Washington D.C. – The Smithsonian American Art Museum part I

Taking refuge from the rain, letting the experience at Ford’s Theatre sink in. Next stop, the wonders of the American Art Museum. We arrived late in the day, two hours before closing, and instantly knew we were coming back for more. Perfect for rainy days – here is a first look:   Peacocks and Peonies, 1882, Stained glass – John La Farge (1835-1910)


John La Farge’s stained glass windows reflect the Gilded Age fascination with medieval art and craftsmanship. The tail feathers of the peacocks are made of bits of glass in the ”broken jewel” technique; each peony blossom is a single piece of glass molded to catch the light differently through the day. La Farge layered his coloured glass as a painter would build glazes of colours to achieve the right shade. For the composition, he borrowed from many cultured: the central panels with the bird and flower motif evoke Chinese and Japanese screens; the lower panels emulate Pompeiian architecture; and the transoms recall the curved arch above the door to a Romanesque cathedral. 


The Industrial Revolution had made inexpensive, mass-produced glass available to anyone, but art glass remained a prized emblem of wealth and good taste. These windows were commissioned by Frederick Lothrop Ames, a railroad magnate, who had them installed in a vast, baronial hall of his Boston house.


The Sun God, modeled 1882, cast iron – Elihu Vedder (1836-1923)

Between 1881 and 1885, Elihu Vedder undertook a number of commercial projects, including book illustrations and the design of firebacks and decorative tiles. A fireback was a metal insert placed against the back wall of a fireplace to protect the masonry and radiate heat forward into the room. Vedder decorated this example with the head of a sun god; the rays surrounding this face are a visual play on the warmth usually associated with the hearth.


Adams Memorial, modeled 1886-91, cast 1969, bronze – Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907)


Marian ”Clover” Hooper Adams, wife of writer Henry Adams, committed suicide in 1885 by drinking chemicals used to develop photographs [Clover was a skilled autodidact photographer]. Her grieving husband commissioned sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to create a memorial that would express the Buddhist idea of nirvana, a state of being beyond joy and sorrow. In Adams’ circle of artists and writers, the old Christian certainties seemed inadequate after the violence of the Civil War, the industrialization of America, and Darwin’s theories of evolution.

Saint-Gaudens’ ambiguous figure reflects the search for new insights into the mysteries of life and death. The shrouded being is neither male nor female, neither triumphant nor downcast. Its message is inscrutable. Clover’s gravesite in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington D.C., quickly became a tourist attraction, but Adams resisted all attempts to sentimentalize the memorial as a symbol of grief. He acknowledged the power of Saint-Gaudens’ sculpture, however, and allowed reproductions to be made and sold to a chosen few.


Diana, 1889, bronze – Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907)


Angel, 1887, oil on canvas – Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849-1921)


Adoration of St. Joan of Arc, 1896, fire etched wood relief – J. William Fosdick (1858-1937)


J. William Fosdick made this relief to appeal to wealthy industrialists who favoured richly designed interiors and uplifting art. He tapped into the fantasy of a more spiritual past, and when the screen was exhibited, it was praised for craftsmanship that rivaled a medieval masterwork.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Joan of Arc was a popular symbol in American culture. Mark Twain wrote about her in 1896, Anna Hyatt Huntington created a sculpture of the martyr for Riverside Drive in New York and George Bernard Shaw’s famous play about her was first produced on Broadway in 1923. She could be a figure from the romantic past and an emblem of the ”New Woman” in the modern world. Joan may have died for king and country – as the legend at the bottom of the screen records – but her symbolic power as a woman who took history into her hands also resonated among women fighting for the right to vote.


Rising Sun, 1914, bronze – Adolph A. Weinman (1870-1952)


Girl Skating, 1907, bronze – Abastenia St. Léger Eberle (1878-1942)


Synthetic Arrangement, 1922, oil on canvas – Morris Kantor (1896-1974)


People in the Sun, 1960, oil on canvas – Edward Hopper (1882-1967)


Night in Bologna, 1958, egg tempera on fiberboard – Paul Cadmus (1904-1999)


Night in Bologna is a dark comedy of sexual tensions played out on a stage of shadowy arcades. In the foreground, a soldier on leave throws off a visible heat that suffuses the air around him with a red glow. He casts an appraising look at a worldly woman nearby, who gauges the interest of a man seated at a café table. The gawky tourist is unaware of her attentions, and looks longingly at the man in uniform. Paul Cadmus noted that he used red, green and yellow to denote the characters’ vices – lust, envy and greed – but left the outcome unclear; he was more interested in the tangle of human instincts than in tidy resolutions. He once said that he would always rather paint a novel than a short story.


