Thought-Pourri: Sheepish Summer Edition

A very happy First Day of Summer to you, gentle reader. This is definitely not my favorite season, but fortunately even as those of us in the capital wilt under oppressive humidity, there’s still plenty of art news out there, since even as art auctions tend to tail off until the autumn, museum exhibition and announcement season tends to crank up during the summer holidays. So rest assured there will be plenty of stories for me to share with you, even as I remain wary of this time of year and try to stay in the air conditioning as long as possible.

An example is news surrounding the legendary Ghent Altarpiece, created in the 15th century by the brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck. Regular readers will recall that I’ve written about it before, and it’s the subject of a fascinating 2012 book by Noah Charney. Unusually, two major stories about it have broken in the past week.

The first involves a possible location for the two missing panels of the altarpiece, a mystery which I mentioned in my earlier post and which Charney discusses at length in his book. The second involves the ongoing cleaning and restoration, which has resulted in a rather new, rather ugly appearance for the Agnus Dei which stands at the center of the lower panel. At some point in the past, someone decided that the Van Eyck version was rather unpleasant to look at, and painted a more docile, pleasant looking face over top of the original. While I’m all for authenticity in art, I’m not sure that the removal of this particular bit of overpaint has actually improved the picture.

Baa

Gutted in Glasgow

Just last week, I drew your attention to the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the early 20th century Scottish artist, architect, and designer, as the world marks his 150th birthday. Three days later, one of his greatest masterpieces was, for all practical purposes, destroyed. As restoration was nearing completion following a devastating fire back in 2014, Mackintosh’s seminal Glasgow School of Art caught fire this past Friday, and this time it looks to be a total loss. Sorting out the blame and what to do next will take some time, but reports indicate that there may be little left to save. This is a tragic, highly significant loss for world architecture.

Glasgow

Worrying in Worcester

A piece I spotted in yesterday’s Art Net is worth reading and thinking about, as it stirs up some uncomfortable truths about art, with respect to those represented in it, the artists themselves, and those charged with displaying and interpreting it. The piece is largely focused on a new series of placards at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachussetts, identifying the ties of some of those depicted in the museum’s Early American portraits collection to the slave trade. By way of conclusion, the article also points out that some institutions are debating whether works by Picasso, Schiele, and others should bear labels detailing the moral culpability of the artists themselves. I leave it to the reader to determine whether the selective pinning of scarlet letters to works of art is ultimately an advisable course of action.

Orne

Outstanding in Oklahoma

I’ve never been to the great state of Oklahoma, but for those of you who find yourselves there between now and September 9th, the must-see at the Oklahmoa City Art Museum is what looks to be a terrific exhibition by Contemporary Artist Isabelle de Borchrave. “Fashioning Art from Paper” is a retrospective of the Belgian artist’s work, in which she creates intricate, life-sized paper costumes based on both works of art and fashion created over the past five centuries. Among the standouts in the section dedicated to the court of the Medici in Florence is this astonishing recreation of the costume worn by the young Lorenzo de Medici in Benozzo Gozzoli’s famous “The Journey of the Magi” (1459) from the Magi Chapel at the Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence.

Lore

Advertisements

Art Crime: As Forgers Gallop Ahead, Are We Falling Back?

I want to draw your attention, gentle reader, to this rather lengthy, but fascinating article in The Guardian about the increasing problem of art forgery, and how some are addressing this issue.

Although much of the piece focuses on the rather surprising situation of an art forger joining the ranks of legitimate art experts, which is perhaps not unlike how hackers are co-opted by government authorities to go after other hackers, there are deeper, more complex issues raised by the piece as well. The article reveals, as I’ve written about for quite some time, how a decline in the technical quality of works of art created over the past century has made it increasingly easier for forgers to create and sell fakes. At the same time, when it comes to pre-Modern works of art, a corresponding decline in art scholarship has made the faking of such works a somewhat easier affair as well, since there are fewer people around capable of disputing their authenticity.

The astronomically high prices being paid for Modern and Contemporary works of art are a natural draw for the criminal classes. In addition, because the materials used by Modern and Contemporary artists are more readily available than the materials used by artists in previous centuries, there is a greater possibility for the forger of Modern and Contemporary Art to escape detection. Moreover, as The Guardian almost, but not quite, admits in the article, this type of crime has become easier because the common criticism of much of 20th century art – “My kid could do that” – has a ring of truth to it.

“…many forgers are sensibly choosing to falsify 20th-century painters, who used paints and canvases that can still be obtained, and whose abstractions are easier to imitate. “The technical skill needed to forge a Leonardo is colossal, but with someone like Modigliani, it isn’t,” she said. “Now, scholars will say it’s easy to distinguish, but the fact is that it’s just not that easy at all.” In January, in a celebrated Modigliani exhibition in Genoa, 20 out of 21 paintings were revealed to be counterfeits.” [emphasis added]

When it comes to those who study, but do not produce art themselves, the situation is arguably far worse. For every 100 artists turning out works that demonstrate little or no understanding of artistic technique, there is still at least one working artist who knows how to employ time-honored methods to create a piece that will stand the test of time. People like my friend Rupert Alexander still produce stunning, painstakingly created paintings that can hang comfortably alongside works created centuries earlier.

