Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Met Breuer: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele and Picasso

The title of the Met's current exhibit, Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele and Picasso, is somewhat ambiguous.  It's not clear (to me at any rate) whether the term "obsession" refers to the artists whose work is displayed or to Scofield Thayer, editor of legendary literary magazine Dial, from whose collection the works are all taken.  Even by today's standards these paintings and drawings are quite shocking; how much more so must they have appeared when first created.  Nevertheless, the female nude has been an accepted genre throughout art history, and I don't see any basis for the term "obsession" simply because a small group of early twentieth century artists chose to depict the subject in a radically new manner.

The show is divided into three parts - Klimt's pieces blend harmoniously into those by Schiele while PIcasso's are placed by themselves in a rear gallery.  That Klimt's and Schiele's works should be juxtaposed is proper enough since the former was the young Expressionist's mentor throughout his abbreviated career (the two died only months apart in 1918) while Picasso's belong to another world altogether.

Although Gustav Klimt is often referred to as an Expressionist, I've never been able to see this in his work.  If I were going to apply a label to him, it would be late Symbolist.  Even that would be misleading, however, since his landscapes (none of which are shown here) have more in common with the pointillist style of such post-Impressionists as Seurat.  The drawings on display are lightly drawn - in fact, several drawings such as Two Reclining Nudes (colored pencil, 1905-1906) are so faint that they can barely be made out - and are primarily studies for paintings.  What most sets them apart from Schiele's, though, are the generally formal poses of the models.  Even in such an obviously erotic work as Reclining Nude with Drapery (graphite, 1912-1913) there is a sense of restraint that makes it seem as if the artist were deliberately seeking to maintain his distance from the model.

Certainly no such restraint exists in the work of Egon Schiele.  In pieces such as Observed in a Dream (watercolor and graphite, 1911) and Reclining Nude (crayon, 1918) the artist fairly revels in the sensuality of his models.  Only in certain later works such as Standing Nude in Black Stockings (watercolor and charcoal, 1917) is there a sense of objectivity.  In that piece form is given precedence over eroticism.  Though unfortunately not usually viewed as such, Schiele was one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century and fully the equal of Picasso and Matisse.  Only his untimely death and the later vilification by the Nazis have prevented him from receiving the recognition due him.

While the works of Klimt and Schiele were all quite familiar, the real surprises came in the section devoted to Picasso.  As Thayer had no use for Cubism, the works shown here were primarily from the period immediately before that phase commenced when the artist visited the Catalan town of Gósol with Fernande Olivier in 1906 and then, skipping forward, from the neoclassical period of the early 1920's.  It was at Gósol that Picasso moved away from the nineteenth century aesthetics that had informed his Rose period and turned definitively toward modernism.  This can be seen most clearly in his portrait of Josep Fondevila (oil on canvas, 1906) at whose establishment Picasso sojourned.  There is something new and startling in this painting that clearly shows the artist breaking with past styles.  As for the neoclassicism, the most startling work is the large Head of a Woman (chalk on paper, 1922), the only piece Thayer acquired directly from Picasso.  The museum documentation rightly notes the influence on it of Renaissance art.

Set apart from the other works is one by Picasso with which I had previously been unfamiliar, his Erotic Scene (La Douceur) (oil on canvas, 1903).  This is not a particularly great work - indeed, to the end of his life Picasso denied having painted it - but is notable for its shocking content in which a mature woman performs oral sex on a barely pubescent boy.  Whether or not this represents the young Picasso's sexual initiation at a Spanish brothel, as the museum's documentation suggests, it has no parallel in the remainder of his oeuvre.

Missing from the exhibit, and presumably from Thayer's collection, are any of Auguste Rodin's late erotic watercolors.  One feels they would have fit in perfectly at this show.

The exhibit continues through October 7, 2018.  Note the caveat on the museum's website: "Visitors are advised that some images in this exhibition contain explicit erotic content."

