Selective Engagement: The Politics Of Art Restitution

Chances are that even if you do not have much of an interest in the art world, you’re aware of the ongoing question of the restitution of stolen or recovered works of art. Stories about the descendants of the Nazis’ victims suing to reclaim their family’s property come up in the news from time to time, and are often featured in media. The recent film “Woman In Gold” with Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds, for example, is based on the true story of how a portrait by the Austrian Secessionist painter Gustav Klimt, stolen during World War II, was finally reclaimed by the niece of the murdered sitter.

Now it appears that Germany is beginning to dip its toe into the politically and diplomatically dangerous issue of art stolen during the Cold War. The Art Newspaper is reporting that the German government will study art looted by the Stasi, i.e., the East German secret police, over the course of a three-day operation that took place in January 1962. As the article points out, this was only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to art theft not only on the part of fellow Germans, many of whom are still alive, but also on the part of exterior actors such as the Soviet Union. It would not be a surprise if restitution and compensation claims began to explode in number at the conclusion of the study.

While it is good to see communists getting what they deserve, albeit too late to make much of a difference, the problem with this kind of effort is that it is highly selective. Works of art have been carried off as booty, or secretly made their way into the possession of others, on a regular basis throughout Western history. Sometimes no one is quite sure exactly how a particular object ended up where it has, decades or centuries later, other than recognizing that it is not where it is supposed to be. An example which is of personal importance to me involves the now-dismembered altarpiece of St. George, which is currently split between the Art Institute of Chicago, the Louvre, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Bernat Martorell (c. 1400-1452) was one the most important Catalan artists of the Middle Ages. In around 1434, art historians believe that he was commissioned to paint an altarpiece for the newly-constructed Chapel of St. George in the Palace of the Generalitat, the seat of the executive branch of the Catalan government. The altarpiece would have been in keeping with the Chapel’s numerous visual references to St. George, including both interior and exterior sculptures, as well as the solid silver metalwork decorating the altar itself.

The top panel of the altarpiece, which is now in Philadelphia, features a Madonna and Child surrounded by personifications of the Cardinal Virtues. Underneath it, the main panel shows St. George in his legendary battle with the dragon; this painting, which is shown below, is now in the Art Institute of Chicago. On the sides, the foldable “wings” of the altarpiece display scenes from the life and martyrdom of St. George, and have been in the possession of the Louvre for some time. Below the main panel there would have been at least one predella, which is a kind of long and narrow painting that typically runs along the bottom of the altarpiece to act almost as a base, however the whereabouts of this panel or panels are now unknown.

When you visit the Chapel today, which the public is permitted to do once a year, where the Martorell altarpiece used to be there is now a Flemish Renaissance tapestry, which has nothing whatsoever to do with St. George. It is likely that Martorell’s altarpiece was hacked into pieces during the Napoleonic Wars, when many artistic and cultural treasures were carted away or simply destroyed. Such a fate was not at all unusual: the famous Monastery of Montserrat near Barcelona, for example, was almost completely destroyed by Napoleon’s troops, twice, and never fully recovered its former grandeur.

Thus, the issue of restitution is not so much a question about morality or the passage of time, but rather that of political will. In the case of the Elgin Marbles or the Bust of Nefertiti for example, there are disputes over whether they were properly obtained from the appropriate authorities at the time they entered their respective museums, often led by vociferous individuals (such as Mrs. George Clooney.) And yet the same voices speaking out in favor of the return of these objects usually say nothing about the return of pieces which were unquestionably stolen, without even the pretense of a sale or treaty.

Certainly the effort to track down, and potentially restore, lost works of art to their rightful owners, particularly those who suffered so greatly under communism, is a good thing. The fact that these losses occurred comparatively recently means there is a greater chance of success in such an effort. Unfortunately, no such effort will be made on behalf of the churches, monasteries, and chapels whose contents were looted to fill the palaces, mansions, and museums of those possessing more greed than grace.

Under Construction: Projects At Two Of The World’s Most Important Museums

There are some interesting construction projects ahead for the expansion of two already enormous, and enormously important, art institutions.

