Letter from New York – Treasures from Dresden and lots of Picassos

By David D’Arcy

New York has come alive again, so there’s more art to see than anyone has time to visit or write.

Jan van Eyck, Portrait of an older man, ch. 1435–1440, silverpoint and goldpoint on white prepared paper. Photo: Herbert Boswank

One of the best shows currently playing is at the Morgan Library and Museum. Van Eyck to Mondrian: 300 Years of Collecting in Dresden would be a valuable exhibit if just one of these drawings were on display. The exhibition is more than that, much more, but a drawing by Jan Van Eyck (before 1390-1441) deserves your visit.

The photo is of a man in his 60s, with aging eyes and skin, bowl-cut hair (or so it seems) and a bulbous nose. He is dressed as a member of an aristocratic (lower-ranking) court. Think of this man more as a character actor than an early Renaissance leading man. With that in mind, you can see why an artist who mastered precision like van Eyck would have been drawn to all the peculiarities of such a face – not grotesque or dramatic or majestic, but real. It is the only surviving drawing that can definitely be attributed to van Eyck.

The man’s gaze is firm but weary. His lips are firmly pressed. The image is a paradox, a tour de force of the representation of a man at an ordinary moment. Drawn with metalpoint on thin paper, the features of the man are so finely modeled that the lines traced by the artist seem sculptural, like an improbable frieze on a flat stone slab. The painted portrait of the same man by Van Eyck is in Vienna.

Opposite this masterpiece is another memorable drawing, a self-portrait in black and red chalk by Anton Raphael Mengs, from 1740, when the artist was 12 years old. Cue Mozart’s comparisons. In this work of astonishing assurance, there is no indication that this portrait of a child – serious, anything but cute, and certainly not trying to please the viewer – was completed by a child.

There is an immediacy in Mengs’ image of himself, suggesting that the young artist was standing in front of a mirror, looking back and forth between the mirror and the paper he was drawing on. Here we see an impressive and seemingly effortless accuracy, but also the flair of delusion: Mengs tries to make himself look older than his 12 years. It would be another 11 years before Mengs became a senior court painter in Dresden, aged 23.

Dresden, which has one of the finest collections in Germany, has a tortured 20th century history. The museum and its drawing collections came under Nazi control after Hitler came to power, and the “degenerate art” of artists like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) came under scrutiny meticulous.

The show includes a drawing by Kirchner, known for announcing his intention to “draw to the point of madness”. In Bathers (1910-11), Kirchner drew nudes with a hard, raw line and frank, unapologetic sexuality – the very kind of figures the Nazis would condemn as “degenerate”. German museums were forced to sell this type of art. We wonder how Bathers escaped this fate.

The museum buildings in Dresden were destroyed during Allied bombings in February 1945 which killed some 300,000 people. Nazi officials moved the collections offsite, saving most of the works, but Soviet forces took the art away after taking the city. The art was returned (most) in 1956, partly in recognition of the East German government’s refusal to support the Hungarian uprising against Soviet occupation that year. Even with its art returned and galleries rebuilt, Dresden was part of a harsh East Germany, a country that was mostly off tourist routes until German reunification in 1990.

This story makes Head of a girl, in profile to the left, by AR Penck, circa 1963, deserves careful consideration. Created by Dresden native Penck (the pen name of Ralf Winkler, 1939-2007), this iconic androgynous head, which could just as easily be a boy’s as a girl’s, is more inspired by the Kirchner angular. grotesque than on the socialist realism mandated by the German Democratic Republic at that time. Some might see it as a harbinger of aliens taking over pop culture over the next decade. Penck, a young troublemaker denied access to top art schools, has managed to capture an aloof attitude in this seemingly inscrutable subject matter, the very attitude that officials would condemn. It’s a tribute to the curators that they acquired the design of an already suspect artist, at a time when doing anything suspicious could land you in serious trouble. And where would you see AR Penck today on a show with Jan van Eyck?

Pablo Picasso, Portrait of a sleeping woman, III [Portrait of Sleeping Woman, III]
Antibes, November 1, 1946.

Uptown, at Acquavella Galleries, another exhibition of drawings is devoted to the work of an artist, Pablo Picasso. An exhibition that covers Picasso’s long life would be impossible for all but a few American museums, but Acquavella, where former Met Museum director Philippe de Montebello now works, manages to pull it off by Picasso: seven decades of drawingthank you to the curator, Olivier Berggruen.

Nobody needs to be told that Picasso could draw. Its range will surprise even more than one here – tender portraits of lovers and images intended to shock these same subjects, exquisite surreal abstractions and homages to classical figures under the Mediterranean sun, scenes of colors and sumptuous faces (including an alleged late self-portrait) in the pallor of conflict and loss. Be prepared for an artist who was capable of almost anything. You can preview all 86 works on the gallery’s website, which is absolutely worth a visit even if you can’t make it to New York.

The exhibit at Acquavella, three blocks from the Met, is free. For some reason, the public did not throng the exhibition, unlike visitors when Picasso biographer John Richardson held extraordinary Picasso exhibitions (also with free admission) at the Gagosian Gallery. There’s no excuse to miss this show, which runs until December 3.

Oscar Bluemner, Red City, Montclair, NJ, 1917.

At The Art Show, the annual art fair hosted by the Art Dealers Association of America (November 3-7), exhibits tend towards the contemporary. The market seems to have come back to life – if you believe the dealers. However, the most remarkable, for me, were the works that were a little out of step with current trends. Oscar Bluemner (1867-1938), the German-born American modernist, gave up a 20-year career as an architect for painting. Bluemner is now best known for his frontal self-portraits and for his scenes of rural New Jersey landscapes and structures, with a penchant for bright reds so rich that he has been nicknamed “the vermillionaire.” Even with this palette, Bluemner’s paintings exude a powerful cold, European restraint applied to American subjects. The Menconi + Schoelkopf gallery is opening a Bluemner retrospective in New York this week.

Around the corner from The Art Show, sculptor Larry Bell was back, exhibiting geometric glass constructions, as many variations on the glass box the artist has been exploring for decades. Bell is now 81, an age at which few artists qualify as contemporaries. His new works, on display at the Anthony Meier Fine Arts booth in San Francisco, are what you might call desktop versions of his favorite motif. Critics would say Bell is doing the same thing. But the box, when Bell takes it apart and rearranges its elements, produces endless variations. The light passing through and reflecting the glass inspires an infinity of forms. The evidence was there.

A few booths away, at the David Tunick Inc. Prints and Drawings booth, a 1910 drawing of two women by Ernst Kirchner was an example of the artist’s practice at the time of sketching models who posed only 15 minutes. At the time, drawing caught up with the spontaneity of photography. On the same wall was The two mountebanks, a tiny framed print of two barefoot child acrobats (saltimbanques) by Picasso from 1905, the end of his Blue Period. The print is in black and white, signed and dedicated to the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, one of Picasso’s closest friends and most fervent defenders. Records indicate that the only other print of this work is in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. You can’t escape Picasso in New York right now. Life could be worse.

David D’Arcywho lives in New York, writes about art for numerous publications, including the art diary. He produced and co-wrote the documentary Portrait of Wally (2012), about the fight over a painting looted by the Nazis found at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.

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