Geneva Anderson digs into art

Five things you probably don’t know about the Legion of Honor’s “Truth and Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelites and the Old Masters”

John Everett Millais’ “Mariana,” 1851, one of the most beloved paintings in London’s Tate Gallery is now on display at the Legion of Honor, the first time the painting has been on the West Coast.  Painted in a glorious jewel-tone palette and bursting with references to nature, “Mariana” exemplifies the aim of the early Pre-Raphaelites to be completely modern by rejecting the contemporary art of their time and going back to the stylistic, symbolic and aesthetic elements of early Netherlandish painters, particularly Jan van Eyck.  Curator Melissa Buron has paired “Mariana” with van Eyck’s “The Annunciation” (c. 1434/1436) from Washington’s National Gallery of Art, also making its West Coast debut.  Photo: FAMSF

The Legion of Honor has pulled off a major coup with its ravishing summer show, “Truth and Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelites and the Old Masters,” which ends September 30.   This is the first major international exhibition to bring together several of the world’s most beloved of Pre-Raphaelite works and pair them with the medieval and Renaissance masterpieces that inspired them.   Melissa Buron, FAMSF’s Art Division Director, with the support of (soon departing) FAMSF Director Max Hollein, was able to secure over 30 important international loans from 25 private collections and museums to bring Britain’s gem Pre-Raphaelite paintings and masterworks from Fra Angelico, Sandro Botticelli, Raphael, and Paolo Veronese, as well as northern Renaissance painters such as Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling.  There are 111 sumptuous paintings and objects on display that will most likely never been seen together again.

The exhibit focuses on three of the seven founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), all young art students at London’s Royal Academy in 1848—William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti—and traces their influences and protégées into the 20th century.  Fed up with the art of their time, the PRB took an active stance against the “Raphaelites,” the followers and imitators of Raphael who they believed regurgitated past methods without giving them new energy or significance.  Drawing on literary sources, poetry, and scenes from medieval and modern life, the Pre-Raphaelites (PRs) established themselves as the most radical contemporary artists of the Victorian period by creating an aesthetic dialogue with art and artists from past centuries, from early Italian art to genres and materials as varied as medieval illuminated manuscripts and stained glass.  Their commitment was noble but their aims were vague and contradictory which is a likely outcome from a group of young 20 something’s who sought to modernize art by reviving the practices of the Middle Ages.

The show has been widely reviewed, but ARThound brings you five facts about this exquisite exhibit to enliven your experience—

Inspiration for the exhibit:

Melissa Buron, FAMSF Director, Art Division in front of William Holman Hunt’s “Lady of Shalot” (1890-1905), an “exceptional loan” from the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford Connecticut because it is so large and very beloved.   Photo: Geneva Anderson

FAMSF’s Melissa Buron is respected internationally as a leading expert on the Pre-Raphaelites (PRs) and the Victorian era.  Her love of the PRs began when she was a little girl and first read Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shalot.”  Through this, she was introduced to PR images, which began to live in her imagination, and she has studied them most of her life.   The idea of pairing PRs with old masters came about shortly after Max Hollein came on as FAMSF director and exemplifies the support he has given his curatorial team during his short stay in San Francisco.

“It was incredibly exciting when Max told us that he wanted to empower curators to work on projects that were exciting to us,” said Buron.  “He was interested in ambitious ideas that were focused around masterpieces in our collection and that also brought great old master paintings to San Francisco.  As a Victorianist, this was a Eureka moment for me.  For the past decade, I had been here in San Francisco trying to explain the PRs with our second generation Stanhope by explaining that he lived in Florence and was under the spell of Botticelli.  This was 30 years into the PR movement and it was a challenge, explaining his complicated name (John Roddam Spencer Stanhope) and the significance of this rebellious group of artists.  I proposed this to Max and he said, ‘This is a good idea; we’re going to do this.’ He was always there to help with loan negotiations and back me up.  It’s been incredible to have that kind of support.”

Buron’s enthusiasm for Stanhope’s vivid masterpiece, on loan from the Wadsworth in Hartford, led her to place it prominently in the final gallery.  Swirling with energy, the painting depicts the Lady of Shalot, who has been shut away in a tower, being struck by the curse. The stanza of Tennyson’s poem in which the curse is unleashed long fascinated Hunt.  The PRs so admired Tennyson that he was placed on their 1848 list of immortals, implying that his work was to be studied and emulated.  Adjacent to this masterpiece, echoing several themes in the painting, is one of the Legion’s rarely seen treasures—an enormous 16th century wool and silk tapestry from Belgium, “The Combat of the Virtues and the Vices,” the seventh panel in the Redemption of Man series.  Click here for info on the tapestry’s symbolism.

