Wednesday 24 April 2019

The Hermitage Moderns

Dear Reader, do proceed with caution as this blog entry is a bit wordy today, but there are plenty of pictures as consolation or if you prefer to look rather than read.

Entrance to the AGNSW Summer Exhibition of The Hermitage Modern Masters Exhibition
Masters of Modern Art from the Hermitage,
the AGNSW Summer Exhibition

The closest your Correspondent came to a voyage to Russia was in her 20's when an anticipated emigration to England was in the offing. Thinking it would both make for a rather Grand Tour and be a novel way to enter the country, much planning went into a mostly overland journey from Sydney to London, courtesy of The Trans-Siberian Railway. Common sense eventually prevailed when it did dawn on the youthful Pipistrello that it would be in the dead of Winter and not a great deal could be enjoyed from a train window as it would be mostly dark and all would be enveloped in snow. Plus, negative degrees celsius of any magnitude is a fearful thing! So I flew straight to London ... I know ... However, my research provided the basis for a girlfriend's solo summertime journey a couple of years later, so all was not in vain. In the meantime, my purported emigration translated to only a few years away after which circumstances brought me back to Sydney like a homing pigeon and Russia is still yet to be seen in all its glory, snowclad or otherwise.

The Hermitage Museum's copy of the Sonia Delaunay-Terk and Blaise Cendrars collaborative simultaneous book, Prose of the Trans-Siberian Express and of Little Joan of France', 1913
Sonia Delaunay-Terk & Blaise Cendrars 1913
'Simultaneous Book' of painting & poetry

But the intrigue remains and alongside reading about Russia, it was with great delight that Mr P & I took in this summer's exhibition (which has been and gone, obv.) of The State Hermitage Museum's Modern Art Masters, and had a focussed* glimpse into the vast collection of artistic treasures there. My favourites provide today's bit of colour but I must firstly draw your eye to this marvellous piece which has as its text a poem about the poet Blaise Cendrars' journey through Russia on the Trans-Siberian Express. What blogger cannot fail to be drawn to this artwork? It is a prototype of the blog form, is it not? Sonia & Blaise may not have been able to foresee the future, even as Modernists, yet this collaboration between individuals of words and pictures across the same surface, with the images intending to Adorn the Words and convey a sense of movement down the page rather than play their usual book-illustration rôle, was rather ground-breaking in artistic circles a century ago, apparently. 

Upper detail of The Hermitage Museum's collaborative work of Sonia Delaunay-Terk and Blaise Cendrars, 1913
There are ten different fonts employed in this
unusual typographic experiment

For me, the joy of mucking around on Blogger (and Wordpress, I imagine), alongside it being free and seemingly without rules about content, is the abundance of fonts, and the ability to use colour, play with wallpapers and festoon the page with images of one's own, as well as those from the vast interweb (with, ahem, appropriate copyright in mind, of course), to illustrate a point or just as decoration to one's words, or to find words by others to adorn one's own images. And then to go ahead and Self-Publish, with nary a care as to whether it is appealing or conventional or will find an audience. For someone without an artistic bone in her body, this is enormous fun. And so much better than just writing on a blank journal page, what with my scrappy handwriting and inability to draw.

Closeup of the conclusion of The Hermitage Museum's Sonia Delaunay-Terk and Blaise Cendrars 1913 collaborative illustrated poem
The supposed inspiration for the elongated form, the Eiffel Tower,
at the conclusion of the poem with its book cover

Before these electronic notions were freely available to enable even an Artistic Philistine to find some expression, you had to go to Art School, put in countless hours building up a skill set and then, if you were leaning towards Modernism, come up with an New Idea. Sonia's husband was the artist Robert Delaunay and he, being rather infatuated with the Eiffel Tower, had thought she should make the lineal output of the intended limited print run to equal the height of the landmark - a New Idea that didn't quite make it in reality but, nonetheless, no different in ambition to any blogger who is working out the spatial footprint of their own Virtual Sandpit. So I see this piece by the multi-disciplinarian, avante-garde artist Sonia Delaunay-Terk as the Original Hard Copy Blog and like it enormously.

Detail from The Hermitage Museum's Camille Pissarro oil painting, 'Boulevard Montmartre, afternoon sun', 1897
Camille Pissarro
Boulevard Montmartre, afternoon sun, 1897 (detail)

Anyway, back to the exhibition. The history behind the collection of Masters of Modern Art at the Hermitage is as itself a story as the artwork itself, and Today's Lesson comes from the excellent essay accompanying the irresistible catalogue. The works that made up this State collection's foundation and loaned for this exhibition came principally from two Muscovite private collectors, Sergey Shchukin and Ivan Morozov. They, and their similarly cultured collector-brothers a bit earlier, took a professional approach to buying the "Modern", initially impressionistic, Art emerging in Belle Epoque Paris when their business affairs saw them regularly swooping in. Both men became well known to influential dealers like Paul Durand-Ruel (who acquired the Pissarro above**) and Ambroise Vollard and their respective love affairs with this exciting new style of art grew apace. 

Hermitage Museum's Paul Cézanne oil painted still-life entitled Fruit, 1879/80
Paul Cézanne
Fruit, 1879/80

In 1898 Shchukin started his French school collection by buying the likes of Monet, Degas and Denis, then Cézanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin, and eventually gave profile to artists such as Matisse through commssion and Picasso, who had him hypnotised. In 1903 Morozov started his French collection with Sisley, Monet, and Renoir, then commissioned Bonnard and Denis, then collected Matisse and ultimately all the Big Names, with a special fondness for Cézanne. They were friendly rivals and their Moscow mansions filled with extraordinary art as they followed new artistic movements.

The Hermitage Museum's oil on card by Edouard Vuillard, entitled 'In a Room', 1898
Edouard Vuillard
In a room, 1898

They bought works from exhibitions in France, from dealers and from the artists directly and Shchukin bought a selection from his own collector brother. They spent large sums, modest sums and occasionally had the joy of Gifts With Purchase from dealers. Their collections rapidly grew to become Museums of modern painting of exemplary quality. Both men sought to introduce Russian society to the fruits of this French avante-garde art. They loaned their works to exhibitions, and opened the private galleries in their mansion homes to the public. 

The Hermitage Museum's tempera on canvas by Odilon Redon entitled 'Woman asleep beneath a tree', 1900/01
Odilon Redon
Woman asleep beneath a tree, 1900/01

This concerted collecting came to a crashing halt with the outbreak of World War I. Then came revolution in Russia and civil war. First Shchukin then Morozov saw their homes with their galleries nationalised into state museums. Both had fled Russia by 1920, leaving everything behind, and their collections were then administered and eventually amalgamated into the Morozov mansion in 1928 as the Museum of Modern Western Art.

The Hermitage Museum's oil painting by Paul Signac, entitled 'Leaving the Port of Marseilles', 1906/07
Paul Signac
Leaving the Port of Marseilles, 1906/07

Up until 1941, when the Soviet Union entered World War II, the cramped conditions saw masterpieces by the likes of Monet, Gauguin and Matisse rubbing shoulders with the work of Proletarian Artists, and then came censorship based upon now long-forgotten political slogans. The museum was closed down entirely in 1948 by Stalin owing to its ideological emptiness and the "damage" it was doing to the development of the official style of Soviet art which was socialist realism, and the collection was divided between the Pushkin Museum and the Hermitage.

The Hermitage Museum's oil on canvas by Maurice de Vlaminck, entitled 'View of the Seine', circa 1906
Maurice de Vlaminck
View of the Seine, c. 1906

Fortunately, the directors of these two museums could see that both a lack of space in the Pushkin museum and the future potential of the artworks' destruction if any was decreed to be antithetic to the proletarian cause was of concern, so they gave the less controversial works to the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and the more than 150 remaining works went into safe storage at the Hermitage in St Petersburg*** until Stalin's decree was repealed after his death.

The Hermitage Museum's oil on canvas by Henri Manguin, entitled 'Morning in Cavalière', 1906
Henri Manguin
Morning in Cavalière, 1906

Mr P's favourite works, the Wassily Kandinskys shown below had also ended up in storage at the Hermitage after the Russian artist left his most important works at the then Museum of Modern Western Art for safekeeping in 1921 as, although patriotic, he saw that his rejection of realism in his art was not winning him favours and he left for Germany to work with the Bauhaus. While the French avante-garde pictures came back out into public display in the early 1960's, it was only until more recent times that Kandinsky's paintings have joined them.

The State Hermitage Museum's oil on card by Wassily Kandinsky entitled 'View of Murnau: landscape with a green house', 1908
Wassily Kandinsky
View of Murnau: landscape with a green house, 1908

The State Hermitage Museum's oil on canvas by Wassily Kandinsky entitled 'Landscape: Dünaberg near Murnau', 1913
Wassily Kandinsky
Landscape: Dünaberg near Murnau, 1913

So, the Hermitage collection of Modern Masters has had quite an exciting short history and obviously some close shaves before the 65 works by 36 artists in the exhibition began wending their way to our shores this summer. In addition to my favourites which are peppering this page (and hopefully not taking too long to load as I've learnt how to compress my photos - another technical milestone!), there was also a painting by the Russian-Australian artist George W. Lambert, who provided the inspiration for last year's Archibald Prize winner, Yvette Coppersmith. And yes, while there are some lovely fingers in The mask, 1911, it didn't make the cut to illustrate this post.

