Geneva Anderson digs into art

interview: curator Karin Breuer─“Ed Ruscha and the Great American West,” at the de Young through October 9, 2016

The de Young Museum’s “Ed Rusha and the Great American West,” through October 9, 2016, is chock-full of Ruscha’s visual poetry. Sure to put smiles on Bay Area faces is “Honey….I Twisted Through More Damn Traffic To Get Here.” 1984, 76 x 76 inches, oil on canvas, on loan from private collection, © Ed Ruscha.

The de Young Museum’s newest exhibit, “Ed Rusha and the Great American West,” through October 9, 2016, is chock-full of Ruscha’s visual poetry. Sure to put smiles on Bay Area faces is “Honey….I Twisted Through More Damn Traffic To Get Here.” 1984, 76 x 76 inches, oil on canvas, on loan from private collection, © Ed Ruscha.

Sixty years ago, Ed Ruscha, moved across country from Oklahoma to Los Angeles to study art at what would become Cal Arts.  Ever since, the celebrated artist, now 78, has been exploring the West’s expansive cultural and physical landscape. “Ed Rusha and the Great American West,” at the de Young Museum through October 9, 2016, examines Ruscha’s fascination with the Western United States, shifting emblems of American life, and the effects of time on this restless landscape.  Ninety-nine of the artist’s prints, photos, paintings, and drawings fill the de Young’s Herbst exhibition galleries on the bottom floor, giving us an opportunity to see the originals of artworks we all know from prints and posters, including his mythic Hollywood signs and Standard gasoline stations.

“Ed Ruscha defies easy categorization,” says Karin Breuer, who curated the show and is curator in charge of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, where she has worked for over 25 years, succeeding Robert Flynn Johnson. “He’s known as a pop artist, conceptual artist, surrealist and, early on, was identified with the West Coast pop movement, the so-called “cool school” of art.  He’s adept at painting, photography, printmaking and has created wonderful artist’s books.  He’s well known for using words as subjects in his imagery and letter forms.”

At the show’s press conference, I spoke with Breuer about Ed Ruscha and her framing of this expansive exhibit and our interview is below.  I also spoke with Max Hollein, FAMSF’s new director, who headed Frankfurt’s Städel Museum and the Liebieghaus Sculpture Collection (2006-16) and the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt (2001-16).  After 15 years in Deutschland, this German headed West to helm FAMSF, the largest public arts institution in Northern California, and officially began work on June 1.  His impressive skill packet includes overseeing the Städel Museum’s expansion and its digital initiatives platform which entailed collaborating with the tech industry to make the museum’s collections fully and pleasantly accessible online.  Naturally, he’s quite interested in working with the Bay Area’s tech industry as well.  I asked him what attracted him to the Bay Area─

San Francisco is one of the most beautiful cities in the world and, right now, it’s filled with so much energy.  There’s a real transformation occurring as it moves to an even higher level and our two museums will be a part of this rising tide.  Basically, museums are not places that you visit; they are gathering places.  I want to make our museums even more welcoming and relevant and part of that is making our education efforts even stronger and more connected to the contemporary culture.

There’s no better welcome to the Bay Area for Hollein, who says he has loved Ed Ruscha’s Hollywood signs “for ages”, than a huge show exploring Ruscha’s wry and poetic take American contemporary culture.

Karin Breuer, curator of “Ed Rusha and the Great American West” and curator in charge of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, pictured with Ed Ruscha’s “Coyote,” a 1989 lithograph in the FAMSF collection. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Karin Breuer, curator of “Ed Rusha and the Great American West” and curator in charge of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, pictured with Ed Ruscha’s “Coyote,” a 1989 lithograph in the FAMSF collection. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Here is my conversation with the savvy Karin Breur whose long-standing dialogue with Ruscha and hard work have produced a show with depth that is a delight to behold─

Why frame this show around the “Great American West”?

Karin Breuer:   It was an easy and purposeful decision.  I wanted to reverse a trend I’ve observed in exhibits with artists of Ed’s caliber─staying away from their ‘regionalism’ for fear that leads to a provincial look at an artist’s work.  Instead, I thought, why not examine this.  He’s been an artist who by choice went to school in Los Angeles and has lived there for 60 years and has depicted aspects of the West often in his work.  As I kept looking more and more at the work, I realized there’s a story there from the very beginning, when he came out to art school at the age of 18 and traveled West from Oklahoma, all the way up to today where he’s looking at his Western environment and observing change.  The show contains works from 1961 to 2014, a huge expanse of time, but it’s not a catch-all retrospective.

Has he drawn on the Bay Area at all?

Karin Breuer:   No, not at all; it’s mostly the Southwest that has been his focus and stomping ground.  Last night, however, I heard him say that it’s only recently that he’s come to appreciate San Francisco and the Bay Area.  He’s decided that it’s the most beautiful city in the world but, he said, it may be ‘too beautiful’ for him to handle as subject in his art.  There was kind a stay-tuned aspect to that though.  He’s created a very interesting portfolio of prints called “Los Francisco San Angeles” where he combines street grids from both cities into one image and I think that’s the one effort that he’s made so far to connect the two cities.  These are not in the exhibit.

Ed Ruscha, “Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas,” 1963. Oil on canvas, 64 7/8 x 121 3/4 inches, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College.

Ed Ruscha, “Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas,” 1963. Oil on canvas, 64 7/8 x 121 3/4 inches, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College.


Do you have a personal favorite?

Karin Breuer:   I always thought I did but, every time I walk into the galleries, I seem to change my choice.  I’m still very much in love with “Pyscho Spaghetti Western” and it’s because it depicts a roadway with a lot of garbage, trash, and debris that he has treated as beautifully as a still life.  I find that so evocative of not only his quirky subject matter but also of the West and how it’s changed since he first took to the open roads in 1956.


Ed Ruscha, “A Particular Kind of Heaven,” 1983. Oil on canvas, 90 x 136 1/2 inches. FAMSF © Ed Ruscha.

Ed Ruscha, “A Particular Kind of Heaven,” 1983. Oil on canvas, 90 x 136 1/2 inches. FAMSF © Ed Ruscha.

What is the FAMSF’s collecting relationship with Ruscha?  When did you really start building the collection?

Karin Breuer:   Our relationship goes back to 2000, when we acquired Ruscha’s print archive and we came into a collection of over 350 prints at that time.  He continues to contribute to this: each time he makes a print and it’s published, we get an impression of that print.  He’s very prolific and we love that. We now have about 450 prints, one drawing, and one beautiful painting.  For the new de Young building, we commissioned Ed to create a tripych─two panels that would be added to his 1983 painting “A Particular Kind of Heaven,” which we already had in our possession.  You will see a lot of these works in the galleries.

What was his reaction to the show’s concept?

Karin Breuer:   I pitched it to him early on and he liked it and he lent us works from his personal collection and helped facilitate loans from private collectors.  Now that the show is up, he’s been very positive.  This is a very appropriate time for this show as its Ed’s 60th anniversary in California.

“Rodeo,” 1969. Color lithograph, 17 x 24 in. Published by Tamarind Lithography Workshop, Los Angeles. FAMSF © Ed Ruscha

“Rodeo,” 1969. Color lithograph, 17 x 24 in. Published by Tamarind Lithography Workshop, Los Angeles. FAMSF © Ed Ruscha


Do you know if he has a favorite word?

Karin Breuer:   No, and I think if you ask him, you won’t get a straight answer either.  There are some words that appear in different forms.  The word “adiós,” for example, also “rancho” and “rodeo”…those are three words that appear in different forms in my show, that he took on the in the 1960’s.  I wouldn’t say that he continues to use them but they percolate in his vocabulary.

When did his fascination with words begin? 

Karin Breuer:   I know that in college, he had a job in a topography workshop and later he worked as a graphic designer, so words have been a part of his thinking for a very long time.  He keeps lists of words that have captured his attention in notebooks and has said that words have temperatures and when those words become really hot that’s when he uses them in his art.

Ed Ruscha, “Hollywood,” 1968, color screenprint, 171/2 x 44 7/16 inches, published by the artist, FAMSF © Ed Ruscha

Ed Ruscha, “Hollywood,” 1968, color screenprint, 171/2 x 44 7/16 inches, published by the artist, FAMSF © Ed Ruscha


Now that you’ve spent a lot of time with his work, what makes it so powerful for you?

Karin Breuer:   I think it’s the sense of humor that is in almost every single image; it’s wonderful─very dry, very laconic.  He’s that kind of a personality too.  I never cease to be amazed when I see something new coming from him─he’s got such a fertile mind, always thinking, always looking and discovering, and then reacting.  Some of his latest paintings feature exploded tire treads that are called ‘gators’ by truckers.  He treats these as beautiful objects and they almost look like angels’ wings.  I just think to myself, that’s really unexpected, brilliant.

What sparked your interest in becoming a curator?  

