ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

Meet Richard Savino, whose baroque instruments add period splendor to Handel’s “Orlando,” at SF Opera through June 27

Grammy-nominated guitarist/lutenist Richard Savino who makes a special appearance with the SFO Orchestra for Handel’s Orlando at SFO.  Photo: Geneva Anderson

When Handel’s baroque opera Orlando, opened June 9 at San Francisco Opera, guitarist and lutenist Richard Savino was the most sought after musician in the pit.  The grammy-nominated musician, making a special appearance with SF Opera, is one of the world’s foremost early music instrumentalists. His playing was magnetic and stood out, even among the rich arias in this must-see production. Savino spent much of the intermissions fielding questions from fascinated attendees about his theorbo and baroque guitar.  The theorbo is a guitar-like instrument with a very long neck—as long as six feet—with two sets of strings— a longer set tuned with pegs at the top of the fret board (for the deeper range) and a shorter set tuned by pegs on the sides of the fret board (for the higher range).  Savino also doubles in certain parts of the opera on baroque guitar.  His buoyant playing stands out in most parts of Orlando but is heard most clearly in the recitatives—the dialogue that moves the story forward.  Once you recognize his sound, it’s easy to find.  There is a lot of improvisation for Savino as Handel didn’t orchestrate Orlando but provided just the chord changes.  The musicians of the continuo ensemble—Christopher Moulds (conductor/ harpsichord), Ronny Michael Greenberg (harpsichord), David Kadarach (cello)—work together and improvise much like a jazz rhythm section, deciding together how the music will be voiced.  In person, Savino’s personality is just as energetic and engaging as his playing and his passions run wide.  He has given important works that haven’t been performed in centuries their premiere recordings and has developed a fascinating sideline, providing musical accompaniment to art works held in the world’s most elite collections and putting together programs on early artists and period music.  Savino was eager to talk about his music, Orlando and his numerous projects:

 

How did you come to early music and why? Your bio indicates you dabbled in rock and roll and then jazz fusion first which strikes me as unusual path.

Richard Savino:  For me, it was all very logical.  I love the Beatles and listened to them all the time.  At their core, they were rock and roll as well as pop musicians, but they were also very influenced by all epochs of classical music, including baroque music.  One reason for this is because George Martin, their producer, was a classically trained composer.  They used the harpsichord on a number of their songs and many others fall within the classical/romantic cannon.  In particular, they had a real fascination with music from the baroque era and contemporary music of the ’60s.  Listen to Penny Lane, a Tin Pan Alley kind of pop song that has a piccolo trumpet solo.  This is because Paul McCartney heard a piccolo trumpet player play Bach’s second Brandenburg concerto.  Then, listen to A Day in the Life, with its incredible orchestration.  Both songs are magnificent.

I also played rock when I was in high school and I always sang too.  I won a high school vocal competition in a school of 4,000 students.  A couple of years before me, the person who won that same competition was Pat Benatar.  I was always in choirs, so I knew the Bach cantatas, Handel, so forth.  When I went to the State University at Stony Brook, I began to have a strong interest in classical guitar, and I was lucky enough to have a wonderful teachers, in particular Jerry Willard, Oscar Ghiglia, my dear friend/colleague Eliot Fisk, and harpsichordist Albert Fuller who would have a huge impact on my life.  Interestingly, every classical guitarist studies early music because the canon for our repertoire is so rich.  I was also one of the last group of students to study with Andres Segovia.  Unlike most other instruments, guitarists are required to study early music from the 16th and 17th centuries.  The weirdest part is that I went from being a rock and roll guy to studying classical guitar to playing the theorbo and baroque guitar.  I love the Spanish canon that Segovia brought to our consciousness.

 

Most early music specialists tend to focus on the baroque and early renaissance periods but you are also very engaged with the classical music of the 19th century and play instruments from that period as well.  What accounts for your unusually broad scope?  

Richard Savino:  One could say it’s a lot of ADD.  I love playing music from all epochs and the guitar flourished during the 19th century.  It has quite an extensive solo and chamber repertoire.  The 19th century guitar is very different from the classical guitar.  It’s much smaller, more intimate and is the perfect bridge between the guitars of the 18th century and the modern classical guitars; it’s a transitional instrument.  I just love playing it.  Early in my career, I went out of my way to specialize in late 18th and early 19th century chamber music.  And while I love playing solo pieces, I also realized that the world can only sustain a certain number of solo classical guitarists and I am too much a social an animal.  I really enjoyed playing with other musicians, so I went down that path which led me directly into playing basso continuo and other plucked stringed instruments like the theorbo and baroque guitar, which I play in Orlando at SF Opera.  But I still love playing the 6 string guitar and my first recordings were for the Harmonia Mundi label and featured the complete Boccherini Guitar Quintets, which no one had ever recorded before on instruments from the epoch.  A couple of my other recordings that I’m really proud of are the romantic miniatures titled Bardenklänge by Johann Kaspar Mertz, and my recording of Mauro Giuliani’s Op. 30 Concerto, which, I believe, is the only one of its kind that is performed on period instruments with NO cuts.

 

Can you give an example of a moment in SF Opera’s production of Orlando that you have come to love through experiencing it performed?

Richard Savino:  I can’t actually watch because I’m playing but, during rehearsals, I was constantly standing up to try and see what was going on because I knew it was a contemporary adaptation set in WWII.  In a musical context, I have been very moved by the Act 1 duo between Anjelica and Medoro, “Ritornava al suo bel viso” and Orlando’s “Fammi combattere” at the beginning of the opera, and Orlando’s Act 3 aria, “Gia l’ebro mio ciglio,” which is so beautiful with the two violas that have this gorgeous full cadenza at the end of it.

Handel is a remarkable genius and I’ve played many of his operas with Glimmerglass Opera, Opera Colorado, San Diego Opera, San Francisco Opera, and Santa Fe.  He is the great chameleon of all composers.  When he lived in Italy, he wrote like an Italian; when he lived in England, he composed like a Brit; and when he lived in Germany, he composed like a high German composer.  What is amazing is his ability to set music to different languages.  For example, when he was in Rome, he went to Naples and was asked to write a piece for one of the Spanish viceroys and it’s his only piece that I know of that is in Spanish.  I happened to record it a few years ago with my period ensemble group, El Mundo, on the album The Kingdoms of Castille (2012) which was nominated for a Grammy.  Handel just how to absorb the style, the native musical, as well as spoken language.

 

What is the continuo and what is its function in a baroque opera such as Orlando.  How do you work?? 

Richard Savino:  It came about at the turn of the 17th century and was meant to be a quasi-improvised manner of performing that would respond to the way the singers would sing a particular piece.  It was the consequence of the meetings of the Florentine Camarata, a group of humanists that included Giulio Caccini, Vincenzo Galilei and Jacobo Peri, who got together to emulate Greek oratory and music.  They hypothesized about how it must have entailed spontaneity and improvisation between poets, singers and how it would be accompanied by a lyre.  That was the birth of monody, the initial basis of opera.  Much of these early operas by Monteverdi, Caccini, Peri and Cesti consist of collections of these little monodies which consist of a bassline and harmony that supports a singer, much like the way the rhythm section functions in a jazz combo.  Today, when I’m playing with the continuo, I’m looking at a bassline, and am enhancing that.  The idea is to reflect the affection of the text and to create some sort of dialogue with the singer and reflect their interpretation of what’s going on and that’s a gas.

Richard Savino with his theorbo in the orchestra pit at War Memorial Opera House. The theorbo was an important instrument through the Renaissance and baroque eras. The last historical compositions written with the theorbo in mind appeared about 1750.  Savino plays a modern copy.  His theorbo has a very long neck and two sets of strings which are plucked—a longer set tuned with pegs at the top of the fret board (for the deeper range), and a shorter set tuned by pegs on the sides of the fret board (for the higher range).  Photo: Geneva Anderson

What is so special about the theorbo and the sound it produces?

