Art News Roundup: Las Vegas Lifeguard Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Eastern Ernst

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


Maybe Munch

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


More Munch

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

To mennesker. De ensomme

The Imagined East: An Unexpected Revival

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Art News Roundup: Luxuriant Beard Edition

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

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

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


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

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

Botticelli in Blighty

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


Idiotic in Istanbul

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


Peeling in Paris

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


From The Federalist: Tintoretto at the National Gallery

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

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


Art News Roundup: Slings and Arrows Edition

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

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

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

Also, that’s an arrow, not a spear.


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

Slavic Silver

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


Sea Sighting

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


Opining on Opie

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


In Bloom: Three Paintings for Spring

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

Art News Roundup: Poverty Chic Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hudson Yawns

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


Painted Peering

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


San Diego Surprise

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Art News Roundup: Square to Spare Edition

The Serbian artist Marina Abramović (1946-) has been the doyenne of performance art for decades. Over the years, she has managed to push a lot of people’s buttons, despite the fact that her real talent lies in self-promotion rather than in creating anything of artistic value. Case in point, a group of Polish Catholics – God bless them – has been protesting a retrospective of her “work” that recently opened in the city of Toruń, thanks to the perception that she is a Satanist; given her politics and her penchant for wearing horns, it’s not hard to see why they reached that conclusion.

This is why a new made-for-tv film which pokes fun at Abramović is such a pleasure: it’s a wonder that no one has managed to do it previously.

“Waiting for the Artist” is part of the 3rd Season of Independent Film Channel’s “Documentary Now!”, a fake, PBS-style series similar to “Independent Lens”. Hosted by Dame Helen Mirren, the show takes serious documentary films as source material, and then recreates them (often shot-for-shot) as black comedies. In this case, the film is based on “The Artist is Present” (2012), which won numerous awards several years ago as it followed Abramović around ahead of a show of her work at MoMA.

In the IFC film, Cate Blanchett plays Izabella Barta, a Hungarian performance artist whose personal appearance, art, and certain personal details are based on Abramović. Izabella is preparing for a retrospective of her career at a Contemporary Art museum in Budapest, and is struggling to come up with a new performance piece. In this clip, Izabella has a rather dangerous idea for the show which understandably causes some concern for the museum’s director. During the course of the episode, we learn about Izabella’s childhood, her previous work, and her long romantic relationship with another performance artist, Dimo van Omen (played by Fred Armisen), who regularly stole her ideas in order to further his own career.

There are moments in “Waiting for the Artist” that are such perfect send-ups of Contemporary Art that I found myself crying with laughter. For example, there is a sequence when Izabella and a group of young artists are at her country house, and they engage in a series of performance art-related exercises, such as putting a young woman in a steel drum and rolling her down a hill until she crashes into a tree, or having piggyback rides where the participants yell out “Art is suffering!” in Hungarian. Sometimes the jokes go by incredibly fast, as when we are briefly shown a flashback of one of Izabella’s performance pieces, in which she rides a giant tricycle around a courtyard while screaming like a banshee.

Then there’s a segment which will remind “Seinfeld” fans of “The Stall”, the episode in which Elaine finds herself caught in the ladies’ room without any toilet paper, and Jerry’s girlfriend won’t share any from the next stall. Izabella sets up two bathroom stalls in the lobby of the Hungarian National Opera House, enters one of the stalls, and closes the door. She invites members of the public to sit down in the other stall, and to hand her toilet paper. People have emotional reactions to the encounter with the hand appearing under the dividing panel; one woman even weeps profusely. This is based, in part, on a performance in which Abramović sat on a chair in a gallery and invited visitors to sit opposite her, as she did and said nothing; similarly, some visitors wept and called it a spiritual experience.

What’s interesting about the mockumentary is that, although it has a conclusion which, one assumes, was supposed to make the viewer root for the Abramović character, as is often the case with film the viewer’s take can often be quite different from what the filmmaker intended. For ironically, Izabella is shown to be no better a person than Dimo. Not only does she create terrible art, but she takes advantage of him in order to extract revenge on him in a very public way. The only real difference between them is that up until the end of the film, she hasn’t been good at playing the one-upsmanship game.

