November 29, 2015

On the trail of Andrea del Sarto

If you're looking for a little peace and quiet this holiday season, may I suggest a visit to The Frick Collection - one of New York's cultural gems and a calm oasis from crowds and commercialism.  This fall The Frick offers yet another reason to visit its magnificent permanent collection as it presents a special exhibition entitled "Andrea del Sarto:  The Renaissance Workshop in Action".
Though Andrea del Sarto (1486-1530) is not a familiar name to many modern Americans, he was, in his time, a very successful artist and an even more influential teacher.  Born Andrea d'Agnolo, he was called Andrea del Sarto after his father's profession as a tailor, or sarto.  He was also known during his lifetime as an artist senza errori ("free from errors") although his fame was later eclipsed by other High Renaissance artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.

This exhibition, curated in conjunction with The Getty Center in Los Angeles, is the debut of Andrea's drawings and paintings in the United States.  On display in the Lower Galleries are eighty superb drawings, mostly executed in red or black chalk on paper, depicting head and figure studies and composite preparatory sketches for his oil paintings.  Exquisitely rendered from live models as well as sculptures, these drawings are examples of Renaissance draftsmanship at its finest.

 "Study of a Woman", c. 1517-1525

Upstairs in the Frick's beautiful Oval Room, we find three masterful oils including "Portrait of a Young Man" believed to be a self portrait, "St. John the Baptist" and "The Medici Holy Family" (see below), each with accompanying sketches.

If I've piqued your interest in the work of Andrea del Sarto you might continue your tour up Fifth Avenue to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where a special mini-exhibition is on view in Gallery 624.  Here you will find two magnificent works, one part of The Met's extensive collection of Italian Renaissance art entitled "Holy Family with Young Saint John the Baptist" (see below) and the other, "Charity" on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.

This is a very special opportunity not only to compare these two great paintings but also to see the "underpinnings" of these works.  Using state of the art technology, we can now see what lies beneath the surfaces and how exactly Andrea was able to create these large images.

Working from preparatory drawings like the ones now on view at the Frick, Andrea and his workshop created full size sketches called "cartoons".  These cartoons were arranged on top of the painting's canvas with a sheet of carbon-black coated paper placed in between.  The image was then traced with a stylus from the cartoon, though the carbon paper and onto the canvas beneath.  This proved to be a very efficient method as the same cartoons could be rearranged and reused on a variety of images.  Infrared examination shows that they could also be manipulated and adjusted for the final product.

"Charity", before 1530

In 1512 Andrea married the widow of a hatter, a woman named Lucrezia whom he portrayed in many of his paintings, often as the Madonna.  According to contemporary accounts, she was not as devoted to her husband as she might have been and all but abandoned him as he succumbed to the Bubonic Plague at the age of 43.  Despite this short career he left an impressive body of work and American museum goers are fortunate indeed to enjoy this artistic re-introduction thanks to The Frick, The Met and The Getty.
Andrea d’Agnolo (1486–1530), called Andrea del Sarto after his father’s profession as a tailor (sarto), transformed the art of drawing in Renaissance Florence. An extraordinary artist and innovator, he also ran a large and highly esteemed workshop from which several pupils went on to achieve notable careers. - See more at:

November 22, 2015

A "Lulu" of an Opera

A performance of "Lulu" is not your usual night at the opera.  This dark tale of rags to riches and back to rags via sex, murder, prison, cholera and prostitution is told over three acts in Alban Berg's discordant twelve-tone score.  The latest version now in performances at New York's Metropolitan Opera House features director William Kentridge's daring new production that renders the story even more harrowing.  Not surprisingly it has caused quite a buzz in cultural circles and last Tuesday evening I was able to procure tickets to experience the phenomenon myself.

