June 30, 2016

A Step Back to Ancient Times - "Pergamon" at the Met

The era between the death of Alexander the Great (356 B.C. - 323 B.C.) and the foundation of the Roman Empire in 27 B.C. was a time of tremendous prosperity.  As Alexander's former empire expanded beyond today's Greece, Turkey, Egypt and the Middle East to include Southern Italy, Sicily, parts of France, Spain and North Africa, its cultural diversity and artistic legacy grew as well.  Indeed, the Hellenistic period will go down in history as one of great advancement in architecture, science and above all art.

In a singular partnership between the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Pergamon Museum, Berlin, enthusiasts of archeology and ancient art are in for a special treat.  Until July 17th, the exhibition "Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World" presents over 260 extraordinary works ranging from an exquisitely wrought gold, garnet and carnelian diadem featuring a Herakles knot surmounted by a winged goddess...

to a colossal marble statue of Athena Parthenos. The artifacts on display, individually and when viewed as a whole, speak of a very sophisticated and accomplished culture that appreciated the finer things in life.

The center of the Hellenistic world was Pergamon, the royal capital of the Attalid kingdom in what is now known as Bergama, Turkey.  Here, in 1860, a group of German archeologists discovered the ruins of a massive temple which they excavated and exported piece by piece to Berlin where it remains to this day.  The reconstructed Pergamon Altar, with its amazing friezes, had been a must-see stop for any visitor to Berlin until the Pergamon Museum closed the gallery for renovations two years ago and is not expected to reopen to the public until 2019.  Fortunately, through this unique collaboration and thanks to a number of important international loans, a large group of major works is currently on view here in New York.  So while one cannot actually climb the giant altar steps, we can get a pretty good idea of the magnificence of the ancient treasures discovered at the site.

Marble portrait of Alexander the Great 
(The Alexander Schwarzenberg)

The exhibition is a tribute to the glorious history of ancient Greece and its huge contribution to Western culture.  The civilization's achievements in the applied arts, like glass blowing, pottery, jewelry and metal work is well represented with works like this large onyx cameo portrait of Ptolemy II Philadelphos and his sister-wife, Arsinoe II.

The performing arts also thrived during the Hellenistic period with theater and music providing entertainment for the citizenry.  Here we see three marble masks portraying comedy and tragedy...

And this fine mosaic depicts a scene with musicians performing either on a stage or in the street...

Not surprisingly, the majority of the works to have survived the centuries were statues and sculptures carved of stone or cast in bronze.  The Hellenistic legacy of fine craftsmanship on both a small and colossal scale is well documented here and we find superb examples like this bronze statuette of a masked dancer, called the Baker Dancer, a masterpiece of illusion and delicacy.

And this enormous, highly decorated marble urn called The Borghese Krater that probably served as a garden ornament.

The magnificent artifacts presented here trace the history of the Hellenistic Kingdoms and demonstrate their unprecedented contributions to culture, science and the arts.  "Pergamon" is a well deserved tribute to Alexander the Great and his successors and their enduring impact on Western art and civilization.

June 23, 2016

"Francis Picabia. A Retrospective" @ Kunsthaus Zürich

"Our heads are round so our thoughts can change direction" said Francis Picabia in 1922, and change direction he did, over and over again throughout his long and productive career as a painter.  Born in Paris in 1879 to a French mother and a Spanish father, Francis Picabia's œuvre is a merry-go-round of artistic styles and expressions, always evolving and never boring.

As part of the on-going celebrations of the centennial of Dada, the Kunsthaus Zürich, in collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art, New York, is presenting "Francis Picabia.  A Retrospective".  As you have probably surmised, this exhibition of over 200 works is nothing if not varied.  From Picabia's early Impressionist canvases to his final point/dot paintings, visitors follow the thread from period to period as he constantly reinvented himself and confounded artistic classification.

"Effet de soleil sur les bords du Loing, Moret", 1906

This beautifully installed show looks at the man behind the paintings - the contradictory, nomadic genius who constantly changed his style as a protest against being an individual with established traits.  A painter first and foremost, Francis Picabia was also an active writer, poet, filmmaker and bon vivant, respected by his artistic peers from Marcel Duchamp to Alfred Stieglitz.

"Danses à la source [1]", 1912

Beside his obvious intelligence and creative talents, Picabia also had a gift for making money.  Far from a starving artist, he indulged his passions for motorcars and travel and had the luxury of being able to paint with abandon.  After his initial, and extremely lucrative, forays into Impressionism, Pointillism and Fauvism, he began to explore the more radical schools of Orphic Cubism (see above) and, of course, Dada, of which he was an early and staunch proponent.

"Prenez garde a la peinture [Watch out for Painting]", 1919

But almost as decisively as he embraced Dada he dropped it for Surrealism, becoming one of the pioneers of "installations" as art and exploring film as a medium to make the absurd a reality.  He portrayed Spanish Señoritas in his "Espagnoles" series, then collages, then monsters, always pushing the boundaries, always changing.  

 "Mardi Gras (Le Baiser)", 1924-26

During one phase he used the industrial enamel paint Ripolin on his canvases giving them the illusion of kinetic movement forty years before Op Art became the rage.

"Volucelle II", 1923

One of my favorite genres of Picabia's work are his "Transparences [Transparencies]".  Elegant and fascinating, he paints layer upon transparent layer giving the work countless possibilities, thematic but disjointed at the same time.

"Atrata", 1929

In 1933 his wife left him and he moved with his son and his long time mistress, who also happened to be his son's nanny, to a yacht on the Riviera.  This change in living arrangements caused yet another dramatic shift in style, this time to a more "Brutalist" manner - coarser, less idealistic and harbingers of World War II.

"La Révolution Espanole", 1937
Probably my least favorite phases of Picabia's work is his 1940s kitschy "bunny" paintings, also known as his "Realistic" period.  While his behavior during the war (not joining the Résistance, marrying a German woman) marked him as suspicious among his peers, the nature of his art earned him the label of degenerate by the Third Reich.

"Cinq femmes", 1941-43

Finally we come to the final chapter in the long and varied career of Francis Picabia.  In what can almost be considered a return to his Dada roots, Picabia turned back to targets, spirals, circles and dots, themes of his Dada works and symbols of eternity.  Through these works, "Picadada", as he was nicknamed, influenced the generation of neo-Dadaists, artists, like Lucas Fontana and Yves Klein, who sought to attack and destroy art thereby making it new again. 

"Haschich [Hashish]", 1948

In 1923, Francis Picabia was quoted as saying "Each artist is a mold.  I aspire to be many.  One day I'd like to write on the wall of my house:  Artist in many genres".  I think you will agree, he was successful in that quest.

June 21, 2016

A Visit to "Cité de l'Automobile", Mulhouse

A lot of attention has been focused on Basel, Switzerland, this past week as Art Basel 47 brought together the best and the brightest in the art world for a week long extravaganza of art fairs, museum exhibitions, parties and schmoozing.  But while the non-stop rain made outdoor events rather less appealing, it was a great opportunity to finally take a short train ride across the border into France and visit the largest automobile museum in the world.

I had heard about the Cité de l'Automobile and its magnificent collection ever since it opened to the public in 2000 and some car loving art dealers made the excursion to Mulhouse.  They raved not only about the 400 masterpieces on view but also the extraordinary exhibition space created out of a former factory owned by the Schlumpf brothers.

Hans and Fritz Schlumpf were born in Italy in 1904 and 1906 respectively to a Swiss father and a French mother.  After Hans attended business school in Switzerland, he and his brother went into the wool spinning business and in 1957 purchased the HKD textile factory in Mulhouse.  Fritz had a life-long obsession with elegant cars and spent much of his spare time secretly collecting exceptional models of luxury European automobiles like Bugatti, Ferrari and Rolls Royce.  He stored them in the factory and hired a team of craftsmen and top mechanics to prepare the vehicles for eventual exhibition.

Needless to say, none of this came cheap and with the downturn in the textile industry in the 1970s the future of the factory and its employees was in peril.  In June of 1976 the workers went on strike to protest lay-offs and police were brought in to contain the violence.  When the workers broke in to the "secret" areas of the factory they discovered a cache of fabulous motor cars in various states of restoration and realized what a treasure trove the Schumpf brothers had hidden away while their own livelihoods were at stake.  Hans and Fritz decamped for Basel, never to return to France.

The factory was sealed and legal battles commenced and after years of litigation the entire collection of priceless motor cars was acquired by the National Automobile Museum Association (NAMA), a consortium comprising several regional governments, the Automobile Club de France, some corporate investors and the organizers of the Paris Motor Show.  The "Schlumpf Collection" was ultimately designated a National Heritage Site by the French Government and has been modernized and marketed to become a destination for car enthusiasts from around the world.

