Geneva Anderson digs into art

Pounce!—The Getty Villa just released additional tickets for “At the Byzantine Table”—a four-course feast grounded in ancient traditions—at the Getty Villa, this Saturday, July 19, 2014

Despite a shortage of tangible information, the diet of the Byzantine Period is a topic of endless fascination to those interested in gastronomy.  On Saturday, July, 19, the Getty Villa hosts “The Byzantine Table,” a four-course feast inspired by the foods of ancient Greece and the flavors of Rome, set outdoors against the backdrop of the Getty Villa and accompanied by live music. Pictured:  The Romance of Alexander the Great (detail), A.D.1300s, Trebizond, Asia Minor; tempera, gold, and ink on paper.  Courtesy of the Manuscript Collection of the Hellenic Institute of Byzantine and Post—Byzantine Studies, Venice.

Despite a shortage of tangible information, the diet of the Byzantine Period is a topic of endless fascination to those interested in gastronomy. On Saturday, July, 19, the Getty Villa hosts “The Byzantine Table,” a four-course feast inspired by the foods of ancient Greece and the flavors of Rome, set outdoors against the backdrop of the Getty Villa and accompanied by live music. Pictured: The Romance of Alexander the Great (detail), A.D.1300s, Trebizond, Asia Minor; tempera, gold, and ink on paper. Courtesy of the Manuscript Collection of the Hellenic Institute of Byzantine and Post—Byzantine Studies, Venice.

Here’s a heads up for those of you who are impulsive and able to get to Malibu to the Getty Villa this Saturday (July 12, 2014).   You can indulge in the unique culinary splendors of Byzantium with a dinner inspired by foods of ancient Greece and flavors of Rome, against the gorgeous backdrop of the Getty Villa.  Greek musicians Mario Lazaridis, Dimitri Mahlis, and Toss Panos will perform music derived from ancient Greece and transformed and embellished during the Byzantine Empire. Noted historian Andrew Dalby will set the stage with a lecture on the distinctive cuisine of this distant empire.  Afterwards, participants can tour the Villa’s summer exhibition, Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections, which traces the development of Byzantine visual culture from its roots in the ancient pagan world through the opulent and deeply spiritual world of the new Christian Byzantine Empire.
5:30- 6:45 p.m.—LECTURE: The Real Taste of Byzantium: Textures, Flavors, and Aromas of a Distant Empire Historian Andrew Dalby begins his exploration of Byzantine cuisine by tracing its ancestry through the symposia of classical Greece, the royal luxuries enjoyed by Hellenistic Greek dynasties of Syria and Egypt, and the increasing sophistication of the late Roman Empire, which was nourished by the trade in spices and aromatics from the distant corners of the ancient Mediterranean world. Dalby reveals how this unique culinary culture can be approached from many perspectives, including texts, paintings, and antiquities, as well as the observations of medieval travelers—whether diplomats from East and West, Crusaders, pilgrims, or Viking mercenaries—who expressed in their own words how Byzantium tasted. Byzantine cuisine looked to the past, yet it sought new flavors, never ceased to innovate, and increasingly accepted Muslim and Eastern influences.

7 -9 p.m. DINNER: The Global Fusion Cuisine of the Byzantine Empire The evening continues in the Inner Peristyle garden with a four-course dinner inspired by the many cultures and traditions that converged during the Byzantine Empire (A.D. 330-1453). This culinary melting pot was founded on classic Roman cuisine—as depicted in the fourth-century A.D. cookery book Apicius—and combined with traditions inherited from Greece. Due to the millennium–long span of the empire and its continuously evolving borders, the cuisine of the Byzantines is characterized by the adaptation of the foods of other peoples with whom it came into contact and by the propagation of new fruits and vegetables. Menu highlights include lamb served with oinogaros sauce, a synthesis of ancient and medieval tastes combining fish sauce, wine, honey, Mediterranean herbs, cinnamon, clove, pepper, and costus, a culinary spice also used in perfume. Eggplant—one of several vegetables first introduced to the Romans from the Middle East—is grilled and served with shaved bottarga (salted mullet roe) called ootarikhon by the Greeks. Rice pudding, the original “food of angels” and a favored dessert of the Byzantines, is garnished with exotic ingredients introduced from faraway places: cherries from Pontos (northern Turkey), and candied citron, a fruit originating in Burma and arriving in Constantinople through Persia, also the source for sugar, a luxurious commodity for the elites of the later Byzantine Empire. Download the full menu (PDF, 1pp, 227 KB) (Menu items subject to change without notice) The evening’s meal will be prepared by Bon Appétit’s culinary team Chef Mayet Cristobal and Chef Fernando Cayanan in consultation with food historians Sally Grainger and Andrew Dalby.

9- 10 p.m. PRIVATE EXHIBITION VIEWING: Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections (April 9-August 25, 2014). This splendidly curated exhibition features mosaics, icons, frescoes, sculpture, manuscripts, metalwork, jewelry, glass, embroideries and ceramics drawn from Athens’ Benaki Museum, the National Gallery of Art and the Getty’s own collection.



Date: Saturday, July 19, 2014

Time: 5:30 p.m.-10:00 p.m.

Lecture begins at 5:30 p.m. with dinner following at 7:00 p.m.

Exhibition viewing 9:00-10:00 p.m. Guests must arrive no later than 6:45 p.m.

Location: Getty Villa, Auditorium and Inner Peristyle

Admission: Tickets are $175 each (includes wine).  Complimentary parking.  Call Getty Visitor Services at (310) 440-7300 or click here for online ticket purchase.  If you want to go, don’t dally, as of 5 p.m., there were just a few tickets left.


More about Andrew Dalby:  Andrew Dalby is an historian and linguist with a special interest in food history. He collaborated with Sally Grainger on The Classical Cookbook (Getty Publications, 2012), which explores the culinary history of ancient Greece and Rome and includes recipes adapted for the modern kitchen. His book Tastes of Byzantium (2010) investigates the legendary cuisine of medieval Constantinople. Dalby’s other publications include The Breakfast Book (2013), a wide-ranging history of the most important meal of the day; light-hearted accounts of Bacchus and Venus (Getty Publications, 2003 and 2005); and a new biography of the Greek statesman, Eleftherios Venizelos (2010). His latest translation, Geoponika (2011), brings to light a forgotten primary source on food and farming in Roman and Byzantine times. Dalby studied classics and linguistics at the University of Cambridge. He now lives in France, where he writes, grows fruit, and makes cider.

More about Sally Grainger:  Sally Grainger trained as a chef in her native Coventry, England, before developing an interest in the ancient world and taking a degree in ancient history from the University of London. Combining her professional skills with her expertise in the culinary heritage of the Greek and Roman world, she now pursues a career as a food historian, consultant, and experimental archaeologist. Grainger’s recent projects include Roman food tastings at the British Museum in conjunction with the Life and Death in Pompeii exhibition, and a Roman feast at Girton College in Cambridge, England for the Cambridge Classics Society. Grainger acquired an M.A. in archaeology and is researching the extensive trade across the Roman world of the fermented fish sauce known as garum. With her husband, Christopher Grocock, she published a translation of the Roman recipe book Apicius (Prospect Books), a companion volume of recipes, Cooking Apicius, and collaborated with historian Andrew Dalby on The Classical Cookbook (Getty Publications, 2012).


July 14, 2014 Posted by | Art, Chamber Music, Food | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Slow down, it’s “Slow Art Day” at five San Francisco museums and galleries (and more than 200 others worldwide)— Look at five artworks for 10 minutes each, then meet and discuss.

Slow Art Day, Saturday, April 12, 2014, encourages people to slow down and really concentrate on the art in front of them.  Georgia O’Keeffe, Lake George [formerly Reflection Seascape], 1922 is currently on view at the de Young museum as part of their "Georgia O'Keeffe and Lake George" exhibition.  Oil on canvas. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, gift of Charlotte Mack. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Slow Art Day, Saturday, April 12, 2014, encourages people to slow down and really concentrate on the art in front of them. Georgia O’Keeffe, Lake George [formerly Reflection Seascape], 1922 is currently on view at the de Young museum as part of their “Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George” exhibition. Oil on canvas. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, gift of Charlotte Mack. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The average time spent looking at a piece of art in a museum is less than 20 seconds and continuing to drop (according to stats provided by the initiators of Slow Art Day). On Saturday, April 12, the de Young Museum, the Legion of Honor, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, Chandler Fine Art and USF’s Mary and Thatcher Gallery (all in San Francisco) and dozens of other museums and galleries around the world will participate in Slow Art Day.  The concept is simple and similar to meditation— look at five artworks for 10 minutes each without doing anything else, then meet and discuss.  Just like the National Day of Unplugging, which encourages people to shut-off their smartphones and socialize face-to-face, Slow Art Day’s mission is to enable deeper connections with art that don’t happen in the daily whirl that our fast-paced lives have become.

I recently spent some time looking at Georgia O’Keeffe’s oil painting Lake George, currently on view in the special exhibition Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George at the de Young and after a few minutes, my awareness really began to shift.

