"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?


"Nishimikawazka, Sado Island," 1921

“Nishimikawazka, Sado Island,” 1921

A screen of snow, a curtain of rain, a spring shower, a sunset behind a bridge in summer: all vivid images created by the Japanese printmaker, Kawase Hasui (1883-1957). In the newly modern Japan of the early decades of the twentieth century, Hasui and his fellow shin-hanga (“new print”) artists—still relying on the exacting methods of full-color woodblock printing techniques—created stunning landscapes and evocative glimpses of everyday life,.

"Snow at Golden Pavilion," 1922

“Snow at Golden Pavilion,” 1922

Carolyn Hsu-Balcer and Rene Balcer have given their magnificent collection of hundreds of Hasui’s prints, paintings and printed ephemera to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Virginia. Spanning the entirety of Hasui’s career, the collection includes rare work made before the great earthquake of 1923 which tragically destroyed vast numbers of his notebooks, paintings, woodblocks, and prints.

The Balcer collection is on view at the VMFA until March 29, 2015. It’s a huge and hugely absorbing show.

"Evening Snow at Terajima," 1920

“Evening Snow at Terajima,” 1920

Here, fresh images of every day Tokyo life and scenes of the artist’s wide-ranging travels are infused with a hushed beauty and complexity. This subtle layering of composition, color, and texture is all the more astounding when you—thanks to a film showing continually—are made privy to the process of collaboration between artist, woodblock carver, and printmaker.

"Snow at Zojo Temple," 1922

“Snow at Zojo Temple,” 1922

First, the carver, in a process that can take up to two weeks, creates the “key block” from a watercolor design pasted to the woodblock. Subsequent “color blocks”—up to a dozen or more, depending on the number of colors the artist wants in the finished print—are meticulously carved. The printmaking process itself is as exacting as is the carving. The results dazzle, not only technically, but in the range of feelings the works arouse in the viewer.

In several instances we see the evolution of an image, as in the case of “Nishimikawazaka, Sado” (from Souvenirs of travel, Second Series, 1921). A preliminary watercolor, a mid-range version, and a later edition are on view side by side, with the artist’s choices regarding composition, texture, and color evident in each. Here we see the midrange version woodcut, part of the Balcer gift to the museum.

“Uchisange, Okayama," 1923

“Uchisange, Okayama,” 1923

Once you’ve learned a tiny bit about the printmaking process, you will stand, open-mouthed, in front of “Snow at the Golden Pavilion” (from Selection of Scenes of Japan, 1922.) Each swirling snowflake was cut around and raised, giving the scintillating effect of falling snow.

In “Evening Snow at Terajima Village” (from Twelve Subjects of Tokyo, 1920), we move from the other worldly shimmer of the golden pavilion to an equally enchanting, but far more prosaic scene of a Tokyo canal neighborhood, with its lantern-like windows and parade of telegraph poles.

“Spring Shower in Shiba Park," 1921

“Spring Shower in Shiba Park,” 1921

“Snow at Zojo Temple, 1922” was the very first Hasui print collected by Rene Balcer. “I had been that figure making his way across a snow-swept park,” he says in the richly illustrated exhibition catalogue. As February refuses to quit, haven’t we all been that figure? This elegantly spare, very modern image evokes a shudder as icy flakes intrude behind the collar of the overcoat.

"May Rain at Sanno Shrine," 1919

“May Rain at Sanno Shrine,” 1919

Hasui was also a master of depicting rain, as we see in “Uchisange, Okayama” (from Selection of Scenes of Japan, 1923). The figure in the yellow slicker morphed from one in traditional Japanese dress in an earlier etching. Further editing in two subsequent versions results in this startlingly graphic image, the yellow figure standing like a semaphore in the teeming rain.

Lest you think spring will never come, “Spring Shower in Shiba Park” (from Twelve Months of Tokyo, 1921) should cheer you. I love the floating clouds of cherry blossoms, abstracted to such a degree they appear to be underwater coral reefs. And oh, those parasols, blooming like poppies in the rain.

“Kami(no) Bridge, Fukagawa," 1920

“Kami(no) Bridge, Fukagawa,” 1920

“May Rain at Sanno Shrine” (from Twelve Subjects of Tokyo, 1919) gives us a charming scene of a woman, a baby on her back, hurrying her little dog through a fine spring rain. They pass a mysterious figure, hunched in the shelter of the solid bulk of the shrine. A begger? A monk?

