December 28, 2011

"Youth and Beauty" at The Brooklyn Museum

As I was looking for a suitable topic for the last blog of the year, the exhibition "Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties" now on view at The Brooklyn Museum caught my eye. The 1920s holds a certain romance for me - the era of flappers and bathtub gin, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Art Deco and Modernism - and the lure of "Youth and Beauty" on top was irresistible.  It seemed like a perfect choice.

The exhibition started off well.  It promised 140 works done between 1920-1929 by 67 different painters, sculptors and photographers, all American, and all exploring the "new realism" of the Post World War I age.  Some of the names were very familiar to me - Georgia O'Keeffe, Edward Weston, Thomas Hart Benton, Joseph Stella - but there were many artists I did not recognize and was keen to see more.  The first galleries explored the new sexual freedom and body culture of the decade and presented several marvelous nudes done in a cutting edge style for the time.  The influences of Sigmund Freud, "Naturalism" and the idea of personal liberty could clearly be seen although classical ideas and formalism were not far behind.

The exhibition continued with a look at the Harlem Renaissance and "The New Negro", then "Silent Pictures" and how the movies re-interpreted our world.  So far so good.  Then things started to get sticky.  In what I can only assume was an effort to affix her own personal stamp to the decade, the curator, Teresa A. Carbone, began a dialogue on the angst of urbanized America and how such developments as mechanization, bureaucratization and a new consumer culture caused a reflex reaction in American art.  Now, I'm not an expert, but it has always been my understanding that the era was called the "Roaring Twenties" for a positive reason.  The Great War was over.  People had work and money to spend on enjoyable activities.  Technology was responsible for marvelous things like automobiles and skyscrapers and the cities were the centers of life.  It was a time of celebration, the last great age before the crash of 1929 and the beginning of the Depression, life was good.

I am not a fan of the current trend of revisionist art history and the application of 21st Century mores to past events and cultures.  I have had several recent encounters with professors and young art historians re-attributing works done by artist couples from the husband to the wife in an effort to counteract "gender-bias".  Most of these re-attributions are done without much in the way of facts or scholarship, rather an "idea of the moment" and an effort to stand out in the competitive world of academia.  It is a fashion that I would love to see go out of style.

To be fair, Ms. Carbone did include some iconic paintings of the period including Georgia O'Keeffe's "The Shelton [Hotel] With Sunspots, N.Y.", 1926, Edward Hopper's "Night Windows", 1926, and Charles Demuth's "My Egypt", 1927 to name a few.  There were also some marvelous photographs by Stieglitz, Cunningham, Man Ray and Weston.  And in one of the last galleries dedicated to still life pictures in the kitchen and bath, were not just one but two wonderful Precisionist works by Gerald Murphy "Razor", 1924 (see right) and "Cocktail", 1927, both great examples of their genre.  These paintings alone were worth the trip!

As 2011 draws to a close, and I mark six years and 300 blog posts, I'd like to thank all my loyal readers for their wonderful support and wish all of you a fabulous New Year!

December 26, 2011

"The Game of Kings" at The Cloisters

At the northern tip of Manhattan Island, in Fort Tryon Park, is The Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that houses their substantial collection of medieval art.  The building is comprised of elements from actual European cloisters, acquired in the early 20th Century, transported across the ocean and re-assembled as a museum that opened to the public in 1938.  The Cloisters as we know it today is thanks in large part to the generosity and foresight of John D. Rockefeller Jr. who provided not only for the building and the site on which it sits but also purchased several hundred acres of land across the Hudson River in New Jersey so that the view would never be marred by unsightly development.

It had been quite a while since I'd visited The Cloisters.  Although it was one of my first museum stops when I moved to New York in 1983 and I retained very fond memories of more recent visits, I had not ventured to the Inwood section of town in a long time.  But while contemplating how to enjoy a few days off over the Christmas break I heard an ad on the radio promoting a special exhibition and the fact that the museum would be open for Holiday Mondays.  That was it - I couldn't wait to go!

A trip to The Cloisters is like stepping back in time.  I emerged from the elevator that brings "A" train passengers to street level and started walking along a path past historically themed gardens and very soon the tower of The Cloisters came into view.  As I entered the Main Hall through the Froville Arcade I was impressed by the beautiful decorations befitting a church in the Middle Ages.  Holiday garlands of holly, ivy and bay laurel accented with apples, hazelnuts, pine cones and rosehips graced the arches as agents of blessing and protection as well as celebration.  It was magical.

