The La Brea Tar Pits: Dire Wolves

Dire Wolves

Skeletons of dire wolves at the La Brea Tar Pits Museum, Los Angeles

One of the first animals I became fascinated with when I was very little was the dire wolf (canis dirus). This was not for the “dinosaur” reason (although I was also very interested in Sauropterygia), a sense of what-if nostalgia for an unknowable past, but for the opposite, that being just a bit bigger than wolves of today, and relatively recently extinct (in the late Pleistocene, about 10,000 years ago) surely there could be a few hanging out still in the Fagne.

Around the same time I was also horrified to learn of the existence of the La Brea Tar Pits, despite its amazing contents of millions of prehistoric animal remains. I couldn’t stop thinking about all the animals slowly suffocating in the tar. I guess I must have pushed this memory aside somehow because despite knowing that the tar pits were right in the middle of Los Angeles (also from the famous sequence in Bad Influence (1990)), I was astonished to see that the LBTP are immediately adjacent to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Staying just down the street, I can walk through the excavation sites on my way to the museum. As many other people have commented the sunniness and wide-boulevardisation of Los Angeles compared to its low pedestrian density is uncanny already. Most of the time the paths around the tar pits are also eerily quiet. There have been a few days of heavy rain, and during those times of precipitation accumulation, water collects on top of the gravel, the grass, and the tar beneath. It’s a strange thing to witness.

Anyway the La Brea Tar Pits Museum has collected the skulls of more than 400 dire wolves, which yielding lots of information about the sizes and shapes of the animals and even allowed them to be divided into two subspecies, Canis dirus guildayi and Canis dirus dirus.

Bruce Nauman

Bruce Nauman, “La Brea/Art Tips/Rat Spit/Tar Pits,” 1972

 

Franz Marc and his dog: “To Never Know You”

My article related to Franz Marc and his dog, “To Never Know You: Archival Photos of Russi and Franz Marc” has been published in the Fall 2017 issue of Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture.

Here is the abstract for the story about Franz Marc and his dog, which also contains some valuable personal insights on vernacular photography from my friend Sabrina Hughes and benefited from the questions and comments from my Doktormutter Cecilia Novero:

This essay examines photographs of the German Expressionist artist, writer, and Tierliebhaber Franz Marc and his dog, Russi, taking the position that one of the most obvious characteristics of Marc’s life his – affectionate and respectful relationship with Russi – has been largely overlooked, though its documentation is clear. I extol the value of what are normally categorised as snapshots in reconstructing animal and human biographies. This raises questions about what photographs are valuable to such research, and why some are used repeatedly and others ignored. Significantly, a previously unknown photograph of Marc taken by his brother Paul in is published for the first time.

Mainly I had wanted to write about discovering this photo of Franz Marc in the DKM/GNM, so here it is again:

Franz Marc and his dog

Franz Marc, 1914, in Munich. Photo by Paul Marc. Germanisches Nationalmuseum | Des Deutschen Kunstarchivs | Nürnberg

 

‘Animaloculomat’ • Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin

Klara Hobza, Animaloculomat, 2017

Already by 1909 Jakob Johann von Uexküll had, in Umwelt und Innenwelt der Tiere, given a great deal of consideration to the „Innenleben“ of animals. For Franz Marc this led to the question of how a horse, an eagle, a deer, or a dog saw and experienced the world, prompting the reflection „die Tiere in eine Landschaft zu setzen, die unsren Augen zugehört, statt uns in die Seele des Tieres zu versenken, um dessen Bildkreis zu erraten“.[1]

A painting like Liegender Hund im Schnee, a depiction of Marc’s dog Russi, radiates the oneness between the surrounding nature and the resting dog – „eine gemeinsame Stille von belebter und unbelebter Natur.“[2] .“ But Marc was interested in the actual physical reality of the dog’s vision as well.

Without specifically referencing Marc or von Uexküll, the scientific part of this proposition is taken up,  switching between animal and human perspectives, in the Animaloculomat (2017) by Klara Hobza. The technology really works, as you can see, like a regular Passbild machine that generates a split view between the sitter’s and the chosen animal’s – some invertebrates such as spiders and squids but also horses. The contraption sits in the dinosaur area, which is frequented by a lot of children, and my first impression was that this setting, and the toy-like features of the Animaloculomat, took away from the serious nature of this question so central to understanding animals. After I thought about it, though (and experienced having a photo made), I changed my mind and now think that such a lower-key approach that admits both a possibility for failure and a sense of humour is, as an art installation, very successful.

Inside Klara Hobza’s Animaloculomat

Hobza’s piece is part of Art/Nature, which is a pilot project initiated by the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin and the Kulturstiftung des Bundes, employing artists to create new works for the natural history museum. Though the taxidermy is very creepy and gives me nightmares, maybe this is a good way for contemporary, conceptual art to transcend some of its normal boundaries.

Now finally on to documenta 14, “fixing” CAA,  and the Georg-Kolbe Museum…

Klara Hobza • Art/Nature III  • Museum für Naturkunde Berlin  • 25 April-23 July 2017  • Curator: Bergit Arends (London).

[1] Gunther Meißner. Franz Marc, Briefe, Schriften und Aufzeichnungen. (Leipzig: Seeman, 1980) 50.

[2] Franz Marc, August Macke: Briefwechsel. (Köln: DuMont, 1964) 30.

Franz Marc painting still missing at Haus am Waldsee

“Vermisst: Der Turm der blauen Pferde von Franz Marc” at Haus am Waldsee, Berlin

Franz marc painting missing but theme still clear

Marcel van Eeden, High Mountains, a Rainbow, the Moon and Stars, 2017

I really wanted to like Haus am Waldsee’s thematic “Vermisst: Der Turm der blauen Pferde von Franz Marc,” but was also nervous about all the expectations of the referenced Franz Marc painting that I would bring to the exhibition. To (un)prepare, I imposed a media blackout upon myself, not reading up on who the artists were or any other reviews,[1] avoiding a seminar and joint show co-sponsored by the Pinakothek der Moderne in München. Vermisst’s concept was to pair some scholarly discussions of Marc’s missing 1913 masterwork with the expansions of contemporary artists upon its theme.

Franz Marc Painting Still Missing

Beyond mild speculation, a purpose of Vermisst did not seem to be to offer any type of meaningful investigation into where the painting might actually be. It is not incumbent upon Haus am Waldsee, where the Franz Marc painting was last seen in 1949, to conduct such an inquiry…and yet the stubborn refusal, still, of German museums and art historians to grapple with the issue of Raubkunst, particularly in a case as famous as that of  Turm der blauen Pferde, where someone knows something, is a real problem. (I have an article coming out on this very subject, so I’ll just leave this here for now.)

Of contributions by a dozen artists, one seemed to address both the absent presence of TdbP and also the circumstances of its disappearance. In fact if Marcel van Eeden’s High Mountains, a Rainbow, the Moon and Stars (2017), a series of 26 prints including the text of a short story revealing some fantastical open-ended conclusions about what happened to the painting, had been the only component of the exhibition, that would have been fine. Only two of Eeden’s panels are in color, both reproductions of aspects of TdbP, which makes a nice allusion to the Wizard of Oz (1939), both in temporality and in the vibrancy of the world of dreams, and of lost alternative futures. (more…)

Visionaries: Creating a Modern Guggenheim

This post goes with a book review of the exhibition catalogue Visionaries: Creating a Modern Guggenheim (2017) for Museum Bookstore which is posted here and also follows in a slightly different form below.

It has been one of life’s great pleasures to see Franz Marc’s Die gelbe Kuh many times over the years at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Every time I get the same huge surge of joy as the first, and I think other people feel the same way. When the painting is where it lives normally, in the Thannhauser wing, you can sit on a bench in the gallery and watch people come in, weaving their way through some much smaller woodcuts and decorated books, and then turn the corner to be met by this enormous colourful and cheerful painting. Always a lot of oohs and ahhs and delighted small children.

§   §   §

People admiring Franz Marc’s Stallungen (1913, l) and Die gelbe Kuh (1911) at the Guggenheim.

Visionaries: Creating a Modern Guggenheim

Edited and introduced by Megan Fontanella with chapters by Vivien Greene, Jeffrey Weiss, Susan Thompson, Tracey Bashkoff, Lauren Hinkson, and Susan Davidson and published by Guggenheim Museum Publications, this catalogue accompanies the eponymous exhibition held at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City, 10 February-6 September 2017; 312 pages with color reproductions of all the paintings and sculptures from the exhibition plus archival photographs, illustrations, letters, and newspaper and magazine notices.

The “modernization” of European art around 1900 is usually associated with the evolution of line, color, and figuration toward abstraction, as manifested by Expressionism and Futurism. The fact that art collectors and dealers played an important role in codifying what we think of now as Modernism is brought to full light in the catalogue Visionaries: Creating a Modern Guggenheim, produced to coincide with the exhibition of the same name.

In fact the catalogue seems, at least at first glance, intent upon driving home the idea that art is a business, opening with the normally blank flyleaf emblazoned with corporate logos and an unprecedented “Sponsor Statement” by Francesca Lavazza, heir to the Lavazza coffee brand, the underwriter of the exhibition. However the scholarly contents are innovatively presented and well-researched, with five sections devoted to each of the “visionaries” (in this case being the collectors, not the artists), paired with a focus on one of the museum’s key acquisitions. An opening essay by the Guggenheim’s curator of collections and provenance, Megan Fontanella, introduces the scope of the exhibition and the historical circumstances that allowed American entrepreneur Solomon Robert Guggenheim to decide in the 1920s, after five decades dominating the U.S. mining industry, to become the world’s foremost collector and exhibitor of what became dubbed “non-objective” art. (42) As in the rest of the book, the introduction offers wisely-selected and superbly reproduced works from both the immediate exhibition and from other sources.

Of great interest are photos of the assorted collectors and dealers in domestic settings, surrounded by their objets, which are very revealing, perhaps beyond what is intended by their inclusion in a book that is an official history of the Guggenheim. It is impossible, for example, not to be vexed by the careless profligacy of Peggy Guggenheim, niece of Solomon and founder of the Guggenheim Collection Venice. She is shown on the terrace of an Île Saint-Louis flat, wearing pearls and sipping an espresso as the Nazi-occupied Paris of the 1940s falls away across the river, Constantin Brancusi’s Maiastra (1912) set perilously on the parapet beside her. (254)

In fact the catalogue is an outstanding exercise for those willing to read between its restrained lines. Taken this way, an excellent contemporized portrait of the Guggenheim’s co-founder and first director, Hilla Rebay, emerges. Fontanella and Susan Thompson dispense with the “female hysteria” characterization of Rebay as the occult-obsessed lover of painter Rudolf Bauer to focus on her acumen as a businesswoman and strategic positioning as a collage artist. Thompson shows Rebay’s collages – figurative portraits for the most part, more like mosaics made with bits of paper than Hanna Höch’s more associative and confrontational critiques of Weimar culture – as a distinct oeuvre outside the canonical avant-garde’s concentration on sculpture and painting.

Equally calculating and less sympathetic is Rebay’s outsize ambition as Guggenheim’s chief advisor and deal-maker. Fontanella reports:

Rebay […] did attend the notorious Entartete Kunst show in Munich in August 1937, fresh from the June establishment of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. The foundation would make important purchases from the ensuing German-government-sponsored degenerate art sales: [Wassily] Kandinsky’s Der blaue Berg (1908-09) and Einige Kreise (1926), and [Paul] Klee’s Tanze Du Ungeheuer zu meinem sanften Lied (1922) were among the works that entered its holdings this way in 1939 – works that might have been destroyed. (30)

…Or works that might have been returned to their rightful owners.
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