Thursday, July 17, 2014

These photos were all taken at the

Musée de Cluny / Musee National du Moyen Age, which I had not visited in approximately 15 years.  I'd added the museum to my short list of 'Museums I Want to Visit That I Haven't Been to in a Very Long Time' and I'm so glad I did -- what a treasure it is, truly!  I loved seeing again the 16th century Retable (altarpiece) of scenes of the birth of Christ in the Grande Salle, and the statue of St. Denis holding his head (15th century), the gorgeous ceramics, the Pilier de Nautes (Pillar of the Boatmen and the oldest dated monument in Paris, from the 1st century AD), and the Gallery of Kings from Notre-Dame.  Most everyone knows that the sculpted heads were destroyed after the French Revolution because it was believed that they represented the kings of France, and in fact they are the kings of Judah, ancestors of the Virgin Mary and Christ.  But thanks to a handy laminated card at the Cluny, I learned more about these heads and the facade of the great cathedral and I took notes, which I'm sharing here as I think a number of visitors may not be aware of their interesting story:

The discovery of hundreds of sculptured fragments in 1977 at the headquarters of the Banque Française du Commerce Extérieur (now Banque Natexis) was enormous in terms of advancing our understanding of Notre-Dame de Paris.  (Banque Natexis donated all the sculptures to the Cluny.)  After the cathedral was vandalized in 1793, the sculptures were purchased by a builder named Monsieur Bertrande, who later sold them and they were used to maintain the foundation of a private mansion for a man named Jean-Baptiste Lakanal-Dupuget (I tried to find out more about these two men but an Internet search didn't turn anything up). 

Only 22 of the 28 heads remain identifiable, although according to the Cluny the heads weren't intended as portraits.  They were, however, all distinct, and there was a clear intention to differentiate one from another.  The head believed to be of David shows traces of paint, and indeed all of the heads were originally painted, as was the entire facade of Notre-Dame and most other medieval facades.  The faces are very elongated and monumental but aren't delicately carved, and the sculptors "took account of the distance and the low angle from which the statues would be viewed, elongating them disproportionately as a result, but not needlessly working on details which would not be visible."

For delving further, hands-down the very best book ever written about Notre-Dame is Notre Dame of Paris: The Biography of a Cathedral by Allen Temko (Viking, 1955).  I read this book some years ago but it was a library copy, so I was particularly pleased when, after my visit to the Cluny, I walked to Shakespeare & Company and found a hardcover first edition.  I bought it not only because the book is terrific and I wanted to have my own copy, but also in memory of Temko, who passed away in 2006.  I met him when we both worked in the same building in San Francisco, and I immediately adored him because he was smart and funny and outspoken (he was also the basis for the character Roland Major in Jack Kerouac's On the Road).  Temko was architecture critic for The San Francisco Chronicle from 1961 to 1993, and he was honored with a Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for criticism.  He served in the Navy during World War II and when the war was over he moved to France, taught at the Sorbonne, and wrote the book on Notre Dame, his very first, which I find rather astonishing as the book is absolutely superb -- it has been referred to as the "definitive profile" of the cathedral and a "landmark book."  He later noted that France "led me to see art and architecture as expressions of great civilizations."     

The Cluny is of course also the home of the 'La Dame à la Licorne' (The Lady and the Unicorn) tapestries, six of them, and there are still many more visitors in this room than anywhere else in the museum.  Again, after so many years, these weavings remain so gorgeous -- in January of this year they were returned to the Cluny after a two-year cleaning.  I love the quotations at the entrance to the room:

Ce sont des femmes sur des îles:
une grande solitude feminine
une solitude qui a l’air enchanté.
--Yannick Haenel, À mon seul désir, 2005
(They are women on islands / A profound feminine solitude / An enchanted solitude)

Il y a des tapisseries [...]
Viens, passons lentement devant elles [...]
Comme elles sont tranquilles, n'est-ce pas?
(There are tapestries here / Come let us pass slowly before them / How peaceful they are,
are they not?)
--Rainer Maria Rilke, Les Cahiers de Malte Laurids Brigg, 1910 

