While it is always difficult to predict whether or how the Spanish government will do things, there’s a strong possibility that tomorrow, the country’s Council of Ministers will meet to begin the legal process for exhuming the remains of General Francisco Franco (1892-1975) from the Valle de los Caídos (“Valley of the Fallen”), the massive underground Basilica and Abbey outside of Madrid where he is buried. The complex contains the remains of roughly 40,000 people killed during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, from both sides of the conflict. Even if and when Franco’s coffin is removed, however, there remains a longer-term question about the Basilica itself which, while architecturally quite impressive, has a rather controversial history to it.
I visited the Basilica for the first time a little over a year ago, and while it’s certainly quite an engineering achievement, I have to say that it left me somewhat cold. I have mixed feelings about Franco, which certainly contributed to this impression, but I’ll take the risk of offending both sides in this long-standing argument by saying that, perhaps if the Generalissimo had been buried in a side chapel, rather than inside the sanctuary, directly behind the high altar, the campaign to remove him might have been more muted. Franco himself never wanted to be buried there in the first place, but his family and successor government agreed to put him in the Valley of the Fallen despite the obvious anachronism that he (obviously) did not die during the Civil War.
Given that the Socialists are currently in power in Spain, it’s more likely than not as they seek to rewrite Spanish history in the way that they prefer, the exhumation will take place over the objections of the Franco family and the opposition or abstention of some conservative parties from the process – a process which, to be honest, I still don’t entirely understand, even having followed this story for quite some time now. The Archdiocese of Madrid is not opposed to the move, and since this church falls within its jurisdiction, it would seem that remaining legal arguments are few. Still, Spanish politics are highly unpredictable, and there doesn’t seem to be a long-term plan as of yet regarding what to do with this funeral complex, so keep your eyes on Chevy Chase.
And now, on to some less funereal art news.
A big hat tip to my friend M.P. for sending me this article, about a spate of art heists around the world targeting Chinese art and antiquities. To be honest, I have little or no interest in Chinese art, but the audacity of these thefts, which may have some relationship to the government of Red China itself, and the engrossing way in which this piece is written, kept me absolutely fascinated all the way to the end. Cheers to author Alex Palmer for doing a very thorough investigative job, and bringing together threads which, even for those of us who follow what is going on in the art and museum world, I suspect most of us would never have tied together. Palmer very effectively points out what may be the motivating philosophy here, which runs counter to how most Westerners think of concepts such as ownership. Whoever is ultimately responsible for these thefts, however, the article also addresses the phenomenon of the Chinese buying back their own works of art at unbelievable prices, which you may not have been aware of, like the cup pictured below which recently sold for $38 million.
Truth be told, I’m not a fan of what we can loosely term “street art”, which encompasses things such as graffiti, of both the commissioned and vandalism varieties, conglomerations of junk which someone with an art degree and a subscription to Mother Jones deems to be “sculpture”, or exterior murals of at best uneven quality and execution. However, I was struck by this story touching on an aspect of street art involving the poorer segment of the Mexican population in Los Angeles which, like other communities around the country, is experiencing the effects both good and bad of gentrification. As artist Nico Avina explains, growing up in the barrio there were images of Our Lady of Guadalupe everywhere. “It’s talking about the community that believes so much in la Virgen de Guadalupe,” he observes, and how images of her were put up as signs of respect. Mr. Avina’s art, depicting Our Lady reading an eviction notice, strikes me as borderline blasphemy, albeit not in an ill-intended way, but I will leave it to my readers to share their opinions on it.
Speaking of changing urban landscapes, an exhibition underway in Philadelphia showcases how one British artist played a major role in the way that his contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic pictured what was once America’s most important city. William Birch (1755-1834), who had successfully exhibited at the Royal Academy in London and received prizes for his work, decided to emigrate to Philadelphia in 1794. Upon his arrival in the bustling city – Philadelphia’s population exploded from around 100,000 people in the early 1800’s to nearly 700,000 by 1876, as I learned just last evening – he began drawing and engraving the sights of his new home, a task which engaged him for the next several decades as the city grew and prospered. Collections of his engravings featuring both the urban fabric of Philadelphia and the country houses of the people of means were popular in both America and in Britain, and his work chronicles the development of changing American architectural styles, from British Colonial to American Federal. I suspect that the exhibition catalogue itself will be of interest even to those who are not particularly curious about architecture or urban planning, but who may want to seek it out purely as a visual chronicle of an important, formative period in American history. “William Birch, Ingenious Artist, His Life, His Philadelphia Views, And His Legacy” is at the Library Company of Philadelphia through October 19th.