25 Oct 2012

The Barnes Collection in Philadelphia

I happened to be in the city of Philadelphia recently to do a job and managed to find the time to visit what has to be the most amazing collection of art of all descriptions that I have ever seen. I am of course referring to the Barnes collection, which is now harboured in a modern building right in the centre of Philadelphia.
The Barnes Foundation building in Philadelphia
The story of Albert Barnes is a remarkable example of an American success story. He was born into a working-class family in 1872 and grew up in Philadelphia. He obtained a medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania before pursuing his studies in Germany. Back in the USofA, Barnes, togther with Herman Hille, discovered an antiseptic silver compound called Argyrol that was used to prevent infant blindness. Having gone into the pharmaceutical business in 1908, the Barnes Company made a fortune thanks to the success of Agryrol. Barnes had already begun collecting and went on to buy extensively art of many kinds and periods, with an emphasis on French impressionists and post-impressionists. He created the Barnes Foundation back in 1922, whose stated aim was to «promote the advancement of education and the appreciation of fine arts ». He died in 1961, aged 79, leaving a testament that I will mention later on.
Dr Barnes

Many things are remarkable about this collection: its size, its eclecticism, the depth it shows in the collections of the works of numerous artists, and the way it is set out and hung. Dr. Barnes left his collection, via a Foundation, to his city, stipulating that it should neither be moved from his town house nor the works altered in their positions on the walls. The problem was that his house, although quite large, did not have the facilities to accomodate an increasing flow of visitors and was situated (it still is, and it harbours another part of the Barnes Foudnation: that devoted to his wife's botanical collection) some way out of the city centre of Philadelphia, and with very little parking space and inadequate public transport. So it was decided to move the collection into a modern building situated in the centre of town. This created some conservative furore, but I think they made the right decision. To respect at least part of Barnes' wishes, the shapes and proportions of the original rooms have been reproduced within this modern building, along with the very idiosyncratic hanging set-up devised by Barnes himself.

The original Barnes home, from which the collection has now moved
The central ground-floor gallery in the new building, which also reproduces the lighting of the old Barnes house. One can just see part of the Matisse triptych high on the left, fitting into the arches. And another strange feature of this hanging are the hundreds of old door fittings, which Barnes also collected, on the walls in between the paintings like so many punctuation marks. 
Now about the paintings and other works to be seen here. First of all you need to book your ticket ahead if you hope to get in, as they wisely limit the numbers of people allowed in at one time. Luckily I had my press card with me! Second you had better allow yourself at least two hours, and better still three. There are more Renoirs, Cézannes and Matisses here than anywhere alse I can think of. And there is much, much more besides.
I have to admit to disliking the paintings of Renoir. I know this is not a widely-held point of view, but I consider him to be a bad painter: all that sloppy softness and women who look like they are made of Spam (anyone remember Spam?). I think Renoir is the David Hamilton of painting, although his women must outweigh the Hamiltonian nymphette models by about three to one apiece. There is no getting away from Renoir in this place though, as there are usually several on each wall. They just pop up all over the galleries, like bad pennies. This is partly due to the fact that Barnes clearly had a big thing for Renoir, and partly due to his practise of hanging paintings from different styles and periods together, and often in rows three or more high on densely cluttered walls.
Once one gets used to this clutter, the hanging becomes legible and often very interesting. The anachronism in particular can be most illuminating. In one gallery I saw, surrounding the inevitable blotch of Renoirs, a Titian next to a fantastic (and anonymous) 15th century German portrait of a woman, followed by some fabulous Chinese painting on what seemed to be silk. Barnes clearly not only had a sincere and profound love of art, but also a very good eye. Or there is a Milton Avery next to a Puvis de Chavannes, and that works really well too. And so on. I found the hanging and its surprises one of the joys of visiting the Barnes collection, after an initial recoil that we can call the Renoir-repulsion syndrome.
one of the many and admirably musical (think Bach) Cézanne still-life works in this collection
Manet, for instance, of whom there are just a few stellar paintings in this collection, is an infinitely better painter than Renoir, even when he is at his most spontaneous and loose, in terms of composition and technique. But the next most important collection here, in terms of numbers of works by a single artist, must be that of Cézanne. Apples, pears and oranges everywhere! This must be the biggest collection of Cézanne still-lifes anywhere in the world. And there is much more, including some stupendous landscapes and a great portrait of his mother. But Cézanne, like Matisse but unlike Renoir, is a truly great painter. He had to struggle a bit at the beginning, but when it started to click for him...wow! Cézanne builds his paintings, shaping them like a craftsman. You can see it just as much in his watercolurs, of which there are several, as in his oils, of which there are many here. His paintings are usually architectural, often constructed like written music. They do not seem spontaneous, yet they breathe life, through the vibrations, the constant conversations between shapes and colours. His use of perspective is dynamic, offset from a central viewpoint and so never static, as in the work below...
Another strong point in Cézanne's work is that most subsidiary parts of his paintings hold up on their own, such is the architectural quality of their overall composition. Next time that you look at one, just try blocking off the vision of half or a third of it with your hand and see for yourself. 
What else is to be seen here? You name it: a few Gauguins, some good early Picassos, a fabulous series of Henri "Douanier" Rousseau, the odd Toulouse-Lautrec and Seurat, and a mass of Matisses, from the very good to the indifferent (Matisse, like Cézanne and Van Gogh, was not a "natural" draughtsman, unlike Picasso). Oh, and a very good Frans Hals, etc, etc. I will have to do another article on this place as there is just too much to say!
Meanwhile here are a few more images of some of those I mentioned....a bit like the Barnes hanging, all mixed up.
Now do you want to go to Philly? Here's the main place to go.....
And you can try this restaurant (actually they have several, I understand, but I tried Barbuzzo's for lunch) when you are there. There wine and beer list is is good, the place is simple and friendly and the food is ok:

