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“Lorenzo Pagans,” 1871-72, Musee d’Orsay

At my reserved time slot, properly masked and distanced, I walked into the National Gallery of Art on a beautiful September day. It was like going home after a six-month exile and I was more than ready to see some art, in the flesh, so to speak. And what a treat awaited – Degas at the Opéra, a celebration of the Paris Opéra’s 350th anniversary. The Musée D’Orsay, the Musée de l’Orangerie, and the National Gallery joined forces to gather paintings, works on paper, and one sculpture by the great opera and dance devotee.

Degas adored the Paris Opéra – the wonderful old building, the dance classes and rehearsals, and the fantastical stage performances. He also didn’t shrink from the seamier side of the Opéra ballet of the mid-to late 1800s. Had the #metoo movement been afoot (pun intended), the young women of the corps de ballet would have been tweeting their hearts out.

 

“Portrait of Mille Fiocre in the Ballet La Source,” 1867-68, Brooklyn Museum

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Degas, born into a well-to-do family, was introduced early to the joys of music at salons in his home. This portrait of the soulful Lorenzo Pagans was also a portrait of Degas’ father, seen with his head framed by sheet music. It was the only portrait Degas ever painted of his father of whom he was very fond. Unfettered by the need to earn money, and with encouragement from his well-to-do parents, Degas was free to develop both his talent and his love of the opera, in which dance had a starring role.

“La Source,” likely Degas’ first opera ballet painting, depicts what appears to be an idealized history scene, but is a faithful rendering of the ballerina Eugenie Fiocre, dressed for her role as the melancholy Nouredda, bride of the khan. Glad you asked. Yes, the set did have a stream running through it and a live horse made an appearance, too. Look between the legs of the horse and you can make out a discarded pair of pale pink ballet slippers.

“Friends at the Theater,” 1879, Musee d’Orsay

Degas was just as interested in the patrons of the Opéra as he was the performers. In “The Two Friends,” we see his dear friend, Ludovic Halévy, conversing with another gentleman. It was Halévy, an avid connoisseur, who first introduced Degas to the Opéra. I love the strong vertical element setting off the two men, and how their dark suits and tall hats are crisply silhouetted against the painted stage flat.

“Robert le Diable,” brings us down to the orchestra level, the vaunted territory of season ticket holders, all men. (Women were seated upstairs, in the boxes). At this point, the Meyerbeer opera was somewhat shopworn, and, as you can see, the  gentleman with the opera glasses to the left is far more interested in who might be up in the boxes than he is in the action on the stage. Floating above the orchestra we see reprobate nuns, risen from the dead, performing a suggestively bacchanalian dance, as only a fallen nun can.
 

“The Ballet from Robert le Diable,” 1871, the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Throughout this lush show, Degas’ use of color—in his marvelous pastels and oil paintings—is a standout. I loved “Yellow Dancers,” both for the eye-popping citrus yellow, but also for the wonderfully intimate poses of the dancers in the wings. First and foremost, Degas thought of himself as a draftsman and used line to express his love of the human form. He would sketch the same pose over and over, finding the volume, weight, and characteristic expression in each. He created a vocabulary of dancers’ poses – yawning, back scratching, stretching, flexing the foot, extending the leg—which he could draw upon when a composition called for it.

“Yellow Dancers in the Wings,” 1874-76, Art Institute of Chicago

In “The Curtain,” a dancer flees from a top hatted man. Her panicked eye is barely visible as she disappears out of the frame, her red sash trailing. Men also lurk to the left, and from behind a flat their trousered legs mingle with those of the dancers. Wait. What’s going on here? As season ticket holders, these men enjoyed the privilege of openly stalking the young dancers, ogling them from the wings or the front seats of the orchestra. Degas depicts them with a stark and sinister air; their constant presence serves as a reminder that the dancers—often only girls—were generally from poor families. If they showed talent, they would be pushed into a profession that was only a cut above prostitution. Several paintings here show the girls’ bonneted mothers coaching them at auditions or seated in the galleries watching rehearsals. They were complicit; surely they knew what peril their daughters might face in the life of a dancer.

