Click on photos to enlarge.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Art Cycles

Impressionism ala 1872--Monet's Impression, Sunrise.
One of the things most people don't realize about art, in fact, something that many artists fail to understand too, is that there is an "art cycle." Impressionism is a perfect example. When it began in the early 1870s, it looked strange, daring, ugly, wildly heretical, and seemed a direct threat to the academic status quo. It was all of these in one sense and none of them in another. During the 1880s, Impressionism gained grudging acceptance, sales increased though prices didn't necessarily follow. By the 1890s many of its adherents were becoming accepted established, painters. By the early 1900s, they (the ones still living that is) were painting icons. And in the meantime, a strange thing was happening, young artists began to reject Impressionism, even some of the Impressionists themselves did so. It lacked substance, it was too confining, it was passé, old hat, antique. This is what amounts to an "art cycle"--rejection, acceptance, veneration, and simultaneously with the latter, more, rejection.

Impressionism, 1926, Monet's Water Lilly Pond, radical to antique in less than 50 years
Picasso, 1906, Gertrude Stein,
the beginning of the first
"Picasso cycle."
Picasso's 1968 Nude Woman with a Necklace,
two or three art cycles later.

A few artists manage to escape this cycle. In some cases, they paint outside it. In other cases they simply outlive it, or perhaps bridge two or more cycles. Pablo Picasso is an example of the latter, and James McNeill Whistler personifies the former. Picasso came to power in the nascent first decade of the twentieth century as a rowdy young Turk, rejecting Post-Impressionism, trying everything and anything to establish his art. He landed on Cubism, rode out that art cycle and started yet another, what we might call flat abstraction (sometimes called Synthetic Cubism). Critics might argue that he was well on his way to yet another cycle when he died in 1974. He had certainly reached the stage of veneration several times over and indeed, his work was being rejected by a whole new generation of performance, environmental, conceptual, and technological multimedia artists who found paint itself somehow quaintly old-fashioned.

Glorified black, Whistler's 1874,
Nocturne in Black and Gold:
The Falling Rocket.
Whistler was of an earlier age, of course. He came out of Courbet and Manet and was in the tradition of the English artist, J. M. W. Turner. He was of the age of Impressionism but not an Impressionist. He could hardly not have been influenced by them, but he was much too elitist to get down and grovel for acceptance with them. He saw design as primary, the paint as secondary, content as a necessary evil, and color as of little interest, perhaps even something of a nuisance. Only in the way he applied paint did he have anything in common with the Impressionists, though certainly antithetical to them in his use of color. The Impressionists grew up hating black. It was an academic mainstay. Whistler embraced it, doted on it, glorified it in many of his murky nocturnes. Thus, there were no rejection or acceptance of his work (except for the rantings of critic, John Ruskin, who practically destroyed his own career in hating Whistler). And Whistler was too cold ever to be venerated. Such love requires a beloved subject matter, that, but for the one painting of his mother (which has now descended into triteness), Whistler always consciously avoided. Thus, the following generation found an artist whose devotion to flat design they could admire without fawning. He was an artist outside the art cycle--an artist's artist.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Art Archaeology

Egypt's Valley of the Kings--archaeology at its best...and worst.
In May, 1995, archaeologists working in Egypt's Valley of the Kings, some 300 miles South of Cairo, discovered a "new" burial complex containing well over 60 tombs. They are believed to hold the remains of Rameses II's 52 sons. All the tombs appear to have been untouched for thousands of years. That means they were missed by looters as well as the many archaeologists who have swarmed over the area in that time. It's hard to say why looters missed this treasure trove of royal wealth but it would appear that the reason archaeologists had missed it up until then was that the entrance to the complex had apparently been obscured by debris from an even greater archaeological find some seventy years before. In 1922, a British archaeologist, Howard Carter, almost literally stumbled upon the magnificent cache of gold, and of Egyptian artifacts that were the tomb of Egypt's boy-king, Tutankhamen. In their rush to unearth their find, they essentially buried yet another.