21 Oct 2012

Turner and Monet in the sky

Ever felt that Turner (or Monet, for that matter) exaggerated?  These were taken from the window of an airplane recently, on a flight from Philadelphia to Atlanta, and they have not been retouched in any way.

16 Oct 2012

Strange Image 1

I occasionaly take pictures of images that strike me as interesting or strange, without any particular intention or purpose. Not quite knowing what to do with these, as I come across one or another from time to time when sifting through pictures to find something else, I have decided to publish a series of them as posts on this blog. Any ideas as to what they might represent are welcome....I will tell you the story behind the image later, I promise!

Strange image 1

14 Oct 2012

Philip Roth and the Human Stain

I have been skirting around reading Philip Roth for some years now. Many have told me how great a writer he is, and I have, in recent years, bought a couple of his books with the firm intention of starting one day. But I had shirked before the task, rather like one hesitates before leaping off the high diving board into a swimming pool. Such hesitation can be fatal, especially when prolonged, so I have finally taken the plunge. I did so a week ago, with his novel entitled "The Human Stain", which was first published in 2001.

The opportunity of considerable reading hours was provided by a transatlantic air journey, from Paris to Philadelphia, with its inevitable cohort of queues, hanging around for connections, and quite a few solid hours sitting above the Atlantic. Having started it in the waiting zone before leaving, without so intending I finished the book at the precise moment at which my plane touched down at Paris CdG on my return journey. I felt that, in a way, I had been totally immersed in the world Roth creates in this book for my whole trip.

All I can say (at least to start with) is that Roth easily lives up to his reputation. The Human Stain is one of the most remarkable and gripping books that I have read for a long time.

I hesitate to list the vital topics that he touches upon in this book as they are so numerous: friendship, betrayal, race, pretention, frustrated love, jealousy, admiration, sexual passion, violence, the lasting effects of war, family relationships, forgiving, forgetting, not forgetting, concealing the truth...the list goes on. And he tells a story, with all its twists and turns, handled as a suspense, with his characters taking shape clearly at times and then changing, moving out of focus for a while, ever shifting in the kaleidoscope of their lives.

In  addition, Roth occasionally lets go in a couple major rants about the contemporary (he was writing this in the late 1990's) social, political and media scene and what it reveals about his country, the USA. He does this through the first person figure in the book, who is named as the writer, Zuckerman, a recurrent character in his books and, I imagine, himself. I will give you an extract from one of these in a minute.

But let's start with the beginning, which is the quotation that Roth inserts in the fly-leaf of his book. This is from Sophocles' play Oedipus the King:

Oedipus: What is the rite of purification? How shall it be done?
Creon: By banishing a man, or expiation of blood on blood...

This sets the main theme of the book and enlightens the chosen title: The Human Stain.

The first chapter of The Human Stain is entitled "Everyone knows". It immediately made me think of the Leonard Cohen song, "Everybody knows". The link, through title and words, is quite appropriate, although perhaps fortuitous.


In this first chapter, the literary fireworks start pretty soon, with the author's diatribe against the hypocrisy and self-righteousness that washed over America during the Clinton/Lewinsky episide in 1998. Here is a slice for you:

"It was the summer in America when the nausea returned, when the joking didn't stop, when the specualtion and the theorizing and the hyperbole didn't stop, when the moral obligation to explain to one's children about adult life was abrogated in favor of maintaining in them every illusion about adult life, when the smallness of people was simply crushing, when some kind of demon had been unleashed in the nation and, on both sides, people wondered "Why are we so crazy?", when men and women alike, upon awakening in the morning, discovered that during the night, in a state of sleep that transported them beyond envy or loathing, they had dreamed of a mammoth banner, draped dadaistically like a Christo wrapping from one end of the White House to the other and bearing a legend A HUMAN BEING LIVES HERE. It was the summer when - for the billionth time- the jumble, the mayhem, the mess proved itself more subtle than this one's ideology and that one's morality. It was the summer when a president's penis was on everyone's mind, and life, in all its shameless impirity, once again confounded America."  

The intricacies of the themes, the subtlety of the characters, the power of the writing and the plot of The Human Stain should perhaps not be recounted in articles like this. It is far, far more than a succession of passages of brilliant writing like the above. The Human Stain is a deeply moving and questioning book, often funny, often sad: like a mirror held up to life. I will be reading more of Philip Roth's work very soon. I heard that Roth has recently declared that he is now finished with writing. Perhaps understandable. At least I have a lot of catching-up to do as there must be another 25 novels by him that I have yet to read.

Read on ......

10 Oct 2012

Bags for travel

I seem to about the only person travelling these days who actually carries their bags, rather then wheeling them around like trolleys. Am I plain stupid or am I the only one still to have arms? I know that airport corridors are getting longer and longer these days, but is it really necessary for small carry-on bags to be kitted out with wheels like they were the back end of a semi-trailor?

Anyway, this little bit of a rant in the way of an introduction was actually kicked off by a charming young lady from Bulgaria who gazed in admiration at my bag while we were standing one behind another in an airport check-in line recently. She said how much she liked it, and then mentioned some major international baggage brand (can't remember which one) and I said no, this bag is made by a craftsman called Alan Mackenzie who works out of the Isle of Arran in Scotland (I actually shun major brands for their banalisation of everything they touch, added to severe overpricing to cover their advertising expenditure).

This is not some form of reverse snobbery on my part. The bags (I have a large one and a small one) were a gift from my mother, who is a good supporter of fine craftsmen, and I use them a lot since they are practical, strong and simple. They are of the Gladstone bag type, being made of canvas with leather reiniforcements in all the right places. They have lasted very well, apart from the linings which tend to tear away from the main body.

Here is a picture of the two of them, taken, at my feet, in another airport queue recently:

The small one is known as an "overnight" size, and the big one a "weekend" size. I guess it depends how light you travel. I use the small one for a weekend and the big one for a week's journey, unless I have to carry a camera and a portable computer as well as personal stuff. They are nice and flexible too and are really easy to spot on any baggage delivery system (the big one I tend to check in as I hate people cluttering up planes with huge suitcases) since nobody has anything resembling them. But just don't expect them to come with any wheels. They will save your arms a session at the gym instead! You may get a shoulder strap which can be unbuckled when needed, as on my smaller on the right. I lost the other strap.

If you want more information on these bags, here is an official picture and a link to Mackenzie's web site. They make them in leather also, but I go for these, and they are cheaper as well.



