March 31, 2014

The "New" Lady and the Unicorn @ The Cluny

One of my favorite small museums in Paris is the Musée National du Moyen Age, often referred to as the Musée de Cluny.  Located in the 5th Arrondissement, the museum is housed in a 15th century Gothic mansion, the townhouse for the abbots of Cluny, that was built on the site of 3rd century Roman baths.  The townhouse, or hôtel, served various functions over the years including a religious college, an observatory and a physician's dissection room, but in 1833 it was purchased by Alexandre du Sommerard who used the space to display his collection of medieval and Renaissance art and objects.  After du Sommerand's death, the house and its contents were acquired by the French state who opened it as a museum in 1843.

Today a visit to the Cluny is a trip back to the Middle Ages and beyond.  Visitors enter through the cobblestoned Court of Honor with its distinctly Gothic decoration and once inside pass through galleries displaying medieval treasures from statuary to reliquaries to stained glass windows.  A short detour takes one to the ruins of the Gallo Roman baths including the frigidarium (cooling room) with its amazing vaulted ceiling.

But the real star of the show at this museum is upstairs where The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries are on display.  Probably woven in Flanders in the 16th century, the group of six hangings was only recently returned to public view after a two year cleaning and restoration project.  I had visited The Cluny and these tapestries several times over the years and was anxious to see how they looked now in their refurbished state.  They were magnificent.

No one really knows the early history or the true meaning of these tapestries - they are not mentioned in any records until 1814 when they were discovered in the Château de Boussac in Creuse, and then again in 1841 when they were mentioned by the French writer Prosper Mérimée (most famous for the novel "Carmen") in a letter to politician Ludovic Vitet.  At this time they were in terrible condition, damaged by damp, rats and humans who cut off pieces to use as rugs.  In 1882 they were acquired by The Cluny and soon became the centerpiece of their collection.

The group of six silk and wool woven tapestries are considered one of the finest examples of art from the Middle Ages in Europe.  Each work features a mille fleurs pattern on a red background with various animals such as fox, rabbits, birds and monkeys and four varieties of trees including oak, holly, orange and pine.  Each work also bears a coat of arms that has recently been identified as that of  Jean la Viste, a nobleman in court of King Charles VII.  And each work features a beautiful, but mysterious, blonde woman with a unicorn to her left and and lion to her right.

It is generally agreed upon that five of the tapestries represent the senses - taste, sight, hearing, touch and smell - but the sixth is still an enigma.  It bears the motto "A Mon Seul Désir" which has been variously interpreted as "To my only desire, "my sole desire", "by my will alone" and "to calm passion".  It is in a slightly different format from the others and is the only tapestry in which the lady seems to smile.  But why is she smiling?  Some claim that the lady putting the necklace into the chest is a renunciation of passions aroused by the other senses, others see it as an expression of love or virginity.  We will probably never know the exact meaning of the phrase of the or the identity of the central figure, but it is this conundrum that makes it so fascinating.   The Lady and the Unicorn has entranced viewers for centuries - a sort of Flemish Mona Lisa!

After three weeks in Europe it is time to head back home.  It has been a wonderful trip but there are plenty of things to look forward to in New York at this time of year.  I leave you with this view of the Seine, where Spring is definitely in the air even if the chestnuts are not quite yet in blossom!  Au revoir!

March 30, 2014

The 23rd Annual "Salon du Dessin"

There is very little that can compare to the elegance and splendor of TEFAF, the showcase of art and antiques that just wrapped up in Maastricht, Holland.  But for devotees of drawings, be they pencil, watercolor, pastel or ink, it is hard to beat the annual Salon du Dessin going on right now in Paris.

Held in the suitably swanky Palais de la Bourse, the former Stock Exchange now converted to an upscale event space, the Salon du Dessin is a drawing lover's dream.  Thirty-nine carefully selected exhibitors from Europe and the United States bring their very best offerings in old master, modern and contemporary drawing.

Believe it or not, there is actually a crush to get in to the opening party as collectors, dealers and museum curators jostle to be the first to discover - and acquire - a treasure.  The champagne flowed, and judging from the number of red dots on the stands, a lot of business was being done as well.

Visitors will find a lot of beautiful examples to chose from no matter what period they prefer.  Here you can admire a large format pen and ink drawing of the Gardens in the Villa d'Este by Fragonard (1732-1806) or a modernist pencil sketch of Williams Street, New York by Boutet de Monvel (1881-1949); a charming pastel portrait of a lovely young girl by Luti (1666-1724) or a Symbolist pencil profile of a woman by Knopff (1858-1921); an amusing pen and ink caricature of the composer Joseph Hayden dreaming of music by Hampel (1868-1949) or an almost photographically real pencil drawing of a skull, or Vanitas, by Santilari (B. 1959).  The variety is amazing.

Before I sign off, I'd like to share with you a photograph I took while walking through the Passage Richelieu, just off the rue de Rivoli, en route to the Left Bank.  Just like the Salon du Dessin, it is a blend of old and new, distinct but complementary, a little like the City of Paris itself!

March 27, 2014

What's On at the Musée d'Orsay

Spring has certainly sprung here in Paris.  After the interminable winter in New York it has been a real pleasure to go outside without bundling up and to see some green on the trees!

The Spring season has also brought some new exhibitions to the wonderful Musée d'Orsay.  As if their permanent collection of gorgeous Impressionist works isn't enough of a draw, now there are two special shows to add to the pleasure!

First up is a survey of the works of the French Symbolist artist Gustave Doré (1832-1883).  "Master of the Imagination" is a comprehensive overview of every aspect of his œuvre from paintings to sculpture to illustrated books.

This is the first retrospective of Doré's work in thirty years and the curators have made a special effort to include all aspects of his career.  From his early beginnings painting portraits of circus performers to his wildly successful illustrations for important volumes like "The Bible" and Dante's "Inferno" to his later landscape paintings, this exhibition is exhaustive to say the least.

While I am a big fan of Doré's more surreal imagery like the 1862 illustration for "Puss in Boots" shown above, I cannot work up the same enthusiasm for his large-scale paintings of mountains and meadows.  However, while I may find some works such as "Accident on Mount Cervin" (see right) macabre, they had a profound effect not only on his contemporaries but on our popular culture today.  In fact, the worlds of film (think "King Kong" and "The Lord of the Rings") and cartoons and animation (think Walt Disney and Tim Burton) all owe a huge debt to the imagination of Gustave Doré.

The other major show that just opened at the Musée d'Orsay, may sound depressing but it really was not.  "Van Gogh / Artaud.  The Man Suicided by Society" was actually the title of an essay written by French artist Antonin Artaud, for a catalogue accompanying an exhibition of works by Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890), in Paris in 1947.

The sad tale of Vincent Van Gogh's struggles with mental illness are well documented, from the cutting off his own ear to his institutionalization to his eventual suicide.  Readers may not be as familiar with the life of Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) whose childhood illness' lead to an addiction to opium and a lifetime of confinements in various asylums.  This shared mental instability was the impetus behind the commission of the essay and is now the theme of the exhibition currently on view.

Antonin Artaud postulates that rather than being mad, Van Gogh was actually perfectly sane and it was his clear vision that was frightening to "normal" people.  He goes further to suggest that it was the "impoverished spirit" of the late 19th century that pushed the artist to suicide at the age of 37.  Of course, one has to bear in mind that Artaud's mental clarity was also very much in question.

The show opens with a bang - an entire room filled with Van Gogh self-portraits from various stages in his life.  Done in his signature style, Van Gogh paints himself both with and without a beard, seldom facing the viewer and always with a fixed gaze.  It is truly a sight to see.  The show continues with exhibits of drawings, letters and about 30 more paintings by this Impressionist master alternating with drawings and the writings of Artaud.  It is not a question of who is the superior artist, but a unique perspective on one of the most well known and tortured figures of the era as seen through the eyes of someone in a similar state.  Judging by the queue waiting to enter the galleries, this is an intriguing idea for a lot of people!

March 23, 2014

Bernini Blow-Out!

Saluti di Roma where I have had the great pleasure of spending a quick 48 hours!  The main objective of this visit was to attend the opening of a new exhibition on the Mexican super-star Frida Kahlo at the Scuderie del Quirinale, but of course there are masterpieces to be found everywhere here in the Eternal City.

