Friday, June 22, 2012

Tomb Carvings Shed Light On A Lesser-Known Chinese Dynasty

Actor Figures, Detail from the South Wall of Brick-Carved Tomb,
Jin dynasty (1115–1234), brick with pigments,
Unearthed at a Chemical Factory, Jishan county, Shanxi province in 2009,
From left to right Heights: 18.7, 18.9, 18.9, 19.7 in. (47.6, 48, 48, 50 cm),
Shanxi Museum, Taiyuan, China
Photo: Courtesy of Shanxi Museum

Something special awaits those who visit the China Institute’s exhibition, Theater, Life, and the Afterlife: Tomb Décor of the Jin Dynasty from Shanxi. Over 80 tomb brick carvings from the Shanxi Museum focuses attention on the Jin dynasty (1115-1234) and Chinese theatrical arts. Filled with the wonder of discovery, the show reveals the vibrancy of the Jin period and the multifarious thespian activities that took place under their support.

First some background: the Jin were Jurchens, tribesmen from Manchuria in what is today northeast China. In the twelfth century, they defeated the Mongolic Liao and Chinese North Song empires and forced the latter south. They took over northern China, established the Jin dynasty, intermarried, and adapted Chinese traditions. Peace was made with the Southern Song, who were in control of South China and the country became politically stable and prosperous. The arts flourished, especially theatrical entertainments.

In the southern region of Shanxi Provence, some 900 miles from Beijing, more than one hundred Jin tombs have been excavated since the mid-twentieth century. Painted and carved bricks decorated the tombs. The technique was a form of traditional Shanxi folk ornamentation. Shaped in low and high relief or modeled three-dimensionally, theater and musical performances were the predominant imagery.

Theatrical entertainment was obviously important to the Jin both in the cities and the countryside. In Shanxi, close to three thousand ancient theaters and stages remain. No other area in China has as many. These include the twelfth-century Erlang Temple stage which is the oldest surviving Chinese stage that, up to now, has been uncovered. It typifies the Jin architectural style and a small scale model of it is on view in the first gallery.

In the rural areas, performances would take place in the open. At first, city, court and temple productions were enacted on a simple raised platform. Later, an open-sided roofed structure was added. During the Jin period, a back wall was built creating an area open on three sides as in the Erlang stage.

Although temple activities were widespread, no written accounts of their productions have so far been discovered. Our understanding of what took place is based on tomb carvings and burial items along with the extant records of Jin and Southern Song court entertainments.

Figure of Musician Playing a Waist Drum,
Jin dynasty (1115–1234), carved brick,
15.7 x 7.7 x 2.6 in. (40 x 19.5 x 6.5 cm)
Unearthed in 1965 at Jingcungou, Xiangfen county, Shanxi province
Shanxi Museum, Taiyuan, China
Photo: Courtesy of Shanxi Museum

The numerous tomb depictions of musicians and dancers that remain attest to their popularity. A fine example is a group of carvings in the first gallery that portray a procession of eleven musicians and two dancers. Each brick has one figure, some with traces of paint. There are flutists, clapper players, drummers, and oboists. Of special note is the waist drum with its hourglass shape and cloth covering. The instrument was tied to the player’s waist allowing the performer to move about freely. It may have originated about 3,000 years when soldiers stationed at borders needed a way to communicate, sound alarms and accompany the advancement of cavalry. It evolved into an instrument of choice for dancers. In Shanxi, a waist drum dance that can be traced back some 2,000 years is still practiced.

A Parcel-Gilt Silver ‘Musical Troupe’ Ewer and Cover,
Liao – Northern Song Dynasty (A.D. 10th -11th Century),
Height 10 in. (25.4 cm)
Photo: Courtesy of J.J. Lally & Co., New York

A short diversion: music makers are a favorite Chinese motif and appear frequently in different contexts and at different times. A case in point is a Liao – Northern Song Dynasty hexagonal vessel on display at the J.J. Lally & Co., Silver and Gold in Ancient China, March 16 – April 14, 2012. Five musicians and a dancer in high relief decorate the object - one figure centered on each side. A waist drummer swaying rhythmically to his beat is easy to recognize as well as a flutist focused on playing.

The liveliness of music makers is rivaled by that of the dances. Performed in celebration of good fortune or abundant harvest, dances are varied and animated. Look for the carvings of a lion dance, a shield dance and, a dance with musicians accompanied by a melon carrier. In one, each performer appears to be on horseback but they are dancing about with a simulation of the animal - a cleverly devised bamboo and paper construction tied to their waists.

Children Riding on Deer,
Jin dynasty (1115–1234), carved brick,
7.5 x 15.4 x 1.9 in. (19 x 39 x 4.7 cm)
Unearthed in 1965 from Tomb 65H4M102, Houma city, Shanxi province
Shanxi Museum, Taiyuan, China
Photo: Courtesy of Shanxi Museum

In another scene, a playful boy and girl ride galloping deer. Ribbons draped over their chest flare outward as the speed ahead. Their gender is indicated by hairstyle and dress. The herbs they hold are symbolic of immortality.

Scenes of the ordinary and domestic objects tell much about Jin life. Rice pounding, a woman cooking with a five-tiered steamer, a clothes rack and household furniture are just some of the incidents portrayed. One carving of a horse tethered to a post is particularly skillful. The horse turns his head backward tugging on his reins as if to escape the constraint.

A partial replica of a tomb’s north wall incorporates sixteen original bricks and a figure of a woman peering out of a slightly opened door. The woman at the doorway is thought to represent the transition from this world to the next. Hint: color differentiates the authentic and reproduced parts.