Karin Breuer:   I’m the curator of prints and drawings and the inspiration came in college.  I was a college as an art history student during the Vietnam War and there was a lot of social protest on campus.  I was scratching my head thinking what does art history have to do with this? The world is changing, am I doing the right thing?   A beloved professor of mine showed slides of Goya’s “Los Caprichos” and “The Disasters of War” and the light bulb went off.  I said to myself ‘prints!’…they can have a political impact and everyone can afford prints…this is a very democratic medium.  So, I went to graduate school to focus on prints and drawings, a realm of socially relevant art history.

“The End, 1991,” Lithograph, 26 3/16 x 36 13/16 in. Published by the artist. FAMSF © Ed Ruscha

“The End, 1991,” Lithograph, 26 3/16 x 36 13/16 in. Published by the artist. FAMSF © Ed Ruscha

What about your career at the de Young?

Karin Breuer:   I’ve been here 31 years.  When I joined in 1985 as an assistant curator, it was a pretty sleepy institution, as many museums were back in the day. I stayed on and worked my way up, which is kind of unheard of in the younger generations now days, but the Achenbach has only had three professional curators (E. Gunter Troche (1956-71); Robert Flynn Johnson (1975-2007), including myself.  We’ve changed dramatically and dynamically and I have to say that I am absolutely thrilled about Max Hollein’s arrival here.  Already, his energy and enthusiasm are having an impact on us.

Details: “Ed Rusha and the Great American West” closes October 9, 2016.   Hours:  The de Young is open Tues-Sun 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. and on Fridays (through November 25) until 8:45 p.m.  Admission $22; with discounts for seniors, college students.  Audio guides: $8.  The de Young Museum is located in Golden Gate Park at 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive.  Street parking is available for 4 hours and there is a paid parking lot with direct access to the museum.

August 17, 2016 Posted by | Art, de Young Museum | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

FAMSF ancient art curator, Renée Dreyfus, speaks Thursday, June 12, 2014, at the de Young on “Masters of Fire: The Copper Age in the Holy Land”

Renée Dreyfus, FAMSF curator in charge of ancient art and interpretation will speak at the de Young Museum on Thursday, June 12, at 1 PM about “Masters of Fire:  The Copper Age in the Holy Land,” the exhibition which opens June 28, 2014 at the Legion of Honor.  Curator lectures, which provide insight into exhibition conception and artifacts, are a wonderful way to get the most out of an exhibition.

Renée Dreyfus, FAMSF curator in charge of ancient art and interpretation will speak at the de Young Museum on Thursday, June 12, at 1 PM about “Masters of Fire: The Copper Age in the Holy Land,” the exhibition which opens June 28, 2014 at the Legion of Honor. Curator lectures provide insight into exhibition conception and artifacts and are a wonderful way to get the most out of an exhibition. Image: Hedgehog Highlights

Renée Dreyfus, curator in charge of ancient art and interpretation at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF) will speak at the de Young Museum on Thursday, June 12, at 1 PM about Masters of Fire:  The Copper Age in the Holy Land, the exhibition which opens June 28 at the Legion of Honor.   Dreyfus, who always has lots of historical information readily at hand, will speak about artifacts that especially intrigue her and will set the stage for the anitquities that arrive later this month.  If you do go, check the front rows for Colin Bailey, the new FAMSF director (he celebrates one year at the helm this month).  He’s been at the several of the recent talks I’ve attended and it’s a pleasure to see him supporting and motivating museum staff and visiting scholars by engaging with their scholarship.

In 1961, Israeli archaeologists discovered over 400 copper objects wrapped in a straw mat at Naḥal Mishmar (West of the Dead Sea) hidden in a natural crevice that would be called the “Cave of the Treasure.”  One of the greatest hoards of antiquity, these objects were so spectacular that they define an important era in Southern Levantine (modern-day Israel and surrounding lands) history now called the Chalcolithic (copper-stone) or Copper Age (5500–3500 BC).

Masters of Fire is the first comprehensive U.S. exhibition that explores the metallurgical revolution that produced these objects and how this led to significant changes in the technology, ritual, and especially the lifestyles of the Levant.  The exhibition is organized by NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) and the Israel Antiquities Authority in collaboration with The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

“The copper crowns and maces, or standards, found here testify to the amazing technical skill of the ancient smiths and artists who already knew the lost-wax process of casting,” said Renée Dreyfus who will address unknownswhether or not the people who created these objects considered them as arts or ritual objects.  “Of the 80 copper standards found in the Cave of the Treasure, no two are identical, proving that each was cast separately in an individual mold.  This astonishing hoard of 429 remarkable objects also reveals the growth of prestige, status, and social rank.”

Dating to more than a millennium before the pyramids of Egypt were built, the treasures in the Legion of Honor’s upcoming exhibition “Masters of Fire” come from a brief transformative moment.  They were made in the southern Levant, a region known today as Israel, Jordan, Palestine, and their surrounding areas, which was at the forefront of human development from 4500–3600 BC.  Pictured: ritual hoard of copper objects from the Cave of the Treasure, Nahal Mishmar, present-day Israel, Late Chalcolithic period (4500–3500 BC). Copper.  Israel Museum, Jerusalem.  Photo: courtesy FAMSF

Copper objects from the Cave of the Treasure, hoard Nahal Mishmar, Late Chalcolithic period, 4500–3600 BC. Copper, lost wax technique. Israel Antiquities Authority, Israel Museum. Photo: courtesy FAMSF

“The term “Copper Revolution” has been used by scholars to describe the changes in social organization that occurred at this time,” continued Dreyfus. “Archaeologists have tracked the fragments of ore that were mined in Jordan and traced how they were carried almost one hundred miles into southern Israel to be crushed, repeatedly heated, and carefully smelted into small ingots.  Once the copper was extracted, it was heated again and cast in open molds to make simple tools or weapons.  However, the extraordinary discoveries in the Cave of the Treasure at Nahal Mishmar represent a very different path in metallurgy.  The copper objects found there were made using the complicated lost-wax casting technique.  These works are far more elaborate than any other copper creations known from this period.  Whatever the original source of this hoard—whether a major religious or political center—the intricate scepters, crowns, and other copper objects must have been the accouterments of an elaborate ceremonial display.  The Copper Age is therefore an early example of a society in which the ruling elite could afford prestige objects that were produced as symbols of its power.”

Originally from New York City, Dreyfus is a celebrated curator of ancient art. She graduated from Boston University with a degree in philosophy.  She then went on to Brandeis University to receive her M.A. in Ancient Mediterranean Studies and finished her doctorate in Ancient Near Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley.  She speaks several ancient languages, is very active in the FAMSF’s Ancient Arts Council.  She was recently appointed to the newly formed visiting committee of the J. Paul Getty Museum that appraises the J. Paul Getty Trust  on the museum.  Some of Dreyfus’ publications include: deYoung: Selected Works (2006);  Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharaoh (Metropolitan Museum of Art Series) co-authored with Catharine H. Roehrig, and Cathleen A. Keller (2005); Pergamon: The Telephos Frieze from the Great Altar, Volume 2 (1997) co-authored with Ellen Schraudolph; California Palace of the Legion of Honor (1995); The Mystery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (1994) co-authored with Melissa Leventon.

Details: Talk by Renée Dreyfus is Thursday, June 12, 1 PM at the Koret Auditorium at the de Young Museum.  Tickets are $3 members, $4 non-members. No advance purchase or reservations required.  It is not necessary to have an entry ticket to the de Young to attend the lecture. If you would like to enter the de Young Museum, tickets are $10 adults, $7 seniors, FAMSF members free. Tickets to Modernism from the National Gallery of Art are $24 to $11 for non-members and free for FAMSF members. The exhibition, Masters of Fire:  The Copper Age in the Holy Land  is June 28, 2014-January 4, 2105 at the Legion of Honor.

Directions/Parking: The de Young Museum is located at 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, at John F. Kennedy Drive, in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.  Enter Golden Gate Park (JFK Drive side) at 8th Avenue for 4 hour free street parking.  For direct access to the Music Concourse Parking facility, turn right on Fulton and then left on 10th Avenue.

June 10, 2014 Posted by | Art, de Young Museum, Legion of Honor | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Finally! The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco announces a New Director, Colin Bailey, from the Frick Collection

Colin Bailey, deputy director and chief curator of the Frick Collection in New York, is the new director of the Fine Arts Museums in San Francisco.  He starts on June 1, 2013.

Colin Bailey, deputy director and chief curator of the Frick Collection in New York, is the new director of the Fine Arts Museums in San Francisco. He starts on June 1, 2013.

After much anticipation, The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF)  named its new director today, filling the position left vacant since the death of John Buchanan 15 months ago.  Colin Bailey, currently associate director and chief curator of the Frick Collection in Manhattan and a noted curator and award-winning author will step into the position on June 1, 2013.  Bailey was selected after an exhaustive year-long international search by a 13-member selection committee of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s Board of Trustees.  The announcement was made today at 1 p.m. at the de Young Museum at a highly attended press conference officiated by FAMSF president and board chair Diane B. Wilsey (Dede) with guest speaker San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee.  At today’s press conference it was made clear that Bailey will initiate a new mandate “moving beyond the museums’ reputation as a home for blockbuster exhibitions to focus more on its permanent collections.”

