Art News Roundup: Restoration Edition

I’m both humbled and honored to formally announce that I’ll be moderating the closing Q&A and Panel Discussion at this year’s Catholic Art Guild Conference, titled “Formed In Beauty”, which is coming up at the Drake Hotel in Chicago on Sunday, November 4th. If you’re thinking about attending don’t delay too long, as tickets are now on sale but only until October 29th. This is an opportunity for all of those who care about beauty in the arts to meet with others of like mind, and thereby hopefully encourage the restoration of the beautiful not only in our churches, but by extension in our civic and domestic environments as well. If you missed Monday morning’s edition of the Son Rise Morning Show, you can catch co-host Anna Mitchell’s conversation with Catholic Art Guild President Kathleen Carr regarding this year’s Conference at about 1:51 if you follow this link.

And now, on to some other artsy stories.

A “Favourite” Film

Speaking of restoration, THE Restoration, as it’s known in the English-speaking world, which put the Stuarts back on the throne of England, ended with the reign of the rather odd and ungainly Queen Anne (1665-1714). Although it’s not out in the U.S. until Thanksgiving weekend, I currently have a film about Queen Anne on my radar, and want to put it on yours. “The Favourite” (teaser trailer here) stars Olivia Colman (probably best known to American audiences from the series “Broadchurch”), Emma Stone (Best Actress Oscar for “La La Land”), and Rachel Weisz (Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “The Constant Gardner”), so this is obviously no slouch production. I think Weisz, in particular, is worth seeing in just about everything she’s done – and yes, I include the “Mummy” films and “Constantine” in that assessment – but admittedly that’s just me.

The film explores the rise and fall of the “favourite”[British spelling], that particular friend of a monarch with whom the ruler shares their personal opinions and secrets, in a way which they cannot with their family or other courtiers. As you can imagine, the favourite occupies an enormously infleuntial position, and maintaining that position is a constant battle. In this case, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Weisz) is in danger of being ousted from her position as royal BFF by her cousin, Lady Abigail Masham (Stone), when the latter arrives at court seeking a position.

Given the thematic material (there were rumors of an improper relationship between Queen Anne and Baroness Masham even at the time), this is probably going to be a film for discerning adults, rather than a history film that you can take the kiddos to. That being said, so far there is near-unanimity among serious film reviewers that all THREE actresses in the film should be nominated for Oscars this year, a feat which doesn’t happen very often. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at its premiere at the Venice Film Festival this summer, and Colman, who plays Queen Anne in the film, won Best Actress, so I expect quite a few more awards will be forthcoming. “The Favourite” opens in select U.S. cities on November 23rd.


Compassionate Carving

The other night I caught this documentary from NHK World, the English-language broadcaster in Japan, and wanted to share it with you since, while not about great works of art, it is very much about the restorative power of humble art created with great heart. Following the horrific loss of life in the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami, in which over 15,000 people were killed (and thousands are still reported as “missing”, even at this late date), a Buddhist priest in the northern Japanese city of Higashi-Matsushima was trying to find a way to restore inner peace for local survivors of the disaster. Many had lost some or all of their family, their homes, businesses, and everything they owned. He began to carve rustic statues of the Buddha and Buddhistic gods, and every year gives them away in an annual service at the local Buddhist temple.

The half-hour film, “Sculptures with Soul”, from NHK’s “Hometown Stories” series, is a touching and at times heartbreaking chronicle of human decency and resilience in the face of unimaginable suffering. It’s also quite a surprise coming from a culture which traditionally prides itself on its formality and reserve. Even if you know nothing about Japan or Buddhism, I want to encourage you to watch it while you can. The video is only available on the NHK website until October 6th; after that it may be elsewhere, but you’ll have to hunt about for it.


Purchasing Pugin

Sometimes, the art press comes a bit too late to the party.

As you may know, restoration and renovation of the Houses of Parliament in London is underway, and the effort will take several years to complete, given not only the vastness of the complex, but also the highly ornate Victorian decorative elements of the building. So it was exciting to learn from The Art Newspaper that one could purchase original 19th century encaustic Minton floor tiles designed by the great Augustus Pugin (1812-1852) which once covered the floors of the Palace of Westminster, as the building is properly known. Thousands of the tiles need to be replaced, given the wear and tear of nearly two centuries, and are being substituted with exact modern reproductions, as you can see here. Unfortunately, a visit to the Houses of Parliament online gift shop reveals that the tiles are all sold out. Perhaps an eagle-eyed reader will alert us, should any more of them go on sale at a later date.



Should Graffiti Be Protected Art?

In what will prove to be a very interesting decision, however it comes out, a New York City developer is appealing a lower court ruling that ordered him to pay a group of artists $6.8 million in damages, for destroying graffiti which they created on his property.

Some decades ago, the developer had purchased a group of old factory buildings in Long Island City, Queens, with the intent of eventually redeveloping them or the land on which they sat. Beginning in the 1990’s, graffiti artists were given permission to rent studios in the crumbling complex, and to paint all over the buildings. Eventually the site became known as “5Pointz”, and attracted visitors and arts media coverage from all over the world.

As gentrification in recent years caused real estate prices to spiral into the stratosphere, Long Island City became one of the key epicenters of this trend, thanks to its large concentration of abandoned industrial and commercial structures. To take advantage of the market conditions, the decision was finally taken by the property owner to demolish 5Pointz, and redevelop the site with condos. The requisite public hearings and permit applications began in 2013, despite efforts by the graffiti makers and their supporters to stop it. As part of the redevelopment, most of the decades’ worth of graffiti that had accumulated at the site was whitewashed prior to demolition.

The “aerosol artists” [eyeroll] then sued claiming, inter alia, that they had not been given 90 days’ notice to take action with respect to the impending destruction of their art. To the surprise of many, a trial court agreed with the artists and awarded damages against the developer, who is now appealing. The basis for the appeal, in part, appears to be a somewhat powder keg argument that graffiti art should not be accorded the same protections as other types of art.

This isn’t an art law blog, and I don’t want to go into a lengthy discussion of the competing legal rationales involved in this case. That being said, whatever one thinks of graffiti art – more on that in a moment – the developer in this case should never have agreed to permit graffiti or artistic use of the complex in the first place, and certainly not for such a lengthy period of time. The developer even chose to incorporate some of the graffiti art which was not destroyed into the interior spaces of the new towers, and unsuccessfully attempted to trademark the term “5Pointz” – a moniker created by one of the graffiti artists – to market the property, arguing that he owned the term because he owned the buildings.

Apart from the idiosyncratic aspects of the 5Pointz case however, the larger issue here is the legitimization of graffiti art in general, which is why the outcome of this appeals process could be of greater significance than might at first appear. The proliferation of and acceptance of graffiti is a serious problem, and one which I maintain has been encouraged by the art establishment. The celebration of the subversive at the expense of basic property rights and the rule of law is the stock-and-trade of most Contemporary Art aficionados, from dealers and curators to reporters and collectors. And unfortunately, the rest of us who do not care for it must bear the consequences of their celebration of such efforts.

Back in August for example, someone decided to vandalize a Romanesque sculpture on one of the façades of the famous Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, using a blue permanent marker to paint over the face and part of the body of a saint with references to the band, Kiss. It took restorers hours of work, including the use of laser treatments, to remove the graffiti, and the event raised an outcry in the international art press. The Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site, had just been cleaned after a lengthy restoration that took years and cost millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, just down the street at the Centro Gallego de Arte Contemporaneo (CGAC), Santiago’s museum of Contemporary Art, CGAC held an “artists’ workshop” this summer which included the work of – you probably already guessed it – a self-described “subversive” graffiti artist.

This is an all-too-cute example of how the art establishment seeks to have things both ways. The art world simultaneously sows the seeds for destruction of existing works of art and architecture by raising an artist such as Banksy to heights of international fame unimaginable to any petty criminal – excuse me, I mean, “aerosol artist” – before him. Galleries and museums, media and the art press, by their fawning coverage of “subversive” graffiti art, are, in effect, encouraging others to go out and try to become the next Banksy themselves.

In the case of many European cities and towns, not just Santiago de Compostela, this state of affairs has helped to create an environment in which the antisocial and illegal behavior of those who choose to defile both public and private property with their “talent” is a seemingly unstoppable juggernaut. It’s impossible to travel anywhere in Europe now without seeing graffiti slathered all over, from street signs to shop doors, and local authorities seem to have given up the effort to swiftly and effectively prosecute those who engage in it. The notion of catching an “aerosol artist” and forcing them to do hours of community service removing graffiti from bus shelters, overpasses, and the like seems too harsh a penalty for most Europeans to contemplate (though if my readers are aware of such penalties actually being enforced anywhere in the EU, by all means please share a link with us all in the comments section.)

Yet even as we may tut-tut at the inaction of the Europeans, we are rapidly reaching the same point in the U.S. Taking Amtrak into Philadelphia just a few weeks ago for example, I was shocked at how graffiti coverage begins many miles outside of town, well before one actually comes within sight of the city itself. It made me wonder whether there is a national shortage of whitewash or flat gray house paint which has gone hitherto reported by the media.

No doubt some of the graffiti that we see in depressed areas of cities like Philadelphia is the work of those who are, in effect, crying for help. These are people living in desperate, dangerous conditions, with no hope for a better future, and they live a life of suffering which most of us cannot even begin to imagine. It doesn’t excuse their behavior, but it at least explains it; to be fair, rational adults, we need to acknowledge this.

That being said however, I suspect that a research statistician would be able to prove that most of the current crop of graffiti that we see is in fact of the, “Aren’t I cool? Now where’s my phone so I can snap a picture of this for my social media accounts before I go back to designing my next tattoo on my laptop,” variety. In fact, if you follow any art accounts on Instagram, you’re very much aware that the site is filled with images from events and exhibitions in which members of the Millennial bourgeoisie use graffiti to express their frustration at…I’m not sure what, exactly. Their local Whole Foods being out of avocados today?

Who knows how long the 5Pointz case will take to grind its way through the court system, or how high any further appeals might go, but the end result is absolutely going to be worth keeping an eye on. Will there be a narrow ruling, tailored to the particular circumstances of the case? Or will some appellate court create a broad precedent by which all future property owners, if they do not immediately take action to remove any trace of graffiti, will be stuck paying damages to “aerosol artists” if they attempt to remove their work at a later date? Stay tuned for developments.


Art News Roundup: Palace Plunder Edition

In honor of the 300th birthday of one of America’s greatest cities, one of the greatest art collections in the world is (partly) being put back together in the Big Easy, more than two centuries after that collection left the Parisian palace it used to call home.

From October 26th of this year to January 27th of next year, the New Orleans Museum of Art (“NOMA”) will be hosting “The Orléans Collection”, an exhibition that reassembles around forty of the paintings from a collection that was once the envy of all of Europe. Louis XIV’s nephew Philippe d’Orléans, Duke of Orléans (1674-1723), for whom the city of New Orleans is named, collected dozens of masterpieces by artists like Raphael, Titian, and many others. Today, the art that was once in his collection resides in museums around the world, from Edinburgh to St. Petersburg.

The Orléans Collection met its end when Duke Louis Philippe II, great-grandson of its founder, decided to betray the family during the French Revolution. He renamed himself “Philippe Égalité”, and turned the Palais-Royal – the family palace in Paris where the paintings once hung – into a libertine amusement park. In 1792, he plundered the collection, selling much of it off in a failed attempt to get himself out of debt. To add murder to the crime of treason and otherwise being a complete waste of space, the following year “Égalité” voted in favor of the execution of his cousin, King Louis XVI, a fact which shocked and grieved the King and the entire royal family.

Karma being a beotch, however, the following year “Égalité” ended up being guillotined himself: a perfect instance of good riddance to bad rubbish.

Between 40-50 of the paintings that formed the core of the Orléans Collection will be on display at the NOMA show, including works by Poussin, Rembrandt, and Veronese, among others. This is a very rare opportunity to see part of this family’s magnificent collection brought back together, so worth taking the time to see if you find yourself in New Orleans over the next few months. And what better way to mark the birth of the epicurean city of New Orleans, than by celebrating the epicurean taste of the man for whom the city was named.


And since we’re talking about plunder from palaces, let’s continue with some art news discoveries from other, palatial collections.

Hampton Court Hangings

On Tuesday, I watched a new video from Gresham College in London by (favorite) British art and architecture historian Simon Thurley, discussing themes and materials in Tudor art. In the course of the lecture, he discussed how the pinnacle of art, so far as the Tudor court was concerned, lay in the area of tapestries; King Henry VIII was known to have spent a fortune on them, including a set specially commissioned for Hampton Court Palace showing scenes from the life of St. Paul, that had later gone missing. Well lo and behold, one of those Pauline tapestries has just reappeared, and in of all places, Barcelona. It seems that this one was purchased by a Barcelona antiques dealer in the 1960’s, and sold to a private collector there, who has now sent it to antiquarian textile specialists Simon Franses in London for cleaning and conservation. The gallery will be displaying the work to the public from October 1st to October 19th, along with several other tapestries related to Henry VIII and the Tudor period.


Florentine Fumble

Speaking of tapestries, in the film, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, Henry Jones, Sr. notes that curator Marcus Brody once got lost in his own museum. While the remark goes to Marcus’ somewhat befuddled character, the reality is that in many cases, museum collections are so vast that the staff don’t know or lose track of what they have in storage. This is a continuing problem in the art world, which I’ve written about previously, both here and in The Federalist.

Such it seems is once again the case, this time with the National Archaeological Museum of Florence, where a 1st century AD statue long thought to represent Queen Leda of Sparta has now been determined to be one of Aphrodite, which the Museum had apparently forgotten about or lost track of over the years. The piece had been acquired in 1882 by the Museum’s then-director, when the historic Palazzo Da Cepparello, where the marble figure had stood for centuries, was being converted into a rather palatial bank. Thanks to a grant from that most excellent American cultural foundation Friends of Florence, the statue – which has an interesting history and is not what it appears to be at first sight – has been cleaned and preserved for another 2,000 years. Hopefully she won’t get misplaced again this time.


Versailles Visitors

Highly acquisitive and rather tacky fellow that he was, the “Sun King” Louis XIV of France loved to receive lavish gifts; one can imagine that when, in 1686, he received dozens of diplomatic gifts from the King Narai of Siam (modern Thailand), including gold, silver, and other objects, that he relished the occasion. Among these was a specially commissioned Chinese silver ewer, bearing the French royal arms. It, along with everything else from that diplomatic visit, went missing from the Palace of Versailles sometime after the early 18th century, but the ewer was rediscovered just recently by the French auctioneers Beaussant Lefèvre as they were researching the sale of a private collection. The Palace has now bought back the vessel, and visitors will be able to see it in the setting for which it was originally created.