Smithsonian American Art Museum

April 24th, 2017

Walking the Mall: Sculpture garden to Washington Monument

From the Capitol to the National Gallery Sculpture Garden.
The McGee Roadster, the 16th vehicle to be documented as national heritage by the HVA for the National Historic Vehicle Register and U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Historic American Engineering Record.


Robert Indiana, AMOR, conceived 1998, executed 2006.


Mark di Suvero, Aurora, 1992–93.


Louise Bourgeois, Spider, 1996/1997.


Claes Oldenburg; Coosje van Bruggen, Typewriter Eraser, Scale X, 1999.


Roxy Paine, Graft, 2008–2009.


The Smithsonian Castle.


National Museum of African American History & Culture.


And, finally, the iconic obelisk in honour of George Washington.

April 23rd, 2017

Words of Wisdom – II

*New Resident Posting* on the bulletin board of my building’s website:

Title: FREE CONDOMS!!! Be Responsible 

I bought this huge variety pack of condoms about a year ago but unfortunately was not nearly as successful as I expected. I would like to give these away to someone who can get better use out of them. I’m moving out at the end of the weekend and am donating them to the local high school if nobody wants them. We have the best options that Trojan has to offer, Ultra Ribbed, Charged Intensified, Double Ecstasy, Ultra Thin and Bare Skin. Let me know if you want them and we can set up a confidential drop-off point so that nobody is aware of your sexual prowess. No hat, no party! 

***

If interested, please leave a *discreet* comment and I’ll put in a good word for you with my incredible neighbour.

Thank you!

PS: artwork from A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints exhibition in The Japan Society, March-June 2017

January 27th, 2018

Infinity.dot.Mirror.dot.Rooms@David_Zwirner

The exhibition in Chelsea featured two new Infinity Mirror Rooms, one which could be seen through a peephole (below) and another, where the viewers could walk in (from which yesterday’s ”teaser” photos). There was also a red and white polka-dotted space and a larger one featuring sixty-six paintings from the artist’s iconic My Eternal Soul series and three large-scale flower sculptures.

Immerse into Yayoi Kusama’s mesmerizing, beautiful chaos. You may even discover a kind of order behind this explosion of colour, this pandemonium of patterns and shapes, this sensory overload.

After a while, it all starts to make sense. 

Festival of Life ran through a limited time only, in David Zwirner Chelsea concurrently with an exhibition of Kusama’s new Infinity Nets paintings, in their uptown location. We never made it to the latter.

December, 6th 2017

A Madman Distilling his Brains

The Robert Lehman Wing was built not only to showcase the vast Lehman Collection – donated to the museum by the family – but parts of it were made to look like rooms recreating the Lehman family residence. 

El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos)
Saint Jerome as Scholar, 
ca. 1610

Oil on canvas


Goya (Francisco de Goya y Lucientes) 
Condesa de Altamira and Her Daughter, María Agustina – 1787–88
Oil on canvas


Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres  
Joséphine-Éléonore-Marie-Pauline de Galard de Brassac de Béarn (1825–1860), Princesse de Broglie
Oil on canvas

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, the neo-classical French artist par excellence, painted this masterpiece toward the end of his life when his reputation as a portraitist to prominent citizens and Orléanist aristocrats had been long established. Pauline de Broglie sat for the artist’s final commission. Ingres captures the shy reserve of his subject while illuminating through seamless brushwork the material quality of her many fine attributes: her rich blue satin and lace ball gown, the gold embroidered shawl, and silk damask chair, together with finely tooled jewels of pearl, enamel, and gold. The portrait was commissioned by the sitter’s husband, Albert de Broglie, a few years after their ill-fated marriage. Pauline was stricken with tuberculosis soon after completion of the exquisite portrait, leaving five sons and a grieving husband. Through Albert’s lifetime, it was draped in fabric on the walls of the family residence. The portrait remained in the de Broglie family until shortly before Robert Lehman acquired it.


The collection also comprises some extravagant, utterly amusing objects:Inkstand with Apollo and the Muses
Workshop of the Patanazzi family (Italian, active ca. 1580–1620)
Probably after Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio or Santi) (Italian, Urbino 1483–1520 Rome)
Date: 1584
Medium: Maiolica (tin-glazed earthenware)

This extravagant desk set celebrates the art of poetry while providing a writer with storage for the tools of his craft. The exterior decorations evoke ancient Roman art and honor the divine sources of creativity. Gods and muses perch beside famous poets atop an elaborate confection of drawers and removable containers, including inkwells and a sand-shaker (for drying fresh text). Inside, the compartments are decorated with images denoting their contents, such as scissors and quills.


Among which my personal favourite:
Inkstand with A Madman Distilling His Brains, ca. 1600
Maiolica (tin-glazed earthenware)

In this whimsical maiolica sculpture, a well-dressed man leans forward in his seat with his head in a covered pot set above a fiery hearth. The vessel beside the hearth almost certainly held ink. The man’s actions are explained by an inscription on the chair: “I distill my brain and am totally happy.” Thus the task of the writer is equated with distillation—the process through which a liquid is purified by heating and cooling, extracting its essence.


The Metropolitan Museum of Art
March 19th, 2017

Maria in the wings

Her black velvet eyes, captivating. More than the nude bodies of her friends. Or the chubby cheeks of Madame Roulin’s baby. I wonder if Madame would have approved. Maria, 1907-10
Kees van Dongen
Oil on canvas


Tahitian Women Bathing, 1892
Paul Gauguin
Oil on paper laid down on canvas


Madame Roulin and Her Baby, 1888
Vincent van Gogh
Oil on canvas


Reclining Nude, 1928
Suzanne Valadon
Oil on canvas (lined)

Suzanne Valadon posed as a model for Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec before she began painting herself in 1893. While she favoured still lifes and portraits, Valadon is best known for her paintings of female nudes – a subject rarely chosen by women artists at the time. 


The Robert Lehman Wing,
Metropolitan Museum of Art

March 19th, 2017

 

Meet Hercules Segers

Parallel to Seurat’s Circus Sideshow, The Met was showing works by the Dutch printmaker and painter Hercules Seg(h)ers (ca. 1589 – ca. 1638). Very little is known about his life but his dreamy landscapes, innovative techniques such as lift-ground etching which would only be employed by others 150 years later, impressions in multiple colours contrary to the existing traditions that wanted them to look alike – in black and white, all speak for themselves.

And if that was not impressive enough, the curators’ notes disclosed that Segers very seldom depicted actual places; his incredibly detailed landscapes are all places he had never been to and only knew from prints made after Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s designs. So, for all their detail and realism, Segers’ landscapes were mostly products of his beautiful mind. No wonder he was the favourite artist of the much younger but no less experimental printmaker of the time, Rembrandt van Rijn, who owned eight paintings and one printing plate by Segers.

Mountain Valley with Dead Pine Trees and a City in the Background, ca. 1622-25
Line etching printed on light brown ground, varnished; unique impression

Influenced by the work of earlier Netherlandish landscapists, most notably prints after drawings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Segers often rendered broad Alpine valleys, as in this example. Bruegel was known for creating vast, comprehensible spaces that invited the viewer to fancifully wander. While here Segers included elements typical of Bruegel’s scenes – a path leading from the foreground into a distant valley, dotted with villages and castles – he flattened the landscape and used a variety of patterns to distinguish the rocks, the grassy hills, and the path. One of the artist’s larger etchings, this print exists in only one known impression.


After Hans Baldung
The Lamentation of Christ, ca. 1630-33
Line etching printed with tone and blue highlights on a cream-tinted ground, coloured with brush

This poignant depiction, one of the artist’s few biblical subjects, copies a woodcut created more than a century earlier by Hans Baldung. Segers closely replicated the figure group but removed the suggestions of the cross behind them, adding instead a small cluster of buildings on the bottom right. The artist overpainted this impression with opaque watercolour and oil paint, making it his most colourful etching.


Tobias and the Angel, ca. 1630-33
Line etching printed in olive-green with tone and highlights; first state of six

Tobias and the Angel, one of Segers’ final prints, was inspired by an engraving by Hendrick Goudt after Adam Elsheimer. Segers copied the two figures, including the large fish dragged along by Tobias, but enlarged them so that their silhouettes stand out against the sky.


Hercules Segers with Rembrandt van Rijn
The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1652
Line etching, drypoint, burin; sixth state of six

Rembrandt came into possession of Segers’ etching plate by about 1652 and altered the subject to the Flight into Egypt. He scraped away the large figures and added Joseph and Mary, as well as sketchy trees. In the second state, Rembrandt’s addition of rich drypoint lines almost obscures the subject.


The Mossy Tree, ca. 1625-30
Lift-ground etching printed in green on a light pink ground, coloured with brush; unique impression

The Mossy Tree is one of Segers’ most striking and iconic prints, due to its loose, almost calligraphic lines, which convey the unruly nature of moss. Linked together solely with thin lines, the branches seem to float before the delicately coloured background. The artist original printed the tree in green ink, though it has turned brown over time.


The Two Trees (An Alder and an Ash), ca. 1625-30
Lift-ground etching printed in green on a light pink ground, coloured with brush; unique impression.


Mountain Landscape with a Distant View, ca. 1620-25
Oil on canvas laid down on panel

Once attributed to Rembrandt, this painting was assigned to Segers in 1871, though it was still considered to have been retouched by the younger master. The palette and the dramatic mood relate to Rembrandt’s work, but recent study of the painting has determined that the reworking was carried out instead by an unknown 17th-century painter. This ambitious landscape, Segers’ largest, suffered in the 17th century due to a large hole in the upper right, which was patched with a new canvas. Subsequently, both the mountains in the background and a large section of the sky were overpainted, and Segers’ brush marks abruptly stop at the edge of the patch. The nervous white highlights on the rocks in the foreground are typical of Segers’ paintings.


Mountain Valley with Fence Fields, ca. 1625-30
Line etching and drypoint printed in blue with plate tone, coloured with brush; second state of two


The Enclosed Valley, ca. 1625-30
Line etching printed on linen with a tinted ground, coloured with brush. Twenty-two impressions of this print have survived.


The Enclosed Valley, ca. 1625-30
Line etching printed on linen with a tinted ground, coloured with brush. Twenty-two impressions of this print have survived.


The Large Tree, ca. 1628-29
Line etching printed with tone and highlights, black chalk

A majestic oak dominates a landscape abundant with foliage. A town and a body of water populated by sailboats can be seen in the distance.

Here, Segers’ three-tone process yields subtle gradiations of black and grey and enhances the play of light in the foliage. To create this etching, the artist covered the printing plate with dense pattern of intersecting lines, which are clearly visible in the sky. To preserve parts of the sky and the white highlights, he used stopping-out varnish, which prevents the acid that incises the lines into the metal from ”biting” farther into the plate. But the solvent in the varnish reacted with the etching ground, resulting in the fine line that curves around the top of the foliage. Segers may have meant to paint impressions of the print in order to hide this line, though neither of the two existing examples is painted.


Distant View with a Road and Mossy Branches, ca. 1622-25
Segers printed this etching with various coloured inks and grounds. Using fabric and paper, he also created counterproofs and a maculature. 


Impressions of Valley with a River and a Town with Four Towers, ca. 1626-27 etching.


Skull on a Ledge
Undated
Oil on canvas
Possibly Segers

The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, February 13 – May 21, 2017

March 19th, 2017

Grimaces and Misery – The Saltimbanques

This epic work by Fernandez Pelez (click on link for a better view on a public domain image) was part of Seurat’s Circus Sideshow exhibition. It made me terribly sad.

Too large to be ignored at the Salon of 1888, Pelez’s commanding parade scene went on view just before the close of the exhibition at the Salon des Indépendants that featured Seurat’s representation of the same subject. True to form for an artist who made no secret of his sympathies for the downtrodden in trenchant, life-size depictions, Grimaces and Misery – The Saltimbanques presents a lineup of circus performers whose lot does not improve with age: unsmiling young acrobats, sniveling in the corner or waiflike in sagging tights, give way to miserable, world-weary musicians across a twenty-foot stage.

On the face of it – from the quizzical dwarf to the white-faced clown – this epic naturalist painting would seem to to have nothing in common with Seurat’s stylized conception. And yet in each brooding masterpiece, the players take their place on a shallow stage, aligned in friezelike formation in tripartite arrangement.

Grimaces and Misery drew mixed reviews in 1888. Faulted for its dry and uninspired reportage, it also aroused deep sentiments, triggering heartfelt concern and rapt appreciation for its penetrating characterization of human suffering. The following year it was awarded a silver medal at the Exposition Universelle of 1889.

Fernandez Pelez
Grimaces and Misery – The Saltimbanques, 1888
Oil on canvas, in five sections
87 3/8 in. × 20 ft. 6 7/8 in. (222 × 627 cm)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
March 19th, 2017

Sunday in The Met with George

But first, a peacock mosaic column, one of the two that served as a room divider in Tiffany’s Manhattan showrooms, Madison Avenue & 47th St., as shown here in a picture taken ca. 1913. 

Fresh from an inspiring performance of ”Sunday in park with George” at the Hudson Theatre the previous weekend, a ”Sunday in The Met with George” to see Seurat’s Circus Sideshow, one of only six major figure paintings he created, was the next best thing. With it, an array of works by other artists – Seurat’s contemporaries – the exhibition aimed to explore their fascination with the Sideshow as a subject.

Circus Sideshow (Parade de cirque) represents an ensemble of circus players lined up on a narrow stage outside a tent performing sample entertainment to entice customers to their show.

Georges de Feure. The Corvi Circus (Le Cirque Corvi), ca. 1893
Gouache, watercolour, pencil on paper

This highly finished gouache, by an artist who went on to champion Art Nouveau design, relies on simplified drawing and bold colour to give an edge to his description of performers preparing backstage at the Corvi Circus. His palette – the ambient blue of the evening set off by strident pinks, violets and yellows – uses ostensibly festive hues to spotlight the vagrant life of the saltimbanques and the existential paradoxes of the performer. 


Jules Chéret. Folies-Bergère: Corvi Circus, 1881. Colour lithograph


Georges Seurat. Two Clowns (Une Parade), ca. 1886-88. Conté crayon on paper


Georges Seurat. Study for ”Models”, 1886 – 87. Conté crayon on paper


Georges Seurat. Models (Poseuses), small version, 1887 – 88. Oil on canvas

This gemlike canvas is a small-scale version of the imposing, life-size Models (The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia) that Seurat exhibited alongside Circus Sideshow at the Salon des Indépendants in 1888. Two years after he asserted his authority as an innovative painter of modern life, with a plein-air subject in full sunlight, Seurat returned to the public stage with figure compositions that succeeded to demonstrate the versatility of his approach. He set forth a daytime, interior studio scene – graced by three nudes who channel classicizing prototypes, while skirting his earlier triumph – and a contrasting nighttime, outdoor scene that reflects a more abstract sensibility, broaching a symbolist aesthetic. Linked by formal characteristics, such as frontality and symmetry, the opposites did not attract equal attention. Models stole the limelight. 


Louis Anquetin. Avenue de Clichy (Street – Five O’ Clock in the Evening), 1887
Oil on paper, laid down on canvas

Anquetin’s view of a Paris boulevard at dusk – the blue and violet gloaming of the twilit street offset by the orange and yellow light of a butcher’s shop at left – is painted in his signature cloisonnist style, characterised by flat areas of colour outlined by emphatic contours. It was shown in the Salon des Indépendants of 1888, in direct competition with Seurat’s Circus Sideshow. Quick to recognise the rival solution to painting a nocturne of urban bustle under artificial lighting, one critic saw Anquetin’s canvas as ”designed to trouble those practicing pointillism.”


Georges Seurat. Circus Sideshow (Parade de cirque), 1887 – 88. Oil on canvas

From the time it debuted at the Salon des Indépendants in 1888, Circus Sideshow has intrigued and confounded its viewers. Indeed, Seurat’s closest associates were seemingly dumbstruck, largely confining their spare remarks to its novelty as a ”nocturnal effect”. (Of course, his detractors could not see past the ”multicoloured and mathematically contrasted lentils.”) The laconic artist never mentioned the picture, nor did he exhibit it again. Recent technical findings reveal that in adding the painted border, Seurat effaced his signature at lower right.

Circus Sideshow was sold from the artist’s estate in 1900. It left Paris for New York in 1929, claiming a ”place of honour” at the Museum of Modern Art’s inaugural show. Future Met donor, Stephen C. Clark acquired it three years later.


Seurat’s Circus Sideshow at The Met (February-May 2017)

March 19th, 2017