Sunday, September 27, 2015

San Francisco 2015

I'm writing this blog post from my hotel room in San Francisco. I arrived today and will be here just for a brief couple of days. This is work-related. We have a painting at Columbia that will be on loan to the de Young Museum for its upcoming exhibition Jewel City: Art from San Francisco's Panama-Pacific International Exposition. I am here to oversee installation and make sure our painting (a gorgeous 1913 landscape by Arthur Wesley Dow), which traveled cross-country, made the trip in good condition. Our painting was in the Expo in 1915, a century ago (I will likely share that work soon, so stay tuned). The picture you see above is the Palace of Fine Arts, built for the Expo, and the work is by Edwin Deakin, showing rather Impressionistically one of the main buildings and the lagoon. I was able to visit this area, along with doing so many other things, when I was Frisco-bound two years ago on vacation here. Indeed, I must say, thanks to AA we saw so much on that trip that I think I have seen all the primary highlights here, including the de Young and the Asian Art museums, rode the cable car and a trolley, saw the Redwood forest in Muir Woods. drove across the Golden Gate Bridge, even took a ferry to Sausalito, and went to Napa and Sonoma overnight for wine-tasting trips. It was a great visit, thanks almost entirely to AA. So this afternoon as I wandered around a bit, I was quickly reminded of a few things, and how insanely crazy the hills are! It was great to have another peak at the Golden Gate Bridge in fog and see the Bay. Time to think about dinner though...

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Art of Frames

Last Wednesday I had the opportunity to attend a unique workshop on frames, sponsored by the Appraisers Association. The morning session was held at the studio of Eli Wilner & Co., a company that specializes in restoration work on historical frames and reproduction historical frames. In this first picture I took, one of the studio workers showed us a frame made by American architect and designer Stanford White (1853-1906), and he explained the difference between the sections that were carved in wood and the other parts that were made from compo (or composition), a plaster-like substance that uses molds to make decorative components. You can see the sample molds as blue strips in the lower right. The second picture below is a detail of a frame being hand-carved by one of the skilled wood carvers. These days they use computers to generate the patterns on paper, which are then applied to the wood, enabling the carver to understand what sections are carved out and what is left behind. We also learned more about the process of gilding frames, and I participated in the opportunity to apply gold leaf to a wooden frame. You use a special application brush that lifts the gold leaf almost magnetically and then you gently apply it to the water-brushed surface of the frame. After it dries it is buffed to make it shine. I'm actually abbreviating the process. Technically, there is wood, then gesso, then liquid clay or bole, on top of which the gold leaf is applied. Needless to say, I was amazed at how much more complex the making of a frame actually is. During the afternoon session we had a fascinating "frame history lesson" with Suzanne Smeaton, a specialist in the history and valuation of American frames.

Because of this workshop, I have to say I think I can now look for some general signs of carving or compo, what the color of bole coming through the gilding may mean, and what the difference between a miter joint and a miter joint with a spline is. Before I went to this workshop, I knew zilch about frames, except what I liked, and it has so inspired me to learn more that I'm actually reading Timothy Newbery's Frames and Framings in the Ashmolean Museum (2002). Although the whole day was geared toward appraisers, as the market for historical frames has increased, it was very interesting to go as a curator because I feel it is important for me to consider at times the frames along with the historical paintings in the collection at Columbia University. Without proper documentation and provenance, it is very difficult to know if a particular frame is the genuine one for a painting, but at least I think I can now do a basic survey to determine if a frame is at least historically close to the time period of the work of art itself. Putting this new skill into practice is going to take a lot of time, of course, so I am not making any claims to be an expert, but I do hope I can at least now do some quick, general assessments over time.

Taking this further into aesthetics, I am now also finding myself interested in actually looking closer at frames in museums. For instance, if you look at the glorious frame above, which is from the Robert Lehman Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, you can see that it is gilded and carved wood. The tombstone information for this frame also states that it is made of oak, from France, and dates from ca. 1690. During the reign of Louis XIV, French frames reached an apogee in design and style, as did all fine and decorative arts under the influence of the "Sun King." The gilding on this frame would have enhanced the presentation of the art work, particularly in candlelight, giving the work a beautiful glow. This is an ogee frame, meaning that, seen from a cross-section, it has an S-curve that rises from the outer portion and slopes inward toward the picture. The effect of this would have been to draw one's attention into the picture plane, enhancing the intended three-dimensional effect of whatever painting would have been in there at the time. The detail you see here of the lower left corner shows well the remarkable skill in the wood carving, although obviously there is some noteworthy wear and tear considering its age.

