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 64-degree weather...assuming the ice doesn't melt beforehand.

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

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

Merry Christmas to you all!

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Auction Sales of 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Books of 2015

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Gibson the Designer

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

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

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