The Courtier On The Fifth Estate; Art Finds From Museum Storage

My sincere thanks to Jay Caruso and Neal Dewing of The Fifth Estate for inviting me onto their show last evening. We had a wide-ranging, amusing, cantankerously satisfying discussion about art, which you can stream or download later today. Be sure to check out their episodes with past guests, including Mike Rowe, Dana Perino and Ed Morrissey – wait, how did I merit getting on this show? – and take the time to leave them a review on iTunes, if you like what you hear. Podcasters really do benefit from your iTunes feedback, and it only takes you a few seconds.

One of the topics I touched on in passing during the show was the rediscovery of a lost painting of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane by Charles LeBrun (1619-1690), which had been sitting in storage at the Louvre since 2008. LeBrun was the favorite painter of France’s “Sun King”, Louis XIV, and one of the most important artists in French history. This particular work was so popular at the time it was painted, that contemporary copies of it were commissioned by several prominent European collectors. The original was stolen after the French Revolution, and ended up in a Trappist monastery for two centuries. It is currently being restored, and will go on display to the public later this year.

Regular readers may recall that another painting by LeBrun, “The Sacrifice of Polyxena”, was discovered in the Hotel Ritz in Paris a few years ago. It was later purchased at auction by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which at the time only owned a single group portrait by LeBrun. Despite the dearth of LeBrun paintings at the Met, the painting is not currently on display there. Whether this is because the piece is undergoing restoration or, quelle surprise, the museum has nowhere to display it, who knows. 

The practice of large museums like the Met sitting on enormous quantities of art that never gets put on display is something that has bothered me for some time, and in the near future you may be reading some of my lengthier scribblings about that issue. In the meantime, over on Apollo journalist and artist Crystal Bennes has been writing a very interesting series titled “What’s In Store”, in which she highlights some of what is currently held in storage at major museums around the world. She has already visited both the Hermitage and the National Gallery of Scotland, and this month she writes about the Ateneum, the National Gallery of Finland.

A particularly stunning find is the “Bust Portrait of A Black Man” by the Swedish artist Nils Jakob Olsson Blommér (1816-1853), who is known primarily for his somewhat kitschy scenes taken from Norse mythology. This painting languished in storage at the Ateneum for a century and a half until recently, when it was finally put on public display. I think you will agree that it is a haunting, beautifully executed work, in the best tradition of Old Master portraiture.

Art Criticism #Fail: Taking A Second Look At Christ

Art Criticism #Fail: Taking A Second Look At Christ

One of the problems with looking at art, let alone writing art criticism, is that it can be easy to forget the meaning of what it is that we are looking at. Perhaps because we live in an age in which we are taught that meaning is subjective, this mindset not only taints the viewer but the reviewer as well. I must confess that I can easily get wrapped up in the finer points of technique, or in recounting the history of a particular work, and overlook the spirituality of the art I am thinking about when I write a blog post or review an exhibition.

Last week for example, I wrote a summary of some interesting summer art exhibitions that I recommended to my readers. I mentioned a show about 1930’s American painting at the Art Institute of Chicago, and suggested that visitors should also stop and check out the museum’s latest addition to its collection of Old Masters, a painting of Christ carrying the Cross by Sebastiano del Piombo. I pointed out that there are several versions of this piece, since it was one of the artist’s most popular compositions at the time he painted it, but that nevertheless it was a good buy for the Art Institute and worth seeing.

Reaction to the Art Institute’s acquisition of this painting could not have been more different across the spectrum of art media. Over on Apollo for example, contributor Louise Nicholson pronounced the piece “superb”, praised its condition and composition, and noted its blending of the monumentalism of Michelangelo with the “mystical twilight” landscape of the Venetians. Meanwhile, at-large critic Blake Gopnik over on ArtNet described the painting as “important, but flawed”, explained that del Piombo rarely managed to emerge from the shadows of his contemporaries, and opined that this is another instance among many in del Piombo’s career in which this was the case.

Yet none of us who wrote about this piece, myself included, wrote a single sentence regarding the spirituality of this painting. Intrigued by its provenance, lighting, and angles, and in the rush to give an opinion on the significance of the piece, we forgot that this was more than just a work of art: it was created as a means for spiritually connecting the viewer to Christ. In other words, all of us failed to actually *see* the picture.

If you have a tablet or laptop computer, or you can kneel down on the floor for a moment, take a look at the accompanying photograph of this painting from below, and consider its impact from that angle. Here is Jesus falling on the Via Dolorosa, His face grimacing in pain as the road to Calvary unwinds before Him. If you happen to position yourself to the right of this image, as you look up at it you get the impression that He is looking at you. This painting is a direct, in-your-face reminder that God is doing this for YOU, as you kneel in prayer before it.

Meanwhile the figure of St. Simon of Cyrene, who has just been roped in by the soldier shown in the shadows to help Christ carry His Cross, may cause us to reflect on different aspects of the Way of the Cross. There is a practical determination in his expression, as he figures out how best to help pick up the Cross that Jesus has fallen under. However there is also an illumination of St. Simon’s face, as he is caught up in the same light that illuminates the features of Christ. Is he getting an inkling of something else at work here? Is he realizing that this is going to turn out to be an even more extraordinary event in his life, than the already extraordinary event of his being forced by the Romans into helping a condemned prisoner whom he does not know?

Look also at the depiction of Jerusalem in the background of the painting. Although we know from the Bible that Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus around Noon, and that He died around 3pm, notice that the red skies over the city already look more like sunset than midday. Perhaps del Piombo is artistically anticipating the darkness that we are told fell over the city, when a powerful storm came up, and an earthquake rent the veil of the Temple in two. The artist may be telling us that, even before Christ arrived at Golgotha, the world was already darkening in anticipation of what was about to happen.

Perhaps because so much Christian art has been created over the last two millennia, and so much of it is crowded into our art museums, we have become indifferent to works like this. But consider what a great weight an artist like del Piombo bore on his shoulders, in painting this image of Christ carrying the Cross on His. This was not a work of art that was intended to flatter a wealthy patron, or decorate that empty space over the sideboard. It was intended to make the viewer pray, and in particular to meditate on the suffering and death of Jesus.

What a tremendous challenge it must be, for any artist to really try to get that right. And what a pity that both the public and critics so often miss the forest for the trees, when we look at such spiritually significant works of art. We can only hope to remember, and try to do better by it.

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Gotta Catch ‘Em All: Summer Exhibitions

Gotta Catch ‘Em All: Summer Exhibitions

Much as I’d like to, I can’t possibly visit and review all of the art shows I’d like to see this summer. So for my readers who find themselves in the following cities, here are a few exhibitions that you may want to put on your calendar. If you happen to visit one of these shows, be sure to leave your feedback in the Comments section on this post, letting us know what you thought of the exhibition.

BERLIN
Gemäldegalerie
El Siglo de Oro. The Age of Velázquez
July 1 – October 30

The “Siglo de Oro”, i.e. the “Golden Age” of Spanish culture, occurred between about 1550-1650. It was a century-long flowering of the arts and literature that included most of the greatest Spanish Old Master painters, such as El Greco, Murillo, Zurbarán, and of course, Velázquez, among others. This was my specialty subject when I was studying at Sotheby’s, and an area of art history that is always close to my heart. While overall the best place to see Siglo de Oro art is in Madrid, with the cooperation of the Spanish Crown and a number of international institutions, Berlin has managed to put together what appears to be a fairly comprehensive overview of this period, with 130 examples of painting, sculpture, and drawing.

BOSTON
Museum of Fine Arts
Della Robbia: Sculpting with Color in Renaissance Florence
August 9 – December 4

Opening a bit later this summer, the MFA’s look at the work of the Della Robbia family and their colorful Renaissance ceramics promises to be especially popular. The Della Robbias combined elegant human figures, and delectable renderings of fruits and vegetables, in what became the signature style of their workshop – a style which ceramics manufacturers still copy today. For me the standout here is the loan of Luca Della Robbia’s magnificent “Visitation” of 1445 from San Giovanni Fuorcivitas, a church in the Tuscan town of Pistoia, a work which has never traveled to the United States before. Created nearly 600 years ago, it is just as fresh, poignant, and beautifully observed now, as it was then.  

CHICAGO
The Art Institute
America after the fall: Painting in the 1930’s
June 3 – September 18

The Great Depression not only brought about an end to the high life of the Roaring ‘20’s, it also ushered in a new era in American painting wherein artists took a more serious, sometimes dour (or even sinister) tone. The Art Institute’s examination of this period features masterpieces that are well-known images – Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” and Edward Hopper’s “Gas” for example – as well as important works displaying the wide variety of styles explored by American artists during that era, from the surrealistic dream images of Georgia O’Keeffe, to the seedy social realism of Paul Cadmus. If you are interested in learning more about the development of Modern Art in America between the Wars, this appears to be an excellent opportunity for you to do so.    

While you are there, be sure to check out the Art Institute’s newly-acquired “Christ Carrying the Cross” by Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547). While del Piombo is a bit of a derivative hybrid of Michelangelo and Raphael at times, his figures often have a wonderfully sculptural quality, and he employs shadows and angles that almost anticipate the development of Tenebrism. This picture is the first del Piombo in the Art Institute’s collection, and although he painted several variations and copies of this composition – there is one in The Prado for example, whose shading is a bit more subtle, although perhaps a bit overcleaned – it is well worth seeing if you are unfamiliar with his work.

WASHINGTON DC
The Phillips Collection
William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master
June 4 – September 11

Portraits painted by William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) usually lack the beauty and style of a good John Singer Sargent, as the subjects often come off as a bit defiant and slightly unrefined. Yet in their directness, they are images of an increasingly confident America at the turn of the previous century. Chase not only painted powerful portraits and casually elegant still lifes, he also played a huge part in making oil pastels popular in this country – a medium which, if you have ever worked in it, is simultaneously wonderfully tactile and frustratingly delicate. This survey of Chase’s output features a number of his portraits, still lifes, interiors, and pastels, as well as his typically Impressionist works of languid ladies lunching in landscapes.

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The Visitation (detail) by Luca Della Robia (c. 1445)