June 30, 2014

A Visit to the Albertina

One of the jewels in the crown of Vienna's splendid museum scene is the Albertina which houses an impressive collection of art and what is probably the world's largest trove of old master prints at over one million examples.  Since 1805 the museum has been housed in the Albertina Palace, the former residence of the collection's founder, Prince Albert of Saxony, Duke of Teschen (1738-1822) and his wife, a sister of Marie Antoinette of "Let Them Eat Cake" fame, and daughter of the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, the Archduchess Marie Christine.

Alexandre Roslin
"Portrait of the Archduchess Marie Christine", 1778

The Neoclassical building was constructed in 1744 on the site of the ancient fortifications of the city and in 1794 became the official residence of Albert and his bride.  Their relationship was a remarkable one at the time.  Born a German Prince, Albert's betrothal to Marie Christine was a special favor granted by the bride's mother as royal marriages were generally arranged on a diplomatic rather than a romantic basis.  By marrying into the Hapsburg dynasty, Albert became an Archduke and Royal Governor of Hungary before becoming Royal Governor of the Austrian Netherlands with a seat in Brussels.  It was here that Albert and Marie Christine truly began to indulge their passion for art and the great collection was born.

Artist Unknown
"Portrait of Duke Albert of Saxe-Teschen
with the Map of the Battle of Maxen", 1777 

The French Revolution forced the couple to quickly return to Vienna where Marie Christine contracted typhus and died in 1798.  Albert was heartbroken and turned to his art collection for solace devoting the remainder of his life to acquiring new treasures and overseeing their care.  It was during this time that the Albertina Palace was expanded with a wing of staterooms creating more space for his ever increasing collection of prints and drawings.  Upon Albert's death the palace and the collection were bequeathed to the couple's adopted son, the Archduchess' nephew, Carl of Austria, who refurbished the palace in the Empire style.

The palace and its remarkable collection continued to descend in the family until the demise of the monarchy after World War I when the Republic of Austria assumed control.  Heavily damaged by Allied bombing in 1945, the building was returned to its former splendor with an extensive renovation after the turn of the 21st century when the distinctive titanium wing shaped roof was added to serve as the new entrance to the museum.

Which brings me up to the present day and my recent visit to the Albertina.  The museum's vast and impressive graphics collection is legendary in the print world and I was thrilled that my visit to Vienna allowed me to catch the tail end of a very special exhibition - "Dürer, Michelangelo, Reubens - The 100 Masterworks of the Albertina".  I was already delighted to have the opportunity to view some of the rarely exhibited works on paper from the collection, but over the moon when I discovered that the show included an intimate look at the couple, their role on the world stage, and the formation of this legacy, all in a historical perspective.

The exhibition began with a suite of galleries containing portraits, furniture, documents and personal effects that brought the couple to life.  Court life during the Age of Enlightenment was vividly portrayed in artifacts, clothing, decorations and objects that exemplified their exquisite taste.  We learned about their chilly relationship with the French Queen, their advocation of Freemasonry, their love of travel and especially their support of artists then considered "contemporary".

Now we move to the second half of the show - the exposition of one hundred masterpieces culled from the extensive collection.  It was an amazing choice of top notch etchings, engravings, drawings, sketches and watercolors by some of the greatest names in European art.  Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Pieter Breugel the Elder, Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt van Rijn, Peter Paul Rubens were all represented with important examples of their work.  Not only did Prince Albert have amazing foresight, he backed it up with an educated eye and the collection he formed two hundred years ago remains the epitome of Old Master perfection.

Leonardo da Vinci
"Study for The Last Supper", 1495

I was sorry when the exhibition was over, but there was another treat in store!  Part of the 2000 renovation included a refurbishment of the Hapsburg staterooms and the route to the exit led me right through these elegantly appointed rooms!  Visitors traverse the "Gold" Cabinet, the Rococo Room, the Wedgewood Cabinet (see below), the Spanish Apartments, even the Death Chamber of Archduke Carl, all decorated in a sumptuous style and many with original furnishings.

