Below The Surface: Sad Stories Of Art In Public Collections

When visiting museums, we often don’t stop to think about how these items ended up where they are.

Case in point, Italy is claiming that an 11th century sacramentary, a book used by the priest for the celebration of Mass and other liturgical services, was stolen from the parish church of Santa Anna in the small town of Apiro back in 1925. After passing through several hands, the volume was donated to the Morgan Library in New York in 1984. The Morgan, for its part, maintains that it has clean hands in this affair, having had no idea that the piece was (allegedly) stolen, but Italy wants it back.

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I won’t go into an analysis of the legal issues in this particular case. However, I reference it to point out the issue of provenance, an important and interesting area of inquiry that is often overlooked when we focus exclusively on an object’s aesthetic value. The tale of how and why a work of art ended up where it is can often be an interesting and complex tale in its own right.

Stories involving the restitution of art stolen by the Nazis during World War II are perhaps more familiar to a general audience today, thanks to news reporting and films such as George Clooney’s wartime epic “Monuments Men”(2014), or the Dame Helen Mirren/Ryan Reynolds courtroom drama “Woman in Gold”(2015). There’s also at least some degree of regular reporting on movements to return art and artefacts to countries that experienced a significant loss of cultural patrimony to collectors and institutions during the colonial period of the 18th through the early 20th centuries. Yet aside from these particular areas, there are a host of objects on walls and on plinths in museums all over the world that arrived at their current locations via unusual routes.

Take Raphael’s “Colonna Altarpiece” of circa 1504-05, for example. Raphael (1483-1520) painted it for the Franciscan nuns of the Convent of St. Anthony of Padua in Perugia. In the mid-17th century, the nuns decided to break up the altarpiece, and sell it off in pieces. They first sold the predelle, which are smaller panels connected to the base of the main panel, to Queen Cristina of Sweden, who had moved to Rome after abdicating the Swedish throne in order to become a Catholic. The nuns later sold the central image and top panel of God the Father to the powerful Colonna family in Rome. These two panels, along with one of the predelle, were later purchased by financier J.P. Morgan, and donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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Why did the nuns chop up this magnificent work of art and sell it off? In this case, the likely answer is that most basic of human physical needs: survival. At the time they sold their Raphaels, the nuns were very poor as a result of a steep decline in donations and vocations, so selling these panels helped them to keep food on the table. Today in the U.S., when we see historic churches and monasteries being closed down and auctioned off or demolished because there are not enough members of the congregation or not enough religious to keep them going, we should realize that, from an art history point of view, this is a cyclical problem. Even amidst the Counter-Reformation splendor of the 17th century in Italy, this particular group of women religious found themselves on the ropes.

Raphael’s was not the only impressive altarpiece once housed at the convent. The enigmatic Tuscan painter Piero della Francesca (1415-1492) painted a polyptych, i.e. an altarpiece composed of a number of separate panels joined together in an architectural framework, for the same Franciscan nuns between about 1468-70. Unlike the Raphael commission this altarpiece, which stands over 11 feet tall, was not broken up when it left the convent, although two of the predella panels went missing for a time until they were reunited with the rest of the altarpiece in the early 20th century. The entire piece is now in the collection of the National Museum of Umbria in Perugia.

PolyPeru

In this instance, the story of how the altarpiece left the convent is a bit more complicated. As if the 17th century had not been difficult enough for these nuns, subsequent centuries proved to be even worse. Thanks to the anti-Catholicism of the Bonapartes and other European leftists of the early 19th century, the convent was closed down by 1800 and its contents were confiscated. The nuns were allowed to return about a decade later, but their art was kept by the state; the sisters were finally kicked out for good by 1817. If you’ve studied European history at all, you know that the same thing happened all over supposedly Catholic Europe, from Spain to France to Austria.

Obviously this is just a broad overview of some of the sad backstory attached to two altarpieces, albeit artistically significant ones. However, it’s indicative of the kind of storytelling that is possible when you dig more deeply into the history of these objects, and it’s an area that is, perhaps, overdue for a more popular treatment of the subject. So many works of art that we know and love have a great deal more to tell us about their creators, their owners, and indeed human history than is readily apparent.

So the next time you find yourself at an exhibition, looking at a very old painting, sculpture, drawing, decorative piece, etc., ask yourself, “How did this get here?” – you’ll often be completely fascinated by the answer to that question.

Art News Roundup: Seen in Savannah Edition

You’ll forgive me, gentle reader, for not posting one of my longer articles on Tuesday. I recently returned from a short break in Savannah, where I visited the Telfair Museums in order to review their current exhibition on “Rembrandt and the Jewish Experience”, examining how the Jewish community in Amsterdam influenced the art of this Christian Old Master. My musings on the show are now available for your perusal on The Federalist this morning.

The Telfair is a somewhat unusual art institution in that it’s comprised of three separate museums: a contemporary art gallery mostly housing temporary exhibitions as well as Modern and Contemporary art; a former mansion that was converted into an art academy many years ago; and an historic Regency-style home with period furnishings. The Jepson Center, which is where the Rembrandt exhibition is taking place, also had an interesting show on Contemporary Catalan artist Jaume Plensa, arguably the most well-known sculptor in Spain today. Permanent installations of his work can be seen Stateside in places such as Chicago’s Millennium Park, the main entrance to MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Frederik Meijer Park in Grand Rapids.

Plensa’s “Talking Continents” (2013) installation at the Telfair features a group of clouds and figures, all composed out of metal characters from multiple languages, soldered together and suspended by cables in mid-air. As the light shines through them, their shadows project intricate, almost Moorish patterns onto the floor of the exhibition hall. In an adjoining gallery is “Laura II” (2013), an example of his monumental sculpture with associated drawings, featuring a colossal, 6-foot tall head of a girl carved from a single block of alabaster.

