Monday, October 16, 2017

All the Watteaus in Los Angeles

Jean-Antoine Watteau is the ancien régime's painter of California love. His love-struck goofs remind us that love is precious because it doesn't last. The Getty Museum has put on view its newly acquired Watteau, La Surprise (The Surprise). It highlights a surprising fact: Los Angeles has more Watteaus than any other American city. (At top, a detail of La Surprise.)

Los Angeles had Warhols before it had Watteaus. But now L.A. museums probably have six Watteau paintings, more than New York and San Francisco (three) or DC and Chicago (two). L.A.'s half-dozen, out of a hundred-some Watteau paintings known to survive, are parceled between five museums. That's testament to the enduring relevance of Watteau and to the enduring egotism of L.A. collectors.
The first Watteau to enter a local institution was The Country Dance (c. 1711) at the Huntington. Not part of Henry and Arabella's holdings, it was acquired in 1978 through the Adele S. Browning bequest. The Browning collection had been promised to LACMA, unpromised for obscure reasons, and regifted to the Huntington.

Watteau conceived The Country Dance as a small circular painting on panel. The circle encloses the dancers. By 1731 Watteau's rondel had been set in a rectangular panel and the landscape extended, presumably over Watteau's dead body (he died in 1721).
The Norton Simon Museum's painting has the opposite problem. It's 100 percent Watteau and over 50 percent missing. The Getty owns a related drawing that must indicate the artist's original conception. It shows a servant about to administer an enema with an outsized syringe. Enemas were fashionable 18th-century cures and a pretext for leering innuendo. Watteau requested that his more scandalous works be destroyed upon his death.
Despite its fragmentary state Reclining Nude has impressed worthies ranging from Sister Wendy to Christopher Knight. Scholar Donald Posner wrote that "the picture's handing and description of forms are typical of Watteau at his best, and in this work they are more readily appreciated than in many better-known but less well preserved paintings by the artist."
Armand Hammer gave his Westwood museum a murky mess, Festivities in Honor of Pan. It is believed to be an early work (1703-1708) forecasting the subject matter of Watteau's maturity. White-clad Pierrot plays a flageolet for fellow comedians and bare-breasted nymphs. The composition is recorded in an engraving (reversed) by Michel Aubert that is much more legible than the painting now is.
Hammer's New York gallery unloaded Festivities on Morrie Moss, a collector who became an Occidental Petroleum board member. Moss later tried to resell it through the Hammer Gallery, with no success.

Moss and Hammer concocted a Max Bialystock scheme to donate the unsellable painting to a museum for a tax deduction worthy of the great Watteau. The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art agreed to accept the painting as a gift. The catch was that the IRS might not accept the dicey attribution. Memphis Brooks curator Douglas K. S. Hyland sought expert opinion, getting a half-enthusiastic thumb's up from the Louvre's Pierre Rosenberg. Hammer then decided the painting wasn't so bad after all. He bought Festivities from Moss for his personal collection, cutting Memphis Brooks out of the deal. That was the collection Hammer promised to LACMA, then withdrew.

Despite the skullduggery the Hammer Watteau is almost never on view in the museum he founded. Though it's not among the lesser (and some major) paintings UCLA returned the Hammer Foundation in 2007, it's not in good enough condition to merit continuous display.
To recap: LACMA was promised, then stiffed of, two Watteaus. In 1999 the Ahmanson Foundation bought LACMA a quintessential Watteau, Perfect Accord (1719). It's better than either of the paintings that had been promised. The title "Perfect Accord" must be ironic. The elder flutist and the beautiful young woman holding the music invoke the northern European theme of ill-matched lovers.
In 2012 that the Getty Museum landed its own Watteau painting. Maybe. "Getty buys what it believes to be Watteau painting" qualified the 2012 L.A. Times headline.

The Italian Comedians is large for a Watteau (51 inches high). Scott Schaefer, the Getty curator who championed the purchase, polled ten Watteau experts. Seven said it was least partly by the artist; three denied any participation.

Alan Wintermute, who's writing a Watteau catalogue raisonné, connects the Getty painting to the quite different Italian Comedians at the (U.S.) National Gallery. The Washington Italian Comedians is documented in a early print and is generally accepted as genuine. But the NG painting seems somewhat off too, so much that some scholars have wondered whether it's a early copy of a lost original.

The Washington painting (or a hypothetical original?) was owned by Dr. Richard Mead of London. It's believed that Watteau visited Mead for treatment of tuberculosis, and that the Getty painting was also created in England. The brash paint handling of the costumes of Brighella in DC and LA are similar, departing from the more delicate brushwork of typical Watteaus.
One theory is that Watteau, exposed to a different visual culture in England, modified his style. That might explain why connoisseurs have felt the Getty and National Gallery paintings were suspiciously different. It is hard to imagine that an unknown yet accomplished follower produced two "Italian Comedians" and that both of Watteau's originals have gone missing.
No doubts are attached to the Getty's new buy, La Surprise. It is documented by a print and by 18th-criticism praising its subject and Rubenesque color. Wintermute calls it "the Holy Grail of Watteau rediscoveries."