Filial piety tales were moralistic legends compiled by Confucian scholars. They were easily adapted into plays and commonly rendered in tombs. The stories exemplified respect, obedience and care for parents and elderly family members. Two stories are illustrated here. One illustrates the tale of Wang Xiang. Wang’s stepmother had become ill during the winter. She wanted fresh fish. Although she treated Wang poorly, he wanted to satisfy her request. Wang went to a frozen river, took off his clothes and lied down on the ice. Once melted by his bodily warmth, he was able to catch two carps. Wang cooked them for his stepmother and she got well. In this depiction, Wang is fully clothed praying beside the frozen lake.

Zaju — Head of a Figure in the Zhuanggu Role,
Jin dynasty (1115–1234), clay with pigments,
4.7 x 3.3 x 2.8 in. (12 x 8.5 x 7 cm)
Unearthed in 1978 from Tomb no. 1 at Macun, Jishan county, Shanxi province
Shanxi Museum, Taiyuan, China
Photo: Courtesy of Shanxi Museum

A much favored type of Jin theater was a sort of commedia dell’arte with of four or five set roles. Carved in high and low relief, their tomb representations were pervasive. The exhibition has several has a variety of these depictions but of particular beauty are two painted heads modeled in the round. One represents the court official role with closed eyes as if he is in deep thought; the other, with an upturned nose and humorous air, portrays a comic character such as a clown or jester.

Chinese tombs historically contained two and three-dimensional objects as stand-ins for items needed in the hereafter. The afterlife was thought to be similar to or a continuation of the life of the living. Thus, the theater representations were simply the entertainment to be enjoyed in the next world. Nevertheless, they may have another meaning. In an exhibition catalogue essay, the Chinese scholar Wilt L. Idema suggests that these depictions may act as a reminder to the dead as well as the living that “ is only a play.” Research is ongoing.

South Wall of Brick-Carved Tomb In Situ,
Jin Dynasty (1115–1234), brick with pigments,
Unearthed at a Chemical Factory, Jishan county, Shanxi province in 2009,
From left to right Heights: 18.7, 18.9, 18.9, 19.7 in. (47.6, 48, 48, 50 cm),
Photo: Courtesy of Shanxi Museum

The show’s highlight, in the second gallery, is the reconstruction of a vaulted, single-chamber brick tomb using 43 of the surviving carvings. The tomb was accidentally unearthed in 2009 during the excavation for the Jishan Chemical Factory’s dormitory in Jishan, Shanxi. It represent a small version of an inner courtyard of a well-to-do wood constructed residence. Floral and abstract designs mix with lattice-like panels and guardian and animal figures. In the center of its north wall, two standing attendants flank a panel door. The south wall appears to be a gate-tower stage on which stand four actors carved in mid-relief. The tomb was made for a couple who were buried with their heads directly under this stage. They were placed as if to have front row seats at the performances.

Zhang Guolao of the Eight Immortals,
Jin dynasty (1115–1234), carved brick,
21.1 x 7.1 at top; 16.3 at bottom x 2.8 in.
(53.5 x 18 at top; 41.5 at bottom x 7 cm),
Unearthed in 1965 from Tomb 65H4M102, Houma city, Shanxi province
Shanxi Museum, Taiyuan, China
Photo: Courtesy of Shanxi Museum

In Chinese legend, the Eight Immortals were a group of Taoist saint-like beings with supernatural powers. Their enchanting legends were easily transformed into plays and, tomb depictions were commonplace. Apparently during Jin period, regulars in the group had not been fixed for tomb sets may have one Immortal replaced by another.

Their attributes make identification easy. Take a look at the Immortal Zhang Guolao from one series unearthed in Houma city. Zang holds a large fan like object, similar to a clapper. He could travel each day for very long distances on his donkey. When not in use, the animal was folded like a sheet of paper. To regain its form, only a sprinkle of water was needed.

Ding Lan Carving Wood Figures and Serving His Parents,
Jin dynasty (1115–1234), carved brick with pigments,
7.1 x 9.4 x 1.9 in. (18 x 24 x 4.5 cm),
Unearthed in 1981 from the Jin tomb at Nanfanzhuang,
Xinjiang county, Shanxi province
Shanxi Museum, Taiyuan, China
Photo: Courtesy of Shanxi Museum

Twenty-four carvings from the south wall on another tomb relate the tales of filial piety. Read the explanatory labels for the stories are charming. There is Wang Xiang who we met earlier but he is depicted unclothed on the frozen river. Another brick illustrates the story of Ding Lan. Ding made wooden figures deceased parents which he worshipped. His wife did not respect her in-laws and one day when Ding was out, she pricked the fingers of the parent images. They bleed. Ding came home and found the figures in tears. After learning what his wife did, he divorced her. There is also Wang Wuzu’s wife who cut off her own flesh to cure her mother-in-law, Yang Xiang who killed a tiger with her bare hands to save her father and Dong Yong who sold himself into slavery to bury his dead father.

Not to be missed are three masterly carved reliefs that work together to form one vivid combat composition. Each brick shows a mounted soldier set before an ornamental archway. One fleeing soldier turns around in his saddle as if to judge his distance from the approaching attacker. His foe comes toward him from the adjacent brick. His spear like weapon ready for action.

Visitors may want to pause to see a short film produced by the Shanxi Museum. Although less than ten minutes long, it manages to introduce viewers to the landscape and ancient sites of Shanxi in addition to providing excerpts from live musical and theatrical entertainments.

