possible moment tinkering with engines, the race car drivers who risk life and limb in the pursuit of speed, the car buffs who love to wax and polish their wheels - all this is a major part of our culture and will never go out of style.

The Steve McQueen 1963 Ferrari 250 GT
Lusso Chassis 4891
Christies Exceptional Motor Cars
California August 16, 2007

May 15, 2007

Paul Poiret :: King of Fashion

Georges Lepape (1887-1971) French
Pochoir Plate from "Les Choses de Paul Poiret", 1911

Ask most people who Paul Poiret was and they'll confidently tell you he's the little Belgian detective made famous by Agatha Christie. Although both were very dapper and cultured and lived in the beginning of the 20th Century, that's where any similarity between them ends. But now, thanks to a new exhibition at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there will be no more excuses for confusing the two!

Paul Poiret was a force of nature. Technically, he was a dress designer, but in reality he was hugely influential not only in the world of fashion, but also the stage and interior design and the emergence of Modernism. But his greatest contribution, the thing that sets him apart from all other designers, is that he was responsible for freeing women from the constrictions of the corset in the very early 1900's.

Paul Poiret (1879-1944) had a meteoric career. He began as an assistant to an umbrella maker, then apprenticed with the House of Doucet in Paris in 1898. After a short stint at the couturier Worth he opened his own shop and it was an instant success. Inspired by his wife Denise, whom he married in 1905, Poiret offered a look that was totally revolutionary. For a public used to exquisite tailoring and detail, the idea of a draped garment based on geometric line and flat construction was unheard of. But they liked it, and his atelier thrived. The cachet of a Paul Poiret dress became irresistible, and in 1911 he opened two more boutiques, "Atelier Martine" for home furnishings and "Les Parfums de Rosine" (named after his two daughters) - a life-style brand ahead of his time.

Poiret lived a life of glamor and excess, yet he died in poverty. In the glory days, he and his wife/muse Denise traveled extensively and entertained lavishly. His "Thousand and Second Night" ball remains one of the most famous parties of the 20th Century. Yet his inability to adapt to the changes in fashion, much of which he himself had perpetrated, left him unable to compete with the new look created by Coco Chanel and others. Poiret's vision of the emancipated woman in simple but feminine clothing did not extend to the sporty, androgynous "garçonne" look that became the rage in the 1920's. He left his wife, and the "Pasha of Paris" was forced to close his shop in 1929.

Thanks to the discovery of a cache of clothing and accessories in Denise Poiret's estate, and their subsequent auction at PIASA in Paris in 2005, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was able to acquire a substantial collection of these magnificent works that provided the inspiration and foundation for this current exhibition. It is truly a must-see for anyone interested in 20th Century art and design. Far more than simply a collection of dresses on mannequins, the visitor is guided through a series of "mises-en-scene", mini stage sets with beautiful painted backdrops setting the scene for the garments and the furniture on display and transporting the viewer to another, more elegant, time. The "King of Fashion" lives! Long live the "King"!

May 14, 2007

Claude Monet at Wildenstein

Feel like a trip to France but can't get there right now? Why not head over to East 64th Street in New York City and feast your eyes on this beautiful collection of paintings by the master of French Impressionism, Claude Monet, now on view at the Wildenstein Gallery.

Prepared as an homage to patriarch Daniel Wildenstein, and as a benefit for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, this superb exhibition features 60 paintings from institutions and private collections on both sides of the Atlantic. From early still lifes to post-Impressionist landscapes, this group has something from every phase of his career. Poppy Fields, Grain Stacks, Snow Scenes, Venetian Canals, Trouville-sur-Mer, London Bridges, Japanese Bridges and Water Lilies - this is truly a "greatest hits" of some of the most famous images in late 19th Century art. All presented in one of the most elegant townhouses on the posh Upper East Side.

This rare opportunity to view these iconic works of art runs through June 15th. You don't need a passport, just hop on the bus!