"The Sick Child"

“The Sick Child”

The National Gallery of Art is many things to those of us lucky to live in or around Washington, DC: a place to soothe the soul, delight the senses, and feed the mind. Last Wednesday my friend Karen alerted me to a gallery talk by David Gariff, a renowned  Munch art historian—part of the 150th Anniversary Tribute to Edvard Munch, Norway’s most well-known visual artist.

Gariff, who is as much a showman as scholar, opened the talk standing just outside the small gallery where a trove of twenty Munch prints was being shown. Gariff unequivocally places Munch in the Expressionist camp, with his very personal, emotional approach to painting and printmaking. A “seminal, transitional” figure between Van Gogh and the German Expressionists, Munch’s output was purely autobiographical: “I don’t paint what I see, I paint what I suffer.” And suffer, he did. He left behind some 300 journals (now at the National Gallery of Art in Oslo) chronicling the events and emotional upheavals of his life. As a child, tuberculosis stalked his family. Both his mother and elder sister, Sophie, succumbed. A brother, Peter, died of pneumonia. Munch himself contracted the disease, but survived.

Portrait, August Strindberg

Portrait, August Strindberg

Inside the gallery, we stop at “The Sick Child,” 1886, print based upon his “breakthrough” painting. (Most of the images seen here were variations on paintings.) As a young man, Munch studied at the Academy at Christiania, and produced conventional student work. In Paris, he painted like Pissarro and Monet—outdoor, sun-washed images. Searching for a way to express his inner life, he abandoned much of what he’d learned in Paris and employed “kinetic, brutal” methods: slathering and scraping the paint. The tortured space around the face of the dying Sophie makes her appear to be “disintegrating,” as indeed she was.

In the 1896 portrait, August Strindberg’s head, so full of ideas and volatile emotions, seems to mushroom up and out. In Berlin, Munch had been caught up in the intellectual circle of the “Nihilistic, misogynistic, and darkly Freudian,” Strindberg.

"The Vampire"

“The Vampire”

Next we see “The Vampire,” 1894. Originally, Munch called the image “Love and Pain,” and it embodies all the femmes fatales that Strindberg could have cooked up: Lilith, Delilah, Salome…and a redhead to boot, calling to mind Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s (see my blog post, “Hair!” Pre-Raphealites invade Washington”) women with ensnaring hair.

"Girl with Heart"

“Girl with Heart”

In “Girl with the Heart,” 1899, things get even darker. Our gal is eating the heart. Gariff tells us that women at this time (1898 – 99) are gaining power—the vote, property ownership, independence from men. In Ibsen’s “The Doll’s House,” the heroine takes her ring off and flings it at her despicable husband. Women’s power is for Munch a notion both frightening and thrilling.



“Madonna” shows us a seductive red-haloed woman, calling up images of jealous rages rather than saintly piety. Gariff points out the “ectoplasmic” background out of which our temptress emerges, like amniotic fluid. Munch, he says, would have been aware both of the genuine advances in science at the time, but also of the pseudo-science of auras. The Madonna’s radiating power—that of creating life itself—threatens to overwhelm. Spermatozoa swim around the frame while a huddling “homunculus” of a fetus crouches in the corner.

"The Young Model"

“The Young Model”

A tender sensibility regarding the female, by contrast, can be seen in “The Young Model,” 1894, depicting the moment a young girl experiences her first menstrual period. The girl’s body hunches forward with a “deer in the headlights” look on her face while a “scary shadow” looms across her—a decidedly non-erotic pose. This piece, as a painting, I believe, was exhibited at Munch’s first showing in Berlin, and as the subject matter of this and other works was considered “incendiary,” the show closed in two days.

"A Kiss"

“A Kiss”

In “A Kiss,” 1898, the entire world fades away as the couple merges and floats before the sweep of the wood grain. Munch, we learn, was a great admirer of Gauguin, particularly his woodcuts. Here we see Munch’s notion of an all-enveloping love, ultimately resulting in total loss of identity. Gariff observed that this was a late version in which all “clap trap” of daily life (the room, furniture, etc.) had been eliminated. Even the figures’ eyes, mouths, and faces are gone; the abbreviated hands are “flippers,” and the merging figures become one big “phallic” shape.

