Art News Roundup: Blast Off!

As we celebrate the birthday of the greatest country in the world, I suspect that many of my readers may have the day off. You may well be sitting around the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and nothing particular to do until it’s time to head out for a swim or a hike, before going to a barbecue followed by the local fireworks display later this evening. So while you savor the deliciousness of freedom, we’ll take a look at some of the past week’s art news stories that have a particularly American flavor to them – just like burgers and hot dogs right off the backyard grill.

One shining moment of American pride that’s on the minds of many at the moment is the approaching anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing, an event which took place almost 50 years ago, on July 20, 1969. As part of the commemorations, NASA recently restored and reopened the original mission control room at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, to resemble as closely as possible what the room looked like on the day. From period sports jackets hanging on coat racks, to cups of coffee sitting perilously close to primitive computer systems, it looks like something out of a nerd version of “Mad Men”. As of this month, visitors touring the Center will now be able to step back in time to this major moment in history, and see this life-sized time capsule for themselves.



Meanwhile, for those who aspire to own something from the actual landing, on July 18th Christie’s New York will be auctioning off the Apollo 11 Lunar Module Timeline. The book contains the full trajectory for the portion of the mission that involved the Eagle lunar module, serving as a kind of itinerary/survival guide for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. It went to and from the Moon with the astronauts, and it even contains some lunar dust within its pages. To give you some sense of the volume’s historic importance, Christie’s notes that, shortly after landing on the lunar surface, “[Buzz] Aldrin had written Eagle’s coordinates in the Sea of Tranquility on page 10 of the book — the first writing by a human being on a celestial body other than Earth.”


The pre-sale estimate on the Timeline is $7-9 million, but don’t be surprised if it goes for considerably more than that. No, this isn’t a beautifully illustrated or bound volume, and I certainly don’t mean to suggest that it’s a work of art. Yet for what it represents, as an object of American and indeed human achievement, whose humble appearance bears no relation to its true value, it’s a good example of how even the most mundane of objects can, with the passage of time, come to hold tremendous significance and indeed tremendous worth for both private collectors and public institutions alike. Here’s hoping it ends up in a museum and not in the grandiose lair of the next Bond villain.

And now on to some other art news, in brief.

Sackler Stays

In follow up to my recent piece in The Federalist, regarding (among other things) efforts to disassociate the name of the Sackler family from various art institutions, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution has declined Senator Jeff Merkley’s request that the late Arthur Sackler’s name be removed from the Smithsonian museum of Asian art that bears his name. Secretary Lonnie Bunch, in his letter to Senator Merkley, explained that the Smithsonian is legally bound to keep Mr. Sackler’s name affixed to the museum, under the terms of the gift that was made back in the 1980’s, and reiterated the fact that the philanthropist had nothing to do with the development or marketing of OxyContin, a drug created years after his death which is now the subject of heightened criticism and scrutiny. Interestingly however, notwithstanding the allusion to Mr. Sackler predeceasing the present dispute, it appears that the Smithsonian must have already considered if there was a way that they could remove the Sackler name, long before the Senator’s request, since Secretary Bunch noted in his letter that “the Sackler issue has been under examination at the institution for some time.”


Collecting Caravaggio

It has emerged that the buyer of the purported Caravaggio “Judith and Holofernes”, which was pulled from auction last week following a substantial offer, is former Blackstone Group chairman J. Tomlinson Hill. Mr. Hill is a major collector, and opened his own museum/foundation in New York earlier this year to house his art collection. Until now, his most famous art world coup was purchasing Pontormo’s “Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap” (1530), after an unsuccessful attempt by the British government to prevent the painting from leaving the UK, but that particular fight is not yet over. No word yet on whether a similar quagmire will engulf the exit of the Caravaggio from France to (presumably) its new home in Manhattan.


More Moran

For those of my readers who find themselves in The Hamptons this summer, take a break one day from the water and head to the East Hampton Historical Society, for an intimate look at the lofe and work of one of America’s greatest 19th century landscape painters, Thomas Moran (1837-1926). First, there’s a new exhibition on Moran’s first – but not his last – visit to the Rocky Mountains and points west in 1871, including paintings, sketches, notebooks, and photographs, which played a crucial role in convincing both the public and government officials that Yellowstone needed to be protected as a national park, rather than developed for commercial use of its resources. The grandeur of the images which Moran created, as part of a movement that included other significant American landscape painters such as Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Hill, helped lead the way to a greater appreciation of the wildness of the American landscape, the idea of “the West” in the American popular imagination, and ultimately to the creation of the National Parks system. After touring the exhibition, you can stroll down to Moran’s home and quirky, Queen Anne style studio, which was built to his own design largely using salvaged materials from demolished New York City buildings. “Thomas Moran Discovers the American West” is at the East Hampton Historical Society through November 9th.MoranT

Storming The Palace: Where Does Museum Shaming Go From Here?

In case you missed it, my latest piece for The Federalist was published yesterday, in which I shared some news and thoughts about the recent trend of what I would call “museum shaming”. This is when activist groups go after museums for receiving donations from groups or individuals whom those groups find offensive in some way. Over the last couple of years, the most press-garnering example of this has been the anti-Sackler movement led by American Contemporary artist Nan Goldin, and by pure chance she and her group led a massive protest at the Louvre yesterday, shortly after my Federalist piece came out. (I will leave it to the reader to conclude whether the two events are related.)

A few comments that I received related to the piece were critical of Ms. Goldin’s art, and the point is well taken. Ms. Goldin specializes in exhibiting unremarkable, blurry photographs of herself and others who live an existence which is, if one were to choose the kindest possible adjective, unappealing. Her work is largely derivative of Diane Arbus and Andy Warhol, without the piercing eye for composition of the former or the sense of humor of the latter. And as it happens, personally I think all three of them are for the most part terrible, grossly overrated artists.

Yet putting aside aesthetic considerations, there are a couple of further thoughts surrounding the present phenomenon of philanthropy protests that I’d like the reader to consider.

For one thing, there’s no question but that these sorts of protests – be they against a pharmaceutical manufacture, a fossil fuel company, or some other entity that a particular group of people do not like – are not to be dismissed out of hand. You may agree or disagree with Ms. Goldin’s cause, or that of climate change protesters, or what have you, but most of you are not running museums such as the Louvre. You have the luxury, if that’s the word, of simply not doing anything at all. If you’re in Manhattan for example, and you learn that there’s a group protesting at the Met, you can, if you wish, simply avoid the place, and go do something else instead.

Directors and curators who are suddenly faced with swarms of protesters “dying” all over the place on the premises of their museum aren’t so fortunate. Increasingly, they’re being forced to make decisions which, at least in some cases, may be somewhat institutionally unpalatable. Even if a particular cause is one which leadership may be sympathetic to on a personal level, their role is to do what is necessary for their institution to continue functioning: admission tickets need to be sold, major donors need to be courted, and so on. Anything that could significantly disrupt these core activities threatens the positions of those who lead a museum that is being targeted, even though the likelihood of the museum itself being forced to shut down remains highly improbable.

It also raises questions of what, if anything, might be attempted on the commercial side of things. Could protesters start moving against the auction houses and art dealers who do business with companies or individuals involved in areas that are despised by certain groups? Business is based on profit, after all, and where profitability is threatened, change is sure to follow.

Suppose for example, that an aging Baby Boomer actress and environmental activist, who also happens to be a prominent art collector, tweets that she will no longer buy and sell art at Christie’s, unless they agree never to buy or sell art acquired via the fossil fuel industry. With the help of her online minions and celebrity friends, she then kicks off a viral campaign targeting the company until they acquiesce to her demands. What, if anything, would Christie’s do about it? If art philanthropy is at least somewhat sensitive to public opinion, what about art commerce?

Although a reasonable mind could conclude that such a result seems unlikely, when one takes a step back and looks at the present state of society, the less fantastical it seems. Consider what Nike did yesterday concerning a pair of forthcoming sneakers featuring an American Revolutionary flag, merely because a former professional football player with a significant number of social media supporters found said flag offensive. If the athletic shoe market, which is far larger and more profitable than the art market, can be controlled in this way by those with a particular cause to advocate, it ought not to surprise anyone if art dealers and auction houses eventually follow suit.

Art museums were long treated as exclusive palaces for the wealthy, the intellectual, and the powerful, where these groups could meet and, among other things, congratulate themselves on being wealthy, intellectual, and powerful. Over time however, these institutions have largely abandoned that role for the sake of wider popularity. They have become more pedestrian, more concerned with garnering attention in popular forms of media, and more concerned with profitability than with exclusivity. We can debate whether or not this is a good or a bad thing.

The price to pay for that shift, however, is that business-oriented art institutions have become just as vulnerable as any other business, in a society which encourages the airing of angry feelings in as visible a fashion as possible.


Art News Roundup: Double Your Pleasure Edition

I know, gentle reader, I know: I didn’t post a longer-format piece on Tuesday. I was feeling under the weather on Monday, and thus the motivation to write on Tuesday simply was not there. So to make it up to you, instead of the usual 3 art news stories that I normally provide in the weekly art news roundup, today I’m providing you with twice the recommended allowance. Enjoy.

Verified Velázquez

This one completely flew under the radar until earlier this week, but a major portrait by Diego Velázquez (1599-1600) lost to art history since the middle of the 18th century has been identified, and is coming up for auction at Sotheby’s London on July 3rd. Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj (1591-1657) was the sister-in-law of Pope Innocent X – not the saintliest of pontiffs – and reportedly his paramour, as well. She’s not exactly what one would expect in a mistress to one of the most powerful men in the world, but then he wasn’t much of a looker, either; Velázquez’ famous circa 1650 portrait of the pope is still hanging in the gallery of his family’s palazzo in Rome. The estimate is $2.5-3.8 million, but given its fairly solid provenance and state of preservation, I’d expect it to fetch something on the high end of that, if not more.


Canceled Caravaggio

Speaking of unattractive paintings for sale, the is-it-or-isn’t-it Caravaggio painting “Judith and Holofernes” (1607), which has been making the rounds in the art press for years now, has been withdrawn from auction in Toulouse, where it was scheduled to go under the hammer today with a pre-sale estimate of $170 million. Apparently it’s been sold to a private collector, who intends to put it on display in a museum. A number of experts continue to have doubts about the picture, as Art News explains, and to be honest, I’ve always found something rather odd about the whole thing, even without being an expert in the work of Caravaggio (1571-1610). For starters, regardless of where the painting was found, one does not bring a major rediscovered work by one of the most important Italian painters of all time to auction in a place like Toulouse which, with all due respect to the people of that city, is a provincial capital: you sell it in London or New York. If you’re not sure that you can get an export license, then at the very least you sell it in Paris. Still, the thing is done, and perhaps if the piece does eventually go on public display somewhere, more experts will have the chance to study and think about it.


Staged Sendak

Whether your favorite is “Chicken Soup with Rice”, “Pierre”, or “Alligators All Around”, chances are there’s a particular book by Maurice Sendak (1928-2012) that brings back fond memories of childhood. So for those of you who find yourselves in Manhattan this summer or fall, you’ll definitely want to march along to the Morgan Library to see their new exhibition on Sendak’s work for opera and ballet, including productions of Mozart’s “Magic Flute”, Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker”, and other classical performance pieces that appeal to children. Sendak often used the collections of drawings and prints at the Morgan for inspiration, and at his death left over 900 original drawings to the Library, a number of which are part of this exhibition. Below, you can see Sendak’s design for the proscenium curtain of an opera based on his most famous book, “Where the Wild Things Are”. “Drawing the Curtain: Maurice Sendak’s Designs for Opera and Ballet” is at the Morgan Library in New York through October 6th.


Copied Clock

Among the many architectural elements lost during the devastating fire at Notre Dame de Paris in April was the Cathedral’s Gothic Revival clock, which was smashed in the collapse of the roof and central spire. Unfortunately, schematic drawings for the timepiece were also destroyed, and restorers were either going to have to redesign it solely from photographs, or try to come up with some kind of an approximation. Miraculously, however, a researcher has located a nearly identical clock, sitting unused in the attic of the Parisian church of Sainte Trinite. It seems that when the parish decided to switch to an electronically-controlled clock system, the mechanical version was taken out and put into storage. Although the Sainte Trinite clock is, understandably, not quite as grand as that which once graced Notre Dame, restorers believe that its mechanism can serve as a model for recreating the one lost in the Cathedral conflagration.


Saved St. George

Speaking of restoration, remember that horrible, “Dragon’s Lair” restoration job in Spain on a Medieval sculpture of St. George and the Dragon? After months of painstaking work and spending tens of thousands of dollars, restorers have managed to reverse the damage, and return the piece to what it used to look like. Spain has, of late, become increasingly famous in the international art press for these botched restoration jobs – the ghastly “Beast” Jesus, the horrific “St. Anne and the Virgin”, etc. – and there remains a lack of consensus on the part of both the State and the Episcopate regarding the care of these art objects. A French system, in which the State controls all cultural property, is not the ideal solution, but unless the bishops start cracking down on educating and disciplining their own priests, this sort of costly nonsense will only continue.


Headlined Homer

We often think of the great American painter Winslow Homer (1836-1910) as someone who spent a lot of time observing nature, and depicting man’s often conflictual relationship to it. What many may not be aware of however, is that Homer served as a correspondent artist for Harper’s Weekly magazine during the Civil War, and brought images of the people, places, and events of that conflict to readers around the country and indeed the world. Thus, an upcoming exhibition at Harvard titled “Winslow Homer: Eyewitness” will be an eye-opener to many, as it explores Homer’s efforts to try to capture a sense of the front lines at a time when photography of these events was only beginning to have an impact on the public consciousness. It should also raise questions as to what degree Homer manipulated what he observed in order to more clearly reflect his own views, since we know that Civil War photographer Matthew Brady (1822-1896) also did some creative editing in what were previously believed to be purely on-the-scene photographs, including re-positioning bodies of the dead to achieve more arresting compositions. “Winslow Homer: Eyewitness” opens at the Harvard Museums on August 31st, and runs through January 5th.



Art News Roundup: Spanish Stories

We’re back to the weekly roundup of curated news stories from the art world, and since I still have Spain on the brain – I just booked my next trip for after Christmas – today we’ll be looking at a few interesting items that touch on Iberian artists and architecture.

While many artists’ homes or final resting places in Spain have become places of pilgrimage for those who love their work, the physical legacy of Spain’s greatest painter, Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), is somewhat more elusive. For one thing, the church where he and his wife Juana – who tragically died 8 days after her husband, both of some type of fever – were buried was destroyed by French troops during the Napoleonic wars, and the bodies were never recovered. Today, if you go to the Plaza de Ramales in Madrid, where the church used to stand, there is a cross on a column indicating that, lying somewhere underneath the paving stones, are the artist’s remains. On one of the sides of the base to the column are the words, “The painter Don Diego de Silva Velázquez died on Friday, 6 of August of 1660: his glory was not buried with him.”


Similarly, once he became court painter Velázquez moved into grace and favor apartments in the Casa del Tesoro (circled in red below), a small palace connected to the Alcázar, the official royal residence in Madrid. This allowed him and other courtiers to be able to come and go from the king’s presence without having to go out into the street. Sadly, this structure, too, was destroyed by the French during the Napoleonic wars, in this case on orders from Napoleon’s brother Joseph, himself. [Note: If any of my readers can recommend a book chronicling the horrific cultural destruction wrought by Bonapartists in Spain, let me know.]


In Velázquez’ native Seville however, things are at least a bit brighter. The church of San Pedro, where according to parish records he was baptized on June 6, 1599, fortunately still stands, and a plaque in the baptistery marks the spot where this took place. Unfortunately, experts aren’t sure whether the existing baptismal font is the one that was used at the time, but then you can’t have everything.


On April 23, 1618, Velázquez married Juana Pacheco (`1602-1660), the daughter of his master Francisco Pacheco (1564-1644), at the church of San Miguel in Seville. This was a large, grand 14th century building, whose architectural styles mixed the Medieval influences of Northern Europe with the Mudéjar architecture of southern Spain, which blended Islamic and Gothic styles into an elaborately decorative scheme. Unfortunately, this church like many others was ordered demolished by the leftists who dominated Spanish politics during much of the mid-19th century.


Yet perhaps the most interesting survival of all is Velázquez birthplace, a 16th century house which still stands in the center of Seville. It has been empty for a number of years, having served various functions over the centuries, including for many decades as the showroom for one of Spain’s most prominent high-end interior design companies. In 2017 the building was purchased by a group of prominent locals, with the idea that it will eventually become something like the Rubenshuis in Antwerp or the Sorolla Museum in Madrid.


The Casa Natal de Velázquez project is an ambitious one, but at the moment fundraising appears to be going rather slowly. You can see from their crowdfunding page that there is a lot to do, and they are proceeding piecemeal rather than attempting to raise all of the funds they will need at once. The hope is that if they can get one of the interior patios of the house back up to snuff, that interest in continuing to restore the rest of the house will follow.

So, if any of my readers are able to contribute, or know of someone who can, please do share this information. The world is already full of monographic museums dedicated to other Iberian artists, such as Picasso and Dalí. Yet surely the greatest of them all deserves to have his birthplace preserved as a center for future generations to come and learn about his life and work.

Pharaonic Folly

The city of Sant Adrià de Besòs, which lies just up the coast from Barcelona, can be picked out from a great distance thanks to the hideous decommissioned power plant known as “The Three Towers”. Built in the 1970’s, the three roughly 656-foot tall smokestacks spewed pollution all over this stretch of coastline for decades, until the place was finally shut down in 2008. That should have been the end of the matter, or rather the moment when the wrecking balls started swinging: instead, municipal authorities decided to hold a referendum on what to do about the building. Even though hardly anyone showed up to vote, those who did voted to keep the building standing, meaning that it would have to be re-purposed in some way. Now, an Egyptian company is proposing that the site be turned into a new university where Mediterranean institutions of higher learning from Europe and North Africa can meet to exchange ideas, research, and information, with the smokestacks serving as a symbolic reference to the legendary Faros of ancient Alexandria, and even a glass pyramid and giant Eye of Horus thrown in for good measure. You can see a video of the rather overwrought proposal here.


Litigious Lleida

A story that I’ve been following for awhile now involves a number of works currently in the permanent collection of the Museum of Lleida, in western Catalonia, which were taken from their respective parishes or dioceses against the will of the locals. In 1995 as a result of ecclesiastical map redrawing, the Vatican ordered the Museum, which is co-run by the Diocese of Lleida and the provincial government, to return 111 religious works of art to a new diocese that had been carved out in part from the western portions of the existing diocese. Both the bishop and the local government refused, and despite numerous attempts since then to try to reconcile the parties, the bishops are now suing each other over ownership of the disputed works. Given the utter mess that the hierarchy of the Church is in at the moment, one would think that the bishops could do their job, rather than squabbling over treasures like caricatures in a Bosch painting, but there you are.


Possibly Picasso

Before I left on vacation, the mainstream press was agog about the (possible) discovery of a Pablo Picasso in a car boot sale in the UK. The painting was purchased for around $300 by an antiques collector who was more attracted to the Art Deco frame than the painting itself. When he took it to an auction house some weeks later to get an opinion on whether he had overpaid, he was astonished to learn that he might have purchased an actual Picasso, believed to be a preliminary sketch of a known work, “The Seated Bather” (1930) shown below, which is now in the permanent collection at MoMA. The story took a sour turn when a prominent British art forger claimed that he had executed the work, a claim which was later proven to be false, but unfortunately it ended up tamping down market interest in the piece. At auction a month later, the painting only made about $10k, rather than the many times that which it could have made had it been properly authenticated and attested to by experts. One mystery for example, is the inscription on the piece which the auctioneers could not make out: is it in Spanish? English? French? That could have been tested using imaging technology. It does go to show, however, how the slightest hint of doubt regarding a piece can have a serious impact on the market value of a work of art.


Sotheby’s Under the Hammer for $3.7 Billion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


From The Archives: Is Gaudí Getting Closer to Sainthood?

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

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


Is Gaudí Getting Closer to Sainthood?
NOVEMBER 13, 2014

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

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

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

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

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


From The Archives: Barcelona’s Forgotten Master

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




Barcelona’s Forgotten Master
SEPTEMBER 15, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Out Of Office: Iberian Idyll

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



Art News Roundup: If You Build It Edition

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

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

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


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


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



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

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

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

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

Desiring Dalí

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


Nero News

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


Saving Saarinen

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