June 25, 2012

"Misia, Queen of Paris" at the Musée d'Orsay

In my twenty plus years in the art world, the name Misia Sert has surfaced many times.  I must admit that I had only the vaguest idea of who she was, basically one of the "characters" of the early 20th century.  So when I saw a poster for the newly opened exhibition "Misia, Reine de Paris" at the Musée d'Orsay I was delighted - here was the perfect opportunity to learn more about this mystery woman in one of my very favorite museums!

What became immediately apparent was that Misia Godebska - Natanson - Edwards - Sert was at the center of the artistic and literary community in Paris from the Belle Epoque of the 1890's through to the Great Depression.  While she herself was not a creator or performer, she was the muse for some of the greatest artists, composers, writers and choreographers of her time.

Marie Sophie Olga Zénaïde Godebska was born in Saint Petersburg in 1872 with a drama that foretold the adventures to come!  Her mother died in childbirth after rushing from Belgium, heavily pregnant, into a harsh Russian winter to confront her husband, the sculptor Cyprien Godebski, and his mistress.  Misia and her two brothers were raised in Belgium and France and "La Polonaise", as she was called, studied piano under Gabriel Fauré.  While a gifted musician she did not pursue a professional career as a pianist.  She was, however, often painted at the keyboard by some of the luminaries of the age including Bonnard (see "Misia at the Piano", left), Vuillard, Toulouse-Lautrec and Vallotton, and she is credited with inspiring some major composers of the era such as Ravel, Satie and Stravinsky.

In 1893, Misia married Thadée Natanson, who, along with his brothers, had founded an artistic and literary publication called "La revue blanche" after its distinctive white cover.  It was considered one of the most progressive periodicals of the time and while Madame Natanson was not a direct contributor, she was its major facilitator.  Her American biographers Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale described Misia as "the feminine touchstone of one of the most talented circles of artists that Paris has ever known".  She was the consummate hostess with a salon that included the most influential and prominent Parisian artists and composers of the time - most of whom were madly in love with her.

The marriage, like the magazine, did not last.  Deeply in debt, Thadée Natanson pushed his wife into the arms of a wealthy creditor, Alfred Edwards, whom she married in 1905.  Although the passion soon dissipated as Edwards fell in love with the actress and courtesan Geneviève Lantelme and Misia with José Maria Sert, a Catalan painter, the marriage provided Misia with the means to finance her latest passion.  Introduced by Sert to the impresario Serge Diaghilev, Misia became godmother to the fledgling avant garde ballet company the Ballets Russes.  Although considered by many, including her dear friend Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, to be the arbiter of taste and fashion in Paris, Misia allowed Diaghilev full artistic freedom and supported him unstintingly.  It is thanks to Misia that today's ballet audiences can enjoy such masterpieces as "The Rites of Spring", "The Afternoon of a Faun" and "Parade".

Divorced from Edwards in 1909, Misia married José Maria Sert in 1920.  Once again marital bliss evaded her as Sert became infatuated with Georgian sculptress Isabelle Roussadana Mdivani (Roussy) who actually moves in with the couple at the Hotel Meurice in Paris.  The ménage à trois could not continue and Misia was granted her third divorce in 1927.

By this time Misia was nearly blind and addicted to morphine.  Nevertheless she traveled to Venice to be by the side of her dear friend Diaghilev as he lay dying.  She also accompanied Chanel to Hollywood where Chanel was to design the costumes for four movies.  In 1950, having lost an eye, been arrested for drug possession, and virtually alone, Misia passed away at her home on the rue de Rivoli.  Gabrielle Chanel dressed her body before the ceremony at the Polish Church in Paris.

Christened the "Queen of Paris" by the press, Misia was renowned for both her love life and her social life - a major unsung influence on 20th century art, music and literature revered by some of the greatest genius' of the age.  Once a doyenne of Paris café society, she died alone and forlorn.  Thanks to this marvelous exhibition we can better appreciate her huge contribution to our modern culture and her memory lives on in glory!

June 20, 2012

MONUMENTA 2012 @ Le Grand Palais

Here in Paris the weather is overcast and remarkably cold for the middle of June.  The very idea of sitting outside at a café makes me start to shiver, but I know a special place where, for a few more days anyway, the sun is always shining!

I have posted blogs about earlier MONUMENTA exhibitions - Richard Serra's 2008 "Promenade" and last year's "Leviathan" by Anish Kapoor.  Basically, it is an annual event initiated by the French Ministry of Culture and Communication in which a contemporary artist is commissioned to create a temporary on-site installation.  The kicker is the site - none less than the Nave of the fabulous Grand Palais, an Art Nouveau masterpiece built for the World Fair of 1900.  Covering three football fields with a 45 meter high (147') ceiling entirely of glass, this is a remarkable exhibition space and an exciting challenge for any artist invited to fill it. 

The 2012 edition is another masterpiece of creative thinking on a very large scale.  This year the organizers invited the controversial French artist Daniel Buren to explore the possibilities of this great space.  The result is "Excentrique(s)" a vision of color and light surrounding the visitor and saturating the atmosphere.

