Category Archives: Art & Photography

America’s National Gallery of Art

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America’s National Gallery of Art
By Phillip Kopper & The Publishing Office of
The National Gallery of Art, Washington
Princeton University Press – £62.95

The dedication of this Gallery to a living past, and to a greater and more richly living future, is the message of the earnestness of our intention that the freedom of the human spirit shall go on.

                                      President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1941

Very lavish and very well presented, there really ought to be more books put together like this; or indeed, more books covering an array of varying subjects within the arts.

Replete with an assortment of simply stunning as well as startling, colour and black and white photographs, these 350 pages – excluding: Benefactors 1937-2016, Trustees and Directors of the National Gallery of Art 1937-2016, Current and Former Trustees’ Council Members 1982-2016, Acknowledgements, Selected References and Index (while the penultimate pages prior to the above is A Visual Timeline, four-page pull-out) – are a more than fitting nod to a (seemingly) former way of American life.

An intrinsically wholesome, organic way of life, that is sadly, not to mention criminally on the wane throughout the country.

That said, in celebration of the 75th anniversary of a beloved cultural institution, America’s National Gallery of Art takes curious readers on a definitive inside tour through this very special museum’s remarkable history.

By way of lively prose and abundant illustrations, this richly detailed volume recounts the development of the Gallery under its four directors – David Finley, John Walker, J. Carter Brown, and currently Earl A. Powell III. In so doing, it invariably highlights the museum’s collections, exhibitions, architecture, and rather awe inspired ambience.

An ‘inspired ambience’ that was, and surely remains something of a trajectory in relation its altogether majestic founder, Andrew W. Mellon. A man whose life (as explained in the chapter ‘The First Fifty Years’) spanned: ”the abolition of slavery and invention of television, the building of the first bridge across the Mississippi and construction of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Walt Disney’s Snow White, the Dred Scott decision and the New Deal.”

No surprise(s) then, that Mellon was born the same year as the Paris Exposition exalted Delacroix, and died the year Picasso painted Guernica.

To be sure, the man was as faceted as that of his era: an industrialist, a financial genius and a philanthropist of gargantuan generosity. Born into prosperous circumstances, he launched several of America’s most profitable corporations. He was therefore, a venture capitalist before the term had even entered the lexicon (eventually becoming one of the country’s richest men). Yet his name was barely known outside his hometown of Pittsburgh – until that is, he became secretary of the treasury at an age when many men consider retiring.

Moreover, Mellon was a man of myriad accomplishments, but he is perhaps, ultimately remembered for one: he founded an art museum by making what was thought at the time to be the single largest gift by any individual to any nation. Few philanthropic acts of such generosity have been performed with his combination of vision, patriotism, and modesty. Fewer still bear anything but their donor’s name; although Mellon stipulated that his museum be called the National Gallery of Art.

Could you imagine Donald Trump being as remotely magnanimous?
In fact, one cannot help but wonder if Trump would have it in him to be even a tenth as giving and generous?

Divided into four distinct sections: The First Fifty Years (with chapters including the aforementioned ‘Andrew W. Mellon: Founder and Benefactor,’ ‘The National Gallery’s War Record’ and ‘J. Carter Brown Launches the East Building’), Framing the Future (‘The Powell Era,’The Physical Museum,’ ‘Mission Expanded,’ ‘Corcoran Collection’ and ‘Growing the Collection’), The Collection (‘Selected acquisitions since 1937’) and Exhibitions (‘Special exhibitions since 1973’), this altogether encompassing collection marks a published return to beauty, elegance and grace.

Qualities so sorely missing amid so many publications of this persuasion.

Suffice to say, later chapters explore the Gallery’s new emphasis on contemporary art and its historic 2014 agreement to accept custody of the Corcoran Collection, thus giving readers and visitors a window onto the future of this national treasure.