It's been an amazing visit to the Albertina and I've enjoyed every minute.  But now it's time for a pick-me-up and I think an eiskaffee with vanilla ice cream AND schlag, will be the perfect end to a wonderful afternoon!

June 29, 2014

A Klimt tour of Vienna

Gruß Gott from the beautiful city of Vienna where the weather is gorgeous, the museums outstanding and the coffee and cakes are out of this world!  Situated in eastern Austria on the River Danube, Vienna was the center of the Hapsburg dynasty, the Holy Roman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918, when, at the end of World War I, the Emperor abdicated and Austria became a republic.  Since then Vienna has struggled with political strife, the annexation with Germany in 1938 (the "Anschluss") and post World War II division among the Allies until regaining independence in 1955.

Today's Vienna is a thoroughly modern city enriched by its glorious past.  Stunning public and private buildings and churches reflect the ages from Baroque and Rococo to Biedermeier and Jugendstil and evidence of the imperial past is everywhere.  From the magnificent Hofburg Complex to the elegant Café Sacher, from the world class Staatsoper to the equally impressive MuseumsQuartier, the city is a feast for the eyes, ears and definitely taste buds!

Vienna has been home to many famous citizens including composers Franz Schubert, Johann Strauss, and Arnold Schönberg, architects Joseph Hoffmann and Adolf Loos, and Dr. Sigmund Freud who needs no introduction.  But perhaps the most famous of all is the artist Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) whose celebrity continues to grow as his paintings are more and more sought after.

Where better to explore the work of this wonderful artist than in his native city where examples of his genius are plentiful.  Let's start with some of the earliest examples of his work on view in the Kunsthistorisches Museum where a very young Gustav, his brother Ernst and a friend, were commissioned to decorate a section of wall space as part of a cycle to personify different periods of art.  If you look very carefully (there is a small telescope on site to help) you can see their version of Ancient Egypt between the columns and left and right of the arches above the grand staircase.

The Kunsthistorisches Museum has also recently been gifted with a very early portrait done by Klimt and titled "Portrait of a Lady with a Lilac Scarf" which they are now presenting to the public for the first time.  Not much is known about the sitter or the circumstances, but it is a very rare example of Klimt's work during his "years of crisis" before he went on to found the Secession Movement in 1897.

Klimt's first brush with fame came during his years as President of the Wiener Sezession, the radical group he co-founded with Koloman Moser, Joseph Maria Olbrich and others with the aim of presenting the work of unconventional young artists to the public.  Perhaps their most enduring legacy is the "Secession Building" or "Golden Cabbage" as it is affectionately referred to, which was designed for exhibitions of avant garde art.  Klimt's 1902 "Beethoven Frieze" can still be seen in the basement where it was painted directly onto the walls.

In July of 1905, Klimt resigned from the movement he had helped to found and promote and proceeded to work on his own.  The resulting landscapes in their distinctive square shape and the luminous "Golden Phase" are probably his best known works and some of the greatest examples can be found in the Leopold Museum, a fairly new entry on the Vienna museum scene. Opened in 2001, the Leopold Museum boasts one of the finest collections of works of Art Nouveau, Wiener Werkstätte and Austrian Expressionism, all from the former private collection of Dr. Rudolf Leopold and his wife Elisabeth.  Prominently displayed are masterpieces by Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka and the topic of this blog - Gustav Klimt.

Here we can see superb examples of Klimt at his peak, like the mysterious "On Lake Attersee" painted while summering with the Flöge family in 1900, and the haunting "Death and Life", 1910, where a highly decorated Grim Reaper observes a blissfully unaware group of vibrant, living people.

But Klimt's most iconic paintings are, of course, the gold ones, and the mother lode of these magnificent works can be found at our next and final stop - the Belvedere Palace.  Built in the 17th century as the summer residence of Prince Eugene of Saxony, the Upper Belvedere now houses an unparalleled collection of Austrian Art from the Middles ages to today.  The highlight of a visit to this museum is the Gustav Klimt Collection featuring 24 works including allegorical scenes, portraits, and landscapes like "Avenue to Schloss Kammer", circa 1912.

