Culture Clash

A well-known figure within contemporary Indian art, Rekha Rodwittiya rose to prominence internationally through the Eighties and Nineties with her forceful, vibrantly colored and idiosyncratic depictions of female forms and rituals.


The product of a liberal, middle class, highly educated cross-cultural household – her father was a Parsi and her mother a Roman Catholic from South India – since the 1970s Rodwittiya has forged her own distinctive artistic language. This too is a radical mingling: of Mughal painting from Persia and India, of folk art from the Indian subcontinent and of western traditions absorbed from books, travels and her time as a student at London’s Royal College of Art in the early 1980s. The vital thread, however, linking her work, is its celebration of female strength, even in vulnerability.


This autumn a new show of her work opens at Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai. Sixty this year, Rodwittiya’s most recent works incorporate autobiographical photographs and printed images with watercolor and acrylic paint. For some pictures, Rodwittiya reconceives an image from earlier in her career, building up an interior hinterland of elusive symbols and photographic images within the original bounding line. As such, they take her back to her formative years, at the renowned Faculty of Fine Arts at Baroda University.


A solitary child, home-schooled until the age of seven, painting and drawing had offered a potent release for her vivid imagination. At art school, however, under the inspiring teacher KG Subramanyan, Rodwittiya was encouraged to experiment across media, including photography. She remembers: “I would wander around Baroda taking photographs of street life.” She was fortunate to be part of a great movement of proudly self-confident experimentation and renewal of figurative painting in India.


Rodwittiya rejects the term “feminist artist” but she is, she agrees, undoubtedly both a feminist and an artist. As she puts it, “I live and breathe as a feminist so therefore that is the prism through which I perceive everything around me, and so therefore it would patina my art as well.”


Rekha@Sixty: Transient Worlds of Belonging, an exhibition of new works by Rekha Rodwittiya, runs from October 31, 2018 at the Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai


Your address: The St. Regis Mumbai

Rekha Rodwittiya 3_V2


Rekha Rodwittiya (photo courtesy of the artist and Sakshi Gallery)

The Outsider

Despite being considered one of the greatest painters alive today, Georg Baselitz insists he has “never felt secure”. Now in his 80th year, and the subject of a major retrospective – his first in the United States since the mid-1990s – his journey to artistic preeminence has been far from assured. Controversy and antagonism have always gone hand-in-hand with his artistic genius. “I’m constantly scenting treachery and betrayal,” he says.


Baselitz’s father was a member of the Nazi party, and the artist grew up in East Germany within a Communist system that demanded total acquiescence to the state. This he rejected, as he did pretty much everything else. When his art-school teachers ordered him to paint in a strictly figurative social realist style, he refused – and was expelled for being “politically immature”.


Moving to West Germany did nothing to quell his belligerence. While the post-war art world was in awe of American abstract artists, Baselitz sought a third way, using both figuration and abstraction. The result was his 1963 painting, The Big Night Down the Drain, which depicted graphic and unsettling subject-matter in thick, fleshy paint using putrid, muddy colors. Unsurprisingly, it was confiscated by the police on the grounds of “infringing on public morality”.


But Baselitz was not simply out to shock. He wanted to shake Germany free from its amnesia about the recent past – so in his Heroes series he was even more explicit, depicting war-torn refugees and barefoot soldiers. The scale was epic but the paintings were grubby and bloody. “Why are my paintings ugly?” he comments. “Because I’m German.”


He gained further infamy when he began painting his pictures upside down, a literal interpretation of his need to upset the natural order. “What I admire about Baselitz’s later period work is his capacity to struggle against the ‘spirit of system’ that is a danger to most artists,” says Stéphane Aquin, chief curator at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC, who is organizing the artist’s retrospective. “He’s just been progressing with such ample strides and strength and power of conviction.” Baselitz’s public pronouncements have often matched his artwork in terms of stridency and impoliteness. “I was born into a destroyed order,” as Baselitz points out, “and I didn’t want to reestablish an order.”


Georg Baselitz, Bayeler Fondation, Basel, until April 28, and Hisshhorn Museum and Scultpure Garden, June 21 – Sept16, 2018


Your address: The St. Regis Washington, DC

Charles Duprat_300dpi

Georg Baselitz

(Photo: Charles Duprat)


B.J.M.C. – Bonjour Monsieur Courbet, 1965. Oil on canvas

One of Baselitz’s Heroes series, this painting is a reaction against the clean lines and simple ideological messages of the art of social realism. Its style harks back to the prewar expressionist movement that had been suppressed by the Nazi government and labeled “degenerate”, but its title references the work of the 19th-century realist painter, Gustav Courbet. The result is an artwork that declares itself part of art history, and yet also wants to destroy it.

Geteilter Held (Divided Hero), 1966. Oil on canvas

For Baselitz, disharmony and destruction o en seem the only truths art can convey. A decapitated head sits on a mottled body while a large ear swells horribly. It’s a fractured painting for a fractured nation. Yet it’s also darkly humorous, a play on the distorted canvases of cubism, but here it’s less a single artist’s vision than an entire nation’s psyche that has been fractured.

Mrs Astor Invites

For almost four decades, New York society – then the world’s most rigid and exclusive – was ruled by one woman, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, known throughout New York as the Mrs Astor. Her prestige was such that to be invited to Mrs Astor’s annual ball, invariably on the third Monday in January, was to be “in” society; not to be asked was to live in outer darkness. Or so it seemed to the many aspirants to her ballroom.