With even the quality of the pages being something to behold, this veritable tomb comes in a protective box; which, along with the aforementioned lively prose and 730 illustrations, is what fundamentally accounts for America’s National Gallery of Art aligning readers and art lovers (in general) with a most pronounced visionary acceptance of how art really ought to be appreciated.

David Marx

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Traces of Vermeer

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Traces of Vermeer
By Jane Jelley
Oxford University Press – £25.00

There was a bewildering choice of blacks at the time, and they all had different properties and different uses. It is a long list: earth black; sea coal black; lamp black; cherry stone black; vine black; charcoal black, peach, date, or almond stone black; walnut shell black; bone black; ivory black; even ‘burnt toast,’ described as a ‘bread black.’ Some blacks are warmer in colour than others: bones produce a brownish colour, while vine black, often called ‘blue black,’ was recommended for painting ruffs, or the shadows in the face, when mixed with white. There were recipes to suggest how to prepare and use all of these different pigments in painters’ treatises. ‘Cheristone’ black was suggested as being good for draperies; and if a painter wanted ‘a most extremely deep black,’ then lamp black, and ivory black could be used together; by putting one, as a glaze, over the other. Painters could follow a recipe for making ivory black; and put some bits of an ‘old combe, fanne handle or knife in a closed crucible, with a ‘little salt;’and place it in the fire for a quarter of an hour.

My word, the complexity of choice at the disposal of artists during The Netherlands so-called ‘Golden Period’ – or any period come to that – really was both bewildering and overtly comprehensive to say the least. A daunting feature and something which is resoundingly highlighted in this overtly investigative yet very readable book by Jane Jelley.

A painter of still life and landscape herself, who, as authoress, herein bequeaths the reader with an inexorable intrigue that is altogether contagious. Contagious, because in her pursuit of trying to decipher just how Johannes Vermeer’s paintings were ”made,” she takes the reader on something of a tangential journey that is most illustrative, idiosyncratic and interesting at the same time.

This ultimately accounts for Traces of Vermeer being what it is: ”An absolute delight. A rich and highly original exploration of Vermeer’s life and work seen through the eyes of a practising painter” (Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe).

An example of such richness can be found in Vermeer’s View of Delft, on which Jelley conclusively writes in the book’s seventh chapter ‘A Glimpse of Vermeer’: ”Vermeer had to decide where he would stand to observe Delft, in order to establish his composition. Which window he would use? What might he like to include from here, or from any other viewpoint, and what should he ignore? One of his trademarks is the attention he pays to the construction of his picture, and the dynamics of the movements within it. He thought carefully about the weights of shapes, and where he wanted the viewer’s eye to travel; where he wanted it to rest […]. If this picture appears ‘real’ to us, it is not because things are very detailed, but because Vermeer has grasped the essentials of the tone and the shapes, and has left much for us to interpret ourselves. It is not like looking at a high definition image on screen, or even a photograph; but like glimpsing something out of the corner of our eye, something we feel to be familiar.”

It is precisely this familiarity, that to my mind at least, entices us to admire Vermeer’s luminous sunlit spaces, full-blown, mesmerising skies, glimmers of satin and many eloquent strokes of tranquillity (such as Young Woman with a Water Jug, Mistress and Maid and of course, Girl with a Pearl Earring).

To be sure, Traces of Vermeer is an invitation for us to not only embrace Vermeer’s world, but to also ask or decipher to what degree he may, or may not have used some sort of lens through a camera obscura.

Personally, I couldn’t care less. Surely it’s the final product that counts?

Wonderful paintings that have traversed the years.
The centuries. Paintings which continue to touch us.
And resonate.

David Marx

Marie Antoinette

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Marie Antoinette
By Helene Delalex, Alexandre Maral & Nicolas Milovanovic
Getty Publications – £32.50

I have seen all, I have heard all, I have forgotten all.

I do not share the king’s tastes. He is only interested in hunting and metalwork. I am sure you will agree that I would look quite awkward standing at a forge; I would not make a good Vulcan and if I were to play the role of Venus that would bother him far more than my real tastes, which he does not seem to mind.

The thought of the Viennese born Archduchess dressed as a Vulcan or working in a forge, does make for quite an image. Although had it been a reality, it may just as well have saved her life. That said, this Marie Antoinette essentially examines the the last and ill-fated French Queen’s personal collection at Versailles.

Assembled with all the authority of three curators (Helene Delalex and Alexandre Maral at the Chateau of Versailles, Nicolas Milovanovic at the Louvre Museum in Paris); this sumptuously compiled and altogether stunning book, really is something of a photographic treasure. An artistic approach to a book which sheds oodles of light on a subject, that unless one were actually/regularly in Versailles itself, has continued to remain something of an idiosyncratic enigma. Until now.

That Marie Antoinette (1755 – 1793) continues to intrigue historians, writers and film-makers more than two centuries after her death is a nigh given. Her glamorous role as arbiter of fashion and patron of the decorative arts in the French court, not to mention the overtly dramatic circumstances surrounding her death, still does much to trigger the imagination.

Lest we forget, Antoinette was the only French queen to have her own collection, the Garde Meuble de la Reine, upon which she spared no expense (much to the eventual chagrin of the Parisian populace at large might I add): ”Tracing her life from her upbringing in Vienna as the archduchess of Austria, to her ascension to the French throne, and finally to her execution, the three authors discuss the exquisite objects that populated her surroundings: beautiful gowns, gilt-mounted furniture, Chinese porcelains, and opulent tableware. Her more personal possessions are also represented, including her sewing kit, her harp, her children’s toys, and even the simple chemise she wore as a condemned prisoner. Excerpts from her correspondence offer a further glimpse into her personality and daily life.”

A life it would seem, to which she resolutely and openly adhered.

As much is touched on in the book’s third chapter (‘The Queen’) at the very outset of ‘Queen of Europe’s Greatest Kingdom,’ in which the authors write: ””Although God caused me to be born in the rank I now occupy, I cannot resist admiring the arrangements of Providence who chose me, the youngest of your children, for the greatest kingdom in Europe,” wrote Marie Antoinette to her mother a few days after her accession. Full of youthful beauty, charming and vivacious, the eighteen-year old queen was adored by the people of Paris and greeted with cheers on every public appearance, something that touched her deeply.”

From ‘The Future Queen of France’ to ‘Queen of Fashion,’ from ‘Petit Trianon -The Queen’s Refuge’ to ‘Platonic Love?’ to ‘A Tragic End,’ these 209 pages (excluding Bibliography and Illustration Credits) are throughout, more than substantiated with the most lavish collection of truly wonderful illustrations. Many of which, evoke in the reader, a place of the most exquisite, magisterial design.

Furthermore, a place many of us always knew existed, but one that nevertheless, has always remained (subliminally) hard to define. Hard to clarify. Even hard to come to terms with. Until now.

Marie Antoinette is one of those collections one will invariably return to time and time again, because some of the astonishing beauty within will simply refuse to leave us be.

David Marx

Annie Sloan Paints Everything

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Annie Sloan Paints Everything
By Annie Sloan
Cico Books – £14.99

[…] I didn’t want it to be about all the weird and wonderful things people paint – skateboards, tubas, and even caravans! – nor just about all the multitude of surfaces that can be painted, such as fabrics, concrete, plastics, melamine, marble, and metal, as well as all the usual surfaces like wood. This is an important point, of course, and one that I certainly took into account […].

From Warehouse Rustic to Shibori Lampshades, from a Painted Chandelier to Printed Table Runners, Annie Sloan Paints Everything might well traverse everything (and a whole lot more besides) that we have come to expect from one of the world’s most respected experts in the field of decorative painting.

