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Fuller View and Hometown Boy

September 15, 2013 Leave a comment

saam

We attended an opening event at the Seattle Asian Art Museum Wednesday night for two current exhibitions: A Fuller View of China, Japan and Korea, and Hometown Boy. Having flown home Monday night from New York, we were still a bit on east coast time, so it took some willpower to defer dinner and get over to Volunteer Park, but we were glad we did.

The Fuller exhibition honors Richard Fuller, who founded the Seattle Art Museum.

Dr. Richard E. Fuller and his mother, Margaret MacTavish Fuller, traveled extensively collecting Japanese and Chinese art in the early 1900s. In 1931 they gave the City of Seattle $250,000 to construct and maintain the Seattle Art Museum. Dr. Fuller, who directed SAM for its first 40 years, donated much of his own collection and acquired important works by contemporary Northwest artists such as Mark Tobey, Morris Graves and Kenneth Callahan.

In 1931, Dr. Richard Fuller commissioned architect Carl F. Gould to design the art deco building that is now the Seattle Asian Art Museum. It opened in Seattle’s Volunteer Park in 1933.

Xiaojin Wu, Associate Curator for Japanese and Korean Art, gives this description of the exhibition:

Dr. Richard Fuller’s 40 years as the museum’s founding director are the bedrock of its history, and his passion for art resonates with collectors of his time and beyond. In commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, this installation shows how Dr. Fuller, his family and friends, and several more recent Seattle collectors, built SAM’s celebrated Asian art collections. Featuring some of SAM’s best-loved works such as the Poem Scroll with Deer, the installation showcases the incredible quality and diversity that make SAM’s Asian art collection one of the finest in the country. The selected Chinese paintings and calligraphy also celebrate the launch of an innovative online scholarly catalogue, a multi-year project sponsored by the J. Paul Getty Foundation.

Hometown Boy features the work of Liu Xiaodong. Josh You, the former SAM curator of Chinese Art (who left for Hong Kong two months ago) explains:

Now one of China’s most renowned contemporary artists, Liu Xiaodong grew up in a small industrial town in China before moving to Beijing at age 17 to study art. Three decades passed before he decided to head home to paint this celebrated series Hometown Boy. An internationally acclaimed artist who has lived through Beijing’s phenomenal growth in the past few decades, the 50-year-old Liu is baffled by the familiar: childhood friends who continue to struggle for a living, his parents’ unchanged home, and undeveloped paddy fields. The hometown boy has become an outsider, who masterfully captures the details of daily life in a typical Chinese town neglected by the media but teeming with life.

We arrived at the opening just as people were being ushered out of the wine reception to the basement auditorium for the program. It began as usual with welcoming remarks from the board president and then from Kim Rorschach, the museum director. We learned that Kim knew Liu Xiaodong’s work well, having featured it in a show at her previous home, Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art. And Liu Xiaodong was with us in person, as was former curator Josh Yiu.

Josh took the stage next to talk about Liu, then brought Liu up for an interview and an audience question and answer session. This worked better in principle than practice. Josh began with a question that lasted at least a minute. We all shifted our attention to Liu for his reply, only to realize that Josh was now repeating the question in Chinese. Liu answered, Josh replied (in Chinese), and their conversation went on a while before Josh translated some of it for us. The Q&A portion worked a little better, and Liu even answered a question or two without translation, though only briefly before switching to Chinese.

Next Xiaojin Wu came up to give us some background on the Fullers and the Fuller exhibition. The program closed with an amusing video clip of the late Bagley Wright giving remembrances a few decades back of Fuller, his taste in collecting, and his criticism of Wright’s own collecting choices.

It was now past 7:30 and we were hungry. There’s always a choice after the program: eat or art. We voted eat. And there’s usually a modest buffet, enough to take away our hunger. As we came up the stairs, we saw people strolling around with small Chinese food takeout cartons in hand, but couldn’t find a buffet table laid out with cartons or other food. We soon realized that the food was being passed by servers. And when another server appeared some five minutes later with a tray of cartons, a polite mob surrounded her. Gail squeezed in for the last box. Fried rice, which we split. No point standing there waiting for more. We headed into the Fuller exhibition.

This would be a good place to show you pictures of some of the objects, but I’m not finding much at the website. Nothing from the exhibition itself. There’s this, from the permanent collection highlights:

crows

A little small. I know. This is one of the museum’s most well known works, a pair of six panel Japanese screens in ink and gold on paper from the 17th century. And you can see it represented in the photo at the top.

