May 26, 2013

Ugo Rondinone "Human Nature" @ Rockefeller Center

For many of us, the mention of Rockefeller Center conjures a vision of the legendary Christmas tree with ice skaters twirling below its bright lights.  But for a limited time this spring, the very spot where the tree stands will be occupied by giants!  Nine of them in fact, each standing sixteen to twenty feet tall and weighing 30,000 lbs.

In a long overdue resumption of the Public Art Fund sponsorship of outdoor sculpture to Rockefeller Plaza (halted in 2008 due to the economic downturn), passersby will once again be treated to a free exhibition of monumental work by a contemporary artist.  This year's edition is by Ugo Rondinone, a Swiss artist born in 1964 and now living in New York.  Rondinone is known for his almost whimsical exploration of the themes of fantasy and desire and this installation, entitled "Human Nature", is a perfect example.

Standing in stark contrast to the architectural wonder that is Rockefeller Center, with its famous gilded sculptures of Atlas and Prometheus, these massive stone forms are more like gentle giants than overpowering invaders.  Despite their imposing size and mass, these human forms not at all threatening or nervous making.  Rather, they invite the viewer to walk among them, stand between their mammoth legs and put their hands against the surface of the bluestone rocks that form the figures.  Indeed, these megaliths seem like benevolent stone-age beings who dropped in to the 21st Century and are very much enjoying their stay!

And you will enjoy making their acquaintance, which you will have to do before July 7, 2013 when they will return to wherever mysterious world they arrived from and leave us missing these monumental yet benign beings!

May 18, 2013

John Singer Sargent Watercolors @ The Brooklyn Museum

John Singer Sargent was born in Florence in 1856 of American parents.  His father, an eye surgeon, and mother, an amateur artist, had given up a comfortable life in Philadelphia to live as nomadic expats in Europe following the death of their young daughter several years earlier.  John and his younger siblings grew up as travelers speaking multiple languages and an ad hoc education with an emphasis on the arts.  Despite this unconventional upbringing, John was admitted to the prestigious Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris on his first try, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Early in his career, John Singer Sargent established himself at the go-to portrait painter for society ladies in Paris and London.  It was a very lucrative business, and his portraits, especially of children and families, are masterpieces of the genre, but he found it confining and virtually gave it up in 1907.  From that time onward he devoted himself to watercolor painting and produced over 2,000 works during his lifetime.

 "White Ships", 1908

In 1909, The Brooklyn Museum purchased 38 of Sargent's watercolors from his debut exhibition in New York City.  Three years later, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston purchased the initial 38 watercolors for their permanent collection that now numbers 61 examples.  This spring, for the first time ever, these two major museums have joined forces and we have the unprecedented opportunity to view 93 rarely shown Sargent watercolors, plus a few oil painting for good measure.

The exhibition asks the question "what makes a watercolor a Sargent watercolor?" and seeks to answer it with not just prime examples of the artist's mastery of the medium but with scientific evidence as well.  Through modern technology including x-ray and infrared examination, art historians have examined the museums' examples to determine what techniques and pigments Sargent used to achieve his unique results.  The process' are explained to the public using small videos to demonstrate wet versus dry brushstrokes, the use of scraping and wax undercoating and the difference between opaque and translucent watercolors, to name just a few methods.  The insights provided by these instructional films add a whole new dimension when looking at the finished product.

 "Villa di Marlia, Lucca:  A Fountain", 1910

Divided into sections including "In Venice (see below)",  "In Villa Gardens (see above)", "Bedouin Encounter", "Watercraft" and "Alpine Highlights", the curators trace the travels and passions of John Singer Sargent.  In every locale, from Spain to Persia, Sargent captures not only the physical beauty of the region but part of its soul as well.

 "Santa Maria della Salute", 1904

While oil painting may be considered the supreme art form, watercolor painting is exceedingly difficult and with far less room for error.  Sargent's ability to capture details and nuances with this medium is a true testament to his virtuosity as an artist.  His fascination with reflection off white surfaces like sails, stone, and skirts is repeated and perfected again and again in works like "White Ships (top)" and "Corfu: Lights and Shadows", 1909, seen below.

One of my favorite pieces in the show was the portrait of Sargent's niece, Rose-Marie Ormond entitled "The Cashmere Scarf", 1911, shown at right.  To me, it combined the best of both worlds, portraiture and watercolor painting.  The subject appears to be in motion, turning and sweeping her gown while wrapped in one of Sargent's favorite props, a cashmere wrap.   When viewed up close one can clearly see evidence of the underlying pencil sketching, areas where the paint was scraped to expose the white paper underneath, and most interestingly, the area in the upper left corner where a "wax resist" created a different effect on the finish.

John Singer Sargent died in England in 1925 as an artist respected on both sides of the Atlantic.  While his paintings are on permanent display in many major museums, it is not often that we are treated to an exhibition of this lesser known but very important body of work.  It was a feast for the eyes and a joy to discover "John Singer Sargent Watercolors" at The Brooklyn Museum on this fine May day!

May 14, 2013

Double Delights at The Frick!

The Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca (1411/13-1492) enjoyed considerable acclaim during his lifetime and his beautiful altarpieces were commissioned by aristocrats and ecclesiasts across Italy.  But for all his success, he never forgot his home parish of Borgo San Sepolcro in Tuscany where he returned in 1454 to begin a series of panels for the altarpiece in the Church of Sant'Agostino.  The project took fifteen years to complete and the end product comprised a central panel and four panels on the wings decorated with images of Augustinian saints, some full length and some bust-size, and a depiction of the Crucifixion.

Despite Piero's mastery of portraiture, especially in his renderings of biblical figures, his stature as "home town hero" faded quickly and a less than a century after its completion the altar was ordered dismantled by an order of nuns who had taken over the church.  Although many of the panels were completely destroyed we are fortunate that several were saved and preserved by a local family.

