Tuesday, March 29, 2016

London 2016: Day 1

I'm back in the UK for a few days of research and exhibitions, so I'll see if I can maintain a daily blog highlighting what will have transpired. Not surprisingly, we departed late from Newark on Sunday evening, and arrived late into Heathrow. Not impressed by United's entertainment options, nor their food, on this trip. The trend toward using your own hand-held devices seems like a cop-out to me for the airlines to provide services, as prices keep increasing. And dinner was not appetizing at all. In any case, what did startle me was how quiet Heathrow was when we arrived, and how quickly we got through immigration. At first I couldn't imagine what was going on, but then I realized it was a bank holiday, Easter Monday, so oddly fewer people were actually working. In any case, the long day was ahead of me--making sure I stay awake!--and so I took the Heathrow Express and then a taxi to my hotel where, fortunately, my room was ready so I could rest and freshen up.

After doping up on more coffee and a sandwich at Costa (why, of why, has neither Caffe Nero or Costa made it across the pond to the U.S.? Starbucks needs more competition!), I could see that the streets were quieter than usual for the holiday. I made my way via the Northern line on the tube to Charing Cross, then walked to the National Portrait Gallery to see the exhibition "Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky." It was a small exhibition of portraits of Russian writers, musicians/composers, and thespians, all from the collection of the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, what was once the private collection of an individual art collector. I was inspired to see this because of having recently finished reading Anna Karenina, so it was useful to see a few paintings I am less familiar with contemporaneous to Tolstoy's novel (1877) and late nineteenth-century art. Not surprisingly one could see the influences of Realism and Impressionism, and a few Cubist-style works from the 1890s that predate Cubism itself by a decade. The painter Ilia Repin stood out as clearly the most talented painter of the group, which may explain why he is the one name that appears in surveys of 19th-century European art. His life-size, whole-length portrait of Baroness Varvara Iksul von Hildenbrandt, which can be seen by clicking on the link above, was the highlight work in the show. Overall the show was interesting, but I was done in 20 minutes.

After stopping for a lovely blackberry-apple tart and English breakfast tea (yes, more caffeine needed) at the National Cafe, I went to see the exhibition "Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art." At an entry price of 15 pounds, I have to confess I was not impressed. Why oh why could they not just have an exhibition about Eugene Delacroix and his contemporaries? Why justify all the accomplishments in Delacroix's use of color and Rubenesque brush stroke by simply showing how more famous names like Renoir (yuck!) and Gauguin (more yuck!) were influenced by him?! Delacroix was an amazing artist and clearly changed the entire realm of 19th-century French art. The image above shows one example of a painting by him in the exhibition: Lion Hunt, 1860-61, from the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. This was, in fact, the iconic image used as the headliner for the exhibition and it is arguably the best picture in the exhibition by Delacroix. It is just disappointing that half of the works in the show were by this masterful painter. I certainly would have preferred to see an actual Delacroix exhibition. I spent the rest of the afternoon (after another snack) walking through the National Gallery to see their incredible painting collection, one masterpiece after another.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Westward I Go

For New Yorkers, whether born and raised or appropriated, after a certain amount of time Manhattan becomes the center of the universe. Die-hard Manhattanites resist going to Brooklyn, and will never go to Queens, the Bronx, or Staten Island. So can you imagine going to New Jersey? Well, my dear readers, this post serves as an announcement that I have once again changed residencies. I have embarked on that journey far across the Hudson River to the land known as Jersey City. Westward Ho indeed! Now, to just about anyone else in the entire world, this move may seem like nothing--the JC waterfront literally looks out on the World Trade Center and lower Manhattan--but the NYC-centric mindset is a powerful force for those of us who live(d) here. I had become very accustomed, living on the Upper West Side, to doing things like heading to Riverside Park to read a book, eating a cinnamon raisin bagel with cream cheese at Tal Bagel on Saturday mornings, and shopping in a local grocery market called Broadway Farm. I had a 12-minute subway ride to work, and on beautiful days I could walk home in 30 minutes. Readers may even recall my discovery of the building I was living in having been designed by my great-grandmother's brother, the architect George Bagge! Alas, circumstances regarding my residency (i.e. the owners decided to sell) forced me into finding a new home. I confess I would never have considered Jersey City on my own, even if it is currently less expensive by NYC standards. When I was growing up, JC was one of the worst cities in the tri-state area. Not anymore, I can tell you. The restaurants, galleries, and boutiques popping up everywhere have ensured Jersey City's status as the new hipster zone. Some are even calling it the "new Brooklyn," and even The New York Times picked up on the story! (Who knew I would ever be so hip?!)

So...my daily commute is going to be much longer, but I am anticipating catching up on more reading. And I am lamenting the loss of all the NYC conveniences I have grown to love, but it will be nice to spend less on groceries. There is, though, a most wonderful turn of events about this relocation: AA and I are now living together. We are residing in a beautiful unit in the CANCO Lofts. The picture above shows you the south facade of the building, which was one of five that in the early part of the 20th century were factory warehouses for the American Can Company. The building was converted into condominiums just a few years ago. You can read more about this building as one of the new great places to live in that same NYT article linked above. And, in case you're wondering, bklynbiblio is not going to change its name. As I mentioned a few years ago when I moved to the UWS, this blog was born and christened in Brooklyn, so no matter where I go, its heart will always be in Brooklyn.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Art Details: 6 to 10


Image Credits: All images taken by bklynbiblio/Roberto C. Ferrari. Top to bottom:
  1. Dying soldier from east pediment, Temple of Aegina, Greece, late 5th century BCE, marble, Glyptothek, Munich.
  2. Frederic, Lord Leighton, The Music Lesson, 1877, oil on canvas, Guildhall Art Gallery, London.
  3. Jean-Léon Gérôme, Moorish Bath, 1870, oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
  4. Claude Monet, Boulevard des Capucines, 1873-74, oil on canvas, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City.
  5. Botticelli, Madonna of the Magnificat, late 15th century, oil on canvas, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

MWA XXXVIII: Gainsborough's Boy

The picture you see here is one of those images that has been reproduced so many times that you know it instantly, even if you aren't sure who it is or who painted it. This is Thomas Gainsborough's Blue Boy, painted in 1770, from the The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. I have never seen this picture in person, because I have never been to this institution--yet! But like anyone who has seen it I have always been fascinated by the boy's overtly confident, almost cocky, facial expression and pose, and the vibrancy and bravura of the blue garments that Gainsborough painted. I chose this work for February's Monthly Work of Art because I recently read Martin Postle's short book on Gainsborough. Rather than do my own interpretation of this painting, then, here are the words of specialists who know much more about this than I do.

This painting "was Gainsborough’s first attempt at full length Van Dyck dress--knee breeches and a slashed doublet with a lace collar--which is based on the work of Anthony van Dyck, the 17th-century Flemish painter who had revolutionized British art. ... Though clearly indebted to Van Dyck, Gainsborough’s painting technique was entirely his own. Whereas Van Dyck applied color in discrete patches composed of short consecutive strokes, Gainsborough presents a chaos of erratic color and brushstrokes. The shimmering blue satin is rendered in a spectrum of minutely calibrated tints--indigo, lapis, cobalt, slate, turquoise, charcoal, and cream--that have been applied in extremely complex layers of vigorous slashes and fine strokes. At the proper distance, the diverse pigments crystallize into an illusion of solidity." (online catalogue entry)

"The Blue Boy is Gainsborough's most famous picture, and his most enigmatic. Through its elevation to iconic status in the twentieth century this picture, more than any other, has served to promote the artist's image as a romantic painter of chocolate-box cavaliers. Nothing could be further from the truth. The painting is a parody. The boy in question was not the offspring of an aristocrat but the teenage son of a prosperous Soho ironmonger, and a person friend of the artist. His costume was a popular form of fancy dress which ... was otherwise restricted to the ephemeral realm of the masquerade, then a popular form of entertainment in the capital. ... X-rays have revealed that Gainsborough painted The Blue Boy upon a discarded, cut-down canvas, which further suggests that this was not a straight-forward portrait commission but an impromptu jeu d'esprit." -- Martin Postle, Thomas Gainsborough (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2002), 46.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

First Snowstorm: 2015-2016 Winter

Unwarmed by any sunset light
The gray day darkened into night,
A night made hoary with the swarm
And whirl-dance of the blinding storm,
As zigzag wavering to and fro
Crossed and recrossed the winged snow:
And ere the early bedtime came
The white drift piled the window-frame,
And through the glass the clothes-line posts
Looked in like tall and sheeted ghosts.
-- John Greenleaf Whittier, Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl (1866), lines 31-40.

Last Sunday was our first snowfall, and today we most definitely have been hit with our first snowstorm of the season. As of yesterday they were saying possibly 8-10 inches. The latest estimate is now 24-28 inches, but it is slowing down now. I went out for a walk a few hours ago and it was blizzard-like; I was walking in snow drifts up to my knees. I actually found it exhilarating and couldn't stop laughing, although after walking around for a few blocks I was super cold and wet, and headed back inside. The picture you see here I took this afternoon from AA's loft window in Jersey City, where we have been hunkered down and he has been dealing with a cold.

The quotation of poetry above, however, has been a personal touch to my day. I recently rediscovered on my bookshelf an 1898 edition of the poetry of Whittier, a book I long have treasured because it belonged to my Nana when she was in elementary school in 1915. Her name is written in her hand on the inside cover. Ages ago, I had read Whittier's poem when I was in school, and it has remained one of my favorite American poems. Having grown up in NY/NJ, snow has always been part of my life, and I find the descriptions of the snowstorm to be so beautifully written. But even more rewarding are Whittier's poetic memories of his family members, each of whom he describes recounting their own past lives, all while a snowstorm brews outside. The literary layering of Whittier in the 1860s writing a poem to his niece that recounts his own memories of his family (and visiting guests), who entertain one another with stories of their own lives, makes this poem a heart-warming paean to history, family, narrativity, and how nature has the power to remind us of our connection to the earth and the seasons. If you haven't read this poem before, I highly recommend it. To learn more about Whittier and the history of the poem, click here.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

First Snowfall: 2015-2016 Winter...and Picasso at MoMA

When you consider that our first snowfall last fall/winter took place around Thanksgiving 2014, it is actually rather surprising that today, January 17, 2016, is the first snowfall of the 2015-2016 winter. And aptly timed for this blog, as I just posted about snow and winter landscapes earlier today. AA and I had brunch on the UWS with JDN, and then AA and I went to the Museum of Modern Art to see Picasso Sculpture, the exhibition about which the critics have been raving.

I hate the crowds and lines at MoMA, but we still were able to get a good look at a number of pieces. It is actually an interesting show to see how Picasso's sculptural styles and media transformed over the decades. There was an introductory wall panel for each room; however, there were no wall labels for the objects on display. At first this was disconcerting, although I quickly realized people had picked up free booklets with all the object information detailed in their hands, or they were listening to podcasts on their iPhones or hand-held devices. Rather than follow their lead, however, AA and I just wandered and gazed at various sculptures we could get close to, and we talked about them without really having complete contexts on which to base them. In many ways it was a more refreshing experience because we focused more on the materiality and design of the sculptures. At one point I even noted that if we dropped Picasso's name from the show entirely, it still was an interesting survey of modernist sculpture over the decades with some excellent works of art. For an artist known to people as a Cubist and hence abstract artist, it was fascinating to see how figurative his sculptures actually were, i.e. faces of his lovers, friends, animals, etc. Even his Cubist-style sculptures were more figurative than one might imagine. We also walked through the Joaquín Torres-García exhibition. I was only familiar with the Uruguayan artist as part of the Barcelona group of circles who moved from Art Nouveau to Surrealism. It was an interesting survey of his career. His own particular Cubist-brand of Surrealistic symbolic language in gray and white, ca. 1930, was clearly the apex of his oeuvre, but after a while the pictures all seemed to be highly repetitive and lacking individuality to my eye.

videoIt had started snowing before we got into the museum, and it was seriously coming down when we left about 4:15pm. The picture you see above I took at the intersection of 79th St. and Broadway, and the brief 5-second video you see here I took outside MoMA on 54th St., and shows you how fast the snow was coming down. It is not sticking to the ground, so we can't call this the first snowstorm of the season, but as I mentioned in my previous post it is still wonderful to watch it fall. I stayed outside longer, walking in the snow, just to relish the cool wetness of it on my head and face.

