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Monday, January 20, 2020

Bertoldo di Giovanni

Shield Bearer, 1470-80, Bertoldo di Giovanni
It's always difficult to say whether the outstanding success of an artist is the result of outstanding art instruction or simply hard work, talent, and persistence on the part of the individual. Both are, of course, important and the answer to that question may well be simply an exercise in intellectual rhetoric, in fact of little importance. Bertoldo di Giovanni was a pupil of the famous early Renaissance sculptor, Donatello. He worked in Donatello's workshop for many years, completing Donatello's unfinished works after his death in 1466, for example the bronze pulpit reliefs from the life of Christ in the Basilica di San Lorenzo di Firenze in Florence. The trademark style of Donatello is easily discernable in Bertoldo's Orpheus, (below left) dating from 1471 (before Donatello's death) and in his Hercules with the Apple of the Hesperides, (below, right) from the period 1470-75, (near the time of his master's death). Bertoldo's Shield Bearer (above) is also from this period.
Statuette of Orpheus,
1471, Bertoldo di Giovanni
Hercules with the Apple
of the Hesperides, 1470-75,
Bertoldo di Giovanni

Although Bertoldo was a better than average pupil, Donatello was in no danger of being eclipsed by his young assistant. That is not the case however with one of Bertoldo's pupil's. Bertoldo became the head of and primary teacher of the informal academy for painters and in particular for sculptors, which Lorenzo de' Medici had founded in his garden. At the same time, Bertoldo was also the custodian of the Roman antiquities there. Though Bertoldo was not a major sculptor, some of the most significant sculptors of their time attended this school, such as Baccio da Montelupo, Giovanni Francesco Rustici, Jacopo Sansovino, and most importantly, a young man named Michelangelo Buonarotti. 

Bertoldo di Giovanni
In 15th-century Florence, Lorenzo de’ Medici financed the Medici Sculpture Garden, an academy for artists that is recognized as one of the most important gathering places in Western art history. The garden was an oasis of Roman marvels enveloped by the cloisters of the Convent at San Marco. In the center of that garden was a sculpture (possibly one of those mentioned above) which attracted Ber-toldo's ambitious, talented, and most prom-ising young student--Michelangelo--inspiring him to study antiquity and produce art for noble patrons.
The Medici family, who ruled Florence for over three centuries, were the period’s most important patrons. Bertoldo occupied a privileged position at the center of the political and aesthetic landscape of Florence. In working for the patron that is the tastemaker of the city, the position gave Bertoldo a bit of artistic freedom, putting him at the center of the dialogue between ancient arts and literature.
Battle with Hercules, 1478, Bertoldo Di Giovanni
With the Medici family behind him and their vibrant art collection at his fingertips, Bertoldo was free to produce art of the highest quality. Bertoldo’s mastery of bronze and skillful reimagining is embodied by a show-stopping battle scene (above, ca. 1478). While the piece mimics the format and subject of classical sarcophagi, it achieves a new level of robust dynamism. The triumphant Roman warriors and their horses rise to the top of the jumbled mass as their barbarian foes suffocate beneath them. Lorenzo entrusted Bertoldo to cultivate the next generation of Renaissance geniuses as the principal educator and curator at the Medici Sculpture Garden. A young Michelangelo was among Bertoldo’s pupils who would become one of the most celebrated artists in history. Little did Bertoldo know that the same pupil that would bring his school great glory would also lead to the destruction of his own legacy.

Bellerophon and Pegasus, 1486, Bertoldo di Giovanni
Michelangelo celebrated and fashioned himself as a self-taught artist who was divinely blessed with his abilities, and therefore obviously Bertoldo would not have played a role in the narrative that he was constructing for himself. Michelangelo is very explicit that no one gave him real training,” Noelle said. The eclipsing of Bertoldo’s legacy was intensified by his death in 1491 and the death of his patron Lorenzo months later. In the 16th century, Giorgio Vasari wrote the foundational text of Italian art history—Lives of the Artists (1550)—and left Bertoldo out of his manuscript almost entirely, having everlasting effects on Bertoldo’s reputation. When you have Michelangelo himself erasing Bertoldo, and when you have a founding art historian (especially an Italian one) negating Bertoldo’s role, coupled with the exile and fall of the Medici, it didn’t create a good environment for Bertoldo’s artwork.

