Thought-Pourri: Gone Fishing Edition

Tomorrow I’m headed out on vacation, so chances are you won’t be seeing a new post for at least a couple of weeks. During my absence, you can follow my Instagram and Twitter postings, if you’re interested in seeing what I’m up to. Rest assured, I’m anticipating that there will be plenty of art and architecture posts, not just images of beaches and food (although there will be plenty of that as well, naturally enough.)

And now, on to some art news.

Fishers Of Compliments

One would think that, after the blasphemy and sacrilege on display at the Met Ball and the associated “Heavenly Bodies” exhibition – and do read this excellent editorial in The Art Newspaper condemning the show, which is a solid piece of writing and a rare instance of a secular art outlet getting it right when it comes to understanding Catholicism – the exhibition’s greenlighter, Cardinal Ravasi, would have done quite enough for one lifetime to bring scandal to the Church. Apparently, that is not to be the case. His Eminence likes being quoted in the art press saying thoughtless things, as well as having his picture taken with celebrities who despise Catholicism and the Faith, so his latest effort is really all of a piece.

For the first time, the Vatican will be participating in the Venice Architecture Biennale, sponsoring a group of ten chapels on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore in the Venetian lagoon. As reported in The Art Newspaper, the starchitects involved in the project aren’t exactly following the example of Bernini, Borromini, or Bramante when it comes to their ecclesiastical designs:

They need contain no reference to the Christian Church except for a pulpit and an altar, because, said Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture. “These are the expression of the Holy Word that is proclaimed and the Eucharistic Supper that is celebrated by the assembly of believers.”

A bizarre enough statement, but then His Eminence goes on to further muddy the waters, as he is quoted here in Architecture Daily:

A visit to the ten Vatican Chapels is a sort of pilgrimage that is not only religious but also secular. It is a path for all who wish to rediscover beauty, silence, the interior and transcendent voice, the human fraternity of being together in the assembly of people, and the loneliness of the woodland where one can experience the rustle of nature which is like a cosmic temple.

To my mind, a “cosmic temple” sounds like a place where one undergoes the Klingon Rite of Succession, or where Yoda and Samuel L. Jackson have a confab, but be that as it may. Still, I suppose that there is at least one lasting element of intellectual value to this project. The fact that these structures are little more than flimsy, empty spaces means that they are an all the more appropriate metaphor for the mind of the man who commissioned them.


Salute Campari

It’s fairly well known in my social circles that Campari, the syrupy, extremely bitter Italian liqueur, is one of my favorite tipples, even though more often than not, when I get someone to try it for the first time they find it one of the most awful drinks they’ve ever tasted. For my part, I like it in warm weather with soda on the rocks and a slice of orange. I also like it in any weather as part of a cocktail that I accidentally invented, along with some help from a clueless French waiter on the Upper East Side, a Dominican priest, and my closest friend.

However, I must confess that I wasn’t quite so aware of the really interesting Italian art dedicated to this beverage over the years. This summer, the Estorick Collection in London is mounting a show to showcase these images, which ranges from the languid ladies of the Gilded Age to Italian Futurism to Mid-Century Minimalism. I likely won’t be able to get there myself, but am definitely going to keep an eye out for the exhibition catalogue. “The Art of Campari” opens on July 4th, and runs through September 16th.


Dreaming The Future

Speaking of 20th century Italian art, another show on that subject which I doubt that I’ll get to this summer – ah the woes of being an art writer who can’t go see all of the things one would like to see – has just opened at the Ateneum in Helsinki. “Fantastico! Italian Art from the 1920s and 1930s” looks at the concept of Magical Realism in Italian art during this period, as represented most famously by Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), and some of the interesting, often strange works of art that came out of this exploration of things such as dreams with hidden meanings, and the relationship of the individual to the anonymous state of urban society. The figure in this 1931 painting of “Woman at the Café” by Antonio Donghi (1897-1963) looks quite modern, in a Greta Garbo or Myrna Loy sort of way. Yet at the same time, Donghi is undeniably looking back to those similarly flat portraits of Florentine matrons and maidens that characterized the earlier part of the Italian Renaissance. “Fantastico!” runs through August 19th.




Carving Up the Corcoran: An Art Collection, Redistributed

Even if you never visited the Corcoran Gallery of Art, which closed in 2014, chances are you’ve seen pieces which once belonged to the venerable institution, which was one of the first art museums in the country. With works by a host of artists stretching across centuries, it housed everything from Old Master paintings and Renaissance ceramics to substantial collections of American, Modern, and Contemporary Art. The final distribution of works from the now-shuttered museum has just been announced, and fortunately most of it will be staying here in DC.

The decline and fall of the Corcoran was a long, drawn-out, sad affair. As the museum lost its way in pricey projects which were never going to get off the drawing board, it entered a death spiral of financial difficulty, lawsuits, and bad press which ended up with its collection being given to the National Gallery to pick over. Having selected the pieces it wanted for its own collection, the National Gallery was charged by the courts to work with other institutions, particularly those in the DC area, to find a new home for a whopping 10,000+ items.