My visit began by crossing a footbridge over a canal and passing through a dramatic entryway designed by Studio Milou in 2006.  Once inside the excitement builds as we walk through a long passageway with video projections of famous cinematic car scenes until we come to the main attraction - a massive 183,000 square foot exhibition space with literally hundreds of antique cars on display.

Strolling down the brick pathways lit by 800 replicas of the lamp posts on the Pont Alexandre III in Paris, we begin with "The Forerunners", cars produced between 1878-1918, the very earliest horseless carriages like this De dion-Bouton "Biplace Type S" made in France in 1903...

or this 1911 Bugatti Torpedo Type 19 "Bebe"...

This was the era when car manufacturing was in its infancy and from which the modern automobile emerged.  From 1920-1938 was "The Classic" phase and probably the golden age of luxury cars typified by such models as this 1927 Bugatti Biplace Sport Type..

this magnificent Mercedes Benz 1938 Cabriolet 540K...

or this super-luxe Hispano-Suiza Cabriolet J12 built in 1922...

Some oddities include this 1938 "La Baleine [Whale]" manufactured by Arzens and its tiny cousin "L'œuf [The Egg]" fabricated by the same maker in 1942...

The highlight of the collection is undoubtedly its two examples (out of a total of six in the world) of the legendary Bugatti "Royale Type 41" luxury coupé.  The one below was built in 1929 and features brocade upholstery for the seats.  It was Ettore Bugatti's personal car.

After World War II, car manufacturers focused less on high end luxury touring cars and used new materials and assemblies to make safer, faster and cheaper roadsters.  These cars are referred to as "The Moderns" and include examples like these very chic Alfa Romeo "Flying Saucers" made in 1953...

The museum also features a large section devoted to racing cars, primarily Ferraris and Bugattis, from the earliest models that could achieve speeds of over 100 mph...

to today's open wheel race cars that routinely travel at more than twice that rate but, at least to me, are missing some of the elegance of their predecessors...

Although I am not a "car person" - I don't even own a car - I have always had an appreciation for the elegance of a beautiful machine.  Maybe it comes from my father who loved cars and presented my mother with a Jaguar XK140 as the family vehicle.  Not the most practical choice for a woman with children and a German shepherd dog living in the country, but it did draw a lot of stares as she drove into town to do the weekly food shopping!  In any case, my afternoon at the Cité de l'Automobile was a most enjoyable one and their collection of magnificent motor cars was like art on wheels.

June 16, 2016

Art Basel 47: Art Unlimited

Of all the art fairs I visit during the year, the one event that is pure fun is Art Unlimited.  The opening, always on a Monday evening, kicks off Art Basel with a huge party, thousands of people and free flowing champagne.  Housed in the massive Hall 1 of the Basel Messe, or Exhibition Place, Art Unlimited presents site-specific, large scale installation, performance and video pieces that are not intended for private purchase nor do they challenge one's knowledge of art history or market acumen.  They may have a message, but they are, at least for this visitor, more of an entertainment than anything else.

And so, as is tradition, last Monday I joined the crowd and forgot about the chilly rain outside as I sipped my flute of Ruinart and took in the sights and sounds of this marvelous affair!  Here are a few of my favorite presentations:

Laurie Simmons' video presentation "The Music of Regret", 2006, was an enchanting ballet featuring puppets, some played by humans and some vintage rubber hand puppets or ventriloquist dummies, representing ambition, jealousy and desire.  I confess, I did not watch it all the way through (40 minutes) but it was compelling and quite beautiful.

Also beautiful in a hypnotic kind of way was "Show IX - Curtain Room" 1965/2016, by Marinus Boezem, and "Blue Runs", 2016, by Pamela Rosenkranz seen below.

Another kinetic sculpture was the monumental installation "Accumulation: Searching For Destination" created by Chiharu Shiota in 2014/16.  Here, hundreds of vintage suitcase are suspended from the ceiling on red ropes and are choreographed to drop incrementally so the whole work moves and changes as we watch.

Though Thomas Bayrle's enormous "Flugzeug (Airplane)", 1982/83, was initially conceived as a protest against noise pollution from the Frankfurt Airport, today it is more of a tour de force of graphic design...

