February 23, 2016

"Mystery and Benevolence" at the American Folk Art Museum

Most of us are familiar with the existence of fraternal societies such as the Freemasons, the Elks, Rotarians and the Lions Club, but for many, these benevolent orders conjure images of secret handshakes and funny outfits.  While the particular rituals and iconography might seem strange to modern day outsiders, these fraternal organizations are steeped in history and their ceremonies reflect generations of practice and observance.

Many benevolent societies began in Europe as mutual associations for insurance or banking - collectives that offered their members benefits such as social and financial services.  Very often, these groups were formed based on religious or professional affiliations and they functioned as cooperatives where everyone contributed and all could benefit.  Emigrants to America brought these customs with them and the early settlers incorporated the tenets of these traditional fraternal orders into their new lives.

Recently opened at The American Folk Art Museum is "Mystery and Benevolence:  Masonic and Odd Fellows Folk Art" a captivating exhibition of fraternal objects that were donated to the museum by collectors Kendra and Allan Daniel.  Hand-crafted of various materials, and some over two hundred years old, these pieces range from the practical to the fanciful.  What they all have in common is a distinctive decorative element related to the creator's lodge or order.  While the abundance of symbolic imagery might be a little off-putting for the uninformed, these sometimes primitive expressions of devotion reflect the values and ideals of the members and present a rare glimpse into the workings of these secretive societies.

The works on view are varied in both purpose and material.  Ceremonial objects like these wooden staffs with the "Heart in Hand" finials were used by the Odd Fellows "Conductors" to lead initiates and visitors around the lodge.  The symbol represents the values of candor, frankness and sincerity, and the lesson that "whatever the hand finds to do, the heart should go forth in wisdom".

This decorated robe was made in Ohio between 1875-1925 and was worn during Odd Fellows rituals as the costume for the "Inner Guard".  In effect, the Inner Guard character guarded the doors until the initiates were ready to pass through them.

Behind the robe is a tracing board, usually painted canvas or wood, where the various symbols of the order are illustrated as a teaching tool.

Similar in construction and purpose is this roll-up shade with the image of a skeleton.  This was probably used by a Masonic Knights Templar Commandery to instruct initiates during their ritual.  The Knights Templar is the rare exception in Masonic groups that requires the belief in Christianity rather than a more general belief in a higher power.

This small hooked rug bears the Order of Odd Fellows logo of "The Three Link Fraternity" representing friendship, love and truth, as well as a beehive for industry and the Eye of Providence as the all-seeing eye of God.

This small plaster plaque made in the second half of the nineteenth century is another example of Odd Fellows iconography with the Three Link Fraternity, the Eye and the hands joined in unity.

Many prominent people were members of fraternal organizations including presidents, musicians, judges, royals, scientists, actors and industrialists from all backgrounds.  What bound them together was their common belief in the core values promoted by these benevolent groups - the principles of fellowship, hard work, charity, service, truthfulness and wisdom.  Virtues that remain at the bedrock of our culture today.

While benevolent societies are still a bit of a mystery in the internet world, this exhibition successfully clarifies and normalizes some of the secrecy surrounding them.  One simple but powerful message that anyone can benefit from is posted on this painted Fraternal Shield, not associated with any particular group or lodge, but resonant to us all.

February 15, 2016

Zurich Celebrates the Dada Centennial

Although Hans Arp may have had a point when he quipped "Dada was there before there was Dada", as far as art historians are concerned the art movement burst into being precisely on February 5, 1916, on the stage of the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich.  Now, 100 years later, Zurichois are welcoming Dada aficionados to fete the centennial of this short lived but highly influential meteor in art history.

Indeed, the normally very staid city of banking and chocolates has gone a little gaga over their claim to artistic fame with special exhibitions in two museums, performances in the original Cabaret Voltaire and a pervasive Dada-intoxication in the air!  It was my great good fortune to be in Zurich for the kick-off to their Dada celebrations and I can tell you, it showed a different side to the conservative Swiss as we think we know them.

Unknown Photographer
"Portrait of Tristan Tzara", c. 1920

First a little background.  The Dada Movement was an anarchistic one, born as a reaction to capitalism, bourgeois ideas of art, and the horrors of World War I.  On February 5, 1916, a group of artists and writers including Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara, Emmy Hennings, Hans Arp, Marcel Janco and Richard Huelsenbeck, initiated a series of performances at the Cabaret Voltaire that were unlike anything ever before seen on stage.  Avant garde to the extreme, these concerts caused a sensation in the art world and Dada was born.  It soon spread from Zurich to Berlin, then Cologne, Hannover, Paris and New York where artists and writers such as Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Andre Breton, Francis Picabia, Kurt Schwitters, Max Ernst, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Theo van Doesburg and many others were completely engaged in spreading this new gospel.  Though reincarnated in various forms by later generations, the Dada flame was short lived.  It burned brightly until about 1920 and was completely extinguished in 1924 when it was superseded by the publication of Breton's "Surrealist Manifesto".

But let's get back to the beginning, one hundred years later.

The evening of February 5, 2016 saw the opening of two Dada themed exhibitions, the first being "Dadaglobe Reconstructed" at the Kunsthaus Zurich and "Dada Universal" at the Swiss National Museum or Landesmuseum Zurich.

"Dadaglobe Reconstructed" is the culmination of six years of artistic detective work and dogged determination by the American scholar and art historian, and my friend, Dr. Adrian Sudhalter.  To explain it in a nutshell, in 1920, Tristan Tzara and Francis Picabia, both now working in Paris, came up with the idea to solicit works from 50 Dada artists and put them together in a volume called "Dadaglobe".  It was to be the ultimate Dada compendium comprising 300 pages in an edition of 10,000.  The letters were sent and many artists responded with photos, collages and writings from all over Europe and New York.  By 1921, Tzara was well along in assembling the publication when his collaborator, Picabia, renounced Dadaism and subsequently withdrew his financial support.  Dadaglobe was never realized, and the artists' submissions remained tucked away in Tzara's files until he died and his papers were dispersed at auction in 1968.

Dadaglobe was for all intents and purposes forgotten although some of these submissions became recognized as Dada masterpieces in their own right.  Through painstaking research, Dr. Sudhalter has re-assembled all of the 160 small format works on paper that had been sent to Tzara for inclusion in the publication, and she presents them here, and in the accompanying exhibition catalogue, as she believes Tzara had intended.  This is a tour de force of academic rigor, an important contribution to twentieth century art history and an homage to the genius of Tristan Tzara.  "Dadaglobe Reconstructed" will be coming to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in June.

Across the river and behind the train station, in the middle of a construction site, is the Landesmuseum Zurich, where "Dada Universal" also opened on February 5.  This exhibition, presented in a temporary pavilion in the courtyard of the museum, is a very theatrical and entertaining introduction to Dada with an emphasis on its influences and its legacy.  Arranged in themed glass boxes, and accompanied by a sound track and continuously looping videos, the curators have assembled some truly iconic Dada objects, like Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain", as well as some items whose presence was a little difficult to figure out.

Through several very generous loans from The Israel Museum, the Kunsthaus Zurich, and other private and public lenders, "Dada Universal" explores how the Dadaists were shaped by ideas from the ancient Egyptians to Nietzsche, from the Dodo bird to Hopi Indians.  More convincing, in my opinion, were the arguments for who or what was directly descended from Dada.  Without Dada, there would be no Pop Art, no Sex Pistols, no Mary Wigman, no David Bowie, no Mad Magazine and no Lady Gaga.  In other words, today's world would look quite a bit different.

Nowhere in Zurich was February 5 celebrated more enthusiastically than at the "Ground Zero" of Dada - the Cabaret Voltaire.  Located at No. 1 Spiegelgasse in the old town, this historic site was nearly lost to the wrecking ball but thanks to a public outcry and the civic mindedness of the Swatch Corporation, the building was saved and now functions as a cultural center with an emphasis on performance art.

Hugo Ball in an early Dada performance at the Cabaret Voltaire, 1916

A fan chaneling Hugo Ball at the Cabaret Voltaire, 2016

As you can imagine there was quite a crowd gathered at this Dada shrine, but by some miracle I was able to snake my way through, first to the bar for a "Dada Absinthe" and then to a spot right next to the small stage where the opening festivities were about to begin.  A pianist played music by Erik Satie in a marathon recital while the director of the Cabaret, Adrien Notz and various dignitaries officially kicked off the centennial season.

The Mayor of Zurich speaks through an
improvised megaphone at the Cabaret Voltaire

The city of Zurich is embracing its Dada heritage with great enthusiasm, and why not?  While Dada may not exactly be a household name, it has truly had a universal influence on art and popular culture.  The band of insurgents who performed in Zurich a hundred years ago could never have imagined how their vision has endured.  Dada Siegt!

February 12, 2016

A Visit to the Courtauld Institute

One of the lesser known gems of the London museum scene is the wonderful Courtauld Gallery.  Founded by Samuel Courtauld and two partners in 1932 as The Courtauld Institute of Art, it quickly became recognized as a world class facility for the study of art history at the postgraduate level.  Over time, and after several important bequests, the focus expanded to include an art gallery and research and conservation facilities and the institute moved to its current location at The Strand entrance of Somerset House.

Today, a degree in art history or conservation from The Courtauld Institute is the gold standard of the field, and a visit to see the extraordinary collection held by The Courtauld Gallery is nirvana for enthusiasts of fine art from the Middle Ages to the 20th century.

The collection of The Courtauld Gallery is not huge, but it is perfect.  Beginning on the ground floor with Medieval and Renaissance paintings and devotional objects, visitors will discover magnificent Flemish and Italian altarpieces, intricate Islamic metalwork pieces, and beautiful Gothic ivory carvings.
"Passion diptych" French, c. 1350

Upstairs on the Mezzanine level is the Drawings Gallery where a special exhibition entitled "Bruegel, Not Bruegel" presents a group of 16th and early 17th century drawings from The Courtauld's own collection that either were or still are attributed to Pieter Bruegel the Elder.  Known primarily for his large genre scenes depicting peasants in village activities, the Flemish artist was so exceedingly popular that his works, especially his drawings, were often copied.  Some of these copies were so skillfully executed that they were virtually indistinguishable from the real Bruegels and collectors, even knowledgeable ones, were sometimes fooled.  To the untrained eye, like mine, even side by side it is difficult to tell which is the copy!

Pieter Bruegel the Elder
"Kermis at Hoboken", 1559

Continuing up the circular staircase to the First Floor visitors enter the first of seven elegantly appointed galleries where some of the finest examples of Western art from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries are hanging.  Works by Botticelli, Rubens, Gainsborough and Cranach are displayed alongside fabulous silver, porcelains and massive gilded wedding chests.
Lucas Cranach the Elder
"Adam and Eve", 1526
Lovers of Impressionism will be overwhelmed by the plethora of iconic works by Manet, Degas, Renoir, Van Gogh, Seurat, Gauguin, not to mention a whole room of C├ęzanne's masterpieces.

Edouard Manet
"A Bar at the Folies-Bergere", 1882

Paul Cezanne
"Montagne Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine", c. 1887

But wait, it's not over yet!  There is still one more floor filled with with visual delights, this time from the twentieth century.  From the Fauves to the German Expressionists, here we find canvases by Matisse, Picasso, Kandinsky, Modigliani, Kokoschka and a large group of works by the Bloomsbury Group.  

The top floor also features a small gallery reserved for special exhibitions.  Newly opened and running until May is "Bruegel in Black & White" a very special presentation of the three surviving works the master painted in grisaille.  While Pieter Bruegel the Elder is considered the most important Netherlandish painter of the sixteenth century, he only painted about forty works and almost all of these are housed in major museums.  Of these forty, three examples are painted only in shades of grey, a very difficult technique to execute successfully.  For the first time, the three grisaille paintings "Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery" (see below), "The Death of the Virgin" and "Three Soldiers" are reunited along with several copies, or replicas, painted by Bruegel's sons to meet the high demand for these works.

I had visited The Courtauld once before, about fifteen years ago, and remembered it as very special.  Going back last week reminded me that it is truly one of the great collections, presented in magnificent surroundings, and I should never have waited so long between visits!

February 09, 2016

Comings and Goings at the Royal Academy, London

I have just returned from a week long trip to London and Zurich and it was a very nice break in the middle of a New York winter!  I will fill you in on my adventures in Zurich in a future blog, but now I'd like to tell you about a couple of exhibitions that I was able to view at the wonderful Royal Academy of Arts on Piccadilly.

I had the good fortune to be able to catch the very last day of "Jean-Etienne Liotard", an 18th century portraitist who has fallen into obscurity.  Born in Switzerland in 1702, Liotard was the embodiment of the Enlightenment era, a talented and successful artist whose works are imbued with sensitivity, exoticism and forthrightness. 

"Woman on a Sofa Reading", 1748-52
Oil on canvas

He traveled widely from London to Constantinople and painted aristocrats and royalty from Marie Antoinette to Bonnie Prince Charlie.  He was a master of the medium of pastel on vellum but more than competent with chalk drawings and oils.  He often incorporated exotic elements like Turkish clothing on British or European sitters and he was uncompromisingly truthful in physical portrayals.

"Julie de Thellusson-Ployard", 1760
Pastel on parchment

While Liotard's portraits are famous for their exquisite detail and candid depictions, he is probably best known for his smiles.  In a time when sitters were posed in serious settings with matching expressions, Liotard brought out the best in his subjects and portrayed them with all sorts of smiles from benevolent to mischievous.  It makes the viewer smile too, and that's another reason why the Royal Academy is to be commended for re-introducing us to this marvelous artist.

While the "Liotard" exhibition was closing, a new exhibition had just opened the day before in the RA's main galleries.  "Painting the Modern Garden:  Monet to Matisse" is a gorgeous celebration of the garden from Impressionism to Modern Art.  Using the work of Claude Monet as a springboard, the exhibition traces the evolution of the modern garden in art as painted by such masters as Renoir, Van Gogh, Sorolla, Kandinsky, Sargent, Klimt and many others. 

Pierre-August Renoir
"Monet Painting in his Garden at Argenteuil", 1873

More than just pretty pictures of flowers, these paintings explore how the garden was portrayed as social and horticultural changes shaped the artistic landscape.  Monet himself was an avid horticulturalist and used his gardens as inspiration throughout his career.  In the beginning, the palatte was subdued and the depictions rather academic, but he soon became obsessed with light and color and by the end of his life, as he was loosing his eyesight, Monet painted with abandon both in size and vivacity creating some of his greatest abstract water lily paintings.

 Claude Monet
"Water Lilies (Agapanthus)", 1915-1926

As industrialization encroached upon urban areas, city-dwellers sought shelter in gardens as a means of re-connecting with nature.  Artists too flocked to gardens as oasis' of quiet and beauty and as ever changing, ever stimulating subjects to be interpreted on canvas.

Joaquin Sorolla
"Louis Comfort Tiffany in his Garden", 1911

Emil Nolde
"Flower Garden", 1922

This exhibition presents superb examples of floral painting in styles ranging from Symbolism to German Expressionism to Modernism, but the stars of the show are Monet's familiar but magnificent paintings of his gardens and water lily pond at his home in Giverny.  As a very special treat, the curators have assembled three large canvases that were painted as a triptych but never, until now, exhibited together.  Painted in response to the traumas of World War I, the three panoramic water lily paintings were sold to major American institutions in Kansas City, Cleveland and St. Louis, where they have hung independently of each other, each a marvel in itself.  For the first time, viewers have the opportunity to enjoy the three perfectly co-joined paintings as they were originally intended and the result is amazing.

While the idea of flowers and gardens in painting may seem rather pedestrian, the Royal Academy makes the case that beauty is a universal theme and nothing is more beautiful than nature.