Richard Savino:  First there’s understanding why the theorbo is different–it’s shaped like a lute, with a larger bowl size, no flat back, and it’s single strung, so you can pluck it harder because when you have double strings you can’t pluck very hard because they will rattle against each other.  Usually, it has 14 strings and quite long strings. The longer the string length, the lower the pitch.  The instrument has a very odd tuning in which the highest pitch string is the third string from the top and has a very strong middle and bass register with quite a few extended base strings which I pluck with my right hand thumb.  Those pop out like a cannon.  Just the other day, someone told me the other day that I was quite audible (a big compliment to a lute player) but I have always focused on projection.  I play loudly and you have to project to fill a really big hall.  The theorbo provides the bass fundamental and, sometimes, I’ll play the bassline or  just part of the bassline with some chords.

 

What is tricky about playing both the theorbo and baroque guitar in Orlando?

Richard Savino:  In this production, I’m playing just about everything—almost every recit and aria; there are just a couple that I don’t play.  In the second half, my hand just begs for a break.  Handel’s orchestra would have had two of me, so someone could take over.  Here, it is constant because the recitative moves so fast.  Some are conducive to the instrument; some would be conducive to the archlute, which looks like a theorbo but is tuned differently and is more conductive to flat keys.  The theorbo is more conducive to keys that are in the sharp side of our harmonic language.  I’m covering both players in one.  Playing continuo really keeps your brain sharp and focused.  You have to keep track of the tunings of the different instruments when you switch instruments and change your fingerings accordingly.  On one instrument, one fingering will produce the A chord and on another it’s the G chord and so on.

 

What is the difference between an original and a copy of a baroque instrument like the theorbo or guitar and what do you play?

Richard Savino:  I play very accurate copies in Orlando and, as far as we can ascertain, it’s the same sound. These are very delicate instruments and most that have survived from the 17th century suffered from some degree of neglect and damage.  I have a couple of very early guitars in my collection but nothing earlier than 1800.  I play copies of instruments that would have been built in the late 17th century and would have been part of a player’s arsenal.  I know private collectors who own some of these originals and I can say that very good copies do sound very close to the originals in their present state.  But every instrument in and of itself sounds a bit different.

 

In Orlando, Richard Savino plays a modern copy of a baroque guitar.  Photo: Geneva Anderson

 

The main difference between the guitar and lute and the way they were played is that the guitar, in its baroque incarnation, was strummed and provided expressive rhythm, dance melodies and dramatic battle scenes.  In SFO’s Orlando, Savino strums as well as plucks his guitar. Photo: Geneva Anderson

 

Orlando marks Christopher Moulds’ (SF Opera conductor/ harpsichord) debut with SF Opera.  What does he bring to the production?

Richard Savino:  What I love about him is that he is an expert on period instruments, very well-educated and an intense worker who is demanding but never insulting.  I’d never worked with him before, but I got to know him a little before the production by exchanging emails.  He was very open and conversant, whereas a good number of conductors can be very removed.  He knows how to talk with and work with the orchestra.  A lot of period instrument conductors will talk down to the orchestra which isn’t fair really because, nowadays, orchestras tend to specialize predominantly in romantic and more contemporary repertoire.  That means a lot of the musicians haven’t touched this music in a very long time.  Chris was really good at communicating his ideas.

 

Vermeer’s “Young Woman Seated at a Virginal,” (1670-72), owned by the Leiden Collection, has so far been lent to the Pushkin, the Hermitage and Louvre Abu Dhabi.  For the descriptive video on the Leiden Collection’s website, Savino selected a sonata by Giovanni Legrenzi performed by his ensemble group, El Mundo on strings, harpsichord and lute.  The music’s mood echoes the sobriety of the painting.  Image: courtesy, The Leiden Collection

I’m interested in all your art and music projects—there’s something magical in bringing together different art forms. Tell me about your collaboration with Thomas S. Kaplan, the billionaire metals investor and founder of the Leiden Collection.  I understand that these artworks are being lent all over the world and the music from this same period, that matches them so well, is getting exposure.  What a beautiful project!

 

Richard Savino:  The Leiden Collection is fabulous; it’s the largest collection of privately owned 17th century Dutch paintings in the world—Rembrandt, Vermeer, Jan Steen, Gerrit Dou.  It was founded in 2003 by Thomas S. Kaplan, an art collector from New York, and his wife Daphne Recanti Kaplan.  He was putting together an online catalogue to accompany the part of his collection that tours and asked me to do the soundtracks which accompany his video discussions of each of the paintings.  I did 25 of these, some of which I recorded in the middle of the night in my bedroom and some were taken from tracks that I had recorded previously.  These can be seen and heard on the Leiden Collection in their video section.

 

Collector Thomas S. Kaplan acquired Rembrandt’s “Bust of a Bearded Old Man” (1633) in 2008 and calls it “the jewel in the crown” of The Leiden Collection.  Rembrandt’s smallest known painting, about the size of a baseball card, and the only privately-owned grisaille by the artist in private hands.  Savino plays an early 18th century prelude by Giovanni Zamboni on the archlute which accompanies a video of the artwork as it is unpacked from its crate and held in Kaplan’s hands for the first time. Photo: courtesy The Leiden Collection

 

How did you go about creating the music for each of these paintings?  Did you have free rein?

Richard Savino:  First of all, when I was called and they described it, I thought it was an eight to nine month long project.  But surprise!  They wanted it in a month, so I had to do it very very fast.  I had just had some minor surgery and didn’t even know if I could hold an instrument, much less meet the deadline.  It was a difficult project too.  They wanted music that was epoch appropriate, no later than the early 18th century, preferably late 17th century, luckily repertoire that I had recorded.  I also needed to record some new material so I set up a studio in my practice room at home and, right after the surgery, I started.  They sent me the script, basic mock-ups and I’d get an idea of the kind of piece I wanted.  It was important that the music conformed to the subject matter and the painting itself and, then, I had to match it to the cadence of the speech and be appropriate for the camera and scene cuts/shifts that were part of the video.  It was very challenging.  I remember being up at 3 a.m. in my studio, recording, and then editing and matching it to the video.

 

You’ve also done projects on Francisco Goya and Artemisia Gentileschi.

Richard Savino:  I’ve done quite a few of these.  In fact, I’m doing a Goya program here in San Francisco next May as part of the Humanities West series, Artistic Responses to Napoleon: Beethoven, Goya and Goethe (May 1-2, 2020).  I’ve prepared a multi-media program, Music in the Time of Goya, with music from Soler, Courselle, Boccherini and Sor that will be performed by my chamber ensemble El Mundo.  Works by Goya will be projected throughout the concert. The program was created for the Aston Magna Festival and Milano Classica.

Humanities West actually came about from a project back East, the Aston Magna Academy of Music, whose founder was Albert Fuller, one of my mentors.  It turned me on to this whole idea of interdisciplinary perspectives and putting music into a sociopolitical context which addressed literature, art, architecture and sociopolitical trends.  I attended as a participant in the 1980’s and 1990’s and was later asked to be a guest artistic director and have done that on several occasions.  Right now, I am preparing a program on Rubens with music from Holland, Italy, England, and Spain by Caccini, Frescobaldi, Marin, Arañes, and others for Aston Magna’s summer music festival this July.  My project on the Art and Life of the painter Artemisia Gentileschi received its debut at Aston Magna which then developed into the 2015 cd, What Artemisia Heard; Music from the Time of Caravaggio & Gentileschi.

 

Savino wondered why the music of Artemisia Gentileschi’s time was not as widely appreciated as the visual arts of the era. He decided to integrate the painting of Artemisia and her contemporaries directly with the music these painters would have heard at the time from composers Uccellini, Kapsberger, Ferrari, Frescobaldi, Mazzocchi, Gagliano, Caccini, Piccinini, Castello, Monteverdi, Corbetta, Falconieri, Rossi, Giramo, and Lanier. This evolved into a 2015 cd performed by Savino’s period instrument ensemble, El Mundo, along with distinguished soloists. Photo: courtesy Sono Luminous.

 

How did you go about selecting the pieces for the cd and evoking Artemesia’s struggle to lead her life as an independent woman?

Richard Savino:  Artemisia Gentileschi, who was born in Rome in 1593, was one of the most impressive persons in the history of western civilization; she also was one of the most talented.  She suffered great pain surrounding her rape by Tassi and the trial that found him guilty, but there were moments of beauty and intimacy too. She was friends with a number of composers, and was very close to the very talented Francesca Caccini, who was at the Medici Court and composed the first published opera by a woman.   For the cd, I matched the music to the different cultural environments Artemisia found herself in after the trial.  She traveled widely and lived as a completely independent person, which is remarkable for a 17th century woman.

“DOMINICUS PEREGRINUS Bononiaensis,” engraving, signed “Fontana F,” (17.7 cm x 24.6 cm).  The cover to Domenico Pellegrini Bolognese’s 1650 book of guitar music.  Of note are the long fingernails.

 

Has art provided you with any interesting insights about music centuries ago?  Like the how musicians held their instruments or their nail length?

Richard Savino:  Absolutely, but you have to be careful with that as, sometimes, it’s an affected gesture and they are posing with their instruments rather than holding it the way they would play it.  With the nails, there’s this whole thing in the period instrument world about whether the “pluckers” played with nails.  I’ve seen numerous paintings by both anonymous and well known artists that do actually depict players with long nails.  An important work is the cover engraving to Domenico Pellegrini’s book of guitar music that was published in 1650.  It shows him with his right hand extended with long fingernails.  In addition to guitar, we know that he also played lute with the ensemble based at San Petronio, the major cathedral in Bologna.  We also know about these kinds of performance “practices” from the tutorials themselves.  I’ve learned that it was dependent on country and climate.  In Italy, they used fingernails because they played outdoors in cathedrals and they had to be louder, same with Spain.  In France and England, where it rained a lot, they played indoors and it was a much more intimate space and they played without for the most part.  With nails, you can project more, which some find less refined, more aggressive and in your face.

 

You mentioned that you studied with Segovia? What was that like? A memorable moment?

Richard Savino:  I played at the Metropolitan Museum for him and he actually yanked the guitar out of my hand and said ‘You should never play this piece again.’  Because this was filmed by PBS and shown on CBS Sunday morning, it gave me a degree of notoriety.  At  that stage of my life, all publicity, was good publicity.  To be fair, it was a piece he didn’t like and it was also my attitude—that I even thought of playing it for him—that he found so irritating.  But it was like meeting Buddha.  I was in front of this larger than life figure.  I also studied with him at the Conservatoire du Musique in Geneva, and was lucky enough to have a few private lessons with him in New York

 

Before we began our formal interview, you alluded to a new musical discovery you’d made…is this a historical find, something that will likely be recorded?

Richard Savino:  It consists of a collection of cantatas by some of the most important early 18th century Spanish composers.  I will edit the music and record it as an El Mundo project.  I’m a very good sleuth.  I uncovered these personally in a collection in Spain where they should not have been located.  I had heard a rumor about some wonderful other pieces and, while trying to track those down in an archive, these literally fell out of a book and are a gold mine.

 

Details: Orlando has two remaining performances at War Memorial Opera House: June 21 and 27, 2019, both at 7:30 p.m.  Run time is 3 hours and 20 min.  Tickets:  www.sfopera.com, by phone at (415) 864-3330, or in person at the San Francisco Opera Box Office, 301 Van Ness Ave.

Richard Savino’s ensemble group, El Mundo, will perform a program of 18th century music from Latin America with the San Francisco Girl’s Chorus in October 2019.

June 21, 2019 Posted by | Art, Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The 22nd Sonoma International Film Festival kicks off Wednesday—here are your must-see’s

Luminous, emotional, dazzling…if you see just one of SIFF’s 123 films, see Yuli!  Directed by Catalan filmmaker Icíar Bollaín (Take My Eyes) and written by Paul Laverty (I, Daniel Blake) with cinematography by Alex Catalán, this bio-pic follows Cuban dance super-star, Carlos Acosta, from his early life in an impoverished Havana neighborhood as he defies all odds and becomes the first black artist to perform as Romeo at the Royal Ballet in London. Acosta goes on to dance in the world’s leading companies and form his own dance company in Havana.  Bollaín masterfully conveys the pride, frustration and contradictions of living in Castro’s Cuba.  Wonderful performances by Carlos Acosta and the participation of the Acosta Danza Company will raise your heart beat.

Ask anyone who makes the film festival circuit and they’ll tell you that the Sonoma International Film Festival (SIFF) tops their list for the “best time” fests–good film, incredible atmosphere, great parties and music, and the Backlot tent’s superb food and unending flow of wine and craft booze.  The 22nd edition of this gem kicks off Wednesday, March 27, with an opening-night reception at the Backlot Tent from 5 to 7 pm, followed by two screenings of Bruce Beresford’s new period drama, Ladies in Black. SIFF continues in full force Thursday through Sunday offering some 123 films from 31 countries with an anticipated 200 filmmakers in attendance who will participate in on stage interviews and audience Q&A’s.  All films are shown at seven intimate venues within walking distance of Sonoma’s historic plaza so there’s no driving, just meandering charming streets where all the plants are beginning their glorious spring bloom.

SIFF has lots to offer both locals and destination visitors.  Festival passes are the way to go if you’re interested in easy access to films, the marvelous parties, and the Backlot tent.  If you want to see a few films, single tickets are $15 when purchased in advance.  SIFF caters heavily to pass holders and offers just a limited number of individual tickets for many of its films.  Lock in those tickets right now before they are snapped up.  Click here to read about all the pass options and price points.

Here are ARThound’s festival recommendations:

OPENING NIGHT (WED):  Ladies in Black

Australian director Bruce Beresford’s drama Ladies in Black stars Julia Ormond and Angourie Rice and powerfully recreates the postwar culture of 1950’s Sydney.  It took Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy (1989), Tender Mercies (1983)) 24 years to bring the story to the big screen but it has become Australia’s highest grossing film, ever.  Photo: Sony Pictures, Lisa Tomasetti

Based on Madeleine St. John’s 1993 debut novel The Women in Black, Ladies in Black is set in 1959 Sydney at a time when European migration and the women’s movement are starting to impact Australiaand offers an upbeat reflection on the impact of immigration and integration.  Julia Ormond (Mad Men) stars as Magda, a wise and sophisticated Slovenian emigre who heads the evening wear section of a large department store.  She, along with several other immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe, are vital to the store’s success.  Angourie Rice plays the fresh faced and adorable student, Lisa, who lands a temporary job at the store and ends up working alongside these glamorous and self-assured women who encourage her to embrace fashion and to empower herself.  SIFF always pairs shorts with features.  Screening first is Domee Shi’s 8 minute animated film Bao about a dumpling that springs to life as a lively growing boy and gives a weary Chinese mom a life lesson.

Beauty and Ruin (THURS)

A still from Marc de Guerre’s feature documentary Beauty and Ruin of school children at the Detroit Institute of Art. Photo: courtesy Subject Chaser Films

How much does art matter to a city on the verge of distinction?  Canadian director Marc de Guerre’s latest feature documentary explores the fate of the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA), one of America’s great art museums, in the wake of the city’s 2013 bankruptcy.  With a debt approaching $18.5 billion in 2014, and the DIA the largest asset the city of Detroit owns outright, a bitter brawl emerges over whether the city-owned artworks should be sold to pay down the debt.  DIA housed 66,000 artworks, including an irreplaceable collection of European masterpieces from Titian, Van Eyck, Rembrandt, Bellini, Brueghel, Tintoretto, Fra Angelico and dozens of others. Most of these were bought during the 30-year period, a century ago, when Detroit was the center of American industry.  No other American museum the size of the institute has ever confronted such a threat to the integrity of its collection.  Emotions and racial tensions reach their zenith when it is revealed that the pending bankruptcy has put the pensions of retired city workers are at risk.  This thorough unpacking of the museum’s story includes interviews with all the key players—the DIA director, the Emergency Manager of Detroit, the retirees, an activist Baptist pastor and acclaimed artist Charles McGee.  Screens: Thursday March 28, 6:30 p.m., Sonoma Valley Museum of Art. Open to festival pass-holders only.

