Shapeshifting: Transformations in Native American Art at the Peabody Essex Museum

Rebecca Belmore (born 1960), Anishinaabe; Fringe, 2008; Inkjet print on paper; 21 x 63 inches (53.3 x 160 cm); Collection of Catherine Sullivan-Kropa and William Kropa; © Rebecca Belmore, image courtesy Rebecca Belmore, photograph by Henri Robideau.

A terrific dialogue is currently unfolding in the galleries of the Peabody Essex Museum, with an exhibition that explores links between historic and contemporary Native American art. Featuring works drawn from worldwide collections, Shapeshifting: Transformations in Native American Art, takes us on an unforgettable, celebratory journey that transcends boundaries and erases stereotypes along its path.

A concept in Native cultures, shapeshifting refers to the ability of humans changing into animals or supernatural beings and vice versa. In essence, it refers to the idea that creativity has always been part of Native cultures.

“…Native American art has always taken cultural knowledge and metaphors and refreshed them with new ideas and forms[1]” writes Curator Karen Kramer Russell in the exhibition catalog. In the past, “…museum exhibitions have focused largely on either historical or contemporary Native American art, but with very little mixing of the two.” Shapeshifting shatters the notion that all art created by Native Americans is either ethnographic or crafty in appearance.

Kent Monkman (born 1965), Cree; Théâtre de Cristal, 2007; Chandelier, plastic beads, acrylic string, cabouchons, simulated buffalo hide, and Super-8 film: Group of Seven Inches, 2005 (7:34 minutes), edition 1/3; 168 x 240 inches (diam. approx.) (426.7 x 609.6 cm); The Glenbow Museum, Alberta, Canada, purchased with funds from Historic Resource Fund, 2008, 2008.099.001; Courtesy Kent Monkman and Bruce Bailey Art Projects; © Kent Monkman, image courtesy MacKenzie Art Gallery, photograph by Don Hall.

Kent Monkman (born 1965), Cree; Théâtre de Cristal, 2007; Chandelier, plastic beads, acrylic string, cabouchons, simulated buffalo hide, and Super-8 film: Group of Seven Inches, 2005 (7:34 minutes), edition 1/3; 168 x 240 inches (diam. approx.) (426.7 x 609.6 cm); The Glenbow Museum, Alberta, Canada, purchased with funds from Historic Resource Fund, 2008, 2008.099.001; Courtesy Kent Monkman and Bruce Bailey Art Projects; © Kent Monkman, image courtesy MacKenzie Art Gallery, photograph by Don Hall.

Kent Monkman’s electrifying video installation Théâtre de Cristal opens the exhibition and sets the tone for the rest of the show. Referencing a tipi made of clear plastic beads lit by an elaborate chandelier, Monkman critiques and challenges “the dominant Euro-American ethnocentric construction of Native North America embedded in a global consciousness.[2]” Paul Chaat Smith, Curator of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian considers Théâtre de Cristal “a work from the future about people who aren’t supposed to have one.[3]The installation is brilliant and the accompanying text should not be missed (even if you are a White European male, and you’ll know what I mean by this if you see this exhibit).

Kent Monkman (born 1965), Cree; Théâtre de Cristal, 2007; Chandelier, plastic beads, acrylic string, cabouchons, simulated buffalo hide, and Super-8 film: Group of Seven Inches, 2005 (7:34 minutes), edition 1/3; 168 x 240 inches (diam. approx.) (426.7 x 609.6 cm); The Glenbow Museum, Alberta, Canada, purchased with funds from Historic Resource Fund, 2008, 2008.099.001; Courtesy Kent Monkman and Bruce Bailey Art Projects; © Kent Monkman, image courtesy MacKenzie Art Gallery, photograph by Don Hall.

Organized thematically, many works in Shapeshifting rely on politics to convey a concept, while others explore identity, place, and cultural heritage.

Marie Watt’s Column Blanket Stories, evoke the blankets infested with smallpox and other diseases brought by Europeans and distributed to Natives across the Americas. Independent scholar Kara English notes that today, blankets are associated with beauty, honor and respect and that “these [blankets] prized items weave together an intergenerational continuum and are gifted at births, comings-of-age, graduations, marriages, naming and honoring.[4]

Marie Watt (born 1967), Seneca; Column (Blanket Stories), 2003; Wool blankets and cedar; 144 x 20 x 20 inches (365.8 x 50.8 x 50.8 cm); Collection of Deborah Green; © Marie Watt, image courtesy Marie Watt and PDX Contemporary Art.

Rebecca Belmore’s Fringe, a powerful and haunting photograph of a female figure references the abuse of Native women and of the land. Bob Haouzous’ Wheel of Fortune is a deliciously superb work featuring the face of Geronimo surrounded by descriptive words. This wonderful work is a call to Native people to stop hiding behind general stereotypes. And yes, the Wheel of Fortune spins just as it does in the television game.

Bob Haozous (born 1943), Chiricahua Apache; Wheel of Fortune, 2005; Steel and paint; 96 inches (diam.) (243.8 cm); Courtesy the artist; © Bob Haozous.

Shapeshifting is a provocative exhibition filled with complex ideas. It opened my eyes to a world of Native American art making not frequently discussed or exhibited outside non-Native art or anthropological museums. As far as the implications of an exhibition with many politically charged artworks, Karen Kramer Russell says “the intention is that people will have a broader and deeper understanding of Native art and culture.”

Shapeshifting captures the creative spirit and resilience of cultures that have long been repressed.  It’s a remarkable and fascinating exhibition that changed my perception of contemporary Native American art and its transformations through time. The works in this exhibition foster an enriching dialogue that should be nurtured and savored over multiple visits to the Peabody Essex Museum.

Shapeshifting: Transformations in Native American Art is on view through April 29, 2012 at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA.


[1] Page 15, [2] Page 24, [3] Page 220, [4] Page 180

Knitting Nation at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston

There’s something really wonderful happening right now in museums across the country. Within the past year or so, fashion exhibitions like Cocktail Culture: Ritual and Invention in American Fashion 1920-1980 at Rhode Island School of Design’s Museum of Art; Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Arnold Scaasi: American Couturier at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston— have all broken attendance records further stressing the demand for more fashion exhibitions in museums.

On Friday November 25th, the Institute of Contemporary Art hosted a performance by Liz Collins entitled Knitting Nation Phase 8: Under Construction, as part of the museum’s latest exhibition Dance/Draw. A textile artist, designer and professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, Liz Collins’ work also falls within the realm of fashion and installation.

Performed in its first phase (Phase I: Knitting During Wartime) in May of 2005 on Governors Island in New York, Knitting Nation employs an army of volunteer knitters who operate vintage knitting machines, and produce lengths of vibrantly colored fabric. Phase 8: Under Construction, is the second phase of Knitting Nation performed in a theater setting. The first phase, Darkness Descends, 2011 was performed at the ICA on October 16th.

Knitting Nation Phase 8: Under Construction, featured 14 female knitters wearing white shorts over fishnet stockings, short-sleeve shirts, over-the-ear headphones and gray Dr. Marten Boots. It also featured 8 knitting machines, and 80 pounds of brightly colored polyester-cotton yarn.

