Sunday, December 2, 2007

Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass.

View of the old wing, a beautiful neo-classical building in white marble. This is where the permanent collections are exhibited.
Because I did not go to my mothers for Thanksgiving, I paid her and my stepfather a post Thanksgiving visit. I prefer to see them when not too many people are around, and on the way I decided to make the most of the trip, which is a long drive, and go to the Clark which is on the way. It is one of my favorite museums, a rich and varied collection with many gems of art. Below are a few of my favorite, and I am sure that on future trips, there will be other favorites. This is why I like to go to museums repeatedly, you discover new things or new aspects of old favorites each time. Here are three to start with, the Clark is so rich, I came away with a trove of things, I could just go on and on.

Silver Soup Tureen and Stand, by Joseph Ignaz Wurth, Austria, 1779-81

I am not usually a big fan of silver, only responding to the most amazing pieces, of which this is one. I first paid attention to silver when the Ortiz Patino collection was sold at Sotheby's and the virtuosity of the pieces captured my attention and made me start to look at silver with different eyes.
I suspect that this piece may well have come from that collection, its acquisition date is 1996, and the sale was held at Sotheby's in 1992. This piece is on that level of those in the collection, the very best of 18th Century craftsmanship. The chasing of the details is superb, a detail below will allow you to better see why such pieces are some of the worlds great works of art. This tureen was commissioned for a member of the court of the Empress Theresa of Austria, part of what was called "The Polish Service," which comprised some 400 pieces. The museum label in the Clark states, that this tureen is one of the most important examples of eighteenth-century Viennese silver to have survived the Napoleonic wars. Wars destruction of art is something we often forget in our time, and silver in particular was often melted down for it s monetary value. This objects value however is not in its material, but is superb artistry and design.

This detail of the top I hope gives some idea of the quality. Depicted is a head of broccoli or a cauliflower, some leaves of chard or other leafy green and what looks like sorrel or parsley. The details are finely engraved and chased into the silver so that they appear almost to be botanical illustrations in silver sculpture. The organic disorder of the vegetables contrasts with the rigid order of the classical forms of the tureen below them. This is silver at its very best, when it becomes sculpture.

Joseph Heintz the Elder, German, 1604
Portrait of Konstanz von Habsburg, Archduchess of Central Austria, later Queen of Poland.

This amazingly strange and impressive painting is probably my favorite in the museum, although it is certainly not the most popular with the public or that highly regarded by the museum itself, you cannot find her image in the highlights of the collection. This picture does not do her justice, the unfortunate child of the Hapsburgs she inherited their ugly features including the distinctive jutting lower lip, seen in portraits of one of the greatest Hapsburg princes, Charles 1st of Spain, known from many paintings. What impresses me is the contrast between the realistically portrayed homeliness of this royal personage, encased in glory. Every detail of her equipage speaks to her high rank; the dress is green silk taffeta so thick and glossy that it looks more like a structure than a dress, her arms are encased in gold embroidered sleeves, her hands gloved in the most supple leather, her throat held up by exquisitely embroidered lace, she has a pet monkey on a leash which holds up a red globe, as if offering the orb of the world to her, looking up at her with love. One feels for this prisoner of rank, her pet being her expression of humanity, her face blank of emotion. I think the artist has done a masterful job of capturing not only every detail of her magnificent jewels and dress, but also of creating what is a surprisingly sympathetic portrait, I actually am moved by this painting, not something one expects from a court portrait. As such, for its sheer technical brilliance, and subtle emotional depiction, this painting rises in my opinion to the class of a great work of art.

The next favorite piece in the collection is another object, a piano, but unlike any piano you have ever seen or even imagined.

Grand Piano and Pair of Stools
English, 1884-87
Designed by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, with fall painted by Edward J. Poynter.

Alma Tadema was the leading practitioner of a style of Romantic painting inspired by Classical antiquity, his paintings depict scenes from ancient Greece and Rome, were informed by the archaeological discoveries being made in Italy and Greece at the time. I have no idea who commissioned this piano, but it must have been somebody very rich; this piano is one of the most extravagantly ornamented and yet elegant pianos made. While not an ancient form, every opportunity to follow ancient forms is taken; the legs are in the shape of winged lions with lion paw feet, delicate acanthus tendrils and flowers ornament the sides, brass inlays in the shape of lyres surrounded by wreaths of glory punctuate the sides as well and the fall is painted with a scene of nymphs dancing in a classical landscape. Below are some details that help illustrate why this is such an exceptional object.

This view is of the fall, now protected by glass which somewhat obscures the beautiful painted dream scape of classical antiquity.

Here is my favorite detail, the beautiful tendrils of a flowering vine like plant. It is in relief executed in colored inlays of wood, ivory, and mother of pearl. It is amazingly complex and beautifully carved. Every detail of this piano is of this quality, the brass plaques and the music stand are also of the highest quality of execution, this piano is one of the most perfect classically inspired and richly ornamented pieces of furniture ever made.

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