Art News Roundup: Generalissimo Franco Is Still Dead Edition

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.

Crafty China

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.

china

Changing California

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.

Avina

Picturing Philadelphia

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.

Birch

Art News Roundup: Better Late Than Never Edition

Forgive my delay in posting this week’s art news roundup, gentle reader, I was unavoidably detained yesterday. To make up for this, instead of my usual three curated bits of news from the world of art, architecture, design, and so on, I shall give you FIVE.

New Clues in New Mexico

In this absolutely fascinating story in the Post, reporter Antonia Farzan does her homework and digs deeply into the mystery of a stolen masterwork by Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), and the quiet, reserved couple that may have had something to do with its disappearance over 30 years ago. The twists and turns of the investigation are fascinating, but the real punch at the end is when you learn just how much money the couple had in their bank accounts when they died, and how photographs revealed that they had traveled to about 140 countries and all seven continents during their marriage: an achievement that, on its surface, would seem to be beyond the means of an ordinary pair of public school employees. This is a story begging for a good screenplay.

DeKooning

Coming Back to Canterbury

In one of the weird ironies of collecting history, an illuminated 13th century Bible which was once part of the library of Canterbury Cathedral has been purchased for roughly $128,000 by…Canterbury Cathedral. The “Lyghfield Bible” is a Medieval French volume which miraculously survived Henry VIII and the Reformation, when many Catholic books were simply burned or destroyed, and passed through the hands of a number of private owners before ending up on the auction block last month. It is the only Bible from the former library to have survived completely intact, and will be part of a new exhibition space at the cathedral detailing the history of the building (from a Protestant perspective, natch.)

Biblia

Lo Spagnoletto in London

The Baroque painter Josep de Ribera (1591-1652), often referred to as “Lo Spagnoletto” (“The Little Spaniard”) by other artists, was born and raised in Valencia, but made his career in Italy, particularly in the city of Naples, which was under Spanish rule during his lifetime. Ribera is one of the most important and influential painters of the first half of the 17th century, painting dark and brooding canvases that are often intense and stripped-down psychological studies, and so it surprises me to learn that an upcoming show titled “Ribera: Art of Violence” will be the first major exhibition of his work ever held in Britain. Ribera is not always easy to like, and his paintings of martyrdom, torture, drooling idiots and sideshow freaks are rather off-putting: you can certainly see why Goya, a century and a half later, was fascinated by his work. “Ribera” opens September 26th and runs through January 27th.

Ribera

Magnificence in Magnesia

The ancient Greek city of Magnesia, which today is part of modern Turkey, remained relatively unimportant in ancient history until it became a Roman colony around the 1st century BC. After it was virtually destroyed in an earthquake in the early 1st century AD, it was completely rebuilt on a luxurious scale by the Emperor Tiberius. Now an ongoing archaeological dig at the site of the Temple of Artemis in the city’s ruins has uncovered six magnificent, over-life-sized statues, bringing the total recovered thus far from the excavation to more than 50. Scientists believe there will still be many more to uncover, and as you can see here the works are very beautiful indeed.

Statues

Mockery in Manhattan

Moving on from the sublime to the ridiculous, New York has decided to grant landmark status to 550 Madison, a ridiculous pink skyscraper topped with a broken pediment designed by starchitect Philip Johnson (1906-2005) back in the late 1970’s. One should normally not speak ill of the dead of course, but as Mr. Johnson quite literally lived in a glass house, was an anti-Semite, a Nazi enthusiast, and loved to go on Charlie Rose long after this career was over and say terrible things about subjects which he did not in any way understand, I feel reasonably comfortable in laughing at the fact that anyone thinks that this particular monstrosity of his was worth preserving for the ages. As Hitler’s favorite architect, Albert Speer, once told art historian Robert Hughes in an interview, Johnson would have made a perfect architect for a fascist leader, since “Johnson understands what the small man thinks of as grandeur.”

Johnson

Art News Roundup: Impressionist Lost and Found Edition

For many people, Impressionism is about as Modern a school of art as they can stand, even though at the time it first appeared in the later half of the 19th century it was a wildly controversial style. Today, it’s hard to see what all of the fuss was about, living as we do in a deeply silly, stupid time, in which art critics debate over whether someone’s appearance on a television show is, in fact, a work of art. Fortunately however, there are always interesting news stories from the art world involving the Impressionists, and so we turn to them for this week’s art news roundup.

Missing Monet

After many years, there’s a happy ending to a minor, but interesting art mystery. Like many of the Impressionists, Claude Monet (1840-1926) was fascinated by and collected Japanese art and decorative objects. During Monet’s lifetime a small, Japanese ceramic cat sat on a pillow in the dining room at the artist’s famous country house in Giverny, but after his death it passed into the collection of his younger son, Michel. Unknown to almost everyone, Michel had a daughter by his mistress, and when he died he left dozens of works of art and Monet family items to his daughter. When she herself died in 2008 her existence became known, and her descendants decided to sell off many of the Monet items, including the cat. It was bought at auction by a Japanese art dealer last fall, who has now returned the sleeping kitty to the Monet Foundation, which has put it back on its cushion in the dining room at Giverny.

Kat
Recovered Renoir

The stylish Italian Carabinieri, well-known for press conferences in which they pose stoically before looted or stolen antiquities and works of art that they have recovered, now have a major new feather in their cap. “Girls on the Lawn” by French Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) and “The Holy Family” by Dutch Old Master Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) were stolen by a gang of conmen in the city of Monza, who duped the gallery that owned the paintings into turning them over via an elaborate ruse. The works were recovered as part of a sting organized by the Carabinieri’s Cultural Heritage Protection Unit, which to me sounds like a great subject for the next iteration of Law and Order, should Dick Wolf ever decide to come out of retirement. The paintings are currently being examined by experts for any damage and to verify that they are, indeed, the stolen works, before the local prosecutor gets to work on the case against the eight people who have been rounded up and charged with the crime.

recovered

Rediscovering Russell

If you’ve ever heard of Australian Impressionist John Peter Russell (1858-1930) before today, then you’re one up on me, and probably a lot of other people as well: fortunately, now his home town is doing something to change that. Russell studied in London and Paris in the 1880’s, and spent a great deal of time living and working in France, where he was both a popular, well-liked figure, and friendly with Matisse, Monet, Renoir, Rodin, Toulouse-Lautrec, etc. He was happily married to an Italian model who had posed for Rodin, and they had many children together. When she died in 1908 he became heartbroken, and destroyed over 400 of his own paintings, which may be one reason he is not as well-known as he might otherwise have been. He eventually returned home to Australia and died there, forgotten and ignored.

If you happen to find yourself in Sydney over the next few months then, I highly recommend that you check out a major retrospective of his work at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which opened this week and runs through November 11th. As lovely as his landscapes are, to me the most striking work of Russell’s that I’ve seen to date is the magnificent portrait he painted in 1886 of his friend and contemporary, Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890), which is on loan to the exhibition from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. With great sensitivity, Russell captures the haunted, hunted spirit of his friend in a way that differs from, and yet clearly relates to, Van Gogh’s own self-portraits.

Gogh