Telfair Museum

Inate Artistry by Jeannine Cook

We have just been to a most beautiful concert at the Telfair Museum, in the Savannah Music Festival series of chamber music concerts with Daniel Hope and Friends, Accompanied and punctuated by huge claps of thunder from a dramatic storm, the musicians, playing Mendelssohn, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms, created beauty and elegance that was soul-moving.

Yet, in the midst of all their amazing skill and the thrumming on the roof of the pelting rain, I could not help but marvel at their obvious delight and seriousness of enjoyment of making beautiful music. I was reminded of Picasso's statement that "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up." Whether in visual arts, ballet, music, singing, or whatever art form, the hallmark of a successful artist, it seems, is that the person remains childlike at some level. That sense of delight, of inquiry, of inquisitiveness and openness seems so necessary. It goes along with a sense of humour and an ability not to take oneself too seriously. Picasso, of course, embodied the impish and playful aspects of art amongst his many characteristics. Certainly his art bespeaks a childlike delight in the simple, the direct and the playful aspects of life.

The quiet camaraderie and sense of humourous enjoyment that showed in flashes between the musicians we heard today spoke to the same ability. Patrick Messina, the wonderful French clarinetist, or the cellist, Eric Kim, Daniel Hope with his extraordinary ability on the violin, or pianist Sebastian Knauer... all combine musicality with an obvious delight that Picasso would approve of. They have remained artists from childhood onwards. We all, in today's audience, were the richer for such artistry.

Curiosity by Jeannine Cook

One of the aspects of the Telfair Museums' exhibition, Modern Masters. American Abstraction at Midcentury, that I found very stimulating was the quotes from each artist on the labels beside their paintings or sculpture. They were not only well-chosen, but in of themselves, they are thought-provoking and insightful.

An example of these quotes is one that accompanies the painting, Sea Image, by TheodorosStamos (1922-1997).

Sea Image , (Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum) by  TheodorosStamos

Sea Image, (Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum) by TheodorosStamos

This early Abstract Expressionist New Yorker wrote, "Nature is so vast, with so many moods and the ocean is so large and every wave is infinite. And as long as we have the curiosity of children (and sometimes we have to be children), discovery is not only possible, but indispensable".

The need for curiosity is, I am convinced, absolutely central to life for everyone, but especially for an artist. Not only is it rewarding to find out about how something works, or is put together, or what it is made of, how it smells and feels, but also, this knowledge gives depth and distance to everything in life. Such insights help us determine what we want to paint or draw, how we want to portray things (whether realistically, abstractly, in two or three dimensions, in film, paint, video, whatever...) and why we are moved to do so. Every single day - ideally - should bring new knowledge, fresh enrichment and stimulation, more possibilities for fun and fascination.

Two curious kittens sniff out a tortoise. I(mage courtesy of Life.com )

Two curious kittens sniff out a tortoise. I(mage courtesy of Life.com)

Watching a kitten explore its world is a perfect metaphor for this curiosity. Everything is new and worth investigating, exploring, evaluating. We artists can be as bright-eyed and curious as any feline. It pays off too!

 

"No duality, everything is nature" by Jeannine Cook

There is a wide-ranging and fascinating exhibition currently on show at Savannah's Telfair Museums, at the Jepson Center, entitled Modern Masters. American Abstraction at Midcentury". With works from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the explosive diversity of art made during the mid-20th century in America is celebrated with forty-three key paintings and sculptures. The exhibition is travelling the country for four years, and it will remain on display at the Jepson until February 6th, 2011.

It is a show worth visiting several times, because of its diversity and density. Not only are there canvases by stellar artists to contemplate and appreciate, but there are some fascinating sculptures that I found most arresting.

One of them, "Banquet", shown courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, stopped me in my tracks with its multi-layered knobbly forms and metal alloys that evoke stalagmites or primitive corals. It is by an artist with whom I was unfamiliar, Ibram Lassaw (1913-2003).

Ibram Lassaw,  Banquet , 1961, bronze, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Ibram Lassaw,  Banquet , 1961, bronze, Smithsonian American Art Museum,

Ibram Lassaw, Banquet, 1961, bronze, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Ibram Lassaw, Banquet, 1961, bronze, Smithsonian American Art Museum,

(As an aside, I find that being a permanent newcomer to every place I have lived in Europe and North America since I had to leave my home in East Africa, I am constantly having to "catch up" on art, law, history, society in general – It is a humbling but exhilarating situation!)

But back to Ibram Lassaw. He too was an immigrant, from Egypt, working in New York as an artist from the 1920s; he became an active participant in the avant-garde art world and was a founding member of the American Abstract Artists. He learned to weld while serving in the US Army during World War II, and continued experimenting with ideas and materials for the next two decades. He fused his ideas on art-making with concepts derived from extensive and catholic reading to reach a philosophy about the holistic nature of the universe and all that is contained therein. He suddenly had an artistic breakthrough in the 1950s, and began to create complex structures that evoked nature in many forms, cosmic and microcosmic.

He said that everything is nature, "every atom that makes me up is nature". He wrote, "I am constantly absorbed by things that are going on around me, the motion of people in the streets, the movement of clouds, the patterns of branches. There is no duality, everything is nature."

It was obvious from the work, "Banquet" that he was fusing ideas about many aspects of life and nature in this work, to achieve a delicate complex work that rewards with careful inspection and contemplation. What I found so interesting, however, was one of those delicious coincidences that occurs: soon afterwards, I saw a re-broadcast on PBS of Hunting the Hidden Dimension. The Most Famous Fractal about the late Benoit Mandelbrot's wonderful mathematical way of describing the "roughness" he saw all around him in nature. Before Mandelbrot, artists had indeed seen the "self-similarity" and "roughness" in nature, but mathematicians had considered these jagged, self-repeating shapes unmeasurable. Mandelbrot introduced fractals, the concept of another dimension, a fractal dimension, that lay between two and three dimensions. This dimension allows for mathematical measurements and thus, amongst other things, a deeper understanding of self-similarity - the endless repetition of stalks of broccoli, trunks to branches to twigs on a tree and its leaves.

As an example, the image below is that of a high voltage dielectric breakdown within a block of plexiglass - it creates a beautiful fractal pattern called a Lichtenberg figure. The branching discharges ultimately become hair-like but are thought to extend down to the molecular level. (Bert Hickman. http://www.teslamania.com/)

12" block - Captured Lightning scupture (Image courtesy of Theodore Gray)

12" block - Captured Lightning scupture (Image courtesy of Theodore Gray)

Lassaw's "Banquet", created in 1961, was in many ways an early evocation of the same wonderful complexity that nature offers, everywhere, all the time.

These happy coincidences are what I love about seeing an art exhibition. There is always some work of art that makes one more aware, more able to make connections and add new, rich dimensions to life. What fun!

A Sense of the Marvellous by Jeannine Cook

I saw a large and diverse exhibition of black and white photographs of Paris, Twilight Visions: Surrealism, Photography and Paris, at Savannah's Telfair Museum. In the introductory explanation about all these photos which mostly date from the 1920s and 1930s, there was the phrase, "a sense of the marvellous". It struck me, because it is so important to retain that sense, especially if one wants to be an artist.

The exhibition did indeed illustrate some wonderful moments. Serendipitous sights - the wonderful reflection of buildings in a puddle by the pavement's edges by Ilse Bing, for instance, or extraordinary patterns of shadows and people beneath the Eiffel Tower by Andre Kertesz - were accompanied by more planned photographs of the illuminated Eiffel Tower. or old street scenes in Paris. There were many photographs which were much more "contrived", in keeping with the prevailing surrealism movement. But it was the photographs that record the photographer's eye and awareness of magic and marvels that I savoured most.

Ilse Bing, 'Three men on steps by the Seine' , (Image courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum)

Ilse Bing, 'Three men on steps by the Seine' , (Image courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum)

Ilse Bing, Rue de Valois, Paris, 1932, gelatin-silver print, (Image courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Ilse Bing, Rue de Valois, Paris, 1932, gelatin-silver print, (Image courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Perhaps I am greatly influenced by all the childhood hours I spent with my photographer grandfather, Frank Anderson, as he photographed herds of giraffe or other wild animals on our farm in Tanzania. With an important body of work to his credit, as he documented the disappearing tribes and the East African wild life, Frank had a keenly developed sense of the marvellous. He taught me that observation and awareness, as well as quick reactions in capturing a photograph, are key. Key to art-making, but key, too, to a deep enjoyment and appreciation of life. It was an invaluable preparation for my later life as an artist.

Children in central Tanganyika, 1929-30, sepia print, Frank Anderson photographer (copyright Jeannine Cook)

Children in central Tanganyika, 1929-30, sepia print, Frank Anderson photographer (copyright Jeannine Cook)

Dutch Utopia tour at Telfair Museum by Jeannine Cook

Today's visit to the Telfair Museum's exhibition, Dutch Utopia: American Artists in Holland, 1880-1914, was a fascinating delight for a huge group of art lovers from Savannah and beyond. Curator Holly McCullough led everyone through the genesis, choices, history and social background of an exhibition she had worked on for long years.

Holland became a magnet for many American artists, men and women, who chose to work, sometimes in colonies, in many small towns throughout the country. They created paintings that reflected Holland's silvery light, seascapes and dunes. Other work depicted Dutch society, selectively and with an emphasis on older, traditional mores. People were portrayed as sober, hardworking, church-going, mostly garbed in costumes that were chosen more for their pictorial value than any accuracy of local costume. Gari Melchers, one of the main artists represented in the exhibition, with dramatic paintings large and small, had close ties to the Telfair as he was Fine Arts Advisor to the Museum early in the 20th century. His choice of art to be acquired, during his tenure at the Museum, led to holdings of these American artists working in Holland, such as Walter MacEwen and George Hitchcock. Other artists represented in the exhibition range from Robert Henri, William Merritt Chase, John Twachtman and John Singer Sargent to women like Elizabeth Nourse and Anna Stanley. They all spent time in one or more of the small towns and villages favoured by the artists for their timeless beauties.

Self Portrait, Elizabeth Nourse , 1892

Self Portrait, Elizabeth Nourse , 1892

Venice, watercolor over traces of pencil, 1891. Elizabeth Nourse, (Image courtesy of the Cincinnati Art Museum) 

Venice, watercolor over traces of pencil, 1891. Elizabeth Nourse, (Image courtesy of the Cincinnati Art Museum) 

Girl carrying Sheaves (Harvest - Holland), c. 1895, Anna Henry, Private collection

Girl carrying Sheaves (Harvest - Holland), c. 1895, Anna Henry, Private collection

The 17th century influences show in much of the art, from Franz Hals to Rembrandt or Vermeer, and the silvery light is a hallmark of many of the paintings. I delighted in some of the depictures of the leaded glass windows, always with spindly pot plants reaching for the light but managing to add touches of background colour to interior scenes. Other aspects of the paintings dwell on the essence of Holland - windmills, tulips, orderly streets and fishing boat scenes. It was thus not surprising that a number of these paintings had been in European public and private collections from the time they were produced, although many others had been purchased by the new collecting public in this country. The Telfair had assembled this show from public and private collections and many had not been exhibited in public for long years.

If you miss this exhibition in Savannah, you can catch it at the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati, Ohio, the Grand Rapids Art Museum, and finally at the Singer Laren Museum in the Netherlands. Thanks to Holly McCullough and her team, this exhibition is an unusual, fascinating and often very lovely exhibition well worth visiting.

Dutch Utopia exhibit at Telfair Museum by Jeannine Cook

Savannah's Telfair Museum of Art has just opened an unusual and most interesting exhibition, Dutch Utopia. Using art already in the Museum's permanent holdings as a springboard, curator Holly Koons McCullough and her team have assembled a large number of works by American artists who worked in artists' colonies and small unspoiled villages in the Netherlands during the second half of the nineteenth century.

There are plenty of canvases large and small by artists who remain well known today, from John Singer Sargent to Robert Henri and William Merritt Chase. Then there are the delights to be savoured thanks to many artists whose names are less familiar today, from George Hitchcock to accomplished women artists like Anna Stanley and Elizabeth Nourse. Traditional compositions of landscape or interiors suddenly change to daring works which feel much more contemporary to us today. Watercolours hold their own with oils on canvas, some huge. It is an interesting mix of works and takes one to a totally different time and place, in a tight society living beneath amazingly luminous Northern skies, where wind and sea dictate every aspect of life and, according to one contemporary comment, there is a great deal of the colour blue in sunlight. The American artists lived there for varying lengths of time, but they all seemed to concentrate on eliminating from their work any hints of the changes that Europe had been undergoing as the Industrial Revolution reached its zenith. The Holland they portray had barely changed from the work Rembrandt and Franz Hals knew.

I found myself contrasting many of the scenes of Dutch women, be-coiffed and be-clogged, monumental and utterly Northern, with those by the Pont Aven school of artists who were depicting the Breton women with their typical coiffes and, yes, clogs too, on occasion. Working at about the same time, Gaugin, Sérusier, Emile Bernard and a host of other French artists were working in the sleepy little Brittany towns of Pont Aven or Le Pouldu. They were, to my eye, far more adventurous in their approaches than the Americans in the Netherlands, but each community produced some wonderful art.

The Ghost Story , 1887, Oil on canvas, Walter MacEwen , (Image courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio)

The Ghost Story, 1887, Oil on canvas, Walter MacEwen , (Image courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio)

In Holland,  1887,Oil on canvas, Gari Melchers Gari Melchers Home and Studio, Fredericksburg, Virginia

In Holland, 1887,Oil on canvas, Gari Melchers
Gari Melchers Home and Studio, Fredericksburg, Virginia

The Telfair's exhibition runs until January 10th, 2010, before moving to the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati, the Grand Rapids Art Museum and the Singer Laren Museum in the Netherlands.
It is well worth seeing at one of its venues.