Tag Archives: art

Spy Wednesday: There’s No Place Like Hell

In the classic 1900 children’s book and 1939 film, “The Wizard of Oz”, there’s a lot of rubbish.

For example, the Wizard tells the Tin Man, “A heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.”  Really? Christ was jeered all the way to his execution on Calvary by crowds of people who, only a few days earlier, were crying out how much they loved him.  What an utter failure He must have been.

Or then there’s Dorothy’s “lesson”, which she learns after getting bumped on the head.  “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again,” she vows, “I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”  What sort of lesson is that? Enjoy suffocating in the Dust Bowl, Dorothy.

Frank L. Baum, author of the “Oz” books, abandoned Christianity in 1892 to join a sect known as the “Theosophical Society”.  Originally founded for the purpose of studying the occult, it expanded to become one of those mutual admiration societies, where people with more money than sense sit around congratulating themselves on how much more enlightened they are than the rest of us.  Among other things, it mixed the study of dead religions with universalism, racial theories, cosmic evolutionary potential, and so on.

I say all of this because we are at Spy Wednesday of Holy Week, when Judas strikes his bargain to betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.  We know this is coming, because Judas has been listening to the bad voices in his head for a while now.  The next night, at the Last Supper, we learn from the Gospel of St. John that instead of changing his mind at the last minute while he still could, Judas allowed Satan to enter into his thoughts and actions, and he went off to arrange Jesus’ betrayal that evening.  We also know that Satan hung around long enough to persuade Judas to commit suicide over what he had done, instead of seeking forgiveness.

In his magnificent series of panels “Four Visions of the Hereafter” in the Palazzo Grimani in Venice, the great Hieronymus Bosch depicted scenes of what happens after we die.  Two of the paintings deal with Heaven, and the other two with Hell.  In the latter, I’ve always thought that the demons dragging the souls of the damned to their eternal punishment are reminiscent of the Flying Monkeys from “The Wizard of Oz”.  The difference of course, for Christians, is that unlike Baum’s characters, these fellows are all too real, as Judas found out.  And for that matter, so is the place where they reside, which is where they want us to end up.

With the Easter Triduum beginning tomorrow, you still have time to get to confession. Many dioceses, such as here in the Nation’s Capital, will have confessions tonight through programs like The Light Is On For You.  Check with your local chancery, or call your parish priest to make an appointment.

And for pity’s sake, don’t listen to those trying to tell you that Hell is just an old, scary story, like something Frank Baum might have dreamed up for one of his fairy tales.  Ignore such talk, even if those doing the talking have a bunch of impressive-sounding letters after their name or – even worse – are sporting clerical garb.  Such people are not going to be accountable to you, when it turns out they were wrong.  Because in the end, there’s no place like Hell – and we really, REALLY don’t want to end up there.

Detail of "Hell" by Hieronymous Bosch (1500) Palazzo Ducale, Venice

Detail of “Hell” by Hieronymous Bosch (c. 1486)
Palazzo Grimani, Venice

6 Comments

Filed under culture

Detroit’s Art Collection: Under the Hammer?

As if Detroit didn’t have enough problems already…

In the latest chapter on the ongoing woes of the Motor City, the entire collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts (“DIA”) is now being targeted by creditors.  You may recall that late last year, Christie’s auction house was retained to value the roughly 1,700 works in the collection which had been purchased using public funds.  They concluded that these pieces were worth somewhere in the range of $454 to $867 million, depending on the often widely-ranging vagaries of the art market.

Not satisfied with that outcome, two different groups of creditors are now going on what we in the legal profession like to refer to as a “fishing expedition”, on the assumption that assets are being hidden.  One rather ridiculous demand is that the DIA give a full accounting of all of its financial and visitor records, going back to the founding of the museum nearly a century ago – which hardly seems germane to the issue at hand.  Another  is insisting that the DIA and Christie’s provide a valuation of the museum’s entire collection of well over 60,000 items, not simply valuing those objects purchased using taxpayer money.  You can read more about the details of these subpoenas, and why things have reached this point by reading this overview from The Detroit Free Press.

From a legal perspective, the attorneys for the creditors are simply doing their job.  There’s nothing at all strange about requesting thousands of pages of documents in a case, particularly when you are dealing with an unprecedented and enormous municipal bankruptcy such as this.  These are uncharted waters for everyone, not just the parties themselves, even though the bankruptcy rules themselves are quite plain.  Attorneys and courts have an obligation to clients and to the public in any bankruptcy proceeding to make sure that no assets are being hidden or left unvalued.

Yet lost in the shuffle here is the very sad fact that should these efforts lead to a massive sell-off of the DIA’s collection, it is the people of Detroit who are going to lose.  If the DIA is dismembered and sold on the open market, no amount of return will really be enough.  To paraphrase Aristotle, the value of an art museum as a whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.

As an institution, an art museum preserves the past artistic achievements of mankind, while serving to educate and inspire those who want to admire and learn from such achievements both at present and in the future.  The study of art is just as much the study of our own history, as it is the appreciation of beauty.  When we go to a museum and look at a painting or a sculpture, we learn not only who made it, but how, when, where, and why it was made.  We all benefit, general public and scholars alike, from the work that they do to remind us of who we are, and where we come from.

It is a pity that so many decades of incompetent management, corruption, and single-party governance have led Detroit to this point, where the haunting eyes of Constanza da Sommaia, one of the elegant Mannerist painter Bronzino’s favorite muses, may be about to disappear into some collector’s Swiss bank vault.

Detail of "Portrait of Constanza da Sommaia" by Agnolo Bronzino (c. 1540) Detroit Institute of Arts

Detail of “Portrait of Constanza da Sommaia” by Agnolo Bronzino (c. 1540)
Detroit Institute of Arts

Leave a comment

Filed under culture

Take Up Your Cross and Suffer Through This Exhibition

If you happen to be traveling on the Tube, London’s subway network, during this season of Lent, you may come across some rather provocative billboard images of Jesus on the train platforms.  These posters are advertising an exhibition of the work of a number of contemporary artists called “Stations of the Cross”.  While the pieces are designed to grab the viewer’s attention, in the end one has to reject their premise, and question why a Christian church would host such an exhibition.

Marylebone is the home of the BBC’s Broadcasting House, Sherlock Holmes, and Madonna, among others; this scrivener lived there during graduate school.  It is an area consisting primarily of rather large Georgian and Regency-era terraced houses; among the churches in this former village, now very much a part of central London, the most prominent is the Anglican church of St. Marylebone, built between 1813-1817.  This is the venue for the “Stations of the Cross” show, and one wonders what former members of this church – Charles Wesley, for one – would have made of it.

In looking over the images chosen for the exhibition, some are well-executed, thought-provoking examples of contemporary artists considering the story of Christ’s Passion. There is a cleverly telling piece in which, instead of placing Christ before Pilate or the Sanhedrin, He is stood before a panel on a show like “American Idol”, to judge whether He lives or dies. It is not hard to imagine that He would be condemned by our 21st century pop culture just as He was by 1st century culture.  Similarly, there is a beautifully executed, geometric rendering of the Crown of Thorns that one could see being used as, for example, a stamping on the cover of a hymnal or prayer book.

The majority of the images however, are simply poorly-executed, head-scratchers, or just plain dumb. For example, several of the artists have chosen to make allusions to the practice of capital punishment, and as someone opposed to its use, I understand the point they are trying to make.  Yet putting Jesus in an electric chair denies the lengthy suffering that was crucifixion, which medically speaking is death brought about by asphyxiation. One wonders whether they would portray Jesus being aborted as a baby, or euthanized as an old man, but one can imagine why not.

Another artist has employed altered images of the famous Jacques-Louis David painting of the French revolutionary Marat, dead in his bathtub. Given that Marat was hardly a Christian, – and that’s putting it mildly – it makes no sense why his image would be the basis for this manipulation. Jesus was not put to death for whoring about while writing awful poetry. And then there is a photograph called “Phat Jesus”, which is simply tired old pornographic trash emanating from a diseased mind, the sort of thing that we’ve all seen before in supposedly edgy art magazines.

The apparent moral problem in criticizing this display is that the impetus for the event is a good one. The exhibition hopes to raise funds in the ongoing search for a man who has been missing for ten years, and to raise awareness of a group dedicated to helping find missing people.  Dare one criticize an event that hopes to achieve something good?

Unfortunately, yes, but it must be said, not really because of the artists themselves. The fact that moral relativist artists can create and put on such a show should not surprise anyone: blasphemy is a cliché that has been worked to death since the dawn of Modern Art, for the simple reason that Christians are an easy target, and tend not to fight back. The real issue is why a Christian church would agree to host this exhibition in the first place, particularly during Lent. I will leave that to the reader to decide.

The best that can be said for this exhibition, it seems to me, is that if you are in London and want to engage in a penitential act during this season of Lent, go along and see how much the world continues to hate Jesus. He told us this would happen of course (St. John 15:18), and in an age which is becoming increasingly hostile to Christians, it is perhaps not a bad thing to be reminded of that fact. Clearly this is something that the powers that be at St. Marylebone forgot.

"View of St. Marylebone Church" by Thomas Shepherd (1828)

“View of St. Marylebone Church” by Thomas Shepherd (1828)

2 Comments

Filed under culture

That’s About the Size of It

Often we are told that in order to truly appreciate something, we need to physically go and look at it.  We understand a foreign culture better, or can marvel at the wonders of the natural world more readily, if we take these things in for ourselves.  Yet while oftentimes people think nothing of trekking off to an insalubrious part of the world to experience a completely foreign culture, I wonder how often they take the time to explore the genius of human creativity in their own culture, when given the opportunity to do so.

No doubt looking at the Himalayas in person tells us a great deal more about them than simply watching a documentary on television.  Yet so too in art, we learn far more from actually examining the historical treasures of Western civilization than we do from flipping through a book or clicking on images.  The benefit of going to see such things can truly change our perceptions of the subject matter, and increase our admiration for the level of skill and achievement which these artists were able to reach.

Seeing something in person fundamentally changes one’s perceptions, there can be no question.  I was at a Christmas party at a rather swank Washington hotel a couple of years ago, when two very well-known reporters from CNN showed up.  Both were of far, far shorter of stature than I had imagined them to be, which made them less imposing than I had imagined, and more approachable.  This is a common occurrence, for when we see someone on-screen or in print on a reasonably regular basis, we develop an idea in our heads as to their size, which sometimes bears no resemblance to reality.

The same holds true when it comes to works of art, for good reason. A book or a computer screen displaying a photograph of a famous painting is not necessarily displaying that painting at its true size. Rather, the image is blown up or shrunk down to accommodate the limitations of the display space. This is why although one can learn a great deal from books, in the end it is the experience of actually seeing the art that brings its full impact and increases our understanding.

Take for example the sculpture I chose yesterday for my Lenten Facebook wallpaper, before logging off. “The Merciful Christ” by Juan Martínez Montañés (1568-1649), a realistic portrayal of Jesus on the cross, probably completed sometime between 1603 and 1605. Someone dropping by my Facebook page may look at the photograph of the sculpture, and associate the image with the type of wall crucifix that one often sees in Catholic institutions, such as schools and hospitals.   In fact, “The Merciful Christ” is almost life-size, as one can see in the photograph accompanying this post.  This is not a wall crucifix for most people, unless you happen to have the acres of wall space necessary to be able to accommodate something this large hanging over your desk or bed.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, a lady or a gentleman’s education was not considered complete until they had made a tour of several countries in Europe.  Part of their education was to see famous paintings, sculptures, buildings, gardens, and so on.  The value of this practice was viewed primarily as being educational: they or their families thought that it was important to get a sense of Western heritage, of taste, of history, and shared values, which they would be able to employ in order to help lead their communities back home.

Visiting great works of art does not necessarily have to involve trans-oceanic travel, of course.  There are many fine museums in the United States where one can go and understand better why we are fortunate to live in our present society, whatever its myriad of faults.  And the objects contained in the galleries of these places are physical expressions of why we have the ideals, values, and freedoms we do have in the Western tradition.

A great painting or sculpture is something made by human hands, however many centuries ago.  Someone individually crafted an expression of their own human experiences – faith, love, sorrow, joy, hope, loss, etc. – which chances are you yourself have experienced and thought about.  The artist expresses that which they value, by using the creative talents they were given by their Creator.  So by going along to see their work, and hopefully recognizing that mutual bond you share, you will realize how much good and beauty our civilization has achieved and is still capable of achieving, as well as how much we need to remember and celebrate those good things we have managed to create, as much as we do natural wonders or exotic cultures.

Carmelite admiring the "Christ of Mercy" at an exhibition in London

Carmelite admiring the “Merciful Christ” at an exhibition in London

Leave a comment

Filed under culture

The Man Who Captured President Taft

When you can paint a picture of U.S. President William Howard Taft that gives the sense of a powerful man without drawing undue attention to his enormous girth, clearly you know what you are doing.  Today he may not be a household name to many, but Swedish artist Anders Zorn (1860-1920) was a major painter at the turn of the previous century.  He produced stunning portraits of kings and presidents, heiresses and robber barons, and famous figures of the Gilded Age both in America and in Europe, so that his waiting list of potential clients read like a who’s who of society around 1900.

Now in a major retrospective of his work at the National Academy in Manhattan, contemporary audiences will have the chance to explore the work of this great portraitist, as well as his lush landscapes, images of everyday people engaged in daily activities, and fetching nudes of beautiful women.  Although he loved his native Sweden and returned to it again and again for inspiration, Zorn was a truly international painter, in an age when travel had become comparatively easier, but still involved major time commitments.  Nevertheless, he managed to set up his easel in New York, Istanbul, Paris, or Madrid with as much work waiting for him in those cities as he would have had at home in Stockholm.

One of my favorite gifts this past Christmas, as it happens, was a catalogue of Zorn’s work.  Page after page of reproductions shows how much he loved and returned to certain themes throughout his life as an artist.  He enjoyed trying to capture the inner drive of powerful men in an appealing way, even if the subjects themselves were never going to win any beauty prizes.  He appreciated the female body, and did not try to over-idealize his nudes, but he also showed how drapery can enhance a woman’s appearance, rather than concealing it.  And his paintings of his wife, children, and self-portraits show a man who as time went on, became increasingly confident with his technique, establishing moods and expressions, lights and shadows, with a rapidity that hovered somewhere between Old Masters of the 17th century and the Impressionists.

Zorn’s wife Emma was, in many ways, the impetus for her husband’s success.  The two met one evening in 1881 when Emma was babysitting one of her nephews, whose portrait Zorn had been commissioned to paint.  They both later claimed that they knew that evening that this was “it”, but they had to wait several years for Zorn to convince Emma’s parents that he would be a stable provider for their daughter.  Emma came from a wealthy Jewish merchant family in Stockholm, and once they married she introduced the illegitimate farm boy from rural Sweden to the glamour of international travel, literature, and the arts in such a way that he took to the world of cafe society like a fish to water.  At the same time, he encouraged her philanthropic efforts to help the poor and uneducated back in their native Sweden.

Beyond his beautiful portrait and figural work however, Zorn is an artist worth discovering for his love of the natural world: particularly water, forests, and the presence of human effort to try to tame or at least make better access to the landscape.  He was particularly adept at evoking that sense of cool stillness one associates even with modern Swedish art and design, which is never frigid but never overheated, either. There is the sense of an intellect at work in his painting, be the scenery in Italy, Spain, or North Africa, along with that deep connection to nature that one associates with the Swedish temprament.

“Anders Zorn: Sweden’s Master Painter” is at the National Academy in New York from February 27th through May 18th, and features an accompanying exhibit of some of Zorn’s American contemporaries and rivals, including John Singer Sargent, Augustus St. Gaudens, and others.

"Self-Portrait" by Anders Zorn (c. 1889) The Athenaeum, Boston

“Self-Portrait” by Anders Zorn (c. 1889)
The Athenaeum, Boston

Leave a comment

Filed under culture