Fast forward to the late 1800s when the National Gallery in London exhibited three works by Piero della Francesca and sparked a renewed interest in the brilliant work of this painter.  It didn't take long for wealthy American collectors to enter the chase to acquire these rare panels with Robert Sterling Clark (of the Singer sewing machine fortune), investment banker Robert Lehman and stockbroker Carl Hamilton winning the prizes.  Mr. Hamilton was forced to sell his panel of the Crucifixion scene and it was John Rockefeller Jr. who paid the record setting price of $375,000 to acquire the piece.  Eventually the Piero owners club expanded to include Helen Clay Frick (daughter of Henry Clay Frick) who was mad for the Italian Renaissance and obsessed with the desire to include this master's work in the collection.  She was eventually able to purchase three of the panels from the altarpiece and the Frick's holdings expanded again with the donation of the Crucifixion panel by Mr. Rockefeller in 1961.  Today the Frick is the largest repository of Piero della Francesca paintings outside of Italy.

Which brings me to the exhibition now on view.  "Piero della Francesca in America" is an unprecedented opportunity to see six of the eight extant altarpiece panels all in one place plus another important Piero panel from a different altarpiece, "Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels", 1460-70, on loan from the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute in Williamstown, MA.  Presented in the intimate setting of the Oval Gallery, the three large and four smaller format works clearly show the artist's masterful handling of biblical imagery in oil on panel with a lot of shimmering gold.  It is remarkable that so many of these Italian works belong to American collections - only the full length panel of Saint Augustine belongs to a European institution - the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon.  This is the first solo exhibition of Piero della Francesca's work in the United States and the first time ever that so many of the Sant'Agostino panels have been re-assembled for display.

Moving downstairs to the temporary exhibitions gallery at the Frick we come to a very special loan exhibition from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, MA, dedicated to 19th century drawings and prints from the Clark's own collection.  "The Impressionist Line from Degas to Toulouse-Lautrec" is a wonderful survey of French works on paper from the Realist, Impressionist and Post-Impressionist eras.

Exquisite examples of charcoal and graphite drawings, pastels, etchings and lithographs from such luminaries as Cézanne, Degas, Gaugin, Renoir, Manet and Toulouse-Lautrec represent the very best draftsmanship the epoch had to offer.  With depictions of rural and urban life, peasants and laborers and demimondaines, the 58 drawings and prints presented here represent the very best graphic achievements of the Impressionists, their predecessors and their immediate followers.

Some of the images are quite well known, like Cézanne's "The Bathers: Large Format", 1898, and Renoir's "Pinning the Hat:  Second Plate", 1898, but others, such as Toulouse-Lautrec's "Box at the Grand Tier", 1897 (see right), and the Gaugin zincographs on yellow paper from the Volpini Suite, 1887, were delightful surprises.

This is my favorite period in the world of prints and I loved seeing these iconic examples of French etchings and lithography.  The added bonus of the beautiful drawings, charcoals and pastels made the whole presentation even more impressive.  This small but lovely exhibition remains on view until June 16th.

May 05, 2013

"Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity" at the Met

Despite my love of Impressionist paintings and pretty dresses, I was not in a great rush to see this continuation of the exhibition I had visited last October at the Musée d'Orsay.  The French version had certainly presented some beautiful paintings and elegant gowns but I found the installation rather dark and overbearing - more about the setting than the works on display - with a very heavy emphasis on documentation.

But it was my fashion forward friend Betty's birthday and I though she would enjoy an afternoon at the Met so after a nice lunch (with a celebratory glass of champagne) we joined the queue and stepped back in time to a period when fashion and art went hand in hand.

I was very pleasantly surprised by the Metropolitan's re-interpretation of this show.  Rather than first slogging through an entire gallery of fashion magazines exhibited in subdued light to preserve the printing, the New York venue was light and airy and a more general overview.  Divided into eight galleries including "En Plein Air" (see below), "The White Dress", "The Urban Male" and "Consumer Culture", the curators presented over eighty marvelous paintings and a full compliment of costumes, accessories and fashion plates to illustrate the relationship between art and fashion from the 1860s to the 1880s. 

You may be wondering what is so special about this period that would warrant a survey of this sort.  The answer is probably more profound than you would imagine.  The mid-1860s marked the beginning of the Impressionist movement and at the same time the establishment of Paris as the style capital of the world.  Department stores and ready made clothing became more common and the proliferation of fashion magazines made the topic of dress very popular and quite acceptable.  The result was that any artist who wanted to be considered "modern" had to be aware of current fashion trends.
 Albert Bartholomé (French) 1848-1928
"In the Conservatory - Portrait of Madame Bartholomé", 1881

Society portrait painters and contemporary avant garde artists all incorporated the latest styles into their work and this exhibition is resplendent in examples by such luminaries as Monet, Manet, Renoir Cassatt, Degas, Tissot and many others.  Anchoring each gallery are several prime examples of sartorial splendor, from day dresses to men's Frocks coats, many of which were the actual examples worn in the paintings.  With the addition of accessories like canes, hats, corsets and shoes, the Victorian era comes to life much more vividly than by the canvas alone.

 Summer dress worn by Mme Bartholomé in her portrait
White cotton printed with purple dots and stripes, 1880

I have to say that I enjoyed this exhibition much more the second time in New York despite the absence of a few paintings that had been included in the original venue.   The Met's installation allowed a far better appreciation of both art and fashions and it was great fun to watch the other visitors, especially men, realize that what they were looking at on the mannequin and in the painting were one and the same!  It was a refreshing new way to look at art and a very lovely way to celebrate a beautiful spring day!  "Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity" remains on view until May 27th.