Ivan To Go Home

It’s not often that I come across a story of art restitution that is more local in nature, but this one involves an auction house just down the road, more or less, and a painting that would be kind of hard to miss, given that it’s not exactly something that would fit hanging over your sofa or in the powder room.

“The Secret Departure of Ivan the Terrible Before the Oprichina” (1911) was painted by the Ukranian artist Mikhail Panin (1877-1963), a pupil of (arguably) the most important of all Russian artists, Ilya Repin (1844-1930). Like his master, in the early part of his career Panin specialized in those vast, historical canvases that governments like to commission to fill up the big, blank walls in official buildings. Eventually, the equestrian picture of Russia’s most infamous Tsar ended up in the State Art Museum in the Ukranian city of Dnipro, and there it probably would have remained, except that the Nazis stole it and a number of other works from the museum in 1941.

From there, the trail goes cold until after World War II, as the Art Crime blog explains:

The artwork eventually made its way overseas to a house in far away Ridgefield, Connecticut where the home and the massive artwork were both purchased by David Tracy and his wife Gabby, a Holocaust survivor in 1987. The Tracy’s purchased the home themselves from a previous couple who likewise purchased the home along with the painting in 1962, this time from a former Swiss soldier who emigrated to the United States in 1946 but whom had died in 1986. The artwork had remained in the Ridgefield residence all that time, until the Tracy family, downsizing their home for a smaller condominium, and assuming the canvas was of modest value, consigned the painting to Potomack Company Auctions & Appraisals in Alexandria.

Fortunately, the auction house did their homework and discovered that the picture was Nazi loot, and arrangements were made between the consignors and U.S. and Ukranian officials and law enforcement to return the painting to the Ukranian Embassy. That handover took place yesterday, at the auction house’s galleries in Old Town Alexandria. While it’s too bad for the Tracy’s that they weren’t able to realize the sale of the painting – for which, as the Post explained at the time of the initial discovery, they had actually built an extension onto their house in order to be able to display it properly, and had hoped to use the proceeds of the sale to pad their retirement nest egg – nevertheless, they absolutely did the right thing here.

Given the enormous amount of art looted by the Nazis during World War II, and the uncertain fate of a significant percentage of that art, this is by no means the last restitution story connected to World War II that we’ll hear about in the coming years. It was internet research that led the auction house to track down the origin of the picture, and email communications which led to its return. As more archival material concerning artists and collections becomes available online for researchers, more chances for discovering lost treasures such as these will continue to be forthcoming.


Art News Roundup: Kind Of Blue Edition

Due to the Labor Day holiday, I didn’t have time to give you a post earlier this week, gentle reader. So let’s make up for that by giving you a larger-than-usual usual helping of stories from the worlds of art, architecture, design, archaeology, and collecting, which may prove to be of some interest. And we’ll begin with some jazz, which is always a good place to begin.

The legendary Miles Davis (1926-1991) took a break from music in the late 1970’s, after a lifetime of alcohol and drug addiction. When he finally cleaned himself up and returned to performing, he ordered three new trumpets from the Martin Company in Chicago: one red, one black, and one blue, each decorated with gold moons and stars and bearing his first name. Apparently, it took multiple coats of blue lacquer to get the horn to the point where it could read blue, but it was a kind of blue – if you’ll forgive the pun/allusion to Miles’ classic 1959 album – that in a certain light can appear purple.

Davis died in 1991, and was buried with the black trumpet, while his family held on to the red one. The blue one entered the collection of the great George Benson, who later sold it along with many other instruments he was no longer using, at a massive sale at Skinner’s Boston back in 2007. That trumpet is now coming up for sale again, this time at Christie’s, and given my recent experience with the “Concierto de Aranjuez”, I particularly enjoyed this anecdote about the night Davis took delivery of it from Larry Ramirez, the man who helped Davis to design them:


Ramirez lived in Denver, which — as good luck would have it — was where Davis was playing one of his first comeback concerts, in the summer of 1981. The designer was able to hand-deliver the first two trumpets he’d finished (the blue and the black) to Davis’s motel room one night.


Ramirez told the story, in later life, of the nerves he’d felt at the moment Davis handed him back one of the horns and said, ‘You play, don’t you?’ He duly played a tentative passage from Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez and remembers his relief when Davis observed, ‘Man, you play pretty good.’

The “Exceptional Sale” will take place at Christie’s New York on October 29th; the pre-sale estimate on Miles Davis’ blue trumpet is between $70,000-$100,000.


And now, let’s scat on over to some other art news stories in brief.

Ashes to Ashmolean

We’re often told about how suddenly death and destruction fell upon the people killed during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., but a new exhibition at the Ashmolean in Oxford will allow visitors to get a sense of just how unprepared the residents of Pompeii were for the end of their way of life. “Last Supper in Pompeii” brings together a wealth of archaeological finds and technical analysis from the dining rooms, restaurants, taverns, and even kitchen sink drains of the doomed city, to give us a sense of the interrupted lives on that day. Among the highlights is this remarkably preserved loaf of 1st century A.D. Roman bread, that to me looks for all the world like Thanksgiving cornbread baked in a cast iron skillet. “Last Supper at Pompeii” is on view at the Ashmolean Museum through January 12th.


Atlanta Acquisitions

The High Museum in Atlanta recently received a major gift of 24 paintings from local philanthropists Doris and Shouky Shaheen, significantly expanding the High’s existing collection of Impressionist and Early Modern art. The gift includes works by Boudin, Corot – his wonderfully sketchy “La bohemiènne à mandoline assise” (c. 1860–1870) is shown below – Fantin-Latour, Matisse, Modigliani, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley, Utrillo, Vlaminck, and Vuillard. By themselves they would constitute a substantial display of late 19th and early 20th century pictures, which is probably why they are getting their own gallery at the High. The Shaheen Collection is expected to go on display to the public before the end of this year.


Caillebotte Collection

Speaking of major gifts, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris recently unveiled an unexpected legacy of five almost-unknown works by the popular French Realist-Impressionist Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894), donated earlier this year by the great-granddaughter of the artist’s butler. The works include a landscape with the Caillebotte country house in Argenteuil, a town on the Seine particularly favored by Impressionist and Early Modern artists, as well as two paintings of the nattily-attired butler, and two pastels of the butler’s son. I’m sharing this particular image from Le Parisien because while researching this story, I spotted my friend Paul Perrin, Curator of Paintings at the Orsay, rolling out three of the Caillebottes. [Waves]


Tiffany’s Temples

And speaking of friends, in light of the new exhibition opening this weekend at Chicago’s Driehaus Museum, I wanted to point you both to that exhibition as well as a past one at the Corning Museum of Glass. “Eternal Light: The Sacred Stained-Glass Windows of Louis Comfort Tiffany”, opens this Saturday, and will feature a side of his work which may be unfamiliar to those who only think of him as a designer of table lamps and jewelry. Tiffany (1848-1933) also did public and private interiors, including an over-the-top renovation of the White House for President Chester A. Arthur, as well as commercial buildings, private residences, and churches; his window designs for the latter category are highlighted in the Driehaus exhibition. Meanwhile, back in 2017 the Corning’s show, “Tiffany’s Glass Mosaics”, explored Tiffany’s work in that particular medium, and the exhibition catalogue – which is available here – features a section on his ecclesiastical designs in mosaic written by my friend Natalie Zmuda Peters. “Eternal Light: The Sacred Stained-Glass Windows of Louis Comfort Tiffany” is at the Richard H. Driehaus Museum through March 8, 2020.


