Monday, August 14, 2017

Met Museum: Orientalist Paintings

It was only with the publication in 1978 of Edward Said's book Orientalism that the term first took on a derogatory connotation.  As succinctly summarized in the Wikipedia article devoted to the book, Said's problem was that:
"The principal characteristic of Orientalism is a 'subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arab-Islamic peoples and their culture', which derives from Western images of what is Oriental (cultural representations) that reduce the Orient to the fictional essences of 'Oriental peoples' and 'the places of the Orient'; such cultural representations dominate the communications (discourse) of Western peoples with and about non-Western peoples."
The resulting controversy has colored any discussion of the eponymous nineteenth century art movement that sought to portray exotic Mideastern locations and peoples in terms of European fantasies, and indeed the cover of the first edition of Said's book was illustrated with a painting entitled The Snake Charmer by Jean-Léon Gérôme, the leading proponent of that school of art.

Not surprisingly, there is no mention of either Said or his book on the Met Museum's website even though the museum's current exhibit, Orientalist Paintings from the Collection of Kenneth Jay Lane, contains several works by Gérôme.  Then again, these paintings are less extreme examples of the artist's oeuvre.  Missing are such pieces as the above mentioned The Snake Charmer or the infamous Slavemarket.  Instead, the two versions of Bashi-Bazouk (a type of Ottoman mercenary), the Study of Palm Trees, and the Woman at a Balcony are picturesque works not likely to give offense to anyone however pertinent they may be to Said's argument.

At this exhibit, Said's contention is much better illustrated by the work of Gérôme's countryman Jean-Joseph-Benjamin Constant.  Paintings such as Odalisque, Afternoon in the Harem, and The Serbian Concubine give free rein to the most titillating European sexual fantasies concerning the Mideast even if their lurid content is portrayed in the most correct academic style.  In a similar manner, George Clairin, best known for his 1876 portrait of Sarah Bernhardt, reveals the prejudice inherent in European preconceptions of Mideastern life in The Opium Smokers

Orientalism can also be seen as an outgrowth the Romantic spirit that engulfed Western Europe in the early nineteenth century.  The lure of faraway places was central to the the movement's vision, the most notable example being Byron's fatal journey to Greece.  Thus that arch-Romantic Eugène Delacroix (unfortunately not represented at this show) included several Mideastern scenes - such as Collision of Moorish Horsemen and Fanatics of Tangier - among his paintings after having traveled to Spain and North Africa in 1832.  After 1853, this same preference for distant cultures would find expression in the Japonisme that inspired artists as disparate as Whistler and Van Gogh.

It is in this Romantic sense that Orientalist painting has always held an undeniable attraction for me and become something of a guilty pleasure. Many of the paintings shown at the Met's exhibit could very well be used as illustrations for an edition of The Arabian Nights.  What child dreaming of Aladdin or Sinbad wouldn't be delighted by Benjamin-Constant's The Sultan's Tiger, my personal favorite among the works shown?

The exhibit continues through September 24, 2017.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Met Museum: Early Photography in Italy

After having visited the Hans P. Kraus, Jr. Gallery last week, I noted that several of the works on view were of Egyptian scenes and thus represented some of the world's first travel photography.  At the current exhibit at the Met Museum, Paradise of Exiles: Early Photography in Italy, there were also photos from photography's first decades on view but this time the location was Italy, nexus of classical antiquity.  Another difference was that many of the works had been photographed by local artists, both amateurs and professionals, as well as by visitors from other countries, principally England, though these were hardly exiles in spite of the exhibit's fanciful title.

The show is relatively small by the Met's standards and consists of some forty-four prints, negatives, cartes de visite, and daguerreotypes as well as a truly unique album of photograms created by an Italian associate of Henry Fox Talbot immediately following the latter's invention of the medium, i.e., 1839-1840.  The album, easily the most noteworthy article shown at the exhibit, is described as follows on the museum's website:
"Album di Disegni Fotogenici contains thirty-six photogenic drawings by Talbot, twenty made from direct contact with objects, fifteen made from camera negatives, and one made with a solar microscope; three letters from Talbot and one from his uncle, William Fox-Strangways; three printed notices; and three photogenic drawings-the first to be made in Italy-by the Italian chemist Sebastiano Tassinari."
Perhaps no visitor to Italy is so renowned as John Ruskin whose The Stones of Venice was to become an indispensable guidebook for generations of English travelers.  Still, I had not known until recently that Ruskin had experimented with the daguerreotype process in the course of researching his books.  According to an article in The Telegraph, it was only in 2015 that a "box of photographs miscatalogued at a provincial auction in 2006 have finally been confirmed as having belonged to the Victorian artist and critic John Ruskin."  It's not clear how deeply Ruskin was involved in the process.  Although the museum's website mentions only that he "purchased and commissioned daguerreotypes from photographers working in the city," other images have been attributed to Ruskin himself with the assistance of his valet.  The particular image on display here, Palazzo Vendramin, Venice, was most likely taken by Le Cavalier Iller, described by the Met as "an itinerant French practitioner."

