Wednesday, October 14, 2009

(No.58) Stumbling toward Steichen

As I stumbled and fell the last few steps in the Jeu de Paume gallery in Paris I cannot claim to have been distracted by thoughts of the Edward Steichen portraits Pat and I had come to see or about the 'degenerate' paintings the Nazis had put into bonfires outside the building but rather how much I must have looked at that moment like an extra in a Three Stooges movie. That thought is validated by the fact that the memory of seeing my pratfall can occasionally still convulse Pat with laughter -- although she certainly wasn't laughing at the time.

We had come to the north-west corner of the Tuileries gardens in Dec 2007 to view the renovated structure housing the Galerie Jeu de Paume as well as to attend the special exhibition of photographs by the American Edward Steichen presented under the heading: "Edward Steichen -- Lives in Photography". Steichen, actually born in Luxembourg in 1879, was a famous New York fashion and celebrity photographer of the 1920s and 1930s whose photographs appeared in Vanity Fair magazine. He died in 1973 and now seems to be undergoing a renaissance of interest in his work.

The Jeu de Paume, built in 1861, originally housed tennis courts during the time of Napoleon III. It was used by the Nazi occupiers of Paris during 1940-44 to store Jewish cultural property looted from its owners in France during the German occupation. Works by artists such as Picasso and Dali were indeed regarded as "degenerate art" by the Nazis and some pieces were burned.

After the war the building again served as a French art museum housing paintings by French impressionists. The Jeu de Paume was closed in 1986 when its collection was transferred to the magnificent D'Orsay Museum which occupies the grand space and structure of the former railway station. The Jeu de Paume was renovated and reopened in 1991 as a space for special exhibitions involving the history of photography among other things.

With Pat's reminders ringing in my ears I remembered to focus on avoiding a similar stumble when visiting a different Steichen exhibition currently in Toronto at the Art Gallery of Ontario: "Edward Steichen: In high fashion, the Conde Nast years, 1923-37". [It continues through Jan 3, 2010].

The exhibition is comprised of black and white photographs of fashion models (especially Steichen's favourite Marion Morehouse) as well as celebrities which appeared in Vanity fair and Vogue magazines, both Conde Nast publications.

It is interesting to see such finely executed pictures from an era now more than seven decades past -- for Steichen was a talented photographer: to see Noel Coward before the dissipation was evident and Marlene Dietrich pre-body suit and Joan Crawford when she had a natural beauty or Leslie Howard looking effete. Only some of what is displayed in Toronto overlaps the Paris exhibition in 2007 as I recall its subjects.

Another indication of how fashionable such events involving Steichen have become is another Toronto exhibition being held at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto: "Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913-2008". It features the work of Steichen but also of his contemporaries like Man Ray and Cecil Beaton and (latterly) Annie Liebowitz. This exhibition too will run until Jan 3, 2010.

Even if one is not consumed with a desire to see historic portrait photography from New York fashion magazines, the recently expanded galleries and permanent collections of both the AGO and the ROM make visits to both places rewarding.


In Victorian England in the late 1840s a small group of artists -- Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt -- launched their Pre-Raphaelite rebellion against London's Royal Academy of Art. They opposed the Royal Academy's promotion of Raphael as the ideal artist, hence their self-description. Their subjects, taken from literature and poetry, dealt mostly with love and death and were painted in a realistic style.

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), born just at the time of the launching of the Pre-Raphaelite rebellion, became a late Pre-Raphaelite. A special exhibition of Waterhouse's art has now been organized by the Royal Academy in London, the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. This show is the largest retrospective (80 paintings) of Waterhouse's works ever mounted.

The exhibition, entitled "J.W. Waterhouse: Garden of Enchantment" is at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts until Feb 7, 2010 for its only North American stop.

Waterhouse as an artist was, within a decade of his death, completely out of fashion where he remained for some decades. But today his paintings are even more popular than during the peak of his popularity. Indeed, without knowing the creator of them many people will be familiar with the much reproduced images created by Waterhouse (like his best known, the Lady of Shallot, four versions of which done by Waterhouse appear together for the first time in this exhibition).

The Waterhouse exhibition in Montreal is well worth a visit, all the more so given the fact that it is unlikely that there will be another like it in the foreseeable future anywhere in the world.

Alastair Rickard