I plan to visit the Legion of Honor’s new show from the National Gallery of Art, Intimate Impressionism (on view through August 3, 2014), which features some 70 Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterworks which illuminate the process of painting directly in nature. The temporary closure of the National Gallery’s East Building for major renovation and expansion has made possible the rare opportunity to see this select group of paintings in San Francisco, the exhibition’s first venue. And I’ll also revisit Matisse from SFMOMA (through September 7, 2014) which features 23 paintings, drawings and bronzes from SFMOMA’s acclaimed collection and two paintings and two drawings from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s own important Matisse holdings.

Here are few tips for embarking on your Slow Art Day experience:

  • Choose a piece of art that appeals to you at first glance and draws you in. You’re likely to stay engaged for a longer period of time if you have that initial reaction.
  • Relax, and let your eye wander over the artwork. Spend more time on details that are particularly interesting.
  • Observe from different distances and angles. Take note of what changes occur when you move around.
  • Notice how you feel, and what emotions the artwork brings up.
  • If you get bored, ask yourself why you chose this piece of art. Or pick a specific line or color and follow it throughout the artwork.
  • Afterwards, share your thoughts! It might be interesting to hear how others may have had very similar or dramatically different experiences. It’s also fun to try and draw a sketch after you’re finished looking—just a few extra minutes of observation might really create a lasting impression of a piece of art

If you’re the type who needs structure, both the de Young and Legion of Honor have two rounds of Slow Art Day programs 10 a.m. to noon and 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Learn more about Slow Art Day at

April 12, 2014 Posted by | Art | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Just 2 viewing weekends left—“Garry Winogrand,” at SFMOMA, closes, along with the museum building, on June 2, 2013

Arguably one of the most prolific photographers of our time, Garry Winogrand’s first retrospective in 25 years, is at SFMoMA through June 2, 2013.  Garry Winogrand, Coney Island, New York, ca. 1952; gelatin silver print; collection The Museum of Modern Art, New York, purchase and gift of Barbara Schwartz in memory of Eugene M. Schwartz; © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

Arguably one of the most prolific photographers of our time, Garry Winogrand’s first retrospective in 25 years, is at SFMoMA through June 2, 2013. Garry Winogrand, Coney Island, New York, ca. 1952; gelatin silver print; collection The Museum of Modern Art, New York, purchase and gift of Barbara Schwartz in memory of Eugene M. Schwartz; © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

“For me the true business of photography is to capture a bit of reality (whatever that is) on film,” said American photographer Garry Winogrand, “if, later, the reality means something to someone else, so much the better.”  When Winogrand’s life was cut short by cancer in 1984 at age 56, he was already widely acknowledged as one American’s most influential photographers, particularly known for his vivid chronicling of the social landscape of post-war American life.   While he loathed the off-used label “snapshot photographer” and felt that “street photographer” imposed too narrow a lens on his work, those are the names that stuck.  He too, had always been known as a “prolific shooter,” but just how prolific was utterly shocking to those left to sort out his legacy. He left behind a staggering amount of unprocessed as well as unedited work.  More than 2,500 rolls of exposed but underdeveloped film were found, plus an additional 4,100 rolls that he had processed but never seen—an estimated total of 250,000 images that have remained virtually unknown. Suddenly, there was a lot more to consider when examining the oeuvre of the acclaimed photographer of New York City and of American Life from the 1950s through the early 1980s.

An important exhibition at SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), which closes on June 2—the first major touring exhibition in 25 years of Garry Winogrand—does just that.  Garry Winogrand, an expansive retrospective of some 300 images, brings together Winogrand’s most iconic images with newly printed photographs from the never seen archive of his later work.  Included are photographs from Winogrand’s travels around the United States as well as his better known New York City images.  The exhibition was organized by photographer and author, Leo Rubinfien, a long-time close friend of Winnogrand,  in collaboration with SFMOMA curator Erin O’Toole and Sarah Greenough of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where it will travel after its run in San Francisco, followed by New York, Paris, and Madrid.  With SFMOMA’s expansion project getting seriously underfoot this summer, the building itself will close its doors on June 2, so now is the time to visit SFMOMA and pay your respects to its Third Street Botta palazzo.

Winogrand took this photo 1 year before he died. Garry Winogrand, Los Angeles, 1980-83; posthumous digital reproduction from original negative; Garry Winogrand Archive, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona; © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Newly printed for this exhibition, rarely if ever seen before. Winogrand took this photo 1 year before he died. Garry Winogrand, Los Angeles, 1980-83; posthumous digital reproduction from original negative; Garry Winogrand Archive, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona; © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

The majority of photographs in the Winnogrand exhibition were printed by Winogrand or under his supervision by Thomas Consilvio or Paul McDonough.  The rest were made after his death, with the majority of those printed in 2012-13 in Tuscon, Arizona, by Teresa Engle Schrimer.  All are silver gelatin prints.

The exhibition  is organized in three categories—

“Down from the Bronx”— presents photographs taken for the most part in New York from Winnogrand’s start in 1950 until he left New York in 1971. Winogrand came from that “rude part” of NY, explained Rubinfien, which caused him to say late in his life,“I came from the Bronx. I was goosh. I was so goosh, I didn’t know the word goosh.”

Erin O’Toole discusses Winogrand’s early work

“A Student of America” looks at work made in the same period, 1950 to 1971, during journeys he made outside New York.  This is an expression Winogrand used to describe himself.  “One day I was walking along 57th street with him,” explained Rubinfien, “and he said, talking about himself, ‘You could say I am a student of photography, and I am that, but really I am student of America.’  What he meant by that, I think, is that his photographs were an investigation in which he tried to understand what made this country most itself.”

20.Garry Winogrand, Albuquerque, 1957; gelatin silver print; The Museum of Modern Art, New York, purchase; © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Garry Winogrand, Albuquerque, 1957; gelatin silver print; The Museum of Modern Art, New York, purchase; © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

“Boom and Bust” addresses Winogrand’s late period—from after he moved away from New York in 1971 until his death in 1984—with photographs from Texas and Southern California, as well as Chicago, Washington, Miami, and other locations. Also included are a small number of photographs Winogrand made on trips back to Manhattan, which express a sense of desolation unprecedented in his earlier work.

“The bust, of course” said Rubinfien, “was the great malaise the nation itself experienced in the 1970’s, after its greatest modern boom. It was also Winogrand’s own decline, which turned out to be real. John Sarkowsky was not wrong about that.   If you looked at his top ten contact sheets in the 1960’s, you might find two or three strong pictures in a single roll of film.  By 1982, you might have to go through 50 rolls to find one. He himself was straining very hard to do the thing that he had done interestingly and easily before.”

Posthumous Editing

The exhibition has attracted a great deal of attention in photography circles because it includes works that Winogrand never saw in his lifetime but were selected posthumously by Rubinfine.  Over 9o posthumous prints made from Rubinfein’s selections and drawn from the full span of Wingroand’s career are on view.  The wall labels for these prints indicate whether Wingrand marked a given frame on its contact sheet, suggesting he found it to be of interest.  In a gargantuan effort lasting several years, Rubinfien assessed not only the 6,600 rolls of late work that the photographer never reviewed himself but all 22,000 of his contact sheets in his archive at the Center for Photgraphy at the University of Arizona, Tuscon—starting with images from the beginning of Winogrand’s career in 1950 that he marked but didn’t print.  Rubinfien and the curatorial staff argue they are on solid ethical ground because Winogrand had a strong history of delegation.   Their effort also found precedent in MoMA’s 1988 exhibition “Garry Winogrand,” the first major retrospective of Winogrand’s work which included a small group of prints made by Colsilvio from late images selected by John Sarkowsky, director of MoMA’s Department of Photography, and by Winogrand’s friends and colleagues, photographers Tod Papageorge and Thomas Roma.

“This was a man who loved shooting more than anyone else…he wanted to be outside more than anything else and did not want to be sitting in a room editing his work, “ said Rubinfien. “Beyond that, he had a fundamental discomfort with bringing his work to resolution in books and shows. A result was that the work that was published in his lifetime in a series of five books, was highly topical. The books were done in a rather ad hoc way…a book on women one year (Women are Beautiful (1975)) and another on animals (The Animals (1969)), or political events (Public Relations (1977)) and, as a result, what we inherited was a picture of Winogrand in which he himself was siloed according to a number of topical categories. What this show tries to do is to break that down and give you the view of the full epic sweep of Winogrand’s work.”

Newly printed for this exhibition, rarely if ever seen before. Winogrand, Los Angeles, 1983; posthumous digital reproduction from original negative; Garry Winogrand Archive, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona; © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Newly printed for this exhibition, rarely if ever seen before. Winogrand, Los Angeles, 1983; posthumous digital reproduction from original negative; Garry Winogrand Archive, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona; © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

At the press preview, Rubinfein explained that he was largely motivated to explore this later body of work due to distinguished MoMA curator John Sarkowsky’s pronouncement, after organizing Winogrand’s first major retrospective in 1988, that Winogrand’s later work wasn’t very good.  In preparation for that show, Sarkowsky had personally reviewed some and edited a large number of Winogrand’s photographs from the last six years of his life and from the six years before that—basically the work from 1971 on, from the time he moved away from New York into expatriation in Texas.