MWA XXXVII: Hassam's Winter

I know I am not alone when I say that winter landscape scenes are perhaps some of my most favorite subjects in paintings. There is something breathtaking in the vision of falling and new-fallen snow that many artists over the centuries have attempted to represent, knowing full well this is an idealistic sense of reality. In our automobile/truck-occupied world today, snow plows and vehicles quickly make the snow disgusting, slush turns gray and gross, and for all eternity neighborhood dogs like to...how should we say?...turn white snow yellow as fast as they can! Nevertheless, there is something tranquil about watching snow fall from the skies, then afterward listening to children play in the snow and wandering out in the crisp air admiring the effect of the snow on trees and houses. Snow is about the power of nature to purify and cleanse, and in a major city like New York it is fascinating to see how snow even here can diminish the noise and bustle of the urban environment and make it as serene as a country landscape, if but for a short while. It is the white-ness of new-fallen snow, with its Western associations of purity and innocence, that has the power to blanket and coat the urban environment and create a visual sense of rebirth.

From a painter's perspective there is the trick of how to represent the actual effects of snow. It would seem easy to just use white paint, but light and shadows play tricks on snow, and one realizes there is no such thing as snow that is just one white hue. Artists such as Childe Hassam, in the work you see here as this Monthly Work of Art, used tones of icy blue in this representation of Central Park South/59th Street on a snowy late afternoon, just before twilight, suggesting how the setting sun's rays, at a sharp angle, give snow an iridescent quality. Hassam was one of the most successful American Impressionists. Influenced by Monet, Renoir, and Pissarro, Hassam and other Americans by the 1890s were absorbing the lessons they learned in Paris and introducing to an American audience their version of paintings that showed both the transience of modern American life, often using short, quick brushstrokes to suggest action and immediacy, but also playing with the visual effects of light on the world around them to create a unique vision of how the artist saw the world. Although I always admit that I am not a big fan of Impressionist painting, I certainly can appreciate the talents and skillful experiments many of these artists exuded. And, as in this case, I do love a beautiful winter landscape scene, particularly one that shows a historical view of New York.

Image credit: Frederick Childe Hassam (American, 1859-1935). Late Afternoon, New York, Winter, 1900, oil on canvas, 36 15/16 x 29 in., Brooklyn Museum, Dick S. Ramsay Fund, 62.68.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Art Exhibitions of 2015

The end of each calendar year brings out all the art critics to write about the best art exhibitions they experienced that year. Because we live in the NYC area, with an incredibly rich cultural scene, we are fortunate that there is so much to see. Here, for instance, is the link to Holland Cotter and Roberta Smith's article on the best in the art world in 2015, which is quite comprehensive if thematic in its arrangement. Conscious of geography and its limitations to lists, I like that Hyperallergic does separate reviews for NYC and other parts of the world in their annual rankings, to create a more level playing field, it would seem. As for me, since I don't have the luxury, liberty, or time to see every exhibition in NYC, let alone in the world, I can only base my list on what I have been fortunate to see. This year I did see a lot, including a number of new museums and collections for the first time, listed at the end of this post. Below is my annual summary of what I felt were the best shows I saw this year (here is last year's post). And, for the record, I should note that I have not yet seen Picasso Sculpture at MOMA, partly because going to see an exhibition there is a total nightmare. Fortunately, it closes in about a month from now, so I still have time.

I still am surprised that no one I have encountered, read, or spoken to, ever saw what I consider to have been one of the best shows of 2015. Entitled Body and Soul: Munich Rococo from Asam to Günther, this exhibition (installation view above) brought together over 160 sculptures in polychrome wood, terracotta, silver, and stucco, as well as drawings and paintings and prints by a number of largely unknown sculptors based in Bavaria during the 1700s (hence the eponymous Asam brothers, Cosmas Damian and Egid Quirin Asam, working early in the century, to Ignaz Günther at the end). This exhibition was installed at the Kunsthalle in Munich, a space for rotating special exhibitions. The installations of many of these works was simply stunning. The exhibition was ecclesiastic in its focus (Bavaria, unlike the rest of Germany, historically remained Catholic), so one saw mostly angels and saints in the show. Normally installed in churches, cathedrals, and chapels, these works typically are part of elaborate, intricate architectural settings and interior spaces. Removing them and putting them on exhibition in this way, however, gave the viewer the opportunity to appreciate them as individualized works of art, with an emphasis on the sculptural quality of these figures, i.e. their materiality and craftsmanship, and occasionally their hyperrealistic theatricality. At the same time, removing them from their usually-ornate environments, the viewer appreciated how their contorted, exaggerated forms make them seem proto-surreal and modern. The image you see above was just one of the many rooms in which the stunning display of larger-than-life figures impressed viewers. It is unfortunate that this exhibition did not get more attention internationally. Despite the national focus, I suspect it is because it was largely religious in nature, and religion does not usually do so well with audiences today.

Two other sculpture shows that are high on my list derive from the ancient and contemporary art worlds. In Florence I saw at the Palazzo Strozzi the exhibition Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World, which showcased intricate and often naturalistic works of art crafted from the period between Alexander the Great's death in 323 BCE and the foundation of the Roman Empire in 31 BCE (image left: Victorious Athlete, 300-100 BCE, bronze and copper, Getty). Drawn from collections worldwide, many of the objects were presented with interesting didactic panels that provided a broad context from how the bronze figures were made to their socio-economic and political uses. The exhibition was co-organized with The J. Paul Getty Center, and is currently still on show at present at the National Gallery in Washington, DC until March.