Diane B. Wilsey said of Bailey, who did not attend today’s press conference, “we all agree that Colin has the qualities that will elevate the museums to the next level.”  She added that Bailey will keep “the focus on curatorial excellence, art historical relevance, and continued service to our community.”   She also added that John Buchanan had been a lot of “fun to work with” and that that Colin was also “fun.”   

Wilsey’s camaraderie with the late Buchanan was legendary and the two, whom ARThound dubbed “the dynamic duo” were responsible for the coup that brought the celebrated French Impressionism shows to San Francisco in 2010. (Read about that here.)   

Mayor Ed Lee spoke enthusiastically of Bailey’s selection, acknowledging the difficulty of the search process and thanking the Board of Trustees.  In a video shown at the press conference, (watch it below), Bailey said the appointment is “a dream come true,” and his purpose in The City will be “to conserve, to show, to educate.”

Normally, ARThound does not repost news from other websites or journalists but Janos Gereben, emailed me his article for the The Examiner ( about today’s appointment of Bailey and his reporting on his salary is excellent.  Janos has written a series of articles leading up to today’s appointment, which can be found at  He shared with me that he got Bailey’s earnings at the Frick using old-school reportage—he looked up his tax records which are publicly accessible.  Here then quoting Janos…

FAMSF president and board chair Diane B. Wilsey announcing the appointment of Colin Bailey as the new FAMSF director.  Wilsey has run the FAMSF since the death of John Buchanan 15 months ago.  Photo: Geneva Anderson

FAMSF president and board chair Diane B. Wilsey announcing the appointment of Colin Bailey as the new FAMSF director. Wilsey has run the FAMSF since the death of John Buchanan 15 months ago. Photo: Geneva Anderson

“From a small but world-renowned private institution, Bailey is moving to a San Francisco city government organization, which is responsible for the de Young and California Legion of Honor museums.  He will manage 550 employees, some on The City’s payroll, most paid by the nonprofit Corporation of the Fine Arts Museums (COFAM).  

Frick operates on a $22 million budget, has 330,000 visitors a year, against FAMSF’s 1.6 million visitors and $54 million operating budget.

Compensation, at least on paper, doesn’t reflect those differences in size: Bailey’s salary at the Frick was $235,000 in FY 2011, according to the latest IRS report available. 

His position here is “Director of Museums, City and County of San Francisco Classification 0963, Department Head III,” which has a base salary under $100,000; he is expected to receive additional funding and perks from private sources and COFAM.” 

Today’s press conference was scheduled for noon but began close to 1 p.m. due to late running Board of Trustees meeting, where Bailey was officially approved.  The scuttlebutt among the press, impatient for the show to get on, ran the gamut from speculation about the delay in announcing a new director to criticism of Wilsey’s leadership during the recent period of curator dismissals and staff resignations to the organization’s press relations team which has recently been in flux.  Several FAMSF curators were in attendance and they too seemed to eagerly await the announcement, one acknowledging that things had been “unsettled.”  

At the press conference, Wilsey explained that the board meeting was delayed until today, to give Bailey “the courtesy of talking his own [Frick] board, which he did yesterday.”  This, she said, enabled Bailey “to give proper notice.”   He will start at FAMSF on June 1, 2013.  She did not explain why the trustees’ meeting itself ran late. 

Colin Bailey, the new Director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in an introductory video screened at today’s press conference

More about Colin Bailey:  Born in London, Bailey earned his doctorate in art history at Oxford University. He specializes in 18th- and 19th-century French art, was named Chevalier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1994 for his contribution to French culture and was promoted to Officier in 2010. He also held a residency under Henri Loyrette, the former president and director of the Louvre in Paris. He has been chief curator of the Frick since 2000, when he narrowly lost the competition for the museum’s directorship. Previously, he worked at the Getty Museum, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Kimbell Art Museum, and the National Gallery of Canada, where he was deputy director and chief curator. He is returning to California 30 years after a fellowship at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu.

He has organized more than two dozen exhibitions, including the recent Renoir, Impressionism and Full-Length Painting at the Frick, many of which have represented new scholarship and have been praised for providing keen insights into individual artists. Other exhibitions include Masterpieces of European Painting from Dulwich Picture Gallery; Renoir’s Landscapes, 1865-1883; and Rembrandt and His School: Masterworks from the Frick and Bailey’s many publications include The Loves of the Gods: Mythological Painting from Watteau to David; Masterpieces of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: The Annenberg Collection; and Patriotic Taste: Collecting Modern Art in Pre-Revolutionary Paris, the book that won the Mitchell Prize.

Diane B. Wilsey and Colin B. Bailey, the new director of FAMSF, who will start June 1, 2013.  Photo: Bill Zemanek

Diane B. Wilsey and Colin B. Bailey, the new director of FAMSF, who will start June 1, 2013. Photo: Bill Zemanek

Colin Bailey and his partner will be spending the Easter holiday here in the Bay Area, having Easter dinner with Wilsey at her home and finalizing the signing on a spacious apartment that the couple will share with their dog.  Details on the dog to follow…

ARThound’s most recent coverage of the Frick Collection— ARThound in New York: A Dresden goldsmith and court jeweler works his magic and catalogues it in small booklets—“Gold, Jasper and Carnelian” at The Frick Collection through August 19, 2012

March 27, 2013 Posted by | Art, de Young Museum, Legion of Honor | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

interview: Bay Area artist Naomie Kremer shares how her gardens grow—she created the digital sets for the new opera “The Secret Garden,” at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall through Sunday, March 10, 2013

Naomie Kremer, visual designer "The Secret Garden," photo" courtesy Naomie Kremer

Naomie Kremer, visual designer “The Secret Garden,” photo” courtesy Naomie Kremer

San Francisco’s Opera’s new opera for its spring season, “The Secret Garden,” which had its world premiere last Friday in Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, is an exciting adaptation of the classic children’s novel The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.  Directed by Jose Maria Condemi with music by Petaluma composer Nolan Gasser, libretto by Carey Harrison, and visual design by multimedia artist Naomie Kremer, the entire project has been captivating since its inception.   Following in the footsteps of its visually intoxicating 2012 production of “The Magic Flute,” the SFO’s first opera to fully incorporate digital projection technology, this co-production with Cal Performances also fully capitalizes on digital technology for its set design. Video technology has moved opera in a new direction—visual design, always thought to be somewhat static and subservient to the musical component, now has the chance be dynamic and just as compelling as the music.  Naomie Kremer created all of “The Secret Garden’s” digitally-projected sets—a prologue and 13 scenes—and she agreed to talk about what went into visually styling this two hour production.

Written in 1910, the timeless story is about a spoiled young girl who finds herself alone in a bleary and unfamiliar land, until she discovers the hidden wonder of a secret garden and experiences the healing power of nature.  While it has been adapted to the stage and screen many times, the classic struck SF Opera general director David Gockley as perfect for opera and in 2010, he began to talk publicly of developing it as a family opera.  Naomie Kremer captured his attention with her masterful one hour video backdrop for the Berkeley Opera Company’s 2008 production of Béla Bartok’s 1918 opera “Bluebeard’s Castle” (A kékszakállú herceg vára).   This was the painter’s first stab at video projected stage design but, based on its strength, the choreographer Margaret Jenkins invited Kremer to create a video backdrop for Light Moves,” a production of the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company involving a synthesis of dance, live music, poetry, animation and recurring cycles of light, which premiered at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) in November 2011.

Partly because of the success of Light Moves, Gockley’s attention turned to Kremer again when The Secret Garden opera was developed, and he asked her to submit a proposal.  Soon after, she was hired to do the entire visual design for the production.

ARThound first discovered Naomie Kremer last September through her detailed FAMSF (Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco) blog posts where she wrote about using FAMSF portraits in the opera’s set design to “hint at Mary’s venerable family made up of generations of proud landowners and beautiful women.”  For the pivotal scene where Mary hears moaning sounds and decides to explore the hallway, she planned to line a dark and flickering hallway with portraits of William Turner by Sir Joshua Reynolds and Samuel Kilderbee (ca 1757) by Thomas Gainsborough.  “Making this video set, I knit together a fabric to support the action of this opera,” wrote Kremer.  “The play between reality and fantasy, realism and surrealism, is fluid and wide open.  My goal is to stretch reality but not so much that the fabric tears”   Indeed, that very elasticity, is what makes digital sets so intoxicating. 

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The Secret Garden had its world premiere last Friday (March 1, 2013) to a sold out house and I had the privilege of talking with Naomie Kremer about her otherworldly digital set designs. Below is our conversation—

Give us an overview of what you were responsible for and the types of materials you used as source materials.

Naomie Kremer: As the visual designer, I was in charge of all aspects of the set design, including the props.  This is my first assignment for SF Opera.  They contacted me in July 2011, I presented a proposal in November 2011, and was hired at the beginning of 2012.  I started shooting video right away.  It’s really been a long and involved process which morphed as I was working on it.  I started by creating a lot of raw material— footage that I shot in England, Spain, France, here (CA) and New York, a few things from the Internet, some of my own paintings, and portraits lent by the FAMSF—and then, I began to mix manipulate it all.  My process involves layering a lot of different content to arrive at a slightly unreal vision that you would not see in the real world but that is familiar.  I call that “enhanced realism.”

