October 28, 2013

Promenades in Paris - Part II

As you can see, we have been blessed with beautiful autumn weather here in Paris!  Perfect for getting out and about and enjoying this season's plethora of exhibitions and events.

Let's begin at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris where we find "Serge Poliakoff:  Le Rêve des formes (the dream of forms)".  Serge Poliakoff (1900-1969) was a Russian born abstract painter who came to Paris during the Russian Revolution and stayed until he died.  His work is marked by intense color arranged as a sort of painted collage as he explored the relationships between color, texture, light and form.  His modernist approach made him an idol of the young art scene of the 1960s, and his paintings inspired a dress by Yves Saint Laurent and plates made by the Sèvres porcelain factory, which are also on view!

Moving from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art, we head to the Centre Pompidou and their retrospective of one of the leaders of the movement, Roy Lichtentstein. You are probably familiar with Lichtenstein's comic book imagery but you may not be aware that in the second half of his career, he used the same Ben-Day dots to reinterpret the modern masters like Picasso, Brancusi and Matisse.

This is the first survey of Roy Lichtenstein's work in France and judging by the crowd waiting to get in, it's been a big hit.  Not surprising really as Lichtenstein's graphics are part of our cultural psyche - easily recognizable subjects presented in a new, Pop, light.

Let's head over to the Grand Palais where we will be staying for a while as there are two major exhibitions in the museum and the Foire internationale d'art contemporain, or FIAC, in the majestic nave.  Part of FIAC is the "hors les murs (outside of the walls)" section which refers to installations of large scale sculptures presented in various outdoor locations - like the Jardins des Tuileries where we find the following works...

and my favorite,

Inside the Grand Palais itself, the 40th edition of FIAC is in full swing.  This year over 180 galleries from 25 countries present the best examples of modern and contemporary art available and there is something for almost every taste.

Around the corner from the main nave are the side entrances that lead to the two museum spaces within the Grand Palais.  One exhibition hall is devoted to Georges Braque (1882-1962), a key member of the French modern art movement.

Georges Braque first came on the scene as a Fauve and exhibited six landscapes in the Salon des Indépendents in 1907.  He was a pioneer of the Cubist movement, first removing both form and color and later adding back limited color.  Braque went on to explore collage and finally reverted to the classic themes of still lifes and nudes but with a modernist edge.

I've saved the best for last.  My favorite exhibition and one of the most popular here in Paris this fall is dedicated to the Swiss/French artist Félix Vallotton (1865-1925). 

"Félix Vallotton: Fire Beneath the Ice" is a wonderful tribute to one of the least appreciated yet most important artists of the 20th century.  Difficult to categorize, Vallotton's works are deceptively simple in form but immensely complicated in actuality.  A superb draughtsman and colorist, Vallotton could evoke a symphony of moods and tensions in a few, uncomplicated lines.

Vallotton was a prolific artist - he completed over 1,700 paintings, 200 prints, 3 novels and 10 plays during his lifetime.  Despite his refined palette and precise contours, his works remain flat and cool, like a spectator rather than a participant.  Despite being married, Vallotton had an odd relationship with women, often portraying them as the instigators of evil but also as the providers of great pleasures.  His imagery is a story in contradictions - secretive and passionate, ironic and sensitive, and aspiring to happiness while delighting in bitterness.

I think we've had enough art for one blog so I will leave you with a funny photo that I took on the way home from dinner one night.  A very clever and creative person had fastened lengths of ribbon to the ventilation grate of the Mabillon Métro stop on the Boulevard Saint Germain.  A crowd had gathered, shrieking in delight as the ribbons shot up into the air.  It was part fun house, part art project and 100% Parisian delight!

Promenades in Paris - Part I

It is great to be back in Paris.  The weather is gorgeous, maybe even too warm, and there is a lot going on between museum shows and the French art fair FIAC at the Grand Palais.  So I'm going to give you a quick tour of some of the exhibitions I was able to catch during my ten day stay.

Let's start at the Louvre, probably the most famous museum in the world, but we are not going anywhere close to its star attraction!  Rather, we are going to visit two obscure but very interesting special exhibitions that lay the foundation for much of the art we see today.

"Le Printemps de la Renaissance (The Spring of the Renaissance)" looks at the period in history when the style of art and architecture evolved from classic Roman to what we now call Renaissance, or re-birth.  This cultural revolution began in Florence, Italy, at the beginning of the 15th century, with such protagonists as Brunelleschi, Donatello and Lucca della Robbia.  The exhibition focuses on sculpture but there are wonderful examples of frescoes and metal work as well.

