Monday, August 28, 2017

Galerie St. Etienne: Recent Acquisitions

Before the classical music season begins in earnest next month and my calendar fills up, I've been trying to see as many notable art exhibits as possible.  One gallery that never fails to stage excellent shows is the Galerie St. Etienne on West 57th Street, and the current exhibit of recent acquisitions is no exception.

As with all the gallery's shows, the emphasis is on German Expressionism and the artists shown here represent pretty much all the movement's greatest figures.  Pride of place is naturally given to the two greatest Viennese artists of the early twentieth century, Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele.  Their stylistic differences are highlighted here in their respective posters for two different Secession exhibits held twenty years apart.  Klimt's poster for the First Exhibition of the Vienna Secession (1898) is a color lithograph on cream wove paper.  Its artwork and lettering is deliberately classical and is notable for the large white area that takes up almost the entire midsection.  (It's also worth pointing out that this particular copy is from an alternate edition in which blackened tree trunks have been added to the top tier in order to mask male nudity.)  In contrast, Schiele's poster for the 49th Secession Exhibition (1918), a lithograph in black, yellow and reddish brown on yellowish poster paper has a much more pronounced Expressionist appearance right down to the heavy rough lettering.  Of course, there is more at work here than just a difference in individual artistic temperament.  Europe itself had changed almost beyond recognition from the Belle Époque period during which Klimt had created his poster to that following the conclusion of World War I when Schiele, so soon to die, completed his artwork.  To many it must have seemed that civilization had irretrievably given way to chaos.

Other works on view by Klimt include several pencil studies , the best of which is Portrait of a Girl with Braids (1917-1918), a study for the uncompleted painting The Bride.  As for Schiele, two of his 1911 works on paper are among the best in the show.  These are Seated Female Nude, Back View and Standing Female in Shirt with Black Stockings and Red Scarf.  In both, the use of bright red gouache brings the subject vividly to life.  I was disappointed that a later work from 1916, Portrait of an Officer (Josef Duras), had already been sold and shipped by the time I viewed the exhibit.

Other major Expressionists represented at the show were Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Oskar Kokoschka, Käthe Kollwitz, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and Erich Heckel, a veritable Who's Who of the greatest German artists of the twentieth century.  It would have been worth going to the exhibit to see the work of any one of these.

Exhibits at the Galerie St. Etienne are always accompanied by literate scholarly essays, and the one at this show that deals with the current state of the art market is especially enlightening as it gives the reader an insider's opinion where things are headed.  Until reading it, I had not known that "it has been estimated that overall sales decreased by approximately 7% in 2015, and a further 11% in 2016. Auction sales, which are easier to calculate, dropped by between 18.8% and 26% in 2016 alone."  This is alarming news not only for dealers but artists as well.  And the process is uneven with certain sectors dropping in sales, if not value, more rapidly than others.  The article, available on the gallery's website, is well worth taking the time to read.

The exhibit continues through October 13, 2017.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Guggenheim: Mystical Symbolism

Mystical Symbolism, The Salon de la Rose+Croix in Paris, 1892-1897, now on view at the Guggenheim, isn't the type of show one normally associates with this bastion of modernism.  Rather it's a look back to the last years of the nineteenth century when European Romanticism in its death throes gave itself over to decadence and baroque excess.

It should first be noted that the exhibit is not so much a recreation of the six annual salons staged by Joseph Péledan between 1892 and 1897 as it is a reimagining of them in the most unlikely of settings.  Although all the works on display were in fact shown at one or the other of Péledan's salons, the order in which they are presented here was decided by curator Vivien Greene rather than by the Rosicrucian master himself.

One problem with rapid advances in science and technology is that, however desirable they may be, they cannot help but rob the world of its sense of mystery.  And the late nineteenth century was certainly a period of intellectual ferment.  This was not only limited to the sciences - in Switzerland Einstein had already begun his studies in physics - but the arts as well.  As far back as 1863 the Salon des Refusés had exhibited the work of Paul Cézanne, forerunner of Cubism.  Péledan was one of those who at such times sought refuge in the past while rejecting the innovations of the present, in this case best represented by Impressionism and Naturalism.  And Péledan was none too subtle about it either.  A poster (unfortunately not on view at the present exhibit) for the fifth Salon de la Rose + Croix, 1896, depicted Perseus holding the severed head of Émile Zola.  Péledan's own muse was Richard Wagner and he adapted the composer's concept of Gesamtkunstwerk by making the salons multimedia events that incorporated music, theater and the spoken word along with the visual art hanging on the walls.

While the six salons overseen by Péledan may have been anachronisms, they did feature the work of many prominent artists some of whom, such as Félix Vallaton, would go on to be associated with more modernist schools (e.g., the Nabis).  Though the foremost Symbolists, Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon, declined to submit work to the salons, others such as Fernand Khnopff and Jean Delville did participate as did the composer Erik Satie.  Delville, in fact, contributed a portrait of Péledan himself for the occasion.

The Symbolists were fascinated by Greek mythology and in particular the myth of Orpheus in the underworld.  There are several works on view commemorating this figure, the best of which is unquestionably Deville's 1893 The Death of Orpheus.  Though this is an oil on canvas, its blue coloring gives it the appearance of a cyanotype print.  Another work dedicated to the mythological hero is Pierre Amédée Marcel-Béronneau's 1897 Orpheus in Hades.  Marcel-Béronneau was a student of Moreau and the latter's influence can clearly be seen in this huge canvas.  

Other works of interest at the exhibit are L’Aurore du Travail ("The Dawn of Labor") by Charles Maurin and the luminous Vision by Alphonse Osbert that looks strangely modern among the other paintings.  The finest work on display, however, is Khnopff's iconic 1891 I Lock the Door Upon Myself that shows the great influence the Pre-Raphaelites, yet another group who looked to the mythical past for inspiration, exerted on the visual arts at the close of the nineteenth century.

If Symbolist art has fallen out of fashion in this century (The New York Times goes so far as to refer to its "kitschy glory" in its review of this exhibit), this artwork still holds a fascination for the viewer precisely because it insists on man's need for mystery.  These paintings can in a sense be thought of as Jungian archetypes that bypass the rational mind and instead make their appeal directly to the unconscious.

The exhibit continues through October 4, 2017.

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.