October 28, 2011

The Dada Baroness

"[The Baroness] is not a Futurist. She is the Future"

So wrote Marcel Duchamp about his comrade in Dada the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven as they shocked the New York art world in the years immediately following World War I. Today, Marcel Duchamp is a universally recognized name, but who exactly was this Baroness and why are we still talking about her?

Well, first of all, she wasn't exactly a Baroness. She was born Else Hildegard Plötz in the German resort town of Swinemünde in 1874 to a castigating middle-class father and his mentally unstable wife. Her counter reaction was to leave home as soon as possible and head for the big city, Berlin, where she made her way as a prostitute turning tricks with anyone and in any way that would earn her a few marks. She moved on to Munich where she continued her sexual exploits with an astonishing vigor and began to explore the avant garde world of art and artists. In 1901 she married the Jugendstil architect August Endell and a year later, with her husband's knowledge, hooked up with his friend the poet Felix Paul Greve whom she eventually married. Mr Greve, who was homosexual when they met, had such severe financial problems that he chose to fake his own suicide and escaped to the U.S. in 1909. Elsa arrived in 1910 and the two of them briefly operated a farm in Sparta, Kentucky before he deserted her and headed for Manitoba, Canada, where he became known as Frederick Philip Grove.

Not one to be left crying in her soup, Elsa cut her losses and made her way to New York City where she met, and in 1913 married, the Baron Leopold von Freytag-Loringhoven. As you can imagine this was not a fairy tale wedding as the German Baron left one year later to join the war effort and committed suicide shortly thereafter. The Baroness was once again penniless but now armed with a title as well as her remarkable cunning and resourcefulness, she attacked the burgeoning New York art scene with a vengeance. And this is where Marcel Duchamp and Dada come in.

With Europe engulfed in a horrible war, many avant garde artists and writers made their way to the safety of New York. By 1916 the triumvirate - Duchamp, Man Ray and Picabia - were stirring up the traditional art scene and Dada was born on this side of the Atlantic. It didn't take long for others to take up the call with Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven leading the way. She didn't just make Dada art, she was Dada.

It can be said that the Baroness was the original performance artist and a prototype for many of today's contemporary art forms. Yes, she painted a little, created sculpture out of found objects and wrote copious amounts of poetry that would give grammarians a coronary, but her main schtick was just being herself. Well, maybe an embellished version of herself. The Baroness became famous, or infamous, for parading around Greenwich Village wearing a tomato-can bra, a bustle with a tail light and/or a bird cage with a canary inside. She shaved her head and painted it red, pasted postage stamps to her cheeks and wore black lipstick. She shocked even those who knew her with her outrageous get-ups and flamboyant behavior and as you can imagine was never accepted by mainstream art buyers.

By 1923, as the Dada Movement was waning, the Baroness was becoming more of a persona-non-grata even among her friends. In retrospect, she was beginning to show signs of the same mental illness that had consumed her mother, as she became more and more difficult and more and more derelict. Later that year she moved back to Berlin where her situation worsened and she was reduced to selling what ever she could, from sex to newspapers, to keep her alive. She eventually made it to Paris where her friends, the Americans Djuna Barnes, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, tried to help but she was too far gone. In 1927 she died of gas asphyxiation, but if it was a suicide or a terrible accident is unclear.

For years after the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven passed into obscurity, forgotten by all but the most devoted art historians and poets. But several years ago that began to change and now the Baroness is re-emerging as a rather important force in not only the worlds of art and literature but as a feminist icon as well.

Which brings me, finally, to the catalyst for this blog - the publication of a new book on the Baroness by my good friend Dr. Irene Gammel. Irene, formerly a professor of English at the University of Prince Edward Island and now teaching at Ryerson University, Toronto, while holding the Canada Research Chair in Modern Literature and Culture, has been a pioneer in study on this elusive and controversial figure. Her 2002 book "Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernity" opened up the subject to an unprecedented flood of interest from novelists, art historians, fashion designers and specialists in gender and feminist studies. The Baroness was suddenly hip.