"Lulu" was written by Berg between 1929 and 1933, a time of great political and social tension in Austria.  Though Berg himself was not Jewish, his teacher and mentor, Arnold Schoenberg, was, and this guilt by association proved enough to cause his music to be considered entartete or "degenerate" and banned.  Berg wrote both the score, using Schoenberg's atonal technique, and the libretto based on two plays by Frank Wedekind "Earth Spirit", 1895, and "Pandora's Box", 1904.  Unfortunately Berg died suddenly before finishing Act III of "Lulu" and the incomplete opera premiered in neutral Zurich in 1937.  For the next forty years the opera was performed and recorded by several major houses but always missing the concluding act as the composer's widow forbid anyone from completing her husband's work.  Upon Helene Berg's death in 1976 the opera was finally finished by Friedrich Cerha, another Austrian composer who worked from Berg's careful notes.  The first performance of the full opera was presented in Paris in February 1979 with Teresa Stratas singing the title role.

The current production made its debut at The Met just a few weeks ago on November 5th and is the brainchild of South African artist William Kentridge.  Mr. Kentridge has interpreted the opera as a German Expressionist extravaganza that works with the atonality of the music and the sordidness of the story.  The Art Deco sets are presented against an ever-changing backdrop of black and white projections that alternate between Kentridge's own drawings and headlines from newspapers.  The costumes are also avant garde with some characters wearing paper masks, Lulu herself in seductive dress (sometimes made of paper) and a large paper hand that re-appears over and over like the hand of God.

Marlis Petersen as Lulu

The tale of "Lulu" is a complicated one based on lies, lust and longing.  It begins in Vienna in the late 19th century with the protagonist, who is married to a doctor, having her portrait painted by an artist who is in love with her.  They are briefly interrupted by the arrival of Dr. Schön, a newspaper publisher who has a long history with Lulu, and his son Alwa, a composer who is also in love with her.  When the doctor returns and discovers the artist pursuing his wife he suffers a fatal stroke.  The artist then marries Lulu and they live in relative comfort, secretly supported by Dr. Schön, until Lulu learns that Dr. Schön is going to marry someone else and becomes distraught.  Dr. Schön, longing to finally be free of Lulu's tentacles, exposes their history together to the artist and he kills himself.

Lulu eventually forces Dr. Schön to break off his engagement and marry her and they live unhappily but inevitably together, torturing each other but unable to be apart.  Dr. Schön finally can no longer bear the coterie of Lulu's admirers from his own son to the lesbian Countess Geschwitz and gives her a gun to kill herself.  Instead she kills him and is taken to prison where she contracts cholera and eventually escapes thanks to an elaborate plan hatched by the Countess and several rather unsavory scoundrels from her past.

Johan Reuter and Marlis Petersen as Dr. Schön and Lulu

The action then moves to Paris where Lulu has fled with Alwa.  Their efforts to make a new life are thwarted by characters from her past who threaten to expose her secrets and have her thrown back into jail.  Destitute and afraid, the two flee again, this time to London where Lulu is forced to become a prostitute.  Her first client is a philosopher, played by her first husband the physician, the next client is an African prince, played by the artist, and the third and ultimate client is Jack the Ripper, played by, you guessed it, Dr. Schön, who kills her.

So ends the short sad life of Lulu.  Rising and falling from the ghetto to the bourgeoisie and back down onto the streets again she is the embodiment of the Biblical Eve.  A sexual predator until forced to turn tricks, a murderer who was finally murdered, she looked out only for number one until she was her own worst enemy.  Berg's discordant score set against Kentridge's shocking production made for an evening that the audience will not soon forget.  "Lulu" continues at The Met until December 3.

November 11, 2015

Ai Weiwei P.S. - The Lego Fiasco

I had no sooner visited the Ai Weiwei exhibition at the Royal Academy in London (see my blog of November 5) when he was back in the headlines for yet another controversy.  This one did not involved the Chinese government directly, but the Danish family-owned corporation that manufactures the hugely popular Lego building blocks.

Ai Weiwei in front of "Tree", 2015
A site-specific work made of reassembled pieces
of dead wood from southern China and
installed in the courtyard of The Royal Academy, London

According to various news sources, Ai Weiwei had placed an order for a large quantity of Lego bricks for an art installation to be created at a gallery in Australia.  Because of Ai Weiwei's reputation as a dissident artist, and the proposed artwork's theme of freedom of speech, The Lego Group refused to fill the order on the grounds that they "cannot approve the use of Legos for political works".  Not to be too cynical, but it seems rather ironic that this private company, the world's biggest toymaker, does not seem to have a problem with the recently proposed Legoland amusement park to be built in Shanghai, China.  But I digress.

In what is becoming almost typical of Ai Weiwei, he has managed to turn this "act of censorship and discrimination" into a publicity coup for him and a nightmare for Lego.  London's Royal Academy was the first to respond and they did so with style.  Since October 30th, a second-hand BMW sedan has been parked in the museum's courtyard with the sunroof left open as a collection point for Lego blocks.  The response has been amazing and other museums have followed suit with similar model BMW sedans parked at The Brooklyn Museum, New York, the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin and The National Gallery of Victoria, Australia to name a few.

Children and adults alike seems to love tossing the colorful blocks into the cars and it won't be long until Ai Weiwei will have collected plenty of Legos for this, and probably many other, projects without having to spend a nickel for their purchase.  While Lego has the right to sell or not sell to whomever they please, it seems that this was a miscalculation of the highest order.

I leave you with another marvelous Weiwei-ism that seems appropriate under the circumstances:
"The art always wins.  Anything can happen to me but the art will stay",  The Economist, May 2012.

November 08, 2015

The Underwater Treasures of Osiris

According to Egyptian mythology, Osiris, the eldest of the three sons of Nut, goddess of the sky, and Geb, god of the earth, ruled ancient Egypt as early as 3000 BC.  Osiris was killed by his brother Seth who cut him up into fourteen pieces and scattered them across the land.  The legend states that Osiris' sister/wife Isis gathered the pieces together and brought him back to life long enough to beget a son, Horus, the future Pharaoh.  Osiris became the king of the After Life where he judged the dead and is the origin for the belief in life after death that is the basis of many religions to this day.

Osiris holds a special place in Egyptian lore as he was considered a merciful judge of the dead and the one who granted all life, including the vegetation that grew along the Nile.  As such, he was honored in ancient times with an annual ceremony called "The Mysteries of Osiris" in which his effigy was transported by water from the temple of Amun-Gereb in Thonis-Heracleion to his shrine in the city of Canopus. 

At some point in the 8th century AD the cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus were submerged underwater probably after a particularly strong earthquake and tidal wave.  They remained hidden from view until their rediscovery in 1997 by archaeological underwater research teams lead by Franck Goddio.

Now, nearly twenty years later, the Institut du Monde Arabe, (Arab World Institute) in Paris is presenting Franck Goddio's findings in a block buster exhibition entitled "Osiris, mystères engloutis d'Égypte (Osiris, Sunken Mysteries of Egypt)".  250 objects, salvaged from their underwater resting place and most never seen outside of Egypt, are currently on view in a most fascinating show. 

The installation covers two floors and is decorated to resemble an undersea treasure trove of artifacts used in the ancient worship of Osiris.  Objects include a magnificent gray sandstone statue of Osiris sitting on his throne with his crook and flail crossed over his chest and wearing his trademark ostrich feather headdress (see above) done circa 550 BC in the reign of Amasis.

This is a detail of a large tablet or stela with hieroglyphics issuing a decree from the Pharaoh Nectanebo I, increasing the sums allowed to the temple of the goddess Neith at Saïs.

Here is a colossal (about 10 feet tall) statue of the God "Hapy" executed in pink granite around 305 BC during the Ptolemaic period.  Hapy was the god of floods and fertility and this statue was discovered, underwater, in front of the temple of Thonis-Heracleion.  It had been broken into seven pieces and restored during Antiquity.

This granite Sphinx is one of a pair discovered near Alexandria and probably guarded a priest in a small sanctuary dedicated to Osiris.

Osiris is shown rising and awakening in this life-size statue made of rock and bronze.  His face is serene and he wears a headdress with the traditional ostrich feathers made of precious metal.

The Institut du Monde Arabe is probably most famous for its architectural design by Jean Nouvel, but this outstanding exhibition, both informative and gorgeous, will certainly bring accolades from the artistic and archaeological communities.  I leave you with another beautiful sight - the view from the Institute's 9th floor terrace on a perfect autumn day in Paris!

November 05, 2015

Ai Weiwei takes over the Royal Academy

Few Contemporary artists are as closely connected with political activism as Chinese national Ai Weiwei.  Even fewer can claim the global recognition and adulation he has garnered with his creative response to the suppression of free speech and movement imposed by the Chinese government on its citizens, and particularly its artists, for the past half century.

I had a general familiarity with Ai Weiwei's plight and his art gleaned mostly through headlines in art newsletters, but I was not really clear on what he was about.  When I saw that Ai Weiwei was the featured exhibition at London's Royal Academy this fall I felt that I should probably visit the show if only to see what the fuss was about.  I had no idea that it would be so moving and profound and that I would exit the RA with a new and sincere respect for the man and his artistic language.

Ai Weiwei was born in Beijing in 1957.  The next year his father, the poet Ai Qing, was arrested during the Anti-Rightist Movement and the entire family was exiled to labor camps in remote parts of northwest China.  They returned to Beijing in 1976 after the death of Chairman Mao saw a brief relaxation of state restrictions.  At the age of 21, Ai began studying at the Beijing Film Academy but with the return of government censorship he soon left China for the United States where he lived and worked until 1993.  A decade later he returned to his homeland to see his father who was gravely ill.

It is against this backdrop that the artistic expression of Ai Weiwei was formed and it was in the cauldron of Chinese governmental control and suppression that he gained his voice as a dissident and freedom fighter.  Despite innumerable detentions, arrests, beatings and persecutions executed by authorities trying to suppress and diminish his global artistic reach, Ai Weiwei continues to be heard, loud and clear.

This survey, his first in the United Kingdom, focuses on Ai Weiwei's works created after his return to Beijing.  Each gallery contains a work or series created in response to his own personal ordeals, oppressive governmental policies regarding transparency and human rights, or to draw attention to the rapidly disappearing artistic heritage of his homeland.

For example, one of the most powerful installations is entitled "Straight", 2008-2012, created in response to the Sichuan earthquake of May 12, 2008, in which 90,000 people lost their lives.  Over 5,000 of the victims were schoolchildren crushed to death when their schools collapsed due to shoddy construction.  Ai Weiwei and a number of others pressed the authorities to release the names of the dead children and to bring to light the corruption that had resulted in sub-standard building materials being used.  Not surprisingly, the officials were not forthcoming so Ai took matters into his own hands and clandestinely retrieved 200 tons of twisted rebar, one steel rod for each student, which he carefully straightened by hand into their original pre-earthquake state.  These rusted rods are arranged as a sort of topographical map, with the names of the 5,385 children lost posted nearby.  It is considered the first civil rights action in China and Ai was punished with the shutdown of his blog, the arrest of his supporters, the first of several surveillance cameras posted outside his studio and a 3 AM beating in his hotel room in Chengdu.

Others speak to the destruction of the Chinese cultural heritage like "Fragments", 2005, where bits and pieces of iron wood, furniture, beams and pillars from dismantled temples of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) are reassembled in a totally different structure.

Or a not-so-subtle comment on globalization in "Coca Cola Vase", 2014, an antique Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) vase embellished with paint.

One particularly disturbing installation is "S.A.C.R.E.D.", 2011-2013, Ai Weiwei's response to his incarceration in a secret location for 81 days in 2011.  Held in a small room with no windows and 24 hour light, with every surface covered in plastic and the continual presence of two silent guards, this was an especially brutal form of psychological and physical abuse.  Here, in six dioramas exemplifying Supper, Accusers, Cleansing, Ritual, Entropy and Doubt visitors can peer into large rusted metal boxes and experience the misery of Ai Weiwei's prison cell as a voyeur.