In contrast to this ancient survey, the exhibition of works by Doris Salcedo at the Guggenheim here in NYC was absolutely worth visiting. I was first introduced to Salcedo a few years ago when she did the infamous "crack" Shibboleth in the floor of the Tate Modern Turbine Hall, which had some interest but seemed to rely too much on the conceptual for my taste. This year, however, the exhibition of a selection of her work clearly revealed her focus on her heritage growing up in Colombia during turbulent years in its history. Her works address violence, racism, and misogyny, but they also fool the mind with their use of unusual materials and the juxtaposition of hard and soft media that confuses the mind. The installation view seen here shows a series of historical wooden pieces of furniture that have had concrete poured into them. Making them useless as furniture, they take on a new function as archaeological monoliths that question ideas about the domestic sphere. An installation piece that changes with each space, these incredibly heavy objects challenge one's ideas about what constitutes space itself, then, and in the spirit of sculpture-as-objects the viewer is forced to engage with them in a way that blocks your entry and exit. Their monumentality and gravitas were provocative and almost tangible. The two criticisms I had about this exhibition, however, was that it was spread out through the galleries at the Guggenheim in a way that I found disconcerting and fractured. Secondly, it was absurd of the designers not to make the wall texts and panels bilingual. In this day and age in America, curators and designers have a responsibility to create Spanish texts in addition to English texts whenever they exhibit a Latino/a artist. (Brooklyn Museum successfully did this with their Francisco Oller exhibition, but alas I was not as thrilled about that show overall.)

Shirin Neshat: Facing History was on exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC, when AA and I visited there in June. Like with Salcedo, I had seen a few of Neshat's photographs and one film in the past, and was intrigued by her work, but this retrospective was amazing. I would go so far as to say it is #2 on my list of the best exhibitions I saw this year. Born in Iran in 1957, Neshat left in 1975, and her art work since then has addressed the turbulent politics of Islam and Iran's relationship with the West. She has staged historical recreations of important political events, uses multiple cameras to personify the divided worlds of men and women, and hand-manipulates exquisite black-and-white and color photographs with Persian texts, all in to draw attention to the crises we face in our ongoing political battles between Iran and the West to this day. Neshat is one of those artists whose work continues to have more relevance with each passing year as jihadists in the Near East continue to strike fear in the hearts of everyone--Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, everyone--in the world. The image you see here is a manipulated photograph from her 1993 series I Am Its Secret (Women of Allah) [Photo: Plauto © Shirin Neshat].

On my list, I would next say that #3 is Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist. On display at the new Whitney Museum of American Art, this show was an absolute delight. African-American of mixed-race heritage, Motley (1891-1981) was trained academically, but was influenced by modernist trends after World War I. His portraits of blacks, whites, and mixed-race people emphasize the wide array of complexions and social standings that exist in our world. He celebrated the advancements and opportunities that jazz gave to blacks in America and Paris, and clearly loved music and dance. The painting you see here, Tongues (Holy Rollers), 1929, is an exploration of the spirituality endemic in some black communities, but you also can see in the movement of their bodies that this is a dance, a paean to life-as-spirituality, and how jazz is influencing even how one can think about religion. This exhibition taught me about an American artist whose work I had little exposure to before now, and showed me beautiful paintings that made me go through the exhibition more than once to absorb all the colors, forms, compositions, and sensations. It made me appreciate yet again how incredibly fascinating the 1920s were in American art, a statement I have been making ever since I saw the incredible show Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties at Brooklyn Museum in 2011. To wrap up this section, I should add that the Whitney Museum also deservedly gets kudos for the new Renzo Piano building in the Meatpacking District. They have done an amazing job of integrating public and private space, outdoor and indoor space, in one building, and in so doing have unexpectedly also created a charming new community in a neighborhood that culturally was on the rise but now has taken off.

To wrap up this post here are a few other honorable mentions from exhibitions I saw this year:

  • I was delighted I had the opportunity to see Flaming June by Frederic, Lord Leighton, at The Frick (image right). This painting is one of those great pictures from posters and postcards that first inspired people to look anew at Victorian painting (even I had a poster of it!). Seeing this picture in person reminded me that Leighton is painterly and has a lush brushstroke, even though images make him seem to be a slick, linear classicist. Viewers love this painting for its sensual depiction of the young woman in her diaphanous draperies, and it does not disappoint in person. I also liked how the Frick installed the picture by two of their ladies by J. A. M. Whistler, cleverly demonstrating how the two were part of the Aesthetic Movement, which emphasized beauty in art without subject or moral meaning, but painted so differently.
  • At the Metropolitan Museum of Art this year, one of their big successes has been Kongo: Power and Majesty, which I saw not too long ago. It is indeed an excellent installation and does a good job of not only showcasing beautiful examples of African art in numerous media, but also engaging well with issues such as slavery and post-colonialism with the Portuguese trade of this area from the 1600s to the 1900s. 
  • Another great Met Museum exhibition was Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, not because it was a wonderful installation, but because everyone just loves gazing at and revelling in John Singer Sargent's bravura of a brushstroke. 
  • In contrast, Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River was not necessarily a beautiful exhibition, but it was very interesting learning more about this 19th-century painter based in Missouri drawn from scientific analysis of his paintings and looking more closely at his contemporary sources. 

I will close this post by noting that I was fortunate to visit a few museums for the first time this year. These were, in no particular order: the Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City; the Barnes Foundation and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia; the Galleria Nazionale dell'Arte Moderna in Rome (amazing unknown 19th-century art); the Guildhall Art Gallery in London (Victorian pictures galore!); and Dia:Beacon in upstate New York (whole new appreciation for Sol LeWitt's wall murals). I also had a great research trip to Boston and visited for the first time the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the reconstituted Harvard Art Museums, and revisited for the first time in almost twenty years the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Amazing art, collections, installations, and exhibitions in these places...2015 was quite a great year.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Happy 2016!

Another New Year celebration has passed. A year ago our annual New Year's message celebrated not only the welcome of 2015 but our 500th post. This year, it was quite a laid-back celebration. AA and I rang in the new year with our feet up on the coffee table participating in the countdown...and then going to bed. Yes, it was a quiet couple's night for us. Today, however, New Year's Day, we were in SoHo and the East Village for a while walking around. Our 72-degree temperatures of Christmas Eve are long gone...the high today was 43, and it's going to get colder over the next few days, so it was chilly, but good to get out.

