March 30, 2013

What's on in Paris

As usual, there is a plethora of interesting exhibitions on view in Paris.  I've already mentioned the blockbuster "Dalí" retrospective that just closed at the Centre Pompidou and "Marie Laurencin" at the Musée Marmottan, but I'd like to tell you about a couple of others that were well worth visiting.

A little on the strange side, but interesting to see was "L'ange du bizarre / The Angel of the Odd.  Dark Romanticism from Goya to Max Ernst" that opened early in March at the Musée d'Orsay.  The title, taken from one of Edgar Allen Poe's dark mysteries, perfectly describes the theme of this show.  For centuries people have been fascinated by what terrifies them.  Even today, movie goers flock to cinemas to experience the thrill of fear and the escape from reality that comes with.  European art movements since the Age of Enlightenment have been obsessed with this pursuit of the horrible, the erotic and the perverse to escape the moral, social and religious confines of bourgeois society.

Sources such as Dante, Milton, Shakespeare and Goethe inspired canvases by Goya, Blake, Delacroix, Hugo, Munch, Moreau and Redon.  Images of demons, femmes fatales, isolated landscapes, nightmares, cannibals and skeletons were routinely depicted by the Dark Romantics, the Symbolists and eventually the Surrealists who incorporated these non-conformist ideas of cruelty and sensuality, the importance of chance and dreams into their work.  It is a lingering obsession as "Goth" continues to influence modern day painting, cinema and literature which all goes to show that everything old is new again!

Let's go across the Seine to the Centre Pompidou and a totally different subject - an exhibition devoted to the architecture and design of an under-appreciated 20th Century icon, Eileen Gray.  Born in Ireland in 1878, Eileen Gray had a perfectly proper upper middle class upbringing that included instruction in the ladylike art of painting porcelain.  But she had another vision for herself.  While studying in London, she became intrigued by examples of lacquer work on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum and apprenticed herself to a local artisan/restorer.

After moving to Paris in 1906, Eileen Gray made the acquaintance of master lacquer work artist Seizo Sugawara and the two began a very fruitful collaboration.  Their lacquer furniture and accessories became highly sought after by decorators and style makers and are still highly prized by collectors today.

But Eileen Gray had a bigger vision for herself.  In addition to the lacquer ware, she opened a workshop dedicated to a wider range of luxury good for the home.  A weaving factory offered carpets and textiles and later chairs, tables, lamps and other furniture made of tubular metal, glass, cork and plastics were added to the collection.

She was enormously successful with this line and became a trend setter in avant garde circles but it was still not enough.  Once again Eileen Gray reinvented herself, this time as an architect.  Working in conjunction with Jean Badovici, Miss Gray designed and built a series of Modernist houses, some of which remain to this day.  Based on concepts of Minimalism but as "an organic entity with a soul" these houses were constructed as "wholes" - a total vision of landscape, architectural design and décor as one.

Eileen Gray faded out of the public eye for quite a long time but her popularity was renewed in the 1960s and more recently in 2009 with the fabulous auction of Yves Saint Laurent that included a number of her pieces.  It seems, with this exhibition, that she has finally regained her rightful place in the annals of Art Deco and Modernist design history.

I did not have a chance to visit every exhibition on my list, but that will leave some great shows to see when I return in June.  It's time to bid adieu to Paris but I'm not heading back to New York just yet.  I will be spending the Easter weekend in Prague and am looking forward to reporting back with my discoveries in this historic and beautiful city.

March 26, 2013

A Surrealist Tour of Paris

The "Must See" show in Paris these days is the Salvador Dalí retrospective at the Centre Pompidou.  Today is the last day it is open to the public and the museum has been open 24 hours a day for the past week to accommodate the crowds.  I, and I say this modestly, had anticipated the last minute crush of museum goers and went to see the show two weeks ago when I arrived in Paris and only had to wait one hour in line.

I cannot say that Dalí is a favorite artist of mine but he remains one of the most popular figures in the history of modern art.  His self proclaimed "genius" and commercial showmanship can be irritating, but one has to give the devil his due - he was ahead of his time, a master of self promotion and emblematic of the Surrealist movement. 

This major exhibition traces his development as an artist from his early years as a student in Madrid through his meteoric rise to star on the Surrealist stage.  While he is probably best known for his dreamlike landscapes with meticulous attention to detail and often very sexually charged, he was also very active in the theater, in film and "happenings".  The Centre Pompidou show presents over 120 paintings, drawings, videos and objects that document the evolution of Dalí's theories and methods that earned him this extraordinary place in the history of art.

To continue on the Surrealist theme - today was a beautiful sunny, but not really warm, Monday and the perfect opportunity to visit a site that had been revered by the Surrealists since the beginning of the movement.  It was a rather long bus ride out to the 19th Arrondissement and the Parc des Buttes Chaumont, the third largest public park in Paris and the perfect place to be on a spring afternoon.