Aside from the materiality and history of frames, it did occur to me, over the course of the day, how frames are both painterly and sculptural objects. Because they are so closely attached (literally) to paintings (or photographs, drawings, etc.), we perceive them as part of the two-dimensional art world. But, in fact, the way they are carved or molded follows very closely the methods that are followed in a sculptor's studio. Frames thus are related to fine art, but they are also decorative objects. Their intent is to harmonize a painting with an interior space. These days we are accustomed to seeing framed painting on museum walls, but the long history of easel paintings reminds us that these works were intended for the home, and thus the frame was needed to enhance or decorate the interior space. Frames also change over time based on the taste of an owner. Hence, more modern-looking frames occasionally have been added to historical pictures to make them more appropriate to styles like mid-century modernism. The trend these days, of course, is to return paintings to period frames whenever possible, and places like Eli Wilner keep in stock thousands of actual historical frames from the past for exactly that purpose. But frames are complex creations. They have an in-between status, being two-dimensional and three-dimensional, painterly and sculptural, fine and decorative, all at the same time. Indeed, thinking about them from this perspective makes us realize they are fascinating artistic objects worthy of their own further study and examination. Consider that the next time you walk into a museum and look at your favorite painting by Rembrandt or Van Gogh. You be surprised to discover how its frame impacts the work you see before you.

UPDATE 10/4/15: No sooner had I published this blog post, when Hyperallergic published this article/review by Allison Meier about French frames from the 17th and 18th centuries. Warning readers/viewers to "prepare to be blinded by the gilding that encircles each work like an overwrought halo," Meier reviews the free exhibition currently being held on this topic at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles. It looks like an interesting exhibition, but alas I won't be able to get to it before it closes in January.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Elizabethan II Period?

Last week, Queen Elizabeth II became the longest-reigning monarch in the history of the United Kingdom, beating the previous record-holder, her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria. (Who holds the previous second, now third? Victoria's grandfather, King George III, who reigned from 1760-1820, although the last 10 years he was technically incapacitated and his son ruled as Regent.) After being on the throne now for 63 years and 224 days (as of today, but who's counting?), one wonder if someone should give her reign an official name. After all, cultural historians refer to the Victorian period and the Georgian period, so why not the Elizabethan? Partly because there already was an Elizabethan period when Queen Elizabeth I ruled from 1558-1603 (think Shakespeare). But, in truth, there is much more of a consciousness about the limitation of power and influence Elizabeth II has had on world culture when compared to her predecessors. Nevertheless, she is a stalwart to a sense of traditionalism and nationalism that has made her a historical icon. I think the picture seen here of the Duke of Edinburgh and her together, from when she came to the throne and most recently, was a charming image. (I thought it came from the Guardian newspaper, but now I can't find it again.) If you want to see more of how HRH has changed over time, then you must check out this online photo gallery showing her picture every year from her accession to the throne in 1953 up to now. You must admit, the woman really has the most amazing hats and she knows how to wear them. But that turban in 1975 is just fabulous!

Thursday, September 3, 2015

MWA XXXIV: Daubigny's Sandpits

Returning to our Monthly Work of Art posts, I thought I would share this beautiful landscape painting that is part of the Columbia University art collection stewarded by my department of Art Properties. Measuring approximately 31 x 57 inches, the painting is entitled The Sandpits near Valmondois (Les Sablières près de Valmondois) and is by the French artist Charles-François Daubigny (1817-1878). Signed and dated 1870, the painting depicts a bend in the River Oise near the village of Valmondois, located about 23 miles north-northeast of Paris. These were areas where Daubigny spent parts of his childhood and adulthood. The artist is loosely associated with the Barbizon school, which included other famous painters such as Corot and Rousseau. These men introduced a new aesthetic for naturalistic landscapes that depicted the forests around Fontainebleau, frequently painting outdoors and capturing nature as it appeared. Prior to the 1830s, landscape painting exhibited at the Salon always was historical or narrative, and frequently represented a classical scene. These artists were considered radicals in their day for challenging this tradition, but gradually taste turned in their favor and naturalistic landscape paintings came to dominate not just the exhibitions but also the homes of the rising middle classes on both sides of the Atlantic. Daubigny favored depictions of river banks rather than forests, and his paintings are often seen today as precursors to the Impressionists with their sketch-like depictions of nature and beautiful sun-lit scenes.

The focal point of this work at first appears to be the fisherman in the center foreground of the painting. His fishing pole points diagonally across the river toward a boat colored with a dab of red paint. Further up the riverbank one sees the eponymous sandpit and sand barge, and to the left of those a village which likely is Valmondois. Together the sandpit and barge create a triangle with the fisherman and the boat, suggesting that at the heart of this tranquil scene is the juxtaposition of labor and leisure. It has been noted by scholars that, at the time Daubigny would have painted this work, the Oise River valley was growing industrially and thus losing its bucolic charm. In response to this, the artist frequently removed these signs of labor so as to present instead a peaceful landscape. Here, however, he has not so much as removed the elements of industry but minimized them so that the viewer focuses on the fisherman and a life of leisure in the countryside in spite of this change.

I have an article on this painting and two other works from the Columbia art collection coming out soon in Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide, a free, peer-reviewed e-journal. When it is released I will put a link to the article where you can read more about this important work in the collection.