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Entries in museums (15)

Thursday
Sep152011

Anatolian Kilims at the de Young Museum

Kilim, 18th century, Turkey, Anatolia - wool, cotton; slit tapestry weave. The Caroline & H. McCoy Jones Collection.
Image by de Young Museum.

The latest textile exhibit at the de Young Museum – The Art of the Anatolian Kilim – once again provides perspective on the source of a contemporary trend. If the patterns and colors of these kilims look familiar, it is because designers of every variety have been using them for inspiration in the past few years. Like their previous exhibit, To Dye For, which focused on resist dye techniques such as ikats and batiks, the de Young’s new exhibit is pitch-perfect for our time.

Looking around at some of the major home retailers, one can see new and antique kilims for sale, and even textiles inspired by the surface patterns on traditional kilims. There is definitely something relevant to appreciate and learn about this ancient textile art.

Commonly known as a “flat-weave” woolen rug, kilims have traditionally come from Turkey – the modern-day name of Anatolia. This exhibition shows pieces dating between the 15th and 19th centuries, showcasing the textile traditions of tribal life in their motifs, colors, and composition. Woven from the wools of sheep, goats, and camels, these textiles gain their eye-popping palettes from natural dyes derived from locally-harvested sources. Their bold abstract designs are both invigorating and modern, appealing to our current taste for geometrics and zig zags.

Detail of an Anatolian Kilim at the de Young Museum. Image by Poetic & Chic.

These surface designs have a two-fold purpose: they serve as symbolic renderings of architectural, human, animal, and floral motifs dating back to Neolithic times, while they also serve as a way to identify the different tribes of Anatolia. Like the stunning quilts of the Amish Abstractions exhibit of a few years ago, the kilims are produced within a certain set of parameters around pattern and structure. This makes them consistent, while still allowing enough room for individual interpretation and improvisation. Both the technique and design of kilims have been passed down from generation to generation of Anatolian women, resulting in a sort of historical document of the different tribes.

As each tribe wove kilims with signature elements, they put their kilims to work in their community. In a nomadic tent in Anatolia, kilims will serve as the walls, floors, and storage space – covering nearly everything to make the tent comfortable. Stacks of valuables are placed against the walls of a tent and then a large kilim is draped over them for protection and weight.  

Since the kilims served as an expression of identity, they also served as a commodity between the tribes, representing wealth and currency. While the kilims were crafted in a tribal environment, they were often given to mosques in tribute to serve as both floor coverings for prayer and as an asset for the community. Later in the 20th century, mosques sold their collections of kilims in order to fund improvements or other projects. Those on display at the de Young are from the famous McCoy Jones collection, whose kilims were originally gathered in Anatolia during the 1970s and 1980s, until it was finally gifted to the de Young in 1988-89. The collection was originally displayed in 1990.

Curator Jill d'Alessandro explains an Anatolian Kilim - and provides a sense of scale. Image by Poetic & Chic.

Some of the kilims in the McCoy Jones collection are massive. Curator Jill d’Alessandro went so far as to say that their scale prompted de Young architects Herzog & de Meuron to create the textile galleries with a generous height. The 18-foot ceilings are the perfect showcase for the kilims hung vertically; their colorful rhythms are shown to best advantage. In the next gallery (where the ceiling slopes gradually downward to a more intimate size), the kilims are hung horizontally, giving a reference to the Anatolian landscape.

Given the time and effort put into restoring and re-mounting the kilims, this current exhibition will be on display until June 2012. The McCoy Jones collection of Anatolian kilims is the most important group of these textiles outside of Turkey. We are all fortunate to have the de Young present it for a new generation of textile and graphic enthusiasts.

The Art of the Anatolian Kilim: Highlights from the McCoy Jones Collection is now open at the de Young museum. General museum admission ticket prices apply for this exhibition.

Thursday
Jun162011

Picasso, The Steins, and Modern Art in San Francisco

Pablo Picasso, Paul as Harlequin, 1924. Musée National Picasso, Paris

One of the highlights of my Spring reading included Amanda Vaill’s Everybody was So Young, a fantastic biography of Sara & Gerald Murphy. Their presence is at the very core of the Occidental art world after World War I. They supported the artists that created the “Lost Generation” culture not only financially, but also with their loyal friendship. The Hemingways, Dos Passoses, Picassos, Porters, MacLeishes, and Fitzgeralds all met together around the Murphy family. As it usually happens, this book was just the beginning of this year’s fascination with this time period in art, writing, and culture. It seems Woody Allen is also obsessed with this time period, and luckily a few San Francisco art museums are too.

The only glaring flaw I found in Woody Allen’s charming new Midnight in Paris, was that of the omission of the Murphys. How could all of these other wonderful artists and writers come to life without a mention of them? (It is thought that Picasso even may have had an affair with Sara Murphy, having drawn her a number of times on the beach in the south of France. Hemingway was also known to have a crush.) Personal criticism aside, the film provides a lovely glimpse into the Parisian art world of the 1920s and gives lively form to the relationship between Pablo Picasso & Gertrude Stein. If you’re even awake in San Francisco this month, you’ll surely be aware of two major art exhibitions involving these two. Picasso – Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris is now open at the de Young Museum, while The Steins Collect graces the walls at the SFMOMA.

Just as Balenciaga & Spain was heightened by its neighboring “fashion” exhibit, Pulp Fashion – The Art of Isabelle de Borchgrave, we now have an entirely new dialogue between masterpieces, collections, museums, and even between one singular artist. The fact that the two museums showing these exhibits are only a few miles apart makes it all the more wonderful for the city of San Francisco.

Both shows provide a unique perspective on Picasso, but it is when the shows are taken together that the artist becomes even more complete.

The Picasso exhibit at the de Young draws from the Musée National Picasso in Paris. In 1968, France passed a law that allows inheritance tax to be paid in works of art – as long as the art is important to the French national heritage. This law, called dation, was perfectly timed for the death of Picasso in 1973. The bulk of the collection was amassed in 1986, upon the death of Jacqueline Picasso. It was then that Picasso’s heirs – Paolo, Maya, Claude, and Paloma (the jewelry designer) – made a new dation to the French state from their father’s own collection.

Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Dora Maar, 1937. Musée National Picasso, Paris.

Because the collection from the Musée National Picasso is comprised of the artist’s own personal collection, it is vast but also a little overwhelming. As anyone who’s studied Picasso knows, his great works are so momentous that it’s difficult to see anything else in the room. However, when his works are mere attempts or not pushed far enough, they show their battle wounds right at the surface. While some of the great Picassos are among the collection of the Musée National Picasso, the collection shows the artist’s preferences for smaller, quieter, more personal work. Some of the works are even unfinished sketches, or mere gestures made by the artist’s hand. Is this why he kept them? Was there something in a line, a form, a figure, or a sketch that though only hinted at, it was enough for Picasso to want to hold onto it his entire life?

