Archive for February, 2011

Gertrude Stein gets rejected in style; her style

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

Courtesy of Letters of Note, check out this brilliant rejection letter sent by editor Arthur C. Fifield to Gertrude Stein of “a rose is a rose is a rose” fame in 1912:

Gertrude Stein rejection letter

Given the 1912 date, I suspect Mr. Fifield was so spiritedly rejecting Stein’s second book, Portrait of Mabel Dodge at Villa Curonia.* Her first book was 1909’s Three Lives, a trilogy of novellas. It had been fairly successful and Stein was already well-known for her and her brother Leo’s impressive art collection of Matisses, Picassos, Gauguins, Braques, Cézannes, Renoirs, Toulouse-Lautrecs, and her Saturday evening salons which many of her favorite artists attended religiously along with the rest of bohemian turn of the century Paris.

Her fame and earlier publishing success weren’t enough to make Stein’s repetitious, abstract, stream of consciousness style in Portrait of Mabel Dodge at Villa Curonia appeal to publishers. Everyone she sent the manuscript to rejected it. Ultimately it made it into print thanks only to Mabel Dodge herself who privately published 300 copies, all of which are now hugely valuable collector’s pieces.

Mabel Dodge Luhan was an heiress and art patron who between 1905 and 1912 held court at Villa Curonia, a Renaissance estate outside of Florence that had been built by the Medici family in the 15th century. She met Gertrude Stein in 1911 and they became friends. She loved Stein’s writing, appreciating the music in the cadences and rhythms that seem to have failed to impress poor Mr. Fifield.

Mabel encouraged her writing and invited her to stay at Villa Curonia many times. “Please come down here soon,” Mabel wrote Gertrude in 1913. “The house is full of pianists, painters, pederasts, prostitutes, and peasants. Great material.”

"Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2," Cubo-FuturiEst painting by Marcel Duchamp that caused a huge ruckus at the Armory ShowShe was tickled pink when Gertrude composed a word portrait of her and her beautiful home during one of her many stays at Villa Curonia, so when publishers rejected the manuscript, Mabel Dodge stepped up to the plate. She distributed those 300 copies at the 1913 New York Armory Show, aka the International Exhibition of Modern Art — the first exhibit of modernist art in the United States, which of course scandalized art critics and public — and they would make her famous.

* EDIT: I was wrong. I double checked the dates and Stein didn’t write Portrait until October of 1912. The manuscript Fifield rejected must have been The Making of Americans, a novel Stein worked on in bursts between 1903 and 1911. It would remain unpublished until a small French press published a 500 copy run in 1925. Mabel loved it, though. She thought it was revolutionary and brilliant. In a 1911 letter to Stein, Dodge wrote about The Making of Americans:

To me it is one of the most remarkable things I have ever read. There are things hammered out of consciousness into black & white that have never been expressed before — so far as I know. States of being put into words, the “noumenon” captured — as few have done it. To name a thing is practically to create it & this is what your work is — real creation… your palette is such a simple one — the primary colors in word painting & you express every shade known & unknown with them. It is as new & strange & big as the post-impressionists in their way &, I am perfectly convinced, it is the forerunner of a whole epoch of new form & expression …. I feel it will alter reality as we know it, & help us to get at Truth instead of away from it as “literature” so sadly often does.


Only Maurice Sendak mural goes to Philly museum

Monday, February 7th, 2011

In 1961, two years before he made it big with Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak painted a mural on the bedroom wall of two very, very lucky children. Larry and Nina Chertoff were six and four years old respectively when “Uncle Moo Moo” painted a joyful parade of children and animals on their wall as a favor to their parents who were close friends of his.

Chertoff Mural by Maurice Sendak, 1961

That’s Jennie in the front, Maurice Sendak’s dog who would later star as Max’s dog in Where the Wild Things Are. The bear is also reminiscent of illustrations Sendak did for Else Holmelund Minarik’s 1957 Little Bear series. Oh, and if you look at the umbrella in the lion’s tail you’ll see the words Larry and Nina painted in it.

When their mother, Glynn Chertoff, died a few years ago, they had to relinquish the Upper West Side apartment (it was one of those long-term rent-controlled New York situations, I gather). Larry and Nina realized they had to do something to preserve the mural or else it would just be painted over rental beige for the next tenants and the only surviving mural by Maurice Sendak would be lost forever. So they contacted the Rosenback Museum & Library in Philadelphia, the museum chosen by Sendak himself to host a massive archive of 10,000 pieces of his art and writings, and the owners of the apartment building to see what could be done.

Most wonderfully, the property owners agreed to allow the museum to take out the entire wall. The museum was able to work out the challenging logistics so that the 4-by-13-foot mural could go from the 13th (yes!) floor of a New York apartment building to Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square where it would become a star of the Rosenback’s Maurice Sendak Gallery.