“The Curtain,” 1880, National Gallery of Art

Around 1880, inspired by Renaissance alter panels and Japanese woodblock scrolls, Degas began to create frieze-like pictures such as “The Dance Lesson,” the first of these horizontal compositions. An exhausted dancer in a red shawl slumps on a double bass while the strong line of the dark brown panel draws the eye to two other dancers, one adjusting her sash, and on to a group of dancers by the barre in the strong light of the windows.

“The Dance Lesson,” 1879, National Gallery of Art

The same elements appear in “Dancer Climbing the Stairs,” but are now radically changed. A dancer climbs a staircase to the rehearsal room as two other dancers follow, just barely visible at the far left of the picture. One turns to the other, as if in the midst of conversation, and, even though we barely see the third dancer’s face, the swirling motion creates a sort of eddy in the wake of the climbing dancer which increases the sense of upward momentum. All this arrested action is even more impressive as we learn the staircase never existed.

“Dancers Climbing the Stairs,” 1886-90, Musee d’Orsay

Across the room from the frieze paintings are a series of fans Degas created in a time of financial pinch when the Degas family banking enterprise went belly-up. Here, too, we see the Japanese influence as Degas plays with compositions in a constrained space. One has a special significance. Among the first he created, this fan features Spanish dancers and musicians. Although he’d planned to sell the fans, he gave this one to his friend, Berthe Morisot. Later, she featured the fan in her own painting, “The Sisters,” also found in the National Gallery’s permanent collection.

“The Sisters,” 1869, by Berthe Morisot, National Gallery of Art

And now – the moment you’ve likely been waiting for: “The Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen,” the only sculpture Degas exhibited in public in his lifetime. The National Gallery proudly owns a large collection of Degas waxes, and this young girl, with her perfect turnout, forward thrust hips, and pensive, long-suffering face, is perhaps the best known. She wears tights, a real fabric tutu, dance slippers, and a satin ribbon in her hair (human and horsehair). I gazed into her face and wondered what she was thinking as she posed for the artist. Today, we find her charming—I certainly did—but in her day, most viewers did not find her charming at all. When she debuted at the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition in 1881, the critics, fed on a more conventional diet of idealized classical sculpture, savaged her as “odiously ugly,” an “Opera rat” unworthy of elevation to art.

On that melancholy note, the show came to an end, and as I walked out of the last gallery, I found myself in a makeshift gift shop, where our dear little Opéra rat adorns everything from scarves to tote bags.

“Little Dancer Aged Fourteen,” 1878-1881, National Gallery of Art

Do try to get there, if you’re anywhere near DC. This glorious show, featuring a number of video clips of the ballets depicted in the paintings, is up until October 12, 2020, proof that not everything in this blighted year is toxic.

Indeed, Degas at the Opéra is a tonic.

You can get your timed entry slot here:

https://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/2020/degas-opera

 

 

“Spanish Dancers and Musicians,” 1868-69, National Gallery of Art

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aerial view of the NGA roof terrace

Aerial view of the NGA roof terrace

Well worth the three-year wait, the newly redesigned and refurbished East Building of the National Gallery of Art has reopened. Perry Chin, a colleague of I.M. Pei, architect of the original, undertook the extensive, if subtle reworking. First opened in 1978 to house modern and contemporary art, the building is comprised of interlocking triangles reflecting the shape of the original parcel of land.

The works now on view incorporate more than 200 of the NGA’s plunder of the now defunct Corcoran Gallery’s collection (an astonishing 8,766 works). As reported recently in the Wall Street Journal, the NGA got to choose whatever it wanted from the Corcoran’s collection (dream job, or what?) after the dear old gallery’s financial demise. Now many choice pieces benefit—as do we—from the smart reworking of gallery space.

"Hahn/Coick," 2013, by Katharina Fritsch

“Hahn/Coick,” 2013, by Katharina Fritsch

For my first visit, I decided to start at the top—the new outdoor roof terrace—and work my way down. Never made it to the bottom. Another day, another blog!

With a sweeping view of Pennsylvania Avenue, the terrace houses modern sculpture, including George Rickey’s mesmerizing “Divided Square Oblique,” 1981. I sat on a bench and watched those stainless steel wand swing and dip to form seemingly endless combinations. Soon a museum employee scuttled around to polish the “Do Not Touch” signs embedded in the floor near each sculpture. A good thing, too, as Katharina Fritsch’s “Hahn/Cock,” 2013, polyester resin, begged to be touched. Seen here through the stainless pipes of Kenneth Snelson’s “V-X,” 1968, the monumental rooster is sure to become a favorite selfie spot.