“Waiting for the Artist” is definitely NOT for the kiddos or for those with a more sensitive nature, but if you can appreciate the absurdity of Contemporary Art, I suspect that you will highly enjoy it.


And now, on to some of the week’s art news.

Big Bouguereau

Need to fill up some wall space in your open-concept loft conversion? At their upcoming Impressionist and Modern Art Auction on May 14th, Sotheby’s New York will be offering French Academic painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s massive “La Jeunesse de Bacchus” (1884), which has rarely been exhibited since its creation, and until now has remained in the possession of the artist’s descendants. Although Bouguereau (1825-1905) has come back into vogue recently, and prices have risen considerably – the estimate on this one is $25-35 million, which sounds about right – I have to confess that I’m not a huge fan of his work. To me, many of his Classical-themed works look more suited to the ceiling of a bordello in the Wild West than to a serious art collection, but admittedly this is largely a matter of taste. Caveat emptor: the canvas is a whopping 20 feet long and 11 feet high, so good luck getting that through your front door.


Meiji Mascot

For decades, a giant bronze eagle has stood atop a column at Boston College, symbolizing the school’s mascot, Baldwin the Eagle. The original, which was first put on display in the 1950’s, was subsequently replaced with a copy back in the 1990’s, disassembled, and placed in storage. Now, as part of a new exhibition titled “Eaglemania: Collecting Japanese Art in Gilded Age America”, BC’s McMullen Museum of Art has conserved and restored the old eagle, which turns out to be a major Japanese bronze from the Meiji period. The exhibition, which opened last month, runs through June 2nd.


Sublime Sorolla

After more than a century since the last one, the UK will finally be holding a major exhibition on the work of Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923), one of my favorite artists. A contemporary and rival of American artist John Singer Sargent, and Swedish painter Anders Zorn, Sorolla painted everything from portraits of U.S. Presidents and heads of state, to informal moments with his wife and children, to scenes of ordinary people engaged in everyday activities. His best work often sparkles with the reflected light of the sea around his hometown of Valencia where, even after moving to Madrid to advance his career, he often returned to seek inspiration and relaxation. “Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light” opens at the National Gallery in London on March 18th, and runs through July 7th.


From The Federalist: Think Pink at The Frick

My latest for The Federalist is out today, reviewing the new exhibition at the Frick Collection, “Moroni: The Riches of Renaissance Portraiture”, which I had the pleasure of seeing last weekend. Thank you as always to my editor, Joy Pullman, who makes sure that my natural tendency toward verbosity does not get out of control. If you find yourself in New York during the show’s run between now and June 2nd, I highly recommend going along to see it. Giovanni Battista Moroni (1520/24–1579/80) is an Italian Renaissance artist whose portraits I’ve always admired, but who has always been somewhat obscure, or at best a specialist interest. This exhibit is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for my readers in the U.S. to see most of his major works gathered together in one place, and I hope that my Federalist article will encourage people to go see it and decide for themselves whether Moroni deserves more recognition than he currently receives.

Although I was already familiar with a number of the pieces in this show, albeit mainly from books, it’s always the case that seeing works of art in person brings new insights. As I point out in the article, I was particularly struck by Moroni’s affinity for the color pink, which stands out as his “signature color” – if you will forgive the reference to Julia Roberts’ character in “Steel Magnolias” – and in particular the way that he was able to capture light reflections off of the various shades of pink that his sitters wore. Conveniently, The Frick has one of my favorite Velázquez portraits of Felipe IV on display very close to the galleries housing the Moroni exhibition, and as the king in that portrait just happens to be wearing pink himself, I was able to see how both artists, despite working almost a century apart, used an almost impressionistic technique in capturing the reflections of silvery light on pink fabric.

As a final note, I just want to share Moroni’s 1560 portrait of Gabriel de la Cueva, 5th Duke of Alburquerque, and tell you how much I enjoyed finally seeing this picture – which normally resides in Berlin – in person. The mixture of rich, velvet black with multiple shades of pink silk, ranging from breeches the color of smoked salmon to the coral pink jerkin to a collar with intricate pink embroidery, might make you think that de la Cueva was nothing but a dandy. Yet that unflinching stare, and the inscription in Spanish that appears on the marble wall at the lower right, make clear that the Duke is going to kick your ass into next week if you don’t watch yourself: truly a magnificent painting.


New Survey Reveals Homogeneity in Art Writing

A very interesting survey about the art press was released by Nieman Reports last week, and it goes a long way toward establishing a fact that I’ve been quite aware of for quite some time, and which I daresay most of my readers know instinctively: people who write about art are overwhelmingly on the left, nearly to the exclusion of any other views.

From my time studying the art world in an academic setting nearly twenty years ago, to what I now do on a daily basis, such as reading multiple publications about things like upcoming sales and shows, I’ve been very aware of the fact that I’m usually the odd man out in a group of commentators. I often don’t agree with the weight ascribed to the work of untalented hucksters masquerading as artists, I roll my eyes at curatorial mistakes regarding sacred art which even a 2nd grade parochial school student would not make, and I often want to take a dose of brain bleach with my coffee, just to get all of the soul-sucking, intellectually lazy poison that I’m forced to read each morning out of my head. Thanks to this new report, which surveyed over 300 professional visual arts journalists, we can start to see some hard data that goes a long way toward explaining why this may be the case.

Take a look at the results from Question 96: “How did you vote in the 2016 presidential election?” Only 0.47% of those surveyed voted Republican in that election, while 84.98% voted Democrat. The remainder of participants either voted Libertarian or Green, or did not vote at all whether by choice or because they were ineligible to vote. Admittedly, one might conclude that these results could have been affected by the somewhat polarizing Republican candidate for President that year.

Yet before we chalk up those numbers to the influence of a particular candidate, consider the results in response to Question 97: “How do you identify in politics?” Of those surveyed, 48.11% identified themselves as “Progressive”, 34.91% as “Liberal”, and 7.08% as “Moderate”. Once again, only 0.47% of recipients identified themselves as “Conservative”. If the 327 participants in this survey are from the most prominent general media and art-specific publications in the country, and only one or two of those individuals self-identifies in an anonymous survey as a Conservative, is it so far outside the realm of possibility to suggest that the almost entire absence of conservative views in the art press may have an impact not only on what we read, but also on what we see in museums and galleries, or what prices are achieved in the art market?

In its article summarizing the survey results, Nieman’s asks, “So what are the implications of a mostly homogeneous field of arts writers? What is the cost to the culture of having the top jobs and much of the influence in the hands of a few white men?” Interestingly, the homogeneity considered troublesome is one based on race and gender. The question of whether there is a cost to the culture of having an almost exclusively left-wing art press doesn’t even appear to have dawned on those who carried out the survey.

We can, and should, ask why there is such a lopsided view of things in what we read about art. If, as polls generally show, this country has a relatively even split between left and right when it comes to electoral politics, opinions on social issues, and so on, why would art media outlets intentionally ignore the views of tens or hundreds of millions of people in its reporting? Do conservatives not buy art, or read art blogs, magazines, and newspapers? Do they not attend museum exhibitions or scholarly lectures? If they don’t, is it because they find no value in the visual arts? Or is it because they’ve been made to feel unwelcome, causing them to turn elsewhere for cultural enrichment?

The reader should note that drilling down to figure out the socio-political opinions of the participants was not really the intent of this survey. Rather, the report looks at how the art journalism industry has been changing, identifying the sources used by the participants to do their jobs, the influence of technology on their work, etc. That being said, given the results to the questions posted above, I suspect that we can be reasonably confident in asserting that an equally enormous disparity between left and right would result from a survey focused specifically on the respective worldviews of the participants.

A century ago, writing about art often skewed toward the right, with the mainstream press championing artists who were in the Western tradition, and skewering those who chose to break with that tradition. Now, the pendulum has swung to the extreme opposite end of things, so that what was once considered subversive and revolutionary is now the dogmatic purview of the art media establishment. Regrettably, the present reality is unlikely to change, barring some sort of major societal upheaval – but at least it keeps people like me busy.


Art News Roundup: Da Vinci Deluge Edition

Since 2019 has been declared the “Year of Leonardo Da Vinci”, on account of this being the 500th year since his death, there is a deluge of Leonardo-related projects currently in the works: books, documentaries, exhibitions, you name it. There are at least two films about the artist currently in development, one slated to star Leonardo DiCaprio and based on Walter Isaacson’s recent biography, although whether we’ll see those on the screen this year or not who knows. The really big event, if you happen to find yourself in Paris later this year, is going to be the upcoming Leonardo retrospective at the Louvre, which will probably be a once-in-a-lifetime event for fans of Da Vinci’s work. There are certainly plenty of interesting Leonardo-related stories swirling around the Louvre at the moment, even long before the retrospective opens.

For one thing, there’s still no news on whether Leonardo’s “Salvator Mundi”, the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction, will be part of the Paris show or not. In fact, neither is there any news about why, more than a year after it was sold and then donated to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, it’s still not on exhibition. Rumors continue to swirl about in the art press that experts made a mistake in attributing the work to Leonardo, and that the piece is not by him at all, but rather by one of his assistants. We shall just have to wait and see how this controversy shakes out.

Back in France, experts at the Louvre are now saying that they believe a drawing, which is currently held in a collection outside Paris, could be a preparatory drawing for the “Mona Lisa”, perhaps executed by Leonardo with the assistance of his workshop. As with most Leonardos, the figure in the drawing is rather odd, and somewhat androgynous. That being said, artists for centuries often employed their assistants as models for either sex when sketching out a composition, and it would not have been at all unusual for Leonardo to do this. We may never know for certain the origin of this particular drawing, but the closeness of the position of the arms and hands in the drawing to those in the final, autograph work in the Louvre is hard to ignore.

While this particular drawing won’t be in the Louvre show in the Autumn, other, important pieces by Leonardo from other collections will be. This includes a series of works from Italy, such as Da Vinci’s early, circa 1472-1475 “The Annunciation” from the Uffizi, that were being held up over a diplomatic row between the left-wing French and right-wing Italian governments. That fracas now appears to have been patched up, and the show will be going ahead with loans from Italian museums, after all. In exchange, France will agree to lend Italy a number of works by Raphael for the upcoming 500th anniversary of *his* death next year. I wouldn’t go to Paris to see the world’s greatest assemblage of Leonardos, but I would definitely go to Rome to see the world’s greatest assemblage of Raphaels, if that comes off. Stay tuned.


Raphael Restored 

Talking of Raphael, the artist’s scale drawing of the lower half of his most famous fresco, “The School of Athens” in the Vatican, has now been restored at the Ambrosian Library in Milan following a four-year conservation effort; a detail of the drawing appears below. The massive “cartoon”, as this type of drawing is known, is somewhat unusual in that it was not used to transfer the outlines of the design to fresh plaster, but rather prepared by Raphael for his patron, Pope Julius II, to show at full size what he planned to paint. Not only does it demonstrate the incredible skill and attention to detail employed by this Mozart of painting – Raphael was only 25 when he created this – it’s also the largest surviving Renaissance drawing in existence, at over 6 feet long and nearly two feet high.


Van Eyck Enigma

Over on the blog of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Silvia Centeno and Sophie Scully are in the middle of a fascinating series of posts on a recent discovery which they made concerning one of the most important Netherlandish pieces in the museum’s collection. Unusually, Jan Van Eyck’s circa 1440-1441 “The Crucifixion and Last Judgment”, which consists of a pair of panels depicting said events, still retains its original frames. Around the inner edges of those frames are Biblical texts in Latin, created using raised plaster. Recent radiographic studies have revealed however, that running around the outside of the Latin texts are texts in Dutch, which at present are mostly invisible to the naked eye. There’s a lot of fascinating scientific research here to enjoy, so keep checking back at the Met blog as the restorers/conservators continue their research.


Wright for Williamsburg

Captain Richard Bayly was an Irishman who fought in the British Army during the French and Indian War alongside the young George Washington, among others. After he returned to Britain in 1760 at the conclusion of his military service, he had his portrait painted by a young artist who eventually became one of the most interesting and unusual British artists of the 18th century, the fascinating Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797). Sadly Bayly died young, only four years after his portrait was painted, but now, this striking painting has been acquired by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, making it the first work by Wright to enter their permanent collection. As the Williamsburg Art Museums are currently undergoing a massive expansion, my guess is that this picture will feature in their newly enlarged premises upon completion.