We went to see the new movie Carol with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, who play respectively an older, married mother and a younger aspiring photographer who fall in love during Christmas/New Year's of 1951-52. The movie may seem a little slow, but it is beautifully filmed, and the writing and acting is superb, so the tempo of the storyline is intentional and more realistic as a result. Cate looks stunning in this move, incredibly elegant in her expensive, chic 1950s couture, and Rooney is adorable in her plaids and youthful sweaters. Their characters practically transform into icons from the past. Rooney becomes a dead ringer for Audrey Hepburn, and Cate finds herself somewhere between Deborah Kerr and Grace Kelly. A true love story, it has its crescendo and its heartache. The film delicately handles their sexuality and the controversy of their love, not as normalized, for it would never have been perceived that way in the 1950s, but certainly more as being more consciously in the cultural awareness of the greater NYC area than one might typically assume of lesbianism in the 1950s. Sarah Paulson (best known from her amazing characters on American Horror Story) is excellent as well in her supporting role as Cate's friend and former lover. Overall, this is a movie worth seeing indeed, and will receive a number of nominations if not awards.

Last year I did not change the look or design of bklynbiblio, but I've made some background and color changes this time around. I may update it a few times seasonally, when I have the time. If you read these posts via email or an RSS reader, you can always go directly to http://bklynbiblio.blogspot.com to see the new look and read all of the posts from the past. And so we welcome the year 2016...HAPPY NEW YEAR!!

Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Passing of Peter Letterese

During the night, my Uncle Peter Letterese passed away in a hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida. He has been suffering on and off for years from the effects of leukemia, but it never stopped him from enjoying a glass of wine or listening to an aria by Pavarotti. He was 93 years old, so we certainly can take comfort in knowing he had a long, fulfilling life. However, his passing is hard for the family, because he was such a vital part of our lives for decades. His granddaughter, my cousin MTB, has now lost the second half of the duo who did so much to raise and support her through the years, having lost her Nana, my Aunt Florence (my mother's older sister) in 2009. I blogged about her passing at that time. Uncle Pete was admittedly never the same after Aunt Florence died; she was the love of his life. In recent years he spoke honestly about how he wanted to be with her again. By a strange coincidence, New Year's Eve--today--was their 45th wedding anniversary. But he did the best he could all these years. The picture you see above is a shot of Aunt Florence, Uncle Peter, MTB, and her son, ten years ago at a family dinner.

Uncle Pete was a boxer. Not everyone knows that. He gave that up ages ago, though, and eventually worked as an X-ray technician in hospitals in the Bronx and St. Petersburg. A few years ago I uncovered the photo you see here in an issue of The New York Times. On June 18, 1949, he was the X-ray technician on duty who treated French boxer Marcel Cerdan for a torn shoulder muscle, and was photographed with Cerdan by an unidentified Associated Press photographer. The juxtaposition of his lives as a boxer and technician came together on that day.

When Aunt Florence and Uncle Peter finally retired for good in the late 1980s, they moved permanently back to their home in St. Petersburg, and soon joined up with the Italian-American Society of St. Petersburg, taking language lessons and tarantella dancing lessons. They were responsible for getting my parents and me involved in this too. (Yes, I admit it, I used to dance the tarantella and other dances with the group all over Florida!) Uncle Pete went to Italy once with my father, so he met the whole Italian side of family. When I was growing up I remember my aunt and uncle always coming out to our house on Saturday mornings, bringing pastry boxes with rolls and doughnuts. They always bought me a NYC classic: a black-and-white cookie. When my cousins and I were all kids, he was the Uncle who every summer picked us all up and threw us into the pool, doing it again and again, encouraged by our squeals of joy, and in spite Aunt Florence always yelling at him, "Peter, be careful!" As I grew older, it was Uncle Pete who helped educate me about wine. I went to more than one wine tasting with him over the years. He was also the person who first got me interested in opera. Once, he was given free tickets on a night that Aunt Florence couldn't go, so he asked if I wanted to go. My parents drove me into the City to meet him at Lincoln Center. That was my first live opera experience: Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera, in box seats, at the age of twelve. It was an amazing experience. (We even sat next to Mia Farrow and Woody Allen--long before the Soon Yi scandal.)

Uncle Pete always had a big heart for everyone and he did truly enjoy life. He simply adored his granddaughter MTB and we know he appreciated greatly all her help over the past few years as things got harder for him. If Aunt Florence taught us how to be disciplined, organized, smart, and strong, Uncle Peter taught us how to have fun, enjoy good things in life, and never to take anything too seriously, because there were always choices and options. When I think of the great phrases that the elders in my life gave me, Uncle Peter gave me two. The first was: "The hardest part of making a decision is making the decision. After that, it all rolls into place." The second was: "And what's the worst thing that could happen if you discover you made a mistake? You change it." Very wise words from our own family wine expert. Salute, Uncle Peter!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Art Details: 1 to 5

About a year and a half ago, I started taking detail shots using my iPhone (now 6, then 4S) of paintings and sculptures in museums that I found particularly fascinating. Although I am an advocate of always seeing art in person to fully appreciate it, admittedly it is not always possible to do that. Thus, images can help supplement the live experience of art to some extent. Art details in particular arguably give us an opportunity to hone in on a work of art, to examine aspects of it so as to attempt to see deeper into the artist's intent or vision. Admittedly, these details also give the photographer (in this case me) an opportunity to be creative in interpreting these masterful works of art. After all, in seeing these, you are experiencing my detail, my interpretation, of these paintings and sculptures. Beauty, indeed, is in the eye of the beholder. I typically post these on my Instagram account, which you can see by clicking here. (Warning: fun, personal images are there too.) Below these 5 images, I've provided some metadata about each. Enjoy!

Image Credits: All photographs taken by bklynbiblio/Roberto C. Ferrari. Top to bottom:

  1. Albrecht Durer, The Paumgartner Altarpiece: The Birth of Christ, 1498-1504, oil on panel, Alte Pinakothek, Munich.
  2. Auguste Rodin, The Three Shades, originally designed for The Gates of Hell before 1886, 20th-century cast, bronze, Rodin Museum, Philadelphia.
  3. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, La Ghirlandata, 1873, oil on canvas, Guildhall Art Gallery, London.
  4. Paul-Albert Bartholomé, Congiunti al di là, 1891-99, marble, Galleria Nazionale dell'Arte Moderna, Rome.
  5. Sarah Miriam Peale, Still Life with Watermelon, 1822, oil on canvas, Harvard Art Museums, Boston.

