Thought-Pourri: Shivering Spring Edition

In theory, I’m heading up to Newark, New Jersey on Saturday, to review the new exhibition “The Rockies & The Alps: Bierstadt, Calame, and the Romance of the Mountains”, which just opened at the Newark Museum. I say, “in theory”, because the weather forecast is still a bit iffy at the moment, calling for anywhere from a bit of sleet to up to 6 inches along the NE corridor. Being a creative sort, if I decide to err on the side of caution and stay home, I can still manage to write a piece about the show, even if I can’t get up there in person. Pity the poor cherry trees and spring bulbs here in the capital, as they are going to take a serious beating, whatever happens.

Now, on to some news.

Van Veen’s Venus

ArtNet has a great story about the discovery of a lost painting by the Dutch Old Master painter Otto Van Veen (c.1556-1629), which was found in the closet of a cultural center in Des Moines, Iowa. I’ll leave you to read the story about that picture, but use it as an excuse to explain that Van Veen is perhaps best known as being the teacher of the great Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), although during his lifetime he was a highly successful and talented painter in his own right. One of my favorite Van Veen paintings is his portrait of the wonderfully-named Nicolaas Rockox (1560-1640), a close friend and patron of Rubens who was a lawyer, politician, courtier, art collector, and philanthropist. He spent a significant amount of his personal fortune caring for the poor during his lifetime, as well as leaving an enormous legacy after his death. This particular portrait of Rockox hangs in the Rubenshuis, Rubens’ luxurious home and art studio in downtown Antwerp, which is now a museum.

Van Veen

Fixing The Frick

The Frick Collection is possibly my favorite museum in New York, thanks to its seriously impressive art collection, a beautiful building – the former Gilded Age mansion of industrialist Henry Clay Frick – and the fact that it’s never jammed in the way that The Met usually is on a weekend. Now, after many years of fits and starts in trying to expand the public footprint of the museum, the Frick has announced that it will soon begin construction which will increase the gallery space by 30%, and open the second floor of the mansion to the general public for the first time. The designs for the expansion, by the firm of architect Annabelle Selldorf, look suitably restrained, and preserve the overall look of the Frick rather than trying to overwhelm it with add-ons: I particularly like this aspect. Additional renovations will include a 220-seat underground auditorium, conservation laboratories, and – hopefully – new facilities, since when I was there two weeks ago I was reminded of the boy’s bathroom at my Catholic grade school, which was built in 1926. Construction at the Frick is slated to begin in 2020.

Frick

Pleasures Of Portugal

Finally, regular readers are familiar with my dear friend Diana von Glahn, a filmmaker and presenter specializing in documentary series about religious pilgrimages, several of which have aired on channels such as EWTN, Catholic TV, and Salt & Light. On April 28th, should you find yourself in the Philadelphia area you’ll have the chance to meet her, as well as sample Portuguese wines, and support production of her latest work, “The Faithful Traveler in Portugal”; a trailer for the new series appears below. Diana takes us to Lisbon, Porto, and Coimbra, among many other sites in Portugal, a country with a rich religious and cultural history, and if you’ve ever seen one of her films, you know that Diana not only provides viewers with far more information than you would get on your average Travel Channel show, but she does so with warmth, humor, and enthusiasm.

“Wines & Shrines of Portugal” will take place at Holy Martyrs Catholic Church in Oreland, PA on Saturday, April 28th from 6:00-9:00 pm, and tickets cost $50 per person. Space is limited, so to reserve your seat or request additional information, you can contact Holy Martyrs at (215) 884-8575, or email them at holymartyrssecretary@gmail.com

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At Home With Sorolla and Rusiñol: Two Very Different Artists, Two Very Similar Collectors

During my recent sojourn in Spain, I visited two rather impressive house/art museums which, to my surprise, had a more profound impact on me than I had anticipated when I set out to visit them. Originally, I only put them on my schedule in order to kill some time, before having to head to luncheons with different family members. Yet as it turned out, I was drawn deeply into each, coming to a greater level of appreciation for the work, times, and tastes of both of the artists who once lived in these homes.

Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923) and Santiago Rusiñol (1861-1931) are two of the greatest painters to have been working in Spain at the turn of the previous century. While many of their paintings are now in museums and private collections around the world, quite a few key works by each artist still hang in their respective homes, both of which are now museums which preserve and celebrate their art. The Museo Sorolla in Madrid is contained in the elegant Neoclassical mansion which Sorolla called home for the last decade or so of his life, and in which his family continued to reside for a number of years after his death, until they donated it and its contents to the Spanish state. The Museu del Cau Ferrat, which is located in the beach resort of Sitges, about half an hour south of Barcelona, was a seaside weekend home and studio for Rusiñol for almost 40 years, where he could get away from the city and invite small groups of artistic and literary friends to come visit; he donated it and his collections to the town to be preserved as a museum after his death.

