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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

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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

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A Strange Trip: From the Coffin to the Bookshelf

Last evening while watching BBC World News I caught a report on the 1,300 year-old St. Cuthbert Gospel, which recently became the property of the British Library in London.  The story of how the earliest, completely preserved European book came into the collection of the Library is an extremely interesting one, as you shall see.  However it is also a rather sad, contemporary example of how many of the Christian art objects we enjoy in museums today have lost their original, intended purpose.

Last summer the British Library began a campaign to purchase the book known as the “St. Cuthbert Gospel” from the Jesuits at Stonyhurst College in England, who have owned it since the 18th century; the book is a beautifully handwritten, simple manuscript of the Gospel of St. John in the New Testament dating from the 7th century.  The Library announced yesterday that, with the assistance of Christie’s auctioneers and other experts on valuation, since the book was not actually on the open market, they had finally raised the agreed-upon $14.7 million price tag for the volume, through a combination of public grants and private contributions. The Library has been in possession of the book since the late 1970′s, when it was loaned by the Jesuits for exhibition and study.

St. Cuthbert (c. 634-687) is one of the most revered of the early English saints. He was born in the Kingdom of Northumbria, in the north of present-day England, and discerned a religious vocation after spending part of his youth as a shepherd and then as a soldier. He subsequently became a monk, and was eventually ordained the Bishop of Lindisfarne, one of the most important centers of Christianity in Britain during this period.

The process for canonization of saints as we understand it today had not been fully formalized at the time of St. Cuthbert’s death, but according to St. Bede, the great chronicler of the early Church in Britain – whose superb “An Ecclesiastical History of the English People” is a must-have for any serious student of history – when several miracles were attributed to St. Cuthbert’s intercession and his coffin was opened, his body was found to be incorrupt. This led to his popularly being declared a saint, and he was re-buried in a beautifully decorated coffin in about 698 A.D., behind the main altar at his cathedral in Lindisfarne. The Gospel copy which is now the property of the British Museum was a gift from a neighboring monastery, which created and donated it to be buried with St. Cuthbert when he was re-interred.

From there the travels of this book, and indeed St. Cuthbert himself, become exceedingly strange. The coffin had to be moved multiple times due to invasions by the Vikings, until in the 10th century it finally came to rest at Durham Cathedral. During construction of a shrine to house the saint’s remains, his coffin was opened and this volume was re-discovered. It was then removed from the coffin, and kept in the cathedral priory for select visitors to examine and use as an aid to prayer; it remained there for the next 500 years.

When Henry VIII decided that he was not disgusting enough already, and decided to destroy the monastic communities in Britain so he could take their wealth and possessions for himself and his cronies, many books such as this were lost. Fortunately, someone managed to preserve this little volume from destruction, and it eventually came into the possession of the Earls of Lichfield.  The 3rd Earl, in turn, presented it in the middle of the 18th century to the Reverend Thomas Phillips who, in most of the news articles I have read in researching this story, list him as a “Canon”, meaning a priest attached to a cathedral.

However it turns out that Thomas Phillips was not a Protestant dressing up and playing Catholic in property stolen from Rome, but rather the real thing: a Catholic priest. He was private chaplain to the recusant Berkeley family, who were instrumental in getting the remaining English Catholic nobility and gentry together to petition King George III for his support of the Catholic Relief Act of 1778. This Act was the first, small step toward the emancipation of Catholics following the Reformation, who up until the passage of this Act could be prosecuted, for example, for being or housing a Catholic priest, or teaching the Catholic faith in a school. Catholics were forbidden from buying or selling land, and they could in fact lose their property if a Protestant relative wished to take possession of it. Of course, legally enshrined prejudice against Catholics is still in fact part of English law today, but we will save that for another post.

For his part Father Phillips was the first English biographer of Reginald Cardinal Pole (1500-1588), the last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, and published a two-volume study of this rather interesting prelate at Oxford in 1767. As an aside, Cardinal Pole was perhaps not always a saintly bishop, but he and I share a mutual dislike for Machiavelli and a preference for Count Castiglione, who is of course the patron of this blog. Cardinal Pole once described Machiavelli’s “The Prince” thusly: “I found this type of book to be written by an enemy of the human race. It explains every means whereby religion, justice and any inclination toward virtue could be destroyed”.

In 1769, Father Phillips presented the St. Cuthbert Gospel as a gift to the English Jesuit College in Liège, Belgium, where many of the English Jesuits who had been killed by Elizabeth I received their education. It then traveled back across the Channel, after the Jesuits were suppressed in Catholic Belgium and, ironically, found refuge in Protestant England in 1794. The book had remained at their school, Stonyhurst College, until it went on loan to the British Library, which now owns the well-traveled and ancient volume.

As interesting as all of this history is, I cannot help but think it a shame that this book is not still resting with the relics of St. Cuthbert. Of course it was not a book which he personally owned, since it was created several years after his death. Yet it was a mark of love, gratitude, and respect from his fellow monks, in recognition of how much he had done for them, and indeed for all early Christians in the north of England.

It also demonstrates yet again something which I have talked about periodically in these pages over the years. As much as I love things like beautifully made, historic paintings, statues, illuminated books, and other Catholic religious objects, there is something very tragic about seeing said objects in secular hands. I am of course not naive on this point: no doubt they are being better cared for than they would be if they were kept in regular use, or if they were simply gathering dust in some ancient and leaky church.

However when these things stop being ways of giving glory to God, and become little more than pretty baubles to be looked at, or remains like fossils or pottery shards to be studied scientifically, there is a type of sadness that arises for those of us who not only appreciate these things aesthetically, but also as spiritual expressions of the Catholic Faith made tangible. They were created by Catholic artisans for Catholic communities, but have been removed from the practice of the Faith, never to return.  I cannot walk into the National Gallery for example, and kneel down in front of the tranquil, meditative, and magnificent 15th century Perugino altarpiece of the Crucifixion to pray and reflect on Christ’s suffering. Well, I suppose I could, but then I would probably be chased away or arrested.

In the end it is certainly a good thing that more people will be able to study this remarkable book – which by the way has been digitized and will be available to examine online – and that it will be preserved for future generations.  However in isolation from its context, i.e. the shrine of a great Catholic saint, it loses some of its impact.  It is no longer an ex-voto, as it was originally intended to be, but an ex-ex-voto.  And for those of us who are aware of this fact, we cannot help but be a bit disappointed that it is not remaining in at least some kind of a Catholic setting.

Beginning of the Gospel of St. John from the St. Cuthbert Gospel (c. 698 A.D.)
British Library, London

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American Realist Jenness Cortez Puts Art Where It Belongs

One of the ongoing goals for this blog is to try to encourage my readers not to be afraid of art, but rather to learn about it, because it is a reflection of our history and civilization.    For many people the term “art”, when used in the sense of paintings, sculpture, prints, and so on,  actually denotes two very different things.  We might define the first as art with a capital “A”, meaning the sorts of things one sees in museums and galleries, and the second as art with a lowercase “a”, meaning things one picks up at the local home furnishings emporium or department store to hang over the sofa.  The former is considered to be something intimidating and out of reach – or in the case of much contemporary art, utterly incomprehensible – to the average person, while the latter is often chosen not for merit, but because it matches the carpet or the upholstery.

