Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"Rembrandt and His School": Revelations at the Frick

Rembrandt's art is always a revelation, and the works in "Rembrandt and His School," which opened yesterday and features some great drawings and prints in addition to up-close views of his paintings, are no exception.

In sheer numbers, this is a major exhibit.  It showcases more than 60 works on paper -- 29 by Rembrandt (including an amazing series of self-portraits, one of which is shown right) and the rest by artists in his circle -- from the Fondation Custodia in Paris, which houses the collection of Dutch art historian Frederik Johannes Lugt. 

Ten rarely displayed prints are up from the Frick's own collection.  The show also offers, at long last, straight-on views of five paintings, including the newly cleaned "Self-Portrait" (top), all of which came into the Frick as Rembrandts but two of which are now attributed to others.  You can finally stick your nose right up to "The Polish Rider," which for decades has been hung way too high to see.

Another rarity: Rembrandt's largest drawing, a landscape on loan from the Met that's displayed alongside a copy by one of his students.

So there's a lot to look at, even in the Rembrandt drawings alone, which contain many of his worlds.  They span his career from the 1630s to the late 1650s (Rembrandt died in 1669, at 63).  In subject matter, they include landscapes, domestic life, religious narrative, and copies of work by other artists.  In style, they range from quick sketches to highly finished drawings.

And there's a lot to learn -- how economically he could express action and create narrative ("Elijah with the Angel," above); how he built up a work in light and dark ("Interior with Saskia in Bed," right); how in landscape he recorded topography while imbuing it with unified emotion. 

Always his strokes seem unstudied, even when he corrects himself, tempting us to believe that there's no distance between line and feeling.  Rembrandt, the magician.

Then there are the loaned prints, which include eight self-portraits from the 1630s through 1648 (at right is the latest).  Rembrandt as courtier, as artist, as husband, by turns grimacing, somber, aggressive.  Seeing seven of them arrayed one next to the other (the eighth greets us at the beginning of the exhibition) -- it's nothing short of astonishing.

Works by artists in Rembrandt's circle are displayed in the next room.  Many of them were fine artists in their own right, including his students Ferdinand Bol, Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (his "Youth Smoking" is at left), and Govert Flinck, and his admirers such as Philips Koninck.  The show here has the benefit of recent Rembrandt scholarship -- the works were selected by Peter Schatborn, a Rijksmuseum veteran, who catalogued them and reattributed some of the works on view -- but Rembrandt/not Rembrandt is a still a work in progress.

The Frick prints, exhibited separately, show Rembrandt as a complete master of portraiture, religious scenes, and landscape.  He used light and shade for almost incomparable dramatic effect but with great variety.  His inventiveness seems endless.  To look at the Crucifixion where detail is obliterated by light and then look at a landscape where light sets off detail -- well, it's sort of like falling in love all over again.  It's unbelievable that it can happen, but it does. 

The Frick's Rembrandt paintings are ordinarily exhibited in a sort of Great Hall of Fame, interspersed among Turners, a Poussin, and other works without regard to art historical categories, and they hang high to clear the wainscoting.  For this show they are exhibited together in an intimate, semi-circular space so that it's possible to take them in from one spot, and you view them pretty much straight on.

It's a magnificent sight.  To the left, a masterful portrait of fur trader Nicolaes Ruts from 1631 (right), when Rembrandt was in his twenties, with detailed attention to the appearance of things -- satin, fur, skin.  In the center, Rembrandt's late self-portrait (top) done up in rich 16th-century costume, with the suggestive brushstroke.  To the right "The Polish Rider" (below), that odd case in Rembrandt's oeuvre -- a latish work with too much detail -- if it's indeed by him.  The label acknowledges that some think the painting was "brought rapidly to completion by Rembrandt -- or another artist."  No matter. Whoever did it, it's splendid.

"Rembrandt and His School:  Masterworks from the Frick and Lugt Collections,"  The Frick Collection, 5th Avenue and 70th Street.  Through May 15.

Images:  From the Frick website.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Museum of Biblical Art's "Passion in Venice": Great Art in Curatorial Purgatory

A show that includes a disturbing Crivelli (above), a knockout Durer print (below right), and a powerful yet muted Veronese (below left) can't go all wrong.  "Passion in Venice," which opened Friday at the American Bible Society's Broadway campus, skirts the amateurish, but what it lacks in coherence, it more than makes up for in the art.

A bit of background:  "Passion in Venice" examines representations of the Man of Sorrows, an image concept that depicts Christ, wounds visible, after the Crucifixion.  It originated in Byzantine art and appeared in Italy sometime after the Fourth Crusade went wrong with the Sack of Constantinople in 1204.

The image lacks a narrative basis, and initially depicted a half-length Christ at the sepulcher.  In the West it developed both as a devotional image, showing instruments of the Passion, for example, or Christ accompanied by angels, and as a liturgical image, emphasizing Christ's wounds in reference to the Eucharist.  It also underwent some particularly Western iconographic changes, such as incorporating St. Gregory's vision of Christ or St. Francis' identification with Christ.

Venice apparently had a special affection for the image, giving it a prominent place in altarpieces and incorporating it into civic imagery, which brings us to this show.

It's sort of a mess.  With French, German, Spanish, Flemish, and Bohemian works interspersed, in addition to Italian works from places artistically distinct from Venice -- such as Florence and Naples -- the Venice part of "Passion in Venice" gets lost, and it's not really replaced by a consistent curatorial concept.

There's a grab bag aspect, too, to the inclusion of a video by Bill Viola, a printed score of Handel's "Messiah," and works that don't depict the Man of Sorrows at all, such as this Flemish "Face of Christ" (right).

Some of the labeling is just preachy.  If MoBIA wants to be taken seriously as a museum rather than as an adjunct of the American Bible Society, it's got to dump explanations about "universal culpability" and a "universal everyman."

More professional display for the art would be nice, too -- Books of Hours, for example, are placed too far back in their cases to be seen -- as would a bit more curatorial rigor in making sense of why, for example, we're looking at a narrative event like the Lamentation (Alessandro Turchi's is at left).

But see "Passion in Venice" to see the art, which has been loaned from major institutions like the National Gallery of London, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and, here in New York, the Met and the Morgan.  Although the show disappoints, the art doesn't.

"Passion in Venice: Crivelli to Tintoretto and Veronese,"  Museum of Biblical Art, Broadway and 61st Street.  Through June 12.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

"Cezanne's Card Players": Small Show, Big Punch

When seen at London's Courtauld Gallery, this tightly focused show, which opens today at the Met, was a small one.  Now the portion devoted to Cezanne is even smaller, because two portraits didn't make the trip across the pond.

The Met's version includes three of Cezanne's five "Card Players" -- an ambitious series that occupied him from about 1891 to 1896 -- twelve preparatory drawings and oil studies for the series, and five portraits thought to be of agricultural workers on his estate, some of whom also posed for the "Card Players."

That's it, twenty works.  But it's enough.

The Met has set a visual trap that's spot-on.  Before you even get to a single Cezanne, you're in a room where, from the depths of its collection, the Met has pulled out a couple of centuries' worth of prints and paintings of card players and smokers.

These works, some marvelous in themselves, show the rich traditions that Cezanne, a devoted student of the Louvre when he lived in Paris, was surely aware of.  There's a print after Caravaggio's "Cardsharps," rollicking tavern scenes by Dutch and Flemish artists (Adriaen Brouwer's of around 1636 is above), caricatures by Daumier, and a couple of etchings by Manet -- a hint of the world we are about to enter.

Immediately before entering the room with the "Card Players," there hangs a small costume piece by Ernest Meissonier (left), one of the most successful French artists of his time.  He died right around the time Cezanne began the "Card Players," but they may as well have been separated by centuries.