Although they were contemporaries, Sorolla and Rusiñol differed rather substantially when it came to their outlook on their own art. Sorolla came from poverty, and he studied and worked extremely hard to climb to the top of the artistic profession in Spain. He often engaged in friendly competition with other society artists of the Gilded Age, including John Singer Sargent and Anders Zorn, (arguably) the greatest American and Swedish painters of the era. Like these artists he was more interested in painting ordinary people than in the well-known and well-to-do, but thanks to his great taste and skill he painted not only Spanish and European royalty and notables, but also famous Americans such as Louis Comfort Tiffany and President William Howard Taft, among others. His catalogue of commissions demonstrates how well-regarded he was internationally, at very high levels.

When not portraying the great and the good, Sorolla’s work focused on his family, traditional scenes from country life, and most especially on images of the seaside. His luminous beach paintings are perhaps his most famous works, and for good reason. In them we see naked children playing in the waves, ladies and gentlemen lounging about dressed in linen and straw hats, and hearty fishermen working on their nets, all enveloped in that intense Mediterranean sunlight which is extremely difficult to capture in photography, but which Sorolla manages to capture in order to give an almost internal radiance to his paintings. A famous example in the collection of the Museo Sorolla is “A Walk On The Beach” (1909), showing the painter’s wife and eldest daughter out for a stroll along the surf, with their white veils billowing in the breeze.

Sorolla

Rusiñol, on the other hand, was one of the original hipsters. Although he came from a well-to-do, bourgeois background, he chose to ally himself with the bohemian and avant-garde art movements of his time. Along with his closest friend, the great Catalan painter Ramon Casas, he painted subjects which would have been wholly inappropriate to polite society: prostitutes, street people, and so on. He became just as familiar with the bohemian hangouts of Paris as he was with the private clubs of the Barcelona bourgeoisie, where his art never quite felt at home, and encouraged the work of other, up-and-coming artists who became his friends, such as Picasso and Utrillo.

One example of Rusiñol’s very different approach to art from that of Sorolla is “The Morphine Addict” (1894), shown below. It is a disturbing image of Stéphanie Nantas, one of his preferred French models, which he painted in Paris during one of his sojourns there; it now hangs in the great hall of Cau Ferrat. In it we see the drug-addicted model in bed, having just given herself an injection that is starting to take effect. Her right hand clutches at the sheets, and her head pushes back into the pillow, as the narcotic begins to do its work. This is a world away from the elegant, languid Sorolla painting shown above.

Rusinol

Yet for all of their differences, and there are many, there is one thing that both Sorolla and Rusiñol had in common: they were obsessive collectors of art, antiques, and decorative objects. After visiting their homes, it becomes quite clear that each of them abhorred a vacuum as much as nature does, and to a greater extent than, today, with our love of minimalism, we would consider to be normal in a family residence. One would expect to see, for example, paintings by each of them, works of art gifted to them by their friends, some family photographs, and the like. But that is just the beginning of what a visit to each of these museums entails.

It’s no exaggeration to state that both Sorolla and Rusiñol wanted ALL THE THINGS: Gothic altarpieces; glazed ceramics; swords and armor; carved thrones; Baroque tapestries; inlaid marble tables; wrought iron candle stands; etc. And not everything was from Spain, either. Roman sculpture, Persian carpets, French ivories, Japanese lacquer screens, English walking sticks, Chinese temple vases – you name it, they had it. It would be impossible for me to try to describe how much *stuff* each of them had crammed into every corner of their houses, because no matter how much time you could spend in either of these museums, you couldn’t possibly see it all.

To get a flavor of what these places look like, you can visit my Instagram account and take a look at the pictures which I snapped at both museums. As this article is already running a bit long, I’ll only draw your attention to two aspects for your consideration. At the Sorolla home in Madrid, one of the most interesting details was the fact that the artist used old, decorated ceramic apothecary jars for storing and separating his brushes. I’ve seen these used before in homes and restaurants, as vases for flowers or for storing kitchen utensils, but I found this was a particularly novel – if indeed, slightly expensive – way of an artist keeping his tools organized.

Museo

Meanwhile, at Cau Ferrat, one of the most striking things about Rusiñol’s design for the ground floor of his house is the use of an intense, almost electric blue for nearly all of the walls in the public spaces. It is such a rich, saturated color, that the decision to use it as the background for his vast display of things such as glazed pottery or drawings by Casas, Picasso, and others, seems absolutely crazy – until you become accustomed to the space and realize that, somehow, the whole thing works. It’s also rather interesting that the (untalented and grossly overrated) French postmodern artist Yves Klein was widely credited with the use of this particular color, yet long before he was even born, Rusiñol was employing it to such a superb effect in what is, essentially, an art installation as much as it is home decorating.

Ferrat

The opportunity to see where an artist lived and worked is a rare thing, but to be able to see the objects that they loved still on their shelves or the like, and to be able to get a sense of how the artists used these things in their daily lives, makes the visit to an institution such as the Museo Sorolla or Cau Ferrat all the more of an intense learning experience.  In this case, despite many years of being familiar with the work of both of these painters, and assuming that they had nothing whatsoever in common with each other besides being from the same generation, I came to realize that both of them loved and appreciated beautiful things: women, furniture, holy water fonts, door knockers, bronze lamps, etc. I may have to do some more thinking about my preconceived notions regarding each of them.

The Destination Is The Destination 

One rule of polite society which I learned long ago is that, as a general rule of thumb, no one really cares to hear all of the details about your vacation. They want to know that you suffered no mishaps, and that you enjoyed yourself. And of course it’s helpful to have a very quick story or two ready, tailored to the person with whom you are discussing your trip, but that’s about it. So for those of you who were interested enough to follow my Instagram while I was on vacation – and most of my pics were of food rather than sightseeing activities – but not much besides, you may want to leave off reading at this point.

Otherwise, if you care to continue, I want to make just a few observations about travel more generally. For I hate to travel, as it happens, even though I must make the journey to get to where I want to go. My aversion perhaps has something to do with rejecting the old cliché about the journey being the destination, which is often adopted by those who have only a sense of the now and not the later. While I’m certainly interested in how you make the pudding, with all due respect to the cook I’m even more interested in actually eating it.

Part of my aversion to travel is the horror of traveling with other people who, in the present day, largely seem to view this shared activity as a forum for the indulgence of every kind of barbaric form of public behavior imaginable. But for the fact that some authority might still fine them for doing so, I would not be surprised to see the undulating, semi-naked, unkempt travelers who populate most airports and train stations today not bothering to go to the loo at all, but simply relieving themselves in their seats because they are too lazy to stop watching their phones. In that sense, “WALL-E” is, one suspects, a rather prescient film.

There’s also nothing like spending 7 hours in a flying aluminum tube, sharing your row with a couple of bitter Baby Boomers dressed as though they had rolled out of bed a few minutes before. In this case, Mr. and Mrs. Lemon, as I’ll call them, were a very dissatisfied pair indeed. They did nothing but bicker and complain throughout the flight, about things such as the temperature of the meal – which was perfectly fine – or why the covers on the pillows were not soft enough, or why the in-flight Starbucks isn’t as good as that in whatever putrid corner of Manhattan they happen to live in. Thank goodness for the extra gin in premium cattle class.

But let us not put all the blame on travelers, here, for we can’t forget that the people who control the procedural aspects of that journey are often part of the problem. Take travel on the AVE, for example. The AVE runs on the fastest and most extensive high-speed train network in Europe, knitting the major cities of the Iberian Peninsula together at speeds over 300km an hour and connecting them to the rest of Europe via high-speed French rail. The train is a great pleasure to ride, at least on the line I know between Barcelona and Madrid, for in under 3 hours, you can see everything from mountains to deserts, forests to vineyards, sprawling settlements to abandoned castles, from the comfort of wide leather seats with plenty of legroom – and that’s in tourist class.

That being said, it can be difficult to enjoy that journey when you can’t even get the journey started properly thanks to those charged with making it happen demonstrating the kind of gross incompetence that one expects at the Department of Motor Vehicles or The Prado Museum. At the train platform, I was told to go to a particular car, even though my ticket said I was to go to a different numbered car. I was then told on board by another person that this car was incorrect, and that I was to go back to the person who had told me to go there. Said person then told to go back to the same car, and tired of lugging my massive luggage and somewhat large self back and forth I sat down.

I was then told by someone else to leave that car, and to return to the same individual with whom I had started, and was told that no, now I had to go to another car all the way at the back of the next train. Not only had she neglected to explain this previously – twice – this detail was at all clear either from my ticket, or from the numbering of the cars themselves, which were not in ascending or descending chronological order. Bearing in mind that my grasp of Spanish is, while not perfect, at least close enough to native that no one ever addresses me in English when I’m in Spain, you can understand why I suspect, without being 100% sure, that the fault was probably not mine in this instance.

Despite all of the forgoing of course – and these are but two examples – I had a great time, and will likely be going back again in December/January. I’m doing so because, despite what conventional wisdom tells us, the journey really isn’t as important as the destination. I’m traveling not because I want to travel aimlessly. I’m traveling because I have a goal or destination in mind: being where I want to be. There are many things that can and should be learned from the journey itself, via reflection, experiences, and conversations, and I certainly have done so over the years. But the point of traveling is that I want my coffee at my favorite café in Barcelona, more than I want to flip through the in-flight magazine and come across an  interesting article.

You’re certainly welcome to dismiss me for being too rigid or too goal-oriented. But if you want to sit and complain about your corns coming on from how long the corridors are, or whine to your fellow passengers about how the WiFi on board wasn’t as good as what you have at home, you’ll be doing that without me. I’ll be making a bee-line for the exit, and my cab to downtown.