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Through My Lens: The Whitney

The Whitney

This photo shows some more of the art you can see in New York. At left is a photo by Richard Avedon and to the right is a painting by Guy Pène Du Bois. The sculpture in between is by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, an American sculptor and art collector.

When Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney offered her collection of work by American artists to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it was refused. So she turned around and opened her own museum. The Whitney Museum of Art, which focuses on American art, opened in 1931 in Greenwich Village. It has had a number of homes since then, but its latest, a purpose-built building at the south end of the High Line, opened in 2015.

The Met, the Frick, and the Guggenheim

The real reason I went to New York last month had more to do with me wanting to visit another Met.

That would be the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Met Exterior

I’ve written before about my love–hate relationship with the Vancouver Art Gallery. Which is why, after a rather trying visit to a popular exhibition at the VAG late last summer, I lamented to the friend I was with that I needed a proper art fix at a proper world class art gallery. Preferably in a city like Paris. Or London.

Or New York.

The Met Interior

A few hours later, as I was pondering my meltdown outside the VAG, I suddenly remembered that (1) I had enough points for a plane ticket to New York and (2) it had been far too long since I had visited my friend in Brooklyn.

A few emails back and forth, a few online bookings, and, within a few days, a few plans were in place.

And a few months later, just a few hours after touchdown at JFK, I was standing at the entrance to what most people rate as one of the top art galleries in the world.

Diana at the Met

The first time I walked into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on an earlier visit to New York, I did have a wee bit of a momentary breakdown. Its size almost did me in. I knew the Met was big ― I just didn’t realize it was that big. But within seconds, I shrugged off my frustrations. When you’re playing art tourist and you’re in the largest art gallery in the Western Hemisphere, there is no time to waste.

The trick to large art galleries is to get a map, and quickly zero in on what you want to see, picking a floor or wing to focus on. Don’t even thinking of trying to see it all. And don’t be afraid to ask for directions. Those gallery guards know their way around.

I tend to gravitate towards European Painting no matter what art gallery I am in. But if the Old Masters put you to sleep, not to worry. The Met has everything from Greek, Roman, and Islamic art all the way to present-day contemporary art. And if you’re there in good weather, don’t skip the roof garden. It has an amazing bird’s eye view of Central Park.

Knights at the Met

If oversized galleries aren’t your thing at all, then go to the Frick. The Frick was the perfect antidote to my morning at the Met. It’s so small you can see the entire gallery in a little more than an hour depending on long you linger in each room. Which is what makes it so delightful. The Frick is my idea of a perfect art museum, actually, as I truly believe art should be consumed in small doses before it all becomes a blur.

The Frick Exterior

Henry Clay Frick, an industrialist who made his money in Pittsburgh steel, built the museum in 1914 as a private home for his family, although he fully intended it to be turned into a museum after his death. Many of the rooms remain furnished and decorated as they were when the Fricks lived there, including how and where the paintings are hung.

The collection focuses on European paintings, and has an entire room of Limoges enamels ― something I knew nothing about, but they are quite impressive. Old man Frick was quite the collector. How on earth did he get his hands on three Vermeers is what I’d like to know, given there are only about 35 in existence?

The Frick Interior

The Met and the Frick are both located on Fifth Avenue (aka Museum Mile). Still on Fifth Avenue, but further north, is the Guggenheim. This museum is worth a visit even if it is just to have a look at Frank Lloyd Wright’s amazing architectural design that is as much sculpture as it is building.

The Guggenheim Exterior

The Guggenheim focuses mainly on art from the last 150 years or so. I enjoy the Impressionist works and there are always interesting temporary exhibits.

The Guggenheim Interior

Spending a long weekend zipping from art gallery to art gallery may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is mine, and I can’t wait to get back to New York for another art fix.

The Met at Night

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

After Calgary, I had one last stop to make before I turned my rental car west towards home.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

Located west of Fort MacLeod (which is south of Calgary), Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is one of the world’s largest and best preserved buffalo jumps. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981. That’s kind of a big deal ― being on the list puts Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump on par with the Egyptian pyramids and the Galapagos Islands. There are only 17 World Heritage Sites in all of Canada.

Essentially, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is a vast archeological site. The research that has been done on the site gives us modern-day folks evidence of how the Plains People hunted the buffalo in centuries past. We now know that Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump was in use for about 6000 years up until the mid-1800s.

What’s a buffalo jump, you ask? It’s a cliff over which the buffalo were, well, let’s say, encouraged to jump off. The hunters would disguise themselves with wolf skins and start a stampede of the buffalo herd, driving them towards the cliff.

Buffalo Jump Top

After the buffalo ran over the cliff, the hunters were then able to go below and butcher the dead buffalo.

Buffalo Jump Bottom

Archaeologists think that at least ten metres of buffalo bones still lie buried below the surface of the prairie at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.

Buffalo Bones

There is an impressive five-level interpretive centre built into the side of the cliff at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. The exhibits will answer your every question about buffalo jumps.

Interpretive Centre

In addition to the interpretive centre and the well-fenced view point above the buffalo jump, there is a short trail below the jump that provides you with some magnificent views over the prairie.

Prairie 1

The wind is keen ― I was impressed by its power and by how much noise it makes. If you look carefully at this next photo, you can see a row of wind turbines in the upper left corner ― these are ubiquitous in this part of the province.

Prairie 2

I’m so in love with this flat horizon.

Prairie 3

Oh ― and the name? It’s not about smashed buffalo heads. It was the name given to a small boy who wanted to see the buffalo jump over the cliff, but who got way too close. He was crushed by the falling animals.

The Glenbow


Calgary’s got yet another thing going for it, and that’s the Glenbow. The Glenbow is an art and history museum I’ve long heard about because it’s not just a museum, it’s also a library and archive. Archives are like crack for historians, and the Glenbow is Canada’s largest non-governmental archive.

Ready Made Farms

Those archives contain unpublished diaries, letters, and minute books of thousands of Alberta families, organizations, and businesses. Its library has more than 100,000 books, pamphlets, journals, newspapers, and government documents related to the history of Western Canada. And its image collection includes photographs, posters, and cartoons that tell the story of the Canadian West from the 1870s to the 1990s.

Unemployed 1930s Men

Whew! Makes me want to go research a book!

What the Glenbow Museum does particularly well is tell the story of southern Alberta, including its first peoples.


It also has a permanent exhibit with the unlikely title of Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta. It’s about some of the famous (and infamous) Albertans who shaped the province’s history over the past 150 years. Did you know the fellow who discovered oil in Leduc in 1947 ― that would be Ted Link who worked for Imperial Oil ― was told by his head office in Toronto to stop drilling? Head office had given up on the search for oil. Mr. Link, convinced that the entire province was lying on a bed of sedimentary rock (a possible source of hydrocarbons), pretended he hadn’t received the order. Two days later, Leduc No. 2 blew in and changed the course of the province’s history.

Want to learn about more stories like this? Be sure to stop in at the Glenbow the next time you’re in Calgary.


The Cloisters

As you may have, um, noticed from this year’s Lenten series, I’m rather partial to cloisters. The simple truth is: I just can’t get enough of them.

So, given my love of cloisters, why were my expectations of The Cloisters ― a branch of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art ― so low? I didn’t bother to make the trek all the way to Fort Tryon Park until my fourth visit to New York; even then, I debated whether or not to make the effort. (Though, in the end, I was glad I did as I decided the park alone is worth a visit. As you can see here.)

The Cloisters 1

The thing is, I’d always been under the impression that the buildings that make up The Cloisters are all reconstructions. Purist that I am, I figured since I’ve seen many a real cloister ― in France, and Spain, and Italy ― why would I want to see a mere imitation?

Turns out I was completely misinformed. The Cloisters aren’t reconstructions; they’re the real deal. (And let that be a lesson to me: I didn’t do my homework before dismissing The Cloisters and almost passed on what is a marvellous opportunity for anyone in the vicinity of New York who cannot get themselves over to Europe.)

The Cloisters 2

The Cloisters had its origins in the private collection of American sculptor George Grey Barnard, who lived in Paris for more than a decade in the late nineteenth century. In the decade before World War I, he got into the habit of collecting and bringing home with him pieces of medieval architecture from French villages. John D. Rockefeller bought the collection from him in 1925, and later donated it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rockefeller also donated to the city of New York the land that now makes up Fort Tryon Park.

The Cloisters 3

Open to the public since 1938, the museum is a chronologically arranged ensemble of remnants from five French abbeys: Saint Michel de Cuxa, Saint Guilhem le Désert, Trie-sur-Baïse, Froville, and Bonnefont-en-Comminges. In addition to the buildings, there are more than 2000 works of art, including illuminated manuscripts, stained glass windows, and tapestries.

Here, take a look.

If medieval history is your thing, I highly recommend a visit to The Cloisters.

As for me, I can’t wait to go back.

The Cloisters 10

Happy Birthday, Ringstrasse!

I’ve had Vienna on my mind for much of the past few months ― and not only because I recently posted about Salzburg.

It all began with Frederic Morton’s A Nervous Splendor: Vienna, 1888–1889. The book was required reading for my Modern Europe history course a couple of decades ago, and I enjoyed it so much that I later bought Morton’s other book about Vienna: Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913–1914.

And then promptly packed both books in a box for one of my (many) moves.

This winter I finally got around to pulling both books off the shelf. I reread A Nervous Splendor and then, for the first time, I read Thunder at Twilight. (I’m about three-quarters of the way through the latter at the moment.) A Nervous Splendor tells the story of the last few months of Crown Prince Rudolph’s life and his suicide, while Thunder at Twilight tells the story of the last few months of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s life and his murder. Both men were heirs to the Austrian-Hungarian throne until their untimely deaths. The suicide of Rudolph was the beginning of the end for the Austrian-Hungarian empire, and the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 ― we all know what happened after that ― was the nail in the empire’s coffin.

Both non-fiction books read like novels, and both are useful if you want to learn something about the waning decades of nineteenth-century Vienna and the city’s role in the build-up to World War I.

(Coincidentally, I found out just a few days ago that Frederic Morton, an Austrian-American writer, died two weeks ago in Vienna.)

In addition to my Viennese reading, I recently enjoyed Vancouver Opera’s performance of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, which transported me to 1870s Vienna, if only for a few hours.

And a couple of weekends ago, I saw Woman in Gold, a Hollywood film that far surpassed my expectations, which tells the story of an Austrian-Jew who took the Austrian government to court to get back the paintings stolen from her family by the Nazis.

All of this adds up to an awful lot of Viennese armchair travel. And, except for my reading of the Morton books, all of it was unintentional.

But unintentional armchair travel is a good excuse for posting about Vienna.

Vienna was one of the cities I hit on my first European walk-about by Eurail. Initially I found it rather overwhelming; my travelling companion was ready to leave almost as soon as we arrived.

But there is a spectacular majesty to Vienna that I came to respect before we moved on a few days later and I now think the city is too often overlooked. The seventh largest city in the European Union, sandwiched between Bucharest and Budapest, it gets far less attention from tourists than London, Berlin, Madrid, Rome, and Paris (aka Europe’s Big Five).

At the heart of Vienna’s majesty is the Ringstrasse ― a 5 km ring of boulevards that forms a semicircle through the heart of Vienna. Emperor Franz Joseph I, father of the above-mentioned Crown Prince Rudolph and uncle of the above-mentioned Franz Ferdinand, was much influenced by Napoleon III’s demand that Paris be transformed by Baron Haussmann. In 1857, Franz Joseph ordered that Vienna’s decaying walls be torn down and replaced with a series of grand new buildings.

The Burgtheater was completed in 1888.

The Burgtheater was completed in 1888.

And so began one of the largest construction projects ever completed in Viennese history: neo-Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Neoclassical buildings sprouted up along on the Ringstrasse over the next several decades. These include the Vienna State Opera, or Wiener Staatsoper (1869), the Votive Church, or Votivkirche (1879), the Palace of Justice (1881), the Austrian Parliament (1883), the Town Hall, or Rathaus (1883), the University of Vienna (1884), the Imperial Court Theatre, or Burgtheater (1888), and the twin museums of Natural History, or Naturhistorisches Museum (1889) and Fine Arts, or Kunsthistoriches Museum (1891). Only the imperial palace, the Hofburg, is older than the Ringstrasse.

I initially started writing this post about Vienna because of all the recent happy coincidences I described above, but while doing my research, I discovered another happy coincidence: it was 150 years ago today, in 1865, that Emperor Franz Joseph I officially opened the Ringstrasse. Hence, the title of this post.

The Naturhistorisches Museum and the Kunsthistoriches Museum are mirror images of each other.

The Naturhistorisches Museum and the Kunsthistoriches Museum are mirror images of each other.

I think Franz Joseph was perhaps a tad premature in opening the Ringstrasse ― it would be some years before the construction of all those grand buildings would be complete and who wants to promenade past a noisy, dusty construction site? Not me and I speak from personal experience. But eventually the “Ring” was to become an enjoyable city promenade for Viennese and tourist alike ― as I learned during my first visit to the city ― and has remained so for 150 years.

All of the world’s large cities have ring roads, but only Vienna has a Ringstrasse.

The Austrian Parliament Building is one of the largest buildings on the Ringstrasse.

The Austrian Parliament Building is one of the largest buildings on the Ringstrasse.

Through My Lens: Cloister of Abbaye Saint Michel de Cuxa


For the Second Sunday of Lent, we’re hopping across the Channel to France. This photo is of the Cloister of Abbaye Saint Michel de Cuxa, a Benedictine abbey located in the French Pyrenees.

The abbey was built in 878, abandoned during the French Revolution, and restored to a monastic community in 1919. Its cloister dates back to the twelfth century, but many of the columns were removed in the early twentieth century by an American sculptor and are now on display at The Cloisters Museum and Gardens in New York.

I took this photo in November 2000. It was on this jaunt around southern France that I came to realize how much I value the beauty and the silence of monastic cloisters. I’ve been on a mission to photograph them ever since.

Chihuly Garden and Glass

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned that the Chihuly Garden and Glass alone was worth a visit to Seattle. I did not exaggerate: it is one of the most distinctive art installations I have ever seen.

The artist, Dale Chihuly, was born in Tacoma, Washington, in 1941. He studied at the universities of Washington and Wisconsin and at the Rhode Island School of Design, and in Venice, Italy, on a Fulbright. His work is exhibited in more than 200 collections all over the world.

If you ever get to Seattle, do not miss this unique gallery.

And, if you are still not convinced, here are a few more photos. (Just a few.)

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Two Days in Seattle

CoffeeNow that I’ve told you how we got to Seattle, and how we got back from Seattle, you might be wondering what there is to do and see while in Seattle. The city, I was pleased to discover, is the perfect size for a weekend visit. It’s large enough that there’s something for everyone, but small enough that you don’t feel overwhelmed by all the choices.

Let’s start off with the architecture. Upon arrival, you can’t help but notice the Space Needle, a prominent landmark of Seattle’s skyline that was built for the 1962 World’s Fair. It’s impressive when you stand beneath it, but … well … not so impressive I wanted to pay money to go up it.

Space Needle

Never mind. At the base of the Space Needle is a building that did impress me enough to want to pay the admission fee. That would be the EMP Museum, designed by Toronto-born architect Frank Gehry. The building’s deconstructivist style is just so fun to look at, and so shiny and colourful and fluid that you can’t resist reaching out your hand to touch the building as you walk by.


GuitarsInside the museum is even more fun, with exhibits more entertaining than I thought possible. Want to learn everything there is to know about Nirvana? It’s here. Jimi Hendrix? Him too.

The museum also has also some really cool artifacts from the world of fantasy and science fiction TV and film. As in: the Cowardly Lion’s costume, Susan Pevensie’s bow and quiver of arrows, Yoda’s staff, Darth Vader’s light sabre, Data’s uniform … they’re all here. Geekdom heaven, wouldn’t you say?

Seattle scored a second “starchitect”-designed building with the Seattle Central Library, designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. Don’t just walk around its exterior, though. Have a quick look inside too, taking the time to go all the way up to the top floor for a remarkable view over the atrium.

Seattle Central Library

Once you’ve seen Seattle’s architectural highlights, I recommend checking out one of the most unique art installations I’ve seen anywhere: the Chihuly Garden and Glass. (It alone is worth a visit to Seattle.) The museum opened a year ago, so it’s rather new, and it’s rather extraordinary. Dale Chihuly is an American glass sculptor who creates exquisite works of blown glass. Photos don’t do his work justice, but, forgive me, I’ll post one anyways.

Chihuly Garden

Seattle 2013 191A Seattle institution you shouldn’t miss is Pike Place Market, located near the downtown waterfront. In operation since 1907, it’s one of the oldest farmer’s market in the United States. Fresh local produce, seafood, and flowers are at street level, while the lower levels are filled with shops of all sorts, including bakeries, restaurants, clothing, and local crafts. Be sure to see the fishmongers in action as they throw the fish to each other before wrapping them up for the customer. Oh, and there’s a coffee shop in the market you may have heard of: Starbucks. SushiNot just any Starbucks, though ― it’s the first ever one, which opened for business in 1971.

We stayed in Belltown, which turned out to be a great neighbourhood full of funky coffee shops, trendy restaurants, and lively bars. It is also conveniently located halfway between the downtown waterfront and Seattle Center (where the Space Needle, the EMP, and the Chihuly Garden and Glass are located).

Cherry Street Coffee House

One thing we didn’t have time for: a ferry ride across Elliott Bay. And there are dozens of other Seattle neighbourhoods I’m told are worth checking out. In other words? I plan to return for another weekend visit soon, because there’s lots more of Seattle to see.

Seattle Ferries

The National Museum of the American Indian

In my post the other week on the Smithsonian, I mentioned how splendid the building that houses the National Museum of the American Indian is.

And then didn’t bother to post a single photo of the building.

I didn’t post any photos because I think the building is so impressive its photos deserve a blog post all their own.

If you’ve ever been to the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec, you’ll recognize the architect’s work. Both buildings were designed by Douglas Cardinal. Born in Calgary, Alberta, to a Blackfoot father and a mother of Métis and German origins, Cardinal’s designs are known for their curved lines and organic shapes.

I could photograph this building over and over again. Here, take a look.

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