Art News Roundup: Pandemic Projects Edition

I suppose I should stop apologizing for missing my Tuesday essay entry once again, gentle reader. At the moment, I find myself busier than ever, between both my work-work and the various projects that I am working on in my own time. This makes taking the time to write a more in-depth examination of a particular topic a bit more difficult right now.

At the start of the quarantine, I had the sense to make an initial list of things that I could and probably should get around to doing in isolation, not knowing when things would get back to normal. This didn’t immediately “take” however, even if I made a start on some fronts. At the outset, the Fortress of Solitude seemed even more solitary than usual, and didn’t provide me with much motivation. There was a definite lack of enthusiasm on my part, to do more than the minimum of what I had to do each day.

Over time however, I’ve found that my natural tendency to set, research, and achieve goals, combined with an equally deep-rooted tendency to pay attention to detail, has led to my putting more energy into what I do right now, than I did at the outset of this involuntary incarceration. Anecdotally, at least, I can say that I’ve observed the same thing among a number of people I know, at least on their social media accounts. As best they can under the circumstances, artist and musician friends are busy painting and recording, fellow scribblers are scribbling away, business owners are trying out new ways to engage with customers. And away from these kinds of tasks, I see people refinishing their old furniture, repainting their walls, and learning how to cook all sorts of things.

Whatever happens when we finally emerge into the weird new world that awaits, my guess is that a lot of us will have some creative achievements to show for our time away. Sure, we may not have become proficient in a foreign language, or we never did get around to reorganizing that messy file drawer. However my hunch is that a lot of people will be able to say, “I made this,” whether it’s a loaf of sourdough bread, a scrapbook, or a coffee table. And for me, anyway, those very human desires to be creative, to keep learning, and to share with others are why I keep being drawn back to the art world, where centuries of those desires have been, and continue to be expressed.

With that said, far be it from me to deny you some curated stories of interest from said world, and here they are:

Propitious Prizegiving

Art critics generally don’t win Pulitzer Prizes – and I’m certainly not gunning for one – but this year an exception has been made for Christopher Knight of the Los Angeles Times. Readers may recall my pointing you to one of his very well-investigated pieces regarding the bizarre, ongoing collapse of reason and common sense at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), a saga which he has been following through its many twists and turns. From alienating major donors to demolishing significant buildings to embracing truly strange notions about what an art museum ought to be, there’s enough weirdness going on at LACMA for a team of critics and reporters to cover, and yet Mr. Knight has been covering the story better than anyone else. I may not always agree with him, but his work demonstrates how an informed art critic can and should reach a wider audience when it comes to writing about art: this recognition by his peers is well-deserved.


Pantheon Paving

Because like many ancient cities, present-day Rome is built atop many previous versions of herself, any time you need to dig underground, you’re probably going to find something much older. Sometimes however, that digging is involuntary, because the Eternal City is prone to suffering from sinkholes: this is due not only to the vast network of tunnels, catacombs, and demolished ancient buildings that lie beneath it, but also because many areas in the oldest parts of town are characterized by a soft, sandy soil. Last week, a sinkhole opened up in the Piazza della Rotonda, in front of the Pantheon, and workers who came to repair it were able to examine the paving stones laid in a previous, grander incarnation of the square, ordered by the Emperor Hadrian (76 A.D. – 138 A.D.) That layer currently lies about eight feet below the present-day level. Although the travertine marble slabs had been rediscovered almost 30 years ago, they was covered up again to protect them; archaeologists are impressed that despite the erosion and damage caused in the ensuing decades, the ancient stonework has held up much better than the more modern replacement. You can see a video of the site here.


Parisian Proffering

For those of you who need a bit of French royal excess for your study, the Mobilier National de France, which looks after much of the historic furniture and decorative arts in use or on display in official state residences, and is currently caring for the salvaged carpets of Notre Dame de Paris as I’ve told you previously, has announced that it will be auctioning off around 100 works from its collection this September. Proceeds to go toward a foundation to support Parisian and French hospitals headed by the French First Lady. The decision on what to sell will have to be made unanimously by members of the government commission appointed to the task, so that there’s no litigation over, as Le Figaro puts it, selling off the family jewels. There will plenty left after the sale, since the collections consists of over 130,000 objects, from sofas to lamps to rugs.


Art News Roundup: Back to Black Edition

No, you did not get an essay from me on Tuesday, gentle reader – again – and no, subscribers, you did not miss an email. Despite working from the Fortress for the last 7,320 days of quarantine, I find myself both incredibly more efficient but also much busier at the moment. My apologies. That said, before we turn to high culture of the week, allow me a moment to promote a bit of pop culture that will be commemorated this afternoon.

This afternoon the GRAMMY Museum in Los Angeles will host a special live event on Instagram marking the anniversary of the release of the song [WARNING: adult language/themes] “Back to Black” by the late, great Amy Winehouse (1983-2011), off of her album of the same title. It’s one of my favorite Amy tracks, in part due to the almost Edith Piaf-like pathos. While many listeners are drawn to the recording’s sumptuous orchestration in a classic 1960’s Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” style, the song itself stands up perfectly on its own: in fact it worked just as well when she performed it acoustically, with only a guitar accompaniment.

Beginning tomorrow, online visitors to the museum’s site will be able to take a virtual tour of the exhibition “Beyond Black – The Style of Amy Winehouse”, which had been scheduled to close at the end of this month, but now may well have more visitors online than it might have had in real life. I definitely plan on seeing it, since while neither tattoos nor beehive wigs appeal to me, my initial rather low opinion of Amy changed over time, because a friend encouraged me to let go of my preconceptions and just listen. The eventual result was one of the blog posts I’m most proud of, back when Amy died, written as a riposte to another and better-known personality who had downplayed her loss. Great art, if it is great art, sometimes doesn’t come in a pretty package, but you owe it to yourself to at least look at it and see if you can discover the good in it. Accordingly, even if you’re not a fan of her work, I encourage you to go read it with an open mind, and then listen to some of her tunes, since she really was a remarkable artist.


Like many museums shuttered due to the pandemic, the GRAMMY Museum has been stepping up its public outreach efforts to keep music lovers engaged even as they are stuck at home, so be sure to take a look around their site for more events and resources that can help tide you over until you can get to a concert again.

And now, on to some more hoity-toity headlines.

Notre Dame: Back to Work

As some European countries begin to relax previous restrictions imposed by the pandemic, restoration is once again set to resume at the Cathedral Basilica of Notre Dame de Paris. The project head, General Jean-Louis Georgelin (below) – whom the French press have begun referring to as, “Monsieur Reconstruction” – met with architects and engineers on Monday to discuss how to get back to work within the limitations imposed by the pandemic. Interestingly, the General seems to have shied away from French President Macron’s 2024 completion date ever so slightly. In an interview on Monday, M. Reconstruction indicated that 2024 is the goal year for returning the church to worship, but not for the full completion of all work (“Cette date n’est pas celle de la fin des travaux, mais celle à laquelle la cathédrale devrait être rendue au culte catholique.”) I wonder how M. le Président took that nuanced pronouncement, or whether it’s some hair-splitting that came from the Élysée itself.


Van Gogh: Back to Square One

Subscribers and regular readers will recall my telling you about the recent theft of an early work by Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) on loan from one museum to another in The Netherlands. The latest on that mystery is the security footage from the Singer Laren Museum, showing that the thief arrived and departed on a motorcycle, and used a sledgehammer during part of the break-in, before strolling out with the painting under his arm. I found this statement by the museum’s director to be wonderfully terse: “The footage released does not therefore allow any conclusions to be drawn as to the quality of security at Singer Laren.” I wouldn’t want to be the security contractor who will hear the less polite version of that statement. Police are still investigating, but have not identified any suspects at the moment. As an interesting side note, it turns out that the founder of the museum was an artist who, along with her artist husband, had settled in Laren many years earlier; both were American expatriates.


Vermeer: Back to Green (?)

Speaking of Dutch art, over the past few days both the art and mainstream press have been fascinated by some recent discoveries following a two-year scientific analysis of Dutch Golden Age painter Johannes Vermeer’s (1632-1675) most famous work, “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (1665). Not only are there now-faded eyelashes painted so finely that they can’t be seen when just looking at the piece in person, but the picture originally looked somewhat different when it was originally completed. Rather than a black background, a green curtain was depicted behind the figure; the pigment has darkened to black over time. It would be interesting to see whether it could be brought back, since it would radically alter the way we think of the painting, and it’s a move that would not be unprecedented for a Vermeer. Readers may recall my telling you about the discovery and restoration of a painted-out background element in another famous Vermeer painting, “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window”.




Art News Roundup: Landscape Orientation Edition

I know, I know.

I didn’t post my usual longer-format essay on Tuesday, but I was unfortunately overtaken by events requiring my attention. In any case, as you might imagine, most of the news from the art world at the moment is awful, and not just because of all the utter garbage I have to read on a daily basis to keep up with what’s going on: as I’ve written before, I sift through all of this flotsam and jetsam so that you don’t have to do so. Rather, the outlook is quite bad both for the market and museumworld at the moment, and there are some emerging trends that I’m looking at which I want to write about at greater length next week.

For today however, let’s just sit back and take a look at some recent news which I hope you’ll find interesting, having to do with outdoor places. We all know that, no matter how many windows you open, or how much you try to lacquer the air with Febreeze, being at home for so long really stinks. So let’s have a peep outside and see what we find.

Spiritual Spelunking

A rather mysterious archaeological discovery was made recently in the county of Surrey, England, when a landslide revealed a hidden cavern, decorated with medieval symbols indicating that was used for spiritual purposes. While the imagery is Christian, it’s also possible that the site was used for religious purposes going back to pre-Christian times. This of course is not at all unusual, since it was often the case that missionaries or bishops with wills of iron would take over pagan sites and convert them to Christian purposes, and similar such repurposed sites can be found throughout Europe and the Middle East, such as the very ancient shrine of Our Lady of Covadonga, in Asturias, Spain. At the moment, there appears to be some uncertainty as to whether the newly-discovered Surrey cave was a hermitage or a shrine. If the former, it’s perhaps a tad more primitive than the one we’re trying to establish up in Maine, since if this place was a hermitage, the hermit would have needed to repel down the face of the cliff to reach it, and I don’t see us asking Brother Rex to do the same.


Monhegan Muse

Speaking of Maine, you’re probably aware of the fact that many museums are putting images of their exhibitions online for virtual visitors during the present pandemic, and one of these is the New Britain Museum of American Art. Their current show, “The Art and Artists of Monhegan Island”, features beautiful, boldly-colored landscapes and seascapes of this renowned artists’ colony off the coast of Maine. Many American artists have vacationed and painted on Monhegan over the years, perhaps most famously George Bellows (1882-1925), the Wyeths, and Edward Hopper (1882-1967). Hopper’s views of Maine are not as publicly acclaimed as his more introspective figurative paintings or cityscapes, but I recall at the National Gallery retrospective some years ago finding them quite a revelation, with bold colors such as in this image of a cluster of houses on Monhegan punctuated by a streak of cobalt blue sea. For this Connecticut-based celebration of coastal Maine however, there are several new-to-you (or me, anyway) artists to discover, such as Jay Hall Connaway (1893-1970), whose vibrant, undated “Clouds” appears below.


Majestic Meander

And we’ll go from Maine to Marie now, with some interesting news from Versailles. After many years of fits and starts, a private garden originally designed for Queen Marie Antoinette in 1776 will finally be restored and replanted. Apart from the rather ignorant subheading on this article – Marie Antoinette never said, “Let them eat cake,” as any reasonably-educated student of history knows – the news is very good. It will be fascinating to see what the French imagined an English country house garden of the period to look like, in the same way that English landscape designers imagined what French or Italian landscapes looked like. It shouldn’t be surprising to learn that this garden for strolling, conversation, and reflection was intended to be less formal than the usual grand outdoor spaces of the time, since when she was not performing court duties the Queen preferred a comparatively relaxed atmosphere. This included a more simple style of dress, as captured by her friend and favorite painter, Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun (1755-1842), as readers of my review on the retrospective of that artist at The Met a few years ago will recall. Below, a detail of Vigée-Le Brun’s 1783 portrait of the Queen in a white muslin dress and straw hat, now at The Met.


Art News Roundup: Springing Eternal Edition

It’s rather curious how some of the most short-lived of living things – flowers – can bring us a great deal of joy and fascination, and indeed hope, when things aren’t exactly hopeful all around us.

Case in point, let’s consider one of Florentine Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli’s (1435-1510) most famous works, “Primavera” (“Spring”) (painted sometime around 1480), which currently hangs in the Uffizi in Florence. It features a procession of figures from mythology, moving through a lush landscape, although the question of to what purpose they are doing so remains something of a subject for debate among art historians, even these many centuries later. Yet as this article published earlier this week in La Vanguardia points out [N.B. just let Google roughly translate it for you if needed] while most of us focus on the figures, there are mind-blowing details regarding the plants that appear in the painting, all of which make Botticelli’s work all the more interesting even if we don’t quite understand it.

For example, it turns out that there are 500 flowers shown in the picture, and all of them happen to grow in Tuscany. The artist may have taken a few liberties here and there, but for the most part the flora in the painting can be identified by botanists; none of them are pure invention. Interestingly, while our eyes are perhaps naturally drawn to Botticelli’s roses, the plants that appear most often throughout the painting are the more humble daisy and violet. There’s also a host of other botanical specimens, from crocus to orange blossom to poppy, and a magnificent iris.


Now as those of you with more of a green thumb know, not all of these things flower at the same time. What’s more, it’s somewhat incongruous to see an orange tree both flowering and fruiting simultaneously, since the former takes place in spring, and the latter in the fall. As a symbolic matter, since this and the other allegorical pieces in the room may well have been created to commemorate a Medici wedding, the profusion of flowers and plants could speak to the hope that the new couple will have a fruitful marriage.

In his depiction of botanical abundance however, it’s very possible that Botticelli was trying to demonstrate his awareness of contemporary Northern European art. Florentine and Venetian painters were fascinated by what Flemish and Dutch artists were doing, particularly with respect to their use of the new medium of oil-based paint. The more traditional tempera paint that Botticelli used in “Primavera” was a stable medium, but at the same time it couldn’t evoke contrasts of light, shadow, and texture the way that oil paint can. Artists such as Jan Van Eyck (1390-1441) or Rogier van der Weyden (1399-1464) could depict a profusion of flowers and plants in an extremely precise, almost scientific way, which one suspects that Botticelli, with his own very precise lines for both figures and rendering architectural perspective, probably would have appreciated greatly, such as that shown in this example of lilies from Van Eyck’s “Annunciation” (c. 1434-1436) in the National Gallery here in DC.


We may never have a definitive answer as to the question of what “Primavera” represents, but even as we stay cooped up during what I’ve been referring to with family and friends in Spain as this “primavera robada” (“stolen spring”), his careful attention to the flowers and plants of a Tuscan springtime can, at least, give us some sense of joy.

And now, on to some art stories of note from the week or so gone by.

A Year On at Notre Dame

It’s been a year since the devastating fire at the Cathedral Basilica of Notre Dame de Paris last spring. Despite the continued challenges of the tangled mess at the building site, now further complicated by the restrictions imposed as a result of the present pandemic, French President Emmanuel Macron is determined to stick to his promised completion date of 2024 for the church’s restoration, even as he apparently continues to be of the view that the spire be rebuilt in some totally inappropriate style. In addition, it appears that the cause of the fire is still not known, despite earlier reports that it had been put down to an electrical short. There is some good news to share, however. Germany has pledged to lend its expertise to the windows aspect of the restoration project, including donating a new set of windows for the clerestory as a gift to France, which is a very gracious thing indeed. And perhaps not surprisingly, it turns out that the retired General (and very devout Catholic) whom President Macron placed in charge of the project is not going to suffer fools when it comes to getting the work on track, which is a good sign.



Fridays at the Frick

One way that many people are trying to relax and connect these days is by hosting distance happy hours with family and friends by the use of video conferencing apps – I have three of these scheduled for the rest of this week, in fact. The Frick Collection in New York is now doing the same for the public, hosting Friday evening Happy Hours for those who want to learn a bit more about art while sipping a tipple in the safety of their own home. Every Friday at 5pm Eastern, “Cocktails with a Curator” allows visitors to the museum’s website or YouTube channel to watch a live presentation by one of the Frick’s curators on a specific piece in the collection; rather charmingly, the museum provides an appropriate cocktail (and mocktail) recipe to make at home for the virtual get-together. This week, the art is Rembrandt’s magnificent “The Polish Rider” (c. 1650) and a recipe for a Szarlotka – not the pastry, but rather a cocktail flavored like it, albeit made with Polish vodka.


Beatrix’ Bunnies at Doyle

Just in time for spring, this coming Wednesday. April 22nd, Doyle Auctions in New York will be selling a treasure trove of original materials by beloved English artist and author Beatrix Potter (1866-1943). As a child, my favorite Potter works – “The Tailor of Gloucester” (1903) and “The Tale of Benjamin Bunny” (1904) – would mesmerize me both with their stories and with their incredibly rich illustrative details. Even today, when I come across a copy of one of Potter’s books, I experience the same sense of wonder as I thumb through the pages. Below, a watercolor on silk that will be up for sale at next week’s auction depicts a scene from “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” (1901), which Potter herself copied sometime between 1901-1905 from the original version that she had painted on paper. The piece carries a pre-sale estimate of $20-30k, but don’t be surprised if it goes for much more than that, even in this uncertain market: this is Beatrix Potter, after all.


Hungry For Hippos: Making Metamorphs

Hopefully today’s story will get you smiling a bit, gentle reader, because we all certainly need some of that at the moment. In addition, for those of you with a creative bent, I’m hoping that you just might find yourself becoming a bit inspired as you read this, even while we’re all staying safe at home. For behold: I bring you, “Famille d’ Hippopotames” (“Family of Hippopotamuses”) (1992) by French sculptor François-Xavier Lalanne (1927–2008):


What’s more, this is not just a large, polished bronze sculptural group of a mother hippo and her calves – oh no. It’s also a bathroom suite.

Yes, you read that correctly.

And it’s for sale.

The enormously creative, artistic team known as “Les Lalanne” – François-Xavier and his wife Claude Lalanne (1924–2019) – sometimes worked together, and sometimes separately, but they had similar approaches in combining their love for the natural world with their sensitivity to good design, and beautiful, highly original objects. In some cases they created works that were purely decorative, but more often than not they were interested in exploring art that was capable of metamorphosis into objects serving a practical purpose, albeit in a rather Surrealist sort of way. While M. Lalanne was primarily interested in creating large representations of animal life, Mme. Lalanne mainly focused on plant life, often (though not always) on a more personal scale. Since M. Lalanne was responsible for the group of hippos shown above, today we’re going to focus on his work, but both Lalannes are definitely worth getting to know.

A quintessential example of M. Lalanne’s creative genius is the “Sauterelle” (“Grasshopper”)(1970), which is a bar made of polished brass and Sèvres porcelain in the form of a giant grasshopper, measuring about six feet in length. Only two of these were made, and one was given to the Queen as a gift by President Pompidou; it used to reside at Windsor Castle but I believe it may now be at Buck House. The other was auctioned by Sotheby’s New York nearly two years ago for $1.63 million – well over its pre-sale estimate.


This isn’t just a long table in the shape of a grasshopper however: there is practical bartending functionality built into the piece. As Sotheby’s explained in its listing, the grasshopper has “wings that convert to trays and a chic storage system to conceal liquor and barware.” I’m sure this is already giving the more creative cocktail drinkers among my readers some ideas.

You can see more examples of this incredibly creative work here on this excellent blog post from a few years ago at The Animalarium. I particularly draw your attention to the absolutely superb “Banc Crocodile” (2005) which is a table featuring a crocodile swimming through a bed of river plants, with the scene defined at the corners by scallop shell-adorned crocodile legs done in an 18th century Venetian Grotesque style. Conceptually, one could even imagine someone like the Emperor Hadrian (76 A.D.-138 A.D.) having one of these at his villa in Tivoli almost 2,000 years ago.


Perhaps the most famous of M. Lalanne’s metamorphic works was his “Rhinocrétaire” (1966) shown below. The giant bronze sculpture of a rhino, not quite life-sized but certainly quite large enough to dominate a room, could be opened up and used as a desk: hence the portmanteau of “rhino” and “secretary” in the piece’s title:



Once you can achieve a desk, of course, I suppose it’s really only a question of time until you turn your attention to bathroom furniture.

The original hippo bathtub was, perhaps not surprisingly, commissioned by Surrealist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). It was made out of resin, presumably meaning that it was fairly easy to clean, and tinted blue. That fact should immediately put you in mind of the blue-glazed ceramic tomb offerings of Ancient Egypt, such as the beloved “William” (c. 1961–1878 B.C.) hippo figurine at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Later, a bronze version of the hippo bathtub was made; this was sold at Christie’s New York last fall for $4.3 million.

Perhaps in light of that sale result, there’s much excitement in the art press at the moment that in June, Sotheby’s Paris will be auctioning off “Famille d’ Hippopotames”, since it is a complete Lalanne three-piece bath suite, including a tub, toilet, and bidet. No price estimate has been provided by the auction house, although Art Market Monitor says that it’s around $2.7 million, a figure which, personally, I find rather on the low end. Given that this was a special commission, and (so far as I’m aware) there’s no other set like it in the world, AND given the sales results that Les Lalanne have been achieving over the last few years, I anticipate that the bidding for this group is going to be extremely intense.

For those of us who, understandably, aren’t going to be spending millions on fine art bathroom fixtures, nevertheless the example of Les Lalanne can serve as an inspiration. What sorts of things could you be making at home that are both practical and metamorphic, reflecting your interest in nature, travel, art, music, or what have you? Could you build a sewing box in the shape of a giant spool of thread, for example? Could you knit a giant mitten in which to store all of the kids’ gloves and mittens?

The love of whimsy and the sense of joy which Les Lalanne brought to their work can help all of us to keep being creative and engaged with the world around us, even as we wait to return to normal.

A Holy Week Gift from La Sagrada Familia

Just a brief post today to let you know that there will be no art news reporting or commenting from me this week, as this is Holy Week and my thoughts are elsewhere. I hope that my readers and subscribers will understand my not wanting to post during the Paschal Triduum, in particular. That being said, I did want you to be aware of something which is now available for you to watch whenever you like through Easter Monday:

The Basilica of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is currently at a virtual standstill, both in terms of religious services as well as its ongoing construction. Nevertheless, they’ve just released a filmed version of last year’s version of their annual Holy Week light and sound presentation on their YouTube channel. The display centers around the Passion Façade of the church, illuminating the sculptures and architectural spaces that take us from the Last Supper to the Resurrection, and mixing in readings from scripture, spiritual reflections, and appropriate music.

Even if you don’t speak Catalan, don’t worry: the progress of the story will be familiar to many of you, so the presentation will be more of a visual and musical experience. It’s essentially a gift from the Basilica not only to the suffering people of the city where it sits, but also to the world. For Christians, this is a very strange and difficult Holy Week, so anything that can bring us together to reflect on matters greater than the present calamity, and which serves to provide us with hope no matter what happens, is a great gift indeed.

Be well, stay home, and look for new posts after Easter.


Art News Roundup: Learning In Place Edition

A rather unusual architectural project is about to go up in Brno, the second-largest city in the Czech Republic – or it will, when we can all go outside again – and it struck me as something that I could tell you about both because it’s interesting, but also as a jumping-off point to share some resources I’ve come across over the last week, thanks to being on so many museum and gallery mailing lists.

If you remember your high school biology classes, you’ll recall that Father Gregor Mendel (1822-1884), the abbot of St. Thomas’ Abbey in Brno, is often referred to as the Father of Modern Genetics. You might even have had to replicate some of his experiments with cross-breeding pea plants. Father Mendel did much of his work in a Victorian-era greenhouse on the Abbey grounds, but the structure was destroyed in a storm a few years after he completed his experiments.

Now, the Prague-based architectural design firm of CHYBIK + KRISTOF has come up with a new version of that long-vanished greenhouse, which will be built to commemorate Father Mendel’s 200th birthday in 2022. The new space will rest on the foundations of the old, but not try to mimic it exactly. (Since the original greenhouse was a rather utilitarian building anyway, this is just as well.) The plan is that when built, the glass structure will serve as a space for lectures, symposiums, concerts, and other events, and I must say it looks like it will be a great place to hear music on a fine summer evening.


Of course I’m not sure what Father Mendel would make of people drinking and listening to jazz in his greenhouse, but nevertheless, it will be nice to see that there is a space that can be used to touch upon some of the things which he brought to the furthering of human knowledge, done in a way that is contemporary yet respectful of his work in helping us to learn more about the world around us.

With that in mind, I thought it would be a good idea to share with my readers some resources that I’ve been made aware of this week, thanks to the efforts of several cultural organizations that are keeping in touch even while their physical premises are unavailable.

National Gallery of Art

For those of you who now find yourselves to be homeschoolers, the National Gallery of Art has some resources available which may help you with your current task. For the kids, there are activities, lesson plans, and videos designed for different age levels, while for the adults, there are online courses available that you can pursue at your own pace, to help you figure out how to approach teaching your wee ones about the arts. The latter in particular is something that many of you may find useful, because although the subject is art, the overall goal is in helping students to grasp the concept of critical thinking. I can’t speak to its efficacy, but if any of my readers do end up taking the course, I’d be curious to read your feedback in the comments.


The Frick Collection

Probably my favorite museum in Manhattan, The Frick Collection, is currently closed like just about everything else – although I recently read somewhere that their expansion and renovation plans have cleared the final approval hurdle, so interesting things are afoot on the UES. Meanwhile, the museum wanted to let the public know that many of their resources are available online, for free, 24 hours a day. Among these offerings are the collection catalogue itself, lectures and presentations on their YouTube channel, as well as this very welcome Virtual Tour section where you can visit past exhibitions, such as the excellent “Zurbarán’s Jacob and His Twelve Sons: Paintings from Auckland Castle” show that I reviewed for The Federalist a couple of years ago.


Biblioteca Nacional de España

And last but certainly not least, the cultural division of the Embassy of Spain here in DC wanted to let the public know that many of the resources of the superb National Library of Spain are available for free online, including many documents and learning guides in English. In particular, they recommend the English translations of two of the most important novels of the great 19th century Spanish author, Benito Pérez Galdós (1843-1920) as Spain marks the centenary of his death: Doña Perfecta (1876) and Marianela (1878). If you ever get the chance to visit Madrid, I highly recommend dropping by the Library, as in addition to being an enormous repository of knowledge, there are often fascinating exhibitions to see in its halls. Last time I visited there was an enormous show of the Library’s collections of works by the Italian fantasy architect Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778), and another on the popular Spanish 20th century Classical composer Joaquín Rodrigo (1901-1999).


Van Gogh Your Own Way: Interpreting A Stolen Picture In A Stolen Spring

News broke yesterday that a rare, early work by Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) was stolen from the Singer Laren Museum in the town of Laren, south of Amsterdam, where it had been on loan from another Dutch museum for an exhibition. As I mentioned recently following a theft of Old Masters from a college gallery at Oxford, with so many museums closed for no one knows how long, sadly we can expect more of this sort of thing over the coming weeks and months, and Van Gogh has become a very popular artist in the world of art crime. With this painting in particular however, I was struck by the fact that the way we each choose to look at it can tell us a lot about how we choose to look at the circumstances in which all of us find ourselves in at present.

“The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring” (1884) dates from the artist’s early period, before he moved to France. The darkness of this picture is at least partly reflective of the artist’s unhappiness during this part of his life; perhaps his most famous early work, the rather gloomy “The Potato Eaters” was painted just a year later. While stylistically one could be forgiven for thinking that the stolen picture and the humble peasants eating their meagre meal were by completely different artists, there’s perhaps more of a unifying aspect here, since the artist himself clearly could not find much comfort or beauty either indoors or out when he was creating these works.

The ruined church in the background of the stolen picture was the predecessor of the one that was being pastored by his father at the time Van Gogh painted this image. He had come back to live with his parents after failing elsewhere, and knowing this fact one can be tempted to read the painting by only using only that biographical information. For example, we could conclude that no doubt the artist’s situation made him feel trapped, like this dark figure in the walled garden full of dead or dormant plants and trees.

However if we were to just leave it at that, we would engage in what I suspect many of us are guilty of doing, in this season of plague and pestilence that has been visited upon mankind at present, and that is failing to keep our senses open to the possibility of hope, even if deliverance seems very far off.

Note that even though everything in this picture looks gloomy and foreboding, and that ruined old chapel looking like a bit like a witch’s hat doesn’t help, there’s actually a good reason to read it another way. Van Gogh is telling us that it’s springtime. Spring must not be confused with summer, of course: yes, we get sunshine and warmer temperatures and the return of birds, but we also get the unexpected snow squall, or days of gray skies, or horrible wind gusts that shake the shutters on the house all night so we can’t sleep. In this image we are not seeing the full-blown, tulips-bobbing-in-the-sun that we probably think of when we think of Holland in the spring.

Nevertheless, the obvious evidence of spring here is the fact that there are hints of green among the trees and shrubs, and along the grassy paths. The overcast sky is threatening, yes. At the same time, it’s also a harbinger of the coming of rain showers, which will help all of these emerging things to keep growing and eventually come into full leaf and flower.

With this mindset, we can look at the painting in a different way.

We could, for example, conclude that the artist is documenting a kind of confinement which he believes will eventually come to an end. In this interpretation, that walled garden with the closed door becomes not a prison, but a way for him to remain protected at home until it’s safe for him to go out again. (Sound familiar?) The figure in the center of the picture is standing on a clear path, albeit one with a sharp angle where it turns to run alongside the wall. When he takes it, it will lead him to that door in the wall, which will then prove to be his way out of this confinement.

You may certainly choose to disagree with this interpretation. However how you choose to look at this piece is part and parcel of the same decision-making that you engage in when communicating with others during this time, when we all feel as though we have been forced into a confined space against our will. We can and should acknowledge that everything is bloody awful right now, and it probably will be for a long while yet. And yet look: the sun is still up there, doing his job, lighting up those high clouds that we can see at the top of the painting.

Let’s hope that this work is recovered soon.

Art News Roundup: Sweeping Down the Plain Edition

ICYMI, my latest for The Federalist published yesterday, in which I review the new exhibition “Degas at the Opéra” at the National Gallery of Art here in DC.

As with everything else in this town at the moment, the museum, and indeed the exhibition, are currently closed. However, as you’ll see if you’re so kind as to drop by the magazine site, the NGA has provided a number of online resources for those interested in learning more about French Impressionist Edgar Degas (1834-1917), his world, and the exhibition itself. The show really did challenge my preconceived notion of Degas as a painter of frilly, girly pictures, and made me take a long, hard look at what he was doing. Hopefully some of my readers will get to experience the exhibition for themselves before too much more time passes.

I’ve received a number of private comments so far about the backstory surrounding Degas’ most famous sculpture, “Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen” (1878-1881), which is part of the NGA show. Some readers were surprised to learn that the piece represents an individual, rather than an idealization, but in a way this figure of a dancer is a kind of inverse idealization of the many girls whom Degas knew in the entertainment world of his time. The pursuit of fame for the purpose of material enrichment or emotional fulfillment rarely ends well, and the hundreds of young Parisians who reached for that brass ring mostly slipped and fell into poverty or worse. Degas’ representation of just one of these girls is, in its way, a representation – and indeed, a cautionary tale – about all of them.


Now let’s turn to some art news of interest from the week gone by.

Croatia Crumbles

As if trying to deal with the Coronavirus pandemic wasn’t bad enough, the people of Croatia are now dealing with the aftermath of two highly damaging earthquakes that hit the Croatian capital of Zagreb earlier this week. Fortunately no one died, but one of the twin spires of the city’s cathedral has partly collapsed, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart suffered major damage as shown below, a number of historic buildings and cultural institutions have also suffered significant damage, and hundreds if not thousands of museum artifacts have been smashed to pieces. Although addressing such losses would seem to be impossible under the current circumstances, preventing building collapse is going to confront authorities with some very hard choices: can the more heavily damaged structures be temporarily stabilized, or will some of them have to be demolished in the interest of public safety, given that resources are already being stretched beyond their limits to deal with the spread of the pandemic? This firefighter in the old quarter of Zagreb has the right idea.


Medieval Mystery

Over on the blog for the Archives of the Venerable English College in Rome, a seminary originally founded in the 16th century to train Catholic priests to minister to the faithful in England and Wales, my friend Father Nicholas Schofield has a fascinating post on a missing work of Medieval art that embodies the concept of “Mary’s Dowry”, a pious term for England that first became popular during the High Middle Ages. Father Schofield begins with an analysis of the famous Wilton Diptych in the National Gallery, London, shown below, which is an extremely rare surviving Medieval English altarpiece, given that most of this type of art was destroyed during the Reformation. It depicts King Richard II (1367-1400) surrounded by several patron saints being presented to the Madonna and Child. What I found particularly fascinating was the fact that a much larger, now-missing polyptych of five panels depicting Richard and his wife Anne of Bohemia (1366-1394) surrounded by a number of saints before the Virgin Mary, was in the possession of the English College in Rome for centuries. It disappeared during the chaos wrought by French revolutionary troops at the end of the 18th century, and to this day its location – if the piece or parts of it survived at all – remains unknown.


Cowboy Curator

Among the many cultural institutions shut down at the moment is the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. In what has turned out to be an unexpected boon for publicity, the museum put its head of security, Tim Send, in charge of their social media accounts while the museum is closed to visitors. The results, as detailed here, are absolutely hilarious, charming, and touching, since Mr. Snead is clearly a man who is learning how to use social media and technology as he goes, and calls ‘em like he sees ‘em when posting images of some of the objects in the collection. When the present nightmare is over, this man is clearly going to deserve a significant bonus for singlehandedly raising this institution’s domestic and indeed international profile in a matter of DAYS. Good luck sir, and stay safe.


“Luminous and Beautiful”: News from Notre Dame de Paris

Developments at the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre Dame de Paris aren’t on anyone’s list of top stories at the moment, including mine.

That being said, given what it is that I do, and why you’re probably here, it’s a subject that I’m interested in, and have been following and commenting on as warranted. So if you’ll allow me to share a couple of pieces of news that would otherwise (probably quite rightly) slip beneath your radar, I’ll try to bring you up to date with some of the latest information. As you might expect, given the lockdown in Paris due to the Coronavirus pandemic, reconstruction and cleanup efforts at Notre Dame have been temporarily halted, but news about the project hasn’t stopped.

The big project that was underway before the shutdown was the effort to try to remove all of the melted and twisted scaffolding inside the Cathedral, which is both a gargantuan task and a bit of a two-edged sword. While the work needs to be finished, no one knows what may happen when these supports are taken away. Will the Basilica remain standing, or will the walls and vaults collapse? If the site remains closed for many more weeks or months without intervention, will it suddenly just come down in a heap?

As you might also expect, sadly, some people are looking to take advantage of the present situation. As ARTNews reports, a couple of would-be thieves broke into the job site, and attempted to steal some of the medieval stonework from the Cathedral, presumably for sale on the black market; fortunately they were apprehended. In a larger context however, it does raise the question of whether, with so many historic sites closed in France and elsewhere around the world, we’re going to be seeing more of this sort of thing in the near future. I expect that we will, sadly, and in some cases the losses will not even be noticed until these places are finally able to reopen, whenever that is.

On a more positive note, there’s a new, absolutely fascinating, lengthy article on what’s been discovered so far during the restoration.

Science magazine recently published a piece on some of the more interesting finds and data that was coming out of the Notre Dame project prior to the work shutdown. It reveals, among other things, that the fire was likely the result of an electrical short, and not from a discarded cigarette as had been previously reported in some news outlets; all 113 stained glass windows survived the fire, in part because firefighters were deliberately instructed NOT to get them wet; and a number of the stone fragments currently being studied by experts were retrieved by robots rather than by people. There’s also eventually going to be an effort to test for how much lead pollution got into the Seine as a result of the fire, as scientists will be able to track the unique chemical signature of Notre Dame’s lead for many miles downstream.

Among the many factors that those of us who don’t work in construction might not have considered, with regard to saving the building, is the importance of the fact that much of it is built of limestone. Limestone is highly porous, and the amount of water that firefighters had to pour onto the roof in order to contain the fire got soaked up by the stones like a sponge. No one likes water weight, but this particular version of it is very worrisome: even nearly a year after the fire, stones recovered from the site that are being studied in the lab are still leeching water that they absorbed during the battle against the conflagration.

Conditions for the cleanup crews, engineers, scientists, and others on the site are very dangerous, and rather draconian measures are in place to try to keep workers as healthy as possible:

People entering the cathedral must strip naked and put on disposable paper underwear and safety suits before passing through to contaminated areas, where they put on €900 protective masks with breathing assistance. After a maximum of 150 minutes’ exposure, they peel off the paper clothes and hit the showers, scrubbing their bodies from head to toe. “We’re taking five showers a day,” Zimmer says, adding that getting through the showers can be “like the Métro at rush hour.”

Clearly these people are aware of the risks, but believe that the work they’re doing is more important.

Again, this is a long read, but really worth your time, with information on all kinds of tricky problems faced by those tasked with saving the building, as well as many fascinating discoveries made to date. There’s the fallen sculpture which suddenly revealed the signature of the artist who made it, study of the ancient, charred timbers of the roof beams, and questions about where the stone used to build the Cathedral actually came from – which was probably not, as tour guides usually state, the hills of Montmartre. There’s also the tantalizing prospect of using lidar to take a look at what archaeological ruins lie beneath the present Basilica, since it’s reasonable to assume that, like most very old European cathedrals, the present church was built on top of earlier churches, which themselves were often built on top of demolished pagan temples.

The article closes with a touching recognition of the importance of Notre Dame, and how its near-destruction has caused a great deal of sorrow to many people. It’s something that the scientists themselves are very conscious of, as they go about their work. While no one knows when they will be able to return to that work, it’s reassuring to learn that the men and women risking their lives to try to save this building really do care about it, and want it to be “more luminous and beautiful than before.”

Here’s hoping that they’ll be able to resume that effort soon.


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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.