January 31, 2009

Pierre Bonnard, The Met and Le Cannet

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) can be considered one of the most under-rated and under-appreciated artists of the 20th Century. Classified as a founding member of Les Nabis (Hebrew for "Prophet") a group whose style was influenced by symbolism and spiritualism, Bonnard came of age at a time of great social and artistic turmoil that saw the birth of anarchistic movements like Dada and Surrealism. Bonnard's beautifully colored landscapes and interiors did not fit with his contemporaries' idea of revolution and his work was derided as being bourgeois, copy-cat Impressionism, or to quote Pablo Picasso "...a potpourri of indecision".

Bonnard was born into a wealthy family and obeyed his father's wish that he study law, earning his degree at the age of 21. However the pull of art, and the artist's life, proved too strong to resist and he changed the course of his life by following his heart and enrolling at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. It did not take long for him to be able to support himself through his art and smooth his escape from the middle class existence he so dreaded.

Typically, Bonnard painted familiar scenes, interiors and street scenes, peopled by those he knew, in a rainbow of delicious color applied with small brushstrokes. But the real beauty in his work is that the more one looks, the less one sees. Figures are often pushed to the side, or seem to fade out of the scene. One questions what one is viewing - what seems like a straightforward table setting is in fact much more.

Thanks to several exhibitions in recent years, notably at the Tate Gallery in London, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, the work of Pierre Bonnard has found a new, and far more appreciative audience. His depictions of his wife Marthe, a chronic depressive to whom he was utterly devoted, lying in her bathtub, became almost the iconic Bonnard image. Now, thanks to an exhibition that has just opened at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the public will be introduced to another fascinating aspect of Bonnard's œuvre. "Pierre Bonnard: The Late Interiors" focus' entirely on works created in his later years - the years he and Marthe spent in "Le Bosquet" their house in the South of France.

Which brings me to the last part of this blog's title. The town of Le Cannet, located near Cannes, used the occasion of this exhibition at The Met to announce the founding of a new museum entirely devoted to Pierre Bonnard and last Tuesday I was invited to a lovely reception at the French Embassy to celebrate this cultural landmark. Also in attendance were the Mayor of Le Cannet and members of Bonnard's family who joyfully proclaimed the French Government's commitment to the project and the designation of "Musée de France" the national status accorded to such institutions as the Louvre and other cultural treasures. Scheduled to open in 2010, the Musée Bonnard in Le Cannet will honor its most famous resident in a beautifully renovated villa with exhibition and educational facilities.

"The Dining Room in the Country", 1930

Pierre Bonnard died at the age of 80, still painting in his traditional style. It is a sad fact that it took decades for his genius to be recognized, but some things are worth the wait. Thanks to major museum shows Bonnard's work has become much more known and appreciated and his status as a major artist of the 20th Century confirmed. Thanks to the efforts of the City of Le Cannet, the French Riviera will gain a new cultural institution and the legacy of Bonnard will be honored in a manner befitting his stature as an artist. A whole new reason to visit the South of France!!

January 23, 2009

55th Annual Winter Antiques Show

Art and antiques devotees rejoice! It's time again for the Winter Antiques Show now open to the public at the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue at 67th Street. Long considered the finest show of its kind certainly in New York and probably the entire United States, the 55th edition of this annual event does not disappoint!

Once again the 75 dealers assembled have brought the finest examples of a wide variety of articles from around the world - all vetted, and all for sale! A few changes to the roster of exhibitors kept the presentation fresh and interesting. This year's event features works ranging from Remington cowboy sculptures to Persian rugs, from Maori flax bags to Delft porcelain plaques, from a Civil War era hand written letter signed by Abraham Lincoln, to an Art Nouveau Austro-Hungarian diamond and sapphire brooch of a stag beetle. Everything and anything you can possible desire, and then some!

There were many beautiful booths and wonderful objects but a couple were real standouts. Elle Shushan's portrait miniatures were even more exquisite in the gorgeous gazebo created of papier peinte with faux birds alighted on the trees. And Hans P. Kraus Jr., a first time exhibitor, faithfully recreated Alfred Stieglitz's famous "Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession" at 291 Fifth Avenue right down to the wasps' nest objet trouvé resting on a shelf.

Likewise, the quality and variety of the antiques on view made almost every item enticing but there were a few pieces that were real attention-getters. If I had to chose one piece to save from a burning building I think it would be the 1829 English "Mummer's Costume" already marked "Sold" on the stand of Cora Ginsburg, LLC, renowned specialists in the field of costume, textiles and needlework. This exceedingly rare artifact of British folk tradition is both historically significant and aesthetically charming. Made of linen with wool appliqués and fringe decorations, this three piece outfit was worn in the Mummer's traditional sword dance performed during the season between Christmas and Plough Monday (the first Monday after Twelfth Night).

Every year the Winter Antiques Show invites a museum to make a special presentation of a few select pieces. This year the honor went to The Corning Museum of Glass whose mini-exhibition "The Fragile Art" highlighted some very special examples from the museum's 45,000 piece collection covering 3,500 years of glass making. Included were antiquities from Mesopotamia through contemporary works from the Studio Glass movement intended to whet our appetites for the art of glass and perhaps inspire a visit to the Finger Lakes to visit their stunning new facility.

A visit to The Winter Antiques Show is a wonderful respite on a cold January day. To paraphrase the immortal words of the Bard..."Get thee to the Armory", and enjoy!

January 16, 2009

A Pre-Inauguration Visit to Washington D.C.

The Capitol adorned with bunting and flags

Last week I learned that Washington D.C. was the very first city in the world specifically created and planned as a national capital. Pierre Charles L'Enfant's design for a splendid city to govern the newly created United States of America provided the basis for what has become a profusion of historic monuments, majestic buildings and fabulous museums boasting major collections in every field.

Things are not "business as usual" in Washington D.C. at the moment as the nation readies to inaugurate its 44th President and the city plans to host an anticipated crowd of 6 million people. I was not in town for these festivities - rather to attend an opening at the National Gallery of Art - but the preparations and the attendant excitement were everywhere and it was impossible not to get caught up in the hoopla.

Washington D.C. is not just a great walking city, it also features a superb metro system and "Circulator" bus service that can take you just about anywhere you want to go at a reasonable fare. I loaded up my camera and notebook and took off looking for what makes this capital so great and why it attracts hoards of visitors, both American and foreign.

Preparations for a concert at The Lincoln Memorial

First stop, The Lincoln Memorial. Modeled after the Temple of Zeus in Olympia, Greece, this monument houses a huge statue of a seated Abraham Lincoln, the country's 16th President and the issuer of the Emancipation Proclamation, looking pensively over the National Mall. I have driven by this structure many times, but never actually climbed the steps for a visit. This time, despite the beehive of activity as workmen assembled a stage for Sunday's free concert, I joined the procession and paid homage, finally realizing, through first hand experience, the power of the shrine.

Now I was really psyched to continue my tour and headed West along the Mall toward The Capitol. I stopped at the somber gray granite wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial with its 58,260 engraved names. I chatted with the souvenir vendor, a veteran himself, who sold badges and pins from all the units and was anticipating big business in the next week. Continuing along the nearly frozen Reflecting Pool, I passed the flag-encircled Washington Monument, and ended up at the National Museum of American History. Here one can see objects ranging from Dorothy's red shoes to Julia Child's kitchen. Newly restored and on permanent view is the original Star Spangled Banner - the massive (30' x 42') flag sewn by Mary Pickersgill that flew over Fort McHenry on September 14, 1814 and inspired the national anthem.

The next day called for a visit to the National Archives and some research into the Civil War records of a member of the family who fought for the Union Army. It is amazing what documents are held there and are available to the public at no charge. But even more amazing is what's on view in The Rotunda. For over 50 years visitors have come to this site to view the signed, original documents that are known as "The Charters of Freedom". On display is the Declaration of Independence, The Bill of Rights and the 4-page Constitution of the United States. Pretty impressive stuff! To gild the lily even more, through the generosity of philanthropist David Rubenstein, the National Archives is now home to the Magna Carta (left). One of only 4 examples extant, and the only one on U.S. soil, this is the document on which our entire legal system is based and one of the most important manuscripts in the world.

Time for lunch and then a walk across the Mall, past the laborers setting up barricades, chain link fences, television broadcast booths, and countless Porta-Potties, to the National Gallery of Art. Beside their superb permanent collection of European and American works of art, the museum is offering a couple of excellent special exhibitions. "Pompeii and the Roman Villa" looks at art and culture, especially decoration, around the Bay of Naples before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the year 79 A.D. More contemporary is "Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans" commemorating the 50th anniversary of the publication of this seminal photography book by presenting all 83 photographs as well as fascinating documentary and supplementary material.

I saved the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum for the last morning. Housed together in an exceptional Greek Revival building that was one of the first public structures constructed in early Washington, this combination allows the visitor to experience the history of the country through both portraiture and more general art. The National Portrait Gallery showcases great American writers, performers, artists, visionaries, heroes, activists and of course Presidents through painted, photographic and sculptural portraits. The Smithsonian American Art Museum offers a range of works spanning three centuries and includes Folk Art through Contemporary. Surprisingly interesting was the Luce Foundation Center that features public storage areas with over 3,000 items on display in glass cases. The two museums share a newly enclosed courtyard designed by Sir Norman Foster, who also recently covered The British Museum with a similar glass canopy, which allows year round use of the space for performances and events.

It's time to head to the airport and back to New York. It's been an exciting few days here in Washington D.C. - totally different from prior visits. While I'm glad to leave before the masses of people arrive, it was fun to experience some of the fervor that will only increase as January 20th and the Inauguration approaches. I wish the country's new President the vision and fortitude to build on history and guide this great nation forward into the future.

January 11, 2009

Calder P.S.

If you followed my suggestion and visited the marvelous exhibition "Alexander Calder - The Paris Years 1926-1933" (see my December 2008 blog "Finding Your Inner Child at Christmas"), you'll be happy to hear about another show just a short walk away at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

While the Whitney looks at Calder's early works, particularly his wire sculpture portraits and circus characters, (before evolving into more monumental mobiles and stabiles), "Calder Jewelry" focus' exclusively on the artist's exploration of jewelry as an art form. Created mostly as gifts for his wife Louisa and various patrons and friends, these bracelets, earrings, necklaces, brooches and the occasional tiara, are miniature, wearable metal sculptures as much as they are ornamentation. Fashioned of brass, silver or gold, and sometimes embellished with a piece of glass or another objects, the works range from diminutive and delicate to armor-like and impressive. All are definitely Calder in style and feel and each is a treasure.

Alexander Calder (1898-1976) produced over 1,800 pieces of jewelry in his lifetime. 50 of them are presented here and will remain on view until March 1, 2009.

January 03, 2009

A New Year - A New Museum!

Happy New Year 2009 to all my readers! May this year bring good health, happiness and a plethora of interesting places and things to visit and enjoy!

What better way to begin a new year than by visiting a new cultural institution! Well, not exactly brand new, but in a new location and with a new name and mission. Confused? Don't worry - here's the story...

In 1956 the "Museum of Contemporary Crafts" opened in a brownstone on West 53rd Street. It was dedicated to recognizing the work of American craftspeople and making the general public more aware of this art form. Thirty years later, the name was updated to the "American Craft Museum" and the institution relocated to a new building also on West 53rd Street, across from the Museum of Modern Art. After presenting over 560 exhibitions and accumulating a permanent collection of more than 2,000 objects, the Museum's scope and stature had evolved to require a bigger, more flexible space and a modernization of it's objectives.

In 2002 the Museum's director, Holly Hotchner, began a much publicized campaign to acquire and renovate the infamous "Lollipop Building", built in 1964 as a museum by Huntington Hartford and later home to The New York Convention & Visitors Bureau (see photo left). Located on Columbus Circle and long the object of snide remarks by critics and visitors, the building had been abandoned for several years and was becoming an eyesore. Nevertheless a strong objection was raised by defenders of the original marble facade who appealed to the Landmarks Commission to preserve this piece of New York City's architectural history. Ms Hotchner and the Museum prevailed and undertook an extensive re-design of the building both its interior and the much maligned exterior.

The result, a sheath of glazed terracotta tile and glass on the Southwest corner of Columbus Circle, was unveiled as the "Museum of Arts and Design" on September 27, 2008. The building itself has been an aesthetic success although I must admit I do miss the quirky portholes and arcade of the original construction. It now boasts greatly expanded exhibition areas on 4 floors, open studio spaces, a café, an auditorium, event rooms and a large shop off the lobby, all contained in a sleek, modern facility.

The new building is by all accounts wonderful, but what about the collections? Last Saturday I had the opportunity to drop by MAD and see what lay behind the facade. I took the elevator up to the 6th floor where visitors could watch a jeweler working on her projects in one of the light-filled open artists' studios.

Then down a flight of stairs to see "Second Lives: Remixing the Ordinary" an exhibition that is spread over the 4th and 5th floors and features works by 50 artists who have created objects and installations using ordinary manufactured items in a totally different way from their intended purposes. It's a sort of creative recycling of household objects reclassifying them as "art". For example, Johnny Swing's sofa made out of coins welded together and entitled "Quarter Lounge". Or Stuart Haygarth's "Spectacle" chandelier comprised of eyeglasses. Or "Sound Wave", Jean Shin's 6 foot high sculpture formed of melted vinyl L.P.s. The quality was spotty, to say the least, but some works did go beyond just "clever" to be truly beautiful and thought provoking, like "Portrait of a Textile Worker", Terese Agnews's 2005 tapestry fashioned entirely of clothing labels.

The 3rd floor is devoted to the Museum's permanent collection and here is where the institution's roots as the American Craft Museum are clearly visible. The rotating displays contain some superb examples of craftsmanship in all sorts of mediums including glass, porcelain, wood, basketry and metal. There are also some excellent samples of furniture and household goods by American designers.

Down to 2 and "Elegant Armor: The Art of Jewelry" an inaugural exhibition featuring specimens from MAD's collection of art jewelry. Divided into four themes including "Sculptural Forms", "Narrative Jewelry", "Painted and Textured Surfaces" and the "Radical Edge", the works presented were generally more flamboyant and decorative than actual jewelry to be worn.

Finally we've reached the ground floor and a walk-through of the surprisingly good gift shop. I concluded my visit glad to have been, but questioning the now very indistinct borders MAD has created between art and craft and design. It will be interesting to see if and how these lines are further blurred in future exhibitions. The Museum of Arts and Design is located at 2 Columbus Circle and is open from Wednesday to Sunday.