“I was intensely interested in seeing what Winogrand had done in those years,” said Rubinfien…”In some ways Texas and Los Angeles, in particular, seemed like a natural location in which the work might culminate because it was so much the headquarters of the sprawling vulgarity in this country—it was so much the place you’d go to see where freedom went when it went too far.   So, when that show finally went up, I was distressed and dismayed to read John Sarkowsky’s verdict of the work that Winogrand had lost his talent after leaving New York in 1971 and that he work he had done after that was not very good, but repetitive and lazy.  I had no way of knowing whether that was true, not having not seen the work, so I thought that someone should go back and look again.  Even Sarkowsky said that in his essay.  Around 2001, I thought if no one else did this, I would take it on.”

Newly printed for this exhibition, rarely if ever seen before. Garry Winogrand, Metropolitan Opera, New York, ca. 1951; posthumous digital reproduction from original negative; Garry Winogrand Archive, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona; © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Newly printed for this exhibition, rarely if ever seen before. Garry Winogrand, Metropolitan Opera, New York, ca. 1951; posthumous digital reproduction from original negative; Garry Winogrand Archive, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona; © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

“Some argue that what was left behind should be left alone, and that no one should intrude upon the intentions of an artist,” adds Rubinfien. “But the quantity of Winogrand’s output, the incompleteness with which he reviewed it, and the suddenness of his death create a special case in which the true scope of an eminent photographer’s work cannot be known without the intervention of an editor.”  Leo Rubinfien discusses Winnogrand’s late work on view for the first time at SFMOMA

Details: Garry Winogrand closes June 2, 2013.  The last day to visit the current building is June 2, 2013.  SFMoMA, (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) is located at 151 Third Street, between Mission and Howard, San Francisco. Hours: Monday-Tuesday, 11 a.m.-5:45 p.m.; closed Wednesday; Thursday, 11 a.m.-8:45 p.m.; Friday-Sunday,11 a.m.-5:45 p.m.  Admission: SFMOMA members are free. Tickets: Adults $18, seniors (62 and older) $13, students (with current ID) $11, active U.S. military personnel and their families are free, children 12 and under accompanied by an adult are free; half-price admission Thursday evenings 6-8:45 p.m.; the first Tuesday of each month is free.

May 25, 2013 Posted by | Art, SFMOMA | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Anonymous but unforgettable: the collections of Robert Flynn Johnson, opening at Petaluma Arts Center Saturday, talk Sunday

When the facts are unknown, the imagination takes over. Robert Flynn Johnson's superb collection of anonymous 19th and 20th century photography is on display at the Petauma Arts Center through September 18, 2011. image courtesy Petaluma Arts Center

If you love compelling photography, drop by the Petaluma Arts Center this weekend for its latest fête – an exquisite and intriguing selection of photographs from unknown photographers from the private collection of Robert Flynn Johnson.  Johnson, recently retired as curator in charge of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, is a consummate collector of many things and, along with these photographs, 12 of his 19th century quilts are on display.  The exhibition is aptly named “Anonymous: 19th and 20th Century Photographs and Quilts by Unknown Artists from the Collection of Robert Flynn Johnson.”   Flynn bought most of these exquisite photos years ago and for a song, before they became collectible.  He frequented estate sales and flea markets all over the world and acquired some through serendipitous channels in his day job as a curator for the Achenbach Foundation. Several of the photographs will pull their weight along side the photos of the great masters and the collection, in its entirety, has a solid place in the history of photography. 

Robert Flynn Johnson will speak about his collection of anonymous photography and quilts at the Petaluma Arts Center Sunday, August 14, 2011. Photo: Geneva Anderson

The images assembled at the Petaluma Arts Center make the cut for their formal and aesthetic qualities as well as visually exciting bizarreness, and social interest.  The take-away depends entirely upon your taste, but there is something for everyone.  Along with stunning Victorian portraits, whose soft lighting evokes the romanticism of Julia Margaret Cameron, there is a diptych of a bullfight in a stadium somewhere in Spain and the audience is a dizzying sea of Nazi soldiers enmeshed in the spectacle of a slow blood fight.   And if you’re intrigued by bravado bordering on foolhardiness, Johnson’s grouping of photographs of gravity-defying balancing acts from NY rooftops will leave you utterly queasy.

