Saturday, September 26, 2015

New York's Annual Archifest

Open House New York Weekend
Google's headquarters in Chelsea New York 
Photo:  ForbesLife Web site (Courtesy of Google)
New York's five boroughs become an open architectural exhibition the weekend of October 17 - 18.  This is the annual Open House New York Weekend (OHNY) when visitors get an opportunity to enter some of the city's most interesting places that are normally off-limits.  Since 2003, a weekend in October has been packed full of "open houses" with free tours, lectures, talks, programs with some that are kid-friendly. The "open houses" include buildings, interiors and spaces landmarked or significant for their design, engineering, historical or cultural history.  Many are noted for a combination of merits.  New venues become accessible each year.  This year, Google's Chelsea headquarters and LaGuardia Airport's Marine Air Terminal are among first time entries.  

William Delano's 1939 Marine Air Terminal, LaGuardia Airport, New York
Photo:  Picsant Web site
Copyright © PicsAnt 2015

The weekend was started by Open House New York, a not-for-profit organization founded in 2001 to promote awareness of the built environment. The organization is part of Open House Worldwide, an international network of open house events occurring in 30 cities around the globe.  For those who like to look at buildings and explore their surroundings, these weekends are made for them.  Keep in mind, museum or gallery architecture exhibits may be excellent but models, photographs and plans simply can not substitute for the real experience of walking through a space.

View of original studio of Edward Hopper (1882 - 1967)*,
3 Washington Square North,
New York University campus, 
OHNY weekend 2013, 
Photo:  Garret Ziegler, Flickr Web site Sunday, October 13, 2013

Here in New York, there will be enough on view to satisfy anyone's interests.  Past weekends have included some 300 sites citywide.  Thus, viewers will have to scurry to see all that they want.  Sign-up for the OHNY Weekend mailing list for e-mail updates.  Don't forget to go to OHNY Event Guide page to download your OHNY Weekend Event Guide available on October 6.

Biddle House (c. 1845 -1850), Conference House Park
Tottenville, Staten Island
OHNY Weekend 2014
Photo:  Courtesy of Frank Gesser, SILive Web site October 8, 2014

OHNY New York Weekend is just one of the highlights of Archtober, a month-long festival showcasing architecture and design.  In its fifth year, the festival's popular talks and lectures get booked up quickly. Check out the Archtober Calendar soon.  Please note, unlike OHNY New York Weekend,  numerous Archtober's events require a pre-registration and a fee.   

National Design Week at New York's Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, October 10 - 18, is another of the month's high points. This, the museum's biggest educational effort, comprises free public programs, a family festival, a teen design fair and online projects.  

Plan your October now.

October 17 - 18, 2015

and Design Month
New York City
October 2015

October 10 - 18, 2015

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Klimt's Two Adeles: The Bloch-Bauer Paintings

Gustav Klimt (1862 - 1918), Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907,
oil, silver and gold on canvas, 54 x 54 in. (138 x 138 cm),
Neue Galerie New York 
This acquisition made available in part through
 the generosity of the heirs of the 
Estates of Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer and The Estée Lauder Fund
© 2015 Neue Galerie New York 
Photo:  Courtesy of Neue Galerie New York 

The film is "Woman in Gold."  The exhibition is at the Neue Galerie New York.  The loan is at the Museum of Modern Art.  They are all about Gustav Klimt's Bloch-Bauer paintings.

The painting Adele Bloch-Bauer I caused a sensation in 2006 when purchased for Neue Galerie New York by Ronald L. Lauder.   At this time, the portrait's record price of $135 million was the highest amount ever paid for a painting.  Now the work is again attracting much attention as the focus of the British-American film "Woman in Gold" and the Neue Galerie's exhibition, Gustav Klimt and Adele Bloch-Bauer: The Woman in Gold. 

