An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 146

Clinton Howell Antiques - Sept. 13, 2021 - Issue 146
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
The exhibition of Cezanne drawings at MOMA came to my attention through the review I read by Peter Schjeldal in the New Yorker. I don't remember all of what he wrote save for the fact that he thought too many drawings were on display. Only he did so with erudition and a solid understanding of the Cezanne oeuvre. I am an admirer of Cezanne and I am an admirer of craft, but after seeing, for example, five drawings of the same pose of a naked back, all looking alike, I understood the criticism. But of course there were high points to the exhibition, which for me were the water color sketches which I just love. There were several paintings of his wife, as well, that I greatly enjoyed. However, the day was not only spent looking at drawings as there was a car exhibition where I saw the VW bug, the car that I learned to drive on (I learned on a '53, the one on display was a '59) a Fiat 500 (the cinquecento) a car which I once borrowed from a friend so that I could transport a Thonet bentwood rocker (when I was leaving England) to Heathrow Airport. The cinquecento I borrowed had a sun roof which allowed me to carry the rocker on the roof--it was a MOMA moment to be sure as these two design, not quite icons but certainly known entities, combined to make an interesting linear squiggle, a mock throne of sorts, that I doubt will ever be repeated.  The E-type Jag on display also reminded me of a friend's father whose two cars were a Mustang and an XKE. Heady times, those 1960's. 

There was also a Calder exhibit, however, and that took me back to my graduation from college in 1971. My mother gave me three art books for my graduation, the works of Louise Nevelson, Georgia O'Keeffe and Alexander Calder. I was a fan of Calder at the time, I loved his mobiles, but I loved his wire circus even more. I am not a huge fan of Nevelson (Nevelson received an honorary degree from Hobart the year I graduated) but I like O'Keeffe, although O'Keeffe suffers from the same thing Calder does, which is too much focus on one aspect of her art--O'Keeffe for her desert scenes, which are definitely arresting images, but her career is a whole lot bigger than those paintings--her color sense is wonderful. I remember seeing some of her earlier work (of Lake George in upstate NY) when visiting the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas. Nevelson might also suffer from a similar fate as Calder and O'Keeffe, although her found wood sculptures seem to dominate in what I see of her work in museums--she, too, had an exhibition at MOMA although I don't remember exactly when. Calder is best known for his mobiles, of course, and not his wire sculptures or his stabiles, and those mobiles with their red, blue, yellow and white painted pendants make one think that he knew just four colors and one form of art. But the MOMA exhibit re-adjusted my thoughts on Calder, reminding me that vision is always of a moment and that it is the artist's attempts to share that vision that either move us or leave us cold. I was moved to see this exhibition of Calder, his desire to get the viewer involved in space, balance and movement--you will enjoy it if you can get there, as well as the cars and the Cezanne exhibits, if you go. 

But I want to know why I could let an artist's work could fall out of my favor so readily? I believe it was when I went to an exhibition at the National Gallery in 1985, "Treasure Houses of Britain", that I started to be wary of Calder. I remember waiting in line to get into the exhibition and watching a gigantic Calder mobile spin in the atrium of the lobby. Calder mobiles, throughout my youth, seemed to be everywhere and their ubiquity most definitely began to define the artist's oeuvre and I think I allowed that to happen. And, while standing in line for the Treasure Houses exhibit, I could see the photo of a chinoiserie overdoor from Claydon House, a house I have been to any number of times to see the carved chinoiserie room by Luke Lightfoot, and which was widely used to promote that show. I suspect, but don't know, that I began to devalue Calder's work in light of Lightfoot's incredible craft. In my 1985 mind, that seemed to be a fair comparison. Thirty-six years later, I am not so certain. Grappling with a concept is simple--reaching an acceptable solution that explains that struggle, at least in the mind of the artist, is not. The audience, of course, gets to be the final authority and that is our choice, which is why the Cezanne exhibition, for many, might well be revelatory. Judgment is, after all, personal.

This link takes you to a site that shows the cover of the "Treasure Houses of Britain" catalogue--you can see the ho-ho bird of the overdoor is not that far off from the girandole I use here in my blog.