In the graphic arts section of the museum is a newly opened show that traces the earliest beginnings of prints and print making in Northern Europe.  50 years before Gutenberg discovered movable text and the printing press, artists and engravers in Cologne were experimenting with various techniques to produce printed images.  This was a major innovation as it allowed the circulation of pictures among many people and as far away as the paper could be carried.

Using materials such as wood blocks or metal, artists and technicians used basically the same tools and techniques as we use today to incise or carve out images to be inked and pressed on paper.  These primitive prints were produced primarily for the publication of religious imagery but for propaganda and licentious material as well.

Now let's move on to the Musée Carnavalet, the official museum of the City of Paris since 1880 and for a limited time the site of a very special exhibition entitled "Roman d'une garde robe (The story of a closet)".  Here we find the remarkable collection of Mademoiselle Alice Alleaume, who, along with her mother Adèle and her sister Hortense, worked in some of the finest couture houses in Paris.  Alice herself was the chief sales lady at the House of Chéruit, 21, place Vendôme from 1912 until 1923 during which time she amassed a superb collection of dresses, shoes, hats and accessories by some of the finest couturiers of the day.

Creations by Worth, Lanvin, Poiret and Demay are beautifully displayed alongside period paintings, prints and documentation that brings to life the elegant world of haute couture in its heydey.

Passing by the special Evelyn Lauder "Pink Ribbon" breast cancer installation at the Hôtel de Sully, we move on to the Place des Vosges and the Maison de Victor Hugo.  Of course, Victor Hugo is best known as one of the greatest writers of the Romantic Period with "Les Miserables" being his most famous work.  But he was also a very accomplished draughtsman and painter and his work is the mainstay of a new exhibition entitled "La cime du rêve (The Pinnacle of the Dream)" a look at how this 19th century writer was adopted by the very 20th century surrealists!

The exhibition features 50 works on paper by Victor Hugo interspersed with drawings, watercolors and paintings by Max Ernst, Hans Bellmer, André Masson and his own granddaughter-in-law Valentine Hugo.  Upstairs one can visit the actual apartment where Victor Hugo lived between 1832-1848, furnished as it was during his time and filled with personal mementos.

Let's leave the beautiful Place des Vosges and go way west to the Trocadéro and the Cité de l'architecture & du patrimoine in the Palais de Chaillot.  Here we will visit another new exhibition called "1925 When Art Déco Dazzled the World", a tribute to Modernism and its huge impact on culture from perfume bottles to ocean liners.

The clean, geometric lines of the new Art Déco movement quickly became the dernier cri for artists, designers and architects in France and around the world.  Fashions by Paul Poiret and Patout, buildings by Robert Mallet-Stevens, furniture by Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann and décors by Louis Süe and André Mare all endeavored to achieve the Art Déco ideal.  This exhibition is organized by theme - fashion, furniture, the automobile - but given the host museum, the main focus is on architecture.

Finally, let's head back down Avenue President Wilson and along the Seine to the Musée de l'Orangerie where a special exhibition dedicated to Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera is now on view.  Both Parisians and tourists are queuing up for hours for admission, but we have a special pass that allows us to skip the line and go right in!

"Frida Kahlo / Diego Rivera: Art in Fusion" presents the work of both artists together with the objective to show that they were truly inseparable.  I don't know if that goal was achieved, but it was a very good retrospective of these two major artists' œuvres put in historical perspective.

I think that's enough art museums for one blog so I will leave you with a view of Paris at twilight and a promise to come back soon with Part II of Paris Promenades!

October 26, 2013

A Short Visit to Lyon

Located in the Rhône-Alpes region of Southeastern France, the city of Lyon is famous for its tradition of fine silk weaving, the invention of the cinematographe, and probably most of all, for its superb cuisine.  It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the birthplace of writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and a very lovely city for a sojourn.

I had visited Lyon three times before, most notably on September 11, 2001, but this was the first chance I had to explore the city and see a few of its many sights.  Lyon is divided into three main sections created by the confluence of two rivers, the Rhône and Saône that forms a peninsula known as "Presque'île" and it is here that we will begin our tour.