The Romanesque Hall stands immediately off the Main Hall and it was here that the special exhibition "The Game of Kings: Medieval Ivory Chessmen from the Isle of Lewis" is being presented.  What could be so special about a few game pieces you may wonder?  One look at the first vitrine and you will know - they are exquisite.  Created circa 1150 AD, probably in the region of Trondheim, Norway and likely for a Medieval Norwegian king, the chess pieces were discovered in 1831 by a peasant digging in a sandbank on the Isle of Lewis, in Scotland's Outer Hebrides.  Because the chess figures were part of a larger group of walrus ivory artifacts, researchers believe that the treasure trove probably belonged to a merchant who traded in these goods.  The crofter who found the hoard was terrified, fearing the little figures were elves or evil spirits, and eventually the British Museum acquired the bulk of the chess pieces with the National Gallery of Scotland taking a few.  For the first time ever, the British Museum has very kindly lent 34 of its 67 chessmen to the The Cloisters so museum-goers on this side of the Atlantic can marvel at these little gems.

Take, for example the four Knights presented as a group.  Each is armed with a spear, a sword, a helmet and a shield with individual decoration and each is mounted on a sturdy little pony with a shaggy mane.  Or the majestic Kings seated with swords across their knees on elaborately carved thrones and featuring long wavy hair.  Their counterparts, the Queens, are also seated on thrones but their hair is covered with crowns and veils and each has her right hand pressed to her face as if in deep contemplation.  Three Bishops wear miters and carry tiny croziers while one raises his hand in a blessing.  The lowly Pawns, the most abstract of the set, are the only pieces without human form bearing a greater resemblance to decorated bullets than a people.  The most amusing are certainly the four Rooks portrayed as foot soldiers protected by helmets, shields and swords with distinctive decoration making each unique.  But one in particular stands out - the "Berserker" the warden so eager for battle that he contains himself only by biting on the top of his shield!  None is larger than four inches in height and each has a distinctive facial expression and pose that distinguishes it from the others.  More importantly, each is an example of superb craftsmanship on the part of the carver who imbues the piece of walrus tusk with a unique personality and charm.

But The Cloisters has a lot more to offer!  Its fantastic collection, assembled for the most part by Mr. Rockefeller and a Mr. George Barnard, an American sculptor whose passion for Medieval art led him to found a museum of his own, numbers over 5,000 objects ranging from polychromed Madonnas to illuminated manuscripts, all presented in this marvelous, authentic setting.  Visitors tour the Gothic Chapel with marble tombs of Knights and colorful stained glass windows, into the now covered Cuxa Cloister garden with its fountain and potted citrus trees, passing the chamber with the renowned 16th Century Belgian Unicorn Tapestries to the Merode Room with its Netherlandish masterpiece, the Merode Altarpiece depicting The Annunciation to the Virgin Mary.  Downstairs one can visit the manicured herb garden, the Glass Gallery and the impressive Treasury featuring even more exquisite ivory objects such as plaques, caskets, devotional diptychs, croziers and crosses.

My readers know that I am a devotee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and never miss an opportunity to visit.  But during this special season, the season of miracles, a trip to The Cloisters with its intimate, almost reverend setting seemed more appropriate and a perfect Christmas pilgrimage.  An ideal ambiance from which to wish you and yours a blessed holiday!

December 19, 2011

A Visit to the Merchant's House Museum

One of the joys of a big city like New York is the profusion of museums. From the vast and varied collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the smaller more specialized institutions there is something for everyone. One of the more obscure offerings on the museum front, and one that I had never visited, is the Merchant's House Museum located on East Fourth Street in lower Manhattan.

I was inspired to visit the Merchant's House Museum by a very small blurb on the front page of the Greater New York Section of the Wall Street Journal that said "Catch This". Okay, I thought, why not?  So I hopped on the "B" train and headed downtown to East Fourth Street in the area known as "NoHo" or "North of Houston" for those of us not used to the lingo.

