April 23, 2009

"Die Brücke" at the Neue Galerie

On the 7th of June, 1905, in Dresden Germany, 4 architecture students got together and formed the Kunstler Gruppe Brücke, an artists' group devoted to practicing painting, drawing and printmaking in a new style. The original founders included Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff then later Hermann Max Pechstein, Otto Mueller and briefly Emil Nolde were admitted as members . Living and working in a communal studio, the group strove to create a perfect world that harmonized art and life and acted as an antidote to the rapid expansion and urbanization that were assailing modern German society.

The result was the short-lived but very influential art movement "Die Brücke" or "Bridge". Typified by vivid colors and emotional directness, Brücke eventually evolved into German Expressionism which thrived in Weimar Berlin until the 1930's.

Until the end of June and for the first time in America, visitors to the Neue Galerie have the opportunity to learn more about this little known but highly influential movement. The curators have assembled a superb collection of paintings, sculpture and graphics that truly reflect the spectrum of the artists in this group. Organized on themes of "Experience of Nature", "Communal Studio", "Urban Transformation" the exhibition features over 100 outstanding landscapes, nudes, portraits and street scenes in the group's distinctive raw style. I was fascinated with the special group of woodcuts, lithographs and drawings that reflected the influence of Jugendstil and Symbolism.

All that powerful art can make one hungry and the Neue Galerie has the perfect solution for a rumbling tummy! A stop at the Café Sabarsky will restore both body and soul with a delicious Viennese coffee and a decadent torte in a very elegant setting. Better yet, make a reservation for the Neue Galerie's special "Austrian Wine Series", an evening of food, wine and art that sounds absolutely fabulous! Guten appetit!

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
"Die Straße / The Street", Dresden, 1908/09

April 13, 2009

Guaranteed to Make You Smile!

My birthday is coming up and I'd like to celebrate by giving my readers a little gift!

Some of you remember the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "The Sound of Music" that starred Mary Martin and opened on Broadway in 1959. Many more of you can practically sing along with Julie Andrews in the 1965 film version with the same name. Here's a new twist on a treasured classic, in an entirely different surrounding - the Central Station in Antwerp Belgium - a location I know well but I've never seen it like this! Click here for a You Tube video that is guaranteed to make you smile, birthday or not!

April 08, 2009

A Visit to the Château de Chantilly

One of my favorite things to do on an extended visit to Paris is to take a day trip to a historic site. Last Sunday was a gorgeous spring day and the perfect opportunity to visit the Château de Chantilly, a 23 minute train ride from the Gare du Nord in the Oise region north of Paris.

After a lovely walk from the station through a park, a monumental structure arose in the distance. I was sure it was the castle, but as I drew closer and saw the Chantilly racecourse and grandstand, I realized that this huge building housed the famous Grand Écuries, the "Great Stables" for which the estate is noted. Built between 1719-1740 by the architect Jean Aubert, this magnificent edifice gives "horse barn" a whole new meaning. In its heyday, the stables held 250 horses and 500 dogs to accommodate the almost daily hunting parties that were the primary amusement of the Prince of Condé and his guests. Today, the building houses the "Living Museum of the Horse" and is the site of horse shows and events throughout the year.

But I still hadn't seen the castle! I kept walking and soon the château and its moat appeared. This time there was no confusion as the spire and towers were proof positive that this was indeed the residence of French royalty since its inception as a fortress in the middle ages until it was bestowed upon the Institute of France in 1897.

The Château de Chantilly has a long and fascinating history since the first fortification was constructed in the 11th Century to protect the route between Paris and Senlis. The actual château was begun in 1386 by Pierre d'Orgemont, chancellor to Charles V, and it remained in the family for three generations until 1484 when Pierre III, being childless, willed the property to his nephew Guillaume de Montmorency.

The Montmorency family was a very powerful one in the kingdom, especially Anne de Montmorency (1493-1567) who was known as "The Constable". Under his aegis many important expansion projects were undertaken, most notably the construction of the Petit Château designed by the architect Jean Bullant. In 1632, the grandson of Anne de Montmorency, Henri II, was involved in a revolt against King Louis XIII and was decapitated. As further punishment the King confiscated Chantilly keeping it in royal possession until 1643 when it was restored to Henry II de Montmorency's sister who was also the wife of Henri II de Bourbon Condé. It's complicated, I know, but please bear with me! The Bourbon Condés had a son, Louis II (1621-1686) who was known as Le Grand Condé. It was he who transformed the domain by having the grounds landscaped by André Le Nôtre, the future landscape designer of Vaux le Vicomte and Versailles. The marvelous canal and gardens were the venue for many fêtes and parties and were visited by such figures as Molière, La Fontaine, Madame de La Fayette and Madame de Sévigné.

The descendants of Le Grand Condé continued his tradition and made many architectural contributions to the estate. In 1792 after the fall of the Bastille, the acting Prince of Condé, Louis Joseph, formed an army of emigration known as the Condé army. The French Revolution was in full swing and the collections in Chantilly were seized and taken to the Louvre in Paris. The château itself was turned into a prison until, in 1799, the buildings were sold and ultimately razed to the ground.

