Pit of Despair: Contemporary Art Leaves Museum Visitor Injured

While one does not wish to make light of the misadventure of others, it’s difficult not to be struck by a rather overtly symbolic accident that occurred in Portugal last week. An Italian visitor to the Fundação de Serralves, the Museum of Contemporary Art located in the Portuguese city of Porto, was injured when he fell into “Descent Into Limbo” (1992), an art installation by the British Contemporary Artist Sir Anish Kapoor. The main feature of the work is an eight-foot deep hole at its center, the sides of which are painted black, so that the hole appears to descend to a great depth. The man was briefly hospitalized but later released; he appears to have suffered bruising and back injuries.


Some news reports that I’ve seen mention that the hole itself is coated in Vantablack, the blacker-than-black carbon nanotube paint to which Kapoor has exclusive rights. Regular readers will recall my explaining how this material flattens out the appearance of objects, so that they take on a two-dimensional appearance. It’s not surprising, then, that someone might stumble into a hole painted with this substance, thinking that he was merely walking across a black spot painted on the floor.

The irony of someone being injured by the emptiness of a celebrated piece of Contemporary Art, of course, should not be lost upon the reader. The work in question is supposedly inspired by a masterwork of the Italian Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna (c.1431-1506), which is now at Princeton [CORRECTION: Now in a private collection.] Painted in 1492, it is part of a wing of a now-vanished altarpiece, where the Resurrection was shown in the upper half (that portion is in a museum in Bergamo) and Christ’s Descent into Limbo was shown in the lower half.


Mantegna’s unusual composition is taken from earlier examples by his contemporary and brother-in-law Giovanni Bellini (c. 1430-1516), such as this one in Bristol. Interestingly, given that He is the most important person in the composition, Jesus is shown with his back to the viewer, as He reaches down into Limbo to free the deceased Patriarchs and Prophets who have been awaiting His coming. Most images of this scene tend to show Christ entering from the side or standing in the center, facing outward. One could have quite a healthy art and theology discussion about the significance of portraying Him the way that Bellini and Mantegna have done.

That Kapoor, whom I have written about previously, would presume to claim that his empty, meaningless work is comparable to the sublime, powerful imagery of Mantegna is of a piece with Kapoor’s career overall. The artist has a rather over-inflated opinion of himself and his output, which the art world only reinforces in its sycophancy. One suspects that the black turtleneck brigade will blame the gallery visitor for this incident, rather than Kapoor himself for creating an inherently dangerous art installation. Note for example the tone taken by ArtNet, in its report of the incident, which notes almost with amusement that “Luckily, the pit was only about eight feet deep in reality.”



Art News Roundup: The Anteater of His Majesty Edition

As you might expect, the right-click Google Image Search function is a boon to art collectors and commentators, when we’re attempting to identify a picture that we think we’ve seen before, but aren’t exactly sure where. I was recently looking at an online auction catalog listing of a painting that’s coming up for sale, and it reminded me of something else, but I couldn’t place what about it was familiar. On a number of occasions, the search function has helped me to identify a piece, particularly when I have a notion that I’ve previously seen it, or something like it, which helps both my writing and my acquisition decision-making process. Yet another fun aspect of this function is the fact that it can lead to some interesting side trips down the digital rabbit hole.

As I was scrolling through the search results, I came across a rather unusual Old Master painting of an anteater:


The image was embedded in this 2011 online story, about how this painting in the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid may well be by the great Spanish artist, Francisco de Goya (1746-1828).

In July 1776, as certain events were occurring elsewhere, King Carlos III of Spain inaugurated the Museum, and was presented with an anteater as a gift from the people of Buenos Aires. It survived its trip across the Atlantic from Argentina to Spain, and the king, no looker himself, fell in love with the strange-looking animal. Initially, the king kept the anteater in the Palacio de Oriente, the principal royal palace in Madrid, and it is hilarious to imagine His Most Catholic Majesty taking it for walks down long, marble corridors, covered with canvases by Titian and Velázquez, and frescoed with ceilings by Tiepolo.

For reasons which one can only imagine, the king eventually ordered that the anteater be moved to the Buen Retiro, a large park in downtown Madrid, where there was already a royal menagerie. “Unfortunately,” as historian Ana Mozo explains in this article [translation mine], “the animal arrived in July and died in January, probably because of the lack of ants.” While this was a sad ending to quite an unusual adventure, the animal itself was immortalized by order of the king himself.

“The Anteater of His Majesty” is not only a magnificent work of art, by one of the most important Spanish artists in history, but there is also something wonderfully eccentric, bordering on the surreal, about this entire episode and indeed the painting. As it happens, Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) also had a pet anteater at one time, and there is a very famous photograph of him from 1969, taking it for a walk in the streets of Paris. I suspect that Dalí, who studied art in Madrid and was a staunch monarchist, was probably aware of the royal anteater, but I leave that question to those with greater knowledge than I currently possess.


And now, on to some art headlines.

Henri I in Haiti

Continuing in the, “Wow, I’ve never heard of that before,” vein, I was intrigued by this review in the Art Newspaper of a new book chronicling the architecture sponsored by Henri Christophe (1767-1820), a former African slave who, in 1811, was crowned King of Haiti. During his reign, Henri I built a number of massive buildings across the island, most of which have now disappeared. However, the ruins of his Sans-Souci Palace, shown below, are an extraordinary example of what he was able to accomplish on an architectural level in a comparatively brief period of time. This seems like quite a fascinating subject for armchair architectural historians such as this scrivener, and definitely worth exploring.


Emerging in Edinburgh

In one of the stranger vicissitudes of history, an 18th century Anglican church in Edinburgh, which later became a Presbyterian church, before ending up as a Catholic Church about 150 years ago, is now undergoing a major art restoration project as a result of a significant discovery. As Bendor Grosvenor details here, when the Calvinists took over the building they whitewashed over the 1774 murals of the Ascension by Alexander Runciman (1736-1785) that decorated the walls, but Scottish art historian Duncan MacMillan had a hunch that the paintings were still there. Lo and behold, he was correct, and restoration work is currently underway. Some interesting links are embedded in this piece, but ignore the joke about Pope Clement VIII, since we should all thank His Holiness for endorsing the drinking of coffee.


Fascinating in Florence

The Uffizi Gallery, the most important art museum in Florence, has just released a terrific online resource for those interested in sculpture, archaeology, and architectural design. Indiana University here in the U.S. has been working with the museum to digitize its entire collection of Ancient Greek and Roman sculpture as 3D images, a project which the research team estimates that they will be able to complete by 2020. It’s already possible right now to see 3D scans of a number of objects owned by the Uffizi, such as this bust of the Emperor Caracalla, as well as a host of sculptures and architectural elements that are not currently on public view.


Pinnacles Are From Mars, Dumpsters Are From Venus?

I often complain, as someone who follows news from the worlds of art, architecture, and design, that in order to keep up with the news in these fields, I have to wade through dumpsters full of garbage stories, in which daft ideas and poorly executed, utterly stupid things are afforded the same level of serious treatment as, say, a Mozart piano concerto or a Georgia O’Keeffe flower painting. Safe to say, I’ve seen a lot of daft things in my time. But when it comes to the pinnacle – or, I suppose, the nadir – of daft things, this one is right up there.

In a piece published in Dezeen over the weekend, the painfully hip architecture and design magazine discusses a new digital tool created by a British architectural student, which “calculates the underlying gender bias in English architectural terms, to help create more gender-neutral environments.” Created as part of a master’s degree thesis, “Building Without Bias: An Architectural Language for the Post-Binary”, rates words that are used in architecture as being more male, female, or neither. This will (allegedly) be useful in the future for creating better computer programs for architecture, design, and urban planning, in which gender neutrality is to be the sine qua non.

Taking a stab at it, I typed some words into the algorithm to see the results on a few common, but important, architectural terms. The word “column”, perhaps not unexpectedly, leans male. For some reason not immediately apparent to this scrivener, the word “tympanum”, which is the flat area over an entrance porch, doorway, or window, as shown below, is considered extremely female. “Plinth”, on the other hand – which, along with “moist” is one of British comedienne Miranda Hart’s favorite words (as one can see in this sketch from her hilarious sit-com) – falls somewhere in the middle.

So what does all of this mean? Why, nothing, of course. It’s utter nonsense.

At best, I suppose one could use this “tool” as some sort of drinking game, in which a player is given a word related to building and design, and has to decide whether it is male, female, or neither. The player would then type in the word and, if they were wrong in their initial guess, be forced to drink a shot. The result could also spark a lively debate among the participants, as to why one would rate an architectural term like “stringing” as neutral, but “architrave” as female. Incidentally, while the program considers the term “Ionic” to be female, it apparently has no awareness of either the “Doric” or the “Corinthian”, which are the other two classical orders of Western architecture.

In any case, read the article for yourself, and feel free to share your own results in the comments section below.