What are some previous productions that you’ve worked on and some techniques that you’ve developed that you apply to digital design?  

NK: This is my third experience with set design. It all started with Béla Bartok’s“Bluebeard’s Castle,” which the Berkeley Opera Company’s did in 2008.  It’s a one hour opera, notoriously hard to stage because the story involves seven doors that open onto 7 completely different worlds that include a torture chamber, a garden, “the realm.”  I was introduced to Jonathon Khuner, director of the Berkeley Opera, by the composer Paul Dresher.  I showed Khuner some of my painting animations, and he invited me to do a video-based set for Bluebeard.  He didn’t expect me make it as comprehensive as I did—I basically did a one-hour music video, with a continuous flow of moving visuals, essentially turning Bluebeard’s Castle itself into an actor in the production.

It was a consuming process that took nine months.  The visual design was very well received, and I was very intrigued with the process and the results.  I ended up with many many hours of footage and content that was not used, and it led me to develop a whole new body of work that I call “hybrid paintings.”  

These “hybrid” works consist of paintings or works on paper onto which I project video, transforming them into mysterious, luminous objects that challenge our perception of surface, space, depth, and materiality through a hybrid of painting and video.  I think of the experience as one that “both orients and disorients.  The viewer is uncertain which part is paint and which is projection until the spot where the gaze is resting starts to move.  I’m interested in the ambiguity of the relationship between projection and reality, stillness and motion. The stillness is that of the painted canvas.  The motion is an animation I create, sometimes by selecting and choreographing segments of a finished painting, sometimes by manipulating video footage.  All of that came out of working on Bluebeard’s Castle.

Margaret Jenkins saw the opera, as well as my hybrid paintings in an exhibition at Modernism (my gallery in San Francisco), and became intrigued with the idea of creating a hybrid of dance and video.  She invited me to do a set for the work that became Light Moves, which premiered at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in November, 2011, and subsequently toured to Maryland and Chicago.

When you heard about the opera, what’s the first image that popped up for you visually?

NK: Many images came into my head. I traveled in India in my early 20s, and this story begins in India. I also lived in England for three years subsequent to that trip, and had strong visuals in my mind of English gardens, with their incredible, softly lit lushness.  And, of course, the importance of identifying a forbidding, almost haunted manor house, of which there are many in England!

The thing I was always looking for in shooting footage for the opera was movement. Without it, you would think you’re just looking a photograph—so wind and rain and weather were a very important component. The importance of motion to the set can’t be under-estimated. I think it’s critical to simulating reality, because in the real world there is always motion in our peripheral vision, whether or not we are aware of it. But I wanted the motion not to be so compelling that we are distracted from the action on the stage. There was a balance to be struck.

What role did music play in this for you and in your visual choices?  Since Nolan Gasser was in the process of writing the music and everything was coming together at once, how did that work? Were there particular pieces of the opera, or instruments, or natural sounds that were particularly important?

NK: The music was not done until December 2012, and I had to have most of the video long before that.  But the atmospherics of the music were definitely in my mind as I put together the imagery.  I had parts of the music to refer to, and I felt instinctively that my own snippets— the content that I was gathering—would work with the rhythms and sonorities of Nolan Gasser’s score.  Once I heard the music played by the orchestra (which didn’t happen till the rehearsals began in February!) I was delighted with the instrumentation and how well it worked with the visual rhythms I had created.

Were there particular images that you prepared for specific instrument solos?

NK: The appearance of the robin was always associated with a certain musical passage. Intricate cuing is required to make the video and the stage action and the music come together at critical moments.  The sets have to perform over the whole course of a scene, so I had to stay very sensitive to the coordination of the music, the stage action and the video.

The robin is key to the novel. How does that play out in the opera?

NK: The robin was my biggest challenge, because you just can’t stage direct robins.  In a funny coincidence, a robin built a nest in the courtyard at my house a couple of years ago, and laid gorgeous blue eggs (I wasn’t aware robin’s eggs were blue!).  I shot lots of video of that, but it wasn’t quite the action needed for The Secret Garden. Then, I discovered a grove in Central Park populated by a whole bunch of tame robins, so they didn’t run away as I approached to videotape them.  Then, one day it dawned on me to Google English robins and I found out that they look completely different than American robins, so I wasn’t able to use any of the footage I had!  In desperation, I went to the internet and found some footage that I was then able to modify by deleting the extraneous background content.

How does the ability to paint a scene with digital media change things for you as an artist?   Before you had very static sets, painted on boards, and used limited props.  Of course, you can still have the best of those but you’ve got this whole other element that brings unlimited opportunities. 

NK: It’s incredibly exciting and it’s wide open.  You can really visualize and paint a whole world, constructing it from different locations, using diverse content to invent a scene that couldn’t possibly exist in the real world.  It’s an incredible extension of the medium of painting.

The garden is of course KEY to the unfolding and mystery of the story.  What were specific inspirations for the garden you created both time-wise and the style of garden you created?  Frances Hodgson Burnett was a Victorian looking back at the Romantic-era gardens which were so wild and poetic.  How did you approach this?

NK: I travelled quite a bit in the course of the past year.  I had to come up with two gardens—the house garden, which is the one that is first seen when Mary goes out to play, and the secret garden, which she discovers later.  I wanted to make the house garden appear distinctly different from the secret garden and was looking for a formal and very structured garden to use.  I ended up videotaping in Grenada at the Alhambra, as well as in Yorkshire, and a combination of the two became the formal garden.  For the secret garden, I traveled to Norfolk and Yorkshire in England, as well as videotaping in my own and friends’ gardens. I then created video collages of this footage.  The secret garden also needed several versions.  When Mary first discovers it, it’s overgrown, seemingly dead. Then, it transitions into early springtime and ultimately into full bloom in the final scene.  I masked out certain areas of content in the video and reinserted paintings that I had done so there’s a look that you could not achieve by simply videotaping. To create specific moods and seasonal changes I used color and light. 

I actually ended up inserting a layer of the outdoors into the indoor scenes so that the wallpaper has a component that moves very slightly.  Since the mood and psychological content is so much about the outdoors, I thought it would be very neat to bring an outdoor component indoors.  I adjusted brightness and contrast and content to create gloomy interiors at first, which become more upbeat as the story develops.

As in C.S. Lewis’ classic The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I am struck by the contrast in this story between these dark repressive interiors and the bright and vital outdoors.  And that’s what heals the little boy, coming out into the light and the garden air.  How do you handle those contrasts and mood shifts in the opera?

NK: I actually ended up inserting a layer of the outdoors into the indoor scenes so that the wallpaper has a component that moves very slightly.  Since the mood and psychological content is so much about the outdoors, I thought it would be very neat to bring an outdoor component indoors.  I adjusted brightness and contrast and content to create gloomy interiors at first, which become more upbeat as the story develops.

You’ve included several portraits from the Fine Arts Museums’ collection to hint at Mary’s venerable family.  Can you talk about a scene where these are particularly important for setting a mood. 

NK: There’s a particular scene where Mary decides to venture out into the hallway to investigate this mysterious wailing sound that she hears, which no one will explain except to say it is the sound of the moors.  It was interesting to me to try to create some sense of family history in that hallway and to capture that foreboding mood, so I have the hallway lined with venerable family portraits.  To emphasize the progress she’s making, it’s scrolling by as she walks, and to set the mood for this slightly scary journey, it distorts and kind of comes out at her.

You’ve been working in fragments, visual fragments for some time…When did you first see your work joined with the music and what was your reaction? 

NK: I was very pleased…It really all came together quite recently, basically when it was in rehearsal.  Before that, I had to hold all these fragments together in my head, though I created detailed storyboards as reference points.   

The last step was to program the video the MBOX, a performance management system which permits the video to be cued to the stage action.  I worked with the team over the past month to adjust brightness, contrast, speed, and so forth so when that the opera’s live the content matches what’s happening on stage.  It’s quite complicated!

Naomi Kremer’s exhibition “Sightlines”— An exhibition of Naomie Kremer’s artwork is on display work at Modernism Gallery, 685 Market Street, San Francisco, through April 27, 2013. For more information, call 415.541.0461

DETAILS:  There are 2 remaining performances of “The Secret Garden,” Saturday, March 9, 2013 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, March 10, 2013 at 3 p.m. at Zellerbach Hall.  Tickets:  The Sunday matinee is sold out.  There is limited availability for Saturday evening.  Tickets start at $30.  To purchase tickets and check availability, phone 510.642.9988 or click here.

Zellerbach Hall does not have a street address and is located on the lower U.C. Berkeley campus, directly across the street from “The Musical Offering,” 2430 Bancroft Avenue, Berkeley, CA.  

