Pleasure and Pain: Not All Shoes Are Meant for Walking

 

If, as Mark Twain said, “Clothes makes the man”, then the Peabody Essex Museum’s newest exhibit is full throttle support for a complementary adage: “Shoes make the woman”.

“Shoes: Pleasure and Pain” showcases 300 pairs of shoes by more than 130 designers and artists that range from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the comfortable to the downright punishing. Although men’s shoes are represented with bling and panache, over 70% of the exhibit is devoted to women’s shoes.

With its recent acquisition of 20th– and 21st-century fashion, PEM has the largest shoe collection in the country. Over 100 are included in the exhibit, many of which have never been displayed before.

“We are in the process of building a fashion presence at PEM,” said Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, PEM’s James B. and Mary Lou Hawkes Deputy Director and coordinating curator for the exhibition. “There is a growing appetite for compelling exhibitions about fashion.”

Organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, the PEM show marks its U.S. debut and will run through March 12, 2017.

Curated by themes, the five-section show (Transformation, Status, Seduction, Creation and Obsession) features shoes worn by high profile celebrities such as David Beckham, Elton John, Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana. Among the artists and designers represented are Manolo Blahnik (of “Sex and the City” notoriety), Christian Louboutin (with his signature red soles), Christian Dior, Jimmy Choo and Prada. Combat boots and sneakers share center stage with stilettos and seductive boudoir mules.

 

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Beaded evening shoes by Roger Vivier for Christian Dior, 1958-1960.

 

It is the pairing of designer and consumer that is at the heart of the exhibit. “Shoes are about the personal creativity of the designer and the person who wears that shoe. It’s a partnership between two people who likely never meet. Creation is about communication,” Hartigan said.

The shoes on display aren’t just meant to protect feet and promote locomotion. They are also projections of the mood, identity and status of the wearer. “Shoes are extensions of ourselves,” she added.

Blahnik’s Mondrian-inspired red and yellow “Tendona” shoes would be conversation-stoppers at any gathering as would Louboutin’s impossibly high-heeled “Anemone” design, with its red satin bursts and feathers. The shoes seem molded to fit a Barbie doll’s nonhuman foot, and in fact, Barbie does have her very own accessory line of three Louboutin designs.

 

Manolo Blahnik , 'Tendona' shoe, 2015. Leather. Courtesy of Manolo Blahnik

“Tedona” by Manolo Blahnik, 2015, made of leather and on loan from the designer..

 

These shoes aren’t meant for the average consumer (even Barbie’s version retails for $35). With starting prices of $700, they are associated with more than female sexuality and power. “High heels have always been worn by rich people of high society,” said Hartigan, noting that the Egyptians first developed platform shoes in 3500 B.C. so the wealthy could be seen as walking high off the ground.

Historians looking for more than the dazzle of sequins and crystals (yes, there is even a Swarovski Cinderella glass slipper) can linger among the lotus shoes made for bound feet, 16th century chopines and men’s shoes with noisy slap-soles that were worn in Europe in the 17th century.

 

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Chopines by an artist in Venice, Italy, about 1600 made of punched leather and pine.

 

Fashionistas will delight in the chance to see Vivienne Westwood’s dramatically exaggerated lace-up blue platform heels that famously caused model Naomi Campbell to stumble on a Paris runway in 1993. A picture of Campbell good-naturedly laughing after her very public tumble is part of the display.

 

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The Vivienne Westwood blue, platform-heeled “Super Elevated Gillie” shoes that caused Naomi Campbell’s infamous 1993 Paris catwalk show tumble.

 

The exhibit also has a distinctive local flavor, acknowledging New England’s importance as a shoe manufacturing center and featuring selections from the late Boston style maven Marilyn Riseman and noted North Shore collectors Jimmy Raye and Lillian Montalto Bohlen.

Turning momentarily serious, the section “Seduction” shines a spotlight on the often-blurred lines between objectification and celebration of women’s sexuality. Inspired by bondage and 18th century prostitution, mules and high heels have always represented both passion and exploitation.

Perhaps the most extreme example of this is “Fetish”, an unwearable pair of stilettos created by Louboutin in collaboration with film director David Lynch, whose signature style (“Blue Velvet”, “Twin Peaks”) is darkly twisted sensuality. The only way one can wear these shoes is by crawling. A picture of a woman doing just that is part of the exhibit.

 

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“Fetish” by Louboutin in collaboration with David Lynch.

 

Walking through the galleries, it’s evident that while the lion’s share of shoes is designed for women, the designers are predominantly men. Although high heels may empower and literally elevate women, they can do so at a cost of permanent back and foot problems.

Asked whether he has sympathy for women who wear his designer high heels, Louboutin was unambiguous in a 2012 interview with “Grazia” magazine. “High heels are pleasure with pain. If you can’t walk in them, don’t wear them,” he scoffed.

Or, as a shoe designer in ancient Roman times (when high heels were popular with both men and women) might have put it, “caveat emptor”.

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain runs through March 12, 2017 at the Peabody Essex Museum, 161 Essex St., Salem. For more information, visit pem.org.