A View to a Car

Have you recently purchased a pricey ride, but find that the garage back at your lair is just not quite up to snuff, when it comes to displaying your latest acquisition? Legendary British luxury car manufacturer Aston Martin can help. The makers of Bond vehicles are now branching out into architectural design partnerships, enabling you to create the car hole of your – or Ernst Blofeld’s – dreams. The company sees this effort as not only a way of showcasing automobiles as beautiful works of art, but potentially providing an entire living space for the display of both owner and collection. The aquarium filled with sharks and poisonous cephalopods will run you a bit extra, natch.


Art News Roundup: Delightful Discoveries Edition

After 1066, England was a rather unsettled place to live.

The Normans under William the Conqueror had just invaded and killed Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon king, at the Battle of Hastings. Harold, who had only taken the throne nine months earlier in a move whose legality is still heavily debated today by historians – as indeed is William’s claim to the throne – barely had time to mint coins bearing his name and visage before he met his end. While many welcomed their new overlords, as it were, armed resistance led to years of war all over the island, as the Normans tried to consolidate their grip on power.

At some point during all of the tumult, a very wealthy individual decided to stash their wealth, in the form of thousands of late Anglo-Saxon and early Norman coins, in what is today farmland in the county of Shropshire, close to the Welsh border. For whatever reason, they never returned to retrieve their hoard, and over the next thousand years or so it remained hidden, tantalizingly close to the surface, just waiting for the right moment to be rediscovered. That moment finally came earlier this year.

Back in January, a group of experienced and newbie treasure hunters using metal detectors were prospecting in the field in question, when they came across the coins. The find was so large, that it took the group between four and five hours to dig all of it up. Fortunately, they did the right thing and contacted the authorities, and the coins were taken to the British Museum in London for further study.

For the most part, the coins are evenly split between designs featuring Harold, and designs featuring William. However, as the Guardian explained following the Museum’s press conference yesterday to announce their findings, it appears that whoever owned the coins was probably cheating on his or her taxes, given the presence of three very rare coins in the stash:

Three of the coins have been identified as “mules”, a combination of two types of coin – essentially an early form of tax-dodging by the moneyer, the person who made them. These coins have designs and language that relate to both Harold and William, and would have been easy to pass off as legal tender as the average Anglo-Saxon was illiterate and the stylised images of the kings looked similar.

As to what happens next, there are still legal issues to sort out regarding ownership and ultimate disposition of the hoard, one of the largest ever found in the UK. Under the Treasure Act, a coroner must first determine whether or not the hoard is to be considered “treasure” for the purposes of the Act. Assuming that it is – which seems a reasonable assumption here – the coins will have to be offered for sale to a UK museum, with the price set by the British Museum’s team of valuation experts. If no museum can afford to purchase the hoard, then it can be sold at public auction. In either case, the proceeds will be split between the owner of the field where the coins were found, and the people who found it.

While the official valuation has not been made yet, one London auction house specializing in antique coins estimated the hoard as being worth at least $6 million. From an aesthetic standpoint, these are truly beautiful objects, as you can see below in a shot that only shows part of the hoard. Hopefully, at least a few of the coins will end up in a public collection, where they can be viewed and admired as remarkable bits of design, from a dangerous period in which design was the last thing on most people’s minds.


And now, let’s move on to some other discoveries from the art news world over the past week.

Secret Seville

Turning to something else dating from around 1066, there’s been a remarkable find at the Reales Alcázares de Sevilla, which is the main Royal Palace in the city of Seville. Today’s palace is a mostly later Medieval structure built in a fusion of Arabic and European styles by Muslim craftsmen and architects, who chose to remain in the city even after it was reconquered by the Christians. Little was thought to remain of the Moorish fortress cum palace which used to stand on the site, but researchers recently discovered that parts of it were built over by later occupants, who incorporated the standing bits of the old palace into their residences. This includes a pair of decorated horseshoe arches dating from the 11th century, shown below, first rediscovered in 2014 but only recently dated using radio carbon testing methods. At the moment, the city is hoping to acquire the houses from the Spanish Treasury Department, which currently owns the structures, renovated them, and turn them into a visitors’ center for the complex.


Carmona Catacombs

Meanwhile, just about half an hour or so up the road from Seville in the Andalusian town of Carmona, workers doing home renovations in the town center stumbled across a deep shaft in the cellar, which led to a completely intact subterranean Roman mausoleum with a barrel-vaulted ceiling frescoed in geometric patterns. The tomb is believed to date to sometime between the 1st centuries B.C. and A.D., and has a total of eight niches, six of which hold funerary urns made of different materials, including both stone and glass. The glass urns were placed inside protective lead caskets, and several bear the names of those buried within them. In addition, funeral offerings in the form of ceramic and glass platters, vases, bowls, etc., were found in the tomb. Carmona, once the Roman colony of Carmo, is already well-known to archaeologists for its extensive Roman ruins, including hundreds of intact, frescoed tombs in catacombs dating from the later Imperial period of the 2nd-4th centuries, but these appear to be the earliest intact tombs found thus far.


Pinched Pinturicchio

After a nearly thirty-year search, a missing “Madonna and Child” believed to be by the Italian High Renaissance painter Pinturicchio (1454-1513) has been recovered by Italian police. The picture was stolen in 1990 from a private residence in the region of Umbria, and somehow ended up at an auction house in London. Out of thanks for the work’s recovery, the owners have agreed to lend the painting for a special exhibition in Perugia, where it’s now on display alongside two works by artists who taught the young Pinturicchio; debate still rages over whether he himself painted this recovered piece, or whether one of his teachers did. Apart from the recovery itself, the interesting backstory here is that the Italian police have a unit which does nothing but monitor art auctions around the world, looking for stolen works of art. That’s got to be a task which leaves you bleary-eyed at the end of every work day.

Madonna col Bambino attribuita a Pinturicchio” is at the National Gallery of Umbria through January 6th.


Bringing Back Baroque in Catalonia

The conventional wisdom concerning the Baroque period in Catalonia has always been, “There’s not much to look at.”

For the past century or so, art historical emphasis has been placed on the area’s Romanesque, Gothic, and Early Renaissance periods of art and architecture, when the financial and naval power of the Catalans was at its height. With the economic decline that set in after trade shifted from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, causing wealth to flow to more strategically-placed Seville rather than Barcelona, a parallel artistic decline naturally followed. Without the riches of the New World to fill its coffers, and later having backed the losing side in the Wars of the Spanish Succession, Barcelona and the other Catalan cities became suspended in time, slumbering away until the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century fueled the explosion of Modernisme, the local equivalent of Art Nouveau.

Or so we thought.

Recently, a parish church in the small town of Butsènit, located about an hour and a half NW of Barcelona, had to have its leaking roof repaired. Water damage from the leak had caused stains to form along the whitewashed ceiling and walls of the interior. In order to prepare for a new coat of whitewash, workers began to clean away the stains, mold, and years of dirt.

To their surprise, as they cleaned, painted figures and designs began to emerge. Eventually, from underneath layers of old white paint, restorers were able to uncover Baroque murals from the 18th century, which covered both the ceiling of the church as well as the walls of two of the side chapels. You can see some of the results by following this link.

While, with one or two exceptions, there really isn’t much in the way of impressive Baroque architecture in Barcelona, it’s always struck me as rather odd that, in a number of neighborhoods outside the city center, as well as in many smaller cities and towns around Catalonia, the main parish church is often neither Romanesque nor Gothic but Baroque, albeit a very plain, austere Baroque. Alternatively, even if the building itself dates from a much earlier period, sometimes you’ll find that, at some point during the 17th or 18th centuries, the church was “modernized” with the addition of a Baroque façade, or had its earlier, Romanesque or Gothic paintings and sculptures replaced with Baroque ones. You’ll typically find lavish, heavily carved and gilded Baroque altarpieces standing several stories high even within the most plain, whitewashed of village churches.

It’s that whitewashing that always seemed strange to me, and now it seems that the experts are beginning to understand why. In many cases, the paintings have been covered up in these churches both because the elaborate designs of the Baroque came to be viewed as too ostentatious – or even unhygienic – by subsequent generations, and because damage which occurred during the Spanish Civil War left many of these parishes with no option but to paint over the ruined murals that had been defaced by Leftists during their reign of terror, rather than restore them. In the case of this particular parish, not only did no one in the community ever remember seeing these murals, but no one was aware that the walls of their church had ever been decorated to begin with.

The implications for art history research are quite significant, as historian and conservationist Pere Rovira of the Centre de Restauració de Béns Mobles de Catalunya notes in the article linked to above. “If we start scraping, murals will be revealed in all the Baroque churches, all waiting to be discovered.” He goes on to ask other parish communities to keep this possibility in mind, and to inform the appropriate cultural preservation authorities when their churches need to undergo cleaning and repairs. “[W’e ask that before repainting walls, you let us know so that we can do a survey.”

Now, it must be said that no one should expect finds of enormous artistic significance, even if a concentrated effort actually gets off the ground. There’s no question that the artistic center of the Iberian Peninsula shifted to Seville and Madrid during the 17th and 18th centuries. There are plenty of decent Catalan Baroque painters, but none of them come up to the level of a Velázquez or a Murillo. What’s more, even if originally these interiors were not as plain as they are today, none of these Catalan churches even begins to compare with the elaborate Baroque parish churches being constructed in Andalusia or Castile during this period.

That being said, this effort is an important one for art history because it overturns the idea that the production of large-scale art effectively ended in Catalonia between about 1500 and 1800. The evidence that this belief was mistaken has always been visible. It doesn’t explain the construction of so many Baroque churches at a time when, supposedly, Catalans had no more wealth with which to undertake significant construction projects, nor does it explain the presence of so many elaborately decorated Baroque sculptural ensembles within these newly built churches, and indeed within churches from earlier time periods.

While it remains to be seen how many of these wall murals have survived, there are other issues of interest as well. Experts will need to learn who painted these works, how they came up with the designs which they chose, what artists from outside of Catalonia were influencing their work, and what idiosyncratic elements specific to Catalonia appear in their paintings, as opposed to depictions of the same subject in other parts of Europe. In short, if you’re interested in Baroque art and architecture, or just fascinated by history, this is quite an exciting, new area for exploration.



Art News Roundup: Mmmm’s The Word

At the moment I’m planning my travel schedule over the next six months, and am faced with the rather pleasant dilemma of having many excellent exhibitions I want to see, but a limited amount of time in which to see them.

As I was commenting to my editor the other day, it’s interesting how, beginning in the 1970’s and up until a few years ago, art museums planned their big, important shows for the Summer, with the idea being that people had more free time to go see retrospectives on popular artists like Van Gogh or Vermeer when they were on vacation. In effect, they were designed to be the daytime equivalent of “Blockbuster” films like “Star Wars” or “Jaws”, made to fill the coffers of these institutions. In recent years however, it seems as though the pendulum has swung back to the old idea of having major art exhibitions coincide with what used to be called “the season”, when city dwellers return to work or school. There wasn’t a single exhibition I really wanted to see this Summer, to be honest, but once we pass the Labor Day weekend, there will be all sorts of shows whose press releases have evoked an “Mmmm, tasty,” response from yours truly.

The easy ones for me to single out have been exhibitions on the work of some of my favorite artists, such as Raphael, Goya, and John Singer Sargent (see his preparatory charcoal drawing for his 1912 portrait of Sybil, Marchioness of Cholmondeley below.) There are also shows on artists whose work I already admire and know something about, but I’m eager to learn more and see their art up close, including Andrea del Verrocchio, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Edward Hopper, and Alonso Berruguete, among others. Then there will be exhibitions on artists whom I’m not really familiar with at all, but who seem interesting and worth taking a look at, such as Félix Vallotton and Francesco Albani.


And that’s just a few of the shows which I’m currently aware of: a number of institutions haven’t even announced their Fall and Winter lineups yet.

Since art writing is my hobby, not my profession, I can’t devote my resources to traveling about all over the place seeing all of the art I’d like to see: no one’s going to pay me to fly out to Paris this Fall and see the Louvre’s Da Vinci retrospective, for example. That being said, one thing that I encourage my readers to do when they travel for business or pleasure is to see what’s on show in the cities you’ll be staying in, or reasonably nearby. If you’re going to a conference in Minnesota before Thanksgiving for example, you could visit the Minneapolis Institute of Art and learn how the artists of the Arts and Crafts movement in the late 19th century rediscovered the creative possibilities of the old Medieval technique of making woodcut prints. Or if you’re spending Christmas at the in-laws’ in Florida, drop by the Harn Museum in Gainesville for an examination of the career of one of the most important and influential photographers of the 20th century, André Kertész (1894-1985). You never know what tasty new things you might discover.

And now, on to some more “Mmmm” art in this week’s news roundup.

Más at the Meadows

Though you might not be aware of it, one of the best collections of Spanish art in America can be found at the Meadows Museum, located at Southern Methodist University in Dallas: a fact which is all the more remarkable given that the collection only began to be assembled in the 1950’s. Recently, the Meadows announced the latest acquisitions for their permanent collection, which include a statue of Our Lady of Solitude (1769) by the later Baroque sculptor Manuel Ramírez de Arellano (1721/22–1789); “Orchard in Seville” (c. 1880) by Impressionist Emilio Sánchez Perrier (1855–1907), shown below; “Portrait of Margaret Kahn” (1923) by 20th Century Realist Ignacio Zuloaga (1870–1945) donated to the Museum by the artist’s grandson; and a 1971 bronze cast of the classic Surrealist work, “Venus de Milo with Drawers”, by Salvador Dalí (1904–1989). I can’t think of another art institution in the U.S. that has as comprehensive a collection of Spanish art as the Meadows, covering everyone from El Greco and Velázquez up through Picasso and Miró, as well as many secondary and lesser-known artists who are underrepresented in the U.S., so I will definitely have to hie myself thither at some point.


Moving to Middlesex

Thanks to the efforts of various donors, an Italian Baroque painting that for nearly 250 years hung in an English country house owned by the Child family banking dynasty is returning to its former home. “Saint Agatha” was painted by Carlo Dolci (1616-1687) sometime between 1665 and 1670, and within a few years of its execution the picture was hanging at Osterley House in the county of Middlesex, England; it remained there until the family began selling off some of the items from their collection in the 1930’s. It came up at Christie’s last summer, and after being acquired for Osterley it has been undergoing cleaning and restoration. This Fall, visitors will be able to witness its permanent return, alongside temporary loans of works that used to hang in the mansion, which itself is currently undergoing repairs in the hope of fully reopening to the public next year. “Treasures of Osterley – Rise of a Banking Family” will open on November 4th, and run through February 20th of 2020.