Hasui’s mastery of light is evidenced in “Kami(no) Bridge, Fukagawa” (from Twelve Subjects of Tokyo, 1920). This luminous view of river, boats and buildings framed by the bridge allows us to share Hasui’s delight in an everyday stroll through the city.

"Shinkawa at Night," 1919

“Shinkawa at Night,” 1919

“Shinkawa at Night” (from Twelve Subjects of Tokyo, 1919) is a mysterious, almost foreboding image. The brilliant light emanating from between the two buildings hints at the supernatural, as the early stars emerge from a cobalt summer sky.

Coming fully into the sunshine, at last, we bask in the charming “Komagata Embankment” (Twelve Subjects of Tokyo, 1919). The driver and his placid horse drowse in an early summer day, having presumably worked very hard at bundling up all that bamboo. The bundles act as a screen, allowing us a glimpse of tranquil water, buildings and sky beyond.

komagataAs you’ve seen, Kawase Hasui created works that dazzle technically, but also touch the viewer, never to stooping  to the commercial or banal, but finding a still place to contemplate nature and man’s (and woman’s) place in the world.

The show is well-worth the drive from the DC metro area–and it’s free!

If you do go, try to make it on a Thursday or Friday when the very, very good restaurant, Amuse, is open. Have cocktails in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows and watch the sun set behind the silhouetted trees. You’ll feel you’ve entered the floating world of Kawase Hasui.


Pinstriped Suit for Rose, "Titanic," 1997, by Deborah L. Scott

Pinstriped Suit for Rose, “Titanic,” 1997, by Deborah L. Scott

Just in time for Oscar buzz, your intrepid art blogger drove to Richmond, Virginia to scope out the century of film costumes now showing at the VMFA. This sweeping exhibition, organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, includes cinema costumes from private and archival collections. First seen at the V&A and in Melbourne, Australia, the VMFA is the only East Coast venue to mount the show.

Costume has power. As you walk among this extraordinary clothing—made deliciously voyeuristic by the fact that echoing in your head throughout is Matt Damon actually wore those trousers! Marilyn Monroe’s skin touched that dress!—it’s more than the second-hand star power that inhabits the costumes, it’s the magical creation of someone new, not actor or actress, but a character we all believe really exists. We see these icons as not only the movie stars who played them, but as Travis Bickle, or Scarlett, or Sugar Kane, or Harry Potter. In the dressing room, we’re told, an actor makes “not so much a change of clothes, as a change of skin.”

Lucy Honeychurch, from "A Room with a View," 1985, by John Bright and Jenny Beavan

Lucy Honeychurch, from “A Room with a View,” 1985, by John Bright and Jenny Beavan

Look at Rose, “Titanic,” 1997, chic in purple pinstripes. In this costume, by Deborah L. Scott, 1997, she’s confident, if a bit demure, a well-bred young lady on an adventure. It’s all there.

Standing next to Rose is one of my all-time favorite characters, Lucy Honeychurch, played by Helena Bonham Carter in the 1985 production of “A Room with a View,” adapted from one of my all-time favorite novels by Henry James. This charmer, made of white cotton, linen, and lace is topped with saucy straw hat and accompanying parasol—a fresh young girl’s dress, perfect for the role.

Costume for "Atonement,"  2007, by Jacqueline Durran

Costume for “Atonement,” 2007, by Jacqueline Durran

Lounging nearby is the green vamp dress made for the Kiera Knightly character in “Atonement,” 2007, the acid counterpart to both Rose and Lucy. This secuctress was made “more naked,” by the use of laser cut patterns, according to Jacqueline Durran, its creator, allowing for a wide hem and more slippery movement.

Tippi Hedren's "Birds" costume, 1963, by Edith Head

Tippi Hedren’s “Birds” costume, 1963, by Edith Head

Edith Head and Alfred Hitchcock carefully selected another green for the Melanie Daniels character in “The Birds,” 1963. Generally I’m not a fan of interactive, video-laden museum display, with its cacophonous babble of conflicting sound, but this show is the exception. Here Edith Head and Tippi Hedren discuss this celadon number, accompanied by clips from the movie, a reel of Kodak film, and a vintage poster. The cool green suit, one of only three costume changes in the film, is pure Edith Head—simple and elegant, the perfect embodiment of the icy Hitchcock princess headed for a fall—and a pecking.