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Met Museum: Public Parks, Private Gardens

The current exhibit at the Met Museum, Public Parks, Private Gardens: Paris to Provence, consisting of dozens of paintings, graphic works and photographs, is a wonderful evocation of summer's luah beauty staged ironically in windowless galleries that afford no view of the world's most beautiful park situated immediately outside their walls.

The late nineteenth century works on display, entirely drawn from the museum's extensive collections, are all by French artusts (with the exception of the American expatriate Mary Cassatt and Vincent Van Gogh, the Dutch artist who created his most important work while living in Provence), most of them prominent members of the Impressionist school.  In fact, the best represented artist is Claude Monet, a number of whose masterpieces are here on view - The Path through the Irises (oil on canvas, 1914-1917), Bridge over a Pond of Waterlilies (oil on canvas, 1899), and Garden at Sainte-Adresse (oil on canvas, 1867) - as well as several lesser known works, such as Jean Monet on his Hobby-Horse (oil on canvas, 1872).  Édouard Manet is represented by Madame Manet at Bellevue (oil on canvas, 1880), Peonies (oil on canvas, 1864-1865) and The Monet Family in Their Garden at Argenteuil (oil on canvas, 1874).  There are two excellent paintings by Camille Pissaro on view - The Garden of the Tuileries on a Winter Afternoon (oil on canvas, 1899) and The Public Garden at Pointoise (oil on canvas, 1874).  And certainly the exhibit would not have been complete without the post-Impressionist Georges Seurat's final 1884 study for A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, an oil on canvas of much smaller dimensions than the famous mural-size painting but using the same pointillist technique.

There are also a number of works by artists one would not normally associate with the theme of parks and gardens.  These include Odilon Redon's portrait of Madame Arthur Fontaine (pastel on paper, 1901) and Bouquet of Flowers (pastel on paper, 1900-1905), Berthe Morisot's Young Woman Seated on a Sofa (oil on canvas, 1879) and A Woman Seated at a Bench on the Avenue du Bois (watercolor over graphite, 1885), Pierre Bonnard's From the Balcony (oil on canvas, 1909), Auguste Renoir's Bouquet of Chrysanthemums (oil on canvas, 1881) and Versailles (oil on canvas, 1900-1905), Henri Matisse's Pansies (oil on paper, 1903) and Lilacs (oil on canvas, 1914), Mary Cassatt's Lilacs in a Window (oil on canvas, 1880-1883) and Edgar Degas's A Woman Seated beside a Vase of Flowers (oil on canvas, 1865).  Those who've read Curtis Cate's biography of George Sand will enjoy seeing Eugène Delacroix's 1843 oil on canvas view of the novelist's garden at Nohant, a truly dark masterpiece.

One would not expect to see many works by the father of modernism, Paul Cézanne, at an exhibit such as this, but there are actually several seminal masterworks on display.  These include Madame Cézanne in the Conservatory (oil on canvas, 1891), The Pool at Jas de Bouffan (oil on canvas, 1885-1886) and Entrée de Jardin (watercolor over graphite, 1878-1880).

By far, the most spectacular work on view is Van Gogh's Sunflowers, an 1887 oil on canvas that once belonged to Paul Gauguin, given to him by the artist himself.  Done in Van Gogh's heavy impasto style there is something monstrous in this flower's beauty that makes the painting much more than a mere study done from nature.  Though the canvas is not particularly large (17" x 24"), it overwhelms the viewer with its power and takes on the majesty of a force of nature.  On view beside it is the artist's Irises, an 1890 oil on canvas whose black outlines owe much to Japanese ukiyo-e and whose stark grey background was once pink before having faded over time.  Fortuitously placed nearby is Monet's Bouquet of Sunflowers (oil on canvas, 1881) that highlights the differences between Van Gogh and the Impressionists when approaching the same subject.  Although Van Gogh and Monet painted their versions of sunflowers only a few years apart, the Dutch artist's work strikes one as more properly belonging to a far later era.

