September 22, 2013

"Leonora Carrington: The Celtic Surrealist"

"Neighborly Advice", 1947

What do you get when you mix Mexican folklore, Surrealism, Irish fairy tales and a working woman?  A fabulous exhibition that just opened in Dublin in the prestigious Irish Museum of Modern Art!  Thought the premise may seem far fetched, it is absolutely correct and the subject of this amazing retrospective is Leonora Carrington who, as it turns out, wore all of these hats and more in her colorful 94 year life.

If you're a little confused by all this, join the club.  I was familiar with Leonora Carrington as a Latin American artist with a highly imaginative style.  It turns out that, she was born in England in 1917 to a wealthy English father and his Irish bride.  Raised, in effect, by her Irish nanny, young Leonora was thoroughly indoctrinated in the magic and mystery of Celtic mythology.  The world of fairies and giants and magic circles was her reality and remained very influential throughout her life.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Ever a non-conformist, Leonora rejected the proper upper-class program and fled first for London and then to Paris with her married lover, Max Ernst who was by then a star in the Surrealist movement.  Life was fine for the pair as they painted side by side in the South of France until Max was interned by the Nazis in 1940.  Distraught, Leonora suffered a nervous breakdown and was herself incarcerated in a mental institution in Spain.  She managed to escape to the Mexican Embassy in Lisbon, and, through the kindness of the Ambassador who married her, moved across the ocean via New York to Mexico.

Not surprisingly this marriage of convenience did not last but she soon met and married Emericko Weisz, a Hungarian Jew, with whom she had two children.  She and Chiki lived and worked together in Mexico until his death in 2007.  She followed soon after in 2011.

"The Giantess" or "The Guardian of the Egg", c. 1947

But back to the exhibition now on view at the Irish Museum of Modern Art.  "Leonora Carrington: The Celtic Surrealist" explores the influences that inspired this remarkable woman who held her own in the Surrealist world both as an artist and a writer.  One quick look at her drawings, paintings and tapestries and you know there is something special going on here.  Something beyond the Surrealist exploration of the subconscious.  Themes of metamorphosis, transformation, anthropomorphic objects and the supernatural co-exist with ghostly beings, rocking horses, fairy creatures and giant eggs.  It's a wonderful, colorful salad of Anglo-Hispanic visions of legend and the occult that defy the imagination.

The Irish Museum of Modern Art has been housed in the former Royal Hospital at Kilmainham since 1991.  Built as a military hospital and retirement home, the complex is one of the finest examples of 17th century architecture extant and its re-invention as a temple to modern art is superb.  It is the perfect venue in which to re-introduce Leonora Carrington to her cultural heritage and a whole new audience of fans.

With congratulations and thanks to the curator Seán Kissane and his staff at IMMA for a wonderful exhibition and such a gracious welcome.

September 21, 2013

Dublin "Dia dhuit" - Part II

The weather has become cooler and wetter with a stiff breeze blowing but there is still so much to see!  Let's begin in the southeast quadrant of Dublin, home to many famous sights including Trinity College and its star attraction, the Book of Kells.

Trinity College Dublin was founded by royal charter in 1592 and maintains a reputation as one of the finest liberal arts colleges in the world.  The day of my visit coincided with "Freshers' Week" and the campus green was covered with little tents each representing a university club or society recruiting new members.  The variety was astonishing - everything from the "Trampoline Society" to the "Rifle Society" to the "Metaphysical Society" or "Metafizz" as is was promoted to potential members!  But as my college days were literally 30 years ago I carried on to the main goal - the Old Library.

Appropriately, the Old Library is housed in the oldest surviving building on the university grounds.  Built between 1712-1732 it was a remarkable structure designed to resist the instability of the marshy grounds and protect the books from damp.

