​Old-Fashioned Wonder: Damien Hirst And “The Wreck Of The Unbelievable”

If you’ve not yet seen images from British artist Damien Hirst’s colossal installation at the Palazzo Grassi, “The Wreck Of The Unbelievable”, timed to coincide with this year’s Venice Biennale, you may be surprised to see what he has been working on for the last several years. The show has divided the art press, with comparisons to the Titanic in size and luxury, as well as in the sense of a massive failure at sea. Yet the elements of storytelling, craftsmanship, and sheer spectacle in an historic and mythological vein which have gone into Hirst’s latest effort make it one of the few installations of contemporary art that I can recall which appears interesting enough to actually warrant seeing, should you happen to find yourself in Venice between now and the end of the year.

“The Wreck of the Unbelievable”, is a combination of sculpture, film, and other elements, which purports to tell the story of a shipwreck from long ago, in which the property of an art collector from the ancient world went down into the deep for centuries. The fact that some of these pieces represent elements from more recent popular culture, like Mickey Mouse, while others juxtapose figures from different mythologies, such as a Hindu deity fighting a monster from Ancient Greece, indicate otherwise. The combination of cultures, materials, and styles, all tied together by the fiction of their underwater discovery, allows the viewer to think about interesting combinations of times, periods, and myths from old and new civilizations.

The Art Newspaper, in giving an overview, characterized this installation fairly well in stating: “This is what art looks like when unbridled ambition meets apparently limitless financial resources.” The end result of this meeting is absolutely massive, and there is no more massive element than the 60-feet-tall headless “Demon With Bowl” statue that fills the atrium of the museum where the show is housed through December of this year. Reports are that a majority of the works have already been sold, meaning that Mr. Hirst, who invested a significant portion of his own money in the show, and his backers will have gambled and won.

One of those backers is François Pinault, who owns the palace where the show is currently installed. M. Pinault is a long-time collector and supporter of Hirst’s work; he also happens to be Salma Hayek’s father-in-law, for those of you who follow such things. As the owner of numerous high-profile companies, including Christie’s auction house and the Gucci fashion label, he has the wherewithal to help make this rather intimidating spectacle happen. At the same time, he has been able to draw in the support of his friends and peers at the real one percent end of the scale, many of whom are no doubt going to want some of these pieces for their own collections.

Perhaps it was not difficult to predict that Hirst, who has moved away from the dot paintings and dead animals in formaldehyde which originally made him (in)famous, had planning something big for the last few years – and I mean really, REALLY big. He has become increasingly interested in monumental sculpture, and regular readers will recall my surprise at his (perhaps unintentionally) pro-life installation in Doha, which consists of gigantic bronze sculptures of a child in the womb. I was struck at the time by his comments about the journey from conception to birth, something which he came to appreciate when he became a father.

While for logistical reasons I won’t be seeing this new show, the implications of both the Doha installation and this latest exhibition leave me a bit worried. This is now the second time in the last few years that I’ve found myself liking an artist who, when I was living in London back in the 1990’s, I could not stand. Now I find myself in the position of defending Hirst against the hypocrisy of the art press, who level the same sort of criticism at him that they refuse to level at twisted, untalented hacks such as Grayson Perry or Ai WeiWei.

I will never see the merit of putting a dead shark in a box, but I do see the merit in Hirst’s more recent work, because in its way it is surprisingly rather old-fashioned. My armchair take on this latest show is that Hirst is exploring mythology through spectacle, but in a way that a contemporary audience can understand and appreciate. In doing so, he is following a very traditional path, that was for many centuries a part of Western art history.

Whether you were a Medici throwing a banquet in 16th century Florence, or a Vanderbilt throwing a New Year’s Party in late 19th century Newport, when you wanted to put on a show, you wanted your guests to relish not only your wealth and taste, but also your appreciation of the past. Thus, artists and artisans working for tastemakers from the ancients up through comparatively recent times created images of gods and goddesses, heroes and monsters, from long-vanished civilizations to decorate palaces, entertain people on stage, and so forth. They imagined these figures in songs and in poetry, in cakes and desserts and in enthralling stories. Elaborate tableaux, with costumes, architecture, and so on, created by some of the most famous painters and sculptors in history, were put together for the entertainment and the education of the elite and their guests.