One of Rome's most beloved citizens, and a foremost contributor to the great artistic richness of the city, is Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680).  Considered the "supreme talent of the Italian Baroque", his devotion to the Roman Catholic Church and the glory of the One True Faith, combined with his immense artistic talents, drove him to create some of the most beautiful and powerful sculptures of our time.

Although born in Napoli Bernini spent most of his life in Rome, and it is here that we find some of the greatest examples of his work.  And so, during my short visit, I decided to see as many Bernini sculptures as time would allow.  It was a treasure hunt with sublime rewards!

I began at the Villa Borghese, the splendid palace and gardens built in 1612 to house the immense art, antiquities and curiosities collection of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V.  Today the villa has been meticulously restored and is open to the public via timed-entry tickets purchased well in advance.

Inside is a treasure trove of Classical, Neo Classical and Baroque art all presented in opulent surroundings of marble mosaic and murals with glimpses of gardens through the windows.  I could devote an entire blog to the masterpieces by Lucas Cranach, Caravaggio and Titian, but I promised Bernini and here lies the motherlode!

The Galleria Borghese boasts no fewer than six major marble sculptures by Bernini in its collection.  To be fair, two of these are the same bust of Pope Paul V, the first one marred by a major flaw in the stone so a second, identical bust was commissioned!  The story goes that Bernini completed the replacement in just three days but art historians today tend to doubt that even the great Bernini could have achieved such brilliance in such a short time.

Also on view is his magnificent "David" (see above) executed in 1623-24 when Bernini was just 25 years old.  The torquing strength of David's muscular body and the expression of determination on his face as he wields the stone that will slay the giant Goliath is a masterpiece in modeling.  Nearby is the forceful group sculpture "The Rape of Proserpina" (see below), another large scale work created in 1621-22.  In this scene, Pluto, the god of the Underworld, is aggressively clutching an obviously distraught Proserpina, the daughter of Ceres while the three-headed dog, the guardian of Hades, barks.

The sculpture that, in my amateur opinion, best showcases Bernini's impressive talents as an artist and carver of marble is "Apollo and Daphne" (see below).  This life-size work created between 1622-25, shows the nymph Daphne being pursued by Apollo, god of light.  In an amazing feat of design and execution, as the viewer walks around the sculpture he witnesses Daphne's transformation from a beautiful young woman into a laurel tree in an effort to escape her abductor.  Leaves sprout from her fingers and toes and her body becomes covered with bark, yet Apollo's hand can still feel her heart beating beneath it.  The technical virtuosity of the carving is only surpassed by the emotion expressed in the terrified Daphne's eyes.  It is hard to believe that this is a piece of stone.

Bernini also created many outdoor sculptures and fountains that dot the city of Rome.  One of the best known is at the base of the Spanish Steps, on the Piazza Spagna.  "Fontana della Barcaccia", literally the "Fountain of the Ugly Boat",  was actually a joint effort between Gian Lorenzo Bernini and his father, Pietro.  Unfortunately it is currently hidden behind a protective wall as it is being restored with funds generously donated by the Italian jeweler Bulgari.  However, the equally famous "Fontana del Quatro Fiumi" [Fountain of the Four Rivers], is viewable in its full splendor on the Piazza Navona.

Designed by Bernini in 1651 for Pope Innocent X, the four giant men on the fountain depict the Nile, the Plate, the Ganges and the Danube rivers, representing the continents of Africa, the Americas, Asia and Europe, respectively.

Another example of Bernini's outdoor sculpture is the charming "Elephant and Obelisk" that stands on the Piazza della Minerva, right behind the Pantheon.  This friendly-looking pachyderm was designed in 1667 while the obelisk was an Egyptian relic discovered nearby.  It is one of my very favorite sites in Rome.

Of course, Bernini was also a sought-after artist for church decorations and altars.  A particularly  dramatic work, and the one that he called his most beautiful, is "Saint Teresa in Agony" installed in the Cornaro Chapel of Santa Maria della Vittoria.  Executed between 1645-52, this amazing altarpiece depicts an angel about to plunge a golden spear into the heart of Teresa of Avila and captures the moment of agony, or is it ecstasy, as the saint anticipates her death.

It is not only a tour de force of sculpting skill to make marble appear as malleable as wax, but an artistic coup as well.  Saint Teresa realizes that she is about to leave this world and enter the next and the moment of transverberation, the point of contact between earth and heaven, is almost orgasmic in its intensity.  While Bernini probably intended this scene to represent divine joy, it is still quite shocking to find such an obvious expression of desire within the walls of a Catholic church.

We've reached the end of my Bernini tour of Rome and I hope it has left you wanting more!  Now it's on to Paris and a whole new trove of artistic delights.  Arrivederci, till the next time!

March 16, 2014

Maastricht Magic

The 27th edition of The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) opened its doors to invited guests last Thursday.  Once again, the usually sleepy town of Maastricht became the center of the art and antique world and thousands queued up to see what treasures the 274 exhibiting dealers had brought to tempt collectors and feed the soul of those of us who just groove on being there.  It was, as usual, spectacular.  Here are a few of my favorites.

As we are in The Netherlands, let's start with something local.  On the stand of the venerable porcelain purveyor Aronson Antiquairs, was this impressive seven piece flower vase in a pyramid shape created by Delft circa 1690.  It stood nearly a meter high and held over two dozen blooms.  Not surprisingly, it was already reserved for a museum...

In a totally different field, but by another Dutch icon, was this recently re-discovered oil painting of the windmills of La Galette by Vincent Van Gogh.  Painted during the period when he was shifting his subject matter from sombre peasant scenes to more colorful Post-Impressionist landscapes, this wonderful work was last seen in public in 1965.  The smallish canvas is titled "Moulin de la Galette" and signed "Vincent 1887" and it was a real show stopper...

Also on the stand of Dickenson, London, was a pair of carved wooden sabot shoes that were carved and actually worn by Paul Gaugin just before he left on his first trip to Tahiti...

Another highlight of European art was this bustling interior scene titled "The Peasant Lawyer" by Peter Breughel the Younger done in 1615...

Fabulous objects were to be found in many forms throughout the fair.  Like this marvelous ostrich-shaped water ewer with a basin, both crafted of sterling silver...

Or this tiny Egyptian wooded sarcophagus with falcon head decorations executed in polychrome between 1st Century B.C. and 1st Century A.D...

This is one of a set of four Japanese birdcage vases from the possessions of Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland.  Made of hard paste porcelain with decorations in enamel, gold, metal, paper maché and lacquer, these vases were as prized when they were created circa 1700 as they are today...

I couldn't resist including these rather bizarre examples of Chinese export porcelain!  The tray features a painted boar's head with an unidentified Spanish coat-of-arms and its accompanying tureen and cover are actually in the shape of a boar's head complete with teeth and tongue!  This set is of the Qing dynasty, Qianlong period (c. 1760-80) when animal head ceramics were very popular in wealthy European households...

My last animal-themed selection was also one of my favorite stands for overall décor.  Pelham Galleries, London and Paris, created a set worthy of the stage with a pond and four swans a'swimming, except the pond was mirror and the regal swans were actually alabaster!  The statuary is attributed to Nicholas Stow and were probably part of a grotto created for the Fourth Earl of Pembroke at Wilton in the 1630s.  The Wilton garden is considered the most important late Renaissance garden in England and these remaining swans are just magnificent...

I could go on and on.  I loved the Italian ivory models of summer vegetables and the ladies pocket watches covered in seed pearl decorations.  A Sicilian Baroque coral and enamel eight-sided devotional plaque was exceptional in its craftsmanship and delicacy.  A group of 41 pieces of Venetian filigree glass bowls, plates, goblets and other vessels was remarkable in the diversity of white pattern and design.  A black and white chalk drawing of the surface of the moon executed in 1850 was a remarkable glimpse of the future.  And the group of three Imperial Fabergé enamel presentation boxes were rare and splendid examples of Russian luxe.

There has been a lot of talk in the past few years about the dearth of rare and precious material on the art and antiques market, but it didn't seem to be the case at all as TEFAF opened with a bang and as splendid an event as one could hope for.  I can hardly wait for the magic to begin next year!