April 29, 2015

"Sculpture in the Age of Donatello"

15th Century Italy was a fertile period for the arts and sciences - an age when creativity, culture, academia and beauty were prized by the aristocracy and newly developing merchant classes alike.  Advances in architecture, sculpture, literature, painting, philosophy and music were encouraged and sponsored leaving a treasure trove of advances and achievements that continue to amaze.

One of the protagonists of the era was the sculptor Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, better known as Donatello, whose greatest artistic contribution was probably his grasp of the concept of perspectival illusionism - the ability to make a statue appear natural when viewed from a different perspective like from a distance below.

In the early 1400s, the noted architect Brunelleschi was putting the finishing touches on his masterpiece, Florence Cathedral ("Il Duomo") and he commissioned Donatello and a few of his contemporaries to create sculptures and decorations befitting the grandeur of the space.  Together these artists conceived and produced works of great majesty and mystery that enhanced the exterior and interior spaces of the cathedral.  The magnificent friezes and statues of biblical figures and scenes made can be found throughout Il Duomo from the Bell Tower to the portals and are considered some of the greatest examples of Italian Renaissance art.

"St. John the Evangelist", c. 1409-1411

For the first time ever, and for a very limited duration, admirers of Donatello will not have to travel to Florence to see these great works as they are on a temporary loan to the Museum of Biblical Art  (MoBIA) while their usual home, the Museo dell' Opera del Duomo (the museum of the Florence Cathedral) is being renovated.  During this time, 23 exquisite examples of works by Luca della Robbia, Nanni di Banco, Giovanni D'Ambrogio, Filippo Brunelleschi and Donatello himself, will be on view in a very special opportunity to see them on this side of the Atlantic.

"Prophet Habbakuk" or "Lo Zuccone", c. 1423-1435

Judging by the crowds in the small exhibition space, Donatello has quite a following here in New York City.  While some of the statues are not exactly beautiful to behold in close up, they are remarkable artifacts and moving examples of devotional art in its infancy, and it is a privilege to have such access to these monuments of Italian heritage.

It's rather ironic that arguably the most scholarly and international exhibition in the history of MoBIA will also be its last.  But when "Sculpture in the Age of Donatello" closes its doors on June 14th, so too will this ten-year-old museum dedicated to the promotion of religious art.  It is not due to a lack of interest in its curatorial mission but very simple economics, as the building, located on a prime stretch of Broadway on Manhattan's Upper West Side, has been sold to developers.  I will miss having MoBIA in the neighborhood with their small but incisive exhibitions - always an interesting visit and the source of quite a few blogs.

April 26, 2015

"Audubon's Aviary: The Final Flight"

John James Audubon would have turned 230 years old today and in honor of this milestone I decided to visit the New-York Historical Society to catch the third and final installment of "Audubon's Aviary".  Part III of "The Complete Flock" is the public's last chance to view the Society's magnificent endowment of the preparatory watercolors for Audubon's magnum opus "The Birds of America" published in four double-elephant sized volumes between 1827-1838.

This exhibition is the summation of a three year program to display every one of the 474 avian watercolors, as well as the complete set of "The Birds of America", acquired by the New-York Historical Society in 1863.  Due to the enormous size and fragile nature of these works, the Society chose to prolong the pleasure and broke up the exhibition into a chronologically arranged trilogy.  The current installation, "The Final Flight", features the watercolors for fascicles 62-87 comprising plates 306-435 in Havell's monumental publication.

A self-taught artist, John James Audubon (1785-1851) is considered America's first great watercolorist and his careful study of each species portrayed made him a first class ornithologist and naturalist as well.  He was also a pioneer in the concept of environmentalism and worked to protect and preserve rare species of birds from extinction.  His lasting legacy is "The Birds of America" an ambitious attempt to record all the birds on the continent, life sized and in their natural habitats.  His quest to locate and document every kind of bird led him as far south as Florida and up to Labrador.  While he traveled almost regularly to England to see his publisher, he did not venture farther west than the Missouri River and relied upon intrepid explorers, private collectors and specimens in the London Zoological Society to fill in the gaps.