The movie, directed by Simon Curtis, recounts the restitution of Gustav Klimt paintings seized by the Nazis from the Viennese Bloch-Bauer family.  It is the story of Maria Altmann's successful quest for her family's artworks, especially the famous golden portrait of her aunt Adele, Adele Bloch-Bauer I, called the Mona Lisa of Austria.  The narrative follows Maria from her California home where she is now living to the Vienna of her youth.

Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds star in "Woman in Gold
Photo: Robert Viglasky 

Helen Mirren stars as the aged Maria who takes on the Austrian government with the help of the youthful lawyer E. Randol (Randy) Schoenberg, played by Ryan Reynolds.  Ultimately, the Bloch-Bauer heirs received five Klimt paintings:  Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907), a second portrait of Adele, Adele Bloch-Bauer II (1912), and three landscapes, Birch Forest (1903), Apple Tree I (1912) and Houses at Unterach on the Attersee (1916).

Gustav Klimt (1862 - 1918), Adele Bloch-Bauer II, 1912,
oil on canvas, 75 x 47 in. (190 x 120 cm)
Private Collection
On special long-term loan to  Museum of Modern Art, New York
© 2014 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. 
Photo: Jonathan Muzikar,  Museum of Modern Art Web site

Subtle visual clues introduce the Bloch-Bauer Klimt works to viewers.When Maria and Randy make their first trip to Vienna, they take a taxi from the airport to their hotel.  On route, Maria is seen deep in thought while Randy looks out the window.  He sees the Belvedere Museum which houses the Adele portrait as well as other Klimt paintings.  Their silence is broken as the taxi drives past a large kiosk covered with a larger-than-life-size poster of the second Adele portrait, Adele Bloch-Bauer II, advertising a museum exhibit of Klimt master works. At this point, Randy begins to speak about the official ministry meeting that will take place the next day.  Maria tells him, "I want to go to the Belvedere to visit my aunt."  There follows flash back scenes which bring viewers to the pre-Nazi era.   The camera scans to the Adele Bloch-Bauer I painting over the mantlepiece in the study of the Bloch-Bauer's Vienna apartment.  On the opposite wall, is the oil, Apple Tree I.  The deep, verdant greens of the latter juxtaposes the lustrous yellows of the aunt's portrait.  Each painting enhancing the other.  

Gustav Klimt (1862 - 1918), Apple Tree I, 1912,
oil on canvas, 42 7/8 x 43¼ in. (109 x 110 cm) 
Private Collection
Photo:  Christie's Web site, Sale 1722, November 8, 2006

Apple Tree I reappears in the short scene at the Belvedere.  There is a quick shot of it in the gallery leading to Adele Bloch-Bauer I.  Maria and Randy enter the gallery led by an Austrian reporter who is helping them in their undertaking.  They have come to the museum to see the Adele painting for the first time.  Behind the threesome, a female docent conducts a group tour.  She guides her visitors to Apple Tree I. When Maria, Randy and the reporter are looking at the Adele portrait, the docent is heard in the background.  She is about to point out the Adele painting by Klimt which, she says " one of our most famous paintings.  A wonderful example of Austria's heritage."  The movie's final credits appear against a black and white photograph of the Neue Galerie's 1914 landmarked building.  Thus, cinematographically, the film presents three of the Bloch-Bauer Klimt paintings as well as the final destination of the Adele I painting, the Neue Galerie, where it now is on permanent public view.

The movie premiered in New York on April 1, a day before the opening of the museum exhibition.  Undoubtedly, this peaked interest in the Adele I painting and may account for the long lines outside the Neue Galerie's entrance.  This viewer encountered several visitors who normally did not go to museums but were tempted to come because of the film.

The exhibit merits notice regardless of enticements.  It engages on several levels by presenting seven additional Klimt paintings from the museum and private collections; twenty vintage and reproduced photographs of the Bloch-Bauer family, Klimt and contemporaries; fifteen preparatory drawings for both Adele painted portraits; examples of decorative arts and jewelry of the period; and, readable wall text that clearly describes the circumstances of the Bloch-Bauer family and their artworks.  