I was reminded of the “mill girls;” the young Yankee women who worked at the large textile mills all over New England under strenuous and unsafe working conditions. While the “working” conditions at the ICA do not in any way resemble those of the textile mills of the 19th and early 20th century America, the repetitive and tiring work the knitters performed did.

Weaving in and out of the installation, I caught about an hour and a half of this ten hour long interactive performance.  Watching these knitters finish one color and start the next was exhausting, yet I caught myself unable to pull away from all the action. The body movements, the sounds created by the knitting machines, and the never-ending lengths of brightly colored yarn had me hypnotized. I lost all sense of time as I am sure the knitters did too.

VIDEO:

The Hermaphrodite – Aphrodite and the Gods of Love

Statuette of Aphrodite untying a sandal (Sandalbinder) Greek, East Greek, Late Hellenistic Period, 1st century B.C. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Catharine Page Perkins Fund.

The Museum of Fine Arts is celebrating the Greek goddess of love and beauty in “the first museum exhibition devoted to Aphrodite.” Aphrodite and the Gods of Love (October 26, 2011 through February 20, 2012) features approximately 160 classical works drawn primarily from the museum’s extensive (and one of the finest in the country, second only to the Metropolitan Museum of Art) collection of Greek and Roman art. The museum’s proactiveness in returning looted works to Italy has resulted in an outstanding collaboration with the Italian government noticeable in 13 important loans in the exhibition, nine of which are from Rome and Naples. The exhibition also features a Sleeping Hermaphrodite which is among these nine loans (more on this work later).

It is only natural for this exhibition to open with the birth of Aphrodite, her rising from the sea out of a shell. According to myth, the Titan Kronos castrated his father Ouranos and flung the genitals into the sea where a mixture of white foam was created, giving birth to Aphrodite.  The goddess’ ancestors, cults, beauty, marriage, and myth are also explored in depth with objects that range from perfume bottles to mirrors. Her place in the history of the female nude in Western art was the subject (for the most part) of a symposium held on November 5th, 2011 (I live tweeted the first half of the symposium, but finding those tweet may be somewhat difficult as I tweet quite often).

Not only is Aphrodite associated with beauty, love and marriage, but also with war and male potency. Aphrodite had many children, including Priapos (the well endowed god of fertility and protector of livestock) and Hermaphroditos, the two-sexed son, portrayed as a beautiful female figure with male genitals. This Sleeping Hermaphrodite is the biggest and most talked about surprise in the show. How could one not discuss its beauty?

I was somewhat surprised at people’s reactions upon seeing the other side of the Sleeping Hermaphrodite. This isn’t the first and only hermaphrodite in art history, but if you go and experience this show, you’ll understand the thrill (for lack of better word) this wonderful work ignites. Here are some examples of other hermaphrodites in art history. You decide for yourself how the hermaphrodite in the exhibition compares to these ones here, but there are many more than the three I have posted here:

Love how the light delicately shines on this hermaphrodite; the material also helps.

Hermaphrodite, Giovanni Francesco Susini (died 1646), Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Claus von Bülow, 1977. Metropolitan Museum of Art

(Reverse) Hermaphrodite, Giovanni Francesco Susini (died 1646), Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Claus von Bülow, 1977. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Possibly the most famous hermaphrodite (at the Louvre) in the history of art:

Borghese Hermaphroditus, Roman copy of Greek statue C2nd BC Altered by Bernini. Musée du Louvre, Paris, France

And of course, there are also standing hermaphrodites:

Statue of Hermaphroditus, Marble, Pergamum, Hellenistic style, 3rt ct. BC. Istanbul Archaeological Museums. Photo: User Sandstein on Wikimedia Commons

The most recent out of the hermaphrodites I present here, proving that Aphrodite is a force to be reckon with.

Sleeping Hermaphrodite, 2008 – 2010, Barry X. Ball, after the Hermaphrodite Endormi (Ermafrodito Borghese). Belgian Black Marble

Sleeping Hermaphrodite, 2008 – 2010, Barry X. Ball, after the Hermaphrodite Endormi (Ermafrodito Borghese). Belgian Black Marble

Ten Thousand Waves

 

Isaac Julien, "Red Chamber Room (Ten Thousand Waves)," 2010. Endora Ultra photographs, diptych, 70.9 x 90.6 in. each. Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro Gallery, London

Brace yourselves Bostonians, Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves is now showing at the Institute of Contemporary Art! This breathtaking video installation had its US premiere in December 2010 at the Bass Museum of Art in Miami, now it’s our turn to stimulate our senses with beautiful imagery and sound. Viewers are immerse in a new form of storytelling – three narratives unfolding simultaneously on nine screens. Shot mostly in China’s incredibly diverse landscape, Ten Thousand Waves features images of lush bamboo jungles, daily life in Shanghai and panoramic views of the coast of England.

Isaac Julien, "Blue Goddess (Ten Thousand Waves)," 2010. Endura Ultra photograph, diptych, 70.87 x 94.49 in. Courtesy of the artist, Metro Pictures, New York, and Victoria Miro Gallery, London.

 

Isaac Julien, "Mazu, Turning (Ten Thousand Waves)," 2010. Endura Ultra photograph. 70.87 x 94.49 in. Courtesy of the artist, Metro Pictures, New York, and Victoria Miro Gallery, London

 

Isaac Julien, "Yishan Island, Dreaming (Ten Thousand Waves)," 2010. Endura Ultra photograph, 70.87 x 94.49 in. Courtesy of the artist, Metro Pictures, New York, and Victoria Miro Gallery, London

 

Ten Thousand Waves is gorgeous to look at, mesmerizing and oh, so stylized that it reminded me of the films of Wong Kar Wai in particular In the Mood for Love as well as the films of Terrence Malick. Julien takes his viewers on a magical journey, one made even more entrancing by the appearance of Maggie Cheung as lead actress. Seriously, wasn’t she great in In the Mood for Love? Examples of stills from In the Mood for Love and The Thin Red Line:

In the Mood for Love, (2000) Wong Kar Wai

The Thin Red Line, Ben Chaplin, 1998, Terrence Malick, Director. TM and Copyright (c) 20th Century Fox Film Corp. Courtesy: Everett Collection

Issac Julien: Ten Thousand Waves in on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art until March 04, 2012. You’ll be mad if you miss this installation!

An Evening with Patti Smith | Patti Smith: Camera Solo

It wasn’t long ago that I was introduced to the work of Patti Smith, not as musician, but as visual artist. Using narrative form and content in song lyrics, Patti Smith pioneered the Art Rock movement in New York City. Her debut album “Horses” became an instant classic that defined a generation. It also rocked my world to say the least. Apart from her music, Patti Smith has been exploring photography since she was a teenager, but it was alongside Robert Mapplethorpe that she began to explore the medium in depth. Her most recent photographs are the subject of an exhibition at the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, CT.

