Art News Roundup: To See, Or Not To See

Before diving in this morning, just a word on headings. As regular readers and subscribers know, I haven’t been happy with “Thought-Pourri” for some time, in titling this weekly roundup of interesting stories from the art world, even though I used to think it was clever. Puns do tend to wear on you after awhile, and that includes the pun which serves as the title of this blog. [Note to self: Must still get around to changing it.]

In any case, for now we’re going to stick with the more ho-hum “Art News Roundup” until I figure out something else since, while not exactly clever, it’s efficient and descriptive, particularly since on social media, oftentimes all you get to see is a post title and a link. This allows me to write something (hopefully) clever after the colon, while keeping the business end of things before the colon. And speaking of business, let’s get on to that.

There’s an interesting piece in ArtNet yesterday that I wanted to feature here before getting into some things that I recommend you go and see, since it discusses the sort of art which I do not recommend that you go and see, at least for the most part. In it, the author bemoans the decline of attendance at New York museum and gallery shows featuring Contemporary Art, a trend that has been accelerating in recent years, and describes what gallery owners are doing to try to reverse that trend. “If you read between the lines,” the writer notes, “it’s also a great example of how New York galleries are pushing vintage approaches to art viewership to fight plummeting foot traffic—a trend that’s threatening not only galleries’ commercial viability, but also their existential purpose as a free place to exhibit art.”

That’s all as may be, but of course, what one could also read between the lines, and which the article fails to explore or even mention, is the possibility that the numbers for these Contemporary Art shows are down because, on the whole, average people don’t actually like the art. After all, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art broke its all-time attendance record last year, and the single most popular show was “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer”, which by itself brought in over 700,000 visitors. Just a thought.

Anyway, on to three spots where I highly recommend that you *do* go have a look-see.

New to the National Gallery (UK)

Juan de Zurbarán (1620-1649) is a Spanish Golden Age artist whose work is both rare and not very well-known. The son of the more famous painter Francisco de Zurbarán (1598 – 1664), Juan died relatively young during a plague epidemic in Seville, and it’s only within the last several decades that his own work has begun to emerge from the long shadow of his father. With the help of the American Friends of the National Gallery, London, that museum recently acquired a still life by Juan, “Still Life with Lemons in a Wicker Basket” (c.1643-1649), which had been in a private collection in Madrid for generations. I highly recommend watching this lecture from Letizia Treves, Curator of Later Italian, Spanish, and French 17th-century Paintings at the National Gallery, discussing the artist, his career, and this work, since not only is it obvious that Ms. Treves know her subject very well indeed, but her presentation is clear, full of interesting slides, and I for one learned a great deal from it, even with my having specialized in this period of art when I was in grad school. And of course, it goes without saying that the painting is worth seeing should you find yourself in London this summer.

Juan

Nip in to Newark

As your summer travel plans evolve, remember to keep the Newark Museum in mind, if you happen to find yourself in the New York/New Jersey/Philly area over the next month. Their excellent exhibition “The Rockies and the Alps”, which I reviewed for The Federalist back when it opened, runs through August 19th. Not only does it have plenty of beautiful paintings, alongside sculptures, drawings, and photographs showing what American and European artists were looking at and depicting in the mountain landscapes they visited with increasing frequency in the 19th century, but there are also interactive aspects of the show for the kiddos, and the Newark Museum itself is a revelation: you can easily spend an entire day there with the rugrats and find plenty of things to do. [N.B. I can also recommend the excellent Deluxe Diner, just around the corner, as a lunch spot.]

Newark

Young Leonardo at Yale

A bit further up the coast, Yale recently opened its latest exhibition “Leonardo: Discoveries from Verrocchio’s Studio”, which looks to be both extremely interesting and somewhat controversial. The interest comes from the fact that the world will be marking the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci next year, and there will be a slew of exhibitions around the world acknowledging his importance, of which this is the first. The controversy comes from a desire, at least on the part of some museums and experts, to attribute anything that has even a tangential connection to Leonardo as therefore being by him, particularly in the light of the media spectacle surrounding the sale of the “Salvator Mundi” (which I suppose I contributed to. in my small way.)

For example, Yale believes that the piece shown below, “The Triumph of Aemilius Paulus” (c.1472-1473) from the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris, is mostly by Leonardo. Perhaps it is. I don’t see anything particularly remarkable about this piece, since to my eye the perspective is clumsy and the figures more Benozzo Gozzoli than Leonardo da Vinci, although the misty mountains in the background are certainly the sort that Leonardo liked to paint. On the other hand, I’m most emphatically not an expert, so you should just go along and see the works on show for yourself, and make up your own mind. “Leonardo” is at the Yale University Art Gallery through October 7th.

Triumph

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Thought-Pourri: “Mars” Attacks Edition

One of the things that I follow, in my daily perusal of art news, is what is going on at the upper end of the art market – a habit that I picked up in graduate school which at the time was mandatory, but that now I use mainly for self-instructive purposes. I had been following the announced sale of an important 16th century Italian bronze statue of Mars that was scheduled to go on the block at Sotheby’s in London yesterday, but was surprised to learn on Monday that it had been withdrawn from sale. This is sometimes an indicator that the auction house is worried that their piece is a fake, but in this case the provenance or chain of ownership could not have been clearer: it was gifted by the artist to a Germanic ruler shortly after it was created, remained in the family of his descendants until the early 20th century, and has been in a German corporate collection for the past thirty-odd years.

Martes

Instead, it turns out that the German government managed to pull together an undisclosed sum and purchase the sculpture for the state art museums in Dresden. It was good to hear that the beautifully executed figure of Mars will stay in Germany, where it has been for nearly half a millennia, but this quote from the German quasi-Minister of Culture Monika Grütters attacking Bayer Corporation, which owned the piece and had consigned it to Sotheby’s, made me roll my eyes a bit:

“Bayer AG should be really ashamed of wanting to auction a work of such importance to the nation to the highest bidder, instead of donating it to the people of Dresden—especially considering the company itself got it as a gift,” Grütters told the German press agency DPA. “For such a successful and prosperous company, this would have been peanuts. It should be aware of its social responsibility in Germany.”

Grütters is normally someone whom I can sympathize with, as she is a devout Catholic in a very secular country. She was recently criticized for – correctly – pointing out that the “de-Christianization of society is not conducive to living together in a democratic society.” However when it comes to the ownership of private property, remarks such as those which she made subsequent to government intervention to stop the sale of the so-called “Dresden Mars” are juvenile and rather silly. Philosophically it leads down the same ignorant, dead-end road which says that the state can take your house if someone else plans to build an office park on it, even if the office park never gets built.

As to the work of art itself, Giambologna (1529-1608) was arguably the most important Mannerist sculptor working in Italy during the second half of the 16th century. A later bronze copy of his iconic statue of Mercury graces the rotunda fountain at the National Gallery of Art, while his marble depiction of a group later entitled as a scene from the “Rape of the Sabine Women” is a seminal sculpture in the history of art, bridging the period between the end of the Renaissance and the beginning of the Baroque. For much of his adult career he worked almost exclusively for the Medici, decorating many of their palaces and villas, as well as public buildings located throughout their duchy, but examples of his work also appear in Rome and Bologna, and were coveted by collectors in France, Spain, and elsewhere.

Because they are smaller than his monumental figures and thus easier to move about, Giambologna’s reduced bronzes are highly prized by collectors. In a process which is still practiced today, the artist would create an original work which, if it proved popular, could then be issued in multiple editions in different sizes by the artist himself or his workshop assistants. You can see a convenient example of this the next time you are in New York. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this bronze figure by Giambologna of a triton blowing a horn stands about 3 feet tall, while a version a little more than half the size of the Met’s version stands just down the street at the Frick Collection.

It’s good to know that “Mars” will be staying in Dresden, but I don’t think the rather vice-principal finger-pointing by F. Grütters that accompanied it was either warranted or necessary.

And now on to a few other art stories of note, in brief.

Saving Sargent

Speaking of works saved for public collections, “A Game of Bowls” (1889) by John Singer Sargent has recently been purchased by the UK National Trust for Ightham Mote, a medieval manor house in Kent that Sargent painted when staying at the property. At the time of Sargent’s visit it was being rented by an American railroad baron, William Jackson Palmer, who was also a Civil War hero and the co-founder of Colorado Springs. His wife Elsie was a friend and patron of Sargent as well as writer Henry James, and during their tenancy at Ightham Mote many American and British artists, writers, and thinkers spent time visiting the Palmers and exchanging ideas. While not a great Sargent, it’s entirely fitting that “A Game of Bowls” should return to the house where it was painted.

Sargent

Criminally Compelling

I already follow quite a few art news sites, but a new one that I’ve recently added to my bookmarks and which the reader may also find of interest is ARCABlog, published by the Association for Research into Crimes against Art. I find the design a bit clunky, but the stories often offer more detail than is usually available in the regular art press, and thus are often highly compelling. Check out this piece, for example, which details how a Etruscan perfume jar in the form of a rabbit, dating to around the 6th century BC, was recently seized by authorities in New York.

Conill

Klimt’s Climate 

To mark the 100th anniversary of his death, the Leopold Museum in Vienna has just opened an important exhibition on the work of everyone’s favorite Austrian Secessionist painter, Gustav Klimt (1862-1918). “Gutsav Klimt: Artist of the Century” covers the artist’s entire career via eight thematic presentations about his times, and while not a particularly large show in terms of numbers of works, explores all aspects of Klimt’s artistic development and ideas. This includes a look into the artist’s landscapes, such as the one shown below painted in the grounds of Schönbrunn Palace in the summer of 1916, at the height of World War I, which are less well-known than his figural painting and portraits, and yet make up one-quarter of his existing work. The exhibition runs until February 6th.

Landscape

Thought-Pourri: Much Ado About Mucha

If you’re at all familiar with the work of the Czech Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939), it’s probably from his posters of languid maidens and nymphs with impossibly tangled tresses of hair, which were used to advertise everything from champagne to chocolate at the turn of the previous century. What is less known, at least to most American audiences, is the series of colossal paintings which he executed between 1910 and 1928 collectively known as “The Slav Epic”, illustrating the history of the Slavs from their origin stories through the end of the 19th century. The smallest of these truly epic canvases measures about 13 feet by 15 feet; the largest, about 26 feet by 20 feet. I’ve always been fascinated by them, as they are perhaps the most monumental Art Nouveau works of art ever created – certainly on canvas.

Mucha

The seed money for the project came from a Chicago philanthropist, Charles Crane (1858-1939), whose father become a millionaire following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 as a result of manufacturing the thousands of feet of pipe needed to provide steam heat for the gigantic towers that began to sprout over the city. Because of its sheer size (there are twenty giant canvases in all) displaying Mucha’s masterpiece has always been a significant challenge. For many decades, “The Slav Epic” was housed in an old castle about 130 miles from Prague, making it difficult for all but the most dedicated devotees of the artist’s work to see the cycle, and its history has been as tangled as the hair of a Mucha beauty.

Mucha died shortly after being interrogated by the Gestapo, and his work was hidden from the Nazis, who wanted to stamp out Slavic culture in favor of a Teutonic narrative. With the arrival of Soviet domination, Mucha’s work was seen as too nationalistic, as the Russians wanted to stamp their brand of identity on the Czech people much as the Germans had attempted to do before them. After the fall of communism, legal disputes over ownership of “The Slav Epic” lasted for years, until the works were finally taken to Prague in a move which is still highly controversial within the Czech Republic.

Now, Prague is finally taking steps to do what both Mucha and Crane intended from the beginning, which is to create a permanent home for the paintings in the Czech capital. The Lapidarium, a rather grand museum of sculpture in need of significant restoration, will be modified to create a large gallery for “The Slav Epic”, with renovation work expected to cost over $27 million. While this amount may sound like a lot, I can practically guarantee that once the new gallery is opened, this will undoubtedly become one of the top tourist attractions in the Czech Republic, for art lovers, historians, and the curious alike, In the meantime, the paintings will go on display at Prague City Hall to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the former Czechoslovakia in October 1918.

And now, on to some other art news stories.

Nincompoops In Navarra

While it will probably not become the unintentional icon of contemporary society as the infamously botched “Ecce Homo” did in the town of Borja several years ago, another small church in Spain is now reeling from a terrible attempt at restoration. Rather than reach out to a professional conservator, the parish of San Miguel de Estella in the province of Navarra asked a local art teacher to tidy up a 500-year-old polychrome wooden statue of St. George that was looking its age. The end result, as you can see, is rather horrid; it reminds me a bit of Dirk the Daring from the classic early 80’s arcade video game “Dragon’s Lair”. The lesson here, kids, is that if you want to restore a work of art, you need to go to a professional restorer: don’t try this at home.

Jordi

Homecoming At The Huntington

A story from last month that I’ve been waiting to read more about, but haven’t seen much else about to date, involves the reunification of three parts of a 15th century Italian Renaissance altarpiece at The Huntington Library in California. The work was created in about 1470 by the Florentine artist Cosimo Rosselli (1439–1507), master of the more well-known Florentine painter Fra Bartolomeo, but at some point in the past it was chopped into several pieces by an unscrupulous art dealer, so that the components could be sold off individually. The central image of the Madonna and Child has been in the Huntington family collection since the beginning of the 20th century, when collectors such as Mrs. Huntington, Isabella Stewart Gardner, J.P. Morgan, and others were importing art from Europe on a vast scale in order to decorate their luxury apartments and massive vacation homes. Now, the paintings which feature the figures of St. Anthony Abbot and St. Athanasius will be reunited, or more correctly, placed alongside, the main portion of Rosselli’s dismembered masterpiece.

Huntington

Monsters At The Morgan

The Morgan Library in New York recently opened what looks to be an interesting exhibition, for those of you who, like me, find the world of fantastical beasts and dragons imagined by artists of the Middle Ages to be endlessly fascinating. “Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders” looks at how these creatures were used to illustrate stories or concepts, enhance or detract from individuals and groups, and share supposed knowledge of unknown lands as a kind of warning to those who were curious about the world around them. There is a fairly comprehensive overview of the exhibition here, although I can’t say that I agree with all of the reviewer’s conclusions, and as is de rigueur these days, the show has a SJW political element, but that doesn’t mean you have to pay attention to the opinions of the curators in order to admire the art. The exhibition runs through September 23rd.

Babylon