In 1815, Prince Louis Joseph returned to France and endeavored to restore his apartments and recover part of his collection. In 1830, his son, Louis Henri Joseph, Duke of Bourbon, died childless and Chantilly passed to its penultimate owner, his great-nephew Henri d'Orléans, Duke of Aumale, who was eight years old at the time. After a distinguished career in the military the Duke returned to Chantilly and undertook a total rebuilding of the château and its grounds. During his lifetime, which involved a 22 year exile in England after the 1848 Revolution, he amassed an extensive library (30,000 volumes) and art collection which became part of the newly restored castle and remain major attractions to this day. In 1884 the Duc d'Aumale bequeathed Chantilly to the Institut de France and a year after his death, in 1898, the Condé Museum was opened to the public as per his request.

Fast forward to the 21st Century and modern visitors like myself who visit Chantilly to gaze in amazement at the opulence of this bygone era. Thanks to generous donations from the Aga Kahn and the World Monuments Fund the château's magnificent interiors and gardens have been restored to near perfection. Ongoing work meant that the water in the moat was drained and the chapel was closed to the public but visitors were still treated to splendid examples of antique furniture and decor as well as an art collection that is second only to the Louvre in French old master paintings and book illuminations. I loved the Grande Singerie, a small room entirely decorated with paintings of monkeys engaged in human activities that was absolutely charming. I was also amazed to see 3 oils by Raphael including his exquisite "Three Graces".

What better way to end a visit to the Château de Chantilly than by tasting the local specialty, crème de Chantilly? I enjoyed a dollop of the delicious sweet whipped cream on top of an ice cream cone as I walked back to the station to catch the train back to Paris. It was a delightful day!

April 03, 2009

More Strolls Through Paris

This week March went out like a lamb and April entered with all the glory of Spring. Warm sunshine, trees in blossom and outdoor cafés shutting off the heater lamps and setting up more chairs on the sidewalk. After a long, cold winter all of Paris is ready to celebrate the new season.

One of the most popular exhibitions on view at the moment is "Le Grand Monde de Andy Warhol" at the Grand Palais. A tribute to the American master of Pop Art, this show focus' on Warhol's portraits both of himself and of his friends and patrons. Beginning with an early oil on canvas entitled "The Lord Gave Me My Face But I Can Pick My Own Nose", 1946, continuing with his silkscreens of celebrities such as Jackie Onassis, Marilyn Monroe, Chairman Mao and the Mona Lisa, and moving on to his experiments with Polaroid photography and video interviews, this show presents a good overview of his work in figurative subjects and is a fun look back at the '70's and '80's and the jet set years.

One interesting aside to this exhibition involves Pierre Bergé, the companion to Yves Saint Laurent who recently auctioned the late couturier's collection at Christie's, Paris (see my blogs of February 20th, 27th and March 15th). The curators of the Warhol show had requested a loan of 4 portraits of Yves Saint Laurent. According to the news media, Mr. Bergé at first agreed, but later refused to lend the portraits if they were to be included in the gallery featuring fashion designers. Rather, he felt that Yves Saint Laurent would be better immortalized in the section on artists. The curators disagreed and unfortunately the portraits were not included in the show at all.

Moving over to the Avenue du President Wilson and the "Galliera" at the Fashion Museum of the City of Paris. Now on view is "Sous l'Empire des crinolines 1852-1870" a look at the fashions of the Second Empire, under the rule of Napoleon III and his wife, the Empress Eugénie. This is a beautiful show and a joy for anyone who enjoys costume dramas on PBS! Three large galleries are filled with gorgeous gowns and all the accessories including shoes, fans, buttons and parasols. I was intrigued by the explanations of what constituted a "ball gown" as opposed to an "evening gown" (lace at the bodice for the former) and the fact that many of the skirts, which were worn over hooped crinolines, had multiple tops so the ensemble could be customized for the occasion.

Yesterday's visit to The Pantheon was impressive and informative. Originally designed by the architect Soufflot, under the aegis of Louis XV, as a basilica dedicated to Saint Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris, the building was converted to the national Pantheon in 1791. Today it is a national monument, open to the public 362 days a year. The main floor features murals (marouflé = painted on canvas and affixed to another surface, in this case the wall) by Puvis de Chavannes and other artists depicting scenes of the history of France. In the center of the nave is Foucault's pendulum (right), originally installed in 1851 as a sort of novelty to demonstrate the rotation of the earth. The latest version dates only to 1995 but the fascination for the public is the same.

Downstairs in the crypt one can visit the final resting places of many of France's most important citizens. Interred individually, such as Voltaire, or in small chambers with room for 8 tombs, one is surrounded by the spirits of such luminaries as Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Louis Braille and Marie & Pierre Curie. Some of the stone coffins are adorned with fresh flowers and amazingly, there are still quite a few empty spots remaining!

Tuesday marked the 120th birthday of the Eiffel Tower! Built for the world's fair in 1889 as a temporary structure to be torn down in 30 years, the Tour Eiffel has survived as France's most famous landmark. Initially despised by the public, it is now hard to imagine Paris without it. Happy Birthday Tour Eiffel!