Cities of 2015

Last year I wrote a blog post highlighting all the travel I did in 2014, but this time I am just doing a recap of the cities I visited over the course of the year. I realize on some level this may seem like I'm bragging about my travels, but this blog has involved me writing about my travels since the very beginning, so consider this an encapsulated list rather than an extended post on places I have been. One reason I decided to do this is because 2015 has turned out to be rather exceptional in terms of travel, with more than half of these cities related to my job and career (conferences, talks, courier trips, etc.). The rest was vacation or family visits. The picture you see here is of AA and me on the wall of San Gimignano with the rolling hills of Tuscany behind us. God, what a beautiful day it was and what a beautiful memory it is. Even though I have visited almost all of these cities before (some many times), three were first-time visits (Monteriggione, Beacon, and Kansas City). When I visit these cities, I always strive to visit museums or galleries to see exhibitions or permanent collections, all as part of expanding my knowledge-base on artists, art works, movements, styles, and the materiality of art. I frequently like to go back to museums I've seen before to see old favorites and what may have changed. Every one of these trips, then, becomes a learning experience. But perhaps the most important reason why I am posting this list is because I realize how fortunate I am to have had the opportunity to visit these places and to engage with cultures, no matter how similar or different they are from my own. For me, life is about experiences and encounters, and travel helps make that happen. Here is the list, in the order in which I visited them.
  • Munich, Germany
  • St. Petersburg/Palm Harbor, Florida (March visit)
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (April visit)
  • Cattolica, Italy
  • Venice, Italy
  • Rome, Italy
  • Florence, Italy
  • San Gimignano/Siena/Monteriggione (day trip through Tuscany)
  • Milan, Italy
  • St. Petersburg/Palm Harbor, Florida (May visit)
  • Liverpool, England
  • Southport, England
  • London, England
  • Oxford, England
  • Washington, DC
  • Provincetown, Massachusetts
  • St. Petersburg/Palm Harbor, Florida (August visit)
  • San Francisco, California
  • Beacon, New York
  • Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • Boston, Massachusetts
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (November visit)
  • Kansas City, Missouri

Thursday, December 24, 2015

MWA XXXVI: Botticelli's Nativity

Here in New York City, we are having record-high temperatures for Christmas. It is supposed to reach 74 degrees (23 Celsius)! I thought I was staying in NYC, not going to Florida, for Christmas! Today AA and I happily will spend our first official Christmas together on the actual Eve & Day (rather than before or after the holiday) in Jersey City. Tomorrow we are scheduled to meet up with the nephew and nieces to ice skate in Bryant Park...in 64-degree weather...assuming the ice doesn't melt beforehand.

With another Christmas upon us, it seems only appropriate to share another beautiful and important Monthly Work of Art suited to this time of year. The picture you see here is by the Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli and this painting, from about 1500, is called the Mystic Nativity. While the central portion of it celebrates the birth of Christ in a traditional manner--albeit with Botticelli's usual sinuous forms, as best exemplified by the Virgin Mary--and with humans and angels paying homage to the newborn, above them a group of angels celebrate his birth in a rondo dance, and below angels embrace humans as an extension of God's love. These two parts of the painting elevate it to the esoteric.

This painting was likely a private devotional work commissioned by a wealthy merchant in Florence. Today it is in the collection of the National Gallery in London. On their website, here is what the curators say about it: "Botticelli's picture has long been called the Mystic Nativity because of its mysterious symbolism. It combines Christ's birth as told in the New Testament with a vision of his Second Coming as promised in the Book of Revelation. The Second Coming--Christ's return to earth--would herald the end of the world and the reconciliation of devout Christians with God. The picture was painted a millennium and a half after the birth of Christ, when religious and political upheavals prompted prophetic warnings about the end of the world."

Merry Christmas to you all!

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Auction Sales of 2015

Record-high prices from the art auction world continued to astound people this year, even those of us who work in the art industry. Of course, this is in modern/contemporary art, where prices for a handful of artists from the past 140 years (mostly 20th-century) continue to garner often shocking prices in the millions and alter the landscape (no pun intended) in the valuation of art. For instance, in May of this year, Christie's set a new record bringing in for the first time over $1 billion in a single week of sales: $658.5 million from their postwar/contemporary sale and $705.9 million from their 20th-century sale, each a few days apart from one another. Then, in November, Christie's made news with the record-breaking sale of the painting you see above, Amedeo Modigliani's Nu Couché (Reclining Nude), 1917-18. This picture sold for $170.4 million (with fees) to Chinese collector Liu Yiqian, a former taxi-driver, now billionaire, with a private museum in Shanghai. This record-breaker has earned the painting the number 2 spot on the most expensive works ever sold at auction (a Picasso also sold this year as number 1). Now, I like Modigliani's work a lot, but this nude...not so much. These other Modigliani nudes at the Met Museum and the Courtauld (the second one of my favorite paintings of the nude) are far superior in their execution than this one. I also think Modigliani's portraits are hauntingly fantastic, such as this portrait of Paulette Jourdain that sold this year at Sotheby's for $42.8 million (with fees) from the collection of their former CEO A. Alfred Taubman (a highly controversial figure himself). This record-breaking sale of a Modigliani has now effectively escalated the overall appreciation of his entire oeuvre. That may not seem to be a bad thing, because he is a great modernist, but this escalation in value also has skewed the market for his work in a way that costs museums and private collectors more money to insure his art works in their collections. On the surface this may not seem like a big deal, but when museums want to organize exhibitions, it costs them more to ship and insure these paintings, and as a result these costs trickle down to the average museum-goer in the form of higher ticket prices, book and merchandise sale increases, and other costs. The impact factor of these auction sales go beyond what a wealthy Chinese collector is willing to pay for a particular work of art.

