Click on photos to enlarge.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Alfred Hitchcock--Art Collector

Le Chevalier de la Mort, 1944, Salvador Dali
I often write on the producers of great art--the artists. Far less often, however, do I put in a good word for the consumers of great art--the art collectors. In great part that's because such individuals are seldom well known by the general public or because they are (and wish to remain) anonymous. High profile art collectors make themselves prime targets for theft or art forgeries. The cost of physical security for their works goes up, not to mention their insurance premiums. Nonetheless, there are a surprising number of such art collectors for whom neither of these factors are of any major concern. Not surprisingly many these collectors share a ZIP code starting with 900 or 902--the entertainment industry in and around Hollywood, California, 90027.
Art collectors so familiar they need no introduction.
Today we find names such a Leonardo DiCaprio (he does not second-guess his own likes and dislikes); Madonna, who has an impressive art collection worth more than a $100-million; Neil Patrick Harris, whose art collection focuses on contemporary art from up-and-coming artists; Steve Martin, whose collection, encompasses names such as Francis Bacon, Cindy Sherman, and Pablo Picasso. Add to these Elton John, who actually set a record in 1993 by buying Man Ray’s Glass Tears for $193,000. It is now estimated to be worth closer to $2-million. Other celebrities include Brad Pitt, Mary-Kate Olsen, Tobey Maguire, Jay-Z and Beyoncé...the list goes on and on, but I'm tired of name-dropping at the moment. Although each of these collections is unique, perhaps the most unusual Hollywood art collector of all time (he died in 1980) was that of the British producer/director of iconic mystery dramas, Alfred Hitchcock.
Hitchcock’s lifetime interest in art fed directly into his filmmaking
Although each collector's art holdings tend to reflect their individual tastes, background, and personalities, in exploring Hitchcock's art collection, it becomes all but impossible to separate the man an his art from that which he collected. Unlike most of the art collections mentioned above, Hitchcock's personal collection contained only two artist's originals, one of which turned out to be a fake. In 1944, the surrealist master, Salvador Dali presented his drawing, Le Chevalier de la Mort (top) to the director as a gift after the two collaborated on the dream sequence for the 1945 psychological thriller Spellbound. The other artist's "original" was a Picasso still-life which hung in the Hitchcock home for several decades until 1970 when the artist himself branded it a fake.
These are samples of each artist's work and may or may not be the actual paintings
which hung in the Hitchcock home.
The collection of Alfred and Alma Hitchcock reflects a wide variety of styles, artists, and subjects, more indicative of a lifestyle than a deliberate approach. Works in their eclectic collection are of variable interest and quality. This hodgepodge collection began around 1944. Hitchcock and his wife, began to choose new acquisitions together. The selection criteria were straightforward and loose. They never acquired a painting unless it was liked by both of them. Fortunately, they had similar tastes, leaning mostly toward colorful modernists. Alma’s favorite artist was Parisian painter Maurice Utrillo (above, left), while Hitchcock singled out Swiss modernist Paul Klee (above, right).

Venus With a Mirror 1555, Titian
The décor was unusual, to say the least, at Norman Bates’s 12-room motel in Hitchcock’s classic horror movie, Psycho. Menacing taxidermied birds framed the walls of the office parlor, later to earn a movie of their own. Hovering above was an assortment of painted female nudes that included a reproduction of Venus with a Mirror (ca. 1555) by the Renaissance artist, Titian. However the painting Hitchcock refers to in the trailer (above) is not Venus but A strategically placed copy of Susan-nah and the Elders from around the 1691, by Dutch artist Willem van Mieris. It concealed a peephole used for peer-ing into room number one. Like a Bar-oque version of Psycho’s famous show-er scene, Susannah and the Elders pits a vulnerably nude bathing woman against the violent voyeurism of a male predator.
Susannah and the Elders, 1691, Willem van Mieris
Hitchcock was an art connoisseur, an interest that began when he took art history and painting classes in London as a teenager. His first film industry job, in fact, was as an illustrator of intertitle cards for silent films. And he was an avid collector of art books, stockpiling them at home and at work. His office at Universal Studios contained a surprising number of art books, which Hitchcock liked to regularly consult, often choosing some illustration or other to show his art director and/or his cinematographer to indicate what he wanted in a particular shot. Hitchcock understood art, incorporated artworks of historical significance into his films, and was a collector. Moreover, his approach to filling the blank canvas of the silver screen was that of an artist. Hitchcock’s critics accused him of favoring image over content and compared his films to live-action comic strips. (The director didn’t disagree.) Scriptwriters sometimes complained about working with him because he imagined visually powerful scenes, but was less concerned with how they connected to each other in a convincing narrative. At home, the pictorial action of Hitchcock’s personal art collection must have held his attention in much the same way. He liked selecting paintings about which he could make up stories, perhaps mentally constructing a sequence of storyboards to follow—the image of an ominous tree by French artist Chaim Soutine that hung in his dining room, for example, or the mosaic of birds designed by Cubist George Braque that Hitchcock commissioned for his garden.
Inasmuch as no published inventory of Hitchcock's art collection exists, and both artists executed several similar versions of each work, it's impossible to know precisely which paintings Hitchcock owned. In any case, they were likely much like these.
The Hitchcock art collection was housed here in
the couples' second west coast home located in Bel Air.


Monday, July 8, 2019

German Expressionist Churches

Notre dame du Chêne, Viroflay, France, 1966,
Louis, Luc, and Thierry Sainsaulieu, architects.
I've traveled over much of Europe and seen quite a number of ecclesiastic architectural masterpieces, and if you're like me you have a pretty firm grasp on what a monumental church should look like. That is, they would be Gothic, enormous in scale, soaring to awe-inspiring heights, graced with acres and acres of colorful stained glass, and decorated in excess with stone carvings, everything from saints to gargoyles. Most such churches took decades, sometimes centuries to erect with iconic, world-famous profiles such as Paris' Notre Dame and Rome's St. Peter's Basilica. If that's what you picture in your mind's eye, you're obviously unfamiliar with German Expressionist architecture, in this case as applied to churches.
Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Tokyo, Japan. 1964, Kenzo Tange, architect.
The war touched the churches of Japan as well.
Several factors come together to produce such architectural works of art. First, Germany has long been a hotbed of Expressionism, whether in painting, poetry, music, drama, sculpture or, in this case, architecture. Second, in the aftermath of WWII, many, if not most of the monumental churches of Europe sustained varying degrees of bomb damage from superficial to smithereens. In some cases, reconstruction was out of the question. Building anew offered economic savings, modern day practicality, and opportunities for budding postwar architects to stretch their wings.
Grundtvigs kirken, Copenhagen, Denmark, 1921-40,  Peder Vilhelm Jensen-Klint, architect.
Copenhagen’s Grundtvig’s Church (above) is a rare example of expressionist church architecture, and one of the most beautiful, not to mention well-known churches in that Danish city. The commission for the construction of a church to be named after the Danish philosopher and hymn writer N. F. S. Grundtvig was decided through a competition, won by Peder Vilhelm Jensen-Klint in 1913. The foundation of the new church was only laid after World War I, in 1921. Building took place mainly from 1921 to 1926 when the tower section was completed, leading to the initial inauguration of the so-called Tower Church in 1927. Further work on the interior and on adjacent buildings continued until 1940 and was completed by Klint's son Kaare Klint after his father's death in 1930. The church stands at the center of a residential development also in yellow brick, designed by Jensen-Klint in harmony with the church. The most striking feature of the building is its west façade, reminiscent of a westwork or of the exterior of a church organ. It includes the 160 ft. (49 meters) tall bell tower. The imposing façade with its strong verticality guides the eyes towards the sky. The bottom half of the tower is simple brick while the upper reaches present the appearance of one solid, rippling surface. Klint decorated the nave with a version of the stepped gables common on Danish churches, but reinterpreted by doubling the apex. The nave was designed with generous dimensions: the triple-aisled hall church is 259 ft. (76 meters) long in total and 115 ft. (35 meters) wide; the nave has a height of 72 ft. (22 meters). The interior, inspired by Gothic architecture and comparable in size to Copenhagen cathedral, fits a congregation of 1,440. Some five million yellow bricks, a typical Danish building material, were used for the edifice. In its floor plan, the interior resembles that of a typical Gothic church with a nave, two lateral aisles and a small transept. Its proportions are also Gothic: a long, narrow nave, an extremely high ceiling, the columns which rise up to pointed arches and the ribbed groin vaults above the nave and aisles. But it is the yellow brick and the lack of ornamentation which contribute to the Gothic verticality while adhering to the minimalist modern aesthetic. The church boasts two pipe organs.

Saint Moritz, Augsburg, Germany, 2013, John Pawson, architect.
Expression mixes with minimalism.
The church of St Moritz has been through many changes since its foundation nearly a thousand years ago. Devastating fires, changes in liturgical practice, aesthetic evolution and wartime bombing have each left their mark on the fabric of the building. The purpose of this latest intervention has been to retune the existing architecture, from an aesthetic, functional, and liturgical perspectives, with considerations of the sacred atmosphere always at the heart of the project. The work has involved the meticulous paring away of selected elements of the church’s complex fabric and the relocation of certain artifacts, to achieve a clearer visual field. Drawing on existing forms and elements of vocabulary, an architectural language has evolved that is recognizable in subtle ways as something new, yet has no jarring foreign elements. Augsburg is approximately a one hour drive from Munich. Stripping back, cleaning up, re-surfacing and adding the cleanest palest of materials, Architect, John Pawson has lifted the interior out of its historic straitjacket to a seemingly ethereal realm. The thin slices of onyx replacing the existing glass of the apse window completely reinforces this feeling.

