The Clark’s New Clothes: “We’re so confused.”

The new museum wing and reflecting pool. Photo: Tucker Blair

The Clark Institute’s new museum wing and reflecting pool.
Photo: Tucker Blair

On July 4th, the long awaited $145 million addition and renovation of the Clark Art Institute opened. A beloved museum in the Berkshires, the Clark has been for decades everyone’s secret discovery. Planning began in 2001 and all signs (including a recent review in the New York Times) pointed to an extraordinary success.

Sadly, it is far from that.  Like the Brooklyn Museum’s new entrance unveiled in 2004, the addition is an unfriendly imposition that ignores the spirit of the original architecture and is at odds with the collection it houses.  Designed by Tadao Ando, the extension and landscaping dishonors its founders with an anonymous space that could be any museum in the world, not one of the crown jewels of New England. It seems far too meaningful that the Styrofoam backed panels on “The Clark Story” and the portraits of the founders, are now relegated to the basement (sorry, Lower Lobby) —  with the rest rooms.

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A visit to Frida Kahlo’s studio


This gallery contains 14 photos.

Frida Kahlo‘s home and studio, La Casa Azul in suburban Mexico City has been renovated in time to celebrate her 107th birthday. On the second floor, one can visit her studio just as she left it when she died in … Continue reading

Mr. Turner, a new film, and the Varnishing Day Incident

England’s greatest painter, J.M.W. Turner, is the subject of a new film by Mike Leigh. On May 15th, Mr. Turner premiered  at the Cannes film festival and received rave reviews.  Its star Timothy Spall won the best actor award for his portrayal of the artist. [Spall is best known in the U.S. as Peter Pettigrew or Wormtail in the Harry Potter films.]

The film covers the last twenty-five years of Turner’s life.  The trailer includes a famous incident from life of the eccentric and notoriously competitive artist — when he took advantage of the Royal Academy of Art’s ‘Varnishing Day.’  In the 1800s, the Academy was the center of the British artistic world.  No artist could truly succeed without being a member and no exhibition was more important for one’s reputation than the annual Summer Exhibition.

Joseph Mallord William Turner was one of the few child prodigies in the history of art. One year after he began classes at the Academy, he was made a member of the Academy. He was only 15. By the time he was 17 he could support himself with the sale of his pictures.   In comparison, the great landscape painter, John Constable, who was about the same age as Turner, struggled financially his entire life and didn’t earn membership until he was 53.

Varnishing Day at the Royal Academy, Punch magazine 1877.

Varnishing Day at the Royal Academy, Punch magazine 1877.

The Varnishing Day incident concerns both painters.  The day was a tradition at the Royal Academy.  Each year after the Summer Exhibition was hung by the jurors, artists were allowed inside to put the final protective varnish on their paintings before the show opened. This was not just a necessary stage in finishing a work but a bit of a social event.  The tradition continues to this day and the entrance of the artists includes a parade, a religious service, canapes and champagne.  Once inside, the painters chat amongst themselves as they apply their varnish and a few last touches.

Just as important as putting a protective layer on a painting, Varnishing Day allowed the artists to preview the exhibition before it opened to the public and to learn whether their pictures had been hung in a good location and discover whose work was hung nearby.  While it was an honor to be chosen,  if your picture was put very high up or to the side of a doorway, it meant the jurors did not consider it an important picture, which could damage your reputation.

In 1832, both Turner and Constable’s pictures were hung in good positions, but unfortunately next to each other. Constable’s Opening of Waterloo Bridge was the largest painting he had ever painted for an exhibition, nearly seven feet long.  He had worked on it for thirteen years. When Turner arrived on Varnishing Day and saw his painting next to Constable’s, he began pacing, disturbed not only by its commanding size but by how exciting and colorful the Constable painting was.

John Constable, The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, 1832 (Tate Gallery)

John Constable, The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, 1832 (Tate Gallery)

As a fellow member of the Academy, Charles Robert Leslie personally observed:

Constable’s Waterloo seemed as if painted with liquid gold and silver, and Turner came several times into the room while [Constable] was heightening with vermilion and lake the decorations and flags of the city barges.  Turner stood behind him, looking from the Waterloo to his own picture, and at last brought his palette from the great room where he was touching another picture, and putting a round daub of red lead, somewhat bigger than a shilling, on his grey sea, went away without saying a word.  The intensity of the red lead, made more vivid by the coolness of his picture, caused even the vermilion and lake of Constable to look weak.


William Parrott, Turner on Varnishing Day, 1846 (Museums Sheffield)

William Parrott, Turner on Varnishing Day, 1846 (Museums Sheffield)

Constable was horrified at this breach of Varnishing Day etiquette and said to Leslie after Turner left,  ‘He has been here…and fired a gun.’  He knew the damage had been done. Turner’s painting and its bold red spot at the center would command the attention of anyone walking into the Painting Gallery.  Turner returned to the room later. With a swipe of a rag, he trimmed the red ‘gob’ and declared it a buoy.

This flourish was greeted with applause by his fellow artists.  At least, according to the movie.  Mr. Turner opens October 31st in the U.K. and December 19th in the U.S.

How King’s Dream was born

The Dreamer Dreams. Washington DC. 1963. Photo: Bob Adelman

The Dreamer Dreams. Washington DC. 1963. Photo: Bob Adelman

The speech was good, the speaker nervous.  Mahalia Jackson, behind Martin Luther King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, heard him hesitating.  She yelled out, “tell them about the Dream, Martin!”  King came alive and started adlibbing from his prepared text.  It grew from its planned seven minutes to become one of the greatest speeches in American history.

Jackson, an internationally known gospel singer who had been with the movement through its most difficult days, was the only woman seated in the podium party.  King, who had invited her, was the final speaker, a spot no one else wanted because they assumed that news reporters would have already left after a long day of speeches and song.  But the press and the crowd of nearly 250,000 did wait and were rewarded by a thrilling moment of inspiration that climaxed the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  Fittingly, after King’s speech was finished, Mahalia Jackson returned to the podium and closed the event with a final song, “How I got over.”

“I’m surprised that of all that pain, some beauty came.”  – See more at:
Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King outside Montgomery on the Fourth Day of the March, Alabama Route 80, 1965. Photo:  Bob Adelman.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King outside Montgomery on the Fourth Day of the March, Alabama Route 80, 1965.
Photo: Bob Adelman.

I learned about this day and much more at a memorable exhibition of photographs called The Movement at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale.  The photographs were all by Bob Adelman and follow the Civil Rights Movement and King from 1961 to the leader’s death in 1968.  According to the curator, between 1963 and 1968, Adelman was a photographer for the Congress of Racial Equality, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and other civil rights organizations. Among the many magazines that have published his work are Esquire, Time, Life, New York, Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, and Paris Match.
On August 28, 1963, Adelman was known not as a photographer but as a young activist in the movement.  Since he wasn’t considered a member of the press, he had unusual access to the podium during the March of Washington.   He was there to “see all my heroes, the people who were on the front lines.”  At the exhibition, a blow up of his contact sheet of podium shots puts you up there along with Adelman as the speech unfolds.


Protestors attacked with hoses by police.  Photo: Bob Adelman

Protestors attacked with hoses by police, 1963. Photo: Bob Adelman

Not only do his images bring you inside the Civil Rights movement, but they are tremendous photographs. According to Adelman, after King saw his images of protestors being sprayed by police hoses in Birmingham, he said, “I’m surprised that of all that pain, beauty came.”

“I’m surprised that of all that pain, some beauty came.”  – See more at:
“I’m surprised that of all that pain, some beauty came.”  – See more at:
“I’m surprised that of all that pain, some beauty came.”  – See more at:

The last room is devoted to King’s funeral ceremony at Morehouse College and is heart-breaking.  His casket was carried in a procession from KIng’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in a simple mule drawn cart, like one you might see on a share-cropper’s farm.  In what I believe are never published photographs, Adelman shows us the faces of the King’s family and other mourners as they pass in front of his open casket.  We learn that Rosa Parks cried through the whole ceremony.

It is hard to calculate how much impact King’s speech had on the nation.  President John F. Kennedy had never heard King give a speech before the March on Washington.  Later that day, he invited King and the other organizers to the White House.   When King entered the Oval Office, Kennedy shook his hand up and down, repeating, “I have a dream.”