The Hôtel de Ville de Lyon (City Hall) is a magnificent 17th century building that stands on the Place des Terreaux and its beautiful Fontaine Bartholdi.  New Yorkers especially know the work of this sculptor as it was Frédéric Bartholdi who designed the Statue of Liberty.  This huge fountain depicts France as a woman seated on a chariot and controlling the four great rivers of France which are represented by four wildly rearing horses.

From here we can cross the Saône over to Vieux Lyon, the medieval part of the city and the first site in France to be protected as a cultural treasure.  Here one can wander along narrow cobblestone streets and admire the Gothic architecture.  In the 16th century this area was home to the silk weavers who brought fame and prosperity to Lyon.  It is also because of the silk industry that the distinctive traboules, (corridors) were built to allow the fine fabrics to be safely carried from house to house and street to street without going outside in the rain or dust.  Many of these connecting passageways and covered stairways still exist to the delight of visitors who stumble upon them while exploring the old town.

Fortified with a nice lunch of sautéed foie gras and a salad, it was time to visit the most famous sight in Lyon, the Basilica of Notre Dame of Fourvière.  This magnificent cathedral on top of Fourvière Hill was constructed between 1872 and 1884 to give thanks to the Virgin Mary for saving the citizens of Lyon from a cholera epidemic that swept Europe in 1823.  The Basilica is accessible on foot but also via a funicular line that whisks visitors up the rather steep hill in just a few minutes.

The Basilica is sometimes referred to as "the elephant with its legs in the air" a rather unkind reference to the four chunky towers that reach up from each corner.  But no one can make a derogatory remark about the amazing interior.  Covered in mosaic tile the inside seems to glitter in gold and turquoise.  Lining the nave is a series of large scale murals, executed in mosaic and depicting various biblical stories and religious events.

After leaving the Basilica I walked around to the side that faces the city for a spectacular vista over all of Lyon.  Local people claim that one can see as far as Chamonix on a clear day!

A short distance from the Basilica are the remains of two ancient Roman amphitheaters, a large one and a small one.  The larger one was a theater built around 15 BC and could hold 10,000 people.  Right next to it is the smaller Odeon used at the time for musical performances and public readings.  Today both sites are open to the public and also used as venues for summer festivals.

Close by the Roman ruins is a second funicular line that takes passengers back down the hill to he Cathédrale Saint Jean in Old Lyon.  Now it is a short walk back across Pont Bonaparte, over the Soâne River, to the massive Place Bellecour in the Presque'île section.  The Place Bellecour is the largest clear square (meaning no gardens or obstacles) in Europe and the third largest public square in France.  Anchored at one end by an imposing bronze sculpture of Louis XIV on horseback, the western corner of the square features a much smaller but very touching statue honoring native son Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and his most famous character, Le Petit Prince.

Now it is time to have a quick snack and get ready for the evening's main event - the opening of "Joseph Cornell et les surréalistes à New York" at the Musée des Beaux Arts de Lyon.  Six years in the planning, this exhibition is dedicated to the American surrealist Joseph Cornell and how he himself influenced and was influenced by European surrealists.  While Cornell is the star of the show there are also some major pieces by important artists including Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali, Man Ray, Max Ernst and René Magritte.

Joseph Cornell was a very wonderful artist who created marvelous worlds with an almost childlike, dreamy quality.  He is particularly known for his boxes, assemblages and collages but he also worked in film and made artist's books.  Although he spent his life living on the Utopia Parkway on Long Island, New York, and never traveled farther than Philadelphia, he was global in his reach.  He was fluent in French and worked very closely with Marcel Duchamp and it was this international exchange of ideas that forged the connection between America and the European surrealists.

The Musée des Beaux Arts de Lyon occupies a former Benedictine convent founded in the 17th century.  It now houses an impressive collection of works from Egyptian antiquities to Modern paintings.  This special exhibition plays to Lyon's heritage of invention and artistic originality and should be a big hit both critically and with the general population.

It's getting late and it's been a big day.  What better way to wrap things up then with a nice dinner and a glass (or two) of a good Bordeaux with friends!  And tomorrow it's on to the last leg of this journey - Paris - and whatever new adventures await.  Good night, and bon appetit!

October 23, 2013

Frieze Week in London

The historic city of London has always had a lot of compelling reasons to go for a visit.  Now, in addition to Wimbledon and Ascot (or the occasional Royal Wedding!) is Frieze Week, an action-packed merry-go-round of art fairs, museum openings and auction previews all centered around two enormous tents installed in Regent's Park.

