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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in a new light at the frick

Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert is the largest work on panel at the Frick Collection, the intimate public gallery housed in the former residence of industrialist Henry Clay Frick. Portraying the medieval saint who renounced earthly riches to embrace a life of poverty, simplicity and prayer, this particular painting belongs to a long tradition of legends centered on the life of Francesco of Assisi, who was close in time to the Italians of the Renaissance and hence often a central subject. Yet this image is unlike any other representation. For one, Bellini’s desert bears a striking similarity to the Tuscon hills. Moreover, barefoot with arms extended and ready to receive, the saint appears to be in a state of mystical transport, transfigured by a supernatural radiance that emanates from a thick impasto of clouds at the upper left corner of the canvas. All this and not a furry animal to be found. Almost. It’s a masterpiece of spiritual poetry, made even more vivid following a rehabilitative trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s conservation department. Currently occupying pride of place in the museum’s main gallery the painting can also be viewed up close in a way you’d never be able to experience in person: via high-resolution gigapixel photography courtesy of Google’s amazing new Art Project.

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goya’s last palette

The Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando is one of the more discrete and under appreciated museums in Madrid.  And that’s a huge plus to anyone exhausted from the unending crowds jostling for viewing space at the Prado or Rena Sofia museums.  The permanent collection includes a good number of masterworks, too, with particular attention paid to Zurburán, Ribera, and the drawings of Picasso, who was once a student at the Academy. Goya was a member from 1780 onwards and the Neoclassical building boasts thirteen of his paintings, including two self-portraits and the famous carnival scene known as the Burial of the Sardine. A series of six paintings grouped together as Children’s Games are perfect examples of the artist’s vivid and spontaneous style but what I found most intriguing – aside from the quiet – was a display of Goya’s last palette.

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zurburán’s answer to “when life hands you lemons…”

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say thyssen-bornemisza five times fast

Imagine being so outrageously wealthy that you run out of space to display your encyclopedic collection of art.  Then imagine convincing the government to spruce up the 18th-century Palace of Villahermosa so that you can establish your own museum – across the street from the Prado, no less -  and free up a bit of wall space at home.  In a nutshell, that’s the story behind the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, the legacy of steel magnate Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza and his wife, Carmen, a former Miss Espana and ex-wife of Lex “Tarzan” Barker. While the Prado allows you to focus in depth on the body of work from a number of great painters, the Thyssen gives you a stunning overview of art history from the Renaissance, to Flanders and France, German Expressionism, 19th Century North America, to Cubism, the Avant Garde and Pop Art. As if that were not enough, beginning in the late 1980’s local-girl-made-good Carmen started assembling her own collection of pictures.  So they built an extension to house the separate – yet complementary – Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, which while particularly rich in late- and post-Impressionists also covers the waterfront, so to speak. It’s all wonderfully eclectic to say the least – and small enough to be enjoyable while not overwhelming. I think what impressed me most of all was how expansively the collection delves into 19th century North American and Hudson River School painting.  (What a surprise to see the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington’s cook, Hercules.) We are so accustomed to revering the early European masters that it’s almost shocking to discover they could take any serious interest in our own pre-imperial culture.

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in prada at the prado

You could visit Madrid for the Museo del Prado alone and not leave disappointed, as few galleries in the world have as rich a collection of masterpieces. Drawn from the former Spanish Royal Collection, the walls of the 18th-century Palacio de Villanueva are adorned with more than 3,000 paintings by the great Spanish and European masters.  Goya and Velázquez may be the dramatic focal points, however, Ribera, Titian, Tintoretto, El Greco, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Zurburan – one of my favorites – somehow manage to share the spotlight. I must confess a prior ignorance of José de Ribera, the 17th-century Spanish painter who spent the majority of his professional life in Italy. Influenced by Caravaggio’s naturalism, he was one of the pillars on which Spanish painting was built. (who knew?) From landscapes and mythological scenes to portraits and religious paintings, Ribera was as precise and detailed as a draughtsman. His later works – like St. Sebastian below – are also stunning in their luminosity. And for me, a very fortuitous Madrid discovery.

 

 

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