In New York, it took a week – and a helpful vertical crack between the girl and the lion, the result of a heating pipe inside – to cut out the wall and carry it out of 241 Central Park West. The doormen cheered as the two sections, weighing 1,400 pounds, departed.

For the next three years, the mural sat face up on a special table built in the converted horse stables of Milner & Carr Conservation on Cadwallader Street in North Philadelphia, awaiting funding, nerve, and expertise. (The cost of the restoration project, including both moves, will total $200,000.) Treated to relax the paint’s brittleness, it was covered with muslin, the figures silhouetted.

It was briefly turned facedown, in order to smooth over the back (the living-room side). Finally, its weight having been shaved to about half a ton, it was loaded Jan. 19 into a white box truck and secured. The truck, with its whimsical band of marching characters on board, took its own charming, if nerve-racking, ride through the city, ending on tiny, snow-covered Panama Street behind the Rosenbach (where, of course, a garbage truck immediately tried to get down the same alley).

Once inside, the mural was wheeled and raised by pulleys, ropes, chains, and men, and finally lifted onto a specially built half-wall. Alas, when it settled onto its new base, a small horizontal fissure about a third of the way down one side opened. But all in all, there was relief.

Myers at work restoring the muralThere is beige paint overlapping the edges of the characters, courtesy of some house painters who, just like the adults in Max’s life, wouldn’t listen to Larry when he told them not to paint between the figures. There are some cracks and some paint flaking, and of course the two pieces need to be united. Conservator Cassie Myers is restoring the mural. On Wednesdays for an hour at noon and 6:00 PM, the public will be allowed to view the restoration in progress.

The restoration is scheduled to be completed in March. There will be a grand unveiling which Mr. Sendak is planning to attend, and then the mural will be on permanent display complete with multimedia touch screens and video of the wild rumpus that brought the parade from New York to Philly.


1900-year-old Roman highway found in Britain

Sunday, February 6th, 2011

The path of the full roadResearchers have uncovered a half-mile stretch of one the earliest roads the Romans built in Britain. Part of a road system that joined London and Exeter, the road is an astounding 85 feet wide and more than 15 feet high, with deep ditches on either side of the central cobbled earthworks. The central street is what the troops who built it marched on, the ditches were for drainage, and the other roads for droving cattle.

It’s possible that the remarkable height of the road was a public relations stunt. No doubt thousands of armored Roman soldiers tramping down that long podium would have made quite an impression to a newly-conquered people.

Found deep in Puddletown Forest, Dorset, the road was known to exist somewhere in the area, but although the Forestry Commission had been looking for it for a long time, there were many densely planted Norway spruce fir trees obscuring it. They cleared some of the trees in Puddletown Forest on the advice of English Heritage expert Peter Addison, and voila! Hugenormous Roman highway turns up.

The Forestry Commission will not be replanting the trees. The tentative plan is to allow the road to grass over, but that’s in the future. Right now the commission hopes archaeologists will explore the site in greater detail.

Roman road, Dorset


Checkmate, Madison!

Saturday, February 5th, 2011

Ivory chess pawn toppers, Montpelier estateArchaeologists excavating a midden heap (i.e., historical trash pile) on Montpelier, James Madison’s Virginia estate, found small pieces of what they thought were bone sewing bobbins. Upon closer inspection they revealed themselves to be the toppers of pawns in an ivory chess set, a set that saw Founding Fathers Madison and Thomas Jefferson play marathon games against each other.

The two fragments provided researchers with enough detail to identify the exact kind of set they came from.

18th c. chess set in Montpelier drawing roomMontpelier officials consulted with chess scholars to determine the style of set that produced the small fragments, which were found in a trash pit. The officials concluded that Madison’s set had red pieces based on three surviving pieces at Tudor Place, a historic home in Georgetown. The pieces purportedly belonged to Madison and are said to have been given to him by Benjamin Franklin, Hastings said. Those pieces are white and red.

With the style identified, Montpelier officials set out to find an appropriate specimen.

“We got very lucky in our ability to find this set as quickly as we did, once we confirmed what we wanted,” Hastings said.

“You might, if you were very clever, and if you were online a lot looking at major auctions, you might find two or three [such sets] a year,” she said. “They’re not exceedingly rare but they’re not very common either.”

When the identical 18th century white and red ivory chess set set came up for auction in London, Montpelier curators were able to buy it. Once they navigated the masses of paperwork needed to import ivory into the United States, they shipped the chess set to the estate and put it on display in the Montpelier Drawing Room. The total cost, from set to shipping to fees, came out to $2,800, which is a steal, if you ask me.