Botero: (THURS and FRI)

A still from Don Millar’s documentary, Botero, the definitive documentary profile of the life and work of Fernando Botero, one of the world’s most recognized living artists.   Image: Hogan Millar Media

Directed by Canadian film and television director, Don Millar (Oil Slick, Full Force, Off the Clock), Botero offers a poetic behind-the-scenes look at the life and art of the 86-year-old self-taught Colombian painter and sculptor whose unique style always evokes strong reactions.  Art critic Rosalind Krauss of Columbia University calls his work “terrible,” while others offer praise and penetrating insight into his oeuvre, calling Botero’s critics intellectual snobs.  Don Millar lets you decide.  Either way, Botero’s story is fascinating.  Born in provincial Medellin, Colombia, in 1932, he arrived in New York as a young artist with $200 in his pocket.  Through a stroke of luck, he meets a curator whose connections get him into MOMA and, all of a sudden, he is famous. “I like fullness, generosity, sensuality” says Botero.  “Reality is rather dry.”  The audience learns that, even today, Botero is happiest in his Monaco studio where he says he is still learning as he strives to be the best painter in the world, because “my life is to paint.”  The film weaves together original footage shot in 10 cities across China, Europe, New York and Colombia, with decades of family photos and archival footage alongside unprecedented access to the artist.  Screens:  Thursday, March 28, 4:14 p.m., Landmark Vineyards at Andrews Hall and Friday, March 29, 3:30 p.m., Sonoma Valley Museum of Art.

 

Yuli (THURS & SAT)

A still from Icíar Bollaín’s Yuli with Edilson Manuel Olbera as the young Carlos Acosta.  Yuli won the Best Screenplay Award at San Sebastian and has gone on to receive five nominations for the Spanish ‘Goya’ awards including Best New Actor for Carlos Acosta, Best Cinematography and Best Adapted Screenplay.

It’s very difficult to pull off a drama about dance where the acting is an engaging as the dance itself.  Icíar Bollaín has done it with a riveting drama set largely in Castro’s Cuba with astonishing dance scenes and bursts of family drama.  Sit back and soak in the artistry of the astounding Carlos Acosta.  (In Spanish with English subtitles) Screens: Thursday March 28, 1 p.m., Burlingame Hall and Saturday, March 30, 11:30 a.m., Meyer Sound & Dolby Hall at Vets I)

 

Yellow is Forbidden (FRI and SAT)

Chinese designer Guo Pei’s international breakthrough moment was designing Rihanna’s golden gown for the 2015 Met Gala. The 55 pound dress took 100 workers 50,000 hours to create and became one of the most talked about dresses in history. Pietra’s Brettkelly’s documentary explores Guo Pei’s rise to fame and her unique way of interpreting her aesthetic history.  Photo: Getty Images

New Zealand documentarian Pietra Brettkelly (A Flickering Truth, 2015) has created a fascinating and intimate portrait of fashion designer Guo Pei that also speaks to the energy and aesthetic of a rapidly evolving China.  She tracks Guo Pei just as she has burst onto the international scene—when Rihanna wore her hand-embroidered canary yellow gown to the Met Gala in 2015—through her remarkable 2017 show “Legend,” presented at La Conciergerie, in Paris, where Guo Pei proved to the world that she had penetrated haute couture’s most elite circle.  The film takes us into Pei’s life, connecting the dots between her life experiences and aesthetic expression—her upbringing in the Cultural Revolution; her relationship with Cao Bao Jie, her husband and partner; her elderly parents who don’t grasp the scope of her talent, her A-list clients, and her team of craftsmen and embroiderers.  Her world is one of struggle, passionate dreaming and a constant balancing of her artistic passions with the financial reality of running a business.  Ample attention is devoted to her atelier, where she obsesses over the handcrafting of garments that can take over two years to create.  Pei is a curious mix of old and new, a balancing of East and West with an absolutely unique way of interpreting her aesthetic history.  (97 min, in Chinese and French with English subtitles.) Screens:  Friday, March 29, 2019, noon, Andrews Hall, and Saturday, March 30, 2:15 p.m., Vintage House

 

Restaurant from the Sky: (FRI and SUN)

A sill from Yoshihiro’s food drama, Restaurant in the Sky (2019). Photo: SIFF

Yoshihiro Fukagawa has made a number of dramas that tenderly explore human emotions against the gourmet food backdrop.  Restaurant in the Sky unfolds on a bucolic cattle ranch in Setana, Hokkidao where Wataru (Yo Oizumi) lives with his wife Kotoe (Manami Honjou) and his daughter, Shiori.  He inherited the cattle ranch from his father and he also runs a cheese workshop but he lacks passion.  He enjoys hanging out with his sheep farmer friend Kanbe (Masaki Okada) who moved to the area from hectic Tokyo.  After a chef from a famous Sapporo restaurant visits and praises Waturu’s produce and creates a masterful farm-to-table meal with ingredients sourced the ranch, Wataru has his ahh-hah moment.  He will open a restaurant for only one day to let people know about Setana’s wonderful food.  This is a goal that unites the family and community but suddenly a tragedy occurs.  (126 min, in Japanese with English subtitles)  Screens: Friday, March 29, 9 a.m., Sebastiani and Sunday, March 31, 1:45 p.m., Sebastiani

Details: The 22nd Sonoma International Film Festival is Wednesday, March 22 through Sunday, March 31, 2019.  For information, tickets, festival passes, prices, and benefits visit www.sonomafilmfest.org.

March 22, 2019 Posted by | Art, Film, Food | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Proud Mary! Mary Fassbinder’s National Park Project has its reveal at Petaluma Arts Center— artist talk Thursday, January 31

Petaluma artist Mary Fassbinder at the opening of “National Parks Plein Air Project by Mary Fassbinder,” at Petaluma Arts Center.  She visited all 60 U.S. National Parks, painted a plein air landscape at each one and then built exquisite frames for each work.  Photo: Geneva Anderson

“It’s been the road trip of my life,” said Mary Fassbinder at Saturday’s opening of her “National Parks Plein Air Project” exhibit at the Petaluma Arts Center (PAC).   Fassbinder’s epic 72,000 mile, 3.5 year journey to every U.S. national park is captured in 60 vibrant plein air paintings, one for each park.

“Inspiration is the thread that runs through the entire project,” said Fassbinder at Saturday’s crowd-packed opening reception at PAC. “Set a goal and follow through.  Don’t let anything get in the way.  You have to own your goal, that’s what keeps that thread of inspiration alive.”

“Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN #29,” May 2016, oil, 10 x 13inches. Photo: Mary Fassbinder

The Petaluma artist is well-known for her light-infused expressionistic landscapes, which capture Sonoma County’s rustic beauty.  She’s also a renowned picture framer.  She created all the frames for the 60 paintings at PAC.  The paintings sales and frame commissions helped finance this large-scale project, which she broke into 12 separate excursions.  Just last summer, Fassbinder turned the framing business over to her daughter, Nicole Carpenter, so she could devote her full attention to painting and finishing the parks project.

“Lake Clark National Park, AK #48,” August 2017, oil on panel, 13 x 10 inches. Photo: Mary Fassbinder

“I’m happy to be home but happiest on the road and shockingly very comfortable with just myself,” said Fassbinder, who turned 59 at Yosemite, her 59th national park.  Actually, Fassbinder made the epic journeys with Charlie, her beloved used VW Westphalia, that she picked up in Ohio at the beginning of her journey.  Charlie appears in several photos on display at PAC.  “She had some rust but she took me up into Canada where she got strip searched at the border.  I miss her.  I had to sell her so I could get to Alaska, where I painted at each of those eight epic parks.”

Normally, Fassbinder created a single painting at each park.  Upon entering the park, she would ask the park ranger where the best spot was and “make a beeline” there.  Sometimes, she spent the night, and, on several occasions, she hit two parks in a single day, never varying her method.