To begin, there is the gorgeous Adele Bloch-Bauer I.  She is flanked by two George Minnes works in a recreation of an installation that took place with the Adele I painting and the Minnes works at the 1907 Mannheim International Art Show.  In the same gallery are the other Klimt paintings:  three landscapes, three small half-length portraits of women and larger-than-life The Dancer that is hung closest to the golden Adele I.  

Gustav Klimt (1862 - 1918), The Dancer, 1916 -17,
oil on canvas, 70.9 x 35.4 in. (180 x 90 cm),
Private Collection
On view in the Neue Galerie New York's
exhibition Gustav Klimt and Adele Bloch-Bauer: The Woman in Gold
Photo:  Artstor

The Dancer was never finished at the time of Klimt's sudden death from a stroke at age 55 in February, 1918.  Yet, the work was the first Klimt painting exhibited in the United States in 1922.
The overall patterned design with oriental motifs recalls the style of the Adele Bloch-Bauer II and highly contrasts Klimt's earlier golden byzantine mosaic phase as exemplified by Adele I.  Viewers are well-advised to go to the Museum of Modern Art, gallery 4 on the fifth floor, where the Adele Bloch-Bauer II painting is on special long term loan. Adele Bloch-Bauer was the only person Klimt painted twice.  When the second portrait was sold at auction in 2006, it was the fourth highest price work of art sold at auction up to that time. The private buyer spent $88 million.

Gustav Klimt, photograph by Moritz Nähr (1859 - 1945), 1917
Photo:  Courtesy of Neue Galerie New York 

Two items need to be addressed here.  First, there has been suggestions that Adele and Klimt had an affair.  There is nothing, however, to substantiate this idea.

Adele Bloch-Bauer, ca. 1910 
Photo:  Courtesy of Neue Galerie New York

Second, one of Adele's fingers was disfigured.  I suspect it was on her right hand since drawings, paintings and photograph tend to obscure all or some of her right digits.  See for yourself.

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918),
Adele Bloch-Bauer Seated in an Armchair Facing Forward, 
Resting Her Temple on Her Right Hand, 1903,
black chalk on paper
Photo:  Courtesy of Neue Galerie New York  

A nice coda to the show is on the museum's lower level.  Here are drawings by Viennese students who were assigned to go look at the Adele Bloch-Bauer I before she left for America and imagine Adele in her new home.  The drawings were given to the Neue Galerie as a gift and a selection is presently on view.  They are a delight. 

Installation view of lower level of Neue Galerie New York 's exhibition 
Gustav Klimt and Adele Bloch-Bauer: The Woman in Gold
Photo:  Hillary Ganton

In addition, the museum has installed a framed full-scale reproduction of its Adele portrait.  Since photographing is not allowed in the upper galleries, visitors may come here to pose before copy and get their "selfie."  A copy could be yours for $550.  Enjoy the show.

Gustav Klimt and Adele Bloch-Bauer: The Woman in Gold*
April 2, 2015-September 7, 2015
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*Note: Although the exhibition "Gustav Klimt and Adele Bloch-Bauer: The Woman in Gold" is only on view through September 7, the painting Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I by Gustav Klimt is on permanent view at the Neue Galerie.

Gustav Klimt’s Adele Bloch-Bauer II
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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Yoko Ono and the Vanitas Theme

Yoko Ono (1933 - ), Cut Piece, 1964, performed by Yoko Ono in New Works of Yoko Ono, 
Carnegie Recital Hall, New York, March 21, 1965. 
Photograph by Minoru Niizuma. © Minoru Niizuma. 
Courtesy Lenono Photo Archive, New York
Photo:  Museum of Modern Art Art Web site

Give Yoko Ono a chance.  Do not miss the exhibition Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971 at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).   This art enthusiast and reviewer considers Yoko Ono the most underrated of female artists around.  Profound and way ahead of her time, Ono's talents are abundant.  Moreover, she is fun.