Madonna of the Stairs, 1491,

As one of Giovanni’s most outstanding students Michelangelo, at the age of 15, was invited to stay at the palace and study under Giovanni. While at the school under Giovanni’s instruction Michelangelo’s work included two marble reliefs, Madonna on the Stairs (right) and Battle of the Centaurs. Madonna of the Stairs is a piece that shows much influence from Donatello’s low relief. Battle of the Centaurs (below. left) is a variation of a bronze piece that Giovanni had created, Battle of the Horsemen which Giovanni seemed to have based on an ancient manuscript. While the structure and training process of the school is unknown, it most certainly would have been an educational and inspirational environment in which to learn.
Battle of the Centaurs, 1492, Michelangelo

In the final analysis, we come to the age-old quandary as to whether a young person is more influenced by nurture (Bertoldo's instruction) or by nature (Michelangelo's innate talent). Initially Vasari and es-pecially Michelangelo himself considered his own efforts as solely responsible for his fame--sheer genius--nothing else. It has only been in more recent years that art scholars have chosen to take a closer look at the other side of the coin. That inspiration was at least as important in Mich-elangelo's case as "perspiration." 

Lorenzo de-Medici il Magnifico,
Bertoldo di Giovanni.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Leonardo in Depth

Juxtaposing the two versions of Leonardo's masterpieces
allows us to peer into the artist's mind over a
period of thirteen years (1495-1508)
The next time you find yourself in a group discussing art, try dropping the word "synesthesia." Nine times out of ten, you'll be the only one in the room who has ever heard the word before, and almost certainly the only one who can define and understand its full meaning. Synesthesia is a blending or interchanging of sensory experiences. For instance, synesthetes might be able to "smell" or "hear" colors. Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue would be a good example. Although the word is not commonly used, when it is, all too often it has been co-opted, considered ‘cool,’ and/or used as a kind of vague sensory metaphor for any and all aesthetic experiences much like OCD when used conversationally to describe any mildly neurotic behavior. As applied to art, which is virtually all-visual synesthesia points toward a broad yearning for a more multi-sensory experience. Museums survive on this assumption. They permit a totally immersive experience, impossible to appreciate from a distance or from a book. You’ve got to step through the door, past the frame, and do more than just look. Leonardo's two versions of Virgin of the Rocks (above) is an excellent example of synesthesia.
Virgin of the Rocks, (1495-1508), Leonardo da Vinci,
(now in the Louvre).
In Milan, 1491, a frustrated Leonardo da Vinci began his second attempt at fulfilling a commission he’d received almost a decade earlier. The Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception had contracted him, in 1483, to produce an image of “Our Lady with her son...done in oil to perfection” as the center panel of a new altarpiece. Having arrived in Milan only the year before to offer his services to the Sforza family, Leonardo was eager to flex his talents. He was already famous in his hometown of Florence. But the work he initially offered, now in the Louvre, was rejected by the order. In 15th-Century Italy, contracts between painters and patrons were often very specific about the devotional content of the pictures. Patrons, not painters, decided what the image should be. At the same time, there was also great emphasis on the material elements of the image. Certain pigments, like ultramarine and gold were valued highly, and specified in the contract’s terms. By the later decades of the century, it was the artist’s individual skill which became prized, thus the emphasis on “done to perfection” in Leonardo’s contract with the Confraternity. This shift in the mid-1400s was seismic, and indeed paved the way for much of our value-system in modern art.
Washington's National Gallery encourages viewers to "absorb"
Leonardo, not just "look and leave."
However, during the years when Leonardo labored so intensely on these two works, patrons were still very particular about what they wanted to have depicted. And so the two versions of Madonna of the Rocks constitute a physical record of a genius talent working within the professional confines of his time. It’s not in the chosen content, nor in the picture as a whole, that we find the particulars of Leonardo’s unmistakable and unmatchable mind. It’s in certain details of composition, technique, and painterly code that we can "feel" his singular vision. Leonardo’s Madonnas are ideal in addressing this totally immersive experience.
Virgin of the Rocks, (1495-1508), Leonardo da Vinci,
(now in London's National Gallery).
The Virgin of the Rocks is sometimes referred to as the Madonna of the Rocks) are of the same subject, and of a single composition which is identical except for several significant details. The version generally considered the prime version, the earlier of the two, is unrestored and hangs in The Louvre in Paris. The other (above), which was restored between 2008-2010, hangs in the National Gallery, London.(I've seen them both.) The paintings are nearly 2 meters (over 6 feet) high and are painted in oils. Both were originally painted on wooden panel, but the Louvre version has been transferred to canvas. The two paintings show the Madonna and child Jesus with the infant John the Baptist and an angel, in a rocky setting which gives the paintings their unusual name. The significant compositional differences are in the gaze and right hand of the angel. There are also many minor ways in which the works differ, including the colors, the lighting, the flora, and the way in which sfumato (haze) has been used. Although the date of an associated commission is documented, the complete histories of the two paintings are unknown, and lead to speculation about which of the two is earlier. The two paintings of the Virgin of the Rocks, are the same in subject matter and in overall composition, indicating that one is derivative of the other. The two paintings differ in compositional details, in color, in lighting and in the handling of the paint. Both paintings show a grouping of four figures, the Virgin Mary, the Christ child, the infant John the Baptist and an angel arranged into a triangular composition within the painting and set against a background of rocks, and a distant landscape of mountains and water. In both paintings, Mary makes the apex of the pyramidal figure group, stretching one hand to include John and raising the other above the head of the Christ child in a blessing. John kneels, gazing towards the Christ child with his hands together in an attitude of prayer. The Christ child sits towards the front of the painting, supported by the angel, and raising his right hand in a sign of Benediction towards the kneeling John.
Compositional diagram, Virgin of the Rocks (Louvre version)
Compositionally, all the figures are slightly larger in the London painting than in the Louvre painting. The main compositional difference between the two paintings is that while in the London painting, the angel’s right hand rests on his/her knee, in the Louvre painting the hand is raised, the index finger pointing at John. The eyes of the angel are turned down in a contemplative manner in the London painting, but in the Louvre picture are turned to gaze in the general direction of the viewer. In the London painting, all the forms are more defined, including the bodily forms of the clothed figures. The rocks are painted in meticulous detail, while the forms of the background in the painting in the Louvre are all more hazy. The contrast between light and shade on the figures and faces in the London painting are all much sharper. The faces and forms in the Louvre painting are more delicately painted and subtly blurred by sfumato. The lighting in the Louvre painting is softer and appears warmer, but this may be the result of the tone of the varnish on the surface. In keeping with their conservative handling of Leonardo's works, the Louvre version has not undergone significant restoration or cleaning.
Angel musician side-panels by students of Leonardo (1490-95).
Two further paintings are associated with the commission: side panels each containing an angel playing a musical instrument and completed by associates of Leonardo. These are both in the National Gallery, London. The angel in red, is thought to be the work of Ambrogio de Predis while the angel in green is thought to be the work of a different assistant of Leonardo, perhaps Francesco Napoletano. In both cases the angel is standing in a grey painted niche. A reflectogram of the Angel in green with a Vielle revealed part of a painted landscape. The background of the Angel in red with a Lute could not be determined because the grey paint on that painting is thick and opaque. While it is commonly thought that the two angel panels were originally placed on either side of the central panel, an article published by the National Gallery suggests that they were placed higher up on the altarpiece.
Conjectural arrangement of the altarpiece images.


