When it comes to learning about art, it’s difficult to attempt something approaching comprehensive autodidactism. As professional art researcher Eric Turquin pointed out in a recent interview with the Art Newspaper, discussing his career and the hotly-debated “Judith and Holofernes” alleged to be a lost work by Caravaggio (1571-1610), being an art generalist simply isn’t possible anymore. “If you want to succeed,” he notes, “you must specialise. And that’s true today for any career, not just for the art world.”
That being said, it isn’t a bad thing to challenge yourself periodically, by straying outside of your comfort zone when looking at art objects. I don’t know much about fin de siècle French glass, but I know who Émile Gallé (1846-1904) and René Lalique (1860-1945) were, and can often recognize their work or hazard a guess that a piece I’m looking at is by them. Even if I’m not interested in entering into a deep exploration of this type of art, but rather just want to skim along the surface, the exercise keeps things interesting. It’s a bit like trying an exotic dish or new cocktail for the first time: you might discover something new that you like and want to enjoy again, but it doesn’t mean that you give up on those things you already enjoy and return to over and over.
Take this stunning portrait of Persian Emperor Fath-Ali of the Qajar dynasty (1772-1834), for example, which will be coming up for auction at Bonham’s in London at the end of the month. Fath Ali is an instantly recognizable figure in Persian art, with his wasp waist, extravagant clothes, and luxuriant beard, who had official portraits of himself painted for use as diplomatic gifts many times. He was also something like a character out of a Georges Perec novel. Famously, he was once given a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica as a gift, read the entire thing, and then added the title of “Most Formidable Lord and Master of the Encyclopedia Britannica” to his list of honorifics. Persian Art is not really an area I collect, but I think I’d have to seek out a portrait of this particular Shah if I did.
With all due respect to M. Turquin, while I’m always going to have interests in certain specialized areas of art, it’s still the case that cultivating a more general knowledge base can enrich an appreciation for, and understanding of, human creativity and cultural history. Artistic influences often cross established boundaries, and surprise us when they show up, unexpectedly, in works produced on the other side of the planet or at a very different time period. So by all means, get to know your specialty subject area as well as you can, whether it’s German medieval manuscripts or landscape artists of the Canadian Rockies. Yet every now and then, it’s worth taking the time to go look at things that you don’t know much about, like the just-opened exhibition on Chinese Empresses that I’m planning to visit this weekend for an upcoming review. The added knowledge will only enrich, not detract from, your understanding of what you see.
And now, on to some interesting art news stories from the past week.
Botticelli in Blighty
Proving once again why it’s important to have your old paintings cleaned periodically, a work long believed to have been a later copy of a painting by the Florentine Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445-1510) turns out to have been created in his studio at around the same time as the original. Botticelli’s “Madonna of the Pomegranate” (c. 1487) now hangs in the Uffizi, but as was the case in many Old Master studios, the artist’s assistants made contemporary, scaled-down copies of their boss’ work, sometimes with hands-on assistance from their master, for collectors who couldn’t obtain originals. This newly-cleaned version has now gone back on view at the Wernher Collection in Ranger’s House, Greenwich, a Georgian mansion outside London.
Idiotic in Istanbul
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan recently announced that he wants to turn the Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul back into a mosque. The massive building was commissioned by the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century as the crown jewel of ecclesiastical architecture in the Byzantine Empire, and was the equivalent of St. Peter’s for the Eastern Church until the 15th century, when it was taken over by the Ottomans and converted into a mosque. In the 1930’s, the building was turned into a museum, but in recent years some more strident Islamic groups have been pressuring the Turkish government to allow them to conduct prayer services inside the building. Mr. Erdogan is currently sliding in the polls, his party having just lost recent municipal elections in major cities, so this declaration is likely something of a bread-and-circuses move to try to stay in power. No word yet on when this change will happen, but one assumes that they’ll have to whitewash over all the recently cleaned and restored Byzantine mosaics – again.
Peeling in Paris
As part of the celebrations marking the 30th anniversary of starchitect I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid at the Louvre, the French street artist known as “JR” was commissioned to cover the courtyard containing the pyramid with a temporary art installation. Titled “The Secret of the Great Pyramid”, when viewed from a certain angle a mosaic of thousands of stickers forms an image which makes it appear as though Pei’s pyramid is sitting in the middle of a vast quarry or archaeological excavation site. While at best one could categorize this as a stunt, rather than a significant work of art, it’s certainly eye-catching – and perhaps a bit too effective in drawing in the punters. Within hours of the work’s installation, the stickers began to peel off the paver blocks that cover the courtyard, and visitors started ripping them up to take home as souvenirs.