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)

An Ancient Bronze Headache for The Getty

If like most people you enjoy collecting things – baseball cards, stamps, snow globes of the world, etc. – chances are you built your collection in a law-abiding way.  You received these items as gifts, or you bought them from a shop, market, garage sale, etc.  At the time, you probably didn’t stop to think about where the person selling you the item picked it up; if you did, chances are you dismissed the question from your mind fairly quickly.

Yet when it comes to extremely expensive objects, such as items from ancient cultures, international law is often not willing to dismiss that question so easily.  Countries know that antiquities are part of their cultural heritage, and as crass as it may seem to observe the fact, cultural heritage can translate into tax revenue.  Having magnificent, ancient objects to put on display in state-run museums will attract more visitors, and therefore more income, in the form of admissions fees, taxes, and externalities to local businesses such as hotels and restaurants, who themselves will then be taxed as well.  An example of this which is very much in the international legal and art news right now involves a bronze statue that has been on display at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles for decades, but which has been in the midst of a sort of custody dispute with the Italian government, at the instigation of a local museum group, for the past five years.

In 1964, Italian fishermen working on the Adriatic Sea discovered a well-preserved Ancient Greek bronze of a young man, presumed to be the figure of an athlete, since he is crowning himself with a laurel wreath as the victors in the original Olympic games used to do.  Commonly referred to as “The Victorious Youth” or “The Athlete of Fano”, after the nearest town to where he was found, it was probably cast sometime between the 1st and 2nd centuries B.C.  So few Greek bronzes from the ancient world have survived, that this was a truly remarkable find.

The fishermen in question sold the statue to a local art and antiques dealer, maintaining that they had found it in international waters; the piece eventually left the country and passed into the international art market.  A few years later, the men who had sold on the statue were charged with theft by the Italian government, since any ancient object discovered in Italian territory is rightfully the property of the state, not only under Italian law but in fact in many other countries around the world as well.  Although the men were initially convicted, those convictions were later overturned.  An appeals court found that the prosecution had failed to establish the most critical element of their case: i.e., that the statue had been found within Italian territory, and was therefore Italian state property.  Without that proof, there could be no presumption of culpability of theft from the Italian government on the part of the sellers.

Several owners later, the Getty purchased the bronze in London for $3.95 million in 1977.  They did so even though a few years earlier, the museum’s founder J. Paul Getty had passed up the chance to buy the statue when he smelled something fishy about the question of legal ownership.  After Getty’s death, the curators ignored his caution and went ahead and bought the piece anyway.  The statue made its way to Los Angeles, and became one of the greatest prizes of the museum’s collection.

Now we fast-forward to 2006, and an effort by the Italian government to crack down on activities like looting, grave robbery, and the illegal export of antiquities.  Italy contacted the Getty and alleged that a number of items in the museum’s collection had been illegally exported from Italy, and demanded the return of these objects; one of the objects on the list was “The Victorious Youth”.  While the museum complied with most of the requests, it refused to return the bronze, saying that the issue had been decided back when the appellate court quashed the convictions of the men who originally sold the piece into the stream of commerce.  Since then, the statue has been the subject of ongoing litigation between the Getty and the Italian government.

Most recently, on Monday of this week the parties were expecting to argue before the Italian Supreme Court in Rome, after a lower court judge issued a ruling ordering that the statue be returned to Italy – a ruling which the Getty appealed.  Unfortunately, though perhaps not surprisingly given the pace of the Italian justice system, the panel charged with hearing the case decided to boot the matter to another department, meaning that the litigation will go on for the an unknown additional length of time.  To date, then, the ultimate fate of the “Victorious Youth” remains in question.

As interesting as the legal side of this case is, including the philosophical and public policy questions it raises about our right to own objects, from a practical if not a jurisprudential point of view, I suspect the Getty will eventually be compelled to send the bronze back.  Even were the court to find that the previous judicial precedent regarding the statue’s aquatic origins was correct, that alone would be no guarantee that thereafter things would be smooth sailing. After all, the Italian authorities could begin to make life very difficult for the Getty, such as if the Getty wanted to borrow a work for a joint exhibition with one of the Italian museums.  Perhaps that is a cynical view, but again, it is a foreseeable result in this case. Regardless of the decision, it will be fascinating to read when it finally comes down.