“The Combat of the Virtues and the Vices,” from The Redemption of Man series, ca. 1500-1515, wool and silk tapestry weave, (164 x 314 inches) FAMSF. Photo: Geneva Anderson



Sandro Botticelli’s “Idealized Portrait of a Lady (Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci as Nymph),” from Städel Museum Frankfurt, ca 1475. The famously beautiful Italian noblewoman, Simonetta Vespucci, was Botticelli’s muse and the reputed model for his “The Birth of Venus.”  She represented a captivating subject for the PRB circle as an expression of pure beauty.  Photo: FAMSF

Buron’s first two big asks —Millais’ “Mariana” from London’s Tate Gallery and van Eyck’s “The Annunciation” from the National Gallery in Washington—were turned down.  (She persisted and got them later.)  Sandro Botticelli’s beloved “Simoneta” from Frankfurt’s Städel Museum was the first confirmed painting for the exhibition. “Within 48 hours, they answered back in support of our project,” said Buron.  In homage to that, Simonetta is on the back cover of the catalogue.  The gallery “Botticelli and the Tempura Revival” brings together six stunning Botticelli’s and two Cesare Mariannecci’s after famous Botticelli’s.


A revelation about the Legion’s Stanhope

John Roddam Spencer Stanhope’s “Love and the Maiden,” from 1877, has echoes of Jan van Eyck’s “The Annunciation,” where the Angel Gabriel appears to Mary, telling her she will bear the son of God.  It also illustrates Stanhope’s interest in Botticelli. The figures and landscape are painted with a wonderful sense of color and clarity— delicate flowers, feathery angel’s wings, and the intensity of the two main figures’ expressions. The circle of dancers in the background—three women and a man together, holding hands—are possibly referencing figures that come from Botticelli’s “Primavera,” or “Spring.” FAMSF, Photo: FAMSF

The exhibition gave the curatorial team an opportunity to sample and study the pigments in the Legion’s beloved Stanhope, “Love and the Maiden,” which was always assumed to be a tempura work.  “It was sent to Wintertur in Delaware and we were shocked to learn that there was no evidence of egg as a binding agent and that our painting was actually in oil,” said Buron.  “This in no way impacts the value or significance of this painting but, for us, this was a major revelation.”  The painting can be found in the gallery devoted to the tempura revival.

Uffizi on board!

Max Hollein, FAMSF’s Director and CEO, admires Raphael’s self-portrait, ca 1504-1506, the first painting that Florence’s Uffizi gallery has ever loaned FAMSF.   Hollein, appointed in July 2016, will soon depart for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where in September he will become its new director.  Hollein has long championed putting contemporary works of art in dialogue with the older pieces that inspired them.  In 2012, when he ran Frankfurt’s Liebieghause Museum, he placed Jeff Koons alongside ancient works from the collection to rave reviews.  Photo: Geneva Anderson

Rafael’s self-portrait has been at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence since 1682 and is the Legion of Honor’s first loan from the esteemed museum.  Hopefully, more exchanges will follow.  Rafael painted this self-portrait when he was just 22 but already a rising star in the Renaissance art world.  His outward gaze suggests that his mind is occupied with higher matters, an important character trait for artists who needed to grapple with complex philosophical and literary themes in their work to succeed.  In 1848, when the PRB was just forming, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti penned a “list of Immortals” and Raphael’s name was placed alongside Jesus Christ. His work had the quality of authenticity that the PRs found so inspiring.

Frames as extensions of Paintings

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The PRs were inspired to create works of art that were total works of art that extended beyond the edges of the canvasses to the details of their frames as well.  The lush golden frame for Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “La Pia (La Pia de’ Tolmei)” was designed by Rossetti with raised carved medallions and a translation of the cantos “Purgatorio” from Dante Alighieri’s early 14th century poem, “Divine Comedy.”  The painting was created during the beginning of Rossetti’s affair with Jane Morris, the wife of his friend William Morris.  Jane is depicted as the imprisoned Pia from Dante’s “Divine Comedy.”   The painting is rich in symbolism which includes flying rooks (omens of death), a sundial (to pass the time) and Jane (as La Pia) fingers her wedding ring, the bauble given to her by her husband who trapped and imprisoned her.  Another stunning Rosetti on display his “Beata Beatrix” (1871-72), which drew a parallel between Dante’s despair over Beatrice’s death and Rossetti’s mourning of own his wife’s death.  The composition features both women in separate panels and a gilt frame with carved medallions.