The MoMA show covers Ono's films, texts, performances, music and more.  The exhibit begins with one of her first two films:  Match Piece (or No. 1).  Eyeblink, the other early film, appears in a nearby gallery.   

Frame from Yoko Ono's Match Piece (or No. 1), 1966,
16mm film (black and white, silent), high speed camera 2000 fr/sec., 5:05 min.
Publisher:  Fluxus Edition
The  Museum of Modern Art, New York.  The Gilbert
and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008
Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971
May 17–September 7, 2015
The Museum of Modern Art, Manhattan, New York
Photo:  Hillary Ganton

In 1966 Ono was experimenting with a high speed camera which shot two thousand frames per second as opposed to the twenty-four frames per second of a standard camera.  She filmed the lighting of a match and an eye blink in slow motion which produced images that appear almost motionless.  

The quickly burning ignited match references the briefness of our existence and the impermanence of material things - the vanitas theme. This theme** would occupy Ono throughout her career.  See the exhibit.

 *To view the film Match Piece (or No. 1), go to Flux Film No. 14: “One” by Yoko Ono at Stendhal Gallery Online Archive.  

* *For more on the vanitas theme see ArtWithHillary June and July 2015.

Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971
May 17–September 7, 2015
The Museum of Modern Art
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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Thinking about Flowers, Van Gogh and Vanitas

Jacques de Gheyn II (1565 - 1629), Vanitas Still Life, 1603,
oil on wood, 32 1/2 x 21 1/4 in. (82.6 x 54 cm)
Charles B. Curtis, Marquand, Victor Wilbour Memorial, 
and The Alfred N. Punnett Endowment Funds, 1974 (1974.1), 
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Photo:  Artstor

                            "To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
                             Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
                             To the last syllable of recorded time,
                             And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
                             The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
                             Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
                             That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
                             And then is heard no more: it is a tale
                             Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
                             Signifying nothing."
                              William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5.

Certain themes appear and reappear as subjects for artists.  One such is vanitas, Latin for vanity. This subject came up in the discussion of Vincent van Gogh's flower paintings, see ArtWithHillary, June 2015, note 3. 

Vanitas refers to life's brevity and the foolish pursuit of earthly goods and achievements.  All is transient except for religious values.  The subject was an exceedingly popular one for Dutch painting in the early seventeenth century.

Jacques de Gheyn II's Vanitas Still Life in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is credited as the earliest known independent vanitas painting. The moralizing work is filled with symbols concerning the fleeting nature of life and the human folly of worldly possessions.  Although intended to instruct, the vanitas genre gave artists an opportunity to paint a variety of  objects and materials.  

Jacques de Gheyn II (1565 - 1629), Detail of Vanitas Still Life, 1603,
oil on wood, 32 1/2 x 21 1/4 in. (82.6 x 54 cm)
Charles B. Curtis, Marquand, Victor Wilbour Memorial, 
and The Alfred N. Punnett Endowment Funds, 1974 (1974.1), 
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Photo:  Artstor

In De Gheyn II's panel, an inscription on the keystone of the stone arch specifies the painting's theme: HVMANA VANA, human vanity.  The arch forms a niche occupied by a skull and bubble - reminders of the certitude of death and life's impermanence.  The bubble contains some smaller images relating to the subject.   There is a leper's rattle and torture wheel.  The former had to be carried by those afflicted so that the non-sick would be alerted to their proximity.  Leprosy, incurable during this time, resulted in the body's gradual deterioration till death. The disease was thought to be the consequence of sinful behavior.   The wheel, used for torture and execution, always effected a slow, painful death.  

Jacques de Gheyn II (1565 - 1629), Detail of Vanitas Still Life, 1603,
oil on wood, 32 1/2 x 21 1/4 in. (82.6 x 54 cm)
Charles B. Curtis, Marquand, Victor Wilbour Memorial, 
and The Alfred N. Punnett Endowment Funds, 1974 (1974.1), 
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Photo:  Artstor

Some scholars have noted other items embedded in the bubble such as a heart. This viewer could not discern or identify anything but the torture wheel and, with difficulty, the leper's rattle with the naked eye. Under magnification, however, a rectangular reflection on the sphere's upper left reveals a burning heart pierced by a arrow.  A tiny cross may be distinguished on the top left of the heart.  The cross figuration, however, may just be scratches on the surface of the panel. 

The heart with its flame forms the Sacred Heart, a Christian devotional symbol representing Jesus Christ's physical heart, pierced, bleeding and crowned with flames.  The fire indicates the transformative power of divine love - Christ's love and compassion for mankind.  Man's salvation comes about through His suffering.  The Sacred Heart is usually surrounded by a crown of thorns, one of the instruments of Jesus's Passion.  Its appearance represents the pain Christ endured for mankind's deliverance.  Its absence here may be the result of abrasion or paint loss.  

The Sacred Heart devotions originated in the middle ages. The church, however, did not officially recognize it until the eighteenth century.  De Gheyn II probably had Catholic roots and could have been aware of its representation.  

Although obvious Christ references were uncommon in seventeenth-century vanitas pictures, the painter was talented enough and innovative enough to create something unusual.  Furthermore, De Gheyn II had married into a prominent, wealthy and well-connected family.  He was acquainted with the most learned, forward thinkers of his contemporaries.  Financially set and free from commercial pressures, he could paint what he choose.  Even so, De Gheyn II most likely included the heart in the sense of earthly love, desire.  As such, it would fit into the general theme of all that is vanity. 

Jacques de Gheyn II (1565 - 1629), Detail of Vanitas Still Life, 1603,
oil on wood, 32 1/2 x 21 1/4 in. (82.6 x 54 cm)
Charles B. Curtis, Marquand, Victor Wilbour Memorial, 
and The Alfred N. Punnett Endowment Funds, 1974 (1974.1), 
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Photo:  Artstor

As for the bubble, the adage,"man is but a bubble" goes back to ancient Roman authors.  Writers in the Renaissance commonly used the comparison.  Erasmus wrote about the saying in his Adagia (II.iii.48): "Man is but a bubble.  The lesson of this proverb is that there is nothing so fragile, so fleeting and so empty as the life of man.  A bubble is that round swollen empty thing which we watch in water as it grows and vanishes in a moment of time."  Thus, it became a fitting symbol for the vanitas topos.*

Jacques de Gheyn II (1565 - 1629), Detail of Vanitas Still Life, 1603,
oil on wood, 32 1/2 x 21 1/4 in. (82.6 x 54 cm)
Charles B. Curtis, Marquand, Victor Wilbour Memorial, 
and The Alfred N. Punnett Endowment Funds, 1974 (1974.1), 
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Photo:  Artstor

There is more.  The painting is chockablock with symbols.  On either side of the niche is an urn.  A puff of smoke rises from the one on the right; flowers, particularly one tulip, are on the left one.  Again, these are allusions to the shortness of man's existence.  The smoke vanishes quickly.   Cut flowers duly die as  Job (Job 14.2.) describes men "He comes forth like a flower, and is cut down:  he fleeth also as a shadow and continueth not.” 

The flowers have another connotation.  Cut flowers were expensive in seventeenth-century Holland.  This was especially true of tulips which were introduced to Europe from Turkey in the sixteenth century. Tulips were quite different from European flowers and became exceedingly popular.  They were status symbols for the rich and prosperous Dutch burghers.  Trading in bulb futures reached ridiculous heights in the early seventeenth century.  This tulip mania speculation collapsed in 1637.  The term tulip mania has become a metaphor for any economic bubble where asset values diverge considerably from intrinsic values. When de Gheyn II painted his Vanitas, tulips were still an obsession of the rich - symbolic of man's inanity in seeking worldly possessions. Think about the current craze for women's designer handbags and the compulsive bidding up of certain ones. Be that as it may, de Gheyn II's didactic imagery continues.  The coins and Dutch medals refer to temporal accomplishments and wealth accumulation. The sculptural figures in the arch's spandrels depict the Greek philosophers Democritus and Heraclitus.  Known as the laughing and crying philosophers, they point down at the sphere.  One laughs at and one weeps at mankind's foibles. 