Here is my new list of the Top 5 Auction Sales of Works of Art, which is an update of my 2013 post on this with extracted information from sites such as theartwolf and Wikipedia. (Keep in mind that this list is specific to auction sales and does not consider private sales, the most expensive of which is now in the range of $300 million for Paul Gauguin's painting Nafea Faa Ipoipo [When Will You Marry?].)
  1. Pablo Picasso, Les Femmes d'Alger (The Women of Algiers) ['Version O'], 1955, oil on canvas, sold May 2015, Christie's New York, $179.4m
  2. Amedeo Modigliani, Nu Couché (Reclining Nude), 1917-18, oil on canvas, sold November 2015, Christie's New York, $170.4m
  3. Francis Bacon, Three Studies of Lucian Freud, 1969, oil on canvas in three parts, sold November 2013, Christie's New York, $142.4m
  4. Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1895, pastel on board, sold May 2012, Sotheby's New York, $119.9m
  5. Pablo Picasso, Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, 1932, oil on canvas, sold May 2010, Christie's New York, $106.5m

In the world of British art, the picture you see here is of one of the more significant sales this year. The picture (taken by AA) shows me examining John Constable's The Lock, ca. 1824-25, when we visited Sotheby's New York in November to see the exhibition of upcoming works for auction. No, we weren't in the market to purchase it, as its estimate was in the millions of pounds/dollars range. This particular painting was number 5 of 6 in a series of Constable's famous "Six-Footer" paintings, i.e. landscapes that were elevated to the status of history paintings, but lacking a narrative. His paintings changed the history of art from the 1820s on when he exhibited them, as they opened up a new appreciation for the natural landscape as a large-scale, viable subject for artists and collectors. Constable's painting sold at Sotheby's London for £9.1m or $13.7m (with fees). (Note that another version of this same subject actually holds the record for Constable at auction, selling in 2012 £22.4m or $35.2m.). The sale of this painting now means that only two more major works by him are left in private hands.

Also in British art, I was pleased to see that this work, Simeon Solomon's Priestess of Diana Offering Poppies, 1864, which has been on the market and in private sales over the years, sold for £43,750 or $65,800 this past week. This isn't a record for Solomon, as his 1871 oil painting Rabbi Holding the Scrolls of the Law sold for £142,400 or $280,460 in 2006, but this latest sale is a demonstrated strength in the market for Solomon's oeuvre overall. For an artist long-maligned because of his homosexual crimes, Solomon has come into his own as an important figure among the Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic artists of the Victorian period, and is now eagerly sought by collectors in this area. (You can see my Solomon blog posts here, and always remember to check the award-winning Simeon Solomon Research Archive which is co-managed by Carolyn Conroy and me.)

To wrap up this auction post, I must comment on what I consider to be one of the most bizarre sales of the year, another painting AA and I had the opportunity to see in person at Sotheby's: Carl Kahler's My Wife's Lovers, 1891. This was a commission to paint San Francisco socialite Kate Johnson's favorites cats from among her 350 of them. I am not making this up. The end result is mind-boggling painting to behold. It measures approximately 6 x 8 1/2 feet in size and is in an incredibly ornate frame. One can appreciate the attention to detail and emphasis on animal physiognomy, Kahler succeeding in capturing the characteristics of each individual cat. But the painting borders on the eccentric. The estimate price was $200,000-$300,000. It sold for $868,000 (with fees). All I keep thinking about this painting is that someone with a lot of empty wall space must really, really love cats. Here is Sotheby's video about the painting, which also shows you how popular in the press the picture was when it was completed almost 125 years ago.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Books of 2015

The "best of" lists for 2015 have begun! bklynbiblio readers will recall that "Books of" is probably one of my favorite posts of the year (here are 2014's and 2013's posts, for instance). While my post is somewhat an assessment of The New York Times Book Review's annual 100 Notable Books, it is more for me a way to look back on the books I read over the year and share/suggest/comment on my favorites (and as you will see at the end of this post, one very much not-so-favorite). This year's NYT list, unfortunately, doesn't inspire me too much, although a few works look interesting. In non-fiction, Mary Beard's sweeping history of ancient Rome SPQR promises to be a great read, but I may have to wait a while to read that one. (I follow Beard, who is a professor of classics at Cambridge, on her blog A Don's Life.) In fiction two books seem promising: How to Be Both by Ali Smith (combined tale of a modern teenage girl and a Renaissance painter) and The Incarnations by Susan Barker (a Chinese cab driver discovers all of his past lives through a series of letters). I was surprised that Toni Morrison's new novel God Help the Child made it on the list because the review artist Kara Walker gave in April lamented the lack of literary beauty and charge that we have come to relish from Morrison's work. But since I do read Morrison (I read Love [2003] this year), that book will go on my my future reading list, I'm sure. Paula Hawkins' debut novel The Girl on the Train made it on Amazon's top list, but not the NYT list; that is definitely going on my list of books to read as well.

Over the past year since I last blogged on this topic, I have read 29 books. Around this time last year I was reading Shearer West's Portraiture [2004], an excellent overview on this subject in painting, and Agatha Christie's Curtain [1975], an excellent wrap-up mystery and the last of my many years of reading her novels in the order they were published. This year I took on two biographies in preparation for my recent conference paper I gave in Pittsburgh. One was the life of the writer/diplomat James Justinian Morier and his brothers (Ottoman and Persian Odysseys by Henry McKenzie Johnston [1998]), and the second was the translated edition of the Mirza Abul Hasan Khan's travel journal to London (A Persian at the Court of King George 1809-10 by Margaret Morris Cloake [1988]). I never thought I would find Anglo-Persian politics during the Napoleonic Wars so interesting, but it has been eye-opening to learn about it in the context of our current strained relations with Iran and other parts of the Middle East today. In a more emotional vein, I tackled Joan Didion's powerful The Year of Magical Thinking [2006], her powerful, personal struggle with death, grief, mourning, survival, and ultimately living.