Parking is very difficult to find near curtain time, so plan on arriving 30 to 40 minutes prior to your event to ensure getting to your set on time.  

Finding the Ticket Office and Will Call: The Ticket Office/Will Call is located at the northeast corner of Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus. Hours: Sat & Sun, 1 pm – 5 pm and approximately one hour prior to curtain.  Tuesday-Friday, noon-5:30 pm. Closed Mondays

March 9, 2013 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Paris, je t’aime!—the Legion closes out 2012 with “Royal Treasures from the Louvre,” a show that re-introduces the glory days of the French court

One of the most novel items on display in “Royal Treasures from the Louvre…” is an ornate solid gold coffee grinder fabricated in 1756-57 by goldsmith Jean Ducrollay for Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s chief mistress.  Madame de Pompadour, who gave intimate dinners hosted by the king, owned several examples of gold tableware but this is the only surviving piece.  It is made of three colors of gold and modeled with delicate sprays of coffee branches and coffee berries.  Photo: © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY / Daniel Arnaudet

One of the most novel items on display in “Royal Treasures from the Louvre…” is a solid gold coffee grinder fabricated in 1756-57 by goldsmith Jean Ducrollay for Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s chief mistress. Made of three colors of gold and modeled with delicate sprays of coffee branches and coffee berries, this is the only surviving piece of several items of gold tableware Pompadour owned. Photo: © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY / Daniel Arnaudet

The Louvre is at top of almost everyone’s Paris-to-do list, but once there, it can be overwhelming with its 35,000 paintings, sculptures, furnishings and objects.  A must-see exhibition at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor Royal Treasures from the Louvre: Louis XIV to Marie Antoinette, has brought some of the Louvre’s most exquisite treasures, those of the French monarchy from the time of Louis XIV (1638-1715) until the Revolution of 1789, right to our doorstep.  As Louis XIV was building his spectacular palace at Versailles, he called on his court workshops at the Gobelins Manufactory to furnish his new building.  As many as 800 artisans worked to create mosaic tabletops, sumptuous wool and silk tapestries and carpets, silver goods, furniture and other luxury goods, representing France’s finest workmanship.  A sampling of these spectacular objects’d art and furnishings have been lent to the Legion of Honor while the Louvre renovates its 18th century galleries in preparation for their 2013 re-opening.    

On display are Louis XIV’s personal collection of hard-stone vases, the “Gemmes de la Couronne,” which represent the pinnacle of French royal collecting, one of Louvre’s greatest treasures.  They have only left France once before—in 2004, when they were exhibited at the Kremlin.  Also included are several Gobelins masterworks including a mosaic tabletop of semiprecious stones, several large and detailed tapestries, and a pair of painted doors from Queen Marie-Thérèse’s (1638-83) bedroom.  Other precious items include a rare complete “boite à portrait” (box portrait) of Louis XIV surrounded by large diamonds; personal items made for Louis XV and his mistresses, Madame de Pompadour and Madame du Barry; Sèvres porcelain pieces gifted to foreign rulers; royal silver; and precious personal objects collected by Queen Marie-Antoinette that she kept in her private apartments at Versailles.  Due to their status, many of these objects have never left France before and are on display at the Legion, the only U.S. venue, through March 17, 2013.    

Adding icing to the cake, the Louvre and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco signed a major accord on November 15, 2012, which puts the two museums in a partnership that paves the way for a series of exhibitions, collaborations on publications, art conservation projects, and public education programs.  The accord is the culmination of a series of discussions and exchanges that began two years ago when John Buchanan, the late director of the FAMSF and Diane Wilsey, president, FAMSF Board of Trustees, went to Paris and met with Henri Loyrette, director of the Musée du Louvre and put together a plan to bring Royal Treasures from the Louvre to San Francisco.  Another major art exhibition from the Louvre is expected to open in San Francisco by 2017 and, likewise, works of art from FAMSF will be exhibited at the Louvre.

Henri Loyrette, director of the Musée du Louvre, looks on as Diane B. Wilsey, president of the Board of Trustees of FAMSF, signs an accord on November 15, 2012, which paves the way for more collaboration between the two museums and a series of exhibitions bringing artworks from Louvre to San Francisco and works from FAMSF to Paris for exhibition.  Photo: Geneva Anderson

Henri Loyrette, director of the Musée du Louvre, looks on as Diane B. Wilsey, president of the Board of Trustees of FAMSF, signs an accord on November 15, 2012, which paves the way for more collaboration between the two museums and a series of exhibitions bringing artworks from Louvre to San Francisco and works from FAMSF to Paris for exhibition. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Exhibition Overview:   Allow about two hours to fully take in this exhibition which includes roughly 90 objects. ( Pairs of items—plates, lamps, painted doors, etc.,are counted as a single item.)  The exhibition is divided into eight major sections which conveniently correspond to chapters in the exhibition catalogue —the Gobelins Manufactory; the French Crown Collection of Hardstones (“Gemmes de la Couronne”); Royal Gifts of Gold and Diamonds; Royal Silversmiths’ works; Sèvres Porcelain Diplomatic Gifts; the Marchand-Merciers as Purveyors of Luxury Goods; Louis XVI as Patron of the Arts; and the Private Collection of Marie Antoinette.    

Exhibition Highlights:

Royal Patronage:  The story of French royal patronage and collecting begins in 1662 with Louis XIV’s purchase of the Gobelins Manufactory (or factory) which had been run by the Gobelins, a family of prestigious dyer-maker and tapestry weavers, since the 15th century.  With Gobelins’ entire production at his disposal, the king went to town.  The  firm was renamed Manufacture Royale des Meubles de la Couronne (Royal Factory of Furniture to the Crown) and it was transformed into a luxury goods factory charged with supplying tapestries, carpets, hardstone tables, cabinets  furniture, and silver exclusively for Louis XIV’s royal residences and for ambassadorial gifts.  Under the direction of artist Charles Le Brun from 1663 until his death in 1690, Gobelins came to epitomize the standard of excellence the rest of the world sought to match.   Louis XIV’s war campaigns in the late 1680’s nearly bankrupted the country and put the brakes on his lavish commissions from Gobelins.  Most of the exquisite silver commissioned that had been commissioned for Versailles was melted down and the factory, which in its heyday had employed up to 800 skilled artisans, returned to producing only tapestries.  

This tapestry with its rare arched top depicts Lois XIV as Apollo and was woven for his private quarters at Trianon.  “Apollo,” from the series “Tenture des Mois Arabesques,” ca. 1697 Gobelins Manufactory. After Noël Coypel (French, Paris 1628–1707 Paris), painter.  Workshop of Jean de la Croix (French, 1662–1712), Wool and silk, 110 1/4 x 87 in. (280 x 221 cm). Musée du Louvre.  Photo: © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY.

This tapestry with its rare arched top depicts Louis XIV as Apollo and was woven for his private quarters at Trianon. “Apollo,” from the series “Tenture des Mois Arabesques,” ca. 1697, Gobelins Manufactory. After Noël Coypel (French, Paris 1628–1707 Paris), painter. Workshop of Jean de la Croix (French, 1662–1712), Wool and silk, 110 1/4 x 87 in. (280 x 221 cm). Musée du Louvre. Photo: © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY.

Tapestries: The silk and wool tapestries woven at the Gobelins were the finest of any produced in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Preparatory cartoons were ordered from leading painters such as Charles Le Brun, Jean-Baptiste Oudry, Charles Coypel, and François Boucher.  During the 72 year reign of Louis XIV (1661-1733), which was one of the longest in history,  tapestries were created with intricate motifs alluding to great moments in French history and celebrating the king, whereas 18th century subjects were lighter and more frivolous.  Skilled weavers were paid according to the difficulty of the work and those entrusted with heads and flesh tones received the highest wages.  

The exhibition includes two Gobelins tapestries.  One has a rare arched top and was created for a curved niche in Louis XIVs bedchamber at Trianon, his private retreat at Versailles.  This tapestry depicts Louis XIV as Apollo sporting a bow for hunting, a favorite activity of Louis XIV.  Its border is filled with flowers and fruits alluding to the king’s bounty.  According to Marc Bascou, Director of Département des Objets d’art at the Musée du Louvre, over time, the ravages of light destroyed many of the subtle effects in most tapestries from this period, but these specimens have survived—not only do they have significant subject matter but they have exquisite color and reflect sophisticated tonal effects achieved through a wide range of special dyes which were developed during that period.

Another exquisite “don’t miss” late 17th century tapestry is the exceptionally large and vividly colorful one that opens the exhibition—a “chancellerie” from the Beauvais Manufactory.  This factory was second in importance to the Gobelins workshops and was established by Louis XVI’s finance minister and specialized in low-warp weaving. Chancelleries were given by the king to his chief justices or chancellors.  Woven in silks and wools, this stunning example has a central coat of arms of France, and the symbols—crossed maces and the casket containing the royal seals—and cypher of Chancellor Louis Boucherat (who served under Louis XIV) in the mid-section of its lower border.  The border was designed by the esteemed French painter Jean Lemoyne.  Just in front of this tapestry is a remarkable bronze statue of Louis XIV, captured dramatically on his rearing horse.  It has life-like detail throughout, right down to the nails on the horse’s shoes, and is one of the few statues of Louis XIV to survive the Revolution. 