"The Victorious Youth" by Unknown Sculptor (c. 300-100 B.C.) The Getty Museum, Los Angeles

“The Victorious Youth” by Unknown Greek Sculptor (c. 300-100 B.C.)
The Getty Museum, Los Angeles

“Heaven and Earth” at the National Gallery

The National Gallery of Art’s current show on the art of Byzantium, “Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections”, gathers together a number of rare and interesting works which have never visited the United States before.  It is a comprehensive exhibition, covering nearly 1500 years of art from the pagan and Greco-Roman to the Christian and early Renaissance in the Eastern half of the Roman Empire, from icons and sculpture, to jewelry, textiles, and ecclesiastical objects.  Even if you are not a Christian yourself, for those interested in history and sociological exchanges between cultures, this show is well worth a visit.

To be frank, Byzantine art does not hold a great deal of appeal for me, generally speaking.  I say this as someone who owns about half a dozen reproductions of icons.  Perhaps being of a popish persuasion, although I appreciate the images as an aid to meditation, they do not speak to me in the same way they would to my Christian brethren in the East.

That being said, the intersection of Western and Eastern Christian art, particularly in the Early Renaissance and around the time of the Council of Florence, when there was a reasonable attempt at reuniting the two “lungs” of the Western and Eastern Churches, does hold a certain historical appeal.  Of all the pieces in the National Gallery’s show, the one which spoke most clearly to this cross-pollination, and which I made a bee-line to examine in person, is the “Crucifixion” by the Cretan painter Pavias Andreas (c. 1450-1505) on loan from the National Gallery in Athens.  Hung in the final salon of the exhibition, in a section appropriately entitled “Crosscurrents”, the collection of works in this room demonstrates just this sort of exchange of ideas, and this panel in particular makes it readily apparent, from the mixture of figures dressed in Western and Eastern fashions, and the fact that the artist signed his name in Latin, meaning it was most likely commissioned by an Italian patron.

In this “Crucifixion” we see many pieces of iconography related to the Passion. All three of the crucified have died, and if the viewer was in any doubt as to which of the two thieves crucified with Christ was the good one, we can see that Christ is oriented toward the thief on His right, whose tiny soul is being taken up into Heaven as Christ promised.  The soul of the bad thief, which is emerging from his eye socket – according to pious legend the bad thief’s eyes were plucked out by crows – finds a black, horned little demon waiting for him to take him to Hell.

The earthquake described in the Gospels as having taken place at the moment of Jesus’ death has revealed a skull at the base of Golgotha, “The Place of the Skull”, although the inclusion of a skull in the painting was not meant to be a pun.  It is commonly accepted that the term “Place of the Skull” refers to the shape of the hill of Mount Calvary itself, but there was an earlier tradition that Calvary was the place where the skull of Adam was interred.  This made Christ dying upon the spot where the first man was buried all the more significant.

One could spend hours studying all of the detail in the painting, and still come back to it to learn more.  The artist depicts the Crucifixion with a truly mesmerizing fusion of Eastern and Western ideas and stylistic elements, and a riot of activity and color.  It is the sort of work which the great, rather odd, Flemish painter Hieronymous Bosch, an exact contemporary of Pavias Andreas albeit working hundreds of miles away, would have acknowledged as being that of a kindred spirit to his own.

The piece is thusly described in this slideshow of some of the highlights of the exhibition in The Washington Post which, as usual in the “mainstream” media, entirely misses the point:

An icon of the Crucifixion, made in the latter half of the 15th century, qualifies as beautiful without reference to its religious content, critic Philip Kennicott says. “Never mind the stifling fear of hell promulgated in the lower register, where demons cavort beneath a skull at the base of the cross. Even without engaging with its religious particulars, one senses the presence of something calm and essential in a sea of details and a riot of activity.”

It is always amusing when secular art critics make value judgments on sacred Christian art which they do not understand, particularly since the point of the picture is not the “stifling fear of [H]ell”, but rather Christ’s triumph over it.  The “cavorting” described represents the terror of the demons in realizing that they have lost, and God has won.  Be that as it may, even though it is not the most prominently displayed of the many works in this exhibition, it is definitely worth seeking out, if you are able to catch the show.

“Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections”, is on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington until March 2, 2014.  Following its run at the NGA, it will travel to The Getty in Los Angeles from April 9 – August 25, 2014.

Detail of "The Crucifixion" by Pavias Andreas (2nd Half of the 15th Century) National Gallery, Athens

Detail of “The Crucifixion” by Pavias Andreas (2nd Half of the 15th Century)
National Gallery, Athens