Art News Roundup: Astrocat Edition

I had intended to do a regular post on Tuesday, Gentle Reader, but I was (happily) prevented from doing so by the arrival of my new niece. Everyone is doing well, so hopefully we can get back into the usual swing of things at this point. And to that end, one of the interesting things about studying art, and keeping up with what’s going on in the art world, is that sometimes you stumble across things which may help to answer questions about objects that have found their way into your own collection.

For well over a year, I’d had my eye on an Italian Renaissance Revival…we’ll say “figurine”, but at nearly 2 feet tall he’s rather too big to be called that. Made in the traditional majolica process with bright green, yellow, and bronze glazes, all accented with gilding, it depicts a rather bellicose bearded man carrying a club and wearing rather over-the-top armor, complete with an animal jawbone as a helmet visor. The dealer had no information as to where or when it was made, but stylistically I liked the look of it, and knew exactly what I wanted to do with it. I already have a figure of Ramses II of about the same size, which looks after my ancient history, archaeology, and Egyptology books, and this fellow would be perfect to guard my rather large collection of works about the Italian Renaissance.

I was hoping the dealer would eventually be willing to negotiate the price down to something that I could justify out of my art acquisition budget. This happened recently, and my rather imposing friend arrived at the Fortress earlier this week. From the time I first spotted him, I’ve had some trouble trying to figure out his identity, and until recently I just assumed that he is supposed to represent Hercules, albeit in Italian Renaissance kit. Now however, I’m beginning to wonder whether he’s supposed to represent one of the strongmen who dominated Italian affairs during much of the 16th century.

Andrea Doria (1466-1560) was one of the most famous condottieri (our closest equivalent for one of these fellows might be a “mercenary”) of the Italian Renaissance, and eventually became the Imperial Admiral of the Genoese Republic. He was lionized not only by the Genoese, but by military commanders all over Europe, so it’s not surprising that his very dominating appearance and presence inspired many works of art. Among these is a work that recently came up for sale in Le Havre, which when I saw it, reminded me quite a bit of my own, considerably far less important, bit of ceramic.

Baccio Bandinelli (1488-1560) is perhaps best known today for his Mannerist sculpture of “Hercules and Cacus”, completed in 1534, which flanks Michelangelo’s “David” – or rather, a reproduction of it – in front of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Both sculptures are about 17 feet tall, and while the David represents the ideals of the Florentine Republic during the High Renaissance, the Hercules represents the power of the ruling Medici family. Although he worked primarily for the Medici during his career, Bandinelli did seek out commissions from other patrons across Italy as needed, and one of these was the Republic of Genoa, when he had to flee Florence during a period when the Medici were in exile.

In 1528, Genoa wanted to erect a monument to the still-dominant Admiral Doria, and one of the drawings that Bandinelli came up with as part of his proposal depicts the Admiral depicted as Neptune subduing a captive. Doria is dressed in rather elaborate armor and sporting a contrapposto pose, not dissimilar from the attire and pose of the majolica “Hercules” now sitting on one of my shelves. Bandinelli’s project never really got off the ground, as Doria couldn’t stand working with him and, perhaps wisely, the artist quietly returned to Florence once the Medici came back into power. As a result, although I’m well-acquainted with Doria as both an historical figure and as the subject of other works of art, I would never have become aware of this Bandinelli proposal at all, but for the fact that the drawing in question recently came up at auction and vastly exceeded market expectations: it sold this past Saturday for roughly $900,000 which, given that the pre-sale estimate was only around $88,000, is quite something.


Now, I’m by no means intending to suggest that there’s a direct relationship between this highly significant Italian Renaissance drawing, and my comparatively insignificant bit of Italian Renaissance *style* bric-a-brac, which I’m guessing was probably made in Italy and then exported to be sold at a better-quality department store or home décor shop like Marshall Field’s or Gump’s. Having come across this story however, I now have more information, and a new line of enquiry, as I try to identify the piece. Did the factory copy an existing Renaissance sculpture on a smaller scale? Did the designer use a Renaissance drawing like Bandinelli’s in working up a maquette for the final product? The fun that’s involved in this kind of research, quite frankly, at least if you’re an art nerd like yours truly, is that you never know where it will take you.


As that research continues, let’s move on to some other stories that caught my eye over the past week.

Double Dalí

A major double “portrait” by Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) has been consigned for auction at Bonham’s this spring. “Couple aux têtes pleines de nuages” (“Couple with heads full of clouds”) (1937) is the second version of a work which the Catalan Surrealist originally created in 1936, and that is now in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. Both are meant to depict Dalí and his wife Gala, but the couple are evoked only by the anthropomorphic gilt frames, rather than by the canvases inside them. Whereas the paintings feature rather stark landscapes with stunning skies full of clouds, the Rotterdam pictures feature two still lifes of tables draped in linen and displaying a few objects, while the pair coming up at Bonham’s show rock formations, tiny figures tearing about, and even a burning giraffe. Bonham’s pre-sale estimate is (roughly) between $9-$13 million, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the pictures far exceed that price.


