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.


Art News Roundup: Taking Stock Edition

My American readers are probably familiar with the White House Historical Association, founded by former First Lady Jackie Kennedy, which helps coordinate the efforts of the National Park Service and several other government agencies to catalogue, conserve, and study the hundreds of artistic treasures in the permanent collection of the Executive Mansion. Over the past two centuries, the home has acquired everything from bronzes by Frederic Remington to Tiffany Studios designs for White House carpets, such as the example shown below. These items are documented and cared for by a group of civil servants and volunteers who recognize the historic and artistic importance of these items, which ultimately belong to the people of the United States.


Unfortunately, despite their love of fine and decorative art, the French don’t appear to be as good at such things. A new report published this past Friday indicates that an astonishing 50,000+ items – yes, you read that correctly – including paintings, furniture, porcelain, etc., have disappeared from the Élysée Palace, the official residence of the President of France in Paris, as well as from other government buildings. As Naomi Rea reports in ArtNet, in 2018 alone 87 items were reported missing by the Élysée – and that’s just what the staff of the Presidential palace happened to notice.

This story adds additional urgency, albeit on a much, much smaller scale, to the to-date haphazard effort I’ve made to inventory items in my own collection. I’ve been inconsistent about this over the years, which has led to a few unfortunate consequences. In some cases, I have everything from receipts, sales catalogue entries, and backup documentation concerning a piece and the artist who created it; in others, that information may be partly or entirely missing.

Now, to be fair, most of what I own isn’t particularly important stuff, and those pieces that are of greater importance are fairly well-documented. The majority of the items in my collection however, I like either because they are visually attractive, or because they hold a personal meaning for me in some way. Therefore it behooves me to make the effort to put together as much of that information as I can, not only regarding the who, when, and where, but also, where necessary, the why.

So take some time to photograph, document, and write down everything you know about those pieces in your collection, gentle reader, whether it’s a collection of Civil War medals or Great-Grandmother’s china or Charlie Brown comic strips. Otherwise, not only do you have a decent chance of forgetting some of what you own, but those who come after you will not have the knowledge that you’re currently carrying around in your head to help them identify these things after you’re gone. There are plenty of days when it’s too hot or too rainy or too snowy to be out and about doing much, when you can devote some time to this activity, in order to keep up with what you have in your home – unlike the President of France.

And now, on to some of the other art news that I’ve found interesting over the past week.

Sotheby’s Snag

Speaking of France, there’s been a snag in French billionaire Patrick Drahi’s plan to acquire Sotheby’s and take it private – which I told you about back in June – so as to better compete with its arch-rival, Christie’s, which is privately held by a company headed by French billionaire François-Henri Pinault. Three of Sotheby’s shareholders have sued the corporation and the board claiming, inter alia, that insufficient information had been disclosed for them to know whether to vote yes or no on the proposed deal, which includes a valuation of company stock at “$57 in cash per share, a 61% premium to the closing price on June 14,” according to Bloomberg. The first two complaints, filed on July 17 and July 19, respectively, have just been joined by a third, in which the plaintiff seems to be seeking certification for a class-action suit. Meanwhile, Sotheby’s and M. Drahi are moving ahead with their plans, which they expect to be completed by the end of this year.


Swedish Shipwreck

The Baltic Sea has long been a favorite hunting ground for marine archaeologists thanks to its deep, cold waters, which preserve perishable materials like ship timbers for remarkably long periods of time. Now, a new find may have revealed one of the best-preserved Renaissance shipwrecks located to date. The unknown vessel is believed to date from the late 15th or early 16th century, complete with rigging, masts, guns, anchor, and tender boat, and features a decorated transom at the back of the hull. You can check out a video from the lead archaeologist here. No word yet on whether the Swedes will be trying to raise the vessel, or if it contains any cargo, but I’d be very interested in seeing a) the Scandinavian sculptural elements carved on that transom, and b) if there are any late Medieval-early Renaissance ceramics still intact down in the hold.