If you haven’t yet seen the fall edition of Fine Arts, FAMSF’s quarterly magazine, the cover is a close-up of a brilliantly colored  late 17th century mosaic tabletop in marble and semi-precious stones fabricated by Gobelins.  This large tabletop features emblems of Louis XIV, including intricate lapis lazuli lyres of Apollo set at each of its four corners.   Apollo was both the sun god and god of the classical world and Louis XIV, known as the Sun King, associated himself with the cult of Apollo.  The lyres are set on lapis globes filled with fleurs-de-lis-and the entire composition is interspersed with garlands of flowers, fruits and images of exotic parrots so finely rendered, you might mistake it for a painting. The technique of hardstone mosaic was developed in 16th century Florence; by the 18th century, it had been refined to the point that convincing imitations of oil paintings could be created.  The Italian-trained artisans at Gobelins were counted among the world’s finest and this tabletop is the finest example of their work in large-scale.   

The Gemmes de la Couronne (The French Crown Collection of Hardstones):  It took roughly 25 years but Louis XIV accumulated the finest precious and semiprecious hardstone vases in Europe for his own personal collection— a mix of superb antique, Byzantine, medieval and oriental carved hardstones with exquisite sixteenth and seventeenth century gold, enamel and gemstone mounts from Milan, Prague and Germany.  These were the most esteemed objects in the royal collection, cherished for their rarity and as exquisite mineral specimens.  A palace inventory of 1713 lists 823 objects in this category, broken down into 446 works in rock crystal and 377 works in different semiprecious colored stones.  

This agate ewer was a prize possession of King Louis XV and is part of the French Crown Collection of Hardstones.  Agate with enameled gold mounts, ca. 1650, Paris, France, 10 7/16 x 4 15/16 x 3 9/16 inches, Musée du Louvre, Département des Objets d’Art, MR 23, photo: © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY / Jean-Gilles Berizzi.

This agate ewer was a prize possession of King Louis XV and is part of the French Crown Collection of Hardstones. Agate with enameled gold mounts, ca. 1650, Paris, France, 10 7/16 x 4 15/16 x 3 9/16 inches, Musée du Louvre, Département des Objets d’Art, MR 23, photo: © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY / Jean-Gilles Berizzi.

Among all his possessions, Louis XIV especially treasured an agate ewer, mounted as a pitcher in gold and embellished with elements from classical mythology.  This graceful study in form and color was chosen as the exhibition poster.  Its ornate handle is an enameled female whose wings have spouted into vegetation and join with a goat’s head which forms the rear rim.  The entire underside of the lip is a colorful enamel satyr’s mask.   The pitcher was not made to be used but to be displayed.  When the Palace of Versailles was redesigned in the 1680’s, Louis XIV had his private apartments outfitted with special tables and mirrors to showcase these stunning objects. Eighteen hardstone and rock crystal pieces are on display at the Legion, including several shell-shaped hardstone cups, some of which are translucent and all of which are encrusted with jaw-dropping mounts of enameled gold and stones. 

Royal Gifts, “Présents du Roi”: The French kings frequently commissioned opulent luxury items as gifts for foreign kings and dignitaries, known as “présents du roi.”  Louis XIV understood the timeless allure of diamonds and was well known for giving miniature enamel portraits of himself set in diamonds to people he wanted to impress.  These backsides of these miniatures were elaborately enameled and embellished with the king’s crowned double-L cypher.  These miniatures were called “boîtes à portraits” (portrait boxes) because they presented in exquisite protective silk-lined leather boxes.  While very few of these jewel-encrusted portraits survived intact because the value of the diamonds led to re-purposing, one, in exceptional condition, with its original large diamonds is at the Legion.

When Louis XIV’s great grandson, Louis XV, came to power (reined 1715-1774), the custom of giving king’s portraits continued, but instead of being presented in ornate boxes, they became the boxes.  Miniature portraits were mounted on snuffboxes, many of which were solid gold, reflecting the wealth and power of the donor.  The Louvre has the finest collection of snuffboxes in the world and eight are in this exhibition.  Many of these are decorated with four colors of gold—rose, green, white and yellow—and hand-chased or set brilliantly with diamonds and colored enamels or jewels.

Louvre 5

Presentation miniature of Louis XIV, ca 1670, in a diamond-set frame. Workshop of Pierre and Laurent Le Tessier de Montarsy, goldsmiths; Jean Petitot I, enameler. Miniature: painted enamel. Mount: rose-cut and table-cut diamonds set in silver and enameled gold. 2 13/16 x 1 13/16 inches. Musée du Louvre, Département des Objets d’Art, Gift of the Société des Amis, 2009, OA 12280. Photo: © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY / Jean-Gilles Berizzi.

The Marchands-Merciers, Luxuries: During the 18th century, under Louis XV, purveyors of luxury goods, “marchands-merciers,” stepped up to replace the system of state patronage that Louis XIV had established with his purchase of Gobelins in the 17th century.  Louis XV furnished his personal apartments and those of his mistresses, Madame de Pompadour and Madame du Barry, with the finest decorative pieces of the Rococo era, supplied by the marchands-merciers.  The marchands-merciers both commissioned works from artisan workshops and acted as middle men, stepping in as designers, interior decorators, jewelers and dealers. 

A stand-out from this period is a tea table with Sèvres porcelain plaques made in 1774 for Madame du Barry (1743-1793), Louis XV’s mistress who succeeded Madame Pompadour.  The table’s commission was handled by Simon-Philippe Poirier, who specialized in Sèvres porcelain and became one of Madame Pompadour’s preferred dealers.  The king spent lavishly on du Barry and reportedly told the Duke of Richelieu that she was the only woman in France who could make him forget he was 60.  She, in turn, was said to have made a profession out of acquiring whatever she fancied, building up a vast collection of the rarest, most curious and costly objects.  This table with a tilting top is one of the most elaborate of its type, consisting of seven porcelain plaques with bucolic themes and a base fabricated by the cabinetmaker Martin Carlin of rare purple wood veneers on mahogany with gilt bronze mounts.  While each of these Sèvres plaques is a work of art, the central plaque by Charles-Nicholas Dodin, the leading artist at Sèvres, is an exotic scene from the 1737 work “Le concert du grand Sultan” by painter Carle van Loo.  The catalogue states that this scene must have been copied from an engraving rather than the original painting because the composition is reversed. (catalogue p. 111)  

Madame du Barry had an insatiable taste for Sèvres porcelain.  She had several full sets of dinnerware, which could consist of up to several hundred pieces each made for her. Many of these featured an ornate center design formed from her initials “DB.”  She was known to reject completed sets, complaining that design elements that captured her fancy at the time of their commission were not what she really wanted.

Detail of tea table with Sèvres porcelain plaques (1774), made for Madame du Barry (1743–1793) Martin Carlin, cabinetmaker; Charles-Nicolas Dodin painter.  Oak, mahogany, and purple wood veneer; gilt bronze mounts; soft-paste porcelain, 32 5/16 x 31 1/2 inches. Musée du Louvre. Photo: © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY /Eric Lessing.

Detail of tea table with Sèvres porcelain plaques (1774), made for Madame du Barry (1743–1793)
Martin Carlin, cabinetmaker; Charles-Nicolas Dodin painter. Oak, mahogany, and purple wood veneer; gilt bronze mounts; soft-paste porcelain, 32 5/16 x 31 1/2 inches. Musée du Louvre. Photo: © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY /Eric Lessing.

Madame Pompadour’s gold coffee grinder:  Madame Pompadour (1721-1764), Louis VX’s earlier mistress, also dined on the finest Sèvres porcelain and had a taste for luxury.  Her gold coffee grinder, embellished with delicate spays of coffee berries and leaves, is the exhibition’s most delightful object.

The king met Pompadour at a ball in 1745 when she was 23 and he was 35. She came dressed as a coquettish shepherdess and he came as a tree and was smitten. She was masterful at seduction and aimed to secure her place, acquiring a number of lodges and châteaux chateau, all appointed with everyday objects made in precious materials, so that the King and she could play at ordinary life while living in outlandish luxury.

The Private Collection of Marie Antoinette:   The mystique of Marie Antoinette (1755-1793), who became Queen of France when Louis XVI ascended the throne in 1774, is the subject of extensive lore.  A small gallery is devoted entirely to the queen’s personal collection of precious objects for her private apartments at Versailles.  She had a team of stylists, architects, and decorators at her beckon call who worked to furnish these dwellings in an elegant Neoclassical style that worked in concert with her prized possessions.  On display are 16 objects reflecting the richness and refinement of her taste—furniture, porcelain and gilt boxes, bowls, cups.  There are also several hardstone vases of which she was particularly fond, some of which she took from Louis XIV’s priceless collection of hardstones. 

Particularly impressive is her large jewel coffer (1786-1787), set with thick decorative panels of moss agate with a base of marble and jasper and ornate gold lion mounts.  These elaborately crafted ornate mounts are seen in many of her objects and were intended to act as a stylistic counterpoint to the stone’s plain surface and to enhance its natural beauty.  The coffer’s front panel of agate stands out as a marvel of natural abstraction with spheres resembling planets floating in a vast cosmos, a piece that one can literally lose all sense of time gazing at.

Marie Antoinette’s Jewel coffer (1786–1787) set with decorative panels of moss agate and designed by French goldsmiths Charles Ouizille (ca. 1744–1830) and Pierre-François Drais (ca. 1726–1788). Lid is missing.  Moss agate, jasper, marble and gold, 9 1/4 x 11 x 8 7/8 inches.  Musée du Louvre. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Marie Antoinette’s Jewel coffer (1786–1787) set with decorative panels of moss agate and designed by French goldsmiths Charles Ouizille (ca. 1744–1830) and Pierre-François Drais (ca. 1726–1788). Lid is missing. Moss agate, jasper, marble and gold, 9 1/4 x 11 x 8 7/8 inches. Musée du Louvre. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Also on display is a 19-inch-high jasper perfume burner (1774-1775) prized for its naturalistic garlands of vine leaves.  Mounted by the famous bronzier (bonze worker) Pierre Gouthière, one of the most celebrated artists of his day, this object actually belongs to the Wallace Collection, London.  It is one of three masterpieces by Gouthière in the exhibition, all three acquired by French royals at the famous 1792 auction of the duc d’Amont’s private collection.

In the early days of the Revolution, the queen’s precious objects were consigned to Dominque Daguerre, a prominent marchand-mercier who had assisted her with a large number of commissions and purchases.  After her execution in 1793, the objects eventually went to the Commission of Arts and many were placed in the Louvre.

While Louis XVI’s art collecting stood in the shadow of his wife’s reputation for extravagance, he was a great patron of the arts who initiated a set of reforms in 1774-1792 that would pave the way for the Louvre.  In 1774, he installed his most valuable possessions—his hardstone vases, renamed “Gemmes de la Couronne,” and the Crown jewels—in the Garde-Meuble de la Couronne (today’s place de la Concorde) where they were open to the public on certain days.  He also began purchasing and commissioning objects with an eye to establishing a great museum in the galleries of the royal palace of the Louvre.  Unfortunately, before his project could be realized, his regime collapsed, bankrupted by years of bad harvests, drawn-out wars, resistance to reform and the debt incurred by Louis XIV’s outlandish spending on Versailles.  Public opinion turned against the King and his royals and unrest eventually led to revolution and Louis XVI was executed in January of 1793.  Eight months later, the Louvre, now designated as a collection for the people of France, opened to the public. 

The Legion has gone all out with its lavish installation of Royal Treasures from the Louvre, which includes an informative optional audio-tour narrated by FAMSF’s Martin Chapman and Maria Santiago.  No matter what you believe your particular taste is, prepare to be completely mesmerized by these priceless objects and pulled into another era, and, of course, you’ll have done your homework in preparation for a trip to Paris to visit the Louvre and its additional 34,900 artworks.

Martin Chapman (left), Curator in Charge of European Decorative Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and Marc Bascou (right), Director of Département des Objets d'art at the Musée du Louvre, discuss a rare 17th century marble and pietre dure (hardstones) tabletop with emblems of Louis XIV, exotic parrots and ornate garlands of fruits and flowers. Chapman and Bascou conducted the November 15, 2012 media preview for “Royal Treasures from the Louvre: Louis XIV to Marie-Antoinette.”  Photo: Geneva Anderson

Martin Chapman (left), Curator in Charge of European Decorative Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and Marc Bascou (right), Director of Département des Objets d’art at the Musée du Louvre, discuss a rare 17th century marble and pietre dure (hardstones) tabletop with emblems of Louis XIV, exotic parrots and ornate garlands of fruits and flowers. Chapman and Bascou conducted the November 15, 2012 media preview for “Royal Treasures from the Louvre: Louis XIV to Marie-Antoinette.” Photo: Geneva Anderson

Catalogue: At $29.99 the catalogue,  Royal Treasures from the Louvre: Louis XIV to Marie Antoinette, (hardcover, 176 pages) includes large and high-quality color photos of all of the objects in the exhibition and insightful essays by Marc Bascou, Director of the Musée du Louvre’s Département des Objets d’Art (currently in charge of renovating the Louvre’s 18th century galleries) and that department’s chief curator, Michèle Bibenet, as well as Martin Chapman, FAMSF’s Curator in Charge of Decorative Arts and Sculpture.  Chapman co-curated the Legion’s Cartier and America show in 2010, as well as Artistic Luxury: Fabergé, Tiffany, Lalique in 2009.  Anything he writes on the decorative arts is a must have.  Published by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in collaboration with the Musée du Louvre, Paris and available for purchase through the museum shop or online.

Details: Royal Treasures from the Louvre: Louis XIV to Marie Antoinette  closes Match 17, 2013.  The Legion of Honor Museum is located in Lincoln Park, 34th Avenue and Clement Street, San Francisco. Museum hours:  Tuesday–Sunday, 9:30 a.m.–5:15 p.m.; closed on Monday.  Tickets: $20; seniors 65+ $17; students with current ID $16; youth 13-17 $10; children 12 and under and members free.  Purchase tickets in advance online here.  More info:

Related Lectures and Events: 

Special Lecture: from Versailles to rodeo Drive: French Luxe Conquers the World, Dr. Anne Prah-Perochon, art historian and contributor to the journal France-Amérique.  Sunday January 13, 2013, 2 p.m., Florence Gould Theatre, free after museum general admission.

Docent Lectures:  Saturday, December 29, 2012 at 1 p.m. with Kay Payne; Saturday, January 19, 2013 at 1 p.m. with Jim Kohn; Sunday 27, 2013 at 2:15 p.m. with Kay Payne—all in Florence Gould Theatre.  Free after museum general admission.  Before planning any museum visit around a scheduled lecture, check here to make sure the schedule has not changed.

Related Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum:  After you’ve finished at the Legion, the Metropolitan Museum has “Extravagant Inventions: The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens,” through January 27, 2013, showcasing the exquisite and innovative work of the cabinetmaking firm of Abraham Roentgen and his son David whose ingenious desks with their pop-out drawers, pivoting parts, hidden niches and mirrors took 19th century Europe by storm including Marie Antoinette.

December 30, 2012 Posted by | Art, Legion of Honor | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

No muse! “Man Ray / Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism” reframes Lee Miller and her relationship with Man Ray, closing this Sunday, October 14, at the Legion of Honor

A commanding self portrait. Lee Miller (1907–1977), Self Portrait, c.1930, Gelatin silver print, 3 ½ x 2 1/8 in. (9.0 x 5.2 cm), Lee Miller Archives, Sussex, England, Photograph by Lee Miller © Lee Miller Archives, England 2011.

It took a son’s devotion to a mother he really never really knew very well in life to bring surrealist artist and photographer Lee Miller out from the shadow of her famed lover Man Ray. Miller’s son, Antony Penrose, loaned many of the pieces on view at the Legion of Honor’s fascinating and important exhibition, Man Ray | Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism, which closes this Sunday, October 14, at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor.  If you haven’t yet seen the show, it’s worth a visit.

Curated by Phillip Prodger, of Peabody Essex Museumin Salem, Mass, where it opened, the traveling exhibition features 115 paintings, photographs, drawings and letters.  If there’s one word to describe the show’s visual impact, it’s “sensual”—with luminous silver gelatin prints and bold images that celebrate the female anatomy.  Man Ray’s lush portraits of Miller tend to play up Miller’s softness and feminine beauty, whereas Miller depicted herself as a strong, empowered, heroic figure.   Aside from their tumultuous love story,  the exhibition explores the couple’s rich artistic collaoration and the depth of Miller’s own rich artistic legacy, providing ample evidence of her significant contributions to photopgraphy and to photojournalism.

Details:  Man Ray | Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism closes October 14, 2012.  The Legion of Honor Museum is located in Lincoln Park, 34th Avenue and Clement Street, San Francisco. Museum hours are Tuesday–Sunday, 9:30 a.m.–5:15 p.m.; closed on Monday.  Tickets: $15; seniors 65+ $12; youth 13-17 and students with current ID $11.  Purchase tickets in advance online here.  More info:

October 12, 2012 Posted by | Legion of Honor | , , , , , | Leave a comment

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 .

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

This Saturday’s Scherman Lecture, by Dr. Alexander Nagel will reveal new information about ancient Iran’s brightly colored past and Professor David Stronach will sign “Ancient Iran from the Air,” at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor

Dr. Alexander Nagel, F|S assistant curator of ancient Near Eastern art, this year’s Scherman lecturer, will deliver his findings on polychromy in ancient Iran. Dr. Nagel is part of team that, in 2006, began a systematic investigation into the role of colors, pigments and other materials on the surface of the monuments and buildings excavated between 1931 and 1939 on the terrace platform of Persepolis. Photo: courtesy Alexander Nagel

Much of what we know of ancient Persia’s history has been informed by studies of the magnificent site of Persepolis, the capital of the Achaemenid Persian Empire from the 6th to the 4th centuries BC.  UNESCO world cultural heritage sites since 1979, these well-preserved ruins in Southwestern Iran constitute the most important examples of Achaemenid dynastic architecture in Iran.  Although it has long been known that these monuments and reliefs were painted, new research in the fascinating field of polychromy, or color, will be presented at this Saturday’s Scherman lecture at the Legion of Honor by Dr. Alexander Nagel Assistant Curator, Ancient Near Eastern Art, Freer│Sackler Galleries. Nagel will deliver “An Empire in Blue—Color in Persepolis: New Research on the Polychromy of Achaemenid Persian Palace Sculpture, ca. 520 to 330 BCE,” at 2 p.m.  The event, organized by FAMSF’s Ancient Art Council, is open to the public.  Following the lecture, David Stronach, Professor Emeritus, Near Eastern Studies, University of California at Berkeley and one of the world’s leading scholars on ancient Iran, will be on hand to sign hot-off-the press copies of his Ancient Iran from the Air, published by Philipp von Zabern, which  just arrived from Germany.  The book, co-edited by Stronach, is a remarkable collection of aerial photographs taken by Swiss photographer Georg Gerster between 1976 and 1978 of Iran’s arresting landscapes, archaeological sites, and historical monuments.  The book will not be available in bookstores until the fall but it will be sold at the Legion’s bookstore on Saturday.

Dr. Alexander Nagel collecting data for his research on polychromy at the Throne Hall built by Xerxes and completed by his son Artaxerxes I at the ancient site of Persepolis. Photo: courtesy Alexander Nagel.

New Insight on old Color:  Dr.  Nagel is what we might call a chromovore.  Fascinated with all aspects of color, he is at the forefront of contemporary research in polychromy, which is an exciting intersection of archaeology, anthropology, science, and conservation studies.  The emphasis is on using new technology to analyze old color and refining the actual meaning of color in the ancient world.  Nagel is part of a team that, in 2006, began a systematic building-by-building investigation into the role of colors, pigments and other materials on the surface of the monuments and buildings excavated between 1931 and 1939 on the terrace platform of Persepolis. During his great march across Asia, Alexander the Great was determined to see the end of the Persian Empire, the splendid Persepolis in particular, and he wreaked extensive destruction on its palaces, even setting the city on fire, but did not succeed in obliterating it.  Early travelers noted traces of paint on its stone sculptures and monuments, which has long fascinated researchers, but, prior to Nagel, no one has so systematically examined color and pigment.  Nagel will describe his research and will reveal how his results can change our perception of the ancient Near East,  as well as discuss a range of issues relating to restoring the polychromy of ancient structures.

The Legion’s treasured ancient Persian relief:   Following Saturday’s lecture, a small 4th Century B.C. stone relief from ancient Persepolis in the Legion’s lower level corridor cases, is bound to get a lot of attention as people try to imagine what this might have looked like in its original glorious color. The 5 by 8 inch relief of a gift bearer is the only ancient Persian relief in FAMSF holdings and is dated, in approximate terms, from between 490 and 470 BC.   It comes from one of the relief-decorated sides of the monumental stone staircases at Persepolis and is representative of a particularly accomplished moment in the history of Achaemenid Persian sculpture when the goal was to emphasize the role of the Achaemenid king.  Lord Curzon, 1st Marquess Curzon of Kedleston, wrote in 1892: “Everything is devoted, with unashamed repetition, to a single purpose, viz. the delineation of majesty in its most imperial guise, the pomp and panoply, of him who was well styled the Great King.”

Relief of a Gift Bearer, Persian, Achaemenid Empire, Persepolis, Palace of Darius or Xerxes, ca. 490–-470 B.C., Bituminous limestone, 2008 Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, purchase from various gifts and funds. Photo: courtesy FAMSF.

“The dress and pose indicate that the depicted individual was a royal servant,” said David Stronach, Professor Emeritus, Near Eastern Studies, UC Berkeley, who admires the relief.   “He was almost certainly shown carrying food (or some other item) in a long procession of servants.  His face is one of notable dignity and he is shown wearing a characteristically Persian headgear called a bashlyk. In hot and often dusty conditions, this was a very practical form of headgear that consisted of a cloth band that was wrapped round the head and neck.”

The relief’s journey out of Iran most likely occurred in the 19th century when a number of small-scale reliefs (often showing servants or guardsmen) were removed from the ruins at Persepolis. When these reliefs reached Europe, they were frequently trimmed to leave a neat, square shape suitable for framing.  As a rule, little more than the face and headgear were left in view.

Dr. Renée Dreyfus, FAMSF curator of ancient art and interpretation, is proud of the 2008 acquisition, not only for its exceptional detail but because it completes a gap in the museum’s collection.  “I wanted it for the collection because it gives visual expression to the Achaemenid style and iconography created for Darius and his successors and because it represents a stepping stone in the transition of figural art from the “Winged Genius” of the museum’s Assyrian wall relief to the figural art of classical Greece, and subsequently our Western tradition.  We learned of its existence through a dealer in New York.  A team of experts had examined the relief’s provenance and ascertained that it had been purchased by its original owner long enough ago to allow us to acquire it without issues and, even more remarkable, we had several ofdonors who gave significant sums to help us purchase it.”

Georg Gerster’s aerial photograph of the Sassanian City of Gu/Firuzabad, Iran. The city is divided into 20 parts, radially structured and extends over a plain crossed by pathways, drainage ditches, and irrigation channels. The tower at the heart of the city was essential for measuring the radial lines and also had a symbolic significance, as did the city’s circular shape. Photo: Georg Gerster.

“Very few such pieces with a long and well documented history of prior ownership outside Iran usually come on the market,” explained Stronach.  “The FAMSF are to be congratulated on the acquisition of this unusually fine, representative piece of Achaemenid sculpture.  It adds greatly to the distinction of the holdings in the Legion of Honor.”

More About Ancient Iran from the Air:  Between April 1976 and May 1978, Swiss photographer Georg Gerster flew across Iran, photographing the memorable landscapes, archaeological sites, and historical monuments that characterize this storied land—the Sassanian city of Bishapur, the Sassanian imperial sanctuary at Tak-kt-I in Suleiman, Luristan, and Cheqa Nargesm in Mahidsasht, Iran—to name a few. Most of his photographs were safely stashed away in his archives in Switzerland.  Quite recently, David Stronach, Professor Emeritus, Near Eastern Studies, University of California at Berkeley and Co-Director, UC Berkeley-Yerevan State University Excavations at Erebuni, working with Gerster and a number of reputed specialists in the art and archaeology of Iran, arranged to have these images published.  Ancient Iran from the Air provides—from a distinctly novel angle—a fresh appraisal of the greater part of the long history of the built environment in this crucial part of the ancient Near East.  (Read ARThound’s previous coverage of Dr. Stronach, Georg Gerseter and Ancient Iran from the Air, here.)

Dr. Alexander Nagel, F|S assistant curator of ancient Near Eastern art, examining pigments left on a squeeze (a multidimensional mold) from the inscriptions of the façade of Darius I (d. 486 BCE). By analyzing the raw incidental artifacts that were picked up as molds were being made, Nagel, was able to identify the paint pigments left in the squeezes. Photo: courtesy Smithsonian Institution.

More about Alexander Nagel: Originally from Germany, Alexander Nagel earned his PhD from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, with a focus on the art and archaeology of ancient Iran. His dissertation, completed in 2010, is titled Colors, Gilding and Painted Motifs in Persepolis: The Polychromy of Achaemenid Persian Architectural Sculpture, c. 520–330 BCE.   Nagel has helped organize numerous international conferences, including the landmark 2009 workshop The Color of Things: Debating the Current State and Future of Color in Archaeology at Stanford University.  He has authored several articles on his research, and has lectured in Europe and the United States on polychromy and the archaeology of the ancient Near East. In 2009, he was the University of Michigan Freer Fellow in residence at the Freer and Sackler.  I n fall 2010, he joined the Freer|Sackler staff as assistant curator of ancient Near Eastern art.  Nagel’s’s first F|S exhibition, Ancient Iranian Ceramics, opened in July 2011.

The Scherman Lecture Series is sponsored by the Scherman Family Foundation.  This lecture is held annually and followed by a reception for all attendees.

The Ancient Art Council is one FAMSF’s many specialized groups and offers regular programming, including lectures and tours, for those who share an interest in ancient art and the preservation and promotion of antiquities and culture of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East.

Details: “An Empire in Blue—Color in Persepolis…” by Dr. Alexander Nagel is at 2:00 p.m, Florence Gould Theater, Legion of Honor, San Francisco. The lecture is free to the public.

Please RSVP by sending an email with subject “RSVP Scherman Lecture” to or phone 415 750 3686

March 8, 2012 Posted by | Art, Legion of Honor | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 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. 


 “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:

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