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.

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.

Battered Beauty: A Strange Picture Goes Under The Hammer

Coming up at the end of this month, Christie’s in New York will be auctioning an unusual painting which has been put up for sale by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The piece began life as a late Medieval altarpiece, was defaced to become a work of propaganda, and in its present state is one of those pictures which probably only a real art nerd could love. Yet the story behind its creator, its alteration, and the way it looks today provide some interesting food for thought.

The work in question, “The Virgin and Child with Saints Thomas, John the Baptist, Jerome and Louis”, is attributed to the great Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes (c. 1430-1482), and was probably painted in 1472. It depicts the Madonna and Infant Jesus seated on a throne, surrounded by (L to R) Saints Thomas the Apostle, John the Baptist, Jerome, and Louis IX of France. The figures are placed inside an ornate Gothic gallery (look at that beautiful floor tile) which opens out onto a lush, inviting landscape. It is a large piece, roughly about four feet square, although not as gigantic as some other Flemish altarpieces of this period.

As you can see in the image accompanying this post, the picture was ruined at some point in the past. The result is that we can see some of the underdrawing for the figures that are now missing. When this piece was created, the artist or one of his assistants would have sketched out the design first, in order to have some precise visual guidelines to work by. This unusual detail, which normally is not visible to the naked eye, gives us some great insight into the methods of the man who created it.

Hugo van der Goes worked in what is today modern Belgium, and rarely left it, although his work was commissioned by and sent to collectors across Europe. Like his near contemporaries Jan van Eyck or Rogier van der Weyden, his paintings have a jewel-like quality to them, both in the richness of his colors, and in his attention to the tiniest details. Although little is known about his personal life, we do know that in his 40’s he closed up his shop to become a brother at the Augustinian Abbey of Rouge-Cloître, outside of Brussels.

While van der Goes continued to paint and accept commissions even after joining the Augustinians, he was apparently troubled both by how much he had taken on, and by his perception that he was never going to be able to complete his work – at least, not to the level of excellence which he felt called upon to achieve. It may have been van der Goes’ perfectionism and scrupulosity which precipitated his retreating to the world of religious life, but eventually his psychosis developed into full-blown depression. He became convinced that he was a failure and going to be damned, and tried to kill himself in 1482, about ten years after this picture was painted. Although he survived the attempt, he eventually succumbed to his injuries, and died shortly thereafter.

Later in its history, van der Goes’ altarpiece was vandalized by an unknown individual. Whoever he was, he scraped off the image of the Madonna and Child, as well as the continuation of the background landscape which appeared behind them, and painted an interior scene of a church. He also scraped away the image of St. John the Baptist, and repainted him with an image of Elizabeth of York, the wife of England’s Henry VII and mother of Henry VIII. St. Jerome lost his cardinal’s hat and his lion companion, and was turned into an Anglican bishop, while the figure of a king, originally intended to represent St. Louis IX of France, could now be interpreted as Henry VII.

In effect, the altarpiece became a marriage portrait, celebrating the union of Henry VIII’s parents. The defeat of Richard III, and the union of the Tudors and the Yorks through marriage, had provided Henry VII with the basis which he needed to claim the English throne for himself. Years later, despite the iconoclasm brought about by Henry VIII, when countless works of art were destroyed, someone managed to save this piece from the bonfire.

From a historical standpoint, it would have made contextual sense if this piece had been repurposed at some point during the Tudor period. However, Christie’s maintains that the scraping down and repainting took place much later, in the 18th century. To me this seems rather strange, given that the piece had survived intact through the Reformation; by the Georgian period, English collectors were eagerly snapping up art masterpieces such as this for their collections. Barring some subsequent discovery, we may never know why this painting has suffered as it has.

A few years ago, The Met had the changes removed, and the entire painting cleaned and restored. While van der Goes’ missing paint could not be put back, the picture did regain its compositional and architectural symmetry. Previously hidden details reemerged: St. Jerome’s lion friend returned to his side, for example, and in the foreground two beautiful little still lifes were uncovered. We see a glass vase with colombines on the left, and a silver censor (an incense burner used at Mass) on the right.

While no longer in a pristine state, this beautiful ruin is still expected to fetch a high price. Christie’s estimates that it will sell for between $3-5 million, though I do wonder whether that is a bit high for an individual collector of Old Masters to swallow, merely for the sake of specialized artistic interest. Perhaps when it leaves one institutional collection, i.e. The Met, it will be acquired by another. We shall see what happens.