More could be said but the above should give readers an idea about meanings in artworks that may be lost to contemporary viewers.  Don't fail to note that what was obvious to seventeenth-century viewers may not be clear to us today.  

As for the last words of this post, take a look at one artist's thoughts on the De Gheyn II work.

2015, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Go visit the painting in the museum's Gallery 635.  

*This month, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) televised Blue Lightning, an episode of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) crime series, "Shetland."  During the two-part story, an autopsy is performed on what turns out to be a murder victim.  While performing the autopsy, the medical examiner remarks to the police official observer that the deceased "....was on the bubble."  The observer was perplexed.  She, the medical examiner, explained that the expression is American and is used when there is a sudden, unexpected death in an auto racing crash. In such a situation, the unfortunate driver is said to be a person whose "bubble has burst."  The fictitious examiner's reference to a car crash was new to this writer.  Most interesting was the the continued survival of "bubble" as a trope for life's precariousness, reminding death can happen unexpectedly, at any time.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Van Gogh's Saint-Rémy Flowers

Living Memento Mori 

Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890), Irises, 1890,
oil on canvas, 36 1⁄2 x 29 1/8 in. (92.7 cm x 73.9 cm)
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)
Photo:  Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

For the first time in 125 years, four Vincent van Gogh paintings are united in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition, Van Gogh: Irises and Roses. Two depict bouquets of irises and two of roses.  All share the same horizon line and appear as a series of pairs. Upright and horizontal orientations are shared by each floral type.  They are a study of contrasts:  vertical and horizontal formats, long and rounded bloom shapes and complementary (opposite) colors.  

The exhibit highlights an aspect of art often overlooked.  That is, over time artworks may change. Specifically, in the case of these works, a pigment used by van Gogh has faded imparting a major change in the painting's coloration. 

  Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890), Irises, 1890,
0il on canvas29 x 36 1/4 in. (73.7 x 92.1 cm)
Gift of Adele R. Levy, 1958 
Photo:  Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The four large flower paintings were completed in 1890 at the end of the artist's stay at an asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in the south of France.  Van Gogh had taken a roll of canvas and cut it into four equal rectangular pieces.  As was his practice, he set about painting bunches of  flowers.  These were irises and roses which he had gathered in the asylum's gardens.  

Still lifes, especially floral arrangements, were a way for van Gogh to investigate color theory.* He used flowers for intense study of color relationships, particularly contrasts and harmonies using complementary colors.  Complementary colors are opposite colors on the color wheel.  When painted side by side, such as violet against yellow or red and green, they produce the most intense contrasts.  On the other hand, colors next to each other on the color wheel yield harmonious effects.  

On May 11, van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo: 

"At the moment ... I’m working here with calm, unremitting ardour to give a last stroke of the brush. I’m working on a canvas of roses on bright green background and two canvases of large bouquets of violet Irises, one lot against a pink background in which the effect is harmonious and soft through the combination of greens, pinks, violets. On the contrary, the other violet bouquet (ranging up to pure carmine and Prussian blue) standing out against a striking lemon yellow background with other yellow tones in the vase and the base on which it rests is an effect of terribly disparate complementaries that reinforce each other by their opposition."
(Vincent van Gogh The Letters, 870)

Two days later in another letter to Theo, he added:

"I’ve also just finished a canvas of pink roses against yellow-green background in a green vase....I tell you, as regards work, my mind feels absolutely serene and the brushstrokes come to me and follow each other very logically."
(Vincent van Gogh The Letters, 872)

Van Gogh would be discharged from the asylum the following Sunday on May 16.  The same day he left for Paris.  The paintings had been finished by then.  

The artist had worked with a brilliant scarlet pigment called geranium lake.  The color was highly light sensitive.  Although well-informed about pigments and their properties, the lake red faded more quickly than van Gogh had expected.  Violets (a mix of blue and red pigment) became blue; pinks (a mix of white and red pigment) turned white.  

Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890), Roses, 1890,
oil on canvas, 27 15/16 x 35 7/16 in. (71 x 90 cm)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 
Gift of Pamela Harriman in memory of  W.  Averell Harriman
Photo:  Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The red which endowed the roses with their pink color disappeared. The blossoms turned white.  Bright red rose buds took on a flesh-like tone. Violet irises became blue.  Pink backgrounds white.  The compositional contrasts of  pinks against greens and violets against yellows no longer exist.  A Fauvist look had been tamed.** 

Viewers can see the "before and now" look of the paintings as well as learn about the artist's working methods in two short videos on the wall opposite the actual works.  Technical analysis has enabled the digital recreation of the images.  

Another aspect of the paintings should not be ignored.  The flowers had been in full bloom, at their peak of beauty, when van Gogh started to paint.  He had to work quickly to capture their glory.  Nature, however, was winning out.  Iris blossoms started to shrivel; roses begun to droop and lose their petals. 

Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), Roses1890,
oil on canvas, 36 5/8 x 29 1/8 in. (93 x 74 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg Collection, 
Gift of Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg, 1993, 
Bequest of Walter H. Annenberg, 2002
Photo:  Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Though the canvases pulsate with pleasure through their compositional design, impactful brushstrokes and still lush colors, they impart a slight disturbance. Thoughts go to seventeenth-century Dutch flower paintings which were symbolic of nature's fleeting earthly pleasures.**With this tradition in mind, the van Gogh series can be seen as a memento mori - a reminder of life's transience and death. Death is present amidst life.  The transitory nature of pigments is recalled.  Paintings change.  Pleasure and unease co-exist.  Van Gogh died just over two months after these works were completed.

Although colors have dimmed, the visual delights of van Gogh's large bouquets remain abundant.  Such is van Gogh's genius.  See the show.

Van Gogh:  Irises and Roses
May 12, 2015 - August 16, 2015
1000 Fifth Avenue (at 82nd Street), Manhattan
Open 7 Days a Week
Sunday–Thursday: 10:00 a.m.–5:30 p.m.
Friday and Saturday: 10:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m.
Closed Thanksgiving Day, December 25, January 1,
and the first Monday in May
*Van Gogh took great interest in the color theories of Charles Blanc who published works investigating color relationships such as how certain colors are reinforced when placed next to each other.  Blanc's writings were well-known among nineteenth-century artists and highly influential.

A color star developed by Charles Blanc in 1867
Photo:  Wikipedia Commons Web site

For a concise introduction to color theory and the color wheel see TEWM The Electric Matrix of Digital Technology.

**For Fauvism examples, step outside the exhibition gallery (Gallery 955), make a  left (Gallery 962) to see House behind Trees, 1906-7, by Georges Braque (1882 - 1963) and Olive Trees at Collioure, 1905 (?), by Henri Matisse (1869 - 1954).  Both works explore van Gogh's intended color configurations.  Braque's and Matisse's pinks, greens, yellows, blues and reds are still vibrant.

***For an example, see Jacob Vosmaer's A Vase with Flowers in the museum's gallery 635.

Jacob Vosmaer (c. 1584 - 1641), A Vase with Flowers,
c. 1613, oil on wood, 33 1/2 x 24 5/8 in. (85.1 x 62.5 cm),
Photo:  ARTstor 

The vanitas theme is derived from the Book of Ecclesiastes 1:2, "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity."  Symbolic imagery include wilting flowers (death); butterflies (transformation); cracking parapets (time's destructive nature); and lizards (changeability).  Memento mori are versions of the vanitas theme with emphasis on mortality.   Keep in mind,  the moral aspects of these works gave artists an excuse to paint some beautiful, sensuous pictures of the life they saw around them.