Art News Roundup: Delightful Dewing Edition

My latest for The Federalist is out this morning, reviewing the stylish, albeit temporarily-shuttered exhibition, “Dewing’s Poetic World” at the Freer Gallery of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art.

Thomas Wilmer Dewing (1851-1938) was a distinctive American painter who specialized in ethereal, quiet images of elegant ladies in landscapes and interiors. He was prominent at the turn of the previous century, but today he isn’t quite a household name, at least not in the same breath as some of his contemporaries. After looking at a number of examples of his work over the past few years, I think he needs to be critically and popularly reassessed via a large-scale, comprehensive exhibition somewhere; while the show at the Freer isn’t a full retrospective, it does provide some very beautiful examples of his paintings and drawings. It also affords us a rather important opportunity to look at the extraordinary frames for Dewing’s paintings by his good friend and prominent Beaux-Arts architect, Stanford White (1853-1906) of McKim, Mead, and White fame, as he often worked with Dewing to provide art for the interiors of the homes and private clubs the firm designed.

Currently all of the Smithsonian museums are closed due to the Coronavirus pandemic, but the show is scheduled to run through November, so hopefully visitors to the Nation’s Capital will be able to see this very pleasing exhibition sometime soon.

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And now, let’s take a look at some other art news stories which I hope you’ll find of interest, as you shelter in place.

Collected for Commerce

With markets tanking all over the place, the wealthy are increasingly using their art as what some of us have always known they view it as: a commodity to be sold, rather than a treasure to be cherished and then passed down. As Bloomberg reports, some of these collectors are being faced with an unpleasant surprise since “lenders are appraising art at lower values. Asher Edelman, whose New York-based company Artemus currently offers maximum 40% loan-to-value ratio on art financing and takes possession of the works, estimates a decline of 20% to 30% on initial and final appraisals from a month ago.”

Although Bloomberg is silent regarding who is selling their art, as Art Market Monitor noted recently in analyzing market surveys, younger collectors are more likely to “flip” works of art that they have owned for a short time:

The survey found that millennial collectors are transacting in the most variable of sales channels, across trade, auction and online sales. They are also flipping works from their collection at the highest rate, with an average resale period below four years. It appears the strategy among the youngest base of art collectors is to seek out risk at a lower price level in order to build wealth.

Will this crisis result in a significant readjustment to art market prices, or will we continue to see a work by Basquiat valued more highly than one by Bronzino? I have no predictive powers here, but I think it more likely that there will be a short-term correction, followed by a return to price increases, at least for Modern and Contemporary Art. The truth of the matter is that while a great deal of the work fetching 10’s or 100’s of millions of dollars these days is, frankly, rubbish, that fact is entirely reflective of the times in which we live. In an age of faith, religious art is highly valued; in an age of philosophy, classical art is highly valued. What does the most highly valued art at market tell us about the present age? I shudder to think.

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Absconded from Oxford

A particularly brazen art theft took place at Oxford University on Saturday night, when thieves broke into the Christ Church Picture Gallery and stole three Old Masters valued at over $12 million. The paintings – “A Boy Drinking” (c. 1580) by Annibale Carracci (1560-1609), “A Rocky Coast With Soldiers Studying a Plan (c. 1640) by Salvatore Rosa (1615-1673), and the oil sketch of “A Soldier on Horseback” (c. 1616) by Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641), shown below – were donated to the College in the 18th century. To my eye, these aren’t the most valuable pieces in the museum’s collection, which includes works by Fra Angelico and Da Vinci, among others. It makes me suspect that they were stolen to order, as much as art experts tend to say that this never happens. At present, how the thieves got into and out of the Gallery unseen remains unknown, although there’s some speculation that they may have fled on a boat; the museum itself is, not surprisingly, temporarily closed.

van Dyck, Anthony, 1599-1641; A Soldier on Horseback

Given to Cleveland

It may be temporarily closed due to Coronavirus, but patrons of the Cleveland Museum of Art have reason to be grateful to one local couple. Joseph and Nancy Keithley have donated over 100 works of art to the Museum, including pieces by many of the most famous names of Modern Art, from Bonnard to Picasso to Wyeth. Among the paintings given by the Keithleys is “Tulips” (1914), a still life by Henri Matisse (1869-1954) shown below. Given the date of its execution and the fact that one presumes Matisse was painting in the springtime, this places its creation just a few months before the outbreak of World War I – a fact which adds a certain poignancy to the piece, given how many would go on to die in fields normally filled with blooms such as these. The entire collection was scheduled to go on public display this Tuesday, but for now the public will have to wait until the present malaise makes its exit.

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Shelter Smarts: Expand Your Mind, Not Your Waistline

If you’re not going anywhere for awhile – thanks, Red China – you’re probably facing the temptation to sit around, think about all of the things that you could be doing but can’t, and then inhale way too much food or booze to make yourself feel better.

Allow me to offer you an alternative.

Yesterday, a friend posted a request on her IG stories for some creative ideas on how to pass the time during the quarantine of indeterminate length that many of us are experiencing at the moment. I suggested the Yale video course on the history of Roman Architecture, which I’ve recommended to my readers before, but it got me thinking about whether I could offer some suggestions on similar resources for my readers who may also find themselves going a bit stir crazy. So whether you’re on your own, or you have a house full of rugrats to educate, here are some YouTube channels by category that I can recommend for making the most of this mind-expansion opportunity.

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Now, before delving into some of said resources, I want to offer a word of warning. Not all of the material available on these channels is suitable for children, and some of it manifests certain points of view with which I myself, or some of my readers, may not be in agreement. My best advice is to treat these like you would browsing in a bookshop. If Simone de Beauvoir does not interest you – and good gracious why should she – just move on past until you get to Raymond Queneau.

Art

Most of the world’s major art museums, not surprisingly, have YouTube channels, but not all of them are created equal. Without naming names, there are some institutions whose video content producers seem to assume that the majority of their potential viewers are rather stupid, or have such short attention spans that they can only sit still for under 3 minutes. That being said, there are several resources with longer-format videos available for you to stream, which include not only lectures and panel discussions, but also in many cases documentary films and behind-the-scenes video of processes such as conservation and installation.

Two of the best outlets in this regard are the National Gallery of Art here in Washington, and the National Gallery in London. The former in particular regularly hosts in-depth lectures from art experts who come to DC from around the world, while the latter often uploads interesting gallery talks in which curators take visitors to an art object in the museum and discuss it at length, pointing out details of production or relationship to other known works, often in the same collection. And while not always as consistently good as the two National Galleries, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, often has similar videos worth watching, once you can get past some of the more NPR-type material.

Archaeology

Among many of my childhood career aspirations – superhero, policeman, etc. – perhaps one of the most unusual was my desire to be an Egyptologist. This was well before the premiere of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, and at the age of 5 I was teaching myself how to read hieroglyphics and learning the names of the major kings of the Ancient Egyptian dynasties, recognizing building, painting, and object designs of different periods, and getting a grasp on the rather complicated relationships within the pantheon of Egyptian gods.

Although I never ended up working on a dig in the Valley of the Kings, that interest stayed with me, and expanded to include a number of ancient cultures, including Greece, Rome, Britain, and so on. Rather than the “popular archaeology” that you can find on television, it’s worthwhile to challenge yourself a bit here, and watch some serious archaeology lecture presentations. Now granted, some of the material is going to be highly technical, but you can just let that wash over you and stick with the general story; you’ll emerge from the experience better-informed not only about the past, but also how some aspects of the past, such as artistic and architectural styles, can still be seen today, long after the cultures that inspired them have vanished.

There are a number of museums, institutions, and organizations that record and upload scholarly talks on archaeology. A few of my favorites are the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, the Penn Museum at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Semitic Museum at Harvard. For my purposes, the more interesting lectures are recaps of recent discoveries at the end of a dig season, since that material rarely gets attention in the press, as well as explorations of cultures which I’ve never heard of before, or only know very little about.