Dandy Dickens

If you’ve ever watched the BBC show, “Fake or Fortune?” – and you should – you’ll know that art dealer Philip Mould and his team have a knack for rediscovering lost, important works of art. Case in point was their find last fall of a beautiful portrait miniature by Margaret Gillies (1803-1887) of Charles Dickens (1812-1870), depicting the novelist as a young man, just about the time that he was writing “A Christmas Carol”. The picture was well-known in Victorian times, but somehow ended up in a boxed lot of junk being auctioned off at a house clearance sale in South Africa. Now fully cleaned and restored, the piece has been acquired by the Dickens Museum in London following a lengthy fundraising campaign. Given that most of us are probably more familiar with Dickens from photographs taken of him later in life, balding, paunchy, and with a rather luxuriant goatee, Gillies’ portrait gives us an idea of why, when he first became popular, Dickens was well-known around London for being quite the dandy and ladies’ man.


Le Chevalier noir à Marseille: Batman in the South of France

Should you happen to find yourself in the south of France this summer, gentle reader, you may want to look up into the night skies for a different sort of light than that generated by celestial bodies:


Contemporary artist Alex Israel (1982- ) is perhaps best known in the art world for making use of his connections to the film industry in Hollywood, and coming up with paintings, films, and art installations that have a kind of plastic, pastel California feel to them. Broadly speaking, you can think of him as someone who is an artistic descendant of the Pop Artists of the 1950’s and 60’s, such as Lichtenstein and Warhol, but with a West Coast palette and outlook. No doubt had he lived back during the Studio Era, he would have been an artistic director for one of the major studios, orchestrating the overall look of films set in the Los Angeles of the time.

Mr. Israel’s most recent installation is just as cinematic, but it adopts a darker tone than much of his previous work, and for good reason. “Alex Israel”, which opened last month at the Centre d’art de la Cité Radieuse in Marseille, is dedicated to Batman. The highlight of the show, which is on display at the Centre’s rooftop, is a working Bat Signal, which the artist fashioned from an old World War II searchlight. And no need to raise a professional eyebrow, for those among my readers who are fellow attorneys wondering about intellectual property issues for this exhibition, since Mr. Israel obtained permission from Warner Brothers before slapping on the giant metal bat logo.

Ecole de Bouqueval - Jean Prouvé

In addition to creating a working Bat Signal, Mr. Israel has also somehow managed to (temporarily) acquire the Batmobile from the 1989 Tim Burton “Batman” film. He’s surrounded it with special effects including lights, sounds, and a smoke machine, to make it seem as though the Caped Crusader is somewhere nearby, and could arrive on the scene at any moment. While to those of us who are in the States, this may seem somewhat standard fare, at least for those who go to things like Comicon or movie studio-owned amusement parks, in the south of France this sort of thing doesn’t happen all that often.


Indeed, Marseille may seem a rather odd place to throw up the Bat Signal, but as Mr. Israel explained in a recent interview, “I was inspired by the myth of Marseille, and that historically it’s been a bit tough, rough and dangerous.” It’s an apt observation, particularly if you consider the number of enjoyable gangster/action films set in whole or in part in France’s second largest city. Perhaps most famously, to American audiences, Marseille is an important location in “The French Connection” Parts I and II, but it also plays a role in numerous other films, from “Borsalino” to “The Transporter” to “The Bourne Identity”, as well as in several classic French mob films starring Jean Gabin.

So is this installation high art? No. But is it fun? Absolutely.

I think this exhibition is an excellent opportunity to point out to the reader that art does not always have to take itself seriously in order to be enjoyable. After all, many of those whom we think of as being in the high pantheon of Western art, such as Da Vinci, Dürer, or Rubens, not only created works that were intended to last forever, they also created ephemeral pieces that were meant to last for a few days or even just a few hours. These short-term installations provided visual entertainment to kings and queens, popes and princes, and even ordinary people, as they celebrated events such as royal weddings, church holidays, and military victories.

In this case, one can simply enjoy this installation for what it is, and the pleasure that it brings in seeing it. Mr. Israel mentioned that one of his hopes as a result of the exhibition was for visitors to look up into the night sky, see the Bat Signal, and realize that sometimes, “childhood dreams can and do come true”. Given how much of Contemporary Art (and indeed, contemporary society) is motivated by selfish narcissism, that’s not a bad counterpoint to want to make.

Alex Israel” is at the Marseille Modulor site at the Cité Radieuse through August 31st.Ecole de Bouqueval - Jean Prouvé

Art News Roundup: Sacking and Packing Edition

Before taking a look at some of the more interesting art stories of the past week, gentle reader, I wanted to direct your attention to an excellent lecture series on the recently-closed National Gallery of Art exhibition “Tintoretto: Artist of Renaissance Venice”, which you may recall that I reviewed for The Federalist back in April. Presented by Eric Denker, Senior Lecturer and Head of Tours and Lectures at the National Gallery, the first of the videos may be found here, on the NGA’s YouTube channel; all four are well-worth your time, even if you didn’t get a chance to see the show in person.

Mr. Denker begins with a look at the social, political, and artistic environment into which Tintoretto (1518-1594) was born, and in subsequent lectures follows through the progress of the artist’s career from prodigious young cub to Venetian art establishment lion. The series concludes with a survey of where one can go in present-day Venice to see the painter’s works, whether still in situ, or housed in other locations.

I learnt a great deal from these presentations, since Mr. Denker is not only very knowledgeable, he is also the head of one of the charitable organizations in Venice whose headquarters was decorated by Tintoretto over the course of many years. One takeaway in particular was the importance of understanding how some of Tintoretto’s works appear to have a rather odd sense of perspective, which only makes sense when the works are viewed obliquely, i.e. from the side, rather than straight on. For example, the “Last Supper” (c. 1579-1581) shown below makes much more sense when you realize that the figure of Christ, at the far end of the table, is supposed to be seen tilted away from you, while the woman in the lower right corner would be the figure closest to you, if you were viewing the piece from its intended angle.



And now, on to some art headlines.

Sacking the Sacklers

Just weeks after the Smithsonian Institution (politely) declined a U.S. Senator’s request to remove the Sackler name from one of the institution’s main art museums, the Louvre appears to have suddenly given in to pressure from Contemporary artist Nan Goldin and her cohort, PAIN (“Prescription Addiction Intervention Now”.) References to the Sacklers, who have donated quite a bit to the world’s most famous art museum over the years, are now being removed or temporarily covered over. Publicly, the Louvre claims that naming rights had expired, but as ArtNews points out, things seem a bit “hazy”, noting that the Sackler Wing at the museum was technically supposed to have lost its moniker back in 2013. Given that the Met, Tate, Guggenheim, and now the Louvre have all taken steps to disassociate themselves from the Sacklers, it’s difficult to imagine that renewed pressure to rename the Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian will not be bringing more protests here to DC.


Leaving in London

Meanwhile, novelist-activist Ahdaf Soueif has resigned as a trustee of the British Museum, explaining her reasoning in a post published in the London Review of Books on Monday. Among other factors in rendering her decision to step down, the author references workers’ rights, colonialism, the environment, and the Museum’s acceptance of corporate donations from British Petroleum. Last week, the Museum’s Director, Hartwig Fischer, indicated that BP exhibition sponsorship would continue where appropriate, as the famed archaeological and anthropological institution would not be able to mount special shows like the upcoming “Troy: Myth and Reality” without such support. I shouldn’t expect that this resignation will make much difference to Mr. Fischer, but as anti-petroleum protesters have already promised to step up their actions at the Museum this fall, when the “Troy” exhibition opens, I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes at the moment.


