Friday, April 25, 2014

MWA XXIII: Waterhouse's Nymphs

Even though the work I've selected for April's Monthly Work of Art is properly titled Hylas and the Nymphs, the focus of the painting clearly are is the group of sensual nymphs who are seducing the young Hylas. This painting dates from 1896 and is by the British painter John William Waterhouse (image: Manchester Art Gallery). Waterhouse is often classified as a late Pre-Raphaelite painter, but, as a 2009 exhibition and its catalogue authors argued, his paintings often reveal an awareness of French plein-aire painting and possibly even Impressionism. Hence he based his subjects on historical figures and mythological stories, but he painted them with a combination of brush stroke styles and with new optic visions as to what he is representing. (I've written about Waterhouse before on this blog, when Elizabeth Prettejohn gave a talk about this exhibition at the NAVSA conference at Yale, which you can read here.) In the painting the repetitive image of the nymphs, who all resemble one another, is startling to behold and works to emphasize their beauty as they entrance young Hylas. There is a beautiful sense of naturalism in the painting as well, in the way Waterhouse paints the lily pads, water, and the nymphs, as if to convince the viewer that these imaginative women are truly part of our world. Their seduction and ultimate killing of Hylas follows numerous other representations of the femme fatale in art throughout Europe at this time, including Salome (Gustave Moreau), Eve (Franz von Stuck), mermaids (Edward Burne-Jones), and female vampires (Edvard Munch).

According to the ancient Greek myth, the youth Hylas and his companion the heroic Hercules (they were perceived to be lovers) were part of the Argonauts, the crew of sailors who joined Jason on his quest for the golden fleece. They stopped on an island to rest, and Hylas went off to find fresh water to refill their supply of water jugs. His beauty attracted the attentions of the water nymphs, who dragged him underwater to be with them, and ultimately to his death. Hercules grieved over the loss of his companion and when to find Hylas. They were both gone so long, the Argonauts set sail leaving them behind, and Hercules went on to have other adventures. Although variations of this myth frequently appear in ancient texts, in 1867 the Arts and Crafts founder William Morris published his epic The Life and Death of Jason, in which the story of Hylas appears in Book IV. Morris died in 1896, the same year Waterhouse painted this work, although this association could just be a coincidence.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Solomon's Arrest in Paris

Exactly 140 years ago in Paris, on Friday, April 18, 1874, the 33-year-old Anglo-Jewish artist Simeon Solomon was sentenced to 3 months in prison for "mutually indulging in obscene contact in public" with 17-year-old Henri Lefranc (aka Raphael-Maximillien Dumont), both having been arrested in a public urinal at the Place de la Bourse on March 4. One often doesn't think to commemorate an event such as this, particularly since it isn't as well-known as Solomon's previous arrest for the same crime in London the year beforehand. Both arrests attest to the secrecy and danger male lovers faced at a time when same-sex passion was a criminal act. Credit goes to historian William Peniston for first uncovering the documentation of this arrest, and my colleague Carolyn Conroy has expanded on Peniston's research. It's actually rather surprising that biographers and art history has chosen to forget about the Parisian arrest. His friend and collector Robbie Ross (himself later buried with Oscar Wilde) wrote about Solomon in his obituary that he: "used to boast that he had been in prison in every country in Europe; but besides London there is no evidence that he was arrested elsewhere than in Paris, where he was detained three months." Solomon's artistic productivity in 1874 was blunted by this time in prison; nevertheless, he produced that year this beautiful drawing you see above, Until the Day Break and the Shadows Flee Away, a quote from the Song of Solomon 2:17 (King James Version). The image you see here is a Frederick Hollyer platinum print photograph of the drawing from the collection of the Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery.

For more information:
Carolyn Conroy, "'He Hath Mingled with the Ungodly': The Life of Simeon Solomon after 1873 with a Survey of the Extant Work" (Ph.D. Diss., University of York, 2009).

William A. Peniston, Pederasts and Others: Urban Culture and Sexual Identity in Nineteenth-Century Paris (New York: Harrington Park Press, 2004).

Robert Ross, "A Note on Simeon Solomon," Westminster Gazette (August 24, 1905).

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Birthday No. 44

In Italian, when you wish someone "Happy Birthday," you say "Buon Compleanno"--essentially "good completion of the year." It is meant as high praise, that you survived another year, and although I do not know this for certain I do suspect it has its origins in days of yore when mortality rates from disease, pestilence, hunger, etc., were more rampant in the Western world. This is a philosophical preamble for me to write about the recent completion of my 44th year. This past weekend turned out to be one of the more memorable birthdays I've ever had. There is some steep competition for this. On this blog, readers may remember past birthday-related events like when I went to Brussels with SVH in 2011, or my 40th celebration as a "Gay Boys Weekend." Other birthday posts referenced the ASPCA; my birthday falls on the anniversary date of its foundation. And I have had quite a few other historical birthday memories, such as my 30th, which was a week-long trip to Disney World and my first tattoo. I'm already starting to plan something travel-oriented for no. 45...

But this weekend was rather fantastic, and I owe it all to my dear AA. On Wednesday, we had dinner at Sangria for Spanish tapas, and then we went to go see Bullets Over Broadway at the St. James Theater. It was the last night of previews, and we thoroughly enjoyed it. It was funny, the women were especially talented in their singing, some of the dance numbers were great, and the 1920s music was very entertaining. The critics aren't as thrilled with it, as The New York Times has already reported (image above showing a scene from the show: Sara Krulwich/NYT). Woody Allen's reputation just isn't what it used to be, with more accusations and mud-slinging going on. But we went to see something different; we really couldn't care less about all that. And we enjoyed ourselves. Even better, as we left, we had a great celebrity sighting: Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick were looking like everyday people hanging out in the sidelines. AA & I were a bit starstruck.

On Thursday, my actual birthday, I worked from home writing an essay for an exhibition catalogue, plus got my free Starbucks mocha. I admit I checked Facebook a few times all day and it made me smile to receive birthday greetings from so many of my "friends" (many of whom are genuinely my friends). That evening I headed out to Jersey City for a yummy home-cooked meal and baked cake courtesy of AA, and I was delighted by a very cool gift of an Apple TV hook-up! Now I can easily stream my iTunes music, Netflix movies, etc., all to my TV. On Friday, I received a very nice book in the mail as a birthday gift from the PR-AMs: Friendship and Loss in the Victorian Portrait: "May Sartoris" by Frederic Leighton by Malcolm Warner. That night, I headed to Hoboken for a dinner for someone else's birthday at Zylo steakhouse at the W Hotel (who knew there was a W Hotel in Hoboken?!), and found myself rather startled to discover I was being feted with birthday wishes as well.

If all that wasn't enough, AA had coordinated birthday drinks and then dinner at Le Zie, a fantastic Italian place in Chelsea we've eaten at numerous times and enjoy very much. My friend RL has been staying with me for a conference in town, so he met up with us, as did nine others, making us a group of 12! I was startled to receive actual presents: a gorgeous Paul Stuart silk handkerchief for my blazers from RL; a bottle of Tito's vodka from the AG-GHs; a lovely floral arrangement made by JM; and from AR and DM an enormous, beautifully illustrated art book entitled The History of Florence in Painting by Antonella Fenech Kroke. And then AA treated everyone to dinner, which pretty much made my heart burst in appreciation and love. I am so touched by everyone's kindness, friendship, and generosity, as this all followed up on generous gifts from a few relatives that arrived during the week. It all has made this an incredibly memorable birthday. I ended the lovely weekend with something I have blogged about and shared more than once on this blog: AA and I headed to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden to see the cherry blossoms. They were only just starting to bloom, but we saw numerous daffodils, magnolia trees (such as the one below), and the bonsai. Partaking of nature in this relaxing way with my very special guy helped make this entire birthday weekend a smashing success.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

15 Minutes Are Over

The pictures above and below are installation views of my one-day exhibition "15 Minutes: Andy Warhol's Photographic Legacy," which was held outside the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia yesterday, April 4th. I blogged about this here a few weeks ago. I decided to make the exhibition more archival and less traditionally "museum"-like in its arrangement, largely because the more I looked at the Polaroids and black-and-white silver gelatin prints (156 total in the collection), the more ideas about what the images said to the viewer and to each other struck me as an interesting way to display them. For instance, I juxtaposed works that questioned aspects of masculinity and femininity, incorporating photographs of a woman with her baby and Halston's lover Victor Hugo carrying a beach ball under his robe simulating pregnancy. I incorporated one Polaroid of a drag queen named Kim from the Ladies and Gentlemen series. I also played with ideas of age and beauty, laying out a not-so-flattering collection of Polaroids of Lola Jacobson beside a runway fashion show photograph. And then I explored fame through Polaroids of well-known individuals in the collection, including Princess Caroline, Dolly Parton, and Dorothy Hamill (see below), but I also included elsewhere "unidentified" people to suggest how his photographs gave unknowns an equal amount of 15 minutes of fame. My staff in Art Properties (Larry & Lillian) deserve due credit for working hard on mounting the boards and creating the labels.

The public program was a great success. We wound up standing-room-only (200+), which was a fantastic surprise. My talk lasted 5 minutes (see below), then Deborah Cullen introduced each of the Warhol speakers, who couldn't help but go on longer than 15 minutes, although they all managed to introduce in their allotted time interesting thoughts about the significance of Warhol and his work, in its historical day and now. Blake Gopnik explored the mysterious origins of the quote attributed to Warhol on "15 minutes of fame," suggesting there is little evidence (or is there?) for Warhol ever having said it. Neil Printz gave a fantastic talk on Warhol's art work and brought in the Polaroids a lot to demonstrate how they related to Warhol's different projects. Larissa Harris spoke about the upcoming Warhol exhibition at Queens Museum of Art, and Tom Kalin discussed his own film projects and the influence of Warhol on him and his work. All in all, it went well, and the I think we were all satisfied with the results and feedback. I admit I was a little dismayed that by the time I got to the reception there was no more wine left (!!!!), and, since I had to take down the exhibition, it was getting late, etc., I did not get a chance to hear the chat between Peter Brant and Urs Fischer, but I was told it was another full house. Considering I am in no way a Warhol expert, let alone a contemporary art specialist, overall I think I can say things turned out pretty well. Below is the text of my "5 minutes" of fame. Admittedly parts of it only make sense in reference to the PowerPoint presentation I showed, but I think you get the basic gist of what I was trying to say.

15 Minutes: Andy Warhol's Photographic Legacy
Roberto C. Ferrari

Good Afternoon. As the Curator of Art Properties at Columbia University, I also would like to welcome you to this program today, and tell you how excited we are to be able to showcase a curated selection of the photographic works by Andy Warhol from our permanent collection. Art Properties is based in Avery Library, and our department acts as the steward for the approximately 15,000 works of fine and decorative art that have been donated to Columbia since its foundation over 250 years ago. The exhibition component of our program is located in display cases outside the Wallach Art Gallery. If you have not had a chance to see the exhibition, you will have time after the round-table discussion. I would like to thank my staff in Art Properties, as well as my colleagues in Avery and the Wallach Art Gallery, for their assistance in making this exhibition come together. And, as a reminder, be sure to engage with all forms of social media using #WarholColumbia this afternoon. If he were alive today, Warhol likely would have been a prominent Tweeter and shot numerous digital photos with his iPhone.

Indeed, our technology-driven social world is arguably linked to our obsession with pop culture, celebrity, and glamour. The opportunity for fame through reality television, selfies, Twitter, and Instagram owes much of its success to the cult of celebrity spawned by Andy Warhol. The artist reportedly once said, “in the future everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes,” and through his art Warhol ensured that everyone—the famous, the infamous, and the mundane—all had 15 minutes of fame. Our exhibition echoes this time-based ideology as a one-day event, giving you, the public, a mere glimpse—a snapshot, if you will—of Warhol’s photographs at Columbia. These works in our collection were a gift from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts as part of their Photographic Legacy Program, which began in 2007 when the Foundation made the decision to disseminate to Columbia and numerous other institutions selections of photographs in an effort to share Warhol’s artistic legacy. Columbia received 106 Polaroids and 50 black-and-white silver gelatin prints, and I am pleased to announce that this year we also acquired an extension of this gift with six large silkscreen prints. Among these is this image of Martha Graham, which Warhol created from a 1940 photograph by Barbara Morgan, demonstrating Warhol’s interest not only in his own photography, but that of others, as sources for his artistic interpretations.

Warhol shot Polaroids during the 1970s and ‘80s, primarily as studies for the portrait paintings he made at that time. An artist-friend of mine recently commented that Warhol used his camera like a drawing instrument, and certainly in utilizing photographs as studies for paintings he was following the historical legacy of painters since the Renaissance. Art historians see drawings as glimpses into the artist’s mind at work; similarly, Warhol’s Polaroids allow us to emulate what he saw through the lens of his camera. Individually, his Polaroids personify idealized types: models and movie stars, royalty and rock stars, swindlers and socialites, all of them ready for their proverbial close-ups, posed and displayed as emblems of glamor, fame, and fortune. Collectively, however, these same photographs reveal the mechanics of an artist at work, as if on an assembly line. They show all the ticks and quirks of the sitters, and they do not always flatter them. The instantaneity of the Polaroid allowed Warhol to act spontaneously and waste film in an effort to find the right image that he ultimately chose as worthy of becoming one of his squared portraits, painted in multiples in a hyperbolic display of colors, all churned out by Factory assistants.

Unlike the glam of the Polaroids, Warhol’s black-and-white prints seem more documentary in nature. They reveal snippets of Warhol’s quotidian existence…touristy pictures and vapid interiors…candid paparazzi shots and scenes of yet another party. They have their own aesthetic, and certainly warrant further study. But what strikes me most about these prints and Polaroids are the messages they send when shuffled and juxtaposed against one another. These are some of the themes you will find in the exhibition upstairs. For instance, why is aging so ugly, in need of white cover up? And why is young and blonde so idealized and beautiful? How does society judge femininity? What exactly ‘makes’ a man? And how do you judge those who are somewhere sexually in-between? Are these charming socialites or elitist snobs? And are there any limits as to who or what can win fame, or even how one achieves it?

We live in a society where glamor, fame, and fortune are pandemic, but they can only flourish because of the image. Paparazzi or selfie, it is how one maintains celebrity. Warhol understood this and utilized the image above almost everything else to propagate the cult of celebrity, for without a face, anyone is just another name. Warhol’s photographic legacy is the cult of celebrity, an enticement for all of us to strive for our own 15 minutes of fame. Thank you.