Yet among art connoisseurs, the pool of knowledge is rapidly shrinking, since no one is interested in studying old, dusty things. As Bendor Grosvenor explained in the Guardian piece, “In British art now, for a major artist like George Stubbs, there’s no recognised figure that we can all go to and say: ‘Is this by George Stubbs or not?’ Because various specialists have died recently, and there’s no one to replace them.”

Anyway, some things to think about while reading this article; I leave it to the reader to decide my arguments have any merit.

Stubbs

Thought-Pourri: Mergers and Acquisitions Edition

Very exciting times at the Fortress of Solitude of late, since I’ve recently acquired several new works for my art hoard and one of them I believe to be…if not by an actual Old Master whom we can name, at least a piece dating from the mid- to late-17th century. The interesting part is going to be having it cleaned, as it is absolutely filthy from years of dirt, grease, smoke, and who knows what else. However this is the only teaser you’re getting so far, gentle reader, as I’ll probably write up the experience of the reveal for The Federalist if all goes well. Now to find an art restorer who doesn’t charge me museum-level cleaning costs…

In the meantime, on to the art news we go.

Seeing Santander

The massive HQ of Banco Santander, located in the Spanish city which gave it its name, will soon become a major new private museum. The bank, which is the largest in Spain and has become far more visible internationally (including in this country) in recent years due to a number of significant mergers and acquisitions, was founded in 1851; its leadership has called the rather grandiose Pereda Building along the city’s waterfront promenade home for about a century. The financial giant is now moving into a new building, where it will consolidate many of its operations, and turn the older HQ and a neighboring building into a museum and cultural center.

British architect David Chipperfield recently won the competition for the museum portion of the project, although no estimated completion date has yet been announced. Over time, Banco Santander has accumulated a massive art collection of works dating from the 16th century to the present. Holdings include pictures by El Greco, Picasso, Rubens, Van Dyck, and Van Gogh, among many others, as well as sculpture, furniture, porcelain, tapestries, and other decorative arts. Most of these are currently held at an exhibition location maintained by the bank in suburban Madrid, which to be honest I had never heard of until this press announcement.

Once completed, the museum will certainly become a major stop on any cultural tour of Northern Spain. While somewhat uneven, as institutional rather than personal collections tend to be, there are some real gems here, particularly of turn-of-the-century art being produced in Barcelona and Madrid around the same time. One examples is this 1899 portrait of an unknown gentleman by the great Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923). Current scholarship suggests that this is the lawyer, art historian, and one-time mayor of Madrid Manuel Escrivá de Romaní, Marques of Alginet and Count of Casal, since Sorolla inscribed the painting, “A mi amigo Manolo”, and “Manolo” is a nickname for Manuel.

Sorolla

Found Fountain

More than 70 years after it ended, the Nazi looting of Europe for art treasures continues to yield bizarre stories of loss and recovery for art historians, governments, and individuals to wrangle over. This lengthy, fascinating article in Smithsonian Magazine chronicles the creation, fame, disappearance, and rediscovery of a major work of German Art Nouveau sculpture, “Drei tanzende Mädchen” (“Three Dancing Maidens”), created by Walter Schott (1861-1938). It won the Gold Medal at the World’s Fair in Brussels in 1910, and copies were acquired by several cities and institutions; in fact, one is located in Central Park in Manhattan. The fate of the original, as you will see, is a bit murky, and the article does not resolve the question of its fate.

fountain

Getty Grief

The deep pockets of the Getty Museum and its mandate to study, inter alia, classical Greek and Roman art continue to cause problems for the Los Angeles institution. Recently, the Getty acquired the magnificent 2nd century AD bust of an unknown Roman, possibly one of the Antonine emperors, such as Antoninus Pius or Marcus Aurelius. Meanwhile, an Italian judge has recently issued a decision against the Getty involving a long-standing dispute over the museum’s famous Ancient Greek bronze “Victorious Youth”, which may have been created by Lysippus, personal sculptor to Alexander the Great.

The Getty has always claimed that because the piece was recovered from international waters, the fishermen had every legal right to sell it. However the Italian government has successfully persuaded the courts up to now that, because the piece was brought to shore in Italy, and was first sold there by its finders without an export license and without notice to the Italian government of their treasure find, the Getty must return the sculpture. It seems that Italy is arguing that the Getty has possession but no title, which any of my readers who are fellow lawyers will recognize is a classic problem in tort law with respect to tangible property ownership. Appeals are expected to continue for some time, as this will be a fight to the death, given the exceptional importance of this sculpture to art history.

Victorious Youth (Greek, 300-100 BC) - detail