The original Frieze Art Fair opened in 2002 as London's contribution to the contemporary art scene.  It became so successful that last year the organizers invented a satellite fair - Frieze Masters - dedicated to more historical works of art from ancient times to the year 2000.  I had the good fortune to be in London last October and attended the inaugural Frieze Masters and enjoyed every minute.  In contrast to Art Basel, it is more than just an art fair.  While not as expansive as TEFAF in Maastricht, this fair presents a wide variety of works from oriental rugs to Dutch Renaissance paintings, from African masks to medieval manuscripts and a lot of great 19th and 20th century drawings and paintings as well. 

This year's edition featured even more exhibitors, over 120, from around Europe and North America, providing a wide variety of treasures for sale.  While there were many beautiful works to admire, one in particular caught my eye.  On the stand of Sam Fogg, London, was a 17th century polychrome "mermaid chandelier" with such charm that I was happy to see it was already sold so I didn't even have to think about the price!

But there is much more to Frieze Week than just Frieze Masters!  On the other side of the Thames is the Tate Modern's marvelous exhibition "Paul Klee:  Making Visible". This comprehensive survey of the Swiss artist's work created mainly between the two World Wars offers an insight into his relationship with color and abstraction.  From his beginnings as a member of Der Blaue Reiter [The Blue Rider] group (including Macke and Kandinsky) through the Bauhaus years and his subsequent "demotion" at the hands of the Nazis, to his final canvases painted while he was suffering from a fatal illness, Paul Klee (1879-1940) continued to produce art that was whimsical and charming.  One of the very few artists who was a steadfast family man, Paul Klee's approach to his work as "taking a line for a walk" was as solid as his values.  Though his paintings and watercolors are dreamy and lovely, they were created with as much rigor and determination as any of the more "serious" artists.

The exhibition now on view at the Tate Modern is the first large scale retrospective of Klee's work in well over a decade and the first show ever organized using the artist's own numbering system.  This unique perspective allows visitors to see the works as the artist intended and is a very special opportunity to appreciate Klee's beautiful, colorful work in a whole new light.

Now we're heading back across the river to the National Gallery and their newly opened exhibition "Facing the Modern:  The Portrait in Vienna 1900".

From its formation in 1867 until its demise at the end of World War I, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was one of the largest, most populated and most powerful territories in Europe, and, as is often the case, the arts thrived during this period of prosperity. As citizens became wealthier they often commissioned portraits as a declaration of their success.  The period around 1900 was an artistic heyday with a burgeoning middle class and a new school of painting that reflected the contemporary morality and styles.

This exhibition is organized historically from the "Old Viennese" (at the beginning of the Empire), through the changing political and social attitudes that came with mass immigration until the demise of the Dual Monarchy at the end of World War I.  The evolution of the portraits is clear.  From the early formal compositions, to the much less stiff representations of the "New Viennese", and finally the anxiety ridden faces reflecting the uncertainty of the impending collapse of Vienna's reign over Europe.  The highlight of the show is, of course, the gorgeous works by Klimt and Schiele, (one of which is involved in a battle over un-returned Nazi loot from Austria) but the exhibition as a whole provides an interesting perspective on a watershed time in modern history.

The last stop proves that the art world really can be a whole lot more fun than staid museums or dignified art fairs.  As a promotion for their upcoming auctions of modern and contemporary art in London and New York, Sotheby's pulled out all the stops with an "Out of this World" cocktail party.   I should have known when the entryway carpet was covered in silver sparkles that we were in for something special!  Pretty servers in silver "space girl" dresses offered fancy drinks in test tubes while handsome waiters with white "mod" sunglasses poured champagne from magnum bottles!  The music boomed, the crowd was gorgeous and the drinks were flowing, and while it might not have an ideal environment in which to view expensive art, it was a heck of a good time!

October 20, 2013

A Visit to Farley Farm

The great American beauty Lee Miller was a pioneer in the world of supermodels but she was much more than just a pretty face.  Born in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1907, she began her career as a cover girl for Vogue Magazine and Vanity Fair before moving to Paris in 1929 where she met up with the Surrealists, in particular Man Ray, and moved to the other side of the camera.  Her expertise as a fashion photographer soon expanded into portrait photography and she ultimately became one of the very few female photojournalists to cover the war.

After the stellar world of modeling, the passion and radicalism of the Surrealists and the horrors of World War II, Lee Miller re-invented herself once again, this time as a country lady in East Sussex, England - the wife of artist and writer Roland Penrose and the mistress of Farley Farm.