Patti Smith, Self-Portrait, NYC, 2003. © Patti Smith. Courtesy the artist and Robert Miller Gallery

Billed as the first large scale museum exhibit in the United States in nearly ten years, Patti Smith: Camera Solo isn’t a show of epic proportions, but rather a show of intimate moments. The exhibition highlights the relationship between Smith’s photography and her interest in poetry and literature. Approximately 60 new black-and-white silver gelatin photographs and multimedia installations created between 2002 and 2011 are exhibited.

Many of the works are small and require the viewer to make more of an effort in developing a personal relationship with these. As a whole, the exhibition is much larger than I envisioned it, as I personally think of Patti Smith as having contributed more to our culture as a musician and performer than as a visual artist. Yet, since 2002, Smith has had countless solo exhibitions in museums and galleries across the country.

Patti Smith, Robert's Slippers, 2002. © Patti Smith. Courtesy the artist and Robert Miller Gallery

Camera Solo is a deeply personal exhibition, an aspect I experienced firsthand listening to Patti Smith talk about her work at the Wadsworth. The photographs suddenly became meaningful as she discussed objects that belonged to Robert Mapplethorpe, or when she poked fun at her lack of technical skills while talking about her cameras. Those cameras are a Polaroid Land 100 and a 250 which she candidly referred to as having been “made for someone who is technically a moron.”

Gallery Talk by Patti Smith on Friday October 21st at the Wadsworth Atheneaum. Image by Diana Guay Dixon.

Smith doesn’t photograph her own things because she doesn’t have the “right camera,” she says, instead she photographs other people’s stuff. Patti Smith feels her photographs don’t need any explanation; they’re just her “sharing stuff.” That “stuff” is what curator Susan Talbott has termed “symbolic portraits” of things and people close to her heart, like Robert Mapplethorpe’s slippers which Smith says “taking a photo of Robert’s slippers is like taking a photo of Robert to me.” Her photographs are “similar to nineteenth-century amateur photographers.” Yes, some of Patti Smith’s works do come off as amateurish in technique (I’ve taken both a university level studio photography course as well as a survey course), but she obviously doesn’t have a problem with it and neither did I.

The exhibition Patti Smith: Camera Solo is on view until February 19, 2012 at the Wadsworth Athenaeum. For more information, visit: http://www.thewadsworth.org/

#ICA75

Great moments of learning and inspiration are currently unfolding on Twitter courtesy of the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston. Last Friday, the ICA celebrated its 75th anniversary as an institution in Boston and to mark this glorious occasion, the museum has been tweeting interesting historical facts, proving that social media is an excellent tool to educate people with (I was sold on this idea a while back, which is why I love Twitter).

Their first tweet rolled in on September 27th. It was love at first sight for me:

The next day the museum tweeted that Paul Gauguin was the subject of the Institute’s first exhibition, but not without capping off the tweet with a bit of humor courtesy of the eccentric Salvador Dali:

On September 29th, I learned of a “first” in the ICA’s history:

On September 30th, I learned of this bold move:

The ICA made a commitment early on in its existence to celebrate diversity (something that excites me in any museum):

Roughly 15 years before the completion of Harvard University’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, a seminal work in the history of Modernism in Boston and Cambridge, the ICA presented this exhibition:

Another great moment of learning unfolded as I read this tweet regarding the Chilean artist Roberto Matta, whose mural in Valparaiso knocked my socks off in 2004 while studying abroad:

Bostonians were exposed to minimalism through this exhibition:

And what about Andy Warhol?

The above screenshots are just a few of the many “#ICA75″ tweets highlighting the history of the ICA. Follow the ICA on Twitter @ICAinBoston and you’ll learn something new everyday. They’re only up to 1966, so many more interesting facts to come. Thanks to the ICA for this newly acquired wealth of knowledge!

REVIEW – Dance/Draw – The ICA’s Newest Exhibition Will Have You Dancing and Drawing

Juan Capistran, The Breaks, 2000, Inkjet print, 40 x 40 in., Collection of the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, The Altoids Curiously Strong Collection, gift of Altoids

Until now, I have not been a fan of most of the exhibitions that have originated at the ICA. Helen Molesworth, the ICA’s chief curator has organized an exciting show that traces the journey of the line from changes in drawing in the 1960’s to its explosion off the page and into three dimensional space, which ultimately finds itself in the realm of dance. Dance/Draw (October 7 – January 16, 2012) is beautiful, dazzling, dynamic and engaging (Cornelia Parker’s Hanging Fire (Suspended Arson) does not convince me yet in this show, but I can be persuaded. Possibly.).

Trisha Brown, Floor of the Forest, 1970, Metal Pipe, used clothing, Trisha Brown Dance Company, Photo: Isabel Winarsch/documenta 12.

Dance/Draw looks back to the 1960’s where artists began to make drawings with “a wide range of materials and they frequently did so using more than simply their hands.”Approximately 100 works ranging from
video, photography, drawings, and sculpture are featured in Molesworth’s first major show at the ICA. A series of live performances will also take place in the galleries and in the theater including Trisha Brown’s 1970 seminal work Floor of the Forest, part sculpture, part dance prop and part performance. This performance is a breath of fresh air.

Trisha Brown, Untitled 2007 Charcoal, pastel on paper Framed 55 ½ x 64 in. Harvard Art Museums / Fogg Museum, Margaret Fisher Fund. Photo: Katya Kallsen © President and Fellows of Harvard College

In the first gallery, Trisha Brown’s “Untitled, 2007” a charcoal and pastel drawing, is according to Molesworth “the drawing that started it all.” Re-defining the conventional meaning of drawing, the works in this gallery borrow from dance and performance to explore medium using more than just the hand. Feet, eyelashes, hair or the artist’s entire body is incorporated into the creation of a work on paper.

Janine Antoni, Loving Care, 1993, Performance with Loving Care hair dye in

Janine Antoni’s Loving Care, 1992-1996 a performance at the Wadsworth Athenaeum shows the artist dragging her “Natural Black” dye saturated hair back and forth across the floor, in the process creating an “ink drawing.” Butterfly Kisses, another work by Antoni created by battling her mascara-coated eyelashes against a piece of paper. These two works are wonderful and made my heart skip a beat. They’re flirtatious and playful, but so is the rest of the exhibition.

In curating this show, Molesworth did not forget to make it as geographically and as culturally diverse as possible (yes, this matters to me as a person of color). Not only is Dan Ranalli, a Boston artist and Professor at Boston University included in this show, but so are the works of Cecilia Vicuña, Helena Almeida, and Robin Rhode and many other interesting and remarkable artists.

Ruth Asawa, Untitled (S.065), early 1960

Ruth Asawa’s suspended wire bulbous sculptures, Faith Wilding’s womb-like web, Amy Sillman’s gouache and charcoal drawings of couples in intimate positions, and Sadie Benning’s Play Pause, a video made using hundreds of gouache drawings were all pleasantly sweet surprises that stole the show for me.

Another pleasant surprise was seeing the Mediatheque transformed by the Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña’s with a site specific work titled Water Weaving, 2011. A space wasted no more. The exhibition catalog is disappointing as it does not do justice to the show, but c’est la vie.

Dance/Draw is ambitious in scope and it delivers knockout punches that will have you craving for more. The show is the Paso Doble of exhibitions, it starts off strong and finishes off strong.

