Sunday, June 17, 2018

Giacometti at the Guggenheim


Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City

June 8, 2018 - September 12, 2018

Reviewed by Ed Voves
Photos by Anne Lloyd 

One of the first sculptures on display at the Guggenheim Museum's new exhibit of the lifework of Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966) is entitled Walking Man I. It is one of Giacometti's signature pieces, a notable example of the gaunt, featureless beings that have come to symbolize the post-Auschwitz, nuclear-weaponized world which emerged from the carnage of World War II.

The Giacometti exhibit at the Guggenheim is little short of sensational, with nearly two hundred works of art on view, sculptures, drawings, paintings. The works of art are mostly from the collection of the Fondation Giacometti in Paris. Among these generous loans, Walking Man I is a "standout" in many respects.

The significance of Walking Man I extends beyond the apocalyptic years of the Second World War back to the sculptor's youth. It is worth pausing a brief moment from reviewing the marvelous exhibit at the Guggenheim to look at an incident vividly described in the great biography of Giacometti by James Lord. 

Giacometti was a precocious fifteen year-old student at a elite Swiss boarding school when the event occurred. On the way home for the Christmas 1915 holiday, Giacometti stopped in a bookstore. He chanced upon an illustrated volume about the artwork of Auguste Rodin. The sight of the pictures of Rodin's sculptures filled the young Giacometti with awe. He bought the expensive book, even though this left him short of money to get home.

Clutching his book on Rodin, Giacometti trudged the final ten miles home over a mountain pass on a freezing, snowy night to his hometown of Stampa in rural Switzerland. That perilous journey set the tone for the rest of his life.

Striding forward, trudging onward, advancing against the winter winds, Giacometti became the Walking Man he would later sculpt. Rodin, himself, early in his career, had sculpted a figure with the same title. It is quite likely that there was a picture of this Rodin statue in Giacometti's book. Giacometti eventually became the new Rodin, an art traditionalist with a revolutionary vision. 

Giacometti painting in his Paris studio, 1958. Photograph by Ernst Scheidegger 

As if that legacy were not enough, Giacometti took on the role of the Walking Man for all of Western art.  Making our way up the ramps of the Guggenheim Museum, we are given the privileged opportunity to explore the course of Giacometti's engagement with ideals of art going back to the ancient Egyptians and the Cycladic art of the very earliest Greek cultures. We are enabled also to join in Giacometti's dialogue with other great artists and thinkers of the twentieth century.

A friend of Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet, Giacometti was in many ways an existentialist figure. However, Giacometti denied aiming to create definitive Existentialist art works. The same role had earlier applied to his short-lived Surrealist career during the early 1930's. Giacometti was and wasn't a new Rodin, was and wasn't a Surrealist or an Existentialist artist. 

Why the seeming contradictions?  Giacometti held to a singular, individualistic course of art that precluded him from ever joining, much less leading, a school of art, a new "ism."

"I am very interested in art but I am instinctively more interested in truth," Giacometti declared. "The more I work, the more I see differently.”

Giacometti was haunted by anxieties and nightmares that surfaced in his art. These were both personal and prophetic. Death, the negation of life and art, was a hovering specter. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Gallery view of the Giacometti exhibit
Giacometti's The Forest (1950) appears in front

Giacometti feared that his oeuvre represented the final chapter of the great age of Western art. This disturbing reflection, brilliantly explored in James Lord's biography, was not founded upon an arrogant self-regard. Instead, by the 1950's, Giacometti believed that the dominant creed of modern art, Abstract Expression, was headed in the direction of a cul-de-sac.

James Lord quotes Giacometti around the time of his MOMA exhibit in 1965, a year before he died.

How can one talk here about copies of works of art, frail and ephemeral works of art that exist here and there on continents, works of art that decay, disintegrate, that wither away day after day, and many of which - among them those that I prefer - have already once been buried, hidden beneath sand, earth, and stones? And they all follow the same path.

Frail and ephemeral are appropriate words to use in describing many of the works of art created by Giacometti. His favorite medium for creating statues was initially clay, but switched to using plaster in his later years. When he was satisfied with an image (Giacometti was very exacting), his brother Diego would then cast the statues in bronze which we encounter in museums all over the world. Six versions of Walking Man I were cast in 1960; the one on view in the Guggenheim exhibit was done later in 1982.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Gallery view of the Giacometti exhibit
In the foreground, is Giacometti's Woman Leoni, 1947-58

The Guggenheim exhibit features a massive array of Giacometti's works in all media. The plaster originals are much in evidence and it is a special treat to be able to study so many of them in one showing. In the case of several of these delicate plasters. These include Woman Leoni which curators restored, using laser technology to remove the layer of shellac which was applied during the casting process. 

Now we can see these "frail and ephemeral" and spiritually forceful works of art exactly as Giacometti saw them before instructing Diego to begin casting them in bronze. In their finished state, Giacometti's sculptures seem to exist in several time periods at once. 

Giacometti's The Chariot (1950) is a key example of the "time-bending" nature of Giacometti's art. After a visit to an archaeological museum in Italy, Giacometti became intrigued with ancient Egypt. The thin wheels on The Chariot replicate those of Egyptian war chariots from the New Kingdom. Yet, nothing in Giacometti's art can be reduced to a single element or influence.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Alberto Giacometti's The Chariot (1950)

Giacometti stated that a memory of pharmacy cart which he saw during a stay in the hospital played a role in the creation of The Chariot. He also declared that he aimed to create a work of art with a figure posed in empty space "in order to see it better and to situate it at a precise distance from the floor."