Currently on display are the last 129 illustrations engraved by Havell and distributed to the subscribers.  Organized according to Audubon's own aesthetic judgement rather than by breed or family, these are the last types of birds the artist was able to acquire for study.  Pressed for time and certainly for money, some of these watercolors are not quite as careful or intricate as earlier works, but every last one is a snapshot of the species in a pre-photography age.

From California Condors to Rufous Hummingbirds, American Flamingos to Barn Owls, John James Audubon's watercolors bring these birds to life.  Whether in groups or singly, against a white background or in its natural habitat, at rest or in flight, the artist has captures the essence of his avian subjects in what remains the "Bible of Bird Books".  I urge you to visit "Audubon's Aviary" before it closes on May 10th and these feathered fellows fly back into storage for another decade.

April 25, 2015

"America Is Hard To See" Opens the "New" Whitney

In five short days New York City will have yet another jewel in its crown of world class museums and art institutions!  That is when the Whitney Museum of American Art opens its brand new space in the heart of the Meatpacking District.  I had the good fortune to receive an invitation to the opening party and last night I donned the requested "festive attire" and rode the subway downtown to the preview!

It was quite an event!  Guests were lined up not just down the block on Gansevoort Street, but across the road and down the highway that runs along the Hudson River.  Despite it being a rather chilly April evening, we joined the queue and were inside the incredible new space within just a few minutes.

Designed by renowned architect Renzo Piano, the new Whitney is a vision of steel and glass nestled at the base of the High Line, surrounded by chic boutiques and restaurants and a few remaining meat markets.  I am not always a fan of Renzo Piano, but this building is splendid.  From the outside it appears stately yet approachable, and the inside is spacious, light and easy to navigate.  Most of the eight stories are gallery space and there are several opportunities to step outside to admire the amazing views.

Founded in 1930 by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney to showcase her collection of American Art, the museum first opened its doors on West Eighth Street in Greenwich Village.  By 1954 it had relocated to West 54th Street and twelve years later moved into a Marcel Breuer designed building on Madison Avenue at 75th Street.  In recent years the Whitney had both outgrown these premises but also felt that it would better serve its visitor base from a location in a more hip neighborhood.  Negotiations with the City and then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg resulted in the Whitney receiving a plot of land at 99 Gansevoort Street, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art agreeing to take over the Breuer building to house their contemporary art galleries.  It was a win-win situation!

From Friday, May 1st, 2015, visitors will be able to enjoy the Whitney's impressive collection of art by American artists in thoughtfully designed exhibition spaces that really show off the works on view.  Floor to ceiling windows (with computer controlled shades) allow both natural light and a panoramic vista from the Freedom Tower to the Statue to Liberty to the Empire State Building.   Outdoor terraces offer a cafe and chairs where one can sit and watch over the High Line below.  There is a restaurant on the ground floor, an auditorium and an education center.  And, oh yes, there's art - and lots of it!

The opening exhibition's title "America is Hard to See" is taken from a line in a Robert Frost poem and is particularly appropriate.  With 600 works, featuring 400 artists, drawn from the Whitney's holdings of over 21,000 pieces, the exhibition clearly demonstrates the depth and variety of American art through the ages.  Arranged chronologically from the top floor down, are national icons mixed in with some lesser known but still very compelling works.  Art world superstars like Edward Hopper, Georgia O'Keeffe, Andrew Wyeth, Alexander Calder, George Segal, George Bellows, Ed Ruscha and Roy Lichtenstein are represented in paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints that showcase the very essence of the American art scene from 1900 to the present.

Georgia O'Keeffe "Summer Days", 1936

Alexander Calder "Circus", 1926-31

Change is certainly a constant - sometimes it's for the better and sometimes not so much - but this re-invention of the Whitney Museum is a winner all around.