Penguin out to destroy artist’s book

sticker_copyMiriam Elia, a British artist and comedian, and her brother, Ezra, recently published We Go to the Gallery, a book on art that parodies contemporary art in the style of a children’s first reader in England. The publishing giant Penguin want to destroy all copies of it.

Like the Dick and Jane books in the U.S., England has the Peter and Jane series published by Ladybird, a division of Penguin Publishing.  In Elia’s book,  Peter and Jane go to look at contemporary art in a gallery with their mother. Funds to publish the book were raised using Kickstarter and she printed 1,000 copies.

According to Penguin’s lawyers, the book violates the publisher’s copyright.  They are willing to allow Elia to sell enough books to pay off her costs as long as she burns the remaining copies herself or turns them over to them, so they can destroy them.

Elia is refusing “to bend to their depravity” in a statement that ends with:

They will never find the books they seek to pulp, and if they take me to court, I will fight them, however long the battle takes. But I am need of your help. If you like the work and wish to see it properly published, please email I will shortly be starting a petition, and may have to devise a fighting fund to help with legal costs.

The full statement can be found on Elia’s website.

Below is a gallery of some of the pages of Elia’s book.  (Click on an image to see a slide show.) Take a look while you still can.

Color ecstasy — the Holi Festival

holi.handMarch 17, 2014 was marked with two ecstatic celebrations where color plays an important role.  One, St. Patrick’s Day, has long been identified with the color green.  But in the Hindu world, the arrival of Spring is greeted with a mad riot of colors during the festival of Holi.

Celebrated in India and other nations with large Hindu populations, it welcomes the end of winter with wild ceremonies.  During this Festival of Color, men and women chase each other through the streets and throw handfuls of bright pigments or squirt colorful paint on each other.   Crowds of revelers sing and dance in town squares as priests with huge hoses spray magenta, blue, or red paint from above.  Young and old, rich and poor have fun together and no one is immune from being doused with color.  Even tourists who find themselves in the midst of the festivities will soon be drenched in wet paint by young children with spray bottles.  By mid-day, the air is filled with dense clouds of color and the smell of sweet perfumes added to the pigments.

Each year spectacular pictures of the Holi Festival are published in newspapers and magazines around the world.  Below is a gallery of some of them (click on a picture to go to slide show).

[Text from The Power of Art, Chapter 2.]

“The 600-years-old butt song from hell”

Hieronymus Bosch Garden of Delights (detail) 1500

Hieronymus Bosch
Garden of Delights (detail)
1503- 1504

In the category of “why did this take so long?,” an entrepreneurial student named Amelia from Oklahoma Christian University has recorded the music written on the backside of one of the damned in Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Delights. [Actually 500 years old, but that’s not important.]

The music file can be found on the Chaos Controlled 123 website.

A choral version chanted with lyrics (“butt song from hell, This is the butt song from hell…”) can be found on Well Manicured Man’s website.

Visit while you can before their servers crash.

Behind the Most Abstract Matisse

Henri Matisse, French Window at Collioure, 1914

Henri Matisse
French Window at Collioure, 1914

French Window at Collioure is the closest Henri Matisse ever got to painting a totally abstract work. Without the title, the painting is hard to see as more than three simple bands of color framing a large black center. The mood is somber and calm.  But what is behind this picture?

The subject is one that Matisse had already painted many times.  For nearly a decade, when Paris became cold and wet, he had returned to his rented studio in Collioure, a town near the Spanish border in the south of France. Its window looked out on the town’s harbor.

Open Window, 1905
Matisse, Open Window, 1905

The most famous version is perhaps the first — 1905’s Open Window, which became the iconic image of Fauvism. It conveys the visual excitement Matisse felt that summer when he first discovered the town and the light of the South of France. The light triggered a new movement that became known as The Fauves (‘the wild beasts’). He and his colleagues, André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck, reacted with violent colors that went beyond what even their beloved van Gogh had used in Provence. [Vlaminck said he loved van Gogh more than his father.]  Matisse described the colors they applied unmixed in raw fashion on the canvases as ‘explosives.’ His ‘co-conspirator’ Derain said their paintbrushes were like sticks of dynamite.

After this period of Fauvist fireworks, Matisse’s approach evolved.  He told the Futurist artist Gino Severini that he believed in an art stripped down to its essentials, simplifying an image “like you might prune a tree.”  Still, 1914’s French Window is so different a view from the one of 1905 that it is hard to believe it is the same window.  Why is that and why is it so unique in Matisse’s career?

Window at Collioure

Window of Matisse’s studio in Collioure
c. 1942

The picture’s date is an essential clue.  The window had not changed, but the world had.

France was now at war. The Great World War had begun with great confidence but by the time the picture was painted it was a hard time to be hopeful.   From the start, the French suffered great losses.  News from the front was difficult to find but rumors told of millions of French soldiers killed.  Matisse’s home town in the north of France was one of the first overrun by the German army.  His elderly mother was in ill health and trapped behind enemy lines; his brother a prisoner of war.  Matisse had to leave his own house in the suburbs of Paris after it was commandeered by French officers as a military headquarters.  His fellow Fauvists, Derain and Vlaminck were drafted.  Matisse, though he tried to enlist several times, was rejected because he was already in his mid-forties.

Henri Matisse, c. 1913

Henri Matisse,
c. 1913

In Collioure, Matisse opened his house to refugee artists like the Spanish Cubist, Juan Gris.  The young Gris’s poverty (his dealer could no longer provide his small stipend) reminded Matisse of his own early days as an artist.  Matisse was also without the support of his gallery, so he went to his friend, the American patroness, Gertrude Stein.  Happily, she agreed to help Gris out with some income.  When the funds never arrived and there was no explanation, it was the end of Matisse’s friendship with her.

Rather than a colorful harbor of swaying sailboats, The French Window of 1914 opens onto blackness.  Matisse’s search for “an art of balance, of purity and serenity” is fruitless here.  There is some balance, but it is not firm, only tentative. The sketchy marks of the window shutter at left reflect anxiety, the painful uncertainty of wartime.  His colors are muddied with grays, uncharacteristically subdued.

What is arguably the most radical painting Matisse ever painted never saw the light of day during his lifetime.  When it was finally exhibited in the U.S. in 1966, it was already well after the American Abstract Expressionists had created their even more radical abstract revolution. The art world was well prepared to greet  French Window at Collioure with some surprise perhaps, but mostly admiration.

The painting, however, expands our understanding of one of the great masters of the twentieth century.  Matisse’s reputation is as a painter whose modernist vision resulted in largely comfortable, colorful pictures of bourgeois or exotic interiors, cut off from the concerns of politics and current events.  Yet, the French Window of 1914 is an existential statement by an artist caught in a world blackened by war.  It is Matisse’s Guernica, painted a generation and world war earlier than Picasso’s.

How to paint your own Vermeer

Tim's Vermeer posterWhat if you could paint your own Vermeer?  Teller (as in the famous magicians Penn and Teller) has directed a new documentary called Tim’s Vermeer.  It was shown at the recent Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals and is receiving great reviews.  It follows the investigation of an inventor, Tim Jenison, into the painting methods of Jan Vermeer.  Jenison is best known to those in Digital Media as the founder of NewTek and the mastermind behind the revolutionary Video Toaster (along with Dana Carvey’s brother Brad) back in the 1980s.

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Degenerate and Stolen Art lost in WWII, finally found

Degenerate Art exhibition, 1937

Adolf Hitler and Adolf Ziegler visit the Degenerate Art exhibition, 1937.

A search of a Munich home, owned by the son of Adolf Hitler’s favorite art dealer, has turned up 1,500 works of art stolen by the Nazis, believed to be worth over $1 billion. These works include paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Klee, and Chagall.  Most of the art is by artists whose work was displayed at the infamous “Degenerate Art” exhibition created at the direction of Hitler.  It is being called “the largest single find of looted art in post war history.”

Blue Dress by Matisse

‘Blue Dress in a Yellow Arm Chair,’ by Henri Matisse, circa 1936 (illustrative image: AP/Oystein Thorvaldsen, Henie-Onstad Art Center)

More information can be found online at the BBC.