The answer to the source of The Chariot would therefore seem to be "all of the above." Yet, I cannot help but think that there is a spiritual level still waiting to be exposed after we peel away all the other layers of explanation. 

The Chariot was created in 1945 after Giacometti had spent the war years creating sculptures of tiny figures, mostly women, positioned on massive bases. These small figures are imprisoned by their bases while the female driver of The Chariot seems poised to launch into space. There is a real sense of awakening to freedom here which is rendered even more brilliant by the effect of the shadows cast by the chariot wheels and by the queen or goddess driver. She stands ready to command the vehicle forward in a bid for liberation.

I spent a lot of time looking at The Chariot. This incredible work of art was first displayed in the U.S. in 1950 at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York. It's only a "slight" exaggeration to say that I would not have been surprised to look back and see its gallery space at The Guggenheim vacant and Giacometti's magical cart on its way down the Guggenheim's ramp toward the door to Fifth Ave.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Gallery view of the Giacometti exhibit
at the Solomon Guggenheim Museum, New York City

Truthfully, the "magic" of this sensational exhibit has much to do with the Guggenheim's design and the history which the museum and New York City shares with Giacometti. This is the third major exhibit of his work at the Guggenheim. The first took place in 1955 before the present Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building was constructed. The second was a major retrospective held in 1974. Along with the trailblazing Matisse Gallery show in 1950 and the 1965 MOMA exhibit, New York City's role in the Giacometti story is second only to that of Paris.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Gallery view of the Giacometti exhibit
Three of Giacometti's Women of Venice sculptures are shown here.

The special "magic" of this Giacometti exhibit is due to the fact that the spiraling ramp of the Guggenheim rotunda is the perfect display space for a retrospective emphasizing sculpture. The numinous shadow effect, mentioned in relation to The Chariot, appears and reappears. And often, due to the superb lighting, spacious display area and reflective surfaces of the display cases, we glimpse an interaction between museum goers and works of art. Anne caught such a unique moment with this picture of City Square (1948).

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Alberto Giacometti's City Square sculpture (1948)

When I mentioned how impressed I was with the Giacometti exhibit to the Guggenheim curator, Megan Fontanella, she paused for a moment and replied, "Sculpture sings at the Guggenheim."

When you look closely at key Giacometti in the exhibit, you cannot help but agree. Viewing Spoon Woman, influenced by the Cycladic art of early Greece, creates an atmosphere where the resonance of ancient ritual and music is almost palpable.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Alberto Giacometti's City Spoon Woman (1927)

If Spoon Woman "sings" then a full chorus is needed for Suspended Ball. In its shimmering case, Suspended Ball is one of the most animated and articulated of Giacometti's works on display. The only thing "suspended" about it is the string that holds it up in its supporting frame. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Gallery view of the Giacometti exhibit 
Work at center is Giacometti's Suspended Ball (1930-31).

"Suspense" rather than "suspended" is a more meaningful adjective to apply to Suspended Ball. The work exist in the millisecond before action takes place, while we wait anxiously and at the ready. The next moment, the ball in its crescent-shaped support will start "rocking" like a baby in its cradle. 

That is an irrational concept. Indeed it is a surreal thought. André Breton, the "Pope of Surrealism" sought a meeting with Giacometti after seeing Suspended Ball. Giacometti, open to new experience, joined the Surrealist movement, but it was to prove a brief association. Giacometti, like almost all of the first-rank artists involved in Surrealism, could only tolerate Breton's doctrinaire ideology and insufferable manipulation for so long. This is one of the themes of the recent book, The Lives of the Surrealists by Desmond Morris.

Giacometti is in many ways the ultimate "Surrealist" because his works transcends tangible reality. Deeply moved by dreams - and nightmares - Giacometti often drew-upon the unconscious to inform and inspire his work. 

Giacometti's Surrealist period produced one of his key, transitional works, Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object)

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018),Details of Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object)

In 1934, he created the plaster original (now in the collection of the Yale University art museum) of the first length human statue. Giacometti was partly influenced by the art of the Pacific Islands, but the face was modeled on a World War I gas mask and the eyes from Byzantine mosaics.

While pointing toward his later statues, Hands Holding the Void remains a Surrealist work. There is a nightmarish quality to this remarkable sculpture. The figure seems trapped by the setting which appears to be some sort of chair with a prie-dieux or "kneeler" as you find in chapels. Is this a protest against the confining structure of organized religions or perhaps, slyly, the "religion" of Surrealism?

Giacometti did not, would not, cut his ties with the immediate world around him. As the world in 1945 revealed images of concentration camp survivors - emaciated, gaunt, blank-eyed - Giacometti responded with works that utilized the people and objects in his immediate orbit to create universal statements on life. 

Giacometti's portraits were the primary means by which he depicted ultimate realities of the world after World War II. He posed his brother Diego, his wife Annette, luminaries like Simone de Beavoir and now-forgotten acquaintances to create existential icons - and for once the term "icon" is not misused.

Giacometti's portraits are so fascinating - and involved - that I am going to treat them in detail in a later, focused review. The Giacometti exhibit at the Guggenheim, truly one of the best I have ever seen, defies a single review. There are too many worlds of experience here, calling for our attention.

For now, I will conclude with a reflection on Man Pointing from 1947. If there is one, essential, Giacometti work of art, i believe that this is it. I feel that a lot of art lovers would agree, though perhaps for different reasons.