April 21, 2015

"The Invention of Privacy" @ Le Musée Marmottan

I have to confess, it was the suggestive title and the rather risque advertisements that drew me to the outskirts of Paris on a recent Sunday afternoon.  Of course, as my readers know, the Musée Marmottan regularly offers worthwhile exhibitions in their elegantly restored hunting lodge on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne, but they are usually of the safe and pretty variety.  This, by all appearances, was going to be different.

"La Toilette and The Invention of Privacy" explores the notions of hygiene and personal space through the eyes of artists from the 15th century to the present.  Needless to say, there have been a great many changes over the years in habits, equipment and social norms, and the depictions vary accordingly.  From the clinical act of cleansing the body to the eroticism of the luxurious bath this show presents the action of washing in more permutations than you can possibly imagine!

"La Toilette" begins its history of bathing in the Middle Ages with a magnificent tapestry borrowed from the Musée de Cluny.  Here, in "The Bath", we see a partially clothed woman sitting in a stone basin, surrounded by ladies in waiting, trees, flowers and strolling musicians while she splashes in water.  The scene is not so much about cleansing as it is about pleasure and beauty and communing with nature.

By the Renaissance, the practice of washing in public baths was eschewed as unsanitary and only the very wealthy could maintain an enclosed area within the home for bathing.  These "bathing apartments" were not private and it was common for several women, sometimes accompanied by children, to bathe together.  They also provided the opportunity for secret meetings and dalliances.
School of Fontainbleau 
"Venus with Mirror", late 1600s

Before long, bathing with any sort of water was replaced with a "dry toilette", basically wiping the face and hands with a cloth and applying a lot of powder and perfume.  Artists began to depict women at their dressing tables, having their hair coiffed and applying cosmetics, while very often a secondary story was apparent in strategically placed undergarments, a bed, or peeping eyes!

Abraham Bosse (after)
"Sight:  A Woman at her Toilette", c. 1635

Fortunately, by the 18th century the practice of washing with water made a comeback and with it a new sensibility about privacy.  Foot baths and bidets were invented and the idea of individual bathtubs took hold among the upper classes.  Ladies performed their personal ablutions in two phases - a private first toilette and then a second, more public affair - and artists became much bolder in their depictions.
Francois Bouchet
"The Indiscreet Eye" or "Urinating Woman", c. 1742

In the early 1800s, dramatically changing concepts of privacy and decorum spelled the end of the "open" bath.  It was no longer acceptable for women to dress and make-up in front of friends, lovers, painters or even servants, and washing became something done only behind closed doors.  A new puritanical attitude discouraged the painting of nude bodies leaving the representation of the female form to the more circumspect press.

With the invention and increased accessibility of running water in the late 19th century the "woman at her toilette" re-emerged as a pictorial theme.  Nude women, in all shapes and sizes, were portrayed washing, fixing their hair, applying cosmetics, and pulling on their clothing.  It was a new awareness of the female form in all her sensuality.  From the basin and pitcher to a full length bathtub, women were being portrayed soaking and scrubbing as never before!

Edgar Degas
"Woman in her Bath, Sponging her Leg", 1883

 Théophile Alexandre Steinlen
"The Bath", 1902

The theme of women and their toilettes was explored by almost all the major painters of the late 19th and 20th century.  From Impressionism to the Belle Epoque through Cubism and Modernism, the subject of women bathing, dressing, applying lipstick and fastening an earring has been painted, photographed, sculpted and portrayed in myriad forms.  Indeed, what was racy just a few years ago is now quite tame as our private lives are lived out on television and other social media.

Natalino Bentivolglio Scarpa
"Woman at the Mirror", 1927

Women's bodies and the care and maintenance thereof has fascinated since the beginning of time and this exhibition, the first of its kind, is proof positive that the appeal continues no matter how open or closed our societies become.  "The Invention of Privacy" continues at the Musée Marmottan until July 5, 2015.

