Sunday, November 27, 2016

Kit Carson (1809-1868)

On a recent visit to Taos, New Mexico, known to most as a ski resort and the model of what people think of as an Indian Pueblo, it was also the home of many famous artists and Kit Carson, who played an important role in the Westward expansion of the United States. The hero of my youth has been reviled in recent years as a symbol of the Anglo mistreatment and removal of Native Americans from their lands. The park in Taos where he is buried bears his name despite a recent attempt to rename it, and his home is now a modest museum.

Carson’s life was a classic story of  the American  frontier. When he was one year old his parents moved from Kentucky to the new frontier, Boone’s Lick, Missouri.  He was the ninth of fourteen  children and both his parents died before he was 10 years old.  There was no time to get a formal education.  By the age of 14 he was recorded as being apprentice to a harness and saddle maker.  Within a year becoming restless he hooked up with a wagon train heading down the Old Santa Fe Trail to Santa Fe.  He later went up to Taos, which was his residence for the rest of his life, though he spent precious little time there.  Over the years he was a fur trapper (known at the time as a mountain man), a wilderness guide, an Indian Agent and American Army officer.

When Carson was 19 he was hired to go on a fur trapping expedition to California.  Later, he was appointed as the hunter for the garrison at Bent’s Fort, Colorado.  There was obviously no food delivery to the frontier and the troops had to be fed. 

His travels had him interacting with the Indians and learning several of their languages.  During his lifetime he had three wives, one was Arapaho, another Cheyenne and the third was Hispanic.  The first died shortly after a daughter was born to them who he loved dearly,  taking the best care of her he could.  In 1842 he took her back to Missouri where she could be educated in a convent.  During his return he happened to meet John C. Fremont, the military man and explorer, on a Missouri River Boat.  They got along immediately and Freemont hired Carson as a guide for his first expedition to map and describe the trails to the Pacific Coast.  Freemont’s accounts of the expedition brought Carson to National attention.

Kit Carson had a long and troubled relationship with his legend.  He was most surprised when he first saw a book about himself describing him as a hater of Indians who killed them whenever he could.  The first “dime store novel” came out already in 1840 and he detested them all but there was nothing he could do.  More recently he has been described as a racist, a ridiculous idea considering his marriages alone.

Did Carson fight with the Indians?  No doubt, but he was also recognized by many of them as someone who was totally straight and did not go back on his word.  “Nothing is ever as good as it seems or as bad as it seems.”  This is true for people too.

Carson was in charge of the forced deportation of the Navajo people from their lands known in the oral history of the Navajo as “The Long Walk”. The notion of rounding up and relocating the Navajos, who along with the Apaches, were considered a threat to settlers, was the misguided vision of General James Henry Carleton, head of the Union Army in the territories of New Mexico and Arizona. The Navajo were meant to be converted from nomadic sheepherders to farmers but the chosen resettlement land along the Pecos River was completely incompatible to agriculture.  Carson had objected to the plan but Carleton insisted he carry out the round up and forced march as his patriotic duty.  Many Navajo died for a number of reasons including attacks by enemy tribes, being moved during the winter and nothing would grow on their new land but later many agreed that far more would have died if Carson had not been the one leading the march.

My father always said “I believe everything I read unless I know something about the subject.” So it is with Kit Carson. For the best biography of his life and a full view of the frontier in his time get Hampton Sides’ book, “Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West.”

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Forewarned is Forearmed

I was in the process of writing about an American historical figure when the enormity of my country’s recent decision finally hit me full force.  The reason is simple: my parents had to leave Germany right after Adolf Hitler became Chancellor in 1933.  There was no war, no proven violence, yet, suddenly the country that was suffering from their loss in the first world war had democratically elected the party of a crazed despot in the making.

Then I was sent an article about a California teacher who was suspended for comparing Trump to Hitler in his 9th grade class.   He was a history teacher and holocaust scholar.

I have been speaking about this to friends for some time.  I was taught by my father that, “It can happen here, it can happen anywhere”.  Now we have seen a beginning that we may not believe or wish to believe and pray cannot happen but…   forewarned is forearmed!

No question Germany lost World War I and was under the punitive yolk of the Versailles Treaty.  Article 231 of the Treaty forced Germany to disarm, make substantial territorial concessions, and pay reparations to certain countries that had formed the Entente Alliance.  In 1921 the total cost of these reparations was assessed at 132 billion Marks roughly US $31.4 billion.  Not only couldn’t Germany afford it they found it a national humiliation.

Then came the hyperinflation whereby there were 90 German marks to the dollar at the beginning of 1921 and by the end of 1923 there were 4.2 trillion German marks to the dollar,  a staggering figure.   It finally normalized with a new finance minister in November of that year. There were some high times in Germany for a short while and then there was the Depression by the end of the decade!

The reaction from the people in Germany was not dissimilar to the disenfranchisement that people felt in the U.S. after 2008/2009 Great Recession.  In the people’s opinion obviously their government had forsaken them and left them in a continuous state of suffering, no jobs or financial stability.   Along came a strong man who was charismatic and promised to make Germany great again.

“Early on, Hitler had a central insight: ”All epoch-making revolutionary events have been produced not by the written but by the spoken word.” He concentrated on an inflammatory speaking style flashing with dramatic gestures and catch phrases: ”Germany, awake!”
Time Magazine, February 24, 1920.

There were warnings in the New York Times as well on November 20, 1922 but with this coda.  ”But several reliable, well-informed source confirmed the idea that Hitler’s anti-semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded, and that he was merely using anti-semitic propaganda as a bait to catch masses of follower and keep them aroused…”

From, This Day in History, January 30, 1933:  “The year 1932 had seen Hitler’s meteoric rise to prominence in Germany, spurred largely by the German people’s frustration with dismal economic conditions and the still-festering wounds inflicted by defeat in the Great War and the harsh peace terms of the Versailles treaty. A charismatic speaker, Hitler channeled popular discontent with the post-war Weimar government into support for his fledgling Nazi party (formerly the German Worker’s Party). In an election held in July 1932, the Nazis won 230 governmental seats”

No, I do not think that Donald Trump is Hitler but he has released a culture of hate against, Muslims, Blacks and Jews, which truly scares me on a personal level.  We have heard more moderate language to a degree but can he put the genie back in the bottle?

My good friend a lawyer and expert on Constitutional law believes our Constitution and division of powers will protect us and I want, badly, to believe he is correct.   We will, however, have all the elements of a perfect storm in place with all powers of government, President, House, Senate and most probably The Supreme  Court in the same camp.  I hope they show more strength and fortitude to vote their own minds and not follow the herd as they have for the past 8 years.  Without that I am afraid this country is going to continue on its trip down from the super power it thought it was.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Pierre Gouthière: Virtuoso Gilder at the French Court

When I started in the art business the Louis XV style was in vogue.  Simply put this meant sinuous lines.  This was a style that came as a refinement of the exaggeration of the bulbous baroque.  As always happens the pendulum swings and soon people no longer want froufrou but more severe lines as in the Louis XVI style.  It is interesting that this trajectory was seen in the 17th and 18th century and came again for collectors in the second half of the 20th century.

Pierre Gouthière is about as big a name as one can muster for the Louis XVI style.  He was a master chaser and gilder making his own models, which were then cast by others.  He then performed his true magic spinning a common adornment into gold.  He worked for the Royal family of France, King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette as well as many in the aristocracy.  The artist was so highly thought of that a street in Paris is named after him.

Charlotte Vignon is the first curator dedicated to the decorative arts at the Frick Collection.  She was born in France and after gaining a law degree at the University of Toulouse she studied at the prestigious Sorbonne in Paris.  There she received her doctorate and came to the States to start out as a Fellow at the Metropolitan Museum from where she was lured to the Frick.

Aside from the Frick’s great paintings it has a phenomenal collection of French 18th century  decorative arts of the highest quality.  Its tradition of doing exhibitions around pieces in the collection not only makes for a good exhibition but they learn more about the works of art they own.  The best way to learn is to compare and contrast and if you can bring pieces together there is no better way to advance your knowledge.