“I am out there in nature, slopping that paint around, trying to get what I can get, when I can get it.”  Mary Fassbinder

“Yosemite National Park, CA #59,” May 2018, oil, 27 x 9 inches. Photo: Mary Fassbinder

In May, 2018, she lingered in Yosemite National Park,  #59, where she created five oil paintings.  Her portrait of Yosemite Falls, captures its majestic 2,425 foot vertical drop.  The 27-inch-long composition stands out for its long narrow shape; most of the other paintings in the park series tend to be more or less proportional rectangles. Painted from the trailhead, looking through towering pines at Yosemite Falls, Fassbinder captures a group of tourists, mere dabs of bright colors so expertly applied we sense them looking up and taking in the magical booming rush of water.  While she loves all the paintings in the parks series, this one is special— “It’s my heart and soul.”

At the time, Fassbinder thought Yosemite, the 59th park, was her last park.  With a surge of energy, she applied her wonderful sense of color and texture to her jeans jacket and hand-embroidered it with a Half Dome scene.  To her surprise, when she returned home to Petaluma, she learned that Gateway Arch, in St. Louis. MO, had become the 60th national park in February, 2018, necessitating yet another road trip.  “To me, that was St. Louis trying to get federal funding to get their city park re-built,” said Fassbinder.  Off she went in June 2018 to capture Gateway Arch National Park, Missouri.

Fassbinder hand-embroidered her jeans jacket with a Half Dome scene.  At the time, she thought Yosemite, #59, was her last park.  Photo: Geneva Anderson

Later last fall, while visiting Yosemite, Fassbinder showed her National Parks project portfolio to the manager of the renowned Ansel Adams Gallery.  She was offered an exhibition.  Details/dates to follow.  “This is such a critical time for our national parks,” said Fassbinder.  “It takes an act of Congress to establish a national park; it takes the power of the people to protect and preserve.”

Upcoming Events:

Thursday, January 31, 7-9 pm:  An Evening with Mary Fassbinder and Davis Perkins, conversation in the gallery, Petaluma Arts Center (Click here to pre-register; $12 non-members, $10 members)

 

Also at Petaluma Arts Center:  Davis Perkins landscapes exhibit:  California landscape painter Davis Perkins is also at PAC with an exhibit featuring his landscape paintings from around the world.  Perkins has had an adventurous career as smokejumper, firefighter, and paramedic.  He spent several of his winters attending art school and received a degree in Fine Arts from the University of Oregon.  His paintings are in the permanent collections of the Alaskan State Museum and the Smithsonian Institution Air & Space Museum and one hangs in the Pentagon with the United States Air Force Art Collection. In 2015 he was selected as a Signature Member of the Oil Painters of America.

Details: “The National Parks Plein Air Project by Mary Fassbinder” and “Landscape Paintings by Davis Perkins” are at Petaluma Arts Center through March 23, 2019.  Petaluma Arts Center is located at 230 Lakeville Street, Petaluma in the train depot between East D and East Washington Streets.  Hours: Tues-Sat, 11 am to 5 pm.  Closed Sunday, Monday and holidays.  $5 General admission, $4 senior, student, teacher, military.  PAC Members free.

For detailed information about Mary Fassbinder’s National Parks Painting Project and a chronological list of parks painted, visit Fassbinder’s website:  https://fassbindergallery.com/

Fassbinder’s gallery and painting studio is located at 900 B Western Avenue, Petaluma 94952.  (707) 765-1939  By appt. only.

January 30, 2019 Posted by | Art | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Your must-see list for the Legion of Honor’s luxurious jewelry show, “East Meets West: Jewels of the Maharajas from the Al Thani Collection,” through February 24, 2019

The Nawanger Ruby Necklace sums up all the themes of the Legion’s Al Thani Collection exhibit.  Made in London by Cartier in 1937 for the Maharaja of Nawanger, the necklace has moved between East and West and male and female and has dazzling stories associated with it.  When the young Maharaja came to power in 1933, he inherited an enormous trove of jewels and began modernizing their traditional settings, deepening the relationship his connoisseur father had formed with Jacques Cartier.  The necklace’s 116 Burmese rubies came from the Indian Royal treasury while Cartier supplied the diamonds and the Art Deco design.  The Maharaja wore the necklace with pride.  By Western taste, it would have been worn only by a woman.  When heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post saw the necklace, she immediately commissioned Cartier to make a sapphire and diamond version of the necklace for herself.  After Indian independence in 1947, the Maharaja’s necklace was returned to Cartier and it was worn by style icon Gloria Guinness at Truman Capote’s famous Black and White Ball of 1966.  Image: ©The Al Thani Collection

A visit to the Legion of Honor’s jaw-dropping jewel exhibit, East Meets West: Jewels of the Maharajas from the Al Thani Collection is pure delight.  It features more than 150 exotic treasures—gems, pieces of jewelry, jades, and objects—made in India or Europe and associated with Mughal emperors (1526-1857), maharajas (1858-1947), and their courts.  The Al Thani collection is owned by 30-year-old Sheikh Hamad bin Abudullah Al-Thani, a member of the Qatari royal family.  The sheikh’s love of Indian jewelry was itself inflamed by a museum visit to London’s Victoria & Albert Museum where, in 2009, he saw its wonderful Maharaja show.  He began collecting Indian jewelry in 2010.  It took a few years, but he nabbed the exhibition’s accomplished curator, Dr. Amin Jaffer (who by then headed Christie’s Asian Art division) and went on to amass one of the world’s finest collections of Indian gems,  jewelry. and artifacts.  An avid collector, the Sheik keeps adding to the roughly 6,000 works of art in his encyclopedic Al Thani Collection, housed in Qatar.

The Al Thani Collection’s Indian jewelry has toured widely, from Beijing to Venice.  The savvy San Francisco iteration, co-curated by FAMSF’s Martin Chapman and Dr. Amin Jaffer, emphasizes cross-cultural exchange between India and the West and gender.  It closes on February 24, 2019.

At the press conference, it was made known that the Sheik especially loves the Legion of Honor building.  When Beyond Extravagance, the Al Thani Collection’s first catalog of Indian gems and jewels, was launched in 2013, it was at the original Palais de la Légion d‘Honneur in Paris, making our Legion of Honor the perfect West Coast venue for the exhibition.

Here’s your must-see list:

Opening Gallery:  Maharaja of Patiala portrait and necklace, Queen Alexandra portrait

Vandyk, “Sir Bhupinder Singh, Maharaja of Patiala” [wearing the Empress Eugénie diamond necklace], 1911, from glass plate negative, original size 12 × 10 in. Photo: ©National Portrait Gallery, London.

Upon entering the exhibit, you’ll encounter dazzling display cases of jewels.  After you’ve ogled the Newanger Ruby Necklace, described at the top of the article, head further through the golden arches (crafted in Rome by artist Giuliano Spinelli) to the blown-up portraits of Indian, European, and American rulers and aristocrats, male and female, all sporting their jewels.

Look no further than the 1911 photo of the Maharaja of Patiala for a lesson in “more is better.”  In matters of jewelry, it was the Indian men who showed Western female style icons what extravagance really was.  To confirm their prestige and stature, India’s male rulers covered themselves jewels.  In addition to numerous ropes of exquisite pearls, the maharaja wears a diamond necklace created for France’s Empress Eugénie, which includes the Potemkim diamond, formerly owned by Catherine the Great of Russia, as a pendant.

The wearing of pearls starts out with the men of India and the Middle East and is appropriated in the 20th century by women in the West.  An adjacent wall photo of Queen Alexandra, the wife of Edward VII, speaks volumes.  Taken in 1902, on the day of her husband’s coronation as King of England and Emperor of India, she has draped herself in fashionable ropes of pearls, just as the Maharaja of Patiala.  She wears the famous Indian diamond, the Koh-i-Noor, in her crown and an exquisite dress that was embroidered in India.  Many of her jewels were given as tribute by Indian princes and were originally intended to be worn by men.