History

Of course, any lecture about art or archaeology that you might find on YouTube is going to have at least some element of history to it, but for presentations on a wider variety of historical subjects, there are many resources available as well. Gresham College in London often has a number of very interesting videos, and in particular I encourage you to seek out the lectures of Simon Thurley. Not only is he extremely well-versed in everything from court etiquette to medieval business transactions, he is one of the rare history lecturers whose presentation style is enthusiastic, and marked by a keen, dry sense of wit. And for a more populist take on a wide variety of historical subjects, the massive archive of the Timeline YouTube channel contains a huge amount of material to sift through, and indeed on so many different areas (and of differing quality of productions) that I recommend the channel mostly as a last resort if you can’t find anything else a bit more polished to watch.

Art News Roundup: Canceled Edition

This isn’t (entirely) the cancellation news roundup that you might think it is.

At the outset, let’s acknowledge the obvious: it’s no surprise to learn that the Coronavirus pandemic is having a major impact on the art world. The new normal in the art news media is swiftly becoming reporting on shows and events shutting down early, or never opening in the first place. There are now dozens of shuttered museums and exhibitions in Paris, Rome, and Vienna, among other places. Outside of art institutions, the art business world is starting to feel the pinch as well.

The Spring edition of the European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht, which as I mentioned in last week’s Art News Roundup is one of the major art trade events of the calendar year, was shut down yesterday, four days earlier than scheduled. That decision was not necessarily an impractical one, given that health authorities worldwide are warning the public to be careful about attending large group gatherings. What probably made some of the fair’s organizers privately rather nervous however, was the fact that one of the Modern Art dealers selling at TEFAF returned home to Italy this past weekend, where he was subsequently diagnosed with the Coronavirus. There’s no indication that he was carrying the virus during his time in Maastricht, but I suspect that the Fair was right to err on the side of caution.

There are other consequences that reach well beyond the countries where these closed institutions and cancelled events are located. Just this week for example, the National Gallery of Art here in Washington was forced to announce the postponement of its upcoming show, “A Superb Baroque: Art in Genoa, 1600–1750”. The exhibition, which was scheduled to open on May 3rd, may now be put off up to a year because, at present, Italian museums are unable to ship the paintings over. I was particularly looking forward to reviewing this, as it’s a fairly unexplored area of art for me, so hopefully the show will go on at a future date.

Yet amidst all of these closures and cancellations due to the Coronavirus, cancel culture has also been having a major impact on the art news media of late – so lest these stories slip under the radar, let’s take a look at some of them.

Cancelled: Yale

Now that the somewhat badly-reported and misunderstood outrage machine outputs surrounding Yale’s decision earlier this year to cancel its current introductory course on art history have died down, art historian Bendor Grosvenor has weighed in with an interesting take on the whole business. In this opinion piece for The Art Newspaper, he asks the same question that I’ve asked myself, which is whether Yale could simply have added additional courses, to reflect the more global background of their students and faculty, rather than trying to march Western art history naked through the streets ringing a “Shame!” bell. He also tosses something of a grenade into the controversy: “Is art history really guilty of colonialism, and even racism? If so, then by extension studying it, and deriving pleasure from doing so, makes us complicit in the original act of colonial oppression.” I’ve not wrapped my head round that one yet, but it’s certainly a provocative assertion, and Mr. Grosvenor is always worth reading, whether you agree with him or not.

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Cancelled: Liechtenstein

A major traveling exhibition of the collection of the Princes of Liechtenstein, scheduled to visit the U.S. and Canada for the next two years, has been cancelled at the last minute. As ArtNet reports, the show, which featured Old Master paintings, decorative objects, some of the crown jewels, and so on, was supposed to open at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa this June, then travel to the Seattle Art Museum, The Kimbell in Fort Worth, and finally the National Gallery here in DC. The Canadians cancelled theirs first, citing in a statement to ArtNet a fifteen-year-old public report commissioned by Liechtenstein itself about the use of forced labor on royal lands during World War II – and having nothing whatsoever to do with art. I’m hoping at some point that someone can provide a rational basis for this cancellation, because if there is one I fail to perceive it.