"Three Motives Against a Wall No.1" 1958, by Henry Moore

“Three Motives Against a Wall No.1” 1958, by Henry Moore

Just inside the door leading from the sculpture terrace to Tower One, I was captivated by the amusingly named “Three Motives against a Wall, Number One,” 1958, a small Henry Moore bronze. This mix of small delights and monumental construction is one of the charms of the East Building. Unlike, for example, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, whose vast entry/atrium seems to exist more to elevate the architect than to house art. I could go on—think “starchictects” we know and don’t love—but why, when there’s so much to love here?

"Stations of the Cross," 1966, by Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, Classic Paintings

“Stations of the Cross,” 1966, by Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, Classic Paintings

Namely, the spare “Stations of the Cross,” 1966, in the new tower gallery. Comprised of fourteen paintings by Barnett Newman, this work was first exhibited at the Guggenheim in 1966. Since then, these paintings have received lots of critical acclaim and a good bit of distain as well. Newman has said that the line in his paintings—he called them “zips”—symbolized an individual man or woman, reduced to his or her most essential representation. Raised Jewish in New York City, are we to think from the title that Newman converted to Catholicism?  No, as the wall text explains. These works, meant to be seen sequentially, explore a single theme. Jesus’s cry on the cross—“Why have you forsaken me?”—is also our existential question as humans. What are we doing here and what comes next?

"Shell No. 1," 1928, by Georgia O'Keeffe

“Shell No. 1,” 1928, by Georgia O’Keeffe

The adjacent gallery, also lit by filtered tower light, gives us “Mark Rothko: The Classic Paintings.” Here in early works, the artist explores basic human emotions of “…tragedy, ecstasy, doom.” Stepping into this gallery, we Washingtonians think immediately of the Rothko room at the Phillips Collection. The comparison works in favor of both institutions. The small room at the Phillips allows viewers to be immersed in the pulsing color of the paintings, up close and personal. And although the tower room is considerably larger, the same reverential feeling abides. Taken as a whole, the Newman and Rothko tower galleries feel like a sacred space.

Walking down the staircase leading from Tower One to the Upper Level (Modern Art from the Collection), it seemed as if every inch had been buffed and polished. Or maybe the staircase is one of the new ones. I’m hoping to take a tour that will make clear how the building was renovated. As it stands, it all feels so fresh and new that it’s hard to recall how the original spaces were configured.

"Germinal," 1967, by Louise Bourgeois

“Germinal,” 1967, by Louise Bourgeois

In the “Dada and Beyond” gallery, the curators have filled a case of small oddities that coexist so beautifully it’s as if they were made to be together. Georgia O’Keeffe’s beguiling “Shell No. 1,” painted in 1928, hangs with several Joseph Cornell boxes. These are kindred spirits of Betye Saar’s “Twilight Awakening,” made fifty years after O’Keeffe’s luminous shell. “Germinal,” a 1967 marble sculpture by Louise Bourgeois possesses the sly humor of its casemates. Notions of theft flit through the mind. They’re all small enough to fit in…oh, never mind.

Walking through the gallery entitled “Birth of Abstraction,” I passed a flock of Brancusi sculptures, each mounted on gorgeous wooden bases, to find Wassily Kandinsky’s “Improvisation 31 (Sea Battle),” 1913. The piece does roil and splash, colors hitting colors with exuberance, but not quite the violence suggested by the title. How fresh and modern this picture feels103 years later.

"Improvisation 31 (Sea Battle)", 1913, by Wassily Kandinsky

“Improvisation 31 (Sea Battle)”, 1913, by Wassily Kandinsky

Color also rules in Hans Hofmann’s “Autumn Gold,” 1957. I can get lost in this composition, enjoying the tactile application of paint, how colors slap up against other colors. Clearly the artist loved paint for paint’s sake.

Much more controlled is Gene Davis’s “Black Popcorn,” 1965. Hung in the space entitled, “Color Field and Edge,” it’s an old friend from the Corcoran collection. Here the color is sparked by black stripes. The so-called “Washington Color School” gets ample billing here, thanks to the NGA’s Corcoran windfall.

autumn-gold

“Autumn Gold,” 1957, by Hans Hofmann

Nearby hangs Sam Gilliam’s “Relative,” 1969. Gilliam, now 82, is breaking new ground with a monumental piece commissioned by the Museum of African American History and Culture. Can’t wait to see it. Gilliam’s work, always hard to categorize, evolved from figurative work to the breakthrough in which he abandoned the frame entirely. In the “draped” paintings, the canvas is painted with abstract images and then hung—from walls, ceilings, even the front of a building in Philadelphia. Rather than hanging limp or inert, “Relative” seems to march across the wall with great energy.

"Black Popcorn," 1965, by Gene Davis

“Black Popcorn,” 1965, by Gene Davis

After an hour and a half, I’d savored the art (oh, those shimmering Morandi still lifes!), and also reveled in the building itself, gleaming and full to bursting, topped off by that friendly alien, the Alexander Calder mobile. Later, I was stunned to learn that it was the final monumental piece commissioned from Calder, and that he died shortly after the untitled mobile was installed in the East Building. Knowing that, I’ll see it just a bit differently, but always with awe and affection.

"Relative," 1969, by Sam Gilliam

“Relative,” 1969, by Sam Gilliam

Good news: the terrace café has reopened, albeit offering packaged food and get-it-yourself coffee, sadly, but still…you can sip your coffee and nibble on your scone and watch the Calder mobile languidly traverse that extraordinary space.

"Untitled," 1978 by Alexander Calder

“Untitled,” 1978 by Alexander Calder

For a glimpse of how the precision work was done to create the building in the 1970s, click the link below and view a twelve-minute documentary which also shows Calder, Robert Motherwell, and Henry Moore in collaboration with architect I.M. Pei and then-museum director, the stylish impresario,  J. Carter Brown.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PeXiV3L-f3E

 

"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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"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

 

 

 

"Little Girl in Blue Armchair," 1878, by Mary Cassatt

“Little Girl in Blue Armchair,” 1878, by Mary Cassatt

The most satisfying art shows—and this is one of them—pair beautiful, challenging, or even disturbing art with informative behind-the-scenes information, be it historical, technical, personal, or in this case, all three. Close friends for nearly 40 years, Mary Cassatt said that knowing Edgar Degas had “changed my life,” while Degas, upon first seeing Cassatt’s work, said, “…there is someone who feels as I do.” The rich material accompanying this show brings that long relationship—and the work it spawned—to life.

"Rehearsal in the Studio," 1878-79, by Edgar Degas

“Rehearsal in the Studio,” 1878-79, by Edgar Degas

Room one, “Experimentation and Exhibition,” looks at both artists’ use of unusual materials: distemper (pigment mixed with glue), metallic paint, and egg tempera, and the bold choices in paintings they hung in the 1879 Impressionist Exhibition, a breakthrough show for Cassatt and a huge success for Degas.

A long-time favorite by Cassatt (National Gallery of Art), “Little Girl in Blue Armchair,” oil on canvas, 1878, was Cassatt’s first truly Impressionist painting. I love the rapid, slapdash brush-strokes of the chintz, the caught-in-time moment, as if the child has thrown herself down for a moment of deep childhood contemplation, or has just awakened from a nap. As on an endless Saturday afternoon, time seems to expand into the room. Turns out Degas may have had something to do with that. On his advice, Cassatt changed the horizontal line where the wall meets the floor to a more dynamic triangular corner. This necessitated shifting the furniture around and moving the dog—originally on the floor behind the child—to the chair opposite. This change produces a companionable symmetry between child and dog, and further opens up the space.

"Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: the Etruscan Gallery," 1878-80, by Edgar Degas

“Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: the Etruscan Gallery,” 1878-80, by Edgar Degas

Shown at the 1879 Impressionist Exhibition, Degas’ “Rehearsal in the Studio,” egg tempera on canvas (collection of the Shelburne Museum, Vermont), 1878-79, shows his fascination with and influence by Japanese composition: the low perspective, blocks of color, and subdued palette.

Room Two is called “Le Jour et La Nuit,” which refers to a journal of experimental prints that Cassatt and Degas were to publish together, again experimenting with an unfamiliar technique of soft ground etching. Again, as in Japanese art, the two embraced imperfections and accidents as they emerged. The charming “Woman Seated in the Loge,” by Mary Cassatt, ca. 1880 (a lithograph now at the Museum of fine Arts, Boston), seems at first to be a sketch, its free and open lines appearing to have been dashed off right there in the theater. Also owned by the MFA, Boston, Degas’ crayon lithograph “At the Theater: Woman with a Fan,” has the same vivid on-the-spot quality and again shows Japanese influence in the composition. Neither image is available, sadly.

"Mary Cassatt," 1879-84, by Edgar Degas

“Mary Cassatt,” 1879-84, by Edgar Degas

The room, “Mary Cassatt at the Louvre” gives us a multi-faceted view of the artist as Degas saw her. Demanding, curious, elegant in her person, Cassatt comes to life here.

“Mary Cassatt at the Louvre, the Etruscan Collection,” 1879-80 (soft ground etching, drypoint, aquatint, and etching) is highly detailed and technically accomplished. An entire wall is devoted to this subject, and in viewing the various prints, sketches, oils and pastels, you sense that you’ve really seen the Mary Cassatt Degas so admired, as she moves with assurance through the Louvre’s many galleries.

“Mary Cassatt,” 1876-84, oil on canvas (National Portrait Gallery), is a penetrating portrait, one that Cassatt hung in her studio for years, but eventually tired of, and sold quietly without Degas’ knowledge. It’s not conventionally pretty, not by a long shot, but this woman looks like someone I’d like to know. I was jarred out of my communion with Cassatt by a pair of young women who approached the painting, one saying, “She looks mean.” To which the other replied, “She’s just like, you know, ‘I can’t be a part of any more of this crap.’” Well, maybe. I’ve heard that Degas was pretty hard to get along with.

"Fan Mount-Ballet Girls," 1879, by Edgar Degas

“Fan Mount-Ballet Girls,” 1879, by Edgar Degas

In the next room, “Collecting and Exchanging,” we learn that Degas collected Cassatt’s many images of the same print, indicating that he loved not only the finished product, but her process in making them. For her part, Cassatt preferred to set up sales for artist friends with wealthy Americans, but owned six of Degas’ works, small, intimate pieces such as “Fan Mount—Ballet Girls,” 1879, watercolor and gold on silk (Metropolitan Museum of Art). Part of a trade, Cassatt said this work was “…the most beautiful Edgar Degas every painted.”

"Young Woman in Black (Portrait of Madame J)," 1883, by Mary Cassatt

“Young Woman in Black (Portrait of Madame J),” 1883, by Mary Cassatt

In the luscious, “Young Woman in Black (Portrait of Madame J),” 1883, oil on canvas (Maryland State Archives), Cassatt pays sly homage to her friend by posing her model in front of Degas’ fan mount.

The final room, “Beyond 1886,” explores a turning point in both the artists’ friendship and their careers. While they remained steadfast lifelong friends, the intense collaboration of their earlier years waned, with Cassatt devoting more and more time to her paintings of mothers and children. Her works became more realistic and less impressionistic—and, let’s face it, more treacley—while Degas’ work took the opposite turn.

"Forest in the Mountains," 1890, by Edgar Degas

“Forest in the Mountains,” 1890, by Edgar Degas

The brooding “Forest in the Mountains,” a Degas monotype (Museum of Modern Art), 1890, is a startlingly abstract vision, with its smear of dark red paint like dried blood, and the looming tree hinting at the hidden power of nature.

Both Degas’ and Cassatt’s love of Japanese prints endured during this period and their influence can be seen in another favorite Cassatt image, “Woman Bathing,” 1890-91, a color drypoint and aquatint (National Gallery of Art).

"Woman Bathing," 1890-91, by Mary Cassatt

“Woman Bathing,” 1890-91, by Mary Cassatt

If this sampling has whetted your appetite for more, “Degas/Cassatt,” with around 70 works on view, is up until October 5, 2014.

http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/exhibitions/2014/degas-cassatt.html

 

 

 

 

Between the years of 1972 and 2010, Crown Point Press in San Francisco was one of the finest printmaking studios in the country, turning out stunning works by many leading artists. The perfect finished print, though, rarely gives us a glimpse into the tortured process that may have led to the final proof. “Yes, No, Maybe,” on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C, explores this iterative process by juxtaposing rarely seen preliminary test prints, working proofs, and final prints, many of them owned by the gallery.