Although now highly regarded in the world of contemporary art, the 74 year old Buren began his career as radical provocateur whose antics included painting stripes on the columns of the Palais Royal.  Known primarily for his motif of very exact bands of color, "Excentrique(s)" represents a departure in both form and dimension.  Here, he has installed hundred of elevated circles of glass in blue, green, yellow and orange, arranged according to Persian mathematical formulas called "excentriques".  In the middle of the Nave two things happen.  The colored glass "umbrellas" stop and are replaced by mirror circles on the floor and a blue and white checkerboard pattern on the cupola.  The result is pure magic!

Looking down at the reflection in mirrors on the floor

And looking up at the ceiling with some "umbrellas" in between
Walking through pure color
Another shot of the checkerboard ceiling

Looking out over the Nave from an elevated viewpoint

I was looking forward to visiting this year's MONUMENTA, but I was overwhelmed at how stunning Daniel Buren's installation is.  Besides being unique and fabulous, it is uplifting.  Everyone there, young and old, had a smile on his face!  And why not - we were all sharing a sensory overload of pure color and light.  A perfect place to celebrate a rare sunny day in Paris this spring!

June 18, 2012

Basel Beat 2012

Early June means only one thing in the art world - it's time for Art Basel!  Now in its 43rd year, this grand daddy of modern and contemporary art fairs leaves no doubt that despite its seniority it is still THE fair for serious collectors and dealers of these genres.  Despite an unusually cold and very wet opening day, there were crowds of people and business seemed to be steady, if not explosive.  But I'm not going to linger on the fair and its offerings.  Instead, I'm going to take you on a tour of Basel and what the city's museums presented as special exhibition to lure the fair goers beyond the confines of the Messe.

One of my very favorite museums is the Fondation Beyeler, a stunning building designed by Renzo Piano and set amid cow pastures and fields right on the German border.   The Fondation Beyeler's primary purpose is to house and display the very impressive collection of Modern, Contemporary and Primitive art that belonged to the legendary art dealer, Mr. Ernst Beyeler.  In addition to the permanent collection, the museum regularly presents temporary exhibitions that are "must see" shows for Art Basel visitors.

This year the Foundation is presenting the work of the American artist Jeff Koons (b. 1955).  For the first time in Switzerland, Mr. Koons' work is being shown in a well-curated retrospective that focus' on the highlights of his very successful career.  A cross between popular- and high-culture, often bordering on kitsch, Jeff Koons' work is some of the most recognizable in the world of contemporary art.  Some of his more erotic works (not included in this exhibition) and his clichéd imagery (like the ultra famous porcelain statue "Michael Jackson and Bubbles" (on display here) are not my "cup of tea" but I cannot deny his impact on the art world and I think some of his outdoor sculptures are really marvelous (like the "Balloon Flower" installed in a pond on the premises).

A short ride on the Number 6 Tram and I am back in Basel and ready to visit the stately Kunstmuseum.  This year's special exhibition is dedicated to the Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919).  "Renoir:  Between Bohemia and Bourgeoisie:  The Early Years" explores the period between the mid 1860s and the late 1870s, a time of extraordinary social, political and artistic developments.  Visitors looking for Renoir's light palette, loose brushwork and charming subjects will be disappointed as this survey focus' entirely on the pre-Impressionist years.  Here he is developing his style with a more subdued and certainly more academic approach.  There are, however, several wonderful landscapes and superb portraits - especially of Lise Tréhot, his mistress during this period!

The next stop on the Basel museum tour is the Museum Tinguely.  Located outside of the downtown area, on the banks of the Rhine River, this is a private museum dedicated to the work of the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely (1925-1991) who is most famous for his amazing and bizarre machine sculptures assembled from found objects that twirl and squirt and make funny noises.  This summer, in a perfect compliment to the wild and crazy works of Tinguely, the museum is presenting "Tatlin:  New Works for a New World".  The Russian artist Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953) was an accomplished painter and stage designer with a very vivid imagination.  This exhibition explores both facets.  His ideas for unrealized projects, such as the 400 meter tall "Monument to the Third International 1919-1920" (see vintage model at right) are efforts to create a utopian society and a new social order.  His "Letatlin" flying machines of the 1920s were intended to re-connect humans to their primordial need to fly - a synthesis of art, technology and paradise.  It should not surprise you that the Dadaists adored Tatlin!

Finally, for the first time I visited the VitraHaus and the Vitra Design Museum campus located just outside of Basel in Weil am Rhein, Germany.  Still a functioning furniture factory, the Vitra Campus is a laboratory for architecture and design.  Although I was not able to go on a tour of the campus, which would have included a geodesic dome by Richard Buckminster Fuller and the Fire Station by Zaha Hadid, I was able to tour the VitraHaus - a collection of twelve "houses" stacked and merged together, by Herzog & de Meuron - which was far out to say the least.  And I also visited one of American architect Frank Gehry's first commissions, the Vitra Design Museum (see left).  A repository for several architects' and designers' estates, the museum also boasts the largest collection of industrial furniture design in the world.  The Vitra Design Museum also presents temporary exhibitions and I was happy to see an excellent retrospective of the work of Dutch furniture designer Gerrit Rietveld.  "The Revolution of Space" is a look at Rietveld's most iconic works from the "Red-Blue Chair" (see right) to the Rietveld-Schröder House.  His designs for both furniture and buildings were avant-garde in the extreme - masterpieces of simplicity and practicality in the "De Stijl" Modernist movement, and his influence on contemporary design remains profound.

As you can probably tell, I had a great time here in Basel!  But now it's time to take the TGV north to Paris.  I hope you'll check back to see what's new in the City of Light!

June 11, 2012

"Jessie Mac" A Missionary Doctor in China

Kelman family lore has always held a special place for the tale of Great Aunt Jessie, a missionary doctor in Mainland China during the first half of the 20th century.  Passing through Shanghai a few weeks ago set me to thinking - I wonder if Aunt Jessie walked on these very sidewalks?  With a little investigation I discovered a fascinating tale of feminism, humanitarianism, heroism and old time religion that I'd like to share with you here.

The family history was sketchy - Jessie McDonald, one of the sisters of my husband's grandfather (himself an adventurer), was born in Canada in 1888 and somehow made her way to China as a physician and a missionary.  There was a story about her operating on and saving the life of a woman who had tried to commit suicide by swallowing a box of pins.  There was another story about her being evacuated from China by Chiang Kai-shek's personal pilot in one of the last planes out.  After doing a little research I discovered that these amazing anecdotes are only a small part of a bigger, even more compelling picture.

Great Aunt Jessie's exposure to the Chinese culture began as a young girl growing up in Vancouver, Canada, where her mother tutored immigrants in English through a local church program.  A precocious child, she soon had her own pupil, a grown-up Chinese man who lacked not only English language skills but also the Christian faith.  To a good Protestant Sunday School student, this was unconscionable and a major motivation in her choice of a career.

But how to get to China to spread the word?  A visiting missionary spoke of the desperate lack of physicians there and that was all Jessie needed to formulate her plan and put it into action.  In 1905, she became one of the very first women in Canada to be accepted as a medical student and she was one of five females in a class of 350 at the University of Toronto.  Further studies in London and Vienna and internships in Boston and Philadelphia completed her medical doctorate degree with specialties in tropical diseases and surgery.  After completing religious training at the Glasgow [Scotland] Bible Training Institute she was finally accepted as a missionary with the China Inland Mission and sailed to China from London in 1913.

Dr. Jessie McDonald arrived in China at the age of 26 to discover that medical care in general and care for female patients in particular was abysmal at best.  A donation from a generous American benefactor allowed the construction of a women's health facility at the mission hospital in Kaifeng, Honan Province, in 1914.  She wasted no time in learning Chinese and in training several young local women to work as nurses.  Her patient load grew from 299 in 1915 to 698 two years later with many cases of diphtheria, scarlet fever, massive untreated tumors, suicide attempts and opium abuse as well as women's health issues.

"Jessie Mac", as she was affectionately known, stayed at the Women's Hospital in Kaifeng for 26 years through revolutions, civil war and natural disasters.  During this time she made several visits to the United States to brush up on other skills such as trauma surgery and dealing with "drunks".  She and her staff were evacuated in 1927 because of a military occupation but returned three years later to find the hospital virtually destroyed.  Undaunted, they rebuilt and continued to treat sick and injured patients.

It was a different story in 1939 when the Japanese Invasion forced a reshuffling of the hospital's administration and Dr. Jessie to relocate farther inland to open a new clinic in Paoshan.  Sleeping in a room with an earthen floor and cracks in the wall, she wrote home that "this was truly a job for a younger person" but she believed it was her duty to stay.

And stay she did until the final denouement.  When the Communist Party gained power the first thing to go was the China Inland Mission.  Dr. Jessie McDonald continued at her post until 1952 when the hospital was forced to close and the military ordered her out.  According to published reports, she made one final stop in the town's church, prayed, and rang the bells one last time before her ultimate departure from China.

Dr. McDonald ended up in Southern California on the faculty of Biola School of Missionary Medicine.  My husband remembers meeting her twice, once as a little boy at his grandparents' house shortly after her return to the United States, and once again as a UCLA graduate student in the 1970s when she was more advanced in years.  On that visit he recalls her sitting on the lanai facing west toward her beloved China and speaking of her time there in reverent tones.

"Jessie Mac" passed away in 1980.  Her papers were deposited by her daughter, Margaret McDonald, at the Billy Graham Center Archives in Wheaton IL, where they can be studied by anyone with an interest in the history of medicine, the China Inland Mission or political and social upheavals in China in the first half of the 20th Century.  In 2007, Anne McDonald (a grand-daughter?) presented a lecture at the University of Calgary entitled "A Missionary in China: Dr. Jessie McDonald" that explores her contribution to both the propagation of Christianity and the health and welfare of women in China.

Today the missionary clinic she opened and operated continues as the Peggy Health Center dedicated to AIDS prevention, education and treatment and thereby Dr. Jessie McDonald's legacy of ministering to the Chinese people in both body and soul continues.  Truly "Great" Aunt Jessie in every sense of the word!