If You Can Only Visit One (Painting) Exhibit at the Met this Month

Make it George Bellows.

Like athletes? He paints ’em. Like seascapes? Yeap, does that too. Religious paintings? Why not. What about rough and tumble street life? He’s a pro.

"Stag at Sharkey's" 1909, one of George Bellow's most recognized paintings.

“Stag at Sharkey’s” 1909, one of George Bellow’s most recognized paintings.

Forget Matisse: In Search of True Painting. It’s a flat-liner. I know, I know, you love Matisse, and of course you do. Matisse is a blue-chip crowd-pleaser,  but the assemblage of paintings reveal nothing new nor nothing unique to Matisse. It is, effectively, thoroughly expected. He painted the same subject over and over. His style changed. He reworked paintings. It has the feeling of a student exhibition — here’s a thesis and here are all the paintings  in our collection (plus a few on loan from friends) that support it.

Instead, wander up to the second floor, where George Bellows waits to knock your socks off.

Once again, Dr. H. Barbara Weinberg struts her stuff as the most formidable curator in Pre-1945 American Art. Well paced and smartly edited, the exhibition is the first comprehensive retrospective on Bellows in half a century.  On display is his artistic range, revealing subjects in his oeuvre often subsumed to his find-them-in-every-textbook painting of boxers caught mid-bout.

George Bellows (1882-1925) died of appendicitis when he was only 42. His career and life were short, his artistic achievement, almost immeasurable.

"The Big Dory" 1913

“The Big Dory” 1913

He is best known as a core member of the Ashcan School — a group of New York painters, mostly students and associates of Robert Henri, whose style and subject matter confronted both the academy and American Impressionism. They were urban realists who painted gritty street scenes of the New York City’s working class, the city’s modernizing landscape, current events, and portraits with dark palettes and expressive brush work. Rather than art for art’s sake, they worked by Henri’s creed: “art for life’s sake.”

Bellows is the most recognizable of the Ashcan School, and his paintings are usually invoked as representative of their overall style. If you’ve picked up a textbook on American Art, his paintings and lithographs of boxers and the development of Pennsylvania Station get prime billing.

His paintings of the excavation of Penn Station are among his most recognized.

His paintings of the excavation of Penn Station are among his most recognized.

What you don’t typically see are his landscapes, his seascapes of Camden, Maine, his moonlight scenes of Riverside Park, or his religious allegories. The exhibition begins by introducing us to Bellows through what we know best and using his education at Ohio State University and talents as an athlete (legend goes he could have gone pro) as context for the subject that would later become his historical calling card.

"Riverfront, No. 1"

“Riverfront, No. 1”

And then you turn the corner to learn something new, see something unexpected. The first vista onto every new gallery is a view onto another showstopper, but also another a look into another chapter of Bellow’s career.

It’s the kind of exhibit that demands a long linger, as it reveals as much about a particular period in New York City’s history as it does about a canonized artist and the art world he negotiated.

"The Studio" -- catch the references?

“The Studio” — catch the references?

the shore

“The Shore.” No, it’s not Hopper. It’s George Bellows, a Jack of All Trades

What Tim Burton and Alexander McQueen Taught Me about Running a Museum

The dress that made me an Alexander McQueen fan for life. There's no doubt he's an artist

When I was an intern at MoMA, the museum launched a mid-career retrospective of the filmmaker Tim Burton. It was met with skepticism. Burton’s iconic status as a mainstream blockbuster-maker, with a cult following, had critics and fine-arts-lovers questioning MoMA’s integrity. It was an exhibition that displayed process, the evolution of process, and a mental stream of consciousness. But are doodles by a director art? Is Burton a mega-museum worthy artist?

When I considered the exhibition at the time, I decided “Tim Burton” was brilliant. From a museum-marketing, public relations point of view, I still believe “Tim Burton” was brilliant.

After witnessing the line-ups and the crowds, and after mingling with the audiences, I saw the value in a marquee art venue like MoMA hosting a mass-appeal exhibition. New audiences entered the museum, memberships increased, and because the exhibition had timed entry tickets, museum-visitors had time to kill by viewing the other galleries. The meatier, more academic, more stunning show “Bauhaus” was on at the same time. I don’t doubt that the increase in the number of under-20-somethings strolling the gallery had a lot to do with Tim Burton.

2+ years later, people are still talking about it. 2 years later, the number one search term that drives people to my blog is “Tim Burton at MoMA.” It was an exhibition that had staying power in the public’s mind.

Then came “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — an exhibition with the same mass-consumer appeal.

Burton and McQueen are household names in a way Frans Hal and Lyonnel Feininger will never be.

I began following McQueen’s career when he catapulted into the fashion headlines in 1990s. He revived avant-garde haute couture and breathed a much-needed breathe of the rebellious artist into a humdrum fashion world. So, of course, when the exhibit opened in May, I promised myself I’d go.

people were lined up to get into the musem for blocks! records must have been set

“Savage Beauty” closed yesterday, and all  I saw of it was a line of waiting people stretching south along 5th Avenue and fading into Central Park. I can’t, therefore, comment on the show itself. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions on “Savage Beauty.”

Drawing on global culture as much as on his native Scotland, McQueen’s career echoes those of artists like Matisse and Picasso who took the history of their medium and infused the traditional with a sense of the exotic, the other-worldly. For anyone that has ever seen a McQueen show or seen his clothes in a Vogue spread, there is no doubt that McQueen is an artist. The Costume Institute is an integral part of the Met’s collection and exhibition schedule. Fashion as art and the art of fashion is, essentially, part of the museum’s DNA.

A retrospective at the Met on McQueen was not only natural, but inevitable.

always the showman, his work was as carnal and disquieting as it was beautiful

But what about the management of the exhibition? My understanding is that there were no timed tickets for “savage Beauty” — if you wanted to see it, you had to wait your turn. Standing in line for 2-5 hours — did that permit visitors an opportunity to tour the museum? I’d be interested to see gallery counts. Thousands lined-up, thousands saw McQueen. Did thousands see “Reconfiguring an African Icon: Odes to the Mask?”

Membership increased, but then the Met stopped granting early morning member-exclusive previews. Considering that the Met’s ticket price is technically voluntary, the only benefit to becoming a member is the privileged viewing. I bet there were some very angry new members. Were refunds requested? Were they granted?

On the one hand, it’s exciting to see a line thousands deep waiting to get into a museum of fine art. On the other, you can’t help but wonder, if that’s the only exhibit they get to see, will they be back?

Chasing the Expressionists, Part III: 11 museums in 10 days

the 8 catalogs that traveled home with me

When was the last time you were alone in a room with a Van Gogh, let alone 3 Van Goghs, a Manet, and a Rodin? It was 4:00 on Monday, and I had “The Plain at Auvers” (1890), with all it’s luminous, obsessive, expressive brushwork, to myself. I couldn’t believe it — I was the only body in the French Impressionism Gallery of the Neue Pinakothek, one of Munich’s marquee museums. Never had I been in a museum of this stature, on a day open to the public, and been such a solitary observer of such stupendous art — I was going to soak it up until the lights shut off and security kicked me out… which they did, chirping a friendly “tschuss” as they locked the door behind me.

For the most part, my experience at the Neue Pinokothek is representative of my visit to the other 10 museums I hit while running from Germany to Austria and back again. Where were all the people? With stenciled walls and cozy lavender galleries, the museums I visited in Germany were a refreshing change from the whitewashed, tourist-packed monoliths that are my homes away from home in New York. In general, the collections are smaller, more accessible, and more focused — as long as my feet held up, it was easy to tour and digest multiple museums in one day.

I won’t summarize them all, rather here are my favorite:

The Museum der bildenden Kunst, Leipzig

the exterior of the Museum der bildenden kunst advertising the Kirchner exhibit

Leipzig is a city undergoing serious urban renewal. The oldest building in the city has been under silver sheet metal for the last 20 years and was only uncovered while I was there; the main market is being dug up while the buildings around it are being “restored.” My first wanderings around town didn’t prepare me for the treasure trove that is the Museum der Bildenden Kunst. Dedicated in large part to its native artists, the Leipzig collection is perhaps the best deposit of the work of Max Klinger (1857-1920), including his jaw-dropping monument to Beethoven. Klinger is best known outside of Germany for his portfolio of etchings entitled “Ein Handschuh” (A Glove), but he was also a brilliant sculptor and painter who melded styles and media to create truly stunning, unforgettable works of art. I was also pretty excited that there were 2(!!) Expressionist shows on while I was there — a selection of Kirchner’s drawings, on loan from Berlin, and “Vom Freber Bessen Rudiger Berlit und Der Expressionisms in Leipzig.” The space for all of this art is brand-spanking-new and fantastic — high ceilings, lots of light, comfortable galleries. It’s no wonder the German Fencing Federation chose it as the site for the Leipzig World Cup final gala.

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Das Grune Gewolbe, Dresden

The Dresden Green Diamond in its setting

The Green Vaults of Dresden are kunstkammers at their most opulent. Imagine rooms filled to the brim with objects carefully, painstakingly, masterfully crafted from amber, ivory,  silver, tortoise shell, and precious gems. I had never seen so many diamonds, so many emeralds, so many rubies — it’s a wonder there are any left on today’s market! Massive clocks with moving figurines, a cherry-pit craved with 185 individual faces (apparently, there was one in the collection with 210 faces, but it went missing… i blame a squirrel), model ships carved from ivory, a secretary that was a mosaic of amber — a never-ending collection of glitzy, showman-y “stuff.” The tour of the two vaults took approximately 2 hours, during which time my jaw was constantly dragging on the floor. The highlight? The massive 40.7 carat green diamond that sits in its own room near the exit of the New vault. It’s set with still more diamonds (one of which is 19 carats). Imagine… it’s a hat ornament! Now that’s some serious bling.

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The Wallaf-Richartz Museum & Fondation Corboud, Koln (Cologne)

the 19th century gallery

The Wallaf-Richartz Museum made me like medieval art. Yes, this Modernist finally found a place in her heart for religious icons outside the work of Natalia Goncharova.  Thanks largely in part to colored walls that enhanced the gilt of the paintings, a lack of crowds, the witty placement of pews in the galleries, and enthusiastic security guards who wanted to show me all their favorites, I gained the appreciation for the art of the 13-15th centuries that the Met failed to inspire. This was the last museum I toured in Germany and was easily my favorite. From its gift store (which would have made MoMA proud) to its lovely collection of 19th century paintings, I liked it all.

the best way to view an altar piece? from a pew of course

A few other highlights:

The Kathe Kollwitz Museum, Koln

The Pop-Art collection at the Ludwig Museum, Koln

The Sistine Madonna at the Zwinger, Dresden

Had I not scheduled Munich on a Monday — when most of the city’s museums close — and had Dresden’s Albertinum not been shut for renovations, I might have reached my goal of 15. Oh well, reasons to go back…

A Globe-Trotter’s Favorites

On Wednesday, I leave for a two week stint in Austria and Germany. All the trip preparations initiated a rapid recall of previous excursions abroad — stories of stick-shift driving gone wrong, conversations in muddled tongues, museum mishaps, and divine culinary discoveries. I started making a list of highlights from my many travels.* Here are a few Bests from my non-American journeys… (category suggestions for future posts welcomed)

The Hotel Saint-James

Once in a lifetime MealLe Saint-James Restaurant Gourmand, the Saint-James Hotel, Bouliac, France. The Saint-James boasts one of the best restaurants in all of France. Overlooking a vineyard and the city of Bordeaux, the view from the small dining room is breathtaking. The menu epitomizes  modern French cuisine, it’s expensive but easily the most amazing meal you’ll have in your life.

Breakfast– the homebaked crusty rolls with house-made jams and local cheeses accompanied by a giant cafe au lait at La Chapelle Saint Martin, Nieul, France.

Afternoon TeaThe Lords of the Manor, Upper Slaughter, England.

Snack-attack — the tapas selection at the NH Hotel Bar, Estado Puro, Madrid, Spain. The fried anchovies and cod fritters, washed down with a glass of wine, were excellent fuel for an afternoon at the Prado (conveniently across the street)

Appetizer — fresh local mushrooms and shaved asiago cheese, Rome, Italy. I can’t remember the name of the restaurant, all i remember is that it was near the Pantheon. The plate of thinly sliced mushrooms and shaved artisan cheese is the dish dream about.

Dessert — Sacher Torte, Vienna.

a sunset in Cozumel

Bouillabaisse Marseilles, France.

Pint — a lively pub off a back road near Shannon, County-Clare, Ireland. Reels and jigs played by a crinkly old man on his fiddle, i wasn’t permitted to refuse a dance or a guinness.

Local Brew —  Sherry, just about everywhere and at every meal, Spain.

Beach for a sunset — any beach on the western coast of Cozumel, Mexico.

Often Overlooked  Sights

  1. Nero’s Domus Aurea, Rome, Italy
  2. The Villa Jovis, Capri, Italy
  3. The Roman Aqueduct, Segovia, Spain

Buy your Che memorabillia before you get on your plane at Havana's airport

Balcony — Hotel Marina Riviera, Amalfi, Italy. Positioned just above the coastal town of Amalfi, the Marina Riviera offers unobstructed views of the Mediterranean, the cliffs behind, and the charming town below.

Place to buy a Che Guevara t-shirt — the Museo de la Revolution or the Airport, Havana, Cuba.

Mineral BathTemple Gardens Mineral Spa, Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada.

Coastal HikeThe Cabot Trail, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Place to buy hand-made sandals — the back streets of Nice, France. There’s an Italian cobbler there who makes a stellar gladiator sandal, and will custom fit them for you.

Sunday Stroll — the open fields between Upper Slaughter and Lower Slaughter, the Cotswolds, England. Makes you feel like a hero/heroine in an Austen novel.

View of the City –from the Castle District of Budapest onto the Hungarian Parliament, Budapest, Hungry.

The Hungarian Parliament from the Castle District

Place to rent and ride a scooter Bermuda.

Walk Back in time —

  1. Pompeii, Italy
  2. Chichen Itza, Mexico.

Place to see ugly Communist-era public sculptureBratislava, Slovakia.

Unexpected Roman RuinChedworth, England. Sure it’s near Bath, and sure we know about Hadrian’s Wall, but somehow perfectly preserved Roman mosaics in the middle of the English country side is not what you’d expect to run into on an afternoon stroll.

“Craft” MuseumMusee National Adrien Dubouche, Limoges France. A museum dedicated to Limoges’ most famous product — porcelain.

Marquee MuseumMusee D’Orsay, Paris, France. Manet’s Olympia and Courbet’s Burial at Ornans — need I say more?

“Non-Marquee” MuseumMuseo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain.  Typically overshadowed by the Prado and the Reina Sofia, most tourists miss this beautifully curated collection of outstanding artworks.

Solo-Artist MuseumThe Rodin Museum, Paris, France.

Local History Museum — Museum of the City and Museum of the Revolution, both Havana, Cuba.

Baroque Colonial Square Valladolid, Mexico.

Off the beaten track food to go

the main drag through Nice along the French Riviera

  1. road-side farmers’ markets in the Berry/Limousin region of France
  2. Grande Boulangerie de l’est, Acadian region of Nova Scotia, Canada.

Coastal Drive

  1. Amalfi Coast, Italy.
  2. The Riviera from Genoa, Italy, to Marseilles, France, with a requisite pit-stop in Monte Carlo.

both have their twists and their turns, both offer the most stunning views of the Mediterranean, both require a confident driver (and preferably, an automatic transmission…)

In-Land Drive — a safari at Ulusaba Private Game Reserve, Sabi Sand Reserve near Kruger National Park, South Africa.

Scariest Wild Animal Interactions:

  1. being chased into the bathroom by a baboon, Cape of Good Hope, Capetown, South Africa.
  2. being chased by a herd of elephants, Ulusaba Private Game Reserve, Sabi Sand Reserve near Kruger National Park, South Africa
  3. being chased by a flock of pigeons, Piazza San Marco, Venice, Italy.

*originally, “Meet Me in the Drawing Room was entitled “Journeys in a Discovery,” and was thus originally conceived as a travel-blog. Consider this the start of a new column….

Artwork of the week for January 18, 2010

Robert Henri, American, 1865 – 1929

O in Black with Scarf (Marjorie Organ Henri), 1910
oil on canvas

de Young Museum, San Francisco, CA

At the 1884 Paris Salon, John Singer Sargent showed a portrait of a woman in a black dress. It was supposed to be his greatest achievement, a testament to an American beauty in Paris and a showcase for his talents as a portrait painter. But rather than make him famous, Sargent’s portrait forced him into exile — “Madame x (Madame Pierre Gautreau)” remains one of the most scandalous portraits in the history of western art. Sargent claims he intended to capture M. Gautreau’s renowned (if not infamous) beauty. Instead, the image portrayed Gautreau as a constructed character — it is a painting of an American play-acting a parisienne, consuming culture as if it were a little black dress. Ultimately, “Madam X” is a tableau about spectacle and consumption, pantomime and assumed sophistication.

Surely, when American painter Robert Henri posed his wife in the studio, with her black dress and white skin, “Madame X” and her history loomed before his eyes. The similarities between the two portraits and their sitters are obvious — the size of the canvases, the muted pallets of black, brown, pink and white,  the subjects’ rouged features (lips, cheeks, and ears) contrasted against chalky skin, their left hands clutching their respective accessories. Interestingly, Marjorie Organ Henri and Virginie Gautreau were both ex-pats, a shared characteristic that makes a comparison between the two portraits all the more fascinating. Is Marjorie, the Irish immigrant married to one of the most celebrated painters of the day, performing the part of a socialite? If she is, she’s doing so in a more demure manner than Gautreau.

There are so many comparisons to be made between the two paintings — from the sitter’s gaze or her jeweled embellishments to the artist’s handling of light — so many that I just can’t do it all in the space of a blog. But even without going into further detail, it should be pretty clear “O in Black with Scarf” is Henri’s re-envisioning of “Madame X,” controversial shoulder strap not included.

For you uber-nerds: if you think a comparison like this is super fun, look at Cecilia Beaux’s 1893 “Sita and Sarita” (the Corcoran has attributed the wrong date). Not only is it one of my most favorite paintings, it’s Beaux’s Americanization of Manet’s “Olympia.”

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