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Cancelled: London

The “climate crisis” has claimed another corporate victim in the art world. Royal Dutch Shell has decided to stop funding two major cultural institutions in London: the British Film Institute, and one of the ugliest arts complexes on the planet – which is saying something – London’s Southbank Centre, which contains performing arts space as well as the Hayward Gallery. A group headed by this fellow claimed victory, while Shell attempted to save face by declaring that it simply chose not to renew its relationships with these institutions. Once British and European pressure groups run out of fuel companies, whom will they go after next? My bet is on banks and insurance companies, but we’ll just have to wait and see.

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From The Federalist: Raphael in Washington

My latest for The Federalist is out this morning, reviewing the small but well-curated exhibition, “Raphael and His Circle”, which opened recently at the National Gallery of Art here in Washington. The drawings and prints by the Master and his associates are appealing in themselves, but they also give us a chance to look at why Raphael’s legacy still matters today, even among those who reject his pursuit of perfection. Given the closure of the major Raphael retrospective in Rome until further notice, due to the coronavirus epidemic in Italy, this could end up being one of the few commemorations of the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death that the public may get to visit this year, adding an increased level of importance to the show.

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Art News Roundup: Bowled Over Edition

Ah, early spring in Holland: it’s a time for flowering bulbs, creaking windmills, and incredibly rare art objects.

The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) is an organization whose shows are where institutions and serious collectors of Old Master paintings and fine antiques often head to make acquisitions, with sales trends and prices providing valuable information on the health and direction of the art market. It’s held semiannually in Maastricht and New York, and over the years there’s become something of an expectation around these events that major rediscoveries in fine or decorative art will be presented. Some dealers will hold on to particularly rare pieces for months ahead of TEFAF, in order to build hype about their offerings. For the upcoming Dutch edition of the fair, which opens this weekend, the prestigious Amsterdam-based dealers Aronson Antiquairs will be presenting a type of ceramic art object so rare that I, for one, didn’t even know that they existed.

If you’re familiar with the term “Delftware”, you’ll know that it refers to a type of blue and white glazed ceramic, which is still produced today in large quantities. It was created by the Dutch beginning in the early 17th century, usually in imitation of traditional Chinese blue and white porcelain, which had begun to be imported into Holland around this time. These imports were very expensive, and difficult to obtain; since the Europeans hadn’t yet figured out how to make porcelain themselves, only the wealthiest collectors could afford to acquire these objects.

The production of what came to be known as Delftware, because of the large conglomeration of factories manufacturing the stuff around the city of Delft, met a significant consumer demand by creating a locally-made knockoff at a much lower price than that of the imported originals. While Delftware wasn’t quite as durable or as attractive as porcelain, it looked nice on the sideboard, and was much more suitable for daily use. If you broke or damaged a Delftware platter, replacing it would cost you far less than replacing a Chinese porcelain version.

Unbeknownst to me until now, it turns out that as the East India trade expanded, some Dutch collectors became even more fascinated by imported Japanese lacquerware than they had been by Chinese porcelain. These objects featured boldly-colored, inlaid, and gilded designs, often set against jet black backgrounds. They required countless hours of painstaking, highly detailed work, in order to allow the multiple coats of lacquer to dry. At the time, such techniques were too difficult for Dutch manufacturers to try to copy, so for a very brief period in the early 18th century, a few enterprising potteries started experimenting with recreating these designs for the domestic market in what is known as *BLACK* Delftware.

Ultimately, it proved far too difficult to successfully reproduce the look of lacquerware on a large scale, so very few pieces of Black Delftware were ever made. Currently, only about 60-odd objects are known to exist in the world, and nearly all of those are in museum collections. One of the few examples that, so far, remains in private hands is the bowl shown below, which has been owned by the Philips family (of Philips Petroleum fame) for a number of years.

The bowl was only recently rediscovered by Aronson’s, who have previously handled examples of these extremely rare objects over the years: if they tell you that it’s a very rare thing, it’s because they’re the experts. This particular example is on the small side, at just under 3 inches high and a bit over 6 inches in diameter, but presumably the asking price is not, because no price estimate is provided in the firm’s listing. As is often the case in any kind of collecting, if you have to ask what an object costs, you probably can’t afford it.

For those who want to trundle along and see this rare piece in person, TEFAF Maastricht opens this Saturday, March 7th, and runs through March 15th.

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And now, let’s turn to some other art world news from the week gone by.

Dig that Dagger

Speaking of rare objects, while not quite as rare as a piece of Black Delftware, 2,000 year-old Roman daggers certainly qualify as things that you don’t come across every day – and certainly not if you’re a 19-year-old intern. Last year Nico Calman was working on an archaeological dig in Haltern am See, in the Westphalia region of northern Germany, when he spotted the weapon in a ditch and immediately recognized what it was, even though it was coated with rust and muck. The dagger, which has spent most of the past year being cleaned and restored, is made of silver and brass, and comes with a fitted sheath of iron inlaid with wood and colored glass; part of the belt from which the weapon was suspended was also found nearby. The Roman officer who carried it either died or was killed sometime during the reign of Caesar Augustus, roughly between about 27 BC and 15 AD. The now-cleaned and preserved blade will eventually go on display at the Haltern archaeological museum, located near the site of the major Roman-era encampment where the artifact was found. In the meantime, someone had better give this kid a permanent job, as he clearly has a good eye.

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El Greco on The L

Doménikos Theotokópoulos (1541-1614), better known as “El Greco” (“The Greek”), is the subject of a major new exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago opening this Saturday, which just closed its run at the Grand Palais in Paris last week. Born on the island of Crete, trained in Italy, and for most of his working life a resident of Spain, El Greco’s fusion of Byzantine icon painting with the late Renaissance style known as Mannerism, and the incorporation of strong, almost hallucinogenic contrasts of light and dark to be observed under the baking sun of the central plateau of Castile, made him something of an idiosyncratic figure in art history. For centuries after his death, he was mostly forgotten or disdained as being something of a weirdo, until artists like Manet and Picasso began to look closely at his work, and incorporate his influence into their own art. Today, he’s considered to be an artist who was far ahead of his time, and the starting point for what’s usually referred to as the “Golden Age” of Spanish art. For those of you who find yourselves in Chicagoland over the coming months, you’ll definitely want to check out this show, as it incorporates not only works from the Art Institute’s own collection, but also loans from the Prado, The Met, and private collections in America and Europe.

“El Greco: Ambition and Defiance” is at the Art Institute of Chicago from March 7th through June 21st

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Pachyderm as Pad

One of the most famous examples of what’s usually referred to as “novelty architecture” can now be yours – for the night. “Lucy the Elephant” (1881) was built in Margate City, New Jersey as a tourist attraction and seaside real estate marketing tool. Over the past century and a half Lucy’s had her ups and downs, along with the fortunes of the Jersey Shore, but the building gained National Historic Landmark status back in the 1970’s, thus saving it from demolition and helping to provide for its restoration. Now a new round of preservation work is needed to keep the seaside landmark standing, as even an elephant’s skin can only take so much exposure to the sea air before needing a bit of TLC. As the Architect’s Newspaper reports, for three nights only in mid-March “Lucy” will be available to rent on AirBNB as part of an effort to raise funds for the project, but if you’re interested you’ll need to act quickly: the listing will be posted today, and competition is expected to be intense.

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The Tale of the Typeface Thief

Like something out of an OuLiPo novel, the solution to a recent, mysterious crime involving an emblematic bit of architecture caught my eye this morning – but first, a bit of explanation is needed.

In Spanish, a “granja” is a “farm”, but in Spain it’s also a type of café where dairy products are served, along with things that one might have alongside dairy products. It’s a place where you can have coffee (or a glass of milk, obviously) and something to eat, but it doesn’t normally serve alcohol. Although you find these establishments throughout the Iberian Peninsula, they are particularly popular in Catalonia.

The Granja Vendrell on the Carrer de Girona was a venerable example of a “granja”, and had been in business for nearly a century. Its Art Deco details stood out in a surrounding sea of Art Nouveau excess and PoMo minimalism. Not too long ago, I paused there one morning on my way downtown, just to try to capture some of that clean-lined detail in the morning sunshine, and in particular the beautifully designed and executed metal letters on the façade. I mean, look at that elegant letter “G”: Hercule Poirot would go into raptures over it.

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Unlike Madrid, Barcelona doesn’t have much in the way of commercial Art Deco. The city went from Modernisme (Art Nouveau) to Noucentisme (a kind of Mediterranean-Classical Revival), and with a few exceptions mostly skipped over the look of the Jazz Age. This makes the Art Deco that one comes across in Barcelona all the more significant of a visual treat, because of its comparative rarity.

This particular granja looked set to close permanently last year upon the retirement of its owner, a member of the third generation of the same family to run the place. Barcelona, like many cities and neighborhoods inundated with tourism, in recent years has been undergoing a significant increase in the growth of international brand presence at the expense of local, long-going concerns. Every time I go back, something else is gone, replaced with a shop or eating establishment that you could find in dozens of airport concourses around the world.

Fortunately, the city seems to be slowly awakening to the realization that it should try to help preserve these neighborhood businesses in some form, whenever feasible. In this case the owner was still able to retire, but while continuing to own the space itself, he would turn over the running of the granja to others. At present, the cafe is closed for some minor renovations, but when it opens it will still be very much as it was before, just with a bit of updating to the facilities and so forth.

Over the weekend however, those handsome Art Deco letters were stolen by an unknown person or persons. Neighbors didn’t realize what had happened at first, because they knew the place was closed for renovations. It was only when someone contacted the owner and asked what had happened to the letters on the façade of his old shop that the alarm was sounded.

In reporting the incident on Sunday, local newspaper El Periódico de Catalunya took the rather unusual step for a news article to call explicitly for their return, and shame those who took them. Very roughly translated:

 

The price of these 14 letters is not calculated by the material they are made of, but by their sentimental value. In recent years, pieces like these, the palpable history of Barcelona, have been resold in antique shops and in the Encants [city flea market], but always legally, because until recently they usually ended up in the dumpster…The letters of the Granja Vendrell are the fruit of a robbery. If they are put up for sale, they will betray their seller. [Emphasis theirs.]

In this instance, the public shaming, along with a threat from the owners on social media to go to the police if the letters were not returned, seems to have worked.

This morning, the city’s La Vanguardia newspaper reports that the thief contacted RAC 1, the news radio station owned by the same media group that publishes La Vanguardia, and explained that he had not stolen the letters for the purpose of making money. Rather, he took them because he loved their design, and was worried that the letters would be lost or destroyed. “I am neither a collector nor an iron thief,” he claimed, “just someone who likes typefaces.”

Whoever the miscreant is, he’s lucky that he spoke up when he did. The owner was just about to file a report with the city police when he learned of the confession. He indicated that he will be happy to meet with the thief at any time and place, in order to ensure the letters’ safe return; he also promises to protect the anonymity of the thief.

Off-hand, I really can’t think of another example of someone committing theft out of appreciation for a font, but then again, art thieves act under all sorts of motivations, not always financial ones. It certainly strikes me as perfect fodder for a novel or a film. Although, given the owner’s pledge to keep the identity of the individual a secret, we may never know more about what was going through the thief’s mind when he committed the crime, or whether he had engaged in this – ahem – type of behavior in the past.

In any case, I’m hoping that when I’m back in Barcelona on vacation in a few weeks – God willing and the Coronavirus don’t rise – I’ll see that tempting typeface back up on the façade of a newly-renovated Granja Vendrell.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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