September 29, 2009 | The month offers a last chance to catch some of summer's notable exhibitions: Islamic ornament in Frankfurt; baroque splendor in Florence; and Dufy ceramics in Ghent. Europe's big event in September is the Twenty-sixth Biennale in Florence.
The Museum für Angewandte Kunst Frankfurt gets philosophical about the meaning of ornament.
In a small but insightful temporary exhibition of approximately forty objects set into its new permanent display of Islamic applied arts, the Museum für Angewandte Kunst Frankfurt compares and contrasts Western versus Islamic concepts of the term ornament. James Trilling's statement that "Ornament is decoration in which the visual pleasure of form significantly outweighs the communicative value of content" (Ornament: A Modern Perspective [Seattle, 2003]) is used to summarize the Western attitude of ornament as surface decoration with no intrinsic meaning, or value. By contrast, the show points out that the Arab world has no equivalent translation of the word ornament, although the Muslim avoidance of depicting human forms led to an art replete in patterns. Exquisite Persian artifacts—ceramics, bronze works, and richly decorated manuscripts from the museum's collection—offer another interpretation in which pattern, repetition, abstraction, and transmutation playfully inspire intense observation.
The show suggests that ornament should be interpreted as "an intrinsic part of the artistic language of a culture that cannot be measured by European standards."
September 3, 2009 | Those wishing to escape crowds this summer need not avoid Europe. With minimum planning, you can view some of the most spectacular but still privately owned properties and collections in Great Britain and France. Exhibitions in Arles and Barcelona explore intercultural exchange with profundity and elegance.
Secrets of Great Britain
Savvy travelers to Great Britain can visit nearly six thousand objects and works of art of outstanding historical or aesthetic interest as well as numerous buildings, estates, and parklands that remain in private hands. The owners of these rarified places and items have been granted a "conditional exemption" from paying inheritance taxes by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs office (HMRC) in return for offering interested members of the public access to them upon request.
Despite this legal requirement, the list of items with a "conditional exemption" was, until recently, notoriously difficult to obtain-relegated, one imagined, to a dusty drawer in a back office of the Victoria and Albert Museum, of which the public at large had no knowledge.
Times have changed. The HMRC Web site now offers the entire roster on a database with multiple search options, allowing enthusiasts of antiques, architecture, and fine art to research particular artists and craftsmen, periods, or mediums, as well as entire estates and collections by region. Owners who refuse to respond to visitation requests in a timely manner can lose the exemption on some or all of their property. Under the newly strict enforcement of this policy, fourteen have done so since January 2005.
The list of objects and properties that may be visited by this means dazzles. Although some, such as the magnificent Palladian palace Holkham Hall, have opened their doors regularly, many stunning, if lesser known, stately houses and collections did so rarely, if ever. For example, the Waldegrave Estate's collection, kept at Priory Farm in Chewton Mendip, Somerset, which covers three centuries of portraits of the Waldegrave family, including works by Angelica Kauffmann, Thomas Gainsborough, and Allan Ramsay, as well as English and continental furniture with links to Horace Walpole's Strawberry Hill, normally goes on view only for English Heritage Days (which in 2009 fall on September 12 and 13). Similarly, in 2009 Lord and Lady Dalhousie opened Brechin Castle in Angus County in northeastern Scotland with their collection of English and Scottish furniture, silver, medals, and portraits only from May 30 to June 28, and will not open it again until next summer. Despite this, a brief letter or phone call suffices to gain entry at other times agreed to by mutual arrangement. Even such a venue as accessible as Holkam Hall holds exquisite works that are not on display, such as its extensive drawings collection and fine examples of English furniture; but with an advance arrangement, those interested may see them.
July 27, 2009 | London salerooms buzz through July with a frezy of activity. A more leisurely pace governs the rest of Europe at a string of exhibitions: Robert Adam landscapes in Edinburgh, medieval and Renaissance beauty in Paris, intercultural exchange in Vienna, and Böttger stoneware in Dresden.
When salerooms in the United States and on the Continent turn silent, London auction houses heat up for a seasonal finale of important sales of Western manuscripts and miniatures, old master paintings, nineteenth-century art, and European furniture. This July Sotheby’s features the sale of Barbara Piasecka Johnson’s extraordinary collection. Rich in Renaissance and baroque paintings and sculpture, including Jusepe de Ribera’s Prometheus, this staggering auction includes furniture and tapestries of the same periods.
Christie’s, at its sale of important European furniture, offers three pieces by the famed ébéniste André-Charles Boulle, whose tour-de-force marquetry—incorporating metal, tortoiseshell, and other exotic materials—and ormulu mounts defined taste in the latter part of Louis XIV’s reign. The Louis XIV cabinet-on-stand of about 1680 at right (estimate £700,000–1,000,000) and pair of Louis XIV coffres en tombeaux of about 1688 (estimate £2,500,000–4,000,000) have lived in Wrotham Park, Hertfordshire, since their purchase by the noted regency collector George Byng in the early nineteenth century. Sumptuous in both scale and design, these previously unpublished pieces enhance our understanding of Boulle’s oeuvre, particularly as he hit his mature stride in the 1680s.
June 2, 2009 | As the sun comes out of hiding, London's season gets into full swing. Amidst the social swirl of Royal Ascot, the Chelsea Flower Show, and Wimbledon, the venerable Grosvenor House Art and Antiques Fair remains a perennial highlight. Olympia, the daughter of that seminal show, has now matured into a formidable event of its own. As always, this year a number of other exhibitions will also vie for attention. The Queen's Gallery display of Sèvres from the Royal Collection will hold special appeal for porcelain aficionados even as, more broadly, it illustrates that English collecting has long extended to objects produced beyond the confines of the British Isles.
Thirty-six years ago, the Olympia International Art and Antiques Fair began as a means for younger, less established dealers, who were excluded from the select ranks of Grosvenor House, to showcase their wares in the week prior to and overlapping with the latter fair. Retired dealer of Chinese works of art Odile Kern (wife of Robin Kern, former director of Hotspur, the eminent English furniture gallery, which closed last summer) recalls the early years of Olympia as being "fun and energetic." Over time, its importance and quality have increased—although some, including Odile Kern, regret that in its efforts to compete with the Grosvenor House fair, Olympia has lost some of the light-heartedness of earlier years.
April 13, 2009 | Medieval splendor at Belgium's Groeningemuseum in Bruges and baroque magnificence at London's Victoria and Albert Museum ebulliently controvert the recession raging outside their doors. Each exhibition exudes the sumptuous confidence of the era that it explores. Nevertheless, beneath their luxurious veneers both offer significant insights into their respective subjects, making them must-see destinations for aficionados of European decorative arts.
After months of refurbishment, the Groeningemuseum reopens with an exhibition devoted to Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy from 1467 to 1477, whose tomb lies just around the corner in the Church of Our Lady (Onthaalkerk Onze-Lieve-Vrouw). The soaring ambitions of the swashbuckling duke, who hoped to extend his territories from Bruges to Dijon, are reflected in the fineness of the art and objects with which he surrounded himself. The carved frame of an ivory chessboard, the fancifully foliate border of a manuscript, the enameled decoration of a gold and silver reliquary—such exquisitely rendered details speak to the attenuated elegance that made the Burgundian court the envy of Europe.
The exhibition showcases Flemish primitive masterpieces from the museum's permanent collection, such as Hans Memling's triptych of Willem Moreel, mayor of Bruges, and his family, but also includes important loans such as the Louvre's portrait of Charles's elegant third wife, the admirable Margaret of York, wearing a necklace with Cs and Ms interlaced with lovers knots in honor of her marriage.
Pickle Dish, American China Manufactory (Bonnin and Morris), Philadelphia, 1771-72. Soft-paste porcelain with lead glaze; height 4 3/16, width 4 1/2» View All