Man Pointing was created during the grim aftermath of World War II and the equally grim opening round of the Cold War. Giacometti's "thin man" gestures toward the sky and points earthward. This sculpture is an embodiment of the basic contradictions of life. It reminds me of the title of the medieval philosophy treatise, Sic et Non, by Peter Abelard. Yes or no. 

Abelard, during the twelfth century, sought to reconcile conflicting points of religious doctrine. Giacometti, with his persevering search for truth, endeavored to do the same for the arts and society during the twentieth century. However, there is only so much reconciling, so much negotiating that people can do in life before we become the slaves of expediency. Ultimately, a choice must be made.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Gallery view of the Giacometti exhibit
Art work is Giacometti's Man Pointing (1947).

That is what Man Pointing "said" to me as I confronted him at the Guggenheim gallery. Reaching toward heaven, Man Pointing pointed at me. 

"Make your choice", Man Pointing declared. "The choice is yours."


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images courtesy of Anne Lloyd and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City 

Introductory Image:    
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Photo of Alberto Giacometti's Walking Man I, 1960 (cast 1982) Bronze: 71 1/16  x 10 5/8  x 38 3/16 inches  (180.5 x 27 x 97 cm). Collection Fondation Giacometti, Paris. # 2016.177

Ernst Scheidegger (Swiss, 1923-2016) Giacometti painting in his Paris studio, 1958. © 2017 Stiftung Ernst Scheidegger-Archiv, Zurich Courtesy of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Gallery view of the Giacometti Exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, New York. Giacometti's The Forest (1950) appears in the foreground.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018)  Photo of Giacometti exhibition at at the Guggenheim Musseum. Statue is foreground is Woman Leoni, 1947-58.  Plaster:  66 15/16 x 7 1/2  x 16 9/16 inches  (170 x 19 x 42 cm). Collection Fondation Giacometti, Paris. # 2016.10513

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Photo of Alberto Giacometti's The Chariot, 1950. Bronze on wood base: 65 3/4 x 27 3/16 x 27 3/16 inches (167x 69 x 69 cm) Denise & Andrew Saul # 2016.144

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Gallery view of the Giacometti exhibit at the Solomon R, Guggenheim Museum, New York City

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Gallery view of the Giacometti exhibit, showing three of the Women of Venice statues, dating to the 1950's. On view at the Solomon Guggenheim Museum, New York City

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Photo of Alberto Giacometti's City Square,1948. Bronze: 8 1/2 x 25 3/8 x 17 1/4" (21.6 x 64.5 x 43.8 cm) Private collection. x 2016.10647

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Photo of Guggenheim Exhibit showing Alberto Giacometti's  Suspended Ball,1930-1931 (version of 1965). Plaster, painted metal and string: 23.7/8 x 14 x 14.3/16 in. (60.6 x 35.6 x 36.1 cm) Collection Fondation Giacometti, Paris. # 2016.92

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Photo of Alberto Giacometti's Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object)(Detail), 1934 (cast ca. 1954-55).  Bronze:  59 7/8 x 12 7/8 x 10 in. (152.1 x 32.7 x 25.4cm) Museum of Modern Art Louise Reinhardt Smith Bequest # 775.1995 © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) of Alberto Giacometti's Man pointing, 1947 (cast by 1949).  Bronze, 70 1/16 x 37 3/8 x 20 1/8" (178 x 95 x 52 cm) Tate Museum, London. # 2016.136

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Berenice Abbott by Julia Van Haaften

Berenice Abbott: a Life in Photography

by Julia Van Haaften

W.W. Norton, 656 pages, $45

Reviewed by Ed Voves

No good deed goes unpunished. If you find that "truism" hard to accept, read the new biography of Berenice Abbott by Julia Van Haaften. Abbott (1898-1991) was no stranger to misfortune.

Consider Berenice Abbott's 1928 photo of James Joyce. It is one of the greatest portrait photographs every taken. Yet Abbot was referred to as a "girl" photographer when she was in her forties over a decade later. Had she been a man, Abbott would have been compared to Gainsborough or Ingres.

The year before taking Joyce's photo, Abbott captured the image of the reclusive French photographer, Eugène Atget. 

Eugène Atget, 1927
Photo by Berenice Abbott
Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Soon after, Atget died and his vast photo archive was in danger of being discarded. Though short of funds, Abbott saved the treasure of Atget's genius, bulky glass photographic plates and all, for posterity. In recognition of this incalculable act of preservation, Abbott was condescendingly categorized as a student or acolyte of Atget - for the rest of her life.

Recognition of her incredible skill and artistic vision did not improve when Abbott returned to the U.S. from France in 1929. She pioneered the type of documentary photos that were to become a government-subsidized art form during the New Deal years. Yet, Abbott was dumped from the W.P.A. payroll (along with most of the other photographers on staff) when Congress cut funding in 1939 for this remarkable cultural initiative.

Not content to rest on the laurels of her wonderful Changing New York book (1939) which showcased her Depression-era photos, Abbott launched a new career photographing scientific subjects during the 1940's. 

After pioneering new technical methods and creating a distinguished body of scientific photos, Abbott was hired by the Physical Sciences Study Committee (PSSC) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1958. America was reeling from the shock of the Soviet Sputnik satellite launch. The PSSC planned a series of textbooks to interest America's young people in the sciences. After supplying brilliant images for the project, Abbott was not even credited in one of the textbooks. The quality of photo reproduction was execrable and her contract was not renewed. Abbott was "too artsey" according to one of the PSSC bureaucrats.

Even the Museum of Modern Art managed to botch the retrospective it mounted of Abbott's photos in 1970.

Despite this catalog of woe, the tone of this account of Abbott's life is anything but bitter. Solidly-researched, filled with perceptive insights into Abbott's character and career, this biography is truly definitive. Abbott may have been unlucky and unappreciated in life. But she could not have asked for a better biographer than Julia Van Haaften.

This superb, much-needed book is founded upon a crucial decision by Van Haaften. Her theme was Abbott's life and she refrained from a "life and times" treatment. The temptation to take this approach must have been very difficult for Van Haaften to resist.

How easy it would have been to use Abbott's life as a framework for yet another retelling of the saga of Modernism. The Ohio-born Abbott was a "poster girl" for the mid-Western students who flocked to the "Village" during World War I. She lived the ex-pat life in 1920's Paris and was a charter member of the New York scene during the 1930's and 1940's. Abbott knew everybody.

Berenice Abbott, New York, November 1937
Photograph by Carl Van Vechten

Thankfully, Van Haaften's narrative focuses tightly on Abbott. That is not to say that the book lacks character details about other artists or relevant social commentary. At issue here is the centrality of Berenice Abbott to American art. Abbott, except very briefly as a photo assistant to Man Ray during the early 1920's, was a major, independent artist. She was nobody's "girl."  

"I'm not a nice girl," Abbott told a New York City official who warned her against taking pictures of the "skid row" at the Bowery. "I'm a photographer."

As a photographer, Abbott excelled in capturing the "spirit of the place" in the same way that William Hazlitt's incomparable essays had conveyed the "spirit of the age" one hundred years before. Unblinking realism was matched by her aptitude to catch the ineffable spark of individuality in her portraits of the Paris literati and her neighborhood scenes in New York City.

In the photos that Abbott began to take of New York City during the 1930's, she was concerned to record the great changes in the cityscape since she had left for Paris in 1921. Abbott certainly documented the "change" in New York, but she also captured the unchanging emotional dynamic of New Yorkers as well.

Broad Street looking toward Wall Street, Manhattan, July 16,1936
Photo by Berenice Abbott

Even with only one solitary pedestrian in the classic photo above, we sense and see - in our mind's eye - the generations of New Yorkers who built and maintain this fabulous city. We see this because Abbott saw it with her mind's eye as she composed this magnificent image of the canyons of lower Manhattan.

Van Haaftan writes very movingly about Abbott's ability to present image and spirit together in a single photo. Van Haaftan, in her introductory remarks, highlights Night View, New York (1932) to show how Abbott solved this "artistic paradox." She quotes Abbott's own words on the necessity for photographers to summon "a creative emotion." 

Unless you see the subject first, you won't be able to force the camera see the picture for you. But if you have seen the picture with your flexible human vision, then you will be on the road to creating with the camera, a vision equivalent to your own.

Abbott succeeded so well in matching heightened perception with exacting practice behind the camera that it is easy to overlook the sheer magnitude of her achievement. This happened to me recently with the very photo which Van Haaftan uses as an exemplar of Abbott's skill and spirituality, Night View, New York.

Anne Lloyd, (Photo (2018) Gallery view of the Modern Times, American Art exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, showing Night View, New York by Berenice Abbott

The Philadelphia Museum of Art included their print of Night View, New York in the current exhibit, Modern Times, American Art, 1910-1950. I was impressed at seeing Abbott’s famous photo in the Philadelphia exhibit. I was not over-awed, perhaps because of the visual overload of taking in all of the storied works in Modern Times, American Art. The second time I visited the exhibit, it was a different story.

When I entered the gallery of Modern Times, American Art, I was immediately struck by Night View, New York. The photo beckoned from across the room. Night View, New York stands out on its own. You just have to be able to see “the subject first” as Abbott said and, thanks to Van Haaftan's insights, I am now able to do so.

From atop the Empire State Building, Abbott created this incredible photographic image. The photo shoot took place on the shortest day of the year in December 1932. Abbott had chosen the date and time with strategic skill. The evening darkness having descended while the offices in nearby buildings were still open for business, Abbott was able to capture an entire constellation of electric lights, visible evidence of thousands of people at work. 

Anne Lloyd, (Photo (2018) Berenice Abbott's Night View, New York, 1932 (detail)

Considerable expertise was involved in staging this photographic coup. Abbott carefully made a fifteen minute-long exposure to capture this one single, dazzling moment. She positioned her camera looking north from the Empire State Building. We see the classical columns of the Greenwich Savings Bank (1352 Broadway), which still stands, renamed The Haier Building. The old Sixth Avenue El runs through Abbott's photo and if you look closely you can make out the rails on the elevated platform. The El was demolished a few years after Abbott took this photo, replaced by the subway and midtown automobile congestion.

It's amazing to think that this photo was taken nearly nine decades ago. The fifteen minutes that Abbott devoted to taking this photo produced an immortal masterpiece dealing with a lot more than the laws of optics or New York City architecture.

If you view Night View, New York with "your flexible human vision" it is possible to peer through the glare of each of those glimmering lights into the offices and into the lives of those long-ago New Yorkers. That is only a slight exaggeration because the sharpness of Abbott's exposure does indeed permit a degree of detail that reaches almost to the doors and windows of the offices surrounding the Empire State Building. 

Anne Lloyd, (Photo (2018) Berenice Abbott's Night View, New York, 1932 (detail)

I asked my wife Anne to get as sharp a copy as possible of Night View, New York. With that, we could illustrate the way that a flexible human vision can serve both the photographer and the viewer of the photograph as both focus ever more intently into the human drama before them.

Adjust the setting of your flexible human vision and you will be able to look inside and with insight - inside the lighted offices, insight into the people who make cities live . Time will be no barrier. Bernice Abbott's Night View, New York is a masterwork for the ages.

Anne Lloyd, (Photo (2018) Berenice Abbott's Night View, New York, 1932 (detail)

For Abbott, the late 1920's through the the early 1940's were peak years of creativity.  These were tough years, too. Except for a couple of years when she was drawing a W.P.A. paycheck, Abbott lived the precarious life of a free lance photographer. She earned a few bucks from selling prints from the Atget archive, but these she had to share with her avaricious business partner, Julian Levy.

Levy, of course, was one of the prime movers of Modernism in the U.S. In most accounts, Levy is a heroic figure. To Abbott, he was an ally who needed watching and she was wise to do so, as he eventually tried to seize control of the Atget archive. Levy was not the only Modernist "hero" with whom Abbott had issues. Paul Strand and Edward Steichen likewise crossed swords with her. 

Abbott was a photographer, as she brusquely told the New York City official. But she remained a woman "poaching" in a mostly male preserve. Abbott was also a left-wing "fellow traveler," if not an avowed Marxist, and a lesbian. Society had a lot of "issues" with her.

Van Haaftan's chapters on Abbott's sexuality and her left-wing politics match the high quality of the earlier episodes from her Paris and New York years. 

Abbott's long partnership with Elizabeth McCausland (1899-1965) is treated with sensitivity and insight. A mid-Westerner like Abbott, McCausland was an academic scholar, professionally and emotionally. Along with personal love, McCausland devoted much needed organizational support to Abbott's photographic career. McCausland's dense academic writing style, however, did little to help Abbott reach out to popular audiences in the exhibits they worked on together.

It was good thing that Abbott was so independent and so at odds with the male movers and shakers of American left-wing "cadres." Van Haaftan documents the FBI's "interest" in Abbott, but they felt that they lacked sufficient grounds to take action against her. Thus, Abbott's "deeds" of political activism went unpunished.

Portrait of Berenice Abbott, Monson, Maine, August 1989
 Photo by Yousuf Karsh 

Van Haaften knew Abbott in her later years and states that she remained supportive of the Soviet Union and its political agenda. It is rather disconcerting to think that a person of Abbott's vision and innate sympathy for the persecuted could have maintained support for a totalitarian regime whose crimes against humanity could not be ignored by the 1980's.

I think the answer to this puzzling failure is that Abbott's emotional world remained that of the 1920's and 1930's. She was the least "artsey," that is doctrinaire, photographer of all the major camera artists of her era. Yet politically, she never quite moved on from the left-wing activism that had rebelled against the Sacco-Vanzetti verdicts, the Scottsboro trials and the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War. 

It is clear from Van Haaftan's wonderful book that Abbott, despite some character quirks, was a warm and generous human being. This is very apparent in the support Abbott devoted to Todd Webb whose post-World War II photos of New York carried on the tradition of street and neighborhood photography which Abbott had pioneered during the 1930's.

Berenice Abbott may have passed the baton to new generations of American photographers but she never ceased to be a remarkable artist in her own right. Moreover, she maintained her open-eyed, pragmatic "hands-on" approach to photography.

"In the search for art the subject gets lost," Abbott declared. "In the search for a subject one finds art."

As long as she lived, Berenice Abbott viewed the world with the flexible human vision that had enabled her to photograph Night View, New York. This was how she looked at the glittering Manhattan skyline on a cold December evening long ago. This is why the photo Abbott created in 1932 still seems as if she took it yesterday.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 
Photos courtesy of W.W. Norton, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Anne Lloyd

Introductory Image: Berenice Abbott: a Life in Photography2018 (book cover ) Courtesy W.W. Norton

Berenice Abbott, (American, 1898-1991) Eugène Atget1927. Gelatin silver print, image and sheet: 9 1/16 × 6 3/4 inches (23 × 17.1 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, # 1968-162-38 Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Carl Zigrosser, 1968

Carl Van Vechten (American, 1880-1964) Berenice Abbott, New York, November 1937.  B&W print, 25.3 x 18.6 cm. Beinecke Library, Yale University. # 20293377.  Yale  University, Van Vechten Trust

Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991) Broad Street looking toward Wall Street, Manhattan, July 16,1936. Silver Print, 8x10 in. Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs collection. # 1219154. New York Public Library

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Gallery view of the Modern Times: American Art 1910–1950 exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, showing Berenice Abbott’s photograph, New York at Night, 1932

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Detail views of Berenice Abbott’s photograph, New York at Night, 1932. Gelatin silver print, Image and sheet: 13 3/8 × 10 5/8 inches (34 × 27 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art, #1984-151-1. Gift of Theodore T. Newbold in memory of Lee Witkin, 1984

Yousuf Karsh (Canadian, 1908-2002) Portrait of Berenice Abbott, Monson, Maine, August 1989. Silver print.  Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs. # 92PH024. New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, Gift of the photographer © Yousuf Karsh

Friday, May 25, 2018

Visitors to Versailles,1682-1789 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Visitors to Versailles,1682-1789 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
April 16, 2018 - July 29, 2018

Reviewed by Ed Voves
Photos by Anne Lloyd

"The best of all possible worlds." 

That was how, in 1710, the great German scientist and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz described the moral order of Planet Earth. Leibniz’ book, Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil, was an essential text of the Enlightenment.

A generation before Leibniz published his theory of how God regulated the universe, the king of France, Louis XIV (1638-1715), had created his version of “the best of all possible worlds." A centralized political power structure, with Louis XIV as the absolute ruler, governed France from an awe-inspiring palace that was the wonder of the world.

In ancient Rome, all roads had led to to the palace of the Caesars. During the reigns of Louis XIV and his successors, all roads led to Versailles.

A sensational exhibit now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Visitors to Versailles, tells the incredible story of how a distant suburb of Paris became the center point of the Western world from 1682 to 1789. It also shows how the French Revolution destroyed Louis XIV‘s “best of all possible” realms.  

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Gallery view of the Visitors to Versailles exhibit

The Tisch Galleries on the second floor of the Met have been transformed to evoke the glistening Hall of Mirrors and the incredible gardens at Versailles. The famed labyrinth of Versailles featured statues from Aesop's Fables. We see these wondrous creatures on display in a simulated garden setting at the Met and the effect is magical.

        Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Gallery view of Visitors to Versailles exhibit          Sculpture of Fox Setting Fire to the Tree with the Eagle’s Nest,1673–74

Nearly two hundred works of art, many from the collection of the Palace of Versailles, document the role of Versailles in shaping political and social attitudes during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Louis XIV attempted to build a model of Divine Right Absolutism with marble, gilded mirrors and spectacular fountains. Ironically, this generated so much popular interest in Versailles that it become more of a tourist attraction than a political stronghold.

Louis XIV came to the throne at age four in 1643. He spent his youth under the close supervision of the regent, Cardinal Mazarin. When he attained full power in 1661, Louis discovered that his finance minister, Nicholas Fouquet, was putting the finishing touches to a grand chateau northeast of Paris, Vaux-le Vicomte. Fouquet invited the young monarch for a visit in the hope of impressing him. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Antoine Coysevox’s Louis XIV,1678–81

Louis was indeed astonished at the beauty and grandeur of Vaux-le Vicomte but suspected (correctly) that Fouquet was embezzling state funds. Louis ordered Captain d’Artagnan, of Three Musketeers fame, to find lodgings for Fouquet in the Bastille. Louis proceeded to seize Vaux-le Vicomte as a country palace for himself. It was the most superb building of recent design in all of France. But there was one problem. Vaux-le Vicomte would always be associated with Fouquet, even though he was rotting in a dungeon.

Looking around for a site for his own version of Vaux-le Vicomte, Louis focused his plans on the  hunting lodge built by his father, ten miles southwest of Paris. It was called Versailles and there Louis sent Fouquet's architect, Louis Le Vau (1612-1670) and landscape designer, André Le Nôtre (1613-1700). Under Le Vau (before he died of overwork) and Jules Hardouin-Mansert (1646-1708), Versailles was transformed from a modest red brick country retreat to a virtual capital city in its own right. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Gallery view of Visitors to Versailles,1682–1789 exhibit       Pierre Denis Martin’s View of the Château de Versailles from the Place d'Armes,1722

By 1682, the vast building project was completed. Louis XIV lived at Versailles year round, ruling France in an autocratic fashion. The entire French court and many government ministers relocated to Versailles or spent the bulk of their time at the palace complex. Paris (which Louis XIV detested) was relegated to second-rank.

The French nobility, foreign ambassadors and celebrities from across Europe all thronged to Versailles. Given the prestige of France in the late 1600's to the mid-1700's, Versailles exerted a magnetic attraction for the powerful, the power-hungry and curiosity-seekers.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Gallery view of Visitors to Versailles exhibit                Travelers’ costumes: man’s wool suit, c.1755-65, & woman’s riding habit,1770’s.

The Metropolitan Museum exhibit recreates the world of Versailles with special attention to those who visited the magnificent palace and gardens. Spectacular displays of period clothing contrast the sensible suits and traveling attire worn by people journeying to Versailles with the elaborate court costumes of the French nobility and the foreign diplomatic staff.

The eighteenth century was not only the Age of Enlightenment. It was the heyday of the Grand Tour. Many of the young English aristocrats on their way to Italy to view Roman ruins stopped at Versailles to see the sights. 

Pompeo Batonia, John Montagu, Lord Brudenell, 1758

One of these “milords" was a handsome, cultured grandee named John Montagu, Lord Brudenell. His Lordship went on the Grand Tour in 1751. His tutor, Henry Lyte  reported home that "Lord Brudenell wore his blue velvet for the first time" at a reception at Versailles. Later,  Pompeo Batoni, the talented Italian portraitist, painted Lord Brudenell in a blue velvet suit, likely the one he wore to the court of Louis XV.

Lord Brudenell and other "grand tourists" from Britain shared the stage of Versailles with visitors from father afield. Dignitaries from Turkey, North Africa and the Indian subcontinent arrived for audiences at Versailles. 

                     Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Sculptures by Claude-André Deseine                     Muhammad Osman Khan (right) and his nephew, 1788 

Among the last to visit before the French Revolution toppled the court at Versailles, were Muhammad Osman Khan and his nephew, representing the Kingdom of Mysore in today's India. Claude-André Deseine, a deaf-mute sculptor, presents these Asian diplomats with exceptional skill and sensitivity.

