Sotheby’s Under the Hammer for $3.7 Billion

I’m finally back to scribbling after a very pleasant sojourn in Spain – hope you appreciated the updated archival posts, gentle reader – and the big art world news at the moment is the announcement that the venerable auction house Sotheby’s is being sold to French telecom billionaire Patrick Drahi for $3.7 billion. [Full Disclosure: I earned my Master’s in Art Business at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London.] The deal has, understandably, tossed the art press into a maelstrom of chatter about what the purchase will mean both for the venerable auction house and for the future of the art market. Before we get into some of those opinions however, let’s try to get a grasp on some of the factors at play in this deal.

Founded in 1744, more than a decade before its arch-rival Christie’s, at the outset Sotheby’s was primarily involved in the rare books market. It was only later in the 19th century that it began to turn its attention to the buying and selling of paintings and sculpture, making the art trade the primary focus of its business from about World War I onwards. Those of my readers who are interested in corporate history – and Sotheby’s has quite an interesting one – would do well to pick up a copy of British historian Robert Lacey’s excellent “Sotheby’s: Bidding for Class” (1998) which, although missing the scandals and turmoil that hit the auction house beginning the year after the publication of Lacey’s book, remains the definitive biography of the company, warts and all.

Although still often thought of as a British firm, Sotheby’s has in fact been an American company since the early 1980’s, with its headquarters on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and some years later incorporating in Delaware. Beginning in the late 1980’s, Sotheby’s became a publicly-traded company listed on the New York Stock Exchange. With the purchase by Mr. Drahi and approval by the board of his plan to take the company private again, that will be coming to an end by the close of the 4th quarter.

Like Christie’s, Sotheby’s will now be controlled by a French corporate entity, but there are no plans to shift operations from the U.S. to France. In a letter released to the press, Mr. Drahi indicated that he is satisfied with things as they are. “As the future owner,” he notes, “I have full confidence in Sotheby’s management, and hence do not anticipate any change to the Company’s strategy. Management and their exceptional teams and talent around the world will continue to operate with my full support. This investment will further demonstrate the anchoring of my family in the United States, a country where we have been very welcomed since the successful acquisitions of [several U.S. telecom/media companies.]”

In purely financial terms, the sale of Sotheby’s is not a major event. As a luxury product, art is not a basic component of the economy in the way that petroleum, natural gas, or commodities such as meats and grains are. In 2017, Christie’s sold $6.6 billion worth of art, while Sotheby’s sold $6.4 billion. Meanwhile, in 2017 sales of U.S. beef cattle exports totaled nearly $7.3 billion. Even if we put the art market into a secondary category of non-staples, it’s dwarfed by the size of markets for consumer products: in 2017, for example, over $15.8 billion of athletic footwear was sold in the U.S. alone.

That being said, for the simple reason that art *is* a luxury good, the art market is always going to attract more media attention than the market for pork bellies or auto parts. This is partly due to Sotheby’s itself, which spearheaded the movement to turn the often hushed and discreet practice of buying and selling art at auction into an international media event. As Art Daily points out, “[a] key turning point was the 1958 sale of the Goldschmidt collection in London, a black-tie celebrity event attended by such luminaries as Kirk Douglas, Anthony Quinn, W. Somerset Maugham and Dame Margot Fonteyn. As the first auction house to become a truly international enterprise, Sotheby’s was organizing sales in Hong Kong by 1973, Russia in 1988 and India in 1992.”

As I often explain when asked about the buying and selling of works of art, it’s important to understand that, from a market share perspective, Sotheby’s and Christie’s are the Coke and Pepsi of the art world. They far outstrip, in terms of sales volume and value, any other auction houses or dealers. And their decisions regarding what art they want to sell, and how much they want to sell it for, have far-reaching consequences.

Getting private collectors with deep pockets interested in acquiring the works of particular artists can inflate the prices achieved in the sale of those artists’ works not only at auction, but also at the dealer or private sale level. Naturally, insurance markets have to react with respect to those changes in value, which can skyrocket or collapse within a short period of time. Objects or works of art that ten years ago could be had for practically nothing can become extremely expensive and practically unattainable, if the two big players suddenly take a shine to those pieces, while items which Sotheby’s and Christie’s sold frequently and at high prices a decade ago could now be worth half or less than what they once were if the auction houses lose interest, thereby causing these works to fall into secondary markets.

Ripples from decisions taken by Sotheby’s and Christie’s can spread even wider, as well. For example, museums may decide to accession or de-accession works for their permanent collections based on what these entities are pushing, or they may even decide to mount exhibitions as a result of the attention that certain types of art are getting from the big two auctioneers. Art fairs will often feature artists whose work falls in line with what is doing well under the hammer, while journalists and researchers will often focus on the artists who are big sellers at auction and the major collectors of their work, rather than bring to the forefront of the conversation artists who exhibit talent but little or no marketability.

In theory, taking Sotheby’s private will allow it to compete more directly with Christie’s, in ways which it cannot currently do as well as a publicly-traded company. “Despite the soaring value of the global art market over the past two decades,” explains Eileen Kinsella over on ArtNet, “auction houses have struggled with high overhead costs and shrinking margins as collectors demand ever more favorable terms and houses enter into complex financial guarantees with outside parties to offset risk. Private ownership has enabled Christie’s to take arguably riskier moves and keep more of its financial information under wraps. Sotheby’s, meanwhile, has focused much of its energy on beefing up sales in the middle market and acquiring auxiliary art-related businesses.”

Putting Sotheby’s on a more equal footing with Christie’s should increase competition and benefit the art market as a whole. “In truth, it was time the publicly quoted company went private,” notes art market expert Georgina Adam in The Art Newspaper. “It was constantly at a disadvantage compared to the world’s leading auction house, Christie’s, because of the necessity of reporting its financial results every quarter. This revealed fine details such as the level of guarantees and other information, such as the existence of defaulting buyers. Once hidden behind the veil of secrecy of a private company, Sotheby’s will be battling Christie’s on the same terms and will be freer to do advantageous deals and outbid its rivals when consigning key works without the world knowing.

On the other hand, Hyperallergic raises similar concerns to those raised by Ms. Adam, noting that Sotheby’s going private will inevitably decrease the amount of easily accessible public information concerning the company’s sales. “For art market experts,” writes Zachary Small, “Sotheby’s return to privacy is somewhat worrisome for research purposes. This marks the presumable end to a paper trail of public records, filings, and disclosures that have provided scholars with significant data points for analyzing how the industry functions.” While there will still be some amount of information made publicly available, Mr. Small is right in expressing concern that, with no other major auction house having to fully disclose its dealings, the art market will be returning to what it was for many years: a secretive world in which backroom deals are the norm, and our understanding of shifts in that market will become even more limited than they are at present.

In recent years, Sotheby’s has been playing second fiddle to Christie’s in both sales and press coverage: thanks to major events like the auction of the Da Vinci “Salvator Mundi”, Christie’s has been top dog for close to a decade now. Will that begin to change once Sotheby’s goes private? Only time will tell.

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From The Archives: Is Gaudí Getting Closer to Sainthood?

Since I published this piece about four and a half years ago, the cause for the Beatification of architect Antoni Gaudí i Cornet (1852-1926) continues to be reviewed by the Vatican, but movement is glacially slow. Gaudí was named a “Servant of God” in 2003, a preliminary step on the road to possible sainthood, and interest in his cause has been expressed by Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis. For much of his life, Gaudí was decidedly secular: a lapsed Catholic, a dandy, and a bon vivant, who loved challenging established rules as well as having a grand old time. By the end of his life, he was wearing nothing but rags, attending daily mass, fasting, and performing acts of penance, while working exclusively on the Sagrada Familia.

When Gaudí came back to the Church, he was said to have a strong but childlike faith, much like other mendicant saints such as Francis of Assisi or Benedict Labre. Once, when someone on the street asked him where he was off to, he explained that he was going to the Basilica of Our Lady of Mercy, located down on Barcelona’s waterfront, “to tell the Virgin some things.” Whether he becomes a canonized saint or not, this is someone whom I “get”, both from an artistic perspective and a spiritual one.

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Is Gaudí Getting Closer to Sainthood?
NOVEMBER 13, 2014

Regular readers know of my admiration for the great Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudí i Cornet (1852-1926), most famous for his Basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. The hugely original and innovative Gaudí was a deeply devout man, and spent the last decades of his life working exclusively on this structure which, when it is completed around 2026, will be the tallest church in the world. With a new Vatican-approved graduate studies program being named after him, and Gaudí’s cause for beatification now in the review stage in Rome, one wonders whether this is a sign that the Vatican is moving in the direction of his canonization.

Located in Barcelona, the Antoni Gaudí School offers graduate studies in Church history, Christian art, and now archaeological studies, in conjunction with programs approved by the Vatican. The architect himself loved archaeology, not only as part of his research and design process, but also as a reason to go out into the countryside at the weekends with fellow enthusiasts. Groups of these thinkers and creative individuals would explore ancient ruins and crumbling castles to get a better sense of their own history, as well as to understand design concepts and building methods.

Pope Benedict XVI admired the Catalan architect a great deal. He not only traveled to Barcelona to dedicate the church and raise it to the level of a Minor Basilica, but he also used a photograph of the sculpture of the Holy Family on the Nativity Facade of the building for his official Christmas cards that year. An exhibition celebrating Gaudí’s work was mounted at the Vatican at the same time. And recently, Pope Francis accepted a gift of a portrait bust of Gaudí from the group promoting his cause for beatification, a work based on an original carved shortly after the architect’s death.

The current expectation is that the Congregation for the Causes of Saints will complete their investigation sometime in the spring of 2015, and will make their recommendations to the Holy Father at that time. Despite some earlier rumors that beatification was going to be announced for certain, so far there has been no official word from the Congregation on that point. It would seem to me more likely that he would first be made a “Venerable”, if the cause is moving forward, but Catalan sources insist that Rome will be skipping straight to beatification. To my knowledge, Pope Francis has never spoken about Gaudí publicly in the way that Pope Benedict has, so we can’t assume anything one way or the other with respect to his urging the work of the Congregation forward.

That being said, the fact that the Vatican seems to be encouraging naming things after “God’s Architect”, as he is often called, seems to me to be a good sign.

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From The Archives: Barcelona’s Forgotten Master

Although in the eight years (?!?!) since I wrote this piece he still hasn’t become a household name except among the cognoscenti, architect Enric Sagnier (1858-1931) remains one of the most interesting and underappreciated Catalan architects of the late 19th and early 20th century. While the attention of most visitors to Barcelona looking at architecture from this period is, understandably, drawn to the Big Three of the Modernista designers – Gaudí, Domènech, and Puig i Cadafalch – Sagnier’s buildings reward those who seek out something that is a little less innovative, and much less off-the-wall, yet still interesting and engaging on its own terms. And as it happens, I can’t help but contemplate his work every day while I’m in Barcelona, since Our Lady of Pompeii, the church and convent that he built in 1905 for the Capuchin Friars, is visible from my terrace.

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Barcelona’s Forgotten Master
SEPTEMBER 15, 2011

The CaixaForum in Barcelona has just opened a retrospective on the life and work of an often-forgotten 20th century Catalan architect, Enric Sagnier i Villavecchia (1858-1931), which will run through early January. Sagnier is a man who, at this point, is almost certainly not as familiar to students of architecture as the famous triumvirate of early 20th century Catalan architects, Gaudí, Domènech i Montaner, and Puig i Cadafalch, men who set such an obvious stamp on the city of Barcelona. And yet, the lives of visitors to and residents of Barcelona are both surrounded and shaped by his work, likely without their even knowing it.

Those who have had occasion to visit my ongoing cataloging project over at CatholicBarcelona.com will find Sagnier’s name a familiar one. At the turn of the 20th century he was unquestionably the preferred architect of the Archdiocese when it came to building new ecclesiastical structures, such as parish churches, schools, and institutions. Among his many buildings in this general category are the parish churches of Mary, Help of Christians (1889) St. John in Horta (1905), the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on Mt. Tibidabo (1902), Our Lady of Pompeii (1905), the Basilica of St. Joseph Oriol (1911), Our Lady of the Rosary (1923), and St. Raymond Nonat (1924).

However, in addition to his work in this area, Sagnier also designed secular buildings of particular significance to the life of the city. Among other structures Sagnier co-designed the Palace of Justice (1886), which houses the city’s law courts, the Customs House (1896) of the city port, the original Royal Yacht Club (1911) which was, sadly, later demolished and replaced by a glass box, and numerous large apartment buildings, banks, and offices, which still dominate many of the main thoroughfares of downtown Barcelona.

Sagnier was on many occasions given both the luxury and the challenge of having to work with a building which would be sited on a prominent corner – a task which is not as easy as one might think. Because a structure which includes a corner is naturally going to have more exposure than one which sits in the middle of a block, the architect has various ways in which he can address the urban geography. He can ignore the corner entirely, choosing to front the building on one or another street; he can embrace the corner, by having it serve as the fulcrum to his design; or he can try to come up with some way to both acknowledge the corner but not make it the center of his plans.

Take for example, Sagnier’s monumental Caixa de Pensions (1914) savings bank, which sits on a rather awkward corner of the Via Laietana. This avenue was cut through the old city in the early 20th century, separating the Gothic Quarter from La Ribera and the Borne district, and whose construction involved the regrettable demolition of a number of historic structures. Toward the top of the avenue, where the Av. Bilbao juts off, there is an oddly shaped, but prominent corner, which Sagnier was commissioned to fill.

The resulting building, a mixture of Gothic, Romanesque, and Slavic architecture, among other things, exhibits the asymmetry which was characteristic of the Art Nouveau period, but which in this case was designed to address the particular problem of the site. The prominent clock tower on the SW corner faces the little square formed by the branching off of Av. Bilbao from the Via Laietana, which gets far more light and traffic than the opposite, SE corner, which has a much smaller, slimmer tower. Had the two towers been of equal proportions, the resulting building would have looked, paradoxically, to be out of balance in relation to the site.

Similarly, because the SW tower is about three times the width and height of the SE tower, Sagnier chose to locate the entrance to the building not through the center of the facade, but rather through the SW tower itself, via two archways set into the base of the tower. Although again, this lends an asymmetrical aspect to the building, it also allows the structure to take full advantage of the site. Rather than presenting a single facade to the south side of the intersection, it allows the facade to wrap around the sides of the building, drawing in those who are coming to do business there to approach it from multiple sides, while at the same time making very clear where the main entrance is.

Having said this, while he has some flashes of brilliance in his work, Sagnier is not an architect who strikes me as particularly impressive in his output. He is not as innovative in his interpretation of historical architectural styles, fusing these influences to create something entirely new, as did his better-known contemporaries. Nor is he what we might loosely call a “classical” architect, remaining true to certain established principles of design irrespective of trends or fashion, in order to produce something timelessly beautiful. His work is sometimes a bit fussy and contrived, almost as though he opened up an architectural salvage catalogue and threw together various disconnected elements, but without that spark of genius that characterized Catalan architecture at the turn of the previous century.

He was, however, a man who clearly cared deeply about his home town and about the Christian faith, producing structures which, in their grandeur if not always in their execution, were worthy of any of the great cities of the world. A re-assessment of his work was long overdue, and it is a very good thing that both the citizens of and visitors to Barcelona will become more familiar with his long career and extensive output. I am definitely looking forward to catching this exhibition when I am in Barcelona this Christmas.