The Rosetta Stone, discovered and interpreted
by the French in the early 19th century.
Of course this bungled bit of archaeology was hardly the first. We have Napoleon to thank (or blame) for unleashing the first so-called "Egyptologists" on the land of the Nile. When he landed with his armies in hopes of conquering the desert kingdom in 1798, he brought with him some 200 French antiquities experts (calling them archaeologists would be too kind) and charged then with exploring, mapping, excavating, and studying ancient sites. We could also add the word "looting" to their list of tasks, judging from the Louvre's massive store of Egyptian relics. Although the inclusion of such scholars was unusual for its time, and their subsequent discovery of the Rosetta Stone was the key in unlocking the secret of hieroglyphics, it's questionable whether Napoleon's failed military expedition may not have done more harm than good archaeologically speaking. After all, it was they, legend has it, who got into an artillery duel with the Giant Sphinx guarding the Great Pyramids. The Sphinx lost (by a nose).*

Kitora tomb murals, Amura, Japan
--archaelogy Japanese style.
Over a decade ago, on the other side of the world, in Japan's Nara Prefecture, near the small town of Amura, Japanese archaeologists came upon an ancient tomb dating from the Asuka era 552-645 CE. Unlike the Egyptian tombs, this one had been discovered by grave robbers sometime in the past. They'd left a small hole. But unlike the blundering archaeologists of Egypt, this team made no attempt to excavate the tomb. Instead, the Japanese simply inserted through the hole a long pole on the end of which was mounted a digital camera. Using a remote control device, they shot some 97 images inside. What they saw were four wall murals, each about 60 centimetres wide and some 20 centimetres high. Three of the figures in the murals were familiar to them. They consisted of mythical creatures guarding the compass points. On the west wall, the Byakko (white tiger); on the east wall, the Seiru (blue dragon); and on the north wall, the Genbu (a Chinese mythological creature that is half snake, half turtle). The fourth image, known to exist but never seen before, was the Suzaku (red sparrow) which represents the South in ancient burial paintings. Taken together, the four images within the same tomb provided proof of the direct influence on both Chinese and Korean cultures during the Asuka period. The round, mound tomb itself, some 14 meters in diameter, is believed to be that of the son of an emperor. The Japanese marked and sealed the tomb as a means of preserving the murals and had no plans to make further incursions. Of course times change and methods improve, the murals have recently been rephotographed, but maybe Egypt might do well to import some Japanese archaeologists next time they go poking around among their dead. The Japanese are so much neater at it.
The Suzaku, (red sparrow), mural recently rephotographed.

*Other sources blame the Turkish Marlmalukes (1380) for the Sphynx's nose job.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Art and Alzheimer's

Though he continued to paint into the
early 1990s, de Kooning's work began to
take on an automatonic quality.
Many an artist has been characterized as having "lost his mind." It's a figure of speech, of course, often denoting a viewer whose mind has simply been passed over by that of the artist. Alfred Stieglitz once commiserated with artist Arthur Dove by telling him, "People don't like your work because it's over their heads,"--typical Modern Art exclusionary mindset. But what happens when an artist actually does lose his mind? Really, it's not that simple. The artist is one of Modern Art's towering giants, Willem de Kooning; the disease was Alzheimer's. And the loss of mind happened not suddenly but over a distressingly long 17 years.

The story of Willem de Kooning is so familiar it almost needs no retelling. Born in Rotterdam in 1905, and painting since the age of twelve, de Kooning came to the US in 1926. He settled in Hoboken, New Jersey--not exactly the culture capital of the free world--but close enough to New York to be convenient. From the beginning, his work was unconventional. To some, his art has always suggested an absence of mind, while to others, it was the ultimate example of mind over matter. Picasso admired his work, calling it "melted Picasso"--insightful, if somewhat self-centred. Critic Clement Greenberg (no friend of de Kooning) referred to it as "luciferian." In any case, by 1945, de Kooning was the heart and soul of Modern Art and the driving force, with Pollock and one or two others, behind the New York School and the Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1950s.

Montauk III, 1969, Willem de Kooning
By the early 1960s, however, Modern Art had passed him by, his lyrical, inventive, style of action painting having been supplanted by coolly analytical, conceptual control as evidenced in Minimalism and the last gasps of the Modern Art era. Yet despite Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, and Andy Warhol, de Kooning's work remained cutting edge, if not nearly as popular as at the crest of Abstract Expressionism a decade earlier. Radicals of the early Post-modern era pronounced, not just his work, but all of painting, dead. And though not mentioned by name, but as the fountainhead and figurehead of the Abstract Expressionist movement, let there be no doubt it was de Kooning they visualised in the coffin.

An untitled de Kooning from 1985, a full 12
years before his death.
But as Mark Twain once remarked, reports of his death (de Kooning's in this case) were greatly exaggerated. Painting was so deeply ingrained in de Kooning's heart, mind, and soul; it could never be laid to rest so easily. His work moved on, not so much forward, but laterally, discovering new inspiration if not style. By the 1970s, the voluptuous, fleshy, female loops and sensuous curves became more violent and moody. By the 1980s, dementia was beginning to take its toll. By 1986, he could no longer sign his name. Yet he painted, more deliberately, his strokes leaner, a fighting retreat, progressively losing spontaneity and yet resourcefully compensating through sheer will. As the disease progressed, it wasn't so much a matter of forgetting how to paint as why. Experts on Alzheimer's contend that style is the deepest part of one's being and that which is most lastingly preserved, even in the final phases of the disease.

