Friday, July 26, 2013

Portal 2

Portal 2: Richmond upon Thames (8 October 2011). This is the second in my portal series of photographic/literary works.

   There were doors all around the hall, but they were all locked; and when Alice had been all the way down one side and up the other, trying every door, she walked sadly down the middle, wondering how she was ever to get out again.
   Suddenly she came upon a little three-legged table, all made of solid glass: there was nothing on it but a tiny golden key, and Alice’s first idea was that this might belong to one of the doors of the hall; but, alas! either the locks were too large, or the key was too small, but at any rate it would not open any of them. However, on the second time round, she came upon a low curtain she had not noticed before, and behind it was a little door about fifteen inches high: she tried the little golden key in the lock, and to her great delight it fitted!
   Alice opened the door and found that it led into a small passage, not much larger than a rat-hold: she knelt down and looked along the passage into the loveliest garden you ever saw.

-- Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865

Monday, July 22, 2013

Metal Outdoor Sculpture

Today was my first day in a week-long seminar entitled "The Care of Metal Outdoor Sculpture," sponsored by the New York Conservation Foundation. Sculpture in metal (e.g. bronze, aluminum, stainless steel, etc.) isn't something I'm as well-versed in as compared to sculpture in stone (e.g. marble), not to mention the conservation of it, particularly when exposed to outdoor elements. So this seminar seems like it's going to be a great opportunity to learn more. It supports my duties in my new position as Curator of Art Properties at Columbia, as we have a public sculpture collection on campus (more than one campus actually), and all of it is in metal. Each morning during the seminar we're visiting public sculpture sites in NYC. This morning we started near Herald Square, moved through Bryant Park, and ended near the United Nations. Tomorrow morning we're in the Financial District. The afternoon or evening parts of the seminar consist of a series of talks from conservators and curators. So far it's going pretty well. The picture you see here is a shot I took with my iPhone of our instructor John Scott talking to us about the effects of environmental conditions on this 1911 memorial statue in bronze of William Cullen Bryant by Herbert Adams in the park behind New York Public Library. If I have time later in the week, I'll recap highlights from the seminar.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

MWA XVI: Rubens's Wife

Following up on the last MWA in honor of Rembrandt, it seems only fitting to turn to his famous Baroque contemporary from Flanders, Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). This large painting, Rubens, His Wife Helena Fourment (1614-1673), and Their Son Frans (1633-1678), is approximately 6 1/2 ft. x 5 ft., and was painted in oil on wood ca. 1635. It is one of the highly prized paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The curators note that it is a portrait of the artist with his second wife and their first-born son strolling in an allegorical Garden of Love: "The picture is not a family portrait but an homage to Helena as wife and mother, one of whose most important attributes was providing her husband with a son. The gestures and glances of both male figures and symbols of fecundity such as the fountain and caryatid pay tribute to Helena, who has the innocence and serenity of a female saint." The painting was a gift in 1981 from the well-known art collectors Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, in honor of the famous art historian John Pope-Hennessey, who at the time was (I believe) retiring from the Met as a curator. Although this is scandalous to say, I've never been a big fan of Rubens's rather mellifluous work, but this picture is without a doubt an exquisite painting in its handling, color, and composition.

The main reason why I've chosen this work as July's MWA, however, is because of the painting's provenance, or the history of its ownership. The Met has been among those museums who, in putting their collections online, have attempted to make more publicly available the provenance of many of the works in their collection. If you click on the title above, it will take you to the webpage for the painting, and if you scroll down to click on the tab for "Provenance," you will discover that among the illustrious past owners of this picture were the Dukes of Marlborough, and that it hung for a time in Blenheim Palace. From 1884 through 1975, the painting was in Paris at the Hôtel du Duc de Nemours, the home of the Barons de Rothschild. Indeed, if you take a look to the right, this is an image of the painting as it hung in the dining room of this Paris mansion, just before it was sold by the Rothschild estate. This image was a discovery I made when I was working with the William Keighley Collection at the Met Museum (he had been given permission to photograph the Rothschild's home). You may recall I blogged about this when the last phase of the digitization of the Keighley Collection had been released by ARTstor in December 2012. This was a multi-year project that I had overseen while working at the Met, including curating Keighley's original slides to be digitized. Much the same way I recently wrote about exhibition installation views, images such as this offer us a fascinating perspective in how paintings such as this one by Rubens--which we now only envision hanging on a wall in a museum--originally were meant to be seen, hanging among decorative arts and other works paintings and sculptures collected by wealthy owners in the past. Visual provenance helps restore the past incarnations of works of art, and thus are vitally important tools in the history of these art objects. It makes one realize that art objects are not static; rather, they have rich histories that tell a new story for each passing generation.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Exhibition Installation Views

Art history today is more than just about connoisseurship. It involves social history, criticism and theory, gender studies, and so on. Museum studies in particular has grown rapidly as a discipline, and the blending of that area with visual art comes together beautifully in the history of temporary exhibitions. Recording these visually allows scholars to see how art objects were literally viewed and arranged in the past. Although this can be especially interesting in attempting to recreate exhibitions from the 19th century and earlier, "history" can be as recent as last year too. ARTstor recently released more than 8000 digital images from The Metropolitan Museum of Art showcasing views from special exhibitions dating from 1970 through 2008. This is a fantastic addition to ARTstor's collection (it complements in part a previous collection of digitized installation views by the Museum of Modern Art). Not everyone realizes this, but installations do matter when you visit a special exhibition. Next time you visit a museum to see a show, you should of course look at the works of art on display. But also pay attention to how the works in the room "speak" to one another, and how the themes of the rooms and their overall appearance (from wall color to how visitors engage with the objects) evolve room to room. In many cases, installation is an active part of the story of the exhibition. On one level it's the packaging, much the same way a shop window entices you to buy the merchandise in the store. But on another level installation design is about the scholarly dialogue, how art works relate to one another based on the curator's intent for the exhibition itself. Sometimes these installations are tremendous successes; other times they do nothing for the art and can in fact impact the show by making it a failure. Pairing specific art works near one another in exhibitions also gives the viewer the opportunity to see works that normally cannot be seen together, typically because they are owned by different museums or private collectors. Seeing them beside one another provides a fresh context about the works that in turn generate ideas and discussions about how artists or their audiences may have seen these objects in their own time. All this said, I admit I have a vested interest in the sharing of the announcement about this collaborative project between ARTstor and the Met. When I was working in the then-Image Library (now Digital Media Dept.) at the Met, this was one of the big digitization projects I worked on with my colleagues, so I'm rather proud to see this project's successful release. Of all the possibilities in the collection to share, I chose the installation view above because it triggers a fond memory for me. Back in 1998, I was thrilled to visit the Met to see the Edward Burne-Jones centenary-of-his-death exhibition of his late Pre-Raphaelite paintings, installed in the Tisch Galleries. If you look in the image above, you can see his large painting The Sirens, 1891-98 (Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota), paired beside a portrait of Lady Windsor, 1893-95 (Collection of Viscount Windsor), among a few other works. I can't remember all the specifics as to why these works were paired together, but they both are examples of his late Symbolist-style work. In addition to these special exhibition installation views, there also are hundreds of historical views of permanent galleries at the Met in this ARTstor collection, which we also worked on, so if you have an institutional subscription through your local library, be sure to check them out.

UPDATE 7/22/13: ARTstor has published its own blog post about art installation views, highlighting different collections from museums now available and providing their own take on why viewing art in context is important. You can read their blog post by clicking here.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Random Musings 14

Last Saturday I finally had a chance to get back to Brooklyn Museum for 2 exhibitions I've been wanting to see. John Singer Sargent Watercolors celebrates 2 major collections of watercolors by Sargent (1856-1925), owned by Brooklyn and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Joined together for this exhibition, there is a clear distinction between the more finished set of pictures purchased in 1912 by Boston and the 1909 purchase by Brooklyn, which are more sketch-like. Depending on your taste and interest in how an artist thinks, each of the works will appeal to viewers differently. The show is arranged thematically, with segments on Italy and sailing, for instance. Sargent was born in Italy to American parents and lived throughout Europe (I still have a difficult time thinking of him as an "American" artist), so he was well-traveled for his day and time. One of my favorite watercolors from the show was the work you see above, Corfu: Lights & Shadows, 1909, from the MFA, in which he represents a small building on the Greek island, but captures all the sensation of sunshine using different hues to show how the branches of the trees cast shadows onto the white building. It is truly a tour de force of a work, revealing how Sargent's handling of color and lighting can convey atmospheric conditions and the emotional satisfaction of the place he's showing the viewer.
In sharp contrast to Sargent's work, I also enjoyed the exhibition showcasing the work of contemporary Nigerian artist El Anatsui. Although he has had a long career, his more recent works using found objects from garbage dumps (tin can lids, bottle caps, twist-ties, etc.) have made him internationally famous. He recreates large-scale sculptural installations that are fascinating. They appear like tapestries of gold. They are the detritus of society reimagined as beauty, and thus say much about the interactions of different classes and ethnic groups in the cultural exchange of the objects as they were imported from Europe and rebranded as "African" products. This is an installation shot I took of some of his works hanging in the main rotunda of the building.

In my last Random Musing, I posted an update about the New York Public Library's Central Library Plan. bklynbiblio followers will recall that I've been among the many criticizing them for their plans to renovate the main historic building and research center, and turn it into the modern-day equivalent of a library-like Internet Starbucks cafe. Under pressure from critics, NYPL President Tony Marx has agreed to have an independent committee evaluate the plans, according to this article in The New York Times (thanks, PR, for the lead). We will see what this next chapter will bring.

Two years ago, I blogged about my new fiction discovery, British novelist Barbara Pym (1913-1980; thanks again to TC for the introduction!). Her short novel Excellent Women (1952) has become one of my favorite books. I can see her influence on other British women writers I enjoy reading, such as A.S. Byatt and Ruth Rendell. The charm of Excellent Women is that nothing really happens. The book focuses on Mildred Lathbury, who makes tea, helps decorate the local church, unexpectedly gets involved in the drama of her neighbors, and makes observations about everyone in her life in an ever-so-judgmental Christian way that will have you laughing aloud. Her later novels are reportedly darker, but I haven't gotten to those yet. Pym is also an inspiration to writers. Her first few novels sold modestly well, and then publishers refused to publish her because she was seen as old fashioned. It took years before she was published again, and that book wound up winning her the Booker Prize. The lesson learned is never to give up. June was the centenary of her birth, so you can read up more about her life and novels in these laudatory articles in The Telegraph and The New York Times. There's even The Barbara Pym Society website to peruse as well.

Archaeology published a tidbit of fascinating news: this 400-lb. stone sculpture of a nude female torso was excavated in Brooklyn in the DUMBO area (that's "Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass" for non-Brooklynites). There are traces of paint on it, and she's been dubbed Ginger because this area had spice warehouses in the 19th century, but no one knows much about who she is or why she was there.

And, finally, I had to wrap up this musing with something rather fun. Ever hear the joke about how to make an Italian stop talking? You tie his hands behind his back! Italians talk with their hands. I even do it, and half the time I don't even realize it. There is an article in the NYT exploring how these gestures may have a more important role in communicating and reach back to ancient Roman days. There's also a short, fun video that explores the topic some more, and this interactive feature of animated images that shows you just a small handful of the more than 250 gestures that are considered part of Italian communicating. Enjoy! (Insert hand gesture here.)