Tracy Chevalier, noted author of Girl With a Pearl Earring and The Lady and the Unicorn (both available in paperbacks by Plume), wrote an interesting article about these tapestries that I've had in my files for years, and I'm sorry I can't tell you exactly when it was written or where it appeared.  Occasionally I clip pieces and forget to make sure I note the publication and date, and I'm afraid that's what happened with this one.  I think the article may have been in Town & Country but I can't be certain.  But at any rate, Chevalier's article opens with, "Sometimes a picture doesn't paint a thousand words.  Sometimes a picture is so mysterious that it takes a hundred thousand words to explain it."  She relates that for years she was so fascinated with Vermeer's 'Girl with a Pearl Earring' that she decided to make up a story about it, and thus that book was born.  Later, she was likewise captivated by 'The Lady and the Unicorn.'  At the time Chevalier was working on her manuscript for The Lady and the Unicorn, she had reproductions of all six tapestries hung up on the wall behind her computer.  "But none of this," she wrote, "can equal the impact of standing in that quiet room in Paris surrounded by serene faces, beautiful dresses, curious animals, and thousands of flowers."  It is an incomparable experience, I can attest.  (Note that seeing 'The Hunt of the Unicorn' tapestries -- dating from the same period, the 15th century -- at The Cloisters in New York, which is celebrating its 75 year anniversary, is also an amazing art viewing experience.)

Chevalier closes her piece by opining that "Perhaps the best works of art are those that don't give answers, but ask questions that hang in the air long after we have stopped looking," and on that note I shall close this post as well.         


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

"Paris is always a good idea." - Audrey  Hepburn (not!)

A few years ago, I bought a notepad with the quote above at the top (minus the word not), in pink ink.  I love it and have thought several times that I should have purchased dozens more.  Not that I could say which film the line was from -- 'Sabrina?,' 'Paris When it Sizzles?,' or 'Funny Face?'  But when I came back from Paris a few weeks ago, the quote was in my mind and I thought I should find out once and for all where the line appears.  An Internet search revealed all kinds of confusion, though it seemed clear that 'Sabrina' was the film.  Only one thing to do: watch my copy of 'Sabrina' and hear it for myself!  So I watched the film twice, from beginning to end (I hadn't seen it in a while and didn't mind at all; such a classic) and lo and behold, not once did Hepburn say that line.  Back to the Internet, where I found some chatter about the line appearing in the remake, with Harrison Ford and Julia Ormond.  Off to the library, where I checked out the remake (not as good as the original, but I suspect most of you know that) and voila!  Near the very end, when Sabrina learns that there really is only one boat ticket, she pulls herself together and says to Linus, "Paris is always a good idea.  I was happy there.  You would have been too."

So, it seems I've been duped, and so have you if you bought any of those cute notepads.  But I'm glad I now have it straight, and anyway, even if Audrey Hepburn's character never uttered that phrase the words happen to be true. During my recent visit the weather was a bit iffy, as it can be in late May/early June, and I was forced to buy a sweater.  The sun did peek out for several hours at a time, and on some days it was out in full; but even when it was overcast, it didn't matter: the city is as beautiful and rewarding on a gray day as on a sunny one.

What follows are some brief Paris reports for anyone who has plans to visit this summer and for anyone who may be planning on visiting later:

I spent a fair amount of time by myself, which was intentional, and I wanted to revisit certain neighborhoods, sites, gardens, and eateries I hadn't been to in a long time.  On my list was

La Grande Mosquée de Paris, in the 5th arrondissement near the pretty Jardin des Plantes and which remains as lovely and moving since I'd last been there a decade ago.  The Mosque was founded in 1926 as a token of gratitude for the North African Muslims who died (some sources state as many as 100,000) fighting again the Germans in World War I.  There is a beautiful plaque inside the mosque honoring these men, as well as others for World War II and later conflicts.      

During the Nazi occupation of Paris during World War II, the Mosque's imam, Si Kaddour ben Ghabrit, and the congregation, reportedly organized a resistance effort that provided shelter and travel assistance to Jews.  According to Daniel L. Buttry, author of two editions of Interfaith Heroes, by the time the German army occupied France, the Grand Mosque was sheltering resistance fighters and North Africans who had escaped from German POW camps.  The Algerians in the mosque were mostly Berbers, and mostly from the Kabylia region.  They communicated in Tamazight dialect, which made their resistance cells virtually impossible to infiltrate.

Ben Ghabrit himself had three nationalities -- Algerian, Moroccan, and French -- allowing him to slip in and out of many contexts.  On 16 July, 1942, the French Vichy government ordered the Paris police to round up the 28,000 Jews listed on the census.  Some police officers leaked news of the sweep and only 13,000 Jews were caught.  Ben Ghabrit wrote a missive in Tamazight that was read aloud throughout the immigrant hostels in Paris, and in it he broadcast the news about the round-up, noting in part that "Their children are like our own children.  The one who encounters one of this children must give that child shelter and protection for as long as misfortune -- or sorrow -- lasts."  Daniel Buttry notes that approximately 1,700 Jews who weren't captured were given short term shelter either in the mosque or in nearby apartments.  A system was arranged so that if German or French police showed up at the mosque the fugitives would hide, even in the women's prayer room if necessary.  Some Jews were helped to safety in Algeria or Spain, others disappeared through the sewers directly beneath the mosque, and others hid in barrels on wine barges (steered by Kabyl men) down the Seine.

Ben Ghabrit apparently wrote many false birth certificates and other documents to hide Jewish children under Muslim identities.  Though he was under suspicion by the Germans, and was interrogated and threatened, Ben Ghabrit was never arrested as the Nazis were hoping to gain the support of France's Arab subjects.  The author team of Karen Gray Ruelle and Deborah Durland Desaix investigated this story for a book entitled The Grand Mosque of Paris: A Story of How Muslims Rescued Jews During the Holocaust (Holiday House, 2010).

The book opens with a quote found in both the Islamic and Jewish traditions: "Save one life, and it is as if you've saved all of humanity."  Despite various opinions on the true interpretation, I am fond of the quote, and though the authors state that "many of the details are destined to remain forever uncertain, with few facts proven to a historian's satisfaction," it's clear that something courageous and brave and kind happened here.  Whether the number of Jews saved is 100 or over 1,000, the story is worth telling and sharing.  The book is aimed at young readers but is appropriate for all ages and I highly recommend it.   

The Grand Mosque is open Saturday to Thursday from 9:00 to noon and from 2:00 to 6:00.  Its lovely and tranquil cafe/tearoom is open from 12:00 noon to 3:00 and from 7:00 to 10:30 -- the outdoor terrace is especially nice on a sunny day and the indoor section is bright and colorful.  The hammam is authentic (meaning, not fancied up for tourists) and is great after a long plane flight if you're staying in the quartier or are in need of a restorative scrub.  The mosque occupies the entire block here, so note that the entrance to the cafe and the hammam is on the corner of rue Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and rue Daubenton, while the main entrance to the mosque is on place du Puits de l'Ermite.


As I began this post with a note about a film I will also end about a film: When I got home I decided that since I'd never seen 'Les Enfants du Paradis' it was high time I did.  I didn't exactly love it, but I did find it compelling enough to watch it through to the end.  More interesting was the accompanying booklet, which included an excerpt from a 1990 interview with director Marcel Carné by Brian Stonehill.  The two spoke about Carné's fondest memories in making the film, and Carné related that he consulted several books about theater and in one of them he learned that historically, the upper balcony in a theater was called "Paradise."  At the time he was working on the film (in the 1940s, during the Second World War), this was no longer a common expression.  He notes, "So we played around with words.  There was a toy store that no longer exists, on the rue Saint-Honoré, close to the Madeleine.  It was called The Paradise of Children.  So we called the film Children of Paradise, but it can bear a double meaning.  The children could be the dead so they are in Heaven/Paradise, or they could be the actors who play those characters.  Also, the actors can be the children of the audience up there in Paradise." 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Just back from Paris and the Cote d'Azur, and finalementc’est l’été!  Before I report on the trip, I want to happily acknowledge the first day of Summer, which was Saturday, by mentioning Sara and Gerald Murphy.  I assume many of you know of the Murphys, but based on conversations I've had over the years I also assume that at least a few of you are unfamiliar with this dynamic, dazzling American couple. 

Sara and Gerald married and sailed to France in the early 1920s, taking up residence in both Paris and Antibes.  You may have known, as I did, that the characters of Nicole and Dick Diver in F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night (still one of my most favorite books, even though many critics believe it is "flawed") were loosely based on Sara and Gerald.  I didn't know how much of the novel was fact, but after reading the two books pictured above -- Living Well is the Best Revenge by Calvin Tomkins (Modern Library edition) and Everybody Was So Young by Amanda Vaill (Vintage) -- I got it all straight.  And I was completely fascinated by their life and times.

I recommend reading both of these if you haven't already.  The Tomkins book is slender, at 172 pages, and is a longer version of a piece he wrote for The New Yorker (he was the magazine's longtime art critic and remains a staff writer, and the painting reproduced on the cover of the book is a work of Gerald's entitled 'Cocktail,' which is in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art).  Coincidentally, the Museum of Modern Art in New York published a paperback
edition in December 2013, featuring a new introduction by Tomkins and a different painting by Gerald on the cover.  Vaill's book is simply more -- more detail, more background, more recent material (there are even a few photos from the '40s and '50s, whereas in the Tomkins book a notation appears after the last photo:  "The Murphys' family albums do not go beyond 1933, the year they came to America"). 

If you crave more about them, as I did, I recommend continuing with these selections:


Letters From the Lost Generation (University Press of Florida, 2002) is edited by Linda Patterson Miller; Sara & Gerald (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982) is by Honoria Murphy Donnelly, Sara and Gerald's only daughter; and Making It New: The Art and Style of Sara & Gerald Murphy (University of California Press) is the catalog that accompanied an exhibit of the same name on view in 2007 and 2008 at the Williams College Museum of Art, Yale University Art Gallery, and the Dallas Museum of Art.  Deborah Rothschild edited this wonderful book, and essays were contributed by Calvin Tomkins, Kenneth Silver, Amanda Vaill, Trevor Winkfield, Linda Patterson Miller, Olivia Mattis, William Jay Smith, Kenneth Wayne, and Dorothy Kosinski.

The Murphys' good friend Archibald MacLeish has referred to Sara and Gerald as "the nexus" of the expatriate idyll.  Among their friends were John Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Cole Porter, Picasso, Lillian Hellman, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, Sir Charles Mendl, Elsie de Wolfe, Philip Barry, Stravinsky, Monty Woolley, and Fernand Leger.  In the Foreword to Making it New, Williams College Class of '56 Director Lisa Corrin writes that "when describing Sara and Gerald Murphy, the quality most frequently noted by both friends and biographers is their generosity of spirit.  Their desire to share with the world the talents of the extraordinary circle of individuals whom they embraced seems truly inexhaustible...The Murphys had that rare capacity to recognize the new and to encourage it wholeheartedly and fearlessly.  Being in their company, as the title of this catalogue and the accompanying exhibition suggest, meant being an active agent in making the world anew, that is to say, fully inhabiting the idealism that was all that came to be known as "the modern.""

The lines "Day by day make it new/Yet again make it new!" seem exceptionally fit in any discussion about Sara and Gerald (and by the way, these lines have often been attributed to Ezra Pound, but an Internet search turns up that in fact they are an historical anecdote relating to Ch'eng T'ang, the first king of the Shang dynasty, 1766-1753 B.C.  The full text reads As the sun makes it new / Day by day make it new / yet again make it new, and the slogan reportedly was inscribed in gold on T'ang's washbasin).  If, so far, the Murphy's story seems all sunlight and revelry, it wasn't.  I won't spoil it for those of you who don't know, except to say that part of their tale is quite tragic.  In a letter written by Dorothy Parker to Helen Rothschild Droste in November of 1929, from Montana-Vermala in the Alps, she says "I hate to speak about the Murphys, because truly they would break you heart.  I never saw such gameness in my life.  They try so hard to be gay, to make a little party out of everything.  Sara's birthday was a week or so ago, and everybody gave everybody else presents, and there was a cake and champagne, and those are the things that break your heart.  And when it was your birthday, I told them, and Gerald made a cocktail -- the first drink any of us had had for God knows how long -- and I think the good luck that was wished you surely must come true.  And to-day, before our Thanksgiving veal, we had a cocktail, only -- perhaps it was because of being unaccustomed to liquor -- we all got good expatriate jags and wept slow sentimental tears, and did a good deal of kissing of children and dogs."

So, what does all of this have to do with summer?  Simply this: in the summer of 1922, the Murphys were at Houlgate, on the northwest coast of France in Normandy, where it was a bit chilly.  They decided to go and visit Cole Porter, who had rented the Château de la Garoupe in Antibes, which was, according to Honoria Murphy, "in itself original, for the season there had traditionally ended at the beginning of summer."  Sara and Gerald loved it so much on the Côte d'Azur that Gerald persuaded the manager of the Hôtel du Cap, Antoine Sella, to allow them to spend the next Summer at the hotel.  Before that summer ended, Sara and Gerald bought a place near the Antibes lighthouse that they renovated and named Villa America.  Honoria continues: "My mother and father have since been credited with starting the summer season on the Riviera."           

To Sara and Gerald.
Enjoy the summer of 2014! 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

I am crazy for good olive oil, and I always bring some back home with me whenever I visit an olive-growing country -- it's probably my number one souvenir, and I've never once had a bottle break or a tin leak in my checked bags.  One day I'd like to participate in an olive harvest, but until that happens my most memorable oil experience has been a tasting at Olio & Convivium in Florence.  Similar to a wine tasting, it is remarkable how even olive oils from the same region (in the case at Olio all the oils were from Tuscany) taste incredibly different.   As olive oil is a culinary item I'm very fond of and I enjoy just about every day (my breakfast most days is a piece of good bread, toasted, with a drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of salt), I have made it a point to taste a great number of oils from around the Mediterranean.  I also read a lot about it -- if you love olive oil as much as I do you might enjoy Olive: A Global History (one edition in The Edible Series published by Reaktion Books and written by Fabrizia Lanza, who now runs the wonderful Sicilian cooking school originally begun by her mother, Anna Tasca Lanza) and The Passionate Olive: 101 Things to do With Olive Oil by Carol Firenze (Ballantine, 2005).  

Freelance journalist/author Tom Mueller is also crazy for olive oil, and he first appeared on my radar with an article he wrote for The New Yorker entitled 'Slippery Business' (2007).  I referenced this great piece in several of my books, and I was really glad when, two years ago, he wrote Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, Norton, 2012.  One of my favorite food writers and cookbook authors, Nancy Harmon Jenkins, noted of Extra Virginity that it's "a story that all food-lovers need to read and understand."  With the publication of this engrossing and important story, Mueller went "steadily deeper into oil," exploring its cultural, culinary, chemical, and criminal sides.  He traveled all around the Mediterranean, from southern Spain and North Africa to the West Bank and the eastern coast of Crete.  He also went to California, Chile, South Africa, and Australia.  And he met oleophiles like Flavio Zaramella, president of the Corporazione Mastri Oleari in Milan (one of the most respected private olive oil associations), who is devoting the rest of his life to redeem the olive oil business from fraud.  Yes, big time fraud.       

Grazia De Carlo, the matriarch of the De Carlo olive oil family (they've had groves in Puglia since the 1600s), told Mueller about the wine scandal in Italy in 1986 -- hospitals across northwest Italy were admitting dozens of people suffering from symptoms like nausea, lack of coordination, fainting, and blurred vision.  Twenty-six people died, and twenty went blind.  It was eventually discovered that each victim had recently drunk a local white wine that had been cut with methanol, a very toxic substance also known as wood alcohol.  The scandal devastated the Italian wine industry, and hundreds of producers -- most of them honest -- went bankrupt. However, the scandal served to radically improve Italian wine-making, and forced a shift from quantity to quality.  Grazia noted that only after the methanol scare did the government get serious about enforcing quality, and today wine is a major export product for Italy.  She added that sometimes she wishes there could be a methanol scandal in olive oil, "which would obliterate this corrupt industry completely, and rebuild it in a healthy way.  It's been Babylon around here for far too long." 

Since I read Extra Virginity I've been paying closer attention to the oil I buy, and Mueller's Appendix 'Choosing Good Oil"has been very helpful as well as his website,
There are a number of pointers to remember when buying oil, but I think one of the most important is to read the label and find out if the oil is from a specific mill and/or from a specific country or region.  'Packed in Italy'or 'Bottled in Italy' are phrases that are often meaningless and false -- Italy is one of the world's major importers of olive oil, from Spain, Greece, Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco, and elsewhere.  Some labels list a number of countries where the olives came from, but these are oils to be avoided.  Similarly, another misleading word I've seen on labels is 'frantoio,' the Italian word for olive mill, which at first might seem promising but then I notice the list of countries that provided olives further down the label, and sometimes Italy isn't even one of them. 

As might be expected, there are very few olive oils available in North American supermarkets that are real -- again, the label is revealing: avoid oils with words like "pure," "light," "olive oil," and "pomace" -- these have undergone chemical treatments that strip away olive flavors and many of the oil's health benefits.   Generally I have one olive oil in my house that I use for cooking and another (more expensive) oil I use for salad dressing and drizzling on things.  I follow Mueller's recommendations to the letter, and my favorite source for more expensive oils is Gustiamo (which is my favorite source for a number of other Italian culinary items as well). 

Cost, too, is an indication of what you're buying -- real olive oil is not and never has been a bargain.  Any of my followers who may have read my Collected Traveler Central Italy book (devoted to Tuscany and Umbria, and published in 2000) may recall an article I included called 'Tuscan Olive Oils' by Faith Willinger.  In my introduction to the piece, I noted that Burton Anderson, in his wonderful book Treasures of the Italian Table (William Morrow, 1994), wrote that making extra-virgin olive oil is so labor intensive that "even the most expensive oils are in a sense under-priced."  I also mentioned an olive oil from Il Picciolo, near Siena, that is produced by an American named Ruth McVey.  According to an article in Saveur No. 8, McVey's harvest doesn't produce more than about 800 liters in a good year, too little to export.  But she was quoted in Saveur as saying, "Olive oil for me isn't about making money.  It's about quality, and whether that still matters anymore," a statement that could have been made by a great number of Tuscans who believe, as I do, that quality does indeed still matter. (And by the way, McVey's oil may be purchased on-site)   

I am now off for two weeks to France, where I'll spend some time in the south, one of the world's great olive growing areas, where many people also believe that quality does still matter.  More posts to follow after the 12th of June....

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

OK, I'm abandoning my gifts posts for now because there are just too many other wonderful things to write about (but stay tuned for more of them this December!)

I feel incredibly grateful and happy that I was able to catch the exhibit 'Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis' at The Frick Collection the day before it closed two weekends ago. Grateful because the very next day I developed a vision problem in my right eye which would have prevented me from really seeing the exquisite paintings.  And happy because, well, I was truly so happy when I was there -- I love being at the Frick under any circumstances -- and I was reminded that I have not been doing a very good job of late at living my life, doing the things I really want to do.

When I had reached the final stage of the indoor line, which was on the right side of the entrance way to the exhibit, a man in front of me leaned all the way over and peered into the Oval Room.  He then turned to the woman who was with him and said, "There she is!"  I thought that was such a nice way to refer to 'Girl With a Pearl Earring' for of course "she" has become so personal to many of us since the publication of Tracy Chevalier's book in 1999.  The painting itself has been cleaned by art conservators since it was last in New York almost thirty years ago, and the girl depicted in the work has become "one of the most famous faces in Western art" according to Holland Cotter of The New York Times

But I loved all the other fifteen paintings on loan from the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague as well, especially 'Still Life with Five Apricots' by Adriaen Coorte; 'View of Haarlem With Bleaching Grounds' by Jacob van Ruisdael; 'As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young' by Jan Steen; and 'Goldfinch' by Carel Fabritius (I haven't yet read Donna Tartt's novel of the same yet but I cannot wait to begin it).