The re-worked famed Patiala necklace.  The original necklace disappeared after the1947 fall of the British Raj and resurfaced in London in 1988, stripped of its largest jewels. Cartier restored the necklace using zirconias, topazes, synthetic rubies, smoky quartz, citrine. Photo: Vincent Wulveryck, Cartier Collection ©Cartier

The 1928 Maharaja of Patiala necklace, made for wearing at court, represented the largest commission made by Cartier at that time. Originally, the necklace comprised 2,930 diamonds, set in platinum and cascading in five tiers around the exquisite 234 carat De Beers yellow diamond, roughly the size of a golf ball.  The Maharaja bought the diamond following its display in Paris in the early 1920’s and brought it to India.  When he commissioned the necklace in 1925, he sent an overflowing trunk of precious stones, including the yellow diamond, and jewelry to Cartier in Paris with a note requesting him to create a ceremonial necklace worthy enough for a king.  It took three years.  The necklace also had a rare 18 carat tobacco colored diamond and a number of Burmese rubies.  The Patiala necklace at the Legion has been re-worked.  Cartier restored the necklace using synthetic and lesser value stones.

Gems: Engraved Imperial Spinel Necklace

Imperial Spinel necklace, North India, spinels, 1607-1608 and 1754 -1755. Spinels, pearls, emerald, and modern stringing. Length 20 3/8 inches. Image: @The Al Thani Collection

While diamonds, pearls, rubies, sapphires and emeralds were prized in India, the deep red spinels of Central Asia were most valued at the Mughal court.  Don’t miss the huge translucent watermelon-colored spinels found on the Imperial Spinel Necklace.

Engraving detail, Imperial Spinel Necklace. Image: ©The Al Thani Collection

They bear multiple dynastic inscriptions, including to the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, as well as to his father, Akbar the Great, under whose rule the Mughal Empire tripled in size and wealth.  Akbar had so many unmounted precious stones that by the 1590’s, one of his 12 treasuries was reserved solely for these loose jewels, the most valuable of which were spinels.  These blood-colored gems were associated with vitality and wearing them was believed to enhance life force and stamina in battle.  Dynastic inscribed gemstones of this size and quality would have originated in the Mughal Imperial Treasury where they were prized not only for their material value and physical properties, but also for their distinguished provenance.

Idol’s Eye Diamond

The Idol’s Eye Diamond, a 70.21-carat light blue diamond from India’s Kollur mine in the Golconda region.  2.6 x 2.8 x 1.3 cm.  Modified brilliant-cut, VVS2 clarity. (The legendary Hope Diamond, also blue, is a mere 45 carats.) ©The Al Thani Collection. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.

Romantic unsubstantiated stories are often attached to prized diamonds.  Legend has it that the 70.21 carat Idol’s Eye, the largest cut blue diamond in the world, and the largest diamond in the exhibit, was so named because it was torn from the eye of Hindu deity venerated in a temple in India.  The Idol’s Eye does have a mystical pear shape.

Diamonds, like many gems, were considered talismanic in India.  A 6th-century Brhat Samhita text promises:  “He who wears a diamond will see dangers recede from him, whether he be threatened by serpents, fire, poison, sickness, thieves, flood, or evil spirits.”  Large diamonds in Mughal India were cut into talismanic shapes, often an amulet (ta’widh), a form that would maximize the volume of stone.  Unfortunately, few diamonds have survived in their original cuts as the taste for diamonds in the West was different.  And, as cutting technology advanced, these prize gems were cut and re-cut to reflect contemporary taste, resulting in lost carats but maximizing brilliance and color.  The Idol’s Eye was once owned by Philippine despot Imelda Marcos and it was likely purchased it with the billions of dollars of public finds embezzled by her or her husband, Ferdinand Marcos.  It has passed through the hands of leading diamond dealers Salmon Habib, Harry Winston, Robert Mouawad and Laurence Graff.

Jahangir’s Jade Wine Cup

The Mughal Emperor Jahangir’s Wine Cup, dated AH 1016 / AD 1607-1608, mottled grey nephrite jade, Height 5.7 cm, W 5.4 cm.  Image: ©The Al Thani Collection

Emperor Jahangir’s wine cup is the earliest dated jade artifact that can be linked without question to a Mughal emperor.  In the Mughal court, jade was thought to invoke success in battle and was used for daggers.  It was also believed that jade could detect the presence of poisons, so there were many jade drinking vessels.  Jahangir’s cup is magnificently incised with Persian and Arabic calligraphy. The central band, carved in sols script, has a royal dedication announcing that the cup was made for Jahangir.  The upper border, in Nasta’aliq script, confirms it was the emperor’s personal cup and that it was made in the second year of his reign, therefore between April 1607 and March 1608.  Persian poetry also adorns the cup, including some contemporary 17th century poetry.  The Mughals of this period were very influenced by Chinese ceramics and jades and this cup’s shape is exactly that of a Chinese tea cup of this period.  The mottled jade used in the cup also reflects the Mughal affinity for Chinese bronzes and their mottled surfaces.

Jewel-encrusted Rosewater Sprinkler

Rosewater sprinkler, North India, 17th century base, late 18th century neck. Gold inlaid with rubies, emeralds, pearls. Height: 10 1/8 inches.  Image: ©The Al Thani Collection

The bottom of the rosewater sprinkler has an inscription and weight identifying it an as Imperial treasury object.  Image: @The Al Thani Collection

An entire section of the exhibit explores the opulence of the Mughal court at its height, during the 17th century.  At public court, a ruler would receive ambassadors, petitioners, nobles, returning generals, etc.  These were great events where the ruler was richly attired and the way in which he presented himself, completely adorned, was much like how a deity in a Hindu complex would be presented, as an ascendant divine being.  The ruler was normally on a textile throne and when supplicants came, there was an exchange of gifts and perfume and sometimes condiments.  This jewel encrusted rosewater sprinkler would have been used for a splashing of the hands.  It is of extreme importance because on its underside it has a Mughal imperial weight which identifies it as an Imperial treasury object.  It also relates to a group of three similar 17th century sprinklers in the Hermitage Museum which came from the loot of the Mughal treasury when the Mughal empire collapsed in 1738.

Upcoming events:

February 2, 2019: Docent Talk: “All That Glitters: The Jewels of the The Al Thani Collection,” docent Marsha Holm, John and Cynthia Fry Gunn Theater, Legion of Honor, 12:30-1:30 p.m. Free after general admission.

Paris, Spring 2020:

The Al Thani collection has found a home in Paris—the historic Hôtel de la Marine on place de la Concorde in Paris, the original warehouses of the French royal art collections.  Following an agreement signed last fall with France’s Centre des Monuments Nationaux (CMN; National Monuments Centre), the government body which manages the 18th-century property, the Al Thani collection will be exhibited in a dedicated gallery over a 20 year period.  The inaugural exhibit is due to coincide with the reopening of the Hôtel de la Marine in spring 2020 following a €100m refurbishment.

Details: East Meets West: Jewels of the Maharajas from the Al Thani Collection,” ends February 24, 2019 at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor.  Tickets:  FAMSF members free; $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: www.famsf.org

 

January 27, 2019 Posted by | Art, Legion of Honor | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Straight from Ai Weiwei’s Playlist—“Turn It On,” docs related to SFMOMA’s China exhibit you can stream at home for free or catch at SFMOMA

A still from Zhang Bingjian’s 2009 documentary, Readymade, screening January 24 at SFMOMA and free on Kanopy as part of SFMOMA’s Turn It On: China on Film, 2000-2017 series.  The film captures the lives of two middle-aged Mao Zedong impersonators in the PRC: Mr. Peng Tian, a 46-year-old farmer from Mao’s home town in Hunan Province who walks into the Beijing Film Academy one day in full Mao dress to study film acting; and Chen Yan, a 51-year-old housewife from Sichuan Province and the only female Mao impersonator in China.  Zhang’s coverage of her life, both onstage and off, reveals the struggle she has with her husband and daughter who disapprove of her impersonating Mao and refuse to support her.  The film tackles the continuing cult of personality of Mao Zedong as a cultural icon, and the mixed feelings stirred up in different generations when they are confronted with him “alive” again through his impersonators. Image: Zhang Bingjian

SFMOMA’s groundbreaking China exhibit, Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World has entered its final month; it closes Sunday, February 24, 2019.  Bracketed by the end of the Tiananmen Square student protests of 1989 and the Beijing Olympics of 2008, the exhibit showcases 100+ works by more than 60 artists and collectives that anticipated and reacted to China’s sweeping and turbulent transformation to a global superpower in the new millennium.   Through documented performances and socially engaged projects, paintings, photographs, installations, and videos, the exhibit explores how artists such as Cao Fei, Huang Yong Ping and Ai Weiwei acted as catalysts for change, critically questioning the massive changes all around them.  The exhibit, which caused such a stir at the Guggenheim due to three artworks which outraged animal rights activists, has been accompanied by a number of special programs at SFMOMA.