An untitled de Kooning from 1988.
By this time, his assistants were starting
to play a large role in his work.
De Kooning's painting had one last hurrah in 1996, just a year before he died, when his late, late work made one last, nostalgic splash with what was not so much a retrospective as a rediscovery. What had gone around, came around. Yet despite the newness of his work, it was the Alzheimer's that the public grasped as a handle in viewing it. The creative output of one so deeply into the final stages of this disease became something of a case study providing clues as to the horrible, twisted path followed by a powerful artist in losing his mind. The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC showed "Willem de Kooning: In Process," an exhibition organized by the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art which allowed both admirers and the merely curious to follow this path, and begin to understand, if not experience, the painful numbness of the artist and his work during his last 20 years when, despite his progressive debilitation, he produced over 340 huge canvases.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Alternative Religious Art

Festival of Supreme Being, 1794, Pierre-Antoine Machy
In the United States, we tend to think of it as an age-old guiding principle basic to our governing philosophy--the separation of church and state. Yet some 225 years ago when our constitution was first drawn up, it was a fairly radical idea. In 1794, a French artist by the name of Pierre-Antoine Machy painted Festival of the Supreme Being. The painting is a huge landscape depicting thousands of people gathered in a field stretching as far as the eye can see--what you might call a peoplescape. Near the centre is a tall column, topped by a statue, honouring the "Supreme Being." The festival was held under the orders of the French dictator, Robespierre, who ruled for a time immediately following the French Revolution. At the festival, the "God of Liberty, Father of Nature" was honoured at the "Altar to the Nation." Hymns were sung to republican virtue, good citizenship, and the glory of France. The event, in fact, marked the birth of a state religion. The movement was short-lived. It died when Robespierre was beheaded less than a month later.

The Morning, 1808, Philipp Runge
In art, we tend to think in terms of two classifications - religious, and secular. But, in fact, in the years since Machy's epic depiction, there has evolved a third area, lodged somewhere between these two, that's often referred to as "alternative" or "visionary" art. In the years that followed, there was a trend in art to search out pantheistic visions, principally among English and German painters, such as Philipp Otto Runge as seen in his The Morning dating from 1808. It depicts dawn in the form of a nude woman - Aurora - greeting a new-born child below her while a brilliant light plays a regenerative role much as it often does in Christian iconography.

Where Do We Come From? Who Are We? Where Are We Going?, 1897, Paul Gauguin
Later in the 19th century, English artists such as William Blake began to explore a highly personalised reading of their Christian beliefs; while in Germany, artists such as Runge and Caspar David Friedrich painted images worshipping nature in a pantheistic celebration of a divine presence in flowers, trees, water, and air. But it took the publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species in 1859, and a new clash of religion and science, to spur painters such as Paul Gauguin to begin to look for more evolved alternatives to traditional European Christianity. His Where Do We Come From? Who Are We? Where Are We Going?, painted in Tahiti in 1897, depicts the birth of a child (reading from right to left) in a primitive Polynesian cultural panorama ending with the death of an old woman, all presided over by two women and a blue idol. He writes in one corner, "simple beings in a virgin nature, which might be the human idea of paradise."

Totem Lesson II, 1945, Jackson Pollock

Gauguin was only the first Western artist to explore primitive religious iconography. Some of Jackson Pollock's early works such as Totem, Lesson II, dating from 1945, delve into an abstracted view of archaeological and hieroglyphic symbols as he explored the religious culture of Native Americans. About the same time, Marc Chagall crossed religious lines to reinterpret the crucifixion from a Russian-Jewish perspective. Barnett Newman later broke new ground in "religious" painting in depicting Jesus, during his crucifixion, as abandoned by God. And today, the search for alternative religious visions in art goes on under the label of what has come to be known politically as multi-culturalism - a term that is an anathema to the religious right. Maybe those battling in the education arena for the teaching of morality based strictly upon Christian fundamentals in our state-supported schools should take a renewed look at Machy's Festival of the Supreme Being.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Abstract Portraits

In the latter half of the 19th century, something earth shattering happened to art--photography. At first it was seen by artists as an amusing little scientific novelty to be toyed with, then more and more as a threat to their livelihood, then as a tool in helping them to compose their work, then as a new art form in and of itself, and finally as a tremendous liberating force, assuming the burden of purely representational art allowing them to depart on ever longer flights of fantasy expression. If this evolution of the photograph was true of painting in general, it was especially true in the area of portraiture. As far back as 1871, James McNeill Whistler may have been the first portrait artist to sense the new artistic freedom unleashed by the photograph. His iconographic portrait of his mother which he titled simply Arrangement in Grey and Black, suggests that for the first time, a portrait, even one as intimately connected to the artist as his own mother, was a painting first - a color-value/compositional study - and only secondarily a portrait.

Adele Bloch-Bauer, 1907, Gustave Klimt
Gustav Klimt's 1907 Adele Bloch-Bauer (above) pursues this phenomenon still further. In it he constructs a painted mosaic inspired by those he saw in Ravenna, Italy as he portrays the wife of the German industrialist, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. Taken in isolation, three of the four quadrants of the square composition are completely abstract to the point of being non-representational. Only in the upper right quadrant do we see anything approaching a traditional portrait; and even at that, the head, neck, shoulders, and hands seem lost in a glistening, golden glow reminiscent of his family's background as goldsmiths. The painting is still a portrait, but one in which the figure is almost completely overwhelmed by the artist's fascination with an infinitely complex patterns of surface adornment.

Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, 1907, Pablo Picasso
In France, about the same time, Picasso was exploring Analytical Cubism, experimenting to find out just how far he could push into the frontiers of abstraction while still retaining a recognisable subject matter. Strange as it might seem, he turned to the demanding art of portraiture in his studies, as in his 1910 paintings of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (left), Ambroise Vollard, and William Uhde to test his deconstructive powers of abstract resemblances. His angular, geometric nuances of hard and soft edges make Klimt's forays into abstraction less than three years earlier seem conservative, stylised, decorative, and vaguely old-fashioned by comparison. By 1941, his experiments with abstract portraits as seen in his Dora Maar Seated (below) seem less radical yet no less visionary. Just as a person has many sides to their personality, as well as their face, Picasso seems determined to depict both. Heavy on texture, design, and multiple-point-of-view distortion, the painting, nonetheless, maintains the striking resemblance of a first-rate portrait.

Dora Maar Seated, 1941, Pablo Picasso,
one of many versions.
Quite apart from its formal impact on portraiture, photography also changed the fundamental nature of portrait painting. Once the majority of people began choosing to capture their appearances for posterity with photographs, artists, whether they liked it or not, were left free to pick and choose their portrait subjects - often close friends and family - rather than paying clients. Where before the client, wielding the power of the checkbook, dictated the nature of the portrait, now, suddenly, the artist found himself in complete control, able to decide for himself (portrait artists were still mostly men at the time) not just the nature of the pose, lighting, colors, size, shape, and composition of the portrait, but even its style and the degree to which the face, figure, and resemblance would dominate the painting. The sitter became merely a model, often an unnamed face being paid by the artist for their time and efforts, rather than vice versa. Although the best portrait painters continued to demand and get top dollar for their work, they quickly found themselves outside the mainstream of artistic endeavour, the spotlight being increasingly on those painters for whom portraiture was merely a means to an end in art. Quick, name the top ten portrait painters of the 20th century. See what I mean?

Thursday, July 26, 2012

1960s Art

No single image could possibly capture
the promising power and ponderous
pandemonium of the 1960s. Only film
or video could hope to come close.
 Click the poster above for one such attempt.

In discussing the Berlin Wall yesterday (below) I came face to face with the 1960s in all their glory and gory horror. When we stand in the present looking back at previous years, decades, centuries, it's fascinating trying to gauge their overall impact upon who we are today. It's easy, for instance, to say that the 20th century had the greatest impact of any of the last twenty centuries. One only has to look at who and what we are now and what we were a hundred years ago to make such a claim. Humanity has changed more in the last one hundred years than in the previous five hundred. Alvin Toffler in his 1970 book Future Shock, had it right in saying that the faster things change the faster they will change. We have only to wonder if there is any limit to how fast they can change. We have only to look at politics and society today to realize that most of our problems are directly related to change happening faster than those living today can handle it. Moreover, those least able to deal with change just keep right on living and living, and living. And though we didn't realize it at the time, the decade that spawned Toffler's book was quite likely the most important decade in the 20th century in terms of the radical changes that took place. They were the years the "baby boomers" (myself included) first came of age. The world has never been the same since.

Toffler had it right, though
perhaps he didn't go far enough.
It was not a decade for the faint of heart. It was a decade when we took a strong whiff, if not a taste, of nuclear war. It scared the hell out of us. It was a time when a president got his brains blown out, also his younger brother and black brother. It was a time when we stumbled into a war, and for the first time in history, got our asses whipped for it. It was a time of fast cars, fast food, and fast sex. Television rose to new heights, movies fell to new lows. Beatniks were out, Beatles and Beetles (VWs) were in, and a future senator told us that The Beat Goes On. Indeed, the whole decade rocked. It was a musical journey that started in Memphis, detoured to Liverpool, and ended up at Woodstock. It began with Sonny and Cher and ended with Karen and Richard. It was a decade that came in like a roaring, tail-finned dinosaur, and squeaked out with subcompact mice. It was a decade that began with Sputnik shock and ended on the moon in Future Shock.

1968: The Age of Aquarius

In art, the 60's saw the demise of Abstract Expressionism, the rise of Pop, a burst of Op, and ended with the whimpering whisper of Minimalism. Art came from all sources, from the funny pages, and from the front pages. It was as small as the "Love" stamp and as big as Christo's assorted geographic gift wraps. The very definition of art expanded to the point it became nearly impossible to define. Psychedelia ruled the college campuses, Psycho ruled the box-office, and Hair ruled Broadway. In fact, hair ruled everywhere.

Marilyn, 1967. She died, yet thanks to Warhol, she lives.
Warhol became a household name. Campbell's soup moved from the grocery store to the art gallery. Artists once more learned to paint neatly. Realism returned. Marilyn died. Madona was born. It was the only decade in history that ever took another decade from which to recover. It was a decade like none before, like none since. It was a decade that made us what we are today.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The East Gallery, Berlin

The quality of the art is admittedly erratic. Images are mostly political, sometimes humorous, often perceptive, ironic, arty, erotic, profound, even just plain ugly. Some of it lasts only a few weeks. The best came shortly after the fall and somehow continues to survive.
One might consider it the last place in the world you'd expect to find art. In fact, most Americans are probably unaware it still exists. In returning from our recent trip to northern Europe, I mentioned to some friends the Berlin wall and the "cutting edge," indeed, hard-edged, art now occupying the East side of the old cold war landmark. Their reaction was, "Gee, I thought they tore that thing down." In general, that thought is correct.  Most of the 96 miles of reinforced concrete which at one time completely encircled West Berlin has come down. However, of the 27 miles which once cut through the central portion of Berlin, approximately one mile of the wall remains. And here, along the former East Berlin side is what has come to be known as the "East Gallery." If in reading this, you visualize a mile of ugly, random graffiti, then, as our guide put it in terse, thickly accented words, "Think again."

Test the Best, 1990 (2009 restoration),
Birgit Kinder
Test the Best before its most recent restoration.
There is graffiti. Even the best of the painted wall sections have a distinct cultural lineage to such mostly disreputable "art." Moreover, even the best art to be seen on the wall is likewise prone to desecration by graffiti. Birgit Kinder, has repainted her iconic Test the Best (above) four times since its original creation in 1990. In so doing, she has assured its survival, which probably accounts for why it has become iconic. The mural features an old East German Tabant auto crashing through the wall in a satiric auto ad "promoting" a car our guide referred to a stinky plastic toy.

Brotherly Kiss, 1990, Dimitri Vrubel. Artists not only boldly sign their work, but
often include their websites and even telephone numbers.
The wall artists paint in virtually every style from Pissarro to Picasso with heavy emphasis on cubism and abstract expressionism. Perhaps the most famous image from the East Gallery is neither of these. Russian artist, Dimitri Vrubel's Brotherly Kiss (1990) depicts in close-up living color a passionate kiss between former Russian President Leonid Brezhnev and former East German Communist party boss, Erich Honecker. The caption below, in Russian and German reads: "My God, help me to survive this deadly love affair." The wall, during its nearly 30 years of existence, was, indeed, a daily testament to the survival of the East German people, and to the death of around 200 out of the nearly 5,000 who attempted to cross it.
Even in being converted to an art gallery (of sorts) the wall continues to have a
rather dismal quality...or maybe it was just the typical Berlin spring weather.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Amsterdam, Holland

No, it's not Venice. Venice seldom has streets or sidewalks. And in the summer,
at least, Amsterdam is prettier. Likewise, though Saint Petersburg is
sometimes called the "Venice of the North," Amsterdam much more
closely resembles the artsy Italian city's watery ambiance.
Lest anyone think I've given up writing about art to descend into "traveloguery" following our return a couple months ago from a whirlwind tour of northern Europe, let me assure you, the emphasis here will remain on art, but from a traveler's perspective (notice how I avoided the word, "tourist"). Furthermore, Amsterdam (arguably, second only to Saint Petersburg), is an artist's "died and gone to heaven" dream city. The Van Gogh Museum (yesterday's entry,below) is one reason, but there are two more mega-museums in the same district (known as the Museumplein), with even more to offer for the art-addicted--the Rijksmuseum and the Stedelijk Museum Amsteram (currently closed for renovation until Sept. 2012). The Rijksmuseum is where you go to see Rembrandt. The Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam is for Modern Art and everything since. Also in the same district, though not a museum, is the Concertgebouw (concert hall) with its exemplary acoustics, for the music addicted.

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, though not quite in the same league with
Saint Petersburg's Hermitage, when you've got Mr. van Rijn in your
corner, the differences kind of level out.
Artist's Amsterdam's main claim to fame.
For the art traveler, the two kingpins of Amsterdam are Rembrandt and Vincent. Nowhere in the world will you find either artist in greater depth. Vincent had little to do with the city. Rembrandt, on the other hand, while not born in Amsterdam, certainly lived, worked, and died there. There's even his statue in  the town square (called the Rembrandtplein, left) to prove it. However, in visiting the Rijksmuseum, in your mad dash to see The Night Watch, don't neglect Hals, van Ruysdael, Vermeer, Steen, and the other Dutch Masters. Likewise, at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, its easy to lock on to Monet, Manet,  Cezanne, Chagall, Braque, Kandinsky or Picasso and miss such names as Kirchner, Matisse, Moholy-Nagy, or Man Ray. In their more recent acquisitions you'll find the work of Jasper Johns, Warhol, deKooning, Newman, Lichtenstein, and Rauschenberg.

Architecturally, the Stedelijk Museum of Amsterdam (here seen under renovation), 
presents a jarring disconnect between the old and new. The new annex, slated
to open in September, 2012, to my eyes, bears a striking resemblance to
nothing so much as a  automobile rooftop cargo carrier.
Needless to say, in my one day in Amsterdam, I was only able to hit the Van Gogh, and even at that, it was more of a sideswipe. For any museum on the scale of the Rijksmuseum or the Stedelijk Museum of Amsterdam, a full day is a minimal visit. I might also add, for the springtime visitor, art is also cultivated in the gardens of Keukenhof some ten miles southwest of Amsterdam. No art traveler should visit Holland without stopping to smell the tulips. And if you're not put off by the more touristy elements, the outdoor museum of Zaanse Schans (which I did visit) is worthwhile in broadening your view of the country. I also found the postwar town of Volendam (even more touristy) quite likable.

Keukenhof Gardens--Tulip art
(another photo destined to
spawn a painting).
Zaanse Schans, picturesque Holland as the
Dutch want to be remembered.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The van Gogh Museum , Amsterdam

The van Gogh Museum, street entrance, is deceiving.
The view is neither its best architecturally nor does
it do the museum justice in any other sense. Much
of the museum is actually below street level.
Forget about taking pictures at the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. I'm not talking about stealing the artwork...that goes without saying. I mean using your camera. Before I even got into the place, outside on the front steps, I was warned by a museum official "no photography permitted" (and I was just shooting the outside). Later, I saw some surreptitious cell phone photography. Not to belabor the point, but in today's Internet age, there's not much reason to bother. Everything here can be found on line.

Architecturally, the van Gogh, with its most recent addition, is striking from this angle; but,
quite frankly, it's one most visitors don't see, actually the back of the museum.
Inside, the "floating" staircase is much more
fun than the elevators.
Discussing van Gogh or his work here would be redundant. I've probably written more on this one artist than any other in the long timeline of art history. He's an infinitely fascinating man, even if you're not fond of his painting (and a surprising number of people aren't). You go to his museum to get up close and personal with the man and his art as in no other place on earth. Often there's not even the worrisome slab of Plexiglas between you and his magnificent daubs of paint. I asked about why some paintings were so protected and others weren't. (There seemed to be no rhyme nor reason to their doing so). The explanation, such as it was, seemed muddled and unsatisfactory. Architecturally, the museum is boldly modern but not to the point it intrudes into the work displayed. Likewise, it's well-planned and not so large as to fear getting lost, yet spacious in displaying not just van Gogh, but work from the entire era in which he lived.

I saw art by Gauguin, Vlaminck, Courbet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Seurat, Monet, Pissarro, Manet and few others with which I was not familiar--not just work those who were influenced by van Gogh, but also those who influence him. Some of these I'd never before encountered except in books or on line. The van Gogh has the largest collection of its namesake's work in the world, comprising over 200 paintings, 400 drawings, and 700 letters. As with Saint Petersburg's Hermitage, a few days later, time was limited, perhaps no more than 90 minutes (with some of that spent in the expansive (and expensive) gift shop). In all, I spent more time reading labels than studying the art. The place is worthy of a full afternoon, a full day for the connoisseur.

Johanna van Gogh-Bonger,
1925, Isaac Israels
When Vincent van Gogh died in 1890, those works not sold to pay off debts, were inherited by Vincent's brother, Theo, who himself died six months later. Thus the lot fell to Theo's widow, Johanna. She sold some of it in broadening the appreciation of Vincent's work but maintained a private collection until her death in 1925, at which time the paintings fell to her son, Vincent Willem van Gogh. He loaned them to the massive Stedelijk Museum (today next door to the van Gogh). There they remained until 1962 when the van Gogh Foundation and the city of Amsterdam decided to erect a separate museum. The museum opened in 1973 and was renovated and enlarged in 1998-99. Though I saw no obvious need, the museum is due to be closed in the fall of 2012 for further renovation, during which time some 75 pieces will be displayed at the Amsterdam Hermitage Museum.

Off-white walls, hardwood floors, discreet, roped barriers, inside the van Gogh is very much
like any other modern-day museum except for the extraordinary man and his work.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Peterhof Palace

The Peterhof Palace from below the Cascade, the sites most dramatic feature and most
common view, May 9, 2012. I plan to do a painting from this photo some day.
For those not having visited Saint Petersburg and all its Romanov palaces personally, there might arise the problem of getting them confused.  The answer to that is to remember, the Hermitage is green, Catherine's Palace is blue, and the Peterhof is gold (or maybe just bright yellow). The Russian tour guides will tell you that most of the weather in this northernmost Russian city is cloudy, damp, and cold for all but 30, seldom-consecutive days a year. We were blessed and congratulated on having ushered in two beautiful springtime days when we arrived a week into the month of May. Just two weeks before, the last of the winter's snow had melted. In direct reaction to this mostly intransigent climate, the Russians love color--bright and beautiful, often to the point of gaudy. Not just the palaces, but elsewhere, inside and out, lots of pastels, not to mention and inordinate fondness for gold leaf, colored marbles, and painted stucco.

Originally constructed for the very practical purpose of ferrying building materials to the site,
the Grand (Bolshoi in Russian) Canal, leading from the river up to the foot of the Grand  Cascade, later became the primary point of entry to the Grand Palace for the tsar and important state visitors. It's even more grand when they leave the water running.
The Baroque Peterhof Palace is slightly older (1714-23) and slightly smaller than either Catherine's Rococo abode (1733-52) or the Winter Palace (Hermitage) in beautiful downtown Saint Petersburg. I read that somewhere. You'd never notice in actually visiting the place. In sheer acreage, the Peterhof trumps them all, and indeed, the site is as much known for its upper and lower gardens, its Grand Canal, its dozens of fountains, its monumental statuary, and a smattering of smaller palaces built by later monarchs, as for Peter the Great's imitation of Versailles. But, it was quite a step up from his first Saint Petersburg "palace" which was a log cabin overlooking the Neva (still preserved today).

Peter the Great's working quarters
The study, no effeminate gold leaf here.
Inside, the Peterhof is much more varied and interesting than Catherine II's monotonous infatuation with gold leaf on white. There is some of that, to be sure, but the frequent use of other shades, reds, greens, blues, and rich, wood paneling adds depth and variety to the rooms, allowing them to exist as separate entities. Though the palace was undeniably a male bastion, the influence of Peter's second wife and heir to the throne, Catherine I is noticeable, though its difficult to separate the various eras represented in the interior accouterments. Later tsars, emperors, and empresses all left their mark inside and outside what was, in essence, the Romanov family estate, at least in the summer time.

The vomiting fish
(in gold leaf, of course)
The gargling turtles, the
Romanovs had a sense of humor.
If the Grand Palace is fascinating for its rich decor and history, the grand gardens (my term) are nothing less than masterful, easily rivaling those of Versailles and virtually any other such royal indulgences anywhere in Europe. And, had they been in a more favorable climate, they might well be considered the most beautiful. The upper gardens are rigidly French, the lower gardens much more relaxed and informal with ponds, canals, fountains, and the riverside adding a pleasant aqueous element. Yet this was all part of the norm for 18th century imperial plantings, so much so that it's the surprising, humorous, and trivial that becomes the most memorable (above).

The Peterhof chapel where later
decorating tastes can be felt.
Peter the Great,
B. Koffr, 1713-16
Palatial visits are not for everyone. They represent only one aspect of Russian cultural history and one that can become almost sickeningly pretentious, extravagant, and overindulgent. In modern parlance, they represent how the "two-percent" of their time existed. The rest of the cultural heritage is presented by colorful Cossack dancing, babushka (Matryoshka) dolls, borscht, and picturesque horse-drawn sleighs gliding across  broad, nighttime vistas of pristine show. Of course every country is prone to such generalizations and stereotypes. Tourists are both the cause and the victims of such trite displays of pride and prejudice. A whirlwind one or two day visit is far from enough time to cut through this pretty veil. Saint Petersburg is very much the essence of that veil.

--A tip for those contemplating a visit to Saint Petersburg: combine your visit to the Peterhof Palace with your visit to the Hermitage. The Russians have linked the two by high speed hydrofoil service almost doorstep to doorstep allowing effortless travel the considerable intervening distance. It runs from the Neva River entrance to he Hermitage to the  a dock near the entrance to the Peterhof Grand Canal. You'll never experience a smoother, faster ride on/over the water anywhere. I noticed a girl applying lipstick as the craft skimmed along at 50 mph.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Catherine Palace

A single photo cannot contain it all, but this is a decent try. The impact of Versailles, outside
Paris, on the palatial tastes of European royalty can hardly be overstated.

Even as you encounter the front gate
(here seen from the inside) you know you're
in for quite a spectacle.
When tourists like myself plop down excessive wads of cash to catch a glimpse of Russia today, the country likes to put its best foot forward. The Hermitage, which I wrote about a couple days ago (below) notwithstanding, Catherine the Great had some pretty great digs. Even if you've seen pictures and have a fair idea what to expect, the effect of "way too much" and "over the top" is eye-popping. If you like gold leaf, if you like amber (the semi-precious stone, not the hue), if you like Russian Rococo, the 18th century architecture, turquoise (the hue, not the stone), and decadent ostentation, you're gonna love the summer home of Russia's Empress Catherine II.
Posthumous coronation portrait
Catherine II, 1793, Stefano Torrelli,
Fortunately, the palace had wide doorways.

Catherine was born in 1729 and lived to the ripe old age (for the time) of 67. Actually her birth name was Sophie Friederike Auguste. Prussian by birth, she came to Russia through an arranged marriage to her second cousin, the soon-to-be-tsar, Peter III, assuming the name of Catherine. She was 16 at the time. With the death of Peter's mother, the Empress Elizabeth, daughter of Catherine I, in 1762, and the ascendancy of Peter III to the throne, his wife became the Empress Consort. Brutal politics and palace intrigue were hallmarks of the Romanov dynasty and the eccentric (and perhaps not too bright) Peter III played the game rather poorly. Within six months there was a palace coup. Catherine II forced her husband to abdicate and shortly thereafter, he found out just how cutthroat (literally) the game could be. Catherine, on the other hand, took to empressing quite  well. She ruled Russia with grace, charm, and most of all, enlightened intelligence for the next 34 years.

There are other such gold leaf interiors in royal palaces dotting Europe from the same
period, but Catherine's delight in its glittering glow is unmatched among the lot.
Catherine's Palace, located in the Saint Petersburg suburb of Puskin, is an architectural portrait of Catherine II as vivid as Torrelli's painted posthumous coronation extravaganza (above, right). Remodeling and rebuilding upon the efforts of her mother-in-law, Elizabeth, the palace has a decidedly feminine aura, unlike the older Peterhof Palace which seems more masculine. This is especially notable inside both structures. Though the Peterhof Palace is sometimes referred to as the "Russian Versailles," the architectural influence of French residential confection of Louis XIV is every bit as much evidenced in Catherine's version. Anything that didn't move was liable to receive a layer of gold leaf, an affectation Catherine seems to have acquired from Elizabeth.

The Amber Room, 1938,
before the Nazis absconded with it.
The palace, its lavish interiors, the well-ordered grounds, the fountains, the statuary, and the lovely shade of turquoise blue we see today is not that of Catherine II. It's all restoration. As with the Peterhof Palace, the Nazis, as they laid siege to Saint Petersburg (then Leningrad) during WW II were not kind to Catherine's creation. By the end of the war, both palaces were bombed out, burned out hulks. Some of their riches had been hidden, even buried on the palace grounds, but Hitler's hoard went out of their way to destroy that which they couldn't carry off. One example, the Amber Room, simply disappeared, never to be seen again. The Russians began restoration immediately after the war and have been working on the project ever since. The Amber Room today is a total, though fairly accurate, recreation.

The Russians have lavished millions upon million of rubles upon their restroration efforts, probably as much or more than that which Catherine expended. The results are undeniably impressive, and no doubt largely responsible for Saint Petersburg being the number one tourist attraction in all Russia. Yet, despite the importance of such opulent excess in Russian history and culture, and the millions of tourist euros and dollars these palaces and museums contribute to the Russian economy today, one has to wonder, with all the desperate privation bearing upon the Russian people in the years since the war,--why?
The grand staircase, 1945