"The Dancing Couple," 1663, by Jan Steen

“The Dancing Couple,” 1663, by Jan Steen

Right up my alley – writing and art, in the same place: A two and a half hour “salon” led by local playwright Mary Hall Surface in which we find a story in Jan Steen’s 1663 genre painting “The Dancing Couple.”

The group gathered last Saturday in gallery 46 of the National Gallery of Art here in DC. Once seated on folding stools in front of Steen’s painting, Mary Hall said that in “The Dancing Couple,” Steen has given us Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man”—with lots of descriptive detail—the building blocks of a complex, layered story.

Jan Steen painted everyday life in the bustling new country of the Netherlands (recently liberated from Spain). He was a tavern-owner and put himself in many of his paintings. He’s seen here at the far left, grinning broadly and chucking a lady-friend under the chin. A fun-loving guy, he was fortunate to live in a time and place that celebrated artists. Wealthy and middle-class merchants could buy paintings for about the same price as a solid piece of furniture, so many families owned as many as ten to fifteen canvasses. As after-dinner entertainment, a host would invite his guests to contemplate one of his paintings. In the same way, we were invited simply to look at this picture, at first not making judgments, or interpreting the action.

Gallery 46

Gallery 46

To get started, we wrote declarative sentences about a character in the painting and what he or she is doing: “A young man dances a jig,” and “Three men talk on the other side of the fence.” Next, we “mapped” the sounds, smells, tastes, and sensory feel of the various objects in the painting. We wrote “spilled flowers,” “wine barrel,” “tobacco,” and “ham.”

Next, we wondered out loud what might be going on. My favorite, “who misses their youth and who wishes they were older.”

So how would we start the story? I wrote:

Bella had been married to Willem only fifteen minutes, but she couldn’t take her eyes off her lover, Johan, the inn’s proprietor, nor could he keep his off of her.

Next, she asked us to write the central question of our story. I had several: Will Bella’s new husband figure out he’s not the father of her baby? Will Bella give up her lover? Can Bella find happiness with a man who wears a cap with a cock’s feather on it?

In Exercise One, we were to tell the story of the couple from the point of view of a character in the story. Sticking with Bella, I wrote:

Bella could feel the new life growing within her. The child hadn’t moved yet, but she guessed it soon would. The sounds of the party tormented her: the clattering silverware, mugs banging on the long table, her cousin’s spoiled daughter’s cries, the maddening fiddle scraping and the tootling flute. Soon she would be forced to dance with Willem as if she were the happy bride everyone thought her to be. Her hand grazed Willem’s fingers. His touch repulsed her. Good lord, his fly was open! How would she bear being married to this sweating oaf? Just as she was about to allow herself to be drawn into a hellish jig, Johan caught her eye and raised his goblet. No, she would not give him up, no matter what happened.

Mary Hall Surface leads the Salon

Mary Hall Surface leads the Salon

Okay, not exactly deathless prose. More purple than deathless.

Exercise Two: Dialogue, in which we were to choose one of the other couples in the painting and imagine what they’re talking about. We were to refer to the central couple during the dialogue while trying to make the characters’ voices distinctive from one another.

I chose “Johan,” the leering fellow with the glass goblet on the right side of the painting and the woman in green with her back to the audience. I named her Cornelia.

Cornelia: Keep your eyes to yourself, husband of mine.

Johan: I’ll watch what I like! She’s a lively wench with a pretty bosom, nothing more to me, my chicken.

Cornelia: Everyone can see what kind of girl she is. And everyone can see the state she’s in.

Johan: She’s a fun-loving girl, unlike you.

Cornelia: And how much fun have you had with her, might I ask?

Johan: Why don’t you have a glass of wine, loosen your corset, and have a dance with me?

Cornelia: Dancing is the devil’s pastime!

Mary Hall then asked us to imagine what happened next and to write it in an omniscient voice.

Bella yanked her hand away from Willem’s. She stamped her elegantly shod foot. “I will not live with this boor!” The music stopped. The crowd quieted. Willem continued dancing for a few more beats until he stopped at last, a puzzled expression on his face. Indeed, it could be said—and was being said by everyone at the tavern—that Willem was not the sharpest tack in the box.

Bella, with a long look at Johan, the tavern’s proprietor, burst into tears, and fled.

Beet red in the face, Bella’s father signaled the musicians to play again, shouting, “Just a girlish tantrum! Wedding night jitters! Everyone, eat and drink and enjoy this festive occasion!” As the musicians began to play, if with a degree less enthusiasm, he leaned down to hiss in his wife’s ear, “Go after her, for God’s sake. Talk some sense into her or she will be ruined!”

Something about this painting induces melodrama. Perhaps it’s the symbolism!

Exercise Three: Symbolism in Steen’s art.

Mary Hall dashed my hunch that this was a wedding celebration. Although the scholarship is mixed, it likely depicts a country fair, maybe an engagement. But I was vindicated in another way. All the symbols in the painting point to—you guessed it: sex. Broken eggshells, the spilled pail of cut flowers, hmmmm? Less obvious, the empty barrel smack in the middle of the action refers to a proverb in vogue at the time, “A full barrel does not resound.” Steen saw Bella and Willem as empty, foolish people. Above the older couple on the left hangs a cage holding two doves. Another popular saying of the day was, “Instead of freedom, safety.” I guess Bella wasn’t paying attention to that either. Spectroscopic examination of the painting revealed that Steen added a chicken in a basket perched the head of the fellow between our dancing couple. In case you weren’t aware, the Dutch word for chicken and the Dutch word for sex sound much the same.

Discussing character in a Picasso

Discussing character in a Picasso

With that, Mary Hall wrapped it up. All in all, it was a fun experience. I’d recommend the series to everyone, not just writers, when it resumes in the fall. Past salons have focused on setting by examining a Hudson River School landscape and on character in a Picasso. The sessions fill up quickly, so if you’re interested, check out www.nga.gov/writing salon.

Mary Hall Surface’s play about Alexander Calder, “A Perfect Balance,” will be performed on November 5 – 6, 2016 in the Calder room at the NGA. Not to be missed!
























"Bottle Rack," 1920, by Marcel Duchamp

“Bottle Rack,” 1920, by Marcel Duchamp

Unless you want to spend your Valentine’s Day at the Hirshhorn Museum here in DC (hey, not a bad idea…) you will have missed the surrealist exhibit Marvelous Objects. If you don’t drop everything and go, stick with this post. It’s a fascinating show, and I say that as not the world’s biggest fan of melting clocks, De Chirico’s chilly dreamscapes, or one-trick dadaist ponies, like Duchamp’s urinal. Ho hum. But the objects gathered here are, many of them, marvelous indeed.

The first gallery, entitled “The Object” does have some moldy figs including Duchamp’s 1920 bottle rack (making wonderful shadows on the gallery wall). From there on, surprises abound.

"Objects Placed on Three Planes, Like Writing," 1928. by Jean Arp Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT Purchased through the gift of James Junius Goodwin, 1937.91

“Objects Placed on Three Planes, Like Writing,” 1928. by Jean Arp

Among them is a fabulous array of Jean Arp’s two-dimensional pieces. The wall notes tell us that Arp developed his biomorphic nature-based art as an antidote to the horrors of World War I. I do love these works, maybe because they remind me of the papier-maché bas-relief pieces my father created in the ’fifties and ’sixties. “Objects Placed on Three Planes, Like Writing,” 1928, is one of them. A lot of their charm lies in their whimsical titles, which evoke a smile and a twist of one’s initial perception of the piece. As in, “Head with Annoying Objects (Mustache, Mandolin, and Fly),” 1930, bronze.

"Head with Annoying Objects...," 1930, by Jean Arp

“Head with Annoying Objects…,” 1930, by Jean Arp

Alberto Giacometti said of his artistic process, “I search, groping to catch hold of the invisible white thread of the Marvelous that vibrates in the void; from it escapes facts and dreams with the sound of a stream running over small, precious, living pebbles…” This crystalline vision is dashed by “Woman with her Throat Cut,” 1932, a creepy thing lying in the middle of the space like road kill. In his excellent review, The Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott observes: “…it’s a strength of this exhibition that curator Valerie Fletcher is forthright about the almost inevitable direction that the freeing up of the creative mind would take so many of these men: straight to the rag-and-bone shop of mis­ogyny.” I prefer the serene “Reclining Woman who Dreams,” bronze and paint, 1929.

