​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.

Sinful Artists, Sacred Art

This week Apollo Magazine offers a thoughtful piece on the work of the British sculptor Eric Gill (1882-1940), who is the subject of a new exhibition that just opened at the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft in West Sussex. I warn you that it’s a difficult article to read, because author James Williams pulls no punches in looking at the rather shocking personal life of the artist in tandem with his religious art – and the piece includes one illustration by Gill toward the end of the article which you may not want to see, if you’re particularly sensitive. But for those of you prepared to read it, it offers a good opportunity for adult reflection and discussion on some difficult aspects of the arts where they intersect with faith.

Gill became a prominent artist at the turn of the previous century, primarily as a result of his sculpture, but also from his work as an engraver and a designer of typefaces, such as that still used by Penguin Books. His art can be seen in many places throughout Britain, but perhaps his most famous and public works are those which decorate Broadcasting House, the Art Deco headquarters of the BBC. When I lived in London, I walked past this building nearly every day on my way to and from school, and admired Gill’s figures of Ariel and Prospero from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” which adorn the facade.

After he converted to Catholicism in 1911, Gill received many commissions to create works of art for Catholic institutions, including the Stations of the Cross which he created for Westminster Cathedral, the Catholic cathedral in London. He and his wife formed a lay religious fraternity with other artists interested in Catholic subjects, and went to live in an art colony in Wales. While his views became increasingly socialist as he grew older, he nevertheless continued to practice his faith, even as he supported more left-leaning causes.

Many years after his death, it was revealed that Gill had a voracious sexual appetite, which extended not only to his own adult sisters and grown daughters, but even to the family dog. He detailed his activities in his diaries, which came to light in the late 1980’s as a biography of his life was being researched. Up until then, Gill had been viewed as one of the preeminent British sculptors of the first half of the 20thcentury, and his religious faith was taken to be what it was: a part of his personal and artistic philosophy just as much as his outspoken public opposition to anything resembling fascism.

When the truth of Gill’s personal life became known, right around the time that the clergy sexual abuse scandal began to break, there were calls for his work to be removed from the churches where these pieces were displayed. Although that did not happen, the taint of this scandal now permanently colors his legacy, so that one cannot see his art without thinking of Gill’s private activities. It is fair to say that for many, there is an unavoidable feeling of discomfort in such a situation, and I must say, the more I have looked at Gill’s work after reading this piece, the more disturbed and disturbing an artist I find him to be. Perhaps there is something to be said, after all, for the idea that his art should not be in our churches.

That being said, works by many great Catholic artists who also happened to have considerable sexual appetites are very common in our churches, in Bibles and religious books, and so on. Raphael for example, supposedly died as a result of an evening’s overexertion with his favorite model-mistress, whose features he used in many of his religious paintings. Michelangelo wrote erotic love poems to a number of young men, including at least one of his assistants and two of his models. Late in life Velázquez fathered an illegitimate child during a trip to Rome to paint the Pope, an affair which kept him from going back to his wife for nearly 3 years.

The same proclivities and weaknesses are not limited to Catholic artists, either. Mozart may or may not have been a philanderer, but he was definitely a freemason (a mortal sin for a Catholic), while Fauré had endless mistresses and extramarital affairs. Nevertheless, the religious music of both composers is still performed regularly in churches all over the world. Waugh enjoyed affairs with both men and women, and became both alcoholic and drug addict, but still rose to become one of the most prominent Catholic authors of the 20th century. Indeed, as he famously remarked when Nancy Mitford pointed out that his faith and his behavior often did not jibe very well, he would have been even more of a reprobate if he wasn’t a Christian.

All of these men were great artists in their fields, and yet all them were great sinners as well. None of them were perfect, and yet they all succeeded in revealing something of Divine perfection in their work. If you’re looking for artists who both created great religious works and practiced personal continence, you’re going to find a very short list. With extremely few exceptions, someone who writes a beautiful hymn or paints a magnificent icon is not any less sinful than the rest of us are.

So when it comes to Gill, you’ll have to reach your own conclusions about what to think about his work. Personally speaking, I’m increasingly of the mind that his public art, beautiful though it may be, is tainted because of other art that he created, which inappropriately comingles eroticism and faith. However, I leave it to those with larger brains than mine to figure out what is to be done here.

Every area of creative endeavor is populated by sinners, just as our banks, hospitals, and grocery stores are. Artists are, perhaps, more likely to be unconventional in their personal lives than those engaged in more ordinary occupations. Yet if you care about both the arts and your faith, at some point you have to find a way to reconcile the two, which as we’ve seen are often diametrically opposed to one another. Perhaps in this context Mary Magdalene, the sinner who became a great saint, would be just as appropriate a patron saint for artists, as she already is for those who have suffered greatly from temptation.