These were largely from the group known as the “Bouncers” or nouveaux riches. Huge fortunes had been made in the aftermath of the Civil War and those who had made them – or rather, their wives – wanted to display their new wealth in the most prestigious place of all, Caroline Astor’s social circle. But extreme wealth did not help towards social inclusion; the Vanderbilts, almost as rich as the Astors and frequently with grander houses, were firmly outside the pale. At least two, preferably more, generations were needed to disinfect a fortune from murky origins – and Commodore Vanderbilt, the combative, shrewd, poorly educated, foul-mouthed founder of the family’s wealth, was still very much alive. He would not have been permitted to cross the threshold of Caroline’s drawing room – nor indeed would he have wanted to.


The Astor family fortune was founded in the 1800s by German immigrant John Jacob Astor, and by the time of Caroline’s marriage had become a byword for wealth, magnificent houses and also hotels – with a reputation for superb hospitality which would ultimately reach its most lasting monument in the splendid St. Regis hotel built by her son John Jacob Astor IV in the early 1900s.


Caroline herself came from “old” New York society, an upper echelon formed of the descendants of the original English and Dutch settlers, known as the Knickerbockers (from the short trousers – we would call them culottes – worn by the early Dutch). The Knickerbocker world was one of social propriety, of sober, dignified people living in sober, dignified houses.


They were lawyers, businessmen, with wives who dressed expensively but discreetly: once married, they dressed in dark colors and no Knickerbocker wife would dream of immediately wearing one of the Worth dresses so regularly sent out to her from Paris. It would be left, layered in tissue paper and probably still slung in the trunk in which it had crossed the Atlantic, until the words “latest fashion” (subtext: as worn by the nouveaux riches) could no longer be applied to it. Knickerbocker families married into each other’s families, and dined – at a suitably early hour – in each other’s houses. They were a tribe, and a tribe that jealously guarded its exclusivity.


But where the custom of others in that circle was to use two names, often their husband’s, as in “Mrs John Jacob Astor” or “Mrs August Belmont”, Caroline had persuaded her husband to drop his middle name, Backhouse, perhaps because backhouse was an old name for an outdoor privy. Besides, being known simply as “Mrs Astor” underlined Caroline’s regal status.


Mrs Astor Greeting Guests at her Ball

Age of elegance

Mrs Astor (center) greets guests at one of her sumptuous Gilded Age balls

 (Getty Images)

She had achieved this unchallenged position partly through her own personality and ambition, and partly with the assistance of the man who became Grand Vizier to her Sultana. This was Ward McAllister, a socially ambitious southerner who had realized that unless steps were taken to mold society into an acceptable model, it would be overwhelmed by the flood of new money now pouring into New York.


McAllister had managed to blend the old and the new by the simple expedient of picking what he and a coterie of friends saw as the most socially desirable from both groups – half a dozen each of the Knickerbockers and the most presentable Bouncer men – with these 12 as “patriarchs” launching a series of exclusive dances, with tickets strictly limited. Their exclusiveness made them an immediate success and the struggle to acquire tickets to these events was intense and often bitter, as only those who passed stringent criteria made it. And in Caroline Astor he saw the only person fit to rule this new élite.


Caroline’s great asset was her dignity, closely followed by her discretion – she is never known to have made a controversial remark. She could be friendly, but never intimate, and she never confided. Another woman might have found it difficult to live down the behavior of a husband such as Caroline’s, for William Backhouse Astor was known to be a heavy drinker and an even more voracious womanizer.


Fortunately, both of these pursuits largely took place at sea, as he spent much of his time aboard his yacht, The Ambassadress (at that time the largest private yacht in the world). As rumors of boatloads of chorus girls and a hold full of whiskey swirled around New York, Mrs Astor would smile serenely and remark – if anyone dared ask about him – that the sea air was so good for dear William, while regretting that she could not accompany him as she was such a poor sailor herself. For what Mrs Astor did not want to see, she did not see.


In person, she was of medium height, plump, plain and olive-skinned, with black hair (later a black wig) and smallish gray eyes that missed nothing. She favored dark colors – usually black but often a regal purple – and wore her diamonds rather as an idol bedecked for worship. At one dance, for instance, a diamond stomacher glittered on her blue velvet dress, in her black hair was a diamond tiara with diamond stars, several diamond necklaces studded with immense collet diamonds hung round her neck, clusters of diamond bracelets wreathed the wrists of her long white kid gloves and from her ears hung long diamond drop earrings.


The years of Caroline’s reign were known as the Gilded Age, so immense were the fortunes made and spent. In the huge mansions along Fifth Avenue were marble mantelpieces, Gobelins tapestries, bronzes, sculptures and paintings swept up from Europe, oriental carpets, crystal chandeliers and French furniture. Between four and five of a summer afternoon, elegant carriages drawn by glossy horses carried women in silk dresses and elaborate hats, bowing as they passed each other; in the winter there was the same parade in horse-drawn sleighs in Central Park. At parties, the house smothered with flowers, the favors were antique ivory fans, gold snuff boxes or sapphire stock pins, with hundred-dollar notes stamped with the host’s name wrapped round the cigarettes by each place.


But the highlight of the entire social year was Caroline Astor’s ball. Its keynote was lavishness and ceremony – you did not go there to enjoy yourself, but to be seen there. The huge mansion, filled with flowers, blazed with light, and the specially favored were invited to sit with Caroline on the red velvet sofa from which she surveyed the ballroom.


