Art News Roundup: Institutional Insanity Edition

For this week’s Art News Roundup, it’s time to settle in for a good wallow into some rather juicy new scandals from museum world, all of which seem to have hit the fan at about the same time.

If you don’t have time to look into all of these stories, I want to at least encourage you to read this absolutely jaw-dropping report by L.A. Times Art Critic Christopher Knight, in which he details how the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the Ahmanson Foundation, the museum’s single largest funder for decades, are parting ways over LACMA’s decision to turn itself into what can only be described as a storage unit with a peephole. I won’t go into all the details in Mr. Knight’s article, but trust me, gentle reader, when I tell you that it’s got everything you could wish for in a piece about today’s increasingly messy museum world: enormous amounts of dosh, priceless works of art, outsized egos, terrible architecture, and just a hint of “wokeness”. The (no doubt unintentional) schadenfreude served up here is so good, it’s worth savoring.

4x5 original

A few months ago, I predicted on the Federalist Radio Hour that in future, an increasing number of serious collectors may be returning to a somewhat old-fashioned notion, exemplified by institutions such as the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston: the creation of their own, private museums. Rather than entrusting their art to large institutions, or buying art on their behalf, some philanthropist-collectors may well decide to just start their own non-profit foundations to house and display their treasures. In many instances, the situation at present appears to be one in which donors and board members are coming to be viewed as a liability, or even an enemy, by at least some members of institutional staff. At the same time, if a donor has no say over what happens to their objects or funds once donated, the incentive to give may be tempered by an unwillingness to participate in someone else’s agenda, as appears to be happening in the LACMA controversy, but in many other institutions, as well.

We’ve already seen how this more deep-rooted conflict is playing out in the more mundane aspects of institutional life. Museum administrators are increasingly afraid of accepting gifts from those who do not meet moral standards imposed by particular pressure groups, with whom they often philosophically agree. If they aren’t careful, institutional staff also run the risk of protesters tossing things like blood or pee or poo all over their front steps. For the donors themselves, who have spent years building collections worth millions of dollars, or providing significant funds to museums to purchase very expensive art objects, it’s not unreasonable for them to want to see all or at least most of the objects in question put on display. If an institution is just going to hoard these objects without showing them – a problem that I’ve written about previously – then there seems to be less incentive for donors to give or pay for these things in the first place.

However the real crisis for many museums, it seems to me, is one of identity, arising from a very different set of beliefs regarding what a museum is supposed to be. Is a museum meant to be a monumental display cabinet, or is it a temple of socio-political advocacy? For the past century or so, these institutions have mostly been the former, but they are increasingly being pulled in the direction of becoming the latter. And while there will no doubt be individual and corporate donors who are willing to climb on the hay wagon for whatever cause a major museum wants to push, there will be others who will be turning to institutions who do not see their role as that of agitator, but rather that of archivist. However the dust settles, we will be living with the outcome of this breakdown in the relationship between donor and institution for some time to come.

And now, on to some other museum news that will hopefully add a bit of zest to your day.

Manhattan Mystery

There’s something of a weird and murky story in New York museum world at the moment, regarding the American Museum of Natural History. According to the art website Hyperallergic, an activist group is claiming that the museum “quietly removed” a major donor from its board of trustees, a move which the group appears to ascribe to the donor’s sin of being what some would refer to as a “climate change denier”. Rebekah Mercer, who along with her family has been involved in numerous conservative political and social causes over the years, had been on the museum’s board since 2013, presumably because of the millions of dollars in donations which the Mercers have provided to the institution. The museum responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment by noting that Ms. Mercer’s term on the board had expired in December, but provided no further details; according to the museum’s own internal policies, Ms. Mercer would have been eligible for re-election to the board, but there’s no indication at present as to whether she stood for reelection or not, and if not, why not. This could all be innocuous, a case of a board member needing to step away from having too much on her plate, or it could be that Ms. Mercer is just the latest major donor to be forced out of museum world because of ties to businesses or causes which run afoul of a certain political mindset. Stay tuned for developments.

American Museum of Natural History, Upper West Side, Manhattan

Barcelona Blunder

Subscribers and regular readers may recall my telling you last year about an agreement to build an outpost of Russia’s behemoth Hermitage Museum in Barcelona, on the city’s reclaimed seafront. The plan included a wave-like structure designed by Japanese architect Toyo Ito, which would harmonize with the city’s now-iconic, sailboat-like W Hotel next door. To the surprise of many, that deal now seems to have fallen apart, although for some reason it hasn’t been reported in English-language art news outlets until now. In a report commissioned by city officials, investigators concluded that the proposal did not sufficiently address several key issues, including the new museum’s potential impact on the environment or the neighborhood (particularly with regard to vehicular traffic), and did not provide sufficient projections regarding revenue to justify municipal investment. Although some, including the city’s Chamber of Commerce, are still hopeful that local officialdom could be persuaded to change its mind, history tells us that it’s more likely that Madrid will pick up the ball now that Barcelona has dropped it. For those of you who can read Spanish, there’s a great piece by commentator Miquel Molina in Barcelona’s biggest daily, La Vanguardia, on how the city may have had some legitimate concerns, but despite its reputation for innovation in technology and design, Barcelona has a tendency to flub these sorts of projects – in fact, there hasn’t been a new cultural project built in Barcelona on the scale proposed by the Hermitage in about twenty years.


Florence Fiasco

This being the Year of Raphael, when many museums around the world are marking the 500th anniversary of the death of Raffaello Sanzio (1483-1520), one of the greatest artists in history (and my personal favorite), it’s no surprise that Rome is putting on a major exhibition dedicated to his life and work. The Scuderie del Quirinale, where the show will open on March 5th, has simply titled the exhibition, “Raffaello”, because no further explanation regarding its subject is necessary. What may well require some explanation however, is why the Uffizi Gallery in Florence agreed to lend the exhibition its famous “Portrait of Pope Leo X with Cardinals Giulio de Medici and Luigi de Rossi” (c. 1517-18), a detail of which is shown below, against the advice of its own scientific committee, which had warned back in December that the Raphael panel painting was too fragile to travel. In reaction to this decision, the entire scientific committee of the Uffizi resigned en masse yesterday, after learning in the art press on Tuesday – rather than from the leadership of the museum itself – that the painting was already in Rome, against their advice.


A Vanity of Vanities in Vienna

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Christian season of Lent. During this period, believers fast, pray, engage in acts of penance, and perform acts of charity in recognition of their own faults and failings, and in preparation for the celebration of the commemoration of Christ’s Resurrection from the dead at Easter. And this particular Lent, perhaps no one will be more conscious of the reality of what a vain, vapid, vituperative world we live in at present than the good people of Vienna, Austria, thanks to a new art installation in the magnificent Stephansdom, or Cathedral of St. Stephen.

No doubt to the eternal embarrassment of the Order of Preachers, Christoph Cardinal Schönborn is a Dominican theologian, who has served as Archbishop of Vienna since 1995. During his time in office, he has permitted a number of artistic and theological atrocities to be displayed during Lent in the city’s historic St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Tibetan prayer flags, anyone?) However, the latest installation which His Eminence has greenlighted takes bad taste and bad theology to an entirely new, and indeed monumental level.

One part of the latest installation is a sculpture of a hot water bottle on feet, placed outside the entrance to the Cathedral. Another, located inside the nave of Cathedral itself, is a sculpture of a man without a head, hands, or feet. The centerpiece however, is a giant purple sweater, made of over 860 square feet of fabric, hanging in the sanctuary above the high altar. You can scroll through this article to see photographs of these objects in situ.