Costume from "Elizabeth the Golden Age," 2007, by Alexandra Byrne

Costume from “Elizabeth the Golden Age,” 2007, by Alexandra Byrne

Around the corner, one is met with a spectacular array of historic queens. My pick: Elizabeth the Golden Age,” 2007, by Alexandra Byrne for Cate Blanchett—damask, velvet, linen, and ostrich feathers. Fabulous! But the stiff corset stay underpinning can’t have been fun, even for slim Cate.

Costumes for "Gangs of New York," 2002, by Sandy Powell

Costumes for “Gangs of New York,” 2002, by Sandy Powell

In another video interview, Martin Scorsese and Sandy Powell discuss how they came to create the fantastical costumes for “Gangs of New York,” 2002. Based upon a ton of research, the costumes are a blend of historical accuracy and pure fantasy. “Costume is character,” Scorsese says. Look at that hat on the Daniel Dey Lewis character, Billy the Butcher: it “cuts through the crowd” in an “imposing” fashion; the vibrant color, brocade vests, flamboyant neckties, all combine to create a hyper-vision of Five Points gangsters, where the intimidating bully meets the frock-coated dandy.

"Iron Lady," 2012, costume by Consolata Boyle

“Iron Lady,” 2012, costume by Consolata Boyle

Soon we’re in Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro land: her costumes from “Mama Mia,” “The Iron Lady,” “The French Lieutenant’s Wife,” and “Out of Africa;” his from “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” “King of Comedy,” and “Casino.” Telling details revealed: Meryl wanted to know what would have been in Margaret Thatcher’s purse and insisted exactly those things be there in the bag she carried in the film. Consolata Boyle’s costumes, along with Meryl’s acting chops, combine to eerily channel Margaret Thatcher on the screen.

Jack Sparrow costume, 2011, by Penny Rose

Jack Sparrow costume, 2011, by Penny Rose

I’m less a fan of “Gone with the Wind,” 1939, than many of you may be, so I won’t dwell long on the lace mantilla, or the “Paris hat” Rhett gives Scarlett, but they’re here, along with scripts and other memorabilia. I also won’t dwell for long in the macho room (“Action and Suspense”) where costumes from “Sherlock Homes, a Game of Shadows,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Flash Gordon,” and other super-heroes are displayed. Still, the quintessential rock n’roller, Jack Sparrow (costume by Penny Lane for “Pirates of the Caribbean: on Stranger Tides,” 2011), does deserve an admiring pause. Depp based the character, famously, on Keith Richards, as he put it, “a bit of a rogue, slightly hopeless and threadbare.”

Louise Glaum in "Sex," 1920

Louise Glaum in “Sex,” 1920

Linger I did in the “Femme Fatale” room—who wouldn’t? Surrounded by the vampiest costumes yet. For the 1920 film, boldly titled, “Sex” (yes, you can get it on Amazon), this number, with its blown glass bead cape designed for Louise Glaum, was the earliest costume to be screen-tested.

Gown for "Bugsy," 1991, by Albert Wolsky

Gown for “Bugsy,” 1991, by Albert Wolsky

Next up, Annette Benning in “Bugsy,” 1991. Created by Albert Wolsky, this dress—see-through when backlit, remember?—used nine pounds of glittering silver beads. And who can forget that leg-crossing moment in “Basic Instinct,” 1992? Here we see Ellen Mirojnik’s stunning design for Sharon Stone. And if that doesn’t stop the show for you, take in Marlene Dietrich’s tuxedo, designed for the 1930 “Morocco” by Travis Bandon.

Sharon Stone in costume by Ellen Mirojnick for "Basic Instinct," 1992

Sharon Stone in costume by Ellen Mirojnick for “Basic Instinct,” 1992

Should you go—the show is up until February 17, 2014, then it’s off to some undisclosed West Coast venue—do also take in “Made in Hollywood: Photographs from the John Kobol Foundation,” through March 10, a trove of 93 myth-making shots of Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, which gives equal time to such hunks as Clark Gable, Marlon Brando, Rock Hudson, and Gary Cooper.


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