“Truth and Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelites and the Old Masters” ends September 30, 2018 at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor.  Tickets: $28 general admission; $25 (65 and older); $19 students; $13 (6-17).  Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays.  Closed Mondays.  For more info, visit:



August 31, 2018 Posted by | Art, Legion of Honor | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Summer Magic! An in-depth first examination of Magritte’s last 25 years: “René Magritte: The Fifth Season” at SFMOMA

René Magritte’s “Forethought” (1943) is one of 70 of the famous surrealist’s late artworks on view at SFMOMA through October 28, 2018. From his little known “sunlit period,” the painting depicts a quivering plant sporting a dozen or more different species of flowers all branching from a single, thick stem. The work’s debt to Impressionism is clear and deliberate but this seemingly joyful depiction quivers with unease.  Lender: Koons Collection. Photo: ©Charly Herscovici, Brussels/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Think you know Magritte?  “Rene Magritte: The Fifth Season,” at SFMOMA is the summer exhibit to see.  The Belgium surrealist, who died in 1967, at age 68, always offers an intriguing puzzle.  His enduring popularity has pushed his once shocking imagery (pipes that aren’t pipes, bowler hats, floating boulders and green apples) into the realm of cliché.  SFMOMA has remedied that with an important exhibit that, for the first time, explores Magritte’s surprising late-career experimentation from the 1940s to the 1960s. The only venue is SFMOMA and more than 70 artworks are on display, many gathered together from foreign collectors and institutions for the first and likely only time, ever.  Twenty of these artworks have never been seen in the U.S. before.

Curated by Caitlin Haskell, SFMOMA associate curator of painting and sculpture, the show fills the museum’s fourth floor galleries and is grouped thematically into six areas— Sunlit Surrealism and the Vache Period, The Human Condition, Hypertrophy, Bowler-Hatted Men, Enchanted Domain and the Dominion of Light, and Gravity and Flight.  Haskel does a magnificent job of presenting important ruptures in Magritte’s familiar style and his transition to arguably his greatest phase ever which was wildly imaginative, personal, and challenged his audience with perplexing and profound questions.

“This is a remarkable period of transformation and revitalization in Magritte’s work and the most complete presentation of his late work ever,” said Neil Benezra, SFMOMA director. “2018 also marks the 20th anniversary of our acquisition of our great Magritte painting, “Personal Values” (1952), made possible by Phyllis Wattis.  This is one of the cornerstones of our permanent collection and, in many ways; it served as the inspiration and genesis for this show.”

Sunlit Surrealism and Vache: together for the first time

René Magritte’s “The Fifth Season” (1943), painted to provoke an unsettled response. Lender: Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique;  Photo: ©Charly Herscovici, Brussels/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The exhibition begins in the 1943, right in the middle of WWII in Nazi-occupied Brussels with Magritte’s “sunlit surrealism” or Renoir period which lasted until roughly 1947.  Magritte was 44 and he had established himself as a Surrealist in the 1920-30’s, but amidst the war’s atmosphere of anxiety and fear, the movement’s radical aims suddenly felt incommensurate with the times.  Magritte began a period of questioning, both politically and philosophically, and experimenting.  Inspired by the late paintings of Renoir, Magritte worked in a pastiche of Impressionism, but with broken brushstrokes and warmer, more luminous colors with swirling scenes that almost have a sense of fantasy in the way they are constructed—a deliberate parody of Impressionism.  His 1943 painting, “The Fifth Season,” from which the exhibit takes its name, is a prime example.  This is the first time the work has been shown in the US and several of the exhibit’s themes coalesce in this single painting.

Magritte pairs heavy, crude Renoir-like brushstrokes with two standbys from his earlier work in the 1930’s—frames within the frame and men in bowler hats. The paintings within the painting, carried under the two men’s arms, are painted in the same style as the primary scene; one is a dense forest landscape and the other is a blue sky with clouds in it.  The bowler-hatted bourgeois gentlemen in dark suits about to cross paths each evoke alter-egos of Magritte but they are different, odd.

“We’ve been using the Instagram analogy,” writes SFMOMA’s Lily Pearsall, curatorial project manager of painting and sculpture. “It’s almost like he’s applying a filter, saying, ‘Here’s my composition, and now I’m going to apply Renoir.’  And by adding these filters, either the sunlit or the vache, Magritte is provoking the viewer and interrogating their response to both the style and content of these images.”

In his 1943 painting, “The Harvest,” a reclining female nude in front of a window, a familiar Renoir composition, is wildly emboldened with bright bands of flowing colors so that she is psychedelic.

René Magritte’s “The Harvest” (1943).  Lender: Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique; Photo: ©Charly Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Brussels

What was Magritte up to?  That’s a question that is still being debated.  The show’s catalog has two essays looking at the sunlit and the vache periods together, and one of the authors leans more on the side of them being sincere, and the other reads them more as pastiche or parody.

René Magritte’s “Seasickness” (1948).  Private lender; Photo:©Charly Herscovici, Brussels/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Magritte’s vache paintings (1947-8) marked a second, shorter-lived period of provocative experimentation.  Magritte churned out garish paintings with bright colors and unruly crude brushwork that parodied Fauvism and Expressionism.  He made a series of scornful statements against Surrealism  and condemned the Nazi party’s highly successful proliferation across Europe, which had upstaged the surrealists as the ultimate absurdity.  In French, “vache” is literally “cow” but this is from the French “vacherie” or “nastiness” and refers to Magritte’s treading a line between vulgarity and coarseness.  His “Seasickness” from 1948 is enough to make one seasick.

“He was actually posing questions about taste and what is good and bad and asking viewers to contend with these pictures,” says Haskell. “They are not easy in any way. They are very deeply theorized, beautiful in the way post-modern pictures are.”