Coffin to Cairo

On a more positive note, exciting news for those who, like this scrivener, dreamed of being Egyptologists when they grew up. When King Tutankhamun’s tomb – known to scientists and archaeology nerds as KV62 – was discovered by Howard Carter in the Valley of the Kings in 1922, his body was found inside three magnificently sculpted coffins: the outer and middle coffins were carved from wood and covered in gilded plaster decoration, while the innermost coffin was made of solid gold and inlaid with enamel and precious stones. Following careful study and photography, the boy-king’s mummy was placed in the outermost coffin and returned to its resting place, where it has remained ever since, apart from the occasional test or scan.

Now that nearly a century has passed, this outermost coffin is in serious need of conservation, and the decision has been taken to pack it up and move it to the new Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo which, after several push-backs, is scheduled to open next year. This will be the first time since Carter’s discovery that all three coffins will be on display together. No word yet on what will be done with the pharaoh’s mummy, which so far as I’m aware is still in situ in the tomb, but as it’s been in a fairly poor state of preservation since its finding, I would imagine that eventually Tut will be heading to Cairo as well.


Lessons Learned: The Masterpiece That Wasn’t

Sometimes, even those of us who know a fair bit about art can get it wrong.

I recently acquired a work at a Connecticut auction [N.B. not the picture shown below this piece] that I was convinced was by an important French artist, someone whose work I didn’t know well – or indeed particularly like – but whom I had been reading about a fair amount of late. I thought I‘d made the deal of the century, because the piece was being offered for a far lower price than what that artist’s work normally goes for. I was sure that, if I chose, I’d be able to sell the piece for a very handsome profit, indeed: one that would pay for my vacations to Spain for decades to come.

Unfortunately, once the piece arrived at the Fortress, and I was able to take a look at it close up and out of its frame, I discovered that it was by someone else. While I hadn’t overpaid for the picture, it wasn’t the big win that I had been imagining. And now that the sting of my error has subsided somewhat, I think this is a good opportunity for your consideration, gentle reader, as I reflect on how I went about acquiring this piece in completely the wrong way.

My first mistake was in going after a piece from a period which I don’t know a great deal about. Yes, I’d been researching the particular artist whom I thought the picture was by, and I probably know more about them than the average collector, but I certainly wasn’t familiar enough with their work for me to roll out the old leap to conclusions mat. It was presumptuous of me to think that, just because I’d had past success in other areas of art collecting, areas in which I *did* know what I was talking about, that I’d have an equal level of success in an area of art that is most definitely outside my area of expertise.

In the past, the successes I’ve had in acquisitions have almost always been in areas of art that I’ve known for many years. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have a general knowledge about, or am incapable of coming to learn more about, artists or artistic movements that reside along the edges of my knowledge area. Nevertheless, while taking a chance once in awhile is not necessarily a bad thing, sticking to what you know is a much better course of action to follow.

The second mistake I made was in being motivated by a desire for profit, rather than out of love. Now, I don’t mean to say that someone who deals in art for a living is wrong in discovering a picture, acquiring it, and then turning around and reselling it for a profit. Discovery is one of the constant themes in the art market, as pieces constantly vanish and reappear later, often in unexpected places. My mistake, if I want to cast blame upon myself, is in attempting to do so as an amateur, albeit one with a graduate degree in this sort of thing, with respect to a piece that I didn’t really know anything about, and didn’t really like.

There certainly wasn’t any love involved in what I was doing. At the end of the day, I didn’t even really care for the picture itself, since it wasn’t the sort of thing that I’d normally pay any attention to, if I saw it hanging in a museum or in someone’s home. Almost everything else that I’ve collected over the years has come into my possession because I loved it as soon as I saw it, and I was fortunate enough at the time to have the means to acquire it. With this piece, however, not only did I not really know anything about it, but I didn’t love it, or even intend to keep it if I could manage to turn around and sell it at one of the major auction houses or dealers.

So what are some of the takeaways from this experience?

The first must be the first rule of collecting: buy what you love. If something really speaks to you, and you’re able to acquire it, then that’s usually the best reason for adding it to your collection. Forget what the very wealthy do, i.e., buying ugly art that no one really likes for speculative purposes, and instead go buy what you love. You’re the one who’s going to have to look at it over the sideboard every morning, after all.

The second rule is – and this is just as important as the first – that you really do have a much better chance of doing better when you acquire what you know. In the past, when I’ve made good art acquisitions, it’s not only been because I liked the pieces I acquired, but also because they were from times, places, and artistic movements that I already knew well. They’re the sorts of things that I’ve done a great deal of looking at, reading about, and studying for decades. This is why continuing to educate yourself matters, both as a collector and indeed as an adult, since the more you know, the better you can trust your gut instinct.

Now, I can’t say that I’ll never take a gamble like this again in the future, whatever advice I may have just committed to these virtual pages for your consideration. After all, that’s one of the fun aspects of collecting art, at the end of the day: the possibility of making a major discovery of a lost masterpiece. Yet to temper that impulse, perhaps what I’ll need to do is hang my disappointing picture somewhere where I can see it, so that when I’m flipping through auction catalogues I can remind myself that whatever I think I’m about to do, I could very well be wrong, and should behave prudently.

In that respect, perhaps my latest acquisition will turn out to be of even greater value, after all.


Art News Roundup: Turning Up The Heat

Now that the heat of summer is fully upon us, I’ve been trying to catch up on my podcast listening, something that had fallen by the wayside over the past several weeks between vacation and other goings-on. For many years now, Catholic In A Small Town by Mac and Katherine Barron – which just recently celebrated its 500th episode – has been one of my favorites. In last week’s episode, Mac and Katherine got into a discussion regarding whether agenda-driven popular culture has reached a boiling point, in the sense of the proverbial frog slowly being boiled alive in a pot. [N.B. You can have a listen here, beginning around 1:06.] In discussing some of the more disturbing materials available to their children via online streaming entertainment apps, it was observed that driving an agenda often leads to bad art.

I’ve been thinking about this point, and there’s certainly a lot of truth to it when it comes to things like novels, movies, and television, but if we shift the analysis to the world of fine art, things become a bit more complicated.

Certainly most Contemporary Art falls into the category of agenda-driven bad art. To begin with, it usually has very little in the way of actual art about it – that is, if we think of the term “art” in the less pejorative sense of the word, “artifice”, displaying skillfulness or carefully-honed craftsmanship. Yet because Contemporary Art is so often agenda-driven, it’s become largely immune from serious criticism. Most art critics drink from the same pitcher of Kool-Aid as the artists whose work they review, and those who don’t are usually too afraid of professional and social repercussions to point out that, whatever their agenda, most of today’s most celebrated artists don’t actually know how to draw, let alone paint or sculpt.

Of course, agenda-driven art isn’t necessarily always poorly-executed art, even if we disagree with the agenda itself. If we go back a couple of centuries and look at a major artist of international standing such as Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) for example, there’s no question that he knew his business as an artist. He could draw with great precision and clarity of line, with a skill perhaps unrivaled since the days of Ancient Greece. He remains a significant, highly influential figure in the history of Western art.

Unfortunately, David was also a fanatical Jacobin – having voted in favor of the execution of Louis XVI, among other horrors – and later became a Bonapartist. As someone who loathes anything and everything having to do with both the French Revolution in general and Napoleon Bonaparte in particular, I find much of David’s Napoleonic work in particular to be utterly ridiculous. No matter how well-executed his portraits of the little corporal, whenever I look at them I can’t help but recall the Spanish aphorism, mona en seda, mona se queda. (“A monkey in silk is still a monkey.”)

It’s also important to recognize that while an artist’s personal motivations inevitably inform his artistic point of view, “bad” people can make exceptionally good art. Quite a few great artists led lives that were, at least at times, not exactly circumspect: famous examples include some of my all-time favorites, such as Raphael, Velázquez, and Singer Sargent, among many others. They may not have been the sort of people you would have wanted your sister to date, but that didn’t make them any less the artistic geniuses that they certainly were.

A more recent irony however, is causing even the display of works by these artists to be called into question, as the art world begins to overheat in search of more people and concepts to attack. Even though those of us of a more rational mindset would never dismiss out of hand the work of a great artist such as Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), simply because he was an insatiable womanizer who fathered over a dozen illegitimate children with different mistresses, there is a slowly but steadily increasing effort to engage in post-mortem condemnations of dead artists, in the endless effort to engage in virtual signaling whenever possible. Thus, artists such as Gauguin and Picasso, who happened to live outside of the mainstream themselves, are now being chastised for nonconformity to present-day social positions championed by those who, a century ago, would have lauded their breaking of social and artistic taboos.

There’s an interesting statement from American artist Edward Hopper (1882-1967), that I’d like to leave you with as something to think about, perhaps as a point for future conversation. In an interview he gave to the Smithsonian back in 1959, Hopper quoted from a statement which he had published a few years earlier in an arts magazine, in which he summed up his views regarding what an artist should be trying to achieve in his work:

Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world. No amount of skillful invention can replace the essential element of imagination. One of the weaknesses of much abstract painting is the attempt to substitute the inventions of the intellect for a pristine imaginative conception. The inner life of a human being is a vast and varied realm and does not concern itself alone with stimulating arrangements of color, form, and design. The term “life” as used in art is something not to be held in contempt, for it implies all of existence, and the province of art is to react to it and not to shun it. Painting will have to deal more fully and less obliquely with life and nature’s phenomena before it can again become great.


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

Valued Velázquez

That newly-rediscovered painting by Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) which I told you about a couple of weeks ago, a 1650 portrait of Pope Innocent X’s sister-in-law, Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj, ended up selling at Sotheby’s London for a little over $3.1 million, the high end of the estimate. In my book, that’s still a bargain for a Velázquez, but given the rather unattractive subject matter – who would want *that* staring down at them from above the sofa – it’s certainly understandable. There’s no word yet on the identity of the buyer, or where the picture will end up.


Beautified Botticelli

Following the recent sale of what may or may not be a work by Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445-1510), a work that is actually by the Italian Renaissance master – along with some help from his friend (and Michelangelo’s teacher) Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494) – has just been beautifully cleaned and restored at the Bass Museum of Art in Miami. “The Coronation of the Virgin” was painted around 1492 for a Camaldolite monastery in the area around Volterra, in Tuscany, and if you’ve never heard of the Camaldolite Order before now, trust me: you’re not alone in that. Botticelli and Ghirlandaio are known to have collaborated on a number of projects, such as in decorating the side walls of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, but this is the only known surviving work that they painted together.


Loaned Leonardo

Speaking of the Vatican, Leonardo Da Vinci’s (1452-1519) unfinished “St. Jerome”  (begun 1480) from the Vatican Museums will go on display next week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, as the only object in an exhibition commemorating the 500th anniversary of the death of the artist. The stark exhibition design, with the picture placed at one end of a black room, is rather reminiscent of the marketing campaign that Christie’s used prior to the sale of the Leonardo “Salvador Mundi”. The painting itself is a prime example of the artist’s fascination with careful attention to anatomy, landscape, and the depiction of unique physiognomy, although it must be said that not only is the scale of the lion completely wrong, but its behavior in roaring at St. Jerome is not in keeping with the saint’s hagiography. “Leonardo Da Vinci’s St. Jerome” is at The Met from July 15th through October 6th.


Take A Chance On Me: Buying A Botticelli (?)

Back on June 28th, a painting in the style of Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445-1510) – he of the iconic “Birth of Venus” (c. 1485), or as I like to call it, “Venus on a Half-Shell” – came up for sale at auction in Zurich, with a pre-sale estimate of $5,000. A bidding war ensued, and the final hammer price was $6.4 million. Clearly, some bidders were convinced that this was a piece by the Renaissance master himself, even though the auction house had made no such claim. I think it’s an illustrative example of why sometimes, when art comes to auction, it’s impossible to predict what buyers will do, and why you have to go in with your eyes open and a fixed price firmly in your mind, if you’re interested in bidding on something.


The picture in question, which shows a young man with red hair dressed in a blue tunic, placed in an architectural setting with a landscape beyond, is reminiscent of other portraits by the artist and his circle. For example, Botticelli’s bust-length “Portrait of Giuliano de Medici” (1478), now in the National Gallery here in DC, depicts the murdered brother of Lorenzo the Magnificent. The subject is placed in an architectural space with a half-open window behind him, although he looks down and away, rather than directly out toward the viewer.


If you take a look at the slightly earlier “Adoration of the Magi” (1475-76) which Botticelli painted for a chapel in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence and in which both Lorenzo and Giuliano de Medici appear, the figure of a young man wearing a golden cloak and standing at the far right of the picture has always been believed to be a self-portrait by the artist. At this point in his career, Botticelli is a rising young star in the art world, and he’s receiving commissions from the most powerful families and Florence, so perhaps not surprisingly he appears to be a bit full of himself. The brushwork, the pose, and the shading are all rather reminiscent of the Zurich picture.


However there’s significant room for doubt here. A painting that is similar to the Zurich work, depicting a young man framed by an open window, is also in the collection of the National Gallery, and for many years was attributed to Botticelli. Many experts now believe that it is by one of Botticelli’s pupils, Filippino Lippi (1457-1504). As in the Zurich picture, the model in the Lippi portrait has red hair, albeit of a darker shade, is dressed in blue, and looks calmly out of the picture at the viewer.


Then there is this picture, currently in a private collection, which shows another red-headed young man, this time dressed in black, standing in front of an open window and holding a small icon. Like the Zurich picture and the Lippi portrait, the gaze of the sitter is outward, calm, and confident. Attribution on this one is so uncertain that the best experts can commit to is that it could be by Botticelli, or it could be by other artists who trained in Botticelli’s workshop.


Tests carried out on the Zurich painting confirmed that it was painted roughly during the time period when Botticelli lived and worked. While not in and of itself dispositive, the results did rule out the possibility that the piece was a later copy or pastiche. However, the condition report on the panel when it arrived was not very favorable, and word was that there was quite a bit of overpainting and restoration, which doesn’t help in the process of identification.

Be that as it may, on the day three bidders entered into a frenzy trying to grab the picture. The auction record for a Botticelli currently stands at about $10.4 million, when a “Madonna and Child with Saint John the Baptist” by the master was sold at Christie’s New York back in 2013. Botticelli’s paintings rarely come on the market, since the overwhelming majority are held in museums. So if the new owner of the Zurich picture did his homework and got the piece properly cleaned and examined by experts who could confirm the artist’s hand at work in the painting, he’s almost certainly going to make money off his gamble.

And to my mind, gambling is exactly what was going on with the sale of this painting, particularly when, as stated earlier, the auction house made no claims as to who painted it. As I always caution others when they’re thinking of bidding on an object at auction, the way to think about a work of art that you’d like to own is to ask yourself what you would be willing to lose, if it turned out to be not quite what you hoped it would. It’s the same philosophy I employ on those very rare occasions that I find myself at a casino. I decide in advance what I’m prepared to lose, looking at my gambling stakes as a finite entertainment expense, and then I play until that amount is spent; my winnings, if any, don’t go back into my stakes.

In this case, in the cold light of day I don’t know that I would have paid $6.4 million or even $6,000 for this work. That’s a lot of lolly for something that isn’t particularly remarkable to look at. Perhaps this portrait is indeed by Botticelli, and perhaps it isn’t: I’m certainly not in any position to make a pronouncement. I just hope, for the new owner’s sake, that his hunch about the authorship of this picture is correct.

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