The star of the show is without a doubt the Klimt work that has been reproduced on everything from college dorm posters to coffee mugs, his exquisitely beautiful masterpiece "The Kiss".  This breathtaking painting, executed in 1907/08, was probably inspired by the golden mosaics Klimt saw on a trip to Venice and Ravenna, but his execution is entirely unique.  In the picture, a couple is tenderly embracing, their bodies wrapped in a cloak elaborately adorned in gold.  The style is part illuminated manuscript, part Byzantine mosaic and the most emblematic work of art of the Viennese Art Nouveau period.

It's been an intensive tour of some very important art and I think it's time for a break.  What could be better than another Viennese masterpiece - a piece of world famous Sachertorte, mit schlag, and a delicious cup of coffee!  Guten apetite!

June 20, 2014

Art Basel 45 / Art Unlimited

Art Basel 45 opened to the general public yesterday after two full days of invitation-only previews.  There is no question that the preeminent venue for modern and contemporary art has some fabulous things for sale, but for a non-buyer like me, the main attraction is in the hall next door where Art Unlimited is also in full swing.

Now in its 14th year, Art Unlimited is the branch of Art Basel dedicated to large scale installations and performances that cannot be shown on a normal art fair stand.  These works are certainly not something one could buy to hang in the living room but are intended as showcase works of art possibly for an institution or in an outdoor location.  For me, as a pure spectator, they are a lot of fun and I have had the pleasure of featuring my favorites, or at least the most memorable, in several blogs over the past few years.  Here are my picks for 2014...

In the "handcrafts gone wild" category, I would have to name Sterling Ruby's "Soft Work", 2011-13, as the clear-cut winner.  According to the handout, the fabric sculptures transform threatening subject matter into something more playful and question the idea of masculinity versus traditional feminine arts.  I can't attest to the theory, but I can say for sure it was something to see.

Exploring "nature as art" is Giuseppe Penone's "Matrice di linfa (Matrix of Sap)", 2008.  Here, Mr. Penone continues his examination of trees in which he chisels away the trees at a specific year of their growth to, in effect, reverse the process of time.  This example features a very long fir tree, sawn in half lengthwise and hollowed out.  The two halves are placed end on end with a long trough filled with resin, like a river, in the center.

"20,000 Gun Shells" by Matias Galdbakken, was an audience participation piece.  Visitors were invited to walk, very carefully, across a floor where the empty brass gun shells were strewn.  It was as slippery as a skating ring making the shells still dangerous but in a different way.

On the monumental theme, we have Thomas Houseago's "Striding Figure II (Ghost)", 2011.  This massive (nearly 17 foot tall) sculpture crafted of painted bronze presents a primitive, skeletal form that seems almost in motion.
The most amusing video installation was Bruce Nauman's 1991 projection "Raw Material with Continuous Shift - MMMM".  The star of the film was the artist himself, whose head spun upside-down on a screen while he hummed "mmmmm" continuously.

I don't think Hamish Fulton could have wished for better when he created the large mural "Mountain Skyline Nepal" in 2011.  The older gentleman with the walking poles seemed oblivious to the background as he hiked by.

One of the prettiest installations was Julio Le Parc's "Continuel Mobile - Sphère rouge", 2001-2013.  3,000 translucent plexiglass squares hang by transparent threads to create a work of art that changed with every current of air or reflection of light.

I've seen a lot of art in the past few days - some of it great and some of it less memorable.  Sometimes I feel like I'm on "art overload" but after a short break I'm always back for more.  It's a little like the sentiment expressed here in this large assemblage of letters recycled from outdoor signage created by Jack Pierson.  The art world may have its ups and downs, but come what may...

June 15, 2014

The Empress "Joséphine"

Two hundred years after the death of France's only Empress, the legend of Joséphine Bonaparte continues to fascinate.

