Geneva Anderson digs into art

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

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

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

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

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

Inspiration for the exhibit:

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

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

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

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

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



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

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


A revelation about the Legion’s Stanhope

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

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

Uffizi on board!

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

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

Frames as extensions of Paintings

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



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



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

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