The bookstore at the Frick naturally stocks some exceptional volumes on Dutch painting in general and on Vermeer in particular.  Books by noted author Arthur K. Wheelock (who is also Curator of Northern European Art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.), including The Essential Johannes Vermeer (Abrams), are essential for those who want authoritative volumes.  But I am also very enthusiastic about a paperback series by Taschen, which includes an edition on Vermeer: The Complete Paintings by Norbert Schneider (pictured above).  In 91 pages Schneider reveals an awful lot about the town of Delft, Vermeer's life, and his painting career and features a plethora of color and black-and-white reproductions.  I am especially keen on the final chapter, 'The Rediscovery of Vermeer,' in which Schneider tells us that only since the middle of the 19th century has Vermeer's art enjoyed an enthusiastic reception.  The French socialist politician and journalist Théophile Burger-Thoré (1806-1869) is responsible for ushering in a new appreciation of Vermeer's art -- while he was traveling around England, Belgium, Holland, and Switzerland, immersed in Dutch 17th century painting, he believed that these works corresponded with the art of the Barbizon school and Gustave Courbet.  "It is no coincidence that this dawning interest in Vermeer went hand in hand with the rise of Impressionism, whose agenda was the rejection of a dark-toned, academic style of painting in favour of brightly-lit plein-air painting using a full, unmixed palette."  Camille Pissarro, in a letter he wrote to his son Lucien in November of 1882, noted, "How shall I describe these portraits by Rembrandt and Hals, and this view of Delft by Vermeer, these masterpieces which come so close to Impressionism?"          

I stood outside on line for an hour and a half on an exceptionally cold day with snow flurries and rain before I got inside the museum, so I was committed to this show; but I admit I was unprepared for how much I loved this exhibit.  Happily for the Frick and for fans of Dutch painting, over 220,000 people saw the exhibition, and the Frick now has many new members. Though the show has closed, anyone who may have missed it (or just wants to connect with other fans) can easily do so by visiting the Essential Vermeer website. This truly fantastic and thorough site is maintained by just the kind of quirky, passionate person I love, Jonathan Janson, an American painter who lives in Rome.  There is so much here it's hard to believe: a complete Vermeer catalogue, prints and posters, a Dutch glossary, maps, museums, interviews, even free Vermeer and Delft wallpapers.  Janson launched the site in 2001 and he spends about five hours a day keeping it up.  It's truly a labor of love and one of the most outstanding websites I've ever seen, on any subject.  Makes me want to quit this blog.  But I won't: he has inspired me to make it better. 


Friday, January 3, 2014

OK, it's officially 2014 and I got way behind keeping up with these "gift" posts, but as someone said to me a few days ago, early January is still a time of year when people need gifts for all kinds of occasions, so I will continue with a few more ideas.  After all, a good gift idea is a good gift idea, no matter when the idea first comes up, so you can always save the idea for a later time.

One of the few museums in North America that transports visitors to another place is the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, in Boston.  If you have been to the Gardner you already know this, but if you haven't, you are in for a wonderful surprise when you step into the courtyard of the museum as you will really feel, for a short while, like you are in the middle of Venice (Isabella's favorite foreign destination).  The Gardner's exquisite courtyard alone is reason enough for the museum to be a favorite of so many people, but happily Mrs. Gardner's entire collection is stellar (I love practically everything here, but three works in particular are stand-outs for me: 'The Seated Scribe' (Gentile Bellini), 'The Rape of Europa' (Titian), and 'El Jaleo' (John Singer Sargent).

A gift of a Gardner museum membership to someone who lives in the northeast is a great idea (or tickets for a single visit), and if you know someone who will be visiting the Boston area it's also a good idea.  You could pair the membership or visit gift with one or more of the books below as the Gardner is of national and international significance: in the early morning on March 18, 1990, two thieves dressed as police officers entered the museum and in eighty-one minutes made off with thirteen works of art, valued today at over $500 million.  According to Ulrich Boser, author of The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft (HarperCollins, 2009), the theft remains the largest property robbery in American history, and the Gardner staff continues to offer a $5 million reward for any information on the whereabouts of the missing masterpieces (the stolen works include paintings as well as a Chinese bronze beaker and a finial from a pole holding a Napoleonic silk flag).  Boser notes that this is believed to be the biggest bounty ever offered by a private institution -- by comparison, the reward the Lindbergh family offered for any information on the kidnapping of their child is believed to be the second largest reward. At the time Boser's book was published, the Gardner's reward was exceeded only by the federal government's $25 million for Osama bin Laden.

Boser's book reads like a true-crime tale because it is one.  This is no light story.  It involves art detectives, the FBI, the Boston police, con men, art experts, organized crime, international terrorism, and a number of unsavory characters.  Suspects have included the Irish Republican Army, the son of a police officer, Whitey Bulger, an antiques dealer, a Scotland Yard informant, and a New York City auction house employee.  People have been hurt, murdered, and thrown in jail as a result of this theft but no arrests have been made, and there are no reports of the artworks being sold.  An article in The New York Times that appeared on March 18, 2013 -- the twenty-third anniversary of the theft -- reported that federal authorities announced they knew the identities of the thieves and that they belonged to a criminal organization based in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states.  For his book, Boser spoke to many people who reacted to the theft as if it was very personal, and years later they are still deeply affected by it.  He also asks, if a sculpture doesn't stand in a courtyard and a painting only appears as an image in an art history book, does it even matter?  " any serious art lover, the answer is no.  Every work of art is singular, unique, and when a creation goes missing, there is nothing left behind but inadequate facsimiles -- and fading memories.  If a painting is stolen, if it's gone missing, it cannot be replaced.  Lost art is lost forever."    

The Art Forger by B. A. Shapiro (Algonquin, 2012) is a novel inspired by the theft.  It's a clever read that I very much enjoyed, with some good twists and moral questions to ponder.  It's a perfect companion read for anyone interested in the Gardner or about art, and art forgery, in general. 

Old Masters, New World: America's Raid on Europe's Great Pictures by Cynthia Saltzman (Penguin, 2008) traces the history of how a small handful of wealthy Americans created the first art museums in the United States, among them Isabella Stewart Gardner (the other collectors featured are J. P. Morgan, H. O. Havemeyer, Henry Clay Frick, and Henry Marquand).  Saltzman is also the author of The Portrait of Dr. Gachet (Penguin), a book I absolutely could not put down, and she has revealed a fascinating chapter in American history with Old Masters, New World.  She notes in the Introduction that though the United States in the late 19th century was a major world power, the country had meager collections of art.  Painter Mary Cassatt wrote in June 1871 from Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania that "I cannot tell you what I suffer for want of seeing a good picture."  Cassatt had spent five years painting in France  and was eager to return, and novelist Henry James told his mother in 1869 that Americans seem to have "the elements of the modern man with culture quite left out."  Even later, in 1906, when the British critic Roger Fry served as curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he noted the museum had "no Byzantine paintings, no Giotto, no Giottoesque, no Mantegna, no Botticelli, no Leonardo, no Raphael, no Michelangelo."  In 1917, Gardner herself stated that "years ago I decided that the greatest need in our Country was Art...So I determined to make it my life work if I could."  Saltzman refers to the Old Master works that crossed the Atlantic between the 1880s through the First World War as "one of history's great migrations of art," and this migration has come to a near standstill today as "those Old Masters that remain in European private collections are unlikely to leave the countries where they now reside because of export restrictions."

On the occasion of the Gardner's 100th anniversary in 2003, the Beacon Press published The Eye of the Beholder: Masterpieces from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and this is a beautiful and substantive book that is alone a very nice gift (and that's the fabulous 'El Jaleo' on the cover below).         

Until the 20th of January, the Gardner is hosting a special exhibit entitled 'The Inscrutable Eye: Watercolors by John Singer Sargent' (the museum has a particularly large and fine collection of Sargent's works).   Music lovers may also be happy to know that the museum offers a full program, on Sundays, Monday afternoons, and third Thursdays (devoted to jazz).

Empty frames are in the places where the stolen paintings once hung at the Gardner.  At the time Ulrich Boser was working on his book, Gardner security director Anthony Amore told him that "it's those frames that get me.  Because with those frames just hanging up there, you can't say, 'I'm not coming into work today.'  Every time I come in here, I think I have to get back in my office and start chasing those paintings down.  Something clearly belongs in those rectangles."  When Boser asked museum director Anne Hawley if she thought the artworks would ever be returned, she replied that "I live in hope.  I dwell in possibility, as Emily Dickinson says.  I just have to believe that the stolen paintings are still out there."

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