Christian Marclay’s “The Clock” at the Museum of Fine Arts

If you haven’t heard the news, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is opening on September 17, a new wing devoted to contemporary art. To celebrate this opening, the museum will show Christian Marclay’s “The Clock,” a work acquired with the help of the National Gallery of Canada. Marclay’s “The Clock” has been one of the year’s most talked about works of art and recently won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale.

The “news” that is circulating on twitter and on blogs isn’t about the MFA’s role in Boston’s contemporary art scene. It also isn’t about this new wing, which is over 21,000 square feet and triples the museum’s contemporary art exhibition space. Instead it’s about a $200 ticket people have to pay to view the first 12 hours of Marclay’s work.

How is the $200 ticket all of a sudden news when it has been published on the MFA’s website for some time now? I prayed every day that it was an error, but it wasn’t.

There goes the power of prayer people.

The price tag is a bit outrageous and it obviously caters to those who can afford to pay $200 for some drinks and 12 hours of the film. Yes, people attending the premiere of “The Clock” are also paying for a party organized by Chelsea Clinton’s wedding planner. If you can’t afford to see the first twelve hours, you can enjoy the other twelve hours for free on a Free Community Day on Sunday September 18th.

As much as I love art and the Museum of Fine Arts, I think this move is a bit elitist. Why not throw the opening party in the middle of the week and show “The Clock” for free that same weekend?

I’ll be honest, I was disappointed in the price tag because I had been waiting for a while to see “The Clock.” I think I’ll wait until later in the Fall when it will be shown for another 24 hours for FREE (with regular museum admission I assume. I hope not).

The MFA has already set the bar very high for contemporary art in Boston with the acquisition of “The Clock.” The message I’m getting is that they’re ready to take contemporary art seriously. If “The Clock” is any indication of where Boston’s contemporary art scene is heading, then we have a great leader in the MFA to take us there.

I’m very much looking forward to the opening of the new wing and excited to see Lynda Benglis’ Wing among many other works. I can only expect to be blown away and I think I will be judging from the “sound” of things.

Boston’s contemporary art scene seems to be pushing in a positive direction. Let’s keep it that way.

Image of Christian Marclay’s “The Clock” taken from the Museum of Fine Arts’ Press page.

One on One: Exploring the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists

The best way to get to know a city or a neighborhood is by walking its streets. Earlier this summer, I set out to explore the area of Roxbury roughly bounded by Seaver Street, Walnut Avenue and Crawford Street. I headed down Walnut Avenue and walked around the grounds of Abbotsford (Oak Bend), one of the finest stone mansions in Boston.

Abbotsford, designed in 1872 by Alden Frink in the Gothic Revival style is home to a gem known as the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists.  The grand mansion has served many purposes in the past which include a disciplinary school for boys in the Boston Public School system. It was purchased in 1976 by the National Center of Afro-American Artists and is now the largest independent black cultural arts institution in New England. Its collection exceeds 4,000 works of art which include well known artists such as Charles White, Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence as well as living contemporary black artists from around the world.

John Wilson’s Eternal Presence (1987) greets viewers upon entering the museum. Wilson drew inspiration from various cultures including Ancient Olmec and Buddhist works to represent the African Diasporas dispersed throughout the world (also represented in the museum’s collection). Once inside, visitors can expect to experience “Aspelta – A Nubian King’s Burial Chamber” one of the museum’s most notable and delightful exhibitions.

Apart from looking at the art currently on display, my experience at the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists also included a 45 minute long conversation with Ben Alleyne, a painter and sculptor who has been the caretaker of the mansion for more than twenty years. His monumental sculptures can be seen on the grounds of the museum.

For an off the beaten path museum experience in Boston, the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists is an excellent choice. The museum is easily accessible by public transportation. The MBTA Bus Routes #22 from Ashmont, Jackson Square or Ruggles Station and #29 from Jackson Square or Ruggles stop at Walnut Avenue. The museum is roughly a ten minute walk from the bus stop.

Get Pumped! Introducing Metropolitan Boston’s Newest Museum

A short walk from the Reservoir Stop on the Riverside Line or Cleveland Circle stop on the MBTA, and located inside a gorgeously restored and rehabilitated Richardsonian Romanesque Pumping Station building, is Metropolitan Boston’s newest museum, the Metropolitan Waterworks Museum which opened on Sunday March 27th, 2011.

Designed by Arthur Vinal “Boston’s last city architect,” and built in 1886-87 and expanded in 1897-98, the High Service Pumping Station was the city’s response to the increased demand for clean water resources, which by 1800’s, like many other cities of its size in America, was rapidly experiencing population growth deeming it unfit to live in. The Great Fire of 1872 pushed city officials to locate other clean water resources outside the city to provide a steady and clean water supply for its citizens. As a result of this “push,” the Metropolitan Waterworks was born, breathing new life to Boston and its citizens.

The museum, primarily located in the Great Engines Hall of the High Service Pumping Station contains three massive pumps that will capture the attention of young and old. Through interactive exhibits and displays of tools and instruments, visitors learn of the social, architectural, and public health history of pumping station and its role in the City of Boston. The engines at the museum, once formed part of the largest reservoir water pumping system in the world!

The Great Engine Hall houses the Leavitt Engine, capable of pumping 20 million gallons of water a day is now considered a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark for the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. The other two engines are the Worthington Engine, the only horizontal and smallest of all them is capable of pumping 15 million gallons of water a day and the Allis Engine, a massive engine which extends three stories above the operating floor and two stories below it. The engines are in the same location they have been since the High Service Pumping Station began operating.

I spent more than an hour “getting to know” the people behind the extraordinary architectural and engineering marvels of the Metropolitan Waterworks. Paying careful attention to (almost) every breathtaking detail of the three massive engines, I walked away with a deeper appreciation for the engineering works of 19th century Boston. Although steam pumping ended in 1976, the engines at the Metropolitan Waterworks Museum allow us to experience an aspect of 19th century life in Boston rarely discussed outside academic circles.

The Metropolitan Waterworks Museum offers guided tours highlighting the history of the landscape and other features of the history of the Chestnut Hill/Reservoir area. Please check the museum’s website or call for more information.

Exploring the Museum of Fine Arts with Context Travel

On Wednesday February 26th, I had the opportunity of attending a walking tour organized by Context Travel at the Museum of Fine Arts. For Context Travel, the walking tours are no larger than five or six people and are led by local experts in urban planning, architecture, art history or other related fields. My experience at the Museum of Fine Arts was led by Tricia, a long time docent there.

Exploring a building, a work of art, or the city, in context to its surroundings or the time it was created is central to the mission of Context Travel. Context Travel doesn’t organize tours, instead it creates narrative participatory experiences in twelve cities around the world, including Athens, Florence, Naples, Paris, New York, Philadelphia and most recently, Boston.

Part of that mission, is to “connect curious travelers with that priceless local knowledge.” Context’s walking tours are usually three hours long and are offered on a variety of topics and themes. In Boston, explorations include Beacon Hill, North End, and the artist John Singer Sargent and many more. Context Travel crafts tours “designed to help the erudite traveler appreciate and defend the city without overrunning it,” the tours are engaging, informative, interesting and fun.