At her parties there was often another lavish and unusual feature – a midnight supper. The dancing would be stopped, little tables would appear as if by magic (probably via an elevator in her son John Jacob “Jack” Astor’s house next door; the two houses could be interconnected when necessary) and a sumptuous supper would be served by servants in green plush coats and white breeches, their buttons sporting the motto the Astors had bestowed upon themselves: “Semper Fidelis”. After this, some guests would go home, others would continue dancing and the night would end with the more traditional early morning supper.


Bouncer women outside Mrs Astor’s sacred circle of acquaintance would go to any lengths to acquire an invitation, pleading through a third party, trying to persuade Ward McAllister they had a grandmother of impeccable lineage and, of course, giving dinners, musicales and dances themselves, which were duly written up in the social columns of the day.


Others, to avoid the stigma of not being asked, would get their doctors to prescribe a trip into the mountains for their health’s sake or go to the even greater length of leaving the country – after all, it sounded much more elegant to say: “I’m taking my daughters to be educated in France,” than “Mrs Astor hasn’t asked me to her ball.” They felt the Astor ban with double force when it came to launching their debutante daughters, for going to the same dancing class as the children of the Astor circle did not mean you got asked to the same balls later.


But the excluded wives of the nouveaux riches quickly discovered that in Europe these daughters could lead to a “back door” way into the Astor set. Beautiful, superbly dressed and hugely rich by European standards, such girls were sought-after brides among indigent aristocrats – in England, a succession of bad harvests, loss of labor to industrialized cities and the import of cheap grain had halved the income of most landowners. And even Mrs Astor would not refuse to receive the mother-in-law of a marquis. As I discovered when writing my book The Husband Hunters: Social Climbing in London and New York, in the period between 1870 and 1914, 454 American girls married titled Europeans, one hundred of them British aristocrats, with 60 of this hundred marrying eldest sons – a phenomenal amount by any standards.


Staying at or near the top was a constant struggle. Even in the Astor clan there was in-fighting. For years, Caroline’s nephew, William Waldorf Astor, fought a running battle with his aunt to try and position his wife Mamie as the Mrs Astor – after all, he, William Waldorf, was the eldest son’s eldest son, so his wife should hold this position by right. But nothing could dislodge Caroline, even when William Waldorf had his father’s house torn down and replaced by an enormous hotel, designed to overshadow his aunt’s mansion beside it. Her only comment was the icy put-down: “There’s a glorified tavern next door.<” Eventually, in disgust, William Waldorf left the US for England in 1891, saying that “America is no place for a gentleman”.


“I know of no art, profession or work for women more taxing on mental resources than being a leader of society,” said Alva Vanderbilt, who would become just that by dint of being one the few people to outwit Caroline Astor on her own ground. Her first step was building an enormous mansion on Fifth Avenue and filling it with treasures. Then she announced that she would give a housewarming costume ball, with the guest of honor her great friend Consuelo Yznaga, now married to the Duke of Manchester’s heir, Lord Mandeville. Society, avid to see inside the new house and meet a future duchess, eagerly accepted her invitations. It would be a splendid evening, with guests decked out as mandarins or 18th century courtiers – as shown in the photographs taken on the night, which are now in the collection of The Museum of the City of New York.


Suddenly Caroline Astor, accustomed to being asked to everything, realized she did not have an invitation – and her beloved daughter, who had been practicing her cotillion for months, would be unable to perform it. When she let this be known, Alva, like Mrs Astor educated in France and conscious of the niceties of etiquette, declared that she could not make such an approach to Mrs Astor because the rule was that the senior lady must first have called on the junior one.


At once, Mrs Astor dispatched her footman to leave a card on Alva and, almost by return, an invitation was sent down Fifth Avenue. Mrs Astor attended the ball, saying afterwards: “We have no right to exclude those whom the growth of this great country has brought forward, provided they are not vulgar in speech and appearance. The time has come for the Vanderbilts.” They were in.


It was not until 1902 that Caroline Astor was finally toppled. Her nemesis was 32-year-old Grace Vanderbilt, originally one of her protégées, who outflanked her in a ruthlessly cunning move that resulted in Grace, rather than Caroline, entertaining the Kaiser’s popular younger brother to dinner. It was the coup de grace and Caroline knew it. The shock wave traveled around New York and, like all those women who had tried and failed to receive an invitation to her ball, she left for Europe.


Or, as the gossip magazine of the day gleefully put it: “Mrs Astor will sail before the dinner takes place.”


The Husband Hunters: Social Climbing in London and New York is out now, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson


Your address: The St. Regis New York

[Art Gallery in the Astor Mansion, 34th Street and 5th Avenue.]

Room with a view

The vast ballroom of the Astor mansion on 34th Street and 5th Avenue

 (Museum of the City of New York)

Mrs.William B. Astor in Portrait

The best of times

A photograph of Mrs Astor taken in 1900

(Getty Images)

Treasures of India

“I started with watches. Then it was cars. Now it’s art,” says Nirav Modi. He’s describing his progression as a collector, which has resulted in the superb array of artworks that adorn the Mumbai headquarters of his eponymous jewelry brand. Having recently opened stores in London and Manhattan, Modi has turned the jewelry house he launched in 2010 into a globally recognized contemporary Indian luxury brand. Like his jewelry, which is produced entirely in Mumbai, his art was created almost entirely in India, spanning the century between India’s struggle for independence and its current status as an economic powerhouse.


Today, the jeweler owns about 500 pieces of art – some of which are hung in the oceanfront duplex he shares with his wife and three children, and others at their beach house in Alibag, where fashionable Bombayites head for the weekend. Most of the collection, though, is kept at the company’s offices (designed by his mother, an interior designer) and displayed in rotation. Apart, that is, from a few works that never leave his own office: a sculpture of brass cowpats by the contemporary artist Subodh Gupta; Boy With Lemons, a painting by Amrita Sher-Gil, the bold female artist of the Twenties and Thirties sometimes described as India’s Frida Kahlo; and a haunting photographic portrait of Sher-Gil taken by her nephew, Vivan Sundaram.


Having grown up in Antwerp, where his family were diamond dealers, and visited the museums of Rome, Paris and Brussels with his mother, Modi says he was attracted to art from a young age. Although at home, “dinner table conversation was all about diamonds: diamonds bought, diamonds sold, diamonds cut”, as a young man he became obsessed with other objects of beauty. His first passion was watches – beginning with one he just had to have. “I spent my first six months’ wages on an IWC perpetual calendar watch,” he recalls, followed by a series of extraordinarily complicated models, from fine watchmakers such as Philippe Dufour. After that, he discovered cars – “mostly British” – although living in Mumbai, he points out with a wry smile, you don’t really get the chance to make the most of a high-performance automobile.


It was only in the Nineties that he started to collect art. “As I was living in India,” he says, “I was most influenced by the Indian modern art I was seeing around me.” Today, Indian art from 1850 until 1970 makes up the core of his collection, which now encompasses something close to a complete canon of artists of that period, and some of its greatest masters. Like most serious collectors, though, for Modi there’s always something missing, something more to add – including, he says, “a masterpiece by Tyeb Mehta” (one of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group who gained international recognition in the Sixties and Seventies).


According to Mallika Advani, the former head of Christie’s in India who has been Modi’s art adviser for many years, the jeweler is “the dream collector. He knows what he wants and how to work the primary market, but he’s also very good at auction.” He also has, she explains, a passionate desire to acquire key pieces that he believes will enhance his collection, enough knowledge to know when to buy a piece and when to wait, and what he’s missed out on, so he can try and buy it later.


The choice to display the collection – and rotate the display – at the semi-public space of his offices rather than at home is a deliberate one, Modi explains. “Art inspires me. There are pieces I’ve had on walls for years and suddenly I notice a nuance, despite having seen the works day in, day out. This quality of art is fascinating. I wanted to create an environment where more people would have the opportunity to be immersed in it.”


Your address: The St. Regis Mumbai

Rooms with a View

At first glance, an interior painting by Los Angeles-based artist Jonas Wood (right) feels as fresh as a midsummer garden after a rain shower. Look again, however, and the effect is more disorienting: the flattened perspective and distortions of space are more the stuff of dreams than reality. Other contrasts in Wood’s work are similarly compelling: the playful references to pop art, cubism and artists like Hockney and Matisse in works that are immediately, distinctively Wood’s own; the landscapes contained within the parameters of domestic vessels created by Wood’s wife, the ceramicist Shio Kusaka – the whole world in a pot.


Born in 1977 in Boston, Wood grew up surrounded by art – his grandfather collected works by Bacon, Calder and Frankenthaler – yet it was only after studying psychology at liberal arts college Hobart and William Smith Colleges that he began painting. He met his wife while completing a Fine Arts MA at the University of Washington, after which the couple moved to LA, where they now work side by side in a shared studio.


Wood’s work is autobiographical, refracting childhood memories and everyday life through his own particular sensibility. He uses collage as well as paint, starting with photographs he has taken or appropriated – of his family and from old magazines – and rearranging them. His still lifes, portraits, interiors and landscapes also often include pots, which he views as recurring characters. He cites Picasso, Braque, Mondrian, Bonnard and Vuillard as influences, both for their work itself and the way it is interpreted by other contemporary artists. “I love David Hockney and Alex Katz,” he says, “who are looking at modern painting and riffing on it. I’m looking at what they’re looking at, but I also get to look at them.”


Artworks by Wood, which now sell for six figures at auction, are held in the permanent collections of the major contemporary art museums of New York, Chicago and LA, and last December he covered the 5,400 square foot facade of LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) with a vinyl version of his Still Life with Two Owls (2014). The image was “sourced in part from a photograph of a shelf with plants and pottery from a 1970s House & Garden-type magazine”, he says. “I use those and then replace about 70 per cent of the plants and objects with things I’m interested in.” It’s life – but not quite as we know it.


Jonas is the honoree of this year’s TWO x TWO for AIDS and Art auction held in Dallas on 28 October, 2017.


Portrait of Jonas Wood by Manfredi Gioacchini


Two Tables with Floral Pattern, 2013.
Oil and acrylic on canvas, 100 x 93 inches
Wood shares a studio with his wife, the ceramic artist Shio Kusaka, and her pots are “recurring characters” in his work. “Repeating elements appear in different paintings, and change shape,” he says. (Photo: Brian Forrest; Courtesy of the artist and Shane Campbell Gallery, Chicago, IL)



Kitchen with Jade and Aloe Plants, 2013
Oil and acrylic on linen, 88 x 76 inches
Cluttered domestic interiors are a favorite subject of Wood’s, refracted through the artist’s emotions: they look familiar and cheery enough, but sudden disconnections have a slightly disconcerting effect. (Photo: Brian Forrest; Courtesy of the artist and Anton Kern Gallery, New York, NY)

Master of the Universe

Nebulas burst before your eyes, galaxies mingling with divine light. Some are rose-gold like sunrise; others are inky and bruised like a rainy evening sky. In the large-scale paintings of Nepalese artist Govinda Sah “Azad” (b. 1974), the many faces of the sublime in nature can be found – from bursts of energy exploding like volcanic eruptions to swirling, smoky cloudscapes. “Nature is a force far bigger than us,” he says. “What I try to do is immerse myself in the elements, meditating, reflecting on the interconnection between clouds, the landscape and weather.”


As a boy growing up in southeast Nepal, Sah always knew drawing was in his blood. His refusal to give up his passion – much to his parents’ frustration – earned him the nickname “Azad” (or “Freedom”), and by the age of 15 he had made his way to Delhi, where he found work as a billboard painter, before returning home and enrolling at art school at Nepal’s Tribhuvan University. Daily sessions painting outdoors at dawn allowed him to experience the splendor of the sun rising over the majestic Himalayas, while his experience as a sign painter gave him the confidence to go big.


With exhibitions in countries from London and Krakow to Kathmandu, he has ample opportunity to travel and draw inspiration from the awe-inspiring scale of nature. What he sees there often goes beyond the physical. By painting clouds as repeated drops of water and light, he says he has come to understand “why the cloud is the visual symbol of spirituality in nature, that we can see transcendence against gravity”.


While his main palette is paint, it is not his only medium. The master also often adds sculptural interventions in the form of burnt holes in the canvas or small tears, as well as physical objects such as hair and pearls. He also sometimes paints with smoke, the blackened charred strokes creating a sense of delicacy, as if the marks were made from air itself.


Next, he hopes to create even bigger, oversized paintings that are contained yet burst forth from the frame. “Who knows?” he says. “I let art take me where it wants to go.”


Govinda Sah “Azad”’s work will be exhibited by the October Gallery at Abu Dhabi Art 2017. Your address: The St. Regis Abu DhabiThe St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort, Abu Dhabi



Reflection, 2016

“In my early works, there was a sense of 3D and of illusion,” says Govinda Sah “Azad” (below). “You had to come up close, almost to touch it. I like this idea of touch, like connecting your eternal self to the universe. I’m still playing with the relationship between 2D and 3D, trying to see how we understand the notion of ‘infinity’ by connecting with the night sky.”






Wondering in Dark, 2015

“In Wondering in Dark (above), you can see the influence of the great British painter Turner, who I came across in my early studies. I love his paintings of seas, water and storms; they really move me. I love his use of light, how he creates reflections of light and color. I want to capture that energy in my own work, that energy of nature.”





Tactile Universe, 2016

“I use a special breathing technique while painting. That might come from my Eastern culture: making art and painting is like a meditation in everyday life. I’m trying to make the emotion I feel visible, tangible in the painting. Tactile Universe is a good example of that. The closer you get, the more you want to touch it – to make emotion tactile.”



Mapping History

“What you have to understand is that, for me, map collecting isn’t a casual hobby,” says Nicolò Rubelli, with a laugh. “It’s a disease, an addiction. If I see a map shop, there is no way I can pass it by. I have to go in.”


Rubelli, the fifth generation to run the eponymous textiles company founded by his great-grandfather in 1889, is not only a proud Italian but a proud Venetian. Even as a boy, he says, he appreciated the “incredible privilege” of being one of only about 60,000 permanent residents able to explore Venice’s streets and its bridges, its domes and its bell towers whenever he liked. When, at the age of 17, his father gave him an antique map of the north of Italy, he was hooked. “I loved the idea that, although the map was created in 1648, so much of the city and the area around it still looked the same,” he says. “It gave me a new way of looking at my home.”


For the aspiring architect, who went on to become an engineer, maps were not only a means by which to examine the make-up of the city but to understand the artistic sensibility of that period. “If you look at certain German maps of Venice, for instance,” he explains, “all the bell towers have pointed spires, because the map-makers had reinterpreted the city according to what they thought was beautiful at the time. Most of the publishers in Nuremberg had never been outside Germany, so often the maps they printed were embellished or fictitious – and that’s fascinating.”


Since he was given his first map three decades ago, the company CEO, whose fabrics adorn interiors including Buckingham Palace in London, the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, the Vanderbilt mansion in New York and St. Regis hotels in Rome and Florence, has amassed around 180 maps, printed between 1500 and the late 19th century.


Unlike many collectors, Rubelli doesn’t believe in hiding his printed treasures in drawers or darkened rooms. Each is mounted on white paper so its edge can be seen, then framed simply in wood, and hung “in a giant jigsaw puzzle” in rooms shaded from bright light during the week and opened up for his enjoyment on weekends. One of his most precious maps is also one of the earliest ever printed – in 1500, by Jacopo de’ Barbari. “He went from bell tower to bell tower above the city to draw it, so it’s a perspective view. What’s incredible is that it’s obviously Venice. Certain things aren’t there, like the [Santa Maria della] Salute church, which is beside my house and whose dome I can see from my window. But so much of what we see hasn’t changed at all.”


Today, having run out of wall space, Rubelli tries to buy books of maps (“which are pretty much the same price as single maps”); he has also bought a single terracotta globe, designed by Giò Ponti for porcelain maker Richard Ginori in 1929. “It’s the one exception to my rule, this globe: normally I don’t collect them because they don’t usually feature Venice, they’re overpriced, and I don’t collect 20th-century maps. But I love Giò Ponti’s work, and we have many of his drawings in textiles in our collection. So when I found this at a market in Padua, I just had to have it.”


Images: Contour by Getty

Artistic Alchemy

In a visionary body of work, rich in symbolism and pathos, California-based artist Hung Liu connects history to the present, East to West, mundanity to beauty. Dripping with immediacy, as if the artist has just put down the brush, her paintings of anonymous figures adapted from historical photographs are timeless, yet paradoxically anchored to the past, infused with a nuanced narrative and layers of psychological insight.


Born in China in 1948, Liu came of age during the Cultural Revolution. After high school, she was sent to the countryside where she spent four years working in the fields. There, she photographed and drew workers and their families. This was a formative experience for the young artist, who went on to portray ordinary people as the subjects of much of her work.


Following her early studies as a mural painter at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, one of China’s leading art schools, in 1984 Liu emigrated to America to pursue a graduate program in visual arts at the University of California San Diego. Today, from her hometown of Oakland in California, she re-contextualizes snippets of history that may not be lost, but have perhaps been forgotten. “I’ve come to think of these subjects as ghosts I ‘summon’ from the grainy, chemical surfaces of the photographic past,” she says. “That’s kind of going backwards technologically, from a newer medium to an older one, but mineral pigments on canvas can be very physical, bringing the image forward into the present in a vivid, present-tense way. There’s some kind of alchemy here, although I think of myself less as an advocate or guardian, more as a witch.”


On a visit to China in 1991, Liu found a treasure trove of studio photographs of 19th-century Chinese prostitutes, which became references for a series of riveting multimedia works. A series called Dandelions, meanwhile, is based on photographs she took on a road trip, the flowers often blown up to the size of the human figure. And the subjects of American Exodus, on show this fall at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York City, are based on images of migrants from America’s Depression era that she found in the Dorothea Lange archive at the Oakland Museum of California.


In a Wall Street Journal review of her 2013 Oakland Museum of California retrospective, Summoning Ghosts: The Art of Hung Liu, critic David Littlejohn referred to Hung Liu as “the greatest Chinese painter in the U.S.”. Her art, which is represented in the permanent collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, not only mirrors the unique duality of her extraordinary life experience, straddling two cultures, but transcends the boundaries of time.


Hung Liu: American Exodus is showing at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York City until October 22, 2016


Your address: The St. Regis New York



Crane Dance, 2011
The delicate cloud of circling cranes in this work has a profound underlying significance. “In China, cranes are considered auspicious, and are associated with the imperial palace and heaven,” says Hung Liu (below). “This woman is from a photo, circa 1865, by the American John Thompson. The juxtaposition of her hand with the cranes suggests the vast space between the imperial court and working peasants.”





Dandelion 11, 2015
“The woman and the flower are both ornamental, but the dandelion is mostly blown away. It suggests to me the unpredictable course of one’s life, no matter how ornamented one is,” says Liu.


Art’s Movers and Sheikhas

Twenty years ago, you would never have imagined that Dubai would one day possess a booming contemporary art scene attracting the world’s biggest players. Yet today, the annual Art Dubai gathering has become one of the most important events on the international art calendar.


It’s not just the scale of the event that has grown but also the number of women involved: nearly half the artists exhibited are now female, as are many of the Middle Eastern gallery owners and curators. Although in the business world men rule, according to her Highness Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, president of the Sharjah Art Foundation, who organizes a biennial in her emirate of neighboring Dubai, “as sons take over their fathers’ business interests, women are free to work in an industry they’re passionate about”.


Events at Art Dubai and the Sharjah Biennial have attracted well-informed and deep-pocketed audiences. This year at Art Dubai, 94 galleries representing 500 artists from 40 countries attended, as well as 95 museums. And during the week of Dubai Art Fair in 2015, more than $35 million changed hands for artworks from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, ranging from $10,000 to over $300,000.


Dubai is now an ideal spot to buy works by local and international artists, as well as to find talent for future exhibitions. Today, Nadia Kaabi-Linke’s Flying Carpets, a steel grid sculpture suspended by rubber threads at Art Dubai in 2011, hangs in the Guggenheim in New York. The Qatari-American filmmaker Sophia Al Maria has a show at the Whitney Museum of American Art until October 2016; the 92-year-old Turkish poet and artist Etel Adnan is exhibiting at the Galerie Lelong in Paris and Dubai; and the late Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi’s solo show opened the new Met Breuer exhibition space in New York this year.


Here we profile four leading women who have put Middle Eastern art into the frame.


Myrna Ayad

The Fair Director


Art Dubai’s new fair director is an important player in the Middle Eastern contemporary art world. Born in Beirut in 1977, she has lived in the UAE for 30 years, editing the art magazine Canvas and publishing daily newspapers during Art Dubai that introduced the Western art world to some of the most exciting conceptual art in the Middle East.


Unsurprisingly, Ayad has an address book that reads like a Who’s Who of the art world. The royal families in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have all opened up their private art collections for her to write about, and before joining Art Dubai in 2016, she consulted on cultural strategy for luxury labels from Bulgari and Chanel to Mercedes.


Art Dubai, she says, is “a pulsating power-house... and a gathering of people who rarely have a chance to meet. Saleh Barakat of Beirut’s Agial Art Gallery once told me, ‘Coming here, I see everybody’ and I very much identify with that.” This year she met artists, curators, collectors and heads of galleries and museums from all over the world, from Princess Wijdan Al Hashemi of Jordan who founded the Jordan National Gallery in 1980 to Germano Celant, who is curating the Kienholz: Five Car Stud show at the Prada Foundation in Milan.


Although the number of women running galleries has increased, they have always been influential in the Arab art world, she says. Pioneers included Mouna Atassi and her late sister Mayla, who opened a library/gallery in Homs in Syria in the 1980s, Farida Sultan, whose eponymous gallery was established in Kuwait in 1969, and Princess Jawaher Bint Majid Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, who established Jeddah’s Al Mansouria Foundation for the Arts in 1988. She concedes, though, that the interest in the region’s art has increased substantially, partly as a result of the displacement of people, and the growth of the Arab diaspora. “Art in the region is highly prized but historically there have been, and still are, spells when conflict halts artistic and cultural activity. Living in the diaspora means that people are attuned to other cultures and generally have greater sense of community and collective vision, as well as more emotional attachment and pride in the creative output of their respective communities.”



