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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). Two Men in Discussion, 1641. Quill and reed pen in brown ink, with corrections in white gouache, 9 x 7.25 inches. (c) The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London.
Continuing (& concluding) the saga I began earlier, I give you four more social/artistic events on the Manhattan museum circuit, 2 here & 2 more in a second installment (below) The week beginning Monday October 1 had a museum media preview four days running, Monday through Thursday. In fact, there were two on Monday, but I didn’t know about the second, so caught up with the show itself after it had opened, on Thursday (and have already reported on it, some weeks ago -- it was the Bernini bozzetti) I hadn’t known about the one on Wednesday until it was mentioned at the media preview that I did attend on Monday, so I had to get to it late (having long previously scheduled a dentist’s appointment for that morning).


The Garden Court at The Frick Collection, with its profusion of plant life and central fountain, is a lovely starting point for the media previews of this museum. One may help oneself to a breakfast buffet (on Monday, October 1, consisting of coffee, tea, orange juice and/or scones), then settle down on the benches surrounding the fountain, or at one of the several little round tables so thoughtfully set up, while perusing the printed materials supplied to reviewers in their press kits.

These, at the Frick, include not only the extensive press release, but also the full text of the wall text, the complete checklist, with all the info included the labels, and small reproductions of the many works available for reproduction with reviews (in this case, nearly a third of the total in the show).

Presiding over this peaceful scene on October 1 was Heidi Rosenau, Head of Media Relations & Marketing for the Frick, assisted by Alexis Light, Manager of Media Relations & Marketing, plus several other associates.

Rosenau collects vintage clothes, and has amassed such a collection that her photograph has even occasionally appeared in the Style section of the Sunday New York Times. For this media preview, she was looking very soignée in a deep brownish burgundy embroidered rayon dress from 1939, complimented by lime green suede pumps from the same era.

But the show, naturally, was the important thing. It’s “Mantegna to Matisse: Master Drawings from the Courtauld Gallery,” a stellar group of 78 works on paper from the Renaissance to the early 20th century in a variety of media (through January 27; it has already appeared at the Courtauld). This show was co-organized by Colin Bailey, the Frick’s chief curator, and Stephanie Buck, the Courtauld’s curator of drawings; both were on hand at the media preview to offer capsule tours through the show.


Contrary to the usual practice, Bailey began the tour on the main floor level, before descending to the earlier part of the show in the ground floor below. He explained that he wanted to be sure we didn’t overlooked the most recent part of the show, hung in the mini-gallery on the main floor, and distinguished by a large & splendid graphite and watercolor late Cézanne still life (ca. 1904-06), as well as a powerful Seurat Conté crayon study (ca. 1879-81) of a female nude, unexpectedly sensuous and academic.

Bailey delivered the opening statement. Then we went downstairs, Buck led us around the work from the 15th through the 17th centuries, on view in the south gallery there, and Bailey took over again for the 18th and early 19th century work in the north gallery. Between them, they managed to apprise us of most of the big names in the show, and also to give us a little background on the Courtauld, and on the definitions of “drawing.”

The Courtauld Gallery is part of the Courtauld Institute of Art, England’s best graduate school of art history (and arguably the best anywhere). Both the school and the art collection got their start in 1932, at about the same time that the Frick got going, which leads the good folk at the Frick to think of the two as sister institutions.

The Courtauld had three founders—Samuel Courtauld, a textile manufacturer, Sir Robert Witt, a lawyer, and Viscount Lee of Fareham, a politician and diplomat. All were passionate about art, and anxious to see that its study, largely confined in the UK to genteel “appreciation,” be elevated into a scholarly discipline.

Samuel Courtauld supplied the lion’s share of the backing, and gave his house on Portman Square to become its first home (since 1989, it has been housed in Somerset House, formerly best-known as the home of the Royal Academy of Art).

One of Samuel’s prime advisors was the art critic Roger Fry, distinguished advocate for early modernism. This helps explain why the strength of the gallery’s permanent collection of paintings is in impressionism and post-impressionism. But, as this exhibition makes clear, the Courtauld is and has long been passionately interested in art of more than just the late 19th century, and in drawings of all kinds.


This show has great range-- for “drawings” include not only sketches and studies that precede the creation of a finished painting or sculpture, but also drawings created for their own sake (and often elaborately worked up), to say nothing of detailed drawings made to be translated into a graphic medium like an engraving or etching, and finally, drawings made after a finished painting or even a piece of sculpture, to further the education of a younger artist or as an aide-mémoire for an established one.

A good example of the last-named type of drawing is a muscular black- and white-chalk study (ca. 1608-10)by Rubens of the profiled head of the Farnese Hercules, a classical statue that seems to have appealed to the Flemish artist. One preliminary study that also got me in the gut was the black, white and red chalk sketch entitled “Satyr Pouring Wine” (1717) by Watteau. It’s only a few brief scratches on the paper, but what life this brilliant draftsman managed to instill in it!

For a stunning example of a finished drawing, worked up into a work of art in itself, I give you “The Dream” (ca. 1533) by Michelangelo, in which a winged figure in midair blows a horn into the ear of an almost obscenely beautiful young male nude, surrounded by strange little talking heads that are (it says on the label) “worldly vices.”

A drawing made as a design for an engraving is the detailed pen-and-brown ink saga by Bruegel of a “Kermis at Hoboken” (1559), with dozens (if not hundreds) of Bruegel’s strangely innocent, stocky little peasants engaging in celebration (drinking, dancing, and according to the label even relieving themselves, though I couldn’t find the last-named).

Another artist who raised innocence to high art is Rembrandt, best exemplified in this show by a small brown ink drawing of “Two Men in Discussion” (1641). The picture portrays the men in exotic costumes—possibly as worn by foreign merchants in 17th century Amsterdam, and possibly as posed in fantasy costumes that Rembrandt is sometimes said to have kept for his models.

In the back gallery, there are more images of female models than I really wanted to see (though they are by Ingres and Delacroix, they come in addition to the female models of Seurat and Matisse plus a Picasso female model, all upstairs). But there are also many delectable landscapes, with samples by Constable and Turner, plus (in the hallway between north & south galleries) a hauntingly cloudlike Claude of Lorraine.


One thought I had, as I compared the drawings that stood out for me with those singled for attention by Buck & Bailey, is that every group show has to combine famous names with eminent examples of the type of work under consideration. The two do not always coincide. The famous names are (& have always been) far more desirable, so even a minor example of their work may be (or have been) more sought-after, and correspondingly expensive, than the most outstanding work by a lesser-known artist.

Hence, in this show, the very small & cursory Leonardo, the large but messy Degas, and the Classical Period Picasso are in my opinion not topnotch examples of those artists’ talents. On the other hand, some of the lesser-known artists shine. “Pearl Diving” by Johannes Stradanus (1523-1605) is highly intriguing. Exquisitely rendered is “Head of a Boy and of an Old Man,” by Giovanni Battista Piazzetta (1683-1754).

Remarkable contrasts are achieved by Francis Towne (1739-1816) in “The Forest of Radnor, with the Black Mountains in the Distance,” and my notes read “Remarkable, period” in relation to the “Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome.” This complex study of an ancient but well-preserved monument was done in grisaille with watercolor and grey ink washes over graphite by John Robert Cozens (1752-1799).

It’s not surprising that British artists like Towne and Cozens should be so well represented by what is, after all, a British collection. However, many other top-quality works may also be seen here. Among the other big names who justify their inclusion I’d cite Géricault, Goya, Daumier, Canaletto, and Dürer. And you may well find others that capture your fancy, among better-known and lesser-known names.


On October 2, I hied me to The Museum of Modern Art, where a joint media preview was being held for two lesser exhibitions, “Alina Szapocznikow: Sculpture Undone, 1955-1972” (through January 28) and “New Photography 2012: Michele Abeles, Birdhead, Anne Collier, Zoe Crosher, Shirana Shahbazi” (through February 4).

The “press kits” in both cases consisted of loose pages of paper, held together by a clamp, and including the press release for the show, an illustrated checklist, and additional literature on the artists. In the case of the six photographers (“Birdhead” is a team of two), the additional literature consisted of what looked like wall texts, while with Szapocznikow, we were given reprints of two chapters from the catalogue.


Perusing the literature on the photographers,which included reproductions, I decided I could skip that show. The Polish woman with the jawbreaking name was the one I’d come to see, anyhow, and was pleased to have my name checked off from the museum’s list at the entrance to the galleries by a young Brit, Charlotte Brooks. I’d been alerted via email that she might be there by her boyfriend, a British scholar named Max Proctor, with whom I had some trans-Atlantic email exchanges a few years ago, when he was writing a dissertation for Manchester University on “Swinging London: Myth or Reality?”

He has told me a couple of times that he’ll send me a CD of what he’s written, and I hope some day he will. He was the second UK scholar who contacted me in connection with writing an academic paper on Swinging London. The first was Rosanna Benson, who did her undergraduate dissertation in 2011 at York University on “A Permissive Society? Swinging London and Guides to the Capital, 1965-72.” She sent me a CD of her essay, accompanied by some sinfully calorific shortbread biscuits (like Lorna Doones, but thicker & richer). Yum.

I asked Ms. Brooks how “Szapocznikow” is pronounced. The answer (according not only to Ms. Brooks but also google) seemed to be “Shah-potch-NEE-koff.” I waited for confirmation of this during the “remarks” by Glenn Lowry, director of the museum, and Connie Butler, MOMA curator of drawings, who had organized the show for MoMA, but they finessed the matter by referring to the artist as “Alina” throughout.

A number of folding chairs were set up for the “remarks” in one of the galleries, and, having been alerted to the fact that the remarks were about to begin by a singularly kind member of the Communications staff, I was fortunate enough to snare one of those seats, but no food or drink were anywhere in sight (I don't know whether this was because MoMA is such Big Business they don’t have to trouble with that, or simply because these were two lesser exhibitions).

Lowry, Butler & the curator for the photography show sat on tall, uncomfortable-looking stools, though all three had their legs crossed, & this conveyed an impression of ease. Lowry was a symphony of masculine style in a pale brown suit with inconspicuous tie (sorry I don’t know enough terminology of haberdashery to be able to describe his clothes in more detail). Butler had a pajama-style black trouser suit (the pajama style having been featured recently in the NYTmes).

The curator of the photography show was tres chic in a magenta shirtwaist dress with a pleated front. Both ladies were wearing ultra-fashionable stiletto-heeled shoes with relatively heavy, semi-bootlike uppers, embellished with gold-colored buckles and/or straps. Faintly, this style conveys to me the word, bondage, and, a little louder, the word, dominatrix.


Lowry began the session by asking Butler, why a show about Alina now? She replied, because of the increased interest in her in recent years, especially among “the young.” I sighed when I heard this, as it seems I’ve heard it a hundred times before, usually if not always employed to justify lesser, Duchamp-descended art.

My own feeling is that this must be the umpteeth attempt to recycle the ever-popular decade of the 60s, but that we must by now be scraping the bottom of the barrel. That the show was all about the 60s was evident to me from its inception, which featured a large-screen but black-and-white movie clip showing the artist, with a very 60s hairdo, among her art.

Across from the screen, to the righthand side of the entrance, was a moderately high, narrow & dingy-looking sculpture of a female figure, with big boobs but no arms, and the rest of her hourglass figure wrapped in bands reminiscent of a mummy’s. At the top was a head with three faces, and flower-like red shapes of female lips on stalks coming out of the head. At the bottom large feet protruded from the mummy’s wrappings, to rest on a pedestal reminiscent of women’s breasts. Its title was “Bouquet II” (1966).

Don’t tell me why, but I immediately associated this dessicated image with the big, cheerful, brightly-colored, bouncing paper-mache “Nanas” of Niki de Saint Phalle. Those “Nanas” to me epitomize the women’s contribution to the Nouveau Réalisme which was the Parisian equivalent to the American figurative art of the 60s, and which, although its official manifesto wasn’t signed until after the outbreak of pop in the US, stylistically falls half-way between the neo-dada of Rauschenberg & Johns and the out-and-out pop of Lichtenstein & Warhol—better integrated than neo-dada but less colorful than pop.

Szapocznikow struck me almost immediately as the Polish answer to Saint Phalle, nor should this be too surprising. It turns out that, after beginning a successful career as a social realist sculptor in Poland in the 1950s, she then moved to Paris in the early 60s and became part of the livelier but also (to Communist eyes) more decadent art scene there.

Her own Parisian art, with occasional forays into bright plastic color but consisting more often of dark & depressing, surrealistic sculptures of body parts and tumors (made from various synthetic materials) was uglier and more sinister than Saint Phalle’s. This may have been both because of the depressing Eastern European society from which she came, and because of her own painful life experience--including a childhood in Nazi concentration camps, tuberculosis in her early womanhood, and the breast cancer which would kill her in 1972 at the age of only 47.

I only wish that I could say that her desire to share her miseries with her audience led to better art but in all honesty, I can’t, so I will refrain from further discussion of the rest of the exhibition. I like to think that I’ve given enough information so that anybody who reads this will know whether s/he wants to see this show – or not.
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