PEM’s “Asia in Amsterdam” Exhibit is a Feast for the Senses

 

Shelley A. Sackett

 

“It started with spices from Asia…” reads the inscription above a display of glass columns of cinnamon, clove and peppercorns that greet the visitor to “Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age”, the latest world-class exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum. And indeed, the 200 extraordinary examples of paintings, textiles, ceramics, silver, lacquerware, furniture, jewelry and books would never have found their way from their native Asia to 17th century Dutch households were it not for the spice trade that originated in Amsterdam and single-handedly created the Dutch Golden Age.

 

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The “Golden Bend” in the Herengracht, Amsterdam, 1671-1672. Gerrit Adriansz. Berckheyde.

 

The exhibit, five years in the making and co-organized by the Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam, runs through June 5. PEM is the exclusive U.S. venue. Founded less than a year apart – in 1798 and 1799 – the Dutch and Salem museums boast world-renowned Asian export art collections inextricably linked to early international trade, and pieces from both collections form the backbone of the exhibit.

 

 

Thanks to the painstaking work of a team of 35 talented PEM staff members, “Asia in Amsterdam” navigates the complex story of the transformative influence Asian luxuries had on Dutch art and life in bite-sized chunks. Combining lessons in history, sociology, economics, arts and crafts, the galleries are logically organized to tell a seamless story. The animated maps, interactive digital displays and short films add a deeper access to the material.

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Cellaret. Batavia (Jakarta, Indonesia), with flasks from Arita, Japan, 1680-1700. Calamander with silver mounts and velvet lining, and porcelain.

It all started with pepper, nutmeg and cloves and the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC) that was set up in 1602 to import them from the Maluku Islands in Indonesia back to the Netherlands. Before long, the VOC was the most powerful and largest trade and shipping company in the world, employing more than 400,000 Dutch and other European and Asian workers. The exhibit minces no words about VOC’s relentless and, at times, ruthless pursuit of profit at the expense of the local people. The toll of human suffering casts a dark shadow over these sparkling jewels.

 

Soon, in addition to spices and tea, the VOC began importing costly textiles, porcelain, lacquer and silver from China, India, Japan, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. For the austere Dutch Protestants, who were used to eating from heavy stoneware and wearing drab wool and linen clothing, the introduction of gossamer thin brightly colored Indian cotton, feather light and elegant Chinese porcelain and elaborate lacquered coffers inlaid with mother of pearl and other exotic materials suddenly turned their monochromatic world into Technicolor. Amsterdam quickly became the seat of global economy and enormous wealth.

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Cotton embriodered with silk and metal-wrapped threads. Palampore. Deccan, India, 1710-1750.

 

“One can only imagine the delight and amazement that these imports must have inspired in the Netherlands,” said Karina Corrigan, PEM’s H.A. Crosby Forbes Curator of Asian Export Art. Gallery after gallery is chockfull of examples of the lavish Asian imports the Dutch consumer suddenly couldn’t live without. Paintings by Dutch artists illustrate how the wealthy incorporated these sensual delights into their everyday lives. Fashionable Dutch men wore silk Japanese robes, Dutch women hosted elaborate Chinese tea parties, and room after room of wealthy Dutch households boasted the items on display. Many built special “porcelain display rooms” to show off their collections. Even Rembrandt van Rijn was “a phenomenal shopper”, collecting Asian objects and Indian miniature painting, which inspired many of his drawings and etchings.

 

Perhaps the best (and most amusing) example of the new European opulence and swagger is a sumptuous lacquer crate inlaid with mother of pearl that opens to reveal a portable commode, complete with red velvet and gilded mounts. Built in the 17th century and later modified in France, it found a special niche at the Chateau de Versailles.

 

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Paulus Moreelse. “Portrait of a Young woman”, about 1620.

 

Another example of the colossal obsession with materiality is Paulus Moreelse’s “Portrait of a Young Woman.” Apparently, his young unknown subject (rumored to be port of the court of the House of Orange-Nassau) couldn’t decide what to wear for this portrait, causing her severe anxiety lest she appear too austere. The diamond brooch from India with its 208 gems hopefully set her young mind at rest.

 

 

The array of objects and their sensual allure is at times overwhelming. While the exotic and intriguing imports reflect the VOC’s global reach and the Dutch voracious appetite for its bounty, “Asia in Amsterdam” doesn’t simply admire these objects. It goes one step further, examining their revolutionary impact on the Dutch imagination and way of life in an unobtrusive but instructive way.

 

As Amsterdam’s status as the epicenter of global trade grew, so did its prosperous population, and innovations that reached into all facets of life both in Europe and throughout the world followed. With so much porcelain in the Netherlands, even common people could afford to use it daily. Asian spices both brightened Dutch palates and revised how Europeans treated illnesses. Amsterdam became the center of the publishing world, growing from one publishing house in 1570 to 129 by the year 1670. Dutch books, sold throughout Europe, fueled curiosity about the wider world, especially Asia.

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Covered Bowl. Jingdezhen, China. Porcelain.

 

Dutch artists and artisans appropriated the material Asian culture, representing it in still-life paintings, delftware and furniture. Dutch design of textiles, silver and lacquer were not far behind.

 

 

 

The “Thought Leaders” section of the exhibition is particularly interesting. It considers the ramifications of exposure to the worlds of far off places, including their peoples, plants, animals, religions and medical practices, on Dutch scholars. Adding a soothing musical layer is “The Golden Dream: 17th Century Music from the Low Countries,” by the Newberry Consort with Marion Verbruggen and Paul O’Dette, which plays in the background.

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Cradle. Coromandel Coast, India, 1650-1700. Ebony and Ivory.

 

The exhibit ends as it began, with contemplative words painted on a wall. “At certain times, great achievements in art, science and commerce come together to define a golden age,” it reads. Against a backdrop listing Renaissance Florence, Mughal India, the Tang Dynasty and 1920’s New York City, it asks the visitor to consider where and when the next big movement might come.

 

To think, it could all start with something as small as spices.

For more information, go to pem.org.

 

Native Fashion on the PEM Runway

 

 

When Karen Kramer, Peabody Essex Museum’s Curator of Native American and Oceanic Art and Culture, went to Santa Fe’s annual Indian Market, a traditional Native American juried show, she sensed there was a new, exciting movement afoot. It was edgier, unexpected and non-ceremonial.

 

Instead of the usual fare of beadwork, basketry and textiles, she noticed a new trend in contemporary Native American art, especially around fashion. “What I was seeing was fresh, relevant and a little bit sexy,” she said. “Native American designers were updating traditional ideas and making them their own.”

 

She wanted to curate an exhibit to showcase these innovative, pioneering Native fashion designers whose high-energy works break traditional boundaries with materials and invention that go far beyond the stereotypic buckskin, feathers, beads and fringe. “Contemporary Native fashion designers are dismantling and upending familiar motifs, adopting new forms of expression and materials, and sharing their vision of Native culture and design with a global audience,” Kramer said.

 

Kramer’s dream is now a reality with her curated show, “Native Fashion Now”, at PEM through March 6. Over two years in the planning, it is the first full-scale exhibit to chronicle the contemporary Native American fashion movement over the past 60 years. The show features over 70 artists and after debuting at PEM, will travel for two years to Oregon, Oklahoma and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York City.

 

One of the most unusual aspects of “Native Fashion Now” is the fact that of the 74 artists exhibited, 71, or 95 percent, are living.

 

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Orlando Dugi (Dine Navajo). Photo by Shelley A. Sackett

 

With over 100 garments, shoes, pocketbooks, jewelry, scarves and accessories displayed on 40 mannequins, the exhibit feels like a Native American “Project Runway”- which, in a way, it is. Fans of the television show may recognize the white leather sheath dress that greets visitors on their arrival inside the exhibit. It is the one designed by Patricia Michaels, the Taos Pueblo artist who was the first Native American contestant on the reality TV hit show in 2013. The judges loved the dress, which Michaels hand painted with an abstract New York skyline.

 

Michaels is delighted that mainstream fashion lovers are embracing Native American design. “We don’t have to be stuck in this gunny sack look anymore,” she said with a smile. Kramer said that the groundbreaking Michaels’ work was the most fitting way to kick off the exhibition, and commissioned her to design the cascading parasols that lead up to the show’s entrance.

 

The exhibition’s four galleries — Pathbreakers, Revisitors, Activators and Provocateurs — reflect how designers respond to ideas and trends in the world of Native fashion. All take us to similar places, far away from buckskin and fringe, especially Provacateurs, whose departure from convention makes works that are experimental and one-of-a-kind.

 

Lloyd “Kiva” New, the Cherokee designer and first true “Pathbreaker”, blazed a trail with his delicate shirtwaist dresses. Their display pays homage to the designer’s 1950s creation of his high-fashion brand, the first Native American to do so. Their timeless style is just as fresh today.

 

Activators, who embrace an everyday, personal style that engages with today’s trends and politics, are represented in the third gallery by street wear, skates and a pop culture liveliness. Navajo Jared Yazzie’s bold T-shirt with “Native Americans Discovered Columbus” emblazoned on its front turns the familiar saying on its head by encouraging people to think about the truths of history.

 

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Pat Pruitt (Laguna Pueblo) and Chris Pruitt (Laguna Pueblo/Chiricahua Apache). Belt buckle, 2012. Stainless steel, silver,Teflon, turquoise, and coral. © 2015 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Walter Silver.

 

Jeweler and metal smith Pat Pruitt, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, was trained as a mechanical engineer and worked in the body piercing industry before starting to make jewelry in the 1990s. His use of non-precious metals, like titanium, zirconium and stainless steel, creates pieces that are radically different from the traditional Native turquoise and silver jewelry.

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Jewelers Kristen Dorsey (Chicksaw) and Pat Pruitt (Pueblo) at the PEM “Native Fashion Now” opening.

 

 

Pruitt told the story (repeated by most of the artists who were present at the show’s press opening) about how his creations were not allowed into Native American art shows because they were “not Native enough.” He praised Kramer’s vision in creating the opportunity to showcase the individuality of the Native designer in the context of their tribal identity. “The Native art world wants me to fit in with their stereotype,” he said, pausing. “But individuality and self expression is part of our tradition.

 

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Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock). Boots, 2013–14. Glass beads on boots designed by Christian Louboutin. Museum commission with support from Katrina Carye, John Curuby, Dan Elias and Karen Keane, Cynthia Gardner, Merry Glosband, and Steve and Ellen Hoffman, 2014.44.1AB. © 2015 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Walter Silver.

 

Although Shoshone-Bannock Jamie Okuma’s beaded boots, commissioned for the exhibition, are riveting in their intricacy and beauty, they are not focus of the “Revisitors” gallery, named for the artists’ fresh, new and expanded take on tradition. Rather, it is the two pieces by non-Native designers — Ralph Lauren and Isaac Mizrahi — Kramer included in order to spark conversation about cultural appropriation and borrowing that draw the audience’s attention.

 

“It’s a complex topic,” Kramer said, noting that some mainstreamers feel that certain Native American cultural icons should be off limits to non-Native designers. For example, Mizrahi’s flannel gown, embroidered as the totem pole that honors North West Native families, could be viewed as offensive by traditionalists. On the other hand, his use of a sacred Native icon could be viewed as mainstream fashion’s acceptance of Native American design, using new materials to update a traditional idea and create something entirely new. “It’s meant to open a dialogue,” Kramer explained, clearly delighted that her inclusion of the piece in the exhibit had already done just that.

 

While the dynamic and lively exhibit shines a light on what Kramer has called a “Native American fashion renaissance”, the real spotlight is on the individuality of these contemporary designers’ inspirations as they reference their tradition while transcending culture and stereotyping. “We can choose whether we present our culture in our art and what that art means to us,” said Pruitt. “PEM is a museum that recognizes individuality. They get it,” added Michaels.

 

Pictured at top:

Orlando Dugi (Diné [Navajo]). Cape, dress, and headdress from “Desert Heat” Collection, 2012. Paint, silk, organza, feathers,beads, and 24k gold; feathers; porcupine quills and feathers. Courtesy of the designer, Sante Fe. Hair and makeup: DinaDeVore. Model: Julia Foster. Photography by Unék Francis.

Native Fashion Now runs through March 6 at the Peabody Essex Museum, 161 Essex St., Salem. For more information, visit pem.org.

 

 

“Strandbeests” on the Loose at PEM’s Groundbreaking New Exhibit

By Shelley A. Sackett / salem@wickedlocal.com

Americus Umericus, Scheveningen beach, Netherlands (2009). Courtesy of Theo Jansen. Photo by Loek van der Klis.

SALEM

When the Peabody Essex Museum’s Trevor Smith encountered Dutch artist Theo Jansen’s jaw-dropping Strandbeests (“beach animals”), he knew he had to bring them to PEM. Like most people, Smith first saw them on the Internet, “walking” sideways on Scheveningen Beach in The Hague. He was hooked on the spot.

“I wanted to show what makes perpetual motion possible and that there is great inspiration in the world,” Smith said. “We all have ideas; we all have creativity. Theo is the poster child for Present Tense Initiative. He is the personification of the blending of the arts.”

The PEM’s Present Tense Initiative, curated by Smith, celebrates the central role that creative expression plays in shaping the world today, and pushes the boundaries of what a museum experience can be.

Four years in the making, “Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen” opens on Saturday, Sept. 19 and is the first large-scale presentation of Jansen’s Strandbeests in the U.S. With its multi-sensory approach that invites touching and playing, it is a must-see exhibit for all ages.

“I wanted an exhibit that would be hands on and contemplative with zones of the intellectual and experiential, which I hope will translate to our audience,” said Smith. With multi-media displays, large-scale kinetic sculptures, artist sketches, immersive video and photography by Lena Herzog, the Russian photographer who spent more than seven years documenting the Strandbeests’ evolution, Smith’s goal is exceeded.

Trevor Smith (left), PEM Curator of the Present Tense, and Theo Jansen, creator of Strandbeests. (Shelley A. Sackett)

Trevor Smith (left), PEM Curator of the Present Tense, and Theo Jansen, creator of Strandbeests. (Shelley A. Sackett)

Jansen defies pigeonholing. He is a magician, a physicist, an artist, an engineer, a philosopher, a theologian, and a choreographer, and he calls on all these personae to create his kinetic universe where pistons, crankshafts and complex leg systems transform inert plastic tubing into living beings that dance at the ocean’s edge.

Using lightweight PVC, which is common in Dutch households, and zip ties, Jansen has invented a new species that he describes as “migration animals that have a lot of patience.” Visitors marvel and empathize with these fragile, skeletal creatures that capture imaginations and pull at heartstrings.

Twenty-five years ago, Jansen, wearing his physicist’s hat, set out to design a machine that could pile sand onto the Dutch eroding coastline. The utilitarian project was meant to take one year. Instead, his Strandbeests hit a very deep chord in Jansen’s psyche, reminding him of the origins of life and inspiring him to create an entire new species, complete with life cycles, evolutionary adaptations, fossil records and, despite their Star Wars appearance, deep roots in reality.

The author with one of the many hands-on exhibits (John Andrews/Social Palates (socialpalatesphotography.com)

The author with one of the many hands-on exhibits (John Andrews/Social Palates (socialpalatesphotography.com)

“I dreamed that I would give a new specimen to the world,” Jansen told members of the press at a preview of his exhibit. Normally, evolution takes millions of years to occur, but Jansen recently decided to share the genetic algorithm (the Strandbeest’s DNA, which he refers to as his “holy numbers”) that he created on his Atari computer in order to speed up and enrich the process.

“Thousands of students have been making Strandbeests since I published the DNA on the website. That’s how Strandbeests reproduce and survive the wind; they are sitting on students’ shelves,” Jansen said with the seriousness of a biology professor. “These mutants that are created by students might reproduce faster than mine, discovering a solution to survival on the beach.” He estimates that over the next 20 years, the animals will evolve to a point where they can exist on their own.

When Jansen talks about his creatures, the line blurs between fantasy and reality, invention and nature. His Strandbeests are “like my children. You create them, you nurture them, and then you kick them out of the house to live their own lives,” he said with a hint of a smile. He has created a phylogenetic family tree and evolutionary periods with names like the Strap Period, the Hot Period and the Less Hot Period. If Theodor Seuss Geisel had been an engineer, he might have been team-teaching with Jansen.

At the end of the presentation, Jansen stood in front of one of his Strandbeests and in what was the evening’s greatest understatement said, “You can see that I’ve been working hard the last few years.”

Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen opens Sept. 19 at the Peabody Essex Museum, 161 Essex St., Salem. The exhibit will run through Jan. 3, after which it will travel to the Chicago Cultural Center and San Francisco’s Exploratorium. For more information, visit pem.org/strandbeest.

PEM Thomas Hart Benton Exhibit a Dramatic Slice of Americana

“Hollywood” — The 1937-38 Life magazine commission is the centerpiece of the Peabody Essex Museum’s exciting new exhibit.

For Thomas Hart Benton, history was not a scholarly study, but a drama. The bold and ambitious artist was, at heart, a terrific storyteller who could connect his audience to characters. His medium was painting and his subject matter was anything identified with American culture, from Native Americans and the Wild West to the Jim Crow South to Hollywood and its glamorous movie industry. The not-to-be-missed new show at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem takes a multi-media approach to a most remarkable artist’s work and life.

Benton (1889-1975) was born in Missouri where he served as a congressman before leaving to attend the Art Institute in Chicago, later moving to Paris to continue his studies. His first major mural series, “American Historical Epic,” retold America’s history through his uniquely satirical, provocative and serious eye. Although it was a commercial failure (he had painted it on spec), it established him as an artist capable of producing large public works.

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“Self Portrait with Rita” — The self-portrait of Benton and his wife that made the coveted cover of Time magazine in 1934.

His self-portrait with his wife, Rita, landed Benton on the cover of Time magazine in 1934 and skyrocketed his career. The painting, which greets the visitor at the exhibit’s entrance, is quintessential Benton. The modeled figures pay homage to the Italian Renaissance masters, whose methods Benton adopted by making clay models and painting from them in his studio. The couple expresses the ultimate modern American identity: modern, outdoorsy, and dazzlingly stylish. Yet there is something aloof in their gazes and Benton’s faceless watch leaves the viewer wondering what might be amiss.

His provocative and gifted paintings (and the fact that he had adorned its rival’s cover) caught the eye of Life magazine editors, who commissioned him in 1937 to spend a month in Hollywood preparing for a “movie mural” which would be the centerfold of its issue about the glitzy new industry. The painting is the centerpiece of the PEM exhibit’s most entertaining section devoted to all things cinematic, including clips of movies (“Last of the Mohicans”, “America”, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “The Big Trail”, and especially, “Grapes of Wrath”) for which Benton painted the official publicity poster.

His tongue-in-cheek approach to the industry and his amazing power of observation are a delight to behold. His attention to wacky details and ability to generate emotion while telling an engaging story create compelling images that border on caricature, much as the movies of that era did. Nonetheless, upon closer inspection of the captivating painting, it becomes clear that Benton was more interested in telling the stories of the ordinary people behind the scenes rather than those of the screen stars.

Within a single career, Benton embraced many styles and immersed himself in many genres, all on display in the informative and expertly staged exhibition. The modern mythmaker explored the macho, grotesque violence of World War II with a style akin to Marvel Comic superheroes and super villains. He also portrayed the innocence and optimism of the young American boys shipped overseas to confront those demons. His renditions of the plight and contributions of the “modern Negro” tell tales of slavery, romance and jazz.

Between 1946 and 1975 Benton completed nine more murals. He was in the midst of finishing his last commission for the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville when he died at age 85.

“American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood” runs through September 7.

Finding Hope Against Hope

Samuel Bak’s new exhibit is a stunning collection of oil paintings in which the letters “H.O.P.E.” appear in various states of prominence and entirety, sometimes hidden amid bits and pieces of broken bottles and pottery, sometimes clearly visible. Bak’s complex, vibrant paintings address, in his words, “the problem we all share in searching for Hope when it is so difficult to find.” 