In this regard, I think the exhibit is the perfect classroom for art students and lovers of the creative process. It shows how Picasso worked, how he developed ideas, and how he experimented. It also provides an overall timeline of his career, showing how his work changed while it still remained inherently Picasso.

Two of the best paintings shown are presented in a genius pairing right next to each other. The famous Portrait of Dora Maar is hung with Seated Woman in Front of a Window. The two women appear to be talking to each other, from their respective chairs but each shows an incredible difference in style - remarkable given that both were painted in the same year, 1937. Here are two paintings in which Picasso is fully realized.

Apart from these, I also loved the examples of Picasso’s Analytic Cubism with Sacré-Coeur from 1909-1910, as well as Man with a Guitar and Man with a Mandolin, both from 1911.

Although I understand the exhibition’s curators wanting to focus exclusively on Picasso, the Musée National Picasso’s collection also includes works that the artist collected from colleagues such as Cézanne, Degas, de Chirico, and Matisse, among others. It would have been nice to see some of these pieces included in order to give the collection greater context.

Of course, The Steins Collect at the SFMOMA is the perfect opportunity to gain such a perspective. Showcasing the collections of Gertrude, Leo, Michael & Sarah Stein, and tracing their roots directly to the SFMOMA, The Steins Collect is not only grand, but also moving in its intimacy.

This exhibition not only shows the works the Steins gathered during their years among the Parisian avant-garde, but also their own paintings, drawings, letters, and family snapshots. It is truly mind-boggling how many major works passed through the Stein family over the years. As collectors, they purchased the best of what they could afford, creating a collection of remarkable and daring pieces for their time. This makes the exhibition less of a jumble and more of a tightly focused journey through early modern art. Works include Renoir's Study, Torso Effect of Sunlight from 1876, a minor, but charming Manet entitled Ball Scene from 1873, Matisse's Joy of Life from 1905-06 now at The Barnes Foundation, as well as his remarkable Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra from 1907. Other artists in the collection include Gauguin, Cézanne, Manguin, Weber, Toulouse-Lautrec, Bonnard, Vallotton, and of course, Picasso.

Henri Matisse, Woman with a Hat, 1905. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

The Steins' early support of Henri Matisse and his Woman with a Hat from 1905 (now the darling of the SFMOMA’s permanent collection,) made the Steins the center of modern artistic circles at the time. So many people came to see the scandalous Matisse that they had to hold open houses on Saturday evenings for years to accommodate requests. The Steins' support of Matisse was loyal and steadfast, carrying on for decades. I was particularly charmed by a series of lithographed Matisse nudes from the mid-1920s, shown in a series.

Here too is Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein from 1905-1906 (which features prominently in Midnight in Paris,) as well as some truly remarkable works from his blue and rose periods.  Indeed, Strolling Player and Child from 1905 from Sarah & Michael Stein’s collection is considered to be the transitional work between Picasso’s blue and rose periods. Young Acrobat on a Ball and Boy Leading a Horse, both from 1905 also show this exceptionally beautiful time in Picasso’s oeuvre, and echo back to sketches seen at the de Young exhibition. It is also in The Steins Collect that one sees a series of heads Picasso created after seeing an African mask Matisse brought to the Steins one afternoon. These heads then found their way into the masterpiece Les Demoiselles d’Avignon from 1907, Three Women from 1908 (at the SFMOMA), and Three Figures Beneath a Tree from 1907-1908 on display at the de Young. The Stein collection also includes work from Georges Braque - Picasso's significant counterpart in the development of Cubism.

Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, 1905-06. The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York

The beauty of The Steins Collect is also in the way its curators re-created the Steins' spaces. Lfe-sized images of their apartments show exactly how the family hung their collection, while the associated exhibition room has those very works on the walls. It’s a simple presentation, but it makes perfect, cohesive sense.

Between these two exhibitions San Franciscans currently have a rare treat to experience some exceptional artwork. Indeed, I think that the shows are made even better by their juxtaposition to each other. Taken together, there is an even more intense dialogue created about art, society, family, and the creative process, and from some of the most important figures in the 20th Century’s cultural history.

In other words, do not miss these!

Picasso, Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris is at the de Young museum until October 9, 2011. Tickets are $25 for adults; advanced reservations required.

The Steins Collect is at the SFMOMA until September 6, 2011. Tickets are $25 for adults.

Sunday
Mar202011

My Dream Maze of Balenciaga

Cristobal Balenciaga, 1963 - FAMSF bequest of Jeanne MagninThe de Young's newest fashion exhibition, Balenciaga & Spain, opens this coming Friday, and clearly the anticipation is getting to me. I dreamt about the opening just before fully waking up today - one of those ultra-vivid late-morning dreams. As I've mentioned before, I usually dream in color, and while my dreams may be stylish (kissing Lapo Elkann anyone?), they are definitely a bit odd.

I began in Golden Gate Park, near the de Young, but it wasn't any Golden Gate Park I've ever visited. This one had a river going through it, and small footbridges with souvenir vendors on them. The bridges were so small that barely two people could pass by. This made things difficult because there were lots and lots of people in the park, and trying to buy the souvenirs on the bridge. I'm not sure what I was doing in the park, but it was a nice day. Maybe I was just on a walk? I think so, because I was in my sneakers, baggy jeans and a big puffy parka.

As I made my way over one footbridge, which was actually more like a dirt path, I passed Anna Wintour who seemed to be waiting paitiently in a pale embroidered coat (with de rigeur dark glasses & bob) among a group private school boys in uniform. I thought, "hunh, why is Anna Wintour here?" I also passed some of the "mean girls" from my school days, one of whom said: "Fashion bloggers in San Francisco? There's like...none!" To which I replied, "Thanks a lot." To which she replied, "Yeah, nice outfit." To which I replied, "Yeah, you've always been a bitch," thinking this final remark made me triumphant.

Salon of Balenciaga Paris - Mark Shaw, 1954

Arriving at the museum (finally), I realized I was terribly late. Late? I had forgotten that this was the opening day of the exhibit. It was like those awful dreams of high school when you can't get to your class or find your books, only to finally get there and learn you have to take a test. Pure purgatory. Realizing my tremendous and embarrassing faux pas, I could hear Hamish Bowles giving his introduction from the next room. As I tried to maneuver closer, I found myself face-to-face with an impervious socialite wearing an opulently-beaded emerald green gown that had a towering headdress and veil. It was sort of like the creepy mirror-faced figure from Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon, except in gorgeous green and not so frightening. That is to say, at least she had a face, not a mirror.