"Self Portrait"

“Self Portrait”

By his “Self Portrait, 1895, Munch was well on his way to being an alcoholic, agoraphobic, paranoid with auditory hallucinations. Munch’s haunted face floats eerily against a black background. The whole, Gariff pointed out, looks like a funerary stele, with Munch’s name spelled out along the top and the skeleton arm across the bottom of the image. By 1904 his mental state had deteriorated to such a point that Munch spent eight months in a Copenhagen clinic detoxing from his alcohol abuse and being treated for his mental illness. After eight months he came out a changed man.

"The Scream"

“The Scream”

“The Scream,” 1895, a pastel version of which recently sold at Sotheby’s (in 12 minutes for $119 million) shows us a real place and time rather than a purely abstract depiction of extreme anxiety. In his diaries of 1893 Munch recounts being out walking with friends at sunset, and he, paralyzed with fear, “… felt a loud unending scream pierce nature.” Gariff speculated that this fugue state might have had to do with the road being close to both the slaughterhouse and the insane asylum where Munch may have visited his sister. The screams of the dying animals and the insane could well be heard from this vantage point. The face of the screamer is very like the “homunculus” seen in the frame of “Madonna.” Gariff, in a fascinating aside, showed a photograph of a mummy—made famous by a photograph by Brassai—that was in the Trocadero Museum in Paris (now the Museum of Man). Munch which surely would have seen this haunting skeletal face and it pops up again and again in his work.

"The Brooch (Eva Mudocci)"

“The Brooch (Eva Mudocci)”

The final image, “The Brooch” (Eva Mudocci), 1903, shows us a lovely woman surrounded by more swirling hair. Munch said the brooch was, “The stone that fell from my heart.” Most art historians had come to the conclusion that Munch, destroyed by earlier affairs (he never married), did not enter into a love affair with Eva. Now comes Janet Weber, a nun, who quietly claims to be one of two children Eva had with Munch. Eva never told him of the children. Janet Weber says she, potentially his sole direct heir, doesn’t want money. There has been no test as yet, but some distant relatives of Munch are still alive and could provide DNA samples. Stay tuned…

Janet Weber

Janet Weber

The show closed July 28, yesterday, so all those wonderful prints are back, or on their way back, minus their frames, to the drawers in the gallery archives. Seeing them was a rate treat.

Wait! There’s more! David Gariff will give two lectures: “The Art of Edvard Munch: Early Work,” on August 18 at 2:00pm, and “The Art of Edvard Munch: Late Work,” August 25 at 2:00pm, both in the East Building Concourse Auditorium. They promise to be rich with Munch lore, biography, and insights into this fascinating artist.




"Plums, Pears, Nuts and a Knife," 1926

“Plums, Pears, Nuts and a Knife,” 1926

I’ve always thought Picasso was over-rated, but never believed anyone agreed with me. After seeing this stunning show at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, I find that I’m not alone. Duncan Phillips, the founder of the Phillips Collection, felt that that Braque had advanced “the amazing innovations of Picasso.” Just so. In 1927 Phillips went on to say, “Braque is one of the few modernists who interests me and I must have a good example by him.” He paid $2,000 for “Plums, Pears, Nuts and a Knife,” 1926, the first Braque painting to be acquired by a U.S. museum.

Mariah Boone, the lead character in my novel, Still Life with Aftershocks, was heard to say, “Yes, a still life must be still, but it doesn’t have to be dead.” All throughout this show, I felt Mariah was looking over my shoulder enjoying the life pulsing from these works. Occasionally we high-fived each other when no one was looking.

"The Round Table," 1929

“The Round Table,” 1929

The show’s curator has assembled some 40 works from Braque’s “overlooked” mid-career and hung them in such a way that the viewer can see his evolution from the 1920s—“intimate and classical”—to the 1930s—“bold and ornamental—to the 1940s—“personal, daily life.” Many of these works are owned by the Phillips Collection and others have been drawn from varied institutions and private collections in the U.S and Europe.

“The Round Table,” 1929, is the first work in which Braque used sand, along with oil and charcoal, aiming for a tactile, layered effect. Among the many joys of this show are the profusion of quotes from Braque: “The guiding light of Cubism was the materialization of this new space which I could feel. So I began to paint mainly still lifes … another way of conveying the desire which I’ve always had to touch things.”

"Still Life with Grapes and Clarinet," 1927

“Still Life with Grapes and Clarinet,” 1927

Purchased in 1929 as a mate to “Plums, Pears, Nuts and a Knife,” “Still Life with Grapes and Clarinet,” 1927, brings together, almost as a collage, the images that Braque continued to paint over and over for decades. In this way, the show reminded me of another superb one the Phillips mounted some years ago: Giorgio Morandi lovingly, meticulously, rendered the same objects in a seemingly infinite number of combinations, light, and perspectives.