7 Oct 2012

The joys of flying

I really like looking at the ground from the air. At the time you may read this (if you read it on October 7th), I will be in the air again, moving west over the Atlantic from Paris to New York and then on to Philadelphia do do a job. These pictures were taken on another flight, earlier this summer, in Europe. They were taken with my telephone and are nothing special but I find the shapes, colours and textures, as well as the gradually shifting distances as one takes off or approaches landing, very interesting and plan to do a series of paintings using them some time in the not-too-distant future. I guess they will need to be quite big paintings. We live and we hope...


And then we're on the ground....

5 Oct 2012

The beauty of old motorcycles and some examples

When we talk about age, and indeed about beauty, relativity must be our companion. What is considered to be "old", "very old" or whatever is often related to the age of the person talking. As for beauty, well, we know just how subjective that one is.
If we enter the field of mechanics, and particulary that form that evolves around the internal combustion engine, then our time frame narrows down to less than 150 years. The frst motorcycle with a petrol-fuelled engine is credited to the German engineer Gottfried Daimler (of future Daimler-Benz fame), associated with Maybach. Here is a picture of the beast, which dates from 1885:

1885 Daimler-Maybach

Moving on in time, and given the growing application of electronics, not to mention the fickle finger of fashion and its often heavy hand in design, many motorcycles from the 1980's may now seem to be "old" to a younger rider. But, for the purpose of this article, I want to talk about bikes from, or which clearly refer to, the period between WWI and WW2.
The beauty of old Harleys, modified, reinvented, or whatever
I have occasionally made disparaging remarks on this blog about Harley Davidsons, despite the fact that I did, a number of years ago, own a couple of Harleys myself, one of which dated from 1943. My problem with this brand is that I feel is has gotten fatter and fatter over the years (very literally for most of its machines, and see for yourself below!). With the result that their machines usually appear soft and unfocused these days. I am not convinced either by its way of playing on a kind of phony nostalgia without really reinventing itself. Just noise is not enough to make a good motorcycle, even if it may be enough to get non-bikers buy the things for a while.
A bike, or a car on 2 wheels? Harley Electra-Glide in full dress

There was, not so long ago, a very good attempt made to produce a modern Harley that would actually turn corners, brake and accelerate. This was the Buell episode, to which I will perhaps return in a future article. The people at Harley were so smart that they put an end to it last year!
When one looks into the many modified versions of these machines that practically invented the rapidly expanding category of “specials” with the advent of choppers back in the 1960’s, many of these seem so repetitive, and often garish as well, that they do not turn me on either.

But there are exceptions to any form of generalization, and I would like to show you a couple of them. The Harley in the pictures above and below was built by a German called Bernhard Elflein and who went on a mechanics course to be able to realize his dream bike. I found him thanks to the almost daily specialist site Bike Exif, which is based in New Zealand (bravo to the All Blacks for their convincing win in the southern hemisphere championship). I also note that my colleague, Von Sontag, posted images of this machine on his excellent blog (in French), Le Dépassionné.  Elflein was clearly inspired by the Harley racers of various descriptions from the 1920’s and 1930’s. This was perhaps the golden age for this brand. And, believe it or not, he used as a base for this bike an Electra-Glide (ie something that started out looking like the ugly fat thing in the previous picture).
Elflein has, for me, managed to capture something quintessential about motorcyles in this machine, which I will not hesitate to call a work of art. The bike is both sleek, functional-looking and somewhat brutal it its brazen bareness. Naked power, some degree of engineering complexity, and a bit of fantasy all seem to exude from each of its pores. Take a look at some detail pictures...
View of the tank, taken from a pre-war NSU, and the cockpit, clearly hand-made
Seat and oil tank detail
primary chain-guard: do NOT wear laced shoes while riding this bike!
Elflein has started a workshop, called Herzbube Motrocycles, where he does things to US bikes. I took a look at it and must say that I didn't like most of the machines I saw: ape-bar Harleys (who can ride those things further than the end of the high street anyway?). But one bike really caught my eye, a pre-war Indian that is so pure and pared down that it really captures the "board-track" spirit with a perfectionist touch, not to mention lovely and subtle use of colour. The bike doesn't look quite finished, but she is so beautiful that I couldn't resist.

Here are the links to the sites I have mentioned in this article
And, naturally, Bernhard Elflein's own site