Meticulous Manhattan

Next week Hirschl & Adler, one of my favorite galleries of Contemporary Art in New York, will be opening a new exhibition of recent paintings by American watercolorist Frederick Brosen (1954-). Brosen’s work is captivating for many reasons: his attention to detail, his understanding of architecture, his ability to capture urban elements such as the reflection of water on asphalt (as shown in the below image of Broome Street in Lower Manhattan), etc. What is truly remarkable about Brosen’s technical ability however, is that he executes these works not in a more stable and easily refined medium, such as acrylic or tempera, but in unforgiving watercolor. If you’ve ever painted in watercolor, then you know how easily it can get away from you, if you’re not careful, and Brosen’s incredible care and precision in executing these works is worthy of a Flemish Old Master. “Frederick Brosen: Recent Watercolor Paintings” opens February 6th and runs through March 6th.


Cosmic Cat

And finally, while the dog may be America’s favorite pet, everyone knows that its cats who rule the interwebz. What may surprise you about cats, however, is that despite the fame of Laika, the Russian dog who became the first animal to orbit the earth back in 1957, cats played an important part in man’s attempt to reach for the stars. Now, one of those felines is the subject of a new, public work of art.

Félicette, a street cat who was sent into orbit in 1963 and returned to tell the tale, is affectionately known to space aficionados as the “Astrocat”. In December, the International Space University in Strasbourg unveiled a bronze monument to her, the first cat in space, which was created by British animal artist Gill Parker (1957-). It depicts the intrepid traveler seated triumphantly atop a globe, gazing up into the heavens. The unveiling was announced by Matthew Serge Guy, a British fan of the Astrocat who spearheaded the fundraising for the project on Kickstarter over the past two years, with the rather appropriate update: “Félicette has landed.” 


4 Comments on “Art News Roundup: Astrocat Edition

  1. There seems to be some misunderstanding about Bandinelli’s colossal statue of Andrea Dora in the Guise of Neptune, probably because the articles which appeared in the French press concerning this drawing (which was recently sold at Le Havre) got it wrong. First, there are numerous drawings for the project and the other, comparable sheet is in the British Museum — in which Doria is similarly shown full-length, but utterly naked. There are others for the pedestal and its reliefs in museums such as the Louvre and Ashmolean. It is true that Bandinelli’s original concept for the figure was eventually rejected by the Genoese state, because it envisioned an over-lifesize bronze figure which was to have been gilded (therefore a work of vast expense). After several false starts, and much wrangling over the terms of his contract, Bandinelli eventually carved the figure from an enormous block of Carrara marble and there he abandoned it, almost but not quite finished; it was eventually set up on a pedestal-cum-fountain in the Piazza del Duomo where you will find it to this day. There are plenty of internet photographs of it if you just search for “Bandinelli / Images” etc. or on a Carrara travelsite or however…
    Roger Ward (the American scholar whose opinion was cited in the French articles)


  2. Thank you Mr. Ward! This is very helpful. I appreciate your taking the time to read and comment. I must say I am surprised that Drouot erred so badly in reporting, given that they sell these things for a living!


  3. Yes; there is no particularly good excuse, since there is a boatload of published scholarship on the Doria monument and many photographs going back to Alinari thru Courtauld/Conway Library to YouTube. Anybody who has been to Carrara has seen it, even if they didn’t know what it was. But the auction house did their own research for the entry which has several inaccuracies and makes no attempt to interpret the iconography of the drawing or to explain its relationship to the artist’s other proposals for the colossal statue. All of interest, but perhaps not to them; probably not to the buyer, either. It is great to see that this sheet has been very sensitively cleaned and conserved: it is easy to ruin these brown ink drawings in search of shiny white paper. Witness the very large and splendid modello of “The Labors of Hercules” (from the collection of Jane Austen’s brother) which was unwittingly deaccessioned by the Canton (Ohio) Museum of Art a few years (even though it had been published as a work by Bandinelli). The owners then attempted to wash and bleach it, with disastrous results, which came to light when the drawing was re-offered for sale at Sotheby’s London, last summer, where of course it failed to attract a single bid. Perhaps you will let us know if you eventually learn the identity of Andrea Doria’s new owner, as I would love to see the sheet in person.
    Roger Ward


  4. I certainly will if it pops up on the art business sites I follow. Thanks for sharing all of this information, really fascinating stuff and I love getting into the weeds of how auction houses work (or don’t…)


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