June 21, 2015

A Visit to Sanssouci Palace

From 1740-1786, Prussia was ruled by King Frederick II, also known as Friedrich der Große (Frederick the Great) for his prowess on the battlefield and his unification and expansion of the Prussian territories.  He was also affectionately referred to as Der Alte Fritz (Old Fritz) by his subjects as the mighty warrior also had a penchant for the finer things in life and a strong interest in the fine arts, the applied arts, gardens and literature.

Looking for a refuge from the pomp and ceremony of the Berlin court, Frederick the Great hired the architect and designer Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff to build a summer home with a park where he could relax in his private time.  The result is "Sanssouci", a 700 acre site comprising vineyards, water fountains, a picture gallery, Roman Baths, a greenhouse, a chapel, various temples and pavilions and a small but impressive Schloß, or palace, overlooking the creation.

I too was looking for a break from exhibitions and galleries on a recent sunny Sunday in Berlin and decided that a day trip to Sanssouci was just the ticket!  Forty minutes on the S-Bahn to Potsdam followed by a short bus ride to the Park and I was there, ready to discover and enjoy the legacy of Der Alte Fritz!

The name, Sanssouci, is from the French phrase meaning "no worries", and that is exactly what Frederick II wanted when he spent time here.  Every detail was designed for his pleasure, whether reading in his well appointed library, walking in his flower gardens, playing his flute or composing music for it, enjoying his art collection or entertaining his many guests. 

Let's begin our tour in the main building, the Sanssouci Palace, that sits on a crest overlooking the terraced gardens.  Built in the Baroque style, the building is contained on one story with the main reception rooms facing the view to the south and the very comfortable bedrooms (with private w/c and baths) on the other side.  The décor in all of them is sumptuous, as stipulated by the King himself in a style that became known as "Frederician Rococo".

Next to the main palace is the former orangerie that was converted by King Frederick into guest chambers.

And near the west wing of the palace is the wine cellar and kitchen - with its immense, new-fangled "cooking machine" - separated from the residence to avoid cooking odors and the risk of fire.

The Bilder Galerie houses King Frederick's painting and sculpture collection.  Built on the site of the original greenhouse, the gallery structure is as magnificent as the artwork within.  No expense was spared from the rare yellow marble mosaic floors to the golden reliefs on the cornices, to showcase his collection of Italian and Flemish Baroque, Renaissance and Mannerist art.  Works by Rubens, Rembrandt and Van Dyck hang salon style covering the dark green walls.  Remarkably, over half of the paintings now on display were those purchased by King Frederick.

A walk through the landscaped park cannot be missed as the grounds are as much a part of Sanssouci as the palace.  Beside the terraced vineyards and the myriad flowers and fruit trees are pavilions and temples both small and large serving as an extension of the palace's public rooms.  The most charming of these is the Chinese House built between 1754-57.  A mélange of Rococo and Chinoiserie, both the interior and exterior abound in gilded Buddhas, monkeys, birds and kimono-clad characters.

Frederick the Great died childless in 1786 and Sanssouci remained in the possession of the Prussian Royal family until World War I and the end of the German monarchy.  But the magic of Der Alte Fritz's creation survived, and Sanssouci was spared the wrecking ball even during the Communist occupation of East Germany.  Today, the "Prussian Versailles" is a UNESCO World Heritage Site receiving thousands of visitors each year who come to enjoy the folly of Germany's most popular ruler.

June 19, 2015

"Paul Gauguin" @ Fondation Beyeler

No trip to Basel is complete without a ride on the Number 6 tram to Riehen Dorf, a small village on the German border and a visit to the Fondation Beyeler.  Opened to the public in 1997, the foundation is housed in a magnificent building designed by architect Renzo Piano to showcase both the natural beauty of the Swiss countryside and the remarkable collection of the eminent dealer Ernst Beyeler.  As well as a stunning permanent collection of Modern, Contemporary and Ethnographic works, the foundation also presents temporary exhibitions of outstanding quality.

This spring's special presentation focuses on the mature period of the great modern painter Paul Gauguin (1848-1903).  Known primarily for his colorful views of the exotic South Seas, Gauguin's works may seem primitive but they were revolutionary at the time and very influential on later generations of artists.

Born in Paris, Paul Gauguin began his adult life as a successful stockbroker with a wife and five children but by his late thirties he had abandoned his bourgeois lifestyle to devote himself to painting.  Disillusioned with city life, he spent time in Brittany painting the local people in everyday scenes or interpreting Biblical stories.

"The Vision of the Sermon" or "Jacob Wrestling with the Angel", 1888

He eventually left France in search of a "purer" existence in the unspoiled paradise of Tahiti.  Though the culture and landscapes became the mainstay of his most famous paintings, Gauguin was disappointed to discover that he was too late to experience the true Tahitian civilization - the effects of French colonization had already contaminated the identity of the indigenous people.

In spite of this, the beauty of both the land and people provided ample material for artistic inspiration and Gauguin immersed himself in the mysticism and foreignness of this tropical island.  The paintings he produced here are masterpieces of color and mystery - simple yet exotic, naïve yet sensuous, beautiful yet haunting.
"Contes barbares", 1902

A scant two years after this major relocation, Gauguin was forced by poor health and finances to return to his native France.  Any dreams of a hero's welcome were quickly dashed and in 1885 he sailed again for Tahiti and the tropical paradise he now considered his true home.  His final years were spent on the Marquesan island of Hiva Oa where he painted until his untimely death at the age of 54.

"Where Do We Come From?  What Are We?  Where Are We Going", 1897-8

Paul Gauguin remained true to his artistic vision throughout his short life, no matter what.  His distinctive style of painting, so radical at the time, ensured that he would go down in history as a visionary and genius.  The proof is in the pudding...his painting "When Will You Marry", a masterpiece of harmony and form, recently sold for a staggering $300 million.  If only he had lived long enough to enjoy his success.

"When Will You Marry", 1892

June 17, 2015

Art Basel 46 / Art Unlimited

If you've even glanced at the "Arts and Culture" section of a newspaper lately you are probably aware that Art Basel, the mythical "Olympics of the Art World", is underway in Basel, Switzerland.  And while I certainly enjoy seeing what's on view in the stands of the 300+ international galleries showing modern and contemporary art, it is the adjunct section called Art Unlimited where the really fun installations are.

Imagine an exhibition hall the size of an airplane hangar occupied by 74 oversize art works ranging from site-specific constructions to video presentations and you'll have an idea of Art Unlimited.  It is a golden opportunity for artists to create works that are gigantic in scale and cannot be shown successfully in a traditional gallery setting.  Indeed, it is a chance for artists to let their imaginations run wild and for art lovers to have a totally immersive experience in a carnival-like setting.  In short, it's fun!

As has been my custom for the past few years, here is a highly arbitrary list of my favorite, or at least most memorable presentations at this year's Art Unlimited...

One of the most colorful and striking examples was "The Treaty of Chromatic Zones" by American artist Sheila Hicks.  This monumental wall installation created in 2015 comprises hundreds of batons wrapped in dyed cotton and twine and explores theories of color and abstraction using textiles as a medium.

Another color-dominated stand featured the marvelous fluorescent light sculptures of the late, great, Dan Flavin.  The series of nine works were created between 1966-1971 and were being offered as a single installation entitled "European Couples".

Another color oriented installation was "Plastic Tree", a 2014 creation by Pascale Marthine Tayou.  Living in a big city, I have seen hundreds of indestructible plastic bags and Mylar balloons caught up in the branches of a tree where they are destined to twist and tangle for the foreseeable future.  Here the artist has turned this urban blight into something much prettier while commenting on pollution, consumerism and the balance of nature and device.

In a more abstract tree theme we find "Medium Green, Woodland Scenics, Realistic Trees (FS)" a 2014 mural by John M. Armleder and quite lovely to look at.

And something that usually speaks of trees but in this case is self-supporting is the Brazilian Opavivará!'s "Formosa Decelerator".  Normally we think of a hammock as being suspended between two trees, but this is an art collective, and as such they propose a collective hammock experience, complete with tea service!

The Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei has contributed a remarkable construction entitled "Stacked".  Comprising 760 silver bicycles, the work presents an iconic object, something used by millions of Chinese people everyday for transportation, and something that, by its chain and sprocket mechanism, also speaks of the Chinese labor force and its place in the nation's society.

An entire different type of work also by a Chinese artist is "Love Story" by Liu Chuang.  Here we see stacks of used pulp fiction novels acquired by the artist from migrant workers.  Each stack is arranged according to the anonymous notes found scribbled inside - the texts of which have been translated and written on the wall above each pile.  The installation is a comment on language, but even more, it is a a portrait of the readers of the books who voices are now being heard by an international audience.

One of the more disquieting exhibits was Algerian born artist Kadar Attia's "Arab Spring", 2014.  This shocking display comprising 16 smashed museum vitrines speaks of the looting of antiquities during the recent Egyptian uprisings.

Finally something that will make you smile, even if you feel a little dizzy!  A large concrete bowl, containing a desk with a glass of wine and some books, and a bed on the "floor", spins around and around while the artist, Julius von Bismarck, sits or lies down.  "Egocentric system" is like the earth on its axis, constantly whirling and always attached to its revolving surroundings.  It's a little like the way I feel after a few days of this art fair, but fun to watch nevertheless!

June 01, 2015

"China: Through the Looking Glass"

For those on the social circuit, there is no more coveted ticket than the one to the Costume Institute Benefit held every May at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Held in conjunction with the opening of the annual costume exhibition, the event is a major source of revenue and publicity for the museum and an opportunity for attendees to wear their most opulent and outrageous outfits.

This year the exhibition celebrated China and the influence of Chinese aesthetics on Western fashion.  In a rare collaboration with another department, the show is spread over two floors beginning downstairs in the Anna Wintour Costume Center and continuing on the second floor in the galleries of the Department of Asian Art.  The result is a spectacular blend of old and new, high art with popular culture and East meets West.

Let's start off on the lower level where a series of "mirrored reflections" explores how the periods of Imperial China, the Republic of China and the Peoples' Republic of China have affected fashion. Using a multimedia film and mirror presentation, the galleries concentrate on the elaborately embroidered Manchu Robe of a Qing Dynasty emperor, the elegant and flattering qipao dress typical of Shanghai in the 1930s and the classless uniformity of the Zhongshan (Mao) suit, and their haute couture imitations.

Formal Robe for the Tongzhi Emperor (1862-74)
together with dress from
House of Dior, Collection Autumn/Winter 1998-99

With a strong emphasis on film, both classic and recent, these galleries are more of a mind-bending light and sound extravaganza than a fashion exhibition.  While it was sometimes difficult to determine what was real and what was an illusion, there were many truly exquisite examples of historical and contemporary costumes on display.

Heading upstairs to the Asian Art Galleries we come to the second part of the show.  For the first time since "AngloMania" in 2006, the Costume Institute has teamed up with another department to showcase even more treasures from the Met's vast holdings.  Divided into sections including Chinoiserie...

American (left) and French (right) dresses, circa 1780


Day Dresses by Christian Dior (left) and Coco Chanel (right)

Blue and white china...

Two gowns by Valentino
Evening gown (left), 1968;  Dress (right) 2013 


Gold lamé evening gown by Guo Pei, 2007

and Folding Screens...

Couture Ensemble by Valentino, 1990-91
together with a carved red lacquer screen, 1777

...we find historical and couture outfits by designers of both Anglo and Asian heritage posed with a corresponding Chinese antique or artifact. 

Some displays were intimate and modest like the perfume bottles based on Chinese imagery....

Chinese shoe (1800-1943) together with
"La Fille de Roi de Chine" perfume bottle by Caillot Sœur, 1923

While others were complete stage sets like "Moon in the Water" with a temple and rock garden...

At 30,000 square feet of exhibition space, "China:  Through the Looking Glass" is the largest show ever mounted by the Costume Institute.  By collaborating with the Asian Arts Department, the curators have offered fashion in an entirely new perspective while at the same time presenting the ancient artifacts in a new light.  The exoticism of the Orient has long been assimilated into decoration and design and has been the leitmotif in sartorial styles for generations as well.  "China:  Through the Looking Glass" is on view until August 16th.

Detail of sequin decoration done by the House of Lesage
on a dress by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, Collection Autumn/Winter 1996-97