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Meanwhile, the Telfair Academy has an interesting permanent collection of mostly 19th and early 20th century works, with some good examples of American Impressionism and the Ashcan School, as well as both American and Continental academic painting. I was particularly struck by a Robert Henri (1865-1929) painting titled “La Madrileñita” (1919), depicting a popular young Spanish dancer from Madrid named Josefa Cruz. Henri traveled extensively in Spain and painted Cruz several times, but this portrait at the Telfair seems to best capture her coquettish charm.

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Of course the most famous work of art at the Telfair is “Bird Girl” (1936), a life-size bronze by the American sculptor Sylvia Shaw Judson (1897-1978). It was featured on both the cover of the novel “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”, as well as in the Clint Eastwood film. Originally installed in a family plot at Savannah’s Bonaventure Cemetery, with the subsequent success of the book and the movie the piece was moved to the Telfair for safekeeping and replaced by a replica. It has become a ubiquitous symbol of and point of reference for the city, and it crops up everywhere you go, a bit like the Statue of Liberty in New York.

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Having now persuaded you, I hope, of the value of visiting the very charming city of Savannah, both on this site AND in the magazine – BTW if you like the Rembrandt article, do please leave some feedback over there, the excessive trolling on my article about Notre-Dame de Paris was particularly tiresome – let’s now turn to some interesting art news stories that have crossed my radar over the past week.

Rothschild Rummage

Speaking of Rembrandt, the art world is all agog at the moment with the news that a member of the French branch of the Rothschild family is selling one of their Rembrandts; the Louvre is trying to raise enough funds to purchase it and keep it from leaving the country. While most of the art media coverage is focused on what will become of “The Standard Bearer” (1636), and understandably so, this Bloomberg overview of some of the items up for auction rather neatly encapsulates why and how the market has changed over the past century and a half, from the time when the Rothschilds used to be the dominant arbiters of taste and style in collecting fine and decorative art:

Still, the ornate, gilded aesthetic isn’t that fashionable among many collectors these days, who may pay more for a KAWS painting than an Old Master canvas. “Taste changes. Times change. Houses change,” [interior designer Robert] Couturier said. “It is an era that has definitely passed.”

felip5Gardner Gossip

Another week, another theory about the infamous Gardner Museum Heist: this time, Dutch art crime researcher Arthur Brand renews and expands upon an earlier theory that the paintings, which were cut from their frames in the Boston museum back in 1990 and have never been recovered, are in the hands of the IRA and being kept somewhere in Ireland. Mr. Brand certainly knows his business, having tracked down and recovered a number of works of art over the years, although whether he actually has new information is difficult to say. The theft of 13 paintings, which included works by Manet, Rembrandt, and Vermeer, among others, and the subject of the popular podcast “Last Seen”, remains the most famous unsolved art crime in modern history.

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Capital Classicism

The National Civic Arts Society is once again holding their Spring series of architectural walking tours here in the Nation’s Capital, should you find yourself hereabouts on a Saturday morning in the coming months. “The Influence of Classicism in the Architecture of Washington’s Historic Neighborhoods” will examine how some of DC’s most architecturally significant neighborhoods developed as the city grew and styles changed, from Federal and Classical Revival to Victorian and Beaux-Arts, as well as the horrific impact of tear-it-all-down-and-put-up-concrete-boxes Modernism on some of these areas, to our great detriment. For tickets and more information, please visit this link.

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Art News Roundup: Teaser Trailer Edition

As you may have seen on social media yesterday, my colleagues at The Federalist very kindly asked permission to reprint Tuesday’s blog post, in which I reflected on the devastating fire at Notre-Dame de Paris. It was a rather difficult piece to write, and involved several hours of initial scribbling in one frame of mind, a phone call to an old friend who helped talk me down off a particularly argumentative ledge, a lengthy email thread, and finally a total rewrite complete with several pauses, a late bedtime, and fitful sleep. While I usually find writing to be a breeze, occasionally I have to force my way through a number of conflicting thoughts until I can reach something approaching a balanced presentation.

I realize that this is going against Otto von Bismarck’s maxim about not explaining how sausages are made. Yet I share it because, while writing at length is not difficult for most people, sometimes online media gives the impression that churning out a blog post or online magazine article is no different than writing, say, a long email about your latest theories based on the Episode IX teaser trailer. Sometimes it *is* just like that, and you can quickly set out your thoughts and impressions in a way that readers find helpful, informative, and entertaining. Other times, you have to struggle a bit to try to come up with something that makes sense; hopefully I did on that piece.

And speaking of Episode IX, before we turn to this week’s art news, let’s all enjoy my friend Father Roderick Vonhögen watching the first teaser trailer from the Star Wars Celebration on Monday.

Gargantuan Gaudí

If you suffer from vertigo, you may want to hold on to your chair while watching the latest video of building progress at the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. As you can see in this somewhat dizzying rooftop footage, courtesy of La Vanguardia newspaper, construction of the Basilica’s six massive, central towers is now well underway. As they rise, they’re not only changing the city skyline, but also fundamentally altering the way that we mentally picture the building itself. So far, the church is still on track to be completed in time for the 100th anniversary of Antoni Gaudí’s death in 2026. (Dare one hope that the occasion will also serve as a perfect moment to announce his Beatification?)

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Robbins Reconsidered

There’s an interesting essay by art critic David Carrier this week in HyperAllergic, comparing the work of Andy Warhol (1928-1987) and the late Dan Robbins (1925-2019), a commercial artist who invented the “paint-by-number” art kits back in the 1950’s. Mr. Robbins, shown below in a self-portrait that recalls his invention, was inspired after reading about how Da Vinci would teach his apprentices using a numbering system on his design diagrams. Appropriately enough, I have a vague recollection of being a grade school student and working on a large, paint-by-number reproduction of Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” in acrylics on artist’s board. By all accounts, Mr. Robbins was a kind, modest man, as well as a World War II veteran who was married for 73 years (!) to his wife Estelle; he lived long enough to meet his five great-grandchildren. RIP.

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Glowing Gangloff

The stunning portrait below is of Julie Packard, marine conservationist and Executive Director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a work recently commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery from artist Hope Gangloff. Unlike most Contemporary artists, Ms. Gangloff is famously press-shy: she won’t even allow her face to be photographed when she gives interviews. When it comes to her art however, when she is good – such as here – her art is anything *but* shy. In her paintings, which are often quite massive, she creates visual environments that envelop her subjects, mixing a colorful blend of influences such as Symbolism, Expressionism, and Fauvism into a kind of glowing sumptuousness that is uniquely her own. The portrait of Ms. Packard will go on display at the National Portrait Gallery here in the Nation’s Capital on April 23rd.

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Resurgam

The 20th century Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier’s most famous aphorism, “Une maison est une machine-à-habiter,” is usually translated as, “A house is a machine for living in.” When it functions properly, a house can shelter us from storms, keep wild animals at bay, and give us a place to store our stuff. It may be more or less comfortable, depending on our circumstances, but the purpose of the house-as-machine is to help us survive; anything else that a house may be is secondary to that primary function.

The primary function of a church, on the other hand, is something entirely different. Its purpose is not to ensure basic temporal survival, a purpose which in any case could be met adequately, albeit unevenly, by a wide variety of structures. Rather, a church (small “c”) functions as a place to prepare those who make use of it for eternal life through the ministry of the Church (big “C”) founded by Jesus Christ. In fact, to paraphrase Le Corbusier in a way that he would find absolutely appalling – which, quite frankly, pleases me no end – we can state that “A church is a machine for living.”

The Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris was just one such machine among thousands, albeit an exceptionally beautiful and highly revered one. Over the centuries, at least four or five previous churches have stood on the same spot where the current church now smolders in ruins. Those who come to learn more about this structure’s long and tortured past will quickly realize that even this most venerable of buildings has been subject to a catalogue of endless, woeful human stupidities, from acts of iconoclasm and desecration, to awkward interventions and bad restoration. Last evening’s conflagration was but the latest indignity to have been suffered by a building which had already suffered a great deal from unfortunate tinkering about.

While initial reporting on the fire was difficult to watch for a number of reasons, those who stayed with the coverage of yesterday’s events saw that, as the fire retreated, hopeful reports began to come out. Broadcast and social media allowed people to share stories about and images of objects which had been saved: holy relics, works of art, historic documents, and so on. Later updates showed that some important parts of the old building even appear, rather miraculously, to have survived.

But long before this good news emerged, there was also a very different, and ultimately far more important, form of Good News on offer last night.

It took them awhile to realize it, but gradually news commentators noticed that hundreds of Parisian Catholics, many of them young people, were kneeling together on the streets around the burning Cathedral for hours, and continued to do so well into the wee hours of this morning. Like the Ancient Romans commenting on the way that the Early Christians went to their deaths in the Colosseum, the secular media had no idea how to process the sight of people praying the rosary and singing hymns to the Mother of God, even as the most famous building in the world dedicated to her was being reduced to ashes. It reminded me of St. Paul’s explanation of why the rest of the world finds Christianity so incomprehensible:

The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the learning of the learned I will set aside.”

 

Where is the wise one? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made the wisdom of the world foolish? For since in the wisdom of God the world did not come to know God through wisdom, it was the will of God through the foolishness of the proclamation to save those who have faith.

 

For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

Whatever secondary purpose the old church may have served in the eyes of the secular world – artistic monument, selfie backdrop, architectural masterpiece, film location, historical site – it nevertheless managed to fulfill its most important, sacred, and primary purpose right up to the end. For even as the old church was being destroyed, it managed to bring together those who seek eternal life through Him who promised, “I shall rise again.” May their witness to the truth of that declaration serve to inspire all believers, both during this Holy Week, and for the future.

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Art News Roundup: Las Vegas Lifeguard Edition

For decades now, Las Vegas hoteliers have been caught between two competing impulses when it comes to building and furnishing their resorts. Some have made an effort to distinguish their establishments from the more tawdry, gimmicky aspects of the city’s past, by erecting modern, luxurious structures and filling them with fine art. You’ll recall in the George Clooney version of “Ocean’s Eleven” that Andy Garcia’s character, based in part on Vegas hotelier Steve Wynn, was amassing a collection of Impressionist and early Modern paintings, which he displays in his hotel’s museum.

Of course, this effort to appear high-brow hasn’t stopped the ongoing construction of tacky pastiches alongside those hotels that try to position themselves as being both popular entertainment and high culture destinations. There’s the Luxor, for example, which features a gigantic steel-and-glass pyramid guarded by a monumental concrete sphinx; the Venetian, where one can take gondola rides through recreations of spots located in La Serenissima; resorts designed to look like New York or Paris, and so on. The resulting jumble is rather bizarre, with sleek towers that would look perfectly at home in Hong Kong planted next to white elephants that look like remnants of old Atlantic City: high design living cheek-by-jowl with absolute kitsch.

More recently, the Palms Casino-Resort in Vegas has been making an effort to brand itself as *the* spot for Contemporary Art vacationers to stay when visiting Sin City. Now, in addition to the street art-themed restaurant containing works by Banksy and others which I reported on recently, the hotel has acquired Damien Hirst’s colossal 60-foot tall “Demon with Bowl” (2014), which will tower over several of the resort’s swimming pools. The piece was arguably the showstopper at Hirst’s 2017 exhibition “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable”, a show imagining a fusion of ancient art and pop culture that was panned by many critics, but which seemed more interesting, at least in its humorous and inventive aspects, than many of the shows championed by the black turtleneck brigade.

Whereas for logistical reasons the sculpture that appeared so memorably in the courtyard of the palazzo housing Hirst’s Venice show was a plastic copy, the rather ominous lifeguard at the Palms is, in fact, the original, executed in bronze. Other works by the artist have been acquired by the resort as well, and he has also designed a luxury suite at the resort should you care to fully immerse yourself in Hirst’s view of the world. The experience will set you back about $200k a night.

Hirst has always been unashamedly interested in commercial ventures related to his art and notoriety, which at least distinguishes him as being more of a straightforward operator. Most Contemporary artists typically fall into the Bono/DiCaprio/Gore trap when it comes to their supposed values: do as I say, not as I do. Meanwhile, centuries of Western artists from Rubens to Picasso have relished the remunerative aspects of their work, and made no bones about the fact that they wanted to be well-compensated for their luxury goods. The fact that Hirst would actively participate in promoting his art in a city known mostly for its enthusiastic embrace of the fake and the excessive is, perhaps, only fitting.

No word on whether Julia Roberts has been hired as the resort’s official curator.

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And now, on to some of the past week’s more interesting art news stories.

Eastern Ernst

Yet another stunning Orientalist piece is coming to market shortly, this time at Bonham’s New York branch. On April 30th, the auction house will be selling “The Palace Guard (Awaiting an Audience)” by the Austrian painter Rudolf Ernst (1854-1932), which is a typical fusion of disparate influences from the Middle East and North Africa: Arabic dress, Ottoman weapon, Moroccan tiles, Persian and Mughal silks, etc. It’s also, at about two feet tall, not too big to fit over the sofa. As regular blog subscribers know, I’ve been following the revival in collector interest in Orientalism for awhile now, and although I’m still not sure what, precisely, has triggered this acquisition trend, it’s certainly not because these works are badly painted: quite the reverse, in fact. The estimate on this one is between $200-$300k, so this sale should give some indication of where the market is headed.

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Maybe Munch

Recently, an interesting art mystery has been unfolding at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. The painting of a woman which has been held in storage at the college’s art museum for the past twenty years could be an unfinished portrait by Norway’s most famous artist, Edvard Munch (1863-1944), of his one-time paramour, violinist Eva Mudocci. Recent scientific tests have turned up no anomalies in the materials that would exclude it from having been painted during the time period when the two were involved, and documentary research has shown that, in addition to the known etchings which Munch definitely produced during their romance, he may have been working on a painted portrait of Mudocci as well before their relationship ended. Further research will be needed, so stay tuned.

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More Munch

While the art experts sort themselves out, Munch fans can content themselves with a new exhibition on the artist’s graphic art, which opens today at the British Museum in London. “Edvard Munch: Love and Angst” features over 80 works, many on loan from the Munch Museum in Oslo, whose massive collection is currently not on view as the foundation prepares to move into its new home next door to the city opera house. Familiar images such as “The Scream” and “Madonna” are joined by lesser-known expressions of angst, such as “The Lonely Ones” shown below, where the relationship between the couple is ambiguous, or perhaps not entirely fulfilling to either party. The exhibition runs through July 21st.

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The Imagined East: An Unexpected Revival

While much of the art world and the art market continues to be endlessly enthralled by the excretions of Contemporary Art, which for the most part say nothing new and display little actual “art” in their execution, a forgotten corner of art history has slowly been gaining in popularity among both collectors and the public.

The reemergence of interest in “Orientalism”, which I’ve written about before, is difficult to explain outside of pure aesthetics. Take Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), whose beautiful “Rider and His Steed in the Desert” (1872), shown below, is about to be the star prize for collectors bidding at Sotheby’s annual Orientalist art sale. What are collectors attracted to in these realistic works, that have nothing to do with trends in things like graffiti art or objects strewn across a floor? (Incidentally, if a major auction house has a separate sale and department dedicated to objects from a particular branch of art history, that is usually a good indicator that the branch in question is popular enough among collectors to be singled out for specialty marketing purposes.)

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In this painting, Gérôme shows a man in North African dress in a barren desert landscape surrounded by high mountains; he is seated on the ground and is holding his horse’s head in his lap. We don’t know exactly what happened here, but man and horse are clearly looking at each other with a note of sadness. Something has happened to the horse, who is either in pain or dying, perhaps from a broken leg, and the man is powerless to do anything about it. The less obvious part of the story is the implication of what will happen later: this is likely the prelude to the man’s own death, since it’s unlikely that he’ll be able to make his way out of the prison of stone and sand on his own.

The image here is touching, even heart-wrenching, but of course it’s a fantasy. Gérôme isn’t depicting something that he himself witnessed, or a scene described in history or literature, but rather an entirely imagined scenario of his own creation. Having traveled extensively throughout North Africa and the Middle East, he was able to use his studies of the people, places, and objects he observed when he returned to Paris, in order to create complex, well-executed images such as these. Much of his art doesn’t depict scenes from real life, but rather creates something more akin to a painted short story.

Yet although this is a classic example of what is commonly referred to as “Orientalist” art, it should be pointed out that Western artists imagined things like Moroccan battles, Persian soothsayers, or Arabian harems long before the rise of the 19th century art academies. And in fact, although not strictly speaking of the “Orientalist” school, this earlier blending of fact and fiction in Western art sometimes produced really off-kilter results, when you dig down more deeply into what they depict. Many examples of this can be found in portraiture, where painters such as Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) and Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) relished the opportunity to dress their subjects in clothes that were either Eastern in origin, or influenced by Eastern design, even if the individuals wearing them were from somewhere else entirely.

Take Reynolds’ magnificent “Portrait of Omai” (c.1776) for example, one of his most famous works and currently in the midst of a tit-for-tat between its current owner and the British government. Here we see a full-length portrait of a young man, dressed in white robes and sporting a turban, standing before a palm tree in a landscape. His hands and forearms are covered in tattoos, and we may even see a bit of tattooing on the left leg as well. If you were to guess the national origin of the subject based on how Reynolds has presented him, you would probably say that he was from somewhere in North Africa, the Persian Gulf, or even possibly the Indian Subcontinent.

The problem here is that Omai was a warrior from French Polynesia, not from anywhere in the Islamic world; he met up with Captain Cook during the latter’s exploration of Polynesia, and returned with Cook to London for a time, where he became something of a celebrity. [N.B. There is a screenplay waiting to be written about this, I reckon.] Turbans were not worn on the islands, and the overall outfit has more to do with the fashions of the Ottoman Empire than with traditional dress on Tahiti. The image captures a sort of cosplay that Reynolds has asked his model to engage in, rather than a careful ethnographic study: what we see is costume, not custom. It succeeded in its day, as indeed it still does, because Western collectors have always had a taste for objects and images that seem exotic or strangely foreign, long before the rise of the Orientalist school of art.

Why Orientalism is particularly hot at the moment after many years of disinterest or indifference is difficult to pin down. Prices for Orientalist works are (comparatively) low, inventory is good, and many of these paintings are magnificently well-executed eye candy. And of course, the more museums that hold exhibitions looking back at this school of art, the more potential collectors become aware of it. We shall see whether this is just another trend, or whether Orientalist works continue to hold and rise in value.

Art News Roundup: Luxuriant Beard Edition

When it comes to learning about art, it’s difficult to attempt something approaching comprehensive autodidactism. As professional art researcher Eric Turquin pointed out in a recent interview with the Art Newspaper, discussing his career and the hotly-debated “Judith and Holofernes” alleged to be a lost work by Caravaggio (1571-1610), being an art generalist simply isn’t possible anymore. “If you want to succeed,” he notes, “you must specialise. And that’s true today for any career, not just for the art world.”

That being said, it isn’t a bad thing to challenge yourself periodically, by straying outside of your comfort zone when looking at art objects. I don’t know much about fin de siècle French glass, but I know who Émile Gallé (1846-1904) and René Lalique (1860-1945) were, and can often recognize their work or hazard a guess that a piece I’m looking at is by them. Even if I’m not interested in entering into a deep exploration of this type of art, but rather just want to skim along the surface, the exercise keeps things interesting. It’s a bit like trying an exotic dish or new cocktail for the first time: you might discover something new that you like and want to enjoy again, but it doesn’t mean that you give up on those things you already enjoy and return to over and over.

Take this stunning portrait of Persian Emperor Fath-Ali of the Qajar dynasty (1772-1834), for example, which will be coming up for auction at Bonham’s in London at the end of the month. Fath Ali is an instantly recognizable figure in Persian art, with his wasp waist, extravagant clothes, and luxuriant beard, who had official portraits of himself painted for use as diplomatic gifts many times. He was also something like a character out of a Georges Perec novel. Famously, he was once given a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica as a gift, read the entire thing, and then added the title of “Most Formidable Lord and Master of the Encyclopedia Britannica” to his list of honorifics. Persian Art is not really an area I collect, but I think I’d have to seek out a portrait of this particular Shah if I did.

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With all due respect to M. Turquin, while I’m always going to have interests in certain specialized areas of art, it’s still the case that cultivating a more general knowledge base can enrich an appreciation for, and understanding of, human creativity and cultural history. Artistic influences often cross established boundaries, and surprise us when they show up, unexpectedly, in works produced on the other side of the planet or at a very different time period. So by all means, get to know your specialty subject area as well as you can, whether it’s German medieval manuscripts or landscape artists of the Canadian Rockies. Yet every now and then, it’s worth taking the time to go look at things that you don’t know much about, like the just-opened exhibition on Chinese Empresses that I’m planning to visit this weekend for an upcoming review. The added knowledge will only enrich, not detract from, your understanding of what you see.

And now, on to some interesting art news stories from the past week.

Botticelli in Blighty

Proving once again why it’s important to have your old paintings cleaned periodically, a work long believed to have been a later copy of a painting by the Florentine Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445-1510) turns out to have been created in his studio at around the same time as the original. Botticelli’s “Madonna of the Pomegranate” (c. 1487) now hangs in the Uffizi, but as was the case in many Old Master studios, the artist’s assistants made contemporary, scaled-down copies of their boss’ work, sometimes with hands-on assistance from their master, for collectors who couldn’t obtain originals. This newly-cleaned version has now gone back on view at the Wernher Collection in Ranger’s House, Greenwich, a Georgian mansion outside London.

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Idiotic in Istanbul

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan recently announced that he wants to turn the Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul back into a mosque. The massive building was commissioned by the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century as the crown jewel of ecclesiastical architecture in the Byzantine Empire, and was the equivalent of St. Peter’s for the Eastern Church until the 15th century, when it was taken over by the Ottomans and converted into a mosque. In the 1930’s, the building was turned into a museum, but in recent years some more strident Islamic groups have been pressuring the Turkish government to allow them to conduct prayer services inside the building. Mr. Erdogan is currently sliding in the polls, his party having just lost recent municipal elections in major cities, so this declaration is likely something of a bread-and-circuses move to try to stay in power. No word yet on when this change will happen, but one assumes that they’ll have to whitewash over all the recently cleaned and restored Byzantine mosaics – again.

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Peeling in Paris

As part of the celebrations marking the 30th anniversary of starchitect I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid at the Louvre, the French street artist known as “JR” was commissioned to cover the courtyard containing the pyramid with a temporary art installation. Titled “The Secret of the Great Pyramid”, when viewed from a certain angle a mosaic of thousands of stickers forms an image which makes it appear as though Pei’s pyramid is sitting in the middle of a vast quarry or archaeological excavation site. While at best one could categorize this as a stunt, rather than a significant work of art, it’s certainly eye-catching – and perhaps a bit too effective in drawing in the punters. Within hours of the work’s installation, the stickers began to peel off the paver blocks that cover the courtyard, and visitors started ripping them up to take home as souvenirs.

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From The Federalist: Tintoretto at the National Gallery

My latest bit of art criticism for The Federalist is out this morning. This time, I’m reviewing the National Gallery of Art’s major new exhibition on the work of the Venetian Renaissance master Tintoretto (1518-1594). I should say exhibitions, plural, because in addition to the main show looking at his development and breadth of output as a painter, there are additional exhibitions at the museum on drawing – both Tintoretto’s own and that of his contemporaries – as well as on 16th century Venetian prints that were circulating in his studio at the time.

If you find yourself in the Nation’s capital in the next couple of months, Gentle Reader, you will definitely want to visit this show. For one thing, from a logistical perspective mounting something like this is next-to-impossible to attempt in the U.S. more than once in a lifetime, given the sheer size of many of Tintoretto’s paintings, plus the fact that the majority of his work is still in Venice and cannot be moved. Whether you’re able to make it to DC or not however, be sure to check out the NGA’s excellent documentary film on Tintoretto’s life and work, narrated by Stanley Tucci, which you can watch on their YouTube channel.

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Art News Roundup: Slings and Arrows Edition

Sometimes when I’m tapping out a blog post or a magazine article, I wonder what the point of it all is. Case in point, when I visited the opening of “Tintoretto: Artist of Renaissance Venice” at the National Gallery this past Sunday I was sitting, completely enthralled, across from his “Madonna of the Treasurers”, when a group of older tourists sauntered by, commenting on the paintings as they passed. One of them stood before this picture and commented to his companions: “This kinda looks like the Three Wise Men bringing gifts to the Baby Jesus, but look at that guy over there [pointing to the figure of St. Sebastian in the painting.] What’s his gift? A big ol’ spear through his chest?” Hearty laughter ensued.

By the time I recovered from a fit of eye-rolling and barely-contained volcanic rage, the group had moved on to watch a film presentation in the next room. “Why do I bother writing about these things,” I thought to myself, “when most people don’t really seem to care?” Had I been more self-possessed in the moment however, I could have said something helpful or instructive to the group before they left the gallery: instead, I blew it.

What I *could* have done would have been to put out that, in a way, the fellow was right on both counts. Tintoretto did, in fact, intentionally evoke the story of the Magi from St. Matthew’s Gospel in his composition, which the commentator would have known had he bothered to read the accompanying exhibition placard. And in a sense, St. Sebastian’s martyrdom was indeed a sort of gift, in that he gave up his life in witness to the Gospel. (cf. St. Matthew 16:24-25)

Also, that’s an arrow, not a spear.

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Look for my review of the NGA’s Tintoretto show in The Federalist soon; in the meantime, let’s take a look at some interesting stories from the art world this week.

Slavic Silver

A century ago, as Imperial Russia descended into the chaos of the Bolshevik Revolution, members of the princely Narshykin family saw the writing on the wall and decided to pack all of the family silver – over 2,000 pieces of it – and brick it up inside a secret storage room in their St. Petersburg mansion before fleeing the country. In 2012, workers renovating their former palace stumbled across this treasure trove, which has now gone on display to the public for the first time at the Catherine Palace in Tsarskoye Selo, the former country estate of the Imperial family just outside of St. Petersburg. I haven’t seen any reporting on the exhibition indicating whether the Narshykins have tried to reclaim the treasure through the courts, but such an effort would hardly be surprising, given the scale of the hoard.

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Sea Sighting

I’m not a fine photography collector, but if I were, I’d probably be interested in the work of California-based photographer Renzo Sanchez-Silva, who is featured in a new exhibition at the Agora Gallery in New York. Titled “Opening the Window”, the show brings together the work of eleven artists working in different media, who like to blur the lines between abstract and representational art. Mr. Sanchez-Silva’s mesmerizing, gloriously atmospheric observations of light on sea and sky are far and away the most captivating works in this show. “Opening the Window” runs through April 16th.

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Opining on Opie

Staying nearby in Chelsea, the Lisson Gallery recently opened what is apparently the first-ever New York solo show for British Contemporary artist Julian Opie (1958- ). I confess I’m rather stunned by this fact, since I’ve always loved his painting and graphic design (his sculpture, not so much.) It seems incredible that up until now, he’s never had his own show in Manhattan. I appreciate his use of color, his thought process on how to distill things such as movement, personality, and texture with an economy of line, and overall I just find his stuff to be great fun. It’s perfectly okay if you don’t agree with my opinion of course, but if you do happen to find yourself in New York, go have a look and let me know what you think. “Julian Opie” is on view through April 20th.

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In Bloom: Three Paintings for Spring

Although it’s still slightly chilly in the Nation’s Capital, Spring has (finally) sprung here at last: our famous cheery trees are blooming, daffodils are taking over hillsides and traffic medians, and tulip leaves are inching toward the point beyond which their flowers will appear. In the Spring, with apologies to Lord Tennyson, both a young man and a somewhat older man’s fancy may lightly turn to thoughts of love, but if he loves art, he turns to thoughts of paintings which try to capture some of the fleeting pleasures of the season. So today, I thought I’d share three works which, for me, have always evoked this time of year – and if you have your own favorite Spring-related art, gentle reader, I’d love to read about it in the comments section.

“Almond Trees in Blossom” (1911) – Santiago Rusiñol i Prats
Private Collection

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Like the cavea of an ancient Roman theatre, the terraced hillsides of this almond orchard in full bloom on the island of Mallorca step down into a kind of orchestra pit covered with bright, spring green grass, and blue-green leaves sprouting from bulbs. At the turn of the previous century, Santiago Rusiñol i Prats (1861-1931) began moving away from depictions of bohemian life in Paris and social injustice in Barcelona, becoming more and more devoted to landscape painting throughout Spain. Always on the lookout for new sources of inspiration, in 1899 he paid his first visit to Mallorca with the wonderfully innovative landscape painter Joaquim Mir i Trinxet (1873-1940), and both became hooked on the huge contrasts in the landscape and strong Mediterranean light that illuminated the island. This picture was painted on one of his later return visits, and like many of Rusiñol’s landscapes it practically begs you to enter into it and smell all of the different fragrances in the air, while the cool winds and warm sun ripple across your face.

“Almond Blossom” (1890) – Vincent Van Gogh
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

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Turning to a different representation of almond flowers, I’ve always been captivated by this work, which looks simultaneously traditional and contemporary. Like many other artists of his day, Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) was strongly influenced by traditional Japanese prints, and that influence is clearly evident in this wonderful evocation of tree branches full of delicate blooms. At the same time, the separation of the subject from any visual point of reference – is this a cropped image of a tree set before a glowing sky, or do we see cut brunches in a vase displayed against a blue wall? – distills the question of time down to a single, inescapable conclusion, devoid of any other considerations: it’s Spring.

“A Cup of Water and a Rose” (c. 1630) – Francisco de Zurbarán
National Gallery, London

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This small picture, which is only about the size of a standard sheet of letter-sized paper, doesn’t have the grandeur of the religious paintings that helped make Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1694) a popular artist not only in his native Spain, but also in the Spanish colonies in the New World. Nor is it as large or complex as some of his other works in the bodegón genre, that style of starkly minimalist painting using household objects, flowers, and food against a dark background and a plain foreground which is one of the greatest legacies of Spanish painting. Yet in its simplicity, this delicate observation of a pale, early rose lying on a plain silver tray alongside a two-handled cup filled with water is, like Van Gogh’s painting, a wonderful evocation of Spring, even though the only specific reference to time and place is in the presence of the flower itself.

Art News Roundup: Poverty Chic Edition

In popular culture, there’s inevitably a tipping point beyond which something that was once considered to be edgy and subversive – body piercings twenty years ago, tattoos now – becomes banal. The more commonly accepted something becomes, the less it costs those who obtain it, whether monetarily or socially. In the art market however, the opposite is true. The more popular a type of art becomes among the collecting cognoscenti, the more it falls outside the reach of the average person.

The popular street artist known as Banksy has been heading in the direction of bougie-fication for quite awhile, fetching ever-greater sums for his work and pulling along other graffiti scrawlers in his wake. In fact, such art has become so socially acceptable that it’s currently used to market things such as loft conversions in gentrifying neighborhoods. Yet now, I believe that we may have finally reached the precise moment at which Banksy’s insider-outsider art has finally jumped the shark.

The Palms in Las Vegas boasts some of the most expensive hotel suites in the world, along with a residential tower where apartments can go for tens of millions of dollars. As part of a massive $620 million renovation, the casino resort is opening a new theme restaurant, described as a kind of “speakeasy” that will take diners back to the New York underground art scene of the 1980’s. On display will be works by Banksy and other street artists, some of which were specially commissioned for the space. Of course, Banksy is a Contemporary Artist from the UK, and was not working in New York in the 1980’s, so the idea of trying to recapture a particular era in the history of an American city by displaying current, foreign art seems a bit off, but there you are.

Having visited New York several times during the ‘80’s, I don’t quite see the appeal of this particular dining concept. Even the more heavily-touristed parts of the city were often dirty, dilapidated, and dangerous back then. Personally, I rather doubt that I’d care to dine on duck confit in surroundings designed to evoke an Ed Koch-era crack house in Alphabet City, but de gustibus non disputandum est.

There’s also something terribly Ancien Régime about this entire concept, and not in a good way. One is vaguely reminded of Marie Antoinette dressing up as a shepherdess to go milk immaculately groomed and perfumed cows at the Hameau de la Reine, the faux country village which she had built on the grounds of Versailles. Creating a restaurant experience where diners can imagine that they are associating with unseen members of the marginalized and downtrodden classes, without having to step over used needles, detect whiffs of urine, or scare off marauding rats, seems rather disturbingly exploitative – indeed, much like Banksy’s art itself. If we had to allow the import of Banksy’s garbage art from the UK, did we also have to import the garbage concept of poverty chic in dining, as well?

In any case, since Banksy’s work is now considered acceptable wall décor for hotel restaurants aimed at groups of tourists attending annual sales conferences, it’s entirely possible that we’ve finally reached the point at which tastemakers begin to view such art as no longer being fashionable. Of course, some of us have always thought that the entire street art movement was nothing more than the deification of those who practice anti-social, criminal activities in the first place. Only time will tell.

In the meantime, let’s move on (with greater brevity) to some other art stories.

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Hudson Yawns

Ben Davis’ review of Hudson Yards, the massive new redevelopment project on the west side of Manhattan that opened to the public this week, is worth reading, even though he doesn’t address the controversial issue of image licensing at the site. I don’t agree with all of Mr. Davis’ assessments of the art on display, but a number of his observations about the project as a whole are spot-on. Case in point: “[W]hat Hudson Yards in fact is, at its heart, is absolutely the most boring, uninteresting thing that you could realize with all that investment: It is an engorged complex of high-end office space and retail. It is no one’s idea of cool except to the kind of people who think that Eataly is an edgy destination.”

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Painted Peering

The Painted Hall at the former Royal Hospital in Greenwich, England, is an overwrought but interesting work of art propaganda by the British artist James Thornhill (1675-1734), designed to celebrate and legitimize the reigns of the later Stuart monarchs, and their connection to the subsequent Hanoverian dynasty. The murals had been undergoing cleaning and restoration for some time, but the Hall has now reopened to the public complete with a suite of day beds, which will allow visitors to lie down and look up at the ceilings without having to crane their necks. As Maev Kennedy comments in the Art Newspaper, “it takes a leap of faith to accept the regular description of the hall as ‘England’s Sistine Chapel’,” an observation which is borne out by comparison to what I would consider England’s true equivalent of the Sistine Chapel, albeit one just as secular and propagandist as the Painted Hall: Peter Paul Rubens’ glorious 17th century ceiling for the Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace. You be the judge, gentle reader.

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San Diego Surprise

I recently watched the video of a talk that I want to highly recommend to my readers, which was given by art historian Nigel McGilchrist at the San Diego Museum of Art a few weeks ago. Titled “The Road from Giorgione and Caravaggio to the Greatness of Spanish Painting”, the lecture is a non-linear exploration of some of the interesting connections between Italian and Spanish art, and even for someone who knows a fair amount about both subjects, I learnt a great deal from the presentation. For example, at one point the historian notes the admiration of many artists over the centuries for the “Belvedere Torso”, a roughly 2,000-year-old fragment of Hellenistic sculpture on display at the Vatican Museums. To my great surprise, Mr. McGilchrist was able to connect the sculpture, a visit to Rome by the young Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) in the 1760’s, and one of Goya’s most famous and haunting engravings, “The Colossus”, created sometime between 1800-1818. The menacing figure in Goya’s graphic art masterpiece which, like the “Belvedere Torso” itself, has had a huge impact on subsequent generations of artists, corresponds almost exactly with a sketch Goya made of the back of this Ancient Greek sculpture during his sojourn in the Eternal City.

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Why Can’t Little Johnny Draw? Art Education and the College Admissions Scandal

The fallout from the college admissions scandal in the U.S., in which some parents (including several prominent ones) allegedly paid large amounts of money to obtain entry for their children into elite universities, has largely swirled around highly-charged debates over wealth and race. Yet there’s also an interesting question to be explored with regard to what those students involved in the scandal intended to study once they got to the college of their choice. In an opinion piece published on ArtNet yesterday, columnist Tim Schneider weighs in on both the current cause célèbre of the admissions scandal, as well as the scandal of American college tuition generally, but he doesn’t address a fundamental, underlying assumption of his piece: the continued justification for visual art schools in the first place.

First, let’s consider the more general topic of American higher education. In his op-ed Schneider notes that, “[t]o paraphrase entrepreneur, author, and NYU business-school professor Scott Galloway, American higher education has transformed from a public utility into a luxury product.” Yet this is an historically inaccurate statement, because higher education has always been a luxury product, if we define a luxury as something that is desirable but not, strictly speaking, necessary. Like many other things in contemporary society, such as solid granite countertops and television screens the size of small islands, luxury in this country has increasingly come to be viewed as a right.

Bear in mind that most of the oldest American universities were not founded to be the intellectual equivalent of the electric company, but rather as elite training schools for Protestant ministers. Eventually these institutions, as well as those of orthodox faith or comparatively newer vintage, were designed to turn out gentlemen (and later ladies) who would be the social, economic, and political leaders of their communities. For most of this country’s history, higher education was viewed as a privilege, and as such it was difficult to gain entry into such institutions if one did not have the resources to attend, the intelligence to merit consideration, or the connections to assure matriculation.

That being said, we tend to forget that most of the wealthiest and most powerful men of the 19th and early 20th centuries – John Jacob Astor, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, etc. – never went to college, and in some cases never even went to high school. Others, such as Henry Clay Frick and John D. Rockefeller, may have had a bit of higher education in business-related subjects, but never finished a degree. Yet ironically, it was the highly-educated graduates of Ivy League schools who ended up working for these comparatively uneducated individuals, not the other way round.

However the issue raised by the ArtNet editorial needs to be considered more narrowly, focusing on art education, not on whether little Suzy would be better off going to a trade school instead of reading garbage by Noam Chomsky and Rigoberta Menchú for four years. Education in the visual arts is somewhat problematic in the present climate, when it comes to questions of elitism. As Mr. Schneider correctly discerns, “thousands of students effectively buy a stealth luxury product premised on exclusivity (an MFA) to give themselves the best chance at a career of… producing stealth luxury products premised on exclusivity (artworks in the gallery system). The snake eats its own tail.”

Moreover it must be said that the particular problem with art schools, when it comes to the visual arts, is that they seem rather unnecessary, given the aesthetic values embraced and championed by the art establishment. Put aside for the moment those who go to art school to learn how to shoot a film, or to restore a work of art, or to study the history of French Rococo painting (poor devils.) In the past, an aspiring visual artist attended art school in order to learn how to draw, paint, sculpt, etc., to at least a reasonable degree of competency. Today, when creativity is valued over craftsmanship, and feelings are more important than technical skill, why does one need to go to school for the creation of visual arts at all?

For most of history, from ancient times up through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, being an artist was considered a professional trade, not a philosophical calling, and nearly all of the greatest Old Master painters – Giotto, Raphael, Titian, etc. – received their art education by serving as apprentices to established artists. Gradually, groups of artists began to gather together to educate themselves and share ideas and techniques, such as in the case of Nicolas Poussin (whose sketch for his later painting, “A Dance to the Music of Time” illustrates this piece) and his circle. Later, the growth of these informal institutions and the demise of the guild and patronage system led to the creation of institutionalized art academies, which trained generations of artists such as Eakins, Hopper, and Picasso.

Once Modern Art took hold of the art establishment, and conventional values regarding form and technique went out the window, the need for a formalized academic setting in which to learn how to paint a picture went out the window with it. If all truth is as relative as taste, and artistic value is purely in the eye of the beholder, then why do I need a teacher to tell me how to apply paint to canvas? If it is not because I have to learn how to draw before I can paint, then it must be because I have to earn my place in the art world by paying my dues to those who happen to run it.

One can certainly understand the frustration of high school students who, despite having high academic achievements, are unable to secure places at universities where they would like to study, when these universities are apparently for sale to the highest bidder. Truth be told, it has always been thus when it comes to higher education. We are just more outraged by everything now, because as a society we are deeply silly and shallow, having little or nothing serious with which to occupy our free time.

Yet while Mr. Schneider raises some interesting arguments in his piece, and at least acknowledges the existence of the elephant in the room regarding the self-gratifying nature of visual arts education, it must be said that the art establishment itself has a long way to go before it can presume to stand the moral high ground in this debate.

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