Saturday, October 7, 2017

Cleveland-Buffalo 2017: Cleveland Museum of Art and Christmas Story House

We have had it in our plans to visit Cleveland for several years now, but kept putting it off as other travel opportunities or priorities came along.  The impetus that finally drove us to take the road trip came up during our winter trip to New York City.  We were touring the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum in upper Manhattan and were extremely disappointed to find out that we missed seeing an extensive Art Deco exhibition called "The Jazz Age" by one week.  Rich and I really love the Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles, so when we realized that the exhibit would travel to Cleveland next, this gave us the urgent reason to finally visit that city.

The show was exhibiting at the Cleveland Museum of Art, for which we had reciprocal free-entry privileges due to our Art Gallery of Ontario membership.  Providing examples of American design and style in the 1920s, the term "Jazz Age" was coined by F. Scott Fitzgerald in his novel "The Great Gatsby" and was used as a metaphor for decadence of vibrant colours, luxurious materials, and intricate details that marked that age of design in architecture, fashion, jewelry, interior and decorative arts.  The exhibit opened and closed with two classic luxury cars--the 1925 Rolls Royce Picadilly Roadster that cost $15,000 at the time, and the 1937 front-wheel drive Cord 812 Phaeton Roadster, which reflected the move towards streamlined aerodynamic engineering resulting in efficient airflow and speed.

There were many examples of furniture design in the exhibit with a focus on three main categories, with the first being chairs and sofas.  The 1923 "Aviation Bergère" is an armchair by French designer Robert Bonfils.  It is made with a gilded wooden frame that is covered with wool upholstry featuring silk tapestry depicting a WWI fighter plane patrolling the skies, surrounded by floral motifs on the arms and seat.  Austrian-American Joseph Urban's 1921 "Gondola" Chair is made from painted wood covered with silver leaf and mother-of-pearl ornamentation with colourful striped upholstery.  Also considered "gondola-shaped", Frenchman Marcel Coard's 1925 velour-covered sofa boasts a frame made of carved Indian rosewood with decorative trim that invokes an African feel.  There were several pieces that were inspired by the contours of a skyscraper, including the armchair made of brass, aluminum and leather, where the geometric cutouts of a stepped tower decorate the sides and back of the chair.  This chair by French designer Jean Dupas was displayed at the International Exposition of Art and Industry in 1928.  Another such chair by Austrian-American designer Paul Frankl is accompanied by a magnificent "Skyscraper Bookcase-Desk" made of California redwood and black laquer.  Part of a series of Skyscraper furniture designs, Frankl's use of contrasting shades of wood and stacked forms add to the illusion that you are looking at a tall tower.

Also on display was Frankl's desk and bookcase made of various woods including mahogany, cedrela, zebrawood, yellow poplar and pine, which features a patterned silk covered desk blotter with matching fabric used to cover the seat of the desk chair.  Like his other works in the series, the piece resembles an architectural structure.  One of my favourite pieces is the little round "Library table" (circa 1920) by Clément Rousseau, made of rosewood, shagreen and ebony, with a rotating inner core used to hold a selection of books.  The table is decorated with tinted and polished sharkskin, exemplary of the exotic materials used in this period of design.  The 1929 red-laquered wooden dressing table with the triangular legs and drawers and its accompanying bench is an American creation inspired by an earlier Parisian design by Léon Jallot.  I loved the shade of sage green used for the sideboard and matching chair by German-American designer Kem Weber.  It has decorative details on the front edges and drawer handles that were inspired by Mayan temples.  A mahogany, satinwood and thuyawood armoire is decorated with plastic "Ivorine" and ebony inlays.  It sits beneath a chandelier made of steel and wrought iron that features shapes of goats which throw an interesting shadow against the wall.

Decorative screens were popular during the Jazz Age and there were some fine examples in the exhibit.  A gilt and laquered wood folding screen by Armand-Albert Rateau (1921) features imagery of foxes in the woods, emulating traditional Flemish designs.  The screen titled "Muse with Violin", made of wrought iron, brass, silver and gold plating by Hungarian designer Paul Fehér features floral motifs inspired by Viennese design and the figure of a nude playing the violin.  The beautiful green laquered wooden doors covered with mother-of-pearl, gold and cast bronze designs portraying the images of warrior-like angels standing on skyscrapers was created by Russian-French designer Séraphin Soudbinine on behalf of Solomon Guggenheim.  Many other decorative screens, gates and mirrors were on display. 

There was no shortage of stunning decorative arts in this exhibit, including bowls, vases, clocks and more, made of a variety of materials and all beautifully ornate.  The "New Yorker Jazz" punch bowl made of glazed, moulded earthenware with a blue and black sgraffito design reflecting the sights and sounds of the Jazz Age nightlife, was commissioned for FDR's second inauguration as governor of New York.   The glass bowl by Sidney Waugh is engraved with leaping gazelles running around the circumference, providing a sense of grace and movement.  The Daum Nancy enameled and engraved glass vase incorporated coloured glass into the surface of the molten vessel, which was then carved or etched with elements of flora and fauna typical of the Art Nouveau style.  The Chinoiserie Clock contained Mother-of-pearl, diamonds, emeralds, sapphires and gold in the clock face, with red dragons at its base. The green patinated copper vase by female artisan Marie Zimmerman was inspired by the designs of Japanese plume fans.

There were multiple examples of Art Deco silver tea sets whose sleek, elegant but non-ostentatious designs reflect the concepts of modernism and simplicity.  The elongated pieces of the "Rhythm" Tea and Coffee Service (1929) by English-American Percy Ball features a subtle pattern along the edges and delicate brown knobs for the lids.  The rectangular tea service with ivory handles and knobs (1931) by German-American Peter Muller-Munk features a rectlinear pattern on the sides, inspired by works of Frank Lloyd Wright.  Our favourite set was the Cubic coffee service (1927) by Danish designer Erik Magnussen which featured angular surfaces made from a mixture of metals that sparkled in the light, creating a wonderful physical embodiment of the Cubism style.

One of the highlights of the fabrics and textiles section of the Jazz Age Exhibit was a wall covered with murals called "The Joy of Life" by Joseph Urban (1927) which used to hang above the stage in the Ziegfield Theatre.  The murals imbedded figures from opera, theatre and film in midst of a vibrant floral background.  Various silk weaved textiles featured antelopes, elephants, pineapples, cupids, and other designs.  A luscious cape of mink and silk was decorated with a Chinoiserie pattern of pagodas and flowers, created from coloured glass beads, while a brigade of mannequins modeled flapper dresses and ornamental capes and wraps.  One of the most interesting items in this section was the large cotton quilt (1930) by Mrs. Fannie B. Shaw, which was a commentary on the changing times during the Great Depression.  The work is ironically called "Prosperity", after the unrealistic promise of President Herbert Hoover that prosperity was just around the corner.  Each square depicts a different type of worker (teacher, nurse, farmer, cowboy, etc.) peering around the corner looking for relief from the Depression, while the final square on the bottom right shows Uncle Sam holding a big bag of cash.  Also along the bottom, the Democrats are depicted as a donkey and the Republicans as an elephant.

The gorgeous examples of jewelry shown in the exhibit are created with precious materials including gold, silver, platinum, onyx, diamonds, emeralds, mother-of-pearl, sapphires, coral and more.  There were beautiful pocket watches, key chains, broaches, necklaces, earrings and hair clips.  Several pieces featured Egyptian motifs including images of scarabs, mummies, and hieroglyphics.

Many of the paintings and drawings on display reinforce the concept of the 1920s-30s being "The Jazz Age", as they depict scenes of dancing and music, invoking the sense of rhythm and movement.  These include Paul Colin's 1930 crayon and gouache drawing of African American entertainer Josephine Baker as well as his drawing of a couple dancing under the Eiffel Tower, Archibald Motley Jr's painting called Blues, which depicts the sights and sounds of a Parisian nightclub, and the 1926 painting of George Gershwin at the piano by William Auerbach-Levy.  Also on display was one of Robert Delauney's famous depictions of the Eiffel Tower which he painted in Orphism style, an offshoot of Cubism that focused on abstraction, light and vibrant colours.

While we have seen examples of Art Deco/Art Nouveau designs before, this Jazz Age exhibition contained one of the most comprehensive and eclectic collections of items created during this wonderful period.  We were very fortunate to have caught the show in Cleveland after having missed it in New York.  Since we were already in the Cleveland Museum of Art, we took some time to check out the rest of the museum's permanent and temporary exhibits.  The museum is quite large and includes collections from 16 departments ranging from Greek, Roman, and Pre-Columbian times through to Contemporary Art as well as covering works from Asian, African, Islamic, Native North American and European cultures.  While we took a quick tour of many of the sections, we had spent so much time in the Jazz Age exhibit that we needed to prioritize our time to the ones that most interested us, which were the areas devoted to Modern and Contemporary Art.  While racing through the various departments, we came across one of Rodin's iconic "The Thinker" sculptures located on the south entrance steps of the museum.  The sculpture was damaged with its lowers legs missing and the base of the piece warped, having been blown off its pedestal by a bomb in 1970 in a shocking act of vandalism that might have been politically motivated.  Rather than try to fix (and ultimately modify) the work, it was decided to leave the sculpture in its state of damage, since the backstory of the violent act adds to the conversation of this version of "The Thinker".

Within the Modern Art section, my favourite piece was the silver animal-shaped tea and coffee service and tray, decorated with curved ivory "horns". Created by Italian designer Caro Bugatti circa 1907, it sits on an ornate table made of inlaid wood, ivory and bone, gilded bronze and mother-of-pearl, with gold insects decorating the bottom of the table legs.  Vincent Van Gogh's oil painting of Adeline Ravoux held special interest for us, since we had recently watched the animated film "Loving Vincent", where artists created new oil paintings based on Van Gogh's works including this one and used them as part of the animation.  While we were familiar with the sculptural works of Marcel Duchamp, we had not seen much by his brother Raymond Duchamp-Villon until this visit. In 1916 while serving in the army, Raymond created a Cubist sculpture of a painted bronze rooster standing in front of a rising sun.  Both these images (rooster and rising sun) represented victory during World War I.  The jarring colours and angular, geometric features of German Karl Schmidt-Rottluff's 1919 "Self-portrait with Hat" reflect his inner emotions and again show the influences of Cubism.  For me, the gaunt, distorted face in the hat and trench coat has a film noir feel.  Named after a historic clock in Moscow, the beautiful 1913 Kremlin Clock Tower from the House of Fabergé is decorated with emeralds and sapphires, and made from silver, enamel, and a mineral called rhodenite that gives it the stunning pink-rose colour.

We saw some of the usual suspects within the Contemporary Art section, including Andy Warhol's Marilyn x 100, a huge screenprint ink and synthetic polymer paint on canvas featuring 50 coloured and 50 black and white representations of Marilyn Monroe's face.  Known for his giant sculptures of everyday objects, Claes Oldenburg was represented by a large tube of toothpaste with its cap removed.  I recognized the distinctive style of Florine Stettheimer after seeing an entire exhibition of her work at the Art Gallery of Ontario.  The oil painting "Sunday Afternoon in the Country" depicts scenes from her family's estate with famous friends including Edward Steichen and Marcel Duchamp as well as members of her family.  We were quite taken with German painter Anselm Kiefer's 1989 painting called "Lot's Wife" which reflects his struggles coming to terms with the Holocaust.  Almost 3-dimensional with the use of oil paint, ash, stucco, chalk, linseed oil, polymer emulsion, salt and copper heating coils, this haunting work depicts a barren landscape divided by train tracks that bring to mind the deportation of masses to death camps via trains.  If you look closely, you can see footprints and tire tracks in the plaster, covered with ash.  It was interesting looking at George Baselitz's "View Out of the Window, which deliberately rendered the image of the person looking out the window to be upside down, making the painting disorienting to the viewer.

As we were about to leave the museum, we came across the ArtLens Gallery, an interactive space with touchscreens that display digitized images of all the art in the museum.  You can narrow down by category (e.g. decorative arts, Asian arts, painters, etc.) or by directly selecting one of the images floating by, in order to enlarge the image and get more information about a work.  With the ArtLens app, you can save images that interest you and then use the app to map a route to find these items within the museum.  This was too late for us, since we found the gallery at the end of our visit but this would have been great.  An ArtLens Exhibition allows you to interact personally with items, such as placing your face into portrait or simulating an object being placed on your body or in your hands.  If we return to this museum, I definitely want to spend more time playing in this gallery.  It seems to be an advanced version of technology found in New York's Cooper Hewitt Design Museum.

The last attraction that we wanted to visit while in Cleveland was the Christmas Story House and Museum, based on the 1983 movie "A Christmas Story" that has become a cult classic and an annual viewing event for us during the yuletide season.  Set in the 1940s and told through a series of vignettes, the movie follows the lives of Ralphie Parker, his brother Randy and their parents "Old Man Parker" and "Mother Parker" in the months leading up to Christmas.  Ralphie schemes to receive a "Red Rider BB Gun" as a present, but is told by every adult that it is too dangerous with the warning "You'll shoot your eye out".   Based on the collection of short stories called "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash" by humorist Jean Shepherd who also acts as the voice of the adult Ralphie, narrating the scenes as a series of reminiscences, much of the movie is set in a quiet neighbourhood in southern Cleveland.  In 2005, the actual house used in the filming of A Christmas Story was purchased by avid fan Brian Jones for $150,000.  Jones then launched a massive renovation and restoration effort to lovingly recreate the home to be exactly as depicted in the movie.  A house across the street was also purchased and turned into a museum and gift shop in support of the movie.  Now a tourist attraction, you can take a guided tour of the home and museum, and hear interesting trivia about the filming of the movie.

We learned that the director Bob Clark only got support from MGM studios to make A Christmas Story, if he agreed to also make the sequel to his previous hit movie Porky's.  Clark received 2.5 million from the studio and put up 2.5 million of his own money to get his passion film made.  MGM originally wanted Jack Nicolson to play Old Man Parker, but Jack's asking price would have taken the entire budget of the movie, so Darrin McGavin was cast instead.  The movie flopped at the box office and was panned by the critics but has since become a cult hit and holiday favourite.  Not realizing what they had, MGM gave the rights to Ted Turner for free and none of the actors or crew negotiated for any residuals from the movie.  Needless to say, the Turner empire is continuing to make a killing from this film.  It is interesting to note that the IMDB rating for A Christmas Story is 8.0/10 while Porky's II has a 4.9 rating.

Cleveland was chosen as the location to film the movie because Higbee's was the only department store that could be found who would allow a massive Santa's Christmas Mountain to be built inside their premises (and the movie was not even shot at Christmas time since we were told that the snow shown in the outdoor scenes was all man-made).  After the filming, Higbee's continued to bring out the props and decorations each Christmas, until the store was sold.  A casino now resides on the site, but the historic "Higbee Company" sign is still displayed prominently on the building.  We took a quick look inside while touring downtown Cleveland.

It was so much fun and quite nostalgic to be wandering around the rooms of the house that we had seen so many times in the movie, while listening to the tour guide regale us with humorous tidbits and fun facts.  We saw the living room where the Christmas presents were opened, Ralphie and Randy's bedroom where they dreamed and schemed about Christmas, the kitchen table and bathroom where various humorous scenes took place, and the famous stairs where Ralphie came down in the pink bunny suit.  We were told to observe carefully the next time we watched the movie.  Any time the blinds were drawn, the filming actually happened on a sound stage, while any time the blinds were open, filming took place in the house.

We even were allowed to inspect and interact with iconic props from the movie, including the famous leg lamp (a major award!) and the coveted "Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock, and this thing which tells time".  We were told the story about how the crate that the leg lamp was delivered in was too large for the door of the house.  The director instructed the props people to cut part of the box to make it fit, but they accidentally cut off part of the words on it, so that instead of "This End Up", you can see the "His End Up" in some of the scenes.  We were able to take note of this for ourselves when we examined the crate sitting in the hallway of the house.  We saw a plastic recreation of the Christmas turkey that was devoured by the neighbour's dogs and were told that the dogs hired for the movie were so well trained that they initially refused the eat the real turkey during filming. We were shown the little cupboard under the kitchen sink where Randy hid when he feared his father's wrath over something Ralphie did.  One of the other people on the tour actually climbed into the space for a photo op.  This is the first "movie set" tour that we've been on where we could be so hands-on with the set pieces!

In the bathroom we saw the child-like scrawl of the disappointing secret message that Ralphie decoded with his Little Orphan Annie decoder ring that turned out to be an ad for Ovaltine.  There was the bar of soap that Mother Parker made him bite, in order to "wash his mouth out" after he used a curse word ("the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words").  The guide told us that the bar of soap was actually made of wax and indicated that previous tourists actually tried biting the prop.  In the hallway was the phone that Mother Parker used to call the mother of Ralphie's friend Swartz, who Ralphie unfairly blamed for teaching him the curse word.  When you pick up the phone, you can hear the dialogue between the two mothers from that scene.  Outside in the backyard was the little shed where Ralphie imagined he would be shooting attacking bad guys using his Red Ryder BB gun.

The Christmas Story Museum features original props, costumes, posters and memorabilia from the film, as well as hundreds of rare behind-the-scenes photos. Among the props were replica Red Ryder guns and leg lamps, toys from the Higbee’s Department store window where Ralphie covets his air rifle at the beginning of the movie,  the contents of teacher Miss Shields’ desk including the chattering teeth that the students wear as a joke, and even the family car that the Parkers drove around to pick up a Christmas tree and visit Santa Claus.  Also shown was a tin sign for "Nehi Soda", a popular drink in the 1940s known for sponsoring puzzle contests.  The sign's imagery of a pair of female legs in heels inspired Jean Shepherd's idea for the leg lamp prize.  It was very appropriate that when you look at the sign, you can see the reflection of a replica leg lamp displayed across the room.

Many of the costumes worn by the characters were on display, including Ralphie's winter coat, and Randy’s snowsuit that he was forced to wear in the hilarious scene where Mother Parker wrapped him up with so much clothing that he could not put his arms down and could not get up once he fell down.  There was mother's bathrobe, the cliché-ish black and white striped "bad guy" outfits warn by the villains in Ralphie's imagined gun battle, and the stereotypical Chinese jackets warn by the waiters at the Chinese restaurant that the family goes to after the neighbour's dogs destroy their Christmas turkey.  The exterior of the restaurant was actually a bowling alley where the "W" was burnt out, resulting in the Chinese sounding "BO LING".

The Gift Shop was quite fun to wander around.  You could take home almost any notable memorabilia of the movie imaginable, including your own Red Ryder air rifle, a full sized leg lamp, Ralphie's pink bunny suit in both child and adult sizes, DVDs, posters, drinking glasses, a leg lamp bottle opener, and so much more.  There were even little miniature tableaus depicting scenes from the movie.  We settled on a leg lamp night light as our souvenir, although I did try to convince Rich to buy the bunny suit for himself.  For anyone who loves this movie, or just wants a fun place to visit in Cleveland, this was definitely worth the price of admission.

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