The film series, Turn It On: China on Film, 2000–2017, is exceptional.  Curated by Ai Weiwei and filmmaker Wang Fen, the series had its genesis at the Guggenheim, NY.  It was suggested by Ai Weiwei to the Guggenheim exhibition curator Alexandra Munroe as a means of helping people further understand China and the history and current state of its contemporary art.  Weiwei invited documentary filmmaker Wang Fen to collaborate.

A still from Wang Jiuliang’s 2016 doc, Plastic China, about China’s plastic waste industry through the eyes and hands of those who handle it.  After visiting a huge recycling plant in Oakland and learning that the US and many other developed countries, even in Asia, export their plastic waste to China, Jiuliang wanted to understand what happens to imported plastic waste once it arrives in China.  Six years in the making, his film documents the dirty downside of China’s capitalist surge as it explores a gnarly plastic recycling facility in a small town, dedicated to the business of processing plastic waste. The facility, one of 5,000 unregulated recycling plants operating in that town alone, is operated by two families in a tense relationship—the family of the owner and a family of employees.  Eleven-year-old Yi-Jie works in squalor alongside her parents while dreaming of attending school.  She pulls enticing ads, toys and everyday items from the trash to eek out a secondhand life. Kun, the facility’s ambitious foreman, hopes for a better life.  Screens: Saturday, January 26 at 3 p.m. at SFMOMA’s Phyllis Wattis Theater.

 

Turn it On Screenings remaining at SFMOMA:

Since January 10, SFMOMA has been screening selections from this film series at its plush Phyllis Wattis Theater for free (each film requires an RSVP).  There are five screenings remaining and all are in mandarin with English subtitles:

Readymade, Thursday, Jan 24, 6 p.m.  This 90 min film is part of SFMOMA 101, an going SFMOMA free program which invites local thinkers to the museum for a stimulating conversation about art with an introduction by a SFMOMA curator.  At 5 p.m., Abby Chen, curator and artistic director at the, Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco, will speak.  She will be introduced by Eungie Joo, SFMOMA curator of contemporary art.

Falling from the Sky, Saturday, Jan 26, noon (film runs 145 min)

Plastic China, Sat, Jan 26, 3 p.m.  (film runs 82  min)

Prisoners in Freedom City, Sun, Jan 27, noon (film runs 36 min)

Garden in Heaven, Sun, Jan 27, 1 p.m. (film runs 200 min)

 

Free Streaming of the series via Kanopy:

How exciting that SFMOMA has partnered with Kanopy, the library streaming service to host 16 films in the series for free online viewing through February 24, when the exhibit closes.  Anyone who has library card from one of the thousands of public and university libraries Kanopy partners with can stream the films for free.  I used my Sonoma County Library account.   To sign up for a Kanopy account, and more information about Kanopy, click here.

Some films in the series are long, so we can be especially thankful for the chance to view them at home.  Ai Xiaoming’s engrossing Jiabiangou Elegy: Life and Death of the Rightists (2015) about the persecution of inmates at the Jiabiangou Labor Camp where 2,000 died, is split into six segments and runs 409 minutes.  Xu Xin’s Karamay: Memories of a Terrible Tragedy (2010) about the fire that claimed 323 lives at a theater performance in 1994, runs 356 min.

Ironically, no films in this series were made between 1989-2000, the critical years the exhibit covers.   All films are from 2000-2017.  In a 2017 interview for China Film Insider (click here), Wang Fen explained this is because “very few people had access to equipment back then. The rare few who had access were people who worked for state-owned film & TV studios. These people had very little interest in making the type of documentaries that couldn’t be distributed and wouldn’t be backed by their studios. Around 2000, home video cameras suddenly became available and affordable, which led many young filmmakers to start making films on the subjects they care about.”

Details:  Turn it On: China on film 2000-2017 runs through Sunday, January 27, 2019 at SFMOMA.  Screenings are free but require RSVP.   The series also can also be streamed free on Kanopy.

Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World runs through February 24, 2019 at SFMOMA.  Free entry with general admission. Tickets: free for SFMOMA members; $25 adults; $22 65 and older; $19 19-24 years; free 18 and under.  Save time and buy tickets online before coming to SFMOMA.

January 23, 2019 Posted by | Art, Film, SFMOMA | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Tree Talk”—artist María Elena González’ scores for the player piano from the markings on birch bark, at Mills, Saturday January 26, 2019

María Elena González, Skowhegan Birch #2, 2014. Player piano roll.

Inspired by her time in nature and exploring translation between the physical and the acoustical, Cuban-American artist María Elena González’ exhibit, “Tree Talk,” opens at Mills College Art Museum on January 26, 2019.  “Tree Talk,” a series of work developed over 10 years, investigates the unexpected visual parallels between the bark of birch trees and cylindrical player piano rolls.  In 2005, when González spent the summer as a resident faculty member at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, she often spent time taking in the beauty of the trees.  After creating rubbings from several birches, she began to zero in on the bark’s striations which resembled notations.  Using a digital scanner, she scanned the patterns from the flattened bark of three birch trees found at the Skowhegan school and laser cut the resulting score onto a player piano roll.  Each tree yielded unique “compositions” for the player piano.  These are sculptural works that combine graphic art, musical composition and performance.  On February 7, a live performance will take place featuring Mills music students using drawings of the tree bark as graphic scores.  The exhibition also features related drawings, prints, videos, and sound installations, demonstrating González’ interest in both representations of sound as well as sound as a sculptural material.

Saturday, January 26, 2019:  Opening Reception: Tree Talk

5-7pm, Mills College Art Museum
Facebook Event  Join MCAM and María Elena González  in celebrating the opening of this exquisite exhibition. Refreshments will be provided.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019:  Performance: Tree Talk: Variations on Impression

7pm, Mills College Art Museum
Facebook Event

Marc Zollinger, John Ivers, and Dirt and Copper will perform works generated from María Elena González’ birch tree rubbings.  In collaboration with González, the composers translate the visual, gestural, and topographic data found in the tree rubbings into scores that will be premiered at the event.  This transmission of information from optical to aural entails synesthesia: the phenomena by which the stimulation of one sensory receptor, such as vision, activates a secondary sensory reaction, such as hearing.  Each re-composition approaches the visual material in a variety of ways, from strict graphical interpretations to differing conceptions of growth-time.

About the Artist:
María Elena González is a Cuban-American artist best known for her sculptural installations informed by architecture and personal experience.  In 1999, she received widespread acclaim for her site-specific sculpture “Magic Carpet/Home,” commissioned by the Public Art Fund that took the floor plan of a Red Hook apartment building and transformed it into a wavy flying carpet, with playground surface material. In a 2002 installation at the Bronx Museum of Art, titled “Mnemonic Architecture,” she did a full-size recreation of the layout of her childhood home from memory, creating a sculptural dialogue with the architecture of her memory.  She has been a visiting critic in Sculpture at the Yale University School of Art, a resident faculty member at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and a visiting artist faculty member at The Cooper Union.

Currently, she is Chair of the Sculpture Department at the San Francisco Art Institute and on the Board of Governors at Skowhegan.  She is also the recipient of numerous grants and awards including a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant, a Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant, the Prix de Rome, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Details:  “Tree Talk” is January 26 – March 17, 2019.  Mills College Art Museum is located at 5000 MacArthur Blvd, Oakland CA  94613.  Hours: Tues-Sun 11am to 4 pm, Wed 11 am to 7:30 pm.  Closed Monday.  Admission is free for all exhibits and programs, unless noted.  For more information:  www.mcam.mills.edu

 

January 22, 2019 Posted by | Art | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Scoop: Two new January programs for OMCA’s “The World of Charles and Ray Eames,” featuring members of the Eames family, telling their wonderful stories

“The World of Charles and Ray Eames,” a must-see for those with an interest in modern design, has been extended at OMCA until February 18, 2019.  With special programs, interactive multi-media installations, films, rare prototypes, photography, furniture, toys, products, as well as personal letters, drawings, and artwork; the imaginative world of this dynamic design duo is brought to life. Photo: ©2018 Eames Office LLC.

As the well-traveled exhibit, The World of Charles and Ray Eames, moves into its final month at OMCA (Oakland Museum of California), it has been extended through Monday, February 18.  Two special programs have also just been added: Through the Lens: The Films of Charles and Ray Eames (Sun, January 20) and Inspired by Eames: A Conversation with Bay Area Innovators (Sat, January 26) which include members of the Eames family and some of the Bay Area’s most inspiring creators sharing stories about the Eames and their magical world.

Llisa Demetrios, artists, granddaughter of Charles and Ray and registrar of the Eames Collection, beaming beside an Eames film projection at OMCA.  This is a shot of a sand dollar, highlighting the couple’s delight in the artistry found in nature. “We all have great stories of spending time with them.  I loved watching them work.  Ray came at it from painting and Charles from his architecture training but they both loved the design flow that sprang from practice and experimentation.” Photo: Geneva Anderson

Sunday, January 20, 4–5:30 pm:

Through the Lens: The Films of Charles and Ray Eames

If your conception of Charles and Ray Eames is limited to magnificent furniture design, this program will broaden your view.  They were prolific filmmakers, creating over 100 films.  The exhibit includes well-known gems such as the their 1977 short documentary, Powers of Ten, which explored the size of things in the universe, and lesser known films such as Glimpses of the USA (1959), commissioned by the United States Information Agency (USIA) for the Moscow World’s Fair auditorium.  Spectacular in its conception, this 13-minute film projected more than 2,200 still and moving images, all about ordinary American life, onto seven 20×30 foot screens that were suspended within a huge Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome.  It captivated audiences and conveyed what no lecture could about the fabric of American life.

This special program screens two of the Eameses’ most notable films.  Following the film screenings, join Eames Demetrios, grandson of Charles and Ray and Director of the Eames Office; Llisa Demetrios, granddaughter of Charles and Ray and registrar of the Eames Collection; and exhibition curator Carin Adams in conversation to learn more about the iconic pair’s work in film and design.

After the conversation, stay for a special book signing of Eames: Beautiful Details (2012), An Eames Primer (2013), and Essential Eames: Words & Pictures (2017) with author Eames Demetrios.

The museum closes at 6 p.m. on Sundays, so plan on arriving before film screening to enjoy the special exhibition The World of Charles and Ray Eames and OMCA’s galleries

Saturday, January 26, 2–3:30 pm:

Inspired by Eames: A Conversation with Bay Area Innovators 

Moderated by Helen Maria Nugent, Dean of Design at California College of the Arts, this panel discussion examines how the legacy of Charles and Ray Eames has influenced Bay Area-based artists, designers, dancers, and innovators.  Learn what inspires them, how they prototype ideas, and their visions for the future of their work. Panelists include Kristin Damrow, Kristin Damrow & Company (KDC); Liz Ogbu, Founder and Principal of Studio O; Bryn Imagire, Pixar Animation Studios; and Elger Oberwelz, Executive Design Director at IDEO Palo Alto.  Get a sneak peek on OMCA’s YouTube page with a special series of interviews.

The museum closes at 6 p.m. on Saturdays, so plan on arriving before the panel discussion to enjoy the special exhibition The World of Charles and Ray Eames and OMCA’s galleries.

Details:   Program and general admission:  $19.95 adults, $14.95 seniors and students, and $10.95 for youth. Members and children ages 8 and under receive free admission. Tickets include access to The World of Charles and Ray Eames and OMCA’s galleries.

The World of Charles and Ray Eames is on view in OMCA’s Great Hall through February 18, 2019. There is a $4 charge for this special exhibition in addition to regular Museum admission.

More information:  museumca.org.

January 17, 2019 Posted by | Art, Oakland Museum of California | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ursula von Rydingsvard’s “MOCNA,” up at Stanford’s Denning House

Ursula von Rydingsvard’s “MOCNA” at Stanford University’s Denning House. Photo: Geneva Anderson

“Mocna” means strong in Polish.  Yesterday morning, as I was driving by Stanford’s stunning Denning House, which will house a new art collection, I caught my first glimpse of Ursula von Rydingsvard’s newly-installed 17-foot-tall bronze sculpture which lives up to its name.  With its gnarls, ripples and lace-like pierced openings at the top, “MOCNA” reminded me of the latticed Banyan trees, at Ta Prom, Angkor Wat, which have taken hold of the temples with a fierce, intractable grip and integrated themselves into the stone itself.   The piece is prominent but, because of its naturalistic look, in certain light, it might easily be mistaken for a large tree trunk.  At 10 a.m., a few people had stopped to photograph “MOCNA” and a worker lay on the ground installing lights along the path leading up to Denning House.  The view from here is “great,” he said, adding that the installation process had been “intense.”

Ursula von Rydingsvard, 76, a Brooklyn-based artist who was born in Germany to Polish and Ukrainian parents, is known for her monumental works which are in the permanent collections of over 30 international museums and on view in multiple public locations across the country.   Several of her artworks are titled in Polish.  I was first introduced to her at the 2015 Venice Biennale, where six of her magnificent sculptures were installed at the Giardino della Marinaressa, a public park set on the main route between the Giardini and Arsenale, which has a marvelous view across the water to the island of San Giorgio Maggiore.  This was her first exhibit in Italy and her majestic works evoking rippled old tree trunks were integrated into the natural canopy of trees in the park.  Three were assembled from actual cedar beams; two were cast bronze sculptures; and one was a work in ice-blue resin cast from cedar.  Her works are easily recognizable.  In recent years, she has tried to move away from pure cedar, instead creating bronze and resin casts from cedar originals.

“MOCNA” was commissioned as the inaugural work in Denning House’s art contemporary collection, which plans to acquire one piece every year from emerging and established artists poised to make a lasting impact in the arts.  Denning House and its art collection were enabled by a gift from Roberta Bowman Denning and her husband, Steven A. Denning, MBA ’78, past chair of the Stanford Board of Trustees.  Denning House will serve as a hub for the Knight-Hennessy Scholars as they pursue their graduate work in departments across campus.  Ennead, the architectural firm behind Bing Concert Hall and the Anderson Collection building, designed the building.

The Knight-Hennessy Scholars program is largest fully-endowed scholars program in the world, named for alumnus Philip H. Knight, MBA ’62, philanthropist, American businessman and co-founder of Nike Inc., and former Stanford President John L. Hennessy, who served as the university’s 10th president from 2000 to 2016.  Knight-Hennessy Scholars receive the full cost of a graduate education at any of Stanford’s seven schools. The first cohort of scholars will begin graduate studies in fall 2018.

While “MOCNA” is the first commissioned piece in the new collection, Denning House has also acquired two works by the artist Trevor Paglen: “Matterhorn (How to See Like a Machine) Brute-Force Descriptor Matcher; Scale Invariant Feature Transform” (2016) and “Lake Tenaya Maximally Stable Extremal” (2016). These dye sublimation prints consider the ways that machines understand images, and the gap between recognition and understanding.

Paglen’s work is displayed on both floors of Denning House and can be seen on one of the monthly tours of the building, which will begin in the spring.  MOCNA can be viewed anytime on the north side of Denning House.

Von Rydingsvard will visit Stanford next month for  “MOCNA’s” formal dedication and will gave a talk about her work.

 

September 18, 2018 Posted by | Art | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

 

Botticelli!

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.

 

Details:

“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: www.famsf.org

 

 

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