November 21, 2010

A Visit to the South Street Seaport Museum

For all their natural curiosity, New Yorkers often tend to stick to their neighborhoods, and I am no exception. For me, a trip downtown is a big event. I get lost in the streets with descriptive names instead of numbers and feel like I'm visiting a totally different city instead of riding a few subway stops from home!

Yesterday broke bright and beautiful and a great day to head down to the financial district and visit the South Street Seaport Museum where several interesting shows are on view. So I emerged from the Fulton Street Station and walked to the riverfront, past the huge Christmas tree now being installed on the square to # 12, the site of Schermerhorn Row built in 1810 to accommodate the many merchants who once traded there and now home to the Seaport Museum.

This historic setting is the perfect atmosphere to view the Seaport's current exhibition "Alfred Stieglitz New York" an assembly of 39 gorgeous vintage photographs not seen together since 1932 when they were shown by the artist himself at his midtown gallery. Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) is probably the most famous photographer in American history. He is known as the father of art photography, as opposed to documentary, and also as the husband of another American art icon Georgia O'Keeffe. A pioneer in the use of the hand-held Graflex camera, Stieglitz was no longer encumbered by a heavy tripod and could take photographs far more freely and casually. He was an active promoter of photography as an art form, vice president of The Camera Club, publisher of various photography periodicals including Camera Work, and founder of several galleries including The Little Galleries, 291, and An American Place.

In 1902 Stieglitz curated a ground breaking exhibition at The Arts Club called "Photo Secession". What was unique and hugely successful about this show was that for the first time ever photographers judged pictorial photographs as fine art. At this time in his career, Stieglitz was exploring "Picturesque" photography that shrouded the subject in clouds, snow, mist or darkness and created a softer, more atmospheric image (see "The Flatiron", 1903, above right). With this technique, Stieglitz was able to take away the harshness and dirt of the city and replace it with a dreamy, mysterious, ethereal metropolis that was far more appealing than the reality.

As The Gilded Age was replaced by Modernism and then The Great Depression, Stieglitz changed his view of his beloved New York to reflect the times. The sprouting of skyscrapers, the ultimate symbol of progress and innovation, inspired an edgier look with angles and shadows as viewed from his apartment on the 30th floor of The Shelton Hotel. And finally, as his health deteriorated along with the global economy, his despair and isolation are clearly evident in the grimmer and darker portraits of the city. It was the end of an era.

Which brings me to the second exhibition on view at the Seaport Museum - "DecoDence: Legendary Interiors and Illustrious Travelers Aboard the SS Normandie".

Launched in the middle of the Depression, in 1935, the SS Normandie was the epitome of style and chic. Exceptionally fast and commodious, this luxurious ocean liner could whisk passengers across the Atlantic in record time and complete comfort. At a time dominated by bread lines and Hitler, the SS Normandie was known for the finest of French luxury service, food, drink and décor.

The SS Normandie featured a crew of 1,339 and could hold 1,952 passengers, most in First Class. It had 1,100 telephones and a grand dining room that could seat 700 and was larger than the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Table service included silver by Cristofle and Puiforcat and crystal by Lalique amid wall panels by Jean Dupas and furniture by Ruhlmann. No wonder everyone from Sonja Henie to Douglas Fairbanks wanted to sail on board this magnificent ship!

With the invasion of Poland by Germany in 1939 the SS Normandie ceased to be a civilian transport and the next year it was taken into protective custody by the United States and renamed the USS Lafayette. When America entered World War II the U.S. Navy decided to retrofit the vessel to convert it to troop transport as it was docked in New York Harbor. In February 1942, by complete accident, a spark from a welder's torch landed on a pile of kapok filled life vests which ignited a blaze that could not be extinguished and this mighty ocean liner capsized and sank ignominiously at her berth on Manhattan's Pier 88.

The silver lining in this sad story is that prior to the renovation most of the furnishings and decor had been removed to clear the way for a more practical purpose. Today, in a minimalist but very effective exhibition, visitors can almost relive the glamor of this bygone age. Through the actual dining tables and chairs, china and crystal services, uniforms, menus and ashtrays we can imagine being passengers on board, entering the dining room in a bias cut satin gown with a glass of champagne in hand!

Of all the marvelous artifacts on view, one in particular sticks in my mind. It is a clutch purse, commissioned from the House of Hermès as a memento for First Class passengers on the inaugural voyage. A black leather ship is fastened on top with three silver "smoke stack" clasps and the sleek lines of the bow recreated in black stitching. A fabulous souvenir and typical of the inventiveness, elegance and whimsy that typified this iconic ship.

I thoroughly enjoyed my venture downtown and hope that you too will take a ride on the A train and step back to the early days of Old New York!

No comments: