Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Blazing Away...

Blazing Away…

It was my late friend Donald Wilson who introduced me to the thrift stores, back in what I refer to as their “glory days”.  Unfortunately I never asked him how he started thrifting, but by the time I met him at 17, he was a seasoned veteran.  The difference between the two of us was that he kept things for a while then turned them over for a profit--indeed, this is how he made his living--whereas I tended to keep the best things for, well, for keeps.

As if it were yesterday, I vividly remember going into a Goodwill with him, and finding an amazing painting sitting on a high shelf.  In retrospect, think it had become separated from its near-by frame, but I was so excited I annexed the picture without even thinking about it. 

The remarkable thing about the painting (aside from its price) was the subject--a forest on fire!  I surmised that it was probably a piece of early California art, painted in the field and stretched later, this because the painting wrapped around the sides of the canvas.

An older friend with a healthy appreciation for kitsch had a forest fire lamp that always made me laugh.  A cylinder printed with a design of a forest sat on an elaborate cast iron base while an inner sleeve painted with yellow and red streaks revolved, driven by the heat of the bulb, and gave the illusion of flickering flames. 

Kenneth would make Lucullan little martinis (he had discovered that the vintage blue glass pitcher with a decal of little Shirley Temple made the perfect dry martini if one filled it with “Gin to the chin, Vermouth to the tooth”).  Then with Mabel Mercer on the record player singing Cole Porter (“What’s the use of swank, or cash in the bank galore…”), the forest fire lamp would whirl merrily, and the atmosphere would blossom in a provincial version of Talullah Bankhead's mad Walpurgis Nacht parties of the 1920s.

But martini or no martini, my painting was no piece of kitsch, despite the similarity in fiery subject, and I was--indeed still am--very proud of my acquisition.

My first job out of college when I started trying to make my living by my artistic wits, was as a preview assistant in a local auction house.  One of my most fortuitous buys there was a huge, very simple gilt-wood Victorian frame (gilt over a black clay ground) which, with the addition of a liner, was an exact fit for my forest fire.

The frame cost twice the $10.95 I had paid for the painting, having the liner fabricated cost again as much, and having the painting cleaned by an art conservator took quite a bit of additional coin.

The painting figured in an early ad for my business, and later I built a setting around it for a benefit staged in the grand ballroom of] the Crocker Art Museum

The curator of western paintings smilingly dismissed it as not being of particular importance, which I couldn’t help but think was because it didn’t have a signature by a known California artist, or indeed a signature at all. People tend to get fixated on names, often judging the desirability of an object by the name alone, but somehow I wished for more original thinking from a museum curator.  C'est ça.

"Mid-night Supper--After the Ball" 

But, to my mind the piece was incredibly well painted whoever executed it, and I always held out for someday making a ‘discovery’ about it.

One time in a thrift store I saw a print depicting a forest on fire that looked incredibly similar to my painting; and one year at the great San Francisco Fall Antiques Show a dealer from New Mexico was offering a ‘folk art’ canvas of a forest on fire:  both with the same stand of trees, the smoke and fire billowing in the same direction.  In both cases, an uncanny resemblance.

However, it was the invention of the internet that finally solved the puzzle for me.  In one of those late night coup de foudres I casually searched for “forest fire” and low and behold, found a long impecibly researched article about the history of my painting.

The first surprise was that the original was not American, but had been painted by an artist from the Urals and exhibited at the 1893 Columbia Exposition.  The artist was Alexsi Kuz’Mich and the painting, titled Lesnoi Pozhar (“Forest Fire”) caused quite a stir and was endlessly copied.  Then, in spite of its gargantuan size, the original was somehow lost and the artist was never compensated for it.


Yet another copy dated 1907

It is curious how there is always something especially attractive about Russian art, whether Fabergé cigarette cases or Constructivist pencil drawings or early 19th century crystal chandeliers.  And because of the turmoil the Russian states have been through since before the Revolution, much has ben lost and what remains is very desirable.

A. Sofronova, 1922 (my Mica Ertegun moment)

Of course my painting is not actually “by” Kuz’Mich, but “after”.  Or is it?  Supposedly he painted a number of smaller copies of his piece, and while far-fetched, it’s not impossible that one could have ended up in a thrift store in the provincial capital of California in the early 1970s.

Regardless, the painting is extremely well executed, and tho I was fully prepared to love it strictly on its appeal to me, finding that it has a specific history was extremely satisfying!  And while I might never be able to afford one of those much coveted early 19th century Grand Tour paintings of Mount Vesuvius erupting, by God, I have a painting of a forest on fire.

Now I wonder what ever became of Kenneth’s forest fire lamp..?  Not to speak of his Shirley Temple pitcher, and those marvelous Art Deco cast bronze naked lady candlesticks…

The post card version
in a miniature Victorian gilt wood frame

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

A favorite adage of mine is, "It's not where you go but who you are when you're there."  I want to say I coined the phrase, but if I didn't I certainly wish I had!

This adage applies to many situations but it is especially pertinent when it comes to 'exercising one's eye’ (a clever euphemism for shopping.)

Flea markets are perfect illustrations of this:  you usually go with no specific goal in mind, but if you keep your eyes open you can discover amazing things.

Sometimes of course you come away with nothing, but other times you carry off prizes!  I suppose my all-time best flea market find was a hallmarked 18th century Georgian silver teapot-on-stand by a known London maker dated 1794, which the sellers practically forced on me for $250.-, maybe a twentieth of it’s actual value.  The morning was well on so anyone else could have bought it, but it leapt out at me, and I carried it off in triumph to join a silver coffee jug and a pair of Adam-style silver candlesticks, 18th century brothers found under similarly fortuitous circumstances.

The copy of the insanely rare 1932 HOLLYWOOD COCKTAILS drinks guide in the original presentation box doesn't even exist on bookfinder but I found my copy sitting on a table of mostly indifferent merchandise in a provincial market--and was glad to pay the $15.- the seller was asking.  (I later saw Diana Vreeland’s copy for sale at a price vastly greater, its rarity enhanced by her having written her name inside the cover.)

"Hollywood's Favorite Cocktail Book"
(including the favorite cocktails served at each of the 
smartest star's rendezvous)

Not everything of course is rare or valuable.  I collect Chinese hardwood stands, one ‘pattern’ in particular which has little Art Deco looking stair-step feet, and though they have become increasingly hard to find, I rarely pay more than $5.- for one, and I now have dozens.  (Parenthetically, the Chinese believe that putting something on a stand is like a complement to the object.)

But of course, it is the ‘rare’ finds that tend to stand out in one’s memory.  For example, the exquisite early 19th century Moghul miniature of a court beauty which I bought from a man who sneered at it as a print and smirked that I should pay $5- for it.  

Then there is the service for six of a handsome silver flatware pattern (America Engraved, dated 1934, which I use constantly) which was sold to me by a woman who, when queried by a bystander if it was Sterling, said, "Naw--it's just silver plate" (never mind that each piece was clearly marked Sterling.)  She then offered it to me for $10.- and who was I to argue with a lady?

I suppose it's splitting moral hairs to say that I am never the one to offer an absurdly low price when I know something is of value, but lets face it, when someone has set the price themselves it would require great moral character to offer them more than their asking.

Often of course sellers have an absurdly inflated sense of what something is worth. How many times have I turned on my heel biting my tongue so as not to say something dismissive.

My favorite recent experience was in a shop where a handsome Georgian mahogany secretaire was tagged "Queen Anne, c. 1780" or about 80 years off both date and style. Fortunately the echt Queen Anne black and gilt lacquer mirror-on-stand I bought at a recent house sale seemed to have caught only my eye, never mind that the original sale tag from one of the great Jackson Square antique shops was still in one drawer.

Queen Anne Mirror c. 1700

Mind you, I've been honing my eye most of my adult life, and while I can spot a piece of Biedermeier furniture a mile off, there are vast areas where I have no knowledge.  I have colleagues who can identify the provenance of mid-century Scandinavian furniture like reciting the alphabet, and another friend will comment on someone's Rolex when I didn't even notice they were wearing a watch.

Museums are of course the great equalizer, for while you might identify a Pierre Langlois commode right off the bat, it isn't for sale even if you DID have the million dollars plus it probably cost.

English Rococo at its apogee

However I am perfectly content to do my 'old shopping' (as Elsie de Wolfe so endearingly called it) in flea markets and at tag sales (and of course on eBay, which is another story.) And it's probably a good thing I don't have deeper pockets with which to indulge myself as I'd definitely have to buy a larger house!

A friend teases me that I ‘occupy’ every inch of my house--and I do that. Between the books and the art, the furniture and far too many candlesticks, it's a pretty full house.

While I have decorated my rooms to please myself, people seem to respond to the atmosphere positively. And a lot of it (tho not all of it, mind you) was done on the proverbial shoe string--tho I will admit that I didn’t buy the English Regency chaise at the flea market or the Austrian Empire commodes at a tag sale! 

However, to my eternal delight, I did buy the painting of a forest on fire at a Goodwill (in the early 1970s mind you) for $10.95, a painting which I much later identified as a copy of a lost work by the Russian artist Aleksi Kuz’Mich that had caused a stir at the 1893 Columbia Exposition. 

Mid-Night Supper After the Ball

Lesnoi Pozhar everybody!  (To be continued…)

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Industrial Chic

For many years I have fantasized about the idea of designing a Christmas tree fabricated entirely out of rebar.

Off and on I would try to produce a rendering of the imagined tree, but it wasn’t until I hit upon the idea of drawing out each tier as though viewed from above that my ideas actually coalesced.  My first design was severely symmetrical, but looking at the drawings I realized that balanced asymmetry (the so-called “occult balance” espoused by Frank Alva Parsons at his famous design school), would more closely mimic a real tree.

Meeting a talented and accommodating young welder and craftsman gave me the final impetus for creating my vision.  Though I can do many things, welding is not among them, so having a collaborator who understood my concept was a godsend. I told him that above all I did not want the tree to look “cute” or artsy, and I must say he got it in one.

As a first step I mocked up a tree using sheets of heavy cardboard, cut into the outline of branches and stacked on a threaded rod.

cardboard mock up
This wobbly construction I took to my welder, and he copied it brilliantly, the results far exceeding my wildest expectations.  His suggestion to use three different weights of rebar for the trunk to mimic the taper of a real tree was a subtle but telling detail of his work.  When I saw the finished tree it was so elegant I almost hated to decorate it!  

The silhouette cast such remarkable shadows on the wall, and the silhouette really did mimic my beloved silvertips, so much so that I christened it Abies rebar Magnifica, and claimed it a newly discovered species found growing in the urban forest.  

"branching out"
Abies Rebar Magnifica 
As part of my fantasy, I had over time assembled a small collection of industrial detritus—orphaned metal parts from another age of the world.  To the same end, I also acquired bits of bent wire picked up on the roadside, and bought random lengths of old chain, because they reminded me of nothing so much as industrial versions of the paper chains we all made as children.

Even though the tree was designed to mimic a silvertip, it eventually dawned on me that the entire concept was actually more abstract than figurative—rather in the manner of the Cubist-inspired metal “trees” in the German pavilion at the 1925 Paris Expo. 

When I began to assemble my bits of cast-off metal into “ornaments”, I also realized that some of my attempts were just too studied.  Not surprisingly, rings of skeleton keys, old bronze locks, and discarded spark plugs were all naturals, perfect "as found", while the most effective assembled ornaments had an offhand quality to them.  With the exception of a single length of rusty chain, all the metal pieces were detailed by being buffed on the wheel and then paste waxed.  This made them gleam, and gave life and sparkle to the otherwise muted palate of steel and brass and iron.

Among the few “figurative” things decorating the tree were candles, both electric ones with flickering bubs (these had vintage plumber's "putty cups" as bobeche) and old-fashioned Christmas candles in gilt tin clips.  I also added a few gilded walnuts, always a nice old fashioned touch. 

My welder asked me if I were going to hang the traditional pickle on the tree, which up until then had actually not occurred to me.  Since the tradition of the pickle is one I dearly love, I found some artificial pickles and painted them to look like metal—graphite and aluminum and gold—and hid them in the branches.

One of my signatures is that every tree I decorate contains at least one bird’s nest.  This of course stems from the old German custom of putting a nest in one’s Christmas tree to bring good luck in the coming year.  In a moment of inspiration I realized that industrious little industrial birds would no doubt have made their nests of metal, so I took different weights of steel wool (OOOO to line the nests instead of down, naturally) as well as copper and stainless steel scrubbing pads, and made my own.  I thought the results were quite hilarious and decided they were both elegant and witty—two of my very favorite attributes.

In the end I felt the tree in its entirety qualified as elegant and witty, and I was as happy with the final result as it is mortally possible to be. 

I actually had so much fun decorating for my imagined Industrial Christmas that it made me feel like a kid again, filled with that sense of wonder and delight that is one of the most endearing and enviable qualities children possess.  Indeed, the entire experience had a delicious sense of play to it that we as adults—even those of us lucky enough to be engaged in creative work—rarely get to experience!

"O du fröhliche, o du selige,
gnadenbringende Weihnachtszeit!"