chicks & ducks & geese better scurry

XoloitzcuintleBeyond art and tchotchkes, Senora Olmedo had a diverse interest in living animals, too, such as geese, ducks, and peacocks, which she collected and kept in the gardens of her museum. And who doesn’t love a pretty peacock? However what I found most fascinating was the handful of endangered Xoloitzcuintles, a 3,000-year old native breed of hairless dog considered sacred by the Aztecs. (They believed the dogs were needed by their masters’ souls to help them safely through the underworld.) Initially I thought I was looking at a group of sleek and sinuous statues – until they moved.
xoloitzcuintlepea hens

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the fabulous life of dolores olmedo

Dolores-OlmedoDolores Olmedo had quite the colorful life. As a young girl from a working class background she caused a scandal when her family discovered that she had posed nude for the painter Diego Rivera. Forbidden to see the artist anymore, it wasn’t until many years later that their paths crossed again, by which time Olmedo had become one of the richest women in Mexico – both a successful businesswoman, philanthropist, and patron of the arts. Rivera was broke, close to dying, and concerned about his legacy. At his urging she went on a buying spree, amassing a major collection of the painter’s canvases in addition to works by Frida Kahlo, Diego’s wife, with whom Olmedo had a tempestuous friendship fraught with jealousy over Rivera’s affections. After Kahlo and Rivera’s deaths she bought a 16th century hacienda in southern Mexico City, which she later converted into a museum and shrine to her life of passionate collecting. Not only does the five-building complex hold her entire store of pre-Hispanic, colonial, folk, modern and contemporary art, but also the largest holdings of Kahlo and Rivera anywhere – and her private chambers, filled with extravagant displays of ivory and porcelain, showcase photos of Olmedo with virtually every famous person in the world.

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mucho mundo

muchoMucho Mundo Chocolate is the first museum in Mexico dedicated to enhancing the experience of chocolate – as if chocolate needed any help. But beyond the purely hedonistic aspects of consumption, the museum puts chocolate in a historical context, tracing its origins back to the Mayans, who first fermented the seeds inside cacao pods and used them to create a hot bitter drink we’ve come to know as chocolate. The favored drink of kings and priests, it was considered food fit for the gods. When the Aztecs gained control over the Maya, cacao seeds were elevated to the level of currency, making drinking chocolate a luxury few people could afford. The arrival of Spanish conquistadors brought chocolate to a wider European audience, yet is still remained a product almost exclusively consumed by the wealthy until industrialization brought about the arrival of solid, mass-produced chocolates. Today we take the ubiquity of chocolate for granted, but a demonstration in Mucho’s test kitchen made clear to me how labor intensive making chocolate the Mexican way once was: first you heat the metate, a traditional grinding stone, while shelling as many roasted cacao pods as you need. (Hint: more than you think.  Roasted cacao seeds are as addictive as cocktail peanuts.) Then grind them on the metate by flicking your wrists with a mano, an elongated pestle. Add a handful of raw almonds to the mixture – their natural oils will slowly release and bind the cacao together – and a sprinkle of cinnamon and sugar. After a bit of sweat you’ll have a crumbly paste, which can be added to water to make drinking chocolate, or serve as the base for baked goods and, after further processing and tempering, chocolate bars. I scooped up a bag of the crumble and munched on it as is; savory, slightly sweet and spicy, it was a tart reminder of why I hate milk chocolate: the fat in dairy dilutes the pleasing bitterness of the cacao. Which, I guess, is why the world is divided between devotees of milk and dark chocolate. On some things we must agree to disagree, however; after experiencing the effort involved, I won’t pop a truffle into my mouth with casual disregard again.