The man behind the works at issue is Erwin Wurm (1954-), an Austrian artist who has never produced anything worthy of merit or even of consideration, at least so far as I’m aware. Most of his work is rather boring, and those pieces which aren’t are the sort of overly obvious pornographic work that one expects from an otherwise unremarkable art student. I suppose that his installation “Gurken” (2011), in which he lined a bit of sidewalk in Salzburg with a group of oversized bronze pickles, might be considered high art by some. However, since that installation would look just as much at home lining the entrance to the Heinz Pickle Corporation, it’s the sort of thing that hardly seems worthy of anyone’s serious attention. As to this particular installation project for the Vienna Cathedral, the fact that it hasn’t even been reviewed or commented on in any of the major English-language art news outlets to date is perhaps as telling as the reaction of ordinary, pew-sitting Catholics to its presence in a sacred space.

The justification-defense provided by the Cathedral (in rough translation), for the installation reads as follows, in part:

Easter penitence is the beginning of a liberation from the deformities of our lives and our environment. Fasting and praying free us from the dominance of consumption and let us recognize the difficulties in our lives. The priority of Christian charity in a warming and shining coexistence cannot be surpassed.

The encounter with these sculptures gives the biblical triad “fasting – praying – giving alms” a new taste and, of course, its own objection, which no superficial religious ritual of complacency can overtake.

Putting aside the question of whatever the author means by the practice of “superficial religious ritual of complacency”, in point of fact Christians do *not* engage in “Easter” penitence, but rather “Lenten” penitence: Lent is for penance, Easter is for joy. This is a rather basic fact, which someone who actually understood the Catholic faith would not have been so blissfully ignorant as to assert in a public forum. Perhaps it isn’t at all surprising, then, that those who thought this installation was a good idea also happen to be those who clearly don’t actually understand the faith which they claim to practice, at even a basic level.

No doubt one of the greatest Easter joys that Christians in Vienna will experience this year, once Lent ends, will come when this purple proof of prelatic putrification and its companions are removed from their Cathedral – one can only hope that His Eminence’s own removal, into a clearly much-needed retirement from public life, will follow soon thereafter.


Art News Roundup: Who’s Buried In Tut’s Tomb Edition

One of the very big stories in the art world (writ large) this week is that we may be on the verge of a major archaeological discovery from Ancient Egypt. Or not.

As you may recall, for the past few years there’s been a great deal of back-and-forth speculation in the media regarding claims that there are additional, as-of-yet undiscovered chambers connected to the tomb of the most famous of all Egyptian pharaohs, Tutankhamun. Using both visual clues and the latest technology, some researchers claim to have identified such spaces, while others performing similar research have not found anything. The breathlessness of some of the headlines on the subject, like this one in ArtNet or this one in Newsweek, sometimes makes me wonder whether we’re still living in the 21st century, or whether we’ve somehow reverted back to the era of Yellow Journalism.

The latest claim stems from an unpublished report presented to Egypt’s Supreme Council on Antiquities earlier this month, a copy of which was somehow obtained by the British science journal, Nature. Perhaps rather regrettably for a venerable scientific publication, the analysis of the report careens off into a frenzy of wild speculation. “It’s Nefertiti!” “It’s Ankhesenamun!” “It’s some missing princesses!” “It’s intact!” “It’s empty!” Toward the end of taking the reader on the archaeological equivalent of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, the journal notes that the Supreme Council didn’t respond to requests for comment. Quite honestly, one can understand why not.


Far be it from me to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm for the possibility of there being a major archaeological discovery about to be made in the Valley of the Kings. It’s unquestionably an exciting prospect for those who care deeply about the subject, but it’s also exciting for those who have only a passing interest in Ancient Egypt. However it seems to me that the foundational inquiry to be made here is not in regards to who might be buried in King Tut’s tomb, but rather whether there is something to be discovered in the first place.

The childish impatience of contemporary journalism, even supposedly high-brow journalism, does not lend itself to a thoughtful analysis of proper scientific inquiry. As much as one might wish it otherwise, the application of methodical research involves careful planning and testing, rather than the functional equivalent of rolling out the old jump to conclusions mat. In this particular case it means that the question of such a space’s function is, if one chooses to approach the question rationally, secondary to proving its existence. Otherwise, you end up with millions of people watching Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone’s vault to a chorus of crickets.

So unless and until there’s actually something to report, gentle reader, rather than engage in idle speculation on what might be, we’d best move on to some of the more tangible bits of news that caught my eye over the past week.

Roll out the Raphaels

As 2020 marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Raphael (1483-1520), my all-time favorite artist and the “Prince of Painters”, as Vasari called him, for the first time in many years the tapestries which he designed for the Sistine Chapel are temporarily back in place – but only through this Sunday, February 23rd. Many visitors are unaware that in addition to the frescoes by Michelangelo, Botticelli, and others, the Sistine Chapel once sported massive tapestries designed for the space by Raphael, featuring scenes from the lives of St. Peter and St. Paul. Due to their age and delicacy, the hangings are normally kept elsewhere in the Vatican, either rolled up or on rotation inside display cases, so this is a very, very unique, not-to-be-missed opportunity indeed, should you happen to be in Rome this weekend. As a side note, look for an upcoming piece from me in The Federalist about Raphael and the classical tradition, using a new exhibition of drawings and engravings by him and his circle which just opened at the National Gallery here in DC.


Pen, Paper, and Piranesi

Speaking of artistic anniversaries, the British Museum has just opened a new exhibition to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the birth of Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778), whose images of architecture both real and imagined have always fascinated me. While Piranesi is best-known today for his massive engravings, those images arose, naturally enough, from countless hours of observation, sketching, and detailed drawing. This exhibition places on display, for the first time, all 50 Piranesi drawings in the Museum’s collection, which is one of the largest in the world. The collection includes works such as the “Interior of a Vast, Vaulted Building” below, drawn on paper sometime between 1745-1755, using brown ink, red chalk, and a brown-grey wash for shading. Astonishingly, this drawing is only about the size of a 3×5 photograph, demonstrating how skillfully the artist could compress his enormous imagination into a very small format, and later blow it up in order to create one of his signature prints. “Piranesi Drawings: Visions of Antiquity” is at the British Museum through August 9th.


Tremendous Tiffany

Shifting from the very small to the very large, the Art Institute of Chicago has recently acquired one of the most colossal stained glass windows ever produced by the legendary Tiffany Studios. “Light in Heaven and Earth” (1917), which comes from a former Baptist church in Providence, Rhode Island, was probably designed by Agnes Northrop (1857-1953), who worked on most of Tiffany’s landscape windows. This example is particularly large, comprised of 48 glass panels and standing a whopping 23 feet tall. The window is currently undergoing much-needed cleaning and conservation, and will go on display at the top of one of the staircases inside the Art Institute come this September. As I hope to be in Chicago later this year, I’m looking forward to seeing it in person.




Parthexit? A Trojan Horse for Britain

Whatever you may think of Brexit, the impact of that action is already being felt in the art world – and as of yesterday, it’s taken a rather interesting turn with respect to the most famous ancient sculptures in the UK.

The business impact of Britain’s departure from the European Union has, until now, been the main area of interest for those following the post-Brexit art world. Some of the more predictable issues may already be affecting the art market, or not, depending on how you choose to read things. For example, last week ArtNet reported that the three major London auction houses had posted pre-sale estimates that were down 22% from the pre-sale estimates made in the previous year, which would seem to indicate that the top end of the market was anticipating a dampening effect in the wake of Brexit. Yet in the end, Sotheby’s at least brought in almost exactly the same amount as it did in 2019 – around $120 million.

While this is interesting, and could be interpreted from either a pro- or anti-Brexit perspective, comparing year-over-year sales in the art market can sometimes be a bit deceptive. Unlike in, say, the manufacturing and sale of consumer products, the high end of the art market is particularly affected by the issue of what’s actually available for sale, because it’s dominated largely by one-offs. In other words, the pieces up for sale are completely unique, not multiples of the exact same thing. How does this factor affect the comparison to prior year’s sales? Well, if you had a particularly sought-after selection of such highly individual objects up for auction last year, but this year your selection doesn’t have as many standouts, it shouldn’t be surprising if your numbers are affected, Brexit or no.

There’s also the broader question of whether buyers are being spooked by the coronavirus situation in China and elsewhere. Usually, committed art collectors are not going to miss the opportunity to buy something that they really love. However in the Contemporary Art world, a very significant number of purchasers view the art for sale as another type of trading commodity, no different than pork bellies or Apple shares. Should it surprise anyone if these types of buyers choose to put their money elsewhere for awhile, until whatever’s happening with the virus resolves itself?

It’s one thing for the UK to have left the EU, but it’s another for the UK and the EU continuing to do business with one another. Given the substantial amount of investment and commerce that takes place back and forth across the Channel, the two sides need to work out some kind of a trade deal. What has suddenly become very interesting in these negotiations however, as reported yesterday afternoon by Bloomberg, is that the Greeks may have wheeled in (ahem) something of a Trojan horse to the proceedings:

The latest draft of the EU’s negotiating mandate, seen by Bloomberg News, says that the U.K. will need to “address issues relating to the return or restitution of unlawfully removed cultural objects to their countries of origin.”

Officials involved on both sides said the clause was widely interpreted as a direct reference to the ancient statues in the British Museum that were taken from the Parthenon in Athens at the start of the 19th century. A Greek official denied that the clause related to the statues, saying they remain a bilateral issue between the two countries.

For sheer melodrama, it’s hard to beat the ongoing soap opera surrounding what are referred to by some as the Elgin Marbles, and by others as the Parthenon Marbles. What they are, if you’re unaware, are 5th century BC sculptures from the Parthenon and other ancient buildings on the Acropolis in Athens, that were acquired by Thomas Bruce, the Earl of Elgin, in the early 19th century. They’ve resided in the British Museum since 1816, when they were purchased from Lord Elgin by the British government. Title to the works has been in dispute for centuries, since Lord Elgin claimed that he was given written permission to buy the marbles by the Ottoman Turks, who ruled Greece at the time, but others claim that this was untrue due to, inter alia, a lack of corresponding documentation on the Ottoman side of things.

The timing of Greece’s move, if indeed this was their idea, couldn’t be better for the facilitation of what I’ll shamefacedly call “Parthexit”. Not only is the UK no longer in the EU, and in need of swiftly coming up with some sort of normalization of trade relations with its European neighbors, but the socio-political climate at present is one in which the return of cultural objects has been picking up considerable steam in the art world. An increasing number of smaller British museums have already been prevailed upon to return items that were acquired during the heyday of the British Empire, and that juggernaut doesn’t appear to be slowing down even if, for now, the British Museum is resisting its pull.

What’s more, in the wake of Brexit some kind of arrangement for the cross-border sharing of objects between art institutions also needs to be worked out. Without such an arrangement, the Brits could well end up in a situation where shows like this fall’s celebration of the Year of Raphael at the National Gallery in London might not be able to go ahead. The exhibition is set to include promised loans of works from the Louvre, Prado, and Uffizi, among other museums, marking the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death. In the current post-Brexit and cultural repatriation environment, it’s entirely possible that these institutions might choose not to send their very rare and valuable works to London for this, or indeed for any other show, pending resolution of the Elgin Marbles issue.

This will no doubt be a very interesting, and very controversial story to follow in the weeks and months ahead, so stay tuned.


Art News Roundup: Thickening Plot Edition

Art crime is always one of the most fascinating topics that arises when you’re keeping up with what’s going on in the art world, and a story about a stolen Austrian painting in Italy that I’ve been following for the past couple of months is a perfect example of why.

Subscribers and regular readers will recall my telling you back in December about the rediscovery of a long-lost painting by Austrian Secessionist Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), found under very curious circumstances yards away from where it used to hang. “Portrait of a Young Woman” (1917) disappeared from a gallery in the northern Italian city of Piacenza over two decades ago, in a baffling heist which gave the famous art crime squad of the Carabinieri little more than some dead-end leads to pursue. One of the usual suspects in art world crime claimed to have stolen the picture and made a copy, and a very good copy was indeed intercepted by Italian customs on its way to Italy’s disgraced former Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, not long after the theft, but this didn’t solve the mystery of what had happened to the original.

Then in December of last year, what appeared to be the missing picture was miraculously rediscovered stashed inside a cubbyhole with a metal door on the outside of the building. Tests carried out in January on the canvas confirmed that it was the missing Klimt and not another copy. One of the key pieces of evidence in making this determination was that, prior to painting’s disappearance, an art history student was in the process of publishing research showing that the picture is, in a sense, a double portrait. It is the only known example of Klimt reusing one of his previous paintings as a surface for a new painting, and that hidden image, if you will, was once again revealed during examination and testing of the recovered piece.

With art experts having established that the painting is the missing Klimt, the Carabinieri are now back to gumshoeing it, trying to figure out who stole the painting in the first place. The frame for the picture, which bears a thumbprint that may or may not prove a useful clue, had been recovered from the roof of the gallery at the time of the theft. Police believe that the perpetrators may have taken the painting up through a skylight, and then cut it from its frame to make it easier to transport.

As to the question of how long the canvas had been rolled up in its black plastic garbage bag inside its hiding place, at least as of this writing that appears to be an unanswered question. According to groundskeepers at the gallery, the ivy covering this spot in the gardens had not been cut back in over a decade. Presumably investigators searching the premises back in the late 1990’s either didn’t see the odd feature because it was overgrown, or simply overlooked it as a possibility.

Not long after the formal authentication of the picture, two known art thieves confessed to an Italian journalist that they had been responsible for the crime. They claimed to have returned the picture to the hiding place where it was found by the gallery’s gardeners four years prior to its rediscovery, and gave details of how they had removed the painting through the skylight using fishing line and where they had stashed the piece while it was in their possession. As Art Critique points out, the timing of their confession, if it proves to be true, is probably not a coincidence, since under Italian law, the statute of limitations for prosecutions of this type of theft has already run out.

Now, the latest plot twist in the mystery is that police are questioning the widow of Stefano Fugazza, the man who was the director of the gallery at the time the Klimt was stolen, and have searched her home on a charge of handling stolen goods. It appears from his diaries that Signor Fugazza had thought about staging a fake theft of the Klimt in order to draw attention to an exhibition in which the painting was scheduled to appear around the time of its disappearance, although if we take his own words at face value he appears to have backed away from this idea. “The idea was to deliberately organize the theft of the Klimt shortly before the exhibition,” he wrote. “My God, what happened next.” If this turns out to be the case, i.e. that Fugazza set a juggernaut in motion which he could not stop, the situation would be somewhat reminiscent of William H. Macy’s character’s conundrum in the film, “Fargo”.

As you might imagine with a potential plot line like this, publishers and film studios are already fishing around for rights, even without the case being anywhere resolved as of yet. Fear not, gentle reader: I’ll keep you posted on any developments. And now, let’s take a look at some other art news headlines that have caught my eye this week.


Rediscovered Rembrandt

The Allentown Art Museum in NE Pennsylvania isn’t an institution that immediately comes to mind, if you’re coming up with a list of America’s major art institutions. For admirers of Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) however, it’s about to become the newest stop on the pilgrimage trail to see the Dutch Old Master’s complete oeuvre. “Portrait of a Young Woman” (1632), which was long believed to have been a work executed in Rembrandt’s studio by one of his assistants, has recently been determined to be a work by the master himself. The painting has been undergoing cleaning and conservation since 2018, and will be going back on display to the public in June of this year as part of a special exhibition exploring how research and technology helped to make this new identification possible.


Modern Millet

Those of my readers who find themselves in the St. Louis area in the coming months would be well-served by visiting the St. Louis Museum of Art’s new exhibition, “Millet and Modern Art: From Van Gogh to Dalí”, which opens this Sunday. The 19th century French Realist painter Jean-François Millet (1814–1875) is perhaps best known for his popular, somewhat sentimentalized (and vaguely socialist) images of scenes from peasant life. Yet these images continued to have a lasting impact on later generations that followed the Barbizon school of which he was among the most prominent members. Among Millet’s most important works are “The Sower” (1850), versions of which are now in Boston and Pittsburgh, and two pictures in the Musée d’Orsay: “The Gleaners” (1857), and above all “The Angelus” (1857). Both the Pittsburgh “Sower” and Millet’s masterpiece “The Angelus” from the Orsay will be in the exhibition, so this is a very rare opportunity indeed to see not only these works, but also their juxtaposition alongside works of Modern art that take their cues or inspiration from Millet, including not only Vincent Van Gogh and Salvador Dalí, but Claude Monet, Winslow Homer, Edvard Munch, and many others. The exhibition runs through May 17th.


Perishing Pigments

And speaking of Munch, it appears that unfortunately, one of his most famous paintings is fading away, and there is little that can be done to stop it. Over the course of his career Edvard Munch (1863-1944) created four versions of his iconic “The Scream”: two in paint on canvas, and two in pastels. The second canvas painting, which is in the Munch Museum in Oslo, is experiencing some significant pigment changes that are permanently altering the way future generations will be able to see his work. Among other changes, for example, Munch’s oranges and yellows are now turning white, as you can see in the image below. For a very fascinating dive into why this is happening – and why many 19th and early 20th century paintings are undergoing similar changes, check out this excellent piece in Art Daily about the efforts to better understand the phenomenon, which is beginning to affect many famous works of art from the turn of the previous century.


Notre Dame’s Nooks and Crannies

It’s hard to believe that very soon, we’ll be coming up on the one-year anniversary of the devastating fire that nearly destroyed the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre Dame de Paris on April 15, 2019. The good news is that visitors may soon be able to get physically closer to the church than they have been able to do since last year’s devastating fire. The bad news is, just as the authorities think they have solved one problem, they encounter another. If you’ve been keeping up with the news out of Paris, as I have, this is beginning to seem like the regular state of affairs on this very complicated restoration project.

In testimony before the French General Assembly last week, officials gave an update on the state of their efforts to shore up and clean the building, and announced their hope that they would be able to open the square in front of Notre Dame to visitors in the very near future. Lead abatement appears to have been mostly successful, and obviously the French government has an interest in ensuring that tourists return as soon as possible. That being said, I do wonder whether this statement is a bit foolhardy given the particular circumstances which restorers are having to deal with here.

Subscribers and regular readers will recall my explaining how initially, no one seems to have given much thought to the fact that burning hundreds of pounds of lead in the middle of downtown Paris was probably not a good thing. The realization that the lead particulates constituted a serious health and environmental risk dawned slowly, but once it did, authorities had to start cleaning up not only the church and its immediate surroundings, but also public areas such as parks and schools that were, in some cases, found to contain extremely high levels of lead. That process seems to be coming to an end, but unfortunately it doesn’t mean that the problem is completely resolved.

Like most Gothic buildings, Notre Dame is riddled with intentional nooks and crannies, such as niches, blind arcades, spaces behind columns and statuary, and so on. In addition, many of the surfaces which make up the building are composed of porous materials. Dust of all kinds, including lead dust, likes to settle in these places. If you’ve ever tried to clean an ornate or complicated bit of carving, you get the picture.

What does this mean for the Cathedral? As ArtNet explains, you can’t just power-wash this sort of dust into the sewer and the Seine. “[S]ome lead particles have settled into the porous surface of the cathedral, and it is difficult to access these small holes. Experts are now experimenting with a new method, which involves pouring a transparent resin onto the site to remove lead particles from those difficult-to-access spaces.”

Between this rather difficult wrinkle, and the very complicated task of removing over 200 tons of steel scaffolding – which was fused together into a tangled mass during the fire – there is a lot to worry about here. That being said, there are some pieces of good news that we can keep in mind. The Cathedral’s magnificent organ was spared, and once it’s safe to start doing so, workers will begin dismantling it, so that all of its roughly 7,800 pipes, five keyboards, and 100+ stops can be cleaned of lead, soot, and debris. In addition, the magnificently ornate 18th century carved oak choir stalls were also saved. These will also need to be removed, cleaned of lead and other debris, and reinstalled. In both cases, scientists, historians, and the like will no doubt take full advantage of documenting and understanding the methods used to create these objects.

As to when any of that re-installation could possibly take place however, no one really knows. Some experts have been not-so-quietly telling the art press for months now that they don’t think the site itself will be safe for visitors to enter for at least another three years, and reconstruction will likely take much longer than that. President Macron’s goal of having Notre Dame rebuilt in five years seems, as to me it always has, an unrealistic, politically-motivated, empty promise. Hopefully the political pressure to complete the repairs will not outweigh the important, and more long-lasting, duty of those in charge of the restoration to do the job right the first time.


Art News Roundup: Modern or New?

I was pleased to read a press announcement recently from the Meadows Museum in Dallas, which has one of the most important collections of Iberian art outside of Spain, announcing that they had acquired two new works by two important 20th century Catalan artists: Santiago Rusiñol i Prats (1861–1931) and Josep de Togores i Llach (1893-1970). This is terrific news, but I think there’s an important distinction that needs to be made here regarding the use of the term “Modernist”, at least when it comes to Catalan art. It’s certainly true that Rusiñol was a “Modernista”, as that term is understood in Catalonia, but technically speaking, Togores wasn’t: in fact, he was quite the reverse.

If he has to be placed anywhere, and it’s difficult to do so because his style changed over time, Togores really belonged to the school of “Noucentisme” (“New Century-ism”). This was a movement in the early 20th century in which Catalan artists, architects, and thinkers sought to eschew the fantastical mixture of historical revival, eclecticism, and bohemianism exemplified by much of the art and architecture of the Modernistas – what we would understand as Art Nouveau – in favor of a kind of a more muscular, Mediterranean classicism that anticipates the Social Realist movement in America and elsewhere during the 1930’s. Perhaps because, by the time World War I came around, Modernisme was considered to be bourgeois establishment, rather than highbrow, the idea of returning to a classical, but modern-looking, style took root.

This is why, for example, that even though a number of Modernista architects and artists continued working in Barcelona well into the 20th century, a visitor would notice that by 1920, more and more apartment blocks, civic buildings, and public squares, as well as the art in and around these structures, were being produced in the kind of stripped-down classical style espoused by Noucentista artists and designers. Meanwhile, a number of the Modernista buildings and their over-the-top contents were already being torn down or thrown out, even though in some cases they were not even a decade old.

Rusiñol is one of my favorite artists, and it’s nice to see that one of his many paintings of the famous gardens at Aranjuez, a place he visited many times and indeed where he died one day while he was working, has now entered a major American collection that can be visited by the public:


Togores isn’t well-known outside of Spain (not that Rusiñol is, either), but he was quite a remarkable figure. He went deaf in his childhood, but it didn’t stop him from becoming an artist who studied and exhibited with some of the most important artists of the 20th century, including Picasso, Braque, and many others. His 1927 portrait of the Mester family acquired by the Meadows is very typical of his work:


Probably my favorite painting of his however, which not only embodies the spirit of the Noucentista movement but also has more than a whiff of the Art Deco about it, is his 1922 painting “Couple à la plage” (“Couple on the beach”), painted in France but now in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid. Later Togores abandoned this heavy-limbed style, turning to Surrealism and finally to religious painting. Yet he was definitely not a Modernista – he would have looked at the disheveled morphine addicts and dingy dance halls depicted by Modernista artists like Rusiñol in much the same way as today, some of look at things like love-ins, Woodstock, and Cosmopolitan magazine.

In any case, it’s great to see that two important Barcelona artists are now going to be seen by a wider public in this country. Let’s hope that these are not just isolated examples of their art coming, permanently or temporarily, to these shores. And with that, off to some news stories we go.

Picasso Punishment

Speaking of the Reina Sofia, readers will recall my telling you recently about the convoluted court case of a scion from Spain’s most powerful banking dynasty, and the early Picasso he kept on board his yacht. Last month, Banco Santander heir Jaime Botín was convicted of attempting to smuggle the painting out of the country, fined nearly $60 million, and sentenced to an 18-month jail term, but prosecutors complained that the sentence wasn’t harsh enough. The judge apparently agreed, and has now upped both the fine and the prison term, to over $101 million and three years in jail. Meanwhile, as his Picasso sits in storage at the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid, Botín is appealing his sentence, but no doubt with an added urgency given this rather unusual upping of the stakes.


Leibl Learning

I must confess that, before I read about a major new exhibition at the Albertina on German Realist painter Wilhelm Leibl (1844-1900), I had never *heard* of Wilhelm Leibl. It does go to show you however, that no matter how much you think you may know about art, there are always new-to-you artists to discover. Leibl’s work was strongly championed by Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), but today he isn’t quite the household name in the art world that Courbet is. Rather than shock, Liebl focused on looking closely at individuals, such as in the striking self-portrait shown below, as well as in creating very direct, carefully observed images of Bavarian peasants engaged in their daily activities. In some ways his work reminds me of the more folksy images of another great Realist, the Swedish painter Anders Zorn (1860-1920), and it would be interesting to find out if Zorn was aware of Leodl’s work.

“Wilhelm Liebl: The Art of Seeing” is at the Albertina in Vienna through May 10th.

Reproduktion Kunsthaus Zürich

A Nose for Trouble: The Significance of Damage to Ancient Egyptian Art

When you look at Ancient Egyptian art in museum collections or temporary exhibitions, you probably aren’t surprised to find that oftentimes these objects aren’t in perfect shape. It’s perfectly logical to assume that these sculptures, paintings, and carvings, many of which are thousands of years old, bear their cracks and scars from having been buried in the sand or knocked about over the centuries. What you may not have considered before now however, is whether that broken or missing nose was damaged intentionally, rather than accidentally.

An exhibition that just opened at the Cummer Museum in Jacksonville explores this subject, by comparing Egyptian objects that were intentionally damaged with those that were not. “Striking Power: Iconoclasm in Ancient Egypt” looks at the reigns of two of Ancient Egypt’s most famous and controversial rulers, the female king Hatshesput and the heretical quasi-monotheist Akhenaten, as well as the complicated waves of iconoclasm that swept over Egypt from the end of Antiquity and the arrival of Christianity, into the establishment of the Byzantine and Islamic Empires. Many of the objects in the show are on loan from the Brooklyn Museum, which has one of the best collections of Egyptian antiquities in the country, (but more on them in a moment.)

Iconoclasm is usually understood as being a form of violent attack on an art object that represents an idea, or an individual who is somehow closely associated with an idea. When communism collapsed in Eastern Europe for example, images of Lenin and Stalin started falling all over the place. In more recent years we witnessed Islamic groups such as the Taliban and Isis destroying buildings and art created by religions and cultures not their own. There are similar examples in the Cummer exhibition of political or religious revenge being carried out posthumously against a particularly hated pharaoh or their ideas. Yet for the Ancient Egyptians, destruction of these images often went much further than mere protest, or an attempt to eradicate the memory of a previous regime or mindset.

As pointed out in his recent (excellent and fascinating) lecture on the subject at Harvard’s Semitic Museum, archaeologist Dr. Edward Bleiberg of the Brooklyn Museum notes that the Ancient Egyptians didn’t have a word for “art”, at least as we understand that term. For them, the images of people, animals, and objects which they created were a necessary part of their religious belief system. While most people are aware that Egyptian mummies were created in order for the dead to be preserved for eternity, what we think of as “art” that the Egyptians surrounded themselves with in death, functioned as a kind of machine for ensuring their eternal life.

In Ancient Egypt, images of the deceased engaged in activities such as eating, hunting, dancing, or worshiping were not intended as simply pretty decorations. Rather, they were a way for the dead to be able to engage in such activities. In order to come back – and I am grossly oversimplifying here for the purpose of moving the conversation along – the souls of the dead would need objects to inhabit. Thus a statue, painting, or the like could provide a necessary tether to this world, in order for the spirits of the dead to leave the netherworld and return to our own. This concept that the dead were not really completely separated from the material world is why, for example, containers of food and beverages are often found in and around tombs, or in funerary temples nearby, because relatives or priests would leave these offerings for the dead to consume.

Based on the understanding that tomb objects served as something like, but a bit more than, avatars for the dead, the destruction or maiming of such objects in antiquity carried a far greater significance than what we might, at first, perceive. For example, if you intentionally break the nose on a statue, the individual depicted would not be able to breathe, should their soul return and try to inhabit that statue. Similarly, if you severed the representation of an arm and hand of a person depicted reclining at a table and reaching for a bowl of food, or engaged in battle raising a weapon, they would not be able to eat or defend themselves. The line which we we perceive today between artistic imagination and spiritual reality simply did not exist for the Ancient Egyptians.

Sometimes acts of iconoclasm were engaged in by the Ancient Egyptians for political and religious reasons. Akhenaten in particular was roundly hated by the establishment of his day for, inter alia, (mostly) abandoning polytheism, and moving the religious and political center of the country off to a newly-built city named after himself. Thus, after his death, images of him and even his name were often defaced or entirely obliterated. This had the dual effect of punishing the individual through defamation, while at the same time denying him what he would need to live eternally.

Interestingly however, sometimes the visible damage on what we think of as Ancient Egyptian art was not carried out by people trying to punish the deceased, but rather by those who did not want the dead to come after them. Tomb robbers operating in antiquity may have been desecrating sacred sites, but they still clung to the belief system described above, in which the art object was a kind of touch-point for the underworld. This made them view the art which surrounded them in the tombs that they were robbing as powerful defensive mechanisms, which needed to be neutralized in some way. Thus, sometimes we can’t know for certain whether an intentionally damaged object that we see in a museum was damaged for a higher or lower purpose: was the iconoclast making a political statement, or were they simply trying to steal some jewelry without suffering supernatural repercussions?

The next time then, that you visit an exhibition of Ancient Egyptian art, it’s worth keeping in mind that, for the people who created these objects, they were much more than just decorative or commemorative items. They were intended to act as channels for supernatural events, or if you like, as receptacles for a kind of magic which may seem entirely alien to our present understanding of the purpose of art. In addition, you should also be asking yourself whether the damage that you see on these objects came about merely as a result of the ravages of time and the perils of excavation, or whether it was caused by the deliberate intervention of human beings motivated by political, religious, or superstitious considerations.

“Striking Power: Iconoclasm in Ancient Egypt” is on view now at the Cummer Museum of Art in Jacksonville, Florida through April 26th.



Art News Roundup: Astrocat Edition

I had intended to do a regular post on Tuesday, Gentle Reader, but I was (happily) prevented from doing so by the arrival of my new niece. Everyone is doing well, so hopefully we can get back into the usual swing of things at this point. And to that end, one of the interesting things about studying art, and keeping up with what’s going on in the art world, is that sometimes you stumble across things which may help to answer questions about objects that have found their way into your own collection.

For well over a year, I’d had my eye on an Italian Renaissance Revival…we’ll say “figurine”, but at nearly 2 feet tall he’s rather too big to be called that. Made in the traditional majolica process with bright green, yellow, and bronze glazes, all accented with gilding, it depicts a rather bellicose bearded man carrying a club and wearing rather over-the-top armor, complete with an animal jawbone as a helmet visor. The dealer had no information as to where or when it was made, but stylistically I liked the look of it, and knew exactly what I wanted to do with it. I already have a figure of Ramses II of about the same size, which looks after my ancient history, archaeology, and Egyptology books, and this fellow would be perfect to guard my rather large collection of works about the Italian Renaissance.

I was hoping the dealer would eventually be willing to negotiate the price down to something that I could justify out of my art acquisition budget. This happened recently, and my rather imposing friend arrived at the Fortress earlier this week. From the time I first spotted him, I’ve had some trouble trying to figure out his identity, and until recently I just assumed that he is supposed to represent Hercules, albeit in Italian Renaissance kit. Now however, I’m beginning to wonder whether he’s supposed to represent one of the strongmen who dominated Italian affairs during much of the 16th century.

Andrea Doria (1466-1560) was one of the most famous condottieri (our closest equivalent for one of these fellows might be a “mercenary”) of the Italian Renaissance, and eventually became the Imperial Admiral of the Genoese Republic. He was lionized not only by the Genoese, but by military commanders all over Europe, so it’s not surprising that his very dominating appearance and presence inspired many works of art. Among these is a work that recently came up for sale in Le Havre, which when I saw it, reminded me quite a bit of my own, considerably far less important, bit of ceramic.

Baccio Bandinelli (1488-1560) is perhaps best known today for his Mannerist sculpture of “Hercules and Cacus”, completed in 1534, which flanks Michelangelo’s “David” – or rather, a reproduction of it – in front of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Both sculptures are about 17 feet tall, and while the David represents the ideals of the Florentine Republic during the High Renaissance, the Hercules represents the power of the ruling Medici family. Although he worked primarily for the Medici during his career, Bandinelli did seek out commissions from other patrons across Italy as needed, and one of these was the Republic of Genoa, when he had to flee Florence during a period when the Medici were in exile.

In 1528, Genoa wanted to erect a monument to the still-dominant Admiral Doria, and one of the drawings that Bandinelli came up with as part of his proposal depicts the Admiral depicted as Neptune subduing a captive. Doria is dressed in rather elaborate armor and sporting a contrapposto pose, not dissimilar from the attire and pose of the majolica “Hercules” now sitting on one of my shelves. Bandinelli’s project never really got off the ground, as Doria couldn’t stand working with him and, perhaps wisely, the artist quietly returned to Florence once the Medici came back into power. As a result, although I’m well-acquainted with Doria as both an historical figure and as the subject of other works of art, I would never have become aware of this Bandinelli proposal at all, but for the fact that the drawing in question recently came up at auction and vastly exceeded market expectations: it sold this past Saturday for roughly $900,000 which, given that the pre-sale estimate was only around $88,000, is quite something.


Now, I’m by no means intending to suggest that there’s a direct relationship between this highly significant Italian Renaissance drawing, and my comparatively insignificant bit of Italian Renaissance *style* bric-a-brac, which I’m guessing was probably made in Italy and then exported to be sold at a better-quality department store or home décor shop like Marshall Field’s or Gump’s. Having come across this story however, I now have more information, and a new line of enquiry, as I try to identify the piece. Did the factory copy an existing Renaissance sculpture on a smaller scale? Did the designer use a Renaissance drawing like Bandinelli’s in working up a maquette for the final product? The fun that’s involved in this kind of research, quite frankly, at least if you’re an art nerd like yours truly, is that you never know where it will take you.


As that research continues, let’s move on to some other stories that caught my eye over the past week.

Double Dalí

A major double “portrait” by Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) has been consigned for auction at Bonham’s this spring. “Couple aux têtes pleines de nuages” (“Couple with heads full of clouds”) (1937) is the second version of a work which the Catalan Surrealist originally created in 1936, and that is now in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. Both are meant to depict Dalí and his wife Gala, but the couple are evoked only by the anthropomorphic gilt frames, rather than by the canvases inside them. Whereas the paintings feature rather stark landscapes with stunning skies full of clouds, the Rotterdam pictures feature two still lifes of tables draped in linen and displaying a few objects, while the pair coming up at Bonham’s show rock formations, tiny figures tearing about, and even a burning giraffe. Bonham’s pre-sale estimate is (roughly) between $9-$13 million, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the pictures far exceed that price.


Meticulous Manhattan

Next week Hirschl & Adler, one of my favorite galleries of Contemporary Art in New York, will be opening a new exhibition of recent paintings by American watercolorist Frederick Brosen (1954-). Brosen’s work is captivating for many reasons: his attention to detail, his understanding of architecture, his ability to capture urban elements such as the reflection of water on asphalt (as shown in the below image of Broome Street in Lower Manhattan), etc. What is truly remarkable about Brosen’s technical ability however, is that he executes these works not in a more stable and easily refined medium, such as acrylic or tempera, but in unforgiving watercolor. If you’ve ever painted in watercolor, then you know how easily it can get away from you, if you’re not careful, and Brosen’s incredible care and precision in executing these works is worthy of a Flemish Old Master. “Frederick Brosen: Recent Watercolor Paintings” opens February 6th and runs through March 6th.


Cosmic Cat

And finally, while the dog may be America’s favorite pet, everyone knows that its cats who rule the interwebz. What may surprise you about cats, however, is that despite the fame of Laika, the Russian dog who became the first animal to orbit the earth back in 1957, cats played an important part in man’s attempt to reach for the stars. Now, one of those felines is the subject of a new, public work of art.

Félicette, a street cat who was sent into orbit in 1963 and returned to tell the tale, is affectionately known to space aficionados as the “Astrocat”. In December, the International Space University in Strasbourg unveiled a bronze monument to her, the first cat in space, which was created by British animal artist Gill Parker (1957-). It depicts the intrepid traveler seated triumphantly atop a globe, gazing up into the heavens. The unveiling was announced by Matthew Serge Guy, a British fan of the Astrocat who spearheaded the fundraising for the project on Kickstarter over the past two years, with the rather appropriate update: “Félicette has landed.” 


Art News Roundup: We Got The (News) Beat Edition

Now that things are starting to get back to normal around the Fortress of Solitude following a very enjoyable vacation, it’s time to get back to the news beat.

Before we get into some art stories of interest, I want to share two links regarding the ongoing reconstruction efforts at Notre Dame de Paris. The devastating fire at the church, which consumed the roof of the cathedral-basilica and heavily damaged the structure, took place on April 15th of last year, and cleanup has taken much longer than initially anticipated. This has been due to issues such as infighting over how to rebuild, political posturing, and cleanup from toxic materials such as thousands of pounds of lead. As you might expect, if you’ve been following the story up to now, the latest news is a bit of a mixed bag.

On what might call the Debbie Downer side of things, architect and historian Barbara Schock-Werner recently gave an interview to Deutsche Welle in which she speculated that Notre Dame is still in serious danger of collapse. Ms. Schock-Werner oversees the fabric of Cologne’s massive Cathedral – which, interestingly enough, is not a basilica, even though it is the tallest Catholic cathedral in the world, and probably the most famous church in Germany – so she obviously knows her subject matter. In the interview, she explains why certain issues, such as how the scaffolding inside the building fused together during the fire, creates problems with respect to potential dangers such as the vaults collapsing. That being said, I particularly appreciated the fact that she agrees with the project’s lead architect that the 19th century spire by Viollet le-Duc (1814-1879) ought to be rebuilt as it was:

My favorite is the old spire. Eugene Viollet-le-Duc’s crossing tower, rebuilt in the 19th century, was a masterpiece of neo-Gothic architecture. I would restore it exactly as it was. Of the designs that are in circulation, the one by Sir Norman Foster with its stainless steel and crystal crossing tower seems to me to be the most appropriate as it most closely complements the building. But I am actually in favor, as is my Parisian colleague, of reconstructing the original.

On a (potentially) more positive note, at least among those of us who like our cathedrals to look like cathedrals and not like airport shopping mall atriums, French architect Eric Wirth recently testified before a hearing convened by France’s National Assembly that the best solution for rebuilding the roof of Notre Dame was not to jury-rig a modern glass-and-steel structure onto a medieval building, but rather to use what the builders of the structure themselves originally used: timbers. As ArtNet reports:

“The most modern material, the most ecological today,” he said, “is wood. It is the only one that traps carbon.” He also noted its natural fire resistance. “[Notre Dame] has been there for 800 years. If the structure had been made of steel, there would be no cathedral to speak of today,” he said. In a fire, “iron holds for half an hour, an hour, and then writhes, pulls on the walls and collapses everything.”

It’s rather interesting that a very senior European architect would point out that, for all of contemporary society’s fawning over (supposedly) environmentally friendly materials, traditional ones are far more ecologically sound than those that are typically used to create the boxes that plague the skylines of our cities. Nothing has been decided yet, of course, but the chorus of serious architects advocating for a more substantial, traditional solution to this problematic project is encouraging.


And with that, here are some stories that caught my eye over the past week.

Nearing Nero

If you’re at all interested in Roman art and architecture – and if you’re not, I highly suggest that you take this excellent, free online course on the subject by my friend, the wonderful Dr. Diana E.E. Kleiner at Yale – then you will be as pleased as I am to learn that the Domus Aurea, the over-the-top pleasure palace built by the Roman Emperor Nero in the 1st century A.D., is once again partly reopened for intrepid visitors to explore. Still an active archaeological dig site, the ruins of Nero’s “Golden House” on the Palatine Hill are filled with magnificent architectural and artistic remains, from intricately frescoed vaulted ceilings to colorful marble mosaic floors, that give a sense of the luxurious excess enjoyed by one of history’s most infamous monarchs. In addition, rediscovery and exploration of the more than 300 underground rooms by artists and architects such as Michelangelo, Raphael, and others, had an enormous impact on art and design across the world, from the Neoclassical country houses of 18th century Britain to the Beaux-Arts train stations and public libraries of Gilded Age America. You can take a look at some of the extraordinary details of the house, including a video of a possible reconstruction of its original appearance, in this excellent overview by architectural historian Christopher Siwicki, along with some of his own photographs (like the one shown below), over at Art & Object.


Picasso Prosecution

A rather bizarre art crime story that I’ve been following for quite awhile now, which involves one of the wealthiest families in Spain, and a work by the most important artist of the 20th century, appears to be at or near a conclusion. Banker Jaime Botín, one of the heirs to the Grupo Santander banking and investment fortune, is a major art collector and owned, among other works, the early 1900’s “Head of a Young Woman” by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), dating from the artist’s 1906 summer vacation in Gósol, in the Catalan Pyrenees. While there, the artist took a closer look at the 1000-year-old wall paintings that dominate the many Romanesque churches in the area, and upon his return to Paris executed his famous portrait of Gertrude Stein, now at The Met. Sr. Botín was accused of trying to smuggle the picture out of the country without an export license, while he maintained that he was merely taking it to Switzerland for safe keeping – the Swiss freeports in places like Geneva have become well-known areas for the storage of major works of art owned by the wealthiest collectors – and the case has been dragging on for years. After multiple twists and turns, last week he was fined $58.4 million and sentenced to 18 months in prison by a Spanish judge, although it is expected that the prison term will be suspended due to age and being a first-time offender. Meanwhile, the painting itself was confiscated by the Spanish State, and is in the keeping of the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, but it doesn’t appear to be on display at the moment. For now, we’ll just have to wait and see whether appeals are taken, or efforts to reclaim the picture are made.


Brooding Borgianni

And finally, speaking of Spain, I have to confess that until recently, Orazio Borgianni (1574-1616) was not a painter whose name was familiar to me, but the arresting self-portrait of the artist that is coming up for sale at Sotheby’s New York next week, as well as his extensive work both in and for Spain, all make me want to learn more about him. Borgianni was a contemporary and rival of Caravaggio (1571-1610), during the transition from the Late Renaissance style of Mannerism to that of early Baroque painting. He spent a significant amount of time in Spain under the royal patronage of Felipe II, studying and working in Valladolid, then the capital of united Spain. Later he returned to Rome, where he received many commissions from Spanish courtiers there. This particular picture was only recently rediscovered at an auction held in Berlin a little less than two months ago, so what we’re seeing here is the art world equivalent of house flipping. Still, Caravaggio and his circle are quite hot on the market at the moment, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the hammer price for this painting surpasses the current $400-$600k estimate.


Art Origins: Tales of The Four Cats

Having had a very pleasant sojourn in the motherland, Gentle Reader, I’m glad to get back to writing and reporting on areas of artistic interest which, hopefully, will encourage your curiosity and exploration in the year ahead.

One of the most interesting experiences I had during my time away was a visit to the current exhibition, “Barcelona i Els Quatre Gats. Un gir cap a la modernitat” (“Barcelona and Els Quatre Gats: A Turn to Modernity), which is currently being held at the Gothsland Galeria d’Art in central Barcelona. If you get the chance to see it during its run, by all means do so, for not only does it steep the visitor in a wealth of paintings, sculpture, drawings, graphic art, furniture, and decorative objects, but it helps bring into focus an aspect of Western art history that, outside of Barcelona at least, is far less well-known than it absolutely deserves to be. You can check out some of the works on display by visiting the gallery’s Instagram page.

