Thursday, February 4, 2010

Springfield, Who Knew?

Plaster cast of a section of the Pergamon Altar, in Berlin.

Guess where I was this week? The picture above is a clue, but can only mislead. I won't make you guess, I went to the Springfield Museums, something I had thought of doing for awhile, but just had never done. I was heading that direction to pick some pieces up from a restorer, so Springfield being sort of on the way, I went. In part this decision was spurred on by the brief research I did on the Museums, plural I emphasize, and one of them has a collection of Japanese Samurai arms and armor. If you have been following my blog, you will realize this was a flame to me the moth. Also described was a room of Ancient Treasures and a hall of plaster casts. I held out little hope for their antiquities aspect, the website was not promising, but there was certainly enough for me to justify the outing.
So there I go, nearly get lost on the way there; the directions provided gave a map, very helpful, but the directions from the highway to the museum were very poor. After a few false turns, I found my way to a complex of buildings; there are five museums there; a Science Museum, the D'Amour Museum of Fine Arts, a Connecticut Valley History Museum (closed the day I was there), the G.W.V. Smith Art Museum, and the Springfield History Museum (which I did not manage to get to). It turns out that the time I had allotted for this venture was inadequate; the good news, I have a reason to go back. Below are some highlights.

Of course I went right for the G.W.V. Smith Art Museum where the Japanese steel is, of which there was a good bit on display, see the rack of short swords above. While dimly lit by florescent lights, and it was a cloudy day, I still got my fix of beautiful Japanese swords.

Some more of the beauties on display. Sadly I cannot really tell you what they are, the labeling was completely inadequate, old typewritten folded cards, sort of out of place, and not clear which applied to what, and mostly missing altogether. Some of the blades dated to the Kamakura period I gathered though, I believe here, one of the two lower ones. They also had spectacular examples from the late 19th Century.

Look at the gorgeous hamon on the lower blade, I have never seen such a fancy curlicue design on one before. Truly a tour de force.

Above two beautiful swords with gorgeous hamons, in this case they go right across the whole blade like smoke. You can see what I mean by the labeling, it looks haphazard. I suspect these swords are truly great examples, while I am still a neophyte in the field, I think I know enough to recognize exceptional examples of swordsmithy.

A display of pole arms; can you believe that these viciously curved blades, naginatas, are described in the label as woman's weapons? I don't think I could wield them effectively, let alone a petite Japanese woman. Pretty scary thought though, truly a formidable weapons.

This exceptional helmet actually does have a helpful label, it as being by the Great Master Armorer, Mychochnin Nobuiye, dating to 1519 A.D. It says that is a rare example which in Japan would be considered a "National Treasure". I would not know enough to know that, but believe them. I have a feeling many of the swords would also be held in high esteem in Japan.

After seeing the Japanese armor I went on to see the cast hall which while small, is a great example of its type; a great teaching tool with the highlights of Classical and Renaissance sculptures, from the Pergamon altar above to the Hermes of Olympia, the Borghese Ares, to casts of sculptures by Michealangelo. The casts were well lit, given some drama to highlight them, which unfortunately the genuine ancient works of art in the large room after the cast hall were not. But the hall, titled Ancient Treasures, held a surprise for me.

What greeted my eyes upon entering the Ancient Treasure hall was a collection of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures that I knew well, having sold the majority of them to the collectors from which these came, Melvin Blake and Frank Purnell. These were two doctors, lifetime partners, who I knew from my days at Robert Miller Gallery and beyond. I sold them the beautiful male figure in front as well as a number of the others on display. They both died one after the other over a decade ago, and I had a call and some correspondence from one of the brothers dealing with the estate, but then heard nothing. I was totally surprised to see this collection here. I was however very unhappy with the presentation, there was no lighting to first allow you to see them, or to make them stand out. I hope this is an area that the Springfield Museums would be willing to improve upon because they now have a very nice small, but fine collection of rare ancient classical sculptures, thanks to the Blake/Purnell estate. I will discuss some of them below.

This beautiful torso is most likely of Ganymede, although it could also be a young Apollo, it is hard to know given its fragmentary condition. I discovered it with a dealer and it was not mounted properly, so I had a base made for it, and had some encrustation cleaned from it. At the time I was working for Robert Miller when I sold it to Blake/Purnell. It is of superb quality, the carving masterful, the marble is white and highly polished emphasizing its high quality. Originally the figure leaned against a tree trunk if Apollo, or a large eagle representing Zeus, if Ganymede. The other hand held either an arrow, if Apollo, or a libation cup if Ganymede. The cloak may indicate Ganymede however, as it is the type of cloak worn by a shepherd, which the young Ganymede was when Zeus swooped down in the form of an eagle to seduce him and carry him off to Mt. Olympus.

This head of Zeus, I sold to Frank and Melvin, who loaned it to Claudio Bravo, a very close friend of theirs who had an apartment adjoining theirs. He did a beautiful color print of it, which I wish I had a copy of. I bought it at Sotheby's, it came from an old collection and had a restored nose and was an a not very nice marble base. When I took the nose off and put it on a new base, you could appreciate the head for the dramatic and beautiful Zeus head it is.

This is a double herm, literally a two faced object, with one face back to back with another. This side was better lit, so I could photograph it, the other did not photograph well. This I sold to Blake/Purnell after buying it in London, again at auction, but an estate sale in which I think it was not even described as being Roman, which is most certainly turned out to be. This side has a bearded man with rams horns in his hair, so probably represents Zeus Ammon, an Egyptianized version of Jupiter. It is of beautiful quality and originally stood on top of a squared columnar shaft probably about 4 feet tall, and probably graced a garden or peristyle.

However the classical sculpture from the Blake/Purnell collection was not the only surprise in store, see below.

Look at this, a full suit of Jade armor, Chinese, Han Dynasty. The Metropolitan Museum in New York has nothing like this, I have never seen one outside of a traveling exhibition from China. I did not even know this was in Springfield. What this is is a funerary suite of armor, something I know only from the Han Dynasty in China; the belief was that jade would keep the corpse from decaying, conferring a type of immortality to the deceased. It is made of small pieces of jade, most of which have altered from their original green to a sort of greenish white, strung together with copper thread, with some carved coverings for the eyes, mouth, nose, and ears. Not really all that beautiful, it is nonetheless impressive and represents the height of extravagant funerary equipment; jade has always been precious and difficult to work, this is like burying yourself with your fortune. To have this here is pretty remarkable to me, and again, its display is not designed to make you aware of just how special and rare an opportunity it is to see an object of this level.

This little fang-yi, a sort of bronze box with lid, is a superb archaic Chinese bronze vessel, of world class quality and rarity. It dates to the Shang Dynasty, approximately around 1500 B.C. Again a gem that I had not expected to see in Springfield and poorly lit and displayed. It deserves much more respect than it is currently being given, as is true with much in the G.W. Smith Art Museum, which is one of the more interesting museums in our area.

And above was just the first floor, the second floor had more treasures, such as this colored marble bust, one of two, copied from a famous Roman portrait bust of a member of the imperial family of the second Century A.D. While not a "great" work of art, they are really beautiful and of the highest quality of sculpture and quite true to the original ancient busts. And there is more, a large collection of Chinese cloisonne, which is not of interest to me particularly but interesting that it is in Springfield. But much on the 2nd floor is in the process of re-arrangement, and so not really viewable. So this completes the Smith part of the museums.
Erastus Salisbury Field, American, 1805-1900
This Historical monument of the American Republic
1867 -1888, Oil on Canvas, The Morgan Wesson Memorial Collection

This remarkable and very large painting dominates the first grand central gallery of the D'Amour Museum of Fine Arts, opened in 1934 to house the collection of Mr. and Mrs James Philip Gray. It is a classic collection of the turn of the 20th Century, with a little of everything from 1400 on, an encyclopedic collection of European and some very good American art, mostly paintings. This odd painting by Erastus Salisbury Field, a local Connecticut Valley early American art star, is really a folk painting, not the best in terms of technical skill, but what he lacks in that, he makes up for the ambition of its vision. I think it may represent a real exhibition, but it looks like a fantasy painting from the Renaissance of the Tower of Babel doesn't it? Really sort of fabulous and so unexpected, I have never seen an early American painting like this.

Arthur Parton, American, 1842-1914 A Mountain Brook, 1875 Oil on Canvas.

This landscape is a painting by Arthur Parton, who was born in Hudson, NY, where I live. I have heard his name, and seen some of his paintings but this example is on a level that I was not aware he reached; it is a truly beautiful landscape on the same plane as Asher Durand.
Portrait of an Artist, oil on canvas
Unkown Artist, French, 19
th Century
This gem is anonymous, but is so compelling and painted with such brio and great technical mastery, that it does not matter. It does not hurt that the subject is a beautiful romantic looking young man. I am in love. The label goes on to say:
"The creator of Portrait of an Artist" is an intriguing puzzle. For many years it was attributed to Eugene Delacroix and was believed to be a portrait of his close friend Baron Von Schwiter. However, further research revealed this to be unlikely. The mystery and the romantic beauty of this work continues to intrigue historians and art lovers alike."
We all love a mystery, particularly when the subject is such a beauty as this youth is.

Portrait Bust of the Emperor Caracalla
Gilt bronze and colored marble. by Thomas della Porta, the Elder, Italian 1520-1567

This magnificent and extravagant bust is of a type that has had many tacky and ill done imitations, every pretentious decorator wants a pair to decorate an entry way; however this example is superlative in quality. It represents the very pinnacle of late Renaissance sculpture and is an homage to Roman antiquity. A faithful copy of a Roman portrait it captures the ferocity of Caracalla, who killed his own brother Geta as he sought refuge in his mothers arms. The colored marble bust is done with the same level of quality as the bronze casting. This bust is in fact one of a pair flanking the entrance to the second floor of the D'Amour Museum, which has the classic time line arrangement of really good European paintings, ending with an exhibition celebrating 75 years of the museums acquisitions.

The last floor I visited was the first floor, which is dedicated to American paintings and among the usual suspects, an O'Keefe or two, and the rest, I spied this odd ball gem below.

Vermont Marble Quarry, about 1941
John Koch, American, 1909-1978, oil on canvas.

While not widely known and perhaps not a great painter, I find the barely repressed homo-eroticism of John Koch's paintings very attractive. He belonged to a moment in time, married, he spent much of his time in Provincetown, Mass., and lived for a time in Paris where he learned to paint. I came across him first when I was working for Robert Miller, when he handled a very sexy painting of the artist and his model, a nude young man who was lighting the artists cigarette. I had never heard of him before and come across his paintings rarely; thus I think it worthy of note. Art does not have to be "great" to be very satisfying. This is one such example I fear. See the detail below to get a sense of why I like Koch's work.

Detail of John Koch, Vermont Marble Quarry.

Koch's male figures are just plain sexy hunks, his female figures exert none of the pull they do. Perhaps that is just me, but I think it reflects his own interest, the woman are covers for the homo erotic feeling that pervades the canvas.

Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, 1923-1926
Florine Stettheimer, American, 1871-1944
oil on canvas.

I leave this post with this magical portrait by one of my favorite New York painters of the early 20th Century, one who is barely known outside of certain New York circles but who had a fabulous and truly bohemian life in New York during the first decades of the 20th Century. Born of a wealthy Belgian banking family, she and her sisters had a salon in their apartment and entertained everyone who was anyone in the art world of the time, and Duchamp, the most important artist of the time was among them. He is transformed into a saintly ghost here, with a halo in gray and white. It is a beautiful, surreal and respectful portrait, with only a hint of the playfulness that typify Florine's other paintings. It was a surprise to find it here in Springfield, but the afternoon was full of such discoveries.

In conclusion the Springfield Museums are worth the trip, they are not far from here, or anywhere in our area. If you are passing by or through Springfield, Mass., they warrant a stop. And no one else was there, as no one seems to even know about these museums. Now hopefully a few more will.

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