By turns moralizing, anecdotal, amusing, these works are everything that Cezanne was not, and set a framework for seeing his modernism afresh.

His "Card Players," genre scenes atypical for him, are considered major works -- the Musee d'Orsay version was the first Cezanne to enter the Louvre, in 1910, three years after his death -- and the gathering together of three of them, along with the preparatory works, gives the most comprehensive account to date of their construction.  It appears that Cezanne posed each figure individually in the studio, rather than posing the figures together around a table, and then used the individual studies to make up the composition in the final works.

This theory is wonderfully consistent with the artifice in the finished compositions -- the tables much too small, the proportions of the figures totally out of whack, drapery that makes no sense except pictorially.

In an ironic twist, the examination of the work for this show has completely reversed the accepted chronology. It had been thought that the more highly finished paintings in the Met (immediately above) and the Musee d'Orsay were the last, but now these are seen as the first.

Ordinarily, this might not matter except as an art historical curiosity.  But here it means that Cezanne's final thoughts on this subject are in the two "Card Players" that couldn't be included -- one is at the Barnes Foundation, which doesn't lend, and the other's in a private collection -- and that the three paintings that are at the Met are themselves studies for these much larger works, teasingly present as life-size black-and-white photos.  If you aren't overwhelmed by the three modest-sized paintings you do see -- the largest is little more than two feet wide, the Barnes' is six feet -- this could be why.

It's the portraits that really pack a wallop. (The Courtauld's "Man with a Pipe" is above. The painting at the left is in a private collection.) The third room contains five, and they're wonderful -- weighty, self-possessed, serious, both dignified and awkward, above all present.  The layers of short strokes that build up the composition in so many of Cezanne's works here find an analog in the layers of clothing -- the jacket over the vest over the shirt, collars within collars, each layer given a separate bulkiness.  Here, too, are the emotional distance, the genius of leaving patches of canvas free of color altogether, the bold strokes of the brush.

"Cezanne's Card Players," Metropolitan Museum of Art, 5th Avenue and 82nd Street.  Through May 8.

Images:  Meissonier and bottom two portraits, Laura Gilbert.  All others courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Federal Appeals Court Nixes Case by Heirs of Art Dealer Killed at Auschwitz, Citing No Jurisdiction Over Claim Against Germany

The U.S. heirs of Jewish art dealer Walter Westfeld, led by his 84-year-old nephew, lost their bid to have Germany compensate them for art seized by the Nazis and sold at compulsory auction in 1939.

On Wednesday, a three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court's dismissal of their claim for lack of jurisdiction.  Plaintiffs didn't take the path that has succeeded for some victims of Nazi confiscation, who seek the restitution of seized artworks.  Instead, they sought monetary damages, and that effort failed.

One of the plaintiffs' Tennessee lawyers -- the nephew, Fred Westfield (right), lives in Tennessee, is a retired Vanderbilt University professor, and himself fled Germany in 1939 as part of Britain's Kindertransport -- stated that plaintiffs are weighing their options.  Although counsel didn't specify what those options might be, they could include a request for a rehearing by the entire 6th Circuit or an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Westfeld and His Art

For Germany, the victory on a jurisdictional issue avoids a trial on grim Holocaust facts.  When reached by this reporter, counsel for the German government declined to comment.

For plaintiffs, who sought millions of dollars, the loss is huge.  Westfeld's art holdings were substantial -- the 1939 auction catalogue lists some 500 paintings and tapestries, and it's alleged that aside from the catalogue listings Westfeld owned works by El Greco, van Dyck, and Rubens and that these works were also seized.

According to the plaintiffs, Westfeld had intended to bring the artworks to Nashville, where his brother lived, and sell them in the U.S. for his family's benefit.

Westfeld was arrested by the Nazis in 1938 and he was killed at Auschwitz, probably in 1943.