“Hope — how did I get there?” the child prodigy and Holocaust survivor rhetorically asked in his preface to the show’s catalog. If there are pictures worth a thousand words, he reasoned, “aren’t there words worth thousands of pictures?”

The show at the Pucker Gallery on Boston’s Newbury Street is as rich in allegory and metaphor as it is in color and texture. Huge fruit, mostly pears, appear in bewildering forms and situations. They are made of metal, stone and wood. They are blue, orange and red. They borrow their identity from cups and vases, shifting from the familiar to the unfamiliar. And yet, each remains unmistakably identifiable.

Bak first painted pears when he was preparing for a big show in Paris during the 1960’s. “I suddenly realized that the pear can be used for all kinds of things that bring different thoughts with them,” he said. For example, the pear brings to mind the female form. It also, according to Bak, can symbolize the limitation of human knowledge. “No one really knows what was the fruit of knowledge,” chuckled Bak, who admitted that, as a child, he disliked apples and that the pear was his favorite fruit.

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“I try to extract whatever I can from a single object,” he said, revealing that returning again and again to the same subject allows him to go deeper into a theme, like a composer whose improvisations create new works based on a single musical theme, such as Bach’s “30 Goldberg Variations.” “My imagination is not surreal; it is grounded in reality,” he added. 


An only child, Bak was born in 1933 to an educated, cultured middle-class family in Vilna. By age three, he was a recognized child prodigy painter. “At that age, I wanted to be a fireman or to sell candy, but little by little I got used to it,” he noted, adding he remembers loving painting and making his parents proud.


At seven years old, on the day after his first day of school, Bak and his family were deported to the Vilna Ghetto. At the age of nine, he had his first exhibition, inside the ghetto. When the Russians liberated Vilna, he and his mother were among its two hundred survivors from a pre-war community of between 70 and 80 thousand. They spent from 1945 until 1948 in German displaced person camps, immigrating to Israel in 1948. His second day of school was in Israel, at age 15. “That’s how it was. My times were not normal when I was young,” Bak said, shrugging.

He lived and worked in Tel Aviv, Paris, Rome and Lausanne, before settling in Weston in 1993. The Pucker Gallery had represented him since 1967, when an Israeli art dealer showed Bernie Pucker some of Bak’s work. “It is a kind of marriage,” Bak said, pointing out that such long relationships between artist and gallery are extremely rare.

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Under the Arches

Bak is keenly aware of the role the Holocaust has played in his choices of subjects and themes. His imagery reveals survival and suffering, reconstruction and destruction, hope and despair. His paintings are full of bits and pieces of broken objects that have been put back together in sometimes disturbing fashion. His choice of the theme “bits and pieces” is deliberate.

“After the Holocaust, despite the fact that each one of them was haunted by ghosts, the survivors put up an appearance of a certain normalcy, of something that was almost reconstructed but that was intrinsically broken inside,” Bak began.

He continued, “This became the very big subject of my paintings. It means to describe the reality of bringing up an old memory of something that cannot be completely repaired. My paintings are made out of bits and pieces, like the lives of these people.”


Although Bak has been compared to Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize-winning author, he identifies more with writers like Primo Levi, the Italian survivor who wrote, “If This Is A Man” and “If Not Now, When”?

“For me, the Holocaust was more of a universal kind of experience. It was a laboratory of human behaviors that showed the extremes of the destructive powers of humans harming each other…For Elie, it is a more Jewish specific drama,” Bak explained, adding, “We speak of the human condition in very different terms. I speak of the terrible with a greater degree of irony and humor. He goes at it more directly.”

Besides, noted Bak, he speaks in images and Wiesel speaks in words. “I was told, ‘You are the Elie Wiesel of painting,’ but there is no such thing.”

PEM’s Calder Exhibit a Dance in Slow Motion

Peabody Essex Museum’s exclusive East Coast presentation of “Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic” is everything an art exhibit should be. It is welldesigned, sensually pleasing and intellectually stimulating. The 40 pieces by one of the most influential and innovative artists of the 20th century reinforce PEM’s commitment to American art and celebrate Alexander Calder’s contribution of single-handedly transforming what would be thereafter thought of as “sculpture.”

Visiting the show is like entering an elegant abstract landscape, one where shadows have mass and gravity is irrelevant. The theatrical, dancing mobiles, which Calder invented, and stabiles (grounded pieces that still move) activate time and space in a way that creates an atmosphere of performance. Background avantgarde music by such composers as John Cage adds to the multi­sensory experience.

Calder was raised in Pennsylvania and his family included accomplished sculptors. He travelled to Paris frequently during the 1920’s and 30’s, befriending such surrealist and abstract artists as Joan Miro, Jean Arp and Marcel Duchamp. When he saw Piet Mondrian’s paintings, which only used primary colors, Calder exclaimed, “I would like to do that, but I would like it to move.”

Trained as an engineer, Calder became fascinated by the challenge of liberating sculpture from its historical limitations. His goal was to take the static, hollow, pedestalled medium and reinvent it. “Just as one can compose colors or forms,” Calder said, “so one can compose motion.”

Calder started working with wire in 1930, and the gallery’s first pieces explore his development of mobiles, ethereal works that create lines in space and, thanks to the superb lighting design, moving shadows. Many of the works, such as a trilogy of mobiles mounted in front of colored panels, are owned by the Calder Foundation N.Y. and are rarely exhibited.

“Little Face” is a choreographer’s delight, untethered parts creating a cohesive whole. Calder’s engineering genius is evident in his knowledge of the precise weight and density of each black piece that would counter the elements above and below.

From the magical, slow wake of the mobiles, one next explores his stabiles. Moving more slowly, subtly and quietly than the mobiles, their effect is one of benevolent creatures that happily invite the viewer to connect emotionally.

The exciting “Un effet du japonais” is like an anthropomorphic animal dance, its three legs stationary, its two arms poised, ready for the frenzy a puff of air would create. “Southern Cross,” displayed nearby, is a blend of mass and weightlessness, of movement and stillness. The effect is spell-binding, and prompted Albert Einstein to remark, “I wish I’d thought of that.”

Before his death, Calder also revolutionized monumental sculpture constructed for large outdoor spaces. La Grande Vitesse, a landmark in Grand Rapids, Michigan, marked the first time the public embraced abstract sculpture.

Pictured at top: 2014 Calder Foundation, New York/Art Resource Un effet du japonais (1941)

Honky Tonk on Parade

There should be a jukebox tucked in the corner of Endicott College’s Manninen Center for the Arts Heftler Visiting Artist Gallery, one loaded with songs by the country music favorites whose portraits adorn the compact gallery’s walls. Dolly Parton, Bill Monroe, Loretta Lynn, Waylon Jennings and Doc Watson are all there, looking young and fresh and ready to break into toothy, foottapping song. “Honky Tonk: Portraits of Country Music” is a collection of 27 black and white photographs taken between 1968 and 2010 by Henry Hornstein, a 67-yearold New Bedford native who teaches photography and illustration at Rhode Island School of Design. His photos document the changing world of country music and its fans, and reflect his deep love for the music, its performers and its unique venues.

Horenstein describes how a Jewish kid growing up in New Bedford developed an interest in country music in the exhibition notes. He started hanging out in the “kid friendly” Melody Shop, New Bedford’s only music store, at age eight. He met folk singer Paul Clayton there, who recommended he buy “Johnny Cash Sings Hank Williams.” It was Horenstein’s first LP and he still plays that record.

When his parents moved to Boston during his high school years, he essentially took up residence at Cambridge’s legendary Club 47, hearing many different performers playing many different genres. His interest in photography blossomed as a junior history major at University of Chicago. Heeding the advice of his teacher, Harry Callahan, to “photograph people and places to which I was naturally drawn,” he took pictures in Nashville and Texas, in smoke-filled bars and hillbilly ranches during the 1970’s.

All along, he knew he wanted to preserve on film what he saw as a disappearing world of lesser honky tonks and country music parks. In 2012, he published “Honky Tonk: Portraits of Country Music,” a sumptuous collection of 120 black and white photographs he shot from 1972 through 2011, many of which are part of the Manninen exhibit.

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Waylon Jennings, Performance Center, Cambridge, 1976


What is most surprising is how well represented New England, and especially Massachusetts, is. There is Don Stover, a banjo picker from West Virginia, who came to Boston in 1952 and settled in Billerica. A 26-year-old Dolly Parton, looking like the poster child for the song, “Honky Tonk Angel,” posed in front of Symphony Hall before her debut concert there in 1972. Doc Watson, the North Carolina blind guitarist and singer who performed until his death at 89 in 2012, was memorialized at Cambridge’s Performance Center in 1974, as was the hard-living Waylon Jennings in 1976.

The Hillbilly Ranch in Boston was a favorite of Horenstein’s, and he photographed Tex Ritter there, as well as the regular patrons. Jerry Lee Lewis, at an old Baldwin piano, nonchalantly lights up a cigar at Boston’s Ramada Inn in 1976.

“A lot of people assume that country music is a Southern thing,” Horenstein wrote. “It isn’t. It’s everywhere.”

Honky Tonk” will be at Endicott College Manninen Center for the Arts through October 17. For directions and hours, go to endicott.edu/centerforthearts.

Pictured at top: Jerry Lee Lewis, Ramada Inn, Boston, 1976

 

 

52nd Street and All That Jazz

Billie Holiday’s unmistakably seductive voice singing “Fine and Mellow” lures the listener into Bowdoin College of Art’s second floor Shaw Ruddock Gallery. Stepping into the installation “On 52nd Street: The Jazz Photography of William P. Gottlieb” is like entering a time capsule into the 1940’s, when 52nd Street’s “Swing Alley” in New York City was the epicenter of jazz, and William P. Gottlieb (1917-2006) was its passionate chronicler.

The exhibit is a compact, deeply satisfying gem. The 40 vintage gelatin silver prints of jazz musicians in performance are accompanied by a continuous loop of nine classic songs from such masters as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Coleman Hawkins and Lionel Hampton. Gottlieb’s photographs capture the artists’ personalities with all the intimacy that close-up pictures provide. The narratives beside each photograph include Gottlieb’s descriptions of what he felt, shooting in the dark, densely packed confines of those smoky, heady jazz clubs. They also describe some of the innovative techniques he had to invent so he could shoot without a flash. His ability to remain unobtrusive is evident in the unguarded portraits he produced.

Known as “Mr. Jazz,” Gottlieb was born in Brooklyn and began writing a jazz column for The Washington Post during his senior year at Lehigh University. When the Post decided it could not afford to pay a photographer to shoot photos for his column, Gottlieb bought his own press camera and began taking his own photographs. Over the course of his career, he took hundreds of pictures of jazz musicians, four of which were the basis for U.S. postage stamps and 250 of which found their way onto record album covers.

A skilled craftsman, Gottlieb’s photos embody a natural empathy for and attraction to his subjects. He captures the personalities of the jazz musicians in a subtle, anecdotal way. “In my photographs, I try to say something visually that augments the written review,” Gottlieb said. In his iconic 1947 photograph of Billie Holiday, he wanted to capture “the beauty of her face and the pain in her voice.” It remained one of his favorite pictures.

“The Street,” according to Gottlieb, “was heaven on earth for jazz fans and musicians.” Bowdoin College Museum of Art’s exhibit is a little piece of that heaven on earth, at least until September 14, 2014.


Pictured at top: Billie Holiday, 1946 Photos by William P. Gottlieb and courtesy of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art

Unjust Rule of Law: Jewish Lawyers Under the Reich

Throughout their long diaspora, Jews have flourished when treated fairly and allowed to compete. Such was the case in Germany with the creation of the German Empire in 1871. Suddenly, Jews enjoyed full citizenship rights. At the same time, they gained access to a previously unavailable livelihood when the practice of law was delinked from the civil service. A private, independent legal profession swiftly emerged, and with their tradition of Talmudic discussions and analysis, Jews quickly found a new niche.

Up until the 1920s, the number of Jewish lawyers increased continuously and included women in their ranks. Subsequent generations took over the private practices of their fathers or started their own. In the big cities, the share of Jewish lawyers was higher than in smaller towns with a court. In Berlin, for example, on January 1, 1933 more than half of the 3,400 lawyers were of Jewish origin.

However, they did not identify as Jewish lawyers: they were German, lawyers and Jews, in that order. Many of them had been soldiers during the First World War; others had renounced their Jewish faith and some had even been baptized. In the area of jurisprudence, they contributed to the development of renowned legal journals and to the establishment of professional organizations.

All that came to an abrupt halt with the rise of Hitler and the dissolution of the democratic state. Overnight, Jews were excluded from all areas of social life. In March 1933, a decree was issued which refused all Jewish judges, public prosecutors and lawyers entry to the courts starting the very next day.

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The public is advised “Don’t go to Jewish lawyers” in 1933 Munich.

From 1933 until 1938, the National Socialists chipped away at Jewish access to the law. Finally, in 1938 all except a very few were banned altogether from practicing their profession. Those few could only act as “legal consultants” for Jewish clients. Essentially, there were no more Jewish lawyers in Germany. The Nazis had achieved their goal of making the legal profession “entjudet” (free of Jews).

“Lawyers Without Rights: Jewish Lawyers in Germany Under the Third Reich” is a sparse, densely informative exhibit jointly sponsored by the German Federal Bar and the American Bar Association. Since the fall of 2012, it has toured all over the world. With the support of the Vilna Shul, it is on display in the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse lobby through September 30.

Most of the show’s panels are devoted to the stories of individuals who lost their livelihoods, and in many cases their lives, during those darkest of times. These intimate portraits, and the fragile accompanying photographs and documents, are the heart and soul of the exhibit.

Margarete Berent’s story is one of perseverence. The 1914 dissertation on family law that she wrote to complete her law studies actually served as the 1958 model for the legal reform of inheritance and property laws in the Federal Republic of Germany. Berent was unable to practice law until 1919, when women were first allowed to take the bar exam. By 1925, as the first Prussian female lawyer, she had a thriving practice in Berlin. By 1939, she had fled to Chile, and by 1940 she was living in New York as a housemaid and postal worker. Undaunted, she went to New York University Law School at night and began working as a lawyer again in 1950, at age 63.

If the exhibit sounds dry and factual, that’s because it is. There is little excitement generated by posters on easels and trifold office wall mounts. Excitement, however, is not the point; contemplation and solemnity are. We mourn anew the senseless loss of our fellow Jews and reflect about a time when a nation completely abandoned individual rights and the rule of law. To do so in the lobby of a United States courthouse is all the more moving.

It may be a coincidence that Berent’s easel stands beside an inlaid panel of Daniel Webster’s famous quote, “Justice is the great interest of man on Earth. It is the ligament which holds civilized nations together.” Then again, it may not.

Go to lawyerswithoutrights.com for more information.

Pictured at top: Jewish lawyer Dr. Michael Siegel was forced to march through Munich barefoot after complaining to the police.