October 27, 2014

Paris Wildlife!

Bienvenue à Paris where the weather is gorgeous and it more summer than autumn.  Before we get to the hardcore museum exhibitions, I thought we would have some fun and explore two lighthearted but still meaningful shows where animals take center stage.

Let's begin at the venerable house of Deyrolle, one of the few remaining and probably most famous taxidermy shops in the world.  Established in 1831, the premises at 46, rue de Bac are filled with examples of the craft from tigers and bears to birds and fish.  Beside this menagerie of "stuffed animals", the store offers an amazing range of shells, skeletons, butterflies and insects for collectors of curiosities of natural history.

I had been fascinated by Deyrolle ever since I first visited Paris and passed by the shop with gazelles, peacocks and lions in the vitrines and I was horrified when I read of the devastating fire that ripped through their building in February 2008.  Months later they rose from the ashes with a rebuilt emporium that now offered a bookstore and boutique in addition to their traditional stock.  Still, I had never gone inside so when I saw an announcement that they were partnering with contemporary artist Damien Hirst in a special on-site selling exhibition I took the opportunity to venture in.
"Signification (Hope, Immortality and Death in Paris, Now and Then)"is the latest in a long tradition of joint ventures between Deyrolle and the arts and it is a natural fit.  Damien Hirst is probably best known for his controversial animals in formaldehyde series in which a shark or sheep is contained in a large see-through tank of preservative and the viewer has an up close look at its decomposed state.  It is not for the faint hearted.  But Damien Hirst (b. 1965) also did a major series on the theme of pharmacies including installations of glass fronted medicine cabinets and large format prints of various drug packages.

In this collaboration, Damien Hirst explores the idea of a Wunderkammer, a cabinet of wonders, using Deyrolle's natural history treasures as a springboard.  On view in stainless steel framed display cases, mixed in with stuffed foxes, birds and shells, are ostrich eggs decorated by Hirst with his iconic skull motif and little stuffed chicks with Hirst drawings on their mounts.  Totally out of context are the brightly colored containers of cleaning products that are also part of the installation as Hirst explores the relationships between nature and science, life and death, myth and reality, and art and beauty.

Of course, all of the taxidermy and natural history objects at Deyrolle are for sale and so too are these works by Damien Hirst.  If you are feeling like a little something for your own Cabinet of Curiosities you can bid online at Paddle8 and maybe take home a souvenir!

Moving across the Seine to another Paris institution, we come to one more joint venture but this time between two museums.  To mark the 20th anniversary of the Grande Galerie de l'Evolution at the Musée National d'Histoire Naturelle, some of the specimen monkeys and birds from their collection have taken up residence among the antique furniture and paintings of the Petit Palais.  "Les Animaux font le mur (Animals at Large)! is a fresh new way to liven up the rather staid eighteenth and nineteenth century galleries with the animals mimicking the art.

It's a switch on the old maxim of art imitating life as these feathered and furry creatures seem to be in on the joke and enjoying the spotlight in their new, temporary home.

Now I'm going to head outside and take advantage of this warm Indian summer afternoon with a glass of wine at an outdoor café and drink in the beauty of Paris surrounding me.  A perfect end to a very lovely day!

Street performers in front of the Comédie Française

October 24, 2014

"Rembrandt: The Late Works" @ The National Gallery

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (1606-1669) is undoubtedly the most famous painter and print maker of the Dutch Golden Age with works such as "The Night Watch", 1642, attaining a cult status almost on a par with Leonardo's "Mona Lisa".  His early years were filled with success both personally and professionally, but by the 1650's his life was in a downward spiral.  His beloved wife Saskia had died, his popularity as a portrait painter had waned and his finances were in a mess but through these trials he continued to produce what some consider to be his greatest artistic achievements.

A landmark exhibition dedicated to these later works has just opened at The National Gallery in London and I had the good fortune to be able to go on the first day.  Needless to say there was quite a crowd, but it was worth every minute in the queue to see these amazing paintings close up.

With important loans from Amsterdam and around the world, The National Gallery has assembled 40 paintings, 30 drawings and 20 prints all of sublime quality and all indisputably by the master himself.  These pieces, both individually and presented as a group, clearly demonstrate Rembrandt's unique ability to express human emotions in a revolutionary way.  His use of light, his command of painting and print making techniques and his special perception of traditional subjects came together in his mature work in a very special way.