In a way, I see Hirst and Pinault doing something similar. In inviting guests into his palace, Pinault is providing the same opportunity for wonder that one of the Sforzas would have provided visitors in Milan wanting to see some new curiosity from the hand of Leonardo Da Vinci. By no means is Hirst, of course, a genius of the level of Leonardo. But given how interesting and engaging this show is, he has created something which, at least in some respects, an artist like Da Vinci would have recognized. And that’s good enough for me.

“Demon With Bowl” in the atrium of the Palazzo Grassi

​Painting Snow: A Swiss Master In Russia

Next month Sotheby’s will be auctioning a particularly beautiful painting by a Swiss artist of the late 19th/early 20th century, whom you are probably unfamiliar with. Although not as famous or well-known in this country as some of his contemporaries and colleagues, like his friends Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, who are well-represented in many American art museums, nevertheless his work is worth getting to know. It evokes that period from the end of the Victorian era up through World War I in a dreamy, introspective way, but with a modern point of view that should give us pause, when we assume that people of that time could not see the world in the same way that we do.

Félix Vallotton (1865-1925) worked in a variety of styles over his long career, and as a result the contrast between his earlier and later works can be quite astounding. It’s hard to believe that the artist who created this beautiful, highly realistic still life of fruit and flowers here in the National Gallery for example, is the same artist who created this Symbolist image of the Moon glowing through the clouds of a night sky, which is now in the Orsay. He was also quite prolific, so that you would probably never run out of works by him to look at and think about.

In 1913 Vallotton visited Moscow and St. Petersburg on a sketching holiday, looking for new artistic inspiration, and created a series of landscapes when he returned home. As you might imagine, a Swiss artist will generally have a pretty good idea of how best to go about painting snow, and Russia certainly offered Vallotton plenty of it. One of the paintings resulting from his trip, “La Néva, brume légère” (“The Neva, Light Mist”), is the highlight of Sotheby’s “Swiss Art/Swiss Made” sale in Zurich on June 27th. In this picture, Vallotton depicts a winter scene along the river Neva, which runs through the then-Russian capital of St. Petersburg.

While bleak and heavily atmospheric, there is nevertheless something hauntingly beautiful about this snow scene. There is a stillness to it, which will be familiar to anyone who has gone on a walk just after a snowfall, while the sky is still thick with clouds. What keeps it from being dull is the fact that Vallotton creates the monochrome image of a city in winter by, paradoxically, not using a monochrome palette. The foreground is all grays, blacks, and whites, but the background is a mixture of mauves, greens, and blues, which trick the eye into seeing them as a single color. In addition, as one’s eye makes its way down the picture, color gradually disappears entirely.

In this painting Vallotton also displays a masterful sense of how to compose a picture. Notice how there is a sharp division of the painting into three horizontal strips: sky, cityscape, and promenade. These strips are intersected by the bell tower of the Peter and Paul Cathedral, which juts up into the top 1/3 of the picture. This pulls the eye down toward the foreground figures of the lamp post and man in the hat, who stand parallel to each other and to the distant bell tower, while the buildings in the middle of the picture seem to almost skim across the top of the snow-covered wall, drawing the eye left-to-right and exiting the frame. The design is deceptively simple, made up of just a few basic forms and lines, but it is enormously effective.

When this picture was painted, World War I had not yet broken out, and Tsar Nicholas II was still on the throne. Within a few years, the elegance of St. Petersburg would be besmirched with the ugliness of leftism for decades to come. As a relic of a lost age then, Vallotton’s picture shows us Imperial Russia as it once was, which will no doubt draw the attention of private Russian buyers to this sale.

At the same time however, this picture is more than just a Swiss artist of the Gilded Age depicting a scene from old Mother Russia. In his representation of the sobriety of winter in a cityscape, Vallotton created a work of art that goes beyond specificity of time and place. Form and color are daringly but realistically simplified, almost to the point of abstraction, allowing the viewer’s eye to do all of the work, as would be true when out for a stroll on a snowy winter’s evening. It shows a modern understanding of light, landscape, and urbanism, and as a result, I think this piece has a broad, timeless, appeal. 

Hopefully, the end result will be that this painting becomes part of a permanent, public museum collection, for all to enjoy.

On The Auction Block: A New Velázquez (?)

The potentially big news in the art market this week is the discovery of a previously unknown work by Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), the greatest of all Spanish painters. The painting will be auctioned in Madrid today, and while the auction house is being extremely cautious about attribution, at least one expert in Spanish painting of the 17th and 18th centuries has declared it to be by the Old Master. While I’m certainly not a qualified art expert when it comes to deciding whether or not a particular artist created a particular work, there are a number of factors that make me feel comfortable with this attribution, and one in particular which I’m surprised that no one has mentioned in the art press.

The painting in question depicts a young girl in 17th century costume, her hands folded in prayer. X-rays of the picture reveal that she was originally crowned by a halo of stars, which was painted out at some point in the past. This suggests that it is a representation of the Virgin Mary as a child. It is common when making a visual reference to the Immaculate Conception, the Catholic dogma that Mary was conceived without Original Sin, to use the iconography described in Revelation 12:1 of the woman clothed with the sun, with a crown of stars on her head. It is a device that Velázquez himself used, as the news reports have pointed out.

There is also something about the eyes in this picture that strike me as being very Velázquez. Particularly in his representations of children and animals, Velázquez’ eyes tend to be unexpectedly soulful. If you look closely at the eyes of the little princess standing in the center of his masterpiece “Las Meninas” in The Prado, or the eyes of both the little prince and his puppy in the “Portrait of Prince Felipe Prospero” in Vienna, there is a depth and directness in the gaze, slightly tinged with melancholy. This sense of gravitas sets the painter apart from the more smiley, sunshiny images of children that we’re used to seeing.

While both the crown of stars and the expression of the eyes would tend to fit with Velázquez’ style, what has not been mentioned in the reporting I’ve seen so far on this story is this painting’s possible relation to an entirely different picture of his. When I first saw images of this piece, I was immediately struck by its relation to another early work by Velázquez, “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary”, which is now in the National Gallery in London. Not only is there a significant amount of technical similarity, but if the expert in this case is correct, they were created roughly at the same time and in the same place.

In the “House of Martha and Mary”, take a good look at the servant girl in the foreground, being directed by the old woman standing behind her. You can see that the girl seems rather melancholy, as she goes about making garlic paste in the mortar and pestle. More importantly for our purposes however, take a look at her pouting lips, the shading of her slightly cleft chin, and even the shape of her head, and you’ll notice that they are very similar to those of the young girl in the newly-discovered painting – they could even be sisters.

Not only do I find this an important visual clue, but given the dating of these two pictures and their relationship to what was going on at the artist’s life at the time, they make perfect sense. The little girl in the mystery picture is believed to have been painted in 1617, while the servant girl was painted in 1618. The timing of this is significant from the point of view of Velázquez’ artistic development.

Young artists completing their apprenticeships with established masters tend to re-use compositions that they are more comfortable with at the start of their careers, developing their own unique styles later on. It is why, for example, that Raphael’s earlier images of the Madonna and Child draw upon models created by his master, Perugino. It is only after he gained independence, experience, and self-confidence, that Raphael took the lessons that he had learned from emulating his master, combining them with his own native genius and observational skills, and began creating the unique, more individualized images of Mary holding the Christ Child that first made him famous and highly sought after as an artist.

In 1612, Velázquez began his apprenticeship with the painter Francisco Pacheco in Seville, an artist whose treatise on religious iconography and painterly technique made him the most influential expert on these matters within Spain at the time. By copying the style of his teacher, and learning his techniques and attitudes toward art, Velázquez would have absorbed the skills needed to eventually go out and set up his own shop, much as today a cabinetmaker or ironworker would do once they complete their vocational training. Velázquez finished his studies with Pacheco in early 1618, at about the same time that he married Pacheco’s daughter Juana; the couple moved from Seville to Madrid a few years later, where the young master’s style would begin undergoing a significant transformation.

If Velázquez was still learning at the time that the earlier of these two pictures was painted, then it would make sense that he would reuse certain elements of the earlier composition in a later work. Thus the shape of the head, the features, shading, and so on that we see in the picture of the young girl, were available for him to reuse in the features of the serving girl. Again, this is just a theory on my part, and no doubt an actual expert can poke holes in it, but I think the similarities are too obvious and the timing too perfect to ignore.

Time will tell whether this discovery comes to be widely accepted as a work by Velázquez or not, but I suspect that the sale price at the end of the auction will give us an idea of what the general feeling is within Spain. Given the very strict Spanish export restrictions on works of art that are over 100 years old, the likelihood of this painting leaving Spain for a foreign collection is extremely remote. However whether it disappears back into a private collection, or whether it becomes the property of a public museum, it would seem to be an important link between the end of the artist’s apprenticeship, and his emergence as a master painter in his own right.