The ability to read and write does not automatically impart the ability to think – or indeed, the ability to write well.
Case in point, this week the always wince-worthy online art magazine Hyperallergic offered a rather juvenile, ill-informed take on the latest botched art restoration in Spain, a story I reported on in last week’s Art News Roundup. I won’t comment on the author’s specific opinions, since they speak for themselves. Nevertheless, it’s still worth pointing out something that often appears in art criticism of this kind: a demonstrable lack of understanding of the subject matter, subsumed beneath a muddle of feelings expressed at the expense of underlying research, reason, and analysis.
For example, as opposed to what is stated in the Hyperallergic piece, as well as what you may have read in similarly lazily-researched English-language commentary, the painting in question was NOT claimed in Spanish news reports (or indeed by The Guardian) to be by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682) himself. Rather, the canvas is a later copy of one of his most popular works. The Murillo original, known as “The Immaculate Conception of El Escorial” (c. 1660) is, so far as I am aware, still hanging on a wall at The Prado in Madrid. Misreporting on this point has become so bad that ACRE, Spain’s Association of Conservers and Restorers who were interviewed when the story broke, had to put out a press release in English.
Now admittedly, I’m fluent in Spanish, and so it’s perhaps easier for me to read and understand art news stories in that language without the need of a translator. That being said, had the author noticed that in the very title of the video linked to in the Hyperallergic article appear the words, “copia desfigurada”, and then done a bit of basic due diligence to plug those words into, say, Google Translate, said author would presumably have realized that this was not an actual Murillo which had been ruined. This fact is not merely a distinction without a difference here, in that, not only does the assumption that the piece is by Murillo himself serve as a foundation for the rest of the article, but, as I argued in my own piece, there is a different level of analysis that needs to be employed when dealing with the destruction of a privately-owned copy of a work, when the original is already protected in a public collection.
As I often observe in these virtual pages, I read such things so that you don’t have to do so, but occasionally I like to share a particularly notable example of why you should be extremely wary of both the reporting and the opinions being put forward by the art media establishment.
With that said, let’s move on to some more enjoyable and interesting stories from the week gone by.
Remember that eccentric bronze bathroom suite shaped like a hippopotamus family that I told you about back in April? A week ago the 1992 ensemble by French sculptor François-Xavier Lalanne (1927–2008) went for around $2.4 million at Sotheby’s Paris. My guess back in April was that the group’s pre-sale estimate was a bit too low, but in the end it landed roughly around the middle of the predicted range. The Robb Report, which follows the market for all sorts of high-end things, noted in reporting on the sale that purveyors of luxury goods “may be scrambling to deal with the fallout from the Coronavirus crisis, but collectors’ appetite for the truly ridiculous appears to be alive and well.” That may be, but given the slightly lackluster performance for such a very rare and charming group of functional sculptures, it’s only true up to a point.
With a return to exhibitions beginning in museum world, it’s perhaps not surprising that an immersive exhibition on Pompeii and its destruction by Mount Vesuvius, which reopened yesterday in Paris, is proving to be popular with visitors who have been cooped up for months. What is surprising however, is a new report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in which researchers speculate that another volcanic eruption, this time in Alaska in about 43 B.C., may have led to the end of both the Roman Republic and the Ptolemaic Dynasty in Egypt. We know that a similar watershed moment occurred in 1600 B.C., in which the volcano that marked the center of the island of Santorini exploded, and may have led not only to the destruction of the Minoan Empire, but to colossal tidal waves and clouds of ash that were recorded from Egypt to China, as well as (possibly) giving rise to the legend of Atlantis. It’s interesting to consider that the reaction to this Alaskan event may have changed the course of Western history, including Western art. Meanwhile, “Pompeii” runs at the Grand Palais in Paris through September 27th, pandemic permitting.
I will freely admit that, until I read this story about the latest acquisition by The Mauritshuis, I had never heard of Batholomäus Bruyn (1493-1555), also known as Barthel Bruyn the Elder. Bruyn was a German artist, the most prominent working in the city of Cologne in the first half of the 16th century. While the bodies of the sitters here are somewhat disproportionate to their heads, the overall effect is one reminiscent of the crystalline clarity and immediacy that one finds in works by another German artist of the same period, Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), such as his glorious 1532 portrait of Hermann von Wedigh III now at The Met. It’s great to see that Mr. and Mrs. Omphalius are back together again after being separated for so long. And of course, one of the joys of learning about art is that you will never run out of subject matter on which to continue educating yourself: these connections and references draw us deeper into our understanding of the sweep of history, since new styles of art rarely emerge from a vacuum.