Being a docent at Trinity Church, one of the city’s most iconic landmarks, I can certainly relate to crafting an experience that will engage the visitor with the art work and architecture. I am very particular in making connections between art and architecture of Trinity Church in context to its surroundings and American history. This is an important detail that Context Travel emphasizes in all of its walks and seminars.

For the first two hours of the Museum of Fine Arts tour, the docent and attendees explored the new wing dedicated to American art. The last hour was dedicated to the European, Asian and Egyptian art galleries. Throughout the three hours, we stopped to discussed particular artworks and place them in context to other works in the museum, connected them to notable people as well as the city of Boston.

Exploring the museum for three hours with Context Travel proved to be a great experience primarily because I was exposed to works of arts that I either possessed very little knowledge of or have unintentionally overlooked because I was too engaged looking at other objects. I found the tour engaging and the docent was very approachable and welcoming.

Review: Flowers and Festivals: Four Seasons in Japanese Prints

Decorative Paper with Design of Chrysanthemums.Unknown Artist. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. William Sturgis Bigelow Collection

The use of trees, flowers and festivals as subjects in Japanese prints of the Edo period (1615-1867) more than any other subject matter, reflected the realities, ambitions, aspirations, and tastes of the time. The pleasures of festivals, grand events, and entertainment, as well as the expansive landscapes depicted in woodblock prints, allowed people to “escape” the hustle and bustle of everyday life in Edo (modern day Tokyo). Flowers and Festivals: Four Seasons in Japanese Prints (January 22 through August 28, 2011) at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston celebrates the popular subjects of flowers and festivals as they appear in this medium.

Plum Garden of Kameido Hiroshige I, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Denman Waldo Ross Collection

Ukiyo-e or “images of the floating world” woodblock prints depict commoners, specifically those living in urban centers and the red light district. Prints served as advertisements highlighting the latest trends in travel, the women of the red light district, local cuisine and other hedonistic pursuits. In their own time, these prints were not meant to be great works of art, but rather, items that anyone could own and dispose of at their own discretion.

In Buddhism, the term ukiyo-e was used to describe the impermanence of the world humans lived in, the ever changing nature of everything that is around us. In the Edo period, this term took on a life of its own and referred to the world of the pleasure district “a quarter of the city which houses courtesans, their attendants, and the theaters, where Kabuki plays and Bunraku performances were presented” (Penelope Mason,  History of Japanese Art, 278).

Maple Leaves at Kaian-Ji Temple in Tokyo, from the series Thirty Six Selected Flowers Utagawa Hiroshige II. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Bequest of Mrs. Arthur Croft—The Gardner Brewer Collection

Changes in the four seasons, small or drastic did not go unnoticed for printmakers in Edo. Works by the artists in the exhibition capture the subtleties of the transition between seasons, from the delicate structure of plum blossoms to the bright golden color of maple leaves in autumn. Starting clockwise, we embark on a delightful journey, with a print of a warbler perched on a red plum branch alongside prints of plum and cherry trees in full bloom. The changes in the seasons unfold before our eyes as one wanders from print to print.

Among the most fascinating prints on view are those by Suzuki Harunobu, known for being one of the first artists to create polychrome prints and Utagawa Hiroshige I (1797-1858), Utagawa Hiroshige II (Shegenobu, 1826-1869) Kitagawa Utamaro I, Torii Kiyonaga and Hokusai among others.

Suzuki Harunobu’s prints are richly textured and highly sophisticated due to their incredible colors and details. Throughout his artistic career, Harunobu attempted to depict well known beautiful women of his time, but since ukiyo-e artists were not allowed to depict respectable, well known ladies, most were subject to censorship. This explains the shift from depicting women to prints that  emphasized the landscapes of Edo and its surrounding towns. A pioneer in landscape prints, Katsushika Hokusai laid the ground work for what eventually became a phenomenon among commoners; the purchasing of prints as travel mementos.

Peonies at Hundred Flower Garden in Tokyo 1866, Utagawa Hiroshige II. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. William Sturgis Bigelow Collection

Memorable woodblock prints in the exhibition include Hiroshige’s Plum Garden of Kameido 1856-58, later copied by Van Gogh in Flowering Plum Tree and Hiroshige’s II Peonies at Hundred Flower Garden in Tokyo, 1866 from the series Thirty-six Selected Flowers. The Museum of Fine Arts has the finest, oldest and largest collection of Japanese art outside of Japan. The prints in Flowers and Festivals: Four Seasons in Japanese Prints are just a few dozen out of thousands in the museum’s vast holding.

Review: Scaasi: American Couturier

Woman’s ensemble in two parts (dress), designed in 1958, Museum of Fine Arts Boston

I saw Scaasi: American Couturier for the second time at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and I’m still not blown away as much as I was with High Style: Betsy Bloomingdale and the Haute Couture exhibition at the American Textile History Museum in Lowell. The show closed on January 02, 2011 and if you did not get to see it, you missed out on a well organized and richly presented exhibition.

Back to the Scaasi show.  The MFA recently acquired fashion designer’s Arnold Scaasi’s archives and over 100 of his designs, yet only 28 are on display in the Scaasi: American Couturier show. The Fashion and Textile Arts gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts is small and feels cramped, sometimes taking a toll on the fashion and textile exhibitions that are shown in the space. The last fashion exhibition I saw at the MFA which blew me away, was Fashion Show: Paris Collections 2006 (Nov. 12, 2006 through Mar. 18, 2007) which was shown then in what will become the new wing for contemporary art this coming Fall.

The Scaasi: American Couturier is an almost 9 month long show and closes on June 19, 2011 (9 months for only 28 pieces, some great, some …). I do have some favorite pieces like the balloon cocktail dress pictured in the post and this one

Life, as expressed by Max Beckmann

Max Beckmann, German, 1884–1950, Double Portrait 1946, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Accession Number 1989.348

A series of posts inspired by pieces in the collections of Boston area museums.

 

In 1938, in a lecture at the New Burlington Gallery in London, the German painter Max Beckmann said that “life is difficult, as perhaps everyone knows by now[1].” The difficulties of life, the powerful emotions of fear and anxiety, and the hopeless feeling that captures the soul, are all psychological traits present in the works of Max Beckmann and the artists of the Expressionist Movement, particularly The New Objectivity (neue sachlichkeit). The New Objectivity proposed a return to naturalism in painting and was in opposition to the obscure images of Expressionism.[2] Double Portrait (1946), at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston captures the social realities and the chaos of modern life; it pierces the viewer’s hearts and paints a world full of solitude while simultaneously offering a glimpse of hope for a better tomorrow.

Beckmann chooses as his subject matter two men, Hanns Swarzenski, a scholar of medieval art and curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Curt Valentin, a New York art dealer. Both friends of Beckmann, these two men have played a vital role in the development of Beckmann as artist. Engaged in a conversation, Swarzenski and Valentin, are both depicted wearing business attire, a detail that speaks of the distinguished backgrounds these two men come from. Double Portrait expresses to the fullest extent, “the power of [Beckmann’s] imagination[3]” since both of these subjects were not present in the same room for the painting, but it emphasizes the power of friendships in a time of crisis (such as the aftermath of World War II).

The composition of Double Portrait also plays a key role in expressing the context during which this painting was created. Beckmann places both figures diagonally in between an object that appears to be a table and an ambiguous window-like feature or mural showing a slight recession into space. The sharp angles of the object directs the viewer’s eye to Curt Valentin who holds a candle,  which further brings the eye to the figure of Hanns Swarzenski, who holds an Old Fashioned Glass. The placement of both of these figures on the canvas suggests a world in which oppression reigns, dreams are crushed and hope remains for those who long for better and peaceful times.

The world outside of this opening is a physically and psychologically cruel one, suggesting that the only life that is worth living, are the lives of Beckmann’s two friends; Hanns and Curt. With its somber shades of grey juxtaposed with the dark, oppressive (but yet seductive) colors of the interior space in which the two figures are placed, Beckmann expresses the uncertainties of the times as well as his psychological state of mind.

The physical and spiritual destruction of humanity, including the atrocities caused by World War II are emphasized by the hues of deep blues, purples, and black accentuated with splotches of green, red, gray and orange. Beckmann said in his lecture at the New Burlington Gallery, that “it is the dream of many to see only the white and truly beautiful, or the black, ugly and destructive. But I cannot help realizing both, for only in the two, only in black and in white, can I see God as a unity creating again and again a great and eternally changing terrestrial drama[4].”

The difficulties of life, the powerful emotions of fear and anxiety, and the hopeless feeling that detains the soul are all captured in Beckmann’s Double Portrait of 1946. The subject matter Beckmann chose to represent in Double Portrait speaks to the power of friendships in a time of crisis while the composition serves as a testament to the cruel realities of war and the oppression it forces upon humanity.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston has a few amazing pieces by Beckmann. This one is currently on view.


[1] Herschel B. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1968), 189

[2] Tony Richardson and Nikos Stangos, ed. Concepts of Modern Art (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), 48

[3] Ibid., 48

[4] Herschel B. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1968), 188

The Home According to Rachel Whiteread

Double Doors II (A+B), Rachel Whiteread. Plasticized plaster with interior aluminum framework, two panels. Accession Number: 2008.643.1-2. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

A series of posts inspired by pieces in the collections of Boston area museums.

As of last week, I spotted these doors at the MFA which were part of Whiteread’s show Place/Village. Today, the MFA online collections catalog says these are not on display.

For Rachel Whiteread, a house is only a skeleton draped in a beautiful fabric. For a house to become a home, this fabric must be covered in bits of history from its past inhabitants. What makes a home for Whiteread are the empty and often neglected spaces that are ever present in our lives. These spaces convey a sense of a history, a journey into our past.

Place/Village, Rachel Whiteread. Image: http://www.treehugger.com

In Village (Place/Village 2008, was exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts in 2008) Whiteread has assembled vintage doll houses on top of wooden crates to resemble “communities” similar to those in any city or town on earth. The houses projected a feeling of emptiness and solitude, lacking the human interaction and emotions associated with a home. Individually, these dolls houses appeared ghostly and eerie, however when seen in context to the larger exhibit, they projected a sense of warmth, the same feeling that transforms a house into a home. Placed in a dark room, these houses illuminated the empty and forgotten spaces in a house, visually peeling away those layers rich in history that make a house a home.

Domesticity for Whiteread is found within the house. Traces of human interaction are the core of a house, they are the organs that breathe life to it and transform it into a home. Doors, windows, packing boxes, stairs are for Whiteread, the objects of domesticity that complete a home. Usage, in other words, an old door full of marks convey the same message a home conveys. The doors in Whiteread’s exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts are executed with crisply defined lines and geometric shapes, further conveying the feeling of harshness and emotional emptiness found in a house. At close inspection, these doors tell a different story through scrapes and discolorations as well as missing hardware.

The materials Whiteread employs in her work are industrious, cold and unglamorous. The solitude and desolation felt in Village is softened only by golden shimmering lights coming from within the doll houses. Whiteread’s work employs very minimal use of color, further emphasizing the emptiness and solitude that a house conveys.  

Rachel Whiteread has said that her work produces a remarkable awareness of our enduring “presence through absence.” Her drawings are all executed on graph paper suggesting order upon all the chaos that exists in the world and in our lives.  The world, like a house for Whiteread is a void that can only be filled and molded by leaving one’s “fingerprints” upon its surfaces. 

For Whiteread, a house must undergo multiple transformations and stages for it to become a home. For a house to become a home one must also undergo the same physical and emotional transformations. Whiteread’s work reminds us all to unpack our lives physically and emotionally to live in the moment. Living in the moment requires us to leave our fingerprint on one’s path to turning a house into a home. The world constantly places one inside this void creating moments that present challenges and opportunities which further allows one to transform one’s life. Rachel Whiteread attempts to shrink the distance between herself and this empty box by breaking away from the crisp lines of the graphing paper which she draws on or the smoothness of the plaster and rubber which she sculpts with. The works of Rachel Whiteread speak to the insincerity and emptiness found in this world. At close inspection they exhibit many impurities that allow one to break away from the rigidity of every day life.

The impurities in Whiteread’s works best capture this “presence through absence” that transforms a house into a home.  For a house to be a home and a place to be a community there needs to be an emotional connection between the present and the past. For Whiteread, it is this emotional connection that breathes a “presence through absence” in a home, a connection that must be cultivated through time.

Art of the Ancient Near East in Boston

Winged protective deity, two alabaster reliefs from the northwest palace at Calakh, 883-859 BCE, Assyrian, Reign of Assurnasipal II.Nimrud (Calah, Kalhu), Iraq. Height x width x depth: 230x 132 x 9.4 cm (90 9/16 x51 15/16 x 3 11/16 in.) Accession Number 81.56 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

 A series of posts inspired by the recently opened American art wing at the Museum of Fine Arts. It highlights some pieces in Boston area museums.

Winged protective deity, two alabaster reliefs from the northwest palace at Calakh, 883-859 BCE, Assyrian, Reign of Assurnasipal II

Throughout history art has been used to legitimize and even achieve political power, it has been used as a vehicle for the dissemination of propagandistic messages in hopes of persuading people to change their attitude towards ideas or beliefs. The two alabaster architectural reliefs from the northwest Palace of Assurnasipal II are examples of such works of art, one of their primary functions was to legitimize the king’s rule and protect his power under enemy attacks.

Produced around 883-859 BCE in Assyria, the alabaster architectural reliefs of the winged protective deities emphasize the king’s power and importance through their monumentality and scale. The reliefs portray different winged deities with larger than life bodies. One deity is depicted pollinating a sacred tree and  another holding a small scepter. These figures were not only meant to protect the king from intruders or enemies, but to simultaneously intimidate and astonish those who stood in front of them.  The wings, depicted larger than the body themselves convey a message of power and authority.

The lines in the alabaster and the shallowness of the reliefs in particular the highly detailed wings and the garment worn by the figures add a rich texture further emphasized by the light falling upon the surfaces of the stone. The subtle play of light and shadow on the relief delineates the highly muscular arms and legs, heightening the drama that was to unfold as one would approach the palace of the king. The art of the Ancient Near East would have been painted in bright colors, so the play of light and shadow falling upon the surface of the alabaster would have been different than what we see today.

Light and shadow also create a rich contrast between the soft curves of the muscles in the legs and arms with the stark linear patterns in the beards and wings. The two alabaster architectural reliefs legitimized and protected the power of the king through their monumentality, highly abstract linearity and geometry which is further heightened by the play of light and shadow falling upon the surface of the alabaster.

Have you seen this piece at the Museum of Fine Arts? They are two of the most dramatic pieces in the Art of the Ancient Near East galleries.

Review: Mark Bradford

Photo of Mark Bradford by Fredrik Nilsen, courtesy: theartnewspaper.com

When Nicholas Baume left his position as chief curator of the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston (ICA) in 2009 to join the Public Art Fund of New York City, the future of Boston’s contemporary art scene was questioned.  With Baume’s curatorial insight, the ICA organized the first major museum retrospective of artists Tara Donovan and Shepard Fairey, thereby breaking attendance records (and bringing in tons of dough) and shining a light on Boston’s contemporary art scene. Since Baume’s departure, the ICA has exhibited a retrospective of Roni Horn and Damian Ortega organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art and Tate Modern in London respectively.  In its quest to continue breaking the blurred boundaries of the art world, the current exhibition at the ICA is the first museum survey of the Los Angeles born and based artist Mark Bradford.

Organized by The Wexner Center for the Arts at The Ohio State University, Mark Bradford (November 19 – March 13, 2011) is one of the most powerful exhibitions I have seen in recent memory. Bradford is known for his large scale abstract paintings which resemble dense political and physical maps. These paintings are created out of carefully selected found materials which include, but not limited to, weathered billboard paper, permanent weave end paper, newsprint, carbon paper, and wrapping paper. In spite of their abstract qualities, Bradford’s works are filled with subject matter and intense social commentaries.

Experiencing the works in the exhibition, the phrase “silence is golden” constantly came to mind. The moment one is confronted with a work of art, in particular one created by a contemporary artist, “silence is golden” does not apply. But as I stood in front of Bradford’s larger than life paintings, I wanted to find words that would help me explain the emotions I was feeling.  I was struck speechless by the intensity of the materials, colors and images and texts in Bradford’s works.

Untitled (Shoe), 2003. Billboard paper, acrylic gel medium, and additional mixed media. 30 x 31 1/2 inches. The Speyer Family Collection. Photo: Bruce M. White.

Among the works that still resonate with me are Untitled (Shoe) 2003, Scorched Earth, 2006 and Black Venus, 2005. In Untitled (Shoe), Bradford has taken a billboard advertisement for Reebok sneakers and peeled away the image of the shoe leaving only its outline.  With this piece, Bradford is making a commentary on black identity and sneaker culture, “I feel black male masculinity, especially in the last 10 or 15 or 20 years has been narrowed based on a kind of popular culture. Popular culture has determined that [as] black males, we exist in about two or three different models, the sports figure, the gangster figure, or the reverend.” Mark Bradford employs stereotypes to break away stereotypes.

Scorched Earth, 2006. Billboard paper, photomechanical reproductions, acrylic gel medium, carbon paper, acrylic paint, bleach, and additional mixed media on canvas. 94 1/2 x 118 inches. Collection of Dennis and Debra Scholl. Photo: Bruce M. White

In Scorched Earth, Bradford uses a dramatic and unforgettable red and black palette to reference the moment in history when in 1921 35 city blocks in Tulsa, Oklahoma were burned and destroyed in the riots resulting from the tensions between blacks and whites. In Black Venus, Bradford “examines class-race, and gender based economies that structure urban society in the United States.”

“”I was always supported in the domestic realm, and I was always strong about standing up for myself, but there were still struggles in my life. Reading about the postmodern condition made me realize it was about independence, about doing your own thing. And that’s a state of mind. It’s not an art work or a book. It’s a state of mind. Fluidity, juxtapositions, cultural borrowing- they’ve all been going on for centuries. The only authenticity there is what I put together.” – Mark Bradford

Black Venus, 2005 Detail. Mixed media collage, 130 x 196 inches. Courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co. Image taken from Art21’s documentary on Mark Bradford as shown on PBS.

Mark Bradford at the ICA has the potential of igniting a rich dialogue on the urban landscape and race relations in America (in particular Boston, since the exhibition is currently in the city). His grid-like paintings resemble physical, political and topographic maps, allowing the viewer to imagine the rivers, mountains, lakes, elevations, boundaries or the ideological differences that divide and unite people. I loved this exhibition! I loved it because it is powerful and unabashed in exposing the economies of urban centers and their impact on people of color living in America today. I loved it because Mark Bradford is one of the few contemporary artists of color dealing with these questions through abstract art.

Will you go and see the exhibition, contemplate Bradford’s works in silence (go on a Friday night) and start a dialogue of your own?

Review: High Style: Betsy Bloomingdale and the Haute Couture

Evening Gown, Label: Christian Dior, Gianfranco Ferré for Christian Dior, Autumn-Winter 1989-1990, Silk Crepe, Silk Organza. Gift of Mrs. Alfred Bloomingdale. FIDM Museum Collection. 2006.116.113 Photo Credit: Brian Sanderson, FIDM Photography

Betsy Bloomingdale rose to fashion fame in 1964 when she appeared on the “Empress of Fashion” Eleanor Lambert’s Best Dressed List. Noted again in 1968 and inducted into the International Hall of Fame in 1970, Bloomingdale collected haute couture fashion for more than 30 years, in the process redefining style in America. Widow to Alfred Bloomingdale, once heir to the Bloomingdale empire and a principal founder of the Diner’s Club credit card, Mrs. Bloomingdale’s enduring sense of style is the subject of a new exhibition at the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts.

Curated by the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles, High Style: Betsy Bloomingdale and the Haute Couture (in Lowell from August 14, 2010 – January 2, 2011) illustrates Mrs. Bloomingdale’s passion for the most exquisitely crafted garments by her favorite fashion designers. The creations of Hubert de Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, James Galanos for Amelia Gray, Gianfranco Ferré for Christian Dior and Oscar de la Renta among many other designers are all beautifully presented in this exhibition.

“Who are you wearing?” is the famous question we hear a hundred times over at the Academy Awards and Golden Globes. As a celebrity obsessed culture, we’re interested in what stars like Nicole Kidman (who professes her love for the creations of Balenciaga), Sarah Jessica Parker or Charlize Theron are wearing. The art and science of haute couture extends beyond the red carpet. In 1868 Charles Frederick Worth founded the Chambre de la Haute Couture, the labor organization that forever changed the world of high fashion.