From closer to home, Russians, Germans and Swedes visited Versailles in large numbers. The King of Sweden, Gustav III was so impressed with Versailles when he toured the palace in 1771, that he tried to rule Sweden in the absolutist style of Louis XIV. For  a time, it looked like Gustav was going to succeed.  In 1792, as revolution swept Europe, Gustav was assassinated at a masked ball in Stockholm.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Joseph Siffred Duplessis’ Benjamin Franklin (1778)

Versailles figured in another political drama, with a happier ending.  In December 1776,  a visitor arrived representing the world’s newest nation, the “United States” of America.

The purpose of Benjamin Franklin’s visit to Versailles was business, not pleasure. The ceramic group, which serves as the introductory illustration of this review, shows Franklin getting what he wanted: a military treaty from France. The biscuit-porcelain group shows King Louis XVI, looking every inch a grand monarch, presenting the treaty to a clueless-looking Franklin.

The inaccuracy, indeed absurdity, of the ceramic group would not have bothered Franklin. He knew that the revolutionary agenda of the Americans would not easily gain favor in France where the mystique of monarchy was greater than in Britain. Nor would fawning flattery win French support.

Franklin cleverly used the appeal of rustic charm, pragmatism and integrity to impress the French court. He arrived at Versailles, posing as the very embodiment of the character he had invented in 1732 for his almanacs, Poor Richard. To courtiers sated with protocol and indulgence, the appearance of Bonhomme Richard at Versailles was a sensation. 

Benjamin Franklin's Three-Piece Suit (habit à la française), 1778-79

One of Franklin’s unadorned suits is on display in the Metropolitan exhibition. This “ditto” (all of one color) suit was almost certainly made for Franklin in France. It may well be the plum-colored suit, with the addition of a fur collar, which we see in the 1778 portrait of Franklin by Joseph Duplessis. The suit was made with exceptional craftsmanship but without the embroidered decorations which were part of the standard uniform of dignitaries at Versailles. It has browned with age and has been very carefully treated by conservators at the Smithsonian in order to appear in the exhibit.

Franklin made a virtue of simplicity in a world of excess. The French were quick to acknowledge his human quality, as can been seen in Duplessis’ portrait (which Franklin highly approved) and even in the picture frame. There is no better tribute to Franklin than the single Latin word Vir which was inscribed at the bottom of the frame. Vir means “man,” in this case a man of virtue.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Detail of Joseph Duplessis’ Benjamin Franklin 

Versailles could be described by one word too, magnificence. But Louis XIV and his architects could have benefited from a little of Franklin’s common sense. Versailles could boast of 2300 rooms, 2153 windows, 67 staircases, gardens covering nearly 2000 acres with 50 fountains and a grand canal, 5.57 km in length. But there were no public lavatories. There was a commode in each of the 350 private apartments and that was all.

The call of nature, cannot be denied for long. Every secluded nook at Versailles served as a latrine. People, including nobles, urinated in stairways and behind columns. The foul smell that hung like a miasma about the palace wafted out to the gardens as well. The scent from the citrus trees in the Orangerie helped to ward off the stench from the palace.

Yet Versailles was worth a visit and not just to get military and financial aid as Franklin sought in the 1776. Versailles was the scene of great human drama and even more engaging human comedy, as Horace Walpole noted in a 1765 letter :

Versailles, like everything else, is a mixture of parade and poverty, and in every instance exhibits something most dissonant from our manners. In the colonnades, upon the staircases, nay in the antechambers of the royal family, there are people selling all sorts of wares. While we were waiting in the Dauphin’s sumptuous bedchamber, till his dressing-room door should be opened, two fellows were sweeping it, and dancing about in sabots to rub the floor.

Versailles in its heyday can be imagined by the details on a vast decorative screen painted Charles Cozette (1713–1797) around 1768-1770.  It was originally a painting before being transferred onto a screen. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Folding Screen & detail by Charles Cozette, 1768-70
We can see red-coated Swiss guards lined up on the drill ground of the Place d’Armes in front of the palace. Everywhere else is cheerful disorder, servants at work or taking their time about it, sauntering nobles and sight-seeing tourists.

There was certainly a lot to see at Versailles. Diplomats from distant realms such as the Kingdom of Mysore in India and Siam, present-day Thailand, brought expensive gifts which were displayed as testaments to the greatness of France. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Gallery view of Visitors to Versailles,1682–1789 exhibit   Lacquer cabinet from Japan,17th century, and cannon from Siam, c.1686

The silver-plated, long-barreled cannon from Siam and the lacquer cabinet from Japan also point to the French trade initiatives in Asia that would lead to war with Britain over control of India during the mid-1700's and the eventual dominion of France in Indochina.

The black and gold lacquer on this 1783 Drop-front Secretary, created by Jean Henri Riesener  for Marie-Antoinette, recall the popularity of Asian motifs in European decorative arts during the eighteenth century. But this imposing cabinet has a more significant story to tell. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Drop-front secretary by Jean Henri Riesener, 1783

The secretary was made by a  German-born craftsman for the very unpopular Austrian queen of France. There are several secret drawers in the secretary hidden beneath the hinged floor of the central compartment. Here, under separate  lock-and-key, Marie-Antoinette stored confidential documents. Of all the glittering objects from Versailles on view at the Met, this Secrétaire en armoire reveals the false, fragile structure of court life at Versailles.

Thomas Jefferson, who took over from Franklin as ambassador to France, observed the "best of all possible worlds" for kings and aristocrats come crashing down in 1789. The keen, perceptive eyes, so brilliantly sculpted in Houdon's portrait bust of Jefferson, watched as Louis XVI pinned a revolutionary cockade on his hat in a vain attempt to mollify the triumphant besiegers of the Bastille.

With shocking rapidity, the Ancien Regime collapsed and the staggering debts accumulated to build and maintain Versailles were paid for in blood. The ledger books for the construction of Versailles had been burned on the orders of Louis XIV. Following the fall of the Bastille, accounts were settled at the cost of the lives of the brave Swiss guards at Versailles, of loyal courtiers like Princesse de Lamballe who was hacked to pieces by the mob, and ultimately of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, "Madame Déficit."

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Jean Antoine Houdon’s Thomas Jefferson, 1789

Even before these deadly acts of retribution took place, Jefferson could see the ominous direction events in France were heading. He clearly understood the cost of maintaining the "dead weight" of past glory and unmerited privilege. In a letter to James Madison, dated September 6, 1789, Jefferson wrote: 

I say, the earth belongs to each of these generations during its course, fully and in its own right. The second generation receives it clear of the debts and incumbrances of the first, the third of the second, and so on. For if the first could charge it with a debt, then the earth would belong to the dead and not to the living generation. Then, no generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of its own existence.

These sobering words, as true today as in 1789, are the most valuable insights which can possibly be derived from the Met's provocative exhibit, Visitors to Versailles. 

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                Photos courtesy of Anne Lloyd, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History

Introductory Image
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Charles-Gabriel Sauvage's Figure of Louis XVI and Benjamin Franklin, 1780–85. Porcelain, 12 3/4 x 9 1/2 x 6 in. (32.4 x 24.1 x 15.2 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of William H. Huntington, 1883. Accession Number:83.2.260

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Gallery view of the Visitors to Versailles exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Sculpture of Fox Setting Fire to the Tree with the Eagle’s Nest, 1673–74. Painted lead, 47 1/4 × 33 1/16 in., 2204.6 lb. (120 × 84 cm, 1000 kg) Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon (MV 7946.1)

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Antoine Coysevox's Louis XIV, 1678-81. Marble, 47 1/4 × 37 3/8 × 13 3/8 in., 661.4 lb. (120 × 95 × 34 cm, 300 kg)  Musée des National des Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon (MV 789)

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Pierre Denis Martin's View of the Château de Versailles from the Place d'Armes, 1722. Oil on canvas, 56 5/16 × 59 13/16 in. (143 × 152 cm). Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon (MV 726)

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Gallery view of the Visitors to Versailles exhibition, British traveling attire, man’s wool suit, c.1755-65, Metropolitan Museum Collection & woman’s riding habit,1770’s from the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Pompeo Batoni (Italian, 1708–1787) John Montagu, Lord Brudenell, Later Marquess of Monthermer, 1758. Oil on canvas, 38 × 28 in. (96.5 × 71.1 cm) The Duke of Buccleuch & Queensberry, Boughton House, United Kingdom (BLHT/BH/122)

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Claude-André Deseine's Sculptures of Nephew of Muhammad Osman Khan and Muhammad Osman Khan, 1788. Both sculptures, Terracotta with carved wood base.  Nephew, without base: 18 1/2 × 13 3/16 × 7 11/16 in. (47 × 33.5 × 19.5 cm). Muhammad Osman Khan, without base:  21 1/4 × 15 3/4 × 9 13/16 in. (54 × 40 × 25 cm) Musée du Louvre, Paris, Département des Sculptures, (RF 4664, RF 2334) Muhammad Osman Khan, Gift of Pierre-Évariste Villemant, 1934

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Joseph Siffred Duplessis' Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), 1778, Oil on canvas, Oval, 28 1/2 x 23 in. (72.4 x 58.4 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Friedsam Collection, Bequest of Michael Friedsam, 1931. Accession Number:32.100.132

Benjamin Franklin's Three-Piece Suit (habit à la française), c.1778–79. Ribbed silk and linen (reproduction shirt, shoes, and stockings) Mounted on form: 60 × 30 × 24 in. (152.4 × 76.2 × 61 cm) Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C. (2012.0187.001)

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Charles Cozette's Folding Screen, showing Scenes of Versailles, c. 1768–70. Wood, oil on canvas, painted leather, 79 1/2 in. × 12 ft. 9 9/16 in. (202 × 390 cm) Collection of Monsieur and Madame Dominique Mégret, Paris

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Cabinet from Japan, 17th century. Lacquer, 45 11/16 × 42 1/2 × 24 7/16 in., 198.4 lb. (116 × 107.9 × 62 cm, 90 kg) Musée du Louvre, Paris, Département des Objets d’Art (OA 5474) Cannon from Siam, before 1686. Cast iron, silver-plated brass inlay, 2 3/8 × 73 5/8 in., 283.1 lb. (6.1 × 187 cm, 128.4 kg) The Royal Artillery Museum, Larkhill, United Kingdom (GUN1/020)

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Drop-front secretary (Secrétaire en armoire) made by
Jean Henri Riesener,1783. Oak veneered with ebony and 17th-century Japanese lacquer, 57 × 43 × 16 in. (144.8 × 109.2 × 40.6 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art.Bequest of William K. Vanderbilt, 1920. Accession Number:20.155.11

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Jean Antoine Houdon's Thomas Jefferson, 1789. Marble, 22 1/4 × 18 7/8 × 10 1/4 in., 125 lb. (56.5 × 48 × 26 cm, 56.7 kg) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, George Nixon Black Fund (34.129