When a trip to London came up on the calendar (more on this in the next blog post) I booked the air travel to allow an extra day to make the pilgrimage to Farley Farm and a visit the "Home of the Surrealists".  Sunday morning was raining cats and dogs but the tickets had been purchased and it was the only day possible so off we set to Victoria Station to take the train to Lewes.  After a tasty pub lunch we hailed a taxi for the 20 minute drive to Chiddingly, Muddles Green and the Farley Farm House.

Owned and managed by the son and granddaughter of Lee Miller and Roland Penrose, Farley Farm is now the site of a gallery for local artists, a sculpture garden, the Lee Miller Archives and Farley Farm House, the actual home where Lee and Roland lived for 35 years, until she died in 1977.

Given the really nasty weather on my particular Sunday a walk through the sculpture garden was out of the question, but I was able to join a guided tour of the home.  Entering the kitchen at Farley Farm was like going into anybody's country kitchen - except for the Picasso ceramic tile that is set in the backsplash, or the signed and dedicated Picasso lithographs decorating the walls.  You see, Farley Farm became a sort of salon, or cultural meeting place for some of the 20th century's artistic luminaries who came to the English countryside to recharge their batteries and enjoy some of Lee and Roland's famous hospitality.

Farley Farm House remains virtually unchanged from its glory days in the 1950s and 60s when Lee would cook and entertain personages like Man Ray, Henry Moore, Jean Dubuffet, Max Ernst and Pablo Picasso.  The dining room features a large fireplace that is entirely covered with a mural painted by Roland Penrose (see above left) and there are mementos and works of art throughout the home that were received as gifts from famous visitors.

Life at Farley Farm was good, but not perfect.  Despite her meteoric rise to fame as a model, Lee Miller had had a lot of trauma in her life and suffered from what we now call post traumatic stress syndrome.  Raped by a family friend as a young girl, un-ceremoniously dumped as a cover girl when her picture showed up in a Kotex ad, the object of Man Ray's adoration to the point of obsession, a witness to World War II atrocities like the London Blitz and Dachau, and never truly certain of her husband's fidelity, Lee Miller was clinically depressed and drank too much.  She never returned to the darkroom but energetically taught herself to cook and created a little haven for intellectuals who flocked to be in her company in the middle of nowhere.

While Lee Miller's legacy has not kept pace with her cohorts like Man Ray or Berenice Abbott, she is beginning to get the recognition she deserves as a true master of photography.  Her youthful beauty was forever immortalized in print, but her artistic eye and inner sensitivity is finally being appreciated by a wider audience thanks in large part to the efforts of her son, Antony.  Although I was certainly familiar with Lee Miller's life and work, my visit to Farley Farm put it in a new light and I gained a new respect for this remarkable woman.

October 04, 2013

"Ideas of Stone" @ Madison Square Park

A true sign of autumn in New York is the profusion of art exhibitions opening in major museums.  I'm waiting for the crowds to thin a little before venturing to the Met or MoMA, but there are no throngs to contend with at one show that just opened downtown at Madison Square Park.

Throughout the fall and early winter, visitors to this oasis of green just north of the iconic Flatiron Building, will be treated to an outdoor installation by Italian artist Guiseppe Penone.  "Idee di pietra / Ideas of Stone" features three 30' trees made of bronze, each with one or more large rocks held in the branches.

These monumental sculptures embody Penone's fascination with the relationship between man and nature.  From the artist's beginning as a member of the Arte Povera group, he has sought to blur the line between art and life by incorporating commonplace objects into his work.  Here, he converts trees - a recurring subject of his work - into a man-made object, and moves natural objects, the stones, into un-natural locations.

The results are captivating in their incongruousness.  While the bronze tree looks realistic, there is something definitely going on here with the large stones suspended in the air.  The artist states "A tree summarizes...the contrast between two forces:  the force of gravity and the weight of the life we are a part of.  The need and the search for balance, which exists in every living being to counteract the force of gravity, is evident in every step...of our lives.  It is a river stone that appears amid the branches of a tree.  A stone suspended amid the branches of a tree, separated from the soil by a structure that is not land and is not air, a stone that lies between the force of gravity and the force of the attraction of light."

While there may be a deep philosophical meaning behind these works, I thought they were just plain beautiful and I am looking forward to revisiting Madison Square Park to see how the bronze replicas evolve as the living trees transition from autumn into winter.