Art News Roundup: So This Is Love Edition

Normally, the only time I might stop to think about wishing upon a star or the like is when listening to the “Dave Digs Disney” (1957) album by the Dave Brubeck Quartet – particularly their take on “So This Is Love” from Walt Disney’s “Cinderella” (1950).

Of course in the present climate, if there’s any fairy tale that seems to resonate most, it’s probably that recounted by the poet Goethe in “Der Zauberlehrling” (“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”.) Based on a story from Ancient Greece, and perhaps most famous in its retelling in a sequence from Walt Disney’s “Fantasia”(1940), the story involves the same task being performed over and over again, threatening to overcome those involved. I suspect that for many, the Coronavirus pandemic has taken on that aspect the longer it has continued, and I know that some of my readers are struggling right now with the thought of how they’re going to cope with yet another impending semester – or longer – during which their wee ones will have to be homeschooled, and not by choice.

Two recent bits of arts-related news however, have been on my mind this week regarding this issue, not only for teacher-parents, but also for those just looking for some wisdom, beauty, and a bit of a break from having to do the same thing over and over again, seemingly without ceasing.

As highlighted in a new exhibition that opened recently at Windsor Castle, in 1940 a series of 16 paintings by the great British portraitist Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) depicting the allied leaders involved in the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte were taken down from the Waterloo Chamber at the royal residence, and placed in storage for safekeeping during World War II. The following year, teenage art student Claude Whatham (1927-2008), who had been evacuated from Manchester to the countryside as were many other British children, was commissioned to create a series of paintings to fill the empty frames where the Lawrence pictures normally hang. They were to be executed on strips of wallpaper, presumably for easy removal afterward, and the theme chosen for what was supposed to be a temporary installation was a series of characters from pantomime, a centuries-old British musical comedy tradition often enjoyed during the Christmas holidays.

The stories in pantomime – or “panto” as it’s often called, for short – are usually taken from popular fairy tales, with characters that would be familiar to everyone in the audience, regardless of age. While children follow the adventures of figures such as Aladdin or Puss In Boots, or the perils of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, the scripts for these performances are generally written in such a way that elements of adult contemporary humor, such as political or social references, are contained within them. These references would go over the children’s heads, but be caught by the grown-ups attending the show.

The installation of Whatham’s paintings in the Waterloo Chamber was intended to tie in with a planned series of pantomime performances held in the room in order to benefit the Royal Household Wool Fund, as the Royal Collection Trust explains:

Christmas pantomimes were performed at Windsor between 1941 and 1944, the first being Cinderella, in which both Princesses had leading roles. The pantomimes were staged in the Waterloo Chamber and were both written and produced by Hubert Tannar, Headmaster of the Royal School in Windsor Great Park. The performers included local children (some evacuees) and friends of the Princesses, with occasional help from service personnel based in the Windsor area. There was always an enthusiastic audience, and all monies raised from the admission charge went to the Wool Fund, to supply knitting wool for the making of comforters for the armed forces.

For whatever reason, after the War ended Lawrence’s portraits were returned to their frames, but Whatham’s panto paintings were not removed: Whatham’s fairy tale characters remained stuck to the walls underneath. The images were not seen again until 1992, when the Lawrence paintings were once again temporarily removed for safekeeping, during the disastrous fire that ravaged parts of the Castle. Perhaps because they had been covered up for almost fifty years at that point, the pantomime pictures remained remarkably fresh, despite having been executed on decidedly non-archival paper and using inexpensive paints.

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Above we can see a selection of three of the sixteen Waltham paintings: Dick Whittington and his cat on the left, Cinderella in the center, and Jack and the Beanstalk on the right. They’re wonderfully Art Deco in style, and obviously influenced by Continental advertising posters of the period, though there’s a confident economy of line that’s all the more remarkable considering that the artist who painted them was only about fourteen years old at the time. It’s also interesting to note how the image of Cinderella somewhat strongly anticipates the Walt Disney depiction of the same character several years later, although it seems highly improbable that Disney himself could have seen the Whatham painting. [N.B. If my readers are more informed on this point – or indeed on any point – than I am, please share what you know in the comments section.]

The paintings are currently on display for visitors to Windsor Castle while the Lawrence portraits are once again undergoing some study. While it seems a pity that Waltham’s work will be covered up again in a few months, for as long as they’re visible they serve as a colorful reminder of how, even in the darkest of times, it’s possible to find some inspiration from these old, magical tales. And to that end, for those of you interested in taking a deeper dive into the subject, there’s an online learning resource that you may find worth investigating.

“Fairy Tales and Sacraments” is an online course being offered this coming semester by my friend Sarah Maple, PhD., Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, New York. As Dr. Maple describes the course, in part:

Fairy Tales allow us to isolate, suspend and consider particular realities that further explore the mysteries of our origin, meaning, and destiny…Fairy Tales from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in particular, attempted to recapture the imaginations of Christians, and the whole world, within the message of the Scripture and the Gospels. This course is an intensive study of the Fairy Tales of George MacDonald, author of The Princess and the Goblin, and the primary source of inspiration for the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis.

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Tolkien, Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Louis Carroll, and many other writers were hugely influenced by the Scottish poet, Christian apologist, and children’s fantasy author George MacDonald (1824-1905), shown at work above. For example, in reflecting on MacDonald and his work in a forward to a book about MacDonald – written by one of MacDonald’s eleven children from his over fifty years of marriage to his wife Louisa – Chesterton noted the Scottish writer’s enormous impact on his own life:

[I]n a certain rather special sense I for one can really testify to a book that has made a difference to my whole existence, which helped me to see things in a certain way from the start; a vision of things which even so real a revolution as a change of religious allegiance has substantially only crowned and confirmed. Of all the stories I have read, including even all the novels of the same novelist, it remains the most real, the most realistic, in the exact sense of the phrase the most like life. It is called The Princess and the Goblin, and is by George MacDonald…The commonplace allegory takes what it regards as the commonplaces or conventions necessary to ordinary men and women, and tries to make them pleasant or picturesque by dressing them up as princesses or goblins or good fairies. But George MacDonald did really believe that people were princesses and goblins and good fairies, and he dressed them up as ordinary men and women. The fairy-tale was the inside of the ordinary story and not the outside.

Dr. Maple’s course will run online from August 25th through December 8th, and for more information on how to go about signing up, please contact the College Registrar’s Office by following this link.

And with that, let’s move on to some less magical, but still interesting stories from the week gone by.

Notes from Notre Dame

Now that the melted, twisted scaffolding surrounding the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre Dame de Paris is being removed, attention has turned to the church’s historic pipe organ, which dates to 1733. Miraculously, like the enormous rose window it sits beneath, the gigantic instrument survived the April 2019 blaze intact, but the entire thing is now in the process of being disassembled, including its 8,000 pipes. Every piece of it has to be cleaned of lead, soot, and other debris, and any damaged parts need to be replaced. Then the entire thing must be re-tuned, disassembled for transport, and put back together inside the Cathedral. The disassembly alone is expected to last through the end of this year, so this is yet another gargantuan task ahead for the team of restoration experts.

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Booty from Berlin

By now more people are aware of the work of the “Monuments Men”, the team of experts who rescued art stolen or stashed away by the Nazis during World War II. This summer, the Cincinnati Art Museum was supposed to open an exhibition titled “Paintings, Politics and the Monuments Men: The Berlin Masterpieces in America”, recounting another aspect of the story. At the end of the War, 202 masterpieces from the Berlin State Museum were found stashed in a salt mine in the town of Merkers, and were recovered by a team lead by U.S. Army Captain Walter I. Farmer, who hailed from Cincinnati. It was decided to send the paintings to the U.S. for a tour of American museums, a move which Captain Farmer and others protested for, among other reasons, smacking of the kind of triumphalism that Ancient Rome would engage in after defeating its enemies. This is just one intriguing aspect of the rather complicated story of what happened to these pictures, which the show is to tell (whenever it opens) alongside some of the works themselves, on loan from Berlin, as well as documents, photographs, and other original materials. Although the exhibition is currently on indefinite hold, the catalogue is now available and is definitely on my Wish List. Below, Generals Bradley, Eisenhower, and Lieutenant General Patton tour the Merkers mine before the paintings were taken back to the surface.

Merkers

Gazing from Ghent

One of the most famous works of art rescued from the Nazis by the Monuments Men is, of course, “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”, more commonly known as “The Ghent Altarpiece”, a 15th-century masterpiece by the Van Eyck brothers that resides in St. Bravo’s Cathedral in the Belgian city of Ghent. Readers will recall that recently, a number of ill-informed commentators and meme-makers criticized the recent cleaning and restoration of the piece, because the face of the Lamb came out looking more humanoid and less lamb-like. After an exhaustive review, experts from the University of Antwerp and the National Gallery of Art have concluded that the Van Eycks did, in fact, intend to have the Lamb – who symbolizes Christ Himself – display the (to modern eyes) slightly disturbing face that we see gazing out at us now. It may be a late Medieval convention with respect to how to portray animals, since similar faces appear among the horses in one of the other panels of the altarpiece, or it may be that one or both of the Van Eycks intentionally wanted to have the viewer thrown a bit off-balance when praying or meditating before the image. For more about this, including a wealth of technical analysis that really gets into the weeds (but in a fascinating way), you can read the report here.
AgnusDei

Art News Roundup: Masterpiece Market Edition

The art world regularly tells us that Old Master paintings are out of fashion, but those of us who love them (and those of us who have the means to acquire them) don’t particularly seem to care.

On Tuesday night, a very beautiful self-portrait of Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1699) that I told you about back in June sold at Sotheby’s London for a whopping $18.8 million. It’s a new world record price for a self-portrait by the artist, since the last Rembrandt self-portrait to come to market sold for $8.9 million back in 2003. About half a dozen bidders engaged in the bidding spree, probably because this is one of the last self-portraits by Rembrandt remaining in private hands, and also, I suspect, because of speculation that I reported on previously that the picture was probably an engagement present, which the artist executed for his beloved first wife, Saskia.

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Then on Wednesday night, the arresting “Portrait of a Young Woman Holding a Chain” (c. 1603) by the great Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), was sold at Christie’s London for around $5.2 million. This is an early, unfinished work, possibly a highly-evolved sketch for a painting now lost or unknown to us, and it’s quite a direct gaze that we’re getting from the unknown sitter. One theory is that this is one of a series of portraits of court ladies commissioned by Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, to decorate the “Gallery of Beauties” in his palace. However, other experts point to a diplomatic trip that Rubens made to visit King Philip II of Spain in 1603, where the artist is known to have painted several portraits of Spanish courtiers. To my eye, the muted colors of the dress and the up-swept hairstyle under a veil are more typical of the Spanish Hapsburg court of the time.

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So how do we explain this unexpected level of interest in what have long been two of the most well-regarded but decidedly old-fashioned Old Master painters in Western art?

One possibility is that buyers are hedging their bets in reaction to the economic impact of Covid. Many collectors at the upper end of the market purchase art as a commodity, because it’s easily transported, sold, or traded. While they’re often interested in speculation, which explains why they like to purchase works by Contemporary artists and then flip them a few years later for a profit, in times of uncertainty they may be seeking more proven artists in whom to invest for a rainy day. So while the art-as-commodity buyer may still desire the relative liquidity that high-value works can provide, artists such as Rembrandt and Rubens are what we might think of as “blue chip” artists: on resale, they have pretty consistently held or increased in value.

Another possibility is that explored in this interesting survey/overview in Artsy regarding younger collectors. It notes the trend in recent years to try mixed sales, such as those this week that included both the Rembrandt self-portrait AND the Rubens portrait. These jumble lot jobs throw together big names in Old Master, Modern, and Contemporary works in the same evening, and often achieve more remarkable results than if the art had been placed in more narrowly-themed sales.

Thus, potential buyers are being shown a wider variety of choices in a single auction or show than they might otherwise have considered. Per the Artsy article, dealers and auctioneers see younger, up-and-coming collectors as having more “omnivorous” tastes, rather than sticking to particular artists, schools, or styles. This may be reflective of younger collectors’ heavy use of social media, where people are often interested in very eclectic subjects.

There’s something to be said for this argument, as my own Instagram can tell you, even though I mostly stick to certain specific areas when it comes to collecting art. Still, it’s an interesting development to note, and if sales such as these continue to draw greater interest from buyers who might otherwise eschew auctions or galleries that only specialize in one or two areas of collecting, it could have a significant impact on the future direction of the art market for Old Masters back to how it once was, before there were specialized sales. We’ll just have to wait and see if this is a mere trend, or a permanent shift.

And now, on to some other art stories of interest this week.

Denizen Ducks

Speaking of IG, The Met announced on their Instagram account earlier this week that, in the absence of human intrusion thanks to the pandemic, a mother duck has taken up residence on the roof of the museum, and is currently brooding a clutch of eggs. It’s been decided not to attempt to move her or the nest until the ducklings hatch, and since the museum won’t be opening any time soon, for now this is probably a safe spot for the feathered family. Naming conventions for the birds are, I believe, still up for grabs, and we’re told that the ducks will be moved to Central Park once it’s safe for rangers to do so.

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Nantes News

Although a suspect in last week’s arson attack on the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul in Nantes is now in police custody, there’s still no word on a possible motive. According to prosecutors the individual, who was questioned initially because he had been responsible for locking up the building that night, has expressed great remorse for his setting the fires. In speaking to the press, his attorney describes him as a “believer”, presumably meaning that he is a Catholic or at least a Christian, so perhaps what we are looking at here is not sectarianism but rather mental illness. The man faces ten years in jail and a $175,000 fine if convicted, while the cost of the damage to the destroyed 400-year-old organ and Renaissance stained glass windows is likely to be calculated at many times that amount.

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Sorolla Salon

Staying in France, but heading further south, the Hôtel de Caumont in Aix-en-Provence has been able to reopen just in time for its new show “Joaquín Sorolla: Lumières Espagnoles (“Spanish Lights”)”, celebrating the work of the great Spanish Impressionist painter. Sorolla (1863-1923) is probably best-known for his very large canvases of his family, portraits of famous people, scenes of country life, and depictions of the pleasures of the seaside, but the Caumont show takes a different approach than most exhibitions of this type. The exhibition shows not only many of the master’s great, finished works, but also a number of his preparatory work-ups, where he figured out details of composition, lighting, and so on at a more intimate scale. I particularly love the sketchy oil shown below, “El Botijo” (1903), which shows a young woman helping a child to get a drink from a traditional Spanish ceramic water jug with a spout known as a “botijo” on what, based on the figures’ attire and the overall tones of the picture, looks to be a very hot summer’s day. It’s one of the many objects in the show that were lent by private collections, making this show (and its exhibition catalogue) all the more special. The exhibition runs through November 1st, Covid permitting.

sorollabotijo

Art News Roundup: Unafraid Edition

I’d like to take a moment, if the reader will permit me, to address those who are behind the rash of church burnings and vandalism in France, the United States, and elsewhere.

There has been quite a lot of this sort of thing in recent months, such as that which occurred at Nantes Cathedral earlier this week, destroying the 400-year old organ as well as a number of Renaissance stained glass windows. Many other examples have gone unreported by the “mainstream” media, as well as by the art media world that I follow. Perhaps it’s because they secretly (or not-so-secretly) agree with the idea of iconoclasm when it comes to sacred art and architecture.

Part of the problem, of course, is that evidenced in this piece, in which the reaction of Archbishop Georges Pontier, head of the French bishops’ conference, to this sort of vandalism is to say, “We do not want to develop a discourse of persecution. We do not wish to complain.”

Of course not.

Most Catholic bishops are rather spineless, utterly uninspiring ninnies, who are primarily interested in being popular – or at least, being well-thought of – rather than in protecting their flock and their patrimony. Lest one think that this is a new development, I’d remind the reader that all but one (St. John Fisher) of the Catholic bishops of England chose to commit apostasy rather than lose their palaces (and heads) when Henry VIII declared himself the head of the Church of England, and began expropriating Church property and destroying works of art for the sake of his ego and reproductive shortcomings. It is once again left to the laity to try to defend their own Church, since its leadership is, in the main, fundamentally incapable of doing so, because it is too concerned with how to build sustainable wind farms in the South Pacific while their empty churches burn to the ground.

So while this may sound a bit odd, coming from this particular scrivener, my challenge to those who are targeting Catholic art, architecture, and the like is: do your worst.

You can destroy it all. Burn the Holy Sepulcher, smash Michelangelo’s Pietà , tear up the Book of Kells, use the tilma of St. Juan Diego for target practice. Go ahead. The only thing that you will achieve, as a result of such barbarism, is a public demonstration of your own ignorance.

The Church’s existence is not contingent upon the existence of tangible objects. Nor, as it happens, does it exist subject to the approval of human beings. It cannot be destroyed via the attacking of outward manifestations of its beliefs. Many have tried, of course, but it has survived two millennia of persecution, both from without and even from within, carried out by far more powerful, intelligent, persuasive, and influential people than you are.

So again I say, go ahead, do your worst. Show us what a naughty little miscreant you are, and post it on social media. And then all of your equally small supporters can post their expressions of support for just how cool you are.

And when you lie on your death bed, many years from now, I hope you will have the opportunity to pause and reflect upon what you have done. Because no matter what you do today or tomorrow, the Church will still be here, even then. And despite everything that you have done or will do, in a futile attempt to bring an end to her existence, she will still be praying for His Mercy upon your soul at the hour of your death, WITHOUT EVEN KNOWING WHO YOU ARE.

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Rant over, chaps and chapesses, so now let’s move on to some more interesting stories, and a larger dose of them, since unfortunately I was unable to post last week due to other circumstances.

Notre Dame News

Over at The Art Newspaper, Francesco Bandarin has a comprehensive summary of the latest news from the efforts to rebuild and restore the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre Dame de Paris, following last year’s devastating fire. In addition to the recent, welcome news that the roof will be returned to its pre-conflagration appearance, word is that the complex tangle of melted scaffolding is expected to be removed by October of this year, and that although some of the vaulting that is still standing was weakened by the fire and will need reinforcement, it looks like it will be salvageable, which is a big relief. Among the tricky issues remaining to be decided is the question of what roofing material will be put on, once all of the structural support is back in place, since the traditional lead roof was an environmental disaster once it caught fire, sending countless particles of potentially toxic lead into the atmosphere and the Seine. In addition, it is expected that the square in front of the church is going to undergo a major redesign, which as S. Bandarin notes is probably going to be the one opportunity which President Macron et al will have to stamp something contemporary on the site. Given that our present perspective on the Cathedral is not what medieval pilgrims would have seen as they approached, there isn’t really anything that needs to be preserved here – although one hopes that it will focus on vistas and gardens rather than in concrete and “art”.

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Bleaching Banksy

Celebrated British artist and petty criminal Banksy, whose rather childish art has somehow managed to capture far more attention than it deserves among the sheeple who flock to see his stunt du jour, recently fell victim to a common problem facing Contemporary artists who create works that look like (and indeed are) utter garbage. Mr. Banksy defaced a train carriage on the London Underground recently, and a conscientious worker, assuming (correctly) that the work was merely graffiti, scrubbed off the mess from the walls. Unfortunately, Tube authorities appear to be caving to public sentiment in wanting to embrace acts of public vandalism in the name of “art”, so expect to see more of the same until someone finds some common sense and a backbone.

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Protean Project

Looking like something that Bond villain Karl Stromberg would love, a proposed underwater research facility to be located off the island of Curaçao has been revealed by Swiss designer Yves Béhar and French undersea researcher Fabien Cousteau. To be named “Proteus”, the structure is expected to cost $135 million, and will contain laboratories for studying everything from sea creatures to tectonic plates, along with providing living accommodations for up to 12 people. Presumably that’s what all of those giant olive-shaped bulbs sticking out of the main structure are for, although there isn’t enough money in the world to make me want to go down there: I’ve seen “The Abyss” too many times. Still, as a bit of futuristic design, it’s kind of interesting to imagine what it may look like if and when it ever gets built.

Protesu

Olympic Origins

With the Olympics on hold for…well, who knows for how long, an item coming up at auction this Sunday in Cannes may be of interest to both collectors of sports memorabilia and to aficionados of iconic 20th century design. The original drawing for the Olympic flag by Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937), founder of the International Olympic Committee, has been in the hands of the descendants of the original owner since the Baron de Coubertin executed it in 1913. Famously, he wanted to make sure that at least one color of all the flags of the world was included in the design, which is certainly one of the most famous and universally recognizable sports emblems in the world. The pre-sale estimate on this very unique piece of design history is roughly $92,000-$115,000.

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Finding Friant

And finally for this week, I often note that one of the joys of learning about art is the fact that there is always more to learn: the more you see, the more you realize that you know nothing, and that challenge to keep learning keeps me going. Case in point, Émile Friant (1863-1932) is a name that probably doesn’t ring a bell with most people, including yours truly. So when I read the news that the Association Émile Friant is asking for information from the public on works by the artist to complete what’s called a “catalogue raisonné”, a term used in art history for a complete, scholarly listing of all known works by a particular artist, I was intrigued and decided to look up some of his work online. I’m glad I did, because paintings like this, and this, and this show what a marvelous, direct manner of painting he had. This is definitely an artist whose work I intend to learn more about.

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Art News Roundup: History Repeating Edition

George Santayana’s famous maxim about those who forget history being doomed to repeat is, unfortunately, all too sad of a truism when it comes to architecture in this country.

Among the greatest firms in the history of architecture, McKim, Mead, and White, built the sorts of structures that Americans at the turn of the previous century could justly be proud of when showing off their towns and cities to visitors: impressive train stations and palatial libraries, grand hotels and luxurious private homes, and so on. Among their many achievements, they renovated and expanded the White House, designed the Rhode Island State House, and built monuments, churches, and hotels across the country. One of their greatest achievements, which no longer exists, was the magnificent Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan, which was replaced by the sort of Midcentury Modern monstrosity that the art establishment has, disturbingly, become overly enamored of in recent years, most of which are little more than giant warts on the face of the American landscape.

The destruction of old Penn Station in the 1970’s is rightly viewed as a watershed moment in public opinion regarding historic preservation. Its loss led to the passage of numerous laws and regulations limiting the ability of public and private owners to either destroy or make significant alterations to structures that have been found to carry historic significance, whether because of what happened inside them, their beauty, and what have you. Paradoxically, if such a monumental, well-known building as Penn Station had not been destroyed in the face of fierce public opposition, it’s likely that many other important structures great and small would have been hit with the wrecking ball decades ago.

Unfortunately however, New York once again seems to be on the verge of proving Santayana’s point, as it looks as though another McKim, Mead, and White building in Manhattan is about to come crashing down.

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The Vanderbilt Building, which dates from 1892, is an unusual listing in the firm’s catalogue, as it’s one of the few proto-skyscrapers that they ever designed. Most McKim buildings are much wider than they are tall, so as a comparator to what other American architects were doing at the time, such as Adler & Sullivan in Chicago, it’s an important example of not only how the firm tried to adapt their Beaux-Arts style to the times, but also of how American cities started to go vertical a century ago in a wide variety of ways. It’s only with the advent of Modern architecture after World War II that we get the boring, upturned glass Kleenex boxes that tend to dominate most cities around the world today.

It’s also important to note that this particular building was financed by the Vanderbilts, who were among McKim, Mead, and White’s most important clients. Like other powerful merchant families before them, such as the Medici and the Rothschilds, the Vanderbilts invested significant funds not only in their own homes, but also in their commercial buildings. This is a prime example of the care and expense that they put into that effort during the Gilded Age, back when Lower Manhattan was the thriving hub of both domestic and international commerce for the city and indeed for the country.

Now, to be fair, it would be inaccurate to conclude that this building is a shining jewel of a structure. Putting aside its present dilapidated condition, it’s somewhat awkwardly proportioned as a result of the limitations of the site, and I haven’t been able to determine whether any of the presumably once grand interior spaces, such as the lobby and elevator banks, still exist. That being said, to quote one of those interviewed by The Architect’s Newspaper, “You don’t just throw away McKim, Mead & White buildings.” Hopefully some resilient and vociferous New Yorkers will find a way to save this rather unique part of their city’s architectural history.

Erdogan Egoism

As I warned you would happen some time ago, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is now actively seeking to turn the Hagia Sophia from a secular museum into a mosque. A case to do so is currently pending before Turkey’s Supreme Court, which held a brief hearing on the matter this past Friday. The building was originally a church, and one of the most important ever built, but roughly 1,000 years after its construction it was converted into a mosque. In recognition of the fact that the structure was a sacred site for both Christians and Muslims, as well as having great architectural and historical significance, in the 1930’s it was secularized and turned into a museum. Mr. Erdgoan however, is seeking to shore up his political base, given his unpopularity in many circles at home and abroad for things like this, so this is a classic bread-and-circuses move. A ruling is expected on July 18th.

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Missed Mannerist

The latest tale of rediscovered art treasure comes from South Africa. A retired couple, who had taken up buying and selling antiques as a hobby, came across a box of odds and ends for sale at a local auction for the princely sum of around $15. Among the items was the small bronze sculpture pictured below, which experts believe was probably made by the Florentine sculptor Antonio Susini (1580-1624). The piece is now in London and will be auctioned off by Christie’s on July 29th; with a pre-sales estimate of somewhere around $40k.

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Selling Sargent

And finally, returning to the Gilded Age where we began, Bonham’s announced this week that they will be selling this magnificent portrait by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) at their upcoming American Art sale in New York on July 29th. “Mrs. John C. Tomlinson” (c. 1904) may seem at first glance to be one of Sargent’s bread-and-butter society portraits, but it’s a prime example of why he’s one of the greatest of all American artists. Sargent simultaneously manages to capture both the elegance of the sitter, and the fact that she is not an aristocrat. This is the daughter of a self-made man, and the wife of another, who took full advantage of her education, her intelligence, her ability to travel, and the opportunity to have unique experiences. She looks out at us confidently as if to say, “I made it,” but yet she does so with a kind of warmth and almost a hint of mischief in her eyes, which manages to set her apart from the terrifying society matrons who dominated the New York of her day. The pre-sale on this one is $200-$300k, and given the fact that the market at present is dominated by buyers with exceptionally bad taste, it will probably go for that, but for those who understand such things this piece is worth far, far more.

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Art News Roundup: Thinking Is Hard Edition

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.

Prado

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.

Hefty Hippos

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.familie

Volcanic Vicissitudes

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.

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Renaissance Reunion

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.

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Art News Roundup: Fool Me Twice Edition

As you may have seen, gentle reader, yet another art restoration blunder in Spain has been making international headlines this week.

The owner of a 19th century copy of a painting generally known as “The Immaculate Conception of El Escorial” (c. 1660) by the great Spanish Baroque artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1618-1682) decided that he wanted to have the object cleaned and restored. He paid an individual described as a “furniture restorer” in the city of Valencia to do the work, and the individual made a colossal cock-up of it, not once, but TWICE. One wonders why the owner didn’t immediately demand that the painting be returned after he saw the initial damage, which is really rather awful:

caras

I’ve weighed in on this problem of botched interventions in Spain for years now, so it’s nice to see that The Guardian and other publications are starting to catch up with me, I suppose. When I’m in Spain, I spend a decent amount of time visiting art galleries and antiques dealers, and it sometimes causes me to raise an eyebrow when I see a particularly dingy, dodgy establishment advertised as providing art restoration and conservation, in addition to buying and selling. I also suspect that this is a far more widespread problem than just within Spain, but since the 2012 “Beast Jesus” incident became a worldwide phenomenon, stories like these allow readers to be directed back to previously published articles, just as I have done.

That being said, there’s an important distinction to be made between the previous infamies and the current uproar.

In the case of the “Beast Jesus”, or the day-glo painted statues of St. Anne and St. George, the objects in question were not the private property of an individual. Rather they were (broadly speaking) church property, located in parishes in small towns around the country, where there is often really little or no authority considering sacred art other than the opinion of the pastor himself. That lack of coordination and oversight remains an institutional problem, and it needs to be addressed by the country’s bishops.

Here however, the object in question is owned by an individual collector, not by the Church or a public institution. Much as one may lament the fact that the collector was so stupid as to send his painting to a furniture restorer rather than an art conservator, he has every right to dispose of his property as he chooses. One cannot foresee and thereby forestall every possible method by which a fool and his money are parted.

Passage of stricter standards in Spain and elsewhere concerning licensing, certification, and so on, as well as educating the public on the importance of seeking advice and intervention from a properly trained expert will no doubt cut down on the number of those who hold themselves out as being art restorers or conservators. Yet that won’t stop someone from turning their art object over to their brother-in-law or their neighbor’s niece for cleaning or retouching based on some element of good will rather than common sense. It remains the case that the remedy in such situations is not some sort of draconian law concerning the ownership of art objects, but rather the remedies afforded to the owners of such objects in the civil courts.

On a related note, then, do yourself a favor and go subscribe to one of the most fascinating channels on YouTube, Baumgartner Restoration. Chicago-based art restorer and conservator Julian Baumgartner posts videos showing what it takes to properly clean, restore, and preserve all kinds of work, whether it’s an Italian Renaissance altarpiece or an American landscape painting from the turn of the previous century. Sometimes he’s lucky, and the work goes fairly smoothly, but it’s the videos where the work is so damaged, or so filthy, that you can’t even imagine how he’s going to be able to save it, that are perhaps the most interesting viewing. You’ll come away with a greater appreciation, as I did when I had this 17th century painting restored, of just how many hours and hours of work and years of expertise are needed, in order to try to save a work of art that’s falling to pieces before your eyes.

And now, let’s take a look at some other eye-catching stories from the art world this week.

Tantalizing Taunt?

Like something out of a Hollywood screenplay, the thief who recently stole a Van Gogh from a museum in The Netherlands has provided what, in the case of a human kidnapping, we would call “proof of life” evidence. Art historian and art crime expert Arthur Brand contacted authorities when he obtained recent images of “The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring” (1884), which seem to indicate that the painting still exists. Mr. Brand has, understandably, not made any other information public, but one assumes that the photos are either part of or prelude to a ransom demand. As the Art Crime blog notes, another possibility may be, given that the newspaper shown features a story about Mr. Brand, that the individual may be “thumbing his nose” at the famous art detective, as if daring him to try to catch him. Stay tuned as this one develops.

vgobra

Breuer Brokering

The last exhibition I was able to see in person was “Gerhard Richter: Painting After All”, a major retrospective of the Contemporary artist’s work (and rumored to be his final show in America) which opened at the Met Breuer on March 3rd. I saw the show on March 7th, posted some shots of it on Instagram here and here, and was preparing a review for the magazine when everything pretty much went to hell, and the museum was forced to close (along with just about everything else in New York) on March 12th. This week it was announced that the building, which the Metropolitan Museum of Art had leased from the Whitney Museum of American Art, and more importantly the Richter exhibition itself, would not be reopening, as the Met is transferring the lease to the Frick Gallery. The Frick is preparing for a major renovation and expansion, and while the mansion which houses the collection is undergoing construction, objects and operations will be moved to the Breuer Building. The structure, which has been described by people with appalling taste as “a work of art in and of itself”, ought to be demolished once the Frick moves back into its proper HQ – but I suspect that, unfortunately for those who have to live around it, that won’t be happening.

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Wyeth Waterman

And finally, this week Christie’s opened a special online mini-exhibition titled “Wyeth’s World”, to advertise the private sale (no auction) of nine works by the great American painter Andrew Wyeth (1917–2009). The selection ranges from small, sketchy studies, to large works painted in tempera, one of Wyeth’s preferred mediums. Perhaps the best of the objects on offer is “Lobster Man (Forrest Wall)” (1948), a large watercolor shown in the photograph below. To me, it’s a classic image of Post-War America, and I particularly love the detail of the steam rising from the open thermos and coffee cup lid. No word on the asking price, but it must be somewhere in the six-figure range, I should think. The online exhibition runs through July 17th.

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Art News Roundup: De-Escalation Edition

It remains the case that a good eye the best tool for spotting an overlooked work of art, whether in a flea market, or in grandma’s basement or…out in a trout stream.

A man who was trout fishing in a rural area near the city of Santiago de Compostela stumbled across what experts believe to be a 14th century statue of the Madonna and Child flanked by two angels. The piece was the victim of an intentional bit of sacrilege at some point in its history, since the faces of Mary and Jesus had been hacked off, but how it ended up in the stream no one knows. It had likely been there for some time, since it was partly coated with mosses and lichen similar to that of surrounding stones, as you can see in the photos here. On Monday of this week, the 330 pound granite sculpture was removed by local authorities, and taken to the main museum in Santiago for study.

Gallega

The English-language reporting however, doesn’t mention a detail that resonates with those who know something about Spanish history. Some have taken to calling the figure, the “Virgen de la Desescalada” – “The Virgin of the De-escalation”. The reason for this requires a bit of cultural history backstory, relevant to the preservation of works of art, so bear with me.

During the Moorish conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century, and for many centuries that followed, Christians hid their religious art from Islamic iconoclasts. Sometimes these works were walled up, or buried, or hidden in caves and other remote locations. As time went on, the location of these caches would be forgotten, as people died and populations moved.

Once territories came under Christian control again, people began to find some of these images, sometimes under miraculous circumstances. Local, regional, or even national devotions would spring up at the sites where these works of art were rediscovered. There are examples of this throughout Iberia, including Atocha (Madrid), Guadalupe (Extremedura), Nazaré (Portgual) and my personal favorite (natch), that of Our Lady of Montserrat in Catalonia.

In a more pious age, such a discovery would certainly have been treated as a sign of favor and encouragement for the local population, and would have been marked with either the construction of a chapel at or near the site, or possibly the installation of the work in an existing nearby church or monastery. Sometimes the location would become the moniker by which the statue would become known, or some aspect of the finding, such as the circumstances that existed at the time of the discovery, would be commemorated. So as Spain “de-escalates” from the very strict Covid quarantines it lived under during the spring, it’s not surprising that some want to refer to the image as the “Virgin of the De-escalation”.

Whatever its origins, it’s unlikely that the piece will end up being an object of devotion. This is partly because of the fact that at least half of Spain is now, effectively, godless, but more due to the fact that the condition of the sculpture is such that it belongs in a museum, given that at some point in its history it appears to have been intentionally defaced (by the godless.) Nevertheless, that at least some of the good people of Galicia choose to interpret this discovery as one of encouragement is something I’m entirely of favor of, given the dark times in which we all find ourselves. In the meantime, authorities tend to search the entire course of the river to see if there are other works of sculpture abandoned in the area.

And so, on to some other news from the art world this week, which I’ve used my own (somewhat) good eye for such things to spot on your behalf.

Detaining a Dealer

If you don’t follow the business side of the art world, the name Inigo Philbrick probably means nothing to you; if you’re looking for a real-life tale of excess worthy of a Tom Wolfe novel however, you’ll want to dive deeply into this one about a hotshot young art dealer who made millions in a complicated scheme (allegedly) involving the resale of the same works of art to several different owners, before fleeing the authorities. Philbrick was captured a week ago today in, of all places, Vanuatu, and is now in the hands of American authorities in Guam. Check out this readable summary (with links) from the Art Crime Blog, while ArtNet has the story (as well as links to earlier stories) about his final days in the South Pacific before being captured. Shown below, Contemporary Artist Yayoi Kusama’s “All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins” (2016), which is a work that Philbrick allegedly “sold” to a German investment group, despite the fact that it was (and remains) owned by the Saudi royal family, and not for sale.

Yayoi Kusama, All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins, detail, 2016

Burning for Blue

If you’re of a scientific mindset, or perhaps even if you aren’t, you’ll be fascinated by some news from researchers at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam concerning what was, for many centuries, the most expensive paint in the world – and no, it isn’t gold. Ultramarine, an intense shade of blue that was popular from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance and Baroque eras in Western art, was made of crushed lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone that hails from Afghanistan, and which by weight was more valuable than any precious metal at the time. Following a number of experiments, researchers have concluded that the best method for creating the pigment involved heating the mineral to remove impurities, and that later deterioration and discoloration of the paint may be related to faults in this curing and preparation method. Test results on five paintings containing the paint are particularly interesting, since scientists were able to demonstrate that this method was used on five works painted over a span of around 300 years by five different artists, where the paint was applied to three different surfaces – canvas, copper, and wood – and using two different types of pigment binder: both oil and a mixed variety (which likely contains animal- or egg-derived binders.) Below we see one of the paintings involved in the research, “The Lamentation of Christ” (c. 1460-1464), by the great Rogier van der Weyden (1400-1464).

VandWeyden

Sailing from Spain (?)

And finally, returning to Spain where we started, Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum reopened to visitors this week minus one of the most valuable works on display until recently. As ArtNews explains, Mata Mua (“In Olden Times”), an 1892 work by the French Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) may be on its way out of the country, along with several other paintings. Although much of the art in the museum was acquired by the nation in 1993, wife #5 of co-founder Hans Heinrich von Thyssen-Bornemisza had a number of pieces which she owned outright placed in the museum on extended loan for a number of years. Spain has never been able to come up with the asking price in order to acquire these works, and in recent years the former beauty queen has begun looking into selling them off: in 2012, she sold a John Constable (1776-1837) that had been on display at the Museum for years, perhaps as a warning shot that more would follow if Spain didn’t step up. While the Gauguin is the most valuable of the works in the latest news, to my eye the most interesting of the possible sales is that shown below, “The ‘Martha McKeen’ of Wellfleet” (1944) by Edward Hopper (1882-1967), one of Hopper’s most beautiful maritime paintings from his many happy, sunny summers on Cape Cod, which belie the usual mental image of him as a kind of dour, depressed urbanite.

thyssenbrnz

Art News Roundup: Last Call Edition

I generally try to focus on good news in these bad times, but an article about how the Wuhan Virus may seriously wound one of my preferred genres of music caught my eye, since it has broader implications.

Aire Flamenco is an authoritative site for aficionados of Flamenco music and dance, and yesterday they shared the news that the association in Spain to which most of the flamenco clubs (known as “tablaos”) around the country belong has indicated that these venues are likely done for. A week or so ago when Casa Patas, my favorite flamenco joint in Madrid, announced that they would not be reopening, it was gut-wrenching. The club catered to tourists, as all of these places do (a majority of Spaniards avoid supporting their own artists for some reason), but it was also a spot where big names would perform or come to enjoy themselves. The late, great guitarist Paco de Lucía not only played there, he had a reserved table most Friday nights for the show. Legendary singer Camarón de la Isla debuted new albums there, while Barcelona-based Rosalía, who is on the cover of this month’s edition of Elle, gave her first public performance in the Spanish capital at Casa Patas, well before she became an international star selling out arenas and winning 6 Grammys.

What I didn’t realize amidst my grief was that Casa Patas was but the first to see the proverbial writing on the wall.

The problem, you see, is that the average-sized tablao only seats about 80 people. As entertainment venues start to reopen in Spain, they are being limited to 50% of their capacity, until the virus threat has been eliminated. As the association commented (forgive my rough translation),

“This moment will not arrive until possibly early 2021, and no tablao in Spain can hold on until that date. The rest of the culture will survive, as it thrives on the domestic public, and it will be able to function with a restricted capacity. The rest of the hospitality industry will survive for the same reasons, but the flamenco tablaos will fail. They will disappear. They are the flamenco industry, since they provide work 365 days a year to 95% of the flamenco artists in Spain, and only 5% of those artists work exclusively with one company. And when the tablaos disappear, the flamenco artists will disappear. And flamenco will disappear. “

I think it’s a bit hyperbolic to say that flamenco will disappear, since flamenco comes from the people, and from the soul, and existed for centuries before there were clubs to perform in. In addition, singers, musicians, and dancers will continue to practice the art form in large venues or at home with friends and family. However, in addition to the loss of a major source of income for many people, what is being lost here is one of the few places where the outsider, such as this scrivener, and those who live and breathe this art form could come together in a more intimate setting.

As tragic as this is, however, it may well be but the tip of the iceberg for music more broadly, if similar restrictions are applied and persist, whether in Spain or indeed in this country.

Remember that tiny bar that you used to go, when you wanted to hear an up-and-coming local band? Maybe you were a regular, or maybe you only went once in awhile because your neighbor played drums or your cousin was the lead singer. Well, that’s likely over and done with: no bar owner is going to reduce the number of paying, drinking patrons to less than half of what is already probably not a very large capacity, just so he can accommodate a local band.

And what about crowded little jazz joints in Chicago, Kansas City, or New Orleans? Or bowling alley-sized honky-tonks out West? Or warehouse raves along the Eastern seaboard? Or acoustic jams at coffeehouses in the Pacific Northwest? They’re all finished. George Benson isn’t going to be asked up on stage to jam at a crowded live music venue in Greenwich Village, because it won’t be there anymore.

This crisis isn’t just a serious problem for one music genre in one particular country: it’s a problem for *all* genres of music that are performed in smaller venues. It means that only the big names will continue to play to the public, since they can fill the seats in large auditoriums and the like, even if the number of those seats is halved. And it means that many revered, small venues, from Blues clubs in Memphis to Jazz clubs in Montreal, may never come back.

flamenc

And so, with a heavy heart, let’s try to turn our attention to some happier news from the art world over the past week.

Dangling Demolition

The update from the ongoing restoration work at Notre Dame de Paris is that workers have now begun the complicated task of taking down the scaffolding that has surrounded the cathedral-basilica since well before the devastating fire of April 2019. The building was already undergoing repairs when the blaze broke out, and it burned so hot that the steel scaffolding encasing it was warped, melted, and twisted. Work has begun to remove it, and part of this will involve workers being suspended by ropes from cranes to start sawing the jumble apart. Now there’s a visual that I certainly don’t want to see, or even think about: God bless them.

cbnd

Rakish Rembrandt

Even in the midst of turmoil, there are great works of art to be obtained by serious collectors, and very soon someone is going to obtain what you see below, a magnificent self-portrait by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). The painting, completed sometime in 1632, depicts a handsome, dapper young artist, dressed rather more formally than his usual bohemian/artsy getup. The speculation is that his attire may have been chosen for a specific purpose:

This was the exact time when the artist was courting his future wife and greatest muse, Saskia van Uylenburgh, and it is very possible that he painted this sensitive, portable self-portrait to send to her in far off Leeuwaerden, to prove to her suspicious relatives that her smartly-dressed new suitor was a prosperous and suitable husband.

The theory makes sense when you consider the scale of the work as well, since it’s painted on an oak panel roughly the size of a sheet of paper. Not only would that size image be easier to send, it would also be easier to display than a life-sized picture.

Whatever its origin, the painting will be auctioned by Sotheby’s in London on July 28th, and the current estimate is between $15-20 million. I would not be at all surprised if it goes for the higher end of that estimate, or over it. Experts believe that the artist painted around 80 self-portraits during his career, and of these all but three, including this work, are now in museum collections.

rembrndt

Sloshed Sorolla

And finally, returning to a Spanish theme for the moment, following their very popular exhibition “Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light”, the National Gallery in London has just acquired the first work by Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923) to enter their permanent collection. “El Borracho, Zarauz” (“The Drunkard, Zarauz”) was painted in 1910 in a coastal resort town in the Basque region of Spain, while the artist and his family were there on vacation. It’s a very direct, rather intense work, and while I “get” it, I also know from experience that Sorolla’s very Spanish social realist paintings don’t sit well with everyone. Thus, it does seem rather an odd acquisition if you’re only going to own one Sorolla, since his images of the seaside, beautiful women/children, or people in sun-splashed gardens are more typical and more popular. Nevertheless, I’m glad to see it’s going into a public collection where it can be appreciated by more people.

sorolla

Art News Roundup: A Place for Everything Edition

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.

Duccio

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.

PArisND

Magnificent Manuscript

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.

LivreReine

Painting Places

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.

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Art News Roundup: Pursuing Perspective Edition

It’s not surprising that one of the most interesting subjects in art media, whether you follow it like I do or not, is the topic of art crime. Even someone with no particular interest in what’s going on in the art world will read an article or watch a report on the theft of a famous or valuable work of art, or the news that something which was once thought to be by a particular artist now turns out to be a clever fake. Some people, like yours truly, get that sinking feeling when we see such headlines, because we care a great deal about art. Others, perhaps, might get a sense of schadenfreude, thinking that some rich person or exclusive institution has suffered some sort of loss.

Yet whatever the particular art crime may be, do we ever stop to consider what the real costs of such activities are? Let’s see if we can get a better sense of some perspective on that question.

For example, there’s a fascinating interview in yesterday’s New York Times, in which a well-known thief of works of by Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) speculates on the motivations behind the most recent theft of a Van Gogh, which subscribers and regular readers will recall I’ve been reporting on recently. Describing his own experience in trying to sell the stolen paintings, the thief notes that “he first offered the van Gogh paintings he had stolen to two criminals, but both of them were murdered before the deal could go down.” Meanwhile, a friend recently sent me a link to this story on the Jordan Harbinger show, in which a lifelong art forger talks at length about the tricks of the trade, and how he duped many people in the process.

Despite the fact that art crime is almost inevitably connected to some truly reprehensible and indeed horrific things – from kidnapping to theft of public funds to even murder – we continue to have a romantic view of it, for some reason. In both versions of “The Thomas Crown Affair” for example, art forgery and theft go hand-in-hand, but we’re so taken in by the smooth urbanity of Steve McQueen and Pierce Brosnan that we overlook how they hurt innocent people and indeed civilized society in the process. Similarly, in “Ocean’s Twelve” we get so caught up in the adventure that we forget that stealing a Faberge egg, which itself was stolen from a murdered family, in order to please a life-long criminal as part of some pointless competition, doesn’t clean the blood off of the object. Even the ultra-cool yet aristocratic character of “The Night Fox” in that film, at the end of the day, is little more than a snotty, spoiled brat who seeks to hurt other people, when you strip away the cars, clothes, and so on.

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To illustrate this point, a documentary on the Knoedler scandal, which brought down one of the most prestigious art galleries in New York, is now out. In it, the filmmaker chronicles the bizarre twists and turns by which the very respectable seller to both private individuals and public institutions wound up selling all kinds of fakes. The final lawsuit in the case wrapped up just last summer, and several of the alleged conspirators are still on the run.

Similarly, my regular readers may recall my telling you about the discovery of what has since come to be known in some corners as the “Gurlitt Hoard”, a collection of hundreds of art objects, many of which experts believe were obtained illegally by one of the Nazi party’s favorite art dealers during World War II. This week, authorities announced that, despite exhaustive efforts, they have run out of options in trying to track down the legitimate owners of many of these items. As ArtNews reports,

Just 14 works from the trove, including paintings by Henri Matisse, Thomas Couture, and Max Liebermann, have been formally identified as having been looted and restituted to the rightful owners. And experts now believe that more than 400 works in the trove were not looted. That leaves around 1,000 works with provenances yet to be firmly identified.

So in the end, while we can enjoy the glamour and capers we see on screen as a bit of escapism, let’s try to remember that in real life, nothing involving art crime is ever neat and clean. Works of art often get destroyed or disappear forever, taxpayers are bilked of both funds and access to publically-owned art, scholarship is called into question for decades thanks to persuasive fakes, and those are just some of the more mild consequences. Any time there’s a news story about an art crime in real life, there’s probably a great deal of very, very awful backstory or sequelae to the crime in question that would turn your stomach.

With that said then, let’s turn to some more positive stories that emerged from the art world over the past week.

Mesmerizing Mosaic

Archaeologists searching for the remains of an Ancient Roman villa in a vineyard near the Italian city of Verona have stumbled across an almost perfectly-preserved mosaic floor dating from sometime around 200-250 A.D. The site of the luxury country estate had first been identified around 100 years ago, but its exact location had been lost in part due to massive overgrowth of vines on the steep, hillside location. It’s not currently known how much of the vibrantly colored floor remains intact – you can see below how much digging there is to do – and the site is on private property, so officials will need to negotiate with the owners of the land regarding both continued excavation as well as visitor access.

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Decoded Duomo

Staying in Italy for the moment, research engineers believe they have now figured out how Italian Renaissance architects were able to build massive domes out of brick, without the need for any supporting structures. According to ArtNet, scientists at Princeton and the University of Bergamo have concluded that intricate helix models were used to distribute the weight, first by Filippo Brunelleschi( 1377-1446) in the famous dome of the Cathedral of Florence, and later improved upon by Antonio da Sangallo (1484-1546). I won’t go into all of the technical details, other than to say that this structural innovation helps explain why domes all of a sudden became the “in” thing in Italian architecture, once the descendants of the Ancient Romans finally figured out how to build them again. For those of you with a scientific frame of mind, you can read the full report in the July issue of the academic journal Engineering Structures.

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Chrysler Comeback

And moving on to another beautiful piece of architecture, there’s now approval for the glorious Art Deco Chrysler Building in New York – the most beautiful skyscraper in the world – to reopen some of its upper levels to visitors, many decades of being mothballed. A new all-glass observation deck will allow visits to the building rain or shine, and the building’s owners are also looking into bringing back The Cloud Club, which has been closed and neglected since the 1970’s. While the experience won’t quite be that of Natalie Merchant in the iconic 90’s music video for 10,000 Maniacs’ song “These Are Days”, that’s partly because it was obviously green-screened (you can’t dance on the giant eagle heads, sorry.) More details on the proposal are linked to via The Architect’s Newspaper. The original observation deck on top of the building hasn’t been open since 1945, so if this is done well it will definitely become a major destination for design-conscious tourists, marriage proposals, and lavish weddings.

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Art News Roundup: Not In Spain Edition

On Monday, I was supposed to leave for Spain on a three-week vacation, but (supposedly) thanks to people eating things which they should not, I’m stuck at the Fortress.

Not being able to visit the Motherland is a severe disappointment, not only because I just need a break, and because being over there at this time of year – when everything smells of jasmine and the weather is glorious – helps hit the reset button so I can return to regular life, but also because I’m prevented from seeing all of the exhibitions, museums, and cultural events that I had lined up for my travel itinerary. We’re all doing what we can of course, given our current restrictions, to make the best of our respective situations. And to that end, tomorrow afternoon I’ve got a Happy Hour to look forward to which, while not quite as good as having a goldfish bowl-sized gin and tonic on the roof of my favorite hotel in Barcelona, will at least give me some pleasure.

I’ve mentioned previously that during the current quarantine The Frick Collection in New York has been hosting a virtual event called Cocktails with a Curator, and this week’s installation features one of my favorite pieces in the museum. “King Philip IV of Spain” (1644) by Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) is one of the best of the very few Velázquez paintings not currently *in* Spain. It depicts the king shortly after the Spanish defeated the French at the Battle of Fraga, and the artist painted it in a makeshift studio he set up near the battlefield, as he had traveled with Philip on his campaign. While the image is deceptively simple from a distance, upon closer inspection one realizes what a genius the artist was, far ahead of his time.

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Take a look at The Frick’s high-res image of the painting on their website, and zoom in on any of the silver embroidery that covers the salmon-colored outer tunic: you’ll see that it’s really an abstraction, not a literal rendering. The same goes for the king’s silver under-tunic, as well as the lace collar and cuffs. A lesser artist would have painstakingly drawn in the outlines and then carefully copied what he saw, but Velázquez had so much talent and self-confidence that he could just flick or drag his brush once, and the human eye does the rest. No wonder the Impressionists and early Modernists took so strongly to his work.

The Velázquez edition of “Cocktails with a Curator” at The Frick will take place online tomorrow, Friday, May 22nd, at 5:00 pm. Conveniently enough, for those of you needing some drink inspiration, the museum provides a cocktail recipe recommendation to accompany the art. For my part, I’ll most likely be having a big snifter full of Anís del Mono on the rocks.

Now we can move on to some of the interesting art news articles that have cropped up over the past week, but taking a cue from the greatest of all Spanish painters, I’ll stick with showing accompanying portraits of the subjects themselves.

Munch Moisture Mystery

Scientists who have been monitoring the deterioration of the 1910 Munch Museum version – there are several – of Norwegian Expressionist Edvard Munch (1863-1944)’s most famous image, “The Scream”, have finally concluded what the problem is. It appears that not only did the artist inadvertently use a cheaply-made paint, but the chemical impurities in that paint cause the colors to fade when exposed to moisture. As we’ve all learned during the present pandemic, when we exhale we spew droplets of moisture into the air, so over time the exposure to the breath of thousands of visitors to the Munch Museum has accelerated the painting’s deterioration. Presumably, in the future the piece will have to be displayed not only behind glass – and under better security given its previous theft – but also at some distance from visitors.

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Buon Giorno, Giorgio

The artist who is often considered one of the founding fathers of Surrealism – although he himself didn’t accept that claim – was the Italian Metaphysical painter Giorgio di Chirico (1888-1978). By the time the Surrealists became aware of him, he had already moved on artistically to other methods and styles, but you can clearly see how haunting works like his “Tour Rouge” (1913) influenced artists such as Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dalí and others. Di Chirico is one of those artists whom I’ve always been interested in, but have never found time to really take a good look at. Having a surfeit of time at the moment, this recent overview of his career published over on ArtNews was the reminder that I needed to go do some more reading. I’m intrigued by another parallel with Dalí, with respect to his later work not being as valued as the pieces that made him famous in the first half of his career, and also their similar willingness to use some aspect of what we’ll call “unusual” practices when it came to the sale of later pieces.

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Dalí Daddy Issues

And speaking of Dalí, those of you who have been reading me for awhile may recall my reporting three years ago on the bizarre – even for him – case involving Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) and his alleged illegitimate daughter. The woman, who works as a psychic, claimed that she was the product of a summer tryst between the artist and a housemaid. Somehow, Mystic Maria managed to convince some rather colossally stupid members of the Spanish judiciary that she had evidence compelling enough to warrant an exhumation and DNA testing of Dalí’s remains, which are buried in his museum in the city of Figueres next to those of his wife, Gala. It turned out that the fortuneteller is not the daughter of the Catalan Surrealist, and as a way of making up for its earlier utter stupidity in even hearing this case, the court rightly ordered her to pay for the costs of the fiasco. She then appealed that decision, but has now lost. Guess her psychic powers don’t always work.

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Art News Roundup: Predominantly Parisian Edition

Imagine that instead of your online shopping consisting of bulk orders of paper products and pet food, you inadvertently purchased an item of significance to Western art history.

Such is the case with French journalist Brigitte Benkemoun, who was looking around on Ebay for a vintage Hermès address book. Once she won and received the item, she became intrigued by its contents. Whoever had owned the book had known quite a few of the most important cultural figures of Paris in the first half of the 20th century.
You can read an excerpt describing the painstaking research, analysis, and logic she used, as well as the “Eureka!” moment, in this excerpt from the new book, “Finding Dora Maar”, for it turns out that the address book had belonged to one of the most glamorous, avant-garde, and tragic figures of the Parisian art world

Dora Maar (1907-1997) had a peripatetic life before she settled in Paris during the 1930’s, where she began to have success as a photographer and poet. She also served as a model and muse for various artists and writers in her social circle, although nowadays she is perhaps mainly remembered for her relationship with her most famous suitor, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). When Picasso saw this famous photograph of her by Man Ray (1890-1976) in Ray’s studio in 1936, he insisted on keeping it. By this point, Maar and Picasso were already a year into what turned out to be a nine-year-long, tempestuous affair.

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Picasso painted the well-known portrait of Maar shown below, now in the Musée Picasso in Paris, sometime in early 1937. I’ve always found it to have an almost two-faced personality, if you’ll pardon the expression, in that Maar is so calmly, elegantly posed in her chair, but she appears to be trapped in a box that is closing in on her. At the same time, for all of her arched brows and slightly knowing smile, there is something twisting and churning inside of Maar that Picasso is able to capture in this work.

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Picasso had many wives and mistresses over the years, but perhaps none of them quite so haunted his artistic memory as did Dora Maar. She documented the creation of his masterpiece, “Guernica” (1937), serving as both model and, if you will, archivist during the creation of the work. Picasso’s imagery of his mistress was profoundly affected both by her own mental illness – which was exacerbated by his treatment of her –and by how he reacted to the Spanish Civil War. You can see this in another famous painting depicting Dora Maar, “Weeping Woman” (1937), which is now in the Tate Modern. It’s interesting to note that Maar herself didn’t like almost any of Picasso’s many paintings of her, feeling that they failed to capture who she really was.

Weeping Woman 1937 by Pablo Picasso 1881-1973

Fortunately for those of us who are not quite good enough to read an entire book in French, “Finding Dora Maar” has just been translated into English and published by the Getty Press. I’ve just ordered a copy for myself, and look forward in particular to reading more about some of the writer’s research methods. And since we have no idea hereabouts when we will be returning to something approaching normal again, this might be a good candidate to consider adding to your reading pile.

With that recommendation out of the way, let’s move on to some art stories of interest this week – all of which have a connection to Paris, either directly or indirectly.

Maryland Matisse

Sticking with Picasso’s peers for the moment, a new art center dedicated to the work of Henri Matisse (1869-1954) is set to open in Baltimore next year, and its first director has now been named, thanks to a generous donor. Katy Rothkopf will head the Marder Center for Matisse Studies, which when it opens will have “the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of Matisse works in a public museum,” consisting of over 1,000 works by Matisse, from paintings and photographs to drawings and prints, such as “Marie-José in a Yellow Dress” (1950), shown below. Given its size and location along the Northeast corridor, this is going to become a major center for the study of not only Matisse, but also of French cultural life during the first half of the 20th century, so this is definitely one new cultural institution that I plan to put on my must-visit list.

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Spire Speculation

In Notre Dame de Paris news, it seems that although work is resuming at the Cathedral-Basilica site, as I reported on previously, but what many of us thought had been resolved, i.e. the issue of the central spire, appears not to be resolved at all. Although the French Senate voted to restore the spiky, Neo-Gothic spire by Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879), which regular readers of these pages will recall was part of the structure’s UNESCO World Heritage designation, it seems as though President Macron’s desire to hold a competition to design a new spire isn’t quite dead yet – er…or maybe it is. As any student of French political history knows, sometimes things which appear to be settled can suddenly be unilaterally, and unexpectedly, undone. The Architects Newspaper has a good roundup on the present state of play here.

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Ritzy Resale

Following completion of a multi-year, major renovation and overhaul, the legendary Hotel Ritz in Paris not only came up with a number of unexpected finds – such as this painting by Charles LeBrun (1619-1690) which I told you about, later purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art – but also a surfeit of items which it either no longer needs or wants to care for in the future. Among these are an enormous number of dining and drinking items made exclusively for the hotel, from Limoges porcelain to Lalique crystal to Christofle silver, as well as a host of the types of hotel guest linens that people sneak into their suitcases upon departure. A press release PDF in English is available here. Most of us can’t quite manage to buy a LeBrun, so an upcoming auction by Artcurial of these more utilitarian, yet beautiful objects, could be a great way to own a piece of French cultural history. The auction will take place over June 21-23, and you can see the catalogue (and register to bid in English) by following this link.

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