Following a recent renovation of part of its existing ground floor to expand its exhibition space, the National Gallery in London has set its sights on redeveloping St. Vincent House, located behind the museum’s Sainsbury Wing. The institution purchased the building almost 20 years ago, and it currently houses not only museum staff, but also paying tenants, including an hotel, a restaurant, a parking garage, and other offices. The leases of these tenants will be coming to an end within the next few years, allowing the museum to decide what to do next with the space.

St. Vincent House is one of those Brutalist architectual travesties that scar the downtowns of most of our cities. The only reason you’ve probably never seen it, if you’ve been to London, is that it’s mercifully well-hidden from Trafalgar Square. The stained, exposed aggregate concrete, rusting and peeling metal, crumbling brick, and utter lack of symmetry, grace, or proportion will be familiar to anyone who has ever visited, say, a college library built between about 1950 and 1980.

Since the building is tucked away, presumably there will be a reduced pressure upon the National Gallery to make it an architectural showstopper. Less visibility means less of a need to spend a fortune building something which most people will only experience from the inside, via a possible pedestrian bridge connecting the site to the Sainsbury Wing. This is the opposite of the problem faced by The Prado in Madrid during their recent expansion, which is not quite finished yet.

The buildings which The Prado has been expanding into were located not next door, but rather on a hillside directly behind the main bulk of the museum. Two of the them are the former throne room and ballroom of the Palacio del Buen Retiro, built in the 17th century. They were the only parts left standing after the rest of the palace was torn down, following destruction by Napoleon’s troops. The ballroom has already been integrated into the expanded Prado; the redevelopment of the former throne room was recentlly awarded to British starchitect Norman Foster.

As part of the The Prado’s expansion, a vast underground entrance, exhibition, and concessions area connecting these buildings by cutting into the hillside were designed by Spanish starchitect Rafael Moneo, connecting the buildings by cutting into the hillside. For reasons which I can’t fathom, Moneo was awarded the Pritzker Prize for archtiecture in 1996, and the Prince of Asturias prize for his contributions to Spanish architecture a few years later. If you are unfamiliar with his name, you are nevertheless familiar with his work, for Moneo is the designer of the monstruous Cathedral of Los Angeles, California, known among those who loathe both it and the now-disgraced Cardinal who built it as the “Taj Mahoney”.

Part of Moneo’s plan for The Prado expansion called for the disassembly of a former Baroque monastery in poor repair, which stood next to the Palace. The structure was reassembled inside a rather dull brick building whose interior otherwise reminds one of a small Marriott hotel circa 1994, which sits next to the former monastery chapel (now a parish church). While the chapel is not particularly remarkable, as far as the grandeur of Spanish ecclesiastical architecture goes, sitting next to this squat, red cube, it looks like an architectural masterpiece.

Being a Midcentury building, St. Vincent House has neither the historic pedigree nor the architectural grandeur of the spaces taken over by The Prado. Moreover, the construction timeframe is still some years away, until the leases run out, and so the museum can engage in the kind of discussion which involves long-term planning. Herein lies a real opportunity for the National Gallery to improve its offerings and focus on what its mission will be for the next few decades.

Of course, there is a hidden danger, as well. For sadly, as much as people of good will and common sense loathe the sort of Brutalism displayed by buildings like St. Vincent House, others actually love this stuff, and are becomnig increasingly vociferous about preserving it. The fact that more and more of these buildings are meeting their deserved end – and not before time, as they are falling to bits – spurs some among the (supposed) intellgentsia to argue that they should be preserved.

Back in 1984, Prince Charles almost singlehandedly stopped the proposed expansion of the National Gallery, by giving a totally unexpected speech in which he described the proposed extension of the Sainsbury Wing as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend.” The left and the art press – but I repeat myself – have never forgiven him for it. The Sainsbury Wing as built was a tamer, more modest structure than the monstrosity shown in the image accompanying this post, which is what had been selected. What a truly great thing for Western civilization that this strange, Martian mining colony headquarters never came to be, even if the building constructed in its place is more interesting on the inside than it is on the outside.

Last year Prince Charles became the first Royal Patron of the National Gallery, which in British philanthropic circles usually means that executives will tend to pay a bit more attention to his thoughts and opinions regarding their activities. In addition, with all due respect to Queen Elizabeth, one can only assume that sometime within the next few years the Prince will finally become King Charles III, perhaps around the same time that the museum will be taking on its next major expansion. Let us hope that such influence will not only result in the wiping of St. Vincent House from the face of the planet, but also the construction of something sensible, serviceable, and in keeping with the fabric of the rest of the National Gallery.

Original proposal for the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery

A Michelangelo Returns Home For Holy Week

Just in time for Holy Week, which begins this Sunday, one of Michelangelo’s most beautiful religious sculptures has been put back on display in the Florence church for which he created it.

In 1492, following the death of his patron Lorenzo de Medici in whose palace he had been living, the 17-year-old Michelangelo went to stay with the Augustinians at the Basilica of Santo Spirito in Florence. He did so partly out of the need for new digs, but also in order to study the anatomy of the bodies of the recently dead, as the friars ran a hospital for the poor. In gratitude for his time there, the artist carved a large, wooden sculpture of the crucified Christ, which at one time was placed above the high altar in the main part of the church.

This Crucifix was known to later Renaissance writers such as the first great art historian, Giorgio Vasari, but its whereabouts had been lost over the centuries. It was only rediscovered in the 1960’s in a hallway of the friary, unrecognizable beneath layers of dirt and bad paint jobs. Now, after restoration and a lengthy tour, the sculpture has been placed back on display in Santo Spirito, although in the sacristy rather than in the main church. In the early 17th century, a large Baroque baldachin or canopy was erected over the high altar, which is probably why the Crucifix was moved in the first place.

At the time when the young Michelangelo created this piece, his figures were elegant and graceful, but nevertheless monumental. The Crucifix was carved almost life-size, in a realistic fashion, while his over-life-size Pietà and colossal David were still several years away. There is as yet no trace of the bulky, roided-out figures that came to characterize his later work.

Unusually in art history, Michelangelo’s figure of Christ was sculpted completely nude, rather than covered by a loincloth. We know that Michelangelo preferred to portray nude figures whenever possible, even in religious works. Famously, many of the figures in his later fresco of “The Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel are completely naked, including that of Christ Himself. Of course – and this is only my personal theory – the tradition in Italy, Spain, and elsewhere of dressing statues in actual articles of clothing so as to heighten their realism, as one sees in the annual Holy Week processions in Seville, might suggest that this Crucifix originally had a loincloth of actual fabric wrapped around it.

From an historical perspective, there is a strong argument to be made that Jesus was probably completely naked when He was crucified, even though we rarely see this portrayed in art. Nudity was commonly part of the Romans’ choreographed humiliation of this very public form of execution. However, Christian artists have tended to shy away from full nudity in their representations of the adult Jesus.

At the same time, an argument could be made that Jesus did have some sort of loincloth, for political reasons. Judea in the 1st Century was a hotbed of insurrection, often spearheaded by fundamentalist Jews violently opposed to Roman rule, and factions of religious leaders insistent upon strict public observance of the religious law. These individuals may have found the public nudity of a fellow Jew, even a convicted blasphemer and condemned criminal, to be a cause of scandal or of potential ritual uncleanliness to the population – particularly for an execution taking place outside the walls of Jerusalem during Passover, as pilgrims were heading in and out of the holy city.

In any case, I must confess that I do have a quibble with the reinstallation of this piece, much as I appreciate the fact that it is back in a church where it belongs, rather than hanging in a museum. The decision to suspend the Crucifix from the ceiling of the sacristy seems to me a poor one. Yes, I understand the idea that this method of display allows people to walk around the piece and admire it from all sides, without crowding in front of the altar. Yet to me, the net effect is to turn this devotional object into something with an unreasonable expectation of movement. While it will not turn and shift in the air currents of the building as, say, a mobile by Alexander Calder would do, it nevertheless does at least slightly lessen its spiritual impact by hanging in the middle of the room, and evoking the possibility that at it might start to spin or weave from side to side.

Still, hopefully this newly restored and reinstalled masterpiece by one of the world’s most important artists will once again become a focal point in the upcoming Holy Week observances for both the people of Florence and visitors to Santo Spirito.