Art News Roundup: Quadruple Dutch Edition

Only someone with such extraordinarily bad taste as the Bonapartes would have approved of it, but news is that the French Imperial Canoe – yes, you read that correctly – created for the midget dictator and then pompously over-modified by Napoleon III is being restored. The barge was originally a (comparatively) more sober, Neoclassical affair, designed by a French shipbuilding engineer, but provided with decorative elements by a Dutch sculptor from Antwerp. Appropriately enough, it was built for Napoleon’s secret visit to the city of Antwerp in 1810, to inspect the French fleet and view the arsenal which the French were stockpiling in that Dutch port city. Later, it was given additional sculptural elements by Napoleon III, including the sculpture of Neptune on the prow and the imperial crown supported by angels over the cabin.

FRANCE-HERITAGE-NAVAL-NAPOLEON

That it has survived at all is rather remarkable, given that it was supposed to be only a temporary craft, and also given the political vicissitudes of the Bonapartes and the multiple wars which they and others brought upon France in the 200 years since the canoe was created. Bizarrely enough, it survived World War II due to the Nazis, of all people, who transferred it from the port city of Brest, where it had been held in dry dock, to the newly-established French Naval Museum in Paris. Had they not done so, the boat would likely have been destroyed during the Allied bombings of Brest in 1943. Following restoration, the rather cheesy canoe will go on display back in Brest next year, before eventually returning to Paris.

And speaking of cheese, let’s now move on to some more art news with a distinctively Dutch flavor, like a good chunk of smoked Gouda.

Rediscovered Rembrandt

Another week, another “missing” Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) has been identified, this time a scene of Jesus and the children as described in St. Matthew’s Gospel. While this is a major find from the point of view of art history, personally I’ve never cared for Rembrandt, and I find his religious pictures particularly bad, for reasons which this canvas makes patently clear, but there you are. What’s rather interesting in this case is that Dutch art expert Jan Six, who is in fact a descendant of a contemporary patron and collector of Rembrandt’s work (Rembrandt painted his ancestor’s portrait), had his eureka moment when he recognized that one of the figures in the painting was a self-portrait of Rembrandt himself, while another figure is likely Rembrandt’s mother. This is a very good example of why it’s important to look at and handle art objects as often as possible: the more you see, the better your eye gets.

Rembrandt

Dueling Van Dycks

Meantime, in a rather interesting auction house development, two very late portraits by Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) of the future King Charles II and his sister Princess Mary were announced for sale at Sotheby’s this coming December. The very next day Christie’s said, in effect, “Oh yeah? Well, our van Dyck is better.” And it certainly is: the Christie’s portrait of Princess Mary is of better quality than the Sotheby’s one. The conundrum for the collector is, do you want one really beautifully executed painting, or do you want a pair of decent but less exceptional ones?

Princesa

Vanishing Van Gogh

Perhaps the most significant remaining mystery of World War II, when each incident is combined to be considered as part of a collective question, is what happened to the art looted by the Soviets and hauled back to Russia at the end of the war. Moscow has never been completely forthcoming about all of the pieces taken by the Red Army, whether officially or unofficially, in an action which the Russians have always justified as being a kind of tit-for-tat compensation for their own losses at the hands of the Nazis. Yet occasionally, stories about what lies hidden in the vast storerooms of state-owned museums in Russia do emerge, such as the fact that the preparatory drawing for Vincent van Gogh’s (1853-1890) much-beloved masterpiece, “Starry Night” (1889), has been sitting somewhere in Moscow or St. Petersburg for decades.

Gogh

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