HyperFocal: 0

Montpellier’s Modern Master

One of the great things about studying art is that no matter how much you learn, you’ll never run out of new-to-you artists whom you can come to appreciate. I recently discovered the work of Vincent Bioulès (1938-), a French artist who began as something of an Abstract Expressionist, and later moved into a style broadly reminiscent of Matisse. Beginning around 30 years ago however, his art radically changed, so that today, although he doesn’t use the term, we might describe him as a Neo-Pointillist, as you can see below in “La Tourette I” (1994-5). He often paints scenes set in the Languedoc region of southern France – what some of us refer to as “Northern Catalonia” – and the intense Mediterranean sunlight of that part of the world plays a significant role in how he sees structures and figures in conjunction with natural elements. Now the subject of a major retrospective at the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, Bioulès is not as well known outside of France – and even within France – as he deserves to be, so consider this introduction my gift to you. “Vincent Bioulès: Chemins de Traverse” [Sideroads] is at the Fabre Museum in Montpellier through October 6th.


Making Mies Happen: The Allure of Unbuilt Architecture

Although Modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) has been dead for nearly fifty years, one Midwestern city is about to become home to perhaps the last building of his ever to be built.

In 1952, Mies was commissioned to design a building for the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington. Although plans were submitted to the University for approval, the project never got off the ground due to funding issues, and it was soon forgotten. Recently however, an alumnus who was seeking to give a major endowment to the University’s School of Art, Architecture, and Design, recalled the Mies proposal from when he was a student back in the 1950’s, and after a great deal of searching, the plans were rediscovered. So now, lo these many decades later, groundbreaking is underway, thanks to the keen memory and generous donation of that former student. The estimated completion date for the construction is sometime in June of 2021.


While this may seem a somewhat unusual project, i.e., building something that was planned but never executed at the time it was designed, there are a number of parallels in the history of architectural design. My personal favorite was the plan for a massive skyscraper to have been known, appropriately enough, as the “Hotel Attraction”, which would have attracted a great deal of attention in Lower Manhattan at roughly the spot where the Freedom Tower now stands at Ground Zero. It was designed by, of all people, Antoni Gaudí i Cornet (1852-1926), who never built anything outside of Spain – and very little outside of Barcelona. After the 9/11 attacks there was, at least for awhile, some talk of finally building Gaudí’s tower in the location where he had intended it to go, but this turned out to be little more than wishful thinking.


More obvious examples of architectural plans that got shelved only to be completed later can often be found when looking at the history of major churches. The Cathedrals of Barcelona and Cologne, for example, halted their construction at about the same time, around 1500, once their interiors were more or less completed. For hundreds of years, until work on their facades and bell towers resumed in the late 19th century, they looked like this from the outside:



In both instances, the architects were able to modify the preserved medieval plans for the buildings, and finish the projects using contemporary materials such as cast iron and concrete.

Another famous example is the Duomo in Florence where, like in Barcelona and Cologne, major work stopped in the late 15th century, and did not resume until the late 19th century. Unlike its Gothic sisters however, the original design for the façade of Florence’s Cathedral was not followed, despite the preserved design for it by the great Florentine artist and architect Giotto (c. 1267-1337), who had designed the Basilica’s bell tower. Once construction was set to resume, it was felt that Giotto’s designs were not grand enough for the structure as actually built, so in the 1880’s, a rather birthday cake-like façade was slathered on the front of the building. Until then however, it looked like this:


Perhaps the most intriguing unbuilt structure in Florence however, is the façade of the Basilica of San Lorenzo. The parish church of the ruling Medici family, and where most of the members of that clan were buried, the structure is a touchstone for the development of Italian Renaissance architecture, and houses significant works of painting and sculpture. Like the aforementioned cathedrals however, work stopped on the Basilica itself around 1500, even though construction on other parts of the church complex continued in fits and starts for the next two hundred years. Thus, this is the face that the building has presented to the world for the last half-millennium:


What’s particularly intriguing, and a bit frustrating, is that not only do the plans for the façade still exist, but in fact so does the architectural model. In 1518 Pope Leo X (1475-1521), himself a Medici, commissioned Michelangelo (1475-1564) to design the outer and inner facades of the building. For funding and other reasons, the outer façade was never built, but we can see Michelangelo’s scale model of it today at the home where he grew up, which is now a museum. It shows how fully the artist had absorbed the lessons of his archaeological studies in Rome, and had it been built it would have made a significant contribution to the development of world architecture:


For the past decade, a group of Michelangelo devotees has been trying to raise awareness and funds to finally build the façade for San Lorenzo, but there doesn’t seem to be any movement on that score of late.

It’s not often the case that we get to revisit the past in order to take the plans of a great architect to fruition. Yet the allure of making the attempt is something that will always be hard to resist. So in light of the new-old Mies going up in Bloomington, let’s hope that someday, the Florentines – and perhaps, dare one say, New Yorkers – will get their act together and build some of the superlative designs just waiting for the right visionary to come along and fund their construction.

Art News Roundup: Chicken and Egg Edition

Much as I don’t care for the work of Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519), even I was fascinated by the latest scientific discovery to be made concerning one of his completed masterpieces, because it raises significant questions about the chronology of his surviving work.

Ahead of an immersive exhibition on the painting that will open this November, the National Gallery in London has released amazing images of its version of “The Virgin of the Rocks” (supposedly circa 1491-1508, with interruptions), which reveal what lies beneath the visible surface of the altarpiece. Using macro x-ray fluorescence, as well as infrared and hyperspectral imaging, researchers were able to detect Leonardo’s original design for the composition, because it was drawn using a material containing zinc oxide. These advanced scanning technologies can distinguish a single mineral, such as zinc, from other materials that are present on the wooden panel.

When the zinc oxide underdrawing is superimposed on top of the existing painting, we can see that Leonardo made a great number of changes to his design. Notice for example how the position of the Virgin Mary in the original composition, looking to her left with her right arm outstretched, is completely different from that in the final picture, where she looks down and to her right as her right arm embraces St. John the Baptist (who was completely absent in the original underdrawing), and her left arm reaches forward over the Christ Child. Similarly, in the underdrawing the angel at the right of the picture was shown looking down at the Infant Jesus as he embraces Him, appearing much more engaged than he does in the final product, where he simply stares off rather dreamily into space and does not embrace the Child as tightly.


As interesting as this is on a scientific level, the discovery will probably reignite an art history debate that has been going on for centuries. The Louvre maintains that their version of the painting (supposedly 1483-1486) is entirely by Leonardo, while the version in the National Gallery is both later and mostly by Leonardo’s assistants. The National Gallery on the other hand, while so far conceding that the Louvre version is probably earlier than theirs, dispute the claim that their version is merely or even mostly a workshop copy, and instead claim that the bulk of the painting is by Leonardo, working in a different style. Not only has extensive scientific testing borne out Leonardo’s work on the picture, but there’s now sufficient evidence to question whether the National Gallery’s picture is, in fact, a later work.

If the underdrawing in the National Gallery picture is by Leonardo (and at this point there’s no reason to believe it’s not), and if the Louvre painting was created before the National Gallery painting, then why did the artist start out with such a very different composition, only to go back to a composition that he had used before? Typically, these kinds of dramatic design changes are more likely to appear underneath the first version of a painting, when the artist is still organizing his thoughts. Later versions of the painting can then simply follow the finalized template, with a few changes here and there as needed.

In 2010 the Louvre picture was scanned using technology similar to that used on that in the National Gallery, but at that time researchers were looking at thickness of paint levels, not for preparatory drawing data. Despite the new information obtained by the National Gallery, the Louvre probably won’t agree to further scans of their version of the picture to help settle this question. Gallic pride being what it is, there’s simply no way that the French are going to admit that they may have been wrong, and they can avoid making that admission by avoiding further testing.

I freely admit that I’m no Da Vinci expert, but I’ve always thought that the National Gallery picture is the earlier of the two. For one thing, the figures in the National Gallery picture have the traditional halos that one would expect on a Renaissance religious painting. While there’s no way to know for certain whether Leonardo painted them himself or whether they were added later, the Louvre picture has no halos at all. That may be significant, because we know that Leonardo put halos on his religious figures earlier in his career, such as in his “Annunciation” (1472), but by the time he painted the “Last Supper” (1495), if not earlier, he was no longer using them. A related distinction is the fact that the National Gallery picture looks more like the sharply delineated, almost crystalline paintings that Leonardo executed during his time in Florence, while the Louvre picture looks more like the somewhat misty pictures he produced later during his move to Mantua and on to Milan, when he developed his “sfumato” or “smoky” technique of blurring edges and backgrounds to create more realistic lighting effects.

So which came first? Who knows – but I doubt that the Louvre is going to cross the road to find out. But since you’ve probably had enough chicken-flavored puns for one post, gentle reader, let’s move on to some other art news from the week gone by.

Olé, Dublin

Speaking of the National Gallery in London, for those of my readers who were unable to see the Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923) retrospective during its highly successful run there – it drew over 150k visitors, which is quite remarkable for an artist whose work had not been exhibited in England for over a century – you may want to consider visiting Dublin this Fall, as the exhibition has just taken up residence at the National Gallery of Ireland. What’s more, in addition to the works that were shown in London, an additional 14 paintings have been lent by Irish and American collectors and institutions for the show’s Dublin run. The museum has planned a host of activities in celebration of the show, including lectures, tours, events specifically designed for children, young adults, families, and the elderly, and what I personally would love to have seen: a flamenco performance staged before Sorolla’s art. Sadly, that particular event is now sold out, but let’s hope that it goes up on YouTube at some point.

Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light” is at the National Gallery of Ireland through November 3rd.


Uuf, Notre Dame

After I noted last week that things finally seemed to be back on track for the restoration of Notre Dame de Paris, things appear to have gone awry once again. First, city officials have again pushed back the back-to-work date for ongoing cleanup to at least August 19th, due to the high levels of lead particulates continuing to plague the Cathedral work site as well as nearby schools. Then yesterday, the Ministry of Culture indicated that actual restoration work will not begin before sometime in the first half of next year, at the earliest. Meanwhile, thanks to the exposed structural stonework of the Basilica, and the expansion and contraction caused by the summer heat, chunks of masonry are continuing to fall at the site, indicating that the entire thing is still in danger of collapse.


Ah, Venice

A new entry for the “It’s About Time” file, for those concerned about the future of La Serenissima: cruise ships will finally be barred from entering the main canal that runs through downtown Venice. In addition to creating rather jarring images like that shown below, the presence of these bloated behemoths has created a host of problems for the city over the last 30 years, including collisions with smaller vessels, water traffic jams, massive pollution, and water displacement, affecting both the quality of life in the city as well as damaging many of the architectural treasures of the lagoon. In future, visitors arriving via cruise ship who wish to visit the city will be putting ashore at port areas outside of the central district, but in true Italian bureaucratic fashion, some of these new facilities have yet to be built.


The Witching Hour

Whether you’re talking about late-17th century Salem, or mid-20th century DC, people love a good witch hunt.

In the Massachusetts colony, the fear of witchcraft was just as real to the people of that time, as the fear of insidious Communism was to people in the age of the Red Scare. Like worshiping the Devil, a practice of which Communism is merely a modern (albeit highly effective) variant, it’s difficult to go after something that is largely based on a belief system. It’s much easier to hunt down specific individuals who are accused of engaging in practices related to a particular way of thinking.

In the art world at present, we find ourselves in a new kind of witch hunt, not unrelated in general appearance to previous ones, in which serious consideration is being given to the positions of those who are actively seeking to purge museums of associations with individuals and corporations whom they consider to be evil, whether based on the source of their wealth or what opinions they hold on certain subjects. I’ve written about this recently both here and elsewhere, but it’s a story that dominates the daily art news headlines. Just this morning, for example, there was this analysis in Art News, riffing off earlier pieces in New York Magazine and Hyperallergic, indicating which American museum board members are potentially problematic because of what they do for a living, their views on hot-button issues, and so on.

Before we get out the pitchforks and torches however, it’s important to recognize that ideological conflict as expressed through the mechanism of attacking art objects, or the individuals and institutions that care for them, is not a new phenomenon in Western art history.

At the end of the 15th century the de facto ruler of Florence, a Dominican friar named Savonarola, encouraged Florentines to bring objects that offended his particular interpretation of Christianity out of their homes to be burned in giant bonfires. While a great deal of garbage went up in flames, so did masterpieces of both Classical and Renaissance art, including paintings, drawings, illustrated manuscripts, tapestries, and sculptures. A little over a year after the greatest of these conflagrations, which took place on Fat Tuesday in 1497 and has since come to be known as *THE* Bonfire of the Vanities, Savonarola himself ended up being excommunicated by Pope Alexander VI, arrested, put on trial, hanged, and burned in the Piazza della Signoria – ironically, in the very the same spot where he had hosted the great Bonfire.

Almost exactly two hundred years later, beginning in 1793, the French Revolutionary government began a concentrated effort to eradicate Christianity from France. In addition to the martyrdom of hundreds of priests and religious, the confiscation of Church property, and the banning of religious practices, the French gleefully destroyed works of art that clashed with the neo-pagan ideal of the worship of themselves. While the state managed to warehouse a number of important pieces, realizing that these objects had intrinsic value apart from their religious significance, many others were destroyed with demonic glee. Indeed, Alexandre Lenoir, one of the revolutionaries charged with identifying and preserving what was worth saving, had to personally throw himself between those who wanted to attack Michelangelo’s “Dying Slave” from the tomb of Pope Julius II, and smash it to pieces with hammers.

Over a century later, Russian Revolutionaries took their cues from their French antecedents and engaged in a concentrated effort to destroy works of art that were found to be in conflict with the ideals of the new, secular state. Although most of the great collections escaped intact, other, important works did not, including countless Orthodox icons, images of the imperial family, and many decorative items of great craftsmanship and artistic skill. A reporter for The Guardian, who was embedded in St. Petersburg at the time, was horrified by what he saw in 1917 at the Winter Palace, part of the Hermitage Museum complex:

The Palace was pillaged and devastated from top to bottom by the Bolshevik armed mob, as though by a horde of barbarians. All the State papers were destroyed. Priceless pictures were ripped from their frames by bayonets…books and manuscripts burnt and destroyed…Desks, pictures, ornaments – everything was destroyed.

Now, I’m not suggesting that, at this point, we’re about to witness hordes of people storming The Met and setting it ablaze, or yanking Gilbert Stuart portraits of the Founding Fathers and Mothers from the walls of the MFA and ripping them to pieces. Instead, allow me to point out to the reader that artistic witch hunts have happened before: the cause-du-jour will eventually die off, and in another century or so another one will come along. The long history of Western art allows us to take an equally long view when it comes to the preservation of that art.

What remains unexplored however, is the question of what donations public art institutions may or may not accept. For the most part, those who work in the art world tend to share the same socio-political views; as I reported some months ago, this has been borne out in research into the present state of art media. Not surprisingly then, you’ll notice that the lists compiled in the articles linked to above address certain subject areas, but not others.

Thus, while in today’s piece Art News asks who gets to decide the question of acceptable donations, from their perspective that’s really a functional question, not a philosophical one. No one in the art world establishment could imagine demanding that a board member at a major museum step down from their post because they donate to an organization at odds with Christianity, such as Planned Parenthood or the Sierra Club – quite the opposite, in fact. So the debate, at least at present, is not really about applying purity tests to museum donations of objects or funds, but rather about whether such donations are pure enough to avoid all possible mob action. It’s a bit like dunking a witch in order to find out whether she’s really a witch or not: chances are she’s not going to win that contest, whatever the outcome.

We can’t know for certain what the end effect of all of this finger-pointing will be on the future of art museums. I certainly wouldn’t want to be in the position of someone who has to decide where their museum funding is going to come from if, for example, they have to kick the Rockefellers off their board or refuse their donation of a Degas, because their family fortune was acquired through the exploitation of fossil fuels. However, what we do know from the study of art history is that these sorts of things are cyclical, so that in one way or another, ideologies eventually reign themselves in, and most great works of art should survive. Tomorrow, and next week, and next year, we can all have a reasonable expectation there will still be things like Goya’s paintings of witches hanging on the walls, haunting us like spotted and stained old mirrors, as they cast their reflections of the very worst aspects of ourselves.


Art News Roundup: No Swimming Edition

If you’ve a fellow American who has traveled abroad in recent years, and visited artistic or historic sites, you’ll probably agree that there’s been an overwhelming increase in two factors at these locations which, at least at first glance, appear to be unrelated. There’s been a proliferation of international retail establishments in these areas, where chain stores and food outlets that you can find just about everywhere are often rather jarringly located right next to artistically and/or historically significant structures, replacing local businesses. At the same time, there’s also been an increase in anti-social behavior in and around these areas, engaged in by both residents and visitors alike.

So an interesting question that we might want to consider here is, are these two seemingly disparate trends, in fact, related?

Recently, the Edinburgh World Heritage group published the results of a survey on how both visitors and locals perceived the Scottish capital’s famous “Royal Mile” district. Among other interesting findings, the study found that many of the shops were viewed by tourists and locals alike as being either generic, international chain outlets, or stores selling cheap, imported products rather than local goods. Tourists also reported that they never seemed to meet any actual Scots when they visited the district, just other foreigners, while the Scots themselves preferred to avoid the area whenever possible.

The report was silent as to the perception and impact of anti-social behavior, which I found somewhat surprising. However, an annual survey conducted by the city revealed that overall, there’s a perception among Edinburgh’s citizens that anti-social behavior from graffiti to public intoxication is becoming more problematic in the city, including in areas that have been redeveloped specifically for attracting tourist revenue. That’s not to say that the Royal Mile has become a more dangerous place, necessarily, but it does provide some food for thought. If the Royal Mile is an area that locals have decided to abandon to tourists, and the tourists themselves don’t have a permanent stake in what happens to the area, should we be surprised if it becomes nothing more than a faded, archaeological memory?

Meanwhile in Rome, the Italian government appears to be interested in both addressing the issue of commercial globalization in historic areas, and in raising standards of public behavior in them. Italy’s Culture Minister Alberto Bonisoli, with support from Rome’s Mayor Virginia Raggi, recently nixed a proposed new, 8,600 square foot McDonald’s close to the 3rd century A.D. Baths of Caracalla, noting that it would be inappropriate for the chain to be located so close-by. As McDonald’s already has about 50 locations in Rome, many of which are right next to historic monuments, this seems to be a bit of a fart in a stiff wind, but there you are.

Earlier this summer, Rome’s City Council decided to reinvigorate a host of public behavior laws that were originally put into place after World War II, but which were only sporadically enforced in recent years. These include prohibitions on things such as open containers of alcohol on the street, swimming in historic fountains (sorry, Anita), and the affixing of so-called “love locks”. As part of this effort, visitors to the Eternal City may be shocked, if they make the mistake of sitting down on the Spanish Steps, to find themselves chased away by police officers on foot patrol, as part of a renewed effort to combat problems such as vandalism and loitering.

Perhaps there’s no connection between the homogenization of businesses in these areas, and the rise in anti-social behavior, or perhaps it’s some sort of symbiotic relationship. To me, it certainly seems possible to conclude that, the less locals take a personal interest in areas of artistic or historic importance – even areas heavily frequented by tourists – the greater the likelihood of anti-social behavior in that area. If you have thoughts on the subject, you are most welcome to post them in the comment box below.


And now, let’s move on to some art news from the week gone by.

Notre Dame News

At last, there is some good news on the reconstruction effort at Notre Dame de Paris, which is that the French Parliament has (correctly) chosen to eschew the suggestions of those who wanted to turn the building into some sort of hybrid of the High Line and a luxury hotel in Dubai, and instead has ordered that the Basilica be rebuilt exactly as it was at the time of the fire. Moreover, government oversight will be put in place to make certain that this occurs, and that proper construction standards and safety protocols are followed. Meanwhile, the (literal) fallout from the lead particulates issue, which I wrote about last week, continues to embroil the French press. City officials poo-pooed public concern over the issue, even as tests show that the exteriors of some schools in the area around the Cathedral still have an above-average amount of lead contamination, nearly four months after the fire.


Sotheby’s Suits

No, you’re not experiencing déjà vu, gentle reader: Sotheby’s has just been hit by yet another lawsuit ahead of its proposed sale to French billionaire Patrick Drahi. If you’re not keeping track, this is suit #4, and it appears to be substantially similar to the other complaints, alleging that not all required information was disclosed to the company’s shareholders in order for them to make an informed decision on whether to accept the offer made by BidFair, a company wholly owned by M. Drahi. Of course, if you *are* keeping track, then you’ll remember that the plan is to take Sotheby’s private, so as to better compete against their arch-rival Christie’s, which is privately held by another French billionaire, François-Henri Pinault. For its part, Sotheby’s continues to brush off the lawsuits, including this latest one, and has indicated that it fully intends to go through with the sale by the end of this year.


Marvelous Martini

After more than a century in storage thanks to its poor state of preservation, visitors to London’s National Gallery will be able to see a truly magnificent altarpiece by Giovanni Martini da Udine (1470-1535), an artist who is perhaps better known as a sculptor, but was also a very interesting painter of the High Renaissance in far Northeastern Italy. Martini’s “Madonna and Child with Saints” (painted for an unknown patron between 1500-1525) stands a massive 8 feet tall, and features the Virgin Mary and Christ Child on a throne at the center, with angels above, flanked by the Apostle St. James the Greater on our left, St. George on our right, and the image of the donor kneeling at the bottom. From this we can reasonably deduce that the artist’s patron was probably named Giacomo Giorgio (or Giorgio Giacomo), but I will leave that for the art historians to investigate. It took seven years to bring this piece back from the brink of ruin, the longest restoration process in the history of the museum; you can read about the appalling condition it was in, and what it took to conserve and restore the picture, by visiting the National Gallery’s press page.


Unpredictable: Human Nature Through Art

Over the weekend, I watched a documentary on the life of Henry Frederick Stuart, Prince of Wales (1594-1612), the eldest son of James VI of Scotland and I of England; Henry would have succeeded to the British throne had he not predeceased his father. Although presented by a scholar, it wasn’t a formal history lecture, but rather an accessible presentation designed for a general audience, complete with cozy chats in pubs and mock fighting in suits of armor. As informative entertainment, it was perfectly fine, but at the conclusion of the program, the presenter made a rather eyebrow-raising argument: if Henry had not died, and his younger brother Charles had not become king, then the English Civil War would never have happened.

hfs.jpgThat seems something of a stretch given the sectarian tensions of the time, and, quite frankly, I’ve always thought that Henry was something of a jerk. Full of himself, disrespectful toward his family (he once threatened to beat his father with a cane), and virulently anti-Catholic, he might have prevented full-scale war, but as Henry IX it’s just as possible that he might have been an all-too-worthy successor to Henry VIII. We simply don’t know and can’t possibly predict what would have happened, as historical circumstances and indeed his own personal character evolved.

To illustrate this point, let’s turn to some art dating (roughly) to the era in which Henry lived, and see what lessons we can glean from their collective example.

Take a look at the two images below, both of which depict familiar scenes from the Christmas Story. The first shows the Adoration of the Magi, and was painted between 1565 and 1567, about the time that Henry’s father was born. The second shows the Adoration of the Shepherds, and was painted between 1612 and 1614, right about the time that Henry himself died.



In the first picture, which sadly is in a poor state of preservation, we can see that the encounter between the Three Kings and the Holy Family is taking place amidst the ruins of a Classical building in a wild landscape, complete with marble Corinthian columns, vaulting, and a shallow dome with an oculus like that of the Pantheon in Rome. The figures are elegantly dressed, gesticulate in a formal, courtly fashion, and the highly choreographed composition recalls many Northern Italian (particularly Venetian) examples from the High Renaissance. It’s the work of an artist who hasn’t quite got the knack for depicting both believable figures and believable space simultaneously – if the Virgin Mary stood up, the top of her head would be at the same height as the top of the capital nearest her – but it’s still an agreeable, if very specific to its era, presentation of a familiar Biblical subject.

In the second picture, by contrast, there isn’t any real attempt to create a believable space occupied by the participants, who all appear to be at different angles to ourselves. There’s a suggestion of some sort of a ruin in the background, with an arched opening through a wall, but it’s nothing like the grand, Roman architecture that we see in the first picture. Whereas the Holy Family and their visitors in the first painting were dressed in fashionable, luxurious garments, in the second no one – not even the angels – is wearing anything approaching that level of style: indeed, no one in the second picture is even wearing shoes, never mind things like the red silk stockings and slippers, or highly polished silver boots, that we see in the first. The figures seem to be overcome with deeply-felt emotion at the Birth of Christ, rather than restraining themselves in a sort of regal, staged setting.

Moreover, whereas the first painting is something that we can easily pinpoint to sometime around the Renaissance, the second painting is almost devoid of any detail that could tell us when it was created – apart, perhaps, from the central figure of the kneeling man in the orange tunic with the high, turned up collar characteristic of the 17th century. That aside, if we were told that this piece was painted by an Expressionist or Abstract painter in the 20th century, we probably wouldn’t be surprised. It has a swirling, floating, timeless unreality about it, markedly different from the first picture’s attempt to depict solid, grounded reality at a specific place and time.

As it happens, both of these pictures are by Doménikos Theotokópoulos (1541-1614), the artist better known as “El Greco” (meaning “The Greek”, in Spanish.) If that surprises you, then good: I’ve made my point. There’s simply no reasonable basis on which we could have concluded that the style of work which he produced in his 20’s, as exemplified by the “Adoration of the Magi”, when he was newly-arrived in Italy from Crete, and trying to shed his background as a provincial painter of Byzantine icons, would be anything like the almost Modern-looking “Adoration of the Shepherds” that he painted in Spain when he was in his 70’s. In the nearly fifty years that passed between painting the first picture and painting the second, the world had changed, art had changed, and more importantly El Greco, the man, had changed.

It’s foolish to suggest that, whatever his (arguable) virtues were at 18, Henry would have kept England from going to war with itself had he ascended to the throne. To do so buys into the hagiography published about him at the time and after his death, that he was some sort of Calvinist Second Coming of Christ. It’s certainly possible that he might have prevented the strife that came about under the reign of Charles I, given Charles’ embrace of absolutism and his comparative friendliness to Catholicism (or at least, to the importance of liturgy.) It’s also just as possible that Henry would have tried to wipe out both the Catholics and High Church Anglicans, turning himself into the all-powerful monarch that Charles envisioned himself as, but never managed to actually become.

Human beings are not static creatures. We grow and change over time, and while some aspects of our personalities, opinions, and interests remain the same throughout our lives, others fall by the wayside, or evolve into something else entirely. While it’s certainly an interesting intellectual exercise to speculate on the question of “what might have been” when it comes to history in general, art history in particular provides the most obvious, visual indicator that the past is but prelude, as the saying goes, and it’s ultimately impossible to predict with any real accuracy what will happen next.

I think you’ll agree, gentle reader, that this is why the study of art is so interesting. It’s not simply an exercise for more fully debating questions of taste or style, or merely admiring on a more informed basis what we perceive on the surface of things. Studying art gives us a deeper, visually-based insight into human nature, and in particular, the very changeable quality of that nature, the more we observe and learn and think about an artist’s work.

Art News Roundup: Lead Balloon Edition

Amidst the furor over the causes of the fire that ravaged the Cathedral Basilica of Notre Dame de Paris back in April, and lingering questions about how the church should be rebuilt, one very important, but until now relatively under-reported, aspect of the conflagration got lost in the shuffle: burning lead.

Lead, as you probably know if you’ve ever had to do repair work on an historic house or an antique piece of furniture, is a highly toxic heavy metal, which for centuries has been used to make everything from paint and plumbing supplies, to finished goods such as statuary, crystal, and jewelry. As scientists became aware of the dangers it poses to the human body, its use was phased out in many industries. Studies have repeatedly shown that lead exposure is a significant risk factor for cognitive and physical developmental problems in unborn babies, infants, and small children, while even for otherwise healthy adults, lead exposure has been linked to the onset of mental illness, sterility, anemia, and even death.

In the case of Notre Dame de Paris, not only were the stained glass windows held together by strips of lead, but the entire roof and the central spire were sheathed in vast panels of lead. While in a solid, stable state, these lead components posed little or no threat to anyone, as we all know, both the roof and the spire of the Cathedral burned for hours until they collapsed. In the process, an enormous quantity of lead particulates was released into the atmosphere, settling on nearby buildings, sidewalks, and yes, people.

Now, a lawsuit filed this week by a French environmental activist group alleges that not enough was done at the time of the fire or afterward to warn people about the dangers of “hundreds of tons of lead” being released into the atmosphere around the burning Basilica, or to clean up the particulates themselves afterwards. In a disaster of this magnitude, it’s understandable that not everything that could have been done, was done at the time. Nevertheless, it’s rather disturbing to learn, among other things, that the chief of the Paris police force appears to have admitted that inadequate safety measures were taken both during the fire and subsequently. In fact, he has ordered the shutdown of the site until it can be made safer for workers to return.

I must confess, I hadn’t even thought of this issue until now, but knowing what I do about historic church architecture, it now strikes me as incredible that no one – at least, not in the coverage that I watched on television – took up the refrain of warning people that the burning lead roof of the Cathedral was a major health hazard for reasons beyond that of the fire itself. Perhaps it’s because everyone was in so much shock at what they were witnessing, that no one had the presence of mind to realize that inhaling or ingesting bits of lead is not good. Stay tuned for developments on this story.


Schiele for a Steal

Proving that, despite my recent ruminations to the contrary, sometimes it’s worth taking a chance on a piece, recently a man who regularly hunts through the bric-a-brac at a Habitat for Humanity charity shop in Queens, New York stumbled across a study drawing of a nude priced at $80, that he thought might be by the major Austrian Expressionist painter Egon Schiele (1890-1918). Fortunately for him, his wife liked the drawing as well; fortunately for art historians and collectors, he nixed the Missus’ idea of hanging the piece in the bathroom, as he knew that the damp environment wouldn’t be good for the paper. After contacting a specialist in Schiele’s work for an evaluation, it turns out that the buyer’s instinct was correct, and the piece is now on display at the Galerie St. Etienne in Midtown Manhattan: estimated asking price, between $100,00-$200,000. That’s quite a steal.


Houston, We Have A Problem

Speaking of stealing, or to be more precise, burglary, we’re all aware that social media has brought us many problems – flame wars, spambots, the inexplicable rise of Cardi B. – but now it seems that there’s a new problem for art collectors in particular to worry about. Authorities in Houston have recently made arrests in an art theft ring, in which the alleged perpetrators used social media to target wealthy collectors in the area. The accused tracked the movements of the victims through their social media accounts in order to learn what they owned, and when they might be out of the house; in at least once case, they even infiltrated a large party that was being thrown at the home of one of the collectors, in order to scope out what was hanging on the walls. Among the items stolen (some of which have yet to be recovered) were works by Monet, Picasso, and this piece, “Paysage au coq rouge” (“Landscape with Red Rooster”) (1937) by the great French painter of the Art Deco period, Fernand Léger (1881-1955). In a society that has become accustomed to oversharing online, we should unfortunately expect this sort of thing to continue for the indefinite future.


Bottles Up!

For whatever reason, I found this story charming, perhaps because it shows how people love to collect beautiful things, and to share their collections and knowledge with others in order to build communities. Apparently, there is an organization called the Federation of Historic Bottle Collectors, which is shortly to celebrate its 50th Anniversary this weekend at the National Antique Bottle Convention in Augusta, Georgia. Not only will there be an opportunity to buy and sell antique bottles made of everything from glass to clay to stoneware, but there will be presentations on making, collecting, and preserving bottles, programs designed for children, and competitions to highlight some of the most interesting items at the show. You don’t have to be a member, or even a bottle collector, in order to attend (although perhaps you will want to become both after seeing some of the items on display?) The National Antique Bottle Convention opens today, and runs through Saturday, August 3rd.


Aesthetics and the Gospel of Ugliness

There’s a frequent refrain in more traditional schools of thought when it comes to the arts that goes something like this: if people were only exposed to beauty, they would prefer it to the ugliness which has characterized much of painting and sculpture, architecture, film, and music for the past century or so. I don’t deny that there’s some truth to that notion, particularly when it seems as though all aesthetic values are now utterly and perhaps irreversibly subjective. Yet I wonder whether the notion that, in effect, “If you build it, they will come,” is a bit too narrow of a view to take, when it comes to the intersection of aesthetics and values in art.

Last evening while watching television – a habit which is becoming increasingly difficult to justify, given the available offerings – I came across a commercial for yet another blood-and-guts program from a cable channel which, over the past several years, has singlehandedly revived the zombie genre for the small screen, as well as glorifying the drug trade, biker gangs, and other unsavory aspects of contemporary society. The theme music for the spot was the opening of Antonio Vivaldi’s “Gloria” in D Major, a joyful piece of Catholic sacred music which, at least so far as I can tell, has nothing to do with a shoot-em-up series about a comic book anti-hero, even if God Himself is (apparently) a character in all of this mess.

Then there was this tweet from the Cathedral of Rochester in England, which has temporarily turned the nave into a crazy golf course (what the cousins call mini-golf over there.) Presumably, this is an effort to attract more visitors rather than worshipers, since in order to affect this alteration one presumes that a considerable number of pews had to be put in storage. No doubt St. John Fisher, whose seat this cathedral was before he alone among the English hierarchy had the cojones to stand up to Henry VIII, thereby losing his head in the process, is just as embarrassed for the people of Kent as I am at this extremely tacky turn of events.

In both of these instances, we’re dealing with artistic treasures of great beauty, but whose inherent dignity – and indeed ours – is being cheapened in the quest for popularity. Perhaps the use of Vivaldi’s choral masterpiece will attract viewers to the television show, but to what end? Is the sale of automobiles or contraceptives so vital for the survival of our culture that we need to make a blasphemy of sacred music in order to sustain these trades? No doubt, this new indoor funfair attraction in Rochester will bring the punters into the cathedral to get out of the summer heat. But how many of them will stay to pray, rather than simply play?

While such questions are simultaneously important and, on some level, frivolous, I bring up these examples in order to make a particular point.

It seems to me that it isn’t enough to simply introduce people to beautiful things, and expect them to immediately gain some kind of deep level of understanding, which thereby causes them to forsake the banal in favor of the sublime. After all, true beauty contains truth, but superficial beauty is just as appealing, and moreover subversively seductive and pleasurable. In and of themselves, beautiful things are not the panacea for our social and cultural ills that some would like them to be.

It’s all very well to go along to a great museum and look at images of beautiful figures in beautiful landscapes, or enter a magnificent concert hall to hear a great symphony, and tell people that these are the sorts of things which they must learn to appreciate above other forms of art. However, the reality is that life is one series of ugly events after another, from physical pain and mental suffering to poverty, loss, dashed hopes, and all of the other ills which categorize this existence as we know it. If the portrayal of ugliness is bewilderingly appealing, it’s probably because, most of the time, on an emotional level it’s much closer to people’s experience of daily living.

Instead, allow me to suggest that alongside a gospel of beauty, those of us who care about aesthetics must simultaneously learn to accept, and indeed to preach, a gospel of ugliness.

Yesterday, July 29th, marks the anniversary of the death of one of the most popular artists who ever lived, Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890). Rejected by those in the art establishment who only wanted to look at beautiful things, today his paintings are the prize possessions of public museums and private collectors all over the world. People line up for hours to see exhibitions of his work, and on those rare instances when one of his canvases comes up for auction, it inevitably sells for an enormous sum. Meanwhile, the arbiters of 19th century aesthetic taste, or more precisely the artists whom they championed, who spent their careers creating things like soft-porn images of nymphs cavorting in cascades of flowers thrown by meaningless putti, are practically forgotten. Why?

Van Gogh was a terrible draftsman, and his painterly technique, such as it was, involved slathering on thick layers of paint in a rather childish way. He often used cheap pigments that, over time, have faded and muddled the colors of his paintings. He was also, by all accounts, someone whose mental illness caused him to sometimes cower in a corner, and at other times to be a quarrelsome, whinging, royal pain in the arse. No doubt, many who came to appreciate him after his death, when he was no longer around to annoy anyone, were drawn in by the romantic notion of one man suffering for his art, and that certainly explains at least some of the initial enthusiasm for retrospectives of his work – but it doesn’t explain his staying power more than a century later.

Perhaps his work still speaks to so many because, in the ugliness of many of Van Gogh’s images, we see something that isn’t airbrushed, auto-tuned, and plastic-wrapped. Its beauty lies precisely, and paradoxically, in its humility and its ugliness. We may not always like what we’re looking at, like the painting below of a pair of tattered, and probably quite smelly, pair of old shoes which, if we came across them on the street we’d probably toss in the nearest bin, using a stick to prevent ourselves from touching them. And yet as a work of art, the image of these hideously ugly shoes is imbued with a kind of dignity and indeed beauty which the man who wore them never enjoyed in this life.

Should you balk at this notion, I’d ask you consider the following:

He had no majestic bearing to catch our eye,
no beauty to draw us to him.
He was spurned and avoided by men,
a man of suffering, knowing pain,
Like one from whom you turn your face,
spurned, and we held him in no esteem.

(Isaiah 53:2-3)

By way of conclusion, I don’t mean to suggest that one should start preferring the work of Le Corbusier to that of Borromini – because if that’s where you’re at currently, I really need to completely rethink this whole writing gig. Rather, I think it’s important to recognize that aesthetics alone do not provide the artistic answer to all of our socio-cultural problems. Something which appears to be ugly can do just as much good in providing a salve to the human soul as something which glistens with an approximation of supernatural perfection. For after all, no matter how frail, scarred, flawed, or weak a human being may be, that person is nothing less than a miraculously beautiful work of art.