Charlotte Vignon fell in love with the large console table at the Frick that one passes every time one goes to the museum. Since she could be sure that the bronzes on it were by Gouthière it was the perfect hook for an exhibition.

When she decided 5 years ago that this was going to be her show she immediately got in touch with the retired curator at Versailles, Christian Baulez.  Over his career he had studied and written a great deal on French gilt bronze in the 18th century.  As Charlotte said there were many very good bronze makers and gilders and she wanted to nail down attributions to show only pieces that were virtually 100% sure to be by Gouthière. To achieve her goal she asked Christian Baulez to go to the archives in Paris and trace the pieces made for the aristocracy and see what could be found where it is certain that the master worked on them.  She included these in the catalog that she and Baulez did for the exhibition. Formerly there were 300 works attributed to the artist and this has now been reduced to 49 where there can be little doubt.

Of course, there are pieces that could not be brought to the Frick for the show.  Charlotte told me of a wonderful chimneypiece with bronzes surely by the artist and made for Mme DuBarry that she found in a home of a major collector in New York but did not think she could ask the owner to chop it out of his living room!  What she did not know is that I had sold the piece to the gentleman.

As art dealers we often threw the term “Gouthière quality” around, like the auction houses said “rare and important”!  My father used to refer to the sharpness of Gouthière’s mounts but he did not mean so sharp that you would cut yourself which would indicate a machine made mount.

One small exquisite object in the exhibition was new to me.  In fact it is just a knob made for the French-windows of Mme. Du Barry at the Chateau Louveciennes.   This was lent by the Musée du Arts Decoratifs in Paris.

The Frick is currently working on an expansion program but Charlotte had to deal with what she had in terms of space, which is two medium size rooms below ground and one small room above.  It is a disadvantage in some ways but is also an advantage.  A curator’s job is to edit, to narrow down to the essence of what one is trying to show and the small spaces help in that respect.  The room on the ground floor is being used to show the method of making the gilt bronze mounts and a video explaining Gouthière’s technique.  To whet your appetite the latter can be found on the Frick’s website.

There are 21 works of art in the show and I asked Charlotte to name her favorite not including the Frick’s own console table.  She thought for a moment and blurted out two pairs: the candelabra that she first spotted in an exhibition in New York from the Galerie Kugel in Paris. Subsequently they came to the museum through a generous gift from Trustee Sydney R. Knafel. They were commissioned by the Duc d’Aumont ()1709-!782), one of the most important art collectors of the time.  She also loved the appliques (wall lights) lent by the Louvre that were made for the Duchesse de Mazarin (1759-1826) around 1780, the same connoisseur who commissioned the Frick’s table.

The incredible scholarship that goes into this kind of an exhibition is a great tribute to the curator of the show and former curator at Versailles.  They have brought us a whole new perspective of Gouthière, an artist greatly admired but not here-to-fore well understood.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Coming Home Again

No I am not going back to New York but rather I am referring to a group of 9 ceramic pots, which are currently being shown at the Poeh Cultural Center at the Pojoaque Pueblo in an exhibition entitled “IN T’OWA VI SAE’WE” (The People’s Pottery).  Here is an image of the installation an the resulting case.

I do not need to go into the mistreatment of the Native Americans by the white man (Anglo for the purposes of this Missive) even when the latter thought they were doing the right thing… nothing has changed politically speaking.

This, however, is a benign story regarding the Indians and the clay vessels they made for use as in storage of grain and water.  At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century the Anglo believed the Indians to be a dying race.  This was not just because of the Indian wars but also due to disease and assimilation.  I still remember in the 1950’s as a teenager and even into the 60’s believing that someday the whole world would be united thanks to faster communication, travel and intermarriage.  Ah, the idealism of youth.   

Most of my readers probably know about The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act known as NAGPRA.   Simply put it is legislation whereby the Indians could repatriate the religious artifacts and bones of their peoples, which the Anglos had absconded with.  Not everything was stolen, however, objects were also bought or excavated.  As the Indians continue to seek their identity, culture and history, which was traditionally oral, they wish to see, touch and smell objects from their past.

