Thought-Pourri: Cut The Crap Edition

You may recall the contretemps that took place back in 1999 when a work by overrated British Contemporary artist Chris Ofili entitled “Holy Virgin Mary” (1996) went on show at the Brooklyn Museum, as part of the “Sensation” exhibition organized by the loathsome advertising mogul Charles Saatchi. Saatchi is perhaps best known on this side of the pond for an incident in 2013 involving his now ex-wife, celebrity chef Nigella Lawson, while they were dining at Scott’s, my favorite London restaurant. The only reason you may have heard of Ofili, of course, is because of this particular piece, which “features a black Virgin Mary with exaggerated features, surrounded by butterfly-like images of women’s butts cut from porn magazines. Shimmering yellow, gold, and blue, the piece rests on two spheres of elephant dung; another adorns her breast.”

Unfortunately said work, which I will not illustrate here, is now coming back to New York – permanently. It was purchased by the (equally loathsome) hedge-fund billionaire Steven Cohen in 2015 for $4.6 million, and Cohen is now donating it to the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. As someone commented to me recently, when they visit MoMA they have to avoid certain sections of the museum, and I would imagine that this piece will presumably be located in one of *those* galleries. It is a pity that our cultural institutions continue to proudly display work that can at best be described as poorly-executed manifestations of the workings of diseased minds, as supported by people of horrifically bad taste.

On that note then, on to some more interesting stories.

Saving Salus Populi

Now here’s an image of Our Lady which I’ll happily share with you. After months of careful cleaning and restoration, the medieval Byzantine icon of the Madonna known as the Salus Populi Romani (“Salvation of the Roman People”) was recently put back on display at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Years of dirt, soot, and grime were removed, along with badly-executed previous overpainting, to reveal the original splendor of the image of Mary holding the Child Jesus. The painting is a particular favorite of the current Pontiff: he went to pray before it on the morning after his election, and comes to visit before and after every time he travels outside the country, leaving a bouquet of white roses when he does so. In a papacy filled with many regrettable moments to date, this is at least one thing for which I can roundly applaud this pope.

Clean

So Long, Chagall

In a bit of a Scylla and Charybdis situation, the National Gallery of Canada has decided to sell one of the paintings in its permanent collection in order to purchase another painting; what’s highly unusual about this story is that the Canadians are selling a Modern painting in order to purchase an Old Master. The painting that the museum wants is by the Neoclassical artist Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), the most important French painter of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. “Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgment” (1779) is an extremely rare religious work by David, who was an anti-Catholic freemason, and dates prior to the French Revolution. The work that the National Gallery intends to sell is “The Eiffel Tower” (1929) by Marc Chagall (1887-1985). Personally, I’d rather have the Chagall, but I can understand the reasoning here. As you would imagine, this is what is known in the trade as a “developing story”, so stay tuned.

Jerome

Seeing Delacroix

Speaking of French art, The Louvre has just opened a major exhibition on the life and work of Eugène Delacroix (1798-1862), whose work as head of the Romantic school of French painting is essentially the antithesis of David’s. Personally, I’ve always found him something of a mixed bag, as I find the majority of his most famous works rather muddy and melodramatic. His portraiture, however, is often very interesting, such as in the 1837 self-portrait of the artist shown below.

If you can’t get to Paris between now and July 23rd, not to worry. The show will travel to The Met in New York from September 17th through January 6th, albeit at the slightly reduced size of 145 paintings instead of the 180 on show at The Louvre, since a number of the pieces in France cannot travel. This will be the first major American exhibition ever held on the work of Delacroix, which may cause some of us, myself included, to reconsider our currently-held views on this enormously important and influential 19th century artist. We shall see.

Autoretrato

 

 

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Hooray For Hermits: Art Celebrating The Eremitic Life

While many subjects depicted by the Old Masters portray events from long-ago days, or people engaged in activities which seem incredibly remote to contemporary eyes, there is one area of human endeavor as depicted in the arts which has changed very little over the last 2,000 years: eremitic life. In Christian practice an eremitic (or “hermit” as we usually call them) is someone who has chosen to remove themselves from the world, in order to deepen their spiritual life and their relationship with God. The solitary aspects of their lives have fascinated artists for centuries, but such lifestyles are not a thing of the past. In fact, many hermits still live among us today.

As regular readers know, for several years now I’ve served on the Board of the Friends of Little Portion Hermitage, which support the establishment of a permanent hermitage in the Diocese of Portland, Maine. At the moment we’re still raising funds for the actual hermitage, but we do have a hermit: our dear Franciscan friend, Brother Rex Anthony Norris, who is also the Chaplain of the Coming Home Network International. Brother Rex was recently interviewed by the Catholic News Agency, and I think you’ll enjoy the article – and not just for the great picture of him with a chicken.

Rex

People are often surprised to learn that, yes, there are still hermits among us in this day and age, including right here in the United States. As Brother Rex mentions in the article, he’s aware of a half-dozen or so just in Maine alone! The degree to which those called to this intense form of spiritual life interact with the world depends on various factors, such as the particular religious order which they join. There are, for example, men and women religious who live in solitude, like the wonderful Sister Veronica Paul – whom you should follow on Twitter along with Brother Rex, even if you don’t belong to any particular form of religion – who still manage to engage with the rest of us for periods of time before returning to their solitude.

In art history, there are many depictions of Christians who chose to follow the path to eremitic life. Sometimes these men and women lived in their form of isolation for their entire adult lives, while others did so only for a period of time. The degree to which they removed themselves from day-to-day concerns, and how they chose to live out their vocations, can vary greatly.

A typical example of what most of us think of, when we hear the word, “hermit”, is this work from 1670 by the Dutch Baroque artist, Gerrit Dou (1613-1675), now in the National Gallery here in Washington. In it, we see an anonymous Franciscan hermit on his knees at prayer, meditating on a crucifix amidst the ruins where he has chosen to live. Dou was one of the most successful Dutch painters of the second half of the 17th century, and toward the end of his career he seems to have become somewhat enthralled by the subject of the eremitic life, for there are several other works by him depicting hermits “in action” as it were, such as this example at the MIA in Minneapolis and another at the Wallace Collection in London.

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Among the more famous women in history who lived the eremitic life is St. Mary of Egypt. (c.344-421), who simultaneously felt drawn to changing her way of life and indulging her love of sex. In fact, she is said to have made her way on pilgrimage from the Egyptian city of Alexandria to Jerusalem by offering her services to others who were traveling to the Holy City as well. There, she underwent a conversion experience, and retired to the deserts in what is now modern Jordan, to spend her life in solitary fasting and prayer.

Although also revered in the West, she is particularly admired in the East. Icons such as this one, recounting the story of her life, have always been very popular in the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches. She has also, albeit less frequently, been the subject of Western art, such as in this copy of a 15th century Gothic sculpture at Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois in Paris (the original is preserved inside the church), or in this c. 1660 painting by the Spanish Baroque artist José Claudio Antolinez (1635-1675), now in – ironically enough – the collection of The Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

Antolinez

To close however, I want to show an example of a scene that is touching but rare in Western art. It is said that Zosimus, a monk living near the Jordan River, used to take time to wander the Judean desert by himself for 40 days during Lent. One day he stumbled across St. Mary of Egypt, who was living in a cave, and she told him her life story. She asked him to return the following year on Holy Thursday, so that she might receive the Eucharist, and he promised to do so; the painting below, by a follower of the Flemish artist David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690) depicts that return visit the following year. When Zosimus returned to bring St. Mary communion the next year, he discovered that she had died in her cave, so he went about giving her a Christian burial.

Teniers

Perhaps the takeaway here is that, like all hermits who came before and after her, even though this woman gave up everything to follow her call to the eremitic life, at the end of her earthly life she lacked for nothing. We are lucky, gentle reader, that such individuals still live among us, to advocate on our behalf, and that of the whole world. Please support them, as you are able.

Thought-Pourri: Take A Seat Edition

As the weather improves and things become more busy both professionally and socially, it becomes increasingly more difficult for me – and, I daresay, for you – to find some time to sit back, relax, and enjoy an interesting meander through things that we do purely for pleasure, rather than because we have to do them. So with that in mind, take a few minutes when you can, and have a flick through some of the art news stories below. They won’t clear up your calendar for you, but at least they will (hopefully) provide you with something of a break.

Easy, Chair

One of my favorite periods in decorative art is the style known as “William and Mary”, corresponding roughly to the reign of William III and Mary II of England. It was popular in Britain, Holland, and their respective colonies in the first quarter of the 18th century, and you see a lot of it in places like Boston or Colonial Williamsburg. Characteristically very architectural, furniture in this style often features carved elements such heavily crested rails, or playful barley twists, reproducing on a domestic scale the heraldic pediments and twisted columns that were popular during the Baroque era of architecture. Although it enjoyed a brief revival in this country during the late 19th and early 20th centuries – along with, it should be said, virtually every other historical design style – it’s never been quite as popular as some of the other styles that came before and after it, due to the perception that it is rather too dark and uber-masculine.

Now, following years of painstaking research, the Philadelphia Museum of Art may be about to change how we think about this period of American decorative art. Known as the “Emerson Easy Chair” because it had been owned by ancestors of the American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, the newly-restored William and Mary armchair shown below should dispel any notion that everything about this period of design was oppressively heavy. This fascinating article in Antiques by the restorers who worked on the piece describes how they went about bringing this piece of furniture back to its formerly sumptuous appearance, complete with vibrant crimson upholstery and intricate gold trimmings. The end result is a piece of historical design that really makes you sit up and take notice.

Chair

New Director, Same Old Met

After a long search, a new Director will be taking his seat at the (to my mind) troubled Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose travails I’ve written about before, both here and for The Federalist. The new head of America’s largest art museum is Max Hollein, an Austrian who is currently the director of San Francisco’s Fine Arts Museums; he previously served stints at museums in Frankfurt and at the Guggenheim in New York. So far reaction in the art press has been largely positive, mostly because Hollein brings a reputation for embracing Contemporary Art and raising lots of money, both of which are important to the leadership of The Met, if not to those of us who wonder whether The Met hasn’t become something of a lost soul in recent years. As Marion Maneker commented yesterday in Art Market Monitor, “[t]hat this directorship was also the focus of hopes and demands about diversity and representation within museums is only confirmation that the role of the museum in 21st Century society has changed dramatically.” None of this sounds like much of an improvement, frankly.

Met

Supposedly Shifting Sands

Since his assent to the position of man behind the throne in Saudi Arabia this past June, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been gaining a reputation for being something of a reformer and maverick, at least comparatively speaking. Women can now drive in his country, for example, and he had a hand in the extraordinary sale of Da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi”. Now news comes that the Saudis have reached out to the French to help them establish cultural institutions which the country currently lacks, including a symphony orchestra and an opera; the French are also being called on to do archaeological work at the major Nabatean site of Hegra, a location which I’ve told you about previously, in the hope of drawing foreign tourists to visit the remote site.

Of course if you’re a Catholic – and there are more than 1.5 million of them in Saudi Arabia – you can’t openly practice your faith. There are no churches in the country, and if you want to attend some type of service you must do so in a private home, but since the Saudi government does not allow non-Muslim clergy to enter the country in order to perform religious services, you can imagine how that goes. Moreover, if you convert to Catholicism from Islam, or if as a Catholic you try to evangelize others, you can be executed. So forgive me if I’m not particularly impressed by His Royal Highness’ so-called “reforms”.