Several of the photographs convey a special emotional or spiritual aura and others are special because their compositions are interrupted by some unforeseen but gripping action, such as a cat racing through just as the photo was snapped, leaving a streak across the foreground. And, if you love dogs, be prepared to be charmed by some stunning old portraits, in particular a Victorian-era portrait evoking pure love between a woman and her dog, both seated on her velvet couch.  All of the works on display are portals to the lyrical, humorous, sad and transcendent aspects of our humanity.  Oddly, not knowing who took these photos or why, doesn’t strip them of any of their poignancy, it seems to enhance our access to deeply-held, even repressed, sentiments.  

The hand-made quilts too are fabulous and the few on display, excellent examples of abstraction, speak to Johnson’s fine collecting eye.  Often velvety with wear and pieced together from family clothing and cherished fabrics, they play well with overall theme of memory-gathering coming through in the photos.

A portrait from the collection of Robert Flynn Johnson on display at the Petaluma Arts Center through September 18, 2011.

Johnson is an informative and engaging speaker.  On Sunday he will be in conversation with prominent vernacular photography collector Robert E. Jackson, who is coming from Seattle for the talk, and San Francisco gallerist and collector, Robert Tat, owner of Robert Tat Gallery.   In 2007, Robert E. Jackson’s collection of anonymous snapshots was the subject of an important exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, The Art of the American Snapshot, 1888–1978: From the Collection of Robert E. Jackson, the first major exhibition, accompanied by a scholarly catalogue, to examine the evolution of snapshot imagery in America.  That show began with the invention of the Kodak camera in 1888 and extended through the 1970s, tracing a rich vocabulary of shared subjects, approaches, and styles.

ARThound will soon be publishing a full interview with Robert Flynn Johnson but is waiting for permissions to reprint the accompanying photos. 

Saturday, August 13, 2011,  4-7 p.m. opening reception to coincide with Petaluma Downtown Art Walk

Sunday, August 14, 2011, 2-4 p.m., Panel Discussion—Robert Flynn Johnson in conversation with vernacular photography collector Robert E. Jackson and gallery owner and collector Robert Tat.

Details:  The Petaluma Arts Center is located at 230 Lakeville Street, Petaluma, CA  94952. (707) 762-5600.  “Anonymous” ends September 18, 2011.

August 11, 2011 Posted by | Art | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 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

review-“Looking In: Robert Frank’s “The Americans” a capitvating study of how The Americans came to be, SFMOMA May 16, 2009 – August 23, 2009

Robert Frank, Parade—Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955; gelatin silver print; 8 3/8 x 12 3/4 in.; Private collection, San Francisco; © Robert Frank

Robert Frank, Parade—Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955; gelatin silver print; 8 3/8 x 12 3/4 in.; Private collection, San Francisco; © Robert Frank

“To Robert Frank, I now give this message: You got eyes.”  Jack Kerouac. 

Now in its final two weeks, SFMOMA’s fantastic exhibition “Looking In: Robert Frank’s “The Americans” celebrates the 50th anniversary of The Americans, one of photography’s most influential books.  The Americans is an unforgettable suite of black and white photographs that Frank made on a cross country road trip as a Guggenheim Fellow in 1955-56 that changed photography with its somber depiction of America, calling to question its postwar optimism and very wholesomeness.  Not only was Frank’s view of America bleak, his black and white prints were often fuzzy, grainy and off-kilter in composition, nothing like what was commonly seen in newspapers and leading magazines.  But the pictures he took in two years of roaming the country resonated with deep unspoken truths, foreshadowing the social upheaval that would later come. 

 “Looking In” is an art-historical feat that not only delves into every aspect of The American’s story; it shows us how far the photography retrospective has come in terms of comprehensive research.  All 83 photos that were published in the original volume are present, including a full set of Frank’s contact sheets, a reconstruction of Frank’s image selection process, his early work leading up to the essay, his later reuse of these famous images, a new film by Frank and a segment on photographers who have been influenced by him.  SFMOMA is the show’s only West Coast venue before it moves on to the Metropolitan Museum in September, 2009.

The exhibition was organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, the premiere center for the study of his art, and spearheaded by its senior photography curator, Sarah Greenough, who has organized several important Frank shows over the years. Corey Keller, SFMOMA Associate Curator of Photography, organized the show’s San Francisco leg.  In 1990, Frank donated a large portion of his archives from his 40 years of work to The National Gallery—making it the first time it collected the work of a living photographer—over 3,000 strips of negatives,  1,000 rare vintage and work prints, his rarest handmade book, and 2,296 contact sheets. Around that time, the National Gallery also increased its commitment to exhibiting photography by adding a wing that would permanently display the works of important photographers.

