July 09, 2011

Museuming in Manhattan

Last Saturday afternoon was a perfect summer day - sunny and warm and not too muggy - and since everybody else seemed to have left town for the beach, the ideal time to visit a few museums and catch up on exhibitions. So after lunch I strolled through Central Park and headed uptown to 92nd Street to begin my tour at The Jewish Museum.

Stepping back in time to the 19th Century, I found myself in the bourgeois Jewish household of the Cones of Baltimore. Herman and Helen Kahn/Cone had twelve children. Two of their sons, Moses and Caesar, began a textile business that became the largest supplier of denim to Levi Strauss and as you can imagine was very prosperous. Two of their daughters, Dr. Claribel and Miss Etta, became avid collectors of Modern Art and their collection laid the foundation for The Baltimore Museum of Art.

Fast forward to today and a generous loan from The Baltimore Museum that allows us this glimpse into the lives of The Cone Sisters and a chance to see a few of their treasures. At a time when Victorian ladies pursued genteel domestic avocations, Claribel and Etta traveled to Europe, hooked up with Gertrude Stein and started spending money. And how! The Cone Sisters quickly became the patrons of Henri Matisse and purchased prodigious amounts of his paintings, drawings and sculptures. But they were not limited to Matisse. Their collection included works by van Gogh, Gaugin, Pissarro, Renoir and Picasso as well as innumerable pieces of jewelry, textiles, laces, rugs and furniture picked up on their travels throughout Africa and Asia. A selection of these works, accompanied by some fascinating documentary photos and ephemera, are a testament to the far-sightedness of these Baltimore damsels.

Claribel died suddenly in 1929 and Etta passed away 20 years later. At the time of her death the collection amounted to over 3,000 works and an adjoining apartment had been rented to house both the collection and the collector under one roof. "Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore" is a look at these remarkable women and their obsession with art and is on view in New York until September 25th.

Heading down Fifth Avenue to 86th Street we come to one of my favorite museums, the Neue Galerie, whose current exhibition "Vienna 1900: Style and Identity" looks at the fine and decorative arts of the era and how they relate to the cataclysmic social shifts that were occurring at the same time. Turn-of-the-Century Vienna was a hotbed of psychological and sexual reform, think Freud, meeting with a revolution in art and design, think Klimt and the Wiener Werkstätte. Attitudes toward women and sexuality were changing dramatically as reflected in the erotic drawings of Egon Schiele, the stylized, highly decorative portraits of Klimt and the candid intellectual studies Kokoschka painted of his sitters. Things were also shifting in the world of décor and domestic appointments as the Victorian model was being replaced by Modernism and the Vienna Secession.

The third floor of the exhibition is dedicated to interior design and ranges from the pioneering forays of Otto Wagner, the godfather of Modernism, to the strict formalism of Adolf Loos to the more lighthearted and all encompassing approach of the Wiener Werkstätte practitioners Koloman Moser, Josef Hoffmann and Dagobert Peche. The Neue Galerie is endowed with probably the finest collection of furniture and household objects of this era outside of Austria and an exhibition of this sort is a golden opportunity to present these treasures to an appreciative audience. Many of the pieces I had seen before on prior visits, but by rearranging and rehanging, in effect redecorating the museum, everything looked fresh and could be viewed in a different context. If you are a fan of Modernism, this is the show for you!

Finally I headed over to Madison Avenue and 75th Street to The Whitney Museum of American Art where the first U.S. retrospective of Lyonel Feininger is now on view. To be perfectly honest this was not my first choice for a Saturday afternoon but I was very pleasantly surprised. "Lyonel Feininger: At the Edge of the World" presents the artist and his work with a charm and humanity that I found captivating and I thoroughly enjoyed my visit.

Lyonel Feininger was born in New York in 1871 but moved to Germany at the age of 16. He began his artistic career as an illustrator and caricaturist and his comic series' "Kin-der-Kids" and "Wee Willie Winkie's World" appeared in the Chicago Sunday Tribune in 1906. His early paintings reflected the influence of German Expressionism in their depictions of carnival characters in vivid colors but by 1912 he had moved on to Cubism and its deconstructed planes.

With World War I and the scarcity of materials, Feininger turned to the most available resource he could find, wood. Not only did he produce a beautiful series of wood cut prints, he also began crafting tiny wooden sculptures of trains, buildings and people. Although initially intended as toys for his sons, these miniatures developed a life of their own as they represented a "golden childhood" and perpetuated his obsession with a "City at the Edge of the World".

But it was after The Great War that Feininger achieved his greatest fame in the circle of the Bauhaus and its Utopian Society. His paintings of the period reflect his love of music, particularly the fugue where a single theme is built upon and expanded and modulated until it becomes magnificent. Likewise, his depictions of buildings and boats and seascapes become more complex, richer and full of emotion as layers of colors and forms are applied. It should come as no surprise that his work was noticed and decried by the Nazis as "degenerate" - an attribution that Feininger could not bear and he returned to New York after a 50 year absence.

Feininger lived in Manhattan until his death in 1956. Although he arrived as a virtual unknown in his birth city, his Modernist paintings of the skyline and the seashore slowly earned him a very respectable reputation, albeit never to the extent of his recognition in Germany. Thanks to the Whitney many more people will now discover the charisma and the power of this native son.

It's getting late and I've seen a lot of art, not to mention the miles I've walked! Time to head back and enjoy this perfect July evening with a glass of wine at an outdoor café and toast all the wonderful, diverse artists who have colored our world. Cheers!

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