The couple's public display of affection is observed by a guitar-playing third-wheel. The slashed outfit of the guitar player (probably a Mezzetin) channels van Dyck; the kissing couple and curious dog are adapted from two Rubens paintings. But neither Rubens nor van Dyck would have created a painting without a clear point. Nor would a baroque artist have imagined the photographic cropping of the swooning woman.

The Getty Surprise and LACMA Perfect Accord were once in the collection of Nicolas Hénin, consigliere to Louis XV. Hénin hung the two paintings together. After his death they were separated, and both were lost until recently. That they have been reunited in Los Angeles is a fairly amazing coincidence.
The lot note for Christie's 2008 auction of La Surprise reported that when the paintings were briefly reunited at LACMA "they made slightly awkward companions." The LACMA figures are closer to the picture plane. The landscapes don't quite match. So maybe it's okay they're not sharing the same museum wall. The Getty has hung The Surprise in a South Pavilion room with the Italian Comedians, near paintings on l'amour by de Troy, Lancret, Fragonard, and Greuze.

In January 2018 The Surprise will go on view in an installation of European drawings acquired from the same seller, U.K. collector Luca Padulli.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Eli Broad Retires. Is Broad Irreplaceable?

"I am retiring" from philanthropy, Eli Broad told the New York Times. (The L.A. Times got the news a few minutes later; Broad has a thing about lobbing his bombshells eastward.) It's your guess how a big a scoop this is. Broad is 84 and is announcing he's going to chill a little.

Broad mentions David Geffen's gift to LACMA's building campaign and rattles off a list of Hollywood and tech players, none entirely convincing as a replacement for his "Medici style of philanthropy."

The NYT quotes Nicolas Berggruen: "Some cities have one patron, and if that one patron disappears, the city doesn’t recover. I think L.A. is broad enough and deep enough that he will be an example—but it is not the beginning of the end."

Broad has certainly been a giant of L.A.'s philanthropy. I could add that his vision has been narrow, but that's true of anyone. L.A. culture's success going forward will depend on cultivating a diversity of philanthropists.

(Below, Thomas Houseago's Giant Figure [Cyclops], 2011, at the Broad.)

A History of Mist

LACMA's Japanese Pavilion doesn't show much contemporary work. Its current show, "Atmosphere in Japanese Painting," is an exception, though it takes a while for the visitor to realize that. The installation begins with the spectacular pair of Edo screens acquired by this year's Collectors Committee, Yamaato Kakurei's Rocks amid Crashing Waves (c. 1810). As you descend the ramp, the chronology moves forward, to modern and contemporary times. This is an up-to-date survey of art about mist, humidity, and impermanence.
There are fantastic paintings of summer fireflies (Shikawa Bunrin, mid 19th century, detail) and autumn crows (Matsubayshi Keigetsu, 20th century). The latter is lent by the Tiezudingzhai collection.
A group of works by Ikezaki Yoshio announces the 21st century. Shown is The Earth Breathes–Mind Landscape (2008), a group of sculptural watercolors on crumpled and twisted mulberry paper.
At the very bottom of the Pavilion are two recently acquired paintings by Japanese artists active in the U.S. Senju Hiroshi's Falling Green (2007) uses malachite pigment, dripped and airbrushed onto mulberry paper.

Miya Ando's Kumo (Cloud) 6 (2016) is white ink on aluminum. It evokes gold-ground screens and also the daguerreotype, with its uncanny flip of figure and ground, light and dark, life and death.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Latinx Catalinx

The Catalina Island Museum will present "José Guadalupe Posada: Legendary Printmaker of Mexico," Dec. 23, 2017–Apr. 8, 2018. The prints are being lent by the Posada Art Foundation, San Francisco.

Catalina's modest museum is one of several that have crashed the PST LA/LA party with unofficial programming. Shown is Posada's income inequality–fighting superhero, Calavera Bolshevik.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Did Goya Paint This Anteater?

This year Los Angeles marks its first celebration of Indigenous People's Day. As we ponder what America means going forward, consider what it meant in July 1776. Philadelphia colonists were rebelling against Britain's King George III, while Spain's Charles III had happier news. In that month a live giant anteater, found near Buenos Aires, was presented to Charles as a token of the loyalty of his American colonies. It was the first "ant bear" in Europe. Charles III installed it in the royal zoo at Buen Retiro. It was fed bread and mincemeat, as an approximation to whatever kind of ants they had in Argentina. The creature pined away for the pampas and died just seven months later.