mucho metate

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jose clemente orozco

san iledefonso collegeIf you think of Mexico and 20th Century painting, it’s only natural that your mind gravitates toward the power couple, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Their politics and personal stories have become a mythology entwined within their art – often superseding it. (And much more about them later.) Yet amongst Rivera’s contemporaries, Jose Clemente Orozco was often considered the more gifted artist. A social realist painter, Orozco specialized in bold murals that established the Mexican Mural Renaissance along with Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Yet before my arrival in Mexico City I had never heard of him.  That changed rather fortuitously at San Iledefonso College, a museum and cultural center in the historic center of the city, where the painter’s epic frescoes grace three floors of courtyard walls and stairways. In the 1920s, soon after the Mexican Revolution, the government sponsored mural paintings with themes centering on Mexico’s history and politics of the post-Revolution era, but Orozco – in a marked distinction from Rivera – was highly critical of the Revolution, and used his art to examine the bloody toll the movement took on ordinary Mexicans as it lined the pockets of both the upper classes and the church. Influenced by Symbolism – and satire – the politically committed painter takes on the history of human suffering from the time of Cortes’ conquest: the landscapes are somber, the working classes are oppressed, death is dignified and anonymous, the privileged bourgeois is distorted, the revolutionaries are blinded by revolution. Beyond form and composition these are not necessarily always aesthetically pleasing works of art but, wow, there’s no denying their power.

jose orozco

Stairwell Orozco

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main street carcassonne

carcassonne panoramaLooks can be deceiving: Carcassonne is not a castle. Surrounded by almost 2 miles of fortifications it’s the largest walled city in Europe. The first signs of settlement in this region of Languedoc date to about 3500 BC, but things didn’t take off until the Romans identified the hilltop site as strategic and started building fortifications. Next came the Visigoths, who expanded the fortress into a fiefdom – until the Papacy stuck its nose in. Pope Urban II arrived to bless the foundation stones of a new cathedral and turned the growing city and its environs into a secondary seat of church power – all the better to launch a crusade against the pesky Cathars, a religious group which rejected Catholicism as the Church of Satan. Holy war, as we all know, is very good for business. More ramparts went up, dungeons were built, and towers were erected to house the Inquisition. Carcassonne became a border citadel between France and Spain that remained unconquered until the 17th century, when an economic revival under Louis XIV trumped the city’s military significance. In truth Carcassonne wasn’t so much conquered as absorbed into a burgeoning colonial empire. Cite de Carcassonne, as it’s now called to distinguish it from the modern-day town of Carcassonne down the hill and over the river, is no longer a functioning city – technically. Yet it’s been restored to varying degrees of authenticity in an example of artistic simulacrum. Populated with shops, hotels, and tourists eating ice cream at outdoor cafes, the city appears at first glance authentic. But not unlike Disneyland’s Main Street USA, it’s all a facade. And yet I have to give someone serious props because it’s an awfully good one at that.
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carcassonne

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moliere is everywhere

moliere is everywhereThough by all accounts playwright-actor-stage manger Moliere spent only a few years of his early artistic life in Pezenas, the small Sud de France town has adopted him as though he were a native-born son. (Without benefit of a beach or other tourist attraction, you can’t really blame them for doing what they have to do.) There’s the Hotel Moliere, of course, and a public monument to the writer in the center of town. (The only one outside of Paris, people are quick to tell me.) In the local museum a chair used by Moliere while he was in residence is proudly displayed – a gift of cultural patrimony purchased by villagers who banded together to rescue the relic at auction.  A summer festival of his plays is one of the big cultural draws.  And though I cannot vouch for the quality of the drink produced, there is even Les Caves Moliere for anyone who likes their wine a bit on the theatrical side. Note to marketing gurus everywhere: even the most tenuous of connections can be made charming when executed with Continental panache.

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playing hooky with james turrell

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walks along the seine

paris plageThe banks of the River Seine in Paris might be a UNESCO World Heritage site, but that historical marker hasn’t stopped the city from indulging in a little creative adaptation. This summer the city’s ongoing initiative to reclaim the river comes into its own. Les Berges, literally The Banks, is part of Mayor Bertrand Delanoë’s greater plan to reduce car traffic and increase “soft” methods of transportation. (Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Sadik-Kahn, take note.) Transit options like the Velib bicycle share program and the Autolib electric car sharing form one pillar of the plan. Pedestrianization of the banks of the Seine and of Place de la République are another. Cultural programming and spot infrastructure aim to bring people back to the river, while activating sites with new functions: the Georges Pompidou highway, on the right bank, has been transformed into an urban boulevard in an attempt to share the public space between motorists and pedestrians; the Left bank quays, between the Royal Bridge and the Alma Bridge, have been closed to traffic and turned into an 11-acre promenade. What makes the plan unique, aside from the macro strategy involved, is a requirement for flexibility: temporary structures must be capable of being moved, extended if popular, taken down quickly if ineffective. This applies even to large-scale proposals like The Emmarchement, a 600-seat amphitheater which links the Musee D’Orsay to the river and serves as the starting point for an immersive riverside walk. (Flexibility is also useful for environmental reasons. Paris is overdue for its “100-year flood,” which last crippled Paris in 1910.) Some portions of Les Berges will become part of the programming for this year’s Paris Plage, the popular annual beach that takes over the banks of the Seine between July and August. (Originally criticized as an excess of public expenditure, the Plage has become a beloved tradition, expanding to three different areas along the river.) Another part of Les Berges includes a series of floating barges called Archipel, which opened next to the Sewer Museum in late June. The five barges are planned in accordance with the biodiversity map of Paris. The semi-aquatic vegetation between the barges cleans the banks of the Seine while the landscaping offers different opportunities for the public to experience the space. Each island barge – archipelago, get it? – has a different theme with plants native to Paris. According to project’s website: For the lazy, the chairs of the island mists are waiting for you; for the wild, find the open aviary bird island; for the romantic, walk in the tall grass prairie of the island; for those seeking the country, sit in the shade of an apple orchard on the island. And for anyone interested in the future of what an urban experience could entail, walk along the banks of La Seine.

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like jellies that pass in the night

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a revolutionary bolthole

vid-s-terrasy-prezidentskogo-lyuksaHome to both royalty and revolution, Rocco Forte’s Hotel Astoria in St. Petersburg has unveiled an elegant, new Czar’s Suite as part of a multi-million dollar refurbishment timed to celebrate the hotel’s 100th anniversary. At more the 3,500 square feet it’s a far cry from the garret where John Reed penned Ten Days That Shook The World, his eyewitness account of the Russian Revolution. (In the early days of glasnost I had the serendipitous thrill of finding myself in Reed’s room, which more than made up for the cramped quarters; the bloody mob hit in the lobby … well, that’s a story for another time.) With a lounge overlooking St. Isaac’s Square and its glorious cathedral, a library stocked with Russian classics, and a fully equipped kitchen with a 16-seat dining room that doubles as a boardroom it’s not too hard to imagine what the Bolsheviks might make of such opulent surroundings. Antique pieces dating back to 1912, including gold lamps, candelabra, and red and gold striped arm chairs and sofas were returned to the hotel from President Putin’s Konstantinovsky Palace and installed in the suite alongside contemporary classic pieces, such as dramatic black and white prints of the Mariinsky, which – culture mavens take note – is as conveniently located as the nearby Hermitage. All that’s missing is the beluga.

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finding the reclusive clyfford still

20130520-074951.jpgThere are unknown artists and there are legendary masters. Rarely could one man be described as both. Abstract expressionist Clyfford Still, however, was one and the same. After a retreat from the art world in the 1940’s, he controlled who got to see his canvases – and how. But his influence on Pollack, Newman, and Rothko was profound. An eponymous museum in Denver maintains some 2,500 of his works – everything in Still’s possession at the time of his death. Seen collectively they give rise to the idea that Still was not merely a painter of individual artworks but the architect of a grand symphonic vision.

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big as all outdoors

Temple of Olympian Zeus

Though just fifteen columns of the original 104 are still standing, what remains of the Temple of Olympian Zeus is magnificent. Its scale is colossal, and when finally completed by the Roman Emperor Hadrian after 600 years of stop-and-start construction, the marble temple stood as the largest in both Greece and Rome. (During the years of Athenian democracy, the temple was left unfinished because the Greeks of that period thought it anti-democratic to build on such a scale. Aristotle cited the temple as an example of how tyrannies engaged the populace in great works for the state and left them no time, energy or means to rebel.) Size notwithstanding, there is a grace to the design: elegant in their symmetry, the fifty-five foot-tall columns are capped by ornate Corinthian capitals which seem to open up towards the heavens like flower buds  A 16th column blew over in 1852 and is still lying where it fell like so many dominoes, giving me the feeling that it’s much impressive as a romantic ruin than it ever could have been as a temple.

Temple of Olympian Zeus - fallen column

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burning up the ship

Cruise liner, Duke of Lancaster

Three monkeys dressed in suits crouch on bulging sacks of money, striking the pose of “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.” At more than 30-feet tall, the giant gangsta chimps are the size of a three-story building and joined on all sides by similarly fantastic and macabre creatures, from skeleton divers to slobbering pigs. Welcome to the Duke of Lancaster, an abandoned ship on the Dee Estuary in north Wales, which has become a canvas for some of the most renowned graffiti artists in Europe, including France’s GOIN and Latvian KIWIE. At a whopping 450-feet long and seven stories tall, the former British passenger ferry – built in the same Belfast shipyard as Titanic – is a haunted, rusted out sight. Graffiti collective DuDug approached the ship’s owners with the clever idea of turning the abandoned vessel into an arts destination. With their approval, artists from across Europe began spray-painting the decrepit ship with surreal artworks of punk geishas and bandit businessmen, using cherry pickers to scale the towering walls. DuDug is now campaigning to have the site opened to the public as the centerpiece of an arts festival. At the least, it would be the largest open-air gallery in the UK. If the organizers don’t manage to get anywhere with the local arts council, perhaps they should give the folks at Carnival a call. An open sea gallery off the coast of Italy might make a fitting end to their Costa Concordia troubles.

Duke of Lancaster grafitti

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pilgrim’s progress

Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels

If you’re in need of ennobling – and really, aren’t we all? – you could heed no better advice than to hightail it over to The Frick Collection. The museum is presenting the first monographic exhibition in the United States on the artist Piero della Francesca, a founding figure of the Italian Renaissance. Of the seven paintings on display, six are panels from the Sant’Agostino altarpiece – the largest number from this masterwork ever reassembled publicly – along with Piero’s only intact altarpiece in this country, the magisterial Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels. If you aren’t intimately familiar with the work of Piero – and I must admit my own ignorance on the subject – it’s likely due to two reasons: much of his recorded output has been either lost or destroyed, and the surviving works, being primarily frescoes, remain in situ, scattered among a handful of churches within the Tuscan triangle of San Sepolcro, Urbino, and Arezzo. Getting to know Piero demands a degree of pilgrimage - which only seems proper for an artist whose works revolves on religious themes. So, be thankful The Frick is as close as East 70th Street. It might not be an exhaustive survey, but there’s less voyage, more visit. Because visiting with Piero’s subjects is what you’ll want to do. His cool color palette and geometrical composition contributes to a refined and meditative nature. Piero was also a mathematical theorist, which makes perfect sense when you see the clearly defined volume of his figures and precision perspective. Balanced by a naturalism derived in part from his interactions with Flemish artists, Piero’s scenes exude a serenity, whether it be Saint John the Evangelist, Saint Apollonia, Saint Monica or The Crucifixion, which seeps into the viewer, and turns the seemingly simple act of looking a pictures into an offering of nobility.

St. Apollonia

The Crucifixion

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the names of the lost

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There is no escaping the killing fields of Cambodia: conservative estimates say there are some 20,000 mass graves scattered across the countryside, containing the remains of almost 1.5 million people murdered by the Khmer Rouge. It’s almost beyond comprehension until you visit one of the many memorials to the genocide and see the names of the lost – and so many empty faces, silently bearing witness.

the names of the lost

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