Opstandingskerk, Amsterdam, 1956, Marius Duintjer, architect.
Architect Marius Duintjer is well-known for his large-scale projects like the ABN AMRO building at Vijzelstraat and the Nederlandse Bank at Frederiksplein, both in Amsterdam. These buildings are controversial for their use of ‘brutal’ concrete supposedly to create an atmosphere of tranquillity and space. They were not well-received by the people and their popular nicknames were not at all flattering. Visual artist Jan Rothuizen called the ABN AMRO office ‘a stranded cruise ship’ and in the eyes of the writer Rudy Kousbroek building the Nederlandse Bank where the Paleis voor Volksvlijt (Palace of Folk Industry). Others termed it "the most extreme act of vandalism in Amsterdam after the war." Duintjer once work for Le Corbusier. Still, he cannot be seen as a functionalist like his famous master. Duintjer’s oeuvre is diverse. This is evident when you compare the bank buildings to the various churches he designed, for which he does receive popular acclaim. Whereas concrete is the main material for his office buildings, light constitutes the most important element for his churches. In addition to the building where the services are held, the Opstandingskerk (Church of the Resurrection) in Bos en Lommer also contains a rectory and a community center. The impressive high windows in the nave demonstrate how light with its strong symbolic value became the leitmotif of the design. The church’s exterior stands out for its 48-metre high bell tower which gave it its nickname "de Kolenkit" (the coal scuttle). This too is the vox populi speaking.
Kirche am Hohenzollernplatz, Berlin, Germany, 1933, Johann Freidrich Höger, architect.
Kirche am Hohenzollernplatz (Church at Hohenzollernplatz) is the church of the Evangelical Congregation at Hohenzollernplatz, a member of today's Protestant umbrella Evangelical Church of Berlin-Brandenburg-Silesian Upper Lusatia. The church is located at the eastern side of Hohenzollernplatz square in Berlin's borough of Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf. The building is considered one of the premier pieces of Germany's Brick Expressionism. In 1927 the then wealthy congregation, whose parish then comprised the locality of Wilmersdorf, decided to build an additional church in the north of its parish. The congregation held a competition. Six or more architecture firms handed in their projects. An architect named Fritz Höger prevailed with the design of the architect Ossip Klarwein, who started to work with Höger by 1921. The construction lasted from 1930 to 1933. In March, 1933, the church was inaugurated. Soon after Klarwein, his wife and son emigrated to Mandatory Palestine, because of the Nazi takeover. Hohenzollernplatz is a testimonial to the unique quality of expressionist church architecture in Berlin. The naming of the church after the square was originally a solution for the time being, until another name might be chosen. Meanwhile the name became a brand, even though the debate goes on.
If you're one who thought all churches should be
beautiful, inside and out, this German expressionist
example of Art Brute might change your mind.


Monday, July 1, 2019

1880s Art

A May Morning in the Park, 1879-80, Thomas Eakins of Philadelphia, a shining star in the otherwise lackluster group of American artists of the 1880s.
In studying past eras of art, it's only natural that the further we go back from our own era, the less we are able to identify and admire the work of the painters, sculptors, and designers of the time. Gradually we come to the point that such studies are only of interest to artists and history buffs. Everyone else has a tendency to either yawn or laugh. Moreover, I have to start by disappointing all my American readers by noting here and now, that most of the outstanding art of the 1880s was not American. Sculpture and painting were both strong in the 1880s, but poster design from this era, with its Art Nouveau stylings, is often considered the most important artistic development of the time. And for those who like to laugh, I've included a fair sampling of the decade's design achievements in the creation of women's fashions. Sorry men, your clothes were as boring in the 1880s as the were in the 1870s and will be in the 1890s.

Dancers in the Wings, ca. 1880, Auguste Renoir. The strange cropping of the composition displays the influence of photography in Renoir's work.
Woman Sitting Under the Willows,
1880-81, Claude Monet

When people think of this era in art, painting seems first and foremost with impressionism for the first time starting to flex some muscle with the work of Claude Monet (right), Jean-Auguste Renoir (above), along with Degas, Paul Cezanne, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot, the only two women among the lot. As numerous as the struggling impressionists were becoming in Paris during the 1880s, they were outnumbered about ten to one by literally thousands of painters churning out work in the traditional academic style led chiefly by Alexandre Cabanel with mythical or allegorical works similar to Cabanel's Phèdre (below) painted in 1880. I should note that the 1880s was also the era of the American expatriates such as John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler.

Phèdre, 1880, Alexandre Cabanel
Strangely enough, some of the most important paintings of this era were done by relative unknowns. One of these is Changing Pasteur (below), painted in 1880, by Antoine Mauve (yes, the same as the color mauve). Mauve was not French, but Dutch, born in 1838. His work is neither Impressionist nor Academic (academicians seldom painted cows). Mauve settled at The Hague about 1870, painting in the neighboring fishing village of Scheveningen. There he became part of a group of artists known as the Hague school, whose members specialized in representing landscapes and scenes of rural life in the Netherlands. In 1885 he went to live in the country at Laren, near Hilversum, where he brought together a group of landscape painters who came to be known as the “Dutch Barbizon.” Mauve’s pictures are subdued in color and similar to those of Gustave Corot in their harmonies of grays and blues. Changing Pasteur was one of his major pictures. He was also an accomplished watercolorist. Perhaps more important than all this though, his wife happened to be a cousin of Vincent van Gogh, to whom Mauve gave advice about oil painting in 1881 and 1882.

Changing Pasteur, 1880, Antoine Mauve
In looking over Mauve's work it's hard to see that any instruction he may have given van Gogh was of much consequence. Their work looks absolutely nothing alike. However, keep in mind, the 1880s were van Gogh's "student" days in which he was struggling frenetically to absorb anything and everything he could about painting. These were the days of van Gogh's The Potato Eaters, created in 1885. Picture in your mind the bleak setting, the artists use (or misuse) of color, with the grim work-worn faces of his Dutch compatriots. Compare that image to what may, in fact be an earlier work, Angelus, a copy of Jean-François Millet's most famous painting by the same name. You can compare the two (below). And before you think the less of van Gogh, copying the works of the masters was considered an acceptable, indeed, highly effective means of learning to paint.

