Museums Get Trolled With Proposed Signs

Recently the grand, Second Empire-style Renwick Gallery here in Washington reopened its doors, following a lengthy renovation, with a rather hideous addition of signage to its stately façade.

In light of this development, Washington City Paper rather cleverly decided to photoshop some signs, symbols, and banners onto a number of museums and galleries around the Capital. (WARNING: Readers particularly sensitive to blue language may not wish to follow this link.) For those who do not live locally or who do not follow news from the art world, a bit of explanation on these submissions will be necessary:

National Museum of Women in the Arts – The addition to the façade of a pair of feminist symbols, originally the symbol for the goddess Venus, is somewhat obvious. There is certainly a particular philosophical slant to this institution. The historical irony lost on some visitors is that the building was originally a rather massive temple of Freemasonry. Make of that connection what you will.

Natural History Museum – With apologies for the language, the proposed signage pretty much sums up why a significant portion of its visitors walk through the doors of the museum. It also simultaneously reflects the current level of frustration that renovations to expand and re-display the rather significant collection of dinosaur and other fossils are taking so long. At least the mummies are still there.

Textile Museum – The banner may be somewhat tongue-in-cheek, since over the years I’ve heard people remark, “There’s a museum…of textiles?” However the collection is quite interesting, from an historical and a manufacturing perspective, even if you’re not particularly interested in cloth. The only anachronism here is that the building pictured is no longer the home of the museum, which moved to the campus of George Washington University earlier this year. 

Air and Space Museum – Chances are if you love this museum, you’re also a Star Wars fan. And if you’re a Star Wars fan, you’re probably on pins and needles waiting for the next installment of the franchise to premiere next month. The Smithsonian feels your pain.

Corcoran Gallery of Art – Once one of the grandest museums in the city, The Corcoran is no more, thanks to a number of factors, including having lost its focus as an art institution. Its collection is currently being chewed over by the leonine National Gallery, which gets first bite at the Corcoran’s massive holdings, before allowing regional museums to fight like vultures over what’s left on the bones. The building itself and the associated school of art are now part of George Washington University. 

Hirshhorn Museum – As much as I loathe the place, the banner hanging from the side of The Hirshhorn in this image is a masterwork of trolling, second perhaps only to that proposed by City Paper for the National Building Museum. The new director of The Hirshhorn has been the subject of controversy in the art press, preferring to spend more time in New York than in Washington, and – bizarrely – holding the 40thanniversary gala of the museum in Manhattan, rather than at the museum itself or in DC. As WaPo art critic Philip Kennicott put it, this was quite the “snub” to our fair city, making this proposed signage all the more perfect.

American Indian Museum – Apart from praising the building itself, the most common remark you hear visitors to this, one of the newest of the Smithsonian museums, say is that the collection is underwhelming – but the cafeteria is terrific. It has become an eating destination rather than an educational institution for many of the busloads of tourists being dropped off along the Mall. Truth be told, most of the museum cafeterias on The Mall are fairly bland and awful, so the innovative dishes on offer here offer something far better than frozen hamburger patties and microwaved pizzas.

National Building Museum – I love the National Building Museum space, and I love the concept of a museum dedicated to architecture. Unfortunately, this place tends to lose its focus a bit too often, which is why this outstanding example of trolling deserves a little explanation. This summer the NBA hosted an art installation in its grand, main hall, which was essentially a giant ball crawl for adults entitled “The Beach”. Although the balls were supposedly cleaned regularly, there was at least one reported case of pink eye, and claims of various respiratory illnesses, which visitors blamed on having plunged into the installation, described by some as smelling suspiciously like a dirty diaper. When the “art” was removed at the end of summer, large quantities of hair, skin, and other goodies were found at the bottom of the pit.    

National Gallery East Building – The National Gallery is my favorite museum in DC, and I have spent countless happy hours there looking at art, seeing films, hearing concerts, and dining with friends. It is a great treasure of which we all ought to be very proud. Sadly, the East Wing of it, by starchitect I.M. Pei, is one of my least favorite places in DC. Seemingly in a constant state of disrepair, despite having only been built in 1978, it is a shining example of why so much of Post-War architecture constitutes little more than a massive debt burden passed on to future generations.


New Signage on Renwick Gallery (via CityPaper)

Scientists Reveal A Major Art Fake…Or Copy?