Born Marie-Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie in 1763 to a sugar plantation owner on the island of Martinique, she emigrated to France in 1779 in order to marry the Viscount Alexandre de Beauharnais and save her family from financial ruin.  Though the marriage was by all accounts an unhappy one, they produced two children, Eugène and Hortense, before Alexandre was guillotined during the Reign of Terror.  Rose, as she was then called, was herself imprisoned but was released shortly after his death.

Now a widow with two small children, she soon caught the eye of the Corsican Napoléon Bonaparte.  At this point he was a rising star in the French military and was soon completely smitten with this older woman.  Letters exchanged between the two show how quickly and deeply they fell in love, and they were married within a year.  Napoléon adored Joséphine, as he preferred to call her, and together they amassed power and wealth including her beloved country home Malmaison.

Pierre Joseph Petit "Vue du Château de Malmaison", 1801-1807

In the years following their marriage Napoléon engaged in military campaigns in Italy and Egypt and the spoils of war decorated their living quarters.  In 1804, in an elaborate ceremony in Notre Dame Cathedral, Napoléon crowned himself Emperor and his wife Empress.

Andrea Appiani, "Portrait de l'impératrice Joséphine", 1807

Sadly, the one thing that no victory or treasure or title could provide was a child.  Despite a very active love life, Joséphine could not conceive and Napoléon desperately needed an heir.  After years of trying and finally with great regret the couple divorced in 1810 and he quickly married Marie-Louise of Austria who promptly produced a son.  Joséphine retreated to Malmaison where she died of pneumonia while Napoléon was finally exiled to the island of Saint Helena where the last words to pass his lips were "France, armée, tête d'armée, Joséphine".

Charles Louis Corbet, "Buste de Générale Bonaparte", 1798-1799

But who was the woman behind the Emperor, really?  To commemorate the bicentennial of her death, the Musée de Luxembourg has mounted the first exhibition in France exclusively dedicated to Joséphine.   120 objects including paintings, jewelry, clothing, documents, furniture and musical instruments give visitors an unprecedented look into Joséphine's private and public persona's.

What we learn from this exhibition is that Joséphine was far more than just the wife of the Emperor.  Physically, she was rather average although her teeth were so bad that she rarely smiled.  She is said to have had a very beautiful speaking voice and to move with the grace of a dancer.  She was a charming and astute hostess, had a good eye for art and a curious mind.  She traveled extensively, was a style setter for both fashion and decoration, re-invigorated the silk and textile industry in Lyon, and created a botanical test garden with exotic plants and animals that was singular in Europe.  In fact, her rose collection was the largest at the time and was recorded in vivid detail by the painter Redouté.

Antoine Jean Gros, "Portrait de Joséphine", 1808-1809

Perhaps the most compelling fact we take away from this exhibition was the intense relationship she shared with Napoléon.  He adored her from the moment he laid eyes on her.  The time they were together was the best of his career and it was a heart wrenching but necessary decision to have to divorce.

The influence of Joséphine Bonaparte's contributions to French culture continue to this day and her descendents include many of the crowned heads of Europe.  An enduring legacy for a remarkable woman.

Pierre-Paul Prud'hon
"Portrait de l'impératrice Joséphine dans le parc de Malmaison", 1805-1809

June 14, 2014

Too Much Love on the Pont des Arts

Smack in the middle of Paris there is a footbridge that crosses the River Seine from the Louvre to the Institute de France.  Originally constructed as a nine arch bridge during the reign of Napoleon I and rebuilt in the early 1980s, the Pont des Arts is now a magnet for artists, street performers, picnickers and especially lovers.

In fact, it was here at the Pont des Arts where the tradition of "Love locks" was born - a romantic ritual now practiced almost around the world.  Couples come to the Pont des Arts to seal their love by fastening a padlock onto the bridge and tossing the key into the river.

The idea is very sweet and at first it was quite charming to see a few locks inscribed with the lovers' names and a date attached to the fence - a little like a heart with initials carved into the bark of a tree.  But then the idea took off and very soon the padlocks, or cadenas d'amour, started to cover every surface.