René Magritte’s “Lyricism” (1947). Photo: Geneva Anderson


Hypertrophy works: “Personal Values” as centerpiece

René Magritte’s “Personal Values” (1952).  SFMOMA, Photo: ©Charly Herscovici, Brussels/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Just as abruptly as Magritte’s departure into bad taste began, it ended.  The 1950s found him returning to his signature style of painting but stepping out further conceptually, creating provocative works that prompted the viewer to question relationships within the material world.  Magritte’s work in this decade is characterized by “hypertrophy,” a jarring alteration of scale among familiar objects to create an unnerving effect.

An entire gallery has been devoted to “Personal Values” (1952), the conceptual centerpiece of the show, and to four additional exemplary paintings making this the most complete presentation of his hypertrophy works to date.  Highlights are two versions of “The Listening Room” (1952 and 1958), “The Anniversary” (1959), and “The Tomb of the Wrestlers” (1960).  In each of these paintings, an everyday object—a granny smith apple, a boulder, a red rose—has been enlarged to a grotesque size, filling an entire room from floor to ceiling.  Or???  Is it the room that has been miniaturized and the apples, boulder and rose are actually normal?  Always presenting a puzzle, Magritte’s message is unclear.  He’s gone well beyond a critique of the age-old painting convention of filling a room with furniture, or ornament.  We can deduce that space is sacred, it is Magritte’s final frontier—is it never empty or abstract and it is not what it seems.  In “Personal Values,” in particular, it is fascinating to ponder the placement, alignment and space between or overlap of each of the oversized objects as well as their individual textures.


Caitlin Haskell, SFMOMA associate curator and Charly Herscovici, President of the Brussels-based Magritte Foundation, with Magritte’s “The Tomb of Wrestlers” (1960).  It took Haskell three trips to Belgium and numerous letters to the private lender to get it to SFMOMA where she had a special niche constructed in the gallery wall to further protect the beloved artwork. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Is this rose not a rose because Magritte named this 1960 painting “The Tomb of the Wrestlers”?  A perplexing title for a painting of a red rose trapped inside a room.  He borrowed the title from Léon Cladel’s 1879 novel, Ompdrailles, le-tombeau-des-lutteurs. (1960).  Magritte always asserted that his titles, despite appearances, fit his pictures perfectly.  He chose his titles carefully, sometimes with the help of friends, listing alternate ones until the most suitable title presented itself.  He was not concerned with representation or pictorial fidelity to the original image.  Private lender. Photo© Charly Herscovici, Brussels/Artist Rights Society (ARS) New York.

This gallery also features examples of Magritte’s delightful painted wine bottles.  “The Curvature of the Universe” (1950) features one of his most alluring recurring motifs, a blue sky with billowy white clouds.

Dominion of Light and The Enchanted Domain

Knowing that Magritte was very interested in creating immersive spaces inspired the SFMOMA team to create a gallery experience that allows you to literally enter Magritte’s world.  Charly Herscovici, President of the Brussels-based Magritte Foundation swooned is “this is magnificent” and “the best” he’s seen in his 38 year career.

An installation view of René Magritte’s “The Dominion of Light” at SFMOMA. Photo: Geneva Anderson

The haunting “Dominion of Light” is the most iconic composition of Magritte’s late work.  This is a theme Magritte explored again and again from 1949-1965, creating 27 landscapes in oil and gouache, all titled “Dominion of Light” and all focused on versions of a mysterious street view.  The lower portions of all these paintings feel like night and depict the front of a house and trees ensconced in a darkness that is barely penetrated by a gas lamp.  The upper portions all feel like day with a glowing blue clouded sky.  Previously, no more than two of these paintings have been exhibited together.  SFMOMA brings together a once-in-a-lifetime gathering of six of these paintings, enabling the viewer to experience different versions in their broad context for the first time ever.  This is something that even Magritte was not able to experience in his own lifetime.

René Magritte’s “The Dominion of Light II,” (1950) from his “Dominion of Light” series. Digital Image: (c) MoMA/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource

The way compositions were painted allowed the curatorial team to put horizontal and vertical paintings side by side but hang them at various heights so that the street lamps are all on one level.  As you walk into the space, you experience stunning modulations of light and dark and the foreground will recede while the sky comes forward and you will begin to see gates, doors, boulders and all sorts of interesting elements.  The ultramarine walls and curved gallery space enhance this magical experience.  Conceptually, all sorts of questions are raised by the simultaneity of daylight and darkness.  Can light co-exist with darkness, good with evil?  What about the co-existence of natural and artificial light?  When we think we see clearly, by what light are we seeing, who controls the light?

Enchanted Domain:

Installation view “The Enchanted Domain,” at SFMOMA.

