Saturday, July 23, 2016

Portal 11

Portal 11: Carinthia, Austria/Philadelphia (16 July 2016)
(For other works in my Portals series, click here.)

This door [made of walnut with various wood inlays, with iron lock and hinges] is from the central, ceremonial entranceway to the Stiegerhof room ..., a reception chamber from the second floor of a Renaissance manor house. The top panel of the door bears the name and coat of arms of Wolfgang Paul, the owner who had the house renovated, and the date 1589 (presumably the year the decoration of the room was completed). The bottom panel bears the name and coat of arms of Urban Holzwurm, the master woodworker and builder who was probably responsible for the renovation of the house as well as the creation of this door. The side of the door seen here was the most elaborately decorated one in the room and would have been visible only to people who were inside the room when the door was closed.

-- from wall label text (1929-56-1), Philadelphia Museum of Art

Sunday, June 26, 2016

MWA XXXIX: Steichen's Swanson

"Nobody ever discovered ugliness through photographs. But many, through photographs, have discovered beauty. ... So successful has been the camera's role in beautifying the world that photographs, rather than the world, have become the standard of the beautiful." -- Susan Sontag, "The Heroism of Vision," from On Photography (1977), p.85

I have been reading Sontag's book as one of my commute reads, and although some of her ideas seem dated now, I can tell how they were significant for a younger generation of connoisseurs, curators, and art historians in the 1970s when visual art was struggling to maintain its momentum with the rise of conceptual art and happenings in the contemporary scene. This particular essay, however, I have found very interesting because she proposed that the power of photography, as a democratized form of visual imagery and reproductive media, created for viewers a definition of what beauty is supposed to be. Although she focused on avant-garde practices and left out much discussion on commercial and fashion photography, the implication is clearly there as well. From the very beginning, advertising and mass media, through photographic imagery, have instructed us on how we are supposed to look and thus feel, and if we don't measure up somehow we fail as humans in our society. The role of photography to celebrity culture is tied to this and arguably today is even worse now than it ever was because of the onslaught of mass media and advertising impacting people 24/7.

I begin with this preface about beauty and photography to introduce what I've selected as the latest Monthly Work of Art. I first encountered the image you see above many years ago, and  I believe it was one of the great images that motivated me along to my eventual career in art history. The photograph is a portrait of Gloria Swanson photographed by Edward Steichen. I first saw this work in person at an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg more than 25 years ago. When many years later I told my friend and photohistorian extraordinaire RL the story of how much I loved this photograph and how it had inspired me, his response was "Of course it did!" I took that to mean two things: first, that it was indeed an evocative and beautifully composed photograph; and second, that naturally it would also appeal to me because it was so queer.

Photographed in 1924 and published in Vanity Fair in February 1928, a vintage print went up for auction at Sotheby's in 2014 and sold for $629,000. But if you could put a price on the beautiful, this photograph would likely be among those whose worth was priceless. The subject is Gloria Swanson (1899-1983), who at the time of the shoot was the highest paid actress in the world. She was a star of the silent film era and made the transition to talkies, but fell out of favor in Hollywood until she starred as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950), playing (ironically?) a fading film star from the silent film era who lives as a hermit in her Hollywood mansion but falls in love with a young screenwriter. In some ways, the photograph practically foreshadows Desmond's famous line "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up," spoken by Swanson in a husky voice that seeps through the translucent black veil in Steichen's image. The theatrical effects of the photograph and its references to old Hollywood and 1920s glamour are of course all of the stock traits that make it queer.

The photographer, Edward Steichen (1879-1973), established his career as a painter and Pictorialist photographer, but by the 1920s he had become a fashion and celebrity photographer, and later went on to become Director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art. In his autobiography, Steichen wrote about photographing Swanson: "[We] had had a long session, with many changes of costume and different lighting effects. At the end of the session, I took a piece of black lace veil and hung it in front of her face. She recognized the idea at once. Her eyes dilated, and her look was that of a leopardess lurking behind leafy shrubbery, watching her prey" (Steichen, A Life in Photography, chapter 8). This description of the photo shoot suggests a few interesting notions. First, that the perfect image only came to them after an already-long, strenuous, exhausting day, implying then that it was not hard work but instantaneity and magical genius that had created this image. This notion of artistic strokes of genius is a trope one finds with every artist in history, and clearly was intended to make their work actually seem effortless and thus sophisticated. Second, the quotation also demonstrates that Swanson as the subject was equally involved in the creation of the image, specifically through performance and pose. Hence, it was a mutually-created stroke of genius, Adam-and-God touching fingers to spark Michelangelesque creation.

What Steichen does not seem to give credit to, however, is the power of the black veil. These netted fabrics have served to mask women's face for millennia, to allow them to feel a sense of protection against the staring eyes of others. In the case of mourning, a black veil permits the women to be private in her grief when she is in public, and informs people they should step away out of respect. In contrast, a white veil on a Western wedding dress masks the beauty of the woman's face, only to be revealed at the end when the new husband is permitted to kiss his bride. He lifts her veil, sees her face, and is now the sole owner of the commodity of beauty that has been hidden before that moment. Women in the Islamic community who wear full burqa often include veils, and regardless of the socio-political or gender-biased implications behind this practice, ultimately the veil here serves the same purpose: to disguise the woman and, by implication, make her invisible (even if, in Western society, it has the opposite effect).

The black veil in this photograph, seemingly thrown up haphazardly by Steichen, instantly creates a barrier that thereafter prevents the viewer from ever penetrating into the subject's space. It transforms a color of mourning into a commodity for showcasing beauty. But the veil also distances the subject from the gaze of the viewer, and thus creates an erotic tension between them. In many ways this was symptomatic of the role Swanson herself played in society as a film actress: visible and larger-than-life on the big screen for everyone to see, she was unavailable to the public as a real, live person. Unlike a full-length film, this single-frame image exacerbates this tension. She stares, eyes locked, leopardess-like, on her prey, the viewer, and thus shifts the power of the gaze back onto its source. Her gaze, specifically through that veil, empowers her and ultimately castrates (figuratively speaking) the (presumed male) viewer who has sought to penetrate her. The image is, indeed, one that showcases beauty, but at the same time it emphasizes the subject's power. Rather than subjugate her, the veil becomes the woman's armor.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

And we're back...


It was comforting and reassuring to have had a few people reach out to me over the past couple of months asking, rather exuberantly, "Why aren't you blogging?!" I guess I did leave people hanging with London, implying more was coming. Admittedly, when I was in London that week, I had every intention of sharing more about that trip. But then the proverbial you-know-what hit the fan at work and it knocked some of my plans out of whack. Some of you will understand right away what I'm talking about, but for others who don't, you can read about it here ... or here ... or ... you get the picture. (No update on the whole thing, I'm afraid. I imagine I'm still unofficially-officially unable to comment.)

But since then, life has continued rather well. I turned 46 (egads!). We had a very fun house re-warming party (because since my arrival in AA's abode, I have re-warmed it!). We went to Florida to visit family, then we had an amazing vacation to Mexico City, and I recently went to Portland (Maine) for work. The job itself, of course, has continued with numerous things taking place, aside from the above-mentioned drama. And I've been writing.

I admit I contemplated whether I should blog anymore. With over 500 posts covering almost 7 years, what more could bklynbiblio possibly say? (Please...you KNOW I always have something to say!) It is true that the "old" days of blogging in general have dissipated. The first "weblog" dates from 1997, so it's now 19 years in. But do people actively read blogs anymore? I actually do still read a few, and you can see the links on this blog, but in general I have a tendency to binge-read them, not read their posts regularly. I don't think, however, that most people active read blogs as they used to. What seems to have happened is that as a plethora of information on the Internet has exploded over the past few years, no one can process anything more than a simple paragraph of "facts" (quotation marks intentional) in one quick read. Reading, let alone writing, an essay online is simply beyond what most people can process or even want to process anymore.

All this made me question if writing new blog posts merited anything. As I said in the beginning, it was absolutely delightful to know that some people missed the posts. (Thank you, AA, PR, JAM, PC, and others.) But does blogging on its own provide the same important outlet for news and general information as it once did? Social media has exploded in creating a multiple-platform means in which to convey "facts" (quotation marks still intentional). In other words, if we have YouTube, apps, notifications, and so on, do we actually need full-text information at all? Curiously, this isn't a situation faced only by bloggers. Newspapers are facing it too, as demonstrated by the fact that they continue to lay off full-time reporters because no one wants to read, or has the time to read, actual reporting anymore.

But this blog isn't really about news like our conflicts with the Islamic State, Zika, terrorists, or the Presidential campaign. This blog has been about the arts in its broadest context, filled with personal reviews and original works of art, interviews and travelogues, and "best of" annual recaps. So it does still serve a purpose. What has changed, however, is me in that I now utilize social media more than this blog to disseminate information. My Instagram and Twitter accounts are both bklynbiblio, for instance. Therefore, if one really wants to keep up with bklynbiblio, apparently one has to follow not just this blog but all my social media outlets!! And if the very idea of doing that infuriates, upsets, or even disheartens you, then you're not alone. I feel the same way! It is, quite frankly, exhausting. Seriously.

Perhaps part of the problem is that we are inundated by the insane drama of Trump-Clinton-Sanders-Rubio-Cruz-whothehellcaresanymore...non-stop, 24/7. Perhaps it is because innocent people are being slaughtered by unbalanced individuals who, instead of being encouraged to get mental health therapy, are allowed to buy assault rifles and take our their anger by shooting whomever they like, and we also hear about it 24/7. Perhaps it is something simpler, that I'm now post-45 and my eyes tire more easily from staring at computer screens, but I can't help checking Facebook one more time. My new, longer commute from NJ means I read many more print books each day, which is great, as I'm reminded how much more enjoyable that active form of reading is for me than ever reading online (even if I have to prop a book on someone's head in the subway to read it!). Worth mentioning at this precise juncture, then, is one of those books I have read on the subway: Jonathan Crary's 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. This erudite, short text outright warns us that we need to stop letting corporations control our lives through these online gadgets and media. Their ever-growing capitalist intent fools us into thinking we need the latest technology in order to stay in touch, and that if we aren't online all the time we will miss something important. Hence, the end of sleep, and the utter exhaustion that we are all feeling more and more every single day. (Read the book. It's worth it.)

What I have discovered about myself (and I'm sure others feel this way) is that I struggle between my constant use of various media platforms (as both a browser and a poster), and my desire to pull away from all of them because I can tell how much these various media outlets are exhausting me. And I hope that the latter part of that struggle is winning out. I consciously now try to live "in the moment." I realize that is incredibly cliche, and the quotation marks here are also intentional, but this time not for a negative reason. I really do mean "in the moment." I find myself more and more actually looking at people, admiring who they are and wondering about the lives they live. I look around at buildings and bushes and bodies of water and try to notice what makes each element in life unique or the same. I touch textiles and woods and metals to try to understand what they feel like. I listen for birds singing in trees. I gaze at paintings and walk around sculptures, simply to take in the beauty of what artistic creation. And I actually have grinned when I realize that I have stopped to smell lilacs, jasmine, and, yes, roses. And they smell divine.

Of course writing this blog post right now may seem contradictory to everything I've just written. But not really, because ultimately I've always perceived myself as a writer, and for me this is how I communicate my thoughts and feelings about all these things. So, yes, we are back on the blog! I can't promise how often I will be posting, or whether I will be posting things like I have in the past. But you can be sure: "writing" in some format or another is taking place, simply because living is happening off-line.

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!