We didn’t spend much time in the exhibition, given that it was very late for us and we were going to have to stop on the way home for more food. We spent more time seeing Hometown Boy, which occupies a single room. Here’s the one picture from the exhibition website, Liu Xiaodong’s self portrait from 2010.

xiaodongself

I can’t show you more. If you’re around, you should see the paintings for yourself. Or, if you’re in New York, see his latest paintings at the Mary Boone Gallery, which is showing In Between Israel and Palestine.

We headed out with plans to return for a closer look when we were less tired. And with more immediate plans to eat fried rice. I called Teriyaki Bowl for a takeout order and we picked it up on the way home. Not as good as what SAAM was offering (catered by their in-house restaurant, Taste). But it hit the spot.

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Categories: Art, Museums

At the Met

September 2, 2013 Leave a comment
The Fortune Teller, Georges de la Tour, 1630s

The Fortune Teller, Georges de la Tour, 1630s

We took a 7:00 am flight to New York Friday morning, leaving today on a noon flight. Not much to report, since mostly we were visiting and eating with family. But let me say a bit about our visit to the Met. First, a word about our arrival.

The flight into JFK was pleasant enough. Our first trip highlight was arriving in the new Delta home in Terminal 4. One of the wonders of Kennedy for years has been just what a dump Delta’s Terminals 2 and 3 have been. To think that Terminal 3 was intended to be a glory of air travel, when Pan Am opened it and ushered it a new era of international travel with its new 747s. It was a wonder all right. The baggage claim area was the biggest pit imaginable.

As for Delta’s new quarters in Terminal 4, our main impression as arrivees was that we sure had to walk a lot. I haven’t walked so far since the last time we changed planes in Heathrow. It took forever to get to the main terminal. Then we had to walk to the far end to get to baggage claim. Which wasn’t a pit at all, but it didn’t help that of the two carousels, one said Seattle while our bags came in on the other.

Saturday afternoon we left my parents and headed into the Met. Two current exhibitions that interested us were closing today, so we were fortunate to get to see them: Photography and the American Civil War, and The Civil War and American Art. I can’t share photos, since none were allowed, but you can see plenty of highlights at the websites for the exhibitions.

Here’s the blurb for the photography show:

More than two hundred of the finest and most poignant photographs of the American Civil War have been brought together for this landmark exhibition. Through examples drawn from the Metropolitan’s celebrated holdings of this material, complemented by important loans from public and private collections, the exhibition examines the evolving role of the camera during the nation’s bloodiest war.

And for the paintings:

This major loan exhibition considers how American artists responded to the Civil War and its aftermath. Landscapes and genre scenes—more than traditional history paintings—captured the war’s impact on the American psyche. The works of art on display trace the trajectory of the conflict and express the intense emotions that it provoked: unease as war became inevitable, optimism that a single battle might end the struggle, growing realization that fighting would be prolonged, enthusiasm and worries alike surrounding emancipation, and concerns about how to reunify the nation after a period of grievous division. The exhibition proposes significant new readings of many familiar masterworks—some sixty paintings and eighteen photographs created between 1852 and 1877—including outstanding landscapes by Frederic E. Church and Sanford R. Gifford, paintings of life on the battlefront and the home front by Winslow Homer and Eastman Johnson, and photographs by Timothy H. O’Sullivan and George N. Barnard. The exhibition at the Metropolitan coincides with the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863).

Frederic Edwin Church (American, 1826–1900). Our Banner in the Sky (detail), 1861.

Frederic Edwin Church (American, 1826–1900). Our Banner in the Sky (detail), 1861.

{Metropolitan Museum]

Three months ago, the Met opened a new installation of their European paintings.

The Met’s world-renowned collection of European Old Master paintings from the thirteenth through the early nineteenth century have reopened after an extensive renovation and reinstallation. This is the first major renovation of the galleries since 1951 and the first overall reinstallation of the collection since 1972. Increased in size by almost one-third, the space now accommodates the display of more than seven hundred paintings in forty-five galleries, including one rotating special exhibition gallery.

Eager to learn more, I tore out Holland Carter’s NYT review last May, but I still haven’t read it. Here it is. He writes:

When a monument wakes up, you notice. It’s been more than 40 years since the Metropolitan Museum of Art rethought what many considered its raison d’être, its galleries of European paintings.

The last reinstallation was in 1972 and encompassed a chronological span from Giotto to Picasso. Later, 19th- and 20th-century art was cut loose and sent elsewhere. The rest of the European collection, by then huge, easily could have filled the freed-up space. But the Met decided to reserve the emptied galleries for blockbuster shows. So five centuries of old master painting stayed where it was and fell into a doze.

Now comes a change. The blockbuster spaces have been given back to the collection, and all 45 European painting galleries cosmetically overhauled: new floors, fresh paint, walls put up or brought down, etc. For the first time that I can remember, pictures really have room to breathe. And there are many more of them. A few months ago 450 paintings were on view; now there are more than 700.

We are not talking revolution. Visitors familiar with the holdings will see a lot of what they already know, but encounter old faces in new places, which can produce revelations. There are novelties: items either new, out of sight for decades or just never shown. Best of all, some top-shelf private loans have been integrated, for a limited time, into the galleries in celebration of the reopening.

Most important, the geography of the galleries has been recalibrated. The old arrangement was eccentric. To get from Jan van Eyck in 15th-century Bruges to Rembrandt in 17th-century Amsterdam you had to go through Italy. Italy itself was all over the map. Judging from their Met locations, you might have thought that Caravaggio and Tiepolo came from opposite ends of Europe. To trace a coherent historical path, audio guides were useless; you needed GPS.

No more. Now painting from northern Europe, excluding France, is laid out by date in the regained galleries. Italian painting is consolidated in a two-pronged format, with early work from Florence and Siena running in parallel streams that flow into Titian’s Venice.

France is now unitary, as is Spain (Goya used to be stuck out in nowheresville), and all national blocs are broken up by thematic displays. The keen-eyed may note a Met obsession with framing. The subject is hot these days, as is the market. Vintage examples cost a mint, and the Met is getting its share. Finally, certain much-loved pictures have returned to view with a spa-toned glow, thanks to the tender mercies of conservation.

But what makes the reinstallation most stimulating is a subtle feature, what you might call a curator’s secret weapon: the power of placement. Keith Christiansen, chairman of the European paintings department, has brilliantly orchestrated the collection as a play of dramatic vistas, visual lineups of images — seen around corners or over distances — that pull you forward in time and immerse you in textured layers of European culture.

I’ve seen these paintings time and again over the decades, and we didn’t have much time to explore because we had to get out to the Island for more family visits, but I couldn’t resist exploring anew. I certainly noticed the coherence of the French painting galleries. (One highlight appears at the top of this post, Georges de la Tour’s The Fortune Teller.) And it was a definite surprise to find that Bruegel, Rembrandt, and Vermeer weren’t where I have long known to find them. But find them I did:

bruegel

rembrandt

vermeer

Another special exhibition was embedded within the new installation, occupying a single room: Eighteenth-Century Pastels. It was a special treat:

With the 1929 bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, the Metropolitan Museum acquired its first pastels—about twenty nineteenth-century works by Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, and Édouard Manet. For forty years, they were shown with our European and American paintings. It was not until 1956 that we were bequeathed a pastel by Jean Pillement (1728–1808). Between 1961 and 1975 we acquired a small group of works by John Russell (1745–1806), and there the matter stood until 2002, when the Metropolitan bought a pastel by the Venetian artist Rosalba Carriera (1673–1757). Since then we have purchased nearly a dozen others by Italian, French, British, German, and Danish artists. Most are portraits, and they are exhibited here with two vivid seascapes by Pillement from a private collection. Pastels are made from powdery substances that are fragile and subject to fading. In accordance with modern museum practice, they are exhibited in very low light or rotated to ensure their long-term preservation. This display is therefore a temporary extension of the new installation in the adjoining galleries for European Old Master paintings.

Benedetto Luti, Study of a Boy in a Blue Jacket, 1717. Pastel and chalk on blue laid paper, laid down on paste paper

Benedetto Luti, Study of a Boy in a Blue Jacket, 1717. Pastel and chalk on blue laid paper, laid down on paste paper

Leaving the European paintings, we rested a bit at a members lounge, then got our car and headed out the Midtown Tunnel to the Island.

So much more to see. But we were content.

Categories: Art, Museums, Travel

Building the Moroccan Court

August 15, 2013 Leave a comment

I laid the groundwork for this post a week ago, but then ran out of steam. Let me see if I can resurrect it.

To start with, quoting from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s description of the galleries for Islamic art in their online gallery guide,

On November 1, 2011, the Department of Islamic Art reopened its fifteen galleries after an eight-year renovation. The new galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia were renovated and reorganized in accordance with current thinking in the field and with modern museological practices.

I wrote a post the previous April describing a visit to the Met during which we were fortunate to get “a sneak peak of a small new room with wooden ceiling and walls being carved as we watched by Moroccan craftsmen. This will be a must-see when the space re-opens near the end of the year.”

Unbeknownst to me, the NYT had given this new space extensive coverage just two weeks earlier, with an article, a slide show, and a short video. From Randy Kennedy’s article:

When the Metropolitan Museum of Art makes a big curatorial decision, it tends to do so with the kind of grave deliberation that goes into a papal bull. Gut feeling is not a prized consideration. But in the spring of 2009, in a dust-covered basement workshop in Fez, Morocco, a young curator in the museum’s Islamic department sat among a group of artisans — workers in traditional North African tile, plaster and wood ornament whose roots stretched back seven generations in the trade — and asked the company’s chief executive yet again why the museum should enlist them for an unusual mission.

The executive, a boyish-looking man named Adil Naji, reached over and took hold of the wrist of one of his younger brothers, Hisham. He hoisted the brother’s rough, callused fingers in front of the curator, Navina Haidar, and, with a climactic intensity that wouldn’t have been out of place in “Lawrence of Arabia,” exclaimed, “Look, this is my brother’s hand!”

As Ms. Haidar recalled recently, back in the much less cinematic confines of a museum construction site: “It was a very powerful moment. It made up our minds because we could see how close he was to the tradition. And we wanted to see that hand on our walls.”

She and her colleagues had gone to Morocco in search of help for a kind of project that the Metropolitan, which generally concerns itself with the work of dead artists, has rarely undertaken in its 140 years: to install a group of living artists inside the museum for the purposes of creating a permanent new part of its collection.

The last time such a thing happened was in 1980, when Brooke Astor underwrote the re-creation of a Ming dynasty garden courtyard, made by more than two dozen master builders from Suzhou, China, who spent four months on the job within the museum’s Chinese painting galleries, working with hand tools unchanged for generations.

Almost 30 years later the museum was embarking on the most ambitious rethinking and rebuilding of its Islamic art galleries in its history, a $50 million endeavor. At the heart of those galleries, which will open in the fall after being closed six years, it dreamed of showcasing the defining feature of Moroccan and southern Spanish Islamic architecture: a medieval Maghrebi-Andalusian-style courtyard, which would function in much the same way such courtyards still do in the traditional houses and mosques of Marrakesh or Casablanca, as their physical and spiritual center.

The problem was that, while the museum owns entire blocks’ worth of historic architecture, it did not happen to have a medieval Islamic courtyard sitting around in storage anywhere. And so after months of debate about whether it could pull off such a feat in a way that would meet the Met’s standards, it essentially decided to order a courtyard up.

Which is how a group of highly regarded Moroccan craftsmen, many of whom had never set foot in New York, came essentially to take up residence at the Met beginning last December, working some days in their jabador tunics and crimson fezzes (known as tarbooshes in Morocco), to build a 14th-century Islamic fantasia in seclusion high above the Greek and Roman galleries as unknowing museum goers passed below.

One week ago, the Met released a 17 3/4 minute video (embedded at the top of the post) telling the story of the courtyard. The video’s blurb:

In 2011, The Metropolitan Museum of Art opened the New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia, which house the Museum’s renowned collection of Islamic art. A vital part of the installation is the Patti Cadby Birch Court, a Moroccan court built by a team of experts—from curators and historians to designers and craftsmen—over many months. Complementing the works on view, which span the past fourteen hundred years, the Moroccan Court provides an experience of space and architecture, and demonstrates artistic traditions that still thrive in the Islamic world. This video documents a marvelous journey from Fez to New York, and the creation of a twenty-first-century court using traditional, fifteenth-century methods.

Next time you have 18 free minutes, watch it. You’ll be glad you did. Among some of the highlights is the sweet moment, after the NYT article quoted above had appeared, when the craftsmen arrive at work as local celebrities.

Categories: Art

Alden Mason Retrospective

June 22, 2013 Leave a comment
Home Free Jamboree, Alden Mason, 1991

Home Free Jamboree, Alden Mason, 1991

Two days ago, we went down to the Wright Exhibition Space* to see their latest show, Alden Mason: In Memoriam 1919-2013. It consists of 35 of Mason’s paintings ranging from 1970 to 2008. On walking in, you pick up a foldout six-page card stock pamphlet containing photos of paintings, photos of Mason himself, and fifteen notes written by painters, art dealers, art critics, and the exhibition curators. The same texts are on the walls, in lieu of details about the individual paintings themselves.

*I have explained in previous posts on the Wright Exhibition Space—for instance, this one—that it “is a small gallery that mounts shows from time to time drawn largely, or entirely, from the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, the largest collection of contemporary art in the Pacific Northwest. I highly recommend going, whatever the show, because the art is superb, the mix of art is interesting, you often have the space to yourself or nearly to yourself, there’s an informative little printed guide, and there’s often a docent to introduce you to the show and chat with. The gallery is open Thursdays and Saturday, with free admission.”

Perhaps I should have made it a point to read the curator’s note, written by Phen Huang of the Foster/White Gallery and Greg Kucera, the eponym of his own gallery. I’m reading it only now. But Sylvia, the docent, urged us to save the texts for when we got home, enjoying the paintings while there, and we followed her advice. Plus, she gave us her own helpful overview about Mason and the different phases of his career. As for the curator’s note, we learn that

late in his life, Alden Mason hoped for a retrospective museum show to define the phases of his career. His seventy years of painting revealed a range of media from watercolor to oil paint, then to acrylic paints, and finally back to ink and watercolor. He wanted major works from each series to represent his artistic oeuvre. Moving through these unique styles proved Mason’s ability to innovate and resonate with all audiences over an extended period of time.

In curating this exhibition, we aimed at fulfilling his request.

Sunshine Strip, 1979

Sunshine Strip, 1979

Mason grew up about sixty miles north of Seattle. As critic Sheila Farr explains,

the fields of the Skagit Valley were Alden Mason’s playground and the wild cratures and farm animals his friends. Born July 14, 1919 in Everett, Washington [about 20 miles north of Seattle], Mason grew up on a Fir Island farm near the banks of the Skagit River. Alden was just five years old when his father, a house painter, died of lead poisoning after years of working with lead paints.

A slight, precocious child, prone to illness, Alden attended the Skagit City School, a two-room country schoolhouse, where he skipped second grade and forever felt he was struggling to catch up with others. But in the natural world, he was at ease: he built birdhouses, went fly-fishing, collected butterflies, experimented with taxidermy and never forgot the thrill of having a tiny swallow land on his finger for a few moments and gaze into his eyes. His first drawing instruction came from a mail order cartoon class and he recalled his love of those images, “with figures jumping, hopping and smooching. They were having more fun than I was. They lived in a brighter world.”

Golden Burpee, 1973

Golden Burpee, 1973

Mason spent decades on the faculty at the University of Washington, retiring just as I arrived. Chuck Close, surely his most famous student, writes:

Alden Mason was my teacher, my mentor and my friend. He has probably had more impact on my work and my career than any other person. I wouldn’t be who I am today—or as successful—if it weren’t for Alden.

I consider him the greatest painter to come out of the Pacific Northwest—for me even greater than Mark Tobey or Morris Graves. I studied with him from 1960-1962. He was encouraging, inspiring and often tough on me—probably when I needed it. … Luckily, we talked a week before he died and I was able to tell him about the impact he had on me, my life and my work, and that I loved him like a father.

Black Tulip, 1997

Black Tulip, 1997

Several people address Mason’s interest in birds, and his wide-ranging travels—the Mexican coast, the southern highlands of Papua New Guinea, and so on—to see them. Gerald Nordland talks about Mason’s technique:

Images of the exotic birds and characters he encountered entered into his art making. The paint body of these works is fiercely manipulated with a very personal sense of touch; colors are worked directly into one another. … The ground establishes an active but thoroughly consistent environment for the figures, fish animals, birds, and hybrid forms which Mason conjures up with the eloquence of a shaman.

Ambassador to Birdland, 1987

Ambassador to Birdland, 1987

The exhibition closes a week from today. I highly recommend going, if you’re in the Seattle area.

Categories: Art

Felix Hernandez Bobblehead

May 26, 2013 Leave a comment

felixbobblehead

According to this history of bobblehead dolls,

the bobble head doll seemed to be deemed a 20th century relic by the turn of the century, but Major League Baseball again brought back the bobble head doll from pop culture oblivion. The San Francisco Giants presented the Willie Mays bobble head doll on May 9, 1999 to 20,000 visitors to their ballpark celebrating the 40th anniversary of Candlestick Park, which was the last year of the Giants playing at that stadium by the bay. That ushered in a whole new era of bobble head madness. Baseball teams throughout the United States began to offer the bobble head doll as a promotional item for their fans and bobble head dolls were one of the most popular and eagerly sold items in the early days of eBay along with Pez.

Here in Seattle, the first bobblehead giveaway was at a 2001 baseball game and featured then-rookie breakout star Ichiro. In the years since, I’ve never attended a Mariners gave during a bobblehead giveaway night.

Until last night. We weren’t aiming to get a Felix bobblehead. We just wanted to see Felix pitch. When our friend Judy suggested that we join her for a game this weekend, we agreed to choose the game that Felix would start. As a bonus, it was Felix Hernandez Perfect Game Bobblehead night.

I’ve never seen such a crowd two hours before game time. Well, come to think of it, I don’t know when I’ve ever arrived two hours before game time. We did last night, though not because of the bobblehead promotion. (More on our early arrival and special evening in a separate post.) There were huge lines to get in early, since only the first 20,000 people would get their own Felix.

I have no idea why last night was designated as the giveaway night. It boosted attendance, but didn’t relate in any way to when Felix pitched his perfect game, which was last August 15. The box itself is a souvenir. Below is the front side.

felixbox2

And here’s the back side, listing every batter Felix faced in the perfect game and the result.

felixbobblebox

I should explain what a perfect game is. It’s one in which no batter reaches base, whether by a hit, a walk, an error, or being hit by a pitch. Nine innings pitched, three batters an inning, twenty-seven up and twenty-seven down. Well, more innings if needed until the pitcher’s own team finally wins the game. (There’s the famous 1959 game in which Harvey Haddix pitched twelve perfect innings, but his Pirates team didn’t score. He lost it in the thirteenth. That, alas, doesn’t count as a perfect game.)

Perfect games are rare. Years go by without any. Felix’s was the last one, though it was one of three pitched last year. You can see the complete list here.

Anyway, this post isn’t about perfect games. It’s about Felix bobblehead dolls, two of which we are now pleased to own. Other proud owners include Gail’s sister Tamara, husband Jim, and son DJ. It was a big night for the family.

And perhaps last night also marks the start of a collection. I just checked. There’s one more bobblehead night this year, on August 10. It will be Ken Griffey Jr. “Mariners Hall of Fame” Bobblehead Night, in honor of his induction into the team’s hall of fame. Gail, should we get tickets?

Categories: Art, Baseball

Kenwood House 4

May 19, 2013 Leave a comment
The Cherry Gatherers, François Boucher, 1768

The Cherry Gatherers, François Boucher, 1768

The Seattle Art Museum‘s exhibition Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London, about which I have written here and here and here, ended today. Last Tuesday evening, we made one last visit.

Let me quote one more time the description of the exhibition offered by SAM curator Chiyo Ishikawa at the exhibition website:

Within the neoclassical Kenwood House at Hampstead Heath on the outskirts of London, resides a magnificent painting collection known as the Iveagh Bequest. Kenwood is home to an exceptional collection of Old Master paintings, including major works by Gainsborough, Hals, Rembrandt, Reynolds, Romney, Turner, Van Dyck, and many others. The Iveagh Bequest was donated to Great Britain by Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh (1847–1927) and heir to the world’s most successful brewery. Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: Treasures of Kenwood House, London, a selection of approximately 50 masterpieces from the collection, will tour American museums for the first time. Among other treasures, the exhibition provides a rare opportunity to see Rembrandt’s late Portrait of the Artist (ca. 1665), which has never left Europe before.

The Earl of Iveagh’s personal collection was shaped by the tastes of the Belle Époque—Europe’s equivalent to America’s Gilded Age. His purchases reveal a preference for the portraiture, landscape, and seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish paintings that could typically be found in English aristocratic collections. Since the earl was a newcomer to London emigrating from his native Ireland, he may have selected works that would help him fit in with his peers and elevate his social standing.

Kenwood House is a property of English Heritage, described at its website as “the Government’s statutory adviser on the historic environment.” On our first visit, we toured the exhibition with Susan Jenkins, senior curator for English Heritage. Our second tour was led by Chiyo Ishikawa. This time, we had the pleasure of touring the exhibition after hours with SAM’s new museum director, Kim Rorschach.

We hadn’t realized on receiving the tour invitation that eighteenth-century British paintings were the subject of Kim’s doctoral work at Yale some years ago. As she explained when we reached the heart of the exhibition, the portraits of Reynolds and Gainsborough, she spent a year in London during her graduate studies, living near Hampstead Heath and visiting Kenwood House almost weekly. Thus it was a special treat for her, on assuming the directorship last fall, to come just in time for the arrival of some of her old friends.

Kim focused on several of the same paintings that Susan and Chiyo had stopped in front of on the earlier tours, such as Gainsborough’s portrait below (circa 1760) of Mary Countess Howe.

J880100

Like Chiyo, Kim is more partial to Gainsborough than Reynolds, and she especially admires this portrait. She took us through it in some detail.

In the next room, while Kim talked about two Gainsborough landscapes, my eye wandered to the two side-by-side paintings by François Boucher, which I somehow had missed on previous visits. As Kim walked the group to the second Gainsborough, I moved into the space that opened up in front of The Cherry Gatherers and realized that it was really quite wonderful. And different from much else in the exhibition.

What is it about Boucher, and his pupil Jean-Honoré Fragonard, that I resisted years ago? I would go to the Frick Collection and race through the Boucher and Fragonard rooms in my haste to see the Vermeers, Holbein, Manet. Well, can you blame me? But after enough visits, I found myself slowing down, then stopping, and now I love the two rooms. (Click on the room links for virtual tours.)

The Four Seasons: Autumn, 1755, François Boucher, The Frick Collection

The Four Seasons: Autumn, 1755, François Boucher, The Frick Collection

On coming to the end of the Kenwood House tour, Kim took us through the complementary exhibition European Masters: The Treasures of Seattle. The webpage explains that the Kenwood House exhibition provided

the perfect moment to reveal some of the extraordinary collecting of European painting that has been quietly taking place in Seattle over the last 20 years. European Masters: The Treasures of Seattle features 34 paintings, all from local collections, which will share the special exhibition galleries with the 48 paintings from Kenwood House.

I wouldn’t have expected such good paintings to have made there way here to Seattle. Some will ultimately end up at SAM>

Next Kim led us across the street to a small function on the second floor of the Four Seasons Hotel, from which we had a perfect view of SAM’s newest installation, Doug Aitken’s MIRROR. There was an unveiling two months ago, which we were unable to attend. The unveiling webpage explains that MIRROR is

a permanent art installation for the façade of SAM by artist Doug Aitken, that will become a new landmark in downtown Seattle. MIRROR is an urban earthwork that changes in real time in response to the movements and life around it.

At the unveiling, guests will experience an unprecedented performance with synchronized choreography of MIRROR in relation to compositions by minimalist composers Steve Reich and Terry Riley. Mr. Riley will be in Seattle for the performance of his monumental work In C, featuring musicians from the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Stuart Dempster, faculty at the University of Washington School of Music, who performed with Riley for the original debut of In C in 1964.

But here, see for yourself:

Gail and I looked out the window at MIRROR from time to time, chatting with other guests and eating hors d’oeuvres in between. I talked about the Boucher paintings with Kim, who agreed that they stand out from the others that Guinness collected. And another guest told us about concerns the owners of condos in the building to the north of the hotel have about MIRROR. Much as we enjoyed the view out the windows, we don’t live there. Those who do are less excited. Arrangements will have to be made.

That was that. Farewell to Kenwood House.

The next major SAM exhibition, opening late next month, is Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion. Quite a change of pace. I suspect I won’t be writing four posts about it.

Categories: Art, Museums

Kenwood House 3

April 18, 2013 Leave a comment
Rembrandt self portrait, circa 1665

Rembrandt self portrait, circa 1665

I’ve already written twice about Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London, the current exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum: two months ago, when we had to miss the opening because of a conflict, and a couple of weeks later, after we toured the exhibition under the expert guidance of Susan Jenkins, senior curator of English Heritage.

I’m returning to the subject in order to write about another tour we had the opportunity to take, two mornings ago, this time led by Seattle Art Museum’s own Chiyo Ishikawa, the curator for European painting and sculpture. Recall Chiyo’s description of the exhibition from SAM’s website:

Within the neoclassical Kenwood House at Hampstead Heath on the outskirts of London, resides a magnificent painting collection known as the Iveagh Bequest. Kenwood is home to an exceptional collection of Old Master paintings, including major works by Gainsborough, Hals, Rembrandt, Reynolds, Romney, Turner, Van Dyck, and many others. The Iveagh Bequest was donated to Great Britain by Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh (1847–1927) and heir to the world’s most successful brewery. Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: Treasures of Kenwood House, London, a selection of approximately 50 masterpieces from the collection, will tour American museums for the first time. Among other treasures, the exhibition provides a rare opportunity to see Rembrandt’s late Portrait of the Artist (ca. 1665), which has never left Europe before.

The Earl of Iveagh’s personal collection was shaped by the tastes of the Belle Époque—Europe’s equivalent to America’s Gilded Age. His purchases reveal a preference for the portraiture, landscape, and seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish paintings that could typically be found in English aristocratic collections. Since the earl was a newcomer to London emigrating from his native Ireland, he may have selected works that would help him fit in with his peers and elevate his social standing.

Chiyo took a group of about thirty of us from SAM’s lobby up to the exhibition’s opening room, where she reviewed Guinness’s astonishing buying spree and a change in British law that made it possible. (Families with agricultural holdings who previously were not allowed to sell their art were now permitted to do so provided they reinvested the income in farming.) She then took us from room to room, focusing on two or three portraits per room and providing context that complemented what we had learned from Susan Jenkins. For example, Chiyo singled out the Frans Hals portrait of Pieter van den Broecke from 1633 (featured atop my second Kenwood post and reproduced below) as the most unusual in Guinness’s collection, because Hals’ work had only recently been rediscovered and was not widely viewed as a worthy painter.

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Chiyo also spent some time contrasting the work of Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, eventually confessing—in case it wasn’t clear—that she was a big Gainsborough fan, more so than Reynolds. She invited us in particular to look at the two portraits below, which are hung on perpendicular walls within a single room.

First, Reynolds’ 1782 portrait of Mrs. Musters as ‘Hebe’.

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From the webpage:

Hebe is the Greek goddess of youth, the daughter of Zeus and the future wife of Hercules. Here she is on Mount Olympus, portrayed by 24-year-old Sophia Catherine Musters. Mrs. Musters sat 18 times for this portrait by Joshua Reynolds.

Mrs. Musters, however, was unhappily married. She had many male admirers and was unfaithful.

In fact, an earlier portrait by Reynolds was reportedly not given to Mr. Musters but instead to Mrs. Musters’ lover, the Prince of Wales.

So Reynolds compensated for that loss by painting a new portrait for the husband. This time he chose to portray Mrs. Musters as that ultimate beauty: a Greek goddess.

And here is Gainsborough’s 1760 portrait of Mary, Countess Howe.

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From the webpage:

Thomas Gainsborough actually preferred painting landscapes to portraits. But early in his career, his landscapes weren’t selling all that well.

He studied the full-length portraits of aristocracy by Anthony Van Dyck and eventually Gainsborough attracted commissions from fashionable clientele such as Mary, Countess Howe.

Countess Howe was actually an aristocrat by marriage and not by birth. So technically the painting should be called “Lady Howe.” But Mary Hartopp became a countess after her military husband became an earl. The couple was vacationing in Bath when they asked Gainsborough to paint each of them.

Gainsborough went all out painting her in pink silk and ruffles standing outdoors on some estate. She was, of course, posed inside Gainsborough’s studio but that landscape suggests the countess as both aristocrat and a landowner.

The couple had come to Bath because Earl Howe was suffering from gout and needed to recuperate. Gainsborough chose to underscore strength and boldness in Countess Howe. She has her hand on her hip, her toe pointed and her eyes gazing straight ahead.

Putting details of technique aside, Chiyo distilled the issues into the simple question, how would we like to be depicted? She then talked about Gainsborough’s marvelous treatment of Mary’s clothing and the pleasure he took in magically creating effects that one must stand back some distance to appreciate.

Oh, but I’ve skipped ahead. For what would English portrait painting be without Anthony van Dyck and his arrival in London in the 1630s to paint in the court of Charles I? Chiyo talked about this while we focused on van Dyck’s 1634 portrait of Princess Henrietta of Lorraine.

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From the webpage:

If art is an escape, then the full-length portraits hanging throughout Kenwood House sent the 1st Earl of Iveagh back to a more civilized time. The paintings of young wives, mistresses and of course, royalty, underscored elegance, grace and poise. The world was nothing but genteel, as seen in this portrait of Princess Henrietta of Lorraine.

But this princess was dripping in scandal: charges of treason, banishment from France, masquerading as a man in order to escape punishment, and even suspicions of orchestrating attempted murder.

There’s only the slightest hint in this portrait that she has suffered: the thorns on the roses held by a page. Otherwise, all is well. She’s wearing pearls and Flemish bobbin lace; standing in front of gold brocade with a boy at the ready.

Van Dyck has painted a 23-year-old princess who is defiant and not a bit defeated.

Chiyo explained that the seemingly disproportionate size of the head compared to the body in this and other portraits makes sense once we understand that at the time, portraits would be hung high on the wall. (One must have a home with high walls! Some of these paintings wouldn’t fit on our walls no matter how low we hung them, though I’d be happy to take a couple home and give it a try.)

The final room of the exhibition features portraits of children. Here’s Thomas Lawrence’s 1825-27 portrait of Miss Murray.

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And from the webpage:

Louisa Georgina Augusta Anne Murray is between three and five years old. She’s got a lapful of petals. Her stockings are rumpled. Her hair is in ringlets. She’s bright eyed and pink cheeked and a picture of purity.

She was born out of wedlock and her mother’s lover commissioned this portrait. He chose the greatest portrait painter at the time: Sir Thomas Lawrence. The painting might have been a way to underscore the child’s innocence (and obscure her actual social status). The child’s parents were eventually wed.

The artist had been a child prodigy himself, so he knew all about being the center of attention. In a letter to her parents, the painter said he wanted to capture her “fleeting beauty and expression so singular in the child before the change takes places that some few months may bring.”

This portrait of sweetness ended up being one of the most reproduced images of a British child; replicated in Victorian engravings and on biscuit tins.

The exhibition closes May 19. We hope to get back to explore it more closely on our own. If you’re here in Seattle, be sure to go.

Categories: Art, Museums