Charles III had commissioned a portrait of the anteater from his court painter, the German-born Anton Raphael Mengs. The resulting painting, His Majesty's Giant Anteater, is owned by Madrid's Museum of Natural Sciences and is currently a high point of the Huntington's PST LA/LA offering, "Visual Voyages: Images of Latin American Nature from Columbus to Darwin."

It's a nearly life-size painting, over six feet wide, that conjoins Enlightenment empiricism with fashionable neoclassism. A short bio of the royal pet appears of base of an obelisk, all caps with V's for U's. The landscape background must be Spain, with a castle in the misty distance. (The anteater is shown twice, rolled up in a ball for sleeping at right.)

It appears that the great Mengs considered natural history specimens to be below his pay grade. A Sep. 17, 1776 memorandum records that Mengs was paid for the anteater picture but that it had been painted by another, unnamed artist under his supervision. The Huntington label calls it circle of Mengs and does not mention a recent bombshell theory: that the anteater was painted by Francisco de Goya.

That is the bold thesis of Javier Jordán de Urríes y de la Colina, curator of the Royal Palace, Aranjuez, in a 2011 article. Goya studied with Mengs when he first moved to Madrid. They soon fell out, but in 1775 Mengs hired Goya to design royal tapestries. Goya's tapestry cartoons included a couple of all-animal subjects, such as Decoy Hunting, 1775. De Urríes finds Goya's brushwork for the dog's fur to be similar to that of the anteater.
It is the landscape elements of paintings Goya did within a few years of 1776 that pose the strongest parallels to His Majesty's Giant Anteater. De Urríes cites similarities in the rocks, trees, shadows, rolling hills, and pastel palette. The tiny castle in the background of the anteater painting resembles the much bigger one in the background of another tapestry cartoon, The Kite.

Goya scholars are understandably reluctant to accept an unsigned painting, so different from the artist's usual output. But de Urríes' case is not easily dismissed, even if it lacks a smoking gun. It adds another level of intrigue to an already intriguing painting. (Below is Goya's Charles III in Hunting Dress, 1786, with the King's dog curled up—like a sleeping anteater?)

Friday, October 6, 2017

Hammer Buys Steyerl "Factory"

The UCLA Hammer Museum has jointly acquired Hito Steyerl's Factory of the Sun with the San Jose Museum of Art and MCA Chicago. The 2015 video installation made its U.S. debut at MOCA in 2016.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Where Will David Geffen's Art Collection Go?

David Geffen's $150 million gift towards LACMA's Peter Zumthor building—to be christened the David Geffen Galleries—has revived speculation about the fate of Geffen's personal art collection. In a phone interview with the Los Angeles Times, Geffen allowed that it's possible will he will leave part of the collection to LACMA, but hadn't given it much thought: "Hopefully I'm not going to die for a long time." (Shown, a Jasper Johns that Geffen owns: Target with Plaster Casts, 1955.)

Geffen's name is also on MOCA's Geffen Contemporary, a naming right that went for a mere $5 million in 1996. The naming, then seen as a gesture that might lead to future donations of art, was controversial. "They sold out much too cheap," complained gallerist Margo Leavin at the time.

But Eli Broad felt it was "perfectly appropriate for someone making that size gift who has a great collection." Calling naming opportunities "the American way," Broad described Geffen, who is gay, as "a man who is single, who doesn't have any children, and probably will have another three-quarters of a billion dollars to give away… Hopefully some of David's art will come to MOCA too."

It didn't. In fact Geffen has had little visible involvement with MOCA since. It's rumored that he objected to Broad's heavy-handed control of the MOCA board in the 1990s and 2000s.

In 2006 Geffen sold major paintings by Pollock, De Kooning, and Johns, leading to speculation that he was liquidating the entire collection and/or trying to buy the L.A. Times. So far he's done neither. It's said that Geffen has less than 50 major works, tiny as billionaire collections go, but each of exceptional quality.

Geffen also has ties to the Museum of Modern Art. He gave them $100 million last year. That, along with a $100 million gift to the New York Philharmonic, led some New Yorkers to assume Geffen had abandoned L.A. and would be focusing his philanthropy on his hometown. A New York Times piece last year said that "Mr. Geffen will ultimately leave his art collection, valued at more than $2 billion, to his foundation, which will give the pieces to institutions or sell them and donate the proceeds to his main causes: culture, medicine and education."

On one point there's agreement: Geffen's collection is the best in L.A. "Piece for piece, work for work, there's no collection that has better representation of postwar American art than David Geffen's. Period," said Paul Schimmel. "It is to postwar American Art what the Frick Collection is to Old Master painting."

Dealer Richard Polsky said: "I'd rather have his collection than Eli Broad's."