One of the books I am currently reading merges my interest in biography with biography: Richard Wendorf's Sir Joshua Reynolds: The Painter in Society [1996], which so far is an interesting psychological exploration into understanding one of the greatest portrait painters of the 18th century. A great art read this year was a book by one of my favorite contemporary artists, Grayson Perry: Playing to the Gallery: Helping Contemporary Art in Its Struggle to Be Understood [2014]. The artist's frequently-hilarious cartoons accompany his lucid explanations as to how conceptual art has maligned the perception of art and how it has undermined the ideology of craft. This book is a great, entertaining read for anyone who has wondered "Why don't I understand all this contemporary art thing, and why is is so shockingly expensive?" An intriguing contrast to this--which, not surprisingly, I found less enjoyable but still insightful--was Ways of Curating by the uber-curator Hans Ulrich Obrist [2014]. Despite his insistence on how it is the work of art that should speak for itself in an exhibition, Obrist's jet-setting curatorial life (he literally travels the world overseeing exhibitions everywhere) clearly imposes his persona on the curatorial/exhibition experience, ultimately framing the perception and reception of art, no matter what he claims.

In addition to the biography of Reynolds, I have made the great foray into the literary masterpiece Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy [1877], the book cover for which is above. Lately, my running commentary to the frequent question "What are you doing for the holidays?" has been "I'm reading Anna Karenina." And I mean it! (Thanks goes out to my cousins the M+JBs for giving me this book as a gift last Christmas!) The best novel I read this year was Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum [1995]. I discovered Atkinson last year when I read Life After Life, which had been on the 2013 NYT list, and I truly loved that book. This earlier novel won her the Whitbread Book of the Year award and recounts in witty, original prose not only the life of Ruby Lennox (from the time of her conception) but the troubled lives of her maternal ancestry and relatives from the late 1800s to just before the new millennium. I look forward to reading more of Atkinson, including her new book this year A God in Ruins, a sequel to Life After Life. A few of my other favorite fiction reads this year were: The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin [2012], a short novel that considers the life of Christ from his mother's perspective; the young-adult novel Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs [2011]; and The Minotaur by Barbara Vine [2005], an exploration of autism long before it was ever diagnosed for what it is today. I also read Portraits at an Exhibition by Patrick Horrigan [2015] and published a review in The Gay & Lesbian Review. And finally I will now wrap up this post by noting, with unbelievable dread, that I also read early this year The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt [2013]. This book won lots of awards including the Pulitzer, but I absolutely detested it. I've since discovered that people who read this book are in split camps: you either love it or hate it. From my perspective, the first 200 pages and the last 50 pages are the best parts of the book. The entire center of more than 300 pages was some of the most tedious, unrealistic, plot-less storytelling I have ever read. What angered me most was that this beautiful painting, that is supposed to be the focal point of the entire novel, dissipates into an invisible shadow and never reappears until it becomes a catalyst to wrap up a ridiculous plot. I can understand why some people loved this book because of its attempt at contemporary realism, but personally I could not wait to finish it. Sorry, Ms. Tartt. I doubt I will ever read another of your books.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Gibson the Designer

One of the articles I have been working on for the past few months has now been published in electronic format. Although e-journals still have not garnered the respectability of print journals, particularly in academia, one of their advantages is that the process of writing to publication is much faster than in the traditional print world. (Indeed, another essay I started on back in 2010 still has yet to be released in print format!) A second advantage, in this particular case, is that the article is freely available to the public and is part of the open-access trend in academia, where few ever receive payment or compensation for their scholarly work. bklynbiblio readers will recall my last post about my article in Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide, another free, open-access e-journal. This latest article is entitled "John Gibson, Designer: Sculpture and Reproductive Media in the Nineteenth Century" (available here for free) and it has just been published in the December issue of the peer-reviewed Journal of Art Historiography. At 50 pages with 138 footnotes, clearly there was much to say; fortunately, e-journals make it easier to publish lengthier essays. This essay discusses the sculptor John Gibson (about whom I have blogged before) by re-contextualizing his body of work from the perspective of reproduction--the making and dissemination of multiples rather than single, unique works of art. In the nineteenth century, it was more common for artists to make copies and repetitions of works (read the article to discover the difference between copies and repetitions) than it is today, although sculpture by its very nature, as numerous scholars have noted, is a reproductive media and needs to be studied as a multiple, taking into consideration every part of the work in various media. Taking this premise further, I demonstrate in the essay how Gibson emphasized his role as a designer by the mid-1800s, enabling his drawings (but conceptually also his ideas) to be reproduced by others in the forms of porcelain statuary, cameos, and engravings. In emphasizing his role as a designer over that of a sculptor (i.e. a maker just of works in stone), Gibson was able to disseminate his subjects to a wider audience with different socio-economic backgrounds, reinforcing his role as one of the most famous sculptors of the nineteenth century.

Back in February 2013 I had written up MWA XII: Gibson's Cupid. Since then, I have made more discoveries about his sculpture Cupid Disguised as a Shepherd Boy, and these are included in the article as a compendium. This statue was commissioned in marble at least 9 times, making it one of the most popular (quantitatively) of all nineteenth-century sculptures. The image you see above, however, is but one example of a work designed by Gibson but made by someone else, in this case the cameo maker Tommaso Saulini. This shell cameo was produced after 1850 and depicts Gibson's design of Phaeton Driving the Horses of the Sun, the original drawing for which is in the Royal Collection, signed and dated 1850. He also made a marble relief sculpture with the same design for Earl Fitzwilliam, and an engraving was made of this design in 1851. A copy of this cameo was exhibited in London at Saulini's booth at the International Exhibition of 1862, for which the cameo maker won a medal. The subject tells the story of Phaeton, the son of Apollo, the sun god, who asked permission to guide the chariot of the sun across the heavens. Apollo feared for the boy's safety and begged him not to do this, but Phaeton insisted. He did his best to control the horses, but inevitably the boy was unable to handle the reins, and he plummeted from the heavens to his death on earth. For the ancient Greeks this myth taught a lesson about obedience and hubris. For Gibson, the story provided him with an opportunity to depict a dynamic scene and spread the idealism of Greek art to his contemporaries, not through a large sculpture but through a work of art that would have been worn by women in their diadems or comb mounts.

(Image: Phaeton Driving the Horses of the Sun, carved by Tommaso Saulini after design by John Gibson, after 1850, shell cameo, approx. 2 x 4 in., London: British Museum)