Vasari Diary

Vasari Diary Redivivus: Portrait Medals at the Frick, Arman and Nick Cave, and Emma Reyes’s Memoir

A drawing by Emma Reyes from The Book of Emma.

COURTESY PENGUIN BOOKS

For many years, ARTnews ran a monthly column titled “Vasari Diary,” which eventually devolved into “Art Talk.” The section featured a miscellany of news, views, anecdotes, overheard remarks, and quirky observations. As a longtime ARTnewser, going back to 1987, and frequent contributor to the section, I felt somewhat nostalgic and thought this might be a good time to revive the spirit of the column and do occasional temperature readings of the art and characters of today.

Antonio di Puccio Pisano a.k.a. Pisanello, Leonello d’Este, Marquess of Ferrara (1407-1450), ca. 1445, copper alloy.

MICHAEL BODYCOMB/THE FRICK COLLECTION, GIFT OF STEPHEN K. AND JANIE WOO SCHER, 2016

Antonio di Puccio Pisano a.k.a. Pisanello, Leonello d’Este, Marquess of Ferrara (1407-1450), ca. 1445, copper alloy.

MICHAEL BODYCOMB/THE FRICK COLLECTION, GIFT OF STEPHEN K. AND JANIE WOO SCHER, 2016

It’s a strange and transitional moment. With so many things happening at once, we often overlook the exhibitions and events that are not so much buzzworthy as simply interesting—historical shows, regional goings on, scholarly indulgences, and uncategorizable events.

Out of time and place, for example, came the Frick Collection’s elegant show “The Pursuit of Immortality: Masterpieces from the Scher Collection of Portrait Medals.” The intriguing installation of intricately sculpted medallions dating from the 15th through 19th century, testified to the rarified sensibility and keen eye of art historian and collector Stephen Scher, who curated the exhibition with Aimee Ng, an associate curator at the Frick. We learned that the Italian Renaissance painter Pisanello is considered the inventor of the portrait medal as an art form, and among the many examples on display was his impression of Leonello d’Este, marquis of Ferrara from 1441 to 1450. On one side of the medal is the marquis’s portrait in profile and, on the other, an image of two men carrying baskets of olive branches, which, according to the catalogue, “symbolizes the blessings of peace, alluding to the good governance of Leonello.”

There was a lot of information being conveyed on these very small objects—with subject matter ranging from battles to hangings to explicit anatomy. Walking through the exhibition, which was on view through September 10, and reading the labels, the effect was much like viewing a show of drawings that engage us by virtue of their intricacy and intimacy. The medals, mostly in bronze or copper alloys as well as lead, silver, and gold, were created either by casting or striking (hammering a blank disk between two dies, a process made possible by the 16th-century invention of the screw press. The medals served as “a currency of fame,” we learn, and are a true testimony to the art of collaboration. Therein lies their real charm.

(Not So) Regional Museums

Arman, Liberty Lighthouse, 1988.

COURTESY ARMAN STUDIO ARCHIVES, NEW YORK

No longer simply repositories of traditional art produced in the “neighborhood,” regional museums are more often exerting their imaginations and operating as Kunsthalles as well as sharing traveling shows. Coming to the rarified and refined reaches of Westchester, New York, and the elegant, modernist Edward Larrabee Barnes–designed Katonah Museum of Art, are two unlikely artists agitating and energizing the idyllic scene—the late French Pop sculptor Arman showing in concert with the furiously inventive multi-media experimenter Nick Cave, in “Object Out Loud: Arman and Nick Cave.” The show, which runs from October 15 to January 7, includes 20 works of sculpture, film, and photography.

Arman, who died in 2005, was an art builder, working through repetition and aggregation, using found and unorthodox materials, such as an arsenal of hammers and used paint tubes for his built surfaces whose masses mysteriously convey motion. Cave, a mid-career artist deeply engaged in performance and sculpture, assembles his fanciful materials to create sound suits and lets the art fashion itself. The exhibition was developed by Alexander and Dolmatch Fellow Olga Dekalo, with associate curator Elizabeth Rooklidge. And what, we might wonder, is the common thread? It’s one very much on all our minds today: It’s what KMA Executive Director Darsie Alexander calls “the thread of protest,” and it runs through the work of both artists.

Dark Times

It’s no wonder that Colombian fantasist writer Gabriel García Marquez encouraged Emma Reyes (1919–2003) to write. Her prose reads like magic realism, absent the magic. A captivating book of not-quite-determinable genre, The Book of Emma Reyes calls itself a memoir but it’s actually a story based on letters Reyes wrote to the Colombian historian Germán Arciniagas, the bulk of them over the course of just a few years in the early 1970s.

Reyes’s story is like a fairy tale containing all the harrowing experiences of an orphan. There are traditional characters—villains, saints (of the earthly and mythical types), hypocritical clergy, disfigured and exaggerated Botero-esque figures. It’s all very visual. The hardships Reyes depicts are nearly unimaginable and medieval in character, and the “heroine” survives through awesome ingenuity.

Reyes.

LOLA ALVAREZ BRAVO

The action opens in Bogotá, in a grim windowless room in a shack. Abandoned by her mother, Reyes lives there with her sister, Helena, and a young boy. Every day, the children have to empty their communal bedpan at the dump. Together they assemble masses of found objects and mud to create a monstrous figure, which they dub General Rebollo and bestow upon him many powers. Eventually he becomes too large to drag about and he must be disassembled and interred part by part. She and Helena move to a convent, forced to engage in slavish chores, and living in mortal fear of the devil.

Reyes had stopped corresponding with Arciniega when she perceived he had betrayed her by exposing their letters, but a couple of decades later, older and wiser, she returned to writing, revisiting her narrative as she was culling through and editing the letters for publication. Life did indeed go on. After surviving that brutal surrealistic childhood, she eventually became an artist, educated herself, fled to Buenos Aires, then married in Uruguay, and had a baby in Paraguay who was murdered by looters. She left, sailed off to Europe, married the ship’s doctor, and fell in with many cultural notables, including Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera as well as Jean-Paul Sartre. The year she passed away, the French government named her a Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters.

Today, when facts and falsities assume equal validity, when dream and reality are not easily differentiated, and when the virtual world often supersedes the concrete one, this old-fashioned, albeit truncated, narrative—one that calls to mind the picaresque adventures of Lazarillo de Tormes and, much later, Leonora Carrington—feels very contemporary. Even frighteningly so.

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