The Tewa are a group of Indians from pueblos within an hour’s drive both north and south of Santa Fe.  They are joined by the Tewa language and share the Pueblo culture.  There is also a Tewa village on First Mesa at Hopi in Arizona who had migrated north.  The Poeh Cultural Center at Pojoaque represents the culture of all the Tewa peoples.

Bruce Bernstein is a scholar of Indian art and culture and has written several books and many articles on the subject.  His current positions are as Executive Director and Curator of the Ralph T. Coe Foundation (where I am on the board) and more importantly for this Missive is Cultural Preservation Officer for the Pueblo of Pojoaque.

Bruce Bernstein and his wife, Landis Smith at Bandolier National Monument

The idea of returning pots for long-term loan to the Poeh Cultural Center museum started with a 1903 photograph Bruce found of three men posing in front of 12 pots. They included the then Governor of the Pueblo of Pojoaque, Antonio Tapia Montoya and anthropologist, George Pepper who had been sent out by The American Museum of Natural History in New York to collect artifacts.  Bruce went to New York to look for the pots at the Natural History Museum but did not find them so he turned to the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), which has some 20,000 pieces of pottery from the pueblos of New Mexico in hopes of finding similar pieces.  Experience is everything and from 1997 to 2007 working as Assistant Director for Collections and Research at NMAI he had been responsible for moving the collection from the George Heye Museum in New York to Washington and their storage facility in Maryland.  In effect he had overseen the entire collection.

Such pots are not eligible for repatriation under NAGPRA as they were utilitarian, not sacred but Bruce knew it would be important if these pots could be brought back home, particularly the water jars as water is a vital life force in the southwest.  He achieved their return using the established museum practice of long-term loan. 

He brought the past Governor of Pojoaque George Rivera as well as the current Governor, Joe Talachy and various members of the staff from the Poeh Cultural Center, as well as a number of potters to view 1200 pots at NMAI.   Groups were also convened to look at slides so that they would have the people’s representatives choose the ones that would mean the most to the Tewa communities.  They decided that they would request pieces dating before 1920, when they were for home use before there was a market.  They were made for family and friends and therefore, unsigned, leaving their creators unknown.  Here is a photo of tribal members examining pots at NMAI  as well as a single pot, dating circa 1850, which is  now in the display at the Poe Center. (Image of members of Pojoaque tribe examining the pots and a single pot)

Speaking with Bruce Bernstein he made it quite clear that he sees the vehicle of extended loan. as a means of normalization of the relationship between the Anglo and Native American Museums. He hopes to stimulate this kind of loan to the benefit of all.  There will eventually be a total of 100 pots delivered to the Poeh and the 9 that are here represent the first homecoming. In Bruce’s words “These pots have been in Washington D.C. as a delegation representing Tewa people. But now they’re coming back to refortify Tewa people’s culture.”

Sunday, October 30, 2016

TEFAF New York

TEFAF, The European Fine Art Fair, was established in The Netherlands in 1988 by a group of art dealers under the umbrella of The European Art Foundation.  It takes place in Maastricht, The Netherlands on the German and Belgian border and not far from France.  This year it had an added venue—New York City. 

TEFAF is a fair that combines antiquities, old master paintings and drawings with European and Asian decorative arts as well as modern and contemporary art.  If you wanted to meet most of the art world you needed to show up in Maastricht every March.  I have written about it several times in years past but not in the last two.  Just enter TEFAF into the search engine on my blog  and you can read more.

TEFAF’s organizers decided, however, since art sales weakened everywhere with the recent recession and the United States has always been thought to be the holy grail for the art market they would take advantage of an opportunity.  There were two New York fairs that aspired to imitate TEFAF organized by Haughton International Fairs and Artvest.  The Haughton fair has now been bought out by TEFAF and Artvest in partnership.   They are replacing the Art & Antiques fair formerly organized by Haughton International Fairs and the Spring Masters fair previously organized by Artvest.  The first, presenting historical art took place last week and the next in May will concentrate on modern and contemporary.

 I regret not being there, but the coverage is excellent and, knowing many of the players, I cannot resist this temptation to write about it.  TEFAF’s exhibit hall in Maastricht accommodates 270 exhibitors from 20 countries but the far smaller New York Armory can hold only 94 exhibitors from 13 countries of the 300 applications they received.  In articles written for the New York Times by Judith Dobrzynski, she found that many collectors in this country did not know about the European Fair and says that the TEFAF organizers hope that the New York fairs will draw people to Maastrcht in March.

Why is TEFAF different from all other fairs?  Particularly, in the old master and antiques categories TEFAF distinguishes itself in that they always have a committee of prominent experts including museum curators vetting all the material submitted for sale.  This gives the public an extra degree of confidence in what they are buying.  The other major inducement is presentation.  Galleries can end up paying up to $250,000 dollars after they are finished with expenses of shipping, lodging and installation of their booth.   Though that may be unusual $100,000 is not.  Installation can also give confidence and highlight what should be especially noted in a booth helping to justify prices of prime works of art.  The Richard Feigen Gallery in New York asked Juan Pablo Molyneux, the Chilean interior designer to the wealthy, to do up his booth.  Axel Vervoordt, Belgian dealer and noted designer in his own right created his own space.  Here first is the Feigen booth and then Vervoordt’s.

My daughter went to school with Anderson Cooper so I have been interested in him beyond his newscasts.  I did not know he had an interest in art but, being the son of Gloria Vanderbilt, I guess that is not too surprising.  He bought an Old Master painting on opening night.  I happened to have seen it in the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition “Unfinished Thoughts Left Visible”.   It is an unfinished painting by Anton Raphael Mengs, “Portrait of Mariana de Silva y Sarmiento, Duquesa de Huescar (1775). Here is an image of Anderson Cooper at TEFAF, New York and of his newly acquired painting.

 Credit: Art News by Maximiliano Duron
Courtesy of the Met Breuer Museum

In Martha Schwendener New York Times’ article about the fair she mentions the combined booth of 3 dealers Julius Boehler and Georg Laue from Munich and Blumka Gallery, New York.  They have put together a Wunderkammer, a format made famous by the Green Vaults in Dresden for the display of  small Renaissance treasures in silver, gold and precious stones.  The dealers based theirs on a painting by Georg Hinz  (1630/31-16880 in the Hamburger Kunsthalle.

Hopefully I will be able to go personally next year and report on this very special art event.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Highlights from Southern Mexico

This will be the last of my 3 missives on southern Mexico.  I learned a lesson on this trip, if at all possible interview your guide before you put yourself in his or her hands.  In my case the guide was not a guide but rather an academic who only knew her own fields of archeology and sociology.  Thank goodness the Spanish Colonial Museum’s curator was with us since she could speak about the churches that we saw.

Having said that, I would have liked to learn more about the current archeology in that part of the world.  I spent about 5 years on the President’s Cultural Property Committee in Washington D.C.  and during the years I was there, the second half of the 1990’s, most of the claims of looting came from Central America.  I don’t remember how much if any discussion about Mexico.   A good part of our trip, however, was on the border of Guatemala, another artificial border so they must be related archeologically.  One of the archeologists on the Cultural Property Committee had spoken about the subsistence diggers, those who dig for archeological materials and sell them on the black market just to survive.  I have never seen such poverty as we passed along the road between the Yucatán and Chiapas. There were heavy border guards on the Guatemala border.  I am sure they were there for drugs but probably also for smuggled artifacts.  What a fascinating subject.

We did see some unbelievable archeological sights.  My wife took me to Pompeii years ago and you could walk around a town but most of it appeared more like rubble to a neophyte like me.  In Mexico many Mayan cities were well established by the 3rd century AD.  When the people left because they could no longer farm, the cities were reclaimed by the jungle until they were re-discovered by archeologists. 

There are obviously many spectacular ruins in Mexico and some even more elaborate than what we saw but Edzna in Campeche and Palenque in Chiapas were on the road we traveled.  We also stuck with the most easily accessible parts of the monuments They had the great advantage of not being overrun by tourists so we got to see them up close and personal.  At Edzna we saw just a handful of people, our group doubling the size of this village for the moment!  We could well imagine the leaders bringing their people together to address them from atop the stone pyramids.  Here are a few images.

In Palenque there are, according to the web over 1,400 temples, many still locked within the jungle.  Of course, many have reliefs and hieroglyphics on them as this was certainly a center for trade at its peak between 600 - 800 AD as it is a center for tourists today.  Here you have a couple of images of the monuments on the site plus an interior of the tomb of the Red Queen where my wife dared to climb!

An image I could not resist sharing was as we drove through Chiapas this beautiful view of the mountains through the abundant vegetation.

The site that I found the most incredible of all; was the church of San Juan Chamula.   It is actually the interior that is so exciting and not because of the art.  The church is full of individual worshippers praying in various Mayan languages in front of small altars with various numbers of candles on the floor in front of them, usually without stands just melted to the floor.  It seems that the number of candles depends on the seriousness of “the ask” from god.  One couple in the middle of the church was kneeling, there are no seats, and in front of them were maybe 25 or 30 candles. Their little daughter was lighting the last ones.  The man was holding his wife’s hand up in the air to the large altar in front.  I can only imagine that there was something seriously wrong with it.

One is not allowed to take photographs and one would feel guilty doing so because it is the people praying not the church you would be photographing.  I looked on line and could not find a single photo but in the market opposite the church I did find a postcard.  What a sight to remember!

Here too is an image in front of a church in the nearby village of Zinacantan where a priest is saying an open-air mass to a congregation mostly wearing traditional embroidered costumes.

Mexico is so well known for its music and what might be called their national instrument is the Marimba derived from both African an Central American traditions.  In Chiapas de Corzo we received a complete lesson on the various components of the instrument and how they affect the sound.  We had a one hour private concert at the home of a master Marimba maker, but here is less than a minute of the wonderful music.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Visit to a Hacienda and a Mayan Story

Outside of Merida we visited the Hacienda Sotuta de Peón in Tecoh, Yucatán.  It is a privately owned historic henequén plantation. We had a trilingual guide who was amazing as a storyteller and an actor getting totally into his tour.  He did not only have our group of a dozen but also a group of Mexican tourists and continued in two languages and though his English was fluent his rapid Spanish took half the time!

He first explained to us that henequén is a plant that is called sisal in English and is also known as agave.  It can make very strong rope, and hammocks and Tequila comes from the same plant.   One of the many Land Reform laws required that each hacienda owner only keep 10% of his original land and this property, which was originally 3000 hectares was now only 300 hectares making it impossible to make a profit from the henequén which sold for so little.  As a result they now rely on tourism.

We got to see how the henequén leaf was originally carded by hand by pulling it by hand through sharp spikes into strands and then how it was later done with machines.  These could also string it together and mae into bales of 250 pounds which sell now for something like $50.  We also received a tour of the owners lavish home brought back to its original nineteenth century splendor through original art and reproductions.

We were then all put on two sides of a large flat cart pulled by a mule at a relatively high speed.  The cart was on rail tracks and sure enough at one point we all thought we were done for when the cart went off the tracks.  We then understood why the crew carried walkie talkies... to call for help.  Another crew member showed up with a large piece of wood to pry up the cart as they pulled and pushed the cart back on the tracks. 

We were taken to the home of an 83 year-old Mayan gentleman who had worked on the Hacienda for his entire life.  Our tour guide did a running translation from the Mayan dialect into Spanish and English as if he had never heard the spiel before... what a performance! The same transportation took us to an open covered porch with a thatched roof where we had a hearty lunch. Here are pictures of the Mayan and our guide as well as an image of his house and interior.

On another evening we were taken to Chichen Itza  the most famous of the Mayan ruins in the Yucatán.  Projected on the great Pyramid, originally hidden by the jungle, we saw a sound and light show telling the history of the site.

Near by was an ancient ball court where the Mayans played a game called pitz that was part of their political, religious and social life.  The rubber ball ranged in size from a soft ball to a soccer ball. The players could not touch the ball with their hands but bounced it off their hips trying to get it through stone hoops along the ball court.  The loser also lost his life... that is one way to reduce the population!  Here is a bronze demonstrating the technique.

More to come...