In 2006, the Asia Society’s exhibition, Gilded Splendors: Treasures of China’s Liao Empire (907-1125), provoked an interest in the Liao period. On display were recently excavated objects that clearly demonstrated a sophisticated culture of considerable elegance. It dispelled any notion that the Liao were inferior to the Tang or Song.

The China Institute’s show may have already engendered a similar effect. On a personal note: At this year’s Asia Week New York exhibits, March 16 - 24, this viewer seems to have seen more Jin objects than in previous years.

As for the Jin, they were toppled by the northern Mongolian Yuan and Chinese Southern Song Dynasties. The two victors later fought over the defeated territories. The Yuan were triumphant and ushered in Muslim rule. The Jin, nevertheless, did not entirely disappear. The Qing, the last imperial dynasty, were their descendants.

Go to the exhibit but if you can't, explore the excellent virtual tour on the China Institute's Web site.   

Suggestion: Plan to visit the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute’s Unearthed: Recent Archaeological Discoveries from Northern China, June 16 - October 21, 2102. This exclusive exhibition presents newly excavated tomb objects from Shanxi and Gansu never before seen outside of China.

Blog post originally published March 27, 2012.  This is revised post.

Theater, Life, and the Afterlife:
Tomb Décor of the Jin Dynasty from Shanxi
February 9, 2012, through June 17, 2012
125 East 65th Street, Manhattan, New York
Monday, Wednesday, Friday, 10:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
Tuesday and Thursday 10:00 a.m. - 8:00 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday 10:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
Closed major holidays

Friday, June 8, 2012

Vuillard At His Finest: A Reappraisal

Edouard Vuillard (1868 – 1940), Misia Sert and her Niece Mimi Godebska
(The Black Cups)
c. 1923-5, distemper on canvas,
55 1/8 × 68 7/8 in. (140.0 × 175.0 cm),
Private Collection
Photo: Courtesy of Jill Newhouse Gallery

The late paintings of Edouard Vuillard (1868 – 1940) are the focus of a show at the Jill Newhouse Gallery, Edouard Vuillard Paintings and Works on Paper, and an exhibition at the Jewish Museum, Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940. Scholars and critics are reappraising the works which date from the end of the 1890s until the artist’s death in 1940. These are primarily commissioned portraits and murals.  They have been criticized for being ornamental and bland and cited as examples of the painter’s failing powers when he pandered to his rich clients.

Early in his career, Vuillard had been part of the Nabis group of artists. Highly influenced by Japanese prints, their paintings broke down reality into flat patterns of colors. Abstraction dominated. Later, Vuillard’s work changed. His paintings became more naturalistic. What was depicted came to the fore. When successful, the subject and setting interlock making the sitter’s environment an explication of his reality. Vuillard explained, “I don’t paint portraits, I paint people in their surroundings.”

A large number of the late paintings are inaccessible. They belong to the private family collecitons of the original patrons. These owners are often reluctant to lend them for public display. The late works lack exposure has served as a barrier for a thorough understanding. This being the case, the Vuillard exhibits currently on view in New York are a must see. Although the Jewish Museum exhibition is the more comprehensive, the works at Jill Newhouse make the best case for a reevaluation in an installation conducive to contemplative viewing. Thus, I am concentrating my remarks on the gallery show.

Twelve works from private collections are displayed in two beautifully proportioned rooms. Major paintings are balanced with smaller ones. The latter act as visual rest stops from the intense looking required by the former.

Misia Sert and her Niece Mimi Godebska (The Black Cups) takes up almost an entire wall. Vuillard’s first muse Misia, now 51, is seated at a dining room table with her 21-year-old niece standing nearby. At the time Misia was married to her third husband, the Spanish painter Josep Maria Sert (1). She is heavy in middle-age, trying to be up-to-date with her Chanel-like clothes and bobbed hairstyle. Her earlier unconvential life when she had been the focus of the artist’s attention is replaced by upper-class comfort.

Dizzying in its details, the room cannot be taken in quickly. Only slowly do dabbles and blurs of paint become identifiable. Wonders of reflective descriptions fill a higly polished table at the bottom of the picture. Note the glints on the coffee service, the glass goblet with its blue highlights and, in front of the Chinese ceramic figurine, the matchbox that appears to double in the glossy expanse of wood. Look at Misia’s diamond necklace and the brown terrier on her lap then down to their reflections on the varnished table top. Take in the candelabra on a side board, the small blackamoor next to it, the Chinese style chairs against the walls, the sculpture under the mantle shelf and the painting above, perhaps by Sert or Bonnard. Let your eye move backward, through the mirror-like glass door to a partial view of the living room and decorations within. Each object must have been carefully choosen for its formal and tonal qualities.

Edouard Vuillard (1868 – 1940), Misia Sert and her Niece (preparatory sketch),
1925, glue-based distemper and pastel on paper, mounted on canvas,
55 3/8 × 70 7/8 in. (140.5 × 180.0 cm),
Private Collection
Photo: Courtesy of Jill Newhouse Gallery

While Vuillard was painting the portait, he was simultaneously making a full-scale sketch of it on paper. When the painting was finished, he stopped work on the sketch. Both are on exhibit together for the first time. The sketch gives viewers some idea of what the painting would have looked like in its early stages and before the artist ’s 1933-34 changes. These modifications were made prior to the work’s public exhibition. It was displayed in the French Pavilion of the 1934 Venice Biennial. Although Sert wanted Vuillard to paint Misia, he never bought the painting. Perhaps he was not satisfied with it or by 1925 had eyes for someone else. He left Misia for a younger woman a few years later. The sketch and canvas remained in Vuillard’s studio. They were there when he died. One regret, the two works are hung in separate rooms.

Vuillard’s methodolgy involved much preparation. He made extensive drawings of the sitters and their settings then went to his studio to paint. Over 100 sketches survive for Misia Sert and her Niece Mimi Godebska (The Black Cups). He also took photographs with a handheld Kodak camera. He had purchased one in 1897, 9 years after its invention (2). Vuillard seems to have wanted to record everything then paint undisturbed in his studio at his own pace.

Edouard Vuillard (1868 – 1940), Madame Jean Bloch and Her Children,
second version, 1930, reworked 1933 and 1934,
glue-based distemper on canvas,
72 7/8 x 70 7/8 in. (185 x 180 cm),

Private collection, Paris
Photo: Jewish Museum Web site
(On exhibit at the Jewish Museum)

You can listen to Claude Bloch Dalsace’s recollections of posing for Vuillard on the Jewish Museum’s Web site section, Sitting for Vuillard. Jean-André Bloch, her father, commissioned a family portrait in 1927. He wanted a painting of his wife and children. Claude was the Bloch’s middle daughter. She describes the many pastel sketches Vuillard made during the family’s numerous sittings. These sessions lasted about two and a half hours. The artist had been very strict and was displeased when a sitter moved. Afterward, back at his studio he worked on the painting.

Vuillard portrayed Mrs. Bloch and her children in the family’s opulent grand salon. Mr. Bloch was a prosperous businessman. He had amassed a significant collection of seventeenth-century decorative art including the silk wall covering seen in the painting. Gilded furniture, paneled doors, and a Persian carpet all affirm the family’s fortune and sophisticated taste. The portrait of Pope Clement XI hanging on the salon’s back wall was not an oil painting but a tapestry done after a work by the late Baroque artist Pietro Nelli.

Edouard Vuillard (1868 – 1940), Madame Jean Bloch and Her Children,
 first version, 1927-1929, 
glue-based distemper on canvas,

75 3/4 x 70 5/8 in. (192.5 x 179.5 cm),
Neffe-Degandt Ltd., London
Photo: Jewish Museum Web site
(On exhibit at the Jill Newhouse Gallery)

Vuillard painted several versions of the portrait. The earlier one is on display in the gallery show. Madame Bloch is depicted with her three children Giselle, Thierri and Claude. Although barely perceivable, their nanny is included at the left-hand edge of the canvas. She was considered part of the family. A fourth child, Agnès, was born in 1928. Subsequently, the artist was asked to do a second picture. The final version with Agnès is on exhibit in the Jewish Museum. In that last painting, the three other children appear older and the nanny is more clearly defined. Mr. Bloch kept it in his office until World War II when the work was hidden in the countryside. The Blochs recovered the painting after the war. Its earlier versions remained with the artist until his death.

Vuillard choice of medium may have influenced his working methodology. After the turn of the century, he preferred to paint with glue-based distemper. The artist may have been introduced to distemper when he did set designs for the theater. It was commonly used for decorating sets and scenery. The paint is quick drying, spreads well across large surfaces and produces a non-reflective, matte finish which does not dazzle under strong lighting. It could be built-up without difficulty making textural effects easy. The medium, however, is time-consuming and complicated to work with. Sheets of glue, usually rabbit-glue, have to be soaked for hours in water, heated and mixed with powder pigments. Each color requires its own pot. The mixture must be kept warm to prevent it from becoming too hard or thick. The paint had to dry before applying additional layers. In addition, colors change noticeably when dry so the artist had to have a first-rate color memory. The painting that resulted contrasted dramatically with the high gloss look of academic easel painting.

The colors and surface effects of distemper obviously appealed to the artist. He said he liked the process because it forced him to slow down. He had time to think about the work unhurriedly. The possibilities of this paint seem fully exploited in his The Sewing-Party at Loctudy of 1912. Pats and smudges of paint coordinate to form a tapestry-like arrangement. The surface is thick and palpable. As characteristic of Vuillard’s best efforts, the eye transforms marks into recognizable forms gradually. At the request of its private owner, it could not be reproduced.

Edouard Vuillard (1868 – 1940), Venus of Milo,
1920, glue-based distemper on board,
26 × 28 3/4 in. (66 × 73 cm),
Private Collection

Most enticing is the Venus of Milo with its muted hues of blues, pinks and pale yellows. Vuillard posed a model in an intricate domestic interior. The setting was his studio on the second floor of his home, 26, Rue de Calais, where he lived with his mother. Placed off-center, the model’s stance echoes the Venus de Milo’s head and torso full-size plaster cast which sits precariously on the mantel. The sculpture had been unearthed in 1863 on the island of Samothrace. It became part of the Louvre collection a year later. Vuillard undoubtedly know the piece for his primary art education consisted of studying the museum's holdings.

The room is surveyed as if through a fisheye which takes in all. Patterns, textures and objects are varied. The mirror above the mantelpiece reflects multiple images: the back of the Venus cast, statuettes and other items on the mantel’s shelf; a framed painting on the unseen far wall; and, the head and partial upper torso of the model who appears to be looking down at an easel painting to the left of the fireplace (3). In addition, the decor clearly shows the artist’s interests in medieval tapestries and the British Arts and Crafts movement.