Panicked, and realizing I was totally underdressed, (no wonder Emerald Green and the mean girls didn't like me) I felt completely defeated. What would the other members of the press think? More importantly, what would Hamish Bowles think? The lights were on, people were milling around and giving ooohs and aaahs over the historic fashion, and I was completely out of place. What was I, a fashion imposter, doing there? This terrifying thought was enough of a kick to wake me up and get me out of my labyrinth, thankfully.

Clearly I have issues. A fashion inferiority complex is just one of them.

Friday
Jan212011

Hamish Bowles talks Balenciaga & Spain

Opening on March 26th, Mr. Hamish Bowles' new exhibition Balenciaga and Spain brings over 100 pieces of priceless haute couture to the de Young museum. Expanding the retrospective from its showing at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute in New York (that exhibit offered only 50 pieces), the exhibition will highlight the master couturier's work through traditional Spanish themes.

As Mr. Bowles' was in town this week to prepare for the exhibition, I was lucky enough to sit down with him and learn more about the inscrutible designer and Mr. Bowles himself.

Balenciaga, Bolero jacket of burgundy silk velvet and jet passementerie embroidery by Bataille, winter 1946.
Collection of Hamish Bowles, photograph by Kerry Komer.

P&C: Allow me to begin by reading you this quote from Francine du Plessix Gray's novel October Blood, which is overall an enteraining satire on Carmel Snow...

"In the center of the living room there sometimes sat Cristobal Balenciaga, Mother’s best friend in Paris, dolorously sipping chamomile tea. Infrequently exposed to clothes other than his own, he mostly came to curse at the vulgarity of the costumes being paraded in Mother’s suite. He was a thin, depressed, nomadic Spaniard with perennial dark glasses and some twelve houses spread over the map of Europe, all of which he hated. He would spend a few days at his hacienda in Seville and leave it, complaining of the noise, go to his chalet in Switzerland to cure his sinuses and sell it the following morning, complaining of the insects. His only passion besides his work was looking for antiques, and he could spend a month piling up Renaissance tables and Persian rugs to furnish a flat in Barcelona which he’d leave after a night because he disliked the Gaudi building across the street. He traveled everywhere with a long-haired dachshund called Zurbarán and carried in his pocket several immaculate linen handkerchiefs with which he wiped the dog’s bottom after each sidewalk performance. When he and my mother greeted each other every summer he would scrutinize her dress with a tragic air, hands on her shoulders, to be sure that she was wearing one of his originals, and then tug at different parts of her collar, sleeves, waistline to show that she was not wearing it properly.”

Is this an accurate description?

Hamish Bowles: (Laughs) Bettina Ballard does describe him as obsessed with antiqueing, piling up antique rugs... yes, that he was constantly working on apartments in Madrid, and then not being able to sleep there because of the noise… It is very true to say that he could not understand the clothes produced by his contemporaries. By extension, couldn’t understand why his friends & clients would choose to wear them.

There is a story in Bettina Ballard['s autobiography In My Fashion] – about an occasion where Balenciaga was accompanying Ballard to an event and she asked him to do up the back of her Dior dress, which had 30 buttons up the back… He kept muttering "Christian est complétement fou!"- "he's completely mad!" So, there are some very funny resonances. But he (Balenciaga) disdained from involving himself in the public side of the house, focusing on the technical, behind the scenes work & producing the clothes themselves… For special friends he would be involved in the fittings.

In fact, it was sort of a nightmare! He shared with Chanel this obsession with the way a sleeve was set. He would sort of torment his tailors – they would have to take sleeves in and out time & time again. Bettina Ballard has a funny story about this suit that she was having made, [it] was so battered & bruised by his constant thing, that she ended up wearing the perfectly made, line for line copy that was made by Ben Zuckerman – one of the very high end 7th Avenue copyists – she wore HIS suit, and Balenciaga never noticed.... He was a fastidious technician.

Cristobal Balenciaga circa 1952, copyright Bettmann/CORBIS images

From your description in the intro, it was more about how reclusive he was; I find that’s so common when you read about Yves Saint Laurent, or Chanel, - these people were sort of crotchety, and known for being in their own bubble of a world. Is that a factor for being a design genius in a way?

I don’t think so. I think a lot of Balenciaga’s contemporaries were extremely… they flourished in social situations. Jacques Fath gave endless parties, Dior even. I certainly think that Chanel in her day was extraordinarily social, and sort of a lynch-pin of a certain kind of artistic society in Paris in the old days. (I mean she did become sort of a crotchety old woman late in life,)… Saint Laurent had his own demons to contend with.

Balenciaga was naturally quite shy. He had an intimate circle of friends, mostly people he was involved with through his work. He just didn’t have time for a mundane life really, or the inclination for it. His great partner in life – D’Attainville, died in 1948, and Balenciaga became sort of increasingly retiring after that.  But I think his focus was just on his work, perfecting & honing his craft.

I loved what you said about how he would use his client’s physical quirks to develop a specific design detail…shortening the sleeves, doing a special collar. Today, when you see designers work on Project Runway for instance, they’re stumped when faced with a "real" body type. Do you think that that is something that can be learned, or did Balenciaga have a natural talent for it? Can you practice at that and learn how to design for your clients in a more specific way, using not the standard stick-figure model?

I think that Balenciaga’s whole apprenticeship and training was as a tailor and then as a dressmaker. In that capacity, his entire working life would have been one-on-one interactions with clients. Day-in, day-out he would be making clothes to fix specific body types, and you know for clients that would each have strong opinions about what their physical assets (and debits) were, and they would conspire together to enhance or minimize those as the case might be. That was his whole training.

When he opened his own couture house in Spain, he would go to Paris to buy the sample garments of the designers whom he admired, and he would bring those back to his couture establishments in San Sebastian and Barcelona and Madrid, and he would adapt those to the needs & demands of his clients. So I think that he’s constantly aware of different body types, and I think that in his collections he was careful to put in things that would suit, that would be adaptable to clients with different needs and looks and body types.

It’s a different world today. He was making – he was doing couture. Each garment that he made was made specifically for a client. So, it’s like made-to-measure.  In ready to wear, it’s not so easy to do that. And I think also body types have changed in a way, but it’s just a different craft; it’s bespoke and ready-to-wear and they’re just worlds apart.

Balenciaga, house photograph of evening ensemble.
Dress of black silk crepe with "chou" wrap of black silk gazar. Winter, 1967. Balenciaga archives.

What do you think about the end of couture? Do you think it will ever disappear? There’s a lot of fear about that today, I know that Chanel has been buying up a lot of the different craft houses like Lesage and opening the schools…Do you think that there will always be a couture market?