Monday, January 6, 2020

Sabin Howard

The clay model for Sabin Howard's A Soldier's Journey,
a large scale, high-relief sculptural "mural" to be installed
in Washington D.C. not far from the White House in 2024.

For many Americans today, World War I carries little meaning. It was simply the war which came before World War II. In a sense, that's true in that the Treaty of Versailles, which ended the First World War. sewed the seeds of German discontent leading to WW II. (The last veteran of the First World War died in 2009 at the age of 111.) Some time ago I wrote on the Panthéon de la Guerrea, giant, French, wall mural honoring those who fought in World War I as well as their leaders. Cut down, restored, and heavily "edited" it now adorns the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City. Except for Arlington's original Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (now containing the unknown soldier remains of three American wars), this country seems to have consigned World War I to the dusty archives of military history.
Sabin Howard poses before a clay model, which will eventually be cast in bronze.
The brilliant American sculptor, Sabin Howard, is twenty weeks into his work on the final modelling stage of A Soldier’s Journey (top), which will eventually become the United States’ National World War One Memorial. The 60 foot long figurative bronze was approved for installation in Pershing Park, next door to the White House in Washington, D.C. by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts last May. Until now, Washington has had no official monument to the sacrifice of the American armed forces in the Great War. Howard's wife, novelist Traci Slatton in her book, Truth Be Told, details the planning process as “a real trial by fire.” The project had to be approved by five different government agencies in Washington. At first, the Commission of Fine Arts wanted to block the sculpture, and Howard thought the proposal might be dismissed, but adroit political maneuvering persuaded its members to sway. His proposal moved from concept to approval in record time, taking only two and a half years. In comparison, the radical architect Frank Gehry’s proposal for his memorial to General Eisenhower had taken fifteen years to arrive at the construction stage.

Sabin Howard–A Soldier’s Journey, Initial Drawing, Eighteenth version.

