October 30, 2016

What's On in Paris - Part IV

As you can see, when I wrote a few blogs ago that there were a lot of really great exhibitions on in Paris at the moment, I wasn't kidding!  So now, after the Second Empire, Oscar Wilde and Magritte, I will wrap up my tour of museum shows with two from the Americas.

Now on view at the Grand Palais is "Mexique: 1900-1950" a survey of Mexican art both pre- and post-Revolution.  If you're wondering, as I did, why a major exhibition focused on 20th century Mexican art is being held in France, you might be surprised to learn that around the turn of the century it was common for promising Mexican artists to be sent to Paris to increase their exposure to the masters of European art.  Many prominent artists benefited from this government program including Roberto Montenegro who painted the Paris skyline in an Impressionist style...

"Ville dans la brume", c. 1911

and Angel Zárraga who embraced Cubism in this painting of a young woman with fruit...
"Petite fille aux fruits", c. 1915

Although these Mexican ex-pats were welcomed by the French artistic community, the outbreak of the Mexican revolution and World War I soon after, called many of them home to adapt their avant garde styles to a more nationalistic cause.  The most significant outcome of this period was the growth of the more populist art form, the mural.  Muralism, with its large format and democratic imagery, proved an effective medium to promote the new national language.  It was dominated by three major artists - José Clemente Orozco...

"Wives of Soldiers", 1926
David Alfaro Siqueiros...
View of "Democracy Breaking Her Chains", 1934
(not in exhibition)
and Diego Rivera...

"La Molendera", 1924

While "Los Tres Grandes" are the most recognizable faces of Mexico's struggle with social and political reform, there were many other participants, including a lot of very accomplished women artists like Olga Costa...

"Autoportrait", 1947
Maria Izquierdo...

"Dream and Premonition", 1947
and, of course, Frida Kahlo...

"Autoportrait with Cut Hair", 1940

The exhibition continued almost full circle with a large gallery dedicated to European artists who emigrated to Mexico around World War II to escape political persecution.  In particular, the Surrealists discovered in Mexico a land of fresh and exotic artistic inspiration.  Artists like the Irish-born Leonora Carrington...

"Green Tea (The Oval Woman)", 1942
French-born Alice Rahon...

"The Ballad of Frida Kahlo", 1952
and the Austrian-born Wolfgang Paalen...

"The Messenger", 1941

...embraced the Mexican landscape and culture and incorporated it into their art.

Though at first, the concept of "Mexique" at the Grand Palais was a little incongruous, by the end of the exhibition the synergy was obvious.  This collaboration between French and Mexican cultural institutions offers visitors a greater realization of the strong bond between the two nations and the historic artistic exchange between them.

Finally, let's head east on the Champs-Élysées and across the Place de la Concorde to the Musée de l'Orangerie where "American Painting in the 1930s" is the headline exhibition for the fall.  Mounted in conjunction with the Art Institute of Chicago, this show presents highlights of American Modernism to the Parisian museum audience.

Georgia O'Keeffe "Cow's Skull with Calico Roses", 1931

Set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, "American Painting in the 1930s" explores how artists questioned the national psyche and their own identities during this traumatic period.  The exhibition is broken down into three main segments examining issues of industrialization...

Charles Sheeler "American Landscape", 1930

...the movement from rural to urban communities....

Grant Wood "American Gothic", 1930
 ...and the relationship with history and entertainment...

Reginald Marsh "Twenty Cent Movie", 1936

Artists working during the 1930s were struggling not only to find their own, uniquely American, aesthetic expression but at the same time to draw attention to social issues such as massive unemployment, women's rights and race relations...

Joe Jones "American Justice", 1933

By the time the decade drew to a close, American artists had firmly established their own version of Modernism and had attracted a strong following of both private and institutional collectors.  No longer a colony of artistic "copy cats", the United States could proudly boast a rich national culture of world class artists.  This exhibition of some of the greatest examples of 20th century art made me proud to be an American in Paris!

October 26, 2016

What's On in Paris - Part III

Of all the Surrealist iconography that has entered the mainstream, I would venture to say that one of the most recognizable is René Magritte's man in a bowler hat.  Witty and thought provoking, the Belgian artist's often used motifs include pipes, curtains, words, flames and eggs, endlessly arranged and re-arranged in his quest to get the viewer to see things in a different way.  While some critics feel that Magritte's art is "Surrealism Light", an exhibition now on at the Centre Pompidou makes a very good case that his seemingly simple imagery is not quite as naive as it may appear.