The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is never one to shy away from controversy and once again he draws attention to the disregard for tradition and history since the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s.  Here in "White House", 2015, a large frame of a former home built during the Qing Dynasty has been whitewashed and its beams mounted on crystal bases.

Another installation that drew attention to Chinese political practices was Samson Young's "Canon", 2015.  This sound performance featured a man dressed in a Chinese law enforcement uniform standing on an industrial life surveying the fair.  He employs a "Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD)", a sound cannon usually used to control protesters, but in this case he broadcasts distressed bird calls.

There were several really excellent performance pieces this year.  Immediately at the entrance was the captivating "Mimed Sculpures" by Davide Balula in which seven modernist sculptures are virtually created by nine mimes.  Dressed in white with pink gloves, the actors silently rebuild works by Henry Moore, Alberto Giacometti and Barbara Hepworth and others.  It was like watching a ballet.

A real crowd pleaser was "Ascenseur", 2013, by Laura Lima.  A woman's hand reaches out from under a wall, grasping for a set of keys lying on the floor just beyond her reach.  A polite passerby moves the keys closer and the hand closes around them, holds them momentarily, and then tosses them away again in anticipation of the next good Samaritan.

The installation that generated the most buzz, and one I found absolutely amazing was monumental work by Hans Op de Beek entitled "The Collector's House".  Created in 2016, this is a completely immersive experience as visitors enter a calm and quiet setting with a large reflecting pond with waterlilies and sculpture and walk through a music room, library and drawing room.  What is remarkable about this neoclassical setting is that it is all a monochromatic shade of grey - as though petrified in Pompeii.  It is serene and meditative and mysterious and marvelous.

Once again, Art Unlimited has been a sheer delight - a sort of Disney for adults - before the more serious business of Art Basel gets underway.  Now, maybe I can find myself another glass of champagne...

June 15, 2016

"The Douanier Rousseau" at the Musée d'Orsay

With the threat of flooding from an overflowing Seine no longer imminent, the museums whose treasures were threatened are slowly reopening.  One of those closed was the Musée d'Orsay whose location directly on the river's edge made it especially vulnerable to high water damage.  Fortunately the worst did not happen and by last Tuesday the Musee d'Orsay was back in business and I could go to see the show I had most wanted to visit while in Paris - "The Douanier Rousseau:  Archaic Candor".

"Myself: Portrait - Landscape", 1890

Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) was by profession a toll collector for the City of Paris, but by avocation he was a painter - a hobby he pursued with dogged determination after reaching the age of forty.  Lacking formal art training, Rousseau sought to imitate the masters he had seen at Parisian museums but always maintained his own individuality.  After years of practise, when he was an accomplished painter able to produce a finely finished painting, Rousseau recognized that it was the charm and innocence of his naïve style that made him special and shifted his efforts to maintain this unique amateur "look".

"Still Life with Coffee Pot", 1910

While Rousseau drew upon classical academic artists such as Carpaccio and Gérôme for inspiration, he remained loyal to his flat, child-like style of painting.  Completely out of proportion, his portraits and landscapes are exuberant in feel but unrealistic in composition.  Nevertheless, his work was embraced and even imitated by many avant garde artists at the turn of the century.  Indeed, such luminaries as Picasso, Gauguin, Kandinsky, Delaunay and Botero collected Rousseau's paintings, as did the writer Alfred Jarry who is responsible for Rousseau's nickname "Le Douanier [The Customs Officer]".

"Representatives of Foreign Powers Coming to
Salute the Republic as a Sign of Peace", 1907

The exhibition now on at the Musée d'Orsay is divided into themes such as "Portrait-Landscapes", "The Muse Inspiring the Poet", "Monumental Women" and "Cruel Childhoods" with each gallery showing works by Henri Rousseau beside paintings by modern masters whom he inspired.  For example, it is not difficult to see the similarities between Rousseau's "Child with a Doll"...

...and Pablo Picasso's portrait of his own daughter "Maya With her Doll" done in 1938...
The curators saved the very best for last as visitors must wait until the final room to be rewarded with Rousseau's amazing jungle paintings.  Keeping in mind that he was entirely self-taught and had never traveled much beyond the Paris city limits, walking into a room filled with his large scale paintings of exotic flora and fauna is nothing short of breath taking!  Henri Rousseau's vivid imagination and masterful depictions of wild animals in jungle settings, drawn completely from what he read in books and saw in botanical gardens and zoos, are mesmerizing.

