Sunday, 17 May 2015

At the Time of Klimt: The Vienna Secession

On the last of our days in Paris we finally went into Notre Dame, which we had been looking at from our hotel room window all week. And for the first time I got to see the tombs and the structure at St. Denis, which was actually a lot easier to get to than I had imagined.

After lunch we wandered back to the center of Paris and decided that we should go to the Pinacotheque de Paris (which I had never heard of) and see the new exhibition of Gustav Klimt and the Vienna Secession. Because we go to the Neue Galerie in New York quite often, we weren't really sure if we needed to bother with this exhibition, imagining that it might be similar to the offerings there. But it had some stunning objects and provided a broad view, sort of in vignettes, or aspects of both the politics and the art of early 20th-century Vienna.

The exhibition began with an orientation to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Vienna's position in Central Europe around the turn of the century as a cultural hub of great diversity. Portraits of the Emperor Franz Joseph as a rather simpering young man and a substantial old man spanned his extraordinarily long rule from 1848 to 1916. The exhibition also acknowledges that Paris was still an important venue for artists and many of the Viennese artists made a point of going there.

After a couple of informative galleries we were surprised and impressed to find Klimt's Beethoven Frieze, an amazing and beautiful work of 1901, made for the Vienna Secession building as part of a Gesamtkunstwerk celebrating Beethoven. The floating figures above completely white walls, followed by various figures either simply outlined or decked out in gold and elaborate patterns are spectacular. Seeing that frieze convinced us that we had made the right decision to see the exhibition.

The actual organization of the exhibition, each room representing a theme, was ultimately not completely coherent, since the themes varied from historical context to subject matter to the various media of Secession artists, and I'm not sure we came away with a better understanding of the work of this group of artists, although we certainly saw work by unfamiliar painters who were active at the time. I was not convinced that two rooms representing the "Femme Fatale" and the "Femme Fragile," for example, really made the point they intended.

On the other hand, Klimt's paintings of Salome and Judith are captivating, gorgeous in their gold and patterning and a bit scary in the seductive expression of Judith and the clawlike hands of Salome. I went back to that room a couple of times. While I usually think of Klimt as an artist of geometric patterns and gold leaf, these paintings and others of people had the power to frighten in a very personal way.

A room of portraits provided the best sense of the breadth of Klimt's ability. A female portrait of 1894 could have been any society portrait, a standing woman turned with her face in profile, wearing a fashionable dress and with delicately modeled features and a calm expression.  Head of a Young Woman, 1898, is a soft-focus image of only a face against a black background, staring directly at the viewer with a disconcerting intensity.

The exhibition includes architecture, sculpture, furniture and painting by other members of the Secession, including Kolomon Moser, Carl Moll, Oskar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele, Michael Powolny, Otto Wagner, Adolf Loos and many others whose works all merited attention. But the star of the show was definitely Klimt.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Velazquez at the Palais Royale

In Paris we saw quite a few exhibitions, visiting two museums a day for 6 1/2 days. We never went to the Louvre, the Musee d'Orsay, or most of the museums near the Louvre.The Velazquez exhibition at the Grand Palais had just opened and I thought we needed to go, since he is such an important artist, but I didn't find it nearly as exciting as just seeing the Velazquez paintings at the Prado, an unforgettable, powerfully moving experience. At the same time I was sad that the lines for the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition were far longer. The exhibition, organized chronologically, seemed to have a lot of portraits and a lot of work by his followers, which is fine, except that they weren't necessarily all that exciting. (On the other hand I was very impressed with the work of his teacher Francisco Pacheco.) The Rokeby Venus (London, National Gallery) was there, and a selection of works from the Prado, including Baltasar Carlos on his Pony, 1634-35 and The Forge of Vulcan, ca. 1630, all fabulous paintings. For the press release that explains the organizers' purpose, click here.

Among the paintings that caught my attention, I was surprised that so many were actually familiar since I had seen them in American collections. The portrait of the young Baltasar Carlos and his Dwarf of 1631, for example is from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Others were from Cleveland, Chicago, Fort Worth and other American collections. However I missed the Velazquez that probably attracted me in him in the first place, the portrait of Philip IV from the Frick Collection. I always love the experience of looking at the silvered lace of Philips sleeve and robe and watching it turn into daubs of paint as I get close to the painting. Velazquez painted Philip IV many times, but this one always seems particularly flattering to him, despite his unappealing Hapsburg features. The exhibition included a pretty good painting by Juan de Pareja, Velazquez's slave who studied with him and also became a painter, but not the famous portrait of Juan from the Met.

Of the many portraits in the exhibition, that of Pope Innocent X is, of course, stunning, as it is considered one of the great portraits of all time. The artist captured the complexity of the elderly pope's emotions so that looking at it for a while one sees the full range of his character. And there is that virtuoso brushwork.

Among the masterworks it seemed that there were quite a few portraits that did not sing with the individuality of the sitter or the virtuoso brushwork of the master, and then there were also works by those who imitated Velazquez, skilled artists who captured the appearance of their subject, but perhaps not his or her essence.

I thought that if one lives in Europe this exhibition is a fabulous way to see a lot of Velazquez works from the diverse and distant cities in the United States, and if one hasn't been to the Prado or seen many of these works in other places, it's a fine introduction to Velazquez's work. At the same time, he was a brilliant artist, but not every one of his paintings is brilliant and some of those are in this exhibition.