The American’s iconic status lies both in the work itself and what it has come to symbolize.  Very much a product of his time, Frank, with his unique Swiss-émigré outsider’s vision–saw and gave expression to important undercurrents that were brewing across America—racism, poverty, a culture of consumerism, shady politics and growing disconnection, alienation.  Frank photographed the same America that everyone lived in and knew, but with an outsider’s perspective, drawn to and identifying with outsiders.  As the catalogue discusses, he dismissed the notion of making individual masterpieces early in his career and instead focused on the sequencing of a suite of photos whose collective message was greater than any individual picture could be. 

Robert Frank, Political Rally—Chicago, 1956; gelatin silver print; 23 1/4 x 14 3/8 in.; Collection Betsy Karel; © Robert Frank

Robert Frank, Political Rally—Chicago, 1956; gelatin silver print; 23 1/4 x 14 3/8 in.; Collection Betsy Karel; © Robert Frank

Not that single images from the book haven’t risen to become icons but his emphasis was on sequencing and creating a collective that added up to more than any single image.  This communicated his vision and gave anyone looking at these images an invitation to step into the work, into this collage of a nation, and to embark upon their own private act of sequencing. 

The permanence of the book format was also essential—unlike an exhibition which had an end date and was geographically accessible to only a few, if you had access to the book, you could take this vision in again and again, letting it chew, nag and grow on you.  Walking through the SFMOMA show, we can’t help but revisit our own individually-held notions of America, ideas born in our childhood and formative years, experiences that live inside us and bind us to each other as Americans.  I found myself often overwhelmed with deep unexpected feelings of tenderness, sadness, and recollections of my childhood in the 1960’s in Petaluma, once a small rural chicken-farming community.

Early Work, 1941-1952

The show opens with Frank’s early essays of sequenced photos and does a very good job of showing how he honed his photographic eye.  Frank, now 85, was born in Switzerland in 1924 and was a young admirer of Henry Cartier Bresson and André Kertész.   By the time he arrived in New York in 1947, at age 22, he already had enough experience in photography to garner prominent commercial assignments from Alexey Brodovitch, the legendary art director at Harper’s Bazar.   Frank quickly grew tired of the commercial work and set out to explore Paris, London, Wales, Spain, Italy and Peru.  In each place, he produced works that focused on one or two topics that expressed his understanding of the people and their unique culture.  He also made three books of hand-bound photographs, experimenting with vital sequencing techniques that would pay off in The Americans.  This part of the exhibition demonstrates that, from early on, Frank challenged the viewer to look at the unorthodox in the ordinary, shedding light on things that were often overlooked.   

Guggenheim Fellowship, 1955-1957

A highlight is the detailed look at Frank’s grant application to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation that supported his work.  Frank was no wizard with words and initially he produced an awkward one-page written summary of the project.  Photographer Walker Evans, who he met in 1950, was an accomplished writer who had penned over twenty book and film reviews.  Evans contributed enormous editorial clarity and direction to Frank’s original application, turning one page into four and capturing the essence of Frank’s work and project.  As a past Guggenheim fellow himself, Evans was a member of the foundation’s advisory committee and not only did he rewrite Frank’s application but he wrote his own independent letter of recommendation for Frank and, when it was time, voted to grant the fellowship.  Frank’s draft application and a transcription of the final copy of the 1954 application are on exhibit. 

Also included in this section are also two early manuscript versions of Jack Kerouac’s introduction to the book which was first published with little fanfare in November 1958 in France by Robert Delpire under the title Les Americains as part of their Encyclopédie essentielle series, which presented foreign countries to a French audience.  Frank had fretted over the book’s introductory text, wanting it to set the correct tone for his work which he wanted designated as a serious art book.   When his friend filmmaker Emile de Antonio suggested that he and Jack Kerouac, the fresh voice of the Beat generation, had a similar vision, Frank asked Kerouac to write his essay.  Much to Kerouac’s and Frank’s surprise, the American editor, Barney Rosset of Grove Press, chose Kerouac’s second and longer essay, not the spontaneous, smoothly flowing one that accompanied had the French release. (Looking In, softcover edition, p.139.)  It’s fascinating to pour over the two essays and contemplate their nuances.

Several of Kerouac’s oft-quoted lines from the American edition capture the essence of the Frank’s work—

The faces don’t editorialize or criticize or saya anything but “this is the way we are in real life and if you don’t like it I don’t know anything about it cause I am living my own life my way and may God bless us all.”

“anybody doesn’t like potry go home see Televisin shots of big hated cowboys being tolerated by kind horses.”