Montpelier curators have been working assiduously to recreate the original furnishings and interiors from Madison’s time. The estate had been in the family since the early 1700s. James Madison retired there after his second term as president of the United States in 1817 and lived there until his death in 1836. His vivacious wife Dolley, widely considered the first First Lady who defined the role for future President’s wives, sold the property in 1844.

The wealthy du Pont family bought it in 1901 and built onto it extensively, although Marion du Pont did at least take care to preserve the core of the estate in historically appropriate condition. She willed it to the National Trust for Historic Preservation after her death in 1983. In 2003, the Trust undertook a full renovation, returning Montpelier to its 1820 appearance. That restoration was completed in 2008, but curators are constantly looking for furniture, wallpaper, game tables, anything that either was in the house in Madison’s day or could well have been.

The chess set, site of what Thomas Jefferson’s granddaughter Ellen Wayles Coolidge described as regular four hour games between the third and fourth Presidents, is thus as important to the history of the estate as it is charming.


First film of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes discovered

Friday, February 4th, 2011

Sergei Diaghilev, photograph by Jan de Sterlecki, 1916Sergei Diaghilev, founder and director of the famous Ballets Russes dance company that revolutionized the genre in the second decade of the 20th century, was a notorious control freak. He refused to allow any of his company’s performances to be filmed, so the only moving picture footage we have of Ballets Russes dancers is of individual stars like Vaslav Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova.

Or so we thought. Thanks to a couple of exceptional ballet nerds, Susan Eastwood of the London Ballet Circle and Jane Pritchard, curator of the Victoria & Albert’s Ballets Russes exhibit, a half a minute of Diaghilev’s company dancing in 1928 has been brought to light.

From Jane Pritchard’s blog entry announcing the find:

On Monday evening I did a ‘behind the scenes at the Diaghilev exhibition’ for the London Ballet Circle as a result of which one of their members, Susan Eastwood, contacted me first thing this morning and said she thought she have discovered some film of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes on the internet would I take a look. And yes, I think she is right. It is a curious newsreel with a very garbled catalogue entry. The Pathé catalogue states that the location of event unknown and describes the stage in a park surrounded by trees in an unidentified town in a valley. The dance is described as ‘One female dancer (representing Narcissus?) w/chorus of female dancers; ballerinas who pose while the male soloist dances.’ Well there is absolutely no doubt that this is Montreux in Switzerland during their annual June festival, Fêtes des Narcisses.

Susan spotted this curiosity and did some checking finding her clue in my ‘Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes – An itinerary Part II’ Dance Research 27.2 Winter 2009 which includes an photograph of Les Sylphides being performed at the 1923 Fêtes des Narcisses at Montreux in Switzerland. The title of the clip on the Pathé website of Festival of Narcissus encouraged Susan to contact me. Naturally I called the film up as we spoke and I think we now have to say there is a tiny fragment of film of the actual Ballets Russes.

Ms. Pritchard thinks the footage was filmed from a distance and without Diaghilev’s knowledge at Montreux’s 1928 Festival of Narcissus. The topiary arch you see in the film marks it as the 1928 event. Despite the Pathé catalog description of the lead dancer as female, Pritchard thinks that the lead is in fact a man, Principal Artist Serge Lifar, wearing a wig.

To see the only known footage of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, click here.


New York Public Library facade restored to gleaming

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

The New York Public Library turns 100 years old this year, and now that a three year, $50 million dollar restoration is complete, it can celebrate in gleaming high style.

NYPL facade before (above) and after (below)

The Stephen A. Schwarzman Building was completed in 1911, and was instantly lauded as a Beaux Arts masterpiece and an emblem of American populism. What would have been a fit abode for royalty in Europe in the United States was a library, a public palace open to all. New York City is hard on marble, though, and over the years the facade began to deteriorate, more so than people realized until conservators assessed the structure before restoration began.

A survey of the building’s condition by [architectural firm Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates] in preparation for the Centennial revealed severe deterioration and soiling of the façade, particularly in areas such as the Corinthian column capitals, lion head keystones and scroll modillions. The survey also revealed roof damage, severe oxidization of the building’s bronze doors and window casings, and cracking, surface loss and other problems with the sculptures, including the six colossal figures by Paul Wayland Bartlett over the columns, and the two fountains by sculptor Frederick MacMonnies, who also carved the Washington Square Park Arch and the Nathan Hale statue in City Hall Park.

Actual restoration began in 2008. Repairs included installing over 2,000 individually carved marble stones – called dutchmen – to replace damaged pieces of the façade. These replaced elements – such as the noses and chins of the lion head keystones – were carved by Master Stone Carver Shi-Hia Chen of B & H Art-In-Architecture Limited. All of the sculptures – originally carved by a series of famous artists – were repaired under the watchful eye of Mark Rabinowitz at Conservation Solutions, the fine art conservation consultant.

All told, over 7,000 instances of deterioration in the 150,000-square-foot façade were repaired, including 1,000 cracks sealed, 900 marble balustrades repaired, 350 bronze windows restored, as were the roof and the bronze doors. The Vermont marble of the entire façade was cleaned, using 200 gallons of concentrated soap. As NYPL President Paul LeClerc puts it, now it “gleams like an alabaster palace.”

NYPL window before NYPL window after NYPL pediment sculpture before NYPL pediment sculpture after

For those of you as obsessed with before and after pictures as I, you’ll enjoy the NYPL Facebook picture gallery of the restoration.

Also, here’s video of the ribbon-cutting ceremony including a fascinating description of the restoration process by architect Tim Allanbrook of Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates. That starts at the 6:50 mark and is not to be missed.


Monet’s “Water Lilies” to reunite in the Midwest

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

Inspired by his flower gardens in Giverny, Monet made hundreds of water lily-themed paintings in the last decades of his life. Among them was a large scale triptych he initially intended to display in the garden of the Hotel Biron in Paris in a gesture of World War I patriotism. Instead of putting the giant paintings on display, however, he kept them in his studio and never stopped working on them for the last 10 years of his life.

When he died in 1926, his son Michael inherited the triptych. In 1950 he sold it to a Paris art dealer, who six years later sold it to another dealer, Knoedler’s. Over the next four years, Knoedler’s split up the panels and sold each one to a different art museum. The left panel was purchased by the Cleveland Museum of Art, the center panel by the St. Louis Art Museum, and the right panel went to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri.

Each panel is 7 feet tall and 13 feet wide, so you can imagine even each on its own makes a spectacular museum piece. Since the divorce, they’ve only reconciled once in 1980. Come April 9th, the triptych will be a triptych again, starting with a display at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City.

In a separate, dedicated space, the paintings themselves will be displayed with side panels at slight angles to recreate something of the panoramic experience of the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris where several of Monet’s water lily triptychs are mounted.

“Monet painted these in the panoramic tradition, but with no horizon line, so it’s an internalized psychological panorama,” Kennedy said. “We want people to contemplate, to become completely submerged in the experience. There will even be background music as visitors enter the main display so people will have this meditative, almost yoga-like experience looking at the pictures.”

The Museum of Modern Art in New York City is the only other museum in the United States to have a Monet triptych on display.

The exhibit will also showcase Monet’s process as revealed by conservation work. Each of the three museums has prepared the pieces for travel with thorough cleaning and conservation, taking advantage of the opportunity to take detailed X-rays of the layers of paint and follow the changes Monet made over the decade that he worked on the painting. Those X-rays will also be on display.

The exhibition will run at Nelson-Atkins until August 7th. In September 2011, it will move to the Saint Louis Art Museum where it will remain until January of next year. The last stop will be the Cleveland Museum of Art in 2015, where it will be part of the museum’s 2016 centennial celebration.

Dean Yoder, Cleveland Museum of Art, cleans left panel of Monet's "Water Lilies" triptych


Tour world’s best museums using Google Art Project

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

Van Gogh's "Starry Night", and not even zoomed in all the wayFeel like visiting Versailles, the Hermitage or the Uffizi Gallery but can’t afford the time off and a few thousand dollars for transportation, lodging and admission? Well, now you can. Google, in collaboration with 17 of the world’s most famous museums, has deployed its Street View technology to give you a virtual experience of visiting these repositories of art and culture. It’s called Google Art Project and it’s mind-blowing.

You can tour the museum just like you’re there in person, clicking on individual pieces you want to learn more about and see up close. There are audio tours and YouTubes created by the museum staff to provide you with more information on what you’re seeing. There’s also an Artwork View that shows featured pieces in seven billion pixels of detail; that’s 1000 times more detailed than a regular digital picture. It also includes an information panel with links to other works by the artist and related YouTube videos. Lastly, there’s a “Create an Artwork Collection” feature so you can save any of the art you like, add comments and share it with friends.

Room 238, State Hermitage MuseumNot every gallery and artwork from every museum is in the Project. The curators of each museum chose what areas and pieces they wanted to focus on, and there are copyright issues that forced them to blur out certain images, so obviously it’s not the same as visiting in person (not that virtual tourism is ever the same as being there), but the high definition pictures of the featured artworks are so incredibly detail rich that you couldn’t possibly duplicate the experience in person.

These are the museums currently available for touring. Google will be adding more as they go along. Click the link to go directly to the Art Project tour:

Google Art Project has its own YouTube channel as well, with behind the scenes footage of how they photographed the museums. Here’s an overview video on how to navigate Art Project:






February 2011


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