The painting is done on board, a surface Vuillard favored. He liked its absorbancy and the pale brownish yellow and grey base it provided for his subdued color harmonies. Initially financial constraints may have led to its use. He had torn off parts of cardboard boxes to work on. Later this choice was purely artistic.

Model Undressing, Boulevard Malesherbes, c. 1909, has an eroticism not normally associated with the artist. A model is seen from behind and to one side removing her slip. Her far shoulder, arms and legs are already exposed. She stands in a room by the side of a bed. Beyond, through a doorway, is a look into another space, perhaps the bath for there appears to be a sink, mirror and tiling. It is a symphony in pinks, mauves and burgundy. The structure is complex. Rectangles, diagonals and squares lead the eye forward and backward yet stabilize the composition. Again, the owner did not want the work replicated. It is for sale like all the works in the gallery show. Misia Sert and her Niece (preparatory sketch) is being sold with its 113 preparatory sketches.

Take a look at the earlier small oils on display. In the tradition of the old masters, Oil Lamp is an engrossing meditative still life of a lamp, key and matches. Painted in 1888, about 9 x 15 inches, the oil reminds us of Vuillard’s indebtedness to the past. It also points to his future in the evenness of tonality and the tactile quality of its painted surface.

1. Josep Maria Sert was a famous and prosperous mural painter. His Abolition of War and Time, both cleaned a few years ago, can be seen in the lobby of 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

2. The Jewish Museum’s exhibition includes a short presentation of Vuillard’s photographic images. The majority of the photographs he made are in his family’s archive and have not been published. The camera’s impact on Vuillard and, for that matter, other artists of this period, is an area that warrants further investigation. The issue was explored in a recent exhibition, Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard, February 4 – May 6, 2012, at the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. More needs to be done.

3. Although not in the New York exhibitions, for comparison purposes I have reproduced Vuillard’s painting, Madame Vuillard Lighting the Stove. See below. The setting is the same as the Venus of Milo. Note the placement of the mantel items and the easel on the left.

Edouard Vuillard (1868 – 1940), Madame Vuillard Lighting the Stove,
1924, oil on paper mounted on canvas,
25 x 29.25 in. (63.5 x 74.3 cm),
(Not on exhibit in New York)


Edouard Vuillard
Paintings and Works on Paper
April 11, 2012 - May 25, 2012
4 East 81st Street, Manhattan, New York
Monday - Friday, 10:00 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.

Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940
May 4, 2012 - September 23, 2012
1109 5th Ave at 92nd St., Manhattan, New York
Monday, Friday - Sunday, 11:00 a.m. - 5:45 p.m.
Thursday, 11:00 a.m. - 8:00 p.m.
Closed Wednesday

Note: Posted originally on May 18, 2012. This is revised post.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

"Harderer. Betterer. Fasterer. Strongerer." Brucennial 2012

Installation view of Brucennial 2012
Photo: Hillary Ganton

“Harderer. Betterer. Fasterer. Strongerer” are the catchwords of the 2012 Brucennial. It may very well be harder, better, faster and stronger than previous ones. The works of some 400 artists are displayed on four levels of a former theater. Paintings are hung salon style sometimes five or six rows high. Informal, wacky and fun, this multifaceted show makes the Whitney Biennial and New Museum Triennial look over-processed.

Installation view of Brucennial 2012
Photo: Vito Schnabel Web site

Organized by the art collective Bruce High Quality Foundation which was founded in 2001 by former Cooper Union students and Vito Schnabel, art dealer son of painter Julian Schnabel, the Brucennial is an invigorating take on what is happening now.

The first Brucennial was in 2008 with about 90 artists. Entitled “Doing it Again”, it took place in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. The location of the following year's installment was the artist Ray Smith’s Gowanus studio. Called “Smithumenta” the show had 80 participants. Brucennial reached Manhattan in 2010 when over 400 entrants exhibited at a Soho venue. The tag for this last one was “Miseducation”.

2012 is the exhibition's fourth edition. Typical of the Brucennials, unknowns mix with the famous. Works by Damian Hirst, Cindy Sherman and Jean-Michel Basquait are placed alongside those by originators many have not heard of. The overwhelming majority are the latter.

Installation view of Brucennial 2012
Photo: Vito Schnabel Web site

Sculptors, painters, video, installation and other art forms are present. It’s equal-opportunity for all. If not invited, those who wanted to be in the show just needed to ask the Bruce team - most were accepted. Yet, some vetting must have taken place for the good certainly out number the bad.

Penciled or penned names written directly on the walls identify artists. There was one lone business card affixed under a painting that told more. A number of creators were not indicated. On my visit I saw a few gallery checklists, one for each area. These, however, were easily overlooked as if authorship was not that important. It’s the art that matters.

Installation view of Brucennial 2012
Photo: Vito Schnabel Web site

Brucennial 2012 has something for everyone and plenty of room to take it all in. This viewer saw much of merit but won’t comment on any particular work. The fun is seeing the pieces unbiassed and making up one’s own mind.

The works are for sale. Prices are not listed. To find out more, contact the artist.

Is this, as the organizers state, “The single most important art exhibition in the history of the world. Ever.”? Doubtful. Nevertheless, it is democratic, fresh and full of life. The Brucennials appear to be on the right track.

Don’t postpone your visit. The exhibit closes on April 20th.

Through April 20
159 Bleecker Street, (between Thompson and Sullivan Street),
Manhattan, New York
Wednesday to Sunday, noon to 6:00 p.m.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Renoir's Captivating Parisians

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), La Promenade, 1875–76,
oil on canvas, 67 x 42 5/8 in. (170.2 x 108.3 cm)
The Frick Collection, New York
Photo: Michael Bodycomb

Links between senses have long been recognized. The sensation of sound may involuntarily give rise to a sense of color or vice versa. These associations are called synaesthesia and it happens upon entering the Frick Collection’s special exhibition, Renoir, Impressionism, and Full-Length Painting. The exuberant paintings sing.

Pierre-August Renoir’s La Promenade inspired the show. Henry Clay Frick purchased the work in 1914. Initially, he contemplated returning it but, lucky for us, he didn’t. It was the last Impressionist work to enter the collection.

The exhibit, as well as its catalogue, are curatorial triumphs for Colin B. Bailey, the Frick’s Deputy Director and Peter Jay Sharp Curator. Eight important full-length paintings from seven institutions join La Promenade for a look at the work which occupied Renoir in the early years of Impressionism, from the mid-1870s through the mid-1880s. They represent Renoir’s confident and kindly view of modernity - fashionable ladies and gentlemen, a ballerina, an actress, young acrobats, and a trio of dancing couples. This is the first time the museum’s East Gallery has been turned over for a temporary exhibit. The installation takes advantage of the room’s natural light and ample proportions.

Although the Impressionists are known for their easel-size canvases, Renoir preferred to work in a large format. He painted on big surfaces early in his career when he had been employed to make full-scale religious images in imitation of stain glass windows on blinds intended for export to missionary churches. In addition, he had decorated cafe walls with murals.

Landscapes and scenes of contemporary life fell under his observational powers. Rendered in an audacious style of bright hues, feathery brush work and inventive compositions, his work shocked contemporaries.

A tailor father and seamstress mother may account for his interest in and visual acuity for fashion. His paintings can be dated by the clothing worn by those portrayed. He lived during a changing world of politics and industrialization. Napoleon III’s Second French Empire ended and the Third Republic established. Baron Haussmann’s designs transformed Paris into a metropolis of wide boulevards and expansive gardens. The proliferation of street lights made evening strolls safer. Lights illuminated theaters and the just developing department stores, the grand magazins. New railway networks facilitated travel. People spent time outdoors in the city’s gardens or nearby Parisian suburbs now easily reached by train. A diverse social mix enjoyed leisure activities.

Portable umbrellas were produced, made possible by the 1852 invention of the light weight steel-ribbed frame. Cigarette smoking, which had crossed into France from Spain by 1830, became popular. Match manufacturing began making smoking more convenient. In fact, the safety match, received an award at the Paris “World Exhibition” of 1855.

In 1830, a French tailor invented the first functional sewing machine that sewed straight seams. By the mid-1800s, sewing machines were mass produced. The invention of synthetic dyes made new cloth colors possible. Stylish garments became accessible and available at different price points. Women could buy expensive outfits in a cheaper version.

Renoir’s La Promenade, the finest Impressionist work in the Frick Collection, is a glorious depiction of nineteenth-century society. It is a wintry bright day in a public garden. A young women ushers two little girls along a pathway. They are dressed in fur-trimmed outfits. The girls wear matching apparel. One warms her hands in a muff, made of white mink or swans down, while the other holds a fully dressed doll. Besides fur, their ensembles are embellished with silk and lace. In the upper right background, at least eleven figures are discernible along with two dogs, one black and one white.

(For a close view, see the painting's high-resolution image on Google Art Project.)

The work had long been described as a mother and her two children but a recent technical examination supports a different interpretation.

In the spring of 2011, La Promenade was sent to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s conservation department. An infrared reflectogram revealed a distinct underlayer image of two female figures at the upper left side of the canvas. One was an elegantly dressed older women of obvious high social rank; the other was modestly attired. They were most likely meant to represent the mother and nanny of the three remaining figures. Renoir may have chosen to leave them out in order to give more space to the final the composition and focus attention on the foreground youths, who are now understood to be three sisters. The older one wears a type of schoolgirl skirt. Note the bit of white petticoat sticking out from the right side of her hem. Her casual loose hair is indicative of girlhood. Only children or young, unmarried females of seventeen or eighteen years-of-age wore their hair this way. An older women would not be outside in public with her tresses down. Married, mature women wore their hair styled and pinned up under bonnets or hats.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), La Parisienne, 1874,
oil on canvas, 64 3/8 x 42 3⁄4 in. (163.2 x 108.3 cm)
Miss Gwendoline E. Davies Bequest, 1951
Photo: © Amgueddfa Cymru—National Museum Wales

Such is the case of the woman pictured in La Parisienne who dresses in a chic, outdoor blue silk walking outfit with matching hat, toque and gloves. She is the height of fashion with a shaped jacket, overskirt pulled into a bustle puffing the fabric out behind and underskirt with pleated flounces. When this canvas was painted in the early 1870s, bright blue and mauve were the “it” colors of the fashionable.

Blues, which dominates La Parisienne, highlight The Dancer placed nearby. This may be the first time both paintings are together since they were shown at the First Impressionist Exhibition in 1874.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), The Dancer, 1874,
oil on canvas 56 1/8 x 37 1/8 in. (142.5 x 94.5 cm)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Widener Collection
Photo: National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The Dancer is a light filled canvas of bravado brushstrokes and radical coloration. The young ballerina may be in front of a mirror checking herself or showing her progress to a ballet master. Pushing back her tutu, she gets a better view of her body placement. Her feet are placed in ballet fifth position, the fundamental position from which all classical technique is derived and the one dancers spend their whole lives trying to perfect. Her skin is tinged with blue, green and yellow. The dermis seems to pick up the color of her costume’s sash, bodice trim and hair bows. Renoir doesn’t miss describing the velvet neck choker, delicate hankie and jeweled bracelets. The painter even delineates the taut ribbons of new pink toe shoes pressing against the young girl’s flesh.

