Art News Roundup: Back to Black Edition

No, you did not get an essay from me on Tuesday, gentle reader – again – and no, subscribers, you did not miss an email. Despite working from the Fortress for the last 7,320 days of quarantine, I find myself both incredibly more efficient but also much busier at the moment. My apologies. That said, before we turn to high culture of the week, allow me a moment to promote a bit of pop culture that will be commemorated this afternoon.

This afternoon the GRAMMY Museum in Los Angeles will host a special live event on Instagram marking the anniversary of the release of the song [WARNING: adult language/themes] “Back to Black” by the late, great Amy Winehouse (1983-2011), off of her album of the same title. It’s one of my favorite Amy tracks, in part due to the almost Edith Piaf-like pathos. While many listeners are drawn to the recording’s sumptuous orchestration in a classic 1960’s Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” style, the song itself stands up perfectly on its own: in fact it worked just as well when she performed it acoustically, with only a guitar accompaniment.

Beginning tomorrow, online visitors to the museum’s site will be able to take a virtual tour of the exhibition “Beyond Black – The Style of Amy Winehouse”, which had been scheduled to close at the end of this month, but now may well have more visitors online than it might have had in real life. I definitely plan on seeing it, since while neither tattoos nor beehive wigs appeal to me, my initial rather low opinion of Amy changed over time, because a friend encouraged me to let go of my preconceptions and just listen. The eventual result was one of the blog posts I’m most proud of, back when Amy died, written as a riposte to another and better-known personality who had downplayed her loss. Great art, if it is great art, sometimes doesn’t come in a pretty package, but you owe it to yourself to at least look at it and see if you can discover the good in it. Accordingly, even if you’re not a fan of her work, I encourage you to go read it with an open mind, and then listen to some of her tunes, since she really was a remarkable artist.


Like many museums shuttered due to the pandemic, the GRAMMY Museum has been stepping up its public outreach efforts to keep music lovers engaged even as they are stuck at home, so be sure to take a look around their site for more events and resources that can help tide you over until you can get to a concert again.

And now, on to some more hoity-toity headlines.

Notre Dame: Back to Work

As some European countries begin to relax previous restrictions imposed by the pandemic, restoration is once again set to resume at the Cathedral Basilica of Notre Dame de Paris. The project head, General Jean-Louis Georgelin (below) – whom the French press have begun referring to as, “Monsieur Reconstruction” – met with architects and engineers on Monday to discuss how to get back to work within the limitations imposed by the pandemic. Interestingly, the General seems to have shied away from French President Macron’s 2024 completion date ever so slightly. In an interview on Monday, M. Reconstruction indicated that 2024 is the goal year for returning the church to worship, but not for the full completion of all work (“Cette date n’est pas celle de la fin des travaux, mais celle à laquelle la cathédrale devrait être rendue au culte catholique.”) I wonder how M. le Président took that nuanced pronouncement, or whether it’s some hair-splitting that came from the Élysée itself.


Van Gogh: Back to Square One

Subscribers and regular readers will recall my telling you about the recent theft of an early work by Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) on loan from one museum to another in The Netherlands. The latest on that mystery is the security footage from the Singer Laren Museum, showing that the thief arrived and departed on a motorcycle, and used a sledgehammer during part of the break-in, before strolling out with the painting under his arm. I found this statement by the museum’s director to be wonderfully terse: “The footage released does not therefore allow any conclusions to be drawn as to the quality of security at Singer Laren.” I wouldn’t want to be the security contractor who will hear the less polite version of that statement. Police are still investigating, but have not identified any suspects at the moment. As an interesting side note, it turns out that the founder of the museum was an artist who, along with her artist husband, had settled in Laren many years earlier; both were American expatriates.


Vermeer: Back to Green (?)

Speaking of Dutch art, over the past few days both the art and mainstream press have been fascinated by some recent discoveries following a two-year scientific analysis of Dutch Golden Age painter Johannes Vermeer’s (1632-1675) most famous work, “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (1665). Not only are there now-faded eyelashes painted so finely that they can’t be seen when just looking at the piece in person, but the picture originally looked somewhat different when it was originally completed. Rather than a black background, a green curtain was depicted behind the figure; the pigment has darkened to black over time. It would be interesting to see whether it could be brought back, since it would radically alter the way we think of the painting, and it’s a move that would not be unprecedented for a Vermeer. Readers may recall my telling you about the discovery and restoration of a painted-out background element in another famous Vermeer painting, “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window”.




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