Although its history is rather grim - it was the site of a gallows in the 18th century and a dump after the French Revolution - it was reinvented as a park for the Universal Exhibition of 1867.  Its remarkable gypsum and limestone formations offer natural landscapes including cliff and a grotto with a waterfall, that, especially at night, appealed to the Surrealists' appreciation of the bizarre.

The park also features several notable man-made creations including a suspension bridge, the belvedere of Sybil and a 75 foot high overpass known as "suicide bridge".

It also offers lovely gardens, three tea houses and two Guignol (the French version of Punch and Judy) theaters making the Parc des Buttes Chaumont a paradise for children and local residents.  Or visitors like me who enjoyed a walk in the footsteps of the 1920s Surrealists!

March 24, 2013

A Perfect Sunday in Paris

The calendar may say spring, but the chestnuts are far from in blossom here in Paris.  After a very brief respite when one could actually unbutton an overcoat, the cold grey skies have returned and Parisians are left wondering if there will ever be buds on the trees.  But at least it is not raining!

Today being Palm Sunday I took the bus over to the Avenue Georges V for a special Passiontide service at the American Cathedral.  This magnificent church has served the expat community since the 1830s and is now both a parish church and the seat of the Bishop of all Episcopal churches in Europe.  It was a beautiful service beginning with the jubilant waving of palms and ending with the Passion, the commencement of Holy Week.  The choir and music was first rate and I loved their rendition of a traditional spiritual "Ride on King Jesus".  All in all it was a very welcoming congregation and a very uplifting morning.

The next stop was for lunch in a classically bourgeois restaurant in the XVI ième arrondissement.  I enjoyed a typical French meal of leeks vinaigrette, roast chicken with sautéed potatoes and a glass of Bordeaux and it was so delicious and filling that I could skip dessert.

After lunch it was a short walk to the Musée Marmottan, a former hunting lodge on the periphery of the city that is now a museum with a magnificent collection of furniture and Impressionist paintings.  This spring they are offering a special exhibition dedicated to one of the major women artists of the 20th century, Marie Laurencin (1883-1956).  Largely self-taught and often overlooked in the annals of Modern Art, Marie Laurencin was actually at the center of the avant garde movement and was very close with some of its most famous proponents including Georges Braque, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Nicole Groult and her brother the fashion king Paul Poiret, and especially the writer Guillaume Apollinaire. 

Curated in cooperation with the Marie Laurencin Museum in Tokyo, this exhibition presents 85 works spanning her career.  Though her paintings may seem overly feminine to some, the muted shades of grey and pink, later with splashes of yellow and blue and always with the black almond shaped eyes, are actually quite beautiful and expressive.  I had always liked the color etchings of Marie Laurencin but I gained a new appreciation for her œuvre with this show.

Due to a manifestation or demonstration - an archetypal French way to spend a weekend afternoon - the buses ceased to run and it was necessary to transfer to the métro and go underground to the next destination.  Surfacing on the Left Bank at the Place St. Michel, it was time to go to a very special event.  French friends with a wonderful art collection had invited a group to their apartment to listen to a private concert.  About 25 people packed into their salon to hear a pianist and a violinist perform works by Scarlatti, Beethoven, Schoenberg and Debussy.  The music was sublime, but what was really fabulous too was the fact that their windows overlook Notre Dame!  And at 6 PM, when the concert was over, the new bells - installed to celebrate the cathedral's 850th birthday - began to ring!

It was the perfect end to a very lovely day.  Time to wander back along the Quai, pick up something for breakfast, and tuck up in our rental apartment for a tasty wine and cheese picnic dinner!  I'll be back again soon but in the meantime I wish you un très bon dimanche!

March 17, 2013

It's TEFAF Time Again!

It may have snowed in Paris and across northern Europe but the tulips were in full bloom at the opening of The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht last Thursday!  The intrepid souls who braved the elements and travel delays were rewarded with another outstanding selection of the finest in art, antiques and antiquities that the world has to offer.  This year marked the 26th anniversary of the fair and it gets bigger and better every time.  Indeed, in 2013 TEFAF is presenting 266 dealers from 20 countries offering an unparalleled breadth and quality of exquisite items all thoroughly vetted and all for sale.

It is a feast for the eyes!  After a lot of practice I have almost stopped staring with my mouth open at the extraordinary booth displays created like mini stage sets to showcase the treasures within.  I find myself fascinated by things that I didn't even know existed and wishing I had a million Euro to spend on whatever caught my eye - and a castle to put my prizes in!

Just for fun, here is my 2013 fantasy TEFAF shopping list!  Starting fairly modestly with a gold automaton "ostrich" clock made in Germany circa 1580 and on the stand of Dutch watch and clock specialists Mentink & Roest...

Or the 19th century wooden display case of wax fruit and grape specimens made by Francesco Valletti and on view with Piva & Co., Milan...

This group of four Guanyin songzi ("Guanyin Delivering a Baby") dates from the Kangxi period (1662-1722) in China.  Very similar to our Western imagery of the Madonna and Child, each of these ladies has a tall hair do and stands on a lotus-shaped pedestal with a baby held in her right arm.  The child extends its left palm indicating the prayer has been received and the ingot held in the right hand implies the promise of fortune.  Simple yet very impressive, these porcelain statues were offered by Vanderven Oriental Art of The Netherlands...

An absolutely gorgeous example of Pre-Raphealite art could be found with the venerable London art dealers Agnew's.  "The Madness of Sir Tristram", 1862, is a work on paper by one of the Movement's most influential members, Sir Edward Burne Jones and is a paradigm of Aesthetic beauty and symbolism...

Another favorite painting but of an earlier era was this oil of a Catholic church interior by Dutch Renaissance painter Emanuel De Witte (1617-1691).  Massive in scale and impressive in its detail, it was a large format version of a type of painting that I have always admired and was hanging on the stand of the New York old master dealer Otto Naumann...

A delicately carved and colored sculpture of a beautiful young woman was actually a chandelier ornament made in Southern Germany in the early 16th century and was being shown by Sam Fogg, London...

Last but far from least on my list would have to be this marvelous model of the Dutch 36-gun merchant frigate "Mercurious" built in 1747 by Paulus van Zwijndregt at the admiraty of Maase dockyard in Rotterdam.  While the actual ship took five to eight months to build, the ship model required over three years to complete and is accurate in every detail.  This marvel of miniature craftsmanship could be seen at Dutch marine art specialist Rob Kattenburg's stand...

I really could go on and on.  There was the ivory lobster with articulated joints, the Louis XIV daybed with the sumptuous upholstery, the ladies pocket watch embellished with tiny seed pearls, the set of 19th century astronomical slides and the Delft polychromed butter dishes with stags as covers, but I will stop.  Next year's TEFAF will be here before we know it and with it another chance to discover new marvels.  I can hardly wait!

March 12, 2013

Paris in the snow!

Bonjour from beautiful, snow-covered Paris - a magical sight and very rare indeed to have a snowfall that lasts all day and actually sticks!

Paris is not really prepared for such a weather event.  There is no river traffic on the Seine...

No one is walking in the Tuileries Gardens...

The cafés are empty...

And so are the playgrounds...

At night it became even more deserted...

As the wind picked up and the snow continued to fall, St. Germain des Prés became ethereal..

The "Vélibs" waited for ghostly riders...

And Smartcars looked like igloos...

Even the famous Café de Flore was deserted...

But here I am, and will be for the next few weeks, so please check back and hopefully the sun will come out and we will soon be enjoying a sunny stroll and Springtime in Paris!!

March 03, 2013

"Shoe Obsession" @ FIT

In the wonderful world of women's fashion there is no component as elemental as the shoe.  Women love shoes.  Some women are obsessed with shoes.  In 2013, shoes have become the main fashion story replacing the "it bag" as the most desirable accessory and surpassing clothing in fashion importance.  Today's average American woman owns twenty pairs of shoes, double what she owned in the 1990s and the impetus for the retail explosion of designer shoe departments and boutiques worldwide.

Roger Vivier's "Eyelash Heel", 2012

In recognition of this sartorial phenomenon, The Museum at FIT, New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, is presenting "Shoe Obsession" a celebration of 21st century footwear that ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous.  150 single shoes, no pairs, are displayed in 21 glass vitrines shaped like telephone booths and grouped according to maker, style, collection or design feature.  The visual impact is like a candy store, or jewel box, of fabulous, fantastical, fetishist objects of desire and seduction.  These shoes run the gamut from Cinderella slippers, literally a glass pump by Maison Martin Margiela, to elegant confections of peau de soie and sparkles by Manolo Blahnick, to S & M studded stilettos that are painful just to look at like Iris Van Herpen's "bondage booties" or Christian Louboutin's "Fetish Ballerine" (see left).

High heeled shoes are inherently sexy and have historically been associated with femininity, power, and sexuality.  No matter how uncomfortable or impractical, women continue to seek the perfect high heel to express social status, playfulness, elegance, eroticism, domination and individuality.

Every shoe on display featured a heel of at least five inches and up to twelve (see Lady Gaga's ballerina heels by Noritaka Tatehana, right).  What was most fascinating to me was the variety of materials used in the construction and decoration of this footwear.  Fine leather and fabric was just the beginning - the embellishments included feathers, mirrors, plastic eyes, fur, antlers, crystals, studs and anything else you can possibly imagine.  Then came the heels themselves.  From Rupert Sanderson's Roman sandal with crouching men underfoot (created for a 2010 production of "Aida") to butterflies, from lipsticks, guns, ceramic flowers, pedestals to an homage to the late Keith Haring by Nicholas Kirkwood (see below), these heels took creativity to new heights!
I have visited the Museum at FIT many times over the years - their shows are fun, informative and free - and I have never seen such a crowd in attendance.  Men and women, young and old, were entranced, amused, horrified and slightly longing for these extraordinary shoes.  Congratulations to FIT director Dr. Valerie Steele on a superb exhibition.