“The  Enchanted Domain” offers another very bizarre Magritte world to inhabit.  It reunites eight paintings that have not been seen together for 20 years.  Originally commissioned for a circular room in the Grand Casino in Knokke, Belgium, Magritte’s circular panoramic mural from 1953 is by far his largest work at 236 feet in circumference.   Sprung right from Magritte’s psyche, this is an imaginary “enchanted domain,” that incorporates his most popular motifs—lofty sky, desert, apples and abstract geometric patterns.  He created eight oil paintings (at a scale of 1:6 ⅓) that set out the narrative for this masterpiece and four are on display at SFMOMA, hung on a curved surface, giving an approximate sense of a wrap-around continuous mural.

René Magritte’s “The Enchanted Domain I” (1953).  Würth Collection, Künzelsau, Germany; photo: ©Charly Herscovici, Brussels/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

SFMOMA’s installation exemplifies one of the major themes of the exhibit—Magritte perfected a set of Surrealist symbols and used them over and over throughout his career.  An example:  In “Personal Values” (1952), the sky seems to wrap around the painting creating a sense that the room dissolves into a fantasy world.  In “The Enchanted Domain mural, the circular blue cloudy sky on the casino ceiling serves a similar purpose.

Bowler-Hatted Men

René Magritte’s “Son of Man” (1964).  Photo: ©Charly Herscovici, Brussels /Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Bowler hatted men were a recurring motif that Magritte painted in various forms more than 50 times between 1926 and 1966.   In the 1950’s and beyond, they became so closely associated with the artist that they were understood as Magritte himself, his alter-ego. “Son of Man” (1964) may be the most beguiling portrait of the twentieth century or ever,” said Haskell. “What I love about this work is that it sets your mind questioning.  You think you know who this very bourgeois man in bowler is and yet because of the placement of the apple, you are constantly wondering what is behind it.  We see in this self-portrait from 1964 that Magritte is positioning himself in a way that’s very different from our understanding of the existential self-expressive artists of this period.”

Play time!  SFMOMA’s Magritte Interpretive gallery

Don’t skip the fun…selfies in Magritte Interpretive Gallery, at the conclusion of the show.  SFMOMA is hands down the Bay Area leader in engaging tech for wonderful and creative audience experiences. frog, a leading SF global design and strategy firm, has created six interactive immersive Magritte experiences that allow you playfully explore themes of the show and walk away with some great pics.

Allow plenty of time for this show; it’s crowded and set-up to make you think.  You’ll want to study and enjoy these masterpieces and take time to try and decipher the stories within stories and walk back and forth between galleries to track certain motifs.

Details: “René Magritte: The Fifth Season” ends October 28, 2018 at SFMOMA on the 4th floor. Tickets: $33 ($25 general admission and $8 special exhibition surcharge).  Advance purchase of timed tickets is recommended.  A limited number of special exhibition tickets are available for on-the-spot purchase daily but there is no guarantee of availability.  The exhibit is crowded plan accordingly.  For $100, you can join SFMOMA and all exhibits all year are free.  For hours, directions, parking tips, click here.

August 21, 2018 Posted by | Art, SFMOMA | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rustic perfection! “J.B. Blunk: Nature, Art and Everyday Life” at Oakland Museum through September 9, 2018

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The Oakland Museum’s summer exhibit J.B. Blunk: Nature, Art and Everyday Life, celebrates a creative life many of us fantasize about—small secluded cabin, surrounded by nature, living authentically off the land, all time is dedicated to creative pursuits.  If ever there were a model for this, it is artist James Blain Blunk (1926-2002) who lived and created in Inverness from the late 1950’s until his death in 2002.

Blunk’s work, his home and the poetic appeal of his extraordinary counterculture life are all explored in this survey show curated by OMCA Curator of Art, Carin Adams.  Well worth the trip to Oakland, the exhibit includes 80 of Blunk’s important artworks—large wood and stone works, bronze sculptures, ceramics, works on panel and board, and handmade buttons, belts and jewelry—as well as personal photos from his life in Japan and Marin.  A special video, too, was commissioned that includes intimate interviews with Blunk’s family, friends and colleagues who speak to the seamless integration of his life and creative process.

“This idea of an artist who is completely intertwining art and nature and his life is a very California concept, especially the integration of art and landscape” said OMCA director Lori Fogarty.  “He created the most iconic, memorable and beloved element in our building, “The Planet,” which is really the center of our museum.  Right now, we are so pleased to have Blunk on three levels of the museum: “The Planet” is on first level; another piece is in a natural setting in the alcove outside the History Gallery, and the exhibit on the second floor galleries.”

Blunk’s Life = Art

Bunk’s artistic career began in Japan.  Right after finishing college at UCLA in 1949, where he studied ceramics under Laura Andreson, he was drafted into the Korean war and served in the army.  In 1951, he was able to finagle a discharge to Japan where, fortuitously, he met Isamu Noguchi who was instrumental in steeping him in Japan’s rich ceramic tradition and guiding him to apprenticeships with legendary potters Kitaoji Rosanjin (1883–1959) and Bizen style master Toyo Keneshige (1896–1967).

