May 27, 2009

"Francis Bacon: A Centenary Retrospective"

Francis Bacon is an acquired taste. Considered by many to be one of the greatest artists of the 20th Century, his paintings are in huge demand and consistently fetch big prices. Others find his work appalling, disturbing, even grotesque. However you feel, there is no denying that Francis Bacon was a serious and influential painter and, like it or not, his work is here to stay!

In celebration of his birth in Dublin 100 years ago, the Tate Britain, London, in partnership with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and the Prado, Madrid, has organized a comprehensive retrospective of more than 60 paintings, some never before displayed, as well as archival documents that shed light on the artist's more personal side.

Who was this man who excites such mixed and fervent emotions? Let's take a look and try to put this larger than life character into perspective.

Francis Bacon was the second of five children in a well-to-do family with noble roots. His sickly constitution, effeminate manner and penchant for dressing up in women's clothes, put him in constant conflict with his father and he was severely punished both at home and in school. Despite Bacon's illustrious heritage he consistently portrayed himself as an outcast choosing to live by his wits, often one step ahead of the law. Eschewing a formal art education, Francis Bacon was largely self taught, and began his career as an interior decorator and furniture designer. Once he discovered his calling however, he pursued painting for the rest of his life.

It is for portraits that Francis Bacon is most famous, but these are not ordinary depictions of historical subjects or friends and associates. It is here, on these gigantic canvas', that Bacon's many personality issues are clearly on view. Early works show frenzied, bleak, violent, even nightmarish visions of disfigured heads and caged Popes (see right "Study After Velazquez' Portrait of Pope Innocent X", 1953), and force the observer to look beyond the superficial toward deeper truths.

Bacon was a master paint handler and as he grew more proficient and established his palate grew warmer and his subjects calmer, although "calm" is a relative term in his case! Portraits of painter and model Isabel Rawsthorne (see below left "Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne Standing in a Street in Soho", 1967), his lovers George Dyer (a petty thief and a drunk) and John Edwards, and his own self, are still startling, but less horrifying than earlier works. Interestingly, Bacon insisted that the paintings be framed behind glass, unusual in such a large format, to allow viewers to see their own reflections and impose themselves into the scene within.

A confirmed Atheist, Bacon's mission was to portray what it is like to live in a world without meaning or God. He showed human beings as just another animal - frail, base, flawed creatures living with fears (remember, he was homosexual when it was a criminal offense), often isolated and angry. A perfect Post War Existential hero!

Despite a lifetime spent fighting convention and inner demons, Francis Bacon's later years were less incendiary and more controlled. He painted up until his death from a heart attack while on vacation in Spain in 1992.

"Francis Bacon: A Centenary Retrospective" is on view until August 16th.

May 22, 2009

Marcel Marceau: Going, Going, Gone...

When Marcel Marceau died in 2007 at the age of 84, the world mourned the loss of its most famous mime. He left his fans with wonderful memories of his performance genius, but he also left a company in huge debt. Next week in Paris the public will have the opportunity to acquire a personal souvenir of this legend as his heirs hold a court ordered auction of 700 lots in an effort to settle the claims against the Estate.

On May 27th & 28th, the auction house of Neret-Tessier will hold this special event at the ubiquitous Hotel Drouot, the site of many famous sales including the 2 week long André Breton extravaganza of 2003. In contrast to the recent auction of Yves Saint Laurent at Christie's (see my blogs of February 20th & 27th), this will be a far more intimate selection of pieces - things he lived with and some very personal mementos of a unique and stellar career.

Let's take a look back at this remarkable man and his métier. Marcel Marceau was actually born Marcel Mangel in Strasbourg, France in 1923. With the outbreak of World War II, Marcel and his brother Alain adopted the last name "Marceau" to hide their origins, and worked with the French Resistance to save Jewish children from the camps - acts of bravery that would later earn Marceau an award from the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation. After the war, Marcel studied dance and drama and in 1947 created his signature character of "Bip" the clown (see photo right).

Strongly influenced by the physical comedy of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers, Marcel Marceau as his alter ego Bip performed pantomime routines that spoke to his audiences profoundly and soon earned world wide recognition. His first stage appearances in the United States were a huge success and he expanded into television and motion pictures with equal flourish. He wrote children's books, poetry and illustrated art books and he opened his own schools for the art of mime. He also married and divorced 3 women and had 2 sons and 2 daughters. At his death, Marcel Marceau was a commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, an Officer of the Légion d'honneur, a member of various European fine art academies, and had honorary doctorates from several prestigious American universities.

Next week's auction will give Marceau's many admirers the opportunity to own something more tangible than just memories. The 2 day event will offer a wide variety of items including volumes from his substantial book collection, furniture, paintings and drawings (many by Marceau himself), silver and Judaica, letters and manuscripts, a selection of antique Japanese theater dolls and No masks and a very rare Turkish musical automaton from 1898. Of particular interest will be a large group of photographs that show him performing some of his most famous sketches and meeting heads of State and other celebrities. Estimated at just €200-300 per lot, these photos include shots with Cary Grant, Rudolf Nureyev, Maurice Chevalier and Nehru, to name just a few. Finally, poignant treasures in the form of actual costumes and props, including the striped pullover and battered silk hat worn by Bip, will also be up for sale.

It is a little sad to think of this beloved artist's life being dispersed in public auction, but we can also try to look at it as an homage to his universal appeal. Marcel Marceau is credited with single handedly reviving the "Art of Silence" in the 20th Century and his success brought joy to millions of people. It will be interesting to see how his followers respond to the plethora of trophies soon to be available. You can view the catalogue online at the website of Neret Tessier in Paris.

May 16, 2009

"Seduction" at the Fashion Institute of Technology

Historically, the purpose of fashion has been multi-layered. A means of warmth and protection from the elements, a statement of the wearer's profession or position in society, and a public expression of femininity or, more blatantly, sexuality. The concept of fashion as a means of seduction is the theme of the current show on view at the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

Colleen Hill, the curator, has assembled 65 looks, surveying 250 years of fashion history, to demonstrate the evolution of flirtation and enticement through the ages. From lingerie, the final frontier to the nude body, to corsets that arch the back and force the breasts forward, to high heeled shoes that carry their own special erotic connotations, this exhibition takes a serious, scholarly look at how and why people dressed as they did in the interest of attracting a mate.

"Fashion is a capricious goddess" and provocative clothing, in various degrees, has played a role in society since women emerged from animal skin covers. The proximity of clothing to the body is intrinsically sexual and the conflict of concealment versus display, modesty versus enticement, has been reflected in clothing styles as societal norms and behaviors have changed over time.

The exhibition looks at a progression of styles from the modest Victorian crinoline that might flirtatiously swing to reveal a delicate foot, to the bustles and corsets of the late 1800's that molded the woman's torso into a highly desirable form. It explores the introduction of the less structured, and subsequently more revealing, tea dresses that were almost like wearing a nightgown in public. Moving into the 20th century and the liberation of women we now find shorter dresses, cut on the bias to cling alluringly to the female figure, sling back shoes that expose the heel in an subtle reference to the lady's derrière, and undergarments that added a charged but still ladylike femininity to the wearer. "Hippie chic" of the 1960's signaled the era of free love while the contrast of hot pants with a maxi coat was both sexy and glamorous. Recently fashions have reflected a more powerful woman with body conscious styles and fabrics that often leave little to the imagination.

Fortunately women are no longer bound by strict rules of dress and we are freer to express our own individuality in what we wear. This look back at the progress of fashion and its power of enticement is an interesting study of an often overlooked area in the annals of women's history. "Seduction" remains on view at the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology until June 16 and admission is free.

May 13, 2009

Celebrating the Centennial of the Ballets Russes

Dance enthusiasts have a very special reason to celebrate this month - May 19th marks the 100th anniversary of the debut performance of Sergei Diaghilev's cutting-edge company, the Ballets Russes. Although breathlessly anticipated by Le tout Paris, no one could have foreseen the enormous impact this revolutionary ballet troupe would have not only on dance but the art world overall. Meteoric in rise and burn-out, this new troupe was the brainchild of impresario Sergei Diaghilev who mined the greatest talents in composition, choreography, costume and set design and of course dancers, to stun critics and audiences around Europe and the United States. Although it lasted only 20 years, until Diaghilev's death in Venice in 1929, the Ballets Russes are synonymous with avant garde performance art that influences music and dance to this day.

What was so special about this ballet company and its celebrated director that its centennial is being honored from Salt Lake City to Monte Carlo? Let's take a look back at the beginning of the 20th Century and we'll see.

At the turn of the century, Paris was a cultural capital in all areas except dance which had been in decline since the 1830's. Staid in choreography and technique, the ballet attracted only mediocre talent and consequently was not the first choice for an evening's entertainment. Enter Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev (left, with Jean Cocteau), a Russian sponsor of art and ballet whose aristocratic connections and passion for the stage had catapulted him to the spotlight in the Imperial Theaters in Saint Petersburg by 1900. But Diaghilev's flamboyant personality, both professionally and in his homosexual lifestyle, soon resulted in his dismissal from the theaters. He continued to work in the arts however, as a curator of an exhibition of Russian portrait painting that traveled throughout Russia and finally to Paris, and as a concert producer who presented 5 evenings of Russian music, also in Paris. The love affair with France had begun.

Diaghilev realized that the time was right to set Parisian high society on fire and May 19th, 1909 was the night of the explosion! The not-so-posh Théâtre du Châtelet was the scene and a group of Russian avant-garde dancers, including Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina, were the incendiary devices. The well-heeled audience was left astounded and the rest, as they say, is history.

More than just a troupe of well trained classical dancers, this company was electric. The choice of music was revolutionary and rocketed such composers as Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy, Satie and especially Igor Stravinsky to world wide recognition. The artistic director was fellow Russian Léon Bakst (left, Bakst's design for Narcisse, 1919) but later contributors included such contemporary fine artists as Braque, Picasso, Gontcharova, Matisse, Dalí and even Coco Chanel! The Ballets Russes featured such choreographers as Fokine, Nijinsky, Massine and later, George Balanchine, who challenged dancers to move in new and innovative ways, often in bare feet. The ballerinas were magnificent and interestingly, this company was the first to raise the stature of the male dancer who had been virtually ignored for the past hundred years.

The success of the Ballets Russes was very much tied to its founder, Sergei Diaghilev, and his fortunes ebbed and flowed. Being the darling of the elite was precarious and did not guarantee steady funding. His work ethic was non-compromising and he was reputed to be a demanding, even frightening, taskmaster. He required absolute loyalty and his personal passions dictated many of his actions. On the other hand, he could also be extremely kind and selfless to his dancers, many of whom adored him in a fatherly way. Diaghilev lived for his company and his company depended on him. With his untimely death the dancers were scattered and the company's property was claimed by creditors. Although various attempts were made to revive the brand, it was always a shadow of its former self, lost along with its founder.

While the actual Ballets Russes may no longer exist, the influence is very much with us even now in the 21st Century. Without Diaghilev's prescient vision and commitment to this pursuit, the world of visual and performance art would be very different. This year we honor the man and his mission and celebrate 100 years of his gift to humankind.

May 02, 2009

The International Fine Art Fair 2009

Art fair devotees have one more opportunity to get their fix before the long summer hiatus forces us to either roam abroad or find other cultural outlets to fill the gap! Until Tuesday May 5th, British fair organizers Brian and Anna Houghton present the 15th edition of The International Fine Art Fair at the Park Avenue Armory.

Although somewhat reduced in size from previous years, this version continues the tradition of showing artworks spanning the centuries and the globe, all vetted and all for sale. The European and American exhibitors include well known dealers in Old Master through Modern paintings, sculpture and works on paper, with an emphasis on 19th Century French paintings.

Francois-Joseph dit Luigi Loir (1845-1916) French
"Carousel at the Port Dorée"
Courtesy of Schiller & Bodo European Paintings

Some of my favorites included a small format oil painting of an eggplant by Georgia O'Keeffe on the stand of Michael Altman Fine Art and the gouache of an Art Deco woman by Georges Lepape at Neal A. Fiertag. There were also several small but charming oils of Belle Epoque Paris street scenes by Eugene Laloue at various dealers. A new discovery for me was the work of Charles Spencelayh (1865-1958), an English artist in the Academic Style. Two paintings on the stand of Trinity House Fine Art caught my eye - "His Old Wedding Hat", 1943, and the autobiographical "A Part of My Stock in Trade", 1948.

If not the high-energy fair of previous years, this remains an elegant and worthwhile exhibition and a fitting send off to the Spring 2009 New York art season.