We all know that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Someone who likes your mobile or your jacket, then goes out and gets the same one, is paying you a great compliment. In consumer culture, this is not difficult where many copies of the exact same thing are easily manufactured and purchased. In the collecting world however, when works of art are rare, things can prove a bit more tricky. Fortunately, scientists are stepping up to help historians sort out the flatterers and the fakers.                          
It is no exaggeration to state that the work of the Dutch painter Hieronymous Bosch (c. 1450-1516) is among the most recognizable in Western history. Love it or hate it, once you have seen one of his paintings, Bosch’s work is virtually impossible to forget. His visions of Heaven and Hell, and his pictorial commentaries on human foibles and failings, are often crammed with action, like a “Where’s Waldo?” for adults. They have even found their way into popular culture, being referenced by everyone from Metallica to Michael Jackson to “The Simpsons”.

Although Bosch’s work was prized during his own lifetime, it was not until the reign of Philip II of Spain (1527-1598) that owning a Bosch painting became a significant international status symbol. Spain ruled The Netherlands at this period – as well as about half the planet for that matter – and being very interested in the arts, Philip kept aware of what his wealthier subjects were collecting. He himself decided to collect several of what he was told were Bosch’s most seminal works, and eventually found himself in competition with other wealthy and powerful individuals who wanted to copy him and emulate his taste.

The problem with this, as you might perceive from the dates when these two men lived, is that by the time Philip came to the throne, Bosch was long dead. The king was obviously unable to meet or commission works from the artist directly, meaning he had to rely upon the representations of others that a particular work was by Bosch. And as we have just learned this week, on at least one significant purchase, His Most Catholic Majesty got duped.

The Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP) is a group of international experts who have spent the past six years studying every available painting, drawing, and sketch known or suspected to be by Bosch. The researchers used not only their own experience and judgment as art experts, but also worked with closely with scientists to take advantage of technological advances available for the study of objects.  By using means such as infrared reflectography, high-resolution scanning and photography, and high-powered microscopic analysis, they were able to get as close a look as possible at these works of art.     

Although they will not formally publish their findings until January 2016, the BRCP has now determined that one of the major works purchased by Philip II for his collection is not actually by Bosch. Based on their analysis, the BRCP believes that the painting “The Seven Deadly Sins and The Four Last Things” (c. 1500), currently hanging in The Prado Museum in Madrid, was painted by one of Bosch’s pupils, rather than by the master himself.  The work of this student was so superficially similar to that of Bosch, that he often signed his pieces with his teacher’s name. Closer scientific examination enabled by the technology described above revealed that this work was not by Bosch himself. As of yet, The Prado has not commented on the BRCP’s announcement.

It could be that this unknown painter exercised that impulse which we considered above, i.e., that copying someone else is a way of flattering them. Yet here, one suspects that the artist was not so much interested in flattering his teacher, but rather in taking advantage of the desire of collectors to flatter each other. Because everyone wanted a Bosch painting, but Bosch himself only produced a limited number of paintings during his lifetime, this unknown artist was able to fill a commercial gap. True, it was not at all unusual at this time for popular artists to have studios filled with assistants, copying their works for sale to collectors, with the artist himself putting on the final touches. However in this case, it doesn’t seem as though Bosch himself had anything to do with this particular piece.

While for Bosch scholars and museums which own works purported to be by him the BRCP study will prove to be of major significance – no doubt The Prado, which has not yet commented, is hugely disappointed – discoveries like this are not really all that unusual anymore. For the past decade or so, it seems as though major findings in the art world are being announced practically every week, thanks to working collaborations between the art and science communities. Such research adds greatly to our knowledge about the works of art which we preserve in our museums and galleries.

Perhaps more importantly, these discoveries force us to reexamine what we think we know about the people who created, commissioned, and collected these pieces. We may never know for certain if this was intended as a copy or a fake. However from what we are able to piece together about the story of this particular work of art, we can see how human nature, particularly when it comes to flattery and acquisitiveness, does not change very much, no matter how many centuries go by. And that is something which Bosch himself, that master of portraying man’s weakness, would no doubt appreciate.    

Science, Faith, and Controversy: A Look at France’s Most Important Building

If you have not been following the art and architecture comentariat of late – and after all, that’s what you read me for – then you may be unaware of a tempest brewing around the restoration of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Chartres, France. Universally considered to be one of the greatest works of architecture on the planet, the Medieval architecture of Chartres and its magnificent stained glass windows have inspired writers, artists, and composers, as well as many imitators. Beginning in 2008, the French government began to restore the building, and in the process has removed much of the soot, dust, and grime accumulated over the centuries.