Take, for example, his self portraits.  Rembrandt produced around eighty self portraits during the course of his career, but the later examples of both the oils and the etchings portray a much more introspective and honest view of himself.  Though physically frailer, Rembrandt depicted himself as spiritually stronger, even assuming the role of the Apostle Paul in one example.

 "Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul", 1661

Or his masterful "The Wardens of the Amsterdam Drapers' Guild" aka "The Syndics" painted circa 1662 (see below).  This large scale group portrait shows a group of six guild officials having a meeting.  All are clearly upper class and all are dressed in approximately the same attire giving the viewer the idea of uniformity.  But there are subtle differences in each man's attitude and position that suggest there might be more to the story than one initially thinks.  All of this is expressed with the most beautiful manipulation of light and paint application that gently draws us into the chamber with the characters involved.

Perhaps the best example of Rembrandt's finesse as an artist and as an observer of people is in the 1665 work "Isaac and Rebecca" aka "The Jewish Bride" (see below).  This tender portrait of the Old Testament couple Isaac and Rebecca is a perfect example of Rembrandt's exquisite use of light, his painterly proficiency and his insight into human character.  Here, the husband gently and protectively puts his hand on his wife while she caresses his fingers with her own.  In these small gestures Rembrandt clearly expresses the couples affection for and devotion to each other.

It's been a fun few days in London and now it's time to take the Eurostar through the Chunnel to Paris where more amusing adventures await.  A très bientôt!

October 19, 2014

Tate à Tate - A Tale of Two Abstractionists

Hello from rainy London where the art scene is gearing up for a big week including two major fairs and a plethora of important auctions.  But before all the hoopla begins, I'm going to take you on a tour of two Tates, the Tate Britain and the Tate Modern, and their narratives on two major abstract artists, J.M.W. Turner and Kazimir Malevich.

Let's start at the beginning, at the historic Tate Britain, built on the site of the former Millbank Penitentiary as a branch of the National Gallery.  At the time of its opening, in 1897, it was the showcase for the nation's collection of British art from 1790 to the present.  Over the years the Tate Gallery has expanded to include four sites with the Millbank location as the epicenter both geographically and historically.

Now on view at the Tate Britain is "Late Turner - Painting Set Free" an exhibition dedicated to the later works of Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851).  It is largely due to the bequest of 30,000 works on paper and 300 oil paintings by the Turner heirs to the National Gallery, and subsequently the Tate Gallery, that transformed the institution into a major repository and study center for British art.  For the first time ever, Tate Britain is presenting a retrospective of the later work of their patron, focusing on the last sixteen years of Turner's life.

"Norham Castle Sunrise" circa 1840-45

J.M.W. Turner turned 60 years old in 1835.  While that may not be an impressive age by today's standards it was a remarkable age at the time.  Turner took advantage of his "advanced" age to finally express himself as he wished, unfettered by public or critical opinion, with the benefit of his years of study of color and light.  The result was a group of watercolors and oils that are examples of abstraction long before the concept could be applied to art. 

On display are extraordinary works depicting landscapes, historical views, biblical passages, seascapes and travelogues all executed in a dreamy but highly expressive style.  Imagery from shipwrecks to snowstorms from Venice to Lucerne are imbued with vivid color and even more intensive emotion in Turner's distinctive and evocative manner. 

"Snowstorm - Steamboat off the Harbour's Mouth" 1842

If you thought this was going to be an exhibition of Victorian landscapes, you were in for a big surprise, but just down the river, a quick and scenic ride on the Tate Boat, another big surprise is waiting at the Tate Modern.

Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935) is probably the most important and recognizable Russian artist of the 20th Century.  Though he began his career as a painter of landscapes, peasants and religious scenes, he soon explored more avant garde approaches to art such as Cubism and Futurism.  He ultimately forged a hybrid of the two "isms" combining the deconstruction of Cubism with the dynamic movement of the Futurists in a uniquely Russian style.
"The Knife Grinder (Principle of Glittering)", 1912

Working in an environment of general social and political upheaval in Europe and particularly Russia, Malevich endeavored to create a new icon for the Modern Age.  Though actually painted in June of 1915 - while Russia was in the throes of the First World War - Malevich dated his visionary "Black Square" as 1913, the date he conceived of the idea.  Though exceedingly simple in composition and design, "Black Square" was a revolutionary concept and signaled a new beginning in Modern Art. 

 "Black Square", 1913

Positive and negative, absent and present, spiritual and concrete, a beginning and an end, "Black Square" was so radical and so powerful that it was only revealed to the public months after it was created and then hidden again for 50 years.  Beside being Malevich's greatest accomplishment, it also was the springboard for his new art "ism", Suprematism.

Drawing on the idea that the artist's of the past were "counterfeiters of nature" and that the new world, i.e. Russia during World War I and just prior to the Russian Revolution, needed a new vision that was non objective and true.  Suprematism answered that call using simple colors and shapes to express pure artistic feeling rather than the visual depiction of things and people.

"Suprematist Composition", 1916

This is the first exhibition in a quarter century dedicated to Kazimir Malevich and his enormous impact on art as we know it today.  The Tate, in collaboration with major museums in Russia, Amsterdam, Greece and around the world, has brought together an extensive selection of paintings and very rarely seen drawings to demonstrate Malevich's artistic evolution from beginning to end.  Presented against the backdrop of major historical events - the fall of Tzarist Russia and the Stalinist Era - and with the realization that Malevich and his contemporaries were working in an artistic vacuum, cut off from the rest of the world, this exhibition fixes Malevich's place among the stars of Modern Art.

October 04, 2014

What's On At The Museum at FIT

One of the hidden gems on the New York museum scene is The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.  Located in the heart of the garment district, FIT is known primarily as an academic institution specialized in studies of fashion, design and the business thereof.  But the campus also features an excellent museum with two galleries offering short-term exhibitions on themes of fashion and its history that are free and open to the public from Tuesdays through Saturdays.

You may be thinking that a museum show of old dresses is not for you, but this is not the kind of place to find lifeless mannequins wearing musty, moth-eaten, frumpy clothing.  The exhibition lineup at The Museum at FIT uses fashion to explore larger issues such as social history, popular culture and the performing arts in a creative, informative and entertaining style.

Take, for instance the two exhibitions now on view.  On the ground floor in the smaller, more intimate gallery dedicated to the history of fashion and textiles, is "Exposed:  A History of Lingerie".  Now that I have your attention let me assure you that while this is a scholarly exhibition, it is just as amusing as the title promises!

The exhibition traces the history of undergarments, both "hard" like corsets, bras and bustles, and "soft" unstructured slips, nightgowns and panties, from the 18th century to the present.  The 80 items on view illustrate how what people wore under their clothes and in the privacy of their boudoirs was influenced by shifting ideas of beauty, advancements in technology and evolving concepts of propriety.  Take, for instance, the transformation of the corset from a laced up straightjacket with whale bone stays to the lace, nylon and elastic "corselet" - part bra, part girdle, part suspender - of the 1950's to a contemporary silk and lace "teddy".  Or, a turn of the century peignoire lavishly decorated with lace and ruffles to a set of silk lounging pajamas with matching robe that epitomize 1940's elegance.

Working with the premise that "lingerie is the final barrier to the fully nude body and is thus inherently erotic", "Exposed" presents all manner of intimate apparel from petticoats to push-up bras, from stockings to slips and from demure to dangerous!

Moving downstairs to the cavernous Special Exhibitions Gallery, we come to "Dance & Fashion", a look at ballet and modern dance and its interactive relationship with fashion and design.  Here we find a dramatic staging of nearly 100 dance costumes and dance-inspired fashions from the 19th century to today.

A soundtrack of familiar dance music sets the tone for this beautiful show as visitors view costumes and accessories from beloved ballets and modern dance side-by-side with couture clothing they inspired.  Like the ubiquitous flamenco dress and its interpretations by Balenciaga, Oscar de la Renta and Ralph Lauren.  Or the Orientalist costumes of the Ballets Russes and their influence on gowns by Paul Poiret and Yves Saint Laurent.

A major focus of "Dance & Fashion" is the synergy between designers and dance - how classical ballet and modern dance influenced current fashions and the contribution made by fashion designers to the stage.  There were many examples of performance costumes by such star designers as Halston,  Valentino, Isaac Mizrahi and Stella McCartney who worked with major companies such as the New York City Ballet, the Martha Graham Dance Company, Mark Morris Dance Group and Twyla Tharp.  There were also examples of fashion creators such as Geoffry Beene incorporating ballet and dance into their runway shows.  Finally, the direct influence of dance costumes on street wear was evidenced in the full ballet skirts of Christian Dior's "New Look" and the pointe shoe on countless interpretations of the "ballet flat".

For centuries, men and women have used apparel not just for protection, modesty and warmth, but as an expression of personal identity.  The Museum at FIT takes this common thread and expands it to explore the impact of something as basic as clothing on our history and culture.  You can catch "Exposed" until November 15, 2014 and "Dance & Fashion" until January 2015.