Sunday, 31 July 2011

The discreet charm of neoclassical biedermeier interiors ... Rooms with a View ... from April / july 2011

Rooms with a View, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
By Ariella Budick

Published: April 14 2011 Rooms with a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century’ continues until July 4 2011
A view is a precious commodity in New York. Most of us gaze out of our windows at pigeons roosting in dusty airshafts, at neighbours fixed on flickering screens or, if we’re lucky, at buses and taxis huffing along noisy thoroughfares. So the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s quietly exhilarating Rooms With a View abounds in vicarious pleasure. It is both an airy escape into borrowed vistas and a deep meditation on the solace of walls.
The show covers a brief period and a slender subject: the open window, as rendered by German, Danish and French artists in the first half of the 19th century who embraced the theme as a multifaceted symbol of the veil between private and public life, culture and nature, domesticity and wilderness.
Marianne, the overwrought younger sister in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, spends much of the novel gazing through window panes: “She sometimes endeavoured for a minute to read; but the book was soon thrown aside, and she returned to the more interesting employment of walking backwards and forwards across the room, pausing for a moment whenever she came to the window.” In painting after painting at the Met, a solitary figure does the same, lingering in a halo of anxiety, contemplation, and desire.
That could almost be Marianne in a green room painted by Georg Friedrich Kersting in 1811 (the year of Austen’s novel), sitting at a desk and studying a vista we can’t see. Daylight suffuses the room, glossing her blond plait and the smock draped across her Empire gown. That might be her again in a glorious work by Caspar David Friedrich, leaning out towards the riverscape and a passing mast. Her face is hidden, but we see what she sees.
The window took centre stage after 1806 as northern European artists rejected the heroic narratives of the neoclassical era. In the wake of Napoleon, visions of ancient Greece and Rome gave way to humble interiors dappled with sunlight. The moment is always the present, the people – when there are any – do almost nothing but immerse themselves in the spectacle of life at home.
Friedrich more or less invented the genre in 1805, when he penned two sepia drawings of the view from his Dresden studio. They are, in effect, portraits of windows filtering the day’s gleam. It is true that Dutch painters had already bathed actions and half-completed thoughts in floods of light but, in those 16th-century scenes, illumination entered the room obliquely. Friedrich turned the window into the painting’s main subject and a ripe metaphor.
Windows let us survey the wilds of city and country from the safety of home and to witness transformations – the staining and drifting of leaves, the sprouting of new buds – from an unchanging lookout. They intimate adventure without risk. In Wuthering Heights, the quintessential romantic novel, windows separate life from death. Characters fling them open to die, ghosts pound against them to rejoin the living.
The best works here describe the barest chambers. In Wilhelm Bendz’s Copenhagen interior, furniture and occupants cling to the room’s periphery, while wide, rough floorboards roll across the empty centre. The mood is contemplative and companionable. Two brothers keep silent company in the luminous green space. One stands, elbows on a writing desk, gaze fixed on the wall. The other sits across the room, facing the same direction but inhabiting a separate world. Along the edges of the canvas, a smattering of objects offers clues to the men’s identities and inclinations. A hat with a red pom-pom testifies to one brother’s military career; a human skull hints that the other is a doctor.
Like so many interiors in the show, this is a portrait of a middle-class home – sober, spare, adorned by fragments of the great tradition. In the Danish brothers’ room, a plaster statuette of Naucides’ “Standing Discobolus” perches atop a bookshelf, a typical piece of household equipment from this period. A fragmentary marble foot dangles from a wall in Kersting’s “Man at His Desk”. A similar stump of a statue balances on the sill that gives on to Martinus Rorbye’s view of Copenhagen harbour. Busts, vases, and other classical tchotchkes disport themselves about sitting rooms and artists’ studios. Yet all this memorabilia gets shoved to the margins, suggesting the degree to which the power of antiquity has waned.
Early 19th-century artists, schooled in the Greco-Roman past but drawn to the rough immediacy of nature, used the window as a border zone between convention and experience. In their paintings, they could tame life’s unpredictability by framing it in a series of nested views. The window is a metaphor for the artist’s eye, which mediates and rearranges nature’s raw materials. The arts conspired to make wilderness bearable for audiences who preferred to keep their distance. Imagine one of these northern rooms in 1827, awash with lamplight on a winter evening. A few friends have gathered to play chamber music and the mellow notes of Schubert’s Winterreise reverberate off the planked floors, conjuring baying winds, crackling ice, and the cries of dogs and ravens. The cosy company experiences winter’s trauma through Schubert’s music, which filters and redeems the iciness outdoors.
By mid-century, when Adolph Menzel created his small, exquisite pictures of five empty rooms, the window no longer required either viewer or view. In “The Artist’s Sitting Room in Ritterstrasse” (1851), the curtains are drawn, admitting only a thin ration of light. As late romantics shifted their attention to the inner landscapes of the soul, Menzel displayed the imagination’s habitat: a warmly shadowed room that excluded the world’s corrupt distractions. The best thing about an open window, he implies, is that it can be closed.

Published: April 7, 2011 in New York Times
The first thing that distinguishes “Rooms With a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century,” a compact, quietly splendid exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is simply this: Its galleries have been painted a wonderful shade of oyster-grayish white. In the context of the Met, where the walls of special exhibitions tend toward plum, russet or evergreen, this pale, elegant hue is the visual equivalent of smelling salts.
Its head-clearing effect is the perfect start for a show of artworks permeated for the most part by a luminous light and a concomitant clarity of vision that regularly translates life’s daily pleasures — starting with looking out windows — into images of surprising formal rigor and emotional weight.
As the title implies, the show has a fairly specific theme. Its 31 modest paintings and 26 works on paper, borrowed from museums all over Europe, depict interiors with windows. Organized by Sabine Rewald, of the Met’s department of 19th-century, modern and contemporary art, the show explores the open window as a favored motif of certain Romantic painters — mostly German, Scandinavian or French.
It begins, chronologically, in the early 1800s with the great German Romantic landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich, and extends almost to 1860 with some presciently Impressionist works by the facile Adolph Menzel, also German. But the majority of its works fall between 1810 and 1830. As seen here, the window often is the focal point for a certain poignant, implicitly Romantic yearning, functioning as an interface between near and far, known and mysterious, private and public, art and nature. This yearning is especially tangible in Friedrich’s 1822 “Woman at the Window,” which shows his wife, her back to us, straining delicately to see out of a window narrowed by shutters.
The images in “Rooms With a View” range from cozy Biedermeier sitting rooms to vaulting studios at the Villa Medici in Rome and tend to convey a decidedly cosseted vision of life. You’d never know that parts of Europe were ravaged by the Napoleonic Wars and their aftermath for many of the years covered by this show.
Yet the works here may qualify as passively subversive. They determinedly say no to established authoritative statements: formal portraiture and large-scale history painting, or depictions of grand structures and even the stark or overwhelming landscapes characteristic of a more outdoorsy Romanticism, including Friedrich’s.
Instead the works here stay close to home, concentrating on the places and often the people the artists knew best, and resonating with intimate truths and internal logics of their own. The show sings with the satisfying visual rhyming of the four-square forms of windows, walls and rooms with the rectilinear format of canvas or paper. The geometries of everyday life echo the actual proportions of the works before our eyes, reinforcing and elaborating the act of looking.
Many of these images have the sweetness and modesty of photographs, whose rise was still years off when most of these works were made. Certainly they seem closer to photography in their realism and uninflected revelations of detail than to the interiors and genres scenes of the 17th-century Dutch paintings from which they descend, although they have an immediacy of detail and color that photography would not achieve until the early 20th century.
Each work presents an unpretentious, eminently habitable space that seems almost continuous with our own. Some rooms are depicted with one or more occupants — a standing couple, seemingly deep in conversation; a man sitting at a desk; a woman similarly situated, embroidering by an open window; another woman sewing at night, with one of the show’s few depictions of a lowered shade.
These particular events all transpire in small canvases painted from 1811 to 1827 by Georg Friedrich Kersting (1785-1847), a close friend of Friedrich’s who is not well known to American audiences. He seemed to specialize in images of self-knowing solitude and, represented by seven paintings here, is one of the show’s stars.
Other images brim with quiet companionship. In Wilhelm Bendz’s marvelous interior, the artist’s two brothers pursue their studies in a slightly disheveled room distinguished by vivid turquoise walls. You may want to live there, once they pick up a bit. In “The Family Circle” by the Danish artist Emilius Baerentzen from around 1803, we encounter a man, three women and a child in a sitting room whose window, draped in a light-infused translucent red curtain, reveals a view of sunbathed building facades that reads as a separate painting.
Other rooms are empty or nearly so, and often become the occasion for richocheting reflections of form and space caught in mirrors. This happens quietly in the grays of Kersting’s watercolor “Interior II” and flamoyantly in an ink-wash rendering by Johann Erdmann Hummel, where one-point perspective is exquisitely amplified by the pulsing geometries of carpet and ceiling beams. Many of the interiors are modest domestic spaces, a sitting room or small study. But a substantial number are artists’ studios, whether they overlook the Elbe in Dresden or St. Peter’s in Rome.
One of the show’s subtexts, in fact, is the way artists lived and worked and related to one another during this era, often by painting one another at work. For example, Kersting’s 1812 painting of the painter Friedrich Matthäi in his studio shows a slight, nervous man hunched over a small oil study on his easel; heavier lifting awaits in the form of a wide swath of pristine canvas extending from a roll of the material onto a towering white framelike structure.
One of the show’s rare self-portraits is a seductive study in creamy textures from 1817 that shows the young French painter Léon Cogniet, in his high-ceilinged room at the French Academy’s recently acquired Villa Medici in Rome, newly arrived and with his bags barely unpacked. Cogniet leans against his bed reading what Ms. Rewald identifies as a letter from home, while the lush landscape visible through an open window resembles a large oil study that he might soon paint. Seemingly suspended between action and indolence, art and bed, the world back home and the one outside his window, Cogniet perfectly captures his ambivalence.
According to Ms. Rewald, all this began with Friedrich, who gave a new emphasis to the window motif in some sepia drawings from 1805-6 that depict one or another of the beautifully proportioned windows, set in generous, round-topped niches, in his studio overlooking the Dresden riverfront. Two of these drawings hang in the show’s third gallery, and their stripped-down severity still startles. They have the kind of unstinting precision that Ingres might lavish on a drawing of an elaborately accoutered Parisian, yet they exalt nothing but the bare-bones form of the windows and the gentle light they admit to a plain room that we barely see. (Friedrich’s studio was frequently compared to a monk’s cell, an observation borne out by Kersting’s 1811 painting of his friend hard at work at his easel. )
These works remained with Friedrich for years, influencing artists who visited him — including some with studios in the same Dresden building and who depicted views through similar windows in works that are also in the show. In one of these the Danish artist Johan Christian Dahl — wanting to avoid copying his friend too closely — has replaced the distant harbor view in Friedrich’s drawings with a glistening Prussian palace that was actually several miles upriver.
The room-window-view equation turned out to be a satisfying, self-ordering arrangement that continued to attract painters, reaching an apotheosis of sorts — but hardly exhausting itself — in the art of Matisse. Over the course of this marvelous show, that equation is under constant adjustment. In addition to windows that look like paintings in their own right, some windows are mere blank rectangles; others expand the painting-within-a-painting concept until the room all but disappears.
These fluctuations, with illumination as the constant, offer support for the argument that painting may ultimately be about little more than the communication of some quality of light and space, however abstract or indirect. In “Rooms With a View” this communication is marvelously direct.

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