Not surprisingly, the National Gallery kept all of the best pieces for itself. It selected over 6,000 works from the Corcoran hoard, among which are this beautiful Cuatrocento Sienese altarpiece by Andrea Vanni (c. 1330-1413), which is quite a jewel:

converted to digital April 2006

Other pieces included John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)’s sunny, highly atmospheric “Setting Out to Fish” from 1878:


And the stunning “Young Woman in Kimono” (c. 1901) by Sargent’s contemporary, Alfred Henry Maurer (1868-1932):


Of the items being redistributed, 99.4% will be given to other DC institutions, including several universities, museums, government offices, and the Supreme Court, among others. As to this last recipient, the Justices will now be hosting this penetrating portrait of Chief Justice John Marshall painted in 1830 by Robert Matthew Sully (1803-1855), a scion of one of America’s most prominent family of painters. Somewhat unconventionally for a judicial portrait, it shows the Chief Justice staring pensively and perhaps even a bit wistfully off to his left, rather than at the viewer. For comparison, you can see a more conventionally Federal portrait by Sully’s uncle, Thomas Sully (1783-1872), which depicts a copy of an earlier portrait of President James Madison by Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828); this Corcoran piece is headed to the National Portrait Gallery.


The majority of the remaining works – nearly 9,000 works in total – will be headed up Massachusetts Avenue to American University, where they will be housed in the Katzen Arts Center. I must confess that, probably like many Washingtonians, I’ve never actually visited this museum. Once the acquisition of the Corcoran works is completed however, I will likely have to make that difficult, 15-minute cab ride to see the result. Most of what they are getting are Modern and Contemporary works, which interest me very little, but who knows?

If you really want to get into the weeds, a full distribution list is available here, divided by receiving institution. Among the more interesting, smaller transfers, I was pleased to note that two drawings by Armistead Peter III will be returning to Tudor Place in Georgetown, the Neoclassical estate where he and the rest of the Peter clan resided for centuries. Upon his death, the house was converted into a museum, and one well-worth your time should you happen to find yourself in the village.

While it is regrettable that the Corcoran went away, the legacy of the institution will live on in these collections, and perhaps serve as a cautionary tale to other art institutions who lose their focus while trying to be all things to all people.

Thought-Pourri: Fickle Finger of Fate Edition

Fate has a way of making you realize that you might have stepped in something without realizing it.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit over the last several days when it comes to the upper end of the art market, which is in a bit of a tizzy just now about a situation that it created all by itself over the past few decades. If you follow the news at all, you’ll know that art prices have become increasingly insane in recent years, thanks to a concerted charm offensive on the part of dealers, auctioneers, banks, the press, and even museums to persuade the very wealthy to buy Modern and Contemporary art for investment purposes. After all, not only is it (well, in some cases) nicer to look at than a stock certificate, art is also easier to transport and turn into liquidity than many other convertible assets, particularly if you’re trying to keep ex-wife #4 from getting her manicured claws on your hedge fund winnings.

Now however, both the US and the EU are working on increased regulation of the art market from a financial services perspective, in order to address issues such as buying art as part of a money laundering scheme. The art world is up in arms over this, naturally enough, because the livelihood of many who work in that arena depend on the artificially inflated market bubble for atrociously awful art. If the super-rich no longer see art investment as a safe haven, they fear, that money will be shifted elsewhere, and prices for such commodities will collapse. Forgive me if I don’t feel particularly sorry for these people.

Disappearing Digit

First there was the “brah” incident at the Franklin Institute, in which an idiot broke off the thumb of one of China’s legendary Terracotta Warrior to keep as a souvenir. Now it appears that, during the reinstallation of Bernini’s “Saint Bibiana” (1626) above the high altar, following its return from an exhibition at the Borghese to its eponymous church in Rome, someone has broken off one of the statue’s fingers. Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) was the greatest of all Italian Baroque sculptors and architects, and either directly or through his influence had an enormous impact not just on the art and architecture of the city of Rome, but of the entire world. As noted in the Italian press, this was the first time the sculpture had ever been lent out in its 400-year history. I rather doubt that it will be lent out again.


Purging Poland

Ah, the vicissitudes of history. While American cities are dismantling, altering, or otherwise arguing over the issue of historical monuments which may or may not be controversial – personally I think that most monuments to Confederate leaders should be sealed in concrete and thrown into the sea – in Poland a similar cultural battle over art of a comparatively more recent vintage is being waged. Like many countries behind the Iron Curtain, Poland was filled with art depicting Communist propaganda, as part of an effort to erase both Catholicism and Polish historical memory: fortunately, neither effort succeeded. While to those of us who have never had to live under Communism, it might seem only logical to remove monuments dedicated to Marxist oppression once the country reverted to democracy, there are still those in Poland who want to keep such things, and are fighting the ongoing government effort to remove them. Should they be destroyed, or should they be placed in some kind of museum? And if the latter, who should be responsible for maintaining such things? It’s an interesting question, and one which I leave to the Poles.


Bologna Bonanza

Some good news from the world of art crime for a change: Italian police have recently recovered three Early Renaissance paintings stolen from museums in and around the city of Bologna, including a 14th century painting of St. Ambrose brazenly taken from the National Pinacoteca in the city during regular opening hours. It appears as though the alleged thief was spotted using digital analysis of surveillance camera footage, and caught when he was seen “acting suspiciously” around another art museum in the city. The Carabinieri tailed him and eventually were able to search his home, where they found the missing art. A happy ending to an all-too-common problem in Italian cities, where the theft of art and antiquities is a perpetual headache for police forces.