Sovereign Immunity

When the suit was filed in 2008, a spokesman for the German finance ministry told the Bloomberg News agency that "the big question here is sovereign immunity," and that proved to be the heirs' undoing.  The 6th Circuit held that under the federal Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, Germany was indeed immune from suit.

Under the FSIA, foreign nations can't be sued here unless the claim comes within a specific statutory exception to that Act.  The plaintiffs failed to persuade the Court that their claim did.

In the ordinary case -- if any Nazi art seizure case can be called ordinary -- plaintiffs seek restitution of the confiscated artwork and bring suit under the "expropriation" exception to the FSIA, which permits jurisdiction where property is taken in violation of international law.  But in these cases artworks are readily identified and located.

Here the plaintiffs were not seeking the return of any specific artworks but, rather, the value of the artworks.  They argued that the Court had jurisdiction under the FSIA's "commercial activity" exception.  That exception requires, first, that an act be committed outside the U.S. that is "in connection with a commercial activity of the state elsewhere" and, second, that "that act causes a direct effect in the United States."

The Court Decision

The 6th Circuit determined that even if the seizure and auction of Westfeld's art was "commercial activity" of a foreign state -- it declined to decide that issue -- that action did not cause a "direct effect" in the U.S.  The Court found that though "the seizure undoubtedly prevented Westfeld from disposing of his collection," which "ultimately" affected his family in Nashville, the "direct effects" were in Germany, where Westfeld was.  Germany itself had no obligation to do anything in the U.S. and any effects felt here were not an "immediate consequence."

"Germany's actions did not extend beyond its borders. . . . As appalling as the Nazis' actions were, the reverberations felt from them in Nashville were derivative of Germany's seizure and not direct effects."

Attorney Howard Spiegler of New York art-law powerhouse Herrick, Feinstein, told this reporter yesterday that the "commercial activities" exception is a "difficult place to hang your hat" in these cases.

He explained that that specific exception is most often invoked by U.S. companies suing a foreign government for breach of contract, not for Nazi property seizures.  Spiegler also said that the 6th Circuit decision was "consistent" with other cases.

So why did Westfeld's heirs seek damages under this difficult exception and not the restitution of artworks under the expropriation exception, which plaintiffs' counsel when reached by phone yesterday acknowledged was the usual path?*

Plaintiffs' lawyers were understandably mum on the decision yesterday.  Two of the three attorneys declined to return telephone messages.  I asked the one lawyer who was willing to speak, but not for quoting, why plaintiffs didn't seek expropriation jurisdiction, and was told that it wasn't appropriate for the specifics of this case.  That lawyer did tell me, though, that of the 500 some artworks Westfeld owned, only a handful had been located.

Perhaps that factored into their strategy, although I could not secure an answer.

"It would be really difficult to locate all the works of art, which may be scattered around the world," Bloomberg quoted a lawyer for the heirs as saying in 2008.

One of those handful that has been located (the double portrait by 17th-century Dutch artist Eglon van der Neer, shown above) is in the U.S., in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which helped Westfeld's nephew obtain a frayed copy of the 1939 auction catalogue.

Meanwhile, a German court recognized another heir.  Westfeld had no children and never married but, as Bloomberg reported in 2008, he made a will naming Emilie Scheulen his heir, and in 1956 a Dusseldorf court declared her Westfeld's wife and heir.  Apparently, in the 1950s the German government compensated her for the loss of Westfeld's art.  Her heirs are now seeking restitution of specific paintings.

For their part, plaintiffs' papers refer to Scheulen as Westfeld's housekeeper, and Tennessee's probate court has declared the Nashville relatives his sole heirs.

* Proving jurisdiction under the expropriation exception is no cakewalk, either.  Maria Altmann's case to recover her aunt's Klimt paintings from Austria went all the way up to the Supreme Court on a jurisdictional question.

Images:  Fred Westfield photo from Tennessee Holocaust Commission website; Van der Neer painting from Boston Museum of Fine Arts website.