I'd give it about a B-.
Jean-Michel Papillon from France is considered to be the first poster designer and the inventor of the wallpaper. Back in 1675, he engraved rustic designs into woodworks in continuous, matching patterns. But due to a painstaking process of poster production, posters appeared very slowly. Artisans had to engrave a poster into a wooden block or metal sheets manually, with little or no design and color. Everything changed with the birth of the lithographic printing in 1796. Lithography was invented by The Austrian printer, Alois Senefelder as he was searching for an alternative to expensive metal plate engraving. He offered a series of lithos, metal or stone carvings, tinted with ink to make a print. A list of European poster designers of the 1880s would read much the same as a list of famous European painters with names such as British artist, Aubrey Beardsley, Austrian painter, Gustav Klimt, Czech painter, Alphonse Mucha, and of course the poster child of all the poster painters, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Toulouse-Lautrec was the first artist to elevate advertising to the level of fine art, creating a shift in history that acknowledged that an important work of art could be an everyday poster in a nightclub. Soon the mass media embraced posters for promotional purposes in France and throughout Europe. Printed advertisements appeared in newspapers, theatre and opera shows in Paris started using "poster advertisements" to announce important events. Publishers and writers appreciated the new poster art. In 19th century, great lithographic designers like Raffet, Gavarni and Johannot illustrated the most acclaimed masterpieces of French literary works.

A sampling of European poster art from the 1880s in the Art Nouveau style.
When discussing sculpture of the 1880s, there's Auguste Rodin, then there's everybody else. As with painting, there was impressionism and the academics. Impressionist sculpture? We might say Rodin was to sculpture what Monet was to painting. Although Rodin couldn't (or didn't) sculpt in color just about all other attributes of impressionist painting can be found in his iconic works such as the Burgers of Calais, the Gates of Hell, St. John the Baptist, Balzac, and many others. He has often been compared favorably to Michelangelo whom he studied and copied. The two representative pieces below are so familiar they need not be identified. However, the same cannot be said for the Academic "everyone else" sculptures directly below Rodin's work.

Impressionism in the round.
(Upper left) Salammbo, Bronze, Paris, 1880, Emile Bruchon,
(right) Flower Basin with a Nude Drying Her Foot, ca 1880s , Ricardo Aurili.

Informal and formal.

Men's dressing gown, ca. 1880

And on a lighter side, the 1880s marked what might be called the zenith of Paris haute couture. The French were the first to make an industry out of fashion, not just dress-making, and they have been exporting their style since the 17th century which is frankly before most of the world even realized what fashion was. Fashion has always existed at the crossroads of art and consumerism and never more so than in the 1880s. Of course we're not talking just about women's fashions. Men's clothing styles also frequently had their genesis in Paris. Men do care about fashionable attire, just not as much as women. Below is an illustrated chart I put together detailing what women chose to buy and wear each year (dates are approximations). I keep wondering how the ladies managed personal hygiene wearing such tight, constricting frocks.

The tailored look for outside, the frilly ruffles and ribbons to impress one another indoors.
1880s swimwear---not much
chance to get a tan.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Maintaining the Sistine Ceiling

Present day art preservations work over (or under) the entire ceiling every year  maintaining the work of Michelangelo as well as that of the original restoration team.
Over the past several years during which I've "gone on" about art, I've taken several opportunities to sing the praises of the most unsung heroes of at art world--the art preservationists. Each major museum has an entire department staffed by up to a dozen experts and technicians who labor daily at the task of restoring old art to the point it looks new again. Hopefully the results are much the same as when the original artist finished the work. Occasionally these skilled technicians are assigned some major work of historic importance which lands them on the back pages of the local press, complete with before and after shots as well as photos taken while their work was in progress. Of course, the holy grail of such assignments was the restoration of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling, begun in the mid-1980s and not finished until 1994. The project had involved a dozen restorers of the Vatican Museums and two interns who admitted how difficult it was to focus on just a few square inches of painting at a time while ignoring where they were and the wonderfulness of the heavenly masterpiece all around them.
The Prophet Daniel, before and after the original 1985-94 restoration.
Over seven-million visitors trek through the Sistine Chapel each year (I've been one of them) to admire both Michelangelo's ceiling and his famous Last Judgment behind the altar. That number of human beings can do a lot of damage. I'm not talking about deliberate harm but their body heat and their exhaling of carbon dioxide. The human body produces both heat and carbon dioxide. Protecting the frescoes against future damage was a key part of the restoration process. An air-conditioning system with some 92 sensors and necessitating 26km of wiring was installed to protect against rapid changes in air temperature and humidity. The air in the lower part of the building was to be kept cooler and circulate more rapidly to encourage dirt particles to fall to the floor rather than circulate up near the ceiling, while at the same time filtering out bacteria and chemical pollutants. The humidity must never be more than 60 percent and the carbon-dioxide level has to be kept lower than 800 parts per million. All these values have to be kept stable. But the number of people in the room makes that complicated. It can be one, or it can be a thousand. If they have to, technicians can completely change the air inside the chapel 60 times a day.
No, it's not some sci-fi monster but a movable platform from which preservation technician can work.

A master conservator demonstrates
a technique for removing contaminants
from a Botticelli fresco in the Sistine Chapel.
Throughout the day, a Vatican conservation technician monitors sensors in the Sistine Chapel that track all of the environmental variables. Yet, despite the Vatican’s best efforts, thin layers of contamination inevitably develop. Carbon dioxide reacts to the plaster of the frescos. Through the process of condensation and evaporation, bacteria accumulates. The result is an almost imperceptible whitish glaze of soluble salts above the surface of the painting. To prevent the work from being damaged, the staff cleans the frescos regularly and remove contaminants while they are still soluble, using a crane-like machine nicknamed the Spider—a Multitel SMX 250 self-propelled tracked platform (above)—to access the ceiling frescoes. Michelangelo would have loved one of these babies. Thanks to modern technology, reaching the ceiling of the Chapel may be a little easier these days, but no less daunting than when Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to paint the chapel ceiling in 1508. Michelangelo and his assistants carried out the work with the help of a system of wooden scaffolds that had to be taken down, moved and reassembled as the work progressed. Today, the ‘spider’, a type of glorified ‘cherry picker’ has replaced the wooden scaffolds.  It’s four legs anchor securely to the floor as restorers and cleaners, armed with soft cloths, vacuum cleaners and brushes are lifted the 15 meters (about 50 feet) in the air bringing them face to face with Michelangelo’s lunettes.

The preservation team at work.
When that modern-day restoration project ended in 1994, a new one began: the careful monitoring and preventative conservation of the works, which are now seen by close to seven million visitors each year. The name of the game is Constant vigilance. The delicate artworks are carefully monitored to make sure they are not threatened by contaminants brought in by hoards of visitors (more than 1,000 can crowd in at a time) who inadvertently track in dirt, dust, and leave behind traces of hair and skin. The dusting and cleaning of the Sistine Chapel’s covered some two-thousand, five-hundred square feet of painted surfaces. It involved a dozen restorers of the Vatican Museums as well as that many more professionals in the art of dealing with dirt. Also, in their efforts to preserve the ceiling, the Vatican has installed LED lighting that doesn’t emit UV rays and won’t cause the paintings to fade. There is also a special HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning) system, donated in 2014 by the Carrier Corporation, that keeps the temperature constantly between 22 and 24 degrees Celsius (71.6 to 75.2 degrees Fahrenheit). To keep out impurities, four diffusers bring in and take out air. At night, staff members painstakingly dust and vacuum the entire museum. (All dust is analyzed to detect bacteria or fungi.).
Cleaning the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. Barely noticeable in the photo is the long arm of the "Spider "(the Multitel SMX 250).
Maintaining the Sistine frescoes is slow, tedious, back breaking work, but no one complains. They all know it is an honor and a privilege to be part of this team. They take their responsibilities very seriously. Their nights in the Sistine Chapel will be the fodder for many a story during their lifetimes, to be told over and over again, including the part about the party they once threw for themselves after cleaning of the hand of God touching Adam, infusing him with the breath of life.
A semi-fictional look at what Michelangelo went through--


Monday, June 17, 2019

Lizzie Fitch & Ryan Trecartin

Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch pose at the opening of their movie/art exhibit, Whether Line at Fondazione Prada, (Milan, Italy) 2019.
Almost fifty years ago, I earned my B.A from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. About forty-five years ago, O.U. bestowed upon me a M.A. in Art Curriculum and Instruction. Athens, Ohio, is a strange little community, thought probably not as compared to other university towns. The estimated population is about 25,000, not including another 29,525 students (as of 2018). Perhaps most peculiar is that politically, it's a bastian of progressive liberalism deep in the heart of Trump country. It's an attractive little bastian straddling the Hocking River, nestled in the hills created by the moraine from the last ice age. For the most part, the people are friendly, sometimes to a fault (i.e. nosey). All this and probably more would likely account for the migration of the rising conceptual artist, Lizzie Fitch and her longtime partner, Ryan Trecartin (above) from the megalopolis of LA. to the quiet little "burg" sometimes referred to as "Harvard on the Hocking."
Overview of the (as of yet unnamed) amusement park still under construction roughly five miles east of Athens, Ohio.
A 55-foot watchtower along one
of the park's woodland hiking trails
Athens is also a rather unlikely site for an amusement park, not to mention movie sets and ghostly female figures straight from a "B" movie horror picture show. Yet those represent the creative presence of Fitch and Trecartin. The two were originally from Ohio. Their hyperkinetic video works have one thing in common: a sense of overload, both linguistic and visual, leaving the viewer pleasantly adrift. Whether Line, the center-piece of a new exhibition at the Fondazione Prada in Milan, is no exception. It’s a whirlwind tale of rural gentrification, Amish identity, queer dance parties, DIY real-estate projects, and what happens when Mid-western manners are confronted by surreal bad attitudes.

A closer look--the Fitch-Trecartin home, video studio, and would-be amusement park.
The two conceptual video artists began developing a tract of land into an ever-evolving video set. They built a massive house (above) as part of a postmodern fever dream that nonsensically Frankensteined unrelated design elements into one semi-cohesive whole. Fitch and Trecartin are now continuing to expand their land into a sort of art-damaged amusement park. Building such a place with their own hands has not been a "walk in the park." They had a landslide, a mudslide. There was an unprecedented rainfall, and none of the buildings were done in the way that we originally envisioned, because of extreme weather delays. Farmers were even getting FEMA money. They ended up digging out the mud with their bare hands. The house they made combines wildly different styles and features into one. It's almost ready to move into--except for the septic system.
The viewing room, replete with old-fashioned Amish rocking chairs.
Whether Line explores the idea of a culture clash between all of the characters seen in the movie. Lizzie Fitch notes that almost everyone they’ve met has been very open, accepting, and curious. hey do have one neighbor, though, who’s very extreme. He definitely inspired a lot of the content in the movie, indirectly and directly. But that’s just one person in a whole community around them. They tell people they're making a movie. Then they jokingly add that they’re building an amusement park. But it’s not really a joke. They are, it’s just not a traditional one. There are certain traits of reality TV that went into the conception of Whether Line, particularly peoples’ new relationship to acting, and also the fear of acting. Ryan Trecartin explains that years ago, if someone asked non-actors if they would be in a movie, it would be, "Hell yeah! I want to be in the movie!" Now, however, they ask questions: “What’s the context? Where’s it going to show? What’s the meaning?” Fitch believes everyone has a relationship to their mediated self. Today, a lot of people have a fear of context being weaponized. People are more wary. There is more anxiety around cameras than there was just five years ago.
A Whether Line production still featuring Lizzie Fitch, Jason Rankin, and Ryan Trecartin.
On the sets of Whether Line, it always seems like everyone involved is having a lot of fun, as if it’s all a big, sprawling, unwieldy party. However, some scenes are difficult and painful with everyone working really hard, often doing every line 25 times. Fitch points out that it looks like way more fun than it is. Of course there are other scenes that are really quite a lot of fun to shoot. It depends on how they decide to direct the script. Sometimes it’s line-by-line, very formal, and other times the script is little more than a suggestion. While there is an agenda to it, there is also a lot of space for improv and invention and for people to add content and ideas. Those shoots are usually a lot more fun.

Much of the film is about finding a perfect place to settle. Have these artists done so? Although Fitch and Trecartin seem to love their new creation in its most unlikely setting, there's also talk of maybe moving somewhere for a year to do their next project. They plan to continue to add to their Athens County park and build it out. At this point, exhaustion has set in. Fitch insists she's not going anywhere fast. "This is the first time we’ve ever owned anything. We’re definitely not going to sell it. This body of work has just started."

Production still from Whether Line

Monday, June 10, 2019

The Real Raphael

The Transfiguration, and Ascension of Christ into Heaven, 1516–20, Raphael--final work completed after the painter's death by an assistant.
If one were to question a group of art layman (non-artist) today asking them to name some of the painters of the Italian Renaissance, the responses would probably surprise (and dishearten) you. Virtually every response would include Leonardo and Michelangelo, artists we have come to know on a first-name basis. Fine, but after those two, would follow a lot of blank stares or blank space if this were a quiz. Actually there are enough painters alone to fill a whole sheet of notebook paper. Yet, there is at least one more Renaissance painter we often refer to by his first name yet he would likely land several lines down--that of Raphael (or Raphaello di Sanzio). And even though some might readily recognize and recall the name (even his last name), few people could identify even one of his works.
School of Athens, 1509-11, Raphael
Why is it then that we are somewhat familiar with the name, but are so unfamiliar with the work of Raphaello de Sanzio? Well, first he worked constantly in the shadow of Michelangelo...and a huge shadow it was. Second, while he could be relied upon to complete that which he started (unlike Leonardo), his one failing, if you could call it that, was that he never completed his own life. He died suddenly of a mysterious ailment in 1520 at the age of 37, leaving behind his one unfinished painting, his work depicting the Transfiguration and ascension of Christ into Heaven (later completed by an assistant). The third reason is that, while outliving both his rivals (Leonardo died in 1519), Michelangelo's star continued to rise (as did Leonardo's in spite of his death). With Raphael, that was not the case. He left a dozen or more major masterpieces but none were to become art icons. His School of Athens (above) comes closest, and is on a par with anything (other than Michelangelo's ceiling) done by the other two. However it seems his work was either too cerebral or too "sweet" (sometimes both at the same time) to have earned him the "superstar" status he so richly deserved. Though his memory glowed for a short time after his death, only in the 1800s did his work come to be really studied and admired again. Who knows, maybe it will take another hundred years or so before we can call to mind his Transfiguration (top) with the same ease we can Michelangelo's Last Judgment.

The Alba Madonna, ca. 1510, Raphael

Doni Tondo, 1507, Michelangelo
According to Renaissance hist-orian and architect, Giorgio Vasari, Raphael was the one who suggested Michelangelo for the commission in the hopes that he’d fail, since Michel-angelo was mostly known as a sculptor. Yet Raphael seems to have respected Michelangelo’s style: From the older artist, Raphael learned how to imbue the figures that inhabit his The Alba Madonna, completed in 1510, has a monumental quality. While Raphael was at work on The School of Athens, Michelangelo was painting his frescoes on the Sistine Ceiling. The Alba Madonna (above), completed in 1510, has a degree of monumentality not seen in Raphael's earlier works. We have only to compare Raphael's Alba with Michelangelo's Doni Tondo (right, completed in 1507) to gauge the effect Michelangelo works, both in the Sistine Chapel and elsewhere to get a first glimpse of the "Real" Raphael.

Raphael Self-portrait, 1506
However telling, Raphael's larger com-missions expose only one aspect of his personality and character. Born on Good Friday, April 6, 1483—the same day on which he’d eventually die—in Urbino, Raffaello di Sanzio took over his artisan father’s workshop as a teenager. In 1500, at 17 years of age, the boy received his first commission: an altarpiece for the church of Sant’ Agostino in Perugia, an assignment that would launch his precocious career. He began charming wealthy patrons from a young age, ensuring that he always had commissions to execute and money to spend. His self-portrait, painted around 1506, helps explain his success: Raphael rendered himself with long curly locks, searching brown eyes, smooth skin, and plush lips, glorying in his image as a sensitive, soulful aesthete. From his adolescent years on until his death, women found him attractive. Beyond this romantic reputation is a prolific artist who produced a varied body of work that brought Renaissance painting to its pinnacle. In his 2006 biography Raphael: A Passionate Life, Antonio Forcellino writes that the young artist “...acted as the interpreter of a very particular world, the dream of a golden rebirth to be brought about through literary studies and painting.” Raphael’s oeuvre likewise reveals a sense of “harmony, culture, and intellectual and sensual equilibrium.”

Lady with a Unicorn, 1505, Raphael
Two portraits, one from early in his career (above) and the other, painted over the final years of the artist's life (below) illuminate Raphael the man. Raphael's Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn, painted 1505 when the artist was twenty-two, depicts an elegant blonde woman holding a small unicorn, her head framed by two columns and a far-off landscape of green earth and blue sky. Yet for centuries, the picture showed a different scene. In the 1930s, conservationists revealed that the painting had undergone multiple revisions. Raphael had initially painted a dog instead of a unicorn. Then sometime in the 17th century, another artist had painted over Raphael’s composition entirely, turning it into a picture of St. Catherine holding a broken wheel, the symbol of her martyrdom. The vandal also added a shawl over the subject’s shoulders, which had originally remained bare. Subsequent scholars have come up with myriad interpretations of the painting. Some note its compositional similarity to Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, began around the same time, in 1503. Both women look out at the viewer with impenetrable glances and pursed lips, and the paintings similarly employ a half-length format in which their subjects appear seated, the frames cutting them off at their waists. But the identity of Raphael’s sitter, and the symbolic meaning of the unicorn, remain puzzles for historians. The mythical creature may have functioned as a symbol of purity: Legend maintained that only virgins could attract a unicorn. Of course, these virgins’ powers of persuasion also warned potential suitors of seductive cunning.

La Fornarina, 1518–20, Raphael
Through his painting, La Fornarinawe see Raphael at his most lascivious. Against a dark, leafy background, a woman with a bare torso and pert nipples holds a sheer cloth by her left breast, while her left arm, encircled with a blue band that reads “Raphael Urbinas" rests on her lap. A colorful turban wraps around her dark hair, which is elegantly parted down the center. Her large brown eyes look left, out of the frame. She was probably his lover Margherita Luti, a baker’s daughter, or fornarina. The armband is often interpreted as a token of the woman’s ownership rather than of the painting’s authorship.” Raphael died before he could complete the work, which remained in his studio for the remainder of his life, suggesting that the artist may not have intended it for public view. Even centuries later, the intimate portrait remains one of the most erotically charged paintings in Western art.


Monday, June 3, 2019

How Art is Priced

The Piano Lesson,  1923, Henri Matisse
In 2011, The Piano Lesson (1923 version, above) by Henri Matisse sold at auction for $10.8-million. It was expected to sell for more than $12-million. Just over a year ago I wrote as to why certain painted masterpieces of the past became famous while similar works did not. Today I'm going to discuss a related question, not from a historic point of view, but from an economic one. How do gallery owners set prices for their high-end fine art? And, moreover, how do the wealthy buyers of such art decide the prices they are willing to pay? And beyond that, we take a glimpse into the workings of today's art market.

The Stolen Mirror, 1941, Max Ernst
Max Ernst's The Stolen Mirror (above)from 1941 is a dream-like landscape which sold for £10.3million in 2011, (a record for the surrealist artist). The European collector who bought it accepted a loss, offloading the work for just £8m at Christie’s in February. Although there may seem, in some cases, to be no "rhyme nor reason" in the astronomical sums paid for paintings by artists such as Matisse, Picasso, Max Ernst, and Alberto Giacometti, there is a certain basic logic involved. In nearly all cases, to varying degrees, the following nine factors come into play--

       1. The name of the artist.
       2. The size of the artwork.
       3. The medium employed.
       4. The date created.
       5. The content.
       6. The provenance.
       7. Recognizability.
       8. The condition of the work.
       9. The rarity of the work.

Les-femmes d Alger (Version "O"), 1955, Pablo Picasso
Picasso’s 1955 oil painting Les-femmes d Alger (above) sold for $179,365,000 at Sotheby's last month. Perhaps most important of all these criteria is the name of the artist. A billionaire art collector would be unlikely to bid the same price for a Jim Lane painting as one by Picasso. Picasso is internationally famous, a major mover and shaker in several groups of artists during his era. I can barely move much less shake. Any art group I've ever headed has had little or no impact on the overall history of art. The impact of Picasso's work on the history of art is nearly inestimable. Picasso's work, from time to time, comes up for auction. So far as I know, my work has yet to be sold at auction.

Nymphéas en fleur,  1914-17, Claude Monet
The other price determining factors all involve characteristics of the work itself. For example, damaged work obviously bring lower prices. But also, evidence of restoration likewise lowers price.
,As to size, in general, the larger the work the higher the price, but only up to a point at which size influence becomes less and less important. The break point as to sizes for collectors involves dimensions they can comfortably display in their homes. Larger works are purchased for corporate and institutional collections. Works such as Monet's Nymphéas en fleur series from the Peggy and David Rockefeller collections, are often measured in feet or meters. Nympheas en Fleur (above) sold for $84.6-million. Even some museums would be hard-pressed to display canvases of such size.

Picasso's Tete de Femme, (1935), sold for £18.9-millon at a Sotheby's last month, a far cry from the £28m which the seller paid for the work at the auction house’s 2013 sale.
Oil paintings tend to bring a higher price than works on paper. An artist's primary medium will bring the highest prices. Mixed media prices tend to fall somewhere between those for paper and canvas, depending on the artist's style, size and content. Speaking of content, content--male buyers tend to prefer female figures with nudes fetching the highest prices. Portraits of unknown figures bring lower prices, and today religious are quite out of fashion for individual collectors. They thus bring lower prices. The date of a given work must be correlated with the various developmental stages most artists go through during their careers--early, transitional, and mature. An artist's mature work is usually priced higher than his or her earlier pieces when they are struggling to "find" themselves.
Typical Certificate of Provenance provided by the artist. Where art history begins. Some are less "fancy" than this, some far more so.

Bust of a Man, plaster, 1965.
Alberto Giacometti .
The term "provenance" (above) comes to us from the French and might best be equated to an animal's pedigree. It begins with the artist's signature and the date completed, usually rendered on the work itself, but also includes what amounts to a written history of the work from the time the piece is first sold by the artist (or his estate) to the current owner offering it for sale. It is a legal document, often coming to the fore in court cases. Works without provenance are little more that wall decorations.

And finally, art history comes into play as prices are often determined by the impact the artist's following or that of the individual work on the overall art scene A .Giacometti painting similar to the plaster sculpture at left was bought just before the credit crunch for £1.6 million . The price was estimated at £1.8-2.5 million at Christie’s but failed to find a buyer. Apparently Gia-cometti's stature in the history of art has suffered in recent years. Works by artists who have created a relatively small amount of work brings higher prices. Giacometti does not fit into that category. The 17th-century Dutch painter, Jan Vermeer does.


The dominant forces of the fine art market today.
High-end art is one of the most manipulated markets in the world. Who are these manipulators? Major gallery owners you've probably never heard of, and the two giant auction houses, Sotheby's and their rival,Christie's (above). Both are venerable, ancient institutions, Christie's dating from 1766, Sotheby's from a few years later in 1774. Both houses no longer sell only art but high end real estate, cars, jewelry and other expensive knick-knacks for the terminally wealthy. moreover both behemoths have auction floors in all the many centers of sophisticated wealth around the world. They cater to a clientele of art collectors different than consumers or investors in any other market. High-power art collecting is both time consuming and expensive, so collectors tend to be very wealthy. Art collecting is often more of an avocation than a utilitarian pursuit. Although there's joy in collecting beautiful things, the social benefits are a large part of that enjoyment. The high-end art collector is part of community of collectors who go to fairs together and enjoy a friendly rivalry in acquiring the work of certain artists. He’s spent his life in the company of major collectors, dealers, and artists. At the same time many collectors are skeptical of the industry. They see prices that are often bogus; Bad art often sells for too much. Some question the integrity of many dealers. Yet these same avid collectors each, believe they are well informed, rarely overpay and enjoy what they’ve acquired.
Auction Room, Christie's, circa 1808.
Price manipulation occurs at the elite end of the primary market. There exists a lower tier art market, full of small unknown, local galleries outside of large urban areas where prices are listed, transactions occur at that price, and the work is sold to whomever wants to buy it off the street. These collectors buy art simply because they love the work, Artists who sell at these types of galleries probably can’t support themselves selling their work. Galleries must invest many costly resources in the artists they represent. They mentor them by visiting their studios, fostering their relationship with collectors and plot their career. But they’ll probably only represent a rising artist for a short time as the artist progresses they’ll move on to a higher tier gallery. Galleries promote the artist by presenting their art at an exhibition or at an art fair like Basel. Before new work is shown, the gallery has already offered it to their preferred clients, which include museums as well as major public and private collections. Their motivation to select buyers is inclusion in a major collection that signals that an artist’s work has been endorsed by the art world. This can increase the value of the artist’s portfolio and catapult him into another tier of prestige. Galleries also want to know the buyer in order to keep track of the work. That way they can ensure it’s available for exhibitions in the future and that it won’t be sold on the secondary auction market.
How the art market works.
Many art experts today feel that we have finally reached a peak in art sales? Works by Matisse and Picasso are going for a song as the world’s leading auction houses report a slump in sales. It’s less than a year since Pablo Picasso’s Women of Algiers (Version O) set a new world record for the most expensive artwork to be sold at auction after reaching $179m (£115m) in New York. Now even Picassos are falling in price after a run of disappointing sales which has forced the leading auction houses to take radical action. When Sotheby’s and Christie’s held a series of impressionist and modern art sales not long ago, they collectively sold $210-million worth, a dramatic 45 per cent decline from the $381m total for similar sales the year before. Christie’s International, the world’s leading auction house by revenue, reported a 5 per cent decline in annual sales, ending five years of growth. Sales of postwar and contemporary art, Old Masters, 19th century and Russian art were among those in decline. In further sign that collectors are becoming more selective, Sotheby’s sold just 67 per cent of its 37 offered lots at one recent sale, for a total of $114 million, below its own expectations of a $123m return.

Vincent Price, legendary art collector.