Created over a century ago as a kind of Catalan answer to the famous Le Chat Noir in Montmartre, Els Quatre Gats (literally “The Four Cats” – an expression in Catalan that really signifies something sort of like, “a group of eccentric chaps”) even today remains a secular pilgrimage site for those seeking to understand the origins of Modern Art. Located in a narrow street among the twisting lanes of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, it opened in 1897 inside a building designed by the great Catalan Art Nouveau architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch (1867-1956). A combination of café, bar, restaurant, meeting space, and performance venue, it served as a gathering place for artists, architects, writers, and intellectuals, who came to enjoy spirited conversation, learn about new ideas, and to have a glass (or four) of an adult beverage in pleasant company. Among its original patrons and backers were the Catalan painters Santiago Rusiñol (1861-1932), Miguel Utrillo (1862-1934) – father of the better-known French painter Maurice Utrillo (1883-1955) – and Ramon Casas (1866-1932). Other frequenters included architect Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926), composers Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909) and Enric Granados (1867-1916), and a host of artists, poets, politicians, playwrights, and so on.

If the above characterization of its significance seems an overly inflated expression of the place’s significance to art history, consider that Els Quatre Gats was the site of the first-ever solo exhibition of his work mounted by the then-teenaged Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), who was an art student in Barcelona at the time. The café also has a connection to Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907), one of the most important works of art of the 20th century and among the greatest treasures of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was not, as you might understandably be forgiven for thinking from the title, executed in the French city of Avignon. Rather, the title refers to the then-infamous Avignon Street in Barcelona, located not far from Els Quatre Gats. After getting plastered at Els Quatre Gats, the young Picasso would spend his less salubrious evening hours among the denizens of said street, in what we will politely refer to as mixed company. The painting, which he began in 1906, the year he permanently moved to Paris from Barcelona, recalls that period of his life.

Els Quatre Gats was not a rip-roaring success as a business venture, and closed in 1903. As is often the case even today, artistic types tend to be very good with ideas, but less good with practicalities. The tavern only lasted for a few years, and most of its original art was later dispersed to private collections or the National Museum of Art of Catalonia (MNAC). Arguably the most famous example of this is the iconic painting of Els Quatre Gats’ founder and manager Pere Romeu (1862-1908) and Casas riding a tandem bicycle, an image which you see reproduced everywhere in Barcelona. This used to hang over the bar at Els Quatre Gats, but it is now in the permanent collection of MNAC. The magazine named for the tavern lasted a few years longer, but it wasn’t until the late 1970’s that the place reopened as a public restaurant, complete with reproductions of many of the original works of art, and a printed menu whose cover was designed for Els Quatre Gats by the young Picasso.

Even as someone who knows a fair bit about the work of many of the habitués of Els Quatre Gats, I was very pleasantly surprised not only by the quality and range of the works in the Gothsland show, but also by some of the connections between artists whom I didn’t realize were friends. For example, the great Swedish painter Anders Zorn (1860-1920), who, like John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) and Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923), was one of the most highly esteemed international society portrait painters of the turn of the previous century, just so happened to have been friendly with Casas, a fact of which I was previously unaware. Casas’ preparatory drawing for a portrait of Zorn is in the exhibition, and I’m still thinking about that relationship and want to do some more research on it.

We’re all aware that the Iberians had a great deal to do with the emergence of what we think of today as Modern Art – as exemplified by names like Picasso, Gris, Miró, and Dalí – but we forget that these 20th century artists didn’t simply emerge from a vacuum. Barcelona in particular, at the end of the 19th century, was an active supplier of artists and ideas involved in the wider European debate about the future of art. This is partly because Barcelona artists were frequently going back and forth to Paris – which at the time was the center of the art world – just like everyone else, and partly because international visitors came to see these artists, in turn. Thus, not only do we see Zorn depicted in the show, but we also see images of other international figures, such as the prominent American art collector and Chairman/Co-Founder of International Harvester Corporation Charles Deering (1852-1927) horseback riding on vacation in Spain, or the French composer Erik Satie (1866-1925) shivering in his freezing garret in Paris.

Closer to home, the exhibition features paintings by some of Catalonia’s greatest artists, many of whom are still virtually unknown outside of Spain or even Barcelona, who happened to frequent Els Quatre Gats during its heyday, such as two of my favorites: Isidre Nonell (1872-1911) and Joaquim Mir (1873-1940). There’s even a haunting drawing of Gaudí on his deathbed in 1926, sketched in person by his friend and assistant, the great caricaturist Ricard Opisso (1880-1966), which was published the day after the architect’s death in one of the Barcelona dailies. And for those of you with the wherewithal to afford such things, many of the objects in the exhibition are for sale: a very tempting prospect indeed.

Word of mouth about the show has been getting out, and visitor numbers to date have been quite impressive for a show that isn’t taking place inside one of the city’s main art museums. The organizers, particularly the gallery’s director and President of the Ramon Casas Estate, Gabriel Pinós Guirao, who is currently in the process of putting together the catalogue raisonné of Ramon Casas’ work – Volume 1 of (I believe) 5 is currently available at Gothsland – are happy to have visitors ask questions. He very kindly indulged me in a long conversation about art, and like the rest of his team is hopeful that visitors learn more about and better-understand the superb works of art that they are seeing at the gallery. I’d also hazard a guess that this is particularly the case for visitors from outside of Barcelona (or even Spain), since so many of these important, influential, and interesting artists deserve to be better-known and better-appreciated more widely than they are at present. Both as an introduction to the wealth of creativity that emerged from Els Quatre Gats, and as a jumping-off point for further reading and appreciation, this is absolutely a show you should visit if you get the opportunity.

“Barcelona and Els Quatre Gats” is at the Gothsland Gallery in Barcelona through February 28th.


Art News Roundup: Year-End Thanks Edition

‘Tis the season for year-end retrospectives and year-ahead prognostications in media, and my humble offering of same is out in The Federalist is out this morning: what I consider to have been the Top 5 Art Stories of 2019.

There should be something here for everyone, from those among my readers who are deeply interested in the art world, to those with just a general curiosity about it. Wherever you may fall along that spectrum, gentle reader, I think we can all agree that if there was any doubt as to whether a dramatic actress like Cate Blanchett could pull off a slapstick comedy about art, there’s now no doubt whatsoever that she absolutely can. Go have a look while you’re between bouts of cookies and mulled wine, and as always, feel free to agree or disagree with me in the comments.

I’ll be leaving for Spain on vacation the day after Christmas, or I should say, on the 2nd day *OF* Christmas, because fortunately most people in the motherland don’t throw out their decorations after dinner on December 25th, and instead celebrate all 12 days of the commemoration of the Birth of Christ. Given my upcoming schedule then, this must be my final entry for the calendar year. Those of you who are curious to see what I’m up to once I’m across the pond can follow or bookmark me on Instagram or Twitter, where I’ll be posting periodically about my travels, including many of the requisite food images which seem to generate the most interested commentary.

Before I go however, if you’re in the DC area I want to heartily encourage you to please consider attending a special event tomorrow, Friday, December 20th at 6:30 pm, at my parish of St. Stephen Martyr in Foggy Bottom. Our magnificent choir’s annual Christmas concert will take place this year in the form of lessons and carols. I will be one of the participants, and fortunately for those in attendance I’ll be reading one of the lessons rather than singing one of the carols – which is just as well given my usual karaoke vocal stylings, since there isn’t really a belt-it-out-grunge version of “The Coventry Carol”, so far as I’m aware. Even if you can’t attend in person, please consider sharing information about this event with your friends and followers:


January of this year marked the shuttering of my old site, where I had scribbled online for a decade, and the launching of this one. In the process, I lost thousands of followers when I switched addresses and refocused my writing, which was a very humbling experience. What has proven to be even more humbling however, is the fact that not only have many of you chosen to stick around, but I’ve gained new readers as well. To all of you, I’m deeply grateful for your support, and hope to bring you more things that you may find worth reading and thinking about in 2020.

My very best wishes to you and yours for a Merry Christmas, and for many blessings in the New Year ahead.