They became like a growth as locks of every shape and size were fastened to each other to form a thick mass of metal.

Of course, a few industrious souls made quite a nice living selling locks and markers to those who arrived with their hearts in the right place but missing the equipment.

In recent years this proliferation of love tokens caught the eye of civil engineers and concerned citizens who realized that with each padlock weighing at least a pound there was considerably more tonnage being supported by the arches than was originally intended.  Beside being, in my opinion, an eyesore, there lurked the possibility that all these locks might one day over-stress the bridge pylons and the whole thing would collapse.

Last Sunday afternoon proved a dress-rehearsal for the kind of incident that had been forewarned when an eight foot section of the fence suddenly collapsed from its own weight.  Fortunately it did not fall into the river onto a passing tour boat, but back onto the deck.  No one was hurt but the bridge was closed for the rest of the evening and only re-opened when a replacement was installed. 

Photo taken from "La Monde" on-line newspaper, June 9, 2014
The collapse of the fence now forces a dialogue about what to do about all those locks.  It is estimated that the bridge is now supporting an additional 8 tons of metal - not to mention the thousands of people who come for a look or to leave their own cadenas d'amour - and it is only a matter of time until something more serious occurs.  For now, the City of Paris has only removed the locks affixed to the bridge's historic lighting fixtures but there is serious discussion about removing the lock encrusted panels and replacing them with sheets of plastic.  I am certainly not anti-romance - my husband proposed to me in Paris - but  I would feel a lot safer with these hazardous and really unsightly lock installations removed.

At this point the future of the love locks is unsure, but there is no question that lovers will continue to come to Paris for affaires d'amour, padlocks or no!

June 10, 2014

"Paris 1900: La Ville spectacle"

Turn of the Century Paris was a magical city.  Buoyed by a stable government and strong economy, it was a center for artists, intellectuals, designers and entertainers who in turn attracted the wealthy and powerful from around the world.  Paris offered the very finest in art, food, fashion, decoration, and theater, and was the undisputed capital of luxury and sophistication - a position maintained until the outbreak of World War I in 1914.
To celebrate this remarkable legacy, the Petit Palais - Musée des Beaux Arts de la Ville de Paris, is presenting a splendid exhibition entitled "Paris 1900:  The City of Entertainment".  Centered around the premier international event of the new century, the Exposition Universelle, the exhibition showcases Paris in its prime and the period for which it is forever remembered.

The 1900 World's Fair ushered in the 20th century by featuring the very latest in technology, entertainment and design.  Such novelties as a Ferris wheel, escalators, diesel engines, talking films and the Art Nouveau style were unveiled to a fascinated public.  Although many of the pavilions were temporary, edifices such as the Grand Palais, the Petit Palais, the Pont Alexandre III, the first Métropolitain Subway Line and three train stations continue to function in the Paris of today.  Over 50 million visitors passed through the Exposition Universelle making it a crowning moment in the city's history.
The curators of "Paris 1900" have taken the theme of the Exhibition Universelle and expanded upon it to take modern day visitors back in time to La Belle Epoque.  While the first gallery "Paris: Window on the World" sets the stage, it is the following six galleries, loosely based on Expo Pavilions, that present the cultural highlights of the era.  Over 600 objects from posters to couture gowns to paintings to an actual Métro station entrance, come together to evoke the energy, gaiety, luxury and artistic creativity that is emblematic of the epoch.

Each of the galleries, or pavilions, examines a different aspect of life in 1900.  One is dedicated to the explosion of the Art Nouveau aesthetic on the decorative arts scene and features examples of jewelry, furniture, glass, porcelain and textiles by some of the period's greatest stars.

Another is devoted to the fine arts and the lure of the Parisian Salon on artists throughout France and Europe.  Still another looks at the French fashion industry which was already far and away the preeminent choice in couture and accessory design.

The exhibition wraps up with two galleries dedicated to the night life of Paris, the upper crust world of opera and restaurants and the other, more risqué, side of absinthe, can can, loose women and  naughty pleasures.

It is a fabulous show.  The French Belle Epoque is one of my favorite periods in art history and this exhibition covered not just art but the entire cultural scene.  It pulled together events, such as the Exposition Universelle; inventions, such as cinema and electric lights; personalities, such as Sarah Bernhardt and Yvette Guilbert; and designers of both clothing and decoration to create a total environment. 

It would be difficult to choose one outstanding section of "Paris 1900" as the overall presentation is so well done.  However I would commend the curators on their subtle but brilliant homage to the new-fangled medium of motion pictures that was invented by the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, in 1895 and presented to the world at the Exposition Universelle.  Visitors to this exhibition at the Petit Palais move from gallery to gallery via corridors where original film footage is screened.  It's a clever effect that permits today's museum patrons to virtually walk alongside the promenading fair goers of 1900!

"Paris 1900:  La Ville spectacle" was on the top of my list of must-see museum exhibitions and it was even better than I had hoped.  It brought the era to life and demonstrated beyond a doubt why La Belle Epoque really was The Beautiful Age.

June 01, 2014

"The St. Petersburg Paradox"

In the early 18th century two Swiss cousins, Daniel and Nicolas Bernoulli, presented a mathematical theory to explain why people resist gambling more than a few dollars on a game with seemingly infinite possibility for winning and gains.  This equation was presented at the Imperial Academy of Science in Saint Petersburg and has become known as the St Petersburg Lottery or St. Petersburg Paradox.  It is considered the standard accounting for probability and decision theory in economics and philosophy.

The idea is quite simple.  Imagine being invited to play a game of chance where a fair coin is flipped over and over again.  You, the player - or gambler - has put down one dollar and you will double you money every time the coin comes up heads but when the coin comes up tails the game is over and you walk away with whatever is in the pot.  Theoretically, the payout can be enormous, but how much money would you be willing to risk in the initial bet?

Surprisingly, the general consensus is very little, and this is where the term "paradox" comes in.  Despite the infinite possibility for winnings, most people are not comfortable in offering more than a few dollars to play, and explaining this hesitation to gamble with a 50/50 chance at success remains a contentious issue in economic policy.

I am by no means an economist and certainly not a mathematician, but last Tuesday night I was invited to the opening of an art installation on this theme at the Swiss Institute.  Located in a former garage space on Wooster Street in Soho, the Swiss Institute seeks to promote a contemporary cultural dialogue between Switzerland, Europe and the United States through exhibitions, lectures, performances and screenings.

It was a happening scene and once I got over the fact that I was one of the oldest people there, it was a lot of fun too!  I really didn't know much about the St. Petersburg Paradox, and I certainly didn't know how it related to art, but once I got inside it all started to make sense.

The curators had assembled thirteen works based on the ideas of chance, risk, gaming and/or value, by established and emerging artists.  Historic works include Hans (Jean) Arp's 1916 "Collage géométrique" one of a series of works to explore random arrangements of tossed pieces of paper, and Marcel Duchamp's "Monte Carlo Bond", 1938, is a direct reference to a casino and flimsy financial schemes.

The idea of chance is further scrutinized by German artist Sarah Ortmeyer who took over the main exhibition space with "Sankt Petersburg Paradox", a site-specific piece involving a variety of chessboards and chess tables scattered about with the pieces replaced by 109 eggs, both natural and artificial, seemingly randomly strewn about.

Another curious installation piece is "Remnant Recomposition" by American artist Cayetano Ferrer who assembled dozens of different carpet remnants that had been specifically manufactured for casinos and put them together as a sort of garish collage. 

There were also several video works including Tabor Robak's multi screen feature "A*" that channels the intensity of a gamer's ups and downs in an arresting 10 minute emotional roller coaster.

I cannot imagine what the Bernoullis would think of these interpretations of their mathematical theory, but I can tell you it was a very stimulating evening and put economics and gambling in a much more colorful light!