"Reclining Woman Who Dreams," 1929, by Alberto Giacometti

“Reclining Woman Who Dreams,” 1929, by Alberto Giacometti

Salvador Dali’s “Aphrodisiac Jacket,” 1936, is a refreshing take on seduction and sexual ambiguity, featuring both a men’s shirt collar and tie and a brassiere tucked inside the jacket. The shot glasses originally held peppermint schnapps and viewers were invited to take a sip. A brave move, as some of the glasses have spiders suspended in the green liquid. As I viewed this amusing piece, a young woman chewing gum approached, giving the experience a minty verisimilitude. Also on view here is Dali’s “Lobster Telephone,” 1938. In the original, a real lobster replaced the receiver, and eventually added another fragrance to the viewer’s all-too-interactive experience.

"Aphrodisiac Jacket," 1936, by Salvador Dali

“Aphrodisiac Jacket,” 1936, by Salvador Dali

I’m grateful to the curator for broadening my notion of surrealism by including such exemplars of “international biomorphism” as Henry Moore, David Smith, Alexander Calder, Max Ernst, and Joan Miro. One look at Miro’s “Lunar Bird,” 1945, bronze, and you know where Jeff Koons got a lot of his inspiration.

"Lobster Telephone," 1938 by Salvador Dali

“Lobster Telephone,” 1938 by Salvador Dali

The American visionary, Joseph Cornell, is given an entire room to display his “Dream Worlds in a Box.” Cornell, while working with many of the same materials as his brethren (found objects, printed ephemera, marbles, feathers), avoided any hint of sex or violence, preferring to create charming assemblages that evoke childhood fantasy, as in “Medici Princess,” 1948-1952.

"Lunar Bird," 1945, by Joan Miro

“Lunar Bird,” 1945, by Joan Miro

Providing “a darker view,” according to curator Fletcher, Isamu Noguchi is another artist whom I would not classify as a surrealist. Indeed, the Noguchi foundation’s website says the artist didn’t belong to any school or movement but “collaborated with artists working in a range of media.” Those artists include my beloved dance teacher, Erick Hawkins, for whom Noguchi designed beautiful stage sets. In any event, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Noguchi was incarcerated for seven months at an Arizona internment camp for Japanese-Americans. The foundation’s website tells us that he asked to be placed there as part of his activism on behalf of Nisei writers and artists.

"Medici Princess," 1948-52, by Joseph Cornell

“Medici Princess,” 1948-52, by Joseph Cornell

Of his experience at the camp, Noguchi wrote, “The memory of Arizona was like that of the moonscape of the mind…Not given the actual space of freedom, one makes its equivalent…where the imagination may roam to the further limits of possibilities, to the moon and beyond.” Made of cement, electric lights, cork, and string, “Lunar Landscape,” 1943-44, is his testament to the experience.

In a gallery called “Industrial Strength Surrealism,” I was thrilled to see Alexander Calder’s “Fish,” (metal, wood, painted metal, glass

"Lunar Landscape," 1943-44, by Isamu Noguchi

“Lunar Landscape,” 1943-44, by Isamu Noguchi

and ceramic), 1944, an old friend featured in my novel, Still Life with Aftershocks. You’ll also see it in the banner on this website. In this show, the piece is hung at eye level. Denizens of DC are used to seeing “Fish” float above them in the Calder room in the East Building of the National Gallery of Art, now closed for renovation.

"Fish," 1944, by Alexander Calder

“Fish,” 1944, by Alexander Calder

Forged from farm implements and scrap metal, David Smith’s “Agricola 1,” steel and paint, 1951-52, is perhaps a better example of industrial art. This sculpture, with its bold and forthright abstraction, has a spirited presence. Once again, this admired artist would not fit my formerly narrow idea of a surrealist. No matter – I appreciated the more inclusive vision of the curator.

"Agricola 1," 1951-52, by David Smith

“Agricola 1,” 1951-52, by David Smith


And I hope you, dear reader, have enjoyed this glimpse – especially if you don’t get to see the show before it closes February 15, 2016.




"Popocatepetl--Spirited Morning," by Marsden Hartley, 1932

“Popocatepetl–Spirited Morning,” by Marsden Hartley, 1932

Sam Rose, the Washington DC attorney and real estate developer and his wife, Julie Walters, have built a rich and varied art collection over many years. Now, according to Sam, they’ve run out of wall space. Luckily for us, they’ve shared their collection in a show now at the National Museum of American Art in Washington, DC. The title—Cross Currents—didn’t immediately reveal curator Virginia Mecklenburg’s theme, but after watching an October 30, 2015 webcast, I got it. http://americanart.si.edu/multimedia/webcasts/archive/2015/crosscurrents/index.cfm

"Untitled Vertical," by Jackson Pollock, 1949

“Untitled Vertical,” by Jackson Pollock, 1949

The cross currents describe the flow of Americans who flocked to Paris in the early 1900s and were inspired by European modernists. Later in the mid-twentieth century, the flow reversed, with European artists drawn to the energy and dynamism of the “cubist, modernist” city of New York. Frankly, the show didn’t illustrate this theme as well as it might have, but no matter, it’s an engrossing experience. Hung in two generously sized galleries, it’s a large show, but not so huge as to be overpowering.

"Agricola IV," by David Smith, 1952

“Agricola IV,” by David Smith, 1952

The first to leap off the wall was Marsden Hartley’s “Popocatépetl, Spirited Morning—Mexico,” 1932, painted while Hartley lived in Mexico City. The image fuses the twin mythical volcanoes of Iztacc and Popo, the star-crossed lovers of Aztec myth, turned forever to glacial mountains by the gods. The icy white clouds of steam (or snowy boulders?) mount tension at the bottom of the picture, while the intense blue of the mountain is startlingly potent, seeming to contain unseen the orangey reds of latent eruption.

"Tete d'homme, profil" by Pablo Picasso, 1963

“Tete d’homme, profil” by Pablo Picasso, 1963

Much the same organic energy can be seen in Jackson Pollock’s “Untitled Vertical,” 1949. This painting is so fresh and new, so alive with calligraphic flourishes, that is seems timeless, evoking both the ancient and the new: Chinese and Japanese scrolls and revolutionary modern art. Pollack said, “When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing.” The meditative feel of this painting has much the same effect on the viewer. You can spend a long, pleasurable time in front of this image. The wall text observes that this painting represents “the most dramatic breakthrough in painting since Picasso’s cubism.” I agree.

"The DeVegh Twins," by Alice Neel, 1975

“The DeVegh Twins,” by Alice Neel, 1975

I have a mad crush on David Smith. For good reason, don’t you think? “Agricola IV,” 1952, dates from a time that Smith hunted pieces of rusting farm implements near his studio in Bolton Landing, New York and welded them together. Evoking Calder’s wire portraits and tribal art, the Agricola series launched Smith’s career as an important modernist sculptor.

Walters and Rose have a serious addiction to acquiring Picasso, one of my least favorite artists. Sorry, but I think he’s over-rated. Millions would disagree. Vehemently. Julie and Sam among them, I’m sure. That said, along with a charming selection of his ceramic vessels, I did enjoy “Tête d’homme, profil,” 1963. This fellow appears to be a human megaphone with a lot to say. You can picture him, a fervent nihilist, perhaps, holding forth in a café, eyes popping out of his head, and a dense five o’clock shadow on his cheek. A telling portrait in which the abstraction has a wry purpose.

"Meringues," by Wayne Thiebaud, 1988

“Meringues,” by Wayne Thiebaud, 1988

Among the marvelous portraits seen here is Alice Neel’s “The DeVegh Twins,” 1975. Neel’s habit of showing unvarnished truth in her portraiture, slyly evoking the less attractive sides of many of her subjects is seen here. The girls, daughters of the artist and art restorer, Geza DeVegh, clearly have very different personalities. The girl on the left appears open, trusting, pliable and obedient, leaning fondly into her sister, while her twin signals “piece of work” – she’s difficult, intractable, and defiant. We don’t know what DeVegh made of this portrait, but we do know that many people who sat for Neel didn’t care for her often unflattering images and declined to hang them in their homes.