I think there will always be clients that want very special pieces and can afford to acquire them. I think that couture, like everything, will mutate. I think there are a lot of younger designers who wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves to be couturiers per se, who’re certainly using couture techniques and maybe a couture approach in their work. And, I certainly think that, now more than ever there’s a real interest in embroidery and embellishment and the possibilities of pleating and all those kinds of techniques that are very very couture-based. I think there are lots of young people who are very keen to learn those crafts. It’s very striking to me, going into couture workrooms now, and going to Lesage and those great couture suppliers and seeing how many young people there are there that really want to learn those crafts, and that might not have been the case a decade or two ago. So that kind of gives one hope for the future.

And I think just the general kind of global engagement and fascination with fashion now that’s come thru the kind of television programs you’ve spoken to – and just the instantaneous dissemination of information through the internet I think has really widened the world of fashion and I think made people more intrigued by all kinds of different areas of fashion. I certainly think haute couture and special pieces are very much a part of that.

Balenciaga. Detail of cocktail dress of fuchsia silk shantung, black lace and black silk ribbons. Summer, 1966.
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Eleanor Christiansen de Guigne Collection. Photograph by Joe McDonald/FAMSF

Even with the expense of those kind of details? I remember in the Valentino documentary where he was going through his archive and he found this beautiful piece that had been done by Lesage and he said “You’d have to sell the bank of Italy to make that now”! The expense of it is getting astronomical, it seems.

Yes, it is. But there will always be women who just want that special thing and can afford to pay for it. You know, it’s like a custom sports car, or a rich-person’s toy…or art. So, I think there’s always a place for it, yes.

It is of course a very costly thing to do. Despite the cost of these garments, it’s a major loss-leader for any house. I think there are new ways of doing embroidery. I think there are incredible embroideries coming out of India that will change some of the pricing levels of that particular craft. And China, and so on. There are all kinds of approaches. And the wonderful thing about fashion is that it constantly mutates and reinvents itself – that’s the point of it. I think an approach to couture is something that will change like that too.

With that in mind, I was thinking about what you said about how long the shows were for Balenciaga. There were 200 models and they would take about 2 hours. Whereas today, there’s a maximum (usually in ready-to-wear only) but a maximum of 35 – 40 looks, they’re on and off the runway in 15 or 20 minutes, and then the line gets edited further before it ever goes to market. So, what do you think about that? Is there room for these designers to create and develop given the constraints of the season?

You have to think that in a Balenciaga show like that he’s basically showing his collection, his pre-collection, he’s showing everything that would be today in a designer’s showroom. It would be the options for the buyers that exist in the showroom off the runway, but he’s just showing the entire collection.

It’s so funny watching the videos of some of those shows, which luckily exist from the 1960s – I think 1960 – 1968, because clients get up in the middle of a show. You know, they have a hair appointment or a lunch at the Plaza D’Athénée, they leave and then sometimes come back…you know, for evening dresses or something. Or they’re just there because they need a coat or something, so they don’t need to stay for the cocktail dresses. It’s really funny – they sort of come & go. But you know there was no music. It was very austere, certainly couldn’t take photographs, you couldn’t sketch. You could just write down the number of the dress the mannequin was holding in her hand.

Gruau for Balenciaga, 1949.

I was thinking about the sketching and fashion illustration…I’m a big fan of Gruau, and he did a lot of wonderful images of Balenciaga; I feel like fashion illustration is something you don’t really see any more. It’s still taught, and it’s something that people dabble in, but it’s not really the art form used the way it was 50 years ago - as a commercial art form. Everything is photography-based now. So do you think that could ever come back – the fashion illustration?

Ah…I think it’s unlikely myself. I think great fashion illustrators will emerge and hopefully their work will be showcased in an appropriate way. I think that in the 20s & 30s often a detailed line drawing was a much more exact and precise way of describing an outfit than a photograph that might have had indeterminate reproduction in a magazine. So, informationally it had a different weight. We just live in a different world. I love illustration, fashion illustration myself – I’m very excited to see it.

I come out of the luxury fashion world, and I wondered what you think of this new world of the corporate fashion of LVMH and PPR group, and would a brand like Balenciaga have survived that?

Well, Balenciaga always resisted any kind of licensing agreement. Where Dior, Balmain, Jacques Fath all had licensees in America doing sort of high-end American ready-to-wear lines, he refused ever to do that. He refused any kind of endorsement. But still, his business was run along remarkably sound lines, so he just didn’t feel the need to do it. So I can’t imagine that he would want to be involved in the kind of corporate structures that now exisit, but he certainly had a very keen business sense and his business was very very well run and very profitable.

He had a hard-scrabble background, he was very pragmatic in the way he set up his companies. You know, clearly careful and scrupulous with money, to where it managed the way his businesses were run. He had business partners early on. The histories of those relationships are not that well documented…

Luchino Visconti's "The Leopard", 1963

I was recently watching The Pink Panther, and I found out that Yves Saint Laurent did the costumes for the principal characters.

Only for Claudia Cardinale. I think Givenchy did Capucine, and Saint Laurent did Claudia Cardinale...

I was wondering if Balenciaga he had ever received movie offers? Because you’d think he would be ripe for partnering with Luis Bunuel, or …

He did the costumes for Arletty in a 40s movie called Boléro, and...a couple of his actress-clients wore his clothes in their movies rather than him actually costuming them. It just wasn’t something it seems to have interested him. It was something Dior and Balmain did, Jacques Fath did, Chanel did. I think he just wasn’t interested, really.

So, what film do you go back to over & over for inspiration that you find interesting each time?

The Leopard – I love The Leopard. As sort of fashion movies, I really like The Red Shoes – it has great costuming. L’Année Dernière à Marienbad… I could always watch The Women...

Do you have more film projects yourself coming up? I know you were in Marie Antoinette, and Gossip Girl most recently…

And Wall Street 2… I don’t have any plans, but it’s always fun to be asked.

Do you ever think about writing or directing?

That would be intriguing, yes. Both of those options would be intriguing, yes.

And what about Oscars? Do you watch them, at home, or do you go?

I certainly watched the Golden Globes, I was much engaged. I’ve never been no, but I enjoy watching them.

What about the Royal Wedding coming up in April? Any thoughts on Kate Middleton? Are you a fan…?

I think she’s played it all very well, indeed. She’s stayed inscrutable which is a great challenge this day and age.

Do you think she’ll go with the Emmanuel’s?

No. I can’t imagine she would want to associate herself that closely with her late future mother in law. You know, it will be interesting to see. I think she’s made very sensible choices so far. So it will be intriguing. I wait with breath baited.

As we close, what do you recommend for any kind of a young designer, or even a writer, who writes about fashion & culture and things like that…What’s a good way to develop your visual sense, or your aesthetic sense? What’s a good way to gain exposure?

I think it’s just sort of saturating yourself in what’s going on in contemporary culture and going to museums and art galleries, and going to the theatre if you can, and certainly going to the cinema. I think it’s just being open to all kinds of cultural influences and zeitgeist – that’s how the zeitgeist is created. So, just being sensitive to that.

Balenciaga. Suit of mustard yellow linen; Summer, 1950. Collection of Hamish Bowles.
Photograph by Joe McDonald/FAMSF

And what was your first exposure to Balenciaga?

My first exposure, well, I was aware of him, and then the first piece I bought for my collection I was about 11 or 12 I think, was an early 60s Balenciaga suit at a charity sale. And, at the same sale there was a bolero – it was for a ballet company. A bolero had been donated by Margot Fonteyn, the great prima ballerina, and it was auctioned and sold for 60 pounds which was far more; it was 120 weeks worth of pocket money – so I couldn’t afford that.

But, incredibly enough, about 5 or 6 years ago I went to a vintage store in Los Angeles and found the same – I found the jacket there, and it’s going to be in the exhibition. It’s a wonderful matador-inspired bolero and a detail of the embroidery is the dust-jacket for the catalog. So you’re going to see it in all its glory!

Balenciaga and Spain opens at the de Young museum on March 26th.

Monday
Oct252010

Post-Impressionism at the de Young

Starry Night Over the Rhone, 1888 by Vincent Van Gogh

How often do you get to visit a famous Parisian art museum in under one year? Quite a few times, if you're in San Francisco, that is. Once again the incomparable Musée d'Orsay has shared its contents with the de Young Museum in a follow-up exhibition to its Birth of Impressionism show from earlier this year. The new show, lengthily entitled Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Beyond: Post Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée d'Orsay, presents an even stronger collection than the original show.

Impressionism, while beautiful, tends to have such a mass-market appeal that its imagery is now ubiquitous. Conversely, Post-Impressionism's cerebral philosophies and stylistic experimentation make its artworks more difficult to digest as popular art. For those of us that love this more intellectual type of work, Post-Impressionism is akin to luxury goods: rich, beautifully crafted, intelligently produced, and layered in complexity. True, you can simply look at certain pieces at face value and appreciate their overt beauty, but the essence of Post-Impressionism is what's going on beneath the surface.

Still Life with Onions, 1896-1898 by Paul Cézanne

Oftentimes what's going on beneath the surface (alcoholism, drug addiction, health concerns, bad marriages, family disputes, poverty...) are intensely traumatic, but as is usually the case these things drive people to create great art. That's why this period is particularly fascinating to art aficionados. This is the period when art gets really "out there". Artists collaborate with each other, learn, play, and philosophize on new ways of seeing. The results may be a touch disturbing, but just by looking at these paintings you can feel the culture moving forward.

A large selection of notable Van Gogh paintings are a part of this show, including the famous Bedroom at Arles from 1889. Although most viewers would simply look at this somewhat sweet depiction of the artist's room and take it in, I'm always saddened by the image. It's incredibly lonely. The angles of the walls and odd perspective of the furniture make the room look as though it's shrinking; you can feel Van Gogh's own feelings of entrapment, this in a room that is meant to bring him comfort.

Indeed, all of the Van Gogh paintings are worth their own trip to this exposition. The images are quite famous, but there is nothing like seeing a Van Gogh in real life. The brush strokes are so strong and pronounced, and there is just no way to describe the intensity of the colors. In a simple bit of curatorial genius, the walls in the Van Gogh room are painted "Benjamin Moore Old Navy Blue" (this, according to Jill Lynch of the FAMSF) which make the paintings appear to leap from the walls. A true gem in the exhibition, Starry Night Over the Rhone from 1888 is truly astounding to see on this background. Later on in the exhibition, the backgrounds turn to a rich carmel brown color, setting off the work of the Nabis paintings with a similar vibrancy.

Sunlight on the Terrace, 1890 by Maurice Denis

The show presents all of Post-Impressionism, but takes care to break out a number of different subgenres, which really helps to explain the stylistic developments that happen as the movement progresses over time. Post-Impressionism involves interesting spatial changes due to the influence of Japanese prints, while the content itself seems to move away from quotidien life (common in Impressionism) to the artists' own fantasies. Experimentation and abstraction propel groups such as the Symbolists and Nabis, with the Nabis seeking to develop a purely decorative art with their murals and large panel paintings.

It is with these new developments that we later reach Art Nouveau, Cubism, Expressionism, and the many other major movements of the early 20th Century.

While this show will only be in San Francisco until mid-January, this is an exhibition to be treasured. It's pieces are both monumental and mysterious, providing a taste of some familiar images while prompting new explorations in lesser-known areas. As I've mentioned before, seeing art like this is like visiting with old friends - it never gets old. The fact that this show in particular is so clear, concise, and yet expansive makes the visiting even better.

Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne, and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée D'Orsay is at the de Young Museum through January 18th, 2011. Advance tickets are required.

Monday
Sep202010

To Dye For Exhibit at the de Young

Woman's chapan robe, c. 1860-1870, Uzbekistan, Bukhara silk

It’s everywhere in the design world these days: Ikat fabrics of every color, pattern, and variety. As true ikats and the look of ikat patterns have entered the market we’ve seen them on pillows, upholsteries, carpets, coats, pants, dresses, and even shoes. As trends go, the synergies between home and fashion are among the strongest, with both industries sharing stylistic cross-over in texture, design details, and fabrications. But what are the roots of the trend? Where does it come from?

In an effort to trace the roots of this current trend and give it some context, the de Young museum is showing an exhibit entitled To Dye For: A World Saturated in Color. Uniting all different types of resist-dye techniques: Mordant-Resist, Batik, Stitch-Resist, Ikat, Shibori, and Tie-Dye, the show draws from local collections and the de Young’s own archives to dig deeper into the artistry and heritage of these textiles.

Oscar de la Renta, Trench Coat, 2005, silk

Textile curator Jill D’Alessandro sourced pieces from around the globe to highlight how cultures everywhere have used similar techniques for centuries, but with varying results. D’Alessandro admits that this exhibition is her particular area of expertise; during a course of study in Indonesia years ago, she fell in love with traditional resist techniques. This show shares her keen understanding of the different textiles, and clearly illustrates their significance in today’s design world. Pulling the focus back to the present day, fashion pieces from Rodarte and Oscar de la Renta are also included in the exhibit, showing how the traditional dye processes still hold a place in our modern style culture. In the case of the de la Renta coat from 2005, it’s shown next to an Uzbek chapan from the late 19th Century; the similarities between the two are striking. Other pieces in the exhibit date from the 15th Century, up through 2010, providing a rich background for print patterns we may now take for granted.

For anyone who loves fashion, home design, and wants to learn more about an important trend, (one that’s been in fashion for centuries,) then the To Dye For exhibit is for you!