When Blunk returned to CA in 1954, he worked as potter creating stoneware with a strong Japanese influence.  The show includes a few of these ceramics as well as his later paintings, often done on wood that he went over with a chainsaw and then painted in neutral shades, accentuating the wood’s grain and creating a textured surface that referred back to his beginnings as a ceramicist.

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After a few years in CA, Blunk took on work as a carpenter to support himself.  Noguchi arranged another fortuitous introduction, to the British surrealist painter Gordon Onslow Ford, then living in Inverness on 250+ forested acres overlooking Tomales Bay.  After Blunk built a complex roof for Onslow Ford’s new home (designed by Warren Callister), Onslow Ford asked him to stay on in Inverness and offered him an acre of his land.  Reportedly, Blunk climbed trees on the idyllic property searching for the perfect place to situate his home.  This was at the beginning of the West Marin’s handmade house era that flourished in the 1960’s and 70’s.

Blunk chose a forested ridge facing the gorgeous Tomales Bay and, from 1958 to 1962,  he and his first wife Nancy Waite (daughter of Howard Waite), designed and hand-built their home and studio from lumber and logs foraged near the beach at Inverness.  The Blunk House, considered Blunk’s seminal artwork, has evolved over years from its original 600 square feet to about double that.  Simple, it suits the land perfectly and the land suits it.  It includes a ceramic and woodcutting studio and has become iconic in design circles, touted by the NYT Style Magazine in 2016 as “the perfect meeting of California Craft and Japanese Minimalism”.

Interior Sculpture

Detail, interior of J.B. Blunk’s home. Everything in the house—the sculptures, furniture, floors, wall panels, plates, bowls, even the bathroom sink were made by the artist. Photo: OMCA

It was not only the home, but the way Blunk lived in it with his family that mattered.  He fired cups, plates and bowls he fashioned from clay he dug on his land.  He built his own brick and clay kiln. He hunted or grew most of his food. He made his furniture—a combo of sturdy but elegant stools, chairs, and functional slabs such as his famous bathroom sink of hand hewn cypress with its chiseled bowl— and put his artwork everywhere.  All of this was illuminated by sunlight streaming in from windows overlooking a view of paradise.

Blunk, carved bench, front view, OMCA

A redwood stool, circa 1965, has a distinct Asian flair. Its curved chisel-carved seat communicated with art hanging on the walls and the walls themselves. J.B. Blunk, Stool #1, 28x21x12 inches. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Blunk, shirt, belt, buckle, OMCA

During his early days in Inverness, Blunk hunted deer to feed himself and his family. His deerskin shirt in the background (circa 1955), that he wore often, was most likely made by his first wife, Nancy. He made and wore the belt and buckle (circa 1960’s), in the foreground. Courtesy Rufus Blunk. Photo: Geneva Anderson

During this period, Blunk developed a deep love of wood.  He was attuned to the trees surrounding him and collected the burls that washed up on the beach.  He began creating wood furniture from redwood and cypress which he carved out with a chain saw and finished with an angular grinder and chisel.  His first major wood commission was in 1965 for landscape architect Lawrence Halprin who requested an entire room of furniture.  Blunk responded with benches, chairs and a low table that seem to grow organically out of the walls and floor.

With Halprin’s initial help, Blunk went on to obtain several commissions for large-scale sculptural seating projects:  (1968 UC Santa Cruz plaza seating, 1969 OMCA “The Planet,” 1969 “The Ark”).  These massive sculptures were unique in that they were made to be touched and sat on.  He was included in many craft exhibitions.  His beloved “Greens” installation from 1979—a three ton redwood monolith and a group of chairs and tables cut from a single 22-foot diameter redwood stump of redwood—still serves as the sculptural centerpiece and spiritual anchor for Greens restaurant at Fort Mason Center.

Around the time of the Greens project, Blunk became less interested in furniture and more interested in pure sculpture.  He realized that the huge blocks of wood he had standing around his yard waiting to be cut up into firewood were so beautiful that he couldn’t just cut them up and he was inspired to create monumental forms.

Blunk Mage OMCA

J.B. Blunk, “Mage,” 1983, carved redwood. Photo: Geneva Anderson

In the 1980’s, Blunk moved on to tall twisting wood sculptures created with a chainsaw and to stone carvings. His majestic two-legged redwood “Mage” from 1983 is one the show’s highlights. With its poetic natural gnarls and ripples left intact, Blunk’s transformation of the material is minimal, just enough release the inherent beauty in the material he worked with.  “I am in awe of his wisdom about what to highlight in its natural state and what to dig into and transform,” said curator Carin Adams.  “That’s his genius. It wasn’t always what he decided to do with things but what he decided to let stand on its own.”

Blunk’s friendship with Noguchi deepened over the years.  “I’ve heard stories from his family members and from his long-time assistants about Noguchi’s regular visits and how they would walk through the fields adjacent to J.B.’s studio and home and just look at assembled materials, not really talking, just nodding occasionally and looking,”  said Adams.  “I think they had a long-term, active, vital exchange that was important for each of them.”