This week Irene is launching her newest book, "Body Sweats - The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven", published by the prestigious MIT Press and sure to focus even more attention on this previously enigmatic figure. I congratulate Irene on another literary achievement. Thanks to you, the Baroness has re-emerged as the marvelous, maverick, doyenne of Dada!

October 17, 2011

"Beauty, Morals and Voluptuousness in the England of Oscar Wilde"

The Victorian era in Britain was an extended period of peace, prosperity and social change. It was also a time when culture, morality and the arts shifted from the confines of the established rules of ornament toward a new ideal of beauty. One of the most enduring of these rebellions was the Aesthetic Movement, begun in 1860 and thriving until the end of the century with the passing of Queen Victoria and the beginning of the Edwardian era.

Now on view at the beautiful Musée d'Orsay here in Paris is a very special exhibition that brings together all facets of the applied and fine arts, from furniture and decoration to painting and sculpture, in celebration of "Art for art's sake". What set this movement apart from prior stylistic conventions was the idea that paintings should be painted only to be beautiful and likewise one should be surrounded only by beautiful things. In short, the founders of the Aesthetic Movement sought to create an environment of beauty first and foremost with practicality a secondary consideration.

What grew out of this unorthodox way of thinking was a style that emphasized the exotic (Japan had just been opened to the West and Oriental objects were all the rage), the antique (excavations at Troy and Tanagra had unearthed archeological treasures) and the sensual (think beautiful, half naked women and men). It was unlike anything in the past yet drew very much on history for inspiration.

For me, the real joy of this exhibition was the variety of works on display. Beside beautiful paintings by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, Frederick Leighton and one of my favorites, James Tissot, there was all manner of household objects and decoration. Wallpapers, dresses, jewelry, metalwork, tea sets, furniture, fireplace surrounds and book bindings, all in the spirit of creating the "House Beautiful". Exotic motifs abounded with peacocks, Chinese vases, tropical fruits and flowers adorning the most utilitarian of objects to create something that was far more precious then its intrinsic value would suggest.

Perhaps the most representative symbol of the Movement was the ultimate Aesthete and first celebrity style guru, Oscar Wilde. Foppish in behavior and appearance, Oscar Wilde became a lightening rod for all that was considered "unhealthy" or "strange" by critics and he was finally prosecuted and sentenced to two years in jail for homosexuality. Sadly, the culmination of what had been a movement for beauty deteriorated into a movement for decadence and soon the fashion turned toward Art Nouveau and the styles of the new century. The Aesthetic Movement's time had come and gone but it remains a golden age in British design and marvelous subject for an exhibition! "The Cult of Beauty" is on view at the Musée d'Orsay until January 15, 2012 and then it will travel to San Francisco, Fine Arts Museum.

October 16, 2011

"L'Aventures des Stein" at the Grand Palais

Bonjour from Paris where the sun is shining, the air is crisp and the chestnut trees are just starting to turn color and shed their leaves.

One of the big shows of the season here is the American import "Matisse. Cézanne, Picasso...The Stein Family" which originated in San Francisco, is now in Paris and will travel to the Metropolitan Museum in New York early next year. It is a big show befitting a big subject and knowing the Parisians penchant for queuing up for admission, I planned ahead and booked timed-entry tickets well in advance!

Many of us are familiar with Gertrude Stein and her companion Alice B. Toklas living the bohemian life in 1920s Paris. But far fewer realize that Gertrude Stein was only one quarter of the clan that comprised the Stein Family's presence in Paris and the profound impact they had on Modern Art as we know it today. By diligently reassembling a good portion of their collection and including a fascinating selection of documentary photos and ephemera, the curators have presented us with an excellent survey of Modern Art and the movements before and after.

Let's begin at the beginning of the 20th Century when the American avant garde writer Gertrude Stein moved to Paris and set up housekeeping on the Rue de Fleurus with her brother Leo Stein, himself an art critic. The following year their elder brother Michael and his wife Sarah moved into an apartment on the nearby Rue Madame. By 1904, Leo and Gertrude were acquiring works by the "pillars of Modern Art" - Manet, Cézanne, Renoir and Dégas among others - based on principals of classical modernity. Michael and Sarah were also involved in the art world and soon developed a particular passion for the works of Henri Matisse who had emerged as a leader of the "Fauves" in 1905. Between the four of them it did not take long for a major collection to develop.

What had also flourished was "Saturdays at the Steins" a weekly salon that began at 6 o'clock at the home of Michael and Sarah with a gathering of expatriates, bohemian artists and passing strangers. Later in the evening the party relocated to the Rue de Fleurus where guests were awed by the magnificent collection, particularly of Cézannes, hanging on the walls in Gertrude and Leo's apartment. In the early years, before 1920, these soirees were informal gatherings where very often the main entertainment was Leo Stein performing interpretive dance. After World War I, with the influx of Americans coming to partake in the artistic stew that was Gaie Paris, Gertrude's salon became a meeting place for such literary lions as Hemingway, Pound and Fitzgerald as well as the established guest list of artists such as Picasso and Matisse.

But I am getting ahead of the story. By 1913, Leo Stein was becoming disenchanted with the direction of Modern Art, particularly with the movement toward Cubism. He was a Classicist, a disciple of art historian Bernard Berenson, and not in favor of the new tendency to "deconstruct" in paintings. He and Gertrude agreed to divide their collection, with him keeping most of his beloved Cézannes, which he took with him to Italy in 1914.

By this time Michael and Sarah had established themselves as major patrons of Henri Matisse and were great defenders of his work. Shortly before World War I they lent nineteen of their finest canvas' to an exhibition at the Fritz Gurlitt Gallery in Berlin. Sadly, with the outbreak of the war, the return of the paintings was blocked and they were lost forever. Their fortunes dwindled, Sarah became a Christian Scientist, and they eventually moved with a fellow follower into a villa designed for them by Le Courbusier in the suburb of Garches. However with the rising threat of Fascism in Europe Michael and Sarah decided to return permanently to the United States in 1935.

Gertrude Stein remained in Paris until the end of her life in 1946. During World War I, she famously drove a Red Cross ambulance along with her long time companion Alice B. Toklas. In the 1920's, as Picasso's fame (and prices) rose, she turned her collecting attention to the work of other emerging artists and amassed a splendid collection of pieces by Francis Picabia, Pavel Tchelitchew, Juan Gris and the Berman brothers. Her Buddha-like portrait was captured by Man Ray, Marcoussis, Lipchitz, Vallotton and many others making her one of the most recognizable characters of the period. But while her art collecting was prodigious she eventually became most famous for her literary accomplishments and her unique repetitive and playful writing style.

When I said the show was big, I wasn't kidding. The curators have successfully tracked down many of the great artworks that were dispersed after the deaths of the three siblings and have presented them here in eight sections. Many of these pieces normally hang in major museums but some were in private hands and generously lent to the exhibition. There are also fabulous vintage photographs of the apartments with the pictures installed on the walls, first edition examples of many of Gertrude's books and audio recordings of her reciting her poetry in that distinctive cadence.

I went to the show having a good general knowledge of Gertrude Stein and her role in 1920s expatriate Paris, but I left with a true appreciation for this singular family and their impact on 20th Century art as we now know it. I can't wait until it comes to New York and I can see it all over again!

A perfect October day looking North West from the Pont Neuf

October 05, 2011

What's On At The Museum at FIT

Founded in 1969 as an integral part of the Fashion Institute of Technology's ambition to "collect, conserve, document, exhibit and interpret fashion", The Museum at FIT presents exhibitions and publications of an academic nature that are also immensely appealing to anyone interested in the evolution of style.

The fall, The Museum at FIT presents two divergent but compelling exhibitions. On the main floor we find "Sporting Life" a historical review of sports clothing and how it has evolved from the mid nineteenth century to the present. Focusing on sixteen various sports including bicycling, tennis, swimming and skiing, the exhibition examines how the styles have changed according to social custom, changing ideas of beauty and technological advances in fabrics and materials, and also how athletic attire has influenced fashions worn off the playing field or beach.

Drawn largely from the Museum's own collection of garments the curators present each sport's clothing in chronological order. For example, the swimming section ranges from heavy woolen bloomers to less cumbersome, but still wool, maillot style bathing suits to today's super-sleek techno racing suits. Or tennis togs that began as loose-fitting but long-sleeved and long-skirted white linen dresses for women to shorter-skirted but still very ladylike outfits to spandex form-fitting performance attire favored by today's tennis players.

It was amusing to see how many designers were influenced by sporting attire in their regular clothing lines. Examples such as Manolo Blanik's 1994 high heeled version of the L.L. Bean duck boot and Norma Kamali's 1980's collection of sweatsuit fashion separates made me realize how pervasive athletic clothing has become in today's society.

Moving downstairs to the Special Exhibitions Gallery we come to an homage to fashion icon "Daphne Guinness". Known for her signature eight-inch platform shoes and her platinum and black striped hair, Daphne Guinness (daughter of the brewery heir and grand daughter of a Mitford sister) is also a passionate collector of vintage couture fashion and gorgeous diamond jewelry.

For this exhibition the space is divided into an small foyer featuring her vertiginous shoes displayed as sculptures behind glass and a large gallery with six sections focusing on "Dandyism", "Armor", "Chic", "Evening Chic", "Exoticism" and "Sparkle". The setting is rather simple but ethereal videos playing above and around the viewer and the stunning clothes enhanced with all that sparkling jewelry is finally quite dramatic. Ms. Guinness has a eye for design and her collection of modern vintage clothing by some of today's top designers is superb. Nothing is more than 25 years old, but the elegance and detail of the clothing she has acquired makes it seem more classic. Marvelous examples of couture dresses and separates by Karl Lagerfeld, Alexander McQueen, Christian Lacroix and some of her own designs, are displayed on white mannequins and enhanced with copious glittering jewels.

The Museum at FIT is located on the Institute's campus in the heart of the garment district. It is open from Tuesday to Saturday and admission is free.

October 01, 2011

"Frans Hals in The Metropolitan Museum"

The Dutch Golden Age painter Frans Hals was born in 1580 (or maybe 1581) in Antwerp but spent most of his life in Haarlem where he died in 1666. Although sought after as a portrait painter at the onset of his career, his style fell out of fashion and he ended up destitute, basically a ward of the State, having sold all his worldly possessions to pay his debts.

But as is often the case in fairy tales and the art world, Frans Hals' name is now glorified as one of the three greatest Dutch painters of his time, second only to Rembrandt van Rijn and recently edging out latecomer Johannes Vermeer in popularity. Indeed, Hals is credited with having had a profound influence over such 19th and 20th Century artists as Vincent Van Gogh, John Singer Sargent, William Merritt Chase, Claude Monet and Robert Henri.

Despite these accolades, the œuvre of Frans Hals is still relatively vague in the eyes of modern day American museum goers. In an effort to correct this ambiguity, The Metropolitan Museum of Art has dug deep into its vast holdings to put together an exhibition showcasing Hals' genre and portrait paintings as well as a number of works by his contemporaries obviously following in his rather substantial footsteps.

Frans Hals' early works are exuberant country scenes with Dutch folk characters such as Peeckelhaering (Pickled Herring) and Hans Wurst making merry with local maidens. These jolly genre scenes are typically brightly colored and portray local personalities and customs. As he matured he turned more toward portraiture, either of married couples (which he painted separately), families (he was a genius at group scenes) or of prominent individuals. Here his palate is toned down, and often monochromatic with a few loose brushstrokes able to convey rich tones and the finest details (see portrait "Paulus Verschuur", left).

Thanks to the collecting passion and later great generosity of such patrons as Benjamin Altman and Louisine Havermeyer, the Metropolitan Museum of Art can boast one of the greatest single collections of paintings by Frans Hals. An exhibition such as this one, though probably not one of the most popular on the Museum's calendar, is invaluable to museum goers who wish to explore the past and appreciate how important an inspiration these titans of art continue to exert today.