As a photographer, I was especially pleased to see so many classic prints on display.  These included two salt prints by Gustave Le Gray, Oak Tree and Rocks at the Forest of Fontainebleau and Chêne dans les rochers à Fontainebleau, both c. 1849-1852.  There were also several albumen prints by Eugène Atget, that great chronicler of fin de siècle Paris - Jardin du Luxembourg (1902), Versaille - Cour du Parc (1902) and the magnificent Le Château, fin Octobre, le soir, effet d'orage, vue prise du Parterre du Nord (1903).  There was also a wonderful flower study, Rose of Sharon (albumen print, 1854), by Adolphe Braun as well as Charles Nègre's portrait of Lord Brougham and his family at Cannes (albumen print, 1862).

The exhibit continues through July 29, 2018.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Met Museum: American Painters in Italy

Tucked away on the American Wing's mezzanine, the Met Museum's current exhibit, American Painters in Italy, is a delightful reminder of the era before World War I when American artists still found it de rigueur to make a pilgrimage to Europe in order to study and copy the works of the old masters, thereby acknowledging that however wealthy the United States may have been at the turn of the twentieth century it still lacked any real confidence in its own art and culture.

As one looks at the works by John Singer Sargent (who was actually born in Italy), George Henry SmillieGeorge Inness, and William Stanley Haseltine one is reminded irresistably of the novels of Henry James.  There is about these paintings the languor of Americans making the Grand Tour, staying at the finest hotels and mingling with the best society while forever painting and sketching their picturesque surroundings.  And it's this glimpse of a vanished world that gives to their works a strong sense of nostalgia.  Though Picasso and Matisse were already active in this period, other than in the works of Maurice Prendergast there is little sense here of the modernist revolution that was about to engulf twentieth century art.  Even the single work on display by James McNeill Whistler, Note in Pink and Brown (charcoal and pastel, c. 1880), is thoroughly picturesque.

As the museum's website notes, the show has been divided into three parts:
"American Painters in Italy begins with views of the landscape around Rome, the Campagna, and southern Italy. The second section features images of Venice, which was a particularly popular destination for artists in the late nineteenth century. The final section focuses on works in which the artists copied Italian art as an educational exercise or to signify their sophistication and worldliness."
By far the most imteresting works art are those by Sargent to whom the lion's share of the exhibit has rightfully been devoted.  His watercolors are not detailed but rather evocative, and it is their suggestiveness that captures the viewer's attention as the scenes depicted are vividly brought to life.  Among these are the Venetian street scenes which eschew studies of the major monuments in favor of  more intimate glimpses of backwater canals and alleyways not frequented by tourists.  The best of these is Venetian Canal (watercolor and graphite, 1913) that contains a distant view of the Church of San Barnaba.  In subject matter and style it stands in marked contrast to Prendergast's Rialto Bridge (watercolor and graphite, c. 1911-1912) whose bright colors fail to mask the trite choice of subject matter.

Perhaps the finest work at the exhibit is Sargent's Tiepelo Ceiling, Milan (watercolor and graphite, c. 1898-1900), a brilliantly colored phantasmagoria that is not so much a study of the palazzo's ceiling as a reimagining of it.

There are several other works - such as Jasper Francis Cropsey's Torre dei Schiavi, The Roman Campagna (white gouache and graphite, 1853) and William Stanley Haseltine's Baths of Trajan (watercolor, gouache and charcoal, c. 1882) - that are most interesting for the views they provide of nineteenth century Italy before it was forever ruined by modern day tourism.

The exhibit continues through June 17, 2018.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Naumburg Bandshell Concerts

This summer in Central Park there will once again be free outdoor classical music concerts at the Naumburg Bandshell.  It's a series that features top level orchestras as well as lesser known ensembles performing selections that range from the classical to the avant garde in a fairly intimate setting near Bethseda Fountain.  This summer's schedule is as follows:

  • Tuesday, June 12th - Ensemble LPR
  • Tuesday, June 26th - Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
  • Tuesday, July 10th - A Far Cry
  • Tuesday, July 17th - The Knights
  • Tuesday, July 31st - Orchestra of St. Luke's

As mentioned, all concerts are free and no tickets are required.  They begin at 7:30, weather permitting, and last approximately two hours.  Most, if not all, will doubtlessly be broadcast live on New York City's classical music station WQXR.