Howard’s sculpture painstakingly tells the dramatic story of a soldier’s journey to war and his return home, arranged cinematically in a sequence of scenes, which seamlessly blend together. Reading the narrative of the sculpture is an extraordinarily emotional experience. First, we see the soldier’s daughter handing him his helmet, and his departure from his wife is a scene of outstretched arms and high drama; he is encouraged to stride forward into the ranks by an officer, then charges headlong into battle, which is cleverly sculpted as a moment of violent intensity where some of his comrades fall, either dead or injured. Shellshock is perfectly captured in the form of the soldier facing directly out toward us, interrupting the flow of action from left to right, and forcing viewers to consider not only the horrible death experienced by many of the soldier’s comrades, but also his own experience of surviving that horror. Staggering from the violence, he is supported by female nurses, asw we witness him among the men marching home with stars and stripes aloft, and, in a moment of true pathos handing his helmet back to his daughter in the final scene. Thus, Howard’s cathartic sculpture honors not only the dead heroes of the war, but also memorializes the commitment of the families who were left behind and the trauma of the soldiers who returned transformed by their awful experiences. It emphasizes unfashionable but honorable traditional values such as duty, self-sacrifice, service to the nation, and the family. Howard says it will be “a visceral experience” for the hundreds of thousands of people who will see it.
A scale drawing of the final segment of the sculpture.
With the approval of the Commission of Fine Arts, the work of creating the full-size sculpture began. The figures were scanned from real-life military re-enactors, whose three-dimensional forms were captured using 3D photogrammetry at the Pangolin Editions foundry in Stroud, England. These scans were used to make full size 3D prints Of course, these prints are crude and lack the detail and vigor of a finished work, so they were shipped in a container from England to Howard’s New Jersey atelier, where he and two skilled assistants now work with their hands in clay on the final modelling stage. Howard says this stage will transform the scans, which resemble figures at Madame Tussaud’s wax museum, into real artistry.

There is a personal family connection in Howard's work. His daughter Madeline is the model for the little girl who begins and ends the narrative, and his wife, novelist Traci Slatton, who is also the project manager for the sculpture, appears as a nurse in the parade scene. The narrative of the sculpture is based on Joseph Campbell's Hero’s Journey. Howard’s team has raised $35-million of the $40-million needed to complete A Soldier’s Journey. He is confident that the remaining funds will soon be gathered.
Model,  Evelyne Christina Tonn
posing as the wife and mother.

It has taken over three years of hard work to get to the point of having the full-sized 3D armature prints, Howard hacks at the foam forms with a long knife, tearing off unsatisfactory chunks of the sculpture, tossing them aside, then reworking the figures with clay, carefully examining his models, who pose for him in replicas of WW I uniforms, their arms propped up with two by fours. Once the full-sized sculptural model is complete, it will be shipped in sections to Stroud, England, where the bronze will be poured.
(From left to right) Anger, Man, and Faces, Sabin Howard
Sabin Howard was born in New York in 1963. His work has been featured in exhibitions at the Winfield Gallery and American Legacy Fine Arts as well as in articles for the ARTnews, The Brooklyn Rail and The Epoch Times. In his book, The Art of Life, which he co-wrote with his wife, Traci, Howard explores figurative sculpture from the earliest times to the present. In addition to his own work, Howard showcases the work of ancient and classical sculptors, including that of Michelangelo, Bernini, and Canova. The book also details Howard's clay-to-bronze process, his philosophy, and his drawings.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Beautiul Art Museums

