Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Notes on Irises, Van Gogh, Walter Annenberg, Louisiana Politics - Essay

"...In 1987 Annenberg had a hankering to own van Gogh’s Irises (1889), which..."

Notes on Irises, Van Gogh, Walter Annenberg, Louisiana Politics

In my article A Few Thoughts About van Gogh on this blog, I described van Gogh’s use of color in the painting Irises (1890) by simply stating that he contrasted purple-blue tones with yellowish-gold tones to heighten their effect.  Van Gogh admitted this in a letter to his brother Theo, he used “complimentary” colors to make Irises visually as well as emotionally impactful, he said.

I further stated that van Gogh painted Irises while incarcerated at the asylum in Saint-Rémy, after suffering a psychotic episode in the town of Arles, his mental illness possibly the result of hereditary epilepsy, syphilis, and booze.  He sliced off his left ear, and carried it to the brothel (maison de tolèrance), as a gift for the whore Rachel, whose real name was Gaby.  The artist’s bouts of incoherence and excessive drinking frightened the townspeople of Arles, who grumbled, so he landed in the asylum of St.-Paul-de-Mausole in Saint-Rémy.

Van Gogh turned to nature during his lucid moments in Saint-Rémy, nature soothed him.  He painted the irises that surrounded the asylum’s pathways.

Ironically, the day I wrote the description of van Gogh’s use of colors in the painting Irises (1890), an old friend Pam Zuschlag photographed irises in the La Louve Garden in Bonnieux, not very far from Arles and Saint-Rémy. In Pam's image, I saw the purple-blue tones that seduced van Gogh.  Pam's photograph also revealed the tonal variations in the sun-drenched landscape under a cloudless sky, all of which van Gogh told us he found so moving.

Pam’s photo inspired a few words about irises.

Since botany is not overwhelmingly interesting, I won’t bore you with scientific classifications and Latin names and chit-chat about species and sub-genus.  It is interesting however that the flower takes its name from the Greek word for a rainbow.  And that the iris plays a part in the ancient Greek myth about Hades’ abduction of Persephone.

This is interesting: Bombay Sapphire gin, which I enjoy, has flavoring derived from irises.  I like mine in a short glass, with tonic and ice, no lime.  Donnie squeezes limes into his.

Walter Annenberg was no dummy.  He managed to rake in the bucks with his publishing empire, then get himself appointed United States Ambassador to Great Britain.  Ambassador Annenberg amassed an art collection valued at one billion dollars.  In 1987 Annenberg had a hankering to own van Gogh’s Irises (1889), which was being auctioned at Sotheby’s New York. That van Gogh, Annenberg figured, would make a yummy addition to his collection of Monets, Renoirs and other van Goghs.

The painting Annenberg coveted was not of course the aforementioned 1890 Irises, which contrasts purple-blue and yellow gold tones.  That Irises depicts a still life. The painting Annenberg wanted depicts irises in a landscape, primarily colored blue, except for one surprising white flower.

Unfortunately he failed to win the bid.  The J. Paul Getty Museum nailed Irises (1889) for $53.9 million, a record breaking sale at the time.

Annenberg got over it.  “I like my irises better,” he said a few years later, referring to a painting he owned by Monet entitled The Path Through the Irises.  Predictably, Monet rendered his irises using soft colors in the Impressionist style, van Gogh on the other hand used the boldly colored, rigorous Post-Impressionist style that characterized his art in Saint-Rémy.

As it happened, a tiny glitch in Sotheby’s 1987 sale of van Gogh’s 1889 Irises provided insight into rich peoples’ fiscal shenanigans.  Australian industrialist Alan Bond was actually the highest bidder at $53.9 million, with a pre-arrangement that Sotheby’s would partially float his loan, naturally with  Irises as collateral.  Bond failed to pony-up.  Apparently it was not in his budget to horse trade expensive art, later he declared bankruptcy.  Soon after, in 1990, Bond and Sotheby’s one presumes, sold Irises to the Getty.

It wasn’t in the cards for Annenberg to own van Gogh’s 1889 Irises, but he did own van Gogh’s Roses (1890).  There is a telling photograph of Queen Elizabeth standing near Roses in the Annenberg’s California home.  Annenberg and his wife Leonore were friendly with the royal family during the time Annenberg performed his duties as Ambassador to the Court of St. James, so when the Queen and Prince Philip visited the United States in 1983, they were invited for a cozy lunch.  The photo speaks of his clout, the Queen rarely visits private homes in the United States.

Final note on Annenberg.  He let it be known he intended to leave his billion dollar collection to a museum, but did not reveal which.  His goal was to share his art with the public.  Several U. S. museums which benefited from the Annenberg’s philanthropic check-writing, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art where he was a trustee, hoped to score.  Naturally they did some sucking-up.  The Met won the prize.

A good place to see purple and white irises is at the Real Jardín Botánico de Madrid, Madrid’s “Royal Garden,” located at Plaza de Murillo, next to the Prado Museum.  After going I recommend you refresh yourself in one of Madrid’s historic 19th century bars, with beams and dark carved-wood interiors, and marble table tops.  Those places serve your drink and plate of olives faster than your butt can hit the stool.

I haven’t lived in Louisiana since 1980, but I remain tied to its cuisine, architecture, wetlands, racetracks and casinos. And its colorful political history.  A fine example of this last category is Governor Huey Long, whose political machinations and demagoguery helped to get him assassinated in 1935 while he served in the United States Senate.  Imagine ole Huey dressed in a white suit and pink silk tie, knocking back cocktails in New Orleans’ Sazerac Bar, ranting, back-woods preacher-style, against his political enemies, big-papa Wall Street, murderous thieving Oil Companies, shifty Franklin Roosevelt, so on.  There would be many other interesting politicians in the vein of ole Huey to serve the “Gret-Stet” of Loos-iana.

Some of them listened to the voice of the people in regards to the iris.  The magnolia had been Louisiana’s official state flower since 1900.  But, genteel garden club ladies and folks in the Louisiana Iris Society clamored to have the iris designated official state flower.  This didn’t happen.  Although in 1990 the Louisiana state legislature passed an act which made the iris the official state wildflower.

On the auspicious occasion of July 18, 1990, Governor Buddy Roemer, the state’s 52nd governor, whose gubernatorial term was flanked by Governor Edwin Edwards’ third and fourth terms, before Edwards unfortunately went to prison, signed into law Senate Bill No. 16 which declared, “There shall be an official state wildflower.  The official state wildflower shall be the Louisiana iris (Iris giganticaerulea).  Its use on official documents of the state and with the insignia of the state, is hereby authorized.”


Pam Zuschlag, Irises, Photograph taken la Louvre Garden, Bonnieux, Provence, posted facebook 5-13-19

Vincent van Gogh, Irises, 1889, Oil on canvas, J. Paul Getty Museum

Vincent van Gogh, Irises, May 1890, Oil on canvas, 36 ½ × 29 ⅛ inches (92.7 x 73.9 cm), Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, (Vincent van Gogh Foundation.)

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