Art News Roundup: Fixing Fixation Edition

Something that first-time visitors and old hands alike always enjoy, when they visit the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, is the ability to look into some of the workrooms located in the basement of the basilica. Thanks to a carefully planned layout, the underground space contains not only a multi-media museum chronicling the history of the building, but one can also take a peek through soundproof glass walls into spaces where architects, artists, and engineers are at work on the ongoing project, which just reached a whopping 328 feet tall a couple of weeks ago. (Only 232 more feet to go!)

Public interest in seeing art experts at work has led to a phenomenon referred to by some as “process porn”. It turns out that people love to watch other people as they design replacements for missing portions of decorative objects, clean sculptures blackened by time and candle soot, or repair holes and flaking on old paintings. Although this particular article focuses on such efforts at the Huntington in California, similar spaces exist in other museum conservation spaces as well. At the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for example, visitors can check out “Conservation in Action”, where the MFA announces works that are coming up for treatment, and invites the public to come along and watch. And if you can’t make it to one of these institutions, not to worry: there are plenty of Instagram accounts where you can see these experts doing their thing.

As a bit of a teaser, in the weeks to come – God willing and the creek don’t rise – you’ll be seeing a lengthy Federalist article from me along these lines, detailing the cleaning, conservation, and restoration of a Baroque painting that I picked up at auction over the summer. No, I’m not doing the work myself, but I’ve asked the conservator to fully document and photograph her work, which I hope you’ll find as interesting as I do. Never let it be said that I’m off trend.

In the meantime, let’s take a look at some recent stories about works that need a bit of TLC.

Brand-New Blue

After more than a decade of restoration, including such things as microscopic analysis of original gilding and painstaking research into historic textiles, the famous Blue Room in the White House is finally getting its (rather grandiose) suite of French Empire furniture back. Originally created by Parisian cabinet maker Pierre-Antoine Bellangé (1757-1827) on order from President James Monroe, the set was sold off by President James Buchanan in the late 1850’s, when the Empire style went out of fashion; it was reacquired piecemeal a century later thanks to the efforts of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who supplemented pieces that were missing or destroyed with exact copies from the originals. Visitors to this year’s White House Christmas Open House should take note.

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Titian Tumble

The bad news is that a painting of the Crucifixion by Titian (1488-1576), painted circa 1555, was damaged when it fell off the wall in the sacristy of El Escorial, the basilica-monastery-palace-necropolis of the kings and queens of Spain, just outside of Madrid. The good news, if you want to call it that, is that the damage was limited to a tear in the lower part of the canvas. The life-sized picture, acquired by Felipe II a year after Titian painted it, is roughly seven feet tall, and was immediately taken away to restorers. The culprit here appears to be a deterioration of the plaster wall into which the painting had been anchored.

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Bringing Back Bruegel

Staying in Spain, albeit just briefly, ahead of a major retrospective in Vienna on the life and work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1569) the Prado recently completed a two-year cleaning and restoration of Bruegel’s magnificent “The Triumph of Death” (c.1562), one of the artist’s largest (at more than 5 feet across) and most compelling paintings. Crammed with figures getting their individually-tailored comeuppances as a result of their mistreatment of others, this a gruesome but fascinating piece, clearly inspired by the work of Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516) a generation or so earlier. It’s also a kind of last, highly anachronistic gasp of Northern Gothic, even as the Renaissance itself was already on the way out in Italy. During the Prado’s treatment of the painting, lost details were recovered, and missing portions were carefully replaced by studying copies of the painting executed by Bruegel’s sons and assistants. The Prado has indicated that this is the first and only time it will be lending “The Triumph of Death” to an exhibition, which makes me think they’re expecting a major loan from the Austrians in return. “Bruegel” is at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna now through January 13th.

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Art News Roundup: Palace Plunder Edition

In honor of the 300th birthday of one of America’s greatest cities, one of the greatest art collections in the world is (partly) being put back together in the Big Easy, more than two centuries after that collection left the Parisian palace it used to call home.

From October 26th of this year to January 27th of next year, the New Orleans Museum of Art (“NOMA”) will be hosting “The Orléans Collection”, an exhibition that reassembles around forty of the paintings from a collection that was once the envy of all of Europe. Louis XIV’s nephew Philippe d’Orléans, Duke of Orléans (1674-1723), for whom the city of New Orleans is named, collected dozens of masterpieces by artists like Raphael, Titian, and many others. Today, the art that was once in his collection resides in museums around the world, from Edinburgh to St. Petersburg.

The Orléans Collection met its end when Duke Louis Philippe II, great-grandson of its founder, decided to betray the family during the French Revolution. He renamed himself “Philippe Égalité”, and turned the Palais-Royal – the family palace in Paris where the paintings once hung – into a libertine amusement park. In 1792, he plundered the collection, selling much of it off in a failed attempt to get himself out of debt. To add murder to the crime of treason and otherwise being a complete waste of space, the following year “Égalité” voted in favor of the execution of his cousin, King Louis XVI, a fact which shocked and grieved the King and the entire royal family.

Karma being a beotch, however, the following year “Égalité” ended up being guillotined himself: a perfect instance of good riddance to bad rubbish.

Between 40-50 of the paintings that formed the core of the Orléans Collection will be on display at the NOMA show, including works by Poussin, Rembrandt, and Veronese, among others. This is a very rare opportunity to see part of this family’s magnificent collection brought back together, so worth taking the time to see if you find yourself in New Orleans over the next few months. And what better way to mark the birth of the epicurean city of New Orleans, than by celebrating the epicurean taste of the man for whom the city was named.

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And since we’re talking about plunder from palaces, let’s continue with some art news discoveries from other, palatial collections.

Hampton Court Hangings

On Tuesday, I watched a new video from Gresham College in London by (favorite) British art and architecture historian Simon Thurley, discussing themes and materials in Tudor art. In the course of the lecture, he discussed how the pinnacle of art, so far as the Tudor court was concerned, lay in the area of tapestries; King Henry VIII was known to have spent a fortune on them, including a set specially commissioned for Hampton Court Palace showing scenes from the life of St. Paul, that had later gone missing. Well lo and behold, one of those Pauline tapestries has just reappeared, and in of all places, Barcelona. It seems that this one was purchased by a Barcelona antiques dealer in the 1960’s, and sold to a private collector there, who has now sent it to antiquarian textile specialists Simon Franses in London for cleaning and conservation. The gallery will be displaying the work to the public from October 1st to October 19th, along with several other tapestries related to Henry VIII and the Tudor period.

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Florentine Fumble

Speaking of tapestries, in the film, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, Henry Jones, Sr. notes that curator Marcus Brody once got lost in his own museum. While the remark goes to Marcus’ somewhat befuddled character, the reality is that in many cases, museum collections are so vast that the staff don’t know or lose track of what they have in storage. This is a continuing problem in the art world, which I’ve written about previously, both here and in The Federalist.

Such it seems is once again the case, this time with the National Archaeological Museum of Florence, where a 1st century AD statue long thought to represent Queen Leda of Sparta has now been determined to be one of Aphrodite, which the Museum had apparently forgotten about or lost track of over the years. The piece had been acquired in 1882 by the Museum’s then-director, when the historic Palazzo Da Cepparello, where the marble figure had stood for centuries, was being converted into a rather palatial bank. Thanks to a grant from that most excellent American cultural foundation Friends of Florence, the statue – which has an interesting history and is not what it appears to be at first sight – has been cleaned and preserved for another 2,000 years. Hopefully she won’t get misplaced again this time.

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Versailles Visitors

Highly acquisitive and rather tacky fellow that he was, the “Sun King” Louis XIV of France loved to receive lavish gifts; one can imagine that when, in 1686, he received dozens of diplomatic gifts from the King Narai of Siam (modern Thailand), including gold, silver, and other objects, that he relished the occasion. Among these was a specially commissioned Chinese silver ewer, bearing the French royal arms. It, along with everything else from that diplomatic visit, went missing from the Palace of Versailles sometime after the early 18th century, but the ewer was rediscovered just recently by the French auctioneers Beaussant Lefèvre as they were researching the sale of a private collection. The Palace has now bought back the vessel, and visitors will be able to see it in the setting for which it was originally created.

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Art News Roundup: Birthday Bonanza Edition

For those of you who didn’t read it earlier this week, my article on the latest art restoration disaster in Spain – and some questions about institutional oversight of cultural heritage within the Spanish Episcopate – has been republished on The Federalist this morning. As always, my grateful thanks to Joy Pullman and her team for wanting to share my scribblings with others. If you enjoy what you read, or want to take issue with what I’ve written, comments over on The Federalist site are as gratefully appreciated as they are over here.

On a happier note – that is, as far as the Spanish art world is concerned – next year marks the 200th birthday of the Prado Museum in Madrid, universally considered to be one of the greatest art collections in the world. Earlier this week, the museum announced a veritable bonanza of special exhibitions that will begin this fall and continue throughout next year, to mark the institution’s bicentennial. As expected, the major exhibitions – which include shows on Fra Angelico and the Florentine Renaissance, one hundred of Goya’s drawings, and a show comparing the works of Velázquez, Vermeer, and Rembrandt, among other exhibitions – will be taking place at the Prado itself. However, in a highly unusual move, the Prado has also organized two traveling exhibitions that will be sent out to other parts of Spain.

Of these, the largest single show is going to Barcelona later this year; I’m planning to see (and review) “Velázquez and the Golden Age” at the Caixa Forum in late December. Meanwhile, the “On Tour Through Spain” show will send at least one work (and in some cases more than that) from the Prado’s permanent collection to every autonomous community in Spain. Sites include, but are not limited to, the Dalí Museum in Figueres, the Museum of Fine Arts in Badajoz, the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art in Cuenca, and the Museum of La Rioja in Logroño. Even the Spanish overseas territories of Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa will get in on the occasion. If you love great art, and why would you be subscribing to this blog if you didn’t, make your forthcoming travel plans accordingly.

And now on to some other art news headlines for the week.

Renoir Restitution

A continuing problem in the art world, as well as for the international legal system, is the thorny issue of works of art which changed hands in the period before, during, and after World War II. Just this week, three major stories in this vein have made headlines. First, the grandchildren of a woman whose portrait was painted by Matisse lost their latest appeal to recover the painting from the National Gallery in London. The work had been entrusted by the woman who was the subject of the portrait to an individual who turned thief shortly after the end of the war, as Berlin was being occupied and divided. Second, it turns out that four French 18th century drawings in the collection of the sister of Nazi art-hoarder Cornelius Gurlitt, whom I have written about previously as you may recall, were stolen from a family in Paris, only one of whom survived the Holocaust. Those works have now been returned to the owners’ heirs. Finally, a Renoir which the Nazis stole from a bank vault in Paris in 1941, where the owner had stored his most valuable paintings during the German invasion, has been returned to the granddaughter of the original owner; four other Renoirs and a Delacroix from the same collection are still missing.

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Flipping Fantastic

The National Gallery of Denmark has just opened a rather interesting exhibition, “Flip Sides”, in which works of art in the museum have been turned around and hung so as to display their backs. We often don’t realize that there is a great deal of information to be learned from the back of a picture. Sometimes there is a second work of art on the back, such as in the case of Leonardo’s portrait of Ginerva de’ Benci here in the National Gallery in Washington. In other cases, the back of a picture tells us about a piece’s history and provenance, shows how the artist went about creating their work, or demonstrates that the artist was reusing their own or someone else’s materials.

In the example from the exhibition shown below, we’re actually being fooled by the artist, for Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts (c.1630-1675) was a famous trompe-l’œil painter. In this case, the rather Surrealist “trick of the eye” that he painted is the very realistic-looking back of a painting, shown on the front of a painting. “Flip Sides” runs through March 10, 2019.

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Discovering Dixon

Not being a specialist in decorative arts, I must confess that I’d never heard of American Arts and Crafts designer Eda Lord Dixon (1876-1926) until I read this very interesting and well-researched article about her life and work. It turns out I’m not alone in my ignorance because, as the article itself points out, when a magnificent silver and enamel hand mirror by Dixon was gifted to the Metropolitan Museum of Art back in 2014, she was “virtually unknown.” In her day, Dixon was primarily known for her enameled jewelry, but she also produced luxury household objects such as jeweled boxes (like the one below, also owned by The Met), finger bowls, cigarette holders, and even a solid silver enameled chalice engraved with a verse from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. With more attention (quite rightly) beginning to be drawn to Dixon’s work, this is a good time for collectors to bone up on her biography, style, and materials, before heading to your local consignment shop or flea market in search of lost treasure.

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