Monday
Jul122010

The Birth of Impressionism at the de Young

Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1, Portrait of the Artist's Mother 1871, James Abbott McNeill Whistler

As we approach Bastille Day in the middle of this week, it's only appropriate to talk about the French invasion currently in effect over in Golden Gate Park at the de Young. The museum's latest blockbuster show entitled The Birth of Impressionism is here in San Francisco by special partnership with Paris' Musée d'Orsay, whose collection of Pre-Impressionist and Impressionist works make up the exhibition.

As someone who spent many hours and weeks studying this very era of art history during college, I am always a fan of any show that will bring me closer to such great works of art. The fact that it's in my own city makes it even more extraordinary! One of the defining memories of my young life consists of visiting the old de Young back in 1986 when the monumental Impressionist show, The New Painting, visited San Francisco. That year for my birthday I received the huge exhibition monograph from my parents, and it's been in my collection of art books ever since. In college, I studied art and art history, and when I spent a year at the Sorbonne, I especially loved visiting the Impressionist floor at the d'Orsay.

The Floor Scrapers, 1875. Gustave Caillebotte

This new show at the de Young offers an interesting perspective by showing the type of formal, classical works preferred by France's official Salon during the advent of Impressionism. These works drew their influence from Spanish artists (and feature a dominance of the color black); classical and mythological motifs; and set a standard for realistic techniques. An amazing array of these Pre-Impressionist pieces make up the first half of the show. Then, we cross over into the world of Impressionism, whose light palette, loose brushwork, and quotidien motifs are a breath of fresh air compared to the somber tone of the first group. In this way, the show effectively illustrates the significance of Impressionism in art history: it was so unlike anything that came before that people needed to re-learn how to see art anew.

Once one enters the second half of the show with the Impressionist works, one sees some very famous paintings: The Dancing Lesson by Degas, The Swing by Renoir, The Floor Scrapers by Caillebotte, The Cradle by Cassatt, and many many works by the great Impressionist, Monet. Seeing these works is like visiting old friends; their imagery is now so familiar to our modern age, yet seeing them in person is still profoundly moving. This alone is reason enough to visit this exhibition. For children especially, this show will certainly make an indelible memory. Having such significant works in the show is indeed a coup for the de Young, and the curators should be congratulated on gathering these important pieces.

Turkeys, 1877. Claude Monet

Yet, for all of the wonder this exhbition offers, a few curatorial points give me pause. Most art historians agree that the actual "birth" of Impressionism resides with a handful of very specific works of art. The series of paintings made at La Grenoullière by Monet and Renoir, as well as the groundbreaking Manet painting known as Luncheon on the Grass; these are clearly delineated as the beginnings of the movement. None of these works are represented here, which was a singular disappointment to me. Because of this, I also find the title of The Birth of Impressionism a trifle misleading. The exhibition shows what Salon painting was like before these works came about, and what art became afterward. Yet, the actual moment of "birth" is not shown, nor indeed even mentioned. (To be fair, Luncheon on the Grass and Olympia, both by Manet are mentioned in Stéphane Guégan's essay in the exhbition monograph, but they are not a part of the actual show. Also, the famous La Grenouillère paintings by Monet and Renoir are located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Nationalmuseum Stockholm, respectively.) I can understand that Luncheon on the Grass may be too important a work to be allowed to travel, however I found this to be a glaring omission given the specific scope of the show. Even a simple mention of these works would have been sufficient to make a smooth transition from Pre-Impressionism to high Impressionism.

Despite this point, (which may be more of a personal sticking point than a truly important one,) The Birth of Impressionism should not be missed. These pieces are not likely to travel outside of France again any time soon, so everyone should take advantage of their visit to the de Young. This exhibition will be here until September 2, 2010, when it will be immediately replaced with an exhibition of Post-Impressionist pieces, also from the Musée d'Orsay. So, to enjoy the full scope of these momentous shows, you must plan your visit now!

For some extra fun, the de Young has planned some special events around the exhibition. This Wednesday night, ArtPoint is hosting French Kiss: ArtPoint's Bastille Day Celebration, with exhibition viewing, absinthe cocktails, and dancing with Bardot a Go Go. Also, on Thursday nights for the duration of the show, the museum offers extended viewing hours until 8:45 PM. Impressionism at Twilight also features reduced admission prices and a special French prix fixe menu in the museum cafe.

Any way you plan it, The Birth of impressionism will surely stay with you long after your time at the musem!

Wednesday
Apr212010

Bouquets to Art 2010

My mother's amazing floral design at Bouquets to Art, 2010.

The annual exhibition of Bouquets to Art is back again at the de Young museum this week and it is not to be missed! This show is always fascinating - the whole museum is filled with fragrant flowers and incredible living interpretations of the many works of art within. This year I'm especially proud because my Mom, Mary Ellen Wilson, has a floral design in the show, and it's really something to see! I've been hearing about this for weeks, as you can imagine, so it's fantastic to see the final result looking so spectacular.

The process of Bouquets to Art begins months in advance when the designated floral designers are allowed to choose five works of art from the de Young's permanent collection. Of these five, each designer is guaranteed to be assigned one as the inspiration for their arrangement. My Mom was assigned Henry Benbridge's Portrait of Mrs. Robert Shewell, Jr. from 1790 - a beautiful portrait full of silvery grays and deep burgundies. In one of those puzzling things of this era, Mrs. Robert Shewell was known as both Mary and Sarah - something that was very confusing in researching her. She was about my own age when the portrait was painted and for some reason shows a great deal of spleen in the image. I love the work, but she does look pinched.

But how do you turn a portrait into a flower arrangement? The designers of Bouquets to Art are allowed to use different props, textiles, and accoutrements in their designs, however there is a long list of forbidden items too. Wicker baskets, dried flowers, and many other things are outlawed because of their propensity for bugs or decomposition - things that are extremely important to consider when working among priceless works of art.

When I the beginning of my Mom's arrangement around Easter it was still in pieces. She had her ideas, but it was difficult to tell where it was all headed. There was a great base but not a lot of plants, and then there was this weird barrel ring that was supposed to go with it. To be honest, I didn't get it. And, knowing that she's very modest about her creative process, I didn't want to press it. I was confident that in the end she knew what she was doing and the result would work.

When I finally saw the finished piece on Monday night at the opening gala event, I was amazed! The choice of succulents and mosses perfectly compliments the silvery-grays and burgundies of the painting, while the barrel ring captures the round format of the painting. It looks rich and luxurious but still modern. My Mom's description card sums it all up:

MATERIALS USED:

Heuchera - stormy seas, Stachy byzantine - silver carpet/lams ear, Echeveria, Gaura linheimeri - pink fountain, Arabicum - Star of Bethlehem, Origanum - arapacus dictumus - flowering oregano

THE MESSAGE:

Is Sarah Boyer Shewell cold? Are her eyes sneering? Is she refusing to smile? Is she mocking or sweet? She is 34 in the portrait and has been married for 17 years.

RELATIONSHIP OF THE BOUQUET TO THE ART:

The Arrangement: The sheet metal base is for her powdered hair and her cool look. The barrel hoop is again her hair or the circle she is within. The heucheria is almost the color of her gown - darker however. The echeveria is cool and beautiful - stiff. The flowering oregano is a hint of something soft - her shawl or something within? The Star of Bethlehem is for her pure white skin. The mosses are used for age - her portrait is 220 years old.

People at the party kept coming up to it and snapping pictures, talking about her fantastic arrangement, which of course made me puff up with pride. Yay Mom!

Of course there are hundreds of amazing floral designs in the museum for Bouquets to Art. My favorites were in front of Wayne Thiebaud's Three Machines, 1963 and Robert Henri's O in Black with Scarf, 1910.

Bouquets to Art runs for just one week so you must get there as soon as possible! The floral designs will be on display through Saturday and that's it! Tickets are $20 for adults, giving full access to the museum. Get ready to be enchanted and amazed by the floral delights!

Saturday
Mar062010

Cartier and America at the Legion of Honor

Elizabeth Taylor wearing her ruby & diamond suite from Mike Todd in 1958; photograph by Mike ToddTomorrow, the much anticipated, format-changing, dual-host Oscar show will be finally coming to ABC. Like everyone, I enjoy the red carpet show the most and generally find the actual awards marathon to be a complete snore. Just bring on the clothes!

Always an essential element to every red carpet look is the jewelry. Neil Lane, Fred Leighton, Bulgari – the big names definitely come out to bedeck Hollywood’s brightest stars with bling to beat the band. I always feel a little cheated having to watch this opulence from long distance; not just because I’m hundreds of miles away, but also because those TV cameras just don’t zoom in close enough on the good stuff. So, before settling in with your remote and a glass of bubbly on Sunday night, why not start your day with a closer look at the real thing?

Oscar day is the perfect occasion to pay a visit to the Cartier and America exhibit at the Legion of Honor museum. Not only because it will prepare your eye for the red carpet event in the evening, but also because you will see some incredible pieces of jewelry that have their own place in Hollywood history. Here's the plan: sleep late, brunch, Cartier and America, home for the Oscars. Perfect Sunday, right? Read on...

Rock crystal & diamond bracelets by Cartier, 1930. Owned by Gloria Swanson.

Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard" wearing the bracelets above.First, and probably my most favorite, are the rock crystal and diamond articulated bracelets worn by Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. This pair is big, bold, simple, and certainly could be worn today with ease. There’s also Grace Kelly’s 10 carat engagement ring (worn famously in High Society) and also Dame Elizabeth Taylor’s own ruby and diamond suite given to her by her second husband, Mike Todd, in 1957. There are also two extravagantly engineered pieces made for famous Mexican film star Maria Felix: an articulated diamond and enamel snake necklace, and a pair of glittering crocodiles that can be worn alone as a pair of bracelets or together as a dramatic necklace.

The exhibit is full of famous pieces from the glamorous worlds of society and art alike. I found the background descriptions and history to be just as enticing as the pieces themselves – like a juicy issue of Vanity Fair with jewelry on the side. Treasures that once belonged to the Duchess of Windsor, Daisy Fellowes, Doris Duke, Barbara Hutton, and Linda Lee Thomas (Mrs. Cole Porter) dot the exhibit, hinting at the colorful, glittering lives of those who once wore them. 

Crocodile Necklace (also separates into 2 braclets) by Cartier, 1975. Owned by Maria Felix.The house of Cartier is well known for its crisp art deco motifs and the signature leopard designs, but this exhibit also showcases the other lesser-known hallmarks of the brand. It is in this show that one can see the design and engineering that goes into each piece of Cartier, from the comfort of articulated joinery to the clever ingenuity of converting a pendant to a brooch to a bracelet. This type of masterful creativity and design are what make a true luxury brand great. Another house signature is shown in the choice of the gemstones; Cartier was always careful to choose specific color shades in each gem so that there is a certain “Cartier” coral and a “Cartier” sapphire, etc. This remarkable point of consistency and quality spans the many decades of design on display in the exhibit, reinforcing the enduring craftsmanship of the brand.

Cartier and America is an exhibit that shows how flawlessly art and design can combine in one; in beautiful, functional, wearable pieces of luxury. The glamour of Hollywood and the jet-set of yesteryear are just an added bonus that will certainly set the proper tone for your intense session of Oscar-viewing.

Cartier and America at the Legion of Honor Museum

Lincoln Park (34th Avenue & Clement St.)
Tuesday – Sunday 9:30AM – 5:15PM
$10 adults; $7 seniors, $6 youths 13 – 17; members and children under 12 are free
$10 surcharge for Cartier and America

Wednesday
Feb112009

Artistic Luxury - Fabergé, Tiffany, Lalique

Imperial Lilies of the Valley Basket by Faberge, 1896, yellow & green gold, silver, nephrite, pearl, and rose-cut diamonds It is always such an immense privilege to attend the press previews offered by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. These events are everything a museum visit should be: elegant, slightly formal, full of beauty and knowledge. This weekend, the Legion of Honor Museum launched its latest show entitled “Artistic Luxury – Fabergé, Tiffany, Lalique” and last Thursday’s press preview was probably the best I’ve ever attended. No, it did not have the glamour of the Yves Saint Laurent show, nor the papparazzi of the Annie Liebovitz retrospective, but it certainly had elegance, formality, beauty, and knowledge.

The three guides of our press tour included Stephen Harrison, curator of the show from the Cleveland Museum of Art, Emmanuel Ducamp – an expert on Russian and French decorative art, and FAMSF’s own Martin Chapman. These three guided us on an exceptional tour of this new exhibition, easily bantering and trading points of knowledge between each other so that everyone could benefit from their passion.

You would have to be a cold-hearted Philistine to not appreciate this kind of understanding of the collection. To be sure, the show does place the exceptional craftsmanship and luxury of the early 20th Century right next to its own philistinism, but this dialogue is what makes the show so relevant for today’s world. The brand slaves of the new millennium would be at a loss if it weren’t for the self-conscious extravagance created by these early luxury brands at the height of their popularity.

The entire show at the Legion is a play on just this sort of irony: wealth and philistinism, art and use, dark and light, wit and wisdom, Europe and America, delicacy and power, natural and modern… The most significant dichotomy however, concerns the play between craftsmanship and technology. While the years celebrated are typically known as the Art Nouveau era, the naturalism of this aesthetic in the applied arts would not be possible without the many new technologies developed at this time. Yes, Art Nouveau was a hand-crafted reaction against the machine age, but it was because of the backbone of modern advancements that artisans could create more extraordinary and beautiful luxury items.

Eiffel Tower and Exposition of 1900 from the TrocaderoIndeed, the heart of this show lies at the very starting point of modern luxury, art, and technology: L’Exposition Universelle de Paris 1900, placing the three designers - Fabergé, Tiffany, and Lalique - against the backdrop of the Paris exposition. The Exposition of 1900 should not be underestimated in its historical significance. Here was a point in time when technology, creativity, and wealth were united in their appetites for the new, the exciting, the beautiful, the most extraordinary. Europe, and France in particular, had been through a difficult thirty years, beginning around 1870 with the Franco-Prussian War, while the United States was just beginning to realize its own wealth and position after the Panic of 1873 and the subsequent changes to taxation. Wealthy Americans did not pay income tax at this time, so it was their time to begin acquiring the accoutrements of European royalty such as portraits, property, jewelry, and art.

Necklace by Tiffany & Co., 1885- 1895, diamonds, pink tourmaline, yellow gold and platinum.Just as luxury brands today develop huge flagship stores that serve as loss-leaders or just good public relations for the brand overall, the artists showing at the Paris Exposition were equally savvy. While the average visitor to the exposition (and there were 50 million visitors to the fair in just eight months,) could certainly not partake of the wares of Tiffany, Fabergé, and Lalique, these companies knew that rich Americans would be visiting as well, and this was the demographic they were targeting. Because of this, many of the pieces are the Legion show are understandably audacious; incredible feats of artistic craftsmanship with little to no practical use, but they are still wonderful to see nonetheless.

A common metaphor for this age was the “Cult of the Orchid” – or a time when the exotic tropical blooms spread in popularity due to their fragility and romantic symbolism. Orchids are also exceptionally difficult to propagate, making them a hobby for the especially affluent. Practical, no, but still celebrated.

For Paris, this was a time to celebrate itself. The new Haussmann developments had created Les Grand Boulevards of open space and light, while the developments of the metro, electricity, and plumbing had created a city that was the benchmark for beauty and functioning technology. It was at this time too that entertainments such as the Moulin Rouge and the Opera Garnier took their cues from the open, strolling boulevards to create broad spaces where the classes mixed and people could see and be seen. This interaction of high and low was another astonishing dichotomy of the age.

Consuleo Vanderbilt, The Duchess of Marlborough with her son Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill, by Giovanni Boldini, 1906Just as in Edith Wharton’s posthumus novel The Buccaneers, many American heiresses came to Europe to marry titled aristocrats who were rich in prestige but practically cash-poor. The true story that inspired Wharton’s work was the story of the rich and beautiful Consuelo Vanderbilt who married Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough, and first cousin of Winston Churchill. At one point in the exhibition there are two different aquamarines set in diamonds on display – one is set by Tiffany and the other is set by Fabergé (a Siberian aquamarine given by tsarevich Nicholas to the future tsarina Alexandra) – and while both stones and settings are strikingly similar, there is enough of a difference to make a statement. “Europeans are always about the settings while Americans are always about the stones,” as Stephen Harrison explained. A very fitting metaphor for the marriage of American new money and European peerage – one that still holds true today.

Ironically, the new Duchess of Marlborough found such extravagances distasteful, but did develop a fascination for the Fabergé eggs she saw during a visit to Moscow in 1902, even commissioning an egg from the company – the only commission Fabergé ever received from an American. While the Duchess of Marlborough Egg is not on display at the Legion, there are a total of ten Fabergé eggs on view, (including the Imperial Blue Sperpent Egg, which inspired the Duchess of Marlborough’s commission.) This may not sound like many, but of the 105 known Fabergé eggs created, only sixty-nine have survived to the present day. Having as many as ten together in one exhibition is a true feat of diplomacy and curatorship.

Imperial Blue Serpent Egg by House of Faberge, Mikhail Perkhin workmaster, 1887, gold blue guilloche enamel, opalescent white enamel, diamonds, spahhiresThe Imperial Blue Serpent Egg was presented to Tsarina Maria Feodorovna on Easter, 1887 by her husband, Tsar Alexandre III. Over the years this egg came into the collection of the House of Grimaldi of Monaco, and was a favorite object of the late Princess Grace of Monaco. After many years unseen by the public, Prince Albert II of Monaco allowed this extraordinary egg to become a part of this exhibit. This egg is actually a clock with a rotating dial – the serpent’s tongue indicates the hour as the dial rotates around during the day.

 

 

Magnolia Window by Louis Comfort Tiffany, designed by Agnes Northrop, c. 1900Another piece in the show with this type of significance is the Tiffany Magnolia Window. This window was shown at the Paris Exposition in 1900 and purchased from Bing’s L’Art Nouveau gallery for the Baron Stieglitz Museum of Decorative and Applied Arts in St. Petersburg. After the Russian Revolution, this striking impressionistic window was stored in the Hermitage Museum until recently. This exhibit on Artistic Luxury is the first time the window has been seen publicly since 1900.

While Tiffany’s work is widely known, this show presents the finer details of his art that may not be understood. The craft of layering many subtle mutations of colored glass, as well as the iridescent effect of the famous Favrile glass are shown here to their best effect among very modern-looking vases, windows, and lamps. Indeed, the Favrile glass effect was reminiscent of the swirling colors of Loië Fuller’s shimmering costumes as she danced in the chromatic stage lights at the Palais de l’Electricité at the Paris Exposition in 1900.

Cattleya Orchid hair ornament by Lalique in Ivory, cloisonne enamel, and diamonds, c. 1900Lalique too is more widely known for his later work in glass sculptures, but in this show it is his intricate jewelry work that is on display. The jewelry is incredibly artistic, and while criticized for being “un-wearable” during its time, the pieces represent the Art Nouveau ideals and forms to perfection. His hair pieces are the true works of art, with many birds, insects, and flowers adorning combs and clips throughout the show. The massive cattleya orchid hair comb not only perfectly showcases the “Cult of the Orchid” mentioned before, but also the artisan’s craft: ivory is carved into delicate rippling petals while enamel and diamonds serve as a glamorous counterpoint of noble and humble materials.

With all of this beauty and luxury on display, there is indeed a touch of dark humor, even perversion too. The dark, gothic sensibility of the time may also be found among the serpents, wasps, cicadas, and bats carved into many objects. As Stephen Harrison also said during our tour: “The Belle Époque is also known as the moment when the ripe slips over to the rotten…” Were the artists especially prophetic or just witty and wise?

Perhaps in the creation of such objects they sought to offer a lesson, a reminder that beauty (and luxury) is truth, but it is also fleeting.

Again, how fitting for today...

 

Artistic Luxury - Fabergé, Tiffany, Lalique
February 7 – May 31, 2009
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Legion of Honor Museum
Lincoln Park, 34th Avenue and Clement Street
Tuesday – Sunday, closed Mondays
Visit http://www.famsf.org/legion/ for details.