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

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A Decidedly French Bonfire of the Vanities

If you are collector, then you know how it feels to discover that the object you purchased is a fake, a copy, or a reproduction.  Once, an art dealer friend grew very excited about a painting he bought at an estate sale, thinking he had discovered an original 19th century work for a song, only to be told – by me – that it was in fact a rather so-so copy of a portion of a fresco by the 16th century Venetian Renaissance painter Paolo Veronese.  Since then, he tends to gives me a jingle when he is considering purchasing a painting that he is not 100% sure about.

We should of course draw a distinction between the three categories described above, at least insofar as these terms apply to the art world.  A fake is an object created with the intent to deceive.  Copies and reproductions on the other hand, are made for various reasons.  For example, artists whose work was very popular in their own lifetime would sometimes paint copies of their own paintings, or have their assistants do so for them.  Later artists will often copy works by earlier artists, trying to study and understand the techniques that were employed.  Reproductions do not come from the original artist’s studio, but are made through a variety of methods, for the sake of making a popular image available to a wider audience.

So one cannot help but feel some pity for British businessman Martin Lang, who purchased a painting which he believed to be by the prominent Modern artist Marc Chagall.  Not only has a committee of experts in Paris decided that the painting is a fake, but under French law Mr. Lang will probably not get his painting back.  Instead, Chagall’s heirs have the right to insist that the painting be burned in front of a French judge.  As an example of ridiculous French jurisprudence – though I repeat myself – this result is rather unfortunate, to say the least.

However it is so not for the reasons pointed out by art expert and BBC presenter Philip Mould, who in effect unintentionally created this mess for Mr. Lang by sending the painting to Paris.  The issue of whether or not the painting is determined to be genuine now or at a later date is almost beside the point.  It is a pity that Mr. Lang will have to suffer the loss of a bad art investment, but the old warning of “caveat emptor” applies when it comes to all commercial transactions, whether one is buying a home, or a second-hand car, or a (purported) Chagall.  Sometimes there are recourses available to the injured purchaser, and sometimes not.

Rather, the stink to be raised here has to do with the question of property rights in general, and the reasonableness of the remedies available to both parties in this dispute.  In the case of the Chagall estate, the argument is that the existence of a fake dilutes Chagall’s legacy, much in the way that the fellow selling fake Louis Vuitton bags on the pavement outside the Metro station dilutes the value of the LVMH corporation.  Chagall’s reputation as an artist is deemed to suffer as a result, and although no one seems to be mentioning it in the press I have read so far, of course the prices of Chagall works would, in theory, go down as well, thus negatively impacting the income of his estate.  By contrast, all Mr. Lang will lose in this dispute is face, since it is embarrassing to find out you have been swindled, as well as the money he originally plunked down for the painting.

Yet as is usual in French history from 1789 onward, the solution to the dispute is so completely out of proportion with common sense, so ignorant of possible other, more civilized ways of addressing the problem, that it quite rightly makes the Anglo-American mind reel.  In the interest of protecting the property rights of the Chagall estate in France, the French are perfectly happy to violently interfere with the property rights of a man in England, who was acting in good faith.  Surely there must be other ways of making sure that this painting does not mistakenly gain the Chagall imprimatur and negatively impact the Chagall “brand”.

I am not suggesting, necessarily, that one grab a big Sharpie and write “FAKE” all over the back of this picture in permanent ink.  The point I am trying to make is that whether or not this is a Chagall (and assuming, arguendo, that it is not), the penalty imposed on the purchaser of such an item is so extreme as to be outrageous.  The decision on what to do with a fake of this kind ought to be the owner’s, as the bona fide purchaser for value, and not that of a committee located in another country; while the Chagall estate has a legitimate interest in protecting and preserving the intellectual property rights of the artist, the mere existence of a copy of a Chagall painting ought not to automatically consign that piece to the flames.  Such an attitude betrays the fact that the real motivation here is not to protect the integrity of a dead artist’s work, but rather to continue to line the pockets of his heirs, until all residual ownership rights are finally exhausted.

Don’t believe me? The Louvre, among many other museums in France – and indeed as is commonplace throughout the art museum world – is full of paintings which bear labels such as “Attributed To”, or “Circle of” or “After” world-famous, dead artists.  These works are exact copies, near approximations, or variations on the works of other painters, though not believed by experts to come from the hand of those original painters.  Whether the creators of these works intended them to be fakes, copies, or reproductions, we do not know.  Yet they continue to hang on the walls, rather than go to the scrap heap, because no one is complaining about them being a source of lost revenue.

Using the line of thinking employed here under French law, when Mr. Lang’s “Chagall” is taken out and burned – presumably on the Place de la Concorde, where countless other French legal injustices have taken place – I challenge French art institutions to be honest, bring out their own fakes, and burn them as well.  No more fake Leonardos, no more pseudo-Rubens, heave another mock-Poussin on the fire, boys. Let’s just have a big bonfire of French vanity for all to enjoy, and toast our marshmallows over the demise of common-sense property rights in jurisprudence.

The painting in question.

The painting in question, supposedly by Marc Chagall c. 1909-1910

“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