That Touch of Autumn

Did you feel it this morning, that touch of Autumn?

Those of us in the Nation’s Capital woke up to temperatures in the 50’s and 60’s – that’s in the 12-16 degree range, for my non-American readers.  With low humidity and a crispness in the air, it was the first real sign that Fall is on the way.  Yes, it will be hot and humid later, and yes, it will be hot and humid all weekend for those of us who did not have the possibility of getting out of town this weekend for the Labor Day holiday.  However, this morning was quite the preview of coming attractions, since for me Autumn is the absolute best time of year to be in Washington.

It’s rather appropriate that this first hit of Autumn to come fell today, when the Church remembers the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist.  You’ll remember from the Bible how St. John was executed when Salome, step-daughter of King Herod, asked for the prophet’s head as a reward for her dancing.  Like Salome, this is the time of year when the Earth, in this part of the world, begins to drop her veils, one by one, until by Winter she is completely bare.

Now for those of you who are “Team Summer”, and who like this scrivener live in an area with distinct seasons, this is the worst of all possible worlds, I know.  You enjoy being sweaty, dirty, and sunburnt.  You enjoy being attacked by insects, or being stuck in transit/traffic for hours when the air conditioning doesn’t work.  You enjoy the chaffing of sandals or flip-flops tearing up the back of your heels, or constantly adjusting those shorts that bunch up when you sit down.  In other words, you like to suffer.

For the rest of us, deliverance is at hand.

It’s soon time for clothing where anyone can both look good and feel comfortable, not just the genetic anomalies.  Drinks can be lingered over and savored, rather than rushed down before the ice melts.  The food will be flavorful and filling and bountiful, not limited by the phrase, “It’s so hot I’m not really hungry.”

There will be celebrations to prepare, requiring far more attention than the three Summer holidays of Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day, which generally involve, at best, a trip to the grocery store for some burgers and buns, and not much else.  Yet as Autumn gets underway, Halloween leads to Thanksgiving, and Thanksgiving leads to Advent, and Advent leads to Christmas. Many of us even get Columbus Day and Veteran’s Day thrown in for good measure, just to have some extra time off or a change of pace.

Now be assured, I’m not forgetting the importance or the significance of any of these holidays, before someone starts to complain.  Rather the simple truth is, Autumn is a time for celebration. We gather in the products of the land, and we enjoy the hard work that went into growing them, and we have very fun ways of going about doing so which do not involve the charade of pretending that we can still live out in the open air like our ancient ancestors did, so long as we have enough propane for the grill and citronella for the tiki torches.

No, give me the cold honesty of Autumn over the pretend joys of Summer any day.  The Fall reveals character. I’m looking forward to seeing the colors of the geology and chemistry of the planet, now hidden under a mask of chlorophyll.  As growing things go dormant, each leaf reveals a uniqueness belied by the uniform green, no two the same.  We see things as they are, not in uniformity but in a huge range of colors and shades of colors, everything from scarlet red to mustard yellow to deep purple.

And similarly, when we can all get out of the blazing sun and actually sit down and see each other, without the need for sunglasses or umbrellas or the like, the chill causing us to draw a little bit closer together for warmth, I believe we’ll all be the better for it.

Detail of "Salome Dancing Before Herod" by Gustave Moreau (1876) Armand Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

Detail of “Salome Dancing Before Herod” by Gustave Moreau (1876)
Armand Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

 

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Really, REALLY Bad Art Restoration

If you thought that infamous art “restoration” in Spain was bad, wait until you see this one.  This time, the victim is not a small church in active use, where one wonders why no one noticed what the woman was up to for so long, but rather a large, semi-abandoned church in Russia, or rather a part of Russia which was once part of Germany.  If there is to be a prize for horrible conservation this year, surely this is to be the undisputed winner.

People often forget that Germany, like Italy, Spain, etc., didn’t always exist in the form we know it today.  In fact one can argue that “Germany” didn’t even exist until 1871, when most of the German states united into a single confederation.  As a result of subsequent wars, treaties, invasions, and so forth, some parts of Central and Eastern Europe that were once considered “Germany”, now belong to other states.

One example of this is the Baltic port city of Kalingrad, formerly known as Königsberg, which today is part of Russia.  I won’t go into all of the historical back-and-forth of who owned it and when, but suffice to say that since its founding in the Middle Ages, it was part of Germanic territory for a long time, and boasted a substantial German population.  Most of that population was forcibly removed by the Soviets after World War II, and the city was repopulated with Russians.

Following the collapse of communism and the explosive growth of the Russian Orthodox church over the past twenty years, we have seen a great deal of church restoration and new construction to meet the needs of Russian Christians.  This is of course great news for Christianity.  Unfortunately, some avoidable cultural losses are being suffered by the local populations as a result.

A report yesterday in The Art Newspaper indicates that the 14th-century church of St. Catherine of Alexandria, near Kalingrad, has now lost almost all of its medieval frescoes.  Originally a Catholic church built by the local German population, after the Reformation the building was taken over by the Protestants, who whitewashed over all of the frescoes.  The frescoes were subsequently re-discovered in the last century and revealed, but they were severely damaged during bombing in World War II.  When the Soviets took over, the church was converted into a museum and storage depo, which obviously didn’t help with what was left.

In 2010, the building was given to the Russian Orthodox church, to meet their growing need for more worship spaces.  Unfortunately, according to art experts, the remaining frescoes in St. Catherine’s are now all but gone.  They have been covered over with some cement-like covering which, unlike the whitewash slathered on centuries earlier by the Protestants, cannot be removed.  With just 2-3% of the wall art remaining, conservation is possible, but the rest is lost to history.

In the case of St. Catherine’s, we are dealing with a slightly different situation to that in Spain.  Whereas the suffering Christ in the latter church was relatively new and could be easily restored, here the paintings were so far gone as to be little more than fragments.  Thus, the wall paintings here, beautiful though they once were, never had a chance of returning to that relatively pristine state they enjoyed before the ravages of World War II.

That being said, those who understand culture and history appreciate that these things come with certain requirements.  It’s certainly understandable why the local Orthodox diocese, when it took over the building, would want to work on making it a place where religious services could be held again.  Unfortunately, they seem to have forgotten that preservation of objects from the past, while not essential to the practice of Christianity, is something that should be attempted whenever possible.

Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria (XIV Century) Rodniki (Arnau), Russia

Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria (XIV Century)
Rodniki (Arnau), Russia

You Own It, But Should You Photograph It?

freshly-pressed-rectangle

If I came over to your house and started rearranging your furniture, or fiddling with the pictures on the walls, you’d probably be more than a little bit put out.  No one likes people touching their “stuff” without permission.  However when it comes to art museums, there’s often a tension between those who approach them while maintaining a respectful distance, and those who want to do the equivalent of putting their shod feet on the coffee table.  An example of this tension can be seen in the very current issue of public photography in this, the age of the selfie on social media.

News this week that London’s National Gallery will now allow personal, non-commercial photography of their collection reversed a very long-held policy.  Even though other London institutions such as the British Museum, Tate Britain, and Tate Modern have all permitted photography for years, the National Gallery was a hold-out.  There’s been a fair amount of division in the art press as to whether this was a good decision, with some raising the question of ,”Whose art is it, anyway?” – given that the National Gallery is paid for by British taxpayers.  Others decried what they see as a lowering of standards, and the turning of a formerly hushed place of learning into a noisy free-for-all.

Museums differ widely when it comes to this issue, and surprisingly there’s no universally accepted standard.  A survey by The Art Newspaper earlier this year of some of the most popular art museums around the world showed that not only are there differing rules, but flip-flopping of those rules occurs periodically as well.  Recently for example, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam reversed its policy permitting photography in the galleries, thanks to amateur photographers making the place something like a rugby scrimmage.

Here’s a rundown on the current positions of several major art institutions:

  • Louvre: Allowed
  • Metropolitan: Allowed
  • National Gallery (US): Allowed
  • Orsay: Banned (was allowed until 2011)
  • Vatican Museums: Allowed in the galleries; banned in the Sistine Chapel

There are numerous reasons why museums may ban photography, the most obvious of which is the preservation of the art itself.  Even those which do allow public photography almost always ban flash photography.  Repeated exposure to bursts of artificial light can damage the art, particularly objects such as fragile paintings, drawings, or textiles.  Yet an even more practical reason for the ban has to do with basic human clumsiness.

As a species, humans tend to fall over a lot more often than others do, and we don’t always land elegantly on our feet with no collateral damage, as a cat does.  Understandably, many institutions worry that when non-professional photographers try to maneuver to get a close-up, take a group shot, or even snap the dreaded “selfie” with some piece from the collection, they might accidentally stumble, and as a consequence jostle the art object, or worse.  This is why even those museums which permit photography insist that the visitor stay a certain distance away from the art.  Should you happen to visit the National Gallery here in Washington, for example, get too close to an object on display and you’re going to get a sharp word of warning from the guard watching you.

The debate over members of the public photographing public collections however, creates a more complex sort of problem.  On one hand, it seems only fair that art which taxpayers have funded, and which is held in trust on the public’s behalf, should be accessible.  On the other, because of the concomitant duty of the institutions housing these collections to preserve the art and educate the public about it, curators and museum staff have to walk a very fine line between allowing too much access and not allowing enough.

From my point of view, I’d rather purchase a book with professionally photographed images of art anyway, since a good photographer can create a far better image than I.  At the same time, I can understand why others feel it’s only right that they be allowed to capture images of publicly funded objects for themselves, to share on social media with family and friends.  So I’ll confess, while I recognize the existence of the issue, I don’t know that I’ve formed a fixed opinion about it: and given how opinionated I often am, gentle reader, that is quite an unusual development indeed.

What do you think? Is public photography a good or a bad thing in museums?  The comments section is open and waiting for your contributions.

The Louvre Mona Lisa Photographers