Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Some Chinese Paintings

To fulfill the "non-western" requirement of my art history major, I took a class on the art of China, Japan, and Korea. Although there were many highlights of the course, I was most fascinated by the various traditions of painting and calligraphy. Such a fine line separates the two practices that we might say they stand at either end of a spectrum of drawing, from the most everyday writing to the most elaborately shaded and precise of landscapes. Browsing the auction catalog of an upcoming sale of Chinese painting at Sotheby's, I was impressed by how these subtle relationships continued to come into play in twentieth-century art.

This painting, Fishing Boats After Rain, was done by Zhao Shao'ang in 1963, with ink and color on paper. I love the atmospheric washes and its composition, the strong horizontals of the boats balanced by the verticals of the calligraphy, reeds, and poles. Its precise drawing and subtle lawyers of color remind me of Japanese prints.

This piece by Yu Fei'an, Green Bird on Maple Tree, combines subtle modeling in the bird and branches with extremely flat, abstracted leaves. The calligraphy in the upper left corner also seems particularly beautiful, balanced yet dashing. The piece consists of ink and color on paper and dates from 1948.

Amusingly titled Why So Stubborn, this painting by Li Keran shows what mere ink can do. With no underdrawing, the artist uses a few deft strokes to define the figure's loose clothing, the tension of the rope, the solid muscularity of the bull, and the agitated expression of the calligraphy.

This painting of Goldfish by Wu Zuoren from 1978 brilliantly captures a view underwater with incredibly descriptive washes of ink. The calligraphy uses a bolder line but seems equally aqueous in style, a perfect marriage of image and text.

The piece on the left dates from 1927 but its traditional style could place it much earlier (at least to a novice's eye like mine). It is a landscape by Zeng Xi, depicting the familiar mountains shrouded in mist. The artist inscribed the work (with calligraphy) and sealed it (with the red stamps) both when it was first painted and again later on. The painting was also, according to the Chinese tradition, marked with the annotations and seals of later collectors. These additions include the titleslip of a noted calligrapher and collector Deng Erya and an annotation and two seals by Zhang Daqian. On the right is Poem in Xingshu by Qi Baishi, which gives us a closer look at a relatively free-form style of Chinese calligraphy, considered more casual and artistic. (I'm treading on thin memories here. I seem to recall there were three main styles of calligraphy, an official more block like form based on ancient text, a more everyday standardized type, and a more conciously casual and artistic style employed by the "ameteur" painters or literati, and that Japanese calligraphy on the whole is thinner, looser, and more stylized.) Of course the viewer's appreciation of calligraphy would be enhanced if one could read the language, but one can also evaluate a piece of calligraphy on purely visual grounds. Calligraphy should be balanced, both within each character and within each column of script. Each character should be distinct yet relate visually to the characters around it.

On the left we see Crane by Ding Yanyong, ink on a paper hanging scroll from 1977, in which painting is taken to a calligraphic extreme. The crane is defined by one unbroken line indistinguishable in style from the writing on the left. Another hanging scroll on the right is Calligraphy by Shi Lu, showing writing at its painterly extreme, in which the characters are so abstracted, or perhaps I should say so stylized, that they become almost figurative.

This is Bird and Rock by Zhang Daqian, the artist who at one time owned Zeng Xi's landscape shown above. Daqian's painting is done with ink on gold paper and dates from the Lantern Festival of 1969. It seems a good synthesis of some of the qualities I've been exploring. The subtlty of ink wash, the deft use of calligraphic lines to describe a landscape. The complimentary composition between the picture and the calligraphy to the side, and between that line of calligraphy and every character within it. I think what impresses me most about these works, or about Chinese drawing more generally, is its incredible economy, an economy of paint strokes that calls for both rigid control and fluid dexterity. The beauty of depicting an entire world in so few touches of ink on paper that you can count them there on the page (imagine trying to count all the brushstrokes in a painting by Pollock or any other "western" artist) is a beauty that continues to take my breath away.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Strike a Match!

Smart women do indeed light the way. This box of matches is obviously a gift from my mother, and it forms the centerpiece of my collection of matchbooks and boxes. I grab one from every bar or restaurant that has them printed up and keep them in a fishbowl on my bookshelf. Sorting through them brings memories to mind of nights out with friends and favorite spots in cities near and far. But these matchbooks are charming not only for their associations but also as marvels of design.

Sometimes it is the construction of the box itself that makes you smile. This mini box of Marlboros, filled with matches rather than cigs, was grabbed for me by Danielle, whose zeal often adds gems to my collection. In the center is an extra-small box from The Room, a truly tiny Soho wine bar. On the right an oblong triangular box encourages us to light up.

Any good matchbook brings to mind the spot that it advertises. The book on the left obvioulsy uses a compass to refer to the name of that restaurant, but it also alludes to the restaurant's atmosphere through its color scheme and typeface. Similarly, the box on the right, with its silver art deco lettering on a shiny black background, admirable recalls the vintage chic of Circa Tabac, a smoking lounge in the Village.

Chinoisoire goes to town in these matchbooks. On the left is a spoil from the most recent Restaurant Week, when Ricardo and his mom took us out to dinner at a new place called Chinatown, right around the corner from his loft. The restaurant was like a set out of Shanghai Express, and I kept expecting Marlene Dietrich to come swaning through the door. I must admit I have no idea where the box on the right came from, but isn't it fun?

Figuration rarely makes an appearance on matchbooks, but in these cases it does so with aplomb. I love the rather surrealist femme fatale, reflected by a billard ball, that is used as the mascot for ABC. The book on the right exudes all the latent tension and glamour of film noir, through the figure of a fuzzy man in a fedora.

Here is the best of the rest, and what memories they bring to mind! There's Hideout, our nighborhood bar in Paris, and Old Glory, a monument to preppy slumming in Georgetown. Uptown locals like Henry's and Lime Leaf mix with dowtown haunts (Milady's!). I'll always remember a roadtrip with Laura by this matchbook from the Firefly Cafe in Savannah, while underage evenings dancing along to George's band, the Philadelphia Funk Authority, are immortalized by the matchbook from Le Bar Bat.

I'll close with this lovely red matchbox from Balthazar, which is novel for using both sides to fully illustrate that restaurant's glamorous bistro atmosphere. Do you have an unusual matchbook kicking around somewhere? Stick it in a fishbowl and watch your collection grow.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Luncheon with Tiffany's

For the first time this year, I'm wearing a dress with no stockings. It's a cream dress with a large scale sort of paisley design in red, orange and pink, with ruffles along the neckline and finishing off the half-length sleeves. It exudes spring. And when I found myself on the Tiffany's website this morning (for work, I swear!), I realized my dress had a certain similarity to certain lines of Tiffany china, which exude spring with equal fervor. The bright white backgrounds, decorated with sprightly animals and spring green foliage, make me think of luncheons on the terrace. I happen to have a terrace, and if I also had a garden table, potted plants, and a kitchen, I would serve a very light, three-course lunch on these beautiful dishes.

We would eat of off my favorite china pattern, Tiffany's Federal. I like that it's colorfully traditional while still relatively understated. If I couldn't find anything to serve in this covered vegetable bowl, I would still put in the middle of the table. It's graceful lines make a great centerpeice.

I would serve actual food on these pieces from the Jardin pattern. On the left is a regular old dinner plate, if you can so describe anything that costs $470, made in the Paris Studio from Limoges porcelain. On the right is a hand-painted piece mysteriously described as a "Mocha Tray."

I myself would wait to serve dessert on this exuberantly decorated Audobon china. We could eat macaroons on the dessert plates at left, with their central design of a pagoda-shaped birdcage. And we could drink hot chocolate from the chocolatier on the right, which Tiffany's calls a "Moka coffee pot." And then, having completed our luncheon on Limoges, we would set out to buy a new crop of spring frocks and peekaboo shoes.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Lower Manhattan Walking Tour

One of the benefits of my job is that it's located in lower Manhattan, full of architectural gems and pockets of green space. Right around the corner from my office is . . .