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From The Archives: At Home With Sorolla and Rusiñol: Two Very Different Artists, Two Very Similar Collectors

When I published this piece about a year and a half ago, I had recently returned from seeing the newly-restored beach house of Santiago Rusiñol (1861-1931) in Sitges, and the grand, urban villa of Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923) in Madrid. Both homes contain not only many examples of these artists’ respective work, but also their studios, as well as impressive collections of art and decorative objects. Not only are they both beautiful, very different homes filled with beautiful things, but they both avoid that rather musty, mothballed aspect that one usually finds on historic home tours. While it’s too soon to say for certain, fingers crossed that, as you are reading this, I’m on my way to visit the former monastery of Sant Benet de Bages, which for many years was the weekend home of the great Catalan realist painter Ramon Casas (1866-1932), a friend and contemporary of both Rusiñol and Sorolla.

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At Home With Sorolla and Rusiñol: Two Very Different Artists, Two Very Similar Collectors
JANUARY 23, 2018

During my recent sojourn in Spain, I visited two rather impressive house/art museums which, to my surprise, had a more profound impact on me than I had anticipated when I set out to visit them. Originally, I only put them on my schedule in order to kill some time, before having to head to luncheons with different family members. Yet as it turned out, I was drawn deeply into each, coming to a greater level of appreciation for the work, times, and tastes of both of the artists who once lived in these homes.

Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923) and Santiago Rusiñol (1861-1931) are two of the greatest painters to have been working in Spain at the turn of the previous century. While many of their paintings are now in museums and private collections around the world, quite a few key works by each artist still hang in their respective homes, both of which are now museums which preserve and celebrate their art. The Museo Sorolla in Madrid is contained in the elegant Neoclassical mansion which Sorolla called home for the last decade or so of his life, and in which his family continued to reside for a number of years after his death, until they donated it and its contents to the Spanish state. The Museu del Cau Ferrat, which is located in the beach resort of Sitges, about half an hour south of Barcelona, was a seaside weekend home and studio for Rusiñol for almost 40 years, where he could get away from the city and invite small groups of artistic and literary friends to come visit; he donated it and his collections to the town to be preserved as a museum after his death.

Although they were contemporaries, Sorolla and Rusiñol differed rather substantially when it came to their outlook on their own art. Sorolla came from poverty, and he studied and worked extremely hard to climb to the top of the artistic profession in Spain. He often engaged in friendly competition with other society artists of the Gilded Age, including John Singer Sargent and Anders Zorn, (arguably) the greatest American and Swedish painters of the era. Like these artists he was more interested in painting ordinary people than in the well-known and well-to-do, but thanks to his great taste and skill he painted not only Spanish and European royalty and notables, but also famous Americans such as Louis Comfort Tiffany and President William Howard Taft, among others. His catalogue of commissions demonstrates how well-regarded he was internationally, at very high levels.

When not portraying the great and the good, Sorolla’s work focused on his family, traditional scenes from country life, and most especially on images of the seaside. His luminous beach paintings are perhaps his most famous works, and for good reason. In them we see naked children playing in the waves, ladies and gentlemen lounging about dressed in linen and straw hats, and hearty fishermen working on their nets, all enveloped in that intense Mediterranean sunlight which is extremely difficult to capture in photography, but which Sorolla manages to capture in order to give an almost internal radiance to his paintings. A famous example in the collection of the Museo Sorolla is “A Walk On The Beach” (1909), showing the painter’s wife and eldest daughter out for a stroll along the surf, with their white veils billowing in the breeze.

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Rusiñol, on the other hand, was one of the original hipsters. Although he came from a well-to-do, bourgeois background, he chose to ally himself with the bohemian and avant-garde art movements of his time. Along with his closest friend, the great Catalan painter Ramon Casas, he painted subjects which would have been wholly inappropriate to polite society: prostitutes, street people, and so on. He became just as familiar with the bohemian hangouts of Paris as he was with the private clubs of the Barcelona bourgeoisie, where his art never quite felt at home, and encouraged the work of other, up-and-coming artists who became his friends, such as Picasso and Utrillo.

One example of Rusiñol’s very different approach to art from that of Sorolla is “The Morphine Addict” (1894), shown below. It is a disturbing image of Stéphanie Nantas, one of his preferred French models, which he painted in Paris during one of his sojourns there; it now hangs in the great hall of Cau Ferrat. In it we see the drug-addicted model in bed, having just given herself an injection that is starting to take effect. Her right hand clutches at the sheets, and her head pushes back into the pillow, as the narcotic begins to do its work. This is a world away from the elegant, languid Sorolla painting shown above.

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Yet for all of their differences, and there are many, there is one thing that both Sorolla and Rusiñol had in common: they were obsessive collectors of art, antiques, and decorative objects. After visiting their homes, it becomes quite clear that each of them abhorred a vacuum as much as nature does, and to a greater extent than, today, with our love of minimalism, we would consider to be normal in a family residence. One would expect to see, for example, paintings by each of them, works of art gifted to them by their friends, some family photographs, and the like. But that is just the beginning of what a visit to each of these museums entails.

It’s no exaggeration to state that both Sorolla and Rusiñol wanted ALL THE THINGS: Gothic altarpieces; glazed ceramics; swords and armor; carved thrones; Baroque tapestries; inlaid marble tables; wrought iron candle stands; etc. And not everything was from Spain, either. Roman sculpture, Persian carpets, French ivories, Japanese lacquer screens, English walking sticks, Chinese temple vases – you name it, they had it. It would be impossible for me to try to describe how much *stuff* each of them had crammed into every corner of their houses, because no matter how much time you could spend in either of these museums, you couldn’t possibly see it all.

To get a flavor of what these places look like, you can visit my Instagram account and take a look at the pictures which I snapped at both museums. As this article is already running a bit long, I’ll only draw your attention to two aspects for your consideration. At the Sorolla home in Madrid, one of the most interesting details was the fact that the artist used old, decorated ceramic apothecary jars for storing and separating his brushes. I’ve seen these used before in homes and restaurants, as vases for flowers or for storing kitchen utensils, but I found this was a particularly novel – if indeed, slightly expensive – way of an artist keeping his tools organized.

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Meanwhile, at Cau Ferrat, one of the most striking things about Rusiñol’s design for the ground floor of his house is the use of an intense, almost electric blue for nearly all of the walls in the public spaces. It is such a rich, saturated color, that the decision to use it as the background for his vast display of things such as glazed pottery or drawings by Casas, Picasso, and others, seems absolutely crazy – until you become accustomed to the space and realize that, somehow, the whole thing works. It’s also rather interesting that the (untalented and grossly overrated) French postmodern artist Yves Klein was widely credited with the use of this particular color, yet long before he was even born, Rusiñol was employing it to such a superb effect in what is, essentially, an art installation as much as it is home decorating.

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The opportunity to see where an artist lived and worked is a rare thing, but to be able to see the objects that they loved still on their shelves or the like, and to be able to get a sense of how the artists used these things in their daily lives, makes the visit to an institution such as the Museo Sorolla or Cau Ferrat all the more of an intense learning experience. In this case, despite many years of being familiar with the work of both of these painters, and assuming that they had nothing whatsoever in common with each other besides being from the same generation, I came to realize that both of them loved and appreciated beautiful things: women, furniture, holy water fonts, door knockers, bronze lamps, etc. I may have to do some more thinking about my preconceived notions regarding each of them.

From The Archives: The Curious Conundrum Of Catalan Vs. Castilian Coffee

Although I published this post two and a half years ago, I still periodically get comments about it, since people really care about their coffee – and they’re also, if they’ve traveled in Spain, inevitably confused as to why the coffee in Barcelona is so much better than the horrible swill that one gets in Madrid. As you read this, I’m probably enjoying the first of many coffees at the Passeig de Gràcia Francesco, my favorite cafe in Barcelona (and indeed on the planet), but I’m pleased to announce that I’ve finally found a place in the Barrio de Salamanca, the area where I lay my head at night when I’m in Madrid, that serves fairly decent coffee. CarmenBar is a small establishment that serves excellent cocktails and food, but more importantly serves a fairly decent cortado to get you going in the morning, particularly since Madrid is almost always freezing cold in the morning, whether it’s May or December. Still not as good as coffee almost anywhere in Barcelona, but at least it’s an oasis in the desert.

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The Curious Conundrum Of Catalan Vs. Castilian Coffee
JANUARY 5, 2017

I’ve recently returned from spending the holidays in Spain, which began with Christmas in Barcelona followed by New Year’s in Madrid. I also spent my summer vacation visiting both cities, enjoying time with family, great art/architecture, music, and of course, food. Yet a curious aspect of both trips was something which confused me and my traveling companions on both occasions: why was the coffee in Barcelona so good, and the coffee in Madrid so terrible?

Back in May/June, when traveling with an American friend with ancestors from Catalonia, I introduced him to what is called a “tallat” in Catalan, and a “cortado” in Spanish, which is essentially espresso that has a shot of steamed milk mixed in with it. It’s similar to the Italian “macchiato”, although in Italy they use milk foam rather than warm milk. [NOTE: the flavored “macchiato” that you order in Starbucks bears no resemblance whatsoever to the real thing.] We began at Francesco, my favorite local café on the Passeig de Gràcia in Barcelona, where we went for breakfast every morning, but we also ordered it in many places around town. It was always hot, creamy, sweet, and delicious, no matter where we drank it.

When we got to Madrid, it was as if we had moved to another country where the same word meant something completely different, like how in Spain a “tortilla” is an omelet, whereas in Mexico it is a flat disc usually made of corn. During our entire time in Madrid, every cortado that we ordered was terrible: tepid, thin, watery, and bitter, whether it was in a corner bar or in a swanky restaurant. I was genuinely confused and apologetic, and wondered whether we were just having bad luck, but this seemed improbable given the wide variety of places where we drank it.

Over Christmas break the situation repeated itself. We drank cortados at Francesco every morning for breakfast, but we also drank them elsewhere. We had cortados for elevenses or after a meal at various restaurants and cafes in Barcelona, and we had them at the seaside in the resort town of Sitges, about a half hour south of the city. While Francesco is unquestionably the best, even at these other establishments, the coffee was always good.

In Madrid, the cortados were once again a serious disappointment. We tried corner bars, nice restaurants, and even the café at The Prado, but the only place where we were able to get a good cortado was at an Illy café located across from the Mercado de San Miguel in Old Madrid. The fact that this was an Italian establishment was not insignificant, because unlike virtually every coffee chain in this country that claims to make espresso-based drinks – which in fact taste like burnt worm excrement soaked in muddy water masked by large quantities of corn syrup – Italians do it better, as the saying goes.

While café society in Madrid looked to France for inspiration, coffee culture in Barcelona was heavily influenced by the coffee culture in Northern Italy, Sardinia, and the Italian cantons of Switzerland. Although the French originally invented the espresso machine, Italians bring the hot water in their espresso machines up to about 195 degrees Fahrenheit, so that espresso drinks prepared in this way arrive at your table nice and hot. While I can’t be certain, I suspect that the inevitably tepid coffee in Madrid is at least partially the result of not getting the water in their espresso machines hot enough.

Many Italian restauranteurs opened restaurants and cafes for the Barcelona bourgeoisie during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. The now-gone Torino, for example, was an opulent establishment opened by the equally opulently-named Flaminio Mezzalama of Turin in 1902. It marked the only architectural and design collaboration between two of the greatest rivals for Art Nouveau outlandishness in Barcelona at the time, Gaudí and Puig i Cadafalch. As you can see here, it was quite a magnificent building.

And then there is the problem of the coffee roasting itself.

During the period of austerity which followed the Spanish Civil War, Spanish coffee importers began using a processing method called torrefacto, in which the beans are roasted with large quantities of sugar. This helps the beans to keep longer in storage, by coating them in a black film of burnt sugar. This coating comes off when the beans are ground for making coffee, and the result is the bitter, nasty aftertaste that we were experiencing. Even though the lean years of the Civil War era are long over, at least some Spaniards developed a taste for this abomination, I suppose in the way that many American GI’s during World War II developed a taste for spam, which is why you can still find this product on just about every grocery store shelf in America.

As a result, torrefacto-processed coffee is still widely and commonly used throughout Spain, either on its own or blended with other beans. You can even buy it from Spanish food importers in the U.S. (dear Lord, why would you do this?) However it turns out that Barcelona has long been in the vanguard of finally casting off this dark shadow. For years now, Catalan coffee importers and roasters have been rejecting the torrefacto process, in favor of single-source beans and bean blends roasted in the traditional way. This, in combination with the Italian coffee preparation methods that are a long-standing part of coffee culture in places like Barcelona, explains why the same drink tastes so much better in Barcelona, than it does in Madrid.

If you ever get the chance to visit both Barcelona and Madrid, visit any corner bar in the morning, and you will quite literally be able to taste the difference between the coffee cultures of these two cities. Taste is largely individual, of course, so it may be that you prefer the inky, oily taste of Castilian coffee. But for my money, when I’m back in Madrid this summer I’m sticking to the Italian coffee shops – or ordering a cup of tea.

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From The Archives: Mystery Solved? Debating the Case of Yale’s Basement Masterpiece

Since I wrote the following piece almost five years ago, Yale continues to attribute its basement storage find, “The Education of the Virgin” to Diego Velázquez (1599-1660). Following a symposium and exhibition of the painting held in Seville after I published the post, some scholars became convinced of the attribution to the greatest of all Spanish painters, while others are still skeptical or even opposed to the notion: Jonathan Brown, the leading American scholar on Velázquez, continues to insist that it is by a contemporary of the artist. Technical analysis has indicated that there’s nothing to rule out the picture being by the artist, but it hasn’t conclusively proven that it is by him, either. I’m still not certain, myself, but I haven’t been to New Haven yet to check it out in person, so who knows.

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Mystery Solved? Debating the Case of Yale’s Basement Masterpiece
OCTOBER 2, 2014

Readers may recall a piece I wrote some time ago about an Old Master painting which may or may not be by the greatest of all Spanish painters, Diego Velázquez. “The Education of the Virgin” was donated to Yale not quite a century ago, and lay forgotten in the basement storage area of the university art museum for many years, until an art historian there first attributed the piece to the painter. Although more and more experts have come to accept it, the attribution has remained controversial ever since.

Now, as part of the picture’s international exhibition travels to Madrid, Seville, Paris, Minneapolis, and back to New Haven, following its cleaning and restoration, a symposium has been announced for October 15-17 in Seville. Experts will gather in the Andalusian cultural capital to examine the piece, and debate whether the painting is indeed by Velázquez or not. If you are an art history nerd, as I am, you would love to be a fly on the wall for this. If you are not, then you might conclude that these sorts of arguments really don’t matter. Yet in truth these issues really are important, for several reasons.

From a purely economic standpoint, there is a huge difference between owning an original work of art by a well-known artist, and owning one by an unknown or lesser-known artist. We might like to think that a quality work of art can stand on its own, without attribution, and sometimes it does. However more often than not, whether you are talking insurance values or auction prices or ways to draw in the public, art from the hand of someone prestigious is always going to command a higher value than if the same work of art was created by an unknown.

Think about how this works on a more pop culture level. I can draw fairly well, as it happens, and I might be able to do a fairly accurate drawing of Snoopy or one of the other Peanuts characters. But would you really pay the same price for my work, whether to own it or go see it in an exhibition, as you would for one that came from the hand of Charles Schultz himself? Part of the value in a work of art lies in the intangible connection to something larger than the work itself provides at first glance.

This brings us to the larger issue, which is the importance in Western culture of understanding artistic development. Unlike in many other artistic traditions around the world, Western artists have spent centuries adapting and changing how they and we see things. Many cultures value an exact or near-exact continuity with the past, so that the differences between works of art created in one century and another are so slight, that it would take a serious expert to be able to discern the differences between them.

In addition, many times artists in other cultures did not date or sign their works, thus leaving their identities unknown to history. While not all Western art is signed, we do have a long history from the beginning of Western culture of artists proudly placing their names on their paintings and sculptures. We actually know the names of some of the most famous painters and sculptors of Ancient Greece, for example, even if in many cases their works only survive in copies. When an artist did not sign his work however, historians and experts can look at works that are known for certain to be by that artist, and compare styles, techniques, and methods with the piece that is being examined; such is the case with the attribution of “The Education of the Virgin”.

One way to go about doing this is by getting a good sense of how that artist and his world changed over time. If you look at an image of The Education of the Virgin created 100 years before this purported Velázquez, say this French example [N.B. yes, I realize it’s not entirely fair to compare these, but bear with me], there is a movement in the later work away from the rigid formality of the earlier. This was mirrored in Western society of the time, as everything from clothing to homes, government, technology, and business, became more recognizable to us living in today’s culture, even though we are still far removed from it.

What’s more, often an individual Western artist himself could and did change quite a bit during his career. Look at how Raphael painted the Madonna and Child when he was a young artist of 20, versus how he painted them as a mature artist of 30, a mere decade later, and you can see the dramatic difference. If you were unaware of all of the works of art that Raphael painted between these two pictures, growing and changing as he experimented and studied, chances are you would never have guessed that they were by the same person. Thus, art history in the West is often a combination of detective story, painstaking research, and really knowing your subject inside and out.

Whatever the result of the conference in Seville, the prospect of determining that this is a very early work by Spain’s most important artist, a man who influenced everyone from Edouard Manet and John Singer Sargent to Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon, is very exciting. It shows us not only how accomplished he really was at a young age, but it helps us to understand why his career catapulted so quickly, leading him to become the official painter for the Spanish court. I’m looking forward to learning of the outcome from the experts.

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Out Of Office: Iberian Idyll

Beginning tomorrow, I’m off on vacation (or on holiday, for you Brits), so there won’t be any new blog posts, Federalist articles, or weekly Art News Roundup for a bit. Not to worry: I’ve scheduled some return visits to archival posts from the old blog, along with some updated commentary, which will hopefully suffice until my return. If you care to follow my adventures in Hispania, be sure to check out my Instagram account, as there will be art, architecture, and food pics a-plenty. Catch you up on the flip side.

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Art News Roundup: If You Build It Edition

I probably don’t write about architecture on here as often as I should, since even though these pages are primarily filled with stories about art exhibitions and auctions, I’m also always reading and thinking about buildings. So today, we’re going to take a look at some interesting stories from the past week or so dealing with architectural projects new, old, and revived. And ahead of my travels to the Motherland next week, we’re going to begin in Barcelona.

Back in 2012, a proposal was first floated to build an outpost of St. Petersburg’s massive State Hermitage Museum in Barcelona, much as the Guggenheim, the Louvre, and more recently the Smithsonian have been establishing satellite or affiliate museums around the world. At first, city officials were perplexed by the project, because it wasn’t exactly clear what the museum’s purpose would be. Although *THE* Hermitage would lend pieces from its collection, the Hermitage Barcelona wouldn’t be a branch of Russia’s largest and most famous art museum. Instead, the new museum would feature – and you will need to strap yourself in for some retch-inducing artspeak here – “continuous dialogue between science and art, highlighting both what unites and what distinguishes them, using modern scientific museology, a unique combination of parts, and [phenomenological] and museological metaphors.”

The site eventually chosen for the new museum was Nova Bocana, a reclaimed area of the city’s former industrial port, which over the past decade has seen the construction of Catalan architect Ricardo Bofil’s now-iconic W Barcelona Hotel, as well as a new harbor entrance, beaches, promenades, parks, breakwaters, retail & dining outlets, and yet another marina [N.B. the city already had several, but this one was designed to accommodate the latest in super-sized private yachts.] There is an empty site right next to the W on the new breakwater, which appears to be itching for something to occupy the space. The question of what that something will look like, however, is another matter entirely.

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The initial design for the museum, proposed by Barcelona architect Íñigo Amézola back in 2016, was, in a word, boring. In fact, with its bland, bureaucratic lines, it was somewhat reminiscent of the 1970’s Soviet-era Russian Embassy here in DC. Plopping this uninteresting box down next to the bold, curving tower of La Vela (or “The Sail” as Bofill’s hotel is popularly called), an established presence which apparently Sr. Amézola chose to ignore entirely in his design, would have looked rather bizarre.

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This early plan was later scrapped, and a new proposal was obtained from Pritzker Prize-winning Tokyo architect Toyo Ito, which you can see below. The undulating façade of the design references the water that surrounds the site, and simultaneously complements the sail-like hotel tower next door, instead of either ignoring it or competing with it. Entering the new harbor entrance by sea, from a certain angle I would imagine that “The Sail” will appear to be riding the waves of the museum. In addition, Mr. Ito’s proposal incorporates some of the parabolic arches favored by Barcelona’s most famous architect, Antoni Gaudí, a figure beloved of Catalans and the Japanese alike, which was a smart way to win points with a previously-hesitant Barcelona city bureaucracy.

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In theory, construction could get underway later this year, but that doesn’t mean that the Hermitage Barcelona is a done deal. In the runup to citywide elections which will take place on May 26th, some candidates and neighborhood associations are complaining that the project will generate all of the usual 21st century tropes that are regarded as unforgivable sins: gentrification, property speculation, etc. Others claim that, because art museums tend to attract a better class – or at least, a better-behaved sort – of tourist, the project will foster a better tone for the area, raising property values, quality of life, and income for everyone.

Given that most of the city’s waterfront is currently populated by illegal immigrants selling fake Gucci bags out of blankets, drunk tourists engaged in projectile vomiting competitions, drug dealers, hookers, panhandlers, and pickpockets, the situation can hardly get any worse than it already is. City Hall under the leadership of failed actress Ada Colau has long been sparing the rod and spoiling the child, when it comes to both loutish tourists and the more cretinous elements of Barcelona’s native population, who of course constitute Ms. Colau’s natural constituency. If she’s not reelected mayor, it’s difficult to guess whether the city will pony up for the construction costs associated with the new museum or not.

Personally, I find the entire project rather silly. From a conservation perspective, putting an art museum within spitting distance of the sea at the entrance to a busy, functioning port is a galactically stupid idea. Paintings, sculptures, drawings, and decorative objects, particularly those of significant age, can be profoundly affected by environmental factors such as humidity, air pollutants, and so forth. From an urban renewal standpoint, I rather doubt that a Russian oligarch’s wife, who is staying at the W after alighting from her mega-yacht, will want to head to a neighborhood chiringuito (a beach shack tapas bar) for lunch after touring a Renoir exhibition.

We’ll just have to wait and see what happens –  if and when the Hermitage Barcelona ever opens.

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Sticking with Barcelona for the moment, a satellite museum project that is very different in motivation from the Hermitage Barcelona is being proposed by Josep Bou, one of the city’s current crop of mayoral candidates. Sr. Bou is a member of the Partido Popular, the main Spanish conservative party, which is opposed to Catalan independence, and was recently trounced in the national elections. In the very tense political environment that currently exists between Barcelona and Madrid, he has argued that branches of Madrid’s Prado and Reina Sofia museums should be established in existing Spanish national buildings in the Catalan capital – specifically, the palatial Bank of Spain on the city’s central square, and the cathedral-like Post Office headquarters on the waterfront – in order to display Catalan art that is currently in storage at both institutions, and also as a way of demonstrating “a Catalonia loyal to Spain.” He makes a good point in noting that Madrid is full of works by Salvador Dalí, such as the Reina Sofia’s portrait of the artist’s sister shown below (one of over 100 works that museum possesses by the artist), whereas there are hardly any Dalí works in Barcelona. However, the notion that Barcelona needs to beg Madrid to lend it works of art, or that the city would establish new museum branches as a demonstration of fealty, are likely going to go nowhere.

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Nero News

The Emperor Nero’s (in)famous Domus Aurea, the opulent palace he built for himself on the Palatine Hill after the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD, was buried and built over by subsequent emperors, who found his “Golden House” a bit too heavy on the bling. Even though it was rediscovered over 500 years ago, and has been explored by everyone from Raphael to Michelangelo to Casanova, the palace continues to yield new surprises even today. Recently, archaeologists working to shore up the vaults in one of the estimated 150 rooms stumbled across an opening into a hitherto unknown room, which is covered in frescoes of birds and foliage, as well as exotic and mythical beasts. Due to structural instability the space won’t be fully excavated, but study of these ceiling paintings will add significantly to our understanding of Ancient Roman art during the early Imperial period.

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Saving Saarinen

After closing 18 years ago, Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen’s gloriously bulbous TWA Terminal at JFK International Airport in New York is once again open to the public, reincarnated as the new TWA Hotel. More kitschy and cool than Saarinen’s soaring but sober, still-functioning Dulles Terminal here in the Nation’s Capital, the TWA will no doubt become a significant travel destination – particularly as it’s the only hotel located at the airport itself. “We’re bringing the building back to exactly as it was in 1962,” commented the developer, and from the look of things they absolutely have, and more; even the guest toiletries look like they came from the now-vanished airline. I have fond memories of the old “Pregnant Oyster”, including the pleasure of flying in and out of it on TWA a few times back in the day, and still remember the plush red carpets, the ergonomic seating, and having the sensation that I was in a Bond film or on an episode of Star Trek. It’s a real joy to see this aspirational, Space Age masterpiece back in the swing of things.

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Spaces for Seeing: The Importance of Exhibition Design

In case you missed it, here’s a link to my latest for The Federalist, in which I review the excellent exhibition, “Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644–1912” at the Smithsonian’s Freer/Sackler Gallery. If you find yourself in the Nation’s Capital between now and June 23rd, you really need to go see it. You’ll learn a great deal from the show, and it’s a good example of how architecture can be just as important to the success of an exhibition as the objects themselves. We may not always stop to appreciate the design elements that go into these displays, but we really should, for the men and women who work in this field can help make or break a show.

As I touched on in reviewing “Empresses”, from the moment you arrive at the Sackler’s temporary exhibition galleries, you’re aware that you’re in for something special. Rather than just immediately plunk you down in a room full of things, the designers have created a path for you to follow, beginning with a processional causeway leading to a monumental gate, which in turn gives onto a large room with a huge throne screen:

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Quite frankly, this one of the best entrances to an exhibition I’ve ever seen, since it creates both a sense of drama and of occasion: it’s as if the Empress Cixi could walk in with her attendants at any time and hold court. You understand before you even go inside that you’re going to be seeing some very unique and privileged objects. That sense of wonder continues as you proceed through the interconnected spaces, almost as if you were heading deeper and deeper into the imperial palace itself.

While the contemporary spaces at the Sackler allowed the exhibition designers to create temporary architectural elements that enhanced the objects on show, this isn’t always possible. At The Frick’s Van Dyck exhibition a couple of years ago for example, the museum left visitors with a disjointed experience. The prints and drawings were underground, in a low-ceilinged, beige-carpeted room that looked like a dirty English basement in an undergraduate flop house, while the paintings upstairs were in the grand, skylit temporary exhibition galleries on the main floor. The paintings looked perfectly at home amidst the walnut paneling and silk wallpaper, but the graphic works looked like an afterthought. Efforts to expand The Frick over the coming years should help to address this situation, but there’s always going to be a certain element of constraint when working within the confines of an historic building that can’t be permanently altered.

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Even when you have a blank architectural space to work with however, bad exhibition design can significantly detract from the experience of viewing works of art. At the Barnes Foundation’s retrospective on Berthe Morisot last year, for example, in their brand-new and architecturally featureless temporary display space, several temporary dividing walls were placed throughout the single, long gallery. The object was to create both additional vertical surfaces for display purposes, and to create temporary, smaller “rooms” where specific themes could be examined.

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Unfortunately, there was an inconsistent use of these dividing walls, so that sometimes there were paintings on both sides, and sometimes there was a painting on one side but nothing on the other. As a result, from one temporary room to the next, the visitor never knew what he was supposed to be doing. In addition, because in several instances these dividing walls were too wide for the space, they created bottlenecks all the way around the exhibition hall, so that on a busy Saturday morning, people had to step sideways past each other in order to get into the next display area.

A similar architectural blank canvas exists at the CaixaForum, a large cultural center in Barcelona housed in a former textile factory complex. Back in January when I went to see the exhibition “Velázquez and the Golden Age” there, I wondered how the paintings would look in such an industrial space, since there wouldn’t be any palatial architectural elements to set off the Spanish and Italian Baroque art. To their credit, the exhibition designers didn’t even attempt to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

Instead, they created a space with Velázquez’ signature dark neutrals – rich blacks, velvety browns, and charcoal grays – on the walls, kept the overall lighting very low, and hung an enormous mesh curtain down the middle of the extremely long gallery space. Wide gaps at both ends of the curtain created a natural circuit for visitors to follow around the massive former factory floor, and at the same time gave a touch of mystery to the show. As you moved from one area to the next, you could see through the mesh what was going to be coming up, meaning that works which were not displayed in the same area of the exhibition hall could nevertheless still play off of one another. You can get a sense of the effect from this picture of the press conference at the exhibition opening:

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Now, don’t get me wrong: the temporary architectural elements used to define an exhibition’s space are not as important as the exhibition’s objects themselves. Yet in the same way that coffee tastes better out of a china cup than out of a paper one, art that is well presented can usually be better appreciated. That’s just something to keep in mind the next time you toddle along to a show.

Art News Roundup: Second Act Edition

We’re all aware that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous observation, “There are no second acts in American lives,” doesn’t reflect reality for many people. The lives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Ronald Reagan, Tina Turner, Robert Downey, Jr., Johnny Cash, Grace Kelly, and countless other Americans demonstrate that, if anything, the second or even the third act in the play of one’s life can be just as interesting as the first: sometimes even more so. In fact, the more you study history, the more you become aware of examples of prominent people reinventing themselves in the later parts of their lives, sometimes achieving levels of success that they could never have obtained had they stuck to the script that life seemed to hand them at birth.

Case in point, the Palace of Versailles has just opened its first-ever exhibition on the life of Madame de Maintenon (1635-1719), who was for all intents and purposes an uncrowned Queen of France. Born Françoise d’Aubigné, Mme. de Maintenon had a rather chaotic childhood, from her birth in a debtor’s prison, to her subsequent move with her family to the island of Martinique, to her being passed around like an unwanted burden from relative to relative upon her return to France. She was eventually married to an older cad of a fellow, saying she preferred to become his wife rather than enter a convent, and at his death became a widow at the young age of 25.

Thanks to her prominent albeit unsavory connections at the (equally unsavory) court of Louis XIV (1638-1715), Mme. de Maintenon eventually became governess to several of the King’s illegitimate children, and as a result of royal appreciation for her discretion and reserve, she was eventually made a marquise. Two months after the death of Queen Maria Teresa in July 1683, the King married de Maintenon in a private ceremony at Versailles, but because she was not of royal blood she was never crowned. The next 32 years of their marriage marked a shift in the royal outlook, with Louis becoming increasingly pious and less profligate than he had been in the first part of his reign, even though he found his new wife somewhat more prim and proper than he was.

Yet if the sun did not shine quite as brilliantly under the former governess’ influence as it had previously, this does not mean that Versailles was turned into a Trappist monastery: far from it. In fact, the official transfer of the court from Paris to Versailles only took place in 1682, the year before de Maintenon’s marriage to Louis XIV, meaning that wonders such as the famous Hall of Mirrors were virtually brand-new at the time she became the châtelaine of the principal royal residence. Work on the King’s never-ending vanity project continued throughout their marriage, including the reconstruction of the present Grand Trianon within the grounds, as well as the creation of the spectacular Royal Chapel within the Palace itself.

As the centerpiece of the Palace’s exhibition marking the 300th anniversary of the death of Mme. de Maintenon, her former private apartments within Versailles have been recreated, hung with reproductions of the silk wall hangings that originally occupied the rooms, and filled with works of art and objects which she owned, knew, or that are related to her life and times. Because Versailles has been redecorated, looted, and repurposed many times over the last 3 centuries, today most of the building’s interiors look nothing like they would have done during the 17th century. This makes the present exhibition a particularly rare and unique experience, since it allows visitors to get a sense of what these rooms would have looked like when they were first completed.

If you knew nothing about her, and had only read the first act of a play about Mme. de Maintenon’s life, you might have quite reasonably concluded that she ended up living an unhappy, short existence filled with hunger and desperation. Even if you had read the second act, where she supported the egos of her philandering husband, and later that of the Queen’s own philandering husband, you probably would not have predicted a particularly brilliant future for someone who spent most of her time covering up for other people’s mistakes and looking the other way. The fact that in the third act, she ended up becoming the most powerful woman in France, and enjoying the luxuries of the most lavish royal residence ever constructed, just goes to show you that none of us really knows what the future holds, no matter what our personal circumstances. “Madame de Maintenon: In the Corridors of Power” runs through July 21st.

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Meanwhile, here are some art stories that caught my eye over the past week; as it happens, all three of these happen to further disprove Fitzgerald’s maxim.

Duchamp’s Denouement

Perhaps no other artist of the 20th century – including Picasso – successfully reinvented himself so many times as did Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). You’re probably familiar with works such as his Cubist painting, “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2” (1912); “Fountain” (1917), which consists of a urinal with some writing on it; or “L.H.O.O.Q.” (1919), in which he drew a mustache on a postcard of the Mona Lisa. What you may not be aware of is that, like Picasso, Duchamp knew how to paint beautiful things – like this, or this, or this – he just didn’t want to. The exhibition “The Essential Duchamp”, which opened recently at the Gallery of New South Wales and continues through August 11th, features Duchamp’s most infamous works, but it also includes earlier pieces demonstrating these changes, such as “The Chess Game” (1910), showing his youthful interest in both observation of figurative line and in saturation of color.

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Barnes’ Blossoming

Ernie Barnes (1938-2009) was an artist whose name is probably not familiar to most of my readers – well, at least not to me. Yet I suspect that many or most of you will immediately recognize his most famous painting, “The Sugar Shack”, shown below, which featured both on the cover of Marvin Gaye’s 1976 album “I Want You”, as well as on the popular television show “Good Times”. The late Mr. Barnes, who started his working career as a professional football player in the NFL before leaving to take up the paintbrush, is now the subject of a major retrospective at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles; selfishly, I hope that at some point his work gets the same treatment on the East Coast sometime in the near future, as I would love to see more of it. His style is often described as Neo-Mannerist, and one can certainly see relationships with the work of 16th century artists such as Bronzino and El Greco in his figures, but to me it’s perhaps much closer to Regionalist/WPA art from the New Deal era. “Ernie Barnes: A Retrospective” is at the California African American Museum through September 8th.

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Cano’s Canvases 

Back in the day, José María Cano was a member of Mecano, one of the biggest Spanish pop-rock bands of the 1980’s and ‘90’s. After leaving the group, Cano turned his attention to art, and first began exhibiting in the early aughts. Now, in tandem with its upcoming exhibition on Spanish Imperial art, the San Diego Museum of Art will be holding an exhibition of 12 large, dramatic works by Cano, collectively titled “Apostolate”. The paintings are intense, dramatic male portraits representing each of the 12 Apostles, such as “St. Andrew” shown below, and are executed in the highly challenging medium known as encaustic painting. This labor-intensive process, invented by the Ancient Greeks, has the artist build up layers of pigmented wax on a surface, and then finish off the piece by sealing it using a heat source. The heating element allows the artist to add, enhance, or eliminate brushwork effects, as well as the opportunity to create hard, polished surfaces that sparkle under light. “Apostolate” opens on May 18th.

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A Really Big Reveal: Conservation Project Completely Changes A Vermeer Masterpiece

The use of innovative technology in art conservation and restoration never ceases to amaze me, but a major development in this area has really thrown me for a loop this morning.

You’re probably familiar with this beautiful painting by the Dutch Old Master painter Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), commonly referred to as “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window”, which is now in the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden:

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The picture was painted in about 1657-59, and shows a well-dressed young woman reading a letter, with her face partially reflected in the glass panes of an open window. Rich fabrics make up her dress and the room’s draperies, while an expensive Turkish prayer rug covers the table in the foreground. A large blue-and-white Delftware salver is tipped over on top of the table, with its fruits spilling out onto the carpet, and we can see the upper part of a tooled leather side chair with gilt brass fittings in the corner. It’s a very quiet, thoughtful piece, which simply appears to show a scene from everyday life.

This work, which is one of the greatest masterpieces of the 17th century “Golden Age” of Dutch art, has been undergoing careful cleaning and study since 2017. For many years, it was known that the blank area of wall behind the figure at one point displayed a painting of the Roman god of erotic love, Cupid, but experts believed that Vermeer himself had painted over it before completing the picture. In the image above, you can just make out the ghost of the frame containing the “Cupid” picture. Starting at the top of the picture, you can see a vertical shift in color tone that runs down the wall to where it intersects with the shadow cast by the open window panel; then, if you start from just underneath the girl’s hair bun, you’ll see a similar tonal shift going in a straight line from the back of her head to the edge of the green drapery at the right.

Now, to everyone’s surprise, it turns out that it was not Vermeer who painted over the “Cupid”, but rather someone else at a much later date. Because of this, and the fact that overall the painting is in excellent condition, the museum made the decision to order the removal of this overpaint. What is emerging will permanently change the way that we see and think of this picture. In fact, the change is so startling that, as the museum’s senior conservator rightly notes, it’s now a completely different painting, even though it is currently only halfway through the cleaning process:

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I have to confess, from an aesthetic point of view I rather liked the painting the way it was. I appreciated the juxtaposition of the stark plaster wall against all of the finery of the woman’s costume and the luxury objects in the room. However, that was never what Vermeer wanted me to see when he created this piece. Instead, he was trying to put across a message that is much, much deeper than the simple glorification of beautiful objects – including the objectification of a beautiful woman. As a result, when restoration is complete, this will be a more profound image than simply that of a lady reading a letter.

Sometimes Dutch Golden Age artists could be, if not quite as explicit as, say, later French Rococo painters, still fairly obvious in depictions of adult themes, such as in the many images of interactions between courtesans, clients, and madams that date from this era. In more discreet paintings like “Open Window” however, the connoisseur was invited to “read” the image for clues as to its theme. What may at first seem to be an entirely innocuous image, can take on a different level of meaning when we take a closer look at the combination of individuals, actions, and objects in a scene. In these pictures, the background is not simply scenery, but integral to the plot of the story. Thus, removing a detail such as the “Cupid” would not only have obliterated the artist’s intent, it would also have rendered it impossible for viewers to read the picture properly.

What adds to the likelihood that Vermeer deliberately intended to have the “Cupid” in the picture as a clue to its overall meaning is the fact that he included the same painting in another of his works. “A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal” (1670-72), now in the National Gallery in London, shows the exact same picture hanging on the wall behind the young woman playing the virginal, a musical instrument similar to a harpsichord. She looks out at the viewer with a smile which, when combined with the “Cupid”, should give us a clue as to what is going on in the scene. Like “Open Window”, there is something more than meets the eye in this image, and the painting of the god of love tells us exactly what that is.

If this seems a bit too complicated to comprehend, it may be helpful to consider the location of the critical object within the pictures. In both images, Vermeer places the “Cupid” above the heads of the figures, as indicative of what is on their minds. Isn’t this exactly what we’re accustomed to seeing in cartoons and comic books? If Wile E. Coyote suddenly has the image of a light bulb appear in a thought bubble over his head, then we immediately know, even before anything actually happens, that he’s come up with an idea which he intends to execute.

With “Cupid” back in the picture, as it were, what could Vermeer be trying to tell us here? Now bear with me for a moment, because for those of my readers who are secular, or who have always just thought that this was a pretty painting and nothing more, this is going to be something of a headscratcher. Yet I think that the theme of this picture is, quite simply, sin. More precisely, Vermeer is showing us how when we indulge ourselves in one type of sin, it becomes far more easy to indulge ourselves in another.

Certainly we can see the sins of pride and vanity, not only in the woman’s appearance, with her elaborate hairstyle and costly gown, but also in the decoration of what is presumably one of many rooms in her expensively decorated home. We can also tie in gluttony, in terms of food that is literally overflowing in the picture, as well as in a greed for collecting fine and expensive things. Whoever she is, Mrs. Thing here has married well, and is living a life filled with luxuries and pleasures.

Now, Vermeer throws a mysterious letter into the mix, along with an open window and a painting of a love god. He’s even showing an upset apple cart, albeit in the form of a fruit bowl. Given these elements, there ought to be a light bulb going off in the little thought clouds above our heads right about now.

What we have here, I’d suggest, is a woman who is the 17th century Dutch version of Madame Bovary or Mrs. Robinson. She’s reached a point in life where she can have everything she wants, thanks to a husband who provides her with wealth, respectability, and position in society, and she’s become dissatisfied with all of it. So now, since pride, vanity, gluttony, and greed are not thrilling her anymore in the way that they used to, she’s considering whether she ought not to give lust, and specifically adultery, a try.

Although Vermeer doesn’t tell us directly what her choice is going to be, I’d argue that, alongside the now-restored “Cupid”, the open window speaks for itself, as indeed does the upended bowl of (forbidden) fruit. The woman literally opened the window in the picture, in order to read her letter, but she also figuratively opened the window for the receipt of this letter in the first place, perhaps by flirting with someone at a party or concert. Bored as she is with her present life, she’s about to, if you will, throw her marriage vows right out the window.

Greater minds than mine can and should disagree, of course, but that’s my read here. In any case, the painting in its semi-restored state will be on display in Dresden beginning tomorrow and running through June 16th, before it goes back under the microscope and scalpel for the cleaning to resume. It’s estimated that it will take an additional year to complete the project.

Art News Roundup: Age Of Thrones Edition

With only a couple of weeks to go before I head off to Barcelona (and elsewhere) on vacation, the timing on some astonishing new archaeological findings at the city’s Cathedral could not be more perfect. Being more than 2,000 years old, Barcelona is one of those places where, particularly in the oldest part of the city, as soon as you start digging in the ground and shifting things about, relics of the ancient past start cropping up. This time however, the finds were all above-ground, and hiding in more or less plain sight.

Perhaps the most significant discovery is that the marble “cathedra” (“seat”) used by the Archbishop of Barcelona when presiding at the Cathedral, is much older than previously thought. For a long time, the episcopal throne was thought to date from the Romanesque-era Cathedral that stood on the site in the 11th century [N.B. the wooden sections and the marble barley twists are later additions.] Experts now believe that the marble slabs which make up the chair are of Ancient Roman origin, probably imported from the quarries of Carrara to the then-Roman colony of Barcino (predecessor of today’s Barcelona) sometime before the 4th century A.D.

seat

For those of you who can’t read Spanish, I’ll sum up some of the other facinating highlights from the investigation:

– In the cloister are two inscribed fragments of a monumental Roman marble pedestal that once stood in the city’s forum, which was located a short distance away from the site of the present Cathedral; these slabs were reused as building material, and there may be other fragments scattered throughout the present Cathedral.
– The sepulcher of St. Raymond of Penyafort, located in one of the side chapels of the Cathedral, is composed of a 3rd century Ancient Roman portrait bust stuck onto a 14th century Gothic body. (I’ve always admired this piece and wondered why the head and the body seemed so different from one another: now I know why.)
– The fragmentary 9th century marble inscriptions in the Crypt, which used to mark the grave of St. Eulalia in the nearby church of Santa Maria del Mar before the relics were moved to the Cathedral and the present 13th century sarcophagus was commissioned, contained a circular opening where pilgrims could touch objects to the body of the saint. My Catholic readers will recognize that this enabled pilgrims to take away third-class relics.
– The old baptismal font, which was thought to date from the 11th century Romanesque building, is in fact an architectural element from a demolished Ancient Roman building, and like the slabs of the marble throne was likely imported from Italy. It was probably a decorative element from the cornice of a demolished Roman temple that was subsequently destroyed.

Since I always take the time to visit the Cathedral when I’m in Barcelona, I’ll be sure to seek out these objects, and have a closer peep at them. When considering new information on their origins, art objects naturally take on a different appearance, since whenever you learn more art history it’s impossible to see something the same way you did before you had additional information. And who knows: perhaps while looking about, I’ll even stumble across something previously unidentified, myself!

And now on to some of this week’s art news.

Tóibín’s Take

Irish novelist and commentator Colm Tóibín, a fellow admirer of all things Barcelona, recently shared his thoughts on the Tintoretto exhibition now at the National Gallery of Art here in DC. (You may recall those of a more insignificant scribbler were also published recently.) Although he forgets to mention the fact that there is a cat in the picture – a fact which is both fun and highly symbolic – Tóibín’s analysis of the “Last Supper” (1563-64) in the National Gallery show is quite on point:

This has all the aura of a secular scene, with nothing holy or graceful about it. While there is a vague halo around Christ’s head and he is clearly the leader, the one being listened to, it seems most unlikely that, with this motley crew for company, he could be about to redeem the world. The clothes of his followers are poor, as is the table itself, with half-eaten food on display.

Jacopo Tintoretto: <i>The Last Supper<i>, 87 x 162 5/8 inches, circa 1563–1564

Likely Leonardo

The Year of Leonardo continues to surprise the art world with almost weekly discoveries, theories, and material for cocktail party debate. The latest example of this, a Renaissance sketch of a middle-aged, bearded man in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle, is now claimed by some art experts to represent Leonardo Da Vinci himself. The drawing is not a new discovery, but the attribution of Leonardo as being the subject, drawn from life by one of his shop assistants, is. Well…sort of: back in the 1930’s, historian Kenneth Clark wondered whether it might be a portrait of Da Vinci. Personally, I’m not in a position to say whether it is or isn’t Leonardo, but to me the sketch could just as well be anyone – or no one, other than an invention of the artist’s imagination. Visitors will have the chance to decide for themselves when “Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing” opens at the Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace on May 24th.

Leo

Faramir, Framed

Australian actor David Wenham is probably best known to my fellow nerds from his star turns as Lord Faramir in “Lord of the Rings” or as Dilios, the narrator and right-hand-man of King Leonidas in the “300” films. Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that the portrait of Mr. Wenham by Australian artist Tessa MacKay, titled “Through the Looking Glass” (2019), recently won the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ 2019 “Packing Room Prize”: arguably the ultimate in fanboy art awards. As they open crates arriving at Sydney’s most prestigious art museum for the annual Archibald Prizes show, the museum’s packing room staff note which ones they like the most, and then vote on a winner. While the Packing Room Prize winner has never won an Archibald Prize, either simultaneously or subsequently, in this case one can see why the staff liked this picture. Not only is it an image of a familiar, popular figure, but Ms. MacKay’s technique is a visual blend of both technical skill and enjoyable references to American Realists and Photorealists, such as Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, and Richard Estes.

retratdavi