Thursday, March 10, 2011

Taste and time

We have been doing what we do long enough now to observe an evolution in the public's architectural taste and thought it would be interesting to highlight a few of the watercolors that have come to the forefront over the years and examine why. Of course this has nothing to do with contemporary architecture but only applies to the range of historical subjects we treat, but with our exhibitions and through the sale of our note cards we've seen strong and definite trends develop and it's certainly worthwhile looking more closely into what lurks behind them.

From the outset, we have drawn the full range of traditional architectural styles: neoclassicism, baroque, rococo, Chinoiserie, neo-gothic, rustic, and exotic—a variety of building types: chateaux and pavilions; garden follies in the form of grottos, pagodas, trelliswork pavilions and tents—and the gamut of garden ornament: vases, ironwork, sculpture, fountains and other details.

The surprise favorite to appear from our first exhibitions at Didier Aaron—at least to me—was an unrealized project for an octagonally planned trelliswork pavilion designed in the early 1680s for Louis XIV's gardens at Trianon. Between us opinions were divided as to its architectural merits (I must admit I found it naive and awkward and bizarrely conceived—what a dark, dank, wretched spot the central fountain would have been, set under that huge expanse of roof). It took some time and persuasion for Bernd to convince me to include it in the show, and I grudgingly dubbed it "the Cheese Bell" because of its massive, baroquely curved, wood-shingled roof.
Bref, the Cheese Bell was a huge hit. It and another large watercolor were purchased immediately by a well-known Manhattan-based fashion designer and his wife and it could have departed with several other gallery visitors. (Oh, how we envy photographers, for whom an original constitutes an edition of eight prints!) A few years later, in the late House & Garden, we spotted the watercolors hanging prominently in the living room of their country house. We launched our note cards soon after the show and the image was far and away the bestseller of an already rather large collection and remained so throughout the late 90s.

Having been proven so thoroughly wrong, I wanted to fathom the mystery of the Cheese Bell's success. Well, it certainly evoked gardens quite powerfully with its forest-green trelliswork, and this led us to create several other treillage pavilions which surprisingly left the public indifferent. In fact one of them, a personal favorite for us both in design and execution, lingers inexplicably orphaned to this day, so obviously trelliswork was not the key to its popularity.

We had drawn several domed structures for the first show, the Cheese Bell among them, and this, along with the alchemy of the pavilion's other attributes, was the key to its appeal. People love domes. They give three-dimensionality effortlessly to the flat elevations we draw, which one gallery visitor summed up by remarking, "I love the rich perspective you've created with the dome." Of course an elevation is not a perspective, but the comment was perfectly true. I've also come to believe that domes subconsciously evoke the maternal breast—they are round, generous and comforting; not sharp-edged and rectilinear.

In general though, in the late 90s taste was evenly divided between pared-down neoclassicism and the most sober of Chinoiserie, represented by the Belvedere at Trianon (with its soft, low dome) and the Pagoda at Chanteloup, a picturesquely tiered stone building with a classically columned base.

With 911 all that changed dramatically. (As an aside, its aftermath was also devastating to the art world at all levels and it took long, difficult years for the public to regain its interest in art.) When the public did return, it delighted in the rustic and anything having to do with nature—intimations of a rural, arcadian past and evocations of earth and gardens. The most popular watercolors from that time were simple, small-scaled, approachable; a moss-covered, Medicis-form urn from the Château de Raray sums up the mood.

In the last few years before the Crash of '08 (just as it had on the eve of the French Revolution, it must be noted), interest in the exotic and in "imaginative" Chinoiserie simply exploded. Despite the implications of history repeating, this remarkable wave of enthusiasm has been gratifying as Chinoiserie has been an abiding interest of ours, and nothing captures this yearning for fantasy and escapism better than an unrealized project for a garden niche at Trianon designed for Marie-Antoinette. A bold, light-hearted, theatrical pastiche, this small, flamboyant structure has had a simply magical appeal.
In the past year, this watercolor, which has become iconic for us, has been replaced by another that has again surprised us much as the Cheese Bell did—a small neoclassical pavilion from the late 18th century that once stood in the gardens of the French estate of Romainville. Sun-struck, unassuming, flanked by orange trees in Versailles planters, it has gained steadily in popularity practically by stealth.
It is a dramatic shift in taste from exoticism to classicism, but the appeal of an intimate, almost miniature scale remains constant. The building is in no way unique and in fact is quite similar to several other small pavilions we have drawn, but this one has captured the imagination as the others have not. As to the why, we believe it is due to its approachability and human scale, to the solidity and reassurance of its simple form and the justness of its detailing, the openness suggested by its large, glassed, arched door and oblique windows, and to its unforeseen power of evocation—who would not want to spend a summer's afternoon in and about such a structure, especially today?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Charles Ryskamp

In January we received the Sotheby's catalogue for the auction of Charles Ryskamp's estate, handsomely illustrated and deeply melancholy and still something of a shock, this thick, elegant publication. Charles died almost a year ago now, on Friday the 26th of March 2010 and quite suddenly, as he had kept the true nature of his fatal illness from his friends, so typical of him, not wishing to cause a morbid fuss in his final days.

To see his drawings for sale wasn't discomfiting; he always said that art should go back into the world to benefit younger generations, but it was a curious feeling to see illustrated—and know that you could purchase—the crystal tumblers that he served gin and tonics in, or the silver plate that held the cheddar crackers that went with them, or the cherrywood cocktail table that it stood upon, or the armchair on which he sat when we visited, or the delicate painted wood sculpture of a pear that he had placed on the side table (he had a great fondness for pears and had several drawings of them as well). All those personal things that were so much a reflection of him, even if simply inanimate objects—one better understands why the Pharoahs were entombed with their possessions.

Needless to say, though it must be said, the news of his death came as a terrible shock and remains a great loss. Charles was also an authority on Elizabethan poetry (particularly Cowper) and a professor of English while I majored in English at Princeton, and we turned to him when we conceived our first large exhibition, of French garden architecture. We visited him at his then-home in Princeton and spread out the first half-dozen watercolors on the living room floor and he studied them and said it would be a wonderful exhibition to be sponsored by The Frick Collection (he was then its director) and he put us in touch with Hervé Aaron and Alan Salz at Didier Aaron and well, that pretty much was that, our careers were decided there and then.

Charles was patron of our first two exhibitions at Didier Aaron, which in part benefited The Frick Art Reference Library, for which he worked tirelessly. He also authored the preface to Pleasure Pavilions and Follies, our first book, and we always sought and relied on his advice when planning our exhibitions. But he was first and foremost a friend of rare fidelity and generosity of spirit.

Charles had a nearly unique ability to make the world a finer, richer, more interesting place simply by being in his presence—a place of abundance and fascination. We've met only two others with this rare gift and it is certainly the reason for his remarkable life and career. But we've also rarely laughed so hard with anyone, and remember wiping away an evening's worth of tears when he impishly took us to a curious cabaret on the outskirts of Vienna dedicated to an old-fashioned and sentimental local folk music known as Schrammermusik, a Surrealist's dream frozen in time that simply had to be experienced to be believed. During that trip there was also stifled laughter echoing down the dim, imposing and surprisingly vacant corridors of the Vienna Academy from a corner room in which hung a massive Hieronymus Bosch, though we weren't laughing at the Bosch but something it somehow provoked that we spun out having to do with the medieval relic trade. (Well, we'd just seen room after room of Habsburg relics that morning at the Imperial Treasury and as the saying goes, you had to be there.)
We've always been interested in garden vases; they were the subject of our earliest exhibition and we later published a book dedicated to them. Once we'd sent him a small sketch of one made into a birthday card and he liked it so much that he commissioned another and, typically of Charles, requested it hold an orange tree (as they did at Versailles) "to give it life." We'd never thought of that and did as he asked and mailed it off to him in New York. The day it arrived he was with a curator from the Morgan Library, selecting drawings for the exhibition of his collection that they were then preparing. He could not wait until the curator had left to open the parcel (a framed cartoon hung in his hall showing a man clutching a book in one hand and pushing someone off a cliff with the other and was captioned "the collector") so they first saw it together and that is how we came to have the rare honor of having a work exhibited at the Morgan, and to discover a theme that we pursued with several watercolors that remain favorites to this day.

That watercolor and several others of ours in his collection appeared in the Sotheby's sale and a friend and collector from the other end of the country wrote soon after to inform us that she had purchased the vase and had also once met Charles when visiting New York and that he had given her and her husband a personal tour of the Frick that she would never forget, and that the watercolor would remind her of him and the day. Certainly all this is nothing of more than personal note; simply a train of small, fortuitous events more than coincidence that Charles, simply by being Charles, enabled; a small circle closed as his drawing, just as he had wished, found its new home.

(The photograph is of Charles in his office at The Frick Collection, the holders of its copyright)