Detailed program information can be found on the Naumburg website.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Carnegie Hall: Met Orchestra Performs Mahler No. 4

On Tuesday evening I went to Carnegie Hall to hear the final musical event of my 2017-2018 season as Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the Met Orhestra in a program that included yet another Mahler symphony, by my count the seventh I've heard this season.

The program opened with Evocations (1934-1943) by Carl Ruggles, a composer with whom I'd previously been unfamiliar.  Tilson Thomas has always been a great champion of Charles Ives, so it only makes sense that he would also promote the music of another idiosyncratic American composer.  (Another link between Ruggles and Ives was John Kirkpatrick, the pianist who premiered Ives's Concord Sonata and to whom the second movement of Evocations was dedicated.)  And idiosyncratic Ruggles most certainly was, both in his personal life and his career as a composer.  He wrote relatively few pieces in spite of having enjoyed an extraordinarily long lifespan and spent an inordimante amount of time on the composition of each.  His works have been compared to those of Schoenberg, though Ruggles had no connection with the Second Viennese School or, for that matter, with any European composers.  The present work was originally written for solo piano and was only later arranged for orchestra.  It was an impressive piece, roughly twelve minutes long, and received a huge round of applause from the audience.

The next work was Mozart's Exsultate, jubilate, K. 165 (1773) and featured soprano Pretty Yende as soloist.  The work, written when the composer was only 16 years old, is in the form of a motet, an ambiguous term defined by one of Mozart's contemporaries as follows:
"In Italy nowadays this term is applied to a Latin sacred solo cantata consisting of two arias and two recitatives, concluding with a Hallelujah, and sung during the Mass following the Credo, generally by one of the best singers."
The work was in fact composed in Italy where Mozart had traveled with his father for a performance of his opera Lucio Silla.  While working on the opera in Milan, Mozart and Leopold renewed their acquaintace with the multitalented castrato Venanzio Rauzzini whom they had previously met in Vienna and for whom Mozart composed the present work.  At least one source has noted the structural similarities it shares with the violin concerti Mozart was soon to write.  To me it had much more an operatic character than a liturgical.

After intermission, the program concluded with a performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 4 (1899-1900).  This was the last of the composer's "Wunderhorn symphonies" and was built around a single song Mahler had adapted from that collection; entitled Das himmlische Leben, the 1892 piece was a song of innocence told from the point of view of child.  Mahler had originally intended to use it in the finale of the Symphony No. 3 but then decided to drop the entire movement in which it was to appear and instead built the following symphony around it.  Thus, in a sense, the No. 4 becomes a continuation of the No. 3 and by extension of the two that preceded it so that all four become parts of a larger whole.  Everything in the first three movements of the No. 4 leads up to the soloist's part in the final movement.  As more than one commentator has noted, it is a progression from dark to light  If the No. 4 is the most popular of Mahler's symphonies this has as much do to the gentle childlike verses that end it as to the entire work's brevity (it is the shortest of all the symphonies and uses a smaller orchestra than the others while following Haydn's classical four movment structure).

Michael Tilson Thomas is one of the foremost American conductors (though these days that's not saying a great deal) and is to be praised for consistently bringing attention to lesser known works.  His conducting on Tuesday evening was by far the best of the Met Orchestra's current three-concert series.  At the helm of a truly excellent ensemble, he led one of the finest performances of Mahler's Fourth that I've heard.   Soloist  Pretty Yende, who has become something of fixture at the Met, was superb on both the Mozart and Mahler works.  This was as fine a way to end the season as I could have wished.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Carnegie Hall: Met Orchestra Performs Mahler No. 5

Earlier this week I went to hear the second of the Met Orchestra's three subscription concerts at Carnegie Hall.  This has been a great season in New York City for those with a love of Mahler's music - I'd already attended five performances of his works before this - and on this occasion still another of his symphonies was featured together with one of Mozart's greatest works for violin.

The program opened with a performance of Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K. 219 (1775) that featured as soloist James Ehnes,  a musician whom I had heard earlier this season for the first time when he played Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1 with the New York Philharmonic.  The Mozart concerto is of course one of the most popular in the violin repertoire, a tour de force that is even more impressive when one considers that at the time of its composition Mozart was only nineteen years old.  It's filled with inventive touches.  For example, in the opening movement the fast allegro-aperto is abruptly interrupted upon the violin's first appearance; the instrument is introduced by a far slower adagio before the orchestra quickly returns to the original tempo.  And the stirring "Turkish" music that forms part of the final movement rondo is not only an original touch but also anticipates by seven years that used in the singspiel Die Entführung aus dem Serail.  Mozart was himself an expert violinist and it's curious that after having completed this work he ceased writing concerti for the instrument.  The reason perhaps is that the composer, once he had resettled in Vienna, wanted to establish his repuation as a piano virtuoso at a time when the fortepiano was still something of a novelty.  He may also have wanted to create an identity separate from that of his father Leopold, a formidable violinist who had authored one of the eighteenth century's most authoritative textbooks for that instrument.

After intermission, the concert ended with a performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 5 (1901-1902).  Marking the start of a new century as well as a new direction in the composer's music, the No. 5 moved away from the programmatic content of the first four symphonies, collectively known as the Wunderhorn symphonies, to the sphere of absolute music.  This shift certainly reflected a new self-confidence on Mahler's part.  He was sure enough of himself, and his music, that he felt he no longer needed sung texts or ambiguous program notes to make himself understood.  He had now not only reached the pinnacle of his conducting career as music director of the Vienna Court Opera, then regarded as the world's finest, but he had also become engaged to Alma, "the most beautiful young woman in Vienna."   (It's almost obligatory to mention at this point that the fourth movement adagietto, whose correct tempo is forever argued among composers, was intended as an engagement present to Alma.)  But the fact that Mahler went back some ten years later to revise the orchestration is an indication that he may have overestimated his abilites.  As Jens Malte Fischer notes:
"In a letter to conductor Georg Göhler, he [Mahler] admitted that even as a forty-year-old composer at the height of his powers, he could still commit the sort of mistakes that a novice might make: the experience acquired in his first four symphonies let him down - a new style needed a new technique.  But while working of the Fifth Symphony he was not yet aware of this shortcoming."
Nor is the No. 5 without flaws even in the revised version.  The ending of the final movement is not entirely satsifying and suggests that Mahler, after the bold innovations of the earlier movements, was at a loss how to top them and so instead settled for what was essentially a compromise.

Each of the orchestra's three performances this season features a different conductor, and on this occasion it was the turn of Gianandrea Noseda whom I've heard several times at the Met and as a guest conductor with the London Symphony in a performance of Verdi's Requiem.  He's an excellent conductor and did extremely well with the Mozart concerto.  The rendition of Mahler's symphony, however, while certainly competent, left something to be desired.  Though the Met Orchestra is a world class ensemble, one had the impression while listening that not all the music's nuances were thoroughly realized.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Summer Break

Today is Memorial Day, the unofficial start to summer here in the US, and I suppose it's as good a time as any to remind readers that this is a seasonal blog.  Aside from two more Met Orchestra concerts at Carnegie Hall, I won't be attending any more classical music events until fall when the new season gets underway.  I will still occasionally be posting my thoughts on art and photo exhibits I see over the summer months, but other than that this blog will be largely dormant until at least late September.

My other blog, Central Park Blues, will remain active and I hope readers will take the time to visit it.  Readers will find there samples of my photography as well as one of my novels, The Dark Veil, in serialized form.

I hope everyone has an enjoyable summer.