I have always loved the paintings of Henri Rousseau and admired him for being an autodidact of such talent and perseverance, but I had not realized how truly influential he had been on modern art of the early 20th century.  This show is as much a tribute to the power of perseverance as it is a retrospective of a remarkable artist.

 "The Dream", 1910

June 11, 2016

Paris Program

It's been an interesting time to be in Paris.  Between the Seine nearly overflowing its banks causing the closure of the Musée d'Orsay and the Louvre, garbage piled up in mountains due to a slowdown by the collectors and strikes by Air France and the railway, things have been challenging to say the least!

But as they say, c'est la vie, and there are plenty of nice things to see and do no matter what Mother Nature or the unions throw our way.

Like, for instance, a very lovely exhibition at the Musée de Montmartre, a tiny museum housed in the oldest building in Montmartre right next door to the only vineyard left in Paris.  At the turn of the century, Montmartre was a bohemian paradise, home to artists, writers, musicians and performers who enjoyed its low rents and convivial atmosphere.  Picasso, Renoir and Toulouse Lautrec gathered in cafés and dance halls like Le Chat Noir, Le Lapin Agile and the Bateau-Lavoir to be entertained by La Goulue, Aristide Bruant and Jane Avril.

The Museum's permanent collection revolves around this momentous time in the arts and presents a wonderful selection of paintings, drawings, posters, books and ephemera that capture the joie de vivre of the period.  The special exhibition for the summer is "Artistes in Montmartre:  From Steinlen to Satie 1870-1910" and looks at how the district and its ambiance influenced the work of the many artists who lived there.  The exhibit is presented in the former atelier of Suzanne Valadon who lived and worked there, along with her son, the artist Maurice Utrillo, in the early 1900s.

Artists ranging from Impressionists to Symbolists to Cubists converged on the "Butte" to soak up the fantastic light and the creative energy.  Examples of works by Renoir, Bonnard, Ibels, Willette, Rivière, Steinlen and Toulouse-Lautrec, presented with the avant garde compositions of Erik Satie and the poetry of Max Jacob, bring us back to the beginning of modern art as we know it.

Giorgio de Chirico
"Portrait of Guillaume Apollinaire", 1914

A little closer to the Seine is the Musée de l'Orangerie, best known for its fabulous "Water Lily" murals by Claude Monet, but today we are going to visit a special exhibition about the art critic and poet Guillaume Apollinaire.  "Apollinaire:  The Eyes of the Poet" focuses on the fifteen year period when his writings were hugely influential on the nascent modern art movement and its various "isms".

Born Wilhelm Albert Włodzimierz Apolinary Kostrowicki in Rome in 1880, he moved to Paris, changed his name and integrated into the artistic community active in Montmartre around the turn of the century.  His innate curiosity and intellect led him to explore the circus, theatre and puppetry and he was an early collector of African art.  But it was his commentary on Fauvism, Cubism, Orphism and Surrealism that influenced the careers of such luminaries as Picasso, Matisse, de Chirico and Derain.  By presenting paintings and literature in thematic groups, "The Eyes of the Poet" demonstrates Apollinaire's profound intellect and influence on the art world until his untimely death from influenza in 1918.

Our last exhibition for today is a survey of the Swiss artist Paul Klee called "Irony at Work" presented by the Centre Pompidou.  While Paul Klee's work is very approachable, almost childlike, in its simplicity, color and size, his paintings and drawings are actually very complex, deliberate and far more meaningful than one would initially think.  This retrospective, the first in France in nearly 50 years, examines the subtle and not so subtle themes that reoccur throughout Klee's work.

Beginning with his early satirical works and continuing through his Bauhaus, Cubist (see below) and Constructivist periods until Hitler's rise to power and the artist's debilitating scleroderma, the exhibition examines who influenced Klee and whom, in turn, he impacted, with his remarkable vision.

Paul Klee
"St. Germain near Tunis (Inland)", 1914
Paul Klee felt that art ought to be a "game with the law" and his work challenged the standards and tenets prevalent at the time.  "Irony at Work" is an interesting new way to look at the marvelous world of Paul Klee.

After a few days, the water level of the Seine has started to recede and the sun has come out so some measure of normalcy has returned.  I will leave you with some more photos of the near catastrophic flood and a promise to return soon with another post from Paris.
Houseboats facing west with the Grand Palais in the background.
Notice the water almost reaching the roof of the building on the left.