We begin in the Treasury where, well protected under glass, is the Book of Kells, a lavishly illustrated manuscript of the four gospels.  Probably produced early in the 9th century by the monks of Iona, the message of the life of Christ was inscribed on vellum in four volumes comprising 340 sheets.  Each page is intricately decorated using colored inks to create an overall illustration often with the text incorporated into the design.  It is indeed a masterpiece of book design with no opportunity for embellishment missed and a powerful proclamation of the New Testament.

Moving upstairs to the actual library and the aptly named Long Room which runs 65 meters (more than 2 football fields) in length and holds over 200,000 books shelved under its barrel-vaulted ceiling (an 1860 alteration).  Walking down the main aisle lined with marble busts of writers and other notables and one cannot help but be impressed both by the architecture and the wealth of knowledge contained within.

It's time to head outside and around the corner to the National Gallery of Ireland.  This is a quick stop as their outstanding collection of Old Master paintings is not open at the moment so we have to make do with a walk through the galleries of Irish art.

A few steps away is the Natural History Museum.  It would not ordinarily be on my "must see" list but it was highly recommended by some erudite friends who smiled knowing smiles as they urged a visit.  One step inside the first gallery and I knew exactly why they loved it - the museum is basically unchanged since it first opened its doors in 1857!  Unlike so many museums that felt the need to modernize, the Natural History Museum retains its original wood and glass display cases showing clearly marked specimens without the aid of video or interactive paraphernalia.  The exhibits speak for themselves.

The ground floor is devoted to animals, birds and marine life indigenous to Ireland with the skeleton of a now extinct Irish elk greeting visitors as they enter.  The upper floor features all manner of creatures from around the world.  Here we find everything from a massive whale suspended from the ceiling to the skeleton of a dodo bird.  The art of taxidermy is alive and well at this institution with countless heads and full body examples on display.  Another claim to fame for this off-beat museum is their important collection of glass models of marine invertebrates made by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka in Dresden during the late 19th century.  These exquisite recreations of delicate sea creatures provided marine biologists with the ability to study, identify and catalogue the organisms with durable and accurate replicas.  But as well as being scientifically important, they are quite beautiful objects in their own right.

After lunch it's time for something completely different.  Crossing through town to what used to be the westernmost outskirts of Dublin and we come to a rather chilling reminder of the City's rebellious history - Kilmainham Gaol.  Opened in 1796 as a state-of-the-art facility, the jail held civil and political prisoners as well as hard core criminals throughout its 130 years of active use.

Now a visit to a prison may not seem like a tourist destination but this was fascinating.  Our guide painted a vivid picture of life within the jail's walls and also explained the history of the Irish fight for independence from England.  Originally intended to incarcerate prisoners only in solitary confinement with hard labor as a respite, it did not take long for the cells to overflow with inmates.  As the Great Famine of 1845-49 worsened, the prison became almost a desirable option for survival and many of the detainees were mere children locked up for begging or stealing food.

 Looking through a peephole into a cell

Although closed in 1910, the jail was re-opened six years later to house rebels captured during the Easter Rising.  This seminal event on the road to Irish independence may not have been successful in its goal but the harsh treatment received by the revolutionaries in the prison actually galvanized many Irish citizens into bearing arms for the fight.  When the partial independence granted by England in 1919 did not satisfy the crusaders, Ireland sank into a Civil War that lasted for nearly two years.  Once again, Kilmainham Gaol was the penitentiary where the anti-government rebels were held and sometimes executed by firing squad.

After years of bloodshed Ireland achieved independence and was recognized as a republic.  The terrible prison was closed and stood empty for 40 years until it was restored and reopened as a grim salute to Irish tenacity and determination.

By this time I think you will agree that I've earned a pint so it's off to the oldest part of Dublin known as Temple Bar.  There are so many pubs and bars here that it's hard to make a choice but finally I opted for the one called simply, The Temple Bar!  Established in 1840 The Temple Bar features live traditional Irish music, an excellent line up of draught beers and boasts the largest collection of whiskeys in Ireland, all in a very friendly atmosphere.

I'll leave you with a photo I took on my last evening while walking to the north side of the the city for dinner.  The rain had stopped and the wind had died down and the historic Ha'Penny Bridge was perfectly reflected in the water of the River Liffey.  It was a magical scene here in the land of leprechaun and a fitting farewell to the Emerald Isle!

September 19, 2013

Dublin "Dia dhuit" (Irish Hello) - Part I

As my regular readers have no doubt noticed, I love to visit to new places.  So when the possibility of a quick trip to Ireland came up, it took no longer than a glance at my calendar to say "Sure, let's go!"  And go we did arriving bright and early last Saturday morning to a glorious blue Dublin sky but quite chilly temperatures.

Established as a Viking settlement in the 9th century, Dublin was invaded by the Normans in 1169 and remained under English control until the Irish War of Independence established the Irish State as its own republic in 1919.  Although the economy has slowed down since the "Celtic Tiger" roared in the 1990s, Dublin remains a vibrant capital city with a population of 1.1 million including a large influx of immigrants primarily from China and Nigeria. 

The River Liffey flows through the center of town effectively dividing it into north and south and it is on the north side that I'll begin our tour.  Walking up O'Connell Street, past the 1916 monument to the street's namesake, Daniel O'Connell, a supporter of Catholic emancipation for Ireland; past the General Post Office, the site of a key battle in the fight for Irish Independence with the Easter Rising also of 1916; and past the newest landmark called the "Spire of Dublin", a nearly 400' tall needle made of stainless steel that holds the honor of being the tallest sculpture in the world, if not the prettiest; and we get to our first destination, the Hugh Lane Gallery.

Housed in a stately 1763 townhouse, the Gallery is named after Sir Hugh Lane, a wealthy philanthropist who drowned on board the Lusitania in 1915.  Sir Hugh bequeathed a group of 39 Impressionist paintings which formed the basis for the collection.  These works are beautiful, but the main draw these days is a much later addition - the studio of Irish artist Francis Bacon.

Francis Bacon is considered one of the greatest contemporary artists of the 20th century.  His shocking imagery typically features a distorted head or portrait against a stark, colored background and he often worked in triptych formats.  After his death in 1992, the entire contents of his London studio were catalogued, photographed, and transferred to their new premises in city of his birth.  You might think this is no big deal, but we're talking about 7,000 pieces including 570 books, 1500 photos and 2,000 artist materials, all jumbled up in the biggest mess you've ever seen.  He claimed that it was a "deeply ordered chaos...rather like my mind" and he drew upon this collection of visual sources for his imagery.  It probably won't surprise you to hear that he suffered from acute asthma!

Almost next door to the Hugh Lane Gallery is the Dublin Writers Museum, housed in another elegant townhouse (see above) and dedicated to promoting awareness of the lives of Ireland's most famous writers.  Here one can learn more about some of the greatest authors of the English language, including Jonathan Swift, Bram Stoker of "Dracula" fame, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, Samuel Beckett and George Bernard Shaw to name just a few.  It is a gem of a museum with an informative audio guide that brings the displays of manuscripts and memorabilia to life.

Expanding on the "writers" theme we come to the James Joyce Centre, a beautifully restored townhouse in a row of Georgian redbrick residences and now a temple to Joyceana.  The irony is - though James Joyce was certainly born and raised in Dublin and many of his books are set in Ireland, he did his actual writing in Italy, Switzerland and France.  Here we find period rooms with authentic mementos mixed with high tech video and computer installations.  Though James Joyce never lived in this particular house, the front door of the now demolished No. 7 Eccles Street, Leopold Bloom's address in Joyce's opus "Ulysses", is on long-term loan in the courtyard.

All this culture can work up a powerful thirst and since we're here in Dublin there is no better quencher than a tour of the Guinness Storehouse!  Founded in 1759 by Arthur Guinness and now Ireland's premier tourist attraction, a visit to the brewery is not only educational but restorative.  Following a self-guided video tour of the brewing process we learn that beer contains basically four ingredients - hops, barley, water and yeast - and that Guinness consumes two thirds of all barley grown in the country.  All this knowledge is soon put to the test at the "Guinness Academy" where visitors learn to craft a perfect pint of the "black stuff".  Here we learn the six steps to pour and serve a Guinness draught beer, a process that takes 119.5 seconds allowing for the "surge" to settle.  The reward is a delicious pint of stout to consume on the spot, and a "Certificate of Completion" to take home as a souvenir!

It has been an action packed day here in Dublin.  Time to head off for dinner, and perhaps another pint, before we explore some more of this fascinating city tomorrow.  Cheers!

Announcing Catalogue Number Eight!

I am happy to announce the publication of Catalogue Number Eight, my annual compendium of European and American fine prints, drawings and watercolors from the Victorian Era to the Jazz Age.

This year's edition offers a selection of works on paper ranging from a turn-of-the-century poster of "Le Roi Vert [The Green King]" to an art déco bar book illustrated with original etchings by Jean Emile Laboureur to James Tissot's elegant etching "Promenade dans la neige".  As usual, it is a diverse mix with something for everyone and every budget.  Please feel free to contact me for your copy.

It's the start of the fall season and there is a lot of excitement in the air!  I hope you will check back often as I explore the New York art scene and points farther abroad.  Cheers!

September 07, 2013

"Precision and Splendor" at The Frick

If it seems like just yesterday that we were anticipating summer and in the blink of an eye the days are getting shorter and autumn is around the corner, join the club!  After an unintentionally long break from blogging I thought it appropriate to report on a time-related special exhibition at the wonderful Frick Collection.

"Precision and Splendor:  Clocks and Watches at the Frick Collection" is a small but elegant display of some of the Frick's most marvelous European timepieces.  With examples dating back to the "beginning of time" (see the gilt-brass table clock by Pierre de Fobis, c. 1530, to the left), the Frick boasts one of the finest private collections in the United States but one that is seldom on public view.

The measurement of time has been a concern since early civilizations attempted to divide the seasons and the phases of the moon into quantifiable segments.  It was the ancient Egyptians who first apportioned the solar year into 360 days, and nights and days into twelve parts.  These were called "temporal" hours as they varied according to the seasons, a discrepancy that was later regulated by Greeks, the Romans and finally the Europeans.

As the population grew it became necessary to develop a method of keeping time that was more unified, reliable and accessible than a sundial or water clock.  By the mid-15th century several European towns had installed "monumental timekeepers" in city halls and churches to standardize public time.  These original clocks were powered by falling weights that moved "easements" but these were later replaced by metal springs that could be wound.  The introduction of springs also allowed the miniaturization of timepieces and the development of more portable pocket watches and eventually wrist watches.

To be sure, a personal clock or watch was a highly prized item available only to the very wealthy who commissioned chronometers as decorative as well as practical objects.  The design of a clock or watch case was an artistic opportunity limited only by the dial and artisans created sumptuous and fanciful examples out of precious metals decorated with gems, painted enamel, repoussé (hammering) and chasing (see the Swiss gold and enamel portrait pendant watch, c. 1660 at right).

The pendulum clock was invented by the Dutch in 1653 but perfected by the British and French.  This new form offered clock works and case makers a new opportunity to create objects to delight and amuse wealthy clients.  Examples like the pediment clock to the left combined sculpture and time keeping in one beautiful yet practical package.  Here we have two caryatids in black bronze with part of a Greek temple on their shoulders.  The clock dial is in the center of the temple with the head of Apollo at the base of the pendulum.  This amazing piece was made in France by Lenoble circa 1790.

In this digital age it is almost quaint to tell time on a clock or watch with hands and a face.  But what LED displays may have in efficiency, they certainly lack in charm and originality, not to mention fine craftsmanship.  While I cannot offer you an antidote to the ever quickening pace of our lives, I can invite you to step back in time and enjoy these horological masterpieces now on view at The Frick.