Magnificent Portrait Of Sir Andrew Wiles By Rupert Alexander Unveiled

This morning as I perused various art news sites, I came across the striking image of a man seated in a leather armchair, painted in cool shades of blues and greens. The image was a new portrait of Sir Andrew John Wiles, who came to international fame back in the early 1990’s for having proved Fermat’s Last Theorem, one of the thorniest problems in mathematics.  The work was commissioned for the primary collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London, and has just gone on display there. I was thrilled – but ultimately not surprised – to discover that the painting is by my friend, artist Rupert Alexander.

As the artist explained in the Gallery’s press release, the unusual color palette relates the work to the field of mathematics itself. “I wanted to convey the cerebral world Sir Andrew inhabits,” he noted, “but rather than doing so by furnishing the composition with books or the obligatory blackboard of equations, I tried to imply it simply through the light and atmosphere. Mathematics appears to me an austere discipline, so casting him in a cool, blue light seemed apt.” 

Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time working in front of a computer screen or beneath fluorescent task lighting will immediately recognize the tonalities in this painting. The almost aquatic colors that surround us when we are up late at night, working on a project or even just catching up on social media, differ substantially from the more yellow-toned hues cast by incandescent lightbulbs or sunlight. These cool colors are those of a present yet distant environment, one of significant human thought and reason, but which remains ultimately somewhat mysterious to most of us. That ethereal quality, of the mind pursuing the unknown, is difficult to put across effectively in paint, yet in this case, the portrait succeeds handsomely in evoking that world of the mind.

What is also particularly striking about the piece is the fact that the artist took a great risk here, in going outside of what one might reasonably expect both in a commissioned portrait, and indeed from the artist’s own work. While employing the same highly skilled technique that reminds the viewer of premiere Old Master painters such as Velázquez, here he goes out on a limb to create something indicating his willingness to try something different – not so much to show that he can do it, but because it actually makes sense in context. For note how, without including a single visual cue as to what in fact Sir Andrew does with his time, by his careful choice of colors the artist immediately causes us to conclude, “Aha! This is a man of science.” That is truly a remarkable feat.

“Sir Andrew Wiles” is the first, but one expects not the last, portrait by Rupert Alexander to enter the collection of the National Portrait Gallery. Next time you find yourself in London, do drop by and have a look for yourself. And my hearty congratulations to the artist both on this achievement, and for creating a truly compelling and well-thought-out work of art.  

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(L to R) Artist Rupert Alexander; Sir Andrew Wiles; Director of the National Portrait Gallery Dr. Nicholas Cullinan

Painting, Paris, and Politics: The Louvre Gets Set To Move

Given that it is Bastille Day, and I have long ago said all that needs to be said about this most dreadful of un-holydays, the reader may be interested in reading about a less bloody battle going on in France at the moment. The Louvre announced this week that it will be moving a quarter of a million of its works currently held in storage in Paris, out to a former mining town in the north of France.  The building of a new storage facility and the subsequent move will take place despite significant domestic and international criticism of the project. While it is easy to look at this plan and detect a strong whiff of that most pungent of odors, politics, the venture does give us the chance to consider what role politics can play for good in the art world.

It may surprise you to learn that the collections of many museums, but particularly ones of significant scope such as The Louvre, are never fully on display to the public. When you go to The National Gallery here in Washington for example, you are seeing only a small percentage of the thousands and thousands of pieces a major museum possesses.  Because it would be impossible to display all of its holdings, the National Gallery has both an art storage facility and a separate warehouse where these works are housed in suburban Maryland, about ten miles from downtown Washington.

By comparison the former mining town of Liévin, where The Louvre will begin storing its art, is located 125 miles from central Paris. According to The Art Newspaper, Louvre President Jean-Luc Martinez has admitted that he will have to come up with ways not only to shuttle Louvre employees to and from the facility, but to actually house them there, since the town is located a 4-5 hour train ride away from Paris. Understandably, 42 of the 45 curators of The Louvre have signed a protest letter against going ahead with this move.

Timing is also of the essence for M. Martinez since French Senator Daniel Percheron, who has been a driving force behind this project, is leaving office next year.  Senator Percheron is both a leading member of France’s ruling socialist party, and – quelle surprise – the representative of the region where the Louvre store will be constructed. No doubt the effort to establish his political legacy played a significant part in pulling off this coup for his constituents. For of course not only will several years’ worth of construction jobs result from this project but, once established, the huge facility will need guards, cleaners, administrative staff, etc., while those who go to work and study there will need nearby hotels, restaurants, dry cleaners, and so on.

Moreover the location for this storage site, strange as it may seem to send these works of art so far away from home, is no accident. The Louvre store will be a few miles from the “mini Louvre” in the nearby town of Lens, a museum which you may never have heard of.  It was built in 2012 to display works from the overstuffed Parisian vaults of The Louvre, in part to try to draw tourism to this rusty, depressed part of France. If you are looking for Delacroix’s iconic “Liberty Leading the People”, or Raphael’s magnificent portrait of Castiglione – which in fact serves as the thematic inspiration for this blog – they are no longer in Paris, but rather in the Louvre-Lens. Sadly, this ensures that I will probably never get to see the portrait in person, but be that as it may.

The question to be asked however, is not whether it is wrong to send all of this art out of Paris.  The real question is whether there was a workable alternative that could have been accomplished politically. Certainly, there are legitimate concerns to be raised regarding the safety and conservation of so many works of art traveling from one place to another, given the inherent fragility of many of the works moving north. Those concerns need to be addressed thoroughly, and one would expect that The Louvre will bear them in mind.

However, if no location within Paris or its environs was able to mount the funding, logistics, and yes, political will necessary to bring about the creation of this project, what, then, would be the acceptable alternative? Allow these works of art to sit below flood stage in the basements of the Louvre, awaiting the next inundation of the Seine? Appropriate or build a massive facility in or near the capital, where the associated costs for such a project would be astronomically higher, for a country still reeling from economic downturn?

Doing nothing and risking the destruction of the art at issue would seem a pyrrhic victory, at best, and gross negligence, at worst, both for the artistic and historical patrimony of France and indeed of all mankind. Much as one finds the end result somewhat distasteful, one must also be honest in acknowledging that the politics at play here will lead, if not to the best result, at least to a solution with positive externalities. The art will be preserved, a poor area of France will benefit, and perhaps works which have never been thoroughly studied or understood for centuries, may finally see the light of day, as they emerge from the cellars in which they presently reside.  Politics may not always provide the answer to all our problems, but without its influence, efforts to preserve artistic collections of major significance such as this one, would almost certainly fall entirely by the wayside.

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Playing Soccer With A Michelangelo

The Prado certainly seems to be on a roll lately.

First there was news of the new van der Weyden exhibition, which I wrote about last week, and now news that the only Michelangelo sculpture in Spain is being put on display for three months at the museum, following a twenty-year restoration. The work, a statue of the Young St. John the Baptist owned by the Dukes of Medinacelli, is not particularly impressive. And yet the story of why it needed so much restoration should not be swept under the rug, as art historians tend to do these days when it comes to those with whom they have anticlerical sympathies.

In about 1495 in Florence, Michelangelo carved a statue of the Young St. John the Baptist for Lorenzo de Medici, but no trace of it has been found in Italy. Current thinking is that the statue was one mentioned in correspondence as being given as a gift by Cosimo I, the first Grand Duke of Tuscany, to Francisco de los Cobos y Molina, the private secretary of Emperor Charles V. He in turn installed the statue in his family’s funerary chapel.  De los Cobos’ titles, etc. eventually came into the Medinacelli family, as did the family chapel, located in the Andalusian city of Úbeda. 

There the statue stayed for nearly 400 years, until in the early 1930’s debate began to swirl around whether the work was the missing Michelangelo. At this point however, events took a tragic turn with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936.  Anticlerical leftist (laughably referred to as “Republicans” by most historians) troops sacked, burnt, and destroyed churches and ecclesiastical works of art all over the country, and the chapel housing the remains of the de los Cobos was no exception. Worse, the statue of the Young St. John was smashed to pieces, with the soldiers reportedly using the head as a soccer ball for fun.

In 1994 the Medinacellis had the fragments sent to Florence for restoration, which took twenty years to complete. Today, the statue is about 40% original, with the remaining 60% made of resin and other materials. It was put together using old images of the piece before it was damaged, and with the assistance of modern technological scanning and measuring through computer assistance, to achieve a truly remarkable result, given what the restorers started with. 

This being the first time that the more-or-less-complete statue will be on public display in a major city, for art historians and connoisseurs this will be a wonderful opportunity to finally air some of the questions, assertions, doubts, and so on that often come with uncertain attributions. Debate will likely be lively and ongoing for some time. It is unfortunate that such wonton destruction however, was the catalyst for it.

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The statue after being vandalized