Japonisme

Artists often seek to expand beyond their ‘comfort zones’, not just stylistically but culturally. There have been many examples of painters from the west traveling to other locales in search of new and different subject matter, and it’s understandable. I mean, how many times can one paint the Place de la Concorde? The foreign sojourns of famous artists have, in many cases, produced some of their most compelling works; Matisse in Morocco, Gauguin in Tahiti, Sargent in Venice, just to name a few.

With the Tokugawa period starting in 1600, Japan was ruled by a feudal military dictatorship and largely isolated from the west due to its ‘closed country’ policy, or sakoku, which lasted for over two centuries. I had to look all this up because my knowledge of Japanese history is abysmal! Around 1854, the campaign of Commodore Matthew Perry forced the opening of Japan’s commercial trade routes. As a result, demand for Japanese decorative arts, fashions, woodblock prints, screens, porcelains and the like, became quite the craze among well-to-do Europeans. Artists took note and drew inspiration from the Japanese aesthetic. It became known as Japonism, or the French ‘Japonisme’, and you can see these influences in many works from the mid to late 19th century.

Some painters opted to integrate eastern themes and techniques in their work from the comfort their studios, posing an evidently Western model in a kimono, while holding a fan, etc. Monet’s La Japonaise is a famous example, in which the artist’s wife Camille poses in Japanese dress. American expatriate James Abbot McNeill Whistler enthusiastically embraced the Japonisme fad. This work of his from 1865, Rose and Silver: The Princess from the Land of Porcelain, is a beautifully rendered studio creation despite the bogus title. The model is British-born Christina Spartali:

The Dutch also jumped on the Japonisme bandwagon. Between 1893 and 1896, George Hendrik Breitner painted a series of works depicting a young girl, sixteen year old Geesje Kwak, in variously colored kimonos. This one, Girl in a White Kimono, is a strong piece. The kimono is lovely, but I find Geesje’s facial expression and arm gestures more interesting:

I’ve posed in a kimono several times myself, and held fans. But I’d like to return to this post’s introduction about travel and highlight the works of two artist friends who actually packed up their supplies and made the trip to Japan, where they were able to observe its culture, its people, and its elegant gardens firsthand. They are two guys from Scotland, George Henry and Edward Atkinson Hornel, prominent members of the “Glasgow Boys” collective of Scottish painters during the late 1800s. They spent a year and half in Japan on a study tour and produced really colorful, striking, energetic works. Note how markedly different they are from the ‘staged’ Japanese-themed paintings.

First, three from George Henry.  Japanese Lady with a Fan, 1894:

A Japanese Pottery Seller:

Japanese Beauty, watercolor:

And three from Hornel. Dancing Geisha:

Street Scene in Tokyo:

Two Geisha Girls:

Poetry in Motion

Those of us who regularly ride the subways in New York know that it’s a strictly utilitarian experience; a massive transit system that moves millions of commuters around every day, across 300 square miles. Many of the train cars are drab as hell, very old, with zero aesthetic value. It’s not an atmosphere in which you expect to find inspiration. But occasionally, among the repetitive advertisement placards for personal injury lawyers, laser hair removal, and Homeland Security “If you see something, say something” slogans, a spot of artistic expression appears, thanks to the MTA’s “Poetry in Motion” project.

As I rode the train to Brooklyn recently for an art modeling job, I was moved by this pithy little gem from the American poet Galway Kinnell. It was mounted at the end corner of the train car near the doors. Something came over me, and I felt like I was falling in love. I typed the poem into my phone as a text message to myself so I could bring it with me.

Hide-and-Seek 1933, by Galway Kinnell

Once when we were playing
hide-and-seek and it was time
to go home, the rest gave up
on the game before it was done
and forgot I was still hiding.
I remained hidden as a matter
of honor until the moon rose.

What is it about this lovely poem that resonates with me so much? Perhaps that it’s a childhood recollection, something that I generally respond to, and I loved hide-and-seek as a little girl. One of my favorite games. Or maybe it’s the “matter of honor” in a little boy’s mind to respect the rules of the game, to carry out his commitment, and to not allow his quitter friends to influence him. He would rather defer to the poetic supremacy of the moon to give him his cues. I love it.

Boys Playing, by Victor Gabriel Gilbert:

Bow Brush Body

I have known Fred Hatt for almost 12 years. Over the course of our friendship, his inexhaustible well of artistic expression and experimentation has never ceased to amaze me. I’d like to share this mesmerizing Fred Hatt project with Museworthy readers. From Vimeo:

Strokes of a violin bow, traces of a paintbrush, and the gestures of the body: dancer Kuan-Ling Tsai, artist Fred Hatt, and musician Andrei Matorin bring three art forms together in a collaborative shadow-screen performance.

Where’s My Kale?

Leafy greens have rarely let me down in my modest, space/sun challenged little garden in Queens. Lettuces especially perform with gusto. This year I decided to add kale to the mix, planted in its own separate tub. The seedlings were off to a fine start, looking cute and perky. I checked them everyday, until one morning a few weeks ago when I went outside to the garden and the kale was … all gone! Poof. Eradicated. Annihilated. Devoured overnight by a mysterious ravenous pest! Nothing else was touched, only the kale. It was funny though and I laughed about it after my bewilderment passed. It felt like the vegetable gods declared, to paraphrase Seinfeld, “No kale for you!!

But my swiss chard survived the assault unscathed. Yay for swiss chard! Some of my early batch:

I’m no expert gardener by any means. I just wing it most of the time and the results are hit or miss, varying from year to year. I’ve had excellent carrots and so-so scallions, wayward dill and respectable mint. It’s all part of the fun for me. Plant some seeds, water, and see what happens. I’m eagerly awaiting my tomatoes which aren’t ripe yet but the plants are healthy and pest free.

Vegetable Gardens, Mikhail Berkos, 1895:

So Museworthy readers, what’s growing in your gardens? Any kale? 😆

Miss Gardner’s House

I took a day trip to Boston recently and if it turns out to be my only excursion out of New York this summer, that would be just fine. Because what a marvelous day it was! I took the train up to Beantown for two reasons: to see my dear friend Bill MacDonald and to visit, finally, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which was closed for renovations the last time I was in Boston a few years ago. The phrase “must see” might be overused at times, but in the case of the Gardner Museum it is truly appropriate. For art lovers of all stripes, the Gardner is absolutely a “must see”. What a great place! It is the embodiment of its founder – the flamboyant, eccentric art collector and philanthropist Isabella Stewart Gardner.

Painting of Isabella Stewart Gardner by Anders Zorn:

Bill led me first to the courtyard garden and I was instantly captivated. An exquisitely designed space that combines sculptural, architectural, and horticultural elements in beautiful, serene harmony. As I wandered around, it reminded me somewhat of The Cloisters gardens/courtyards in Fort Tryon Park.

Isabella Stewart was born in New York City in 1840 to a well-to-do family. When she was 20 she married John Lowell Gardner, a successful Boston businessman, and the couple spent years traveling the world collecting art, furniture, objects and antiquities. After John Gardner died, Isabella began to fulfill their shared dream of building a museum to house their treasures and display them for the public. On a marshy plot of land in Boston’s Fenway district, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was built. The maverick spirit of its patron infuses the place. Isabella Stewart Gardner served champagne and donuts on New Year’s Day, kept a pet lion, drank beer, was a faithful Red Sox fan, and a devout Episcopalian. She was Boston’s “Bohemian Millionairess”.

Light conditions inside the Gardner are not very conducive to photography, as it leans toward the dim. But I’ll share some pictures I took anyway even though they’re less than perfect. This one will be familiar to many of you. Nestled in its own private nook is this John Singer Sargent masterpiece, his famous El Jaleo:

Beautiful wall tiles around the garden perimeter:

One of the Gardner Museum’s quirks – an endearing one in my opinion – is its seemingly haphazard arrangement of its art and objects. The orderly, heavily curated groupings we usually see at other museums don’t exist at the Gardner. Instead, the randomness of a religious Renaissance painting hanging a few feet from a Degas pastel, or a hunk of medieval stained glass in the near vicinity of a Japanese screen, provides a peculiarly pleasurable experience in which you are not having a structured art history lesson forced upon you. You’re just enjoying Isabella’s treasures and seeing them arranged as she wanted you to see them.

The Gardner Museum was the site of a notorious art heist back in 1990. The thieves got away with thirteen works of art, among them a Vermeer and a large piece by Rembrandt, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee. Bill showed me the empty spaces on the gallery wall where those missing works used to be. But there are other Rembrandts there to see, notably one of his finest self-portraits, along with works by Titian, Raphael, Whistler, and Fra Angelico. Drawings, prints, decorative arts, Islamic, Asian, European, American … a magnificent medley of tastes and genres. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is without a doubt in my top three favorite museums.

After the Gardner, my gracious host and Boston tour guide Bill walked us just a short way over to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. What treasures awaited us there? Oh just some paintings by a guy named Botticelli, and another guy named Matisse. It was a damn good art day 😉

The icing on the cake of that lovely day was the cooperation of Mother Nature. The weather could not have been more perfect. Sunny, warm but not hot, a little breezy. Warm thanks to Bill for taking the time to spend a few hours with me. You’re my Boston man!

Swan Song

Artist’s models ply their trade in an assortment of venues, posing everywhere from prestigious fine art academies to grimy basement studios. We regard each of our venues in various ways based on our experiences: the one that pays us well, the one with clean fabrics and ample cushions, and the one that causes us aggravation, pretentious people here, nice, down-to-earth folks there. We feel appreciated at some, under-appreciated at others. Comes with the territory.

The National Academy, for me, is the place where my full time art modeling career was launched eleven years ago. I had gone up there just a week earlier to get my name on file, fill out the necessary forms, and let them know I was ready to start whenever they needed me. I had done the same at the Art Students League. Both schools gave me the old, “We have nothing right now but will call you if something comes up”. But lo and behold the call did come, just a few days later from Amelia, the then-model coordinator at the National Academy. With only 24 hours notice, she asked if I was available to fill in for a model who had to cancel. I was thrilled, and grateful for the opportunity. The class was Tuesday evening life drawing with Henry Finkelstein and, to my delighted surprise, it went spectacularly well. Within five minutes of being up on that platform I knew I wanted to do more of this work. I can honestly say that I was sorry the class had to end after three hours! Sitting on the train going back home to Queens, I knew my life was about to change.

In the years since that class, I’ve modeled continuously and steadily at the National Academy. I’ve seen model coordinators come and go, administrators come and go, models, instructors, and building staff come and go. But despite issues with management, model pay rates and other minor turmoils that institutions are prone to, I’ve never wanted to eliminate the school from my modeling roster. I couldn’t. My sentimental attachment to the place, primarily its role in giving me my first ‘break’, was too strong.

An old early photo of me posing for Sharon Sprung‘s painting class at the National Academy. Around 2007 I think:

So it’s with great sadness that I share the news that the historic National Academy, founded in 1825 by a group of Hudson River School artists, is closing this summer. It’s a major bummer for many reasons. Models are losing a work source, teachers are losing jobs, and the students – the eminently loyal, steadfast, longtime National Academy students who register for classes there every quarter – are losing their place of learning. The final summer sessions are underway and I am modeling for Dan Gheno‘s morning and afternoon Saturday painting class – a class I’ve modeled for more times than I can count. In a few weeks, on August 6th, the National Academy on East 89th Street in the Carnegie Hill section of Manhattan, will close its doors … permanently.

A photo of Dan’s class in Studio 2 from last week, with a work-in-progress painting of me by Diana Martocci:

The two painting studios in the National Academy are really fantastic. High ceilings, spacious, bathed in natural north light. Perfect conditions for painters. It doesn’t get much better than this. Photo of Studio 1 on the second floor:

I’ve always thought of the National Academy as the Art Students League without the drama. New York art people who read this blog will probably understand what I mean by that. While the two schools share a few instructors, and some students, the National Academy is devoid of the crowds, cramped spaces, politics, and weird tensions that exist at the League. What the National has been able to achieve all these years is strike the perfect balance between providing solid art instruction in an atelier style while also allowing students to freely express their individuality as artists. Throw in a warm, laid back, convivial environment and a superb location in the rarefied “Museum Mile” strip on Fifth Avenue, and you’ve got a pretty fine place.

Love this engraved lettering on the exterior of the school building:

The list of Academy members throughout its history reads like a who’s who of art luminaries. John Singer Sargent, Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer, Helen Frankenthaler, Chuck Close, William Merritt Chase, Richard Diebenkorn, Jasper Johns, Cindy Sherman, Philip Pearlstein, and Frank Gehry are just a few of its famous inductees.

I should clarify that the National Academy’s official announcement is calling this a “hiatus”, implying that the search is on for a new location where the school can be resurrected. I guess we can keep our fingers crossed and hope that happens. The museum part of the National Academy closed last year and the building sold. It is an elegant little gem of a Beaux-Arts mansion and I wonder about its fate. The school was the second shoe to drop. It’s a shame what’s happened. Now I can’t really speak intelligently about the issues which led to this, like how to manage a nonprofit while running on a deficit. I hear it can be done. But I suppose it’s always better to have balanced books, and better still to maintain a clear vision of an institution’s purpose, and engage in sound decision-making.

Then again, nothing lasts forever. Change is inevitable. And while I’m very sad about the Academy’s imminent closing, I’ll always cherish it as the place that set me on my art modeling journey. Thank you National Academy 🙂

In The Stillness

“Burnt Norton”, Four Quartets – T.S. Eliot

Time and the bell have buried the day,
The black cloud carries the sun away.
Will the sunflower turn to us, will the clematis
Stray down, bend to us; tendril and spray
Clutch and cling?

.  .  .Chill
Fingers of yew be curled
Down on us? After the kingfisher’s wing
Has answered light to light, and is silent, the light is still
At the still point of the turning world.

Flower Clouds, Odilon Redon: