My Favorite Bookshelf

My Favorite Bookshelf

Friday, October 9, 2015

Restoring the Grandeur of Rome

Rome's famous Spanish Steps closed to the public Wednesday for a restoration project funded by luxury jeweler Bulgari that is expected to last several months. Bulgari is putting $1.7 million into the refurbishment. The 18th-century Baroque-style stairway, which has 144 steps, was last restored 20 years ago. 

The work, which will be carried out by local restorer is expected to be finished by spring 2016, at which point the steps will be "restored to the whole world in all their beauty and splendor," Rome mayor Ignazio Marino said. 

The steps will be closed to pedestrians until December 7—the start of a special Jubilee year expected to draw millions of Catholic pilgrims to Rome. 

"Rome has always been the number one source of inspiration for Bulgari so it is right to give back to Rome what Rome has given Bulgari," the jeweler's CEO Jean-Christophe Babin said as work began. 

The work includes re-levelling the steps to repair natural wear, maintenance of the rainwater drainage system, as well as restoring the original lamps which illuminate the steps by night. 

The Spanish Steps, which links Bernini's "boat" fountain with the Trinita dei Monti church at the top, were made famous in the United States by the 1953 film Roman Holiday, starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. 

Bulgari pledged the money last year in response to a government plea for help in financing Italy's heritage monuments. In addition, the private sector is already helping restore other UNESCO monuments: in Rome, luxury shoemaker Tod's is financing works at the Colosseum, while high-end fashion house Fendi is refurbishing the Trevi Fountain.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

A Short Architectural History of the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery

The Renwick Gallery is the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s branch for contemporary craft and decorative arts and is the first purpose-built art museum in the United States. The building is considered one of the first and finest examples of Second Empire architecture in the United States. 

The Renwick building was designed to house the art collection of William Wilson Corcoran, a native Washingtonian and a prominent banker and philanthropist. In 1858, Corcoran engaged the noted architect James Renwick Jr., who had earlier designed the Smithsonian’s Castle in Washington and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, to design a public museum in which to display his art collection. 

Construction of the Renwick building marked an important moment in the cultural history of the United States, as it was the first time a building had been designed expressly as an art museum, and helped to introduce a new style of architecture to Washington and to the nation. 

Renwick was inspired by the Louvre’s newest addition in Paris and modeled the gallery in the Second Empire style that was then the height of French fashion. His design integrated the central pavilion and distinct mansard roofs he saw in France with his own creative interpretation of proportions, details and architectural elements. The result was a building unlike anything else in the United States at the time, popularizing a style that soon spread throughout the country. 

Renwick chose a contrasting palette of materials for the building: Baltimore pressed red brick, brown Bellville sandstone from New Jersey and purple Welsh slate. The interior included a grand flight of stairs to the second floor, which featured a main picture gallery (the Grand Salon) and an “Octagon Room” that was designed for Corcoran’s favorite sculpture. Elegant arched entryways to the galleries echoed the arched windows and front doorway. 

The architect incorporated a whimsical American touch into his design by adding ears of corn among the acanthus leaves of the columns’ capitals, inspired by Benjamin Latrobe’s earlier use of corn in his capitals at the U.S. Capitol. The words “Dedicated to Art” were inscribed in stone above the front entrance. Upon its eventual completion, Sen. Charles Sumner dubbed the building the “American Louvre.”

Known today as the Renwick Gallery, it is the third oldest Smithsonian building. In 1956, Congress proposed that the building be razed. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy successfully led the campaign to save the Renwick building as part of her plan to restore Lafayette Square and in 1965, S. Dillon Ripley, then secretary of the Smithsonian, met with President Lyndon Johnson to request that it be turned over to the Smithsonian. 

It was subsequently dedicated “for use as a gallery of art, crafts and design.” It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1969, and was designated a National Historic Landmark building in 1971. The Renwick Gallery opened in 1972 as the home of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s contemporary craft and decorative art program. 

The Renwick Gallery, after completing an extensive two-year renovation, reopens to the public Friday, November 13, with carefully restored historic features, entirely new infrastructure, dramatically improved energy efficiency and other upgrades that will make the National Historic Landmark building into a 21st-century destination.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Case of the Upside Down Matisse at MoMA

Le Bateau (The Boat) | 1953
Museum of Modern Art
[Image shown right side up.]

In October and November of 1961, only one person among the 116,000 visitors to the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition "The Last Works of Henri Matisse" noticed that one of the most elegant of the great artist’s late career cutouts, Le Bateau ("The Boat") was hanging upside down. The esteemed curators responsible for capsizing the sailboat, and even the artist's own son, the New York art dealer Pierre Matisse, had not noticed the error. 

Le Bateau, executed in 1953, is comprised of paper cutouts forming a blue boat sailing on a windy day with clouds, and the water outlined with graceful, yet assertive, curving purple lines. The bottom half of the picture shows a stylized reflection of the boat and clouds. 

“For the last forty-seven days, a picture by the
French master Henri Matisse has been hanging
in the Museum of Modern Art—upside down."
New York Times | December 5, 1961

However, a stockbroker named Genevieve Habert could not believe that Matisse would have arranged the picture in such a way as to give more detail to the reflection than the boat itself. An admirer of Matisse’s work, she visited the exhibition multiple times and on the third visit bought a catalogue, which, showing the picture correctly displayed, validated her assumption. 

Habert approached a nearby guard to notify him of the mistake. The guard responded rather amusingly, "You don’t know what’s up and you don’t know what’s down and neither do we." Undeterred by this modernist babble, Habert made her way to the information desk, but as it was a Sunday, the curatorial staff were not available. She decided to contact the New York Times, who ran the story on December 5a day after an embarrassed director of the exhibition righted the picture. 

According to the museum’s curators, Le Bateau had been hung incorrectly in the past as indicated by deep screw holes in the frame, which along with the labels had led them unwittingly to commit their error. On closer inspection, however, screw holes were discovered on the correct half of the frame as well, indicating that at least once the sailboat had headed in the right direction. 

Le Bateaunow part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Arthangs right side up.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye at the National Gallery of Art

The Floor Scrapers | 1875
Oil on Canvas
Musée d'Orsay | Paris
The artistic career of Gustave Caillebotte (1848–1894) began with failure. In 1875 the jury of the Salon, the French government’s elite art exhibition held annually in Paris, rejected his submission, The Floor Scrapers. Painted earlier that year, Caillebotte’s picture of shirtless, working-class men hand-planing wood floors did not appeal to the conservative sensibilities of the jurors, who were confounded by its vulgar subject matter and unsettling perspective. Although his depiction of modern urban life put off the Salon jury, it caught the eye of several impressionist painters, who persuaded him to join the group’s second exhibition the following year. Displayed alongside paintings by Edgar Degas, Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and Claude Monet, Caillebotte’s work garnered considerable critical attention. It was not only praised for being excessively original and a “faithful representation of life,” but also criticized for its un-idealized subject. 

Caillebotte was thrilled by the impressionists’ fresh, radical vision. Over the next six years he participated regularly in their exhibitions, submitting paintings of the people and places he encountered in and around Paris. Caillebotte established himself as an artistic force in the group, as well as a vital organizer who helped curate and finance their exhibitions. During his brief career he also became a significant patron, amassing a collection of more than seventy works, including masterpieces by Degas and Renoir as well as Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissarro, and Alfred Sisley. 

Despite these accomplishments, Caillebotte remains perhaps the least known of the French impressionists. Because of his secure finances—derived from his father’s successful textile business—he had no need to earn an income from his art. He therefore did not sell his pictures, and few entered public collections. After he bequeathed his collection to the state, it became the cornerstone of impressionist art in French national museums. But the impressive bequest, which included only two of his own works, overshadowed his artistic achievements and further contributed to his obscurity. 

More than a half century after his death at age forty-five, interest in Caillebotte’s art began to reemerge. Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye continues this rediscovery, gathering his best work for a fresh look. The exhibition not only includes his most famous cityscapes and interiors, but also shows his artistic range with a selection of portraits, nudes, river scenes, still lifes, and landscapes. The exhibition runs from June 28 through October 4, 2015 at the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Paris Street, Rainy Day | 1877
Oil on Canvas
The Art Institute of Chicago

Source: National Gallery of Art, Washington

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi

The Smithsonian American Art Museum has organized a major exhibition about Yasuo Kuniyoshi, a preeminent 20th century modernist whose talents and contributions have rivaled those of his contemporaries, including Edward Hopper, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Stuart Davis.

Kuniyoshi emigrated to America from Japan as a teenager, rising to prominence in the New York art world during the 1920s to become one of the most esteemed artists in America between the two world wars.  He drew on American folk art, Japanese design and iconography, and European modernism to create a distinctive visual style.  Kuniyoshi defined himself as an American artist while at the same time remaining very aware that his Japanese origins played an important role in his identity and artistic practices.

His inventive, humorous early works often included subtle color harmonies, simplified shapes, oddly proportioned figures, and an eccentric handling of space and scale.  His work became more sensuous and worldly after two long stays in Paris, as he painted moody, reflective women and still lifes with unusual objects.

Kuniyoshi was thoroughly integrated into American life and the art world, but immigration law prevented him from becoming an American citizen.  Classified an "enemy alien" after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, he remained steadfastly on the side of his adopted country during the painful war years, working with the Office of War Information to create artworks indicting Japanese atrocities.  After the war, Kuniyoshi developed a compelling late style, with bitter subjects and paradoxically bright colors.

The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi is the first comprehensive overview of his work by a United States museum in more than 65 years.  The exhibition traces Kuniyoshi's career through 66 of his finest paintings and drawings, chosen from leading public and private collections in America and Japan.  The exhibition runs through August 30 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.

Strong Woman and Child | 1925
Smithsonian American Art Museum