I know, I know.
I didn’t post my usual longer-format essay on Tuesday, but I was unfortunately overtaken by events requiring my attention. In any case, as you might imagine, most of the news from the art world at the moment is awful, and not just because of all the utter garbage I have to read on a daily basis to keep up with what’s going on: as I’ve written before, I sift through all of this flotsam and jetsam so that you don’t have to do so. Rather, the outlook is quite bad both for the market and museumworld at the moment, and there are some emerging trends that I’m looking at which I want to write about at greater length next week.
For today however, let’s just sit back and take a look at some recent news which I hope you’ll find interesting, having to do with outdoor places. We all know that, no matter how many windows you open, or how much you try to lacquer the air with Febreeze, being at home for so long really stinks. So let’s have a peep outside and see what we find.
A rather mysterious archaeological discovery was made recently in the county of Surrey, England, when a landslide revealed a hidden cavern, decorated with medieval symbols indicating that was used for spiritual purposes. While the imagery is Christian, it’s also possible that the site was used for religious purposes going back to pre-Christian times. This of course is not at all unusual, since it was often the case that missionaries or bishops with wills of iron would take over pagan sites and convert them to Christian purposes, and similar such repurposed sites can be found throughout Europe and the Middle East, such as the very ancient shrine of Our Lady of Covadonga, in Asturias, Spain. At the moment, there appears to be some uncertainty as to whether the newly-discovered Surrey cave was a hermitage or a shrine. If the former, it’s perhaps a tad more primitive than the one we’re trying to establish up in Maine, since if this place was a hermitage, the hermit would have needed to repel down the face of the cliff to reach it, and I don’t see us asking Brother Rex to do the same.
Speaking of Maine, you’re probably aware of the fact that many museums are putting images of their exhibitions online for virtual visitors during the present pandemic, and one of these is the New Britain Museum of American Art. Their current show, “The Art and Artists of Monhegan Island”, features beautiful, boldly-colored landscapes and seascapes of this renowned artists’ colony off the coast of Maine. Many American artists have vacationed and painted on Monhegan over the years, perhaps most famously George Bellows (1882-1925), the Wyeths, and Edward Hopper (1882-1967). Hopper’s views of Maine are not as publicly acclaimed as his more introspective figurative paintings or cityscapes, but I recall at the National Gallery retrospective some years ago finding them quite a revelation, with bold colors such as in this image of a cluster of houses on Monhegan punctuated by a streak of cobalt blue sea. For this Connecticut-based celebration of coastal Maine however, there are several new-to-you (or me, anyway) artists to discover, such as Jay Hall Connaway (1893-1970), whose vibrant, undated “Clouds” appears below.
And we’ll go from Maine to Marie now, with some interesting news from Versailles. After many years of fits and starts, a private garden originally designed for Queen Marie Antoinette in 1776 will finally be restored and replanted. Apart from the rather ignorant subheading on this article – Marie Antoinette never said, “Let them eat cake,” as any reasonably-educated student of history knows – the news is very good. It will be fascinating to see what the French imagined an English country house garden of the period to look like, in the same way that English landscape designers imagined what French or Italian landscapes looked like. It shouldn’t be surprising to learn that this garden for strolling, conversation, and reflection was intended to be less formal than the usual grand outdoor spaces of the time, since when she was not performing court duties the Queen preferred a comparatively relaxed atmosphere. This included a more simple style of dress, as captured by her friend and favorite painter, Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun (1755-1842), as readers of my review on the retrospective of that artist at The Met a few years ago will recall. Below, a detail of Vigée-Le Brun’s 1783 portrait of the Queen in a white muslin dress and straw hat, now at The Met.