Click on photos to enlarge.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Edward D. Wood Jr.

Some of the worst films ever made--most written, directed, and produced by Ed Wood.
He even took on a starring role in one of them.
As a public school art instructor I considered the cinematic arts to be on a par with painting, drawing, art history, sculpture, and other creative art forms. Of course costs made it impossible to give students hands-on moviemaking experience, but like a course in literature, we studied the classics as appropriate to the ages of the students involved. Those included Gone With The Wind, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ben-Hur, Bridge on the River Kwai, Fantasia, and a number of others too numerous to mention. Over the years, using this format, I've tended to concentrate on some of the greatest names in the film industry such as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Wells, Walt Disney, Billy Wilder, Stanley Kubrick, David O. Selznick, Martin Scorsese, and again, a number of others too numerous to mention. Though quite varied in their talents and approaches to filmmaking, they were the best Hollywood has had to offer. Today, as a change of pace, let me highlight a man considered by virtually everyone in the business as the worst filmmaker in cinematic history--Ed Wood.

The resemblance is uncanny, but that's about all the two men ever shared in common.

If you've never heard of Ed Wood until now, believe me, you ain't missed much. And even if you are familiar with the work of Edward D. Wood, it's likely due to Tim Burton's sympathetic 1994 biopic starring a very close lookalike, Johnny Depp. The film received two Academy Awards. Ed Wood was an American filmmaker, actor, and author. In the 1950s, Wood directed several low-budget science fiction, crime and horror films, notably Glen or Glenda, Jail Bait, Bride of the Monster, Plan 9 from Outer Space, Night of the Ghouls and The Sinister Urge. In the 1960s and 1970s, he transitioned towards sexploitation and pornographic films, while also writing over eighty pulp crime, horror, and sex novels. Notable for their campy aesthetics, technical errors, unsophisticated special effects, ill-fitting stock footage, eccentric casts, idiosyncratic stories and non sequitur dialogue, Wood's films remained largely obscure until he was posthumously awarded a Golden Turkey Award for Worst Director of All Time in 1980, renewing public interest in his life and work.

Wood proved to be no better as
an actor than as a writer,
producer, or director.
Edward D. Wood Jr. might be termed the Will Rogers of filmmaking: He never directed a shot he didn't like. It takes a special weird genius to be voted the Worst Director of All Time, a title that Wood has earned by acclamation. He was so in love with every frame of every scene of every film he shot that he was blind to hilarious blunders, stumbling ineptitude, and acting so bad that it achieved a kind of grandeur. But badness alone would not have been enough to make him a legend; it was his love of film, sneaking through, that pushes him over the top. Wood's most famous films are Plan 9 from Outer Space (during which his star, Bela Lugosi, died and was replaced by a double with a cloak pulled over his face), and "Glen or Glenda" (left), in which Wood himself played the transvestite title roles. It was widely known even at the time that Wood himself was an enthusiastic transvestite,
Hacks are nothing new in Hollywood. Since the beginning of the film industry at the turn of the 20th century, thousands of untalented people have come to Los Angeles from all over America and abroad to try to make it big (as writers, producers, directors, actors, talent agents, singers, composers, musicians, artists, etc.) but who end up using, scamming and exploiting other people for money as well as using their creative ability (either self-taught or professional training), leading to the production of dull, bland, mediocre, unimaginative, inferior, trite work in the forlorn hope of attaining commercial success.
The climactic scene from Plan 9 from Outer Space.
The big man in the middle is Tor Johnson whom Wood used often in his films
Ed Wood as Glenda
Wood was an exceedingly complex person. He was born in 1924, in Poughkeepsie, NY, where he lived most of his childhood. He joined the US Marine Corps in 1943 at the height of World War II and was, by all accounts, an exemplary soldier, wounded in ferocious combat in the Pacific theater. He was habitually optimistic, even in the face of the bleak realities that would later consume him. His personality bonded him with a small clique of outcasts who eked out life on the far edges of the Hollywood fringe. After settling in Los Angeles in the late 1940s, Wood attempted to break into the film industry, initially without success, but in 1952 he landed the chance to direct a film based on the real-life Christine Jorgensen sex-change story, then a hot topic. The result, Glen or Glenda (above, right), gave a fascinating insight into Wood's own personality and shed light on his transvestism (an almost unthinkable subject for an early 1950s mainstream feature). Although devoutly heterosexual, Wood was an enthusiastic cross-dresser, with a particular fond-ness for angora. Moreover the film revealed the almost complete lack of talent that would mar all his subsequent films, his tendency to resort to stock footage of lightning during dramatic moments, laughable set design, and a near-incomprehensible performance by Bela Lugosi as a mad doctor whose presence is never adequately explained. The film deservedly flopped miserably but Wood, always upbeat, pressed ahead.

Some might consider Wood's sci-fi epic as being so bad it's good. It rates as a cult classic right up (down there with the 1960s smashed hit, The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.
Wood's 1955 film starring Bella Lugosi, Bride of the Monster (below), unbelievably, somehow managed to earn a small profit during its original release, undoubtedly more of a testament to how cheaply it was produced than its value as entertainment), and Wood only shot a few seconds of silent footage of Lugosi (doped and dazed, wandering around the front yard of his house) for "Plan 9" just days before the actor died in August 1956. What few reviews the film received were brutal. Typically undaunted, Wood soldiered on despite incoherent material and a microscopic budget, peopling it with his regular band of mostly inept actors. Given the level of dialog, budget and Wood's dismal directorial abilities, it's unlikely that better actors would have made much of a difference (lead actor Gregory Walcott made his debut in this film and went on to have a very respectable career as a character actor, but he was always embarrassed by his participation in this film)--in fact, it's the film's semi-official status as arguably the Worst Film Ever Made that gives it its substantial cult following. The film, financed by a local Baptist congregation led by Wood's landlord, reaches a plateau of ineptitude that tends to leave viewers open-mouthed, wondering what is it they just saw. "Plan 9" became, whether Wood realized it or not, his singular enduring legacy. Ironically, the rights to the film were retained by the church and it is unlikely that Wood ever received a dime from it. His epic bombed upon release in 1959 and remained largely forgotten for years to come.

The poster was far better than the movie.
Wood's main problem was that he saw himself as a producer-writer-director, when in fact he was spectacularly incompetent in all three capacities. Friends who knew Wood have described him as an eccentric, oddball hack who was far more interested in the work required in cobbling a film project together than in ever learning the craft of film making itself or in any type of realism. In an alternate universe, Wood might have been a competent producer if he had better industry connections and an even remotely competent director. Wood, however, likened himself to his idol, Orson Welles, and became a triple threat: bad producer, poor screenwriter, and God-awful director. All of his films exhibit illogical continuity, bizarre narratives, and give the distinct impression that a director's job was simply to expose the least amount of film possible due to crushing budget constraints. His 1959 magnum opus, Plan 9 from Outer Space features visible wires connected to pie-pan UFOs, actors knocking over cardboard "headstones", cars changing models and years during chase sequences, scenes exhibiting a disturbing lack of handgun safety and the ingenious use of shower curtains in airplane cockpits that have virtually no equipment are just a few of the trademarks of that Edward D. Wood Jr. production (as seen in the video clip at the bottom). When criticized for their innumerable flaws, Wood would cheerfully explain his interpretation of the suspension of disbelief. It's not so much that he made movies so badly without regard to realism--the amazing part is that he managed to get them made at all.

Check out the full-length movie It Came from Hollywood on YouTube for more of the worst Hollywood has had to offer.


Monday, October 14, 2019

Women Who Changed Art History

A few of the most influential women in the history of art.
When we mention women and art history together, we usually think in terms of female painters, sculptors, or architects. Names such as Livania Fontana, Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun., Artemisia Gentileschi, Georgia O'Keeffe, Berthe Morisot, Frida Kahlo, Louise Nevelson, come to mind. These women, and many others I've written about in the past have, in their own individual work "changed" art history. Technically, the title above should probably read, "Women Who Changed the Course of Art History" but that seemed a little too long. In most cases, the women below were not artists. They were women who, by purchasing paintings and sculptures, became collectors and tastemakers, supporting artists’ careers, and--through portraiture--generated enduring images of themselves. In many instances, these women, by commissioning public buildings, churches, and museums created potent architectural spaces for preserving their legacies and that of their personal art collections. By developing world-class collections and creating major art museums, these women have truly shaped the course of art history. While my selection is by no means exhaustive, it highlight seven extraordinary female patrons spanning geographies and centuries who have changed the way we look at art.

The "First Lady of the Renaissance."
We could go back as far as the Egyptian queen Hatshepsut from around 1479–1458 B.C. as we look at some of the most influential women in the history of art. But I think a good starting point would be the Renaissance and the Marchioness of Mantua, Isabella d’Este. Sometimes referred to as the “First Lady of the Renaissance," she turned the city of Mantua into an important cultural center as an influential and beloved politician, art patron, and fashion icon. It's said that her husband, Francesco Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua, became jealous of her popularity in the region. To escape his resentment, Isabella traveled to Rome. There she spent time in the influential circles of Pope Leo X (a prominent patron himself) and met artists such as Leonardo da Vinci (above), Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian, Pietro Perugino, Andrea Mantegna, Giovanni Bellini, and Giorgione. In these artists’ portraits of the patroness, Isabella appears as a pale and regal beauty with an exuberant taste in clothes. In an unusual move for the time, Isabella arranged her apartments as a kind of museum. The studiolo and grotta in the ducal palace became places for her to entertain nobles, dignitaries, and artists, and to show off the works that she had commissioned. In this way Isabella inserted herself into spaces traditionally allotted to men. After her husband died, Isabella became co-regent of Mantua with her son, Federigo II. Her people so admired her that they persuaded Federigo to reinstall his mother as their leader. Through her collecting and her noble background, Isabella established networks across Europe that furthered her influence.

Madame de Pompadour, 1756, Francois Boucher
In France, King Louis XV’s most famous mistress, Jeanne Antoinette Poisson—better known as Madame de Pompadour—commissioned so much artwork during her time in the court that 19th-century French writers began calling her the “godmother and queen of the Rococo.” Madame de Pompadour was actively engaged in her many portrait commissions, using them to show off her style, document her accomplishments, and enhance her power in the French court. Previous court mistresses favored allegorical representations of themselves. Madame de Pompadour’s portraits, on the other hand, reflect her glamorous, enlightened life, and are filled with objects and symbols that allude to her cultural and intellectual refinement. Paintings by artists such as François Boucher (above) and Maurice-Quentin de la Tour depict her in over-the-top gowns with ruffles and embroidered flowers indicating how she fashioned herself as a trendsetter surrounded by books, globes, classical statues, music instruments, and sheet music. So great was her cultural authority that long after her intimate affair with Louis XV was over, Madame de Pompadour continued to live at Versailles and wield influence in his court.

Portrait of Cathrine the Great, c. 1770, Fyodor Rokotov
Queen Catherine the Great of Russia used art patronage to elevate her country's standing and power in Europe. During her reign, the country expanded its borders to include around 200,000 square miles, becoming a dominant nation on the Continent. She seemed to prize quantity over quality, and viewed art collecting as a competition. After taking the throne in 1762, she quickly bought 225 paintings from a Berlin dealer that included work by Frans Hals and Rembrandt. Throughout her 34-year reign, Catherine gradually acquired entire private collections from around Europe to prove her superior wealth over other European rulers who might want them. Eventually, she amassed around 4,000 paintings. Many artists painted Catherine’s portrait. The French painter Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun spent time in her court. In 1764, the empress turned the Baroque Winter Palace into an exhibition hall to showcase her collection. In 1852, the galleries opened to the public as the Hermitage Museum, which remains St. Petersburg’s most popular tourist attraction today and now contains over 3 million artworks. The Hermitage thus became an archetypal public institution that helped create a favorable image of Russia in the West.

Besides Picasso's cubistic portrait, Stein was also painted by numerous other groundbreaking artists such as Henri Matisse, though these works did not always mention her name.
Gertrude Stein was an American expatriate writer who hosted the avant-garde art world at her Paris salon. Through collecting art, she solidified her position among avant-garde artists in Paris, and founded a community that was supportive of both her experimental work and her lesbian lifestyle. In 1901, Stein had dropped out of Johns Hopkins Medical School and followed her aspiring-artist brother, Leo, to London and then to Paris. Through Leo, she began to acquaint herself with the bohemian artists living around the Montmartre neighborhood. In 1905, Stein met Pablo Picasso. He began to paint her portrait, which he finished the next year. It was a crucial step in the development of modernism: In the picture, Stein’s face adopts a flatness and mask-like quality that Picasso would soon push to the extreme in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), the first Cubist painting. Stein’s patronage helped Picasso to continue painting throughout the early 1900s before he received international acclaim. She also collected work by Cézanne, Juan Gris, and Henri Matisse. Meanwhile, Stein produced her own groundbreaking body of literature, which grew to include such titles as Three Lives, Tender Buttons, and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1888. John Singer Sargent
In lieu of heirs to her linen and finance fortune, Isabella Stewart Gardner gave birth to a museum that brought European masterpieces to her beloved hometown of Boston. Throughout her life, she’d take inspiration from her travels; Venice’s Palazzo Barbaro inspired the architecture of her museum. Following the death of her father in 1891, Gardner inherited around $1.7 million (over $45 million today). She was already a collector of rare books and manuscripts, but with this influx of cash, she turned her attention and funds towards European art. Later that year, she outbid the Louvre and London’s National Gallery to purchase Johannes Vermeer’s The Concert (1663–66), asserting her taste and wealth at an elite, international level. From 1899 to 1901, Gardner oversaw the construction of her museum, which featured quarters on the fourth floor that served as her own home. After her husband died, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was Gardner’s comfort and family for the remaining years of her life. Her collection grew to include such masterpieces as a self-portrait by Rembrand and Titian’s Rape of Europa (1562), Gardner was also a patron to American expat portraitist John Singer Sargent (above). Gardner expanded beyond European painting, as well, purchasing Asian and Islamic art, which, in an unusual move, she displayed side-by-side with Western works.
Portrait of A'Lelia Walker
During the early decades of the 20th-century,A’Lelia Walker’s Harlem townhouse and her ritzy, white stucco palace in Irvington, New York, became legendary meeting places for figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Walker’s mother, Madam C.J. Walker, became the first self-made female millionaire by expertly marketing and distributing “The Walker System,” her line of hair care products for black women. In 1913, A’Lelia pursuaded her mother to purchase two townhouses on West 136th Street in uptown Manhattan. They hired New York State’s first licensed African-American architect, Vertner Woodson Tandy, to renovate the properties into a single living-workingddddddddd space amenable to both business and entertaining. Tandy also constructed their Irvington home, Villa Lewaro, in 1918. Walker's Harlem apartment was known as the Dark Tower. There she hosted soirées where writers and musicians such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Countee Cullen could freely mingle. She adored the company of lesbians and gay men thus her parties had a distinctly gay ambiance serving as safe spaces for the gay culture of her time. Elegant homosexuals such as Edward Perry, Edna Thomas, Harold Jackman, and Caska Bonds were her closest friends. Walker’s parties created a sense of community crucial to the work of many African-American artists in her day.
Edith Halpert at the Downtown Gallery, in a photograph for Life magazine in 1952. She is joined by some of the new American artists she was promoting that year: Charles Oscar, Robert Knipschild, Jonah Kinigstein, Wallace Reiss, Carroll Cloar, and Herbert Katzman.
Russian-American Edith Halpert was the founder of the Downtown Gallery in New York City. Her groundbreaking mid-century gallery turned exhibitions into political platforms. The Russian-Jewish immigrant moved to New York with her family around 1906. Through gallery-hopping and courses at the National Academy of Design, she developed an early appreciation for art. In 1926, Halpert opened the Downtown Gallery in what was then the bohemian Greenwich Village. She was devoted to supporting living American artists and exhibited work by Stuart Davis the first major gallery show by an Afro-American artist in New York. She debuted Lawrence’s “Migration Series” (1940–41) and took aggressive steps to sell the work. Her hard-driving strategies worked, as Halpert placed Lawrence’s entire series in elite East Coast institutions including the Museum of Modern Art and the Phillips Collection with each acquiring half. After the U.S. instituted a policy of Japanese internment during World War II, Halpert showed the work of Japanese-born artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi in protest.
The many eras of art history
Art patronage connects aesthetic taste with money and power. Art can also serve diplomacy when collectors host a political fundraiser in rooms filled with work by marginalized artists or when they give a world leader a portrait of themselves as a gift, they signal specific values and ambitions. For hundreds of years, patriarchal societies around the world have excluded women from traditional leadership roles. Nonetheless, these seven women, as patrons of the arts, were able to exert soft power in creative ways. These women were drawn to the intellectual and philosophical opportunities that art provided in eras when they had limited access to higher education. Down through art's many eras, dozens of male artists owe their careers to these farsighted ladies.


Monday, October 7, 2019

The NEW Greek Architecture

Daring Greek Minimalist home by architect, Pavlos Chatziangelidis
located in the outskirt hills of Athens.
When we speak of Greek architecture we picture the Parthenon, crowning the brink of the Acropolis in Athens, or the neighboring Erechtheum with its sculpted maidens supporting the roof of the temple, or perhaps the largely intact ancient temple of Neptune with its stately Doric columns at Paestum (which is not actually in Greece, but in Italy) Yet if you should travel to Athens, Greece, you would find few if any modern-day structures built in the classic Greek style. Innovative architectural design seems to run in the Greek lifeblood as surely as baklava, olives, or feta cheese. However the manifestations of today's Greek architectural looks nothing at all like the imitation Greek styles we see everywhere in cities around the world except in Greece. It would surprise many to realize that contemporary Greek architects have embraced (of all things) Minimalism.
Chatziangelidis' H3 bears virtually all the marks of modern Minimalism from pure, white, cantilevered, reinforced concrete to the use of the obligatory swimming pool in providing eye-catching reflections.  
Minimalism is, of course, not limited to the Greeks. In fact its roots date back at least as far as the 1950s and the groundbreaking designs of German architect Mies Van der Rohe, Eero Saarinen (of Finland), and the American Philip Johnson, all of whom were influenced to varying degrees by Frank Lloyd Wright. Yet Minimalism has come a long way from the days of Wright's Fallingwater or Johnson's glass house. Innovations in construction materials and techniques have propelled the "Bauhaus box" seen in the earliest Minimalist designs, to the glistening cantilevered masses seen in Chatziangelidis' (don't even try to pronounce that name) amazing H3 house near Athens (top). Rather than present another general overview of today's Minimalism I've chosen to highlight a single, outstanding example of the work from the Athens-based 314 Architecture Studio (above).
Viewed from virtually every angle, H3 consistently surprises and invites awe.
In reviewing dozens of other prime examples of Minimalist domestic architecture, this one stood apart from the others. For many Minimalism is not an easy style to admire. Minimalist works are often accused (albeit with some justification) of being cold, harsh, barren, simplistic, and just plain bland. H3 may embody some of those traits but the house also bears descriptive adjectives like daring, exciting, graceful, uncomplicated, and spirited while at the same time being of eco-friendly materials and bioclimatic in design (cool in the summer, warm in the winter). The design allows the sun to warm up cold places in the winter and in the summer months to cool down other places as ventilation blows the hot air out.
The concrete and stone bench by the pool reflects back the reversed
angles and masses of the house itself.
Taking a closer look we find all the hallmark traits of Minimalist housing design. Minimalist architects love reinforced concrete and structural steel. They are completely enamored with white (often white on white). They've never met an oblique angle they didn't like. Yet they are just as likely to warmly embrace biomorphic shapes and features (though H3 is notably lacking in this aspect). Minimalism governs the interior décor (or lack of it) right down to custom built Minimalist furnishings, art, and floor coverings. Forget curtains. For those seeking privacy, windows are sometimes outfitted with discretely hidden shutters or blinds. Very often though, as with H3, such niceties are eschewed in favor of unlimited scenic views or the breaking down of the walls separating interior and exterior environments.
Neat, clean, simple yet luxurious, convenient, and comfortable .
At 1,000 sq. meters (10,764 sq. feet) H3 is larger than most Minimalist homes. The house consists of three separate levels with a design objective to create a luxurious and ergonomic environment with clean lines and minimalist aesthetic. Located on a plot of 7000 sq, meters plot, the house was designed to give a sense of contact with the water element inspired by the owners' love for yachts. The contact of the house and the artificial ponds that surround it, create a cooling sensation. The water for the lakes and the pool comes from a well, while the water demand for irrigation comes from a tank in which rainwater is collected through a drainage system. (Greece has a fairly dry climate.)
The rectilinear pool juts first one way, then the other and is blessed by a much-needed extended roof span providing refuge from the hot Grecian sun.
A study of the H3 floor plans (even they are minimalist) brings to light what even the most dramatic photos fail to exhibit. The three levels are accessed by traditional stairs as well as a hydraulic elevator. The basement level (directly below) consists of a five-stall parking garage, a squash court, laundry, sauna, gym, and two guest suites (or possibly servants' quarters). The elevator is marked by a boxed "X."

The two "bars"( just abov)e mark the foundations of the pylons supporting the cantilevered sleeping area.
The ground level (below) features a spacious living room, dining area, and kitchen built over much of the pool (in blue). The outdoor area features a tremendous expanse of wooden deck (as opposed to barefoot-burning concrete). Unmarked rectangles are spaces reserved for utilities and storage (of all thing not lending themselves to Minimalism). Textured areas are grass.
The main entrance is via a stepping-stone footbridge crossing the pool
to an inviting outdoor foyer.
The upper level (below) consists of two singles bedrooms with individual bathrooms, and the master suite at the far end of the jutting concrete cantilever. A long corridor with one sloping wall runs the entire length of the bedroom wing.
The bedroom wing, though appearing to overhang the pool actually
provides shade for the pool deck below.

The use of geothermal energy saves energy for the cooling and heating systems. The rooms are covered with spiral that, in conjunction with the solar panels on the rear side of the plot, heat the pool water. Photovoltaic panels have been fitted at the rear side of the plot for the production of electric power. The architecture, the construction materials, and the tech-nologies employed, all contribute to the dynamic architecture of this exquisite example of contemporary Minimalism.
Though obviously 21st century in all design, and
construction aspects, one is tempted to consider
H3 to be of the 22nd century.


For more on this remarkable house go to:


Monday, September 30, 2019

Stéphane Breitwieser

Stéphane Breitwieser, (between prison terms) with one of his most valuable art thefts. François Boucher’s The Sleeping Shepherd was destroyed in a garbage disposal.

Jean-Antoine Watteau.
Whatever else you might say or
think of Breitwieser, he had
 impeccable tastes in art.
Art is a valuable commodity. And, like all com-modities, some art is more valuable than most. Like all things valuable art should be secured. My art, and most other art, is secured by a wire (or bracket) in back and a hook on the wall. That and locks on our doors make my art about as secure as it needs to be. On a few occasions unscrupulous dealers and others have breached that security when my work was on public display. I think I've lost maybe a half-dozen paintings that way. But this is not about me or my art, or even most art. No, I'm talking about art commodities with prices running in the range of seven, or eight, or even nine figures, and specifically one Frenchman who ranks near the top of the list of prolific all-time art thieves--Stephane (the "e" is silent) Breitwieser.
Francois Boucher, one of
Breitwieser's favorite artists.
In an attempt to build a personal collection of priceless art, Stéphane Breitwieser visited small museums, castles, auction houses and private collections which had low security. He would then steal one or two carefully selected pieces. Usually they would be small paintings, sculptures, wea-pons, and musical instruments which could easily to be placed under his jacket. Some of the artwork stolen were from the 16th-18th centuries and in-cluded paintings by the Dutch portrait painter Corneille de Lyon, Flemish Pieter Brueghel the Younger, German Lucas Cranach the Elder (below), as well as French painters François Boucher (right} and Jean-Antoine Watteau (Above, left).
Sybille of Cleves (detail), 1524, Lucas Cranach the Elder.
The painting was valued at between £4.2 million and £4.7 million.
There have, of course, been dozens of major art thefts down through the centuries, some of them far more scandalous than Breitwieser's. In 1911, a Louvre employee, Vincenzo Peruggia swiped the Mona Lisa (which, is priceless). He kept it in his apartment for over two years then foolishly tried to sell it to Florence's Uffizi Museum. He served just six months in prison. In July 2002, Paraguay hosted the most valuable art exhibition in its history. Then a group of criminals broke in and stole five paintings. They gained entry by way of a tunnel some eighty feet long. They made off with over a million dollars worth of art. On February. 12, 2008, three men walked into the E.G. Bürle Foundation museum in Zurich, Switzerland. Their masterpieces didn't stand a chance. In broad daylight, one man pulled a gun while the other two grabbed the four paintings closest to the door. The four paintings together were worth approximately $163-million. On March 18, 1990, two thieves disguised as police officers entered Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in the middle of the night, telling guards they were investigating a disturbance. They made off with 13 works of art, worth approximately $163 million including paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Manet. The museum offered a $5-million reward as the FBI launched a massive investigation, but the pieces and burglars remain at large. As astounding as those figures sound, they amount to "peanuts" as compared to Breitwieser's lifetime haul. His take has been estimated at some $1.4 billion dollars.
The Sleeping Shepherd, 1730, Francois Boucher
You read that right...that's BILLION...with a "B". Breitwieser stole 139 works from 172 galleries, auction houses, and museums in Switzerland, France, and Germany, among other places. One would have to draw upon the Nazis plunder European art (1933-1945) of 516,000 pieces worth and estimated $20-billion to surpass the sheer magnitude of Breitwieser's figures. Moreover, Hitler had an entire army scouring the greatest art collections in Europe. In contrast, Breitwieser was just one man (his girlfriend was a part-time accomplice). After the war and in the decades that followed all but a few of Hitler's art booty was recovered. That was not the case with Breitwieser. Unfortunately, following his initial arrested in 2001, Breitwieser's mother, in an attempt to minimize evidence that might be used against her son, is thought to have thrown away dozens of paintings and drawings, and dumped more than a hundred works into a canal (below). Over 100 items were successfully recovered. However, this left over 100 that were lost. The Sleeping Shepherd (above) was ripped to shreds by a garbage disposal.
A painting depicting the scene as army workers scour the banks of the Rhone-Rhine Canal in search of paintings which may have been dumped there by Breitwieser's mother.
Breitwieser's crimes were more in the nature of shoplifting than what we've come to know as daring art heists. Yet, when it comes to stealing from museums, Stéphane Breitwieser is virtually peerless. He was one of the most prolific and successful art thieves who ever lived. Done right, his technique—daytime, no violence, performed like a magic trick, sometimes with guards in the room—never involves a dash to a getaway car. Just make sure to get there at lunchtime, Breitwieser stresses, when the visitors thin and the security staff rotates shorthanded to eat. Dress sharply, shoes to shirt, topped by a jacket that's tailored a little too roomy, with a Swiss Army knife stashed in a pocket. Be friendly at the front desk. Buy your ticket, say hello, Breitwieser adds. Once inside, it's essential to focus. Note the flow of visitor traffic and memorize the exits. Count the guards. Are they sitting or patrolling? Check for security cameras and see if each has a wire—sometimes they're fake. In 2001, Stéphane Breitwieser was finally arrested after stealing at a museum in Lucerne, Switzerland when he returned after stealing a musical instrument only a few days earlier. A security guard recognized him and made an immediate arrest. The stolen goods were found to be kept in a room at his mother’s house, which had blackout curtains so that the light did not damage any of the pieces – many of which had been cut out of their frames from the museums from which they were stolen. His mother later claimed that she had no idea they were stolen and thought they were all purchased legally at auction. Interestingly, Stéphane Breitwieser had no intention of selling any of the items. He was simply stealing them for the purpose of building a grand collection for himself.
Portrait of Johann Friedrich, Elector of Saxony, and
Portrait of Princess Emilie of Saxony, both by Lucas Cranach the elder,
were among the works stolen by Breitwieser.
Stephane Breitwieser was given only a three-year prison sentence for his crimes. He served two. His mother was also given three years, serving 18 months. Breitwieser's girlfriend was given an 18-month sentence and served just six months. In 2011 Breitwieser was again arrested after being caught with 30 stolen artworks at his home. He was given another three-year prison sentence. To insure his insolvency, Breitwieser put all his money in accounts belonging to his relatives. Thus he has never reimbursed the victims of his theft. The municipalities of Orleans, Dunkirk, Copenhagen, and others have never received a cent. Meanwhile Breitwieser published a book titled, Confessions of an Art Thief for which he is said to have received an advance of some 73,000 euros.

I wonder if it made the "Book of the Month Club?"


Monday, September 23, 2019

Hopper's Nighthawks

The Nighthawks, 1942, Edward Hopper
It's not often that a work of art is recognized as "great" without the passage of a number of years (sometimes centuries) after its creation and very often long after the artist's death. Vincent van Gogh is a prime example. Henri Rousseau is another. Several of the Impressionists and Post-impressionists also fit that bill. On the other hand painters such as Leonardo, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Rockwell were recognized for the genius of their work well within their lifetimes. In May, 1942, a little-known painter and printmaker from upstate New York sold his most famous work to the Chicago Art Institute for $3000 (a very respectable price for a painting by an artist of limited stature at the time). Edward Hopper had completed his moody The Nighthawks (above) in January of that year, barely four months earlier.

Other than the artist himself, Hopper's wife of 41 years, Jo (Nivison) Hopper, also his in-house art historian, may well be the force most responsible for his rise to fame in the art world and his remaining one of the most respected American artists of all time. Much of what we know of Hopper's professional life we owe to her. From Jo’s notes, we learn that the painting’s title is a playful joke about the strong, beaklike nose of the smoking man. This nickname is itself a glimmer of human tenderness, a light mockery which suddenly brings the whole painting to life. We see Hopper's night hawk, just one of a small group, silent souls in a time of global war, in the large, lonely city, in a diner, and, like many of us, they are, alone/together.

The Art Student
(Miss Josephine Nivison),
Robert Henri

Edward Hopper Self-portrait, 1903

Edward Hopper was often evasive and guarded. He frequently denied stringently the popular readings of his paintings. He did not, he would insist, intentionally im-bue his urban scenes with an unspoken pregnancy of human feeling, an eerie, uncommunicative atmosphere of the mod-ern metropolis, with which they’ve become associated. But when reflecting on his most successful and evocative painting, even Hopper himself had to admit it: “Unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.” Nighthawks was completed in January of 1942, just weeks after Pearl Harbor and the United States subsequent joining of the Second World War. One might guess that a downtown diner would be alive with news, debate, and speculation at such a historic time. Hopper instead chooses to observe an oppressive silence, picking out the figures and their features in a way which suggests great, silent distances between them, despite sharing the same bubble of space and time.

The neighborhood....almost deserted.
The architecture of the paint-ing seems designed to com-partmentalize, divide, and separate. It’s all sharp verti-cals and pronounced horizon-tals, frames and doorways, shadows and blockages. The detailed rendering of the em-pty shop across the street (right) is a careful and potent observation of utter absence. The painting’s strange silence is given force by the compo-sition of the four people who occupy it. In her notes on the painting, Hopper’s wife des-cribes them as a good looking blond boy in white behind the counter. There's a girl in red blouse and brown hair (for whom she posed) eating a sandwich. The male "night hawk" (beak) wears a dark suit, steel grey hat, black band, and blue shirt holds cigarette.

The center offers little of interest to the viewer.
Occupying the direct center of the large canvas sits ;a dark, sinister figure, his back turned to us, unwilling or unable to communicate (above). Our eyes catch him first, but receive nothing in re-turn. So we scan and look elsewhere. The activity of the man behind the counter (below) gives us a kind of hope. He’s the most dynamic of the group by far. In the act of straightening up, he shows his face and searches for some response from the man and woman at the counter. He plays the choric role, mirroring our desire for communication. The two stony figures do not reciprocate. He might as well be talking to the two inanimate, coffee dispensing tanks behind him, which they resemble.

The man behind the counter seems to communicate, but doesn't.
The relationship between the man and woman sitting at the counter is perhaps one of the most intriguing, yet mysterious, relationships between any two figures in any painting throughout art history (below). The woman morosely raises some morsel of food to her mouth, seeming mechanical, without appetite. The man allows his cigarette to smoke itself out, his blank eyes shadowed by the peak of his hat. There’s maybe a subtle hope of tenderness, though, if you look closely at the composition of their arms and hands. The man’s right arm and the woman’s left form the exact mirror-angle of one another. Each forearm stretches along a perfect perpendicular. The angle of the woman’s other arm matches the man’s right arm exactly. This is a geometric harmony which cannot be ignored. It is part of the painting’s quiet language.

Are they together or simply together apart?
And though the woman’s hand seems to be placed behind the man’s, on the two-dimensional plane of the canvas, their skin-tones overlap. As far as the application of paint goes, Hopper has essentially allowed their hands to meet. The longer you look, the more the fingers of each hand appear to shiver with tenderness and desire. Perhaps these boundaries can be crossed. After all, by some miracle we. as viewers. have been allowed to see and read these people through the window, and then through the second window, which is the surface of the painting. It's from Jo’s notes that we learn that the painting’s title is a playful joke about the strong, beaklike nose of the smoking man (posed by Hopper himself). This nickname is itself a glimmer of human tenderness, a light mockery which suddenly brings the whole thing to life. Here he is, our night hawk. The group, silent, in a time of global war, in the large, lonely city, in a diner, and, like all of us, here they are, alone/together.

Nighthawks preliminary drawings.
So, where exactly is this diner Hopper made so famous? Well, needless to say, in a city like New York, the actual diner has long ago ceased to exist. In fact it never really existed at all as depicted by Hopper. He used an amalgamation of several similar eateries in the Greenwich neighborhood. Yet Hopper claimed THE Nighthawks diner was based on a real place though he was cagey about naming the actual eatery. His only clue was that the diner was a restaurant on New York’s Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet. Therefore, the actual location of his inspiration has long been a matter of debate. Popular opinion favors Mulry Square, a small triangular lot at Greenwich Avenue and Seventh Avenue. However, historical records show that a gas station occupied the lot in the early 1940s, not a diner. In 2013, New York Magazine set out to track down the real inspiration for Nighthawks, scouring streets and historical photographs to settle the discussion once and for all. They ultimately determined Hopper's picture-perfect diner was, indeed, made up of various elements of Manhattan architecture. These components include a glass-and-steel storefront on 11th Street, the curve of the Flatiron Building, and a long-gone restaurant called Crawford Lunch. Fittingly, a 3D version of Nighthawks was created within a display window of the Flatiron Building in the summer of 2013. In Block 613, Lot 62, (below) on the corner where 7th Avenue South hits Perry Street, the 1950s mapmaker has drawn a rectangle and written the word DINER. Sometime between the late 1930s and the 1950s, a diner appeared on the southwest corner of the Mulry Square triangle. Hopper completed The Nighthawks in 1942.

A map of the Greenwich Avenue area with early guesses marked with X's and the likely actual site (just above) circled in red.

The experts comment:

Nighthawks has inspired countless other artists. By the same token, there may be some influence from Van Gogh's Café At Night. Based on the similar theme and concentration on the play of light at night, Van Gogh's piece may have sparked Hopper's ideas. Interestingly, Café at Night was exhibited in New York in January of 1942, right as Hopper was working on Nighthawks. Though well after Hopper began his painting, it's probable he would have seen Van Gogh’s painting, inasmuch as his own works were also on display at the same venue. Among several other works later inspired by The Nighthawks, likely the most famous is Gottfried Heinwein's version titled Boulevard Of Broken Dreams (below).

Boulevard Of Broken Dreams, Gottfried Heinwein
based on Hopper's The Nighthawks. Can you identify
the tragic 1950s movie celebrities? 


Monday, September 16, 2019

After the Fire

Shortly before eight p.m. Notre Dame's iconic wooden
spire toppled into the attic inferno below.
A little over six years ago I wrote detailing our visit to Notre Dame de Paris. A lot has happened since then. A smoke alarm alerted a fire security employee who was monitoring the system in a building beside the cathedral at 6:18 p.m. on April 15, 2019. That employee then rang a security guard who was standing near the altar and told him to check it out. The guard reported that there was no fire. The guard had gone to the wrong part of the cathedral—a connected building called the sacristy. The security employee called his boss rather than the fire department, who did not pick up initially. When his boss called back, they realized what was happening and told the security guard to immediately look at the attic of the main cathedral—where by then, the fire was burning out of control. The mix-up has since produced a bitter round of finger-pointing over who was responsible for allowing the fire to rage unchecked for so long.
Notre Dame interior--before                           and after the fire               
The fire was devastating, but it could have been much worse. Firefighters were in a life-threatening race against time to stop the cathedral from collapsing, which ended with the loss of its steeple and wooden structure but the preservation of its towers, main structure, famous stained-glass windows, and many of the world-renowned treasures inside. An important collection of artwork and Christian relics stored in and around Notre Dame also faced danger from the flames. Firefighters and other emergency responders formed a human chain and entered the building to save what holy relics they could. Thanks to the bravery of Paris firefighters, and in no small part that of the cathedral staff, many of the most vital works of art and artifacts were saved from the fire. That includes the crown of thorns—-believed by some to have been worn by Jesus during his crucifixion—-and the tunic of St. Louis. Some of these and other works have been moved to the Louvre, where they are expected to be repaired or restored, if necessary.
Some of the items saved from the fire.
In the stunned aftermath of the Notre-Dame blaze French firefighters and experts ventured into the devastated cathedral on Tuesday morning to survey what remained. They finally declared—-to the relief of millions—-that the structure of the 859-year cathedral had been saved, and that firefighters had rescued some of the most precious relics even while the world watched aghast at flames leaping from the Medieval icon. There was a sense of disbelief among Parisians on Tuesday morning that Notre-Dame had been so vulnerable to devastation, after withstanding nearly a millennium of epic upheavals, including the French Revolution, and just in the past century alone, two world wars and the Nazi occupation of Paris.
Notre Dame's high altar after the fire.
However, those who have for years tracked the declining condition of the cathedral wondered whether the fire might have been far less severe had they launched major renovations years ago—an option that cash-strapped Notre-Dame had been unable to do. Notre-Dame began a €150-million ($170 million) construction project last year, in an effort to restore and upgrade the wooden roof and spire, which were considered to be the most urgently needed work. There was fire proofing everywhere, but it was not enough. The restoration of the cathedral had been taking place all along the years, since the 19th century. But it would have been better had they started this program much earlier. It was in the upper roof portion, where construction was ongoing, that the fire appears to have started. Some experts have speculated that the initial cause might have been a spark from a welder’s torch, although there is no proof for their theory. The fire appeared to smolder for a while before turning into a blaze. French officials have ruled out any criminal act.
In what was the most shocking moment of the fire, the delicate 300-foot spire, which dated back more than 200 years, (seen here before the fire) tilted to one side and then snapped off almost like a twig (top photo).
What was lost? Two-thirds of the roof collapsed in the fire, and in the process also destroying some of the centuries-old statues of saints that were perched on the spire. Part of the nave and the choir are also gone. The most severely damaged were the vaults of the ceiling (below), which Medieval architects had constructed from about 5,000 oak trees. Until that Monday night, this feat of Medieval engineering and architecture had been one of the finest examples of Gothic construction still standing. The original spire was lost in 1792, shortly before the French Revolution. At the time, fiercely anti-clerical crowds laid siege to the cathedral, ransacking its irreligious artworks. The spire destroyed on Monday night dated to the mid-19th century, when a new spire was erected. Making matters worse, the spire was very delicate and it was made of wood.
Notre Dame's ceiling vault frescoes--damage beyond repair.
Many of the grand paintings in the cathedral were too difficult to rescue while firefighters battled the blaze. France’s Minister of Culture told reporters that the paintings would be removed and transported to the Louvre Museum a short distance from the cathedral. There, they would be treated for water and smoke damage, and stored for a time when Notre Dame might finally be reopened. There were only sketchy details on Tuesday morning of the state of many treasures. Initially it was believed that Notre-Dame’s famous Rose Windows and other stain glass windows were lost (below). As it turned out, only one collapsed. However, the fate of a fragment of the Holy Cross and Nail is not known.
there is a waiting list of more than two years of organists wanting to play it.
Each pipe was individually cleaned during a 2013 refurbishment.
The impressive organ (above) dating to the 1730s and boasting an estimated 8,000 pipes did not burn and is intact, but nobody knows yet whether it was damaged by the heat or water. “The organ is a very fragile instrument,” The organ is said to have “incredible” sound, with “very rich colors.”
Most of the stained glass windows were only slightly damaged in the fire.
What lies ahead is a mammoth salvage and rebuilding effort. So far, no one can say how long that might take, nor how many hundreds of millions, or perhaps billions, might be required. Ironically, the immense loss from the fire, and the sense of grief that settled over Paris, prompted huge private donations within hours—the kinds of donations for which Notre-Dame officials had appealed for years, with no luck. The family of French billionaire François Pinaud pledged €100 million (about $113 million) to rebuild the cathedral. Not to be outdone, Bernard Arnaud, who heads the luxury group LVMH, pledged €200 million (about $226 million). The French oil giant Total said it would donate €100 million. Conspicuously absent is any pledge of funds from the Vatican. Hundreds of regular Parisians went online to donate small amounts to crowdfunding efforts that sprang up as the fire raged on Monday night.
Much of the sculpture beneath the collapsed roof was either destroyed or heavily damaged.
Even so, the French government had hesitated to commit serious funds for Notre-Dame’s restoration, in part because of the laws imposing strict secular government limits on funding for churches. An annual maintenance budget from the government of €2 million (about $2.26 million) covered the bare basics. Notre-Dame draws a giant 13 million tourists a year, or about 13,000 a day—more than the Eiffel Tower does. Yet it is forbidden under law from charging an entrance fee, since places of worship are required to be open to all, at any time. Yet even a modest fee, would have gone a long way toward solving their ongoing funding crisis. Officials noted that last year, a group of preservationists raised about $2 million in the U.S. alone. It seems Americans are the most passionate non-French people about the cathedral. Sociologist have noted that there is a tradition of philanthropy in the U.S. which does not exist in France.
One of the ceiling frescoes heavily damaged or destroyed.
Some five to ten per cent of the artwork has probably been destroyed (above). The cathedral was home to dozens of paintings, including a series of 76 pieces depicting the Acts of the Apostles, and a Medieval image of the Virgin Mary by Jean Jouvenet. Surprisingly the smaller paintings appear to be unaffected. However, further inspection is needed to confirm if the smoke from the fire, or the water used to quell it, did any damage to the paint. Fortunately, 16 religious statues got a lucky escape from Monday’s blaze. Just four days before the fire, they were removed from the top of Notre Dame for the first time in over a century to be taken for cleaning. The removal was part of a restoration of the cathedral’s towering spire, now gone. The 3-meter-tall copper statues represent the 12 apostles and four evangelists. The cathedral’s roof was the most enduring loss. It was built using a lattice of giant beams cut from trees in the primeval forests of the 12th and 13th centuries. Experts say France no longer has trees big enough to replace the ancient wooden beams that burned in the fire. Thus the cathedral’s roof cannot be rebuilt exactly as it was before the fire. Restoration work will have to use new technology to rebuild the roof. Notre Dame and the French nation have dodged a complete disaster, but one that could largely have been avoided had the kind of money now pouring in for restoration and rebuilding been available for ongoing maintenance. In another twist of irony, the very pre-fire restoration work on the roof and attic may have been responsible for the fire.
Notre Dame de Paris today.