The model for The Dancer, La Parisienne, and older sister in La Promenade has been identified as the then aspiring actress Marie-Henriette-Alphonsine Grossin whose stage name was Madame Henriot. She became one of Renoir’s favorite models posing for the artist between 1874, when she was seventeen-years-old, and 1876. Modeling gave her income and public exposure. In the painting Madame Henriot “en travesti” (The Page), also in the show and hung to the right of La Parisienne, the actress is portrayed as a page.

Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, 1878-1881,
yellow wax, hair, ribbon, linen bodice, satin shoes, muslin tutu, wood base,
overall without base: 38 15/16 x 13 11/16 x 13 7/8 in. (98.9 x 34.7 x 35.2 cm)
weight: 49 lb. (22.226 kg)
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Photo: ARTnews

A short digression: The ballerina as subject is usually associated with Edgar Degas who also took part in the Impressionist exhibitions. His Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, presented in the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition of 1881, was the only sculpture the artist ever put on public display. Made of wax, hair and clothing materials, it defied convention. She stands in the ballet fourth position which gives the dancer a balanced solid-base, allowing for the body’s elongation and improved alignment. Yet, compared to Renoir’s painted dancer who stands in the more difficult fifth, the little wax ballerina looks awkward. Part of the reason, I suggest, is that Renoir was incapable of rendering his models indifferently. He made them look good, better than they actually were in life. The actress Mademoiselle Henriot was not a particularly attractive woman but Renoir made her appealing. His was a benevolent view of mankind.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), The Umbrellas (Les Parapluies), c. 1881–85,
oil on canvas, 71 x 45 in. (180.3 x 114.9 cm),
The National Gallery, London, Sir Hugh Lane Bequest, 1917
Photo: © The National Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY

The Umbrellas (Les Parapluies) is on a wall by itself across from La Parisienne. Begun about 1881, it was completed five years later. The work is bifurcated yet the blue toned pigments unite dissimilarities. On the right are four figures in Renoir’s early luminous Impressionistic manner. A well-dressed mother holding an open umbrella looks down at her two daughters. Their luxurious garments demonstrate wealth. Next to them, a younger woman with an upturned face is in the process of opening her umbrella. Her clothing is evidence of some means.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), Detail of The Umbrellas (Les Parapluies),
c. 1881–85, oil on canvas,
71 x 45 in. (180.3 x 114.9 cm),
The National Gallery, London, Sir Hugh Lane Bequest, 1917
Photo: ARTstor

On the painting’s left, a dapper man with top hat holds an open umbrella in his gloved right hand. He appears to protect the bare-headed woman standing before him. Her garments as well as the hat box with leather strap that she carries signifies she is a milliner's assistant. This pair as well as the background figures and umbrellas were painted in Renoir’s later linear, subdued style which emphasized form, line and volume rather than brushstrokes and colors.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), Detail of The Umbrellas (Les Parapluies),
c. 1881–85, oil on canvas,
71 x 45 in. (180.3 x 114.9 cm),
The National Gallery, London, Sir Hugh Lane Bequest, 1917
Photo: ARTstor

Costume historians would recognize the shopgirl's fitted clothing as the up-to-date English fashion of the mid-1880‘s. The figures on the right are fashionistas of the earlier 1880s. The mother wears a 1881 ensemble characterized by a high bustle and tiered skirt. Renoir, as always, is meticulous in his clothing descriptions. Note the the footwear of the four right figures: both girls appear to be wearing Baby Jane type children shoes but the older sister sports dark spats covering her instep and ankle; the mother has on pumps with contrasting beige spat; and, peaking out from the other woman’s pleated skirt, are her shoes’ plain tips. Other well-observed details are the mother’s bracelets and the small buttons on the inside of her right hand glove. The little girl’s possessive grasp of her toy hoop and stick, the older sister’s affectionate touch on her younger sibling’s shoulder, the overlapping of numerous umbrellas and figures, make this one of Renoir’s best paintings.

Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894) A Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877,
oil on canvas, 83 1/2 x 108 3/4 in. (212.2 x 276.2 cm),
Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worchester Collection, 1964
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
Photo: ARTstor

I can not help but bring up another famous “umbrella” painting, Gustave Caillebotte’s A Paris Street; Rainy Day. Renoir and his close friend and fellow artist Caillebotte both exhibited at the 1877 Third Impressionist Exhibition. Caillebotte’s painting was in that show and, no doubt, Renoir saw it. Like Ford Motel Ts, the umbrellas in Caillebotte’s 1877 work and Renoir’s The Umbrellas (Les Parapluies) of 1881-5 confirm the devices early uniformity.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), Dance at Bougival, 1883,
0il on canvas, 71 5/8 x 38 5/8 in. (181.9 x 98.1 cm)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Picture Fund
Photo: © 2012 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

In 1883, Renoir was preparing intensely for an exhibition and produced three canvases of dancing couples: Dance in the City, Dance in the Country and Dance at Bougival. They are all at the Frick. The later is the most romantic of the trio and charged with an eroticism the other two lack.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), Detail of Dance at Bougival,
1883, oil on canvas,
71 5/8 x 38 5/8 in. (181.9 x 98.1 cm)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Picture Fund
Photo: ARTstor

