Regular readers know that I have a love-hate relationship with museums.
I love visiting both temporary exhibitions and permanent collections, in order to see the wealth of art that mankind has produced over the centuries, and thereby (hopefully) experience both pleasure and a greater sense of humility, as I recognize my own continual need for education. Part of the hate aspect, if that isn’t too strong a term, has to do with their tendency to hoard, rather than display, the objects which they hold in their collections, many of which never see the light of day. Yet on a personal level, part of it also has to do with seeing sacred art stripped of its meaning when placed in a secular setting.
To my surprise, Eike Schmidt, Director of the Uffizi, agrees with me. In an interview this week with The Art Newspaper, he proposed that hundreds of works of religious art currently held in storage at museums around Italy – including his own – be returned to the churches from whence they came. One very important object which he proposes sending back to its home is Duccio’s gigantic Rucellai Madonna (1285), a detail of which is shown below, which hung in the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella for almost 600 years before being moved to the Uffizi.
Reaction to this proposal has been mixed. For those of you who don’t read the art press every day as I have to, this gives us an opportunity for a very brief look at the variety of views one has to take in when reporting on any art-related story. And as you’ll see, these experts and publications can range from the positive to the patronizing to the plebeian.
ArtNet, for example, appears to think that there’s no reason not to return these objects to their homes. “Churches may need to make changes to meet the conservation and security needs of these works of art,” they admit, “but once that hurdle is cleared, there is little standing in the way of reuniting Italian religious art with churches.” Notice their use of “reunite”, here, which would seem to indicate a more positive point of view on the question.
As a riposte to Mr. Elke in The Art Newspaper article linked to above, the former head of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, while in favor of the idea, expressed the view that “rules should be set as to what conditions a church would need to fulfill in order to get its art back, and then it should be returned with ceremony to mark its homecoming.” [Emphasis mine.] In most cases, the art in question was never the property of the State to begin with. The objects were either illegally expropriated from the Church by anti-clerical governments, or given to the State for the purpose of safekeeping during World War II and never returned. Placing conditions on the rightful owners as if they were children being allowed to cross the street unassisted for the first time is, frankly, a bit patronizing.
Predictably, Hyperallergic uses the story as an excuse to talk about subjects which have nothing to do with the situation. “The suggestion that displaying religious objects outside of their original places of worship potentially de-contextualizes our interpretations evokes the discourse around the repatriation of cultural objects,” writes one author. “A report authored by Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and French art historian Bénédicte Savoy and commissioned by the French government in 2018 found that around 90% of African cultural heritage resides outside of the continent, in major Western museums.” [N.B. Speaking of context, the same publication recently ran a story praising a video game in which the player takes on the role of a left-wing anti-capitalist mob, complete with setting bombs to kill as many “enemies” as possible, calling it “an extremely fun piece of leftist agitprop.”]
I often make the complaint that I read all of these things so that you don’t have to, and perhaps now, gentle reader, with this very mild example of the range of things I have to wade through in order to bring you stories of interest, you’ll see why I never ended up going into the art business myself. I’m quite content to limit my involvement in that world to a sort of gentleman’s pastime, both as a writer and a collector. That being said, in this particular instance, it’s refreshing to see the head of a major cultural institution come around to my way of thinking with respect to a type of art which I care about.
And with that said, let us away to some stories which caught my eye over the past week.
Nearing Notre Dame
There’s just a brief update to share this week on progress at Notre Dame de Paris, following the devastating fire that tore through the Cathedral-Basilica. This past Friday, French authorities gave the all-clear to remove the steel barriers that had been put up in the square in front of the church, following an intense period of cleanup and removal of potentially toxic lead from the area. On Pentecost Sunday, visitors were allowed to stand in front of the main façade of the building once again, for the first time since the fire over a year ago; in the photo below you can see Paris’ Archbishop Michel Aupetit at the center, and Paris’ Mayor Anne Hidalgo in the spotted dress to the left. Appropriately enough, in 2006 the square was renamed Place Jean-Paul II after Pope St. John Paul II (1920-2005), who visited the church several times during his pontificate, and whose May 18th birthday was remembered by many recently on social media.
One of the highlights in Christie’s upcoming “Classics Week” sales in late July will be the opportunity to own a magnificent, portable work of art once owned by one of the most famous women in history. Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1587) was given the beautifully illuminated prayer book as a gift by her great-aunt, the Abbess of the Royal Abbey of Fontevraud, and Mary took it with her when she left France for Scotland. Following her execution, it descended through various Scottish and English collections down to the present. The volume is coming up for sale in London on July 29th, but thanks to the present pandemic, the entire sale will take place online – so no excuses if you’ve got a bit of dosh lying about the place.
And last but certainly not least, if you missed it, my latest for The Federalist posted yesterday, in which I interviewed Virginia-based artist (and friend) Rebecca Coffin Anderson, one of whose landscape paintings appears below. I’ve known Rebecca for years, but it’s only within the last few months that I’ve become more actively conscious of her art, following a joint show she participated in and spoke at hereabouts. My editor at the magazine suggested some weeks ago, since I couldn’t do my usual critiques of exhibitions during the pandemic shutdown, that I seek out stories of people using the arts during quarantine. This led me to my interview of Father Hugh Vincent Dyer, a friar friend in New York working to bring the arts into a nursing home under quarantine, and to Rebecca’s work and ideas, which I think you’ll agree are relevant to these tumultuous times. My thanks to Rebecca for her time, her thoughtfulness, and her art, which evokes the universality of the human experience while seeking to impart a real sense of place.