The Hermitage Museum's oil on canvas by Henri Rousseau entitled 'The Luxembourg Gardens, the monument to Chopin', 1909
Henri Rousseau
The Luxembourg Gardens,
the monument to Chopin, 1909

But without doubt, the still-lifes did, including the only Picasso I liked, with its lilac and absinthe-green shades. And to end on a predictable artistic note, let me share with you this happy trio of Pipistrello-endorsed paintings:

The Hermitage Museum's oil on canvas by André Derain entitled 'Table and chairs', 1912
André Derain
Table and chairs, 1912

The State Hermitage Museum's oil on canvas by Pablo Picasso entitled 'Table in a café (Bottle of Pernod)', 1912
Pablo Picasso
Table in a café (Bottle of Pernod), 1912

The State Hermitage Museum's oil on canvas by Amedee Ozenfant entitled "Still life, crockery", 1920
Amedee Ozenfant
Still life, crockery 1920

* I am loathe to use the much-overused word Curated, which would have been perfectly appropriate in this context, but I can't help but avoid using it these days.

** In checking if these pollarded trees were in fact Platanus x hispanica (London plane trees), I found a marvellous French open-source database where you can identify every tree in Paris, here!

*** If you are interested in such things, the Hermitage Museum has a rather active Instagram account, @hermitage_museum

Wednesday 3 April 2019

Part II: The Second Sitting

A potpourri of bedtime reading II

Sitting neatly on the sideboard, (ahem, TV-stand!) the Summer Collection:

There's only one non-fiction in this pile, the biography Franklin & Eleanor by Hazel Rowley, a pressie from Effervescent R. American History is not really where my eye is drawn in the Book Department but ER was enthusiastic and I have to say it's a great read. My knowledge of the Roosevelts as a Team was scant and there were many surprises for me in the reading. They were capital B-busy! And yes, there is plenty to read about their infidelities. As an amusing aside, they lived very communal lives with their respective entourages, for want of a better word, and many a meeting was held at night, with everyone in their pyjamas around the White House bedside of Franklin. They moved like a court en-masse between the various residences and Eleanor, for her part, never spent more than about a fortnight in her own company in her entire adult life, which I find downright peculiar. Like Queen Victoria, there was a carefully crafted public relations side to their existence and what was successfully hidden from the sensibilities of the general public, in spite of the number of people traipsing in and out of their lives, could fill a book. (Couldn't resist it!)

Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt, 1941
Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt in campaign mode, 1941

In fiction, there was Quentins, another lent Maeve Binchy read, (thanks, Mum!), and a clutch of Foyer Freebies: Mitch Albom's The Time Keeper (a sweet read) and another couple of bodice-rippers. Historical romance hasn't featured highly in my reading life, if at all, since the age of 12 when my best friend Abigail and I read every single Jean Plaidy in our school library, which must have amounted to several dozen. Then a change of school (and Abigail, with her classy 12-year old's taste, gone from my life) led to new and more populist reading fads, notably the Gothic novels by V. C. Andrews (Flowers in the Attic series), then Horror by the likes of Stephen King (Carrie, Amityville Horror & Co. - all, gasp!, before we were certainly of an age to be allowed to watch the ghastly film versions) and for some reason I remember tattered copies of Harold Robbins and Jackie Collins doing the rounds (Oh, I remember why ... Teenaged-Girls!). Thus, most historical novels written by a living writer fell from the roulette wheel of reading choice until just recently.

Eleanor Hibbert photographic portrait, 1930s
My first Eleanor, a.k.a. Jean Plaidy
All Art Deco glamour with dozens of books yet to write

Mum, who seems to be making a mission out of reading every novel in her local library (although, rather ruthlessly, will toss a book aside if it hasn't gripped her within about twenty pages - Life's too short, and all that), lent me a well-thumbed, foundling Philippa Gregory, A Respectable Trade. The trade in question is slavery and our heroine (an unsympathetic, feeble character - Sorry, Philippa!) is married to a small-time Bristol trader in the 1780s, but has an "eye" on one of their slaves. This is a time when wealthy traders are driving the building boom in Bristol, every man and every scoundrel is speculating, war with France is just around the corner and the Wilberforce abolitionist movement is gaining momentum. It's a very well-researched novel and deals with the grim realities for the many African slaves who end up on England's shore and the unsavoury characters who profit from their trade, so is depressing reading at times. Keeping-up-with-the-Joneses leads to our family getting into hot water (pun alert!) by overreaching in the property stakes as they move into a glamorous address and try to diversify their investments by paddling in the Hot Springs game. Then, another spoiler alert!, our heroine dies (for whom I didn't care, anyway) but a happy ending is cobbled together.

Nicholas Pocock painting, Bristol Harbour, 1787
Bristol Harbour - TransAtlantic slave trading hub
Nicholas Pocock, 1787

Then, one of those strange coincidences: From the myriad books to choose from, my hand next reaches randomly for a Foyer Freebie: Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore. Set in ... Bristol, a mere 3 years after A Respectable Trade leaves off! This time it's Bristol seen through the eyes of an unhappy couple who are slowly grinding down to a state of destitution as property developers whose market dries up when the war with France finally breaks out. There's a murder, a bit of madness, a bit of Georgian architecture-talk, some idealism and radicalism focussed on the actions and plight of the French revolutionaries, (aside: Nowhere do we actually meet or hear of any of the African slaves who, as I've discovered, were part of the fabric of Bristol at this time); there's rich pickings enough at this time in Bristol's (and England's) history to keep novelists busy. Georgian England is an Industry!

William Bridge's Bristol Bridge plan 1793
Another Unfulfilled Bristol Vision of 1793
William Bridge's Bridge

But, as I'm a true Delayed Gratification type, I've left the best until last: Dictator by Robert Harris. This is the final book in the Cicero trilogy, as originally recommended by Clever L & Mr CL, for whom Robert Harris gets the highest of critical praise and I cannot agree with their taste more. Both Mr P and I are now devotees of RH's writing and have also read and loved Pompeii (about ... yes, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD) and An Officer and a Spy, (about the Dreyfus Affair of 1895), and have the WWII novel Enigma sitting on one of our book piles to be read. Clever L says Ghost is also fantastic and I'm pleased to know there are more of his works out there, yet to be read.

Mosaic from Villa del Cicerone in Pompeii, two women visiting a witch in theatre masks
Mosaic from Villa del Cicerone in Pompeii
A 2-for-1 Robert Harris Special!

Anyway, to Dictator. For anyone unfamiliar with the books, it follows on from Imperium and Lustrum and covers the Rise & Fall of the charismatic Roman orator/senator/consul Marcus Tullius Cicero, as seen through the eyes of Tiro, his loyal slave and secretary. Tiro was a terrifically learned man in his own right and a great publisher of his own work as well as posthumously publishing Cicero's works, so there is plenty of material still around to put some flesh on the bones of Cicero's life in addition to his words. That aside, Robert Harris knows how to write gripping, page-turners. Even though you know what happens in the end, (hardly a spoiler that Cicero gets it in the neck!), these books are set at such a fabulous time in Roman history when Republic transitions to Empire and so many of the major players are household names, and Cicero's cases and the political machinations of all the characters are of the Truth-is-Stranger-than-Fiction kind. For lovers of history, Rome, politics, Plotting & Scheming, or just good entertaining writing, these books are capital-e Enjoyable.

The Comic History of Rome, c. 1850 with Disraeli as Cicero denouncing Gladstone as Catiline
The Players may change but the Politics remains
 Cicero denounces Catiline

And, finally, to endeth the long-overdue Reading Catchup, here's another book to bring the pile up to a baker's dozen. Thank you, Dear Brother, for picking such a diverting coffee table book!

Tuesday 2 April 2019

A Grab Bag of Reading

A potpourri of bedtime reading I

Hello New Visitors and Welcome! Now that there are a few of you here, squashed up on my virtual sofa to have a bit of a read of My Words, I tossed up whether to divide this post over two days in an attempt to prevent anyone becoming too restless with a long posting or frighten off any New Reader with my Going On, and decided it's a bit much to ask whomever has been relegated to sitting on the pouffe to endure it in its entirety, and so split it I have and Part II shall come tomorrow. 

As ever, a look at what I’ve been reading of late betrays my rather catholic taste. I'm not reading as much as I would wish, but I've been mildly reassured by this stacked half-dozen books that I've not entirely slipped into a Coma when it comes to appreciation of the written word. To be sure there has been the enjoyment of a couple of editions of my only subscription, Slightly Foxed, serving to remind me how I need to pick up the pace if I want to get through the piles of books about the place. But it's been a full six months since my last Reading Roundup, and this blogger's creed doth promise there are books stuffed in her handbag, so I must crack on...