Myrna Ayad, director of Art Dubai, has an address book that reads like a Who’s Who of the art world



Dubai’s El Marsa gallery presents Tunisian artist Nja Mahdaoui’s Trance


Diana Al-Hadid

The Artist


Born in Aleppo, Syria, Diana al-Hadid moved with her parents to Cleveland, Ohio when she was seven and used art, she explains, to make sense of her new world. “I was a real immigrant kid and didn’t speak English, and couldn’t read or write. My grandmother told me to draw hands and people and soon I became known as the weird kid who was always drawing.”

Fast forward a few decades, and the 34-year-old U.S.-art-college-educated, Brooklyn-based sculptor, who creates works using everyday materials from polymer and fiberglass to wood and steel, has become one of the most sought-after of her generation, and among the youngest to be represented by New York art dealer Marianne Boesky. During Art Dubai this year, Boesky sold seven of Al-Hadid’s sculptures to Middle Eastern collectors before the artist’s first major solo show, entitled Phantom Limb, took place at the New York University in Abu Dhabi.

Her punchy titles accompany powerful images. Phantom Limb – the phrase used to describe the sensation amputees sometimes feel of still having their lost limb – consists of white paint and gypsum dripping from formal plinths like stalactites, supporting a limbless and headless torso. Another, Fool’s Gold, features a reflective pool of shattered mirror atop three stacked blocks, from which dribbles of gold run out before reaching the floor. Both sculptures reveal an ultimate fragility and sense of loss, as the paint, canvas or gold just melts or trickles away.

Maya Allison, curator of Phantom Limb, believes Al-Hadid’s sculptures have “a visceral presence that channels some ancient, shared artistic memory. This mix of historical references and creative immediacy brings many different audiences into dialogue with her.”


Her vision clearly resonates all over the world. The David Winton Bell Gallery at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, is showing a selection of her works until October 30, 2016; the city of Nara in Japan has commissioned her to make an artwork for their temple; and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London has a maquette for her sculpture planned for the main courtyard.

Isabelle van den Eynde

The Gallery Owner


In 2006, Isabelle van den Eynde was one of the first people in Dubai to show contemporary art, and in 2010, when a new art district started to grow in the gritty industrial Al Quoz site, she immediately moved her eponymous gallery there. Today, the warehouses and marble-cutting factories have been colonized by artists, designers and gallerists, and the burgeoning loft scene recalls New York’s SoHo in the 1970s and 80s.

She specializes in Middle Eastern art that represents, she says, “the voice of our region”. For Art Basel Hong Kong in 2015, she featured Hassan Sharif, who uses discarded materials to create artworks. His Cotton Rope No. 7 (2012), an Arab dictionary tightly bound with rope, was bought for the permanent collection of the M+ museum when it opens in Hong Kong in 2019.

She also represents two of the 17 artists represented in But a Storm is Blowing From Paradise at the Guggenheim in New York until October 5, 2016. Rokni Haerizadeh’s 2014 artwork, which lends its name to the exhibition, uses news clips overlaid with ink, watercolor and gesso to transform humans into animal hybrids, while Mohammed Kazem’s Scratches on Paper visually represents sounds by scratching and gouging paper with scissors. To van den Eynde, these works represent many of the social and political concerns facing the Middle East: “They make a permanent statement that goes beyond our lives.”

Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi

The Curator


Royal mover and shaker Hoor Al Qasimi is an international force in the art world as president of the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF), set up by her ruling father, Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi. A graduate of the Slade School of Fine Art in London, with a further MA in Curating Contemporary Art from the Royal College of Art, she speaks an impressive seven languages (English, Arabic, French, German, Japanese, Mandarin and Russian) and curated the UAE pavilion to showcase Emirati artists at the 2015 Venice Biennale.

At home, Sheikha Hoor shows contemporary art in the most extraordinary places restored by SAF, including the Ice Factory in the coastal fishing town of Kalba, an abandoned 1970s cinema nearby, and a UFO-shaped building in Sharjah called the Flying Saucer, which was first opened in 1978. An old Arabic house in the center, made from silky white coral-stone, has been turned into the Bait Al Serkal gallery.

Unlike many curators, Sheikha Hoor sees herself primarily as an artist, and then as a curator, which is why her exhibitions tend to be more emotive experiences than archival. “I look at the role through the eyes of a painter,” she says. “When a person enters the space, something has to lead the eye. Composing the room, in the same way that you would compose a photograph, is very important.”

The 11th edition of Art Dubai ( runs from March 15-18, 2017, and the 13th edition of the Sharjah Biennial ( starts in March 2017
Your address: The St. Regis Dubai

Images: Abbi Kemp, Juliet Dunne, Corbis via Getty Images, Getty Images


Pioneering gallery owner Isabelle van den Eynde poses in front of Hassan Sharif’s White Knots



Diana Al-Hadid’s All The Stops, part of Unveiled: New Art From The Middle East at London’s Saatchi Gallery

Golden Years

With its curvaceous black façade, The St. Regis Istanbul is a hymn to the style of art deco: a reflection of Istanbul’s golden 1920s, splendid in a palette of black and silvery gray, and standing in a prime location in the city’s most celebrated neighborhood, Nisantasi.