"The Napkin Ring," 1929

“The Napkin Ring,” 1929

In the second room a table sitting among the paintings tells a fascinating story. “The Napkin Ring,” an inlaid marble floor panel, one of four, was based upon four paintings made in 1929 for the Paris apartment of Alexandre P. Rosenberg. When the Germans confiscated the building in 1940, it was converted into the “Institute for the study of Jewish Questions.” Somehow the floor panels survived. The Rosenberg family (the full story needs to be told) managed to retrieve them in 1949 and had them made into tables. Now, the original painted panels are at the Cleveland Museum of Art, gifts from the Rosenberg family. The craftsman who made the table received direction from Braque and managed to reproduce the floating knife, filmy table cloth, and vivid lemon in stone.

"Still Life on Red Table Cloth," 1934

“Still Life on Red Table Cloth,” 1934

In the next room are paintings from Braque’s major exhibitions in Europe and the U.S. Carl Einstein, a friend and critic said of the 1933 Kunsthalle show in Basel, Switzerland, “Braque tirelessly varies the same motif and . . . heightens it . . . slowly and patiently he raises his aims.” You can see this process at work in “Still Life on Red Table Cloth,” (1934) and “Still Life with Guitar,” (1937 – 38). “The viewer retraces the same path as the artist,” Braque said, “and as it is the path that counts more than the thing, one is more interested by the journey.”

"Still Life with Guitar (Red Curtains)," 1937 - 38

“Still Life with Guitar (Red Curtains),” 1937 – 38

At around this time he also said, “In painting, the contrast between textures plays as big a role as the contrast between colors,” and, “It is all the same to me whether a form represents different things to different people, or many things at the same time.” This statement seemed particularly apt in referring to  “Glass with Fruit Dish,” 1931. Very abstract, this painting was inspired by Greek vase paintings that Braque saw in the Louvre. In it he carved thin lines in the black paint. “Objects do not exist for me except in so far as a rapport exists between them … it is the in- between that is the real subject of my pictures,” Braque said. Indeed, you can dwell in the in-between for hours in this show.

"Still Life with Pink Fish," 1937

“Still Life with Pink Fish,” 1937

“Still Life with Pink Fish,” 1937, with its wonderful acid green, was shown in Braque’s first U.S. retrospective, along with “Le Gueridon,” 1935, a long panel featuring the same wild wallpaper as in “Pink Fish.” This striking motif appears again and again in subsequent paintings to marvelous effect.

"Vase, Palette, and Mandolin," 1936

“Vase, Palette, and Mandolin,” 1936

At around “Vase, Palette, and Mandolin,” 1936, Braque’s epigrams on his art became hard to fathom and quite a lively discussion sprang up between several museum-goers, me, and the young staffer whose job it was to stand around and make sure no one touched any of those seductive surfaces. Braque said, “…the object is a dead thing. It comes to life when it is activated.”  What did he mean by “activated”? Brought to life by the artist’s enlivening vision? Further on, he says, “A still life is no longer a still life when it is no longer within arm’s reach.” One woman exclaimed, “That makes no sense at all!” We grappled with its meaning but didn’t have much success. It was a little like a Bob Dylan lyric which you intuit to be true, even if you couldn’t possibly say why.

"Mandolin and Score (The Banjo)," 1941

“Mandolin and Score (The Banjo),” 1941

“Mandolin and Score (The Banjo), 1941, is a knockout with its graphic persimmon tablecloth and wildly undulating banjo strap. “Studio with Black Vase,” 1938, is familiar from visits to Washington’s Kreeger Museum. This is the first appearance of a skull in Braque’s work, but he doesn’t use the skull as a reminder of human mortality as others have done. For him, “A skull is a beautiful structure and it is used to waiting.” Perfect subject matter for a maker of still life.

"Wash Stand before the Window," 1942

“Wash Stand before the Window,” 1942

“Wash Stand before the Window,” 1942, frames the open sky in a way that was eerily familiar. What did it remind me of? Suddenly it came to me, and after soaking up as much of Braque as I could for one visit, I went downstairs to find Pierre Bonnard’s “The Open Window,” 1921, one of my favorite paintings. Could Braque have seen it? One can only speculate and feel fortunate to be able to see both of them in this jewel of a gallery.