It’s the sort of book that is bound to inspire any free-thinking home-owner with a quantum leap of varying ideas and dare I say it, opportunistic mayhem. Each of it’s three chapters (‘Furniture and Lighting,’ ‘Fabric and Other Surfaces’ and Walls and Floors’) cover an exceedingly wide terrain of the home – as mentioned at the outset – all of which are augmented with a spectacular array of photographs.

In fact the photographs alone, will have you running for the brush in next to no time!

As Annie Sloan writes in the Introduction: ”In this book, I wanted to excite you and encourage you to paint everything. I wanted to show how my own range of paint, Chalk Paint, which I developed in 1990, has retained its classic identity and continued to evolve and develop with new techniques and treatments.”

Having already written rather extensively on the subject of paint, texture and design (her previous books include Quick and Easy Paint Transformations, Colour Recipes for Painted Furniture, Annie Sloan’s Room Recipes for Style and Colour and Annie Sloan’s Chalk Paint Workbook among others), the authoress most certainly knows how to convey a grand idea, but more importantly, put it across.

For instance, on page 34, there is a wonderful colour photograph of a completed Waxed Bureau, on the opposite page of which she writes: ” Oak is a very distinctive wood that is characterized by a deep grain. It also has interesting irregular markings, depending on how it is cut. I particularly love oak when it’s very old, unvarnished, and natural because it is a lovely, soft, light gray in colour […]. This particular bureau is from the 1940s or so, and had been lightly varnished with a dark colour. The grain was still textural, but the wood was darker than I would have liked. I could have removed the varnish – a rather long and tedious job – but this would have made the whole piece lighter. So, instead, I opted for the easier method of applying white wax to lighten the varnish and bring out the grain of the wood. If I had taken the varnish off, the finished effect would have been a lot lighter and the grain probably more pronounced.

The trick is to allow the wax to harden for long enough that it hardens a little in the grain, but not for so long that the wax does not come off where you want it to.”

That every section comes replete with a drop box called ”You Will Need” (in the above instance: White wax, Small wax brush, Clean, dry, lint-free cloths, Clear wax, Annie Sloan Valeska stencil and a project pot of Graphite paint, to decorate the edge of the bureau’s desk – optional), reiterates the practicality of both Sloan’s work and approach.

So why not start the New Year with some terrific new ideas for the home; of which this most fabulous book is literally uber-jam-packed with.

David Marx

Sins

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Sins
By Mary Telford
Illustrated by Louise Verity
The Lilliput Press – £25.00

In seven segments (‘Envy,’ ‘Pride,’ ‘Avarice,’ ‘Sloth,’ Gluttony,’ ‘Anger,’ and ‘Lust’), this book is a veritable delight to both behold and partake in; partake as in with the turning of every page, one doesn’t quite know what to expect.

Admittedly, this may have a lot to do with the occasionally dark and brood induced illustrations of Louise Verity (colourful and inviting the one minute, angular and intrinsically cartoonesque the next), although Mary Telford’s words are of an equal persuasion so far as the utterly non-ob(li)vious is concerned.

For instance, at the outset of ‘Avarice’ on page 75, Telford writes: The woman longed for wealth above all else. It wasn’t vulgar gold she hankered after or a fortune newly acquired, but long-held riches and respect.

Every Christmas she left her penthouse to visit her impoverished aunts. Their residential hotel was shabby. She slipped on the wheelchair ramp and scraped her Louboutin heel. She reminded herself that the trust fund would be hers once the aunts were dead […].

It’s not until one has reached page 108, that the reader invariably learns of the outcome; but not before having stumbled across a myriad of definitive artwork that (unsurprisingly), does much to trigger the imagination. An imagination, clearly, already attracted to Sins, but which now finds itself served with a certain imagery – some of which, assorted readers will no doubt find appealing while others will feel merely skim the surface of the aforementioned, seven universal themes.

There again: ”The modern fairytale takes many forms, clothing our unconscious with the macabre, the fantastical, the grotesque. In seven elemental stories, anxieties and dark desires are given dramatic force in the renderings of illustrator Loiuse Verity. Drawn form the European folk tale, they are grounded in a tradition from Hieronymus Bosch, the brothers Grimm and Lewis Carroll, to Dali, Dahl and Audrey Niffenegger. Where irreality touches life, dreams begin […]. A controlling husband envies his wife’s pleasures. An abused lover takes her revenge. An avaricious socialite is tormented by the kindness of others. A widow exploited by her grown son gains her freedom.”

To quote Kilgore Trout, and so it goes.

These 240 pages could be construed as being something of a subliminal traipse through the back pages Edgar Allan Poe’s after-thoughts; which, all said and invariably done, is a mighty interesting proposition.

Not to mention a regal and intrinsically refreshing change to such writing as that of the fifty shades of hog-wash variety…

David Marx

Jan Gossart and the Invention of Netherlandish Antiquity

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Jan Gossart and the Invention of Netherlandish Antiquity
By Maris Anne Bass
Princeton University Press – £37.95

”It contends that Gossart participated in a local renaissance – the revival of alternative ”Netherlandish” antiquity – through his antiquarian engagement with Eyckian painting, his selective use of Italian and ancient models, and his involvement in the recovery of the region’s ancient history.”

Being half Dutch, I’ve always had a penchant for Dutch painting and to a certain degree, Jan Gossart’s work is no exception. His testimonial, nigh majestic nudes alone, remain somewhat ahead of their time, even by today’s standards. But what particularly drew me to this more than engaging and rather wonderful book, is the fact that it challenges previous interpretations of Gossart’s many influential works.

One of these is its re-evaluation of the foregone conclusion that the Dutchman’s patrons did not slavishly imitate Italian Renaissance models, but instead, sought to contest the very idea that the all encompassing Roman past (and mere presence) instilled an Italian monopoly on antiquity.

Indeed, by drawing on many previously unused primary sources in Latin, Dutch, and French, Jan Gossart and the Invention of Netherlandish Antiquity offers a turbulent, yet altogether fascinating new understanding of both the painter himself and the history of northern European art itself.

Convincingly put together with a mixture of very high quality black and white/colour reproductions, the book’s four chapters and 153 pages (excluding Notes & Bibliography) are an education as well as an inspiration.

Already in the very first chapter ‘The Embodied Past’, authoress Maris Anne Bass (who is Assistant Professor at the Art History and Archaeology Department of Washington University in St. Louis) states: ”Gossart was obsessed with bodies, and with the representation of bodies in space. His most iconic works, whether mythological or religious in subject, all explore the extreme juxtaposition of enlivened figures within realms of cool stone architecture or intricate foliate ornament. Even his portraits set against monochrome backgrounds present their figures emerging, sometimes as if breaching the boundaries of their framesa.”

To my mind, this gives readers something to think about almost immediately, simply because of the compelling clarity of exploration.

This leads me to agree with Ethan Matt Kavaler of The University of Toronto, who has been quoted as saying: ”This remarkable and original book greatly advances our understanding of northern European humanism and its relation to art in the early modern period – a central and longstanding problem in art history. Creatively researched and compellingly written, this interdisciplinary study will have wide appeal.”

This is essentially the first real in-depth historical study of Jan Gossart (ca. 1478-1532), surely one of the most important painters of the Renaissance in northern Europe. It’s a book which provides so much more than just a richly illustrated narrative of the Duth artist’s life and art.

As mentioned at the outset, Bass illustrates how Gossart’s paintings were an integral part of a large(r) cutural effort throughout the Netherlands, which did much to ”to assert the region’s ancient heritage as distinct from the antiquity and presumed cultural hegemony of Rome.”