Evening Dress, Label: Givenchy, Hubert de Givenchy, Autumn-Winter 1968-1969, Silk Velvet, Cockerel feathers. Gift of Mrs. Alfred Bloomingdale. FIDM Museum Collection. 77.116.14

A trademarked term, haute couture can legally and only be used to describe garments made by official members of the Chambre Syndicale. These members must follow very strict rules and produce garments of the highest quality and made of luxurious and expensive materials. If this doesn’t sound daunting enough, workrooms must be located in Paris and each house must employ a minimum of 20 seamstresses. Each house is also required to have a private clientele which today consists of approximately 200 clients worldwide (that’s a combined total, a shocking number which alludes to the price of each gown!).

Each garment, which takes an average of about 300 to 1,000 hours to create, is made by hand and fitted to the client’s measurements. The finished piece is truly a breathtaking work of art.

The pieces part of the exhibition are accompanied by gorgeous hand drawn sketches and photographs of Mrs. Bloomingdale wearing her creations to high profile events like the wedding of Princess Diana and dinners at the White House.

The catalog for the exhibition is disappointing, it is very expensive for its size and does not do any justice to the pieces in the show.

My favorite pieces in the exhibition include an evening gown (2003) executed in red iridescent taffeta with vertical ruffles on the lower half by Oscar de la Renta as well as an evening dress (1968-1969) by Hubert de Givenchy made of silk velvet with cockerel feathers (pictured in this post).

Evening Gown, Label: Christian Dior, Gianfranco Ferré for Christian Dior, Autumn-Winter 1989-1990, Silk Crepe, Silk Organza. Gift of Mrs. Alfred Bloomingdale. FIDM Museum Collection. 2006.116.113 Detail.

The gowns in the exhibition tell the story of Betsy Bloomingdale and her passion for haute couture. Mrs. Bloomingdale created a personal style which has transcended and endured the test of time, further shedding light on Coco Chanel’s famous quote “fashion fades, only style remains the same.” This exhibition at the American Textile History Museum is NOT TO BE MISSED.

End of Summer Architectural Day Trip: The Architecture of the Piscataqua

The Architectural Heritage of the Piscataqua: Houses and Gardens of the Portsmouth District of Maine and New Hampshire by John Mead Howells is considered a classic book on the colonial architecture of the seacoast region of New Hampshire and southern Maine. No longer in print, the architectural monograph is replete with black and white exterior and interior photographs and floor plans of some of the most influential houses in American architecture. Two years ago, while browsing through the art and architecture section at the Brattle Bookshop in Boston, I came across a gorgeous used copy of The Architectural Heritage of the Piscataqua. I knew I would study the images in the book for years to come and had no other option but to buy it. During my New Hampshire vacation two weeks ago, my friend and I headed to Portsmouth (a familiar territory) on a day trip to explore the architectural heritage of the Piscataqua region. 

Located a stone throws away from the campus of the University of New Hampshire (UNH), Portsmouth offers an all-inclusive education in American colonial architecture. In fact, while a student at UNH, Portsmouth was my personal “on the field” classroom while I took a 17th and 18th century American Architecture course (we did not go on any fieldtrips considering Portsmouth is only about a ten minute drive from the UNH campus). This course not only introduced me to the colonial architecture of the East, South and Midwestern parts of the country, but also to the driving influences of pattern books and architectural treatises including Leon Battista Alberti’s De re aedificatoria (1452, Ten Books on Architecture) Sebastiano Serlio’s Il Settimo Libro Archittetura del Serglio (1575), Andrea Palladio’s  I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura (The Four Books of Architecture)  to Inigo Jones, the English architect who fell in love with Palladio and gave us the first English translation of The Four Books of Architecture.  

The following are just some of the houses you’ll encounter in Portsmouth.

The Jones House, part of the Strawbery Banke Museum was built around 1790. The Strawbery Banke museum is Portsmouth most popular destination, an outdoor history museum containing more than 40 restored buildings spanding the 17th through the 19th century. For more information, visit http://www.strawberybanke.org

Goodwin mansion. Built around 1811, the Goodwin Mansion served as the home of civil war governor Ichabod Goodwin from 1832-1896. The house has a beautiful recreated Victorian garden. For more information, visit http://www.strawberybanke.org

The Governor John Langdon House was built around 1784 by the Governor himself. This house is considered to be one of the best examples of the Georgian style fully developed in the colonies and according to Howells “both interior and exterior show the mastery which our builders, joiners and carvers had achieved over their materials.” The house is owned by Historic New England and is open to the public for viewing. For more information visit http://www.historicnewengland.org

The MacPheadris-Warner House is considered to be one of the earliest extant brick urban mansions in the country. It was built in 1716-1718 for Archibald MacPheadris, a Scottish Captain. According to Howells’ The Architectural Heritage of the Piscataqua, the gambrel roof of the house is not original, instead there was a double peaked roofs running the entire length of the house with deep valleys between them. This beautiful example of an early Georgian house in New Hampshire is 2 ½ stories tall with symmetrically placed equal number of rooms on each side. The exterior door with its segmental pediment acknowledges one’s arrival both physically and symbolically, it builds up the anticipation for its lavish interior. As you can see from this picture, the segmental arch above the door is missing, the house has been under restoration for a number of years, proof that preservation is not only costly, but also a lengthy process as well. For more information visit,www.warnerhouse.org.

The Moffatt-Ladd House built around 1763 is a full three story house signifying the progression of wealth in the colonies. It is a refined Georgian house with a free standing Greek portico and a grand asymmetric plan. The house is owned and maintained by The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the State of New Hampshire (NSCDA-NH) and has been open to the public since 1912. For more information visit http://www.moffattladd.org. Although I have photographed this house myself in the past, I cannot locate such images therefore I am borrowing this image from Birdgal5 on Flickr.

One of my favorite houses in Portsmouth is the Larkin-Rice House. Built in 1815 by Samuel Larkin, this gorgeous, understated and highly refined Federal style house has been attributed to both Benjamin Latrobe for its similarities to the Burd House in Philadelphia (sadly demolished) and to Charles Bulfinch, architect of the Massachusetts State Capitol. This image was taken by “Dan,” for more images of other historical places in New England, click on the image. I will update the image when I visit Portsmouth again in the future.

If you are ready to indulge in 17th and 18th century architecture in New England, Portsmouth is one of two distinct coastal destinations (the other being Salem, MA) to spend a weekend day trip exploring the fascinating architecture and gardens  of Colonial America. Grab your copy of The Architectural Heritage of the Piscataqua (it’s a big book!) or any other 17th and 18th century American architecture guidebook and head to Portsmouth. This seacoast town in New Hampshire has many historic house museums, great restaurants and shops all within walking distance from one another! It is the perfect day trip for all those architectural history geeks like myself or those interested in naval American history or historic gardens.  The houses discussed in this post are only a handful of the historic treasures waiting to be re-discovered by you.   

Have you gone to Portsmouth, if so, do you have a favorite house?

Additions: The American Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts

I try make it to the MFA as often as I can, there’s always something new to see and learn. For the last few years, the MFA has been undergoing an expansion and many works of art have been out of sight and in storage, some galleries have closed and others have opened in their places.  This November a new wing dedicated to the Art of North, Central and South America will open and I’m already counting down, it’s been too long without seeing some of the finest American art in any American collection. Below are some images of this new wing I snapped on Friday. Learn more by clicking this link.

Project Architects:  Foster and Partners