"La Décalcomanie [Decalcomania], 1966

"Magritte:  The Treachery of Images" presents this master of Modernity in an entirely new light.  For the first time ever, a significant body of work by René Magritte (1898-1967) is viewed through the lens of antiquity and philosophy.  Paintings both familiar and obscure are shown in relation to the theme or formula carefully considered by the artist in its conception.

For example, consider the role of words in the world of René Magritte.  While his word paintings may be the genre most closely aligned with the Surrealist Manifesto of accident and shock, they are also very thoughtfully constructed images designed to solve a problem.  When confronted with a written word and an image that has nothing to do with the word, the viewer is presented with a conundrum.  In his paintings, Magritte seeks to both present and solve the problem by methodically reconciling the object, its implications and its potential.

"Ceci n'est pas une pipe [This is Not a Pipe]", 1929

One of Magritte's most well known works is this seeming contradiction between the object and its written description.  Obviously we are looking at a pipe so it is silly to say that it is not a pipe, except that it is not a real pipe but a painting of one.  We are challenged to reconsider our interpretations and assumptions and generally "think outside the box", to use 21st century vernacular.

"La Lumière des coïncidences", 1933

Another common motif used by Magritte is the shadow.  Influenced in large part by the writings of Pliny the Elder in his opus "Natural History", Magritte uses the shadow cast by a candle to outline an image that may or may not be what we think it is.  Does the image cast by the shadow accurately represent the reality?

Similarly, consider the motif of the curtain.  According to Pliny the Elder, the painted curtain was the perfect expression of painterly illusionism and the artists of the Dutch Golden Age and Renaissance often employed this device to insulate their perfectly realized trompe l'œuil still lifes from the rest of the canvas. Magritte also used a painted curtain to set the stage between reality and his interpretation thereof.

"Variante de la tristesse", 1957

A variation on the curtain is the shroud.  Here we see two figures whose heads are covered in fabric obscuring their faces and making them unidentifiable.  The imagery stems from a very personal experience for the artist when his mother's body was recovered from the River Sambre after she had drowned herself, but it also relates to a canvas revealing the impression of an absent face.

"Les Amants", 1928

Or, consider the allegory of the cave.  Plato himself asks us to imagine prisoners confined to a cave who mistake shadows for reality.  Is this a reference to our imperfect perception of reality?  Our desire for something other than what is real?  Magritte uses the element of fire and shadows it casts within a confined area, like a cave or a room, to test the boundaries of what is real and what is in our imaginations.

"La Belle Captive", c. 1950

Finally, stepping away from philosophy and turning toward antiquity, we come to the exploration of size and scale - the "spirit of measurement" - and the quest for perfection.  Sculptures of classically beautiful figures are almost always imperfect, think of Venus missing her arms and legs.  The ancients realized that humans were not perfect and that perfection could only be achieved in a collage of details pieced together to form a whole.  Magritte adapted this theory to create his own Surreal Venus comprised of different sized parts to create his ideal form.

"La Folie des grandeurs", 1962

While there is no question that René Magritte is considered a Surrealist, he was far more a disciple of philosophy than poetry.  He himself was an enigma within artistic circles with his devotion to the ancients and his quest to both pose and solve problems through imagery.  Nevertheless, the art of René Magritte endures as some of the most recognizable and most contemplative works of the 20th century.

October 23, 2016

What's On in Paris - Part II

Hidden in the quiet residential district of La Nouvelle-Athènes, just south of the Moulin Rouge and north of the Galeries Lafayette, is the small but charming Musée de la Vie Romantique.  Accessed via a cobblestone lane and housed in a pink and green villa, this museum is dedicated to French artists and writers of the Romantic Period, approximately 1800-1850.

Built in 1830, the house was the residence of the Dutch-born artist Ary Scheffer who welcomed Le Tout Paris to his Friday evening salons.  Regular visitors included Chopin, Sand, Rossini, Dickens, Ingres, Delacroix and Gounod, a real who's who in musical, literary and artistic circles.  Today the main house contains the museum's permanent collection, primarily the paintings of Ary Scheffer, and an extensive display of memorabilia of George Sand.

The two former ateliers flanking the entrance to the estate have also been converted into exhibition space, but for temporary shows.  This season, in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the poet's death, the Musée de la Vie Romantique is presenting "L'Œuil de Baudelaire", a look at the aesthetic vision of Charles Baudelaire.

Though the Parisian born Baudelaire (1821-1867) was an art critic, a translator (one of the first to translate Edgar Allan Poe), and an essayist, he is best known for his poetry.  His personal life was one of despair plagued by debt, drinking and disease, but despite - or maybe because of - his insecure existence, he wrote some of the most powerful and enduring poetry of the Romantic period.  At the time of his death, penniless and in a semi-paralyzed state in a hospice in Brussels, much of his work was unpublished and the extent of his genius was not recognized until later.

This exhibition examines the writings of Baudelaire, particularly his art criticism, and the works of art they describe.  At the same time, it guides us through the changing artistic aesthetic of his time - the last days of Romanticism and the rise of Realism - and the poet's lasting contribution to Modernité.

The entrance to the exhibition in the former atelier

With over 100 examples of works by Baudelaire's contemporaries including Delacroix, Daumier, Ingres, Courbet, Manet, Corot and Goya, visitors to the show are invited to compare and contrast these visual references with the ideas and principles expressed in his art criticism and major poems "Les Fleurs du Mal" and "Le Spleen de Paris".  While this exhibition may have been a little esoteric for non-poets, especially English speakers, it did present some lovely works of art and a clearer understanding of the life and times of this important writer.

Another show dedicated to a 19th century literary master is currently on view at the City of Paris Museum of Fine Arts, the glorious Petit Palais.  "Oscar Wilde: Insolence Incarnate" is the first major exhibition dedicated to this Dublin-born writer in his adopted home and the city where he died in 1900.
I was very eager to see this show - so keen in fact that I waited over 40 minutes in a queue to enter!  My patience was rewarded with a nicely installed, very informative and interesting exhibition that I wish had been a little bigger as they had a lot to talk about.

Oscar Wilde first came to Paris as a 20 year old in 1874 (he stayed in the Hôtel du Quai Voltaire, which, coincidentally, was where Charles Baudelaire had also stayed decades before) shortly after finishing his studies at Trinity College in Dublin and just before entering Magdalen College in Oxford.  The exhibition begins with his early life after graduation when he set himself up in a suite of rooms in London that he decorated with lilies and blue and white china - symbols of the Aesthetic Movement of which he was a champion.

He began writing professionally, first as a poet, and then more lucratively as an art critic.  His commentary on the Pre-Raphaelites were gushing but his opinion on other artists of the day were a little less enthusiastic.  He commented that James Tissot's picnic scenes was too "photographic" and condemed James Whistler's "Nocturnes" as "worth looking at for about as long as one looks at a real rocket, that is, for somewhat less than a quarter of a minute".

James Tissot "Holyday", c. 1876

In 1882, Oscar Wilde embarked on a lecture tour of North America in the hope of earning both fame and fortune.  He succeeded at both.  Dressed in a fur coat with breeches and silk stockings, he visited regions from Canada to Mexico, from the Mormons of Salt Lake City to the Indians of Sioux City, and spoke of beauty in general and the decorative arts in particular.  It was a wild success and he returned to Europe flush with both money and inspiration for writing.

After a three month stay in Paris where he met Victor Hugo, Paul Verlaine and Maurice Rollinat, he returned to London and married the lovely Constance Lloyd.  Photographs in the exhibition show this to be a very happy idyll, blessed with two healthy sons, Cyril, born in 1885, and Vyvyan, born one year later.  At the same time, Oscar Wilde's career was flourishing - his plays were being produced, his lectures were well attended, his stories were being published, and he was in demand in society circles.

In 1891, shortly after writing his only novel "The Picture of Dorian Gray", Oscar Wilde met the person who would eventually be his undoing.  In a striking example of life imitating art, Wilde's encounter with Lord Alfred Douglas was every bit as dramatic as Dorian Gray's descent into decadence and eventual madness.  Wilde and Douglas began a passionate and tempestuous affair, highly risky in an age when homosexuality was against the law.  Later that year while in Paris, Wilde wrote the story of "Salomé", in French, with the express desire of seeing Sarah Bernhardt perform the title role.  This was never to be, as the play was considered blasphemous and banned in Britain leaving Wilde to reconsider his identity as an Englishman.  Ultimately, after having attempted to sue the father of his lover, Lord Douglas, Wilde was tried and convicted of "gross indecency" and given the maximum sentence of two years of hard labor in Reading Gaol.

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, 1893

It is not clear at what point Constance Lloyd-Wilde realized that her husband was not faithful, but after his imprisonment she and their sons left England and changed their last names to Holland.   They never divorced and she visited him both in prison and after his release.  After gaining his freedom, Wilde also left England and returned to France but he was not welcomed with open arms there either.  He died in 1900, bankrupt, alcoholic and broken, and was buried in a pauper's grave.  

Oscar Wilde's legend has gone on to achieve mythic proportions.  Nine years after his death his remains were transferred to the Père-Lachaise cemetery and three years after that, his tomb was marked with the sculpture of a sphinx by the British artist Jacob Epstein.  It continues to be visited by thousands of followers who leave lipstick kisses in his memory.

This exhibition is a long overdue tribute to an important figure in both literature and humanity.  His remarkable story was brought to life with never before seen family photographs and documents provided by his grandson, Merlin Holland, who co-curated the show and provided a very personal viewpoint of this larger-than-life character.  Oscar Wilde was a complicated genius - brilliant and self destructive at the same time - and "Insolence Incarnate" is a touching tribute to both the writer and the man.

October 17, 2016

What's On in Paris - Part I

Bonjour from Paris where the sun is shining and there are a lot of really great exhibitions on view all over town.  So many in fact, that I was wondering how to cover such a range of periods and styles but I think I'll just begin with the earliest and work my way into the present.

Let's start off with a marvelous show presented in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Musée d'Orsay.  It is hard to believe that it is thirty years already since the Musée d'Orsay opened as the brilliantly re-purposed train station-cum-repository for the city's vast collection of Impressionist paintings.  On the other hand, it is such a fixture on the museum circuit that it seems like it's always been there.  In any case, the museum has used the occasion of this important milestone to offer a fresh perspective on another landmark era in French history, the Second Empire.

The short reign of Napoleon III (1852-1870) was an era of strong economic growth, a stable imperial regime, and a thriving artistic community.  While sometimes maligned as a time of conspicuous consumption, excess and corruption, the Second Empire has left a legacy of extraordinary achievements in the fine and decorative arts.

Franz-Xaver Winterhalter (after)
"Napoleon III, Emperor of the French", c. 1861

While Napoleon III certainly broke a few rules when he seized the throne after being elected President of the Republic in 1851 and then dissolving the National Assembly to become the sole ruler, he subsequently re-enacted both universal suffrage and freedom of the press.  Though he effectively appointed himself Emperor, he was extremely popular among his subjects.  Part of the reason for this adoration was his propensity for over-the-top celebrations and public fanfare - devices that instilled national pride and a sense of participation in something great on the part of the French citizenry.

For example, the marriage of Napoleon III and Eugenie was an extravagant ceremony involving the lavish decoration of Notre Dame Cathedral, and the birth of the Prince Imperial two years later was again cause for a gala event complete with a ceremonial cradle.  Though the marking of each of these occasions may seems excessive, it did achieve a couple of important objectives for the dynasty.  First, it gave the public a chance to revel in the success of the Empire and take pride in its sovereigns, and second, it promoted and honored French artistic and cultural superiority.  Furthermore, much as the Fête Impériale was undeniably a fabricated excuse to dress up and have a party, it also served the very important function of securing France's place as the most elegant and sophisticated place on earth while coalescing support for both the royal family and the luxury purveyors who supplied them.

Henri Baron
"Official Celebration at the Tuileries Palace During
the Universal Exhibition of 1867"

This beautifully installed exhibition is an opportunity to see some fabulous examples of works by French artists and craftsmen of the Second Empire.  Ornate vases by Sèvres, tapestries by Beauvais, portrait paintings by Tissot and Degas, Gothic Revival carved furniture, Imperial jewels, a baptismal font made entirely of crystal - all of these items were created in the mania for the elegant and exotic that captivated the public.  Yes, the Second Empire was a period of rampant consumerism, but it also left a legacy of some magnificent works of art that continue to delight.

As luck would have it, I made my visit to the Musée d'Orsay on the same afternoon as a costume ball was being held in their elegant Salle des Fêtes, and the museum was crowded with ladies and gentleman in period attire.  It was a funny sight to see women in decorated hats and hoop skirts talking on iPhones but it certainly added to the atmosphere of this historic show.

Over in the 6th Arrondisement, at the Musée du Luxembourg, is another exhibition devoted to the art of a 19th century painter, Henri Fantin-Latour.  "À fleur de peau" is a retrospective of the still lifes, portraits and "imaginative works" of this complex artist.

"Autoportrait", 1860

Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904) lived and breathed art.  "Painting is my only pleasure, my only goal" and this statement, made at the tender age of 19, guided his life to the end.  In the age of collectives, Fantin-Latour was an anomaly, an independent artist working on the fringes but guided by his own very developed sense of purpose.

In his quest for realism, he developed a reputation as a fine painter of portraits, especially group scenes.  Though sometimes rather grim and not always the most flattering depictions, they were nevertheless true to life.

"Coin de table", 1872
Group portrait of some of the most famous writers of the day
"Autour du piano", 1885
Group portrait of some of the most famous musicians 
and composers of the day
Perhaps more successful were his still lifes which proved very popular and provided his main source of income.  Exquisitely rendered, the flowers on these canvases look as though they had just been picked from a garden...
"La table garni", 1866

"The Rosy Wreath of June", 1886

Despite this dedication to the realistic (he was an early collector of photography), Fantin-Latour also had an imaginative side.  This foray into fantasy was expressed in paintings that verged on the Surreal.  Obsessed with music, particularly the composers Berlioz and Wagner, Fantin-Latour showed an entirely different side of himself with his "imaginative paintings".  Painted during his mature years, these were the works that ultimately offer the truest view of the artist's real self.

"Ariane abandonné", 1899

"Au bord de la mer", 1903

The popularity of Fantin-Latour has waxed and waned over the years, but he remains an important figure in the 19th century art world and bridged the gap between classic and modern.  This exhibition is a testament to his enduring influence and legacy.

October 10, 2016

Ab Ex at the R.A.

It may seem odd to visit an exhibition of a quintessentially American art movement in a foreign capital, but sometimes a fresh perspective makes one appreciate the familiar just that much more.  Such is certainly the case with the blockbuster show "Abstract Expressionism" that opened at the Royal Academy of Arts in London on September 24.

Arshile Gorky "Water of the Flowery Mill", 1944

Abstract Expressionism came into being in New York in the 1940s when a group of artists broke from the traditional, European-based tenets of painting and began to create works in an entirely different way.  Similar to the Dadaists' reaction to the horrors of The Great War, this group of avant garde artists, both native born and emigres, felt compelled to upend the conventional wisdom of pre-World War II modernism and invent a completely new language.

The result was Abstract Expressionism, a radical approach to every aspect of art as historically realized, from the subject to the relationship with the viewer to the basic act of painting.  The effect was seismic and it effected the previously unimaginable shift of the center of the art world from Paris to New York.

Despite its importance in American and indeed global art history, the Royal Academy's exhibition is the first comprehensive survey of the movement since 1959.  And they did it in style.  This show is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view rarely seen masterpieces from collections around the world.  Like, for example, the presence of not one but two of Jackson Pollack's most famous paintings - the recently restored "Mural" commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim in 1943 and now held by the University of Iowa's Museum of Art...

Hanging just across the gallery is one of my personal favorites, "Blue Poles", 1952, which traveled half way around the world from its home in Canberra at the National Gallery of Australia, to be shown in Europe...

These two paintings epitomize the principals of the Abstract Expressionist movement.  First, they are monumental in scale.  Measuring 6.5 and 5.3 yards across, respectively, the size alone has an initial impact on the viewer.  Second, they are "all over" paintings with no central focal point but an all-encompassing "image".  Third, the artist painted them using newly invented techniques of paint application.  Both were painted on the floor, as opposed to on an easel, and in the case of "Blue Poles", Jackson Pollack employed what became his signature "drip" style - literally pouring and spraying paint onto the canvas.

Another remarkable loan came from the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, Colorado.  Though a founding member and one of the most recognizable artists of the Abstract Expressionist movement, Still was famously anti-commercial and very few of his works were put on the market.  Today the majority of his works are held by his eponymous museum and are rarely on view except in rotating in-house exhibitions.  It was therefore a huge and happy surprise to enter a gallery at the Royal Academy dedicated to Clyfford Still and filled with some of his most magnificent works.

Clyfford Still "PH-950", 1950

Still another highlight was the amazing group of paintings by the Latvian-born artist, Mark Rothko.  Assembled in a round room, in a reference to the Rothko Chapel in Houston, these large format, intensely hued canvases envelope the viewer in emotion and feeling.  Typical of Abstract Expressionism, these works are all-over images that demand attention and create a dialogue between artist and observer.

Mark Rothko "Red Yellow Red"

Some of the galleries were devoted to one artist like Gorky, Pollock, Rothko, Still and De Kooning.

Willem De Kooning "Woman II", 1952

While others presented a theme or compare-and-contrast like Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt.

Barnett Newman "Profile of Light", 1967
 Ad Reinhardt "Untitled", c. 1966

Interspersed throughout were metal sculptures by David Smith, not a painter but definitely a member of the group, that provided an interesting counterpoint to all those big pictures.

David Smith "Blackburn, Song of an Irish Blacksmith", 1949-50

I had been looking forward to seeing this exhibition and it lived up to expectations and then some.  It's only too bad that one has to cross the Atlantic to find such an insightful and comprehensive perspective of this uniquely American movement.