Quite risqué for the time, the young female dancer wears no gloves. Skin touches skin as her partner’s left hand holds firmly to her uncovered right wrist. She rests her left hand gently about his neck. Their body language - faces near as the male bends toward her - suggests intimacy and seduction. Their dance embrace contrasts the more accepted hand to shoulder and palm to palm placement. As to be expected, the rendering of clothes is superb. The young woman’s red-trimmed frock swirls with the music and accentuates her luscious form.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), Detail of Dance at Bougival,
1883, oil on canvas,
71 5/8 x 38 5/8 in. (181.9 x 98.1 cm)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Picture Fund
Photo: ARTstor

Ground litter, made up of cigarettes butts, spent matches, small bouquet, leaf and flower, allude to pleasures enjoyed.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), Detail of Dance at Bougival,
1883, oil on canvas,
71 5/8 x 38 5/8 in. (181.9 x 98.1 cm)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Picture Fund
Photo: ARTstor

In the left background, a women, with her left hand under her chin, converses with the man seated at the same table. As if not to miss a word, she tilts her chair forward, balancing on its two front legs. He nonchalantly smokes a cigarette. Their unfinished drinks suggest slight intoxication. Behind them, a gentleman wearing a top hat approaches, perhaps to listen or enter into the chat.

Renoir typically used friends and colleagues for models. In Dance in the City, Suzanne Valadon, artist and model, partners with the writer and journalist Paul Lhote. Lhote also appears in Dance in the Country with Aline Charigot, the painter’s mistress and subsequent wife.

The couple depicted in Dance at Bougival had been difficult to determine. They resemble Valadon and Llote but not close enough to convince. The issue was clarified when an X-ray of the painting uncovered an earlier version of the female dancer. She looked like Aline Charigot. The final image reflects a mixture of Valadon and Charigot.

The male dancer was more likely based on Hippolyte-Alphonese Fournaise, the son of the owner of the Fournaise restaurant located in Chatou.  Like Bougival, Chatou was a popular weekend gathering spot about nine miles from Paris and accessible by railroad.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1880-1881,
oil on canvas, 51 1/4 x 69 1/8 in. (130.175 x 175.5775 cm),
The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC
Photo: ARTstor

Renoir began to go to there in the 1870s and he used the restaurant as a setting for the Phillips Collection’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. Llote, Charigot and Fourniase are in this painting.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), Detail of Luncheon of the Boating Party,
1880-1881, oil on canvas,
51 1/4 x 69 1/8 in. (130.175 x 175.5775 cm),
The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC
Photo: ARTstor

Llote is in the right rear between the gentleman wearing a black hat (the bureaucrat Eugène-Pierre Lestringuez) and a woman whose gloved hands are raised to her cheeks (the actress Jeanne Samary).

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), Detail of Luncheon of the Boating Party,
1880-1881, oil on canvas,
51 1/4 x 69 1/8 in. (130.175 x 175.5775 cm),
The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC
Photo: ARTstor

In the near left foreground, Charigot is seated playing with a small dog. Fournaise leans against the railing behind her.

The Dance at Bougival was last in New York in the Spring of 1886 when it was paired with Luncheon of the Boating Party at the first exhibition of Paris Impressionists in America. The Umbrellas (Les Parapluies) was also in that show. It was the only time the painting had been in the United States before the current Frick exhibition.

The works on view at Renoir, Impressionism, and Full-Length Painting may very well be the best of Renoir. No one knows if they will ever be together again. Make a visit.

Hint: The museum’s Spanish paintings and two full-length Whistler portraits were moved to the Oval Room for the duration of the show. Take a look. The impact of Renoir’s revolutionary style will intensify.

Renoir, Impressionism, and Full-Length Painting
February 7, 2012, through May 13, 2012
1 East 70th Street, Manhattan, New York
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

Extended Hours Event: Renoir Night
Date: Friday, April 27, 2012, 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

 Happy New Year!


Start the year with 
a picture and poem.

Edouard Manet (1832 - 1883), 
1862-63, oil on canvas,
unframed: 37 5/16 x 44 3/4 in. (94.7 x 113.7 cm)
framed: 46 7/8 x 54 5/16 in. (119 x 138 cm)

A Great Number 
by Wislawa Szymborska 

Four billion people on this earth of ours,
but my imagination is unchanged.
It does not do well with great numbers.
It is still moved by what is individual.
Flitting through darkness like a flashing beam,
it picks out only the faces that are nearest,
meanwhile the rest are lost to blind oversight,
non-thought and non-regret.
Dante himself could not have prevented that.
And what if one is not?
Even with all the muses at my back.

Non omnis moriar - a worriment that's premature.
Yet am I fully alive, and is that enough?
It was never enough, now more than ever.
Choosing I reject, there is no other way,
yet that which I reject is more numerous,
more dense, more clamorous then ever before.
At the cost of losses indescribable - a little poem, a sigh.
To this thunderous Calling I reply in a whisper.
How much I pass over in silence, I will not say.
A mouse at the foot of the maternal mountain.
Life lasts but a few scratches of the claw in the sand.

My dreams - even they are not, as is proper, inhabited.
There's more in them of solitude than crowds and tumult.
Someone long dead may drop by for a moment.
The handle is moved by a lone hand.
The empty house is crowded round with annexes of echoes.
I run from the doorstep down into the tranquil
valley that seems to be no one's, already anachronistic.

Where this space within me comes from still -
that I do not know.

Addendum: Wislawa Szymborska (born July 2, 1923) died February 1, 2012 at her home in Krakow, Poland. She received the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature.