Sunday, April 16, 2017

Frédéric Bazille and the the Birth of Impressionism at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Frédéric Bazille and the the Birth of Impressionism

National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
April 9 - July 9, 2017

Reviewed by Ed Voves

The prologue to the 1948 film version of Hamlet, directed by Laurence Olivier, concludes with a controversial assertion. "This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind."

This line of cinematic psychoanalysis flashed into my mind as I considered the art of Frédéric Bazille (1841-1870). Bazille is the guiding spirit of an excellent new exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. The exhibit is partly biographical, as well as an inquiry into the origins of Impressionism.

On the surface, Bazille was not a Hamlet-figure. Affable and charming, Bazille was generous in support of his less affluent friends, Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Berthe Morisot called him "Big" Bazille and his tall, slightly-stooping frame figures in a number of pivotal early Impressionist works, several of which are on view in the  National Gallery exhibit.

Claude Monet, Bazille and Camille (Study for "Déjeuner sur l'Herbe")

"Big" Bazille was gifted, intelligent, loved by his devoted family and highly-regarded by friends and colleagues in the rising art scene of Paris in the 1860's. Then the upward curve of his life suddenly plunged straight-down into death and near oblivion in 1870.

The immediate cause of death was a German bullet, which struck Bazille during the Franco-Prussian War. But the evidence of his art reveals conflicted emotions and an anxious search for meaning in his life. This led him - fatally - to enlist in the war effort of the corrupt Second Empire of Napoleon III.

Frédéric Bazille, Self Portrait with Detachable Collar, C. 1865-1867 (Detail)

This was an undeserved fate for such an admirable human being. But there is an even crueler irony here. Bazille was not only a pioneer of the Impressionist movement before its formal beginning in 1874. He was killed in a pointless and stupid war, the chief effect of which was to plant the seed of World War I. Bazille was a "lost generation" artist, decades before the battles of 1914-18 claimed the lives of Franz Marc, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Guillaume Apollinaire, Wilfrid Owen and many more.

Had he followed his father's wishes, Bazille would have become a doctor. After graduating from college with a degree in science, Bazille entered medical school. The appeal of painting and music, however, was too great to resist.

In 1863, Bazille began to taking art lessons in the studio of a Swiss painter, Charles Gleyre. There  he met Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Alfred Sisley. There is an intriguing painting on view in the National Gallery exhibit showing portraits of forty-three of the students at Gleyre's academy, each painted by a fellow student.

Anne Lloyd, Gallery view of the Frédéric Bazille exhibit at the National Gallery

Most of these aspiring artists are forgotten today, though Renoir and Sisley do appear on the crowded canvas. It is the message behind the image that counts.

What is portrayed here is the competitive, convivial brotherhood of artists among whom Bazille would search for meaning in life and art. Later, Bazille would join the group of painters and writers who met at the Café Guerbois in Paris: Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, Emil Zola, Monet and Renoir, with occasional appearances by Paul Cezanne.
Bazille joined in this camaraderie of genius. His paintings and those of his fellow Bohèmes au café are skillfully integrated in the National Galley exhibit, which is on view in the newly renovated East Wing  building.

What is so notable about Bazille's work is how impressive it was from the start - but also how uneven it remained throughout his short-lived career. In 1869, Bazille painted two portraits which appear to have been created by different artists.

Frédéric Bazille, Edmond Maître, 1869

Bazille painted his music-loving friend, Edmond Maître, with the assurance and attention to detail of a seventeenth century master like Van Dyck or Velazquez. This is a work which can stand comparison with the kind of portraits that John Singer Sargent was to make his stock and trade during the 1880's and 1890's.
Bazille's portrait of the writer, Édouard Blau, painted later in 1869, is equal in psychological insight to that of Edmond Maître. But the color is applied, even on the face, with only minimal attention to blending and shadow. Was this due to a search for a new, more expressive style of portrait painting?  The considerable merit of this work raises questions about Bazille's ability to create and maintain a "signature" style, not about skill or attention to detail.

Frédéric Bazille, Édouard Blau, 1869

Bazille collaborated with Blau, working on a theatrical production which was never produced. He also spent a lot of time with Maître studying and playing contemporary music. Such wide-ranging interests speak highly of Bazille's intellect and enthusiasm. But these departures from painting also reveal a emotional response to art very different from that of Monet. 

Monet, though hard-pressed for cash, did not deviate from his single-minded devotion to landscape painting. Bazille, by contrast, was cushioned from financial hardship by a modest allowance from his parents - which he shared with Monet. He was thus able to pursue many artistic paths, but seldom achieved the masterpieces of which his great talent was capable.

The question of Bazille's lack - or change - of focus is observable in one of his best known paintings. This is The Family Gathering, painted in 1867-1868, a truly iconic work of nineteenth century French art.

Frédéric Bazille, Portraits of the *** Family, called The Family Gathering, 1867-68

Bazille painted his parents, relatives and future in-laws during the summer vacation he took on his family's estate, Domaine de Méric, in the south of France. Once again, his reach eluded his grasp. To an incredible extent, Bazille's bravura treatment of the "center stage" group is unbalanced by exceptionally weak handling of the figures on the wings. 

This central group is anchored by a brilliant depiction of Bazille's parents. His mother looks at the viewer with a mixture of compassion and apprehension while his father stares off into space, perhaps wondering about his son's problematic future. 

Frédéric Bazille, The Family Gathering, 1867-68 (Detail)

Seated or standing nearby are Bazille's aunt and cousins, notably Pauline des Hours, arm-in-arm with her fiance. All are beautifully rendered.

Behind his parents, Bazille painted himself and his uncle glaring from the left-hand edge of the picture. They look like intruders, rather than members of a family gathering.

It is the handling of the right-hand group - Bazille's brother Marc, his fiancee, Suzanne Tissié and his cousin, Camille des Hours - that really raises a major question about Bazille's ability to remain focused.

Once again, it seems to be the case of a different - notably inferior - painter at work. Marc Bazille's arms look like they are made of rubber, while Suzanne Tissié poses with almost rigor mortis stiffness. Most incredible of all is the way that that Camille des Hours holds her face as if it were a mask. She looks as if she had been painted by René Magritte in one of his surrealist works from the 1920's.

Such criticism may seem very harsh for the work of an idealistic young man who was still, essentially, a student. But Bazille had discerned the proper course for his art at the very start of his career. In December 1863, he wrote that “painting figures in the sun” was his ideal. When he focused on that aim, he achieved sensational success.

Frédéric Bazille, View of the Village, 1868

Bazille's View of the Village, 1868, is a testament to what he could achieve when he focused his abilities on reality rather than a "theme." Here a young girl poses on a hill overlooking the village near to his family home. It is very simple, entirely naturalistic and totally believable. The girl, no great "looker" by Parisian standards, exudes an inner beauty and psychological complexity that makes this one of the great character studies of nineteenth century art.

Berthe Morisot thought very highly of View of the Village, believing that it embodied the vision of the rising generation, soon to be called Impressionists, “to place a figure en plein air.” 

Berthe Morisot,The Harbor at Lorient, 1869

Bazille's influence on Morisot can clearly be seen in The Harbor at Lorient, which Morisot painted in 1869, after she had admired View of the Village.

Bazille achieved equally high results when painting landscapes "en plein air.” In 1867, he created a series of works depicting the famous castle, Aigues-Mortes. The bright, almost cloudless sky of Provence, the sun-baked battlements and shoreline were painted in the style that was to sweep the world following the first Impressionist Salon of 1874.

Bazille, despite these path-breaking works of art was still wrestling with himself over the direction of his art when he stunned his family and friends by joining the French Army. It was as perplexing a decision as it was unexpected.

Bazille volunteered to serve in the elite Third Regiment of Zouaves on August 16, 1870. At that stage, the recently declared war with Prussia/Germany was a duel between two rival empires, not as it later became a patriotic struggle to defend the Republic of France from invasion. Bazille was not obligated to join the military and, as a staunch believer in democracy, he detested Napoleon III. 

Why did he risk his life for a despotic ruler who had betrayed the ideals of Republican rule in France? Perhaps the answer can be found in the way that Bazille signed his enlistment papers: "Bazille, Jean Frédéric, esquire, aged 28, history painter by trade.”

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Frédéric Bazille, 1867

Bazille addressed an amazing variety of themes in his short artistic career, 1864 to 1870. However, he never painted a true "history" painting. Perhaps he was thinking of a recent work with a biblical theme, Ruth and Boaz (1870). More likely, the words "history painter by trade” reveal that he was still searching for meaning in art, for proof of himself as a man, for "something" greater than what life had offered him so far.

Whatever motivated Bazille to join the hard-fighting Zouaves, his death in battle deprived the nineteenth century art world of one of its most promising, talented artists.

As the National Gallery exhibit clearly shows, Bazille had already made a significant impact on French art by the time of his death in 1870. In doing so, Bazille set the stage for the Impressionist movement. How ironic that the young man who could not make up his mind helped to determine the future course of Modern Art.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved. Images courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. and Anne Lloyd 

Introductory Image:                                                                                                         Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of Frédéric Bazille's The Family Gathering, 1867.
oil on canvas 152 x 230 cm (59 13/16 x 90 9/16 in.) Musée d'Orsay, Paris, purchased with the assistance of Marc Bazille, 1924 

Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926) Bazille and Camille (Study for "Déjeuner sur l'Herbe"), 1865. Oil on canvas, 93 x 68.9 cm (36 5/8 x 27 1/8 in.) framed: 121.9 x 98.4 x 10.7 cm (48 x 38 3/4 x 4 3/16 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of Frédéric Bazille's Self Portrait with Detachable Collar, C. 1865-1867. Oil on canvas. 54 x 46 cm. (21 1/4 x 18 in.) Minneapolis Institute of Art. The John R. Van Derlap fund, 62.39 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery view of the Frédéric Bazille exhibit, showing Forty-three Portraits by Painters at Charles Gleyre's Studio, c. 1856-1868. Oil on canvas, 114 x 146 cm (44 7/8 x 57 1/2 in.) framed: 126 x 160 cm (49 5/8 x 63 in.) The Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris 

Frédéric Bazille (French, 1841-1870) Edmond Maître, early 1869.Oil on canvas, 83.2 x 64 cm (32 3/4 x 25 3/16 in.) framed: 109.2 x 90.2 x 8.9 cm (43 x 35 1/2 x 3 1/2 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon.

Frédéric Bazille (French, 1841-1870) Édouard Blau, probably December 1869. Oil on canvas,  59.5 x 43.2 cm (23 7/16 x 17 in.) framed: 69.5 x 53 x 5.1 cm (27 3/8 x 20 7/8 x 2 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Chester Dale Collection.

Frédéric Bazille (French, 1841-1870) Portraits of the *** Family, called The Family Gathering, 1867. Oil on canvas, 152 x 230 cm (59 13/16 x 90 9/16 in.) Musée d'Orsay, Paris, purchased with the assistance of Marc Bazille, 1924

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of Frédéric Bazille's The Family Gathering, 1867. (Bazille's parents, Camille and Gaston Bazille) Oil on canvas 152 x 230 cm (59 13/16 x 90 9/16 in.) Musée d'Orsay, Paris, purchased with the assistance of Marc Bazille, 1924.

Frédéric Bazille (French, 1841-1870) View of the Village, 1868. Oil on canvas, 137.5 x 85.5 x 2.5 cm (54 1/8 x 33 11/16 x 1 in.) framed: 157 x 107 x 8 cm (61 13/16 x 42 1/8 x 3 1/8 in.) Musée Fabre, Montpellier Méditerranée Métropole

Berthe Morisot (French, 1841-1895) The Harbor at Lorient, 1869. Oil on canvas. 43.5 x 73 cm (17 1/8 x 28 3/4 in.) framed: 64.7 x 95.2 x 7.6 cm (25 1/2 x 37 1/2 x 3 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French, 1841-1919) Frédéric Bazille, 1867. Oil on canvas. 105 x 73.5 cm (41 5/16 x 28 15/16 in.) On loan to the Musée d'Orsay, from the Musée Fabre, Montpellier.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Frank Gehry's Master Plan for the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Frank Gehry and the Core Project Renovations  

at the Phildelphia Museum of Art

Reviewed by Ed Voves

March 30, 2017 was a cold spring morning in Philadelphia. But pure "sunshine" radiated throughout the Philadelphia Museum of Art on that day. An impressive ground breaking ceremony launched the Core Project, the decisive phase of a great renovation effort dating back to 2004. 

My wife, Anne, and I were honored to be invited to the ceremony. A dazzling red carpet marked the path into the rather forbidding Vaulted Walkway on the museum's ground level. Symbolically at least, the light of a new era beamed into this grand museum, home to world-class masterpieces by Thomas Eakins, Paul Cezanne, Vincent van Gogh and the "Rocky" steps!

The Vaulted Passageway of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The ceremonial shovels used to launch the Core Project renovations are at the ready.

It is important to emphasize the word "throughout" in terms of the Philadelphia Museum rehab effort. This massive project is literally an "inside" job.

When the renovation project, known as the 2004 Facilities Master Plan, is completed in 2020, the Philadelphia Museum of Art will be dramatically transformed. The Core Project will reopen and reconfigure huge expanses of space within the honey-colored neoclassical building. These spaces have been blocked-off or under-utilized for many years. 

The renovation of the Philadelphia Museum of Art has been placed in the capable hands of architect Frank Gehry. Famed for his innovative design of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, Gehry also handled an interior-focused renovation of the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California.

At the opening ceremony, Philadelphia's mayor, Jim Kenney (left), sits alongside Frank Gehry (center) and Timothy Rub, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In his remarks at the March 30 ceremony, Gehry made the ironic comment that when the Core Project is completed people looking at the museum exterior "won't even know that I've been here."

On the inside, there will be plenty of evidence of Gehry's presence - and expertise.

According to statistics released by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Core Project will open-up  90,000 sq. feet. to the public, of which 23,000 sq. feet will be used for new galleries to display the ever-growing collection of the museum. 

The need for more exhibit space at the Philadelphia Museum of Art has been apparent for a long-time. The 2016 Embracing the Contemporary exhibit illustrated the dilemma of providing sufficient display space for the treasures of the Keith and Katherine Sachs Collection. 

The vast array of Modern art in the exhibit - which Keith and Katherine Sachs have promised to give to the Philadelphia Museum of Art - overflowed the Dorrance Galleries where special exhibits are usually shown. Several galleries in the Modern wing had to re-hung to display the remainder of the Sachs Collection. Iconic works by the "Old Masters of Modern Art" like Modigliani's Blue Eyes (Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne) had to find temporary homes elsewhere in the museum.

Amedeo Modigliani, Blue Eyes (Portrait of Madame Jeanne Hébuterne), 1917

With a space crunch like this at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Core Project comes not a moment too soon. Much of the newly available gallery space will be devoted to The museum's outstanding collection of Modern and Contemporary art.

The Van Pelt Auditorium under demolition, part of the initial phase of the              Core Project renovation of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Artist's rendering of the planned Forum of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The view is looking West, as in the above photo of the demolished Van Pelt Auditorium.

Some familiar landmarks of the old museum have already been demolished as part of the project. We visited the vacated space of the Van Pelt Auditorium, scene of so many great lectures and classic film presentations. The auditorium had been torn down to provide access to the great central space that Gehry's plans will open-up.

This great public space is being styled as the Forum. The title from ancient Rome is well-chosen, even if the Philadelphia Museum is designed like a Greek temple. The Forum will provide better access routes throughout the rather cramped museum. It will also impart a sense of majesty to the interior of the museum to match that of its Greek temple facade.

Artist's view of of the planned Forum as seen from an overlook space.

A spectacular staircase will dominate the Forum, providing access from the renovated Vaulted Walkway - where the groundbreaking ceremony took place - to the exhibit floors. One of these new gallery areas will be designated for a reconfiguration of the museum's American art collection, one of the finest in the world. Of the new gallery space to be made available by the Core Project, 11,500 sq. feet will be dedicated to the display of American art.

What better way to honor the great artists from Philadelphia's past - and future ones too! During the 1876 Centennial Exposition,Thomas Eakins' Gross Clinic was banished to a display of hospital beds and medical equipment at this first world's fair held in the U.S. But now Eakins' masterpiece is going to hang in style in the new American art galleries!

A cutaway view of the model of the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Core Project. The Great Stair Hall with Calder Mobile is above the new Forum planned by Frank Gehry.

A fabulous scale model of the Philadelphia Museum of Art with cutaways of the Core Project renovations is currently on display at the museum. It is a work of art in its own right and it will be a pleasure to refer back to this model as construction moves forward.

There will be so much more in the "new" museum, beyond the majestic Forum. New restaurants and shops, state-of-the-art classrooms and a terrific art studio for school groups. There will better access for the physically-challenged and the elderly.

If all goes according to plan, the Core Project will add a total of 169,000 square feet to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

I hope that somewhere in all that bustling, creative space there will be a memorial of some kind to Anne d'Harnoncourt. This great lady was the long-time director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the person who brought Frank Gehry to the museum as the architect of the Facilities Master Plan.

Anne d'Harnoncourt in 1994 
Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

I frequently saw Ms. d'Harnoncourt at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, though I did not know her personally. I never had the chance to interview her, as I occasionally do Mr.Timothy Rub, the dynamic director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art today. I did not begin reviewing art exhibitions until 2008, the year that Ms. d'Harnoncourt died, tragically, years before her time. The first great exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art that I reviewed was one of the last that she planned, the awesome Frida Kahlo exhibit in 2009.

Anne d'Harnoncourt positively exuded love of art and love for people. You just felt that love whenever you saw her. I still sense her spirit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and I have the feeling that she will be there at the grand opening ceremony of the Core Project renovations in 2020.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved Images Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art  and Anne Lloyd

Introductory Image: 
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Portrait of Frank Gehry at the Opening Ceremony of the Core Project Renovations at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), The Vaulted Passageway of the Philadelphia Museum of Art prior to the Opening Ceremony of the Core Project Renovations, March 30, 2017.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Jim Kenney, Frank Gehry and Timothy Rub the Opening Ceremony of the Core Project Renovations at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Amedeo Modigliani, Blue Eyes (Portrait of Madame Jeanne Hébuterne), 1917. Oil on Canvas, 21 1/2 x 16 7/8 inches (54.6 x 42.9 cm). Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, # 1967-30-59.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), The Van Pelt Auditorium of the Philadelphia Museum of Art under demolition.

Artist's rendering of the planned Forum of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, looking West. Architectural rendering by Gehry Partners, LLP and KX-L. Photo courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art

Artist's view of of the planned Forum as seen from an overlook spaceArchitectural rendering by Gehry Partners, LLP and KX-L. Photo courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), A cutaway view of the model of the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Core Project. 

Anne d'Harnoncourt in 1994Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art