March 30, 2009

Strolls Through Paris

It is wonderful to be back in this beautiful city after the long, cold winter in New York. It's nearly the end of March and the Europeans have just changed over to Daylight Saving Time giving us evenings that extend until 8 o'clock with full sunlight. Mother Nature seems to agree with this plan as it is now possible to walk outside in just a light coat instead of full winter gear! Even better, the forecast calls for temps in the 70's by the weekend!

Looking West from Ile Saint Louis
A Bateau Mouche plies the Seine with the Tour Saint Jacques on the right

As usual, there is a lot going on and it is a challenge to take in all the cultural events. Last week's highlight was the annual Salon du Dessin, The Drawings Fair, held in the elegant Palais de la Bourse. 36 exhibitors from Europe and the United States presented works from Old Masters to Contemporary. This is a very posh show and the individual stands were carefully curated and staged like mini salons. One could find treasures ranging from charcoal drawings by Tiepolo, to a pastel study of a bridge by Monet, to pencil portraits by Gustav Klimt. The opening was sponsored by Champagne Henriot, making for a very festive event, and I was fortunate to be able to re-visit the fair later and really spend time looking at the very special offerings.

Across the Seine in the Musée du Quai Branly is a super exhibition called "The Jazz Century" - an anthropological review of this musical genre and its influence on art, film and photography from the early 1900's to today. Tracing the origins and development of jazz as an artistic fusion blending African, American and European sources, this exhibition explores the huge influence jazz had not only aesthetically but also on society in general. The visitor follows a circuitous path beginning with the "birth" of jazz in 1917, through the Jazz Age in America and the Harlem Renaissance, the Roaring 20's in Europe, The Swing Era, WWII, and finally Bebop, West Coast Jazz and Contemporary. Photos of jazz greats, paintings by Romare Beardon, Stuart Davis and Jackson Pollock, recorded music by Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday, and Django Reinhardt, film clips of Josephine Baker and album covers by Andy Warhol all come together to present the history of jazz in a totally fresh light. This exhibition is on view until June 28.

Jeu de Paume / Hôtel de Sully

Another interesting exhibition is "Paris, Capital of Photography 1920-40" now on view at the Jeu de Paume, Hôtel de Sully branch. The photographs on display come from the collection of Christian Bouqueret, one of the pioneer collectors of photography in the 1970's in Paris. It is a very personal group of photos but most are of exceptional quality and the collection as a whole is very cohesive. Featuring works by major and minor European photographers (with a few Americans thrown in!) on themes of abstraction, portraits, the Eiffel Tower, Paris street scenes, nudes and Surrealism, this show a concise history of photography as an art in the early 20th Century.

This trip to Paris has had a new twist as the little apartment with the gorgeous view was no longer available and alternative accommodations had to be found. Thanks to friends Margie and Gil, I located a wonderful apartment in the 5th Arrondissement, not far from the Panthéon. It is a lovely area and there are lots of sights to explore. This morning I visited the Église Saint Étienne du Mont, built on Montaigne Sainte Geneviève, just up the street. It is a magnificent structure, begun in 1494 and completed in 1624 in a Gothic/flamboyant renaissance style. It holds the reliquary of Saint Geneviève and is the tomb of several French notables as well as being the church for the parish of the Sorbonne.

I am fortunate to be spending another week here in Paris and I hope you will check back for more reports on my perambulations! A très bientôt!

March 21, 2009

Heading off to Paris!

It's the first full day of Spring but despite the sunshine there is a definite chill in the air. That's okay - I'm getting ready to head to the airport and hop a flight to Paris for 2 weeks of art, food and shopping!

I can't wait for a delicious baguette with some cheese and vin rouge and a Ladurée pistachio macaroon as a sweet finish! And of course a little treasure hunting for new additions to my website.

So please check back in the next fews days as I share my experiences with you. I'm looking forward to visiting Art Paris, the annual Salon du Dessin at the Palais de la Bourse, the Andy Warhol exhibition at the Grand Palais and the Chateau de Chantilly for starters! After that, who knows...

A bientôt!

March 15, 2009

The "Sale of the Century" - P.S.

In an extraordinary coda to the record-breaking "Sale of the Century", the 3 day auction extravaganza of the collection of Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé held at Christie's, Paris last month, there have been some new developments involving 2 lots of Chinese bronzes.

Lot # 677 and 678 comprised two very rare and very important Qing Dynasty bronze sculptures of a rat's head and a rabbit's head that had decorated the Zodiac Fountain of the Chinese Emperor's Summer Palace in Beijing. The sculptures had been looted by invading Anglo-French forces during the Opium War in 1860 and had subsequently been purchased by Saint Laurent and Bergé as part of their art collection.

With the death of Saint Laurent last June, and the decision by his surviving partner to disperse the estate through Christie's in Paris, the shaky provenance of these two objects was exposed and the Chinese government wasted no time in contacting the auction house with an eye to repatriating the treasures. Various Chinese cultural groups joined in the fray and a motion was filed in French court to stop the sale. On February 23rd, literally hours before the auction was to start, a Paris court ruled that the sale would continue and that the defendant, Christie's, was entitled to receive compensation from the plaintiff, The Association for the Protection of Chinese Art in Europe (APACE).

Despite protests and threats the auction went on as scheduled and was a tremendous success (See my Blog of February 27). All the publicity had generated even more curiosity and interest in these two lots with 8 confirmed "enquiries" received by Christie's before the sale. After the bidding was launched, the competition emerged between telephone bidders only - no one in the room raised a paddle. The hammer came down at nearly $18 million dollars per lot, setting yet another record breaking price in a series of superlative results.

Now comes the interesting part. On Monday, March 2, a representative of a Chinese fund for looted artworks in Beijing announced that it was indeed a Chinese bidder who won the rabbit and the rat. Shortly afterward it was announced publicly that this bidder, Cai Mingchao, a collection advisor of National Treasure Funds of China, refused to pay the €31.49 million due to Christie's! This unprecedented action leaves Christie's, indeed auction houses in general, in a very awkward spot. No client is permitted to bid at such a high level without a thorough vetting, and a bid, whether in person, on the phone, a written order or an on-line bid, is a binding contract. To bid in apparent good faith and then renege is an act of fraud with overtones of sabotage as even though these sculptures can theoretically be re-offered for sale, they are "tainted" and have probably lost some of their value on the open market.

What will happen next is a good question. The perpetrator, a 40-year-old art dealer, has become somewhat of a hero in China, but it is unlikely he can cross the French frontier without criminal charges being pressed. Pierre Bergé, a longtime critic of the Chinese government's human rights polices, has taken it as a sign that he should hold onto his beloved bronzes. Christie's is not commenting at the moment but will certainly be reviewing their vetting process! Stay tuned - this is going to be interesting!

March 02, 2009

What's On at the New-York Historical Society

The New-York Historical Society occupies a suitably imposing building on the corner of 77th Street and Central Park West. Lately, on Saturdays, the front steps of this august structure have featured a rather formidable looking soldier in full Civil War garb guarding the entrance with a sword and a musket! What treasures lie within to warrant such a display of might, I wondered? So last weekend, to satisfy my curiosity, I paid a visit to this landmark institution!

It turned out that the soldier was one of a group of living history actors representing the Third U.S. Colored Infantry who served in the Civil War. The re-enactment troops were there to add an extra dimension to the exhibition "Grant and Lee in War and Peace" which runs until the end of March. It is a fascinating exhibition that looks at the lives and legacies of two principal figures in the history of the United States.

"Grant and his Generals", 1865
Oil on canvas by Ole Peter Hansen Balling

Robert E. Lee (1807-1870) was born to a wealthy Virginia family with a distinguished Army background. Conversely, Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) was a tanner's son who grew up in Western Ohio. Both men attended West Point Academy and both served in the Mexican War (1846-48) after which Lee continued with a military career while Grant returned to civilian life and farming. With the escalation of tensions between the free states and slave-holding states, both men were pressed into service, Lee as the General of the Confederate forces and Grant obtaining a commission and campaign assignment for the Union Army.

The rest of the story is Civil War legend with bloody battles and an appalling loss of human life and property, finally culminating in Lee's surrender of the South at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. What makes this exhibition special is the wealth of personal artifacts and original documents that bring these two figures to life. More than simply a review of the history of the Civil War, the curators have managed to present the two men in a human scale in the face of much larger issues and draw parallels from the concerns of their day to current affairs.

"Let Us Have Peace, 1965", circa 1920
Oil on canvas by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

In a totally different vein but also fascinating is the marvelous "Audubon's Aviary: Some Things Old, Some Things Borrowed, But Most Things New", the fifth and final installment in a series intended to showcase the N-YHS's unparalleled collection of Auduboniana.

John James Audubon (1785-1851) is known world wide as the foremost artist in the area of ornithology. His master work "The Birds of America" comprises 435 life size prints and is the standard to which all subsequent bird artists' work has been held. The N-YHS counts a complete set of the double elephant sized portfolio, as well as the original watercolors for each plate illustrated, among the treasures in its collection.

For a limited time, 40 of the original watercolors and several of their corresponding plates are on display at the New-York Historical Society. It is a rare opportunity indeed to see these incredible works of art (see left "Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo)", circa 1825, Plate # 1). Hanging in an upstairs gallery, with recorded birdcalls providing an appropriate soundtrack, the viewer can examine the detail and delicacy of Audubon's compositions and the exquisite quality of the resulting prints (a complicated process of engraving, etching and aquatint).

The exhibition also explores the influence of earlier naturalists on the work of Audubon and original volumes by Alexander Wilson, Isaac La Grese and Pierre Vase are on display for comparison. It is interesting to note also that Mr. Audubon sometimes left the backgrounds to be completed by other artists, Maria Martin in particular, while he concentrated on the avian subjects.

Bird lover or not, these paintings are gorgeous and the massive, 5 volume tome, so large that it required a custom made desk to house the portfolios, is a magnificent example of color plate book. Due to the fragility of the medium, this exhibition is only on display until April 5, when the works will be returned to storage until at least 2019.

"Scarlet Ibis (Eudocimus ruber)", 1837
Plate # 397