January 26, 2014

The Winter Antiques Show Celebrates Its Diamond Jubilee

January has been a tough month for New Yorkers.  Between two big snowstorms and a "Polar Vortex" that caused temperatures to plunge to record lows, there hasn't been much incentive to leave the cozy comforts of home.  But the annual Winter Antiques Show is always worth braving the elements for and yesterday I bundled up and headed through Central Park to the Park Avenue Armory.

2014 marks the 60th anniversary of this distinguished art and antiques fair and no effort was spared to make this an exhibition worthy of a diamond jubilee.  From the towering urns of red roses at the entrance to the stars projected onto the vast ceiling of the Armory to the red velvet benches in the aisles, it was an atmosphere of luxury.

The themes of beauty and rarity were reflected in the wonderful offerings in the 59 booths and two special historical displays on view.  While this fair can be very heavy on Americana, I thought this year's selections were much more diverse and interesting.  Some of the more unusual objects for sale included a whimsical wooden hat and cane stand carved in Germany and depicting a bear cub up a tree with Mama Bear looking up from the base.  Not surprising it was already marked sold by Tillou Gallery, Connecticut.

This pair of carved stone statues on the stand of Robert Young Antiques, London, is a great example of English folk art.  They depict "Paddy and his Wife", a couple embarking on a voyage to a new life in the Americas, circa 1850.

Also charming was a trio of objects, two German, one American, but all in the same case at Frank and Barbara Pollack, Illinois.  The Micky Mouse is a very early example of the iconic Disney character.  The tulips are actually made of glass and are German in origin, as is the paper maché lobster with candies hidden in its body!

The venerable Dutch porcelain dealers Aronson Antiquairs also brought a little humor to their stand with a collection of Delft Suijgkannen or Puzzle Jugs.  These novelty items were for 17th and 18th century drinking games where the party or tavern guest would try to drink red wine from the pitcher without spilling it all over himself and the table.  You see, each jug has booby traps - a perforated neck, a hidden tube, a hollow handle or rim - that makes getting the liquid from the ewer into the drinker's mouth challenging but possible, if you know the trick!

Less entertaining but very elegant was a stunning glass and mirror art déco panel on the stand of Maison Gerard, New York.  An 18th century painted wood with lacquer and silver Almohaddilla, or Mexican sewing box was a lovely discovery at Derek Johns Ltd., London.  And an exceedingly rare gothic coffret with a hand colored woodcut of the Nativity on the interior of the lid was a treasure on the stand of Les Enluminures, New York.

Unfortunately I could not procure a good image of my favorite object at this year's fair but I will try to describe it to you.  On the stand of Associated Artists, Connecticut, the very first stand as I entered the show, was a library table and two chairs that were absolutely stunning.  It turned out to be the creation of none other than Louis Comfort Tiffany who is, of course, normally associated with lamps and silver but evidently had quite a talent for furniture as well.  What made this suite so exceptional was actually two things.  First, the table was inlaid on the top, legs and braces with an intricate micro mosaic of pin-point size bits of wood set in brass to form a geometric pattern.  Second, the chair backs were carved in a heavy relief of flowers that extended over the top rail to give the illusion of a garden of blossoms and leaves.  The set was created for the music room of the Havemeyer mansion on East 66th Street circa 1891-93, and originally comprised two more carved arm chairs which are now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This year's Winter Antiques Show featured two special exhibitions.  The first, entitled "Fresh Take", came from the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts, the oldest continuously operating museum in the country.  It sought to make comparisons and draw similarities between various cultures and ages and American folk and decorative arts.  The second was a group presentation in honor of the show's diamond jubilee.  With impressive loans of magnificent jewels by Graff, Chanel, Tiffany and Bulgari there was plenty of sparkle to celebrate this milestone of America's most prestigious antiques event.  The Winter Antiques Show continues through February 2, 2014.

January 21, 2014

"The Great Man's Doll"

This is the time of year -- before the art fair season has begun and while museums are in between exhibitions -- when coming up with interesting and timely blog topics can become a challenge.  In anticipation of exactly this situation I have a "back-up" list of potential stories and I would like to share one of these with you now.

Some time ago I made the on-line acquaintance of a collector in California who is a great doll enthusiast.  We corresponded regularly and last October we had the opportunity to meet face to face in Paris.  We chose a Sunday afternoon to get together and visit a few exhibitions one of which was at the Maison de Victor Hugo on the Place des Vosges.  While the theme of the show, the influence of Victor Hugo on the Surrealists, was not exactly Lori's cup of tea, she gamely came along and was rewarded with a tour of the writer's private apartments where he lived from 1832-1848.

While we were having a coffee at the end of the day, she began to tell me an amazing story that juxtaposed her world of doll collecting with the museum we had just visited - the tale of "The Great Man's Doll".

The "Great Man", as you might have guessed, was none other than Victor Hugo, considered one of the greatest poets and novelists of the Romantic Period, if not in all French history.  It turns out that while he was writing "Les Travailleurs de la Mer (The Toilers of the Sea)" in the 1860s, he commissioned a doll from the Parisian manufacturer Adelaide Huret, to serve as inspiration for Deruchette, the heroine of the novel.

This was an exquisite poupée.  17" (43 cm) tall, she featured a beautifully painted bisque head, real strawberry blonde hair, a fully articulated body and a trousseau of stylish clothing and accessories.  When Monsieur Hugo had finished the novel he gifted the doll to the daughter of his friend Alfred Asseline who christened her new plaything "The Great Man's Doll".  When the Hugo family returned from exile in 1872, the doll, after a little refurbishing in the Huret ateliers and a few additions to her wardrobe, was passed on to the author's favorite granddaughter, Jeanne. 

The doll and her accoutrements remained with Jeanne for many years until she was given to Jeanne's god-daughter in whose possession she remained until 2010 when she was consigned for sale to Theriault's, a Maryland-based specialist in antique doll auctions.  The description of Lot # 19 in their sale of July 18th is extensive, to say the least. This example of a Huret poupée was not only an exceptional antique doll, she was a collector's dream-come-true.  Beside the actual French bisque poupée with the extraordinary provenance, the lucky bidder would also come away with a full compliment of original habiliments and furnishings.

When I say "full compliment" I am not kidding.  The lot lists "seven additional dresses and gowns of couturier quality from the early/mid 1860 era and one superb silk fashion gown from the 1872 era", several sets of undergarments and petticoats, signed "Huret" accessories including bonnets, a bone folding-fan, parasols, opera glasses, gloves, needlepoint slippers, a purse containing a lock of baby hair, playing cards, a "necessaire", a snood and a muff, as well as a porcelain tea service in its original box.  The lot also included a first edition of "Victor Hugo Intime", the 1885 memoire written by Alfred Asseline, and a letter from the most recent member of the Hugo family to have possession of the doll.

Needless to say, "The Great Man's Doll" fetched a price far exceeding any pre-sale estimates with the gavel coming down at a jaw-dropping $160,000.  What spurred this bidding frenzy is very clear, and the reason I am writing a blog on the topic.  This "doll" is far more than a toy or an antique - it is a work of art with a soul.  A unique creation with a marvelous story of beauty and romance, an insight into the mind of a literary genius and a link between the 19th century and our time.  

P.S.  With many thanks to Lori Santamaura for a wonderful afternoon and for sharing this enthralling tale.

January 12, 2014

A Winter Visit to The Morgan

I think it's fair to say that The Morgan Library and Museum is one of the great unsung cultural institutions here in New York.  Within the opulent surroundings of financier J.P. Morgan's Madison Avenue residence and library lie works of art, manuscripts, rare books and drawings that represent the very best that money and a discerning eye could acquire.  Since the most recent expansion in 2006, The Morgan Library and Museum has even more space in which to mount temporary exhibitions that showcase treasures from the vault in combination with exceptional private and public loans giving visitors yet another reason to visit.

Now on view are two very disparate but fascinating shows "Leonardo da Vinci: Treasures from the Biblioteca Reale, Turin" and "Edgar Allen Poe: Terror of the Soul".  Let's start upstairs with the elegant brilliance of Italian Renaissance artist, inventor and all-around genius Leonardo da Vinci.

A small but exquisite loan exhibition held to commemorate the Year of Italian Culture in the United States, this show presents drawings and treatises by Leonardo and his followers, called "Leonardeschi".  Presented for the first time in New York is a delicate drawing entitled "Head of a Young Woman", executed in the 1480's as a study for the angel in "Virgin of the Rocks"(see right).  Another masterpiece making its debut in New York is Leonardo's "Codex on the Flight of Birds" in which he examines how birds fly and theorizes on flight in general.  Truly ahead of his time!

Downstairs on the main floor is an exhibition devoted to a purely American genius, the "Master of the Macabre", Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849).  The "first American author to live entirely by his pen", Poe was an accomplished writer, critic, journalist and editor but he considered himself first and foremost a poet.  A man of great swings in fame, fortune and mental stability, his short but frenzied life produced what are now considered masterpieces of Gothic literature and continues to be a major influence on writing today.

Drawn from the Morgan's own resources with important contributions from Susan Jaffe Tane, a preeminent Poe collector, and the New York Public Library, "Terror of the Soul" brings together manuscripts, photographs, letters and even a piece of Poe's original coffin to present an in depth look into the life of this mysterious man.  The exhibition is organized thematically, including poetry, tales and criticisms and featuring pages and scrolls of his distinctive handwritten manuscripts and letters alongside rare printed pamphlets and books.  Of particular interest is a fire-singed manuscript of "The Bells", a very early printed example of "The Raven" illustrated by Edouard Manet, and a daguerreotype taken four days after he had attempted suicide with laudanum (see above).

The last section of the exhibition is dedicated to his huge impact on writers and artistic movements to this day.  Indeed, it is Poe's obsession with doppelgängers, spirits, madness and the grotesque that spurred the French Symbolists into action.  Both admired and despised it is impossible to reject Poe's influence on literary figures from Charles Dickens to Arthur Conan Doyle to Vladimir Nabokov to Stephen King, not to mention the movies and popular culture.  "Terror of the Soul" is an appropriate title for a tribute to this troubled man whose inner demons drove him to produce some of the most iconic works of literature to this day.

January 10, 2014

Vasily Kandinsky @ the Neue Galerie

Located on the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 86th Street is the former William Starr Miller House, a Beaux Arts mansion built in 1914.  Since 1996 this elegant structure has been home to the Neue Galerie, a private museum dedicated to the fine and decorative arts of Germany and Austria in the early 20th century.  This is one of my favorite museums in New York and I have reported on many of their exhibitions and their outstanding permanent collection of furniture, objects and graphics in the Wiener Werkstätte style.

This season the Neue Galerie is presenting a look at the artist Vasily Kandinsky and the period "From Blaue Reiter to the Bauhaus (1910-1925)".  Born in Moscow in 1866, Kandinsky changed studies from law to painting and relocated to Munich at the age of 30.  By 1910 he, along with fellow Russian emigrants Alexej von Jawlensky and Marianne von Werefkin, joined German artists Franz Marc, Auguste Macke, Lionel Feininger and Swiss artist Paul Klee, to found a new art movement known as Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider).  Although this movement did not have an official manifesto, like the Surrealists for example, the group did publish an Almanac and pursued common artistic ideals.  Their beliefs in modern, non-figurative art, the connection between music and painting, and the spiritual and symbolic meanings of color fostered a style that paved the way for Expressionism, Abstraction and the total environment of the Bauhaus.

With the outbreak of World War I, the group dispersed and Kandinsky returned to his native Russia to teach art and art theory.  It was a difficult adjustment for him and he went back to Germany in 1921 when Walter Gropius offered him a position at the Bauhaus in Weimar.

This was a much happier experience for Kandinsky who was a great proponent of the Bauhaus idea of Gesamptkunstwerk - the integration of art forms.  Here at the Bauhaus, it meant creating a total artistic environment including architecture, furnishings, decorations and fine art and also recognition of the performing arts as an integral part of the whole.  For Kandinsky in particular, it meant the merging of music and painting into his own unique style.

 "Black Form", 1923 

The Neue Galerie has assembled a superb group of 80 works that explore Kandinsky's artistic development during this watershed period.  Drawings, decorative pieces and major paintings by Kandinsky and his peers give the visitor a glimpse of the energy and synthesis in their artistic milieu.  A recreation of Kandinsky's mural project for the Juryfreie Kunstschau (Jury-Free Art Show) held in Berlin in 1922 is the icing on the cake - an amalgam art, theatre and music representing the Bauhaus ideal, and a precursor of the Abstraction to come. 

For me, no visit to the Neue Galerie is complete without a stop at the Café Sabarsky and a Viennese coffee and cake.  All New Year's diet resolutions are thrown out the window as whipped cream and chocolate beckon!  "Vasily Kandinsky:  From Blaue Reiter to the Bauhaus" runs until February 10, 2014, and Café Sabarsky is open every day except Tuesday.