But in Turkish architect Emre Arolat’s hands, the hotel, which opened last year, doesn’t represent a backward step. For art deco – the sleek, streamlined style associated with the interwar era – has once again become a popular taste in the luxury domain: part of a new spirit of urban glamour. “We tried for the aura of the 1920s,” Arolat said, “but with the feel of a contemporary building in style-conscious contemporary Istanbul.”


Art deco is having a moment: amazing for a decorative style that celebrates its 90th birthday this year. Well, more or less. The term was coined in 1926, following an agenda-setting exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris the year before, and became shorthand for a style that celebrated streamlined luxury. Once again it’s back: both as a historical style and as a muse to new designers. For example, at London’s Pavilion of Art & Design (PAD) fair last autumn, Parisian gallerist Jean-Jacques Dutko showed striking art deco pieces, including new work by sculptor Eric Schmitt, amid other new designers channeling the deco essence.


Meanwhile, the energy of the early work sings anew. Coming between the wars, art deco proposed an optimistic new world despite (or possibly because of) the economic woes of the 1920s and ‘30s. Not only pleasingly muscular, those clean lines and strong curves combined with new materials such as concrete, chrome and bakelite to herald the new sense of progress, optimism and mobility, both social and physical. Art deco became well represented in the exciting new world of travel and leisure, plentifully applied in cinemas, restaurants and lidos – not to mention ocean liners and hotels where it made an enduring mark: indeed, other St. Regis hotels channeling the art deco idiom include The St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort, with sumptuous interiors by Yabu Pushelberg, and The St. Regis Singapore, which has softer deco-accented rooms. As Bevis Hillier, the historian and great post-war popularizer of art deco, put it in the 1960s, art deco was the “last total style”: scalable from pepper pots to skyscrapers.


It’s had some ups and downs along the way of course. Following a 1970s flourish, deco disappeared from view. But expert Mark Oliver of Bonhams auction house, which holds four art deco sales a year, has seen the style return in popularity and a new generation embrace its sleek lines. “Interest is really growing and 25- to 55-year-olds seem to be particularly interested,” he says. “They like its stylish glamour and the fact that it’s a more sensual alternative to mid-century modern.” 


Other influences may have been bought to bear. In 2013, Baz Luhrmann’s cinematic romp The Great Gatsby showed the style to a new generation, just as Ken Russell’s 1920s-themed The Boy Friend had in 1971. But it’s also true that our era shares a sense of opulence with the 1920s and 1930s, and that a generation of renowned interior designers, including Candy & Candy in the U.K. and Geoffrey Bradfield in the U.S., have re-imagined art deco as an imprint of modish new living.



The St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort, with interiors by Yabu Pushelberg,
channels the art deco aesthetic



Art deco architecture was known for its graceful, sweeping staircases

Meanwhile, there’s also been an explosion of interest in the architecture of deco and as Mark Oliver notes, a global network of enthusiasts has emerged. “Art deco is associated with Europe and the U.S., but you can also find it in Russia, South America – anywhere that has ever wanted to appear aspirational and stylish,” he says. “Fortunately you’ll now find a great eagerness to restore rather than demolish.” Thus, you’ll find art deco gems in Asmara in Eritrea, Casablanca in Morocco, Melbourne in Australia and Napier in New Zealand, which has a deco festival each year. Of course, many readers will have visited the wonderful art deco strand of South Beach Miami: a necklace of sub-tropical pastel-colored edifices along the oceanfront. It’s incredible to remember that many were run-down in the 1980s and came close to being demolished.

What the renewed interest in art deco means is that you’ll have to dig deeper to own classic deco antiques. As Jean-Jacques Dutko says, “Rare pieces with impeccable historic provenance are increasingly hard to find, and many good pieces are now in museums, private collections or foundations.” In the early 1980s, he adds, many collections were sold, following what he calls “the evolution of taste”. Simply, it became unfashionable – and this is when the clever money landed on it.

Anyone still interested in collecting art deco should acquaint themselves with the canon: a host of names including Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann for furniture and interiors, Edward McKnight Kauffer and Paul Colin for graphics, Paul Poiret for fashion and René Lalique for glassware and jewelry. In Paris last April, a Christie’s sale of French art deco fetched $34.3 million – including a 1929 ski-chair by Ruhlmann that took $4 million (it had previously sold in 1999 for $380,000). And art deco-style jewelry is also selling well. Chanel’s Café Society high jewelry collection, launched in 2014, is a tribute to the 1920s, while French designer Raphaele Canot’s Skinny Deco range also references classic art deco.

From the wearable to the walkable: art deco’s spirit now also imbues modern cities. There is, for example, an element of “starchitect” Zaha Hadid’s thrusting curves that evokes deco lines, while in New York, architect Mark Foster Gage is preparing to build a residential tower block with all manner of art deco-like decoration upon it – channeling the feel of that shimmering gargoyle-clad icon, the Chrysler Building. Meanwhile, in London, the art deco Battersea Power Station site is currently being refurbished as the smartest block in town. And as with The St. Regis Istanbul, something of that glitzy Hollywood excitement comes through, as an art deco building can turn anyone into a star. As Mark Oliver says of deco’s return: “It’s that sense of glamour. Nothing else is quite like it.”

Your address: The St. Regis Istanbul; The St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort; The St. Regis Singapore

Images: Getty Images, Corbis


“Stromboli” and “Fuji” pedestal tables by Eric Schmitt, as seen at PAD



A classic art deco facade



Cool elegance at The St. Regis Istanbul