In no particular order, Dear Reader, the Spring Choice, atop the bedside chair:

First up, if you are interested in such things, I can commend to you the recent biography by Australian journalist Julia Baird, Victoria The Queen. Vast amounts of print have already covered this diminutive woman’s life and we, especially in the Commonwealth, are very familiar with her later rotund profile from public statuary and the like, however this intimate glimpse which, in the author's words, hacks through the myths surrounding her life comes courtesy of access to the reams of (doctored*) primary materials archived in Windsor Palace and elsewhere and gives us a level of acquaintance with her that could only ever be dreamt of by one of her Subjects from previous generations. Thank you, Mr P, for the lately read birthday pressie for 2018!

B&W photo of Model of Queen Victoria's statue in George Frampton's studio (before 1902)
Model of Queen Victoria's statue in George Frampton's studio
 Courtesy Henry Moore Archive

Speaking of dreaming, Matthew Walker’s book, Why We Sleep, is a fantastic read, if not a bit anxiety-making if you are having some trouble in that department. Sleep and the workings of the brain really are a kind of Final Frontier for science and this is written not as a Guide to Counting Sheep but a summation of the latest scientific findings about Sleep and Why it Matters, by a neuroscientist who readily admits to being obsessed by this mysterious aspect of our lives. It would seem that all of our biological functions benefit from good sleep and its deficit has been linked to all manner of ailments - hence the rather alarming aspect of this book - but it's in the spirit of scientific curiosity (not hypochondria) that I'm about to read it again as I found it so fascinating**. Plus the author says he would only be delighted if one falls asleep whilst reading the book. A Healthful Happenstance!

John Dickson Batten tempera painting, Snowdrop and the seven little men, 1897
Snowdrop and the seven little men, 1897
John Dickson Batten, AGNSW

The remaining non-fiction in this pile is Michael Rosen's Alphabetical. This was snaffled up from the informal book exchange in our building's foyer as I already have a bit of a collection of books on etymology and the linguistic riches of the English language, and this lighthearted little book on the history of the English alphabet is right up my alley. As an English-speaking monolinguist, I feel particularly lucky it should be this which I speak, as it's so quirky and varied and downright interesting. Others may, you knowlike, literally disagree but I need to cram in as much diversity into my vocabulary as my small battish brain allows.

Letter P from Libellus Novus Elementorum Latinorum by Johann Christian Bierpfaf, c. 1650, Rijksmuseum Collection
P is for Pipistrello, says
C17th Johann Christian Bierpfaf

And so to the fiction, I realised a few pages in that I had indeed recently read Wigs on the Green, by Nancy Mitford, but it's a breezy book and, well, it's a Nancy Mitford, and rereading her books is never a crime. Spoiler alert: the pre-War young singles all pair up and live happily ever after. Enough said. Ditto the Alexander McCall Smith, La's Orchestra saves the World. Set in Suffolk during the Blitz and about a rag-tag orchestra, it's typically AMS-girlish and warm and good bedtime fodder.

JC Leyendecker, 1923 Advertisement for Spring Styles
Thanks, Nancy, for the Happy Endings!
 J.C. Leyendecker ad, 1923

The more interesting of the Spring highlights, and lent to me by Clever L, was The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant, the first of her triptych-of-sorts about Renaissance Women. Set in Florence during the quattrocento, with the crackpot Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola filling the power vacuum left by the death of Lorenzo de' Medici, it follows the artistic flourishing of a precocious heroine who has to adapt to survive in the volatile atmosphere of the city. For lovers of Florence and the Renaissance, it has enough detail to keep you up reading beyond Lights-Out but it does fizz out a little at the end. No spoiler alert for this, apart from She-Dies-A-Nun, but that's laid out in the book's opening. Clever L had lent me the second of Dunant's series a while back, In the Company of the Courtesan, which I did prefer, and that one set in Venice follows the adventures of a courtesan and her dwarf pimp who've fled the 1527 Sack of Rome. I know, Bodice-Ripping Stuff!

Contemporary to the story: the Domenican Basilica di Santa Maria Novella, on
the Pipistrello's last Florentine Visit - No Firebrands in sight!

There were some other bits & bobs with regard to my recent reads, which will get their own posting at some point - never let it be said this blog is au courant; I am, after all, a Pisces - so all up, not an entirely misspent Spring!

* Princess Beatrice, Victoria's last child, spent 10 years of her own life rewriting then burning every one of Victoria's diaries and other archives in a great act of censorship, so puzzle pieces were fit with copies and corresponding papers she was unaware of that were in the hands of others or hidden in the Royal Archives.

** An hypothesis raised by Matthew Walker is whether Sleep, given its preeminent Usefulness to Life, is in fact our dominant state and Wakefulness, by extension, the state with the mystery purpose!

End Part I

Bats In The Belfry