So it may please you to learn of a very interesting contemporary artist, Jenness Cortez, whose 9th solo exhibition has just opened in Naples, Florida.  Cortez’ new show, “Homage to the Creative Spirit 2012″, features her paintings of imagined present-day interior spaces, where famous works of art are part of the scene.  As Cortez herself explains, she wants to celebrate the creativity that goes into the creation of art:

Every painting begins with a vision seen in the artist’s mind. Sometimes the finished piece appears in the mind full-blown, and at other times it is amorphous–yet with some beguiling character that begs to be developed. In either case, between that first inspiration and the finished painting lie hours of research, thousands of choices and, of course, the great joy of painting. The process is organic. Even with a well conceived composition in place, the painting has a life of its own and the best ones surprise even the artist with twists and turns that outshine the most clever of plans. It’s as if the creative spirit insinuates itself into the work, wanting to serve its own best interest with solutions that far exceed the artist’s original, limited vision.

Cortez’ work also hearkens back to a long-standing tradition in Western art, where painters would produce views of the interiors of homes or museums displaying the art collections contained therein. Among my favorite examples of this particular type of painting is a group portrait by Zoffany entitled “The Tribuna of the Uffizi” from 1772-1778, now in Windsor Castle, which shows a group of well-known art connoisseurs of the day enjoying some of the wonderful works of art in the collection of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. One can identify not only many of the people shown in the painting, but also the paintings and sculptures they are discussing as they pose for their portraits.

One can also appreciate the fact that Cortez will often make clever allusions to art history in her paintings. These bring a smile to those who immediately “get” what she is referencing, and encourage those who do not immediately see the point of the juxtaposition to do a bit of homework. It is as if she is encouraging the viewer to learn more about the wonderful world of art history, in a way far more effective than mere words such as mine could possibly hope to do. And nowhere is this desire more evident, I believe, than in her still life paintings.

Take for example Cortez’ still life entitled “Vermeer’s Amaryllis”, which is painted on a mahogany panel, rather than canvas. The painting hanging on the wall is the great Dutch Old Master Jan Vermeer’s “Lady With A Balance” of about 1664, now in the National Gallery of Art here in Washington. In the original Vermeer which Cortez has reproduced, in part, the lady in question is shown in a room where a painting of the “Last Judgment” is displayed. In a parallel to that painting, where the good and the bad of each soul is being weighed in a metaphorical balance, Vermeer has his subject engaged in weighing items in a literal balance.

In the foreground of Cortez’ work, we see several objects on a table, which itself is covered by an oriental rug. Those familiar with Vermeer’s work know that he often did this as well, in his own painting. In fact, the same Turkish carpet often appears on the floor or draped over furniture in many of his portrait-interior works.

On the right in the Cortez painting, we see a grouping of ripe fruit, making reference to the great Dutch still life paintings of fruit and flowers that were produced during the 17th century, i.e. the same time period that Vermeer himself was working. On the left, we see an Amaryllis bulb bursting into flower, and which is, in fact, the pink “Vermeer” cultivar for this type of lily, botanically speaking. The bulbs are growing in a wonderfully observed and technically very difficult to represent combination of materials. Cortez paints a hand-thrown, shallow pot made of terracotta, of the type normally used for growing bulbs, which we can see is hosting some green mold or moss growing on the bottom. The humble pot sits in a perfect, gleaming copper dish or tray, which reflects the carpet on which it sits, and serves to prevent both the carpet and the tabletop from getting wet when the plant needs to be watered.

On a personal level I feel Cortez’ work draws attention to the fact that works of art ought to be part of our lives, not simply objects to be studied as if they were historic artifacts or scientific specimens. For Catholics such as myself, for example, visiting a museum or a gallery where works of art originally commissioned for churches or for private prayer are on display is always something of a mixed bag, emotionally speaking. We are glad that such things are preserved for future generations to admire, but at the same time a bit saddened by the fact that they are not being used for their original, intended purpose.

Jenness Cortez invites us to consider that great art is something we can enjoy around us all the time, as we sprawl on the couch reading the newspaper, or as we get the dog ready to go out for a walk. It is not something we ought to be afraid of, but rather a connection to our history and culture which we ought to celebrate. I hope she continues to use her considerable talents to not only draw admirers to her own work, but also encourage people to really get to love and appreciate the history of Western art in the same way which she herself clearly does.


The artist at work in her Upstate New York studio

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Bad Taste Old and New at Versailles

Last evening I watched a piece on France24 about the annual summer contemporary art show at the Palace of Versailles. In the gardens and inside of the château itself, various pieces of contemporary art are juxtaposed with the splendid rooms and vistas created for the Bourbons, who of course were turned out of their home during the French Revolution. The reporter went through the palace and stopped to ask several visitors what they thought of the contemporary art installations. Several visitors – all French – said they enjoyed the pieces, which were displayed in and around the grand residence of Louis XIV and his descendants.

However one visitor – clearly an American, and one possessing more than a little common sense – said she was appalled. “I haven’t liked any of it,” the lady commented, as we were shown a shot of a glass cabinet containing an installation piece of what appeared to be bandages and crutches. She noted that while some of the art on display might not be bad in the proper setting, what annoyed her most was that it was blocking many of the interior views of the magnificent, historic rooms of the palace which she and others had come to see.

This regrettable practice of placing the detritus of diseased minds in the home of the Sun King began in 2008 under the director of the palace museum, Jean-Jacques Aillagon: a man of many words and little taste. When interviewed by the France24 reporter, M. Aillagon repeatedly stated, in a parrot-like justification of the exhibition: “Art is always art,” presumably because sometimes the viewer may mistake art for being his breakfast, or a rubbish tip. M. Aillagon went on to explain that in displaying art, “we ask questions about form, material, and the artist’s perspective and intelligence.”

This is all nonsense, of course.

Rather than questioning the artist’s intelligence in such displays, I question that of M. Aillagon. You can read more about his poor taste and clichéd, art-speak blatherings in this interview. [WARNING: Some of the art described in the interview is a bit graphic.] He is clearly a figure who should be held up for public ridicule and dismissed from his post.

That being said, let not the rabidly conservative or monarchist among my readers think that my rejection of M. Aillagon’s efforts stems from a belief that Versailles itself is such a wonderful thing: it is not. It is, in fact, a monstrosity, and one of the tackiest, megalomaniacal, and overwrought buildings ever constructed. It has become the model for nouveaux-riches the world over, and for good reason, because it is simply too much.

Indeed, when we consider much of the self-promotional and titillating art commissioned for Versailles, I have to disagree with Prince Sixte-Henri de Bourbon-Parme, one of a number of French aristocrats who have tried to stop these shows at the château through the court system over the years. Most contemporary art which is displayed in shows such as this is rubbish. Yet ironically, most of it is also self-promotional and titillating,
in keeping with the attitudes of those who built and decorated Versailles in the first place.

As a matter of fact, I found myself surprised to be agreeing with American artist Jeff Koons – whose work I cannot abide – during the course of last night’s program. In an interview with the France24 reporter, Koons mentioned his inspiration for the pieces he showed there, when the first Versailles contemporary art exhibition opened in 2008. He thought about Louis XIV waking up in the morning, commanding his staff to build him some sort of giant, kitschy folly, and when he would come home from hunting that evening, there it would be. Those of you who have read books like Nancy Mitford’s classic, superbly researched and illustrated “The Sun King”, or seen films such as “Vatel”, will recognize that as much as one may not like Koons’ art, he certainly got into the spirit of the thing.

The real failure here is that of treating Versailles as if it is some sort of blank canvas, which it is not. It is a place crammed with history, and one which has nothing to do with Japanese manga or clunky malformations of scrap steel. One would have thought that the French would have better taste and a better appreciation of their own history, but of course when you place the dog in charge of the birdcage, this is what happens.

Therefore, please: let us leave the rubbish art to the rubbish art venues, like the Pompidou, and to those who want to see such things, and leave the Bourbons to the Bourbons, and to those who want to get some sense of the world they lived in.

Is it contemporary art, or is it curbside collection day at Versailles?

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