To a large extent, this is immediately addressed, if not wholeheartedly substantiated in the book’s Introduction: ”The early modern Low Countries and the image of its history were profoundly shaped by a sense of scale. The region’s cultural achievements, and attendant local pride, have always swelled beyond the limits of its small geographical domain […]. The presumption of causality between the two pillars of Gossart’s fame – his Roman drawings and his mythological paintings – has resulted in a profound misunderstanding of his engagement with antiquity […]. This book sets out to rehabilitate Gossart’s mythological works in the milieu of their creation by investigating not only the artist’s intimate courtly environs but also place within the intellectual culture of the early sixteenth-century Low Countries.”

To semi-quote Dagmar Eichberger (University of Trier and University of Heidelberg): ”With great enthusiasm and erudition, Marisa Anne Bass situates Jan Gossart in the intellectual network of his Netherlandish patrons and thoroughly investigates the literary output of the humanist circles that he and his patrons moved in.”

Totally original as well as lavishly illustrated, Jan Gossart and the Invention of Netherlandish Antiquity is as idiosyncratically informative as it is occasionally spellbinding.

David Marx

Some Vernacular Railroad Photographs

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Some Vernacular Railroad Photographs
By Jeff Brouws & Wendy Burton
W.W. Norton – $39.95

Far too cryptic for its own good? A book of esoteric love?

As stated at the very outset of Some Vernacular Railroad Photographs: ”The patent of time will transform any artifact into an object of veneration” (Sarah Greenough, The Art of the American Snapshot).” Indeed it might, which is why this rather remarkable collection of images, taken by both passionate amateurs and more accomplished photographers alike, is as all encompassing as it is.

I say all encompassing, for while the actual photographs on the page may trigger a certain remembrance of time or place, transport or poignancy, there’s also a fair bit of self-injected, subliminality taking place. A subliminality, triggered by the grain, contrast or composure of a certain photograph, which, depending on one’s own history and love of trains, will obviously differ in range of depth from person to person. Although what accounts for this utterly unostentatious collection, is its rather expansive inclusion of humble snapshots, albumen prints, stereographs, real photo postcards, glass-plate negatives and everything in-between.

Thus fully deserving a definition that is rich with historical value and meaning, while the photographs themselves are often ”imbued with a naive artfulness and beauty.”

To be sure, Jeff Brouws has clearly been ”collecting vernacular railroad photographs for many years, poring through disorganized boxes of snapshots at train shows and swap meets.” Repelte with a rabid, editorial eye for fine detail, ”he has sought out the unusual, the lyrical, the pastoral, and the urban, ultimately assembling a collection that includes railroad landscapes, locomotives, infrastructure, and workers, primarily during the age of steam.” All of which is reinforced in the book’s Introduction, where Brouws (who has been published in Trains, the NRHS Bulletin and the R&LHS Quarterly) unsurprisingly writes: ”The art of collecting, for most human beings, seems to be encoded in our genetic makeup – a trait perhaps passed down from our hunter-gatherer origins […]. I simply enjoyed the collecting process and the pleasures it brought. Later, as an adult, photography books became my passion; new shelves from IKEA never remained empty for long. I also began to understand that assembling collections, like the one contained between these covers, was a way to bestow order on the universe, create meaning, and temporarily control the arbitrary chaos we call life.”

Might it be therefore said that this fascinating assemblage will appeal to both fans of vernacular photography and railroad enthusiasts alike. Accompanied by an essay that includes a thoughtful, well-researched discussion of the aesthetic evolution of railroad photography in the early to mid-twentieth century and the phenomenon of the International Engine Picture Club (which acted as a clearing house and swapping mechanism for rail fans), Some Vernacular Railroad Photographs is by no means Brouws only publication. Along with his wife Wendy Burton – a photographer whose work is included in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Santa Barbara Museum of Art and the North Dakota Museum of Art among others – the photographer and part-time writer already has nine books to his credit, having already authored five on railroad photography alone.

That his photography can be viewed in major institutional collections in the US – including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, Princeton University Art Museum Harvard’s Fogg Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art – underlines the degree to which these particular photographs are aligned with true grit and muchos gravitas.

David Marx