Photo maquette, "Keith," 1972, Chuck Close

Photo maquette, “Keith,” 1972, Chuck Close

Although the show features some twenty-five artists, I’ll dwell here with my favorites: Richard Diebenkorn, Chuck Close, and John Cage. Quotes from each artist illuminate the work: Diebenkorn boiled down all artistic endeavor to being “…in the nature of problem solving,” while Cluck Close said, “The far more important thing is problem creation (italics mine),”and for John Cage, it’s all about “…asking questions instead of making choices.”

"Keith," 1972, by Chuck Close

“Keith,” 1972, by Chuck Close

The show opens with the evolution of Chuck Close’s “Keith,” 1972. In this work, Close—drawn by the velvety blacks and pearly whites the process produces—challenged himself to produce the largest mezzotint possible. Could the process work at great size on one of his “mug shot” portraits? He joined Crown Point’s founder Kathan Brown and the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco’s works on paper group to find out. The mezzotint process involves scraping and pitting the plate to give a highly textured ground. Close learned as he went, while Brown and the printmaking team experimented with photo etching. The sheer size of the finished product caused the work to take months, rather than the usual weeks. Somewhere in the process, Close decided to leave in the faint background grid lines in the final print, a trademark of his later work. In the final result, Keith’s asymmetrical face appears to be viewed from under water, the expression constantly changing to reveal interior psychological depths.

"Touched Red," 1991, by Richard Diebenkorn

“Touched Red,” 1991, by Richard Diebenkorn

Revision was also essential to Richard Diebenkorn’s work. “I seem to have to do it elaborately wrong and with many conceits first, then maybe I can attack and deflate my pomposity and arrive at something straight and simple.” Repetitions and comparisons between the lines, shapes, and colors finally coalesce in a state of “rightness,” but at the same time allow for “a sudden surprising contradiction.” “Touched Red,”1991, was the result of pasting shapes over and over in 40 working proofs, all of which belong to the NGA, a gift from Crown Point Press. In the final result the work’s patinated surface appears to have accumulated over time, like the paint layers on an old screen door.

"Green," 1986, by Richard Diebenkorn

“Green,” 1986, by Richard Diebenkorn

The evolution of “Green,” 1986, shows Diebenkorn’s attempts to “steal a second chance.” Earlier images seen in the working proofs (an infinity symbol, the upturned tail of a cat) are gone in the final, subsumed by the luminous ground of green and vivid cobalt reminiscent of the oil paintings of Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park and Berkeley series. The tranquil aerial views of those paintings also come to mind in “High Green Version,” 1992.

Trust John Cage, who didn’t think of himself as an artist at all, to produce some of the most fascinating work in this show. Cage’s interests in Zen, natural history, and numeric theory shape the works he produced while at Crown Point Press.

"Eninka 29," 1986by John Cage

“Eninka 29,” 1986by John Cage

In a video we see Kathan Brown and Cage, collaborating on Cage’s “Eninka 29,” running burning newspaper and damp sheets of paper through the press to create ethereal, subtle, shifting images. Also visible are brandings with a hot coil. At the first successful print, Cage exclaimed, “Oh, it’s beautiful! I can’t believe it! I couldn’t sleep all night. I thought my whole life had been a waste!”

"75 Stones," 1989, by John Cage

“75 Stones,” 1989, by John Cage

In “75 Stones,” 1989, Cage selected a palette based on the color of the stones and then positioned the rocks by chance calculation. The project began as an homage to the 15 stones in the Zen rock garden at Roanji, Japan. Cage started with 15, but wound up with 75, which seemed the right number. Don’t the images have a calligraphic, Japanese feel?

“17 Drawings by Thoreau,” 1978 is a fetching tribute, using images of a hawk feather, hazel nut, and rabbit tracks. The position, orientation, scale, and color of the images were also calculated by computer “chance operations.” In Cage’s mind, even though he couldn’t draw (or thought he couldn’t), the process rendered the images “beautiful.” I agree.

"17 Drawings by Thoreau," 1978, by John Cage

“17 Drawings by Thoreau,” 1978, by John Cage

If you love works on paper, and crave being a voyeur in the print shop, the show will be up until January 5, 2014. There’s still time!

http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/crownpoint.shtm

 

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.

 

Kirov5

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 http://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/