Monday, February 26, 2018

A Rare Painting Cycle

Expresses Acceptance and Tolerance    

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598 – 1664), Jacob, ca. 1640–45,
oil on canvas, 79 1/8 x 40 5/16 in. (201 x 102.4 cm)
Auckland Castle, County Durham, UK
© The Auckland Project/Zurbarán Trust
Photo:  Robert LaPrelle
Courtesy of The Frick Collection

"And Jacob called unto his sons, and said,
Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you 
that which shall befall you in the last days.

Gather yourselves together, and hear, ye 
sons of Jacob; and hearken unto Israel
 your father."
Genesis 49: 1-2  (King James Version)

Thus begun Jacob's last words to his sons as related in the Old Testament (Genesis 49).  There were twelve, begot by the patriarch's two wives and two concubines.  From them came the tribes of Israel. Jacob blessed his children and told them about their futures.  Shortly after that he died. Christians identify Jacob as the prefiguration of Christ and his twelve sons as the ancestors of the apostles.  

Although Jacob and his sons are important biblical figures, their visual representations are rare.  There are only three known painting cycles: a magnificent series by the Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbarán (1598 - 1664) in England and two related ones in Lima, Peru and Puebla, Mexico. The 
Zurbarán paintings are now on view in the exhibition Zurbarán's Jacob and His Twelve Sons: Paintings from Auckland Castle, in the East Gallery of the Frick Collection.

Twelve of the paintings are from Auckland Castle, County Durham, England, the residence for more than 900 years of the Prince Bishops of Durham.  The paintings hung in the castle for 250 years and only the temporary closing of the Bishop's Palace for renovations made this presentation possible.  One canvas, Benjamin, part of the original series, is on loan from Grimsthorpe Castle in Bourne, Lincolnshire, England.  This is the first time all these paintings have come to the United States and the first time any complete Zurbarán series is shown here.

Zurbarán was one of the most celebrated artists in Spain with a large workshop in Seville where he spent most of his career.  He produced a variety of work for ecclesiastical institutions all over Spain and its colonies.  He was noted for his figurative compositions and sets of paintings as well as still lifes.  He also assisted Diego Velázquez (1599 - 1650), court painter to the King Philip IV of Spain, on a royal commission. 

The Jacob cycle was an enormous undertaking - thirteen larger-than-life-size figures filling  six-and-a-half foot canvases, using about ninety feet of canvas in total.  Each figure was individualized and designed to communicate a particular destiny.  Zurbarán employed a team for the project since it was much too large for one artist to complete.  The work was executed between 1640 and 1645.  

No extant document records the contract for the cycle which was too unusual for the artist to create for the general market.  Scholars conjecture that it was commissioned by someone in the Spanish colonies. They make this assumption for several reasons.  There was no precedent for a series like this in Spain and the artist had never produced one.  The indigenous people of the New World were thought to have descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel.  Consequently such a theme as Jacob and his sons would make sense.  Also, during this period, Zurbarán had turned increasingly to the Americas for clients. Seville experienced an economic downturn and artists were seeking patronage elsewhere.  Furthermore, the painter’s style was going out of favor.  It would be superseded by the preference for the softer, lighter manner as seen in the work by the younger artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617 - 1682).  

Some suggest the paintings may have been meant for a Jewish client - there were an estimated 30,000 Jews living in the Americas.  Others however propose that because the cycle's size required expansive installation space, it was probably bound for a monastery or church. The figures appear as if in a processional which was a popular religious activity in Spain as well as the colonies.  Whoever the intended owner, the series was never sent.  

For many of the figures' poses, costumes and attributes, Zurbarán turned to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century northern European prints especially the series of engravings The Twelve Sons of Jacob by Jacques de Gheyn II after designs by Karel van Mander I.* Some seventy prints were left in the artist's studio at his death in 1664 including the set by Jacques de Gheyn II.   

Although elements of the paintings may have originated in other artworks, each figure's distinct facial characteristics were most likely based on life studies, perhaps the artist's studio assistants. 

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598 – 1664), Reuben, ca. 1640–45,
oil on canvas, 78 9/16 x 40 9/16 in. (199.5 x 103 cm)
Auckland Castle, County Durham, UK
© The Auckland Project/Zurbarán Trust
Photo:  Robert LaPrelle
Courtesy of The Frick Collection

"Reuben, thou art my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power:

Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel; because thou wentest up to thy father's bed; then defiledst thou it: he went up to my couch."  
Genesis 49: 3-4  (King James Version)

Reuben is represented in a frontal view as a mature, gray-bearded man whose right hand rests on a column, the traditional symbol of courage and strength.    His left arm akimbo that is hand on hip and elbow outward-bowed, connotes assertiveness.  Yet, Reuben's eyes are downcast, his expression solemn.  He conveys sadness, an outcome of his misconduct and poor fate. Reuben, as Jacob's first born, had a high ranking in the family, but his tribe would not do well.   He had committed a transgression.  He had slept with one of his father's concubines.

Albrecht Dürer (1471 - 1528), The Flagellation, from The Small Passion, ca. 1509,
woodcut, sheet: 5 x 3 13/16 in. (12.7 x 9.7 cm)
Photo:  Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site

For Reuben, Zurbarán borrowed the turban and downward tilted head from the standing figure of Pontius Pilate in Albrecht Dürer's woodcut, The Flagellation, from The Small Passion.  The column may also be derived from this print.  

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598 – 1664), Judah, ca. 1640–45,
oil on canvas, 79 1/4 x 40 3/4 in. (201.3 x 103.5 cm)
Auckland Castle, County Durham, UK
© The Auckland Project/Zurbarán Trust
Photo:  Robert LaPrelle
Courtesy of The Frick Collection

Jacob compares his son Judah to "a lion's whelp."  He shall have a "scepter" and "ruler's staff."  Although the fourth son, Judah assumes a leadership role because of the misconduct of his three older siblings. Zurbarán portrays him as a king in sumptuous garb, a scepter in his right hand and a crown on his head.  A lion's head, alluding to his father's comparison, appears at the painting's left side.   He is an imposing figure looking straight ahead with a sense of determination.  

Jacques de Gheyn II (1565 - 1629) after Karel van Mander I (1548 - 1606),
Judah, from The Twelve Sons of Jacob series, ca. 1589, engraving, 
sheet: 6 1/8 × 4 1/8 in. (15.5 × 10.5 cm)
Photo:  Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site

For this representation, the artist followed the description of Judah in Genesis as well as turning for inspiration to de Gheyn's Judah engraving for the scepter, crown and lion.  

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598 - 1664), Issachar, ca. 1640–45,
oil on canvas, 78 1/2 x 40 1/2 inches (199.4 x 102.9 cm)
© The Auckland Project/Zurbarán Trust
Photo: Robert LaPrelle
Courtesy of The Frick Collection

Issachar is characterized as a "strong donkey" with a body bowed by his burden.  He is the most poorly dressed of the brothers which befits his laborer's life.  Gnarled toes and dirty toenails attest to hard and rough manual labor.  His donkey and knapsack are also sourced from the de Gheyn print while Issachar's profile view and left arm positioned across his body is taken from Martin Schongauer's print of the apostle St. Matthias.

  Francisco de Zurbarán (1598 - 1664), Detail of Issachar, ca. 1640–45,
oil on canvas, 78 1/2 x 40 1/2 inches (199.4 x 102.9 cm)
© The Auckland Project/Zurbarán Trust
Photo: Robert LaPrelle
Courtesy of The Frick Collection

Recent technical analysis suggests that the landscapes in the Issachar and Asher paintings were likely made by Zurbarán himself to serve his assistants as models for backgrounds in the other paintings of the series.  All the paintings have the same low horizon line and the figures could be seen as standing before a panorama of a rural landscape under a cloudy sky, an effect similar to triptychs in which the background continues from panel to panel. 

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598 - 1664), Asher, ca. 1640–45, 
oil on canvas, 79 1/4 x 40 15/16 (201.3 x 104 cm)
© The Auckland Project/Zurbarán Trust
Photo: Robert LaPrelle
Courtesy of The Frick Collection

In Genesis 49.20 (KJV) Jacob says, "Out of Asher his bread shall be fat, and he shall yield royal dainties."  Asher is a well-to-do farmer. His rich clothing attest to his status and adds to the decorative quality of the painting.  The overfull bread basket is a beautiful demonstration of Zurbarán's command of still life

Zurbarán has a singular skill in depicting ornate garments.  He was the son of a haberdasher and must have been used to seeing assorted fabrics and fine thread.  In addition, Seville was the largest city in Spain in the seventeenth-century and its busiest port.  For most of the century it dominated trade with Spain's colonies. Middle Eastern merchants and New World goods coming off ships would be a daily experience for the artist and expose him to exotic dress and imported textiles which he incorporated in his work.   For example, the striped pants of Zebulun in the Jacob series is linked to fabrics from the Americas.  

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598 - 1664), Benjamin, ca. 1640–45, 
oil on canvas, 78 3/8 x 40 1/2 (199.2 x 103 cm)
© Grimsthorpe and Drummond Castle Trust
Photo: Robert LaPrelle
Courtesy of The Frick Collection

Benjamin is represented as a dashing figure in curious attire.  He is the the youngest son, very much loved by Jacob. In Genesis he is compared to a "ravenous wolf" alluding to the fierceness of his tribe. The wolf head and chain is again another motif borrowed from the de Gheyn print.  His handsome youthfulness makes him the the most attractive of all the siblings.  A freshness and sharpness sets this canvas apart from the others.

After the artist's death the cycle's whereabouts were lost.  In the eighteenth century the paintings turned up again in England.  They were passed on to a director of the South Seas Company who lost his fortune in the South Sea Bubble.  A Jewish merchant purchased them at auction in the 1720s.  In 1756 all but one of the paintings were bought by Bishop Richard Trevor of Auckland Castle, County Durham. Bishop Trevor wanted to buy all the works which were auctioned individually but was outbid for the Benjamin.  This painting, with its romantic aura, would have appealed more than the others to eighteenth-century sensibilities. Consider the paintings of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723 - 1792) and Thomas Gainsborough (1727 - 1788).  Benjamin's contemporary
 appeal may have accounted for the run up in its price.  Bishop Trevor at once had an exact copy made to complete the set.   

Some words about the Bishops of Durham:  they were Prince Bishops, leading churchmen of England with secular authority and the responsibility of protecting England’s Northern frontier.   They were members of the House of Lords and were  politically powerful.  

Bishop Trevor was an advocate of the rights for those disenfranchised especially the Jews who had been invited back to England by Oliver Cromwell a hundred years earlier but were not given any rights.  The Bishop supported them and organized on their behalf.  In 1753, under his guidance, parliament passed the Jewish Naturalization Act.  It was overturned the following year.  

Zurbarán and other works on display in the Long Dining Room at Auckland Castle
© The Auckland Project/Zurbarán Trust
Photo credit: photo Colin Davison
Courtesy of The Frick Collection

Thwarted in his emancipation endeavor, the Bishop  purchased the painting cycle with the intention of shaming British leaders.  He had Auckland Castle's State Dining Room specifically redesigned for the series so when he met with important statesmen, they would be under the gaze of the thirteen Jews.  As such, the cycle became a lesson in acceptance and tolerance.  Jacob accepted his sons for what they were no matter what their actions.  Bishop Trevor similarly accepted all people no matter what their beliefs.  

Visitors may be perplexed by a realistically rendered block with a Roman numeral appearing in the lower left or right corner of each canvas.  The number corresponds to the order each son is mentioned in the Bible which is different from their birth order.  At the Frick, as in the Bishop's dining room, the series is installed as intended in the Biblical sequence.  

Please, go see these splendid paintings while remembering the tolerance and acceptance by Jacob and, echoed by Bishop Trevor.  

*The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, has a set of The Twelve Sons of Jacob by Jacques de Gheyn II.  The engravings may be viewed online.  Search the Metropolitan Museum of Art/Collections.  De Gheyn II was an inventive artist who is credited with the earliest known Vanitas painting.  See ArtWithHillary July 2015.

Zurbarán's Jacob and His Twelve Sons: 
Paintings from Auckland Castle
January 31, 2018 - April 22, 2018
1 East 70th Street, Manhattan
Tuesday through Saturday, 
10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
Sundays, 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Closed Mondays and holidays

First Fridays:  
On the first Friday of the month
(except September and January)
the museum is open until 9 p.m. 

Monday, January 22, 2018

If You Can't Get There,

Try The Internet  

Pierre Bonnard (1867 - 1947), Reclining Nude Against a White and Blue Plaid, ca. 1909,
oil on canvas, 23.6 x 25.6 in. (60 x 65 cm), 
Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main, Germany
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017
Property of the Städelscher Museums-Verein e.V.
Photo:  Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main, Germany Web site

Early in January German friends e-mailed me about an exhibition, Matisse Bonnard "Long Live Painting" at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt am Main, Germany.  The show, on view from September 13, 2017 to January 14, 2018, explored the personal and artistic relationship between Bonnard and Matisse during their more than forty-year-friendship.  Since a visit to Frankfurt was not feasible, I went to the Städel Museum Web site which is in both German and English.  All the exhibit's information was on the site.

Henri Matisse (1869 - 1954), Large Reclining Nude, 1935,
oil on canvas, 26.1 x 36.7 in. (66.4 x 93.3 cm),
Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, Maryland, 
The Cone Collection, 
formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland
© Succession H. Matisse / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017
Photo:  Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main, Germany Web site

Indeed, the museum's online text and illustrations were informative.

The exhibit was  organized by thematic subjects such as the artist studio, bath scenes and the painter's model.  It evinced artistic influences, similarities and differences as well as documenting an intimate friendship that many may not be aware of.  In doing so,  the curators presented a cogent argument that Matisse as he is known would not be Matisse without Bonnard and Bonnard would not be Bonnard without Matisse.  A striking point is the suggestion that Matisse's 1935 painting Large Reclining Nude from the Cone Collection in the Baltimore Museum of Art was likely inspired by the much earlier Bonnard, the ca. 1909 Reclining Nude Against a White and Blue Plaid from the Städel's own collection.  

Bonnard's painting portrays his lover and later wife Marthe. Suspended between the background's abstraction and the nude's naturalism, the complex painting disorients.  The artist kept this painting with him his whole life and Matisse is likely to have been familiar with it.  Matisse's oil depicts his model and assistant Lydia Delectorskaya.  A pivitol work of modern art, it marks the artist's passage into his later abstract style of flat, simplified geometric forms.  

The Städel Museum's "Digitorial," as the museum calls its exhibition Web site particulars, gives readers what they need to know.  Archived by years, the material on this and other previous shows are always available.

Much can be learned from an institution's online presence especially if the site is user friendly.  An example is the British Museum.  The information on the museum's current exhibition Living with gods: peoples, places and worlds beyond includes highlights, explanatory text and videos. In addition, a link connects to the excellent radio series that the show is based on.  

The Lion Man, Stadel Cave, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, ca. 40,000 B.C.,
mammoth ivory, H:  12.2 in. (31.1 cm), W:  2.2 in. (5.6 cm), D: 2.3. in. (5.9 cm) 
Ulm Museum, Ulm, Germany
© Ulmer Museum
Photo:  British Museum Blog
Displayed in the British Museum's exhibition 
Ice Age art:  arrival of the modern mind, February 7 - June 2, 2013.

Perusing past exhibitions will surely produce enlightenment.  One of these is the British Museum's exceptional 2013 show Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind.  Showcased were the world's oldest sculptures and drawings made 40,000 to 10,000 years ago.  They are astounding in their artistry. 

Henri Matisse (1869 - 1954), Decorative Figure on an Ornamental Ground/
Decorative Figure in an Oriental Setting, late 1925 - 1926, 
oil on canvas, 51.1 x 38.6 in. (130 x 98 cm)
Displayed in New York at the  Museum of Modern Art Henri Matisse retrospective, November 3, - December 6, 1931.  At the time of the exhibition, the painting belonged to the collection of the artist.* 

New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has amazing online research resources (see MoMa Archives).  The digitalization of all exhibitions from the museum's founding was completed in 2016. Catalogues, check lists and more make for fascinating reads.   An illustration is the 1931 Henri Matisse retrospective, the first of the museum's shows devoted to one artist and the most extensive display of Matisse works to take place in the United States at that date.  Some fourteen paintings and sculptures (from a total  of 162 paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures) were from the Cone Collection which did not go to the Baltimore Museum of Art until 1949.  

Records can sometimes bring up unexpected connections.  The Flechtheim Gallery in Berlin was another lender to the Matisse show in 1931. The gallery belonged to the very successful art dealer Alfred Flechtheim (1878 - 1937), a German Jew who championed contemporary artists such as Picasso, Braque and Kandinsky.   Flechtheim's gallery had several branches in German cities and in Vienna, Austria.  In 1933, the Nazis took over his business and private collection.  Without money he fled to Paris and eventually ended up in London organizing exhibits of works by exiled German artists.

I hope the above encourages you to visit and explore exhibitions on museums' Web sites.

*The French state purchased the painting in 1938.  For a video look at this work, see  Figure Decorative sur Fond Ornemental (hiver 1925-1926) Henri Matisse Centre Pompidou Paris, YouTube.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Deep Looking:

Agnes Martin/Richard Tuttle  

Installation View Agnes Martin, Richard Tuttle: Crossing Lines,
Pace Gallery, New York, 2017,  
(left) Richard Tuttle (1941 - ): 43rd Wire Piece, 1972/2017, wire, graphite and nails, 
installation dimensions variable, 
exhibition copy number one measures 10 1/4 x 23 1/8 x 11 1/2 in.  (51,4 x 58.7 x 29.2 cm); 
(right) Agnes Martin (1912 - 2004): Untitled #1, 1990, 
acrylic and graphite on canvas, 72 x 72 in. (182.88 x 182.88 cm)
Photo:  Kerry Ryan McFate/Pace Gallery
© 2017 Estate of Agnes Martin /Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York© Richard Tuttle
Courtesy of Pace Gallery

Pauline Oliveros (1932 - 2016), the late composer, accordionist, music theoretician and teacher, developed the concept of what she called "Deep Listening."  This involved training and encouraging professional musicians as well as non-professionals to focus on listening to sounds as opposed to simply hearing them.  To hear refers to the ability to perceive aural sensations.  To listen requires attentiveness and focus. One is involuntary; the other is voluntary.  Listening deeply heightens and enhances the musical experience opening up a new consciousness to the auditory environment.

The minimalist work of Agnes Martin (1912 - 2004) and Richard Tuttle (1941 - ) bring to mind the idea of "Deep Looking."  Their art intensifies the visual experience when the observer engages in deep looking as opposed to merely seeing.  The full beauty and inventiveness of their work reveals itself with sustained visual concentration.  

The perceptively curated Pace Gallery exhibition, Agnes Martin, Richard Tuttle:  Crossing Lines, illustrates this point.  For the show, Tuttle created eight wire pieces in response to seven Martin paintings dating from c. 1960 to 2003.  Close friends for some forty decades, the two artists have not been shown together for almost twenty years. 

Installation View Agnes Martin, Richard Tuttle: Crossing Lines,
Pace Gallery, New York, 2017,  
(left) Richard Tuttle (1941 - ): 29rd Wire Piece, 1972/2017,  wire, graphite and nails, 
installation dimensions variable, 
exhibition copy number one measures 34 x 31 x 13 in.  (86.4 x 78.7x 33 cm); 
(right) Agnes Martin (1912 - 2004): Untitled, c. 1960, 
oil on canvas, 65 x 65 in. (165.1 x 165.1 cm)
Photo:  Kerry Ryan McFate/Pace Gallery
© 2017 Estate of Agnes Martin /Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York© Richard Tuttle
Courtesy of Pace Gallery

The installation calls for a few minutes of eye adjustment.  The gallery's walls have been repainted to blend with Martin's paintings and lighting has been heightened.  The experience at first is of a blinding light with only Martin's paintings discernable.  As represented in the images here, like apparitions, Tuttle's works appear only after visual acclimatization.  

Installation View Agnes Martin, Richard Tuttle: Crossing Lines,
Pace Gallery, New York, 2017,  
(left) Richard Tuttle (1941 - ): 39th Wire Piece, 1972/2017,  wire, graphite and nails, 
installation dimensions variable, 
exhibition copy number one measures 26 3/4 x 32 1/2 (67.9 x 82.6 cm); 
(right) Agnes Martin (1912 - 2004): Untitled #8, c. 1989, 
acrylic and graphite on canvas, 72 x 72 in. (182.9 x 182.9 cm)
Photo:  Kerry Ryan McFate/Pace Gallery
© 2017 Estate of Agnes Martin /Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York© Richard Tuttle
Courtesy of Pace Gallery

Martin paints subtle modulations of vertical and horizontal lines and grids.  Employing muted colors, the repetitiveness of the forms evokes a sense of peacefulness and spirituality.  Tuttle draws a pencil line on the wall and attaches a wire to the wall near the ends of the drawing.   The shadow cast by the wire completes his three part poetic compositions.  

Tuttle's pieces change according to the installation. The pencil line's thickness or thinness, the wire's configuration and the darkness or lightness of the wire's silhouette against the wall will vary according to the particular surroundings and the artist's manipulation.  These are quiet works like the Martin's paintings.  Together, the pairing offers viewers a respite from the visual cacophony of today's world.  They lead to an acuteness of looking while proffering serenity.  Go take a look.

Note:  Pace Gallery's solo exhibit of Richard Tuttle sculptures, Richard Tuttle:  100 Epigrams, is on view at the same time as Agnes Martin, Richard Tuttle:  Crossing Lines.  In a room on the gallery's third floor, one flight up from Agnes Martin/Richard Tuttle show, seven of Tuttle's charming constructions attract and delight.  Ordinary, unremarkable materials are transformed into wondrous objects.  The pieces are Tuttle at his best. 

Richard Tuttle (1941 - ), 100 Epigrams, 2017, (A) vinyl tubing, metal, Elmer's glue, canvas, pine wood, wool thread, tape, paper clips, purple rice paper, and mixed media; (B) cardboard, pine wood, copper wire, glue, wool thread, Elmer's glue, canvas, paper clips, purple rice paper, and mixed media, 
(A) 29 3/4 x 20 x 6 1/2 in. (75.6 x 50.8 x 16.5 cm), 
(B) 30 x 20 1/4 x 8 (76.2 x 132.1 x 20.3 cm)
Photo:  GrandDude Web site

Agnes Martin, Richard Tuttle:  Crossing Lines
November 2, 2017 - January 13, 2018
32 East 57th Street, Manhattan
Tuesday - Saturday 10 am - 6 pm