There are also works are on display by other British photographers.  Of these, two are particularly well known.  The first is the Scotsman Robert Macpherson who began his career as a painter and who is represented here by albumen prints showing the Theater of Marcellus and the Cloaca Maxima.  The second is Calvert Richard Jones who learned the salt paper process directly from Talbot and who is represented here by a view of the Duomo in Milan.

The work of several French photographers is also on view.  Of these, the most illustrious is Gustave Le Gray who traveled with Alexandre Dumas to Palermo in order to record the "Expedition of the Thousand" led by Giuseppe Garibaldi in the fight for Italian unification.  Two excellent albumen prints from that 1860 campaign can be seen here, the Barricade of General Turr in Via Toledo and the other a formal portrait of Garibaldi himself.  These were among the world's first war photographs and brought instant fame, if not riches, to Le Gray.

In contrast to the British and French, Italian photographers, at least as shown at this exhibit, concentrated on what would now be known as "tourist pictures," though of the highest level.  The best of these were created by the Fratelli Alinari, a photographic firm still in existence.  Their view of the Baptistery in Florence is remarkably sharp for a salt print, most probably because it was made from a collodion glass negative rather than a calotype.

The exhibit continues through August 13, 2017

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

A Summer Selection at Hans P. Kraus, Jr.

The current exhibit. simply entitled A Summer Selection, at Hans P. Kraus, Jr. on Park Avenue is held together by only the loosest of themes - photographs depicting warm weather scenes - but for all that presents an excellent opportunity to view masterpieces from the earliest days of the medium, many of them by artists who have been unjustly forgotten over the course of time.  These individuals were not only pioneers in mastering the intricacies of salt and albumen printing as a means of expressing artistic vision, but a surprising number established themselves among the world's first travel photographers.  Somehow managing to transport their burdensome equipment to what were in the mid-nineteenth century distant and highly inaccessible locations, they returned with scenes that gave many Europeans their first glimpses of the Mideast.  For us in the twenty-first century, these same images present a view of the exotic worlds that existed before the advent of tourism robbed them of their true character.

One overlooked photographer was François Joseph Édouard de Campigneulles, an artist so obscure that he doesn't even merit a Wikipedia entry.  Born in 1826 in northern France, he must already have attained a high level of proficiency in photography when in 1853 he joined a Grand Tour of the Mideast that included stops in Egypt, Palestine and Syria and from which he returned with 86 calotype negatives.  The images de Campigneulles printed from these upon his return to France were subsequently displayed at an 1859 salon sponsored by the Société Française de Photographie where they must have caused quite a sensation.  At the present exhibit, there's an excellent albumen print showing the ruins of Abu Simbel that's notable for the low perspective from which the photograph was taken.  This causes the image to tilt back dramatically on its axis, though there may already have been some natural curvature to the temple facade.  In addition, there are three three calotype negatives on display.  One is of the Kait Bey Mosque in Cairo, the other a general view of the ruins of Luxor, and the third of the Nubian temple of Sebouah that's remarkably similar to an earlier salt print by Ernest Benecke that's also on display.

Another photographer who exhibited at the 1859 SFP show was the Scotsman James Graham, and he is represented here by a marvelous 1857 salt print panorama depicting the pyramids at Giza that fully captures their grandeur and mystery.  Complementing the work of de Campigneulles and Graham is John Beasley Greene's Sphinx and Pyramids, Necropolis of Memphis, Giza (calotype negative) and Felix Teynard's details of the sculptures at Karnak (both salt print and calotype negative).

In contrast to these Mideastern photographs are several taken by better known photographers much closer to home.  These include Roger Fenton's Salmon Pool at the Sale Wheel River Ribble (albumen print, 1859), the Reverend Calvert Richard Jones's Vigneron, Hotel de Bourgogne (calotype negative, 1840's-1850's), and Alvin Langdon Coburn's The cloud, Bavaria (photogravure, early 1900's).

Perhaps the most intriguing image at this exhibit isn't a photograph at all but a c. 1821 camera lucida drawing by John Frederick William Herschel showing the Lake of Brienz from Iseltwald.  It was, of course, Herschel's facility at camera lucida drawing compared to his own poor drafting skills that eventually led a frustrated Henry Fox Talbot to invent photography.

The exhibit continues through August 18, 2017.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Jupiter Players Perform Beethoven and Dvořák

Yesterday evening the Jupiter Players gave the last of their three summertime recitals at Christ & St. Stephen's Church on West 69th Street.  The program was appropriately lighthearted, in keeping with the season, and featured works by Beethoven and Dvořák which, while not among these two composers' best known pieces, were still highly significant chamber works in their own right and extremely enjoyable to hear.

The program opened with Beethoven's Six Ländler, WoO15 (1802).  As the date of composition would indicate, these short German dances were written at the very end of the composer's early period at about the same time he completed his Second Symphony.  And these dances do share several common features with the symphony,  most notably their use of D major (actually D minor for the fourth dance) as the home key.  Their lively festive character is, however, quite different from that of the symphony.  The occasion for which they were written was the annual winter dance at Vienna's Hofburg Palace.  This was a major social event in the capital's music season,  and in fact several hundred balls are still held annually in Vienna at this time of year.  This would, though, be the last time Beethoven would take part in the celebrations.  For one thing, he had successfully established himself as a composer to such an extent that he had no need to further embellish his reputation on such public occasions.  More importantly, such lightweight pieces no longer held any interest for Beethoven as, tortured by advancing deafness, he moved inexorably toward the great works of his middle period.  In spite of this, the dances are very accomplished examples of their genre and the Viennese revelers must have found them quite pleasing.  The very fact that the composer took the trouble to later transcribe them for piano shows that he held them in fairly high esteem even if he did not deem them worthy of being assigned an opus number.

The next work was an arrangement by Wenzel Matiegka of Beethoven's Serenade in D major, Op. 8 (1795-1797).  While the original work was scored for violin, viola and cello, it was here rearranged for the unusual combination of violin, viola and guitar.  By the time he wrote this work, Beethoven had already approached the string trio form in his Op. 3 in E-flat and would return to it immediately after in the three works that comprise his Op. 9.  Even more importantly, he had made the acquaintance of the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, whose ensembles would go on to premiere the great quartets of the late period; and the presence of so accomplished a musician may have been one factor that led Beethoven to experiment with the string trio form in the first place.  It's interesting to note that even at this early point Beethoven, who began his career as a violist with the Bonn court orchestra, was comfortable expressing his musical ideas for strings alone.  That's not to say, though, that the Op. 8 is in any sense a profound work.  It's actually a relaxed divertimento of the type routinely performed at Vienna's myriad social events, although the particular occasion for which this serenade was composed is not known.  As guitartist Jordan Dobson noted before beginning the piece, Matiegka's transcription of this work involved much more than a simple transcription of the cello part.  At some points the guitar, which has inherently a much softer sound than that of its companions, would, simply in order to make itself better heard, take over parts originally intended for the violin and viola, leaving those instruments to sit silent.  The result was pleasing enough, especially for so carefree a piece of music as this, but in general I much prefer to hear works in the arrangements for which they were originally scored.

After intermission, the recital concluded with a performance of Dvořák's String Quintet No. 2 in G major, Op. 77 (1875), known as the "Double Bass" for its distinctive instrumentation in which a bass was added to the traditional string quartet in order to achieve a more pronounced sonority in the lower register.  Despite its deceptively high opus number (it was originally published as the Op. 18), the quintet is a relatively early work composed before Dvořák had come to the attention of Brahms and Hanslick in 1877 and then launched on an international career.  Originally written as a submission to a local competition, which it easily won, the piece went unperformed for a number of years until Dvořák, whose work was by then highly popular, finally sent it to his publisher Simrock.  As such, the quintet provides an excellent demonstration of the composer's early style as he moved away from the influence of Wagner's music and found his own voice.  Considering how early in Dvořák's career it was written, it's a remarkably cohesive work and one that deserves a more prominent place in the chamber repertoire.  The present performance was notable for its inclusion of the slow intemezzo movement that Dvořák had originally removed from fear the work would be too long and later adapted as his Nocturne for Strings, Op. 40.

As is always the case with this ensemble, the the level  of musicianship was superb throughout the recital.   The playing of guest violinist Danbi Um was particularly noteworthy.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Met Museum: Carvaggio's Last Two Paintings

After having seen the Irving Penn Centennial several weeks ago at the Met Museum, I climbed the stairs to the second floor for a glimpse of Carvaggio's Last Two Paintings.  They were well worth a trip to the museum all by themselves.

No matter how tumultuous and scnadalous Carvaggio's life my have been, or perhaps because of it, he was a visionary in his approach to painting, and the two large works - The Martyrdom of St. Ursula and The Denial of St. Peter - now on view are among his greatest achievements.  Looking at them, it's hard to believe they were created in the early seventeenth century, an era still dominated by the stiff and lifeless forms of the Mannerist school.  Although these paintings are credited with inspiring the greatest artists of the Baroque, most notably Rembrandt, they actually look far more modern than even those.  There is a theatricality in the lighting that is so advanced it reminds one more of twentieth century cinema than of centuries-old European art.  The characters who emerge only partially from the shadows come alive to the viewer as individuals and so transcend the Biblical figures they are meant to represent.  Even today the naturalism displayed in these paintings is almost shocking when compared to the academic style displayed in most other works of the period.  One can only wonder what Carvaggio's contemporaries made of them.  Certainly they were like nothing that had ever been seen before in European painting.  If one wishes to trace the development of modernism in Western art, this is where one must begin.

The exhibit continues through July 9, 2017.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Gertrude Käsebier: The Photographer and Her Photographs

It's difficult to believe now, so completely has she been forgotten,  that at the turn of the twentieth century Gertrude Käsebier was one of America's most successful and best known photographers.  So important did Stieglitz consider her work that he dedicated the first issue of Camera Work to displaying her photographs rather than those of his disciple Steichen.

Käsebier was lucky enough to have been born into a family of moderate wealth and then married, however unhappily, to a successful businessman.  As a result, she did not have to worry about earning enough money to pay the rent.  In fact, Käsebier was already age 36 and her children nearly grown when she first took up the study of photography.  While it's true that her social standing enabled her to secure many wealthy clients for her lucrative portrait business, Käsebier was a strong minded business woman who worked hard to make herself a success.  She also had enough foresight to ally herself with Stieglitz when he first began to seriously promote photography as an art form and she thus became a charter member of the Photo Secession.

If Käsebier is passed over today, it's most likely because so much of her oeuvre was given over to the celebration of motherhood and children.  Ironically, those photographs that first established her reputation, such as Blessed Art Thou and The Manger (both from 1899), are the same that now cause her to be rejected on the grounds that her work is too cloyingly sentimental to be worthy of serious consideration.  Actually, shortly after it was created, a print of The Manger sold for $100, at the time the highest price ever paid for a photographic work.  In contrast, the photograph for which Käsebier is best remembered today is her sensual portrait of Evelyn Nesbit, reproduced on this book's cover, whose cocaine addled husband gained notoriety when on the rooftop of Madison Square Garden he sensationally murdered the showgirl's former lover, the playboy architect Stanford White, who was also Käsebier's friend and patron.

The other reason Käsebier is given so little attention today is that her photographic style was unabashedly "pictorialist."  This term has been given a pejorative connotation since at least the 1930's when Ansel Adams and other members of the f64 Group began to relentlessly promote "straight" photography at the expense of all other forms of photographic representation.  Their closed minded insistence on their sharp and straightforward style as the only viable approach to the medium did incalculable harm to mid-twentieth century photography.  Käsebier was, on the other hand, the pictorialist photographer par excellence.  She had no hesitation at all in painting in backgrounds or details on her prints or in using alternative printing methods such as platinum and gum bichromate.  Although some pictorialists no doubt did go too far in their image manipulations, by and large they created works of incredible beauty that were far more imaginative than the literal, matter-of-fact reproductions of reality favored by the f64 Group.

Gertrude Käsebier: The Photographer and Her Photographs, is a highly sympathetic biography written by Barbara L. Michaels.  It is a short work, really not more than an extended essay, that would have benefited greatly from more detail regarding Käsebier's associations with some of the greatest artists of her time.  These included not only Stieglitz and Steichen, but also such seminal photographers as Alvin Langdon Coburn (who once worked as Käsebier's assistant), F. Holland Day, Clarence White and Baron de Meyer as well as leading painters and sculptors in both Europe and America, most notably Auguste Rodin whom Käsebier photographed extensively at his home near Paris.  The book, published by Abrams, is handsomely designed and filled with excellent reproductions of Käsebier's black & white photographs, including all her most famous works as well as many with which I had previously been unfamiliar.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Jupiter Players Perform Hoffmeister, Spohr and Beethoven

In addition to the twenty recitals the Jupiter Players perform during the regular season, the company also schedules three recitals during the summer months at Christ & St. Stephen's Church on West 69th Street.  Yesterday evening, I attended the second of these and heard a program that featured major works by Franz Anton Hoffmeister, Louis Spohr and Beethoven, all of them composed within a few years of one another in early nineteenth century Vienna.

The recital opened with Hoffmeister's Notturno No. 4 in D major (1802) for flute, two horns, violin, viola and cello.  Hoffmeister was actually a prolific and well respected Viennese composer at the turn of the nineteenth century, but he is remembered today primarily for his activity as a music publisher.  In this capacity he oversaw the publication of important works by, among others, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.  He was also personal friends with many of these illustrious composers and was in fact the dedicatee of Mozart's String Quartet in D major, K. 499.  In his own compositions, Hoffmeister wrote most often for the flute, including twenty-five concertos for that instrument.  And the flute did indeed feature prominently in the present piece.  The work turned out to be a gracious Classical divertimento that was thoroughly engaging and an excellent opening for the program.

The next work was Spohr's String Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 33, No. 1 (1814).  This piece, which like Mozart's quintets featured a string quartet with an additional viola, was actually the second of the two Op. 33 quintets to have been written and was put first only by a publisher's mistake. Like Hoffmeister, Spohr was a prolific composer who was highly regarded, at least in German speaking countries, during his lifetime but who has subsequently fallen out of fashion despite the fact that a number of critics consider him an important bridge between the Classical and Romantic eras.  He was also a virtuoso violinist and, as a student of Franz Eck, one of the last links to the legendary Mannheim School.  As a friend and associate of Beethoven, he worked with the master on the composition of the famous "Ghost" Trio.  In spite of these impressive credentials, Spohr's ability as a composer was limited and his work rarely if ever rose to the level of greatness.  The quintet peformed yesterday evening may have properly followed all the rules of Classical composition, but it was in the end a lifeless affair that  made no great impression on the audience.  It was only the second movement larghetto that provided a few moments of interest.

After intermission, the program closed with Beethoven's String Quartet No. 8 in E minor, Op. 59, No. 2 (1808), the second of the "Razumovsky" quartets.  This was the piece I had really come to hear.  The set of three quartets that make up the Op. 59 were the first to be written during the composer's middle period.  As such, they marked an enormous advance over the six quartets of the Op. 18, Beethoven's only previous attempt in this genre, that had been carefully modeled on those of Haydn and Mozart and could in a sense be considered "student" works.  In contrast, the innovations Beethoven employed in all three Op. 59 quartets were revolutionary for their time and to an extent anticipate the daring departures of the late quartets.  At least part of this new found originality can be attributed to the fact that they were written to be performed by a top notch ensemble.  Only a few years before, the virtuoso violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh had formed his own professional quartet ensemble, the first of its kind, whose intent was to give public recitals rather than private performances in the drawing rooms of wealthy patrons.  In addition, Count Razumovsky, the dedicatee of all three quartets, was himself an accomplished second violinist.

The No. 2 is the only one of the three quartets to be set in a minor key.  As one would expect from this, it is much more dramatic than its companions and at times contains an element of foreboding, most especially in the opening movement.  According to Carl Czerrny, Beethoven found his inspiration for the slow second movement in his contemplation of a starry nighttime sky.  Be that as it may, this adagio, based around an almost hymn-like melody, is one of the composer's finest and offers the listener a sense of relief after the ambiguity of the first movement.  It's spaciousness contrasts sharply with the two movements that follow.  It is in the third movment that Beethoven introduces the Russian theme he had promised his patron.  But Beethoven seems almost to be parodying the well known Russian song as he plays it off against textbook contrapuntalism.  The final movement is almost symphonic in breadth and ends in sprightly fashion on an upbeat note.

The performances yesterday evening, including that of guest artist violinist Stefan Milenkovich, were all equally impressive, most especially on the difficult Beethoven quartet.