"Revue Girl," by Wayne Thiebaud, 1963

“Revue Girl,” by Wayne Thiebaud, 1963

Walters and Rose have acquired Wayne Thiebaud (this time a favorite of mine) in depth as well.  In addition to pies (“Meringues,” 1988)—who can resist them—we see the same luscious sculpted surfaces in “Revue Girl,” 1963. A huge image, this woman towers above the viewer, amazon and totem in one. She, an anonymous dancer in a line of identical performers, is shown as singular and powerful. “There’s a lot of yearning,” Thiebaud said of his pies, cakes, and candies and the same could be said of this unattainable revue goddess.

Roy Lichtenstein’s amusing, “Mobile III,” 1990, is a clear reference to Alexander Calder’s mobiles, with more than passing reference to Miro and Picasso. What a perfect summation of the “currents” flowing in this

"Mobile III," by Roy Lichtenstein, 1990

“Mobile III,” by Roy Lichtenstein, 1990

exhibit. Of course, this “mobile” doesn’t move at all, perhaps symbolizing the final iteration of Mondrian’s impulse to make static art move. Whump—we’ve hit a wall. Now we have a cartoon of the original.

In “Black Scarf,” 1995, we meet another “goddess and sphinx,” Alex Katz’s muse and wife of 60 years, Ada. In this closely cropped portrait, Ada looks away from the viewer, at something tantalizingly off-camera. The flattened bill-board style is emblematic of Katz’s early style, which anticipated Pop Art, and here in its mature incarnation evokes a surprisingly broad range of emotions.

Picture 023

Picture 023

The great African-American artist, Elizabeth Catlett created “Stepping Out” in 2000. This image doesn’t fully capture the charm of this piece, the energy and forthright gait of this small woman as she sets out into the world in her finery, proud of the figure she cuts, and more than ready for what the world will dish out.

There’s a lot more to relish in this show. Fans of Joan Miro, Alexander Calder, Joseph Stella, Georgia O’Keefe, Richard Diebenkorn, David Hockney, Niki de Saint Phalle, Romare Bearden, Andy Warhol, and Fernando Botero will encounter wonderful works here, some perhaps never seen before. Three cheers to Julie and Sam!

"Stepping Out," by Elizabeth Catlett, 2000

“Stepping Out,” by Elizabeth Catlett, 2000

The show is up until April 10, 2016. http://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/archive/2015/crosscurrents/


renwick signI’ve been wondering about the newly reopened Renwick Gallery here in Washington, DC. Long a cherished space, I was eager to see what the two year-long renovation of this Smithsonian museum—heretofore devoted to craft and decorative arts—had wrought. The first thing that jarred me was the bold white plastic sign along the exterior fence that announces “RENWICK” in giant sans-serif letters. In search of a photo, I came upon a number of articles that decried the placing of a garish LED sign on the front of the building, replacing the 1880s legend carved into the façade’s brownstone: “DEDICATED TO ART.” The new sign reads “DEDICATED TO THE FUTURE OF ART.” Museum officials say the sign is only temporary, part of the opening celebration. We can only hope. I’m also hoping the white plastic sign along the fence is temporary, but fear it’s not. The same logotype appears throughout the museum’s website and printed materials, no doubt in an attempt to shake off the lovely old building’s staid image. Strike one.

Portals, by Albert Paley, 1974

Portals, by Albert Paley, 1974

Strike two: the gorgeous 1974 Albert Paley portals are gone, replaced by anonymous brass doors that would be happy at a corporate headquarters or slick Neiman Marcus store. Could I somehow have missed the Paley gates? No…I found this image of the portals with the sad words, “No longer on view.”

Not a good start. Inside, the grand staircase is covered with a new red carpet that wends its way unevenly up to the second floor. This at least, is a stunning new addition, although the carpet has become noticeably soiled in the short time since the gallery’s opening earlier this month.

new staircaseThe interior of the graceful old building is painted shades of chilly gray causing the elaborate moldings, cornices, and flourishes to withdraw in the face of the “future” of art, that bracing, challenging, whup upside the head that is the new direction of the Renwick.

"Untitled," 2014, by Tara Donovan

“Untitled,” 2014, by Tara Donovan

If the inaugural show—entitled “Wonder”—is an indication of what is to come—the future is overblown. “Wonder” gives us huge site-specific installations that occupy entire gallery spaces, an attempt at an ambitious foray into a new incarnation. As I walked through the galleries, though, I found myself longing for the delights of the permanent collection.

"Plexus A1," 2015, by Gabriel Dawe

“Plexus A1,” 2015, by Gabriel Dawe

Tara Donovan’s “Untitled,” 2014, does have a spooky presence. Made of gazillions of styrene index cards, these sculptures appears to be about to lumber into motion, like a gaggle of Wookies waking up from a trance. I began to feel better.

The next gallery is inhabited by Gabriel Dawe’s “Plexus A1,” in which silken thread attached to a wooden base creates “fleeting rays of light” intended to evoke the Mexico City and East Texas skies of the artist’s youth.

Patrick Dougherty’s “Shindig” had museum-

"Shindig," 2015, by Patrick Dougherty

“Shindig,” 2015, by Patrick Dougherty

goers posing for pictures inside its winsome teepees of willow sticks. The piece, taking up the whole of the back gallery, looks as if a wind had blown through and deposited the structures. Like a swooping Maurice Sendak illustration, the forms whip and whirl and trail off into corners. Plus, they smell good—fresh and woodsy. I began to feel better still.

"1.8," 2015, by Janet Echelman

“1.8,” 2015, by Janet Echelman

But all my nascent good feelings were dashed in the former grand salon where Janet Echelman’s “1.8,” looms over an artist-designed carpet on the floor. Made of knotted and braided fiber with programmable lighting and wind movement, the piece is based on a map of the energy released across the Pacific Ocean during the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami. This event shifted the earth on its axis and shortened the day by 1.8 millionth of a second. Large pillows on the floor allowed viewers to recline beneath the changing sculpture. “1.8” is monumental in size, but not awe-inspiring. It troubled me to see a natural cataclysm in which so many lives were lost reduced to a pretty macramé abstraction. I missed the old salon-style space, truth to tell.

"Volume, (Renwick)," 2015, by Leo Villareal

“Volume, (Renwick),” 2015, by Leo Villareal

Leo Villareal’s “Volume” hangs over the grand staircase. Made of white LEDs, stainless steel, custom software, and electrical hardware, the shimmering, pulsing piece is set to sparkle in random patterns, never repeating a sequence. I enjoyed watching it, but was not as transported by it as I am by the same artist’s enveloping piece for the walkway between the East and West buildings of the National Gallery of Art.

"Folding the Chesapeake," 2015, by Maya Lin

“Folding the Chesapeake,” 2015, by Maya Lin

I adore Maya Lin’s work and had eagerly anticipated what she’d do for this show. “Folding the Chesapeake,” 2015, is made of industrial fiberglass balls glued to the floor and up the walls of the gallery space. The artist’s intent was “sharpening our focus on the need for conservation,” which I found a bit of a stretch. Still, this piece is lighter, more fluid, and while conceptual at base, more pleasing to the eye than many of the works created for this show.

"Seafoam and Amber-Tipped Chandelier," 1994, by Dale Chihuly

“Seafoam and Amber-Tipped Chandelier,” 1994, by Dale Chihuly

I enjoyed Dale Chihuly’s “Seafoam and Amber-Tipped Chandelier,” glass, 1994, hanging over the classical nude in the octagon room. In it, I felt some small ghost of the original Renwick had survived. But really, it’s hung too high. You practically miss it.

"Middle Fork (Cascades)," 2015, by John Grade

“Middle Fork (Cascades),” 2015, by John Grade

Two works—one made of recycled tires by Chakaia Booker and John Grade’s enormous tree—left me puzzled. The tires didn’t speak to me at all and Grade’s meticulously reproduced 150-year-old hemlock made me wonder (pun intended) why he’d gone to all the trouble. First he cast the tree, and then recreated it out of small pieces of “reclaimed old growth Western cedar,” using hours and hours of volunteer manpower in the process. The piece seemed an over-wrought attempt at duplicating a phenomenon of nature. It didn’t work for me in much the same way as Janet Echelman’s tidal wave fell flat.

midnight garden“In the Midnight Garden,” by Jennifer Angus is more than a little creepy. The artist has created stiff repeating floral wall patterns and day-of-the-dead skulls out of insects – yep, those are real bugs—and washed the walls with cochineal pink. In the center is an old chest of drawers, topped by a wasp’s nest and filled with curiosities: more bugs, buttons, feathers, tiny books, artificial fingernails. This Joseph Cornell-like piece smelled musty, like grandma’s attic, a pleasant, evocative scent that drew me in. I tried not to look too hard at the six-inch dead critters pinned to the walls.

"Game Fish," 1988, by Larry Fuente

“Game Fish,” 1988, by Larry Fuente

Not even the gift shop was welcoming. It’s been recast as a sleek jewel box of a space with a lot fewer books and a lot more artfully draped 300 dollar scarves. I’d been longing for the icon of the Renwick’s permanent collection, Larry Fuente’s “Game Fish,” and found it, mounted in the gift shop above a display of game fish magnets and other tchotchkes. That about sums it up, folks: Take what made the Renwick great and make a fridge magnet out of it.

Sigh. I guess I’m no longer wondering. I’m mightily disappointed in the “new” Renwick. The only consolation is that, once “Wonder” comes down on May 8, 2016, the permanent collection will come back.

Please, please, please.



"Gardens at Daubigny," by Vincent Van Gogh

“Gardens at Daubigny,” by Vincent Van Gogh

…walk into a bar. Oops, never mind. That’s another blog for another time.

Seriously, though, if you walk into the Phillips Collection here in DC you’ll meet them all – and more. Gaugin to Picasso: Masterworks from Switzerland, now on view, showcases some 60 works from the Staechelin and Im Obersteg Collections, normally on view in the Kunstmuseum in Basel. Rudolf Staechelin and Karl Im Obersteg were contemporaries of Duncan Phillips, the founder if this, the first museum of modern art in the United States, and like him, collected widely in the mid-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This vivid show is the first to bring selected works from these collections to America.

"Nafea faa ipoipo (When Will You Marry," by Paul Gaugin

“Nafea faa ipoipo (When Will You Marry?),” by Paul Gaugin

Van Gogh’s “Gardens at Daubigny,” was painted in July, 1890, in the height of a glorious summer in Auvers, France. This is one of several paintings the artist made of Daubigny’s gardens, but the only one to feature a small black cat in the foreground. He wrote his brother Theo that it was “a picture I’ve had in my mind ever since I came here.” Tragically, Van Gogh took his life on July 29, 1890. Current thinking suggests that Van Gogh may have been bi-polar, with periods of frenzied painting and writing–Van Gogh wrote 800 letters in his lifetime–followed by periods of deep depression. That he could paint these gardens with such joy and take his own life shortly thereafter gives this swirling, wiggling image a kind of awful poignancy.

"Mont-Blanc with Pink Clouds," by Ferdinand Hodler

“Mont-Blanc with Pink Clouds,” by Ferdinand Hodler

The magnificent, “Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?),” 1892, was painted during Paul Gaugin’s first stint in Tahiti. This enigmatic image of two Tahitian girls was recently sold to a private buyer, perhaps Qatari, according to a February 15, 2015 article in The New York Times. The selling price of $300 million was neither confirmed nor denied by a tight-lipped seller, none other than Rudolf Staechelin’s 62 year old grandson. News of the sale shocked Basel and sent some 7,500 people to the Kunstmuseum to see it before the gallery closed for renovation. The buyer, whoever he or she is, will take possession in January 2016. The present day Staechelin said, “In a way it’s sad…but…private collections are like private persons. They don’t last forever.” So…we’re even luckier to see this work before it may disappear from view.

"Kneeling Nude on Yellow Ground," by Cuno Amiet

“Kneeling Nude on Yellow Ground,” by Cuno Amiet

I have mixed feelings about this artist. While I find Gaugin’s penchant for going native more than a little condescending, and his involvement with a thirteen-year-old Tahitian girl (with his wife and child at home in France) repugnant, this painting is breathtaking. As a colorist, Gaugin is a master. I love the interplay between the two figures, the curving, sensuous body of the girl in native dress, and the stiff, upright carriage of the one in Western dress. Both look away from the viewer, in different directions, while the figure behind holds up a portentous hand, like a figure in a religious allegory.

"Study of Murnau--Landscape with Church," by Wassily Kandinsky

“Study of Murnau–Landscape with Church,” by Wassily Kandinsky

Another work still in the Staechelin collection is Ferdinand Holder’s “Mont Blanc with Pink Clouds,” 1918. The colors are so delicate yet so ravishing, the piece looks edible. It put me in mind of the paintings of Augustus Vincent Tack, who was an advisor to Duncan Phillips and whose art Phillips admired and collected. The iridescent, almost abstract image is flattened, yet seductively deep.

Speaking of ravishing: Swiss artist Cuno Amiet’s “Kneeling Nude on Yellow Ground,” 1913, is a knock-out. I love the quivering intensity of this girl’s body, her fixed gaze. It’s as if she’s intently waiting for her cue, maybe a cymbal crash, to leap up and take her place in the dance. She appears to be one of several nymphs in a frieze, perhaps representing spring.

Color, color, color! You could get drunk on the color in this show.

"The Frog," by Suzanne Valadon

“The Frog,” by Suzanne Valadon

Kandinsky’s “Study of Murnau—Landscape with Church,” 1909 blew me away. I love the way the landscape seems to tumble off the canvas, the riotous color, the yellow clouds flying up into the sky. Even the building looks impermanent, as if about to explode.

The gem of the show for me is Suzanne Valadon’s “The Frog,” 1910, in pastel and oil on paper. Valadon—the only woman in the show—was an artist’s model in Montmartre, a fall from a trapeze having ended her career as a circus performer. She modeled for Puvis de Chavannes, Pierre-August Renoir, and Toulouse Lautrec, among others, who encouraged her to pursue a career as a painter. Seductive, independent, and headstrong, she lived outside bourgeois rules, giving birth at 18 to a son, the artist Maurice Utrillo. Here, her “frog,” about to climb into a bathtub, shows a more muted palette than many of the works in this show, but the vigorous outlining is there, as is the coiled energy of the model.

"Absinthe Drinker," by Pablo Picasso

“Absinthe Drinker,” by Pablo Picasso

Picasso’s famous “Absinthe Drinker,” 1901, is displayed in the center of the gallery with a wonderful bonus painting on the reverse. Our drinker is bathed in color, but her eyes are dead, her face expressionless. The influence of Toulouse Lautrec and Gaugin are evident in the outlining and bold color. On the other side (Picasso was poor and canvas was in short supply) is a wild painting that was much more to my taste: “Woman at the Theater.” Isn’t she great? Here is a sophisticated Parisienne, whose gimlet eye misses nothing, nailing the viewer with a jaded expression as the theater crowd buzzes around her.

"Woman at the Theater," by Pablo Picasso

“Woman at the Theater,” by Pablo Picasso

Thirty years later, Picasso would paint very differently, reducing “Sleeping Nude,” 1934, to a series of orbs and swooshes, her head thrown back dramatically. But color and outlining are still important to him and to these collectors whose mutual eye and taste can be seen in works that span decades. Many other wonderful artists are represented here—Modigliani, Cezanne, Utrillo (Suzanne Valadon’s son), Pissarro, Manet, and Chaim Soutine among them.

"Sleeping Nude," by Pablo Picasso

“Sleeping Nude,” by Pablo Picasso

The show will be up until January 10, 2016.




hirshhorn_buildingYesterday I took a fresh look at this vibrant museum on Washington’s National Mall. The third floor galleries have reopened after renovation, and, in celebration of the museum’s 40th anniversary, an installation—At the Hub of Things: New Views of the Collection—presents some sixty works in various media from the permanent collection.

fountainDesigned by Gordon Bunshaft—the architect also gave us the elegant Lever Building in New York City—the cylindrical building didn’t immediately wow the critics, or DC’s residents, for that matter:

“[The building] is known around Washington as the bunker or gas tank, lacking only gun emplacements or an Exxon sign… It totally lacks the essential factors of esthetic strength and provocative vitality that make genuine ‘brutalism’ a positive and rewarding style. This is born-dead, neo-penitentiary modern. Its mass is not so much aggressive or overpowering as merely leaden.” Ada Louise Huxtable, The New York Times, October 6, 1974.

"Cloud," 2006, by Spencer Finch

“Cloud,” 2006, by Spencer Finch

I usually agree with Ada Louise Huxtable’s bracing criticism, but in this case, I’m inclined to side with The Washington Post’s Benjamin Forgey:

“[The Hirshhorn is] the biggest piece of abstract art in town-a huge, hollowed cylinder raised on four massive piers, in absolute command of its walled compound on the Mall…. The circular fountain…is a grand concoction…that for good reason has become the museum’s visual trademark.” Benjamin Forgey, The Washington Post, November 4, 1989.

"At the Hub of Things," 1987, by Anish Kapoor

“At the Hub of Things,” 1987, by Anish Kapoor

As you rise up the escalator to the third floor galleries you’re treated to Spencer Finch’s “Cloud (H2O),” 2006, a hovering galaxy of light fixtures and bulbs that manages to mimic a starry sky. Lovely to come back full circle through the outer galleries and admire it again.

The first object in this show that really grabbed me was Anish Kapoor’s “At the Hub of Things,” 1987, made of Prussian blue pigment and resin on foam. The wall notes tell us that Kapoor was inspired by the Hindu festival celebrating the blue-skinned goddess, Kali. Kapoor described this piece as “A hole in space…something that does not exist.” The work draws you in, as if into an Yves Klein blue-black hole. At first glance, the facing surface appears to be flat, but as you move around the conical object, you begin to see that it’s hollow.

"Canton Palace," 1980, by Hiroshi Sugimoto

“Canton Palace,” 1980, by Hiroshi Sugimoto

Nicely paired with “Hub” is Hiroshi Sugimoto’s “Canton Palace, Ohio,” 1980. To create this haunting photograph, Sugimoto opened his camera’s shutter at the beginning of a movie, and closed it at the end, thus creating this blinding void.

"Cold Mountain 2," by Brice Marden

“Cold Mountain 2,” by Brice Marden

Minimalist Brice Marden’s huge, “Cold Mountain 2” was one of a series made between 1989 and 1991. This lively canvas writhes with energy and is a real eye-popper, despite the muted palette. We learn that in the 1980s Marden was drawn to the poetry of the Tang Dynasty hermit Hanshan (“cold mountain”) and was moved to explore calligraphy’s grand gesture and spontaneity.

"Sound Suit 2009, 'Happy Easter,'" by Nick Cave

“Sound Suit 2009, ‘Happy Easter,'” by Nick Cave

Far from Marden’s subtle approach, but equally engaging, is Nick Cave’s “Soundsuit, 2009, ‘Happy Easter.’” I was knocked out by this fanciful concoction of thrift store junk, beaded baskets and bangles, all topped by a papier-mâché Easter rabbit. It’s called a “soundsuit” because it clanks and tinkles when worn. I wanted to see and hear this dazzling Mardi Gras confection in motion. Voila! Click this YouTube link: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=nick+cave+soundsuits

"Hommage a Jasper Johns," 1964-65, by Mary Bauermeister

“Hommage a Jasper Johns,” 1964-65, by Mary Bauermeister

“In Memory of Your Feelings, or Hommage à Jasper Johns,” by Mary Bauermeister, 1964 – 65, hangs next to a work by Johns. In my view (pun intended) this mesmerizing piece is more in the spirit of Joseph Cornell than Johns. Made of glass lenses, wood, ink, and paint, this creation, whose title was adapted from a poem by Frank O’Hara—a great friend of artists—evokes psychedelic art of the day, trippy and mind-bending like seashells that balloon and morph behind the lenses.

"Untitled No. 10," 1980, by Paul Sarkisian

“Untitled No. 10,” 1980, by Paul Sarkisian

The tour-de-force “Untitled No. 10,” 1980, by Paul Sarkisian, in acrylic and silk screen on canvas, reflects several classic genres: trompe l’oeil painting, cubist collage, and mid-century abstraction, combining them in a new and confounding way. I defy you to stand before this one-dimensional painting and not feel compelled to slip your hand behind the diagonal row of colored paper, so convincing is its rendering. Your eye is equally fooled by the newspaper cunningly slipped inside the box fold. Well, your eye is fooled by the whole thing.

"Opposition," 1968, by Gio Pomodoro

“Opposition,” 1968, by Gio Pomodoro

Giò Pomodoro’s “Opposition,” 1968, made of fiberglass and paint, blends the organic with the industrial in a surprisingly engaging way. The bulging and dimpled surfaces suggest human or aircraft skin on the point of bursting. It was only when I downloaded this image that I thought I saw a classically posed female form behind the surface.

One of the treats of this museum-in-the-round is that you have another show to look forward to: the inner round (with screened windows that look out into the courtyard and fountain) houses sculpture. As I usually enjoy paintings and works on paper more than sculpture, I didn’t think I’d want to tell you about the inner ring, but I took such pleasure in walking it, and was so struck by many of the works that I had to include a couple here.

"Indifferent One," 1959, by Philippe Hiquily

“Indifferent One,” 1959, by Philippe Hiquily

I’m in love with Philippe Hiquily’s iron “Indifferent One,” 1959. Now we’re firmly back in the mid-20th century, a place I could dwell forever. How charming this piece is, and how technically difficult it must have been to balance the bulk of the body with those delicate pointy legs.

I had the same sense of home-coming with Reg Butler’s “Family Group,” 1948, also in iron, perhaps because it reminded me of my father’s family portrait, “The Three.” Come to my house and I’ll show it to you. For now, just enjoy this Saul Steinbergian family, so intertwined and interconnected, so quirky and strange, as all our families are.

"Family Group," 1948, by Reg Butler

“Family Group,” 1948, by Reg Butler

For those of us in Washington who love the museum, At the Hub of Things is not only a welcome coming-out party for the renovated third floor, but also a chance to see the collection in a new light. This selection from the permanent collection will not disappoint lovers of Andy Warhol, Louise Bourgeois, Sol Lewitt, and Bruce Nauman, to name a few, but it is not a show of the Hirshhorn’s greatest hits. Curators Evelyn Hankins and Melissa Ho present us with provocative choices and themes. Some of the work eludes me, of course, as I’m not always a fan of the contemporary conceptualist trope. Still, there’s much to soak up here, even if it doesn’t always hit the mark.

Joseph H. Hirshhorn

Joseph H. Hirshhorn

After making your way around both inner and outer rings, flop on the sofa in the Lerner room and take in the splendid view of the National Mall from its windows. The museum has a lively website as well, allowing you to search by artist and delve deeply into the vast collection bequeathed by newsboy turned financier and philanthropist, Joseph H. Hirshhorn. http://hirshhorn.si.edu/

"The Floor Scrapers," 1875

“The Floor Scrapers,” 1875

Gustave Caillebotte? The name doesn’t spring to mind if you’re asked to rattle off a few well-known Impressionist artists. Yet he was a master of all they sought to do—to paint light, employ unusual perspectives, and render life as it exists—raw, direct, unidealized. Discover him for yourself at a wonderful show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC: Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye.

"Rue Halevy, Seen from the Sixth Floor," 1878

“Rue Halevy, Seen from the Sixth Floor,” 1878


Unlike many of his contemporaries, Caillebotte was not a starving artist. Far from it—he was an independently wealthy young Parisian, having inherited his family’s fortune (made in military textiles) at twenty-six. His wealth was one reason his paintings are not more well-known. He simply didn’t need to sell them and they remained in private hands until the mid-twentieth century when they began to trickle out into the market.

"Boulevard Seen From Above," 1880

“Boulevard Seen From Above,” 1880


In 1873 Caillebotte put aside a career in law and engineering and enrolled in the Ecole des Beaux Arts. At about the same time he began hanging out with the likes of Edgar Degas, Pierre-August Renoir, and Claude Monet.