In doing so, experts working on the project claim that they are bringing back the building to something like its original appearance, based on the discoveries they are making as they go. “Non!” shout other experts, however, decrying the work at Chartres as a scientific and architectural disaster. Their complaint is that “new” Chartres is too clean, too white, and too speculative in appearance, and that the building is being ruined through irresponsible intervention. This fight has raged in the art press for years now, and shows no sign of abating.

Why should a single building, even a church, cause so much consternation among so many people? The answer comes from the particular importance of Chartres itself, which embodies fundamental changes in human experience which today might seem so commonplace as to be easily overlooked. For at the risk of over-simplification, which is inevitable in a brief article such as this, Chartres represents a turning point both in science, and in the Western understanding of man’s relationship to the Divine.

On a scientific level, Chartres is a major piece of technology. Today, when most of us live or work in buildings whose walls are composed either entirely of glass, or featuring significant expanses of that material, it is easy for us to forget that this was once a practical impossibility. Previously, a building’s walls were used primarily for the purpose of protection from the elements, animals, or other humans. The thicker and more impenetrable the wall, the better.

Advances in the study and understanding of engineering, physics, and chemistry, among other areas, made it possible for the builders of Chartres to alter the way that humans design and use a permanent structure. Instead of being a closed space designed to keep nature out, Chartres employs nature to achieve a greater purpose. In effect, the walls of Cathedral become a means to a double end.

At Chartres, the basic, utilitarian purpose of the structure – protection – is achieved, but at the same time this purpose is turned to a theological end – faith. The walls of the Cathedral still keep out the sun and the rain, the birds and the bugs, the Moors and the Huns, in order to provide a safe place for human beings to gather and worship. However in achieving this result through the use of copious amounts of colored glass set in comparatively thin walls, the builders of Chartres were able to achieve their purpose of persuading the visitor to fundamentally reexamine his own life. That is no small feat for a structure built 8 centuries ago, without the use of computers or modern machinery.

This purpose is highly important to keep in mind because, whatever its scientific glories, Chartres was and still is, first and foremost, a house of Christian worship. While it was not the first Gothic building in the world, let alone in France, it is without question one of the finest. As a major touchstone for the Gothic style, it represents on a theological level a significant shift in man’s attitude toward the Divine.

Recall that previously, houses of worship were often rather gloomy places, even if impressively sized on the outside and elaborately decorated on the inside. Structures like the Ancient Egyptian temples at Karnak, the Holy of Holies at the Temple in Jerusalem, and the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople were designed to evoke the Divine as someone all-powerful, mysterious, and ultimately unknowable, but to a chosen few. Even on those rare occasions when light finds its way in to such structures, as in the Panthenon in Rome, it was usually somewhat limited in its penetration.

With the arrival of Gothic architecture, most notably at Chartres, God is still God, but man is no longer incapable of perceiving Him. This is a house of worship in which the visitor is meant to feel joy, both for being a part of God’s creation, collectively, and for being someone who God loves, individually, warts and all. Without denying Divine power, let alone judgment and ultimate punishment for sin – indeed, openly warning of it in its decoration –Chartres and the many churches which subsequently copied it encourage those who pass within its walls to live in hope, rather than despair.

No matter where you go inside a church like Chartres, light touches you. You are surrounded by and enveloped in it, as you move in and out of the structural elements which comprise the building. While the effect of being in such a space is still overwhelming, making you realize just how small you are in the scheme of things, at the same time you are also drawn to and embraced by the majestic beauty around you. Realizing that you are not forgotten by a distant God, tucked away somewhere in the dark, but rather known and cared for by Him, regardless of your station in life, is what sets Christianity apart. The same, jewel-toned light of Heaven that illuminates the priest or the king, falls equally upon the layman and the peasant.

Criticism of the ongoing program of restoration at Chartres will no doubt continue for years, as it has for other, significant restoration projects whose results have been controversial – most notably, that of the Sistine Chapel some years ago. The debate as to whether Chartres should be dirty and dingy, white and sparkly, or something in between will occupy the art and architecture comentariat for years to come. Yet regardless, the fact that people are once again looking at and talking about the importance of this monument to the Christian faith, is ultimately a good thing. Merely talking about this church may not fill up its pews, but as part of a rediscovery the rich treasury of Catholic culture and its influence on the world we inhabit today, it certainly cannot hurt.