April 27, 2013

Fashion at MOCA

Founded in 1980 as The New York Chinatown History Project with the intention of preserving the oral history and photo documentation of the city's Chinese American community, the current Museum of Chinese in America has evolved into a national cultural center dedicated to preserving and bringing 160 years of Chinese American history to life.  With the relocation of the Museum from a former public school on Mulberry Street to its expanded premises, designed by renowned designer Maya Lin, on Centre Street in 2009, MOCA was able to reposition itself as a key institution in New York's vibrant museum scene.

MOCA is far from just a historic look back at the Chinese American experience.  To be sure it chronicles the immigration and settlement of Chinese in New York and honors the struggles of these pioneers.  But it is also a thriving cultural institution that promotes current Chinese American contributions to the arts, sciences and industry.

Last night I was invited to the opening of MOCA's latest exhibitions both dedicated to fashion.  "Front Row" is a tribute to sixteen Chinese American fashion designers who made their marks in New York.  Several, including Vivienne Tam, Anna Sui and wedding dress queen Vera Wang have been established as leading houses since the 1980s.  Others, like Derek Lam, Jason Wu and Peter Som, came on the scene more recently but with no less of an impact.

Chinatown in lower Manhattan had long been known as a garment center continuing the Chinese tradition of fine tailoring and more mass produced dressmaking.  The Chinese American designers featured in this show transcended this legacy to great success in the fashion world by blending their Asian heritage with their own personal aesthetic to create distinctive international style.

Across the Museum's lobby is a second exhibition also on the theme of fashion but a more historic look.  "Shanghai Glamour" is a step back in time to the exotic and the mysterious Orient of the early 1900s.  By the 1920s Shanghai was established as the "Paris of the East", an identity that was deeply associated with its glamorous women who projected modernity in their dress and manners.

Divided into three sections including "Femmes Fatales", "Femmes Savantes" and "Femmes du Monde" the show explores how each of these types of women used fashion and style to express her own Shanghai look.  From socialites to students, courtesans to chanteuses, each of these modern women employed dress and accessories to state her role in this evolving society.  As well as drawing on MOCA's own collection of posters, magazines and images, "Shanghai Glamour" features twelve exquisite outfits borrowed from the China National Silk Museum in Hangzhou - on view for the first time in the United States - and several beautiful dresses on loan from private New York collections.

Both of these shows feature noted guest curators and advisory councils drawn from prominent New York museums and each presents a very particular but informative look at Chinese American culture, both past and present.  They are on view at MOCA until September 29th.

April 21, 2013

Adventures With "Flat Matthew"

When my dear friend Dianna suggested I take "Flat Matthew" along on my recent trip to Europe I was nonplussed.  But she insisted, mumbling something about a six year-old from Kansas but still not making a lot of sense.  Finally, the day before my departure last month she delivered "Flat Matthew" and his instructions and I was hooked!

Matthew Dobson is a first grader at Spring Hill Elementary School in Spring Hill, Kansas.  At the beginning of the school year his class read the book "Flat Stanley" by Jeff Brown.  In the story, Stanley becomes flat when a bulletin board fell on him but rather than seeing this as a disability, Stanley's parents took advantage of his flatness to send him around the world in the mail.  It was a true "when life gives you lemons..." analogy and Matthew Dobson's class decided to make themselves flat, at least figuratively, and see what adventures awaited.

According to the address list on the back of "Flat Matthew", he had already criss-crossed the United States a few times and had even been to Afghanistan before he came to me.  One look at that little boy's face and I was committed to providing this child with a memorable experience.

The instructions requested that we send a postcard from wherever "Flat Matthew" visited back to his school and to take photos of "Flat Matthew" in these different locations.  We were also asked to write a few words in the accompanying "Adventure Book" and finally to forward "Flat Matthew" and his props to someone else who would continue the chain.  He just had to be back in Spring Hill, Kansas by the end of the school year!

"Flat Matthew" became my mission and an almost constant companion over the past few weeks!  I photographed him in the snow in Paris and my husband braved hair-raising traffic on the Champs Elysée to get a shot of him with the Arc de Triomphe in the background!  "Flat Matthew" accompanied us to Prague and last weekend I pressed my mother into service to take him to the Welland Canal in Ontario, Canada.  After all the foreign travel, I wrapped up his tour with a visit to Central Park including shots with Balto the sled dog and with the New York City skyline in the background.

I am getting ready to return "Flat Matthew" to his school in Kansas, and I have to say I'm going to miss the little guy.  What started as a favor to a friend turned into a quest to give this first grader the virtual trip of a lifetime and I was enriched along the way.  My wish is that these postcards and photos inspire young Matthew to travel the world, and maybe, somewhere along the way, he'll remember those people who took his flat person along when he was just a child of six!

April 13, 2013

The 53rd Annual New York Antiquarian Book Fair

Book lovers rejoice!  The 53rd annual Antiquarian Book Fair opened in New York on Thursday evening.  Bigger and better than ever, this year's edition features an unprecedented 200+ dealers from across North American and around the world.

The variety is staggering - stands specializing in everything from illustrated artists' books to Presidential autographs, modern first editions to rare antique maps - offer something for just about everyone.  Indeed, this year's offerings were by far the most diverse and in-depth I've ever seen and it was a real pleasure to browse the aisles to see what treasures could be found.

Aside from the usual "kings" of the rare book world, there were many first time exhibitors with wonderful goods for sale.  My favorite new discovery was London dealer Natalie Galustian whose display focused on books about cocktails and poker, complete with shakers and cards!  But there was so much to see I had to keep moving.  I must admit, I did not go home empty handed, nor did most of the bibliophiles who cannot resist the lure of the printed page.  Which goes to show that even in this age of Kindle, the printing press lives!

April 06, 2013

Prague Peregrinations

The Golden City of Prague has long been on my wish list of places to visit.  In fact, since 1999 I have booked and had to cancel two trips to the capital of the Czech Republic.  But this winter, when friends suggested we extend our trip to Paris and spend Easter weekend with them in Prague, I had a good feeling that the third time would be the charm - and it was!

Built on nine hills along the Vlatava River which runs through the city dividing the Stare Mesto (Old Town) from the Malá Strana (Lesser Quarter), Prague was founded in the 9th century on the cross roads of ancient trade routes.  Having survived occupations by Austrians, Nazis and most recently Communists, Prague has regained its stature as the capital of Bohemia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Today it is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe, and no wonder with its beautiful buildings representing architectural periods from Pre-Romanesque to Cubist, its superb cultural scene and fine food and drink!

Part of the Easter Market in Old Town Square

The best way to explore Prague is on foot, but the rough cobblestone streets and sidewalks are a challenge for even the most able bodied.  Nevertheless, and despite a record cold spell for the end of March, I set off to discover the delights of the city.

Just steps from the hotel was the Staromestské námestí, or Old Town Square.  Dating back to the Middle Ages it is a showcase of Baroque architecture with pastel colored and decorated buildings around the perimeter.  On my visit, the square was bustling with the annual Easter Market and filled with little wooden huts offering beautifully decorated eggs, "Old Prague Ham" sandwiches and the local pastry delicacy of trdelník, a sort of doughnut that was roasted over coals and was sweet and delicious!

A little farther on is the Staromestská radnice, the Old Town Hall, a major attraction thanks in large part to the Astronomical Clock that marks each hour with a procession of the Twelve Apostles followed by the screech of a cockerel.  At night, the effect is further enhanced with a trumpet fanfare played from the top of the Town Hall Tower!

A very entertaining way to get a view of this city is to take a boat tour on the river.  For 290 Czech Koruny, or crowns (approximately $15), you can see the sights from the "Venice of Prague" on a 45 minute tour with a free beer and ice cream thrown in!  Our guide was very entertaining and offered opinions on everything from Modern Art (didn't like it) to the Czech custom of gently spanking women with a special whip made of willow rods and decorated with ribbons on Easter Monday.  According to our guide, who heartily approved of this tradition, it was intended to keep the women pretty and healthy during the coming year!

Beside these cultural observations, we were treated to a close up of the Charles Bridge, a view of the giant metronome built to replace a statue of Stalin (in an attempt at "de-Stalinization") and a passage through one of Prague's canals where an original water wheel still operated.  I was fascinated to learn about the massive flood of 2002 when the river rose to 20 feet above normal levels leaving the subway system destroyed and major damage to all buildings within the flood zone.  The silver lining of this disaster was that the Czech government diverted funds to finance a monumental recovery and restoration project, the results of which can be seen in the recently cleaned and refurbished historical sites.

The Karluv most or Charles Bridge, was built in the 14th century and is Europe's longest medieval bridge at 1,700 feet.  Today it is a pedestrian crossing of the Vltava River linking the Old Town to the Lesser Quarter and is one of the signature sights of the city.  The bridge is lined with statues and legend has it that if you touch the eighth statue on the right side of the bridge, St. John of Nepomuk, it ensures a return visit to Prague.

The Old Town Bridge Tower
where construction of the Charles Bridge began
A very steep (1,300' vertical drop) but picturesque climb from the Charles Bridge on the Lesser Quarter side brings us to one of Prague's main attractions and the centerpiece of this city's panoramic view.  Prazsky Hrad or Prague Castle is a beautifully renovated complex of structures dating from the 10th to the 20th century and all linked by internal courtyards.  Self-guided tours allow visitors to enter the monumental Katedrála svatého Vita, St. Vitus Cathedral, one of the most impressive Gothic cathedrals in Europe and the spiritual heart of Prague.

A soaring nave is illuminated with brilliant stained glass windows including one by Art Nouveau master Alfons Mucha who painted, rather than stained, the glass to achieve the window's subtle coloration.  The cathedral also contains the Svatováclavská kaple, Chapel of St. Wenceslas (the "Good King" of Christmas carol fame) an ornately decorated tomb and the ancient core of the cathedral.

Other highlights of the Hradcany, or Castle Area, include Bazililika sv. Jiri, St. George's Basilica, a simple yet peaceful example of 12th century Romanesque architecture and the venue for many concerts, and the Stary královsky palác, the Old Royal Palace with its remarkable Gothic hall - a marvel of structural engineering.

Before leaving the confines of the Castle area, we pass through the newly restored Zlatá ulicka.  Golden Lane looks like a children's attraction but these tiny, brightly colored row houses attached to the Castle walls were built during the 16th century as accommodations for the Castle guards.  They housed various occupants, from seamstresses to novelist Franz Kafka, in less than commodious conditions save for the cachet of living on the Castle grounds, until recently when they were turned over to exhibition spaces and a few shops.

I couldn't leave Prague without visiting the Mucha Museum located in the Nové Mesto, New Town, just off Wenceslas Square.  I have liked the work of Alfons Mucha since I was a teenager - I even had a reproduction Sarah Bernhardt poster in my dorm room in college - and wish I had been able to purchase an original before his prices skyrocketed.  A Prague native who gained fame and fortune in Paris and also worked for years in the United States, Mucha returned to his homeland to create his Slavic Epic during the last third of his life.  The Mucha Museum opened in 1998 and showcases his fabulous posters, decorative designs, illustrations and paintings as well as many interesting documentary photos of the master of Art Nouveau.

All of this sightseeing can work up a powerful thirst and nothing is more refreshing than a glass of the local beer, Plezensky Prazdroj, or Pilsner Urquell, brewed in the nearby town of Plzen.  It's been a great few days here in the beautiful city of Prague and I hope that rubbing the statue of St John on the Charles Bridge really does mean a return visit!