Bargain Sale Patriarch: A Tale of the Sad Decline of Art Collecting

I was surprised to read the news that British investment banker Jonathan Ruffer is to open a new public gallery dedicated to his collection of religious art, focusing on the period known as the Spanish Golden Age of the 17th century.  Ruffer famously purchased the monumental series of paintings known as “Jacob and His Twelve Sons” (c. 1640-1644) by Francisco de Zurbarán a few years ago for the bargain price of £19 million, and then gave them back to the Anglican Church, which had owned them for the last two centuries.  However Mr. Ruffer has been accumulating many other works for his personal collection for years now.  The reason he is able to do so, frankly, is overall rather a sad one for the world of art collecting.

Creating an art collection like the one which will form the nucleus of this new museum in County Durham, focusing on major works from the Counter-Reformation in Spain, is not an easy thing to do.  The majority of the art of this period is now housed in publicly-owned museums, rather than held by individual collectors.  The fact that someone could still, just within the last 20 years, assemble a group of works of the level we’re expected to see in this new, public-but-private museum, is truly remarkable.

The fact that Ruffer chose not to hold on to the Zurbarán paintings, which would have been the star of this new museum, surprised many, but then there are many surprising things about these pictures.  The story of how “Jacob and His Twelve Sons” ended up in England in the first place, for example, is pure speculation. The generally accepted theory is that they were captured as booty by British privateers, stolen on their way to a monastery in the New World from Spain.  They were then brought back to London and auctioned off quayside.

What is known for certain however, and which is rather fascinating, is that at some point the paintings entered the collection of James Mendez, the son of a Sephardic Jew who had come to England as the personal physician of Queen Catherine, wife of King Charles II.  As the Mendez family wanted to get along with the Anglican gentry, they discarded what they perceived as more overt aspects of their Jewish culture.  Although these paintings were painted by a Catholic for a Catholic institution, their Jewish subject matter and monumental scale probably seemed too overtly Jewish for a family trying to mingle in English high society at that time, which was often blatantly anti-semitic. Thus they eventually passed into the collection of the Anglican Bishops resident at Auckland Castle.

Today the stigma of being a lover of religious art has spread to become a kind of general malaise throughout the world of art collecting.  When a group of thirteen magnificent, beautifully made religious paintings like these, from one of the greatest painters of the 17th century, sells for around $30 million, while a hideous monstrosity like this sells for $142 million, something is very wrong.  If you wanted proof that our present society prefers ugliness to beauty, not just aesthetically but in everything else, here at least is some compelling evidence advancing that theory.

Of course, the flip side to this downturn in taste is that it is a great time to be a collector with an eye for beauty and meaning, as Mr. Ruffer clearly is.  The paintings and sculptures that are being overlooked, by the pursuers of the new and lacking in nuance or skill, do not fetch as high a price.  So of the saleable stock remaining from the world of Western Civilization before its decline into incontinence, should you have a few million sitting around, there are still some lovely things to be had.

Detail of "Jacob" by Francisco de Zurbarán (c. 1640-1644) Auckland Castle, County Durham, England

Detail of “Jacob” by Francisco de Zurbarán (c. 1640-1644)
Auckland Castle, County Durham, England

 

 

 

Looking at Audrey Hepburn and “The Devil”

Last night while making dinner I watched the musical “Funny Face” (1957), starring Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire.  Not being a fan of Astaire – which amounts to heresy in some quarters – I had always avoided it.  Being a fan of Hepburn’s however, I decided to at least give it a chance.

I was struck from the first by how much the recent film “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006) took many of its cues from this earlier film.  In a way it’s not surprising, since Hollywood has been pushing Anne Hathaway as the new Audrey Hepburn for some time now.  Admittedly, this is a comparison somewhat unfair to both actresses.

Yet notice how Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson) in “Funny Face” comes charging into her domain as editor of a prestigious fashion magazine, past a pair of secretaries, to the terror of all around her.  Her sanctum sanctorum looks almost exactly like that of another “M.P”,” Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) in “Prada”, complete with almost the same view of Midtown Manhattan.  There’s a discussion in both films about how important the choice of a particular color can be for world commerce.  There’s even a scene where Jo Stockton (Hepburn) runs away to hide in the darkroom of Dick Avery (Astaire), not unlike a similar scene in “Prada” between Andy Sachs (Hathaway) and Nigel (Stanley Tucci).

Does this mean that “The Devil Wears Prada” is merely a rip-off? Well, no: and actually, I found “Funny Face” to be a pretty boring film.  “Prada” on the whole is a better-acted movie, and has a more compelling storyline.  There again however, the comparison is somewhat unfair, because there’s a big difference between a fluffy old Hollywood musical, and a contemporary dramedy.  Yet the fact that one can even make such a comparison, between the classic and the contemporary in cinema, is important.

If we are to understand where our culture comes from, we need to continually be educating ourselves on how to perceive the roots of the past in the fruits of the present.  Contemporary musicians like Chris Thile and Alison Krauss for example, look back to Bach or the Civil War era, even as they work with modern artists from different genres like Justin Timberlake or Robert Plant.   The modern-day city of Washington, D.C. features monumental buildings and urban planning elements that reference England, France, Ancient Greece, and Rome, four cultures which had a significant philosophical impact on the Founders.  Even the “Star Wars” saga would not have been possible without George Lucas being very much aware of the medieval legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

Thus, even if “Funny Face” in the end isn’t a particularly good movie, the lesson here is a good one.  When we can perceive how one film references another, then we can begin to understand how not just movies, but all of Western culture – from art to music, literature to architecture – is often doing the same thing.  A vibrant culture is an inventive one, that doesn’t slavishly copy the past. At the same time, it should also acknowledge the contributions of the past, to maintain that sense of where we come from.  Training our eyes to look for these types of connections then, will make us better-appreciate the richness of the world around us.

Audrey Hepburn in a scene from "Funny Face" (1957)

Audrey Hepburn in a scene from “Funny Face” (1957)

Superheroines on the Streets of London

Regular readers know that I like to play the role of a superhero in social media, and sometimes write about the cultural significance of these mythical figures in our society.  Yet however much I enjoy sporting the big red cape, in real life heroes often take a very different form from those of literature, film, and our imaginations.  You’re about to learn about some real-life superheroines in London…who just so happen to wear a religious habit.

At a two-day conference held at the Vatican this week, Pope Francis and other attendees heard reports about an innovative effort to combat human trafficking.  Since January of this year, a group of nuns from the Madrid-based religious order known as the Adoratrices – formally, “The Handmaids of the Blessed Sacrament and of Charity” – have been going out on patrol with police officers in Central London, to help rescue women forced into prostitution through human trafficking.  The project has proven so successful, that it will eventually be expanded throughout London, and other cities are looking to copy it.

Previously, getting these prostitutes to trust the police had proven to be an impossible task.  In many cases, because they anticipated reprisals if they reported having been sold into sex slavery, raped, or abused, they would say nothing.  Others feared being sent back to their countries of origin, to families or acquaintances who had sold them into slavery in the first place.

The nuns who ride along with the police and talk to these women are able to provide a motherly level of care, which many of them respond to in a way that they could not with a police officer.  With the help of the Adoratrices, the police are able to go after the criminals who put the women in these situations, while the nuns take the victims in and shelter them, so that they cannot be “got at”.  Later they can be returned to their home countries, or apply for asylum.  As Detective Inspector Kevin Hyland explained at the conference, “If they go to stay with religious women, they find the peace and tranquillity they need while going through the horrors of testifying in court.”

In effect, these nuns are making themselves targets for the criminals engaged in these activities.  Someone who has no compunction about kidnapping, raping, and selling a 15-year old into prostitution is probably not going to find it difficult to have a nun threatened, beaten, or permanently silenced.  Unlike the police, nuns are neither armed with weapons, nor can they call for backup, if they find themselves in a dangerous situation, but they go out and do this work anyway.

I think there’s a three-fold lesson to take away from this story.  We should support efforts like this when we are asked to help, because most of us, frankly, would not want to be doing what these sisters are doing.  We should also be inspired to take a look at our own lives, and see whether there is something, however small, that we could be doing on behalf of someone else whom we know is in a bad way or having a difficult time.  And finally, we should always remember to adjust our expectations of what a hero really looks like, rather than selling people short.  Because oftentimes, true heroism comes from where you might least expect it.

St. María Micaela of the Blessed Sacrament (1809-1865) Foundress of the Adoratrices

St. María Micaela of the Blessed Sacrament (1809-1865)
Foundress of the Adoratrices