Encouraged by these artists’ admiration of his work, he entered “The Floor Scrapers,” 1875, in the Paris Salon show of the same year. It was thumpingly rejected, termed “vulgar”—and worse. Established taste-makers of the day decreed that if you painted the lower classes at all, you must show them as idealized peasants, not half-nude laborers. To hell with them! I love this painting. The figures strike me as very like Degas’ dancers, not so much in the style (the Caillebotte piece is more realistic, less fuzzy around the edges), but in the way the artist conveys his love of form, his love of the physics of the action. The light falls gently on the stripped floor as the workers bend to their task, likely in the room that was to become Caillebotte’s studio. The figure on the right turns his head slightly to say something to the one in the middle, while the figure on the far left, reaches his arm into the composition, leading the eye naturally to the foreground and back to the elegantly figured window. Note the bottle of wine on the hearth waiting for a break or lunch.

"Paris Street, Rainy Day," 1877

“Paris Street, Rainy Day,” 1877

“The Rue Halevy Seen from the Sixth Floor,” 1878, gives us a view of Caillebotte’s modern city: his building is to the right, the Opera just beyond it. The sweeping changes to the old medieval Paris made by Baron von Haussmann—the geometric layout, widened boulevards, open parks, and uniform building façades—created a splendid panorama for Caillebotte’s eye. I love the scrap of light at the horizon, and feel I’ve seen that very sky in Paris. The most dramatic use of skewed perspective, is evident in “Boulevard Seen from Above,” 1880. We picture the artist hanging out the window precariously to capture this image of foreshortened flaneurs along the boulevard, the lacy branches of the tree contrasting nicely with the straight planes of the street and bench.

"Portrait of Paul Hugot," 1878

“Portrait of Paul Hugot,” 1878

My guess is that you, like me, do know the most famous painting Caillebotte made, for it now hangs in the Chicago Art Institute and has been reproduced on an infinite number of umbrellas, tote bags, scarves, and mouse pads. Yep, you guessed it—the iconic “Paris Street, Rainy Day,” painted in 1877 when the artist was just twenty-nine. This tour de force canvas (the largest he ever painted) gives us a-caught-in-the-moment view of the broad boulevard and its stylish denizens. The effect of the muted palette, looming scale and carefully choreographed action give the piece a static monumentality, even as it shows us the anonymity and alienation of the hurrying figures. The green street light bisects the picture, creating two dioramas with their own integrity. The flat iron building is a portentous presence, as if about to surge forward into the painting. The couple seems not so much individuals, but nineteenth century avatars—the personification of a chic Parisian couple, and, while together, each seems isolated from the other. The effect is not unlike the vaguely unsettling atmosphere of an Edward Hopper painting.

"A Man at his Bath," 1884

“A Man at his Bath,” 1884

Many of the portraits in this show were painted for friends and relatives and then given to the sitters—another reason they remained in private hands so long. The “Portrait of Paul Hugot,” 1878, is particularly charming. This dandyish young man, cut loose from his moorings—no interior, furniture, or rugs, ground him—appears to float in the steam of the trains at the Gare St. Lazare. It must have been a very radical portrait in its day.

Another view of the radical, courageous side of this artist’s vision is “A Man at His Bath,” 1884. Utterly unglamorous, this fellow towels off vigorously, his clothes in a pile by his side. The choice of a male subject, not heroized or idealized, scandalized audiences of the day.

"A Boating Party," 1877-78

“A Boating Party,” 1877-78

One gallery is devoted to loosely painted outdoor pictures made in Yerres, 15 miles south of Paris. Here in his family’s summer home along the Yerres River, Caillebotte likely took up painting and drawing as a boy. We don’t know who the young man is in “A Boating Party,” 1977-78, but clearly he’s a Parisian on holiday, dressed in his formal clothes. His expression of mild discomfort, looking off to one side, may belie his unease on the water, while the more appropriately dressed boaters in the distance placidly drift down river in their curious boating caps. Once again, I get the flash of Hopper—the solitary figure, the sense of alienation.

"Pastry Cakes," 1881

“Pastry Cakes,” 1881

Leaving the placid Yerres River, we enter a food hall—a small gallery filled with all manner of foodstuffs: a cut of beef, glistening lobsters, hanging hares, a calf’s head and ox tongue, game birds, and jewel-like fruits, glamorously displayed. My favorite—a precursor to Wayne Thibaud—“Pastry Cakes,” 1881.

" Dahlias, Garden at Petit Gennevilliers," 1893

” Dahlias, Garden at Petit Gennevilliers,” 1893

Also in 1881, Caillebotte moved to a country home at Petite Gennevilliers, leaving the art scene behind, and devoted himself to racing sail boats and gardening. He never married, but left a substantial bequest to a woman presumed to be his long-time mistress. His love of gardening is apparent in “Dahlias, Garden at Petit Gennevilliers,” 1893. The magnificent flowers are given top billing in the foreground, with a wisp of a woman (his mistress?) pausing as if to check her cell phone on the path.

"Regatta at Argenteuil," 1893

“Regatta at Argenteuil,” 1893

Touchingly sad is “Regatta at Argenteuil,” 1893, a self-portrait, with the artist looking wistfully out at the distance, his sailing partner turned away, as if the artist somehow intuited that he was not long for this world. Caillebotte was to die suddenly from a stroke while gardening only a year later, at 45.

In addition to his artistic contribution, Caillebotte was a patron of the arts, generously keeping many of his colleagues’ careers afloat. His extensive collection included Degas, Monet, and Renoir, among others, and upon his death, it became the corner stone of France’s national Impressionist collection.

This engaging show, with its many facets and surprises, reveals Caillebotte’s substantial role in the Impressionist movement and his influence on modern art to come.

Organized by the National Gallery of Art and the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye will be up through October 4, 2015. http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/exhibitions/2015/gustave-caillebotte.html




"Edouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron," 1881

“Edouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron,” 1881

Imagine you’ve been invited to a gathering hosted by the famous American expatriate painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). Here you meet his teacher, his patrons and their children, as well as his close friends—painters, writers, actresses, musicians, and dancers. You’re free to mingle with—even stare at—these storied creatures, among them, Claude Monet, August Rodin, and Robert Louis Stevenson. In fact, staring is welcomed. Selfies, however, are not encouraged. Where does this sparkling gathering take place? In Gallery 999 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. You’re invited too—until October 4, 2015 when this exhibit of 92 works, organized by the National Gallery of Art, London, in partnership with the Met, closes.

"Ramon Subercaseaux in a Gondola," 1880

“Ramon Subercaseaux in a Gondola,” 1880

While perhaps best known for his elegant society portraiture (who doesn’t love Madame X and her storied dress strap?), Sargent painted many informal, non-commissioned works which are often experimental and reveal haunting psychological complexity.

The arresting child duo, “Edouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron,” 1881, shows Sargent’s ability to take a potentially cloying Victorian subject and turn it into a surprisingly penetrating study. Marie-Louise’s unyielding gaze hints at her future as a prominent literary figure. The brother takes a secondary stance, turning to look over his shoulder at the viewer, as if only half in the picture. Marie-Louise is said to have been a piece of work; we learn that this picture took 83 sittings with many battles over the child’s costume and hair-do. Who would blame Edouard if he wanted to bolt? And what forbearance it must have taken our young master (Sargent was only 25 at the time) to complete this large, lush canvas. Worth it, I’d say.

Ramon Subercaseaux and his wife Amalia, were great supporters of Sargent’s career—a “young couple with progressive tastes.” A lovely portrait of Amalia at the piano hangs near “Ramon Subercaseaux in a Gondola,” 1880. The artist captures the shifting quality of light in that fabled city, as his sitter bobs up and down, evidently making notes before a meeting somewhere in Venice.


“Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife,” 1885

A most curious portrait, “Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife,” 1885, hints at volumes. Stevenson himself said the painting was “…too eccentric to be exhibited. I am at one extreme corner; my wife, in this wild dress, and looking like a ghost, is at the extreme other end…all this … with that witty touch of Sargent’s; but of course, it looks dam [sic] queer as a whole.” What went on in Sargent’s mind as he made this composition? Stevenson appears to be caught mid- sentence, with an uncertain gait and Ichabod Crane-like demeanor, while the veiled wife, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, appears to sulk in the corner. Stevenson has been quoted as saying that marriage to Fanny left him “limp as a lady’s novel,” while Sargent has posed her as an afterthought, practically out of the picture entirely.

"Garden Study of the Vickers Children," 1884

“Garden Study of the Vickers Children,” 1884

From the gloom and sexual ambiguity of the Stevenson picture, we come into the full sunlight of “Garden Study of the Vickers Children,” 1884. Reminiscent of the enchanting “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose,” (not on view here), Sargent has captured the charm and sweetness of these children, but skews the perspective so that they’re viewed from above, with the lilies appearing to fall from the sky. As in the Stevenson portrait, Sargent aligns his subjects off-center, but with an entirely different effect.

"An Out-of-Doors Study," 1889

“An Out-of-Doors Study,” 1889

How expressive Sargent’s portraits of fellow painters are! Of course he totally gets what they’re doing and conveys abounding respect and admiration for the act of painting. Look at the hand in “An Out-of-Doors Study,” 1889. What precision and intent! The hand belongs to his friend Paul Helleu, shown working outside in the lush Cotswolds, with his wife Alice lounging at his side. Another psychological contrast is set up between Helleu’s focused concentration and his wife’s seeming boredom. Sargent sets his subjects informally, as if caught in the moment and not posed, far away from the manicured parlors of his society portraits.

"Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy," 1907

“Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy,” 1907

A later work, “Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy,” 1907, pictures Sargent’s friend Jane Emmet de Glehn and her husband, Wilfred. Sargent traveled widely, experimenting on these travels with outdoor painting. Here he affectionately portrays his subjects with a flourishing brush that catches the vivid Italian light. Once again, we detect a subtle disconnect between husband and wife. Of the picture, Jane says, “…a most amusing and killingly funny picture. I am all in white with a white painting blouse and a pale blue veil around my hat. I look rather like a pierrot, but have a rather worried expression as every painter should who isn’t a perfect fool, says Sargent. Wilfred is in short sleeves, very idle and good for nothing, and our heads come together against the great ‘panache’ of the fountain.”

"Isabella Stewart Gardner," 1888

“Isabella Stewart Gardner,” 1888

In a room devoted to American subjects, we meet “Isabella Stewart Gardner,” 1888, Sargent’s friend and patron. Mrs. Gardner had seen the radical “Portrait of Madam X” (whose daring presentation nearly derailed Sargent’s career), and wanted something similarly striking and non-conformist. Founder of the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston (where this painting hangs today), Gardner cut a bold figure in Boston society and is reputed to have attended a staid symphony performance wearing a headband that read, “Oh, You Red Sox!” I love this full-length vision of a woman ahead of her time: Her body is reduced to an almost abstract black shape, her head silhouetted against the halo of the tapestry behind her, and her alabaster décolletage is luminous. Although the image has a sacramental quality, Jack Gardner, her husband, insisted the portrait not be hung in public during his lifetime.

"Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth," 1889

“Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth,” 1889

Last, but far from least, is “Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth,” 1889. This acclaimed Shakespearean actor played the role in Henry Irving’s production at the London Lyceum with Sargent in attendance. Her jaw-dropping costume was made from 1,000 beetle wings. In the painting, Terry is caught placing a crown on her head after the murder of Duncan, the Scottish king, although, we learn, this is not part of Shakespeare’s play. But who could resist that look of tragic triumph on her face, not to mention the glinting of thousands of beetle wings?

After spending hours in the company of Sargent’s fascinating friends, I was agog at his many talents: his skill rendering light, fabric, skin, nature; the easy freedom with which he moved from salon to informal portraiture; his extraordinary ability to capture psychological nuance. I was inspired to learn more about Sargent, whose enigmatic presence flickered throughout the show like a darting will-o-the-wisp. Next on my reading list: “John Singer Sargent: the Sensualist,” by Trevor Fairbrother.



Jepson Center for the Arts, Savannah, GA

Jepson Center for the Arts, Savannah, GA

Strolling through Savannah’s many Spanish moss-festooned squares, I was transported to a by-gone era—the graceful houses, ornate balconies, magnolia-scented breezes, a horse’s hoof ringing on cobblestones—until I came to Telfair Square, that is. Here, I spotted a bleached white modernist structure that, rather than looking out of place, was refreshingly inviting, with its clean lines and glass walls.

Bird Girl

Bird Girl

Stepping into the vast atrium of the Moshe Safdie-designed Jepson Center for the Arts, I imagined the tug of war that must have taken place between Savannah’s old guard and those lobbying for this building (completed in 2006). But this is Savannah, not Charleston, after all. This historic city is home to the Savannah College of Art and Design which has repurposed many old and beautiful buildings, and has opened this city to new ideas and the forces of change.

Miami, 1998

Miami, 1998

Just not too much change, thank you very much.

Once I’d paid the modest entrance fee, I visited the charming Bird Girl, the familiar image from the cover of John Berendt’s wildly popular book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Bird Girl has left her wistful home in the cemetery to live here on the second floor, demurely greeting visitors in the children’s section.

Westbay, UK 1996. Contact email: New York : photography@magnumphotos.com Paris : magnum@magnumphotos.fr London : magnum@magnumphotos.co.uk Tokyo : tokyo@magnumphotos.co.jp Contact phones: New York : +1 212 929 6000 Paris: + 33 1 53 42 50 00 London: + 44 20 7490 1771 Tokyo: + 81 3 3219 0771 Image URL: http://www.magnumphotos.com/Archive/C.aspx?VP=Mod_ViewBoxInsertion.ViewBoxInsertion_VPage&R=2S5RYDIEPLW6&RP=Mod_ViewBox.ViewBoxZoom_VPage&CT=Image&SP=Image&IT=ImageZoom01&DTTM=Image&SAKL=T

Westbay, UK 1996. 

Next, I headed for the beach.

I had been only vaguely aware of Martin Parr before seeing this exhibit, though he’d made the international photography scene in 1986 with his book, The Last Resort, featuring photographs made at New Brighton, near Liverpool. “The ability for us to laugh at ourselves,” Parr says, “is Britain’s saving grace.” Now, with “Life’s a Beach,” the whole world is laughing. Surreal, openly mocking of our human vanities, and slyly satirical—this show of photographs taken at beaches around the world, gives us the widest lens possible on human seaside behavior—the good, the bad, the ugly, the endearing, and the outrageous.

Knokke, Belgium, 20001

Knokke, Belgium, 20001

I’ll share a few of my favorites.

Flag images figure prominently in many of Parr’s photographs—national identity given a twist. In Miami, in 1998, old glory waves again. And in Westbay, UK, seagulls fight over “chips” with the Union Jack in the background, 1997.

Knokke, Belgium, 2001.

BELGIUM. Knokke. 2001.

I love the matter-of-factness of Parr’s eye, how he stares down the absurd and delivers it deadpan. Several of these images had me laughing out loud. In Knokke, Belgium in 2001, the woman’s eye guards give her a startling eye popping stare, as if hurled onto her chaise by a cartoon knock-out punch.

Jurmala, Latvia, 1999

Jurmala, Latvia, 1999

Also in Knokke, Belgium in the same year, this ghostly apparition appears to be from another planetary system entirely. While in Jurmala, Latvia, 1999, we meet another extraterrestrial.

The young girl with a rainbow in the background (also taken at the same time in Latvia), shows Parr’s ability to find moments of sweetness in life’s parade of the absurd. I love her cocked elbow, her look of bold confidence. I hope she held onto that quality in later years.

Jurmala, Latvia, 1999

Jurmala, Latvia, 1999

In a mysterious image, taken in Qindao, China, 2010, the groom appears to float away on a rising wave, so taken with his bride he levitates, as might a swain in a Marc Chagall painting.

Coming back to earth with a smack, we meet a woman at Paington, UK (1992), lurking behind her Sun tabloid, avidly reading, presumably, the article entitled “I Want to Hang Them.”

Quingdao, China, 2010

Quingdao, China, 2010

After seeing this show, I marveled at Parr’s ability to see the world from his own peculiarly rakish angle and make his art look easy. But, as we all know, especially now, with each of us toting our own smart phone camera and documenting our every move, “Photography is the simplest thing in the world, but it is incredibly complicated to make it really work.” So says Martin Parr. I have to agree.

Paington, UK, 1992

Paington, UK, 1992

I saw the world differently after walking out of this show, and after all, isn’t that why we love what artists do? If you’ve been hooked by these images as I was, you can own Life’s a Beach, a miniature version of this show sold by book purveyors everywhere. (About $20.00 on Amazon.)




"Basket of Flowers on an Alabaster Pedestal," 1785, by Gerard Van Spaendonck

“Basket of Flowers on an Alabaster Pedestal,” 1785, by Gerard Van Spaendonck

The Virginia Museum of Fine Art’s exclusive East coast showing of Van Gogh, Manet, and Matisse: the Art of the Flower is touted as the first major American exhibition to examine 19th century French floral still life painting and its development into a modern, 20th century form. It’s an expansive, but not overwhelming show, featuring some 30 artists, including Eugene Delacroix, Gustave Courbet, and Henri Fantin-Latour, in addition to the stars given top billing.

"Bouquet of Lilies and Roses in a Basket on a Chiffonier," 1814, by Antoine Berjon

“Bouquet of Lilies and Roses in a Basket on a Chiffonier,” 1814, by Antoine Berjon

We drove to Richmond to see the show during Virginia Garden Week, and on Earth Day to boot, so we were primed to bliss out over tulip, peony, ranunculus, and lily. Beautifully mounted, each gallery of this dazzling show is painted a different color— lavender, spring green, heliotrope—giving the sense that the rooms themselves are blooming as you walk through them.

"African Woman with Peonies," 1870, by Frederic Bazille

“African Woman with Peonies,” 1870, by Frederic Bazille

The exhibit begins with the French masters whose technically brilliant work laid the foundation for the genre. Often these preeminent flower painters were originally Dutch or Belgian, trained in the highly realistic northern tradition of flower painting. Interestingly, their botanical illustrations also appeared in scientific journals of the day. Gerard van Spaendonck moved to Paris as a young man and rose to royal flower painter in the court of  Louis XVI.  In his “Basket of Flowers on an Alabaster Pedestal,” 1785, the work is so fine, it appears to be painted on porcelain. No brush strokes break the illusion that these flowers were moments before, plucked from some garden of perfection. In addition to admiring the flowers, we delighted in picking out ladybugs, butterflies, and other fauna, not to mention the occasional shimmering dewdrop.

"Asters in a Vase," 1875, by Henri Fantin-Latour

“Asters in a Vase,” 1875, by Henri Fantin-Latour

The next room, “Flower Painting in Lyon,” brings us Antoine Berjon and his stunning “Bouquet of Lilies and Roses in a Basket on a Chiffonier,” 1814. We learn that Berjon was a professor of flower painting at Lyon’s Ecole des Beaux-Arts, founded by Napoleon to revive Lyon’s silk industry. Here, Berjon trained flower painters to supply images for the exacting process of silk printing. His mastery of both realism and a quirky sensibility are seen in this work, with the man-made objects and found natural objects included in the composition. It’s a tour de force of textural painting, no doubt intended to impress his patrons, but also to give the viewer a wider experience, moving away from more formal compositions in which the bouquet simply appears on a surface with no human intervention.

"Bouquet in a Loge," 1878-80, by Auguste Renoir

“Bouquet in a Loge,” 1878-80, by Auguste Renoir

In the room devoted to the romantic Delacroix and modern master Courbet, we were struck by the new looseness and freedom with which these artists approach their flowery subjects. A favorite in this group is “African Woman with Peonies,” 1870, by Frederic Bazille, a “friend and ally” of those who went on to form the Impressionist school. In this lovely painting, she who arranges the flowers is given a role of equal importance, if not greater, in the magnificence of the final arrangement.

"Lilacs in a Window," 1880-83, by Mary Cassatt

“Lilacs in a Window,” 1880-83, by Mary Cassatt

With Henri Fantin-Latour, we entered yet another realm—now the brush strokes are still looser and far less slick. We were transfixed by “Asters in a Vase,” 1875. The fresh, round flower faces are echoed in the shape of the vase, creating a circular, very pleasing composition. Emile Zola was similarly drawn in, saying in 1880, “The canvasses of M. Fantin-Latour do not assault your eyes, do not leap at you from the walls. They must be looked at for a length of time in order to penetrate them, and their conscientiousness, their simple truth—you take these in entirely…”

Moving into the realm of Degas and Renoir we passed through an ante-room where our fellow art lovers were invited to sit down and sketch a vase full of flowers. We were tempted, but time was short and Renoir pulled at us. In “Bouquet in a Loge,” 1878-80, Auguste Renoir takes his flowers out of the home and places them on a chair in a theater. Even though the chair is almost abstract, we sense that this is a public place. The roses, so dense and tightly-furled, have been discarded in a moment of enthusiasm with what’s happening on the stage, or a distraction from an admirer, or any number of other imagined scenes. The flowers are now part of a story and not merely displayed for their own sake.

"Daisies," 1888, by Vincent Van Gogh

“Daisies,” 1888, by Vincent Van Gogh

In a striking Mary Cassatt composition (hung in the room devoted to Manet and his influences), “Lilacs in a Window,” 1880-1883, the artist places the vase of lush flowers on a window sill, half in and half out of the house. The window, likely one in a greenhouse, serves to enclose the vase and creates a series of pleasing shapes within the off-kilter frame.

"Flowers in a Vase," 1905, by Olilon Redon

“Flowers in a Vase,” 1905, by Olilon Redon

Vincent Van Gogh’s appealing “Daisies, Arles,” 1888, is hung against a slate blue-green wall, its charm lying in the artless way these most prosaic of flowers are tossed into the basket. Soft brushstrokes show the basket has been left on the grass as the gatherer attends to some other task. In 1887, Van Gogh wrote his sister that he had banished the “gray harmonies” of his earlier work by painting “almost nothing by flowers.”

"Still Life with Pascal's Pensees," 1924, by Henri Matisse

“Still Life with Pascal’s Pensees,” 1924, by Henri Matisse

The poppy-red room, “Redon, Bonnard, Matisse,” was the final treat. Odile Redon’s mysterious and mystical flowers have long been a favorite. “Flowers in a Vase,” 1905, seem to merge with the shimmering background, unmoored, floating in space. Looking at this painting, it’s impossible to believe that the artist worked only in black and white until the turn of the 20th century.

“Still Life with Pascal’s Pensees,” was painted in 1924 when Henri Matisse was living in Nice, France. The homey composition harkens back to the invitation of the Berjon painting with the open drawer and glimpse of seashells. This humble image, with none of the slick virtuosity of the Berjon, sent me a similar message: the connection between human thought and nature. Matisse may be about to sit down with his coffee, the breeze from the beach barely lifting the curtain, with his lovely blue and white vase of anemones, arranged just so, to be carried away by Pascal’s thoughts on human existence. Or maybe he’s just made that coffee for us, and we’re invited to join with him in contemplation.

"Wildflowers, Queen Anne's Lace, and Poppies," 1912, by Pierre Bonnard

“Wildflowers, Queen Anne’s Lace, and Poppies,” 1912, by Pierre Bonnard

Another favorite artist, Pierre Bonnard, painted early still lifes with floral motifs, and then, later in his career, came back to them and reveled in their delights. He made sketches in watercolor from life and returned to his studio to work in oil, thus abstracting complex details into an absorbing and brilliant composition. “Wildflowers, Queen Anne’s Lace, and Poppies,” 1912, is an exuberant explosion of color and light, in which the flowers in their tall vase seem spontaneously gathered, hardly labored over in the studio. (Thanks to Deborah Boschert’s Journal, “Around and About in Dallas,” for this image.)

We came out of this show dazzled, itching to draw flowers, in much the same way that seeing dancers leap across the stage makes you want to do grand jetes up the aisle of the theater.

I’m thinking of going back and making that sketch…I have until June 21. Join me?