The Merchant's House is a private townhouse built in 1832 and lived in for nearly a century by the Tredwell family.  Seabury Tredwell was a wealthy hardware merchant with a warehouse near the seaport.  In the 1830s the area above Bleeker Street was an exclusive residential neighborhood and this was where Mr Tredwell chose to purchase the newly constructed townhouse (for the sum of $18,000) as the family home for himself, his wife Eliza and their eight children.  Fashions changed and the more desirable areas moved farther uptown but the Tredwells continued to live on East Fourth Street until the last family member died there in 1933 and the mansion became a museum three years later.

Now, I probably should have realized when the street was closed to traffic due to major construction that this was not an opportune time to visit the historic home, but I was on a mission and not to be deterred!  I climbed the stoop and rang for entry and was admitted by an elderly docent who informed me that the fourth floor servants quarters were closed to the public, the guided tours were suspended for the time being, but I could do the self-guided tour that included three floors but not the garden.  Okay, I thought, I'm here now so let's do it!

The Tredwell's red brick and white marble row house at 29 East Fourth Street is the only family home to have survived virtually intact, both inside and out, from the 19th Century.  Remarkably very few major renovations or modernizations have altered the structure and much of the original furnishings remain in situ.  Today's visitors are, in effect, stepping back in time and can experience how a well-to-do merchant class family lived in New York in the 1800s.

Well, nearly experience anyway.  As well as the aforementioned construction that involved scaffolding in front of the windows and protective plywood covering a good portion of the walls, there is also a special seasonal exhibition entitled "From Candlelight to Bubble Light:  A 1950s Christmas in an 1850s House" that can be a little disconcerting to the purists among us.  Imagine a perfect Greek Revival parlor with a superb square rosewood pianoforte and a Duncan Phyfe dining set "enhanced" with an enormous collection of Christmas kitsch ranging from silver flocked trees to plastic snowmen and everything in between.  It did bring back some fond memories of my childhood but I am not sure this embellishment was a positive addition to the décor.

I did do the prescribed tour including the ground floor with its comfortable family room and large kitchen (featuring a water pump and a cast iron coal stove), the main parlor floor with its impressive architectural details and 13 1/2' ceilings and the upper bedroom floor with Mr. Tredwell and Mrs. Tredwell's separate chambers, a small study and a primitive w.c.  As I mentioned, the fourth floor servants quarters where the four Irish girls, as the housemaids were commonly referred to, lived in rather less luxurious circumstances, were off-limits to the public.

Although my visit to the Merchant's House Museum was diminished by the intrusion of the renovations and the resulting inaccessibility to the displays, I am still glad I went and found it an enlightening look at New York and New Yorkers of long ago.

December 16, 2011

All Aboard for the "Holiday Train Show"

I'm ashamed to admit that despite living in New York for 28 years I've never visited The New York Botanical Gardens. Founded in 1891 and a National Historic Landmark since 1967, the NYBG is a spectacular 250 acre oasis of green in the middle of the Bronx. The gardens include a herbarium, a conifer arboretum, an azalea garden, rose gardens, lilac and magnolia groves, a rock garden, wetlands and 50 acres of old-growth forest all dominated by a magnificent 1890s vintage "crystal palace style" greenhouse now dubbed the Enid Haupt Conservatory. It is to this Conservatory that visitors flock during the Christmas season to see the annual Holiday Train Show - the impetus for my long-overdue visit!

Friends have been telling me for ages that I ought to go and see the train show at the Gardens, but for various reasons I never got there. This year I made it a priority and ordered the tickets over Thanksgiving weekend for the Friday afternoon before Christmas week. I was committed! After an easy ride up on the "D" train and a short walk through the neighborhood I reached the entrance where I was guided to the path that would take me to the Conservatory.

It was very peaceful to walk through the Gardens in the quiet of a December afternoon. I passed a few wild turkeys strutting through the grounds and then I came to the welcome tent where overall-clad "engineers" took my ticket and directed me into the Conservatory and the beginning of the tour. The magic was about to begin!

I entered the rotunda of the Conservatory - a lush, palm-filled tropical environment with a reflecting pool in the center. Here in the pool were several models of New York institutions like the Statue of Liberty, the old TWA terminal at JFK Airport and the Great Hall at Ellis Island...

So far, so good, but I still hadn't seen any trains! Wait a minute, is that a whistle up ahead? Sure enough, just past the reflecting pool the entire north wing of the Conservatory had been transformed into a model train mecca!

Look up! There goes a tram over the Brooklyn Bridge...

Look down, a freight train is passing the Guggenheim Museum...

A commuter train is passing some townhouses on the Upper East Side...

All Aboard! The passenger trains are boarding underground at the old Pennsylvania Station...

Here we are Downtown in Washington Square Park...

In Midtown where the buildings reach the sky...

And Uptown at the Apollo Theater...

You may be wondering what these model building are made of? A side presentation, the "Artists' Studio" provided an informative guide to how these works are created. Once a subject has been chosen, the original blueprints are studied and a structure is made out of foam board. This frame is then entirely covered with natural vegetation such as twigs, leaves, acorns and bark to reproduce even the smallest architectural details entirely out of plant material. Here is a look at how the replica of Rockefeller home "Kykuit" was put together:

The 2011 Holiday Train Show comprises over 140 replicas of New York buildings and monuments, both past and present, with more being added every year. Some favorites include The New York Public Library with the lions "Patience" and "Fortitude" flanking the steps...

The Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue...

The tracks cover 1,200 feet using gauge 1 brass track that can actually run outdoors. It takes ten days for a team of twenty to assemble the tracks, mount the replicas, tuck in the plants and install all the bells and whistles and switches to make this show come alive. So visitors such as myself can wonder at the George Washington Bridge...

Historic Grant's Tomb...

Or just enjoy the magic of New York City at Christmas time...

December 09, 2011

Joaquín Sorolla and the Glory of Spanish Dress

In 1911, the Valencian painter Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1923) was commissioned by The Hispanic Society of America in New York to create a series of oils on the subject of life in Spain. The project was completed in 1919 and "Vision of Spain" was installed and opened to the public in 1926 comprising 227 linear feet of murals, fourteen panels in all. Originally planned to depict the history of Spain, Sorolla shifted the theme toward the culture of the country, a celebration of each region and its particular traditions in custom, landscape and dress. The result was a snapshot of the entire Iberian Peninsula from Basque fishermen to Andalusian flamenco dancers and the climax of Sorolla's career.

Recently opened at the Queen Sofía Spanish Institute on Park Avenue at 69th Street is a wonderful exhibition celebrating both the genius of Joaquín Sorolla and the rich tradition of Spanish costume and culture. "Joaquín Sorolla and the Glory of Spanish Dress" was conceived by fashion designer extraordinaire Oscar de la Renta, chairman of the Institute's Board of Directors, with Vogue Magazine's André Leon Tally acting as curator. With generous loans from Madrid's Museo del Traje and Museo Sorolla as well as from private collections, this exhibition presents a remarkable combination of costume and art on equal footing and is a visually stunning travelogue of the regions of Spain.

Over thirty mannequins display vintage ensembles including a sumptuous silk brocade and gold-embroidered tulle Valencian evening gown, a humble wool felt shepherd's costume from Extremadura, an exuberantly decorated wedding gown complete with copious amounts of authentic jewelry from Castile-La Mancha, elegant riding habits, saucy flamenco dresses, and the star of the show, lavishly embellished traje de luces, suit of lights, created for the bravest of matadors. But the best part of the show is not just the marvelous ensembles, it's the original Sorolla sketches and paintings from the "Vision of Spain" series that are hanging next to the vitrines. One can see exactly what the artist envisioned when he traveled the country, soaking up the specialties and traditions of each region, before committing his observations to canvas.

What is also very interesting about this exhibition is the gallery devoted to modern fashion design and how couturiers such as Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Lacroix, Ralph Lauren, Karl Lagerfeld and Carolina Herrera have been influenced by traditional Spanish clothing. The Infanta, flamenco dancer, toreador and other 19th Century styles have been elegantly re-interpreted for today's woman and leave no doubt as to the enduring impact of Spanish flair on the world of style.

I fell in love with Sorolla's paintings several years ago at a wonderful exhibition at the Petit Palais in Paris entitled "John Singer Sargent and Joaquín Sorolla: Painters of Light". The murals prepared for the "Vision of Spain" series are more illustrative than his portraits but still clearly show Sorolla's sweeping style and ability to capture the dignity and grandeur of even simple subjects. This exhibition is an homage to the cultural diversity of Spain and a marvelous celebration of its diverse tradition and culture. "Joaquín Sorolla and the Glory of Spanish Dress" is on view until the 10th of March, 2012.

Joaquín Sorolla "Harvest, Jerez", 1914