Niterói Contemporary Art Museum, Niterói, Brazil
A few years ago I was fortunate enough to visit the Guggenheim Museum of Art on New York City's Fifth Avenue. Aside from their display of a working solid gold toilet, the brainchild of contemporary artist Maurizio Cattela, I found the museum's art offerings decidedly underwhelming. However, I was not disappointed. I had taken time from my week of New York City museum hopping not to admire the Guggenheim's art but to take in Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural landmark with its upward swirls, sensuous curves, acute angles, and cavernous rotunda. I came face to face with a museum in which the architecture boldly competed with the art it displayed, and in fact, overwhelmingly won the competition. Ever since the museum first opened its doors on October 21, 1959, Wright's design and the museum itself have been controversial for that very reason. Moreover Wright's design broke the mold as to traditional museums of all kinds. Some critics, myself included, have often bemoaned this trend, but with few exceptions every art museum built since 1959 has shared the same trait. That having been said, perhaps it's time we stopped thinking of art museums as mere housing for the world's greatest art but instead accepted them as art masterpieces in their own right. The Guggenheim is as much an art masterpiece as the Mona Lisa or the ancient Venus de Milo.
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City, 1959, Frank Lloyd Wright.
Overlooking Guanabara Bay, the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum (top) looks like something out of a science fiction film when viewed from afar. Designed by Oscar Niemeyer – a well-known Brazilian architect key to the development of modern architecture, the museum is notable not just for its contemporary art collection. There's also a gallery which shows off a fantastic view including the bay, and Rio de Janeiro and Sugarloaf Mountain across the water. Though seen as a second generation in museum design (completed in 1996), it's not difficult to discern the influence of Wright's Manhattan masterpiece (above). Its most notable feature remains the cylindrical gallery with a ramp inside that extends from ground level up to the ceiling skylight in a long, continuous spiral. The Guggenheim's collection features Impressionist, early modern and contemporary art, including paintings by Paul Cézanne and Vasily Kandinsky. The museum's cubist office annex (lower image) was nearly as controversial as the museum itself. Critics lamented the departure from Wright's upward swirls in favor of the cubist addition. However, in comparing the two photos above, the annex does not compete with Wright's design but in fact augments it, serving as a unimposing backdrop hiding the hideous New York high-rises apartments just to its north. One can only wish that a similar structure could isolate the museum from the east
Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain, 1997, Frank Gehry
Having not seen the Guggenheim's other major art temple in Bilbao, Spain, it's hard to imaging an even more radical museum design. Like the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum, the Guggenheim Bilbao (above) is a second generation offspring of Wright's radical departure. It was designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry and inaugurated in 1997. Since then, the museum has housed more than a hundred exhibitions, including an epic 300-piece overview of 20th-century art. As with the New York Guggenheim, the museum further changed the way both architects and people think about museums. The impact of the new museum on the city was so great that it's now known as the Bilbao effect--when a single cultural project can revive a destination.
Foundation Louis Vuitton, Paris, France, 2006, Frank Gehry
Another architectural influence upon Frank Gehry is Frank Gehry himself as seen in the Louis Vuitton Foundation Museum and Cultural Center in Paris, France. The museum is dedicated to the legendary French fashion designer and created to support the contemporary arts. Frank Gehry, took inspiration not just from his own Bilbao creation but from the clouds when designing the building. The structure also pays homage to other huge glass buildings in Paris, most notably the Grand Palais, and houses 11 different galleries across two floors. Every year the Foundation organizes major exhibitions, bringing together significant works of modern and contemporary art from around the world. Visitors can also discover works from emerging artists, featured in the Open Space program, as well as the Collection of the Foundation that reveals itself through display series.
Museo Soumaya, Mexico City, 2011, Fernando Romero
Located on Mexico City's Nuevo Polanco, architect Fernando Romero's Museo Soumaya (above), suggests what Wright's Guggenheim might look like if turned inside out. Consisting of two buildings--Plaza Carso and Plaza Loreto--Museo Somaya is a private museum housing an impressive collection of more than 66,000 works from 30 centuries of art including sculptures from Pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica, 19th- and 20th-century Mexican art and an extensive repertoire of works by European old masters and masters of modern western art such as Auguste Rodin, Salvador Dalí, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo and Tintoretto. It is called one of the most complete collections of its kind. Recognizable by its unusual curved lines, the exterior of the building is covered in 16,000 hexagonal aluminum tiles while the interior opens into a large white gallery. Mexico's former president Felipe Calderón praised it for offering Mexicans a chance to view great art at home.
Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Santiago Calatrava
Somewhere, in some architectural handbook, it seems to be written that all 21st-century art museum must look like alien spacecraft about to soar into the clear blue sky. Far from Wright's curvilinear tradition, the Milwaukee Art Museum, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava has created a museum containing a movable, wing-like brise soleil (an architectural feature that reduces heat gain by deflecting sunlight), opening up to a total wingspan of 217 feet (66m) during the day and folds over the arched structure at night. The Milwaukee Art Museum is actually comprised of three separate buildings but its Quadracci Pavilion that's the most noteworthy. Although it holds one of the largest collections of works by Wisconsin native Georgia O'Keeffe, like all the rest, the building itself receives just as much attention.
Musée du Louvre, Paris, France, 1989, I.M. Pei
Not to be outdone by the rival Guggenheims, Paris' Louvre has made a few waves in museum design circles starting with its new glass pyramid entrance designed by the Chinese-American architect I.M.Pei is surrounded by three smaller pyramids, in the main courtyard (Cour Napoléon) of the Louvre Palace. The large pyramid serves as the main entrance to the Louvre Museum. Completed in 1989,it has become a landmark of the city of Paris. The pyramid and the underground lobby beneath it were created because of a series of problems with the Louvre's original main entrance, which could no longer handle the enormous number of visitors on an everyday basis. Visitors entering through the pyramid descend into the spacious lobby then ascend into the main Louvre buildings.

Louvre Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi, UAE, 2017, Jean Nouvel
About as far removed from Pei's glass pyramid and virtually every other recent art museum is the Louvre's Abu Dhabi museum located in the United Arab Emirates. With its simple lines, vast reflective pool and graceful dome, the museum opened in 2017. It immediately exceeded one million visitors in its first year. The 35,000-strong collection includes artworks from around the world, with a particular focus on bridging the gap between Eastern and Western art. The museum building's most notable feature is its web-patterned dome that appears to be floating. It's located in Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Island's Cultural District. Designed by architect Jean Nouvel, the Louvre Abu Dhabi aims to complement the other Emirati museums in an effort to transform the art and cultural scene in the Middle East.

Victoria & Albert Museum, Dundee, UK, Kengo Kuma
Museum architectural masterpieces are not just the province of Western architects. In the unlikely venue of Dundee, UK, Japanese architect Kengo Kuma has taken radical museum design to, or very near, its outer limits with his Victoria & Albert Museum, an offshoot from the V & A Museum in London. The museum is located on the east coast of Scotland and is the first V&A museum outside of London. It's obvious the architect owes nothing to Wright or Gehry, or any other pioneer designer of either the 20th- or 21st-centuries. The building's exterior is inspired by the eastern cliff edges of Scotland and occupies a space on the newly redeveloped Dundee waterfront. The original completion date was 2017 but it was delayed to 2018. During construction a cofferdam was installed to allow the outer wing to expand onto the River Tay while 780 tons of pre-cast grey concrete slabs were added to the outside of the building at a cost of £80.1- million to complete. Is it beautiful? Let's just say that the old adage "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" is nowhere more fitting.

Hanoi Museum, Hanoi, Vietnam, 2010, Meinhard von Gerkan, Nikolaus Goetze, Klaus Lenz
Perhaps owing some debt to I.M. Pei, there can be little doubt that Meinhard von Gerkan, Nikolaus Goetze, Klaus Lenz, though not oriental, have flawlessly incorporated Asian aesthetics into their Hanoi Museum, Hanoi, Vietnam. The pyramid is inverted and inside sloping ramps remind one of Wright's creation. The Hanoi Museum houses an impressive collection of pieces that cover the last 1,000 years of Hanoi's history, culture and architecture. The museum can be accessed by a central atrium that expands, floor by floor, into the exhibition space with the top floor purposefully built so that the visitors feel like they're floating over the landscape. The building, finished in 2010, was also designed to offer shade to the bottom floors and improve the building's energy efficiency.

Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, 2002, Tadao Ando
I have saved the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, to this spot near the end because it stands nearly alone both as a quietly beautiful art museum, but one which in no way competes with the art offerings inside. Designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando and opened to the public in 2002, the museum building consists of five large pavilions set into a reflecting pond. The Modern's permanent collection currently consists of more than 3,000 pieces, including works by Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock and Cindy Sherman. The Museum currently showcases up to 150 works of art in its 53,000 square feet (4,900 m2) of gallery space. The majority of works in the collection are dated in between 1945 and present. The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth maintains one of the foremost collections of international modern and contemporary art in the central United States. Various movements, themes, and styles are represented, including abstract expressionism, color field painting, pop art, and minimalism, as well as aspects of new image painting from the 1970s and beyond, recent developments in abstraction and figurative sculpture, and contemporary movements in photography, video, and digital imagery.

Ordos Museum, Ordos, China--better known as
"the blob."


Monday, December 23, 2019

Christmas Gift Wrapping

If this makes you cringe, there's also the ever-popular gift bag
--not very creative but it serves the purpose.

By the time you read this, with any luck you will have wrapped up your Christmas gift wrapping. If, however, wrapping Christmas gifts is something you dread, come Christmas Eve you may still be wrestling with tissue-thin colored paper, yards of shiny ribbon, cellophane tape, and a whole box of machine-made bows you saved from last year...or the year before that. This is not just about disguising the contents of your gifts in order to enjoy the element of surprise and delight you see on a loved-one's face as they rip to shreds all your best efforts to make the gift attractive...or at least, presentable. Here I've culled outstanding examples of the gift-wrapper's art with the accent on the many different creative opportunities this peculiar artform has to offer. 

First of all, how NOT to wrap gifts.
Perhaps more important than how not to wrap gifts is when not to wrap gifts. Two factors are involved here--size and shape. If the cost of the giftwrap begins to rival that of the gift, STOP, find the biggest bow you can buy, placing it prominently on the object and forget about the element of surprise (below). Likewise if the gift does not come in a box--six sides, four corners--don't even try. Even the experts will sometimes bungle such items. In such a case, fall back on the old gift bag (some of which are HUGE) then let the recipient deal with all that paper or plastic. In such cases a white trash bag with an attractive ribbon and bow might be the answer.
Laugh if you wish, but such silly extravagance happens from time to time.
I once tried to giftwrap a football.
Thinking outside the box often results in some really memorable gifts. For instance, where is it written that wrapping a gift must hide the contents? One of the most difficult wrapping chores is that of wrapping clothing (without the store-bought box). However, if the item is quite attractive in its own right perhaps all that is needed is a little ribbon, some patience, and an attractive bow (homemade or one from a store). The white sweater below is a beautiful example.
Hassel-free, creative, and attractive--the perfect solution.
Very often your choice of giftwrap can create problems. If your paper has stripes, by all means see that they match up on the back of the gift. Otherwise, use something with a more random design. Likewise, keep in mind the age and gender of the recipient. Stores are full of paper loaded with whimsical Santas, reindeer, snowmen, etc, which is find for children's gift. Something a bit more conservative would be better suited to grandpa's new shirt and tie giftset.
A tidy little package with ribbon
well-proportioned to the stripes.

There's nothing subtle here.
In deciding the appearance of your gift, there is a broad range of possibilities, from a nearly monochromatic gold on white (below), for instance to the giant red bow fastened with a rhinestone pin (left). Here the personality and age of the recipient may be the most important factor. In general, the more expensive the gift, the more conservative one should be in designing the giftwrap presentation. If your recipient comments, "It's too pretty to unwrap," you know you've made an impression and have done your job well.
Silver and gold on white cries out
that you've spared no expense or
effort on your gift.

In recent years there has been a growing trend toward the use of evergreens as an integral part of sophisticated gift design. Such sprigs may be live or simulated, the effect is much the same. Using natural Christmas decorations often eliminates all but the simplest of bows and may, in fact, not involve ribbons at all but colorful yarn or simple pieces of twine in adding the finishing touches to your gift. 
Thinking outside the box is fun. Dare to be risky.
Nothing smells more like Christmas than
evergreens or cinnamon sticks.
When my wife was growing up back in the 1960s, the family lived on a dairy farm and con-sequently money was always in short supply. Her father con-sidered gift wrap to be hor-rendously wasteful. Actually, he was right about that. In any case, for several months before Christmas my mother-in-law be-gan to save the color comics section of the newspaper, using it to wrap gifts for my wife and her two younger sisters. The adults got their gifts wrapped in plain, ordinary newsprint. My own mother was almost equally frugal. She wrapped our gifts in multiple layers of plain, white tissue paper, sometimes with a little ribbon, but usually not. Today, we would call these tra-ditions "less is more." Later on, my mother would buy an economy roll of children's giftwrap. All our gifts were wrapped the same. We had to look carefully for our names on each present to make sure we weren't opening one another gifts. Examples below suggests that with a few colorful bows, ribbons, and ingenuity, newsprint has not gone out of style.

Today, I'm partial to bright, shiny, foil gift wraps,
perhaps as a reaction to my deprived childhood.
And finally, few things are more "Christmasy" than cookies and candy (below). For those household without pets, these items tied in with the bows. become tasty gifts upon gifts, great for ruining kids' appetites before the big Christmas day meal. Incidentally, a thoughtful pre-Christmas gift for neighborhood friends would be a "gift wrapping kit" (below) consisting of a few rolls of paper, lots of tape, and various bows and ribbons which don't look "used." Distributed in person at the front door, such thoughtfulness might result in a reciprocal gift of pumpkin or pecan pie. Gotta go now, I still have a few more items on my giftwrapping table to disguise and decorate.

A sweet, tasteful way to add an extra element of excitement to
the Christmas morning orgy of gift giving.

A thoughtful, relatively inexpensive
gift for friends next door.


Monday, December 16, 2019

1870s Art

American Progress, 1872, John Gast
In the hope of not sounding immodest, I like to think I've come to know a great deal about art, especially painting. Yet, one of the most difficult aspects of art appreciation is knowing what works of art are "important" and which ones are merely attractive footnotes to the archives. For me the the tendency is to be too inclusive as to works that are groundbreaking and those which are not. In researching just this question I sat aside more than eighteen pieces by almost that many artists which a layman art lover should recognize as "important." That's far too many for an article such as this so I am still faced with the question of what to include and what to let slide by. I find it comforting to realize that even so-called "art experts" with art knowledge far excess of mine have the same difficulty. The 1870s might well be considered the most important decade in art of all the 19th-century. For example, John Gast is a little-known American painter. Likewise, the same is true of his American Progress (top) painted in 1872. Yet the style and theme are so typical of the early 1870s in American art, I decided it would be as good a point of departure as any in exploring the art of this decade.

The Birth of Venus, 1879, William-Adolphe Bouguereau
Why is this particular decade in art history so important in the overall scheme of things? With a couple major exceptions (Picasso and Matisse for example) virtually every artist from this nascent period in Modern Art was alive and well and at one stage or another in the development of their art careers. Bouguereau's Birth of Venus (above) won the prestigious Grand Prix de Rome Academic scholarship award for the year 1879. This overused and abused mythological subject with its antiseptic nudes was where art was coming from as Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, and other such household names were fighting classical Academicism to forge a new definition of art through Impressionism and all that followed. Manet called it "art for art's sake." To put it another way, this "new" art was art about art.

Impression, Soleil Levant (sunrise), 1872, Claude Monet
Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic)
1875, Thomas Eakins
The 1870s were was the decade which spawned Monet's Impression Soleil Le-vant (above). Painted in 1872, even though it predates by several years Bouguereau's last gasp of Academicism, the tremendous differences between the two serve to underline the incredible progression Modern Art was struggling to instill. Compare Monet's 1872 effort with that of John Gast's American Progress painted the same year. All during the 19th-century, American art and artists always lagged at least a decade behind their French counterparts. That's not to say that American artists were in any way inferior to the French. The works of the Philadelphia painter, Thomas Eakins such as his Max Schmitt in a Single Scull (below),from 1871 or his The Gross Clinic (right) from 1875 hold up quite well as compared to works by Manet, Gus-tave Caillebotte, and Edgar Degas.

Max Schmitt in a Single Scull, 1871, Thomas Eakins
In England during the 1870s, the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood of William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and a few others numbering about seven altogether reigned sup-reme. Rossetti's Holy Grail (right) from 1874 is typical of the nostalgic longings and fussy style of the others. Their work stands in stark contrast to that of Gustave Caillebotte and the clean simplicity of his Paris Street; Rainy Day, (below) from 1877. Edgar Degas broke new ground as he explored the gritty underbelly of the Paris drug culture in L'Absinthe (below-left), from the year 1876.

Holy Grail. 1874,
Dante Gabriel Rosetti


L'Absinthe, 1876,
Edgar Degas

Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877, Gustave Caillebotte
Though they each branded Impressionism with their individual styles, Edouard Manet and Auguste Renoir each managed to obtain small victories over the prettified niceties of the centuries-old Academicism. Manet's The Gare Saint-Lazare (upper image, below), from 1873 quite apart from his somewhat stark, flat style displays simple genre content previously considered by the French Academy to be "unworthy" of such a large canvas. On the other hand, Renoir's Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette (lower image, below), from 1876, is every bit as frivolous as Bouguereau's Birth of Venus but without the mythological pretensions thought to be required when painting nudes.

Upper image: The Gare Saint-Lazare, 1873, Edouard Manet
Lower image: Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette, 1876, Auguste Renoir
Athlete Wrestling with a
Python, 1877, Frederick Leighton
Nowhere are the stylistic differences between American art and the cutting-edge world of French art clearer than in the area of sculpture. In the wake of the American Civil War sculptors were kept busy carving and casting life-size or larger monuments to men such as Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, U. S. Grant, and most frequently Abe Lincoln himself. Two monumental sculptures stand apart from the others, one carved from white marble, the other cast in bronze. The bronze by Randolph Rogers lords over the pigeons in Philadelphia's Fairmont Park while the pristine standing marble representation is intended to inspire lawmakers from the Capitol rotunda in Washington D.C. Meanwhile on the British side of the Atlantic, Frederic Leighton's muscular bronze athlete (right) wrestles with a mighty python akin to that of the Vatican Laocoon. Due largely to its classical purity the bronze combatants seem locked in a life-or death struggle marking this work in the eyes of Leighton's critics and admirers alike as his greatest work.
Upper image: Lincoln, 1871, Randolph Rogers, Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, PA
Lower image: Lincoln, 1871, Vinnie Ream, U.S. Capitol Rotunda


Now, to make my point, the French sculptor, Auguste Rodin's Walking Man (right) from 1878 stands in stark contrast to the latent academicism of both Rogers and Ream not to mention that of Frederic Leighton whose classical tendencies were far more than latent. It's hard to imagine what Impres-sionist sculpture might look like without bringing to mind the many diverse carvings and castings of Auguste Rodin. Rodin's Walking Man is no one famous (he doesn't even possess a head). He pays tribute to "walking men" the world over, very much in a theretofore unseen universal homage.
The Walking Man (front)
1878, Auguste Rodin.

At first glance The Walking Man appears to be nude. Closer inspection reveals that he is, in fact, wearing the appropriate garb of a wrestler. Speaking of which, having discussed the painting and sculpture of the 1870s, on a lighter note we cannot forget the men and women of high fashion who kept the textile mills humming, scissors snipping, and we, their ancestors, laughing. Although men's fashions have evolved to some degree in the past 150 years it's the ladies who (fortunately) have seen the greatest strides in the designer's art. The French illustrator, James Tissot, in his Too Early (below), from 1873 gives us a peak at the bustles and elaborate drapery which characterized evening dresses of the early 1870s. The gentleman is outfitted in evening dress as well though far less flamboyantly.

Too Early, 1873, James Tissot. I keep wondering how the
ladies managed such frocks in going to the ladies' room.
Not to slight the gentlemen, we see below the tasteful garb of well-dressed young men whose only bow to high fashion is the "stovepipe" hat. I wonder if anyone ever made a statue of Lincoln wearing one. We know from mid-century photos that he was something of a fashion icon for his time.
The theme for men's fashions of the 1870 appears to be neat and,
slender, with just a touch of lace strategically placed near the bow tie.
Perhaps nothing has had a more lasting effect on women's fashions than the automobile. With a carriage, there were always polite gentlemen milling about to help the distressed, over-dressed, mistress climb to her seat for a leisurely ride in the park. That was not the case as women found it necessary to fend for themselves in getting in and out of cars. Skirts gradually got shorter. Waists became looser, even hats have gradually fallen to the wayside (or been blown off). All this we find amusing as compared to the difficulties faced by the present day art appreciator.
Yards and yards of unneeded fabric stitched together with hours 
upon hours of wasted time to create a dress such as this.
He says: "shall we sit for a bit?"
She says: "I should like to but my dressmaker
says I mustn't."