"The Open Window," by Pierre Bonnard, 1921

“The Open Window,” by Pierre Bonnard, 1921

The show, which was organized with the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis, will be on view until September 1, 2013.









Kirov Academy of Ballet of Washington performance in honor of Ballets Russes

Kirov Academy of Ballet of Washington performance in honor of the Ballets Russes

As an accompaniment to this fabulous show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, students from the Kirov Academy of Ballet of Washington, DC performed excerpts from L’apres-midi d’un Faune (Afternoon of a Faun) and The Firebird on July 13, 2013 in two standing-room-only performances on the mezzanine just outside of the gallery where show is mounted.


The performance was introduced by Martin Fredmann, artistic director of the Kirov Academy who was justifiably proud of the young dancers. Offering a high school diploma in addition to dance studies, the Academy places an astonishing 75 percent of its graduates in major dance companies around the world. After this performance, it’s easy to see why.



Nymphs from L’apres-midi d’un Faune (rehearsal photograph)

Fredmann told the audience that Claude Debussy, in creating music for L’apres-midi d’un Faune, was inspired by the French symbolist poet, Stefan Mallarme’s poem of the same name, while Nijinsky took the naturalistic choreography of Michel Fokine in a new direction, devising “archaic” movements recalling the stylized front-facing figures on ancient amphorae. Fredmann invited the audience, lacking a curtain, to close their eyes and “await the magic.” As the music began, there was young Emerson Moose atop a large rock apparently sunning himself until the gauzily-clad nymphs appear. A beguiling Faune dressed in skin-colored leotard and tights, Moose was a lithe sprite to the nymphs’ more reserved progress across the stage. Bailey Anglin, as the lead nymph, carried a raspberry scarf as enticement to the Faune. Once the nymphs have vanished and our Faune is left only with the scarf, he mounted his rock with deliberate steps, lay face-down upon it, and turned to extend one leg in an insouciant way, as if to say, look at my beautiful leg. I alone am enough!


Kirov6During the interval between performances, Fredmann talked about Natalia Gonchorova’s complete redesign of the Firebird set (see my earlier blog post https://ellenkwatnoski.com/2013/07/07/lush-life-part-ii-when-art-danced-with-music-diaghilev-and-the-ballets-russes-1909-1929/) with the vast onion-dome backcloth and brilliant costumes. Her version was the standard until Marc Chagall did new sets for a 1949 performance with Maria Tallchief as Firebird. Based upon a Russian folk-tale, The Firebird tells the tale of a prince who climbs a wall and finds an enchanted garden owned by an evil wizard. Golden apples hang from the trees, but they pale in comparison to a half-woman, half-bird creature—the magical Firebird he sees there. Dashing Prince Ivan, again danced beautifully by Emerson Moose, spies the exquisite Firebird and hides behind a tree to watch her flit and preen and enjoy being a fiery bird-girl. But, alas, watching is not enough and he must capture the bird, danced by fifteen-year-old Riho Sakamoto. With costumes worthy of Leon Bakst, these lovely dancers made the old folktale come to life without sets, lights, or onion domes. Sakamoto is an astonishingly mature dancer, delicate yet strong, with her bird-like head movements, gorgeous extensions and beautiful line. Her struggle with the Prince was complex dramatically—one had the sense she enjoyed being caught, even as she fights against capture. Perhaps this notion is confirmed when she plucks an enchanted feather from her plumage and bestows it upon the dazzled Prince. Sakamoto and Moose enjoyed a standing ovation from the appreciative audience, both on the mezzanine and literally hanging from the stairwells. Balletomanes: remember those names: Riho Sakamoto and Emerson Moose!


Kirov4If you come to the August 11, 2013 performance by Dana Tae Soon Burgess you’ll see original choreography premiered in a suite of dances “inspired by the spirit of the Ballets Russes.” Come early! There will be two performances at 1:30 and 3:30, best seen from the front rows or standing in the back of the performance space. The riser is low enough to provide a limited line of sight much further back than the third or fourth row.

Learn more about Dana Tae Soon Burgess: http://www.dtsbco.com/home/home.html

There’s still time to see the show: http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/exhibitions/2013/diaghilev.html

On view until October 6, 2013, the exhibition is well worth seeing, with or without a dance performance accompanying it. Bravo to the National Gallery, the Victoria & Albert Museum (owners of the costume collection), and now, the Kirov Academy of Ballet of Washington, DC. https://kirovacademydc.org/












"A Mask," by Vasiliev Nijinsky,

“A Mask,” by Vasiliev Nijinsky

Readers of this blog may remember that my first posting about this remarkable show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, ended on a poignant note: that Vasiliev Nijinsky had been institutionalized for schizophrenia, never to dance again. Pondering this sad loss, you leave his tortured drawing, “A Mask,” and walk up the winding staircase to the next level of “When Art Danced with Music.”

Backcloth for "Firebird" by Natalia Goncharova, 1914

Backcloth for “Firebird” by Natalia Goncharova, 1914

Natalia Goncharova’s 1926 painted backcloth for the coronation scene in “Firebird” is breathtaking: hundreds of onion domes glitter on this enormous cloth (51.5 by 35.5 feet, one of the largest items ever displayed here). Under a cobalt blue sky, the domes evoke a walled town in a mythic Russia. Arrayed on the walls are painted versions of the coronation scene backcloth as well as a 1914 curtain design for “The Golden Cockerel,” a riot of color celebrating Russian folklore.

Set Design, "The Golden Cockerel, " by Natalia Goncharova, 1914

Set Design, “The Golden Cockerel, ” by Natalia Goncharova, 1914

Playing on a huge screen facing the backcloth is a film of a 2010 reinterpretation of  “The Firebird” (choreographed by Michel Fokine and with Igor Stravinsky’s score) by the English National Ballet. Dramatically silhouetted black and white images of a dancer move across the musical score, copies of the original programs, and a film of Karsavina as the first Firebird, among other images. While it’s wonderful to hear the music in the presence of the evocative backcloth, I would have preferred seeing a more traditional Firebird.

Costume design for the Soldier, from "The Tale of the Buffoon,"

Costume design for the Soldier, from “The Tale of the Buffoon,”

Also featured in the first room is a little-known 1915 ballet, “The Tale of the Buffoon,” based on a Russian folktale. Mikhail Larionov designed the cubist-inspired costumes. My favorite was the costume for the Soldier with his wrap-around beard and jaunty hat.

Narrated by Tilda Swinton, the documentary film accompanying the show explores Diaghilev’s early life in a prosperous family made wealthy by a flourishing Vodka business. Poets, play writes, and other notables made regular appearances at the family’s salons, perhaps seeding the notion in young Diaghilev’s mind that collaboration among the arts is an art form in itself.

Costume for "Cleopatra," by Robert and Sonia Delaunay, 1918

Costume for “Cleopatra,” by Robert and Sonia Delaunay, 1918

In the next room, you’ll see Robert Delaunay’s 1918 set design for “Cleopatra” in brilliant water color and gouache, plus costume designs by Robert and Sonia Delaunay, complete with bulls eye bustier.

Costume for the "Manager," from the ballet, "Parade," by Pablo Picasso, 1917

Costume for the “Manager,” from the ballet, “Parade,” by Pablo Picasso, 1917

The ballet “Parade,” 1917, resulted when Serge Diaghilev reportedly commanded the young Jean Cocteau to “Astonish me!” With scenario by Jean Cocteau, music by Erik Satie, set, curtain and costumes by Pablo Picasso, and choreographed by Leonide Massine, “Parade” is meant to recreate popular music hall entertainment of the time, but with added modern innovations: the skyscraper, airplane, and typewriter. Completely new, “Parade” not only astonished Diaghilev, but outraged audiences at the 1917 premier. Here we see the “Chinese Conjurer,” a dancing horse, a “young American girl,” and the two marvelous “Managers,” in an excerpt of a 2007 performance by Europa Danse. Take a look: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Chq1Ty0nyE

"The Russian Ballet," by Max Weber, 1916

“The Russian Ballet,” by Max Weber, 1916

“The Russian Ballet,” a standout oil painting by Max Weber (1916), is pure color, and movement. Other paintings include “Harlequin (Portrait of Leonide Massine), 1917, and “Mme. Picasso (Portrait of the Artist’s wife, Olga Khoklova”) both by Pablo Picasso. Khoklova danced in the premier of “Parade,” and left the Ballets Russes to become Picasso’s first wife.

Costume for a "Mourner," by Henri Matisse, from the ballet, "Song of the Nightingale," 1925

Costume for a “Mourner,” by Henri Matisse, from the ballet, “Song of the Nightingale,” 1925

One day, we learn in the film, Stravinsky and Diaghilev appeared, unannounced, at Henri Matisse’s home. They told him that he simply must design the costumes for the new ballet based upon the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale, “Song of the Nightingale.” He complied, saying he wanted his eye-catching abstract patterns for the fanciful “Mandarin” court to be “like a painting, but with colors that move.” You can see that movement in a film excerpt by Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, 2003.

Mikhail Baryshnikov as "The Prodigal Son," 1978

Mikhail Baryshnikov as “The Prodigal Son,” 1978

With choreography by George Balanchine, music by Sergei Prokofiev, and fauvist set designs by Georges Rouault, “The Prodigal Son,” 1929, is reproduced in a film of a 1978 New York City Ballet performance featuring an astonishing Mikhail Baryshnikov. A heartbreaker with his 70s shag haircut, Baryshnikov’s formidable dancing prowess is matched by his fine acting.

Costumes by Giorgio de Chirico for the ballet, "The Ball," 1929

Costumes by Giorgio de Chirico for the ballet, “The Ball,” 1929

Giorgio de Chirico conceived of the costumes and set design for “The Ball,” 1929 surrealist concoction featuring architectural salvage—columns, bricks, pediments—as bowtie and ball gown. Even the walls of the gallery space have been painted to represent brick.

Poster for the "Blue Train" to Monte Carlo, by Roger Broders, 1929

Poster for the “Blue Train” to Monte Carlo, by Roger Broders, 1929

Bronislava Nijinska choreographed the charming 1924 “Blue Train” to music by Darius Milhaud, with libretto by Jean Cocteau and costumes by Coco Chanel. The so-called Blue Train took the young and fabulous to Monte Carlo, seen here in a stunning 1929 poster by Roger Broders. The Ballets Russes performed in Monte Carlo every year, perhaps sunning themselves in knitted wool

Bathing Costumes for the ballet, "The Blue Train," by Coco Chanel, 1924

Bathing Costumes for the ballet, “The Blue Train,” by Coco Chanel, 1924

bathing costumes similar to Chanel’s “Costume for a Gigolo” and “La Pelouse.” Restaged in 1994 by Irina Nijinska (Bronislava’s daughter) and Frank Reis for the Paris Opera Ballet, this fresh breath of sea air is utterly modern. Fittingly, the front cloth for the ballet is an exuberant beach scene after Pablo Picasso’s 1922 “Deux Femmes Courant Sur La Plage.” Never has the beach seemed more inviting!

Front cloth for the ballet, "The Blue Train," after Picasso, 1924

Front cloth for the ballet, “The Blue Train,” after Picasso, 1924

And never, it seems now, will there ever be an era as rich in artistic collaboration than Diaghilev’s sadly short, but immensely rich time as impresario extraordinaire: 1909 – 1929. He died of complications of diabetes in 1929 in Venice, Italy at only 57. Without his flair and daring, the Ballets Russes never again achieved the brilliant successes of the Diaghilev years.

Sergei Diaghilev      1872 - 1929

Sergei Diaghilev
1872 – 1929

On view until September 2, 2013, these dance performances will accompany the show:

Kirov Academy of Ballet – July 13, 1:00 and 3:30

Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company – August 11, 1:00 and 3:30







Hobby Horse, 1965, by Gloria Caranica

Down the hill from the Philadelphia Museum of Art is the companion Perelman Building, a 1927 Art Deco gem with light pouring into its cathedral-like entrance, expansive galleries, and an inviting café with outdoor dining space. Take the shuttle bus (walking across the busy boulevards in this part of town can be hazardous to your health), to see “Design for the Modern Child,” a fresh look at children’s design: furniture, wallpaper, dishes and eating utensils, toys, books, and—of course—video games.

Often the most “modern” design seen here is 50 or 60 years in the past, as with Gloria Caranica’s 1965 Hobby Horse, designed for Creative Playthings in Princeton, NJ. This traditional toy has been reduced to its most basic elements, with all but the fun removed.

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Child’s Chair, 1957, by Kristian Vedel

Many items have more than one use, encouraging the child to engage with the piece in a creative, fluid manner. A 1957 beech plywood laminate “chair” can be used as a table, rocker, nightstand or display shelf by fitting the removable panels into five different pairs of slots. Designed by Kristian Vedel, a Dane, this morphing piece of furniture is still in production and can be found at Module R for a mere $560.00. Or maybe on e-Bay? Another classic, the polyethylene stacking chair by Marco Zanuso and Richard Sapper, 1961, can also be used as a construction toy, and is the signature image for the show.


Giant House of Cards, 1953, by Ray and Charles Eames

Equally simple and appealing is the giant house of cards by American mid-century design icons, Ray and Charles Eames, 1953. Also still in production, these cards can be put together to form 3-D shapes to suit any child’s fancy. The striking designs on the cards are meant to “inform” and “inspire” the child, but the average parent or grandparent might find that a bit far-fetched. Hey, they’re just fun to play with! (A new version is available on Amazon.com for $55.00)

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Bo Boo Fabric, 1975, by Katsuji Wakisaka

The Bo Boo fabric, printed cotton by Katsuji Wakisaka is as charming as it was in 1975 and is also still sold in Merimekko stores and on-line.

Pursuit Plane, 1941, by Viktor Schrecangost

Pursuit Plane, 1941, by Viktor Schrecangost

Who can resist the “Pursuit Plane,” 1941, hanging from the ceiling? Made of metal, rubber, and plastic, it was designed by Viktor Schroechengost (American), and, actually a pedal car, it was destined to remain solidly on the ground.

“Sixteen Animals,” by Enzo Mari (Italian) in 1957, are beautiful standing alone, but they also cleverly join together to form a single rectangle. Merging and joining seems to be a theme here, as with the “Klick” desk, a more recent design (2007) made of birch plywood in which the chair and desk form a cube when fitted together.


Wardrobes, 2004, by Marie-Louise Groot

Of the newer designs, a stand-out was the 2004 wardrobes designed by Marie-Louise Groot to echo the shapes of the townhouses in her native Holland. I am in love with these things and wish there was some way to shoe-horn them into my house, or my grandson Sam’s room, but alas…no room for more houses. . .


Sibis Max Push Car and Lorette Trailer, 2004, by Wolfgang Sirch

Looking like soul-mates to toys from a much earlier era, the Sibis Max Push Car and its adorable trailer, were designed in 2004. Made from ash, rubber, and plastic, by Wolfgang Sirch (German). Both can be found at the Cooper Hewitt Store. Not cheap, admittedly, but then you don’t need to buy gas.

Wolfgang Sirch makes another appearance along with Chris Bitzer (also German), with the low-slung and ultra-modern “Villa Sibi” dollhouse (complete with garden, pool house and lap pool,

"Villa Sibi," 2004, Dollhouse by Wolfgang Sirch and Christopher Bitzer

“Villa Sibi,” 2004, Dollhouse by Wolfgang Sirch and Christopher Bitzer

2004. Made from birch, Plexiglas and beach wood (for the ultra-simple furniture—often nothing more than a suggestion of a bed, a simple slab with a bolster made of round doweling), this elegant yet austere abode may or may not inspire a young child’s fancy.


Dollhouse, 2009, by Linda Sternberg (after Arne Jacobsen)

Another creation seemingly aimed to please adults is Linda Sternberg’s (Danish) dollhouse, 2009, made from wood, metal, after Arne Jacobsen’s house. This ultra-minimal, Bauhaus-y construction is filled with—what else?—Jacobsen’s “egg” and “tulip” chairs. Aside from a couple of abstract designs on the dining room walls, much is left to the child’s imagination, or the wink and nod of the die-hard mid-century buff.

As you’re wandering among these delightful objects, the clanging, beeping, twanging, and boinking of the electronic games causes you to finally investigate. Running in succession are Tetris, Super Mario Brothers (I flashed back to my step-daughter Laura on our sofa with her—was it a Game Boy?) and, the latest entry, Angry Birds. Up until I saw the very irritable birds (various species, various guises) smashing and crashing into brick walls, turrets—every imaginable construction—to unseat and presumably vanquish some hapless pigs, I had only seen my grandson Sam’s inert plastic toy birds.


Birds, 1959, by Kristian Vedel

Ho hum, unless I’m missing something, I’ll stick to their charming 1959 doppelgangers. “Birds,” made of oak and designed by Kristian Vedel. They are not angry. At all. (Available for purchase in the Perelman’s gift store, or at canoe.com for $49.00 apiece.)

On view until October 14, 2013. http://www.contemporaryart.com/philadelphia-museum-of-art/design-for-the-modern-child/