March 30, 2011

A Visit to Les Invalides

I have long been fascinated with the period around the French Revolution and its cast of characters and have visited many of the historic sites associated with the era. Yet one has always been difficult to make time for despite its being very centrally located in the VIIième Arrondissement of Paris. But this trip, thanks to a special exhibition that has received very good reviews, I finally made the pilgrimage to the Hôtel National des Invalides and the Musée de l'Armée.

The Hôtel des Invalides began in 1674 as a town governed by its own military and religious rules and featuring a barracks, convent, hospital, veterans' home and workshops for tapestries, shoe repair and the illumination (decoration) of manuscripts. During the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, the municipality was converted into a totally military institution with the final act being the installation of Napoleon's tomb (see right) in the chapel under the Dome in 1861.

Today visitors can wander the former compound from the imposing Dome Chapel to the Main Courtyard with its impressive collection of French classical cannons. History buffs will revel in the special museums within including the Charles de Gaulle Historial, The Two World Wars, Ancient Armour and Arms XIIIth-XVIIth Century, From Louis XIV to Napoleon III and the Saint-Louis des Invalides Chapel. But right now there is a very special reason to visit this monument - The Princes of Europe's Armour - a fabulous survey of French armour for both royals and their horses.

By the 16th Century gunpowder and firearms began to replace the use of spears and cross bows in European warfare. This change in weaponry meant that chain mail and traditional suits of armour were no longer effective in protecting soldiers in battle and they became more ceremonial than functional. What developed was a sort of "fashion statement" conveying the wealth and importance of the wearer. Royal arms and armour became elaborate symbols of the Crown and were often enhanced with precious metals, and sometimes jewels, to ensure that their status was not overlooked.

Each country had its own distinctive style of armorial decoration and the French workshops were known for ornate, embossed suits with embellishments in gold and silver. Intricate designs featuring mythological creatures, animals, nymphs, foliage and historical events, were created by French designers but often executed by master craftsmen in Antwerp, Belgium. French armour enjoyed a brief "Golden Age" from 1550-1600 when it reigned as the most desirable for crowned heads from Stockholm to Dresden.

Which brings me to the exhibition now on view at the Musée de l'Armée. Thanks to a major international effort, the museum has assembled a substantial collection of armour of the period including suits, helmets, shields, swords, breastplates and even horse armour. What makes this even more interesting is a set of life-size patterns on paper borrowed from a Munich museum and displayed alongside the pieces themselves. It is fascinating to compare the detailed drawings with the finished products and to consider the painstaking craftsmanship that went into their construction. The medieval objects of protection have been transformed into works of art. Arms and armour may seem like a pretty dry subject these days, but a visit to Les Invalides will bring the worlds of jousting and parade in the Middle Ages right back into the 21st Century!

P.S. Tonight is my last night in Paris before returning to New York. As a special send-off I saw for the first time in ages the group known as "Pari-Roller" who get together every Friday night since 1994 to roller blade through the streets of Paris. It was a marvelous sight, and one I took as a very good omen, to see the thousand or so participants roller blading along the Boulevard Saint Germain. A perfect farewell to a wonderful trip!

March 28, 2011

A Spring Saturday in Paris

Spring is springing everywhere here in Paris and that includes a new crop of museum exhibitions as well. So Saturday afternoon I took advantage of a lovely afternoon and rode the bus over to the wonderful Musée Jacquemart-André on the Boulevard Haussmann to see their latest special exhibition "Dans l'intimité des frères - Caillebotte - Peintre et Photographe". Housed in the former mansion of Edouard André and his wife, Nélie Jacquemart, a pair of inveterate collectors who turned their magnificent home into a private museum and later bequeathed the house and its contents to the Institute de France, this is one of my favorite museums in Paris. The residence was built in the 1870's with no expense spared in design or decoration as a venue for entertaining and a showcase for the couple's fabulous art collection. Today visitors can view prime works by Fragonard, Botticelli, Canaletto and Rembrandt displayed in the original sumptuous surroundings.

In addition to the superb permanent collection the museum often mounts small but excellent temporary shows. The most recent expo is a double homage to the work of the Caillebotte brothers - the famous Impressionist painter Gustave and the lesser known but very competent photographer Martial. This is the first exhibition ever to present the brothers' works together, with paintings and photographs on facing walls so the visitor can really appreciate the similarities in interests and subjects. Both Gustave and Martial had an affinity for gardens, yachting and the poetry of day to day existence and both recorded the "modernization" of Paris during the era of Baron Haussmann. My favorite works depicted the view from the balcony of the family's apartment on the corner of the Boulevard Haussmann and Rue Gluck. Here we see Gustave's colorful Impressionist interpretations and Mariel's sharper, more avant garde black and white shots of the same scenes. "Caillebotte" is on view until July 11.

Next stop is the Palais de Tokyo on the Avenue du Président Wilson where Christies' has installed a preview of its upcoming auction of the contents of the Château de Gourdon. 902 lots ranging from suits of armor to Art Nouveau bedroom suites are all on the auction block but the main focus is a fabulous collection of Modernist furniture. Featuring the biggest names in decorative design including Jean Dunand, Eileen Gray, Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann and others, the sale offers some marvelous examples of Post World War 2 décor. Like a suite of eggshell and lacquer wall panels for the smoking room of a Parisian apartment (estimate 2-3 million Euro), a 1929 "ski chaise au Maharadjah" (estimate 2-3 million Euro) or a prestigeous lacquer and chrome semi-circular "Tardieu" desk and chair (estimate 2-3 million Euro)! Clearly this is not furniture for your average dorm room but it is fun to see! The sale takes several days and runs through the end of March.

When a sudden rainstorm soaks the streets it is time to dash back and get ready for the evening. Perhaps it will dry up enough to allow for an aperitif at an outdoor café before dinner. Bon appetite!

Storm clouds behind the Eiffel Tower

March 20, 2011

"La Comédie Parisienne" - Forain at the Petit Palais

Built for the Universal Exhibition in 1900 the Petit Palais was designed to glorify the City of Paris and to celebrate the benefits of art. Its architect, Charles Girault, built a virtual palace that could accommodate a large flow of people through elaborately decorated interiors and a pristine inner courtyard (see below). Ornamental details such as murals, elaborate metal work, ceiling frescoes, mosaic tiled floors and stained glass windows create the perfect environment in which to display the museum's substantial permanent collection of 19th Century decorative and fine arts and the occasional special exhibition.

Which is the reason why I visited the Petit Palais last Sunday afternoon! It was a beautiful Spring day here in Paris, sunny and warm and everyone seemed to be outside enjoying a café as I strolled along the Quais, across the Seine and through the Tuilerie Gardens. The special exhibition I had come to see was "La Comédie parisienne" a retrospective of the work of Jean-Louis Forain (1852-1931), a not very well known artist today but one who was quite a player at the turn of the century.

After a tumultuous youth, Forain had the good fortune to make friends with Impressionist masters Edouard Manet and Edgar Dégas whom he met when he joined the "Société des artistes indépendants" a group of artists who wished to be able to exhibit their works to the public without the requirement of an admission jury as was customary in the late 1800's. Many of these artists went on to become world famous with their formerly refused works now hanging in prestigious museums.

But let's get back to Forain. He was the youngest member of the group and he developed a remarkable grasp of the techniques used by other artists. These skills he applied toward perfectly capturing on paper and on canvas the mores of Parisian society at the turn of the century. Exquisite watercolors, pastels and oils record scenes in restaurants and cafés, at the theater and ballet, and in the occasional bordello. Forain was more interested in commenting on what was happening behind the scenes rather than the public face and his depictions of little ballerinas with older "sugar daddies" are especially poignant.

Forain went on to become a very well known caricaturist (he was a regular contributor to the New York Herald), he created a series of mosaic murals to decorate the elegant but short lived Café Riche, and he was a correspondent during World War I. His later work, mostly nudes and portraits, is interesting but for me lacked the magic of his earlier pieces.

Forain was very much a product of his peers. Looking at his early works one can easily see the influence of Manet, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec. But he was not a copyist, he had his own particular view and style. Although the work of Forain will never be regarded as "A" list, it is certainly important and his pictorial commentary on Belle Epoque society is almost disturbingly incisive. "La Comédie parisienne" is on view until June 5.

March 19, 2011

Magic in Maastricht!

As many of my readers know, I have had the good fortune to visit The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) several times. Held every March since 1988, this fair has evolved from a nice little European show to become arguably the most important art and antiques event in the world. Now featuring over 260 exhibitors from 16 countries TEFAF offers the finest of works spanning centuries of cultures all vetted and all for sale. Last year over 73,000 visitors made the trek to Maastricht, Holland - no easy task but better than it used to be - and paid the rather steep 55 Euro (approximately $77) entry fee for the opportunity to see museum quality pieces in a very elegant setting.

This year, for the first time, I was able to attend the opening day of the fair, a gala event that surpassed my wildest expectations. The anticipation was palpable as a crush of fair goers waited for the doors to open and were greeted first with a breathtaking floral display and then an army of waiters and waitresses bearing trays of complimentary sandwiches, soups and beverages of every description. The food and drink service never stopped, it just adjusted to the time of day as we snacked though lunch, tea, cocktails and finally dinner. The champagne flowed and men were shucking oysters (see right) at an incredible pace as visitors reveled in this art fueled jubilee!

But let me get back to the real point of the fair - the art and antiques! Once again the variety and quality of the offerings were astounding and I literally caught myself with my mouth gaping in awe at the beauty of both the objects and the presentations. Some stands were highly specialized, like the snuff bottles at Robert Hall, London, or the icons at Jan Morsink Ikonen, Amsterdam, or the gilt leather wall hangings at Kunsthandel Glass, Jülich. Others were more generalized and created complete interiors elegantly appointed with boisserie, fine furniture and decorations such as Mallett, London, Axel Vervoordt, Belgium, and J. Kugel Antiquaires, Paris.

For me the highlights ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous and I would be hard pressed to choose one favorite object. Memorable pieces include a set of painted clay figures from the Qing Dynasty (circa 1800) whose heads nodded up and down and were decorated with real human hair, a pair of double magnum size cut crystal decanters from 1840 that weighed a ton before they were even filled, a 16th Century ceremonial gilt bronze hammer for the opening of the Holy Door of the Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, and a 19th Century silver model of a dwarf cavalier believed to be a depiction of Sir Jeffry Hudson who was, get this, presented as a gift to Charles I and Henrietta Maria by emerging from a cold baked pie at a dinner given in their honor!

Exquisitely beautiful was a set of three devotional plaques made of coral, gilt copper and enamel in Trapani, Sicily, in the 17th Century. Monumental were the Da Porto Cabinets, a pair of enormous repositories made of tortoiseshell, ebony and ivory in Naples around 1660. Stunning in its simplicity was a Cartier Paris Art Deco pocket watch made of rock crystal and platinum. Slightly creepy was a Flemish anamorphose painting of "A Blind Hurly Gurdy Player" from the early 17th Century. Lost and found was a pair of Baroque marble statues of Jupiter and Juno by Giuseppe Piamontini. Expensive was the Rembrandt painting "Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo", 1658, with an asking price of $47 million.

I am not exaggerating when I tell you that after seven hours at the fair I still had not see everything! Fortunately I had the next day to come back and take a quieter look through the booths and explore a few aisles that I had missed entirely. At 4:30 it was time to catch the train back to Paris but I can hardly wait until next year - the twenty-fifth anniversary - to revel in the wondrous world of TEFAF!

March 09, 2011

"Set in Style" at the Cooper-Hewitt

In 1899, when Andrew Carnegie and his wife Louise began construction on a state-of-the-art, sixty-four room mansion on Fifth Avenue, they could never have dreamed that a hundred years later it would become home to the nation's only museum dedicated to contemporary and historic design. At that time 91st Street was quite far north of where the city's elite lived but it offered the Carnegie's the advantage of space, including room for a large private garden - unimaginable now, but a rarity even then. The home received landmark status in 1974 and in 1976 it was reinvented as the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, a branch of the Smithsonian Institution named after the granddaughters of Peter Cooper, the 19th Century industrialist, inventor and philanthropist who founded the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York.

But let's get back to the present. When my fashion forward friend Betty suggested we go to Cooper-Hewitt to see their current exhibition "Set in Style" I thought it sounded like a fun excursion. I'm always up for a show and as my readers know, I like variety! What greeted us was a sparkling homage to the masters of important jewelry, Van Cleef & Arpels, a showcase of their creativity, innovation and technical skills and a testament to their influence on high fashion since the firm was founded in 1896.

To be sure, the 350 outstanding pieces of very fine jewelry were breathtaking all on their own. But for me it was the imaginative installation by the French studio of Jouin Manku that brought the exhibition to life. Working within the historical framework of the home, the design team used the living spaces to show off the glittering gems. The former dining room was reinvented with a table "set" with precious trinkets. The Conservatory featured a huge glass dome in which jeweled and lacquered butterfly brooches seemed almost to flutter against the garden backdrop.

The exhibition was divided into six distinct themes each with fabulous examples taken from Van Cleef & Arpels own archives and international private collections. The first room featured "Innovations" with the House's signature "Mystery Setting" being the prime example. A short video demonstrated the process of designing and creating gemstone jewelry where the actual setting is invisible. The "Mystery Setting" was inspired by antique micro mosaics and involves a hidden armature into which perfectly matched stones are slid and set. As well as being gorgeous to look at, these are exceedingly complicated pieces and a tour de force achievement for any artisan.

Also fascinating was the room devoted to "Transformation" jewelry - pieces that could be taken apart and re-worked to be worn in different ways. Like a necklace that looks like a zipper that can be turned into a bracelet (see right), or a bird brooch whose wings come off to be worn as earrings, or a golden Colonne Vendôme that is actually a lighter!

There was a gallery dedicated to "Nature as Inspiration" where flora and fauna were recreated using precious gems and gold and diamond snowflakes were far more appealing than the ones that covered New York this winter! Another gallery focused on "Exoticism" and the influence of travel to Asia and Arabia was reflected in forms and decorative themes like a peacock patterned box or a Buddha head brooch (see below). And still another explored Van Cleef & Arpels' influence on and by the world of fashion from geometric Art Deco to the groovy swinging sixties.

The exhibition wrapped up with a look at jewelry commissioned and/or worn by famous personalities. Van Cleef & Arpels accessorized celebrities from the Duchess of Windsor to Jacqueline Kennedy, from Marlene Dietrich to Princess Grace and many many others. Style setting women from around the world have long recognized the beauty and distinction of a piece of Van Cleef & Arpel jewelry as something that went far beyond mere adornment. While I may never be able to own such a treasure, I certainly enjoyed this glimpse into the rarefied world of very important jewels. "Set in Style" in on view at the Cooper-Hewitt until June 5th.

P.S. Tonight I leave on a buying trip to Paris so please stay tuned as I share my travel and culture adventure with you! A très bientôt!