The Woolworth Building: Designed by Cass Gilbert (the architect of the New York County Lawyers' Association building that I work in) in the neo-Gothic style, the Woolworth Building was dubbed the Cathedral of Commerce. It was the tallest builidng in the world from the year it was finished, 1913, until 1930, and at 792 feet it is still one of the 20 tallest buildings in New York City and one of the 50 tallest in the world. The tower is flush with the front of the building rather than stepped back, and its vertical piers continue without interrupting hoizontal decoration, all of which emphasizes the building's verticality. Hall: Right across from the Woolworth is City Hall Park, which surrounds, you guessed it, City Hall. The building houses the chambers of the New York City Council and the office of the mayor, which makes it the oldest city hall in the US that still houses its original goverment functions. This building is New York's third city hall, completed in 1812, and epitomizes American Federal architecture. It exhibits influences from both French neo-classicism, with its rounded archways and flat roofs, and the English Georgian style, with its elaborate interor moldings. The brownstone at the back of the building was famously left bare, not faced in the white marble used on the front and sides. This cost-cutting strategy relflected the idea that the City of New York would never expand north of the City Hall Building (current day Chambers Street). Unfortunately, this historic brownstone facade was replaced in the repairs of 1954-56 with the limestone we see today. I still find it hard to believe that so recently there were such different views of historic restoration. Building: The Manhattan Municipal Building was designed by the firm of McKim Mead & White (who are also responsible for the campus of Columbia University, the old Penn Station, and many other important New York City landmarks) and built from 1909 to 1915. It houses various city agencies, and was designed to accomodate the increased government space needed after the consolidation of the five boroughs in 1898. It is still one of the largest goverment buildings in the world. The building's tower represents the five boroughs with its five cupolas, and with the statue of civic fame at it's zenith, which wears a crown with five points. In this photo you can see how well the towers of the Municipal Building and the Woolworth Building go together.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Evergreen Antiques

I happened upon the website of Evergreen Antiques sometime during college, and it is still one of my favorites. The firm specializes in Northern European and Scandinavian neoclassical antiques, and I've decorated entire imaginary houses with its findings. Here are some current favorites:

On the left we have a Russian chair from about 1825. I love the 3-circle back and the arm rests raised on curved supports that end in little ebonized finials. The curved backsplats and legs are more typically neoclassical in style. On the right is a Scandinavian corner chair from the mid-eighteenth century, with its typical vase-shaped backsplats and ball-and-claw feet. I just love corner chairs in general, but somehow always imagine them being used as an end table rather than a chair.

Not everything at Evergreen is from the neoclassical period. This screen is Danish and was made in the 1940s. It reminds me of one designed by Charles and Ray Eames. On the right is a turned mahogany canterbury. It was made in England in the 1870s or 1880s. I'm not sure what a canterbury is, but this would make a great magazine rack.

Some things just look so Swedish. Here we have a late Gustavian (circa 1800) daybed with X-form supports resting on friezes decorated with sphinx. All the supports are made from turned wood, and the whole is painted that distinctive Gustavian grey. The step-back bookcase cabinet, circa 1830, shows the gothic influence typical of that period in its fairly elaborate pediment (are those corner overhangs evocative of gargoyles?) over glass doors decorated with pointed arches.

These chairs remind me of my mother, because the fret carved backsplats resemble owls, which she adores. Otherwise these are fairly typical painted side chairs from Norway, circa 1770. Those curved tapered legs are called cabriole legs and support an equally curvy frieze. This set of servewear is called a cruet set and its use of curvilinear floral decoration reminds me of the art nouveau style. However, it was made as early as 1812 in Copenhagen from silver, porcelain, and blue glass.

Friday, March 9, 2007

The Costume Institute

The Costume Institute is the collection of historical and contemporary dress at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For a long time working there was my dream job, but while I would still love the chance to work with the Institute's chief curator Harold Koda, an absolute genius at exhibition design, I'm not sure the Institute itself, rather ghettoized away from the rest of the Met and relying on Condé Nast for its financial support, offers the most academically rigorous of museum opportunities. It does however, have a beautiful collection of clothes.

Capes and Corsets:
This short cape looks like an incredibly modern interpretation of traditional Chinese dress, but in fact it dates from the the second half of the sixteenth century and has an entirely European form. The fabric, however, is a Ming Dynasty velvet, also from the sixteenth century. The gold piping, consisting of gilded paper around an orange silk core, is also typical of Chinese style. Jumping centuries a bit, we come to this corset from 1891, showing the hourglass shape that was so central to most nineteenth-century fashions. Both garments are French.

Nineteenth-Century Silhouettes:
The dress on the left illustrates the high "empire" waist style we know so well from Jane Austen movies. This particular dress probably dates from 1804 and its cotton fabric probably came already embroidered from India. The dress on the right shows my other favorite silhouette from the nineteenth century, the modified bustle of the 1870s. This was a kind of golden decade between the huge bustled and bell-shaped skirts of the late '60s (the cow look) and the exaggerated almost shelf-like bustles, combined with straight front skirts, of the 1880s (the horse look).

These haute couture dresses show the sophisticated side of the flapper aesthetic. On the left is a dress by Edward Molyneaux from 1926-7, in which the vertical strips of sequins are overlaid with loose shimmering filaments of georgette. On the right is a dress by Louiseboulanger from 1928. Its "feathers" are painstakingly knotted together from individual strands of ostrich plumes, each one died a different tone to create the cascade effect.

New Looks:
Madeleine Vionnet is one of my all-time favorite designers, most well known for innovating with bias cuts to create daringly simple body-skimming dresses. The dress at left is no exception. Its fringe isn't applied braid but consists of individual strands of silk thread embroidered through the fabric, each thread forming two drops. The "Bar Suit" at right from 1947 epitomizes Christian Dior's post-war "New Look." It rejected the slim silhouettes of the first half of the twentieth century in favor of wasp waists accentuated by padded hips.

Mid-century Modern:
At left is a suit from 1951 by Charles James, combining the complimentary colors of navy cashmere with orange-rust silk satin. At right is a dress by Cristobal Balenciaga, dating from 1960-64, which shows his singular genius as a tailor and his love for structuring the garment slightly apart from the body. Both these ensembles evoke the architectural geometry of mid-century modernism.

Contemporary Ball Gowns:
Both these gowns make me think "Whoosh!" At left, John Galliano's Maria-Luise (dite Coré) Ensemble features a skirt nine feet wide and embellished with flounces and trim typical of the ancien régime. It was shown in the Christian Dior Haute Couture collection of spring/summer 1998. At right, Alexander McQueen's Oyster Dress from 2003 literally deconstructs the image of Aphrodite rising from the sea, giving us the gritty exterior of the oyster rather than the pearl within.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007


I spent the past few days in London, visiting my aunt and uncle and checking out graduate schools. I flew cheaply on Air India, which meant the aging 747 was delayed from Bombay both there and back. In fact, I began my journey spending 9 hours, count 'em, 9 hours (from 4:30pm to 1:30am) in an unstimulating terminal of JFK. Luckily I had two Patrick O'Brian novels to keep me company.

I was pretty incoherent my first day in London, but by day two I was ready to check out the Courtauld Institute, one of the many grad schools to which I've applied. It's housed in Somerset House, which used to be a royal palace until it was extensively rebuilt in the Georgian period and turned into a more public building. The north wing, the current home of the Courtauld, was originally designed for the "learned societies:" the Royal Academy, Royal Society, and the Society of Antiquarians. Another wing housed the Navy Offices, including the Navy Pay Office, Sick and Hurt Office, and my personal favorite, the Victualling Office. Not long after I visited Somerset house I read that the fictional Captain Jack Aubrey had passed his lieutenant's examination there. Aside from these pleasant associations, it seems like a lovely place to go to school. It's built around a large courtyard that features a fountain and, in winter, an ice-skating rink. I didn't take this picture, it wasn't nearly this sunny when I was there, but I don't see how you can beat the combination of a campus with a Georgian palace.

Afterwards I wandered up the Strand to (you guessed it Ricardo) Trafalgar Square. I'm illustrating it with another picture I didn't take. That huge column supports a statue of Lord Nelson, who, has one American tourist I overheard put it, "must of been some war hero." The steeple in the center sits on top of the church of St. Marks-in-the-Fields. On the left is London's National Gallery (the reason I always have to say I interned at the National Gallery, Washington), where I whiled away the rest of the afternoon. You've got to hand it to the English though, that in the midst of all this overwhelming traditionalism they set up a modern sculpture by Marc Quinn, depicting the disabled artist Alison Lapper eight months pregnant.

The next day I had my interview for the MA in the History and Theory of Design program taught jointly by the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal College of Art. The V&A is something of a Victorian monstrosity that houses an unparalleled collection of international art and design. Despite the overbearing religious muscularity of the museum's exterior architecture, they have really nice modern spaces set aside for the students and researchers. And academically the program seems very rigorous and everything I could wish.

After my interview I wandered over to the ritzy neighborhood of Belgravia, centered around Belgrave Square which is home to a score of embassies. This is one of the reasons I love London, it's every bit as bustling as New York but has some lovely touches of Washington DC. Trees for example, embassies for another, and a general prevalence of government buildings and free museums for a third. Just north of Belgrave Square I came across this charming crescent of terrace houses, looking straight out of Jane Austen's England, with this gated park in the center. As anyone who's seen the movie Notting Hill knows, London is full of these private yet communal gardens, after which Grammercy Park is modelled.

I found my way back over to Chelsea where quite another, equally English, architecture reigns. Like the neo-Romanesque style of the V&A the neo-Tudor style of the High Street also uses red brick and historicism to evoke a long lost Merry ol' England. It seems particularly fitting that Burberry should occupy such a space. If I find such a street corner charming, and I have to admit I do, I must be a rank anglophile.