April 19, 2015

"Painting Arcadia" Pierre Bonnard at the Musée d'Orsay

The "must see" exhibition in Paris this Spring recently opened to rave reviews at the wonderful Musée d'Orsay.  While I was a little surprised that Pierre Bonnard would be honored with another retrospective just a few years after his major show at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, I am a big enough fan to join the queue and check it out.

When I emerged from the exhibition an hour or so later I was really glad I went.  While "Pierre Bonnard. Painting Arcadia" is another retrospective of this fine artist's work, it is undoubtably the most all-encompassing and well-curated of any I've had the opportunity to visit. 

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) is probably one of the most purely decorative artists of his generation.  His work, with its glowing colors and multiple patterns, presents complex subjects in a most beautiful style.  Theoretically, he was a Post-Impressionist, influenced by, but never a part of the circle.  Practically, it was Paul Gaugin and Japanese woodblock prints that inspired his early work as you see at left in his large format wall panel "Le Peignoir", 1892.  This preoccupation with decorative pattern remained constant throughout his long career.

By the 1890s, Bonnard was at the center of a newly formed artistic movement called Les Nabis, a Hebrew and Arabic word for "Prophets".  This avant garde group of artists included Edouard Vuillard, Maurice Denis, Paul Ranson, among other friends from the Académie Julien, who preached art for art's sake and the equality of decorative versus "fine" art (much like the Pre-Raphaelites working in England).  Les Nabis produced works that were often symbolist in nature and were typically flat in feeling and opened the doors for the world of abstract and cubist art that was waiting in the wings.

Whatever the "ism" of the moment was, Bonnard remained true to his own, very personal, style.  His works are typically views from unusual angles, with unconventional cropping and a preponderance of color and pattern.  Human emotion is raw and viewers often have the sensation of having stumbled into a very private scene.

"La Table", 1925

Many of Bonnard's works include water - in the scenery or more often in the bathroom.  Some of his most interesting paintings are of his wife Marthe in the bathtub.  While these are intimate views of a woman in a private moment they are not particularly amorous - in fact they are often rather impersonal.  This may be explained by the fact that very shortly after Pierre Bonnard married Marthe, his long-time mistress Renee Monchaty committed suicide.

"Nude in the Bath" c. 1925

The Musée d'Orsay's exhibition was also unique in the special gallery devoted to the photographs of Pierre Bonnard.  Using an early Kodak Pocket Camera, Bonnard was able to capture his friends and family in everyday activities - playing games, taking walks - which he later incorporated into his paintings making him one of the very first artists to paint from photographs.

Later landscapes depicting his "hideaway" in Normandy and his "Arabian Nights experience" in St Tropez are gorgeous examples of Bonnard capturing pastoral paradise in his paintings.
"Decor at Vernonnet"

Appropriately, the show finishes with examples of Bonnard's commissions for interior decoration - a steady source of income throughout his career and a recurring opportunity to depict his own particular vision of "Arcadia".  These peaceful visions of humanity in harmony with nature evoked the kind of "all's well with the world" feeling that "art for art's sake" intended, and continue to be sought after to this day.
"Pierre Bonnard.  Painting Arcadia" is on view in Paris until July 2015 before continuing to Madrid and San Francisco.

April 02, 2015

The Elegance of Jeanne Lanvin

One of the lesser known but truly wonderful museums holding the official Musée de France accreditation is the Palais Galliera - the City of Paris Fashion Museum.  Housed in a Neo-Classical palace built in 1895 to display the art collection of the Duchess of Galliera, the building, in Paris' elegant 16th arrondissement, went through several permutations before its present function.  Since becoming the official home of the Fashion Museum in 1977, the Palais Galliera has expanded its collections to include 18th, 19th and 20th century fashions, haute couture, accessories, undergarments as well as departments of photography and prints and drawings.  It is also the repository for the archives of many of the couturiers for whom Paris is so famous.
Of the notable French fashion houses, one of the most dominant and the oldest still extant, is Jeanne Lanvin.  In a long overdue homage to this pioneer of haute couture, the Palais Galliera, in collaboration with Alber Elbaz the artistic director of Maison Lanvin, recently opened a fantastic retrospective of Lanvin's amazing career.   Dramatically presented as pages fallen from a book, the life and work of Jeanne Lanvin unfolds against a stream of mirrors.  Over one hundred dresses, gowns, coats and accessories as well as sketches, magazine illustrations, publicity and pattern books tell the story of this influential couturier.

Jeanne Lanvin (1867-1946) began her illustrious career as a milliner opening her first shop "Lanvin (Melle Jeanne) Mode" in 1889.  In 1897 she gave birth to her only child, a daughter named Marguerite, who became her inspiration and who was immortalized in the Lanvin logo of a mother and child.  A forward thinker in both business and a woman's role in society, Jeanne Lanvin expanded her empire to include children's wear, bridal gowns, evening clothes, lingerie, furs, sportswear, perfume, interior decoration and eventually menswear.  Beside the Paris addresses, she opened boutiques in Deauville, Biarritz, Cannes, Le Touquet, Barcelona and Buenos Aires and participated in World's Fairs and International Expositions throughout Europe and the United States.

Women's bonnets, circa 1912

To maintain her exacting standards of workmanship, the Maison Lanvin employed over one thousand highly trained seamstresses and needle-workers and offered an on-site nursery for her employee's children.  She was also one of the first designers to create four collections a year, one for each season, with each season comprising 200 looks.

One would almost expect an enterprise of this size to produced a "churned out" look, but nothing could be farther from the truth.  A Jeanne Lanvin gown was a creation unlike any other.  A masterpiece of proportion with exquisite attention to detail and virtuoso embellishment such as embroidery, beading, cut-outs, topstitching, soutache and applique.

Vest "Vogue", 1924
Detail of beading and Swarovski crystal embroidery
on a black velvet background

The exhibition begins at the beginning with Lanvin's earliest designs in black and white and gold lamé (she was one of the first to use this fabric).  By 1911 however she was experimenting with what was to become her signature color - Lanvin blue - inspired by Fra Angelico but made definitively her own with private dye shops to produce exactly the right shade which she often paired with black in a rather daring color combination for the time.

The "robe de style", a sort of garden party dress with a tiny waist and a full skirt became known as the "Lanvin dress" in the 1920s.  Usually decorated with her opulent ornamentation, the style was interpreted for children, girls and women and was a steady best seller.

Robe de Style "Colombine", 1924-24
Ivory silk taffeta with black velvet appliques,
large flat beads embroidered with gold thread and 
a red silk velvet bow

Indeed, the extensive decoration of Lanvin designs with metallic, crystal and glass beads, sequins, buttons and applique turned the dresses into pieces of jewelry that shimmered and glittered as the wearer moved.  While the motifs ranged from the naturalistic to the surreal, each was jaw-droppingly gorgeous - and unquestionably the work of Jeanne Lanvin.

Evening gown "La Cavallini", 1925
Black taffeta with bow embroidered in
silver threads, beads, Swarovski crystals and pearls

Jeanne Lanvin drew her inspiration from sources as diverse as ecclesiastical vestments, the French colonial empire, Russian peasants, Wagnerian opera, and the geometry of Art Déco.

 Dress "Boulogne", Summer 1920
 Beige and red crêpe, red stitching,
navy blue appliques and embroidered with white beads

Looking back over the life and career of Jeanne Lanvin, one realizes how truly extraordinary and ahead of her time she was.  The original "lifestyle guru" she was a devoted mother, and successful business woman even during the Great Depression, and the company she founded continues to thrive to this day.  And if the long queue of people waiting eagerly to enter the Palais Galliera is any indication, the legacy of Jeanne Lanvin will live on well into the future.