The American publisher, Grove Press, did an initial run of 2,600 copies on January 15, 1960, though the book was dated 1959.  This was 4.5 years after Frank had received his first Guggenheim grant.   Frank received a $200 advance for the book while Kerouac got $30 for his introduction. (Looking In, softcover edition, p.139.)   The book’s bold cover design bearing similarity to the American flag was done by painter Alfred Leslie who at the time was working with Frank, Kerouac and Ginsberg on the film “Pull my Daisy.” 

 Robert Frank, Guggenheim 340/Americans 18 and 19—New Orleans, November 1955, 1955; contact sheet; 10 x 8 1/16 in.; National Gallery of Art, Washington, Robert Frank Collection, gift of Robert Frank; © Robert Frank

Robert Frank, Guggenheim 340/Americans 18 and 19—New Orleans, November 1955, 1955; contact sheet; 10 x 8 1/16 in.; National Gallery of Art, Washington, Robert Frank Collection, gift of Robert Frank; © Robert Frank

During Frank’s nine-month road trip across America, he took 767 rolls of film (more than 27,000 images) and made over 1,000 work prints.  The curators give us experimental prints, contact sheets and a very good discussion surrounding the book’s layout, including a fabulous book wall showing the development of the sequencing of photos presented in work print collages.  Frank actually took a year editing, selecting and sequencing these photographs and the mock-up process ultimately yielded additional fluidity.  Frank gracefully knitted together urban and rural, black and white, military and civilian and poor, rich and middle classes in ways they had not been seen before. 

The Americans

All 83 prints are presented in their original sequence with several large rare vintage prints.  With their grainy, gritty, shadowy and tilted frames, composed at odd angles, these photos rewrote the rules of photography.  The standard emphasis in the 1950’s of photojournalism or street photography on single summary images, mainly wholesome images, shot straight on. 

Robert Frank, Charleston, South Carolina, 1955; gelatin silver print; 16 1/4 x 23 1/4 in.; Collection of Susan and Peter MacGill; © Robert Frank

Robert Frank, Charleston, South Carolina, 1955; gelatin silver print; 16 1/4 x 23 1/4 in.; Collection of Susan and Peter MacGill; © Robert Frank

Frank used a quiet hand-held Leica and his compositions were greatly influenced by the fact that he was often shooting from his car.   What emerged was an immensely poetic portrait of mainly ordinary people going about their business, waiting in lines, moving from one place to another, gathering, resting.  A lot of the faces are heartbreaking, lonely, even empty, but the shots are not about sadness per se they are about getting through what unfolds on any ordinary day in America.  A black woman in Charleston, South Carolina, leans against a wall as she holds a white infant in her arms, staring out into space, the child looks in another direction.  Four adults stand at a distance looking at a dead victim of a car accident wrapped in a blanket on US Route 66 at Flagstaff, AZ.  The lower, middle and upper classes are all captured in moments of emptiness, moving monotonously back and forth, and towards death, in the land of plenty.

After “The Americans”

The final section of the exhibition address the impact The Americans had on Frank’s subsequent work.   The book was initially critcized as anti-American but during the 1960’s, as many of the issues that Frank had alluded to literally exploded,  The American’s came to be regarded as ahead of its time and attracted a cultlike following from many within the art world.  Fame did not sit well with Frank and he became increasingly reclusive.  Soon after the book was published, he put away still photography and switched to a film for a good decade; since the 1970’s, he has moved back and forth between the two, carrying insights from one medium into the other.  His first film “Pull My Daisy” (1959), co-directed with Alfred Leslie with narration by Jack Kerouac, showcased the Beats and also managed to capture the contemporary pulse. The film proved significant and liberating for independent filmmakers in its unpolished rambling form. 

A catalogue to keep you louping

The catalog is exceptional and is offered in two different editions, both authored by Sarah Greenough who has been working on this project since Frank’s Moving Out show in 1994. The softcover edition ($45, 396 pages, 6 4-color, 168 tritone and 210 duotone images)  includes reproductions of all the works in the exhibition, along with essays from Sarah Greenough, Stuart Alexander, Philip Brookman, Michel Frizot, Martin Gasser, Jeff Rosenheim, Luc Sante, and Ann Wilkes Tucker exploring most facets of the work.   The hardcover edition ($75, 528 pages, 108 4-color, 168 tritone and 210 duotone images) is a breathtaking expanded edition that includes all the material in the softcover, plus additional essays, a map, a comparative chart of the various published editions including notations on the various croppings from each edition, and—get your loupes– it reproduces 83 actual size contact sheets, each of which features a frame from the final edit.

August 13, 2009 Posted by | Art, SFMOMA | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment