Art News Roundup: Sweeping Down the Plain Edition

ICYMI, my latest for The Federalist published yesterday, in which I review the new exhibition “Degas at the Opéra” at the National Gallery of Art here in DC.

As with everything else in this town at the moment, the museum, and indeed the exhibition, are currently closed. However, as you’ll see if you’re so kind as to drop by the magazine site, the NGA has provided a number of online resources for those interested in learning more about French Impressionist Edgar Degas (1834-1917), his world, and the exhibition itself. The show really did challenge my preconceived notion of Degas as a painter of frilly, girly pictures, and made me take a long, hard look at what he was doing. Hopefully some of my readers will get to experience the exhibition for themselves before too much more time passes.

I’ve received a number of private comments so far about the backstory surrounding Degas’ most famous sculpture, “Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen” (1878-1881), which is part of the NGA show. Some readers were surprised to learn that the piece represents an individual, rather than an idealization, but in a way this figure of a dancer is a kind of inverse idealization of the many girls whom Degas knew in the entertainment world of his time. The pursuit of fame for the purpose of material enrichment or emotional fulfillment rarely ends well, and the hundreds of young Parisians who reached for that brass ring mostly slipped and fell into poverty or worse. Degas’ representation of just one of these girls is, in its way, a representation – and indeed, a cautionary tale – about all of them.


Now let’s turn to some art news of interest from the week gone by.

Croatia Crumbles

As if trying to deal with the Coronavirus pandemic wasn’t bad enough, the people of Croatia are now dealing with the aftermath of two highly damaging earthquakes that hit the Croatian capital of Zagreb earlier this week. Fortunately no one died, but one of the twin spires of the city’s cathedral has partly collapsed, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart suffered major damage as shown below, a number of historic buildings and cultural institutions have also suffered significant damage, and hundreds if not thousands of museum artifacts have been smashed to pieces. Although addressing such losses would seem to be impossible under the current circumstances, preventing building collapse is going to confront authorities with some very hard choices: can the more heavily damaged structures be temporarily stabilized, or will some of them have to be demolished in the interest of public safety, given that resources are already being stretched beyond their limits to deal with the spread of the pandemic? This firefighter in the old quarter of Zagreb has the right idea.


Medieval Mystery

Over on the blog for the Archives of the Venerable English College in Rome, a seminary originally founded in the 16th century to train Catholic priests to minister to the faithful in England and Wales, my friend Father Nicholas Schofield has a fascinating post on a missing work of Medieval art that embodies the concept of “Mary’s Dowry”, a pious term for England that first became popular during the High Middle Ages. Father Schofield begins with an analysis of the famous Wilton Diptych in the National Gallery, London, shown below, which is an extremely rare surviving Medieval English altarpiece, given that most of this type of art was destroyed during the Reformation. It depicts King Richard II (1367-1400) surrounded by several patron saints being presented to the Madonna and Child. What I found particularly fascinating was the fact that a much larger, now-missing polyptych of five panels depicting Richard and his wife Anne of Bohemia (1366-1394) surrounded by a number of saints before the Virgin Mary, was in the possession of the English College in Rome for centuries. It disappeared during the chaos wrought by French revolutionary troops at the end of the 18th century, and to this day its location – if the piece or parts of it survived at all – remains unknown.


Cowboy Curator

Among the many cultural institutions shut down at the moment is the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. In what has turned out to be an unexpected boon for publicity, the museum put its head of security, Tim Send, in charge of their social media accounts while the museum is closed to visitors. The results, as detailed here, are absolutely hilarious, charming, and touching, since Mr. Snead is clearly a man who is learning how to use social media and technology as he goes, and calls ‘em like he sees ‘em when posting images of some of the objects in the collection. When the present nightmare is over, this man is clearly going to deserve a significant bonus for singlehandedly raising this institution’s domestic and indeed international profile in a matter of DAYS. Good luck sir, and stay safe.


6 Comments on “Art News Roundup: Sweeping Down the Plain Edition

  1. Is that your picture of Degas’ “Little Dancer”? It’s awesome. Btw, “Tim Send” must surely have been “Seth from Marketing” all along. It is indeed hilarious, but way too knowing. 😃 Keep safe, William.


  2. I was riveted by the blog on “Mary’s Dowry”. I’ve long known the altarpiece but had no idea of the missing panels. A good illustrator could actually reconstruct it from the description. I would love to try.


  3. Great post – I loved your Federalist article on Degas. I studied him a bit but never heard of the angle you presented, which lends a whole different, deeper and even sinister, perspective to his work; I will definitely go see it as soon as the NGA is back open. Thanks also for the news on Croatia. I have friends there and visited a few times so know what a wonderful, albeit still relatively poor, country it is and wish them the best in battling earthquake and virus simultaneously. Some of the most moving Masses I have ever attended were in Croatia, truly a lovely country. As if that is not enough, you bring us a Medieval Mystery… and does the goodness ever end here?? TIM! Thanks so much…I’m following the National Cowboy Museum (ok, really just Tim) on Twitter now!


  4. I’m really glad that you found so many takeaways! I try to find stories that are both interesting and where I care, or have something to say, about the subject, and don’t just write about anything. So thanks for your reading and support, glad you have found the information useful!


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