While this was not one of the more uplifting exhibitions I have visited, it was an enlightening look at the work of this international cause celebre and how he gained this status.  I leave you with a final installation entitled "Bicycle Chandelier", 2015, a beautiful creation comprised of approximately 40 silver "Forever" brand bicycles (the most popular in China) sheathed in cascading crystals and suspended from the ceiling.  Once a universal mode of transportation, the bicycle has seen a decline in use and is now almost a luxury good, much like a chandelier.  The crystals speak to the artist's childhood in exile, without light, and these formerly utilitarian objects are transformed into sparkly symbols of illumination and freedom.

"Art is not an end but a beginning"  Ai Weiwei, "W Magazine", March 2008
"Amen to that" Georgina Kelman, November 2015

November 03, 2015

"Drawing in Silver and Gold"

Visitors come from far and wide to The British Museum to view its magnificent treasures like the Elgin Marbles and the Rosetta Stone, but for a limited time, those who venture up to the top floor will be rewarded with a small but exquisite exhibition devoted to the art of metalpoint drawing.  A collaboration with The National Gallery in Washington DC, "Drawing in Silver and Gold" explores the little known artistic technique of drawing with a metal stylus rather than a pencil or chalk.  And if you're wondering what's so special about this method, a quick glance at the hundred or so magnificent examples on display will make it all clear!

Surprisingly, metalpoint drawing is almost more about the surface than it is about the metal drawing instrument.  A short video presentation shows how a sheet of paper or parchment is treated with a concoction of bone ash (a gritty powder made of roasted and ground animal bones) mixed with a dye agent like powdered clay or indigo, and a little water to form a fine paste.  This paste is combined with a binding agent, like animal glue, and carefully applied to the paper with a brush.  Once dry, the paper becomes a colored ground with a slightly abrasive surface and is ready to be drawn upon.

The metal stylus can be a nib of silver, gold or other metal, or an object like a spring or a comb to make a different kind of line.  All metal drawings appear grey on the ground and a darker effect is achieved by repeated strokes or cross-hatching, not harder rubbing.  Some metals, like silver, will eventually tarnish turning the lines from grey to brown and sometimes the drawings are highlighted with a white gouache paint to add depth.  The most challenging aspect to metalpoint drawing is that it is very difficult to erase, therefore each line must be carefully considered before the stylus meets the surface of the paper.

Metalpoint drawing became popular during the late 14th century when it was used for preparatory studies for paintings, rapid sketches and fully finished drawings.  It was practiced with equal popularity in Italy, by such masters as Leonardo Da Vinci (see above "Bust of a Warrier", 1495, silver point on cream prepared paper) Boticcelli and Raphael, and in Northern Europe by Rembrandt, Albrecht Dürer and Rogier van der Weyden (see left "Head of the Virgin", mid 15th Century).  The arrival of cheaper and easier to use graphite saw a decline in the use of metalpoint for drawing and by the 17th century it was virtually forgotten.  The late 19th century saw a re-emergence in the technique's popularity as artists like Edward Burne-Jones and Charles Holroyd recognized the unique properties of this method.  By the 20th century such avant garde artists as Otto Dix and Jasper Johns regularly used metalpoint as a drawing medium.

Although "Drawing in Silver and Gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns" is not a headliner exhibition, it was one of the most fascinating and informative shows I've seen in a long time.  The assembly of such a distinguished group of these rare works of art, including four loans from the collection of HRH Queen Elizabeth II, made a compelling case for the revival of this largely unfamiliar technique.  An outstanding installation allowed viewers to truly appreciate the fine lines and extraordinary detail that can be only be achieved by metalpoint drawing and we left with a tremendous admiration for this under-appreciated medium.

Albrecht Dürer  "A Dog Resting", c. 1520
Silver point and traces of charcoal over pale pink prepared paper