Thursday, May 4, 2017

Vincent Price Sells Art at Sears (Yes You Read That Correctly)

I spend a good amount of time searching for obscure videos on YouTube, and I always find surprises.  Recently, I found an old commercial for the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (a museum I know well) featuring legendary screen actor Vincent Price.  It’s an interesting snapshot of the museum at the time, and after walking through the galleries Price stops in next to the large reclining figure by Henry Moore, a piece that’s long been off public view, most likely because of incidents like this.

After watching the video and searching a little more, I found that Price had recorded similar commercials for other museums in the U.S. Apart from being a little time capsule of the early 1980s, I was left with the question of why Vincent Price had been chosen in the first place.  Price was primarily known as a horror movie actor, and I really didn’t know much about his connections to art before researching this post.  I found out that he did, and it’s kind of an odd one.  He collected art throughout his life and in the early 1960s he was approached by the department store chain Sears and asked to collaborate on a project to sell fine art in their stores.  Price himself was responsible for choosing and buying the thousands of paintings and prints that would encompass the Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art at Sears.

The most important video available that really helps to understand the relationship Price had with Sears is an instructional video created to train employees on the art that would be for sale.  In the film, Price himself admits that people may be skeptical about buying fine art at Sears, and he makes a point of separating what’s being sold here from the cheap, printed- on-cardboard images people might be used to.  This video goes a long way towards explaining what exactly Sears was selling.  He takes time to showcase some of the pieces and discus their merits.  I’ve identified the work and artist where possible.

The first piece Price highlights is a print by the Japanese artist Utagawa Hiroshige.  After doing a little digging, I was able to see that it’s a print from Hiroshige’s collection called The 53 Stations of the Takaido. Specifically, it’s #39- Chiryu:


As Price describes it, he refers to it as one of Hiroshige’s famous “views.”  When I heard this, I immediately thought of “36 Views of Mount Fuji” (of which The Great Wave Off Kanagawa) is the most famous image.  But, the views of Mount Fuji are prints made by Hokusai, not Hiroshige.  I can’t be too hard on Price for seemingly confusing the two artists, since lumping Hokusai and Hiroshige together unfortunately is fairly common.  Google “Hiroshige print” and images of Hokusai’s Great Wave are returned.  Moving on.

The next painting highlighted was one that stumped my.  Price says it’s a French artist who’s name sounds like “Boboline.”  I tried several spellings and was able to find nothing.


The drawing Price highlights after Boboline (Baubelline? Boboleine? Your guess is as good as mine) is an interesting one.  It’s by Heinrich Kley and appears to depict a satyr dancing with a woman.  Kley was a German illustrator and painter who was well regarded by Walt Disney, who was an avid collector of his work.  Kley’s illustrations (especially those of anthropomorphic animals) were a huge influence on the design of Disney’s Fantasia, released near the end of Kley’s life.

 wasn’t able to find the exact drawing that’s highlighted in the Sears video, but I was able to find part of it.  Searching for Kley images on Google is difficult because a lot of what comes up isn’t by Kley but is by people he influenced (Disney concept artists, other illustrators, etc.).  But a winery used a Kley drawing as a wine bottle label and it’s pretty clear that it’s the same drawing seen in the video (minus the figure on the right). 


 Next Price shows off two artists who I was able to find more information on but I wasn’t able to find images of the exact paintings shown here.  The first is an Italian artist Price calls Frederico Gentillini but his name was actually Franco Gentillini.  He also points out a piece by an artist named Gustav Likan.  Likan taught in Chicago, so he might have been familiar to those who worked at the Sears headquarters.

After showing off these two artists, Price gets into some of the more interesting pieces on display in the film.  The first of these is a print by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.  To go off on a slight tangent here, one really fascinating aspect of old films like this is because they record the way people spoke and communicated that may sound a little antiquated today.  This is best captured he when Price refers to Toulouse-Lautrec as “really one of the extraordinary people.”  But, I digress.



The print at hand is called Por Toi! (For You!) (Desire Dihou with his Bassoon), and was originally printed in 1893.  If the print shown in the video was legit, it could be worth a lot of money today.  Other copies have sold for as much as $14,000.   I say “if” because prints can be problematic if the printing blocks or plates were used without the artist’s authorization of after the artist’s death.  I don’t know if that’s been an issue with this particular print, but prints seen later on are potentially problematic (keep reading).

The next piece seen is a small print of a bird and insect Price identifies as The Young Entomologist.  Googling that title or looking for similar images yielded nothing.

Sorry little guy, I don't know who made you.
What comes next are probably the most problematic pieces Price presents.  They are two prints by Goya from his famous series of etchings called Los Caprichos.  The lower one is easy to identify: it’s no. 39 in the series, entitled Hasta su Abuelo (And So Was His Grandfather), first published in 1799.


The upper one is hard to identify since it’s never shown in close-up, but I think it’s no. 47, Obsequio al maestro (A Gift for the Master):


Unscrupulous publishers churned out prints like this long after Goya’s death, and even though they used the original printing plates, they did so without Goya’s permission.  This flooded the market with unauthorized editions that degraded in quality as time went on.  The problem is so rampant that when you Google it, “Goya Caprichos forgery” autocompletes before “Goya Caprichos.”

Goya coupons now accepted at Sears.
Perhaps Sears is acknowledging a sketchy provenance with the price- they’re only $35 apiece.   Given the little I know about Goya’s prints, the chance of these prints being genuine is slim to none.  

The next work is one that’s almost impossible to identify based on the information given.  Price introduces it by saying it’s by “a woman in California who’s comparatively unknown.”  I think this piece (perhaps more than the others on display) really gets to the heart of what the Price/Sears collaboration was trying to do.  Namely, finding regional artists whose work was affordable and introducing it to a national audience.  They might never have received international attention on the art stage, but what was important was finding something you liked, regardless of value.  Price takes some time to talk about these very ideas before he moves on to the next piece, as print by Louis Legrand (or LeGrand):


I was able to find info on him but not this particular print.  He also highlights a small watercolor of a landscape that is unidentifiable as well (Price mentions it’s British, but that’s about it).

After all this comes the big one.  Price saves the best for (almost) last and it’s a doozy.  A print by none other than Rembrandt van Rijn.  It’s the print Angel Appearing to Shepherds and Price talks at length about the provenance of the piece.  Rembrandt (like Goya) also faces authenticity issues with his prints and Price seems to acknowledge this by detailing the print’s former owners. 


From the small amount of research I was able to do (I’m no Rembrandt print expert) this piece appears to have been the genuine article.  A YouTube commenter on the video claims his family member bought it, and years later Vincent Price himself tried (unsuccessfully) to buy it back.  If that story’s legit, someone got a great deal and owns a print that today is worth much, much more than they paid for it (the price on the tag that’s flashed on screen is $900.00.  Yes, that’s in 1960s dollars, but still probably a bargain).  A wall tag flashes briefly on the screen that seems to suggest that Sears sold (or at least planned to sell) other Rembrandt prints.  It reads:

“Angel Appearing to Shepherds”

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (1606-1669)
Possibly the greatest artist that ever lived. Perhaps no as inquisitive a mind as Leonardo, but his concentration on the soul of his sitters makes him more understandably human. Almost no one can afford a Rembrandt painting but fortunately his etchings are considered by many as his greatest works and are within the financial reach of many. All the etchings and drypoints in this collection come from his studio during his lifetime. You can honestly say you own a masterpiece with the possession of any one of them.


The need to mention that all the prints available came from Rembrandts studio in his lifetime points to the idea that even in the 1960s, there could be authenticity problems with Rembrandt works.  Were any other Rembrandt prints sold at Sears in the 1960s?  Were any or all of them genuine?  I wasn’t able to find that out but it’s pretty bizarre to think that someone somewhere could have purchased a 300 year old print worth tens of thousands of dollars at a department store.

The last piece featured in the video is a painting by Karl Zerbe.  Price refers to him as “one of the best known Amercan artists.”  This is probably a bit of an exaggeration.  I was able to find some info on Zerbe but not a better reproduction of this particular painting.

Price with Karl Zerbe painting
That’s the work that Price runs through in the video.  Some big names in the forms of prints, some original paintings by lesser known artists.  As I researched this story, one advertisement from an old Sears catalog kept popping up, usually associated with the Vincent Price venture.  It’s apparently a page from the 1963 or 1967 catalog:


What often mentioned when people comment on this is that the ad claims to be selling paintings by Pablo Picasso and Piet Mondrian.  And I should point out that the paintings aren’t just being used as d├ęcor for the fashion.  They’re catalog items with prices attached.  Was Sears selling original works by these artists and was Price attached?  The answer those questions are “of course they weren’t, don’t be silly” and “I don’t think so”. 

First, the paintings.  The Picasso is titled Girl With a Boat and is located in a gallery in Switzerland.  The Mondrian is called Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Grey and Blue, and was painted in 1921.  It’s currently in the collection of the Gemeentemusem in The Hague.  I don’t know when they acquired it but I think it’s a safe bet to say it didn’t come from Sears.  The museum has given it an object number of 0333329.  I don’t know very much about museum studies, but I do know it’s not uncommon for a museum to make the last 2 numbers of an identifying tag the year in which the piece was acquired.  If that’s the case here, it means that the painting entered their collection in 1929.  So what’s going on here and what was Sears selling?  The works are listed as oil paintings (not cheap reproductions on cardboard) and they’re not cheap, but they are copies.  They must have been mass produced copies too, since it’s listed in the Sears catalog and presumably more than one person might want one.

At this point, one could debate the ethical situation brought up by a major retailer passing off masterwork copies and not labelling them as such, and that’s certainly an interesting argument and discussion.  But what I want to point out here is that these reproductions appear to have nothing to do with Vincent Price’s venture.  His name does not appear on the ad, nor do the words “The Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art at Sears” which is what the project was usually called.  In fact, passing off copies like this would go directly against what Price wanted to accomplish. He repeatedly states in the film that the works he has chosen are authentic and original.  The catalog page is an interesting piece of kitsch history, for sure, but it’s got nothing to do with Vincent Price.

After researching Price’s venture, I’m still left with a couple of questions.  For example, how many Sears stores had galleries like this?  Sears had locations across the country, in small towns and big cities.  I would be surprised if art galleries like this cropped up in every one.  I’m guessing that the Price art collection was featured in only some stores, probably in bigger markets where consumers might have a little extra disposable income, but I don’t know for sure.

In conclusion, Price genuinely wanted to bring his love of art to everyone, and the choices he made set out to do just that.  Much of the work appears to have been prints, drawings, and watercolors, mediums that usually sell for less money.  The subject matters showcased were quaint landscapes, genre scenes, and safe modernism.  It was work that was meant to be palatable for everyone.  Was some of it middling work by artists who have been long forgotten?  Probably, but the point wasn’t to create a long-term investment portfolio of multi-million dollar pieces.  Price repeatedly states that someone should choose something they like that they can live with and looks good in their house.  Judging by the comments left on the YouTube videos, that’s exactly what happened.  It’s easy to find several commenters who remark that work bought at Sears hung in their homes (or their parent’s homes) for years and were much loved.

While reading article about this whole thing, I found articles that praised Price’s commitment to bringing art to the people, but there were just as many articles kind of mocking it as the ultimate in kitsch consumerism.  I think the criticisms miss the mark of what Price was trying to do.  He was thoroughly trained in art history and was an avid collector himself.  He donated thousands of works of art to East Los Angeles College and a museum there bears his name.  He was also an all-around decent guy.  He accepted his daughter as gay before that was even a thing, and was an early celebrity to speak up publicly about the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.  He also said this:


I’d buy art from a guy like that.


Friday, April 21, 2017

No, Not That Star Wars Trailer, a Different One

Well, the teaser trailer for the new Star Wars film was released last weekend and it’s already been watched about 30 million times on YouTube.  Pretty impressive for a clip that showcases less than two minutes of footage, some of which might not even end up in the finished film (right, Rogue One trailer?).  I’m not going to link to the clip here, mainly because if you’re reading this you’ve probably already watched it a dozen times.  This is a post about other trailers, and I’m not going to pour over the scant footage to try to work out any and all plot points and clues from the- OH MY GOD THERE ARE OTHER PEOPLE ON LUKE SKYWALKER’S ISLAND:


Oh wait, on closer inspection that just appears to be a rock. But, I digress.   Apart from showing Rey levitating several small stones and enough shots of Skellig Michael to make the Irish tourist council happy, there’s not much to glean from the teaser.  I should mention at this point that I myself am a huge Star Wars fan and watched the trailer almost immediately after it was posted over the weekend (and several more times since then).  Seeing the original Star Wars at the drive-in when I was three is potentially my earliest memory as a human on planet earth.  I realize that many fans are also excited about the new movie and will spend the next few months watching the trailer frame by frame, trying to figure out the entire plot based only on the back of Leia’s head, and that’s fine by me, you’re dedicated and I respect your commitment.  I just try to avoid the endless speculation, and I stay away from spoilers. So I’m using the release of the new trailer to talk about an older Star Wars trailer, as well as the evolution of movie trailers in general.

The idea of a highly anticipated movie trailer is a relatively new one.  Platforms like The Internet Movie Database and YouTube allows us to watch them whenever we want, as many times as we want, and I think that’s ultimately a good thing.  You used to have to buy a movie ticket to see them, or settle for short 30 second TV commercials.  Now trailers are big business (and essentially free to watch), and movie studios spend time and money crafting them into mini movies, and their release is sometimes as eagerly awaited as the movie they’re advertising.  This can be taken to extremes (remember how the teaser for Rogue One had it’s own teaser?) but for the most part I think this just helps increase excitement for a film.

But trailers weren’t always an art form.  Older trailers, readily available to us today thanks to YouTube, often look like they were slapped together quickly, and seem like they’ve had only the slightest association with a thing called “editing”.  Take a look at this original trailer for the film Apocalypse Now to see what I mean (I have to link to it this way because Blogger isn't letting me embed the video I want)

Apocalypse Now is rightly considered a masterful film, but the trailer looks terrible.  The beginning, which features Martin Sheen’s voiceover, is o.k., but then it turns into a roughly chronological outline of the movie told through a bunch of strung-together clips.  There isn’t an overall soundtrack to the trailer, and it seems as if the music that’s playing is there because it was already in the scene.  This creates a disjointed rhythm to the whole thing and makes it look like kind of a mess.  This was the norm at the time.  There are many other old trailer you can find that look just as rushed as this one.  30 years ago, trailers just weren’t something that a studio put a lot of time and effort into, and it shows.  

To get back to Star Wars, the original trailer for The Empire Strikes Back upped the game a little.  It’s from around the same time as the Apocalypse Now trailer but seems to be showing a little more effort.  It’s not just a chronological series of shots, but aims more to reintroduce characters that are already familiar as well as introduce some new settings.  The music is still a mess, though, and seems choppy and random.  Compare this to the full trailer for The Force Awakens (which seems to have a soundtrack that was composed specifically for it) and the difference is clear.



Perhaps the strangest part of that original trailer is the voice-over narration.  Yes, it’s Harrison Ford, and no, I’m not the first person to notice this.  Voice-overs were incredibly common in older trailers, so it’s use here isn’t odd.  Don LaFontaine made a career out of it, but I always preferred the creepier narration of Percy Rodriguez I think LaFontaine's "in a world" shtick got old).  Rodriguez was doing trailer voice work in the late 1970s (he narrated the original trailer for Jaws), and even did the narration for the Star Wars special edition trailer in 1997.   So, why didn’t they get someone like that for The Empire Strikes Back?  I understand why the filmmakers might want to use one of the actors from the film, but Ford isn’t even narrating it in character as Han Solo (which admittedly would probably be stranger).  Instead, he gives us a corny delivery that makes it seem like he’s trying to rope us in to a sketchy ring-toss game at a carnival.  The disconnect between the tone of the film we all know today and that goofy, used car salesman narration is jarring.  Writer Lawrence Kasdan said that Empire was the film where “everything goes to hell”, and he’s right. Everyone’s betrayed at some point, Luke’s hand is cut off, and the rebellion loses so epically they actually have to flee the galaxy at the end.

Yes, cynical Family Guy writers, this is how it ends.  Everything the rebels are fighting for is visible through that window.
Why Ford chooses to narrate the trailer the way he does remains a mystery to me.  I wasn’t able to find much out about his involvement, other than confirmation that it is, indeed, him.  Was he intentionally trying to sound as cheesy as possible?  Was he trying to torpedo the whole thing by sounding as goofy as he could?  He famously hated the Star Wars dialogue, so perhaps this is meant to be his revenge? Maybe the filmmakers didn’t want him to be recognized, but then why even use him at all?  

How bad was the Holiay Special? Allow
me to present Exhibit A.
It’s almost as if there wasn’t a really clear direction that the franchise was heading in at this point, and the overall tone was just confused.  At this point in time, the only Star Wars based entertainments that had been released were the original film and the horrendous Star Wars Holiday Special.  I’ll take a second here to mention that the Holiday Special is just as terribly godawful as everyone says it is.  I was child in the 70s and was obsessed with the first film (I still can’t bring myself to call it A New Hope- it’ll always be Star Wars to me).  My family had a VCR at the time and my father taped the Holiay Special for me and my siblings (we couldn’t stay up late to watch it).   We watched it once the next day and then never watched it again.  We had recording technology in 1979 that would have allowed us to watch a Star Wars themed TV show as many times as we wanted and our response was “pass”.  That’s how bad the Star Wars Christmas Special was. Kids, who I'm presuming were the intended audience, wanted nothing to do with it.  George Lucas should be lucky that it didn’t kill all future interest in the franchise (and yes, I'm aware of the fact that Lucas was not involved in the planning of the Holiday Special, but viewers in 1979 wouldn't have necessarily known that).  Would future Star Wars films be adventure films that explored ideas of good and evil, or would they be variety show farces filled with goofy wookiees?  Ford’s narration of the trailer makes it sound like he was still in Holiday Special mode, ready to introduce Bea Arthur and Harvey Korman right after Lando Calrissian.

I think everyone exhaled a sigh of relief when Empire turned out to be such a great movie.  It’s consistently considered the best of the Star Wars films, and I don’t disagree with that.  George Lucas will repeatedly say that the Star Wars films are made for children, but I think Empire busts that idea a little.  Sure, it has space battles and giant ship-eating slugs, but also introduces more adult themes such as loss, love, personal responsibility, and destiny.  It vastly expands the story and improves on the first film, and is probably one of the greatest science fiction films ever made.  But you wouldn’t guess it from that corny trailer.

My last thought on the matter is a personal message to Harrison ford. Thank you for not using that cheesy carnival huckster voice while you were playing Han Solo. That might have traumatized me more than the Holiay Special.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Cesar Pelli's Lost Oasis: The Niagara Falls Winter Garder



Cesar Pelli's Winter Garden, nearing the end.
I distinctly remember the first time I experienced Cesar Pelli’s Winter Garden in Niagara Falls, New York.  I was in high school, and I was visiting the Falls with a friend.  We decided to poke around in the Rainbow Center Mall, which by then was already declining pretty badly.  It was the early 90s and I don’t remember there being many stores that were still open.  After wandering in and out of a couple of shops, we came to the southern end of the mall and entered into an unexpected oasis.  One doesn’t often expect to find a lush tropical botanical garden attached to something as banal as a shopping mall, but there it was.  I was intrigued by the building’s multiple raised walkways and elevators.  A tall spiral staircase stretched to the highest level of the greenhouse.  Pools and fountains trickled through the thick vegetation.  It was certainly unlike other Niagara Falls structures I was familiar with.  The Falls are a tourist destination, so is filled with the normal tourist trappings one would expect like souvenir shops (with a generous dose of wax museums and goofy haunted houses thrown in).  This was completely different from what I knew of the Falls.  As a kid growing up in Western New York, regular trips to the Falls are a rite of passage, but this building had somehow not entered into my previous visits.  But, once I discovered it I made a point of visiting it every time I was there.  I’m glad I got to experience it when I did, because it was eventually demolished.

The building has sort of a sad history that ties into the City of Niagara Falls in general.  It was built in the 1970s in an effort to revitalize the downtown core. Large sections of the city had been razed during ill-fated attempts at urban renewal, and Cesar Pelli was one of the modernist architects hired to re-build the city, pretty much from the ground up (buildings by Philip Johnson, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and Paul Rudolph are also close by).  It was an attempt to create a tourist destination, but perhaps a tropical greenhouse was an odd, and eventually unsustainable, proposition.  As I researched the Winter Garden, I read about how it had been glazed using non-insulated single pane glass.  Heating the building during Western New York’s harsh winters became a burden for the city.  As time went on, the Winter Garden became difficult to support financially.  Niagara Falls may be an iconic world landmark, but the city itself has suffered with poverty and falling property values for decades.  Any fixes to the city-owned building would have been difficult and costly.  Re-glazing the structure with insulating glass would have cost millions.  Charging an admission fee for the building also posed problems (visiting the Winter Garden was free).  It was attached to a shopping mall, and the building itself was supposed to act as a pass-through from one side of the tourist district to the other.  The building had already been criticized for being built over what had once been a street, so closing it off to all but paying customers would have hurt business in the city even more.  There were other ideas proposed, such as converting the plantings to native species that could weather the cold, but nothing panned out.  In the end the plants were auctioned off and it was (for a brief time) converted into “Smokin’ Joe’s Family Fun Center.”  It was filled with video games and bounce houses, but that venture only lasted for a couple of years.  The Winter Garden was finally torn down in 2009.

Say what you will about the demolition and the successes or failures of modernist architecture in general, but there’s no doubt that a unique (and admission-free) attraction was lost when the Winter Garden came down.  It was an unexpected oasis in the middle of the city.

As I began writing this article a little while ago, I started researching the Winter Garden on-line, looking for photos that could give me information on the building’s design as well as the plantings within.  I came to the quick realization that there isn’t a lot out there, unfortunately.  For a building that stood in the middle of a major tourist destination for 30 years, it’s lack of representation on the internet was both puzzling and a little frustrating.  Pictures of the outside of the building are fairly easy to find, but interior photos that show the tropical plants and fountains are rare (maybe 12-15 pictures will show up in a Google search).  Of course there are photos out there.  I took pictures of the building during my visits, and I’m including some with this post. The building was also a common location for weddings in the Niagara Falls area, so countless wedding photos surely exist, they just haven’t been uploaded to the internet.   Many photos of the construction of the building’s interior spaces, as well as many people’s accounts of the building can be found in this post. (a good article that's definitely worth a read) 
I found this interior photo in an old architectural magazine.

This photo is from the same magazine article.
This is a photo I took in the late 90s.  The seating area was where special event like weddings were held.

This photo shows the pool and stairs, and shows the many different levels contained within the structure.
This pic was taken from an upper walkway, looking down at the main path that cut through the garden areas.
When I first visited the Winter Garden, the large dove-shaped decorations (visible in the above photo) were mounted on the front of the building, and were there for several years.  These are a vestige of the Festival of Lights, a winter/holiday themed event that was held throughout the city in the 1980s and 90s.  I was able to find one YouTube video that showed the doves illuminated. The footage of the Winter Garden comes near the end, but I took a screen cap:
This is literally the only footage I could find of the illuminated decorations.
On a final note, I noticed an interesting inconsistency while viewing the site of the Winter Garden in Google Maps.  I went to the street view in to see the area now (it’s essentially been turned into a large pedestrian walkway and plaza) and found something unexpected- some of the street views are old and still show the Winter Garden.  They’re all views from the periphery, as if you’re catching a glimpse of a ghost from the corner of your eye.
The street is now closed off, so when the Google cameras recently captured new images of the area, these shots couldn't be updated, so the Winter Garden's ghost lives on.
Now you see it, now you don't.
Cesar Pelli’s Winter Garden: Once an oasis, now a mirage.