Don’t miss Blunk’s “The Planet” in OMCA’s lobby

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In 2019, OMCA celebrates the 50th anniversary of the opening of its historic landmarked building. Designed by Pritzker prize-winning architect Kevin Roche, this jewel is one of California’s most stunning examples of examples of mid-century modernism. The building actually had to be constructed around Blunk’s majestic two-ton, 13-feet-diameter work “The Planet,” carved from the base of a single redwood tree.  The magnificent sprawling piece was commissioned in 1969 and is situated at the heart of the museum on the first level at the entrance to the Gallery of California Natural Sciences. Sadly, the piece’s installation precedes all of the museum’s current employees so no one was able to relate in person the story of this piece’s installation but the exhibit does include several photos.

Free informative Exhibition Tours | J.B. Blunk: Nature, Art & Everyday Life:

Saturday, August 18, 2018, 12–12:45 p.m., inquire at entrance where to meet

Saturday, September, 1, 2018, 12-12:45 p.m., inquire at entrance where to meet

More resources J.B. Blunk:

The wall texts are informative but Blunk is an artist who cries out for a book that can be poured over and treasured. His daughter, Mariah Nielson, who works with the Blunk estate and founded the company Permanent Collection (it sells re-casted originals of her dad’s works, such as Blunk Cups) has just finished digitizing his entire archive and is collaborating on a forthcoming book.

For now, the most complete information on Blunk comes straight from the horse’s mouth—a wonderful 3 hour and 34 minute oral interview Blunk did in 2002 in Inverness with Glenn Adamson for the Archives of American Art’s Nanette L. Laitman Documentation Project for Craft and Decorative Arts in America. Click here to be directed to the interview.

To read more about how J.B. Blunk influenced CA’s fine wood tradition, read ARThound’s  “Family Tree” Petaluma Art Center’s Exceptional Fine Woodworking Show through March 13, 2011


Details: “J.B. Blunk: Nature, Art & Everyday Life” is on display at OMCA through September 9, 2018.  General Admission tickets include this exhibit: $15.95, $10.95 seniors, $6.95 Youth 9-17 and free for children 8 and under and OMCA members. As part of Friday Nights at OMCA, on Fridays 5 to 10 p.m., enjoy half price admission for adults and free admission for 18 and under.  Get your groove on with wine, beer, music, featured artists, Off the Grid food trucks and more.

Coming this fall to OMCA “The World of Ray and Charles Eames” October 13, 2018- February 17, 2019.  (This exhibit originated at the Barbican London, 21 October 2015 – 14 February, 2016)

August 10, 2018 Posted by | Art, Oakland Museum of California | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The 38th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival comes to Marin: 14 films over 3 days (August 3-5, 2018)

A still from Shawn Snyder’s debut film To Dust, SFJFF38’s Centerpiece Narrative film and winner of the Audience Award for Best Narrative at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.  The dark comedy screens Saturday evening at the Smith Rafael Film Center as part of the SFJFF38’s Marin segment, which runs August 3-5, 2018 and includes 14 of the 18-day-long festival’s most popular films. Image: SFJFF

The 38th installment of SFJFF (San Francisco Jewish Film Festival) come to Marin this Friday through Sunday (August 3-5, 2018) at the Smith Rafael Film Center.  Featuring 14 of the full festival’s most popular films, the Marin segment offers a fascinating global film survey.   This year’s Marin lineup includes a mix of feature-length award winning documentaries covering Jews in Bollywood to UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim’s tainted 1986 bid for the Austrian presidency as well as compelling high-stakes dramas.  For those north of the Golden Gate, this mini-fest affords a short drive time, hassle free parking, and the Rafael Film Center’s state of the art acoustics.  The only downside to this year’s Marin programming is that there are no special guest appearances.

Presented by the Jewish Film Institute of San Francisco, SFJFF38, is an annual 18-day-long festival (July 19-August 5) that showcases 67 films from 22 countries at venues in San Francisco, Palo Alto, Albany, Oakland and San Rafael.   A number of films have won awards at prestigious film festivals and many of those presented in years past have gone on to be distributed nationally in theaters and on TV.

ARThound recommends:

Friday/August 3, 8:20 p.m.  Wajib (Duty)

A scene from Wajib, Palestinian writer-director Annemarie Jacir’s third feature film. Image: SFJFF

Wajib (Duty) is a low key comedy set and filmed around the Arab community in Nazareth.  Shadi (Saleh Bakri), an architect who lives in Italy, returns to Nazareth for his sister’s wedding. His father, Abu Shadi (renowned actor Mohammed Bakri, the real-life father of Saleh Bakri), welcomes his son’s help in hand-delivering 340 wedding invitations, a Palestinian tradition.  Driving around in Dad’s blue Volvo, the men reconnect as they bring envelopes to friends, cousins, aunts and uncles who ply them with coffee and sweets at each stop.  Winner Special Jury Prize Locarno Film Festival, the film provides a glimpse into the beauty and complexities of life in Middle East, presenting two different generations of Palestinians’ views on the ongoing conflict and Israeli occupation.  (97 minutes, in Arabic with English subtitles)

Saturday/August 4, 11:30 a.m.  Shalom Bollywood: The Untold History of Indian Cinema

A still from Austrian filmmaker Danny Ben-Moshe’s documentary, Shalom Bollywood: The Untold History of Indian Cinema. Image: SFJFF

Eleven years in the making, Austrian filmmaker Danny Ben-Moshe’s delightful Shalom Bollywood: The Untold History of Indian Cinema celebrates the world’s largest film industry with the largely unknown story of the 2,000-year-old Indian Jewish community and its shaping of the Bollywood.  When Indian cinema began 100 years ago, it was taboo for Hindu and Islamic women to perform on screen, so Indian Jewish women took on female lead roles, which they then dominated for decades. Some of the biggest stars of Indian cinema — Sulochana, Miss Rose, Pramila, Nadira, and David — were all Jewish.  Through interviews with descendants, imaginative use of archival footage, animation and a pulsing Bollywood soundtrack, the film focuses on the lives of Indian cinema’s Jewish icons at the heart of Bollywood, from the turn of the 20th century to the present day. The documentary also provides a glimpse into the history of the Bene Israel and Baghdadi Jews, who came to India to escape persecution, and how their small community continues on today. (136 min, English)

Saturday/August 4, 4:05 p.m.  The Waldheim Waltz

Kurt Waldheim in a scene from Austrian filmmaker Ruth Beckermann’s documentary The Waldheim Waltz. Image: SFJFF

In 1986, Austrian filmmaker Ruth Beckermann (Return to Vienna,  SFJFF 1984) took to the  streets of Vienna to film protests over former United Nations Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim’s election bid to become Austria’s president.  Just weeks before the final vote, news broke that Waldheim had been a senior ranking German army officer in the vicinity of the infamous 1942 Nazi deportation of 56,000 Greek Jews from Thessaloniki.  He denied it.  For some Austrians, Waldheim’s firm refusal to admit guilt symbolized their nation’s unspoken complicity in wartime atrocities. For others, supporting Waldheim was an issue of national pride.  Waldheim won the presidency and Beckermann never used the footage.  With the recent rise populist right-wing demagogues such as Austrian chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, she revisited her material and put together the riveting doc,  The Waldheim Waltz, covering the tense weeks prior to Waldheim’s June 1986 victory.  The material presented is from second-hand newsreel and TV footage, with clips of self-shot video and stills from inside homegrown protest groups.  Beckermann delivers a deadpan voiceover commentary, pinpointing how the Waldheim affair destroyed “Austria’s grand delusion of having been the first victims of the Nazis.”  Winner Best Documentary, Berlin Film festival 2018 and SFJFF38’s Centerpiece Documentary.  North American premiere (93 minutes, German, English, French)

Saturday/August 5, 6:35 p.m.  To Dust

A still from Shawn Snyder’s debut film To Dust, SFJFF38’s Centerpiece Narrative film and winner of the Audience Award for Best Narrative at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. Image: SFJFF

This absurdist story, To Dust,  SFJFF38’s Centerpiece Narrative film, is so absurd it is captivating.  It involves a grief-stricken Hassidic cantor (Géza Röhrig, Son of Saul, 2015) in Upstate New York whose wife has died of cancer and who becomes obsessed with how her body will decay.  He ends up in the classroom of a local community college science professor (Matthew Broderick) and the two embark on a number of bizarre experiments aimed at gaining insight into bodily decay.  (92 min, English)

Sunday/August 5, 11:45 a.m.  The Interpreter

A still from Slovakian director Martin Sulik’s The Interpreter (Tlmocnik). Image: SFJFF

Czech new wave director Jirí Menzel (Closely Watched Trains, 1968 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film) and Peter Simonischek (the father in Toni Erdmann) star in The Interpreter, Slovakian director Martin Sulik’s bittersweet drama.  Menzel plays Ali Ungar, an interpreter, who is investigating the circumstances of his parents’ death at the hands of a Nazi officer during World War II. With an automatic pistol in his pocket, he heads to Vienna and meets the officer’s paunchy son, Georg Graubner. The happy-go-lucky Graubner, oddly enough to Ungar, also wants to know about his father and the atrocities he is accused of committing against the Jews. “Let’s go,” says Graubner cheerily, offering to pay Ungar for his services as an interpreter.

Details:  SFJFF38 in Marin starts Friday, August 3 with a 1:20 p.m. screening and concludes Sunday, August 5, with an 8:30 pm screening. Tickets: $15 per film or $125 Marin Pass for all 14 films. Advance ticket purchase highly recommended.  Full schedule and tickets at

August 1, 2018 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment