ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

Closing Sunday: “REAL TO REAL: Photographs from the Traina Collection,” at the de Young Museum

“Melissa” (2005, Chromogenic print, 50”h x 40”w) by American photographer Alec Soth is on display at the de Young Museum through September 16, 2012, as part of “Real to Real: Photographs from the Traina Collection.” The image was taken at the Flamingo Inn at Niagra Falls, the former honeymoon capital of the world, just after the woman, Melissa, was married. Image courtesy: Traina Collection.

An engaging and controversial show, Real to Real: Photographs from the Traina Collection is closing this Sunday, August 16, 2012, at San Francisco’s de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park.  Drawn from the impressive holdings of San Francisco native Trevor Traina, a member of the FAMSF Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco Board and the son of its President, Diane B. (Dede) Wilsey, the exhibition brings together rare black-and-white vintage prints of classic images by Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand with works in color by artists ranging from Stephen Shore and William Eggleston to Cindy Sherman, Alec Soth and Andreas Gursky.

How the mix of 110 images, produced by some of the pre-eminent artists working in photography from the 1950s has to the present, qualified as a major exhibition at the museum has been a source of controversy.  Some Bay Area art critics have suggested that it was improper protocol to give museum space to someone so closely connected with the internal politics of the museum.

When Fine Arts Museum director John Buchanan passed in December 2011, Mrs. Wilsey stepped up to run things until a suitable new director could be found and six months later her son has a prominent show in the museum.  It might look cozy but, so far, no one has come up with any rules that were violated.  The show, which examines different historical understandings of Realism and its changing definitions over time, was curated jointly by Art Historian Kevin Moore, who served as an advisor to Traina on the collection, and Founding Curator of Photography and Chief Administrative Curator at the Fine Arts Museums Julian Cox.

Photography has not been considered “fine art” until fairly recently by the FAMSF according to Mrs. Wilsey, who spoke at the exhibition’s press conference in June about the history of photography and the museum’s long lack of wall space devoted to the medium.  Now, things have changed and the museum is welcoming photography, with Julian Cox proudly at the helm.  Cox states, “It was Alfred Stieglitz who, a century ago, campaigned in support of photography’s expressive possibilities independent from other visual arts, because he believed the medium to be endowed with what he described as “a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality.”

Most of us are moved by photography because it provides us with a myriad of possibilities to understand our lives through the power of images.  The Traina collection includes some well-known icons as well as powerful works by emerging and experimental young photographers.  Notes Cox, “The Traina collection includes many images that sit firmly within the tradition of photography as a craft and a vocation, alongside those made by artists who consider photography as just one medium among others from which they can select to communicate an idea. This use of photography within conceptual art has been at the center of Traina’s most recent activity as a collector, and it brings the exhibition fully into the contemporary moment with new works by artists such as Roe Etheridge, Christopher Williams and Ryan McGinley.

Traina said, “There are often photography shows of one artist or one period. What makes this show special is that it traces an idea — the evolution of the documentary tradition and the maturation of the photographic medium — across almost seven decades. The evolution of color photography and the huge glossy prints that sit next to their pristine black and white antecedents are really fun to see.”

Catalogue: An accompanying 136-page catalogue, Real to Real: Photographs from the Traina Collection (2012, $45) features over 85 plates and includes a foreword and introduction by Curator Julian Cox and an essay by art historian Kevin Moore.

Details:  Real to Real: Photographs from the Traina Collection closes Sunday, September 16, 2012. The de Young Museum is located in Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco.  The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m.; Fridays (through November 23, 2012) until 8:45 p.m. and is closed Mondays.  For information about museum hours and ticket prices, call (415) 750-3600 or visit www.deyoungmuseum.org .

Advertisements

September 15, 2012 Posted by | Art, de Young Museum | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Final Week: de Young Museum “Birth of Impressionism,” the first of two unique Musée d’Orsay shows that bring Paris right to Our Doorstep

The Fifer. 1866. Édouard Manet (1832-1883). Oil on canvas, 63 3/8 x 38 1/4 inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowsk

Every era has its radicals– those who challenge the entrenched status quo, usher in sweeping change, and, finally, are upstaged themselves.  For the past 3 months, the de Young Museum has explored those early independent Impressionist painters who broke the rules of academic painting and shocked the conservative mid-19th century French art scene with a scandalous infusion of light and color.  The early Impressionists set entirely new standards for how artists saw and depicted nature and subsequently, they have influenced generations of artists.   “Birth of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay,” now in its final week, presents a remarkable group of nearly 100 mid to late 19th century paintings, some well-known, others not, that showcase the antecedents of Impressionism.  The works are from Paris, from the Musée d’Orsay, the former Beaux-Arts railway station on the left bank of the Seine that was converted into a museum by architect Gae Aulenti some 25 years ago and is currently being refurbished for its silver anniversary.    

The back story on how they came to the de Young is that Dede Wilsey (FAMSF Board Chair) and John Buchanan (FAMSF Director) were attending the auction for  Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge’s estate in Paris in February 2009 and over dinner learned from Musée d’Orsay Director, Guy Cogeval, that the museum needed a safe place to stash its Impressionist treasures while the plaster and dust were flying.  The duo politely pounced and Cogeval invited them to select what they wanted of Orsay museum treasures eligible to leave the country.   They choose about 240 works in two days and the details—the thematic split into two shows, transport, financial and insurance issues– fell into place over the coming year.   The De Young is the only museum in the world that will likely ever have two consecutive special exhibitions from the Musée d’Orsay of Impressionist art of this caliber which attests to its glowing stature in the museum world and our good luck.      

This first exhibition, co-curated by FAMSF’s Dr. Lynn Federle Orr, PhD, Curator of European Art, begins with paintings by naturalist artists such as Bougereau and Courbet, the great symbolist painter Gustave Moreau and includes early works by Manet, Monet, Renoir and Sisley as well as a selection of Degas’ paintings that depict images of the ballet, the racetrack and life in “la Belle Époque.”  The second show, “Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay,” (September 25 – January 18, 2011)  will present 120 of the Musée d’Orsay’s most famous late Impressionist paintings, including those by Monet and Renoir, followed by the more individualistic styles of the early modern masters including Cézanne, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Van Gogh, and the Nabi painters Bonnard and Vuillard.  

Those expecting something as straightforward as the museum’s last blockbuster, “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs” will be challenged in the very best sense of the word.  This is an academic and probing look at the various roots of Impressionism rather than a line-up of immediate wows.  The show is also beautifully presented—exquisitely lit and hung (lower than usual) and actually shows these works to better advantage than the (pre-renovation) Orsay ever did with its whitish walls and harsh lighting environment.   The de Young’s special configurable exhibition walls, have been organized into nine small galleries or salons painted in specially-selected rich dark hues ranging from a Venetian red, to rich taupe to velvety Seminole brown which complements the artworks and adds atmosphere all along the way.    

Conceptually, the show succeeds in illuminating a messy topic—the many factors that contributed to and ran along side of the birth of Impressionism.   Salon painting has been combined with modernity in all aspects—Manet from the 1860’s, the Ecole de Batignolles, the beginnings of Symbolist art, and the influence of modernization. The show also points to the French state’s success in its 19th century collecting practices—several of these masterpieces were acquired directly from the artists at the time.  

Birth of Venus. 1879. William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905). Oil on canvas, 9 ft. 10 1/8 inches x 7 ft. 5/8 inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski

This is not the de Young’s first stab at this topic.  In April-July, 1986, in collaboration with the National Gallery of Art, the de Young Museum under curator Charles Moffett, brought together about 150 works from collections all over the world and presented them as they were first seen in the Impressionist movement’s original eight shows. That remarkable assemblage of works, “The New Painting: Impressionism 1874-1886,” was immensely popular and this current exhibition draws heavily on that scholarship.  

The Salon

The show begins with an exploration of 19th century painting styles emerging from the dictatorial government-sponsored Salon.  The early Impressionist artists all called France home during the mid-19th Century and competed with each other for an exhibition place at the annual Salon, the only juried exhibition of new painting and sculpture in Paris.  Acceptance in this official yearly salon was the gateway to financial success but the Impressionist artists sought to circumvent the Salon and its stifling rules and stage their own shows and sell their own works.   The Salon’s taste ran to “la grande peinture” or “le peinture d’ histories”–elevated historical, religious, or mythological themes derived from the study of ancient and Renaissance art with an underlying moral purpose.   Subcategories include nudes (always in an allegorical context), Orientalism (fueled by artists traveling to exotic outposts) and battle paintings (inspired by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 that inspired younger artists to tackle the subject).  With the emergence of photography, these topics began to wane as the public’s interest in realism was peaked. 

William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s famed “The Birth of Venus,” 1879, dominates the entire first gallery.  A textbook example of classical 19th century academic painting, the allegorical piece does not depict Venus’ actual birth from the sea, rather her transport in a shell, (metaphor for the vulva) from the sea to Paphos on Cyprus.  The fleshy Venus, executed in milky hues, is flanked by adoring mythological cherubs and centaurs.  The painting encapsulates what irked the Impressionists most about the painting of the day—false sentiment, mythological content removed from reality and its hallmark “licked finish,” a process codified by the French Academy whereby the surface of painting was smoothed so much that presence of the artist’s hand was no longer visible.   

Galatea. Circa 1880. Gustave Moreau (1826-1898), Oil on wood, 33 5/8 x 26 3/4 inches, RMN (Musée d'Orsay) /René-Gabriel Ojéda

Notable in the second gallery, “The Salon” is symbolist painter Gustave Moreau’s “Galatea,” circa 1880,  a work with an intoxicating dream quality and a spectacular etched surface treatment making it appear that little jewels have been set into the canvas.  Moreau  shared with the Impressionist artists that followed a highly experimental use of paint, tone, color and a lack of regard for socially accepted themes.  A nude nymph sits languidly in a sensual grotto that is adorned with a profusion of anemones, corals and flora and she is spied upon by a three-eyed monster.  This picture is based on a story from Greek mythology, about the unrequited love of the Cyclops, Polyphemus, for the Nereid, Galatea who loved the shepherd Acis.  Stéphane Guégan curator, Musee d’Orsay, told me that this oil on panel piece should not really have been lent because of its extreme fragility.  Galatea triumphed at the 1880 French Salon.  The show also includes Moreau’s “Jason,” 1865, another icon of French symbolism that was exhibited at the Salon of 1865 (and harshly criticized) and bought by the French state in 1875. 

As you wander through the 9 galleries, you will see that some of the paintings have a protective “cason,” a glass covering that ensures a temperature and humidity- controlled environment especially important for panel (wood) paintings.  Musee d’Orsay curator Alice Thomine-Berrada explained that a Musee d’Orsay conservator came especially from Paris and stayed for one week, inspecting, cleaning and repairing works and their fragile frames after their travel to San Francisco.   In some cases, the results were astonishing– Berthe Merisot’s beloved work “The Cradle” was very dark before leaving Paris, so dark that the hair of the baby was not visible.  After its varnish was cleaned, and in the well-lit de Young gallery, the painting’s fine details stand out.  

Another thing you will notice is a profusion of very ornate gilded and carved frames which, to our modern eye, are distracting, particularly so with the works of Cezanne and Monet, where they seem to intrude into the canvas.   According to Musee d’Orsay curator Alice Thomine-Berrada, these frames reflect the bourgeoisie taste of the day and have been coupled with the paintings for so long that they are considered part of the artwork.   “We all have the idea that the Impressionists were revolutionary but after 10 years or so they were deeply appreciated and the bourgeoisie loved and bought their paintings.  In order to fit into the ornate style of their apartments, the paintings were put in these frames.” 

General Prim. October 8 1868. 1869. Henri Regnault (1843-1871). Oil on canvas. 124 x 102 inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski

The Impact of War 

The third gallery entitled “The Terrible Year” refers to two dramatic French military defeats in 1870-71 that devastated French moral and affected artists directly, many of whom enlisted and some fled.  At the Salon of 1872, over 30 artists showed works directly related to war.   “Juan Prim,” Henri Regnault’s superb life-size 1869 portrait of General Prim and his gorgeous black steed is a stand-out.   While making a tour in Spain, Regnault observed the general, the hero of the hour, in action, and created the memorable image of the general as a military demagogue amidst the backdrop of his troops.  Although Prim commissioned the portrait, he was not satisfied with it and refused to accept it.  The work had tremendous appeal with the public though and was a great success at the Salon of 1869.  As a prized artist, Regnault was exempt from military duty but he was dedicated and volunteered to serve in one of the last battles of the Franco-Prussian war and was killed at age 27. 

Manet 

 “French painters and Spanish Style,” the next salon, illuminates how Spanish painters, in particular Diego Velázquez and Francisco Jose de Goya, influenced the early Impressionists, especially Édouard Manet, a focal artist in this exhibition.  The following gallery is devoted entirely to Manet and his notable exploits with the Salon which continued until his death.  Even as a young artist, Manet’s innovative style tended to bold strokes and unexpected contrasts and his subject matter was unconventional in that it rejected the Salon’s established hierarchy of genres (history paintings and allegory at the top and still life and landscape at the bottom) and focused on more ordinary but provocative subjects–prostitutes and debauched drinkers.  The Salon would not accept this and slapped him down at every opportunity.    

Manet’s first submission to the Salon in 1859, “The Absinthe Drinker,” despite its fashionable Spanish resonance (the current Empress, Euginie, wife of Emperor Napoleon III was of Spanish origin), was rejected for its traditional full-length portrait configuration devoted to a socially marginalized individual.    His extraordinary works Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (1862-63) and the tantalizing Olympia (1863) (not in the show because they are not allowed to leave France) were also subsequently rejected for their deviation from accepted artistic convention and their scandalous low-life subject matter.   Despite repeated official rejection, Manet sought acceptance from the Salon while clinging to his friend Baudelaire’s advice…to depict a contemporary realism, to be “le peintre de la vie moderne.”    He never exhibited with his Impressionist friends but influenced them heavily.   Early in his career, and ahead of Impressionism, Manet found a way of working that addressed their polemic–the revolt against academic rules and the application of pictorial means to contemporary subject matter.   

Manet’s “The Fifer,” (1866) singled out for the exhibition poster, at first appears as direct as the young boy in uniform staring out at us from his portrait but it exemplifies the eerie complexity of Manet.  The boy’s recognizable stance seems to be derived from a French tarot card.  He is positioned and playing his flute against the backdrop of flat gray void that seems to both make him stand out and to engulf him in silent emptiness.  How can he ever be heard?  Who will hear him?  In this work, as in others, Manet delves deep into the human psyche, to a place of discomfort, evoking a complex confrontation with the hidden.  Whether it’s “The Fifer,” “Woman with Fans” (1873), or “A Bar at the Folies-Bergere” (1882), we project onto their staid silence.     

Bazille’s Studio. 1970. Fredéric Bazille (1841-1870). Oil on canvas. 38 5/8 x 50 5/8 inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski

Musee d’Orsay curator Alice Thomine-Berrada’s argues in the exhibition catalogue that Manet, while supportive towards the Impressionist movement, cultivated a unique style that remained distinct from Impressionism.  (“Manet: Between Tradition and Innovation,” pp. 110-114) 

 The Impressionists’ Early Gatherings

After quite a build-up, the final three galleries devote themselves to works that most consider classics of early Impressionism.  The shift is palpable as we visually experience the sharp break with tradition.   The 7th salon, “École de Batignolles” traces how the early artists—Manet, Renoir, Bazille, Scholderer, Fantin-Latour –each radical in their own way, shared a dialogue and friendship while remaining artistically distinct and highly experimental.   “École de Batignolles” was an early name given to the group of artists who were later called the Impressionists.  The phrase itself refers to informal meetings of these artists and intellectuals with Manet at the famed café Guerbois on the rue de Batignolles which ultimately led to the decision in 1867 to set up an exhibition separate from the Salon.  While these famed 8 exhibitions of “new painting” did not begin until 1874, their genesis was in these early stimulating gatherings.   The phrase also refers to a group of interconnected portraits executed by these artists that round out their sense of camaraderie.   Henri Fantin-Latour’s “Homage to Delacroix” (1864), his “A Studio in the Batignolles” (1870) and  Frédéric Bazille’s “Bazille’s Studio” (1870) are three striking but completely different portraits whose theme is the tight bond between these artists.  

Frédéric Bazille’s large painting, Family Reunion,” (1867) stands out with its bold execution.  The subject is Bazille’s family on holiday in the South of France and each of the ten figures is captured portrait-style, looking directly towards the viewer, as if captured by a camera.  This serves to unify the composition but also adds the sensation of an odd stiffness.  The contrast is spectacular– the sun is shining brightly but the group is under the shade of a large tree whose foliage filters and articulates very sophisticated light and shadow effects against the subjects, their clothing and surroundings.

Family Reunion. 1867. Frédéric Bazille (1841-1870). Oil on canvas, 59 7/8 inches x 7 ft. 6 ½ inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski

Classic Impressionism  

Standing in the final galleries and beholding the most famous early Impressionist masterpieces is something that has to be experienced in person. The Impressionists’ flickering brushwork was highly effective in capturing a sense of immediacy–the fleeting quality of light and atmosphere.   Several works by Camille Pissaro, the only Impressionist painter to show in all eight of the Impressionist exhibitions, point to his reverence for nature and his agility in creating lighting effects that capture its seasonal moods.  “Path through the Woods, Summer” (1877) captures light shining through dense forest, illuminating a path, while “Hoarfrost” (1873) captures the stillness of a winter’s day.  

Turkeys. 1877. Claude Monet (1840-1926). Oil on canvas. 69 x 68 inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski

There is nothing simple about the masterwork of Claude Monet, including his deliberate sense of improvisation that suggested rather than described what the eye was taking in.  Standing in front of his huge (6 x 6 ft) “Turkeys,” (1877), we are amused at his vibrant celebration of foul and seduced by its vivid hues.  The head of turkey asserting itself in the lower left of the canvas is marvelous—a spiraling ribbon of pure color.  Monet, like other Impressionists, laid light and dark colors right along beside one another, producing bold contrasts that created palpable visual tension in their artworks.   The brushstrokes enforced this– the white feathers of the turkey’s companions are rendered in long and thick impasto strokes, creating a rough irregular surface texture that mimics actual feathers and captures and reflects light.   This was no accident– the Impressionists were keenly aware of new scientific discoveries that led to a new understanding of color and the placement of contrasting and complimentary colors to created visual tension in their artworks.  Primary colors were brightest when they were brought into contrast with their complementaries. 

The Gare Saint-Lazare. 1877. Claude Monet (1840-1926). Oil on canvas, 29 ¾ x 41 inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski

In terms of subject matter, along with landscapes and the cherished beauty observed in casual, everyday life, the early Impressionists were also very interested in modern urban life and suburban landscapes.  Monet’s “Saint-Lazare Station” (1877) celebrates the marvel of modernization and stunning architecture of the Saint-Lazarre station, a bustling terminus for several important train lines.   We can almost feel the energy of the steam trains coming and going amidst a sea of travelers—everything dissolved in expressive bursts of steam.  Monet created an astounding array of highlights and shadows in this painting without using any earth pigments.  Instead, he created his own palette of browns and grays by mixing new synthetic oil-paint colors (taken for granted today ) colors such as cobalt and cerulean blues, synthetic ultramarine, emerald green, viridian, chrome yellow, vermilion, and crimson lake.  Even his shadows are comprised of blended color.  The Lazare gare was a popular subject with the Impressionists and Manet’s “The Railway” (1872-73) currently in the National Gallery of Art, uses the station as a backdrop for his portrait of a young woman and child. 

Gustave Caillebotte’s The Floor Scrapers, ”  (1875) depicts a mundane task that we can hardly imagine worthy of celebrating in paint– laborers stripping a wooden floor of its varnish.  The spectacular lighting renders it so otherworldly that several people have told me they just can’t get it out of their head.  The painting is also one of the first depictions of the urban proletariat as opposed to the rural peasants in Jean-François Millet’s “Gleaners” (1857) or “Normand Milkwoman on Her way to Gréville,” (1874).   Caillebotte’s vision was thoroughly modern, and his paintings offered treasured glimpses into Parisian life: interiors, views over the rooftops from balconies, strollers on the bridges and avenues.

The Floor Scrapers. 1875. Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894). Oil on canvas, 40 1/8 x 57 5/8 inches. RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski

Impressionist Dialogues 

 Once the impressionist movement was born, there was no turning back and artists began to challenge classical values across the board.   Within a relatively short time period, Impressionist artists were depicting all aspects of daily and modern life with new grace and freedom. The show concludes with a number of works by Edgar Degas, all of which convey a very present sense of movement and immediacy.   Degas adopted new compositional approaches inspired by Japanese woodblock prints (in particular Hiroshige), photography and graphic illustration.  By studying series of photographs, he learned the technique of selective framing which allowed him to focus on exactly what he wanted to depict compositionally and to infuse his work with a sense of spontaneity.   Despite their spontaneous appearance though, Degas often made numerous preparatory studies.  The show offers several examples of his well-known paintings of racehorses and ballet dancers.  

I found the unusual intimacy of “The Pedicure” (1873) to be disturbing, no creepy.  An older man is clipping the toenails of a young girl who is reclining back on a sofa and appears to be sleeping or ill. She is shrouded in yards of sheeting and appears quite vulnerable.  Light streaming in through a window gives the scene a Rembrandtesque resonance.

 There is no pat answer to exactly what Impressionism exactly is –certainly, it was a different way of seeing and an art of immediacy, movement, great vibrancy and the exploration of everyday life—all captured in the play of light and color.  I can’t wait for the second installment.  END

Birth of Impressionism will have the following extended hours this week— 

Thursday, September 2, 2010, until 10 pm (last ticket 8:30 pm) 

Friday & Saturday, September 3 & 4, 2010, until 11 pm (last ticket 9:30 pm) 

Sunday, September 5, 2010, until 10 pm (last ticket 8:30 pm) 

Monday (Labor Day), September 6, 2010, until 9 pm (Last ticket 7:30 pm) 

Tickets and additional information:  www.orsay.famsf.org/

September 1, 2010 Posted by | Art, de Young Museum | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Happy Valentine’s Day! Big Girls Need Big Diamonds …“Cartier and America” exhibition at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor delivers

Elizabeth Taylor with Richard Burton at the 42nd Academy Awards on April 7, 1970, wearing the Taylor-Burton diamond in its Cartier setting in public for the first time.

World over in February, couples celebrate Valentine’s Day with thoughts of love and tokens affection.  Red roses, chocolates and poetry are standards but fine jewelry takes “Be my Valentine” to another level.  A trip to the Legion of Honor’s spectacular “Cartier and America” exhibition which runs through April 18, 2010 will set you back $20.00 ($40.00 for two) but it will fill that longing to browse amongst jewels of rare artistry and to learn about the famous people who possessed them and about Cartier, the French company that made it all possible.  Marking Cartier’s 100 years in the United States, the exhibition features a spectacular array of some 300 objects from the Belle Epoch (1899-1918), Art Deco (1918-1937), pre and postwar periods and beyond. ranging from one-of-a- kind stunners like the Star of Africa diamond to white diamond suites, to the highly-colored exotic creations of the 1920s and 1930’s, to mystery clocks whose hands seems to float in air.  And, pure luxury aside, ARThound would be remiss not to mention the cuteness factor of Cartier’s dogs and small animals for the vanity, carved of stones like smoky quartz, amethyst and rhodonite.  

Curated by Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s, Martin Chapman, Curator of European Decorative Arts, the exhibition is as much about breathtaking design and engineering as it about the social history of America’s wealthy—the famous “haves” who, during the heydays of American capitalism, were obsessed with European aristocracy and refinement.  American who married royals, heiresses, Hollywood stars, and other notables all considered Cartier essential in affirming their status and giving them an essential edge out-blinging one another. A fascinating aspect of this show (which is not traveling after its run at the Legion) is that Chapman had full access to Cartier’s extensive archives and included as much detail as could be found about prominent San Franciscans and their connections with Cartier.  And several exquisite pieces that have never been exhibited before—the Duchess of Windsor’s diamond encrusted Flamingo brooch, her panther bracelet, Grace Kelly’s engagement ring—shine brightly at the Legion alongside more well-known Cartier classics.

Should you question the placement of jewelry in a fine arts museum or the inappropriate whiff of commerce surrounding any Cartier exhibition, FAMSF patron and board chair Dede Wilsey—who lent a bracelet—will answer that it is not the stones per se– but the technical skills that Cartier craftsmen brought to their work that make these luxury jewels worthy of exhibition in any museum in the world.  After examining these pieces close-up, their design, refinement and engineering are certainly worthy of high art.  It is regrettable that the highly-skilled members of the Cartier design team remain anonymous under the ever-powerful Cartier brand.  When the company was formed, these artisans started out at age 14 and labored for 10 years with Cartier before they were able to work on a piece alone.  Nowadays, they start at age 21, after studying at design school.   

Cartier in Paris—a bold move to establish a signature style 

Founded in Paris in 1847, the House of Cartier originally sold a wide range of luxury goods made by others, including luxury jewelry made by several local Parisian ateliers.  Everything changed in 1899, when it moved to rue de la Paix (right next to Worth, the most influential Parisian fashion house), set up its own design studio at these new headquarters and developed a signature style for its own jewelry. 

Rose and Lily Corsage Ornament, Cartier Paris, 1906, platinum, round old- and rose-cut diamonds, millegrain setting, 19.5 x 29 cm. Sold to Mary Scott Townsend, Cartier Collection, CL 134A06, Nick Welsh © Cartier

Cartier rejected the popular Art Nouveau style which was deemed static and incapable of much evolution in terms of unique jewelry production and introduced its “garland” style inspired by the neoclassical style of the neoclassical-period which emphasized tassels, ribbon-bows and dangling glittering diamond pendants.  Cartier’s biggest and most risky move was introducing platinum over the traditional gold and silver as its preferred setting material.  Platinum’s greater stability allowed more diamonds to be set in a piece in a small area and enabled the number of articlulations to be increased without endangering the global solidity of the piece. It was also tarnish-free. Tiaras could now hold thousands of tiny diamonds. With the advent of electrical lighting which transformed the interplay between light and jewels and the availability of relatively cheap small diamonds from the new finds in South Africa, Cartier’s risk-taking paid off.   Cartier quickly became a de rigueur destination point for European royals and for wealthy Americans visiting Paris whose conspicuous consumption was targeted towards emulating European aristocracy.

Even as the royal courts of Europe were undergoing their final moments, Cartier was outfitting American women with diamonds mounted in the refined Louis XVI style inspired by French royal jewels of the 1700’s.  The early galleries house a dazzling array of Cartier tiaras, brooches, pendant necklaces and stomachers (brooches worn over the breast or stomach in the 17th and 18th centuries).   Mrs. Townsend’s “devant de corsage” “Rose and Lily corsage ornament” commissioned to Cartier Paris, 1906 -is exceptional in its craftsmanship.  3-D sprays of blooming lilies are entwined in a garland of lifelike roses; it  is sculpted entirely diamonds in the taste of the late eighteenth century.

In this bygone era of luxury steamship travel, glittering balls and society debuts, American socialites such as railway and coal heiress Mary Scott Townsend of Washington D.C. ordered elaborate diamond-studded tiaras and wore them.  In fact, Cartier’s archives reveal dozens of orders for diamond-studded tiaras from the 100 or so Americans who married into British aristocracy– and thus were technically entitled to wear them–and from others who had no European royal or aristocratic marriages.  Martin Chapman explains in the exhibition catalog that tiaras remained fashionable with America’s upper crust up until WWI but there are several instances of Americans, like Marjorie Merriweather Post (Post cereal fortune heiress and formerly Mrs. E.F. Hutton) who had no connection to royalty  but wore tiaras through the 1950’s and 1960’s.  These women complimented their tiaras with substantial bling that covered their head, neck and bosoms so that they literally became top-heavy with diamonds. 

Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt III, ca. 1909 wearing her 1909 Cartier necklace in its original form, a 1909 Cartier tiara amd 1904 Cartier rose brooch from Princess Mathilde.

A 1909 photograph of Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt III shows her wearing it all– a stunning Cartier diamond-set rose brooch from Princess Mathilde, the cultural icon of France during the Second Empire, a necklace she commissioned from Cartier in 1909 of huge hexagonal diamond pendants, and a grand “Russian style” Cartier tiara from 1909. 

All that survives from her necklace is a single hexagonal

Pendant, Cartier Paris, 1909, Diamonds and platinum, 11.9 x 4.7 cm. Sold to Grace Wilson (Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt III) Cartier Collection, CL 269A09.

 pendant, which at 4 3/4 inches in length is substantial in itself.  Thanks to Cartier’s thorough records, explained Chapman, we can reconstruct how most Cartier pieces looked in their original forms.  From the early 1900’s, a photograph and a plaster cast of each piece was made as it left the Cartier workshop in order to enable craftsmen to copy, repair or alter the piece at some future date. The plaster cast of Vanderbilt necklace is displayed beside the portrait, along with the pendant.   These extensive archives also reveal the fascinating and successive transformations a piece of jewelry went through due to change in ownership or evolving taste.  

Because many pieces from the old world were sold through Cartier to the new world, Cartier served as a bridge between the old European and the new American aristocracy explained Pierre Rainero, Cartier’s director of image, style and heritage.  Some of the famed jewelry of Empress Eugenie, wife of Napolean Bonaparte III, was sold off by Third Republic and bought and traded by Cartier.  Marie-Antoinette’s famed pear-shaped diamond earrings were purchased from Cartier by Mrs. Marjorie Merriweather Post in 1928

Pendant brooch, Cartier London, 1923; altered 1928, Cartier New York. Emeralds, diamonds, platinum and enamel, 20.3 x 5.1 cm, Hillwood estate, Museum & Gardens, bequest of Marjorie Merriweather Post, 1973.

Post was one of Cartier’s most important American clients.  Her stunning emerald and diamond pendant shoulder brooch from the 1920’s, which graces the catalog and exhibition poster,  is one of the most spectacular pieces Cartier ever made, incorporating fabulous Indian carved emeralds, one of which dates from India’s Mughal era.  She had Cartier New York alter its top to the buckle in 1928. 

Cartier’s New York Store—paid for in pearls

To accommodate its clients, Cartier opened branches in London (1902) and New York City (1909).  After securing a rather blasé second floor space on Fifth Avenue, Pierre, the second of the three Cartier brothers, finagled the Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street Plant townhouse for the Cartier flagship store from financier Morton F. Plant.  Plant sold his mansion for a dollar and a stunning two strand Cartier natural pearl necklace valued at $1,000,000, which he gave to his wife. The New York store initially attracted clientele that included Gilded Age heiresses like Evalyn Walsh McLean, Daisy Fellowes, Barbara Hutton and a bevy of Vanderbilt women, all of whom deemed Cartier the essential measure of refinement.

The San Francisco Connection

Exploring the connection between San Franciscans and Cartier was a priority of curator Martin Chapman.  The only San Franciscan found in Cartier’s Paris archives with a San Francisco address is Mrs. Newstatter, wife of a clothing manufacturer on Market Street, who in 1908 purchased a diamond studded choker with a big pendant underneath.  There are, however,  indirect connections to San Francisco.   

American-born Lady Granard, the 8th Countess of Granard, was raised in San Francisco as Beatrice Mills, the daughter of financier and philanthropist Ogden Mills (Mills College, Millbrae).  She was a regular client of Cartier London and was particularly fond of enormous tiaras, ordering three between 1922 and 1937.  

A life-size Giovanni Boldini portrait from 1905, owned by the Legion, depicts one of the Cartier’s San Francisco’s clients of the Gilded Age, Virginia Graham Fair Vanderbilt, “Birdie,” the second of William K. Vanderbilt Jr.’s five wives.  There are several pieces of her jewelry throughout the exhibition but it is not known if she is wearing Cartier in the portrait.  She was born Virginia Fair in San Francisco and was the daughter of Silver King James Fair, (“Slippery Jim”) who made a fortune overnight off the rich Comstock Lode in the Virginia City, Nevada, the largest deposit of gold and silver ever found.  In the late 1800’s, Fair (then Senator Fair) purchased the hillside at Mason and California Streets.  After he died, Virginia and her sister Tessie built the famous Fairmont Hotel in 1902, the jewel in the crown of Nob Hill.

Scarab buckle brooch, Cartier London, 1924, Ancient Egyptian faience, smoky quartz, enamel, diamonds, emeralds, platinum, and gold, 5 x 13 cm. Cartier Collection, CL 32A24

Art Deco: Cartier’s Shining Glory

During the interwar period,or ” Art Deco era” (1918-1937), Cartier established the repertoire of Art Deco for the upper crust with its display at the definitive Paris exposition of 1925, the world’s largest international fair dedicated to the display of modern decorative arts.  Cartier did not exhibit with jewelers, but anchored itself in high fashion at the Pavillon de l’Elegance, alongside leading couture  houses like Worth and Jenny and dictated the “new” style–tiaras worn low on the brow, long ear pendants, a large brooch at the bust and a necklace slung across the chest that fastened to the dress at the back.  New geometric designs incorporated pearls and diamonds with strong bursts of specific color combinations—brilliant green from emeralds, a signature Cartier coral (in a unique shade between pink angel skin and the darker Mediterranean coral) and black onyx.  

Hindu necklace, Carter, Paris, special order, 1936, altered in 1963, platinum, white gold, marquise-, baguette-, and round old-cut diamonds, thirteen briolette-cut sapphires weighing 146.9 carat in total, two leaf-shaped carved sapphires, 50.8 and 42.45 carats, sapphire beads, one sapphire cabochon, square carved emeralds, fluted and smooth emerald beads, and emerald cabochons, 43cm. Nick Welsh, Cartier Collection, © Cartier NE28A36

Exoticism was a strong force in Cartier design in the 1920’s and 1930’and was important as counterbalance to the hard-edged International Modernism of the 1930’s.  A number of pieces on display are inspired by decorative arts of Egypt, India, China and Japan.  The discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922, for example, inspired several Cartier pieces, artworks, that incorporated fragments of actual Egyptian artifacts.  Three faience buckle-brooches, never exhibited together before, shine in their elegance, incorporating scarabs with deco style. One buckle was owned by Cole Porter’s wife, an important client.

The “tutti frutti” design that Cartier pioneered in its Indian style jewelry was coveted for its vibrant mix of emeralds, rubies and sapphires—these pieces seem to scream “I’m terribly expensive” and “I’m playfully beautiful.”    The “Hindu” necklace commissioned by Daisy Fellowes, the Singer sewing machine heiress, in 1936 is unparalleled.  Modeled after a 1935 Cartier design for an Indian maharajah—the necklace has over 1,000 stones—cut diamonds and sapphires and carved ruby, sapphire and emerald leaves imported from India.  Interesting note—these jewels were made for and worn by males in India but experienced a sex change when they came to the West where they were coveted, custom-ordered and worn by American women. 

Cartier actually established a trading post in Delhi, India in 1911, to buy emeralds and to solidify relationships with important Indian maharajas who were strong clients. Rainero explained that gemological studies have confirmed that “Indian emeralds” from the Mughal Empire (1556 to 1707) were actually mined in Columbia in the late 16th and early 17th centuries and brought to India by the Portuguese who controlled India’s harbors.  The history of jewelry is thus entwined with world trade and economic history and sales transactions have been telling indicators. 

Mystery Clocks

Cartier’s magical mystery clocks are its largest and most complex artworks and eight are in the exhibition. On prominent display, as you first enter the show, is the Belikan Portique Mystery Clock in the form of a Shinto Shrine Gate, bought in 1923 by opera singer Ganna Walska, second wife of Chicago industrialist Harold F. McCormick (1872-1941),

Portique mystery clock, Cartier Paris, 1923. Rock crystal, onyx, gold, enamel, diamonds, platinum, coral, and clock movements, 35 x 23 x 13 cm, sold to Ganna walska, Cartier Collectio, CM 09A23

 inventor and manufacturer of the harvest reaper.  This clock was the first of six in a series of portique style rock crystal gates created between 1923 and 1925.  The clock is transparent and its platinum and diamond hands seem suspended in air as they float around the dial.  How and where was the watch movement be hidden?   Gazing intently at the front and rear of the clock doesn’t provide any clues.  These mystery clocks were the result of collaboration between Louis Cartier and clockmaker Maurice Couët that started around 1912.  The designs varied but there were five principle types that were produced in small lots with slight variations. The designs grew more complex and exotic over time, progressing to figural clocks which incorporated intricately carved Chinese figures, usually made of jade.  The hands either floated on or behind glass with no apparent mechanism.  In the case of the portique clock, the hands are mounted on glass discs and the disc is driven from the movement hidden in the lintel, above the pillars.  A team of lapidaries, horologists, jewelers and designers spent up to a year creating a single clock.  Today, just a few artisans know how to make this movement. 

Ganna Walska was a notable Cartier patron who was profiled colorfully in a 1934 Time Magazine article “Countess Reincarnate” describing her opera performance as one that “should be seen and not heard.”  In 1941, she bought the Santa Barbara “Cuesta Linda” estate and transitioned it to “Lotusland,” a retreat with extensive botanical gardens. (See hilarious 2006 Wall Street Journal article “What the Diva Wrought.”)  So determined was she to complete this magnum opus that she auctioned off her Cartier jewelry to finance and endow Lotusland.

Great Transactions– Historical Diamonds

Cartier’s legacy goes hand in hand with the sale and resale of famous historical diamonds—remarkable diamonds whose value goes beyond the tradtional perameeters of valuation because they are a part of history.

The Star of South Africa, prominantly displayed at the Legion, was the first important large white diamond to come from South Africa and is credited with turning the tides of fortune in South Africa .  In 1869, it was picked up by a Griqua shepherd boy near the Orange River who traded it to a Boer settler for five hundred sheep, ten oxen, and a horse.  It weighed 83.5 carats in rough crystal form and was cut into a 47.69-carat old style pear-cut diamond.  The stone was later called the “Dudley diamond” after the Earl of Dudley who purchased it for his wife, Lady Dudley, who wore it as a hair ornament surrounded by 95 smaller diamonds. The stone was also owned by J.P.  Morgan before it made its way in 1917 to Cartier, New York, and was reset as a magnificent brooch.

In 1912, Pierre Cartier sold the legendary 45.52 carat Hope Diamond–the rarest and most perfect blue diamond in existance–for $180,000 to Evalyn Walsh McLean.  She was the wife of Ned McLean, wealthy publisher of the Washington Post, and the only daughter of Thomas Walsh, an immigrant miner and prospector turned millionaire.  The diamond’s last private owner, she delighted in flaunting a jewel that many thought cursed and wore it flamboyantly until her death in 1947.  Harry Winston Inc.,  of  New York City, purchased her entire jewelry collection, including the Hope Diamond, from her estate in 1949 and in November, 1958, donated it to the Smithsonian Institution, where it almost immediately became its premier attraction.  The Hope Diamond is not on display.

Richard Burton’s spectacular gifts of jewels to Elizabeth Taylor were media events that marked the 1960’s.  His most famous purchase was the 69.42-carat pear-shape diamond, later named the Taylor-Burton Diamond from Cartier in 1969.  Certified by the GIA’s Gem Trade Laboratory, the stone was graded as Internally Flawless, F Color.  The diamond is not at the Legion but the story is worth repeating.

In a highly publicized auction, Burton bid on the necklace for Liz but was outbid by Cartier whose winning bid resulted in the stone initially being named the “Cartier” diamond.  Right after the sale, Burton was determined to acquire the diamond from Cartier and offered to buy the stone. Cartier agreed to sell it to him under the condition that it could be displayed at its Chicago and New York stores as the “Cartier.”  Of course, everyone in America knew the story, and more than 6000 people a day flocked to Cartier’s New York store to see Liz’s rock. Taking advantage of the terms of purchase that allowed them to re-name the stone, Liz and Dick re-christened it the “Taylor-Burton” diamond when they took possession.  Liz wore the diamond the first time in public for Princess Grace’s 40th birthday party in Monaco, and the diamond’s transport was a media event in itself.  In 1970, she had Cartier re-mount it into a necklace and wore it to the Oscars in 1970, where she was a media sensation.  Following her 1978 divorce from Burton, Taylor sold the diamond for $5,000,000 to NY jeweler Henry Lambert and used part of the proceeds to build a hospital in Botswana.  Its current owner is Lebanese diamond dealer Robert Mouawad.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor— A Panther Phenomena

Flamingo clip brooch, Cartier Paris, 1940, Diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, citrine, and platinum, 10 x 6 cm, California collection.

Wallis Simpson, the controversial Duchess of Windsor (1896-1986), was an American socialite whose third husband was Prince Edward, Duke of Windsor and former King Edward VIII of England.  The King’s desire to marry a twice-divorced American with two living ex-husbands caused a constitutional crisis in England that ultimately led to his abdication in December 1936.  After abdicating, he became the Duke of Windsor and married Simpson six months later, who became the Duchess of Windsor but was denied the style “Her Royal Highness.”

The Duchess made the Paris Couture best-dressed list in 1935 and remained there for 40 years, famous for her elegant but simply-tailored clothes and chic jewels.  She was Cartier’s most important client during this period after her marriage and several of her masterpieces are at the Legion.  “She was willing to be quite cutting edge,” explained Pierre Rainero, “ to wear things that other women would not wear and she wore then very well.”   She amassed a huge collecion of important jewelry that was sold at auction in 1987 for a shattering $50 million.

Rainero went on to explain that, usually, Cartier’s most daring objects were made for stock, and that special orders that adhere strictly to the request of customers are almost always “looking backwards.  The Duchess of Windsor, however, fell under the category of a notable exception—a client whose strong character led to her strong pieces that were an expression of her character.  The duke and duchess forged a special relationship with Cartier’s Jeanne Toussaint (1887-1978) who had been in charge of Cartier’s precious jewelry since the mid-1930’s and all the Duchess’s most important jewelry were collaborations between the duke, the duchess and Toussaint.

Panther clip brooch, Cartier Paris, 1949. Sapphires, diamonds, yellow diamonds, platinum, and white gold, 6 x 3.7 cm, sold to HRH Duke of Windsor, Cartier Collection, CL 53A49

The Duchess’s Flamingo clip brooch (1940) is arguably her most famous piece of custom- designed Cartier jewelry and is exhibited at the Legion for the first time.  The piece was  fabricated from the Windsor’s own collection of bangles with the collaboration of Toussaint. The flamingo’s body and long stilt legs are of pave diamonds while the vibrant bristling plumage is fabricated of calibré-cut rubies, sapphires and emeralds.   The attitude is “quite daring” in this landmark piece, explained  Rainero.  “It has a real sense of humor for a Duchess and it marks the end of certain period, as it was delivered to her just days before the Germans invaded Paris in June, 1940.”   In the late 1980’s, the flamingo’s status as an icon was secured when it became a knockoff by costume jeweler Kenneth J. Lane   The original was sold at auction in 1987, privately acquired.

Another of the Duchess’s iconic stunners is her diamond and sapphire panther clip brooch, bought as a stock item from Cartier Paris in 1949.  The regal panther is crouched in a life-like pose on a perfectly round 152.35 carat cabochon star sapphire.  It was this very panther that launched the “big cat craze, ” which swept up the duchess herself.  Her 1952 Panther bracelet, also exhibited at the Legion for the first time, is set with calibré-cut black onyx and diamonds and is so finely articulated that it wraps around the wrist like fabric.  Other jewelry collectors, such as Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton followed suit.  She had Cartier make her a draping Tiger brooch and ear clips (also on display) of yellow diamonds and onyx resembling the ram’s skin suspended from the insignia of the Order of the Golden Fleece.

Flamboyant Jewels for Film Stars

María Félix in 1975 wearing her 1975 Cartier crocodile necklace and 1967 Cartier emerald ear clips.

The show’s final gallery includes some delightful short film clips of movie stars who, over time, garnered media attention as the new aristocrats and who famously wore Cartier.   Their famous jewels are on display too.  Gloria Swanson is wearing her Cartier diamond bracelets from “Sunet Blvd.”   Tallulah Bankhead surrenders her Cartier for bait in  “Lifeboat.”   Gace Kelly polishes her 10 carat emerald-diamond engagement ring (from Prince Rainier of Monaco)  in her last movie “High Society.”   And, while poolside in Cap Ferrat, in 1957, a gorgeous young Liz Taylor, captured in a home movie, gleefully recevies ruby and diamond earrings, a necklace, and bracelet from husband Mike Todd.

María Félix, the wildly beautiful siren from the golden age of Mexican cinema, is famous for having turned down the small film roles offered by Hollywood’s Cecil B. DeMille with the reply, “I was not born to carry a basket.” 

Crocodile Necklace, Cartier Paris, 1975, gold, 1,023 brilliant-cut yellow diamonds, two navette-shaped emerald cabochons (eyes), 1,060 emeralds, and two ruby cabochons (eyes). Cartier Collection, © Cartier

Félix found the perfect expression of her bold personality in the huge snake and crocodile pieces she commissioned from Cartier Paris. Her 1968 snake necklace, of platinum and white gold, is encrusted with 178.21 carats of diamonds and finished in the mille-gras. 

 Pure shock factor aside, the necklace demonstrates Cartier’s meticulous attention to detail.  When handled, it mimics the slinkiness and weight of a real snake with hundreds of individual sections that are hinged internally.  Its underbelly feels slithery due to gorgeous enameling that also protects the wearer’s neck.

Her 1975 detachable double crocodile necklace features two baby crocs—one of 1,000 yellow diamonds and the other with over 1,000 circular cut emeralds–that wrap around the neck with heads resting at the center of the throat.  As the legend goes, one day in 1975, Félix visited Cartier Paris absolutely unexpectedly.  She did not come alone but had a baby crocodile in a jar with her and requested that Cartier make her a necklace in the shape of the baby reptile and not to dally as it was growing by the day.  In 2006, to pay tribute to Felix and her necklace, Cartier debuted its La Dona de Cartier collection, featuring the La Dona de Cartier watch, crafted in gold with half-moon, reptilian-like links, something on a more affordable scale for the masses.   But, as we all know, the real Cartier, the Cartier of legends, does not cater to the masses.

February 13, 2010 Posted by | Art, Legion of Honor | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment